BE SURE TO VOTE FOR YOUR FAVORITE. AND COMMENT AT THE END. FOR THIS ROUND WILLIAM IS GIVING AWAY A COPY OF HIS SHORT STORY, “THE APPLE-HOWLER” AND JAMES CHAMBERS IS GIVING AWAY AN EBOOK COPY OF HIS NOVELLA(S) THREE CHORDS OF CHAOS OR DEAD BEAR WITNESS. YOU HAVE TO COMMENT TO WIN. VOTING AND COMMENTING CLOSE WHEN THE NEXT ROUND BEGINS.
[DEFENSE INTELLIGENCE FILE #77391: One (1) document, and one (1) video-capture.]
Blake sat at his station 300 feet beneath the Defense Intelligence Agency’s St. Louis field office. No longer could he waste time (or indulge in escapism) watching home-burned DVDs of favorite baseball games, and imagining himself on the mound and in-charge.
He’d read through the document four times, telling himself this couldn’t be real. Whether North Korea, Pakistan, or whoever had conceived the plan to spike tornados with hyper-toxic drones (obviously with inside help), didn’t matter. The massive outbreak of super-twisters, over the last 27 days, offered many, many opportunities. No one yet had taken credit. Did they even know their bristly bio-agent revived the recently deceased?
Blake could barely wait to start the video-feed the NSA had yanked from a security-cam in some Omaha biker bar. A looter, less than a mile from one of the F-5 tornados responsible for this clusterfuck, gets on the wrong end of a Droner—a real snuff film.
“Fuck me,” Blake whispered, and clicked on the show.
A tall guy with spiky black hair trots into the main barroom, his white T-shirt glaring in dim light. Pausing, he scans the space with jerky urgency—shouts something no one ever will hear—and climbs over the bar for a bottle of Pernod.
Twisting off the cap, Nowhere Man tilts the bottle and swallows a good few ounces of fiery green liqueur, then sets the bottle on the bar. Chest visibly heaving with dread (no doubt induced by awareness of the F-5’s roaring approach), he pulls a compact pick-ax from a utility pocket in his cargos and starts bashing the cash register. After a few seconds, the drawer is open—empty.
Nowhere Man smashes glass, whips the pick-ax out of frame. He’s fucking pissed.
All at once he turns toward what must be the entrance and—eyes wide—jumps back a few feet. He’s really hollering now, shaking his head as if in denial. [Here Agent Blake can read NM's lips] Motherfucker! Motherfucker!
The door must be open, because a shambling shadow stretches toward NM and his terror, until—[“Jesus Christ!” Blake blurts]
A man taller even than NM, wearing a black leather vest and no shirt, black pants to match and engineer’s boots, moves unsteadily—left leg fucked-up, knee bent back like an insect’s. In profile the long-haired dude looks nearly normal, until NM panics and hurls a bar-stool at him.
Unknown Dude, making no effort to avoid injury, takes a direct hit to the left shoulder—which swings him toward the ceiling’s camera-blister.
His remaining eye is filmy like bad milk. The bloody pit where the other ought to be boils with flies. Unknown Dude is a Droner.
Abruptly NM plucks the discarded pick-ax from the floor, rushes the other and smashes his skull.
NM falls hard; the ax stays where he put it, jutting out like an antenna.
The Droner’s whiskery mouth opens and closes like a grounded fish, drools strings of black gunk onto its chest.
NM gets to his feet, climbs over the bar, grabs the Pernod and pours it into a smeary mug. The Droner lurches toward the bar.
NM grins; raises the mug and flings the hooch—bingo! The Droner is even greener than before.
NM pulls a Zippo from his pocket and—flick of the wrist—clicks it open and thumbs the flint-wheel. There is light!
The Droner hits the bar and NM ignites his heart. Immediately the beard is aflame—and the chest. The Droner exhibits no reaction whatsoever, reaches over the bar and pulls out NM like a rotten tooth.
Ashtrays and peanut bowls crash silently to the floor.
Incredibly, NM manages to strip out of his T-shirt, and uses it to snuff the flames now threatening his own greedy ass. It works.
But the Droner is hungry, and displays this by clamping a hand around NM’s throat, lifting him and biting off an ear. [The Droner's Adam's apple visibly pulses as the ear is swallowed. Agent Blake regrets his heavy lunch]
Within several seconds, NM’s face and neck and torso are bloody—his mouth gaping in agony. He collapses and the Droner drops with him. A real bro!
It can’t wait, clutches NM’s right arm, stands and stomps a boot onto the shoulder. NM’s head shakes wildly, flinging blood. The Droner pulls and pulls—and off comes the hairy arm barely connected by an umbilical of cartilage and yellow fat.
NM’s head jerks back and gushes green from his gaping mouth, remaining limbs convulsing.
The Droner takes this opportunity to reach out and touch someone—NM’s lower jaw, which he wrenches from its mooring, sniffs, and tosses out of frame.
NM’s eyes roll back white—he’s slippery with blood and lymph, so the Droner grabs fresh tongue and raises him to a sitting position. Long enough to thrust a stiff hand into the other’s diaphragm, separating thoracic from abdominal regions, and opening NM like a dying Christmas present.
NM’s convulsions cease. The Droner spends a few minutes uncoiling intestines and wrapping them around its waist for, apparently, private dining later.
[Blake—who's seen his share of Al-Qaeda beheadings and mayhem—screeches his waste-basket close and grunts up lunch]
The slightly blackened Droner smolders, grabs the free arm and swings it over a shoulder like a club.
At that moment what looks like a John Deere tractor smashes through the roof and splinters the bar—the CCTV signal dissolves into snowy static and is gone. Score one for the F-5….
Nature abhors a vacuum.
[Agent Blake grinds his teeth, sips from a Monster...wondering if he'll survive to see his next birthday in two weeks...closes out his screen]
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Independent writer/editor, author of JOHNNY FLASH, THE UNTOLD, FLOWERS ON THE MOON and over 250 short stories, articles, interviews and reviews in CEMETERY DANCE, BEWARE THE DARK, NPR-associated WIRELESS and others. On Forbes.com (ghosting for NYC “philanthropunk” John Kluge), 2 Paragraphs, Magonia Blog, Hellnotes, Horror World, and elsewhere. Recently, Peabody Award-winning investigative journalist George Knapp lauded Grabowski’s work on syndicated radio show COAST TO COAST AM. Five years with World Fantasy Award-winner THE HORROR SHOW earned him a nomination from SPWAO as Best Nonfiction Writer. Blogs: THE NIGHT RUN on WordPress, and WILLIAM J. GRABOWSKI’S OUTSIDE LOOKING OUT on Blogger. His books and short fiction are available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Smashwords.
With a crack of the bat, the Riverton Rebels’ right fielder, Tough Tommy Tedesco, planted a long fly ball in the center field bleachers and tied the game in the bottom of the ninth. The home team crowd roared and filled the minor league stadium with applause as Tough Tommy rounded the bases, driving in two runs before tagging home plate. The scoreboard blinked “5-5.” The Crestview Catfish, longtime rivals from the next state, groaned collectively in their dugout as the lead they’d held since the third inning vanished.
Smiling, Rick and his grandfather, Big Pop, settled back into their seats, praying for the Rebels to bring one more runner home to win the game. But the next batter, Rebels catcher Whit Smiley, whacked a line drive to right field, and Jackson Martinez of the Catfish retired the side with a diving catch.
“Extra innings,” Big Pop said. “You know what that means.”
“Yeah,” Rick said. “Means we might win this one yet.”
Big Pop waved a hand and shook his head. “Means Death’s in the stadium tonight.”
Rick rolled his eyes. “Not again with the baseball myths.”
“It’s no myth, Ricky,” Big Pop said. “Saw it myself, back in ’63 when I was playing third base for the Lewisburg Half Sox. Game went 15 innings and Lou Piscatelli, our second baseman, well, old Lou got himself a new lease on life. I helped keep that game rolling until we won it. We figured Death was aiming for Lou that night, because Lou’s ticket got punched a month later. Car accident. Extra innings or no, everyone’s game ends sometime.”
Rick flagged a concession vendor and bought two cold beers. He handed one to Big Pop. “I’m not eight years old anymore. I’m not falling for stories about magic curveballs and bats made from haunted wood. Let’s just enjoy the game.”
“I made up a few stories in my time, sure.” Accepting the beer, Big Pop shook his head. “But cross my heart, swear to God, Ricky, this isn’t one of them. If a game goes extra innings, it’s because someone gets a chance to cheat death.”
“Uh-uh, Pop, it’s because a team’s trying to win,” Ricky said.
“That too, of course. Sometimes, though, whatever happens later, you only need a little extra time to win.” Big Pop peeled the cellophane from his beer, sipped, and then raised an eyebrow at Rick. “I’d say not dying counts as a win, though, wouldn’t you?”
“Sure, Pop, not dying is always a win. But extra innings have nothing to do with it.”
“Ah, you’re still wet behind the ears. What do you know?”
“I’m twenty-seven. I know about computers, which is how I afford these season tickets I spring for every year,” Rick said. “If your time’s up, Death doesn’t care about extra innings. It’s not like death’s a person anyway. It’s something that happens.”
“You’re wrong about that,” Big Pop said. “Death loves a game.”
Rick eyed his grandfather, searching for the twinkle in his eye and the faint curl at the corners of his mouth that accompanied Big Pop’s tall tales. But Big Pop looked serious, his eyes watery, surrounded by deep wrinkles that seemed out of place and unreal to Rick, who always thought of Big Pop as he knew him from childhood—strong and dark haired.
“That’s only in the movies,” Rick said. “The game was chess.”
“You want to cheat death through chess, you have to win. That’s hard. You want to cheat him through baseball, you only need to make him forget who he’s here to reap.”
“Reap?” Rick asked.
“Yeah,” Big Pop said. “He’s the Grim Reaper. That’s what he does, he reaps people. Everyone has a time and a place at the end of their lifeline. You live so long—or short, I suppose—then you die. Where and when is laid out ahead of time, like where and when you’ll be born. Everything in between is up to you. You do what you want with your life. But when your time’s up, you go—unless you trick Death. That takes help from the spirit world because only ghosts—and Death, of course—know where and when someone’s supposed to die. And baseball, Ricky, is a game of ghosts because it’s a game with history. Decades and decades of tradition and ritual. Players wearing lucky socks or blessing themselves in the batter’s box. Babe Ruth and the Red Sox’s curse. That dumb Billy goat in Chicago. Tip of the iceberg. There’s power in all that superstition. Ballplayers look after their own. Sometimes a player who’s passed on will tip the living that Death’s coming for one of them. Sometimes the ghosts even intervene. And the result is extra innings.”
Rick smirked. “So the myth goes, you mean.”
“Uh, yeah.” Big Pop shifted uncomfortably. The game resumed as the Rebels took the field, but he watched the seats on the opposite side of the stadium, behind the first base line, his stare intent. “That’s how the myth tells it, sure.”
“You don’t believe that, do you?”
Big Pop chuckled, but before he could answer, the Catfish’s third baseman, Tino Salud, popped a fly into left field. The crowd stood and quieted with anticipation as the ball sailed through the hazy illumination pouring down from the stadium’s lights, a speck against the starless shell of night, and then it dropped….
With a smack of leather, Tough Tommy made the catch, back pressed to the wall, glove arm extended what seemed like a mile. The crowd cheered.
Except Big Pop, who refused to take his eyes off something across the field.
Rick gripped his grandfather’s arm. “You okay?”
“Honestly, Ricky, I don’t know.” He pointed to the far seats. “You see anything odd over there?”
Following the direction of his grandfather’s gaze, Rick saw seats crowded with a sea of fans in Rebel’s baseball caps and jerseys, foam fingers, and handmade cheer signs.
“By the foul pole,” Big Pop said.
Rick shifted his eyes. More of the same—except about ten rows back from the field sat a man dressed all in black. A big man in what Rick took for a black, hooded poncho. Holding a long pole with a banner on the end.
“That guy in black?” Rick said.
“You see him?” Big Pop sounded surprised, worried.
“Is that what this is about? You see some wacko fan, dressed up like Death because he wants the Rebels to bury the Catfish and decided to pull my leg?” Rick said. “It’s all a joke?”
Big Pop laughed once. “I’m not joking. Watch that guy a minute.”
Rick did. He missed the next play when the guy in black shimmered like a heat mirage, vanished, and then reappeared in another seat, closer to home plate. A moment later it happened again. Then a third time. Rick blinked and downed half his beer. The man in black now sat right on their side of home plate.
“He’s getting closer,” Big Pop said.
A cold knot crimped Rick’s stomach. “How’s he doing that trick?”
The man in black shimmered again, disappeared, then reconstituted.
“Ricky, I don’t feel so well.”
Big Pop looked pale. Rick touched his grandfather’s arm. Clammy, cold.
“Where are your pills, Pop?”
“Left them in the car.”
“I’ll go get them.”
“No!” Big Pop squeezed Rick’s hand. “Don’t leave me alone.”
On the field the Catfish had loaded the bases with two outs. Their best hitter, Ron Finlay, stood in the batter’s box. Finlay watched the first pitch pass—a strike. He didn’t swing at the next three either—all balls. Finlay fouled off the fifth pitch. Full count. He fouled off the next as well, sending the ball into the bleachers between the man in black and where Rick and Big Pop sat on the edge of left field. The man in black shimmered and flowed steadily nearer, moving from seat to seat, somehow always finding one empty. Finlay fouled off yet another pitch. Rick prayed for Finlay to strike out to keep the game going. Big Pop eyed the man in black, wincing as he flowed nearer. No one else seemed to notice him. He sat only a few rows away when Finlay cracked a high, long shot toward the right field wall. Silence gripped the stadium. The ball sailed into the light then arced down aimed for the deep bleachers. Tough Tommy charged it… threw himself up the wall… stretched for it….
The man in black swooped into the seat right behind Big Pop.
A wave of cold air rolled off him, chilling Rick.
He swiveled, readying to push himself between the man and Big Pop when Pop squeezed Rick’s arm and said, “Look!”
Where the ball sank toward the bleachers stood a ballplayer in an outdated uniform, glove raised, cap tight over his eyes. He lifted off from the stands, racing through empty air to intercept the ball. It passed through the floating ballplayer, and then it dropped, short of a home run, where Tough Tommy caught it, his body stretched halfway over the wall. The crowd stamped their feet and cheered. The Catfish’s four base runners slowed, halted, and Finlay dropped to his knees. Even Death seemed riveted by the excitement. He stood, arms upraised, skeletal hands protruding from the dark wells of his long sleeves, his scythe clutched in one bony fist. Then he shimmered into thin air and reemerged closer to the field—away from Big Pop.
The ghostly player descended to the bleachers. Rick glimpsed the name stitched across the back of his shirt: Piscatelli. He glanced toward Big Pop and tipped his hat, revealing a gaunt, cadaverous face and empty eye sockets.
“Pop,” Rick said.
“Yeah?” Pop said.
“Pop! Did you see that? Was that…?” Rick said.
“A ballplayer? Yeah, Ricky, it was.”
“Hey, Pop, you okay?”
Big Pop nodded. “Yeah.” His color had returned and his breathing relaxed. “I’ll be fine. Back in ’63 I helped Lou, and I think tonight Lou’s helping me.”
The game continued another two and a half hours until the Rebels brought in the winning run in the 17the inning. The man in black disappeared sometime around the bottom of the 16th, and Piscatelli, who had popped up a few more times to help keep the game tied, faded away soon after. Rick never saw either of them again. In the days that followed, he convinced himself they had been only in his imagination, caught up in his grandfather’s story. Over the next month, he and Big Pop attended six more games. None went into extra innings. Then Rick’s wife, Angie, gave birth to a baby boy, their first son, Big Pop’s first great-grandson.
“You should name him Louis, after old Lou Piscatelli,” Big Pop joked.
“Nope,” Rick said. “Going to call him Little Pop.”
Big Pop sat with the boy in his arms, beaming, happier than Rick had ever seen him.
A week later, Big Pop forgot his pills in the house and had an attack in the garage while Angie took Little Pop to a doctor’s appointment. Rick found him when he came home from work. At the sight of his grandfather’s body, he felt a touch of the frigid wind that had braced him that night in the stadium when the man in black loomed behind them. He thought of how ball players looked out for their own—and how sometimes a little extra time is all you need to win.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
James Chambers’ tales of horror, crime, fantasy, and science fiction have been published in numerous anthologies and magazines, and Publisher’s Weekly described his collection of four Lovecraftian-inspired novellas, The Engines of Sacrifice, as “chillingly evocative.” His other books include the novellas Three Chords of Chaos, as well as The Dead Bear Witness and Tears of Blood (the first two volumes in the Corpse Fauna series), and the story collections Resurrection House and The Midnight Hour: Saint Lawn Hill and Other Tales with illustrator Jason Whitley. His stories have appeared in the award-winning Bad-Ass Faeries and Defending the Future anthology series as well as Allen K’s Inhuman, Bare Bone, Chiral Mad 2, Clockwork Chaos, Deep Cuts, Fantastic Futures 13, The Green Hornet Chronicles, In an Iron Cage, Mermaids 13, The Spider: Extreme Prejudice, To Hell in a Fast Car, Walrus Tales, and many other publications. He has edited and written numerous comic books including Leonard Nimoy’s Primortals and the critically acclaimed “The Revenant” in Shadow House. He is a member of the Horror Writers Association and the recipient of the HWA’s 2012 Richard Laymon Award. He is online at www.jameschambersonline.com and https://www.facebook.com/ThreeChordsOfChaos.