Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Alien Reading by Bill Vernon

An alien attending a poetry reading turns out to be a harsh critic; by Bill Vernon.

Tobor gazed at the clouds streaming east from the huge setting sun and repeated, "Vermilion! Vermilion!" The word rolled off his tongue in tri-syllabic sonority, and somehow its sound seemed to encase his experience of the wonderful sky.

Then he noticed a poster tacked onto a telephone pole: POET in huge letters. A person who made beauty out of words. FREE AND OPEN TO THE PUBLIC. EVERYONE WELCOME.

The serendipity of this announcement struck him forcefully.

He read more: INTERNATIONALLY FAMOUS AND ACCLAIMED, the poster declared, giving location and time, which was now, at this moment.

But did Tobor detect redundancy? If the poet were so famous, why list the titles of his 10 books or the PRESTIGIOUS national and international literary prizes the poet had won, none of which were in Tobor's encyclopedia. If this were not redundancy, then what? Possibly exaggeration. Was any living poet, in fact, famous in America? Tobor had observed very few people reading anything.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stella's Starwish by Erica Verrillo

While working as a cleaner at an old people's home in Texas, Stella makes a friend from the other end of the country; by Erica Verrillo.

I'd been working at Shady Grove almost a year the morning Clarence moved in. It wasn't a day I would have remembered otherwise, since it started fairly typically with Mama red-eyed on the sofa and Hector passed out on the kitchen floor. Nothing new on the home front. It was wall-to-wall traffic all the way up I-10, as usual. My AC was on the fritz, so the commute was literally hell on wheels, and the only thing my radio was picking up was ET trying to make first contact.

Beam me up, I thought.

No such luck.

After I'd changed into my uniform, Mrs. Jackson took me over to meet the new inmate.

"Mr. Savage," said Mrs. Jackson. "This is Stella. She'll be cleaning your room." Mr. Savage bobbed his head at me. They were all polite when they first arrived. Once he'd gotten used to the place he'd be pinching my butt and hissing dirty jokes in my ear along with the rest of them.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Barabbas's Cross by Forest Arthur Ormes

A convict working at Lincoln Meadows Racetrack and his alcoholic friend get in trouble with security and are forced to spend 75 hours in community service with the local chaplain; by Forest Arthur Ormes.

Rafael had been doing real good for the first two months of the meet at Lincoln Meadows Racetrack. He was grooming horses for McCain Stables. I was walking hots for the same outfit. At night, Rafael was attending church services in English and in Spanish. He was laying off the alcohol completely. I knew. I sat beside him for the English-speaking services.

Even though his problem was mental, it was the booze that woke up Rafael's demons. If he drank, he started answering the empty seat across the table from him in the kitchen. Before long he and that empty seat would be involved in an intense discussion ranging from the finer points of bandaging the legs of his favorite horse, Christmas, on up to the disrespectful manner in which Tom McCain's assistant trainer spoke to him when he arrived late to work.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Puff by Phil Temples

A pair of farm yokels is disturbed by an unidentified flying object hovering around their cattle barn; by Phil Temples.

It's 9:30 in the evening. I put Sally to bed over an hour ago, and now I'm standing at the kitchen sink doing the dishes. Harold is in the study foolin' around with his model airplanes or talkin' on his ham radio or some such.

I look out the window and admire the pasture, and the stars. It's a moonless night. The Milky Way appears as a brilliant vertical swath painted across the canvas sky. Suddenly, my attention is drawn to a bright light that appears out near the barn.

It's another damn yufo.

This one is about fifty feet tall and ten feet across, mostly dark green, with pulsating pink and yellow triangles that radiate off the side like a dragon's spine. I'm calling this yufo "Puff." I give names to all the yufos that I see. I name all of our farm animals, too. I can't help it.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Decision by Phil Slattery

In early 1970s rural Kentucky, Travis, son of a cruelly racist mill worker, is forced into a moral dilemma.

Travis was in the barn milking the cow when his father shouted from the front of the house, "Travis! Get the shotgun! Come see what I caught!"

Travis ran through the backyard and into the kitchen, where his mother was frying squirrel and green tomatoes. "Travis, what is it? What's all the excitement?"

"I don't know, but it sounds important," he said hurrying past into the living room, where his father's double-barrel twelve gauge hung in a gun rack. Travis pulled the gun down and loaded it from a box of shells in the rack's drawer. He ran out onto the open front porch and saw his father holding his Winchester rifle on a middle-aged black man in a business suit holding his hands in the air.

Travis's mother ran out behind Travis. "Cyrus," she said to Travis's father, "what's going on?"

"Get back in the house, Lizzie," said Cyrus.

Friday, December 18, 2015

R.I.P. by Robert Lamb

Robert Lamb recounts the story of the first funeral he attended as a 10-year-old child - he would never attend another like it.

When I was about ten years old, a black woman named Claudia Thompson kept me during the day while my parents worked in the Seminole Cotton Mill in Clearwater, South Carolina. This was summertime; no school. I grew very fond of Claudia, and in concert with my mother's disapproval of bigotry (without her even knowing what the word meant), Claudia's love and kindness immunized me forever against racial hatred, though in that place, in that time, prejudice against blacks was part of the white child's cultural legacy. I still remember my shock and disgust upon hearing a man, white of course, proclaim in earnest, ignorant fervor that "Niggers are just like dogs; they don't have souls." Poor, benighted son-of-a-bitch. I swear, I've come to suspect that truth is in inverse proportion to the certitude of the declaimer. But I'm straying from the subject.

Claudia's older sister Shirley "passed over" at home one Saturday after lingering for days in a coma. Her funeral was scheduled for the following Monday, and of course Claudia would attend. Trouble was, Monday was a workday for my parents. So when neither Mother nor Claudia could find somebody else on short notice to keep me, it was decided that I would accompany Claudia to the funeral, a graveside service in a church graveyard way out in the country.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

The Opportunity of a Lifetime by Gael DeRoane

Gael DeRoane's account of a home security sales technique that never fails.

The job was doing me in. When I told this to friends they scoffed. You sit around grading papers, they said. How hard can it be? I played in a tennis league with men of various occupations: lawyers, doctors, salesmen, middle managers. They grumbled about high-level stress, long hours on the road, psychotic bosses. Some had visited my office and seen me with my feet up, the remnants of a cheeseburger-and-fries lunch cluttering the desk, a swimsuit-model site unfurled on my computer screen. Word had gotten around, and my complaints were met with derision.

Had I been a full professor there would have been no complaints, but in my youth I had drifted out of a PhD program, and now the only position I could muster was Composition Drudge. Sure, I had a MonWedFri schedule, but I was on campus from seven till dusk, and unlike my elevated colleagues had no variety in my courses, no teaching of Swords and Sorcery, Splatter Films, Queer Lit, all the academic fluff that eases a professor's pain after reading the eighteenth essay entitled "My High School Graduation."

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Dorothea Parker on North Lake Shore Drive by L. S. Sharrow

The Professor and his wife move to a retirement community and find themselves suffering the company of an obnoxious neighbour; by L. S. Sharrow.

The Fall the Professor retired from the Black Studies Department, we sold our space, stored our stuff and moved into our friends' apartment - the Pinkneys were on sabbatical overseas that semester. Then, we went to a real estate agent to find our fortune. The lady at the real estate agency was thin, with a green tint to her skin - a bit like a frog - and a dull competence about her. When I am in the presence of such people, I am often asked, "Have you been a housewife all your married life, honey?" But, that can bring the edges of the Professor's teeth together. So, the Professor handled the negotiations for our team. We wanted, he said, an apartment in a retirement community. We preferred an integrated retirement community. We wanted neighbors who were quiet, who kept to themselves, who didn't stand around and gossip.

"My wife," said the Professor - and the lady seemed to wait for him to add, The Little Missus - "my wife and I must have quiet neighbors."

"I understand," she said.

"She paints," the Professor said.

Now that we've weaned her off crayons, the lady seemed to infer, we've moved her on to tempera colors.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Phyllis by Paul Beckman

A waiter is attracted by a regular visitor who sits outside his restaurant to read; by Paul Beckman.

I first noticed them on Tuesday, five days ago. Phyllis, I've decided to call her, is sitting on the red bench by the hedges that surround our restaurant's outdoor space. There are many benches but the closest is the red one and the only one she uses. She is sitting with her long legs crossed, reading. Her legs are beautiful, thin and shapely and every so often she uncrosses and re-crosses the opposite way and her short skirt rides up and becomes even shorter. She is very provocative, more so because she's absorbed in her reading and doesn't appear to pay attention to anything as minor as her skirt riding up and up - up enough to show her underwear or lack of it some days. I feel like the luckiest waiter in our restaurant. Phyllis checks her watch, dog-ears the page and gets up from the bench, smoothes her dress, picks up her bag and walks off.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Look Away by Gael DeRoane

A travelling salesman befriends a colleague suffering from a bizarre curse; by Gael DeRoane.

The first time I saw Jordan Swale it was hard not to stare. You don't expect to see a movie star gliding among the pale, lumpy drones in the employee cafeteria of a Midwestern electronics company. But there he was, a Tom Cruise look-alike - except taller - standing at the salad bar carefully assembling a taco. For the next few moments I ignored my sandwich and the commission reports I'd been reading. I watched him gather his lunch materials and move gracefully through the checkout line. He had dark hair and broad shoulders, and was nicely turned out in a pinstripe Oxford shirt and black chinos.

He sat down at a table not far from mine, and when he glanced my way I caught sight of his astonishing blue eyes. It seemed odd that he sat alone. Surely a man so strikingly handsome would generate a small entourage. But his coworkers passed by with their trays as he devoured his lunch, his eyes scanning his laptop open on the table. Perhaps he was a visitor, a representative from one of our satellite offices. I ended my speculations when Artie Harrington, our most successful - and most annoying - sales rep came over with his tray and started in about the commission statements.

We ate and argued, and then I noticed the movie star rising from his table. "Hey, Artie," I said, sotto voce, "who's that?"

Artie looked up from his baked chicken. "Jordan Swale. One of the drudges in Research. Why?"

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Roadkill by Jane Hertenstein

Laine, with barely enough money to feed her growing family, decides to salvage a dead deer from the roadside in Jane Hertenstein's blackly comic piece.

"Mom, for Halloween I want to be a hobo old man. Either that or a scary guy with fangs and long fingernails."

Her son's rambling carried over from the backseat where he sat in his safety booster. Since she'd sworn off coffee, mornings were like walking backwards through molasses.

"What was I last year - oh yeah, Robin Hood. Do we still have my hat?"

She nodded. Through the top half of the windshield a black object in the sky hovered, a raven making large aerial loops over the roadway. "It's upstairs in a box in the back of your closet."

Bright orange and red tree canopy sheltered a narrow bend in the road where runoff trickled down the hillside over ancient exposed rock. Off to the side, in the gravel berm, upon a bed of frost-coated leaves was a deer, still and stiff, steam rising slowly from its blood encrusted nostrils.

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Lighthouse by Wendy Steele

Ben seeks solitude in a lonely lighthouse, but the island and its violent sea hide a frightening secret; by Wendy Steele.

Abraham Davies shut the door behind him, allowing his ears to acclimatise to the relative quiet. He'd struggled to hold his lantern upright as he performed his circuit, the gusts at the top of the lighthouse, unpredictable at this time of year. The glass was clean though rain lashed and the warning beam shone into the dusk. All was well on his island home.



Ben Hughes packed away his sodden tent as the morning brightened. He'd risen with the cows and, in exchange for help mucking out, had partaken of a particularly good cooked breakfast. He was glad of the warmth in his belly after a disturbed, damp night. Rucksack and saddle bags balanced, he climbed on his bike and set off on the coastal path. Mist hung around leisurely as he cycled the undulating terrain, standing on the pedals on the hills, determined to be on the jetty by midday.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Rumour by Beryl Ensor-Smith

A planned Country & Western evening seems doomed to failure in ultra-conservative South African backwater Prentburg, until an unlikely rumour spurs interest; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

At first when the residents of Prentburg heard that a group from another town would be performing at the Welcome Inn's "Country and Western" evening, not much interest was shown.

"It'll be those dreadful singers from Waterfontein," Suzie Lamprecht said dismissively when the Sisters of the Church next met. "They're always changing their name and their way of singing, but they're hopeless."

"Country and Western?" Christina du Plessis looked down her long nose in disdain. "It hardly qualifies as music; more like caterwauling if you ask me! Why must we import the worst of American culture? I..."

"Yes," Marion Klopper interrupted hastily, trying to prevent Christina getting onto her "culture" bandwagon, as once in full stride, she was impossible to stop. "If it is that Waterfontein bunch, they're not up to much, but they're also going to show a video of some fat guy singing something that was a hit. They have a picture of him on their posters. There's one up at the Welcome Inn and Jan Badenhorst's also displaying one on the municipal notice board."

"Pavarotti?" Christina enquired eagerly. "It's probably Nessun Dorma which he sang at the start of an international football match to uproarious applause."

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Carjacking by Jerry McFadden

Two gang members get more than they bargained for when they jack a Chevy; by Jerry McFadden.

Jason and LeShawne were in an ugly mood. No one would give them a ride to the mall. They finally had to take the Metro bus, slouching low in the seats so no one could see them. The massive parking lot in the hot sun turned their mood from ugly to surly as they looked in vain for a vehicle to 'jack, something slick and sleek that would impress the homeys.

Then they thought they had it: A dude walked out of Macy's, going straight for a black Dodge Viper. Definitely a sweet ride - but their timing was off. The dude backed out of his parking space before they could get there. The car blew out of the lot in a screech of tires and blue smoke, laying a strip of rubber all the way to the exit. Jason and LeShawne were outraged. They didn't get the license plate number but they agreed the next time they saw a black Dodge Viper, that driver was in trouble. The car was gonna be theirs for sure, but they were gonna trash his ass, too, as payback.

They went once more around the parking lot, in the hot sun, righteously pissed. Have a good day, your ass. By mutual but unspoken understanding, they were not doing any more sports cars. Gotta go instead for something big. Something oversized. Something that would take up space in the 'hood, something they could party in.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Ma Blake's by James McEwan

James McEwan's story of lust and addiction in the swamps of Belize.

The plank snapped and Allan fell off into the rancid mud, where his legs sank in up to his knees. He leaned forward, stretching towards the solid ground, and grabbed hold of a mango tree root. As he pulled himself onto the path his left foot slid out of his running shoe, which was stuck fast by the suction of the sludge. A murky effluent oozed into the vacant holes, and air bubbles gurgled up through the slime as if his trainer was whimpering for help before it was drowned in the stagnant swamp.

He sat down and laughed. Perhaps this fall was a sign, like some ominous warning of how every step from now on would be just as precarious. So what, he wasn't superstitious. Not like Mai Ling who would chide him with, 'Disaster follow disaster,' but she was not here, unfortunately.

Was it really so long ago when they had held each other and kissed? Six months gone since he had smelled the fresh jasmine from her hair as it waved softly over his cheek. She had held him tight, and repeatedly said that he must write every day.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Finding Space by Alice Benson

Divorcee Ann is content with her lot in life, but maybe she should be demanding more; by Alice Benson.

Ann was grateful for the automatic timer on her coffee pot, a gift to herself on her recent thirty-third birthday. She could smell the pungent brew before she was completely awake. Some days, the sharp aroma of coffee was the only thing that got her out of bed. Well, that and two high-maintenance middle-school kids.

"Mom, what's for breakfast?"

"Mom, I can't find my Miss Me jeans."

"Mom, can you drive me today?"

"Mom, I forgot, I need batteries for my science project."

Once Ann got the kids off to the bus stop, she treasured her second cup of coffee and ten minutes of solitude on her tiny back porch before she had to leave for work. The porch was a mud room; coats hung there in the three seasons when it wasn't so cold that they froze solid over night. A catch-all for shoes, canvas bags, and recycling, without even enough room for a chair. But when the weather was above freezing, Ann took her coffee to the porch, stood, sipped and watched the world in her backyard. It calmed her. A big walnut tree, home to dozens of squirrels. A small patch of crab grass and dandelions that she'd given up doing anything to except mowing once a week. Chipmunks nesting under the back steps. And her birds. She hung a small birdfeeder on a squirrel-resistant pole, right beside the lilac bush. Cardinals, chickadees and sparrows hopped, sang, and pecked, adding color and sound and grace to her morning routine.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Killing Frost by Sharon Frame Gay

At 92, James Frost enters a retirement home, and the company of women stirs old lusts; by Sharon Frame Gay.

James Frost leaned back in the recliner, adjusting his body into the soft confines of the old chair. It was leather, shiny with age, comfortable as a slipper. It was the only piece of furniture he had brought with him from home when he moved into Garden Court last year. Hell, at 92 it was time that he treat himself to a little comfort. He was tired of cooking, tired of housework, tired of watching his late wife's garden wilt and deteriorate into patches of dirt, only memories remaining of the gladioli, daisies, and Lily of The Valley that Millie loved.

After Millie died, Checkers, the old spaniel, withered and died too. Suddenly the lonely house echoed with the groans of ancient boards and mice in the attic. The sound of his own footsteps shuffling down the hall was enough to make James wish he had died too.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A Nun's Arse by James Mulhern

Molly and her grandmother visit addle-brained neighbour Mary Muldoon, whom Molly can't stand; by James Mulhern.

"What a shame," Nonna said when I arrived at her place after working at the family restaurant. "Mary Muldoon just called. Drunk as a skunk, asking if I knew where her husband Jim was and quite annoyed at the Happy Garden Chinese Restaurant. Said they were sending her pork fried rice and egg rolls at least three times a week. Claims she never ordered a thing."

"Where's her husband?"

"He's dead, Molly. Has been for years. She found him in the living room around dinner time. Massive heart attack."

"Oh, that's terrible."

"She must be having blackouts and forgetting things. Or she's imagining that they are delivering the food. Mary has squash rot," Nonna said. "Poor thing. Her mind's all messed up."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Murder by Plastic by Phil Slattery

Alan Patterson wakes up to find past indiscretions have caught up with him in Phil Slattery's crime short.

When Alan Patterson awoke, he found himself naked and bound with wire to a heavy wooden chair with duct tape sealing his mouth. His head throbbed. The night was hot and humid and sweat rolled down his forehead and into his eyes, blurring his vision. He blinked a few times to clear them. He noticed a large, sharply dressed man sitting on another wooden chair a few feet away. The man seemed very serious and squinted through small, piggish eyes.

Glancing around, Alan saw that he was in a dilapidated warehouse. A half dozen younger, just as sharply dressed, just as serious men stood behind the seated man. One held a bucket of water. On a small work-bench to his left, Alan saw a hacksaw, a blowtorch, pliers, a claw hammer, a skinning knife, and a meat cleaver. He also saw a dozen stolen credit cards he had recently bought from Joey "Snake Eyes" Abandonato and had intended to sell.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

The Creep Factor by DC Diamondopolous

When her friends' shop is held up, jewellery store owner Tammy gets scared by a menacing-looking potential customer; by DC Diamondopolous.

Tammy had nightmares of the man she saw in her store window. His elongated face chased her through the streets of the San Fernando Valley, her terror mounting like a progression of staccato hits rising up the scales on an untuned piano. She always woke up screaming before the crescendo.

It all began after Rachel had a gun held to her head for a measly fifty dollars. How dumb could the thief be, holding up a pillow-and-accessory shop when Dazzles, Tammy's store three doors away, sold jewelry? It was costume, plastic, some silver, a few pieces of gold, but, a pillow store?

After the police left, Rachel came in screaming and crying, "Why me?" her eyes red and twitching, mouth pinched. Tammy knew what Rachel was thinking: you take in more money than I do, why didn't he put a gun to your head?

Friday, November 13, 2015

Another Time by James Mulhern

When his wife leaves him and his school descends towards anarchy, a teacher is forced to change his perspective; by James Mulhern.

It has been two years since my ex-wife, Kate, announced that she was unhappy and wanted to end our marriage. I had confronted her about emails from her female lover, Deb, whom she had met in yoga class.

Kate said that our relationship lacked passion, and if I were honest with myself I would recognize this truth. In order for both of us to grow, she explained, we needed "clarity in our communication process." Meeting Deb was the beginning of a new phase in her life. A process of individuation, she called it, a term Dr. Kelleher, her Jungian psychologist, had used.

"Crisis is good, Jack," she said one morning while we were both getting ready for work. "Both of us have the opportunity for real growth here. I'm sorry that you had to find out this way, but why the hell were you snooping around in my email account?" She looked at me in the mirror as she applied her makeup. Her blue eyes, the first thing that I had noticed about her when we sat across from each other in high school math class, seemed cold and hard.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Dancing in the Moonlight by James Krehbiel

Charles returns to the home of his newly widowed father and spends time with his sisters, bossy Cynthia and reserved Claire; by James Krehbiel.

Cynthia texted me while I waited at the baggage return in the Buffalo airport. Her message was cryptic. Where are you? You're too late and we're heading back to the house. It didn't surprise me that she texted instead of calling. And it didn't surprise me that there was no mention of Dad and how he was holding up. It probably never occurred to her that I'd want to know.

The taxi ride home pulled me back to what felt like another life. My high school soccer field where I stood during phys. ed. class hoping I wouldn't be picked last again, the third floor art room window where I'd wait outside the door waiting for Mr. Silveri to show up so I could avoid Richard Faulk's torment and the Buffalo Zoo that Dad had taken us kids to seemed held in the past.

The driver turned into my neighborhood where the houses built back in the early 1900s stood with purpose. Their front porches stretched across their facades with ornate woodwork and bay windows with leaded glass. My family home stood proudly amongst all the others.

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Moon on the Water by Matthew Lee

Silvermoon, the Lord Regent's daughter, send the men of Kong Du on a dangerous quest in the hope that one will prove himself worthy to be her husband, in Matthew Lee's rich fantasy.

Silvermoon stood by her bedroom window, deep in thought, and contemplated the falling snow. The flakes gathered thickly on the pine trees that stood guard throughout the palace's inner ward, and while the branches turned to long, lumpen fingers like an arthritic old lady's bloodless hands, the young woman thought about the kind of man she wanted to marry. Clever, compassionate, wise and brave - was this too much to ask? Instead she got one foolish boy after another trying to seduce her, and none of them with a single thought in their heads for anyone besides themselves.

In the First Kingdom, when a daughter of one of the noble families came of age, tradition meant she was generally expected to pick out a promising candidate herself. Countless suitors had already flocked to Silvermoon's door. Some of these men were beautiful, some were skilled with a blade, some were well versed in courtly discourse and others titled. But she found them all insufferably self-centred.

Friday, November 6, 2015

Assumptions by James Mulhern

James Mulhern's character recalls growing up in a strongly Catholic family with characterful neighbour Peggy Fleming.

"You are altogether beautiful, my love; there is no flaw in you." (Song of Solomon 4:7)

Peggy Fleming, according to my grandfather was the "homeliest damn woman" he'd ever seen. Her face was swollen and pasty, with broken capillaries that sloped down the sides of her nostrils, flooding the arid plain of her skin, like some dreary river and its tributaries eking over a delta of nasolabial folds to terminate in the red seas of two droopy cheeks. Spindly, awkward limbs stuck out of a round body, like you might see in a kindergartner's rendering of a person. She was, unfortunately, toothless, and hairless as well, suffering from a mysterious childhood disease that had left her with chronic alopecia. Peggy used to tell us kids that she lost all her hair because she refused to eat green beans when she was a child. I always thought it a cruel irony that she had the same name as the graceful and beautiful skater who had won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1968.

I remember hearing my grandparents and Auntie Ag, my grandmother's older and "much smarter" sister (the one who graduated high school), likening Peggy's features to those of a bulldog, as they puffed away on Lucky Strikes and Parliaments, stopping every now and then to slap down a poker chip or a playing card, and take another sip of whiskey. While they played cards, I circled the kitchen table and listened, picking up snippets about Peggy's tragic life.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Angelic Tendencies by Jordan Anderson

Abigail wishes for the protection of angels after being sexually abused by her uncle, but when the angels come they are not what she expects; by Jordan Anderson.

There was a small hole in Abigail's favorite blanket, towards the end that she kept at her feet most nights. It was near the side with the worn paper tag and she often woke up in the mornings with one of her toes poking through. It was still night, however, and as her big toe wiggled in and out of the tattered hole, she stared out of the window to her left above where she lay into the clear midnight sky.

Uncle Reed was going to visit again tonight like he had every night since Aunt Cheryl had gone, leaving on some trip for work a week prior. Abigail remembered her aunt telling her that, when she got back, they were going to go together to the elementary school in town to register for second grade. She hadn't remembered exactly how long Aunt Cheryl was supposed to be gone, but Abigail had stopped hoping for her return after the last few horrific nights.

The first night he had come to her, she had awoken to him sitting on her bed, stroking her face with his calloused fingers. They were rough but he was family and she assumed it was meant to comfort her. And it did, at first. When his hand had moved down to her chest and stomach, she still did not think ill of his touch. But then his fingers were inside of her and that's when the pain had started.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

SID by Julian Harvard

A man buys a domestic robot that exhibits surprising behaviour; by Julian Harvard.

For one week in April, Sid woke me with updates on the death toll from some landslide in Pakistan. On Monday, one hundred. By Wednesday it was double. On Friday five hundred were confirmed to have drowned, or suffocated or whatever kills people in a landslide. By Saturday it was no longer the main story. Instead, Sid told me about a massacre at a school in Norway. The death toll was, and would remain at, fourteen. Five days after the landslide, hours after the massacre, Sid would suggest that I kill myself.

Sid's voice was almost like a real person's, dipping and rising, conveying surprise or excitement or pathos. It gauged the mood of the landslide perfectly, adopting that matter-of-fact newsreader style. There's this many dead, there'll probably be more, a tragedy on a vast scale... But it is what it is. It's the tone of a doctor telling you they're sorry, you have inoperable cancer, but that's simply how life goes. I tried to approximate the tone myself when I was put in charge of redundancies at work. At first I was too grave, like I was telling them the worst possible news imaginable, something that once heard would irreversibly destroy their lives. And so they took the news as such. If you talk about someone's job like it's their life then they'll run with that.

You're fired.

You're dead.

Friday, October 30, 2015

No Guts, No Gory by Nicole St. Onge

Nicole St Onge's protagonist is kidnapped by a group of creatures intent on violence.

I sat outside the house, as I had been for several days now, reminiscing about the time that I had spent silently hiding among the grass in a sprawling field. I remembered watching as they came, creatures in pairs and groups, sauntering along and stopping occasionally to pick up and observe my companions with eager eyes. If one was not satisfactory, he would be dropped back onto the ground carelessly, and the creatures would continue on, leaving us glad that we had survived another day. After a good time of evading the eye of the creatures and hoping that I wouldn't be the one to be taken next, it was to my dismay that I was selected.

Upon my arrival to their small dwelling, I was set on a table beside a few of my new acquaintances. We were terrified and curious as to what our fates would be, and we didn't have to wait long before we found out. The young lad on my right was chosen as the creatures' first sacrifice, and the rest of us were forced to watch in horror as the proceedings ensued. A knife shifted into our view, and we were shocked as one of the creatures dug the blade crudely into the top of our poor friend's head and began to cut around its perimeter. After the creature had separated one part from the bottom, several of its smaller offspring dug in, tearing out his innards and dropping them into a bowl with a sickening splat. Following the gutting of our poor companion, we found ourselves looking on and holding our breath as the larger creature stepped in once again, this time slicing a grotesque image into his front side as the younger ones cheered in sick excitement.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Smart Car by Doug Hawley

Doug Hawley's funny short about a smart alec car.

I get into my car and am greeted by, "You're looking good today Duke. I see that your blood pressure has improved and your pulse is a healthy 63."

"Yes and you too are looking good Carl. I see that you are freshly washed and lubed. Did you do that last night?"

"Right, I was due for service, and I wanted to look good for you. I didn't want to disturb you, so I took off without telling you. Where do you want to go today?"

At that point, I spill coffee on my lap and involuntarily yell, "Hell!"

Carl asks, "In order of distance from our present location would that be Gresham, Oregon; Detroit, Michigan; or Capitol Hill in DC? I should add that the garage door squeaks something fearful. I'm afraid that is something I can't repair. You should have someone look at it."

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Pictures on Dorian's Computer by Michael C. Keith

Dorian Wilder collects images of disfigured faces on his computer, until the computer rebels; by Michael C. Keith.

Isn't that the most perverse thing you've ever seen?
- John Waters

That Dorian Wilder possessed an extreme penchant for the macabre was clear. Why that was the case, especially given his seemingly bucolic childhood, was the question. But whatever disgusting and hideous things he could find on the Internet (and there was no shortage) excited and aroused him. He avidly searched for images of assaults, murders, explosions, car accidents, and bloody fights, but nothing pleased him more than videos or pictures of disfigured faces. His obsession had first been piqued as an adolescent when he came upon a picture of Joseph Carey Merrick - the so-called Elephant Man of the 19th century. This so intrigued and captivated his imagination that in the next few years he amassed a vast digital archive of grossly deformed countenances.

By the time Dorian reached full adulthood, his photo collection probably numbered in the thousands - he didn't know exactly. He had managed to plumb the depths of depravity and ferret out things he'd never known or even imagined existed. Among his gallery of grotesqueries were individuals with leprosy riven skin, burn victims melted beyond recognition, and mutilated heads smashed to a gooey pulp. When he attempted to engage friends with his hobby, their appalled reactions quickly convinced him to keep it private. They just don't appreciate the unique aesthetics these pictures contain, he told himself. They can't get beyond the surface and see the true beauty to be found there.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Worcester Weekends by Ceinwen Haydon

Jo enjoys her independence and freedom until she realises she is lonely; by Ceinwen Haydon.

1.

Jo sighed and logged out of her computer, no more work until Monday morning. It had been a busy week, and the TGIF feeling in the office was contagious. They were a tight team and they worked hard; tonight the unencumbered would sink a couple drinks together before going their separate ways. At forty eight Jo was the oldest of the group that had no need to hurry home to childcare or other domestic commitments. Jo looked out of the window and grimaced as she saw the fine drizzle that showed no sign of abating. She zipped up her blue Berghaus jacket and fell into step with Anna and Steve as they left the building. The two thirty-somethings had recently become a couple, and the novelty was as yet untarnished.

"So, Jo, what are you up to this weekend?" said Anna.

"I'm not sure yet, I..."

Before Jo finished her sentence Steve grinned and said, "Did we say? We're going to scope out narrowboats for sale. Anna's always wanted to get a mooring in the canal basin and live on the water, and she's got me going now. I'll have to learn to swim though."

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Pictures at an Exhibition by Michael McCarthy

Michael McCarthy's story of an ageing photographer who has built a cult of personality around him, but holds dark secrets.

He must have been at least six foot four tall. Lean, rangy, long limbed with a fluid stride.

He exuded the self contained air of'a man who felt that to him nothing was impossible, like a settler who had carved his home and life out of a grim unforgiving territory.

He certainly wasn't handsome or even young. His hair, a shock of thick grey tufts sprouting from his skull, looked like a well worn carpet.

His leathery dark skin a legacy not of a passion for tanning, but the direct result of years of working in areas where exposure to the sun's rays was unavoidable. A man bestowed with enormous self confidence, which was confirmed virtually every time he set foot outside his house.

He was not remotely interested in his appearance but aware of the reactions especially and inexplicably to him in young women, very young women, it provoked.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Cure by Beryl Ensor-Smith

When Prentburg's water filtration plant threatens to break down, the Church Sisters intervene to help manager Jan Badenhorst overcome his stress headaches; by Beryl Ensor-Smith.

Jan Badenhorst first realised that his wife Charlene was going to be difficult when he couldn't find the Disprin, usually in the medicine cabinet. When he questioned her about it, she said crisply:

"You're becoming too dependent on those things, Jan. I know you suffer from headaches, but you're becoming an addict! I've chucked the lot into the dustbin, so there's no point in hunting for them."

He put up a fierce fight. "That's not fair, Charlene! You know my job isn't easy, what with lazy staff, increasing pressure from the squatters to provide jobs, free housing, grants, you name it, and on top of that, dealing with complaints about Eskom electricity blackouts every single day! You'd think I was to blame instead of Eskom." His voice became petulant. "Also, our water purification plant badly needs maintenance, which the government can't provide because they've got rid of skilled personnel to make way for relatives and friends, nepotism being rife, and people like me are left carrying the can!" He added angrily, "The stress is massive. Without Disprin I won't be able to cope." By the time his rant had ended, he was red in the face and breathless.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Trellises by Robin White

Robin White's poignant flash fiction about a widow as her children grow up.

We made the effort with mom for a little while, after our father died. That she was the pal, he the disciplinarian, was obvious to us all as we were growing up, but the change in dynamic (coupled with the the change in scenery) shifted our perceptions and we, one-by-one, came to realise how much we needed his influence upon the house. So we visited less and less.

Mom continued as normal for the first summer after he died and the house, as had been its wont for as long as we could remember, was a riot of colour by July, the plants in her garden embracing the seasonal vivacity as well as they ever had. The string of vines above the door were an exercise in ebullience and the neighbours nodded to themselves, placing wreaths about her shoulders in a show of collective endorsement, pleased with how well Mom was persisting with maintaining her life unchanged as it had been for the thirty years previous. Dignity is highly prized in our neighbourhood, especially when it's not at all showy.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The End of Their Ways by George Allen Miller

A tribe bombarded by a mysterious force from the skies must adapt to survive; by George Allen Miller.

Finally, the madness ended. An ache filled Garuch's mind from the onslaught of images that had bombarded the village. Around him, the tribesmen shook themselves in the wake of the terrible storm. He helped as many as he could to their feet. They were weak now but each one managed to stand with his help. Garuch took a deep breath and remembered the old tree deep in the woods where he played when a child. Thoughts of running along the stream and chasing fish in the water filled his mind and made him smile. With all his strength he pushed those memories, thoughts and feelings outward. The people heard him, some smiled, some cried, but all shared the warmth and pushed the feeling of calm outward to the next.

"Garuch, I would speak with you."

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Pink Victorian Lady by Patricia Crandall

When a neighbour is blackmailed, she turns to bottle miners Gert and Nina for advice; by Patricia Crandall.

In her bedroom, Hedy secured a gold hoop in her ear and closed the old, lopsided jewelry bureau. She gazed thoughtfully at the treasured wooden keepsake for a moment.

"I really need to put something special on top of this plain ol' piece, as Grandma Liz would say."

She fondly thought of Grandma Liz's whims to spruce things up.

The phone rang and her husband picked it up downstairs. "Hon, it's for you," Lee called. "Don't forget, we're leaving for the Lakeview Restaurant in twenty minutes."

Hedy smiled - as if she could forget. This was to be a special dinner, a celebration of one year of marriage. She could scarcely believe it...the time had gone by so fast.

Hedy gave the bureau a loving pat and answered the phone.

"Hello."

"Do you know who this is?" a voice whispered.

Hedy tightened her grip on the receiver.

Friday, October 9, 2015

Dream Warrior by Phil Slattery

Phil Slattery's powerful revenge epic about a man who visits his Mexican grandfather for spiritual guidance after a violent crime results in the death if his fiancée.

Laid out on the crude wooden table in front of Miguel were corn tortillas, roasted rabbit, a large bowl of pinto beans, and something unrecognizable made of dried corn. The old man sitting across the table from him seemed as anachronistic as the meal: long, thick, silver hair; narrow slits for eyes; leathery skin that seemed more fit on a shrunken head; a dirty headband; and a serape. Through the light of the kerosene lanterns and the logs burning in the fireplace, Miguel looked around at the objects hanging from the walls of the cabin: skulls of cattle, rattlesnake skins, coyote hides, a Bowie knife, bunches of dried chiles, ceremonial rattles, and paintings of human sacrifice that looked like they had been copied from Aztec temples. The flickering firelight made the figures seem alive, as if the priests were slicing and stabbing their prisoners over and over.

Miguel struggled for something to say. He had seen the old man only a few times in his life and the last of those was twelve years ago, when Miguel was eight. "So, great-grandfather, Dad tells me you're a sorcerer?"

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Bell Tower by DC Diamondopolous

Old Reverend Penniman of Montgomery Alabama is called on to intervene when a member of his congregation threatens to commit suicide; by DC Diamondopolous.

Reverend Langston Penniman sat on the edge of his bed, stretching his black fingers. Everything had either twisted up on him or shrunk except his stomach. Once six-foot-five, he now plunged to six two, still tall, but not the imposing dignitary he once was standing behind the lectern in front of his congregation.

His parishioners aged, too. So hard nowadays to attract the young, he thought standing from the bed he shared with his wife of fifty-two years. His knees cracked. He'd gotten his cholesterol under control, but at seventy-five, his health headed south as his age pushed north.

Born and raised in Montgomery, Reverend Penniman had a hard time staying relevant, what with tattoos, body piercing, rap music, not to mention homosexuals getting married and reefer being legalized. For a man his age, changing was like pulling a mule uphill through molasses.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Curvatures of Hurt by Ted Morrissey

Ted Morrissey's intense and mysterious story of three teenage girls whose friendships are plagued by visiting angels.

Α

Winter had lingered into spring, and patches of heavy, wet snow were melting in the cold sunshine as Frankie walked with urgency toward Shirley Donaldson's. Water ran in the gutters beneath disappearing canopies of ice. It was mid-afternoon on a Saturday, the sort of day Frankie and Rebecca would have spent entirely together not long ago, one of them having slept at the other's house. She had not heard from Rebecca since they left school the day before, with Rebecca hurrying because she wanted to get a jump on her homework, she said.

More and more, Rebecca was at Shirley Donaldson's house. Rebecca and Shirley had been friends before Frankie moved to the village, but Frankie's impression was that Rebecca barely cared for Shirley's company. Frankie didn't care for her company. Yet when Frankie knocked on the Phillips' door and Pastor Phillips, who always called her Miss Francine, said that his daughter was at Shirley's, Frankie was consumed by emotions that drove her to visit the Donaldsons too.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Wrong Writing by Bruce Costello

The creative writing group from hell, as imagined by Bruce Costello.

Even on sunny days, the former Sunday School Hall behind St Jebusiah's Church seems to languish in shade. The community groups who rent it at fifty cents an hour complain about its airlessness and musty smell. A tradesman is said to be coming to open the windows, stuck shut when the building was painted years ago.

Inside, the carpet is threadbare, the wallpaper dangles in sad strips and the curtains are stained with mould. Hanging askew on one wall is a print in faded blue shades of a young Princess Elizabeth.

Against a lopsided bookcase leans a dust-covered brass plaque with a list of illegible names, and the inscription, barely discernible under green patina: "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn."

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Now It Can Be Told by Fred Russell

Fred Russell's bitingly funny satire about the American military operation in Iraq.

It was the Vice President who got the idea of putting together a Special Forces team to mop up and flush out Saddam after the President proclaimed victory in Iraq. He wanted to put Clint Eastwood in charge of the operation but the Secretary of Defense told him that Clint didn't do that kind of thing anymore, having gone a little arty in his old age. "If only we could get Arnold," he said.

"What about Steven Seagal?" the Vice President said.

"I think the Israelis are using him in Gaza."

"Van Damme?"

"Let's keep this American."

Sunday, September 27, 2015

The Kindness of Strangers by Ceinwen Haydon

Two strangers with deep personal tragedies meet on a lonely hillside path, and for a moment their destinies are intertwined; by Ceinwen Haydon.

"...Sometimes one feels freer speaking to a stranger than to people one knows. Why is that?"

"Probably because a stranger sees us the way we are, not as he wishes to think we are."

From 'The Shadow of the Wind' by Carlos Ruiz Zafón

1. John

I left the house, my chest tight and my face rigid. I followed a track at the end of the village, an old drovers' road on which I was unlikely to meet anyone. As I walked I kicked a fallen conker in front of me, it had lost its sheen and was now a sad reminder of the bright nut that had lately emerged from its prickly green shell. The lignin veneer had dried up, but the shell was now the stronger to bear my buffeting as it rolled along. I had lost my shine too but I was not stronger, at least not today.

After a mile or so I got into my stride and my heartbeat steadied. I tried to think what to do next, but accepted that this might take quite a while. I had to manage my agitation before I made my final decision. A hare with a strong gait loped across my path three or four meters ahead and it entranced me; then it disappeared into the hedgerow, and overwrought as I was I felt its departure as a personal loss. An air of sorrow clung to each aspect of my senses and it reinterpreted the world in terms of naked sadness.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Posture Pictures by C. Davis Fogg

C. Davis Fogg tells the story of how as a Yale freshman in the 1950s he and his friends conspired to steal the notorious Ivy League nude posture photos from Vassar.

I stood buck naked, arms by my side, in front of the camera. The short, hunched, wizened photographer leered at me with a crooked smile and said: "Arms down, front to the camera. Click. Turn ninety degrees. Click. Turn. Click. Turn again. Click. You're finished. Next."

This was not a picture for the Yale class of 1959 freshman directory. Nor do I think that there were a bunch of perverts or pornographers who sold our pictures to Vassar or Wellesley girls so they could pick a date with some well-hung guy. No, they were posture pictures - images taken to see if our posture was correct, or if we had curvature of the something or other, an unbecoming lean, or some other skeletal distortion that we didn't know we had. I've forgotten what my breach of "posture etiquette" was, but it was apparently serious. I was assigned posture class for a semester. They hoped to make us military erect, not that any hormone-driven freshman ever minded being fully erect.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Old by Doug Hawley

Mike Wilkie has the perfect family, but will he remain blessed through difficult times? By Doug Hawley.

The Perfect Couple

Everyone thought that Janet and Mike Wilkie were the perfect couple, and with good reason. Both of them were as close to physically perfect as imaginable. Janet was a tall Filipina-Irish mix and Mike was Italian-German. She was 5'8" and model-attractive and he was 6'3" and could have done ads in Esquire. Both were athletic, she was a distance swimmer who had swum the Bosporus and he had been drafted as a point guard for the Boston Celtics, but decided to start his own business.

While Mike was perfecting his electronic empire, Gold, which rivaled Apple or Microsoft, Janet had moved from local showings of her paintings to achieving huge success in New York and other world capitals. Many of her works of neo-impressionism, or as they came to be known to those who lusted for neologisms, heightened reality, appeared in the halls of major corporations. Her paintings, according to one critic "looked more real than real".

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Tiny Dancer and the Roadmaster by Renata Scruggs

Elton buys a haunted Buick which forces him to question his and his mother's past; by Renata Scruggs.

The Roadmaster station wagon had seen better days. Dry rot claimed all four tires and the fake wood grain paneling, just a large sticker really, had peeled off in places, exposing the dull olive steel underneath. Still, it had no rust and the engine ran strong. Long and sleek, it could seat three people easily on each bench seat, plus two more in the way back. At $750, it was a bargain to begin with, but Elton figured he could talk the guy down to $500.

"It's a '94," said the owner. "I bought it used for my wife, but she wanted a minivan." Behind him, the man's crammed garage retched random auto parts onto the gravel driveway. Robbie had driven all the way to Staunton to see the Roadmaster. He wasn't sure why he wanted this car, but he did.

The owner eyed Elton. At twenty, Elton looked more like sixteen. He wore his wavy reddish hair draped across his forehead, torn jeans and a Leon Russell t-shirt. His skin was so pale that his best friend Dave sometimes called him a ghost. Dave had come along for the adventure; he wore a similar outfit, except his t-shirt displayed a faded cannabis leaf.

Friday, September 18, 2015

The Clasp and Whisper By Matt Duggan

Barbara inherits a dark and insidious curse that threatens to bring her life to ruin; by Matt Duggan.

Barbara and Tom Watkins live very comfortable lives. Every year they select a room in their home to undergo a renovation. Their two children, Claire and Lillian, twins, will graduate from college in three months. Barbara works at her leisure as a yoga instructor. She's olive-skinned, a very youthful-looking fifty-year-old woman with straw blonde hair and hazel eyes. Congenial but slightly uptight, Barbara has led a privileged life. She's charitable when it's convenient. After the kitchen was remodeled Barbara purchased new silverware and gave her old knives, spoons and forks to the homeless shelter in Venice Beach where she donates all of her discarded belongings.

During one of her drop-offs at the shelter Barbara sat at the trunk of her car and waited for the two gentlemen who always unloaded her latest donation. This time it was an old tube television. Nearby, Barbara noticed a very frail elderly woman struggling with a walker as she sifted through a garbage bin. She turned and looked at Barbara. Barbara averted her eyes and quickly checked her iPhone. When she stole a glance back the elderly woman was making her way toward Barbara.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Art of Ownership by Brooke Fieldhouse

Hereward and his wife Sweetsmile put their beloved home Penn'th Hall on the market, but Hereward harbours secret motives; by Brooke Fieldhouse.

Hereward struts into the dining room, and gazes gloomily out to sea. The mist of the early morning has cleared and it's a glorious day. Trees are glowing like nuggets of gold, the water on the estuary shining like a giant plate of silver.

From a distant part of his estate he can hear the drumming of a woodpecker, and just outside the window a dove breaks free from its perch in an alder and a thousand fat little catkins swing backwards and forwards, releasing a tower of pollen into the warming air.

It's so unlike how Hereward feels inside.

There's something hanging over him. A dark cloud... A collection of gases; grubby, menacing, and coalescing inside his head. He's got to face facts - but please, not yet...

His eye comes to rest on the baize-like surface of the lawn outside the window, and he recalls the night twenty years ago when he danced. Not upon this lawn, but on the modest square of grass which had been the garden of his semi-detached in... somewhere no longer important. It had been the night his mother died, and he became certain that he would inherit a fortune large enough to purchase Penn'th Hall.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Whole Big Other World by Kevin Lavey

Annie's husband Mark, unsettled after leaving San Francisco, is having an affair with Jeff - how will Jeff's girlfriend Trang respond? By Kevin Lavey.

Mark, Trang, and Jeff sat beneath a light-filled canopy of tree branches on the second story deck in back of Mark and Annie's house.

"I haven't played much chess lately," Mark said.

"Who has?" Jeff said.

"Mark's not telling the truth," called Annie from the kitchen. "He plays on websites."

"Yeah, but I lose all the time."

Jeff glanced through the open sliding glass doors at Annie who rinsed vegetables at the sink. Adjacent to the kitchen was the sunroom with bamboo furniture, TV, Bose speakers hooked up to an iPhone stereo dock, large potted plants, and bookshelves. Annie washed her hands then wiped them with the kitchen towel.

"I'm thirsty. Anybody want anything?" Jeff said to Mark and Trang. He would cadge a moment alone with Annie.

"Grab some beers," Mark said.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Killing Time by GJ Hart

A drug-addled con artist reflects on his fall from grace; by GJ Hart.

He understood how people could disappear, people had legs, people could run! But the house, the swimming pool, the Vergogna Phryne in marble and bronze...

He closed his eyes and was back.

He strolled out, past the variegating beds, past the vast sycamore and on down to the wooden jetty cut between river birch.

He stood at the water's edge, breathing in breeze scented like tanned skin. From the kitchen he could hear Sharon singing and mixing Long Island teas.

When he opened his eyes what he saw seemed less real.

The jumble of gardens, barely delineated by broken fencing and littered with filth. The pissheads by the BT box fighting over last night's fried chicken. All set beneath tower blocks like upended pill trays, their panes patched with cardboard and hung with rags.

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Skeleton Foxtrot by Gwendolyn Kiste

Gwendolyn Kiste's quirky Halloween tale about sweet little witch.

Abrielle stomped her foot. It was a bedazzled foot, complete with striped stocking and black glitter. No self-respecting witch would tolerate anything less.

"I'm old enough to trick or treat by myself!" she scowled. "I'm nine years old, you know. I'm practically an adult."

Her father folded his newspaper on his lap. "It is a good neighborhood," he said. "She should be fine."

"I don't know." Brow furrowed, her mother lingered at the window as a pint-sized alien complete with silver antenna dashed past. "We haven't lived here long enough to know all the neighbors."

"You better let me go," Abrielle said and waved her plastic wand. "Or else I'll turn you both to newts."

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Iridium by David W Landrum

Eyoline poses as a sex worker on a mission to infiltrate a gang of space pirates and assassinate their leader, for the good of the Merovingian people; by David W Landrum.

"So why don't you want to work with your own government?" Menv demanded. He had a reputation for getting right to the point.

"Because iridium is so rare they'll confiscate the mine the moment they find out about it - 'nationalize it,' they'll say. And they don't protect us from Biddle's pirates. We've got to pay him protection money, and we're tired of it."

"The Mervogian military can't bring ships and troops into your prime system. We can't set up a base here either. It's too dangerous."

"You can do it if we hire you as private contractors."

This time, Menv did not have a sarcastic comeback.

Prasata, who sat next to Stang, and who had been silent all this time, spoke up.