Chump City Nights – Flash Fiction

Since 1946, the same electric sign has hung out over the sidewalk in front of Dusty’s Pub. The sign features a cartoon French maid dusting the word “Dusty’s” with a feather duster.

One warm summer evening in 1978, Dusty, the club’s namesake and creative genius behind the sign, clutched his chest, slid down a wall behind the bar, and expired. His widow sold Dusty’s before Dusty was cold and the pub then belonged to a small, greasy man named Claude Radke.

Radke did not rename Dusty’s Pub, opting instead to spend the money he would need for a new sign on something more practical. This practical something turned out to be a few cartons of cigarettes which he burned through over the course of three or four weeks.

As Dusty had done, Claude Radke required that “his girls” wear the uniform of the French maid on the sign. On Friday and Saturday nights, two of them would skitter about the pub slinging drinks and tickling the noses of their better tippers with feather dusters. It was said that Radke’s girls would tickle other things if the price was right but this claim had not been substantiated.

One drunken night, Claude Radke groped one of his girls and she slapped him hard. Humiliated, he tossed her onto the sidewalk to the drunken cheers of his twisted knot of elderly regulars.

The banished waitress – who told me her name was Louise – showed up at my desk the next morning with information about Claude Radke she thought I could use. She was right. I dropped by Dusty’s later that afternoon to tell him the good news.

Three men sat across the bar from Radke when I walked in and they swiveled their stools to look at me.

“Afternoon, boys,” I said, opening my jacket so they could see the shield. “Stop by again when you can’t stay so long.”

The men grumbled and finished their drinks, pulling bills from wallets and flipping them onto the bar.

“So long, Claude,” one of the men said.

“Thanks for stopping, guys,” Radke said. The door closed behind them and he scowled. “What in hell do you want?”

“Nothing for me, thanks,” I said, taking a seat on one of the recently evacuated stools. “I’m on duty.”

The scowl deepened. “Quite a comedian.”

I made a show of looking around. It was clear we were the only two in the bar. “How’s business?” I asked.

Radke’s eyes narrowed to fiery slits of hate. “You want something, cop, or are you just here to harass a hardworking businessman for no reason?”

I shrugged. “Your gal, Louise, stopped in to see me this morning.”
“Not my gal.”
“Not anymore,” I said.
“Not anymore,” Radke agreed. He dried his hands on a towel.
“She claims you’re selling cocaine out of this place.”
He waved a hand in dismissal.

“Says you keep a pile of it in a coffee can on a shelf in the back.”

“She’s crazy.”

“You mind if I look around a little? You’ve got nothing to hide.”
Claude Radke smiled sweetly; a golden tooth glittered. “Go ahead,” he said. “Assuming you’ve got a warrant.”

I returned the smile. “Funny you should say that,” I said, reaching into my jacket pocket and producing a folded piece of paper.

Radke’s eyes shot to the paper. He looked up at me.

“Do not do it,” I said.

He bolted through a doorway behind the bar.

I placed my palms on the bar, tried to vault over, and bashed a shin into the polished wood. A couple stools went down and I cursed and gimped out the front door, hobbling down Wisconsin back to the alley. Claude Radke was a ways up the alley, hunched over and gasping.
“You should have turned left,” I said.

He ran for a few steps and his shoe slid out on the rocks. He went down windmilling, rolled around in the gravel for a while, and laid there in pain.  He sat up and I was on him, palming his forehead, pushing him back down in the rocks. “Lay still.”

“I don’t gotta talk to you, cop!” he spat. “I want my lawyer.”

I let go of his face and sat down beside him in the dirt. He panted at me. I panted back. A dark, bloody gash had been carved out above his right eyebrow and both knees were torn up and slick.

“Killing me with this running, Claude,” I said. “Too old to be running. Where the hell were you gonna go?”

“I want my lawyer.”

“So you said.”

“I’m not telling you nothing.”

“Anything,” I said.

Claude Radke frowned. “Anything.”

I stood and dusted gravel from my pants and held out a hand to Radke. He ignored it and climbed to his feet, wincing. I brushed some gravel off his back. He gave me a look so I stopped brushing. We started walking.

“I’m not arresting you,” I said.

“Thanks.”

“On the level.”

He stopped walking. “What is this?”

“Here’s the proposal: You give me the coffee can and you get to decide what you do with your time for the next 3-5 years.”

Radke’s eyes got narrow and shrewd. “You’re gonna sell it?”

“Don’t be stupid.”

“Use it?”

“How much does your lawyer charge?” I asked.

He started walking again. “I didn’t take you for a dirty blackmailer, cop. Next month you’ll be back for more.

“One and done.”

He winced and dug tiny, sharp rocks from bloody left palm with a fingernail. “And if I don’t?”

I shrugged. “The Department gets it. You pay an attorney for a plea deal, and you probably do time.”

We walked in the back door of Dusty’s and he put a large can of Folger’s in my hands. I opened it; Louise was telling the truth. I set the can on a table, pulled cuffs from my belt and said: “Claude Radke, I’m arresting you for possession of a narcotic with intent to sell. You have the right to remain silent…”

“You lied to me,” Radke said. His lips were shiny and spit flew when he said it.

I put the cuffs on him, finished his rights, and marched him around the bar out the front door. The pub was still empty.

“You said-”

“I lied.”

Radke was bewildered.

I dug in my jacket pocket, removed the folded paper, unfolded it and showed it to him.

“LOST,” it said. “Male German Shepherd answers to the name Rex. Missing since June 17th. Has shots and is friendly. If found, please call…”

I folded the paper back into my jacket and Claude Radke and I took a drive downtown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Resistors – Flash Fiction

In 2038, the Federal Live Stream Act was officially passed by an overwhelming majority. The act, considered controversial and bucked by a small minority, required all Citizens of the World to receive a microchip implant in order to participate in commerce (i.e. to buy food, housing, etc.) The Chip, as it was commonly called, killed, once and for all, the need for cash and keys and provided The Flag with the GPS coordinates and a continual live stream, of all chipped citizens. This feed was sent securely to the Flag’s Intelligence headquarters in Moscow.

All live streams were recorded and saved but none were accessed except in cases of Suspicion or during the investigations of committed crimes.  However, it was not due to these assurances from The Flag that the Stream Act passed. Studies (and common sense) had indicated that the Chip would significantly reduce the number of terror attacks and other crimes perpetrated globally and the citizenry, worn down by ever climbing increases in terror attacks and crimes, sacrificed its privacy to The Flag in order to see these numbers fall.

Three years after the Stream Act passed, Brock came into my office, said: “You need to see this,” and played for me the recorded stream of a missing young woman by the name of Kate Phillips.

Miss Phillips was a Resistor who did not wear a Chip. Still, it was rare that anyone went missing anymore. Cameras were virtually everywhere and even Resistors, though they did their best to elude them, were under near 24-hour surveillance as a result.

“Right…here,” Brock said, pressing Stop. “Poof.”

“Glitch?” I asked.

“Not according to the Lab.”

“Again,” I said.

Brock replayed the recording. On the screen, Kate Phillips ran from the camera and it followed her. Panicked, she looked over her shoulder with increasing frequency as the camera closed the gap between them. When the pursuer drew close, within six or eight feet, Phillips leaned forward and vanished.

“And they know it didn’t glitch,” I muttered, more to myself than to Brock. “What happens when you frame by frame?”

“Watch.”

Kate Phillips was looking over her shoulder at the camera. The camera was close, within ten feet or so. Brock stopped the recording. He advanced the frames one-by-one and then Kate Phillips was gone.

“Huh,” I said. “Anybody got a theory?”

Brock said: “Me and Evans think she fell off a ledge or into a hole or something.”

I shook my head. “No…Who’s chasing her anyway?”

“Boyfriend. We have him in custody.”

“Go back.”

Brock went back and advanced by frame.

“There,” I said.
We studied the still shot. Brock nodded and whispered: “Her legs are still there but her upper body…”

“She didn’t fall in a hole,” I said. “She dove into-”

Brock’s eyes got wide. “The Resistors have Transport,” he said with a disbelieving tone.

“Moscow,” I said. “This is 29468-LT. Patch to 79354-CL. Stat.”

“Live stream patched,” an automated voice replied. Another voice, this one human, said: “Pretty busy here, Carter. What do you need?”

“Colonel, the Resistors have Transport tech,” I said. “You’re going to want to see this.”

 

Dead Connection – 100 word story

You get down into some of these third-world countries and the tech is thirty years behind; this airport had a pay phone.

There’s weight to the sound of a real phone bell you don’t get with a cell. I heard the ringing from far away and ran to it.

Saturday afternoon. Civilians everywhere. A mother gripped her son by the arm and bawled, “Mind me!”

Another ring.

I shoved through. “Down! Down! Down!” I said and a little girl landed on her butt and slid.

A man picked up the handset and the phone detonated.

 

 

 

100 word story for Friday Fictioneers. Photo credit: © J Hardy Carroll

Hellions – Flash Fiction

Shelley’s monsters are wailing at me like their lives are at stake and this guy wants to talk about insurance. Oh, I’ll call him all right – no question. Thanks for the card.

The brats pull me free. They lead me past a shoe store, a phone store, a jeweler. We go by a kiosk for t-shirts, a kiosk for hobby drones, a chittering pack of teenage girls, and now we’re near the food court. I corral the kids over to a table and we flop down on plastic chairs. I peel off my shoes.  The shoes have heels and my feet are a wreck. The kids squawk at each other.

We came here for Shelley’s hair appointment at 9:00 but now it’s 2:37 and she’s nowhere. She won’t reply to texts.

“Are you hungry?” I ask.

The boy screws his face up and reminds the mall that he wants to go home. The girl says she’s hungry.

“What for, sweetheart?”

“Ice cream!”
The boy’s face changes. “Ice cream!”

“Ice cream?”
“Yay!” they yell in unison and I have to smile. They’re energetic, I’ll give them that.

They order double-scoop waffle cones. The girl tells the kid behind the counter to make them huge and the kid follows orders. A wave of apprehension washes over me. I ask for a small hot fudge sundae and we carry our sugar-laden diversions back to the table. For a time it’s quiet and still. The kids focus. I slide out of my shoes.

Then the girl whispers something and the boy mashes his ice cream cone straight in her face. She shrieks and pounces and now they’re on the floor, punching, bawling, pulling hair. The girl is wild-eyed, her face green with ice cream. Even her eyebrows are green.

I try to pull the boy off but he’s determined. He drives a solid blow into her face that instantly elevates the pitch and volume of her screeching. He climbs off, satisfied. The girl fires a vicious kick at his crotch but misses. She is screaming, calling him filthy names. He laughs.

Sliding an arm under her neck, I help her sit and dab at her bloody nose with a napkin. She winces and directs a few of her curses my way. I realize I’m crying.

We climb up to the table and I bury my face in my hands and sob and now I know I need help. I need someone to keep me from choking the life from these shitty kids, someone to keep me from bawling into their ugly little faces what a godawful bitch their mother is to have ditched me here with them for all these hours.

The GPS app on my phone tells me Jeff is home from work. I call but it goes to voicemail. “It’s me,” I say. “I need help. Can you call when you get this?”

I stare at the screen.

The girl sniffs up snot and swallows. She wipes her nose with her sleeve. “We have that,” she says.

“What?”
She points a wet finger at the GPS icon on my desktop. “That. We have that.”

“Oh yeah?”
She nods and shows me her phone. “See?”

I nod. “It’s a good app. Helps mommy find you if you ever– ” It dawns on me then. I ask: “Can we use your phone to find your mommy?”
The girl shakes her head sadly. “I don’t know how.”

“I can!” the boy says. “I know how!”

We ignore him. “Maybe I can help you figure it out,” I tell her. “Can I see your phone?”

The boy turns red and this pleases the girl. She smiles sweetly, first to me then at him, and hands me the phone. He lunges for it but I’m faster. I stab the screen with an index finger.

In the app, people are represented as pink circles on a map of the city. There’s a pink circle for The Boy and one for The Girl stacked nearly on top of one another at the Mall of America, and there, along the right of the screen, is a circle for Mommy.

At my address.

I tap Refresh. The screen reads: Updated Now but the address does not change. The app indicates she’s been there since noon. About the same time Jeff got home.

I give the girl her phone. “I have to use the bathroom,” I hear myself say. I drift off past the electronics store and the kiosk of sunglasses and the store with posters of skinny young girls in lingerie. I pass the coffee bean place and the leather coat place and the place that sells baseball caps. I turn left and exit through a set of glass doors and then another and now I’m out in the sunshine.

The button on my keyfob makes my car chirp twice. I walk to it, get in, and drive away.

Bloodbath Blues – Flash Fiction

It was one of the nicer houses on its block which is to say three or four of the windows still held glass and the yard had been mowed at some point over the past year. The front door sagged from twisted hinges over a foot-wide chasm where the porch fell away from the house. There might have been a shutter still dangling that hadn’t yet fallen into the weeds. It was a nice place.

Klein was talking to reporters out front. I nodded and ducked the yellow tape.

I managed to bridge the gap between porch and house without snapping my leg off, walked inside, and retched at a stench that might have been rotting maggots fermenting in the sun.

A broad L-shaped staircase brought me up to a second-floor hallway. There were four bedrooms here, two on each side. Filthy mattresses and greasy sleeping bags were sacked around on the floors. Bottles, cans, and cigarette butts were everywhere. Drying puddles of bodily fluids added to the ambiance.

A bathroom about the size of a teacup stood at the end of the hallway with its door open. Sweeney and McGregor were inside looking at blood spatter.

Sweeney saw me and his eyes changed. He hissed something at McGregor who waddled over and pressed a meaty palm into my chest.

“Hold up, Joe.”

I stopped.

“Sweeney thinks you should sit this one out.”

Sweeney stepped up and laid an arm around my shoulder. “Joe! How you been?”

I looked at Sweeney. Then at McGregor. I looked at Sweeney again. “What is this?”

Sweeney paused and mumbled something to the floor and I put it together.

“You don’t want me to see her.”

Sweeney tried to guide me back towards the steps. “Let’s go down, Joe. You should be sitting for this.”

“Who is she?” I asked, trying to squirm free.

Sweeney and McGregor blocked my path. “Hold up a minute,” McGregor said.

My mouth was dry. A bead of sweat slid down my back. I didn’t like my new heart rate. “Get your mitts off me. Let me see.”

Sweeney exhaled. “Joe…” He and McGregor exchanged a look. “Listen, there’s no easy way to do this. Nothing I say is going to prepare you. Maybe I should just let you see for yourself if that’s how you want to play it.”

From far away I heard myself tell him it was. My heart triple-timed. Sweeney said more but I heard it the way you hear the television as you drift off to sleep. He and McGregor stepped aside. I floated down the hall and I was in the bathroom, kneeling by the tub. The woman was young, maybe still a girl. She was sprawled on her back, bare arms dangling over the sides of the tub, blood still dripping from a fingertip.

She was clothed which struck me as unusual. Her short shorts and sleeveless t-shirt were sopped. Blood was smeared across her face and neck, smeared across her teeth. The skin that wasn’t painted bloody was a bruised yellow turquoise. Her lips were grey. Her hair, blonde at one time, was red and black and matted. I studied her face. Then, I turned to Sweeney: “So? Who am I looking at?”

Sweeney’s eyes narrowed and he furrowed his brow. “You don’t know?”

“Never seen her before.”

Sweeney looked to McGregor.

“Look again,” McGregor said.

I turned back and the girl was sitting. She shrieked at me, wild-eyed and hysterical. I shrieked back. She lunged for me and I was on my feet with my gun out. Sweeney and McGregor threw themselves at me. They took hold of my arm as the gun fired. It sounded like an atomic bomb in that little room.

They pinned my wrist to the wall above my head and held it there. They were blocking the girl. I couldn’t see the girl! Someone was screaming and screaming. I closed my mouth and the screaming went away. Sweeney’s contorted face swam in front of me. He was insistent, barking orders, trying to reach me. My ears sang.

“…a gag,” Sweeney was saying, distant and tinny. “Not real. It isn’t real…” His face was shiny and pasty. His eyes looked insane.

We stood this way for several seconds. Finally, McGregor tilted his head, squinted at me, and released my wrist. He turned to the tub. Sweeney let go and I had my arm back.

The girl was on her side in the the tub with her hands over her ears and her knees pulled up tight. She was shivering, frantic, talking to herself. Sunlight streamed in through a fresh bullet hole in the wall. My bullet couldn’t have missed her head by more than six inches.

I stumbled to the hall, found a place to slide down the wall, and sat on the floor. I laid my gun beside me. My pants were wet. Sweeney knelt by the tub and comforted the girl.

McGregor came out and sat beside me. Neither of us spoke for a long time. He picked lint off his pants. Finally, he said: “I tried to warn him, Joe, but you know how he is. I told him it was too much.” He turned, appraised me frankly, shook his head, and returned to the lint. “Great gag.”

My voice was hoarse and thin. “What happened?”

McGregor sighed at his pants. “The girl is his niece. She’s taking some acting courses at the community college. This whole thing came about when she told Sweeney her acting could fool a cop.”

I considered this for a while. “Makeup?”

McGregor nodded once. “Everybody was in on it. The reporters are actors. Sweeney wanted to get back at you for that stunt you pulled with the pizza delivery guy.”

I smiled ruefully. “Mission accomplished.”

The girl bet him $10 she could convince you she was dead,” McGregor said. “Looks like she won.”

I shook my head. “The blood didn’t smell. There was too much of it not to smell. I knew it felt wrong, I just couldn’t – I couldn’t quite…”

McGregor shook his head again. “Sweeney.”

“Let’s hope the girl isn’t in shock.”

“She’ll come around. Listen, Joe, you’re not gonna…you know…report this, are you? Sweeney and me and Klein, we could lose our badges.”

I shook my head. “What is this trash heap anyway?”

“Crack house, maybe? Smack? I dunno, ask Sweeney. I’m just here because he told me to be.”

I nodded and climbed unsteadily to my feet. I felt ninety years old.

“What are you gonna do?” McGregor asked.

“Going home for dry skivvies.”

McGregor nodded and returned his attention to the the lint on his pants. “Sweeney,” he said.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mr. Chester Goes Missing – Short Short

Agnes took my hand in hers, her eyes desperate and pleading. “You’ll look for him on your meter route?”

“Of course,” I assured her. I laid my free hand on hers and patted. “I promise.”

“And you think you’ll find him?” she asked eagerly.

I took off my cap, ran a hand through my hair, and chose my words with care. “Agnes, I read every electric meter in town; I see every back yard. It’s just a simple matter of timing, I need to be in the right place at the right time.”

She blinked. Then, she sniffed and nodded, her eyes shimmering. “I know you’ll do your best,” she whispered.

“I’ll talk to everyone I see,” I assured her. “He’s a distinctive little cat and someone’s bound to see him. If you don’t mind, I’ll take a picture of this photo with my phone. It will give me something to show people.”

She nodded and said without hope: “That’s a good idea.”

I held my phone where she could see it. “See? It’s really clear. Anyone who has seen Mr. Chester will recognize him from this picture. Do you have any social media accounts?”

She sighed. “My daughter set something up for me but I couldn’t figure it out. I don’t use it.”

“Well,” I said, “I’ll post this picture and a description and ask my friends to share it. This town isn’t that big. There are only so many places a cat can hide, especially a Persian like Mr. Chester. I’ll post it on the village hall’s page and a few others too. Posters would be good too but…”

She looked up at me. “But what?”

“Well,” I said, uncomfortable. “Posters cost money.”

She blinked again. “Money? Oh, don’t worry about that. Harold left me well taken care of.”

“Ok, good,” I said. “I don’t think they’re too expensive. Probably $100 would buy a bunch of them.”

She dismissed this with a wave.

“You said he went missing how long ago?” I asked.

“Tuesday,” she said with a feeble smile. “Tuesday at dusk.”

Three days. “No time to lose,” I said.

Suddenly, a light dawned in her eyes and it animated her whole face. She smiled big and hopeful. “A reward!” she said. “I’ll offer a reward for Mr. Chester!”

I took her hand and patted it as I spoke. “That’s the best idea so far. Now, I don’t want you to get your hopes too high but nothing motivates people to do the right thing quite like money. How much were you thinking?”

“I don’t know,” she said, her eyes round. “I wouldn’t have the slightest idea. How much are most pet rewards?”

“I think it depends,” I said. “Some people spend twenty bucks and some can afford more. I imagine if Kim Kardashian lost her cat, she’d cough up a hundred grand without a second thought. It’s really up to you.”

“Ten-thousand,” she said.

“What?”

“Ten-thousand. I’ll offer a ten-thousand-dollar reward.”

My mouth was dry. “For – for a cat?” I stammered.

She gave me a look. “Not just any cat. Mr. Chester! Ten-thousand dollars and I’ll hand it over joyfully.” She added: “And I’m paying you for your time; don’t think for a second I’m not.”

I shook my head. “Agnes I’m not helping you for – ”

She waved me off again. “Tweet Mr. Chester’s picture on your computer Face-business and let me think of the details for the posters.”

I nodded and got to work.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at the Print Shoppe and passing out flyers of the cat. We hung them in the post office, grocery store, village hall, library. Nobody had seen Mr. Chester. By the time we got back to Agnes’ house, it was getting dark out. She was despondent.

I stood with her under the porch light and said: “Tomorrow’s a new day. We’re not licked yet.”

She smiled and thanked me with sad eyes, went inside, and pulled the door closed softly behind her.

Later, when I opened the door to my apartment, the stench nearly bowled me over. I gagged my way to the living room to find my roommate, Jersey, sprawled out on the couch, watching a game show in a pair of green underwear.

“Have you even moved since last night?”

“’Sup?” he asked the television.

“It’s on for tomorrow,”

He sat up now, suddenly interested. “Yeah?”

“You won’t even believe it.”

“How much?” he asked, rapt.

“Ten-thousand.”

He stood up and bawled: “Ten-thousand!”

“Dead serious,” I said. “You haven’t fed that thing, have you? We want him mangy and malnourished like he’s been wandering for days.”

“Oh, he’s mangy and hungry, don’t worry about that,” Jersey said. “Nasty little bastard.” He held out his arm. It was crisscrossed with ragged, bloody scratches.

I held out a poster. “Tomorrow morning take this and that stinky rat over to the old lady’s house and tell her you found him behind the laundromat. She’ll probably bake you a cake.”

Jersey snatched the poster away and , for an instant, I didn’t like the look in his eyes. I said: “You know, I’m splitting this with you right down the middle even though I did all the work.”

He stared at the poster and didn’t reply.

“Don’t get any cute ideas about taking it all,” I said. I started down the hall to my room and added over my shoulder: “And clean that raunchy litter box before the health department raids us.”

I padded into my room, shut the door to keep the stench out, and stretched out on the bed. “I think I’ll blow off the meter route this month,” I told myself with a smile. I reached over, clicked off the lamp, and fell asleep.

The Predator – Flash Fiction

Miles Vandelay stood at the head of the table and hoisted his wine glass with his left hand. With his right, he pinged the glass repeatedly with a spoon. His eyes glittered with booze and triumph.

“Real quick,” he said. “I don’t want to hold up the party – ”

“Get off the stage!” said his VP of Operations, Todd Alton. He grabbed a bread roll from a basket on the table and tossed it at him. Soon, rolls were coming in from all over the room. They bounced off his chest and sailed past his head as he bobbed and ducked. “You’ll make me spill my wine!” he protested.

“There’s plenty more where that came from!” yelled Ezra from another table and the room erupted into applause and whistles.

Vandelay laughed and held up a palm. “All right, all right, you animals, but you know I’m cheap. I want to enjoy every. last. drop.” He upended the glass and held it up as a gladiator might hold the decapitated skull of a defeated enemy. The employees roared and upended their glasses, holding their empties high.

“They say,” said Vandelay, “All’s fair in love and war and I suppose that’s true. I’ve been through enough wives to know the love part is anyway.”

The room hooted and whistled.

“I’d like to add,” Vandelay continued, “that all’s fair in business too. To those of you who are here tonight, I salute you. This evening, we celebrate the culmination of our efforts. Our moment of glory is at hand!”

The room exploded into cheers. Rolls flew from table to table and Alton popped a fresh bottle, champagne spraying everyone at the table.

“Now I know this merger wasn’t easy,” Vandelay said after the cacophony had died. “We had to let some good people go and that can be difficult,” he said in a somber tone. “The good news is…we’re drinking their cut!”

The employees roared and pinged their glasses with their silverware.

“Some will say that life is more than money. They’ll tell you horror stories of deathbed regrets and spiritual reckonings. I would point out that every person who talks like that is broke and a loser! You don’t hear that garbage from successful people!”

“Amen!” said Ezra and the room laughed.

“I would submit to you that there are two types of people in this world: the hunters and the hunted. Looking around this room, I see victorious hunters and, to the victors go the spoils!”

The employees cheered and stomped their feet.

“The bonus checks that you received today were the largest Vandelay Industries has ever paid.”

He raised his hand as the decibel levels went to their highest point of the night. The employees stood as one to chant, “Van-de-lay! Van-de-lay!”

He smiled and waited for calm. “All right. All right. Now listen. It would be easy for us to rest on our laurels but life is about the survival of the fittest. You’re either growing or you’re dying, there is no coasting. So I raise my glass…wait…somebody give me a full one,” he said, tossing the empty over his shoulder.

The employees laughed and someone handed him a full glass of champagne. “Eat, drink, and be merry!” he said. “For tomorrow we…have to get up early and do it again!”

As he drank, he heard the laughter. In his peripheral, he saw glasses lifted to faces.

Then it went black.

He awoke with a start to find himself lying in an alley. It was cold and he was wearing only a t-shirt. “What the hell?” he asked, looking at the gravel. Pieces of broken glass glinted in the rocks. “I must’ve…blacked out…got robbed,” he muttered.

A voice startled him. “No,” it said. “You weren’t robbed.”

He turned to see a homeless man, long-haired and filthy, seated beside him. He wore ripped corduroy pants and torn shoes with duct tape holding them together. He smelled of smoke and rotten teeth and body odor. He wore an army jacket but Vandelay doubted very much that a man like that had served in the armed forces.

“Who the hell are you?”

“Ah…” the man said, smiling. “That’s not the question. The question is, who are you?” The homeless man put a bottle wrapped in a paper bag to his lips and drank. Then he set it down and laughed heartily as red wine trickled from his lower lip down into his beard.

“Yeeeaaah…okaaay,” said Vandelay. “That’s great, Crazy. I’ll be on my way now. Good talk.”

Vandelay stood but something was wrong. He was too close to the ground. He was too small. Too light.

He was a child.

“What is this?!” he demanded. “This can’t be…this isn’t real!”

The homeless man turned and winked, his eyes remarkably clear. “Oh, it’s real. You see, Miles, you didn’t do so hot in your last life. In fact, you made a real mess of it. This is your do-over. A mulligan. Another chance to live it right.”

Vandelay’s face was horrified. “How do you know my name?…No! No, this isn’t right! I’m asleep or…on something…Todd dosed me with something or…this isn’t how this is supposed to work!”

The homeless man smiled. “Well…maybe you should sleep it off.”

Miles nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Yes, I just need a little sleep. I just need to sleep it off.” He sat down and wrapped his arms around his chest; the wind was icy. He closed his eyes and drifted…

“Kevin?”

He opened his eyes. “Yes, Mama?”

“Kevin, come back to the box where it’s warm; I got a fire going. Who were you talking to, son?”

Kevin’s eyes were confused as if a dream had just ended he couldn’t quite remember. He looked up and down the empty alley. After a moment he said, “No one, Mama.”

Now try this:

The Nihilist