The Firm

 

© Hannah Sears

© Hannah Sears


While you don’t need to read anything prior to this, I suggest you check out The Initiative first

          Delancey St. Clair hadn’t arrived at the law offices of Holler, Grim, Alberich & Mors later than 7:50 a.m. in five years. On his first day at Holler, Grim, Alberich, & Mors–known by employees as “the Firm”–he was ten minutes late and thought he was going to lose his job and breakfast during the earsplitting lecture from his superior. Since then, come blazing heat, deluge, or freak blizzard, he was on time. The newest receptionist smiled timidly at him, sliding through the elevator doors before they snapped shut. Del smiled back; she was cuter than the last one. He knew he made them nervous, always arriving before they opened the office. A silly tenet of office protocol, really. Some people never left, showering in the company gym’s locker-room and keeping three extra suits around. At the Firm, the lights were always on and the place was never entirely empty.
          He winked at the new girl as she settled herself behind the tall mahogany and glass desk. The walls across from her were covered in awards: Boston Business of the year, nine years running, the Beacon Award for Diversity and Inclusion, four years running, and countless other plaques and meticulously framed certificates–all polished to a mirror-like sheen. He wondered briefly when the cleaning staff came in; he never remembered seeing anyone. Shrugging it off as another of the Firm’s many mysteries, he continued down the thickly carpeted hallway to his office. In one of the offices across from his, several men in worker’s coveralls were ripping up the carpet. Del shook his head; they went through too much carpet here–especially with the new Executive Partner. He paused to admire his nameplate–Delancy St. Clair, Associate Partner–the black letters were still bold against the brass plate, barely a month old. Of course, it didn’t matter that there were dozens upon dozens of Associate Partners at the Firm, it was just another rung on the ladder.
          Del slid into the buttery-soft leather chair and started up his computer, drumming his fingers on his glass-topped desk. His law degree from Louisiana State University hung on one wall and a bookshelf of various law books lined the other. He had a few decorative items from his travels–some of his more unique cases often took him out of Boston–but no photos. No clutter, he thought, surveying the room. The third wall, behind him, was solid glass and if he glanced over his shoulder, he would see fog draping the buildings in Back Bay. It was his favorite time of year–when fall was flirting with winter and the trees still wore manes of riotous gold and flame.
          He skimmed his emails, consigning some to the trash and answering others. he’d wrapped up a tough case the week before–another “W” added to his record–and was grateful it had been a relatively slow week. He could use a few days to unwind. But the week was almost done and Del felt twitchy. He ran a hand through his dark hair–worn longer than most considered professional and certainly long enough to irritate his mother–and adjusted his silk tie. Eyeing his spam folder, he noticed it was fuller than usual and opened it, scanning through misspelled advertisements for porn sites masquerading as online dating services and phishing scams. As he reached the bottom, he saw three emails; each sent a day apart the week before from the same address. He didn’t recognize it–WilhmMurray17@aol.com–but the subject line sent his heart rocketing into his throat before sending it down to rest in the toes of his handmade Italian leather shoes. All three had a single word in the subject line: Budapest.
          Del’s mouse hovered over the first message, sent at 4:26 a.m. on October 23rd. He swiveled around to face the Boston skyline instead. The fog blurred the tops of the tallest building into the slate-colored sky and for a moment, instead of the towering glass peak of the John Hancock building, he saw the white spires and brick colored domes of Budapest’s Parliament building, and, just beyond it, the flash of the Danube. He swore suddenly, violently, and glanced over his shoulder at the thick door. Keep it together , he told himself. Turning back to the desk he rubbed his hand roughly across his chin before clicking on the first email.

D,

It’s Budapest all over again, but this time, you’re sleeping with the monsters.

M

          He exhaled slowly, it was more concise than he expected–not that it made much sense. He clicked the second.

I know who you work for. Bastard.

          This was was unsigned by even a single letter, but it was unmistakeable. After the first shock of seeing “Budapest” and realizing the sender could only be one person, Del felt calmer. He clicked the final email.

Top of the Hub, 3:00 p.m. November 8th.

          He felt chilled as he double checked the date; November 8th. Damn her , he thought. He clicked the reply button. The blinking cursor reminded him of an animated exclamation mark, silently demanding an answer.

M,
Lovely to hear from you. I can’t remember the last time we spoke–must have been at the ballet in Hungary. I apologize for my delayed response; I hope you haven’t made other plans. I will meet you at the Top of the Hub at 3:00 p.m. today.
Regards,
Delancey St. Clair

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Swamp Saturday

What do you mean you haven’t read the latest from Jessica B. Bell (via Helena Hann-Basquiat)??

Cease whatever currently occupies your Saturday and take a trip down the Mississippi to the swamps of Louisiana where there’s more out there to fear than a hungry gator or two. 

The newest installation in this serialized story of spooky southern swamps is live now! Read from the beginning here and then check out the continuation here!!

 

 

 

Well?? Why are you still here!?

Showdown Part II

Sometimes you have to take a gamble and just roll the dice…see how Evie and Owen got here by catching up on the story thus far.

“When you’re facing a loaded gun, what’s the difference?” Frank Costello, The Departed

To Evie’s dismay, Edgar kept the gun jammed into her lower back, pressing his other hand to his face.

“Don’t you move, don’t you even move you little–Jessamy, you just gonna sit there?” Edgar’s voice was thick from the blood running down over his face.

Vanessa sat on the ground, her hands clasped to the back of her head, her face twisted in a grimace of pain. Owen had her gun casually leveled at the back of the dark head. His grey eyes were hard. Evie didn’t think he would actually shoot Vanessa but she could tell from the woman’s wild eyes that Vanessa wasn’t so sure. Edgar breathed heavily, spewing insults and curses as he tried to wipe the blood off his face. Evie thought about making a run for it, but if Edgar was a half-decent shot, he could put a bullet in her before she’d gone too far. Some of his blood dripped onto her shoulder as he wrapped his arm across her chest, jerking her closer.

“Edgar…” Vanessa’s voice trailed off as she looked pleadingly up at him.
Owen pressed the barrel of the gun into her dark hair and looked at Edgar, eyebrows raised.

“You think I give a damn about her?” Edgar’s laugh was ugly, and blood sprayed from his mouth.

Evie hoped she at least knocked a few teeth loose, too. She could smell the coppery blood and the sweat that ran down Edgar’s face. She pulled her arms in close to her body, wondering if she could drive her elbows back into his chest hard enough to knock him down. Owen gave a slight jerk of his chin when she looked up at him and it took everything in her to stand still.

“No, no, Edgar, I don’t. I don’t think you care ’bout anyone other than yourself,” Owen said.
“And why should I? Look at these three, women and a whelp of a boy. They’re no good to us. You and me though, Owen. We could catch that little plane of yours and be out of here with no more troubles.
“You’re right, Edgar. We could.”
Owen raised the gun and Evie could see the black eye of the barrel staring back at her.

Her ears rang and she lifted a shaking hand to her face—it came away red. Edgar hit the stage like a sack of rotting vegetables, half his scalp blown away. Evie turned, still holding up her bloody fingers and saw Owen standing with a pistol still pointing towards Edgar’s body. It wasn’t one of the ones he usually carried—his holster still lay in the mess of his bedding—it must be one he kept hidden. She felt cold, except for the spray of Edgar’s blood that ran down her forehead and cheek. She vaguely noticed movement at her side and someone thrust a bandanna into her hands: Jessamy. He stepped over Edgar’s body as though it was no more than a pile of clothes and put a hand on her shoulder.
When she made no move to use the bandanna, he reached to extract it from her trembling fingers. Owen appeared, handing his and Vanessa’s gun to Jessamy.

Vanessa still knelt on the stage, her face white and frozen. Owen gently tugged the bandanna from her hands and slowly began to wipe away the blood spatter from her face. She realized her teeth were chattering when Owen grabbed her chin and turned her face towards him.

“You okay?” he mouthed.
Evie nodded, unable to hear him clearly, but reading the question in his eyes.

Evie remembered the first time they met. She was walking along a lonely stretch of the interstate with no clear destination in mind, she ignored the chilly wind that blew the swamp smells of mud and decay in twirling tornadoes of leaves and debris. She shoved her hands deeper in the pockets of her worn, second-hand jacket as a truck roared by. The brake lights flashed red as the truck slowed and pulled over onto the shoulder. She slowed her pace, pulling her hand out of her pocket to feel for the knife that hung from her belt. Maybe he thought he had a flat or ran out of gas. No one emerged from the car and she hesitated; the driver stuck his head out the window and gestured to her. She loosened the knife and peered through the back window of the old Ford. He was alone. She walked to the passenger side of the car and he rolled down that window, too.

They looked at each other for a minute. She stared flatly at him, aware of the yellowing bruise around one eye and the blood that still caked her nose and lips. She hadn’t taken the time to clean up.

“You okay?” he asked.
For some reason, the familiar Louisiana drawl put her at ease. He was a local, too. She shrugged and waited.
“Heading somewhere in particular?”
“Not really. You?” she resisted the urge to scrub at the blood on her face and leaned warily against the door.
“Not really. Heard there’s a bar up the road that doesn’t care what you’re wearing,” he laughed.

Evie eyed him. He wore a faded blue flannel shirt and dirt streaked his tanned face. She judged him to be a few years older than her—by the dark scruff on his jaw and the beginnings of lines around his gray eyes. She couldn’t deny he was good looking–one of the best looking men she’d seen. He smiled again as he let her look him over and his teeth were white and straight. No one back in the park had teeth like that.

“You talking about Thad’s?” she asked jerking her head up the road.
“Yeah, you know it?” his dark brows rose and she smirked as she saw him trying to calculate her age.
“There are a lot of things Thad doesn’t care about,” she said as she opened the door and slid into the seat.

Check out Ray Devlin’s page for more beautiful photography.

Turbulence

Our dynamic duo, the complicated couple, Evie (also known as E if you want to stay in one piece) and Owen are on their way to California, escaping the tweaker infested swamps of Louisiana. Catch up on the story here.

Cessna

          “Damn thing’s not much bigger than a car,” E mumbled as the Cessna 206 buzzed towards them.
          She hated flying—even in the fancy commercial jets—this tin can did not inspire confidence.
          “Relax, love, he’s a pro—been flying for years,” Owen pinched her shoulder and grinned.
          Evie crossed her arms and scowled, trying to hide the way her fingers were shaking. Tweakers? Fine. Uninfected hungry for a different kind of flesh? No problem. Planes? Hell. Owen enjoyed seeing her out of her element, he always did.
          “If we die in this thing—-” she raised her voice as the plane rumbled closer on the abandoned interstate.
          It was an empty threat, death by crashing and burning in a sardine tin with wings was probably better than being eaten alive by tweakers. E tried to convince herself that was true. As the Cessna bumped to a stop, she wasn’t sure.
          “You did promise to be with me til death do us part,” Owen held his hand over his heart.
          “Just get in the plane and let’s get this over with,” Evie shoved past him. “Bastard,” she muttered.
          A bedraggled man hopped down from the pilot’s seat, tossing his headphones behind him. He spat out a stream of putrid tobacco juice and grinned. Evie saw that several of his teeth were capped in gold and silver. It was not a welcoming smile.
          “Well, ‘ello, and who might you be?” he dusted of his hands on his grimy pants and a faint cloud of dirt rose.
          “This is Evie,” Owen’s fingers crept around her waist possessively.
          The pilot’s eyes lit with understanding and he let out a low whistle.
          E raised an eyebrow at both of them and Owen grunted as a well-placed jab with her elbow caught him just beneath the ribs. He had a scar there and the tissue was always sensitive. She smiled at him and stepped away as he pressed a hand to the spot.
          “Now that we’ve all been introduced…” she pointed at the plane.
          “No, we haven’t,” the pilot stuck out a dirty hand. “I’m Greg.”
          “Fine. Now let’s get this flying tuna can in the air, huh?” E moved towards the plane.
          “Whoah there, missy, not s’fast. What do you mean by calling Lolita here a tin can?” Greg looked genuinely affronted.
          “Lolita?” E looked at the dirty Cessna. “I called it a tuna can, not a tin can. Now, I think I insulted the can, though.”
          “Now, look here—” Greg’s tobacco-stained lips pulled back from his teeth.
          “Greg, mate, didn’t I tell you this one’s got a mouth like the business side of a water moccasin?” he clapped Greg on the shoulder. “She don’t mean nothing by it. ‘Fraid of flying,” he said in a stage whisper.
          E could have cheerfully shot both of them then and there. Owen must have seen something of that thought in her eyes because he pulled Greg away a few feet, obviously placating him.
          “Lolita,” E looked over the plane again.
          Now that the engines were off it seemed even smaller, as though the sound bulked up the little craft. She peered inside. The cloth seats were ripped, foam spilling out in places across the seats like vomit. She pulled away at the smell–maybe it was. There was mildew on the gray fabric and some suspicious rusty stains on the floor and walls. She thought longingly for a moment of the clean interior of a big airliner, the smiling stewardesses and the tang of a Bloody Mary to loosen her up. She was still thinking of shining little airline bottles of alcohol when rough hands grabbed her and boosted her into the plane. She staggered unceremoniously over the seats, her pack slamming painfully into her cheek. Disentangling herself, she watched as Owen hoisted himself into the co-pilot’s seat and hung the headphones around his neck. He grinned back at her and she answered with her middle finger.
          “You said she was a feisty one,” Greg shook his head, giving E a look laden with distrust. He patted the control panel lovingly, “Jus’ wait til you see what this baby can do.”
          E tugged ineffectually at the seat belt before realizing there was no place to secure it. She tucked her hands between her knees and tried not to fidget.
          As Greg went over the controls, checking each one with agonizing slowness, he chattered to Owen, content to completely ignore Evie.
          “Hear tell of anyone else from the good ol’ days?”
          “Nope,” Owen swiveled to look at Evie. “Evie here took up with Chett for a bit, though. Didn’t ya, love?”
          “Chett? Chett Ramsey? That was one sick sonofa—”
          “We ran together for a bit. No ‘took up’ about it. The rest of our group ended up as tweaker meat one way or another,” E bristled at Owen’s choice of words. “Then it was just him and me for a bit.”
          “Until you killed him,” Owen prompted, lips twisting in a poor imitation of a smile.
          “Killed Chett? Whaddya do that for?” Greg interrupted his check again.
          “He turned, so I put him down. Just like I would’ve done any other stumbler,” E said.
          “Damn,” Greg said, shaking his head.
          “Why, I’d do it to Owen here if he even thought about turning,” E continued, leaning forward now to rest her chin on Owen’s seat.
          Greg cleared his throat and pulled on his headphones. Owen’s still hung around his neck ; he stared at Evie, flat grey eyes unreadable.
          “Alrighty, ladies and gents, we’re ready for takeoff. There ain’t no seat belts, so no wandering around the cabin. The oxygen masks might work but if we go down we’re screwed anyway, so just keep your hands and feet inside,” he glanced at Owen and Evie. “And away from other passengers and the pilot.”
          “Better safe than sorry, I always say. ‘Til death do us part.’ Ain’t that right, baby?” She smiled sweetly at Owen.
          She realized her hands were no longer shaking.

photo

The Ungrateful Dead

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          “Dammit,” Evie–known as “E” by anyone who fancied their hide in one piece–yanked her foot out of a swampy spot in the ground for the umpteenth time.
          It made a sucking noise that sent a shudder down her spine. That was the same noise Chett made when she put him down. Had to waste a bullet, too; she just couldn’t pry it out of his skull. Any other tweaker and she’d have done it, but not Chett. If he told her about the cut, it might not have happened. She heard of a man who poured 100 proof vodka on a cut that got infected by one of the stumblers and kept his leg and his life. If he told her instead of limping around saying he sprained his ankle, maybe they could have stopped the spread before his pupils shrank down and he started to shake and slobber. She shook her head. It was no good thinking about Chett. He was dead. And dead was better than being a stumbling tweaker.
          “Maybe better than running from ’em, too,” E muttered.
          She hitched her jeans up around her hips, checking the knotted string that served as a belt. Jeans that would have been tight three months ago now sagged on her already small frame. E shifted her pack, trying to ease sore shoulders. Sweat dripped off the end of her nose; the humid swamp air was so thick that the added moisture made little difference. Her thin cotton t-shirt was soaked from the continued missteps in the swamp. She wondered if any inch of skin left wasn’t covered with scratches or insect bites. She glanced at the compass hanging off her pack as she set off through the murky green light again, adjusting her course and trying stay on solid earth. The swamp was full of noises, the millions of insect inhabitants and the strange sounds of the water that permeated the ground. E tested the next spot of dirt gingerly with one foot before putting her weight on it. She couldn’t use a walking stick because she needed both hands in case a tweaker crept up on her.
          Tweaker, stumbler—they meant the same thing. The synthetic drugs they couldn’t wait to snort, shoot, or smoke decimated their brains and left them staggering in search of the next fix. Unfortunately, it seemed the biggest high they could get now was roaming around and looking for anything with a pulse.
          E remembered the news reports that had grown steadily more frantic until they ceased altogether. She’d been ready long before the major cities were overrun. But then, she’d been on the run for years, so adding a few extra supplies to her cache was easy. Especially since no one cared about looters. She scavenged as much ammo as she could find along with a stock of hunting knives. She knew how to shoot, but bullets wouldn’t last forever and the knives were better at close range. Growing up, her daddy taught her how to take down and skin a deer in minutes. Since the tweakers lost all ability to take care of themselves, they were slow and sick. The drugs that fried their brains didn’t do much good for their immune systems. E shuddered. She had friends back home who got their hands on the stuff when it first flooded the streets. One hit was enough to have them begging for more. One hit was enough to corrode their brains, turning them into the shambling tweakers that had no memory of friends or lives before.
          The ground leveled out and she broke into a trot, trying to breathe through her nose so she wouldn’t swallow a swarm of midges if she ran through one. Her favorite knife slapped against her thigh as she jogged across the open space, constantly searching for signs of tweakers or uninfected. Without Chett, E was completely on her own if they came on a pack of other uninfected–the real danger. Tweakers only wanted something to eat and had limited ways of getting it. The uninfected still had their brains, and with the downfall of government and the law, there was nothing around to remind them about little things like morals. At least Chett finally learned to stop trying to sneak into her sleeping bag. She punched him in the nose the first time and felt the cartilage snap under her knuckles. Her daddy taught her how to take a punch, and she eventually learned how to throw one. The second time her knife was between his legs before he could get close enough to touch her, a little pressure and he was whimpering. The third time, she threw the knife while he was halfway across the campsite still and the hole in his jeans on his inner thigh finally convinced him that she meant business. After that, they got along pretty well until Chett somehow got tweaker blood in a cut on his leg. Just a scratch from one of them and you’d probably be okay, but if any of their blood got in contact with yours, you were done.
          “Lucky for me, there are plenty of Chetts around,” E muttered to herself.
          A grunt to her left gave her the moment she needed to pull her pistol from the side pocket in her pack and take down the first stumbler. The shot hit right between his bleary eyes and he fell like a sack of rotting meat. The others lumbered forward faster when he went down. She momentarily hoped they would gorge themselves on him, but the lure of healthy meat was too much. She jogged backwards slightly as they came forward taking out the ones in the front so they would trip the ones in the back. They fell but more kept coming, they were too close for the gun. She pulled out her long hunting knife but kept the gun in her other hand.
          For the first time, she actually missed Chett.

For more of the story, see Stings and Vegas is the Meanest Town