You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Credit Limit

Credit Limit

A short story by Michael Lockridge

“Well, Stevie,” he said to himself, “Your hung over again.”

Steven Engel rolled himself carefully from his bed. He gave no thought to giving its rumpled surface some kind of order. Stevie had not made his bed for a great many years.

He made his way across the hall to the bathroom, adjusting his ill-fitting underwear as he went. After centering himself, more or less, on the toilet, he dumped the remains of the liquor he had processed into the toilet. The stream flowed for an eternity. The screaming of his bladder abated, Stevie swiped at the flush handle, and padded out of the bathroom.

Morning was long gone. He dismissed this fact absently. Mornings were a distant and alien concept for him. Stevie rummaged around in his wardrobe, which he kept conveniently scattered on the floor of his room. He fished out his worn robe, and after several tries got his arms through the right holes. He tied the sash into something resembling a knot, and lurched out of the room.

His stumble across the living room was brought up short by a familiar, yet unpleasant voice.

“Been drinking again, I see.”

Stevie stood where he was. He did not want to turn in the direction from which the voice had come. Without looking he knew that the chair in the corner contained an ugly lump of a woman. A lump that sat there, day in, day out. A lump that would be there forever.

“Morning, Ma.” He said. He looked at the carpet at his feet. He waited.

“How many of your credits did you spend last night?” She asked, the voice drilling through his hangover. “How many rounds of drinks did you buy for your no-good friends? I bet you bought most of them, didn’t you? Didn’t you! You always do. I know you do!”

Then the tears began. They wrenched at his heart, years ago. Now, he just stood and took it. It would soon be over. It was always the same. Even the same words.

“They’re not real friends, you know.” She continued. “They don’t care about you. Not like I do. Heaven knows why I do! They just want the liquor your credits can buy. You’re just a soft touch for them, and for those cheap women you seem to find so attractive!”

Women! That was a laugh! Not many of those, lately, cheap or not.

Next would come how fat and lazy he had become.

“Not only have you become fat and lazy,” She continued, “but you don’t seem to care about anyone else. You don’t seem to care about yourself!”

Stevie scuffed his toe against the thinning carpet. Thinning, like his hair. Like his patience.

Just stand there, he told himself. Defending himself just made it take longer. This, at least, was a lesson he had learned.

“Haven’t I taught you better?” She said. “Watch your credits, I always said. You only get so many when you are born. Enough, if you take care. Just like everybody else. Enough credits to live by, if just barely.”

Yeah. Benevolent government. Give everyone just enough to live on. Not enough real jobs to earn much more. At least, not any jobs a man would really want. Enough to sit in a too small apartment, watching soaps and game shows all day. Yeah, great life!

He held his tongue, as the perennial lecture continued. No more apologies, no more challenges. No angry retorts. Just take it. It was over sooner, that way.

“I can tell you aren’t really listening.” She finally said. She sighed. When that did not solicit an apology, or any other response, she turned away. “Go. Just go. Someday, you will have to pay the piper.”

Pay the piper. She always said that. He hated that saying.

Stevie shuffled on into the kitchen. He needed coffee. No, he needed a drink. But coffee would have to do.

He got together the necessaries, and was soon seated at the kitchen table. He brought up the news on the monitor, and was reading when the doorbell rang.

Stevie took a sip of coffee, and continued his reading. Nobody he knew ever came to the door. Let her get it. Maybe it was one of her so-called friends. She could go on and on to them about her no-good son.

He heard the door open, and quiet voices in the hallway. Then the door closed.

“Stevie. Come in here. Quickly.” His mother said.

Something in her voice raised an alarm in his sodden consciousness. He went to her.

Two men were standing by his mother. Blue uniforms. Badges. Patches on their arms, declaring them to be State Collections Agents. His bowels felt like water. He really needed a drink.

“Steven Engel?” Said the one nearest him. They looked so much alike. Distant. Inhuman. “Present your identification, please.”

Swaying on his feet, he extended his left hand. The agent took his hand in a firm but surprisingly gentle grip. He ran a small scanning wand over the place where Stevie’s identification was implanted. The agent consulted the screen at the base of the wand.

“Steven Engel,” Said the agent, “Your credit account is overdrawn. By the authority of the State, we are to confiscate your personal assets and deliver them to the appropriate authorities for redistribution.”

The grip on his hand became considerably less gentle, as the agent applied a hypodermic unit to his arm. There would be no struggle, though the panic in Stevie’s mind would have offered one, without the sedative. These men were seasoned professionals. A struggle might spoil some of his “assets.”

Together the two agents lowered Stevie’s sedated body to a sitting position on the ground. One of the two interchangeable agents went to the door, opened it, and brought a gurney in from the hallway. In very short order, Steven Engel was strapped in and ready for removal.

Stevie could see that his mother was back in her chair. He longed to say something, but the sedative would not let him speak. His head just lolled in her direction. She looked numb, dulled by shock. What could he say, even if he were able to speak?

One of the agents spoke briefly with her. He took her hand, and held it for a moment. He seemed surprisingly gentle, considering the nature of his job. He then released her hand, handed her a small card, and turned.

Silently the two agents removed their burden from the apartment. The place became very quiet. The sunlight coming in through the window moved slowly across the floor, and then up the wall. Eventually the light faded. The woman just continued to sit as darkness filled the room.

The phone rang. She answered it, absently. “Hello?”

“Hey, is Stevie there?” Asked a man on the other end of the connection. She could hear music in the background. Voices.

“No. Stevie isn’t here.”

“When will he be back?” The man asked.

“Stevie won’t be back.” She said. “He is gone. Stevie has gone to pay the piper.”

Friday, September 7, 2007



A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

The cab pulled up to the curb, and out stepped an upwardly mobile young man. One of dozens of such vehicles that had pulled up to the same watering hole, disgorging similar young men. A yellow flow, which made up the urban river running into the night.

Our young man caught sight of his reflection in a store window, and adjusted yet again the look he had worked so long in creating. He perceived of himself as one of the predators visiting the up-town bar called The Serengeti. To most observers, he would appear to be just one of the herd.

His last minute preening completed, the would-be hunter pushed open the doors of The Serengeti and stepped into his fate. He made his way confidently through the crowd, danced his way across the corner of the dance floor, and made his way to the bar. He scanned the beverages in front of the guests around him, and decided to take a chance. He ordered a vodka martini, believing it would stand out among all of the over-dressed glasses containing concoctions with mock-African names.

The dance floor was a sea of Tom Cruise clones. The Cruise before he made a joke of himself, who set the standard for the suave young actors coming after him. All with a nod to Sean Connery, though most of this pack did not even know they were emulating the ancient icon.

They danced by themselves in the company of young women, most of which seemed to be striving to be the poster child for anorexia. The couples formed on the dance floor seemed more accidental than of any purpose. A protracted, if colorful, chemical interaction. Reaction more than relationship.

None of this registered with our young man. Devoted to the cult of youth, he was purposefully shallow, caught up in the image of himself reflected in the lesser beings around him. He leaned back against the bar, and scanned the undulating crowd, confident that his tasteful clothes and trend-bucking choice of beverage had every female eye upon him. For the most part, this was delusion.

He had reduced his drink to little more than an olive on a stick, when the bartender tapped him on the shoulder.

“From the lady at the end of the bar.” He said, handing the young predator a replacement for his defeated drink.

He accepted the drink, and thanked the bartender when he surreptitiously indicated which of the women at the end of the bar was his benefactor. He caught her eye, lifted his glass in thanks, and took an appreciative sip. She nodded in return, and then continued her conversation with the woman beside her.

Our young predator returned to his hunter’s scan of the herd, though indeed he was already decided to go after the quarry which had offered itself up to him. He checked her out a few times, thinking himself the epitome of stealth. She was rather exotic, though he could not say from what exotic land she might have come. A bit fleshy, at least by the junky-chic standard of the day. He could not admit to himself that this was appealing, but her well-rounded curves excited him.

As he extracted the olive from the bottom of his empty glass, he once again glanced in her direction.

She was gone.

He whipped around in a flurry of serious uncoolness, seeking her in the crowd. He was dismayed to think he had lost an easy conquest, but even further dismayed to find her right beside him. Had she seen his uncool display? How could he cover this up?

Regaining some control, he simply offered her his hand.

“John. John Williams.” He said. She took the offered hand.

“Tyra Jenkins.” She replied. He shook her hand, then held it gently as he thanked her again for the drink.

“Might I buy you one?” He asked.

“Sure. But just one more. Who knows what other pleasures the night may hold?”

John turned to the bartender, and placed his order. He felt quite pleased with himself, having won the night so early. Had he been a peacock, his display would have been full. He tried to be subtler than that, as he turned back to Tyra with the drinks.

They made small talk together, as they enjoyed their beverages and watched the undulation of the dancers. He glanced at her, and came to like very much what he saw. Obviously not American, she was somehow not obviously anything else, either. Her accent was sleight, but very interesting. He grew more intrigued by the moment. She seemed to blend in and stand out at the same time. Most intriguing.

She finished her drink, and he took the glass from her and placed it on the bar.

“Did you want to dance?” He asked.

She thought for a moment. “It’s kind of crowded out there. Wouldn’t you rather come to my place? I could make some more drinks….”

John thought he was particularly cool, the way he accepted her offer without displaying the considerable excitement he felt. Ever since she had been close enough for him to smell her subtle perfume, his desire had been growing. Yes! Of course I want to go to your place!

“That sounds like a great idea. Shall I call a cab?” He said.

“It’s just two blocks. We can walk. Come on.”

John followed her through the undulating crowd, and was once again able to appreciate her curves. His considerable, if unwarranted, confidence flagged for a moment. He almost admitted to himself that he was out of his league, this time. Then she put her hand in his, and his confidence returned. Hand in hand they went out into the night.

Her apartment building was rather non-descript. She held his hand as they entered the elevator. Once the doors closed, she slid up close to him. Her scent filled his head, and he drew her to him. Their lips met, and they only parted when the elevator doors opened on her floor.

She drew him down the hall, his hunger growing with every step. He stood behind her, dying as the seconds went by while she searched for her keys. She opened the door, and he followed her closely inside. The instant the door was closed, he pulled into his arms.

She smelled delicious, tasted delicious. His hands traveled rapidly over as much of her as he could reach. She did not resist. He was on the edge of just ripping her clothes of her, when she pushed him gently away.

“I thought you wanted drinks!” She said, coyly.

“I want to drink you!” He responded. It would have sounded stupid, if it weren’t so very true. He had never known desire like this.

She took his hand and led him to her sofa. In moments their clothes were a tangle on the floor, and their bodies were a tangle on the sofa. Her hand ran up and down his spine. It felt like fire. Like fire! Pain flared from the place where her hand rested, and was as suddenly gone.

He could feel nothing. He could not move. He couldn’t even scream.

She struggled out from under him, then stood just looking down at him. Her expression was unreadable. She gathered their clothes, separating his from hers into two piles. She did not put hers on, but rather walked over to a closet near the door. She put her clothes in a hamper inside the closet, and then pulled out a wheelchair. She rolled the chair over next to the sofa.

Had his circumstances been different, what happened next would have amazed him. Once she had the chair in place, she lifted him from the sofa and put him in the chair. She lifted him as if he weighed but a few pounds. Her power was amazing. She positioned his head so that he could easily see what was in front of him. His head did not flop, but remained as she had positioned it.

She stood in front of him, and for a moment her expression was warm and inviting. Again he caught her scent, and it was maddening. Though he could do nothing, feel nothing, he desired her more than life itself. Then she laughed, and the expression faded from her face. His desire ebbed, and was gone. What replaced it was a cold fear.

She showed him her hand, the one that had inflicted such pain. He could see a sharp probe extending from her middle finger.

“An interesting toxin, yes?” She said. “You are very aware, yet immobile. I can speak meaningfully to you, and you can understand. Yet you cannot speak. Your chemistry is interesting.”

The probe slipped into her finger, and disappeared.

She then turned from him, and gathered his clothes. From his pockets she took his wallet and money. These she put on a desk, within his view. The rest she put in the same hamper as her own clothes. That done, she returned to the desk and sat down.

She put his money in a drawer. Then she took his credit cards from his wallet, and scanned them with a card reader. Data began flowing across the computer monitor on the desk. The cards she then ran through a shredder.

“I must live on the proceeds from each hunt.” She explained. Once again human emotion flashed across her face, a sudden and disconcerting smile. Then, gone again.

“Your rather primitive computers allow me to acquire quite a lot in funds and workable credit.” She said. “Especially from you ambitious creatures. Hunting the more violent of your species is a lot more fun, but draws too much attention. I can cull your stupid herds with impunity. A sport kill now and then is enough to tide me over. This is business.”

As she said this, she moved behind his chair. Then he was moving, across the living room and to a bedroom door. In spite of his cold fear, he felt a moment of excitement. The memory of her scent was still in his mind, and he had the irrational hope that the bedroom held some promise of desire fulfilled.

When the door opened, that hope faded. In it’s place that cold fear came alive. It blossomed to the edge of outright terror.

“My offspring.” She said. “Larva, just now, but growing every day.”

The objects in the room were disgusting. Writhing things like blood encrusted maggots. Huge maggots. Footballs with mouths. Bloody footballs, with just the suggestion of a mouth. They writhed in a charnel pile, but without the stench.

She closed the door on the horror, and rolled him backwards into the kitchen.

Standing now in front of him, she began stringing a pulley and ropes to a bolt in the ceiling. The bolt was hidden in the middle of a rack for pots and pans, seeming a part of an ordinary element in a well-appointed kitchen.

“You experienced my expertise in scents.” She said, as she worked. “The trick is to attract my quarry without driving every man around me mad with desire. Though that is a bit of fun to do, from time to time.”

With the pulley rigged, she began to bind the rope around his legs. The terror clamored within him, but had no outlet.

“That skill with scents allows me to alter the meat I feed to my larva so that it does not draw undue attention.” She said, as she began to hoist him slowly out of the chair by the rope. She tied him off, hanging head down over the tiles of her well-appointed kitchen.

The sounds that followed told him that she was putting the chair away, and getting something else from the closet. Soon, she was once more before him, putting down what appeared to be a wading pool.

“Waste nothing.” She said. “Not a drop of blood. Not a scrap of meat or bone.”

Again she stood in front of him. Now she had a sharpening steel, and a knife. Slowly she worked the blade.

“Why am I telling you all of this? Why show you these things?” She asked. The blade slid time and again against the sharpening steel. “Fear improves the quality of the meat. Not much of an issue for my larva. Flavor is important to me. I want to raise the terror to such a level that you will be delicious. Ah, and you will be delicious!”

She put the steel on the counter, and held the knife at her side. Stepping forward, she grabbed his head and pressed his face between her breasts. Her scent once again filled him, and unbidden desire flooded his being.

He heard the knife pass through his throat, though he did not feel it. He heard the blood begin to patter in the pool below him. Slowly, the darkness closed in. Just a herd beast, was his last thought.

The predator had become prey.