Steel and Heart
The holster was snug around Knife. Warmed by the presence of the Wielder. Knife knew its comrade well. They had danced together many times in training, their individual movements coalescing into one being. The speed and heat of the Wielder merged harmoniously to Knife’s resolute cool.
Knife knew its time was coming. It could feel it in the dull beat pulsing through the holster from the Wielder’s thigh. Their energy was high, excited. The air grew heavy outside, tendrils of anticipation curling through the snug plastic, a faint, unheard whistling along Knife’s waiting stillness.
Knife couldn’t hear, not in the way Wielders and Targets could, but it could feel the shape and tenor of air laced with meaning. Throughout its training, it had learned certain frequencies would herald its freedom, its razor edge eviscerating the air in a spectacle of spectral gore none else could appreciate. Others, the lower, slower wavelengths, cooled the hungry beat of Wielder’s heart, leaving Knife to seethe with unused sharpness.
Despite the many frequencies that had tumbled through the air, Knife had never been called to bleed before. It remembered blood, from the first days after being Formed, when it was trialled against flesh and sinew, tested its strength against bone. It was delicious. Soothing as the oil Wielder sometimes massaged into its thirsty length. Knife needed it. Craved it.
The Wielder’s heart was beating loud enough for Knife to tremble slightly with every blow. There had been running. The sway and jarring of blows landed and received. Even the tiniest weight of something coppery and red, whispering past Knife, making it gleam in its cavern.
Frequencies clipped through the air. The Wielder’s were slow, warning. Aggressive. Knife knew those frequencies. Knew it would be released in moments. It tensed, relishing the sharpness of its edge, the strength of its blade.
Another wavelength wove into the air. This one was odd. Unafraid. Calm. Persuasive. The Wielder took a step back, the leg that held Knife jerking once. Retreat? No – a feint. A hot hand curled deliciously around Knife’s hilt. Fingers slid into place along the finely grooved surface, fitting more perfectly than blade into flesh. They squeezed. Knife tilted slightly in the holster, and in one fluid motion it was free, whipping upwards as the world expanded to arms, legs, the heartbeat blending into Knife’s own silent pulse. The Wielder was no longer an ally, no longer a separate being judging the worth and virtues of battle. They were one creature, one beating being of hot flesh and cold steel and waiting death. Knife sang its delight in a silent voice, relishing the deft pull of soft muscle, the solid certainty of familiar calluses.
This had been no warning move. As soon as it was free Knife and Wielder began their dance, striking with all the beauty of a clean kill. The air yielded to its edge with a tiny cry none else could hear, the gentle glow of light sweeping by in patches as they moved. Through its Wielder half Knife could feel the Target react, dancing its own ballet of frenzied retreat, the gentleness gone from its frequency, replaced with the clipped staccato of hurried air. They cut it off with one vicious slice, Knife biting through cloth and into flesh, its edge licking along an arm, releasing a rich flow of blood.
It had been too long since it felt this sanguineous touch. It soaked into Knife’s edge, the unique heat searing as it cooled in rushing air. Its blade seemed to sharpen, piqued by the tang of copper, the slick of a life Knife was born to destroy. It was delicious.
The Target retreated, the coppery aroma dimming as though stemmed by a hand. Frequencies filled the air again, tone urgent, pleading. The Wielder shifted, uncertainty seeping into its grip and Knife spared a moment to wonder what was being said. Knife knew nothing of profiles, of the psychology of verbal weapons used to dismantle internal defences. It didn’t understand the effect twisting through the Wielder’s head, eroding it like rust. It didn’t know the fight was already lost.
The Wielder knew, and rejected it in the same moment it was accepted. The reaction was quick as a strike, though even Knife knew it was fear that fuelled its sudden charge. It felt the barest pressure as the Target attempted to bat the Wielder’s arm away, but they powered through, momentum and twin strength forcing its tip through expensive material, then skin, then muscle, its flat edge grating coarsely against bone. Blood surrounded it, racing to engulf it with a hunger Knife had never known before. It was dizzying. Overwhelming. There was no kiss of air or glow of light, only the deep, molten heat and a pulsing beat so overpoweringly loud, so belligerently strong, Knife froze.
It wasn’t sure how long it stayed there, surrounded by blazing life. Frequencies warbled feebly above it, but they meant no more than their predecessors. The Wielder’s grip sagged, losing its iron surety.
Then it slipped away.
Icy air ravaged the raw hilt, snarling through fine grooves and stinging sweat dry. The moment the fingertips surrendered contact, Knife knew. It didn’t need the low, fearful frequency for confirmation. Didn’t need the retreating cacophony of cowardly footsteps.
It was abandoned. Alone. Lost to this inferno of life.
The world quaked. The magma around Knife rippled sickeningly as the Target fell to its knees. They teetered there a moment, an unfamiliar hand curling gently around its hilt. Then everything tilted, pitching forward until Knife’s point stilled its swaying.
The oppressive beat faltered. Slowed. The flesh around Knife heaved in time to the gasping echoing subtly around them. Knife could feel the life surrounding it waver. Organs seizing at the intrusion, blood leaking uniformly along the base of its blade. For once, it didn’t taste so sweet.
Knife had never killed before. It had been with the Wielder since it first tasted the world. They had fought many battles together but had never ended them like this. Knife, alone, mired in leaking life. It was different to how it had imagined. The well of blood was not satisfying but cloying, sticky and possessive. Staining. Digging into the microscopic grooves along its length as though bereft of its own veins and desperate to find new narrow passageways to beat through.
This was not the righteous victory that had been sung into Knife during its Sharpening. This did not marry with the tales of defending and intimidating. This was … wrong.
The Target’s hand tightened weakly around Knife’s hilt. In another world, it could have been a Wielder’s grip. They could have been one in a dance of flashing silver, not this unnatural union of blade and flesh.
And still, the blood leaked. The gasping shallowed. The pulse weakened. The heaving grew lethargic, struggling with each pull to entice the air in.
The Target was dying. They were making frequencies sail softly through the air, the vibrations tiny and faltering.
Knife had not chosen this. This was not how it should be.
Blood oozed around Knife’s base, stealing away with the Target’s life. Knife wasn’t entirely sure how Wielders and Targets worked – they were odd, soft creatures – but the once-delectable warmth was meant to stay within the delicate holster so, steeling itself, Knife did its best to swell, to fill the hole it had mistakenly made and, perhaps, buy the Target a few more beats of that faltering heart.
The Target’s frequencies grew slower, less defined. Some bore the bite of anger, others the tremble of fear. All trace of persuasion had bled away into a silence Knife thought would fill the entire world.
It didn’t. A new frequency pounded into them from far away, this one wider, older. It drew closer, hitching higher as the rhythmic scratches of movement ceased beside them. Stronger, warmer hands appeared either side of Knife, sealing the blood against it. Frantic frequencies rumbled around them, met with a silence that was cold and still.
More arrived, Targets or Wielders, Knife had no way of knowing. None of them gripped its hilt. None of them unsheathed it from its bloody holster. Instead they moved the Target, the motion dizzying after such stillness, temperate softness replacing the burning hands around Knife. The chill of the air warmed. A sharp snap gave way to a deep rumble that roared, bustling them, with the dim heat of tired lights peering over them. The older frequency never left them, but it quieted as two sharper, decisive vibrations jabbered above Knife.
More movement. Fresher air. Harsher, more attentive light. A chaos of frequencies, calm and frenzied, bored and fearful, crashed around them until Knife was lost in the din, aware only of the subtle swaying of the Target as they were moved on something hard and smooth.
The older frequency faded. New ones appeared, tones contrastingly dispassionate, talking over them, not to them. Knife waited, tense. Sensed kin whispering nearby, clinking against a metal holster of some kind. The heart pulsing against Knife increased its pace, a shimmer of confidence whispering past the steel.
A hand curled clinically around Knife. It braced, silently lamenting being drawn, sure it would seal the Target’s fate. The hand tensed. Pulled. Knife squelched free, the air like winter fangs around it, rushing in to dry the blood dripping from its tip.
It was dropped unceremoniously into an open metal holster. The blood slipped from its blade, cooling into rock. The frequencies maintained their clipped transactions, an odd rattle droning monotonously beneath their stilted melodies.
It was another era before Knife was moved again. It expected another hand, wet fabric, a sympathetic Sharpening. Instead it was plucked from the open holster, blood ripping as they separated, and was slid into an odd new holster, this one cool and malleable and made from a plastic so thin Knife could’ve sliced it open if only someone would help. It was laid on a table. A scribbling pressure visited before vanishing. More hands, none of them familiar, none of them friendly. Eventually, Knife lay still in the sheer holster, resting against something thin and wooden. A shushing scrape shut out the light, the world tilting and rising before settling into a stubborn stillness.
There, Knife waited. Wondering if the Target had lived. If its Wielder would return for it or if the betrayal was permanent as the dried blood caked into every minute groove of its blade.
Knife didn’t like the taste of it anymore.
The Fae’s Aurora
They named her Aurora for the lights none other could see, leading them to her crib. Her parents thought they chose it for the beauty in those deep, curious eyes, the wideness of that toothless smile. But fae suggestions are hard to ignore, a burr that clings to thoughts like a tune that won’t quiet.
Tallann was in charge of the switch. She hesitated over the little girl, taking a moment to appreciate the simplicity of her. Such potential. An empty vessel, waiting to explode into an entire world held behind onyx eyes graced with deepest honey. Such a life they would give her, adventures most children only dreamed about in a world few imagined could exist.
Beside Tallann, the changeling, Fanahkt, peered intently at the little thing, imprinting upon her so the subtle mental link would be strong despite the miles and dimensions that would soon separate them. Fanahkt would mimic the young girl’s behaviour as she grew, a perfect copy so her return would be seamless. No one would ever know that magic had touched her.
The baby stirred, blinking awake. She didn’t cry. Just looked up at the two faeries with an expression of polite interest.
A small smile stole its way over Tallann’s lips. No matter how many eons she spent on this mission, this moment was hard not to cherish. The adoption of a new child, the vow to protect and nurture and teach until the day they could return, armed for the subtleties of the fae’s cause. Magic stirred in her veins, zinging through her in anticipation, in wild joy at the prospect of a new soul to touch.
Tallann raised her hands and reached for the baby, heart warming as the child mirrored her. She didn’t fear Tallann’s grey skin, the hairy carapace that segmented her fingers, their black tips. She didn’t even mind the wide obsidian eyes that blinked down at her, as deep and unknowable as the night itself. Tallann touched one finger to the baby’s curious hand and felt the answering grip, feeble by her standards but undoubtedly determined. Her smile grew. The moment they touched, Tallann saw it all.
She saw the years of mischief and bravery, the resilience after every scolding lecture, the desert thirst for stories, the quiet, burning need to wrap them around herself and bring to them a life no other could. She saw bare feet running through fields and rivers, knees skinned on trees, eyes mesmerised by bonfires and the spectral glow of magic. She heard the whispered conversations with a visiting Fanahkt, cloaked by night and rich with longing as the young girl heard of the love her true parents had for her, the faith, the pride. Tallann saw the joyful tears as the twelve-year-old returned to her own world, wrapping herself in the wonder of family, soon to wonder if her time in the other realm was as real as it felt, or a dream submitting to the passion her caretakers had planted within her. She even tasted the unrelenting love of that circular dessert the humans doused with sugar.
Tallann wrapped her claws carefully around the bundle of warmth and lifted her into a secure embrace, beaming down at her. She had chosen well. This little one would be a fine addition to their ranks. Another warrior in the war for good, for the future only the fae could summon into being.
Aurora would do her part to save the world, to change it for the better. Just as the fae had envisioned.
One story at a time.
One story at a time.
The Good Bird
Cana bent her head and preened. It was Warm Light, when the Bright shone right onto her cage and the warmth was like her boy’s hands around her. She ruffled her feathers and settled in for a snooze.
She woke when she woke, long after Warm Light. It was Cool now, the Bright hiding beyond the barrier she’d flown into once. She fluttered over to her water and nipped some up, flicking it onto her feathers to freshen herself after her nap. Then it was time to sing.
There were few things as wonderful as singing. Cana felt it in her feathers, deep in her bones, from the tip of her beak to the end of each tiny talon. Singing was right. Singing was being a bird. It connected her to her parents and nestmate, no matter how far from them she was. It rose a Bright inside her chest and it shone through her, out into her nest, out through the cold sticks and into the world. And it made her boy make that face that she loved, that face when he snarled but it wasn’t a snarl and she felt like he had a little Bright of his own that was reaching out to her. And he would open her nest and bring her onto his featherless scritcher and they would be together, joined by song and the love that fuelled it.
She spent her day as she usually did. Waiting for her boy, singing, twittering to herself, preening. Drinking. Eating. Snoozing a little more.
It was Dark when her boy came back. She tweeted a happy hello, but he didn’t even look at her as he came by. That was odd. He loved her. Loved chirruping at her in his nonsensical way, making his own little songs with meaning Cana could feel more than hear.
She danced to the edge of her perch, watching him, head tilted. He looked different. His change-feathers were ruffled and in dire need of preening, bright with red water that smelled sharp and dangerous. Cana hooted uneasily, asking if he was alright. He ignored her, bumbling over to the sometimes-waterfall and unleashing the flow, splashing the water on his head where some of the red water clung.
She watched him rip his change-feathers off and whistled in alarm at the amount of red water on his belly. He had no real feathers to protect him and his under-feathers was broken. Ripped. This was not good, not good at all. Her boy shouldn’t look like that. Shouldn’t smell like that, like … like not-breath.
Cana twittered furiously, trying to bring him over so she could help, but he wasn’t listening, was busy wrapping white around the red but the red was too strong, it was eating the white away and he didn’t look right, he wasn’t meant to be that white himself, that grey. He moved over to the smooth perch but collapsed at its back and Cana cried out, flapping her wings in alarm.
“It’s okay, Cana,” he twittered quietly and Cana hooted frantically. His voice was wrong. “I’ll be alright.” The notes were squished into each other, lacking their usual entrancing clarity.
Something was very wrong. Red dripped around him, making a puddle like her water bowl. His breathing was loud at first, but as Cana watched it grew fainter, slower. Those eyes she so loved were sliding closed.
Cana hopped to the cold sticks that were the nest-hatch and pecked at it, chewing it and wiggling her head to try and open it. Her boy needed her. She needed to be out.
A thudding startled her back to her perch. Another voice, this one lower, older, warbled into the world.
“Connor? Kid, you there?”
Cana hooted, looking from the world-hatch to her boy. His face twitched, the not-feathers over his eyes bunching.
“Come on, kid. I know today was rough.” The voice was familiar. It was the old one who loved her boy. He was good. He would help. “Look, I’m sorry about what I said. I know you’re good at what you do and I know why you take the risks you do. Just … please, kid. Let me in. Let’s talk.”
There was so much red. It was trying to swallow up her boy. But the old one could help. He was kind. He’d given her treats, stroked her back and chest. Even if he smelled of cat, he was friend.
Cana hopped from one end of the perch to the other, thinking hard. If the old one went away then her boy would become not-breath. She couldn’t lose her boy. He was too precious. And not just because he had the food. But, he did have the food.
She stood tall on her toes and took a deep breath, puffed up her feathers and sang. She sang of the danger of the red water and the paleness of her boy’s under-feathers and the growing pool of not-breath leaking from him. She sang their need for the old one’s help, lilting in urgency, adding short, sharp notes so there would be no confusion because the featherless were awfully slow.
“Kid? You alright in there?”
She sang with all she had, pausing only to wet her throat.
“Kid, come on. You don’t have to let me in, just say something so I know you’re alive.”
The old one’s tone was lower but Cana didn’t feel he understood. Not yet. She sang harder, higher, trilling for all she was worth.
“Kid, open the door. Now.”
Her fear had spread to the old one but she didn’t stop singing. Her boy had fallen to the side and there was far too much red now, so, so much red.
“Kid! Open the door!”
Cana flapped her wings, half-flying around her nest, rattling the cold sticks with her flight feathers and singing even louder, willing her inner Bright to shine so strong the old one would see it through the world-hatch.
It burst open and Cana flapped in alarm, heart racing furiously as tiny sticks went flying, only to fall to the ground because they had no wings. The old one stepped in and saw her boy.
“Connor! Jesus, what happened?”
He ran to her boy, pulled him up so he was perched properly. He didn’t open his eyes. The old one put a rectangle to his hearer and spoke with authority, commanding something Cana didn’t understand. He put the rectangle away and pushed his scritchers into the heart of the red water. Cana twittered, distressed, flapping wildly. He was hurting her boy! He was making that low, sad tune he made during his snoozes, before he’d wake up so loudly he’d frighten her. He was in pain! She flew back to the nest-hatch and bit it, shook it, willed it to open.
She fluttered to her perch and watched the old one hurt her boy. He was singing softly to him, and Cana stopped to listen. His voice was … gentle. Encouraging. Kind. Then Cana understood. He was stopping the red water from coming out, trying to keep it inside where it belonged. Relief almost took her from her perch but she clung on, hopping to the side to see better.
Her boy raised his head weakly. Muttered something so low it was barely a song. The old one sang back to him, putting a featherless wing to her boy’s face for a moment, making that snarl-face that was friendly.
Her boy wasn’t awake when the other featherless arrived. They had a perch for her boy and put him on it, with more white to press into the red. They even strapped something around his not-beak. Cana didn’t know what it was but their tone made her think it would help.
Then they took him away. She twittered madly, ordering them to stay, but they didn’t even look at her. The old one did though. He stopped by her nest on his way by. Poked a scritcher through the cold sticks. Cana glared at it, feeling betrayed.
“Good bird, Cana. Thank you.”
His tone was grateful, so she gave a dignified hoot. He withdrew his scritcher and followed her boy out the world-hatch. Cana was left alone, in a world that smelt of not-breath. It was frightening.
So she sang. Snoozed. Nibbled. Sang.
It wasn’t until the next Bright that the world-hatch opened. The nice girl came in. Cana’s water and food bowl were both empty, so she filled them. She left the nest-hatch open and Cana’s took to the air, desperate to stretch her wings properly. She flew straight to the barrier and landed on the perch by its base, searching the Out for her boy. She didn’t see him.
The nice girl was cleaning the red water away, even erasing the smell with something that was far worse but that Cana knew wouldn’t last. When she was done she sat near the sometimes-waterfall, her head in her scritcher. Cana flew to her and chirruped consolingly. The nice girl loved her boy, too.
The nice girl extended a scritcher and Cana leaned into the contact, feeling her inner Bright stir for the first time since before last Dark.
“You did good, Cana,” the nice girl sang softly. Cana tweeted sweetly, thanking her for getting rid of all the awful red. “He’s gonna be okay. You saved him, little thing.”
The nice girl bent down and Cana started but let her press her squishy not-beak into her head in that nice way her boy sometimes did.
“Thank you, beautiful girl.”
Cana felt better. She knew if her boy was not-breath the nice girl wouldn’t sound so happy, so hopeful. So he must be okay. Sometimes he stayed away for Brights and Brights but he always came back. Sometimes even smelling of red water. She snuggled into the nice girl’s scritcher, singing a soft, quiet song of loneliness and fear and hope and relief.
Her boy would be okay. And when he came back, she would sing for him.
Her boy loved it when she sang.
We planted them in our first year. The finishing touch after we finally picked a couch and before your test results changed everything. They wavered in the breeze like a tiny clutch of suns, their stalks tall and proud, leaves waving merrily at us whenever we had wine in the swinging chair on the deck. They looked happy. Like us.
They surprised us the second year, their stalks heralding their arrival before I’d thought to look forward to their bright yellow frills. I cut one and slipped it in a vase to put in the sitting room, so you could enjoy them awhile without risking the early spring chill.
I barely saw them the year after that. I was too busy working, keeping the house afloat, and you were busy fighting for your life in St Jude’s. I did see them one night, when you were released after the third bout of chemo. I tiptoed down the stairs and snuck outside in my dressing gown, afraid you’d hear the tears burning me alive. I didn’t let them fall until my toes were clenched around the grass I hadn’t cut. The moon was full and compassionate that night, shining down on me like an embrace, keeping the heavy clouds at bay and even showing me a few shy stars. The daffodils were drenched in silver-blue, still and calm as I wasn’t. I knelt beside them and reached for their soft petals, rubbing them gently between my shaking fingertips. They were proud little trumpets, bee B&B’s, you called them. You wanted a beehive, in the far corner of the garden. You’d almost decided which kind the week before we planted our little yellow army. I stayed with them until the moon succumbed to sleep and the sun stretched itself out to touch me tenderly on the shoulder and shoo me inside.
Winter the following year was the coldest and longest I’ve ever known. The daffodils should’ve stayed in their bulbs another month. Where they were safe. Protected. But I think they wanted to see you. They wanted to shine for you one last time. I’m glad they did.
Every year the daffodils bloom, earlier and earlier in the winter’s choking gloom. And every year I worry for them, sure they’ll be beaten by the cold. So far, they’ve always pulled through.
They remind me of you.
Behind the Yellow Door
The truth is behind the yellow door.
It was the one line in the will no one could make sense of. There was no yellow door associated with Hector Rawlins or his family. Eventually, solicitors and those involved in the probating chalked it up to a glimmer of the dementia Hector had nearly avoided in his final months. By the funeral, everyone had forgotten their curiosity.
Hector had loved puzzles – jigsaws in particular. He had collected them as most others collected books or stamps, custom shelves filling his entire study, with his favourite and most impressive accomplishments hung throughout the house.
One such honoured piece was in the dining room, taking pride of place on the wall and luring the eye to the vibrant colours of a cliffside town somewhere along the Mediterranean. It was only fifteen hundred pieces – child’s play by Hector’s standards – but he had completed it over a significant weekend with his three children, then young enough to enjoy sitting by their father for hours poring over a task they didn’t truly appreciate. What it lacked in puzzle-solving prestige it gained in sentimental merit, earning it the prominent home overlooking the dinner table. Hector’s children had grown up under its variegated gaze, sometimes gazing idly upon it, occasionally indulging in the fond but fading memory of its creation.
The nostalgia of fresh grief brought its significance back to them and, the morning after the funeral, after sleeping together under their parents’ roof for the first time in years, Michael, the eldest, suggested they break it apart and reassemble it in their father’s honour. Carrie and Sid agreed and before long they had the edges complete and the pieces organised by shape and colour, as Hector had taught them.
“I swear this was easier when we were kids,” Sid grumbled, searching vainly for the bow of a boat.
“We had Dad then,” Michael said softly, that same sad little smile he’d been wearing since Wednesday still sitting primly above his chin. “He made it easier.”
Carrie snorted, shaking her head fondly. “It was easier because he did all the work and we only pushed the pieces into place when he’d found them. We weren’t exactly helpful.”
“I got a few pieces myself,” Sid said. Carrie shot him a look of patient indulgence she was lucky he didn’t see.
Carrie half-stood, craning her neck to peer over the militant lines of waiting colour. She’d taken it upon herself to complete the first row of houses with as little help as possible – a common theme in her life and one undoubtedly born of being the middle child.
“Remember that black one he did?” Sid asked as she selected a piece and sat back down. “The one that was about two thousand pieces?”
The other two nodded, eyebrows raised in remembered strife.
“I think that took him the longest,” Sid continued.
“No, that crucible one took the longest,” Michael said.
“Krypt,” Carrie corrected, staring at the empty spaces, idly turning the puzzle piece in her fingers.
“Whatever. That one took him over a week.”
Sid said something snarky, but Carrie’s attention was being lulled by the smooth curves of the piece twirling slowly in her fingertips, eyes trekking automatically over the jigsaw as she hunted down its spot. An unexpected texture drew her gaze to the back of the piece. The soft blue card had been cut and glued back into place. Frowning, she dug her freshly varnished nails into the tiny groove, black paint hindering the grip. The thin wedge of card broke free, a micro SD card following.
Carrie blinked. Her brothers’ bickering faded as she held it up.
“What is this?”
It took them twenty minutes to open it on Sid’s computer. They’d found an adapter in Hector’s old digital camera, already dusty in his office. It contained one file, an mp4 without a title, dated two weeks after their mother had died. Had their father bothered with a name, they might have had some hint as to the horrors waiting for them. But, being children of a master puzzler, naive in their rose-tinted grief, all three assumed this would be one final mystery from their father. One last intelligent scheme, a final farewell through his favourite, convoluted language.
They were half right.
Sid clicked the video into full screen and hit play.
Their father sat on the screen, not at his desk, where he’d spent most of his life, but at the very table at which they sat. A bottle of whiskey stood half-empty at his elbow, a full tumbler in his hand. His eyes were unfamiliar, dark and pinched. His voice, usually so eloquent and measured, was low and rough, as though he’d been talking (or screaming) for hours. He was younger by over a decade but didn’t look it, the heaviness in his eyes squatting on his crow’s feet, dragging shadows into his skin.
Carrie bit her lip as her grief beat against her chest, reaching for her brothers’ shoulders and drawing them closer. It was a mark of the last few days that they allowed the contact.
Hector took four long swallows of his whiskey before deigning to look into the camera. When he spoke, his voice was gravelly and alien with an odd emotion Carrie couldn’t place.
“Anna died last week,” he said, his mouth turning down at the sides, an antithesis to its usual orientation. “And I’ve realised … it’s different for a lot of reasons now, but of all the things I miss about her …” He shook his head and knocked back another hefty gulp. “No one knows now. Anna knew. It made it better. I want someone to know.”
He shifted his weight. His children exchanged baffled glances.
“Twenty years ago, a man named Jason Everritt went missing. Trail went cold. Cops gave up. His widow lives in the next town over. I’ve seen her in the market a few times. They have two kids, few years younger than mine. He was a banker.”
Hector tipped more amber into his glass and threw half of it back, grimacing around the burn.
“I killed him.”
The silence of curious attention shifted instantly to an icy disbelief. Sid’s hand hovered over the trackpad, as though half-wanting to rewind and make sure he hadn’t misheard.
Hector took another drink. Shifted in the chair his youngest now sat in. He didn’t make eye contact with his children as he continued.
“He was the first. Buried the deepest. What’s left of him, I mean. But there were more. Fourteen, I think? Over twenty years. And yes, they’re all in the same place. Roughly. Anna knew. But she didn’t want the kids growing up without a dad so I had to endure twenty bloody years of threats and hints and digs and questions.” He sniffed, blinking quickly. The corner of his mouth twitched ruefully. “It was a game between us, really. One I kept winning. Long as I kept the kids happy, she didn’t care.”
Hector’s smile grew and for a moment he looked like the father they had buried, eyes crinkling in affection, his most well-worn expression overtaking his features.
“Not that it was hard. I love my kids. I bet some of you’ll find that hard to believe, but I do. And I’m proud of them. They’ve made something of themselves. They’re happy. I gave them a good life, and they love me.” He set the tumbler down and leaned on his elbows, fixing his children with a subtle smile that warped the familiar face into that of a stranger. “We get a bad press, serial killers. People think we’re not capable of love, but that’s just a lie they tell themselves to convince them we’re different, other, a separate thing, a disease. Well. The only difference between me and all those people who watch those true crime shows is I’ve got the balls to act on that curiosity. That urge.”
Michael reached over Sid and slapped the spacebar, silencing the relish in their father’s tone. The image froze, that stranger’s smile searing out from the screen.
“This is a joke,” he said, getting to his feet and kicking the chair away. He ran his hands through his curls, leaving them clenched at his neck before turning back to his silent siblings. “This is a joke!” he repeated, louder, as though that would make it true. “We keep watching and it’s gonna be some mad murder mystery crap, some puzzle he’s made to mess with us.”
Carrie leaned back in her chair, one hand at her stomach.
“I don’t think so, Mike,” she said softly, still staring at her father’s alien image.
Sid laughed, drowning out Michael’s growl.
“No way,” he said, shaking his head and smiling with the air of one cataloguing the bizarreness of a moment for future anecdotes. “Michael’s right. This is a hoax. Just a game. Dad’s not – Dad wasn’t – come on.”
“Play it,” Carrie said, using her Mum tone. Neither brother moved to hit play. Carrie stabbed it herself.
There were four and a half minutes left of the recording. Any hope of denial died by the second minute. There were too many details. Too much satisfaction in Hector’s tone. Too much truth in that new smile that was ruining a face each of them had loved unquestioningly their entire lives. By the time the video ended, one reality had been murdered. In its place another was forming out of horror and disgust, and a deep, aching terror.
Hector Rawlins had murdered fourteen people. The first that same weekend they had assembled the jigsaw now abandoned on the table. The last only two years before their mother died – right when they’d found out about the cancer.
There weren’t words for what they were experiencing, so they sat in silence for an hour as the betrayal burned and curdled in their hearts. The next hour was largely dominated by shouting. Spirits were found. One glass shattered against the wall. The laptop lay on the floor, screen cracked, the image of their father gone. He still smiled down at them from framed photographs hanging on the far wall, along with their mother. Their mother. Their mother who had known, who had accepted, who had let them grow up with a murderer.
Everything they had known was undone. A lie. How could their parents love them yet rip apart other families? How could they chide them for their mistakes when they wilfully hid the worst sins? How could the three of them consider themselves good people when their parents had been … what they had been?
Eventually, the words came.
“We have to turn this in,” Carrie said, her voice hoarse, hollow. Uncertain.
Michael shook his head. “No. No way. We can’t.”
“We have to, Mikey.”
“No. Do you know what that’ll do? What it’ll do to us? To our families?” He heaved a censoring sigh. “You want to explain to Matty and Sandra how their grandad killed people just because he liked it?”
Carrie closed her eyes, pursing her lips. Sid dug his fingers into his beard, scratching harder than was kind.
“The families,” he said. “They don’t know what happened to them.”
“Then they still have hope!” Michael snapped. “They can still pretend they’re out there somewhere, alive. Happy. We turn this in and that’s gone.”
Carrie shook her head. “You’re a coward, Mikey.”
Michael rounded on her. “Say that again! Say that to my face!”
She met his fiery gaze with one of ice.
“You are a coward.”
The word hung between them like a bad idea, unavoidable and lasting.
“He wasn’t a monster,” Michael whispered, hands fists at his sides. “He was our dad. He read us stories and helped us with homework and listened to our problems and –”
“Killed people?” Sid finished, fingers still scoring his jaw.
Michael shook his head, turning in an agitated circle.
“No. No. That’s not … that’s not all he was.”
“Does it matter?” Carrie asked. “Does it matter what else he was? Fourteen people, Mike. That’s an entire rugby team. Plus the coach. You know how many people that affects? How many grieving? How many –”
“I get it,” he hissed, not looking at her.
She waited a moment for the venom to fade from the air.
“Then you agree. We turn this in. Face what follows.” She swallowed flashes of a future she didn’t want to have, didn’t want her children to have.
Carrie didn’t notice Sid pick up the laptop. Her eyes were on Michael, stalking from table to kitchen counter and back like a tiger itching to reach through its cage and maul someone.
The clacking of keys interrupted their tension.
“What are you doing?”
Sid didn’t look up.
“Deleting the video.”
Carrie stood. Michael stilled.
“I’m deleting the video and we’re going to burn the damn puzzle and we’re going to forget tonight ever happened.”
“Sid!” Carrie near-shouted, “we can’t –!”
Side cut her off with a scowl that reminded her of Hector. His voice was older than it should be.
“We’re not going to let this destroy your kids’ lives. And ours. No one’s looking for the victims. No one knows there’s a connection. We contact the families, even anonymously, and someone’s going to figure it out and our lives will be over. What does it matter, anyway? Dad’s dead. No one’s found the bodies. This doesn’t have to ruin everything,” he added, voice softer now, persuasive. Michael nodded, relief erasing years from his face. Carrie bit her lip.
“It’s wrong,” she whispered, wishing she believed it enough. Wishing she was brave enough.
“I know. But it protects us. Protects the kids. So we’re doing it.”
Sid clicked on the file. No one stopped him deleting it.
They didn’t speak as they swept the irregular shards of an Italian coast into a black bin bag. Michael tied it shut and left without a word, driving into town to stuff it into a public bin. Sid tried to think of something bracing to tell his sister, but he’d never been that good with words.
Carrie left last. She sat in the car outside her house for an hour before she dug the hollowed piece out of her pocket. It was disconcertingly beautiful. Bright stone and a red fence, a scrap of floral ivy.
And a yellow door.
Through the Ice
Harley couldn’t move. It wasn’t the bitter wind whose fangs ripped through her coat, or the ice inching its numbing way up her boots. Fear skewered each muscle with hesitation, paralysing her. She took a breath, lungs flinching.
The spider-fine cracks were stark against the smooth surface of the ice. There was a violence to them, like a shattered windscreen. The twin grooves gouged by Jessica’s skates disappeared among the white dust, eaten by the black, slopping hole that had stolen the one person Harley could never lose.
Desperation exploded through fear’s restraints and Harley took one, ragged breath, and jumped.
The water was a haze of razor blades. Her lungs quivered, only just managing to retain their precious cargo. Harley opened her eyes. Shafts of cold light penetrated the inky blackness, lending a beauty to the scene that didn’t belong.
Jessica was below her, a ghost swallowed by night. Harley swam with shivering limbs towards her reason for living. Her lungs burned, mind shorted. Vision faded. But her scrambling fingers found a sleeve, and the world returned in a surge of wild need. Harley turned them skyward, squinting at the now blinding light and forcing freezing muscles to remember their strength.
With a stinging gasp, the silence of the water shattered. The ice was thin, brittle, unwilling to bear her frantic weight, but Harley was past caring. She hauled them both onto gelid land, relief outweighing her sopping clothes. She turned to Jessica, waiting.
She opened her eyes.
The bullet that was to murder Rafaello Valentino Cafaro performed its job admirably. Like all bullets, it knew its destiny was more likely than not soaked in an enemy’s blood. Who that enemy would be, whether their death was justified or not, were not the concern of a bullet. Every bullet knows its fate is to bring death.
(Although some might argue it is to bring safety or protection.)
Rafaello’s bullet was cocked into the ready, recently cleaned chamber of an M24 sniper rifle, with a pristine silencer attached to its snout. The gun knew it was in the hands of a master as soon as the fingers touched its print-resistant finish, though of course the bullet had no way of knowing this. It was too busy waiting in the dark womb of purgatory. Soon. Soon that dot of light would consume it and it would fulfil its purpose.
But not yet.
First it must wait.
Had it understood anything of human speech or behaviour, it might have had a lot to say about the man who had chosen its fate. About the argument that had already ended dozens of lives. About the sanctity of the order its trigger-puller was about to desecrate. It might even have felt compassion for the young man on the pavement opposite, strolling hand in hand with the woman whose laugh was warmer than an open fire, sweeter than the melody of morning birds trilling in sunlit trees. The love that had changed everything.
But it didn’t. So it didn’t.
The subtle side-to-side motion of the rifle stopped. A stillness such as the bullet had never known encompassed the world, erasing all memory of movement. While there was plenty to be heard for those so inclined, the bullet’s universe was utterly silent. Utterly still.
The pristine perfection of the final wait.
The bullet did not register the moment’s hesitation before the click of the trigger thundered through the air like god’s own voice. It did not care the gun’s master was conflicted over releasing the small pellet of death, or how his resolution wavered in the face of the act itself. It neither knew nor would be concerned by the moral ambiguity of retaliating against the father by assassinating the son, nor that the man who held its gun-home was, for the first time in his difficult, embattled life, debating whether his loyalty was worth the price of what remained of his blood-smeared soul. Bullets are not encumbered with such questions, such qualms. Bullets understand speed and accuracy, flight and death. This bullet, a fine specimen with enough siblings to silence an entire city, may have been considered especially indifferent, the epitome of an impersonal metallic ending. Had there been anyone so inclined as to contemplate it.
The hammer shimmered deliciously before it began its short, decisive journey. Had it been capable, the bullet would have been surprised by the intensity of the kick that sent it into a cacophonous, blinding world of dazzling detail.
But it wasn’t. So it wasn’t.
It spun through the air, soaring, flying in a line it knew was perfect from the moment it left the lip of the rifle that had sent it. Now it knew its god had been a master. The bullet already knew it would find its mark. It already knew it would fulfil its destiny.
It knew it would not miss.
The air curled around its slim shape, so much lighter now without the cumbersome weight of the shell that had always been so restrictive. The bullet’s elegance was free at last for the world to admire, its flight pure and beautiful.
It crossed the astronomical distance too quickly for anything so archaic as time to measure. It arrived exactly where it should have been exactly when it was meant to.
There was an unforeseen problem.
An obstruction that had not been accounted for. A break in expectation of fibre and flesh. Instead, as Rafaello’s Cafaro took his last step, the cane he carried with him moved, held loosely in his hand. It shouldn’t have been a problem for the bullet.
Except it was.
The bullet did not even get to appreciate the sweet irony that would follow, that this cane was the cause of so much strife. That this blasted cane, that was about to ruin everything, had started the very war the bullet was destined to end. It had no concept of the challenges facing a young man whose world was abruptly wiped black by the actions of one once considered a brother. It could not comprehend the fury and insult that had driven the young man’s father to reignite a conflict that had once left the gutters running red. Nor did it discern the tenor of emotion linking the young Rafaello to the woman whose beauty he could no longer see, how it had solidified and grown on the foundation of his vulnerability.
The bullet could never understand that, had he the power to relive that overcast day in April, Rafaello Valentino Cafaro would have allowed his former blood-brother to blind him again because, though this was far beyond the scope of a bullet, the soft touch of Jacopa Sofia Malandra’s hand on his forehead was worth the world of shadows that engulfed him.
The bullet snapped through the first shell of the hollow cane without any difficulty, but as soon as its pointed nose touched the surprisingly resilient rubber coating the thin plastic, it knew it was in trouble.
If it had a heart, it might have sank at the realisation.
But it didn’t. So it didn’t.
Unbeknownst to the bullet, the cane’s grip was peaked with a loop of plastic fibres. A simple strap, a means by which to keep its collapsed form pliant. A mere note of convenience in a blind man’s day. Though the bullet could neither know nor understand it, this blasted loop of cheap elastic was to be its undoing.
Rafaello’s loose grip on the handle of his trusty but often hated cane, on this sole and unique occasion, just so happened to include the elastic. Normally, though of course the bullet had no idea of any of this, Rafaello would avoid trapping the plaited fibres in his grip, as, though the bullet had no concept of this, it grated against the old scar extending from the base of his index finger to the heel of his hand. The scar was a relic of a good deed, an alliance forged in a life saved when Rafaello was too young to understand that enemies should be let die on the blades soaring for their throats. On this singular occasion, however, the elastic was trapped between the palm of his hand and the rubber grip of the cane he resented needing. This break in habit was most likely a simple coincidence, an accident no one would ever have noticed, not even the bullet. It was almost certainly an improbable flicker of extraordinary luck that inclined the simple, unremarkable cane to be held in this way.
Unless, of course, it wasn’t.
Unfortunately for the bullet, this stroke of luck for the man spelled doom for the metal.
As the cane exploded at its arrival, the bullet sped through its otherwise unimportant and unthought of width. Had it not been cheated of its destiny, the bullet would have sailed right through the remnants of the cane, unbothered and uncaring of their fate, and cut easily through the waiting flesh of its mark.
But Rafaello was holding the strap against the grip. Which provided the exact amount of unwanted tension that strengthened the farther side of the cane’s exterior, meaning that when the bullet met the first of the shrapnel, still mostly in its tubular shape, none of them had the common decency to sail aside.
Instead, the split-second of ruinous tension pitted one such shard of rubber and plastic at exactly the wrong angle for the bullet to deflect. Through no fault of its own, as the bullet began its departure from the cane’s personal space, it was, quite rudely, saddled with a comparatively large chunk of plastic onto which was glued an obscene quantity of unnecessarily heavy moulded rubber.
No bullet could be expected to fulfil its destiny under such horrendous conditions.
Weighed down by its unintended passenger the bullet slowed considerably, its momentum stolen by the cursed cane. By the time the bullet encountered the first fibres of the mark’s expensive suit, it was flying at, quite frankly, a sub-optimal velocity.
But no self-respecting bullet would give up. No, no. Bullets are not so easily cowed. They are determined. Resolute. Even so, this particular bullet would have been feeling quite hard done by, rather disgruntled with the whole affair. If it could feel.
And so it continued on its preordained journey, determined to do itself proud, if no one else, blissfully unaware of the consequences of its failure. Not knowing how many graves would be filled because of its flight.
The heat of the flesh would have surprised the bullet, had it been capable of such an unhelpful emotion. A new manner of darkness surrounded the bullet as it pushed its way through Rafaello Valentino Cafaro, the damn chunk of ungainly cane, now cracking under pressure, still held resolutely on the bullet’s nose by the rudeness of physics.
It was then that the bullet realised the profanity-inducing chunk of cane had altered its previously perfect course. Not by much, less than a millimetre. But considering the distance, angle, and speed of the whole affair, ‘not by much’ was still plenty.
Enough for the bullet to scrape against the rib it was meant to cleanly avoid. Enough to force that thrice-accursed chunk of cane to be momentarily caught between bullet and bone, something the bullet initially found encouraging.
The moment, like every moment, was short-lived. As the bullet burrowed through muscle and sinew and meat, the unthinkable happened.
Just as the bullet was entering its final journey, already knowing its necessary speed had been stolen and that it was doomed not to cross its imagined finish line, the hated chunk of cane slid through the bloody river of the bullet’s wake, dragged like an unwanted and unruly trailer by momentum and the habits of vacuums.
It so happened that, as the bullet slid into the centre of Rafaello’s heart, still one full centimetre short of its predestined stopping point, that forsaken chunk of cane had slipped – quite sluggishly, the bullet would like to have noted – right into the neat, circular hole the bullet had so gracefully carved in the wall of the rather crucial muscle.
To put it simply, the fragment of cane had had the audacity to close the door on the bullet’s would-be masterpiece, denying the excited blood a clear path to freedom and, purely coincidentally, saving Rafaello Cafaro’s life.
Which the bullet found unconscionably and unforgivably rude.