A Garden of Bones

Today marked the seventh year in a row that he had come here to dig.

The muscles on his arms and back rippled as he pushed the shovel again and again into the cold, unwilling earth. Sweat ran in rivulets down his face, joining other beads of perspiration to form little streams that flowed down his back. A cold wind picked up, but he did not feel the chill. A pale moon hung overhead, bathing the world in a silver light. He did not carry a torch; the moon was enough.

The ground was harder this year than it had been last year; there was a dull ache in his arms already, but he wasn’t done digging. Or maybe I’m just not as strong as I used to be, he thought. Maybe I’m growing old. The thought saddened him.

He blocked all other thoughts from his mind and fell into a rhythm: the shovel went down, soil came up. He’d lost track of time, but it did not matter. He continued to dig. The shovel went down, soil came up. Slowly, steadily, the hole grew deeper.

Dig, dig, dig. After a while – thirty minutes? Two hours? He could not say – he decided that it was deep enough. He stopped digging.

He straightened up, letting the shovel drop from his fingers to the ground. His back ached, but he welcomed the pain. It distracted him, kept him from thinking… thinking of what he did… thinking of her…

Seven years. Happy Anniversary, he thought bitterly.

Turning his back, he walked away toward the spot where he parked his car. It was an old and battered thing, not much to look at. But the sight of it filled him with memories, as it did every time. He picked her up for their first date in this car… it seemed so long ago and yet he could remember everything. Would that he could only forget. Fishing a key from his pocket he popped open the trunk.

The girl was there.

The blood had stained through her wrappings, a deep angry blot surrounding her head. It dripped from the cloth into the trunk. He sighed. That would leave a stain.

Slowly, gently, he reached into the trunk and lifted her in his arms. He took particular care not to bump her into anything on her way out.  Then he turned and walked back the way he came.

The walk back took shorter than he remembered; before he knew it he was back at the site he had dug, with his shovel lying discarded in the sand. He knelt in the freshly dug earth and slowly, softly, laid her in the ground. As he did so a portion of the cloth covering her head came away, revealing her face. She had been beautiful once, but death had taken that away from her. No, not death, a voice inside him whispered, you did this. The marks that his hands had left on her face had disfigured her, left her face swollen and bleeding. But this girl had been beautiful once, as she had been beautiful, all those years ago.

Seven years. Happy Anniversary.

“I’m sorry, Emily,” he whispered to the girl. “Forgive me.”

The name of the girl lying in the ground was Melissa.

*

He first met her earlier that night. Picking her up in his battered Toyota, he drove her to the house where he lived. When they entered the living room the girl pressed her body against his, ran a slender finger down the side of his face and asked him: “So how do you want to do this?” No doubt she was expecting him to take her up to the bedroom and fuck her.

Instead he walked over to a stand beside the old fireplace. He picked up a worn ring case and opened it. Inside the case lay a ring; a slender band of gold inset with a single blood red ruby. It was a simple thing, and beautiful in its simplicity. He carried the ring back to the girl and placed it delicately into her hand. “Put it on,” he told her.

The girl’s face showed bewilderment, but only for a split second. She was a prostitute, after all, and no doubt she’d heard much weirder requests from clients than simply ‘Put on a ring’. Smiling coyly, she eased the ring onto the middle finger of her left hand.

“No. Not there,” he said to her. “Your ring finger.” The girl did as he said. The ruby caught the light in the room, glowing on her slender finger.

“Now,” the girl purred in a sultry voice, “what should I do?”

“Tell me you’re carrying my baby,” he replied.

The girl said, “What?” In her confusion, all the silkiness dropped from her voice. She spoke with a sharp accent.

“Tell me we’re going to have a child. Tell me you’re carrying my baby.”

She looked at him queerly for a moment, but then her professionalism took over. She flashed him her sweetest smile and said the words that had haunted him for seven years.

“We’re going to have a child.” Here she took a step toward him. “I’m carrying your baby.”

Deep inside him he wanted to take her in his arms and tell her that he forgave her, that he understood. He wanted to tell her that everything was going to be alright. Deep inside him he wanted to succeed with this one where he had failed with all the others.

Instead he hit her.

The girl fell backward, her face dissolving into a mask of pain and confusion. It was quickly replaced with fear as he climbed on top of her and hit her again.

And again.

And again.

After a long while her body went limp, and she ceased to cry out. He knelt astride her immobile body, his hands dripping with blood, and said: “I’m sorry, Emily.”

*

His mind wandered back to the present, kneeling in the ground.

He rose up out of the pit and fetched his shovel. Working with quick movements honed by years of practice, he shoveled the earth onto the dead girl. As he worked, it seemed to him that the eyes of the girl were staring straight at him. He worked faster.

It took him fifteen minutes to completely cover up the grave. Once again he thought of the girl lying beneath the ground, and how he had failed with her. How he had failed with all of them. The moon hung low in the sky; daybreak would soon be upon him. There was one final thing to be done.

Casting the shovel aside once more, he reached into the pocket of his sweat-soaked trousers and drew out a package in which were seven slender roses, carefully wrapped. He opened the wrapper, and even in the dim light the pale blue color of the petals was plain. Lavender roses. One of the rarest types of rose in the world.

He knelt and placed a rose reverently on the freshly-dug mound. “I’m sorry,” he said again.

Turning, he walked away from the site – not back toward his car, but in another direction. The ground here was barren and hard, and unmarked except for some wild weeds growing here and there, but he knew where he was going.

After a while he stopped, then knelt and placed another rose on the ground. This was where he’d buried Anna a year ago. I’m sorry. He walked off again, and did the same for Denise. Denise, with her quick smile and big, bouncy breasts. Denise, who he’d brought here two years ago. A short distance beyond her he did the same for Celine (three years ago).

After Celine he couldn’t remember their names, but he placed a rose on each of their graves anyway. Each time he whispered how sorry he was, but no matter how many times he whispered those words the guilt and the shame were always with him. And then he came to the last one.

Emily.

As he stood over the grave of the woman he once called Wife, the woman he’d loved with all his heart – the woman who betrayed you, a voice inside him whispered fiercely – he began to cry.

And with the tears came flooding back the memories of that night, seven years ago…

*

“I’ve got something for you,” he said to her.

Emily’s eyes lit up at that. “Oooh, what is it?”

He reached behind her ear and with a practiced move of his wrist pulled a single flower form his sleeve. It was a trick he had learned from a street magician many years ago.

Emily’s eyes went wide as he theatrically knelt and held out the rose to her. “A lavender rose?” she breathed. She reached out and took it slowly, as if she were afraid that moving too fast would shatter the illusion and cause everything to disappear.

He smiled. He knew the symbolism of the gesture wouldn’t be lost on a flower-lover like her. Lavender roses – rare, beautiful – were generally recognized to be a symbol of enchantment and love at first sight.

“Happy Anniversary,” he said, rising.

Emily threw herself into his arms and kissed him. He thought about the other gift in his pocket: a gold ring set with a single dark ruby. He was not a rich man, and it was not a cheap gift; he’d saved for months to be able to afford it. But she was worth it.

Emily pulled out of the kiss and said, “I have something for you too.”

Oh? Well this was a pleasant surprise. He grinned. “I’m waiting.”

She stepped back and squealed: “I’m pregnant!”

No.

His smile vanished. A heavy silence descended upon the room like a cloud. He asked quietly, “Are you sure?”

This was not the response Emily expected. Nevertheless, she nodded and said excitedly, “Mm-hm. I went to my doctor today, and he confir—”

He hit her.

It was a backhand slap, cruelly delivered. Emily’s hand flashed up to her face, where an angry red welt was already developing. Shocked, she blurted, “What the hell – ?”

The next blow sent her sprawling to the ground. As she lay unceremoniously on the floor, their eyes met for a brief second. And in that moment something changed in her eyes as realization dawned, and suddenly there were no secrets between them.

In the years that followed he went back in his mind and relived that moment many times, but all he remembered was a blinding rage overcoming him, moving his body as if on its own accord. He vaguely remembered that Emily tried to flee, crawling on her hands and knees into the kitchen and slamming the door shut, but he threw his frame against the door and broke it. That was one of the things he could not bear to think about: He hunted his own wife like an animal.

Emily was backed against a wall with nowhere to go, and then he was all over her, hitting her till she screamed no more.

And when it was over and the punishing revelation of what he had done hit him, he knelt over her unmoving body, hugged her disfigured face to his chest and cried. Try as he might he couldn’t remember exactly how long he cried for, but he knew it must be hours. There was nobody around to hear him as, with emotion choking his voice he whispered into the silence, “I’m sorry, Emily.”

It was much later that he realized that the little ring was still in his pocket, untouched.

*

That ring was in his pocket seven years later, as he stood over the grave he dug for the woman he still called Wife.

…He wipes the tears off his face with the back of his hand. He kneels and places a lavender rose on the weeds which have grown to cover the site. He says nothing; there is nothing to say that he hasn’t already said in the years since he beat his wife to death. The voices in his head still decry him. The guilt and shame are with him still; constant accusers, everlasting companions. In a way he welcomes them; they are familiar faces, they are his friends in a world in which he has precious few…

The horizon to the east had taken on a light tinge. Dawn was not far away. It was time to go. He fetched his shovel and walked away from Emily and the others. As he walked, he fingered the ring in his pocket. Maybe next year, he thought. Maybe next year he would finally be able to make things right…

After a few minutes he came to his car. Tossing the shovel carelessly into the back seat he climbed into the driver’s side. After a few minutes of coaxing he got the engine to start. He did not drive away immediately, but instead sat staring into space, silently cursing everything he could think of.

He cursed God, if indeed ‘He’ was out there. Fuck him.

He cursed Emily, and he cursed the others too. He cursed them for making him do what he did.

He cursed the man he had become, for it was a man he passionately loathed.

But most of all, he cursed the disease he had contracted when he was fifteen: the disease that almost killed him but changed its mind and left him with a haunting secret he would keep forever. He cursed the disease that left him sterile, unable to father children.

…We are going to have a baby, she said…

The sun was rising. Sighing, he put the car into gear and drove slowly away from his garden of buried memories, and never looked back.

*

“What the heart has always known, leads to that path of stones. A hand that destroyed its own, forever returns to a garden of bones.” – Kwabena Amowi Koomson.

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

Author’s Note.

I started A Garden of Bones in October of 2012, but I got stuck somewhere in the middle and abandoned it until very recently, when someone came along and gave me a well-needed push. This story is dedicated to Kiiki Quarm, without whom I would never have found the discipline to finish it.

As always, I thank you for reading.

Nyameye.

The Final Letter

This is a story I did a couple of weeks back for The JR Show. I’m just reblogging it here.

Nyameye.

******

THE FINAL LETTER.

 

My Dearest Wife,

I am cold. The fire burns bright and hot in the hearth barely ten feet from where I sit, yet inside I feel a cold hand touching me, enfolding me in dark embrace.

I am dying.

If you are reading this then it means I am already dead. Do not be sad. Do not mourn for me. Take care of the children. They are all I can think about, aside from you. When they ask you, tell them that I have gone away. I do not think their little hearts can bear the truth, especially Molly. I cannot bear the thought of what this would do to her. Please, take care of the children.

Dearest wife, from the first day I saw you, Never once have I betrayed your trust, never have I left your side or desired another since I met you. I love you.

But I do not deserve you.

It pains me that I have to tell you this in this way, but I feel I do not have much time on this earth. Wife, I have kept a secret from you for all this while. I told myself every day that one day I would have the courage to tell you…

When I was sixteen, I met a girl. She was a pretty thing, short and cute. The minute I saw her I knew that I desired her. How was I to know that that smiling young woman would be the death of me?

Her name was Tracy. Her parents owned the mill in the center of our little farming town. They were the richest family for miles around; her father drove a fancy motor car, her mother was a respectable lady of influence. She was their only child, and they doted on her.

I was not born to a postman and a seamstress, as I have repeatedly told you in the past. I lied to you. Forgive me. My father was a farmer who raised two strapping boys, of whom I was first. My mother was a housewife, plain of face and strong of spirit. My earliest memories are of toiling on the farm with my father by day and reading the bible by candlelight beside my mother at night. We were far from wealthy, but my parents taught us to be content in the Lord.

And then I met Tracy.

My brother and I were walking down the street when we saw her, walking in the opposite direction with two of her friends. I had never seen her in town before, and I said so to my brother. Younger though he was, he was better with the ladies than I had ever been. Without a second thought, he walked right up to them and introduced himself. I suspect he fancied one of the other ladies. I only had eyes for the one who introduced herself as Tracy.

I asked her out not long after that day.

My love for Tracy grew fast and so did her love for me. We were always together, much to the displeasure of her father. Her mother did not mind though, and treated me with warmth whenever I came to visit.

One night, in my father’s field beneath a starry sky, Tracy gave herself to me for the first time. She screamed once as I tore through her maidenhead, and then again as I spent my seed deep inside her. Afterward, we lay side by side on the soft grass as the stars kept their everlasting vigil over us.

Four months later we discovered that she was with child.

I am not proud of what I did then. I was young and scared. We did not have the money to raise a child on our own, and we were afraid of what her father would do to us if he found out.

We decided to get rid of the child.

We found a shady street doctor and I managed to steal enough money to pay for the operation. He warned us beforehand that the operation was risky. But we were desperate. On that day, I waited behind the door with my heart in my chest while he performed the dangerous procedure.

You can only imagine how I felt when the doctor emerged an hour later to tell me that Tracy – my Tracy – was dead. I tried to push past him to go see her but he prevented me. He told me that he had already sent someone to inform both our parents. My blood ran cold. All I could think of was what her father would do to me…the dishonor I had brought upon my family. My poor mother; it would break her heart. And Tracy’s father would surely kill me. And so I did something that has haunted me since.

I turned and ran. I shamed myself and my family and ran.

I ran, not only from the doctor but from the town. I ran through the fields with only the clothes on my back and stowed away on a train going south. That is how I came to live here in our small town. Here I struggled for years and finally made a respectable man of myself. Here I met you, dearest wife. And here I finally managed to bury my past, and with it all thoughts of Tracy.

That is, until I met her exactly one week ago.

At first I was convinced that I had seen a ghost: the years had changed her but I recognized her at once. And she recognized me too. After all those years, Tracy still remembered me. It was after I had gotten over the initial shock of seeing her that I learned her story:

Tracy never died at the hands of that doctor: the man lied to me. When we went to him first with our predicament, he went behind us and told the entire thing to Tracy’s parents. Together, they formulated a plan. The plan was to make me believe that she died and hence force me out of the town and out of their daughter’s life forever. And it worked.

But she never forgot about me, she said. And against her parent’s wishes, she kept our baby. She gave birth to my daughter.

Surely I could not help but desire to see our daughter. When I asked her this, she told me to meet her at the local hotel in a week’s time.

Today.

Today I came here with equal parts excitement and foreboding. For even though Tracy was my first love, how could I bring another child home to you? But I had to see our daughter.

I arrived to meet a lavishly laid table, but no sign of my daughter. When I asked Tracy, she told me that the girl was on the way and she wanted to have dinner with me first. I thought nothing of it, and sat down to eat.

It was midway through the meal that I began to realize that something was amiss. My arms refused to move, and my head swam. I vomited profusely all over myself. I looked at Tracy with an unspoken question in my eye, but in her eyes all I saw was hate. She told me then what she had done: Tracy – my Tracy – had poisoned me.

And then, before she walked out and left me to die alone, she told me the truth.

On the day that I fled my old life, Tracy suffered as well. Her father absolutely refused to allow the illegitimate child of a poor farmer boy to grow inside his daughter. He forced the doctor to abort the baby. But the action was not without its consequences; when the doctor destroyed my baby inside her, he also destroyed her ability to give birth ever again.

And as the years went by, Tracy became the black sheep of the town. A laughing stock. No man would marry a barren woman. Her life became miserable. And deep inside her, Tracy blamed me.

So she sought me out, and made me pay.

And now I am dying, hunted down by my past sins I ran so desperately from.

I write these words to you in my own blood; I could not find any ink. But I feel you must know this final thing.

They shall probably find my body in the morning. Do not cry for me, Dearest Wife. In the shed behind our house, beneath the floorboards, you shall find a sum of money. It should be enough for you and the children. I am sorry that I could not leave you with more. Forgive me. I pray to God that you shall find it in your heart to forgive me for all my sins. I love you. I always have and I always will, now and evermore.

I am so very cold….

 

 

TWO

A couple of days ago a friend of mine sent me a link to this post on www.thenakedconvos.com. It led me to a very interesting challenge: a story told backwards, in time blocks of two: two hours earlier, two days earlier, two months earlier and two years earlier. The premise caught my attention immediately, as did the word-limit. I had never written a story as short as 1200 words before, and neither had I ever written a story unfolding in reverse. And so I decided to give it a go.

This is what I came up with.

Enjoy.

*

TWO

Now

Aigbe watched Esosa tumble backwards onto the floor. He thought to himself that she quite looked like a fish out of water – flailing about, reaching for support that would not come. He watched the back of her head crash onto the cold, tiled floor with a sickening, wet sound. Leaping astride her semi-conscious body, he rained three solid blows onto her torso, working his way from her lower ribcage to her sternum. She yelped, shook and choked with each blow, unable to fight back.

“You are the one that will die, not me, Stupid Harlot!”

He spat into her face as the last blow landed and she choked violently, jerking with the impact of the blow and recoiling from the glob of projectile spittle that had hit her face.

“You!  Are! A! Mad! Dirty! Prostitute!”

Each word was punctuated by a slap that sent waves of pain coursing through Esosa’s head. She could barely speak or shout or scream in protest, much less move. She felt herself start to slip into a numb blackness but she tried to hold on.  Aigbe wrapped his hands around her neck and muttered.

“Witch! Harlot! Your plan has failed!”

Esosa closed her eyes and let the numbing darkness take her as her husband choked the remaining life from her, his wedding ring pressing into against her carotid artery…

2 hours earlier

Esosa smiled to herself as she poured the brown powder into the bottle of Merlot. She re-corked it and shook it violently until the powder began to dissolve. She knew Aigbe was already on his way home. Frank Ocean played softly from the speakers; her long dress billowed about her legs as she walked purposefully to the dining table. Today she had prepared Aigbe’s favorite dish, the one he ordered on their first date. She smiled at the memory. It seemed so long ago. Esosa checked the bottle of wine.

The poison had dissolved completely. That was good.

She went into the bedroom she shared with her husband, lay down on the bed with her eyes closed, and waited.

The sound of the car horn a while later told her that Aigbe was home.

Esosa walked to the dining room, opened the bottle of Merlot and poured into two glasses. She took one in her hand and held it to her lips. She breathed deeply, once, tipped her head back and swallowed the wine.

Wiping her mouth, Esosa picked up the other glass and went to meet her husband. Aigbe walked in through the door and paused. His wife was wearing his favorite dress, the one that hugged her hips so sensually, and was waiting for him with a glass of wine in her hand.

Esosa smiled, showing her perfect teeth. “Hello, love.”

She walked over to her him and kissed him gently, lovingly. Aigbe smiled his slow mischievous smile. “Oookay, talk about a warm welcome. What are we celebrating? Don’t tell me I forgot our anniversary again?”

“No,” she replied, placing the glass in his hand. In truth he had forgotten their anniversary, but that was last week.

“What are we celebrating, then?” he asked again.

“Us,” said Esosa simply.

He smiled wider, and drank the glass empty. Esosa watched him do it.

She would tell him what she had done. But not now, she thought to herself. She would wait till he ate the dinner she lovingly prepared. She would wait till they made love in their matrimonial bed, wait till she satisfied him in every way.

And then she would tell him…

2 days earlier

“Do you have it?” Esosa asked.

“Do you have the money?” came the quick reply.

Do you have it?” Esosa retorted, firmly.

The young man scowled. “Yes,” he said.

She nodded. “Good.”

The youth reached into the pocket of his oversized jacket, his eyes darting left and right, scanning the empty street. He had refused to meet with her anywhere else.

The youth drew a plastic bag with a fine brown powder in it out of his pocket, but did not offer it to her. He held it loosely between two fingers, waiting.

Esosa glanced at it, then back at him. “How long did you say it takes to act?”

“A couple of hours, give or take. Maybe three. More than enough time to be far away from the scene when it happens.”

She nodded, satisfied. More than enough time. Esosa opened her handbag and pulled out a wad of cedi notes. She was paying much more than she knew she should, but it did not matter. She handed the money over to the boy. He handed the bag over to her.

“One more thing,” he said. “You did not meet me here. You have never met me anywhere, ever. After we leave this place, you don’t know me and I don’t know you. Understand?”

“I understand.”

The young man turned and started walking away. Esosa called after him, “Wait.”

He stopped.

“Are you sure it’s painless?” asked Esosa slowly.

The boy nodded. “There’s no pain. It’s like dropping slowly off to sleep.” He chuckled. “Or so I’ve been told.” He continued walking.

Soon she stood alone on the street, a bag in her hand and her head full of memories…

2 months earlier

“What did you say?” Esosa whispered. But she knew what she heard. She simply could not bring herself to believe it.

It cannot be…

The middle aged man sitting across from her – the Doctor she knew and trusted for years – sighed and rubbed his temples. “It’s a relatively new disease to us.  We… we don’t know much about it yet. But the tests are definite. I’m sorry.”

She felt her world collapsing around her. From far away she heard her own voice asking:

“Is there a cure?”

The way the doctor avoided her eyes answered her question even before he said, “No. It has no cure, as far as we know.”

There was a long silence.

“How will he die?” Esosa asked quietly.

The doctor hesitated. “Sorry..?”

How will my husband die?”

The doctor hesitated again, but something in her eyes begged the truth. There was no point in feeding her false hope. “Slowly,” he said. “And when the time comes, painfully.”

There was another, shorter pause. Then Esosa rose. “Thank you, Doctor. Thank you for being honest with me.”

He asked, “Would you like me to inform him?”

She replied, “No. I will.”

But she wouldn’t. She never would.

As Esosa exited the Doctor’s office and closed the door behind her, she knew exactly what she would do.

2 years earlier

Esosa had never felt as happy as she felt that day. As the priest recited her vows and she repeated them after him, she was the luckiest woman in the world. Aigbe, standing with her on the altar, flashed her a secret smile.

The old priest intoned, “In sickness and in health… till death do you part.”

“Till death do us part,” said Esosa.

“I now pronounce you man and wife.”

Then Aigbe took her in his arms and kissed her, and the crowd assembled in the auditorium erupted in cheers, and in that moment she was the happiest woman in the Universe.

And deep in her heart Esosa made a vow.

Not even Death would do them part.

 

*

THE SUMMONING

 

The four of us sat on the floor in a rough circle, facing inward. The room was quiet, save for Stephanie’s mumbling. The only light source was a single candle we had placed on the floor in the middle of our little huddle. Its flickering flame cast long shadows over the walls and the furniture. Outside, the wind beat against the shut windows.

I did not want to be here.

We were in the living room of my best friend Stephanie’s house: I; my boyfriend, Andrew; Jeremy, the school’s star athlete; and Stephanie. The stale scent of beer hung in the air; discarded cans and half-smoked joints littered the floor tiles. A part of me worried what we’d do if somebody walked in at that moment. But that scenario was greatly improbable; Steph’s parents were out of town for a week; any trace of us would be long gone before they got back.

But I didn’t want to be here. All I wanted was to be at home curled up in the couch, waiting for my period cramps to pass. I was only here because of Steph, with whom I had been best friends since Junior High. She was a wild thing, always looking for the next thrill, the next adventure; I was quiet, more level-headed. We went well together.

It was Stephanie who suggested the séance.

Sitting there now, I glanced over at the girl sitting across from me, legs folded underneath her yoga-style, brows furrowed in concentration as she recited the so called ‘ritual’ from the thick leather bound book in her hands. Sitting to her left (my right) Andrew wore a bored, skeptic look on his face. I resisted the urge to laugh. Truth was Andrew only agreed to take part in the séance only because I had. And I was only doing it because…well, I wasn’t really sure why I agreed to it. Maybe it’s because the whole thing was Steph’s idea.

Maybe.

I looked over at Jeremy. It didn’t take a genius to figure out why he had agreed to this. Even in the near darkness I could see him stealing glances at Stephanie. It was kind of an open secret that he liked her. Everybody knew. I think by agreeing to her idea – even though I could tell that he wasn’t the kind of guy to believe in spirits and séances – Jeremy hoped to score some points with her. Good luck. He needed it.

Stephanie’s low voice flowed through the room, reciting, “…Great spirits of the Fade, we come to you now…”

The book from which she read looked old, positively ancient. She told me she found it in an abandoned corner of the Library, coated in dust. The book had no title in the cover. It’s thick, yellowed pages were filled with all kinds of information; from how to cure the simplest of ailments using things like frog spit to the correct instructions on mending a broken bone. And how to communicate with spirits on the other side. This was what we were trying to do now.

Stephanie had always believed she was descended from a long line of gypsies, all the way down from when caravans of travelling gypsies passed through our small town many decades ago. I supposed she felt that if the summons worked it would bring her closer to her roots. Or something. You never really could tell with Stephanie.

“…hear our humble summons, hearken to our call…”

Andrew looked over at me and smirked. I smiled back. He rolled his eyes comically at me. I tried my best not to laugh.

Stephanie’s voice took on a note of urgency, rising. “…hear me now; I summon you forth to this plane…”

A cold shiver ran through my body. But the windows were still closed, I thought. My best friend’s voice rose yet again, she was almost quivering with excitement. I sensed that the recital was coming to an end.

And then what? a little voice in my head said. What happens then?

I did not know.

Stephanie’s voice rang out, speaking the final words: “…Come! Come to me! I summon you now! COME!”

And everything happened.

With a crash the windows blew open; the howling wind surged into the room like a flood. The temperature of the room dropped suddenly. The flame of the candle seemed to rise, in spite of the surging winds; and then suddenly went out, plunging the room into near total darkness.

Jeremy gave a startled cry; Andrew turned to face the windows, and then turned to me, concern written in his brown eyes. Stephanie looked excited, expectant. I was scared.

The wind blew through the room, raging, whirling. The sound of it filled my ears even as the cold it brought pierced into my bones. And then…

Nothing.

The wind died away as suddenly as it had begun. The icy cold melted away into the night. The four of us were left as we were before. I looked over at the center of our circle, at the crude pentagram we drew earlier. Nothing had changed. No spirit had appeared, as far as we could tell.

A minute passed in silence.

Then Andrew said, “Well. That was…anti-climactic.”

Jeremy laughed, more out of relief than anything.

Stephanie shook her head. “But…I don’t understand. It was supposed to work…”

“I told you, there’s no such thing as ‘Great Spirits of the Fade’,” Andrew said. “Your book’s a fake.”

Stephanie said, “But…the window…and the wind…” She looked terribly disappointed.

“The latch must have come undone,” Jeremy replied, rising to his feet. “As for the wind, it looks like there’s a storm coming.” He flipped a switch on, bathing the room in light, then crossed over to the window and closed it.

Andrew rose as well. “Shit. Gotta get home before I get soaked in the rain.”

Stephanie said nothing. She sat on the floor, staring dejectedly at the book. A thought crossed my mind: Why are you so disappointed, Steph? Were you so eager for the summons to work? What were you expecting?

Jeremy offered his hand to her, “C’mon, Steph. Let’s get you off that floor.”

Stephanie said, without looking at him, “I think you guys should go.”

Jeremy drew his hand back, hurt. “Uh, fine,” he muttered. “Suit yourself.” Good luck. He was going to need a LOT of it.

Andrew turned to me. “Come on, Liz. Let’s get you home.” He held out his hand. I made to reach out and take it.

My body didn’t move.

What?

I tried to take Andrew’s hand again. My body didn’t move. A cold dread gripped me. I tried to speak, to scream, but no words came out.

What the Hell is going on? I thought.

And then I felt it.

It was as though a dam had broken. It  – whatever it was – flooded my mind, my thoughts, my consciousness in an instant. It was a mass of hate, and envy and bloodlust such as I had never imagined. An unstoppable wave of power.

And then it spoke.

WHERE AM I, CHILD?

The voice appeared everywhere and nowhere in my head. It spoke with a chilling voice that seemed to echo in my very soul. SPEAK, CHILD. WHO ARE YOU?

Who are you? I thought weakly. I felt the presence tear through my mind, looking through all my thoughts, my deepest secrets.

It said, I AM SAMAEL.

And in that moment I knew Stephanie’s summons had worked.

For as the demon looked through me, so was I given a glimpse into it. And I saw pain, and death. I saw entire cities slaughtered. Dead men, women and babies lying in the streets. Corpse piled upon corpse. I saw destruction as far as the horizon. I saw the demon’s handiwork.

I felt its lust for blood.

And I felt the demon’s joy.

“Liz?” said Andrew. “You coming, or not?”

My head turned slowly to look my boyfriend in the face. My body rose from the floor.

“You okay, Liz? You look kinda weird,” said Andrew.

No! I wanted to shout. It’s here! It’s in here with me!! I wanted Andrew to stop me from leaving that house. I wanted him to bind me with chains of iron. I wanted him to kill me. Anything, anything.

From the corner of my eye I could see Stephanie, still sulking, believing that she had failed. I wanted to scream at her that it hadn’t failed. But I couldn’t.

Jeremy walked to the front door and opened it. “You guys coming?” Andrew looked at me once more, concern etched in his big brown eyes, those eyes that I had fallen desperately in love with. I wanted to cry.

Please, I begged inside my head. Please…

But my lips parted into a smile, and my own voice spoke.

“I’m just tired,” said Samael. “Come on. Let’s go home.”

And then the demon took my boyfriend’s hand, and together they walked out the door and into the world.

 

 

She Waited.

This is a story I did a couple of weeks back for @Amowi_‘s blog. I’m just reblogging it here. You can find Amowi’s amazing blog here, of you can simply follow her on Twitter.

Enjoy!

*********

SHE WAITED

He would come.

She knew it, as surely as she knew her own name. He had never failed to show before. Never, not once in the time she had known him. Whenever she needed him, he showed. Today would be no different.

He would come.

She stood in the chilly outside air, watching the early evening traffic crawl by, the jacket she wrapped tightly around her providing little protection from the cruel cold. She stamped her foot to keep warm as her eyes scanned the roads. Where was he? She had sent him the message almost an hour ago. He was supposed to be here by now.

He would come. She waited.

She had known him since she was seven and he was six. The circumstances under which they met were unusual, to say the least. As she remembered, she had picked a fight with a couple of older and bigger neighborhood girls, and was on the verge of receiving a sound, sound beating. And then out of nowhere he came, all smallish and brave-sounding, and told the two other girls to pick on someone their own size.

The ‘fight’, if she could even call it that, went about as well as one would expect.

She hadn’t stayed to watch; as soon as the two girls attacked him, she turned and ran. He found her later, as she was hiding behind a garbage can. His shirt was torn and the side of his face was slightly swollen. He flashed a gap-toothed grin at her, asked her if she was alright…

She smiled at the distant memory.

They had started walking to school together from that day on. Not they lived anywhere close to each other; he lived twenty minutes away. Somehow he showed up at her door every morning, right on time. She suspected that he left home extra early every day in order to make it to hers on time, but she never asked him, and he never mentioned it. But he showed up every morning, and that was fine by her little seven-year-old self.

Though he was a year younger, he was brilliant and had skipped a year of school. They wound up in the same class. He always sat behind her, and they traded many a funny note during boring classes…

 

Standing now in the fading light, she checked her watch. He was an hour late. Where the hell was he?

 

…in class six, a new boy joined the class. She was stricken with the newcomer from the first day he entered the building. Two days later she passed the boy a love note. The boy opened it during lunch break, in the crowded canteen – and laughed. Somehow the note did the rounds in the class, and before the closing bell she and her note were a laughing stock. She was humiliated, and ran home alone.

The next morning, he was at her door as usual, to walk her to school. His left eye was swollen. It was only later at school that she learned what caused it; he had stayed behind the previous afternoon and fought – or rather, beaten – the new boy up for what he did. Nobody laughed at her again…

“Spare change for a hungry man?”

The voice jarred her out of her memories. A homeless man, obviously starving, stood before her on the sidewalk, hand outstretched. She dropped a one cedi note in his palm and he walked off, muttering blessings upon her and her lineage. The light was almost gone from the sky now, and she missed her warm bed so, but she needed to see him badly, and he would come…

…One day, in J.S.S 2, he confessed to her that he had feelings for her. Caught off guard, she blurted, “I thought we were just friends!” She saw the pain that flashed behind his eyes even as his lips formed the words: “Oh, yeah…cool.  I mean, of course. What was I thinking?” She had feared that their friendship would be awkward after that, but he had made sure it wasn’t, had remained by her side…

…Through J.S.S. 3, when she slept with that soccer player and told him about it when the guy cheated…

…Through Secondary school, when he never forgot her birthday, but always called, always sent her a card. As the years went on and she grew into a beautiful young woman, the gifts she received every year grew, became more lavish, but his card was always there. She never remembered his birthday…

…He was there for her when her boyfriend had an argument with her and left her stranded in a restaurant, with no money to pay the bill…

…He was there for her in the University when her date didn’t show at her department dinner, leaving the football game so she wouldn’t feel awkward sitting there alone all night, even though he couldn’t dance for SHIT…

He had always been there for her.

A distant part of her brain wondered how he would look now (Did he grow that beard like he always said he would in University?). She hadn’t seen him in close to a year, even though they both lived in the same city. Whenever he called she told him she was busy, that she would see him soon. Always soon. And he always said the same thing: Whenever she was free, he’d make time for her. Whenever she needed him.

She needed him now.

Standing in the cold, she gingerly touched her face where the man she was living with had struck her. After that falling out, she couldn’t possibly go back to their apartment. Her closest family lived three hours away; she couldn’t think of anything else to do, anywhere else to go. But he would know what to do. And so she waited.

But she didn’t know. She couldn’t possibly know.

She didn’t know that he had indeed gotten her message, halfway through a date of his own, and had left his date to come to her. She didn’t know that in his hurry he had tried to cross a road without really thinking. She didn’t know that a trotro trying to beat a red light had slammed cruelly into his lanky body. She didn’t know that at that very moment he was being carried in the back of a speeding ambulance, in critical condition.

She couldn’t possibly know that in a few hours he would be dead.

So she stood there, bravely clutching her jacket about her small frame, ignoring the querying looks of passersby, waiting for him. He would come.

And so she waited…

 

 

*********

 

You never know what you have until it’s gone. – Unknown.

********

 

Gambit, Pt 1

GAMBIT.

He was an accountant; she was a motor car racer. They met one sunny afternoon in the middle of a crowded street, in a busy city. He was walking one way, late for an appointment; she was going the other, nose buried in her book, totally oblivious to the outside world.

They bumped into each other, not very hard, just enough to make her drop her book. He apologized profusely. She smiled, said it quite was all right. Their eyes met for a second and he stared, all thoughts of his appointment suddenly, inexplicably gone from his mind. A moment passed, then he smiled sheepishly and said, “Erm…I’ll go now. Good day.” Her smile faded ever so slightly, but she replied, “Uh…ok.” They both walked on. He turned suddenly, and called out to her. She paused, an expectant look on her face. He said, “I don’t suppose you’re in much of a hurry to go anywhere? Perhaps we could go somewhere…you know…get a drink?”

She smiled. That would be lovely.

And so it began.

At a popular restaurant, the two of them ate and chatted for hours. He loved her smile, and her quick wit. She loved his sense of humor. After what seemed like forever, one of them mentioned that it was getting late. They (reluctantly) rose, and she said, laughing, “This is ridiculous. I’ve just had one of the greatest times of my life, and I don’t even know your name!”

He laughed with her. My name is John Sanders, he said.

She said, “My name is Eleanor, but you can call me Ellie. The people who matter most to me call me Ellie.”

They made plans to meet the very next day and departed, each smiling, each deliriously happy.

He was an accountant. She was a motor car racer.

*

“So, what work do you do?” asked Ellie.

They lay side by side in bed, gloriously naked, in his small downtown apartment. The two of them had met earlier in the day, and one thing led to another. And now they were here, on his single bed.

“Mmm?” Sanders replied, only half-listening to her. He was staring at the curve of her hips.

“I said,” Ellie repeated, “tell me about your job.”

“Oh, that,” he paused. “Well, I’m a superhero.”

“Oh, gerrout.”

“No, really,” Sanders said, struggling to keep a straight face. “When I was younger I was bitten by a radioactive…er…slug, and ever since I’ve been a caped vigilante, protecting everybody from the Evil Doctor…”

Ellie pouted, “John, I’m serious.”

“Oh, fine. I’m an accountant at a local firm. Perhaps you’ve heard of them.” He told her the name.

“Can’t say I have. Did you always want to be an accountant?”

“Not really, to tell you the truth. As a young boy, my lifelong dream was to be an ass-model.”

Ellie laughed and hit him on the head with her pillow.

“What about you?” Sanders asked her. “What do you do for a living?”

Ellie told him.

Sanders raised an eyebrow. “Really? A race car driver?”

She nodded. “It’s what I always wanted to do, since I was little. I’ve always been fascinated with cars. It’s why I moved here, in fact. Have you heard of the Circuit?”

Sanders had. The Circuit was a local racing arena. Mostly underground stuff, underground racers competing for fame, recognition, respect. And – just maybe – the chance to break out into the big leagues. The races were also heavily bet on, even though that was illegal. Fortunes had been made and lost in the arena known as the Circuit. Sanders knew all about that.

“Well,” Ellie continued. “I moved here to compete more. Heard about a lot of interesting races there.”

“Oh,” said Sanders. “Wow. Racer; that sounds way cooler than ‘accountant’. Or ass-model, for that matter.”

They both laughed.

“So have you ever been to see a race at the Circuit?” asked Ellie.

“No,” Sanders lied flatly.

“Well, you should come see me. I’m having a practice run tomorrow, just a little race to prepare me for the big one.”

“Big one?”

Ellie told him about a race that was to be held in four days’ time. It was kind of a big deal, as far as underground races were concerned. “Come watch me tomorrow,” Ellie concluded, her eyes pleading.

Sanders said he said he wasn’t sure.

She traced her hand down his torso to his member and asked sweetly: “Pretty please?”

 

And so he went. To see her race. It was no big event; the Circuit was virtually empty. He stood in the stands and watched her on the track on a cold, wet afternoon.

She was amazing.

Sanders couldn’t believe his eyes. Ellie tore along the track like a demon birthed in the very center of Hell. Granted, the other racers weren’t exactly world class, but Ellie was stunning nonetheless. Sanders watched her overtake one car after another, performing hairpin turns with an almost arrogant ease. When she crossed the finish line, quite a considerable distance before the rest of the pack, he descended from the empty stands to meet her on the track.

Ellie saw him coming and squealed, throwing her arms around him. “How was I?”

“You. Were. Unbelievable.”

Ellie smiled, kissing him deeply. She told him she had to take her car into the garage, she would be back soon. He said he would be waiting.

As soon as Ellie drove off, and Sanders made sure she was gone, he turned on his heel and walked in the opposite direction. Crossing the track, he made his way up the stands, round a corner, into a narrow corridor. At the end of the corridor was a brown door. The paint was faded, chipped in places; it was a generally unremarkable piece of work. Sanders walked right up to the door and knocked once. There was a pause of a few seconds, and then:

“Who is it?” came a deep gruff voice from inside.

“Renard? It’s John. John Sanders.”

There was another pause, then the sound of the door being unlocked. It swung open to show a short, round man, balding, with a lit pipe in his mouth. “John!” said Renard. “You motherfucker. It’s been years!”

“Actually, Renard, it’s been a year.”

“Quit nitpicking, asshat. Come, come.”

Sanders stepped inside the office, allowing the man he knew as Renard to close the door after him. Once inside, he gave the inside of the office a discreet once-over. It looked exactly as it had the last time he’d seen it, almost a year ago.

“Got nothing to offer you, drink-wise,” said Renard. He held out his pipe. “Smoke?”

Sanders smiled. “No thanks, Renard. I’m clean now.”

“Yeah, ever since you left us to become a hotshot accountant, I figured you would be.”

Sanders told him that being an accountant hardly qualified to be called ‘hotshot’. The truth was, John Sanders had always had a head for figures, and when he ‘left’, as Renard put it, it only made sense to pursue something that played to his strength. It wasn’t exactly Hollywood, but hey.

“So, Johnnie boy. What can I do you for?”

Sanders paused, took his time before answering: “I need a favor.”

Renard’s eyes narrowed. “What kind of favor?”

“I need you to give me some information about the race taking place here in three days’ time.”

Renard leaned back in his chair. “Whoa, there. You know I’m not allowed to just give away that information.”

“I know. But I need this favor, just this once. Please.”

Renard stood still for a moment, then crossed to his cluttered desk and sat down. Opening a big file, he asked, “What do you wanna know?”

“Tell me about a racer named Eleanor Graham.”

Renard looked up. “She’s virtually unknown, a last minute entry into the race. Not bad, though, from what I hear.”

“Tell me about her betting odds.”

Renard did some quick checking. “About twenty-to-one,” he said.

Sanders did some quick calculations. He had about forty-five thousand dollars to his name. At these odds, that would amount to nine hundred thousand. He could easily borrow five thousand more from a couple of friends. Investing fifty thousand dollars at the odds of twenty-to-one would be…a million.

One million dollars.

Sanders took a slow, deep breath. He noticed Renard was watching him closely, so he tried to give nothing away. His face remained deadpan. “Thank you, Renard. You’ve been a pal.”

“Huh,” said Renard, leaning back in his chair and puffing hard on his pipe. “To tell you the truth, not many people are willing to stake their chances on her or much of anyone else, for that matter. Not with the Barbarian racing.”

Sanders blurted, “What? The Barbarian is racing?”

“Yeah,” said Renard. “Kind of a last minute addition, actually. Only heard of it last week myself.”

“Oh. I see,” said Sanders quietly.

Renard was studying his friend intently, but Sanders’ face was guarded, impassive. “Well,” he said after a pause, “Anything else you need, Johnnie boy?”

“What? No, not really,” replied Sanders. “Thanks, Renard. I owe you one.”

“You said that the last time we met.”

“I owe you two, then,” Sanders smiled.

Renard said, “You sure you don’t want that smoke?” He blew a thick cloud of smoke out of his nostrils as he said this.

“I’m sure, Renard. But thanks, anyway.” He turned to go. “I’ll see you around.”

Renard waited till Sanders reached the door, and then he said, “Hey, Johnnie.”

Sanders turned. “Hmm?”

Renard said, “This little broad you’re interested in. I hear she’s good, real good. But she cannot beat the Barbarian.”

There was a moment of silence.

“No,” Sanders said slowly. “She cannot.”

*

“Where have you been? I’ve been looking for you.”

Sanders smiled and took Ellie’s arm. “I got lost looking for the men’s room.”

Ellie angled her face to look into Sanders’. “Well, did you find it?”

Sanders replied, “I sure hope so.” Ellie laughed.

“Well, are we done here?” she said.

They went home. They had an early dinner, retreated to the bedroom, and made love. And when they were spent, they lay side by side in bed. And Ellie slept and dreamt many wonderful dreams, but all through the night a single thought played over and over in John Sanders’ head, like an annoying pest that just wouldn’t die.

One million dollars.

 

(Part 2 here )

Gambit, pt 2

The two men met under cover of deep night.

John Sanders stood in the middle of the abandoned lot, trying his best to keep from shivering in the evening chill. Presently, he heard behind him the sound of someone walking, feet crunching the gravel underfoot, getting ever closer. Sanders turned and saw another man, bigger and broader than he, walking nonchalantly in his general direction. Sanders turned away, and waited.

The other man paused. For a moment neither spoke, neither looked at the other.

Then the man spoke: “Hey. Got a light?”

Sanders replied tentatively, “No. All I have is darkness.”

Satisfied, the man smiled and straightened, turning to face Sanders. “Well, well. It’s you, then. Howdy.”

Sanders studied his companion. The man looked far friendlier than Sanders had imagined a man of his reputation to be. The easy smile which played on his features made him seem safe, almost homely.

Sanders said, “Good evening. So, uh, you’re the Mechanic, then?”

The bigger man nodded.

“You sure you weren’t, uh, followed?”

The man known as the Mechanic frowned at the insult. He was, after all, a professional.

Sanders noticed the change in the other man’s face and added quickly, “Sorry, wrong question to ask. Wrong question.”

The Mechanic spoke for the first time since making sure of Sanders’ identity. “So. What do I call you?”

Sanders smiled and said slyly. “You can call me John.”

The Mechanic smiled to himself. There had to be millions of Johns in the world. No way of tracing exactly which one. Smart.

“So, John,” he said, “what do you need?”

Sanders folded his arms, trying to keep marginally warmer as he spoke. “I, uhm, I hear you’re the man to go to when one needs something, uh, fixed.”

The bigger man nodded casually. “Something, or some-one.”

Sanders breathed the night air deeply and began. “You see, I represent a group of men whose interests are being somewhat threatened, and my employers and I do, in fact, need something fixed.”

“What kind of something?” asked the Mechanic. Sanders gave him a brief description. After a moment of silence, the bigger man said, “It’ll cost your employers twenty thousand.”

Sanders nodded. “Don’t worry. Just do your part and you’ll have your money.”

“Fair enough. Now, tell me exactly what you want me to do,” said the Mechanic.

And so Sanders told him.

*

The following day the man known as the Mechanic went into town. He spent hours on the streets, moving from store to store, till he found what he was looking for. When he exited the last hardware store, some four hours after he began, he had everything he needed.

Next, he went home and spent the remaining daylight hours poring over a set of schematics and specifications for a certain make of car. The Mechanic went over the diagrams over and over again. When finally he looked up from them, the Mechanic had committed almost every little detail into memory.

Long shadows were already stretching on the floor, projected by a tired sun. The Mechanic rose and stretched once. Then he gathered his tools and walked out into the descending twilight.

*

The security guard at the Circuit never saw the shadow pass.

It was late at night, and throughout his vigil the guard hadn’t seen anything out of the ordinary. He was bored, but did not allow himself to nod off to sleep. He could not allow that tonight of all nights; for the following day was a very important one.

The guard was not by any means the only one here tonight; there were others inside, patrolling the Circuit. He was the one guarding the main entrance. It was lonely work, but he didn’t complain. He thought of his wife, of their two kids and the third one on the way. He needed the money.

But damn, he was bored.

There was a sudden flurry of movement from his right. He whipped around suddenly, and two things happened at once. The guard saw that the source of the sudden motion was nothing but a stray cat, and in a far corner of his brain he thought he sensed something emerge from the darkness across the street and pass quickly by. Ignoring the cat, the guard turned to face the shadow.

But when he turned, there was nothing there.

*

The Mechanic vaulted over the outer wall of the Circuit and landed quietly. Crouching in the near darkness, he held his breath and listened.

The cat emerging out of nowhere and distracting the guard had not been planned, but it had definitely given him the distraction he needed to bypass the first sentry. The poor man hadn’t even known he was there all along, concealed in the darkness across the street. Oh, well. Business waited. The Mechanic rose and ran into the huge arena.

It was a tricky business evading all the security guards, but apart from a particularly close call in the lower level before the garage, the Mechanic managed it without too much trouble. Now the garage doors stood open before him, an inky blackness contained within. The Mechanic produced a small flashlight from the small bag that hung by his side, directing the thin beam of light it produced around the room, and smiled.

It was policy of the Circuit that all race cars be submitted by the owners to the arena’s garage on the night before a race to be kept overnight for security reasons. And they certainly had been submitted, for they were all here.

The Mechanic did not have much time; the next patrol would be passing by in little over three minutes. He walked slowly through the cars parked, looking for one in particular.

It was at the very back; a midnight black ride, the details of which the Mechanic had spent a huge part of the day studying. As he looked closely at the vehicle, he saw it was a beautiful car. It was a car built to race. It was a car built to win races.

It was a car that belonged to the Barbarian.

Dropping his bag and shimmying under the vehicle, his mind went back to the instructions he had received from the man who called himself John the previous day:

“It has to start,” the man named John had said. “People are gonna get suspicious if the car doesn’t start at all. Make sure it starts the race, but it must not finish it.”

“Understood,” the Mechanic had replied.

“My employers have a great investment on our man in that race; the Barbarian must not be allowed to cross the finish line.”

“He won’t,” said the Mechanic.

And so he won’t, thought that same Mechanic, laying flat on his back underneath the Barbarian’s car. He drew his tools from his bag and went to work.

A couple of minutes later, the Mechanic walked out of the underground garage, locking the doors behind him. Already it was impossible to tell that anybody had ever been down here this night. Mission accomplished. The Mechanic smiled.

And then he heard it.

He heard a sound that his brain had previously not registered. It was coming from somewhere behind him, and it was unusual to hear that, especially at this time. Very odd.

Moving quietly and sticking to the darkness, the man known as the Mechanic began to move toward the source…

*

Excitement lit up the air live a live wire. The Circuit was buzzing. Last minute bets were being placed, racers were pulling out onto the track, spectators were settling noisily into their seats all around the great arena.

The day of the big race was here.

John Sanders walked calmly to the betting booth and placed a fifty-thousand dollar bet on a relatively unknown female racer to win. The man behind the booth looked at him like he was crazy, but nevertheless processed the bet and handed sanders a receipt.

John Sanders walked away grinning from ear to ear, and nobody knew why.

One million dollars.

*

The two men met in the open, under a glowing blue sky.

Sanders spoke first. “Did you do it?”

The Mechanic nodded. He wore a plain white shirt, with a blue shirt thrown over it. “Yes. The Barbarian is no longer a problem; I ‘fixed’ his car.”

A wave of relief, followed closely by excitement, flooded through Sanders. Everything had gone exactly according to plan. His hand went to his pocket and caressed his betting receipt. From somewhere seemingly far away a public announcer stated that the race was just about to start. He imagined Ellie somewhere down there, probably shaking with excitement, blissfully unaware that he had just changed both their lives forever.

One million dollars.

Sanders turned to the Mechanic. “And I trust you encountered no problems?”

“No, none at all…”

Sanders smiled. A gun went off on the track; a deafening roar went up from the assembled crowd.

The race had begun.

“…but I did see something strange, though.”

Sanders paused, froze. “What?”

The Mechanic said, “As I finished with the Barbarian’s car, I heard something down on the tracks. The circuit was supposed to be empty, so I went to look, and I saw a car on the tracks. Probably just a nervous racer, just trying to drive off pre-race jitters, you know? But whoever it was, they were good. Real good.” He paused. “And what was even more surprising was that when the driver finally got out – after about fifteen minutes – it was a woman. A woman. Can you believe that?”

Sanders felt his face go white. “A…a woman? Small, brown haired?”

“Yeah. How’d you know?” said the Mechanic. “A real treat for the eyes, too.” He sighed. “But, oh, that was some of the best driving I ever saw. She might even be a match for your ‘Barbarian’.”

The Mechanic saw the frozen look on John’s face, saw that the other man had gone suddenly rigid. He laughed and threw his arm around Sanders.

“Cheer up, my friend. You and your employers have nothing to worry about.”

John Sanders breathed a huge sigh of relief. Thank G –

“I fixed her car, too.”