Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Troll [Short Story]

The words are building up in my head again.
It's like a collection of relics, dusted off and on display.
My heart just isn't in the facade.
I think I might.
I think I might be at my breaking point.

He stared at his computer in a daze. Up until now he'd been able to control himself. To hide what he truly felt. The self hatred, the caustic remarks, they were nothing compared to the monster that dwelt deep within him.

Most of the time I've been pretending.
Even with myself.
I don't think I can anymore.
I'm like the most worthless Little Train That Could.
Spewing forth "I know I can't. I know I can't."
And truth now: I know I can't.

He grabs an open can beside him. Generic cherry cola. Condensation dotting all around the still cold can. He flicks through a few open tabs on his browser, browsing the walls he's built up. The persona; the man in front of the curtain.

Invited to an event.
Why would they invite me?
I've never been more than a corner-of-the-room-hogging letdown.
The last party I truly enjoyed was.
Thirteen. I was thirteen and it was just my parents, my little sister, and me.
Back when I still felt like there might be hope.
So naive.

He checks his calendar. It's empty as it always is, he just checks the date. There's no reason not to go. Every reason to go. His hand hovers over the accept button. Finger trigger-locked. But instead he clicks away.

Can't think clearly.
That can wait.
Or maybe they'll realize it was a mistake and rescind the offer.
Either way, I have to...
God, I can't concentrate at all anymore.
What the hell happened to the bright, young, up and coming, kid?
He grew up of course.
Half my life gone.
If I'm lucky.
Or if I'm unlucky.
Where was I?

Clicks a tab and he's back to the game he was playing. Little bubbles popping. Some quest. Some impossible level that's made for making money on the boosters. He loses again. 3 lives down. Clicks the "try again." Takes one shot, then he changes tabs. Job application. Another tab. A music video. He clicks play again. He's been listening to the same song all night. He could put it on repeat, but he chooses to constantly restart it instead.

Need a different job.
Need a different life.
Need to get the hell away.
When did my hands get so big?
I remember when I was a kid, I thought of how this day would come.
But I always thought.
You always think you'll be better than you are.
Life doesn't have to be perfect.
But it should still work.
God, it should still be better than the alternative.

He suddenly closes his laptop. He doesn't move. Just sits there with his eyes closed. Around him the darkness closes in. The small blinking light of the computer is his only candle. One he's now hid under a bushel. After a moment he pushes back the chair from his desk and walks over to his bed where he collapses. Dark red sheets, haven't been washed in weeks. Two feather pillows, and a bleach stained blanket.

When did I become nothing more than words on a screen?
Tomorrow something is done.
One way or the other.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

ART MAN: Olde Tyme Good Time World - By David Eccher

The port of call was a port of call girls.
Was, in that it used to be, back in the day. The cruise ship’s ports generally had interesting things to see. All the better for J---- if the sites of interest required no human interaction.  The demands of the cruise ship, now that he was assisting Art sell art more directly, were stressing his capacity for tolerating humans. Art himself was a chatty fellow, but he knew when to back off and give J---- space. And his cabin mate was in no uncertain terms, a D-Bag. The crew actually called him this to his face, and D-Bag didn’t even get that it was an insult. He was constantly in full ‘primping for a date mode’, which meant the he had no date and would be out trolling and bothering every breathing female on board, again. The primping could take hours, as he had no actual place to be. Luckily, despite being in close proximity all the time, D-Bag had no interest in talking to a ‘loser’ like J----.
New passengers, however, were aggressive, annoying, cloying, chatty, fawning, staring, stalking, snarky idiots. As soon as one learned J---- was the “Water Walker”, the day would go straight to interaction hell.
How do you do it?
Is it a trick?
Have you always been able to do it?
It must be a trick.
What does it feel like?
Stupid fucking trick, you ain’t no Houdini. Being able to walk underwater was cool, but not extraordinarily useful, as far as J---- could tell. Yes, it seemed he could stay under indefinitely. No, he didn’t feel the temperature of the water. Yes, he could walk on any submerged surface, no matter what it’s orientation. But… He couldn’t swim. He couldn’t even float! In the water, he sank like an anchor to the bottom. The umpteenth time he was badgered by passengers about what it was like, he grew so flustered that he just muttered “here, it’s like this” and plunged feet first over the side of the boat. What a mistake. The water was deep, and there was nothing to climb. There was nothing to walk up. There was no (non-floating) way back to the ship. He wasn’t horribly far from shore, but even a short-ish distance of underwater walking took some time. By the time J---- had walked the seafloor and reached dry land, the ship was not visible on the horizon. He had to walk further to find people, then beg politely to borrow a phone, and beg even more to convince the company to arrange transportation for him to rendezvous with the ship. And then he got an earful from his boss. Do you know how much this cost? Not just the transport, but the work you weren’t doing that had to be done by someone else. And no one was buying anything from Art. And the time spent waiting for you. I’ll be shocked, just shocked, if we don’t get lawsuits for the emotional trauma you inflicted because passengers thought you were dead and we were abandoning you. On and on and on she blistered his metaphorical hide and tattooed his virtual buttocks. He thought for certain she would fire him, or confine him to quarters at least. But when she didn’t go there, it suddenly dawned on him why. They wanted him. They NEEDED him. Maybe they weren’t sure what for yet, or more specifically, they weren’t sure yet how they could best exploit his skill for their profit. J---- figured they had to balance short term gain against his long term potential. He was on a six-month contract. He could walk away now, literally from the ship, and figuratively from the contract, and would owe them money back for his training and transportation from home. He hadn’t earned enough in pay to cover that yet, but he supposed he would figure out a way to make money off himself as quickly as they could figure out how to make money off of him. And they likely would want to lock him into a long-term relationship for long term exploitation.   At the end of his verbal dressing down, they agreed he would not go overboard again without first consulting her. To at least make sure there was a plan for how to get him back onboard. She also suggested they rig him up with floatation devices that he could inflate underwater to carry him back to the surface. (J---- suspected that she did not actually believe that he could neither swim nor float.) He agreed to let them try this scheme. They strapped him into an inflatable vest with a little cord. Once in the water, he would pull the cord, and theoretically, rise to the surface.
Nope. He was like Mjölnir in the water. Only the power of Thor, and not this puny vest, could lift him. He stood firmly on the bottom of the deep end of one of the ship’s pools, feeling a fool, his vision hampered by the inflated vest as it tried to rise, as effectively as a toy balloon trying to carry away a child.
Maybe it would work in the salt water, she said, grasping at straws.
He was not game to try again.)
In the current port of call girls, he had exhausted all of the “things to do with no human interaction” and dared to visit “Aunt Betty’s Bordello and Music Hall.” The brochure on board had promised a self-guided tour and musical revue, both of which were types of activities normally minimally acceptable in terms of not talking to anyone. Unfortunately, several of the ‘exhibits’ on the tour were humans in period costumes, speaking with strained Irish accents, and, most dreadfully, ‘soliciting’ for your attentions.
My, as fine a looking young man such as yourself, at sea for months and months, certainly you could use a bit of tender companionship. (and sotto voce, to the other tourists nearby) These young sailor lads ‘pop their cork’ before you can even touch their Blarney stones.
J---- did his best to ignore the idiotically mixed up metaphors and advances. But when he dared try to take a photo of one of the costumed women, “Betty Herself” grabbed him by the arm and would not be ignored.
A dollar in my stocking if you want to be doing that, laddie. And a dollar in the other one as well to get a peek at my treasure chests.
And with all the subtlety of a potato famine, she pulled his head against her rolling landscape of a bosom.
Two dollars for these treasures, and fond memories of my mammaries for those long nights tugging your boat at sea.
Once free of her bosomy embrace, he quickly looked for an escape route, and found a side room that was devoid of people. He pretended to submerge himself in a book on a table by the far wall, just in case ‘Betty’ should follow him.
He stood staring, sweating, not even seeing the words when a voice startled him.
She is a bit much, eh?
In the corner, tucked away, was another woman in a costume dress. J---- must have been too discombobulated to notice her when he first dashed into the room.
It’s just the role, you know. I have been “Betty Herself” too, but I do not talk like that so much. If they would read the books in here they would know Betty was Canadian by way of Norway, not Irish. But I guess the phony accent plays better in Irish. It is all scripted anyways, even the ‘handsy’ part of pulling you to her chest. Done a thousand times over. Quite tiresome.
Yea, that makes sense, he replied.
In these books, that is where the real stuff is. The stuff that would interest one such as yourself. The book you are staring at is okay. “The Tales of Treasure”, but it is a secondhand account that plays to cliché. Chapter 13 is not bad. The story of Betty, having stolen away every bit of jewelry and coin she could pinch from her uncouth male patrons and the snooty ‘ladies’ in the music hall, stealing away in the dark of night, running, well sailing away from this shithole existence, but winding up, presumably, at the bottom of the sea.
J---- found her mesmerizing. The flat, honest tone of her voice pulled him in and captivated him to the point of uncomfortable embarrassment.
Well, um, tall tales I guess. Legends make for good storytelling, he said.
Maybe. Maybe. People have been hunting for years. Divers. Salvagers. Governments. Some have found items. Some have even claimed to be onto the ‘Betty load of Booty’. But they only show a few coins, never anything conclusively Betty’s.
How would anyone know if it were really the, um, “Betty Booty”? He mumbled the horribly awkward phrase with more than a bit of shame.
I would know. If they would read the right items in this room, they’d know too.
So you think the B…, the, Bo... treasure, um, it is really still out there to be found?
Up there.
Up?, he asked.
The woman pointed to a spot above where he stood.
Read the one up above your head and you will know what is lost under the water.
J--- looked up and saw books, just ordinary books, on the shelves around him. He reached a hand out, while looking at her face, hoping for an indication of which one to take.
No. You can’t see it. You can’t reach it like that. It’s up on top, out of view. You’re going to need to climb up.
The woman was no longer sitting in the corner chair, and he guessed she meant for him to pull it over and stand up upon it. He struggled to move the overstuffed chair. She offered no help, but he got it over to the shelf. Balancing his feet on either of the tattered arms, his eyes were level the top of the bookcase. There was a small decorative ridge at the top, and behind it what  looked to be 100 years of accumulated dust. Barely visible, there was a slight elevation is a section of the dust. The rectangular shape of a slim volume blended seamlessly with the carpet of undisturbed time. He nudged at it, revealing a leather-bound ledger of some sort. It was scarcely thicker than the layer of grime that had accumulated on and around it. He expected a joke title in the category of World’s Smallest Book, like “Great South African Lovers” or “The Wit and Wisdom of Steven Seagal”. But as he carefully brushed at it, he could not see any printing on the cover at all.
He picked the volume up and shook a bit of the dust, which went straight up his nose and started a sneezing fit. The chair rocked with each nasal explosion and the motion nearly sent him tumbling. He quickly tucked the slender volume into his pocket and grabbed at the chair back with both hands to prevent catastrophe as he convulsed from sneezing.
What the fuck are you doing?
It was the first “Real Betty”, minus the fake Irish accent, flirty manner, and olde tyme swear words.
J---- struggled to compose himself.
I, well, she, we really…
He swiveled his head around, but could not see the second woman.
Get the fuck off the furniture. That old crap is expensive.
Sorry. Sorry. The other Betty said…
What? What are you on about, you little nerd. I’m the only Betty here today and you better get your skinny ass down and out of here before I call security to drag you out.
J---- had to wait for his cabin mate, D-Bag, to leave the room before he dared examine the ‘stolen’ ledger more closely. (Was it really stolen? They didn’t even know it was there and one of them helped him retrieve it. It was only borrowed, really.)
When J---- had gotten back on board, D-Bag was in full primping mode, so the wait time was unpredictable and excruciating. When he finally left, J---- made sure the door was secure and proceed to carefully lay the ledger out on his desk for examination. He was interrupted by a knocking and unlatched the door.
Dude, locking the door to jack-off?
No, D-Bag, he said, closing his eyes so he would not have to look at the walking hunk of uncouth. Unfortunately, closing his eye only heightened the impact of the grotesque mix of body washes and man-sprays.
Jeez, dude, you look like you’re gonna puke. Thought even a dweeb like you would have his sea legs by now. Chill, I just forgot my trilby.
D-Bag, left, and once again J---- latched the door and turned to the desk. Another  knocking sound, another deep sigh, and another check of the door, but he found no one there. When he turned back to his desk, she was standing there.
J---- nearly screamed, but swallowed it and hopped about sounding like a pigeon who desperately needed to pee.
Coo roo-c'too-coo. Oh-oo-oor. Hooooooooow.  
I can go anywhere, but am always nowhere.
Whooooooo. (gulp) Who. Are. You?
I told you before, I am Betty. That’s my ledger you fetched down for me.
She wasn’t looking at him, but stood staring down at his desk, an intense passion in her demeanor. Her hand reached for the book, but stopped just short. She sighed deeply and let her hand fall on the book. Her hand fell on it, then passed through it, through the desk, and back to her side.
It’s hell not being able to touch anything.
J---- nearly fainted. Maybe he did faint but just never fell down. He shook his head and swallowed hard, blinking about 100 times a second.
Would. Would you like me to open it for you?
Oh, yes, that would be lovely.
J---- moved to the desk and stood by her side, even though he could have, he guessed, occupied the same space as her. That would be rude though. He gently took the cover and turned it back to reveal the first page.  Every line was written on, though the print was faded. The entries on each line varied in length, some short, some longer, but they didn’t look like a story or diary entries.  
What are these, he asked, bending forward to peer at the fainted markings.
This is my inventory. Every piece I collected over the years. Every piece I took with me on the boat to escape. Every piece I died for. Every piece you will get back for me.
Get back? How?
You know very well how, Water Walker.
J---- stumbled backwards to his bunk. His head was spinning. Of course a ghost who could appear through walls would know about him. Of course she would want his help. Maybe this was his way to... wait, none of this really made any sense.
You can’t touch anything, right?
I cannot. Not in a hundred years have I been able to touch, to move anything, to feel texture, or heat, or grime. I miss grime. I miss smokey ashen wood chips after a fire has burned out. I miss food. I miss flesh.
And these items. These things you have ledgered and want me to retrieve. Will you be able to touch them? Are they magical?
No, you silly romantic. No.
Then... why?
I want to see them. I want to look at them. Years of servicing smelly, brutal, ignorant men. I worked for every one of these items, and I deserve to see them.
You could go to where they are now and see them.
Under water, like a fish? Pass through the sediment, and the cases, and the wrapping? In the dark of the deep? No, that isn’t what I want. I want them to be up here, in the open and displayed, cleaned and cared for, so that I can look at each piece at my leisure.
J---- swallowed dryly.
Okay, I will get them for you.
Ghost Betty looked at him with burning scepticism, but her look faded when she saw he was staring at his own hands, trembling.
Don’t you want to know what’s in it for you?
Oh, sure, um, right. What’s in it for me? (Other than you not haunting me for the rest of my life, he thought.)
No one knows what’s down there. So if several of the very valuable, but less traceable, and easily saleable pieces were to go missing, I wouldn’t mind, and no one would notice.
Who’s going to not notice? I mean, no one knows what’s there but you. What am I to do with the pieces I bring back up for you?
You will donate them to Aunt Betty’s Bordello and Music Hall, of course. You will stipulate they are to be displayed for the public as being on loan from ‘The Collection of J----- H--------, Water Walker Esq.”
What collection? I don’t have any collection. (He chose not to mention his Superhero figurines back home. Quite the collection though they were.)
Oh, my dear naive boy. There are many treasures you, and only you, will be able to find, once you know who to ask.
Aunt Betty’s Bordello and Music Hall would have to be renovated to be able to display these treasures securely, but the ownership was overwhelmed and ecstatic to have this boost to their stale business. J---- had to spin some tales about ‘just tripping over them’ on his underwater walk, versus the truth of being guided to them by Ghost Betty. And ‘of course, it is just the right thing to do’ was why he loaned them for display rather than profiting from them. “They belonged to Betty so they belong here” he had come up with by way of explaining why he wasn’t keeping them. It certainly raised fewer questions than explaining that Ghost Betty wanted to look at them and he feared she would follow him around the globe whispering graphic tales of olde tyme sex in his ear if he didn’t.  
The only person he confided in was Art. The old man, seemingly, had no problem accepting the story and helped J---- formulate a plan.
J---- would quit his cruise ship job virtually immediately upon reaching a port that offered a discrete opportunity to sell one of the lessor items. Lessor being a misleading word in that Art felt the sale of one item would certainly allow J--- to pay of his broken contract and pay for much more beyond that. Diamonds. Emeralds. Rubys. Art advised removing the stones from a piece or two and selling them as loose jewels as the safest way to start his fortune.

After that, well, J---- would Water Walk his way to untold riches. Assuming he could find one or two more of these spirits that Ghost Betty had told him about...
Missed part 1? You can read it here: ARTMAN And be sure to follow David on Twitter

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

200 Souls - Issue 2: Tables and Chairs

Night. Dark. My favorite time of day. I stood outside the gates of a mansion looking in. In front of me, the iron bars were tall with spikes at the top. Beautiful, but practical defense from the outside world. To each side of the gates stood slick concrete walls, twice my height.

"Not exactly welcoming, is it?"

I looked to my left. Beside me, my constant companion Thornton, the spirit of a Victorian gentleman, had materialized. He wore the garb of his era, but with a dumb bowler hat atop his head, and a stupid push broom mustache on his pale face.

Not that I was much better. Dressed in the outfit I'd killed Thornton in all those years ago, I looked like a ponce.

"Perhaps, I should ring the bell," I said with a smirk.

"You know, you're not nearly as charming as you think you are, Ian."

This last came from the third part of my traveling party. Neska was tall, black, athletic, with long hair pulled back into a ponytail. I had saved her life sometime back and she'd been a leach, stuck to my side ever since. But she also owned a bar where I could drink for free, so I called it a worthwhile investment.

"Dear Neska, I was con man before I met Thornton. I've talked many a lady out of things they'd never thought they'd part with. I am that charming."

"Do you two think we could get back to the task at hand?" Thornton interrupted.

I raised my hands in innocence, and then gestured towards the wall. Thornton began spinning around in a ghostly mist, which lifted Neska and I up to the top of the non-spiked wall. From there the two of us hopped down to the ground below on the other side.

The landscape was beautifully kept with trees and bushes, flowers and pathways, all strategically placed throughout the trimmed lawn. Surprisingly, for a place with such an impressive wall, there didn't seem to be any security guarding the residence. Even still, we played ninja, sneaking from cover point to cover point till we reached the house.

As we were not exactly invited, we opted not to go for the front door, as we weren't likely to have the warmest reception. Instead we trailed around to the left side of the house. There I found a window and peered in to scope out the place.

"What do you see?" hissed Neska.

"Nothing," I hissed back. "The room is dark."

"You know, I could just go in and have a look." Thornton stated.

As a spirit, no one but Neska and I could see him. Me, because I'd killed him, and Neska because...well, I still hadn't figured that one out yet.

"I mean, I guess we could do things the easy way," I shrugged.

Thornton tipped his ridiculous hat and disappeared through the wall. I sat on the ground against the house and Neska followed my direction.

"Tell me about one of the souls you've saved," said Neska.

"Well, there was this one lady, who was on a mission to avenge her sister. Tried to take down the head of a cartel by herself. Pretty bad ass fighter, but way in over her head."

"Ha ha," said Neska. "I mean someone other than myself."

"I don't like talking about my debt."

"We're out here right now trying to pay off a piece of that debt. It's not like it's a secret. 200 souls to save, hundreds of years you've lived, and I was only 14. How hard can it be to save a life?"

I sighed, and picked at a blade of grass beside me.

"Thornton has all these rules. Because I'm paying for his murder, blood has to be paid with blood. So I can't just become a paramedic, or save starving children in Africa."

"Tell me about one of the others," Neska implored.

"My number two was a young girl by the name of Sally McTaverish. Ever heard of her?"


"She would have been Jack the Ripper's last victim."

"Wait, what?" she asked.

That question went unanswered as Thornton had reappeared beside us. He was shaking his head and bore a scowl on his face. He was doubled over like he was winded.

"No good," he said, panting. "There's a lot of innocents in there. Staff, who might get hurt if we do a straight assault on the place."

"Why the hell are you panting?" I asked. "You don't have lungs."

Thornton stood up offended.

"Force of habit."

"Force of habit for a fat man. If I hadn't killed you, your diet would have. Would you have haunted roast chicken and bread then?"

"Gentlemen..." Neska soothed.

"Right, right. So how do we go about our mission?" I asked.

"There's a skylight over the dining room where everyone seems to be meeting. We'll have to wait till it's between courses and drop down from there."

"You sure you can handle that, fatty?" I remarked.

I think if a ghost could turn red, Thornton would have. What followed was a short exchange, mostly profanity ridden, so I'll spare you the details. After it ended we made our way to the back, where a trellis with ivory grown over it, led all the way to the roof. The mansion was big, but only about three stories high, so we were up top pretty quickly.

The dining room was toward the middle, so we made our way carefully along the different levels of slanted shingles. In the middle, as Thornton had promised, was a skylight. It was basically a multi paned, security glass dome. Completely unbreakable and with no perceivable entry points.

"Well done, Thornton. None of these windows seems to open up," I said.

"I know. I figured I would phase the two of you."

I groaned.

"What do you mean by that?" asked Neska.

"If you let him tell you, he'll just say he can turn us invisible. In reality he merges our bodies with his essence, till the atoms become spaced far enough apart to slide through the glass. It feels creepy, like having your insides dripping with honey."

"Forget I asked," said Neska.

We laid out on our stomachs to survey the terrain. Below us I could see a long table with at least twenty men round it, eating, drinking, and presumably, being merry. Thornton pointed a pale finger towards a man sitting at one end of the table. He was portly, with a large, bald head, and expensive suit.

"I'm here to save Lex Luther?" I hissed.

"His name is Francis Derrywater. Though he's known colloquially as 'Frank.'"

"Who are the rest of the men?" Neska asked.

"Good question," I chimed in.

"I don't know. All I can tell you is that one of them is here to kill the rest of them."

"A murder mystery. You brought us to a murder mystery dinner."

"I kind of always wanted to attend one of those," said Neska. "Just, you know, without anyone really dying."

"Nesk, Neska, Neska," I shook my head. "Why did your parents name you Neska?"

"What?" she responded.

"I looked it up. It means 'girl' in some weird language. What kind of parents name their child 'girl?'"

"This is hardly the time."

I shrugged. "Fine. To be continued. Shall we go?"

Thornton began swirling around us, then inside us, till came the familiar honey dripping sensation I spoke of. Slowly he lowered us through the windows and onto the middle of the table where he separated from us. To the men at the table it appeared like two people had suddenly materialized as centerpieces. I judged from the speed of the guns appearing in their hands, that they were not thrilled at our magic trick.

There was a lot of yelling and talking, most of it at us, but some directed at their bald host. He was waving his hands to calm everyone down. When it was clear he was being ignored, he did that whistle where you use your fingers. I've never been able to do that. It seemed to get everyone's attention, though not a single gun was lowered.

"Who the eff are you?" Francis asked in an unsurprising New York accent.

"Me?" I responded. "I'm Ian Caliber. And this nice lady beside me is Neska, which means 'girl' in some language or another. But I'm guessing that doesn't really answer your question."

"You guessed right," growled a man with the thickest neck I'd ever seen. He wore a gold chain that was barely holding it together.

"I'm here to prevent a murder from happening," I stated, then paused for dramatic effect.

The effect was not what I was hoping for as all the guns started cocking around me.

I whispered to Thornton out of the side of my mouth, "if something goes wrong, protect Neska."

"You know I'm strongest around the suit your wearing. Protecting her doesn't guarantee I'll be able to save her," he answered back.

"I'm not losing my 14th soul."

He nodded and began swirling a protective shield around Neska.

"What the eff are you talking about?" asked Francis.

"The eff I'm talking about murder, Francis," I responded.

"It's Frank. Nobody calls me Francis."

"Well, they should. It's a lovely name. But that's besides the point. I received an anonymous tip that someone planned to murder you this very night." Another pause for dramatic effect. Another wasted effort, as Francis kept right on talking.

"And who are you that you'd receive such a tip?"

Good question, " I thought to myself.

"Good question," I said aloud. Oh, right, I have a bad habit of vocalizing my internal thoughts. Luckily, Neska, was quicker on the draw than me.

"He's a private detective. Very famous. Surely you've heard of 'Caliber & Caliber?' He's the first Caliber in the title."

There was some muttering as the men around the table, each not wanting to be seen as ignorant, agreed they'd all heard of me.

"So what's with the magic act, suddenly appearing and whatnot?" This last came from a man with dimples in all the place where dimples shouldn't be.

"We couldn't exactly ring the bell and announce ourselves, now could we?" Neska again.

"Exactly," I chimed in. "We'd risk you not believing us, and then the murderer could have carried out their intended deed."

"Okay. So, you're here now. So who the eff is this murderer, and who the eff is he supposed to kill?"

"Francis, you sure do love your 'effs,' don't you?" I said.

"It's Frank. Effing get on with it."

I wanted to. I truly did. As I looked across the faces and drawn guns of the men at that table --soup bowls in front of them cooling quickly, or warming possibly, as it looked like it might have been a gazpacho-- I was at loss as to where to go from there. Thornton, wonderful, powerful ghost that he was, had not provided me with a name for the killer. Hadn't even pointed him out to me. I was going to have to stall.

"One of these men here, Frankie. One of these men you've invited into your humble home, intends to kill you." I paused for third attempt at a dramatic pause. Payoff.

The men looked at each other, each wondering if one of them was a killer. I studied the faces, hoping one of them would give something away, but they all had the same gobsmacked faces. This was not good. I'm not really a detective. I'm more used to fighting my way out of situation. Killing anyone in the way of my goal. This...this was work.

"Do you mind if we step down from the table?" Neska asked. "It's really distracting being up here."

Francis nodded and we made our way down. I placed a hand on Dimples' shoulder as I slid my leg around a man with a face flushed from obvious alcoholism. I was happy to see that the guns had mostly lowered, even if they hadn't disappeared. Neska, on the other hand, had men parting and helping her step down. She could have snapped their necks as easily as I could, and they were helping her down like she was an innocent young lady, just because she was a she. Men are stupid.

"Comfortable?" asked Francis. "More at ease? Perhaps now you could tell me who the eff it is that wants to kill me?"

Anytime, Thornton, I thought.

"Anytime, Thornton," I vocalized. Damn it.

"Who the eff is 'Thornton?'" Francis demanded. "What is this?"

"Poison," came a familiar whisper in my ear. Thornton was still cloaked around Neska, but he was still able to communicate with me.

"Poison!" I declared. I started walking around the room gesticulating wildly at the table.

"Everyone has poison in their meal, except one," Thornton continued. "Find that one, and you have the murderer."

"Who's poisoned?" Francis asked.

"All of you," Neska stated. Thornton had also been whispering in her ear. "All of you, except one."
Neska let her own dramatic pause take hold. She was one for one on her drama.

Paranoia was clearly setting in as around the table each man was wondering if there was a killer sitting next to them. Again though, no one gave any sign or tell as to give them away. One younger guy, who looked like he had to be an accountant, was on the verge of a panic attack. He whipped out an inhaler and began puffing away.

"Calm the eff down," Francis said. "Obviously, we're not poisoned or we'd all be dead."

At that moment, Flushed Face keeled over in his soup, face first. Dead as the proverbial doornail. I noted the level of his glass that had been previously filled with wine.

"Nobody drink any of the wine," I said. "It's poisoned. Your alcoholic friend, couldn't resist. Even after we just said it was poison. I mean, seriously, I'm sorry your friend is dead, but that was pretty stupid."

"Everybody dump your wine," Francis ordered.

"Stop!" Neska said, waiving her hands.

"What? Why?" Francis asked.

"Because, that's our key to knowing who the murderer is." I answered. "All except for one of you has poison in your glasses. The one, who is attempting to kill the rest of you."

There was an audible gasp. I felt sort of proud. Sure, I hadn't solved any mystery, just regurgitated what had been told me by Thornton, but I still felt like a proper detective. Instead of the killer I actually was. Today, there would be no murder. I mean other than the alcoholic. Today, I got to feel like a hero.

"We need to call the police, and have them come and run tests, so that we can find who the killer is," said Neska.

"I don't effing think so," spoke Francis. "I'm not risking any owned cops meddling with the evidence, when my life is on the line."

"Whoa, Francis, what do you intend we do?" I asked.

Francis answered my question by pulling out two pistols and pointing them at the guys at his table. Everyone else responded in turn by brandishing their own dual pistols. Apparently to sit in at that table was a two gun minimum.

"What are we doing here, Frank?" asked Thick Neck.

"We are not doing anything. You guys are going to drink, one at a time, until the guilty party is revealed. Since these clowns have already stated that I was a target, I'll be sitting it out."

I nodded my head. Made sense to me. No risk of redirecting blame. The killer is found and handled right there. I looked over at Neska. She looked like she was going to be sick. I gathered from her reaction my way of thinking was probably not the socially acceptable way to feel. Clearly, this was not her kind of party.

"Neska," I whispered, "I think it's time for you to leave. Whichever way this goes down, you don't need to see it."

"Not a chance," she whispered back. "I said I wanted to help. I'm here to help."

"I told you, you could be with me for the good, and for the bad, but not the ugly. This is getting ugly."

"And I told you to shove it. No matter what, this is for a good cause. Besides, I solved this while you were busy playing the showman," said Neska.

"Oh, yes?" I asked.

"Didn't even occur to you after the one dude cacked it, that just because no one else died, doesn't mean the killer didn't already drink from his glass."

"Oh," I said.

The men at the table seemed oblivious to our conversation. I shrugged and sauntered over to Dimples and placed my hands on his shoulders.

"Guys, guys, guys. This is a stalemate. No one's going to willingly drink poison to prove their innocence. We're going to have to think this through logically." I said.

"What do you propose?" Francis replied, not lowering his guns.

I scanned the table until I saw it. One glass, in front of a man with a proper beard and beady little eyes, slightly lower than it should be. A dirty edge of the glass confirmed it had been drunk down to that level.

"Well?" Francis demanded.

"My colleague pointed out to me that one other glass at the table has already been drunk from. See the glass in front of Proper Beard over there? I suggest he have another drink since the first didn't seem to effect him.

All eyes, and guns, turned towards Proper Beard.

"Hey, yeah, come to think of it, I saw him take a drink right after it was poured," said The Asthmatic Accountant.

Dimples and Thick Neck joined in with their own recollections.

"Why, Rodney?" Francis asked.

Proper Beard, or Rodney, as I guess he was called responded, "Frank, we've known each other for years. You know I would never-"

"Then drink," Francis cut in.

Rodney looked around at the table. He was a cornered rat. Even with the two guns in his hands, he would never make it out.

"Alright. Call the cops to come get me," Rodney finally answered.

"You know we can't have that kind of publicity, Rodney," Dimples spoke.

"Yeah well, if you want to kill me, just know I'm taking some of you with me. Including you Frank."

"Come on, Rodney," Frank implored, "if you go easy, I promise it'll be quick and painless. Think of your wife and kids. We'll make sure they're looked after, after you're gone."

"No deal, Frank," Rodney answered.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, or in this case, my point of view, I had slowly and calmly edged my way to behind Proper Beard's chair. The knife in my inside pocket had been calling to me. I had wanted to end things with no more bloodshed, but while saving lives may be my business, I'm no saint. A quick flash of light as I pulled my friend from my pocket and inserted it in the back of Rodney's chair. My aim was true and I found his heart.

No shots fired. No more loss of life.

Francis looked at me stunned.

"You're a detective?"

"The effing best," I responded.

Outside the air was cool and I breathed in deep. I've been alive centuries, kept going by the debt I owe to Heaven or Hell or Thornton. One thing never changes though: it feels good to breathe.

I offered to dispose of the bodies for the men, but they said they had other ideas. Thanked us for service, and offered to pay us for all our help. I assured them I don't do it for the money, and on my way out pocketed a few valuables I liked the look of. Saves them the paperwork for direct payment.

After a night like that, I was ironically, pretty thirsty. Is that irony? I don't know, ever since that one song decades ago, I forget. Something said that's the opposite of the intention right? I guess not, or maybe, who knows. Point is I ended up at Neska's bar, Thornton at my side, her pouring me a whiskey. We sat in silence for a few minutes till I finally broke it.

"So why'd your parents name you Neska? Seems insulting to just call you 'girl,'"

Neska rolled her eyes at me.

"My mother was Basque. Though, I think a better question is why are you googling me? Are you stalking me? Do you 'like-like' me?"

"I withdraw my question," I said, then looking at the TV that was muted on the screen, "hey, turn that up."

It was a news crew at Francis's house. We couldn't have left there more than an hour before, and there was already a news team. They weren't kidding when they said they had other ideas. In the background, I saw several of the men who had seemed completely calm when I left, wandering around, looking like they were ready to break down. Talking with the reporter was Francis himself.

"Poor Jeremiah," Frank said, "he drank before the rest of us and he died as a result. But, if he hadn't, we might all have been poisoned."

"So what happened then?" asked the reporter. She was an Indian lady with a happy face. Possibly too happy for murder.

"We all pushed aside our drinks, at which point, Rodney Smith, close friend of mine for years, pulled a knife and tried to stab me. Thankfully, the rest of my guests fought him off. It cost Rodney his life in the end."

"Do you have any idea why he might have wanted to kill you?" the reporter asked smiling.

"I can't say exactly but I think it may have had something to do with my planned announcement tomorrow."

"What announcement is that?"

"My intent to run for President."

I looked over at Thornton who appeared worried, then back to the screen.

"You heard it here first folks. Billionaire Frank Derrywater, who just survived an assassination attempt, plans on throwing his hat in the ring for President."

On screen Frank was smiling wide. Beneath him read his title card: Frank Derrywater, CEO of Derrywater & Locke Enterprises.

"Isn't that the company that manufactures all the weapons for our country?" Neska asked. "Like missiles, and machine guns and stuff?"

I looked back at Thornton who was clearly bewildered.

"What the hell, Thornton?" I asked.

"I--I made a mistake. I don't know what happened," he responded.

"I know what happened." I fired back. "You just effed a lot of people, and none of them better end up on my tab.

To read issue one click HERE To read up more about who was at that table click HERE

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