Most people play the game. Hank lives it.
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LATE AFTERNOON—THE TIME WHEN KIDS GO HOME FROM SCHOOL. But the street outside Parkville High is empty. No one walks home in this neighborhood. No one except Hank. Today is Hank’s final day of school, and while the other kids cheerfully climb onto the bus, jump into their cars or get picked up by their proud parents, Hank slips out the school gates with his head held low and sets off for home without a backward glance. The motley motorcade of yellow buses, minivans and secondhand SUVs swings out from the school yard and sails along the street, heading for the leafy suburbs: the passengers chatting happily, swapping jokes, or concentrating on their phones. Some are listening to music, their eyes closed, earbuds jammed in place. But no one looks out the window. No one spares a glance for the boarded-up shops or the tumbledown houses with their crooked roofs and cracked windows. No one wonders what’s beyond the sagging chain-link fences barely held in place by drunken steel posts. This street is a wasteland: barren, desolate, empty.
But Hank walks on, his shoulders squared, his hands thrust deep into the pockets of his jeans. He tunes out the rumble of traffic, ignores the diesel fumes. Soon, they’ll be gone and he’ll have the place to himself. He turns a corner, and though he doesn’t raise his head, his eyes flick from side to side, scanning both sides of the street, watching. This is his street, and if there’s anything new, anything missing, he’ll know it in an instant. But there’s nothing to cause concern. Not today. Today, the street is quiet as the grave. The red brick houses don’t just look empty, they seem abandoned: paint peeling from the doors, windows dull with grime, concrete yards cracked and sprouting tufts of grass.
Hank allows himself a grim smile. He’s almost home. He takes a breath, flaring his nostrils. It’s a hot summer day, and the humid air is tinged with a trace of decay. Every summer it’s the same. Hank’s dad, Mervin, says it’s the drains, but how the hell would he know? How the hell would he know about anything? His dad hasn’t set foot outside the house for years. For a heartbeat, Hank pictures his dad, imagines him shuffling from the sofa to the refrigerator, from the bathroom to the bedroom, back and forth, back and forth like a goddamned zombie. He pushes the thought away, pushes it as far as he can. But it isn’t easy. It’s hard to ignore someone when he relies on you for everything. Even harder when you see his face every time you look in the mirror.
Hank takes after his dad. Always has, always will. Everyone says it. And it’s not all bad. Back when he was in his prime, Mervin was a big man: taller than most and built like an athlete. A good man on the basketball court, Mervin played power forward for the college. He could’ve turned pro, so they say. But not Mervin. Ten years pushing paper for the army then kicked out on a disability pension. Hank could never figure it out, and truth be told, he didn’t often try.
Still, the genes came through. Hank has that stature, that poise. He walks like a military man: his shoulders square, his back straight, his arms hanging halfway loose by his side. It’s not much but it’s what he’s got, and it’s enough. Most of the time. The drunks and the vagrants leave him alone. And Hank has the knack of seeing trouble five minutes before it hits the fan. He does OK. He makes his own luck. Most of the time. And when things turn ugly, he’s fast enough on his feet to get the hell out of the way. (more…)
With a client in the shapely form of a gorgeous dame, a musclebound assistant, an alien with an attitude, and fish called Algernon, Brent uncovers a galactic conspiracy.
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Brent Bolster opened his eyes and reached for the gun beneath his pillow. His bedroom, normally lit only by the intermittent scarlet glare from the neon barroom sign below his window, was bathed in an eerie green glow. The alarm clock? Brent’s fingers closed around the polished steel butt of his old-fashioned pulse pistol. Something isn’t right. For a start, he didn’t have an alarm clock. He’d owned such a thing at one time, but now there was only a hunk of molten plastic on his nightstand. He’d had a difference of opinion with the device over the intricacies of the daylight saving system, and the clock hadn’t glowed for a while; not since the flames went out anyhow. Brent closed his eyes. Green glow—so what? It was probably just one of his electronic devices letting him know it was still switched on, or maybe his handset needed recharging. The damned thing ate through carbon credits like they were going out of fashion. He let go of his pistol and rolled over onto his back, trying not to think about his next carbon bill. And someone cleared their throat.
Brent sat up straight, one hand sliding under the pillow. Where the hell was his pistol? He’d had it just one second ago. How could it be gone?
The alien standing beside his bed coughed politely. “Excuse me, but are you looking for something?”
“What the hell does it look like I’m doing?” Brent demanded. “Ah, what’s the use?” He stopped searching and eyed the alien. The creature was a typical Gloabon: tall, at least six feet four, and humanoid with the usual complement of arms and legs. Its head was roughly egg-shaped, the bald dome of its smooth skull catching the glow from the computer tablet the creature held in its hand. But at least this alien was fully clothed: decked out in a pristine blue flight suit, the tight material emphasizing its angular body. Brent hated it when the Gloabons showed up naked; it was enough to put him off chorizo for life. “So, what do you mean by busting in here in the middle of the goddamned night? What do you want?”
The alien grinned, its pale lips pulling tight to reveal a row of pointed white teeth. “Honored Earthling, my name is Rawlgeeb, and I’m pleased to say that tonight, I shall be your abductor.”
Brent groaned. “Not again.” He patted his hand across the cluttered surface of his nightstand, receiving only a small electric shock from the ruins of his digital clock, but then his fingers closed on his wallet. (more…)
On this planet, the wall is safety. Go beyond it, and the settlers will die.
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A birth. And the party that night was bigger than usual. Everyone gathered in the square as if hoping to share the glory. The women queued up to peer in at the baby, then they shared smiles and said, “Perfect.” The men mostly stayed farther away, huddling in groups around the bonfire and giving each other sideways looks. “Wait and see,” they said and cracked a couple kegs of groundweed beer. Calum Davey slipped in among the drinkers, keeping an eye out for an unguarded mug. He caught a glimpse of movement from the corner of his eye, but before he could react, someone grabbed his right arm and spun him around.
“Got you! You little bastard!” Mac leaned over Calum, his face too close. The man’s florid face seemed huge, his greasy black beard matted, his straggly hair a wild and tangled mess. Mac breathed out and Calum flinched at the stench of stale beer and rancid meat. “What are you doing here?” Mac slurred. “Think you can hang out with the men, is that it?”
“Get off me, you jerk.” Calum struggled to pull his arm free from Mac’s fingers, but the older man had a grip like a dirt python, and he wasn’t letting go.
Mac laughed, sending fresh waves of foul breath into Calum’s face. “Why should I? Unless you’re going to make me—is that what you’re saying?”
“Just leave me alone,” Calum said. “I’m sixteen, I’m old enough to have a beer, aren’t I?”
“Old enough, yes. Man enough, no.”
Calum stopped struggling and looked Mac in the eye. “You’d better back off before my dad—”
Mac didn’t let him finish. “Oh, going to set your old man on me. The mighty cock of the roost.” He lowered his voice to a growling whisper. “You know, I think I might enjoy that.” (more…)