July 05, 2012

Reader's Choice Mini-Stories - Volume 1

The Origami Dinosaur
Part 1
No. 011 Feb 26, 2012
The origami dinosaur feared fire above all, nor could he survive the shredder.
Despite being the master of his desktop kingdom, he was not invincible. Children, for example, presented more problems. He'd been wadded into a ball twice, and his tail bore a scar of cello tape.
To keep his mind from those unsavoury topics, he spent most of his days in conversation with the glass rabbit. They discussed all manner of scholarly topics, from astronomy to history.
The dinosaur felt he had the edge when it came to the historical subjects, having theoretically lived through most of them. The rabbit would have preferred to speak of the arts, but the dinosaur would not have it.
And so, the two lived on their office island for many years, happy in their simple routine, until the arrival of a new resident, a shifty-looking character by the name of Bobble-Head.

Part 2
No. 018 Mar 4, 2012
The glass rabbit, the most hospitable of the pair, was the first to offer a greeting.
“Greetings,” he said to Bobble-Head. “We are philosophers.”
Bobble-Head was hesitant to reply. His only company on the drafting table where he’d spent his life previously had been a mute sippy-bird. Speech was almost as foreign to him as Norway.
“Hel-lo,” he accomplished. It was a great victory, though the others did not recognise it.
“He’s dim,” said the dinosaur. “He probably doesn’t even know about topography.”
Of course, neither did the dinosaur, but his position as sovereign of the table felt threatened by the newcomer.
Bobble-Head was hurt. He wasn’t dim, he knew a great many things. Perhaps they would accept him if he could draw. He was a very good drawer. He shuffled to the stationary caddy and procured a fountain pen.
Dinosaur and rabbit were enthralled by the pictures. Now they could see the things of which they spoke. With Bobble-Head the desk would became a place of wonder instead of dreary recitation.

Part 3
No. 065 April 24, 2012
“Why is the sky blue?” asked the origami dinosaur senatorially on one fine day in October.
The glass rabbit and Bobble-Head, his steadfast companions, waited for an answer.
“I propose that it is so because it could not be green.” The dinosaur concluded.
“Perhaps you are correct,” said the rabbit. “But what of rainbows? They contain that verdant hue. Are they not part of the great firmament?”
“Nonsense, rainbows are things of a very different nature,” said the dinosaur.
Bobble-Head, who had never seen the sky first-hand, could not offer a rebuttal.
His drawings could not alter the course of the heated reflection, as he could color the sky however he pleased. Therefore, he exhausted the day in quiet contemplation.
The titans of the table, great lizard and proper lagomorph, meanwhile, clashed in merry jousting, the hours passing by.
As the clock struck midnight, the debate was concluded without either side having influenced the other in the slightest. The rules of discourse held, and now was a new beginning. Fresh worlds begged for inspection.
And today was Bobble-Head’s turn to initiate the dialogue. He intended to examine love.

Part 4
No. 106 June 2, 2012
Life at the table had been dulled by the turning of the years. Over time, the residents had exhausted their imaginations and their wit.
One day, in late July, the glass rabbit detected a faint energy.
“Something will happen soon,” he told his stuporous friends.
 The drowsy origami dinosaur opened one eye. “Will it happen to us?”
The rabbit shook his ears. “I do not know.“

In the afternoon the premonition was confirmed.
The trio were removed from their home to the confines of a cardboard prison.
Bobble-Head, recalling prior experience, was not unsettled like the others. He attempted to communicate what was happening to his uneasy friends.
 “We are to move,” the rabbit understood.
The dinosaur did not reply.

The cohort was transported across the vast expanse of office, a journey of forty-six steps.
The box was emptied and the three surveyed their new surroundings.
“What’s this?” asked the dinosaur, peering with guarded curiosity at a new vista before him.
“I believe it is called a ‘window’,” replied the rabbit.
The origami dinosaur looked out over the new world and felt the spark of discovery once again.

The Good Dog
Part 1
No. 026 March 12, 2012
That's it. Today's the day my master has left for good. He's tied me to the lamp post and he's never coming back. He's always come back before, but I know this is it.
Was I a bad dog? Was it because I chewed the couch? I didn't think he noticed that, but he must have because he's gone now, and I'm all alone.
Maybe I shouldn't have barked so much? Maybe I should have been quieter. But the mailman was coming! I needed to warn somebody! Was I wrong? My master went away.
Wait! Is that him? Do I see him?
No. No, it's not him. He's someplace else, for sure. He's tied me to the lamp post and he's never coming back.
Yes! There he is! He's coming back! He's not gone for good! I'm a good boy! Hi! He's back! He's got something in his hand! Is it for me? Maybe it's for me! Maybe he went away and came back with something for me! He's talking to me!

"Hey, buddy! Did you miss me? The line in there was really long! I must have waited five minutes for my coffee! Did you miss me? You're a good dog."

Part 2
No. 042 March 28, 2012
He said “no” but this time he must have meant “yes”. My master wants me to bite! Yes! He wouldn’t have said “no” if he didn’t mean “yes”. I’ll be a bad dog if I don’t bite!
But what should I bite? Should I bite furniture? Should I bite my toys? Should I bite my master? I think he must want me to bite the couch pillows. He wouldn’t have left them out if he didn’t want me to bite them. I think I’ll bite those. And then I’ll bite the furniture. And then I’ll chew on his arm when he comes back into the room.
Hi! Here he is! He’ll be so proud of me! I chewed on the pillows and the couch and then my toys, because I had extra time, and then I ran around the room and then I sat down! He’ll be so happy when he sees what I’ve done! Hi! Look! Look at what I did while you were gone! It’s because you told me to! You said “no” but I knew what you meant!
“Really? Didn’t I say ‘no chewing?’ Isn’t that what I said? Look what you did!”
See! He likes it! I’d better bite his arm before he changes his mind!

Part 3
No. 101 May 28, 2012
What’s that? Is that the leash? Oh boy! The leash! I’m going for a walk! Walk! Walk! Walk! Girl is taking me for a walk! I love to walk with Girl!
Outside is fun! My master or Girl bring me outside every day! I get to smell things and run around! I’m going to run over here! Wait! What’s over there? I’d better run over there! What’s that smell?
There’s something stinky! I’d better roll in it! My master will be upset if I don’t bring home any smells for him. I love going to a walk! Maybe I’ll see a bird! Or a cat, even! I don’t like cats. I hope I don’t see a cat. I don’t like cats.
What’s that? It’s moving fast! I’d better chase it. It’s coming near my yard. I can’t let anything near my yard. Hey! Get back here! Get back here or I’ll—Ack! What’s this thing around my neck? Oh yeah, the leash. What happens if I pull it? Ah! Can’t breathe. Ok, I won’t do that.
Walk. Walk. Walk. Oh! Dirt! I forgot to dig this morning. I’d better dig in the dirt. My master will think I’m lazy if I don’t dig on my walk for two walks!
Hey! I know where we are! There’s home! I love home! I hope my master didn’t forget about me!

“Hey, buddy? Did you have a good walk? Come here! Hey, ew! What is that smell? I think you need a bath!”
A bath? Did my master say bath? Oh no!

The Burning
Part 1
No. 027 March 13, 2012
No one knew exactly where The Burning had started.
Some said it began in Nebraska, others, in Tennessee.
It had now been almost two decades since the first rain that killed.
The spectre drifted across the continent, spreading a few miles every day, leaving an irradiated waste in its path.
First you'd feel the air warming, then, if you weren't fast enough to the shelters, the first drops would sear through you. Plumb through, so you could see the other side.
I'd been on the run, staying just ahead, almost my whole life.

Part 2
No. 040 March 16, 2012
I’d just arrived in Mesa, Arizona.
Many people had escaped to the desert, hoping to avoid the rain. As if it mattered at all what the weather was in a place before The Burning descended.
But at least here, unlike in many of the towns now burnt to ashes, they’d begun to take steps beyond merely hoping and praying.
Huge bone-white radar domes ringed the city, towering above the red sand and cactuses. They monitored the horizon for any hint of the cloud. A network of bunkers had been built under the streets, enough to save all those who’d purchased their golden tickets.
It wasn’t my intention to stay, though. I just needed to see a girl about an umbrella.

Part 3
No. 102 May 29, 2012
The Burn-warden told me that my contact was holed up in shelter 3, on the other side of the city.
That’s my girl. Always keep them guessing. I made my way to shelter 1 where I knew she’d be.
The thickness of the walls of these things always surprised me.
I didn’t have a permit, so I wasn’t allowed to enter, but the gatekeeper promised to pass the word of my appearance down through the tunnel. I waited outside and kept a habitual eye on the sky.
A short time later the doors re-opened and I saw her for the first time since Cincinnati. I noticed the scars had yet to heal.
“You’re here about the umbrella?” she asked me with no preamble. I’d always appreciated that. She was business-first.
“I heard you were successful,” I told her.
She brushed self-consciously at the furrow on her cheek. “Depends who you ask.”
“Listen, love, I need it. Anything you’ve got.”
Her eyes locked on to mine, and I knew that she knew my plans.
“You’re going back,” she gasped.
I nodded.
 “Even with the umbrella suit, that’s suicide!”
“I think I can stop it,” I told her.
She didn’t believe me. “Stop what?”
“Stop the Burning.”

Mark’s Meltdown
Part 1
No. 030 March 17, 2012
The flickering box was eerily soothing.
Mark felt an uneasy twinge at the base of his spine. Had he seen this before? Somehow, he couldn't remember. How long had he been here?
He checked his watch.
Strange. It said that it was only an hour later than he thought, but the day was wrong. Why did it say Tuesday? He shook it, and looked again. That was better. Monday. He was just tired.
"Just tired," he told himself aloud, to hear a real voice.
"You're not," said the TV.
Now he was thoroughly spooked. Was the TV talking to him?
No. The program continued, it looked to be a documentary. No relation to what was happening to him.
Mark was cracking up good and proper now, though. He re-checked the watch, to be sure.

Part 2
No. 055 April 12, 2012
Mark hiked himself off of the couch, steadying himself against the wall.
There was a strange pressure in his head. One he hadn’t felt before.
“Sick. Please just be sick,” he pleaded with himself. Just a fever. That was ok. Off to the doctor, a couple pills, and he’d be better. He just had to think rationally.
The wall began to distort. He watched his hand disappear into it. He wrenched it back.
 Somehow the withdrawal caused a chain reaction. All the walls in the room began to close in.
“You’re dead! You’re dead! You’re dead!” he heard the TV blaring.
“No! Stop!” he ordered. He screwed his eyes shut.
When he opened them, the room was normal. He was back on the couch, bathed in sweat. He reached for his phone. Something was happening, and he needed help.
He flipped it open and dialed. He could hear the line begin to ring. He lay down, closing his eyes as he waited for someone to pick up.
The line clicked.
“Hello?” he said. “Hello? Please help!”
There was a soft hiss from the other side. Then he heard them reply.
“Hello? Hello? Please help!”
Mark began to scream.

Part 3
No. 104 May 31, 2012
He didn’t stop screaming until he made it out of the house.
Mark stood in the street and tried to slow his breathing. Everything seemed so ordinary out here.
He fell to his knees on the lawn and tried to flush the impressions of what just happened out of his mind. It can’t have been real.
But there must be something wrong with him. Nobody just thinks their TV is trying to kill them. He decided that he should probably still call somebody. An ambulance, maybe, given the severity of the attack.
He felt in his pocket for a phone. It wasn’t there. He must have dropped it in the hallway. Unless it fell out onto the grass. He looked down at his legs.
They were bleeding. His pants were torn to ribbons, and there deep slashes on his thighs and shins. His hands were covered in blood, too.
He stood, and ran for the neighbor’s house. He had to find someone who would help him.
He banged on the door, ignoring the fact that it was the middle of the night. He heard the lock click, and the door opened a crack.
“Mark?” asked the man at the door. “Is that you? What’s going on?”
“I don’t know. Please help me.”
The man on the other side of the barrier peered as far around the corner as he could, checking the rest of his yard and driveway suspiciously.
“Mark, what are you doing here? You moved away three months ago.”

The Bird
Part 1
No. 036 March 23, 2012
"Let me get this straight, twenty minutes ago, the bird was alive. Then you took its picture. Now the bird is dead. Seems pretty clear to me. You killed that bird with your camera-phone," she said.
"I did not!" he replied adamantly. "That's crazy-talk!"
"Is it?" she asked. "Is it really? Let's look at the evidence. Here we have a dead bird. And on your phone is a picture of the bird, alive. It wasn't dead then. It is now. Your phone stole its soul."
"Come on. Do birds even have souls?"
They both considered the small, feathery corpse.
"So, should be do something about this?" he asked her.
"Maybe we should chuck it into the neighbor's yard?" she replied.
He reached for it.
"Wait, no, not with your hands!" she cried. "Get a stick or something."
"How about we bury it instead?" he suggested.
"Yeah, that'd be for the best." she agreed.
They dug a shallow hole and placed the bird gently inside. Then they covered it and regarded the grave.
"You were probably a good bird, before he killed you," she said.
"I didn't even! Phones don't kill birds!"

Part 2
No 107 June 3, 2012
“There’s a dead bird,” she said, pointing.
“What?” he asked.
 “You got your phone on you? Maybe if you delete the picture of the last one, then you can bring this one back to life.”
“Oh, are you still on about that? That was months ago!”
“There’s no statute of limitations on murder,” she said with a grin. “Besides, I know you didn’t kill this one,” she told him, while poking the tiny body with a stick.
She paused for effect.
 “Unless you were sneaking around the woods last night with your digital scythe, that is.”
He shook his head and rolled his eyes. “I’m just going to keep walking. Enjoy your dead little friend.”
“You’re not even going to try?” she called down the trail after him.
She gave the bird one last good prod, and then dropped the wood. “Goodbye, poor bird, I’m sorry he had to be so cruel. He won’t give you back your life-force,” she pouted outrageously.
“Hurry up,” he yelled back. “I’m thinking about taking a picture of you!”
“You wouldn’t!” she gasped in mock horror.
“I might.”

The Prank
Part 1
No. 045 April 1, 2012
"A good prank leaves them talking about it for years to come. Simplicity is key. If they have to spend too long telling the story of the set-up, you've already blown it. Efficiency of storytelling," Colin Charter told the semi-circle of freshmen seated in front of him. As a sixth-year senior still living in student housing, he had wisdom to pass on to the next generation.
"What if we make a phone call telling someone to meet up someplace, then mess with their room?" asked a pimple-faced girl.
"Nope. See, you're already adding steps," Charter told her. "Why the phone call in the first place? It would give the target a clue to your identity, and it complicates the story. 'Oh, I got this weird phone call and blah blah blah.' Boring! How about just getting to their room while they're out? If you can't manage that then you have no business pranking to begin with. And, really, is messing with their room the best you've got? Don't answer that. Freshmen. Ugh," he grunted with contempt.
"What would you suggest?" questioned a squeaky-voiced boy. "What's the best prank ever?"
"The best pranks can't be taught. They take weeks, months, sometimes years of preparation. And then they bloom spectacularly, just the once, and fade into a blaze of memory and whispered recollections. I can only show you the path, I can't walk it for you," Charter concluded.
"Are you working on something now?" came the voice from the back. Chrissy Peachland, Charter's nemesis.
"In due time, Chrissy. In due time."                                  

Part 2
No. 073 May 2, 2012
Acting strangely out of character, Colin Charter took no more questions. He ended the meeting abruptly and shooed his freshman disciples out of the lounge.
Only Chrissy remained. “So what are you working on?” she asked him again.
“It involves a pig, a goat, six pairs of underpants, and your mom,” he told her sarcastically.
“Really?” she wondered. “Don’t you want to tell me? We could trade ideas. Maybe you’d like it,” she purred.
Chrissy reached under her shirt provocatively. Her hand came out with a folded piece of paper. “Are you sure you don’t want to see what I’m up to?” she said, waving it temptingly.
“I already know what you’re up to,” answered Colin, somewhat sadly. “I bribed my way into your hall last week. You should really keep better tabs on your sophomores. Your plan won’t work. There’s a flaw in phase three.”
He noticed her turn red and saw a flash of surprise before it went away, leaving her angry-white and glaring at him.
“Well, if that’s how you’re going to be,” she huffed. She turned on her heels and stalked quickly down the corridor.
Charter shook his head. “I can’t help it if I’m right,” he called after her. He was almost a hundred percent sure she didn’t hear.
He returned to his room, too.
He’d been lying, of course, about the pig and her mom, but the truth was somewhat more disturbing.
Colin Charter, the Prank King, would be graduating in two months.
And he didn’t have a single inkling about how to go out with a bang.

Part 3
No. 103 May 30, 2012
For the past month, Colin Charter had sequestered himself in his tiny dorm room.  He had very little time left to plan the ultimate prank.
His situation had become desperate enough that he’d turned to the internet for inspiration.
 He moved his mouse over the blinking link that promised to provide the directions for a prank so magnificent that it claimed to be worth $49.99 just to see the plans.
He hovered for a moment, and then gave in. As he hit the button that said “order”, Colin wondered if he was the one getting pranked.
The page loaded.  There were no blueprints. No descriptions. Instead, there was only a phone number.
Colin had no choice now but to call it. He typed it dutifully into his phone and pressed “send”. He almost dropped the handset when he saw the display.
“Calling: Chrissy Peachland”.
The line was picked up.
“Hello Colin. I knew you’d call eventually,” said Chrissy with a just a hint of sex and victory in her voice. “I’ve got fifty bucks that says you need a little help.”
Colin, having been bettered, hung his head and admitted. “I need help.”
“Come around my room after eleven tonight. We’ll put something together that will blow everyone’s mind.”

Part 1
No. 077 May 6, 2012
“Closed,” said Winston Able.
“That one, too?” asked his friend Sawyer Nolan.
“All of them,” Able answered.
“How do these places make any money? It’s only five past five,” said Nolan.
“I don’t know. But I thought I’d be a lot easier to get a coffee,” said Able.
They’d only been in town for a few days, and had been finding it increasingly difficult to abide by their city-schedules. Main Street was busy until quarter-to, and then everybody seemed to up and leave all at once.
“Where do you think they go so fast?” asked Nolan.
“You should be asking ‘why do they go?’” called a voice from a dark storefront. “And you boys better be getting home, too,” said the old man at the door.
“Why?” asked Able.
“It’ll be getting dark soon,” said the old man. “You don’t need to worry about your coffee.”
He stumbled off down the street, moving faster than Able or Nolan expected. “Home by six!” he called back to them.
“Well. That was strange,” said Able.
“Mountain man,” agreed Nolan.
They continued walking. The sun was going down and their hotel was a few blocks away.
Able looked around, mid-conversation, and interrupted himself. “You notice that there’s nobody else out here?”
Nolan surveyed the empty, darkening street.
“That worry you at all?”
Nolan took a deep breath.
“Not before Davy Crockett started his bit. Now, a little, yeah. I’m starting to think there might be a reason,” he said. “And I’m not sure that it’s an economic one.”

Part 2
No. 093 May 22, 2012
Winston Able shook his head. “Wait a second, this is crazy. There’s nothing going on here, it’s just a small town. This is how small towns are.”
“I gotta admit, though, that guy had me going,” said Sawyer Nolan. “I wonder if the locals pay him to stand around and creep out the tourists.”
“Ha! That’s a great gig for the one hobo in Nowheresville,” Able agreed.
They were now within a block of their hotel. They just had to cross the street and walk past an empty lot and they’d be home for the evening. Nolan was hungry. He couldn’t remember if the hotel had a restaurant.
“What was that?” he snapped suddenly.
“Did you hear that?”
“I don’t hear anything,” said Able. Now the hairs on his arm were standing up again. He decided next time the company needed someone to travel anywhere without a Starbucks, he’d nominate the new guy.
“I think it was a growl,” Nolan whispered. “Keep your voice down,” he commanded. He looked around nervously.  There was nothing but the dark windows of shuttered buildings and empty parking spots along the road.
Able’s watch beeped twice to mark the hour.
Both men, without words, began to walk as fast as they could without actually running.
Then something knocked Nolan over.
He rolled onto his side and scanned for his friend.
Able was missing.
“Winston!” he called, the word almost echoing down the deserted street.
There was no answer.
He saw the door of the hotel, and ran for it as fast as he could.
He burst into the lobby and saw a girl at the front desk. Breathlessly, he tried to tell her what had just happened.
“My friend—we were walking home—then something hit me. Did you see him come in here?”
“Calm down, sir,” said the girl. “Your friend just came in. I think he’s at the bar.”
“Thanks,” Nolan wheezed. “Thank you.” He staggered through the double-doors into the lounge.
“Winston, I thought it got you,” he said as he entered the room.
A man turned to face him. It wasn’t Able.
“What did I tell you?” asked the old man.

Part 3
No. 105 June 1, 2012
“Sit down,” said the old man. “We have certain ways of doing things around here.”
“Where’s Able?” demanded Sawyer Nolan.
“Like I said, sit down. Maybe you’ll learn something.”
Nolan realized that he wouldn’t be able to find his friend by arguing, and he didn’t particularly want to go back outdoors to look around. He pulled up a ragged stool and sat down beside the mysterious stranger.
“I didn’t catch your name,” he told the man.
“I didn’t give it,” replied the man.
“Right. What happened to my friend?”
More than anything, Nolan wanted to fix the problem quickly and leave. He figured he could get home in about three hours if he ignored the speed limits on the highway. Damn Able for getting caught up in some hillbilly superstition.
“Here,” the old man said firmly as he passed a low tumbler of something potent down the bar. “Drink this while I tell you a story. You don’t mind listening to a story, do you?”
Nolan took the drink and sipped it, fighting the urge to cough violently. It had such a kick he had trouble identifying the liquor. He chose “whiskey” and tried to pretend to be interested in what the coot had to say.
“Go ahead,” he wheezed through the burn of the “whiskey”.
The old man leaned back on his stool. “Don’t worry, you might still have time to save your friend.”
“Tell the story,” Nolan snapped.
“A few years back, a couple outsiders came through. They had big promises. ‘We’re gonna grow this town,’ they said. ‘Plenty of money for everyone’. They had plans for a mine up in the hills. Well, winter comes and they disappear back to the city, and we here, we start seeing things.”
“So you’re blaming Winston and me for whatever’s going on?” asked Nolan.
“Did I say that?” the man questioned. Then he carried on. “A couple of McMaster’s boys went out to take a look. Only Jarrod came back. Seems these two fellas from the city had gone and messed around in Dark Hollow before they left.”
“I don’t remember Dark Hollow being on the map,” said Nolan.
“Remember what my name was?” answered the man by way of a question.
He continued his tale. “In the early days you’d see one, maybe two. But there’s more, now. Makes it difficult to get around at night, as I’m sure you’ve noticed. I reckon your boy’s been snatched up by the little one. She’s the meanest.”
“There are things in the woods?” asked Nolan.
“Not in the woods, boy. Things in the sky.”

Blind Spots
Part 1
June 8, 2012 , 2012
Neither I nor my species have a name. You poor humans haven’t discovered us yet.
Some animals have adapted camouflage in order to trick your gaze. We have adapted a better way to hide. We have developed the ability to detect your gaze. We can sense your field of vision and we can see where you are seeing.
You can best picture our view as a mass of overlapping cones emanating from your heads, always sweeping back and forth. Sometimes it takes a great talent to move through the tiny spaces between them. My kind don’t do well in cities.
It’s occasionally the clumsier of those among us that you have caught glimpses of out of the corner of your eye. You see a flash of movement and turn, only to find nothing there. In all likelihood, we were there, but are now safe again in your blind spot.
I am sure you are asking yourself a question. “Why is he telling me this? What has this being to gain by revealing the secrets of his race?”
It’s because we have only just become aware of creatures that follow us from behind the corners of our eyes.
And they are far less benevolent than we are.

Part 2
No. 137 July 4, 2012
We need your help.
We discovered the first hint of the Darks almost two years ago. There was only a report here, a rumor there. Early on, we didn’t believe the evidence. No one could conceive of something so like us, and yet so different. Or so evil.
They started taking the old ones first, and then the young. Now they are bold enough to hunt our strongest. Once they have exterminated us, they will come for you.
We have yet to see a complete specimen, but we have come to understand their methods through deduction.
Working ceaselessly, our best minds have developed a strategy for combating this threat. We have determined that humans can detect these monsters.
I have been sent to propose an alliance.
Because we can’t see our blind spots, you must act as watchmen for us. If we face one another, there will be nowhere for the Darks to hide.
You must understand that by this action we are putting the future of our species in your hands. We have existed a long time by staying out of sight, remote, and separate. We must learn to trust you.
And you must trust us, as well. Because I fear that when we step forward, we may appear as terrifying to you as the Darks appear to us.

The Rose Lady
Part 1
No. 112 June 9, 2012
The guards watched the dim, flickering screen in disbelief.
“What does he think he’s doing? He’ll never get anything that way,” said the older one, who had already pressed the button for the silent alarms.
“Is there even anything in that room, Captain?” asked the other, who, though having been on the job for the past decade was still referred to as “rookie” by his elder.
The first guard sat back in his chair. “Not in the last twenty-five years. Before that, it held the Rose Lady.”
The younger guard nodded. He knew all the stories about the Rose Lady. How the priceless statue had disappeared, and the nationwide search that followed. It was the dream of every guard to one day capture the dastardly criminals and return the exquisite three-inch ruby statue to its rightful place.
They turned their attention back to their monitors.  The black-clad intruder was almost to the empty plinth in the center of the room.
The old guard checked his watch. “He’s got three minutes before the police get here.”
Then they noticed something strange. The dark figure had reached into a bag and was placing something onto the pedestal.
The second man leaned forward. “I think we need to get down there,” he said. “Right now.”
Both men made it to the empty room from their station in record time. The burglar was still in the process of sneaking out.
“Halt!” they shouted in unison.
The intruder did not seem surprised at all. He turned slowly towards the guards with his hands in the air.
“Take off your mask,” ordered the old guard.
“As you wish,” said the trespasser. He took off his balaclava and revealed long, curly red hair.
“You’re not a man,” said the younger guard.
“No. I’m not,” said the woman.
“Stay where you are until the authorities arrive,” the Captain commanded.
“And what reason do you have to detain me?” she asked confidently.
“Theft,” said the rookie.
“Why don’t you examine the room and tell me if you see any evidence of theft,” she told them.
The rookie moved slowly through the door to the empty gallery. He kept the beam of his flashlight moving. As it passed through the middle of the room there was a flash of red. He almost dropped the light. Scrambling to get closer, he realized what he’d seen.
There, fully illuminated by his light, was the Rose Lady returned home.
“How can it be?” he asked the mysterious woman.
“That is an easy question. My father stole it, and I have brought it back,” she said.

Part 2
No. 138 July 4, 2012
“What’s your name?” demanded the younger guard.
“What’s yours?” the elegant intruder countered.
Thinking that it might help to normalize the situation, the guard told her first.
“Charlie. My name is Charlie.”
She glanced at the Captain. “And you?”
“I don’t have to tell you my name,” he said angrily.
She shrugged seductively. “I’m Cosette.”
Charlie looked at the Captain. “The police should already be here. What should we do? If she didn’t steal it, we have to protect her.”
The Captain looked at the Rose Lady. He was momentarily distracted by the sheer beauty of the piece. “Police?” he mumbled distantly.
“What should we do with Cosette?” Charlie repeated.
“Right,” said the Captain, returning to the moment. “Take her down to the basement archives. I’ll deal with the cops.”
 “Come on,” Charlie told her, and began to hurry away.
Cosette hesitated.
 “This way,” he called back to her without turning his head.
They left the Captain in the gallery with the statue as Charlie led her deeper into the museum. When they arrived in the archives, he was breathing heavily. He was not used to this much action. Cosette looked as if she could have gone on far longer without difficulty.
Charlie stood with his hands on his knees. “Your father stole the Lady?” he gasped.
“And a great many other works, too,” she answered.
“Why are you returning it?”
She spoke without hesitation. “She needed to come home. My father loved her dearly. And for a while that was enough. But she needs more than one man and his little girl can provide.”
“You broke in.”
“Did you expect that it was something that I could make an appointment for?” she countered. “Hello, Director? I’ve got the most famous stolen artwork in the world here. Should I come by around one?”
“I guess you’re right,” said Charlie.
“Of course I’m right, rookie.”
Charlie swung his head up. “What did you call me?”
He studied her closely for the first time. He squinted slightly. There was something about her jaw-line. “We left him alone,” he whispered.
“Yes we did,” she said.
Charlie started to run out of the room.
“Wait!” she ordered. Her voice was surprisingly authoritative.
He stopped.
“She’ll still be there. My dad would never stoop to stealing the same thing twice.”

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