Tag Archives: blog battle

The Duplicitous Dare (part 2)

I was just going to use the snippet I wrote last week for this week’s entry. But I have way too much fun picturing these characters and their antics. Also, I get 500 extra words to play with? How could I resist?

So here’s the continuation of the tale of Agent Dare (pronounced dah-rey in Japanese, meaning “who?”).

(1,494 words, Genre: Adventure)

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Explorer of the Unknown, Finder of the Undiscovered, and Protector of the Undefended
…accompanied as always by his hapless assistant Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway

There was no avoiding the unpleasant fact, Teagan realized. Her partner, Grant McSwain, was a colossal fool.

He and the Empire of Japan’s agent Dare dove into Teagan’s hiding spot behind the battered delivery truck riddled with bullet holes. Slugs from Yakuza tommy guns thudded into the vehicle’s steel body, and the rat-a-tat of multiple machine guns resounded in the narrow Little Tokyo alleyway.

The lithe Asian woman held a pair of revolvers like a misplaced cowboy from the cover of a pulp Western. Grant knelt beside her and reloaded his own six-shooter.

The gunfire died down to sporadic thunder, and Dare gave Grant a rather forward look, her lips parted as if for a kiss, her husky breath promising more. “Mister McSwain,” she said in that frustratingly exotic and enticing accent, “do we have a deal?”

Teagan’s face twisted in confusion. What?

“We’ll get you out of here with your wealth so you can start a new life,” Grant said. “You’ll give us back the classified notes about the German submarine base. Yeah, we got a deal.”

The air stank of sulfur and gunpowder, a combination of fireworks set off in celebrations and the ongoing shoot-out between the Tong and Yakuza. Both sides had been double-crossed by this woman known as Dare.

And us caught in the middle, Teagan thought. No thanks to Grant.

The tommy guns hammered the truck again. In between bursts of gunfire, the Tong’s Colt revolvers let out deafening booms. Most aimed at their Japanese rivals, whose turf the Tong invaded by coming after Dare. But some of the rounds thunked into the truck. Neither side would let her go without a fight.

“This lorry is going to be scrap metal if they keep this up,” Teagan said, unconcerned whether Grant or Dare heard. Never one for modesty, Teagan hiked up her skirt to draw a pair of two-shot Deringers from a garter holster. She smirked when Grant’s eyes bulged at the sight of her exposed thigh. Even Dare raised an eyebrow and nodded approval.

Teagan leaned low and aimed around the front of the truck. As one of the Yakuza spotted her, his head blossomed in a spray of crimson. She rotated the barrels—the double-shot pistol’s imitation of reloading—and popped a round into one of the Tong creeping toward their position.

Dare dropped prone beside Teagan and fired under the truck.

Men screamed and heavy bodies thudded to the ground. Dare picked them off with ease. “Two more down,” she declared, and flashed Teagan a smug look.

Grant took out another Tong gunman, then hit the dirt as slugs tore holes in the side of the truck’s cargo bed.

Dare popped off a couple shots over the truck’s hood, then crouched beside Teagan. “Your weapons are poorly chosen,” Dare said. “Foolish Westerners, with your ‘Saturday night specials.’ You already expended half your ammunition.”

Teagan slipped the empty Deringer into her handbag and drew another from the garter on her opposite leg. “Who says I only brought two?”

Grant shook his head, his cheeks flushed. “Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, Teag! What sort of Saturday nights are you having?” Then he feigned irritation. “And why haven’t you invited me?”

“No blasphemy,” Teagan scolded. “And trust me, you couldn’t keep up.”

Dare laughed and dropped another Yakuza. “I am beginning to appreciate you, Miss O’Daire. The accounts I heard are surely the fiction of men put to shame by the weaker sex.”

If the praise was a clever ruse to disarm Teagan’s suspicions, it worked. She found herself grinning, and replied, “You must have quite a collection of similar stories, Agent Dare.”

“I never stick around to find out how they end,” she said with a light-hearted tone. “Presumably with torture and death. Neither the Tong nor the Yakuza are very forgiving.”

“Good thing we’ve earned both their ire,” Teagan said as she took aim.

A Yakuza rose to spray the truck with his tommy gun, but fell with a bloody hole in his forehead. Teagan rotated the Deringer barrels and scanned for another target.

“I’ve got an idea,” Grant said.

“Oh swait Jaysis,” Teagan muttered, her Irish coming out under stress.

“Hey,” Grant objected. “No blasphemy, right?”

“Wasn’t blasphemy, ye dunce. ‘Twas a prayer for protection,” she said. “From stupidity.”

Grant huffed but made no objection. “You two are going to cover me,” he explained, “and I’ll grab a couple of tommy guns off the dead Yakuza.”

“Ye trust this one that well, Grant? Ye’ll put her sights at yer backside?”

Dare stiffened. “We have an agreement. I am honor-bound.”

“You an’ the Tong had an agreement,” Teagan said. “Same with the Yakuza. Sure an’ both of those went arseways, yea? Now ye expect we’ll be trustin’ in your great sense of honor?”

Dare glanced at the two-shot pistol remaining in Teagan’s hand. “I do not see that you have any choice.”

Teagan sniffed with as much derision as she could muster, then drew her last Deringer. “I got four shots, not two.”

Dare rolled her eyes and took aim at the Tong.

Teagan stuck out her tongue when Dare turned away. It wasn’t so much Dare being right that irritated her. And Grant’s willingness to charge heedless into danger didn’t bother Teagan at all. Quite the opposite, in fact—although his last few expressions of bravado had been ill-conceived and poorly timed.

Maybe her source of frustration lay elsewhere. The intensity on his face when his eyes met Dare’s… the eagerness with which he formed an alliance with her… the obvious interest when he regarded this vivacious—and deceitful!—woman.

Grant dashed around the truck, ducking and dodging. Gunfire erupted from both ends of the alley, and Teagan snapped out of her thoughts.

She shot a Yakuza struggling with a jammed weapon, then took out a wounded man aiming at Grant.

Behind her, smoking revolvers in each hand belching fire, Dare fought back the Tong. She fired a couple shots, then spun low to the ground and popped up in a new position, keeping the distant Tong guessing.

Teagan put down another Yakuza, then dipped behind the truck. “I’m empty.”

Dare crouched but kept her eyes and guns trained on the Tong. “My assessment proves accurate,” she said. “You should have brought something more powerful.”

Grant slipped around the front of the truck and tossed Teagan a tommy gun. “This should suffice.”

Teagan hefted the weapon and aimed toward the Tong.

“Now, that fires over a dozen rounds a second, Teag,” Grant said. “You’re gonna want to—“

Rat-a-tat-a-tat!

The spray-and-pray method did little to incapacitate the Tong gunmen. But fear of that rapid fire drumbeat drove them to hiding each time Teagan squeezed off a burst.

Grant moved to get a better angle and strafed the Tong position. “Now’s our chance, Dare,” he shouted. “The Yakuza are down and we’ve got the Tong at bay. Tell me where to find the classified files.”

Dare checked the alley behind the truck. “It’s with the satchel of safe money, stashed in the cabin of Fortune’s Favor on pier six. Shall we withdraw?”

They dashed down the alley, Teagan and Grant taking turns spraying bullets to deter pursuers. Then they heard the sirens of police paddy-wagons approaching.

“Ditch the weapons,” Grant said as he tossed his tommy gun in the back of a parked car. “We need to split up.”

Dare scanned the streets, a look of trepidation forming on her all-too-perfect face.

Grant put a hand on Dare’s shoulder. “Take that alley down two streets then turn right, heading west. You’ll avoid main roads the police will use. Teag and I blend in a little easier. We’ll head up another block and meet you at the pier.”

Dare nodded. Then she took Grant’s face in her hands and kissed him full on the mouth.

Teagan felt her fists clench, and the rage within flared when Dare gave her another triumphant look.

The woman took off in the direction Grant indicated.

“Come on, Teag,” Grant said, “let’s get to the boat.” His long-legged stride covered ground swiftly, and Teagan had to nearly jog to keep up.

“Aren’t you worried she might beat us there?” Teagan asked, breathless.

“Not really,” Grant said. “My directions lead to a dead end next to the police station. I know better than to trust a pretty face.”

Teagan stopped, her heart full of surprise and unexpected joy. And yet that last statement stung.

Grant noticed her and drew near, placing his hand on her cheek. “All the pretty faces except one, that is.”

They recovered the files and money eventually. But for Teagan, the details blurred together with the sensation of floating on air all the way to the pier.

The Duplicitous Dare #blogbattle

Genre: Adventure (999 words)

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain and His Hapless Assistant, Teagan O’Daire—Both the Unsuspecting Victims of the Unnamed Vixen 


Teagan flung the dim sum restaurant door wide and crossed into the crowded street to meet up with Grant. The moon stood high above Los Angeles, its soft radiance overwhelmed by the glow of a hundred paper lanterns on ropes between buildings. A wave of sounds and smells crashed over Teagan—stewed pork, stir-fried vegetables, dozens of voices bartering and bantering in a harsh, tonal language.

Lots of restless bodies on the street, Teagan noted. Many looked homeless, their clothing dingy, their hair greasy and unwashed. Desperate eyes sought paying work, but who had money to spend? Even in Chinatown, the Great Depression took its toll.

“Any luck?”

Grant shook his head, then looked up and down the street. Fake pagodas and decorative Hollywood style façades captured the attention of Westerners, while stylized Chinese characters in gold-leaf calligraphy mystified the uninitiated.

“No one knows anyone named Dare.” Grant said it like the English word for challenge.

Dah-rey,” Teagan corrected. “And in this part of town, you should ask about Shei. Little Tokyo is a couple streets south of here.”

“Maybe that’s where we should be searching, Teag.” Grant rubbed his face in his palm. “No one here tells me anything. Watch.”

He approached a food cart with a sign proclaiming the best soup dumplings in Chinatown. A wiry gray-haired man behind the cart smiled wide. “You want hsiao-lung-pao? Two dollar one dozen.”

“Sorry,” Grant said. “I’m looking for someone named Shay.”

Shei?”

“Yeah.”

The merchant cocked his head. “Ni zhao shei ah?

“That’s what I said.”

Teagan snickered. “I told you, her alias means ‘who?’ He’s asking who you’re looking for, and to him it sounds like you don’t know.”

She drew a bill from her purse and handed it to the man. “Six please. Hsieh-hsieh,” she said with a grateful nod.

The man placed the steaming swirled buns on a disposable mat of woven straw and offered the makeshift plate to Teagan. His eyes flickered toward Grant and he laughed. “Ta de naozi huailema?”

Rusty Chinese filtered through her mind. Is his brain broken?

“Indeed,” Teagan said with a smile. “Grant, let’s try Little Tokyo.”

They strolled south, eating dumplings and enjoying the foreign atmosphere, each pointing out oddities and unknown attractions that caught their eye.

Then Grant stiffened.

“What is it?”

He kept his eyes forward and whispered, “Don’t turn or make eye contact. But we’ve got tails on our left. About two houses back now. I’m guessing Tong.”

Teagan fought the urge to search for the threat. “You sure?”

“Grew up running ‘shine for a mob boss in the Prohibition days. Seen enough gang toughs to know—they’re not just guarding their turf.”

“Maybe they’ll have information we need?”

Grant chuckled. “Tong ain’t known for their friendly disposition, especially to us foreign devils. We should get into Little Tokyo quickly.” He picked up the pace.

“They won’t enter?”

“And tangle with Yakuza? Nah.”

Teagan hesitated. “Yakuza too?”

“You’re the one that suggested following our leads to Dare.”

She sighed.

“Dah-rey,” Grant corrected.

They entered Little Tokyo and saw drifters seeking work. Teagan examined the faces watching her, and felt palpable hostility. She edged closer to Grant.

He offered her his muscular arm. “We’re not particularly welcome here, are we, Teag?”

“The government’s been saying the same thing to the Japanese,” Teagan said. “Coolidge’s Immigration Act cut off all new arrivals from the Empire. Since then… well, maybe President Roosevelt will change things.”

“We have enough problems of our own to deal with,” Grant said.

They approached an older woman with a rack of shoes on display and Teagan checked her notebook. She spoke in a slow, clipped tone. “Dah-rey doko dess-ka?

The woman laughed and repeated the question. “Dare?

Grant crossed his arms. “This is searching for a twig in a pile of chopsticks, Teag.”

Teagan ignored Grant and considered her question. Maybe if I add an honorific term, it’ll be clear who I’m looking for. “Dare-san doko dess-ka?

The woman’s eyes lit up, and she glanced around before leaning in close. “You seek Dare-san? Yakuza seek Dare-san too.” She pointed a bony finger toward a truck with a covered flatbed in an open lot between two tall apartments.

Teagan and Grant dashed toward the lot, then Teagan paused to look back.

The woman had gathered up her rack and hustled into one of the apartments with uncanny speed for her age.

Grant approached the truck and froze when four Asian men jumped out. Two held tommy guns, and two carried cudgels. One pointed his club at Grant. “What you want, gaijin?”

“I’m looking for a mysterious woman—goes by Shei. Or maybe Dare.” He finally said it with proper Japanese pronunciation.

Face twisted in anger, the man stalked toward Grant. “You Shei’s partner or something? Did she bring you the opium she stole?”

The scrape of footfalls behind her caught Teagan’s attention and she turned to find half a dozen armed men. One stepped forward and pointed his pistol at Grant. “Where is the Yakuza piaotzu named Dare, laowai? I heard you say her name. Where’s the safety money she took from us?”

The Yakuza raised their guns. “Get off our turf, Tong dogs. And don’t come back unless you bring us Shei.”

The lead Tong laughed and aimed at the Yakuza who spoke. “Give up this Dare and our money, and we’ll leave at once.” His men formed a rank beside him.

Teagan pressed against Grant. “Sounds like we all got played. Got a way out?”

Grant raised his hands and scrunched up his face, narrowing his eyes with a wide toothy smile. “Evelybody carm darn,” he said with a poor mockery of an Asian accent. “We awr go home now, no trouber!”

Rivalry forgotten, every gun pointed at him.

Teagan stood horrified and dumbfounded, jaw hanging open.

Grant shrugged. “Yeah, I got nothing.”

Dead in the Water

From the Continuing Adventures of Grant McSwain, Maritime Global Circumnavigator, Menace of German Cretins, and Master of Gargantuan Creatures

Accompanied as always by his hapless assistant Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway

Wind rustled through Teagan’s hair and saltwater sprayed droplets across her face as she leaned over the rail of the swift-moving vessel. The afternoon sun blazed and the heat and humidity of the Caribbean thickened the air.

The fuel for the vessel’s engine ran out two days earlier, so nothing broke the silence other than the crash of waves against the bow. A sense of tranquility refreshed Teagan’s weary spirit so long as she paid no attention to the choppy motion propelling the ship through the swells.

She looked away from the water’s rough surface. Best to avoid considering the source of that power.

But Teagan had to admit the plan Grant devised worked better than anticipated.

Grant on the other hand remained incapacitated. The large man hung doubled over the handrail on the port side, far enough away from Teagan that the splashing water below her drowned out his much less pleasant sounds.

He straightened, and clutched the railing with white knuckles and a quivering arm while wiping his mouth with a rag. “God, Teag, how do you do it?”

She took a deep breath of the ocean air and grinned wide. “I used to go on fishing trips with my brothers, out to the Aran Islands just beyond the bay. This feels so much like home.”

The vessel suddenly cut left, across the current. Teagan wobbled but steadied herself with ease, her sea legs quickly returning after far too long on land. “Well, almost like home,” she admitted.

Near the stern, Grant clung to the railing like a soon-to-be shipwreck victim. He stared at the churning waters behind the boat, his breath ragged. “We passed Antigua days ago,” he moaned. “It can’t be much longer to the Florida coast, can it?”

“Avoiding the Bahamas makes the trip a little longer,” Teagan said. “And keep in mind that the roundabout navigation was your idea.”

“One I deeply regret,” he replied.

Teagan strode across the wooden deck to the stern of the vessel and put her hand on Grant’s shoulder. “Watch the horizon, not the water. And try to take slow, full breaths to calm your nerves. We’ll get through this.”

The vessel lurched and picked up speed. The thick ropes at the bow creaked and the ship’s hull groaned with added strain. Teagan grimaced. “At least I hope we will.”

They travelled in silence for a time as the sun crawled beneath the horizon. The ship bounced on the ocean swells at a speed the vessel’s shipwrights would never have imagined possible. As the sky turned shades of red and purple, either Grant managed to overcome his seasickness, or his body gave up the fight.

Teagan ran her fingers over the jagged wood of the broken mast, and the twisted hemp strands of the thick ropes, then shook her head with amazement.

On the horizon, Grant spotted a shadowy mass. “Land ho,” he cried, with a proud fist raised into the air.

“Aren’t you still on the Federal Bureau’s Most Wanted list?”

Grant turned and flashed Teagan a smile. Unlike Teagan, who covered up head to toe after the first terrible sunburn, Grant’s skin darkened to a light caramel. Proper color had returned to Grant’s stubbly face, and the sight of land seemed to revitalize him. He posed like an Old World explorer, leaning forward, one foot on the railing at the bow, as if he propelled the ship forward by sheer force of will.

“Bah. The FBI,” Grant scoffed and dismissed Teagan’s concern with a wave of his hand. “‘Removing protected cultural relics’ is a made-up offense. I don’t think such a law even exists.”

“What about the part where you robbed the Smithsonian?”

“Oh, that. There is that. No worries… this is my ticket to get back into Uncle Sam’s good graces.”

“Please tell me you mean the satchel of classified documents and German submarine blueprints you recovered from the ruins of the base.”

“That’s the icing on the cake,” Grant said. He looked down at the massive shadowy figure beneath rushing waters and laughed. The taut ropes stretched below the waves and wrapped around the hulking body of the leviathan.

“A really, really big cake,” Grant said, “with tentacles.”

The vessel groaned and shuddered as the bow crashed through a powerful wave that splashed across the deck. Grant and Teagan gripped the slick rails, but the water pushed them from the bow. The silver plates used in the Ixthacan summoning ritual clattered across the wooden boards, torn from the tiedowns Grant fashioned when they’d embarked.

Teagan watched one of the plates with wide eyes. “Grant,” she said, “aren’t those part of what’s controlling the creature?”

Grant’s face blanched. “Well, Teag,” he said with a gulp, “Let’s be honest. Can you really claim to know how the ritual works in the first place?”

The vessel lurched, dead in the water. The ropes, once taut, hung limp over the bow.

Grant looked over the railing and frowned. “Hey, Teag? Back in Ireland, did you do a lot of swimming?”

“Some,” she said. “But we generally tried to stay in the ship.”

Four black, scaly tentacles burst from the surface of the water and stretched dozens of feet into the air, two on each side of the ship. They lashed the wooden vessel, shattering the railings and the deck with loud snaps. Teagan and Grant stumbled as the vessel’s hull cracked.

“I don’t think that’s an option,” Grant shouted, then dove over the side.

The front half of the vessel rose into the air, lifted by the leviathan’s twisting tentacles. Teagan gasped as more of the creature’s limbs crushed the ship’s stern beneath the waves.

She shut her eyes and leapt into the waves below.

To be continued in The Voice of the Vixen

Indiscriminate Assistance – a #blogbattle entry

It’s not quite the quality I wanted, but I had to fly yesterday and I’m flying again today. So I’ll be content with getting another Grant and Teagan submission in. Hope you enjoy this newest installment.

From the Continuing Adventures of Grant McSwain, Champion of the Daring, and Foiler of Dastardly Deeds 

Accompanied as always by Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway


Teagan rammed her shoulder into the side of a large wooden crate of electronic parts and pushed it into place against the iron door of the radio room, sending a cloud of dust into the air. A thick beam of wood held the entrance closed. It shook as the German guards battered against the metal from the other side.  

Then the whole cliffside base rumbled like an earthquake.

Teagan watched the ceiling, fearing a collapse. Then she turned to her partner, hands in tight fists on her hips. “Grant, what have you done?”

Grant McSwain sat in front of the large microphone, his hands fumbling across banks of controls for shortwave radio communications and the personnel address system within the base. His unapologetic eyes met Teagan’s and he laughed.

She took a deep breath that did nothing to calm her wild anger. “You said you were going to call for assistance!”

“I did.”

“I thought you meant the local authorities,” Teagan said, “or some government agency.” She checked the weight of another box and decided it would do nothing to barricade the door.

“That was the original plan, sure. I improvised.”

The base shuddered again, as if God punched the surface of the earth with His fist. Muffled shrieks and frantic voices filled the hallway outside the radio room.

Teagan considered throwing the box at Grant. “You summoned the Leviathan.”

Grant shook his head. “No, no, you’re not blaming this on me,” he said, and thrust a thick finger her way. “You’re the one who wrote out the incantation phonetically. You know I can’t understand that Ixthacan gibberish.”

“Then why did you read it over the base address system?”

“First, if Vilhelm wanted it,” Grant said, “I didn’t want him to have it. Second, it seemed like a good distraction when we had nowhere else to run.”

In the nearby cavern that housed the massive German submarine, stone crumbled in a combination of bass like thunder and metal twisting with an ear-piercing shriek.

Teagan winced and gave Grant a withering glare.

Grant met her stare while tuning the radio. “Did you honestly believe there was a creature to summon?”

“Did you have reason to think there might not be?”

Grant tweaked some knobs. The radio hissed to life with soft static. “Any sheriff, any station,” Grant called, “anybody hearing this: is there anyone in a position to provide aid?”

A heavy battering ram thudded against the iron door in a steady pace, the rhythm broken by another tremor that rattled the walls of the mountainside base. Otherwise, the room fell silent save the crackling quiet of the radio.

The voices outside screamed and cut off abruptly when something crashed into the door, shearing the steel framework supporting the radio room. The thick beam holding the door shut snapped with the impact. Teagan’s makeshift barricade tipped to the left and dumped parts across the floor. Then everything lurched forward, and Teagan propped herself up against the wall.

Once the beam broke, gravity swung the battered door open. A scaly tentacle, thick as a full-grown oak, slid through the twisted wreckage of the metal stairs, withdrawing toward the water. In the tangle of steel supports, bloody limbs stretched into the air seeking aid that would never come.

Face white, Grant watched the tentacle slither away. He and Teagan both sat frozen, awaiting a devastating blow to the radio room, afraid any motion might draw the attention and wrath of the leviathan.

The mountainside shook again, but this time the impact seemed far away.

Grant sighed with relief then switched on the base address system. “Achtung! Gehen sie in die U-Boot,” he repeated in rough German.

“What are you doing?”

“It’s panic out there,” Grant said. “No one’s going to know what to do, so they’ll listen to the first order they hear.”

“And meanwhile, what will we be doing?”

Grant gestured toward the elevator to the small, nondescript outpost far above on the surface. “We’re getting out of here.”

He lowered Teagan through the slanted doorway and she hopped to the floor, landing in a crouch on an unstable metal platform. Across a gap of a few feet, another walkway stretched toward the waiting elevator.

Grant dropped through the door of the radio room and hit with a thud that shook the damaged structure. It wobbled but held together. He checked the distance, then made a running jump over the jagged wreckage. “Come on, Teag,” he called.

But there it was. She couldn’t look away.

Tentacles flailed dozens of feet above the water’s surface, crashing into the walkways and structures surrounding the submarine’s berth. A huge pointed head rose from the waves with giant black eyes on either side and a maw lined with rows of sharp teeth. One of the creature’s manifold limbs batted aside a trio of German sailors running for the supposed safety of the submarine, and another tentacle lifted a screaming man high into the air before dropping him into the leviathan’s mouth.

The horror shook Teagan’s heart… but the mystery and majesty of the creature filled her with awe and wonder.

The submarine inched forward, moving toward the underwater tunnel leading to the ocean. Then a pair of tentacles wrapped around the vessel, lifting it out of the churning waters. Metal groaned and squealed. The vessel broke in half with a resounding snap.

“Teag!” Grant cupped his hands over his lips and screamed. “The elevator, before that thing takes it out of commission!”

Teagan leapt across the bloodied steel of the ruined walkway and chased Grant with all due haste.

The automated pulleys of the elevator strained and groaned, but raised the pair from the devastation of the underground base like souls set free from the pit of Hades.

Teagan Oh-Hair and the Barbaric Barbers #blogbattle

From the Adventures of Grant McSwain, Hero of Countless Tales, Harrower of Cold-blooded Villains, and Handsome Bachelor

accompanied as always by his hapless assistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway.



Teagan blinked several times, trying in vain to clear away the stinging smoke and the fog of unconsciousness.

I’ve been drugged. 

She moved to rub her eyes, but her hands stayed behind her back and coarse rope dug into her wrists. The crackle and heaet of a nearby bonfire flooded her senses, along with a sweet smell and sizzle like bacon.

Feral boar, perhaps? Do they raise swine in the mountains of Uruguay?

A chilling sense of foreboding told her no. She tugged on the rope, hoping for some give in the restraint. But she remained firmly held against a thick tree trunk.

“You’re not going anywhere, Teag,” Grant said. His dejected voice provided a small sense of comfort. She thought she could make out his bulky form, kneeling between two tribesmen’s spearpoints.

The tribe came into focus as tears from the smoke cleared Teagan’s vision. Several men in animal skin loincloths chanted around the bonfire. They wore carved bone jewelry on leather straps, and carried sharp spears that glinted in the firelight. Nearby a few men and most of the women tore at pieces of steaming roast meat laid out on a large round table. Like many tribes Teagan had read about, the uncivilized Aktuacha left more skin exposed than covered. 

Grant’s wide eyes and red cheeks caught Teagan’s attention. He turned this way and that, as if unsure where to look.

“Surely you’ve seen a woman disrobe,” Teagan said, trying not to laugh. Their uncertain situation and the hostile growls of the Aktuachans should have stifled every bit of humor. But perhaps because of the danger they faced, Grant’s embarrassment at something so natural struck Teagan as hilarious.

Then she felt the breeze across her skin in places she ought not.

“Where the hell is my shirt?!”

“I think they tore it apart fighting over the fabric,” Grant replied.

“And where is Juancarlo?” Their guide claimed intimate knowledge of the mountains and assured them he could help find Vallarte’s gold mines. Moreover, they had to beat the twins dispatched by the German Kaiser before the desperate Weimar government could claim the treasure. This was an unacceptable delay. “When we get out of here, he’s dismissed for certain!”

“I think they’re tearing him apart right now.”

The aroma of pork. The sizzling fat.

Teagan vomited, involuntarily straining against the rope.

One of the tribesmen rushed toward her, shaking a bone fetish atop a staff decorated with feathers… and long red hair.

Teagan couldn’t reach her head, so she shook it back and forth but felt nothing on her bare shoulders. The slight breeze cooled her scalp far more than it had a right to.

“Oh my God, did they–”

“He thinks you’re a fire demon,” Grant explained. “Taking your hair gives him your power. Killing your consorts is necessary since we’re tainted by your presence.”

“I… oh God, what happens after that?” Horrifying thoughts swirled in her imagination.

“Well, frankly, I don’t care. Because I’ll be dead and eaten. So let’s stop that from happening, right?”

Teagan struggled once more with the rope, and felt objects in her trouser pockets and belt pouches. They hadn’t taken all of “the demon’s” possessions, just her dignity and pride. With careful effort, her long fingers reached into a pouch near the small of her back, drawing out a pair of metal cylinders.

“I’m sorry, Teag,” Grant said, voice cracking. “I can’t think of any way out.”

“I can.” She held the cylinders, one in each hand, and rubbed them together in motions as sharp and swift as the bonds allowed. “They want to call me a fire demon? I’ll oblige them.”

Bursts of pain and heat shot through her arms, but she let the fury urge her on, smashing the flint and steel together.

The tribe’s shaman approached again, taunting Teagan with the red hair fetish. Behind her back, the dry fibers of the rope loosened with a snap, then came apart.

She held the smouldering rope aloft in blistered hands, then kicked the shaman’s staff into the bonfire.

The man gasped and fell back, and the rest of the tribe followed his lead. 

The fire demon they feared snatched a burning branch from the flames and howled with rage, dashing around the tribal village. As she passed thatch huts, she set them alight. When anyone came close, she shook the coil of burnt rope and makeshift torch at them with crazed eyes.

The forest and clearing glowed orange in the light of many fires, and the tribesmen fled Teagan’s wrath.

She dashed to her pack, next to Grant’s, and grabbed a fresh shirt along with her knife. Her curiosity burned for a moment, and she almost pulled out the compact mirror to assess the damage done to her luxurious mane. But there would be time for that once they were free.

She raced over to Grant and watched him rise to his feet, blowing on seared skin where he burned off his rope.  

He stared back at her, and she became self-conscious, turning her back on him while throwing on her shirt. “I thought women in states of undress discomfitted you!”

“Not often,” Grant said. “And I’ve told you before, you don’t have much to be embarrassed about.”

Teagan whirled, mouth agape. “I do have a knife, Grant!”

He raised his hands in surrender and laughed, his wide smile disarming her anger. “Only jesting, Teag. I’m not one of these foolish savages.”

“What do you mean?”

“I know better than to infuriate a fire demon!”

A Clash with Death

Genre: Adventure? Action? I’ll see what options fit best but I think it’s obvious what I’m going for.

Flash fiction with the prompt: Chasm

God, I had more fun with this than I meant to. I wanted to go a little further with the “chasm” concept, but my original idea wouldn’t fit in the word count.

And really I just wanted to get myself back in the blog battle even if the piece isn’t my most competitive effort. I think you’ll see more of Grant and Teagan in the future.

—–

The Exploits of Grant McSwain, Fearless Adventurer, Man of Mystery, Acquirer of Fabled Fortunes, and Doer of Daring Feats 

(accompanied as always by his hapless asssistant, Teagan O’Daire, the Ginger of Galway)

This week’s episode: A Clash with Death, and the Chasm of Despair…

The sun beat down on the thick jungle foliage Grant McSwain brushed aside with the flat of his machete. “Told you,” he said with a grin as he offered his assistant a view of the ziggurat ahead. “The Temple of Ixthapocl, right where I said it would be.”

Teagan clambered the rest of the way up the slope, then took a knee and brushed red bangs away from her dripping face. “The fifth time’s the charm, I guess. As usual.”

Grant ignored the jab. “Now the true challenge begins!”

“Finding the way in?”

“No, that’s easy. I’m talking about sneaking artifacts past customs when we get back to America.” He trudged down the hill toward the vine-covered ruin.

“Always ten steps ahead,” Teagan said. “Sometimes you forget to plan for the obstacles that still block our way.”

Grant shrugged and strolled across the open ground toward the base of the temple. “Who needs a plan when you have style?” His machete made short work of the intertwining vines blocking the entrance. “Already we know that no one else has been in here in years.”

“Through this entrance,” Teagan muttered. The Ixthacas always built secret passages for their own use. Many a conquistador had been ambushed, thinking they found unattended wealth.

A heavy metal door blocked their way, a ring engraved with animals and men in different poses at its center. Grant unfolded a parchment and double-checked the sequence, then turned the ring to the appropriate symbols. “Dance like the serpent,” Grant read aloud, “fight like the bear.”

The lock clicked and dust shook loose as the door swung open.

Grant stepped inside, and Teagan saw the stone sink beneath his foot. She dove into him, bowling him over as three darts cut through the air where he’d been standing.

“And duck,” she said, “like someone who wants to survive.”

Grant dusted himself off and rose, face red as her hair. “Thanks,” he said finally. “Get the flashlight, wouldya?”

The light revealed walls of carved stone, with rows of faces at eye level. Every other mouth hung open, potentially hiding more traps. They took a slower pace, testing any stone in the floor that seemed odd.

The halls inside the ziggurat led to several empty chambers—living quarters, based on the provisions and furnishings. Stairs wound up to the higher levels.

Grant checked each room for anything of interest, a process that took a full hour on the first floor. “I’ve only got one set of spare batteries,” Teagan said. “The rest are back at camp. Ceremonies would be held beneath the moon and stars in the top chamber. Maybe that’s where the good stuff was kept?” 

“Or that’s what they’d want you to think,” Grant replied.

Teagan rolled her eyes and dutifully followed.  

By the time they reached the highest level, the flashlight dimmed and the full moon shining through the open ceiling did as good a job. Stone pillars rose into the night sky at each corner and on each side of the ziggurat’s rooftop. Every pillar bore a plate of silver and obsidian displaying a phase of the moon.  

On a low platform before the altar in the center of the top floor, silver spheres the size of golf balls glimmered in the moonlight, arranged like the brighter stars in the sky. Grant pulled out a knife and immediately pried one from its setting. “Yep, they’re loose, we can grab these.” He drew out a thick leather pouch and began filling it. 

Then he spotted the shining gold plate set above the altar. Engraved lines radiated from the golden sun. “Hey Teag, grab that, will ya?” 

Teagan smiled at the thick gold and approached. But something felt off. She checked the floor, and it looked solid. She inspected the plate from every angle, but saw nothing indicating a trap or trigger mechanism. She tapped the ground in front of the plate with her toes, then put full weight on it. The stones supported her. 

Grant had begun plucking the lunar phases off the pillars, sliding them into his backpack with newspaper padding between each plate. “You gonna get that thing?” he asked. “I don’t want to be out here all night.” 

Teagan couldn’t spot anything amiss. So she jammed a flat steel file between the golden plate and its setting in the stone, then pried the treasure out.  

The Ixthaca worshiped the moon. Why would they put up a valuable image of the sun? 

The plate slapped into her hands, and the stone at the top of its indented setting dropped with a sharp clack against the bottom. 

Teagan groaned. To identify enemies and intruders, of course. 

The floor fell away and she plummeted into darkness with a stifled yelp.  

With her weight suddenly removed, the spring-loaded doors snapped back into place. 

Grant collected the last plate, hefted the sack onto his back, then turned about in confusion. “Did she seriously just take the treasure and run?” 

[To be continued next week, in “The Lolly-pops of Peril”]

In the Shadows – Blog Battle

This is my last Blog Battle entry (probably) until December, since NaNoWriMo beckons and will demand my attention. The genre is sci-fi.

 Clouds blanketed the sky, but the third moon’s violet glow pierced the veil with dim but unwavering light.
Dressed in clothing like dingy, tattered rags, a mother and her son huddled in the shadow of volcanic stone jutting from a nearby vent. Thick ash fluttered through air corrupted by sulfur’s stench.
 “I may not always be here to guide you to a new refuge.” She choked on the words, and not from the fumes. No one traveled at night, when the creatures swarmed across the barren landscape. But her last refuge lay in ruins. Her love most likely lay among the slain. Scattered and pursued, the survivors fled in every direction. 
 The sense of loss hounded her, hammered at her wavering strength, screamed in her ears to give up and die. Her son’s wide, innocent eyes kept her anchored, kept her from wailing and running into the night toward certain death.

 Squatting in the darkness, she looked her son in the eye. “You must be most cautious at night,” she said in a terse whisper.

 “Because Stoneskins hide in the shadows?” he asked, barely audible. He’d learned well.

 “No, because they’re nocturnal. Do you know what that word means?”

 The boy looked around, struggling for an answer. His eyes lit up with insight. “The knocking noise they make when they talk to each other?”

 She chuckled and kissed his soot-stained head. “No, sweetie. It means they only move around after sunset. But the good news is they stay out of the shadows. I don’t think they like the darkness either.”

 A gout of steam released from the vent behind them, and the ground shook. 

 The boy clapped his hand over his nose. “Ew,” he said with a giggle. “It stinks like Dad after dinner.”

 His mother shushed him and tried to keep composure, but the boy’s infectious delight could not be stopped. 

 Laughter felt foreign, alien, after so many years on the run since the colony ship landed on Beta Kaali Two. Sensors set for organic life offered no warning that the very stones of the planet might be alive. 

 A thought struck home and swept her joy away. “We might not see Dad again.” She patted the youngster, and put a finger to her lips.

 But the crack-crack of stones slamming together on the other side of the vent silenced them both at once. A Stoneskin drew near.

 She charged her nano-pistol and checked its settings. The gun’s nanites could disassemble the creatures on a molecular level. The devices proved the colonists’ only defense against the aliens. But supplies had long since dwindled. 

 If any of the Stoneskins attacked, she’d have three shots–maybe four.

 With one arm, she clutched her son to her chest and they became still as the rocky ground. No matter what, she thought, I will protect you. With my life, if I must.

 She closed her eyes and focused on the only sound that brought her peace, the too-fast beating of his heart.

 The rhythmic knocking of his brood mother soothed Ko-Kakrik and he clawed across the ground eager to follow her voice.

 “Do not wander into the shadows, little gravel-shell,” she said with fondness. 

 Ko-Kakrik sensed the vibrations around him and felt nothing apart from his mother’s movements and voice. He clacked his mandible stones together and asked, “Does the darkness deafen us to the sounds of the earth?” 

 “No, my spawnling,” she replied, with a stuttering clack that indicated amusement. 

 The mirth vanished and she cracked out a warning. “That is where the humans often hide. If they see you, they will spit venom from their claws to eat you alive.”

 Ko-Kakrik paused and listened again. For a moment he thought he felt another sound, a pair of thumping drumbeats nearby. 

 His stones beat together in a panic. “Mother?” 

 His mother’s claw rested upon his back and she guided him away. “Come along, and fear not. I will protect you. Even with my life, if I must.”

The Ghost Watchers

Here’s a Blog Battle entry for the word, “Train.” I want to call the genre Western, but supernatural is probably a good fit.

Heh, so… This week’s word is actually “Ride.” Well, this is pretty clearly a story of a ride on a train, so maybe it’s not too much of a stretch?

We all love creative writing… Maybe I was practicing my creative reading skills this week.

Hope you enjoy the ride…

UPDATE: And apparently enough people did that this scored a win for this week’s challenge. Thanks to all who voted for my Old West ghost watchers, Tommy and Jake!

Thanks, Rachael!
Thanks, Rachael!

Heavy silence hung over everything like a church sanctuary at midnight. Darkness stretched forever like a moonless sky.

Thomas had only been to one funeral in his eight years, when a cholera outbreak on the frontier took his little cousin Annabelle. The whole McMillan clan gathered in one place for the first time in years, but no one had the heart to say a word.

The dream always felt like that.

“Tommy, wake up.” Eagerness gave his brother’s deep voice an edge. “We’re almost there.”

Thomas blinked a few times and rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. The gentle swaying of the southbound Union Pacific train and the clacka-clack of the tracks below threatened to lull Thomas to sleep.

Jake poked Thomas several times. “You’re gonna miss the ghosts.”

“I don’t believe in no ghosts, Jake. That’s little kid stuff.”

Jake laughed and tousled his brother’s hair. “You’re still young yet.” He turned to the window and gazed into the night. “Folk say they always appear on the hillside before we cross Clark Canyon.”

Thomas yawned and stretched. “Think we’ll spot some Injuns? I hear the Shoshoni attacked some wagons an’ such.” His eyes lit with glee, even if a few drowsy passengers shot him a stern glare. “Maybe train robbers! I hear Jesse James been spotted in these parts.”

“You never know,” Jake said, then grinned. “You’ll have to help me watch. We passed through Dillon a bit ago. Should be comin’ up on the river soon. We’re that much closer to home.”

Thomas squinted at the roiling clouds of mist curling across the flat landscape. “Too foggy out. Can’t see much of anything.” The sight brought a strange familiarity, though they’d never ridden this train before.

Jake nodded. “Rolled in a few minutes ago. That’s why I woke you. I really could use an extra pair of eyes, ghosts or no.”

A soft glow appeared in the mists ahead, and Thomas leaned toward the glass. The fog parted and revealed a brightly painted metal sign with a golden arrow pointing west, lit by the shiniest electric lamps Thomas had ever seen.

Except… he’d seen them before, hadn’t he? Those same bright lamps, that very sign?

Better with his letters than Thomas, Jake read aloud as the train lumbered past. “The historic ghost town of Bannack, Montana?”

He looked at Thomas with a furrowed brow. “Bannack’s just down the Montana trail from Dillon.”

“I knew that,” Thomas muttered, unsure why or how it was the case.

Jake ignored the comment. “They got a gold rush goin’ on, so the conductor claimed. You’re not gonna believe it, but people say a man can pull up a sagebrush–”

“–And shake out a pan full of gold,” both said in unison.

They stared at each other in wonder for a moment then settled back in the padded seats. A few minutes later the low, mournful wail of the train’s whistle broke the silent spell.

Jake turned toward his little brother. “How did you–”

“Look!” Thomas pressed his face against the window.

A cluster of bizzare carriages in a variety of odd shapes sat at the base of a small hill. Soft electric lanterns of some sort fastened to the carriages gleamed in the swirling mist, their beams pointed toward the tracks.

“No horses in sight,” Jake mumbled.

“The ghosts,” Thomas whispered.

Wispy figures gathered on the hilltop under the moonlight, watching the train. Someone had a looking device mounted on a tripod that made Thomas think of photographers back in town. But a camera needed daylight, and surely couldn’t be so small.

Jake squinted at the distant crowd. “What sort of attire is that? Not even tribeswomen are that immodest.”

Nearby passengers stirred at the commotion, and conversation about the spectacle swept through the railcar. A trick of the fog, some reasoned. Spirits from beyond, perhaps the victims of Shoshoni attacks, others said. A messenger of Satan meant to deceive, a preacher declared, then proclaimed everyone in imminent danger of hellfire.

“We’ve been here before,” Jake said. “More than once. Every word they’ve been saying, I knew it before they finished talking.” He glanced about the car and noticed similar reactions among the travelers.

“There’s another sign comin’ up, Jake.”

Jake shook off distraction and peered into the fog. “Clark Canyon Bridge,” he read, then gasped. “A. K. A. Ghost Bridge, site of the 1884 Union Pacific disaster–”

Screams resounded from the forward railcars. The passenger car angled straight down and plummeted toward the ground, passing through the metal structure and railroad ties. The rock wall of the canyon raced past the window with increasing speed.

Jake and Thomas lurched forward, smacking the seats in front of them. Thomas reached for his brother and clasped his hand, then squeezed his eyes shut.

Heavy silence hung over everything like a church sanctuary at midnight. Darkness stretched forever like a moonless sky.

The dream always felt like that.

“Tommy, wake up. We’re almost there.”

Ghost Orchid

Blog battle – Pages tells me it’s exactly 1000 words. 

Genre: Action? Near-future sci-fi?

—-

 

by Mick Fournier, found on Wikipedia, licensed for Creative Commons usage
 
   Rough hands shoved Abby Spangler from behind, and she tumbled into the dark cell. Her shoulder smashed into the cement floor and she grunted.

  “Don’t bruise her,” a man’s voice commanded in Vietnamese–they hadn’t discerned her understanding of their language yet.
   The door slammed shut. Muffled voices withdrew.
   The dank air reeked of mildew. Flies buzzed around the single lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. Abby rolled onto her back and sat up with effort. She blew long blonde bangs out of her eyes and shook her head in a futile effort to manage her unruly mane.

   Her cellmate watched, head bowed. “You okay?” The voice came out as a sheepish whisper, its quivering pitch indicating recent tears.

   Tara hadn’t succumbed to the hopelessness of the other slaves Abby had seen. But she was on the verge.

   “Not too bad,” Abby answered with a forced smile. “Everybody needs some electro-shock now and then. Quiets the voices in my head.” She chuckled, hoping to lift Tara’s spirits. 

   But the teenager sniffed and kept her eyes on the floor.

   Abby groaned and slid into her corner. As planned, she whispered her callsign, briefed two months earlier before she let herself be abducted. “Ghost Orchid.” An image filled her mind–a white flower with long tendrils like frog legs hanging beneath a tree branch. Its roots blended so well into the tree that it seemed to float in mid-air, alone and unsupported.

   Like me. 

   Soft cries echoed through the thin walls of the holding cells–a former hostel near Cam Ranh Bay, judging by snippets of conversation in central Viet dialect and the few glimpses outside Abby managed thus far.

   Traffickers brought kidnapped girls from the airport, where they arrived on flights with handlers arranging passage and bribing security. The port city served the syndicate well, with vessels bound to all parts of the world.

   Here, at least, it would end today.

   “Why don’t you just shut up so they’ll leave you alone, Abby? When you mouth off, you’re just asking for it.” 

   Maybe Tara’s not doing as well as I thought.

   “No,” Abby said. “Nobody ‘asks for it.’ These are wicked men doing evil, preying on innocent victims. I don’t buy any logic that says it’s our fault we ended up here, no matter what led to this.” 

   She softened her tone. “Besides, they can’t afford to hurt us too much. They need pretty American girls–no bruises, no scars.”

   Tara sighed. “You sound so chipper. You realize you’re going to be sold as a sex slave to some dirty bastard in a third world country?”

   “Not today.”

   “Oh, yeah, take it one day at a time, right?” Tara rolled her eyes. “That’s not going to change how the story ends.”

   Abby felt a vibration in the wood at her back and looked at the ceiling. The lightbulb swayed. A distant rumble built into thunder, then dissipated in a loud rush of air.

   Tara glanced around the room in panic. “What’s happening?”

   Abby grinned. “‘Not today’ meant we’re not getting sold off. Not ever. None of these girls are. Relax, this will be over in about two minutes.”

   Or so the Colonel said.

   She fought sudden fear at the realization she had no idea what to expect. 

   Screams resounded throughout the building–shrill cries of terrified men instead of the young girls Abby had heard for the last week.

   Then the walls melted in slow motion, leaving soupy puddles covered in gray dust. Sunlight burst into the room, and both women blinked watery eyes to adjust.

   Abby stood and counted survivors. Within a minute of the initial impact, seventeen girls huddled together in the goopy remnants of the slave traders’ holding facility. No collateral damage, no civilian casualties… 

   Tara asked, “Where did the slavers go?” 

   Abby studied the wet mess and grimaced. “I think we’re standing in them. This looks like the results of weaponized nanotechnology. Uncle Sam has some new toys.” 

   The chop-chop of approaching helicopters caught Abby’s attention and quickly drowned out the sound of Tara retching behind her. 

   Abby shouted against the sound. “There’s our ride, girls! Gather up. We’re going home.”

   She helped the young ladies into open hatches where soldiers in active camoflauge scanned biometrics and guided them to seats. Finally, Abby took another look at the destruction and hopped aboard.

    Colonel Hunter Stephens shook her hand. “Got your signal, Agent. Great work.”

    Abby nodded and took her seat in a daze, struggling with confusing thoughts. 

   Stephens sat beside her and loosed a contented sigh. “Nice to do some good for a change.”

   “Colonel,” she said, “the Agency had no idea where we’d get dropped off. That’s why I got taken–finding where they operated.”

   “That’s right, Agent.”

   “So how could you plant listening devices advanced enough to pick up a whispered callsign?”

   Stephens said nothing, but his smile vanished. 

   Abby reviewed the preparation for her mission months earlier. Combat training, resistance techniques, a full medical check-up and thorough brainwave scan to set a baseline in case of traumatic brain injury…

   “Oh my God,” she whispered. “The picture of the orchid. You saw that somehow, picked up my thoughts, triangulated our position by tracking my brainwaves.” She glared at Hunter, who sat silent as a statue. “What the hell kind of system does the government have?”

    The picture of the orchid returned–a lone flower out in the open, seemingly unsupported yet held aloft and nourished by invisible roots, sustained by resources unseen at first glance.
   “Agent, Ghost Orchid was never your callsign,” Stephens said. “It’s the coverterm for a special access program you’re not cleared for. You’d do best to forget this and take comfort that we rescued these girls.”

   He flashed her a smile that any other day would seem charming. “Trust us, we’re the good guys.”

   She turned to stare out the chopper’s window, unsure what to think, but absolutely certain she didn’t want to think at all just then.

No One Questioned It

Here’s a Blog Battle short story (998 words, pushing my luck) for the theme: Head.

—-

Deep in the Utah boonies a ways off I-80 stood a little town–so small you’d drive past in the time it took to Google directions back to civilization. One lone church stood above the houses and shops like a shepherd over the flock. The town’s few heathens joked that even Westboro Baptist members thought Last Days Holiness Tabernacle a bit extreme.

Five years ago, Last Days’ new pastor Eli took that as a point of pride. On his first Sunday, he praised the congregation for following their late pastor’s example so well.

When the ladies of the church invited Pastor Eli’s wife Edith out for tea and gossip in the form of prayer, she graciously declined. “I’ll need to check with Eli about that. The husband is the head of the wife, you know.”

Mary the silver-haired organist chuckled. “Yes, dear, of course. But the wife is the neck and can turn the head whichever way she sees fit.”

Edith’s face blanched and she shook her head. She shot a quick glance at her husband, who stood in the foyer with the men discussing politics and such. When she whispered, “Perish the thought,” no one questioned it, though Mary rolled her eyes.

When Mary was asked to step down two months later, no one questioned that either. The pastor’s daughter Gracie was quite accomplished on the organ, even at age ten. Her youthful energy brought joy to the congregation, or so said Pastor Eli.

Three years ago, Gracie’s Sunday School teacher Rebekah asked her husband Levi over dinner to consider some strange things the girl shared in confidence.

Levi grunted from behind the sports section of the Herald, which Rebekah took as yes.

“I figure you might know best,” she said. “Gracie said her pa sometimes sends her upstairs to the attic for her daily Scripture reading. She hears Edith downstairs in the workshop crying out, even screaming now and then.”

Levi glowered over his newspaper. “I don’t think I ought to know the pastor’s private doings, ‘Bekah.”

Rebekah grimaced. “She said it only happens at the beginning of the week, because sometimes Edith can’t walk right for a couple days after. Her pa calls it cleansin’ Edith’s sin, scourgin’ away her transgressions. You an’ me both know Edith ain’t ever seen a sin no closer than the horizon.”

“Ain’t my place to judge another man’s affairs, ‘Bekah. Not yours either.”

When Rebekah brought her concerns to Pastor Eli, he smiled and assured her things were fine at home. Gracie had been reading some trashy novels she picked up from kids in town, that’s all.

And no one wondered why Gracie didn’t play hymns the next Sunday, what with the terrible fall that sprained her wrist.

Some folk did wonder at how fast Levi and Rebekah found themselves under the pastor’s rebuke two years ago. “She has a Jezebel spirit,” Pastor Eli said of Rebekah, slamming his fist on the pulpit. “No woman ought to manipulate the head of her household, and no self-respecting man should stand for such.”

For the next few Sundays, he read the Old Testament stories about Jezebel and condemned all the ways she usurped spiritual authority. He warned of the dangers of following in those footsteps. It all sounded pretty clear-cut, so no one questioned it.

Except Levi, who stood one Sunday with a page of notes. “I’ve been reading materials online, explaining what the Bible really means about being the head and all that. Pastor, it seems most teachers understand the husband’s role to be servant leadership, not tyranny. He’s to love his wife like Christ loves the church… to give his time and energy in serving her needs. Right before ‘wives, submit to your husbands,’ it says ‘submit to one another in the Lord.'”

No one thought it strange that Pastor Eli kicked Levi out right then. You can’t stand up in the service and challenge the head of the church without consequences. And they’d been warned by Eli not to trust just any so-called minister of the Gospel on the Internet.

So when Eli preached, “be the head of your house, not the tail” each year, no one doubted his judgment. They’d all seen how dangerous challenging authority could be.

A year ago, the wives whispered at how quickly Edith aged, how frail she’d become. But Gracie had grown into a beautiful teen, kind-hearted and meek. Still, her shoulders always seemed bent by an invisible burden.

Pastor Eli sheltered his family from the world, and no one questioned it, because everywhere they looked, they could see how corrupt the world had become.

Best to keep Gracie pure from all of that. Everyone said some day, she’d make an excellent wife for some lucky man.

“So long as she stays pure from sin,” Eli would answer, and people would nod in agreement.

Three months ago, the church secretary overheard Eli and Gracie arguing in his office. He promised to deal with her sins when they got home, said the time had come to cleanse her mouth and purify the rest of her from whatever vile wickedness had latched on.

She ran out the door crying.

Raising teens was hard work sometimes, everyone knew it.

When Edith showed up later, the secretary mentioned the argument. She didn’t expect the fire that flared in the quiet woman’s eyes, or her haste in returning home.

That night, the sheriff stopped by the pastor’s house. There’d been a gruesome accident in the workshop, Edith said. She led him downstairs and showed him around. He came up whiter than snow, wiping vomit from his mouth. The official report said “suicide,” even though all that remained was the pastor’s severed head. No charges were filed, but whispers spread.

In the months that followed, Gracie played hymns with a carefree passion like never before, and Edith sang louder than anyone else, her face alight with joy.

And no one questioned it.