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Sangfroid

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It's a company policy - Editor

Sangfroid

by Don Norum

I'm an insurance investigator in a small branch office, small enough that I'm half of it. Davis takes care of most of the office's paperwork and leaves the footwork and math to me.

The main appeal to me is the quantifying of inexpressible amounts of human pain and suffering in a dollar value derived from calculations of expected utility.

The office is a two room suite on the second floor of a bail bondsman's nestled downtown. The outer room has a wall of filing cabinets of policy forms and bookshelves with thick binders of guidelines and bookkeeping.

We keep the actual policies, the signed pieces of Bristol board, in the safe in the other room. That's where Davis spends his time, filling out reports for airmail, phoning out for the advertisements and contracting legwork to sell the safeties.

My days in the office are spent on the faded floral couch in the outer room, crunching numbers on the coffee table, using the tidy strata as a coaster.

I know more than half of the city's doctors' kids by their first names, and a fair chunk of the lawyers' - mostly solicitors, a few barristers. It's not a large city, although to be fair New York's only an hour away, so we could have an airport and a mega-mall and be small by comparison, but I've still filled up more than half a Rolodex.

So when Charles Archibald Lowell, a senior partner in Longfellow, Lowell and Holmes and signatory for a one-point-change million dollar life insurance policy, took a large-bore rifle slug to the chest, I wound up looking into it pretty quickly.

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Double Dip

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A short Forties throwback... - Editor

Double Dip

by Lee Hammerschmidt

Courier was staring down a double Dewar’s in the Marriott bar when the burly man in the too-tight, off-the-rack suit took the stool next to him, flipping a large, plain postal envelope in front of him.

“That’s the latest batch,” the burly man said in a gruff, whisky and cigarettes voice.  He caught the bartender’s eye.  “Beam, straight up, beer back.”

They were quite until his drink was served.  Courier picked up the envelope and pulled out its contents, a dozen or so photos of him and an attractive, shapely brunette in various creative forms of sexual gymnastics.

“Lucida,” Courier said shaking his head.  “My God, that was three years ago!  How long have these bastards been tailing me?”

He took a gulp of his scotch and looked over at the burly man.

“Okay, Piper, tell me what happened.”

“Same as the other times, only they changed the route again.  I took the cash and the disposable phone and directions they sent.  They had me walk down to 12th this time, where I headed north.  I went about eight blocks when the phone rang. Then I dropped the envelope with the cash and phone and walked another six blocks until I saw this mailer on a bench.”

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The Bones of Miracles

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Ancient Chinese secret... - Editor

The Bones of Miracles

by Nik Korpon

With the barrel of a gun trained on him, Mr. Chan blinked once and stifled a yawn. The man in the Reagan mask cursed and jabbed the muzzle into his cheek, pulled it back and gave him another fair view of the gun that threatened to paint the bamboo wallpaper of his store a vibrant shade of grey matter. Mr. Chan wasn’t nervous, though, and it gave his eye the look of a target, concentric circles of iris and undilated pupil. Cartoon noises seeped from the apartment above them. He wondered if his daughter was still watching Looney Tunes. He swallowed a laugh, an image of himself with a finger stuck in the barrel of the gun and Reagan with wisps of smoke curling like errant hairs—his own private Daffy Duck cartoon—lodged in his head. In the back room that served as both a storage space and the Chan family kitchen sat four large simmering pots.

The summer breeze blew through the holes in the burlap curtains hanging in the windows. Reagan startled, checked behind him, pushed the muzzle of his gun further into Mr. Chan’s wrinkled cheek. Hung from the ceiling by braided thread, thirty-odd sets of wind chimes knocked against each other, a hollow soulful noise like a wooden xylophone. The tone echoed off the cracked tile floor the color of dried bone and a tsunami of funereal sound waves filled the room.

Although the rest of the neighborhood was round-eyed, it was his wind chimes that gave Mr. Chan his reputation. The carving was so exquisite that a man from the Visionary Art Museum approached him once, offering a place in the self-taught artist exhibition. He later declined, citing the store’s long hours and the lack of anyone else to run the business. But it was more their tone than the artistry, the way they turned a person to a lump of gooseflesh, froze their blood into pellets, that made the chimes renowned.

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Reboot

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A man after my own heart - Editor

Reboot

by James Bloomer

A quantum worm uncoiled itself out of the machine being restored, suddenly collapsing into a specific state and wreaking havoc within the operating system. Alarms sounded and the graphs scrolling across Tom's screen spiked wildly. His laptop was plugged into a large black box of qubits, the liquid hydrogen coolant vented slowly in quietly dissipating clouds. Inside, beneath the desperately stylish matt black metallic exterior, beneath the ultra-cooled chamber, inside the electron traps, sat a countless number of electrons, reduced to acting as quantum bits. The qubit box was plugged into the local network, copying its state carefully in a safe, isolated, two-phase restore of the destroyed machines.

Tom sat in the data-centre, a vast room, full of server racks and devoid of people. His laptop prompted him to instigate the isolation of the worm and to acknowledge the test conditions for the newly discovered dormant state. It would repeat the trigger actions in the next scan. The system learned case by case, trying to unearth worms.

Tom's hands hovered over the keys. His head spun in a dizzy fuzz that dredged up memories of static, the static that the screams had turned into after the explosion. He felt an aching loneliness and only prevented himself from vomiting with deliberate concentration. He cancelled the quarantine, negating the find. Another flurry of keystrokes and the network lowered its defences. Another alarm. The remote traffic graph shot upwards as the machine connected to the network.

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Saying Goodbye to Grandfather

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Stop that! - Editor

Saying Goodbye to Grandfather

by M. J. Waller

We shuffled out of the alley, took a right turn and bore down slowly upon Avonlea Care Home for Elderly Zombies.  When we reached the cast iron gates, my father buzzed the intercom to gain access and they swung open ponderously in front of us.  My father made to step inside the grounds but I held back, suddenly fearful and not so keen to see my grandfather any longer.

“Come on, Calum,” my father urged.  “It'll be fine, really.”

I still hung back, not particularly convinced.  The care home was nothing like I imagined it would be.  Thin grass speckled the vast grounds and, here and there, dotted about mostly in areas closer to the cracked pathway, the odd flower grew, sometimes even in bunches of five or six.  A single tree stood a short distance from the gate and not only did it look alive and healthy, but my eyes caught movement high up of a squirrel darting between the branches. . .no of two squirrels racing each other to the tree's crown. . .of three, of four!  A bird burst from out of the upper foliage.

“Come on.”

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Christmas Morning

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Short and (not too) sweet - Editor

Christmas Morning

by Rick McQuiston

Jeremy rolled over in bed and glanced at the clock on his nightstand. 5:55 stared back at him in red LED numbers. A tiny red dot was lit next to the a.m. designation.

Not even six o’clock yet, he thought sluggishly. Still too early to get up.

But the anticipation that he harbored for Christmas morning was severely tempered by the memory of what he had witnessed earlier that same night.

Or thought he had witnessed.

It was shortly after two- thirty a.m. when he woke up, as most children do, overwhelmed by the curiosity of what lay under the Christmas tree. With excitement that could only be fostered in a child on that most anticipated of nights, he gleefully crawled out of bed and tip-toed down the stairs to investigate whether or not jolly old Saint Nick had fulfilled his holiday duties.

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The Thief of Souls

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Hmmmmmmm....

The Thief of Souls

by Vincent L. Scarsella

What has been so far done by electricity is nothing
as compared with what the future has in store.

- Nikola Tesla

When Nancy Lane entered my office that Tuesday afternoon, the first thing I noticed was her red, swollen eyes.  An attractive, slim blonde in her mid-thirties, she had been referred by her divorce lawyer, Tom Bridge, who regularly used my services to spy on cheating spouses.

“Tom said your divorce became final last week,” I began after Mrs. Lane sat down on the chair facing my desk.  “That begs the question why you need my services in the first place.”  I gave her a kindly smile.  “Perhaps my fee would be better spent on a vacation, a Caribbean cruise perhaps?”

“I don’t need a vacation,” she said.  “What I need to know is why Paul, my ex-husband, left me.”

In the next moment, Mrs. Lane was sobbing into her hands.   I said nothing, letting her grieve. After a time, she drew in a breath, composed herself.

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Shake, Rattle and Troll

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Who's the cute liitle baby...?

Shake, Rattle and Troll

by Zoe Zygmunt

A frantic call about an hour ago summoned me from my office.  The park ranger said something about Elvis, and Mike's strong dislike of him.  It was no use trying to decipher it, his panicked voice was enough to convey the meaning "we need you here, now."

I spotted my client sitting on the grassy river bank. The troll was about seven feet from ears to toes, a typical young male.  I usually visited this troll two or three times a month.  He was friendly, established and doing well, or, at least he had been.

This afternoon Mike was naked. We’d talked about clothing and how the humans would prefer he threw on some pants. Mike didn’t care much for human sensibilities when he was being, well, a troll.

Something crunched under my feet. Small tassels and rhinestones were sprinkled on the ground. No one could have predicted the agitation Mike would experience surrounded by thirty similarly dressed men.  All Mike’s experiences with men dressed the same had involved law enforcement or park security.  No wonder he had freaked during an Elvis impersonator picnic.

“Hey, Mike.” I called. He didn’t turn around.

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Starving

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Vampires are people, too - Editor

Starving

by Kelly Barnhill

The people gathered in the rain - black hair and black clothing all clinging to spare frames like damp feathers.  Crows, Randall Kinney thought as he stationed himself in front of the large black door.  A murder of crows. He liked the sound of it, and felt the corners of his wide mouth twitch slightly, itching the contours of his stubbled cheeks.  He forced his face into that look of stern detachment, which he had perfected in front of the mirror before his first day, five years earlier.  He had never smiled on the job.  A smile could be dangerous.

He leaned back on the dented steel and waited for the knock telling him that he could let everyone in.  The line stretched along the length of the low building, its black face painted over with the white lettering of bands that had played there in previous years.  Some of the shows he had seen as a teenager, back when hanging out with your friends on Hennepin or First Avenues was cool, before the bodies, half frozen and drained of life, blood, and everything else that once flowed under their skin, started showing up in dumpsters or abandoned cars or the quiet doorways to abandoned restaurants.

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Sleep Will Banish Sorrow

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Walk in my shoes - Editor

Sleep Will Banish Sorrow

by Allen Kopp

The time was between ten and eleven and traffic was light. An occasional car went by, slowly, its lights reflected in wavering bars on the wet pavement. A liquor store in the next block went dark. A policeman walked his beat, rousting a drunk from a doorway.

A man stepped out of a dark alley. He took a few slow steps into the glow of a streetlamp and stopped. He heard a siren off in the distance and lifted his head to listen, but gradually the siren faded to nothing. He reached into the pocket of his coat and removed a cigarette and put it between his lips and lit it with the little gold lighter engraved with his initials that he always carried. He took a long drag on the cigarette and turned and walked down the street.

In appearance he was a man like many others: not young and not old, of average height, lean and muscular, broad through the shoulders and narrow in the hips. He wore an expensive, perfectly tailored suit and a hat low on his brow, making his face difficult to distinguish.

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