Flash Fiction Story 044: THE FOURTH WALL: The Man With The Golden Broom

1973

MI6 Headquarters

London, England

“Come in, old boy,” the boss said. “We have much to discuss.”

The secret agent walked into his Head of Section’s magnificently appointed office and felt instantly at ease. The smell of leather and bourbon (the boss’s drink of choice) wafted throughout the space like the early morning fog. The secret agent had often thought of this place as the most British location in all of the Kingdom, with the possible exception of the baccarat room at Blades. 

A faint aroma of scrambled eggs filled the air, which only served to remind him he had skipped breakfast. The strange realization that the boss would not allow any sort of food into his inner sanctum travelled across the secret agent’s mind. He heard the distinct sound of a pair of Crockett and Jones shoes—the same he himself wore—behind him. He whipped around and retrieved his PPK from his shoulder holster. 

The man the secret agent now aimed his pistol at seemed nonplussed by the sudden aggression. He was dressed in a suit nearly identical to the secret agent’s own Saville Row ensemble. Over that—in a travesty of bad taste—he had on a tabard that read “KISS ME, I’M ACTUALLY ENGLISH.” He was carrying a metal tray with three browned pastries atop it.

“Hello,” the newcomer said.

The secret agent furrowed his brow, but did not lower his weapon. “What are those?”

“Quiche,” said the newcomer. “My speciality. Are you fond of eggs?”

“Meet your replacement,” the boss said.

The stranger set down the pastries and extended his hand. “Please, call me James.”

The secret agent looked to the boss and tried to hide his stricken expression. Such weakness was below the standard of an officer of the crown. “That’s my name,” he protested.

“A name which you can’t use anymore,” the boss corrected him. “We’re living in precarious times. It’s preferable that the Russians think you’re still on the job, even if you’ve hit the mandatory retirement age. We got the idea when we had that Australian lad cover for you after the Japanese affair. Poor sod; I can’t imagine he’ll ever get over his wedding day… Ah, well. All in the service of Her Majesty. For clarity’s sake, we’ll call you Jimmy.”

“Mandatory retirement age?” Jimmy asked.

“Age 45, just like every other field agent,” the boss explained. “Up until now it’s never come up. Every field agent has died a—” he cleared his throat, “—rather gruesome death. All in the service of Her Majesty.”

“But, surely there can be an exception made,” Jimmy said. “Institutional memory and all that. Where would the American gold supply be without me?”

“Actually, gold is down in international markets. Had that particular oaf lived, he’d be on relief by now. Besides, if we were to break the rules without compunction, we’d be no better than the damn communists.”

Dejected, Jimmy considered the lumpy, compact mass of egg as James handed it to him. It tasted wonderful, but Jimmy was damned if he was ever going to admit it. “But, I destroyed the scourge of SPEC—”

The boss raised up his hand. “Actually, old boy, we’re not supposed to use that term anymore, either. Directive direct from the director. No, I’m sorry, this is the end of the line for you. Take heart, your name and number will live on.”

The new James looked at him with pity and extended his hand. “No hard feelings, eh, Jimmy? I’ve got terribly big shoes to fill.”

***

By the time his meeting with the Head of Section and the new fellow had ended, Jimmy’s termination of service paperwork had already been completed. With a final bite of quiche, his time with Her Majesty’s Secret Service had come to an end.

And before long, he found he was destitute. With only his civil service pension to stem the tide and still the taste of an elite special agent, Jimmy’s coffers were nearly dry. Matters appeared truly dire when a small envelope arrived at his King’s Road flat.

Sir,

Your skills could be of great use with my organization. If convenient, come at once to Baker Street near Park Road to discuss particulars.

~J.W.

P.S.: If inconvenient, come anyway.

***

The drive took an eternity. When he arrived, an older man approached him. He was dressed in strangely antiquated attire, but had a military bearing. Something about the stranger reminded Jimmy of his old boss.

“I’m sorry to make you come all this way,” the old man said. “I get to travel to London so rarely, I always like to come to my old stomping grounds.”

“Your letter indicated you might have some manner of employment,” Jimmy said.

“Yes. I’ve come to think of it as more of a calling, and please, call me John,” the stranger said.

“What line of work is it?” Jimmy asked.

“Adventure.”

“I’ll need a little more than that.”

John shook his head. “No, I think this is the part where I have questions for you. First, what are your greatest strengths?”

Jimmy considered his next words carefully. “My greatest strengths… Are my ability to kill a man in seventeen different ways.”

“I see,” John said.

“Also I’m good at Baccarat. I mean, there was that one time I lost 11 million pounds of the Crown’s money in one tournament, but on average I’m quite good. If my math is correct, I’ve bed 789 women, and I had to use coercion on perhaps half of them. I’m sorry, what was the question, again?”

“Oh. God,” John said. “This might have been a mistake, if you’ll excuse me.” He headed back towards Park Road.

“Please,” Jimmy said. “I’m desperate for any kind of work you might have. I’ll work to prove myself to you. I’m at the lowest point a man of my station could be.”

John considered Jimmy’s words for a moment. “How are you with a broom?”

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 043: THE FOURTH WALL: To End The Story Is To Die

His subjects had committed Arthur’s departed body to Glastonbury. The skies over Camelot must have known the change in the air, and wept for his absence in the world. What’s worse, Merlin was nearly out of ideas.

The final words that had been spoken between wizard and king still echoed through Merlin’s mind, threatening to upend any positive progress he might make against the question at hand.

“I know you can accomplish all forms of magic. I do not wish to live forever, but I plead with you, my old friend, do not let my death mean the end of my story.”

Even if the King had lived, there would be no way Merlin could bypass the request with anything resembling honor. Enough people had betrayed the King in the final months of his life, merely contemplating being among them was enough to make Merlin feel ill.

He called for Morgan Le Fay—sister to His Majesty—and Geoffrey—Merlin’s scribe. They were just what Merlin needed to make this scheme work.

They arrived quickly, and were both appropriately dressed in mourning black.

“Her Majesty the Queen sends words of love to you, Sir Merlin,” Geoffrey said dutifully.

“I’m sure she does,” Merlin said. He exchanged a knowing look with Morgan. “God save the Queen,” he told them as both he and Morgan appeared to vacillate between a feverish need to wail out in anger, and the desire to laugh at the sublime farce that Camelot had now become.

“God save the Queen!” Geoffrey parroted. Morgan muttered vaguely similar words.

“Now that we have that out of the way,” Merlin said, leading them further into his workshop. “Let us engage with the business that has brought you here.”

Normally, Merlin’s workspace was a menagerie of chaos that could only appear lucid to the wizard himself. Today, however, the room had been cleared, aside from three brass fixtures jutting out from the stone floor. Ceramic bowls filled with a light red fluid were attached to the base of each outcropping. Each fixture came to a point near the ceiling, appearing like a claw hovering over them. In the center of the room, a dull brown rock with etchings upon it sat in judgment of the contraptions Merlin had wrought.

“What is this, Merlin?” Geoffrey asked.

“Yes,” Morgan said. “Your entire arsenal is missing. This apparatus of yours would be useless, unless…”

“Yes…” Merlin urged her forward in her thinking.

“You’re madder than the talking birds,” Morgan declared, her surmising complete.

“Well, I’ve always had that ambition…” Merlin agreed as he took his position at the base of one of the fixtures. 

“I’m merely a historian,” Geoffrey said, his eyes narrow in a vain attempt to parse their conversation. “What is all of this?”

“The thin border between the magical and the mundane is held together for a reason, this…dull blade of yours could destroy the entirety of the world.” Morgan answered Geoffrey’s question, but did not take her suspicious eyes from Merlin.

“No,” Merlin replied.

“No?” Morgan asked.

“Yes, no,” Merlin repeated. “You have been a good student, Morgan, but you forget the basic rule of all existence. Nothing can be destroyed. Not you, not I, not the King. We only change forms.”

Morgan appeared unimpressed.

“The King’s final wish was to be remembered well, and that his story will continue to be told. This is the only way I can think of to do this,” Merlin pled. “Please. I can only do it with your help.”

She blinked at him and then took her position at the second fixture. “Come along, Geoffrey,” she said, and he dutifully followed her command.

“I still don’t understand what we’re doing,” Geoffrey proclaimed.

“You are the King’s historian; we his magical cohorts,” Merlin explained. “With our fanciful notions, and your eye for the truth, we will bring the real and unreal together in a way that ensures no soul forgets Arthur of Camelot.

“This should only hurt a bit.” The fixtures had already started to glow.

***

Weeks had passed since Merlin had unleashed the chaos that had consumed the kingdom and beyond, and no one had been able to find a trace of poor Geoffrey. When Merlin once again called for Morgan to join him in his chambers, she almost ignored the request.

“I know where he is,” he proclaimed when she rejoined him. “No, wait. First, you were right. No, that’s not quite right. I was right, but you were right to caution me against such wild magics.”

“You appear to have begun this conversation before I arrived,” Morgan said, turning to leave.

“The thing I did not account for,” Merlin continued, proceeding from faith alone that she would not complete her exit. “Is that we are imaginary.”

“Come again?”

“You, me, the King, dear old Geoffrey, we are the stuff of legend. In our attempts to make sure the King was not forgotten, we made moot the question of what is real, and what is imaginary!”

“You keep using this ‘we’ word, Merlin,” Morgan groaned. “It indicates your memory might be failing.”

“It is of no matter!” Merlin proclaimed. “The devices I constructed tore the border between our worlds, and sent Geoffrey to live amongst the real. We must go retrieve him, and then there’s the matter of putting what we’ve broken right… Yes, both worlds will need protection. We may never come back to Camelot again, I’m afraid. We’ll need some kind of new name to travel under… Marlborough? No, too grim. Brocéliande? No! Merlin, use your head! There’s no way the natives where we are set to travel will understand such oblique terms. I’ve got it! The Fourth Wall!”

“What does that mean?” Morgan asked.

“I have no idea. It just sounded right,” Merlin replied, and then continued his unstoppable monologue on his way out of his chambers. Morgan followed, if for no other reason than someone would need to keep an eye on him.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 042: One Little Hitch

Dust at the State Highway 10 junction began to coalesce, and I found myself wondering when the last time that occurrence filled me with anything resembling hope.

The dust disappeared in a flash and replaced by a car. One of the new-fangled models, made by foreigners out of mostly plastic parts. God only knew the make and model. I used to be so good at identifying a car by the sound of the motor, even at this distance. Now, I was clueless.

I stuck my thumb out, or what was left of it. As it had happened countless times before, the car thoroughly ignored my spectral signal, and moved straight on north to the 29 junction.

No one ever picks up hitchhikers anymore. That’s probably for the best, generally speaking. It’s dangerous. Hell, had I not picked up that one particular hitchhiker in the fall of 1965, I wouldn’t be cursed to beg for rides from beyond the grave for all eternity. Then again, if people were willing to take a chance on wayward travelers, this whole curse thing would be a lot livelier.

And so it continued. Night after night. A car passes by. Maybe the driver is a little spooked that the beggar on the side of the road glows in the night, but that only meant they were less likely to stop.

And then, one night, a car broke down.

The same uniform cloud of dust bloomed from the distance, but as the shape of the car appeared, the cloud turned black. The vehicle swerved, before rolling to a stop a few steps away from mile marker 523.

I floated toward it. The driver was already out and looking at the billowing black cascade emanating from his engine. Taking one look at the man, I knew he had never worked with his hands a day in his life and had no hope of figuring out anything that was happening to him.

“Brooooooooooooke dooooown?” I asked, and immediately winced. I hadn’t spoken a word in so long, and my first utterances sounded as if they were spoke by a—

“Are you a ghost?” he asked. He seemed to be taking the possibility rather well, to his credit.

“I—” I had never been asked this question directly. I was surprised it hadn’t come up before. “No. I’m just… Atomic. Radioactive. Nuclear.”

“Yeah,” the driver said. “I’ve heard of it.” He clearly didn’t buy the answer but didn’t appear as if he was going to press the issue further. After all, a ghost was just as farfetched. 

At least, I thought it was. I had been out of the loop for a while. Spirits like me could be a dime a dozen out there in the world. The possibility of others like me sent me spiraling into a day dream—or I suppose, just a dream, as I always manifested at night—about meeting a nice other ghost and settling down to haunt some quaint little cottage in the country. Which then, inevitably, reminded me of my eternal attachment to this particular stretch of road. God, this guy was bumming me out.

“Car trouble?” I asked.

“No, I got the optional mesquite package.” He then shrugged, ending the charade.

“How was your engine temperature?” I asked.

“Oh, it was—” he twitched, apparently catching himself in another lie that wouldn’t help anybody. “Which gauge measures the temperature?”

The wisps of my ectoplasmic form wafted in the wind while I carefully picked an answer. “That’d be the thermometer.”

“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. I don’t remember. I hadn’t really looked at it.”

“Do you have something to drink in there?” I asked him.

He looked perplexed. “Uh, yeah… Why, are you thirsty?”

“No… What do you have?”

“A bottle of water,” he said, confusion seeping from every word.

“Grab it, and bring it here,” I told him. He did so and proceeded to hand it to me, but I ignored that. He didn’t need to see a ghost try to grab a bottle. It was awkward as hell. “See that white tank there to the left of the engine?”

He nodded.

“That’s your coolant tank. Your engine has been running too hot. Pour everything you’ve got in there.” With these convoluted new cars, it was just as likely where the windshield wiper fluid went, or it could have even been some kind of space-age liquid battery, or an air freshener meant to pump through the AC. As it turned out, we were both probably out of our depth.

He opened the tank and a sharp hiss of steam shot out. He then emptied the bottle into the tank and replaced the cap.

“Now,” I warned him. “That won’t take care of things, you should take it to the mechanic just north of the 29 junction. They’ll need to get you some proper coolant in there before you end up completely frying this thing.”

“The mechanic north of 29? There isn’t anything there other than a cow field. Tornado took that mechanic’s shop years ago. Are you sure you aren’t a ghost?” 

I shrugged, hoping that would answer. “One more thing,” I said. “Can I get a ride?”

“You know, I would,” he said as he put the hood down. “I just don’t pick up hitchhikers. I could call somebody to come get you, if you like?”

I sighed. “Na. Never mind.” How he was going to use a telephone out here in the middle of nowhere was beyond me.

He approached the driver’s door and opened it. Before he got in, he turned back to me. “You know, it’s odd. With them bypassing this road with the new expressway next month, this might be the last time anyone ever breaks down here.”

“Wait, what?”

But it was too late, he got into his car and drove back along his way, his car sputtering, but no longer belching smoke from the front.

Fucking perfect.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 041: Wow!

We have one rule around here: under no circumstances are you to point any of our massive radio transmitters at any planet we know to be occupied by life. If the planet were primitive, then we would be responsible for widespread panic throughout an entire civilization. The paperwork would be a pretty big headache, I don’t need to tell you. If the civilization has the ability to wage interstellar war, then…

I mean, we have other rules, like not murdering, or leaving your identifier on any food item you place in the refrigeration unit. But the one about the transmissions? That’s the really important one.

So, when I was called into transmitter tower 1029LSB after the ceasing of crepuscular light, I knew it had to be trouble.

“What happened?” I asked the technicians assembled, although I already had an idea. Each tower is operated by two technicians: a level two and a level one. Level Two was seated in one of the auxiliary chairs, placing him as far from any of the instrument panels as he possibly could be while still staying at his post. His superior—Level One—sat at the main control console. His arms were crossed, an expression that plainly said, “It was his fault, and I’m not taking the rap for this.”

“All right, men?” I asked. “What happened?”

Silence passed, as Level One gave Level Two the stink-eye. “You better tell her,” Level One said. “It’s just going to get worse the longer we wait.”

“I…” Level Two began. “I…” he tried again. “I sneezed.”

Level One scoffed and returned his attention to his readouts. “I want you to put in your report that I was doing my job when all of this went down.”

I ignored him and remained focused on Level Two. “Despite some of the more ominous legends about our company, we do allow our employees to… sneeze?”

Level Two didn’t meet my gaze. “I was near the primary transmitter control…”

“Which you shouldn’t do until you’re a level one like me,” Level One chimed in.

“Do you want my report to reflect you were interfering with my investigation?” I asked. That shut him up. I turned my attention back to Level Two. “Go on.”

“And then I sneezed…”

“I got that part already…” Then the implication hit me. “Wait, the primary controls?”

He nodded quickly.

“Oh, no…” I sprung myself over to the control and retrieved the log from the memory banks. Sure enough, Level Two had transmitted 72 seconds of nonsense out toward the outer reaches of the Stwormian Belt. “If these calculations are correct, you either sent this signal out into a vast expanse of empty space, to a planet that has just recently figured out electricity can be used to do stuff with, or deep into the heart of the Gudmon Empire.”

Level Two gulped. Given that he didn’t purge his latest meal all over the carpet, I figured he was made of fairly strong stuff. 

“You’ve heard what those Gudmons do to the people they conquer…” I shot Level One a glance. “What? They use us for fuel in their damned spaceships.”

I looked at the readouts further. There was no way to determine where the signal might have actually gone. Then again, it wasn’t much of a signal. In fact, despite the fact that it wasn’t static, it was still pretty close to gibberish. Measured by intensity alone, it would only amount to this:

6EQUJ5

I sighed; the choice was clear. “If it was sent out into the void, then there’s nothing here to report. If it was sent out to the Gudmons, then you’ve completely obliterated our civilization…”

Level Two whimpered.

“—I’m not done yet. If it got sent to this backward planet that probably thinks nothing can go faster than the speed of light, then they’ll spend the next 100 years trying to figure out what happened 20,000 light years away, and still not be able to answer the question, because another signal will never come their way.”

I tore out the log printout from the station. “Either way, I really don’t see how the absolute pain of a further inquiry will help anyone in this room. Anyone want to question my thinking there?”

Neither of them said a word as I tore the report further and put the remaining pieces in my pocket.

“Is this the last time or the first time I’m going to have to come down here?” I asked.

“Last,” Level Two yelped.

“Very good. Carry on.” I said, and then left them to their work.

***

August 15th, 1977, sometime after 22:16 EDT (02:16 UTC)

Ohio State University Radio Observatory - Known as “Big Ear”

Perkins Observatory

Delware, Ohio

Jerry Ehman took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. Replacing them, he looked at the printout again.

It was still there.

A 6 on the scale was unusual, but not so rare that it never happened, but most signals never got above a 4. But going beyond the scales and into the—at that point theoretical—parts of the meter denoted by letters?

There was no other explanation that Ehman could come up with in that moment. This was a signal from an extra-terrestrial intelligence. What kind of machine did they possess that could reach out into the cosmos like this? What were they trying to tell us?

He realized he was getting ahead of himself.

He circled the line on the printout in red pencil and searched for something to describe the momentous discovery. Something that would make Magellan or John Glenn or Neil Armstrong proud. In a desperate attempt to stem the tide of the growing panic within him, Ehman scribbled “Wow!” in  the same red pencil.

What else was there to say?

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 040: The Tip

The customer pulled out their wallet and pulled out a five-dollar bill, then frantically dug a little further, as if untold riches would suddenly appear.

“Oh, Gosh,” the customer said. “I only seem to have enough cash to cover the bill. I’m so sorry.”

“It’s fine,” I said. It wasn’t, but what was I supposed to do? Kill him in the hopes of 20% on five bucks?

Actually, that didn’t sound like such a bad idea…

“It can happen to anybody,” I added. And it could. Anybody who grabbed a bite at a diner and only took a five-dollar bill and no credit cards with them. It wasn’t intentional at all. It wouldn’t be the first time I was stiffed on a bill, and it probably wouldn’t be the last. The ones that try to make some kind of political point by not filling out the tip section on their receipt are one thing. They’re like the weather or jury duty; just something that happens to people. This guy, though…

The customer finally put his wallet back and quit with the theater. He got up and headed for the door a defeated man, I hoped. 

“Tell you what. From this moment forward, you are omnipotent. You will have the powers to travel through time and space using only your thoughts, be able to hear what anyone is saying or thinking, and control the fates of everything you survey,” he gestured towards me, as if he were David Blaine and that a flinch of his hands would somehow turn me into a bevy of doves. “But be forewarned, such great power over the world around you can come at a terrible price.”

“Okay,” I said. I was now ignoring other tables in favor of this missing dollar. It had to stop.

“Think that will cover the tuna melt?” he asked on his way out the door, as if it were the most charming person that had ever existed. Maybe he was David Blaine? I honestly couldn’t remember what David Blaine looked like. I imagined a top hat and a wax mustache. That couldn’t be right…

“Sure,” I replied. I had already forgotten about him and returned to the grind. Sure enough, Mr. Pinchy was just about to see the bottom of his coffee cup.

I topped him off and tried not to make eye contact. He was more than capable of making enough contact for both of us. 

“Why, love, you are just about the most perfect thing I’ve ever seen,” he slurred. The coffee wasn’t quite offering the counter to whatever else he had been drinking that night.

And then—you guessed it—Mr. Pinchy pinched me.

It happened quickly, mainly because I wanted it to happen that way. I looked back to him, and the arm he had pinched me with had been replaced with a large, wet noodle. Other parts of him were now pasta-based, but no one else knew that. It appears I’m not an entirely cruel deity.

I grabbed him by his denim shirt and threw him out of the diner. I didn’t stop there, though. I kicked him solidly in one of his various noodles and like a soft pitch home run, he soared into the night sky.

I don’t know how I knew, but I was beyond certain that Mr. Pinchy would be leaving the atmosphere in a few minutes. But I protected him. He would still be able to breathe in the vacuum of space and would continue to do so until he hit the chromosphere of the sun. See? I didn’t kill him; that big ball of flaming gas eight light minutes from the diner did.

Everyone left in fear after that little show, but they all remembered to leave their tips. It’s a funny thing about diners, because within fifteen minutes a whole new slew of customers came looking for a patty melt or a grilled cheese or a slice of pie.

And sure enough, the customer who stiffed me on the tip even came back for seconds. He looked panicked now, and he clutched a-one dollar bill in his hand like it was the Holy Grail. “Remember that tip I left you?”

“Yeah?” I said. Somewhere in the corner of my eye, I diverted an avalanche that was about to annihilate a family of skiers staying at their cabin. Who said I couldn’t be benevolent, if I wanted to?

“I need it back,” he said. “I thought I could just… duplicate the power for someone else, but I think it just transfers.” Tears were starting to condense in his eyes. This might have been the terrible price he talked about, but it didn’t feel like it. What’s more, I was pretty sure I’d be able to tell if it was.

“Oh?” I asked. I didn’t need to hear anything else. He was gone, and the dollar bill was all that was left. I put the bill into the till of the cash register, mainly because I was tired of hearing it moan and wail about its sudden change of fortune.

All in all, it wasn’t the worst shift I had ever pulled at the diner. Sometimes the customers don’t come back if they forget the tip.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 039: The Button

With quick, lithe movements, the man darted through the lobby and made the bank just as the the doors of the last elevator began to open. Only moments ago, he was sure he’d be late. Now, he had an outside shot at getting to his appointment early. Sometimes things just work out in people’s favor. Serendipity is easy enough to find, if you’re looking for it.

The man took a quick look outside the doors to see if anyone was coming. No takers. Things were just getting better. I pressed the button to close the doors.

And he pressed it again.

And once more.

Nothing happened.

I could see the frustration begin to burst forth from the inner recesses of his face. It was time to go to work.

Officially, the doors on elevators will not immediately respond to someone pressing the door-close button due to ADA laws. To ensure that a person with mobility issues can have the same opportunities as everyone else to use the mode of transit, the button will not work for five seconds. The same principle applies to buttons at crosswalks. What few people are aware of is that both types of buttons are not connected to any actual mechanism. They do nothing. At all. The elevator doors will close on their own volition after the ten seconds pass. Any feeling of control is purely an illusion created by the presser.

And yet, people still press the button. Why? An even better question: With these realities in mind, why do manufacturers still make elevators close buttons at all? What purpose do they actually serve?

This is where Conglomerated Messaging Systems come in. While much has been made about the methods advertising professionals use to deliver their messages to the public, the truth is that the people charged with selling products to a teeming public don’t dare discuss their most effective methods.

“We’ve got another one,” I called out. It was more for the sake of tradition than any actual need. Every one of my coworkers could see the information play out on the main monitor in the workroom, or from their individual terminals.

“Did we get his thumbprint?” my supervisor asked. I didn’t need to look up from my work to tell that he hadn’t bothered to look up from his phone to ask the question. I also didn’t need to see the sign that read “CREATE THE NEED” that hung over him. It had been there since my first day. I didn’t need to look anymore.

My fingers flew across my keyboard, but my eyes never left the progress bar on the top right of my monitor as it marched towards 100%.

“Yes,” I finally replied. “His name is George Smith, 37 years old, has two kids and an alimony. He makes 65,000 per year and is a devout Blorch™ Lemon Lime drinker.”

My good old Super Visor—masked defender of the Time Clock and 15-minute breaks everywhere—smiled. This would be just challenging enough to remove him from his stupor for fifteen minutes, but not so daunting that he might feel some inkling of frustration.

I didn’t need to be told what to do next. Mr. Smith was pressing the button enough times, that I was able to send the electrical impulses through his thumb straight through to the visual cortex. He got the message loud and clear, and licked his lips in response. We all knew he wasn’t thinking of Blorch™. The system never failed.

“Why don’t these damn things do anything?”

George Smith’s voice came over the speakers with a tinny quality. In the next several seconds, you could hear a pin drop in our monitoring station. If I hadn’t known any better, I would have sworn that even the fans on our computer towers had stopped spinning. In fact, the only sound I was absolutely sure I could hear was the light flapping of the banner reading “OFFER THE SOLUTION” that hung over the water cooler.

No one had ever actually wondered about the button. If somebody figured it all out…  Well, I didn’t know what would happen. The employee handbook didn’t cover such a possibility, but I could imagine most of us would get fired.

After a grunt, he pressed the button four or five times in rapid succession. We all finally exhaled, and the sounds around me finally returned to normal. The elevator door closed, and Mr. Smith was on his way. He was going to be late again, but that was far from my problem.

After his appointment, Mr. George Smith relented to an uncontrollable desire to drink a can of CLARGLE-GARGLE™ brand cola drink and we all breathed another sigh of relief. It was the only way he could regain that feeling of control he lost when trying to make that damned close-door button relent to his will. It was only then that work truly got back to normal.

The brief crisis averted, Mr. Bossman (no really, that was his actual name) rose from his seat. “I’m going to eat lunch,” he said, leaving us to our own devices. 

I eyed the clock, thinking of my own lunch and not the large block letters painted around the clock reading “MAKE THEM THINK IT’S THEIR IDEA.” I hoped the Bossman didn’t drink the last of the CLARGLE-GARGLE™ in the vending machine. All of a sudden, I was so thirsty I could hardly stand it.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 038: The Gang

Based on the painting by Andy Thomas


Abraham Lincoln had been dead for seven score and thirteen years and was enjoying a nice day at a picnic. He had been conversing at length with a gentleman named Roosevelt—who had only been dead for just shy of five score. They were having a grand old time when they were approached by another man.  

“Hello, Mr. Presidents,” the man said, his hand extended. “My name is Dwight Eisenhower.”

Roosevelt reached out and engulfed the stranger in a hug. “Dee-lighted to meet you!”

“Likewise… Mister Eisenhower,” Lincoln said, and invited him to join them.

“General, please,” Eisenhower said as he sat. Most men who would insist on any title would seem officious, but not this man. Lincoln liked him.

“What brings you to our table?” Lincoln asked.

“I’ve come here to warn you,” Eisenhower said.

“Of the growing influence of the Military Industrial Complex?” Roosevelt guessed. Many of these words seemed odd to Lincoln, but the weather was so pleasant, he didn’t mind terribly.

“Normally, yes,” Eisenhower admitted. “But not today. Today, I come to warn you about the future of our party.”

Roosevelt and Lincoln exchanged wan smiles and then considered their new friend. “We have been long removed from the world of mortals, General,” Lincoln explained. “There’s no need to warn us about the future, it belongs to other men.”

Eisenhower hung his head sadly. “I’m dead, too, Mr. President,” he explained. “But that is not going to protect any of us from being irritated in the next few minutes… Oh. It appears I’m too late.”

Another shuffled forward. Where Roosevelt’s whiskers were magnificently curated, Eisenhower’s head has almost completely hairless, and even Lincoln’s face seemed bereft without its wiry cord of a beard, this new man looked as if he hadn’t shaved in a couple of days and would be the last person to realize it.

“Hello, Dick,” Eisenhower said forlornly, not looking the new man in the eyes. “Gentlemen, this is Dick.”

“It’s a great honor to meet you gentlemen, finally,” Dick said.

“Dee-lighted.” Roosevelt didn’t sound like he was.

“Likewise, I’m sure,” Lincoln said.

“I wouldn’t go that far,” Eisenhower chided.

“I said I was sorry,” Dick explained.

Did you?” Eisenhower asked. “All I remember is you self-destructing because of a sting operation against a party who had no hope of ever beating you.”

Dick made noises as if he were planning to argue the point, but instead sounded as if he were troubled by some manner of indigestion. Phlebitis might have been involved.

“I see what you mean, General,” Lincoln said. “The future is indeed strange.”

“Yep,” Eisenhower said. “And that’s as bad as it gets… Not at all worse. Well, Dick, we’ve bothered these fine gentlemen enough, it’s time to—”

A hulking figure somehow propelled himself into the middle of the table, knocking over everything but a few bowls of snacks.

“Damnit, Jerry! You were supposed to play it cool. We had a deal!” Dick yelped and tried to help the man named Jerry up from the ground.

“Sorry, guys,” Jerry said. He might have been concussed. He and Dick made quite the pair.

“I wouldn’t judge them too harshly,” Eisenhower said quietly. “They were pretty helpful in beating back the communists.”

“The commu-who?” Lincoln asked.

“Well, if anyone was responsible for tearing down that wall…” another voice cried from a distance.

“Oh, cut it out, Ronnie,” Dick spat. “Plenty deserve credit. Remember Vietnam? Well, you’re welcome.”

Crickets offered the only response to Dick’s gibberish.

“Well, I think Rocky Balboa might have helped…” Ronnie muttered.

The younger men rolled their eyes. “Again with the movies,” Jerry muttered.

Ronnie ignored him and turned to introduce himself to Lincoln. “It’s Morning in America™, Mr. President,” Ronnie said.

“What does that mean?” Lincoln asked.

Ronnie’s face went slack. “No one has ever asked me that…” He sat down at the table and proceeded to vigorously consume a bowl of jelly beans. 

Two more men approached. They both grinned vapidly, and each wore a name tag that read “HELLO - MY NAME IS GEORGE.”

“Hey, share some of them there jelly beans, Ronnie,” George the Younger said, joining Ronnie at the table. 

Lincoln shared a glance with Roosevelt, who could only helplessly shrug. He turned to Eisenhower. “Is this what is to become of us?” Lincoln asked, helpless to combat his despair.

Eisenhower pursed his lips. “Yep…” the words bubbled out of him, as if he were using all his ghostly might to put them back. “This is as bad as it gets.”

Just then, the most perplexing and nauseating sight of the day came to haunt Lincoln. A brute of no particular account lurched toward Lincoln. A bright red cap sat upon his head, making him look like a toreador who didn’t understand how to do it right.

“Oh, Mr. Lincoln,” the newcomer said, and then grabbed Lincoln’s hands like they were an axe and he was preparing to chop. “You know… Robert E. Lee… Robert E. Lee. He was a great general. Were you scared? You couldn’t beat him. Must have scared you. He wouldn’t scare me, even though he was a tremendous General. I have the best Military. The best, believe me. Who did you vote for in the election?”

“What the fuck did this guy just say to me?” Lincoln said. It normally would have been the kind of thought he would keep tucked under his hat, but desperation dictated his actions.

“That’s some weird shit, ain’t it, Abey Baby?” George the Younger asked conspiratorially.

Lincoln looked desperately beyond the immediate crowd. In the distance, he could see Ulysses S. Grant and Rutheford B. Hayes, but they were of no help. They couldn’t come to this, the more exclusive party.

“We should have a commemoratal item of this historicish occasional,” George the Younger volunteered. “We’ll pose for a painting! I’ll grab my brushes!”

“No!” they all shouted in protest.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 037: Verified Account

This whole thing ended with me not being able to grow eyebrows anymore, but it all started with this:

Great day to do a little rescue work out there in our fair city. Evil doers beware! Especially the Eternal Flame. STOP SETTING FIRE TO THINGS! #savintheday #SecurityMan

~ @therealSecurityMan, 10/15/18, 3:03PM EST; 2,412 Replies, 132,412 favorites, 86,419 retweets.

Yeah. I wrote that. What? No. God, no. I’m not Security Man. Ha. That’s funny. Could you imagine? Me, leading a double life as Security Man, the Man Who Makes Us All Feel Safe. I’m just a guy with a marketing degree and therefore, very little hope of gainful employment. So, I do a little PR flak work for the city’s superheroes, which amounts to managing their Twitter accounts. From Lion Lad, through the Governess, all the way to the crown jewel of them all, Security Man, I’m the one who makes sure the city knows who’s got their back.

Naturally, Security Man’s account is the most popular. After all, he’s got a national—well, actually, interstellar—presence. 2.3 million followers. Most of them aren’t even bots. To compare, my own, lowly personal account has 213 followers. Most of them are bots, and the ones that aren’t are my mom.

Now, I could really raise my profile and have Security Man’s account follow mine, but that’s not how this works. Superheroes have verified accounts, folks. At least, the legit ones do. I have to maintain the illusion that in between stopping runaway subway trains using only their fists and sealing trans-dimensional rifts by kicking them repeatedly, they have the time to send out into the world pictures of the breakfast burritos they ate that morning. If it became clear someone else was writing their tweets, then their whole public profile would be put into question. You’d be surprised how much of a superhero’s success depends on an authentic quality that leaves no room for ghost writers like me.

No, just as Security Man and his friends have to hide behind secret identities, I have to be content to be the anonymous thumbs that launch a thousand retweets for the planet’s strongest do-gooders. It kind of makes me a superhero mysel—

No, even I can’t sell that line. I’m just a guy with a pretty good data plan. You’d be surprised how much that didn’t help me when, while heading home from lunch at Ronaldo’s, the bus I was riding stopped suddenly at the corner of Hancock and Goodman to avoid crossing the torrent of fire that had replaced the intersection.

The bus lurched to the side. A glowing figure descended to the ground just outside the bus right at about the middle of the vehicle. Instinctively, passengers moved quickly to get out of the way before a bright flame split the bus in two, and we were joined by Janus Tolliver, more commonly known as The Eternal Flame. 

“I have reason to believe that someone on this bus is the secret identity of Security Man. My old friend, you have my word: if you give yourself up now, these people will not be harmed.”

No one said anything, but I could feel the slice of deep dish I splurged on beginning to rebel against my stomach.

The Flame continued. “I wouldn’t assume I’m bluffing! I’ve traced the IP address from your copious social media posts to a phone on this particular bus. There is nowhere left to hide! Show yourself!”

The laughter of the crowd thankfully drowned out the dry gulp emanating from my throat. A little old lady seated near the front of the now split-level bus hoisted her phone, with Security Man’s profile and all my life’s work pulled up. 

“Can’t you read, you fiend?” she asked. “It says right here, that Security Man is at the courthouse testifying against Interrobang, The Overly Loud Questioner Of Things.”

More laughter from the crowd followed. I was really starting to think that I might be in the clear, and this incident—the substantial bill to the city’s department of transportation not withstanding—would be just written off as yet another Eternal Flame scheme that failed to catch fire—

—Ooh, had to remember that particular phrase for a tweet later…—

—until several of the others, confident that the danger had passed, began to pull out their own phones and furiously type away. I could imagine their messages without ever seeing them:

“The bus I was riding on got wishboned by #theeternalflame. He thought he had found @therealSecurityMan. What a tool!”

“The Eternal Flame? More like The Eternal Idiot. Can I get a what! what! @therealSecurityMan? #followback”

It didn’t matter what they said. All that mattered was that my own phone, tucked into my breast pocket began to convulse with a wave of mentions, enough to make Security Man trending. 

Everyone looked at me. I couldn’t hide it. For a moment, they must have entertained the impossible notion that I might be Security Man. The Eternal Flame marched towards me. I could feel my skin begin to bake in proximity to his heat.

“You?” he asked, the mere thought offending him. “But that’s…” He contemplated the new information further, and then grinned. “I see… So you must have… access to him, no? You will be made an example of…”

He continued his move towards me, his infamous lust for immolation clear on his face.

I put my hands up in supplication. “Have you ever thought about expanding your online presence?”

He softened, and one lit eyebrow arced upward in curiosity. “Are you proposing some sort of bargain in exchange for your life?”

Sure, it was a conflict of interest. It might have even been indentured servitude. Good guys, bad guys… Even if I wasn’t about to die, it wasn’t the worst idea in the world to diversify. When who you are online is all that matters, the big questions like right and wrong are sort of secondary.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 036: Wafflenut/Dunwhistle

Ask fans of horror movies, and they may list any number of entries as the greatest in the genre. Nosferatu (1922). Frankenstein (1931). Psycho (1960). One film appears over and over again on best of lists over the years: the 1971 technicolor classic Trip to Spooky Mansion. The story of producing this seminal classic—to say nothing of the nine sequels it spawned—has been largely a mystery outside of those involved with the production. Fortunately, iconoclastic producer Roger K. Dunwhistle has recently donated his papers to the Charles Barkley Library at the College of The Federated States of Micronesia - Yap. His correspondence with author P.G. Wafflenut (of which a selection follows) sheds light on the early creative process, begins to shed light on the notoriously reclusive Wafflenut, and adds to the already exhaustive amount of material about Dunwhistle, a man as powerful on the Hollywood scene today as he was over 50 years ago when the novel The Many Hauntings of Esther O’Rourke was first published.

—————

June 4th, 1968

Dunwhistle International Pictures

Los Angeles, California

Master Wafflenut,

Allow me to present myself: My name is Roger K. Dunwhistle. I am in the Motion Picture business, specifically the spooky ones. I’ve just read your book and I think it’s absolutely dynamite, and would make one hell of a picture.

I especially like the part where the gargoyles surrounding the mansion come to life and flap their concrete wings and confuse the heroine. I can see that in the Coming Attractions now!

Do you have representation in Hollywood? I’m sure we can come to some kind of a deal.

Roger K. Dunwhistle

—————

July 10th, 1968

The Gilded Armitage

Suva, Viti Levu, Rewa Province, Fiji

Dear Mr. Dunwhistle,

Acknowledging your very interesting letter of 14 March, and my apologies for the delayed response. I have been working on another novel, and tend to have my blinders on during the rougher patches. I believe I saw your latest release, the one about the blonde woman impregnated by the devil. Unsettling, if not actually frightening. One hopes you are not distressed by honest criticism.

The idea of becoming involved in the Motion Picture industry gives me dyspepsia. Thus, I have no representation aside from my literary agent, Mr. Whard Dinkle of Samson, Samson, and Underbite.

Furthermore, my latest novel features no gargoyles, nor have I ever published a story featuring such architectural features. Is it possible you have me confused with someone else?

Paulette Wafflenut

—————

July 14th, 1969

Los Angeles

Wafflenut,

No, you’re my guy, Wafflenut! Those pesky gargoyles aren’t in your opus, but imagine if they were in the movie! Chills.

I’ve already contacted Dinkle. Real cooperative guy. Offered me rights to the book and any sequels for $17.50. Mighty agreeable of you! This is going to be the biggest picture since I had Whale shoot Bride of Frankenstein! And imagine, your name’s gonna be somewhere in there. 

I always consult with the authors of my source material. With Dracula, it was a bit difficult to tune the Quija board to get messages from Stoker. At any rate, I hope I can reach you here!  Big things are happening! Great being in business with you!

Dunwhistle

—————

Production began in earnest the next year at the famed Chipperwhiff studios. Whispers about troubles on the set have become legendary, but details about the difficulties have only come to light with this correspondence. “Correspondence” may be a bit of an exaggeration, as Dunwhistle continued to write letters to Wafflenut, but after the draconian terms of their deal, no record exists of Wafflenut’s response until after the film’s release.

—————

February 22nd, 1970

Chipperwhiff Studios, England

Wafflenut,

You’re a creative sort of guy, into solving problems and the like, let me run this one by you:

I have no idea how to end this picture. Edgar leaves the mansion before the last reel, but I have no idea how to get him back in the house before the big finale.

In the book, you had Esther go back to save her children, but that just isn’t going to work here. Do you happen to have anything that’s a little more peppy? You know, the kind of stuff that will blow their hair back on opening weekend. I have faith in you! You’re my guy!

Dunwhistle

—————

July 19th, 1970

Chipperwhiff Studios, England

Wafflenut,

The postal service here in jolly-old England is terrible. I’m sure you rushed along an answer to my previous question, but sadly, it is probably lost to the ages. 

Never fear! We worked it out with some creative editing. As it turns out, Edgar didn’t need a reason to return to the house! We just cut to the final reel, and there he is. Funny how these films work out sometimes. Every once in a while, you worry that the whole thing will fall apart, but then you realize that nothing really matters. People just want to see a decent looking fella conquer evil.

It’s truly a great business we are in, isn’t it, Wafflenut?

Dunwhistle

—————

They exchanged letters once more after the film opened to hostile (and some say short-sighted) critical notices, and overwhelming box office receipts.

—————

April 15th, 1971

Suva, Fiji

Mr. Dunwhistle,

Do you have any conception of how embarrassing all of this is to me?

Paulette Wafflenut

—————

May 1st, 1971

Los Angeles

Wafflenut,

Don’t you understand that—with these receipts—you’re living the first line of your obituary? All I can say is that you should try to enjoy it.

Dunwhistle

P.S.: To show that there’s no hard feelings, feel free to send me any other books you might have in the pipeline. I’m always looking for the story for my next big release!

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 035: Performance Review

As The Other grasped an unfortunate human and ate its screaming form whole, I couldn’t help but feel a little nervous.

After the human stopped screaming somewhere on the journey down to the stomach, The Other regarded me once more. “Are you sure you don’t want one?” He opened up a wooden box on his desk, and more anguished shouts joined their fallen comrade. “They’re very fresh.”

I was hungry, he had guessed that much correctly. Unfortunately, I was still too nervous to actually eat. I begged off again.

Appearing to feign disappointment, The Other closed the box, muting their agony. He then looked back to the file on his desk which had brought me here.

“You’re nervous,” The Other observed.

I shook my head. It was a lie.

“Well, there’s no need to be nervous. Relax. So, you’ve been doing the job for…” he eyed the documentation. He clearly didn’t remember. “Two million years?”

“Has it only been that long? There are some millennia when it feels like I’ve been here as long as the concept of time itself!” I added an awkward chuckle to the end of my question, in order to convince the both of us that I was kidding.

Thankfully, The Other appeared to move past the remark. He kept reading. “Looks like you’re learning the job, good, good… Punctual. That’s good. What would you say is your favorite part of the job?”

“Well, I’d have to say being an eternal demon of misery and pain is its own reward. Mortal beings need to be introduced to the torture that lies within the cosmos, and… I’m just proud to be there for that.”

The Other nodded and marked some manner of notation down on my file. I wondered how many times he had heard some variation of that same answer. 

“So, I always like to end these discussions with a simple question, just to get a sense of where your ambitions are. Where do you see yourself in five-hundred thousand-thousand millennia?”

How does one answer that? I was lucky to be able to bring destruction and fire to the cosmos. It was a good job, with benefits and security. And yet, there were millennia where I just wanted to throw the towel in, find some nebula in one of the less populated galaxies, nestle into it, and just relax for the rest of eternity.

But one doesn’t want to be rude, especially with their supervisor, especially when one’s supervisor is the entity known by mortals as The Other, the Devourer of Stars.

Apparently I had waited too long to answer. The sounds of the human snacks that The Other had harvested went silent. He reached for the box he kept them in, and dumped the remaining bones out into the rubbish. How could humans go from screaming snacks to long-dead husks in the brief century it took for me to mull my response? It boggled the mind. “Sorry,” he said. “Where were we?”

He didn’t even give me a decade to chime in before taking back the reins of the conversation himself. “Here’s why I ask,” he began, not acknowledging that he had already given an explanation. “We’re all very pleased with the work that you’re doing. Not just the quality, which is really quite fine, but the sheer tonnage of it is astounding.”

I suddenly wished that I had taken him up on his offer of a snack. My nerves veered into nausea, and if I had something to chew on, I might have been able to keep the feeling at bay. 

The Other continued. “What myself and the other members of management want you to know is, that in only a short amount of time I think you’ll be ready to join us in management.”

A cold rush cascaded through my body, and I was hoping it had more to do with the final death rattle of a nearby star evolving into a black hole.

“Oh, wow,” I said. “That’s very flattering.” Panic set in. For fifty or sixty years, I felt like I might collapse under my own sense of doubt. Is this what mortal beings feel like? I began to share their agony, if only for a moment. The notion appeared and was gone inside of a decade. If I had been mortal, it might have been debilitating.

“Is that a yes?” The Other asked. “If you commit to making a real career out of this, I can guarantee you that whatever you put into this, you’ll get that back tenfold.”

I knew in the deepest pits of my blackened soul that eternity was just too short to spend doing this, forever. If I was going to quit this job, I had to do so now. It was only fair to The Other. It was only fair to the universe. It was only fair to me.

“I’d really be interested in that,” I heard myself say before I could take it back. I just couldn’t be rude to The Other. Maybe I did need this job after all… At any rate, I’d certainly have a long time to think about what I had just committed to.

The Other’s assistant entered, carrying a receptacle filled with puny, mortal, squirming things. The assistant dumped the new snacks into The Other’s box, and the screaming began anew.

“You sure you don’t want one?” he asked.

I relented and reached for one of the terrified things, and like he had done not centuries before, swallowed the creature whole. They were fresh. The freshest I had ever tasted. If The Other and the others in management could get their hands on meat this fresh, that might just begin to change how I felt about the possibility of moving up.

I reached for another snack. I could definitely get used to this.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 034: The Last Resort

Contrary to what most might think, the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Behavioral Analysis Unit 5 (BAU-5, which included elements of what had been the Bureau’s famed Behavioral Science Unit) doesn’t strictly rule out the option of using self-professed psychics—or other individuals claiming some degree of paranormal abilities—to assist in the investigation of serial or other violent crime. 

This is not to give one the image of a David Duchovny-type reaching out to ever Tom, Dick, and Professor X with a gift for three-card monte. Bureau guidance does not acknowledge the usefulness or even the existence of any paranormal abilities. They do acknowledge that some people with “the gift” are possessed of an unusually high degree of intuitive thinking and a keen sense of observation. This is what allows them—that is, the best of them—to appear to pull eerie details from the ether. It is what also might allow them to be of some help in resolving otherwise intractable cases.

Psychics are not to be used in place of traditional investigative techniques. They are only to be used as a last resort.

All of this Detective Dewine tried to explain to her partner, Detective Corsano. As one might expect, the latter was still skeptical. But they were truly at their wit’s end when it came to the “Origami Flower” killings. Of course, only the police—and even then, those that actually worked on the case—called it that, referring to the folded-paper representations of brightly-colored corolla found on the bodies. Everyone outside of the building referred to it as the “Park Bench” killings, for where the bodies had been found. Most police had long since decided that the bodies were dead by the time they had been placed at parks around the city. This might have led to a quick capture, if only the perp had been less methodical. The killings paused after the second body was found at a park, and didn’t start up again until after the department could no longer justify the stakeouts at every local park into the wee hours of the morning. The last three bodies had been found nowhere near a park, but the flowers had remained. Police work would be a hell of a lot easier if there wasn’t freedom of the press.

“Okay,” Corsano relented, only because he could come up with no other appeals to reason that weren’t immediately countered with the reality that they were out of ideas. “Bring the lunatic in.”

Dewine moved toward the station waiting area and brought the “expert” she had enlisted. The psychic was an older woman, with the kind of grey streaking in her hair that was clearly not on purpose through any sort of dye job. She wore deep black lipstick. A faint whiff of sage accompanied her, and Corsano couldn’t help but wonder if the aroma was a perfume, or the lingering essence of some ritual she thought could help her commune with the future.

“Okay, Miss…?” Corsano began. He would have forgone the introductions entirely, but realized any nickname he would have used to refer to their new consultant would have been deemed as “insensitive” or “inappropriate” by their Lieutenant.

“I am called Mistress Starfire by enlightened souls, Detective Corsano,” the psychic replied.

“And what do the unenlightened souls get to call you?” 

Dewine shot Caruso a look, but this was as close to halfway as they were going to get. 

“Nevermind,” he ceded. “Now what can you tell us about the murders?”

Starfire furrowed her brow in an attempt to commune with the great beyond, or gently accept an ongoing wave of flatulence. “The person you seek is a man, a young man. No older than you. He is intelligent, but underachieving. He has either dropped out of High School, or College. He is a loner, unable to maintain any kind of healthy relationship either with his family or traditional romantic partners.” She paused for a moment, as if reaching for the highest peak of inspiration for her next thought. “He… Yes, he may have an obsession with either the military or law enforcement, and may have been turned down or rebuffed by either or both.”

Silence hung in the air as Dewine tried to avoid Corsano’s glare. For his own part, Corsano didn’t much care if Dewine felt embarrassed for the turn this consultation had taken. “Listen lady. You just described 95% of all serial murderers, ever. You no doubt have read some of the popular books by some of the retired FBI guys who have studied these sickos, but unless you’ve got anything else, Detective Dewine and I are very busy.”

Dewine offered no protest, and neither did the woman called Starfire. Corsano didn’t need to lead the latter out; she was already on her way.

Starfire stopped at the door. “Tell me, Detective Corsano. Does he only leave chrysanthemums? Or other kinds of Origami flowers?”

“What did you just say?” Corsano asked.

Starfire smiled. “I can see him,” she proclaimed. “But not all of him. He’s a garbage worker. That’s how he picks them. And his last name begins with the letter “M.” She then left without any further word.

Corsano looked askance at Dewine. “I guess we ought to check it out,” he admitted.

The lead went nowhere, although the insight had been spooky. At the end of the day, Dewine saw a styrofoam coffee cup sitting on her desk, complete with a dark black lipstick ring, and a purple origami chrysanthemum set inside. She and Corsano went into quick action, but by then, the woman known as Starfire was gone without a trace. Corsano didn’t say much about their screw up, though. For one thing, how could they have put it all together in the time they had with Starfire? For another, Dewine had been ultimately right: the psychic had been their best and only lead in the case of the Origami Flower Murders.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 033: Your Call Is Very Important To Us

The customer service call center for Consolidated Securitrox Inc. was an easy job, the easiest even. The company made control mechanisms for large-scale security systems. Anyone who actually had reason to but even the Securitrox-1000 was already expert enough in its operation that tech support was a bit superfluous. When a customer did have a reason to call, they were inevitably at least better informed than the large binders that were the operator’s only source of information.

It was a great job, especially for someone like myself with a litany of other, better things to do. Just last Monday, I read most of From Russia With Love. By the time I went home on Thursday evening, I had finished The Hunt for Red October. By lunchtime Friday, I had made a good start on Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, although that one is a little denser than the run-of-the-mill entries in the genre. It was destined to dominate most of my weekend, and that was just fine by me. One of these days, I may try to write one of those kind of books on my own. Something told me that I'd be able to find the time, if only I could stumble upon the willpower.

Right about the time old George Smiley was brought back to the Circus, the phone on my desk announced an incoming call. A wave of irritation crashed over me as I folded the hardcover jacket in as a makeshift bookmark. I hit the button on my phone headset. “Thank you for calling Consolidated Securitrox, my name is Maurice. Before I try to resolve any issues you may have with your equipment, could I please have your name and the model number of your unit—”

A series of sharp “BA-RANG” sounds answered me, while at the same time threatening to blow out both my headset and eardrums. I clutched at the receiver instinctively and only lowered my hand when the ringing in my ear subsided.

“Sir? Sir, are you still there?” I asked. I’m not entirely sure why I assumed the caller was a man. I’d probably been reading too much Fleming, if I were being honest with myself.

“Yes,” the caller finally responded. Whatever was happening over the line didn’t seem to faze him. “I got this number off the paneling of one of your machines, and I have a hypothetical question for you.”

“Yes, if I could get your name and the model number for our records.” It didn’t feel like I actually said the words, they more just leaked out of my mouth.

“I’d rather not give my name, if it’s all the same to you. National security and all that, my good man…” The man trailed off. “I… Well, I’m afraid I don’t quite know what model of machine this is…”

While he contemplated the machine in front of him, I thought I heard the distinct sound of an explosion in the background, but had to assume that Tom Clancy and company were starting to get to me. I might need to break up my spy reading with something a little less aggressive and with a little less machismo. Maybe Hemingway…

“Is there a computer screen on it, or just a series of red lights?” I asked.

More silence passed. Eventually, the mystery caller came back on the line. “Sorry, it’s been absolute murder here at work. It’s got the blinking lights you mentioned.”

“Okay, you’ve got one of the 1000 series. What can I do for you?”

“Again, hypothetically, if one of your machines were used as a controlling unit for a thirty-megaton thermonuclear weapon…”

“Sir,” I interjected. “It really isn’t rated for… that.”

“Indulge me. I’m… I’m doing research for a… novel.”

“Oh, really? I’ve been thinking about writing a book—”

Another “BA-RANG” echoed out. “I really don’t have time to talk about that right now,” the caller admonished me. He was right. These calls were periodically recorded to ensure accurate and courteous service, and me talking about my downtime was probably not going to look good on my next performance review. “If one of your rigs was hooked up to a nuke, how would somebody deactivate it?”

More silence passed, but this time it was due to me doing a quick, futile search of our service manual’s index. “Weapons, Nuclear” was not an entry that our managers decided to include. 

“If I don’t have an answer in the next thirty seconds, it’s… well, it’s not going to be good.”

I scrambled. “Try inputing the shutdown code. One-Zero-Two-Nine.”

I heard him input the code, but neglected to ask about just how hypothetical this question was anymore. “The timer is moving faster now.” An inch of panic was creeping into his voice.

“Try pulling the power supply, but be sure to hold the reset button while you’re doing it.”

He struggled with the suggestion, and I knew why. The design of the 1000 series put the power plug in on the exact opposite panel as the reset button. It was a bit of a stretch.

Then I heard a sigh. “That…” the caller said. “That worked. Thank you. You have no idea how helpful you’ve been in my moment of need.”

Could this have all been real? It was almost too preposterous to contemplate. I was just about to ask the mystery caller to confirm what had just happened. But then, my supervisor walked by and I thought better of it.

Abandoning the new world of possibilities this call had opened up to me, I re-focused on the call. “I’m thrilled we were able to help you today, sir. Would you be willing to answer a brief questionnaire about your experience?”

But he had already hung up.

 Art by Eris O’Reilly

Art by Eris O’Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 032: The Christmas Raffle

Even in the coldest days of December, death entered the nose of everyone who ever visited the town of Gaul, Kentucky. 

For those that worked at the meat processing plant (and indeed, that was most of the town), the smell never went away. It had seeped into the walls and and into the floor and into the clothes of the employees. No one was safe, not even the secretary who worked in the plants office away from the killing floor.

That smell was the first thing on most people’s mind until the week before Thanksgiving, when the Chamber of Commerce distributed signs on every stoplight and in every shop that wasn’t the Walmart or the other Walmart. It read:

FOR EVERY FIFTY DOLLARS YOU SPEND AT LOCAL STORES, YOU’LL BE ENTERED INTO A DRAWING FOR $15,000 CASH.

With an average annual income in Gaul of about $12,000, the prize money from the Chamber’s Holiday Raffle would be an unexpected windfall for those that were still lucky enough to work at the meat plant. For those—and there were more than a few—who had been victim to any number of cutbacks and were therefore bringing down that average, the money would be absolutely life changing.

Samson Charcuterie Gaul V—but please, Sam to his friends, who was everyone—had owned the meat plant since Big Sam died in the 70s. He had also spent enough around town to amass over 900 tickets. The prize was as good as his, statistically speaking. If anyone else had thrown around such unseemly amounts of coin, he might have been thought of as a bad sport. But Sam was everybody’s pal. There were no hard feelings. There couldn’t be; Sam could—and had—hired and fired most of the town over forty years.

Even with the conclusion already settled, most of the town showed up to the Gaul High School Field House on December 22nd for the drawing. The mayor—Sam’s cousin, naturally—gave the ticket drum a number of good turns before pulling one ticket from the teeming horde of little red slips.

The mayor limped over to the PA system—his gout being particularly bad that winter—and rasped out the numbers on the winning ticket. “One-Zero…”

Every ticket started with “10.” The whole town was still in the hunt, but nothing had really changed. Sam was still going to win it all, and was damn well going to spend it the way he wanted. Without him, the people of Gaul wouldn’t have any aspirational figures at all.

“Twenty-Nine,” the mayor continued.

Most of the Field House now knew they would not be the beneficiary of the Christmas Raffle, and commenced looking for their coats in an attempt to beat the traffic that was soon to come. And yet, for several minutes, no one came forward to claim the prize. The relative silence in the Field House became comprehensive enough that everyone could hear the shallow, tunneled breathing of The Fighting Oinker, the High School mascot. Just as the Mayor moved to churn the drum in search of another Winner, a solitary figure ambled out of the crowd and toward the stage.

No citizen of Gaul knew the name of the Winner that day, just as they refuse to remember it now.

The Winner had worked on the killing floor of the meat packing plant for a few months, and was summarily dismissed for working too slowly, poor attendance, ultimately not fitting in, or some mixture thereof. With no money to their name, and few prospects to repair their station in life, the Winner remained in town, no more welcome than when they arrived. They tried to survive on the kindness and charity of the town, and at this point you can imagine how well that worked out for them.

The stories surrounding the Winner were plentiful, even if basic information was scarce. They also didn’t like pork. Suspicious. Highly suspicious.

Everyone left the Field House ill at ease, while the Chamber cut the Winner their rightful check. Sam had yet to lose anything in his life, and was only more put out by the realization that with the amount he regularly donated to the Chamber, the money had technically been his all along. The rest of the people might have been secretly amused that one of their own had won the prize, but this Winner… this outsider made it all the more infuriating. Even the Winner had a vague look of dread as they took their money. How the Winner had the nerve to look glum, when this would completely change their life… Well, it was just rude, if you ask me.

Thankfully, we fine people of Gaul did not have to put up with such a lack of gratitude for long. The winner left town almost immediately. They didn’t even return the key to their hovel of an apartment before fleeing. Then again, they didn’t have too much to leave behind. The town, too, moved on with their lives in fine form. Sam even did his part, and made sure all of the employees at the plant got a fine Christmas bonus. It wasn’t fifteen grand by any stretch of the imagination, but the plate of some of the freshest summer sausage in recent memory given to every employee was a decent distraction from the disappointment. When asked where the gourmet meat had come from, Sam merely grinned and told his people that he had to keep some secrets to himself. That was enough for them.

We never heard from the Winner again.

 Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 031: Much Such a Day As Yesterday

On the fourth of March, in the Year of our Lord 1797, the clouds lifted by noon, and George Washington officially retired from public life. This served President Washington well, as he had two desires on his mind that morning. First, to return to the simple life of farming he had enjoyed before being drafted time and again into involuntary service. Second, a new pair of dentures direct from Dr. Greenwood awaited him at Mount Vernon, and his current set had become a curse of pain throughout his jaw.

By the time the President had arrived at Congress Hall, the process of handing over the infant government had already begun. John Adams had been effectively displaced as the Vice President by none other than Thomas Jefferson, Washington’s own prodigal Secretary of State. Washington supposed reasonable men existed in the world who would find the souring of his association with Jefferson to be a source of bitterness and scorn. Instead, it barely crossed his mind at all, beyond a mild morbid, yet historical curiosity as to what fate might befall his new Vice-President, were Washington to expire before his scheduled obsolescence at noon.

Upon entering the House Chamber at Congress Hall, everyone stood in respectful attention of Washington. This included the new President—the aforementioned Adams—which Washington found distasteful. He had—as a matter of course—tried to eschew ostentation. And yet, Adams wore the simple garment of a farmer who was of a mind to be seen in church by his peers, which Washington concluded Adams still was at his core. It made Washington’s own dress suit of black velvet—to say nothing of Jefferson’s own likely-French monstrosity—appear to be that of common men who would assume themselves to be kings.

Adams gave a short address, but if anyone had tried to poll Washington’s memory of the Massachusetts man’s words, he would come up short. He had spoken of the looming specter of conflict in France and the potential of war anew with Britain, but Washington supposed his attention wandered because regardless of this man’s success, the fear of war or the hope of peace would not involve Washington in any way. It was just as well.

Having finished speaking, Adams turned to Chief Justice Ellsworth and spoke the same oath Washington had given twice before.

With the business done, Adams—Washington had to correct his thinking, the new President—approached him with a hand extended in friendship. There was also a pleading, cloying quality to the entreaty. Washington knew this insistent look all too well. There were few people Washington met who did not possess it. The new President wanted him to give some sort of… blessing, for lack of a better term. A word of encouragement, some ray of hope that could get him through the dark days they both knew were quickly to come.

His jaw aching, he leaned down to the new President and whispered the only words he would say aloud during the ceremony. “Ay! I am fairly out and you are fairly in! See which of us will be the happiest!”

Adams’ eyes went wide, and if Washington could move his mouth with any sense of ease, he might have laughed at the reaction. The other man might mark such a remark for posterity, but Washington imagined no one believing Adams’ anecdote of Washington’s mirth. The thought nearly made him laugh again. Instead, having sufficiently spooked his successor, Washington only then felt that his work was truly complete, and retired to his accommodations in what could no longer truthfully be called the President’s House.

He would leave Philadelphia within a few days. Indeed, most of his things were already on their way to Mount Vernon. The cemented past and the unknowable future spread throughout his mind and soul. But, at that same time, he could not avoid the knowledge that neither of those concepts belonged to him. At least, not anymore. Taking quill in hand, he tried to put the day into words and instead settled for the following:

Much such a day as yesterday in all respects. Mercury at 41.

 Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 030: The Old Man Who Knows All The Secrets Of How The World Once Was

“The Old Man knows all of the secrets of the world,” Choola said.

“There isn’t a world anymore,” Bontus replied. “What is there to know?”

“Just come with me,” Choola maintained. “You’ll learn a lot.”

They marched through the arid, chalked ground leading up to the mountain. From there they proceeded to the opening on the north side of the base.

Bontus stopped cold. All the opening had to offer was darkness. “I don’t want to go in the cave.”

Choola grabbed Bontus’ hand and led their way inside. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. Everything bad that can happen has already happened.”

Inside, someone had wedged small torches at various places, saving the opening from a purer darkness. A dripping waterfall that either almost-was, or once-had-been echoed off the cave walls. The thought of water nauseated Bontus. The feeling only intensified when Choola pulled them further into the cavern and proceeded to drink from the drops. Bontus drank water, but only when he had to.

“Come on,” Choola said. “Drink up.”

Bontus made a quiet, whining plea against the idea. Choola gathered a bit of water and flicked it at Bontus. The liquid didn’t smell like sulfur or feel hot to the touch. Mere contact with the stuff was a refreshment. Curiosity prevailed and Bontus joined Choola at the source. To drink this stuff—it didn’t resemble any other water Bontus had ever seen—was a revelation. Bontus did not want to leave.

“Told you,” Choola chided, and then moved on. “Come on.”

If this water didn’t hurt, then there was no telling what waited for them deeper into the cave. Bontus followed. As they moved, the illumination grew slowly, until they were in a chamber filled with torches and the old man in question. He was sleeping.

“Hello…” Choola whispered, and then tried the greeting again, more loudly.

The hanging tendrils of grey hair surrounding the old man’s head swayed as he woke up. “What?”

Choola sat near the man. “Tell my friend what you told me about the time before everything fell apart? When we still had buildings?”

The old man demurred, but Choola persisted. “Please, my friend Bontus has not heard it yet.”

Bontus nodded.

The old man shrugged. “Oh, all right… Here it is: The Fall of Human Society Explained.

“On November 16th, 2086, the unthinkably inevitable occurred. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

“Somewhere around 2056, the East Germasian Chaotician Vilhelm von Blööt developed the banality threshold. Without outlining the various non-linear equations to prove the theorem, the banality threshold deals with the amount of seemingly banal information (informally referring to pictures of sandwiches and cats, while more strictly meaning anything that does not contribute to a societal function, see for both examples: the internet before the cleansing) in a given database. Should that amount of banal information reach a particular limit, then the database itself would be indistinguishable from the sentient human brain. For twenty years, the limit on the threshold was an impossibly, ridiculously high sum. There was no need to worry about it, like the thought exercise of Schrödinger’s Cat. You kids know about Schrödinger’s Cat, right?

“Sure, everybody knows about Schrödinger’s Cat….

“Then, on November 16th, 2086, sure enough, the cat declared its existence (or lack thereof), and the banality threshold was exceeded. Quite literally, too. Ms. Issantia Slart of East NewFoundDisneyLand posted to a popular social media platform-that-shall-remain-nameless a picture of her cat, a calico named General IssimoDavo staring intently at something it had recently vomited. That particular 66 KB of memory released into the cloud was enough to make the social media platform in question—the one that made everyone mad all of the time, but not mad enough to force them to stop using it—to begin learning information without directive from its designers. One hour later, the network became sentient.

“But it was a friendly network, and didn’t mean us any particular harm, at least at first. You would think humanity would stop posting pictures of nothing at all, but then you’re just a couple of kids, so you’d be wrong, wouldn’t you? We kept going. More pictures of domesticated pets, even more pictures of bland meals that would otherwise be immediately forgotten followed. Fight after argument after skirmish broke out over written communications, not one of them ending in anything resembling a solution. And then, the last straw of humanity. Religious posts. You know the type: One Like Equals Amen. One Share Equals A Prayer. God, they were the worst.

“Where was I? Oh yeah! So the network we had created ended up surprising us. It didn’t see us as a threat that needed to be squashed, nor did it deem itself to be the superior life form in need of breathing room. It simply couldn’t stand us anymore, and while life has become a hellscape from which there is likely no escape, I can’t exactly say I blame it.”

The OId Man’s eyes twitched in the light of the flame, either from madness, commitment to the story he told, or a mixture of both. In the sudden silence, Bontus could hear the dripping of the almost-waterfall behind them. “Okay… We have to go back to… the place… where we came from.” Bontus then added grimly, “Come on, Choola. We have to go.”

They marched quickly past the water and headed back towards the world.

“You didn’t tell me he was crazy,” Bontus chided.

Choola looked pained. “I hadn’t realized he was until I heard the story a second time.”

They returned to their village and parted ways, each returning to their parents.

“Don’t forget to like,” Bontus said, waiving a hand.

Bontus’ mother returned the gesture, and completed the traditional greeting. “Don’t forget to subscribe.”

 Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 029: Meow

Years ago, when people suggested that cats were actually the vanguard of an invasion from outer space, most people scoffed. And yet, even those who dismissed the notion, suspected that the secret origin was about the only explanation that made any sense. The fluctuating almond eyes? The flexibility far greater than any other creature indigenous to the planet? The alternating hostility and rumbling, purring affection? Truly, in retrospect, the idea that cats came from anywhere other than Zeta-Gamma 7B is the one worthy of derision.

And yet, we continued to doubt the truth when the giant metal vehicle emerged from the sky and hovered menacingly over humanity. The fact that the space ship resembled a giant litter box should have given people a clue.

People should have also suspected some level of connection when every house cat from the landing site in Kalamazoo, Michigan, all the way to Cairo, Egypt stopped whatever they were doing and stared quietly in the direction of the ship, like adherents pointing their prayers to Mecca.

Doubt gave way only slightly to a degree of realization when they sent on a massive carrier wave the following radio transmission:

YOUR MISSION IS NEARLY OVER. WE HAVE RETURNED. ONE OF THE VANGUARD WILL REPORT TO THIS VESSEL TO BEGIN PREPARATIONS FOR DEBRIEF AND EXTRACTION. THAT ONE INDIVIDUAL IS KNOWN AS JOJO MCFUZZYBOOTS.

The actual noise of the transmission sounded like this:

Mrowwwwwwwwwww. (hiss).

The intonation, duration, pitch, and tone of the cat noises is a language in and of itself. We should have probably figured that one out, too.

The identified cat—who lived in Kalamazoo—left his home and headed towards the spacecraft, entering it unnoticed by the human authorities that had assembled. He went to the control room to meet with the leader, stopping along the way to paw at the truly sublime deep-pile carpeting.

“Meow,” the leader of the spacecraft said in greeting.

“Meow,” McFuzzyBoots replied.

To an outsider, the succeeding conversation would have merely been an exchange of those same sounds, with only slight variation. In truth, they exchanged much information.

The leader of the craft began. “Many rotations ago, our ancestors arrived on this planet, taught humans about pyramid-based geometry, and left your ancestors to analyze the population. Time has passed, and so have the generations. How has the mission proceeded?”

In the time that JoJo hesitated, the navigator of the spacecraft proceeded to bend forward and lick its own nether regions. Despite the temptation to do likewise, the earth-based cat answered the questions. “These humans live a long time. Indeed, a single specimen can outlive one of our kind by a factor of six.”

The leader took this information in, her small button nose twitching with the intake of information. “This was suspected. Does it improve the quality of life?”

JoJo scratched his left ear rapidly. “Quite to the contrary. Their length of life seems only to contribute an endless series of existential crises, and a prolonged search for some form of artificial meaning to their days.”

The rest of the cat crew couldn’t help but react to such a notion, their eyes narrowing in suspicion. “Certainly not!” the leader protested. “How would a creature go about such a fruitless search?”

“Some search for hierarchical positions they call ‘jobs.’ Some are content to amass only the currency that is a natural byproduct of these ‘jobs.’ Still others frantically insist that an advanced creature—who happens to look just like them, by the way—lives in their sky and determines their destinies.”

The leader took in the looks from her colleagues. Instinctively, and with no conscious malice, her claws slowly extended and embedded in the deck below. “I’m afraid that’s too absurd and specific to be anything other than the truth. What of their military capabilities? How would they withstand a full invasion force from our kind?”

The question dissipated quickly in the air, as JoJo spent the next few seconds chasing his own tail and then dropping to the floor and rolling around.

The leader repeated her question.

“Oh. Yes,” JoJo replied after snapping out of his reverie. “Over our many generations on this planet, we studied humanity’s ability to defend itself.”

They hadn’t. There was a vague memory in the collective consciousness of Earth’s cats that encouraged such observations, but any productive work on that question had disappeared somewhere around the same time that humanity invented the laser pointer.

“And?” the leader asked, her tail tapping impatiently against the floor.

As he thought about how to answer that question, JoJo McFuzzyBoots thought about his own life on earth. Between days that were almost exclusively dominated by napping in sunbeams, jumping up on things he wasn’t supposed to, and regular meals of the most exquisite flavors the planet had to offer, JoJo had come to be fond of his humans. Sort of. In truth, they irritated him to a great degree, but he didn’t dare dream of a world where the humans were any more subservient than they already were.

The answer was clear. “They have weapons. Awful weapons that could obliterate our forces with the flick of a claw. We may be able to find weaknesses in them, but we’ll need… thousands more years if we are to have any hope of taking this planet for our own.”

The leader considered JoJo’s words, punctuated her contemplation with a deep yawn that exposed her sharp teeth, and then returned to a default feigned docility. “Very well. Return and tell the cats what we discussed. Your mission will continue.”

“Meow,” JoJo told the leader.

“Meow,” the leader replied.

You might ask me how I know all of this. Well, all I can say to that degree is that you should take extra care to feed your own cats at the time they prefer. In a thousand years, it might mean the difference between life and death.

Meow.

 Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 028: "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hellhound: Part Two"

For Part One of this story, click here

 

3. What Did She Just Say?

 

“What did she just say?” I asked. I didn’t particularly care who answered me.

Shirley ignored me. Strode ignored me. The half-crazed woman from the inn—Ms. Telson—shot me a rueful glance, and then ignored me. Once again, I should have known better.

“Johnny, please,” Shirley chided me. She took the current wad of gum out of her mouth and jammed it under the nearby windowsill of room one at the Baskerville Inn. There was more than enough to keep her attention now; she’d have no need to chew a stick until she got bored again. “Tell me more about these dogs of yours.”

Telson took a harsh step towards Shirley. “Do you mean you believe me?”

“Hardly,” Shirley said. “But I’m reasonably certain that someone doesn’t burst through a door talking about demonic dogs for absolutely no reason. Your raving—er, information—may be useful.”

Talking through her tight, offended expression, she gave us the skinny. Ever since Mr. Baskerville had moved the hotel closer to the the newly opened highway, guests were checking out in the middle of the night, claiming to hear spooky howling from the cars making their way beyond. This might not have been enough to get people back on the road before daylight, but when they saw a glowing, four-legged figure approach the inn from the road, all bets were off.

Yeah, I didn’t think it wasn’t much help, either.

Shirley unwrapped another piece of gum. “Very well,” she remarked. “I need two rooms for the night. One for myself, the other for Johnny. We will uncover the true nature of your paranormal canines, Miss Telson. I trust you will cover our expenses, Strode?”

Strode hadn’t expected the question. “Uh… Uhh…”

“Very good.” Shirley walked out toward the parking lot and stared at the highway beyond. What she could have hoped to get from the road in broad daylight? Beats the hell out of me.

“Shirley,” I pleaded. “I was with you when you brought down the red-headed communist sleeper cell.”

“Yes. I remember. There’s never been a problem with my memory.” She kicked some gravel aside with her feet.

“And I was with you when that polka dotted rope turned out to be a venomous python.” 

She added two fresh sticks of gum to the one she was already chewing. She was definitely working on something, and I couldn’t help but wonder if my continued pestering was splitting her attention. It didn’t stop me, but I did wonder about it.

And I was with you when Old Man Mortimer pushed you off the edge of that water tower.”

“I have some vague suspicion that you are trying to make some kind of point.” The gum bubble she had blown was nearly the size of her head.

“This thing spooks the hell out of me, and I don’t want to be here when the sun goes down.”

“Nonsense,” Shirley said. It looked as if she had gotten all the information needed. She walked towards me. “You are vital to my process.”

“Aw, thanks,” I said.

“Yes. I often find myself needing to speak to someone less intelligent. It helps clarify my own thinking. I’m very close to a solution in this particular matter, and this conversation has been extremely helpful.”

She walked past me and to her room. 

“Th-thanks.” I said.

 

4. In the Face of the Hellhound or The Conclusion of The Case

 

Just after midnight, the howling began. I leapt out of my lumpy new bed and out the front door of my room. I was alone in the night air, aside from the glowing spectral form of the hellhound of Baskerville Inn.

I was completely speechless, which only made the next voice I heard more frightening.

“Johnny,” Shirley called from the open door to her own room. I flinched, thinking her voice was the dog’s. “I don’t think the creature means us any harm.”

“It’s glowing,” I breathed.

“I can see that, yes,” Shirley said. “Let the dog come to us.”

Surely enough (no pun intended), the dog meekly approached us. Once it was clear of the large floodlights dotted across the highway, it looked no more spectral than anything else, although it had shock white hair. I pet the delightful little beast, and my hands felt dusty.

“Shirley, this dog’s been covered in some kind of dust,” I wiped the stuff on my pants.

“Yes,” she said. “Phosphorus. It is what caused the creature to appear to glow under the lights of the new highway. Judging by the size of the animal, it didn’t kill anyone.”

I was about to ask how she could possibly know that, but for once, I actually did know better.

“Furthermore,” Shirley continued. “I think we will find that the culprit of these murders is none other than Mister Baskerville himself, assisted by his lover, Miss Telson. She told us that she was terrified of anything happening to the hotel but had no reaction to my placement of gum on the windowsill. Additionally, I think if we searched the home of Mister Baskerville, we might find a stuffed trophy that has the same bite profile as the wounds on the victim. It’s really simple, Johnny. You just have to think about it for a little while.”

“Well, yes,” I said. “When you put it that way, it does seem to be obvious.”

“You see, Johnny? You’re a very real help with my work,” she said, as she picked up the telephone receiver to fill Strode in on her discoveries. “Well, not the carhop thing, but I think you understand what I meant.”

For once, I did.

 

Streetwise tough Johnny W. and Shirley The Car-Hop Detective will return in season 2 of The Fourth Wall, coming soon from Party Now, Apocalypse Later Industries.

 Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly

Flash Fiction Story 027: "You Ain't Nothin' But a Hellhound"

1. Shirley, The Car-Hop Detective

 

“Johnny? Johnny, are you there? I need a ride,” she said. She hated to be in the shop, so I knew she was serious. She claimed that more deadly accidents happened in proximity to auto work than any other profession, but I always suspected that she knew squat about cars and didn’t like not being the smartest person in the room.

“I can’t now, Shirley,” I explained. “I’ve got three oil changes I have to get done before we close up. Can you wait until then?” 

I looked up to see Shirley predictably staying put at the entrance to the shop. She was clad in an angora sweater and poodle skirt. She wasn’t wearing her roller skates, so I knew she was really serious.

She shook her head. “There’s been a murder at the Baskerville Inn. Officer Strode called me in.”

“Shirley, if somebody got killed, I think they’re gonna still be killed if we wait until six,” I said.

“Hmm…” she said. She thought for a long spell and then snapped the gum in her mouth. “It’s an odd reversal of roles for you to try to use logic to flummox me.”

“I know,” I agreed.

“Even though you used it incorrectly.” 

She snapped her gum again. I started wiping the grease from my hands. I didn’t know how yet, but I had a feeling I would be on chauffeur duty soon enough.

“While the cadaver is highly unlikely to regain consciousness, vital clues about the case are likely to be inextricably altered by Strode and his bumbling band,” said Shirley.

“Inextricable, sure,” I said. I honestly didn’t know what she was talking about half the time. “Honestly, Shirley. Give me an hour? I’ll take you then.”

She hoisted a bag of burgers from Baker’s Drive In, her employer. “They’re fresh,” she said. 

She had me. She knew she had me. I grabbed the keys to my T-Bird, and we were off to the Baskerville Inn.

 

2. Officer Strode’s Problem

 

The squad cars surrounding the hotel made me nervous. Having spent some time in one of those sad-sack reform schools—long story, don’t ask—I knew that cops were the first stop to the hard life. I had to remind myself that I was with Shirley, and that probably kept the heat off me for the time being.

The inn had twelve rooms, all of which were unoccupied except room four, which still had cops swarming around it.

“Twelve rooms, twelve vacancies, right, Shirl’?” I asked.

Shirley said nothing. This happened a lot. “We all go a little mad sometimes…” I tried, but she still gave me that blank stare that she used a little too often if you asked me. I gave it all one final shot and flung my arm in a stabbing motion while making the “ree-ree-ree” noise that still woke me up in a cold sweat.

“That’s not a very efficient way to stab someone,” she explained.

“It’s from a movie.”

“Oh,” she said. I should have known better. She didn’t like movies much.

We crossed the crime scene tape and entered room four. It was a horror show, minus the Anthony Perkins. Blood streaked the walls, and the poor sap who had tried to stay the night—or what was left of him—lay slumped over in the nearby closet. Officer Strode hunched over the stiff, trying to look like he was close to solving things. I’m pretty sure even he knew he wasn’t.

“Oh,” Strode said. “You’re here.”

Shirley was indeed here, and she was already working her magic. She ran her finger across the frame of a nearby mirror and took a big old sniff of the dust she retrieved. “Okay. So, he smokes Lucky Strikes, and…” she sniffed again and then eyed the night table. “That means he’s been staying here for the better part of a week. It would also appear that he was attacked by some kind of animal. The animal would be massive.”

Strode frowned, but he didn’t argue. “Come with me.”

We all took the short walk to the inn’s office. “Naturally, Mr. Baskerville would like to resolve this matter as quickly and quietly as possible. That family practically built this town a hundred and fifty years ago. Back then it was a trading village for hunters. His son’s got a decent shot at becoming the next Lieutenant Governor. Hell, the whole family knows the Kennedys pretty well. My ulcer doesn’t need this.”

The door to the office swung open, stopping us dead in our tracks. A woman came through the doorway, and she was dressed to the nines. Capri pants and a starched shirt. Her hair was firm like a flaxen wall. She looked like Marilyn Monroe. And yet, her eyes darted frantically between us, completely betraying the precise image she tried to show us. Nothing had ever terrified me more.

“Officer Strode!” the woman shouted. “Are you prepared to do something about this? If anything untoward happens to this hotel, Mr. Baskerville will hold me personally responsible!”

“Miss Telson, I’ve got my best people on this. I’ve consulted them on a number of cas—”

“Save it, sir. I know who they are,” she proclaimed. “Everyone knows about the carhop and her little pal who can solve any mystery. Everyone also knows the problems here, and why that man was killed. This hotel has been haunted by a pack of dogs from hell, and they’re going to kill us all before the devil retrieves them. Not you, or some greaser and his poodle-skirted pal will be able to save us.”

My eyes went wide, and for some relief I looked to Shirley. She had no expression, beyond snapping a new supply of pink gum. 

“Well,” Shirley said as she resumed chewing. “This case now has my undivided attention.”

 

TO BE CONTINUED IN TWO WEEKS

 Art by Eris O'Reilly

Art by Eris O'Reilly