Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Table of Contents



The posts on this site are now numerous enough for a table of contents to be useful. I’ll update the list and move it to the top with each new post. In the “nonfiction” posts, names and places have been changed in some instances for reasons of privacy or politeness; otherwise, they relate actual events as I remember them.


1.      Smoke Gets in Your Eyes – (Fiction) Prepper gets a chance to use his hideaway when the Calamity happens. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2017/07/smoke-gets-in-your-eyes.html
2.      Gladys All Over (Fiction). Man plays with matches when he hires detective R Farkas to    find an old flame. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2017/02/gladys-all-over.html.
3.      Trick (Fiction). Father/son activity on Halloween. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2016/11/trick.html
4.      What the Devolved Hominid Is Wearing (Fiction). Woman investigates the disappearance of her sister, a tabloid journalist with a theory about Bigfoot. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2016/08/what-devolved-hominid-is-wearing.html
5.      Bequest (Fiction). High school senior gets an unusual tip after giving a man a ride. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2016/04/bequest.html
6.      Circuits Circus (SF). Humans prefer AI robots to each other. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/11/circuits-circus.html
7.      The Longest Date (Fiction). Encounter with an old flame at a speed dating event. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/07/the-longest-date.html
8.      Higgs Boat (SF). An experiment with altering the Higgs field goes badly. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/06/higgs-boat.html
9.      Higher Education (Fiction). Prep school students ruthlessly plan their futures. For one a sense of history proves useful http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-saturnine-solution.html
10.  The Saturnine Solution (SF). During a political revolution on Titan in the distant future, humans question their origins on that world http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2015/02/the-saturnine-solution.html
11.  Cosmic Intruder (SF). Hooligans invade an old man’s home on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain, but don’t get paid off as they intend. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/12/cosmic-intruder.html
12.  Tropic Freeze (SF). During a new Ice Age, a denizen of the snowy north reluctantly sails south with three young charges. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/09/tropic-freeze.html
13.  Cold Dishes (Fiction). A bachelor Great Uncle suddenly marries, and the motive is vengeance. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/04/cold-dishes.html
14.  Lanamite (SF). A playful adventure story of anti-gravity and an unlikely alien invasion. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2014/02/lanamite.html
15.  The Reptile Way (SF). There are people who argue in all seriousness (see David Icke The Reptilian Conspiracy) that the world is run by interdimensional reptiles through human puppets who belong to a particular bloodline. What if they’re right? http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-reptile-way.html
16.  Sidewalk Love (Fiction). A period piece set in 1976 about a boy and his tart. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/10/sidewalk-love.html
17.  Fault Lines (SF). In a near-future of multi-sided civil disturbances and home-printed weapons, rioters consistently blame their victims. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/06/fault-lines.html
18.  Graduation Day (SF/Paranormal). Headmaster of private school in Georgia has transferred consciousness into select students since 1871 in order to recover youth time and again. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/04/graduation-day.html
19.  Through the Looking Glasses (Fiction). In a near-future of universal Virtiglasses (internet-connected glasses with heads-up displays), a suburban high school clique exploits their weaknesses and practices thuggery. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2013/03/through-looking-glasses.html
20.  Horse Sense (Nonfiction). Wipe-Out on horseback. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/horse-sense.html
21.  The Lion’s Share (SF). On distant world, riding the local fauna is a dangerous sport. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-lions-share.html
22.  How to Avoid Work and Flirt with the Butcher (Nonfiction). In 1910 my 10-y.o. grandfather acquires a race horse for $10. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/how-to-avoid-work-and-flirt-with-butcher.html
23.  Model ET (SF). In 1910 boys discover a vehicle unlike any car they had seen before. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/model-et.html
24.  The Roxy Caution (Nonfiction). A lass and a loss on Esplanade. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-roxy-caution.html
25.  Ghillie Suit (SF). A young man in New Orleans learns to be invisible. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/ghillie-suit.html
26.  22 October (Nonfiction). Schooltime bomb drill and the Cuban Missile Crisis. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/october-22-1962.html
27.  Reap the Whirlwind (Fiction). Schooltime bomb drill and the Cuban Missile Crisis. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/reap-whirlwind.html
28.  Wings (SF). Observer created reality. A man conjures up a pterodactyl. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/wings.html
29.  The Final Conquest (Nonfiction). Prep school hijinks: the 1970 raid on the Senior Porch. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-final-conquest.html
30.  Nondomestic (Fiction). Smarter than your average cat. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/nondomestic.html
31.  Wake Up Call (Nonfiction). Learning of the death of an ex. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/wake-up-call.html
32.  Going through the Motions (SF). Love with the perfect robot is disrupted by a crime. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/going-through-motions.html
33.  The Driving Lesson (Nonfiction). New driver fails to distinguish between the brake and the accelerator. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-driving-lesson.html
34.  By the Sound of It (SF). Private space flight and a reluctant pilot. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/by-sound-of-it.html
35.  Window of Opportunity (Fiction). A gruesome accident with a pop star gives a young man a ghoulish opportunity. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/10/window-of-opportunity.html
36.  Straitened Circumstances (PaleoFiction). Modern humans exit Africa c. 70,000BC for less than noble reasons. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/09/straitened-circumstances.html
37.  Dressed to the Nineveh (Historical fiction). Student scribe unexpectedly finds himself in intrigue with the Assyrian throne at stake. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012/05/dressed-to-nineveh.html
38.  Charley’s InQuanto (SF). Afterlife inside a VR game. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2012_02_01_archive.html
39.  Living in Clovis (SF/PaleoFiction). Accidental time travel to prehistoric North America. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_12_01_archive.html
40.  Sky Wheels (or Old Derby Girls Never Die) (SF). Mystery involving roller derby on a space station – a stand-alone sequel to Return of the Judi below. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_10_01_archive.html
41.  The Long Wait (SF). Genetically modified human lives on Mars. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_08_01_archive.html
42.  Temporary Lodgings (SF/Paranormal). Desperate man learns to project his identity into another person. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_07_01_archive.html
43.  Afterglow (SF). 19th century scientist discovers how to extend life through suspended animation. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_06_01_archive.html
44.  Dancing on a Slab (Fiction). Go-go dancer struggles with an abusive relationship. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/dancing-on-slab.html
45.  Lucky (SF/Paranormal). Young man is convinced he is a jinx. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/lucky.html
46.  Soot (SF). Surviving in New Hampshire the day after an asteroid strikes earth. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/05/soot.html
47.   Unravel (SF). Dilettante scientist tries to exploit genetic engineering (and a genetic engineer). http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/04/unravel.html
48.  Blow (Fiction). A night out includes dust-ups involving cocaine. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011_04_01_archive.html
49.  Homework (SF). Student essay written on a moon in a distant star system on the topic of alien life. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/homework.html
50.  Brown Acid (Fiction). Psychedelic artist takes the brown acid at Woodstock and flows with the times. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/brown-acid.html
51.  Scum (SF). Cynical host of a TV show about UFOs and the paranormal gets a surprise. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/scum.html
52.  Not Just for Breakfast (Fiction). Woman tries to free herself from mysterious abductor. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/03/not-just-for-breakfast.html
53.  Snug as a Bug (SF). A remote viewing invention opens a dimensional door. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/02/snug-as-bug_27.html
54.  Deep Fried (Satire). Illegal trade in baked goods. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/02/deep-fried.html
55.  Modern Times (PaleoFiction). Life in southern Africa 100,000 BC. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/01/modern-times.html
56.  Close Counts in Horseshoes (Fiction). Dangerous love in Reno NV. http://richardbellush2.blogspot.com/2011/01/close-counts-in-horseshoes.html


Smoke Gets in your Eyes

“I’ll take point,” said Victor, “and you can ‘lead from the rear.’” Bryce let it pass because this was no time for petty posturing, however much Victor thought it was. At least the hindmost position let him discreetly admire the two young women between Victor and him as their horses climbed the wooded hillside.

“Take the trail to the left!” called out Bryce.

Victor pulled hard on his left rein. Beneath his bravado, Victor was a novice rider who barely could control his animal. A part of Bryce regretted having provided him with a good-natured roan tolerant of neophytes. Bryce knew one mare that liked to scrape riders off against trees. It was a pleasant mental image.

All his adult life people had laughed at Bryce for being a prepper, but he was right and they were wrong. Despite his years of preparation however, the ascent up Black Birch Mountain wasn’t going at all as he had planned. His longstanding evacuation scheme had been simple: stop for no one, hightail it up to his shelter, hunker down, and wait it out – whatever “it” might happen to be. But, no, when the crunch finally crunched he failed to think with his head. Instead, like some hormone-fueled teenager, he delayed his escape to stop at Ella’s house and urge her to come. He barely knew the sandy-haired grad student, but she had caught his fancy the few times they had spent time hanging out at clubs in the company of mutual friends. She had been sociable, but he had no reason to assume she felt any attraction to him. Nonetheless, he had convinced to flee with him. The pungent odor in the air did most of the persuading for him. Then it got complicated. First Ella brought her sister Zoey, who was two years younger. Bryce hadn’t been aware “Zoey” existed. Then Ella insisted on stopping for her boyfriend Victor. Bryce knew Victor existed, but he didn’t know he was Ella’s boyfriend. This must have been a recent development. Victor was a well-muscled good-looking fellow with an annoyingly degree of self-confidence. Bryce knew he should have refused to include him, but his distaste for seeming churlish to Ella delayed his response for so long that a refusal became too socially awkward for him to manage.

As he had expected no one was at the stables. The manager and employees had heeded the civil defense warnings to get inside and stay inside. The horses had been left out in the pastures. The four Bryce chose – his own horse and three others with which he was familiar – didn’t avoid being caught as they commonly did. They smelled something wrong in the air and were ready for human assistance. Victor volunteered to stand watch as Bryce tacked up the horses. The air noticeably worsened in the time this took. It already was burning his lungs when they finally mounted and left for the mountain trails. The delay very nearly had been fatal.

 “Keep to the left,” Bryce called out referring to a large rock outcrop ahead.

“I think we’re better to the right. The trail is better. The left will take us along the cliff,” said Victor.

“Yes, I know! That’s the idea. We want to avoid other people. If there are any, they’ll go right. I’ve been up this way a hundred times. I know the best way to go. Stay left.”

Victor went right. Bryce wasn’t sure it was deliberate defiance. It was possible the horse had chosen for Victor and he didn’t want to appear not to be in command.

“I’m only doing this at all because I’m not letting Ella run off with alone you,” said Victor.

“I thought I brought you,” said Ella.

“I’m here because I don’t trust him,” responded Victor. “The radio stations told us to stay put.”

“While the authorities who delivered that message get out of town or hole up in fortified bunkers with air exchangers,” said Bryce.

“Why do you think you know anything about it?” Victor challenged.

“Because I read.”

“You mean your crazy conspiracy websites.”

“The conspiracy has arrived, hasn’t it?”

“It’s some stinky fumes, that’s all. The radio said they were mildly toxic but survivable if we just stay inside or dampen some cloth to put over our mouths.”

“That won’t help!” insisted Bryce. “They just didn’t want us clogging the roads and choking to death in a big traffic jam. It’s poison gas. It’s not a nerve gas or we’d already be writhing on the ground in our death throes. But it will burn out your lungs and blind you if you stay in it too long. Didn’t you hear what happened in Japan?”

“Won’t it just dissipate?” asked Zoey. “I’m mean, how big a gas bomb could it have been?”

“It’s not a gas bomb,” said Bryce. “I’ve been reading rumors about this stuff on those ‘crazy conspiracy websites’ that explain what that crazy cult set off in Okayama and Okinawa.”

“You mean ‘wildly speculate,’ not ‘explain,’” said Victor.

“I mean ‘explain.’  It’s a catalyst bomb. Some maniac chemists found a way to spread airborne nanoparticles that catalyze atmospheric nitrogen and other atmosphere components to form a poisonous black smog that destroys organic materials. The fairly simple method of manufacturing the nanoparticles was published on the internet, so now the stuff is in the hands of rogue states, terrorists, and apocalyptic cults. Striking back is pretty impossible. Strike back at whom and where? The gas will linger until the catalysts themselves break down.”

“How long will that be?” asked Zoey.

“I don’t know. But the at least the gas is heavy and will cling to the lowlands. My cabin is plenty high enough and it is only accessible by horseback or on foot. Not even an ATV can get there. I brought the construction materials up there piece by piece over the past 10 years. We should have gone to the left.”

“My nose is running,” said Ella.

“It’s the gas. We barely made it out in time.”

“I think this is a mistake,” said Victor

“So, you’ve said repeatedly, said Bryce. “If you insist on going back I won’t stop you.”

“Don’t, Victor,” said Ella. “I’m not going back down there. What if he’s right?”

“Then I’m definitely going with you,” said Victor, immediately re-establishing himself as alpha male. “How long is this foolishness going to take?”

“If by that you mean ‘Are we there yet?’ it will be sunset because we delayed our start,” said Bryce. “If you mean ‘How long will we have to stay on the mountain?’ I don’t know. Weeks at least. Maybe months.

“You expect us to camp out for months?” Victor asked.

“It is not ‘camping out.’ I’ve told you it’s a cabin. It’s not big but it is sturdy and defensible with solar electric panels and water from a mountain spring.”

“What about food?” Ella asked.

“I have supplies for six months… well, a month or two with the four of us. After that there is game and edible plants on the mountain.”

“You are going to hunt game? With what?” asked Victor derisively.

“I have firearms there. They are hidden under floorboards so if any hiker stumble on the place they won’t steal them. But as far as I know no one but me has visited the cabin.”

“Doesn’t sound like you have many friends.”

A bullet sprayed splinters from a tree next to Victor. Victor disappeared from view as his horse had run away with him. Whatever value he might have brought to the group as a bodyguard went with him.

A man in hunter’s camouflage emerged from the woods. He was not armed, which indicated at least one companion remained hidden. “So we’re not the only ones with the brains to head for high ground after all,” he said. “Hello ladies.”

“What do you want?” asked Ella. Bryce could see Zoey eyeing possible escape routes. Bryce scanned the shadows for the sniper.

“To get out of the stink, of course. The mountain is too thickly wooded to drive up, but I hadn’t thought of horses.”

“Sorry we can’t help,” said Bryce.

“I think you mean you won’t help. Now that’s very inhospitable. Bad karma. Charlie, show him what happens to the inhospitable.”

The bullet felt like a sledge hammer to the chest as Bryce dropped to the ground.

“So where are you ladies going?” the fellow asked.

“To his cabin up the mountain,” said Ella pointing back to Bryce.

Bryce’ efforts to inhale were meeting with little success. His vision was oddly fuzzy.

“Really? How convenient. Charlie search him for keys and keep your eye out for the other one.”

“Oh, he is long gone,” said Charlie as he emerged from the woods with a Remington 700.

As his vision faded, Bryce could feel someone rummage through his pockets.

**** ****

The brush of a leafy twig against his face brought Bryce out of his reverie. The gelding surefootedly followed the narrow path to the left of the outcrop as he had done so many every Saturday for the past year in sun, rain or snow. The Big Crunch could arrive in any weather, so Bryce had practiced the ascent in every type. This was an endless source of amusement to the few people who knew of his prepper ways. He had trusted none of them with the precise location of his hideaway, and none had ever pressed him about it. Today was warm and cloudless. Bryce caught a seasonal whiff of honeysuckle. Bryce shook his head at his own sour imagination.

“Damn,” he spoke to himself. “Even in my daydreams I don’t catch a break.” Bryce did not Ella from casual meetings with friends. He had no idea if Ella had a sister, but the fantasy of including one at first had been pleasant. His natural pessimism couldn’t leave it at that, of course. He had to put Victor in the mix and then a couple of random psychopaths until the trail led to the sort of dark place his fantasies usually went. On the other hand, Bryce reminded himself, his pessimism was what had prompted him to build a prep shelter in the first place. It is also what stopped him ever from having invited Ella to join him for real.

Alone, as in every past climb, Bryce prompted his horse through the last row of bushes before his cabin. There were no solar panels, though Bryce often had contemplated installing them. It was a bleak room log cabin with a rudimentary fireplace. There was an intermittent fresh water spring and an outhouse. The cabin overlooked the valley and the town below. The black smoke was thinning but he expected it would linger. No one below the smoke line would survive. That included Ella and Victor. It would be a long six months on the mountain alone.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Gladys All Over

The frosted glass on the door read R. Farkas Investigations. Few people beyond the business owner’s immediate family knew the R stood for Rebecca. Her second-floor space looked as much like a film noir director’s notion of a detective’s office as she had been able to make it. The furniture was vintage 1940s except for her desk, and the desk was custom built to appear a comparable age even as it hid basic 21st century tech. The desk blotter was hinged to swing open thereby revealing a monitor and recessed keyboard. Atop the desk was an intercom disguised as a wooden cased radio.

Farkas had chosen the building in part for its hundred year age. On the second floor, at least, it exuded the right aura – also the right aroma, which was suitably musty. The pine floors had never seen a coat of polyurethane and wouldn’t for as long as she rented the space. The ancient plumbing was a minor inconvenience she was willing to tolerate. The noir similitude wasn’t perfect. Muffled pop music filtered up from below. She could feel the percussion beat with her feet. The music came from a strip club of a very non-upscale variety. Yet, the presence of the club was far from a negative. It gave her clients plausible deniability should they be spotted in the parking lot. Most of them would rather explain being at a strip club than employing a detective – even (perhaps especially) to their spouses. Another advantage to the building was a location that was effectively isolated despite fronting on a highway. The lot, surrounded by used car lots and industrial sites, was far away from residences and the eyes of their inhabitants. She had no sign announcing her agency’s presence either freestanding or on the outside of the building. Except for the name of the municipality, her address was not even listed on her website. Anyone who came to her office did so by appointment made online or by phone. Her office was accessed by a staircase leading up from a solid locked outer door around the corner from the strip club entrance. The door contained no markings other than “2A.”

The radio/intercom bleated.

“Yes?” she said into the speaker.

“It’s Muller. I’m here for our appointment.”

She opened the desk blotter on its hinges and checked the security camera image on the monitor.

“So you are,” she answered. She buzzed the outer door to unlock.

As Muller climbed the stairs, Farkas pulled an attaché case from under her desk and thumbed the six small wheels of its combination lock. The latch snapped open. She removed a sealed oversized envelope large enough to contain a legal-size folder. She dropped the hefty envelope on her desk on her desk, replaced the case beneath her desk, closed the blotter/monitor, and waited. She always preferred to deliver hard copy to clients for security reasons. If clients later scanned them into digital format, that was their decision and, in her opinion, their mistake. Muller knocked on the office door and entered. He was a pudgy middle-age man wearing a fedora hat. Farkas assumed the hat was to disguise his baldness. Her father, not otherwise a vain man, had hidden his glabrous scalp in the same way; when he removed his headgear, her father sometimes would say in false deprecation, “You don’t need a roof on an empty barn.” She never passed this wisdom along to hatted customers.

Muller sat in the wooden chair across from Farkas and shifted uncomfortably in his seat.

He smiled weakly and said, “Something about this is backwards.”

“How so?”

“In the movies isn’t it a gruff middle-aged detective who sits behind the desk when the slinky customer walks in?” he asked.

“I don’t think of myself as gruff, Mr. Muller, and I’d take it as a favor if you didn’t slink.”

“Uh, right. You know, this is a strange location with that club and all. It’s a good thing I’m not married.”

“Yes you are, though I’m aware your divorce will be finalized soon. Even after the property settlement you still will be a wealthy man who can pay my fee – thanks to your inheritance rather than your own business prowess, which might explain a certain lack of hardheadedness. Don’t frown, Mr. Muller. I always investigate my clients. But do you really want to talk to me about this? Because it’s a separate job from the one you hired me for, and I’ll have to start charging you.”

“No, no. What do you have for me on the other matter?”

“By the ‘other matter,’ you mean Gladys. Before we proceed, I want you to recall what I said when you first walked into the office and told me what you wanted,” said Farkas. “This is not 50 years ago when searching for a person typically required real legwork. Today, it is hard not to be visible to simple online searches. The usual search engines and social media were the first things you tried, weren’t they? You came to me only when you failed. Most often, when a client fails, I can succeed without ever leaving my desk. I and other professionals have the tools to sniff out even the most obscure digital footprints. Old-fashioned in-person investigation comes into play only when online traces vanish. But if someone’s digital footprint vanishes completely after a particular date, there are only three possibilities. One, the person is dead but the body is as yet unidentified. Two, records have been systematically scrubbed by one of the handful of organizations with the ability to do it. Three, the person has assumed a completely new identity, often by taking over someone else’s. You should consider the implications of each.

“What if they just left the country for someplace less wired?”

“Then there would be a digital record of hem having done that.”

“It sounds like you turned up nothing. Couldn’t you have told me that over the phone?”

“I have said no such thing.”

“Then you have turned up something.” His eyes focused on the envelope.

“I haven’t said that either. I simply want you carefully to consider consequences before we proceed any further. Believe me when I say I understand your motives and on some level respect them.”

“On some level?”

“Yes. We live in pseudo-cynical times. Mr. Muller. I know it is chic to dismiss romantic love as a fantasy. It isn’t. Of course it exists. People ruin their lives over it. It generates at least fifty percent of my business, for well or ill – usually the latter. So, I don’t doubt that your desire to find your lost Gladys seems ever so romantic to you, especially in light your recently failed marriage. She is the one who got away. She is the star of your youth. The ‘if only.’ Your true love, even if you didn’t treat her that way at the time. You thought of her even as you married your soon-to-be ex-wife, didn’t you? Of course you did. Don’t look so offended. You know what I say is true. I’m not being derisive or mocking. I believe you to be sincere. But this personal myth you’ve created for yourself about the lost Gladys has given your life a bittersweet quality that you enjoy. Can it survive an actual meeting? Are you sure you want to give it up?”

“Thanks for the insight, but you’re a detective, not my therapist.”

“Perhaps you should have consulted one before hiring me. Look Muller, it’s been more than 20 years since you last saw this person. Where is the upside to finding her now? Can she possibly live up to your fantasy? And how do you think she might react to you? Would she be flattered by your interest or consider it a threat? Sometimes ‘tis better to have loved and lost than loved and found.”

“Catchy. You should put that on a bumper sticker.”

“Mr. Muller, I never have made this offer before to any of my clients but I’ll make it now. I’ve put a lot of time, investment, and effort in this case, but I’m willing to forgo taking your final payment if you promise to give up this search now and forever. Just promise, get up, turn around, and walk out the door.”

“Do you always try to talk your clients out of paying you?”

“No. You aren’t listening. I already told you this is a first. Remember what I said about a person who doesn’t want to be found. Think real hard about what sort of reasons she might have: creditors, police, a stalker… I’m sure you can think of others more extreme.”

“Why all the drama? I’m simply looking up an old flame. People do it all the time. Did you find her or not?”

Farkas shook her head and sighed. “I did,” she said.

“Are you refusing to tell me?”

“No, Mr. Muller. I have a personal and professional code that I take very seriously. I do my job and fulfill my contracts. I’m simply urging you to release me from this one.”

“Ms. Farkas…”

“Just ‘Farkas.’”

“OK, Farkas. Are you concerned for your safety for some strange reason?”

“No, I know how to protect myself. I’m concerned for yours, and I’m stretching the limits of confidentiality by saying so. If you walk away and don’t pursue the matter further, this matter ends here – and keep in mind that a renewed search by you or another professional will be visible to those who wish to look for it.

“Then I want to see what you have.”

“I require the remainder of my fee in cash, money order, or cashier’s check,” said Farkas.

Muller removed a bulging letter-size envelope from his pocket held it out to her across the desk.  She took and dropped it into a desk drawer.

“You’re not going to count it?” he asked.

“I’m sure that’s not necessary.” She slid the sealed envelope containing the folder across her desk to within his reach. “Everything you want to know about Gladys – which is not her current name as you might have guessed – is in there including all contact information. Please don’t open it until you have left the property. This concludes our business.”

 “You want me simply to trust you about the contents?” he said.

“Don’t you?”

“Yes, I suppose I do.”

“In that case, best of luck, Mr. Muller.”

“Thank you for your help.”

“No need for thanks.”

Muller tucked the oversized envelope under his arm, walked out of the office and closed the office door behind him.

As he descended the stairs, Farkas reached to the window-treatment strings and blinked the Venetian blinds. Almost instantly her desk phone rang. The caller ID blocked the number. She picked up.

“I’m sorry,” said Farkas, “but he was persistent, and is now in possession of the information…‘Why?’ Because he paid for it. I fulfill my contracts as I’ve already explained. He is on his way downstairs at this moment and will be the next person exiting the outer door. Yes, your bitcoin transfer satisfies everything. This concludes our business.” She hung up the phone.

 “Goodbye, Mr. Muller,” she said to herself.

She felt sad for Muller but business was business. She always fulfilled her contracts. 

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Trick

Carter had completed his Grim Reaper with a scythe that originally belonged to his grandfather. His robe was fashioned from an old black graduation robe. He never previously had picked up a needle and thread for any project more ambitious than sewing a button back on a jacket, but his home-fashioned hood fit well; he had reasons not to have purchased a ready-made costume where he might be remembered. The rubber skull mask was store-bought, but it was old and he hadn’t worn it in years, so no one would associate it with him. Carter’s 11-year-old son Keith walked alongside him. Keith was a ghoul, which seemed a suitable sidekick for Death.

Halloween had changed. When Carter was a boy he had roamed the streets with a half dozen of his friends without adult supervision. Only the smallest children back then were accompanied by parents. Now all of them younger than teens were, though not many older children were in evidence this night. Carter suspected older kids, even in disguise, balked at going out in the company of parents. Carter understood that point of view but he understood the parents’ view too. He knew all too well their reason. It was the reason why he accompanied Keith tonight. His own house necessarily was dark for the evening. He hoped no pranks worse than soaped windows would be played on it while he and Keith were out.

Carter and Keith climbed the three porch steps of the 1940s-era suburban house that looked like a suitable home for Andy Hardy. The householder had shown some artistry with the pumpkin, which grinned and slyly winked an eye. It sat on a milk box, which likely was as old as the house. Carter wondered if anyone under 40 knew what a milk box was. He looked around to be sure they were unobserved and then pressed the doorbell.

“OK, son, don’t be too eager. Wait for the moment.”

“I feel ridiculous this outfit. It’s not really cool,” said Keith.

“It’s Halloween. Are you worried some girl might recognize you?”

“Not until now, Thanks, dad.”

Malsworth opened the door and smiled. He was a paunchy middle age man with round glasses and a pleasant face. He held a plastic orange bucket with his left hand.

“Ho there,” said Malsworth. “Death comes calling. And his helpmate.”

“Trick or treat,” said Keith.

“Under the circumstances I’ll definitely go with treat.” He held out the bucket, which was full with a variety of chocolates. “You know, you’re my first callers. I was beginning to think I’d have to eat it all this candy myself.”

“I’ve heard about razors in candy,” said Keith.

Malsworth laughed. “Have you? I’m afraid there aren’t any in mine. You’ll have to mix in those yourself.”

“How about this one?” asked Keith. He pulled an old-fashioned folding straight razor out of his tote bag and flipped open the blade.

Carter shoved the man backward into the foyer. The bucket flew in the air and scattered candy bars inside the house. Malsworth grunted as he landed on his back atop a green and white Persian carpet. He and Keith quickly entered the house and slammed the door behind them.”

Malsworth sat up and tried to catch his breath. “What the hell…?”

A swipe of Carter’s scythe caught Malsworth on the temple. Carter had intended a hit just with the flat of the blade but it struck with enough of an angle to cut the scalp. Blood gushed. Malsworth fell over on his side, stunned but still conscious. Keith positioned his razor under the man’s throat.

“I suggest you stay quiet and don’t try to fight us while I tape your hands and legs together,” said Carter. “Do you understand?”

“Yes,” said Malsworth in a low voice. “Take what you want. I don’t have anything valuable but…”

“You obviously don’t understand what I meant by ‘quiet.’ Just nod yes or no. Keith, nick his chin to make the point.”

Keith cut a little deeper than Carter intended but Carter let it pass. “Do you understand now?”

Malsworth nodded.

“Good.”

Carter removed a roll of duct tape from Keith’s tote and wrapped several layers around Malsworth’s ankles. He rolled Malsworth on his face and taped the man’s hands behind his back. He rolled him face up again. The doorbell rang.

“Crap.” He slapped a piece of tape over Malsworth’s mouth. “Keith, hold the razor to his throat again. If he moves or makes a sound, cut it. Did you understand what I told him, Malsworth?”

Malsworth nodded.

Carter gathered up a few candy bars from the floor, put it in the orange bucket and cracked open the front door.

A costumed 9-year-old stood on the porch next to her un-costumed mother. The woman took a step back at the sight of the skull face but then smiled, and said, “Oh my.”

“Not to worry. I haven’t come for either of you tonight.”

“Good to know,” she said.

“Hi sweetie,” said Carter to the girl. “I’m Mr. Malsworth. Let me guess, you’re Xena? Good choice. Always fight back. Here. Take a handful.”

Her mother frowned but said “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. Be safe.”

Carter waited until they were out of sight and then turned off the porch light. He wanted no more interruptions.

“Mike Malsworth… May I call you Mike?”

Mike nodded.

 I don’t want you to think that you are the victim of some random psychopath, much as there would be a certain poetic justice in that. Oh no, we sought you out specifically. Oh, you look as though you have something to say. Keith don’t slit his throat so long as he speaks quietly. But the moment he raises his voice…” Carter drew a finger across his own throat.

Keith smiled and said, “Gotcha.”

Carter ripped the tape off Malsworth’s mouth. “Now, what’s on your mind, Mike?”

“Why are you doing this? Who are you?”

“Let me tell you a story. Don’t worry, it’s short. On a Halloween four years ago my wife went out with our daughter, who was a little younger than the ghoul holding a razor to your throat is now. That year he was sick with the flu and was very upset he couldn’t join his older sister and mom. He was lucky – the only lucky member of our family that night. You see, they never came back. Well, the remains of my wife were recovered from a drainage canal about a month later, but my daughter was never found.”

“I’m sorry, but what has this to do with me?”

I don’t know if you’re the sick SOB who did it – if you personally are the reason Keith doesn’t have a sister, but it was a scumbag very much like you. You’re the sex-offenders database and you happen to live the closest to my own house. So, you get the pleasure of our company. Should we start with castration?”

“No.”

“No? You know, I’m afraid you’re probably right. That might give the police a clue about motive. So let’s make things look more random and Halloweeny. We’ll start cutting the ears and fingers, and then piece by piece until you bleed to death. How does that sound. It will take some time, but at the end the world will be a better place.”

“Listen to me,” pleaded Malsworth. “You don’t understand. I never hurt anybody. I’m on the list because on my 18th birthday my girlfriend was 15 and we…you know. The age of consent was 16. In another four months on her birthday we would have been legal. We were kids in love. Her parents found out and pressed charges. She refused to testify, but I was convicted anyway. It was 30 years ago. But I’m still on the list.”

“Sounds to me as though you should have waited four months. Besides, you’re probably lying. And I don’t want to hear any more of it. Now, don’t try to fight because maybe I’m just trying to scare you and I’ll leave you alive and mostly unharmed if you cooperate.”

Carter duct-taped the man’s mouth shut again, this time wrapping the tape around the man’s head.

“Sorry, Mike. I’m not just trying to scare you and you are going to be harmed a lot. Now, to work.”

Carter removed a second razor from the tote. Malsworth’s eyes went wide with terror.

Carter said, “Keith, you start on the left side, I’ll take the right.”

The Persian pattern first turned red but slowly browned as blood drained into it and dried. Body pieces were tossed onto the hardwood beyond the edge of the carpet. Keith on his own initiative began to work on Malsworth’s face, making it look as much like his jack-o-lantern as possible.

Carter put a hand on Keith’s shoulder. “Crap, I think he died on us already,” said Carter. “Might as well stop. He can’t feel it now.”

“That was fun.”

“As that may be, the important thing is that we rid the world of one monster. As soon as the coast is clear outside we’ll leave. We’ll have to burn our costumes when we get home. It’s a nice night for a fire in the fireplace.”

As the two walked home, few trick-or-treaters remained on the sidewalk, and none of them gave Keith and Carter a second look. Many were covered in faux blood themselves. Keith gave each passerby a second look however. He contemplated picking out this one or that for his own reasons next Halloween.


Tuesday, August 9, 2016

What the Devolved Hominid Is Wearing

Elle’s GPS map told her that she was not driving on a road. In fairness to the technology, the lane beneath her wheels had ceased to be asphalt several miles back and didn’t appear on most paper maps either. The satellite images of her location on her cell phone weren’t much more helpful. It was hard to pick out roadways beneath the foliage in the forested Bitterroot Mountains. The images did show a cluster of buildings nearby. She assumed this was the Braxton country house. A driveway better maintained than the “road” appeared ahead on the right. Elle turned onto it.

Twists in the driveway took her out of sight of the road, not that she had encountered any traffic on it anyway. After another bend she faced closed security gates. She pulled up to a small speaker on a post at window height. Before she could push the button on the box a voice from it demanded, “State your name and business.”

“Hello. My name is Elle Brinke. I believe Mr. Axwood met my sister Emma. She’s a journalist. I’m sorry to intrude but I want to ask him some questions.”

“You should have checked with my representatives instead of showing up at my vacation home. My office isn’t hard to find.”

From “my,” Elle knew she was speaking to Brent Axwood himself, a very rich and somewhat eccentric software entrepreneur. She had known little about him before looking him up on Wikipedia. She learned that for several years after making his fortune he had taken up a peculiar hobby: he showed a Houdini-like delight in debunking spiritualism, alien abductions, Bigfoot sightings, and claims of the paranormal in general. Then he suddenly seemed to lose interest in such matters. While not a recluse, he became much less available to the media. He was single. Whatever romantic liaisons might be, he was discreet about them.

“I tried,” said Elle. “I don’t think anyone passed along my request to see you.”

“Then they did their jobs.”

“I know you met with sister.”

“I remember. She showed up unannounced, too. It’s a family trait apparently.”

“You do know she is missing. Her car was found somewhere nearby.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I’ve already spoken to the state police about it.”

“They haven’t told me anything. Please, I’d really like to talk to you.”

“We are talking.”

Elle didn’t respond but didn’t leave either. After a few moments motors hummed and the gates swung open.

“Very well. Come on up,” he said.

The driveway snaked for half a mile before the main house came into view. A neo-prairie house style ranch, it was dwarfed by several warehouse structures arranged in an unaesthetic pattern. Open bays on one of the warehouses revealed a helicopter and a Jeep. Axwood stood outside the front door of his house. She recognized him from his online photos. He was shorter than she had imagined and more grey-haired than his pictures. Nonetheless he still retained some boyish features. He wore blue jeans and a denim shirt. Elle stopped next the front walk. Axwood walked up to the driver side window. She slid it open.

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. Axwood.”

“Yes, well we’ll see how long that continues. Call me Brent. Come inside, but leave your cell phone in your car.”

“Excuse me?”

“I don’t want you recording anything unless and until I choose to allow it. You can leave the cell phone or drive away.”

Elle let her phone remain in its dashboard holder. She tried to hide her unease with a joke. “I feel like I’m in one of those cheap horror movies in which the college kids get picked off one by one at an isolated estate. They never have cell service.”

“One always survives to tell the tale,” he answered, “so you should be golden.”

Axwood stepped back to let her open the car door and then led the way into the house.

The aroma of frequently used wood-burning fireplace was strong even though it was early summer. The most recent fire likely was at least a month earlier. The interior of the home was woodsy with rough-sawn paneling and cedar ceilings. She followed Brent into the living room. The white leather furniture clashed with the rustic architecture. He sat on one leg of a sofa’s ell and gestured to her to sit on the other.

“So tell me why you want to talk to me,” he said. “I’ve already spoken to the police. I don’t see how I can help. Your sister came here, asked a lot questions of the sort I would expect from a tabloid journalist, and left. There’s really nothing more to say.”

“I’m following up leads on my own because I don’t think the police are taking this case seriously.”

“Search teams scoured the woods for days around where her car was found. They looked pretty serious to me.”

“And then they just gave up.”

“I’m sure they haven’t. Has it occurred to you that your sister might have staged her evanishment as part of some publicity stunt for a story? You do know she was investigating alien sightings.”

“I know she was coming here to see you. She texted me excitedly about it. And the GPS records on her phone shows that this was the last place she stopped before she drove up into the woods.”

“So the police have spoken with you after all.”

“Not enough. Could you please indulge me? What did Emma speak to you about?”

“Very well. Emma told me she was a reporter for The Plutonian Guardian. That was a lie.”

“No it wasn’t. She told me she was writing a story for them, too.”

“Not exactly. She didn’t work for them – or for anyone else. I knew that before her car reached the house. The cameras at the gate read her license plate and my security software did a background check. All of us have a big digital footprint nowadays. I know, for example that you are 31, divorced, and an accountant with a credit score of 725. I knew that before the gates opened. She was writing freelance, as she later admitted when I confronted her. Given her subject matter she had hopes that tabloid would print it. She might have been right about that.”

“Yet you talked to Emma anyway,” said Elle.

“Yes. Actually, if she had been a paid reporter I’d have refused. She piqued my curiosity.”

“You say she wanted to talk to you about aliens? I thought she was investigating an old crime or something.”

“She tied them together. An anniversary of an event that is fairly well-known locally is coming up and she thought she could milk the story for more. It involved a missing person case and a supposed alien abduction. Emma developed this theory that the crime was related to aliens – to Bigfoot and cattle mutilations, too.”

“That’s ridiculous.”

“Of course it’s ridiculous,” he said. “I doubt she believed any of it, but she was hoping to get published anyway.”

“What was this local case about?”

“In 1988 a teenage girl named Janice Ann Morely went camping with her boyfriend named Tom Braxton. It was close to where your sister’s car was found. Janice came back alone. She said she’d been assaulted by aliens and knocked unconscious but that they had left her behind. She didn’t know what happened to her boyfriend but thought that maybe he had gone with them. Police, needless to say, were skeptical. No body ever was found so no charges were brought against Janice. A decade ago when I still bothered debunking stories like this, I came here because of this same local legend. I stayed because I like the countryside. It was the first time I’d been in these mountains. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”

“Was your earlier investigation why Emma wanted to talk to you?”


“Yes. Back then I spoke to Janice Morely who by then was a stout woman in a flowered muumuu and brassy dyed blonde pixie cut. She lived in a small decrepit house outside Boise. I Listened to her nonsense and then came up here to see the scene itself, but while I was interviewing the locals it dawned on me that what I was doing was pointless. People will believe what they want to believe, sense and evidence be damned. It’s when I dropped debunking paranormal claims and cryptozoology and all that.”

“You decided people are too stupid to bother with?”

“Just the opposite. Truly stupid people couldn’t reason so convolutedly or amass quasi-evidence to argue their case. People are too smart for their own good. They are able to convince themselves of anything.”

“Did you tell this to Emma?” asked Elle.

“Yes, but she wanted my quotes anyway. She said they would make her story ‘balanced.’ Emma had spoken to Janice Morely also. The woman told her about me, which is why she looked me up. Then Emma told me her truly outlandish hypothesis. She speculated that homo floriensis is still alive and is hiding in forests and isolated areas around the world – that they’ve learned to avoid modern humans for their own safety but that sometimes they get curious.”

“Homo floriensis?

“It’s a dwarf homo erectus that coexisted with modern humans. Fossils have been found on a small island in the East Indies. She proposed that early peoples took them along on their journeys – including to the Americas – as pets, talismans, mascots or something. She proposed that they are still here and that Bigfoot is really Smallfoot – a three foot tall creature who only seems big when so far away that there isn’t a good way to judge proper proportion. She also said they account for tales of trolls, leprechauns, and aliens. Even though their heads are small, she suggested the heads would look big if you woke up in a tent to see one staring in your face from a few inches away. She said cattle mutilations could be explained by their stone tools, which are very harps and well made.”

“You’re kidding.”

“No, and I don’t doubt her story would have been printed. It has all the right elements. I wish she were right, to tell you the truth. Modern people can’t be trusted with guardianship of the earth. We need to return to the primitive,” he said.

“Isn’t that a rather odd view for the owner of a tech company – someone with a personal helicopter in his garage?”

“Precisely. None of us can be trusted. Not even those of us with the best of intentions,” said Axwood. “Not even me.”

“OK, I think we are getting off topic. So, what do you think happened to Emma?”

“I don’t know. But the woods are full of wild animals: bears, coyotes, cougars, and wolves. They do sometimes attack people.”

“That’s horrible.”

“That’s nature.”

“I wish to put this delicately,” said Elle. “Did the police search your property?”

“Indeed they did. I’m sure there are police reports on file to confirm that.”

“Good point. Do you know where the car was found?”

“Yes, roughly. Go out of my driveway and turn right. The road gets rough but it should be passable. About 8 miles ahead turn left onto a narrow wood road. Emma’s car was found there. It’s where Janice and Tom camped too.”

“Thank you for your help. Just one more thing. Do you stay up here alone?”

“Often. But sometimes there are mechanics and groundskeepers. Sometimes I have guests.”

“Was anyone else besides you here the day Emma talked to you?”

“You want to know if someone from here might have followed her. No guests or employees were here on my estate that day. The police asked that question too. I suggest you get a copy of the report.”

“OK. Thanks again.”

Brent walked Elle back to her car. He could see the relief on her face when she started the engine. She really had been spooked by the situation.

As Elle drove away Brent returned to his living room. Two unclothed hairless creatures entered. They knew not to show themselves when visitors were present. Neither was more than a meter in height. The body shapes below the neck were fully human though the heads seemed too small for the bodies. The male held a stone chopper in each hand. He clicked the choppers together as though asking a question about Elle.

“No. You can let that one go. I had to tell her the truth in case Emma had done so already, but she doesn’t believe Emma’s theory and won’t be writing any articles about it.” This was too complex for the creatures, so Brent shook his head and repeated, “No, Hamlet.” It amused him to give them Shakespearean names.

The male looked disappointed but nodded and left. Brent waved to the female. “Here Portia.”

She approached and sat down beside him. Brent envied her naturalness. He long ago had ceased feeling guilty about their relationship. She didn’t seem to mind it.

It was amazing what modern people would do for money, and what was coming out of the biolabs he financed would return the earth to its rightful owners soon. The florienses were naturally immune, while the vaccinations co-developed along with the pathogens would keep him safe; the lab technicians probably thought it was some scheme of his to sell vaccinations, but he had no intention of doing that. He had plans for eliminating the technicians, too. Brent scratched Portia behind the ear. With his leadership, Brent would make sure that humanity would get back to nature.