Her Master’s Pride

“There. See? Isn’t this fun?”     

Fun? Fun?! Fun ended the moment a pillowcase was thrown over my head, and I was thrown into this mess. But before I’d even completed the thought, the monster’s fingers were wrapped in my hair. He yanked so hard, I thought I was going to go flying through the air.

“Yes, Master,” I dropped to my knees instead. “Fun.”

His giant foot slammed into my back, knocking me the rest of the way to the ground and chipping my last intact tooth. “That best not be sarcasm I hear.”

“No, Master.” My tongue ran over the jagged edge of the newest chip. “No sarcasm.”

“Good. Git up.”

“Yes, Master.” My knees wobbled when I did; it’d been days, or at least… I think it had been days, since I’d had anything to eat.

It was hard to tell time in this grease-encrusted basement. Black mold mottled the walls and cracked concrete floor, making it both slick and cold. I could no longer feel my feet, which was good. Dehydration made me prone to cramping and the constant cold attacking my bare feet made them curl in unending cramps. The bones, or maybe it was the tendons, stood out above the flesh now, but the pain that should have thrived in such misery had long ago given way to the pulsating ache.

“Master?” Thick and dry, my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.

“What it is it?” And just like that, his fingers were in what was left of my hair again, at least in the hair that wasn’t already pulled out in clumps.

“May I-” Gagging, I swallowed my scream as he yanked my head back until I felt sure it would snap.

Oh, how I yearned for it to snap.

Instead, my vision fluttered so that the spiderwebs draped between the exposed wooden beams above our heads seemed to twirl in a choreographed dance. “May. I. Have,” My breath caught in my throat, choked off by the pain.

“Have?”

“Water, Master. Please. Water.”

Laughing like a beast, he threw me away. When I toppled back, I fell across the three-legged stool upon which his toolbox lay. He was already barking, “Pick it up! Pick it up!” even as the tools and blades still clattered to the ground.

Once all was righted, he walked a slow circle, predatory eyes taking me in. Even as he walked, his long knife twirled around my naked body as if the sharp metal blade had developed free will and was slowly deciding where next to dive in.

“Ah,” he purred. “You want water, huh?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Who am I?”

“My Master. My Lord.”

“Damn straight. And I’m a good Master, yes?”

“Yes, Master.”

“But,” he tsked his tongue. “Rules is rules. And you…” he traced the tip of his blade from my bottom lip, down, to the hollow at the base of my neck. “Well, Darlin’ you is gonna have to pay.”

“Yes, Master.”

The monster’s ice blue eyes stared down into mine. “Rules is rules.”

Oh, I knew all about the rules. My job now was to trace that same line but I? Well, I had to pierce through the skin. Every single thing down here was driven by rules, rules for us to help the monsters really revel in their sin.

Food? The cost was sexual favors. The extent of the favor was determined by your level of hunger. Water? We paid for it in blood. And time?

Oh… time.

If we wanted more time in this life, we need only kill one of the others.

Every few days our numbers were sliced in half, with the dead girls carted upstairs to what I could only assume was an abandoned warehouse, a warehouse we were housed under.

For weeks now, I’d refused to study anything other than my feet. But with the long blade gripped between my fingers, I felt suddenly brave… or perhaps… vulnerable enough, to look.

“Plee-ee-eease,” The once gorgeous girl with waste-length black hair pleaded. She was chained to the wall across from me and was nude like the rest of us, but, well… maybe that’s not entirely true. In truth, we all wore the same uniform now – dried blood and dread. “Please stop! Please! I’ll give you anything you want, my Lord.”

“Oh, you will!” Her pig of a Master was a greasy, sweaty thing. “You’ll give me any damn thing I want!” But he didn’t look at her, didn’t accept her offer. He was too busy enjoying other things. He held the girl’s little sister by her waist as he used her.

“Please!” She was sobbing, hysterical as she pulled fruitlessly at her metal tether. “She’s dead! She’s dead! Please stop.”

But he didn’t, didn’t stop. That beast wasn’t going to stop until he was done.

Tears might have rolled down my cheeks, but I hadn’t the excess body-fluid to waste. Instead, I wretched, or rather, I would have gotten sick right on my own feet if there’d been anything in my stomach to purge.

“Come now!” My Master punched me in the side of my head, but somehow, I stayed upright.

My ears rang as a high-pitched screech reverberated in my head.

“You know the rules? You wanna drink? Pay for it.”

My own shaking hand raised, as I readied to slice my own skin. My Master licked his lips, excited and ready to lap up his bloody sin from my skin. “Do it.”

So? I did.

I knew the rules. I knew the cost.

But still, I rammed my borrowed blade up, through his chin.

Ice blue eyes shot open wide, the lust they’d shown only a moment ago, given over to shock. So, I wriggled the blade, doing my best to slice whatever sickness I could out of his brain.

In an instant, the others were on me. The first, their biggest brute, grabbed me from behind, positioning my head between his palms, and for the slightest of moments, I again felt as though my neck were about to snap in two.

But it was only a moment, a brief, inconsequential moment, before that feeling came true.

Viral Secrets

“Take it. Would you just freaking take it?!”

 “Jesus!” I slapped her hand away. “What’s your problem? You forget to take your meds or something?”

 “Look; this isn’t funny Jesse. I’m not kidding. They’re after me!”

 “Who?”

 “God!” Don’t you listen?!” Sam shifted in her seat, crazy eyes darting every which way. She paused only long enough to clear her throat, and I knew that sound. She was grasping for control. “Look, I don’t know what’s going on, but everybody at work was acting… off. Nobody was talking. Nobody would make eye contact. They just scurried around in complete silence. Some Geneticist I’ve never even seen before was stomping through the halls. He had the Governor, and my boss, trailing behind him like lost little puppy dogs. And behind them? Two freaking giants with guns and combat boots. Right there! In our freaking lab!”

I rolled my eyes, “I’m sure they were just there to guard the Governor.”

“No! These goons had assault rifles pulled out in front of them. Assault rifles! Ok? These weren’t your standard issue, high-profile security guys with concealed weapons. These were soldiers. Plain and simple.”

“So what if they were? God. With everything going on right now, they probably have to take extra precautions.”

But Jesse was shaking her head like a maniac, studying everything that moved outside the long bank of windows beyond our table. “No. This was something else. Please. Would you just take it?”

She plopped a tiny clear vial in the palm of my hand. It dangled from the gold necklace she inherited from our grandmother like some kind of pendant. “They can’t get this. I don’t know why. I don’t know what’s going on, but I trust my gut.”

“You and your gut…”

“Would you just trust me? Something is wrong. We found a cure. A freaking cure! And it works Jesse, really works!! We finally have a way fight this disease, but they wouldn’t let me duplicate it. They wouldn’t let me send out the results or send it for testing. They wouldn’t even talk about publishing our findings or sharing the sequencing. Nothing. The moment we had our first successful batch, they halted the program. They disbanded our whole team, Jesse. All of us. And now? Now I can’t reach any of them! All my calls are going straight to voicemail. I was late this morning, super late. So, they all should have been there before me, but not one of them showed up to work. What does that tell you?”

“That they were out late last night celebrating?”

Jesse heaved her shoulders and looked on the verge of tears. “No. Something isn’t right.”

I studied her for a long time then, but I knew my sister better than anyone. She wasn’t crazy. She might act it sometimes, but she wasn’t one to overreact. “Kay.”

Her eyes fell closed as she breathed a sigh of relief.

“What do you need me to do?”

“Take it and get out of here. Out of town. Out of state. Here.” She pulled an envelope from her purse and slid it across the coffee stained table to me. “It’s all the money I have. They probably assume I’m going on the run. So, I’m going to do what I can. I’ll try to draw them away, but Jesse…. You have to go.”

“What? No! You never said-”

“You have to. Look.” She flipped the envelope over and I saw a number scrawled there. “Use this.” She slid a cell phone across the table next. “It’s a burner.”

“A burner? What the fu-”

“And you have to stay off grid. Keep your phone off. Change the plates on your car. Avoid cameras wherever you can. Don’t talk to anyone. I mean it. Nobody Jesse. No one can know.”

Every fiber of my being longed to call her crazy again. But I didn’t. Couldn’t. “Sam?” Fear caused my voice to break.

“I see them.” Her gaze wasn’t darting around anymore. It was focused on the same two giants I saw stepping out of the black SUV just outside the restaurant, giants with weapons drawn. “I fucking see them.”  

Prologue – Celebrating Stars

“Look, look, look!” My finger swept along the ever-expanding canvas of the nighttime sky as I turned to meet his familiar smile. “Did you see it? Did ya?” The brisk air clung to our breath and colored the tips of our noses.        

“Hm-hmm.” He agreed though he remained motionless on his side.

 “Colton! You weren’t even looking! You missed it.” Disappointment crept into my voice as the breeze skipped along the dusty desert landscape with ease, carrying the smells of dirt, civilization and night to us as we lounged.

 “No, I didn’t.” Reluctantly, he returned to his back, allowing his strong facial features to return to the interspersed darkness above.

 As the next hour passed, the sky was continually traversed by drones in their choreographed dance as they darted about, gathering information. The neon glow from the vibrant greens, blues and yellows of their undersides was reminiscent of what I had always imagined those long fabled lightning bugs to look like.

Being outside the barracks past curfew, knowing we could be found by the guards, always gave me a bit of a rush. “Look!” Excitement compelled my whisper to teeter on the brink of calling out. “There!” My index finger followed another trail etched into the night above us.

“How the heck can you see those? I don’t see ‘em.”

“It’s easy. You just have to cross your eyes.”

“Cross your eyes?”

“Yeah…. Well, no. Not really.” Despite my best efforts, a giggle managed to escape. “I mean, you have to just not see what’s right in front of you, you know? Focus on what’s behind it. Past all those lights, all those colors, the target beams, the planes… all of it, you’ll see the stars. They’re the only things not moving. They just are. They’re still and calm but they dance you know?” I found myself sighing before I continued my usual rambling, “They’re happy, and if you focus on them long enough, you’ll see one, a shooting star. But, I don’t really think they’re shooting stars. In the sky, with all that freedom, I like to think they’re celebrating…” Before I even realized he’d moved, Colton pressed his lips lightly to mine.

 “Celebrating, huh?”

 “They… it… uh, yeah.” Embarrassment warmed my cheeks and chest.

 I heard him chuckle quietly before settling back on the ground. “And what are they celebrating, Harper?”

 “Hope.”

 “Careful.” Concern hardened his words as he rose to his elbows, scanning our surroundings warily. “Watch it.”

 “Oh relax, no one’s listening. They don’t care about us.” I laughed to myself. He was always so serious, so fearful.

 He let out a slightly frustrated breath. “Happy Birthday, Harper.” His fingertips skimmed across the back of my hand, seeking tentatively.

 “Thanks.” I whispered, eyeing his fingers that were light and rough as desert sand as they intertwined with my own. “I think twelve is going to be a good year.”

 “Yeah? Why‘s that?”

 I fumbled “Well, it – it’s already off to a good start.”

He squeezed my hand in response as we lay without moving, without speaking for hours, watching for more celebrating stars.  

Colors Don’t Lie

No. Come on. This can’t be it, man. Not like this.

Not like this.

Six, just six minutes ago, I was sittin’ in my car ‘n everything was fine. I was safe, and didn’t have no bullets piercin’ my body. I mean, yeah, ok. I’m man enough to admit I was nervous as hell. The truth is, I was a hot mess, just drippin’ with sweat, lookin’ at my fractured reflection in that damn rear-view mirror like somehow, it was gonna make me man up. “You got this, Deshawn,” I was givin’ myself a pep talk like a crazy man. “You got this. Stop bein’ such a baby. Just man up, go in there, n’ get this done.”

I huffed out the breath I’d been holdin’ as I unfolded myself. The door to Old Blue squawked open wide. This was it. Nothin’ would ever be the same again. Nothin’.

Every step I took was filled with their voices replaying in my head. “Man, you’re crazy.”

“Don’t do it, Deshawn. You gonna regret this the rest of your life.”

“You outta your mind?”

“This ain’t gonna go your way, man. It never do.”

“What the hell you gonna go ‘n do that for? You crazy!”

Crazy? Maybe, but I had to try.

Then, there was my sister. Everything in the whole damn world could go wrong, but she’d be there, hell or high water, to throw cautionary tales at me. This mornin’ was no different. She put her hands to both sides of my face, makin’ sure I had nowhere else to look. “Are you sure this is what you want? Deshawn, you have to make sure this is what you want because there isn’t a way back from this. If it doesn’t work out, your life will never be the same.”

 What she didn’t get was that if this did go right, my life was never gonna be the same neither. Change was comin’ one way or another. And that? That was what kept my feet movin’ across that parkin’ lot.

As I gripped the scalding black door handle and yanked, I caught my reflection again, but that time, I saw a new man in the glass panel door. I saw confidence and strength. Man, I saw my damn future.  

Catchin’ the attention of the Security Guard at the door, I gave the obligatory nod ‘n moved further inside. Man, I could feel his blue eyes boring into my back. Just because a man, a black man, walked in to a place like that, it’s gotta mean he’s up to no good, don’t it? The familiar cloud of injustice moved into my mind. Bullshit. Absolute bullshit. I had just as much right to be there as anyone else did.

Anyone.

Just ‘cause I didn’t have the nicest car, n’ ‘cause I wasn’t dressed in no suit, they all figured I didn’t belong. Hell, they didn’t know the first thing about me. No more than I knew about them, but did that stop them from jumpin’ to conclusions? Nope. They only saw me as a black man in a place that swirled with money, money they assumed could belong only to them.

They had no idea that I had everythin’ all set up before I even stepped foot through that door. They had no freakin’ clue that I had everything taken care of, planned out, and by night’s end… my destiny would be altered. No. They didn’t see any of that. They just saw me, a black man, in the same vicinity as them, and I could see their narrow minds turnin’. I could see them gaugin’ me, watchin’ me, waitin’ for me to do somethin’ crazy.

Good.

Crazy was what I went there to do.

*          *          *

“No, no. It’s on me Officer. You have a good day now.”

“Thank you.” I smiled at the aging restaurant owner, throwing more than enough to cover the bill into the tip jar. It was the middle of the afternoon, on a scorching July day in Las Vegas. A quick bite was all I had time for, and I’d already gone a bit out of the way to make it here. I liked stopping in. The food was good, but the service was better.

Just as I was getting ready to leave, I saw the twenty-year-old land boat pull into the parking lot of the jewelry store across the lot. The car had been puzzled together over the years by matching intact panels of similar cars to form one, mostly blue piece of crap that couldn’t be worth more than one grand. Tops.

With a sigh, I called it in over the radio. Time to poke my head in, make my presence known. Lord knew nobody with a car like that could afford anything more than air at a place like this, and I worried about what he might be looking for.

He was African-American, 6’2”, maybe 250 lbs. Big boy. I nodded to the Security Guard as I entered, and feigned interest in the glittering, gleaming items within the glass cases, careful to keep out of his line of sight.

“Excuse me.” He muttered as one saleswoman walked away to address two teen girls and their mother. “Excuse me.” He tried again with a young man suddenly overcome by a need to move to the back of the store. The black man tsked his tongue. “Man, come on,” he grumbled, turning to try along another case in front of a bank of windows. I quickly swooped around a young couple fawning over wedding bands in the center of the store, but I had been so focused on the big guy, I didn’t see the stroller.

“Sorry! Sorry!” I called out as the stroller and I both clattered to the floor.

A newborn began crying and screaming from the floor, but his stroller had protected him. Or her. Who could tell what that bald, screaming infant was? Either way, the child hadn’t been harmed, not that the parents would believe it. Mom and Dad acted as though I had just murdered their ugly little kid in front of their very eyes.

“He’s ok. He’s ok.” I attempted to persuade Mom as she cradled her precious little one in her arms. Dad looked like he wanted to bluster, create a scene, but eyeing my uniform, he too chose to worry over the wrinkled little creature in a yellow onesie.

As for me? I’d lost sight of my target in all the commotion. Just as I placed one hand on the glass countertop for balance and returned to my feet, I heard it.

Pop.

The sound was unmistakable. A small caliber that was quickly followed by another.

Pop, pop.

Screams and panic clogged the store. “Get down!” I ordered. “Police! Freeze!” Where was he? I radioed for backup. “Shots fired! Shots fired!” Damn it? Where’d he go? He was a giant in a world of glass. Where the hell was he?! The child continued to howl as the others whispered and whimpered when I stepped over them.  

Pop.

Another shot rang out in harmony with a woman’s scream. “Help! Please! My husband!” A small river of blood crept around a bend in the store. I hurried to place my back along the interior wall, weapon at the ready.

I turned just in time to see my mark running, barreling toward the door. “Freeze!”

But he didn’t freeze. He was coming right at me. And I fired. Pop.

The giant dropped to his knees, scampering toward the couple. “Put pressure on-”

“Drop your weapon!” I ordered.

“What?” The black man feigned confusion, but my bullet must have missed him because he didn’t look hurt. He looked scared, and fear in these situations was never good. “Hey!” He raised one palm to me, but his other dove into his pocket. “We’re cool. Look-”

Pop. Pop. Pop.

I fired three more shots, and the woman screamed again. Then, I saw them. Motion drew my eye out the window to the front parking lot, and three punk kids, white kids, were running, stumbling over one another. Terror drew their eyes back to the store they fled, and the last one?

The last one tucked a 9 mm into his waistband.

The world began to move in slow motion then. The big man who had absorbed three of my bullets was grunting as gravity compelled him the rest of the way to the floor. “It’s ok.” He muttered. “It’s ok. It’s ok. It’s not me, man. It’s not me.”

With weapon drawn, I moved in. “Drop it!”

“I bought it online.” He was struggling to draw breath.

“Freeze!” Damn it! “Freeze.”

“I was just pickin’ it up.” His words were rushed, in a hurry to make sense of the life I’d just robbed him of. “Just pickin’ it up. It’s my destiny man. She’s the one.”

I stood directly above him as his body seemed to go lax. His arm gave way easily when nudged by the toe of my shoe and a small, white box popped out of his pocket.

He was struggling to form words. “My life was gonna…. Change. It’s crazy man…. But… she’s the one. She’s the one. Saved for a year for… a year for this.” He coughed, sputtering out blood. “No. Come on. This can’t be it, man. Not like this. Not like this.” His mouth was hardly moving anymore as his voice wandered away.  

His blood reached out to join that of the man below the sobbing red-haired woman. “My husband!” She pleaded.

“Ambulance is on the way, Ma’am.”

 “He’s dead. My husband’s dead. He’s all I had.” She was sobbing as she hugged the lifeless body of her husband. That, just that, had visions of my own wife, my own life, flickering through my mind. My wife was a beautiful, glorious woman I didn’t deserve. What would she think now?

 What had I done?

I studied the box that lay amid the growing pool of blood. Red blood. The blood from two men. One white. One black. But, both … both had bled red.