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NEW YEAR’S DAY – SHAKESPEARE REWRITE: Kill Me Tomorrow, Let Me Live Tonight by Louise Gornall

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Happy 2014, everyone!! To celebrate the new year we have a Shakespeare rewrite by Louise Gornall. She usually writes urban fantasy, so I chucked her one of my favourite genres. This blue haired beauty is one of my bestest Twitter friends and I strongly suggest you go follow her. But first, read this. (And try to guess which of Shakespeare’s works it’s based on!)


Kill Me Tomorrow, Let Me Live Tonight
by Louise Gornall

Mum pulls her knife back and forth across her turkey breast. The perfectly polished silver blade catches the porcelain plate and makes a  screeching  sound. She smiles politely and dabs her lips with corner of her napkin.

“So, Oliver,” she says, reaching for the string of pearls around her neck. “Delilah tells us you’re an officer.” The words march out her mouth, coated in condescension. I lift my eyes and look at my father who appears to have frozen. The glass of Merlot in his hand hasn’t quite managed to meet his mouth.

“Yes ma’am,” Oliver says.

She doesn’t ask him to elaborate, instead she fixes a plastic smile, tilts her head a little to the left and raises her eyebrows.

Oliver gives me a brief glance before he starts telling my mother about his colorful army career. He talks, she twists her pearls and asks him questions that make my insides curl. I drink until my face goes fuzzy.

A thousand years later, dinner is over and Oliver’s entire life story is led in the middle of the table, spread eagle, panting and desperately seeking a cigarette.

My mother picks up the coffee pot. “White or…black?” she says, putting far too much emphasis on the black.

I choke.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant Oliver is. She can’t — won’t — see beyond the colour of his skin.

I need vodka.

“Would you look at the time. We really have to go,” I say, standing up, throwing my napkin in my dish, wishing I was throwing it at my mum’s face.

“You’re leaving? So soon?”

“We’re going to meet Charlie.”
My mum’s eyes light up. She loves Charlie, possibly even more than she loves me.

“Why didn’t you ask him to dinner?”

“I did. He already had plans.” I snatch hold of Oliver’s hand and drag him up off his seat.

“Goodbye, mother.” She kisses my cheek. I feel the sting of frostbite. “Send my love to Charlie. Tell him we’re looking forward to seeing him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

I bend down, lean into my father. “Goodnight, daddy.”

“Be good,” he says. I know his eyes are on Oliver. Not if I can help it, I think and flounce out of the room, dragging Oliver behind me.

****

The cold air hits me like a slap across the face and suddenly I feel sober. Oliver laces his arm through mine and we begin walking up the drive, leaving footprints in the fresh blanket of snow.

“Your parents seem to like Charlie.”

“My parents like anyone with money…”

“And white skin?” he interjects. I swallow nails.

“Who cares what they think? They’re vile. Horrible,” I say, pushing my lips against his. His mouth curls up into a crescent.

I continue listing all the things my parents are in between kisses, until he says, “You didn’t tell them we were married.”

“I told you I wouldn’t.”

“I didn’t think you were serious.”

“Why does it matter?”

He looks at his feet. I snatch his cheeks in my hands and lift his head. My thumb traces the bumps of a war wound under his left eye.
“I love you. That’s where I begin and end.”

My parents wouldn’t understand. They don’t know love. They don’t touch, don’t kiss, don’t cling to one another like the world is about to end. I’ve known Oliver a month and in that time we’ve shared more love than they have in twenty years.

The smell of stale liquor and cigarette smoke assaults my senses before we’ve even stepped into the bar. I breathe it in and exhale a blissful sigh.

The place is alive with laughter and music. It warms my insides like whiskey. Charlie is sitting at the bar, his face swallowed by his smile. He sees us, leaps up off his seat and ploughs into Oliver’s chest. I think of wild bears wrestling as the two embrace each other and exchange merry Christmas wishes.

“And who is this divine creature on your arm?” Charlie winks at me as he unwraps himself from Oliver’s embrace.

“Oh stop,” I tease and simultaneously flap my lashes.
He takes my hand, kisses it then spins me under his arm. Charlie and Oliver serve together. Without Charlie, Oliver and I might never have met.

“So, how did the big meet and greet go?” Charlie asks flashing two fingers at the bartender.

“It was ghastly.” I flail and throw a hand to my brow.

“Her parents think I’m a Neanderthal.”

“No?” Charlie replies, handing each of us a small glass overflowing with bourbon. I lick the sticky excess off my fingers.

“It’s true. They think he’s going to defile me.”

“Perhaps I should have told them I already have.” Oliver grins and throws his drink down his throat as Charlie and I laugh.

The world rocks back and forth, I feel like I’m on a boat. I’m tingling from the tip of my nose to the bottom of my toes. Oliver and Charlie have made friends with the pianist, they’re leaning against his piano, wailing to one another like a couple of warring cats. My cheeks sting from smiling.

I’m absently running a finger round the rim of my glass and making it sing, when someone taps me on the shoulder. I flick round, the face looking down on me puts a bullet in my mood.

“What do you want?”

“Is that anyway to greet an old friend?”

“You are no friend of mine, old or otherwise.”

“Don’t be like that.”

I look away, pick up my drink and watch the thick brown liquid splash around my glass. My unwelcome visitor, Nigel, sits by my side.

“Let me buy you a drink.”

I ignore him.

“Come on, Del.” He strokes the back of my hand with his finger and I fix a stare on him that I hope will peel the flesh from his bones. I’m more than disappointed when it doesn’t.

“What do you want, Nigel?”

“I wanted to say hello, maybe buy you a drink. I thought maybe with it being the season for forgiveness…”

“Well you thought wrong.”

He grins, all teeth.

“If you don’t forgive me our dance at your parent’s party tomorrow is going to be very awkward indeed.”

I feel like he just punched me in the gut.

“You’re not invited.”

“Am so. Your mother called this evening and invited me herself.”

“What if I don’t want you there?”

“I’ve all ready accepted.”

“Then un-expect.” He’s still grinning, it sours the liquor in my stomach.
He lifts his hand to my cheek, tucks a stray curl behind my ear and I am eighteen years old again, listening to this man promise he’ll love me forever.

“Del?” I startle and loose half of my drink over the side of my glass. Oliver’s glare flits back between me and the strange hand caressing my face. “Everything okay?”

“Can we help you with something?” Nigel says. He’s on his feet before I can take a breath. He’s half the size of Oliver, half his age too, but he squares his shoulders and juts out his box chin.

“Oliver, this is Nigel. Nigel this is Oliver, a dear friend of mine.” I see Oliver flinch when I say friend, feel it in the pit of my stomach, but I’m not about to start discussing my current relationship with my ex. This is not the time or the place. Oliver holds out his hand. Nigel doesn’t shake it.

“Nurse! Oh nurse,” Charlie calls from over by the piano. He’s chortling away, but I’m too busy watching Nigel and Oliver, trying to murder each other with silent stares.
“Del, I think I might be bleeding to death.”

“What?” My head snaps round to see Charlie cradling his face, rivers of red seeping through his fingers.
“Oh good Lord,” I squeal and snatch a Bourbon soaked napkin off the table. I hold it under his nose and tilt his chin with my fingertips.

“What happened?” Oliver asks. My shoulders drop. I’m sorry Charlie is bleeding, but I’m mostly relieved that Oliver is distracted.

The already waterlogged napkin is falling to pieces. A drop of Charlie’s blood drips on my hand, rolls down my wrist, slow and sluggish.

“Just started bleeding.” His words tumble from his lips in a drunken stupor and land in a pile on the floor. He wraps a sloppy arm around my waist and ushers me toward the bar.

“Barkeep, more of your finest napkins,” he yells. I look back over my shoulder, Oliver takes a step to follow us, but Nigel chooses this moment to take his hand and shake it.

*****

Charlie’s head pivots uncontrollably. I tug on his chin to keep it still.
“You’re making this impossible,” I snap. He finds this cute, flicks one of the curls from my forehead and giggles like a schoolgirl.

I can’t concentrate. Oliver and Nigel have been talking for ten minutes. Oliver keeps looking over at Charlie and I, his face crinkled with concern.

“All done,” I say, pushing a wad of napkin up Charlie’s left nostril. “Now breathe through your mouth.” It’s only taken six attempts to plug him up. Charlie lunges forward, kisses my cheek. His lips linger.

“You’re an Angel, Del,” he says. His voice lazy, sexy, just like it was the day he told me he loved me.

“Okay, Mr Baker.” I push him back. “Let’s get you home.”

I pull his arm over my shoulder. He leans into me, sags, and I feel the full weight of his one hundred and ninety pound frame hanging off my hip. Oliver sees me strain and dashes over.

“Need another set of hands?” Nigel is asking, but it’s too late. We’re already out of the door.

******

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Oliver says, turning his back on me. I lean over, plant my lips on his cheek.

“Goodnight then.”

He hasn’t mentioned Nigel since we got back. I know he’s sulking. It radiates off him, like heat from a fire. But if he’s going to be a baby about it, he can damn well stay in the dark. I slam my head back down on to my pillow and flick off the lamp.

“What did Charlie say to you?” his voice is shaky, darker than midnight.

“When?”

“When he kissed you?”

“He didn’t kiss me.”

“I’m not blind. I saw him.” I know then what him and Nigel were talking about. Nigel didn’t tell him about our affair. He told him about Charlie and I. Playing mind games is what Nigel does best.

“Charlie is like a brother to me. You know that. He’s like a brother to you too.”

“He’s in love with you.”

“Was.” It’s my turn to lie.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There was nothing to tell.”

His breathing is heavy. I wait and wait, but he says nothing. My heart is charging. The darkness is suffocating. I close my eyes and wait for sleep to pull me under.

*****

I force my eyes open, and as always, run my hand across the space beside me. My palm does not find the lumps and bumps of Oliver’s chest as it normally does. I’m stroking empty sheets. I sit up, pull the covers up to my chin and drown in the freezing cold atmosphere that envelopes my room.

The rest of the day drags. I spend it alone, buried in my blankets, reading and trying to sleep away a blazing headache.

Oliver strides through our bedroom door just after five. He’s wearing a grin as big and as bright as the sun. I’m confused, concerned, but he walks over and plants a kiss on my cheek.

“We’re going to be late for your parents’ party,” he says, strolling over to the wardrobe. There’s blood on his cheek.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Shooting.”

I laugh. Oliver abhors anything pompous and overtly British. Horse riding, shooting, the royal family. It’s one of the things we have in common.

“Your friend Nigel invited me.” My throat tightens.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You never asked.”

Somewhere between dinner with my parents and our party at the bar, an ocean has formed between us. I should have expected it. This place has always been poisonous.
“Are you angry with me?”

“Of course not.” He slips off his shirt and pulls a crisp, clean white one off the hanger. “Are you planning on showing up to your parents house in bed sheets?” He winks, but I hear a seriousness in his words that makes me shrink.

“What if we don’t go to the party? What if we stay here instead?”

“Your parents would be disappointed.”

“My parents are always disappointed.”

“It’ll be fun,” he insists, buttoning up his shirt. “Give me a second chance to prove my worth.”

“Prove your worth? You don’t need to prove anything to anyone.”

He expels a laugh that makes the walls of our room shake. It’s thick and deep, distinctly patronizing.
“Get dressed,” he says, pulling his dinner jacket over his arms as he leaves the room.

*****

I’m wearing a red dress. It clings to every curve. The silk is cold, it makes my skin feel wet. My lipstick is the colour of blood and my neck is dripping with diamonds.

I’m charged, angry with my new husband for taking his self-esteem issues out on me.

I don’t know him here. I want to be back at the base, where past indiscretions are buried and he’s not being constantly reminded of the differences between us.

The first person I see when I step into the hall is Charlie. I free myself from Oliver’s arm, glide over and throw my arms around him.

“How’s the patient? Let me look at you.” I grab hold of his chin and inspect his face. I can feel eyes burning into my back. “Well the good news is you’re going to live.”
Charlie, picks me up and spins me round. Then, as always, he turns to his friend.

“What’s the matter with you? Face like thunder,” he says.

“Nothing a stiff drink won’t fix,” Oliver replies.

“Good shout.” Charlie throws his arm over Oliver’s shoulder and the pair wander off into the dining room.

A shadow falls over me from behind. “Curious fellow, that friend of yours.” Ice slips down my spine.

“What did you say to him?”

“Me? I didn’t say anything. It’s none of my business what you do, or who you do it with.”

I spin round to face Nigel. “That’s right. It’s not.”

The thing about Nigel is he has a way with words. It’s what makes him an amazing lawyer. He could argue black was white and end up convincing you of the same. Manipulating people is his sport.

“Stay away from us.”

“Not sure I can. I’m having far too much fun.”

“Darling, there you are.” Mum’s shrill voice cuts through me like a knife. She’s marching toward me, arms up in the air. I want to disappear.

****

“Let’s dance.” I grab hold of Oliver’s arm and pull him into the middle of the room. I can’t stand to watch him buddy up to Nigel a second longer. He wraps his bear arms around my waist and we sway in-time to some melodramatic, maudlin nonsense the band is playing.

“Don’t listen to Nigel. He’s very good at lying.”

“So, you were never with Charlie?”
I swallow hard, without meaning to, and he sees.

“Who is really the liar here?”

“I never lied to you.”

“But you didn’t tell me,” he growls and the couple beside us look over. I’ve never seen Oliver jealous before. It makes my skin prick.
“Nigel tells me you and Charlie are the reason your relationship ended.”

“That’s not true.” Mostly.

“So you didn’t find comfort in Charlie when Nigel was in America?”

“I…I…” The people around us have stopped dancing and are starting to stare. I feel like my dress has disappeared. He pulls me tighter into his chest. His fingers are pressed so hard against the bottom of my back I worry they’ll pierce my skin.

“I let you be alone with him. I let him walk you home. I let you undress him when he’s too drunk to help himself,” he snarls into my ear. “You must think I’m an idiot.”

I push myself back off him. Take a composing breath. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a headache.” I flee the room.

My mind is racing, my heart hammering at the back of my throat. I forget to watch where I’m going and collide with a chest.

“Del, what’s wrong?” Charlie. He runs the back of his fingers down my cheek. They come away wet. “Why are you crying?”

I hadn’t realized I was. My tongue has seized. I can’t talk. Sobs keep bursting from my throat. Charlie glances behind me then leads me into the nearest guest room.

“What’s happened?” He pulls a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dries my eyes.

“Oliver is upset. I’ve never seen him so angry.”

“Angry over what?”

“Over you and I?”

“What you and I? There is no you and I.”

“But there was. And Nigel has been poisoning his mind. His head is consumed with jealousy.”

“Stop crying. I’ll talk to him.” Charlie squeezes me and I sob into the nape of his neck. I feel safe.
“Tell him that he’s being ridiculous that you and I…”

The door slams shut. Charlie and I break apart so fast it makes me dizzy.

“Oliver, what on earth…” Oliver doesn’t give Charlie a chance to finish. He marches toward him and throws him arm forward. There’s a popping sound as bone connects with bone. Charlie wilts to the ground, blood dripping from the new split in his eye.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shout, but he pushes his hand against my mouth and we fall back onto the bed. He stares deep into my eyes. I’m drunk just inhaling the fumes on his breath.

“Harlot,” he growls. I shake my head in protest as he snatches a pillow. I wriggle, try to break free from his grip, but he has the strength of an elephant.

“I love you,” I say when he moves his hand to hold down my arms. “Please. Don’t do this. Whatever you think you know, you don’t.”

“You think I’m a fool,” he spits. He keeps saying harlot, over and over again as lifts the pillow to my face. Tears are rolling down my cheeks and pooling in my ears. I’m still shaking my head.

“Oliver, don’t do this,” I choke as he pushes the soft, sweet smelling fabric against my face.

I can hear him mumbling. Talking about an affair with Charlie that never was. Talking about idiocy. About self worth.

In seconds my face is numb. I can hear the ocean in my head. He sobs, but pushes down harder on the pillow. I hear him tell me he loves me before everything goes black.


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2 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – FUTURISTIC: by Juliana L. Brandt

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On this Christmas Eve Eve, Juliana L. Brandt taps into the Ghost of Christmas Future – pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy this quick little number…
 


 
by Juliana L. Brandt
 
 
1 Volcanic rock crunched beneath Claus’s crimson snakeskin boots. Soft grey ash fell about his shoulders.

2 He took another step.

“We don’t gotta to do this Claus,” Frost shouted from behind him.

“No,” Claus took his 3rd step, “I’m sure we do. I gave you twenty-four hours to clear out of town, Frost. You’re still here, so now we duel.”

4 The pistol at his hip weighed against him. Claus kept his steps even.

“This ain’t your territory. I don’t know why you see fit to disrupt the community.”

“I’m merely taking back what was mine to begin with.” 5 “You’ve been naughty, Frost. It’s time the north fell back under Claus rule, and I plan on taking you down.” Claus tipped back the brim of his ten-gallon hat.

“The old rules shouldn’t apply. No one can control all the land.” Desperation snuck into Frost’s voice. “You keep the south. We’ll stop pushing at the border.”

“No.” Claus ground his heel into the earth. 6 steps gone, four left. The clouds above, heavy with smoking embers, hung low. Vapor clung about the shoulders of his duster.

7 Four generations past, no one would have contested his claim to this land, but the Clauses had become lax and the Frosts had snuck in. It wasn’t long before a perimeter had risen and the Clauses no longer reigned.

Frost’s 8th step came a moment behind Claus’s. A hesitation. A pause. “Don’t know why you think killing me will do any good. There are plenty of other Frosts after me.”

“Then I’ll take them all down too. You’re just a good place to start, is all.” He stepped again. 9. “You counting, Frost?” He called over his shoulder.

“10!”

Claus turned, flicking back the skirts of his coat. The revolver came loose from the holster. His finger found the trigger. A click. The kickback jerked his wrist, but his aim stayed true. Frost crumpled before he had freed his gun from his own holster. Burgundy blood blossomed across his shirt front.

Claus sheathed his pistol. One down. Soon enough, the world would be the Claus’s again. Under one rein. Winter, again, would be his.
 



3 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ADULT: Letting Go by Cassandra Page

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Christmas is getting so close now, so I thought you deserved a special treat – it’s Cassandra Page, author of Isla’s Inheritance, stepping out of her urban fantasy comfort zone into the world of the Adult. Cass is one of my nearest and dearest, and she’s a damn good writer. Check it out.
 


 
Letting Go
by Cassandra Page
 
 
Michelle decorates the house in silence.

In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.

That was before she found the emails.

Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides—too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.

The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.

“Hello?”

Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”

“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.

“How are you?”

She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”

“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.

He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.

“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”

“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”

“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.

“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”

“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben— She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”

He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”

This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”

“Read them again. Properly, this time.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Goodbye, Michelle.”

She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.

It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the poker machines.

Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.

The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.

The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.

***

The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.

“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.

“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns. “I’m looking for someone.”

He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.

“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.

“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”

Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.

“Excuse me.”

Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”

“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”

Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.

“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.

“To see you. I—” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.

“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, forget it.”

“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”

Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”

“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.

“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”

The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”

Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”
 



4 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – SATIRE: A Very Whedon Christmas by Angi Black

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Alright, you lovely ladies and gentlemen! Angi Black has done us the honour of writing an AMAZING satire. Read it, love it, and stick some words in that comment box at the bottom. Seriously, the title is ‘A Very Whedon Christmas’. GO!
 


 
A Very Whedon Christmas
by Angi Black
 
 
I sat at my desk, pouring over a story I was never going to finish. My editor had called four times and I’d ignored the ringing every time. I just wasn’t funny. There was nothing funny to me. I tapped on the keys wishing words as magical as rainbow-spewing unicorns would pour from my fingers. That didn’t happen. They looked more like the smiling pile of poo emolji on my phone.

I texted one to Bonnie, my editor.

The phone rang immediately. I picked it up, downing the last of my coffee.

“You missed deadline.”

“Fully aware, but trust me, you don’t want it.”

“Whether I want it or not, I have to have it. The anthology is happening.”

I huffed and puffed. “Tell me what to write then.”

I heard her nails clicking on her desk as she thought. “I don’t even care at this point, write me Christmas According to Whedon, for all I care, just have it to me by tonight. And make it funny!”

I sat there listening to dead air. Fine. Whedon Christmas it is.

**

A vampire with a soul, a slayer, and a witch walk into a bar.

They met up with Xander and danced to an emo 90’s band on a school night.

Ah, the good old days.

I deleted the joke. How do you write a Whedon Christmas? Hey kids, here’s Santa. He’s most likely a lovable demon whom you’ll adore and right after he’s redeemed and you’re feeling good about life – BAM – he dies.

Yeah. Merry Freaking Christmas.

I wracked my brain for good story ideas. How would The Night Before Christmas be different if it was a tale of Whedon? Maybe something like this:
 
 
T’was A Story By Whedon

T’was a story by Whedon, and all through the show
Your love for the characters was surely to grow.
But little Joss Whedon cares not one little bit
Their untimely end, so soon will they get.

The women were strong, not one needed saving.
They can fight crazy monsters without a head shaving.
Black Widow and Echo, and Zoe and Buffy,
Will always kickass, whether rainy or sunny.

The characters aware of their unusual plight,
Use witty banter to pull us into the fight.
They may not be perfect, or make the right choices,
But we root for the heroes with their snarky voices.

But after laughs and a cry and a cringe here and there,
A burst of song is coming, so please never fear.
Whether Lorne reads your soul or Dr. Horrible is reeling,
You can always count on Once More, With Feeling.

In Whedonverse, chaos is the order of the day
Fighting The Man is always the play.
The Mayor, The Alliance, the potent lure of power,
Order is the big bad sitting up in the tower.

Now Murder! Now Mayhem! Now heartbreak and fears!
On, Demons. On, witchcraft. On superhero tears.
To the deep darkest parts! To the edge of our soul!
Then tell us a joke to make big laughter roll!

Sometimes it’s goofy, and sometimes it’s rough,
But it’s always worth watching for any story buff.
A musical, a puppet, a sci-fi western in space,
In the big Whedonverse, they all have their place.

And then, just when you thought, what’s cooler than that,
Shakespeare at his house steps up to the bat.
With Wesley and Fred and Mal there to boot,
The movie shot in a month is just a real hoot.

Nothing is easy, not plain white and black,
Things are all gray, that’s a matter of fact.
Captain Hammer fights evil in sweet, singing style,
But Dr. Horrible still triumphs with a tear in his eye.

While Joss likes his heroes, and big storylines
He always makes time for the other little guys.
Like Xander and Tara and Coulson and Wash,
He’s happy to make their spotlight flash(ßMust be said with British accent to rhyme)

Each character is solid, a force all their own,
A story to tell, one that must be told.
As great as they are, they’re still individual,
But make them a team, they’re nearly invincible.

In the Whedonverse, you’ll meet lots of new faces,
But try not to worry because in all the right places,
You’ll see people you know and have come to love,
Fit seamlessly in, like a comfortable glove.

Sometimes Joss knows just when to quit,
Others get pulled too fast from his grip.
Firefly and Dollhouse, we miss you a lot.
Buffy season six, please run off to rot.

But to every project that’s been and the ones still to come,
To a place in our hearts, know you always can run.
For we Whedonites know it will all be all right
We hear those sweet words,
“Grr. Argh. And to all a good night!”
 
 
**
 
I looked over the words filling my screen. It could work, but what about plot. I mean, is Christmas a plot? Maybe I could make it easy and have a choir tell the story, like minstrels. Nothing is more Whedon than throwing in a song or two.

First, they can stop in Sunnydale:
 
 
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You know Cordy and Willow
And Xander and Giles,
Dawn and Anya
And Angel and Spike.
But do you recall
The most badass slayer of all?

No?

She saved the world. A lot.

Buffy the Vampire slayer
Had a very pointy stake
And if you ever saw it
A big pile of dust you’d make.

All of the other Scoobies
Used to run and hide in fear
They always let poor Buffy
Save the day with her sweet gear.

Then one Graduation day
The mayor came to say,
Buffy with your plan so bright
Did you kill my Faith tonight?

And how Sunnydale loved her
As they shouted out, “Help me!”
Buffy the vampire slayer
You’ll go down in…well, the hellmouth, but really, that’s the same as history, right?

Next stop – L.A.:
 
 
Angel the Vampire

Angel, the vampire, had a tortured, hapless soul
With a leather jacket and the sewer track, and skin that’s really cold.

Angel the vampire, is a really old, they say.
He had a soul, but Buffy knows, Angelus came to life one day.

There must have been a loophole in that gypsy curse they cast,
‘Cause when the slayer dropped that ring, he came back to Earth at last.
Angel, the vampire, was as souled as he could be
But Xander would say, he could kill and slay,
So you better watch out, Buffy!

Contrivancey, hey, hey, contrivancey, hey, hey,
Look at the Powers That Be.

Contrivancey, hey, hey, contrivancey, hey, hey,
Up in the clouds, Is that Cordy?

Angel the vampire, knew the LA sun was hot,
So he bought a convertible for his car, because he’s super smart.

All through the city, he saves them if he can,
Running here and there, jumping in the air,
Sayin’, “Please, don’t touch the hair!”

He follows Cordy’s visions, and sometimes Lorne helps out.
There’s Fred and Gunn and Wesley, too. Fang Gang, yo – shout out!

But Angel, the vampire, had redemption on his way
He saved and saved sayin’, “Don’t you cry, I’ll be back to brood someday.”
 
 
Then they can go to space, because every good story should go to space!
 
 
Carol of the Mal

Hark! Serenity
Sweet Serenity
Now flies away
Mal seems to say
“No, not today.”
Jayne is all that,
Bringing his hat.
Crocheted to say
I’m on ebay.

De-fine De-fine
Interesting.
Oh god, oh god
We’re all
Going to die.

Hey, River Tam.
Browncoat, I am.
Safeword you say
NO grenades!

Oh Serenity.
Sweet Serenity.
Capt Mal is the best,
Jayne stands the test.
Wash holds a stance,
Hello, it’s a lance.

No, never fear
Capt. Mal is here
Never, never, never, never take
Never, never, never, never take

Oh Serenity
Sweet Serenity
No, they’ll never take
The sky from me

De-fine, De-fine
Interesting.
 
 
And there could never be a choir stop of Whedonville, without a trip to New York.
 
 
The Avengers

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Tony Stark snarks, Jarvis remarks,
It’s Ironman in that suit.
Hawkeye charms
Hey! Nice arms!
Please shoot an arrow.
Captain America,
Gets a new style
Bruce Banner keeps a smile,
And through the halls of S.H.I.E.L.D. you’ll hear

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Loki comes to Earth,
Thor’s brother by birth,
Though he says he’s adopted.
Hulk gets to smash,
Just in time for the alien blitz.

See Natasha
(She’s Black Widow)
Convince Bruce Banner to join.
And make sure to look for
Stan Lee!

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.
 
 
I read back over my work, just thankful I’d completed the project. Happy with my words and what I thought to be terribly clever, I sent an email to my editor, prose attached. I began to close down my computer for the night when gmail dinged at me.
 
That was so quick, she must have loved it. Clicking the icon, I couldn’t wait for it to open. The screen lit, all white save one line. That had to be good news, right?
 
“I’ll go ahead and extend your deadline.”

Balls!
 



8 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – SPY FICTION: Oh Come All Ye Assassins by Jolene Haley

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Can you believe it’s just over a week until Christmas? Today I bring tidings in the form of a snow-filled spy fic courtesy of the wonderful Jolene Haley. Jolene’s home-genres include YA horror and action/adventure, so she was out of her depth with this one, but she nailed it like a Chinese throwing star.
 


 
Oh Come All Ye Assassins
by Jolene Haley
 
 
Merry Christmas you heartless bastard, thought special agent Mason Blackwell.
 
He could have been home, in Oregon with his family and his high school sweetheart (who always seemed to linger), drinking eggnog from porcelain cups.
 
But no.
 
Instead he was in some New York hotel, thirty-nine floors up, utterly alone and loading a sniper rifle.
 
If he got the hit done quickly, Mason could be on a plane in a few hours, to be home before the snow melted on the ground. He only went home once a year, always at Christmas, which is why he was particularly peeved at his assignment.
 
An assignment on Christmas wasn’t normal for him. And if there was one thing Mason hated the most, it was a change of plans. It was a bad pet peeve for a secret agent.
 
Mason Blackwell was born a happy bouncing baby with brown hair and crystal blue eyes. He smiled often and visitors of the child would often comment on his good looks and cleverness. In thirty years, not much had changed except for the fact that now Mason (also known as Agent 99) rarely smiled and well, now he murdered people for a living.
 
Most people didn’t know Mason. He was a shadow in the night. A lone figure on a building top. A figure disappearing into the darkness of an alley.
 
Mason glanced at the clock.
 
11 o’clock.
 
The message with his target always came in at 11:01 on the dot. Anything else meant that the mission was compromised. He watched the clock, inching closer to the phone.
 
Exactly at 11:01 am the phone rang.
 
“Yes?” Mason said.
 
A robotic voice was on the other end. Mason knew from experience that it was a text based computer program that read type.
 
“99, this evening is the mayor’s ball. Wouldn’t it be nice for a dance?”
 
The line went dead.
 
He rolled his eyes. Sometimes the company was so dramatic.
 
Mason hated when an assassination wasn’t just a quick shot. He much preferred the calls that detailed only a name, a place, and a time. It was easy and quick, for him and his target. Instead, giving Mason only a location meant that there were more details to come and he’d likely have to take someone out at a close range. He hated that.
 
Seeing the light drain out of someone’s eyes was never something to get used to.
 
Mason much preferred intelligence-based missions over contract killing. He could extract information from any person with ease. It was a natural born talent. Sadly, those missions were few and far between.
 
Tonight, he’d probably have to strangle someone or inject a poison into some poor bastard. But this was just another hazard of being an agent at the Intelligence Rescue and Observation Network, or IRON for short.
 
Of course they couldn’t make it easy on him for Christmas. This whole thing was just plain wrong.
 
Mason was already dressed to a T, with an expensive black fitted suit and shoes the color of coal. His brown hair was gelled in place and his white teeth were dazzling. He’d be the last person anyone would expect of foul play. Mason always said that any person who said being good looking was not an advantage was either lying to themselves or just plain ugly.
 
At six o’clock, Mason walked into a ballroom filled with hundreds of people. The floors were covered in a rich, scarlet carpet and the walls were gold with crimson trim. The rest of the attendees were as put together as the décor.
 
And now the part that bugged him… the wait. Until next contact, he had no choice but to observe, mingle, and meet people. Since he spoke ten different languages fluently, he could easily move between them. One minute he would be Pierre Le Fonsec De Plume, foreign royalty, and the next he’d be Barry Barnes, powerful and rich investor. People were way too trusting with the information you told them.
 
“Excuse me.”
 
Mason felt a hand clutch his bicep.
 
Sometimes it was hard to balance his training with the real world. Normally anyone that touched him would be taken out with a swift thrust to the face. But here, in a crowded ballroom made of magnificent columns and velvet curtains, shedding a stranger’s blood wasn’t an option. He’d have to at least wait to get them in a janitor’s closet..
 
He unclenched his jaw, and turned with a smile.
 
In front of him stood a woman with golden brown hair and the face of an angel. Her dress was long, made of black lace, and hung just right on every curve of her body. Those types of girls were the most dangerous. She could be a spy—just like him, sent to distract him from his mission. She could be a fellow agent at IRON. Hell, she could be his mark.
 
“Yes, madam?” Mason took her hand in his, bent over in a bow, and kissed it while making eye contact.
 
She gave a slight smile before replying, “I saw you across the room and I had to meet you. I don’t think we’ve met. My name is Victoria Queen..”
 
Of course they haven’t met. It was one of Mason’s first times in New York.
 
“Pleased to make your acquaintance,” Mason said, grinning.
 
She didn’t move. She wanted to make small talk. Mason did not mind chitchat, but not while he was waiting for a sign.
 
Just keep walking lady, Mason thought. But no luck. She stood her ground.
 
“Are you from New York?” he asked to be polite, but made a point to look around as if he was looking for someone. You know, the way people with manners say, “fuck off.”
 
She didn’t answer his question. Instead, Victoria Queen held out her arm. “Would you like to dance?”
 
A smile spread across his face and Mason was torn between feelings of flattery and annoyance. Women. They could never resist him in a suit. Too bad Victoria wasn’t finding him at an airport bar or something. He’d dance alright, horizontally, until the early morning. But they weren’t at some dive bar and Mason was on official IRON business. Now wasn’t the time for distractions.
 
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m waiting for someone. A date.” He gave her a fake grin and spun away to keep looking around.
 
She leaned in, placing her hand back on his arm. “Don’t be a fucking liar, 99. It’s the mayor’s ball. Wouldn’t it be nice for a dance?”
 
It didn’t really matter who Victoria Queen was before that moment. But once those exact words left her mouth, she was much more. She was now a sexy walking and talking information database that knew about him and his mission. He needed to find out more about her.
 
Mason’s left brow rose. “I’d love to dance.”
 
She grabbed his arm and led him to the dance floor. His arm snaked around her waist, pulling her close. Mason led but only because Victoria let him.
 
Mason inhaled the scent of lavender that emanated off of Victoria’s body. She was mesmerizing to him in more ways than one.
 
“So?” Mason started, whispering into her ear, while keeping his eyes searching around the room. Sure he wanted to know what she was doing here, but Mason knew one thing: something felt off. IRON would never send an agent to him in person. He usually just received a sign of some sort or a coded message.
 
What exactly was Victoria Queen’s game?
 
“Listen very closely, 99. In a few moments a man in a red tie will walk past us while we dance. He will smile in your direction and then disappear up the stairwell. It’s not a chance encounter. Tonight, you’re his target. And I’ve been sent to save you.”
 
Mason blinked, trying to keep his feet moving while he wrapped his brain around Victoria’s words.
 
Ten years with IRON, and all of a sudden they want to take him out? Assuming it was true and Mason was a target, this Christmas could be his last. He shook his head to will away the idea of his family having Christmas day dinner without him.
 
Fuck that. Mason wasn’t going to die. He would save himself, just like he always had if an assignment went awry. Victoria seemed like she was there to help. But was she really? What if Victoria was full of shit? He needed to be careful. There were a million reasons not to trust her.
 
“Why would I be someone’s target?” Mason asked. “I haven’t compromised any information, I’ve followed every rule, and I’ve always done exactly what was asked of me. So what’s going on, Victoria? You’re doing to need to give me a little more information.”
 
Victoria’s skin glowed under the lights and her dazzling smile almost made him forget what a serious situation he was in. She took her time, but finally answered.
 
“That’s a great question, 99. Why would you be a target? Who exactly did you piss off?” Her expression changed from playful to dark in a moment. The smiling woman’s eyes had turned from playful to passion, treachery, and secrets.
 
Sure Mason had killed a lot of people with targeted hits, but they were controlled and calculated. Hell, those orders had come directly from the company! Was someone in his agency responsible for designing some type of sick game where the lion becomes the lamb?
 
Mason chewed his bottom lip as he tried to figure out Victoria. A color caught his attention.
 
Red.
 
A man with black hair walked past the dancing couple. He was wearing a red tie with his otherwise black ensemble. As he passed, he made direct eye contact with Mason, gave a smile and a wink, and headed up the stairs.
 
Victoria had seen the man too. “Believe me now?” Victoria said with a smirk.
 
“So, who exactly are you?” Mason asked. “Why would someone be after me? Why are you even here?”
 
Victoria shook her head. “Why are all the pretty ones, little idiots? Don’t you see? We’re on the same team, Mason. I’m here to save your ass. So excuse me when I say suck it up and let’s go pay a visit to the man in the red tie.”
 
Victoria broke away from Mason and he followed her up the winding grand staircase.
 
They worked quickly and methodically, both clearing each room for the other assassin. So far, all five rooms upstairs in the left wing were empty.
 
Mason stared down the hallway at the right wing. The man that would try to kill Mason would be discovered in the next five rooms. Mason swallowed hard and shook his head. He could not believe that something like this could happen to him.
 
Let’s get this over with.
 
Each room was cleared on the right wing, except for one; the men’s bathroom.
 
Mason reached into his jacket pocket for his small, trusty handgun, and slowly opened the door, his heart thrummed against his ribcage. Even though Mason had faith in his abilities, the fact that he was a target was unnerving him. He couldn’t make his pulse slow down. Nerves meant mistakes, and Mason wouldn’t have it.
 
Mason plowed through the door, startling the man he’d seen downstairs, who was washing his hands at the bathroom faucet. Mason had his gun raised. This man sure didn’t look like some contract killer. In fact, with a deer-in-the-headlights expression and hands raised in the air, he looked like he was anything but a secret agent.
 
Moments later a woman’s voice rang from behind Mason.
 
“Lower your weapon.”
 
Mason turned his head back to see Victoria standing behind him, gun aimed at his head.
 
What the fuck.
 
Mason had to decide. Who was the bigger threat? Mason swiveled his body around, aiming his gun at Victoria. The man in the red tie ran from the room, cowering and whimpering.
 
“You,” I whispered to Victoria.
 
She smiled and slowly nodded. “Silly boy. Don’t you know better than to trust a complete stranger? I mean, how easy were you trying to make it for me?”
 
“But what about the man? The red tie? The wink?”
 
Victoria shook her head. “It’s called intelligence and observation, 99. That man was the mayor’s brother. I got here early to meet him and noticed he was greeting and winking at all the guests. He was easy bait.”
 
“Why me?” Mason’s eyes were darting back and forth between Victoria and the room. There had to be a way out.
 
“99, there are so many reasons for this but we don’t have time to go into it. Since you pulled a gun on the mayor’s brother like a genius, I’m betting we only have about three minutes left before police storm in.”
 
There were no large windows in the bathroom and nothing nearby that Mason could knock over to startle Victoria. There was no clean escape route except to run directly over her. He needed a plan, and he needed it now.
 
“What do you want, Victoria?”
 
“You, Mason. Don’t you get it? You’re my mark.”
 
Mason shook his head in disbelief. “After everything I’ve done for IRON. I can’t believe this. Let me go, Victoria. For all you know, you could be next. If they can turn on me, they can turn on you.”
 
Mason needed to keep her talking and distracted. Sadly, Victoria, didn’t take the bait.
 
A troubled looked flashed across her face, if only for a moment.
 
“One,” She started.
 
Mason could shoot her and hope she didn’t have time to pull the trigger herself. That was a tough plan, because most agents were sharp shooters.
 
“Two.”
 
Assuming she was only counting to three, Mason didn’t have much time left. His eyes worked from side to side. Shit. Shit. Shit.
 
“Merry Christmas, you poor bastard,” Victoria said.
 
Mason lunged at Victoria as the sound of her gun pierced their ears.
 



12 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – CRIME FICTION: All I Want For Christmas by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock

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Just 12 days until Christmas! Today I bring glad tidings and a gruesome present in the form of a Christmas Crime fest courtesy of two lovely ladies. Check out Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock on Twitter. Melissa is one of the best people you’ll ever meet; Greer is a young author, like me, and I think she absolutely nailed this. Show her some encouragement and love, peoples. I know I can count on you.
 


 
All I Want For Christmas
by Greer M. Robinson and Melissa Petreshock
 
 
“She’s not fucking here! What the hell do I do?”
 
“Are you sure the plane isn’t late?” I ask and nudge a full cup of percolator coffee around on the diner counter.
 
“No! I just forgot to mention it was delayed four hours,” Marge snaps.
 
“Okay. And you tried calling her?” I guide Marge through some logic. Someone has to keep his cool.
 
“Every minute! Jesus, the customer service desk has been paging for almost an hour, and I’m still running around looking for her. What are you doing?”
 
A waitress pops out of the kitchen, opening her mouth to ask if I want anything, but decides against it. “Waiting for Dan at Jay’s. I told you he has a twelve hour layover on the way to Indonesia and we’re going to the range.”
 
“I can’t find Kirstie and you’re going to play with man toys?”
 
“Maybe she missed the flight and her phone died.” Chances are Kirstie’s sitting in Chicago O’Hare in her leggings, purple neon leg warmers, and boots. Now that it’s cold she’d have stopped running as much, sporting an oversized sweater to blanket what she calls lumps. Bumming over her dead iPhone and forgotten charger, I’m sure slumping in those black covered airport seats, impatiently waiting for a lady from the gate desk to squeeze her onto another flight isn’t improving her mood either. “So she’s getting a hotel, or she’s already on another flight and her phone’s off.”
 
“Mark. Her bags are here. The stewardess told me she’s on the flight manifest.”
 
“Marge, honey, listen to me. Let’s assume she landed and someone else didn’t board the plane with her ticket. It means she left in a rush.” It’s all too easy to imagine her running out of the airport, mousy hair flying around those glasses she begged for after that pop country singer brought them back from the eighties.
 
“I swear to God if Jackson convinced her to come to his house I’ll—”
 
“Now, hon, don’t make me come out of retirement just to arrest you. Why don’t I swing by and see if she’s there as soon as Dan gets here. Just try to remember she’s engaged to Jackson.”
 
“I’d rather try to forget,” Marge snorts. “We’re not done talking about that either. Don’t you come back without her!”
 
The bell hanging above the diner door dings. In all these years, Dan still hasn’t changed, all slick business attire and buzzed hair. He clutches a box wrapped in Christmas theme paper, fitting in with much of the diner’s cliché Santa statues and white paper snowflakes.
 
“I know. I’ll call you when I’m at Jackson’s. Bye, hon.”
 
Dan sets the box, complete with a red reflective bow, on the counter, and I throw my arm around his shoulder. “It’s been way too long, man. How’s the Bureau treating you?”
 
“Considering you left me your position, I’m doing better than I ever could have.”
 
I’ll be damned if Dan ever owns up to any of his accomplishments. The boy’s humble to the end. “You’ve made it your own, I’m sure. You know you can always call me with questions, even the dumb ones. I never judged you, not once.”
 
“Thank you. I’ll keep that in mind. How’s the family?”
 
“Oh, good. Actually, I’ve got a little something I need to take care of. Kirstie came home from winter break today.”
 
“University of Chicago, correct?”
 
“Yeah. She’s only got one more semester. Marge is all in a twist, though, ‘cause she can’t find Kirstie at the airport and thinks she slipped away to her fiancé’s house.”
 
“Fiancé? When did that happen?”
 
“Oh, here about a year ago, I guess. Jackson’s a great guy, got his heart in the right place and all, but Marge just doesn’t like him. I promised I’d swing by his house and see if she’s there, but you can stay and have a cup of something.”
 
“It’s not a problem at all. I’ll come if you don’t mind—haven’t seen Kirstie since your retirement party.” Dan tucks the present under his arm and I slug down the last of my coffee, leaving a five under it.
 
“Sheesh, she’s a grown woman now. Sharp, too. She’ll remember your face just from that party.”
 
“She will,” Dan says, smiling. “I’m sure she will.”
 
#
 
“Well,” I say and shut off the grumbling engine. “This ‘ere’s the place.”
 
We both pile out of the truck—I didn’t trust that rental of his to handle to snow and hill up to Jackson’s—and hesitate crossing the white banked road. The two story bungalow is light up with Christmas strands round the porch rim, and the drawn curtains expose an ornamented tree through the front window.
 
“Lovely home.”
 
“Like I said, Jackson’s a solid man.” We cross the road and head up the drive, past the SUV. Least someone’s home. “I got no problem with ‘em.”
 
I knock on the door, and Jackson opens it within seconds, wiping his hands on his jeans. Kirstie always says he’s ruggedly handsome.
 
“Mr., Mr. Adams I wasn’t expecting you, if I’d know I’d—”
 
“Calm down, son,” I say. “I’m just dropping by.”
 
“C-come in, please. They say it’s the coldest day in fifty years.”
 
“I heard that.” Dan and I shed our jackets in the coat hall, leave them on a bench. Right inside is a cozy living room, a sofa and matching chair creating a sitting area with a crackling fireplace and luminous tree across from them.
 
“I was just about to make some espresso—would either of you like one?”
 
“I just had some, but thank you. Oh, sorry, this is Dan Harper, my trainee when I was back at the Bureau.”
 
“Nice to meet you,” Dan says and they shake hands. “Thank you, but I’m avoiding caffeine for the nerves.”
 
“I’ll just put one on for myself, then.” Jackson slips through a door next to the staircase, into the dated kitchen, and we crash on the couch.
 
Marge would never stand to live here, never stand for Kirstie to live here. She couldn’t imagine having one of those old white fridges or yellow laminate countertops, and God forbid a beautiful hand carved coffee table like this one. Something still so close to the outdoors would flare up her allergies.
 
“That’s how they fell in love, Kirstie and Jackson. Coffee. A new place opened up in town some years back and he was working it, made Kirstie the best damn espresso ever. No more percolator for her. Turned out he owns the entire shop, started a business and everything. Marge thinks it’ll go under, but I say it’s steady. Nothing like good Joe.”
 
“Interesting.” Dan’s mouth don’t even open as he says it. He pulls at the bow on top of that present. I bet it’s something he can’t leave out in the cold.
 
Jackson returns and perches on the air chair, no coffee. His eyes shift between us, settling on me as he fidgets with a throw over the arm of the chair.
 
“Jackson, I’m just looking for Kirstie. Marge went to the airport to pick her up, but she’s not there. Did she split and come here?”
 
“No, no sir. I haven’t seen her since September when she went back to school.”
 
“You know I’m fine with it,” I sigh. “The engagement. You’re a good kid. I just want to know she’s here. That’s all. Marge’s blood pressure is about to lose it.”
 
“She’s not here, I swear! She really isn’t at the airport? Where is she?”
 
The espresso maker dings and Jackson jumps up. “Oh, I’m sure she’s around. Probably just lost. You mind showing me how to work one of them espresso things? I’ve always wanted to learn.”
 
“No, um, it’s really easy. That was the noise for the water finished heating. I’ll show you real quick.”
 
Inside the tiny kitchen, I step away from in front of the door, out of sight. Bringing Dan along probably wasn’t the best way to make Jackson come out with it. “Is she here?”
 
“No, sir. She’s not.” Steam rises out of the espresso maker. “Sir, there’s something I have to—”
 
Jackson jerks forward, mouth wide open with a strangled, gargling sound, and keels over. He hits the wooden floor face down, arms straight at his sides, red hole in the back of his head staring me in the face. Above, a perfectly circular hole in the window. Through the window, a plethora of trees for camouflage.
 
I lunge forward and slam against the cabinets under the window, out of range. It’s the only damn window in this kitchen.
 
“Dan! Man down—sniper’s in the forest facing the kitchen!”
 
“I got it!” He shouts and the screen door bangs behind him.
 
No more shots. Just the one. Doesn’t mean there won’t be more. But no, this was targeted. Jackson. Kirstie.
I whip out my phone and dial 911. Dial tone, dial tone, dial tone. …
 
“911, what is your emergency?”
 
I assert my formal FBI credentials and prattle off the address, GSW in the back of the head. …
 
“Sir?” The operator’s voice rings in my ears. “You were saying you also have to report something?”
“A missing person. My daughter. Kirstie Meyers.”

 
#
 
I stick Jackson’s photo up on the murder board with a magnet. Between that and a town map, the entire surface is covered. The local station just doesn’t have the resources we have in New York, but for now it’s all we’ve got.
“Ballistics came in from the rifle I found in the woods. Just an M40 sniper rifle.” He sticks the picture of the murder weapon under the same magnet holding Jackson’s photo. “How long ago did the hospital call?”
 
“Hour or so. They tried to operate but the damage was irreparable.”
 
Kirstie most definitely gone, Jackson assassinated, cops are going door to door at this point. Thank God I was FBI or no one would’ve responded like this. It would’ve been, “Oh just wait. I’m sure she just ran off a bit—college girls and all.”
 
So many families lose kids with the same treatment, the message they receive when their stomachs know otherwise, tumbling, rolling around with the truth that someone has their baby.
 
“Oh, God Marge. I have to go home, Dan I have to—”
 
“I know. I’ll drive you. The entire station is on this, and they’re sending over other guys from New York. My guys. It’s going to work out.”
 
“Work out? How can you say it like—what do you mean other guys?”
 
“I have a plane ticket, Mark,” he says stiffly. “And the Bureau says I can’t work this, even though you trained me. I’ve gone too long without taking time off.”
 
“You’re leaving? Kirstie is gone and you’re—you know what, fucking go. All you’ve done is walk around with that stupid present anyway. I swear to God I trained you better than this shit.”
 
“I’ll take a cab, then.” Dan sets the present down next to a cup of coffee on the conference table and leaves with perfect composure.
 
I collapse in a chair. Dan flying off to Christ-knows-where Indonesia and Kirstie’s gone and there’s nothing except for Jackson’s body—poor Jackson—and the sneaking suspicion Kirstie just fled on childish impulses to be free and avoid Marge’s lectures on the engagement and—
 
My phone ringing pierces the silence. It’s the cop temporarily heading up the investigation, name elusive.
 
“What is it?” I grip my phone.
 
“We searched Jackson’s phone calls and found a new phone number started calling roughly ten days ago, every day for no longer than three minutes. He never calls it back.”
 
The number. Of whoever did this.
 
“Shit, Mark,” the commander continues. “We tracked the cell to an apartment. It’s here, but the place is covered in evidence. Whoever did this has known Kirstie for at least a year—there’re pictures of her before the engagement ring. But a lot more of the ring.”
 
A type, a profile, someone obsessed with Kirstie, someone who can’t stand the ring.
 
“I want it all in. I want to see all the evidence when I get back.” I shrug on my coat and grab the present. The tag is addressed to me and Marge. He probably couldn’t bear to give us whatever he planned. “I have to see Marge.”
 
“It’ll all be at the station, sir.”
 
I hang up. I don’t want it, any of it. I want my little girl.
 
#
 
I hand Marge the tissue box next to the present on the coffee table and she blows hard into it before discarding it to the floor with all the others. She curls back up against my side and squeezes my arm, a dense lump of tears discoloring the back of the couch.
 
She’s out of water again.
 
“I’m going for water, hon,” I whisper and run my fingers through her colored hair briefly, taking longer to detach myself from her.
 
The water dispenses slowly out of the fridge, drops grabbing on to each other and holding tight. God, if I had listened to her maybe we would’ve found Kirstie by now—because now she’s gone. Kidnapped kids don’t come back. And I was the one who said it was nothing, who let her get engaged so young, who let her drift into the unknown.
 
“Mark,” Marge cries from the living room. The glass is full, almost too full, but she needs water after crying for hours.
 
“Hon, I—”
 
She stares at me with wide eyes, mouth open, but blank, so blank.
 
A severed finger like a hot dog, the bloody end covered with gauze, sits at the bottom of the box. Matching the manicured nail, the bright red bow tied neatly around the middle joint does not obstruct the humble diamond engagement ring between it and the bloody stump.
 



13 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – HIGH FANTASY: The General by Josh Hewitt

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Merry 13 days ’til Christmas, readers! Due to a dramatic turn of events and a twist of fate, today you’ll be treated to a High Fantasy tale by none other than Josh Hewitt. This guy ran the amazing Worlds End project, and now – after much bitching – he’s put words on screen for you people once again. Hewitt usually writes literary fiction, so this was kind of like feeding peanuts to someone with a nut allergy, but not only did he not swell up and die, he wrote one amazing story. You will love this. He wrestled with the genre, wrangled it, poked a little bit of fun at it and, boy, did he stick the landing.
 


 
The General
by Josh Hewitt
 
 
The general was amazing with a knife.
 
The major watched him, that gigantic bear of a man, turn the small wooden object with one hand, while using the other to carve into it. The details the Major could see were beautiful–intricate and delicate and almost unreal all at the same time.
 
He didn’t want to stop the General–he could have stood in the General’s greatness all day and watched that man, that hero to so many poor souls, continue to put all of his focus on that small wooden trinket. He could have stood there and absorbed that moment for just a bit longer.
 
But he had a job to do.
 
“General. It’s time.”
 
The General looked at his work, showing just a faint smile, barely visible behind his large bushy beard. He then placed the object on the desk next to him and rose. He stood a good two feet taller than the Major, and a good deal heavier. He walked over and placed his thick cloak over his broad sholders.
 
“Your name is Azaral, correct?” The General’s voice bellowed out, that low growl that reminded Azaral of the sounds of the werecats howling in the light of the third moon. He nodded.
 
“Yes sir.”
 
“And, you have children. Isn’t that correct, Azaral?”
 
“Yes sir.”
 
The General smiled at him, a warm one. It was so odd to see such a look from him, Azaral thought. He had never met the General in person before this time, but he had heard the legends. He had heard the tales.
 
The greatest warrior the land had known. The one who would finally end the war. The one who would defeat the Kairn once and for all.
 
The champion the people had hungered for. Had prayed for.
 
Yet, with all the accolades, with all the stories and myths and legends that follow one such as the General, there were the other tales too. The ones Azaral would never breathe around the General, no matter how much ale he had drunk.
 
That he once slain an entire Kairn village by himself. Men, women, and children.
 
That he ate Kairn flesh.
 
That he had sold his soul to the dark lord Drammagus for invincibility in battle.
 
All those stories hit his mind, and all ran like frightened children from the light and warmth of his smile.
 
“Children are our most special treasures. They are the hope and light of the world. After old men like me have left here for the other realms, they will shape this world in ways we could never.” The General smiled and turned away.
 
“Hopefully, for the better.” he whispered.
 
Azaral saw the General reach for Nithguan, “The Northern Wind”, the largest battle axe anyone had ever seen. The enormous weapon glinted in the light of the lanterns surrounding them. Azaral could see the spells carved in the blade, letting the weapon chop through even the most enchanted armor. Nithguan was the General’s oldest companion. And there were nearly as many legends of it as there were of the General.
 
“We must do now what must be done. Though I dread to do it.” The General said, his voice low where only Azaral could hear. “Now is time for us to close this book.”
 
How long had the war gone on? Even Azaral knew that was an unanswerable question. For nobody could remember a time when they were not locked in battle with the Kairn. His grandfather, the oldest of his kin, had told him years ago remembering his grandfather talking about when his grandfather would tell of his grandfather recalling his grandfather referring to it as the “Millennial War”. But for many, many, far too many generations, it had been only known as the “Forever War”.
 
Now, on this day, it could be ending.
 
As they exited the General’s tent, he turned towards Azaral one more time.
 
“Your children? Boys?”
 
“One boy, strong. One girl.” The General smiled at Azaral’s answer.
 
“Good.”
 
Azaral knew better to ask if the General had children. It would have been a pointless question.
 
The General didn’t even have a name.
 
Azaral wondered what it had been like for him–growing up not as a child, but as a soldier. One of the “Children Of Forever”, the youth who had been born and bred from the greatest warriors and strategists they had known. Whose entire world had revolved around battle, the clash of iron and steel, the blood and flesh.
 
“Azaral, gather your men. And get the others to as well.”
 
Azaral just nodded.
 
Soon, they were all in line, ready to proceed to the death. Azaral looked at the General, surrounded by his troops. He could hear his men muttering silently under their breaths about the General’s warriors–those dark feys known only as the Nigh.
 
He felt a shiver run up his spine just thinking their names. How many times had he been told, as a child, to watch out in the dark of the forest?
 
“They’ll eat you alive, then use your skins as clothing. If you are lucky.”
 
Many, many years before they had stood with the Kairn. Nobody knew what it was that caused them to convert and follow the General. The most commonly accepted tale was that the General had killed their king, making himself their new ruler.
 
(There were other far more terrible and terrifying tales.)
 
“Today, we draw sword and axe and wood and iron to defeat our enemy,” The General spoke, his voice soft, yet each word almost broken with anticipation. “Today, we end our world, as we know it. What shall we build?”
 
“In the frozen lands of our home, in the snow, there is a saying that a village must be formed on the ashes of something else. For a new world to begin, an old world must die. Do we have it? Do we have what it takes to set ablaze our world?
 
“Can we destroy this war, this fight that we have known forever, that we have only known? Can we end it, and give our children, give our future, a fresh blanket of snow which to build? Which to shape?”
 
The General paced in front of the men, and caught their gaze. Soon, he bellowed loud, “We must! For our world! For our land! For our future! We must now strike the final blow to the Kairn. Today! Today, we start fire to destroy–for we know what will be raised again will be a better world!”
 
With his last words, he thrust his axe high, to much cheer and applause. Azaral himself felt his hand find the hilt of his blade, ready to fight.
 
Azaral saw the General’s chariot approach, eight cloven hoofed beasts pulling. In the lead was a dragon–fire leaping from his nose. Even as the sunlight cracked the darkness, the nose of the beast beamed bright as a torch. The General took his place in the chariot and held tight the reigns with one hand.
 
Zzazzn, the leader of the Nigh and the General‘s right hand fey, stood next to him on his transport. The Nigh were slight anyway, small of stature and lean of weight, but next to the General, he looked almost like a child. Azaral approached them both.
 
“Sir, we are ready.”
 
“The Nigh will fight to the death as always.” Zzazzn slithered. Azaral felt another chill just from hearing the voice.
 
“As it was meant to be.” The General held Nithguan high, and looked back at the troops.
 
“Friends, warriors, soldiers, protectors of this land and its future….TO THE NEW WORLD!”
 
With that, the General cracked the reigns, and his chariot raced off towards the Mountains of Suralim. Towards the home of the Smoke King and the Kairn.
 
The men raced with him, Azaral high on his steed, as they approached the land of their enemies. The Kairn were ready for battle that morning, sounding their horns and filling the air with a horrible sound. They were flanked by the men of Nigliman, the traitors who had sided with the Kairn. Around them were the wild beasts of the woods, the snakes and the raithelborn and the spiders and the yven.
 
Azaral looked to see their own forces, the men of the realm and the Nigh and the noble creatures of the world–lions and werecats and dragon and jeravons. They attacked the front lines of the enemy with ruthless abandon and righteous aggression.
 
Ahead of him, Azaral saw the General swing his mighty axe, lopping off head after head–with other body parts mixed in. He was more than a fighter, more than a soldier. The man who had been so patiently creating art that morning had become death incarnate. Azaral was struck by a mighty fear–a fear that all the stories he had heard, every single one of them, might actually be true.
 
“To me, Azaral!” He heard the General call after the first hour of battle. He fought and killed his way to the General’s side.
 
“You are the most skilled soldier I have ever seen.” Azaral said, while watching Zzazzn dispatch two Kairn with his small knives.
 
“I take such compliment with high regard, seeing your skill in battle.” Zzazzn hissed. “The General calls for you because of it.”
 
“We must make our way inside the stronghold, to the throne room of the Smoke King.” The General said. Azaral and Zzazzn acknowledged his command. They fought their way through the Kairn and the traitors, invading into the heart of the enemy, moving at a fast pace it was as if the winds of the east were pushing them. Finally they reached the stronghold.
 
Azaral looked around at the large wooden door that led into the darkest territory known. There were no windows, and the walls were tall and steep, with no stray mortar work to put a foot on and climb. He walked to Zzazzn.
 
“No way in. Only cracks in the door are too small for even you to fit in.”
 
“Shhh.” Zzazzn sneered. Then pointed to the door, where the General was standing, his hands folded in front of him. Azaral stood and watched as the General slid somehow stretching his body through the narrowest of cracks.
 
“By the sons of Nilioh.” he muttered once the General had gotten inside. He ran to the door and examined the crack the General had slipped through–it was less wide than his thumb.
 
He heard a loud clank, and then the snickering of Zzazzn.
 
“I suggest you move.” Zzazzn said, and Azaral scooted to the side, as the large wooden door suddenly crashed down, the chain holding it up had been split by Nithguan. The General stood, battling nearly a dozen soldiers, hewing their heads from their necks with ease. Zzazzn raced in with Azaral quickly in tow.
 
“How did he…”
 
“Nigh magik is powerful.”
 
So. He was a sorcerer too.
 
Azaral followed the General through the front guard, into the main keep. They met many foe, fighting furiously as they heard the battle rage outside. Soon, they faced the last obstacle–the notorious Razolon Guard, the most fearsome of the Kairn. They battled as they could, but it was the General who struck the final blow on most of the Guard. Soon, they walked into the final room.
 
There, sitting on his throne, was the Gray Man, the Living Ash. The Smoke King. A silver crown sat on his head, and around his neck was a long silver chain. Hanging on the chain was the gem Varlon, one of the three Simiron Stones. His hand clutched it and stroked it for a second.
 
The heat from the room was unbearable to Azaral, who loved the ice of the land and the winds that had fueled him.
 
“Smoke King! I challenge thee to end this war!” The General said, gripping Nithguan with both hands. The Smoke King chuckled.
 
“If it isn’t a Child of Forever come to challenge me.” The Smoke King cackled in a rasp, raising his sword. The flames leapt off of it. “Is this battle what you want? I know it isn’t so. You are too peaceful.”
 
“I be a man of war today, foul ruler.” The General held his gaze steady.
 
“Then, war it shall be.” The Smoke King jumped from his chair, floating across the room. The General held his hand out, signaling to Azaral and the Nigh to stay behind. They watched as the two combatants circled the room together.
 
Suddenly, the General moved as quick as a winking eye, swinging his blade at the Gray man. Nithguan flew through the King’s abdomen, which moved like a dark cloud, reforming as soon as the blade had passed.
 
“Not even your axe can harm me.” the King laughed. “And now you know your doom.”
 
The king struck out his sword, but the General easily parried it. The General laughed.
 
“Of course I knew your strength, Smoke man. I know your weakness too.” He sliced at the arm holding the sword, and watched as his axe went innocently through.
 
Then the sword hit the ground.
 
“Whatever he’s holding,” Azaral said to Zzazzn, “that part is solid.”
 
Zzazzn just nodded.
 
As the Smoke King was picking his sword back up, the General started chanting some words.
 
“What is he…” Before he could finish the sentence, Azaral watched as the Smoke King’s head flew across the room.
 
For no reason at all.
 
“What…what happened?”
 
Zzazzn smiled as the General caught the chain holding the gem Varlon with the edge of his axe while the Smoke King‘s dead body hit the ground.
 
“Time froze. Except for him. Nigh magik.”
 
“Oh.” Azaral could only reply.
 
The young king sat in his court, surrounded by his subjects. His beautiful wife on his right, on his left was the older sister who had given the throne to him, who had passed on her birthright. In his hand, he held the final Simiron Stone, ready to be reunited with his two brothers.
 
And the war that had defined his fore-fathers, and those before that, had ended.
 
The General stood before the young king, his eye on the stone the man held.
 
“For you, my warrior, my protector–there is no honor too high to bestow upon you. No treasure too priceless.”
 
“I only ask to go.” The General replied. Azaral stood there, next to his king, in wonder. The king was offering any riches, any treasure. And all he was asking for was to leave?
 
“You wish to go? Well, if that’s your reward…”
 
“No. I wish to leave here. Leave these lands. I would have you use the Simiron Stones to open the doorway to the other worlds.”
 
“The last time the doorways were open, the Kairn slipped through. This is a very dangerous boon you ask. Why do you ask it of me?”
 
“I wish to go somewhere where I do not see the blood of my fallen brothers. Where I do not hear the screams of battle. I wish to go to a new world. One where I can no longer be the General. But something…someone new.”
 
“The last time..”
 
“I know. I know what I ask. But that is my reward. I wish to leave these lands and never return.”
 
The king looked at him, wary of the request. Then he heard the snakelike sounds from the childlike darkling next to him.
 
“The Nigh wish to go with our master. We wish to go with him to the new land.”
 
Suddenly, the King’s sister spoke.
 
“I wish to go too.” The voice belonged to the King’s sister.
 
“You?”
 
“My brother, my dearest brother. I passed on the throne because I didn’t want to be queen during such a time. I didn’t want to be known as a queen of blood. Or of war. But now, I would wish to go with our General, to find something new to be a part of. If, of course, he would have me.”
 
“I would, m’lady. I would.”
 
The General walked up to the King and presented him with Nithguan. Then he looked to Azaral.
 
“For your daughter.” He held out the object he’d been carving the first moment they met. Azaral took it.
 
It was the most beautiful doll he had ever seen.
 
“She will love it, General.”
 
The ancient words were spoken, and the door opened to a new world, one of ice and snow like their homelands. The Nigh bounded through first, followed by the dragon with fire in his nose, anxious he was to follow his master. The General walked through, holding hands with the King’s Sister, the maiden.
 
When they were through and the portal had shut, the General surveyed around him. Suddenly, he heard Zzazzn speak to him.
 
“So, what will we do now?”
 
“I will do what I’ve always wanted to do.” The large man smiled. “I will make children happy. No longer shall I be known as the General. I shall be the Toymaker.”
 
“No, my love,” the King’s sister spoke. “You shall be known in this world by the tongue of our land, so we will never forget our past. No longer shall you be Varnisa Mordoni, the General. Now you will be Santa Claus.”