Ever since the publication of Yeval, C. W. Schultz has talked about releasing a collection of short stories. The collection has gone through several titles (such as A Coffer Full of Mayhem, Looking Back and Scraps), but the most common placeholder used in his bibliography and biography is Tales from the Gallows. While no official release date has been announced, several of these short stories have been published. This page will include either the published short story in its entirety, or redirect to an external site where it can be read.
Published short stories
Heads versus Tails
If genre assignment is required, this story would probably be fantasy. Not fantasy in the Tolkien/GRRM sense. For my attempt at that, please keep an eye out for my upcoming fifth book, Whispering of the Autumn Leaves.
The first draft of “Heads versus Tails” was written in Autumn 2019, when I was experimenting with taking a simple idea and letting it evolve without any interference. So, “Heads versus Tails” started out with the concept that chance and fate were as random as a coin toss, and I just let my imagination run wild from there. Perhaps the short stories of Jorge Luis Borges left a bigger impression on me than I realized… especially “The Lottery in Babylon”.
Fate is just a coin constantly being flipped. Most of the time, it’s not a toss between good luck or bad luck; but rather, a game of chance for insignificant events in our everyday lives. It’s only when the results of the coin are to land on either good fortune or bad, that we take notice. But to those gods, who are just picking between heads and tails, it makes no difference.
The gods flip pennies, which are so invaluable to us, that we don’t take notice of the outcome. But when the gods bring dimes and quarters to the game, we spot the twists of fate.
The perspective of what is and isn’t good luck versus bad luck is as insignificant to the gods as their choice of heads or tails are to you. Just as long as the coin lands favorably for you, nothing else matters. Not what’s fair or unfair, not what’s logical or illogical, not what’s just or unjust, not what’s right or wrong. All that matters to you is favorability, regardless of its randomness.
Take for example, Noah. Bad kid. Took pleasure in things suffering, preferably the little creatures that most of us would consider cute and sweet. A few coin-flips of bad luck in Noah’s childhood caused him to be this way; but it was his good luck that he got a job at a pet store, in which he was able to get unsuspectingly close to these critters that he liked to hurt. These critters, whose coin landed on the opposite side of Noah’s, were in for some bad luck.
Noah was very social… arguably. He didn’t have friends, per se; but he belonged to a group of people with a common interest. They hung out in the darkest corners of cyberspace. Places in which you need the Tor Browser to access, and one of those URLs that ended with a dot onion in order to find. What made Noah such a valuable contributor was an impressive balance of quality and quantity. Other contributors with high quality content posted only when they were able to capture an abandoned dog, injured crow, stray cat, or trapped rodent. Not only did the length of this content make for what was considered “excellent quality”, but the resting periods between postings allowed the content creators to come up with some very original ideas. Low-quality content was considered either short posts (lengthwise or in the briefness of a subject’s suffering); camera problems (angling, brightness, darkness, graininess, etc.); or unoriginality (the audience could only watch so many wall-smashings, decapitations, crushings and burnings before the club labeled these types of videos “boring”). Noah was able to meet all demands of quality content because, unlike his fellow content creators, he was in a position that wouldn’t raise suspicion.
One of the difficulties that fellow creators in Noah’s community had with providing quality was access to animals. That’s where having a job at the pet store came in handy. As a customer, you couldn’t just walk into a pet store and buy a bunny once every few days, or else you’d raise unwanted attention.
Having a position at a pet store, however, was advantageous due to how the industry operates.
Most pet stores have animals stored in three locations: the sales floor, New Arrivals and isolation. The animals on the sales floor are what you see and what you can legally purchase. New Arrivals is a location for animals who’ve been delivered within the last 72 hours and need observation before the pet store can sell them without risking any sort of liability. This location is also where any overstock will wait until there are available cages out on the sales floor.
With dozens of livestock in each location, even the most sanitary and caring of pet stores will inevitably have animals who get sick, injured, or are observed to have a deformity. The sick animals will be medicated until full recovery, and then put back out on the sales floor (or are sent back to New Arrivals if there’s overstock). The injured or deformed ones, however, can’t be sold because of the store’s guarantee of standards in the animals they sell. Instead, these creatures, who have landed on the wrong side of the gods’ flips, are written out of inventory, and put up for adoption. Since the pet store has no obligation to their customer-base for animals to be given away for free, employees interested in adopting these injured or deformed creatures get first dibs before the giveaway announcement is made to shoppers.
Why would someone want an injured or deformed animal? Compassion aside, some of these animals have very minimal issues. An anole or bearded dragon with a tail that got nipped off by accidentally snagging it between a sharp corner of its terrarium, was a free exotic animal that was healthy and looked perfect to the credulous eye. Similarly, deformed hamsters also had a demand to those who were able to spot an inbreed. Mill vendors sometimes have difficulty separating genders when the hamsters are just pinkies, which eventually results in breeding within a given litter. Sometimes there isn’t a way to spot an inbreed, so it gets sold at regular price; but a common trait of an inbred hamster is teeth that don’t grow to their fullest length or don’t grow at all. The mouth of gaps and gums will cause the hamster’s face to develop roundly (despite hamsters already having less pointed noses than other rodents), resulting in a teddy-bear appearance; and the tongue will frequently stick out of its mouth, like a dog. Unlike most things unnatural, these little freaks are cuter than their normal counterparts.
So, with injured animals looking normal on camera and the deformed animals looking exceptionally cuter than usual, topped with Noah’s employer assuming that he was just adopting these animals out of the kindness of his heart, Noah was able to produce quality and quantity so well-balanced that many within his community referred to him as an auteur. From Noah’s perspective, what with the demand and success of his “art”, the gods had flipped him particularly good luck.
There was a different coin being flipped, however, which wasn’t between Noah and the animals he was “adopting”; but rather, between him and a man named Jack.
Noah knew of the animal rights activists who sought to take down the people of his community; and the ease of him constantly evading these noble organizations was just icing on the cake. Another good flip. But what Noah didn’t consider was that there was a different but similar type of community, who hung out at a different but just as dark of a corner in cyberspace, at a different but similar dot onion site that required the Tor Browser to access.
It was Noah’s bad luck that Jack was part of this other community. It was also Noah’s bad luck that Jack knew the ins-and-outs of several dark corners in cyberspace, as his assignments were often found in such nooks as Noah’s. Being the dedicated professional that Jack was, it was Noah’s bad luck that Jack forced himself to get inside the heads of his assignments. Jack had to know their weaknesses; he needed to see the vile things they craved; he wanted to understand everything. The more knowledgeable Jack was about an assignment, the more successful the job was, and thus the more satisfied Jack’s clients were. So, Jack studied people in Noah’s club very closely.
It was on this occasion that brought Jack the best of luck and Noah the worst. Jack just happened to work at the same pet store, and thus just happened to know Noah and his hobby for adopting animals from isolation. Being that Jack studied underground communities so that he’d have less empathy for his assignments and be as coldblooded towards them as possible, Jack was therefore regretfully familiar with Noah’s anonymous content. It didn’t take long for Jack to make a connection between the animals in these videos and the ones that Noah had been adopting.
The gods kept flipping this same coin, and it kept landing in Jack’s favor. Not only did Jack himself love animals, but he also knew of potential clients who—being very aggressive activists, some of whom were extreme enough to put the value of an animal’s life over a human’s—would pay Jack good money to take down the likes of Noah and his entire community. Not only could Jack charge a hefty fee for stopping Noah, he’d also be able to squeeze out the names of other people in Noah’s community.
People like Noah often traded private messages with each other, and eventually developed a closeness with one another; so, Jack knew it was very probable that Noah had names of others like him. Jack could also charge his clients to take care of the names that Noah gave him. This cashflow could go on and on and on, until Jack would either get bored or caught, depending on how the gods’ coin landed.
The coin between Noah and Jack kept landing in favor of the latter. Jack found clients; Noah gave names; those names gave more names; all names turned into assignments for Jack; and Jack got rich quickly. The gods kept flipping, and Jack kept winning.
One day, the gods might use a coin that’ll land less favorably for Jack. Just like successfully outrunning the law is a rarity, continuously winning a coin toss is a rarity… unless someone’s cheating.
Whoever said all gods were honest? Some gods are smarter than others; some gods wiser than others; some gods are weaker, more vulnerable and foolish. Some gods flip with a rigged coin. A coin designed to be heavier on one side, so it always lands the same with each toss. If an honest god is playing with a cheating god, bad things happen to good people. Let’s just hope that if you get two cheating gods flipping for your fate, the god on your side brought the rigged coin to the game, just like Jack’s did. Don’t worry about anything else except what’s favorable to you. Not what’s fair or unfair, not what’s logical or illogical, not what’s just or unjust, not what’s right or wrong. It doesn’t matter. If it did, then the coin would always land on what’s fair, logical, just and right… the coin would have to be rigged… the cheating gods would always get rewarded… winning could only be achieved by being unfair, illogical, unjust and wrong. Instead, it’s all a game of perspective. A dance of good luck and bad luck. Man versus beast; man is beast. Heads versus tails…
Light in the Empty House
At first, Rebecca didn’t think much of the light glowing inside the empty house of her neighbors.
During this time of year, the Rutherford family (Jason, Justin and their adopted daughter Suzie) would go on holiday in celebration of when they all became a family. Rebecca, having always been closer to her friends than relatives, could relate to the Rutherfords’ philosophy that a happy family doesn’t have to be made up of blood. This made Rebecca the Rutherfords most trusted caretaker to look after their other family members who couldn’t go on vacation with them: Mario and Luigi, the family’s cats.
Each of the three nights that the Rutherfords were gone, Rebecca would check in on the cats at 6 p.m. and give them their wet food. ONE-THIRD OF A CAN FOR EACH KITTY, the previous year’s note had read, written in big blocked letters by Suzie. The nine-year-old’s penmanship got better and better each time Rebecca saw it. CUT IT LIKE A PEACE SIGN, the child would always suggest in each year’s letter.
The to-do list always went as follows: Dump the water from the aluminum bowl and refill it with the fresh filtered water from the fridge. Add the necessary amount of dry food to the plastic bowl and stir it so the cats don’t try to pick out the fresher pellets. Scoop the litter. Put each cat’s wet food on a small plate on opposite ends of the kitchen so that Mario doesn’t steal Luigi’s supper. Last, but not least, give plenty of nuzzles and scratches.
The Rutherfords were people who treated their pets as part of the family, and as such, Mario and Luigi were very sociable. Therefore, after Rebecca finished feeding and cleaning the litter, she’d usually end up spending close to forty-five minutes playing with the cats.
Rebecca took notice of the lights in the Rutherfords’ house after having already fed the cats on the first night. She had been over two hours earlier and hadn’t noticed that any of the lights were on. Admittedly, she had been in a rush that day, having arrived an hour late due to bad traffic, topped off with a difficult day’s work. Perhaps she just hadn’t observed that the light was on? Despite being exhausted, Rebecca had been observant enough to notice that the Rutherfords still emptied out their cupboards and fridge before going on their trip. Likewise, in keeping with tradition, Suzie left the note as always—Rebecca only skimmed the letter this year, being in a rush and all, but she got the gist of it. The only thing different was that both the dry food and water bowls were completely empty when she showed up. The cats must’ve been getting more of an appetite in their older age.
She also heard a lot of meowing, whereas Mario and Luigi had always been relatively quiet. Other than that, nothing else was amiss.
So, as Rebecca stared out her window at the light in the supposedly vacant Rutherford house, she thought, Maybe I just didn’t notice it? After all, it was Memorial Day Weekend, and daylight was still quite bright at six o’clock during this time of year, so perhaps the Rutherfords accidentally left it on and Rebecca simply just didn’t observe it due to contrast with the vibrant spring day. And that was all Rebecca chalked it up to, making a mental note to ensure that every light was to be checked and turned off when she went over tomorrow.
Deep down, Rebecca knew she probably should’ve just made the trip across the street to turn the light off right then. But she wasn’t going to. Walking into a dark empty house all by herself sent chills up her spine. The light remains on, she decided, until tomorrow.
Six o’clock the next day arrived, and Rebecca hadn’t thought about the light at all. The cats will thank me for not leaving them in complete darkness, she told herself as she went to bed the previous night, and then put the thought in the back of her head. It wasn’t until she was finished with her second round of watching the cats and was on her way out the door, that she remembered to turn off the light.
As she turned back to check which light was on, she found all of them off.
She remained calm, despite being creeped out. The temptation to panic was beginning to fester. She thought she could hear her heart pumping faster. It was as if her instincts were trying to tell her: This is indeed something to be concerned about.
She was startled by this sound. The unusualness of Mario or Luigi being so talkative got into her head. Maybe something in the house isn’t right. Maybe the meowing cat is trying to tell me something. Like, warn me.
She slowly walked down the hallway, hoping for one of the switches to be in the ON position. None were. Not the dining room light, not the hallway light, not the living room light, not even the light connected to the stairway fan.
Without standing around to think about it any longer, she ran out the door, continuing to bolt for home, and then locked herself inside. Safe now, she ran up the stairs to the living room window and looked out.
For a few minutes, she thought she could hear the meowing of one of the cats. Even as the sound slowly faded, Rebecca continued to stare at the Rutherfords’ unlit residence. As she watched the dark house stare back at her, she had called Jason’s cell once and Justin’s twice. Voicemail each time. A couple of hours later, Rebecca was still looking at the hollow house. It seemed even more sinister at dusk. Then, the Rutherfords’ living room window lit up. Now, Rebecca had her own permission to call the cops.
The first police car arrived less than ten minutes after Rebecca dialed 9-1-1. She explained to Officer Forrest and Officer Wallace that she was looking after the Rutherfords’ cats and that a light kept turning on in the otherwise vacant house. A second patrol vehicle arrived about three minutes later. Forrest and Wallace briefed the two officers who had just arrived. After Rebecca made several other attempts to call Jason and Justin again, Jason finally called back.
Rebecca put him on speakerphone so that the officers could be a part of the conversation. She proceeded to explain to Jason that she thought someone was in his house. She could hear him reply, but his words were blocked by the crackles of a bad signal. “I can barely hear you,” Rebecca shouted into the receiver, forgetting that this wouldn’t improve Jason’s poor reception.
Jason, though barely audible, could be heard by both Rebecca and Officer Forrest as saying: “Yeah, whatever you need.” That was permission for the police to enter the premises.
“Thank you, Jason,” Rebecca said. “Call me when you have better reception.”
“Okay,” Jason said and then disconnected after a couple more seconds of annoying static.
Rebecca handed Forrest the key. He and the two officers who had arrived in the second police car went inside the Rutherfords to investigate, while Officer Wallace waited outside with Rebecca.
She noticed some of her other neighbors peering out their windows, a few of them even coming outside to watch the show. About five minutes went by when a third police car showed up. The two officers from the third car walked around the Rutherford property with flashlights, looking for any signs of a burglary. Wallace radioed Forrest, explaining that two other officers were outside checking the yard. “No need,” Forrest radioed back, and then exited the house with the two officers he had gone in with. The light from the living room window remained on.
Officer Forrest approached Rebecca and Wallace, while the other four cops dispersed in the vehicles they had arrived in. Forrest smiled, gently placing the key back in Rebecca’s hand.
“There’s no need to worry about anything, ma’am,” he said, still slightly grinning. “We looked through every corner of every room and found nothing suspicious. No sign of a break-in.”
“What about the light?” she asked, a bit annoyed. “I watched it turn on.”
“Well—” Forrest began, then paused for a quick chuckle. “It’s on a timer.”
Even in the cool darkness of the spring night, Rebecca could feel her face blush and small beads of sweat form along her hairline. With the whole neighborhood watching the circus she had created, Rebecca couldn’t remember the last time she felt so embarrassed. Lost for words, Rebecca dabbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers and laughed. “I’m so sorry about all of this.”
“Think nothing of it,” Forrest replied, reassuringly.
“The routine is the same every year,” she explained. “They’ve never had their lights on a timer as long as I’ve known them, so it never even crossed my mind. I jumped to the most dramatic conclusion.” To herself, she thought: Had I read Suzie’s note, it probably would’ve mentioned the lights were on a timer.
“Most people wouldn’t have considered it being on a timer,” said Officer Wallace. “I know I didn’t. The Rutherfords probably just didn’t want their cats to be in the dark all night, but also didn’t want to leave the light on all day.”
After Rebecca thanked the officers several more times, hoping each acknowledgment would soften the embarrassment, she left a voicemail on Jason’s phone, and told him it was a false alarm.
The next day, Rebecca went over to feed the cats for one last time, before the Rutherfords would return from their annual trip the following day. She found it strange that the cats were nowhere to be found. All those visitors last night were probably too much excitement for them, she thought. So, she filled the dry food and water bowls (which were once again uncharacteristically empty), then scooped the litter and set out the two dishes of wet food. During Mario and Luigi’s rare bouts of shyness, the clinking of the wet food dishes being set on the kitchen tile was always a way to get them out of their hiding spots. But not today. I guess the kitties really didn’t like how I handled that situation, Rebecca told herself as she took one last look around for them. She stumbled on the light timer affixed to one of the switches for the dining room light.
All this due to my ignorance. Even by herself, she was embarrassed. I’m never gonna hear the end of this goof.
Just as she was leaving, her phone rang. It was Justin. She answered. “Hello!”
“Rebecca. What’s wrong?”
“Jason didn’t tell you?” she asked, puzzled.
“He said he could barely hear you. His phone gets bad reception, and mine doesn’t get voicemail out here.”
“Well,” she began, chuckling in hopes that it would soften the events of the previous night, “there was a fiesta at your house last night.”
“The dining room light that’s on a timer,” Rebecca said, bashfully. “While looking at your house from my house, I saw the light from your dining room switch on. I thought someone was inside. Like a burglar or something. So, I called the cops, and with Jason’s permission, they went inside and looked around.”
When Rebecca heard silence, she thought Justin would either hang up or shout at her for causing such a ruckus. After a few seconds, Justin did indeed yell, but not at Rebecca. “Jason! Did you set the timer in the dining room?”
Rebecca looked closely at the timer, and heard Jason’s faint “No,” in the background as she realized the timer hadn’t been enabled. “I couldn’t understand anything she was asking me,” Jason continued, “so I just told her, ‘Yeah, whatever you need.’ Why? What’s going on?”
At that moment, Rebecca noticed the letter from Suzie that she hadn’t bothered to read on that first night, when she arrived late and rushed. As expected, the instructions were nearly identical to every year’s. But it didn’t say anything about a light being on a timer, which Rebecca assumed would’ve settled this whole mix up.
So the light wasn’t on a timer?
Next to Suzie’s letter was another one. One that hadn’t been there earlier. It was also written in large blocked penmanship with the same pencil, but this time the letters were in red and the pencil was soaked in blood. This new letter read:
I WAS A STRAY, SO I CRAWLED INTO THIS EMPTY SPACE AND MADE IT MY HOME. THE RUSTY LOCK ON THE OLD BACKDOOR POPPED OPEN SO EASILY, IT WAS LIKE THIS HOUSE WANTED TO HARBOR POOR HUNGRY ME. I ASKED YOU TO FEED ME, BUT YOU ONLY LEFT ENOUGH FOOD FOR MARIO AND LUIGI. DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME MEOW? I’M SORRY I DIDN’T SAY HI TO YOU WHEN YOU FIRST CAME OVER, I WAS JUST SO NERVOUS BECAUSE I HAD NEVER MET YOU BEFORE. WHEN I SAW HOW NICE YOU WERE TO MARIO AND LUIGI, I WAS GOING TO COME OUT AND SURPRISE YOU ON YOUR NEXT VISIT, BUT YOU RAN AWAY BEFORE I COULD EVEN SHOW MYSELF. I REALLY WANTED YOUR NUZZLES AND SCRATCHES, SO I RAN AFTER YOU, BUT YOU WENT BACK HOME AND LOCKED ME OUT. I MEOWED FOR YOU AT YOUR DOOR FOR SEVERAL MINUTES. DIDN’T YOU HEAR ME? THEN, AS I WAS OUT PROWLING FOR FOOD, I SAW THOSE PEOPLE COMING INTO MY HOME TO TAKE ME AWAY TO THE POUND. WHY DO YOU LIKE MARIO AND LUIGI, BUT NOT ME? THAT MADE ME EVEN ANGRIER AND HUNGRIER. SO, AFTER THOSE MEN LEFT, I WENT BACK INSIDE TO WRITE YOU THIS LETTER AND GET MYSELF A REAL MEAL. SINCE YOU DIDN’T FEED ME, I WAS STARVING. THIS HELPED ME NOT HAVE TO CHOOSE. I ATE THEM BOTH.
The letter was still floating in midair as Rebecca was nearing the front door to make her escape. At the entryway, however, Rebecca found two sticky gobs of fur, scrambled with crushed feline bones, blocking her exit. They hadn’t been there when Rebecca entered.
Justin was still on the line. “Rebecca? Rebecca!” he called desperately into the receiver. Aside from her screams and pleads for mercy, the only other thing audible was deep, unnatural, disturbing, manmade meows.
The body was spread across both lanes. It was in one piece, thank God, but there was enough blood streaming every which way that the figure could’ve been scattered into several different chunks.
Ahead was a stretch of concrete; behind, the same. To Oliver’s sides was a forest of countless trees, all appearing as nothing more than tall gray lines in the misty night. Even if he wanted to, which Oliver wouldn’t, his car was unable to squeeze around the helpless body without his tires getting blood on them. His only option was to call 9-1-1, unless you count driving 12 miles out of the way as an alternative.
Oliver put the car in PARK while he explained to the emergency operator what he had stumbled upon. The heat was turned high and kept him toasty in the running car, but that didn’t stop him from shivering. The phone, up to his ear, almost slipped from his sweaty, shaky grasp when he saw movement in the headlights.
“He’s alive!” Oliver yelled into the phone, with a strange mixture of relief and shock. The operator advised him to stay in the car. It wasn’t in Oliver’s nature to just leave someone out in the cold, helpless and suffering, but he resisted the urge and stayed inside. He rolled down his window and called out to the twitching figure in the spotlight, “I’m on the phone with 9-1-1. An ambulance is coming.”
“Send, uh—” moaned the figure in unbearable pain, “the… the—” The bleeding man’s words grew louder, regaining a little bit of strength with each mumble. “—police! Send the police!”
That statement meant only one thing to Oliver. “Who did this to you?”
“Again, sir, roll up your window and lock your doors,” the operator instructed. Oliver realized she had been repeating this, but his attention had been focused on comforting the injured man outside.
“You’re gonna be okay,” Oliver said, squeezing the words out of the closing window. “Okay,” he told the operator once he was successfully sealed inside his vehicle. “Now what?”
Before the operator had a chance to respond, Oliver found himself out of the car, racing towards the injured man. In the distance was someone approaching. The oncoming entity was far enough away for Oliver to confidently retrieve the suffering man; yet, the person in the distance was close enough for Oliver to make out a man in a brown parka, and holding a kitchen knife, with red stickiness covering the blade, slowly dripping from its tip.
The victim squealed like a whining puppy as Oliver pulled him up off the gritty wet road. The madman continued to approach with determination, his unbuttoned parka flapping in the wind, as if he was some grinning brown phantom.
Oliver aggressively barked at the victim to go faster and push through the pain. The brown shape was quickly gaining on them. The injured man panted deeply with each small limp. Instead of going around the passenger’s side of the car, Oliver opened the back door and shoved the injured man in the back seat, saving a bit of time.
“Drive!” the victim spat as Oliver jumped into the driver’s seat. Oliver yanked the car into REVERSE. The knifewielding maniac was an inch from the hood now, and Oliver gunned his car backwards into the dark road, illuminated only by the red glow of the brake-lights. When he was far enough away from the unprovoked predator, who was now grinning even wider as he gleefully chased after his prey, Oliver did a one-eighty and sped off into the darkness. He looked back-and-forth from the road ahead and into his rear-view-mirror, where the shadow of the knife and its wielder were quickly being swallowed by the darkness.
“You doin’ okay back there?” Oliver asked.
“I’m in pain and I’m still bleeding, but thanks to you, I know I’ll be fine,” replied the man in the back seat. “What’s your name?”
“Thank you, Oliver. I’m Harry.”
“Listen, Harry. What the hell happened back there?”
“That man waved me down for help. So, I pulled over and got out to see what the trouble was. Then, out of nowhere, he just attacked me. Suddenly, I’m running from a psychopath, all cut up and bleeding, like I’m in a slasher flick or something.”
“No good deed goes unpunished,” Oliver mumbled, shaking his head as if disappointed in all of mankind.
“Come again?” asked Harry.
“That phrase. You know, how an offer of kindness backfires on you.”
“Right. ‘No good deed goes unpunished.’ I guess I’m walking proof of that, huh.” Even with a light chuckle in his voice, the pain of talking caused Harry to cough.
Oliver frowned empathetically as he watched Harry in the mirror. “You just sit tight, Harry. With the speed I’m going, we’ll make it to the nearest hospital in ten minutes.”
“You know why that is, don’t you? Why no good deed goes unpunished. Good people are easy to take advantage of, and their aspirations for heroism often put them in vulnerable situations.”
“Well, I don’t know about your intentions for stopping to help that psychopath, but I wouldn’t say that I had any aspirations of heroism when I stopped to help you. It just happened. Before I knew it, I was outside of my car running to rescue you. It was just in me, I guess. Case-in-point, I had dialed 9-1-1 before even thinking about exiting my vehicle. Speaking of 9-1-1—”
Oliver looked around for his phone. From the backseat, Harry’s bloody hand reached out, clutching Oliver’s phone. The screen was covered with streaks of rust-colored fingerprints. Not wanting to touch some stranger’ s blood, Oliver asked, “Can you put it on speaker?”
“But there’s nobody on the line,” replied Harry.
“She hung up on me! I cannot believe an emergency operator would hang up on someone who’s clearly in a crisis.”
“Let’s call back. The fact that, nowadays, we can phone 9-1-1 anytime from almost anywhere is amazing. People are so much safer.”
“Despite what just happened,” Oliver added, “you’re right for the most part. It certainly puts serial killers out of business, right?”
“Well…” Harry shrugged, hesitating to disagree. “Madmen, like the one you just ran from, if they’re thirsty enough for the kill, they’ll always find a way… even if they have to resort to teaming up with another lunatic and sharing the winnings. Two psychopathic minds are better than one, right? Take the Grim Brothers, for example.”
“The Brothers Grimm? Those fairy-tale guys?”
“No, a duo of modern-day killers. They lure their victims—targets, as they call them—by faking an emergency.”
Oliver realized Harry was now sitting up straight and talking without any whimpers in-between his words.
“The target stumbles upon one of the killers, who pretends to be injured, at which point, their prey dials 9-1-1, remaining safely in their vehicle. The target doesn’t want to be a coward and doesn’t want to spend the rest of their life wondering whether they could’ve done more to help; so, when the second killer appears, the target foolishly gets out and pulls the first killer into the car with them. They drive off. The killer who did all the acting, all the shrieking and all the gasping; they get to be the one who makes the kill. The Grim Brothers take turns playing the injured one; it’s the more difficult role to play, but whoever does all the fake cries and moans gets rewarded with doing the fun part at the end of this little ploy.”
Oliver’s phone started to ring. While he’d never get the chance to answer it, he knew it was the emergency operator calling him back after Harry had deliberately disconnected the call. Oliver also knew that had he stayed on the line with the operator, she would’ve told him about the Grim Brothers, who were known to be out in that area. And just like the other targets of the Grim Brothers, police would find Oliver in a parked car with an open neck. Like all the others, Oliver would consider crashing the car, taking his killer out with him; but when death is sitting right behind you, close enough that you can feel the spittle on the back of your neck with each taunting word, the targets always open up to negotiating for their life. Harry would instruct Oliver to pull over to discuss options for sparing him.
Oliver offered money… money that Harry only pretended to be intrigued by, until the car was safely pulled over… money that Harry never bothered taking. The items these targets tried to trade with Harry so that he’d spare them their lives would always end up being irrelevant. Harry was there for one thing: the kill.
The Grim Brothers might eventually stumble upon the wrong target; someone who wouldn’t negotiate or plea. People with that kind of fearlessness are out there, but they’re rarer than many realize; and, if their target thinks there’s a chance to talk their way out of death, even the bravest of the brave could be duped into thinking they might survive the Grim Brothers. Maybe one day there would be a survivor. Maybe the law would catch up to the Grim Brothers. Maybe good deeds will go unpunished. Maybe.
C. W. Schultz was a guest on Aaron Calafato’s 7 Minute Stories, a podcast of non-fiction vignettes noted for the NPR-featured tale “The Yellow Bird”. Episode 84 featured Schultz narrating “Rooster”.
“The Stairwell” (originally a spec script entitled Echo with Laughter), was released in the eighth issue of Sirens Call Publications. Click here to read.
Titles of unreleased short stories
- Being Damned
- Child’s Imagination
- Eat Shit
- Laundry Chute
- My Enemy Darkness
- Red Shirt/Dead Shirt
- Revenge on Mr. Thompson
- The Soar
- Spirit of the Seattle Snow
- View from the Gallows
- You Just Had to Know Him