Tag Archives: short stories

Elvis is Everywhere


The radio chirped out an all-call, and Officer Barkley shifted his grease-paper wrapped double cheeseburger from one hand to the other to scoop up the comm.

“This is car 57, go ahead.”

“211S in progress, Third and Main.”

Robbery. Bank robbery, most likely; there were about a dozen banks and ATMs in the strip-mall on that block. It had been a while since Barkley had gotten involved in more than a traffic stop; a byproduct of his recent return to field work after his injury apprehending a murder suspect five months ago. He cut his eyes at his partner, a new recruit by the name of Presley, who nodded curtly and switched on the sirens.

“Car 57 responding. Details on the suspect?”

There was a hesitation on the other end of the line. “It’s, uh… it’s Elvis.”

Barkley’s heart caught in his throat. “Viva Las Vegas,” he muttered.

#

Sandra hit the street and immediately broke out in a sweat, and only partially because of the two hundred thousand dollars she’d managed to shove in her gunny sack. It was a hundred and six degrees out, and the bejeweled jumpsuit and pompadour wig she sported were not what you could call forgiving in the heat. She snapped her sunglasses down and cast about in something closing in on panic. The shrill trilling alarm from the bank was a dead giveaway; pedestrians were parting around her like a boulder in a stream.

The streets should have been flooded by now; maybe one of the performances had run long. A siren rose in the distance; she only had a few minutes. She’d shoved the pistol into the waistband of her rhinestoned white pants, but there was nothing for it; she grabbed it and dashed up the sidewalk, ignoring the panicked cries of the passersby.

#

“There he is,” Presley said, jabbing a finger at the windshield.

Barkley followed her finger; sure enough, there went the King, white jumpsuit and all, running against the flow of traffic and scattering people in his wake. Hard to tell at this distance, but he could have been carrying a gun. Barkley gunned the engine and the car lurched onto the curb, scattering overweight gamblers in Hawaiian shirts.

“Go,” Barkley said.

Presley jumped out of the car and ran after the King, shouting for him to stop. But it was no good; the confused pedestrians parted in front of the suspect and then swarmed behind him with cell phones trying to catch a picture, getting in Presley’s way. Barkley dropped the cruiser back in gear and took off.

#

The cool air of the hotel lobby hit her like an Arctic blast, icing a bead of sweat oozing out under her wig. In front of her, a sign: Jailhouse Convention, ballroom C. Sandra threw a glance over her shoulder; the copy was closing, about fifty yards behind. To punctuate the situation, the door crashed open, and a shrill “STOP! Police!” rang out through the lobby. But there were too many people around for the cop to get a shot. Sandra kept running.

She flew down the disjointedly patterned carpet with her gun in one hand and her sackful of cash in the other, bills fluttering to the floor in her wake like startled butterflies, scattering hotel guests like spilled jellybeans to the left and the right. Here and there, pompadours and oversized sunglasses and bellbottomed jumpsuits turned to watch the commotion. At the end of the hall, a brass sign for ballroom C floated above a set of double doors. She kicked them open and charged into the throng of startled Elvis impersonators.

“BOMB!” She shouted.

The gyrating speaker on the stage dropped the mic and pandemonium broke out. Sequins scattered. A few hundred hunks of burnin’ love ran in all directions. Sandra yanked her wig off, shed her jumpsuit, and stole through a side exit.

#

To the tune of dozens of fire alarms, a flood of Elvises erupted from the rear exit of the building. They broke around the squad car and officer Barkley, who waited patiently with his weapon drawn on the door. Finally, under the cover of three particularly rotund impersonators, she slipped out, cutting immediately down the side street.

“Sandra,” he said.

She froze. Didn’t turn, just sighed and ran a hand through her hair, matted and lank with sweat from its stint under a wig cap. “Hank.”

“Didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

“Didn’t think you’d remember.”

She turned toward him then, caught him with her eyes. She was still beautiful, dammit. Moreso than she’d been when they were together, if that were possible.

“Your partner’s not so bright,” she said. “Looking for me in the midst of all that.” She flicked her head carelessly back toward the throng. You never saw so many blue suede shoes.

“Presley’s new.”

She laughed. “Guess it’s just you and me, then. So what’s it gonna be?” A wicked grin twisted her lip. “Are you lonesome tonight?”

Barkley swallowed hard. It had been a crap year on the force. He’d probably never make captain now, not with a bullet in his leg and a limp to match. Judging from the size of the bag she was carrying, she had at least a hundred thousand dollars, maybe more. His hound dog eyes rolled wearily across her, remembering the years together, the heartbreak, the bridges, the troubled waters.

The wind went out of him, and he lowered his gun. With a knowing look, she tossed him her wig and jumpsuit. It was big on her, but on Barkley, it would fit just about right. Unless… “Have you put on weight since I saw you last?”

He scowled. “I’m flushing my career, I’d like a little less conversation out of you.”

At that, she cackled. “Come on honey. Don’t be cruel.” And she grabbed his hand and guided him out of the alleyway.

#######

Chuck’s challenge this week is the perennial random song title challenge: my song was “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon. I’d apologize for all the song title puns in the story, but I’m actually not at all sorry.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons: Photo taken by Paul Smith for http://www.apepta.co.uk and kindly supplied by Martin Fox at http://www.elvis2k.co.uk

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The Depths of My Affection


The Depths of My Affection

It’s not my kind of place. But then, what place in Hell is?
A derelict cement building in an abandoned block. But inside… It’s like a velvet glove got together with a neon sign from the Vegas strip.
There’s a live band tonight, some unholy trio of electric guitar, synthesized drums, and howling vocals. They all wear tattered formal attire and wigs so oversized and nappy you can’t see their faces. Throngs of people dance to the stuff, if you can call the cavorting “dancing”.
It’s hot inside, the press of hundreds — maybe thousands — of bodies colliding with one another making the air thick with sweat and perfume and liquor and other things best not mentioned. The walls and countertops are slick with vapor like the inside of a shower.
I slip through the crowd as gingerly as I can, trying to avoid the dancers and drinkers and failing. A stubby guy with a goblin mask on — maybe it’s a mask, one eye scarred over and missing — bumps into me and spills a frothing reddish concoction on my tie. He says something rude and vanishes into the crowd. Next thing I know, a wispy girl all in blue is trailing her fingers across my lapel and blowing cloying smoke in my face, beckoning me out to the floor. I pull away and she turns, forgetting me immediately.
Can’t afford to get tangled up with these degenerates.
Don’t even want to be here, not really.
I think about leaving, looking back over my shoulder, but the door has already vanished in the fog of this place. Everything is a blur of smoke and haze and occasionally pulsing neon lights in the dark.
The bar stretches against the side wall, a massive thing made of blackened polished wood and ivory studs that look like teeth. I rest my hands on it and they stick there, a tacky red clay almost grabbing me back.
“What can I get you?” The bartender asks. She has hair made of snakes and eyes like the void.
I’m not here for drinks. “I’m looking for Yzebel.”
She withdraws with a hiss and flicks a finger upward.
On a balcony I hadn’t even noticed — veiled in the fog and the smoke — stands a figure who looks as out of place as I feel. White gown. Hair molded and flawless, cascading over one eye and past her shoulders like a golden waterfall. Shimmering skin. Her one visible eye sweeps over the place, a security camera processing all within its arc. She looks at me and I’m skewered to the seat, a hot lance in my veins pinning me to my place like a bug under glass.
But she doesn’t actually see me, or at least she gives no outward sign. She whirls and vanishes into the haze.
I race upstairs and find her leaning over a game of cards; instead of chips and cash, there’s a small pile of teeth and dried-out strips of what looks like untanned leather.
Somebody wins and there’s a clamor at the table; somebody’s accused of cheating, and all of a sudden chairs are being pushed back, hands are flying to collars and everybody’s shouting. I seize the moment, taking her by the arm and walking her away.
“I hear you can get me passage out,” I say. Her perfume smells like my grandmother’s peach tree.
“Not anymore,” she says, not even flustered. As cool as if she were telling me they were out of the night’s special. “Guys upstairs have clamped down around here, in case you hadn’t noticed.” She lays a hand on my fingers and points down into the bar. A saucy bunch of devils are clamoring for a waitress’s attention, jawing at each other, their tongues hanging out like limp windsails.
I’d noticed the fuzz when I came in, but the fuzz are everywhere. They’ve always been a part of her operations. I tell her as much.
“I think you heard wrong about me,” Yzebel says, plucking herself free and smoothing her hair. For just an instant, the light catches her just so — an angel amidst a mass of forsaken souls — but then it’s over, and she’s looking at me like I’m a dead insect on her windshield. “I run an honest business.”
“I know about your reputation, okay?” I nod at the brutes down below, now neck-deep in a couple of pitchers. “And I know you have to keep up appearances. But I also know you’re a good person.”
“That and a nickel will just about buy me a stick of gum.” She’s not harsh, just matter-of-fact, almost apologetic. “I used to help people get out, but I don’t anymore. My goodwill is all used up. The noose is tightening. Nobody in or out. I couldn’t help you even if I wanted to.”
Yzebel turns away with finality. I grab her and she spins around on her own accord. No longer is she the angel she appears — for a heartbeat she’s all fury and horns. She snarls, the sound too deep for the waiflike body she’s in to even make, and I’m forced to remember who I’m dealing with. I draw my hand back, open the pendant around my neck, show her the cameo inside.
“Maybe you don’t want to help me, but I’ll bet you want to help her.”
Then, she’s the one seizing my arm and yanking me into an office.

#

Yzebel offers me a seat on a swanky sofa swathed in velvet. I sit and sink in.
Meanwhile, she’s pacing the room, the seductress transforming into a businesswoman. She pulls her hair back, knots it behind her head. Leans on the smoked-oak desk separating us. She’s tiny, but the thing creaks under the force of her. She’s quiet. Dead quiet. “Who are you, and what in the seven hells do you have to do with my daughter?”
I lick my lips, conscious of the seawater that leaks out as I do so. “She’s my wife.”
“You mean she was.”
Right. The whole “dead” thing.
“I like to think she still is. With a place like this. With somebody like you to help me out.”
She tsks and drums her fingers on the desktop, tiny ringlets of smoke escaping where she touches the dark wood. Suddenly, the full force of her gaze hits me, and it’s like in the bar; I’m skewered to my seat, but this time there’s a heat to her scrutiny, like she’s really seeing me, the smoldering coals of her eyes burning away waterlogged flesh and soggy suit and everything I ever was, living or dead. She sees it all. The wedding on the beach of Bermuda. The honeymoon cruise back to the states. The delirious night in the casino, where I took in over ten grand in an hour, lost it, and won it back again. The shady guy I bluffed on the last hand of the night to double it all.
And she sees me walking up to meet Lydia on the deck at midnight. Sees the stars burning overhead, a blanket of tranquil diamonds. Then the bag over my head. The tying of my wrists. The punches and kicks to my gut, my face. Then the water.
Then she looks away and I come to, gasping for breath and struggling to sit upright.
“Hell of a way to spend your wedding night.” She leans in, her face a mask of judgment and impassivity.
She’s seen it all. There was no hiding it. At least it’s all out in the open. “I made some mistakes.”
“And got yourself killed.”
“Yeah.”
“Leaving your bride-to-be on the very night of her union.”
“I’m sorry. I —”
“My daughter.” She slams a fist into the desk top, and if it groaned before, it actually splinters now. She’s staring at me, a snake pondering not if it will eat the mouse quivering before it, but how, and how much it will toy with the poor thing first.
For a moment, madly, I wonder if I will escape this room with my life. I almost laugh. But she sees this, and the mirthless chuckle turns to ash on my lips.
“My daughter,” she mutters, leaning back now in her chair and pondering the ceiling. I worry for a moment that she’ll ask me how we met, how I got involved with her in the first place, and if she learns that, then I will likely become a permanent fixture in her office, perhaps a living ashtray for her to grind out her cigarettes on. But she smirks, like she’s just thought of something. “You realize, of course, that I could just as easily send you the other way.”
“…The other way?”
“You want to go back. Above.” She rolls her eyes and points toward the ceiling. “But this isn’t the only Hell. There are others. Infinite ones, really. Though they come in a few distinct and … unsavory varieties. You caused my daughter pain. Maybe in return, you deserve some pain of your own. A little bit of personalized torment.”
The room feels suddenly hot, and her eyes have taken on a dangerous red tint. Discretion is sometimes the better part of getting your face roasted off by a half-demon. I rise quickly, backing up.
“Sit.”
My legs don’t bother asking for my opinion. They buckle, and I drop into the sofa again. She moves around the desk, the snake again, creeping in for the kill. She leans back against the desk, taps her nails on it again.
“There’s something about you, Hiram. Something I like. So here’s the deal. I smuggle you topside, give you a little time to put your affairs in order, give you a nice new body to truck around in.”
“A new body?”
She laughs. “Have you seen yourself lately? If I send you back there in this —” she waves a hand in my general direction, encompassing with the flick of her fingers her entire contempt for everything I am — “you’ll be dead again in just a couple of minutes. I’m a demon, not a miracle worker.”
“Fine. How long do I get?”
Her eyes turn cold, black, empty. Snakes’ eyes. There were stories about what her other half was, but I didn’t believe them, not until now. “Seven days. You get seven days.”
It’s not as much time as I had hoped for. Maybe not enough. But with those eyes staring holes in me, I’m lucky I got anything at all. “Thank you.”
“Don’t thank me yet,” she says, the menacing demeanor evaporating in a peal of cherubish laughter. “You haven’t asked me about my price.”
“What’s your price?”
“I want you to bring me my husband.”

#

I find Lydia sitting in a streetside cafe, her eyes attending but unable to read a paperback open in front of her. She looks put together to an outsider, but I can see the out-of-place strands of hair, the slight mismatch of her outfit. She knows I’m dead but can’t make herself believe it.
It’s not the best way to approach her, but I’m on a limited engagement. I walk up to her, clear my throat. “Lydia Gantz?”
She looks up, startled at the use of her married name.
“I have a message from your husband.”
She locks onto my face with the intensity of a shark scenting blood. “Hiram?”
It’s stupid, but I feel tears pricking at the backs of my eyes. Somehow, she recognizes me in this doughy, shapeless form Yzebel has given me. But then Lydia gets suspicious. “What have you done with him?”
It’s too crowded on this street to have her bursting into tears over her dead husband. I try to pull her away, but she’s angry now.
“Do you want money? Is that it?”
“Listen to me.”
“You listen. I want my husband back. I know my mother’s involved in this. Whatever she’s giving you, I’ll double it.”
She’s right, but she’s all wrong. I lay a hand on her arm, tell her we can’t talk here, we should go somewhere else. She wheels and smashes me in the jaw with the flat of her hand. It’s just a slap, but it connects like a brick to the face. The engagement ring — my engagement ring — leaves a little gash in my cheek, blood welling up hot.
She’s not going to like the next part, but there’s nothing for it. I pull the little snub-nosed pistol from its holster, slide it into my pocket, and jam it into her side. She protests until she recognizes the feel of the gun through the sundry layers of fabric. For a moment I’m shocked at how coolly she takes it, but then, this family is surprising me from every side lately. Obviously it’s not the first time she’s been held at gunpoint.
“Come with me,” I whisper, helping her to her feet with my other hand. “Please.”

#

It’s a short car ride back to her house — not our house, but the family’s house, a towering affair of brick and ivy set a few miles back off the main road — and we speak not a word on the way there. She’s tense but cool, and I’m trying to figure out just how in the hell she’s managing to stay so cool. But there’s no time for all that — I pull up to the house and we go in. Inside, it’s all cordial pleasantries. Her father is here, doddering and clumsy in his tuxedo, asking me if he should pull the car around, for god’s sake. He hasn’t been right in the head for most of Lydia’s life, if she’s to be believed. For a moment, I wonder how I’m going to deal with him. Then he vanishes down a hallway and we don’t see him again.
Lydia’s recovered herself a little; she offers me tea. “No thanks.” She makes herself a cup, and the spoon tinkles against the rim like a drowning wind chime.
“Your husband is dead,” I say.
She blows absently across the top of her teacup.
“And he’s not coming back.” My throat tightens a little on this; I’d love to tell her, but there’s no point.
“Just one more thing my mother’s stolen from me,” she says, her face not half as vitriolic as her words.
“He wanted me to tell you something.”
“How do you know him?”
“Does it matter?”
She weighs my response, measures me, eyes like the edges of knives.
“He’s got a safe deposit box. Number 81723. You go to his apartment, dump out the box of cereal on top of the fridge, find the key. Inside is…” I falter. It sounds so foolish. “A little statue. Ancient. Jade. Priceless. Something he…” stole, I don’t say, because I can’t break her heart again. Something he stole, and something that’s going to get you killed. Her expression gives away nothing, and I can feel her doubt. “He wants you to have it.”
“Wants?”
“…Wanted.” She’s staring at me again, and I’m a worm on a hook. I look away. “Just do it. This week. Tomorrow, if you can.”
“And then what?”
And then, when the thugs come around looking for what I owed them, they’ll take it and leave her in peace.
They won’t kill her to get back at me for holding out on them.
“And then you won’t hear from him again. Or me. You can go on with your life. Meet somebody else. Get married. Have a kid.” She’s squinting at me now, the way she used to do when I was making up stories about my past and she didn’t quite believe me. But she never pressed the issue then, and she doesn’t now. She opens her mouth like she’s about to say something, but she doesn’t. I mumble an apology and get the hell out of there.
When I check the box a few days later, it’s empty. I swing by our place and see it in the window, catching the light in its weird crags and edges. At least she’ll be safe.

#

All that’s left, then, is her father. I’m on my seventh day, and you don’t want to split hairs with the queen of the dead. I have until three o’clock to bring him back with me, or Yzebel will take me alone and to be honest, I don’t want to think about what comes after that. I go back to Lydia’s old house and knock on the door.
The old man’s there, still wearing the tuxedo. He smells of must and turned earth, like the inside of a crypt. And he’s asking me again if he should pull the car around.
What the hell. I say yes.
He blinks at me like he hasn’t really heard, then his eyes light up and he begins nodding like his head’s about to fall off. “This way,” he babbles over and over again, leading me down an elegant hallway to the garage. Inside are a series of ludicrous roadsters in obscene colors — fire engine red, twilight purple, nuclear yellow. I guess it pays to be married to the mistress of night. He grabs a set of keys and leads me through the fluorescent-lit garage. Toward the end is a posh number: a polished and gleaming ghost in black and white. The old man says it’s a Brabus, whatever that means — all I know is it’s gorgeous and expensive, and it looks fast enough to outrun any demon any day of the week. If only. He tosses me the keys and settles in next to me, tapping his thumbs excitedly on his knees.
Grimly, I set the car in gear, and we roar out onto the street. I’ve never been a killer, but at least the guy’s not protesting. It’s almost like he wants to go. What do I know; maybe he does.

#

The real bitch of it is that I have to go out the same way I came in. It’s got to be drowning again, which is something I’d really rather avoid, but all I have to do is think about the unholy fire behind Yzebel’s eyes to realize that a few lungfuls of seawater are preferable to a woman’s wrath, particularly this woman. There’s a brilliant vista out over the sea by the cliffs out on Route 1, and I make for that at about a hundred and fifty miles an hour. The old man — Yzebel’s husband — hums idly in the seat next to me, like we’re out for a Sunday drive, like he knows what’s coming and looks forward to it.
Whatever. It’ll all be over in a minute, and I can go back to my eternal torment and not have to worry about Lydia or her mother or her father ever again.
There’s the cliff.
Ocean surf below, clouds rolling in like marshmallow fluff.
And, funny thing, I look in the rearview mirror and see Lydia in the backseat.
Lydia.
She’d been hiding under a tarp in the back and now she pops up, wraps her arms around my neck, and whispers in my ear.
“You can’t get away from me again.”
I yank the wheel hard to the right, but it’s too late.
We smash through the guardrail and go tumbling into the azure at nearly two hundred.
Next to me, the old man shrieks in glee as we go over.
Right before we hit the water, I swear I can see Yzebel floating just below the surface, her arms open wide, a devilish grin playing across her face.
We’re all going to see her.
One big happy family.

#########

Chuck’s challenge for the end of October was, appropriately enough, a horror challenge of the X meets Y variety. I drew “Casablanca” meets “The Ring.” I think I captured that feel at the beginning, then slowly drifted away…

This one is what it is. I think I’m maybe still a bit burned up on finishing my recent sci-fi draft. Anyway…


The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate


I sweep into the office a few minutes early, grab a cup of horrible coffee from the community pot, and sit down at my desk. I brush aside the unfinished manuscripts and dog-eared personal edits to have a look at the morning’s headlines: The usual mish-mash of impending deadlines, panicky calls for help with snarled projects, each message carrying behind it that familiar whiff of desperation. I’ve been in this business for so many years now, it’s all mundane enough to make me want to walk right back out the front door.

But wait — here’s something different.

Emergency. Project out of control. Please help. Then a phone number.

It’s so simple, so concise. Your typical distress call is couched in enough flowery language to choke a goat with an unreasonable appetite, the panicky flailings of a fledgling author out to prove himself while admitting he is totally out of his depth.

But this one has the sense not to waste words. It’s intriguing. I hop up from my desk, make a few rounds of the office, ask if anybody’s checking up on this case. Nobody is. Projects of their own. Ongoing calls. November’s just around the corner, so we’re all a bit on edge for the rush that’ll be coming. Nobody wants to pick up extra work, especially a call so vague it could be anything.

But it’s just that unknowable nothing that has me piqued. I pick up the phone, dial the number.

The voice on the other end is haggard, like he’s had about eighteen cups of coffee on two hours of sleep. “Hello?”

I tap a pen on my desk, prepare a notecard to jot down some vitals. “This is Ella Lucida, with 2nd Street, calling for Geoff Owens?”

A sigh of relief on the other end, and a scrambling clatter, like a bunch of cans being shoved off a desktop. “Yes. Oh, Jesus. That’s me.” A pause. “Can you help me?”

“That depends.”

#

Every once in a while, a call takes me to a nice place. Penthouse apartment, or mansion set way off away from the traffic and hurly-burly. This is not one of those calls. Geoff’s place is yet another shitty fifth-floor walk-up in a career full of shitty fifth-floor walk-ups. The building looks like if a few more windows were knocked out or a few more vagrants were sleeping in the lobby it could be condemned. But it isn’t, apparently, because the lights are on, and when I reach Geoff’s door, it’s locked, deadbolted, and safety-chained shut. It’s quiet inside, the quiet of a house with a sleeping newborn in the back room, the parents terrified to make a peep.

I knock.

There’s a scuffling of feet inside, a shuffling of papers, the sound of clicks and jangles as chains and bolts are slid back. The door cracks, and a wily eye peers out at me.

“Ella?”

The guy’s clearly been through it, judging from the bags under his eyes and the dusting of stubble under his chin. I nod.

“Come in.”

Inside looks about like you’d expect. Peeling floral-print wallpaper, revealing even worse psychedelic-striped wallpaper beneath. Piles of paper covered with notes and heavily-used paperbacks tossed all over the place. Overpowering stink of stale cigarette smoke. I’m about to ask him to crack a window when I notice they’re nailed shut.

We’ve been through it already, but I find it helps to let a client talk it out first. So I ask him to tell me again.

“My story,” he flashes his tongue across his lips, “has a demon.”

#

He spins out the tale in a rush, his hushed whispers barely stirring the ashy dust caught in the sunlight through the window. I nod and listen and purse my lips thoughtfully here and there, pausing to write down what he thinks are notes but what are actually meaningless scribbles. It’s become clear to me that there’s nothing special going on here; he’s just another neurotic writer who believes that the problems of his story have gotten out of hand because of some magic. He talks about characters acting strangely. Plot lines that he can’t resolve. Antagonists who talk too much. A shadowy figure that he didn’t write flitting through his scenes and replacing his carefully crafted text with gibberish.

“Wait a second.” He didn’t mention that on the phone. “What did you say?”

“I’m writing a simple love story. Boy meets girl — zombie apocalypse happens — girl devours boy’s brains — girl and boy unlive happily ever after.”

“I got that part.” It’s among the more terrible premises for a book that I’ve heard lately, but it’s not the worst. “Tell me about the figure.”

“So the book has zombies, sure. And werewolves. And one guy who might be a vampire or maybe he just has alopecia.” A nervous shrug. “I haven’t decided.”

“The figure,” I insist.

“When I go back and read my work, there’s this… thing. It appears in scenes out of nowhere and… look, it’s easier if I just show you.”

It’s dangerous work diving into an unknown author’s work. You never know what to expect. So as he boots up the laptop, I unpack my kit, laying the tools of my trade on the desktop. Spell-correcting goggles, because the average new author has the spelling ability of an ADD sixth-grader. A high-diffusion plot-detangler, which can sniff out and eliminate an extraneous development before you can explain that it’s necessary for character development. A de-purpling prosometer, which cleans all the adverbs and adjectives right out of a paragraph. And finally, my correct-all quill. I haven’t used it in years — not since the great Wikipedia overflowing of 2012, where an overly ambitious author cleverly began rewriting entries in iambic pentameter and couldn’t stop. It took seven agents to subdue him, and I fancy I can still see bits of the de-versed Shakespearean entries about penguin mating habits swimming in the beads of ink at its tip. I won’t use it, but any author worth his salt recognizes a powerful instrument when he sees it.

Geoff’s eyes linger on the quill. Not all authors know about the syndicate, and fewer still know all the tools we carry, but somehow, he does. “Is that thing for real?” He asks.

I nod. “Wanna touch it?”

Fear replaces wonder in a heartbeat. His eyes get wide and he stammers uselessly for a moment before declining. His manuscript has opened on the laptop. He steps back and I begin to read.

It’s as idiotic as I expected. Another zombie outbreak story, ho-hum. But as I’m reading, I get this weird impression of a figure all in black lurking at the edges of each scene. I re-read, but there’s nothing there. Strange.

Then, at the end of the third chapter, suddenly there’s a blank page before the fourth. “Did you leave this gap here?”

“What? No, I — Oh god, he’s eating whole pages now!”

I return to the manuscript. The seventh chapter has been replaced with a copy of Green Eggs and Ham, complete with illustrations. Chapter ten is nothing but ones and zeroes. Chapter thirteen is ASCII art of a donkey’s privates.

“It’s getting worse,” Geoff moans.

That much is clear. I reach for the prosometer and aim it squarely at the screen. The ASCII art rearranges itself into a fist with a defiantly extended middle finger.

“What the –”

Then I see it.

I didn’t even think those things existed, but there it is, just to the side of the blinking cursor, hiding behind it as it winks in and out of existence underneath the pile of rudely arranged punctuation. A GrammaDemon.

It’s rumored that GrammaDemons are single-handedly responsible for the loss of all the greatest literature the world has ever known. The missing counterparts of the Rosetta Stone. Cardenio. And now there’s a GrammaDemon lurking in a godawful zombie story written by a nobody in the middle of nowhere.

The demon winks at me — it actually winks — and begins filling the next page with arcane scribblings in symbols I can’t even hope to read. It’s trying to come through, I realize.

I don the spell-fixing goggles and begin to type. The only hope is to contain the monster before it can escape the page and wreak hell in the literaverse. I conjure a hero with a flaming sword to attack the demon — the demon washes the hero aside in an effortless wave of capital A’s. Sweat breaking out on my brow, I try another tack — into the setting I write a bottomless pit for the demon to fall into, but the little bastard is too fast for me; out of the pit fly a thousand unicorns that buoy him, cackling, up and around the page. The demonic symbols have spilled over from the word processor and are covering the desktop now; there isn’t much time.

I aim the prosometer at the page and fire; the symbols scatter from the blast, but they don’t disappear — instead, they begin to leak out of the side of the screen and congeal on the desktop. I raise the de-tangler and level it at the pool of inky blackness, but a hand congeals out of the babble and slaps the device across the room. It hits Geoff between the eyes and he drops like a sackful of query letters.

With horror, I back away from the desk. The hand has become an arm and a shoulder, steeped in inky ichor, rasping in a voice like the turning of a thousand pages and smelling like rotted parchment.

My eye falls on the quill. If ever there were a time, it’s now.

I hurl myself at the desk, ducking under the swiping arm of the GrammaDemon. My fingers close around the shank. Its ink runs thick and viscous over my hand, like the blood of a ravenous beast. I snarl and swing my arm around just as the demon kicks me across the room with a foot made entirely of the word “the”. I crack my head on the rim of the trashcan by the door. My vision goes blurry. The last thing I see is the quill, embedded in the GrammaDemon’s chest. Then there’s a loud crack, and everything goes black.

#

It feels like I’ve lost consciousness, but I haven’t. I feel Geoff tugging at my arm and realize that I’m wide awake, I just can’t see. I wipe my eyes — they’re covered with ink, just like everything else in the room. The laptop, the desk, Geoff, the windows — all are dripping with ink and congealed random letters: the lifeblood of the slain GrammaDemon.

“Are you all right?” Geoff asks. I put a hand to my head — it comes away soaked in ink, rather than blood. I nod.

“Your manuscript,” I say.

He runs to his desk, wipes the sheen of ink off the screen. Gone are the demonic symbols, the ASCII art, the ones and zeroes, the eggs, the ham. All that’s left is his horrible story.

“You did it,” he says, and before I can stop him, he’s hugging me. Ink is on his shoulders and in my hair and squishing out between our shoulders.

I pack up my things, cleaning off as much of the ink as I can. The quill is ruined: the shaft shattered, the plumules scattered around the room, sticking up at haphazard angles out of the ink. I don’t pity Geoff the cleaning bill he’ll have, but then again, the black is an improvement over the wallpaper. I leave him hunched over his laptop, finishing his manuscript, giddy — or maybe just lightheaded — on the fumes of the slain GrammaDemon.

As I hit the street, my cell chimes. There’s an APB out on somebody rewriting the lower third of the news broadcast in Gaelic. I check my watch. Not lunchtime yet.

I wipe a smudge of ink from my eyebrow and hail a cab. It’s gonna be a long day.

**************

Chuck’s challenge this week was to take a title created by another author and spin it into a story. I picked, obviously, “The 2nd Street Writing Syndicate,” offered by one David Marks. I had more fun writing this than I care to admit. It probably needs some work, but writing it was a creative and cathartic burst that I needed this week. Hope you enjoy!

This story was influenced more than a little by Jasper Fforde’s works about literary detective, Thursday Next.


Mutual Back-Scratching


Regulars around here will know that I take part in weekly flash fiction challenges over at Chuck Wendig’s blog. These are a lot of fun in their own right, but occasionally he switches things up and gives us the chance to co-op a little bit. Last week we were tasked with creating an interesting character, and this week we’re using those characters created by other authors in short stories of our own.

Well, I crafted a sketch of a shape-changing individual last week, and that character was picked up and run with by Kira Jessup, in a story she called “Shifters.” It’s pretty cool. Also, she’s Australian. Check it out!


Game Face


It’s morning, and though the body and mind are refreshed, last night’s revels are too close to memory. I feel them creeping in and coloring my mood. I feel restless. I feel alive. The lump in bed next to me falls aside with a gentle push, and I quick-step to the bathroom.

I check my face in the mirror and find that the hair is a bit too disheveled from sleep, and with a brief calculated swipe of my hand I correct this imperfection. Further inspection reveals that the brows are rather furrowed, as if I’ve been brooding too long over dark thoughts and they have carved their implications into my forehead; with a smooth massage of my fingers, these lines disappear. The eyes: too narrowed, almost suspicious, and an altogether too menacing shade of brown; a pass of the palm and they are wider, friendlier, and a much more lovely shade of green. The lips of the mouth curl upwards at the corners with the hint of secret knowledge and vague amusement, punctuated by the razor’s edge of immaculate white teeth beneath. The hand moves again, and the sardonic bemused mouth is replaced by one that is sober, thoughtful, understanding.

The nose will do for today; I’ve always liked this one.

I go to the window and throw it open. The morning breeze hits my skin like spring water in a parched throat. With a shiver, I sprout freckles. I’ve never had freckles. Today’s a good day to try something new.

*************************

Chuck’s challenge this week is to create not a work of short fiction, but rather a character in just 250 words, the characters to be used in next week’s challenge.

Here’s a character. I think his (or her?) skin could be fun to walk around in.


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