“But there’s no way it can be done,” Lauren said through the spacesuit intercom. “We’ve spent so long on it that I can’t perceive it being done.”
Thomas agreed. He woke to an unfinished job for the last two years straight. When he went through his mental list, however, nothing seemed out of place. The air producers worked. The gravity generators operational. The base was properly sealed. There was only one way to know for sure.
For the first time, Thomas took off his helmet in the base and breathed the air.
“Well you better believe it,” he said with relief. “As of today, we’re officially the first two residents of Mars. Everything’s operational.”
Lauren removed her own helmet. She took some suspicious breaths. “Well, my head hasn’t exploded. So you must be right.”
“Then I suppose there’s nothing more to do than to call home–”
From the inner airlock that lead to Mars, a knock came.
Lauren and Thomas exchanged a look.
“Nobody came with the last supply shuttle, right?” Thomas said.
Lauren shook her head.
“So who was that?”
Lauren simply stared at the airlock.
Thomas didn’t believe in monsters, and serial killers had to have a huge ambitious streak to commit murder on Mars without a spacesuit. More worrying was the idea that the knocking was the structure around the airlock falling apart. Wearing his helmet again, he crossed to it and pressed the open button.
It revealed two green-skinned aliens, big smiles on their faces and what looked like miniature trumpets for ears. As soon as the door opened, they both waved.
“Ah, hello there!” said a female-sounding alien. She thrust a bouquet of strange-looking plants akin to miniature pool noodles into Thomas’ hands. “Good to see you! We let ourselves in through the outer airlock. Hope you don’t mind. I’m Zib, and this is Xom.”
“Hello,” Xom said with a male-sounding voice, shaking Thomas’ hand with a slightly rubbery one of his own. “Pleasure to see you. Hope you like it here.”
“So this is your place!” Zib said, walking in. “I so wanted to come and help, but Xom kept saying, ‘no, no! They can do it by themselves, we can’t be nosy neighbours!’. And now you’re all finished!”
“We were wondering when you’d arrive,” Xom said. “Studying Earth from afar. Learning your languages, how you lived, all your customs. It was only a matter of time until you visited, and blow us down, here you are.”
“Well, if we knew aliens lived here, we would have come sooner,” Lauren said. “None of our scans of the planet revealed advanced life.”
“Of course it didn’t,” Xom said.”We made sure to block those. Nosy neighbours peeking into our lives, never good.”
“Yet you studied us freely without our permission.”
Xom winced. “It was, uh…good neighbour practice. Neighbourhood Watch and all that. Anyway, set yourselves down, we’ll sort everything out for you.”
“But–” Lauren began, but she didn’t get much farther. The pair of humans were already being hustled to the nearby sofa and sat down upon it, as the aliens went about sorting out the base for Mars life.
“These Earth flowers are nice,” Xom said, running fingers through a vase of fake ones. “You’ll find that Mars tubes will grow without oxygen or sunlight. A lot of us don’t need those, you know.”
“Mars tubes?” Thomas asked.
“Yeah, the bouquet.”
Thomas looked at his handful of ‘flowers’. It made sense why he was gifted what looked like oversized spaghetti for a present; it was probably the nicest-looking flower that grew natively on Mars.
“Where do you keep your food?” Zib said, her voice coming from the kitchen, punctuated with cupboards opening and closing. “I’ll put dinner on.”
“Oh, ” Thomas said. “No, it’s fine, really–”
“No, no, stay seated. If you’re making a new life on Mars, it’s only natural we show you some traditional Mars hospitality. Oh, I see you have some dishes that need cleaning too.”
“It’s fine, it’s fine! You’ve spent the last two years making the place, it’s about time you put your feet up.”
At that moment, a tuneful beeping sound filled the base.
“Ah! Xom said, crossing the room to the ringing phone. “You two stay seated, I’ll handle this. Always wanted to talk on an Earth-based phone.”
“Ah, but,” Thomas began nervously. “That’s the Head of the Mars Expedition wanting his report, I’ll take it–”
Xom had already lifted the receiver.
“Yes hello?” Xom said down the phone, the receiver resting unevenly on his trumpet-like ear. “Ah! Hello. This must be the human head of the Mars Expedition I’ve heard so much about. Greetings! What’s that? Oh, I’m Xom. A martian. Yes, I’ve lived here for years. Of course this isn’t a prank, welcoming neighbours is hardly a prank. Proof? Alright. Say hello, you two!”
“Hello,” the two humans called out weakly to the handset Xom held out.
“See? It’s not ‘putting on a voice’. We’re very much the real deal. Yes, of course we ‘come in peace’, that’s pretty much granted. People are visiting? How many?” Xom listened, then asked the pair, “how big is ‘the entire department?'”
Thomas swallowed. “Do you have any hotels you can rent out?”
“Ah. That many, huh? Well, I’m sure we’ve got spare mattresses. Alright then, other humans, we’ll see you soon. What’s that? Yes, I’m sure we come in peace, please stop worrying. Okay? Bye!”
Then Xom hung up the phone.
“Phew,” he said. “Such lively creatures. Do you think all the visitors will want some Mars tubes, too? They might get horribly jealous.”
Thomas swallowed. They were about to have one of the most important meetings in human history, and one of the aliens will present them with weird tubes and the other will tell them dinner’s ready.
Still, it sure beat alien abductions and blowing up the White House, so Thomas figured the next few days will be fruitfully eventful, if not also very strange.
Welcome to my fifth anniversary piece for #FlashFriday! This is a continuation of the Ms. Mayberry saga, where I add another story to the ongoing conflicts between Gareth and Ms. Mayberry each year. You can read the past issues here:
Prior reading isn’t essential to ‘get’ this story, but it is recommended!
Enjoy, and here’s to another year of Flash Friday.
Gareth was having a very good day.
Usually, on this day, he’d be worrying about what on Earth Ms. Mayberry was up to in the deathtrap she dared call a ‘store’. This year, however, he found the solution for his problems; simply don’t visit. Don’t check on how she’s doing. Don’t walk past her store. Don’t even think about her. Just stay at home and watch TV. It was already working wonders.
Gareth changed the channel on the television and sank into his chair. Yes, this was definitely the better way of spending a day.
The doorbell rang.
Gareth’s spike of panic subsided when he realised there was no way Ms. Mayberry knew where he lived. In fact, it was far more probable that it was the pizza delivery he had ordered a few minutes ago. He went to answer the door; but not before attaching the door chain, just in case.
Turns out, his suspicions were valid. Not only was it not the pizza delivery man, it was the very woman he didn’t want to see today. She peered through the gap with a crooked grin, eyes full of mischief.
“You didn’t come by my store this year,” Ms. Mayberry said, with a tone not too unlike a witch.
“Of course not,” Gareth said. “Last time I did, I was arrested in France on the grounds of suspected terrorism. How did you know I lived here?”
“From your Ms. Mayberry loyalty card details.”
“But I don’t have one.”
Ms. Mayberry pushed a card through the crack in the door. It simply featured her wearing dungarees and holding a spanner, shooting a confident look at the camera. ‘I experienced the brilliance of Ms. Mayberry’ was written on the side. “Now you do.”
“Brilliant,” Gareth lied, noting with mild worry that he was Member No. 000001. “But no matter how many repeat customer loyalty programs you put on me, I’m not going to the shop today. Sorry.”
“Really, now? That’s alright,” Ms. Mayberry said alongside a creeping grin. “You don’t have to go anywhere.”
Then Ms. Mayberry closed the door.
Did she just admit defeat? Gareth hoped so. After all, there’s no way she can rope him into demoing another awful invention if he never left home. Settling back into his chair, he tried not to think about what she had planned if he had left his house.
That’s when the tremors began.
The entire house began to quake, as if the foundations themselves were being rocked. For the years he had lived there, Gareth hadn’t feel the ground shake, even after his neighbours dropped a bookcase down the stairs. Was it an extremely rare earthquake?
Something within him felt the answer wasn’t so simple.
When Gareth looked out the window, he wasn’t sure what was going to find. What he did find, however, was Ms. Mayberry wearing goggles and a huge grin. Even more worrying, she was surrounded by what looked like several large speakers face-down on the floor. All of them were aimed in his direction.
He managed to leave the front door in record time.
“Did say you didn’t need to leave the house,” Ms. Mayberry said, with just a hint of malice. “But you can come watch if you want.”
“What the bloody hell are you doing?!”
“Testing my new invention, of course!”
“You’re testing your earthquake-making device on me?!”
“No! I’ve already tested the earthquake generator, I don’t need you for that! I’m testing the anti-earthquake generators!”
She pointed at Gareth’s house.
Following her finger, Gareth saw four strange brace-like devices clamped onto the front of his house. They looked like they were out of science fiction, with blinking red lights.
“Fantastic, aren’t they?” Ms. Mayberry said. “People won’t lose buildings to earthquakes no more.”
“But we don’t get earthquakes here!”
“All the more reason for you to prepare when they do come! Besides, it’s doing a good job, isn’t it? So there’s no need to worry.”
“Even if we did have them, they wouldn’t be this strong on the richter scale!”
“The what? Dunno about any ‘scale’. Just whacked all the generators to ’10’.”
“Great. Can you please call off the test?”
“Depends. How impressed are you?”
“Very impressed, Ms. Mayberry.”
Ms. Mayberry scratched her chin. “Alright then,” she said. “Suppose it has been long enough.”
Turning the dial on the machines off, the earthquake came to a halt. Gareth’s house was still standing, to his relief.
“So then,” Ms. Mayberry said, hands on her hips. “Now who’s a genius, hm? Your house went through all that, and look! It’s still standing, isn’t it? I think someone owes someone an apology, don’t you think?”
Ms. Mayberry beamed a big grin.
Then the house collapsed.
Gareth couldn’t do much else other than look at the flattened ruins of what was once his home. Well, that wasn’t entirely true; he also managed a horrified look at Ms. Mayberry as well.
“Ah,” Ms. Mayberry said, looking equally as horrified. “Turns out it doesn’t as much stop earthquakes as it does delay them. Well, that’s some scientific progress, at least. Please stop looking at me like that, it’s scary.”
“You destroyed my house!”
“I did, didn’t I. Well, you’ll be pleased to know that…you’ve saved enough loyalty points on your card for a new house. So you have that going for you. It’ll just…take some time to come through. You don’t mind hotels, do you?”
“Now listen here–” Gareth started. He was interrupted by a tap on his shoulder from behind.
“Sorry,” the pizza delivery man said, pointing to the ruins. “Is this 43 Station Drive?”
“Was,” Gareth spat, taking the pizza. “If you look hard enough in the ruins, you might find my wallet.”
The delivery man eyed the flattened home. “Let’s call this one free.”
“Thanks,” Gareth said. He took a particularly aggressive bite from his pizza, swatting away an encroaching Mayberry hand as he did. It looked like Ms. Mayberry was here to stay.
Dr. Godfrey had only one goal; to save a life. Ever since he awoke from the car crash on a hospital bed with stitches across his body and with two less parents than he had that morning, he had vowed to repay the favour. The problem was, even though he was in the top ten percent of his graduating class, he still hadn’t got the chance to perform a life-saving surgery at his hospital.
Sure, everyone knew he was smart. That’s why they called on him for all the cases that nobody else could solve. Dr. Godfrey remembered them all, and always for the wrong reasons. The person who came in reporting chronic back itching, which Godfrey solved by removing the security tag left on the shirt. The case where someone claimed a strange, white sticky substance was leaking from their head, which Godfrey assigned to the showers to clean the bird poo out. The angry patient who claimed the inhaler he prescribed to them caused an allergic reaction that rendered them unable to breathe, to which Godfrey calmly informed them that you had to breathe through the other end.
Dr. Godfrey had an outstanding record, in the same way that someone skilled in painting would be highly revered by the blind.
This time, however, it was different. It was the first time a nurse had interrupted his lunch break with a word never yet used toward him — ’emergency’. This was his moment, he knew, as he followed the nurse to the operating room. He was going to save a life.
Dr. Godfrey approached the patient on the operating table as he put the last of the gear on. The patient was a teenage boy, slightly overweight, lying on the table with his eyes closed, out for the count. Three operation technicians fiddled with machines around the table, alongside the nurse, who was waiting anxiously.
“Alright then,” Dr. Godfrey said, stretching the gloves into his hands. “What are we dealing with?”
“We had this boy come into the hospital just now. Patient reported of a severe headache,” the nurse beside him said. “Said that it’s near blinding.”
“So, I take it he’s here because he’s been diagnosed with a brain tumour.”
“If I’m going to do such a complex operation on such short notice, I at least…wait, what do you mean by maybe?”
The nurse shrugged. “It might be a tumour. I mean, that’s one symptom of a headache. Might not be this one. He’s only, what, fifteen?”
“You mean you put the patient under and we don’t even know what’s wrong with him?”
“Eh?” the patient said, suddenly stirring out of his ‘sleep’. “You’re going to put me under? Why?”
Dr. Godfrey blinked. “The patient isn’t even out?”
“No, of course he’s not,” the nurse said. “You don’t knock people out just because they have a headache.”
“So why is he in an operating theatre?”
“What?!” the patient said, looking around in a panic. “I’m going to be operated on?!”
“No! I’m just asking why you’re here!”
“You said it yourself,” the nurse said. “After that one case the patient claimed they had gone deaf and you pulled their earplugs out. You g0t all angry and said that the next case you get ‘better be in the operating theatre where I belong’. So here he is!”
“That’s not what I…nevermind.” If Godfrey was going to be dragged out of his break for this, he might as well finish the job. “What might your name be, boy?”
“Alright, Patrick. Can you tell me why you have a headache? Did you bash your head? Perhaps you have migraines?”
“Ate too much ice-cream, sir.”
“Wonderful. And you were called here as an emergency because…?”
One of the operation technicians gestured sadly to an empty pot of painkillers.
“Right. Got you. Well, you’re lucky I have a packet of paracetamol in my pocket, or else we really would have had to go to red alert.”
“Oh,” Patrick said. “My mum says I should always tell people something before they give me paracetamol.”
“Was it ‘thank you’, by any chance?”
“No, don’t think that was it. It’ll come to me, I’m sure. You’ll see.”
“I’m relieved to hear it. Here you go. And someone get some water to help it down.”
Patrick gladly took the pills he was given and washed it down. Wiping the excess water on his sleeve, he suddenly brightened up. “Oh! I just remembered what I had to tell people!”
“Go on, then,” Dr. Godfrey said. “Break the tense cliffhanger for all of us.”
“It was, uh…how do I put it, uh…ah! Yes. ‘Fatally allergic’. Mum says that I’m ‘fatally allergic’ to paracetamol. Told you I’d remember!”
Patrick beamed a big smile, around the same time as the blood completely left Dr. Godfrey’s face.
Those who were walking past the operations room at that point jumped out of the way as the doors burst open. Dr. Godfrey pushed Patrick’s bed toward the toxicology department like a buyer armed with a trolley on Black Friday. He may end up saving a life yet.
As one of the founding members of the cult, High Mage Sears had big plans. His companions respected that. They believed putting him on the forefront for hiring and training new recruits would be the most effective use of his skills. Sears agreed. He wish he didn’t
Cults don’t attract new members in droves; they often come in dribbles, often just the one, often just a few, always very stupid. Well, not always. Sometimes a well-meaning and efficient servant of the darkness will approach and prove themselves worthy. Most, however, were simply applying so they can see a demon, or read too many gothic novels, or saw it as a better alternative than a day job.
Sear’s three current students were not efficient servants in the least. But he always had to try them, just in case he was wrong. He never was, but just in case.
“Now then.” Sears gestured to the altar in front of him, the air thick with incense smoke. “Present to me the reagents needed to call upon Our Dark Lord, Nzeleth.”
The student standing between his companions looked at them, as if hoping they’d answer for him. When nobody said anything: “call upon who?”
“Nzeleth. The very reason I had you go get the reagents. Did you not read the tome as I instructed?”
“No, it’s sixty quid at the cultist student bookshop.”
“Well, find a preowned one on ebay after this, it’s very important. Regardless.” Sears picked up a sinister-looking knife from the altar. “First, present to me the animal sacrifice that you prepared.”
All three of the students perked up, keen to show the fruits of their efforts. One of them picked up a sack that was sitting on the floor, dug into it, then slapped a dead chicken onto the altar.
Sears peered at it. “It’s dead.”
“Yes,” a student said, nodding. “Sacrificed, see?”
“But I’m the one who’s supposed to sacrifice it. You’re supposed to give it to me still alive.”
“Oh. Well, next time, we’ll nail it. Save the farmer the mental scarring, at any rate.”
“Please do so. For now, please present to me the next offering; the flames of hellfire itself, contained within a suitable vessel.”
Once more, the students dug into the bag. One of them presented, then placed down, a chili pepper.
Sears looked at it with great disdain.
“It’s really hot,” one of the students said in defense. “Like, I gave it a lick and my tongue came out in blisters. If that’s not hellfire, then I don’t know what is, honestly.”
The other students nodded in agreement.
Sears’ face twitched in annoyance. “Very well,” he said, when everything was, in fact, not. “The first two reagents are shadowed by the third, most important offering; give me…the virgin.”
The first sign that something was very off was when the student’s eyes lit up and they dug, once more, into the sack. As if holding the holy grail, they proudly and enthusiastically presented their bottle of extra virgin olive oil.
“See?” one of the students said, tapping the word ‘extra’ on the bottle of oil. “It’s more virgin than you originally asked for, so it has to be better.”
The students gave each other high fives, then watched Sears as if awaiting the gratuitous amounts of praise they were about to receive. They didn’t get it.
Sears managed a heavy sigh. “I sent you,” he began, slowly, “on a mission to summon the avatar of the god of darkness who you’ll eventually serve for the rest of this life, and the entirety of the next. What I got were the perfect ingredients for a chicken stir fry.”
A shrug from one of the students. “So, what, does that mean we get a B?”
“What it means is that you three clearly don’t understand the kind of dark powers you’re utilising. Perhaps if you gazed upon the visage of our Dark Lord himself, you’ll be better equipped with the fear and respect that all acolytes should embrace. Behold!”
Other mortals had to give Nzeleth offerings in order to summon his avatar into the world. Sears, however, had given so much devotion to Nzeleth’s cause that simply slamming the end of his staff against the floor was enough to call him. Where Sears struck his staff on the floor, a black spot of darkness appeared and grew. Black tendrils creeped out of the spot, taking hold of the floor around it, before pulling up what looked like an octopus with eyes across its entire body and a mouth packed with teeth.
“My liege,” Sears said, bowing. He gestured to the three quaking students. “These acolytes failed miserably to entertain your demands. I request that you show them exactly who they are dealing with, so they do not fail you again.”
The eyes on Nzeleth closest to the altar swiveled to observe the offering. Then, in a deep voice that echoed around the room without moving his mouth, Nzeleth ‘said’, “your offering represents myself in no way whatsoever. This is an offense to me and everything I do. A dead chicken, some chili, and olive oil come together to make nothing of…”
The eyes peered at the offerings, as if realising something. Then, after a small period of thinking: “have you tried…adding cashew nuts?”
Sears blinked. “My liege, we are not in the process of making a chicken stir fry.”
“I can see that. You haven’t even got the noodles yet. Can’t do anything without noodles. Your Dark Lord Nzeleth demands egg-fried. They’re the best.”
“But these acolytes failed their exam of summoning you!”
“Oh, shut up. I’m sick to death of eating sacrifices. A bit of change once in a millennia won’t hurt, far less calories than virgins. Now, do you have the ceremonial wok on hand? Go fetch it.”
“Understood, my liege,” Sears said. At least leaving to get the wok meant he didn’t have to look at the smug faces of his acolytes.
Detective Hall examined the corpse’s face, turning it left and right. “And you said you know what killed him?”
“That’s right,” one of the three policemen on-guard said. “Rat poison. We did a search on the premises and found this.”
Hall took the bottle that was handed to him. It looked like a regular-sized beer bottle without any label. “In this?”
“That’s right, sir. We managed to get in touch with the owner of the premises, and he attests that this bottle is kept within the cellar with the drinks. Rat problem is nasty down there, or so I heard.”
“I see. So, if the murder took place last night, and there’s no way of anyone entering or leaving the establishment…then it has to be one of these people.”
‘These people’ referred to the people who stood by, watching the proceedings with curiosity on their faces. Ten people stayed overnight at Thornbush Mansion; and one of them committed a murder most foul.
“It seems so,” the policeman said. “Unless ghosts and poltergeists have started committing crimes, of course. One of these people did the deed, and to be frank, we’re at a total loss as to who–”
“It was the butler.”
Everyone — even the police — looked at Hall in surprise.
“But…” the policeman continued. “How are you so sure?”
“It had to be the work of someone who knew the location and contents of the bottle. Given the window of the murder was during the five-minute break between events, it had to be a quick get-out, grab, and poisoning of the victim’s drink.”
“It could have been anyone,” sneered the butler. “Anyone can pour poison.”
“Yes, but only you could have committed it. Given the evening events for the mansion, nobody would have a reason to come down to the cellar. Even if they did, they would have passed by such a nondescript bottle and assumed it was just alcohol. Nobody in their right minds would automatically assume a non-labelled beer bottle left in a cellar amongst hundreds of similar brethren would contain poison.
“It could only have been committed by someone who knew, beforehand, that the inconspicuous bottle in the cellar wasn’t beer, but was, in fact, rat poison. The only person who could have done it was you. Well?”
The butler shrugged. “Suppose the game is up. Yes, it was me.”
“Alright then. Take him away.”
As the policeman cuffed the butler’s hands behind his back, the butler gave Hall a particularly nasty glare. “Thanks for ruining everything, by the way.”
“I didn’t ‘ruin’ anything. I just put a murderer into custody, where he belongs.”
“No, you definitely ruined everything. Do you have any idea how much mystery there was behind this murder? Do you have any idea as to the motive? The backstory? The heart-rending yet bittersweet history of my life that lead up to this point?”
“I’m sure we can get all that in interrogation.”
“But that’s not the point! It was going to be a whole string of clues that leads to an uncovering of a mysterious and intriguing criminal underbelly! There was going to be a gang boss and everything, for goodness sakes!”
One of the other guests of the mansion gasped in horror. “Spoilers!” she exclaimed.
“It was going to be a damn riveting adventure, and you’ll be scratching your noggin for days, and I even had it set up so you’ll fight a shadowy assailant in a clock tower at the dead of night. It was going to be thrilling! And your annoyingly precise brain ruined it!”
“I’m sure I did,” Hall said. “Take him away, I’ve heard enough.”
The police did so.
“Well, then.” Hall clapped his hands together, beaming a smile at the other patrons. “I’m glad we managed to solve that. I bet you’re all feeling very relieved.”
They weren’t. They all looked like they had paid full price for a premium theatre ticket and got a school play.
“Well that was a load of tosh,” one guest said. “A whole load of mystery and intrigue, ruined in five minutes.”
“I’d say so too,” another one said. “Honestly, what kind of murder mystery was that? Just straight-up pointed out the murderer at the beginning and had him arrested. If this were a novel, it’d flop the moment it hit the shelves.”
“I just potentially saved your lives!” Hall spat.
“Maybe so, but you could have at least given us some time to think about who did it. To be frank, I had all my bets on Jacqueline. Suspected her right from the start.”
The large, frumpy woman that was presumably Jacqueline gave a disgruntled snort.
“Well,” Hall said, unsure as to why he was the one defending himself. “Perhaps if the killer didn’t use such an obvious method that pinned all the evidence on him, I wouldn’t have worked it out so soon.”
“Ah! Yes, I suppose that’s valid. Nothing ruins a good mystery like pegging the murderer on the first clue presented. That’s a shame. Well, no matter; I’ve got another dinner coming up within the month, and the host has a grudge on most of the guests. I’m sure there’ll be a better head-scratcher of a murder happening there.”
“Same here,” said another. “I’ve got a frankly suspicious invitation to inherit a vast sum of money from a ‘distant relative’ I’ve never even heard of. Definitely some sort of ploy to get myself and others all under the same roof. Can’t wait to see how that one pans out. Been needing a good mystery for a while now.”
“Well, now that this mystery is ruined,” said yet another, “I don’t see much point staying here. Shall we be off?”
With disgruntled nods and shuffles, everyone left for their rooms, presumably to pack. Detective Hall was left alone at the crime scene, with nobody to keep him company bar the victim.
“Well,” he said to himself. “I think I did a good job, at any rate.”
Trevor, dressed in his black suit and top hat, pulled a card from behind a boy’s ear. “Was this your card?” he said, presenting the King of Hearts to the crowd.
The boy’s jaw fell open. “That was!” he gasped. “But how–?!”
“Magic, my dear boy, and nothing less.” Trevor tapped the side of the nose. “Keep the card, I have plenty. Let’s hear it for Nate, everyone!”
The audience of children packed within Nate’s living room cheered. Trevor had performed in many venues before, but children’s birthday parties were always his favourite, mainly because nobody tried to work out how he did his tricks, and everyone believed he was magical. Some days, he wished he really was magical; for now, however, he had to rely on sleight of hand and illusions to get his kicks.
“And next!” he said, to the now very-attentive crowd. He took off his hat. “I will pull a ribbon out of this hat.”
The crowd didn’t doubt him.
Trevor picked up his wand from the table. It felt strange to him. He had used a black and white ‘baton’ since he began his career, but when he accidentally snapped it, he had to find a quick replacement. He found the solution in a strange little local shop which sold just about everything. The storekeeper’s eyes lit up the moment Trevor mentioned he wanted to ‘bring magic into his own life’. The storekeeper darted into the back and brought out what looked like a stick with a Christmas tree star stuck on top. Trevor said he wanted something a little more professional. The storekeeper said it would be free. Trevor relented.
Trevor tapped the hat with the wand. The wand glowed briefly. Ah, so that’s why the storekeeper was so enthusiastic about it. Cute.
Trevor placed the hat onto the table and reached within. The children watched in amazement as he pulled multiple feet of ribbon out of the hat. Trevor used both hands to emphasise how long the ribbon was, smiling as his audience watched, captivated.
Then, the ribbon jammed.
Trevor had never encountered this; not even in rehearsal. Everyone else seemed to think it was part of the show, giggling as Trevor frowned in confusion. Holding down the hat with one hand, he tugged at the ribbon with all his might.
“Just a minute,” he said, smiling to the crowd. “It appears my ribbon is being–”
Then the ribbon gave way.
Like something out of a cartoon, the huge head of a very annoyed-looking dragon popped out of the tiny hat. Its jaws were clenched around the end of the ribbon like a fish on a line. It gave a steely gaze to the audience; then, the owner of the ribbon that dragged it through.
The children fell dead silent.
Trevor, no idea as to what was happening, acted upon his tried and true magician fallback plan; if things go wrong, stuff it in a place where nobody can see it. Putting a hand against the dragon’s snout, he began to try to shove it back. The dragon, annoyed that it had been dragged through such a tiny hole, was now livid to discover it was being pushed back through it. It snorted and billowed smoke until, with the sound of a cork unfastening, the dragon’s head popped back in. The ribbon followed suit, shooting into the hat like someone slurping spaghetti.
The white-faced children slowly warmed into smiles. Then, applause.
“Thank you,” Trevor said, not entirely sure what he had just done. “Yes, thank you. All part of the trick, I assure you.”
But something wasn’t right. As the children clapped, he peered into the hat to figure out what had happened. Where the bottom of his hat should have been was instead a small hat-sized portal to another world. The view from the portal was quite high in the sky, which was emphasised by the fact the dragon he just pushed back through was flying directly below it. The ribbon still in its mouth, the dragon gave Trevor an annoyed look before flying away.
Now that the dragon was out of the way, Trevor could better see the other world from his sky-high view. He could see green hills and bustling cities. Giant lakes and towering mountains. Familiar animals and mythical creatures. Most of all, however, he could see magic. Magic everywhere.
Had Trevor done it? Had he finally cast a real magic spell? He didn’t know how he did it; everything he had used to this point was what he normally used for all his magic trick. That is, everything except…
As if answering him, the wand began to glow.
He picked it up. It had sensed home. It felt like a dog eager to be taken for a walk, sitting at the front door, tail wagging, waiting to be let out. It also reassured Trevor that it did, in fact, know plenty of spells to slow falls, should he decide to jump into any sky-high portals in the near future.
So that’s why he was given it.
Trevor looked at the crowd. They had since recovered from the dragon, and were now patiently awaiting the next trick.
Trevor smiled to himself. Oh, he had a trick alright.
“And now,” he said, slowly. “For my next and final trick…I will make myself disappear.”
He gave a wink to emphasise his point, tapped himself with the wand, then put the hat on.
Hats usually rest on heads. This one, however, didn’t come to a rest until it had hit the floor, ‘devouring’ Trevor as it went. It landed in a shower of sparks, and everyone applauded such an amazing trick. Even when they lifted up the hat, there was no sign of Trevor.
And thus, nobody heard of Trevor again; however, everyone agreed that it was a very impressive trick, and that it must have taken him years to practice, so they gave him five stars on Yelp for it.
A knock came from the office door.
Trevor looked over from his computer. “Come in,” he said.
The door opened. A tall, built man entered the room, dressed head to toe in spiked leather, his face covered by a white hockey mask. He carried a large machete in one hand and a full, bloody sack in the other. He crossed the office towards Trevor’s desk and took a seat opposite, placing the machete onto the desk and the sack beside him.
Then he waited.
Trevor finished typing something on the computer before smiling at the newcomer. “Ah, yes. I was expecting you in another ten minutes, but starting early is not a problem. Let’s see here…” Trevor peered at his screen, scrolling with his mouse wheel. “Ah, here we go. ‘Jacob T. Slasher’, am I correct?”
Jacob gave a single nod.
“Excellent. Yes, I remember you. You were the one enquiring about the treehouse residency, weren’t you?”
“Yes. Well, I’m sorry to say it, but we had a witch come in just a few days ago. She loved that property so much, she handed the deposit over there and then. You know what witches are like; they always like those sort of treehouse-type residencies, don’t they? You understand, don’t you?”
Jacob reached for his machete.
“Ah, wait a minute!” Trevor added quickly. Jacob paused mid-grab. “Before you, uh, do something drastic, I took the liberty of finding other suitable abodes for you. Ones that matched the conditions you specified to begin with. Well, would you like to see them?”
Jacob let go.
“Excellent. Then let’s get started. I noted you were looking for somewhere that was reclusive and out-of-the-way, so I had a look around and discovered this beautiful shack in the middle of the woods.” Trevor turned the monitor to face Jacob, showing a run-down wooden building surrounded by fog and trees. “Very iconic piece. Very classic. Many serial killers before you made good use of shacks. Nice and remote, nobody around to hear the screams, dark and brooding. Plus, it’s bills inclusive.”
Jacob nodded with approval.
“Good, good. Glad you like it. There is this other property I found; much less remote than what you asked for, but I just couldn’t pass up the opportunity to tell you about it. Old meat packing facility, very large, very spacious. Previous owners didn’t remove the meat hooks, so you’ll have plenty of places to store corpses. Fridge still works, hidden away in a suburb, and — yes — while it is technically near a city full of people, that only means that you’re, hah.” Trevor gave a smirk. “Only means less of a commute to your work, doesn’t it?”
Jacob gave a single laugh at this joke. He pointed to the warehouse on the monitor and gave a thumbs-up.
“Glad to hear it. Yes, we have many a serial killer come in here looking for the perfect place to stay, so we always have a, how do you say it, certain premonition about what they like in a home. Would you like to make a deposit now, or do you want to look around the property first?”
Jacob simply ducked down toward his bloody sack. He began to draw out skulls from it, placing them in a row along the desk.
“Oh, awfully sorry,” Trevor said. “We don’t take trophies as payment.”
Jacob snorted with annoyance, scooping all of the skulls back into the sack with one sweep. Digging into his wallet (made of skin), Jacob drew out a credit card.
Trevor peered at the card. “Yes, yes, we accept MurderCard. This is all well and good. All I need is to enter the details into the computer and…there. You should be able to move in within the next week or so. Hope you, uh…” Trevor said, as he handed back the card. “Hope you make a killing at your new place, eh?”
Jacob’s face was entirely hidden behind the mask, yet he still gave a face as if he had heard that one far too many times before. He simply took his things and stood.
“Make sure to, ah, paint the town red, eh?”
No response; Jacob simply kept walking until he was out of the office.
Trevor shrugged the moment the door closed. The veterans of the trade had heard all the jokes before, but it never hurt to try. Actually, if he made a joke that was especially bad, sometimes it did hurt to try. But it didn’t stop him.
Trevor looked over his schedule. Jacob’s promptness meant that Trevor had a little time before his last two appointments of the day; the space alien secretly studying the human race, and a governmental lizardmen who wanted to keep on the low. Both known to be particularly fussy clients, but they always bought the higher-priced properties, so it was well worth the effort. For now though, he could do with some coffee; and maybe disinfect his entire desk while he was at it.
Nobody ever truly forgot their voyage to the elven tree city of Elegrad. Henry knew he wouldn’t. Even now, as he stood at the entrance to the forest grove, ready to leave after his week’s stay, he still wasn’t used to the sights and sounds. The wind rustled against the grand elven trees, and a group of elvish bards were playing soothing melodies and singing about past wars won and evils vanquished. The last thing Henry would ever forget were the Elven King Halkar and the Elven Queen Shy’la, who stood before him with warm smiles.
“We hope you enjoyed your time here,” Halkar said, soft like a summer wind.
“I have done,” Henry said. “Thank you very much for your charity. I feel refreshed and ready to continue my quest against the Sorcerer Nelfan.”
“We are pleased to hear that,” Shy’la said. “Before you go, please take this as a gift from us to you.”
Shy’la gestured to an elf to approach. The elf did so, holding something small in his hands. Shy’la took it from him and held it out to Henry. “Take it,” she said. “We call it Kingsbread, but your peoples know it as ‘Elven Bread’. A single bite will restore your stamina.”
Henry took the Kingsbread. It was a complete loaf of bread in a cylindrical shape, yet fitted in the palm of his hand. “Thank you,” he said. “But I must be off, for even now Nelfan’s dark grasp stretches across the land. Again, thank you.”
Henry bowed. The elves smiled in return. Henry walked the path out of the city, leading him behind the grand city walls.
Nearly immediately after Henry walked out of view, Shy’la sighed a breath of relief. “Thank bloody hell that’s over,” she said. “I thought the daft sod would be staying for years.”
Halkar exhaled as if he had been underwater the entire time. His gut fell into its true form, his slender physique now sporting a beer belly. “I hate visitors.”
“You should try exercise, you know. The next mortal that calls for an audience with you, you might end up passing out. Did you hear?” Shy’la called over a shoulder to the bards. “The mortal’s gone now.”
The bards stopped mid-song, looks of relief on their faces. They tossed their instruments aside, took a boombox out from behind a tree, and sat around listening to Slayer.
“Honestly,” Halkar said, “I can’t believe you just pulled off that ‘Kingsbread’ thing right in front of that poor bastard. You can honestly say anything you like to mortals and they’ll lap it up.”
“Too true. Can I have some ‘Kingsbread’ myself, actually? Haven’t eaten in yonks.”
The servant that brought the bread to her earlier nodded, opened up the pack of hot dog buns, and handed one over.
“I honestly don’t know how you do it,” Halkar said. “I tried to pass off a fork as a powerful wand and the party rejected it.”
“You have to be subtle,” Shy’la said between mouthfuls. “Just say it’s stronger or magically enchanted in some way. The guy before Henry, I gave a single strand of my hair and said it gave good luck. A single strand! Still held it like it was his newborn child, said he’d achieve great things with it. He’s probably dead by now.”
“This one didn’t want to see into the scrying pool, though, did he?”
“Oh, he did! He definitely did! He wanted to see where the Sorcerer Nelephant-whoever guy was. Then he wanted to see his family. Then his future. Then his past. Why his past? The daft sod lived it already, he’d probably know it better than the sodding pool. When he asked to scry into where the cheapest inns were, I had to make up some baloney about the spirits being restless before I slapped the idiot senseless.”
“Tell me about it. Three hours he asked me about the ‘proud and noble’ history of the Elves. Like, yes, we live forever, we do awesome stuff, we won a lot of wars, get over it. Go read a bloody book about our history, don’t pester me about it.”
“I know, right? And the worst bit is that they–”
“Ah!” came a familiar voice from down the path. Henry had come back the way he came, slightly out of breath from his jogging. “I forgot something!”
The elven king and queen slipped back into character like two schoolkids caught smoking behind the bicycle shed. The bards practically threw the boombox back into its hiding place, rapidly got to their feet, and resumed their tales of the victory in The Three Wars.
“We are humbled that you returned,” Shy’la said, her airy voice making a comeback. “What is it that you forgot, fair knight?”
Henry stopped in front of Shy’la, taking a few breaths before speaking. “Payment.”
“For your stay here? You should know better than any that an elven’s charity comes not with a price tag.”
Henry said nothing for a while; he simply took hold of Shy’la’s hand and kissed the back of it. “Back home, we’re told to always treat women with respect.”
Then he turned and left again.
“Ugh,” Shy’la said, her face dropping the moment Henry was out of sight. She wiped the back of her hand against Halkar. “Think I got some mortal on me. This has been a long and annoying week, so I’m going down the pub and getting hammered. If Henry comes back, tell him I’m off to commune with my ancestor’s spirits or something.”
Halkar gave a casual wave as Shy’la left. He would join her, but anyone turning up while he was gone would probably walk headlong into the bards who were now jamming to Metallica. Perhaps some guards wouldn’t go amiss.
Mrs. Driverly entered Jake’s Butchery, shaking the rain off of her hat. “Thank goodness you’re still open,” she said, rubbing her glasses dry. “Starting to think I was all out of options for a nice steak.”
Jake simply gave a warm yet crooked smile from behind the counter, his hands clasped together, his black hair smoothed back, his tall and spindly frame surrounded by meat hanging off of hooks. Of course Jake was open at such a late time. The only people who bothered going to a butcher at nine o’clock at night were the needy rich, loaded with money and surrounded by knives. Just where Jake wanted them.
They’d go missing. The police would question people around Jake’s shop. They’d chase gangs around Jake’s shop. They’d put up missing posters around Jake’s shop. Nobody pointed at Jake, the kind butcher at the end of Smith’s Row, who must have come from a rich family because he could somehow find the funds for expensive tools. The finest producer of pork, lamb, and beef in all the city; even if nobody took to the ‘strange meats’ he sometimes sold that he swore were a ‘foreign delicacy’.
“Good evening,” Jake said, with a slight bow. “What will you have?”
The little frame of Mrs. Driverly was dwarfed by Jake as she approached the counter. “If you had any steaks in, I’d very much appreciate one. If I don’t get one home, my head will be on the chopping block.”
Jake smirked as if he was in on a joke nobody else knew. Realising what he was doing, he snapped out of his trance. “Yes, well. Regardless, I could waste your time showing you the selection I have out front, but I’ll let you in on a little secret; I allow the real connoisseurs in the back where they can select from the finest meats I have to offer. Would you like that?”
“Ooh, a peek in a craftsman’s workshop!” Mrs. Driverly chirped. “Certainly, sir. I’d very much like to.”
Of course, Jake didn’t lie when he said that only connoisseurs were allowed. Connoisseurs were also stinking rich and loaded with jewellery and cash, and often didn’t watch their backs amongst ‘trusted’ persons. Mrs. Driverly was very this kind of person; so much so that she looked around the various carcasses around the back room with morbid fascination.
“The sirloin cut is just over there,” Jake said, pointing to a cutting board. “Is it to your liking?”
Mrs. Driverly approached the cutting board, checking the chunk of sirloin meat sat atop of it. “How fresh is this?”
“Cut it today,” Jake said. It was no coincidence that the cutting board was set up so that people standing by it had their backs turned to the vast wall of various butcher knives. Jake skipped over all of them in favour for his largest cleaver. “Fresh as can be.”
“Certainly looks it.” Mrs. Driverly said, turning it over in her own bare hands without any sign of disgust. “Prime cut, too. No wonder they say good things about you.”
“Do they?” Jake said, approaching Mrs. Driverly, cleaver in hand. “I wouldn’t know.”
“Oh, they definitely do. ‘Always go to Jake if you want stellar service’, they say. ‘Top quality meats and long opening hours’. Glad I heard about you, I did.”
“Yes,” Jake said, wiping the blade against his clothes as he approached. The way she was craning over, he could score an easy slice down across her neck. “So am I.”
“You don’t think I’ll be able to grab a cut and get home before ten, do you?”
“No.” Jake rose the blade high above his head. “I don’t think so.”
At that point, Mrs. Driverly turned.
Either she wanted to ask a question or just make a comment; whichever one it was was lost to history as her face turned white. “What are you doing?!” she blurted.
Jake froze on the spot. He hadn’t prepared for moments like this; now that it had happened, it felt like his entire body turned to stone. Visions of what would happen if his secret life was exposed flooded his mind at once. “Oh. I, see, I, ah…”
“How dare you! How dare you!”
“I’m sorry, I was, ah…”
“How dare you go at this sirloin with such a brutish knife? Give it here.”
Mrs. Driverly snatched the blade away, leaving Jake with his jaw hanging open, frozen in mid-swing. She put the cleaver back on the rack.
“Now let’s see here,” Mrs. Driverly said, adjusting her glasses to read the labels for each knife. “‘Serrated knife’…’knife for pork’…’human flesh’? Why do you have a knife for that?”
Jake’s face blanched. “I…perform surgeries on the side.”
“In a butcher’s workshop?”
Jake nodded sheepishly.
Mrs. Driverly nodded approvingly.”I’ll have to recommend you.”
“Ah, here we go; steak knife.” She drew it the rack, then crossed to the sirloin once more, immediately getting to work. “See, if you cut sirloin straight downwards like you were planning to do, you’d hack the top sirloin to shreds. If you cut that out first, you have yourself a source of prime steaks to sell to your customers.”
Jake looked over her shoulder like a shy student watching a master. “Really?”
“Yes. Honestly, if you went to town with that thing on this meat, I’d have murdered you.”
Jake nodded, face still white. He pulled on his collar. “Yes, quite.”
With the top sirloin cut off, Mrs. Driverly cut it into steaks, with Jake looking on anxiously. Once done, she took a steak, placed payment into Jake’s still-shaking hand, and gave a sweet smile. “First pick of the prime stuff,” she said. “As payment for our little lesson today. Seem fair?”
Jake simply nodded in silence.
“Good. Have a good night Jake, won’t you?”
Jake watched haplessly as Mrs. Driverly proudly walked out the workshop with steak in hand. Maybe he should go into barbery instead.
The lives of the human race changed forever when they came in contact with the aliens known as the Somari. In terms of galactic scale, the Somari discovering the humans was like a human turning over a stone and discovering a nest of ants. The Somari approached with friendly intentions and offered much of their knowledge. From it, humans found planets more suiting for humans than even Earth, but current warp technology shredded carbon-based lifeforms to pieces. As such, they had to depend on stasis to travel.
Jennifer had never experienced stasis travel before, so the first time she awoke inside her glass tube felt strange. It felt like she had been ‘asleep’ for ten seconds, but the red timer above the other containment pods showed they had been out for twenty-six years now. Which was strange, given how the travel was predicted to take thirty-eight.
Even stranger were the two aliens outside her tube.
They were covered in what looked like metal chitin and tubing, wore red goggles that cast a sinister light, and were busy poring over a manual. One was considerably larger and taller than the other, and they both spoke perfect Universal language.
“Doesn’t look cooked,” the large alien said, peering through the tube’s glass. “Honestly, alien technology is so weird.”
“I know, I know! But this manual isn’t saying anything about how to cook them. I just assumed the thawing setting did that.”
“If you find out how to set it to medium-rare, lemme know. Can’t find the button on this thing for it. Maybe we just have to cook them from frozen?”
“Excuse me,” Jennifer said. “What are you doing?”
“Oh, it’s still talking,” the large alien said, peering in. “Yeah, it’s definitely not cooked.”
“You don’t know how to operate this freezer, do you?” said the smaller one. “I can’t find it in this…” It looked at the cover of the manual. “Cryostasis system. I guess that’s a fancy word for ‘food freezers’.”
“We’re not food,” Jennifer said. “We’re humans on a stasis trip to the Somari homeworld.”
“Yeah? Well, you’re made out of meat, which makes you food for the rest of us. And we’re very hungry bandits–”
“I prefer ‘space pirates’,” added the large one.
“–so we raided this giant floating freezer. But now I find the food is talking back to us. Great.”
The larger alien scratched his head. “So what do we do now?”
“It’s simple, right? Same thing we do with all carbon-based foods while it’s still alive.” He threw the manual to one side and drew a pistol, aiming it at Jennifer’s head. “Just put it out of its misery and handle the cooking ourselves.”
“Wait!” Jennifer blurted. “There’s no need for this! We have our own food you can have.”
The pistol-aiming alien drew his aim away, a doubtful look on his face. “On a stasis ship?”
“If the stasis system malfunctions. Enough food for the whole crew to survive while we wait for the distress beacon. It’s not a great deal, but you can help yourself to it.”
The aliens exchanged a look. The one with the gun then said, “alright, does sound a lot less messy. Let’s get you out of your freezer–”
“Call it whatever you like, honey, but you’re the one made out of food. Alright, here we go.”
The pistol-wielder pulled a hand lever on the side of the tube, opening it. Jennifer stepped out before immediately having the gun pointed at her.
“Alright then,” the smaller alien said. “Show us.”
The truth was, there was no food; the Somari answered distress beacons in no more than than twenty minutes. While her little facade to buy time wouldn’t last long, she’d only need twenty minutes maximum to wiggle free and get help. The question was; how?
The ship wasn’t for living in, so the only other features it had were seats near the entrance, and the luggage compartment for personal effects. The luggage, too, underwent its own stasis to stop possessions rotting over thirty eight years, which gave Jennifer’s claim that they were food packages more weight.
“So,” the larger alien said. It took a suitcase and pried it open with such strength the locks broke. “What in here is food?”
“All of it.”
He picked out a teddy bear. “Even this?”
“…sure! It’s food.”
He shrugged, took a bite out of the bear’s head, then coughed up stuffing. “Must be an acquired taste,” he said. “What else is there?”
Jennifer was getting nervous that her only plan was to let the aliens take bites out of their possessions until they realise nothing within was edible. The large alien had sampled a shirt (too stringy), a pen (didn’t like the juice), and a phone (sticks in teeth) before the big alien pulled out several bottles from a bag.
“What’s this, then?” he said. He held them out, their labels sporting the word ‘wine’.
“Those?” Jennifer said. “Oh, that’s liquid food! Very delicious. Make it from grapes. Humans love it a lot, drink lots of it back home.”
“Does it taste better than those ‘teddy bear steaks’?”
“Lots better. In fact, we have a custom back home; if two people drink wine, they race to see who finishes the bottle first, and the one who does has good luck for the rest of the day.”
“Really? Well then.” The large one handed a bottle to the smaller one. “Ready?”
“You’re on,” said the smaller one. “Race to the bottom.”
By the time the pair had picked themselves off of the floor again, the entire ship was swarming with Somari police, who found it surprisingly easy to apprehend the so-called ‘space pirates’ as they asked the police if they ‘had any more’. Twelve years later, a man would awaken from his cryo-sleep to discover that not only all his wine was gone, but he had helped apprehend two criminals while frozen in time, which he didn’t mind taking credit for.