The Stranger on the Road

a barnEver since he’d set the barn up as a recording studio, he’d wanted a window so he could see his farm while he played. Windows not being inherently sound-deadening, it was a complication, but over time he’d hit upon a solution involving multiple layers of glass embedded in spongy soft stuff that helped reduce sound transmission.

So when the old man in the battered brown hat headed up his gravel driveway, he didn’t have to wait for the surprise of someone banging on the big barn door and messing up the track he was recording. He’d stopped playing his old Telecaster to watch as the stranger trudged up the drive, never raising his head enough to reveal his face.

But there was no banging on the door. With no windows anywhere else in the barn, he didn’t know if the old guy had gone around, or was just standing there.

Easy enough to find out.

He hung the guitar on the wall and crossed to the door, sliding the crossbar and pushing outward.

Mr. Brown Hat stepped back, blinking, obviously surprised.

“Um, hey, I’m sorry, uh, I was just . . . ” His hands wiggled around as he talked.

“Did you need something? Like, I mean, are you lost? Long way from anywhere, sir.”

The elderly gent chuckled. “I’ve been lost a long, long time, but not how you mean.” He shuffled his feet, glanced toward the road, shoved his hands in his pockets.

“I was passing, y’know, just walking down the road, and I heard the music, and, well, it drew me. I wasn’t trying to trespass, just getting closer to hear it better.”

That brought a chuckle. “You do realize that’s the shortest route to a musician’s heart, right?”

He pushed the door open wider. “If you want to listen, you might as well come in and get comfortable.”

The traveler pulled his hat off and held out his hand. “Morris. Morris Michael Miller. For which I apologize on behalf of my long-departed parents.”

“No apology necessary, Morris Michael Miller. I’m Reed. Reed Smith, most common last name in the English-speaking world, I guess.”

“There’s a reason for that, but instead of boring you with that, what if I sit down and shut up and you can play some more of that hopeful-sounding stuff you were playing.”

Reed smiled. “Hopeful? I guess the words made the music lean that way. Come on in.”

Morris found his way to one of the battered old kitchen chairs near the biggest speakers, and Reed grabbed the Tele and sat down to play.

He had no idea he’d just begun the greatest friendship of his life, nor that the stranger he’d taken in would live out the rest of his long life on the farm he’d been passing for no reason except that was where the road took him.


Feet First

He looked down the cliff’s face to the water. It wasn’t the distance that concerned him; he’d gone into water from far higher than the 30 feet it looked to be.

No, what concerned him was the dark surface. It might mean deep water.

It might mean shallow water with a dark bottom.

Even deep water could have jagged rocks, old tree trunks, any manner of solid sharp debris.

If you have no choice but to go in, it doesn’t matter whether the water is deep or shallow, or so he told himself. What matters is that you go in feet first. An injury to one or both legs could be survived. Head injuries, out here in the middle of nowhere, probably not.

The first arrow hit the dirt close enough behind him that he heard it, felt a tiny shock in his feet. They would wait until they were close enough before loosing any more.

He leaped.

And as he went over the edge feet first, one foot snagged in the tangle of a tree root sticking out, flipping him completely, holding for less than an instant before he dropped again.

Head first.


The Monkey in Menswear

“The darker blue looks good with your eyes.” Jenna, back from checking the handbag sale, held a tie up with both hands, draping it across the bridge of my nose.

“Thank you. They’re not usually worn that close to the eyes but if it gets us out of here—”

“There! That’s him!”

The tip of the tie whipped my ear as my wife spun to see what nut was yelling behind us.

“This gentleman?” from the security guard standing next to Old Yeller (okay, young yeller, but that doesn’t flow the same.)

“That’s him.”

The guard took a step back and measured the guy with his eyes.

“Him. Right there. In the suit I know he didn’t buy here because we don’t sell anything that sharp.”

Jenna did semaphore with the tie. “What did my husband do?”

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The End

theaterHe sat, pretending to watch the garish musical on the big screen. Why anyone would present a so-called gala night featuring some forgotten and forgettable musical was a mystery to him.

Since he was here to catch a blackmailer, ignoring the noise and commotion onscreen was part of the task, and he was glad of it.

Also glad that he knew exactly who he was looking for. Easy to catch a criminal in the act when you know who they are. Follow them around a bit, do some discreet digging, and hey presto! Usable information leading to eyewitnessing their perfidy.

The light from the preposterous dance number bounced off a shiny silk suit. No, it wasn’t the suit.

It was a knife blade. And that was flashing toward the suit.

The suit worn by the blackmailer he was going to catch in the act.

Instead, he’d caught his murder, live and in person.


Hole in His Chest

His habit was to pop out of bed the instant he awoke. Today it felt good to lie there, eyes closed, sun glowing through the window onto the bed.

bedroom-dark-light“Know what I want to do today?”

The room was silent.

She’s still sleeping, he thought. Lazybones.

He rolled over to put his arms around her, knowing she’d open one eye, give him the grumpy face, then snuggle into his chest.

Her side of the bed was empty.

He opened his eyes.

Properly awake now, he threw himself down on her pillow.

His wounded animal cries made no difference. He’d done this every morning since he’d been able to sleep again, and it made no difference.

She was still dead.


Waking Up on the Couch I Can Hear Someone Upstairs

shadowy stairsI climb the stairs, avoiding the few creaky ones I’m used to avoiding coming down. Soft-soled shoes help, but I know whoever is up there will hear the slightest noise.

Every time they rummage, stumble, make any noise, I take an extra step. My slow climb is taking minutes that feel like hours.

I miss, or rather, don’t miss, one of the creaks. The noise above stops abruptly and a figure dressed in black appears at the top of the stairs.

My assailant, male I think, rushes me, probably trying to push me backward down the stairs.

I quash the instinct to fight back. Instead, I drop to my stomach, arms flailing above me.

I catch an ankle.

Then I catch a knee in the back as he tumbles over me.

By the time I turn and scamper back down, he’s lying motionless on the floor.

Before I even check for a pulse, I pull the ski mask off his head.

It’s more of a shock than when I first realized someone had broken into my home.

Finding that pulse matters now.


Over the Rooftops

alleyAs I slid down the rough surface of the shingles, shredding my pants while putting years’ of wear on my shoes in a single moment, I thought about the ridiculous depictions of rooftop pursuits in the movies. Leaping across flat rooftops, scaling peaks and running down the other side.

Nonsense.

I was determined not to let this guy get away, not because I was being paid for it (though of course, I was) but because he’d rubbed my nose in his last escape.

Still, my knees and hands were bleeding, my clothes were rags, my stomach was heaving and lungs were burning. I had to catch him, but quick, or give up.

I’m not the “die trying” type, thank you very much.

I slid off the edge of the sloped shingle nightmare and fell the short distance to the flat roof below. I’d seen it coming or I wouldn’t have slid down. Found my footing and ran to the other side.

It was too far to jump. Too far for me, anyway. So he was gone. Again.

Glanced down to see how far my fall would have been, and there he was, rag-dolled over a pile of someone’s junk in the alley.

There goes my dreams of capture and confession.

Then I heard him groan, and one leg moved.

The pile of junk I landed in was softer than his, because I went down intentionally.

It still hurt. But not as much as he did.


The Caravan at Alssikin

Trickles of sand crept into the boy’s clothes as he lay peering over the crest of the dune, down at the caravan below. He told himself he could ignore the sand just as he was ignoring the sweat, the heat, his hunger and thirst, his fear.

caravanLess than a mile to the east the caravan would pass through Alssikin, a narrow defile appropriately named for the long thin knife even young boys in his village carried. Only a thousand yards long, Alssikin was the right spot to launch an ambush, were a band of brigands so inclined.

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Perpetual Prey

canopyAs he scrambled through the underbrush the jagged tear in his leg soaked his boot and, worse, left a clear trail for the monster on his trail.

The same question circled his brain over and over: loop back and get behind the creature, or drive like a madman straight away from it?

His inability to decide stemmed from his unfamiliarity with the beast. Was it sentient, reasoning, a strategic foe, or simply a mad animal looking for a meal?

Pushing through the dense jungle since waking before dawn to the stench of the taloned thing behind him, he fought the mental fog brought on by lack of sleep. The animal had dogged his trail for a week, if his count of the days was right.

Precision wasn’t his strong suit.

Death was.

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Two People Meeting in a Bookstore

photo http://www.sxc.hu/photo/732128 by Muriel Miralles de Sawicki http://www.sxc.hu/profile/murielleBeing rude to people in the bookstore line was no way for Ellen to get back at her brother but she couldn’t help herself. For weeks now he’d been on her case about working in what he called “the dead zone” as if nobody went to book stores anymore. What did he think she did all day, watch soaps and eat bonbons? The store was busy right now. Where was Jason? Why didn’t he take a day off his precious college education and come see what really happened in a bookstore all day?

She’d asked him that when he called far too early this morning. He had to get to class, as if that was an answer.

“Excuse me.”

Jason vanished in a puff of smoke as the George Clooney type passing the register got her attention. She smiled, as she always did at the customers. Sometimes it was easier than others, right?

“How can I help you?”

He took a step closer and lowered his voice. “I need to find this book on site planning and Amazon wants a hundred bucks for it. Thought maybe this antique store would have a used copy cheaper.”

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