Saturday, September 10, 2016

"Plowshares to Swords"

Fargold had tended fields for far too long.

He had convinced himself years ago that the work he was doing was important. And it had been and easy lie to believe. There was, after all, no more practical crop to farm that beluga tubers. They were  naturally repellent to pests as they grew underground, and they thrived in nearly any weather. They sometimes grew large enough to feel a medium-sized man for an entire day, and were rich enough in nutrition that the same medium-sized man would need little else in his diet to live a life relatively free of any major vitamin deficiencies.

The famine had been enough reason, for many a year, to convince Fargold that the work he spent his fourteen waking hours of the day devoted to was worthwhile. And then, it had been most worthwhile; without his crops, his tiny village would have probably disappeared off the face of the map. Most maps of the realm of Jolk already didn't include the village of Barker; succumbing to famine would have been the last straw to ensure that all memory of Barker was blown away like a wisp of smoke, without a single landmark left to represent it or its people.

Of course, it would have been pride for Fargold to take complete credit for the survival of Barker during the Great Famine. All recognition he gave to Orrumatar.

Fargold had been raised with the stories of the Divinity On High, of the battles of the Powers That Be and what had been won for mankind. He knew the tales well, even if he hadn't personally read them for many years. During the battles, Orromatar, the Horseman, had rode into battle as the as many of the lesser Powers retreated, rallying their spirits for final victory. These days, Orromatar represented strength and honor and, most importantly, duty. Orromatar taught that a man always did his duty, no matter the cost to himself. And that was what Fargold did during the famine.

It was good work. It had meant something. It hadn't been a lie, then.


Monday, August 1, 2016

Snoop Private Investigation... on the move!

Carlotta had never been one for accepting sympathy.

She had grown up in an era where women weren't expected to show weakness. In fact, women hadn't been expected to show much of anything at all, as far as she had been able to tell from her mother. It was the bottles of Old Granddad that she'd kept hidden from from her husband, Carlotta's father, that had told her the true story.

When she'd burned her bra one semester at Stanford and spent the night in the police lock-up with the rest of her sorority sisters, she'd felt truly free for the first time. Of course, it had nothing to do with the lack of support of her breasts, but with the feeling of fighting convention, kicking the status quo right in the balls.

When she'd married Louis, everyone had assumed that she'd married for money. There was no doubt that success was attractive, but Louis' money had been the farthest thing from her mind when she'd accepted his proposal. It wasn't his fault that the world had been so in need of the cream he'd developed to cure hemorrhoids. He's simply "seen a gap in the market that needed filling", as he'd put it.

But it was in these moments, while Louis was working in the asshole lab (his name for it), without the need for her to find a job of her own, when Carlotta had discovered her true passion.

Carlotta had a nose for snooping.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 3" - a Winters/Casey case file.

I've not done as well as I would have liked, keeping with my 'one new blog post every week' New Years resolution. But even though it's been a month coming, here's the final installment in "Diamond in the Rough"!

If you haven't checked them out, Diamond in the Rough parts One and Two are necessary reading for this installment. Be sure to check them out!

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"Michael Powers and Bahir Al-Alakari," Casey repeated as she frantically filled out the report of what Horatio Younger had told us.

I would have volunteered to help her write the report, but I still had no idea how to use most of the new electronic gadgetry that ruled life in 2076. I was barely able to operate my cell phone. Which, lucky me, had been enough. Minutes after we'd left the interrogation room with Younger I'd placed a call to Homeland Security and told them the situation with Scour.

If what Younger told us was true, Scour had the potential to do far greater things than removing nude selfies from the internet. With the ability to permanently delete nearly anything from the internet, Scour was nearly priceless. But something told me that at least one of the developers had already placed a price on it, and for all we knew it could be headed for the hands of the highest bidder at that moment.

Any government could become an oppressive regime, when those in power had the ability to silence the common people. An already oppressive regime could become a totalitarian state virtually overnight.

So part of this case was now officially above our pay grade. But the nearest Homeland Security office was halfway across town, and the afternoon traffic rush would slow them down getting to the precinct. Until they coordinated their efforts and sent an agent over to work with us, NYPD had jurisdiction.

Homeland Security was already in the process of putting some of their top people from the cyber crimes division on locating the remaining Scour app, as well as locating the hardware that had been used to create it. As far as we knew, Scour only had the power to delete any form of media. There was no guarantee that the app itself wasn't leaving some kind of data trail, and that was apparently the angle they were going to work.

As for me and Casey, we had two suspects to find.

Once we had their names, it didn't take long for me and Casey to find workplaces, finger prints, DMV records, and even birth certificates of our two suspects. Or, at least, it didn't take long for us to find the information on Bahir Al-Akari.

As far as out databases were concerned, Michael Powers didn't exist.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 2" - a Winters/Casey case file

I'm a few weeks behind the cuff on this one, but part two is finally complete! If you haven't read 'Diamond in the Rough, Part 1' yet, be sure to check it out before reading this one.

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The bell on the door of Diamond Brothers Coffee nearly flew off its chain as Casey and I whipped it open and charged inside. The two men we were after were pushing their way into the back of the store. One of them grabbed the edge of a wooden table and threw it behind them, blocking their path and sending coffee cups cascading across the floor. Patrons screamed.

"Around the back. Head them off," Casey commanded, hooking her thumb out the door. She sprinted after them, narrowly dodging a puddle of mocha latte.

Most people in New York simply want to be left alone; they want no business of yours, and want you to keep out of theirs. So most people will get out of your way if you're running down the street with a total hard-ass look on your face. That goes double if you have a badge.

No one stepped in my path as I darted back out the door and into the chilly March air. My coat whipped at my ankles as I ran past confused people on the sidewalk. At the end of the block I turned left down the nearest alley, where the service and delivery door to the coffee shop would be. Sure enough, as I started down the dingy corridor, a grey metal door a few dozen yards down the alley flew open and two men stumbled out, frantically trying to get away from a crazed lady copy hot on their heals.

I turned my running gate into a cautious sidle. My gun whipped up on instinct, but I didn't remove the safety. "Don't do it," I called, my voice steady. "You're under arrest for vandalism and disturbing the peace. Resisting arrest won't make it any better."

At that moment, Casey emerged from the back of the restaurant. She had her hand on her gun, too, but it hadn't yet left its holster. "You didn't even give us a chance to talk, guys. Don't you know that running is pretty much the most guilty-looking thing you can do?"

"We didn't do anything," Horatio Younger, the second victim in a series of break-ins Casey and I were investigating, stammered. He raised his pale, fish belly-colored hands. He was shaking so hard that it made his double chin tremble.

"Shut up," Frederick Watson, the other man, said. "They haven't even read us our rights yet."

"Come on, Fred, don't be like that," I said. "You and I shared a beer at last summer's community party. No sense on being uncivil."

My downstair's neighbor pressed his mouth into a thin line. "I'm not saying anything without a lawyer," he replied.

Casey and I gave each other a look. Then she whipped out her cuffs and shackled the two men together as I read them their rights.



Monday, April 11, 2016

"Diamond in the Rough, Part 1" - a Winters/Casey case file

My brother, Aaron is a great writer and a creative sonofagun. I've linked to many of his creative endeavors in earlier posts, so you know what I mean if you've check them out. If not, be sure to visit his Tumblr page  and also check out his creative blog, because he posts great stories and cartoons. They're worth sharing.

Anyhow, this story actually starts Toby Winters and Sandra Casey, two detectives he created. I got an idea for a short story, and he was nice enough to loan me his characters for this post.


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My cell phone alarm woke me, but not at first. I managed to tune out what I'm pretty certain was three or four minutes of ringing before my brain couldn't stand it any longer. I slapped blindly on the nightstand for my phone, searching for the 'snooze' button. Ten seconds after squinting at the screen, I realized that my phone was actually ringing. It was fifteen minutes before my alarm was scheduled to go off.

The screen said, "Sandra Casey," and was accompanied by a picture of a woman with curly brown hair, caught in a rare smile that graced her normally no-nonsense countenance. 

I swiped the phone with my finger and tapped the phone to speaker mode. "You know, my alarm isn't supposed to go off for another fifteen minutes." 

"Your lazy ass is still in bed, Toby?" Casey snarked in reply. A siren wailed in the distant background of the call. 

"Didn't get to sleep until after one o'clock," I grumbled in reply. "The people in the room next to mine wouldn't shut up." 

"Knockin' boots all night, huh?" Casey laughed. She sipped what sounded like a cup of coffee. Not that a cup of coffee sounded a certain way; it's just that I knew Casey always had a cup of coffee in her hand at this time of morning. 

"I wish," I grumbled. "Then they might have at least given it a rest after forty-five minutes. These idiots just had their TV up too loud and wouldn't shut the hell up about the show's storyline. Spoiler alert, if you're a fan of Seattle Mercy Hospital: Jonathan Mercy is in a coma." 

"Oh my god, spoilers!" Casey yelled, her tone dead serious. "I am going to kill you when I see you! And that had better be soon, by the way. There's been another break in, and the chief wants us to check it out. I'm already here." 

I pulled myself into a sitting position. Dim morning light snuck into the room beneath the hotel room's thick curtain, changing the furniture into indistinct gray blurs. "How did you get there so early? Did the chief call you first without calling me?" 

"He knows you've been having a rough time, since you had to move into Chez Shady," Casey went on. "Chief told me to call you a little later, to make sure you were one-hundred percent before coming in." 

I kicked free of the hotel's thick comforter and placed my feet on the floor. "Thanks to Seattle Mercy Hospital, I'm only around eighty-five or ninety. But if you can have another cup of coffee there waiting on me, I'll give you one-hundred and ten." 

"Done," Casey replied, another rare smile in her words. "I'l send the GPS to your phone. See you in thirty?" 

"Thirty," I replied, and she ended the call.




Tossing my phone on the bed, I yawned, stretched, and raked my fingers through my blonde hair. I said, "Room, on," and the lights warmed to life, slowly growing until they filled the room. Thirty seconds later the television came on, automatically tuned to the channel I selected when I booked the room. 

"That's still weird," I mumbled as I headed for the shower, which was already running. 

There were a lot of things I wasn't used to about 2076. Mostly because I missed the last sixty years, cryogenically frozen. It'd been the better part of two years since I'd woken up. In that time, I'd managed to land a steady job as a detective, a fairly nice apartment in a fairly nice part of town, and was hopefully on deck for a promotion pretty soon. There were a lot of things from my previous life, though, that I hadn't been able to recreate. 

Like my name. Or who I was. Or where I grew up. Or who my family was. Hell, if I even had a family. 

I'd been christened Toby, or October, by the people who found me frozen in some secret government project. They'd given me the last name 'Winters', because it had been an unusually cold October that year. So, like it or not, Toby Winters I became. 

It was only by a series of lucky coincidences that I was able to land the job as detective. If I screwed it up, I'd be lucky to find a position washing dishes somewhere, what with no official education or credentials, since none of those things seemed to survive the freezing process with me. 

So when I told Casey I'd met her in thirty, it had to be thirty. 

When I climbed out of the shower I looked for the hotel's phone, to call the front desk and tell them I'd be stepping out early so they could send the maid. Then I remembered my 2076 hotel room didn't have a phone. So, as I pulled on my pants and buttoned my shirt, I opened the hotel chain's app, logged in with my thumb print, and punched the screen a few times to let them know. 

Four days ago there was a fire in the apartment beneath mine. It damaged a dozen apartments in the building, mine included, so the super had put us up in hotel rooms until the damage could be repaired.  For all the advancements the world had made since I had been frozen, no one had though to make hotel beds any more comfortable. 

I couldn't wait to get back to my apartment. 

Twenty-eight-minutes and change later, I stepped out of an automated taxi which had read the GPS coordinates from my phone the moment I'd stepped inside it (weird) and approached a wall of yellow police tape. The uniformed guy working the tape was Parker, a young guy I recognized from the precinct. I nodded to him and he waved me through. 

Casey's GPS has led me to a neighborhood not unlike my own. It wasn't in the best part of town, but not a bad neighborhood by comparison to a lot of New York City's boroughs. I stepped past the threshold of a house that was one of the larger on the street, but not extravagant. The inside of the place looked like a bomb had gone off. Drawers were emptied. Furniture, smashed. Couch cushions, shredded. They'd even emptied everything from the fridge onto the kitchen floor. It was a masterpiece of mayhem. 

I found Casey in the living room, speaking to two very shaken-looking homeowners. She tapped rapidly on a screen so thin it defied imagination, taking notes. She looked up long enough to notice me, and then gestured behind her with her eyes. I followed her gaze and found a coffee cup and paper bag sitting on the mantle. They were the only objects in sight; everything else, it seemed, had been flung from the mantle onto the floor. 

I attacked the coffee cup with what I hoped was some moniker of dignity, in front of the homeowners. Inside the bag I found a jalapeƱo-and-cheese bagel, and I almost made a fool of myself by crying while on duty. 

A few minutes later, Casey stepped away from the homeowners and toward me. Half of the coffee was gone, and I had nearly finished the bagel. 

"You're too good to me, you know that?" I said with a full mouth. 

"I know," she replied. "You can listen and eat at the same time, right?" 

With one hand I mimed a 'probably' motion. She jabbed me in the shoulder with the stylus for her screen. "Alfonzo and Millie Montgomery, ages 42 and 37. Regional manager of four Diamond Brothers Coffee franchises, and professor at Empire University, respectively. They've lived in the neighborhood for twelve years and never experienced anything like this before. Two kids, both staying with grandparents while the whole this is sorted out."

I chewed by bite of bagel a little slower as I surveyed the scene. After a few speculative seconds I swallowed and said, "This makes, what? The sixth?" 

"The sixth," Casey confirmed. "All different neighborhoods. People from different walks of life. Of different ages, races, and nationalities. Nothing apparently stolen: jewelry, electronics, cards, cash, all untouched. The only thing that ties these break-ins together is the MO." 

"Smash and shred everything in sight," I confirmed. "Do I need to say it again? I already said it on the first five." 

"I'm already thinking it. Looks like they were looking for something. Exactly the same as the last five. But whatever they were looking for, they didn't find it." 

I turned to Casey. She met my gaze. "Unless they did, this time." 

Casey scrolled down her screen. "I've asked the homeowners if anything is missing. They said they're not sure, because they haven't sifted through the chaos. But it doesn't look like it." 

I drained the coffee cup. "We're missing something. Something that ties these people together. Something that someone thought each of them had." I took a bite of the bagel. "If you wanted something really badly, and you weren't sure where it was, where would you look first?" 

"Whoever I thought had the greatest likelihood to have it," Casey replied instantly. 

"But they don't have it. So where do you look next?" 

"Whoever is next in line. And then next after that, and next after that." 

"How do you feel by the time you're down to number six on your list?" 

Casey scratched her chin. "Pretty desperate. In fact, I'm pretty sure I would have stopped looking after like three or four. If I'm down to the sixth person on my list, the likelihood of them having it has got to be pretty low." 

"So why do you keep looking? Why don't you throw in the towel?" 

"Because it's something I've got to have," Casey went on. "Maybe something life-or-death. Which means I'm going to keep looking, even if it means searching seven houses. Or more." She lowered her eyes, coming out of deep though. "We need everything we can get on the Montgomerys. And we need more on the other break-in cases." 

I scratched my head. "But we grilled the last five homeowners. We probably have their shoe sizes." 

"Doesn't matter," Casey went on. "We've missed something. So we get it all. Family histories. Relatives, back to their great-grandmothers. Shoe size. Favorite pizza place. Everything, until we find something that links these cases." 

The bagel and coffee now long gone, I nodded. Since I still wasn't great with them, Casey unrolled her screen again, to take more notes, and the two of us returned to the homeowners. 

More than two hours later, Casey and I found ourselves back at the precinct, comparing notes from each of the cases. They were displayed on a screen that took up most of one wall of the Investigation Room #1. She and I poured over seemingly meaningless details of the homes, neighborhoods, and victims, hoping desperately for something we'd missed. 

After standing so close to a screen for so long that my eyes were beginning to throb, I stepped back, rubbed my fists into them and groaned. "Am I the only one who feels like we're looking for a red herring?" I asked. 

"A what?" Casey asked, fatigue apparent in her voice, too. 

"Never mind," I muttered. "I need a break. And another cup of coffee. Or maybe a beer. Care to talk a walk down the block?" 

"You can't have a beer. You're on duty," she said humorlessly, though she was already shouldering into her coat. "And besides, it's not even noon." 

"Coffee it is." 

The two of us strode out of the precinct and onto the street. The sky overhead was gray, as it was most of the time in March, and a chilly breeze whipped through the air. 

"Let's review the ideas we've produced," Casey offered as we strode briskly toward the coffee shop around the corner. 

"I don't know if I'd call them ideas, strictly speaking," I muttered. "They all shopped at a particular chain supermarket. Along with a quarter million other New Yorkers. All the women in the families have type A positive blood. Also, along with another quarter million New Yorkers. And a half-dozen other connections, each one equally as hair-brained."

"Don't forget the one about them all taking the subway to work. That one's a..." Casey's voice trailed off, her gazed fixed ahead of her. She placed her hand on my chest, and I stopped in my tracks. "Do you remember, off the top of your head, the name of the coffee shop at the corner?"

"The one we've been going to every day for the past two years?" I asked blearily. "I know we've been staring at that screen for hours and I didn't get much sleep last night, but I still remember..."

Had I really gotten so little sleep last night? Had I really been looking at the screen in IR #1 for so long that I hasn't noticed it?

I found myself staring at a yellow-and-red neon sign that proclaimed Diamond Brothers Coffee. The same coffee chain for which Alfonzo Montgomery, latest victim of an apparent break-in, was regional manager.

"Coincidence?" Casey asked.

"Could be," I replied. I rubbed my eyes and squinted into the window. "Or maybe it would be, if I didn't recognize the two guys sitting at that table." I pointed, and Casey followed my gesture. She would have only recognized one of the men: Horatio Younger, victim of break-in number two. His large, watery eyes seemed even more so behind his glasses, and he wrung his hands nervously in the same manner he'd done when describing the break-in to the police.

The other man at the table was Frederick Watson. The guy who lived one floor beneath mine, whose apartment had caught fire, and whose fault it was that I was sleeping in a hotel room instead of my own bed.

And apparently Mom was right when she said it was rude to point, because both men looked out the window, at me, at exactly the same time. And then they both stood and ran for the back of the store.

"Still think it might be a coincidence?" Casey said, before dashing ahead of me and wrenching open the door of Diamond Brothers Coffee.

"No, I think it's a conspiracy," I breathed, diving after her and unclipping the snap that held my gun in place, on reflex. "Everyone wants Toby to feel like crap. Make him sleep in a hotel bed. Keep him up all night. And now stop him from getting coffee."

Casey and I charged after the men, amid the shouts and cries of startled customers.


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CHECK BACK NEXT WEEK FOR PART TWO, TRUE BELIEVERS! 

Sunday, April 3, 2016

"Human Women"

Another week, another short story.

I'm a week behind, because last weekend my wife and took our two daughters to Disney World for the first time. It was an amazing, exciting, and very tiring trip. We were glad to get back, and I was glad to have a few relaxing days before heading back to school at the end of spring break.

This is another story of Jillian Nightingale, nurse practitioner to supernatural creatures and cryptohumanoids. Her other adventures, while not being necessary to follow this story, can be found in the links below.

"In Sheep's Clothing" 

"Sometimes I Feel Like I'm Being Watched"

"The Best Medicine"  - Jillian's inaugural story

"Open Enrollment"  - this story takes place in Jillian's world, although it doesn't explicitly star her.


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"I don't know if I can do this."

Max Bartrom, bartender of The Scabbard, looked up at me. "What? What're you talking about?"

I swallowed hard. A chilly breeze blew through the gravel parking lot behind the bar. Shifting uneasily, I ground gravel beneath my tennis shoes and wrapped my jacket a little tighter around myself. "Look, I... I don't want to put you out any more than I already have. I'll just call the Agency and have them move the patient from my caseload."

Max dropped the large wooden box he'd carried out to the parking lot at his feet. "What's the matter? You're not scared, are you?"

I dropped my jaw and tried to act surprised by his insinuation. "Scared? Are you kidding me? You should see what I've already dealt with this week. I've talked a ghost out of an existential crisis, successfully gotten three vampires on artificial iron supplements, and diagnosed a mermaid with a gill infection. And it's only Tuesday."

Max smiled. "So, you're not at all concerned about seeing Mister Mephiblasheph today?"

"Of course not," I lied. The fact that my voice leapt an octave did nothing to sell the illusion. "It's just that I know you've already done so much for the Agency this week. I hate to trouble you any more than necessary."

Max cracked his knuckles and sifted through the contents of the box. Despite the cold, stiff wind, he wore nothing thicker than his usual jeans and black t-shirt. "The Agency subcontracts out to me: the more jobs I do for them, the more they pay me. By no means are you inconveniencing me for bringing me more work. In fact, I wish you'd see more dangerous patients every week. I might finally be able to afford that boat I've had my eye on."

The non-cowardly way out of seeing this patient was starting to erode under my feet. "No, seriously, its not a big deal. Providers change patients all the time."

Max stood, something from the box in his hands. "Catch."

He tossed something to me in a slow, underhanded arc. On instinct along I caught it. It was a black, porous rock, about the size of a tennis ball.

Confused, I raised my eyes to Max in time to see him aim a thin, wooden rod, tipped with a white pearl, at me.

And then my world was swallowed in a blinding, howling torrent of fire.

"Oh my god! Oh my god! OH MY GOD!" I screamed, even though I couldn't hear myself. I felt the vibrations in my throat, so I knew I was speaking, but all sound was swallowed in the roar of flames all around me.

I stood, silent in the blinding inferno, for what felt like years. Then the flames disappeared as quickly as they had come, and I slowly blinked my eyes open. Purple spots danced in front of my vision, and I rubbed them in an effort to see more clearly.

I could still feel the warmth of the fire clinging to my jacket, like it had just come out of the dryer. The gravel around my feet was blackened like soot. But I was completely unharmed.

"Huh. How about that," Max said, crossing his arms in front of his chest. "Looks like you can do it, after all."

Gagging on a response, I was suddenly aware of heavy warmth in my hands. My eyes traveled down to the black, porous rock that Max had thrown to me. It was smoking slightly.

My eyes shot up to him. "What in the ever-loving crap was THAT all about?" I screamed at him, heaving the rock at him with all my might. He easily caught it with one hand. The smug jerk.

"You seemed like you needed convincing that I could make you fireproof for your visit to Mephiblasheph today. He is a dragon, in case you forgot. And he has the flu. He's the sort of patient for whom you'd want to be fireproof."

I squeezed my fingers together into white-knuckled fists. Anger grew like an inflating balloon in my chest. "Yeah, I got the general idea of what you were doing, thanks!" I hollered. "I really meant, why the ever-loving crap would you do that to me? Do you get your jollies freaking people out or something?"

Max looked hurt by my words. Which was strange, because in the months I had been working with him, I had never seen him looking so vulnerable. "You just seemed like you needed a little convincing. That's all. Dragonfire is pretty horrible, believe me, even when you only get sneezed on."

I jabbed my index finger at Max. "Look. I told you that I didn't want to do it. That I was content to change my schedule. Did that sound like it had any coded messages of, 'please toss me a fireproof rock and then blast me with a magic flamethrower' hidden in it?"

Max seemed taken aback. He opened his mouth to reply, but I cut him off.

"I am not scared of dragons. Or ghouls. Or vampires. Or any other kind of patient I have to see. And even if I was, I don't need you stepping in to help me be brave. I can be brave on my own." Though my clothes were still warm from the fire, I crossed my arms over my chest and stalked past Max, toward the bar's back door.

"Jillian," came his voice from over my shoulder. I froze with my hand on the door. I didn't want to turn around, because it would certainly ruin the effect of my storming away. But, darn it, my parents raised me better than to be rude. Even to people who had pissed me off. So I turned, and I found Max's face apologetic. "I shouldn't have done that. I'm sorry." He gathered the box from the ground, tossing the wand and rock into it. "And I know you don't need my help being brave. I didn't mean to imply that."

A knot of anger that had developed between my shoulder blades loosened. My spine relaxed slightly. "It's just, that... dammit, Max. I'm the first human provider The Agency has ever hired. I've seen a lot, since taking this job. You know that. Hell, I've been here every day since I started this job, picking up magical equipment without which it would be impossible for me to do my job."

Max knew that. He also knew I was getting to the point. Which I assume is why he stayed silent and simply nodded.

"Yes. I was scared about visiting a dragon today. Okay?" I growled. "And, you know what? I've been scared on many occasions, as a normal human entering the homes of cryptohumaoids. But, see, the thing is, I don't think there's anything wrong with that. There's something to be said for having a healthy amount of fear for things that could literally rip me limb from limb if they chose." I raised my eyes to his. He was still watching me speculatively with the box of magical supplies in his arms. "But one thing I haven't done it let that fear control me. Yes, There were patients I would have rather not seen. But I went anyway. Do you know why?"

"Yes," Max said softly. "For Hope."

Hope was my four-year-old daughter. She was my sole motivation for taking the job with The Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind. More specifically, it was The Agency's paycheck, which paid for Hope's treatments and kept us out of poverty.

I nodded sharply.

"I'm sorry," Max replied. "It was out of line for me to force-demonstrate the firestone. I should have respected your wishes."

"Thank you. I forgive you," I replied. I then lowered my eyes and held out a hand to Max. "Now give it back, please."

Max looked confused.

I gestured with my outstretched hand. "Come on. Please don't make this harder on me."

"Wait a minute," Max stammered. "You mean you're going? You're actually going to visit the sick dragon? I thought we just had an emotional conversation about how I should respect your wishes and let you make your decisions."

"We did," I replied. "And now I'm deciding to visit Mephiblasheph. So I'll need the firestone."

Max's words seemed trapped in his throat. For a few minutes he simply gestured silently with his mouth open. "Are all human women this confusing, or is it just you?"

"The choice to see Mephiblasheph or not is mine alone. I am an independent woman," I said, ignoring his question. "But, that being said, sometimes an independent woman needs a friend to remind her when she's being a scaredycat, and when she needs to woman up and do what needs to be done." I raised my eyes. "And when to trust that her wizard friend is going to supply her with the tools necessary to do her job, like he always has."

Though he looked like he wanted to say more, Max simply shook his head and handed over the firestone. It was still warm.

"And to answer your question, it's not just me. And it's not just human women. If you dated a little more, you'd realize that."

Max had held the box awkwardly on his hip while digging out the firestone, but he'd repositioned the box in his arms and now approached the back door of the bar. I held it open for him. "Oh, please," he scoffed. "I'm one-hundred and eighty-one years old. And, of all the species I've dated, I've never met a woman as complicated as you."

"Sounds more like a problem with the women you've dated than with me," I said over my shoulder. I crossed back through the bar, nodding to the regulars that sat on their usual stools, even though it was barely past nine in the morning. From the bar I picked up my medical bag where I'd left it, and dropped the firestone inside.

Max stepped behind the bar and set to polishing pint glasses, what he'd been doing before I'd come in for my daily supplies. "Same time tomorrow, then?" He asked, an amused twinkle in his eye.

Slinging my medical bag over my shoulder, I replied, "Same time. As long as you promise to get my permission next time before immolating me."

Max draped his bar rag over his arm like a waiter. "I shall be a perfect gentlemen."

"Don't hurt yourself," Rolf, a regular at the bar, mumbled with a laugh.

Max plucked a lime from the bar caddy and flung it at Rolf's head. It bounced harmlessly off his forehead and onto the floor.

"Be good, boys," I called as I opened the door. "See you both tomorrow."

As the door shut behind me, I heard the wizard bartender tell the werewolf on the bar stool, "I'm telling ya, man... human woman. Watch out."

Now fully equipped, mentally and physically, to see my full caseload of fantastic magic and supernatural patients, I simply smiled.


Saturday, March 12, 2016

"The High-Rise"

I had been doing well with my New Year's resolution of writing one blog post a week until last week. It was a short-story week, and I was completely dry on inspiration. So, I've had a week to think about this piece, and two nights to write it down. It's setting is the "World of Tomorrow" from the 1950's and 60's: push-button homes, atomic everything, and, of course the ever-present threat of Communists.

I hope you enjoy "The High-Rise".

A Firestone ad, circa 1950s, and part of the inspiration for the setting of this story. 



As the bell rang to end the last class of the day, Bill gathered his books and shoved them into his backpack. The number of books, binders, and pencils fit geometrically perfectly inside, as they were designed to do. The leather clasp fastened perfectly, and he slung the bag's strap over his shoulder before rushing from the classroom.

In the hallway he blended in with the sea of others wearing school uniforms; black pants, white shirts, grey ties. Even the girls wore the outfit, although their pants were replaced with long black skirts and tall black socks. Bill looked desperately through the crowd for his older sister, but it was hopeless; even with her head of unnaturally red hair, she was impossible to make out among the hundreds of students headed for the atrium at the end of the school day.

Bill was roughly bumped from behind, and he staggered forward into someone else. An older boy, one that Bill had never seen before, turned and glared at him. "Watch it, weasel," the older boy sneered. He roughly planted the palm of his hand into Bill's chest. Bill cried out in alarm and staggered again, but this time he luckily didn't crash into anybody.

Lowering his head so as to not attract further attention to himself, Bill moved toward the atrium.

Every floor of the High-Rise had an atrium, and every atrium had thirty lifts, arranged along two long walls. Students were being ushered into lines for the lifts that were allocated to the floors where their families lived. Bill and his family lived on the 245th floor. He allowed the Usher, a man in a dark red velvet jacket covered in copper buttons, to point him to the correct lift. He didn't see his sister, Marjorie, in line yet, but she was probably just running late or something. It wouldn't be the first time.

There were roughly thirty people in line ahead of Bill, so he crossed his arms across his chest and waited. Twenty minutes later, another Usher prodded Bill into an already-stuffed lift. He was the last person on, so when the door closed it nearly caught the tip of his nose between the two chrome plates. The lift hummed up the shaft. After another fifteen minutes of stepping aside to let others out, Bill finally left the lift and stepped into 245's atrium. Architecturally, it was identical to every other atrium in the High-Rise, but Bill swore there was something comforting and familiar about his home floor. He stepped past the lines of ushered people waiting and toward the apartments.

Apartment 10H was the Jones household. Bill had already taken his huge, intricate steel key from his backpack and was ready to unlock the door, but when he rounded the corner in the hallway he found the door open and his father struggling with a large, brown box.

"Dad?" Bill asked, approaching. "What're you doing?"

Dad looked over the box and smiled at his son. Despite sweating from exertion from wrestling with the box, he managed to clutch his pipe between his teeth. "Good afternoon, champ. Say, give your old man a hand with this box, will you? The new aerial came today, and I'd like to get it hooked up before  the afternoon programs come on!"

 Bill's heart leapt. He had been looking forward to the new aerial for months, since his dad had first put in the order for it. Dropping his bag in the hallway, Bill shoved and pushed with his father until the box was finally inside their apartment.

"You boys are going to spend the whole night putting that thing together!" Bill heard his mother say as they entered. As usual, she was in the kitchen. Bill heard (and smelled) something cooking in their atomic-powered oven.

"Good afternoon, Mister Jones," said their Butlertron in its monotone, pre-programmed voice. It rolled forward from the rear of the apartment. "Can I take your coat and get you the afternoon paper?"

"I'd like that, Botsworth," Dad  replied, settling into his easy chair. "And afternoon scotch, while you're at it."

As the Butlertron's vice-like hands carefully removed Dad's coat, Bill turned his attention back to his mother. "We won't spend the whole night putting it together!" Bill exclaimed. "We're going to get it working by dinner. That way we call all watch Science Fiction Fantasy while we eat. And it's going to be in color!" 

Mom laughed, and finally emerged from the kitchen. She was stirring something with a completely silent chrome hand-mixed. "Color. On the television. What'll they think of next?"

"Seriously, June," Dad put it. "This newest model is supposed to show the pictures in full color!"

"I'll believe it when I see it," Mom replied. "But we're not going to watch it while we eat. We're still civilized, and we're going to eat dinner as a family like everyone else in the country."

"Speaking of family, I didn't see Marjorie at the lift," Bill replied. He'd retrieved his pack from the hall and had emptied his mandated homework on the coffee table.

"She said she would be going to the fitness level after school today," Mom replied. "She's trying out for the tennis team and wanted to get in some practice."

The fitness level was the 103rd floor. Bill's physical education class met there twice a week. It was a huge, high-ceilinged floor, full of tennis courts and running machines and saunas and other things Bill hadn't yet had a chance to try out.

"Could you do your old man a favor, sport, and take down the old aerial before you start on your homework?" Dad asked. Botsworth had just brought Dad a small glass of amber liquid with two ice cubes resting in it, and Dad has just traded his brown loafers for his slippers.

Brian nodded and set aside his homework. He crossed the living room to the balcony. Sliding the door open, he stepped out into the warm, humid air of late summer. The sun was still high in the bright blue afternoon sky, and a few pearly clouds drifted lazily across the horizon. Miles away, the other High-Rises looked so much smaller than their hundred upon hundreds of floors would suggest, but Bill knew it was simply a trick of his eyes and the buildings' massive scale. Far below, Bill could see the network of roads than connected the High-Rises and the Cultivated Lands than surrounded them. Far in the distance the road disappeared at the horizon, toward more Cultivated Lands and Untamed Wilds and, he had been told, even more High-Rises.

"I can't wait until I can drive on the ground," Bill said to himself, momentarily lost in the scenery.

Apparently Botsworth had heard his musings, because the Butlertron rolled onto the balcony beside him. "You must first complete a minimum of four years in the Army after your education is finished to be granted the terrifying privilege of leaving the High-Rise," he droned.

"I know, Botsworth," Bill replied.

"Answer acknowledged," Botsworth affirmed. "Additional information available: you must consent to at least two years active duty fighting the Red Menace to be eligible to drive on the ground."

Botsworth went through the diatribe every time Bill found himself thinking aloud. "I know, Botsworth. Now help me unscrew this old aerial."

"Very good, young master."

A screwdriver emerged from Bosworth's chest. Bill took it and began loosening the bolts that held the aerial to the railing. "Botsworth, tell me the stories about the Red Wars again. Please."

Botsworth continued to produce different tools as Bill needed them, all the while telling Bill the story of how the Reds had wanted to take everything that Bill and his family held dear. Parts of the story didn't make sense to Bill, but it didn't scare him like it used to. He pictured himself in the Army, fighting Reds like his father had done, and one day being a hero that everyone in his High-Rise - no, every High-Rise - looked up to. He pictured himself seeing the Cultivated Lands with his own eyes, and maybe even exploring the Untamed Wilds, finding a place the Reds hadn't yet polluted with their ideologies and wars.

But new aerial would come first. Science Fiction Fantasy was his favorite show, and merely the though of watching it in color was enough to give him goose bumps.




Sunday, February 21, 2016

"Summertime... and the (Un)living is Easy..." A "Sleepwalking" short story

This week's blog post is actually a short story I began last summer. It stars Veronica Dawson, the protagonist of my yet-to-be-published young adult novel, "Sleepwalking". It began as a short story but turned into a 17,000 monster as I wrote. So it's, what... a novella now?  I don't know. (I've hidden most of it behind a cut so it won't fill your screen )

This previous week commemorated the 6th anniversary of the day I started the original story that would become "Sleepwalking"'s proto-manuscript, at Panera Bread on a snow day.

This is also the very first piece written from the "Sleepwalking" world not told from Ronnie's perspective.

If you'd like to read Ronnie's other misadventures, check out 'Taking Flight'.

________________________________________________________


I probably shouldn’t have hated summer, but I did. Which sucked, because summer was supposed to be a happy time. No school. Sunny mornings. Late evenings. Lemonade. 

But lemonade was too sour for my tastes. Without school to go to every day, I was constantly bored. I was sort of scrawny, so when I sweated t-shirts tended to cling to me and show off just how scrawny I was. And I absolutely, positively hated being hot. 

I pulled the baseball cap off my head and instantly regretted it. My hair was soaked with sweat, and it stuck to my forehead in wet, limp strands. With a groan I shoved the hair back into place and crammed the disturbingly damp cap back onto my head. 

“Isn’t this awesome?” My sister Crystal said from the driver’s seat, next to me. 

“Have I mentioned how much I hate summer?” I yelled in reply, over the sound of the wind roaring through the station wagon’s open windows. 

“Once a mile for the last three hours,” Crystal said with far too much glee in her voice. 

“I have to side with Drew, here,” said a voice from the back of the car. “It’s like… a bajillion degrees in here.”

I turned and saw an angel in a white v-neck shirt. She had an old Atlanta Braves cap of mine crammed on her head. I’d loaned it to her before we’d left home. It looked so much better on her than on me. 

I smiled at her. “Thanks, Ronnie.” 

Ronnie gave me a wink, then directed her attention back to my sister. “Have you seen me?” She asked. “White is not my color. I’m so pale, I can’t even be considered white. I’m like, clear. If you were wearing this, you’d look like a cute hipster chick. I just look like I haven’t done laundry.” She tugged her bra back and forth through the thin material. “I have boob sweat. Me. I barely have boobs to have boob sweat beneath, and yet still my body manages boob sweat.” 

At that precise second, I somehow found a way to choke on my own tongue. I coughed uncontrollably, seeking air. 

Ronnie placed her hands on her hips and looked at me pathetically. “Oh, come on. You’ve lived with us for a year now. Like this is even close to the most awkward girl conversation you’ve unwillingly been a part of.” 

Ronnie took her phone from her pocket and swiped at the screen a few times. She waved at Deidre, her adopted sister, who sat in the seat beside her. “Hey, take a picture of me. I want to keep Facetagram updated of our epic summer road trip.” 

Deirdre was making faces at her own phone and snapping rapid-fire selfies. With her earbuds in, she might as well have been the only person in the car. 

Ronnie rolled her eyes at Deirdre. “Drew, will you take my picture?” 

These days, I tried my hardest not to let every little word Ronnie spoke to me set my heart aflutter. At least, I tried not to show it in front of her. She was my friend. And nothing more. “Sure,” I said taking her phone. 

Ronnie didn’t smile much. Not because she was unhappy or morose… simply because that was her personality. More often than not, she’d always have a piece of sarcasm or wit to hand out instead of a genuine smile. But when I raised the phone to her, she briefly set aside the I’m-a-deep-and-complicated-individual moroseness to blow a kiss at the camera. She puckered her lips, eyes half-lidded, and held her mouth just above her palm, fingers extended toward me. 

I froze, my finger hovering over the screen of her phone. Geeze, she was so beautiful. 

Snap. She was forever captured in that moment. 

“How’d it turn out?” Ronnie asked, reaching for her phone. 

I blinked slowly at the picture. The sunlight made the porcelain skin beneath Ronnie’s plunging neckline glow opalescent. She blew that kiss at me in slow motion, and when I stared at the screen the right way I swore I could see her moving. “Um,” I swallowed. “It looks great.” I handed the phone back to her, and Ronnie glanced at it and nodded in approval before pressing her screen and sharing it with the entire world. 

“How much further?” I Deirdre suddenly asked, returning me to reality. 

As the designated navigator, I had been mapping our route on my phone. “It says less than twenty minutes,” I told her. “Didn’t you see the signs for Vance city limits when we arrived in town?” 

Deirdre looked skeptically out the window. “I must have blinked and missed it. Besides, I think ‘city’ is a bit of a misnomer, Drew.” 

She wasn’t lying. Since we had (supposedly) arrived in Vance, I had counted one streetlight, a grocery store, a bank, and four fast food joints. But we had left the signs of civilization behind more than a mile ago, and now the two-lane road wound through woods that got denser the further we drove. 

“I haven’t lost cell service yet,” I told the car at large. “It says we stay on this road for another three miles, and then turn left and drive for another two miles before we get to the Langly Estate.” 

Ronnie peered out her window. “That is, if we don’t run out of road before then and get kidnapped by some crazed hillbillies.” 

Crystal rolled her eyes behind her aviator sunglasses. “There are no crazed hillbillies.”  

“No, I think Ronnie’s right,” I added. “There are always crazed hillbillies. Don’t you watch the news? Haven’t you seen stories of people disappearing in the woods and then being found chopped to pieces eight months later? More victims of the killer hillbillies!” I gasped, and opened my eyes so wide I imagined they filled my glasses. “The killbillies.” 

“You always think Ronnie’s right,” Crystal laughed. I looked away, shyly. “No one has ever been chopped up by killer hillbillies.” 

“Then they’ll turn us into forced laborers instead!” Ronnie cried. She and I shared a smile. “They’re always looking for lost city folks to enlist to work their whisky breweries, or something like that.” 

“Still,” Crystal said. 

“Still, what?” I asked, momentarily pulled from our paranoid tirade. 

“You don’t make whisky in a brewery, you make it in a big copper cooker called a still,” Crystal finished. 

“What?” I asked, flabbergasted. “How do you know?” 

Crystal lowered her sunglasses and flicked her eyes to me. “You’re kidding, right? Dad had one out back. It was inside that ‘extra shed’ that he always kept the huge padlock on.” 

My jaw dropped, and I momentarily forgot the act about killer hillbillies. Crystal had just shaken my entire world. “He told us he kept farm equipment in there! We weren’t allowed in because it was dangerous!” 

“We didn’t even have a farm! What on earth would he need farm equipment for?” 

“I always thought it was a work in progress, sort of a bucket list thing. And how exactly do you know about it, anyway?” My phone beeped, and I quipped, “Turn here,” and pointed to a small side road approaching on the left. 

Crystal used her turn signal, even though we hadn’t passed another car in miles. “Do you remember Rebecca, a girl who was in my grade? She and I found the key, once, in one of the drawers in the kitchen. And then, one day while Dad was at work and you were at band practice, she and I sort of… snuck in there.” 

If possible, my eyes got even wider. “No way!” 

You were in a band?” Deirdre exclaimed from the back seat, still oblivious of most of the conversation happening around her. 

“Not a band, the band,” Crystal corrected. “He was in the marching band. He played the tuba.” 

“How many times do I have to tell you, it was the Sousaphone!” I jabbed. “And you’re avoiding the subject. What did you find in the shed?” 

“I already told you: a still,” Crystal said. “It looked like a big, copper ball, with all these tubes and stuff coming from it. I didn’t know what it was until Rebecca told me.” 

I tossed my hands into the air. “Am I the only one in the world who hasn’t heard of this thing? How did Rebecca know what one looked like?” 

“Apparently her grandfather had one,” Crystal said. “Turns out, a lot of people back home were making bootleg hooch.” 

“Did you try some?” Deirdre asked, sitting forward in her seat.  

A small smirk played on Crystal’s lips. “Rebecca dared me, so I took a big drink from one of the jugs. I ran outside and threw up about ten seconds after that. We thought we put the jug back where we found it and locked it up tight. We figured there was no way Dad would find out. But he must have known, because later in the week the lock was changed and the keys weren’t in the kitchen anymore.” 

“You’re my sister!” I cried. “My little sister! How is it you know more about this than I do?” 

Crystal stuck her tongue out at me. 

Ronnie, who had been sitting in silence for most of the conversation, was staring at Crystal in awe. “Wow,” she finally said. “Those killbillies are definitely going to chop you up last, since you have so much previous experience with whisky.” 

Before we could continue down the road of Crystal’s adventures in our dad’s illegal bootlegging operation, my phone mercifully chirped. “Hey, looks like we’re here,” I said.  

Just as my phone’s robotic voice said, ‘You have arrived at your destination,’ Crystal turned right onto a long, gravel driveway. At its corner was a beaten, old aluminum mailbox that had Langly lovingly scripted on its side in flaking gold paint. 

The station wagon crunched across gravel and flattened the weeds that grew through the driveway. Long thrushes reached toward the driveway and brushed the car like delicate fingers. 

“Wow,” Deirdre marveled, squeezing herself between the front seats to get a better view through the windshield. 

At the end of the drive was a white, two-story house. It looked like it had been built a hundred years earlier, and hadn’t been cared for since. Most of the shudders had been blown off by wind and rain; those that remained dangled dangerously. The paint was cracked and peeling. Weeds grew so high that I couldn’t tell exactly how tall the porch was because it was completely hidden. 

“I take back everything I said about there being no such thing as killbillies,” Crystal said darkly. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

"In Sheep's Clothing"

Another week, another blog post. So far, so good on my New Year's Resolution.

This week's shorty is another tale of Jillian Nightingale, the protagonist of a few other stories I've written in the last few years. In case you're not familiar, Jillian is a human nurse who makes house calls to cryptohumanoids (a.k.a., monsters, creatures that go bump in the night). You can read her past exploits in, "The Best Medicine," "Sometimes I Feel Like I'm being Watched...", and "Open Enrollment." 

________________________________________________________

It had been a hell of a day. Almost literally.

My last patient, a warlock who'd contracted some kind of infection from flying on a broomstick that hadn't been properly waxed (and had resulted in a filthy, splintery unsanitary mode of transport) had accidentally summoned three Japanese turtle demons when he'd tried to conjure the two of us a cup of tea as we'd talked.

When your medical professional tells you to finish your antibiotics... FINISH THEM, people.

He'd offered to recant the demons, but I was too afraid of what might happen if he tried, so I'd spend an entire Wand of Sapping trying to banish them. No matter what anyone tells you, turtles can be really fast when they want to be. In the end I'd prescribed him another round of antibiotics and threatened to be back within a week to count the pills to make sure he was taking them.

The visit had lasted forty-five minutes longer than it was supposed to. The sun was hanging on the horizon of the late-November sky by the time I was heading to my last patient. I was supposed to pick up Hope, my four-year-old daughter, half an hour ago. Mrs. Barker, our landlord and the best babysitter money could buy, had been really sweet and told me to take my time, that she'd feed Hope and let her watch cartoons on Cable. Hope and I didn't have Cable, so she'd be in hog heaven.

Still, I was dying to be finished and get home to my daughter as the navigation on my phone announced that I had arrived at my last house.

I didn't even remember the lady's name. I had planned to read her case file on my tablet between visits, but the last one had gone so long that I hadn't had time to read the briefing the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind had prepared for me. I had no idea what was wrong with her, much less what kind of situation I was about to walk into.

I hated seeing new patients.

Okay, that came out wrong. I don't really mind new patients. New patients are more visits I get to make, and more visits equates to more rent money and more money for Hope's treatments. But new visits always take for-freaking-ever. And I was itching to get home.

Screw it, I thought, diving from my car and tossing my medical bag over my shoulder. I'll just ask what's wrong with her. This'll take fifteen minutes, tops. 

The sidewalk leading to her house was cracked and broken, and weeds grew ankle-high where the stone was splitting. It seemed to be a theme with the street. Sure, it wasn't the worst neighborhood I'd been forced to visit while working for the Agency. But it was close.

There was a gate on the chain-link fence that surrounded the house, but it had nearly been ripped from its hinges. It dangled in the path of the sidewalk, like some metal-and-rust loiterer. I had to dodge around it to approach the house on a paved path that was, somehow, even more cracked and overgrown than the sidewalk which surrounded it. The house might have been painted thirty years ago (a conservative estimate), and the concrete steps that lead to the front porch were crumbling.

I approached, rang the doorbell, and waited.

Thirty seconds passed with no indication from the inside of the house. I sighed, impatience growing, and knocked loudly on the door with my knuckles. My luck, the woman would be hard of hearing and would never know I was there.

"Hello?" I called. "My name is Jillian Nightingale. I'm with the Agency."

From behind the door there was the sound of shuffling feet. It sounded like someone was approaching the door.

"Who? From the what?" came a sudden voice, startlingly close.

"Jillian Nightingale. From The Agency," I replied, quieter than before. "I'm here for your health visit."

Silence. Then: "I think I'm okay. You can leave."

Yes! Cried a tired, impatient voice in my head. But, as badly as I wanted to listen to it, I knew I couldn't simply leave, especially since I had no idea what was wrong with this woman because I hadn't read her file. If something happened to her because I didn't administer care, The Agency (or worse: me) could be held liable. And even though I was pretty sure that cryptos were not nearly as fond of lawsuits as humans, I couldn't risk it. Especially since I wouldn't get paid for the visit unless I actually evaluated her.

"I understand, ma'am," I sighed. "But it may be a few weeks before I'm able to come back. Please, let's have our visit. If you're actually healthy..." I took a deep breath, and forced away my frustration and fatigue. "...then maybe we can simply share some company."

A few more silent seconds ticked past, during which I would have sworn I felt myself getting older. Finally the voice behind the door said, "Okay, okay. Just a moment." More shuffling sounds from behind the door, as if someone had retreated deeper into the house and then returned, and then the click of a lock being undone. The door swung inward, and behind it stood a woman who didn't look much older than me. She was about a head shorter, and her brown hair was a tangled nest around her head. Her face carried its fair share of care lines around her eyes and mouth, which made her seem far older than she probably was. She wore a gray bathrobe, tied tightly around the waist with a cloth belt. She looked irritated, like I had just interrupted something very important, and motioned with her hand for me to enter.

If she wanted the visit to go quickly, all the better. I stepped over the threshold and into her small living room. The furniture looked like it had been in the same place since the 1970's but was well cared for, if a little worn and out of date. A lamp on the low ceiling filled the room with yellow light, making the green shag carpeting look like a field of plush grass. The television against the far wall was turned off.

"I'll try not to keep you very long, Miss... uh..."

"Parker," the woman replied, taking a seat on the couch and crossing her hands defensively across her chest.

"Miss Parker," I replied. From my shoulder I dropped the folding chair The Agency had given me and plopped down onto it. There are things way worse than bedbugs lurking in the homes of some of the cryptos I visited, so I made it a habit never to sit on the furniture when making a visit. I whipped my tablet from my bag and swiped my finger across the screen a few times and began sorting through the day's files. "So, what brings me to your house this evening?"

"I'm not sure," she huffed. "I promise you, I'm fine. I'm not even sure who made the appointment with your Agency. I feel better than I have ever felt in my life."

The internet connection on my tablet was going really slow for some reason. I had been waiting on The Agency's program to load, but raised my eyes to the woman when she said this. "What do you mean?" I asked. "Didn't you make the appointment?"

"No," Miss Parker replied. "I when I walked into the kitchen two days ago to make coffee, I noticed it written on a yellow note pad on the kitchen table. I have no idea who wrote it."

The Agency's program was still not loading, but I was no longer concerned with it. "Could I see that note, please, Miss Parker?" I asked.

She nodded and left the room. A few seconds later she returned with a yellow legal pad, which she handed to me. Written on the front page in big, flowing letters were the works: Agency medical check-up. Thursday, 3:45. 

"You didn't write this?" I asked, still looking at the words on the page.

"No," she replied. "And I don't recognize the handwriting, either. Some relatives visited a few days ago. I thought one of them might have written it; sometimes they worry, and I thought one of them might have scheduled a medical check-up for me, even though I don't need one. But that doesn't explain how the note got on my kitchen table. I would have called to cancel the appointment, but to be honest I wasn't actually sure what 'The Agency' was, and whoever wrote the note didn't leave a phone number."

The program had finally opened on my tablet, but the images and icons were still loading.

After studying the words for a few more seconds, a hypothesis started brewing in my head. "Miss Parker," I began, running with the hunch. "Are you... a cryptohumanoid?"

She tilted her head in confusion. "A what?"

"A... a crypto," I repeated.

She seemed affronted by my statement. Crossing her arms tighter over her chest, she said with a scoff, "I do not have to be spoken to like this. Ma'am, its time you gathered your things and left my house. I may not be the richest person in the world, but I don't have to stand here and be disrespected in my own house."

I couldn't write off the possibility of her being a crypto based solely on the fact that she looked like a completely normal human. Lots of cryptohumanoids looked human, at least on the surface (wizards, nightlings, vampires, and unusually corporeal ghosts, to name a few). But even the most human-looking of all my supernatural patients always had a complete understanding of the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind, simply because it was the only source of healthcare for their various species. Not only had Ms. Parker not scheduled her appointment herself, she claimed to have never even heard of The Agency.

Surely someone had given me the wrong address for this final visit. It could have even been someone from The Agency who'd left the note on her kitchen table (there are any number of Cryptos small enough to sneak into a human house unseen).

It seemed I was at the wrong house.

I quickly stood, lifting my chair from the floor and folding it together. "I'm sorry, ma'am," I said quickly. "It appears there's been some sort of misunderstanding. I didn't mean to offend. I won't waste any more of your evening." I gathered my things and moved for the door, but as I placed my hand on the knob Ms. Parker cried out in pain behind me. I spun and found her nearly doubled over on the couch with her hands around her stomach, her face set into a wicked grimace.

"Ms. Parker!" I cried, dropping my things and rushing to her side. "Ms. Parker, what's wrong? Please, tell me."

"It's nothing," she whispered, though her face told that she was in terrible abdominal pain.

"Just tell me what hurts, Ms. Parker," I said trying to keep my voice calm. "Please, I need you to sit up so I can have a look at you. Whatever you're feeling could be symptoms of a much more serious condition."

"No," she tried to assure me, her voice barely over a whisper. "No, this happens all the time. Most of the time... it just goes away on its own."

"It could be your stomach, your liver, your appendix... a tumor, an infection... please, Ms. Parker, for your own good!"

Her breathing was labored, and she hissed in air between clenched teeth. "No... no, I think it's going away... I'll be fine, just... give me a second." Over the course of the next few seconds, her breathing began to return to normal. Slowly, deliberately, Ms. Parker, straightened her spine, relief slowly spreading over her features. After nearly a minute, she finally unfolded her arms from around her stomach. "There. There, I think it's over. It's normally not so bad."

She finally opened her eyes.

They had turned yellow.

My face must have shown my alarm, because upon reading it Ms. Parker's expression became confused, then terrified. She suddenly dove from the couch and ran through the tiny living room and into an adjoining bathroom. I followed, and found her gripping the grimy sink, white-knuckled, staring at herself in the mirror.

Jaundice (yellow eyes), coupled with her abdominal pain, could have been any number of horrific afflictions. If she didn't let me help her, she could be in seriously dire straits.

"Ms. Parker, I'm a nurse practitioner," I pleaded, trying to keep my voice level. "Please, tell me what hurts, how long this had been going on, and I might be able to help."

"Get out!" She suddenly shrieked. "Get out, if you know what's good for you!"

I do not respond well to threats. Being a healthcare provider for creatures that go bump in the night, I am often surrounded by things that could literally rip me limb from limb, and I make it a habit not to let myself be intimidated by them. I had lived with fear for far too long to let it control my life. But I didn't know this woman, and I was in her home, her familiar ground. I raised my hands and backed slowly out of the bathroom.

Once the path was clear, Ms. Parker ran from the bathroom and through the living room. She took the doorknob in one hand and promptly ripped the door from the hinges with a scream of twisting metal and tearing wood. Discarding the door as if it weighed no more than a box of cereal, she flung herself into the dim evening.

There goes your theory about her not being a crypto, I thought after my stunned brain had processed what I had just seen.

Snatching my things from the floor, I fled the house. Ms. Parker was doubled over on the grass in front of her house, crying in pain again. Frantically I awakened my tablet and found that The Agency's program had finally loaded. I swiped through my daily caseload until I finally found the last entry. Her name was Belinda Parker, and her address was correct (though the theory of the mistaken address was pretty much out the window, at this point).

"Not again!" She wailed, writhing on the grass. "Not again!"

My eyes probed the screen further.

Cryptohumanoid Classification: Werewolf 
Diagnosis: Schizophrenic, psychosis 

"Wonderful," I mumbled. Cramming my tablet beneath one arm, I ripped open my medical bag and hurriedly rummaged through it with the other. I had used every charge in my Wand of Sapping at my last visit, but it wouldn't have done much good against a werewolf, anyhow. Did I have anything to deescalate the situation? I couldn't even administer care with her in that state.

Basilisk teeth. Dried bat's wings. Blood thinners. Otoscope. And then, at the bottom of the bag, I noticed a small, round, shining object.

When the agency had prepared the hazard kit for me, they said any piece of silver would do against werewolves. I had been prepared for them to give me a cross, or maybe a knife. But instead I wrapped my fingers around the simple chain and produced the silver Mercedes-Benz ornament form my bag.

I stood, gripping the silver circle, and found Belinda Parker standing erect on her lawn. She had discarded her gray bathrobe, but it didn't matter, because her entire body was now covered with sleek, brown fur. She had the basic countenance of a wolf, but her hind legs were slightly longer than her forelegs, making it more practical to stand bipedal. Her shoulders and limbs looked powerful, and her paw-like hands ended in curved claws.

"Oh, I don't think you'll have to use that," she said, her voice surprisingly calm, and surprisingly feminine. "I'm better now."

Every nerve in my body was on alert. I had been ready for a fight. "What do you mean?" I asked cautiously.

"Sorry for all the confusion and misunderstanding," she went on. She started toward the porch and I tightened my grip on the silver chain, but nothing about her posture said that she had any intentions of attacking. As she joined me on the porch, I noticed her brown eyes nervously on the Mercedes emblem. Silver caused great pain to werewolves, so it might have been akin to holding her at gunpoint.

As the only human provider the Agency for the Betterment of Cryptohumanoid Kind had ever hired, part of my job was building a relationship of trust with those who had never known anything but fear and loathing from humanity.

So I dropped the Mercedes emblem back into my bag.

"Thank you," Belinda said. "Please, won't you come inside?" She only then, apparently, noticed the door she had viciously ripped apart. "Oh. Darn."

"Ms. Parker," I said, picking up my tablet again and stepping over the broken threshold, into the living room."Your diagnosis says schizophrenia and psychosis."

"Yes," she said, a little sadly. "When I transform into my human form, I forget who I am. I mean, yes, I remember my name is Belinda Parker, and I remember my address and even where I work. But I forget who I really am, and everything I saw and did in my wolf form." Her canine eyebrows fell. "It's like waking up from two different dreams, one after the other, all the time."

A werewolf. A werewolf who, while she's human, forgets she's a werewolf. 

Cryptohumanoids may suffer from different types of afflictions than humans, but their feelings about the afflictions are startlingly human. I had dealt with cases of dementia while working at the V.A., and had seen the devastation it could wreak on someone's life.

Belinda was going through the same thing. Only she didn't have the V.A. She only had me.

"I'm going to write you a prescription for some antipsychotics," I told her, retrieving my prescription pad from my medical bag. "They should help you maintain your memories, no matter which form you're in. I'd like you to take one just as you feel each transformation coming on."

She took the paper from me and smiled, but her face quickly fell. "But what if I transform back before I get the prescription filled? How will I remember to take them?"

I thought about it for a moment, then took the yellow legal pad from the couch and produced a pen from my jacket pocket. On it the pad I wrote, in big, block letters: Don't forget to take blood pressure medicine!  - Nurse Jillian.  

Belinda took the legal pad, which looked tiny in her huge paws, and smiled. "Thank you," she said graciously.

"You're welcome," I replied, stepping back through the doorway and onto the porch. "Oh, and you might want to get this door fixed. It's supposed to be chilly tonight."

She smiled and nodded, and was lifting the door from her couch with surprising ease when I stepped down the porch and back toward my car.

My job is difficult. More difficult than most, I'm sure. After all, I never had to help a troll pull its rotten fangs or prescribe ointment for goblin-pox when I worked at the V.A. But every once in a while, when I was really able to bring a patient some healing they hadn't experienced in a long while, it was really worth it.

But from now on, I would always brief myself on patients beforehand, no matter how many Japanese turtle demons I'd had to fight at my last visit.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

" Roll for Initiative"

Four weeks, four new blog posts? Am I actually sticking with a New Year's Resolution?

Last week's new post, "Mister Know-It-All", OR "It's Time to Move!" , can be found on my Running/Real-Life Musings blog, Runner Confidential

Enjoy some fiction this week, from a gentile giant who seeks justice be done.


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She needed a hero.

Not that she looked completely helpless, like one of those princesses in old cartoon movies that sits content in the top of a tower and waits for a man to come to her rescue. I'm actually fairly certain that type of woman doesn't exist anymore, although I say that with nothing to back up the claim. Considering the cartoon movies that portray women as objects to be claimed instead of human beings only postdate Women's Suffrage by a few decades, however, I feel my assumption that women who wait idly for men to rescue them are endangered, if not completely extinct.

She definitely wasn't one.

Her table in the coffee shop was piled with graduate-level engineering textbooks, proving that she was self-reliant and career-oriented. I only knew that her textbooks were graduate level because I was currently enrolled in my last year of undergraduate engineering courses, and I had never seen textbooks as large, with such small print, or with names as complicated as the ones piled atop her half of the table.

No, this wasn't a vapid princess inside an ivory tower. But the guy who had taken up residence at the other end of her table didn't seem to care.

He was the kind of guy who looked for the kind of girl she wasn't, every chance he got. He had come into the coffee shop without a single textbook, proving he wasn't there to get anything done. He'd purchased a small cup of black coffee but hadn't taken a single drink from it in the twenty minutes he'd been sitting at her table. And he hadn't tipped the barista. Which proved not only that he'd solely come to hit on girls, but that he was also cheap.

If I hadn't been watching the whole situation, I would have assumed that they were a couple, sitting at the table together. He, a tall, handsome, well-put-together vision of masculine perfection. She, strong and independent and beautiful. They actually looked like they belonged together. He was the kind of guy who would have been picked on me in high school, and she was the kind of girl who never would have given me a second glance. To an outsider, they were perfect for each other.

But I wasn't fooled.

I noticed the growing look of irritation on his face that she continued to spurn his advances, and the growing look of apprehension on her face as he continued to ignore her requests to leave her alone.

When I had made camp at the coffee shop two hours earlier, I'd had three goals, and no particular order of importance to govern them. One: to finally try one of the coffee shop's new razzelberry scones (mission accomplished). Two: finish my Advanced Topics in Civil Engineering homework. Three: plan next Thursday's adventure for my Dungeons and Dragons group. I'd been alternating between goals two and three for the last hour, so as not to get board. I'd just written another paragraph on beam structures and added a Gibbering Mouther to the dungeon (with appropriate treasure and experience points) when he'd annexed his place at her table.

I hadn't been able to get anything done since he'd arrived.

Why hadn't she flipped out on him yet? I'd seen girls successful cast the 'crazy chick' spell when guys tried to harass them, and it made the offenders back away as if the girls had been on fire. Maybe it simply wasn't her style.

The expression on her face told of her growing discomfort. Like me, she simply wanted a quiet place to get her work done. But this guy wanted more. Much more. He wasn't getting it, and that fact was becoming apparent to him, and he was trying to cling even tighter to that which was never his.

It was so elementally, brutally wrong. And I couldn't sit by and do nothing.

But this adversary definitely had a challenge rating higher than mine. Oh, I was no pushover; I'd been six-one, two-hundred-and-fifty pounds since eighth grade. The football coach had always said I was linebacker material, but my favorite games were on video game consoles and table tops, not on grassy fields. But this guy looked, and acted, like an athlete who'd had everything handed to him for his entire life just on virtue of being who he was.

But not this time.

Let the encounter begin. Roll for initiative.

I stood and made my way to the counter, where I ordered a refill for my current coffee, plus a second coffee. After a few seconds, the barista set the cups on the counter. I was sure to leave a dollar in the tip jar (that's how it's done, jerk).

Carrying the cups across the store as if they were vials of alchemist fire (which, considering the temperature at which the store kept their coffee, wasn't an unfair comparison), I formulated the battle plan in my head as I made my way to the graduate student's table.

Roll for attack.

In my left hand, I squeezed the cup until the plastic lid popped off the top, slopping a little coffee over the side, making sure not to burn my fingers. Just as it hit the tile floor, I squeezed the top off the other cup in my right hand.

When I faked the fall, it was fairly dramatic.

The cup in my left hand spilled its contents on the floor, which made faking the fall incredibly believable. The cup in my right hand, I made sure to pour into the lap of the person on my immediate right: namely, the Gibbering Mouther who had taken residence in front of the graduate student.

Critical hit.

He screamed a long string of obscenities and leapt from his seat, but I couldn't hear many of them because I had taken up a posture of lying on the floor, moaning in pain and holding my back as if I'd just dislocated a disk in my spine (I hadn't). I fully expected him to yank me from the floor and try to kick my butt then and there, but I was quickly surrounded by a crowd a people.

No one asks questions when a big person falls. They never assume I'd do it on purpose, because everyone assumes I'm clumsy and can't stand up straight because of my weight (I can).  People started asking if I was okay, if I wanted someone to call an ambulance (I didn't). Someone from management even approached and asked if there was anything they could do, probably trying to make sure I wasn't going to sue the company (I wasn't).

From the floor, I opened one eye and spied the graduate student. Her assailant was nowhere to be found. Her eyes were on me. She didn't wear the pitying look of the crowd of gawkers who wanted to see the wreck the fat guy had made of himself on the floor of the coffee shop. She'd just seen me throw a full cup of alchemist fire onto the creature with which she'd been combating for twenty minutes.

She smiled, and mouthed the words, 'Thank you'.

I gave her a wink, and finally allowed someone to help me up from the floor, amid more fairly convincing moans and groans.

All in a day's work, ma'am.