5 – Ingress

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The windows of the Emblem tattoo shop erupted in blinding brilliance. Ben and Wayne, the proprietors and, at that time, only occupants of the shop reacted as though a bomb had gone off. Wayne dropped face down behind the counter, wrapping his hands over head and neck. Ben fell backward and slid against a wall, clawing for traction. On the floor, he flipped onto hands and knees and crawled quickly toward the back offices.

“Peace be with you,” an angelic voice proclaimed.

Ben paused in his tracks and, without turning around, whispered, “And with you?”

“The hell is happening?” Wayne yelled. “Are we dead?”

“Oh,” the angelic voice said. “Sorry. Let me get the light.”

The original lighting in the shop was suddenly restored as the brilliance receded.

Ben turned, blinking rapidly and squinting as his eyes adjusted. A figure of a woman appeared to him, standing just inside the shop door. Flowing red hair framed a gentle face and settled upon muscular shoulders.

“Who…” he asked, “What are you?”

Wayne opened an eye and peeked at Ben, who was now rising to his feet. Wayne very slowly rose to peek over the counter at the mysterious newcomer.

“My name is Bubbliel. I am a businesswoman from the heavenly realm. I sell and trade collectables. None of that is why I am here.”

Wayne asked trepidatiously, “Why are you here?”

“I have come for your assistance in the heavenly realm.”

Ben and Wayne looked at each other, then back at Bubbliel. Ben asked, “Are you sure you’ve got the right guys? I mean, I’ve been told I sound like Edward Norton.”

“Who told you that?” Wayne asked.

Bubbliel identified them. “Ben and Wayne. Tattoo artists and proprietors of Emblem Tattoos, LLC.”

“Well, I am the artist,” Wayne corrected. “He’s more accountant than anything else, really.”

“Dude!” Ben scoffed.

“A friend of mine is in trouble,” Bubbliel said. “I mean, I wouldn’t call him a friend, per se. He’s a nuisance and a criminal, and I’m the one that got him in this mess. So, I suppose we’re enemies. But still, I need your help. He needs you.”

Ben shook his head, trying to clear it. “You need us to help you rescue a non-friend, more like an enemy, from a bind you got him into?”

“Yes,” Bubbliel said, “I need your help to get Drou out of the mess I’ve gotten him into.”

“Drou?” Wayne said, rising to his full height. “Yes! I recognize your voice.”

“You do?” Ben and Bubbliel said in unison.

“Yeah,” Wayne pointed a finger at her. “You are the ‘party on’ girl.”

“The what?” Bubbliel asked.

“Her?” Ben asked. “She’s the girl from your fever dream?”

“She is,” Wayne confirmed. “As soon as you said his name, I recognized your voice. Drou. Who is he?” Wayne pulled a folder from under the counter and flipped to his sketch of the elf-like demon. “Is this him?”

Bubbliel stepped up to the counter and looked at the sketch. “Yes. His nose is a bit less–”

“What the hell is happening?” Ben interrupted.

Wayne did not wait for an answer. “What do you know about the end of the universe?”

Bubbliel cleared her throat. “I know it is not why I am here. Drou needs your help. I am here to escort you both to the heavenly realm so you can save him.”

Ben interjected. “I think we all need to take a step back. Bubbly, I am going to set aside that you and Drought exist.”

“Bubbliel,” she corrected.

“Drou,” Wayne added.

“Whatever. I’m not going anywhere with anyone until I get answers about all of this. Is that clear?”

Bubbliel took a step back. She said to Ben, “You’re right. I’ve just barged in here unannounced and uninvited, assuming the two of you would be ready and eager to follow me to some unknown dimension to fulfill destinies you are very likely unaware of.”

Wayne and Ben again looked to one another, nodded, and Ben said, “Yeah, that about sums it up.”

“Okay,” Bubbliel said, choosing a seat in the lobby of the shop. “Ask me anything. I promise to tell you the truth.”

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4 – Memories

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Dr. Sewald bit into a sandwich purchased from the hospital cafeteria. His colleague, Tegan, sipped coffee across from him.

Tegan asked, “He was acting like an infant when he was admitted?”

Sewald nodded. “The hippocampus feed was even more bewildering.”

“Corrupted?”

Sewald shook his head. “Distorted, but not corrupted. Double-exposed, it turned out.”

“Double-exposure on a memory feed? Is that possible?”

“Only if the patient had two unique experiences at the same time.”

“How?”

“I’ve got some theories, but they venture into fantasy. Time travel or demon possession. Time travel would explain duplication of one mind, and possession would explain a second mind storing memories to the hippocampus.”

“Fantastical ideas, indeed.” Tegan poured sugar into his coffee. “The code was jumbled, right? Corrupt code from hippocampus feeds is common. How did you conclude the first-ever case of double exposure?”

“Maybe it’s not the first case. Other corruptions could have been misdiagnosed double exposures. One of the lab techs found the anomaly by chance. She copied down a segment of code, using two colors. She parsed each color into separate lines and I finally saw it. She applied an algorithm to the entire output, and two complete sets of code emerged.”

Tegan waved a hand as though he could swat away what he’d just heard like an annoying fly. “This is John Nash-level crazy. You know that, right?”

Dr. Sewald pulled two sheets of computer code from his attaché case, setting them side by side. “Take a look for yourself. Two seconds of hippocampus feed. Both from the same brain. Parsed from a single output using this new algorithm.”

“Both textbook cognitional code,” Tegan said after reviewing the structure on the pages. He carefully reviewed the content of each. “But these are not from the same mind.” Tegan pulled a pen from his pocket and underlined several lines of code on one page. “You see these? Classic markers of mature cognition. They are present in 99% of healthy adult hippocampus downloads.”

“The patient is in his early thirties. We’d expect those.”

Tegan circled a few lines of code on the second page. “These are equivalent cognition markers, but they are consistent with infancy.”  He drew boxes around other lines of code.

Dr. Sewald asked, “What about those?”

Tegan said. “These are complex abstractions. Infant minds aren’t capable of this level of philosophical thought. They don’t fit the cognition markers. Could these belong on the other page?”

Dr. Sewald’s brow furrowed. “Not the way the algorithm worked.”

“This needs to be reviewed further before any conclusions can be drawn from it. May I keep these for further review?”

Dr. Sewald shook his head and gathered his papers back into his attaché case. “I must get going.”

“Please, Sewald,” Tegan pleaded. “Don’t jump to any conclusions.”

Dr. Sewald stood. “Your observation of the two minds rules out time travel.”

“I guess that leaves possession,” Tegan said without conviction. “If that’s the case, whatever possessed this man… this was its first time being human.”

3 – Trading Cards

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Bubbliel pulled a box from under the counter. “If you want to go cheap, check out these filler cards. They’re all very common.”

Bubbliel was tall with broad shoulders and facial features that could be as vicious as they were gentle. She was easy going and pleasant in conversation, but everyone knew she was among the toughest angels.

Drou sighed. “You’ve misunderstood me. When I said the cards in the case were out of my range, I meant they were beneath it. I’ve got character cards all rarer and stronger than anything you’ve got here.”

Drou was a wiry, elf-like demon whose intimidation factor was further diminished by his coiled posture. While unfamiliar folk might find his glare intimidating, everyone else wrote him off as nothing more than a nuisance.

Bubbliel shrugged and stowed the box. “The cards in the case are the cards I am selling.”

“But they don’t include all the competitive cards you own.”

Bubbliel locked the glass case. “If you want to see my best cards, Drou, you will need to challenge me at the table. I am there three days a week.”

Drou bit his lip and scanned the case one last time. “Alright,” he told her.

Drou left Bubbliel’s shop without another word. He had seen the golden box she brought to the table. Her best cards were in that box, and no competitor had yet laid eyes on them. Drou did not simply want to see them in combat. He wanted them.

His chances to take them were few. She stood over the locked safe while at the shop, and had a hand on them when playing. Drou figured his best shot was to break into her shop while she slept.

That night, the lock on the front door took seconds to pick. Finding the safe under the counter took maybe another minute. The lock on the safe was cracked before Drou thought to wipe the drool from his chin.

Drou peeled back the lid of the golden box to reveal two cards. Eyes darting back and forth, he quickly absorbed the details of each. “Humans? What the hell is this?” His jaw dropped and his heart sank. “Artists? Not even warriors! This can’t be right.”

“Breaking and entering are never right, Drou!”

Suddenly illuminated, Drou spun around, dropping the cards and cowering. Bubbliel stood over him, wings stretched from one side of the shop to the other.

“I’m sorry,” Drou pleaded. “I had to see them. I had to have the rarest cards. But these…”

Retracting her wings and kneeling, Bubbliel returned her cards to the safe. “They are the two rarest cards in the game, Drou. A tightly kept secret coveted by all who play.”

“They can’t be,” Drou protested. “There is no way two human tattoo artists are the champions of the game! There’s nothing special about them. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“I wouldn’t expect it to,” Bubbliel said as she tossed Drou from her shop. “Not to you.”

2 – Oh, What A Day!

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“What I remember is too crazy to be real. I am not delusional. I do not think it is some sort of spiritual vision or prophecy. It must be a dream. A jumble of subconscious Rorschach splatters twisted from the ink poured out of recent events and etched into the pale flesh of my psyche.

“I was in the back office of the shop. Feet crossed on the desk and sketch pad balanced on my legs. On the page an elf-like creature perched on a precipice leered down at me.

“I was pleased with the image, sure this was going to be a killer tattoo.

“I remember hoping the customer agreed, which is a significant clue this was a dream. I knew I was fulfilling a customer order, but I had no idea who my customer was. I could not picture his or her face, or any detail about them for that matter.

“At that moment, staring at those venomous eyes, the first chords of that song started. The song about the end of the world. Figuring you had put it on the shop radio as some sort of joke, I set the sketch pad down and dropped my legs from the desk, expecting to get up and laugh with you out front about the song.

“My feet did not hit the floor. They did not hit anything. Swinging under me, they yanked my ass of the chair and sent me flipping face first, head over feet.

“A blinding light preceded complete blackness. Nothing visual indicated I was moving, but my inner ear spun radically. I was still tumbling forward through oblivion.

“Though I could not see, I could clearly hear. That song still played on, but with one exception. It was playing in reverse.

“At one point, I became convinced I heard the artist sing, ‘Then you’ll be the one who’d say, “Oh, what a day!”’

“Sensical in only that way a dream can be, I understood then I had somehow survived the end of the universe. In vast nothingness, I became acutely aware of entities all around me. People popping Champagne bottles and confetti poppers. Laughing and celebrating. Dancing to this apropos song conversely voicing their glee over the end of it all.

“Then one voice contended with the party in progress. Everyone was shushed, instructed to quiet down for a moment. The record scratched to a halt. The popping and the voices fell away, and I rolled over in blind silence until that party-fouling voice said about me, ‘Look there. One of them is still here.’

“A different partygoer leaned in close to me. Addressing me only inches from my face, she said, ‘Drou, you damned fool. What are you doing in that meat suit?’ Then, backing away, she said to the others, ‘Party on, y’all. It’s just Drou with his head stuck up the ass of a mortal.’”

1 – The Moon

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Three generations sat in Ben’s kitchen, awakened at 3am by the baby crying. Ben father was feeding Ben’s son from a bottle. Ben pulled his phone from his pocket, read an official warning not to look at the moon tonight, and ignored it from the time being to focus on the ongoing conversation with his dad.

“When I was growing up,” Ben told his father, “sex education focused on abstinence. I remember one teacher telling us sex would risk not only our lives, but the lives of our wives and children.”

“That’s our fault,” his father said. “For decades, we were making love as if sex could stop wars. We weren’t using protection like we should have. We knew about venereal diseases, but we had no idea how nasty it was all going to get.”

“But all that sex was rebellious, right?” Ben asked. “The official messaging was still conservative. Still favoring purity and abstinence, even with all the free love going around?”

“Oh, yeah,” his father affirmed. “Married couples on television still slept in separate beds. Our rebellion didn’t stop war, and it spread AIDS and other diseases like wildfire.”

“Does that mean you agreed with teaching abstinence to my generation?”

Ben’s father shook his head. “Not at all. We did not get into space by abstaining from danger. Today, we have vaccinations, cancer treatments, self-driving cars, and renewal energy. And to get here we had to keep experimenting in spite of the risks.”

“That’s a good point.” Ben tapped the screen of his phone and flipped through his social media feed for a minute.  “What do we do in response to this?”

“What’s that?” his father asked, unaware of the messages Ben was questioning.

“Social media is blowing up with rave reviews about the night sky. They are unanimously calling it a must-see. But the government has issued a strict warning not to look at the moon tonight. Should I head the warning, or follow the crowd? And what about my son? Would we be negligent or abusive if we took him out to see the sky tonight?”

“Sex was never the threat,” his father said. “Sexually transmitted diseases are the threat. Likewise, the night sky is not a threat, right? Only the moon is to be avoided.”

“Alright. But how do you look at the sky without seeing the moon? We don’t exactly have moon-blocking eye condoms.”

Ben father chuckled. “We can protect ourselves and this little guy against the identified threat while still enjoying the beautiful sight.”

“How?” Ben asked.

Ben’s dad looked at the oven. Ben followed his gaze and saw the time in bright red. It was 3am.

His dad asked, “When was the moon last full?”

Ben quickly looked up the moon’s phases on his phone. “It looks like it was full about three weeks ago, and will be full again next week.”

“We are safe, then. The moon has set. Let’s go check out this ‘must-see’ night. What do you say?”

Prompts

Of The Day – 4 – Interstitial

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Jared slid the blocky cassette into the VCR and stepped back. The gears moved in the black box. He and Garrett stared at the snow crackling on the bulbous television screen in eager anticipation. The grinding gears settled into a soft whir, but nothing changed about the onscreen snow.

Jared shrugged. “I can’t ever figure these things out.”

Garrett reached around Jared and pressed three buttons on the side of the television. An image of a room replaced the snow. A single table flanked by metal chairs occupied the small space. One chair held Ben Carlton, who was leaning back on the chair’s hind legs and rubbing his forehead with one hand. For the moment, the other chair remained empty.

“How’s your head?” Agent Torello stepped into the frame, set a paper cup on the table in front of Ben, and then sat across from him. While Ben sat forward and took a sip from the cup, Torello opened a manila file and and flipped the top page up to review text on underneath.

“Doctors gave me two pills and an ice pack. They said I’ll be fine.”

“Not bad for a guy shot in the face less than an hour. Where’s the ice pack?”

“Melted.” Ben set the cup down. “What am I doing here?”

“You know what you’re doing here. Garrett Fitzgerald.”

“What about him?”

Torello slapped the table with the palm of his hand. The paper cup bounced and would have toppled over if Ben had not caught it.

“Don’t play stupid,” Torello said. “We know you’re in deep with Fitzgerald. You owe him twenty thousand dollars, and he’s eager to collect. We know—”

Ben cut Torello off. “I know what you know.” He glanced up at the camera. His brow furrowed. “You’re the Federal Bureau of Investigation. I’m a jackass who made a bad deal with a terrible guy. If a man in your position needs a man in my position to give him information on Garrett Fitzgerald, then maybe I’m not the stupid one in this room.”

Torello also glanced at the camera, but he smiled at the lens. “You owe more than money to Fitzgerald. Or, at least he believes you owe him more than money. You’re in deeper than money can buy, and he’s looking to leverage you for a payout that would cover the failed investment in you and fund a major expansion to his operation.”

“Stop,” Ben begged. “Please.”

“Why the change of heart? You were so eager to tell us about all of this–”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Sure you do. You were in here just last week running your mouth. But today your lips are sealed. Why?”

“That’s not true.” Ben looked up at the camera again. “That’s not true. I didn’t tell these guys anything. I’ve never been in here before.”

Torello stood and stepped up to the camera. His hand reached up, and the image went black.

Garrett turned to Jared, taking his eyes from the television screen for the first time since the video started. “Is that it?”

“That’s all there is. Looked like he turned off the camera. The audio stops there, too. That’s all we’ve got. It was recorded an hour or so ago. I brought it straight over.”

Garrett rubbed his chin. “We’ve got Torello indicting Ben as the snitch, and we’ve got Ben denying it directly to the camera as if he knew I was going to see this.”

“I was hoping there was more.”

“It tells us plenty.”

“It does? Which of them do you believe?”

“Neither. They were both lying, but with different intentions.”

“I don’t follow. If Torello is lying, then Ben’s not the snitch. If Ben is lying, he is the snitch. I don’t get how both could be wrong.”

“Ben might be the snitch, but he wasn’t the source of the information Torello cited. Likewise, Ben might not be the snitch, but he was in that room the week before.”

“How do you know?”

“It doesn’t matter, but it should be easy enough to prove. You can get the tapes from last week just as you got these. Bring them to me as soon as you do.”

“That doesn’t sound easy.”

Garrett glared at Jared. “Excuse me?”

“It doesn’t sound easy to get last week’s tapes. This tape was easy to get because we watched Ben go into the room, and we watched him come out. We knew the exact times for the footage we wanted, and which tape to pull. But we don’t know when he was in there last week. We also don’t know which room they talked to him in. Finding a relevant recording is going to take time.”

“How long?”

“Too long to be worth it. Unless you desperately need to know what Ben told the Feds, I would recommend a different approach.”

“Where is Ben Carlton?”

“He is at the machine shop with the boys. They won’t hurt him until you show up or send different orders.”

“Is the car ready?”

“Gassed up and ready to go as soon as you are.”

Garrett slid open the lower drawer of his desk and pulled out a leather roll. “Then let’s get a move on.”

At the door, Garrett let Felix know he wouldn’t be back for the evening. “I want you to drive Bunny to her apartment tonight. Stay with her. Keep her safe.” Garrett slid five one-hundred dollar bills into Felix’s shirt pocket. “Can you do that for me?”

“Of course, sir.” The corner of Felix’s mouth curled up, but quickly flattened before forming a grin. Garrett figured Felix anticipated a sexual reward from the damsel in distress.

Garrett patted the man’s chest. “Thank you. I know you won’t let me down.”

In the alley where Garrett shot Ben Carlton in the face, Jared held the back door of a black SUV open for his employer, then slid into the driver seat. He selected the address from the list on his onboard navigation program before pulling out of the alley.

Of The Day – 3 – Internecine

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Garrett slammed his office door, paced the room four times, filled a tumbler with Scotch and emptied it down his throat before throwing the empty glass against the far wall.

Jared opened a closet and withdrew a broom and dustpan.

“Leave it. I’ll clean it up. Get the boys. Bring that son-of-a-bitch to me.”

“Who? Ben?”

“Yes. Who the hell else would I want?”

“Pronouns. You’ve called Torello a son-of-a-bitch plenty. Thought there was a chance you meant Torello.”

Garrett massaged the soft flesh below his eyes. “I meant Ben. Bring Ben to me.”

“I think he’s still in custody.”

“Of course he is,” Garrett spat, slumping into his desk chair and steepling his fingers under his nose. “Follow them and pick him up as soon as they cut him loose. I don’t want him talking to anyone but me once he’s free.”

Jared set the broom and dustpan back into the closet and was opening the office door when Garrett added, “Oh, and invite Bunny in here. I could use some help unwinding.”

After Jared left, Garrett pulled a mirror from the top desk drawer. Three lines of white powder were cut across the glass. He set the mirror on the desk and stared at his reflection. The white lines cut across his face reminded him of the scars crossing his father’s face. The heavy bags and crow’s feet framing his eyes added to the resemblance.

A knock at the door. A familiar rap. Felix, the evening sentry, poked his head in and announced Bunny’s arrival.

Bunny came in and dropped her robe over one of the chairs facing Garrett’s desk, leaving her wearing nothing but a blue G-string. She rubbed her exposed nipples as she seductively sauntered around the desk where she kneeled down on the floor at Garrett’s feet and started unbuttoning his pants.

Garrett glared up at Felix, who was staring in from his perch at the door. “Shut the door already.”

Felix nodded and obliged.

Hearing the door close, Bunny stopped messing with Garrett’s pants. The top button was undone, but she hadn’t dropped the zipper. She stood, walked around the desk without a hint of the sexiness she’d exhibited a moment before.

She froze for a moment, staring at the broken glass on the floor. “Asshole,” she said, plopping into the chair and tossing her bare feet up onto the desk.

“What’s with the name calling?” Garrett buttoned his pants and slid the mirror back into his desk drawer.

“You’re breaking glasses before inviting me in here barefoot. I could have cut myself.”

Garrett reached out and caressed one of her bare feet. The reach was awkward, though, so he did not do it for long. He slapped her feet, resulting in her removing them, folding them underneath her instead. “I didn’t tell you to prance around this place barefoot. Where are your shoes? You could get any number of nasty diseases from the floor in the club.”

“Forget about it,” Bunny said, crossing her arms over her bare breasts. “What went down with Ben in the alley?”

“Federal sgents closed in. They were looking to put me away for murder.”

“Who’d you kill?”

“Ben Carlton.”

“Ben who just tried to shove his fingers—”

“Yep.”

“He’s dead? You killed him?”

“No, I didn’t kill him. I used one of my paint guns. Capped him right between the eyes.”

“You shot him in the face? Christ, you’re lucky you didn’t put his eye out.”

“It didn’t happen. He spent a few minutes unconscious, and he’ll just have a nasty welt for a few weeks. Otherwise, he’s fine.”

“If you’d have shot his eye out—”

“I didn’t. Drop it. He’ll be alright.”

“So, what happened with the Feds? They just let you go?”

“Within minutes. It was Special Agent Torello. I figured he’d take me in on a 24-hour hold and grill me for the night. But, just a few minutes after Ben woke up, he released me.”

Bunny rubbed her chin and stared at the shattered glass on the floor by the wall. She turned her eyes back to Garrett; brow furrowed. “Do you think they called him?” Garrett did not need her to clarify who they were. They were a common topic of conversation whenever the two had a confident moment.

“I don’t know,” Garrett admitted. “I doubt it. I wasn’t in any real danger. Procedure dictates they’ll make a call if one of us is in dire need, but not a moment before. Unless they saw something I didn’t, or interpreted the gun pointed at my face as something more than an empty threat, I can’t imagine this situation warranted a call.”

“Wait. What gun was pointed at your face?”

“Oh, that was nothing. Some peon agent in the back of the van got riled up and drew his weapon on me.”

“Torello did nothing?”

“He was outside. Came in to find the gun in my face. Called the agent out and the situation ended. I promise you, it was an empty threat. That’s all.”

Garrett got up, kissed Bunny on the forehead, and swept up the glass with the broom and dustpan Jared had stowed in the closet.

“Where’s Ben now?” Bunny asked.

“He was being loaded into an ambulance last I saw. He is probably at County getting checked.”

“You send anyone to get him?”

“Jared and the boys are headed out there right now.”

“The Feds will be with him.”

“Of course they will. They’ll be debriefing him following their little sting operation gone south.”

“You think Ben was ratting on you to the Feds?”

“Of course he was. I shot him in the head, and the FBI closed in around me while the gun was still smoking. They were watching from the shadows, listening through the wire taped to his chest.”

“Ben was wired? You saw it?”

Garrett sighed and pulled two more tumblers from his liquor cabinet. “No. But that’s the only story that makes sense.

Bunny saw the glasses Garrett was preparing. “None for me, thanks.” She stood and pulled her robe over her shoulders. “I’ve got to get back out there, anyway.” She stepped up to Garrett and kissed his cheek as she took the tumblers from his hands and set them down on the wet bar. “If Ben was ratting on us to the Feds, we’d know about it. You know that as well as I do. I’m glad you didn’t shoot his eye out, and I’m glad Torello let you go, even if his actions don’t make any sense at this point. You and I need to remember why we’re here. Keep your mind clear, and your attention on the goal. We’ll finish this and be home before we know it.”

Garrett wrapped his arms around her and lowered his lips so his breath would tickle her ear. “There is not another soul I would rather be on this mission with.”

Garrett leaned against the wet bar and watched Bunny walk to the door, switch into performance mode, pull the door open, rub her bottom lip with a delicate finger and smile at Felix, and then saunter down the hall to the dressing room. Felix winked at Garrett as he reached back and pulled the door closed.

Garrett poured himself a drink and considered Bunny’s statements about Ben. He had no evidence Ben was the rat. He didn’t have any evidence of a rat at this point. He just had a pesky FBI agent who stepped out of the shadows.

Garrett threw back his second drink of the hour and returned to his desk. He had a rat to deal with.

Of The Day – 2 – Supercilious

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“You are surrounded by the FBI. Drop your weapon and put your hands behind your head.” The voice echoed through the alley. Garrett’s bouncer, Jared, started reaching behind his back, but the distinctive sound of a pump action being cycled deterred him from moving any further.

Figures in blue windbreakers emerged from the shadows wielding various firearms. Garrett counted two pump action shotguns and three government-issue pistols pointed at him. He was sure their were at least twice that many still perched in the shadows behind them.

Garrett dropped the gun. It clacked against the concrete. Several of the emerging agents ducked and stepped back quickly before regaining their composure. Garrett lifted his hands behind his head.

“What the hell,” the agent cuffing Garrett’s wrists exclaimed. “Don’t ever drop a gun you’ve just fired. It could go off. Are you insane?”

A female agent approached Jared. The bouncer looked at Garrett for guidance, finding a nod encouraging him to cooperate. He did not resist as the agent slapped on restraints.

Garrett smiled and glanced down at Ben. His head was lying in a puddle. His tongue protruded from his gaping mouth. A red blotch on his forehead appeared black in the alley’s dim light. “What are you arresting me for, Special Agent James Torello of the FBI?”

A gray-haired man stepped between Garrett and Ben. He looked from the man on the ground to the man now in his custody. “Murder. Premeditated. First-degree.”

Garrett chuckled.

“Do you think this is funny?” The agent behind Garrett asked, yanking his arms back violently. Garrett winced but said nothing.

“I’ll take it from here. Assist with Dr. Jekyll over there.” He nodded to the female officer leading Jared down the alley.

“Sure thing, sir.” The agent released Garrett’s arms and jogged down the alley after the other agent and her detainee.

“I believe you meant to call him Mr. Hyde, Special Agent Torello,” Garrett said to the gray-haired man taking hold of his arm. “Dr. Jekyll is the puny fool playing God. Mr. Hyde was the brute smashing skulls.”

Torello led Garret down the alley in the same direction the others had taken Jared. As he approached the end of the alley, he saw two vans and an ambulance. The other agents were pushing Jared into one of the vans. Torello pushed Garrett toward the other van.

“Is that what he was doing when you shot Ben Carlton? Was he smashing the poor guy’s skull?”

Garrett shook his head. “I don’t believe I’ve been read my rights, Special Agent. Perhaps you’re slipping in your old age.”

Torello growled and pushed Garrett into the back of the van, where two other officers attached his handcuffs to a hook protruding from his seat. Garrett grinned as Torello recited his Miranda rights. He was almost finished when an agent stepped up behind his boss and announced they had a problem.

“What?” Torello asked, looking at the agent’s red-tipped fingers being held up for his inspection.

“Paint, sir. Carlton’s got a nasty welt on his forehead, but he’s alive. Fitzgerald here shot him with a paint gun.”

Garrett Fitzgerald grinned even wider at Torello, showing his remarkably white teeth.

“God damn it,” Torello spat as he slammed the doors of the van closed.

The two agents in the van with Garrett sat on the bench across from him. One looked older than Torello. He had to be looking forward to retirement from the bureau in the next year or two. The other was young. Likely graduated a few years back, still eager to fire his gun in the line of duty. Garrett read the names stenciled to the breasts of their windbreakers. “Montgomery and Dukes,” he said. “Either of you boys got a smoke?”

“Shut your mouth,” the older agent, Dukes, spat.

“Unless you’ve got something self-incriminating to share with us,” Montgomery added. “I recommend you exercise your right to remain silent.”

Garrett pinched his lips together and nodded. “Makes sense. You boys should want to just sit all quiet-like while Torello calls all the shots out there.” Garrett said. He turned his focus on the older of the two. “Dukes, you don’t look any younger than Torello. Why aren’t you the one leading this investigation? What’s the matter with you? Are you just a career loser, or did Torello steal your job?”

Dukes pulled his weapon from the holster on his hip and pointed the barrel between Garrett’s eyes. “Say another word, and we’ll have ourselves an accident. Am I clear?”

Garrett glanced from Dukes to Montgomery. He could tell the younger man was uncomfortable with his partner’s short fuse, but was not willing to get in his partner’s way. This dichotomy was something he could exploit. He was happy to have met these two, though he was not yet sure how this chance meeting would serve his needs in the near future.

Garrett leaned back against the side of the van. “Clear as a bell,” he said.

A few minutes later, Torello yanked the rear doors open, seemingly surprised to find Duke’s weapon drawn on his detainee. “What the hell is going on in here?” Dukes lowered the weapon and holstered it. “Don’t answer that. I don’t care. Uncuff him. Let him go. We’ve got nothing to hold him on.”

“We can’t even take him in on assault charges?” Montgomery asked while reaching behind Garrett and unhooking the cuffs from the seat. “Even if Carlton is alive, it looked like they thrashed him pretty hard.”

“Even if the idiot wanted to press charges, assault isn’t enough to put Fitzgerald away. His lawyer would have him out in an hour, and we’d be stuck with a pile of paperwork just for bringing him in. We’re letting him go… for now.”

Dukes slammed a fist into the side of the van.

Montgomery asked, “So, that’s it?”

“That’s it.”

Torello stepped aside as Garrett ducked out of the van. The two men stood shoulder-to-shoulder, each looking in opposite directions.

Garrett looked at Ben Carlton on a gurney being lifting into an ambulance while an EMT held an ice pack against his forehead. He asked Torello, “Did the patsy know you were sending him to his death when you sent him to lure me out?”

Torello fumed. He pointed a finger at Garrett’s smug grin. “This isn’t over, you son of a bitch.”

“I wonder if he’ll still rat for you now that he knows how expendable he is. Maybe I’ll offer him a position he can actually benefit from.” Garrett turned to Torello and shook his head. “Better luck next time, Special Agent.”

Garrett wondered how many of the federal agents stared at their backs as he and Jared walked freely back into the club.

Of The Day – 1 – Parapraxis

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Garrett grinned and closed his eyes. Bunny rubbed her nose gently against his. Her lavender lotion caressed his nostrils. He slipped a dollar bill into her G-string and followed her breasts as she slid gracefully from him and teased a patron across the table.

“This club is really great. Thanks for letting me in,” Ben called to Garrett over the blaring music. “I heard you also have an amazing house.” Though they were sitting right next to one another, Garrett could hardly hear him. He liked the music loud. The goal was to watch the girls, not chat with the bum at your side.

Garrett nodded and lifted one corner of his mouth in a cocky grin. “It’s a beauty. I’ve worked hard to earn it. Fifteen rooms. Four bathrooms. A shower in one bathroom has three heads and room for five people. Two have Jacuzzi tubs. That’s not counting the one by the pool. The view from the deck overlooks the entire valley. My six-car garage is packed with angels like my 1965 Mustang Fastback with a 500 horsepower v8. It’s my castle; my slice of heaven.”

“That sounds beautiful, man. I’d love to come by and check it out one of these days.”

Bunny slid away from the patron across the table with a few more bills stuffed in her panties. She knelt down in front of Ben, slid her fingers through his hair and pulled his face toward her gyrating pelvis.

Suddenly she pushed him back, slapped his face, and slid quickly over toward Garrett.

“What happened?” Garrett asked.

“She just freaked out on me!” Ben yelled and pointed accusingly at Bunny.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Garrett said to Ben, then turned sympathetically to Bunny. “What happened?”

Bunny wrapped an arm around Garrett’s neck and clung to him as she explained, “He reached under my leg and tried to stick his fingers—“ Garrett’s eyes narrowed and settled on Ben like a hawk targeting a field mouse as he listened to the rest of Bunny’s explanation. He gave the dancer a kiss on the cheek and told her to take a few minutes in the dressing room to calm down. He promised Ben would not be here when she returned.

“But—“ Ben started. Garrett cut him off by raising the palm of his hand between them. He nodded to a bouncer now standing behind Ben. Meaty paws clamped down on Ben’s shoulders. The three walked to the back door without further incident. Garrett was happy to see his girls effectively distract the patron’s of the club while he took out the trash.

Out in the alley, the goon’s meaty paws slammed down on Ben like hammers. He cried out as his head slammed against a trashcan and he crumbled into a pool of piss and vomit.

“What the hell do you think you were doing? Who gave you permission to touch my girl?” Garrett slid black leather gloves over his cold fingers.

“She grabbed me and pulled me toward her.” Ben’s words were slurred; muffled by the pool of blood filling his mouth from holes where teeth had been. “Come on, man. She was stuffing my face in it. She was practically begging me.”

“It’s a strip club. You can look, but you can’t touch.”

“I’m sorry. I didn’t know.”

“You didn’t know?” Garrett shook his head and looked at the bouncer lifting Ben back up to his feet. “He didn’t know.”

The goon chuckled, but remained mute.

Garrett stepped up to Ben and tapped his cheek with an open palm. “It’s a strip club, you ass. It’s assumed.”

“I’m sorry, Garrett. You know I’d never do anything to disrespect you. I got carried away. I thought she was inviting me. I thought she wanted it.”

Garrett stepped back and unbuttoned his coat. The bouncer punched Ben in the side of the head, sending the broken man sprawling back to the ground.

“You were talking about my house,” Garrett said. “Talking about wanting to come over. Wanting to swim in my pool and sit in my cars. Is that what you were saying in there?” Garrett slid a pistol and silencer from behind his back.

“Oh, Jesus. No. Please. I’m sorry.” Ben threw a hand in front of his face as if he could stop a bullet. Garrett twisted the silencer into place at the end of the barrel and pulled back the slide to chamber a round.

“Explain it to me before you go. Explain to me why I would ever possibly want a stank-ass bum who owes me twenty large to taint my pool with his funk? What in the hell would compel me to stain the seats of my cars with filth like you?” Garrett pointed the gun at Ben’s lifted palm. “And how could anyone possibly think that a beautiful girl would want your fingers—?“

Ben cried and begged for his life, profusely apologizing but never offering answers to Garrett’s questions.

“I guess it doesn’t matter,” Garrett shrugged, lowering the gun.

Ben froze, silent after one last sniffle. He lowered his hand slowly, looking past it, appearing confused about Garrett’s last statement. Garrett was notorious for ruthless violence. He knew Ben was aware of his reputation. Ben looked as if he was actually starting to believe he could be on his side of Garrett’s gun and live to tell about it.

“It doesn’t matter?” Ben asked.

Garrett shook his head. “No, it doesn’t matter whether you answer me or not. The questions were rhetorical.”

Garrett pointed the gun at Ben’s forehead and fired a single round.

Munificence

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Luis rubbed his chin and glanced from face to face in the line of kids waiting to be picked for his kickball team. His options were diverse. The largest kids had already been picked for each team. The set that remained were the smaller, faster assets and the slower, less coordinated liabilities that wanted to be accepted but would always resent being picked last for either team.

Luis pointed at Gwen, the fastest runner in his class. She bounced and clapped as she stepped over to join the team. Hector, the other team captain, promptly picked Dietrich, a wiry kid with lightning fast reflexes.

Once the teams were compiled, Luis ended up with one more player than Hector. He had picked first, and had been stuck with Nick as the last player on the line. Nick was a math whiz and had helped Luis countless times in the classroom, but his thin limbs and clumsiness made him the biggest liability on the kickball field.

“You’re going to have to cut a player,” Hector yelled from his team huddle.

Luis looked across the faces of his teammates. Some were smiling confidently, already whispering strategy and excitement to fellow teammates, believing there was no chance they would get cut. The weaker players kicked the dirt at their feet, nervous they wouldn’t get to play today.

Something caught Luis’s eye behind his team. In the distant field of the school yard, at the base of an ancient oak tree, he saw the silhouette of a classmate named Guss who never came over to play team games. Guss spent every lunch break sitting beneath that tree alone while the other kids gathered in groups to swing or climb or kick balls for meaningless points. No one ever went over to Guss because he stood out in all the wrong ways. He rarely showered or changed his thrift store clothes. His breath reeked of decay. His hair was unkept. Anyone who had ever had the misfortune of talking to Guss reported that he said the strangest things and mumbled senselessly to himself. Sitting alone under an oak tree, separated from the relentless criticism of his peers, was perhaps the most comfort place in the world for a kid like Guss. If he was not an introvert by design, his inability to mesh with the rest of the school had most certainly conditioned him into one.

“Come on, twerp,” Hector taunted. “Drop a player and let’s get this game going already.”

Luis looked back at his team, finding them expectantly awaiting his decision.

“Nick, you are an intelligent and calculated thinker,” Luis said. He cringed as Nick groaned and stepped away from the pack. “That’s why I want you to take over as the team captain for me. I will sit this one out.”

“What? Are you serious? Come on, Luis. Don’t abandon us. Don’t make the brain our captain. We need you to win this.”

Luis put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “I know you are going to do great out there.”

Team members kept grumbling as Luis scooped up his backpack and started toward the ancient oak tree. He smiled, remembering the excitement beaming from Nick’s face.

At the base of the oak tree, Luis stood a few feet in front of Guss. The outcast was mumbling to himself and waving two large acorns in front of his face. He wiggled one while speaking softly in a deep voice, then wiggled the other while replying in a slightly higher tone. After a few exchanges of dialogue between the acorns, Guss stopped and stared up at Luis. His expression seemed to silently beg Luis not to torment him.

Luis knelt down and set his backpack on the ground in front of him. He reached inside, rummaging around looking for something. He lifted two vibrantly colored action figures from the bag and extended them toward Guss, who suspiciously glanced from the coveted toys to their grinning owner.

“I haven’t played with these in a while,” Luis explained. “I was hoping you would trade me. I’ll give you my action figures for your two acorns.”

Guss looked at the ground around the base of the tree where dozens of acorns exactly like the two he held had fallen. “You can have any acorns you want. Why do you want mine?”

Luis sighed. “It’s not that I want your acorns. That’s not what I meant. I want to give you these action figures. I should have just said that to begin with. I just thought you would hesitate to accept a free gift from a stranger, so I offered to trade. That was dumb, and I’m sorry. Here, please have these as gifts.”

Guss again glanced from Luis to the toys in his hands. Then, he turned to look over his shoulder at the yard full of children enjoying their lunch break. “You can give those toys to your friends. Why are you here?”

“You were the first person I thought of.” Guss did not reach to take the gift, so Luis set the two action figures against the base of the tree. “I’ll just leave them here. If you want them, they are yours. If you don’t, I’m sure some squirrel will come by and take them.”

Guss looked down at his acorns, wiggling one and mumbling in a deep voice.

Luis stood and carried his bag back to the sidelines of the kickball field to cheer on his team.