SHORT STORY: Treats at the Aver Residence by AJ Brown

Treats at the Aver Residence
By AJ Brown


“They’re going to love this year’s treat,” Cade said, giddily. He moved around the large steel table with a carving knife in hand. His milky eyes dazzled in the yellow glow of the overhead lights.

“What do you think, Mr. Mason?”

On the table lay Mr. Mason, covered by a sheet up to his chin. The man squirmed. His arms and legs pulled on the restraints that held him. His eyes were wide orbs, glassy and full of fear, a bruise beneath the left one. His dark hair was ruffled.

Cade lifted one eyebrow. His face loomed over Mr. Mason’s. “What? No response?” He shook his head, the joy of the time of year—the very day—coursed through his veins. “Brighten up, Mr. Mason. It’s Halloween—the greatest day of the year.”

He checked the I.V. line running into Mason’s arm. The steady drip told him Mr. Mason would be flying high soon enough, but not too high. Mr. Mason certainly didn’t want to miss out on the festivities.

“All those years of being a surgeon come in handy this time of year, don’t you think?”

Cade looked down into Mason’s green eyes. The man blinked, and a stray tear fell down the side of his face. He let out a groan, not one of pain, but fear. Cade was certain if the white cloth shoved into his mouth wasn’t there, Mason would scream for all he was worth—and at that moment, he may not have been worth much more than a cheap bottle of wine to any drunk on the side of the road, but he was worth all the candy in the world to Cade.

“Don’t worry—you will only feel a moderate amount of pain, and for only a few seconds, maybe a minute, then you’ll pass out.” He stroked Mason’s sweaty cheek, lovingly, as if he cared for the man before him. Cade’s eyes grew tender, his smile softened. “Then you won’t feel anything at all. At least until the children arrive.”

Mason shook his head, his eyes filling with tears. He strained to move. The veins on his forehead and along his throat, bulged against his skin.

“Stick around, Mr. Mason,” Cade almost sung, then patted Mason’s face. “It’s going to be a wonderful Halloween.”


In their homes, children sang and danced. Their mothers painted their off-colored skin whatever shade of pale, brown or black they chose. Halloween shows like It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown and Monster House, played on the television. Those who were finished with their dinners sat and watched until the sun began to set.

The anticipation made some of them bounce in their seats. Toes tapped. Fingers drummed. Betsy Wallabanger’s teeth fell out twice, and each time she put them back in, she had to adjust her lipstick. Excitement hung in the air like a thick fog on an early fall morning.


“Would you like a smiley face or a frown? Or maybe a really scary face?”

Mason shook his head and moaned. His eyelids were heavy, but he was still very much awake … and aware.

“Hmm … none of those? I have templates this year—got them cheap at the WalGreens in town. They practically gave them to me.” Cade rubbed the blade of his knife against the side of his head. A small flap of skin peeled back, and a few strands of dirty brittle hair flaked to the floor. Blood spilled down the side of his face. “Wow, that’s sharp—I guess I should be careful where I put it.”

Cade pulled the sheet away like a magician putting on a show. A pair of red underwear covered Mason’s privates. Other than that, he was nude. His belly was plump, the signs of a man who liked to eat well.

“I hope you don’t mind, but I shaved your body while you were asleep. You had a lot of hair, and you know how kids are—most of them just don’t like hair on their treats. But I didn’t shave your head. Some of them like to keep scalps for souvenirs these days. I wouldn’t want to disappoint the few traditionalists still out there.”

Mason shook his head and let out a yell that was muffled by the cloth. He chewed on the rag as if trying to eat it so he could cry for help.

“I’m sorry you don’t approve, but you needed the shave. What’s done is done—you’ll just have to get over it.”

Cade set the knife on a counter behind him and rifled through the templates. “Frankenstein? Oh, how about Shrek—he used to be popular with the kids.”

After going through all the patterns, he set them down, and picked up a black marker. “None of those will do. Not for you, Mr. Mason. I’ll just have to come up with something on my own.”

He stood over Mason’s ample belly and drew an odd oval just below the ribs. He drew a second oval, then a triangle around Mason’s belly button. Cade tapped his temple with the marker and looked up at the ceiling. Many images ran through his head. Then the right one came to mind. A smile creased his face.

“Oh, you are going to love this.”

He drew the large squiggly line below the triangle, then brought it down close to the waistband of his underwear. Cade picked up the knife and looked at Mason. “Are you ready for this?”

Mason screamed when
Cade plunged the knife into his stomach.


“Come on, let’s get into your costumes.”

Children squealed with joy when the mothers beckoned them to get ready for the festivities. They hurried to their rooms and donned their outfits. They were vampires and werewolves, neither of which sparkled or walked around shirtless. They were witches with warts on their noses and brooms by their sides. They were zombies—oh so many of them were zombies. Betsy Wallabanger dressed up as a corpse bride, her hair jutting this way and that way, her outfit a natural dirty shade, complete with stains across the front. Her mother had worn that very costume when she was Betsy’s age. There were no princesses or Batmans or video game stars. There were no cute little lions, tigers or bears, oh my. There was an Alice and she carried a bucket shaped like the tardy rabbit’s head that dripped blood every few steps she took.

They practiced the chants they learned from past Halloweens. Their voices rang up to the ceilings and none were off key.

“Trick or treat, smell my feet, give me something good to eat.”

Some of the older kids added extra verses. “If you don’t, I won’t cry. I’ll slit your throat and then you’ll die.”

Mothers gave approving looks and fathers ruffled the enthusiastic heads of the extra verse singers.

There were no idle threats of ‘behave or else.’ Those were reserved for parents in towns where Halloween was more of a burden than a rite of passage. Besides, the kids in Dreads Hollow knew the parents would never stick to their threats of no haunting the neighborhood if they behaved—it was just as much fun for the adults as it was for the children. Then there was always the one house at the end of Corpse Avenue that did something different each year. If anything, the parents wanted to see how Mr. Aver had decorated. If there were no haunts for the kids, there was no visiting the Aver residence for the adults.


Cade pulled away part of the flesh of Mason’s stomach. He bit down on a piece of it, chewed and nodded. “Tasty,” he said. Blood dripped down his chin. He wiped at it absently.

He looked inside Mason’s stomach. He had deadened the nerves and cauterized the flesh where he had carved away the precious meat. Blood still flowed from the chest cavity and Mason still breathed, though shallow as it was. The carved face was gruesome, but Cade hadn’t finished. He left a long slit beneath the reamed-out mouth. A mesh was sewn in place, holding Mason’s intestines in.

Cade looked down at the man who had once said, ‘Halloween is for the devil’s children.’ He wanted to correct him—oh Halloween was so much more than for the offspring of Satan, it was for everyone, young and old, tall and small. The day didn’t so much matter, but the spirit of Halloween, that’s what drove Cade and every other person who loved the day so much, to celebrate it. He slapped Mr. Mason’s face gently with a bloodied glove, leaving four red imprints on his face. “Stay with me, Mr. Mason. Your moment is coming soon, and you won’t want to miss it.”

Cade carefully moved Mason’s body onto a gurney he had procured from one of the medical catalogues he still received, though he hadn’t practiced his once chosen profession in well over seventy years. Mason moaned and opened his eyes. Gray bags clung beneath them, and he seemed to stare off at the ceiling, not noticing Cade at all. A few seconds later, his eyes slid shut and he was unconscious to the world around him. Cade pushed the gurney through the house and onto the front porch.

Out in the fresh autumn air, Cade took a deep breath. The cool air filled his throat but burned his ancient lungs.

“I love this time of year.”

He worked like a cautious burglar, careful not to set any alarms off and give himself away. In Cade’s case, he was careful not to jar Mason’s body and have his efforts ruined by an act of clumsiness. He slid his arms under Mason’s legs and back and carried him down the steps. Cade sat him on a sturdy lawn chair, not bothering to brush off the leaves that had fallen on it or the spider web that hung between one armrest and the seat. The spider on the web crawled from one sticky line to another until it sat on Mason’s forearm.

Back inside, Cade grabbed the accessories, chip wrappers and empty beer cans. He littered the area around Mason with the garbage and placed one of the cans in the man’s hand.

Cade stepped back and looked at his creation. The backdrop of his old house with its warped steps, shuttered windows and flaking paint would give anyone from outside of Dreads Hollow the creeps. Those people would cautiously walk away, their eyes not wavering from the sight before them, or they would run as if their hair was on fire. Cade smiled and shook with something akin to lust. His body tingled. His heart raced with excitement.


They walked the streets of the neighborhood, clothed in their homemade outfits and masks. Each child’s eyes beamed with excitement as they went from door to door. The welcome lights shone brightly at each house, luring the kids to knock and speak their chants. Neighbors opened doors, smiled, and played along. They oohhed and ahhed at the costumes; they told the children how scary and terrifying, and even how sickening they were; they gave them treats of lady fingers and animal eyes, of hair necklaces and cooked tongues.

“I got a rock,” one kid said when he left each house.

Tunes of Trick or Treat rang throughout the night until they reached the Aver residence at the end of Corpse Avenue. A dim bulb hung from the porch’s ceiling. It cast shadows that looked like pointy fingers stretching across the ground. Cade stood on the porch, his face covered by a mask made from the skin of Mason’s stomach.

Children approached the house. Their bodies hummed with anticipation and their eyes darted about the yard. Mason sat in the shadows near the porch, one hand wrapped around the beer can. He moaned weakly. The children stopped. Some of the parents leaned into get a better look.

“Welcome one. Welcome all. Let’s not delay this year. I hope you will not be disappointed with this year’s treat at the Aver residence. I call this Drunk Man.” Cade flipped a switch that lit up the yard.

Loud gasps echoed through the night as parents and children alike took in Cade’s work. Mason’s stomach had been carved out as if it were a normal pumpkin face, the lining of his insides burned black. A trickle of blood still washed down into the man’s briefs. Mason’s eyes had been sewn open and crusted blood clung to his face. His intestines, which had been held in by the mesh earlier, now dangled on Mason’s lap. It appeared as if they had been vomited out of the wide mouth of his belly. The cloth that had been in his mouth earlier was gone. Mason’s bottom lip trembled.

Betsy Wallabanger—six past a hundred years of age—approached the creation, cautiously. “He’s still alive,” she said with wide blue eyes that held childish excitement in them. She reached forward with one hand, then pulled it back quickly, uncertainty stretching across her face.

“Go ahead. It’s okay, he can’t move,” Cade said.

Betsy set her pillowcase bag on the ground and leaned down. She sunk her teeth into one of Mason’s thighs. A scream came from his throat as she worked her jaw from side to side. She ripped off a piece of flesh, her teeth coming out slightly. She shoved them back in place and chewed. After she swallowed, she smiled. “Delicious.”

Cade clapped his hands like the young child he no longer was. He motioned with his hands. “Come, little ones. Enjoy this year’s treat from the Aver residence.”

Children squealed as they lit in on Mason. His screams filled the night, much to Cade’s satisfaction. The parents looked on with a happiness reserved for their offspring.

“You really outdid yourself this year, Aver,” one of the fathers said before he walked away with his little boy. Blood soaked the front of the boy’s costume, and he licked his fingers clean of the blood that had been on them.


Cade sat on the porch in an ancient rocker that squealed like a wounded rat as it went back and forth. The sounds of singing, happy children had long since faded. What remained of Mason lay scattered on the lawn. There were bones here and there, a clump of hair by the sidewalk—the scalp had not been taken this year. One of the kids had bit off his privates. Or was it one of the moms? Cade didn’t know, and honestly, it didn’t matter. The birds and bugs would come and clean up the mess, leaving only bones behind.

On his lap sat a skull. Part of it was still pink from blood and meat. He pulled a piece of flesh off the cheekbone and popped it into his mouth. He chewed, then swallowed.

“Hmm … Delicious.”

AJ Brown is a southern-born writer who tells emotionally charged, character driven stories that often delve into the darker parts of the human psyche. Most of his stories have the southern country feel of his childhood.

AJ draws inspiration from every day events and conversations. The characters of his stories are drawn from people he has met or seen during his life. Some of the best stories are inspired by his two children.

Though he writes mostly darker stories, he does so without unnecessary gore, coarse language, or sex.

AJ is also a husband to Cate and a father to two kids, who often inspire him in the most interesting ways.

More than 200 of his stories have been published in various online and print publications. His story Mother Weeps was nominated for a Pushcart Award in 2010. The story, Numbers, won the quarterly contest at Wily Writers in June 2013.


SHORT STORY: Hanuman by David A Riley

By David A Riley

(First published in Phantasmagoria Magazine #16, 2020)

“Did you know the mothers run off into the jungle and hide any males they have because the fathers’ll kill ’em? It’s not till they’re strong enough to stand up for themselves they’re brought back. Then the little buggers’ll have a go at their own fathers if necessary in a duel for leadership.” The stone walls of the distant Hindu temple they were staring at across the muddy river seemed to throb in the heat of the midday sun. Adrian Wilkes drained his gin and tonic before speaking once more, his throat parched. He coughed dryly, then said: “Of course, it’s typical they should have a god named after them – Hanuman. It’s even more typical they should let the creatures roam free to rob and pillage.”

The ironic sarcasm in Wilkes’s nasal Birmingham twang droned through Harper’s oversensitive skull. Stuart David Harper – S. D. Harper as he styled himself in his novels – wiped sweat from his forehead with a sodden handkerchief, crossed his legs on the insidiously uncomfortable restaurant chair, and sighed. It had been a long night that hadn’t ended till six in the morning, a night that had started pleasantly enough with rounds of over-expensive Indian beer, to end chaotically – and not too clearly – hours later with even more expensive drugs. Somewhere along the way there may have been a few women, but he wasn’t sure. It could have been a dream. Harper wrinkled his forehead for concentration, instantly regretting it, and wondered whether he should have stayed in bed.

His fellow guest was pointing beyond the hotel to a large sand-coloured monkey, its naked face staring at them with large, queerly intelligent eyes. “There’s one of the bastards now,” Wilkes said.

Harper sat up in his chair. The monkey was staring at them with disconcerting intensity, motionless – significantly motionless maybe. He grinned back at it, then reached for his glass. The monkey did not move. It even ignored the flies that swarmed across its face.

“You’d almost believe they could think, wouldn’t you?” Wilkes said in a drone. He tipped an ice-cube from his glass, held it between two nicotine-stained fingers, before flicking it at the monkey. The cube skidded across the floor tiles, rebounded off a table leg and missed the monkey by a foot. The animal ignored it. Its eyes, curiously deep, stared at the Europeans as if it were assessing them.

Harper felt drawn to stare back at it as if some kind of empathy had built between them. In a way he felt honoured, which was strange as animals normally left him cold. Even when he was a child, he never had any interest in them, like the shaggy Old English sheepdog his father had given him when he was eight, which he ignored completely. A flea-bitten monkey was the last thing with which he would have expected to empathize.

On an impulse Harper reached into his glass for an ice-cube too, rolled it for a moment between his fingers, then threw it as hard as he could at the monkey. It glittered through the air.

Wilkes howled with laughter as the ice-cube hit the beast hard between its eyes. “Good shot!” he shouted, slapping his thighs.

The monkey shook its head, then chattered something between yellow fangs, before loping away between the table legs.

Harper avoided Wilkes’s eyes as the man gabbled his praise. “If you could aim that well with a gun, you’d be a great hunter.”

Harper stood up, suddenly ashamed of himself. He watched the monkey as it waddled out of the restaurant before lowering itself to the sparsely grassed embankment that sloped down at a steep gradient to the river. “I’ll be back in a moment,” he said. He strolled between the tables after the monkey. He felt through his pockets to see if he had any food he could offer in appeasement, though all he could find was a boiled sweet the airline stewardess had given him during his flight to India five days ago. He peeled off the wrapping paper as he approached the restaurant wall. Leaning over, he saw the monkey sat by the river, scooping its paws into the clay-coloured water. Harper whistled to catch its attention, then threw the sweet towards it. The monkey watched the humbug land on the grass a couple of yards from its feet, then gazed at Harper. Curiously, he felt as if the creature was again assessing him, before it returned its attention to the sweet, climbing to its feet and loping through the grass with a kind of simian dignity, as if reaching for the sweet was beneath it. Almost… but not quite, Harper thought with a silent chuckle, wishing he had something better to throw for it. He turned to Wilkes. “Have you anything to eat on you?”

Wilkes guffawed, before jabbering some lingua franca – some very gross, pidgin lingua franca – to one of the Indian waiters.

“I’ve asked for a dish of peanuts,” he said. “Monkey nuts might be more appropriate if you’re feeding that bugger.”

Harper scowled. He turned to the monkey and their eyes met. He snapped his fingers encouragingly, coaxing it to him with clucking sounds. Behind him Wilkes’s laughter subsided into his glass.

The air-conditioning in Harper’s bedroom was so efficient it made him shiver when he stepped into it late that night after too many hours in the bar. Not bothering to switch on the light, he stripped off and went into the shower. Moonlight shone through the window. A gecko, hunting for insects in the gloom, zipped up the wall in a burst of speed, making him sway as he caught sight of it in the corner of his eye. Involuntarily he followed its path till it disappeared into the shadows.

Then a muffled noise drew his attention.

Leaving the shower, he strode towards the suitcases propped on a small table in the corner. Their dark shapes loomed beside the wardrobe. One of them slid sideways, bouncing with a crash on the floor as the monkey launched itself in the opposite direction.

“Hanuman!” Harper snapped, his reflexes making him reach for the creature as it headed for the door. “Here!” The animal stopped in its tracks and stared back at him. With a sudden, mirthless laugh, Harper reached into his jacket and pulled out a handful of nuts, scattering them across the floor in front of him. “Come on – eat!” He laughed again as the creature picked at the nuts with infinite caution, chewing them slowly one by one, its eyes barely leaving Harper’s face. Despite the monkey’s subservience, there was something about its eyes that disturbed him. He could feel a prickling creep across his shoulders. There was nothing subservient about the animal’s eyes. In fact, little about those eyes seemed right, however intelligent it might be.

“Dumb beast,” Harper muttered. He strode to a pile of hardbound books on a table by the window. Each spine showed his name in large, stylistic letters next to the smaller title of the novel. S.D. Harper. A name that sold, so his publisher said – so his publisher knew! “D’you see this, you dumb little beast?” he said, pivoting on his heel to face the creature again. “This,” he said, “is me.” He raised the book. “This is my soul,” he said slowly, drunkenly, “you sorry-looking animal.”

Their eyes met, and Harper felt stupid, not only for talking to the monkey, but for the pretentiousness of what he’d said. It must be the drink, he thought, watching the monkey as it sidled towards him.

“What do you think you’re up to now?” he asked. Drink always made him aggressive – as two ex-wives had found to their cost. He stared at the monkey. “Piss off,” he muttered, unable to remember why he had ever felt interested in the creature – or why he had encouraged it back to his room. Though had he encouraged it? What happened seemed like a dream to him now. How had the filthy creature got here? He seemed to recall some raucous jokes from Wilkes after he managed to entice it back to the restaurant, where they had played with it for a while, throwing nuts for the monkey to catch while they drank more gin. He remembered Wilkes saying something about the Hindus’ belief in reincarnation, that if there was anything in it what had the monkey been in its previous life – a thief, a murderer, or a priest? All three, Harper remembered joking after he’d looked into its eyes. “What d’yer mean?” Wilkes asked, tears of drunken laughter in his. Harper told him it had probably been the soul of a priest from one of those murderous cults that haunted India’s distant past. He felt clever when he said it, knowing Wilkes, the bumbling salesman, was falling for it hook, line and sinker. “No such thing,” Wilkes retorted. Then Harper told him about the cult of the Thuggees whose followers committed wholesale murder on hapless travellers.

Why he’d said it – why he’d ever connected it with the monkey, he didn’t know. It was odd, because somehow he’d meant it. There was a look deep down inside the creature’s eyes that suggested this to him, instinctively perhaps, or intuitively, or some such nonsensical thing.

“Piss off,” he muttered.

The monkey stopped and stared at him.

“Hanuman,” Harper said, “you’re a filthy, murderous, nasty little thief. You probably killed your own father – and your children – which would be the kind of thing a Thuggee would do, isn’t it?” He chuckled, though he did not know why. “Now piss off and leave me alone!”

Perhaps because of the alcohol he’d drunk he had bad dreams that night, dreams in which he found himself lost in a moonlit jungle. Nearby was a dirt track, grooves worn into it from thousands of carts that had trundled down it over the years. He wasn’t alone. Others were with him. Waiting. One of them gloated that a band of travellers, who set out late from the nearest town, were planning to pass this way before settling down for the night. Some of their comrades had already managed to infiltrate the travellers, he added, masquerading as pilgrims.

Soon, as expected, the travellers appeared, with armed guards amongst them, hired as protection against the Thugs. What none of them knew was that most of their guards were Thuggees themselves!

Harper hunkered down, feeling the familiar excitement building inside him. Soon the travellers would settle for the night, lulled by a false sense of security. At a signal they would be attacked from within and without as their guards turned on them and he and the rest of the gang swarmed in. He held a yellow scarf between his fingers. He would use it to strangle his victims for Kali, Goddess of Destruction. His hands itched with the urge to do it. He could barely wait for the killing to begin. He loved that even more than the spoils they would take, before burying the bodies. It was what he lived for, to feel his victim struggle beneath him, unable to escape from the ritualistic noose that was strangling the life from them.

Hours passed as they followed the caravan before they stopped for the night. Time passed while food was eaten, then the travellers settled down to sleep, relying on their hired guards to keep them safe.

Moonlight shone through leaves overhead on their huddled bodies.

Someone whistled.

It was the signal.

Silently, Harper crept towards the caravan, his scarf clenched ready to be drawn around the neck of his first victim, his first sacrifice to the Goddess, when a gunshot rang out and he realised they had been fooled.

More gunshots followed. In the muzzle flashes he saw men, white men. Soldiers, he realised. British soldiers.

Panicking, he fled between the trees, hoping to find somewhere to hide in the jungle, when a searing pain slammed hard between his shoulder blades, hurling him onto the ground. He realised he had been shot. Air wheezed from his lungs as blood bubbled, choking him, up his windpipe into his mouth, filling it. Frightened, he knew he was dying.

Darkness fell across his eyes.

Darkness such as he had never experienced before, a darkness that seemed eternal.
But wasn’t.

Disorientated, Harper opened his eyes, unable to remember who or where he was. He couldn’t even remember when he was. The only thing he could remember was hiding in a jungle, waiting to kill. Wanting to kill, he thought with a chill. He had wanted it so much it scared him now. That he had wanted to murder someone as much as he had sickened him. He could feel the cloth he clenched between his fingers as a garrotte. He could remember what it felt to wrap it around someone’s neck, drawing it tighter and tighter till it bit into their flesh and strangled them.

Sweating, Harper sat on the edge of his bed, sure he was going to be sick.

Across the room, staring at him, sat the monkey. Had it been there all night? Harper felt impatient at its presence but wary of it too.

Forcing himself to his feet he opened the window. Hot air blew in at him. It was already late morning and the sun was shining with a painful brilliance across the gardens outside.

Grabbing a towel from the bathroom, he shooed the monkey towards the window.

“Get out, you little bastard,” he rasped at it, his throat so dry it hurt to speak. He flicked the towel at the animal as it passed.

With a silent stare, the monkey leapt away from the towel and landed on the windowsill before dropping outside. He watched it lope across the paving stones alongside the garden, before squatting down to gaze back at him.

Grunting his annoyance, Harper shut the window and drew the curtains, blocking out the view. He knew the creature would still be staring, sure it would sit there for hours if need be, though he had no idea why. There was something odd, disturbing, frightening about the monkey, as if a human intelligence lurked somewhere inside its brain.

Harper grunted derisively. He knew he was being ridiculous, allowing his overactive imagination to get the better of him. Too much time on his hands and too much booze (definitely too much booze), that was the problem – the real problem. It was time to return home and put this exotic nonsense behind him.

After talking with Wilkes yesterday about the Thuggees, he knew the subject had preyed on his mind, which was why he dreamt about them. And that was all it had been, a meaningless, stupid dream.

Though that didn’t explain the monkey.

He wished he had never set eyes on it – or, when he did, had behaved like Wilkes, who treated the creature with contempt.

He lay down again, feeling tired, out of synch, as if he had not properly woken up and was still dreaming. That bloody, bloody monkey…

This time he was aware where he was. Luxuriant trees grew all around him and he knew he was in a jungle again. Was it the same as before? He could remember being shot. Hadn’t he died afterwards? Or had he blacked out and been rescued? He tried to look around, but his neck felt stiff and it was painful to move. Even so he could see there were other people nearby. A few feet from him a man moaned in pain. Another man sobbed. There was the smell of blood, and something worse. Was it gangrene? It snagged at his throat and he felt an urge to vomit but managed to control his reflexes as he pushed himself up high enough on the heap of straw he was lying on so he could look around. He realised he was in an encampment of some kind. There were others here, most of them injured. The injured were lying on the ground like him. There were a handful of men walking between them, old men mainly in dirty robes stained with blood.

Suddenly he realised how thirsty he was and called for water. The word came out as “Pani!” which he somehow knew was the same in whatever language these people spoke.

One of the old men, his beard streaked more grey than black, crept towards him with a pail of water. Using a wooden ladle, he dribbled it onto his lips. “Ahista,” the man whispered. Slow.

Harper nodded as he let the water trickle between his lips.

Later he learned what had happened. The fight had been fierce, with the soldiers’ rifles taking out many of their men before the rain started, coming down so hard it was impossible to see, let alone fight. In the confusion, many of the wounded, like him, were dragged into the jungle.

“You were lucky,” he was told. The musket shot that hit him must have either been fired with not enough powder or had ricocheted and lost most of its force. Though it had winded him and bruised his back, it had not penetrated the skin. “You will live to fight another day.”

Or kill, he thought, feeling weirdly caught up between his twentieth century self that was asleep and dreaming and the Thuggee who lived all those years ago, as if somehow he was unsure which was real, though the thought of strangling innocent men, women, and children to that disgustingly barbaric god, Kali, revolted Harper, even as the Thuggee spoke ecstatically about it.

Time passed quickly as if he sometimes blanked out. His injury was soon just an occasional twinge. Having left the encampment his group now moved cautiously through the jungle; aware they were being hunted by British soldiers. There were too many to fight head on, especially with their modern rifles. The Thuggees had to be cunning instead, scouting any caravan they were going to attack until they were certain it was safe to do so. At the same time, they had to make sure no one passed any information on to the British about where they were. Traitors were suspected. The rewards being offered were temptingly high, especially for people as poor as most of them were. Eyes, therefore, were everywhere, and you had to be careful what you said, which added to the atmosphere of paranoia.

When the Monsoon started he began to suffer. The injury to his back worsened again, so that often he could barely stand upright without groaning. Carrying anything heavier than a canteen of water was agony. But their leaders were deaf to his complaints. Kali did not recognise weakness, neither did her chief acolytes. And he knew he would be left to fend for himself if he became a burden. Or maybe worse, he would be sacrificed to their god.

He had to be strong!

Harper sensed the desperation.

He had to be strong!

Weeks passed, though to Harper they streamed by in seconds. He would close his eyes and open them again and days had gone, sometimes weeks. In a way this was a relief from the insufferable boredom and the pain in his back, but it was alarming as well as he could sense the deterioration of his Thuggee self. The injury to his back must have been worse than originally thought because he was hobbling now, doubled up in pain. He could barely imagine the man being capable of murdering anyone now, especially with a noose. That required strength, determination, and a strong back.

Harper felt no pity for the man though. In a way he was looking forward to all of them being caught and paying for their crimes, either by being shot dead or hanged. He wondered what the Thuggee’s fate would be: the bullet or the noose. Though it seemed more likely he would succumb to disease first. He had already developed a nasty cough and spat blood. Thick globules too large to bode anything but bad news.

His Thuggee self was aware how sick he was, and he could sense his wish to leave the cult and find a village where he could live out his days in peace.

It was only days before the Thuggee straggled behind the rest of the gang. Mostly this was because of the state of his health but there was connivance there too. He was looking for an opportunity. And soon it came.

A British patrol, including a mounted officer were heading for one of the small villages on the outskirts of the jungle. As soon as he saw them he hid, watching them as they questioned the villagers. The patrol had a native guide with them who carried out the interrogations. He was a tall man dressed in a uniform like the soldiers except for a turban which showed he was a Sikh.

The Thuggee buried his incriminating yellow scarf beneath a bush, then hobbled into plain sight of the soldiers, several of whom instantly trained their rifles on him.

Spreading his arms to show he had no weapons, he limped towards them. Over the next few hours, he told a rambling tale of being kidnapped by a gang of Thuggees who were marauding through the jungle. He gave them an even more rambling and vaguer story about his escape. When pressed by the Sikh he promised to lead them to where the gang was heading. Within hours a scout was dispatched to the main body of British troops and plans were made to trap the Thuggees and wipe them out or take them to be tried.

Thus it was that the gang was routed, and most were shot. The Thuggee was taken to identify those who had been captured, which was when he met his end. He had hardly finished walking down a line of Thugs when one of them leapt at him with a concealed knife, ignored the bullets that pounded his body to slam the dagger in his chest.

Harper awoke instantly.

He could see the killer’s face even now, filled with hatred.

“Kali will eat your heart, you damned traitor!” the man cried as they died, one on top of the other.

How odd to curse a man you were already killing, Harper thought. You would think the one would cancel the other! He shook his head, puzzled, though relieved that his dream had broken.

He went into the bathroom to wash and get dressed, deciding he needed company. It was another brilliantly sunny day and he knew he would find Wilkes in the bar when he’d eaten his breakfast. The man’s down-to-earth humour was what he needed now.

“No wonder you’re a novelist,” Wilkes said when Harper told him his dreams. though Harper seemed preoccupied, and was hardly listening to what Wilkes said, before he added as an afterthought: “Your imagination must be running on all pistons.”

“Too much sometimes,” Harper said finally.

“I’ll drink to that.” Wilkes laughed.

Harper laughed, but bitterly, then frowned, sitting up. “That damned monkey’s back again!” There was anger in his voice. “I wish the hotel would get rid of the filthy blighters.”

Wilkes turned and looked, feeling a cold riff going up his spine.

“I don’t suppose there’s much the hotel could do. It wouldn’t be politic to send someone out to shoot them. There’d be an uproar from the locals.”

“Shooting their little gods, eh? Ha ha, you’re right, of course. I forgot about that. Bloody idiots.”

Still… Harper thought. He stared at the monkey as it glared back at him, remembering that the Indian god Hanuman was associated with Kali, whose aspects could vary between good and evil, and was always at her worst amongst her Thuggee adherents, brandishing a severed head in one of her four hands and a necklace of skulls hung around her neck.

For one chill moment Harper was sure the monkey bore an uncanny resemblance to the face of the man who stabbed him to death in his dream. Then he laughed. Of course, it was. It was the monkey that inspired it. No wonder there were aspects of his attacker’s face in its. His imagination had used the monkey as a template, as simple as that.

Or was it?

Harper looked up.

“For all of that, they’re a bloody nuisance.”

Wilkes glanced at him, looking surprised at the rage that was consuming the man’s face as if he had gone mad and would gladly tear the monkey to pieces if he could lay his hands on it.

“Are you okay?” Wilkes asked, which seemed to irritate Harper even more, who ignored his question, his lips moving as if he was talking to himself.

Which was what he was doing, Wilkes realised with a shudder, making out the occasional words. Words that weren’t even English but might have been Urdu.

Suddenly Harper launched himself forwards, running towards the monkey, his gin and tonic smashing to the floor. He ran past Wilkes as if he weren’t there, bowling him over as one of his feet entangled itself under one of the legs of Wilkes’s chair, knocking him sideways. It was over in a second. Rolling across the floor, Harper grabbed at the monkey, which leapt beyond his reach, only for Harper to lash out with his fist, catching the creature on its chest. It was a hard blow, for all it was awkwardly delivered, bouncing the monkey into the restaurant wall where, scrabbling on his hands and knees, Harper pursued it with an aggression more animalistic than human. Again, he snatched at the creature, managing to grasp an arm in his hand, encircling its narrow bicep and tightening. The monkey bit at his fingers, tearing out lumps of flesh as it frantically tried to free itself, but Harper was oblivious to pain, his other hand circling the monkey’s throat and choking it.

The doctor was puzzled at his condition, that much Harper could tell, though he was quick enough to give his diagnosis.

“Heat stroke.”

Harper stared at him. He wondered what the man was talking about and why they were in the manager’s office. He was puzzled why the doctor, an overweight Indian in dirty white jacket and dusty trousers, was watching him through horn-rimmed spectacles with a quizzical frown on his face. Two waiters were stood beside him, their expressions wary, as if they were worried what Harper might do.

“You have been suffering from heat stroke,” the doctor repeated, emphasising his words as if to a child.

It was only then that Harper realised he was wearing handcuffs. He stared down at them, trying to remember why and when this happened, then realised the men beside the doctor weren’t waiters but policemen.

“Where’s the monkey?” he asked suddenly, feeling alarmed.

The doctor turned to one of the policemen and shook his head. Images, though, were already returning to Harper. He could see the monkey’s face as he leaned over it, his hand at its throat.

“I did it, didn’t I”?

The doctor nodded, absently. “It was a sacrilege. Many locals are already outside the hotel. They are very upset.”

Harper was sure the gently spoken words were an understatement. He could imagine the uproar that had been stirred by what he did.

But why did he do it?

One of the policemen turned to the doctor and whispered to him.

“He is obsessed with this monkey, yes?”

“It would seem so, Inspector. He thinks it has been haunting him.”

“A ghost?” The inspector uttered a nasal laugh.

“Very much like a ghost.”

“Too much sun and gin,” the inspector said, shaking his head at the handcuffed man.

“Too much sun and gin and too much imagination. A dangerous combination.”

Somewhere nearby Harper could hear chanting. On and on and on… While at the feet of the doctor and the two policeman the monkey squatted, staring at him.

“What’s it doing here?” Harper croaked in alarm, nodding at the creature to draw their attention.

“What is what doing here, Mr Harper?” the inspector asked.

“That monkey! That damned monkey in front of you.”

The men automatically looked at their feet. The inspector shook his head sadly.

“There is nothing there, Mr Harper.”

Even more clearly than before Harper recognised the assassin’s face in the monkey’s features. Why had he come back to plague him? Wasn’t killing him once all those years ago enough?

But he knew. He had known the answer all the time. He had betrayed his brethren to the soldiers. He had sold them out for coins and his freedom. In the end he had neither, just a dagger in the heart – and damnation on his soul.

Harper knew he should never have come to this place. He hardly knew why he had. An impulse? A whim?

Or a centuries old curse that drew him here to this fate?

“There are charges to be faced. Not serious legally,” the inspector added with emphasis, “but serious in the eyes of the locals. And possibly others across our great nation, who hold Hanuman in high esteem. Blasphemies mean more here than in your country. We are a religious nation. What you did is not regarded lightly.”

Harper could imagine. He would be a pariah if that were the right word for what he’d done.

“Tomorrow you will be taken to the magistrates, where you will be charged and sentenced, probably with a fine. I am sure you can afford it,” the inspector said.

“Then?” Harper asked, dry-mouthed.

“Then I suggest you go straight to the airport and return to England. And not come back to India again. For your own safety.”

Harper nodded. He had no wish to stay anyway. He was done with this country. Though he was certain India had done with him too. He had abused its hospitality and outlasted his welcome.

“You are sure his condition is stable?” the inspector asked the doctor, who nodded. “As sure as I can be.”

Harper was released from his handcuffs then accompanied upstairs to his room.

“One of my men will be stationed outside your door overnight,” the inspector said. “To ensure your safety, you understand,” he added.

And to make sure I don’t try to escape, Harper thought, though where to and why he had no idea.

He went for a shower. Sweat had formed a sticky layer on his skin and he felt lightheaded. Had he drunk too much gin and had too much sun, he wondered. He had drunk more than usual, he knew. He blamed Wilkes for that. The man was a veritable sponge, though he never seemed the worse for it.

When he’d finished, Harper returned to his bedroom. Which was when he saw it squatting in the middle of the floor, its dark eyes staring straight at his. The eyes of the assassin.

Police Constable Manjooran, who had been stationed outside Harper’s door, was the first to see him the following day when he unlocked it to tell him it was time to go to the magistrates’ court. Afterwards, to Manjooran’s eternal shame he was unable to convince his superiors he never left his post during the night, letting someone sneak into the author’s room, though he knew that he hadn’t, that no one could have entered, no one at all.

Though how the Englishman came to have been strangled in a room with all its windows locked and no other way in than the door he had been guarding, he could not explain. But strangled Harper was, with an ancient rag of yellow silk knotted around his throat.

David A Riley writes horror, fantasy and SF stories. His first story was in the 11th Pan Book of Horror in 1970. He has had stories published by Doubleday, DAW, Corgi, Sphere, Roc, Playboy Paperbacks, Robinsons, etc, and in magazines such as Aboriginal Science Fiction, Dark Discoveries, Fear, Whispers, Savage Realms Monthly and Fantasy Tales. His first collection of stories was published by Hazardous Press in 2012, His Old Man Demons. A Lovecraftian novel, The Return, was published by Blood Bound Books in 2013. A 2nd collection of stories, The Lurkers in the Abyss & Other Tales of Terror, was launched at the World Fantasy Convention in 2013 by Shadow Publishing. Hazardous Press published his 3rd collection, Their Cramped Dark World & Other Tales, in 2016. Both Hazardous Press collections have been reprinted by Parallel Universe Publications, plus two new collections After Nightfall & Other Weird Tales (illustrated by Jim Pitts) and A Grim God’s Revenge. A fantasy novel, Goblin Mire, and a horror novel, Moloch’s Children, were published in 2015. He and his wife Linden recently relaunched Parallel Universe Publications, which originally published Beyond magazine in 1995, and have now published around 50 books, including two art books.

Along with the award-winning artist Jim Pitts he edits a twice-yearly anthology of swords and sorcery stories: Swords & Sorceries: Tales of Heroic Fantasy. The fifth volume will be published as a paperback and ebook in November. Recent publications containing his stories are: Savage Realms Monthly #12 “The Carpetmaker of Arana”; Summer of Sci-Fi & Fantasy “The Storyteller of Koss”; Sword & Sorcery Magazine #118 “The God in the Keep”; Mythic #17 “Baal the Necromancer.” I also have a novelette due in the next issue of Lovecraftiana “The Psychic Investigator.”

Fourteen dark tales of fantasy and horror ranging from 1971 to 2020.

Dead Ronnie and I was first published in Sanitarium issue 44, 2016
Corpse-Maker was first published in Weird Window issue 2, 1971
The Urn was first published in Whispers issue 1, 1972
Gwargens was first published in Beyond issue 3, 1995
Retribution was first published in Peeping Tom issue 3, 1991
The Bequest was first published in Dark Horizons, 2008
They Pissed on My Sofa was first published in Malicious Deviance, 2011
Old Grudge Ender was first published in The Screaming Book of Horror, 2012
A Girl, a Toad and a Cask was first published in The Unspoken, 2013
Scrap was first published in Dark Visions 1, 2013
Lem was first published in The Eleventh Black Book of Horror, 2015
A Grim God’s Revenge was first published in Mythic issue 4, 2017
Grudge End Cloggers was first published in Scare Me, 2020
Hanuman was first published in Phantasmagoria issue 16, 2020

SHORT STORY: Crossing the Line by Dan Zeidler

Crossing the Line

Our destination appeared suddenly outside the viewport, a technological landscape whose horizon curved away from us under the cold and distant stars. The shuttle was moving slowly enough for me to pick out the mysterious details of the other ship’s hull and I studied them carefully as we flew past. I thought everything I saw seemed to be in good working order. There were no broken and warped hull plates, no scorch marks or discolorations from the heat of fires that might have once burned within the vessel. It looked like a perfectly ordinary, if somewhat dated, interstellar transport that should have been peacefully plying a routine and uneventful path between the stars.

“So,” the Navy Man beside me in the passenger cabin of the military shuttle said abruptly. He had not bothered to introduce himself and his uniform was devoid of any helpful name badges or rank insignia. The running lights on the other ship made a feeble attempt to shine through the viewport and did little to push aside the dull red cabin lighting, but every now and then we flew past a particularly bright light that gave me a clear picture of the Navy Man’s face. He motioned with his chin toward the two travel cases in front of me and gave me a polite smile. “How does that thing work anyway?”

“Oh, well… it, aaah,” I took a breath and tried to concentrate on being calm. After six years of schooling I knew how the camera worked. I could explain it to him if I was calm. Another bright flash of light shone through the viewport and the expression the Navy Man had on his face almost concealed his expectations of a long, boring, and extremely technical answer. “The camera itself is nothing special; we can use any one of a number of commercially available models. The lens, however, ah… you can think of as being an extremely small version of a starship’s Jump drive. Instead of bending time and space to allow something to travel a great distance in very little time, the lens only bends time to allow… to allow us to catch a brief… echo of what happened as much as twenty-four hours in the past. It burns out the capacitor module pretty quickly at that focus, but you can get the capacitors to last a little longer by focusing in on more recent timeframes.”

“A miniature Jump drive, eh?” Navy Man frowned thoughtfully at the camera case and then at the smaller case containing the spare capacitor modules for the lens. I wondered what his specialty was when he was not escorting crime scene photographers to old battered starships that exited Jump with no sign of the crew or passengers. As I thought about it, I realized there had to be some sort of sign of what happened to the crew or the Fleet would not have requested a crime scene photographer. Navy Man peered at me through the dull red light. “I heard this was costing the Fleet a pile of credits. We have to pay for however many capacitors you use, I take it?”

The metal landscape outside the viewports slowed abruptly and I knew we would be docking soon. The witty reply I intended to give the Navy Man faded from memory as my stomach lurched. I managed to smile politely and nod my head. Navy Man frowned again, this time disapprovingly, as if he felt the Security Directorate had no right to send the Fleet a bill for anything. He started to say something but was interrupted by a chirp from the comm panel.

“We are lined up for docking, but our engineering team doesn’t seem to feel like answering our hails. We could circle around and wave to them through one of the bridge viewports if you like.” At any other time I would have appreciated the pilot’s dry humor, but my attention was focused almost entirely on the inner hatch of our airlock and the darkness beyond it.

Navy Man looked over at me and I tried to maintain a neutral almost bored expression. He muttered something about damn engineers in what could have been an apologetic tone and then jabbed a button on the comm panel. “The comm system on the ship is fried so it might be generating too much interference for our hail to get through. Either that or both of them are down in engineering trying to bring the system back on line. Just engage the emergency override for the boarding hatch.”

“Can do. Should only take a couple of minutes.” The pilot replied and my stomach stopped doing flips. It did not seem fair that I ended up feeling worse.

I felt the shuttle vibrate slightly as the pilot moved us in to make contact with the docking clamps and quickly knelt down to inspect my camera so I would not have to watch the tell-tales over the hatch turn from red to green. When I heard the hatch roll open I closed the carrying case for the camera and looked up to see Navy Man smiling at me patiently. He gestured through the linked airlocks toward the dimly lit interior of the other ship. “After you.” He tipped his head to one side as I picked up my two carrying cases. “Would you like a hand with those?”

“That’s okay, thank you. They are both pretty light… and, I know this is silly, but our regulations say I am not supposed to let anyone else handle them – because the capacitors are so hideously expensive. You know how the bureaucrats are,” I said lightly and Navy Man replied with a rueful chuckle. Everyone knows how bureaucrats are. The cases weren’t that light and I was stretching the truth a bit about the regulations, but I was afraid if my hands were empty that they might start shaking.

I took a breath and walked purposefully up to the threshold of the shuttle’s airlock. Time seemed to slow to standstill as my eyes followed the deck past the inner and outer airlock hatches and into the area that had, only a few moments before, been exposed to the vacuum of space. It was a simple thing to spot the line marking where the shuttle ended and the other ship began. If something went wrong with the docking mechanism it would first become apparent somewhere along that line. Then the hatches would automatically slam shut and anyone who had the misfortune to be standing between them at the time would be trapped as the atmosphere around her slowly, or perhaps quickly, vented into space. I tried to tell myself it was impossible, but my eyes kept going back to that line.

“Is everything okay?” Navy Man asked from beside my shoulder. My mind raced.

“I… I thought it was impolite to board a Fleet vessel without doing that… ah… boarding ceremony thing,” I moved one hand to make a vague motion with a carrying case toward the other ship, “with someone on the other ship?”

“Oh,” Navy Man said, probably after he’d concluded that I was a Class 1 Airhead. I glanced back at the thin line between the ships that was all that separated us from the nothingness of space and my heart began to pound. Perhaps I was an airhead, worrying over a silly line. I realized Navy Man was talking to me and shifted my attention back to him. “Yes, there should be someone here to welcome us aboard, but the engineering team is apparently a bit on the absent-minded side. I’ll have a chat them with them about it and I guarantee they won’t be offended that we decided to forgo tradition rather than wait for them make their way to the airlock.”

Navy Man’s tone of voice chilled considerably as he spoke his last sentence. He was annoyed and obviously looking for someone on whom he could vent his annoyance. I did not want that someone to be me. “Well then, we best get to the crime scene.” I had no more excuses for delaying so I took a breath and walked quickly through the open hatch. The few steps I took in the short passage linking the two ships were lost in a blur that cleared once I stood on the deck of the other starship. I chastised myself for hesitating and tried to believe that the next time I walked through the airlocks would be easier.

The boarding area was smaller than I expected and decorated in shades of brown, orange, and cream. The ornate carpeting on the deck was slightly worn, faded in some places and stained in others. The furniture was likewise worn and dated in its styling. The dim light from the antique lighting combined with the warm colors of the room to give it an almost cozy, homey look when compared to the high tech polish of the Fleet orbital station or the Fleet shuttle that were my only other points of reference.

Navy Man stepped nonchalantly through the hatch and gave me a look as if he expected me to do something interesting.

“Do you know where the potential crime scene is or do we have to find one of the engineers first?” I arched an eyebrow at him when he responded with a puzzled expression.

“This is the potential crime scene,” Navy Man said with a gesture that took in the room.

“This? Here?” My voice squeaked. Dammit. My heart began to race as I realized that the hatch I had just so casually stepped through, well, hesitantly stepped through, must have failed and the passengers and crew had been pulled through it to their deaths. People liked to tell me such things never happen, but obviously in this case they were wrong. My eyes went back to the line. What was to say that the seals or the locking mechanism or any one of the other arcane mechanisms involved in the workings of an airlock would not fail again? I wondered if the two engineers had not returned the shuttle’s hail or met us at the hatch because they too had been sucked out into space.

“Yes, here and, well, the rest of the ship. There are no clues as to what happened to the passengers or crew and no internal sensor logs for the last twenty-four hours. We’ll need images of the entire vessel in order to figure out what happened.” Navy Man had the gall to shrug his shoulders casually. “We may as well start here though, right?”

“You want me to photograph the entire ship? By myself?” My voice squeaked again, but that time it was justified. Dammit. “Do you have any idea how many days it would take one person to complete full-coverage photography for every room and hallway on this ship? No, of course you don’t, because not even I know and I am the expert here. This ship has already been sitting here for two hours and that means the furthest we can go back is twenty-two hours before it came out of Jump. Every minute that passes is one minute less that we can see back in time. If we hope to get any useful coverage of the entire ship we will need a team of photographers – a huge team of photographers.” I paused to shake my head in angry disbelief. “I can’t believe you only requested one photographer…”

“Ummm… sorry?” Navy Man had edged out to what he must have felt was a safe distance while I had been talking and had left me a clear path back onto the shuttle. I set my jaw and proceeded to march determinedly through the open hatch. “Wait, where are you-“

I thought I had built up enough momentum to carry me past the line, but my feet seemed to stop of their own accord as I reached it. I spun around to cover my hesitation. “You said the comm system doesn’t work over here. I have to go back to the shuttle to make the truly humiliating call to my Captain to let him know I am not capable of doing this job by myself and that he will need to mobilize just about everyone to come help me.” It was more than I meant to say even if it was true. I turned back around so Navy Man would not see me closing my eyes before I forced myself to walk the rest of the way through the airlock. The second time was unfortunately not any easier than the first.

It took only a few moments to establish a link to headquarters which unlike me was resting safely and firmly on the surface of a planet and blanketed by miles of atmosphere. It took only a few moments more to explain the situation to the Captain and much to my surprise he quickly offered an apology. “Ah! Klari, I’m sorry. It was my fault for assuming the Fleet would only want you to photograph one or two compartments. I should have known they meant the entire starship. Send that Fleet shuttle back and by the time it gets here I’ll have a team assembled and ready to go. We should meet back up with you in about 90 minutes.”

“Yes sir,” I struggled to keep the disappointment out of my tone, but I knew the Captain would know how I felt.

“I’m sorry again, Klari. I know you were looking forward to your first solo case even if you were not looking forward to your first trip off planet,” the Captain said as he smiled encouragingly to me from the vid-screen. I felt my face flush with embarrassment. Now Navy Man and the pilot knew just how much of a rookie I was. The Captain’s face became serious. “Don’t worry. You’ll have your chance to shine.”

“Yes, sir. I’ll see you in ninety minutes, Captain.” After the Captain made his farewell I tapped the disconnect button without taking my eyes off the vid-screen. It was uncomfortably quiet in the shuttle. I glanced cautiously over at Navy Man and the pilot.

Navy Man spoke first. “Is this really-“

“Yes. It isn’t my fault this is my first solo case. Everyone has a first solo case,” I snapped before he could finish. I could put up with him acting cold and distant, but I would not tolerate being patronized. “And not everyone enjoys leaving behind a nice safe planet to go traipsing about deep space…” My voice trailed off as Navy Man and the pilot tried to secretly exchange an angry look. “And now you’re both angry with me. That’s just great. Just great.” I really was not doing well on my first solo case. I grabbed my camera and made a beeline for the airlock. I closed my eyes and may have also held my breath as I stepped through the inner hatch. I stopped a few steps inside the boarding area of the other ship and waited for Navy Man to catch up with me.

“Klari? Agent Dielle?” Navy Man’s voice said from within the maw of the connecting passage. I turned to face him and was startled by how close he already was to me – as if he had run after me. Navy Man looked down at me with a hard edged-alertness in his eyes that was not there a few moments before and I realized he had unsnapped the flap on his pistol holster. I doubted very much that he considered me that much of a threat. He smiled as the hatch rolled shut behind him. “Listen, we weren’t angry with you. You’re right; everyone has a first mission. There are also plenty of people who never get up into space, but for everyone else there is a first time for that too. So don’t go thinking we were angry with you. No, we were angry with your boss for setting you up. I mean, if he wanted to send you on your first solo mission and have you get your space legs at the same time, well, he should have made sure it really was the right mission for you. A good boss takes care of his troops like that.”

“The Captain is a good boss. Usually. I guess he just made a mistake this time.” I paused to take a breath. “Like I did when I snapped at you and the pilot. I’m sorry about that. I guess I am just a little tense… about being in… space…” My gaze drifted toward the airlock as I began to feel that something was horribly wrong.

“Most people get a little nervous their first time off planet,” Navy Man glanced over his shoulder toward the airlock and grinned. “You don’t have to worry about one of these failing.” He thumped the only thing between us and a very grim death much harder than I felt was strictly necessary. “Mankind has been building airlocks for thousands of years now. Even on a tub as old as this one the airlocks would be failsafe.”

I gasped and said, “Oh my God!”

Despite Navy Man’s recent assurances to the contrary, he looked quickly over his shoulder to see what was wrong with the airlock.

“The spare capacitors! I left the spare capacitors on the shuttle!” With my hand over my open mouth I dropped back into a nearby chair. Forgetting a carrying case full of spare capacitor modules would not be the end of my career, but it would be uncomfortably close.

“Oh,” Navy Man said in the tone of voice of someone who does not understand. “You don’t have to worry about that; the pilot is a good guy. He’ll stow them someplace before he docks with the station so no one will know. Listen,” Navy Man said with a quick glance over at the boarding room’s comm panel as he took a small interference generator out of one of his pockets just long enough for me to catch a brief glimpse of it. He dropped his voice and spoke quickly. “There is more going on here than you know, Agent Dielle. Earlier I thought you were, ah, playing a different role in this scenario.” Navy Man gave the comm panel another glance and raised his voice to a normal level and pace before I could say anything. “I’m sorry for being rude to you before. The name is John Blanchet. There are three other guys named John in my section so pretty much everyone just calls me Blanchet.”

Blanchet gave me a smile that appeared genuine and offered his hand. I shook it after a slight hesitation I hoped was not too obvious. “Most people call me Klari. I tend to be the only one in any group,” I said and Navy Man, Blanchet, nodded his head encouragingly. The airlock loomed behind him, both menacing and tenuous, and I decided that I wanted a few more airtight doors between me and the new line marking the boundary between safety and deadly emptiness. “So… we have ninety minutes before the shuttle returns with the rest of team. I should probably do something useful while we wait. I only have one capacitor module, but it will be enough for a detailed study of one room on the ship. Is there any place you can think of on this ship where it would be a good idea to take some pictures? “

Blanchet smiled approvingly and I began to wonder if this was some sort of training exercise. “You’re right. No point standing around here, is there? Let me think… the bridge would probably be our best bet. We can see what the crew was doing during the last few hours before the ship came out of Jump and we will be able to see what the displays were reading which will give us a good idea what was happening on other parts of the ship. I am also curious to see how long the engineering team has left the bridge unattended,” Blanchet said as he crossed the room to tap a button on the door control. The door snapped open crisply to reveal a dingy, moderately well-lit hallway or corridor or whatever they were called on starships. I picked up my camera case and Blanchet smiled at me again. “Yes, the bridge is perfect place for us to be.”

I had high hopes about the perfection of the bridge as Blanchet led me deeper into the starship, putting layer upon layer of solid metal between us and the vacuum of outer space. The empty hallways and rooms that we passed had an odd stillness about them that reminded me of walking through an old and unoccupied building. I did not realize it was unusual until I noticed Blanchet never let his hand stray very far from his pistol. It took us several minutes to reach the door leading to bridge and Blanchet made me wait to one side while he made sure the room was clear. It was not until he told me that it was safe to enter that I realized that Blanchet was a madman.

My attention had been focused on my camera and running the lens through its startup routines so I was looking down when I stepped onto the bridge. As the door slid shut behind me, I looked up and gasped.

Windows. Three out of the four walls were nothing but floor to ceiling windows. Windows with spindly support structures that could not possibly strong enough to hold them in place against the strain of the atmosphere pushing out toward the waiting vacuum of space. Windows that did nothing to conceal the naked stars beyond them, glittering in the endless nothing through which the ship drifted as lifeless and empty as a tomb.

The bridge most certainly was not the perfect place to be.

Conflicting desires tore at me from within: I wanted to run, to hide in a corner, to stand my ground and face down that terrifying vista. Time seemed to be moving very slowly. The transparent material of the viewports seemed flex against the strain. I knew it was my imagination. I knew I was not about to be flung out into that cold void where the vacuum of space would force the air from my lungs and leave nothing to replace it. My heartbeat thundered in my ears. I forced myself to take a breath.

“I know what you are thinking, Klari,” Blanchet said. He sounded like he was talking to me from the other end of a tunnel. “The view is breathtaking.”

“Breath taking. Just what I was thinking.” I heard a slight tremor in my voice. Blanchet was obviously a madman, but at least he was not thumping the viewport glass to prove how sturdy it was. A small shiver ran down my back as I knelt down to rest the camera case on the deck. I hoped concentrating on photographing the crime scene would distract me from the siren call of the stars. A quick visual survey was enough for me to see that the best place to set up my camera was coincidentally the one place on the bridge I wanted to be – near the center of the back wall as far from all the viewports as it was possible to get without leaving the bridge.

“Are you able to record video or are you only able to take stills?” Blanchet asked as I set the camera to float at a comfortable height above the deck so I could program the photography sequence. From his tone I could tell that he thought he already knew the answer, but wanted confirmation.

“I could do video, but it would drastically reduce the life of the capacitor module. We also wouldn’t be able to watch it as the camera was recording it; we would have to wait until the sequence finished,” I explained as I composed the image using the live feed. I set the lens to wide angle and through it saw Blanchet staring at me with a thoughtful expression. I looked away from the camera and met his gaze.

“I really do want to see how long those two engineers have left this bridge unattended. If you don’t mind, could you please make me a video record of the bridge with a start time of… oh, say…” Blanchet glanced down at the chronometer on his wrist. “Ninety minutes ago?”

There were little clues in Blanchet’s voice, in his facial expression, and in his body language that told me he more than had the authority to make his request an order. He was opting to be nice about it rather than obnoxious. I nodded my head in casual affirmation. “That won’t take me very long to program at all. We will still have to wait a bit for the camera to finish recording.”

“Understood. Thank you, Klari.” Blanchet said, again in that subtle command tone. I wondered why he was pretending to be a lowly nobody who was stuck babysitting a crime scene photographer.

Blanchet said nothing as we waited for the camera to finish its sequence. I noticed he was always sure to keep himself between me and the door leading on to the bridge and that his right hand never strayed very far from his holstered pistol. Wondering who he really was and why he seemed so ready to shoot someone kept me from thinking about how the only things separating me from the emptiness of space were some panes of high tech glass. If Blanchet did start shooting at someone and missed then he would probably blow a hole in one of the enormous viewports. The same would apply to whoever Blanchet decided to start shooting at – if that person missed then… a cold feeling of dread filled me as I realized if that person did not miss then Blanchet would be dead and I would be trapped on an empty starship with some sort of gun-toting maniac. I had a hard time trying to decide if that was worse than getting sucked out into space after someone blasted a hole through one of the viewports.

When the camera was through recording it took me a few moments to reconfigure it to play back the imagery. Blanchet stood close beside me and peered over my shoulder at the grainy picture on the small playback screen. The two engineers moved around the bridge pausing every now and then in front of one console or another. A few minutes into the fast-forwarded playback, one of the engineers left the bridge and his partner settled into the chair beside the communication console. A few moments after that a dark shape passed in front of the camera when the other engineer returned to the bridge.

“Wait! That isn’t the second engineer.” I slowed the playback down for Blanchet’s benefit and watched in horror as the mysterious individual stealthily approached the first engineer from behind and killed him with a single thrust from a long, wicked-looking knife. The killer did not bother to check to see if his victim was dead, he already knew, instead he merely bent down and cleaned his blade on the dead engineer’s uniform. When the killer paused and stared back in the direction of the camera I froze the image. I felt myself sliding down the wall and ended up sitting on the cold, hard deck.

“This must be the first time you have seen someone murdered, Klari?” Blanchet asked, his voice a mix of concern and surprise. I shook my head no and he frowned at me. He looked thoughtfully back at the screen and then turned to study the wall over my head. “Any idea what he is looking at?”

“Me.” I forced myself to say it. My instructors had told me about killers like this and I did not want it to be true. “He is looking at me.”

“What?” There was no longer any surprise in Blanchet’s tone, only concern. There should have been surprise.

“This is the best place for a crime scene camera. He knew there would be a photographer here. Some killers stage their murders for the camera; it isn’t common but it happens. The ones who stage their murders for the crime scene photographer though…” My eyes drifted to the chair where the engineer had been murdered. Killers who staged murders for the crime scene photographer and who deliberately reached out, either through a look or some other message, were extremely rare creatures. They always followed the same pattern. Always. “He killed everyone on this ship someplace where it would be easy to get pictures of the murder. In each case he would have left a message for the crime scene photographer to see because he knew that-” I glanced up at Blanchet and saw his right hand was resting lightly on the butt of his pistol. A sense of betrayal made my heart pound furiously. “You- You- You’ve known all along that this was an elaborate trap set by some lunatic who wants to gets his hands on a crime scene photographer!”

Blanchet moved faster than I thought was humanly possible and reached down with his left hand to grab me by the arm. He was much larger than I was and strong enough to haul me to my feet like a rag doll. He let go of me to point a finger at my face. “Now is not the time for this, Klari. Pack up your camera. We are going back to the boarding area. It’s the safest place on the ship.”

Three walls of floor to ceiling viewports may have been frightening, but unlike the airlock in the boarding area the viewports were at least not designed to open up to the vast and terrifying emptiness of the universe. Blanchet snapped his fingers loudly in front of my face. “Hey! Focus, Agent Dielle!” He grabbed my other arm and spun me around to face the unblinking gaze of the cold and distant stars. “I know you are terrified of that, but I also know that you don’t let it beat you. This killer is just a man and he is nothing compared to the vastness of the Universe. Got it?” I took a breath and felt my heart rate slow down a little. With my eyes closed against the stars, I nodded my head. Blanchet let go of my arm. “Good. Now, camera.”

I deactivated my camera and packed it quickly, though still securely, inside the carrying case. Blanchet had drawn his pistol when I was not looking and he motioned for me to follow him into the hall outside the bridge. The bridge door opened noisily; far louder it seemed than it had the first time we went through it. The hallway beyond was empty… and dark… and menacingly quiet. The killer could have leaped out at us from anywhere, but we made it back to the boarding area without seeing him.

I moved to one side of the room and turned my back on the inner hatch of the airlock hoping if I could not see then I might be able to pretend it was not there. Without the airlock the boarding area looked like a normal waiting area and as a general room of thumb people did not die of decompression in normal waiting areas. Blanchet shut the door and pulled a blue crystalline cylinder from another of the many pockets on his uniform. He glanced down at the door panel and hesitated for less than a heartbeat before turning to me.

“This a Fleet Emergency Access Key, or an E-Key for short,” Blanchet said as he handed me the key. “You can use one of these to unlock any door on a civilian starship and if you use it to lock a door then only someone with another E-Key will be able to open it.”

“Are you leaving me here and going after the killer?” I did not think that was the brightest course of action. The only way the Fleet would not have detected the killer was if he had a camouflage net that would have hidden him from their sensors. It meant he had prepared his trap very carefully, but his type always did.

“The look on your face is priceless, Klari, but this isn’t the first time I’ve tracked down a bad guy on what was supposed to be an empty starship.” Blanchet gave me a crooked smiled as he pressed the key into my hand. He nodded his head toward the door control panel. “You lock that door as soon as it closes behind me. I’m going to make my way to the auxiliary comm room to see if I can’t contact our shuttle. When the shuttle docks, the pilot will call you on your comm unit so you will know it is not the killer trying to get in the airlock, okay?”

“Okay. I still think you are crazy, but okay. Be careful.” I said and with a nod of thanks in my direction Blanchet slipped through the door. I did as Blanchet instructed and passed the E-Key in front of the ID sensor on the door control panel. There was a satisfying clicking sound and a series of red lights sprang to life above the door. I took a breath and turned to face the airlock.

Blanchet was correct – this was, much as it pained me to admit it, the safest place on the ship. Even if the killer was insane enough to deliberately go outside the ship it would be impossible for him to sneak in through the airlock. Airlocks had alarms and flashing lights and things of that sort and, as the name implied, they locked. I decided it would not hurt to see if the E-Key would also secure the airlock, but pulled my hand back when I noticed a set of scratch marks near the airlock control panel. The marks were parallel and closely spaced; almost as if someone had used a flat metal object to force the panel open. I stared thoughtfully at the airlock for a moment and then slowly turned my head to look over my shoulder at the door control panel.

Blanchet had hesitated when he looked at it.

I concentrated on keeping my breathing even as I crossed the room for a closer look at the door panel. I quickly found another set of scratch marks near the edge of the panel. I kept my mind empty of all thought as I set my camera case down and took out my camera. The capacitor status light was glowing a greenish-yellow so it was in relatively good shape. I set up the camera by the airlock and pointed it across the room to the supposedly locked door leading out into the hallway. The killer knew how crime scene photography worked and he wanted us to see his handy work so that meant he would have waited until a few hours before the ship was due to exit Jump before killing everyone else on board. He would not have risked being caught tampering with the doors before then. I programmed the camera to record events that had happened from six to three hours in the past and then made myself sit patiently in one of the plush chairs while the program ran. When the camera was through the capacitor status light started glowing a bright amber.

I fast forwarded through the recording until I saw the killer enter the boarding area. He had stood in the doorway for a moment staring thoughtfully at the airlock. Then his gaze shifted slightly and he stared into the camera lens. He smiled and shook his finger at me reproachfully before turning to work on prying open the door control panel. I stopped the recording and bit my lip thoughtfully. I had no way of knowing what the killer had done to the door or the airlock since I had no experience with starship tech. It was possible he had done nothing and he was only toying with me. It was more likely that he had rigged the door controls so he could override anything I might do on my side of the door. He could then open the airlock and jettison me out into space or worse, he could slowly vent the air in the room out into space until I fell unconscious. Then he would be able to take me alive.

Blanchet had realized all of this and had decided to offer himself up as bait for the killer in the hopes that he could keep the game of cat and mouse going long enough for help to arrive. The killer was too well prepared for Blanchet to have much of a chance. The safest thing for both of us would be to stick together. I grabbed my camera, unlocked the door, and stepped cautiously out into the hallway. The only way for me to know which way Blanchet had gone was to set the camera up for a short snap shot into the past. I hoped that I would find him before the capacitor switched from amber to red.

I walked in near silence down the dimly lit hallway, more due to the soft carpeting than any skill on my part until I came to a T-junction that had a ladder leading to the decks above and below me. There was no carpeting – a visual cue, I guessed, that the area was intended for crew only, not passengers. There were congealing puddles of blood glistening on the bare metal floor.

Again, I kept my mind blank and concentrated on setting up my camera. Blood, I told myself, was an excellent indicator of how far in the past an incident had occurred. I studied the blood for a moment and then programmed my camera. The video took a disturbingly short time to record.

On the small screen I saw Blanchet turning right at the T-junction. I saw the killer leap out of the shadows in an attempt to stab Blanchet just as he had stabbed the engineer on the bridge. Blanchet had not been taken entirely by surprise though; he twisted his body around and dodged slightly to one side. The killer’s blade still ended up with blood on it, but it had not been a killing blow. The killer lunged again, but Blanchet dodged nimbly and shoved the killer into the ladder. The killer vanished from view as he fell through the hole in the floor for the ladder. Blanchet leaned heavily, almost falling, against the wall. He picked up his pistol and staggered down one of the corridors. I started to breathe a sigh of relief.

Then the killer pulled himself back into view. The fall had not been kind to him and he limped heavily as he shuffled down the corridor in pursuit of Blanchet. Judging from the trail of blood Blanchet was leaving behind I knew he would not last long when the killer caught up to him. I was not authorized to carry a gun, all I had was my camera. With the anti-grav disk shut off, however, it was a very heavy camera. I decided if I was able to sneak up in back of the killer I could hit him with my poor camera. Then Blanchet would have time to shoot him.

I knew it was a dumb plan, but it was all I had.

I followed the blood trail, pausing every now and then to use my camera to see how far ahead of me Blanchet and the killer were. After several minutes I reached another T-junction. The hallway ran off to my left and my right, but the blood trail led to a closed door in front of me with a sign identifying the room beyond as the secondary communication node. I kept to the relative safety of the shadows and set my camera up once more. The capacitor light had dimmed to a reddish orange but I knew it had enough life left in it for one, perhaps two more glimpses into the past.

I watched Blanchet stagger across the hallway to the door. He paused for a moment and deliberately looked back, not at the killer I realized but at where he knew I would eventually hide and set up my camera. My heart began to pound heavily as I wondered how he had known I would follow him. The door opened and Blanchet fell through it. Then a few moments later the door opened again and I saw Blanchet sitting on the floor with his back against a closet door staring at something just inside the room. His lips were moving slightly but they soon grew still. A few moments more and the killer limped into view. He stared at Blanchet’s body for a short time and then turned to look angrily back down the corridor, but thankfully not at my hiding place. The killer swore and then limped off camera to the right, presumably so he could get back to the boarding area where I was supposed to be waiting.

I stared at the closed door for a few heartbeats. In all likelihood the killer had also disabled the inside controls to lock the door so I would find no safety on the other side. For some reason though, Blanchet had wanted me to follow him into that room. I crossed the hall, stepping carefully so as not to leave footprints in the blood outside the door, and the door glided silently open.

The room was extremely small. There was a desk with a chair immediately off to the left and a bank of electronics off to the right. On the other side of the room Blanchet’s body was still slumped against the closet door with his legs splayed out in front of him and the soles of his boots were no more than two feet away from the door where I stood. The metal floor was almost completely covered in blood and the smell of it was almost thick enough to taste. I stepped quickly into the room and closed the door behind me. Blanchet’s sightless gaze was focused on an empty corner of the desk – a spot just large enough for my camera. I replayed the recording I had just made and saw that Blanchet had been staring at the same spot just before he died. His lips had been moving … perhaps, hopefully, he had left me a message in time.

I set my camera up under the baleful red gaze of the capacitor status light. The best I could hope for was a few seconds of imagery. I programmed the camera to record what had happened after the door had closed and was dismayed to see the capacitor did not have enough life to go back that far. I pushed the start time forward one second at a time until the camera accepted the program then hit RUN. I winced when I heard the capacitor pop. We were supposed to replace the capacitors before that happened to avoid the risk of damaging the lens. It seemed likely my boss would make an exception for a photographer being stalked by a homicidal maniac.

I played back the recording and saw Blanchet’s deathly pale face staring back at me. He was moving his lips slowly, trying to carefully mouth each word so I would understand, but it only made it more difficult to read his lips. In the few seconds of video I had been able to capture Blanchet repeated his silent message several times, but the only word I was able to understand was closet. “What are you trying to tell me, Blanchet?”

I jumped, perhaps even yelped a little, when the intercom speaker crackled suddenly to life. “There you are. You really should have stayed in the boarding area. It would have been easier on you,” a rough voice said over the intercom. “Now I am going to have to go all the way back to the auxiliary comm room and I will not be happy when I get there. Don’t try to hide. I know all the hiding places on this ship and it will only make me more annoyed.”

I slapped off the intercom. “Oh, not good…” The killer was right, there was no place I could hide. I glanced down at Blanchet’s empty holster and wished fervently that I had a pistol. My eyes swung quickly back to the playback screen on my camera where the video was still looping. Blanchet’s lips moved slowly forming the words ‘in the closet’ – he had hidden his pistol in the closet and then blocked the door with his body!

I leaped across the room and almost lost my footing on the slick floor. I grabbed Blanchet’s arm and tried to pull him away from the door, but he was much heavier than I expected. I tried to give his body another heave, but my feet slid out from under me and I landed roughly on the floor. I tried very hard not to think about what was soaking through my clothing and pushed myself up on my hands and knees. I crawled over to the other side of Blanchet and tried pushing him off the door. Several tries and one more fall later I had managed to move Blanchet far enough from the door for me to open it a few inches. The pistol, thankfully, was within easy reach. I grabbed it and turned to face the door.

Things happened very quickly after that. The door opened. I brought the pistol up. The killer started to charge into the room. I pulled the trigger. I pulled the trigger again. When time slowed back to normal I realized I was sitting on the floor staring over the barrel of the pistol at an empty doorway.

“Agent Dielle! Imperial Marines! Hold your fire!” A voice shouted from somewhere beyond the doorway. I lowered the pistol slightly. A dark-visored helmet appeared cautiously around one side of the doorframe. “Oh my God!” the voice said through the helmet speaker. An Imperial Marine stepped fully into my view and shouted down the hallway, “Get Doc over here now!” He snapped open his helmet to reveal a baby face I did not think was old enough to be a Marine and crossed the room to knee down beside. “Hang in there, Agent Dielle, Doc is on the way.”

“I’m not hurt.” My voice sounded unusually quiet.

“Yes ma’am. Ah, if you don’t mind, ma’am, I’ll just hold on to this for you,” the Marine said as he slipped the pistol out of my hands.

“I think it’s broken. It stopped working after a couple of shots.”

The Marine glanced down at the pistol and an uncomfortable expression appeared on his face. “You fired more than a couple of shots, ma’am; you drained the power cell. You, ah, definitely stopped the bad guy though. Please don’t take this wrong, Agent Dielle, but I never want to make you that angry at me.”

“Oh my God!” Another armored figure, this one with a woman’s voice and medical insignia on her armor, said suddenly from the doorway. The medic shooed the Marine away from me as she snapped her helmet open and took his place by my side. “Where are you injured, ma’am?”

“I’m not injured,” I said as the medic ignored me in favor of her hand-scanner. I motioned toward Blanchet’s body. “Blanchet hid his pistol in the closet and then blocked the door with his body before he died so the killer couldn’t get it. I slid and fell a couple of times trying to move his body so I could open the door. He is very heavy.”

“Yes, ma’am. Hmmm, you aren’t hurt.” The medic sounded surprised.

“Oh my God! Klari!” My Captain was the next to appear in the doorway. I thought it was nice of him to come along. There was not enough space in the small room though for him to enter it as well.

“None of blood is hers, sir. She has a few bruises, but otherwise she’s fine,” the medic reported and a look of relief appeared on the Captain’s face.

“You knew this would happen!” I yelled at him as I jumped to my feet. I lunged toward him, but the medic held me back. “Is that why you sent me? The rookie was the most expendable person on your team?”

“No one on my team is expendable, Klari. I sent you because you were the only photographer on the team with a psyche profile that indicated a chance of surviving if things went bad, like they obviously did.” The Captain frowned and nodded his head like he did when he made a decision about something he had been thinking about for a while. “It is obvious that your talents are being wasted with you being just a photographer. I’m promoting you to full Investigator effective immediately.”

“Full Investigator?” I was breathless. It was a promotion I had not expected to happen for several years. I glanced over at Blanchet’s body; if both of us had been armed from the beginning then perhaps he would still be alive. I looked back up at the Captain “Would I get to carry a gun?”

The Captain nodded his head. “Of course.” He cleared his throat politely after the Marine handed me back Blanchet’s pistol. “I did not mean she would get to carry one now, Sergeant.”

“You’re safe, sir,” the Marine replied crisply but I had seen the humor in his eyes when he had handed me the pistol. “The power cell in that pistol is completely drained.”

“Why?” I threw the word out, a verbal gauntlet demanding an answer to my challenge.

“The lens alone would fetch an enormous price, you know that, but an Imperial crime scene photographer who actually understands the technology behind the lens is even more valuable. Someone has put out a contract for the abduction and delivery of a Imperial crime scene photographer. The Empire needs to find out who so we can discourage anyone else from getting similar ideas.” The Captain smiled a very cold smile. “Now that we have the body of the man hired to do the job, we can trace his movements back and find out who hired him. Then we can dispense a little Imperial justice, but that is something that none of you need to trouble yourselves over.”

The Marines chorused a “Yes, sir!”

I picked up my camera as more Marines filtered into the corridor. I surmised their shuttle had been waiting out of visual range but much closer than the ninety minutes I was told it would take for the Captain to bring a full photography team. The medic, the Marine sergeant who found me, and the Captain began to escort me back to the boarding area. The other Marines stopped to stare at me and I began wonder just how much of poor Blanchet’s blood I had on me. Just as we reached the boarding area a second horrible thing became clear. “Captain? As a full Investigator, would I have to, ah…”

“Yes, Klari,” the Captain said with tolerant patience. “You will have to make trips off planet into space. I’ve told you time and time again: there is nothing to worry about, space travel is perfectly safe.”

I was so surprised he had said it with a straight face that it took me a moment to realize that I’d stepped over the line dividing the two airlocks without thinking about it.

Dan Zeidler is a writer of science fiction and fantasy and the author of the upcoming science fiction adventure novel Ghosts of a Fallen Empire. Dan began expressing his love of writing at an early age with the parentally acclaimed poem Trains are Great which, along with other early examples of his work, earned a place on the prestigious Refrigerator Magnet Gallery. While nothing can be done for his poetry skills, which haven’t improved a whit since that train poem, a steady diet of great stories ranging from ancient mythological tales to Arthurian legends to classic sci-fi and fantasy and on up to Star Trek and Star Wars have improved his storytelling abilities considerably. To further refine and enhance his writing and storytelling skills, Dan lived a life of adventure first by getting a degree in geoscience, then by serving in the US Air Force, then by embarking on a career as a data analyst… hmmm… okay, let’s go back a bit to the part about how a lifetime of reading as many great stories (and many not so great stories) as he could have inspired Dan to write his own stories; stories that above all strive to be fun and entertaining reads.

Dan currently resides with his family among the rugged, forested hills of his home state of Connecticut.

Makhtar Series 1:
Ghosts of a Fallen Empire
In the distant future an isolated human world has survived the Nomad Wars and the Fall of Imperium. Together with their non-human allies, the Dussakairay and the Bregus, they repopulated and rebuilt their devastated region of the galaxy to form a 40 system Commonwealth. For over five centuries the people of the Commonwealth have known only peace and prosperity, but an ancient enemy has been watching from the ruins of the old Imperium, slowly rebuilding their forces, and waiting for their opportunity to reduce the Commonwealth to ashes. The founders of the Commonwealth may have given up their Imperium, but they did not give up all of the Imperium’s secrets. Now the only hope for the people of the Commonwealth lies with the Ghosts of a Fallen Empire.

SHORT STORY: Twitch by C.M. Saunders


It started with a twitching left eyelid. Nothing major. More annoying that anything else. She’d had similar afflictions before, but they usually petered out after a while. This one didn’t.

It just kept getting worse.

The eyelid developed a life of its own, fluttering away seemingly at will. One spasm led to another, then another, until eventually she lost all control of her facial muscles.

The condition spread to her limbs, and all she could do was lie on the floor covered in her own vomit, drool and excrement, her entire body convulsing and contracting.

Demonic possession is no joke.

Christian Saunders, who writes fiction as C.M. Saunders, is a freelance journalist and editor from south Wales. His work has appeared in almost 100 magazines, ezines and anthologies worldwide including Fortean Times, the Literary Hatchet, ParABnormal, Fantastic Horror, Haunted MTL, Feverish Fiction and Crimson Streets, and he has held staff positions at several leading UK magazines ranging from Staff Writer to Associate Editor. His books have been both traditionally and independently published, the latest release being Back from the Dead: A Collection of Zombie Fiction.


Back from the Dead
A collection of zombie fiction from British journalist and dark fiction writer C.M. Saunders, featuring two complete novellas alongside short stories previously published in the likes of Morpheus Tales and Crimson Streets, plus a brand-new novelette. Also includes an exclusive introduction and artwork by the award-winning Greg Chapman.

Dead of Night: young lovers Nick and Maggie go camping in the woods, only to come face-to-face with a group of long-dead Confederate soldiers who don’t know, or care, that the war is over.

Human Waste: Dan Pallister wakes up one morning to find the zombie apocalypse has started. Luckily, he’s been preparing for it most of his life. He just needs to grab some supplies from the supermarket…

‘Til Death do us Part: When the world as we know it comes to an abrupt end, an elderly couple are trapped in their apartment. They get by as best they can, until they run out of food.

Roadkill: A freelance ambulance crew are plunged into a living nightmare when a traffic accident victim they pick up just won’t stay dead. He has revenge on his mind.

Plague Pit: A curious teenager goes exploring the Welsh countryside one summer afternoon and stumbles across a long-abandoned chapel. What he finds there might change the world, and not for the better.

Dead Men Don’t Bleed: A gumshoe private eye is faced with his most challenging case yet when a dead man walks into his office and asks for help solving his own murder.

Drawn from a variety of sources, all these tales have one thing in common; they explore what might happen if our worst nightmares are realized and people came BACK FROM THE DEAD.

READING of Red Lights: Tommy B. Smith

Tommy B. Smith is a writer of dark fiction, award-winning author of The Mourner’s Cradle, Poisonous, the short story collection Pieces of Chaos, and the coming of age novel Anybody Want to Play WAR? His presence currently infests Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he resides with his wife and cats. More information can be found on his website.

Following the Quake of ’79, a terrible force came to the city of St. Charles. This was the Living Poison. In Lilac Chambers, it may have found the perfect host. As she finds herself changing, becoming increasingly dangerous to everyone around her, it becomes apparent that her state of being is no accident of nature. She is becoming a prime vehicle for the Living Poison’s destructive swath through the streets of St. Charles. Detective Brandt McCullough has seen the Living Poison’s brutality. John Sutterfield, ringmaster of Sutterfield’s Circus of the Fantastic, is discovering its malignancy festering within the very circus he founded. These two are the only ones who might stand in the way of a force greater than anything they have ever known, one which threatens to wash the streets in red and swallow the city into chaos, but the stakes may be higher than either of them can imagine. St. Charles—indeed, the world—may tremble.