Writer of Fantasy, Science-Fiction, Horror and Comedy



            Margaret Kendale was dead.

            In the center of the room was a paper-thin holographic screen in the center of the room showing a gorgeous woman with waist-length gold hair, vibrant blue eyes and wearing a tight wedding dress of stunning, white crystal. She was statuesque, beyond gorgeous, shapely and beautiful. At that moment, she was being married in a great all-gods temple known as the Cathedral of the Divine on Planet Calador. It was the most prestigious temple on one of the wealthiest planets in the Aynir Galaxy.

            The video froze when the blonde turned her head toward the camera to smile.

            “That is one of the very last public images we have of her,” said the woman behind the desk. She was almost in complete darkness with only thin slants of light stretching across the room from a window with shadowing technology that imitated blinds. “She was dead within a month.”

            The screen vanished from the center of the room and reformed in the back on the blank white wall beside the ivory-colored desk, and then as the windows on the left began to unshadow. In an imitation of blinds unfolding, the slits of light widened until they connected and filled the white office with the dawn morning.

            “That’s unfortunate,” Paul told the woman behind the large semi-circle desk that took up almost the entire back wall. “That’s a once in a lifetime kind of girl.”

            “Indeed,” said the woman and she looked at Paul’s studiously. She seemed to be looking at Paul with the instinctive suspicion of someone who believed that no one below a certain class could ever truly be trustworthy. “My name is Merra Beckwell.”

            Merra Beckwell was an aristocrat and lawyer and Paul didn’t miss the genetic similarity to the woman in the video. Merra was also good-looking, although not in the same league as Margaret, cuter than she was glamorous and petite. Even sitting, he could tell she wasn’t much taller than five feet, and she had the same blond hair, shoulder-length with bangs cut above her eyes, and the same blue eyes. She wore the sort of expensive, conservative business suit that had a skirt colored blue to match her eyes perfectly.

            “It’s a pleasure to meet you—” her eyes moved down to a screen Paul couldn’t see “—Worker Three Million, Two Hundred Twelve Thousand, One Hundred Seventeen dash Nineteen dash M.”

            “Just call me Paul,” he replied.

            “As you wish.” 3,212,117-19-M was the identification number the Urion Corporation had bequeathed him at his birth in Tunnel 5 under the Derris Mining City, which was a metropolis connected to twenty-six other colossal tunnels spread throughout Calador’s Dalvor Moon. Many, but not most, of the citizens who worked in those mines had been manufactured like him down there. The majority were just descendants of people like him, still paying off their ancestor’s debts.

            His “parents’ were two random people who never met him or each other who donated sperm and egg for whatever reason to the Urion Corporation who then put them together to make him in order to serve their interests in the mines. Considered very much like a product, a barcode was tattooed on the bottom of his left wrist on the day he was born.

            He wasn’t a slave, technically, but he sure felt like one sometimes. That barcode contained his history and statistics and the only proper name he had, he gave himself.

            He was raised with other children like himself by a combination of humans and androids until age seven. On that birthday, he was put to work paying off the inflated cost of rearing him up and training him to work in the mine. That debt was virtually impossible to pay back by simply working it off.

            Paul had circumvented that by working for four successful years in the Urion Corporation Military Bureau’s Marine Corps Branch, the success of which had wiped his debt clean on his eighteenth birthday.

            A mere month had passed since then, still in military shape with his black hair cut in military-style, little more than a buzz cut, with gray eyes that looked very kind, or so he was told. He was very attractive, even to the point of being beautiful, or so he was also often told, but he was poor and he stood in that office wearing a dark gray raglan shirt with black sleeves, black pants and military boots.

            “You didn’t wear your military uniform,” she noted.

            “I’m no longer in the military and this isn’t a military job,” Paul replied simply. “I would have worn a suit but I don’t have one.” Actually, he would have avoided both if he could. Wandering through the floor of Calador City in either outfit got a lot of unwelcome attention.

            “Did you do the research I asked you to?”

            “I did,” he replied.

            “Good,” Merra replied and she stood up, walked toward the desk in a random direction. An opening appeared automatically as she neared it, and she walked up to Paul, hands behind her back, and looked up at him. “Did you know Margaret Kendale was the heiress of a fair-sized fortune?”

            “I did,” Of course, Paul knew. It was common knowledge via even casual research. “Fifty million gray discs are a bit more than ‘fair-sized,’ I’d say, Ms. Beckwell,” he told her. He learned never to call Calador aristocrat females “ma’am” unless you were trying to insult them. Even if they were a hundred years old, if they were unmarried, they preferred to be called “miss.”

            Merra smiled at him greedily and said, “Units.”

            “Nice,” Paul replied, genuinely impressed. A unit was a dollar in credits and a dollar was worth a little over thirteen gray discs. The disc system the most common monetary system in the galaxy and among spacefarers specifically and the one Paul had generally used all his life. He had never even seen a dollar coin until he joined the military. “That’s more than a man like me will see in a hundred lifetimes,” he told Merra.

            “Six hundred, fifty-six million, five hundred thousand gray discs in cash alone and it’s been increasing in interest in the Bank of Aynir for fifty years,” Merra told him. “In addition to that, Margaret was heiress to stocks, bonds and other incomes, the combined amounts accumulating the interest of at least five hundred thousand units per month since her disappearance. Her family jewels, locked in a vault in one of the most impregnable bases in the galaxy, are nearly astronomical in value.”

            “Rich lady,” he replied.

            “Dead lady,” Merra stated coldly. “She has no use for such wealth anymore.”

            “They never found her body—”

            “She’s dead or she would have appeared by now,” she said coldly.

            “Yes, well, you are talking about a great deal of money, Ms. Beckwell, so forgive me when I say this, but I’m a little bit suspicious as to why you would summon someone like me for this sort of task.”

            “Why a tunnel rat?” She shrugged. “A rat could creep down into an old estate, wander over to an old computer, download its information and then bring it back without trouble, could he not?”

            Paul shrugged back. “So could anyone else including yourself. What is wrong with this place?”

            “You’re direct. I like that. I know hardened mercenaries afraid to look me in the eye.”

            Men with something to lose, Paul thought. Angering anyone in a higher finance circle in Calador could be suicidal for one’s reputation, property and prospects.

            “I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, ‘Paul,’” Merra told him. “Since you’ve researched my family, you know that since Margaret Kendale vanished, bad things have occurred to various members who have attempted to take that fortune. It has even become commonplace to suggest my family is ‘cursed.’”

            He knew all that, of course. It came from the bizarre deaths of every family member who lived in what was left of Margaret Kendale’s home. At least twelve over the first ten years and not all of them accidental.

            “How many people have you sent that didn’t come back?” Paul asked her.

            She walked over to the desk, leaned back against it, and crossed her arms. Her face shifted to the window, looking out over the horizon, and Paul sensed she was trying to keep her emotions off her face.

            “I’ve personally sent seven people and all of them very different than you,” she told him without looking, her face looking simply contemplative in the early light. “The first was a gentleman with an impeccable reputation whose bargaining price was ten times the life debt you just earned forgiveness from. Most of the others were typical career soldiers, either off-duty or veterans, and one was a woman trained in the skillset of a professional burglar. She called herself a ‘spy’ and her skills ‘espionage’ but she was just an expert thief as far as I could tell.

            “They all just disappeared into thin air.”

            She lowered her arms, turned her head back, and looked into his eyes.

            “You are a member of the Marine Corps Branch of the Urion Corporation Military Bureau and Special Forces no less. You’re no preppy staff college boy and you even won the Urion Medal of Excellence, so I know you’re not a coward.” Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. “Why are you not a mercenary?”

            “In such times as these, only off-duty soldiers and veterans can work as mercenaries in the Calador System,” Paul told her. “I’m technically a veteran but the only ones who count in this case are the ones that were forcibly retired from age and or from injuries. If I try it healthy in my teens, they’ll throw me out of an airlock. It’s tradition.”

            “This is not a mercenary mission,” she told him.

            “I know.” Whatever that bizarre, under the table, special job was, it was definitely not a mercenary mission. Merra had found him through Beatrice Bellman, an old tunnel girl from the mines in her seventies that he used to work for when he started co-piloting mining ships of age ten. Most of those jobs had been fairly small, usually something like co-piloting a starship because the actual pilot was famously drunk or stoned or something that might get them killed if Paul wasn’t around.

            So when she called him up for that far more valuable mission, looking at him with a strange, unreadable expression on her face, it had been a surprise.

            Merra must be well below the bottom of her list of people she would typically use. He suspected one or more of those disappearances made some people nervous and the respectable connections must be drying up. She wasn’t blacklisted, Bellman would never have worked for her if she was and he would have known besides. Merra just wasn’t getting any callbacks from them.

            If true, Paul didn’t know what to make of that.

            “Margaret Kendale’s maternal half-brother Marshall Perric has finally died. The generational lawsuit that has haunted my late father is over and I am now, officially, the inheritor of all Kendale’s wealth. My father was a distant relation to Arlton Beckwell as am I but he tried to combine his connections to the old Kendales through my late mother’s family. Since I, unlike himself, actually have Kendale blood and am the eldest child, I am now the best candidate to inherit through both family lines.”

            “What is it you need me to do exactly?” If nothing else, Paul suspected it would be very interesting.

            “My cousin Gerrold went mad and blew up the house, as you may recall. Unfortunately, he took all of Margaret’s business information that I need. I have no idea what accounts her wealth is in, the location of her jewels, the exact location of her off-world properties, etc., etc. The Bank of Aynir claims all the backups of that information have somehow been mysteriously wiped from their memory banks.

            “What your research wouldn’t tell you about that explosion, however, is that one of the basements was barely damaged and there is a working computer down there still connected to the old mainframe. Locals speak of it but won’t go anywhere near that place so I need you to do so instead. You are to go there, download the information from her personal computer via a data drive, and bring it back.

            “Easy, right?”

            Paul’s suspicions were wrong. That was not interesting at all and he waited to see if she was joking. The light from the rising sun filled up the room and turned bright as he stood there waiting for her to say a punchline or something. When it was clear she wasn’t, he finally spoke.

            “That seems ludicrously suspicious, convenient and easy,” Paul told her.

            “You’re not the first to say so and I’ve been turned down because of it.” She pushed away from the desk, looked up into his eyes, and said, “And yet none of the people I’ve hired have ever come back with what I need or even back at all. Their cameras and communications always go out just before they enter the ruins of the estate so I have no idea what happened out there.

            “All I know is that they disappear, like off the face of the galaxy never to be seen or heard of again, and their agencies won’t call me back. Therefore, I need you.” Merra held up a pristinely white little data drive about the size of a woman’s thumb with a connector on one end. “All you have to do is stick this into the computer, it’ll do the work, and when it beeps, pull it out and bring it back. Easy.”

            “What about accessing it remotely?”

            “It appears to be completely locked off from any form of remote access.”

            “How is that even possible?”

            “I don’t know,” she replied honestly. “I’ve had professional computer engineers and hackers work on it but no one can get through. One even said he’d go himself to see what was going on but he disappeared too.”

            Paul didn’t know what to make of any of that and he liked it even less. Still, he was desperate, and he would rather die than go back into loans and debt, which would be required if he didn’t get money soon.

            He lowered his eyes to the data disk and then back up. “I could do it,” he said. “But what are you offering me?”

            Merra smiled at him, clearly enjoying that part. “I’ve studied you as well,” she told him. “You wish to explore the galaxy and are trying to purchase the old mining ship you flew in when you were a child. You’ve got the mining cockpit but the pilot’s cockpit and the two mining segments cost you the wages of all four years of your military career just as a down payment.”

            “Correct,” he said simply.

            The ship was an Urion Millipede, a form of ship that could be designed for literally anything. Their main areas were semi-octagonal habitats called segments that could be stacked on the top or bottom or on all four sides with square, smaller habitats called gangways to connect them. They were typically placed back-to-back and were known to stretch out for long distances like a millipede, hence their name.

            The typical variants were military, luxury, hauling and mining, but sometimes science, engineering, and exploration. Mining was what Paul had been trained for most of his whole life, however, and while he didn’t expect to spend his life just mining as he had his early youth but it was as good a job to pay the bills as any, and he didn’t see any reason to try to make a new career just for that. Besides, out there in the Big Empty were countless untapped resources for mining a man trained in mining could make a good living off of, and secondarily, that ship had been the closest thing to a stationary home that he had ever known. He spent age ten to fourteen there.

            The ship was and had been for years, at a point where the Urion Corporation was either going to sell it off or junk it rather than pay for the repairs. The day it stopped working would have been the day for the latter and Paul didn’t hesitate to put down that down payment.

            Unfortunately, it came at a bad time. Normally, he could get mercenary work by latching onto typical Calador mercenaries as their “assistants” since they would usually need every man but his freedom of debt coincidently coincided with a rare time of corporation peace. The board chair of the Urion Corporation had all the lesser branches kowtowed for the first time in a century and the mercenaries didn’t have enough work for any extra soldiers.

            “What do you call it?” asked Merra.

            “The Nomad.”

            “I like it,” she told him. She put her hands behind her back again. “Ten thousand gray discs and I’ll pay off that mining segment, both floors, with the upstairs pilot cockpit and the hyperspace extension you no doubt need for long-distance travel and gate riding.” The hyperspace extension was part of the mining extension and was in his down payment but she spoke as if she was adding it on as a kindness.

            Paul had a vague sense of being insulted. A woman with the kind of money she was going to have could have dropped him a brand new luxury liner with an extra hundred million gray units and probably not even scratch the monthly income of her new wealth’s accumulated interest.

            “Oh, you’re one of those types,” Paul said, his lips curling up into a smile.

            “I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she replied with a smile back.

            Paul walked over to the window and looked down five thousand feet from her business suite in one of Calador City’s finest office buildings to the tops of shorter skyscrapers that were so compact they almost looked like a floor. He saw thousands of aeromobiles and ships flying along the air lanes through the gentle morning shadows of some of the other taller skyscrapers.

            Planet Calador was an expensive planet, Calador City an expensive city by even that planet’s standards, and that office high above the hubbub of that city was ludicrously expensive by any standard.

            “If I were to guess, I’d say this was two hundred thousand gray a month just for this apartment on discount.”

            Merra laughed. “The company pays for it and you are far below the mark.” She walked up beside him. “Kendale’s money, which is mine, will be what frees me of the company and propels me upward into the inner circle of Calador life.”

            Paul looked over at the sun rising above the glorious white city and said, “Well then. Let’s negotiate, shall we.”


*          *          *


            They landed on one hundred thousand gray discs, with all that his down payments covered, plus two gangways to be stacked on each other to connect another two segments that contained proper living quarters and a cargo bay.

            All his but only if the mission was completed.

            Nothing Merra had told Paul made him like the mission more. He was in for it, had no regrets, and was well used to the feeling of having to do things he would have refused under better circumstances. Annoyingly though, it still nagged at him.

            The elevator from her office went down the five thousand feet with a side front showing the skyline of Calador City. Only the nicer buildings had those, most of the ones he used were steel elevators and the ones where he grew up didn’t even have walls, with all four sides containing only a single, slender metal rail to keep someone from falling to their death.

            In the distance, on the tall, white capitol building that was twice the size of the others with a gold design throughout like gilding, he saw a giant monitor showing a woman. She was speaking and when he looked at her, the scanners in the elevator sensed it and turned on the sound.

            “—will fight for higher pay, fewer hours, and more sick days!” announced the pretty woman in a flashy green suit. She was beautiful, pale, with bright green eyes and dark hair tied conservatively behind her head. The colors and race always changed but most female politicians from Calador looked very much like her.

            That one was named Anne Berkley and she was the Labor candidate for president. The government spent hundreds of billions of dollars, not gray but actual dollars, to put someone up as president. A lot of that money also came from donors with personal interests that she would pay back by undercutting her own message.

            There were two other candidates, Paul recalled. Marsdon who was of the Conservative Party, and Tomas who was of the Moderate Party, not that they or their parties really mattered. All presidents were basically just slaves to the Urion Corporation and people were on to it. Of the population who had citizenship, which did not include Paul, less than three percent of them even bothered to vote.

            The fancy elevator stopped at a boring gray hall just above the point where the shorter skyscrapers ended. Paul walked through the scanner, passing two white, automated laser gun turrets and went to the lockers along the wall opposite the fancy elevator. He pressed this thumb against the pad, collected his black laser pistols in their holsters from within when it unlocked, and then holstered them as he stepped into the steel elevator opposite the glass one.

            That elevator dropped below the fancy white buildings’ top veneers without windows, showing only dull, gray steel. It went down another five thousand feet, reached the bottom, and opened wide to reveal an ugly, dirty street covered in shadows.

            Below the veneer of pristine white perfection, that which people like Merra Beckwell could see as they flew from place to place, the city was a horrid slum. The walls were covered in so much graffiti from generations that they looked like a pale, ugly splattering of colors and the floor was littered in so much endless trash and potholes to the point where it was almost impossible to see it. The buildings were so close together with various bridges and walkways above that the sun tended to be mostly blocked out.

            There were also a half dozen corpses on that block alone, which were not an uncommon sight in a society with extremely high suicide and murderer rates. Among the usual candidates of death, a common sight were VR junkies, lying on the ground, their faces covered in masks with a sexual emulator strapped onto or stuck inside their genitalia, with no care that all the world could see. The junkies were so sickly, weak and pale that it was hard to tell which ones were dead and which ones were simply catatonic.

            Paul sensed someone following instantly.

            It could be a coincidence. Even locals were harassed by their own and he did look like he had money.

            Paul slipped into an alley and moved around a corner. The instant he was out of sight from anyone on the street, he leaped onto a garbage bin and then off toward a business suite’s balcony. He caught onto its floor and easily climbed up.

            He crouched down, mostly out of sight from anyone below, and watched.

            A few minutes later, a couple of thugs in ragged high-collared jackets of green and beige moved down the alley. They looked like they belonged down there but he could they did not. Their clothes were fake poor, coming designed the way they look as opposed to the true raggedness of a genuinely poor person. Also, while their faces also looked beyond horrid and sickly, they walked like someone much healthier.

            Paul slipped down from the balcony after they passed, moved up to the one in the green jacket who was lagging slightly behind, and pressed the barrel of his right gun against the back of his skull.

            “Careful,” said the man behind him as he and he raised his arms.

            “I’m always careful,” Paul replied. “That’s why I knew you were following me.” He whipped his left gun and pointed at the face of the man who thought he could sneak up behind him. “And your two idiot friends as well.”
“You’re good,” said the man with a wide smile.

            “Fucking headhunter,” Paul said scornfully, knowing what he was instantly. Headhunters were scourge and scum combined. Their job wasn’t to hunt down murderers or other criminals like a bounty hunter, no; their job was to hunt down innocent people some corporate scumbag wanted to mess with. It was often to invade or ruin that person’s private life for whatever petty reason and, in the case of lower-level corporate scum, change a juror’s opinion to a more favored one.

            That headhunter was a tall, reasonable attractive man with a cleft chin, sculpted jaw, gray spiky hair with red tips and very light blue eyes. Like Paul, he was average size in build, muscular and ex-military, although certainly not ex-Special Forces. He was wearing a black button-up shirt, dark gray hoody and black cargo pants but Paul could see his hands and feet weren’t gloves or shoes but the ends of environmentally sealed combat armor hidden under his clothes.

            “Start talking,” said Paul, aiming at the man’s vulnerable, helmetless head.

            “Listen,” said the man with the green jacket. “I—” He tried to move and Paul fired a quarter inch from the face without looking. The man cried out and stumbled for a few feet before Paul slipped back and pressed his gun back on his head.

            “Don’t move again,” Paul said coldly and his eyes narrowed on the headhunter. “Who are you?”

            “Lower the gun and I’ll tell you,” said the headhunter.

            “Talk,” Paul said.

            “You marine guys are so damn paranoid,” he replied and he held up his hand as if cupping something, pressed a button on his chest, and a projection of a man’s license formed above his wrist. It said his probably fake name was “John Roberts” and he had a badge and the identity of “private investigator” which was a common occupation attributed to a headhunter.

            “My employer is interested in you, Tunnel Boy. Oliver Beckwell.” He pulled out a holovision projector carefully from his jacket with his right hand. It was a communication device designed to project a holographic copy of someone from one place to another, different from a hologram because it was real and in the present. In appearance, it was just a small, black and white disc the color of blue and white and about the size of a small plate.

            Roberts placed it on the ground and Paul lowered his guns and allowed the two men to walk around him and back toward Roberts.

            As they walked around the headhunter, they pressed a button on their chests. The holograms over their faces that made them seem haggard and sickly vanished and revealed them to be healthy, ordinary men.

            Aside from Roberts, those idiots didn’t seem to know what they were doing. They probably cost a fortune, which was probably why Oliver hired them in the first place. Rich people on Calador all thought anything that cost more was superior but in the case of street-level thuggery, they were wrong.

            For a few hundred gray a piece, Paul could have found six people he would almost never have seen coming.

            “You going to put those away or you going to talk?” asked Roberts.

            Paul spun his guns around in his fingers and holstered them as a figure formed above the holovision projector looking almost real.

            Oliver looked a lot like his sister. He seemed softer, somehow, as well as taller, almost as feminine, with long, silky hair that flowed around his ears and had a look of unnatural stupidity. That last was a vibe certain spoiled people gave off and it was notably something that his sister lacked.

            He also seemed to be wearing at least a hundred thousand gray discs worth of clothing alone. The blue suit that he wore was cloth of gold material, the kind of autocratic royals and noblemen in the Tal’ayn System’s wore, and the jewelry on his hands and ears were beyond Paul’s ability to calculate.

            He was also clearly a drug addict, probably cocaine or some other rich drug.

            Never trust a straight man who wears more jewelry than a woman, the voice of his old mining foreman, Bugsy Carl, told him.

            “Oliver Beckwell,” Paul said.

            “Done your homework, Worker Three Million—” he squinted at something only he could see “—Two—Hundred—Twelve—”

            “Just call me Paul,” Paul interjected. “What can I do for you?”

            “I know my sister hired you to steal my money,” said Oliver coldly.

            “She can’t take it if it’s not hers,” he told him. “It’s not a treasure chest buried on an asteroid, Oliver. The law says it is hers. That wouldn’t change even if you got all the information on Kendale’s accounts and all their passwords. You know that.”

            His lips pressed together into a thin tight line and he took on a sulky look that said he “wanted to correct that annoying, wrong answer.” What he said, however, was, “Urion Marine Corps Special Forces, winner of three Silver Stars, a Red Starship and the Urion Medal of Excellence. Saved a country aristocrat’s daughter, I hear. Her father owned only ten factories out there in that desert, barely a millionaire with no connections whatsoever, yet you risked your life for his child.”

            “I know my own military history, Mr. Beckwell,” Paul replied and thought, It’s not that impressive.

            A Silver Star meant he was injured in a battle and everyone in the Corps got at least one in their career. A Red Starship meant he had survived his ship being destroyed in space and or taken over an enemy vessel, which he got collectively with his squad when they did both.

            Paul’s Urion Medal of Excellent came when he saved a rich girl named Chelsea Fann. He achieved that by rushing through a water tower that was about to explode, strapping her to his chest and then leaping out of the building on the fifth floor. He landed so hard, the leg reinforcements in his armor shattered and he broke both his legs, but the girl was fine and she got away just in time to avoid the blast radius that sent Paul flying across the field. Luckily, his armor was sealed, and he only ended up getting knocked out instead of blown to pieces.

            “What does my military career have to do with anything?” Paul asked.

            “It makes you worthy of hiring,” Oliver told him. “I wish to hire you not to help my sister.”

            “Why?” asked Paul. He did not trust Oliver but then he never trusted any drug addict, rich or poor. Who knew what was going through their minds.

            “Because I do not wish her to helped,” was his answer. He said it like a man who actually believed that he was giving out a legitimate reason. Like a teacher explaining how gravity worked. “I would prefer you collect this information for me instead.”

            Paul’s eyes narrowed. “How many people have you sent yourself?” When Oliver looked at him, Paul saw something on his face that he didn’t like. He had the same expression that Merra had given him not long before. “How many?”
            “Two dozen. Maybe thirteen or fourteen.”

            “Did Merra do something to them?” It didn’t feel right but that had to be the answer.

            “Maybe,” he told him and tried to sound nonchalant but Paul saw the truth in his eyes easily.

            Like Merra, he genuinely didn’t know. Oliver sent men to the estate just as his sister had and just like them, they hadn’t returned, and neither knew why. They probably thought the other was to blame, Paul would have too but neither could have hidden what they were doing from each other.

            “What happened out there?” Paul asked. Oliver didn’t answer but his eyes were strange and distant. “You have no idea.”

            “I assume it’s my sister,” Oliver said offhandedly. “She’s got some black ops guy in on this. Some asshole who protected a former president or something.”

            “That’d work except for one thing.”

            “What is that?”

            “She’d have the money and accounts by now.”

            Oliver’s face hardened and he became suspicious. “What did you and my sister talk about?”

            “It’s not super relevant,” Paul replied and then half-lied with, “I don’t like this mission, so I refused.”

            “She’s already placed pending payments on the ship parts she promised you, so try again.”

            Someone’s not a complete idiot, Paul thought. “I didn’t agree to it yet.”

            “I see,” he said, disbelieving.

            “Good,” Paul replied.

            “Since you’re obviously going, I want you to take my investigator with me.”

            “I don’t work with headhunters,” Paul replied.


            Paul saw the headhunter Roberts smile knowingly, a natural killer if ever there was one. “Ever,” Paul told Oliver.

            “That your final answer?” asked Oliver.

            “I don’t work with psychopaths,” Paul replied. Roberts didn’t respond to that except in that his smile grew just a bit. Paul made a gesture for the men to part and as they did, he walked through the holovision projection and onward.

            “Not to worry, sir,” said Roberts after a moment. “We know right where he’s going.”

            No one followed Paul to the subway and used the roundtrip ticket Merra purchased for him. He grabbed the bar above his head, and the dull, gray graffiti-covered train shot through the dark underside of the city like a snake, stopping a dozen times for people to get on or off until he eventually reached his location.

            It took about two hours.

            Paul parked what he had of the Nomad in a safe, cheap location in the industrial heart of the city. It was Landing Pad E-27, small, like his craft, in Foundry District 17. The landing pad was itself was elevated around ten feet, as was typical, steel, boring, dirty and old, covered in graffiti with random trash littering the floor, but it did come with force fields that kept out anyone but the landing pad’s owners and Paul away plus, being a corporation owned area, it was watched closely.

            At that moment, the Nomad was just a small angular cockpit with three miner’s seats and a flat back. It was literally just a mining cockpit, which was the bottom half of the cockpit, the top being the pilot’s half. It was dull brown, hard to control in any complex situations, and only had cruise speed, which allowed him to fly from planet to moon but could go no further without help.

            Truth be told, it made Paul nervous to fly it anywhere. He felt like he was flying a glass elevator with no shields or guns where even the slightest bump could break the seal and kill him in a heartbeat.

            He was then even more nervous because Roberts might pop up behind him at any time and he would be utterly helpless against any vehicle with a gun.

            Paul entered through the back through the door that once lead into a mining segment, and flew off into the sky. He scanned around for people following him and it didn’t seem like he was being followed.

            At least, not yet.


*          *          *


            Within two hours, Paul emerged from the dark gray and black clouds on the other side of the planet into one of the few, and extremely expensive, country environments that Planet Calador had.

            He appeared above Kendale House, a once beautiful mansion that had become a destroyed ruin, located on top of a hill above Kendale Village. All three stories and wings were gone and what was left looked partly buried and covered in ivy. He saw no trace of any of the other buildings that had once been on the property nearby, not even the gigantic barn that had once held a hundred of Margaret Kendale’s prized horses.

            Paul followed the asphalt road from south of the house deep a steep hill into the village with his eyes. He found himself awe-struck at the sight of a hamlet of powerful loveliness.

            The west side of the town was clearly the business district. He saw various small buildings, a mere floor or two and nothing remotely corporate sized, set amid the public buildings such as city hall, community center and the courthouse. The eastern half of town was devoted to beautiful two and three-story houses painted in gentle pastel colors. He saw no less than three gorgeous, green parks throughout the town. North and west beyond the town were thick woodlands, probably meant for hunting or horse trails, and to the east beyond the houses and south were endless and gorgeous farmlands. It was all so lovely, Paul felt like he had wandered into a fairy tale.

            He could never have imagined anything like Kendale Village in a hundred light-years of the Calador System.

            Ruining the beauty of the town, slapped right down in the southwest corner, was an ugly, gray metal Urion food factory with its matching, ugly gray dorm house that the workers would have to pay a room for whether they used it or not. No doubt, its employees had to work eighty to hundred-hour workweeks just to satisfy owners who never worked a day in their life.

            From above, the factory looked like a violent, circular scar on a supermodel’s face.

            Paul saw the main road went south from the house, directly through the business direct, then curved eastward and ended at the town landing pads. There were four small, square, steel pads with white circles big enough for house-sized ships or smaller and could be combined for a larger ship.

            Paul parked on the southwestern pad, paid ten gray discs for the use of the pad’s force field, and quickly equipped himself before stepping out. When he emerged from his flying cockpit, he appeared ready for battle.

            He was wearing black medium-level combat armor with dark gray plates and a helmet retracted into his chest and back. Over the armor, he wore a generic, dark gray, high-collared combat uniform with various pockets and holsters. He was equipped with a changeblade at his side, a black-handled weapon that could form almost any solid weapon at the press of a button but usually blades or clubs, both light-level energy pistols, and a medium-energy rifle slung over his back.

            He owned all of that because he had to be purchase better equipment if he had wanted to survive. The military only gave out Archer weaponry, which might just blow up the soldier’s hand as easily as his enemy’s head around or after six months of use. Therefore, Paul had purchased his pistols, rifle and armor from the 3810 AR Dehker line. They were the first new Dehker models in a generation for the Tal’ayn System for a war called the War of the Staves.

            Everything was bare-bones, though, since they kept all the accessories and extra magazines. He only had four medium-sized energy magazines to spread among them, which meant only one extra magazine should he run out of shots with any weapon. He didn’t even have a stock on his rifle.

            “Okay,” Paul said as the door closed behind him. Was he overdoing this? He felt like he should feel like that he was but he didn’t.

            He stepped down the ramp, started west down the asphalt road and felt light, mist-like rain begin to fall.

            The town felt incredibly empty and it wasn’t just the various foreclosed signs or the empty city hall courtyard either. Even the food factory that typically went on for twenty-four hours a day was quiet. When Paul reached it right at the point where the road turned north toward the hill and the house, he looked up and saw three people, two men and one woman, wearing the blue overalls and beige shirts of the workers, staring down at him from the upper levels.

            Their somber expressions made Paul feel like he was in a funeral procession.

            Thunder boomed in the distance as he walked, the rain starting to pour down harder and for real. The few buildings that weren’t foreclosed suddenly had blinders that started to darken.

            Most of the foreclosed stores looked like small, family businesses as opposed to corporate businesses. He saw a shoe shop, a department store, a restaurant, a diner that served oriental food, but the pub just beyond the corner was still functioning. It was called “The Lady Kendale” and it was full of people who were incredibly quiet. It had a real sign that said, “LOCALS ONLY” in black text over white above the door and a monitor in the window that stated “OPEN” in blue for about a second before it turned to “CLOSE” in red.

            The door locked with a clank before he could even think to approach. As he looked into a window, he saw everyone in the room, most of them other factory workers in overalls, just staring at him with the same expression as those other three people had.

            Paul walked past the pub, the rain seeming to pour harder the closer to the house, and then heard something in the alley in the bar to his right.

            He jerked toward it, his right pistol out, eyes wide. He was surprised to find a young woman standing there in the shadows and not some kind of monster. Her voice had sounded nightmarish, like someone who was dying of cancer and speaking through an amplifier, and it had deeply unnerved him. A moment later, her words meaning struck him almost as odd as they had horrifying.

            “They come with the rain,” she had said.

            Paul lowered his gun and slipped it back into its holster. “Your voice,” he whispered.

            “My voice is fine,” she told him in a perfectly normal, even pretty, voice. She stood in the alley surrounded by broken equipment, a table, a chair and a monitor with a crack across it. He couldn’t see her face but he could her curly brown hair hanging down below the shadows and the long, pretty green dress that clung tightly over her breasts and spread out wide from her hips. She wore long sleeves, white gloves, and had a force umbrella projected from a matching green wristband on her left wrist creating a dome of transparent green solid light above her head.

            “What did you mean?” he asked her.
“I mean, ‘They come with the rain,’” she told him simply and then stepped forward. Her face, which Paul had somehow gotten a kneejerk sense was going to be some kind of horrific surprise, turned out to be a beautiful narrow face with sultry green eyes.

            “I’m sorry,” Paul told her. He wasn’t given to mishearing things but obviously, he had. This fucking mission, he thought and asked, “What are you talking about?”

            “Boy,” she told him coldly. “You don’t want any part of this. I’d leave as soon as you can.”

            Paul looked into her face for a solid minute and then recognized her from somewhere. He felt on the very edge of remembering where out but it would not come to him. “Don’t I know you from somewhere—”

            “No, you do not!” she said coldly, her eyes locked onto his with an icy stare.

            “Tell me about Margaret—”

            She hissed at him so suddenly he stopped talking, her left hand lifting up one finger for silence, the dome’s projector moving with her arm while the dome itself reamined stationary. “That is not an easy subject of conversation around here.”

            Paul looked into her face, trying to remember where he had seen her before, listening to the rain pour down onto her dome. It had a slight mechanical sound to it. “There is something odd about all of this. Margaret Kendale didn’t just disappear.”

            “No,” she agreed bitterly. “She was murdered. By Arlton Beckwell.”

            “The groom?” Paul asked.

            The notion of a husband murdering his wife for her money came as no surprise to Paul. That kind of thing happened a lot in Calador although it was a bit odd that a middle-class woman such as herself actually cared. They tended to hate the wealthy the most, the poor being too poor to have time for such nonsense.

            Maybe Arlton killed her, maybe he didn’t, but someone sure thought so. A month after Kendale disappeared, a servant came into the mansion one morning to find Arlton, his brother Burton and his sister Trish, with their heads missing. All three were seated in the entertainment room as if their heads had been casually teleported away during a pleasant, relaxing evening.

            “Tell me about Margaret.”

            The woman looked at him for a long moment, studying him carefully. “She was a good woman. A woman of class and character, and she did not die well. She was betrayed by her husband and his family. They spent twenty years working on her to set her up in that marriage. They say he had his men rape her and then bury her somewhere out in the woods. The ‘businessmen’ of Urion didn’t like her humanist ways so they didn’t try to find her body no matter how much her half-brother paid them.”

            “Who said that?” asked Paul.

            She continued as if he had not spoken. “Before her body was cold, Arlton brought in the Urion Food Branch, forced the elderly out of their houses, sold or slaughtered all her horses and took control of all the privately owned land in the area. He hired thugs to kill the old mayor when he opposed the Urion Food Branch publically.”

            “Fucking headhunters,” said Paul contemptuously.

            Her voice and face had been calm-looking as she spoke but then, suddenly, her eyes grew wide.

            “She was an angel,” she said and then her eyes grow even wider. “No, literally, she was descended from the goddess Corthea and it showed. The ladies of House Kendale did great things here in Calador and I hear the others do great things out in the Aynir as well.” She looked both enraged and depressed at the same time. “Arlton murdered not just her, but her friends, as well.” Her lips tightened. “Like Margaret, his goons raped them as well.”

            “How do you know that?”

            “Now that Marshall Perric is dead, others like you will keep coming. He didn’t know about the will but he understood his sister and he intended to contact the rest of her family in Tal’ayn unlike the rest of you people.”

            “It’s not personal.”

            “I don’t blame you, kid. You’re just a tunnel boy.” She gestured to the barcode symbol the former Urion miners always added onto their combat uniform’s left shoulder, his with a 5 behind it to indicate the tunnel of his origin. “The way they treat you, we’re lucky you don’t firebomb a city block every weekend.”

            She took a deep breath and continued slowly as if to control her emotions.

            “They murdered Marshall too,” she said bitterly. “After Oliver Beckwell Senior died and it was clear he was going to win the inheritance, they murdered him.”

            “How could you know that or any of this?” asked Paul.

            “Just take my advice, for real, and turn back. That money is cursed. Margaret will not let anyone possess it but a true Kendale or someone genuinely working in their interests as Marshall Perric would have done. Only a Kendale can break this curse and you are not working for any of them.”

            Paul didn’t believe in curses but he didn’t entirely disbelieve in them either. He leaned toward disbelief when he saw that the kind of people who should be cursed, those who cruelly ruined the lives of others for money, seemed generally more blessed than anything else.

            “Margaret Kendale is dead,” Paul told her.

            “Is she?” she asked with a strange expression. He wasn’t sure what it meant but it wasn’t amusement or mockery, that was for sure.

            “Well—” the woman kept looking at Paul with that expression “—where is she then?”

            “She won’t let you have it,” she told him and then stepped back into the shadows. She locked onto his eyes, made a fist, and then created a knocking gesture on a fake wall. “Beware of rapping, boy.”


            “Rapping, rapping, rapping,” she said, her lips pressing tightly together as her face disappeared into the darkness. “It means she’s close. Very close—” he saw her eyes grew narrow and hard just before they disappeared from his sight “—and that she’s coming for you.”

            Paul heard thunder, looked back up at the ruined house straight up the road, and then back.

            The woman was gone.

            “Well, that was creepier than normal,” Paul said aloud and contemplated turning back. If he wasn’t desperate, he would have, but he was, so he didn’t, and he walked up the road and then up the hill. He saw no one else and the rain began to pour harder and harder. Even though it was stupid, he couldn’t shake the idea that it really was getting heavier the closer he got to the house.

            By the time he reached the house, it was pouring almost like a shower, but he still kept his helmet off. The water felt good on his face and it distracted from his negative thoughts.

            Paul walked around the fountain with the statue of the Goddess Corthea and stopped in front of the still-standing double doors.

            Something about the place made the hairs on the back of his neck stand on end. His years of moving through ruins amidst bombardments and never-ending gunfire or life in endlessly black tunnels under the Derris Mining City did not calm the feeling he had. He knew the feeling and remembered it from childhood, feeling it for the very first time in broad daylight.

            It was the fear of something lurking just out of sight, like something creeping around a corner or hiding under a bed.

            Paul looked around at the trees swaying in the wind with water pouring down their leaves, moved his eyes to the thick, white-colored stone walls with rain pouring down like little rivers, and then back to the statue of Corthea, Goddess of Households, Family, Wealth, specifically female, and Matrons, dressed in a conservative dress and holding an abacus.

            Corthea was the sister and female counterpart of the Talvin, God of Merchants, Monetary Systems, Commerce, Wealth, specifically male, Patrons, and Economics. Both were part of the Torean Pantheon, worshipped in most parts of the Aynir Galaxy, and Talvin was the closest thing to a patron god that the Calador System had.

            Do you believe in the gods, boy? asked the ghostly voice of old Martino, the elderly priest of Talvin of Tunnel 5. It’s a trick question, son. They’re real whether you believe in them or not and if you wrong them, knowingly or otherwise, they’ll let their anger be seen.

            The rain pouring down the statue’s face made it look like Corthea was crying.

            “What the fuck is wrong with me?” Paul cried and then he saw something to the south, looked over, and saw an old, red and black, small fighter ship lowering itself down onto the landing pad. “Fucking great!” Now he had to do not only that already awkward, creepy mission but also do it quickly and possibly fight his way out as well.

            Well, at least he had dressed for the occasion.

            As soon as he pushed open the double doors, the ship that landed behind him left his mind. He found himself suddenly feeling as if something was watching him from somewhere and intended him harm. He had never felt such a feeling so vividly in his life.

            Paul pressed the button on his collar and his helmet rapidly folded over his head and then upon connecting created a sealed interior environment capable of keeping out space. He listened to the gentle rain pour down over it for a moment and felt a little better. A little safer. Readying his rifle in both hands also made him feel a little bit better than that.

            Nothing made him comfortable, though.

            Checking the armor’s sensors, he found nothing out there. He was alone, in a ruined house, where people died mysteriously and violently. That was all. Technically.

            Paul moved across the old house quickly in a more or less straight line to the basement. He moved around the walls, checking around very carefully for an ambush, but he saw no one and reached the basement without incident.

            Most of what was above was gone and it just looked like a staircase leading down into a hole in the ground. Various other gaps in the floor existed around the hole, letting in light and rain, but not much of nature and standing at the top, he could see there was an old, barely touched game room down there.

            As he crept down, he also saw tables, chairs, some kids’ toys, gambling equipment, an old monitor on one wall, a red-colored door that could have led anywhere and at the back left corner, he saw a self-powered black computer tower seemingly unharmed. There was a long gash in the ceiling in front of it letting down a waterfall of rainwater but the computer was fine.

            Suspicious didn’t even begin to cover it.

            The whole thing felt like a massive setup. Seven idiots, let alone seven professionals along with anyone Oliver sent, could not have screwed this mission up unless on purpose and even that would have been hard. Hell, a little girl with her dolly, unafraid to walk down into the basement, could have pulled it off. Merra Beckwell or her brother should have been able to hire a townsperson for a dollar and be finished forever within an hour.

            “Fuck!” Paul said under his breath.

            He reached the bottom of the stairs and then, on impulse, took one of the nearby gaming table’s chairs and jammed it up against the doorknob. He had no idea where it led, probably a closet, but blocking it made him feel a little better.

            Then he walked over to the computer, stuck in the data drive, and watched the machine project a small monitor above the table it was sitting on. It was a blue, paper-thin screen with white text that read, “DOWNLOAD.” That was located above a white bar that was rapidly filling a horizontal box from left to right.

            A moment later, it finished and just like that, he had all the information Merra Beckwell needed to find the accounts, locations and or whatever else there was that made up Margaret Kendale’s inheritance.

            Paul pulled out the data disc, shrugged, slipped it into one of the many pockets of his uniform, turned around and—

            Clack, clack went a sound.

            Paul stopped dead, looked up through the rain spilling from the gash, and saw nothing and no one. It was just loud enough for him to hear over the rain and through his helmet as if someone was deliberately trying to get his attention but not much more.

            His armor’s sensors found nothing out there, which was impossible because something made that sound.

            Paul slipped out through the waterfall, looked upward through the gash toward the other side above where he had been standing, and saw more nothing. He turned, slipped across the room and stepped onto the stairs. “I’m losing my—”

            The red door jerked so hard against the chair that the metal legs bent in one push. Paul’s head jerked back, rifle pointing and then saw fingers stick out from the darkness within.

            They were rotting, green and black with flesh missing and yellowish old bones revealed. One of the fingers had a ring with a red ruby on it so large that it couldn’t possibly be fake.

            They wrapped around the door and then the thick metal began to bend.

            Paul jerked up the stairs, the door behind him flying open as he got halfway up, and then he emerged with that straight line toward the entrance and—

            Something grabbed him by his shoulders from his right and yanked him so hard that he was lifted off the ground like a doll. His legs flew out as he was shaken and then he was jerked so violently that had his armor not been reinforced, his back would have been broken.

            Two plates ripped off his shoulders, dropping him to his feet awkwardly, and sending him stumbling forward almost into a wall.

            Paul spun around and fired three white lasers into whatever grabbed him. Then he saw what it was and time seemed to freeze. In what felt like several minutes, but was in truth less than a second, he stared in jaw-dropped shock. What stood before him could not be real, not by any stretch of the imagination, but it was.

            Gerrold Beckwell shambled toward him awkwardly. Three decades ago, he had taken a bomb, strapped it to his chest, and sent himself and the house to the afterlife. Unlike the house, Gerrold came back. Someone had found every piece of him and sewed them back together, and the result stood there, its rotten flesh crisscrossed in thousands of places with giant black stitches.

            It wore the remains of a lavender shirt and black tie with three new medium-sized laser holes through its chest.

            Its eyes were the worst thing Paul had ever seen. They bulged out wide, like a fish’s, glazed over with death but still intelligent, and what skin that it had was a rotting greenish color pulled back so far over its bones that they seemed on the verge of breaking through. Its hair was dark and combed over to the right, just like in the picture of Gerrold when it was a man. Its jaw hung down so low that it seemed to rest against its chest, making the creature look as if it had a cartoonish, elongated scream. Paul distinctively saw its huge, rotting tongue swing around like a dangling rope in a mouth full of wiggling maggots.

            Paul fired through its brain, the laser going through the front of its skull and then out the back.

            It stood motionless for a moment as if stunned, and then it let out a guttural wail of agony and reached out with its bony, rotting hands. The creature moved toward him like a puppet controlled by an untalented master, its tongue wagging around, but it still moved and, when it made its next sound, it was more than just an ugly sound from deep in its guts.

            “Help… me…” it groaned. “Help… me… pleeeeeeee—

            Paul slammed his barrel into the thing that had been Gerrold Blackwell’s chest, knocking it over, and then fired twice more into its skull before a pair of hands came up from over the wall behind him and wrapped themselves around the sides of his helmet.

            It twisted his head violently hard to the left, just stopping short of snapping his neck thanks to the reinforcement of his helmet. Then it twisted hard to the right, breaking that reinforcement with a crack, and then the hands began to crush the helmet as if it was a giant grape.

            Paul grabbed the latch at his collar, pulled it, and jerked his head free of the helmet just before it crushed around his skull. The instant he did so, the smell of rotting flesh filled his nose and made him stumble and cry out.

            His stumble became an awkward turn, his neck hurting badly, and saw not just one reaching over the wall but a half dozen, blocking him from the straight path back to the front doors in a semi-circle position. There was no way they could have been there before but they had been. Somehow.

            And he recognized several of them from his research.

            Tedney, Arlton’s uncle, who had his head caved in from falling off a balcony, dropped the ruins of Paul’s helmet. Barlow Beckwell, Arlton’s cousin on his father’s side, big and bearded, went missing one day from a hike and looked broken and crushed as if something had trampled him to death. Both remained in the ruins of whatever clothes they wore when they died.

            Natelle Beckwell, Arlton’s first cousin on his mother’s side, had been found in the ballroom one morning in full lavender ballroom gown with half of her gorgeous face ripped off by something and that half was presently filled with wiggling maggots. What destroyed her face had not killed her, no; she had a heart attack on the way to the hospital, begging the ambulance nurse to “not let her take me.”

            Somehow, Paul had forgotten about that. It had seemed so stupid before…

            All of them had that same jaw-dropped look with the same glazed but intelligent eyes and all of them crying out for help with their blackened tongues wagging and slime being pulled by rainwater from their soaking bodies. As Paul backed away from them, he fired several more times, hitting three in the head but to no effect. It didn’t even quiet them.

            From the stairs emerged another horror in a red nightgown, Arlton’s aunt Derra Beckwell, who had been the first to take over the home after Arlton and his two siblings had vanished. Something disturbed her greatly one night and she hung herself in the loft, her neck still broken and her head almost horizontal.

            The ruby ring she wore had been her wedding ring.
            Paul spun completely around and ran almost face-first into another creature wearing a purple suit and tie, its head crushed in beyond recognition. He ducked its hands, moved under it, and rushed toward an empty window frame on the western wall of the former mansion.

            Another one appeared, that one wearing white plated, gray medium Dehker armor, the same model as his own. That one was different, its head cracked like an egg and its neck broken, yet its eyes had no intelligence, its jaw normal, and it made no vocal sounds. For those reasons, it was far less frightening.

            But it carried a laser pistol.

            Paul knocked it aside with his rifle and as it hit the ground, a red laser fired randomly off into the air.

            He made it ten more feet before another appeared.

            Rora Beckwell slipped out from behind a pillar, its body covered in a pink nightgown, its hands hanging down at its sides and the top of its head missing. After Rora’s three children and sister died, she fell into a deep depression, put a ballistic shotgun in her mouth and splattered her brains onto the ceiling of the library.

            He ducked under its grasp as it groaned at him, and rushed full speed toward the glassless window frame of those ruins.

            Paul was half-choking on the rotting flesh smell, the rain almost blocking out his vision, and feeling incredibly cold. He understood nothing except that the window was open and he needed to get through it and away from that house.

            He got to it, got a hair’s width from leaping straight out, but then saw another standing there. That one was a slender female in light gray armor with black chain instead of plates, its entire front caved in and its left arm completely ripped out of its socket.

            It too looked like a normal corpse and it too had a pistol. It raised it as he appeared, pointed, and fired.

            Paul jerked to the south, the bullet flying by his right ear, and leaped through a gap in the wall. He dove into a roll, was up in a smooth motion and was then rushing across the grass-covered floor of a former ballroom. On the other side of the western wall to his right, he heard the zombie shamble-running after him, firing at him three times, the bullets missing twice and the third bouncing off the plate on his right thigh.

            Several of the jaw-dropped kind were already crawling over the south walls ahead and shambling in through the open doorways on his left. Paul jerked to the right, leaped through an open window, rolled through a muddy puddle, and sprinted west. A gunshot filled the air, its bullet hitting a tree that he ran past, and there was a small explosion of wood behind him.

            The sounds of their groaning faded behind him.

            Paul ran for about a minute before he turned south, sprinting between the trees, leaping over roots, and moving as fast as humanly possible. In the distance, he heard more gunshots fire, but he didn’t see or sense any lasers or bullets near him.

            His plan was simple. Keep heading south, away from the house, then head east back into town, and then make a beeline straight toward his ship—

            He jerked to a stop with a cry, nearly flying over an almost ninety-degree drop. The hill that had a road turned into a cliff that far to the west but luckily Paul’s boots were designed for such movements in all conditions and he didn’t go flying down a fifty-foot drop.

            Paul heard a crash sound to his left, looked left to see a clear view straight to the front of the house. There he saw a green hovercar driven by two men just like the ones in the city had crashed into the wall. As the two men tried to get their bearings, Paul saw two of the jaw-dropped creatures emerge from the back seat behind them and reach over.

            They grabbed both men, yanked them into the back, and Paul heard them shriek for an instant before there was an explosion of blood and gore. He wasn’t exactly sure what happened in the rain and at that distance but he did see an arm, covered in body armor and sleeved in some gray material, go flying through the air and land thirty feet away from the car.

            Suddenly, Paul heard the sound of another engine in the opposite direction and looked to his right.

            Blake Beckwell, wearing the ruins of its preppy green polo shirt that it had on during its accident, was driving the expensive, sleek Veoh Iceliner hovercar that had killed it. He had crashed into a tree, smashed his head onto the dash and splattered his brains across it.

            The huge open wound was still there, empty of its brains, both hands on the wheel, screaming a loud, long moan as the vehicle came flying toward Paul.

            Paul leaped forward, caught a branch of a tree sticking out of the slope, and held onto it with his left hand while his right held onto the rifle. Behind him, the car shot past where he had been and slammed straight into a tree. The impact sent Blake out of the windshield that time, throwing it past the tree and then head first down the cliff side almost parallel to the path above.

            Then the branch broke Paul held broke and he dropped about twenty feet before he hit the muddy slope and slid the rest of the way.

            He landed hard into a wide muddy pool barely over a foot deep. The impact sent him flying forward and he landed chest first into it. He messed up holding his breath and sucked in a huge amount of mud water into his throat.

            He lifted his head and shoulders above the water, gagging and scrambling forward while rain poured over him like a waterfall. He felt lucky that the slope wasn’t any steeper or dry. He probably would have broken his legs a second time had it been so.

            As he coughed out mud, heads, shoulders and hands steadily rose up out of the muck all around him. They were rising as if they were standing in vertical holes with elevators lifting them slowly.

            Paul screamed and clambered to his feet as they grabbed at his arms, sides, legs, and ankles. One got a hold of a thigh plate, another a calf, the third his left upper forearm. All three yanked in three directions and they all ripped the plates right off his body, tearing pieces of his uniform along with it.

            He stumbled out, almost falling, and cradling his left arm that felt very close to sprained or broken. He stumbled into a tree, the pain far greater than he would have expected, and then spun around a bit like a top before he got his bearings and continued.

            The rain was confusing him, literally a shower at that point and the grass around where he was running was almost a foot tall, making him nervous about what might be hiding below it.

            He looked to his left, saw the tops of the buildings, and knew that was where he needed to go. As he turned in that direction, he heard more sounds of gunfire and screaming. More of Oliver’s thugs, obviously, but he had no time to care.

            Paul saw the concrete alley between two buildings and quickly sprinted toward it. It seemed like he was in slow motion, or the world was moving against him like a treadmill. That alley felt like an exit, his way out of the nightmare he found himself in, and all he had to do was get through that—

            Clack, clack.

            No power in the universe should have made him look back. It was against his training, his logic, against all sense of any kind, but, as if compelled by magic, he did. He turned his head, then spun around into a stop, and stared as if hypnotized. He was no longer feeling pain or rain or anything but dead, dumb shock.

            Margaret Kendale was dead but she was not gone.

            She sat upon a horse on a slope in the west, a slope that might once have held the great barn where she kept her horses. She wore the remains of an expensive riding uniform with tall black boots, black pants and a black jacket over a white shirt associated with all professional horse riders, and her equally dead champion bred horse had a beautiful, matching saddle.

            Only the helmet was missing from Margaret’s outfit, revealing a yellowed fleshless skull with her easily recognizable long, golden hair soaked and hanging down to her waist.

            When she turned to look at Paul, he saw her grinning skull had a hole in the forehead where she had presumably been shot. Unlike the others, she was a complete skeleton, somehow more complete than the others were and clearly in charge.

            Upon the saddle of that dead horse, a mix of rotting horseflesh and skeleton, were three rotting heads dangling down and facing him. One was Arlton, his gold, rich boy hair somehow hard to miss, the second with long, darker hair that must have been his brother Burton, and the third, his sister Trish, with her recognizable flaming red hair.

            They were soaked in the rainwater, groaning and begging like all the others but unlike them, they had no bodies.

            Margaret held a fancy metal-handled riding crop in her right hand. It was possibly silver, maybe platinum, and Paul knew that banging it on the metal part of the saddle was what made the clack, clack sound that had alerted him.

            It was the nervous tick of someone with a mental disorder trying to control some great and wild emotion.

            She started to bang it on her saddle again, not stopping this time, every clack echoing through Paul’s mind, threatening to drive him mad.

            Clack, clack.

            He looked into those empty eye sockets and knew she saw him. Her face was unmoving, emotionless and quiet but somehow he could tell. Somehow, he could feel it.

            Clack, clack.

            From around him, there came the groans on all sides but the one where Kendale was. They were begging him in their monstrous guttural sounds, pleading with him to do something, but not just a few that time but many, a dozen or more.

            Clack, clack.

            Paul knew he was dead, so as their arms reached into his view for the kill, he raised his rifle for one last shot at the monster who caused all this and got him killed.

            Margaret held out her arms, awaiting his judgement, but then jumped when he fired. She lowered her arms, tilted her head down to the heads, and saw that the man who had murdered her suddenly sported a new hole in the exact same spot she did.

            The hands reaching for him wilted back for the first time.

            Paul spun around and bulldozed through a group of the creatures like a bowling ball hitting pins. Several grabbed his ankles as he went by, making him lose his footing, and as he got to the alley, he tripped over the slight height increase of the cement alley and then rolled a few times over.

            Paul scrambled madly to his feet, threw himself out of the alley, and sprinted at full speed down the street. He saw several thugs in cheap armor and hoodies over them firing lasers and ballistic rifles into various alleys, screaming as they did.

            The people know! Paul thought. They all know!

            He saw several of the things running out to meet them, killing the seductive idea that they couldn’t run out into the town. One of them was Derra Beckwell, somehow beating him down there. He could not understand how it had but there it was.

            It caught a man as he tried to flee too late, grabbing his head wrapped in an Archer helmet as he turned away, and then snapped his neck through its cheap reinforcements easily.

            As Paul passed Derra, a half dozen other mercenaries joined him, all running back to their ship with the sounds of groans and pleas behind them. Paul looked back once, saw a half-dozen of them limp running toward them, and then moved faster.

            They rushed around the turn to the east, passing the food factory and sprinted toward the landing pads.

            The headhunter John Roberts and three of his men moved down the ramp left of Paul’s and raised their rifles. Two of them were the men he met in the alley and all four were better equipped than the others were.

            Roberts fired his ballistic automatic at their feet, forcing them to stop, and they all raised their hands, Paul’s rifle held up vertically in his right.

            “What the fuck you doing?” cried one of the men.

            “Did you get the info, Kelsey?” cried Roberts.

            “I didn’t get shit!” cried the man he called Kelsey. “Out of my fucking way!” He lowered his arms and barreled forward for about five feet before Roberts sent several bullets through his chest.

            “Are you fucking retarded?” cried Paul. He looked back, was surprised to see nothing there, and then looked forward again, feeling confused. “We need to get out of here! Now!”

            “I want that fucking info, Barcode!”

            “Get back in your ship and flee while you still can, you fucking idiot!”

            “You’re not getting out of this town alive if you don’t fork over that data drive, you fuck!” He aimed toward Paul’s head. “I know you killed my men—” 

            “I did not kill your men-oh fuck!” He saw several of the creatures creeping out of from under the landing pad ramps. He pointed with his left finger and cried, “Turn around!”

            “Don’t you try and fuck with me, Tunnel Boy!”

            The men next to Paul turned around and started to run the other way. That made Roberts and his men turn back but by then the monsters were five feet or less from them. They all screamed and made the mistake of firing instead of running.

            Barlow Beckwell rushed through a half dozen bullets fired through his core, caught Roberts and tackled him. Paul had started to rush forward, stopped as Roberts gun fired off randomly near where Paul was, nearly hitting him, and then continued past.

            Paul swung his rifle like a bat at one rushing him, sending it flying across the ground, and then threw himself up the ramp. He rushed through the force field, opened the back of his little cockpit, and went inside.

            He quickly checked his ship interior, then shut the door, and flew up into the sky. As he rose into the air up half a hundred feet and hopefully out of reach, he looked down through his floor at the town.

            The monsters were killing what was left of Roberts’ men and Roberts himself. An instant after Paul looked, Roberts was torn in half by Barlow and another, each pulling him in two different directions, his entrails splattering on the asphalt below.

            Paul shot out into the sky and left that town without a second glance.


*          *          *


            “You look terrible,” said Merra. “Was it impossible for you to shower or change your clothes before you arrived?”

            “Kind of,” Paul replied honestly. The Nomad’s mining cockpit didn’t even have a bathroom let alone a shower and he wasn’t about to waste any time renting a room to pretty himself up. He asked for permission to park on the rooftop and, thankfully, she gave it to him. He did not relish rushing through the city in his condition and he wanted his business with Merra over with as quickly as possible.

            He had stepped into her office pretty much unchanged, caked head to toe with mud and blood all over his face from wounds he didn’t realize he had.

            “I just saw Margaret Kendale,” he told her. “She’s not as dead as we thought.” Merra just stared at him. “Did you know what was waiting for me out there?”

            “No and I still don’t,” she replied. “Do you have it?” He took out the little data drive and was about to place it down on the desk when she snatched it from his fingers like a starving child grabbing for a cookie. She quickly inserted it into a computer below his sightline. “Oh yes!” she gasped. “This is exactly what I need!”

            Paul felt something like an incredible weight slip off his shoulders. It was so profound that he became dizzy and almost fell over. A great sense of relief suddenly overwhelmed him.

            What just happened? he wondered.

            Merra smiled at him. “I thought you might try and steal this.”

            “The tunnels pounded thieving out of me,” he told her and then blinked away tears. “Also, isn’t this just basic information? The codes and passwords aren’t in here, are they?”

            “I figured you might try to sell it to one of my cousins for a bigger reward.” Her face darkened. “Or my brother.”

            “That’s fair but I don’t do that sort of thing. A deal is a deal.” He stared at her as he tried to figure out how to explain what had just happened.

            “Is there something more?” Merra asked as she looked into his face.

            “Take my advice and get rid of that. Just give it to Kendale’s distant family off-world wherever they are or just give it to charity or something.” He had an idea that maybe another Kendale who shared Margaret’s ideals with finance might not be murdered by her ghost or whatever it was that she had become.

            Merra blinked, stood up and stared into his eyes. “What did you just say to me?” she asked in a voice so soft and offended that it sounded like a normal person’s reaction to being asked for their prepubescent daughter’s virginity.

            “The girl by the bar said, uh…” Merra just looked at him. “Just take my advice—”

            “I don’t pay you for advice,” she retorted coldly. “You were raised with rats and trained to cut through rocks for valuable minerals by a guy who probably didn’t know his penis from a micro baton. Do you even know how to read?”

            “Well, yes, actually. I took night courses.” They were difficult, cost money, which he had little of, and time, which he had less of, but he was rather proud to have managed it during his eighth year although the following year he was bugged by everyone for every minute of the day to read everything for them. He studied the following year the same way for piloting, which was how he became a co-pilot at ten. “But listen—”

            “The point I’m making is that I feel fairly confident my doctorate in corporation law from Calador University gives me at least a somewhat better opinion of finances than yours.”

            “Merra, that house was not empty.”

            “I didn’t think it was considering the missing nature of your predecessors.” She swallowed and for an instant, her confident exterior slipped enough for him to see that she was deeply worried. Just for an instant. “What exactly did you find there?”

            “I found Margaret Kendale,” he told her.

            Merra scoffed, pressed a button to show project the monitor on the back of her wall showing a picture of Margaret on her wedding day with her bridesmaids, which he had seen before. It was not a still from a video but a photograph that had been published in several newspapers. “That Margaret Kendale?”

            “Yes,” Paul replied. “That—” His eyes went wide with sudden fresh horror. He stepped closer and pointed a finger at the picture. “Who the hell is that?” he gasped.

            “Who?” she asked.

            “The bridesmaid with the curly hair! Who is she?”

            “I don’t know. Just one of her bridesmaids. Why?”

            It was the same girl in the alley. The one who told him to flee and mentioned Marshall Perric. Fifty years later, it was her! Paul blinked as logic intervened. Her daughter, perhaps. Fifty years later, maybe her granddaughter. Maybe.

            Considering what he had just seen, he didn’t think so, and he had heard something in her voice that disturbed him enough to draw his gun. She had not been afraid of that, he then recalled. Most people tended to be afraid when someone pulls a gun on them. Who wasn’t afraid of a loaded gun?

            Someone who was already dead.

            “Are you okay?”

            “Uh—” he swallowed a lump down his throat, looking at the lovely young woman smiling, and remembered her saying, “Arlton murdered not just her, but her friends, as well.” “I’m, uh—not sure.”

            “Is that all?”

            “I think Margaret might be a revenant,” Paul blurted out. “I read a book that had one in them once. A self-risen undead seeking vengeance and I think all her victims became wights or zombies or something.” Merra sighed and appeared disinterested but he was unable to stop himself. “I think Arlton Beckwell murdered her, quite possibly with the help of his brother and sister, and then she rose from wherever they buried her and has been killing and converting anybody who is trying to steal or misuse her wealth. You know everyone who has gotten that money has died.”

            “Except you, of course,” she replied with narrow eyes. “Just why exactly aren’t you dead in this crazed scenario?”

            “You think some competitor has been murdering your mercenaries and hiding their bodies,” he told her. “That’s fair. I thought that was a likely possibility myself and then your brother came along—”

            “My brother!” she hissed. “I knew it! That prick was always jealous of me and can never be happy for anyone but himself!” She frowned at Paul. “What did he do? What did offer you?”

            “He tried to talk me out of helping you. I lied and told him I was still thinking about it and blew him off but his thugs saw through it and tried to take the drive from me back in the town. I think he sent other people as well. He thinks—” Paul shrugged “—I don’t know what he thinks.”

            “He doesn’t think. At all. Frankly, I’m amazed he can manage the energy to involve himself in anything at all beyond whining at it. It’s very difficult to pull a Caladorian waste of skin away from his mountain of cocaine.”

            Paul laughed weakly and then shrugged. “Listen, Merra, I barely got alive. I shot several of these things in the head and they just kept coming. Why wasn’t I killed?” He shrugged again. “I’m not the one who has the money.”

            Merra’s face shifted to one of thoughtfulness. She read something on his face she wasn’t certain about. “You’re serious,” she said after a moment.

            “They say a revenant is risen by will alone but you must have heard that Margaret Kendale is the descendent of the goddess Corthea so, if she is a revenant or some kind of divine based undead, she might have more power than a typical mortal counterpart. Corthea is the goddess of matrons and female wealth and all that, and Arlton was mismanaging that wealth—”

            “Mismanaging?” Merra asked incredulously. “Arlton quadrupled her income in a single month!”

            “Making money and managing it well are not the same thing. Margaret would never have approved of his methods.”

            “You found her will, did you?” she asked with sudden, real suspicion.

            “Will?” He blinked uncomprehendingly at her. Did that bridesmaid mention something about a will? He thought she might have. “She left a will at twenty-eight years of age?”

            “Allegedly!” Merra hissed and Paul could tell she regretted saying anything about it. “Her first cousin in the Tal’ayn System was allegedly the inheritor and therefore nothing was left to her husband or Caladorian relatives.”

            Well, that hit a nerve, Paul thought.

            “Are you in league with her?” she asked coldly.

            “Why would I be here if I was,” he replied.

            “Well, that’s fair enough,” Merra admitted and then added, “We’re done here,” but not unkindly. She was, aside from a few heated moments, extremely happy.

            Paul wasn’t sure what else he could say or do, so he nodded and shrugged awkwardly. It was done. What else was there?

            “I understand your personal attraction to Margaret Kendale and I believe you saw something you couldn’t explain.” She smiled sadly. “She was a beautiful, stunning woman, and while your kind loved her, we did not. We considered her ‘kindness’ toward your sorts as treason to our class.

            “However, that does not mean we went so far as to murder her.”

            “Merra,” he told her softly, “I genuinely think you’re in danger. Even if all I saw was a hallucination, the instant this money comes into anyone’s life, they’re still basically dead. Something attached to this inheritance destroys people.”

            “Something like magic, perhaps?” she asked indifferently. “In my experience, Tal’aynian magicians tend to be overrated.”

            “If you won’t give the money away, I think it best if you get yourself a real priest of Corthea. None of those bullshit political Urion ones but the real deal from somewhere. Some high-up member with real powers.”

            “Let me worry about that.”

            “I genuinely believe she will come for you.”

            Merra’s face tightened a bit and then she pressed something below his sightline that made a small scanning device rise up seamlessly from the desk. “I understand and I respect your feelings in this manner but our business is concluded.”

            Paul nodded, walked over, and slipped his wrist under the scanner. His armor had a different barcode in the same place but it went to the same account. He was, in the instant it took to make that machine beep, one hundred thousand gray discs richer and the owner of the agreed parts of his starship.

            “Everything promised has now been purchased at the same facility that was holding your original mining segments. You remember where, I assume.”

            “I do,” he replied. “Thank you.”

            “Goodbye, Paul,” she told him.

            Paul nodded, went over to the door, and started through it as it opened automatically for him. He stopped suddenly, rested his left hand against the frame, and looked back over his shoulder. “Beware,” he told her and she looked at him. “Beware of rapping and the rain.”

            “What does that even mean?”

            “It means she’s close. Very close.” He swallowed. “And that she’s coming for you.” He stepped out and left the office forever.

            Paul didn’t waste any time.

            He took the elevator back up to his flying cockpit and within two hours, he was back in the Derris Mining City on Dalvor Moon. He quickly contacted his old friend who worked in dealerships, Johnny Blue from Tunnel 11, both of his names made up the same as Paul’s given name had been.

            They shook hands and Paul slipped him a green disc, which was worth a thousand gray, to put his ship in the front of the line. Had he not done so, Paul might have been waiting there for as long as a month.

            What he had given Johnny was a coin-like object about the size of a coaster, outlined in steel with a clear front and back revealing the crystal within. Many different crystals of the same size and mass existed, each of a different value. The gray crystal disc had the monetary value of “one,” hence the reason the prices were referred to as “gray” or “gray discs.”

            Once that was started, Paul went to a nearby Goliath Burger, bought himself a Big G Combo of double-patty hamburger and fries, and tried to get Margaret’s skull and the face of that bridesmaid out of his head. He suspected he would have nightmares about them for the rest of his life.

            The Nomad was put together with its new segments as well as its original pilot’s cockpit over the next three hours. Paul put in another eighty thousand gray of needed repairs and changes as well as replacing his helmet and armor plates. He also got himself a block of cloth, which he would eventually put in the ship’s fabricator to recreate his combat uniform. He bought the schematics for a generic version back when he was certain he could still be a Caladorian mercenary.

            The Nomad’s pilot cockpit was attached to the top mining segment, which was the bridge of his ship. The mining cockpit was attached to the bottom mining segment below and Paul had them convert the living area sections into mining storage while leaving the refinery and fabricator areas alone.

            At the back, he stacked the two gangways on top of each other and had both fully converted for additional mining storage except for the force elevators in the center, which were capable of lifting people and supplies hundreds of feet down to a world below or a ship or satellite above.

            They connected to new segments at the back. There was a typical living area on top, converted into a one-bedroom apartment from a three-bedroom one, with a typical cargo bay on the bottom. The starboard side of the cargo bay contained Paul’s sealed, white-walled armory and the port side, a near the back near the engineering controls and when he got some more money, would contain his stasis pods, which he would use to put criminals inside of when he went bounty hunting. Even with that, there would be plenty of space for vehicles.

            On the outside, it looked incredibly mismatched with two brown segments in the front, a blue gangway above a white gangway in the center, and a red segment stacked on a green segment on the back with white jet burners.

            He had hyperdrive and its jets, a power crystal at thirty percent, base shields, which would be fine unless he was in serious combat, two small ship’s guns, which was hardly ideal but still doable, an incredible amount of mineral storage, and all his mining equipment including the very expensive chain drill and no debt at all.

            It was all his and for the first time in his life, Paul felt genuinely happy, and after what happened out in the countryside, he had no cause to complain.

            He got into the familiar pilot’s cockpit on the second-floor cockpit, the restraints automatically coming down over his chest and legs, slipped his hands through the holographic sleeves that pressed solid light around his arms to keep them steady, and then wrapped his hands around the dual joysticks.

            Paul felt his heart soar as he lifted himself into the air for the first time as the Nomad’s owner.

            He shot to the slide gate, paid the thousand gray to go through when it opened that evening and discovered he yet another hour to kill. He took a quick shower and bought some supplies, which were just some basic foods, bedsheets and a couple of pillows. He didn’t have time for much else.

            When the slide opened, he merged his hyperspace jump into the artificial wormhole and his hyperspeed became the much faster warp speed as he flew to the nearest system away from the Calador space to start his new life.


*          *          *


            Now that she was alone, Merra found the tunnel boy’s words coming back to haunt her.

            Before, she had been fine. She had one hell of a distracting day and the overwhelming praise they heaped upon her was mind-numbing. She was genuinely worth a billion dollars and people had noticed.

            What a ride!
She was richer than her father had ever dreamed of and, as she sat there in her deep blue robe, drinking the hundred thousand dollar wine her father had saved for his “rightful inheritance,” she thought about how he spent decades of his life with lawyers on some new and desperate scheme. He had been so desperate to defeat Marshall Perric only to die a mere month before Marshall did.

            Merra loved her father but she also hated him. It broke her heart when he died and when he left her with nothing, her heart broke a second time. Instead of splitting the inheritance as was proper, he gave her half to that idiot brother of hers, who was wasting her half and his own on booze, drugs and whores.

            Was it out of spite or cruelty? She never understood what she had done wrong to deserve that.
Speaking of her annoying little brother, he was already trying to get the Kendale fortune, primarily by bitching about male rights or something like it, their father’s wish, which meant nothing legally, and other gibberish. She knew better than to not take him seriously since once upon it had actually worked and he went laughing off in the sunset with her half of their father’s inheritance.

            That time, she brought a lawyer, and when it was clear he wasn’t getting what he wanted, he whined and demanded it anyway. No explanations, no deals, no nothing: just the entire fortune for no better reason than that he wanted it.

            What did her father see in that moron? Oh well, she thought.

            It was nearly midnight when she was finally able to retire to her expensive apartment. There, she glanced through photographs of various multi-million dollar designer dresses on a monitor projected over her living room coffee table. Over the week, she would pick one of them, costing no less than fifty million dollars, and its designer would build it personally for her debut in the Billionaire Club. It wasn’t the Trillionaire Club or the Quadrillionaire Club but it was a start.

            She would soon be one of the most eligible socialites in the entire Calador system.

            As she flipped through the pictures, swiping right to left to get to the next picture, she suddenly thought back to her father’s heart attack. It made her sad that he died all alone, in the dark, in a room with the rain pouring down all around him.

            Just like tonight, Merra thought and then added, Odd thought to have.

            She looked around, seated in the white living room on a deep blue couch, her cellphone resting on the glass table below the monitor it projected. The window outside was black, only the rare skyscrapers tall enough to rise above the lower ones visible in the distance, with rainwater pouring down the sides of the window. Her room was filled with long, dark shadows and that made her very uncomfortable.

            She wondered why had mentioned the will. What the hell possessed her to do that?

            It was no secret to anyone in her class but nobody else knew of its supposed existence. If it was real, the Urion Corporation would have buried it deep, desperate to avoid another aristocrat who had a habit of filling the little people with big ideas above their stations.

            Like most people, Merra could not prove that will’s existence even if she wanted to.

            So why did I mention it? she wondered.

            She heard thunder outside, booming off into the distance, and it made her jump. She suddenly had an unshakable feeling that someone, or something, was skulking around and looking for her. She had an idea of this imagined thing creeping down the halls or climbing up the elevator shaft. Maybe it stopped every ten feet, sniffing the ground, looking for her scent—

            “This is stupid!” she hissed. Her apartment building was one of the most secure in all of Calador City. “That little rat put a spell on me! He—”

            There was sudden clack, clack, at the door. It wasn’t loud, or aggressive, but it was distinct.
Merra swallowed a lump down her throat and she carefully placed the wine glass down beside the bottle. Her wrist was covered in a bit of wine when she had jumped and she took a nearby napkin and wiped it off.

            Then she stood up, walked over to the kitchen, which was both close and gave a measure of protection with its huge, marble-topped counter. She brought up the house security monitor from its built-in computer and then checked the cameras pointed down the long, white hallways around her front door.

            They were empty. No one was around or near her door.

            She checked the elevator shaft that carried her car up to the apartment’s interior garage and nothing was there either. She wasn’t sure what she expected. A murderer with a jetpack or maybe someone climbing the wire?

            No one was out there but her.

            She felt stupid but that horrible feeling continued to linger. It was a funny thing about that knock, she realized. No one knocked. Ever. There was a doorbell for a reason and the doorman only let people go to her apartment when she told him she was having guests. If someone was trying to get to her, he would have contacted her long before that someone got close enough to knock. Someone could have snuck in, she supposed, but since the doorman was required to unlock the door inside, she couldn’t see how.

            Am I losing my mind? Merra wondered. No, she decided. She had fallen asleep for a second had a quick nightmare. No surprise there, considering how stressed she was. She heard the knock in a dream because that annoying boy had gotten under her skin.

            Who in the universe would come to bother her in her apartment in the middle of the night anyway? You would think said individual never heard of a monitor call in their life. Even her cokehead brother would call her before he knocked.

            Merra double-checked the security cameras for the halls and the elevator and then turned off the monitor. She started to walk away when she heard the sound again, that time wide-awake.

            The clack, clack was ever so gentle that time. Just at the edge of her hearing.

            Merra quickly went back to the monitor, checked the door and elevator again, saw nothing again, and then tried to call the doorman. The call didn’t work for some reason, the screen turning red and giving her an error message in white text. She tried to call the elevator for her vehicle and got the same message. She tried to call out to an operator and got the message for the third time.

            She grabbed her cellphone from the table and discovered it worked no better. She suddenly couldn’t connect to anyone or anything.

            This is what happened out there in Kendale Village, she thought softly.

            She swallowed, moved over to the little hall past the guest bedroom’s bath, and looked at the white door into her apartment. She almost called out, almost, but fear stopped her. She had a sudden and unshakable feeling that whatever was on the other side of that door meant her harm and calling out would do no more than give away her position.

            Maybe it would leave…

            Clack, clack, came the sound a third time, that time louder and a little more impatient.

            Merra had always been a practical woman. Practicality was a trait of cutthroat lawyers who did not have time to play around and or delude themselves. That time was no different but far less kind than any earlier examples.

            The plain facts of the situation were painfully simple and clear to her. She couldn’t use the law to escape, she couldn’t call anyone for help, the elevator wasn’t working, nobody was coming for any reason any time soon and she couldn’t stay in that apartment forever. That meant only one thing.

            Sooner or later, she was going to have open that door.


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