Normally, Free Fiction Friday is when this stuff shows up on my blog. But this Friday, I’ll be stuffing my face at Thanksgiving Part Deux. This story is for Chuck Wendig’s Flash Fiction challenge. I rolled “Noir” (yes, I broke out the ten-sider). I’m not even that familiar with Noir so I gave it my best shot and exceeded the target by ummm…a few words. Shamelessly, it is set in the same universe as my superhero novel, Crimson Son.
Eldon stood in the gravel driveway feeling the approach of the car. Four tires on the ground, no tracks, lightweight. Closer and he could tell by the rumble of the V-8 that it was a sedan. Probably the government issue kind.
A Ford DeLuxe crested the hill. Black, coated in road dust like a layer of ash. Ash, falling like snowflakes.
He turned and raised an arm, motioning toward the house. Small. White. A two bedroom farmhouse his grandparents built. He’d grown up here. Every time he saw it, he was amazed it was still standing.
He stepped gingerly from heel to toe up the porch steps. An awkward thing, but the house needed to last. On the wooden, above the floating foundation, the tingle of the car on the gravel left the soles of his feet.
Pointed ears and cheeks trotted into view through the haze of the screen door. A pink tongue lolled. Eldon opened the door and reached down to pet the dog’s velvet fur.
“Keep your ears open, Nip. This could get ugly.” The dog nuzzled its damp, black nose in his hand.
Eldon glanced over his shoulder toward the car and waved again. The dust-streaked sedan crunched to a stop. He stepped inside, leaving the door open and letting the screen door fall partly ajar as it was want to do. He’d fix that. Someday.
He crossed through the living room, light spilling in through the picture window. On good days, he’d sit on the porch. On bad, he’d sit on the couch. He could watch the world outside, a dusty road and a stand of trees. Mountains painted in the distance. Birds and smaller critters foraged in the abandoned garden out front. Several times he’d shot a deer or a squirrel right from the porch. He didn’t need to go far from here to live. Never again. They couldn’t make him.
Eldon took a breath. “It’s all right.”
He continued into the kitchen and pulled open the fridge. He grabbed a beer from the shelf, started to close the door and stopped before reaching for another. He felt the wood under his feet vibrate with each step from the porch stairs. Felt the motion ride the coils in the fridge and through the handle.
The screen door creaked open.
Eldon walked into the living room, his head low. He motioned with one of the beers toward the recliner closest to the door. The young man, dark suit, baby-face, closed the screen door as though it were a fragile thing. It was, really. The boy, why’d they send a boy, was still standing when Eldon settled into the couch.
His visitor was trying to look anywhere but his direction. He wouldn’t find much. Nothing on the walls. Grandma’s plate collection, family photos, everything was packed away. That was how it had to be. Just the furniture, the old upright piano his mother used to play, and a television covered in dust and foil.
Eldon motioned again. “Have a seat.”
The young man sat. Eldon waved the beer again and the man shook his head, his cheeks coloring. All men acted differently when they were scared. Flushed. Tongue tied. Fidgeting. Screaming to their false god. Eldon shrugged and opened his beer to take a long swig. Nip padded into the room and curled at his feet.
“Don’t worry about him. He don’t bite.”
The man licked his lips. “What kind of dog is he?”
“What’s his name?”
He went quiet again but at least he made eye contact. “Sargent Griffin, I’m Special Agent Crawford. I’m here to talk to you about an…incident.”
“Not in the Army anymore.” He took another swig. “Neither were you.”
“Okay, sir.” Crawford cleared his throat and paused. Now that he was finally looking, Eldon saw doubt cross his face. “You are Eldon Griffin, correct?”
“That I am,” said Eldon. The doubt lingered in Crawford’s eyes. “Expecting someone fatter?”
Crawford’s face flushed again. “No, sir.”
“Don’t you G-men travel in twos. You know, for safety.”
Eye contact wavered. Crawford ran his fingers through his hair and reached into his jacket. Nip whined. The floorboards creaked and groaned. A resonance rode through the strings of the piano.
Crawford froze and withdrew his hand from his coat inches at a time, his pale fingers vivid against the suit. He held a small notepad. The room settled. With two fingers, he carefully produced a pen from his front pocket.
“My partner called in sick.”
Eldon huffed. “You sure you don’t want that beer?”
“No. Thank you. I won’t be long, sir. I don’t want to take up your time.”
“I was wondering if you’d heard what happened down near Kooskia.”
“Oh?” Eldon kept his eyes on the man and tilted the beer bottle to his lips. “Don’t keep up much with people.”
“I was told given the proximity, you might have known.” He hesitated. “Might have felt it.”
“That so.” Eldon looked long and hard at the young man. Sweat dimpled his brow. Pupils dilated. Rookie with the short straw – he hadn’t pissed himself yet. But he was asking questions. Engaging. The fear was more about what he didn’t know, Eldon decided.
“Sir, one quick question is all I need to ask. Where were you on the night of October 14th?”
“Why do you need to know?”
“There was an earthquake. Out near an internment camp. On the books it was closed, but there were families out there caught up in the transfer.”
Eldon leaned forward, dangling the beer bottle between his fingers. “Mother nature can be unpredictable.”
“USGS said there weren’t any fault lines in that area. No previous activity.”
“What do they know?” He drank the last of his bottle and reached for the second. “You think their little boxes and spools of paper can tell you shit about what’s under there? Do you?”
He felt a wet muzzle on his hand. Nip was standing, his face pressed between Eldon’s arm and knee. Coal black eyes looked up at him, pleading.
“I don’t know. I’m not a scientist. That’s just what they told us.”
“Then what are you? What do you think you are?”
“A guy trying to do his job. That’s all.” The young man set the pen down and reached for his breast pocket, raising his eyebrows in askance as his shaking hand revealed a pack of cigarettes. He shifted and drew a lighter from his pants. “You mind?”
“Yeah. I mind.”
The man let the pack disappear into his pocket and raised his palms, clutching the lighter under a thumb. “One answer and I’m gone, sir.”
“I was a guy doing a job.” Eldon stared at the chrome lighter. Light from the picture window flared on the surface. “We both were.” He tried not to imagine the flame clicking from the top. “You ever serve?”
“No sir. War ended too soon.” Crawford swallowed. “Thanks to you, Little Boy, and the rest of Augment Force Zero.”
“Thanks?” Eldon snorted and dug his hands into Nip’s tawny fur. “I already had my parade. Streets burning. People running out of their paper fucking houses with the skin melting from their backs.” He released the fur. His gaze drifted out the window to the car powdered in gravel dust. Whole city blocks had been like that. People. Ankle deep in the slough of whatever had been sent up in the air, consumed by flame. “Little Boy, that’s all he could say. Laughing the whole damn time. ‘Them’s houses made of paper!’”
His guest had gone silent again. Nip had started to nudge his leg.
“Little Boy burned them, I buried what was left. That was my job.” He focused on the young man. “Why’d they hire you for your job?”
“I guess I had the right education.”
“I bet you did.” Eldon smirked. “So did we. Little Boy burned his way through his childhood. Hell, he was wetter behind the ears than you when they took him into the program. They say the Augmentation process is random, you never know what kind of powers you’ll get. That’s what your scientists say.”
“Maybe I can come back another time.”
Eldon jerked forward. “You ain’t coming back here.” Crawford sunk into the chair. “You gonna do your job? Get your answers?”
A damn kid, like Little Boy had been. But this one was scared shitless, unlike Little Boy. Joy had burned in that pint-sized monster’s eyes as the city burned to ash around them. A terrible fire consuming something inside of him, fueling him. Eating him alive.
“Let me tell you why they hired me.” He stared up at the ceiling and blew out a fermented breath. “I hated every last one of those slanty-eyed cocksuckers. Watched them feed a naked G.I. to dogs. Saw them cane a strung up man until his flesh was a foamy mess of blood and dangling skin. They were goddamn animals and they all needed to die. And I was ready to cleanse the motherfucking earth of their kind. That’s what they wanted me to do when we dropped into those city streets. Men. Women. Children. Buried and gone until they knew their tiny god couldn’t save them. Until they were ready to understand who the real rulers of this Earth were and which damn God they needed to answer to.”
The foundation shook again. Nip whined and scratched at the wooden floor. He sunk his teeth into Eldon’s pants and tugged, his whine turning into desperate growls. A cacophony of notes rattled from the piano. Crawford stood, eyes wide and the patches of red had drained completely from his cheeks. He backed toward the door and stumbled on the recliner.
“You gonna ask me where I was?” Eldon stood, letting the beer bottle fall to the ground. It bounced and rolled leaving a trail of beer to seep through the floorboards. He took a step and the house swayed. “Are you?”
Special Agent Crawford arrived at the office late. He’d missed the briefing with his supervisor. This wasn’t uncommon when doing field work in the boonies – an agent got back when he got back. What he didn’t know is if his supervisor would smell the Bourbon on his breath. He’d made a stop on the way from the Eldon Griffin lead.
Even this late, it wasn’t uncommon to find the offices lit. His supervisor’s door was open. He leaned on the frame and knocked.
“Crawford!” A cigarette dangled from his supervisor’s mouth as he spoke. Sleeves rolled up, he waved a folder at a chair next to the door. “Come on in, have a seat.”
Crawford pressed further into the frame. “Naw, been driving all day.”
His supervisor set down the paper and ground his cigarette in the ashtray on his desk. “What’d you find out?”
“Nothing.” Crawford watched the stem of ash smolder in the tray. He risked taking a step into the room and slid his report across the desk. “He wasn’t home.”
“You wait for him?” His supervisor flipped the report jacket open.
“Let’s see. Survivors talking about buildings falling, trees swaying. One mentioned a dog barking. Why the hell’s that in there?”
“They don’t allow pets at the camp. No guard dogs.”
“Interesting. But look, kid, you gotta focus on relevant facts. You don’t gotta write down every damn thing.” His supervisor smirked. “Don’t burn yourself out, kid.”
“Nobody saw Fat Man there?” He muttered the question as he flipped through the pages. When he reached the last page he peered at Crawford over the red folder. “Earthquake then? Legit?”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“Sweet Jesus, that’s a relief.” His supervisor tossed the report to his desk. He popped the mangled cigarette back into his mouth and leaned back. “Gotta wonder with the way he left the service as soon as he landed on American soil. We owe them boys of Augment Force Zero a hell of a debt but by God, one of them goes off the reservation, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Crawford nodded. He didn’t know either. “Gonna head home. Long day.”
“You do that.” The supervisor fished another cigarette out of his desk. Crawford reached into his pocket and tossed him his lighter. “Thanks.” He flicked the lighter and Crawford watched the flame swell. Thought he could feel the earth beneath him shift. His supervisor started to return it.
“Keep it. I’m trying to quit.”