Interlude: And the Blind Will See

A man’s hopes for salvation fade as he reviews his life.

The old man tossed his keys on the table and rubbed the back of his neck. “God, but I feel like shit.” He pulled out a chair and sat roughly down. “Probably doesn’t help that I’m over seventy.”

He laughed, then began to cough. He doubled over from the effort. He sat back, breathing heavily. “Hoo, boy. I uh…” Then the moment he had always feared finally came.

It felt as if someone reached through his chest and grabbed hold of his heart. His left arm first burned, then went numb as the hand squeezed hard. “God, no! God, I…” He slumped off the chair.

He crawled towards the phone on the wall. He collapsed halfway to his goal, the hand squeezing harder and harder. The old man passed away on his kitchen floor.

He opened his eyes again after an indeterminate period of time. He was standing. He looked around in a blind panic. Where in the hell was he?

He was at a lake. A beautiful lake, on a gorgeous summer day. He squinted at the big, blue sky. Not a cloud to be seen. “Hey, Dennis! Well you’re looking mighty fine, ain’t ya?”

The old man stared in disbelief. “Bobby Jackson?” He looked down at himself. He was much slimmer, his hands much younger. “Well, I’ll be damned.”

Dennis looked back up at Bobby. “Is it really you, Bobby? You…”

“Died?” Bobby laughed. “Yep. I sure did. One of those V.C. bastards cut me down while I was taking a nap. At least I woke up here, huh?” He grinned, looking out over the lake.

Dennis nodded numbly. “Ayuh. I remember.” He followed Bobby’s gaze. “Wait a minute…” He turned to Bobby. “I’m dead, too!” He clutched his chest.

“Yeah, I imagine. Turned out alright, though. Didn’t it? You ended up at Elmore Lake instead of Hell Avenue.” He chuckled.

Dennis blanched. He laughed nervously. “Yeah! Sure…”

He turned back towards the lake. The gentle ripples suddenly went out of focus. He felt as if the world was spinning underneath him. His vision blurred and darkened. He tightly closed his eyes.

Dennis clutched his stomach as the spinning slowed. He waited a few beats before trying to open his eyes. When he did, he found himself standing a short distance from a big, red barn.

“Come to help me finish up plantin’ for the season?” A middle-aged gentleman smiled gently at Dennis. “Then again, looks like you might’ve started without me.” He pointed at Dennis’ clothes.

Dennis looked down. Sure enough, he looked somewhat sod bound. He looked worriedly at his outstretched hands. They looked less youthful than they had a moment earlier.

He looked back up at the farmer. “You’re Jack Demple! It’s been what, thirty years…”

“I reckon about so. Time passes funny here. So what tore you down, huh?”

“Oh! A heart attack, I think.” Dennis absently rubbed at his chest.

“Quick and easy, I guess. I gotta say, though… I wondered if you’d end up here the way you were heading…”

A sullen look passed over Dennis’ face. “Oh. Yeah, well…” He gazed off towards the barn. The clouds above it were slowly gathering.

Jack stared up at them. “Well, whatever’s the case, here ya are. I better get to droppin’ seed, though.” He winked at Jack. “Might be rain soon, looks like.”

“Sure, sure…” Dennis watched Jack walk off towards the barn. Both man and building became fuzzy. “Oh, shit…”

He squeezed his eyes shut as the world spun again. He stumbled about a moment later, trying to find his footing. Something was surrounding him, pressing in on his legs.

Dennis opened his eyes to find himself in a field of yellowed grass. The sky above him was gray. There was another person standing in the distance. It was his ex-wife. He grimaced. This was feeling less and less like heaven.

“YOU! You worthless piece of shit!” She pushed her way through the tall grass towards him, finger leading the way. “You look like it, too. How in the hell did you manage to live so long?”

Dennis looked down at himself again. His stomach had filled back in, straining against the waist of his soiled jeans. He brushed at his filthy tee shirt with liver-spotted hands.

He lifted his shaking head to meet his ex’s gaze. “I was young…”

She snorted. “Yeah, then you got old… and mean. You don’t belong here! You hurt me, Dennis! You’d get drunk, yell at me, hit me…”

Dennis snarled. “You made me do it! I worked my ass off, only to come home and there would be no dinner…”

I wasn’t your slave!” Tears spilled from her eyes. Thunder rippled in the distance. “I was so glad someone wizened me up, got me out of there. At least I got a few years of joy before God took me.”

She glared. “You’re a bad man, Dennis.” She jabbed her finger at him. “You’ll get yours. You’ll see. You got a stench on you, and it ain’t coming off!”

Lightning crashed close by. The bright-white light blinded him. His scream was lost in the resounding boom. He squeezed his eyes shut as his ears burned.

He blinked, rubbing his eyes. His vision slowly cleared. He was standing on a highway beside a wide-open field, now.

A short distance away from him was a car parked at a funny angle on the side of the road. Rain started to fall. He gasped as realization flooded his face. “Oh… Oh, GOD.”

He numbly walked towards the front of the car. He already knew what he’d find once he got up there. He wanted to turn and run in the opposite direction. Something pushed him against his will.

Lying on the ground before the car was a bloodied young woman. An ice-cold wind blew across the road, making him shiver. The steadily-falling rain soaked into the woman’s tattered clothing.

The body twitched. Dennis jumped, taking a step back. The woman suddenly sat up, screaming. A deep gash in her cheek made her gaping mouth unnaturally wide.

Dennis screamed in return, stumbling backwards. Lightning streaked through the air in the distance. “Stay… Stay away! I didn’t mean to…”

The dead woman stumbled after him. Her broken leg twisted at an odd angle with each step. “But you did! Drunk driver… Ran me down!” Her voice was a hellish screech.

He turned to run. The woman appeared right in front of him. He screamed. She screamed back. “Drunk! Wife-beater… Wino! Took my whole life away…”

Dennis walked backwards. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry! I’ll do anything…”

“You’ll do nothing!” The woman’s eyes turned jet-black. She began to laugh, blood pouring from her mouth. “You’ll just pay!” She shuffled towards him.

He fell backwards onto the slick road. He blinked at the specter through the driving rain. “No, please! God…”

The sick smile faded from the woman’s face. She slowly shook her head. “God turned his back on you a long time ago.” A pair of black forms loomed behind the woman.

“No… No! I repent! I have sinned! God, forgive me…”

Red, glaring eyes opened in the shadows behind the woman. “Too late, Dennis.”

The wraiths lifted up and over the woman. They descended on the old man. The shadowy figures took hold of each of his arms, holding him fast. The road beneath him began to shift and buckle.

The rain hissed off the rapidly heating tarmac. Dennis began to scream as it burned his flesh. The ground violently tore open. Orange light poured out of the fissure.

Dennis hung suspended above the entrance to an immense chamber. Eternal flames burned far below. The heat blistered his skin. Dennis continued to scream.

The wraiths let go. He slapped fruitlessly at the immaterial specters before slipping through the crack. He stared wild-eyed at the woman above before being lost to the fires below.

Interlude: Smash and Grab

One good robbery deserves another.

A stiff breeze blew across the roof of the museum. The moonless sky cast no shadows that night, yet four moved silently across the roof to a control panel. One of the shadows held a silver tool beside the control panel lock.

A shower of sparks shot out of the lock. The panel swung drunkenly open. “Don’t waste time, Farris.”

The other man looked over the panel. A series of switches and circuit boards glowed blue around an LCD screen. “UNAUTHORIZED ACCESS DETECTED” was flashing on it.

“Looks pretty simple.” He pulled a small spool of wires from his coat pocket. He hooked two ends to various points in the board and jacked the last one into a hole below the screen. He flipped and held a switch at the bottom of the panel.

Something within popped and fizzled. The screen changed to “WELCOME, {$USER1}”. He pulled the wires back out of the panel. “There it is.”

“Good job.” The man turned to the other two. “Be ready to move as soon as the system goes down.” The two men nodded silently.

A series of rapid beeps issued from the panel a couple of minutes later. The light above the door to the emergency stairwell blinked out. “We’re lights out, Dobbs.”

“Good job. Let’s go. Straight to the exhibit.” The men dawned what looked like green sunglasses. “Stay on night vision.”

Farris stuck a pair of tools into the door’s keyhole. The devices whirred and clicked in his hand as they did their work. The door handle turned a moment later. “In.”

The four men poured through the door and silently ran down the emergency stairs to the main exhibit hall of the museum. They passed under a sign reading “JEWELS OF THE WORLD”. Dobbs stopped before a case in the middle of the exhibit.

Inside was a rough-cut diamond the size of a baseball. Dobbs signaled for Farris to join him. He extended two fingers out to the others and jabbed a thumb towards the front of the museum. They nodded, running off.

There were two guards in the main lobby. One was sitting at the security desk, staring helplessly out towards the darkened street outside. The other paced uneasily, phone in hand, arms half-crossed.

“I told you, it flashed something about diagnostic test and then everything went dark… Well it did do that and we need back-up.”

One of the men whispered “No you don’t.” He pointed a small pistol at the guard and squeezed the trigger. A glowing projectile shot out, striking the guard in the chest.

Electricity arced out of the projectile and across his body. He shook violently before falling to the ground unconscious. The other guard stood, reeling around and fighting with the clasp on his holster.

“Nope. Nighty-night.” The other man pointed his own small pistol and shot the guard in the head. Blood poured from his nose as he dropped to the ground.

“Damn, Jack! You probably just killed the poor bastard!”

“Better him than me, Bill.” Jack put away the pistol. “Let’s go.”

The two men returned to the jewel exhibit. Farris knelt at the bottom of the diamond display. Dobbs looked on nervously. He looked at the others expectantly.

“We’re alone now,” Bill said. “One sleeping…” He looked at Jack. “The other probably dead.”

Dobbs spit. “Damn it, we don’t operate that way.”

“Couldn’t be helped,” Jack said. “How close is Poindexter? One guard was on the phone with tech support already.”

“Almost there,” Farris mumbled. He poked at the screen on the device he had attached to the base of the diamond display. It displayed a closed lock icon.

He squeezed buttons on either side of the device. A series of clicks came from within the base. The closed lock became an open one. He turned off the device and retrieved it. “It’s free.”

Farris stood to one side of the display. Dobbs grabbed the glass box covering the diamond and looked to Farris. The man nodded. Dobbs lifted it into the air.

Farris grabbed the diamond and fed it into a black satchel. Dobbs set the glass back down. The museum lights snapped back on. A shrill alarm sounded.

“What the hell? I thought you said it was disabled!”

“It was! Somebody must have reactivated it from the security panel.”

“Let’s just smash out the front. Run for it,” Jack suggested.

Dobbs shook his head. “Police will be here any minute. Let’s get to the roof.” He pulled out a handgun. The others followed suit.

They emerged one by one onto the roof, eyes peeled for company. Farris brought up the rear. A black-clad arm shot out from one side of the doorway, its fist slamming hard into his throat.

His gun fired wildly as he fell backwards choking. A hand flashed out, snatching the satchel from him as he fell backwards down the stairs. A black-clad woman slammed the door shut and turned to the others.

Dobbs and the others whirled around. The woman held up a small device and activated it. The night-vision glasses the men wore suddenly fizzled and popped loudly.

They stumbled about, brushing the glasses off and cursing. The woman ran forward and kicked Bill’s gun out of his hand. She punched him in the stomach. He lurched over.

The woman grabbed his head and wrenched up and to the left. There came a sickening crack. Bill dropped to the ground.

Dobbs got off a wild shot at the woman as his vision cleared. She smacked the weapon to the side and drove her palm into his nose. He screamed, raining blood as he stumbled backwards.

Jack fired at the woman, grazing her side. She cried out. She spun around and grabbed the muzzle of the gun, hissing as the metal burned her flesh.

She wrenched it out of his hand and turned it around, shooting him in the face. He gurgled as he sunk to his knees. “Hold it right there, miss.” It was Dobbs.

She slowly raised her hands into the air. “Give me the diamond. Maybe I’ll let you live.”

She didn’t move. “Look, lady. Last chance. The cops gotta be downstairs by now.” The woman stayed as she was. “Have it your way.”

The woman dropped and rolled. Dobbs cursed, firing at her as she went. She returned fire, striking Dobbs in the arm. She ran to the side of the building and flipped down onto the fire escape.

“Stupid bitch!” He chased after her, firing wildly through the fire escape. He pounded down the stairs, eyes peeled for the slippery woman.

He stood on the ground below, scanning the dark alley around him. The lid of a trash can clattered to the ground behind him. He spun around, firing at the noise.

The woman stood up behind Dobbs and punched him in the nape of the neck. His trigger finger jerked, wasting his last shot. The woman ran off down the alley and toward the street.

Dobbs ran after her, growling. He slowed at the sight of a gathering crowd outside the museum. Flashing lights and a series of whoops came from police cruisers approaching from the far side.

The woman used the distraction to spring around the corner and jab a silver dagger deep into the man’s eye socket. The siren wail of a third police cruiser muffled his dying cry as he slipped to the ground. The woman wrenched out the dagger and unceremoniously wiped it off on Dobbs before pocketing it.

She rounded the corner, her clothes and face rippling like a heatwave. She melded into the crowd, now clutching a purse against her tan trench coat. She nodded politely to a passing police officer as she went.

The woman made her way across the street. She spotted a man in a blue blazer and red-tinted glasses at the back of the growing crowd. She stood quietly beside him and gazed back towards the museum. She handed the purse off to the man.

“On time as usual.” The man tucked the purse under one arm. He held out a small pad to the woman with the other. She pressed her thumb to its surface. A female voice drifted up from the device. “Balance transfer complete!”

The man tucked the device into his coat pocket. “Until next time.” He turned to look at the woman, but she was already gone. He smiled. “As usual.” He turned and walked into the open night, whistling quietly.

Interlude: Dark Work

Divine retribution comes for a man that has gone too far.

I don’t normally do this, but this story is extremely dark in places. Consider this a trigger warning for victims of domestic violence.

No moon shone on this cloudless night. Heavy clouds had laid siege to it and claimed the sky for themselves. Cold winds carried the sounds of fighting from the house into the front yard.

A woman cried out. “No, please! The baby!” Two gunshots fractured the night. The woman screamed. The baby began to cry loudly.

The front door of the house slammed open, the baby’s wails set loose on the cold wind. A man with a handgun burst through the opening. His eyes burned with anger, mixed with fear. He quickly looked around.

Anger stole across his face, extinguishing any concern. “Stupid bitch deserved it,” he told the darkness. He cried out, flinging the handgun as hard as he could across the lawn.

He pounded to the sports car in the driveway. He backed out of the drive and onto the roadway. The engine roared, rear tires searching for purchase as the car slowly gained forward momentum into the night.

Silence returned once again. The baby’s wails had fallen off to plaintive cries mixed with her mother’s tears. The cold wind blew through the dying leaves of the oak tree standing guard nearby.

With it came a dark figure. It moved silently, reverently across the grass to the open door. Its steps made no sound, its body no shadow. It crept inside the house.

The figure found itself in the dining room of the abode. The woman had pushed herself into one corner. A trail of congealing blood led to where she sat curled on the floor. A smartphone lay at the other end of the room, the person on the other end now speaking up into the still air.

A television quietly displaying a forgotten show murmured in the other room. The robed figure stretched an arm in that direction. A withered, skeletal hand pointed a bony finger in its direction. The television fell silent, its light extinguished.

The baby began to cry once more in her mother’s arms. The mother spoke with hitching words, trying to soothe the child even as her life ran out of her. The baby became more insistent.

The dark figure crouched down. It pulled back the hood covering its head to reveal the face of Death. The wraith tilted his head. The taut, dried skin of his face put forth an image of sorrow as he gazed upon the child.

Death put a single bony finger to his lips. The baby’s cries hitched in her throat, then stopped altogether. The bony face turned to the mother and became expressionless once more.

The wraith replaced the hood on his head. The mother’s bloodshot eyes gazed through the specter to the world outside. He stretched a bony finger towards her forehead.

A black mist emanated from the tip of the finger, trailing to the mother. She looked down at her child as she gasped her last desperate breaths. The baby gazed back up at her silently.

The kitchen filled with an ethereal light as the woman closed her eyes for the last time. Another woman dressed in white stepped into existence. She glanced at Death, not unkindly, and stood before the fallen mother.

She reached out and took the mother’s hand in hers. The angelic woman slowly stood, pulling the mother’s soul up with her. The mother gazed at the other woman. Tears rolled down her cheeks as the realization of her condition set in.

The angel turned, smiling and nodding her head towards the door. The mother shook her head. “My baby!”

“You can visit her always.” The angel gently squeezed the mother’s hand. She spared her child a final look before returning her gaze to the angel. The woman smiled faintly, nodding her head.

They walked towards the door, hand in hand. They faded from sight as they reached the threshold. The light went with them. The baby began to cry again.

Death glided silently back out into the dark night. The sound of sirens stirred the air in the distance. The wraith turned in the direction the man had traveled in his sports car. Righteous anger flashed across his face.

Rain pounded against the man’s charging vehicle as he drove blindly down the twisting country road. The wind billowed behind him, bringing with it a black figure of vengeance. Death soared over the sports car before sailing past it.

“SHIT!” A hulking black figure appeared in the car’s headlights. The man cut the wheel sharply, sending the vehicle skidding across the rain-soaked blacktop. The front end of the car found a tree as the vehicle left the road.

It spun around violently, bouncing into the air on the uneven ground. The sports car flipped twice before landing on its side. It creaked perilously before falling over onto its roof at the edge of a steep hill.

Death waited in the shadows, watching. The car’s engine clunked, sputtered, and finally gave out with a hiss. The man shifted on the ceiling of the car, groaning.

He dragged himself through the shattered window, glass crunching and grinding against his bleeding hands. He bellowed into the falling rain. He collapsed, the sodden grass squelching beneath him.

He raised his head, eyes slitted against the driving sheets of wet. He howled in pain as he pulled himself free of the car. He pushed himself to his hands and knees and crawled a short distance from the wreck.

He used a shallow ridge to push himself to his feet. He wobbled unsteadily as he turned to face the remains of his prized sports car. His face screwed up in rage. “Stupid… bitch.” His breathing became ragged.

A frigid wind whipped around him, causing him to stumble closer to the nearby hill. His foot found a shallow hole, twisting his ankle. He cried out in pain. He flailed wildly in an attempt to keep his footing.

Death manifested directly in front of the man. The wraith’s face was contorted in rage, his ragged mouth contorted, a rattling hiss issuing forth through gnarled teeth. The man screamed in terror, losing the fight with inertia and tumbling backwards down the steep embankment.

The man’s body whipped and cartwheeled violently as he sped toward the ground below. He slammed hard into the unforgiving ground. A loud crack issued from his buckling leg. He screamed into the black sky above him.

Death glided silently down the side of the hill. His empty sockets fixed on the man below him. The man’s eyes grew wild. He shook his head violently. “No!” He turned, clawing at the ground. He screamed as his badly broken leg shifted.

He lay on his back. His breathing came in ragged gasps. Death leaned over him. He glared down at the man, a widening grin forming on his leathery face. A shallow, rattling laugh issued forth as Death retreated.

Low growling issued from the nearby shadows. The man whipped his head toward the sound, his breaths quickening. A wolf emerged from the gloom, creeping steadily towards the man. Two more wolves followed closely behind it.

The man whipped his head back towards Death. “No. Please! NO!” The lead wolf leaped, snarling, and bit down on the man’s neck.

The man’s scream turned into a bloody gargle as the wolf bore down. The other two wolves joined in on the fray, tearing at the man’s clothes and body with their razor-like teeth. The lead wolf chewed and tore at the exposed viscera of the man’s throat.

Lightning flashed nearby, rattling the ground with a vicious thunderclap. The wolves cried out, running for the cover of the nearby forest. The man’s lifeless eyes filled with rainwater.

The blackened soul of the man rolled away from his body. He fought his way to his feet and stared disbelieving at his own corpse. He whipped his head around. Death stood beside the body, scythe at the ready. A single bony finger pointed at the man.

The man again shook his head, stumbling backwards. Something black and glistening shot out of the earth below him and held his leg fast. Another mass erupted, grabbing the other leg. The man pulled and tugged, bellowing.

Black, twisted hands began to claw and tear at the soul’s legs. A sulfurous miasma curled up around him as more twisted arms thrust up from the glowing ground. The man began to scream as his ethereal flesh was rent asunder.

The ground around him burst open. The air rippled with the heat pouring from the fires that raged below. The now-fully exposed demons clawed and stretched up the soul’s body. They gnashed their needle-like teeth, grinning, laughing, as they pulled him down into their realm.

Death solemnly thrust the bottom of his scythe into the ground as the bleeding, screaming soul passed into Hell. The hole closed over him, sealing his fate. The thinning drops of rain hissed as they fell on the cooling earth.

The wraith raised his somber face to the lightening sky. He nodded once, stepping forward. His body faded to ebony smoke that flowed into the frosty wind. His work was finished for the night.

Interlude: The Getaway

An experienced thief makes good his escape in an exotic car with a secret.

He’d been working odd jobs for what, five years now? They weren’t your typical odd jobs, though. Well, not unless you count stealing well-guarded valuables as an odd job.

The man smiled as he eased an unusually-large diamond into a velvet sack. “I mean, the size of this diamond is pretty odd.” He said to himself, grinning. He dropped the sack into a leather satchel and proceeded toward the exit.

This job was unusual, compared to others in his work history. He was taking a chance on it. The man who had approached him about the project wasn’t one of his normal contacts. He had the cash to back up his mouth, though. That, and the thief loved a challenge.

Ha. So much for a challenge. Easy money, boys and girls. The thief even took the time to close the back door that he had easily hacked to get into the facility. That’s when things started going sideways.

He took two steps from the exit before alarm bells broke the early morning silence. The thief mentally ticked through the individual security systems he had disarmed as he jogged towards his car. “There’s no way I missed something!”

He came to a stop, car key in hand. “No. Oh shit no.” The man’s vehicle was nowhere to be found. “It’s a setup. It’s gotta be!”

He spread his eyes across the largely-abandoned parking lot. They fell on an exotic-looking white sports car. “That looks fast.” He jogged over to it and peered through the passenger-side window. A key was stuck in the ignition switch.

“No way!” The man ran to the other side of the car and fumbled in his pants pocket. Sirens blared in the distance. “Shit. Shit. Shit.” He dropped down on his haunches and started picking at the door lock.

It popped just as the first couple patrol cars pulled into the parking lot. He threw the satchel into the passenger seat and slung himself into the sports car. He turned the key. The sound of a roaring engine and turbine shattered the quiet of the waning night.

“Hot damn.” He shut the door and fastened his seat belt. His widening eyes swept across the dashboard. Various buttons, screens and readouts glowed in shades of blue and white. “What in the hell…”

Red and blue light chased white across the dashboard of the car. His company had arrived. He put the car in reverse and hammered the accelerator.

The vehicles tires screamed as the dual power plants roared. The car quickly reversed as he lifted his foot. He whipped the nose around and slammed it into drive. “This should be fun.” The car snapped forward with a chirp and rocketed towards the exit to the lot.

He eyed the rear-view mirror as he turned on to the abandoned street. One set of headlights paired to a red-and-blue lightbar approached from behind. “Come and get me, sweetheart.” He pressed on the accelerator. The car surged forward.

The patrol car’s siren blared to life as it fought to keep up. The thief took a hard right through an intersection. The patrol car gained ground, squealing tires as it drifted around the turn.

“This thing handles like an indy-car.” The man took an abrupt left while hardly braking. The tires chirped but held their line. The cop car scooped a lazy semi-circle before slapping its rear end into a light pole.

The thief took another hard right and floored the accelerator as he raced into the outskirts of the city. He watched as the speedometer rocketed towards the 200 MPH mark. He slowed only to gain access to the highway on-ramp.

Once on the open road, he let his foot settle towards the floor. The engine-turbine combo screamed. The speedometer tagged 230 MPH before he got nervous. He let the car pull itself slowly down to highway speeds. The red and blues were long gone behind him.

He used the first golden rays of the rising sun to look for an emblem or manufacturer name. There were no obvious marks. “What in the hell are you?”

“Vehicle designation S-H 381, Advanced Designation Epsilon.” A polite female voice informed him through the car speakers. “Code name SHADE.”

The thief’s mouth dropped open. “What the hell did I get myself into?”

“Vehicle designation…”

“No! No, I get it. I didn’t… I’m talking to a damned car.”


The man shielded his eyes from the rising sun. “God, that sun is killing me.”

“Glare-block activated.” The windshield darkened, reducing the glare from the sun.

“Miss thing, it sure is going to be hard to let you go.”

A pair of beeps issued from the dashboard. “Command not understood.” The man smiled.

The man’s spirits slowly rose with the morning sun. His mind drifted to where he might ditch the car… or where he might hide it? He was brought back to reality by a series of insistent beeps from the dashboard.

“Collision imminent. Crash guards deployed.” Thick metal plating slid out from under the car and popped up into place along the periphery of the car. A large, black sedan crashed into the back of the sports car a heartbeat later.

More beeps issued from the dashboard as the man’s head bounced off the headrest. “Son of a bitch!” He eyed the car in the mirrors. “Must be an unmarked trooper.” The car rammed into him again.

“Unable to identify,” the car helpfully added. “Activating defenses.” A row of buttons on the dashboard flashed before glowing yellow.

“No way! This is like some sort of video game.” He looked over the buttons. “Oil slick? Seriously?” He pressed the button. It beeped and turned red.

He turned his attention back to the car behind him. It was gaining speed in an attempt to ram the sports car a third time. The car suddenly began swinging side to side before spinning completely around on a trail of oil.

The armor retracted back under the vehicle. The thief shook his head. “This isn’t real. There’s no way this is real.”

“Aerial threat detected.”

“This isn’t real!” A screen illuminated in the center of the dashboard. The growing silhouette of a helicopter appeared there. “Are you serious?”

“This is not a test.” Rapid fire from the helicopter plinked off the backside of the car. More warning beeps. “Aerial defenses activated.” Two more buttons flashed yellow.

“Missile?” The man pressed the button. Whirring motors opened a trap door and hoisted a missile launching apparatus into place on the back of the car. The missile shot away from the car, whistling as it angled up towards the black helicopter.

He watched on the view-screen as the helicopter pulled hard to the side in a bid to outmaneuver the missile. The projectile found its mark, enveloping the aircraft in a ball of red and orange light. “Threat eliminated.”

The burning hulk fell to the ground. A secondary explosion rattled the ground. The thief sighed in relief, settling back into his seat. “Hot damn. I need to find some place to pull over and call my contact.”

The dashboard beeped. “Rest area in fifteen miles.” The man smiled.

He pulled the vehicle around the far side of the rest area a short while later, hoping he was largely out of sight of curious eyes. He fished his smart phone out of his pants pocket. He dialed his contact and stared distractedly out of the passenger-side window.

The phone ringed and ringed. He ended the call, cursing. “Now what?” Three sharp raps on his window made him jump. “Oh. Shit.” He slowly turned.

Two men in black business suits and ties stood beside the sports car. He could see that one was casually dangling an automatic pistol from his right hand. He found the window controls and opened his window a crack. “Can I help you gentlemen?”

“Get out.” The men stepped back slightly. The one with a gun subtly lifted the muzzle in the thief’s direction.

“Surely there is some misunderstanding…”

“Get out.” The pistol was now pointed directly at the thief.

He opened the car door and climbed out, hands going into the air. “Look, I have connections. We can make this all right…”

“Put down your hands, Mister Jones.”

The thief did as he was told. “I… I don’t understand…”

The man smiled. “You will…” He extended a hand. “I’m agent Ludlow. I’d like to talk to you about a job offer.” The other man lowered his weapon, nodding.

Jones took the proffered hand and shook it, smiling in relief. “Well, you certainly have my attention, gentlemen.”

Interlude: Return to Aleria

The bittersweet story of a washed up, middle-aged man yearning for a world he lost so long ago.

The shabbily-dressed man shuffled down the quiet midnight streets, the city having found its bed some time ago. He tossed the remains of his extended nightcap into a trashcan. He self-consciously rubbed at his belly and sighed.

He stared down the length of empty street before him. Was this who he was, now? Fat, half bald, an alcoholic, presumably homeless now. He rubbed the coin in his coat pocket and started walking again.

It was so hard to remember the brighter times, now. He’d been a brilliant lawyer, very respected in his time. Like so many, he had become a victim of his own success.

He celebrated that success with drugs and alcohol. It changed him over a number of years. He garnered a sense of overzealous importance. It masked the growing discontent that had silently crept into his mind one night. It grew and festered there, hidden by booze and money.

So he had tried to return.

He had received a coin years ago from his grandfather. It looked like any other half-dollar. His grandfather told him it was no such thing.

The grandfather had told him wonderful tales of the adventures he had gone on in another world when he was younger. This coin, he said, was matched to a key in that world that acted as a gateway. With it, his grandson could visit this same wonderful place.

The man passed away a short while later. The young man hadn’t given it any more thought until one boring Summer afternoon. He sat at the end of a blind alley, turning the coin over in his hand, thinking of his grandfather.  He flipped it up into the air.

When it landed in his hand, he found himself sitting in a wide-open field. Everything his grandfather had told him was true. Here, before his unbelieving eyes, was all the evidence he’d ever need.

What followed was an epic tale in and of itself. In this reality, the fair kingdom of Aleria was ruled by King Michael, but he had become deathly ill. His son, Prince Aaron, believed it to be the work of the wicked Count Errol.

He soon found that a prophecy held that a young one from a faraway land would come to save them all. He reluctantly embraced this proposed fate and agreed to help the people of Aleria. The prophecy held true, and the Count’s plans were thwarted.

The king, deeply grateful and dutifully impressed with the young man’s abilities, offered for him to live in the kingdom as one of his loyal knights. This he did… for a time. He soon found himself missing the life he had left behind.

He returned to our world to find that not but a day had passed since he had first left months ago. He would feel a yearning to return to Aleria from time to time. One flip of the coin in this nondescript alley…

The middle-aged version of that young man stood at the mouth of that very alley. It had been so long since he’d visited this place. He had been in the last weeks of his senior year in high school.

He’d recently learned that he’d been accepted to a prestigious law school. With the last of his childhood fading, and his adult life racing toward him, he had decided it was a perfect time to escape this world for a while.

Except this time the coin failed to work.

He stood there, staring dumbly at the coin, unsure of why its magic remained quiet. He went home deeply worried for his friends in that distant land. He would return a number of times, increasingly faint hope tingling in the pit of his stomach. The coin never worked again.

It had sat in the top drawer of the bureau in his bedroom for years afterward, slowly forgotten, cold and lifeless. He pressed on with college and began his life as a newly-minted adult. The memories of his young exploits slowly faded from his mind.

Only recently had he rediscovered the coin. Memories of Aleria raced back into his mind the moment he picked it out of its hiding spot. He found it while he was packing his things. He’d just separated from his third wife.

Things had quickly gone downhill from there in the form of countless bottles and pills. The man shuffled to the end of the alley and sat down roughly on the damp ground. It had been so many years. He pulled out the coin and turned it over and over in his hand.

That old familiar tingling returned to his gut, spurred in part by the exhilaration he felt at the idea of returning to Aleria. He flipped the coin skyward. He watched it flip high into the air and back down into the palm of his hand.

The sky remained dark. The alley stubbornly refused to dissipate.

The man bowed his head and began to sob. This was it. There was no more hope. He pulled a pistol from his other pocket. Still sobbing, he placed it to his head.

The gun clattered to the ground. He balled his fist and pushed it hard into his burning chest. Even now, would he be denied what he wanted? His eyes watered from the pain spreading from his chest to his left arm.

“Enough of it, Trevor! Hail and get off of your ass!”

The man… Trevor… looked up at the robed man looming over him in the dark. “Help me… I’m having… heart attack.” He fought to spit the words out.

The man above him waved a dismissive hand. “Bah! Of course you are. You poisoned your heart with the sickness of this land years ago.”

The robes of the man swung aside, revealing a gnarled wooden staff. He stabbed at the ground beside Trevor, who yelped. The amber stone at the top of the staff shimmered.

The staff glowed bright yellow. Crackling yellow energy arced from the stone to Trevor’s chest. The robed man returned the staff to its former position. “Now, I say! Get off of this forsaken ground! Aleria needs you.”

“Aleria…” Trevor looked up, fresh tears in his eyes. “Tyrion!”

“At least your eyes are still working.”

Trevor scratched and pulled his way to his feet. “The coin! It stopped working years ago.”

“Aye! I told you! You became too poisoned to use its magic. That’s why I came of my own accord. But I warn ye… if you return with me, never again will you see this wretched, filthy world.”

Trevor shook his head. “I have nothing here. Please… please take me back.”

The wizard considered him for a moment, his gaze burning into Trevor’s own eyes. “I can see the pain. Desperation. You are sick, child…” He nodded. “Come forth with me, Trevor of Earth! Stay close, now.”

Trevor followed closely behind the wizard. The brick walls on either side of them began to change. Bits of mold and fungus erupted from between the bricks and spread. The concrete underneath their feet gave way to earth and grass.

The gray sky above brightened into one of a brilliant blue-green hue. The sun glared in Trevor’s eyes. When he blinked it out, he found the two of them walking across the fields outside the kingdom of Aleria.

The wizard Tyrion turned to see what his charge thought of the sudden change of scenery. Trevor looked back at him with a face decades younger than his years and smiled. Tears of joy filled his eyes.

Tyrion nodded, his own eyes growing moist. “There you are, lad. Welcome home… now and forever.”