Short Story: The Queen’s Trap

This can be read alone, but you can see an earlier short story with the same characters here.

The Trap

Cato stared down at the map, wishing its contours would change, but knowing they wouldn’t. He wanted Leonora to be lying, to be playing some political game or another, but she wasn’t.

Their king really had sent them to die.

There was no other explanation. Oskelez was much further south than he’d believed, and it would take considerable effort to protect their supply chain in the event of a full siege. That was assuming King Pentus continued to keep them supplied.

If Pentus was smart, he’d wait until they’d marched south then blame storms for ships being delayed. It would seal their fate.

The door to his tent opened, and Sir Octavian ducked through, his strange purple gaze fixing on Cato.

“There are rumors that Miss Leonora was aboard the latest supply ship.”

Cato motioned to the map. “She brought us this.”

Octavian raised a brow then studied the map. “This doesn’t match with what we’d expected to find. Do you think the map’s accurate?”

“Agrees with what little the scouts have brought back.”

“If it’s accurate, our mission is much more difficult than we thought.”

Cato snorted. “Like it wasn’t hard enough already.”

“We should have Lord Brighton study this. If anyone can see how to make the logistics work, it would be him.”

“You trust him?”

“If he accompanies us on the march.” Octavian traced a finger down the long path to Oskelez. “I wonder how King Pentus got such an accurate map so quickly. We left with the spring winds, and autumn has only just begun.”

Cato rolled up the map. He was certain Pentus had the map long before they’d left and had decided to send them to Oskelez because of where it was, not in spite of it. Cato decided not to share that. It was only speculation, and Octavian’s faith in the Holy Trinity was so pure he could channel Their power. That same faith was a liability in politics.

“I don’t know, but Lenora risked a lot bring it to us.”

“To bring it to you.” Octavian studied him then nodded. “We need to show this to Brighton. Depending on what he says, we may need to make winter arrangements.”

Cato planned to make winter arrangements anyway, but he kept that to himself as they went in search of Brighton.

 

Octavian found Lenora standing on a cliff overlooking the sea. Her brows were furled in concentration and her arms spread wide, oblivious to her cloak that flapped around her.

He didn’t try to mask the sound of his footsteps, and she lowered her arms.

Turning, she faced him. “Shouldn’t you be inspiring the troops or something?”

“Lord Brighton is reviewing the map you brought.”

“Good.” Waves crashed against the cliffs and sprayed water up at her, but the droplets never landed on her.

“What brings you out here?”

“Salt.” She motioned to a wooden barrel nestled on an outcropping.

“Why?”

“I harvest it from the water. And don’t argue with me about magic being forbidden. We’re not in Stardale.”

“You shouldn’t be here alone.”

“What does it matter?”

“You are King Pentus’s only daughter.”

Lenora laughed, a bitter sound against the thrum of the ocean. “But Queen Hestia has no daughters. Only a sickly son who will be lucky to see twenty summers.”

A seagull soared overhead, its cries undulating with the grey waves.

“There are many that want to see you marry the prince. To become the next queen.”

“They assume my half-brother will live long enough for that to happen.”

Octavian frowned. “He has the best healers.”

“And has his whole life. I don’t know what in the seven hells is wrong with him, but I wish they would cure him already.”

“That would knock you out of contention for the throne.”

“Then I could be my father’s spoiled bastard rather than an upstart threatening the queen’s son.”

“Has Queen Hestia treated you that poorly?”

“You know Hestia. What do you think?”

Octavian stared across the sea. “Why did you really bring the map?”

“Because our knights don’t deserve to die, you don’t deserve to die, and that’s exactly what will happen if you charge into that swamp.”

“That is noble. Very unlike you.”

“There wasn’t room for being noble and surviving.”

“I suppose it couldn’t have been easy living in the castle with a queen that hated you.”

“I’m a living symbol of Pentus’s infidelity and her failure to produce a decent heir. Yes, she hates me, but I survived. We all do what he have to do.” Lenora stared out over the rolling water. “But you don’t have to assault Oskelez until spring. Take the time to scout it. See if the map is accurate.”

“Do you doubt it even though you risked so much to bring it to Knight-Lord Dracasan?”

“Either I landed a coup in getting this to you and saving your lives, or I finally fell into one of Hestia’s traps. Make my sacrifice worth it. Scout the area.”

“You are a brave woman, and Cato is a lucky man.”

She swallowed hard, balling her fists. “He has nothing to do with this.”

“You love him, don’t you?”

“Doesn’t matter. Love has no place in Stardale.”

“Good thing we’re not in Stardale.”

Short Story: Dragon Lottery

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Dragon Lottery

Helena shivered as the cold spring breeze cut through her thin cloak. The scent of freshly tilled earth and young growing things filled the air. A time of rebirth. A time of blood sacrifice to keep the monster from devouring the calves, lambs and newly planted fields.

Even standing in the center of the crowd, Helena felt alone. Her mother had been sacrificed first, then her older sister had been taken by the blood lottery five years later. Her younger sister’s name had been called last spring.

No one stood up for them as most were happy it wasn’t their friends or family. And who would miss a poor washer woman and her impoverished children?

Helena suspected that the lottery was not random as it was supposed to be. It had been a long time since a merchant had been chosen and longer still that an aristocrat had.

The poor, the misfits, the criminals unfit for hard labor. Those were the ones that somehow were chosen time and time again. And she fit two of the three criteria. Helena assumed the only reason she hadn’t been chosen yet was Lord Lothar’s lustful interest in the washer girl who read books. But that shred of protection was gone when she’d refused to jump into his bed.

She’d take her chances with the rigged lottery.

Fear knotted her chest as she watched the sheriff roll out the silver basket filled with names. She knew, and yet, it was supposed to be a lottery…

She held her breath as the priest reached into the basket and drew out a name.

Her name.

The crowd parted like a sea around her, afraid to get too close to the condemned woman. She swallowed back the fear. Time to join her mother and sisters in the great beyond.

Helena said nothing even as the guards swooped in and yanked her forward. Lothar leered down at her from the podium, a dark smile twisting his lips as they bound her arms behind her back. He sat back and watched as they dragged her through the streets toward the Tower of God.

Helena kept her face blank as her heart pounded against her ribs. She’d done the right thing rejecting Lothar. Her mother’s willingness to bed a nobleman and let him sire her three daughters had done nothing to protect any of them. Nothing to feed them. And the nobleman had been quite willing to sacrifice his illegitimate daughters when knowledge of them had become inconvenient.

Steadying her breathing, Helena said a prayer to Thalia. At least she wouldn’t have to worry about how she was going to eat tonight.

They reached the gleaming silver temple overlooking the jagged Dragon Cliffs. Helena had only a moment to take in the glorious windswept valley and tall peaks before the guards forced her up the almost endless flight of stairs to the top of the Tower of God. The icy wind tugged her mahogany hair from its braid, twisting the shining tendrils as they bound her to the pole.

A guard drew his dagger and sliced her wrist.

Helena yelped, watching her blood flow from the wound and drip down her hand and over her cloak. The only cloak she owned. Not that she would need it much longer.

The moment her blood touched the Tower of God, she heard it. A deep, low rumble that made her stomach climb into her throat.

The guards heard it too and raced back down the stairs.

Growing louder, the rumble filled her ears and shook the ground. The entire temple swayed, and had she not been bound to the pole, Helena would’ve tumbled onto the jagged rocks below.

A moment later she saw it.  Her eyes saucered. As large as the temple itself, the silver dragon glittered in the afternoon sunlight as it glided through the cold air.

Before she could think, before she could offer another prayer to Thalia, it dived at her.

She closed her eyes and screamed.

But there was no pain. She opened her eyes, expecting to be dead, but instead she found herself soaring over forests and streams so fast that they disappeared beneath her in a panoply of color. A wave of nausea hit her, and she buried her face in her arm as she steadied her stomach.

Collecting herself, she took several slow breaths and looked up. A basket made out of strong but flexible reeds surrounded her and protected her from the dragon’s razor sharp claws. Was the beast taking her home to eat her? Or taking her as a meal for its children?

The dragon snorted above her, and Helena fell back against the basket.

I have no intention of eating you, and I have no children to feed you to.

There was bitterness in the words, and she looked up at the beast’s claws surrounding her.

“I can hear your thoughts?”

If I so wish it.

Helena said nothing and tried to keep her mind blank as she gazed down at the blur of landscape below them. The dragon’s flight felt effortless, yet they were crossing distances in minutes that should’ve taken hours.

At last his pace started to slow, and he spiraled upward. Helena clung to the sides of the basket. The dragon cleared the top of a mountain and descended into the valley below.

Lush, green, and full of life.

Given their altitude, it should have been snow-covered. Instead, fields were already sprouting, and orchards were in bloom. The rich scent played off the cold glacial smell of the dragon.

Another flap of his wings and they were gliding over towns and climbing towards a large castle that glittered like ice.

The dragon circled the castle then landed with a cat’s grace in the windswept courtyard. The doors to the castle opened and a group of revelers raced outside, their arms laden with flowers as they welcomed her.

Helena’s eyes widened and tears streamed down her cheeks as she saw her sisters and her mother running toward her.

“Am I dead?” Helena asked as she hugged her mother.

Her mother shook her head as she brushed away Helena’s tears. “This is Dragon Valley. Lord Ander brought us here, as he brought you.”

“I thought…” Helena glanced back at the massive silver dragon.

A blast of magic puffed her cloak, and where the dragon had been stood a man with silver hair and eyes bluer than the sky. A well dressed courtier hurried forward and draped an exquisite white cape over Ander’s shoulders.

“Let the feasting begin. The girl is hungry.” Oblivious to his nakedness, Ander left them as he strode into the castle.

“Still not the one,” Helena’s mother whispered. Looking down, she said a prayer.

“Not the one?” Helena asked.

Her mother hugged her. “It doesn’t matter. Let’s go enjoy the feast celebrating your arrival. We’ll have plenty of time to explain later.”

Dressed in a warm cape and clean clothes, Helena ate her fill for the first time in her life. Still not totally convinced this wasn’t heaven, she looked towards the glittering castle and wondered about the man that had given her a new life.

Short Story: Origins

One of my beta readers said that if I was going to write several of my novels in a fantasy empire, she wanted me to post some short stories about the origin and back story of the empire. She was curious, but didn’t want to bog down the books. And so…

 

Origins

Leonora stepped off the boat and wrinkled her nose. The smell of sewage, animal, and sweat assaulted her as the sun warmed her neck and shoulders. Several squires were coaxing skittish horses down the ramshackle docks, and a few harried knights were overseeing the transfer of provisions. They didn’t deserve to die. None of them did, even if her father disagreed.

Unfurling her parasol, she cast a small spell to keep her dress from getting soiled and picked her way through the muck.

A young knight with a shock of blonde hair and smooth face hurried over to her, and realizing who she was, took a step back. “Your…ladyship?”

“Good enough.” She snapped her parasol closed. Few knew how to address the bastard daughter of the king.

“This is no place for a lady, ma’am.”

“Unfortunate I came all the way across the sea then. I’m looking for Knight-Lord Dracasan.”

Confusion puckered the young knight’s face, but he led her to a large drab tent. There was nothing to knock on, so the boy cleared his throat. “Knight-Lord-”

Leonora pushed past him into the tent. Cato Dracasan sat with his elbows balanced on his knees, a lock of dark hair curling over his forehead as he pressed his hands together and tapped them against his chin. With a day-old beard and unkempt hair, he looked nothing like the refined gentleman that had graced the ballrooms of Stardale a few months ago. Here, he looked like the brooding warrior he was.

Cato glanced up at her, and he narrowed his eyes but didn’t stand. “What in the seven hells are you doing here?”

The young knight scurried away as Leonora met the Knight-Lord’s glare. “What a lovely greeting. It’s good to see you as well, Knight-Lord Dracasan.”

Cato pushed out of his chair, filling the tent and making her want to step back. But she knew better than to retreat from a predator.

“Get on the ship andgo back home. There’s nothing for you here.”

She ignored the sting in his words and twirled her parasol. “There’s nothing for me there, either. But I have something you want. Something King Orin prays you don’t get.”

Cato raised a dark brow. “I think you made it quite clear that was something I was never going to get.”

“Had I said anything else, my step-mother would’ve had us both killed.”

“Might be better than the slow death here.”

Unscrewing the end of her parasol, she tipped it upward and slid out a rolled piece of paper. She unrolled it and revealed a detailed map of the landing site and surrounding areas.

Cato’s eyes widened as he stared at the map. “Where did you get this?”

“From my father. Of course, he doesn’t know I made a copy of it. Or that I brought it to you.”

Cato studied the document. “So he knew he was sending us to our deaths.”

“Of course he did. Question is what are you going to do about it?”

Without Us

Without Us

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I studied Mac, and she glanced over at me. We both sucked in one last breath of clean air as the doors to the bunker opened. The rest of the team stood behind the blast shield, ready to flood the area with gamma rays if anything forced its way in.

Nothing did.

We hefted our packs and walked out, the doors closing with an ominous thud.

Following the concrete tube, we walked into a brilliant light that seared my eyes and forced me to turn away.

Tears ran down my cheeks as Mac touched my shoulder. “Put on your Uplink.”

The moment it settled over my eyes, the light dimmed, and a pre-war map displayed our destination and directions.

“Bet none of those streets still exist,” Mac said.

“It’ll auto correct as we go and send back updated information.”

“Let’s hope they don’t need it,” Mac said.

I swallowed and nodded. We needed to survive and bring back the needed components so we could all make it another hundred years.

Mac and I worked our way down the mountainside, but the endurance training hadn’t prepared us for the uneven terrain, choking undergrowth, or burning sun. After a few hours, I was sweating, my legs ached, and my feet hurt.

“At least the chiefs were right about nothing surviving,” Mac said. “Haven’t even seen a squirrel.”

Peering through my Uplink, I wondered if it would be able to identify a squirrel if we saw one.

As the sun dipped low, Mac pointed to a dilapidated shack in the distance.

Fear filled my throat. “It’s not structurally sound.”

“Nothing’s gonna be, and there might be tin, iron or gold.”

I thought back to our training. The risk was minimal, and the training said people had kept gold and silver jewelry before the war. I followed Mac.

The front steps had rotted away and the door hung off its hinges. Mac stepped inside, her weapon drawn. I drew mine and followed behind her, the weight of the gun cold, slick and foreign.

After a hundred years, there was little to find. Tattered drapes twisted over broken windows and trees sprouted up between rotted floorboards. Bits and pieces of debris littered the floor, but I couldn’t identify most of it and neither could my Uplink.

“Over here,” Mac said.

I followed her to what had once been a kitchen. Cans of foodstuff lay scattered across the floor, their exteriors corroded and labels worn away.

“Lots of metal in here,” Mac said. “Looks like copper plumbing too.”

“But no neodymium.”

“Didn’t expect there to be. Let’s hope the chiefs are right, and there’s still some of that in the old battery factory.”

“Assuming the factory is still there.”

“Better be,” Mac said.

I opened my magpack and withdrew the despacer. After a few minutes, I’d reduced the usable metal down to the size of a fork and loaded it into my magpack.

“Curious?” Mac asked as she held up a couple of rusted cans.

“Not really.”

Mac grinned and popped open the can.

“What is that?” I grimaced. The smell was nauseating, and the greasy brown contents looked worse than the smell.

“Looks like canned meat product.” Mac stuck her finger in the gelatinous goo.

“Do not eat- I can’t believe you just did that.”

“Tastes better than it smells.” Mac grinned and offered me the can. “Sure you don’t want to try a bite?”

I shoved it away and swallowed back bile. “Positive.”

Mac sat down beside me and we split a tube of foodpaste.

I glanced over at the can of gooey meat. “Could you imagine eating that?”

Mac shrugged. “They needed more calories than we do.”

“They weren’t confined to an underground bunker.”

“Or modified.”

I rubbed my legs. “We should find a place to spend the night.”

“This seems as good as any.”

“Sure the walls won’t come down on us?”

“Haven’t come down in a hundred years. Doubt tonight will be the night.”

I considered that for a moment, and while it wasn’t a logical argument, I was too tired to argue.

 

The high-pitched chirping of our Uplinks woke us and warned of a huge creature moving at twenty-five miles-per-hours in our direction. Fear swallowed me as a huge mass of fur and claws barreled through the rotted walls.

The beast gobbled the contents of the meat can and swung its shaggy head towards us. Mac stood frozen beside me as it snarled and reared up on its back legs.

Gunshots deafened me and pounded through my head as a pre-war robot shot the creature.

The creature roared and charged the robot.

I steadied my breathing and aimed my weapon.

As the creature knocked the robot to the ground, I pulled the trigger.

The creature flew across the shack, knocking down the rear wall, and then exploding as it smashed into a tree.

“What the hell kind of gun is that?” the robot asked as it stood up.

“You’re not a robot?” I asked.

He laughed as he removed his helmet. “Knight-Captain Wyoming reporting for duty.”

“Knight-Captain?” I looked up at the strange man. The top of my head barely reached his shoulders.

“You’re not from around here,” York said.

“But you are. We thought no one survived the war.”

He gave me a lopsided grin. “Glad to prove you wrong. But we should move before the smell of blood brings something nastier.”

“Where to?” Mac asked.

“There’s a checkpoint not far from here. On the way there, you can tell me what two civilians are doing up here in the wilds.” He motioned to their strange weapons, the Uplinks over their eyes, and their odd gear. “And you can explain all of that.”

Civilians. So more than just the military had survived.

I looked at Wyoming and then over at the dead creature. Those of us in the bunker were supposed to be mankind’s ticket past the apocalypse, the start of a new future. I thought about what we’d been sent to retrieve and what we’d already found.

There were other people. People that lived outside the bunker.

The future of mankind had happened, and it had happened without us.

The Matriarch – Part 4

The fourth installment of a short story my husband wrote for Halloween. You can catch up with Part 1 here , Part 2 here and Part 3 Here.

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The Matriarch – Part 4

THURSDAY AFTERNOON

Ursula sped down the highway in her beat-up hatchback with a white-knuckle grip on the steering wheel. “God, those things are hideous!  Where did they come from?  How did they….”

“Not important right now,” Greg answered curtly.  “Their Queen is dead.  Without her, their numbers can only dwindle.  We need to keep them from getting their hands on this one.  I know a safe place we can go.  Once we get there, I can answer all your questions.  Or you can just leave, and you’ll never see either of us again.”

“Is that thing still alive?  Why don’t we just kill it, too?  Who cares if I never see you again?  I’m going to be wondering about everyone I meet for the rest of my life!  And about people I’ve already known for years!”

Greg sighed.  “Because, for lack of a better term, you could say we’re vegetarians.”

“Wait….what do you mean ‘we’!?”

Greg shook his head. “Homo Sapiens are omnivores by nature, capable of surviving on a variety of diets.  Like most predator species, they possess forward binocular vision as opposed to having their eyes on the sides of their heads like horses, cattle, or other prey species.  Their digestive tract benefits from the ingestion of fruits and vegetables, but also excels at digesting the proteins and fats from other animals.

“Many humans decide to forego their ability to consume animal matter, despite having the biological capability to do so, out of the belief that it is not ethical to consume other animals.

“Now, consider Felis Domesticus, the common house cat.  They do not possess such an adaptable digestive tract.  They are obligate carnivores.  They evolved to hunt, catch living prey, and eat it.  If there is not sufficient animal protein in their diet, they will die.  Perhaps it is a mercy that no feline species evolved self-awareness and sapience the way humans did.  If such a being ever felt guilt over their consumption of other animals, they would have to live with such guilt.  Or die from it.

“Miss Thelstein, my people are not obligate carnivores.  We are obligate parasites.  And the universe is cruel enough that we evolved to be intelligent enough to empathize with the suffering and pain we cause to our host organisms.  But we cannot survive without those hosts.

“Those of us that feel this empathy are a minority.  A hunted and persecuted political faction among our species.  The others happily invade and infest the human race with no reluctance other than being cautious enough not to get caught.

“But now that faction has lost their brood-queen.  Their time is over.  When they realize this, they will seek revenge.  I must keep my Queen safe until their death throes are spent.

“No.  Not dead.  Dormant.  In stasis.  I won’t wake her until a suitable host is found.  And she would not find you suitable.  For ethical reasons.

“The body I inhabit had already been taken by one of those who did not feel empathy towards our hosts.  When I destroyed him, the central nervous system of the host was too ravaged to survive without continued connection to one of our kind.  It was too late for me to help him, so I took the body.  Not ideal, but I can inhabit this body without violating our code.

“Violent criminals.  Those of your species who do deliberate harm to others.  If we are obligated to be parasites, we can at least take the ones you would be better off without.  No, it’s still not consent.  But they don’t get that from their victims either.  It’s as ethical as we are capable of being in order to survive.  It will have to be enough.”

The Matriarch – Part 3

The third installment of a short story my husband wrote for Halloween. You can catch up with Part 1 here and Part 2 herebiohazard-2696875_640

The Matriarch – Part 3

WEDNESDAY NIGHT

“Easy, Number Nine.  Mr. Allen gets the point.”

Greg coughed as his airway opened, and he massaged the bruises Nine had left on his neck.

“It would inconvenient for us to find someone else for this task,” said shark-boy.  “Your background has allowed you an unusual degree of independence, but any further flippancy will not be tolerated.  We can find someone else, if necessary.”  The shark-grin became a frown.  “You will do this task for us.  And you will not survive failure.”

Well, thought Greg, that’s that, then.

He took a deep breath, bit his tooth until he felt a break in the surface, and let out a long exhale as though he were sighing.  He’d just killed them all, even if it would be hours until they realized it.

“I submit, Great One.  How exactly can I serve you?”

Shark-boy, unaware of his now-inescapable death, went back to grinning.

“We believe we’d found the upstart rival queen that disappeared thirty years ago.  She’s been in stasis all this time.  Revive her.  Earn her trust by helping her find a new host, and she’ll think you’re one of hers. The upstarts will flock to her, and you will destroy them one by one.”

 

 THURSDAY

Ursula screamed as Dr. Allen crouched over the prone body of the Director and tore off the Director’s shirt.  Then her eyes widened and her scream died as Dr. Allen clutched an elongated worm-like creature and peeled it off the Director’s spine.

Her breath came in shallow bursts as Ursula stared in disbelief at the hideous creature in Dr. Allen’s hands. She couldn’t help but notice the horrifying similarity to the unknown specimen in the cylinder.

Dr. Allen dropped the worm on the floor, then crunched the eyeless head under the heel of his shoe with a nauseating squelch.  Yellow ichor covered his shoe and pant leg and dripped from his fingers where he’d gripped it.

He looked at Ursula. “Your Director was under that thing’s control for weeks.  This whole Special Exhibit idea was part of its plan.  You’re not one of them, but I don’t know how many of your coworkers are.  You are in danger. We need to get out, and if we run across anyone else, let me do the talking.”

Ursula blinked, flared her nostrils, and held up a finger.  She turned and grabbed a wastebasket just in time to not get any vomit on her clothes or shoes.

“Okay,” she said, her brain spinning as she tried to come to grips with truth of the ‘Invasion of the Body Snatchers’.

Dr. Allen strode over to the other specimen, the one still in the glass cylinder floating in a clear liquid, and picked it up.  “All right.  Follow me.”

 

WEDNESDAY, 3:30 AM

Greg took his temperature.  Ninety-eight-point-seven degrees Fahrenheit.  The fever had broken.  He felt tired and dehydrated, but his bio-enhancements had helped him to survive the virus.  That was a relief.  He’d had this body for a long time, and it wouldn’t be easy to replace if it died.  Not with all the enhancements he’d made to it since its acquisition.

It had originally been host to one of the Great Queen’s prime offspring.  Shortly after helping his own Queen-Matriarch enter bio-stasis and go into hiding, he’d begun working out how to steal the body and masquerade as an agent of the Great Queen.

Once he’d gotten the body, he’d waited patiently for a chance to act.  Now it was time.

Shark-boy, Number Nine, and the others would be dead by now.  After the limo driver had collapsed, Greg (he’d gotten used to thinking of himself as the name of this host body) had broken the window to the front area and taken the wheel.  He’d driven the limo into a ditch and covered it with brush and branches to hide it as well as he could while his body’s boosted immunity fought the virus.

By the time the Great One and her Primes managed to disengage from their dying hosts, it would be too late.  There were no other suitable hosts for miles, and they could only survive a few minutes without a host.

It would be hours before the Great Queen’s other agents began to suspect something was wrong.  Until then he would continue to pretend to be one of hers and recover his own Queen-Matriarch.

The Matriarch – Part 2

Part 2 of my husband’s short story. You can catch up with Part 1 here.

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The Matriarch – Part 2

 THURSDAY MORNING

Behind her pursed lips, Ursula’s teeth clenched together as she turned the glass cylinder over in her hands.  The elongated grey, many-segmented worm-like creature that floated in the yellowish liquid was not something she recognized, but then she’d only been researching parasites since the unwelcome task of dredging them up from archival storage had fallen on her lap.

The parasite made her skin crawl.  It would be perfect for the special exhibit.  But the glass cylinder was unlabelled.  She’d have to do some digging to find out what it was a specimen of and then get some brain-bleach to make her nightmares go away.  Still, it was exactly the kind of repulsive-but-facinating thing that the Museum Director wanted for the exhibit.

She began shuffling through the faded, crumpled newspapers in the box the glass cylinder had been packed in.  Maybe the specimen label had come loose.

“Miss Thelstein?”  Ursula looked up from the box and cursed under her breath at the sound of the Director’s voice.  “Are you in here?”

“Over here,” she said.

“Right this way.” The Director’s only sounded like that when he was talking to someone important. Like a donor.

Ursula heard two sets of footsteps making their way down along the disorganized aisles of shelves, crates, boxes, and display cases that sat in the sub-basement archives.

As they came around the corner, Ursula nodded in greeting to the salt-and-pepper haired Director, and a russet-haired fellow with the ugliest pair of horn-rimmed glasses ever made and an expression that warned his sense of humor had been surgically removed.  Before she could say anything, the Director’s eyes lit up and a smile curved the left side of his mouth.

“Well, now,” he cooed.  “That’s certainly an interesting specimen!  Looks like something out of a horror movie.  Are there any more like that?”

Ursula blinked at the strange conversation.  “Not that I’ve found yet.  Besides this one, just some tapeworms and African earwigs.  Creepy, yes, but not enough to make a full special exhibit out of.”  Ursula figured besides the real specimens, he’d also want full-color displays illustrating their life-cycles and how they infected their host organisms.  That would go a long way towards making the exhibit complete.  But she didn’t make the suggestion for fear of being put in charge of it.

The stranger spoke.  It sounded to Ursula as though he was having difficulty unclenching his teeth.  “Where did you….find that?”

The Director beamed at him, then back at Ursula, then at the stranger again.  “I’m terribly sorry.  I haven’t made introductions.  “Miss Thelstein, this is….Doctor…Greg Allen.  He’s a…”  The Director hesitated.

“A Veterinary Parasitologist,” said Dr. Allen.  His tone suggested that the words left a nauseating taste in his mouth.

“Yes!” The Director seemed oddly delighted.  “And this is Miss Ursula Thelstein, one of the archivists from our research department and Ad Hoc Display Coordinator for the upcoming Special Exhibit!”

Ursula gave a pained-but-polite smile.  “Ad Hoc” was Latin for “this title comes with neither a promotion nor a raise.”

“And to what do I owe the pleasure of Dr. Allen’s visit?” she asked.

 

THURSDAY NIGHT, PREVIOUS

The boy’s shark-grin instantly turned to a frown.  “There are troublesome elements I need dealt with.”

Greg made a slight tilt of his head toward Baldy.  “Isn’t that what he’s for?”

The boy’s grin returned.  “There are times to use a wrecking ball and times to use a set of lockpicks.  I want them all rounded up before they realize we’re onto them.  That calls for quiet footsteps and quick hands.”

“Quiet footsteps and quick hands?”  Greg pursed his lips.  “It sounds like you want someone in better shape than me.  Some shadowy ninja-type guy.”  He managed to keep a straight face.

“I have plenty of those.” The boy flicked his wrist.

Greg pondered the timing of the limo’s arrival minutes after his tire blew out.  If he was ever able to return to his car, he was positive any trace of a sniper’s bullet would’ve already been long removed.

“Sounds like you’re all set.  Thanks for the lift, and you can drop me off right…”  Greg’s words cut off as a muscular hand suddenly squeezing his larynx.

“You,” scowled the granite-slab voice, “will show respect.”

 

THURSDAY MORNING

Dr. Allen pointed to the odd specimen-without-a-label that the Museum Director was so excited about.  “I’m here for that, actually.  Where did you get that?  Do you know what it is?”

Ursula shrugged.  “A few decades ago, the State University apparently donated a box from their Bio department to the museum.  Looks like it got shelved in the archives and forgotten about before anyone got around to cataloguing it.”

Ursula thought that odd.  She’d had heard that museums in London had an enormous backlog in their archives yet to catalogue and were still finding treasures from ancient Egypt that British archaeologists had brought home with them in the nineteenth century.  But that didn’t make sense here.  It wasn’t that big of a box, and it’s not like this museum had ever been overwhelmed by a sudden influx of inventory that it couldn’t be catalogued in less than a day.

Dr. Allen turned to the Director.  “Thank you.  I’ll take it from here.”

“Are you sure you don’t need my help?”  The Director’s eyes flicked from the specimen, to Dr. Allen, then to Ursula.

“No,” said Dr. Allen more curtly than Ursula expected.  “I’m sure you’re very busy.  I’ll help Miss…Thelstein?…with the…star…of the exhibit.”

Ursula was getting an odd feeling about all this.  All alone in the museum sub-basement with a stranger?

“Oh, I’m certainly not too busy.” The Director smiled.  “I think it would be best if I….”

The Director’s sentence was cut off as Dr. Allen swept behind him and gripped the base of the Director’s neck and struck him with the other hand in the kidneys.

The Matriarch

My husband wrote a longer short story to celebrate Halloween, and I am very happy to share it here! It’s a longer story, so I will be putting it up in parts over the next few days. I hope you enjoy!

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The Matriarch – Part 1

THURSDAY MORNING

Ursula finished cataloging the contents of the box, closed the lid, and placed it back on the dusty shelf where it had sat for who-knows-how-many years before she’d opened it.

“12 specimens of Taenia solium, common tapeworm, each preserved individually in glass jars of formaldehyde.  Labels faded but legible,”  she dutifully recorded her notes in the museum archives inventory.

Popular exhibits like dinosaurs and mummies brought the public into the museum and hopefully, to help the museum make ends meet, the gift shop as well.  A special exhibit on Parasitology?  You don’t help anyone’s budget crunch by driving off the public with disgust.

But Halloween was approaching and the Director, thinking to play on the fascination some people had with “creepy crawly” or “gross” things, had decided to try something other than the safe option of promoting the mummies again.

The Curator had delegated the task to of putting together the special exhibit, and Ursula had drawn the short straw.

Now tapeworms that had been floating in preservative for twenty-plus years were going to get their day in the spotlight.  Along with a plethora of other horrifying creatures in jars that she’d come across in inventory.

To the accompaniment of the sub-basement archives’ flicking fluorescent lighting, Ursula took a sip from the now-cold mocha cappuccino that she really shouldn’t have splurged on and questioned her life choices.

 

 WEDNESDAY NIGHT, PREVIOUS

Greg’s body felt tired and achy, but his hands continued to grip the cold metal tire iron, slippery from the night’s rain, as he struggled to loosen the lug nuts of the blown-out rear passenger-side tire of his grey sedan.

He looked up at the approaching sound of a running engine and tires on wet highway pavement, then held up his hand, trying to shield against the headlights.  The other driver had their high-beams on.

A black limousine.  The high-beams dropped to regular headlights and it slowed to a stop next to his sedan.  The sound of splattering raindrops was punctuated by the opening of a car door.  Across the roof of the limousine, Greg watched as a thickset, bald man in a dark suit rose and fixed eyes like steel on him.

“Mr. Greg Allen.”  It wasn’t a question.  Greg’s heart quickened.  The wet tire-iron in his hand was an option, but the bald man was likely carrying far-less-polite hardware.

“My employer would like to speak with you.” The bald man’s voice was like a slab of granite. You couldn’t argue with it.

In the back of the limousine, the sound of rain splattering on pavement was replaced with drops muffled by the luxurious upholstery.  Greg was seated next to the bald man who continued to look as though he was trying to crush Greg’s skull with the power of scowling.  Across from them sat a grey-haired woman in sensible shoes that matched her tight bun, and a sandy-haired boy who looked about ten-years-old wearing a perfectly tailored Armani suit.

The boy’s smile reminded Greg of a shark.

“Nasty rain,” the boy said. “Isn’t it lucky for you we came along to give you a ride, Mr. Allen?”

Greg’s tongue gingerly flicked against his upper-right bicuspid as the rainy countryside passed the heavily tinted windows. The weaponized strain of enterovirus inside the hollow tooth had been engineered to have a limited duration once the seal was broken.  If he bit down and exhaled, it was likely that the deadly pathogen would be inert by the time anyone found the bodies.

Still, Greg was hesitant to field test his own enhanced immune system against this particular strain.  Things weren’t that desperate yet.

“Thank you,” Greg said, trying to keep sarcasm out of his voice.  “I don’t suppose there’s some way I might repay you?”