fiction

Beach Road, Part Three

Again, I am continuing a story started by others. This time, I am writing part three. Go ahead and read part one, written by Paul Willet, here, and part two, by Peter MacDonald, here.

And here’s my part three:

The battle was farther away than it seemed. She walked over the pockmarked roads and muddy fields that were the mark of this new world. As the sun started to wane on her right, she was finally able to see some of the carnage in front of her.

If the sun was setting, how far had she walked? Distance was hard to judge without GPS on cellphones. Or road signs, for that matter. Was she in National City now? Chula Vista? Hell, Tijuana? She felt like she was definitely south of San Diego, but shouldn’t she have passed through some wrecked out urban landscape to get here? It was disease that had wiped out the world, not nuclear war. Other cities she had seen were abandoned, not missing.

But Southern California geography left her mind as she passed the first smoldering bush, indicating the outskirts of the helicopter’s reign of fire. Heat still swept across her path, although not as unbearable as it must have been an hour earlier.

For not the first time, she thought back to her initial goal. The Coronado Bridge. Get across it, and the land would be easier to defend. What was she doing, being diverted by a helicopter attacking the ground? Curiosity and the cat, she reminded herself, and this cat should be safely digging in her well-defended island litterbox.

Tomorrow, she promised herself. Tonight, she would investigate then find a secure place to spend the night. By midday tomorrow, she’d be playing her own version of Crossy Road.

A hint of azure caught her eye from the road beneath her. Unnatural colors stuck out in this post-world. Dirt, sky, ocean, and mostly-dead grass – these were the hues of the Plague. A powder blue halfway between a Caribbean lagoon and a Vail slope jumped out, even in the failing light of dusk.

The pattern inside the blue was even more unnatural, and downright frightening. A yellow lightning bolt haloed in white. The mark of the San Diego Chargers, a virulent bands of marauders.  She had heard terrified whispers of hapless wanderers being hacked to pieces for roaming into the wrong territory of town, unable to respond to the scathing screams of, “Show us your lightning bolt!”

At least it verified her location. The Chargers and had gone on the defensive in recent years, so any road markings would have to be in San Diego proper.

So perhaps the entire conflagration was nothing more than a simple turf war.  Even better, since the remnants of the blue-and-gold had clearly lost this engagement, there must still be some swag to scavenge. She breathed a sigh of relief at both the turn of events and the confirmation that she wasn’t losing her instinct.

She continued to climb over divots and pockmarks, made even craggier by the helicopter attack. With the sun finally set and the only light source coming from dwindling fires, she came upon the focal point of the damage. On the precipice of a giant crater, she was faced with yet another decision. Climb in and scavenge or wait until morning? Whoever was behind the attack would surely be here by morning. There might even be some Chargers under shelter right now, waiting to counterattack. She needed to get in and out before any group materialized. The way an individual made it this far was by avoiding groups. Any groups, but particularly groups as strong as the Chargers. A group able to rout the Chargers? She shuddered.

So over the lip of the crater she crept, leaving the amber glow of the surface behind. Waiting for her eyes to adjust to the starlight twinkling down, she remembered the night the lights didn’t come on. Before that night, every town she entered still had people trying to make do, convinced that they would persevere through dwindling numbers, believing that society would overcome the obstacles, that humanity’s progress would triumph. Even if the population of each town was halved by the time she left.

The lights going out ended that underlying hope. Yet, looking up at the sky as her ancestors once had, as she was doing again right now, gave a new sense of the future. The stars and the moon illuminated just enough to get by. All it took was adjusting to the new world. By scavenging, by defending, and, for some people, by joining gangs like the Chargers.

Like most nights, she looked up at the first stars of night, and thought back on the before and the after. The things that were unnoticed and background before, but so desperately vital now.

An unnatural sound broke her out of her reverie. A click. One she knew too well. Then another. And another.

A bright white, a color she might once have called fluorescent, spread out over her section of the Earth. The first shadows she saw in the floodlight were the muzzles of AK-47s trained over the lip of the crater. She was blinded, disoriented, and they had the high ground.

Shit, shit, shit!

“Hands up!” came a booming voice through a sound system.

She looked for a way out through squinting eyes. No cover at the bottom of the crater. Guns pointing down from eight directions, covering every spot on the compass. These guys were good.

“We knew the helicopter would get you here,” the voice came from the southern lip. She turned back to him, finally seeing beyond the muzzle. He, and his companions, were not wearing Charger gear. They were all in black, body armor from the look of it, with faces covered by a modernized World War I gasmask.

“This doesn’t have to end badly,” he changed tact. “We just want to talk to you. Study you. Just put your hands in the air, Typhoid Mary.”

One more decision. Fight or flight? Reluctantly, she let the tension leave her body and followed his instructions. Hands in the air.

“Sir,” the man turned to report behind him. “The mission is a success. We have Patient Zero in custody.”

Murder Unannounced, Part Two

As I mentioned last week, the flash fiction challenge right now is about continuing other people’s stories. I chose to continue a murder mystery started by CJ, which can be found on her blog here: http://imagination.cjreader.com/ (second story down, as of now)

Here is me trying to advance the story…

TWO

Two steps inside the apartment, Mailie already knew something was wrong. The oppressive heat was bad, but expected. The open windows and lived-in feeling of the front room, however, were unexpected. She scanned the room but didn’t see her nosy roommate. Just the open window and an empty couch. An empty couch with a sweaty divot in the middle, and on the table right in front of it, next to Mailie’s cellphone, sat a laptop.

“Dammit, Tina,” Mailie muttered under her breath.

Everything had to go right today, and now Mailie’s worthless roommate was throwing a wrench into the mechane.  At this time on a Saturday morning, Tina should still be sleeping. What time had she stumbled in last night? It had to be past 3:00. Mailie had been in her dark room, listening for the telltale signs, then snuck out as soon as her roommate passed out.

Given normal patterns, Mailie should have had a good ten hours to do what needed to get done. Tina would sleep until noon. That would have given Mailie the time she needed to finish her work. She still had the murder weapon. She had the cash, much more cash than she had been led to believe the couple would have on hand. Thank God for Honeymooners.  And, of course, the envelope. If the blessed couple hadn’t been trying to smuggle that particular item out of the country, they’d probably be sipping mai-tais right now.

The extra cash and the ring had been the cause of Mailie’s early-morning sojourn. In addition to her normal laundering conduit, she needed to check on the viability of hawking the diamond.  But now that the second-hand jeweler had been secured, there was a new wrinkle in her plans.

Mailie had needed to be back, playing the vapid coquette persona she had worked so hard to establish, when her roommate woke up. There would be a half-hour of Tina whining about finding her muse and staring at a blank screen before she packed up and headed to Starbucks for the afternoon, under the guise of distraction-free writing, but really just to chase some of last night’s booze away.  All Mailie needed to do was say, “Oh, Emm, Jee, Tina. Pete was such an asshole last night. I might just cry in my room all day. How’s your writing coming? Hey, when you come back from ‘Bucks, can you bring me a white mocha?” but she hadn’t made it back in time.

Mailie went over to the coffee table to pick up her phone grabbed her phone from the table. She had left it here because she damn-well knew the boss used it to track her. He needed to know the job was done. He did not need to know about the bonus cash and jewelry.

When she grabbed the phone, however, that faint instinct that something was amiss grew. The phone was warm, meaning it had been illuminated recently. Had the boss called early? Shit, what time was it?

Mailie’s panic increased as she double-tapped and swiped the phone.  The little “missed call” icon was nowhere to be seen. She frantically swiped from the side and the top looking for the call log.

“Why the fuck do they make it so hard to find a missed call?” She said out loud, not realizing her transition from internal monologue to verbalization.

She finally found it and the feeling erupted into a certain knowledge of catastrophe. Seven minutes ago, a call had come in. Unknown Number. Didn’t matter, it was the boss. But it was listed, not as missed but as incoming. The phone had been answered.

“Dammit, Tina!”

She turned to march on her roommate’s room when she noticed the door to her own room. It was open, and her room was clearly visible. She diverted her trajectory until she was standing in her own doorway, trying desperately to assess the damage and run through contingency plans.

But she could not focus. All she could do was move her eyes from problem to problem. The window she had crawled out of in the dark pre-dawn hours was back open.  Her dresser drawers were open, her clothes tossed on the ground. The silk scarf she had used to transport and store the murder weapon was unraveled on top of the drawer and lying there, on top of the clothes, the bloody knife proudly announced itself to the world. The manila envelope had fallen to the floor, the file it contained partly spilled out.

Mailie picked the easiest, and most pressing, problem to deal with first, grabbing the envelope and file off the ground. As she went to put the file back in, she noticed how thin, how empty, the manila container was. The ring was not there.

“The bitch stole it!”

Mailie ran to the window, looked out at the alleyway. It was precisely the way she had left it in the dark. She had moved the trashcan in front of the gate. There was no way Tina could have answered the phone that recently and escaped out the window without moving some items. So she was still inside.

She ran back to the front room and spoke in a loud, clear voice. Not a shout, but enough to be heard through the thin walls. No need to alert the entire neighborhood through the open windows.

“Tina, I don’t know what you think you saw, and I don’t know what you’re planning, but you need to listen to me. Some very bad things are going to happen if we don’t-“

Mailie was cut off by the unmistakable brzz, brzz of a phone vibrating on a table. The illuminated screen shone across the living room like a spotlight. Unknown Number.

I’m sexy and I know it…”

Story Part I

Trying to get back into the flash fiction game a bit. This week’s prompt was to write the first quarter of a story. In the coming weeks, I might continue another writer’s story, and hopefully someone will take up the mantle of poor Cyrus…

Spoiled Bacon

Cyrus silently cursed IKEA as the Allen wrench twisted through his fingers and fell to the ground again. Not that this creation was made of flimsy Swedish wood. This was the result of years of research, experimentation, and trial. But every time that damned L-shaped hex key spun too fast or too slow for the screw, he found himself using the furniture store’s name in vain.

“Straightedge and Phillips did fucking fine before those Aryan SOBs showed up in every neighborhood,” he exclaimed before wetting his raw fingers in his mouth.

Three more rightie-tighties, accompanied by one more tiny-tool projectile, and he stepped back to look at his masterpiece.

The time machine. His time machine.

It didn’t look too impressive in the dingy motel room off of Interstate 64. No light came in through the thick curtains drawn over the window that they had probably hung in front of since 1950. The faint illumination came from an incandescent light bulb that might as well have still had Thomas Edison’s initials on it, peeking out from underneath a lamp shade made from that same curtain cloth.

But he had to be here in the 21st century. Because what Cyrus had created was a time machine, not a time and space machine, a fact which had become all too clear on his test run. He went back a week. What could go wrong? Until he missed materializing inside a late-model Buick by a manner of inches.

So it was back to the drawing board. Kept most of the time elements intact, but allowing for objects which might exist in that spot in the past. Cyrus didn’t expect to find any Buicks in 1676, but who knew how the riverbank had grown or moved over the last three-and-a-half centuries.

Regardless, Cyrus needed to be here in Virginia when he went back, because it would be a hell of a lot harder to get to Jamestown back then. No Interstates, no satellites to guide the GPS on his phone. To say nothing of the Native Americans. Or Indians, as he was going to have to get used to calling them.

As he left the dingy motel in the direction of the Historic Jamestown Settlement, his thought shifted from the where of his destination to the when. Seven years after Cyrus, the naïve college senior, proclaimed the election of Barack Obama signaled a new age in race relations, little had changed. They might have gotten worse. Trayvon Martin. Michael Brown. And on a more personal note to Cyrus, the constant skeptical glances, the “Affirmative Action” quips,  at a smart, college-educated black man.

Racism was embedded in America. The only way to change that was to go back to the source. His first thought had been stopping Lincoln’s assassination, but that might be too late. Would an extra three years of “be nice to the south” Reconstruction have made that much of a difference? Segregation and an intrinsic belief of inferiority of the former slaves would still reign.

So maybe he could go all the way to the beginning. Literally. The first black slave coming to America, right here in Jamestown, one year before the Pilgrims even arrived. But what good could he do then? Kill a few slave traders. Then what? The slaves he freed wouldn’t even survive the conditions, probably. And a few months later, the next ship would arrive.

So not too early in race relations, and not too late, he finally decided to split the difference and arrived like a racial Goldilocks and the just-right spot, precisely one hundred years before the hypocritical Declaration of Independence. Bacon’s Rebellion, the great schism between white indentured servants and black slaves. If those two groups could be kept together with common goals, the permanent racial divide might never emerge.

Standing over the back channel of the James River, Cyrus took one last breath of 21st century air and flipped the switch. The machine whirred and whooshed as it attempted to pierce the ether of time, like a 1994 modem making the painstaking connection to AOL. Cyrus wondered about what sight would greet him on the other side, in order to avoid focusing on the vertigo about to hit. Traveling across one week had been bad enough. How nauseating would three hundred years feel?

Then it came, much worse than before, and he no longer cared about what he would see. Only that he would survive.

As Cyrus fought to keep his breakfast and every other meal he had ever eaten down, another stray thought ran across his mind. A suppressed query. When he revamped the space element on the machine, had he re-checked the time component? Before the test run, he had configured and reconfigured every step with time as the only variable. He had triple-checked his math, dotted every imaginary i, crossed every theoretical t.

Had he done that this time? Had he rechecked the time components after fixing the spatial variable? As the world started to shift, as his body began to stretch and condense through time, his mind kept returning to the vague iron-left-on-at-home feeling that something had been overlooked.

Then the constriction of his abdomen stopped all tangential thoughts.

“Definitely gonna hurl.”

Cyrus lurched out of the time vortex onto all fours as heat spewed from his bowels onto the hard forest soil. Twice. A third time before he could even inhale. Stomach still convulsing, he focused on the hard-packed dirt still wobbling under spittle hanging from his mouth like taffy.  The world, reality itself, transitioned from a shake to a swoon as sobriety and sanity fought for control.

After what could have been a minute or could have been a week – what is time, really? – Cyrus pulled his right hand off the ground to wipe his mouth. Then his forehead. He slowly raised his eyes off the vomit-splattered dirt to take in his surroundings.

“Shit,” he muttered.

This was not 1676 Virginia.

Before and After

Still behind on word count. Still cheating. Although not really, this was the plan all along. The blog plan, not the behind on my 50,000 word plan.

Last week I posted the flash fiction that my current work-in-progress is based on.

Now I will post what that scene looks like in its current form. Bear in mind this has not been edited or even looked at. SO chances are there are misspelled words and I’m sure I repeated myself a number of times. Right now it’s over 4,000 words, and I doubt it’ll be more than 3,00 when it’s cleaned up.

Maybe in six months, I’ll post it again after it’s been cleaned up, for a before-and-after-and-then-really-after look. But I can’t stomach the 1,000 words I’d lose if I edited it right now.

So “enjoy” this look behind the curtain.

Chapter 4: Festival

“Do you really think they were going to steal from me?” Eli asked as they walked back toward the city center.

“I know not,” Zachary responded.

“I did not think about unscrupulous people,” he continued, trying to both fill the silence and avoid his own embarassment.

Zachary did not respond this time.

“I guess these are things that a city dweller would need to take into account. The good folk I know are much more trustworthy.”

This finally forced Zachary to turn and look squarely into Eli’s eyes.

“Is that what you believe? Do you really think you can flood the market, destroy the value of a commodity, upend the very structure of society, and everybody’s just going to look the other way? Pat you on your back and ask no questions?”

“I,” Eli started, then stopped, blinking, trying to put his thoughts in order.

“I’m sorry,” Zachary relented. “I did not mean to offend you, just look out for you. You need to realize that any change to the way things are, however little, worries them. Something as simple as some smuggled cotton makes waves. All the way to London.”

“Smuggled?” Eli grasped on to the first word he could discern I didn’t smuggle. I mean. I didn’t. It’s my cotton.”

“Not smuggled?” Zachary seemed surprised for the first time since Eli first encountered him outside the tavern. He looked around to see if any city dwellers were listening in. None were paying attention, but a couple seemed to be a little too obvious about not paying attention. They had slowed to a stroll when he and Eli had stopped to talk. To be on the safe side, he nodded his head in the direction of a cross street. Eli got the hint and followed him there. The couple did not follow.

“What, are you running your own cottage industry?” he asked Eli when they were safely out of earshot from the main street. “Browbeat all of the simple bumpkins to work through the night by peatlight? Or,” his eyes sparkled, “is your girlfriend the ringleader? That lass could coerce all the wee lads to do her bidding I suppose. Maybe that’s your role?”

“No,” Eli said, flushing. “She’s not my… No, she knows none of this.

“I tinkered together a device,” Eli continued, recovering from the embarrassment and attempting to take control of the conversation after Zachary’s offensive insinuation. “Horsehair bristles snag the cotton, stretch it out past iron prongs that catch the seeds. It takes no time at all.”

“A cotton gin?” Zachary asked. “Where did you find plans for that? I thought those had all been destroyed. Nobody’s seen one of those in centuries.”

“I saw nothing,” Eli protested. “I was tinkering with a wheat crusher, trying to make a smaller one for personal use. I couldn’t crush, but I could separate.”

“Invented it?” Zachary said, mostly to himself. “Could that be? A modern Eli Whitney?”

“It’s pronounced Elly.”

The two looked at each other, confused.

“People who see my name think I’m an Eli,” he continued, “but it’s pronounced Elly.”

“Let me show you something,” Zachary said, returning to the present.

He looked out toward the main street again, felt comfortable that nobody was paying attention to them. The couple from before had moved out of sight.

He reached down to the side of his leather trousers, and Eli noticed for the first time that the stitching was different from usual. Instead of standard stitching, his seams were clasped together. Two separate sets of leggings, a front and a back, more of a covering than legitimate clothing. Eli’s suspicions were confirmed when Zachary unclasped the leather, opening the chaps and revealing another fabric underneath.

The new fabric was unlike anything he had seen before. What he assumed to be cotton had been woven, or maybe even stitched, into a tight diagonal pattern. The deep indigo color found on the outer edges faded first to a lighter blue and then almost white by the middle of the thigh, where the fabric itself seemed to be worn thin as well. Running through the blue stitching were white divots, which Eli couldn’t tell if these were weaved in the opposite direction from the blue or if they were actually showing through from the underside.

“I’ve never seen anything like that before,” Eli whispered. “How are the fibers so strong? So tightly woven?”

“Was hoping you’d be able to tell me,” Zachary said, “what with your knowledge of the webster trade.”

“If I knew what to do with the cotton, I wouldn’t be selling it,” Eli responded and Zachary nodded understanding. “But from a tinker’s perspective, I’m fascinated. It seems like there are two threads of blue for every one thread of white, going in opposite direction. That must account for the strength, but also the maneuverability.”

“Maybe I should give you this set to study,” Zachary responded, mostly in jest. “Truthfully, nobody in England has been able to emulate it.”

“Where is it from?”

“From Nimmes, in France. It has no name, so we just say ‘tis de Nimmes.”

“De’Nims,” Eli worked the word through his mouth.

“Do you know what that means, de Nim? From Nimmes?”

Eli did not answer.

“Means ‘tis illegal,” Zachary continued. “Contraband.”

Eli looked back to the street, finally seeming to understand the implications.

“Then why are you?” he asked. “Why do you have it?”

“You’ve already answered the last question. Good quality, durable, comfortable. Nothing in Charles’s kingdom comes close. But, as you can see, I keep them hidden. Something you should think about doing.”

“But cotton’s not illegal.”

“No, ‘tisn’t. But you are going against the system. The less you are noticed, the better. Best case scenario, some weaver’s guild comes to your manor and burns it down. If you think your lord will come to your defense, you’re crazy. He’d more likely be behind the mob. Nothing keeps the nobles awake at night more than the fear of peasants saving time on their work.”

Eli stayed silent, trying to absorb the man’s advice in pieces.

“Come,” Zachary fastened the chaps back over his pants and led Eli back toward the main street. “Don’t want to raise any notice by talking too long on the side street.”

Eli followed along, dragging like an anchor. So much information was going through his mind. One second he was wondering how the de’Nim could be produced, the next was focused on the danger he never knew he was courting.

“What’s the worst case?” He finally asked.

“Hmm?” Zachary looked back from his lead position.

“You said the best case scenario was they’d burn my hut. What’s worse than that?”

He turned fully around, glanced around for suspicious listeners one again. His eyes bore into Eli’s, and everything else on the street disappeared from notice.

“I said best case was a guild. Beyond that are nobles, and the higher the noble, the worse off you’d be. Worst case? Who else? Mister Stuart himself.”

“The king?”

“Aye.” He turned back around, letting it sink in.

Many silent steps later, they reached the festival grounds/ With sundown approaching, the square was much more crowded than before. People from all levels of East Anglia society milled about with no clear direction nor in any hurry to get there. Eli looked around at the many distinct faces, each showing the same anticipation. One of the draws of this or any other holiday was the lessening of the strict class lines. This was a boon to all classes. While the peasants enjoyed a day of freedom and ease, the nobles were able to loosen their guard. The ease the upper class enjoyed on this day was far different from that of the workers.

During Yule, travel difficulties meant staying close to home, so switched roles and gift giving became the focus. But at midsummer, anonymity reigned supreme. The person next to you might be a vagrant just out of jail or an exotic Scot. The cheeky flirtation, stolen kiss, or even the drunken fondle was equally likely to be with an experienced wench or a virginal princess. In Eli’s experience, the noble girls, while far less knowledgeable, were much more voracious with their affection. At least up to a point. But when the frolic and revelry turned into outright fornication, they disappeared. Their virtue (and dowry) safely absconded behind the ivied castle walls to wake up safe when the societal boundaries were reestablished.

Thoughts of fornication, not surprisingly, were all it took to take his mind off of the information it had been attempting to process. That was the unacknowledged rule, the unspoken tradition, of festivals and holidays. After the musicians put down their lutes and the peatlamps were lit, debauchery descended. And this festival, bringing together people from all the surrounding counties, meant the variety and the frequency of the action took on a life of its own. Sometimes he spent the entire night playing couple in the arms of one specific lass, and other years he stayed mobile, bouncing from group to group. Last year, he coupled with a rosy-cheeked blacksmith’s daughter from the north, information he was not able to glean until their third act underneath the rising of the second-longest sun of the year.

This line of thinking also led him back to Rebecca. He wondered when she might be coming to the festival and what she was doing in the meantime. Had she finished grooming the horses and was Carter still keeping her occupied? It was at this point, Eli began to wonder how much of the day had been chance? Had they purposefully separated him from his traveling companion? At first he was thankful for the random invitation Carter had given Rebecca, thinking himself fortuitous. Just as fortuitous as the ride into town he had received. Had Carter, and therefore Zachary, known where Eli was heading? Did they know he might run into trouble with unscrupulous merchants?

He looked at the back of the man before him. The head was constantly moving, eyes scanning all of the faces, noticing all of the actions. There did not seem to be much that went past his notice, and he made no accidental moves. If he was in the same place as Eli, it was not by happenstance.

“Were you there to spy on me or to protect me?”

Zachary turned back. His astute, penetrating black eyes searched Eli’s face. Measuring. Critiquing Eli’s readiness, deducing the way to answer his question.

“Let me buy you your first midsummer ale,” he responded after the uncomfortable pause.

Eli nodded and followed him toward the stage. He was happy for an early offer of ale, even if it meant the answer, and even the question he had asked, would not be as simple as originally posited.

Still, early ale was early ale. The brewers offered their strongest, most flavorful brews early, when the prices were highest. The aldermen and others in charge of ensuring the success of the festival made them lower the price as the evening wore on. Although they were being compensated for the difference, the brewers still watered down the cheaper ale, stretching the life of their keg, before switching to the overspill from their own pubs. As the price continued to fall throughout the night, so did the quality and consistency. The free swill that circulated after midnight had the consistency of a springtime puddle and seemed to turn into a pungent summer puddle far too soon after consumption.

Eli took the offered ale, toasted to the buyer, and sipped the first delicious malted flavor of barley cut with some woody rosemary and juniper. The two men looked at each other, then at the growing crowd of twilight, then down at their ale in an awkward cycle. No words were spoken. One ale turned into two, and was morphing into a third, before the subject was broached.

“I was neither spying nor protecting,” Zachary answered in a soft voice that was unnecessary with chaos of the festival start going on around them. “Although I suppose I ended up doing both.”

Eli bowed his head closer in an attempt to hear better, but no more words were forthcoming. He pulled back to look at the mouth, but it did not move. He could not determine the age of his companion. The scraggly black hair and lithe body screamed youth, while the focused eyes burned with the wisdom of the ages. The mouth fit both sides, set in a stern jaw with lines of stress and worry.

Regardless of age, the mouth was not moving. The jaw unclenched once, twice, as if preparing to unhinge for a slew of words. But each time, the studious brain overruled the action, as the man looked for the proper way to advance to the crucial points.

The eyes narrowed as he decided on the proper course of dialogue. But just as he took in a deep breath to forge forward, trumpets blared from the stage. The town crier stood to proclaim as the crowd hushed into silence.

“Hear ye, good English subjects!” the crier began. “Our holy sovereign, King Charles, hath decreed that all manorial and feudal duties be suspended for the midsummer holiday. The local Earls have graciously provided peat to be burned through the night for warmth and light. Duke Howard of Norfolk and Duke Richard of Suffolk have allowed their knights to roam amongst us keeping us safe.”

A round of polite applause emerged from the crowd at the mention of the knights. There was no reason to applaud peat or the far off dukes who few had ever seen. Or the king who might as well be mythical in backwaters such as this. But the knights walked amongst them, some wearing the traditional plate armor, others in dressed-down chainmail, so they received a warm thanks. Many raised their arms in acknowledgement of the praise.

“And let us not forget,” the crier continued, “Sheriff Bartholomew and the rest of the Arthursham alderman, who are providing the free food and drink of the festival.”

A few townspeople applauded at the mention of their sovereigns, but most of the peasants did not join in. It was considered in poor taste to applaud for the rulers of other lands, even if city politics did not follow the pattern seen elsewhere. Even at these few times when social structure was put on hold, provincialism reigned. The announcements had previously mentioned each earl by name, but the applause breaks and resulting animosity ruined the spirit of the festival, to say nothing of the time it took to get past the announcements.

“Verily,” the announcement continued. “As a prince from a faraway land once said, let us feast, frivol, and party like ‘tis nineteen hundred ninety-and-nine.

This brought cheers from townsperson and peasant, alike.

Eli gasped and spilled his beer as a strong hand clapped him on his shoulder, then grabbed hold. His ale fell to the ground as he was spun about to face his assailant. The grasper, however, turned out only to be a burly man who had already consumed too much ale. At the rate he was going, this man would not make it past the musicians. He might not even make it to the food.

“Happy midsummer!” the drunkard said and lurched forward to embrace Eli’s pole-like frame.

By the time Eli extricated himself from the behemoth’s grasp and gathered his composure, he found that Zachary had disappeared. Looking around, he saw no trace of the serious, gaunt man. Not sure where to go or what to do next, he decided to focus on what he was here for, returning to the brewer’s table to replace the ale that had poured out over the cracked earth.

Looking around at all the faces, he was surprised at how alone he now felt. For years, he would call anyone crazy for feeling alone in this crowd. The inclusion amongst the masses was always the draw of coming here. Meeting new friends, carousing and cajoling with perfect strangers had always filled him with a sense of belongingness he never felt the other days of the year.

Yet now he found himself looking for a familiar face. Zachary or Rebecca would make him feel more comfortable. Even Carter would give him a sense of belongingness, like he fit. Those three had already made him ask questions the motives and actions of not only himself, but the others around him. Zachary, especially, had made him question how he had gone about his entire life.

“One ale, please,” he ordered, and passed the full piece of peat to the cashier in exchange. He hoped the next one would have dropped to a half-peat and silently cursed the man who had wasted his last free one.

As he lowered his head to sip the froth from the top, his eyes scanned across the crowd on the outskirts of the festival grounds, flittering across an unkempt mat of dark black hair. After bouncing two or more steps beyond, his brain caught up and forced the eyes to backtrack. They met the piercing eyes of Zachary, who had been staring, waiting to lock on with Eli. Once their eyes met, Zachary rolled his eyes to the left, indicating the stone-front façade of a building neighboring the square, before disappearing again.

Eli headed in that direction.

“Easier for me to keep an eye out from this direction,” Zachary said when Eli got there.

“What are you looking for?” Eli asked, but was unsurprised when the only response was silence and more furtive glances.

“How much of your history do you know?” Zachary finally asked after many more sips of ale.

Eli gave a puzzled look in response, not sure where this conversation was going.

“Sorry,” Zachary continued, “I get ahead of myself sometimes. I assume you know the colloquial version of history. But how much do you pay attention? Do you notice when real life doesn’t fit the fable that they tell?”

The continued silence from Eli provided some answer to the questions.

“For instance, do you remember when Bartholomew was not sheriff here?”

“Certainly,” Eli responded quickly, happy to finally have a question he could answer. “Just two years ago, there was a different sheriff. Henry, I believe?”

“And, coming from Suffolk, I assume you remember the Duke before Richard?”

“His father, Thomas. I was ten years old when that happened. We were given the entire week off.”

“So who was king before Charles?”

The conversation stopped as Eli racked his brain. He could not recall who the last king was. Certainly it had not happened in his life. He thought back to stories his father had told him, or conversations he had had with the elderly. Or the learned. Or anyone. But other than the mythical Arthur, he could not think of any other king than Charles ever being mentioned, much less on the throne.

Zachary stared, unwavering, into Eli’s face, watching as he went through the internal struggle, looking for signs of progress or emergence from them.

“I know not,” Eli said as he worked through the question. “But I am only in my twentieth year. I am certain an older fellow might recall.”

“No. He would not.”

Eli looked up in confusion.

“Ask Carter, the next time you see him,” Zachary continued. “There was no king before Charles. At least not that anyone has heard of. Ask anyone.”

Eli’s continued struggle with the questions and the lack of information they highlighted was interrupted by a commotion behind him. The noise from the crowd nearest them changed from the cacophony of multiple casual conversations to a unified clamor.

Eli turned to see the amorphous throng of people bulge outward before bursting apart like the Red Sea, with two armed men emerging through the membrane of scattering peasants.

“Just don’t ask too loudly,” Eli heard Zachary’s voice from behind.

“There he is,” one of the armed men shouted, pulling his sword and running straight toward Eli.

He froze, certain that the merchants had turned him in. He tried to run through the options in the seven paces it would take them to get to him. He could run, but with him against the storefront and with the men he assumed to be knights almost at full speed, the only direction he could hope to elude them was into the crowd, which was the direction they were coming from.

Another option was to drop his coinpurse and feign ignorance and innocence. If the knights did not look down, there would be no evidence against him. Except logic told him that there was no cotton left, nor had he accepted the copper. All he had was more peat than the average peasant, and if it became his word against the merchant’s, neither a full pouch nor a missing pouch would affect the outcome.

So he went back to the first option, tensing his legs and aiming in the opposite direction the knights were running. As soon as they slowed to talk or apprehend him, he would pounce in the opposite direction and try to get lost in the masses.

Except the running men did not slow down as the approached. With the tiniest glance in his direction, they ran past at full speed. Eli turned to watch after them and, for the first time, realized that Zachary was not there. He was standing alone, back against the stone building, staring in the same direction as the crowd.

As one knight ran around the corner in pursuit of what, Eli did not know, the laggard of the two turned around, looking at Eli and the crowd. He walked back in that direction with purpose, and Eli belatedly realized he should have blended with the other peasants as soon as the men had passed.

“You,” the man pointed at him. As he came close, Eli noticed that he was not a knight. The clothes he wore looked at first glance like chainmail, but was in fact a non-metallic mesh that Eli did not recognize. It appeared to have the consistency of leather, but was a slick black that was almost reflective. While he wore no noble sigil over the ribcage like most knights, there was a small badge over his upper left chest showing the flag of England, a red cross of St. George on a field of yellow, but all superscribed with a blue-and-white checkerboard border.

“Were you just talking to that Cromwellite?” the man asked.

“Who?” Eli asked. “What?”

He assumed the man was referencing Zachary, but was confused on a number of levels. While his normal inquisitive demeanor caused the initial slow reaction, he decided to drag it out, remembering the various admonitions given by Zachary, including the final warning before he disappeared at the sight of the knights.

Not knights. Guards? Police?

“I did not see anybody,” he continued, sounding as lost and unobservant as possible. “I was looking at the crowd when you came through.”

“Worthless,” the man said. “Let me see your papers.”

Eli opened his pouch, trying to shield his questioner from seeing the contents. Slowly, he admonished himself, drag this out and think.

“Lost him,” the faster of the two guards returned, almost out of breath. “It took us too long to get through the peasants. Gave him a head start.”

He looked at Eli just as he produced the thick paper identification card every peasant was required to carry at all times.

“What about you?” the new arrival turned his attention o Eli and snatched the outstretched card. “I saw you chatting with him. You in league with the Puritans? Is he recruiting you for the revolution? Huh?” He looked down at the card, “Eli from the manor of Obediah?”

Eli almost replied with the instinctual “it’s pronounced Elly,” as he was used to doing any time someone saw his name in print, but decided against it. Correcting their pronunciation, or doing anything to stick out, to appear different that the dumb peasant yokel they would assume him to be, seemed a bad idea at this point.

“I, um, was looking at you coming out of..” he tried to repeat.

“This guy’s an idiot,” his first interrogator broke in, grabbing the ID from his companion and returning it to Eli. “He doesn’t know a thing.”

“Is that so?” the second one countered, trying to salvage some dignity after losing his prey. “And what were you doing so far from the crowd? So far from the festival?”

“I,” Eli glanced at the crowd that was now focusing too much of their attention his way. What stuck out, in almost every hand, was ale. He would use the urination excuse. He was looking for the latrine. To add credence to the statement he was about to make, he reached down to pick up his almost empty cup, when his eye caught upon something on the ground. His brain screamed at him to stand back up, but he could not.

For the second time in this confrontation, slow reactions saved him.

“Look, this idiot’s too drunk to stand up.” The first guard said. “Let’s look for escape routes from that alley.”

“Fine,” the second man acquiesced, turning one more shrewd eye upon Eli, who was swaying while standing upright, thankful for the excuse the guard had given him.

“But don’t do anything stupid, Eli of Obediah’s manor. We are watching you now.”

The two guards turned and left. Eli continued the charade of a drunk, swaying back and forth, even leaning against the stone wall for support, until the rest of the crowd lost interest in him and turned back to their usual pursuits.

Then he looked back down at the ground. The telltale indigo blue fabric, undercut with cotton white, a shade he had never seen before today. He reached down and brushed dirt off of cloth, and picked up the tightly woven fabric square of fabric with frayed ends.

Denim. Left behind by Zachary. A signal.