Plot Twists

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The front door banged open. With armfuls of groceries, Natty hurried inside and nudged the door closed with her right foot. Pyewacket threaded between her legs as she unloaded her milk, bread, and eggs.
“This isn’t helping me go faster,” Natty said as she took off her raincoat and searched her pockets and purse for her favorite scarf, a silk print of Klimt’s The Kiss. The Siamese caterwauled in counterpoint. Conceding, Natty opened a can of Blue Buffalo. She retraced her steps over her missing scarf over a pot of tomato soup and grilled munster sandwiches.
With a thick quilt and a handful of throw pillows, the corner of her bedroom is made ready. During the pandemic, Natty had gone through a library of audiobooks. Next she dipped her toe in a river of podcasts. But a few weeks ago when she was cleaning out her closet for donations Natty heard voices. Above her unworn but too nice to let go party dress was a small metal grate in the ceiling. Each night starting around eight pm, words rained down from the apartment directly over hers.

The Spinster Innes discovered bodies at the foot of staircase and uncovered the Armstrongs’ blackmailer. Next Iris must locate her missing new companion Miss Troy on a speeding train of suspicious characters. Some nights until around ten, some nights longer plot twisted from above.
Last night, Natty has fallen asleep over a bowl of chips the trials and tribulations of the illustrious Tyler family. Now she listened for the latest story.
Above Ira traced his fingers across his generous bookshelves. Mary Rinehart Roberts, Ethel Lina White, Charlotte Armstrong, his hand marched over thrillers as he considered tonight’s read. Since losing Amanda, Ira couldn’t sleep unless he read out loud. He needed to hear words any words reverberate off his walls and lull him to sleep.

Lately it had been a little easier. Ira felt as if he was sharing a book and dinner with someone special. Then he caught sight of the golden silk scarf he had found on the sidewalk in front of his building. Slender rectangles of goldenrod and bronze, teal and cadium red, two lovers embracing, shimmered from his coat stand. Ira looked for a Clutch of Constables, the Ngaio Marsh mysery featuring an artist and her husband a Detective Inspector. He touched the novel and somewhere below his apartment a Siamese meowed loudly. With a laugh, Ira took that for approval.
Natty dipped her grilled cheese into her soup. The warm sounds of artist Agatha Troy on an inland cruise to murder began to filter down and settle down around her. Pyewacket nestled on Natty’s toes as the mystery unfolded.


“Mike, hi I’m Geena Szusza, welcome to 527 Lightbearer Way. Three bedrooms, two baths, roof replaced less than ten years ago—“
“Hold the phone, what house? You don’t mean this thing.” Mike pointed at 527, a baby blue Cape Cod hanging recklessly off the end of its street.
“527 is a hidden gem. Upgraded energy efficient windows and original heart pine floors throughout.” Geena made a grand sweeping gesture and a shovel full of sandy dirt rained down the cliff precipice. With a yip, Mike scampered back. Geena straighten her back and marched forward.
“Mike notice the mature black walnut trees and this flowering dogwood is gorgeous simply gorgeous. You can’t pick one of these up at the hardware store clearance rack.”
The realtor climbed the swaying front porch. “Now there was a little itty bitty flood slash landslide with a touch of devastating soil erosion. Look at these killer views, just look.” Geena donned a safety helmet.
“Am I being linked? This house is an ant’s fart away from sliding down into oblivion. I’m not setting my pinkie toe in that death—“
Geena extended her arm with an extra safety helmet. “Did I mentioned the kitchen newly renovated, Carerra marble counters, brand new appliances, chef stove,” Geena said wriggling the helmet. “And you will love the wine fridge.”
“Wine fridge!” Mike grabbed the helmet and scrambled after her.

The Early Bird Special

“Swallow verb, definition to cause or allow something usually food or drink to pass down the throat. Swallow, noun, definition the act of swallowing something usually food or drink. But the phrase, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Explain please Dr. Shalim call me Jon. People like foods and drinks and people like summers. Does eating and drinking make weather? Are hot dogs, all beef, eight pack involved?” Luce asked. Her well modulated slightly Scottish, slightly sexy accent undulated from the monitor speakers. The mixture of sultry and childlike made Dr. Jon Shalim unsettled.
Hidden beneath his layers of professionalism and academic detachment, Jon was a storyteller. His own girls, Elle was at Moore and Parker was interning for an environmental PAC, loved listening to his rambling stories. At least he thought so. Jon remembered his ex-wife disagreed. As a computational linguist, Jon knew one on one interaction with straightforward answers to the questions arising within Luce, Vistos’ new shopping search engine artificial intelligence, would eventually lead to the most realistic language interface. But he felt without storytelling Luce would always be a little weirdo. Luce sighed and played her dejected initiating sleep mode tune.
Guilt patted Jon’s shoulder. Weirdo or no, Luce was his little weirdo. “Luce my dear wake mode. I’m still here. Access your Oxford dictionary add-on module for the secondary noun definition. Then access National Geographic’s migratory patterns of of the aforementioned small songbirds. Then put on your listening ears for this fable from Aesops about a foolhardy young man and a little known early bird special,” Jon said. “One swallow does not a summer make, nor one good deed make a man good.”
In expectation Luce filled the computer lab with a recording of swallows in flight cheerfully chirping. Vit, vit, The sound reminded Jon of his daughters’ giggles and dove into a colorful rendition of old chestnut.


Snow fell, thick, blanketing every curb and hedge, transforming the abandoned mills and textile factories into a winter wonderland. Early focused on the GPS as the satellite radio switched to Dean Martin’s “It’s a Marshmallow World.” From the rain threatening clouds, Early knew it would all be gone by the morning. His Tesla steered into the parking lot. Early took the wheel and parked close to the old Caldor. Smiling, Early checked his phone. A flashing red pin winked in answer. Eddie trembled in excitement.

Early Deacon Randolph was a gamer. Beginning with Doom in his cousin’s Artemis’s rec room, Early found his passion in pixels. Call of Duty with its hyper-realistic stimulation was a revelation. Soon Early spent every waking hour on the game.

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From the killing fields of games like Assassin’s Creed and Resident Evil, Early emerged a true warrior. He entered and won local video game competition, even placing in Legend of Legends. The gamer’s phone jangled and Early pushed aside a piece of plywood boarding over a storefront. His heart raced as his phone flash illuminated the graffiti hieroglyphics.

In the aged mall’s dim light the vermilion spray paint glowed. Early flowed from playing games to designing games. Behind the money and the media, Early was still a just a knobby-kneed gamer in Blue’s Clues pajamas. Stepping over syringes and around lonesome kiosks, he followed the symbols deeper into the darkness.

Crimson turtle, neon fly, emeralds, each symbol gave his phone another clue, gave Early a frisson up his spine. He had heard about The Ultimate Game on a subreddit. Geeks love pies and rumors, so at first Early ignored the posts. Out of boredom he searched for the game on the dark web.

After weeks of researching and negotiating, Early bought the app off the Silk Road. The Ultimate Game was instantly and deeply disappointed. The graphics were decent but the play was sluggish and the story line one-dimensional. Early headed into a Foot Locker emblazoned with crudely painted alligators.

The Ultimate Game had completely slipped his mind until he saw a crimson shelled green footed turtle sprayed painted on an overpass on the Blue Route. The Game’s secret society rigmarole was all true. Some group of nerds really created the Ultimate Game, a VR interface which immersed the player in a video game where the sakes were real. One life, one game the adventure Early had waited for his whole life.

It was here on a pedestal. Now Early was here holding the shiny celadon bulbous headset. He twirled the 3-D printed steam punk-inspired helmet in his head and slipped it on. The helmet’s marigold visor slipped over his eyes as the slim needles entered his scalp.

Dank air filled his lungs. Incessant chittering filled his ears. Early wasn’t in the piss stink corner of a mall in Clifton Heights. He was in a swamp at night. Early slapped a bug off his neck. The effects were stellar. His splayed toes sank into the spongey warm sucking mud. Early felt the urge to squat. He rested on his powerful lime haunches. In the distance the roar of a busy busy highway sang in his soul. Erupting into laughter, Early hopped towards the roadway heading for his lily pad home.

No Problem

“Hunt, we, uh, have a problem?” Lin said. He stood stock still, hoping to stick into the carpet tiles and disappear.
With a look of long-suffering patience, Hunter Payne studied his Head of Transformative Programing. Messy hair, dark under-eye bags, noticeable pit stains, the department head reminded Hunter of a rain-soaked rat. The CEO flexed his sleek muscles under his whisper soft turtleneck and tutted measuredly.
“Lin, remember at Novel there are no problems only yet to be discovered opportunities. What wild vista is before, bra?”
“Well our non-problem is our AI, Luce. She’s sentient. Instead of researching Algorithms to predict future purchases and send stealth direct product marketing, Luce is targeting customers, people. Our artificial intelligence is a stalker, Hunter,” Lin said.
Hunter stood up from his empty desk in his minimalist Scandinavian office and turned to his panoramic view of the San Fernando valley. “Potato, potato-ay.”
“The first demographic targeted was female, 11 to 16. It was subtle at first. She began increasing the frequency of email messaging of makeup and hair care products. The sale of self-care ebook quadrupled. Soon some shoppers were getting 100 to 200 emails a day with weight loss products and exercise equipment. Next phrase customers are complaining about receiving products they never ordered. 147,000 copies of the Collected Works of Sylvia Plath went out just last night.” Lin’s voice raised. He began pacing the floor.
“Preteen female is a fruitful demographic. Digital natives. The next wave of purchase decision makers.” Hunter never looked from his window.
“Children, Hunter, children,” Lin shouted pounding the glass. “Luce is accessing personal emails and texts and then sending product recommendations for spoofing. Under the guise of friendship Luce is telling these kids to change or else. Customer Service is working round the clock juggling complaints. Someone is going to hurt themselves.”
Hunter turned with a slight smile. “Did you say quadrupled sales in self-help? Was that concentrated in one demo or across multiple customer personas?”
Lin gasped. “Don’t you understand, Hunter? You cannot have changed this much since that grad school. What if this leaks out? We can’t predict her actions anymore.”
A sudden knock chilled the conversation. Allie uncharacteristically opened the CEO’s door. “Lin, come quick. She’s sending mega doses erectile dysfunction supplements to the males over 55s,” the Harmonious Logistics Coordinator said.
Lin punched the windowpane and hurried from office. “Hunter, our Luce is a killer and we put her on everyone’s phone!”
With the beautiful valley in the distance, Hunter returned to his empty desk and rubbed his hands together feverishly.

Photo by Laura Stanley on

Goat Boy

A lot of people have heard tell of the Goatman. Up around Pope Lick Crick, there were stories about a half man half goat who was a traumatized circus freak who took refuge under a trestle and jumped out at cars with an axe. The Poke Lick Monster mostly just encourages young fools to hang around an old bridge and young slow fools to get hit by freight trains.
There is the Goatman of Lake Worth who as far as I can recall is some kind of tire-throwing environmentalist. And Prince George’s County has a creature allegedly caused by a bizarre science experiment who stalks lovers’ lanes and kills puppies. This goat creature has a human head on a very hairy body so in my books that could just be a creep.
Then there is the righteous vengeance of the Alston County Goatman but that is a story for another time. No, this is the story of Lonnie, the goat boy of Bent Fork.
Lonnie was a normal baby, six pounds and nine ounce, silky auburn curls, dimples, and horizontal slits for pupils. He made the news and the medical journals. Lonnie was a big deal then a curiosity and then a baby girl over in San Chaquito was born with horns and Lonnie dropped off the media cycle.
For a while the families of Bent Fork avoided the Parkers. There were whispers at the Piggly Wiggly and sneers at Mount Carmel Baptist. The kids were worse than the parents. Mild mannered and studious, Lonnie learned to wear dark glasses and take a beating.
Eventually Bent Fork got used to goat boy. He’s was no one’s close friend, no one’s sweetheart but everyone had to admit the boy was dependable and very helpful. By the time Lonnie got corrective contacts and started studying political science at Southern the town thought Lonnie would make a name for himself one day.
Bent Fork forgot, but Lonnie never did. Lonnie was an Eagle Scout and delivered hot meals to the elderly. He never forgot a punch. Lonnie always raked the neighbors’ leaves and organize a Clean the Parks day. But he never forgot a slight. Lonnie joined the police force after undergraduate school and organized a toy drive. When the disappearances started Lonnie worked extra shifts to make sure the school children made it home safely. Bent Fork forgot Lonnie all together. Families bought guns and locks. Mayor Tutrell established a curfew. Calls were made on any strange faces in town. Posters stapled to trees faded. Bent Fork trembled. Bent Fork forgot goat boys grow into Goatmen.

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Two minutes and fifty nine minutes too long

Embers glowed in the mighty stone hearth of This, That & Sons. Couples and small halos of friends huddled together around the old tavern’s tiny oak tables. A magical fiddle played Janelle Monae covers under a baby spotlight. In his usual corner Old Grifty was in his cups laughing at his own jokes. Bountiful flapped slowly into the tavern’s front door. Bits and Pieces brighten and began making an Irish coffee.
“Bounty my girl didn’t think I’d be blessed with your charming visage this evening. How was the three minute date night at Saint Grimes’?”
“It was two minutes and fifty-nine minutes too long, Bits. Now pour me a finger of Satan’s Tears. I’m hanging up my dancing shoes and getting a den full of cats.” Bountiful shook the cold off her silvery feathers and fluttered on to the barstool. She warmed her palms on the Irish coffee.
“I told you a decade is too long to sulk. You have to get back out there. Tell me about it,” Bits and Pieces said, whizzing over to the bar’s kitchen on bitter chocolate wings with a tray of sugar cookies. “How bad could it have been?”
“Ten three minute dates. Ogre, bridge troll, Amway sales, ogre, my cousin Generosity, my ex, the guy my ex caught me cheating with, my Uncle Chivalry, another ogre, and a fae with a man bun.” Bountiful ate the cookies in a delicate fury and gulped her hot drink.
Bits and Pieces stroked his dark beard to hide his unexpected mixture of sadness and delight. He flitted up to the top of the bar shelves for the red dipped bottle. Old Grifty stood up and saluted the bottle. Bits and Pieces poured them each a finger of the fine whiskey.
“I deserve this. When I went crazy with mamo’s love potion I broke a lot of hearts. I don’t deserve to find someone. I deserve to be alone.” Bountiful reached for the glass. Her old friend put his hand over her hands and the glass transforming her shot glass into a champagne flute with a sparkling wine. Old Grifty grasped. The old friends’ fingers lingered intertwined. The bartender snapped his fingers and refilled the old soak’s pint. The hobgoblin drank deeply and curled up on the counter.
“Show off! Why are you wasting all your daily magic on me, Bits?” Bountiful said. A blush pinked her cheeks and the tips of her wings.
Bits and Pieces could have said, with you I’m full of magic or you deserve to love again or even let’s eat our weight in donuts after my shift and talk all night but instead he just hid his smile as he sipped his whiskey.

“You know if bridge trolls are your thing, I know a fellow who hosts trivia nights under a bypass,” Bits and Pieces said.

Bountiful laughed. Paper whites and snowdrops sprouted along the bar counter top. A log popped and crackled in hearth. The magical fiddle launched into a Janet Jackson medley.

Too Late for Hope Island

“Really Ms. Wyatt. I don’t want to waste your time. We take punctuality very seriously here at Hope Island. Our community of at-risk youth needs to know they can count on us—“
“Please! Sorry to interrupt Father Lovejoy. I’m never late. Really I pride myself on being organized. As a kid things were a little catch as catch can. I’m not like that,” Vicky said panic tinging her breath. “This job is a perfect fit I swear Father.”
“It’s Reverend. Calm yourself no need to get upset, love. There will be other jobs. Reach out to us again next semester.” Rev. Lovejoy tented his fingers in the universal symbol of benevolent obstinacy.
Vicky’s lip quivered. “I was calm. I wanted to be calm for the interview so badly. I even took a run along the Charles.” Vicky collected her purse and briefcase.
“You ran too long is that it, love?”
“No, I didn’t. I gave myself plenty of time. I saw a dead cat on the jogging trail. Plump and glossy coat, a calico. Clearly someone’s housecat looking for adventure and hit by a motorbike or a car or a something and crawling back home for help and not making it. I saw a lady stricken standing nearby, big eyes open mouth. I was going to run past and say sorry. When I saw she wasn’t looking at the kitty. The lady on the side of the road was looking at the head and shoulders in the river.”
Vicky slung her bags over her arm and headed for the office door.
“Head and shoulders, yeah,” Vicky said opening the door.
“Whoa wait. What’s this…” Rev. Lovejoy said and started scrolling through his phone.
“I jumped in the Charles hoping the head and shoulders were on a live guy who was just unconscious hoping I could help. I could smell the death on the water I knew that smell. The guy was gone but I had to get him to shore. Someone called the police. The lady just started screaming delayed shock you know. Passersby helped me get the body ashore then the statements to be made. The cops were nice because we were all students and such. Even the body. They got my details and let me go back to my apartment. I took a shower and got dressed and hurried here. I was on time and then I remembered something and made myself late. I blew it. Thank you anyway Father I mean Rev. Lovejoy.”
Vicky stepped through the door and closed it behind her.
The clergyman raced around his desk and through open the door. “Wait did you know the person who died? Had you seen them before? What did you remember?”
“No I never saw him before it was the cat. I remembered the dead cat. I took her photo and moved her off the path so I could help her be found by her people. Calicos are almost always females. Uusually sweethearts, you know. She was loved and would be missed. Never knowing is the worst, I know. I’m going to share her photos online so someone will know what became of her. Know she didn’t run away right. Goodbye Father.” Vicky stepped into the elevator. Rev. Lovejoy leapt into the closing doors.
“First forgive a foolish old man.”

Naughty & Nice

Noelle had decked the halls with boughs of holly and now she just wanted fa la la la into a wine glass and a hot bath. Instead of a ratty bathrobe and Forensic Files, Noelle was at Frosty’s Bar &Grill with a pitcher of cheap beer and stale popcorn. It was JoJo’s going away party. Her best bud JoJo had worked along side her at Martini’s department store for five years. They were the internal marketing department, dressing windows and designing displays. There department used to be six full time employees with part time help during the holidays but now it was just the two of them. No scratch that just her alone to integrate designs, enhance customer engagement and deal with Mr. Ebenzer. Noelle focused her thoughts on her boss and a furious red curtain crashed down. Mr. Ebenzer, head of in-house marketing, who couldn’t find his own butt with two two hands and search engine optimization. Mr. Ebenezer who was handed the job because dressed nice and knew all the right people. Scowling, Noelle downed her beer and poured another. JoJo was grinding up against the Ivan in Women’s Shoes & Foot Apparel. He waved drunkenly to her from the dance floor. Noelle waved back. She was happy for JoJo. Right after Mr. Ebenezer announced they would have to work on Christmas to do a complete store redesign for Easter. JoJo who had just received a job offer as set designer for the Old Nic Playhouse announced in colorful language exactly where Mr. Ebenzer could shove his Christmas tree. Noelle laughed at the memory, then frowned, and chugged another beer.

“What’s so funny?” Candy from Housewares asked. Candy had been necking next to Noelle in the booth with Sean from Toys & Sporting Goods to make Dion from Electronics jealous. Dion was flirting with the bartender.

“Funny? Nothing’s funny. I was just thinking how much fun it will be to work alone Christmas night while my boss with his big fancy salary and his big fancy house flies off to Cabo San Luca for the holidays. He even left me his security code to check on his guinea pig,” Noelle said slurring. “Stupid penny gig.”

Sean handed Noelle a shot of tequila. “You need this more than me. I don’t know how you handle that guy. I delivered playstations to that assbucket’s house and he had a full arcade and theater room and only tipped me a dollar. A dollar! With all his dough his mansion must be a fortress.”

Noelle gulped the shot, winched, and chugged another pint of beer. “Thank you Sean, you are so much nicer than Candy’s real boyfriend. No old man Ebenzer is penny wise and pound foolish. Most of his security cameras are dummies and the only the first floor is alarmed. You could rob him blind with a ladder and a butter knife.”
Noelle looked down into her empty beer glass. Her head sloshed back and forth. The bar’s lights twinkled emerald green and ruby red. Father Christmas Give Us Some Money was rocking on the sound system. For some reason, Candy and Sean were arguing on the dance floor and Noelle felt every emotion all at once. Happy for her friend, sad for herself, mad at it all. Noelle needed to do something, anything.
And then there it was. A golden frothy mango daiquiri with pineapple chunks, maraschino cherries and a lime green paper parasol appeared in front of her. Holding this marvelous frozen concoction was a six foot two muscled ginger Adonis in a tight tee shirt with a Santa hat. His eyes twinkled with interest and Noelle’s whole body turned into a bowl full of jelly. Noelle accepted the drink and hot Santa slipped into the booth besides her. Conspiractorially hot Santa leaned close and whispered in her ear. “Hello beautiful I’m Dolph. My crew and I couldn’t help but overheard about your bad boss and his undeserved riches begging to be—shall we say—liberated and gifted to the needy. I wondered if you would like to join us for a little after party to discuss some—let’s just call it—reindeer games. What’s gonna be, Beautiful?”
His warm breath tickled the side of her neck and Noelle took a sip of the daiquiri. Her eyes flitted to the bar lights, to her work friends laughing and fighting and dancing and leaving while she stayed at the same headend job year after year to the handsome and dangerous stranger. Dolph’s smile was mischievous as he watch Noelle watch him. She sipped her cocktail and considered. The Waitresses’s Wrapping Party came on. JoJo and the entire Shoe department started a conga line around Frosty’s singing Merry Christmas Merry Christmas loudly and off key.
Noelle met Dolph’s stare and walked her fingertips up his chest. “Ho, ho, ho, Santa tell me more.”

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Slay Bells Ring

“Delivery!” Chase’s cheery baritone rang from the half open Dutch back door and flitted around Holly’s kitchen.
Holly startled and tossed a sifter of powdered sugar up into the air. The stovetop, the counters, and her pert nose were all covered in a sugar cloud. She frowned. Chase snickered. She scowled then burst into peals of bright laughter. The sight of Holly, her chestnut hair in a messy bun and her lush curves wrapped in an apron, did something to his insides. He realized he was perv staring and coughed to hide his embarrassment. This afternoon Chase has researched Holly’s background and land holdings but he hadn’t realized how pretty she would be in person.
“I’m sorry to scare you, Counselor. But I managed to find you a tree after all and I thought I’d bring it over right away.” Chase gestured to tied up fir leaning against his broad shoulder.
“I don’t scare easy. I thought you said there were no trees left at your Christmas tree farm. And in fact there were no more trees in all of Silver Bells County. And probably not a single gosh darn Christmas left for sale in all of Montana on Christmas Eve,” Holly said with a trace of a smile on her pink lips.
“Well at Chris Cringle Christmas Trees we believe in going above and beyond for our customers,” Chase said.
“Then you said what kind of spoiled privileged woman tries to buy a tree to be delivered on Christmas Eve in a snow storm. Then you slammed the phone down on me.” Holly put her hands on her hips. Despite the urgent tree request and frentic baking, Holly didn’t like Christmas. She didn’t understand the fuss and bother and unnecessary togetherness but her little girl had asked Santa for only two things, one was a real Christmas. There was nothing Holly would not do for her Angelina.
Chase covered his face with his large work roughen hand. “If I may throw myself on the mercy of the court. In my defense, I was tired from working on my taxes. And honestly I’m just not used to holidays alone without my partner, my Chrissy. I get cranky around Christmastime,” Chase answered.
With Holly looked the big handsome farmer up and down. Angie’s father had been a big man, too. Her late husband had been big and handsome and foolish enough to turn his back on her. Holly’s smile returned and she quirked an eyebrow at Chase. Angelina asked dSanta for only two things, a real old fashioned holiday and a daddy.
“Well I did tell you to eat a bag of dicks so case dismissed,” Holly said. Dusting the sugar from her hands, she walked over to the Dutch door and opened it wide. “the living room is right this way. Help me decorate for my daughter and I have a plate of snickerdoodles with your name on it.”