A Bird in the Hand

Sam felt ready for anything. He sat at a small round table with Herbie next to him on one side and Lira on his other side. A tall, well-dressed gentleman sat across from them and eyed the trio. Shadows covered most of the room. The only light in the room came from a small lamp sitting in the middle of the table. The three of them had been training under the gentleman for almost a year already but not once did he give his name. Anytime any of them asked he tended to change the subject in order to avoid the question.

“Ready?” the gentleman asked the group. All three heads nodded. “Fastest hand wins. Nonstop,” he said. The gentleman cast a stern glance at Herbie. Sam hoped he didn’t raise a fuss again like he did the last time they played. The rotund man tended to be a sore loser; and, a poor winner the few times he did win. “No arguments,” he said plainly and looked Herbie in the eyes. Sam saw Herbie give a slight nod.  “We’re starting now,” the gentleman said clearly.

“Cup.” The man said. Immediately all three competitors dipped their hands into the shadows under the table. Sam heard a hollow, plastic-y sound from Lira first. She placed a red plastic cup on the table in front of her. While Herbie looked disappointed Sam kept feeling around in the darkness until he felt something. He grabbed it and pulled it out. Sam placed a frosted, translucent tumbler on the table in front of him in time to hear the next item. “Three quarters and a dime,” the gentleman said. Lira and Sam reached back into the darkness as Herbie placed a blue ceramic coffee cup on the table in front of him. He rushed to reach under the table again. Sam slammed his hand on the table and pulled it away to reveal three quarters and a dime.

“Plunger. Clean, please.” the gentleman said. Lira dropped her change on the table and reached back into the darkness. Herbie threw two quarters on the table then reached back in for more coins.

“An onion,” the gentleman said when Lira and Sam showed him their plungers, then tossed them on the floor. Herbie placed the rest of the coins on the table and showed his plunger off. He tossed it away when the man nodded.

“A single slice of pizza,” the man said when three different onions rolled onto the table. Lira pulled her slice out first. She had enough time to take a bite before Herbie and Sam pulled out their slices. The gentleman smiled. Sam wasn’t sure if he was the only one that saw the smile, but he felt confident he was the only one of them that knew what it meant. The tests were about to get harder.

“The rest of that same pizza,” the gentleman said. Sam moved the fastest; he expected something tricky and was ready for it. He placed a pizza box on the table and opened it to show where his slice fit.

“I guess they just finished it,” Herbie said as he placed a box on the table. He opened it to reveal a single slice and placed his stolen slice next to it. The gentleman nodded then looked at Lira’s pizza and nodded at her.

“Two hands,” the man added the new rule. “Fire extinguisher.” Sam reached into the darkness with both hands and produced a small fire extinguisher first. Lira placed hers next and the gentleman looked at Herbie. “You’re out.” Herbie shrugged and reached for Sam’s full pizza box. “Tiebreaker,” he added while looking at Sam and Lira.

“Duck!” The gentleman shouted. Sam reached both hands under the table. He felt feathers brush his fingertips and grabbed what he could to pull. He heard a squeaking sound next to him and saw Lira squeezing a rubber duck in her right hand. He almost let go of the animal in his hands, but he realized he could still win. He yanked a flapping, angry duck out of the darkness with both hands then threw it towards the couch.

“Sam wins,” the gentleman said.

“Why?!” Lira shouted. She slammed her hand on the table in anger. “You didn’t say it had to be alive!” The gentleman nodded.

“You’re right, I didn’t. But I did say to use two hands.”

Sneaker Set

[OT] Friday Free-Form: They Are What They Believe They Are

“I feel great!” Greg smiled at his youthful, brown-haired reflection in the mirror. An hour ago he was offered a new job in the middle of a fatal car crash. Minutes ago he was a balding, grey-haired old man. Now he stood in a new apartment three times as large as his old one and he couldn’t stop smiling at his smooth, handsome face.  Greg turned toward Janet, his new boss; the being responsible for his life and youth. “So how does this job work?” He asked a black cat with a red, skull-shaped patch of fur on its head that was sitting on his dresser.

“I collect magical artifacts. Whenever I get a lead on one I’ll send you out to get it.” Greg looked around the clean, modern apartment and smiled at the cat.

“I guess they’ll be in different universes too?” he asked. He was still getting used to the idea of alternate universes, but she did promise Greg would see visit places he never imagined. The cat dipped her head slightly to nod, then she flicked her tail at the empty air next to Greg. A tall, pitch black portal opened.

“Now that you’re settled you need gear,” she said. The cat jumped off the dresser and walked into the portal. Greg followed her. On the other side of the portal, Greg walked into a large room that reminded him of a bank vault. The walls were lined from floor to ceiling with small square-shaped doors that he assumed were safety deposit boxes. Golden numbers decorated most of the doors. The cat padded to one wall and sat on its haunches. “Open the one that says 13,” she said. Greg walked to the wall and found the door with the number 13 on it. He opened it and found a pink bonnet inside. It seemed to be made of silk and he noticed the number 13 stitched on the inside of the headband.

“I don’t think this is my style,” Greg joked.

“Put it on,” Janet said. “It goes with anything.”

“Is this one of those magical artifacts you collect?” he asked as she fit the bonnet onto his head. He felt a faint tingling sensation run down his spine when he tied the ribbon and looked at the cat to wait for an answer.

“Get number five and 22 also,” she said. Greg found the other two doors on the same wall and reached for the closest one, number 5. He extended his hand but couldn’t see it.

“Wait, is that supposed to happen?” he asked. He brought his hands up in front of his face but could not see them. he waved them around and clapped to make sure they were still part of him.

“The bonnet makes you invisible,” she replied.

“Awesome,” Greg grinned and reached for the number five door. He opened it and reached inside. He pulled out a clear plastic umbrella.

“The umbrella protects you with a bubble shield.”

“Awesome!” He repeated with more excitement then took two steps to his right to open the number 22 door. He found a single black leather boot inside.

“The boot will silence your footsteps,” Janet explained. Greg chuckled.

“I’m silent and invisible. So I’m stealing these magical artifacts?” he asked. Janet nodded.

“Do you have a problem with that?” she asked.

“Not one bit,” Greg replied.

New Lease on Life

Greg shut his eyes when he heard the brakes screeching. He felt a light impact on the door next to him and heard the crack of shattering glass. Then nothing; the world went silent. He waited for a moment for something, anything, to happen.

“Am I dead?” he asked aloud. He heard his own voice and reasoned that he likely wasn’t dead. He was about to open his eyes when another voice spoke unexpectedly.

“What would you sacrifice in order to live?” A woman’s voice asked.

“What?” Greg opened his eyes. His door bowed inward with a giant semi-trailer grill pushing it in from the outside waiting to demolish his car. Shattered glass hovered stuck in the air next to him. He looked around the intersection but the other cars and pedestrians remained halted in place. “What the hell?” he asked no one in particular.

“Do you want to live or not?” the woman’s voice asked. Greg heard a bit of impatience in her voice.

“YES!” He answered reflexively.

“What’s in it for me?” the unseen woman asked. Greg ran down a list in his mind to look for something he could offer in exchange for his life. At 55 he lived alone in an efficiency with no family or even a significant other to speak of. He got laid off a month ago and had been struggling to get himself back into the workforce. In another month he would be unable to afford his apartment. Greg began to question doubt that he wanted to live at all with the majority of his life behind him already.

“Nothing,” Greg chuckled at the realization. “I’m better off dead,” he replied.

“Nothing to live for, huh?” the mysterious voice asked with obvious amusement.

“Nothing comes to mind,” Greg replied.

“Work?” she asked. Greg gave a hard belly laugh.

“Even if I were employed, I can’t imagine anyone thinking a 40 hour week is worth living for.”

“Depends on the job. I love my job,” she said. “Maybe you would too.” Greg shook his head, though he wasn’t sure if the voice’s owner could see him.

“I’m an old dog now, too late to learn any new tricks,” he said.

“What if you weren’t?” she asked.

“Weren’t what?”

“Old.”

“And I suppose that’s something you can do?” he asked.

“I did stop time.”

“I guess you did,” Greg smiled to himself. He did not understand the situation but the fact that death was waiting to get in let him accept everything that was happening. He firmly believed that the unknown woman could save him and make him young again; but, he still had nothing to trade. “I appreciate the offer but I don’t have anything worth sacrificing.”

“How about some time? Work for me for a few years then we’ll be even.”

“How many is a few?”

“You’ve got a good 50 years left in you,” she said. “And I’ve got to collect interest somehow so we’ll call it 75 years.”

“I don’t have that many left.”

“I can make you, and keep you, young while you work for me. After 75 years I’ll make you as young as you want to be and you can go on your way.”

“What does this job entail?” Greg asked.

“Does it matter? You won’t die.”

“It matters,” Greg shrugged. “There’s no point in taking a job if I’m going to wish I was dead instead.”

“I’m in a hurry so I’ll keep it short. You’ll get to visit places and see things you’ve never imagined. I often need things picked up so that’s what you’ll do. You’ll be like an executive go’fer. I won’t pay you but the job comes with a place to live, food and entertainment. I need an answer within the next minute or the truck keeps driving through your car,” she said.

Greg decided the moment she said he’d get to visit new places. The moment he realized he was on the verge of death regrets began to fill the back of his mind. The biggest one was not seeing more of the world. The free room and board were icing on the cake.

“I’m in,” he said. “Where do I sign?”

“It’s good enough that you agreed. I’m coming in the car, don’t freak out,” she said.

“You stopped time,” he smiled. “There’s not much more that can freak-” Greg stopped talking when a black cat hopped through the open passenger-side window. It landed in the seat and looked up at Greg. He noticed a red patch of fur on its head that resembled a skull.

“You’re a talking cat that can stop time?” Greg asked. The cat’s head swiveled left to right as if she shook her head.

“My name’s Janet. I’m your boss now,” the cat said.

Manual Labor

Jasper’s eyes shot open and he sat up in bed cradling his right hand. Burning pain on his wrist woke him up and he searched the room, from the bed, for any sign of the cause. He saw nothing threatening in his room and turned his attention to the throbbing pain.

“Ahhhhh hell,” he sighed. “Careful what you wish for, ‘fella…” he mumbled to himself then got out of bed. Jasper recognized the colorful tattoo. He’d seen the same red scythe with a cat’s paw on the blade in unsolved murder cases going over a century back. The most recent one took place 27 years ago, two years before he was born. Jasper had been secretly hoping for a fresh lead lately. He let his mind sort through the details of the case while he showered and picked out a few leads. By the time he stepped out of his small, red-brick house he knew where to start.

Jasper got into his car and snapped a picture of the tattoo with his phone. He sent it to his boss and drove to his first lead. He only made it a few blocks before his phone rang; his boss’ grimace told him who was calling. Jasper touched the docked phone to accept the call.

“Tell me you’re not taking your obsession with the Kitty Murders too far,” the chief said before Jasper could say ‘hello’. His gruff voice filled the car’s interior. “You’d better have a very sane reason for getting that tattoo.”

“Or what?” Jasper chuckled while driving. “You’ll send me on a vacation? Take my badge? It doesn’t matter, Chief. It’s real. I’m dead in 24 hours.” Jasper worked on the cases on his own time and managed to put enough pieces together to find some patterns.

The victim always died 24 hours after the mark first appeared. Several victims that reported a mystery tattoo to the police, but it was always chalked up to drunken nights out. Jasper went through the few reports he could get his hands on. He found statements that mentioned the same searing pain he felt that morning. They also mentioned a strange black cat talking to them, but that only added to the “drunken” theory.

“You’re serious?” The chief asked.

“Yeah. Listen, I’m gonna figure this out today. If I don’t, take care of everything for me.”

“This is how you’re spending your last day?” The chief asked.

“I already told my only friend,” Jasper said. “We’ve never been sentimental,” he shrugged to himself. “It’s too late now.”

“Good luck out there, Jas,” the chief said.

“See ya later, Chief.” The call ended as Jasper pulled up to his first stop. A vacant mansion that technically still belonged to the Belle family. As far as Jasper knew, no one had lived in the mansion for over 100 years. Despite that, the property taxes were paid from a trust every year. Every single body with the scythe tattoo had been found outside the mansion’s front gate. Police and Jasper himself investigated the mansion several times but never found anything. He let himself in through the gate and into the mansion. Jasper felt thankful for the early morning sun streaming in through the windows. The light made everything less creepy. He stood in the foyer trying to decide whether to take the bright, dusty hallway to his right or the darkened, shadowed hallway to his left.

“Nothin’ to lose,” Jasper mumbled to himself as he turned left. The hall was dim, but he spotted a door on one side at the end of the hall.

“Don’t go in there. It’s dark,” a woman’s voice said behind him. The sudden noise startled him, but he recovered quickly and turned around. A small black cat with a red skull pattern coloring the top of its head sat in a sunbeam in the foyer. Jasper had been expecting the cat to show up at some point, and his mind adapted quick enough to keep him calm. The cat stared at him waiting for a reaction.

“I was looking for you,” Jasper leaned against a dirty wall and crossed his arms. “Thanks for saving me the trouble.”

“I’ve been waiting for you too,” the cat said. She remained seated on her haunches as she looked up at him. Jasper lifted his wrist and showed his tattoo to the cat.

“If you wanted to talk you could have stuck around when you gave me this.” The cat nodded with human-like intention.

“I could have, but I’m a cat. I like playing with my prey,” the cat replied. Jasper crossed his arms again. This time he reached for his gun with one hand and his phone with the other, both hidden under his arms. He got a firm grip but did not pull the gun out yet.

“What’s your story then? Alien? Shape-shifter? Witch? Hallucination?” he asked.

“It’s complicated. Although, I can change shape.” The cat stood on its hind legs, then it stretched upward as if it was pulled by an unseen force. The black fur receded and in moments Jasper was staring at himself. The likeness was almost perfect except for the fact that the cat’s impression of Jasper was bald. Jasper’s chestnut, hair was nowhere to be seen. A red skull pattern decorated the top of the bald head. After another moment the bald Jasper shrunk into a cat again. “But I prefer not to.”

“And why are you killing people? What’s this mean?” He nodded his head down at his wrist without uncrossing his arms. He kept hold of the gun and his phone.

“I killed them because they weren’t you. That tattoo means I chose you.”

“I…,” Jasper faltered. He was trying to make sense of what she was saying, and trying to ignore that she was a cat. “I’ve already accepted my fate, but can I get a better explanation before you kill me?” His thumb disengaged the gun’s safety in his coat, under his arms.

“I’m not going to kill you,” the cat said. “If you work for me.”

“Did this just turn into a job offer?” Jasper said. The cat nodded.

“Short version: I killed everyone because they weren’t right for the job. You are right for the job. It’s up to you if you want to take it or die.”

“What’s the job?”

“Does it matter?” the cat asked. Jasper sighed.

“I guess not. Okay, I’m in.” The cat swished her tail at the air and opened a black portal tall enough for Jasper to walk through.

“Come meet your new boss,” the cat said. It walked into the black hole and disappeared. Jasper released the gun but pulled his phone out. It was still recording.

“I’m gonna see this through, Chief. Take care of things for me,” he said. He stopped recording, dropped his phone and badge on the floor, then followed the cat through the portal.

Hand Shakedown

“100k?” Sam asked. “I thought this was just training?” he took a single step back from the dealer’s table. The other two gamblers, one on each side of Sam, fidgeted in place. They seemed to want to back away too but were afraid of the well-dressed dealer. The tall, suited man behind the table smiled and nodded

“It is, but even training needs an element of risk.” He made eye contact with Sam first, then he looked at the other two. A short, stocky, balding man with a clean-shaven face; and, a gaunt, pallid woman with stringy brown hair that reached her shoulders.. Both of them had been like Sam. Homeless survivors barely making a living by pick-pocketing. “Obviously,” he chuckled. “I don’t expect any of you to have that kind of money, but that’s part of the training too. If you lose…,” the dealer gave an exaggerated shrug and smirked. “You lift folderol until we’re square.”

“It’s rigged,” Sam said. He narrowed his eyes at the dealer. “No way we could win against you.” To his surprise, the dealer nodded, then gestured at the door.

“Of course. You’re welcome to go back to the streets if you don’t want to learn about your abilities. Think of your losses as a tuition fee,” the dealer looked at the other two. “That goes for each of you. Stay and earn some learning, or walk a beat on the streets.” Sam looked at the other two, but they both seemed intent on staying. He was more afraid of staying than returning to the streets, but he felt better knowing the three of them would be in the same boat. He stepped forward to the table again.

“Alright. I’m in.” Sam made the effort to smile at his partners on each side. “I haven’t played Go Fish since I was a kid.”

“This game’s a bit different,” the dealer said. He dealt two cards to each player. “Since you all are new, we’ll start off with just two cards.” He placed the rest of the deck face down in the middle of the table, then covered the deck with a small black, ceramic bowl. The four players looked at their cards. Sam held a 10 of spades and a jack of clubs. The dealer placed his two cards face down in front of him, then he pulled a small ceramic bowl from under the table and covered his cards.

“Find what you can, and cover your cards,” he instructed. Sam reached into the darkness under the table and felt around until he found something that seemed big enough. He pulled out a translucent tupperware container, but the dealer shook his head.

“It needs to be unseen.” The dealer nodded at the woman. She placed a black top hat over her cards. The short man used a transparent glass bowl. Both he and Sam reached under the table again. Sam focused on it being opaque. He found a small cardboard box and covered his cards while the chubby man used a small cooking pot. The nodded at all the covered cards in approval.

“Good, here’s how this works.” He looked at Sam. “Sam, do you have a 10 of spades? Hint: I know you do.”

“I do,” Sam nodded and moved to lift the box to retrieve the card, but the dealer stopped him by placing a hand on the box.

“If you do have the card you say, ‘Yes I have it, go fish.’ ” Sam pulled his hand back.

“Yes, I have it. Go fish,” he said. The dealer smiled and nodded at the box.

“Check your cards,” the dealer said. Sam lifted the box and found only one face-down card. “If I picked the wrong card…,” the gentleman smiled. “I didn’t. But if I did, you win. If I got the right card,” he showed the group the 10 of spades. “I win. That was a demonstration. Do you understand how it’s played?” He asked the group.

“What if we don’t have it?” the woman asked with a weak, raspy voice. The dealer tapped the black ceramic bowl over the deck.

“You go fish in a bigger pond. Get it?” All three nodded their heads. The dealer moved their covers out of the way and collected all the cards, then handed the deck to Sam.

Sam shuffled the cards in full view of everyone, then dealt two cards to everyone. Each player checked, then covered their cards. The gentleman covered the deck, then nodded at the short man to Sam’s left.

“You first, Herbie.” The short man looked straight at the woman.

“Lira. Got a two of diamonds?” The pale woman shook her head.

“Go fish in the big pond,” she said. Herbie reached into the darkness under the table. The black bowl covering the deck moved slightly, then his hand came back holding another card. He looked at it, then slipped it under his pot.

“Not bad,” the gentleman said. “My turn.” He asked Herbie for a nine of hearts, which the rotund man did not have. The gentleman reached under the table and pulled his hand back in a single, smooth motion. The black bowl did not move, but he placed a new card under his bowl. Lira sat up straighter when she realized it was her turn. She looked at Sam.

“Sam, do you have a queen of clubs?” Sam nodded.

“I do. Go fish.” The woman bit her lip and stuck her hand into the shadows. She closed her eyes for concentration and fumbled under the table for a moment. Finally, she returned with a card and looked at it.

“Damn it!” she forced a whisper into a raspy shout and slammed her hand on the table. She slid her card under the top hat. The gentleman produced a notepad and pen.

“Lira. 100k,” he said aloud and looked her in the eyes. Then he nodded at Sam. “Your turn.”