The Fifth Horseman

My intercom buzzed. Which is to say, a tiny black storm cloud suddenly materialized over my desk, and a bolt of lightning burst out of it. You’d think I’d be used to it after all these years, but no. I still jumped in my chair. As the tiny clap of thunder faded, the voice of my secretary emanated from the cloud’s dark center.

“Mister Webster, you have a call on line one.” My secretary, Miss Jones, had a voice that was already annoyingly nasal, and the antiquated technology we still used in this office didn’t help.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“It’s from Downstairs,” she said, adding a dramatic pause. “It’s the Boss.”

Ugh. That was all I needed today.

“Thank you, Miss Jones.”

“Good luck,” she said, before she snorted into laughter. The black cloud dissipated, but I could still hear her laughing on the other side of the door.

“I can hear you, you know!” I barked. The laughter quieted, but did not fully disappear. I scowled and reached for the phone.

“This is Webster.”

“Webster. We need to talk.” The Boss’s voice cut through me like a hot knife. I shuddered.

“Yes, sir,” I said. “What can I do for you?”

“I’ve got a special project I want you to head up for me. Priority A number one, got it? Everything else gets put aside.”

“Got it. Yes, sir,” I said. “What are the details?”

“It’s the Horsemen. They’ve always been a thorn in my hoof, but bless it,”—he spat out the word—“they’re making things extra difficult for me these days, and I’m sick of it. So I’ve decided to let them make things difficult for you instead.”

“Thank you, sir,” I said.

“Don’t thank me yet. Word is that one of the Horsemen wants to retire, if you can believe that. I don’t know which one, and none of those jackwagons would say. But they claim they’ve found a loophole in their contract.”

“Impossible,” I said. “That contract is so airtight, you’ll suffocate if you spend too much time reading it.”

I wasn’t joking. Once, Hodges in accounting had to have emergency reanimation after leafing through the addendums in the Horsemen’s contract longer than he should have.

“That’s what I thought, too,” the Boss said. “One of my better deals, if I do say so. But since you’re my top contract man, I want you to meet with them and sort it all out. They’ll be here this afternoon.”

“What, today? But sir, that doesn’t leave me much time—”

“I don’t want to hear it, Webster. No excuses. Just get it DONE!” The Boss’ voice boomed, and the potted azaleas next to the phone withered.

I hung up the phone, sighed, and tossed the azaleas in the trashcan. My office felt like it had shrunk twelve inches in every direction, which, considering the Boss’ penchant for pettiness, was entirely possible.

I summoned a black cloud. “Miss Jones? I need everything we have on the Four Horsemen.”

# # #

My name is Daniel Webster. Yes, that Daniel Webster—the one from your high school history midterm. I was a congressman from New Hampshire, a senator from Massachusetts, and secretary of state to three presidents. I also ran for President of the U. S. of A. three times—and lost three times. And, for the last couple hundred years or so, legal counsel to the Devil. Yes, that Devil.

You may also remember me from the story that bears both my and my Boss’s names. But here’s what you don’t know: even though that story was published some eighty years after my death, and was listed as fiction, it wasn’t. It was true—all of it. Well, most of it. You see, I have the rare distinction of being the only mortal ever to match wits with the Boss and beat him outright. (The only mortal the Boss will admit to, anyway. There was that fiddle-playing kid in Georgia a while back, but we don’t talk about it around the office, and that song is outlawed on the break room jukebox). I argued before a jury of the damned, found a loophole in the Boss’s contract with my client, and got him and his descendants off the hook. As fine piece of lawyering as ever there was.

The Boss was impressed. So much so that after the trial he offered me a job, and I took it. Now, I know what you’re thinking: who on earth agrees to go work for the Prince of Darkness after having just beaten him in the courtroom? What can I say—I had recently lost my third bid for the White House, and was feeling down. And after so many years in government, a transfer to the lowest regions of Perdition’s flames felt like a lateral move. Plus, the dental plan was a huge selling point. (Don’t laugh. Do you have any idea what dentistry was like in the 1840s? Barbarians, the lot of them.)

I was hired as chief legal counsel, with a special assignment to prepare and review all of the Boss’s contracts with mortals. The Boss figured the one mortal who outsmarted him would be a valuable asset to prevent future mishaps. After all, who better to handle the legal wrangling of mortal souls than a lawyer? I’m rather proud to say that during my tenure, not a single unfortunate soul has managed to weasel out of one of my contracts. I’m that good.

Still, there are days when I wonder if I made a huge mistake all those years ago. My job started out as an exciting new challenge, but the excitement wore off rather quickly. My Boss treats me badly, my secretary is a succubus who doesn’t respect me, and my job has devolved into the same old grind, day in and day out. Not to mention that I’ve had a toothache since 1849. (The dental plan turned out to be a ruse). If I had an office window, I’d jump out of it, except I’m already dead. And, as I’ve come to learn, there are things worse than dying.

# # #

My office door opened and Miss Jones floated in. Her leathery wings were folded against her back, but she still hovered six inches above the floor. Her ebony horns curled up out of her hair and scraped the ceiling. She looked around the office.

“Has your office gotten smaller again?” she asked.

“It would seem so,” I said. “Are those the files on the Horsemen?”

“You know, it’s funny,” she said, “My office keeps getting larger, and yours keeps shrinking. Isn’t that funny?

“It is the very height of comedy,” I replied. “You can just leave the files on your way out, thank you.”

“I find it very funny,” she continued, peering down at me over the top of her horn-rimmed glasses. “I mean, they say you can tell a lot about a person by the size of their office, and here I’m supposed to be working for you, and yet . . . well, it’s almost as if I’m more important than you.”

I met her gaze and smiled through gritted teeth. “And yet, it’s my name on the door and on your annual performance review. Which, if I’m not mistaken, is coming up shortly, is it not?”

She smirked and dropped the stack of files on my desk with a thud. A small cloud of dust floated up into the air.

“Thank you, Miss Jones,” I said. “That will be all for now.”

She floated out of the office. The door slammed behind her by itself.

I opened the files and began to read. Even though I’ve worked here for a very long time, I’ve never actually met the Four Horsemen. I knew of them, of course, but mostly by reputation and what I had read in the Bible, though even that was fuzzy where they were concerned. Most of the population around here fell into one of two categories: fallen angels who came here originally with the Boss, and the mortals who had been foolish enough to sign one of his contracts. The Horsemen were neither of those things. Nobody—not even the Boss, it was rumored—knew exactly what they were or where they came from, though there were stories. Some said that they were visitors from another world. Others said that the Horsemen were convicts who had been banished to our universe for crimes against existence. An addendum to that last rumor said that they hadn’t been banished here, but escaped to come here. I familiarized myself with the files as best I could, reading tale after horrible tale of their exploits. Whatever the truth about their origin, one thing was certain: chaos wasn’t just the Horsemen’s job, it was their way of life, and they were very good at what they did.

I suspect that was what the Boss found most interesting about the Horsemen in the first place. Being such a smooth talker, the Boss convinced them to come work for him as independent contractors. I was never clear on the particulars of their contract—it was drawn up long before I started working here—and after the incident with Hodges, nobody wanted to read the whole thing. I had heard, however, that the Horsemen had been a little too eager to sign, which made me think they still had an ace up their sleeve. This was going to be an interesting meeting.

A few short hours later, I was down in the main conference room, awaiting the Horsemen’s arrival. I thumbed through part of the Horsemen’s contract, making sure an oxygen tank was on hand in case things got out of control. Miss Jones sat next to me, floating just high enough in her chair so that her head was above mine. She dragged a metal rasp across the tip of her fingernail. Sparks flew with each stroke, accompanied by a screech that made my skin crawl.

“Do you have to do that?” I asked.

She smiled, and the tips of her fangs appeared. “I don’t have to, no. But I like to. It’s relaxing.”

“It’s infuriating,” I snapped.

She shrugged. “That’s just a bonus.”

“You’re here to take notes, not be obstreperous.”

“Believe me, I can do both at the same time.”

A low rumble in the distance grew louder. The conference table vibrated. The coffee cups rattled on their coasters.

“That’s the Horsemen,” I said. “Will you please get ready to take the minutes of this meeting?”

Miss Jones rolled her eyes and exchanged her nail file for a notepad.

The rumble grew to a roar, an unholy cacophony of engines, evil laughter, and heavy metal power chords. Smoke filled the room. I braced myself against the table with one hand and grabbed my water glass with the other just as it was about to topple. And then, with an explosion of fire and ash, the Four Horsemen burst into the room, each astride their demonic motorcycles.

The first rider entered on an ivory white chopper adorned with solid gold instead of chrome. The bike skidded to a stop, knocking over three chairs and a potted palm in the corner. A woman, more beautiful and sensuous than any I’d ever seen in any lifetime, dismounted the motorcycle. Her file photo didn’t do her justice. She was clad from head to toe in immaculate white leather, which accentuated her figure perfectly. Not a single golden hair of her head was out of place. She adjusted the crossbow slung across her back and smiled. Her teeth sparkled like the stars.

“Conquest,” I managed, my throat suddenly dry. “So good of you to join us.”

“Please, call me Connie,” she said, striding gracefully towards the table. “No need to be so formal. And you must be the esteemed Daniel Webster. It is a genuine pleasure to make your acquaintance. I have followed your career for many years.”

She removed her gloves and extended her hand. Electricity shot through my arm as I took her hand. A gasp escaped my lungs. She winked at me, and I immediately felt heat rush through my face and neck.

“M-m-my pleasure,” I squeaked. “H-have a seat, please.”

Connie sashayed to her seat and leaned back, putting her feet up on the table. “I’m looking forward to this . . . debriefing,” she said. “Oh Danny boy, oh Danny boy, I love you so,” she sang with a grin.

I drank my entire glass of water in a single gulp.

“Ooohhh, I like her!” Miss Jones said with a grin.

The second rider roared in on a gigantic red motorcycle that looked like it had been built with spare parts from pain and misery. The front wheel was a circular saw blade that was a lit with angry red fire. The rider—War—was equally gigantic, and towered overhead. His long black beard was braided with bits of small bones, culminating with a giant fang tied at the bottom. His eyes glowed red with fury. He wore leather dyed red with blood, and was festooned with weaponry of every kind, including an especially wicked-looking curved sword strapped across his back. His file said that he’d hand-beaten that sword out of a plowshare, just for spite.

“Mongo, darling!” Connie smiled and blew a kiss towards War. War grunted and stomped to a chair, barely squeezing himself inside. He rested his fists on the table and glared at everyone.

“Mongo?” I repeated. “His file didn’t mention any aliases.”

“It’s just a term of endearment,” Connie replied. “Famine is such a joker, and he gave him the nickname. ‘War-Mongo’—get it?”

“Ah, very clever,” I said. “Make a note of that, will you, Miss Jones?”

Miss Jones was staring at War, her eyes dreamy.

“Miss Jones?”

She snapped back to reality. “Yes? What? Sorry.” She returned to her note taking, but kept stealing glances at War.

Famine entered next, riding a shiny black and chrome motorcycle, adorned with pieces of old adding machines and calculators. An abacus made of teeth was mounted between the handlebars. He was heavy and barrel-chested, but whereas War was all muscle and hatred, Famine was soft and jovial. His pin-striped suit looked expensive, the creases sharp enough to shave with.

“Greetings and salutations, my friends!” he boomed with a flourish and a bow. “It is my sincere pleasure to be here on this most auspicious of occasions.”

“Welcome, Famine,” I gestured to an open seat. “Thank you for joining us.”

“All in good time, my lad, all in good time.” He gazed across the room to the large buffet table I’d had set up in his honor. “But first, it is time for this weary traveler to refresh himself with these lovely epicurean delights!” He made his way to the buffet and began loading up a large platter with food.

“Forgive me for saying so, but he’s bigger than I expected,” I whispered to Connie. “I thought Famine would be much thinner.”

Connie laughed. “Oh my, no! Famine is certainly always hungry, but he never goes hungry. He feasts on everyone else’s food. He’s the life of the party, until the check arrives.”

“Indeed, madam!” Famine laughed as he hefted the platter of food to his seat. “My philosophy is ‘Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow everyone else shall die!’”

A cold chill suddenly filled the room. Riding on a motorcycle made of decaying skin stretched haphazardly over bleached bones, Death, the last of the Horsemen, entered. Though running at full power, his motorcycle made not a sound. A helmet with a full visor covered his face, and his riding leathers were so black they were difficult to focus on. I could only glimpse them through my peripheral vision. A terrible scythe poked out of a scabbard on the back of the bike. Pestilent green smoke belched from his motorcycle’s exhaust pipes, which caused me to cough and my eyes to burn. War didn’t seem to like it, either, and cracked his knuckles in protest. The sound was like gunfire.

“And now you know why we always insist on Darth Vader here riding at the back of our procession,” said Famine as he gnawed meat off a ham bone.

“Welcome to the meeting, Death,” I offered.

Death strode silently to his seat, seemingly ignoring me. The potted plants in the room wilted and died as he passed, and he left ashen footsteps in his wake.

“He doesn’t speak, darling,” Connie said to me. “At least, nobody wants him to. Because the only thing Death ever says is your name, and when he does, you die.”

Death responded to that by making finger guns and pointing them at me. He then sat down next to War and waggled his fingers towards him, as if to say hello. War roared and slammed his fists on the table, causing a jagged crack to appear, and scooted his chair a little farther away from Death. Death shrugged his shoulders towards those seated around the table and made a gesture as if to say, “What did I do?”

I caught Miss Jones drawing a heart around War’s name in her notes.

“Death, my dear, play nice with Mongo.” Connie wagged her finger in his direction.

“Mongo has never forgiven Darth for infecting his kitten with Ebola,” Famine said, before shoving an entire piece of angel food cake in his mouth. “Mmmm! This ethnic food is so good!”

War reached across the table and grabbed a fistful of cake. Famine slapped his hand away, “Find your own, you overgrown troglodyte!”

War growled and pointed a long-barreled pistol at Famine’s head.

“Try it, and I’ll erase your entire credit history just for laughs!” said Famine.

Connie laughed. “Oh, these boys of mine,” she sighed. “They are a handful sometimes, aren’t they?”

I stood up. “Lady and gentlemen, please! This meeting will come to order! A little decorum, if you will. We have important matters to discuss.”

War reluctantly put away his gun. Famine went back to eating. Death just tented his fingers. I suspected he was laughing under his helmet.

“That was very commanding, Mister Webster.” Connie applauded gently. “Well done!”

I continued. “This meeting is to discuss your contract with the Boss. He informed me that one of you wants to retire from riding with the Horsemen, thus nullifying your contract with the Dark Lord. I must warn you, as chief legal counsel, that any such actions will be considered breach of contract. And, as specified in Addendum B, Section III, paragraph 2, subsection A—and I’m quoting here—‘Any breach of contract by any of the undersigned will be considered breach of contract by all.’ In layman’s terms, that means if one of you quits, all of you will be open to legal retribution. And trust me, you do not want to be on the receiving end of one of the Boss’s lawsuits.”

“Whoa, slow down there, Matlock!” said Famine. “Nobody is retiring. You’ve got it all wrong.”

“But you told my Boss—”

“Oh that,” he laughed. “Just having a bit of fun with Old Scratch.”

“Then why are you all here?”

“We’ve been riding the world for millennia, causing havoc and sowing discord,” Connie said. “Conquest, War, Famine, and Death—we’ve always followed each other, and it’s been working like a charm. Even when we’ve mixed things up and ridden in a different order, the results have always been the same everywhere we go: utter chaos. Ruin. Misery. It’s been a beautiful thing. But it’s time for one final ride, and we wanted to do something special. This is the big one, the ride we’ve been preparing for all along. We need an extra hand for the Apocalypse.”

“So, you’re not retiring,” I began.

“We’re hiring.” Connie finished my thought.

War grunted while nodding. Death gave me a thumbs up sign.

A knock came from the conference room door. I looked to Miss Jones, who rolled her eyes, but dutifully floated around the table towards the door. War followed her with his gaze as she passed by, raised a single eyebrow, and grunted approvingly. Miss Jones looked back over her shoulder at War with a wry grin and then opened the door. Crowded into the hallway were hundreds of different beings, ranging from the openly malevolent to the seemingly innocuous, from the ordinary to the outright weird. Each one held an identical form, which I recognized as being a work application form.

“Where did they all come from?” I asked.

“Craigslist, where else?” Famine spit bits of food out as he said every ‘S.’

“Now hold on,” I protested. “I was brought down here to negotiate your contract, not interview new applicants!”

“And so you shall,” said Connie. “I quote Addendum J, Section XII, Paragraph 3, subsection 3, bullet point number 5: ‘The Four Horsemen shall have full authority to hire additional members as needed, and as deteriorating conditions on Earth may require.’ That means that by interviewing potential applicants, you are, in effect, negotiating our contract.”

I scanned the relevant portion of the contract, buried deep in the back. Connie was correct. I wasn’t sure how the Boss had let that slip past him, but I was sure I was going to need oxygen before too much longer. And I made a special note to discuss Miss Jones’ continued snickering during her next performance review.

The interviewing process was, in a word, hellish. Despite time being largely irrelevant down here, it dragged on interminably. Every demon and demigod, every witch and warlock, every vice, habit, weakness, flaw, wickedness, and imperfection one could think of had shown up to apply for a chance to ride with the Horsemen.

The Horsemen, however, were very particular. Nit-picky is how I would describe them. They dismissed applicants left and right for a variety of reasons. The vampire king had too many dietary restrictions, and insisted on only traveling at night, so he was out. Medusa’s dark glasses that she wore to keep from accidentally turning everyone to stone were cool, but they were prescription. They loved Propaganda’s Che Guevara tattoo, but as a giant snake, he would never be able to operate a motorcycle. Militant Vegan only had a bicycle, and would never be able to keep up. Victimhood claimed oppression and threatened to sue. The twins, Snark and Sarcasm, looked too much like War’s younger siblings. Comment Section just yelled incoherently the whole time in all caps. Addiction refused to leave, and had to be forcibly removed. It was ugly, and it just kept going on and on.

When the last applicant left the room, I was exhausted and furious. I looked over at Miss Jones, who was lazily sketching War’s face in her notes. I stood and looked at each of the Horsemen. I felt the heat rising through my neck, clenched my fists and took a deep breath.

“Eight hundred and sixty-three,” I said through gritted teeth. “That’s how many applicants were here today. Eight hundred and sixty-three! And you all are telling me that not one of them fit the bill?”

“We need someone really special,” Connie said.

“And smart,” Famine nodded.

“Smart?!” I sputtered. “You want smart? Academia had thirteen hundred doctorates and had held tenure at over twenty thousand universities! You sent him away because you didn’t like his jacket!”

“Tweed is so lower middle class,” Famine shrugged and ate a slice of pizza in one bite.

I pounded the table. “What is wrong with you all?! We’ve been here for an eternity and a half, and for what? You lied about retiring, and apparently also about hiring anyone else. So why are you all here? Did you just come for the free buffet? Did none of you have anything better to do than waste my time? I know this is Hell, and suffering is part and parcel of the experience, but you lot have managed to take suffering and misery to a new low. Why, I may just go find Dante himself and inform him that his long-standing description of Hell now pales in comparison to the definition you four have created!”

There were a few moments of silence after I stopped yelling. Every eye in the room was fixed on me. Then, Famine snorted and began to laugh. Connie burst out laughing as well. War slapped his hand on the table and made a sound like an angry buffalo, which was as close as he could get to laughter. Death stood and gave a slow clap, which quickened and amplified as the others stood to join him in a round of applause.

“What is going on?” I yelled. “What is so funny?”

“Tell him,” said Famine to Connie.

“Tell him what?” I asked.

“I’ve got another little confession, Daniel,” Connie said. “We didn’t come here looking to screen applicants. We already know who we want to hire.”

“Is someone else coming?” I asked. “Look around! There’s no one here!”

“That’s not entirely true,” Connie said. “We came here to hire you.”

“Me?” I said.

“Him?” Miss Jones spat.

“You,” said Connie.

“Why me?” I asked.

“Because we could use a good lawyer,” said Famine. “Someone who understands contracts and will make sure things always work in our favor. Besides, our work will be so much more terrifying under the full weight of the law.”

“Then what was the point of all this?” I asked. “Why go through this insane circus act if you wanted to hire me all along?”

“I’m sorry about that, Danny boy,” Connie said. “That was just us having a little fun at your expense. A little hazing of the new guy, if you will. But it doesn’t change how much we all admire you. After all, you bested the Devil in a debate and found a loophole in one of his contracts! You of all people know how rare a thing that is!”

War suddenly drew his massive sword, uttered a blood-curdling howl, and then buried the blade deep into the tabletop. I jumped back. Miss Jones looked as though she would spontaneously combust with lust.

“What’s wrong with him?” I said.

“That’s just Mongo’s way of saying how much he likes you,” Connie replied.

Famine nodded. “Indeed. You scored top marks, old boy. But I’m afraid we need your decision on the matter, and we don’t have much time. Like I said, this is our last ride on Earth. After this, the curtain falls, and we move on.”

“Move on? To where?” I said.

“Oh, honey,” Connie said. “You didn’t think Earth was the only place we’d ever been, did you? Or that it was the only place we would ever go to? Darling, we have been doing this for a very long time, on many different worlds. There are so many other places to see and plunder and destroy. Come with us. Be the Fifth Horseman, I promise you’ll experience things you never dreamed possible.”

“Besides,” said Famine, “you know the classic joke: What are the only two things to survive the Apocalypse?”

“Cockroaches and lawyers,” I grinned.

Death pointed at me with both hands, and then raised the roof a few times, bouncing to a beat only he could hear.

“I must admit,” I said, “it sounds intriguing, but I once made a deal that sounded too good to be true, and it turned out it was. How do I know you’ll honor your side of the deal?”

Connie sauntered up to me. “Because of this.” She leaned in and kissed me. Hard. Fire raced through my veins, and exploded in my mind. My knees went wobbly, and I had to steady myself with the back of my chair. “’Oh, Danny boy, I love you so’” she sang softly, and then patted my cheek. “Now then, how’s your tooth?”

I ran my tongue along the inside of my teeth. Everything felt normal. That’s when I realized it—my toothache, which had been a constant source of discomfort since 1849, was gone.

“How—?”

“Consider that a good faith payment,” she said.

War growled softly and looked at Miss Jones. She smiled and her wings fluttered against her back.

“There’s still one problem,” I said. “What about my contract with my Boss?”

“It’s not a problem,” Connie said, laughing. “Think about it. We have the power to hire whomever we wish, right? Once we do, that person becomes a Horseman, and we officially become the Five Horsemen—”

I snapped my fingers and finished her thought. “—And then legally, the Four Horsemen cease to exist as an entity, thus nullifying any and all contracts bearing their name. Of course! And because your contract with my Boss gave you hiring power, if you hire me, it simultaneously nullifies my contract with him.”

Connie smiled. “Smart boy. I knew you were the right choice.”

“That’s very ingenious,” I said. “I’ll have to remember that clause for future reference.”

“So does that mean you’re coming with us?” asked Famine.

“Take a memo, Miss Jones,” I smiled, “Tell the Boss to take my job and shove it.”

Miss Jones scoffed at me. “Tell him yourself. I don’t work for you anymore. In fact, I’ve found a better offer of my own.”

She gazed at War and her eyes glowed red. War growled and managed the closest thing to a smile, which was still all sharp teeth and terror. In a flash, Miss Jones unfurled her wings and soared across the room into War’s arms, where she planted a kiss on him that shook the light fixtures.

“Isn’t that simply adorable?” Connie sighed. “Our Mongo is in love.”

Famine saluted the couple with a turkey leg. Death made a heart shape with his hands, and then pointed a finger gun at his head and mimed shooting himself.

# # #

I stood atop what had once been a mighty mountain and looked out over the smoldering wasteland. The Apocalypse was even more great and terrible than anyone could have dreamt. The destruction. The chaos. The insane undoing of a world gone mad. The Horsemen had ridden across the earth at full speed, literally hell-bent for the horizon. In their wake, mountains fell, cities crumbled, oceans boiled, and the skies burned. All that was once green and beautiful was laid waste in a matter of hours.

I felt sad to see the place I once called home razed to nothing, but I had to admit there was a certain purity to it all, at least from a legal perspective. It was satisfying to see a contract executed and enforced, to see each party get what they had agreed to. What happened here was undiluted justice. The people of earth had been warned, and some—to their credit—had been spared. But the sobering truth was that most had signed their contracts with my former boss a long time ago. The party ended abruptly, the bill came due, and now the contracts were settled.

Speaking of contracts, the Boss hadn’t been happy with how this all played out, of course, but he didn’t have a goat’s leg to stand on. The Horsemen’s contract was, after all, airtight. I now hold the singular distinction of being the only mortal to outsmart the Devil twice. Not bad for a kid born in a tiny New Hampshire farmhouse. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was at the beginning of something really exciting. The slate had been wiped clean, and perhaps now I could start over. I didn’t know where this road would lead, but at least it was away from here.

The green smoke from Death’s tailpipes was visible just up ahead, and the rumble of the other Horsemen’s engines still echoed. It was time for me to go. I slipped on a pair of dark glasses, zipped up my leather jacket, and pulled on my riding gloves. A single cockroach scurried towards me from under a nearby rock and then stopped, as if looking at me. I couldn’t help but laugh. Famine was right—cockroaches and lawyers were all that was left. I looked back down at the cockroach and squashed it under my boot with a satisfying crunch.

“Sorry, pal,” I said, as I kicked my leg over the seat of my motorcycle. “Looks like I win in the end.” I fired up the engine, revved it a couple of times, and then roared off into the night sky behind the other Horsemen.

 

No Vacancy

The car pulls up outside room eight.

My client’s husband and his mysterious lover have finally arrived.

Focus.

Click.

He helps her out.

Click.

He fumbles with the room key.

Click.

They look around quickly, then kiss.

I zoom in.

Clickclickclick.

Wait.

She is wearing an emerald pendant—the one I gave her for our anniversary.

The Old Man and the Tree

They say the three most important things to consider when buying a house are: location, location, and location. Which is why Harvey felt he’d hit the jackpot when he’d purchased the home down at the end of Flanders Avenue. Not only was it a great location, the home was nice, the neighbors were quiet, and the giant tree in the backyard provided shade for most of the yard.

But for all the perks of moving into an older home in an established neighborhood, there were plenty of quirks as well. And while Harvey was accustomed to little things like repairing a dripping faucet here or replacing a broken light fixture there, nothing could have prepared him for what was coming.

The realtor should’ve disclosed what was going on with the tree, Harvey thought. Had he known, he would’ve backed out of the sale early on. But he’d been captivated by the house from the get-go, and had signed whatever papers they put in front of him. The house and the tree were now his problem, and after the past few months, he wasn’t sure how much more he could deal with.

The tiny denizens of the tree were not apparently content to live their lives within the leafy confines of their arboreal paradise, and had begun invading Harvey’s home almost immediately. The very first morning, in fact, Harvey had seen their little footprints in the kitchen, and evidence of their meddling in the pantry.

Harvey began a search around his house, sealing up every nook and cranny he could find that could possibly be used as a way in, but still they kept coming. He’d set traps of all kinds, but they’d been too smart for them. He escalated to poison, but no dice. Many nights found Harvey sitting at the kitchen table with scowl and a loaded pellet gun. But they never seemed to come when he was ready and waiting.

It wasn’t until a Thursday morning several weeks later that Harvey noticed a smell coming from the bathroom that shouldn’t have been there. Not the usual odors associated with that particular room, either. This stench was an unearthly concoction of blech multiplied with gross, and raised to the power of holy crap. When he pried off the grate of the bathroom fan, the smell assaulted him full in the face. His eyes burned, and the hairs in his nose bristled. He staggered back, coughing and wheezing, and nearly tripped over the bathtub. As he tried to compose himself, Harvey saw a tiny, desiccated body fall out of the fan and onto the sink counter. It had clearly been in there for some time, and probably gotten stuck and starved to death. He tied a towel around his mouth and nose, pulled on some rubber gloves, gathered the remains in a garbage bag, and then triple bagged that bag. Trash day wasn’t until Monday, and he didn’t need this bag bursting in the August heat and creating a street-wide biohazard.

Harvey closed the garbage can lid with a satisfying slam, removed the towel from his face, and exhaled fully. He took several deep breaths of fresh air, marveling at how something so small could smell so foul. And it was from just one, he thought. What if more came? He frowned and went back to the garage. He’d had enough, and it was time to settle things once and for all. He grabbed his chainsaw and stomped out into the backyard. His gaze was fixed on the tree.

“This ends now!” he bellowed. “Do you hear me in there, you little monsters? It ends NOW!”

The muffled screams of fearful protests coming from inside the tree were quickly drowned out as Harvey pulled on the chainsaw’s starter cord. Once, twice, and then the saw roared to life, hungry and angry. With a smile, Harvey set about feeding it. Bark and branches fell all around him. Sawdust swirled about his head like snowflakes, covering his shoulders and arms. The growl of the saw was accentuated by Harvey’s guttural laughter and high-pitched war whoops. The inhabitants of the tree tried to defend their home as best they could, but they could not withstand Harvey’s rage. One by one, they each met their awful fate.

Harvey powered down the saw, his breathing returned to normal. A long, slow whistle escaped his lips as he surveyed the scene. It was finished. The tree, once tall and proud, now lay at his feet as a ragged pile of lumber. He would miss the shade during the summer, but the wood would make good kindling and firewood for the winter. He would also miss the smell of cookies, but such were the misfortunes of war.

The only trophy Harvey took for himself was the small red sign that had once hung on the tree, which read “Keebler.” It would look nice hanging over the fireplace.

Pro Tips From the Slushpile

I have been a slushpile reader for a medium sized publishing house for over sixteen years now. In that time, I’ve read just about everything imaginable, and I like to think I can tell what separates a good story from a not-so-good story. When people ask me how to improve their story, I find that the easiest way to help is to provide examples of what NOT to do. I’ve compiled quite a list of so-called “red flag” mistakes that are commonly found in manuscripts. And at the request of my friend Kim, I present some of them for your enjoyment and enlightenment.

Please note: while the specific elements have been changed to prevent anyone from becoming embarrassed, every one of these examples are taken from actual manuscripts that have come across my desk.

Pro Tip #1: Prologues. I have mixed feelings about prologues. If done well, they can be a valuable asset to your story. Unfortunately, most prologues are too long and are trying to accomplish too many things at the same time. If you’re going to include a prologue, keep it short and simple. Mysteries Of Cove author Jeff Savage has said that a prologue ought to be like icing on the cake rather than containing the one crucial bit of information your reader needs to understand the story. Evidence also suggests that many people skip prologues altogether, so there had better be a really good reason why your prologue isn’t just chapter one.

Also, don’t do what one manuscript did, and have chapter one begin six months earlier than the prologue. A prologue, by definition, is what takes place before the main story starts, just as an epilogue is what happens after the end.

Pro Tip #2: Details. A good story can live or die with the amount of detail an author shares. Some details are necessary, such as the age, sex, and race of the characters, or the time of year, or the physical setting of the story. Other details are also good, and help to enrich the world the author is building, such as the color of the classic Corvette being rebuilt in the garage, or the smell of chlorine and Coppertone at the swimming pool, or the tenderness of the fliet mignon being enjoyed at dinner.

But know when to draw the line. You aren’t Herman Melville. Too many details can clog up the narrative, bog down the action, and grind the action to a halt. For instance: unless it specifically helps me to understand some aspect of your character’s personality, or unless it specifically helps move the story forward, I don’t necessarily need to know every scrap of clothing your characters are wearing at all times. I have a solid imagination, and I know what clothing looks like. If you’ve told me that your story takes place in upper Wisconsin in January, I can surmise that pretty much everyone will be dressed in parkas and snow boots. Don’t worry—I won’t assume that your characters are running around buck nekkid just because you neglected to tell me what color socks they are wearing.

Pro Tip #3: Beware alarm clocks. Few things scream “AMATEUR!” like opening your story with your character waking up. Don’t get me wrong—if your character is waking up handcuffed in the back of a police car in Hong Kong in the first couple of sentences, I’m going to read that story. But more often than not, characters wake up, stretch, and then stumble off to the bathroom, where they come face to face with…

THE MIRROR. Beware the mirror. Nobody looks at their reflection in the mirror and notices how their auburn hair with chestnut highlights stands out in stark contrast to their pale skin, accented by their hazel eyes. That’s how writers think, not regular humans. Come up with a more creative way to describe what your character looks like.

Pro Tip #4: Show me, don’t tell me. This is a pretty standard rule of writing, and it applies to just about every aspect of storytelling, and it is especially true when it comes to characterization. I read a manuscript recently where a certain character was introduced by way of the omniscient narrator listing out the character’s entire curriculum vitae. Then, only two paragraphs later, this character stood at a podium to deliver a speech—and then proceeded to list out his entire curriculum vitae. Not only was it horribly repetitious, it was a very boring way to introduce this character.

Similarly, don’t tell me that a character is devoutly religious, or politically liberal, or a class clown—show me. Let your characters speak for themselves. When I hear Bob talking about going to the church potluck, I’ll figure out that he’s religious, just as I’ll deduce that Jane is politically liberal by listening to her debate with her coworkers about gun control, and so on and so on.

Pro Tip #5: Bob already knows. You’ve heard the dreaded “As you know, Bob” conversation before. It’s when two characters who have known each other for a long time speak as though they don’t know anything about each other. “As you know, Bob, since we’ve been business partners for ten years, we really need to work closely on this deal.” “As you know, Bob, you’re marrying my sister on Thursday.” “As you know, Bob, you’re my younger brother.”

Yeah, Bob already knows. Bob knows that people don’t really talk like that.

Pro Tip #6: Infodumping. Infodumps are literary landfills. It’s when an author dumps too much information on the reader all at once. They stop the story by creating visual roadblocks. When an infodump happens too soon, it can be overwhelming for the reader, as though they’ve been given an assignment on Monday that they will be tested on Tuesday. Parcel out information about your characters gradually over the course of the story. You’ve got plenty of time for the reader to get to know them better.

One manuscript had a character spill her entire life story on another character while on a first date in chapter one. Her story went on for about four or five pages, and by the time I was done reading it, I was thinking, “Check, please!” What could have been an interesting conversation about two people getting to know each other turned instead into a monologue by someone who sounded more and more crazy the longer she went on.

 

While there isn’t a magical formula for what works in a story, I feel confident in saying that avoiding these red flag mistakes will drastically improve the overall quality of your story. Happy writing!

Cafe Parisian

I’d seen her before, of course. Every day I went to Café Parisian for lunch, she was there. No book, no phone, no laptop, just a croissant and a cup of tea in front of her. Were it not for her penchant for hats, I might never have noticed her.

Women don’t wear hats like they used to, and certainly not wide brimmed hats trimmed with burgundy satin bands. In fact, her entire wardrobe was stately and elegant, and looked as though it belonged in a fashion magazine from the 1930’s or 40’s rather than a 21st century café.

I’d formed opinions about her over the past week, toyed with scenarios about who she was and why she was dressed that way. The owner of a vintage clothing boutique, perhaps. A wealthy socialite on holiday from some tiny nation in Europe where old traditions still thrived. There was a theater around the corner—maybe she was an actress in the final days of rehearsal before opening night.

She picked at her croissant without actually eating, and alternately dabbed at tears in the corners of her eyes with a linen handkerchief. She glanced in my direction, and, seeing me looking in hers, turned away. The brim of her hat mostly obscured her from my view, but I could still see that she was dabbing at her eyes.

I looked at my watch and realized it was time to head back to the office. I gathered up my phone and my dog-eared copy of The Stand, left a tip, and stood to leave. I saw her hat move out of the corner of my eye, and looked at her once more. She was losing the battle with her tears, and her cheeks shone with tiny rivulets.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t mean to pry, but are you okay? Do you need anything?”

“Thank you, no,” she said in an accent I couldn’t quite place.

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. It is just my last day here, and I am sad to have to go away.”

“I wondered if you were on vacation,” I said. “Where are you headed back to?”

“Home,” she said as she stood and straightened her skirt. “I must go back.”

“Where is home, if you don’t mind my asking?”

She looked at me for a moment, as if she was about to say something, but then brushed past me towards the exit. A whiff of jasmine trailed behind her. The bell above the door jingled as it opened and closed.

I looked back at her table, and that’s when I saw a pair of ladies’ gloves folded neatly on a newspaper. I’d never noticed her reading anything before, let alone a newspaper, but I figured she would at least want her gloves back. I picked up the gloves and the paper and hurried out the café door.

The sidewalks were busy but not overly crowded. I looked right, then left, but could see no sign of her. She had only left a few seconds before me, I thought. She couldn’t have gone very far. I scanned every direction, but no luck.

A newsstand sat next to the café, with an elderly man attending.

“’Scuse me, did you see a young woman wearing a hat just now?” I asked.

The man thought for a moment. “No, can’t say as I have. What’d you say she looked like?”

“She was wearing fancy sort of clothes and this big hat with a wide brim. She came out of that café just before I did.”

The man looked puzzled now. “Ain’t nobody come outta that café in the last ten minutes ‘cept you.”

“Are you sure?”

“Son, I’m here all day long, and I see that café door all day long. If a lady walked out dressed like you described with a big hat, I’d remember. I’m tellin’ you, it’s just you that’s come out.”

I turned around and made one last look up and down the street. Not a sign of her anywhere. I looked back at the gloves and newspaper in my hand. I hadn’t noticed in my haste, but the paper was yellowed and felt brittle. I unfolded the paper to the front page and just about dropped the gloves.

There, on the front page, was a photo of the woman I’d just been talking to. And though the photo was in black and white, I was positive she was wearing the same clothes and wide brimmed hat. She looked regal and beautiful.

Just above the photo, in large bold type, read the headline: TRAGEDY! BROADYWAY INGENUE LILY LESTRAND GUNNED DOWN OUTSIDE CAFÉ PARISIAN. JEALOUS LOVER ARRESTED.

The date on the newspaper was February 10, 1939.