It was barely seven in the morning, it was bitterly cold, the heater was broken again, and Linna’s students were talking about murder and disembowelment. More correctly, one in particular was expounding upon the most efficient way to remove a human heart while his classmates, all bundled up to their ears, vocalized their disgust in increasingly plaintive and creative ways. Linna fought the impulse to join them and took a deep, steadying breath.
“Esmine, that’s quite enough,” she announced, loudly enough to be heard over his impromptu lecture. She hoped that the combination of her presence, her volume, and her proper Imperial diction would bring the class to order. Esmine frowned slightly, but ducked his head.
“If you say so, Professor Nyx.” His Imperial was impeccable, despite the fact that he had just been monologuing in the local dialect. The dialect was Linna’s native tongue as well, but the school was Imperial and the students would learn to speak properly within its walls.
She looked the class over as she took roll. Even here, in the snowy mountains of Haz where Imperial airships couldn’t land and travelers rarely wandered, the children’s faces reflected the immense size of the Empire. The majority, like her, were Hazi to a greater or lesser extent, with skin as pale as snow and a lilac tint to their round eyes and fluffy hair. Interspersed among them were boys and girls like Esmine with caramel- colored hair and dark, angled eyes, descendants of the traders from the coast of the Yebel river, southeast of Haz’s mountainous borders. A smaller number of students had the darker complexions that indicated a lineage which originated south of the Fallim Mountains, in the area of the Imperial capital.
And that was just the ones that had made it to Haz in the last few decades. The Empire spanned three continents, and the capital, where Linna had studied, was home to immigrants from all of them: men, women, and children who had boarded Imperial ship to travel over land and sea to find a better life.
“I’ll be returning your spelling tests today,” said Linna. Half the class groaned aloud, and she laughed softly. “I promise, none of you did that badly.” Her gaze passed over Esmine and fell on the southern-looking boy to his left. “Riccio, please pass this stack back to your classmates.”
“Yes ma’am,” the boy replied, glancing through the papers quickly. He was one of the few who didn’t struggle with or squint at the flowing script citizens of the Empire were supposed to write and read. After a moment’s consideration she handed the other half of the stack to a dainty Hazi boy.
“Bel, you hand these back, alright?” Esmine made a noise of derisive amusement that was hastily disguised as a coughing fit when Linna glared at him, and Bel nodded so hard his glasses almost fell off.
In the back of the room, someone cursed loudly in Hazi, and Linna turned her glare that way.
“We do not use such language in a schoolroom!”
“The dialect or the swearing, Professor?” asked Esmine, hiding a smirk behind his perfect paper. Riccio laughed aloud. A few other giggled. Bel looked utterly confused.
“You know full well which,” she snapped, then flicked the still-smirking boy on the forehead. “And don’t talk back, either.” An unhappy Hazi girl lobbed her test across the room, and it bounced off of Bel’s head, making him yelp. It took Linna another five minutes to get her class settled, off of the topic of projectile weapons, off of the topic of weapons, off of the topic of murder, again, off of the topic of freezing to death, and onto the topic of their reading assignment. A few were missing books. A few books were missing pages. She rather missed the capital sometimes.
Matt R. Weaver
Take Your Daughter to Work Day, Part 1.
A doe thrashes her gnarled hind legs against the asphalt, its forelegs slipping on the thin, dense sheet of snow that had fallen in the past hour. She still believes she can right herself and bring her hind legs underneath her, to bound away, savoring the exhilaration of escape. It is just before daybreak, and the engine of the truck that hit her growls from the deep snow in the opposite berm where it foundered after sliding off the road.
A man in a long, black, formless winter coat stands about twenty feet away, his pistol raised, its hammer cocked back. His eyes study the animal as it struggles for purchase. His arms are rock steady, despite both the January air on his bare hands and the animal’s agony, which he could end if she would stop flailing for just a few seconds.
Heather is 11 years old, watching through the windshield of her Dad’s cruiser. The scene is bathed in red and blue strobe from the lights atop the car. The engine is running to power the heater; the defroster blows loud, but keeps her view clear. She has seen him shoot before, but never at something living, if even only just. She cannot look away from the mangled deer and as much as her father, wants it’s suffering to cease. She is not afraid. Her stomach is sour and tight, for the blood, the sight of the legs, but she is not afraid. She knows what needs to be done.
But the flashlight beam that he needs, once again wavers. His voice cuts through the roar of the defrost fan that keeps the glass clear enough for her to see. “Dammit, hold that light steady!”
The truck driver, stupidly coatless, trembles. “I’m tryin’. It’s so cold, officer.” He extends his arm which is banded with black patterned ink from wrist to shoulder. Glenn looks over at the tattooed man, who has averted his eyes from the broken animal, “The wind…it stings…” Studying him, Heather thinks it’s because he can’t stand the sight of the doe.
“Son, I’m tryin’ to end this animal’s pain!” Her dad yells. “I need the heart! I need the light on the heart!” The heart, the optimal target that he learned as a young hunter: hitting it ensures a swift death.
I was walking along the bay, searching for serenity, when the first body was discovered.
It was a cold December day—especially for North Florida, and the breeze blowing in off St. Ann’s Bay stung my face and brought tears to my eyes. The sun was out, and though it was bright enough to make me squint, the day was dull and had a grayish quality I associated with the muted colorlessness of winter.
Taking a break from the demanding duties of prison chaplaincy at a maximum security facility, I had come to the small coastal town of Bridgeport following the second breakup of my marriage, which had come on the heels of two homicide investigations that had taken more out of me than I had realized.
Raised in a law-enforcement household and working as a cop to pay for seminary, I found myself continually getting involved in investigations.
Though chaplaincy was draining enough, it was dealing with crime day after day as an investigator that had left me depleted and depressed, unable to deal with the second death of my marriage.
I had been fighting a losing battle against a powerful undertow, but rather than drown I had washed up on the shores of St. Ann’s Abbey, a secluded retreat center among the ubiquitous slash pines of the Florida Panhandle.
Now, it was no longer just my pride or career or even my marriage, but my very soul I was trying to save.
A crime scene was the last place I needed to go, but from the moment I saw the flashing lights near the marina, I found myself moving toward them—irresistibly drawn, like an addict, to that which threatened to destroy me.
L. L. Ward
Friday, July 8—Day 1
“Flinch, just once, you are gone,” the raspy voice declared into Jesse’s left ear, jolting him from good sleep; warm breath brushing the back of his neck, goose bumps down his spine. Sneaking a glimpse, Jesse slowly turned his eyes to the left.
“Ah, ah…eyes forward, let’s settle some business. Understand?” Jesse slowly nodded, changing the direction of his gaze.
“Better. Now, you are aware a pistol barrel rests upon your temple, correct?”
Jesse nodded, a sweat bead trickles down his forehead.
The intruder grinned. “No need for nervous, my young friend. You must learn to relax. Now, back to our business. You are traveling alone, yes?” Jesse nodded. “Grand. Are you currently sought after by the law?” The cowboy shook his head.
“Magnificent. Take a deep breath, let it out slowly.” Jesse hesitated, unsure what this strange character wanted from him.
“Mister, do I know y—”
“Go on,” the intruder interrupted, nudging him.
Now unsure why, the bewildered cowboy did as he was told. Jesse drew a long, deep breath, slowly letting it out.
“Wonderful. Feel better?” Jesse nodded in surprise. The intruder let out a laugh. “Mmm, amazing how a breath of fresh air revives one’s senses…simply exhaling expels debilitating tensions.”
This threw Jesse for a loop. Talk of this nature didn’t surface much in these parts. This much was clear to the cowboy: A hardened criminal this man wasn’t. Jesse was a yup and nope kind of man, not one to chew on his words. “Mister, state your business or shoot me. I’m beat and need sleep. I’m in no mood to be fooled with.”
More amused, the intruder let out a strange bellow of laughter, slightly easing grip on Jesse’s head, not pressure to his temple. “Commendable character. I like you, my friend. Feel I’m in the presence of my Western self.”
“Now, now. So, have you eaten these last few weeks, my boy?”
“Yes I have!”
“No offense, it does appear you may have missed one or two…what is your phrase? Chow calls. I could remedy that. If you would be kind enough to share your fire, I’d gladly repay your generosity by sharing this fine rabbit I had the good fortune of crossing paths with. What do you say?”
“Fair ‘nuff, get offa me!”
Hugo Duchamp lowered his foot onto the first step and realised he could go no further. Though he deplored the use of the word ‘literally’ he felt for the first time in his life it was quite appropriate. He was literally frozen to the spot. From behind him he heard an irritated ‘tut’, and then another. Still, despite his own silent cursing and chastising himself, he was unable to move his feet in a forward motion and despite his best intentions, he was, at that point, not very hopeful of being able to step forward anytime soon. Yes, he appeared to be literally stuck. He inhaled deeply, the intoxicating smells caused him to start, the air mixed with hundreds of different scents flowed around his body, filling his lungs and causing him to hold his breath.
‘Excusez-moi monsieur, je suis pressé’ came the first voice behind him. He glanced over his shoulder at a middle age grand-dame. Her lips were pinched tight and her eyes had narrowed into two pins encased in a harsh kohl outline. He opened his mouth poised to offer some response, but as it appeared that his day was now to be a combination of disappointment in himself and blind panic not even a low groan escaped his dry throat. How could he explain it to the coiffured lady when he could not explain it to himself. An English man behind her had the bright idea of nudging her with his shoulder hoping for a domino effect that would surely push Hugo onto the platform. The grand-dame spun on her heels and fixed
“This is so exciting,” Nora exclaimed, as she pulled her jacket coat tight around herself. “A real Viking Festival!”
“I’d say it’s a pretty major deal,” Tina Scott said. “The committee has been trying to make it happen three years in a row, but something always came up.”
Nora had set up her stall early that morning, by the Crystal Lake’s meadow, where the fair was scheduled. She’d worked hard the week before, making sausages and kebabs from fresh ground meat and spices, preparing the batter for her crepes, and learning to make authentic Lefse–traditional soft Norwegian flatbread made with leftover potatoes, flour, butter, and cream.
Now, her stall was among the first ones up, a festive purple, with silver ribbons spiraling up its poles, and a large placard displaying photos of the goods.
“Mmm,” Tina took a deep sniff and smacked her lips appreciatively. “I tell you, Nora, you can chuck my paycheck and just start paying me in food. These Kebabs smell divine. It’s like my nose has found a new reason to live. I’m trying to tear myself away from it all, and I just get drawn to it.”
Nora laughed. Tina’s words made her think of old-timey cartoons, the black and white kind, where a character wandering around the street would suddenly inhale a fluffy white cloud, and then get pulled by his nose to drool over the display of a bakery or restaurant.
“You’ve been a great help, Tina. I would never have been able to set up the stall without you. I might not even have participated if you hadn’t pushed me to,” Nora smiled up appreciatively at her new friend.
“Oh. It was the least I could do. To be honest, I felt genuinely bad about the way some of us treated you when… when the whole Raquel thing happened.”