New Short Story Available Now!

Starting today, you can pick up an electronic copy of my short story “Bad Press” for only $0.99! That is literally less than a dollar. It’s currently available (as of September 10th at noon) on iBooks and Barnes & Noble, among others, and should pop up on Amazon within the next day or two.

Here’s the brief description of the story:

Eddie Hazzard’s name is being smeared in the press, and he’s going to get to the bottom of it. To restore his honor, he’ll have to contend not just with the reporter who impugned him, but with a whole host of violent enemies who want him dead. It’s just another day in the life of Eddie Hazzard, Hard-Boiled Detective, in this speculative fiction version of a cassingle. Remember cassingles? Man, those were awesome.

Go give it a read while you wait for Book Five!

Three-Sentence Horror Stories

Here at the school where I teach, the Slam Poetry/Literary Magazine Club has signs up asking the students to write three-sentence horror stories. I thought I’d try my hand at it.

Clarice folded her hands primly. Everything was ready. All that remained was for James to take a bite.

I mean, it kind of works, right? There’s a sense of dread there, a sense of anticipation. I think I can do better.

“There’s no such thing as monsters under the bed,” father said as he turned off the light.

“He must be right,” little Johnny said to himself.

“Yes, he must,” replied something.

Let’s try another one:

Charlene cackled. It was time. She lit the fire under the cauldron and waited.


She’d lived in fear for eleven years. Always looking over her shoulder. She should have done that today, too.

And finally:

James’s hands shook, and he took a deep breath to steady himself. His victim already hung from the rack. It was just a matter now of turning the screws.

What do you think? Have a three-sentence horror story of your own? Share them in the comments or tweet them at me @XEYeti with the hashtag #3sentencehorrorstory.

Flash Fiction: Valeria’s Song

The Giant’s Barrel, a rough-and-tumble pub in the worst part of Halftown, was exactly what you’d expect it to be.  The proprietor, Grim Harstaff, saw to it that was the case: he personally sloshed beer onto the half-rotted straw strewn across the floor.  He’d put several of the nicks and notches on the bartop himself with an old dagger from some ancient war campaign he’d fought in a lifetime ago.  The place was kept dimly-lit, smelled of stale sweat and beer, and had air the general consistency of a thin gruel.  Certain qualities were expected, he said, and he wanted to provide the right ambiance to his clientele.

Valeria liked the Giant’s Barrel.  The beer was cheap, most of the men drinking there didn’t try to ogle her, and Grim would occasionally let her play her lute on the makeshift stage Grim and Garric would erect with a few planks over a couple of barrels at one end of the bar’s great room.

Not that Valeria ever understood why anyone wanted to ogle her.  She was a barbarian from the great northern tribes, where they bred their men and women for heartiness, not loveliness.  Her chest was better described as pecs rather than breasts, and she had broader shoulders than almost all of the pub’s regulars.  And, as the Giant’s Barrel was the watering hole for mercenaries and soldiers of fortune, adventurers and treasure hunters, this was saying something significant.

She kept her hair cropped short; she usually cut it herself with her dagger, the same blade that she cut her meat and stabbed her foes with.  Valeria was not picky about her appearance.  She had no interest in attracting a mate or even a brief romantic partner.  Valeria would rather learn a new tune than bed someone.  Yes, she’d had her dalliances as a young woman; she’d taken men and women to bed, searching for that spark that so many others described when engaging in bedroom shenanigans.  But she’d never felt it, and had accepted that it just wasn’t for her and moved on to more important things.

Most important was her music.  Her instrument was meant for delicate, gently-plucked melodies, but she’d always hammered on the strings like they were slabs of metal hot from the smith’s forge.  Valeria’s maestro when she was a young woman – a small, bald old man with nearly-useless eyes and the sharpest hearing imaginable – lamented her wasted talent.  “You could play any song you set your mind to,” he said, “but you always choose these old drinking songs and tavern sing-a-longs.”  And then he’d mutter to himself for the rest of her lesson.

Valeria was also unique in her ability to turn her tunes into magic spells.  The bardic spellcasting skill was virtually unheard of among her tribe; not that there were many bards in her tribe to begin with.  She’d been destined for training as a berserker.  She was certainly built for it, and no one excelled in shield biting like Valeria.  But she loved music more, and snuck away from her martial tutors and made for the city of Melorica, where she found the best musicians she could and started learning everything possible about playing.  Within a few years, she had a reputation as a daring interpreter of existing compositions and a lyrical, innovative composer in her own right.  The fact that she liked to write drinking songs for the common man was a source of some embarrassment among the musical intelligencia, but Valeria did not care even a little.  She loved what she played, and she found a way to turn her music into supportive spells for her allies in battle.

And Valeria was finding herself drawn to battle.  Yes, she’d abandoned her studies with the tribal war master, Carrouk, years earlier, but she still had the blood of the Hoursmooth tribe flowing in her veins, and she still felt the need for glorious battle.

So she’d taken up with the dwarf, Garric, and started adventuring.  And it fulfilled a need she’d forgotten she had, sated a desire that she’d thought she’d buried years ago.  That she got to combine her desire for battle and her love of music to become the world’s only barbarian bard was just icing on the proverbial cake.

Occasionally, though, Valeria felt the need to just play music for the sake of playing music.  On those occasions, she would head to the Giant’s Barrel, have Garric and Grim assemble the makeshift stage, and sit on the stage for hours at a time strumming and plucking the strings of her lute.  She played familiar folk tunes, drinking songs passed down for generations that everyone knew the words to, and original compositions of her own.  The crowds were always appreciative, clapping and hooting and singing drunkenly along.

There was one song, though, that Valeria never played at the pub.  One song that she kept to herself, only played when she was alone.  It was a sad song, a song full of longing and nostalgia and sentiment.  Anyone who knew Valeria would have been surprised she had an ounce of sentimentality in her soul; barbarians were not well-known for their pathos.  It was a song about home, about growing apart from everything you knew, about loneliness and the desire for amiable companionship.  Not about love, not exactly, but about something akin to it, like friendship only deeper.  Someone to share things with.  Garric came close, Valeria would admit, but he wasn’t quite it.

So the song was for herself, and no one else.  Maybe someday, someone else would get to hear it.  Maybe she’d even share it with Garric, if the time was right.  But for now, it was hers alone, and she would sit and play it for herself on quiet nights when no one was around.


Flash Fiction: The Coat, Part 2

Part 1 can be found here!

Krober Pass was a few hours west of Halftown, a narrow, rocky pass through the Reeven Mountains.  In years past, it had been part of a major trade route to the west, to the Kingdom of Marrowdowns, but the kingdom had fallen to goblin raids decades ago, and the goblins were pushing further and further east with every year.  That they’d reached the Krober Pass – so close to the adventurer’s haven of Halftown! – was a sign that things in Marrowdowns were bad.

But it also meant there was plenty of work for folks like Valeria and Garric.  The two adventurers were more than a match for anything the goblins could throw at them.  Valeria didn’t take any chances, though, performing a ballad designed to improve their endurance and damage resistance before they entered the pass.

Things were quiet as they entered the Krober Pass, the only sound the wind as it whistled through the rocks and thin grass.  Valeria had her axe ready, and Garric’s daggers were loose in their sheaths, ready to be deployed at the first sign of trouble.  The two had worked together for so many years, there was no need for conversation between them as they moved through the pass.  Valeria took point, twirling the axe in her hands and humming an old song under her breath that her mother had taught her years ago.

The only warning they had was the faint sound of rocks skipping down the rock wall, dislodged from above by an unseen foot.  Valeria pivoted on her heel, bringing the axe around in a wide arc.  The blade caught the first goblin raider under his arms, cleaving him in half and spraying hot blood across the rocks.  The short, knocked blade the goblin had held over his head clattered to the ground from nerveless fingers.

Suddenly, the air was alive with goblin war cries and crude weapons waved by cruder creatures.  The goblins attacked in waves, falling from above like a deadly rain made of equal parts vile intent, sharp teeth, and rank body odor.  Valeria’s axe carved arcs across through the air, chopping goblins down two and three at a time.  Garric’s twin daggers flashed, picking out vulnerable points in goblins’ defenses, a throat here, under an arm there, the hamstring and femoral artery of a goblin winding up to take a swing at Valeria.  The two adventurers hacked and slashed their way through a small army of goblins for what seemed an eternity, but was really about half an hour.  At the end of the carnage, they were still standing, their arms and legs covered in small nicks and cuts, Garric’s left eye swelling shut where he’d caught the edge of a wooden shield in the face.  Valeria’s arms were heavy, and she felt drained.  Garric was breathing heavily, his barrel chest heaving from the exertion.

“Think that’s all of ’em?” Garric asked, wiping his blades on the edge of his coat and slotting them back into their sheaths.

Valeria shrugged, her shoulders announcing an aching protest at the movement, and stowed her axe on its strap across her back.  She pulled out her lute and strummed a few chords, humming a lilting counterharmony to the melody.  Garric immediately felt the song’s effects: the ache in his muscles eased, his wounds stopped seeping blood, and he felt generally better than he had a few moments earlier.  Valeria put away the lute and took in the terrain of the pass.  “No sign of their warren,” she said.

Garric nodded.  “Think it’s up in the mountains?”

Valeria nodded.  “Of course it is.”

It took them half an hour to pick their way through the massive boulders and shifting gravel of the pass, up the side of an almost sheer cliff face to the cave system the goblins called home.  The place was mostly deserted as they entered, though Valeria could feel unseen eyes on her from the moment they slipped into the cool darkness of the cave’s entrance.

Half an hour of exploring the twisting warren of tunnels and caves finally spit them out in a massive, cathedral-esque cavern festooned with candles and bioluminescent fungi.  The edges of the cavern were surrounded by massive columns of stala-whatevers – stalactites or stalagmites, Valeria could never keep them sorted in her head – and at the front, like an altar, rose a platform of limestone with a wooden rack taking the place of prominence.

On the rack hung the coat.  It had been placed there reverently, as if it were a great, holy relic.  Small bundles were heaped at the foot of the rack.  On closer inspection, Garric identified them as goblin religious fetishes.  “Effigies for the fallen,” he said, stroking his beard.  It was the patchiest beard in dwarven history; the mustache, thin and wiry, didn’t meet up with the beard itself, which was more the suggestion of where a beard could be than an actual, fully-realized collection of facial hair.  It was an aspirational beard, a beard in potentia, but he was terribly attached to it, as all members of his kind were to their facial hair.  Valeria didn’t have the heart to tell him it made him look like wire mesh jutting out at odd angles from his cheeks and jaw.

“I think…they’re worshiping the coat,” Garric said.

Valeria frowned.  “Why?  It’s an ugly old coat.”  She allowed her magical senses to open up to the world around her.  Information flooded into her senses.  “There’s nothing magical about it.  It’s just a plain ol’ coat.”

Garric shrugged.  “Damned if I know.  The old bastard did kill a lot of goblins in his day.”  Valeria nodded.  Everyone in Halftown knew, if there were no other jobs available, you could always kill goblins.  The man in the coat had been well-known for taking that job even when other, more worthwhile endeavors were available.  An idea, a terrible notion, formed in her mind.  She didn’t care for it, though it made a certain amount of sick sense.

“They started thinking of him as a god of death, didn’t they?” she said.  Though the tone was one of question, it was really more an uncertain-at-worst statement.  “They think they killed a god, and they took a holy relic as a sign.”

Garric shrugged again.  “Stranger things have happened.”  He glanced around the cavern.  Like Valeria, he couldn’t shake the sense that they were being watched from every dark corner.  “So, what do we do?  We takin’ the coat back?”

Valeria shook her head.  “No.  There’s no point.  It’s just an old damn coat.”  She stretched, arching her back, and turned back to the entrance they’d come in through.  “Let’s get back to the Giant’s Barrel.  I need a drink.”

Garric grinned.  “That’s a damn fine idea!” he said in agreement.  “We’ll hoist a tankard to…um…”  Garric scratched his chin.  “Say, what the hell was the guy’s name, again?”

Valeria shrugged.  “I dunno.  Dave?  Saunders?  Caulder?  Who knows?  Better, who cares?  I need a damn drink.”

Flash Fiction: The Coat, Part 1

It was black leather, faded with years of neglect and abuse.  It hung heavy across his broad back and shoulders, the hem of the coat hanging down to mid-thigh.  It slapped against his legs as he took each step, as though the edge of it was weighted somehow.  The coat was festooned with pockets, though no one knew quite how many or what their contents might be.

It was worn in a patch around back, where the leather had scrapped against booths and benches and the rough brickwork of city alleyways for years and years.  It was a hard-worn coat, full of secrets and dried blood.  He’d been stabbed three times while wearing the coat; shot with arrows at least twice as many times as that.  He survived, and so did the coat.  Some new stitching, and each were patched up again.

Folks around the city recognized the coat and its wearer.  They became something of an institution, a familiar, mobile landmark in the city that wandered the streets in search of work and adventure.

Some coveted the coat, not because it was a particularly appealing piece of sartorial splendor, but because it represented something primal and daring and great: the coat was as much an adventurer as its wearer.  The coat had survived just as many narrow escapes and famous last stands as the man who wore it.  The coat was a piece of history, one that could be passed on like a torch or a crown or a family heirloom.  The man had no children – none he knew of or was in contact with, anyway – so the coat would just be buried with him when he died, assuming he was buried and not just left on some desolate battlefield or deep in some dank dungeon to rot.  It would be a damn shame for that coat to not go on, these folks reasoned, and so they tried to steal it and discovered the man who wore the coat was not an individual to be trifled with.

No one could say for certain how old the man was, or when he’d first appeared in the city, but everyone agreed they’d never seen him without the coat.  It was as much a part of him as his arms or his eyes, as important a tool in his arsenal as any sword or dagger.  He wore it during the defense of Halftown, and the brawl in the Giant’s Barrel that followed the glorious victory in that battle.  He wore it when he explored the fabled Catacombs of Meril Catharak, where he defeated the Lich Lord of the same name.  He wore it when he wooed the beautiful princess of Dorivo Tower, though he declined to ravish the princess in favor of ravishing her brother, the tower’s defender.

The man wore the coat everywhere, regardless of weather or circumstances.  It was like a uniform, a second skin, an indispensable garment by any measure.

So it came as some shock to everyone when he died without it on.

It came in the fourth month of the Year of the Notional Serpent, deep in to the sweltering summer season in Halftown, the city of heroes and adventure.  The man came stumbling into town one evening near dusk, blood matting his hair and the coat nowhere to be seen.  He collapsed in front of the Giant’s Barrel, bleeding from more wounds than any living person could reasonably expect to survive, and the life ebbed out of him as adventurers stepped over and around his prone form to reach the bar inside the Giant’s Barrel.

Only two individuals stopped to check on the man: Valeria, a tall woman from the great northern barbarian tribes, and her stout dwarven companion, Garric.

“He’s dead,” Garric said, straightening up from a stoop next to the man, though it hardly seemed worth the effort given how minor the effect of standing was on his overall stature.  Garric was, to put things bluntly, short.

Valeria nodded.  She’d assumed as much.

“No sign of the coat,” Garric muttered, eyeing the dusty street.  No one else was around; even at dusk, the city was so stiflingly hot that most people were quietly suffering indoors.

“That damn coat is more trouble than it’s worth,” Valeria said.  She didn’t put much stock in the legends and stories surrounding the coat.  Many thought it was enchanted, spelled against blades and blows.  Valeria was convinced it was just an old, ugly coat, but she also knew you couldn’t discount an item’s magicalness when so many people believed in it.  Belief had a power that was hard to beat.

“What job was he on?” Valeria asked despite herself.  She didn’t want to try to find the coat, but she could see the shape of the narrative forming around her.  Someone was going to go out and find the damn thing; it might as well be someone competent.  It might as well be her and Garric.  The man in the coat had always been known for taking on challenging jobs, and it was better that professionals take up the task than some amateur with delusions of grandeur.

“Clearing out the goblins in the Krober Pass,” Garric said immediately.  His memory for little details – like who had taken what job on the Adventurer’s Community Board – was sharper than most.

Valeria hefted her axe over one shoulder and her lute over the other.  There weren’t too many barbarian bards out there, and she was easily the best of them.  Garric rested his hands on his daggers, arching his back until the vertebrae popped one after the other.  “Right, then,” the dwarf said, a grin splitting his bearded face, “let’s get to it.”

Continue on to Part 2!

Looking Back Through the Mists of Time

If you’ve read The Invisible Crown and stuck around to read the Acknowledgements page, you might’ve noticed I talked about the long gestational period the story went through.  While I can no longer find the notebook I wrote the original story in way back in the summer of 2002, I did find a file on Dropbox the other day labeled “Hazzard 1 Rewrite.”  It is exactly what it sounds like – a new draft of the original story, written after the version created for the Writing Group in 2004-2005.  I was working to refine the thing, but this particular draft was abandoned about two pages in for some reason.  I thought it might be fun to share this nigh-ancient version of part of the first chapter.  For me, it’s fun because I get to see how much of the characters and setting were solidly in place from the very beginning,  and how much Eddie Hazzard has changed over time (he used to be an even bigger asshole, if you can imagine that).  Also, apparently I thought “Stoover” was an acceptable character name.

Please don’t hold any terrible prose or awful character choices against me.  This is over a decade old; when this was written, I was still an unmarried twit back then.

* * *

It was too early in the morning for me to be at work.  That is to say, it was still morning.  I generally prefer waiting until well after noon to start my day, and today especially should have been one of those days.  I was nursing a hangover, the sort that would kill a lesser man.

They say the best way to deal with a hangover is to have a drink of whatever you got drunk on.  I got out of my chair and walked over to a file cabinet.  The top drawer was labeled “Hard Evidence,” and the bottom was labeled “Hard Stuff.”  I went for the latter, pulled out a bottle that should have had a skull and crossbones on the label, and took a pull straight from the bottle.  My head cleared, and I staggered back to my worn-out chair, ready for a nap.

The sign on my frosted-glass door reads: “Eddie Hazzard, Hard Boiled Detective.”  Currently I’m not only hard boiled, but slightly pickled.  Such culinary feats are not my concern, though.  My concerns are normally 5’7”, red-headed, and sultry.  And at 11:00 AM this particular morning, one hell of a concern slinked into my office and fought my faithful bottle for attention.  She won.  Dames usually do.  Granted, the dames are usually what drive me to the bottle in the first place.

She slammed the door behind her, which brought me back to the land of the conscious.  I dropped the bottle, which rolled across the floor and came to a rest against her black high heel.  “A little early to be hitting the sauce, isn’t it, Detective Hazzard?” she asked in a clipped, much too precise way.

“Hey, it’s lunchtime somewhere in the world, lady,” I replied blearily.

“Are you the so-called ‘hard-boiled detective’ of this…establishment?” she asked.  She looked around my bare, shabby office for a place to sit that wasn’t covered in stacks of overdue bills, old coffee cups, or unidentifiable stains of questionable origins.  She gave up and just stood.

“Lady, I’m hard boiled, soft boiled, scrambled—I do all sorts of detecting.”  She frowned a little at me—women do that way too much—and said she had a case for me, if I was interested.  My body said “no,” but my bill collectors said “yes,” so I asked her what the case was.

“My name is Vera Stoover.  My husband, Wally, has disappeared.”

“That’s a real shame, lady,” I said, digging a cigarette out of the pack and lighting it up.

“Yes, well, he was scheduled to testify against some…gentlemen of questionable virtue in court next week, but he disappeared on his way to a safehouse.”

“So you think these guys grabbed him, huh?”

“I’m certain he’s been abducted by those men, Detective Hazzard,” she said in a low voice.  Her bosom moved in a way that I was sure was illegal in most states.  “Will you please find him for me?  I’ll pay you handsomely.”  She pouted, her full bottom lip protruding obscenely.  I couldn’t tell if she was doing this on purpose or was really just that sort of classic noir bombshell.  I decided I didn’t care.

I told her I didn’t care if the money was pretty or ugly, just so long as it was real.  She handed me a photograph of a skinny, sallow-checked man in an expensive suit and a hat that went out of style back in the 1940s.  “This is Wally,” she said.  “As you can see, there’s not much too him.  I fear he may be injured…or worse.”   She reached into her bag and pulled out a slip of paper with two names: Guido and Billy Sunshine.  I’d heard of them before; they were definitely bad news.  Then she pulled out a roll of twenties and handed it to me.

“I’m very thankful for your help, Detective Hazzard,” she said.  “This is a small advance for your services.”

“Don’t worry, Mrs. Stoover, I’ll find your husband,” I said, mustering as much confidence as I could manage.  She smiled weakly and slunk back out of my office, and the view drug me out of my alcohol haze long enough to wonder if I’d maybe made a bad mistake.  I retrieved my bottle and took another pull.  Times like these made me wish I’d listened to my mother and played in traffic when I was a kid.

* * *

My first stop in my search was the corner of 4th and Shirley Temple Avenue, locally known as “No!  Not my knee!”  It was the favored hangout of unemployed bodyguards, thugs, and hired goons.  These were the kind of grunts who made a living teaching anyone who got too close or asked the wrong questions a “lesson.”  Ironic, really, considering most of them had the educational equivalent of flunking kindergarten.  Granted, a lesson taught by one of these simpletons wasn’t one you’d forget in a hurry.  It was a very blunt education.  Or occasionally sharp, if they put a nail in the stick or used a knife.

They spent most of their free time doing pretty much the same stuff they did when they were employed, only without the guidance, direction, or discipline of working for a mob boss.  Folks tended to stay as far away from this area as possible; yet here I was, walking right into it.  Sometimes, the hero has to do brave but stupid things.  Or he might just be completely stupid.  You never can tell.

I had a certain thug in mind, a gorilla of a man named Vinny.  Vinny didn’t have the intelligence of a gorilla, mind you—no, an ape has a few more braincells banging around in their skulls than Vinny does—but he was the approximate shape and size of one and had about as much hair on his body.  Vinny stood about 6’8” and weighed 350 pounds.  He sort of stooped over, and you almost expected to see his hairy knuckles drag the ground.  He had a slopping forehead, thick eyebrow (there was only one, of course), and tiny, beady eyes.  In a word, Neanderthal.  Not that he’d understand the word.  They called him Vinny the Pooh, because most of the people he paid a visit to were prone to crapping themselves whenever they saw him.

I found Vinny standing in the mouth of a small side alley, blocking daylight for the poor sap he had cornered.  “Th’ Boss wants yer to pay up by t’morrow, or else.”  Most people said “or else” with an implied ellipsis at the end of it, as though the worst part of the threat was that you didn’t know what would come next.  But with Vinny, it was obvious what was to come: a beating so severe your grandmother would feel it.  He didn’t have to threaten; he merely promised great pain if his demands weren’t met to the letter.  It was amazing how often the poorest of men somehow managed to scrape together a loan payment after a visit from Vinny.

Vinny shuffled aside with all the speed and grace of continental drift and the guy scurried out of the alleyway as fast as his rubbery legs would carry him.  Vinny’s piggy eyes followed his fleeing prey but got distracted when I stepped into view.

“Whudda you want?” he asked in his gravelly drawl.

“I need to see your boss, Vinny,” I said, trying my best to keep my knees from knocking.  The trick with guys like Vinny was to never show them fear and hint that you would bleed much too easily to make it worth their bother hitting you.  It’s a delicate balance to say the least.

Vinny took a minute to process my request, his brow furrowing like plowed field.  Then he finally said, “Tuba no wanna talk witchu.  He still ain’t happy ‘bout whatchu done to Four Eyes.”  He meant Four Eyes Malone, the Tuba’s accountant.  I’d sent Malone up the river for a sum in the federal pen a few months ago.  It was rumored that Malone’s incarceration ended up costing the Tuba millions of dollars in missed opportunities and poor interim bookkeeping.

“Look, Vinny, let’s let bygones be bygones,” I said, smiling.  When his brow furrowed in concentration and confusion again, I said, “Hey, let’s forget the past.  I’m sorry about Four Eyes, and I really need to talk to the Tuba.  Where is he?”

Vinny stood there for a moment, then finally rumbled, “He’s at the Speakeasy on 8th Street.”

“The Speakeasy?” I asked.

“Yuh, that,” Vinny the Pooh said, then shambled off to find something else to beat up.

Solitaire, Part 7

The Red Ace has escaped, but Eddie is hot on her trail.  Will he catch up to the thief?  Will he get the files he needs?  Let’s find out!  Make sure to check out Eddie’s next adventure, The Invisible Crown, available tomorrow! 

* * *

I pulled up a vid window and called Miss Typewell.  “Ellen, it’s Eddie,” I said, standing up and checking on the two guards.  They were both unconscious, probably had some broken bones, but they’d live.  “I just planted a tracer on our good friend the Red Ace.  I’m sending you the access code now.  Can you upload the signal to my GPS?”  Folks rarely notice the little details of a casual touch; when I’d patted her shoulder, I’d slipped a GPS tracer under the collar of her shirt.

“Sure thing, Eddie,” she replied.  “Things go wrong at the precinct?”

“Of course they did,” I said as I stepped into the hallway.  Another guard at the end of the hall was on the floor, also unconscious.  I was clearly on the right trail even without the GPS signal.  “Looks like Red Ace just dealt herself a losing hand,” I said.

“Eddie, are the bad puns really necessary?” Miss Typewell asked wearily.

“If it weren’t for bad puns, I’d have nothing to say,” I respond.

“And what a tragedy that would be,” Miss Typewell said as she closed her vid window.

* * *

By the time I left the 4th Precinct, the tracer had come online.  A small vid window over my left eye painted a bullseye on the Red Ace’s location.  She was on the move, and she was fast.

The tracer’s signal eventually led me back into Old Town, down around 43rd and Watterson Ave.  This was a slightly run-down neighborhood, one with security windows and bars on the doors.  According to the signal, Red Ace had slipped into an apartment building on the corner, and was about six floors up.

The front door of the building was open, so I slipped in as quickly and quietly as I could.  I took the elevator up to the sixth floor.  At apartment 604, the GPS was blinking at me like crazy, so I knew I’d found my target.  I jimmied the lock and stepped inside, the popgun drawn.

The front room was empty, and not just of people.  There was nothing in the room at all, and some rather concerning scrapes along the far wall that looked like an animal had dragged some claws across it.  I crept through as quietly as possible, cutting through the small kitchen/dining area which was, again, empty of anything.

The back hallway led to two bedrooms and a bathroom.  The bathroom contained nothing.  The first bedroom contained what I’d been looking for: a small filing cabinet full of files, and the black shirt Red Ace had been wearing, folded and sitting in the middle of the floor.  On top of the neatly-folded shirt was a note, addressed to me.  It read:

Detective Hazzard,

I have enjoyed our little game, though I feel as if I’ve been playing by myself while you sat on the sidelines, drooling on yourself.  You may not have been the cleverest of opponents, but you were rather determined and dogged, and I can admire that.  The filing cabinet contains the documents you were looking for.  My client, I’m sad to say, refuses to give up their identity, so you’ll have to be content with merely solving your case.

Oh, and do be careful.  There’s a guard bear in the apartment, and she hasn’t been fed in a few days.

Good luck!


The Red Ace


I read and re-read the note twice, trying to make sense of the whole thing.  This hadn’t been the hardest case in my career, but it certainly hadn’t been a game, either.  I reached into the filing cabinet and grabbed the documents, shoving them into a pocket inside my coat.

Then I really processed the whole note, and turned around to see nine feet of furry violence behind me.

It was a brown bear, I think.  Maybe a grizzly.  I’m not really sure, and honestly I didn’t want to take the time to find out.  It had a surveillance camera hard-wired to the vision centers of its brain, allowing someone to track what the bear saw.  The things had been all the rage a decade or two ago, but they’d fallen out of style because, even with the intelligence amplifiers and behavior controls, guard bears were still tremendously unpredictable.

This one growled at me, a deep rumble in the back of its throat, and stood as tall as the low ceiling would allow it.  “How did they even get you in here?” I asked in disbelieving astonishment as the thing wound up to take swing at me.  I ducked back, and the large paw took out the filing cabinet instead.  The metal cabinet flipped end over end across the room, slamming into a wall to my left with a loud clung, laying on its side with the filing drawers hanging out.  I glanced around, looking for an exit, and saw only the window behind me.  Mind you, I was six stories up; not exactly where you want to be if you’re jumping out a window.

On the other hand, when you’re staring up at an angry and, if the letter was accurate, hungry bear, pretty much anything else looks good by comparison.

The bear took another swipe at me, this time with more power behind it.  I barely managed to dodge out of the way.  The bear’s claws scored the wall on the right hand side of the room with deep gashes.  That window was looking pretty tempting at this point.

“What the hell do I have to lose?” I muttered, jamming my hat down on my head and running toward the window at top speed.

Security glass shattered around me, the fragments flashing angry red letters to let anyone who cared to check that a window in the building had been broken.  The alley between this building and the next was thankfully narrow, and I slammed into the metal railing of a fire escape, knocking the breath out of me.  I chanced a quick glance behind me and saw the bear reaching through the window, persistent and angry.  I couldn’t remember whether you were supposed to try to make yourself bigger and scare bears away, or curl up and make yourself smaller so they wouldn’t consider you a threat, but decided it didn’t matter and crawled over the railing of the fire escape to reach the ladder down to the next level.  Behind me, the bear roared its frustration, which only served to speed up my efforts.  The fire escape shook, metal groaned, and suddenly the safety scaffold was sagging towards the ground several stories below.  I held on for dear life until I saw a dumpster below, the lid open and something suitably soft-looking inside.  Again, figuring I had nothing left to lose, I let go of the fire escape and dropped into the dumpster.

The dumpster’s contents weren’t as soft as I’d assumed, but they weren’t as hard as the pavement.  The wind was knocked out of me by the impact, but I coughed and gasped and sputtered, lying there among the trash.  When I’d caught my breath, I dared another peek up at the room I’d jumped out of.  The guard bear was nowhere to be seen, which was good.  I’d escaped with my life and the documents.

“Guess we’ll call that a win,” I wheezed to myself, clawing for the rim of the dumpster.

* * *

I took the bundle of documents and stuffed them into a large manila envelope, slapped a few stamps on the front, and dropped the parcel in Miss Typewell’s outgoing mail tray in the office.  She didn’t ask any questions or even make any snarky comments about the fact I was covered in garbage.  I made my way back into the inner office, slumping into my desk chair and reopening a minimized vid window hovering low over the scarred surface of my desk.  It displayed solitaire game #2,146, all of which had been loses.  Some of those games had been close – on more than one occasion, a single missing card was all that stood between me and total victory.

I looked over the cards blearily, scanning for a move, any move, that I could make.

All I needed to start the cascade of cards that would signal a victory was a red ace, but none were available.

With a wry chuckle, I pinched the vid window shut and reached for a bottle of cheap whiskey.

Solitaire, Part 6

Eddie has captured Red Ace, and now it’s time to interrogate the mysterious burglar.  What could possibly go wrong?  Come back tomorrow for the story’s exciting conclusion! 

* * *

The interrogation room at Precinct 4 was a stark, utilitarian affair.  It was not a room that the 21st century had touched, let alone the 22nd.  The walls were bare, the table was made of a single piece of machined aluminum bolted to the floor, and the chairs were uncomfortably Puritanical in design and form.  One wall was the traditional one-way mirror, and the door was set in the opposite wall.  The one token nod to modernity was the small video camera that floated in the air above the table, maneuvering on small air jets to take in the whole room.

Red Ace was already there when I arrived, unmasked and handcuffed to the chair across from the one-way mirror.  Turns out the burglar was a woman with a close-cropped shock of bright red hair and a dark complexion.  Her eyes were a pale green, but burned with a fierce anger borne of (1) being stuck in an interrogation room and (2) having been caught by me.

“Red Ace, how nice to finally meet the real you,” I said as I walked in.  I patted her on the shoulder as I skirted the table and took a seat across from her, my back to the one-way mirror.  The door clicked shut behind her, locking again and only openable from the outside.  She sat in her chair, resolutely saying nothing.

“So, what’s your name,” I asked, pressing on against the tidal wave of annoyed silence emanating from her.

The silence continued, unabated.

“You might as well say something,” I opined, hoping she’d open up after such a clever bon mot.

She didn’t.

“You’re only making things worse for yourself, y’know,” I said.  “Even now, Captain O’Mally’s getting a search warrant to toss your place.  We’ll find the files, and we’ll find all the other stuff you’ve been stealing lately, too.  It’s just a matter of time.”

This time, she snorted a laugh, and a smile that had nothing to do with humor flickered across her face.

“They won’t find anything in my place,” she finally said, a sneer on her lips.  “And your client will just have to live with the fact that she’ll never have those files she wants.”  Her voice had a slight accent, a melodic lilt that was difficult to place but made her seem exotic.  It was the sort of voice you could fall in love with, if it weren’t for the fact she was a notorious thief.

“You know, you’ve got a nice voice.  It was a shame to hide it behind the vocal modulator like you did.”

“It’s chauvinists like you who are the reason I did it,” she replied defiantly.  “I hate being judged by what I look like, or what I sound like.  Never for my abilities, always for my physical characteristics!”

I raised my hands defensively.  “Easy, tiger, I was just trying to make conversation.  Don’t get so defensive.”

Red Ace sat there casually, a defiant and confident sneer playing across her face.  “Your kind is always the same.  You think you know everything, but you’re just as ignorant and self-serving as anyone else.  You’re just less honest with yourself.”

I was starting to get annoyed.  “Look, lady, I’m sure your degree in gender studies or whatever makes you imminently qualified to lecture me on this,” I said, “but all I really want to know is who you’re working for.”

This time, she gave me another smile, one that not only still had nothing to do with humor but that promised someone wasn’t going to find what happened next funny at all.  “Detective, that’s not really an issue right now.  What is at issue is that I will be out of here in the next few minutes, and the only thing I’m not yet sure of is whether you’ll be able to walk out under your own power or not.”

I shifted uneasily in my chair.  “You do realize you’re handcuffed to a chair, right?” I asked.

Red Ace barked a short, sharp laugh, shoved her chair back away from the table, and flipped over the back of it, bringing her handcuffed hands in front of her in the process.  “A little help!” I called out to the floating camera, hoping the guards who had been posted right outside the door would be able to do something about this new turn of events.

The guards burst in, stun batons raised and ready.  But Red Ace was ready, too, and swung her chair in a wide arc, catching both guards across the face and knocking them down.  She knelt down and grabbed the handcuff neutralizer, touching it to the band on first her right and then her left wrist, deactivating the cuffs.  Rubbing her wrists, she then grabbed the two guards’ stun batons, twirled them like she’d spent her life leading a marching band, then turned to me.  The whole display had taken all of maybe ten seconds, and I hadn’t even had time to think about getting out of my chair.

“Well, detective, what will it be?” she asked, twirling the baton in her left hand.

Call me a coward, but I know when I’m beat.  “I like walking,” I said, hands in the air with resignation.

“I thought you might,” she replied.  She turned and walked out the door, balanced and poised as a dancer.

Solitaire, Part 5

Eddie has captured the burglar Red Ace.  The local police captain, Edison O’Mally, wants some answers from our hero.  Come back tomorrow for part 6! 

* * *

Captain Edison O’Mally of the Arcadia Police Department stood near the door while a uniform took my statement outside the Funeral Parlor.  Two more uniformed officers were rolling Red Ace into a custody wagon, the bubble from the popgun having not dissolved yet.

“So you just happened to be having a quiet drink when a known criminal entered the bar in a completely unrelated coincidence?” the office repeated back to me, incredulously.  I’d had to embellish my story a little bit to protect the not-so-innocent (me).

“That’s correct, Officer Higgins,” I replied, my face attempting to beam honesty and settling for not completely giving everything away.

“So, how come five other patrons report that the suspect was seen at your table, having a rather heated conversation with you?” Higgins was good.  He could actually ask a question and could compare facts to each other and see when they contradicted each other.  Most of the uniformed officers I’d seen over the years were the type to accidentally ended up asking the wrong person the wrong question, like, “Was it you what done the deed, then? Oh God, why are you pulling my spleen out through my mouth?”  Higgins was one of the good ones, which was making him a pain in my ass at that moment.

“I’d asked him to pass me a coaster.  He didn’t want to.  Wasn’t a very neighborly burglar, I can tell you,” I said innocently.

“Hazzard,” O’Mally called as he came over to us.  The captain, the walrus tusks of his gen-mod gleaming, nodded at the officer taking my statement.  Higgins nodded back and stepped away.  “Care to tell me just what the hell is going on?”  His jowls quivered slightly, as a walrus’s jowls are wont to do.  O’Mally thought his gen-mod made him look intimidating, but mostly it just game him fish breath.

“Captain, as I was explaining to your man Higgins here, this whole thing is completely innocent, just a big misunderstanding.”  I attempted to put an arm around O’Mally’s shoulders, but the look he gave me made me think better of it.

“Drop the act, Eddie,” O’Mally said.  “Be straight with me.”

I sighed.  “Fine.  I’m working a case, all right?  Red Ace is my one lead on it, and I managed to trick the guy into meeting with me, but he wouldn’t give up anything.”

O’Mally nodded, sending his jowls quivering again.  “We can give you some time in the interrogation chamber with Red Ace, Eddie, but I don’t know what else we can do.  Most of the evidence linking this character to those burglaries is circumstantial at best.”

“Right,” I said, turning up my coat collar.  “I’ll be down at the precinct in an hour.”

Solitaire, Part 4

Miss Typewell and Eddie set a trap for the mysterious burglar.  Will they be successful?  Will Eddie ever win a game of solitaire?  Check back tomorrow for part 5! 

* * *

In fact, it took seven more lost games of solitaire before Red Ace replied to Miss Typewell’s message.

“I’ve got a meeting with Red Ace set up for this evening at 7:00 at the Funeral Parlor,” Miss Typewell said, indicating the name of my favorite bar over on Purgation Avenue.

“Great,” I replied, pinching shut loss #2,145 and standing up from my desk.  “Guess I’ve got some time to get there myself and make sure all my ducks are all in a row.”  I walked over to my filing cabinet and dug out my weapon, the popgun, checking its cartridge and the safety.

“Yup, all in a row,” I said, holstering the weapon.

* * *

I arrived at the Funeral Parlor at half-past six and took up residence in a corner booth.  In deference to the fact that I was about to have a meeting with an individual who had already sucker punched me once, I just ordered a seltzer.

Red Ace arrived when I somehow wasn’t looking.  One second, I was alone in my booth, no one around me.  The next, a slender figure sat across from me, their whole form bathed in shadows that hadn’t really even been there moments before.  It’s like Red Ace traveled with their own shadow.

“Red Ace, I presume,” I said after my startled yelp at the burglar’s sudden appearance had removed any dignity I had left.

“Yes, Detective Hazzard,” the burglar replied, their voice blurred by a modulator.

“Really, vocal distortion?” I snarked, arching an eyebrow at my shadowy companion.  “Are you really a woman trying to pretend to be a man, or a man trying to make people think you’re a woman trying to pretend to be a man?  What’s the damn point?”

“My sex is of no consequence,” Red Ace replied, “only my skills.”

“Oh, well, that’s just a giant pile of—” I began, but Red Ace cut me off.

“Detective, you reached out to me, and here I am.  What is it you want?”

I looked Red Ace right in the eye, or where I thought their eyes might be.  “I want those damn documents you stole from Vellum’s office last night,” I said, anger and frustration tinting my voice.

“I’m afraid you will not be able to meet the asking price for those documents, Detective,” Red Ace replied coolly and electronically from behind the vocal modulator.

“Try me,” I replied, leaning back and trying to act casual.

“Fifty million,” the burglar responded calmly.

I sat there silently for a minute, regretting my decision to not get a real drink.

“That is a bit rich for my blood,” I replied quietly.

“Indeed,” said Red Ace, standing.  “Now, if there is nothing else…”

My hand shot out and grabbed Red Ace by the wrist.  “Actually, there is,” I said, a smirk on my face.  “You’re under arrest for theft, boy-o.”

Red Ace stood there silently for a beat, then laughed, a strange sound filtered through the vocal modulator.

“Detective Hazzard,” the burglar said, “this has been somewhat amusing, so I guess I’ll let you keep your hand this time.”  Red Ace suddenly twisted their wrist, wrenching it from my supposedly-tight grasp as the burglar danced away from the booth, the shadow that had protected their identity following.  I reached for the popgun, flicking the safety off as I drew.  Red Ace was nearly to the door, but the popgun fires much faster than a person can run.  Or dance.

The gun went off with its distinctive pop! and an expanding bubble of semi-permeable matter flew across the room at Red Ace.  The burglar turned to see what had caused the noise and caught the bubble face-first.  It enveloped them, and the bubble’s forward momentum rolled Red Ace up against the far wall of the Funeral Parlor, knocking the lithe individual off their feet.

I stood slowly and gingerly picked my way across the bar, holstering the popgun as I went.  I stopped in front of the bubble holding Red Ace, resting a foot against the gently-rocking and now very solid membrane surrounding the burglar.  “Well then,” I said, fishing a cigarette out of my coat pocket and lighting it, “looks like there was something else.”