Friday, November 4, 2016


Bright green leaves had begun slowly knitting together the canopy that would in a few short weeks shade the forest floor.  The smell of the cool damp forest drifted out onto the clay and gravel track, reminding Bode of sandy pine forests 300 miles to the north, where he hoped to arrive by month's end.  The small cart of trade goods clinked quietly along behind him as he bore the yoke across his shoulders.  He had traveled south with the first signs of spring, taking with him clay vessels that had been baked in the three hundred year old kiln his family had built way back in the high times.  His great, great... he couldn't quite keep the number of generations strait anymore, but his family had been making pottery along the banks of the creek ever since those amazing, mythical times when trips such as this were only a matter of days, not weeks and months.

The "high times"... Bode often wondered what all the ruins looked like full of people.  They were just dangerous places now, mostly taken by the surrounding jungle, or walled off sometime after the high times, maybe to keep something in, maybe to keep something out.  Generally, small villages were more successful, easier to pick up and move, or to build defenses around.  War with other groups was pretty common, but for the most part, there was a sort of peace for the past several decades.  Maybe it had to do with the sickness, maybe people were just tired of fighting.  All he knew was that there had been no raid on Foxhollow since his early teens, and that was a fine thing.

A troupe of raccoons waddled towards him, headed in the opposite direction along the road.  They stopped and sat up as he ambled past, waving a friendly hello.  The curious coons just watched, neither alarmed nor overly interested.

The oral tradition of Bode's people told that men once flew in machines, as well as rolled over the land at incredible speeds.  Bode had seen a small land machine once, rolling through a meadow.  A tinkerer from Tinesville had been steadily improving his tools and had made something called a "cyclical".  The man claimed he could travel 5 to 10 times as fast as a man on foot, or about as fast as a horse cantering, simply by the exertions of his own two legs.   It seemed an expensive contrivance, and a waste of time to Bode.  It didn't plow like a horse could, and it didn't haul like his cart could, which presently was stuffed with wine, preserves, smoking weed, and woven blankets, which carefully cocooned the fragile load.

Such a long trip was a bit of a venture.  He could have taken his pottery to the nearer towns, but such wares had been pouring out of Foxhollow for generations, and the value of the ornate stoneware had brought less and less in trade as time went on.  Bode's father had first established the Southern route with a large band of traders from other nearby towns, and the road they had cleared across the land had been maintained by a thriving trade for about 20 years before the sickness.  Now it was a narrow track, travelled with much less frequency, and there were more animals to deal with.  Between his bow and his two blades, Bode was well prepared for most of those, but every so often, a half-hearted bandit would present himself, offer terms, refuse for a time to take no for an answer, but quickly retreat when Bode unsheathed Marebreath.  The weapon, according to family tradition, had been crafted from a part of something called a "spring leaf" or "leaf spring"... memories were foggy on this point.  It had been tempered in the kiln by one of the more gifted metalsmiths in town and ground to a mirror finish.  The length of it was part of the intimidation factor, taking the form of what some might call a cutlass.

At this stage in the trek, the weary caravaner was not too far from Stone Bridge, an amazing structure from the high times that had fared unusually well over the centuries.  Similar things he had heard of in many places, especially to the East and West of Stone Bridge, but many of them had been destroyed or pulled down long before his grandfathers time.  Stone Bridge was a bridge made of steel and poured concrete, something his family had tried to duplicate for years but found the materials just weren't present in the regional geography to duplicate the right hardness.  Beneath the bridge was a vast inn crafted by hand from rubble by skilled craftsmen many generations prior with steel hammers and other tools legend said had been left functional for many life times after the high times.  It was a beautiful refuge in the wilderness along the great "state" as the nearly invisible road that would have run right through the inn in the old days, and still did in the carriage house, was called.

Smoke curled lazily from the chimneys at both ends of the inn as it came into sight, a good sign which told Bode enough travelers were staying at the inn to require both hearths to be in operation cooking meals and boiling soup.  He might have some luck lightening his load, or even sell the entire lot!  He pulled the cart into the stable area and checked it with Tins, the squirrely son of the owner, giving him an ornately painted strip of leather as payment for keeping his wares safe.  The smell of roasting deer and forest onion filled the air, bringing a broad smile to his face.

The old, massive, plate metal door swung noiselessly open on its gargantuan hinges, delicately brushing the hanging wind chimes to announce his presence as he ushered a stream of daylight into the hazy interior.  As his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he located an empty table and sat his dusty, sweaty body down for a rest.  Arnt, the owner, swept across the room, stretching his arms wide.  "Bode!"

"Arnt, my old friend.  How goes it?"

"Well, my boy, well!  Business has been slowly picking up lately.  I'll tell you more after you've had something to drink and eat.  What can I provide?"

"Some of that deer I smell, and clean water would be just the thing."

"You'll have it!  You'll have it.  I'll be just a moment."  Arnt retreated behind the bar into the kitchen, attracting the gaze of another traveler in the corner.  His clothes were unusually clean and had a highly crafted look to them.  Compared to the skins and rough woven tartan Bode wore, the man looked almost royal, or something more orderly - tough but disciplined.  It gave Bode several seconds of puzzlement before his mind settled on the simple explanation that he was not a widely traveled as his father had been.

Art returned with a carved wide bowl filled side to side with cooked carrots, onions, and seasoned chunks of venison.  A stoneware picture, one sold by Bode to Arnt many years back, was set on the table along with a cup of like provenance and a small loaf of bread.  The delicious scent and sight almost brought bode to tears.  "Praise be to the Mighty, Arnt, this is a fit meal. I thank you, thank you deeply."

Arnt stood beaming as Bode lifted a bite of food on a wooden fork, poised to enjoy it. At that moment the man in the corner exploded into action rushing from behind his booth, wrenching the door open, and darting out into the light.

"What by Lore!" exclaimed Arnt.  Bode had frozen the moment the man began moving, his eyes alone following his path out the door.  He loaded the food into his mouth and began to chew as the door feel shut silently.

Speaking with his second bite in his cheek, he said "I think he must have needed to go badly."  Arnt wiped his hands on his apron and looked around, still a bit stunned.

"I knew there was something odd about that fellow when he came in.  He kept talking to his hand in whispers.  Strange.  I hope it is no bad omen."

"I would make nothing of it.", counseled Bode.  "He looked to me to be one of those men you would hear about in the old tales - a frighter? No.  A fighter.  His clothes looked tough. I suspect Marebreath would give him no concern, fine a blade as she be."

"Oh? And if a fighter is on the road, why be it so? It gives me worry, it does. I would spose there are more near by.  What tell you make of that then?"

Bode washed down more food with cold clear water, and paused the ritual stuffing of his gullet.  "Maybe just a band of men looking to make names?  Maybe something more.  But we all know, things is as things go, so I would give it no thought."

But he did.  That night, resting in the inn, every small detail about the man in the corner ran through his mind.  Why was he there at Stone Bridge?  Why had Arnt thought he was talking to his hand? Why the hurried departure?  Where was he from and how many like him were nearby?  Eventually he drifted off to a fitful sleep and disturbed dreams.

Two men stood in the road as he hauled his wares, dressed in slick green cloaks, wearing strange masks with overly large eyes and a strange bowl attached where the mouth should have been.  Smooth helmets that looked like stoneware, but dull and green, covered their heads.  They wore staves over their shoulders on straps.  As Bode approached them, a roar filled his ears and a great beast, or machine darkened the path as it passed overhead.  He became full of fear and fell to the ground, but the men only turned to watch the horrifying thing pass over.

When he woke in the morning, he had the strangest feeling that he knew what was going on around him but that he had forgotten something important.  As the dream faded, the shining bits of metal on the staves stuck with him well into the morning.  He knew they were familiar but he couldn't remember how or where from.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Hired Help

The gas lights flickered on the mausoleum despite the protection of the glass enclosures. Tate sat on the stone bench, hands resting on his ivory topped walnut cane, rocking it to and fro as he meditated on the inscription over the heavy iron doors.  "Smyth", the five six inch letters, carved in marble, declared with a silent authority. The letters followed the traditional form, except for the "y", which had a whimsical curl at the bottom which nearly made a complete circle.

The cane stopped rocking and he focussed his gaze on the center of the curl.  He dropped his right hand to his thigh, and pushed the brim of his silk hat up with the white duck head atop the cane, it's black glass eyes seeming to look on as in conference with its master.  His broom mustache cocked up to the right in a half smile, he rose and thoughtfully strode towards the doors of the tomb.

A cool fall breeze blew through the cemetery, carrying with it some of the first amber leaves that could be coaxed from their branches. Casually surveying the area to ensure he was in the company of only the dead, he began his analysis. Holding the cane by its base, he raised it above his head and gently tapped the stone below the "M".  It gave a solid, clear ringing tone in response.  Then he tapped the center of the curl, and as he suspected, it replied with a muffled "clack - clack".  Grinning widely, he took his leave, wrapping his long green coat around him as the breeze stiffened and cooled.  Mr. Peter's barometric glass would no doubt confirm that a storm was coming ashore.


"I know where he put it", Tate said into his hat to Mr. Peter, who was busily unpacking a hydrographic device that had arrived by coach that noon.

"Where who put what?", Peter queried rhetorically, somewhat annoyed, somewhat bored, and quite a bit resigned to Tate's frequent, often absurd, but always ultimately fascinating impositions.

The young Major left the shop with his parcel under his arm after his long pause in front of the display case that contained several sextants and a selection of finely crafted chronometers.  Tate's eyebrows cocked up, his eyes sought the left and right extremes of their orbits without so much as a quiver of his head and then returned to bore into Peter. "I know where Wallace hid Smyth's cipher."

Mr. Peter froze, his eyes darted up to meet Tate's intense gaze.  "Indeed. Truly? Yes, verily, you do know, don't you.  My word."

"I need a couple of your fantastic new surgical devices.  Something thin and sharp, and something else that can grip the smallest of protrusions."

"Ah, yes. I have something that should suit nicely.  Who or what is the patient?"

"I also need you to hold my stool."

"Your... you mean a stool.  Naturally."

Tate flashed a toothy grin. "Dinner at the club at seven?  We can return here for what we'll need and it won't take long for us sortie, delve, and fly back here with our prize for a well earned tumbler of that scotch I left in your care two weeks past."

"Best we restock that ahead of our celebration.  I had to medicate myself most severely Sunday eve."



"Mercy on you, my dear Mr. Peter. You're more saint than sinner yet. Seven?"

"Bless you, seven at Black's it is Mr. Tate, not more than five past."


"Hold it steady now, Peter."

"If I can keep the soused pig's face steady in my gullet, I will do as you request.  The third remove was one too many."

Stretching up, Tate worked the scalpel around the circumference of the curl, loosening  bits of dried black caulk as he went.


"Here you go, dull end please."

"Both ends are equally dull now, I fear. Thank you."

With the the tooth extracting forceps in hand, he grasped the edges of the small stone plug and gently pulled.  The marble disk came away easily, but he couldn't see what was behind it because he could not see directly into the cavity it had protected in the face of the stonework.


"Naught.  What for?"

"To probe.  Pipe?"

"Of course."  Peter handed up his second best pipe in exchange for the forceps.

Poking the stem of the pipe gingerly into the hole revealed a depth of no more than a half inch, precisely the thickness of the cut marble plug that now sat in the bottom of Tate's coat pocket.  Reaching up with his finger, he carefully felt inside the hole.  The back was smooth and cool.  He pressed gently and felt it give ever so slightly, but also press back on his finger as he withdrew it.

"Here's your pipe back."

"What have you discovered?"

"There's a pressure plate behind... was behind the plug.  I'm not sure what to make of it yet.  Wallace wasn't given to violence, was he?"

"No, I should think not.  He was troublesome, mischievous, tardy, droll, negligent, but not harsh, violent, or evil.  If anything I'd say he was more like a cat with a mouse... before eating it."

"If I were Wallace, and I knew that I, Tate, would eventually come along, following the crumbs he had left behind as for a dog, would I want to toy with me further, throw yet another obstacle up, engage in misdirection or... could we be at long last nearing the end of the chase?"

"Good Lord in Heaven, I do hope so.  Three years is a bit long for even you.  Wallace has been slowly composting in his grave these past 2 years and each clue has brought us undeniably here, to what should have been the first and now obvious place to look.  It's vintage Wallace.  He no doubt heartily laughs at us from beyond, and a well earned chortle it is, we're such a pair of dolts."

"Indeed.  A dolt would put me to shame today.  Very good.  Here it is then.  I think our pressure plate here is the cache.  I believe the cipher lies behind or within.  If I press very much harden, something exciting should happen... whether I get to keep my finger I suppose we shall learn."

"Pipe again?"

"No, finger it is."  Pressing firmer, Tate was rewarded with a click, and the plate sprang forward, ejecting a tube from the recess in the stone. Drawing it neatly out revealed a tinted glass cylinder with a roll of paper inside.

Peter gasped in relief and triumph.

Tate gave a sigh.  "It's sealed.  Shall we return?"

"Yes, yes!  Indeed!"


"Let's have that candle." Gently waving the end of the tube over the flame, Tate gradually melted the wax from around the plug in the end, and at last it surrendered to gravity and dropped onto the silver tray waiting below.  With a light tap, the tightly rolled paper tipped out into his palm.

Peters took a long draw from his glass, then sipped more moderately.

Carefully uncurling the sheaf of paper revealed another rolled up inside.  The inner piece was rather unique, to say the least.  A rainbow of colors had been used in a most startling manner, fading smoothly from one to the next, to impress one of the most intricately designed engravings either man had ever seen.  The paper appeared to be made with a high quantity of fibers, some of which were colored.  Most intriguing was the band or ribbon that was woven top to bottom through the right half of the highly detailed document.

"Is that some sort of bank note?"

"I don't know.  The language and markings are unfamiliar... I've never seen something so... breathtakingly complex and beautiful, but it's clearly a denomination of some sort.  100 somethings.  This chap on the reverse seems ordinary enough.  Hang on... look at this!  If I put the candle behind it, his likeness is also a watermark!"

"What's on the other sheet?"

"Let us see.  Hand me your glass.  The print is tiny in the extreme."  He held the paper at a distance from the large, hand ground magnifier.  "Wallace, you're mad. May you rot slowly."

"What is it?"

"Numbers.  And letters.  Thousands of them.  But... not all letters.   Hang on... yes, just so.  Only A through F.  Now what do you make of that?"

"As you thought, it's a cipher."

"No, I don't think so.  It's not the cipher, it's the message.  There's too much here to be a cryptographic key.  It's a long and encoded message... very long.  My goodness.  I'll go blind transcribing this."

"So, one through nine and A through F?"

"And naught.  Naught through F.  And several thousand of them packed tightly in long rows."

"Do you suppose one explains the other?"

"It must.  Why put them together else?  This bank note, I think it's not a foreign or unknown language.  I think it too is encoded.  I think this message, decodes this one.  But foremost, we need to figure out how to read this first message."

"I'll turn it over to young Babbage in the morning.  Let him copy it out neat in a ledger and then we can begin to work the puzzle."

Saturday, March 5, 2016


The sun was dipping towards the rosey horizon. Thin wisps of grey cloud tinged pink and back-lit stretching across the Western sky.  A cool breeze picked up out of the valley and whispered through the dry leaves on the trees along the road that followed the high bank.  The river shone like a string of molten steel, spilled across the wide basin by some celestial foundry.

Matt slung the rifle over his shoulder, heart still pounding, and thrust his cold hands deep into the pockets of his work coat, his left hand wrapping around a handful of bullets hastily deposited there earlier.  Standing straight, he stared down on the pair of carcasses. He could tell there was a lot of blood, and that he had been too late.  Rushing out the door had been unnecessary, the mare was long dead and the wolf had been feeding for a while before Matt had spotted the huddled pair from the rear window of the upstairs library.  An uncomfortable thought was quietly forming in the back of his mind, but refused to come into the light to make itself known.  Chewing his lip, he stepped off the road and picked his way down the slope into the pasture.

Once over the fence he was within 25 yards of the gruesome scene and could smell the bowels of the horse mixed with the scent of fresh manure.  The wolf lay hidden from view, having been deftly picked from atop the horse's haunches by Matt's single .308 round, fired from a kneeling position up on the road.  The supersonic bullet had easily pushed its way through the forehead of the predator and out the back of its neck before the sound had arrived, sending it slumping backwards.  As he came around the horse, the wolf lay there, as still as its prey, in the mess of entrails and blood.  The haunch of the horse had been gnawed and torn in several places, but there were otherwise no evident scratches or bites.

The thought in the back of Matt's mind began to grow but it still stubbornly refused to declare anything concrete.  He stepped closer to the horse and he felt a shockingly forceful tingle run through his body and reflexively he pulled the gun off of his shoulder and held it at the ready.  A single clean slice ran along the horse's flank, from just behind its front leg, down on an angle towards its belly.  From this cut it's organs had begun to spill and apparently it bled out at the same spot, without running, without being spooked into bolting, it had just died where it stood, apparently bleeding out quickly through its liver.

Matt crouched and began turning on the ball of his foot, scanning the terrain in an arc.  The wolf wasn't the killer, a person had done this purposely, close to the barn and the house, out here in the middle of nowhere, not long before the light would be failing, which it was presently.  He thought he could see an odd shape along the river bank that didn't belong, but it could just be a shrub, or a stump he had failed to notice before, or a person hunched low.

He now had the choice between tracking down the killer by moonlight or waiting till dawn and probably getting help.  The later choice seemed wiser, so he left the crime scene undisturbed and headed back to the house, rattled, uneasy, angry and intensely curious.


The urinal flushed slowly, the drain showed signs of having been snaked, long metallic scratches disappeared into darkness.  Only cold water issued forth from the faucet at a languid rate, no soap was found, the light buzzed dimly overhead.  All of these signs of decay had crept in over time, unnoticed, appearing over the years until the once shiny and proud little restaurant was a dingy hole that few would dare visit but those old customers with failing eyesight and indiscriminate olfactory sensibilities.

Frank looked at the stained linoleum floor beneath his feet as he fried another egg, perhaps the millionth, on a darkened griddle that heated unevenly and no amount of effort could really scrape clean.  A cockroach made a break from the darkness and darted between his worn and faded black shoes, eliciting mild amusement in the sleepy reaches of his mind.  Indifference had become such a constant companion that the weight of it on him, though heavier than chains, was comfortable and easy.  He flipped the egg sloppily onto the chipped ceramic plate and set it on the ledge, "order up".  His voice was gravelly, heavy with phlegm and constrained by the excess body weight he carried, giving it an unpleasant tone that only his patrons and employees could love.

It was at that moment that something new caught his eye.  Sitting on the other side of the diner was a old gentleman with thick glasses, unkempt hair and an untucked plaid shirt.  He was carefully taping a hand lettered sign to the wall of the diner in the booth he occupied.  Tammy, the long suffering waitress, took the solitary fried egg, priced at forty five cents, and place the plate in front of the gentleman.  She spoke with him quietly for a few minutes, he looking at his egg with great deliberation, she shaking her head, he looking at his sign, hanging his head, looking down, then after a moment, taking the sign down and handing it to her.  She put her hand on his shoulder and said something quiet and private to him that made him look up at her.

Frank could see a tear running down his face, but he was smiling broadly.  As Tammy turned towards him, he felt frozen in place.  Tears streamed down her face as well.  She came into the kitchen and handed him the sign without a word.

"Companion wanted.  Kind Person.  Live in home."  The address and phone number were local.  Frank looked over at the man who was gingerly dissecting his one egg and eating each bite with a dash of pepper.  He had a stack of photocopies of the sign with him.

Frank returned to the grill and scraped a clean spot about as clean as he could, pushing down hard enough to make the spatula squeak.  He cracked two more eggs and buttered a piece of toast.  He laid out three pieces of bacon and cooked them crisp but not burnt.

Tammy looked up 5 minutes later from wiping the counter.  The man with the signs was sipping his water as Frank exited his usual domain, carrying the plate himself, he set it down in front of the man and in his coarse voice said, "On the house, brother."  He looked over at Tammy and said, "bring us two coffees, Babe."  Tears flowed afresh from her eyes as she broke into a wide smile and set about pouring the coffee out into two stained and cracked mugs.

Frank sat down and looked the man in the face.  He recognized him.  He had seen him wandering the streets of town, picking up cans and trash, throwing out one and keeping the other to take to the scrappers.  He realized he had known this man for years, but had never really known him.  He wasn't homeless, just poor, simple and alone.  But not today.


Joe pulled the zipper on his bomber jacket up all the way and shrugged his shoulders to raise the collar up as high as it would go.  The bitterly cold breeze had come out of nowhere on a clear, sunny fall morning, stealing away the warmth imparted by his morning cup of coffee.  Stepping out of the shadow of the platform into the sun warmed him slightly but tears were starting to form as he headed into the wind and up the street.  By the time he reached the brown door with the brass ring knocker, his nose and ear tips were rosy and his cheeks burned.  Winter's surprise arrival was but one abrupt change he would encounter that morning.

Looking over the park from the conference room window, a second steaming cup of coffee in hand, Joe took stock of the news he had just received.  It was almost seismic in scope, though he could not say it was entirely unexpected.  A flock of birds rose as a body from a leafless tree, heavy with small, desiccating fruits.  They wheeled around and then, at some seemingly prearranged point, split into two swarms of shimmering black clouds, one disappearing to the left, the other settling down again into another tree.  It was an apt representation of what had just transpired on his side of the glass.  The company was splitting up, some were leaving, others were going to be resettled, and it seemed to be completely whimsical in its genesis.


Looking out the rear of the old house opened up a panorama of oak and hickory trees, thick and tall, running for a half mile before yielding to the iridescent green of snowless pasture. Wood ducks and crows called to their mates amidst the few rustling leaves still clinging to the mostly bare branches. Winter had come upon the land quickly, but today a warm southern breeze brought a moment of peace and time to meditate upon the recently departed days of harvest before the solemn, cold gray took up full time residence for the coming half year.

Malcolm was not a pious man, but he was keenly thankful for what God had left him, and the spareness, the simplicity of that remnant was clearing away the decadent years of excess from his mind, gradually replacing the old thoughts with newer, more aware thoughts of gratitude and contemplation. He could feel the nearness of God growing daily through his own humbling poverty and modest means of daily survival.

It had been a hard two years since the general collapse and mass die off, and while an opportunistic will had propelled him through the darkest hours, it had also cost him a few shreds of his humanity that he wished he could reclaim, but now knew that only God could replace. Forgiveness, he realized, was as important as gratitude. In time, the work he had begun on the abandoned homestead would again bring abundance and prosperity, but he was determined now to not squander the blessings nor the labor, and would seek to make a haven for what few lost roaming travelers there still were wandering the echoes of the old world, trying to decide if it was worth erecting a new one. Malcolm thought he had a good answer to that question: it would just take time, patience, and most importantly a charity of spirit towards others that had been so completely absent in the later days of the old world that one could not help but mark its significant contribution to the fall.

Long Term

Stepping out of the of the cafe, the man almost ran into the short woman with wire frame glasses.  "I'm so sorry", he said.

She smiled and quickly turned her face away, but not quickly enough for her face not to trigger a flicker of recognition in his mind.  He turned to follow her retreat as she walked rigidly up the street.  Did he know her?  A mild sense of deja vu haunted him for the remainder of the day.

Several weeks passed by and again, he found himself blocking another anonymous account on social media that wanted to follow him.  This one had yet another cute picture and improbably paired name and set of interests, but he noticed that the interests of the seemingly bogus accounts got closer and closer to his own each time.  The sense of a recurring pattern nagged at him well into the night.

Time went by, he lived his life, shared fragments of it online, glimpses of a life lived well doing things he loved, thoughts and ideas and fragments of stories.  One day, many years later, he stepped out of the cafe and a middle age woman blocked his path.  That old sense of deja vu came rushing back with such force that his spine tingled.

"Who are you?" he asked, squinting in the hope that her face would register some clear memory.

"Hello, Mr. Smith.  I'm your biographer.  I've been following you for quite some time, with no small difficulty."  She handed him a beautifully embossed, leather bound hardcover book.  The title read "The Collected Writings of John Smith, an Unauthorized Biography".  His mouth fell open and he looked up to find she had retreated once again, up the street and stepped into a waiting driverless car, disappearing around the corner.

Sitting on a bench, he opened the cover and read the first page. "Hooray!  My first journal entry!" in text, just below a color photo of his barely legible 4th grade handwriting.  Page after page, all through school, love letters passed in class, angry tirades posted on the internet and then their corresponding edits, indexed against later posts, letters, and publicly spoken comments that expanded or contradicted each.

Tears fell from his face, and his body began to shake.  How had she had so much unfettered access to his life for so long without his knowledge?  Why did she do it?  Who commissioned the work?  Who else had a copy?