If you are new to the SDS Challenge, a little background.
Three writers will each write one story a month going down the list of deadly sins. The stories can be anywhere from 666 words to 6,666 words in length, although those numbers are not set in stone. If ambitious, the writers will provide accompanying graphics. These stories will not be anonymous because some writers may want to use the same characters for each story and write a series — or book — encompassing all seven sins. Finally, interpretation of the titular sin is up to the writer. Meaning, each ‘sin’ can take multiple forms.
The fourth set of stories cover the sin of Wrath. This is the offering by Perry Broxson.
Disclaimer: The writing challenge has no restrictions and the stories will likely span a wide gamut of genres. The majority of the stories fall in the PG-rating range with a few perhaps pushing into the soft R-rating. Some readers might find a few of the stories disturbing because of the topics, language, and/or plot points, and if so, stop reading and move on.
Perry is writing a novella linking all of the seven sins, but breaking each sin up into semi-stand-alone offerings. Because of this, he asked that I include this prologue/synopsis to set up the story:
Copyright 2021 — Perry Broxson
(8,820 words – approx. reading time: about 33 minutes based on 265 WPM)
“There’s something different about you, Raphael,” Doggerrall said, lowering his hackles in anticipation of being mounted.
Ralph fluttered atop the dragon, batting his short, black wings. “Could it be this quill in my nose?” Ralph asked. “Or that I grew hair . . . turned black . . . lost a foot in height? Or that I’m a Congolese pygmy?”
Doggerrall exhaled a smoky sigh. “I sense sarcasm. Is that the right word?”
“Yes, now please hurry. I’ve got four more Mortals to capture, and only four weeks to do it.”
“Certainly, if you promise not to bore me with the story of how you shape-shifted into this pygmy person.”
“I promise,” Ralph said.
“And lest you forget,” Doggerrall added, “the price of flight.”
Ralph reached into his wallet and removed a pressed, yellow flower – the one he’d plucked from Dedra’s dreadlocks. “It’s quite valuable,” he said, and presented it to the dragon.
“I sense sincerity. Is that the right word?”
Ralph patted the flank of the dragon’s neck. “It is. Now, if you’d be so kind.”
Doggerrall bolted, flinging his winged body into the chilly void. Ralph hunkered down, clinging tightly to scales, frightened that his small body would be swept into nothingness.
“Easy, boy,” he said, the words torn from his mouth.
Doggerrall was not built for gentility. With great sailed wings, he galloped across the fields of space, plunging in and out of corridors and vortexes with reckless abandon. When Ralph thought he could ride no more, the beast blasted a fiery gash through a miasmic wall, creating a passageway to the Chamber of Awakening.
Once landed, Ralph unclenched his aching hands and dropped into the hammock of Doggerrall’s awaiting wing. With more tenderness than expected, Doggerrall deposited the ebony angel onto the foggy floor. Ralph attempted to thank his escort, but his small lungs were too busy attempting to match the speed of his galloping heart. He was suddenly certain that his wings would have not have survived the harrowing flight – would have, indeed, been shredded.
“Raphael,” Mr. Jordan announced to no one. “Or would you prefer a name more appropriate to your African culture?”
“Still Ralph,” he said. “Just Ralph.”
“Very well, Raphael, might I begin this iteration with a brief ovation? I watched your daring feats of heroism. You will be delighted to know that the Banatu – your chosen tribe – survived the explosion. A hearty people, they.”
“So they are,” Ralph agreed.
From his pocket, Mr. Jordan presented the companion cufflink to the one Ralph had taken to metamorphose into his current form. “Which begs the question: Would you prefer to remain in this diminutive body . . . or return to the decrepit, elderly avatar known as Ralph Chamberlain?”
Ralph watched Jordan absently manipulate the golden butterfly, weaving it through his fingers, then palming it with sophisticated prestidigitation. “I really dig this sporty model,” Ralph said. “But there’s Mirabelle. She knows me as Grandpa. She’s lost so much. Her mother, grandmother. If it’s okay with you, Mr. Jordan, I’ll pull on that leathery old overcoat called Ralph.”
Mr. Jordan opened his left hand and presented the cufflink.
“Do I have to eat it?” Ralph asked.
“I’m afraid so,” he said. “Magic is not without rules.”
Ralph plucked it from Jordan’s hand and popped it into his mouth like a peanut. “Mmm, very goldy. Very cufflinky. So how long does it take for the transformation?”
Mr. Jordan rotated his palm, stirring a funnel of fog. Instantly, the fog hardened and became a rigid sheaf of ice. “Take a look,” he said, presenting the mirror.
“Well, well, well,” Ralph called, “there’s that handsome devil. Welcome back, Grandpa Chamberlain.” He tested his wings, then Fidel. “Little older, little slower . . . but those good looks make up for the shortcomings.”
Jordan snapped and the mirror vaporized. “There is the minor matter of the Fugitive.”
“Greed?” Ralph asked. “You want to know if I salvaged a scrap of that demon before he atomized into the mountain side.”
Ralph frisked his pea coat until he felt a bump. Grimacing, he retrieved the stump of Sylas Savant’s thumb. “Fidel harpooned this little digit right before the Big Bang. I’m certain there’s enough of Greed’s essence to warrant a successful Capture and Cage.”
Mr. Jordan donned white gloves and then examined the inch of flesh and bone. He spun it like a jewel, admiring the whorls and grooves, the polished nail, and the tail on tendon. “This should be sufficient. Deposit it in the Ark of the Covenant with the other criminals.”
Ralph complied, then bit his lip, as if withholding a thought.
“You have a question, Raphael?”
“Naw . . . it’s just that . . . never mind. Time is short. Let’s get after Wrath.”
“Very well,” Jordan said, then stepped toward the portal.
Ralph couldn’t hold his tongue. “It’s just that . . . well . . . take Greed for example. There are degrees, right? A healthy level of greed and covetousness can motivate mankind to dream, aspire . . . to achieve. Why do Our Betters inflict the Seven Mortal Sins upon the world? The Sins are caricatures of a human flaw, an immutable but essential characteristic. The Sins they sic on humanity are in no way representative of the mass of humanity. It makes me think that this whole human project is a . . . a game.”
Mr. Jordan stopped short. Abruptly, he turned and clapped his hand over Ralph’s mouth. He leaned in and shouted a whisper: “Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that. By Our Betters, don’t even think that.”
Ralph removed Jordan’s hand and said two words: “Free Will.”
“Not here. Not for you . . . for us,” Jordan insisted. “That’s for them.” He pointed to the pale blue dot in the viewing portal. “Free Will is their curse.”
“Curse,” Ralph repeated.
“Yes,” Jordan said. “You would know all this if you hadn’t insisted upon the Ash of Amnesia after the last Cycle.”
Ralph blinked. “I wish I could remember why I insisted upon not remembering . . . bit of a paradox. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to remind me.”
Mr. Jordan looked fully into the face the angelic man. “Can I be frank with you, Raphael?”
“You be Frank and I’ll be Ralph,” he quipped. Not receiving even the flicker of a smile, he said, “Please.”
“You’ve been a Hunter for so very long,” Jordan said. He put his hands on Ralph’s shoulders and added: “In my humble estimation, too long.”
“Care to explain?”
Jordan looked harried but continued. “Over the course of the last few Cycles, you’ve become less angel and more human. It’s as if they’ve infected you – contaminated you – changed you. You make irrational decisions. For instance, demanding the Ash of Amnesia. Then insisting on a sexagenarian avatar. Not to mention, you insist upon being called Ralph while you’re in the Chamber.”
Ralph raised his pointer finger and questioned, “Why do people always mention the unmentionable thing after saying ‘not to mention’?”
Jordan’s cheeks colored and his brow beetled. “And that,” he fumed. “That juvenile insolence that you call humor. This is not a game!”
Ralph watched as Doggerrall licked the amputated thumb and then furtively secret it into the cleft of his chest. “Isn’t it, though . . . a game?”
Jordan exhaled, aerosolizing his anger. After a long pause, he said, “You’re far behind the recommended timeline. You have four fugitives to Capture and Cage, as you call it, and only 25 days to complete the mission.”
“Have I ever failed?” Ralph asked.
Jordan did not answer directly. “You’ve never been this far behind at this juncture.”
“So what exactly happens if I do fail?”
Mr. Jordan seemed shocked. “You don’t know . . . of course . . . how could you? The Ash of Amnesia. I should’ve briefed you. This old actor’s avatar is as unreliable as yours. But it was you who foisted it upon me. And for that” –
“Please,” Ralph said. “Lecturing me about time while you’re wasting it is not helpful. Tell me. What happens if I fail to Capture and Cage the Seven Deadly Sins by this arbitrary deadline?”
“Our Betters,” Jordan said, “will start over.”
“Yes, start over.”
Ralph wanted to shake the old actor. “By that you mean . . . ?”
Jordan relished the angst of his wisecracking colleague. He snapped his fingers and a chess board appeared atop a crystal table. He moved the bone-colored Queen to H5 and declared ‘checkmate.’ Then, with no warning, he kicked the crystal table with his heel, sending the board and chess pieces flying across the floor, into the mist.
“Game over. Start over,” he said.
Ralph wanted more than theatrics. “Are you saying Our Betters will destroy the world? Erase humanity?”
Jordan touched his own nose and grinned. “Now you’ve got it, Sport.”
“But . . . but . . . you said it’s not a game,” Ralph stammered. “What happens to the people . . . to their souls?”
Jordan took two steps. His smile widened as he crushed a pawn under his heel. “Does that answer your question, Raphael?”
“I should knock your block off,” Ralph countered.
“What’s stopping you?”
Ralph balled his fist and wound up for a haymaker . . . but something stopped him. He stared at his tremoring fist, his purple fingers, and white knuckles.
“What did I tell you about Free Will?” Jordan asked then answered. “It’s not for us. We are cursed to clean up this mess – to watch games end and begin anew. We have no Free Will, you and I. We have our roles, yes. We have our scripts. But we play no bigger part than the lowly pawns.”
Anger and frustration swept Ralph’s legs, dropping him to kneel. He gazed down at the pale blue dot and muttered, “Mirabelle.”
Jordan placed a conciliatory hand upon Ralph’s shoulder and said, “As I was saying, time is of the essence. Shall we get to work?”
Mr. Jordan pointed at the portal, then twirled his finger. The view grew as he zoomed from macro to micro. A couple sat in swanky restaurant. The man wore a tan suit. The woman, a little black dress. The man seemed defensive; the woman hurt, yet determined.
“New York City,” Mr. Jordan announced. “The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. That is where you’ll find Four-of-Seven.”
“Wrath,” Ralph said.
Jordan nodded and said, “A lovely couple, wouldn’t you say? The woman seems quite perturbed . . . yet resolved. Intriguing. If only we could eavesdrop on their conversation.”
Jordan twirled his finger and the audio was activated.
Man: “It’s not like that, Judith. It was all business. Late nights, yes. Sure, we had a couple of drinks, but it was all . . . you know . . . about developing the app.”
Woman: “You fucked her, Tom. You fucked Camille. You can’t lie to me – you never could.”
Man: “Judith, that’s crazy talk! She’s my boss! She’s old! The whole idea is crazy!”
Woman: “So now I’m crazy?”
Man: “No. Your accusation is crazy. Call her. Call Camille. Ask her. Here, use my phone.”
Woman: “Why would I want to talk to your whore, Tom? I know you’re lying. I can smell it on you. I can smell her on you.”
Man: “I’ve had enough, Judith.”
The man stood and stalked toward the door.
Woman: “You need to make a decision, Tom. Me or her.”
The man stopped and turned back. “How about you make a decision, Judith? Get back on your meds. Stay on your meds. And go back to therapy . . . you were doing so well. We were doing so well. Then . . . then . . . .”
Woman: “Then you fucked your boss.”
The man threw his linen napkin on the table and stormed out of the restaurant, leaving the woman to finish her gazpacho.
“Intense,” Ralph said. “Is she Wrath? The redhead slurping cold soup?”
“I’ve given you quite the head-start,” Mr. Jordan replied. “I’m certain that you can suss it out. You’re one of the best Hunters the Order of Ark Angels has ever produced.”
“One of?” Ralph said, preparing to take the plunge through the portal. “Never mind. Let’s get after it.”
Jordan grasped his sleeve. “Here, you’ll need this.”
“My cellphone,” Ralph said. “That’s my old one. Haven’t seen that since . . .”
“Yes,” Jordan said, picking up the memory. “Since Barton killed your daughter. And your granddaughter shot you between the eyes with a SIG-Sauer P226.”
“Precious memories,” Ralph said, “thanks for sugarcoating it, Jordan.”
“I’ve put an app on your phone,” Jordan said. “Do you know what an app is?”
“I’m old,” Ralph groused, “but I’ve kept up. What’s this app do?”
“You’ll find out.”
Ralph nodded. “This part of the game?”
Mr. Jordan did not smile, did not frown, did not acknowledge the question at all.
Ralph pocketed the phone and turned his attention to the portal. He took a deep breath, as if preparing for a cliff dive, then leapt headfirst. As he fell, flew, and sped, he had the sensation of being watched. It rankled him. By the time he landed in New York, he was in no mood for fun or games.
Ralph followed the man in the tan suit. What had the redhead called him? Tom. Together, separately, they walked past Broadway, then Doyers, finally ending up in Times Square.
No taxi for Tommy, Ralph thought, catching his breath as the man stopped at a magazine stand and made a phone call. Ralph sidled up to Tom, pulled out his own phone, and pretended to be in a conversation, adding Okays and Sures and Uh-huhs when Tom was silent.
Ralph overheard Tom’s side of the conversation.
“Judith knows about us. I don’t how she knows, but she knows.”
“Listen, Judith gave me an ultimatum: you or her.”
“Listen, I blame myself. Judith went a little nuts after we lost the baby. Hormones, for sure. That, mixed with guilt and grief. I should’ve been there for her, instead of working all the time. And fucking you.”
“No, Camille, I’m not coming over. This is it. I’ve made my decision. I’m choosing my wife. I’m choosing Judith.”
“I’m sorry. I know I’ve hurt you . . . I know I said I’d leave her. But I can’t. Besides, you knew I was married. Get someone else to finish the app. It’s over between us, Camille. Please don’t call me.”
“You’re overreacting. We worked. We fucked. That’s it. That’s all. That’s what you are to me . . . a paycheck and a lay. Now let it go. And for God’s sake, don’t do anything crazy. Good bye, Camille.”
Tom killed the call and looked at Ralph. Ralph had been so enthralled with Tom’s conversation that he’d forgotten his fake phone call.
“Lasagna sounds great, hon. Want me to pick up a garlic loaf and a bottle of red. Sure thing. Love you, too.” Ralph hung up and thumbed through a rack of magazines.
Tom didn’t buy the bad acting. “You there. You following me or something?”
“Me?” Ralph asked.
“Yeah, you. All the way from Broadway. You some kind of detective? Did Judith put you on my tail?”
“Listen, pal,” Ralph said, “you couldn’t be more wrong. I’m an electrician. I live on Stanton Island. I came into the City get my wife’s wedding ring resized. She gained a little weight and her finger fattened up, is all.”
“Show me the ring,” Tom demanded, rapping his palm.
Ralph went full New York. “I’m not gonna show you Gloria’s wedding ring, asshole.”
Tom grabbed Ralph by the arm and spun him around. “Show me the ring or I belt you, old man.”
Ralph jerked free. In so doing, he lost his balance and tripped over a stack of New York Times newspapers.
“Cut it out, you two!” the Turkish proprietor shouted. “Take it somewhere else.”
Tom was not finished with Ralph. He loomed over him, shaking his fist, cursing. It was then that Ralph saw the smoke. At first he thought it was a trick of dusk and dust – or maybe the steam from the subway. But now, from his street-level perspective, he was certain that tendrils of gray smoke were seeping up from the cuffs of Tom’s tan slacks.
“Hey, pal,” Ralph said. “Here’s a PSA for ya. Your pants are on fire.”
Tom looked down, shocked. He immediately began slapping his pant legs with a Men’s Health magazine. “What the fuck?”
Ralph got to his feet and stepped away from the man that had cheated on Judith with Camille . . . the man that now seemed, inexplicably, to be on fire.
Ralph turned to the Magazine Stand proprietor. “You got any water?”
“Over there,” he pointed to a mini-fridge. “Five bucks a bottle.”
Ralph grabbed two bottles of Evian. By the time he wrenched off the caps, the volume of smoke had increased drastically. It was now seeping from Tom’s sleeves, his collar, and the fly of his tan trousers.
“I’m burning,” he said to Ralph. “I can feel it . . . burning . . . from inside! Help me!”
Ralph doused the man with water, sloshing it wildly, unsure of the fire’s source. “Call 911,” he told the proprietor. “We need the fire department.”
The water had no effect. The smoke rose, changing into a blood-red color. The heat increased, radiating from the burning man. Still, Ralph could detect no flames, no physical fire.
“Help me!” he cried, reaching for Ralph. His hand grasped the sleeve of Ralph’s pea coat. Instantly, the wool fabric singed and smoldered. Ralph had to pull free. The heat was too intense, even for his fortified angelic figuration. As he retreated, Tom crashed to his knees.
Ralph had seen this iconic image before. It was the 1960’s photo of the old monk that had set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Instead of a busy street in Saigon, however, it was happening here, now, in Times Square. Happening to an unfaithful man named Tom.
A blue-black fireball erupted. It was instantaneous. So fast, in fact, that Ralph could only see the halo of its lingering, teardrop image on the backs of his eyeballs.
“Diski!” the Turkish proprietor shouted. “What this?”
Ralph blinked and rubbed his eyes. There, scorched on the cracked cement, was the smutty silhouette of the man in the tan suit. Motes of black ash danced within the smoldering smear. It only took a single breeze to sweep the remains away, down the street, into the redolent air of the New York evening.
Ralph scrolled through the ancient names and numbers in the contact list of old phone. He knew one guy in the City. He was a retired cop and his name was Leonardo De Luca. Those in the know just called him Leo.
“You ol’ faggot,” Leo laughed. “Thought you were long dead, Ralphy Boy.”
“Negative on both assumptions,” Ralph said. “Not a fag. Not dead.”
“Yeah,” Leo said, “but you are old. Too old for Bondsman shit. That’s a young man’s game. That is why you’re callin’, right? You need a little help from your old pally, Leo?”
“I do, Leo. I need you to find me a couple of ladies.”
Leo whistled. “Oo la la! Two at a time. Look at you, Ralphy. Still got some lead in the old pencil.”
Ralph laughed. “I don’t have much to go on, Leo. One lady, Judith, is about 35. She’s Caucasian. Red hair. Green eyes. Medium height and build. Attractive . . . just had an early dinner at Martino’s on Broadway. The other woman is Camille.”
Leo waited five seconds before bursting into laughter. “That’s it? You gotta be fuckin’ kiddin’ me. You give me two first names of two broads and want I should . . . want I should what, Ralphy? Want I should find ‘em in a city of nine million people?”
“Yes, please,” Ralph said. “And if it helps, Judith was married to Tom.”
“No, it doesn’t help,” Leo groused. “Unless you got some info on this Tom.”
Ralph cleared his throat. “Tom may be the nexus – the key to finding both women. You’ll probably hear something on the late local news . . . something about a man self-immolating in Times Square.”
“Immo-whatting? What the fuck is that?”
“Burning,” Ralph clarified. “He set himself on fire . . . or so the story will be framed.”
“In Times Fucking Square?” Leo said. “What happened to the good ol’ days when the Square was lousy with whores and junkies? Now ya got folks settin’ they-damn-selves on fire. Holy Mother Mary and Joseph.”
“I hear you,” Ralph consoled. “Any help is appreciated. I’m a fish out of water here in New York.”
There was a chewing sound on the receiver. “Once I finish this gyro I’ll call Cosmo Martino . . . he owns Martino’s. If your gal, Judith, just ate there, he may be able to score some intel from her credit card.”
“See,” Ralph said, “I knew I could count on you. Thanks a million, Leo.”
Leo belched. “Don’t get your pecker up too fast. This is a long shot, Ralphy. A long fuckin’ shot.”
Ralph slept in a hostel not far from the Statue of Liberty. It occurred to him in the dead of night that Tom’s last name might be included in the news coverage – that, in turn, could be helpful finding Judith, if she took her husband’s surname. Of course, it was all contingent upon whether the cops could identify Tom. There wasn’t a lot to work with.
Ralph texted his thoughts to Leo and went back to sleep.
At 6:14am, his phone pinged. It was Leo. “Call me,” the text read.
Ralph called immediately. “Got something, Leo?”
“Newmann,” he said. “With three Ns. Thomas and Judith Newmann. They live in Manhattan. Swanky place in Hudson Yards. Sorry, no house number. I’ll text you the directions to the community. Got it from the Martino. The cops are clueless. Martino said Tom is a Software Designer. His wife . . . something to do with fashion. She’s the moneybags of the two.”
“Soooo,” Ralph cogitated, “if the cops haven’t ID’d Tom . . . that means Judith probably doesn’t know he’s dead.”
“That’s a tough conversation to have, Ralphy. I don’t envy you. Done it too many times over my career.”
Ralph thought of his deceased wife, Olivia. “Yeah,” he sighed. “Send me that address, Leo. I owe you big time.”
“Yes you do, you ol’ fag. Yes you do.”
To avoid Security, Ralph waited until darkfall. When the sun set, he flew over the wrought iron fencing to gain entrance to the exclusive community called Hudson Yards. He was fortunate that there was a massive copse of Scarlet Oaks to the shield him from the view of dog walkers and security cameras. He recalled the last time he felt safe on the bough of a tree. Absently, he rubbed the side of his neck – the area where the Shutu had darted him with frog toxins.
Hudson Yards, he observed from his perch, could not be further from the Congolese wildlands. The homes were opulent, the landscapes immaculate, the streets as clean as the white people that walked them. This, Ralph concluded, was affluence on anabolic steroids.
He’d filled his pockets with beef jerky, anticipating a long night of surveillance. He could do little more than wait now – wait until the Ark Amulet around his neck alerted him. Bored, he pulled out his cell phone and viewed his photo gallery. There they were – his family: Mirabelle, Hannah, and of course, Olivia. His mellow was harshed when photos of Barton appeared. He scolded himself for not breaking the bastard’s neck the first day Hannah introduced him. Even Olivia – his kind and nonjudgmental wife – took a dislike to the man.
As he fooled with his phone, he noticed the icon of an app. It was a blue icon, shaped like a teardrop, with two black letters superimposed: LL. He recalled his conversation with Mr. Jordan. I’ve put an app on your phone. Do you know what an app is? He wondered what its function was. As he was about to press it, the amulet vibrated against his collarbone, startling him.
Headlights sliced the night, illuminating a particularly charming manse. He climbed higher into the Scarlet Oak, giving himself a better view. As the light of the opening garage collided with the headlights of the BMW, he was certain that he saw the flash of Judith’s red hair.
“Bingo,” he said, as the garage door closed. He tore off a chunk of jerky with his teeth and chewed. He considered paying her a visit. Considered informing her of her husband’s demise. Considered interrogating her to confess to being Wrath . . . or discovering her link to the Fugitive.
He sighed at the prospect. It could wait to morning, he decided. He stabilized himself in the Scarlet Oak and opened his phone, rejoining the photographic reunion with his family.
It was a little after 6am when Judith Newmann stepped out onto her porch. Her hair was cinched into a messy ponytail. She was wearing shorts and a sports bra, stretching for a run. She tightened her shoelaces, clicked a button on her watch, and took off.
“To the park,” Ralph said, hoping she’d choose the route through the wooded area. When she veered off the paved street, he pumped his fist and flew to meet her.
He landed at the juncture where two dirt paths crisscrossed. He retracted his wings and waited. He could hear her footfalls, hear her breathing. Around the bend, she appeared.
“Judith Newmann,” he called, showing his Bondsman credentials. “I’d like to talk with you, please.”
Shocked, she lost her stride and almost tripped. “Who,” she said, reaching for the bear mace in her pocket.
“Catch your breath,” he said. “You’re startled. I’m sorry for that. Not my intention. My name is Ralph Chamberlain. I’m with Law Enforcement. I do need to talk with you . . . when you’re ready.”
“Badge,” she gasped. “That’s not a police badge.”
He put his credentials back in pea coat pocket. “No ma’am. I’m a Bondsman. Perhaps you can help me find my Jumper.”
“Sorry,” he clarified, “the fugitive from justice.” He clutched the Ark Amulet, hoping it would shimmy, shake, or vibrate and give away Wrath’s identity, if indeed Judith Newmann was the Mortal. The amulet remained still.
She started to back away. He could see that she was gauging his fitness – calculating a footrace back to the security of suburbia.
“I can’t help you,” she said. “I’ve got to go now.” She turned and ran.
“Tom!” he shouted. “I need to tell you about Tom.”
She stopped in her tracks and turned back. “Tom . . . you know where he is?”
He dropped his head and bit his lower lip.
“Is he okay?” she pleaded. “We had a fight. He left. He never came home. I called everyone . . . everyone.”
Her green eyes blazed. “No, not her . . . I couldn’t.”
Ralph stepped forward and reached for her hand. To his surprise, she took it.
“Tell me,” she said, tears mingling with sweat, “is Tom with her?”
Ralph shook his head. “No. I was with him when he called her. He chose you, Judith. He ended it with Camille.”
“So where is he?”
Ralph stroked the back of her hand, feeling the prick of her wedding ring. “Something happened. Something . . . supernatural. Tom . . . your husband . . . he combusted.”
She snatched her hand away and turned to the trail. “You’re crazy. Combusted. That doesn’t happen. People don’t combust. That app doesn’t really work.”
Ralph caught her wrist as she pivoted to flee. “App? What app, Judith?”
She tugged. “It doesn’t matter! Tom said it was flawed. He developed it for her . . . for national security. That’s when they started spending so many late nights together . . . when she seduced him.”
“It’s called LL,” Ralph said, piecing the puzzle together. “The app. What does LL stand for?”
She looked him in the eyes and half-laughed, half-cried the words, “Liar Liar.”
Ralph responded absently: “Pants on fire.”
She blinked back tears and shook her head. “But it doesn’t work. Tom said it didn’t work.”
Ralph said, “I was there. In Times Square. I was this close to him. Tom’s gone, Judith. And that app . . . that app killed him.”
“Nooo,” she cried. “Please, don’t say that. You’re lying. You’re the liar liar. You!”
He pulled her to him, letting her cry on his shoulder. When her sobs subsided, he said, “I need to find her. Camille. I think she’s responsible for Tom’s death . . . and I think she’s my Jumper.”
The address Judith gave him was helpful, but not a slam-dunk. It pointed him to the 67th floor of the Vanderbilt Tower in mid-Manhattan, but that didn’t get him access to the office of Camille Blaise, CEO of Reckoning Enterprises.
He wasted a day attempting to make an appointment. He wasted another studying the blueprints of the building, hoping to gain access through and elevator shaft or HVAC venting.
“I’m too old for this shit,” he told himself, envisioning a trek through the cramped crawlspace. He called Judith. “Can you tell me which side of the Tower her office is on? West side . . . sixty-seventh floor. Yes. Tonight’s the night. Thank you.”
As the early May showers cleansed the City, Ralph prepared for the siege on Camille’s office. It was not the amulet that told him she would be there at this late hour, it was his gut.
Despite the rain, the City buzzed. People milled pell mell, restless, under newspapers and umbrellas. He waited until a gang of muscular clouds bullied the moon into retreat, then he leapt, wings fully deployed. If someone sees me, he thought, I’ll just tell ‘em I’m Batman.
As he rose, he counted the floors of the Vanderbilt skyscraper. The higher he ascended, the more the amulet twitched. It reminded him of the child’s game he played with Mirabelle: Cold, warm, hot. He was definitely getter hotter.
His experience in the Capture and Cage biz informed him that there were only two good ways to apprehend a Jumper: subtlety or surprise. Any approach between these two polar tactics was sloppy and tended to fail.
These blue-tinted windows, he thought, seem to be as formidable as the laminated glass in the windscreen of Sylas Savant’s cargo jet. He’d need to come in hot and heavy. He activated Fidel.
“Geronimooooo!” Ralph shouted, slashing a diagonal gash across the façade of the window. He folded his wings and dove through the jagged gap, shoulder-rolling to a shaky landing – serviceable, but lacking in grace.
A woman screamed and a door flung open behind him. He heard the clicks of three safety buttons being released, then the quick thwipp of three bullets spiraling through three silencers. Instinctively, he faced the shooters and rotated Fidel 90 degrees, to a lateral position. The blade blocked and bounced the bullets back at their source, killing two of the three henchmen with head shots, and ripping through the throat of the third.
The screaming woman, he now saw, was not at all what he’d envisioned. No, she wasn’t the archetypal vixen, sleek and sexy and seductive. She was – dare he risk being shamed as ageist or sexist? – old and ugly.
“Raphael,” she screeched.
“Camille?” he asked, winded. “Or should I call you by your ancient name, Wrath?”
She pushed the red button on her intercom and said coldly: “Code Kill. All stations. Code Kill.”
He brought down his sword, demolishing the intercom, as well as the mahogany desk on which it sat. “Naughty, naughty,” he said. “This is between us, Camille – the Hunter and the hunted. No need to involve more innocent humans.”
“Innocent my ass!” she spat. “These innocent humans are natural born killers, Raphael. More so than you and I combined. Were it not for their depraved passions, my gifts would go unappreciated.”
Ralph quieted the Ark Amulet that tingled under his coat. “Your gifts? Would that include the ability to immolate one’s enemy with the touch of a phone app?”
“Liar Liar,” she said, preening. “Quite the innovation. It’s set for full release and global distribution on Valentine’s Day. I had the pleasure of Beta Testing it a few days ago.”
“Tom,” Ralph said. “I know. I was there when you incinerated him.”
She pooched her collagen-plumped lips to simulate sadness. “My little Tom Cat. He will be missed. But he made the mortal mistake of lying to me. Hell hath no fury, Raphael, like a woman scorned.”
“This whole business,” Ralph said, spinning, observing the lavish office, “is the business of wrath and retribution.”
“Reckoning Enterprises,” Camille said, handing him her business card. “They lie; They die.”
He slashed the card in half with Fidel, trimming her red fingernails. “Four-of-Seven, your craven crimes stop today. You are under arrest, by Warrant of Our Betters. We can do this the hard way, or a harder way. Makes no difference to me.”
She grinned and presented her knobby wrists. “Cuff me. Make ‘em tight.” She tried to purr sexily but to Ralph it sounded like emphysema.
Footfalls, like a buffalo stampede, suddenly shook the 67th floor. “Hold that thought,” he said, pissed that he’d have to kill his way out of the situation.
Just as suddenly, the footfalls ceased. Ralph looked around the commodious room, searching for alternate entrances, where one could be ambushed.
“Let’s do it the harder way,” Camille said. She then stamped a button on the floor, under her broken desk. “Harder is always better.”
That said, eight wooden wall panels lifted simultaneously, revealing eight agents with eight automatic weapons. Ralph, in the center of the office, retracted his sword and slowly regarded the circle of assassins, showing the men his empty hands. Finishing his 360 degree pivot, the assessment was dire: He stood unarmed in the middle of the octagon, surrounded by murderers. What had Camille called them? Natural Born Killers!
“Gentlemen,” he said. “Do the right thing. Stow your weapons and stand down. This is not your business. It’s between me and this she-demon.”
The men, in unison, ratcheted their weapons and took aim at his heart.
“You know what they say about circular firing squads,” he asked, not having a ready punchline.
“Such a waste of a handsome man,” Camille complained. “We could’ve joined forces, Raphael. Could’ve eradicated these bipedal pests with their own innate hatred – with their giddy willingness to wish wrath upon their enemies . . . as well as their friends.”
“Tom,” Ralph said. “Tom was your friend. Your lover.”
Her surgically-shaped nose crinkled with disgust. “”My lover. My liar. He said he would leave her – his precious Judith. Liar, liar, pants on fire.”
Raphael sensed vulnerability, and pursued the subject of infidelity. “I’ve met her. Judith. She’s young and beautiful and forgiving.”
Camille’s taut facelift would not allow her to frown, but Ralph could see the anger in her eyes.
“Tom saw me like that,” she insisted. “All those nights, working together on the LL app . . . we became friends, then lovers. Funny, he believed me when I told him the app would be used to promote global peace . . . that it could eliminate tyrants and despots and warlords. When it came to software design, Tom was a genius. But when it came to a woman’s heart, he was a fool.”
Ralph looked into her teary eyes and mocked her. “Boo-fucking-hoo.”
Her eyes vibrated with ire. Her capped teeth clenched to the point of cracking. Her wig slid sidewise and exposed her mottled scalp. “Kill him!” she commanded, then ducked under the hulk of her mahogany desk.
The eight agents opened fire on Ralph Chamberlain, the retired bounty hunter – Raphael, the Ark Angel. He saw the bullets, dozens then hundreds, swarm toward his vital organs. The men were indeed cold-blooded killers, natural born.
He did the only thing he could do – take cover. Quicker than thought, his angelic wings deployed, then immediately enveloped his body. Secure in the cocoon, he felt each bullet strike his winged shield. He felt the bullets burrow as the slugs slipped into the interleaved wings, getting caught and stopped in the plaiting of primary, secondary, and tertial feathers.
Thousands, he guessed, a minute later . . . thousands of rounds . . . trapped in the filaments of his feathered armor.
Finally, the shooting ceased, and there was silence.
When he heard the order to reload, he knew it was his time to kill.
Kill, he did.
Spinning, whirling, he spread his wings outward, shoulder high. Spinning faster and faster and faster, the bullets began to dislodge, to fly from his feathers, to spring from his wings. The inertia increased as he spun supernaturally fast – so fast that the bullets let loose and returned to their sources faster than they’d been dispensed.
The eight agents that comprised his death squad, died in the gun battle – a gun battle in which their adversary never fired a shot.
“How do you like me now?” Ralph yelled, exhilarated, smoothing his ruffled, bloody feathers with his hands.
Camille emerged from her hidey-hole, peeking over her desk. “You’re alive?”
“Damn straight, I’m alive! Never more alive!” Ralph strutted around the room like a rooster. “You missed it. I killed ‘em. Every damn one of ‘em. Killed with their own slugs.”
Instead of repelling her, his machismo attracted her. “So you did,” she said, aggressively stepping toward him in sling-back heels.
His blood was up and he wanted to beat his chest and belt out a Tarzan yell. That was all halted when Camille kissed him.
It caught him off guard. He closed his eyes and pushed her away. When he opened them, he saw her, leaning languidly on her broken desk, naked. Except it wasn’t her. It was Olivia . . . his dear and departed wife.
“How do you like me now?” she whispered huskily. It was Olivia’s voice, Olivia’s thirty-year-old face, smoking body, and steamy sex appeal.
“Olivia,” he said, wiping his eyes, retracting his wings. “It can’t be.”
“It can be,” she said, and was kissing him as he protested. “It is.”
Her tongue was in his mouth and her hand was in his pants. It was a classic Olivia move – she, the aggressor in bed – he, the beneficiary of her ardor.
“No,” he exhaled, his resolve waning with each squeeze of her hot hand, with each plunge of her probing tongue.
“Yes,” she countered. “Fuck me, Ralph.”
“No,” he croaked, “it’s not you . . . Olivia . . . it can’t be you.”
She put his hands on her breasts. For a splendid second, his palms tingled from the contact of his wife’s perfect bosom. And then, as suddenly, the breasts shriveled into crimson ridges of surgical staples. The double mastectomy! The radical procedure that the Oncologists promised would save her life . . . .
“Fuck me like you used to, Ralph . . . before cancer. Before I died and left you all alone.”
The words infuriated him. It rekindled his absurd sense of abandonment. He shoved her harder than he’d ever shoved a woman. She flew backward, then tipped over the desk, falling from sight.
“I’m sorry,” he said instinctively, reaching for her. “Olivia! I’m so” –
She arose from behind the desk, laughing, cackling. It was Camille again – clothed in a stylish outfit designed by Judith Newmann, wife of the man she’d loved and murdered.
“You bitch,” he breathed, seething. He activated Fidel.
She ignored him. Disinterested, she pulled her cell phone from her desk drawer and fiddled with the touchscreen.
“By Warrant of Our Betters, I place you under arrest.” Ralph pulled the Ark Amulet out of his buttoned shirt and lifted the tiny lid.
All the while, Camille smiled as she toyed with her phone.
He raised Fidel, then pressed it to her creped neck. “Don’t make me take your head, Wrath. There’s been enough blood spilled today. Get in the Ark. Your sinful sojourn is finished. Please, I don’t want to hurt you.”
She touched the aqua blue teardrop icon on her phone and said, “Liar.”
A phone rang. Ralph slapped the side of his pea coat. It was his phone.
“Liar,” she repeated.
He examined the screen. The text said: Phone call from Hell.
“Pants on fire,” she finished, grinning through cracked veneers.
From the cuffs of his slacks, smoke arose. He could smell the singeing hair on his shins, could feel a pond of lava sloshing in his bowels.
“Oh no, oh no,” Ralph said, activating his wings to fan back the flames.
“Oh yes, oh yes,” she said. “I always thought you were a hottie, Raphael.” She cackled until black blood seeped from sculpted nose.
He dropped the phone but the flames remained, unabated, scalding his skin from within. The painful sensations reminded him of the Saifu – the dreaded soldier ants of the Congo. He slapped and danced and flew to the ceiling . . . only to crash and fall into an overheated heap.
“Burn, baby, burn,” she crowed. She drew closer, warming her frigid body from his rising heat. “If only I had a marshmallow to toast.”
“You hateful hag,” he shouted, flapping his searing wings.
“Hateful, maybe. Wrathful, absolutely,” she conceded. “I’ll not be rejected, Raphael. Not by you or any man. I am not alone . . . there are millions of women out there . . . millions of jilted bitches with hearts blazing with hate. All they need is me . . . me and my little Liar Liar app. It might be midnight, after a bottle of cabernet sauvignon and a couple of Xanax, after they’ve cried themselves dry, after they’ve beat themselves up for not being good enough, young enough, pretty enough – that’s when they’ll scroll through their photo gallery and pull up a photo of their Old Flame . . . that’s when they’ll recall the broken promises and press the button: Liar, Liar!”
Ralph wanted to tell her she was wrong, that women were not all spite and hate and wrath, but his body burned like a chimney. As smoke seeped from his pours, all he could do was plead: “Turn it up or turn it off! The pain . . . the pain. Please, Camille. Up or off!”
She grinned so wide that her dentures slipped and her teeth tilted. “Tom built a thermometer interface. I can slide it with my finger. See?”
Ralph opened his mouth to curse her and oily smoke chugged out.
She turned it down. “That’s about 130. Probably feels like an arctic blast.”
“Camille,” he avowed, “If not this Cycle – the next. I will remember your cruelty. My wrath upon you. My wrath . . . upon . . . you.”
Her ancient eyes twinkled as she stroked the touchscreen. “And if I move it up – weeeeee! – like this, the temperature rises.” She pushed the digital mercury up the scale to 451 degrees Fahrenheit. “If it’s hot enough to burn books,” she joked, “should be hot enough to cook your goose.”
Ralph’s organs began to roast; his body emanated blue waves of radiant heat. He staggered, fell to his knees, and dispatched Fidel. He pointed the sword at her, intending to skewer her; but before it reached her, the steel softened and the shaft drooped.
“A bit flaccid,” she laughed. “It’s not easy getting old, Raphael. Not for an angel, not for a man, and definitely not for a woman!”
Ralph turned the blade to his own chest, intent upon ending his own agony. But Fidel’s metal had turned to molten mush, and its tip was bent and liquid.
“You . . . Tom . . . men . . . all men,” she hissed. “You’re all alike. You use us . . . then, on a whim, you dismiss us, discard us like garbage.”
Ralph’s white wings crackled and blackened. His skin sizzled and his bald head blistered. The fabric of his clothes turned ashen. His torso roiled like a stoked cauldron.
“This has been fun,” Camille said, holding her nose. “But we’ve reached the point of diminishing returns. The stench . . . Ode to Our Betters! . . . what a beastly smell. I must be leaving now.” She stroked her phone, summoning the interface to the app. “My parting gift to you, Raphael, is mercy. I immolated Tom at a mere 1800 degrees. You . . . with your silly super-dooper angel powers . . . will be a tough old bird. I’m guessing that 3000 degrees Fahrenheit should do the trick. Are you ready, Raphael? Are you ready for my full wrath?”
Ralph opened his mouth to speak, to say Yes, Yes, Yes, but it was bile that came forth – bile, like a hot broth, scorching the office floor.
As Camille fiddled with the sliding scale, her phone rang.
“What’s this?” she said, startled. “Beg your pardon, Raphael. Can we pause your cremation, Love? I’ve got a call. Strange . . . it’s from Tom.”
She pressed the green circle and said, “Hello, this is Camille Blaise, CEO of Reckoning Enterprises. With whom am I speaking?”
The icon dissolved, giving way to a face – a woman’s face. It was Judith Newmann, Tom’s wife.
“You’re Camille,” Judith said flatly. “You’re the woman that seduced and incinerated my husband. The woman that ruined my life.”
“Dear,” Camille said, clutching her pearls. “If your happiness hinged on the whims of our fickle Tom Cat, then I suggest your life was already pathetic. Might I recommend you take up a hobby? Pickle Ball, perhaps. I hear it’s quite gratifying.”
“You bitch,” Judith snarled.
“Don’t be so sanctimonious,” Camille retorted. “You’ve got your youth. Your looks. A nice Life Insurance Policy settlement. Go find another man to fuck. You and I know that Tom was a lousy lay – I’ve done you a favor, Judith.”
“Don’t you dare speak of him that way.”
Camille’s finger hovered over the phone. “You’re boring me, Dear. I really must go. I’ve got a goose in the oven.”
“Wait,” Judith called. “I need to ask you something. Woman to woman.”
“Sorry, Dear, I’m not getting any younger . . . toodle-doo.”
“This button,” Judith asked, “the tear-shaped icon on my phone. What does it do?” An impish grin flashed on Judith’s face.
“What?” Camille snapped. “You don’t have the app. You don’t have Liar Liar. I haven’t released it yet.”
“Compliments of Tom,” Judith said. “Our mutual lover boy. While going through his things, I found a cache of phones in his office – smart phones with the Beta Version of Liar Liar. Your number was linked to the app, Camille.”
Judith pressed the teardrop icon. The app on Camille’s phone activated and turned red – red, like a candle flame. “Am I lying?” Judith asked.
Smoke billowed from Camille’s blouse. The metal in her bra branded her thin skin. “What’s happening?” she asked, slapping her implants.
“Wrath is happening,” Judith replied.
“Stop it,” Camille screeched. “This is a weapon to be used against men – the pigs that fuck us and leave us. We are the same, you and I. We are scorned sisters.”
“Burn, bitch,” Judith said, then flicked the digital mercury to the top of the thermometer.
Burn, Camille did. The silicon in her cheeks, chin, chest, and buttocks melted first. Her wig lit up, catching her collagen lips and Botox-infused brow alight. The torch of her wig set off the fire suppression system, dousing the office in water.
Ralph rolled over, exposing his broiled torso, allowing the sprinklers to rain down on his infernal pain.
“I’m burrrrrrninnnnng,” Camille cawed. “I’m burrrrrrninnnnng!”
Her hand crackled, fusing the phone to her fake nails, rings, bones, and taffy flesh.
Ralph watched, still in agony. If only, he thought, if only the phone she’s holding . . . if only . . . . if only the app shuts down.
Camille’s charred ribs burst through her blouse, burning her designer clothes. Naked, Camille stood defiant, screaming at the injustice done to her.
Ralph felt his own fires diminish. It was the phone – the app on the smart phone that Camille held – it was dying. The extreme heat had melted the device and disabled the effects of the wrathful software.
Still, Camille burned. Hers was a chemical fire, Ralph surmised. It feasted on the synthetic materials inside of her – the enhancements and endowments and improvements. This, he delighted, was the fuel that ultimately consumed her.
A burst of fire, taking the uncanny shape of a candle flame, erupted. It started in her sling-back shoes and rose upward, enveloping Wrath in its blazing embrace. Ralph shielded his eyes with his charred wing. The light was too bright, the heat too hot.
Alarms blared and lights flashed, adding to the chaos.
From his position on the floor, he felt the drumbeat of footfalls. It was more of Camille’s minions, he knew. Evil villains always had a second wave of thugs and muscle. If he couldn’t escape the office . . . he’d be killed.
He calculated that his best shot at survival was to crawl across the floor, lift himself to the gash in the shattered window, and leap. In so doing, he would attempt to deploy his wings – what was left of them.
As he low-crawled under the roiling smoke, his elbow hit upon a hard object, causing him to wince. He lifted the offending object and scrutinized it. Dentures, he determined – the upper row of Camille’s ever-tilting teeth. He thought of Doggerrall and knew the old boy would cherish it. He made to put the teeth in his pocket, but forgot he was nude and that his clothes were incinerated. He would simply hold the appliance, he decided, hold it in his left hand. And while he was at it, he’d grab a handful of Camille’s ashes with his right hand – enough of Wrath’s essence to deposit in the Ark, enough to warrant a successful Capture and Cage.
As he did these things, men stormed into the fiery, rainy office.
Ralph hoisted his demolished body onto the ledge of the window he’d shattered, angling himself for a daring leap. “Lord, I’ve seen fire and I’ve seen rain,” he muttered, his brain immiserated by pain and smoke.
“You there,” a booming voice shouted. “Stop!”
Ralph clambered onward, clutching the dust and the dentures, hell-bent on escaping the room of imminent doom.
“Don’t do it!” the gruff voice insisted.
Ralph pushed his head through the open hole and smelled the sweet evening air. Drunk on the influx of oxygen, he sang: “Seen summer days that I thought would never end.”
“Grab him,” the voice ordered. “Grab that stupid son of a bitch.”
Ralph felt a hand on his shoulder – on the stump of his grilled wing. He shrugged it off and sprang toward freedom, toward the twinkling stars on the other side of the fractured glass.
“Stand back,” the voice shouted. “I’ll do it my damn self.”
Ralph, halfway out of the window, was arrested. Hands as strong as vices, grasped his calves and hoisted him back into the room of doom – the room filled with fire and rain.
He fell onto his belly; his forehead clipping the window ledge, his chin splitting on the hard carpet.
“I’ve got you,” the voice said.
Ralph allowed the dark clouds to accumulate, to occlude the stars behind his eyes. Sleep would do him good. A day, a month, a millennium – it was all the same to him. Longer was better. He thought of Mirabelle and Hannah and Olivia. He wondered if he’d ever see them again.
“Seen lonely times,” he slurred. “Seen lonely times . . . when I could not find a friend.”
“Easy, pal,” the voice soothed. “You’re in good hands.”
Ralph opened his eyes and saw the square jaw of a New York fire fighter.
He thought of his girls and said, “One more time again . . . one more time . . . again.”
Here are the links to the other two stories:
Wrath Will Cost You (Parole) <<link
Writer: E. J. D’Alise
Word count: 2,785 words – approx. reading time: about 11 minutes based on 265 WPM
Hell Hath No Wrath <<link
Writer: R. G. Broxson
Word count: 5,360 words – approx. reading time: about 20 minutes based on 265 WPM
If you’ve read all the stories and care to cast a vote, here’s the link to the Poll:
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