Around Gray Publishes Mini-Stories, 251 – 300, November 24, 2012 – February 3, 2013

No. 251
November 24, 2012
“Sir, a man walked into our office, and he wants to speak to you,” said the office manager. “He claims to be a character from one of your books. Shall I call the police?”
Trevor Kasper leaned back in his chair. His voice, from behind the great desk, sounded like it was coming from a long way away. “No. Send him in.”
The visitor was led into the conference room. Kasper followed, moments later. They both looked at each other for a long while, neither saying a word.
“So,” said Kasper, breaking the silence. “You’ve sorted it out, then.”
“I must admit,” said the man. “It took me awhile.”
“What do you want?” asked Kasper.
The man sat down in the chair at the head of the long table. He removed a piece of folded paper from his pocket and set it in front of him before he replied. “What’s fair.”
Kasper didn’t hesitate to make an offer. “A million.”
The man didn’t to react to the amount. He merely tilted his chin slightly higher.
“Two,” said Kasper. “Three.”
Placing one hand conspicuously on the paper, the man rose and collected himself. “As you know, I’m not bothered by urgency. I’ll let you to think on a response. Until then, I’ll leave you with this light reading. I must warn you, though, it may be a touch familiar.”
Then he left the room. Kasper could hear him give his regards to the manager on his way out of the building. Kasper went back to his office immediately, clutching the page the man had given him.
He poured himself a drink from the bottle he kept in his drawer and closed his eyes. The past was coming due, and there was very little he could do about the situation. 
After he swallowed, he opened his eyes again and read the first lines of the unwelcome reminder.
I, Trevor Henry Kasper, understand that my fortune will have at its foundation a creation that will live fully in my writings, as well as in life. I will enjoy my success until such time as the creation recognizes my part in its inception and returns to me to avenge itself for what I have done to it in my works.
No. 252
November 25, 2012
There are sixteen things you need to know to be successful in life. I’m going to tell you two of them. The rest you can figure out on your own.
Number one. Only pick your nose when you’re absolutely sure nobody else is watching you.
And number two. If somebody arrives on your doorstep and tells you that they need your help to save the world, lean around them and take a look at the vehicle they arrived in. If it’s a pricey one, you’re good to go.
In my case, that vehicle was a helicopter, and the someone was a woman named Mia.
No. 253
November 26, 2012
The assembled members of the Grand Council of the Toys lorded over the lonely figure in the center of the bedroom.
“You are not a toy,” a voice boomed from the Council.
The cardboard wrapping-paper tube stood against the accusation. “But I am,” it said in its defence. “He plays with me!”
The Council would have none of it. “We have decided.”
A horde of plastic, wood, metal, and fabric descended on the tube. The gathered toys swept up the interloper and dragged the tube towards the door.
“You are hereby sentenced to death. You will be offered to the beast,” the Council declared from behind them.
Sumo the dog loped down the hall. His keen eyes spotted something new in the middle of the floor. It looked like a bone. Perhaps it tasted like one as well.
The tube could not stop the inevitable.
No. 254
November 27, 2012
Elmer Ebbet brushed the dirt off of the artifact.
“Is it a clue?” asked his assistant, Paige Smith.
“No,” said Ebbet. He picked up the ceramic coffee mug he’d just unearthed and threw it away over the steep cliff at the edge of the dig site. The cup smashed on the rocks at the bottom. “We’re no closer.”
Ebbet and Smith had been searching for the Tomb of the Ancients every season for the last six years. Guided to the approximate area by a hand-drawn map they’d found in the national archives, they’d continually been able to the raise the funds they needed. This time, however, the investors had drawn their line in the sand. If no solid evidence was found on this trip, the money would be cut off, and there would be no hope of ever finding the legendary source of the Ancients’ power.
“Was that the last target on the survey?” Smith asked quietly.
“There’s nothing else here,” Ebbet confirmed. He sat down in the dust and bowed his head. “We’re finished.”
Smith sat beside him. “We’ve still got three days. We should keep digging.”
Ebbet didn’t hear her. He was talking mostly to himself when he spoke next. “I don’t understand why the map was wrong. I did everything I knew how to verify it.”
A dark figure watched the old man and his partner from the tree line just north of the cliff-side campsite. He’d been well paid by his employers to keep an eye on Ebbet’s every move. After four deployments, he was almost beginning to feel bad for his mark’s failure.
Not bad enough not to do what would have to be done when the time came, but something, anyway. As for Smith, he’d be glad to see her go.
The observer slowly pulled a radio from his belt. He turned it on and whispered to his contact. “This is Broadsword. The Digger has admitted defeat. Is Protocol A in effect? Over.”
There was a slight delay in a reply. When it came through, the radio hissed and popped first. The agent ducked quickly out of sight in case the noise was overheard.
“Negative, Broadsword. Negative. Dreadnaught says they’ve still got time. Over.”
No. 255
November 28, 2012
“You know, nine out of ten doctors recommend that you don’t do that.”
“Who’s the tenth doctor?”
“Um, that’d be you.”
“Ah, that’s right,” said Lily Steward with a weak smile.
“Well, here goes nothing,” she continued, raising the syringe to inject herself. In theory, the softly-glowing contents would heal her, although the side-effects were largely unknown.
“Wait!” Ivan interrupted.
“Why?”
“It’s just, I wasn’t really kidding. Don’t you think you ought to try everything else before you resort to this?”
“Ivan, I have. You know that. I’m not crazy. I just want to live a normal life. I don’t want to worry anymore.”
“Give me a week,” said Ivan. “There’s one last avenue I’ve been working on.”
Lily lowered the needle. She sighed deeply. “One week. But only because my little brother asked me.”
“Deal,” said Ivan. “Shake on it?”
Lily nodded.  She placed the noxious cure on the counter and extended her hand.
Later that evening, Lily returned to the darkened lab and sat down. She retrieved the syringe from her locked desk drawer and took the cap off the end. She held her breath and plunged it down into her leg. The glow from the liquid seemed to seep up through her skin as the drug worked its way into her body. “I’m sorry, Ivan,” she whispered. “Next week would have been too late.”
Then she passed out. The glass tube fell from her hand and smashed. The remaining fluid inside hissed and bubbled as it hit the ground.
When Ivan Steward arrived again in the morning, the room had been destroyed. He came around the edge of the long table in the middle and saw the broken shards of the needle and a partially melted spot on the floor. There was no sign of his sister.
“Lily, what have you done?” he desperately asked the empty space.
No. 256
November 29, 2012
“Excuse me, are you Rick Collins?” asked a young girl holding a pen and paper in her outstretched hands.
“No,” said Rick Collins, letting the short reply hang uncomfortably between them.
“Oh,” said the girl. “Sorry.”
She walked away, leaving Collins alone with his assistant.
“Why do they always do that?” he asked.
“Want your autograph?” asked Stacy Williams while she scanned her phone.
“Bother me,” Collins clarified.
“Maybe because you’re a famous movie star? I don’t know,” said Williams sarcastically. “Why would they be interested in you?”
“Exactly,” said Collins sincerely.
Williams dropped her phone down and looked up at Collins. “Wow.”
“And do you know what, Stace?”
“What?”
“My chocolate milk isn’t going to grab itself.”
Stacy was shocked at his statement. Something inside her snapped and she threw the phone at Collins. He barely caught it as she began to tell him off.
“Rick, I’ve put up with a lot over the years, but I think that’s it. You act like there’s nobody else but you in your life, and maybe today is the day you learn that there is. I quit. You can get your own milk, and deal with your own problems. And, you know what? Maybe sign an autograph or two for some kids. It couldn’t possibly hurt you.”
She stormed off, leaving Collins with his phone, which was now buzzing with several urgent reminders. He stared at it blankly. This was Stacy’s job. He felt a sharp crush of fear in his belly.
Alone was scary.
No. 257
November 30, 2012
Tom Carolla tore up his betting slip and left the track. The races had not been kind to him. As he rounded the corner at the end of the block, a large man approached him.
“Tom, I hope you still have Mr. Solomon’s money,” said the giant.
Without saying a word, Tom handed over a small roll of bills.
The big man counted to make sure he had been given the appropriate amount. “This should cover it,” he confirmed.
“I might not be a great judge of horses, Dino,” Tom said. “But I’m not stupid.”
The man nodded. “That’s right. That’s why Mr. Solomon told me that if you paid up, I could offer you a job.”
Carolla’s interest was piqued. “What kind of work?”
“Mr. Solomon has a boat coming in tonight. He wants you down at the docks to deal with one of the passengers.”
Tom knew instantly who he was meant to “deal with”. “It’s Kate, isn’t it?”
Dino touched his nose, and his pointed silence confirmed Tom’s suspicions.
“Great,” Tom grumbled.
“And Mr. Solomon doesn’t want what happened last time to happen again,” Dino warned.
“Then can I have my money back?” asked Tom.
Dino smiled and tossed the roll to Carolla. “Not like last time,” he repeated.
The two men spent a moment watching each other in awkwardly.
“She’s my sister. I’m not her boss,” said Tom defensively.
“It’s a good thing she’s your sister, too, Tommy, or Mr. Solomon would have cut you loose years ago,” Dino laughed.
No. 258
December 1, 2012
“Guys, you have to see this.”
Brad Somersby pressed “Play” and the video started.
“Hi. It’s me. Brad Somersby. If you’re watching this, I’m dead,” he said on the tape.
The three people in the room studied the image with shocked attention.
The Brad on the screen kept talking. “In the event that something unfortunate has happened to me, I have some things to say.”
The real Brad cut off the rest of morbid speech before it could get going. He looked at the two others. They both stared back at him, confused about the purpose of the viewing.
His friend Sarah Hollander sat in the corner uncomfortably, finding the whole scenario distasteful. She said nothing, and tried to hunch further down into her seat.
Grant Martins spoke first. “You’re very clearly not dead, buddy. Why are you showing that to us?”
 “That’s the thing,” said Brad. “I didn’t leave that message.”
No. 259
December 3, 2012
Al Munsen wandered through the grocery store, trying to remember what was on his list, and failing to keep the canned background music out of his head. He walked up and down each aisle, grimly searching for something to eat for dinner.
He passed the fresh fish, and then took several steps back to see something that had caught the corner of his eye.
“What’s that?” he asked the man behind the counter. Al pointed at a large, colorful, slightly spiny fish that was laid out at the edge of the case.
“Oh, that?” said the man. “That’s a triggerfish. Nobody ever buys that.”
“Really?”
“Haven’t ever sold one. Not in the whole chain of stores. That’s all I know. Maybe people think it’s too exotic.”
“Why do you have one in, then?”
The man behind the counter became shifty. His nervous eyes darted back and forth, watching alertly for other customers. He motioned for Al to get closer. “Come here. Watch this.”
The man lifted the tail of the triggerfish and, to Al’s surprise, underneath was a small red button, half-buried in the ice. The man took one final check to make sure he and Al were alone, and then pressed it.
Al heard a hollow sound of something falling away, and then the whole ice-filled counter dropped slightly and rolled aside to reveal a narrow trapdoor.
“Come on,” the man beckoned as he began to climb down a ladder. “Check this out.”
Al was intrigued. He placed his basket on the floor, and, with a shrug, followed the man through the hole.
They arrived in a small room. There was a large, metal door in front of them. The man took the handle and slid it open to reveal a gigantic freezer. Frost had built up around the edges of doorframe, and Al couldn’t see inside because of the cold fog that condensed into the warmer landing area.
The man said nothing, but held out his arm, inviting Al to enter the cooler.
The change in temperature was abrupt and significant as Al walked in. He started shivering almost immediately. He didn’t notice the man stay behind as he crept slowly forward into the gloom. As he entered the heart of the ice box, the fog dropped away.
Al gasped. He was not the only being inside. He turned to reach for the exit but the man slammed the heavy door shut. Al spun around to face his new companion.
The huge white creature roared and stumbled toward Al, loping forward on its squat back legs and long, powerful arms. In seconds, the yeti was on Al, howling and tearing at him.
The man at the fish counter whistled while he prepared an odd, red meat. He labeled it “Tuna” as he placed it in the display beside the striking triggerfish.
No. 260
December 4, 2012
It was eleven o’clock on Saturday night as Lewis Halliday looked out the window of the Mississippi steamboat he captained. The sunset was long behind him, and he guided his ship deftly down the river in the dark, taking care to avoid the dangerous sandbars he knew to be lurking just below the surface of the water.
Halliday kept his practiced hand on the wheel, every vibration and shudder of the boat travelling up through his arms. At this speed, they’d reach Memphis by morning. His hopes for an easy journey were dashed, however, when he felt, more than heard, the engine go silent.
“Silas!” Halliday called for his first mate. He knew he could trust the brawny man to help him sort out any problems. “Get to the engine-room! Make her right!”
“Yes, Sir!” Silas acknowledged from somewhere on the deck outside the bridge.
The engine-room was a Dickensian nightmare of steam pipes and fittings. Silas inspected each one for a flaw that might have slowed the mighty vessel. If he didn’t repair the engine soon, the Dixie Princess would be uncontrollable with no way to steer clear of the river’s obstacles. Silas hoped that the fix would be easy. There was no way to fabricate a part in time, if that’s what was needed.
Before he could finish his survey, the pistons began to move again as the steam built up. Control was restored to the helm.
“Well done, man!” Silas head the Captain’s voice from the speaking-tube. “She’s mine, again!”
But Silas scratched his head. What had just happened shouldn’t have been possible. After all, he hadn’t even seen the cause of the problem. He climbed a steep ladder back up to the open-air balcony at the stern of the boat. From his new vantage point, he watched the huge paddle sweep the water, driving the boat forward. He couldn’t detect any hint that moments before, the wheel had been solidly stopped.
Captain Halliday watched Silas duck back through the door to the bridge. “She feels good. You did a fine job.”
Silas took off his hat, and walked closer to YYY. In a hushed voice, so that other crew members could not hear, he explained a recommendation to the Captain.
“What?” said Halliday loudly. “We have a schedule to keep. I can’t allow us to stop for a moment, especially now, as we’ve already been delayed. We can’t miss our target.”
“Sir,” said Silas. “I beg you to reconsider. We need to tie up and shut down the engine to find out why it cut out.” Then he caught himself, and began to whisper again. “I know we have precious cargo, and I don’t think it was a coincidence that tonight is the first time the Dixie’s engine has ever failed.”
Halliday closed his eyes. He realized his mate was right. He replied, matching Silas’ low tones. “You’re correct again, old friend. But we can’t stop. Not for anything. I need to you go to stateroom three and stand guard. Perkins will relieve you in two hours. Don’t move for anyone but him.” Halliday turned his eyes back to the river before he spoke again. “If the engine goes quiet again, ignore it. Enter the room and shield the girl at all costs.”
Silas nodded, and left the Captain without another word.
Stateroom three was on the top deck of the boat. Silas looked down at the black water, four stories below. He pulled a three-legged stool beside the door of the cabin, and sat down. His hand fell to the smooth butt of the pistol he’d strapped on after leaving the bridge. They’d reach their destination in a little less than six hours. He needed to protect Miss Emma Becker until then.
Captain Halliday examined his pocket watch intently. Then he bent over the wheel and spoke to the Dixie. “Hang together, Grand Lady. We’ve got a deadline to make.”
No. 261
December 5, 2012
“You won’t remember for seven days,” was the last thing Henry remembered the hypnotist saying. At the time, Harry had told his wife that taking part in the show was a bad plan, but she’d insisted that they were on vacation and that “it would be fun.”
According to the newspaper that had been slid under his hotel door, it was indeed seven days later. Henry didn’t know where his wife was, but it didn’t seem like anybody had slept on her side of the bed. He pulled back the curtains of the large window in the tiny room, and saw something that worried him greatly.
Instead of the bright lights of Las Vegas, all that filled the view were scrubby cacti and sand.
Then he found the package in the bathroom.
Wrapped in plain brown paper and twine, it was heavy when Henry picked it up. He pulled the covering off carefully. Inside was a single solid-gold brick. The side facing Henry did not have any markings, so he turned it over. It was stamped “1862”. Underneath that inscription was another date, carved much more recently with some crude tool. That date was last week, the day after they hypnotizing.
Henry composed himself and left the room. He found his way to the front desk and asked the girl on duty where he was. She looked at him oddly. “Mr. Peterson, you’re in Arizona. You were quite specific about confirming that yesterday when you checked in.”
Henry stumbled back into a chair in the middle of the lobby.
“Mr. Peterson, are you alright?” asked the girl.
“Yes. Yes, thank you. I’m fine,” murmured Henry Cobb. “I just forgot something, that’s all.”
No. 262
December 7, 2012
“Hey, come look at this,” said Charlie.
“What is it?” I asked him. I’d been reading my book on the couch and I didn’t want to get up for nothing.
He was somewhere on the other side of the house. I could hear him knocking on something. The noise intrigued me, so I put aside my blanket and tea, and got up to see what he was yelling about.
“What?” I said again as I rounded the corner into the back bedroom. Actually, it wasn’t a bedroom. We’d always used it for an office because it was so small.
Charlie was tapping the wall on the far side of the room. “I think this is hollow.”
“Of course it’s hollow. It should be, unless there’s a beam behind it,” I told him.
“No,” he said. “No, this is different.” He thumped on the opposite wall. “Hear that?”
I did. It wasn’t the same sound. “Do the first one, again.”
He hit them both, one after the other.
“You’re right,” I admitted. “What do you think it is?”
He didn’t answer me. Instead, he pulled a hammer out of his toolbox and drove it through the “hollow” wall. The tool left an enormous gouge in the otherwise flat surface. Charlie grabbed the edge of the smashed drywall and pulled. It sloughed off in an entire sheet, as if it hadn’t been properly anchored in the first place.
I craned my neck to see what, if anything, it revealed.
“I might have made a mistake,” Charlie admitted when we didn’t detect anything out of the ordinary. There was just the usual pink insulation and framing boards.
“Wait,” I told him. “What’s this?” There was something just behind the edge of the new hole. I peeled back a portion of the wall that was still standing.
“It’s a doorknob,” said Charlie. “What’s a doorknob doing back there?”
I tugged the rest of that piece of drywall. It, too, came away easily.
“What’s an entire door doing back here?” I asked him.
We both stood for a minute and looked at it. Charlie was the first to speak.
“Do you think we should open it?”
No. 263
The Neighborhood Submarine Part 2
December 8, 2012
“First things first,” said Randy. “I’m in charge. You’re a year older, but it’s my submarine, so I’m the boss.”
“Ok,” Marnie agreed. “What do we do to start?”
Randy was surprised. He hadn’t expected her to be so agreeable. Maybe his idea would work, after all. “How much can you lift?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “I don’t know. A lot.”
“Good,” said Randy. “Me, too. We need to pull it from my back yard, to the pond.” He looked at his watch. “But we have to hurry. I need to be home for dinner soon.”
Both children tried their hardest to budge the submarine. Randy’s construction had skewed towards the durable, and the craft proved highly resistant to moving. They sat down together, and leaned on the smooth black hull.
“We’re having spaghetti tonight,” said Randy.
“You should probably go,” said Marnie.
They parted ways with promises to return to the problem before lunchtime the next day.
Randy went inside and washed up.
“What were you and Marnie up to?” his mom asked him while they sat down at the table.
Randy didn’t look at his mom, instead he watched Mr. Fluffy carefully select the spot on the floor that would allow the most efficient path to any food that might fall from the table. “We were trying to get my submarine to the pond. Nobody else would help.”
“I see,” said his mom. “I suppose it’s nice that you had one friend, though.”
“She’s not my friend, Mom. I told you. She’s the only one who showed up.”
“Is there a plan for tomorrow?” asked his mom, changing the subject slightly.
Randy took a bite of his spaghetti and chewed slowly before he answered.
“I don’t know yet. I have to call Marnie after dinner and see if we can think of anything.”
No. 264
December 9, 2012
Bees are typically assumed to be industrious and hardworking. Not Apis. Apis was a lazy bee. He accomplished this mostly by blending in. Looking exactly like everybody else made it fairly simple, and all Apis had to do was wander from one part of the hive to another, looking like he’d just arrived from someplace important.
None of the other bees ever noticed. Most were too busy going about their own business. Apis lived well. Better than the Queen, maybe. It was the perfect strategy.
Except that Apis was lonely. Living like a phantom meant that having friends was impossible. Too many questions would have to be answered, and Apis’ entire system would crumble the minute somebody talked. And if anybody found out how he’d been living, Apis would face the wrath of the entire colony.
So he kept up the deceit. Every day, he watched the other bees, beginning to wonder just what it might be like to join in. Every day, falling just a little bit farther away, until one morning another bee stopped him.
“Hey, you! You aren’t from around here, are you?”
Apis froze, and then turned slowly to face the inquisitor. He had a choice. He could answer falsely, and remain safe, or truthfully, and take his chances. He thought about it quickly, and then took a deep breath before he replied.
No. 265
December 10, 2012
Alan Conner deviated from his regular routine and turned left into the coffee shop, instead of crossing the street.
The barista behind the counter greeted him cheerfully, but he ignored her for the moment and concentrated on taking in his surroundings. His phone beeped at him quietly to remind him of an important appointment, but he ignored that, too.
“Sir, can I help you?” the barista asked again, mistaking Conner’s silence for indecision.
“Yes, thank you,” he replied. “Coffee, please.”
She looked at him strangely. “What kind of coffee?”
“I was just thinking about how I’ve never been in here before,” said Conner.
“We have light, or dark roast on, or we can make you any kind of latte that you want,” said the barista helpfully.
Conner’s phone began to ring. He fumbled to silence it.
“Busy day?” asked the barista.
Conner smiled. “No, not really.”
A line was beginning to form behind him, but he didn’t see it.
“I’ll tell you what,” said the barista. “I’ll get them to make you a latte. You’ll like it. It’ll be on me, today.” She directed Conner to the other side of the counter.
“Really nice place you’ve got here,” he said as he made his way over. Then he collapsed.
Somebody in line screamed. The barista ran around the bar to Conner’s side. “Call 911,” she yelled at her colleague who was near the phone.
“Hold still,” she told Conner. “Are you ok?”
“I’m awfully glad I came in,” replied Conner dreamily. “It’s not what I usually do.” Another alarm on his phone began to ring, and he managed to summon the strength to throw the device towards a trash can. It didn’t make the distance, and it shattered as it landed on the tile floor short of the target.
“What’s your name?” he asked the barista. “I’ll have to come by here again, sometime.” Then he passed out.
The barista continued to kneel beside him, and watched the slow rise and fall of his chest.
The paramedics arrived and Conner was soon on a stretcher and out the door to a waiting ambulance.
“They forgot his briefcase,” said the barista to nobody.
No. 266
No. 238 Part 2
December 11, 2012
Protagonist was still unconvinced. “Ok, say that we did do that. How do we make up a story, especially an original story? The machine is never wrong. There’s nothing left!”
A grin began to spread across Antagonist’s face. “But we’re not human, are we?”
“No,” said Protagonist, now beginning to understand. “We’re not.”
Antagonist leaned in close. “It’s up to us.”
Protagonist nodded. He watched the flat line continue to display on the machine’s printout. “How do we begin?” he asked.
Antagonist was very still for a moment. Then he answered. “First, we need a hero.”
As he said the words, the line on the machine jumped slightly.
No. 267
December 12, 2012
The invasion began at 12:22 AM. Olivia Fielder had just finished her homework, and had been heading to bed. Her father was shouting from downstairs. “Everybody get in the basement!”
Olivia had never heard her dad sound so afraid. She ran down the stairs, taking them two steps at a time. As she crossed the living room, she caught a glimpse through the window of what was happening outside.
Strange, colored lights flashed in all directions. Everything they touched melted instantly. Olivia could just make out a giant, shadowy shape that was moving slowly towards her. She stood, frozen in place, until her dad grabbed her and dragged her back to the relative safety of the basement.
“Stay down!” he warned her.
She could see the panic in his eyes. Her mother and little sister were already in the corner, shaking, but silent.
The entire house rumbled as something huge rolled by. The Fielder family huddled closer together and followed the sound as it passed. Olivia could feel the hairs on her arms stand up.
“What about Brooke?” asked Olivia’s sister. Brooke was a friend from down the block.
Mr. Fielder delivered grim news. “We can’t worry about Brooke right now.”
Something in her sister’s question rallied Olivia. Before anyone could stop her, she got up and dashed toward the exit. “I’m going to find out,” she told her astonished family. She rushed up the stairs and darted out across the lawn toward Brooke’s house.
“Stuff you, if you thought that the last thing that I was ever going to do was study!” she yelled at the attacking armada.
No. 268
December 13, 2012
William Drake had been raised, since he was very young, to act like the King. The King was the same age as William, and the two boys were identical in appearance. But William was poor, and his family had decided for him that when the time came and he was sufficiently trained, that he would switch places with the King and rule in his place.
Years of practice in combat, diplomacy, manners, and law, not to mention memorizing all of the members of the court, had left William as ready as he would ever be to usurp the throne by the time of his 16th birthday.
However, as his family readied the final steps of their nefarious plan, something unexpected happened. The King died, gruesomely and publicly, in a terrible accident. The new regent was a queen, the deceased ruler’s cousin.
There was only one way to salvage the years of preparation and specific training William’s family had invested. He was sent to the castle to play the part of an undead visitor, as a shade who could bend the ear of the Queen to the whims of the Drakes. 
No. 269
December 14, 2012
Davis Purdy watched the numbers on the clock tick down toward zero. He didn’t know what would happen when the time ran out, but he was guessing that it wasn’t going to be pleasant.
The clock had appeared in the center of town the night before with no clue as to where it came from or who had built it. Its solid stone sides concealed the inner workings rather effectively. Square, flat black, and massive, the only feature was the face, with the ominous, decreasing digits.
He studied it as it fell to 620460. Judging from the rate of decay, that would roll over in a little under a week. Purdy pulled a drill from his tool belt and, with half the town looking on from what was assumed to be a safe distance, pressed the bit into the rock.
It didn’t bite, and the gathered crowd was overwhelmed by a loud chime from the mysterious clock. The numbers began to change faster.
No. 270
December 15, 2012
Danny rode in the caboose because his father drove the train. This had always been the case, until the day they stopped for water in a small desert town.
“Come up to the front, Danny,” his father called over the radio. “There’s lots to see from up here.”
No. 271
December 16, 2012
The high-dive platform was awfully high.
“Just jump, already!” somebody yelled from the bottom.
“Hurry up! The rest of us want to go, too!” called somebody else.
Grace Logan crept closer to the edge. She peered down at the brilliant blue water below. She could see the white lines painted on the bottom of the pool, but, from her perspective, they seemed to float up near the surface. They looked like unpleasant obstacles, to be sure.
The shouts from down below were becoming more insistent.  “Come on, scaredy!”
Grace backed away from the drop. She decided that today was not going to be the day that she made her first jump off of the big board. She climbed slowly back down the ladder, hoping that maybe the line-up for the waterslide wasn’t too long.
The boy at the front of the line who’d been screaming the most passed Grace on his way up. “Going to find your mom to help you?” the bully sneered.
Grace punched him right in the face. She was only afraid of heights, not fights.
No. 272
December 17, 2012
Way out, past Guardsville, there is a lone cabin at the edge of the river. Nobody has ever gone that far into the woods to see it, except for the time Lorne Johnson lost his canoe paddle and got swept downstream.
He came back with what might be our only description of the place. Certainly, though, the story has been embellished since the first telling.
They say he saw it on a Tuesday. I can tell you right away that this doesn’t make sense. I know for a fact that Lorne meets his girlfriend, Kelly, on Tuesdays, and that she won’t go within a mile of the river. She thinks it’s dirty.
He spoke of a single lantern hung up outside the door, and some kind of monster shadow behind the boarded-up windows. Yes, a shadow behind windows that are covered in wood. I told you, this town will do things to a story that would make your mother blush.
There might have been singing, or eerie music, and Lorne claims it wasn’t in English. I suppose that’s fair. We’ll give him that one.
Since he managed to make his way home, two weeks later, and after fighting off such dangers as lights and shadows, Lorne says that he thinks he’s being followed. But only ever on Tuesdays. He thinks it’s the “Dark Lady” who lives in the cabin, but we all assume it’s just Trisha, his Friday girlfriend.
Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you about the other part of the story, where there’s a pulsating glow in the sky, and “huge-normous” “snake-tracks” in the ground. I usually try to leave that bit out when I recount the tale to company, because I heard it from Reg Dalton, and he’s even less credible than Lorne.
What we can safely assume from all of this is that, at some point in his life, Lorne has seen a cabin, or cabin-like structure, that he knows what a song is, and that I should probably move, because the folks around here are plum crazy. 
No. 273
The Flower Shop Part 2
December 18, 2012
“Laura tells me about them,” he added quickly, feeling that his first explanation wasn’t quite adequate.
Sally’s face lit up. “It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” she assured him. “Men can be interested in flowers, too.”
“I like them,” he said, looking Sally in the eyes. He knew right away that he shouldn’t have. They both shifted imperceptibly closer to each other.
“Laura should be done soon,” said Sally. A large frond swept her cheek, and she instinctively brushed it away.
Sean nodded, and swallowed hard. “I like the cactuses,” he said, deliberately choosing his words while turning from the new girl.
“That’s not news.”
Sean spun around. Laura was standing in the narrow doorway to the tropical section. “Let’s get out of here,” she said, flipping her hair out of a ponytail.
Sally had disappeared. For the first time, Sean could feel sweat on his brow. The damp atmosphere seemed to hold him in place. If he tried hard enough, he could still smell perfume lingering in air. 
“Why are you waiting? Let’s go,” said Laura. She was bouncing from heel to toe with excited energy.
Sean walked towards her, severing the last connection to the charged space. He held out his hand for hers as they made their way back through the store to the exit.
On the way out, Laura pointed at a large plant with bladelike dark green and yellow leaves. “Sansevieria trifasciata,” she told him. “Remember that from last time?”

Sean shook his head.

Sally waved from behind the counter. “Goodnight!” she called.

“That’s Sally,” whispered Laura. “She’s new.”

“I know,” said Sean. “We met.”

Then they left the flower shop.

No. 274
December 19, 2012
Then Caitlin Wright woke up. It had all been a dream.

But what a dream it had been. Caitlin lay in bed and pulled the covers up over her head, trying to recapture something she couldn’t quite recall.

Her alarm went off moments later, and she remembered that today was the day of the heist. Rolling upright, she shrugged off the warm blanket and padded to her closet. She opened the door and looked down at the man who was duct-taped and gagged on the floor.

He made some muffled noises of protest as she reached around him for her favorite shirt. “Don’t worry,” she told him. “After we rob your armored truck, we’ll let you go.” She bent down and removed his uniform jacket. As she did, she made sure his bonds were still tight.

Hearing her ride pull up outside and honk, she straightened up and squinted at the morning sun that was streaming in through the window. She yawned and spoke again to her captive. “It’s too early, isn’t it? I’ll tell you what. If you’re good, and everything goes to plan, I’ll bring you back a coffee.”

No. 275
December 20, 2012
Today, Boy was going to meet Girl. He just didn’t know it yet. 

There would be a series of challenges, and events would have to fall into place just so between now and then, but the introductions would happen by sundown.

Boy woke up and left his house.

Girl got on the bus for work.

The future was in motion. 

No. 276
Golden Age Part 2
December 21, 2012
“We’re all here,” said Spitfire.

When at an official meeting, all the residents of Golden Age used their code names.

“Excellent,” said Mercury. Then he noticed that Spitfire’s statement wasn’t entirely correct. “Where’s Nuclear Boy?”

Mary spoke up from the back. “He’s in the nurse’s office. He’ll be along later.”

“Well, we can’t wait for him. We’re old. Meeting’s starting,” said Mercury. “As you all may have heard, Golden Age is closing. That’s the first issue. The second is that my mail’s been going missing. I know my old partner Tidal Wave sends a letter every week. Last month, I didn’t get two. And this month there’s already been one that’s disappeared.”

“Tell us more about the closing,” said Electra-Girl.

“Yes,” said The Iron Spike. “Nobody cares about your mail.”

Mercury turned to Mary. “They want to know,” he said, giving her the floor.

Mary ran down the short list of facts about the closing. In two months, the residents would have to move out, and then the building would be knocked down and replaced with a big-box store.

The angry shouts of the residents began to drown out Mary’s soft voice.

“Quiet down,” said Mercury. “What we’re going to do is quite simple. Spitfire and Electra-Girl are going to head out to the old Headquarters and bring back the Confederate gold from the trophy room. Remember that case? That should help with the finances. At the same time, I’m going to head straight down to the new Director’s office and find out about my letters.”

There was a muted buzz of voices. All the ex-heroes agreed with the plan. It did sound simple, and it would solve the pressing problem of possible relocation. They agreed to reconvene when Spitfire and Electra-Girl returned with the money.

John went straight to the Director’s office. The secretary let him in, and he sat in front of the large desk and waited. He did not appreciate the delay.

Some minutes later, the Director entered from a side door. He crossed the wide room slowly and sat down in his oversized chair.

Both men stared at each other.

“Mercury,” said the Director icily. “How good to see you.”

“Professor Death, my old nemesis,” John replied. “I thought you died in Burma.”

No. 277

January 4, 2013

The conveyor belt ground to a halt. In a distant part of the vast factory, an alarm whooped forlornly.
“It wouldn’t be so bad without all the noise,” said Barney Yates.
“I suppose,” said Kelly Ashford. She wasn’t a talker.
The pair had worked together on the same line for almost seven years, although they rarely spoke.
“Seems like it’s been shutting down a lot more recently,” said Yates. Then he waited patiently for a reply.
“Yup,” agreed Kelly.
“Equipment’s getting old,” Barney offered as an explanation that Kelly hadn’t asked for. “Or I guess it could be something else, too.”
In response, she took a sandwich out of her lunch box and began to eat it deliberately. “Sorry. Chewing,” she said, while pointing at her mouth.
“Hey, that’s fine by me. We all gotta eat, right?” said Barney, undeterred, and not catching the hint. “Sure is nice to have a break.”
There was a great mechanical rumble as the machines began to spool up again. The alarm shut off, and a buzzer announced the impending start of the equipment.
Kelly and Barney began their work again, and continued to do so for the rest of the day. When the whistle blew to signal the end of their shift, Barney continued the conversation where he’d left off.
“Any plans tonight?” he asked.
“Nope,” said Kelly. She checked her watch. “I’ve got to run.”
“Okay,” said Barney. “Talk to you tomorrow!”
No. 278
January 5, 2013
“What happened?” Alan asked his friend Sam.

“You know that homeless guy who hangs out behind the Starbucks? He bit me,” Sam replied, cradling his forearm.

“Were you bothering him?”

“I don’t think so. I was just coming out with my drink.”

Alan shrugged. “Sucks.”

“Yeah, it stings, too,” said Sam testily.

They continued walking toward Alan’s car, parked a ways down the block.

Sam staggered, and then fell against a wall.

Alan leapt to help him up. By doing so, he just missed getting vaporized by a thick bolt of light that hit the ground where he’d just been standing.

A shadow fell over the two men. Sam looked up to see an enormous flying saucer hovering above them.

Alan turned to him and offered a completely unnecessary observation. “I didn’t think we were going to go in that direction.”

No. 279
January 7, 2013
I only saw her for a second. She passed in front of the store window and, as she did, she tucked a strand of her blonde hair behind her ear.

I was stuck inside, ringing up a complete jerk who didn’t believe that I knew how to calculate ten percent off. I should have thrown his stupid sweater in his stupid face and run after her.  I resigned myself to the fact that I would probably never see her again.

It was months later, and also my last day on the job. I was moving west, to a state that people usually move from. I was almost ready to go for my lunch break when she walked in.

“I need a shirt,” she told me.

“For yourself, or somebody else?” I asked her. Now that she was here, I could smell her perfume. Some sort of flower. I’m not an expert.

“For a friend,” she said, not exactly narrowing the options. “A girl, um, women friend,” she added, realizing the need to be specific.

“Right over here,” I told her, directing her to the correct department.

I helped her sort through a few choices, answering simple questions about styles and sizing. I suddenly had a feeling that maybe I was watching her too closely. Maybe I was getting a little bit creepy.

I walked into the store on a whim. My friend’s birthday was coming up and I hadn’t had time to find her a present yet. The guy behind the counter looked a little bit like somebody that I’d gone to school with, but I don’t think it was the same person, because he didn’t recognize me.

“I need a shirt,” I told him.

He was very helpful, even when I was useless in describing what I wanted. I can’t expect the clerk to know what kind of thing I’m shopping for. Unless he was a mind-reading clerk, but I’m pretty sure my darkest secrets are still safe.

He was standing a little close, though. I chose to allow it. He was being nice, after all.

I found a couple things I liked, and we took them to the till.

“Do you have a loyalty account yet?” he asked.

I told him no, and he explained about the deals you could get with that.

“Sign me up,” I told him. “My name’s July.”

She told me her name was July. At first I thought she was setting up a bogus account to get the discounts but not the junk mail. She explained that it really was her name, and that she had sisters named January and April. Her story sounded credible enough, so I set it up for her.

“And now the hard part,” I said. “I just need your phone number.”

He asked for my phone number. So I gave it to him.

No. 280
January 8, 2013
Although dogs and chimps had traditionally been used to test man’s space faring vessels, it was a squirrel that was the first earth-creature to make it to Mars.

Nobody was a hundred percent clear on why a squirrel had been chosen. It was whispered in the corridors of the International Space Agency that a squirrel had simply been the first animal acquired by the test department and had therefore been pressed into service due to a certain laziness on the part of the technicians. This rumor was neither confirmed nor denied by those in charge.

Now the animal, unimaginatively named Number One, was in the final stages of descent to the Red Planet. The microphones placed in the capsule to monitor Number One sent back the sounds of vigorous chittering. The camera had failed to come online, and so Mission Control could only guess at the exact emotional state of their rodent subject.

When all the lights on the monitoring consoles turned green, the humans knew that the landing had been successful. A man in the back row keyed his radio and gave the order to release Number One into the modified exercise ball that was to be his primary means of transport across the Martian world.

The history books, somewhat erroneously, would record the squirrel’s name as “Skippy”.

No. 281
January 9, 2013
Rob Tiller had been tied up and set adrift on the lake in a small boat. He struggled to free himself but could not manage to loosen the binding ropes. His attempts to escape became more urgent when he realized that the boat had a leak. Rob estimated that he’d be underwater within the hour.

Tiller’s problems had all started the day before, when his best friend double-crossed him. The betrayal was over a bet, of all things, not even a girl.

No. 282
January 11, 2013
“Where’s my party shirt?” asked Scott.

“You mean that ratty blue one you always try to wear?” said his girlfriend, Hilary.

“It’s not ratty. It’s fine,” said Scott, taking a stand in a battle he couldn’t win.

“I don’t know,” said Hilary. “Last time I saw it was after that thing at the Fleury’s house.”

“You know I can’t party without it,” said Scott. He was rooting through his closet frantically, and was beginning to suspect that Hilary had followed through on her repeated threats to burn the shirt in question.

“Why don’t you wear that nice green shirt you got for your birthday?” suggested Hilary, trying to distract Scott from discovering that she had, in fact, thrown out his shirt.

“It’s not comfortable,” said Scott. “And it’s not fun.”

Hilary put her foot down. “Wear the green shirt.”

Scott gave her the stink-eye, but did as he was told. He knew, in that moment, what she had done.

No. 283
January 12, 2013
The chickens had been hearing rumors for some time that a fox was planning to raid the henhouse. They gathered together to examine their options to prevent the fox from attacking.

“I propose,” said the head chicken, “That we band together and, when the fox arrives, we fight him!”

“Aye!” said all the other chickens. “Aye!”

Three nights later the fox crept toward the darkened henhouse. The head chicken, who had been keeping watch, spotted the fox and called to the others. “To arms, friends! To arms! It’s time to repel the villainous fox!”

But the other chickens had gone. They had realized that they were chickens who had been planning to defeat a fox in open combat. The head chicken re-evaluated his strategy and ran away, too.

The fox ate all the delicious eggs and went back to its den to take a nap. 

No. 284
January 14, 2013
When I worked at the Sunshine Bean, our biggest rivalry wasn’t with the Java Stop down the street. It was with the 80th Street Sunshine Bean, three blocks away. They always seemed to outperform our sales by the slightest of margins, and their reviews were always just a little bit higher.

Our sister store was, to us, a strange, unpleasant place to visit. Even though it had a similar floor plan, and the exact same decor, it was off somehow. And not just because everything was kept one drawer over to the left. The staff were, obviously, not as friendly as ours and, to be honest, we had at least four or five people a day walk into our store to have their drinks fixed that 80th Street had made wrong.

At the time, of course, we all just considered it healthy competition. It wasn’t until I’d moved on from Sunshine Bean that I began to hear rumors of what actually went down at 80th Street. I’d get messages from friends who still worked for the company. Odd messages in the middle of the night.  I found a note under the windshield wiper of my car. All the correspondence said the same thing.

“It happens at night.”

My curiosity was piqued, and one evening, well past my bedtime, I drove by the 80th Street Sunshine Bean. The lights were on, and there were people moving around inside. It was past closing, and according to standard practices, nobody should have been there. I parked around the corner, and moved closer on foot.

They were loading something into a trap door in the floor that certainly wasn’t in the plans of my store. And the something they were loading, though obscured in a large canvas sack, was squirming.

Then one of them saw me. They yelled to the others, and the entire group scattered. The lights were quickly shut off. It was too late for me to run. I pulled out my phone and pointed the camera at the storefront.

I called out into the darkness. “Let me in, or your secret gets revealed.”

No. 285
January 15, 2013
The letter was addressed to her but the apartment number was off by one digit. I should have just taken it over, but I opened it. Now I knew something about my neighbor that I’m sure she’d want to keep quiet.
I debated doing nothing. She’d never suspect that it came to me. Mail gets lost all the time. But this, this letter, she needed to get. I couldn’t look at myself if I kept it from her. Then I realized that if I stuffed it under her door, I’d be home free. She’d know her secret was out, but she wouldn’t be able to pin it on me.
I was kneeling in front of her apartment, ready to do the deed, when her door opened. Her eyes locked on mine as I froze, evidence in hand.
 “I see that somebody’s been a naughty girl,” she said, her face darkening.
No. 286
January 16, 2013
The oasis had been a closely guarded secret for a thousand years. Those who knew about it visited only infrequently, and only in times of most desperate need. It was whispered that the waters stole five years of life for every taste. Men, crazed with thirst, would risk the curse to wet their tongues.
The traveler stood atop the dune that separated the oasis from his caravan. He knew the others had no idea they were so close to a spring. The traveler remembered his father’s warning and wanted to turn away, but he had no choice. They had been without water for more than a day, by now. The desert sun was extracting a heavy toll. He thought about his wife and son, waiting in the valley below. Could they make it to safety, still another day away? He knew the decision he had to make, and, with a conflicted heart, he made his way down the sandy slope to inform the others.
Better to live now, and worry about the future later.
No. 287
January 17, 2013
When the time came, Robert’s house split down the middle, and the rocket rose up on its gantry.
Robert stood by and watched his masterpiece. He sipped his tea, and admired the name painted on the front of the sleek craft.
“Perseverance”.
He smiled.
No. 288
January 18, 2013
Christy Anne Taylor was at the bottom of a wishing well, feeling around in the shallow, stagnant water and shoveling coins into a backpack she’d received as a free gift with a magazine subscription.
“Hurry up, C.A.,” her boyfriend Randy called from the top of the shaft. “Somebody’s pulling into the parking lot.”
“If you wanted to hurry, why didn’t you crawl on down here?” she yelled back. “Go hide in the truck ‘till they leave. They’re not going to look in here.”
Randy did as he was told. It was pork chop night and, if Christy Anne got angry, she would only make enough for her.
The car eventually left, and Randy returned to the scene of the crime-in-progress. “Some kids,” he reported. “Making out.”
“That’s fantastic,” said Christy Anne. “I think I’m about done, here. Pull me up.”
She grabbed the well-bucket rope, and Randy dutifully hauled her to the surface.
“What’s the smell?” he asked as she crawled back onto the grass.
“You watch your mouth, Randy,” she said.
“How much did we get tonight?” he asked.
“’Bout seven fifty,” she told him. “And a pair of sunglasses.”
No. 289
Choose Your Own Adventure 1
January 21, 2013
Shannon Harper pulled out her pen and notebook. “What happens to the ghost?” she asked the small crowd of construction workers.  
“Ghost?” replied the foreman, Frank Gretz. “I don’t know anything about a ghost.”
Harper shook her head. “You’re tearing something down, and you haven’t even considered what might happen? The place is haunted.”
They both looked at the structure in question. One of the town’s original buildings, the general store was being bulldozed to make way for a new shopping center.
“Look, I understand you need to write your story for the paper, but we’ve got a job to do, too. I can’t spend all day talking about nonsense,” said Gretz.
“It’s not nonsense,” countered Harper. “It’s our history. So, again, what happens to the ghost?”
Gretz spat on the ground. “I reckon he’ll get the hint when the walls come down.”
No. 290
Choose Your Own Adventure 2
January 22, 2013
The ghost watched the proceedings from a second-floor window. She set her head down on the sill and tried to think of a way to stop the demolition of her home. In retrospect, perhaps she’d been too keen on haunting the former owners of her shop. Maybe if she’d let them alone they wouldn’t have sold out to ValuMart.

Until now, she’d been relatively benign. Her haunting hadn’t been malevolent. She’d done it primarily to keep busy. There was only so much that a spirit trapped in a single building could do with their time. She’d made the walls bleed, once, but that had been an accident. When she was younger, she hadn’t yet realized the extent of her powers.   

She’d always had bad luck, too, dating back to before the day, ninety-seven years ago, that she’d been killed during a botched robbery.

She saw the fat man spit. She could barely hear his voice.

“He called me a ‘he’,” she muttered to herself. “If only he stepped inside, I could convince him to step right back out. And to take his machinery with him.”

Her words had a touch of fear to them. So far as she understood, if the building was razed, she’d cease to exist. She’d made it through one death, but she wasn’t going to roll over and let it happen a second time.

She placed her head back on her neck and floated downstairs. There wasn’t much time to prepare.

No. 291
Choose Your Own Adventure 3
January 23, 2013
Harper realized that the foreman wasn’t going to be cooperative. She changed her approach. “Can I go inside?” she asked Gretz. “Maybe I can get some color for my story.”
Gretz waved her on dismissively. “Be my guest,” he told her. “We start the tear-down in twenty minutes. You’ll hear a siren go once with five minutes left, and then twice with one minute left.”
Harper nodded, then adjusted her glasses and marched up to the front door of the store.
The ghost saw Harper enter the building. She waited until the reporter was fully inside to trigger her trap. To start, the door swung shut and locked tight.  Then the ghost chilled the air in the room and projected a knife at Harper’s head. The woman managed to dodge the blade. She dove to the floor, where she was left curled up in a shivering heap.
“It’s ok,” the woman called out from the ground. “I know you exist. I’m trying to help you.”
The ghost was startled. She hadn’t counted on an ally.
“What’s your name?” Harper asked the apparently empty room. “Mine’s Shannon.” Gathering her courage, she stood up slowly. “Hello?”
The ghost considered her options.  When was the last time somebody had tried to talk to her? Was this person telling the truth? The ghost decided that there was no harm in responding. If need be, she could always murder the human later. She gathered herself, and tried to remember how to speak to the living, again.
“I was called Ruby Florence,” said the ghost.
Harper’s jaw dropped. “Ruby, you’re real!” She paused, and frowned. “I can’t see you.” Then her reporter’s instincts kicked in and she fished in her pocket for her notebook and pen. If she could break this story, she’d be set for life. She took a deep breath to begin asking questions.
A wailing scream interrupted the thought. It was the warning siren. Harper checked her watch and cursed. “He was supposed to give me fifteen minutes!”
No. 292
Choose Your Own Adventure 4
January 24, 2013
Harper ran to the door. “I’m not coming out!” she yelled at the construction workers.
Two of them started to come towards her, but Gretz waved them off. “I want everyone ready to go,” he told them. “I’ll deal with the crazy lady.”
He picked up a bullhorn and aimed it at the store. “The demolition starts in five minutes, ghost or no ghosts. You need to evacuate the building or I’m calling the police.”
Harper turned to where she thought Ruby Florence might be. “I guess I’m all-in on your side, now. And they’re not going to come in to confirm you’re here. I don’t suppose there’s any way you could prove your existence to somebody who’s not actually on the premises, is there?”
The ghost didn’t respond immediately, and Harper began to wonder if she was making the right choice by staying. Had she really been speaking to an undead spirit? Then she saw the knife that was still embedded in the wall, confirming the events of the last few minutes. “Hey,” she called. “Remember how you just tried to kill me for trying to help you? You owe me a reply, at least.”
Ruby Florence floated back down to where Harper was standing. The ghost concentrated hard and a shimmering outline of her form began to appear.
“You’ve got no head!” was the first thing Harper said.
The ghost laughed. It had been so long. “That is true,” she told her new human friend.
Gretz hailed them again on the bullhorn. “Last chance, lady.”
The ghost ignored the hail, and answered Harper’s question. “I can’t leave. They will need to come to us.”
Harper’s eyes narrowed. She was thinking hard. “Is that for sure? I mean, you must have tried to escape before, but is there a rulebook or something? Can we talk to anybody?”
No. 293
Choose Your Own Adventure 5
January 25, 2013
“I’m sorry,” said Ruby Florence. “Everything I know, I learned from a ghost next door. We would speak through the walls. When the hotel burned, he disappeared. I haven’t had contact with anything since. It’s been almost fifty years.”
Harper bit her lip. She stole a glance out of the window. “I understand,” she allowed. “Maybe it was too much for me to hope for that we’d stumble across some magic bullet.”
 “If we can delay the crew until five, they’ll go home for the night. That’ll buy us some time,” said Harper as she turned away from the window.
But movement outside caught her eye. She ducked back towards the blinds and peered through. “It’s the police,” she told the ghost. “Gretz wasn’t kidding.”
“They’ll come in,” said the ghost. “They’ll come in and drag you out.”
It appeared that the ghost’s words were correct. Soon there were several cruisers parked outside the store, and Harper watched as a line of officers approached the building.
“I need to hide,” Harper told Ruby Florence.
“We can do that,” the ghost confirmed with a grim smile. “Follow me.”
Harper was led upstairs to a small room that had been used as an office. A large cabinet dominated the space.
“In here,” Ruby Florence directed, pointing with the same hand that held her head. “There is a secret compartment.”
Harper ran to the cabinet, but the ghost moved to block her path.
“No,” said Ruby Florence. “Tap twice on the floorboard in the far corner.”
Harper followed the instructions and a section of the floor dropped down and slid aside. There was a space underneath, just big enough for a person. Harper wasted no time climbing down and replacing the hatch. She looked up through a small knothole and saw the ghost’s face directly above her.
“They won’t find you there,” said the ghost. “But I intend for them to find me.”
Then she disappeared.
“Wait!” Harper called. “I thought we were in this together!”
There was no reply from the ghost, and Harper heard the police break through the downstairs door.
No. 294
Choose Your Own Adventure 6
January 26, 2013
The police moved through the first floor of the building quickly, checking all the places somebody could hide. They were wary, but not nervous. They knew who their target was and that she was unarmed. They didn’t know that she had a supernatural partner.
The ghost let the officers get to the middle of the building before she made her move. As when Harper had entered, the ghost slammed all the doors shut, trapping the squad. This time, however, Ruby Florence did not bother with knives.
The lead policeman turned around to face his team and leveled his gun at them. “You are not wanted here,” he told them.
Ruby Florence had possessed him. She watched through his eyes as the other members tried to make sense of their leader’s disturbing behavior. Slowly, they all placed their weapons on the floor. “This is my home,” said the ghost, with the officer’s voice. “You will not let the fat man destroy it.”
“Captain,” said one of the hostages. “You need help.”
The ghost pointed the gun at the speaker. “Your captain isn’t here right now. My name is Ruby Florence. And you will be silent.”
Another officer spoke. “Sir, what are you talking about?”
Ruby Florence did not hesitate. A chair flew at the officer’s head, striking him squarely and opening a large gash. He fell to the ground, unconscious. At the same time, everything in the room began to levitate. The wooden walls began to vibrate alarmingly, sending small splinters flying toward the cowering police.
The man under Ruby Florence’s control stood quietly in the middle of the maelstrom, calm, and untouched by the dangerous debris.
As quickly as the assault began, it ended. Everything in the air collapsed back to earth and clattered to a stop. The room was deathly quiet.
 There was no fight left in the prisoners.
“Now,” said Ruby Florence. “You will take my message to the fat man. This will serve you as a sign that I am serious.”
She pointed the Captain’s gun at his own head. Her spectral fingers helped his to slowly squeeze the trigger.
Harper was cowering in her hideaway. She hadn’t seen any of the confrontation downstairs. She was holding her breath when she heard the gunshot.
No. 295
Choose Your Own Adventure 7
January 27, 2013
The Captain’s body crumpled to the ground. Ruby Florence was left standing in his place. She chose to show herself to the remaining police officers. They all saw her holding her severed head in her hand and pointing at them.
“Go,” she said.
And they did, dragging the wounded man with them but leaving the corpse behind.
Harper stayed quiet as long as she could, but she lay in a cold sweat. Had the ghost really murdered a man? Harper had to know, so she chanced being caught by anybody still searching, and left her hiding place.
She went downstairs and peered around the corner, afraid of what she might see. The sight of the dead body caused her to throw up.
When she was finished, she screamed for the ghost. “What did you do? You’re a monster!”
Ruby Florence floated serenely into the room. “Only what I had to,” she said casually.
“You killed him,” said Harper. “How could you? I was trying to help you.”
The ghost shrugged her shoulders, a gesture made obscene by her lack of a head. “Now he’s motivated,” she explained.
Harper was confused. She felt something on her shoulder. She spun around to see the Captain’s ghost. The gunshot wound made her vomit, again.
Ruby Florence came closer to Harper. “Walk to the window and tell them my demands,” she whispered.
The deceased Captain, now linked to the soon-to-be demolished building, was on Harper’s other side, and was not going to let her get away, either. He tried to speak, but his shattered jaw couldn’t form words that Harper could make out. She understood what he wanted, though.
She went to the window to deliver her message. “Mr. Gretz,” she called to the line-up of police and spectators who were huddled behind a makeshift barricade. “You need to come in, or they’ll kill me, too.”
No. 296
Choose Your Own Adventure 8
January 28, 2013
“I’m sorry, Miss Harper,” replied Gretz over a loudspeaker. “The police have instructed me not to enter the building.”
Harper was in trouble. She knew that Ruby Florence was growing desperate. The murder of the captain proved that the spirits were no longer content with a simple haunting. They would fight to keep their residence intact. And they were only likely to leave Harper alive if she was useful to them.
Gretz’s refusal meant that Harper’s usefulness was quickly running out.
The police appeared to be busy preparing something. Harper knew, too, that if they tried to assault the house again that her life would be in great danger. She was shivering as she stood, exposed, waiting for a response from either of the parties locked in the standoff.
Suddenly, Harper broke into a run and dashed toward the door. If the ghosts were trapped in the building, they couldn’t follow her outside. Their plan to put her between themselves and the police had been a mistake. She was so close to freedom.
The police marksman was watching the house through his rifle scope. He studied the woman at the window as she made demands. She was remarkably unafraid for somebody who’d reportedly just killed a cop. The marksman was friends with many of the men on the team that had entered the general store and was waiting for his chance to avenge the Captain. The marksman was a little sad, though. He’d read Shannon Harper’s column for years. He pushed that feeling aside. It would be easy enough to replace that part of his day.
When Harper made her break for the door, his readied himself to shoot. His earpiece buzzed with instructions. If she made it to the doorway, he was to take the shot.
Ruby Florence saw Harper dash toward the border of the ghosts’ influence. The ghost had to move quickly to counter the escape attempt.
She attempted to gain control of Harpers consciousness. Within a moment, she’d succeeded.
Harper felt the foreign presence in her mind. Her body and will were suddenly not under her control any longer. The only sensation that she recognized was fear. Harper’s footsteps slowed, and Ruby Florence began to force her away from the exit.
Harper was close enough to the boundary, though, that the ghost’s power was not as strong as it was in the middle of the building. Harper fought the possession, and was able to break free for an instant. She lunged toward the fading daylight on the porch. 
She stumbled and fell as she felt a burning pain. She came to rest against the doorframe, wavering precariously between two worlds.
No. 297
Choose Your Own Adventure 9
January 29, 2013
Ruby Florence was waiting.
After Harper was shot, the police had pulled her body away. Then they’d stormed the building again, looking for accomplices. The ghost made sure that not all of them made it back out, and the rest had called for a retreat to assess the situation. Now they were just watching, probably preparing for another assault.
The ghost was alone in the upstairs room where Harper had sheltered. The other, new ghosts were downstairs, adjusting to their new existence. Ruby Florence was angry that Harper was not one of them. She had heard the police telling each other that Harper had been the one that killed the Captain. Nobody seemed to remember that the murderer had been seen with a missing head.
The demolition crew had gone home. Even the repellent fat man had been sent on his way. The ghost would have one more night, at least.
The nurse had gone, and Harper was alone. She watched the news on the TV that the nurse had left on. The only story being reported was the one that Harper had initiated that afternoon. Then, it had been an interesting piece of local history. Now, it was a tragedy. 
With a dramatic musical sting, the news anchor began to speak. “We’ve just received word that possible accomplices of the alleged murderer, Shannon Harper, have killed again. Four more officers are dead following an attempt to search the premises of the former 80th Avenue General Store. With Harper currently in custody at Queen Elizabeth Hospital, it is unclear at this time who is responsible for the most recent attacks.”
Harper stiffened. Ruby Florence wasn’t finished. And the police would keep sending men in, to their deaths, not realizing the true nature of the thing that was inside the building.
For several hours, Harper wrestled with her options.
She could do nothing, and hope the police realized that they were being attacked by a vengeful spirit.
That would clear her name, but the chances of it happening were almost nonexistent, and it was unlikely to occur before the ghost used lethal force again. 
She could tell the truth. But she was sure that nobody would listen. They would discount the explanation that same way that the fat man had. 
Or, being the only person who knew the true story, she could do something to stop Ruby Florence.
The only problem with that plan was that, by taking that path, Harper would still be the only person linked to murders. 
It was almost sunrise when she made up her mind.
Gritting her teeth against the pain, she disconnected the IVs and wires that were taped to her body.  Using a needle she’d just removed, she managed to pick the lock on the handcuffs. The same needle served as an improvised weapon when she threatened the guard outside the door. She ordered the guard back into the room, then locked him in and escaped down the hall. 
Gretz woke up to the doorbell. He threw on his robe and padded down the stairs to answer.
“You’re coming with me,” said the person on his porch. It took him a second to place the strange visitor. Disheveled and bandaged, it was Harper. She had something in her hands. It looked like it could be a gun.
“Don’t hurt me,” Gretz pleaded. “They told me what to do.”
“Shut up,” said Harper. “I’m not here about that. But we need to go. There’s not a lot of time.”
They arrived at the general store at first light. Gretz flashed his ID at the officer posted at perimeter of the site, now a crime scene. “I have to secure my equipment,” he told the guard. He was waved through.
“Pull up as close as you can,” whispered Harper from the back seat. “Get ready to jump out.”
Gretz did as he was told and parked just behind the police line. Then, with slight hesitation, he followed Harper’s orders as they both leapt from the car and ran toward the storefront.
The police were too surprised to see somebody going toward the building that they were too late to stop the trespassing pair.
The ghost smiled as she watched the scene unfold.
“Florence,” called Harper. “I’ve got somebody here who I think you’d like to talk to.”
Ruby Florence floated down the stairs and materialized by the door. She noticed that Harper was careful not to cross the threshold.
“It’s real,” said the fat man.
“Of course I am,” she told him. She turned her attention to Harper. “I’m glad you were able to do as I asked.”
“Oh,” said Harper casually. “He’s not here to talk to you. I just needed a credible witness to see you and clear my name.”
“What?” said the ghost, confused.
Ruby Florence watched in horror as Harper pulled the trigger on the gun she was holding. The ghost noticed, too late, that it was attached with a hose to something on Harper’s back.
Gasoline streamed from the gun’s plastic barrel. Harper made sure to cover the whole front of the building and to get some inside. Then she dipped her shoulders to shuck the tank from her back, and threw the entire apparatus through the door.
“Go,” she told Gretz. “Tell them what you saw.”
He didn’t need any more prompting and sprinted away, back toward the police.
Harper locked eyes with Ruby Florence. “You shouldn’t have killed. I could have helped you.”
“You didn’t,” replied the ghost.
“Maybe you didn’t deserve it,” said Harper. She flicked a lighter and tossed it into the building. Fueled by the gasoline, the structure was engulfed in seconds.
No. 298
Choose Your Own Adventure 10
January 30, 2013
Harper sat on the stool and picked up the phone. On the other side of the glass was Frank Gretz.
“In a way, it’s good to see you,” he said through his handset.
“I’m surprised you had it in you to come,” she said to him. “After what you told them at the trial.”
Gretz shrugged. “It all happened so quickly. You know how things go. We can never be too sure about what we’ve seen.” Then he paused before speaking again. “Especially after you tried to kill me.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Harper. “I never tried to kill you.” Then she realized. Her head jerked up. “It’s not him in there, is it?” she asked the ghost.
Gretz glanced at the officer standing behind him and asked to be let out of the visitor’s area.
Harper screamed and pounded on the partition. “It’s you! I know it’s you!” she yelled, until two prison guards reached her to drag her back to her cell.
“Keep quiet, Cop Killer,” one said as she rammed her nightstick into Harper’s belly. “If you keep this up for the rest of your life sentence, we’re going to get really tired of it.”
Shannon Harper spent a long time piecing together what must have happened. She learned from her former newspaper’s reports that her attempt at arson hadn’t burned down the entire structure. With the police and emergency crews already on the scene, they’d apparently been able to save enough of the building for the ghost to survive inside.
Gretz, who had been on the site every day during the rest of the demolition and construction, would have been a prime candidate for the ghost to inhabit in a desperate measure when the last parts of the store were taken down.
ValuMart’s grand opening was a huge success. Hundreds of people showed up to see the new store.
Among the shoppers was Frank Gretz.
He broke off from the crowd, and slipped past a door marked “Staff Only” to climb the stairs to the manager’s office. Once inside, he closed the door and fell immediately to the floor, dead.
Ruby Florence stood in the middle of the room, having shed the vessel that had carried her for the last year and a half. She placed her head on the window sill, like old times.
“It’s good to be home,” she said with a wicked smile. 
No. 299
January 31, 2013
Keith got on the bus and then immediately fell asleep. He woke up well past his usual stop, in an unfamiliar area of town.
He wasn’t concerned. It would be easy enough to hop off and take the same bus back in the direction of home. As he prepared to leave, the driver, who recognized him, asked him if he was sure that’s what he wanted to do.
“Next one doesn’t come for awhile,” cautioned the driver.
“That’s alright,” said Keith. “I’m not in any hurry.”
Keith stepped onto the pavement and crossed the street. He checked his watch. “No problem,” he told himself, and settled onto the bench to wait.
An hour passed. Keith got up to check the schedule on the pole beside the bus shelter. “I’ve never seen that before,” he muttered. The sign listed the arrivals for all the bus numbers except the one that Keith wanted. Under the column for his bus, the sign read “As Necessary”. 
Maybe it was time to call for a cab. Keith looked at his phone, but was rewarded with no service bars. He began to look very carefully at his surroundings. He was defiantly unfamiliar with the place.
But no matter, perhaps he could use somebody else’s phone.  He walked up to the door of an apartment near the bus stop and picked a random number to buzz.
There was an answer. “Hello?” said a garbled voice through the speaker.
“Hi,” said Keith. “My name’s Keith and I’ve missed my bus. I was wondering if you could let me in to use your phone?”
There was a pause, then an affirmative reply. “Of course,” said the voice. “Come on up.”
There was a tone, and Keith heard the click of the door unlocking. He made a note of the apartment number he’d contacted and entered the building. He made it to the dim hallway of the correct floor and, before he could knock, a door opened.
It was an attractive woman. She called Keith over. “You need the phone?” she asked.
“Yes, thank you,” Keith replied.
She waved him into her flat. “There sure are a lot of you missing that bus,” she told him.
“What do you mean?” he asked.
“The 299?” she said. “You’re definitely not the first one who’s done exactly what you’re doing right now.”
“I see,” said Keith warily. “Just how many of us have there been?”
The woman hesitated. “Enough,” she answered cryptically. “Would you like some tea while you wait?”
No. 300
The Prank Part 4
February 3, 2013
It was the day before the last day of school.
Colin and Chrissy sat together on the steps of Charles Hall, watching the crowd watch the results of their prank. Colin produced a paper bag with a bottle inside, and two plastic mugs that he’d borrowed from the cafeteria. He set the cups on the ground, and poured cheap champagne into both.
He handed one to Chrissy, then raised his to salute her. “You were right. That was the best fifty dollars I ever spent,” he told her.
She snuggled up to him with a grin. “I told you so, Mr. Prank King.” She nodded at the frenzied scene in front of them. “How’s this for going out on top?”
Colin sipped his drink. “I don’t know if I’m finished,” he said. “I think with all the prep, I might have failed French.”
They were both quiet for a moment.
Another class ran past to see aftermath.
“And besides,” said Colin. “Now somebody’s going to have to go one better next year.”
Chrissy laughed. “You mean, ‘two somebodys’,” she clarified, as she put her arm around him.
Colin nodded. “Best plan, ever.”