TheWolfandtheRose

The Night the Lights went out in Florida

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Segment Twenty-Six

It was the hottest part of the day. Shark was about to head out to the pool with Ike, Flash, CoolGuy, Deepcanyon, and Terrie when he sensed something. Something bizarrely inhuman.

His towel was draped over his shoulder. He frowned, twisting his head backward.

Was there someone crouching behind that massive plant in the lobby? Nah, he decided. It must be a dad playing hide-and-seek. He kept on walking.

“Shark?” Terrie whispered, noticing his wayward gaze and worried expression. “Is anything the matter?”

He shook his head. “I have a big imagination, is all,” he answered.

Putting his elbow on Shark’s shoulder, Flash enthused, “We love your big imagination! Your creative mind, your comics.”

Shark shrugged modestly. “That’s the good half. This is the bad half.” He glanced behind him again then forced himself to face the sliding doors and march forward. “Paranoia,” he muttered under his breath.

The six of them strode out to the pool and found a small crowd. Shark dropped his towel on a chair, yanked off his shirt, and stepped off his flip-flops. He took a grand nosedive in the pool that rocked the water with an earthquake’s equilibrium. Two kids squealed with delight.

Shark threw his body this way and that way under the water, immersing himself in the fishy feelings. After twenty minutes, he wound up floating on his back, merrily exhausted. His eyes were halfway shut.

He’d just begun to snore when something glinted into his eye. He cracked it open then dropped his feet to the bottom of the pool. His blood felt like icicles.

Binoculars. Pointed straight at him.

He turned away then slowly turned toward the threat to see if he could make anything out.

Oh, he nearly groaned aloud when he recognized Officer Kelso’s form. Shorts exposing his legs, police shirt on.

At first, Shark was relieved it was only Officer Kelso. Slowly, another emotion replaced the relief until it overcame it and emasculated it.

He got out of the pool and marched straight up to Officer Kelso. Officer Kelso was so shocked he was frozen in place. Shark easily jerked the binoculars out of Officer Kelso’s hands.

“If you have to stalk me,” he snarled sotto voce, “can’t you do it at a more practical time?” At this point, some of Officer Kelso’s shock faded. He straightened into a haughty position. “Can’t a man enjoy a swim with his friends without a perv ogling him?”

Defensively, Officer Kelso yelped, “You almost killed those kids!” Liking the sentence he’s grabbed, he added, “You have no morals, do you? Who is safe from your threatening philosophy?”

“Louis Armstrong,” Shark replied automatically. Then he snorted. “I’ve been in the pool for thirty minutes. They’re still alive.”

Officer Kelso scoffed. “That proves nothing! There are witnesses!” Laughing, he shook a finger at Shark. “I took a class on this. It was called Guilty Until Proven Innocent.”

“How’d you pass anyway?” Shark demanded. “Did you pose your way out of a flunk?”

Churlishly, Officer Kelso returned, “No one underestimates my intelligence.” He could feel his nose growing. He touched the tip of it and crossed his eyes.

“Do you mean to tell me,” Shark blurted in a gravelly voice, “the other police working on this case have equal or lesser intelligence?”

“Yeah!” Officer Kelso burst out with pride. “That’s right!”

Shark closed his eyes. “We’re doomed!”

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Segment Twenty-Seven

OrphanMaker didn’t have a mother. His birth mom had been broke, starving, homeless, and weak when she went into labor. She’d wandered to an orphanage, given birth, and died immediately after the final push.

She’d had no family. No parents, no siblings, no aunts, no grandparents or cousins. So OrphanMaker had grown up without a mother, even a substitute one. The women who worked at the orphanage where he grew up did the work for money. They ignored the kids, preferring to gossip on the phone.

Most of the kids there were alright. OrphanMaker was one cool dude, but he didn’t have a mom.

The closest Officer Forman could find was his ex-fiancé. She had been like his family and had made him straighten up a bit and help her with household chores. She’d abandoned him though, and when Officer Forman had messaged her on Facebook (“I have some questions for you. They’re about OrphanMaker”), she’d blocked him. Not exactly the mother of an orphan’s dreams.

Officer Forman found it interesting that a kid who grew up without parents had named himself “Orphan Maker” on his eighteenth birthday, legally changing his name from Jimmy Jones.

Officer Forman leaned forward in his seat as he punched Mkw’s mother’s number in the police phone. Then he sat erect as he listened to each ring. When he heard a pick-up, he leaned back against his chair.

“Hello?” a man’s voice slurred. He sounded twenty years older than Officer Forman.

“Hi!” Officer Forman uttered cheerily. He cleared his throat. “I’d like to speak to Jkw? Mkw’s mother.”

“Jane!” called the man through the house. “Phone! Something about that son uv yers.”

“Oh, for pete’s sake,” Officer Forman heard in the background. “He’s your stepgrandson!”

“I ain’t stepping on nobody,” the man returned as he plunked the phone in her hands.

“You live under my roof, you ungrateful…” Suddenly, her voice was right up against Officer Forman’s ear. Sweetly, she said, “Why, hello, dear! Are you one of Mkw’s little friends? He’s a wonderful boy, isn’t he?”

Office Forman held the phone away from his ear and stared at it. Returning it, he licked his lips. “Actually, I’m a police officer, and I have a few questions.”

Puzzled, she asked, “What kind of questions?”

“Well…” Officer Forman played with the phone cord, twirling it around his finger. “He…it…I’m just going to say this fast,” he chuckled, “but you see…a girl in his group was murdered…and, ma’am…he’s a suspect.”

A dial tone met his ear. He tried to call again, but no one would pick up.

Next, he dialed Shark’s mother.

“He did what now?” was her response.

“No-ho-ho! He hasn’t been convicted,” Officer Forman explained in a rush. “He’s a suspect.”

She was weeping in his ear. “You try and try and try,” she sobbed, “so hard to teach your kids right from wrong, and all they do is kill people!”

Officer Forman hung up on her and wrote “Wasn’t home” on the report.

Tentatively, he dialed Sith’s mother’s number, praying she wasn’t a snake whisperer.

She turned out to be sane. She listened to Officer Forman then explained—without getting emotional—she didn’t think Sith was a murderer. “He’s not demented. I’ve been friends with a murderer. Before he was convicted, I noticed some odd things about him, times when he wasn’t human anymore. It was a few seconds here and there. I sensed the evil, but I disbelieved it. Sith doesn’t have evil inside of him. I’m his mother. I’d know.”

She was convincing, but Officer Forman was like a dog with a bone. For him, it was Sith. It had to be Sith. It wouldn’t make sense unless it was Sith.

Then he called Flash’s mom.

She listened quietly as he explained the situation and Flash’s part in it.

She started sobbing, but it was a different kind than Shark’s mom’s. Officer Forman found himself trying to soothe her. “It’s okay. He probably didn’t—”

“It’s not that. It’s…he’s gone five years, almost, without doing anything.” Oh no, Officer Forman’s stomach lurched as he realized he was about to hear a testimony against the murderer.

“Officer Forman…my son has a gambling problem.”

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Segment Twenty-Eight

Random CT Member #2 was jogging through the city by herself, heading to the closest grocery store. She wanted to grab a bag of chips and felt like enjoying some fresh air. The quickest way was through a neighborhood with houses on stilts. As she passed a bright pink house, she noticed a brown kitten poking its nose out from beneath the dwelling.

Then she saw him. Standing beside a house on tiptoes, trying to peer through a window. His midnight-black cape was unflinching, so still it was nearly eerie.

“OrphanMaker!” she called merrily. “What are you doing?”

He silenced her with a slashing motion over his throat. “Come here.”

She trotted up to him. “I need a hand.” He gestured up.

In one swift motion, she lifted his ankles into the air and effortlessly held the soles of her feet at level with the nape of her neck. He used a pocketknife to break the lock then shimmied the window open. Random CT Member #2 stood still as he awkwardly slung himself through the gaping hole.

“You’re strong,” he complimented as he glanced down at her.

She flushed. “I was on the men’s wrestling team in college.”

“Not the women’s?”

She made a face. “They were too weak for me.”

He chuckled. “I don’t doubt that. You’re stronger than a lot of men I’ve known.”

She preened. “You think so?”

“Yes. Be right back.” OrphanMaker vanished from sight. He was only gone forty-five seconds. Then he climbed out and into her arms.

“What were you doing?” she wondered.

“Paying someone back. This is the guy who told my fiancé to leave me. He didn’t have the guts to say so until I’d moved to California, so this is the first chance I’ve had.”

“What’d you do?”

“Put a pic of him in a bright pink tank top with wet pink lip gloss and mascara on his Facebook. Then I slit up and down the cord connecting his computer to his modem.”

“Deviant!”

“You have no idea,” OrphanMaker assured her. “This pic was taken twenty years ago, at a frat part. We, who took part in it, kept the picture and swore we’d show no one outside of our group. Even as a form of revenge.”

“You broke the pact?”

“Nah, he did. It’s his FB, right?” Then he fished a picture out of his wallet. “Now I can break it.”

The man looking out from the photo was pouting sexily like a woman with his eyelids half-shut in a feminine manner. He was clearly sober—his eyes were too focused and expression too precise.

He looked downright comical. Random CT Member #2 began laughing from her stomach up, up to her shaking shoulders. Up, up and out of her mouth. Up, up to her tearing eyes.

She fell to her knees on the sidewalk, clutching the picture before her in one hand. The other palm was flat on the concrete as she spat out laughter.

She hadn’t laughed this hard since she was a kid.

When she straightened, she asked, “You get snapped in any funky shots?”

“Of course not. Only he was vain enough. The great thing is he has ticked all these guys off since college, and I’m not here.” OrphanMaker ripped his pockets out of his jeans and flourished his cape in one fluid motion.

“If you were in college twenty years ago, when did Terrie turn you?”

“Fifteen years ago,” he replied in a bored tone. “And I was mad at her for it for thirteen, ignoring her at our vampire conventions and avenging her in little ways, nothing like Buddy here. I mean, I like being a vampire, but she could’ve asked. I wasn’t rubbing my neck on her fangs.”

“You want to come to the store with me?”

“Sure!” and off they went, arm in arm, chattering away like the best of friends.

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Segment Twenty-Nine

A group of CTians went water-skiing—Terrie, Champ, Flash, CoolGuy, Deepcanyon, and BTVKIDS. Deepcanyon sat on Terrie’s shoulder when it was Terrie’s turn and clung to her oversized bright blue T-shirt with all her might.

One CTian went at a time. The others clustered around a table on land, chatting idly while watching.

Naturally, the chitchat arrived at the murder. While Flash was running on water, his face lit up like a Christmas tree, though his lips were parked in neutral.

“Who do you think did it?” Champ muttered to himself more than anyone else. “If you had to take an educated guess?”

“Well,” CoolGuy whispered, watching Flash out of the corner of his eye, “Whoever murdered would need a motive. There are tons of people. You don’t kill one person for no reason—they aren’t cows. To be frank, I…wondered. If there might be a death each night. But so far, just the one.”

“Yeah,” Terrie argued, “but killing seven people in seven days is beyond psychopathic. It’s the mega evolution of psychopathy. Also, no matter how smart you are, you would get caught. Don’t rule psychopaths out yet.”

BTVKIDS volunteered, “the dude could be a psychopath and have a motive.”

“Not helping,” Champ groaned.

“What motive would Flash have?” CoolGuy asked.

In her sweet fairy voice, Deepcanyon suggested, “She fell in love with him, Flash couldn’t handle it, and he killed her?”

BTVKIDS started laughing like a hyena. “That’s the craziest thing I ever heard!”

“I know,” Deepcanyon admitted, “but there’s not much to go on. Motives are either love, money, power, or pure insanity. We know she tried to force Shark to give her a Boy Meets World cToon. That’s his motive.” She drummed her tiny fingers thoughtfully on the table while humming musically. “But what could the others gain from her death?”

“Oh my god,” CoolGuy blurted suddenly. “What if it was a praying mantis situation? They made sweet love, and at the climax, he grew angrier than he’d ever been in his life and killed her?”

Everyone at the table—including CoolGuy—burst into shoulder-shaking laughter at the mental image of it.

“No!” hooted Terrie. “I’m telling you—he killed her to prevent his wife from needing to!”

“And Sith?” CoolGuy asked.

Everyone sobered up and glanced at each other.

“Well,” Terrie murmured, “he’s such a nice person. I can’t think of a motive…I’d hate to think of him…”

“They’re all nice guys,” CoolGuy pointed out. His eyes were sad. “And, Terrie…nice guys go to war. They have since the dawn of humanity. Nice guys have killed in World War I. World War II. Nice guys could’ve even fought for Hitler—”

“Okay! That’s enough deep thinking,” Champ decided. “The thought of a nice guy killing for Hitler makes me want to spit.”

“What a spine, what a spine, what a spine,” BTVKIDS hummed sarcastically, thinking of the guys who didn’t tell Hitler “no”.

Deepcanyon was frowning hard at CoolGuy. “That’s all quite true, but it haunts them. When they kill out of necessity. They aren’t murderers.”

“Maybe,” CoolGuy muttered.

“Okay, so let’s fabricate a Sith motive,” Terrie gave in. “Money.”

“Sith is Sykes,” Champ suggested. “He lent Random CT Member #1 a thousand dollars. She promised to pay him ten thousand in reply. At the deadline, she had a dollar. He ran her over.”

CoolGuy massaged his temple, grinning sheepishly. “We are the lamest motive-inventors. None but Shark’s is even possible…but I am amused, so that’s something.”

“It’s also possible the murderer isn’t a CT member,” BTVKIDS contributed. “But if it’s not, that’s one freaking huge coincidence.”

“OrphanMaker?” Champ mused.

CoolGuy volunteered, “He wanted her blood. He worshipped her blood. Like Roger, she put her foot down and wouldn’t let him have it.”

“What’s Mkw’s motive?” Terrie prodded.

CoolGuy beamed wickedly. “There’s a contest on CT. He got second, she got first. His jealousy overcame him. Blood spurted.”

“Not bloody likely!” Champ sang. “We are so bad at this.”

“But what if it is Sith?” BTVKIDS blurted.

Everyone stared silently at him.

“I mean,” BTVKIDS said, trying to put his feelings into words, “he’s the newest one, having been on CT only for a year. The others are veterans. That’s the first way he stands out.

“But another thing, as Terrie said, he always seems so nice. He’s friendly, a perfect conversationalist, overall a joy to know…what if it’s a façade? To conceal the evil within?”

BTVKIDS’ ramblings had the others—except CoolGuy—feeling sick to their stomachs. By the time Flash returned, no one wanted to talk anymore.

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Segment Thirty

The sun was setting when Prebs built a fire.

CoolGuy was impressed. The guy had rockets for arms, yet he built the campfire with no help.

Sith was sprawled on a towel on his back, hiding his face under his arms. Clearly, he wanted to be surrounded by people he knew, or he wouldn’t be here. Yet, it could not have been more apparent that he did not feel like talking to anyone.

Ike was also lying on a towel a few feet from Sith—albeit on his stomach. He was part of a group. CoolGuy, Josh, Champ, Shark, Mkw, and a few Random CT Members crouched near him. Jwool was part of their group but flopping in the ocean.

Ike was clad in a cheap white shirt and even cheaper black shorts. He’d already explained that when he transformed, his clothes always ripped off.

As the sun grazed the ocean, Ike’s face began to contour with pain. He let out a stifled groan.

“Guys,” he uttered hoarsely, “whatever happens, do not lift a hand or make a threatening gesture when I’m in my wolf form.” He twitched. “I’m pretty ferocious-looking but harmless unless I think you’re a threat. I’ve killed two of my friends who freaked out at the sight of me. One tried to bash me on the head with a brick.”

“We found our murderer!” CoolGuy deduced with feigned cheeriness. “How lovely!”

Ike barked a laugh. “Very funny. Ouch!” His right arm became a wolf leg twice as long as Ike’s arm. “Please. Don’t panic. Stay calm.” A massive tail appeared, busting a hole in his shorts. He groaned again, gasped, and his body became furry while his neck thickened.

Then his face changed, and in the next split second, he was a massive wolf, standing over the torn shreds of his clothes. This wolf was so large that from the ground to the top of his head, he was where the base of Ike’s neck would be if he was standing—and Ike was 6’4”.

The wolf was mostly dark grey. His golden eyes glowed. Prebs walked up to him and patted him. Ike licked Prebs’ rocket arms and swished his own tail.

Then Ike lifted his muzzle to the night air and howled eerily. Even GothsCanSmile stopped smirking long enough to wince. CT members flinched and instinctively covered their necks.

“Who wants to throw the first brick?” Champ inquired brightly, beckoning at a pile.

“I want to see you throw the first brick,” Josh replied. “I’ll even get you one.”

Champ grinned at him. “No thanks.”

Ike was sniffing around the site. Watching him, Shark murmured, “I wonder, in a fight between a vicious shark and vicious wolf that size, who would win?”

“The shark,” Mkw vouched. “Their teeth are so sharp you can’t even feel them sometimes. Dead wolf walking.”

“Nope,” Jwool disagreed. “Sharks aren’t vicious. They’re hungry. Wolves can sense when someone’s trying to eat them, and off with the shark’s head.”

Mkw shook his head. “So young,” he teased. “They’re telepathic. And humans underestimate animals due to lack of interspecies communication. The shark would rip the wolf’s tail off!”

Shark shuddered. “I wouldn’t do that to Ike, even if I were a wereshark.”

Jwool remarked, “Mkw, I’m not a human. I know sharks well. I’ve ridden them, for seaweed’s sake. And I pick wolf. No shark has ever put the fear in me, but that there,” he tilted his head at Ike, “is so scary I can almost feel my body going limp from looking at him.”

Ike turned around real quick, sniffed Josh’s hand, then leapt away, hitting Champ with his shoulder.

CoolGuy watched with wide eyes. “Wow. Wolf Ike is just a puppy. Can’t wait until he’s full-size. Twenty feet tall?”

Ike let out another blood-curdling howl. It was answered by several howls to the northeast. Ike’s ears perked up. Weaving through the crowd, he galloped off the beach and toward the wolves.

CoolGuy turned to GothsCanSmile. “Have you felt so alive in two years? Heart palpitations, intakes of oxygen? Sweat? Huh, huh? Anything?”

GothsCanSmile shook her head slowly. “If it helps, I froze in place.”

“Alright,” CoolGuy sighed with steep disappointment. “I think we’ve all had enough excitement for one night. Let’s move this party indoors before Ike returns with his friends to rip our throats out.”

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Segment Thirty-One

“There’s something that’s been bugging me on-again/off-again,” CoolGuy commented to Josh as they rode the elevator down together. “If ken feels pretty, does Jazzy feel handsome?”

Josh smiled a big smile. “No, she feels queer.”

The elevator dinged, and the two of them stepped into the lobby. They met a few friends and headed off to have breakfast together at a diner.

The first thing CoolGuy did upon being seated at a table was take his menu between two hands then toss it spiraling upward so he could catch it by slapping his hands together. He did this five to seven times before propping the menu in front of him and cracking it open.

“It’s amazing,” Champ muttered at Josh from his seat beside CoolGuy, “the percentage of CTians who can’t eat. Prebs, BTVKIDS, GothsCanSmile…of course, BTV’s is brand-new. He’s like a baby ghost! I bet he can still taste juicy bacon cheeseburgers.”

Josh’s stomach growled audibly. “You’ve awakened the monster within.” He glanced at his menu. “Must have bacon!”

“I’m having a smoothie myself,” CoolGuy murmured to no one.

“No way!” Birdman dissented. “You should have a pancake sandwich with bacon in the middle and tons of syrup. Trust me. You’ll thank me after the first bite of heaven.”

“My arteries beg to differ,” CoolGuy smiled. “They’ll be your number one enemy if I obey your order.”

“Ah,” Birdman waved dismissively. “I’m not scared of a few arteries. Eating dirt, though, has always given me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Smoothies don’t taste like dirt, and they happen to be good for me.”

“Please,” Birdman snorted. “People would stuff dirt in their mouths—complete with worms—if  nutritionists claimed it’s the fastest way to lose weight and the worms give you super human strength…”

“I wouldn’t,” CoolGuy countered. “Not even horses eat dirt, and they like grass.” He moved his eyebrows in a fancy way. “You ever try a blade of grass, Birdman? I bet you would if it was slaughtered in syrup.”

Birdman smirked but otherwise gave no response, immersing himself in his menu.

Shark, who’d been talking to someone not in their group, sat in the vacant chair between CoolGuy and Champ. Bobbing his head in the direction of the woman, he said, “There’s your grandmother’s acquaintance, CG. She was telling me how little you used to be.”

CoolGuy glanced at the woman. “I don’t recognize her.”

“She saw you in a grocery store. You were four. Claims she’s the best at remembering faces.”

CoolGuy rubbed his chin. “That’s a bit creepy though. I mean, I’ve changed way more than…” He peered at her again. “Oh wait. Now I remember her. She took me away from my grandmother, licked her finger, and tried to clean a smudge off my cheek. Permanent marker.”

“Now that’s creepy,” Shark decided. “She seems nice, though.”

CoolGuy told Shark, “Give me a minute. If I don’t come back, add this scene to my autobiography and publish it.” He tipped his hat. “Because if she kills me and devours my liver, I need an encore.”

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Segment Thirty-Two

This wasn’t Vegas with its countless casinos just threatening to throw the city off-balance. Yet, Officer Hyde had already scouted out the closest thirteen casinos to the hotel the CT members were staying at. The people who checked IDs swore on their mothers grave Flash hadn’t been there.

As Officer Hyde opened the door to go inside the fourteenth, a woman threw her body past him, elbowing him roughly and smacking him in the mouth with the side of her head. She was wearing six-inch high heels, what looked like a one-piece bathing suit with large feathers caressing the sides of her thighs, a choker, and lipstick. Everything on her was ruby-red.

“Watch where you’re going, bozo,” she sniped. “You almost made me trip.” She kicked his knee. Officer Hyde started laughing, thinking, She’s ridiculous.

His laughter made her curl her lip at him. “Did you sneak out of the loony bin?”

“I did,” he deadpanned, “and if I bite you once, you’ll belong there too.” He paused. “I take it I’m the first guy who laughed at you?”

“Nope! But look at me.” She perked her butt. “I am the girl of every man’s dreams, and a fantastic kisser to boot. So every time a man laughs at me, I know it’s his problem.”

“You’re humble,” Officer Hyde lied.

“I know!” she agreed, sighing dramatically.

“Kinda funny story. You were nowhere in sight, someone opens a door, and whoosh! You Apparated on my foot.”

She pouted. “You’re such a,” she used an offensive word for “man”. “When a lady arrives, you hold the door open wide, get down on your knees, and kiss her hand before she enters. Your mama taught you no manners.”

“Well, my mother could teach you some manners. That’s saying a lot. I won’t bore you with details though. I’m working.”

“On what?” she snorted with disgust. “Washing windows?”

“Nah. I’m a cop.”

Her eyes widened. She opened her mouth to speak. Instead, she vanished promptly.

She moved faster in those heels than anyone Officer Hyde had seen move in sneakers. That was the only part of her he admired. She was worse than Jackie.

Jackie and Fez were married. Kelso had been married three times and was now dating a woman half his age. Hyde had never married, and he wouldn’t. He’d loved, he’d lost, and the height of his passionate years was far behind him. He wasn’t a romantic guy. Jackie had tried to make him one, but it wasn’t in him to propose over candlelight and a bed of rose petals.

Fez was romantic. That guy knew how to rip his shirt off.

Officer Hyde approached the casino ID-checker. The guy was sitting on a stool. “Excuse me.” He flashed his badge. “I have a question. A murder took place four nights ago. I’m here to see about getting a man’s name off my suspect list.” He held up a copy of Flash’s ID. “Was this man here on Sunday night?”

The guy stared at the ID. Then he shifted his body, throwing one leg then the other off his stool. “You need to listen to this,” he said, beckoning at a co-worker to take his place with a finger then commanding Officer Hyde to follow him into an office with his whole wrist.

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Segment Thirty-Three

Flash’s knee was bouncing as he sat in the chair in front of the desk in the empty police room. He only managed to get it to stop with a mind trick. As he deactivated the Bounce Switch, he scolded himself. There’s nothing to be worried about.

Right as he finished the thought, the door flung open. Officer Hyde strode in, reclosing the door behind him.

“Hi, Mr. Flash.” Officer Hyde dropped into his chair. “There’s something I need you to listen to.”

“You called me to your office to listen to music?” Flash paraphrased incredulously.

“Not exactly. Just sit tight and listen.” Officer Hyde clicked something on his computer.

Flash flinched when he heard his own voice. Then he realized what he’d just said. His mouth minimized.

“Oh my god,” Flash’s computer voice gasped. “My wife is going to kill me! I gambled away TWO THOUSAND freaking dollars.”

Flash’s neck had sprung knots. “Do not tell her.”

Officer Hyde shrugged. “What you do with your wife isn’t my business. The good news is your name is cleared. You’re not on the suspect list anymore. Congratulations!”

Flash stared down at his hands. “Yeah, well, I’m probably going to be on the other half of the spectrum soon. Is that all you needed?”

“Yes. You’re free to go.”

Flash rose shakily from his seat. Could he tell his wife he’d been robbed?

***

Flash invited his friends to his room so he could explain that he was off the suspect list.

“What kind of tattoo did you get?” Jwool wondered. “The Statue of Liberty? I always wanted a Statue of Liberty tat.” His tone unveiled he was kidding.

“No.” Flash chewed the inside of his cheeks. “Not a tattoo. An addiction.”

“Wait,” Prebs breathed. “You can be addicted to CT and something else? No way!”

Flash had to chuckle at his tone. “Gambling.”

Josh fell off the bed. “Not you, Flash.” He stuffed a clean sock in his mouth to try to stop himself from rolling on the floor and laughing at the mental image that blossomed in his mind.

“Yes me,” Flash sullied his name. “I got beyond carried away. I…” He put his face in his hands.

“How much you lose?” asked Ike.

Flash moved his hands to the knots in his neck. Massaging them, he whispered, “Two thousand dollars.”

Sith’s mouth dropped open. “You lost two thou sand doll hairs?”

There was no stopping it then. Everyone began to snicker. Their laughter escalated into guffawing.

When everyone was all laughed out, Sith cheekily topped the cake. “It’s okay. The doll still has three thousand hairs left.”

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Segment Thirty-Four

“Mkw, can we talk?” Sith whispered in the hotel lobby. “Alone?”

Mkw nodded and led Sith to his hotel room. Sith collapsed on a chair, and Mkw sat at the foot of his bed. “What’s up?”

“You didn’t kill her,” Sith stated confidently. “So what were you doing?”

Mkw cracked his knuckles. “Scuba-diving. I came nose-to-nose with a shark.”

“For real?”

“Yes. And all the little fish…I can see why Jwool is a merman.”

“Yes, of course. He chose wisely.”

“I had to sign a liability paper, so the proof exists…” Mkw’s voice trailed off.

“You just didn’t want your business exposed. Understandable.”

Mkw peered thoughtfully at Sith. With a playfully suspicious note in his vocal cords, he asked, “Wait a minute…how do you know I’m not the murderer?”

Sincerely, Sith spoke. “I know you. You, my friend, are no murderer.”

Mkw smiled tiredly. “Thanks, Sith. That means a lot. But I am a sasser. I’m lucky the cops didn’t arrest me then and there.”

Sith waved it off. “They didn’t have enough evidence. There’s no proof, just six empty socket leads. Where are the clues that shall lead us to the dastardly killer?”

“They might be so tiny everyone keeps missing them,” Mkw suggested.

After Sith left his hotel room, Mkw found himself thinking something that sent chills down the back of his neck.

Sith had never told him his true alibi. Was Sith the killer?

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Segment Thirty-Five

Jwool had called a meeting in CoolGuy and Josh’s room for his CT chums. Birdman, BTVKIDS, Champ, CoolGuy, Deepcanyon, Flash, GothsCanSmile, Ike, Josh, Mkw, OrphanMaker, Prebs, Random CT Member #2, Random CT Member #5, Shark, Sith, and Terrie were strewn around the room.

“Where are we?” Jwool inquired.

CoolGuy wondered if it was a trick question. “Are you feeling okay?” He reached out to touch Jwool’s forehead.

Jwool ducked. “Okay, merfolk don’t do that, CG. We don’t get fevers. But I’m not sick.”

“Then what’s with the third degree?” Birdman threw out.

“We’re in Florida, right?” Jwool coaxed.

“Uh-huh,” BTVKIDS uttered skeptically.

“What is there to do in Florida?” Jwool prodded.

CoolGuy put two and two together. “Go to JazzyWorld?”

Sticking his tongue between his teeth, Jwool pointed gleefully at him. “Bingo!”

OrphanMaker remarked, “No, we don’t want to go to JazzyWorld. ken went there once, and now he’s stuck there for the rest of his life. It’s like the Twilight Zone.”

“That’s a great idea,” Sith cautioned tactfully, “but we don’t exactly have the dough—”

Jwool cut him off by passing out some eTickets. Deepcanyon, being three inches tall, was about one-fourth the size of her ticket. Her golden glow flashed to lavender to green to light blue as she hugged Jwool’s finger.

“How. On. Earth,” Champ gasped. “All of our tickets! This was expensive!”

Jwool looked mighty pleased with himself. “It was a lot cheaper than you guys think. Don’t ask how I did it,” he ordered, shaking a finger at Champ. “Think of it as a present for your pleasing company.”

Random CT Member #5 counted heads then appeared as if he’d been electrocuted. “Eighteen tickets? We should reimburse you…somehow,” he finished, thinking what he had left to offer after the trip and all his normal bills.

Jwool waved his hand dismissively. “No need. I won twenty in a contest, gave two to strangers.”

Random CT Member #5 relaxed.

“This is awesome! Thank you, Jwool!” GothsCanSmile gave him the poltergeist form of a hug.

Terrie added, “I haven’t been there in forty years!”

After all the thanks were received, Birdman stood fanning himself with his ticket. “How will we get there?”

“I rented a minibus that can hold seventeen people. Someone’s going to have to sit on a lap.” He winked at Deepcanyon. “I’m throwing you under the bus.”

“That’s fairy discrimination,” Deepcanyon joked, making the glow around her turn red, as if she was angry. “Make the ghosts sit on top of each other—they can’t feel anything anyway.”

“We’re not blocks!” BTVKIDS was eyeing Sith curiously as he spoke. “You can’t stack us on top of one another. She throws things.”

“I want to sit by BTV,” Sith declared. “That way I can lay down if I get uncomfortable on the ride there. How long will it take?”

“About three hours.” Jwool took a large gulp of water. “We’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”

“But, Jwool,” CoolGuy alerted. “Won’t you die?”

Jwool snickered. “No one is going to off me when I’m driving them to DisneyWorld!”

“So offensive!” GothsCanSmile shook her head. “She hasn’t been dead a week!”

BTVKIDS put his hand over her mouth. “I’ve only been dead almost two weeks.”

“But,” CookGuy said, “I thought you needed to reenter the ocean after two hours?”

“Not for life sake,” Jwool explained. “Comfort. At two hours, it becomes uncomfortable. A little painful too. I’m a man. I can handle it.” He gazed down at his ticket. “It takes forty-eight hours to die. But of course, that’s if I’m guzzling gallons of water. If I don’t, I die in five minutes.”

“Another question,” Mkw piped up. “Can I see your driver’s license?”

Jwool handed one over.

Baffled, Shark peered over Mkw’s shoulder. “When’d you learn to drive, and why?”

“I am a man of many talents.” Snatching the license back, Jwool added, “And creating fake licenses is one of them.”

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Segment Thirty-Six

“Do we really want to go to DisneyWorld if Jwool is driving?” Ike was asking Champ, Flash, CoolGuy, and GothsCanSmile from his perch on the beach. Ike sat cross-legged on a towel. “He doesn’t have a valid driver’s license.”

“I don’t care.” GothsCanSmile made her silhouette vanish then reappeared standing atop Ike’s head. “I’m already dead.”

“Would this count as an accident?” CoolGuy was reading a Post-It as he spoke, dividing his attention between the slip of paper and conversation. “Or intent to kill?”

“Considering you guys would be dumb enough to get in the minibus,” GothsCanSmile quipped, “I’d say it’d count as suicide.”

“In that case, I’d better work on my will,” CoolGuy noted. He put the current Post-It back in his waterproof briefcase, removed a yellow square, and jotted on it.

“Hey!” Jwool splashed them, soaking the Post-It in CoolGuy’s hand along with the contents inside the waterproof briefcase. “I’m swimming right here!”

Lifting a couple of pieces of paper out of their useless protector, CoolGuy shook them out. “Not cool.”

“I’m usually cooler than you guys,” Jwool countered. “I mean…you guys are on a beach. In the hot Florida sunshine…I can go to the bottom of the ocean.”

“And get eaten by a shark.” Flash rolled his neck. “It’s not my fault I float on water. God, it feels good to have my name off the suspect list. I can’t wait to get back home and order TF to give us KND on CCW.” He smiled dreamily. “I’m all about KND!”

“Yeah, but he almost never listens to you,” Jwool muttered under his breath. “Everyone else wants Dexter.” He said it too low for Flash to hear.

“Did you tell your wife yet?” Champ drummed his fingers on his towel.

The smile dipped off Flash’s face. “That’s something better given in person. Like flowers. eflowers suck. I’m also going to have to butter her up first to try to reduce the steam she’ll let off. And maybe I’ll be Nearly Headless Flash rather than Fully Beheaded Flash.”

“But then you can’t participate in the headless ghost games,” CoolGuy pointed out, concerned.

“I don’t really like the idea of my head being detachable,” Flash informed him. “I might actually leave it somewhere and never find it again.” He shuddered.

“You should videotape when you tell her,” Jwool suggested. “And YouTube! Or Skype all of CT!”

“You wish,” Flash mocked.

“Whatever you do to butter her up,” Ike advised, “don’t spend any money!”

“I’m thinking one of my special Flash massages. She only gets them on her birthday, and she loves them.”

Holding two thumbs up, GothsCanSmile added, “And it’s free!”

“Actually,” Flash corrected, “I need a nice bed, good food, and a roof above my head in order to make them special. It’s not free indirectly, but she’ll think it is…”

“I’ll build your tombstone,” Champ offered. “I have a hammer at home.”

“CoolGuy,” Jwool whispered. “Psst.”

CoolGuy left his briefcase under what was left of the sun and crouch-walked to the ocean. His ankles were submerged in water as he leaned his ear down to Jwool’s waiting mouth. Jwool whispered for two minutes. CoolGuy whispered a fleeting reply. Jwool added something. CoolGuy’s response was even faster than the first one.

Ike watched them all the while, stroking his chin curiously.

At last, merman and human shook hands.

Turning to his friends, CoolGuy announced, “Jwool has decided to save your lives. He won’t be driving. I will.”

Ike dropped down to his stomach on the towel. “And what’s with all the secrecy?”

CoolGuy didn’t hesitate. “The minibus has password-activation. Moving on…we’re leaving at 5 a.m.”

Champ was the only one of their group who looked excited at the chosen time. GothsCanSmile was neutral. Ike and Flash glowered.

“When does it open?” Ike managed.

“Nine for some parts, ten for others.” CoolGuy stood up straight and stretched his legs.

“So why are we leaving at five?” Flash wanted to know.

“The lines. Don’t worry!” CoolGuy trumpeted. “We have plenty of coffee available to keep y’all awake on the ride there.”

Ike waved him off. “I won’t need it. This is bound to keep me awake from the sheer discomfort alone.”

“Thigh-touching,” CoolGuy coughed. “You guys have fun with that! Jwool and I are going to be spread far apart up front.”

Flash muttered to Ike, “Sith was smart to call BTV, so…” He stared pointedly at GothsCanSmile. “I’m sitting by you.”

“She should sit between us,” Ike suggested. “So our heads can collide when we fall asleep.”

“Guys! There’s only one me to go around!” She floated up. “I’ll pick who I’m sitting by.” She evaporated.

“We overwhelmed her,” deduced Ike.

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Segment Thirty-Seven

Random CT Member #2 had put on a sleeveless lilac sundress, high heels, and a silver necklace with a lilac teardrop stone. Her arm muscles were showing.

She met Josh at a bar. They were hanging out as friends. As they sat on stools, OrphanMaker noticed them and joined their tiny party.

“I can’t eat human food,” OrphanMaker informed, “but I sure can enjoy a Bloody Mary.” He licked red juice off his fangs. “Dee-licious!”

Sipping her White Russian, Random CT Member #2 inquired, “What about grown-up drinks?”

OrphanMaker replied, “I can drink any liquid. I just don’t like most. And vampires aren’t into fogging up their brains. We like to be alert.”

“Well, whoop-de-doo,” Random CT Member #2 grumbled. “Lucky you. Must be nice to have such a rewarding life…” her eyes traveled up his arm as he moved it, “that you can enjoy a wicked-sharp mind.”

“What are you talking about, hun? My life is over.”

“Look,” Josh breathed. “Hot girl alert!” His eyes widened with desire.

“Easy there, Brock…”

“She’s the hottest girl I’ve ever seen!”

“What about that one?” OrphanMaker nodded at a girl who sharply contrasted with the first. One was tall, tanned, black-haired, and square in the face. The other was short with white-blonde hair, an ivory complexion, and a heart-shaped face.

“She’s even hotter! When in Florida, right? Whoa, that one just told off the waiter! She’s sexy!”

OrphanMaker was chuckling. “Can you believe this guy?” he asked Random CT Member #2 without looking at her. “Who but Josh would find a mean girl…” His voice trailed off when he turned and glimpsed her eyes.

The vibe he got from them was a gaping hole of longing but also a powerful stroke of jealousy. If her eyes could have been two pieces of nature, they would have been the depths of a lethargic volcano mingled with a Category 5 Hurricane.

“Randi? You okay?”

“I’m not pretty,” she whispered.

Josh heard her. He blinked, surprised. “Oh, I mean, of course you…”

She shook her head, fighting for composure. “Don’t lie. I’m not ugly, exactly, but I’m not pretty either. If I put makeup on, I could probably sort of be, but it wouldn’t be real. It’d be like wearing a Britney Spears mask. I don’t know why I care, but I do.”

“Your dress is pretty,” Josh offered.

Random CT Member #2 chuckled darkly. “Yes, I know. But I’m like a yellow tooth hiding behind pouty lips full of lipgloss.”

“Your roommate was gorgeous,” Josh uttered helpfully. OrphanMaker smacked him.

The dangerous storm grew in Random CT Member #2’s eyes. “I know,” she muttered.

“Okay, sorry. I’m really bad at this.” A waitress floated past, and Josh turned hungry eyes upon her. In the next split second, he jerked his head away with a sigh. Squeezing Random CT Member #2’s knee, he muttered, “You really shouldn’t be hanging out with me when you feel the way you do.”

“I’m a big girl,” she lied. “I can handle you ogling the waitresses.”

“I’m sure some guys find you attractive,” Josh tried.

Random CT Member #2’s mouth formed a straight line. “Yes, of course they do. I’m not ugly; I’m just not pretty. I’ve been kissed. It’s just…if I could change one thing about myself, I’d want to look like Random CT Member #1 did before she died.”

OrphanMaker asked, “Really? She was that gorgeous?”

Josh smacked him.

OrphanMaker smirked and angled his body toward Josh. “I’m a vampire. You think that hurts?”

Josh shrugged, combing OrphanMaker’s neck. “Is there a trapdoor somewhere I can activate?”

OrphanMaker smiled mysteriously, black eyes twinkling. “No comment.”

A smoking hot woman came strolling demurely through the restaurant with her kid sister at her hip. OrphanMaker’s eyes flickered over the sister. Quickly, as if spotting a large hairball, he dropped his legs to pivot his stool so he could face away from her. He drew his cape up and pressed his chin to his chest.

Josh’s eyes were forming heart shapes. “Let me have her, let me have her!” He ripped off his jacket, starting toward the woman. Then he paused and turned back to see Random CT Member #2 tossing a few bills on the counter and sliding off her stool.

Sighing with disappointment, Josh followed her. “Hey,” he said, clamping a hand over her shoulder.

“Don’t worry about me.”

“Your friendship matters more to me than some stupid hot girl I’ve known two seconds.. Come on, kid. Let’s go somewhere only men go.”

She paused. “Like where?”

“A strip club?”

She slugged him.

Lifting his hands in surrender, he confessed, “I was kidding! You can’t tell me I seriously thought that’d help.”

Rolling her eyes at herself and starting to smile, Random CT Member #2 admitted, “I should’ve known you were pulling my leg. It’s just…now isn’t the best time.”

“Actually, I was thinking we could do nachos and a movie in my room. Or just hang out. Whatever you want to do.”

She gave him a half-smile. “No movies with pretty girls.” She stuck out her hand. “Deal?”

Josh shook it. “We could watch car racing. Or wrestling. Or Air Bud.”

Air Bud? That probably won’t come on TV, so unless you brought a DVD, don’t count on it. But good suggestions.” She paused. “Let me go get OrphanMaker.” She sashayed to the bar, her face reminding strangers of the sky after a storm had passed.

“OrphanMaker?” He was still trying to be invisible. Most of his face was in the shadow of his cape, but he allowed her to view one black eye. “Josh and I are going to hang out in his room. You coming?”

“Is the girl behind me?”

“What girl? The waitress?”

“No. The little one.”

“Uh…” Random CT Member #2 moved her eyes to the right, behind OrphanMaker. “No.”

“Thank goodness!” He leapt to his feet just as another girl child came barreling in their direction. The other had curly light brown hair. This one, albeit the same height, was Asian with straight ebony hair. That didn’t stop OrphanMaker from jumping nearly to the ceiling when she ran into his stomach then ducked out of the way and ran on.

“Kid,” he breathed at her fading form. “Don’t give me a heart attack. I’m already dead.”

Random CT Member #2 could not resist pressing her hand against OrphanMaker’s chest. Not even the faintest pulse of a heart reached her fingers.

“What are you so terrified of one little kid for?” she wondered as they ran out of the restaurant. He was leading. She was trying to keep up.

Instead of answering, OrphanMaker threw his body out the door. As Random CT Member #2 caught up with him, he commented, “I think I should apply for a familiar.”

“What? I thought only witches could.”

“Prebs has one. It sings, Soft kitty, warm kitty, little ball of fur…she was a super pretty witch with dark blonde hair and green eyes. She cast a spell to upset some guys tearing trees down for a mall parking lot…”

“She was super pretty?”

“Oh, I forgot.” He hummed Taps briefly, trying to show some respect. “Anyway, she broke several wizarding laws in that one hit, one of which is a felony by their standards. Interfering with Muggle business.”

“But…how does Prebs have one? And wait…why was she turned into a cat over that?” Random CT Member #2’s eyes bugged.

Patiently, OrphanMaker answered, “Everyone but Muggles can apply. Vamps, mummies, etc. Only witches and warlocks get changed, but any extraordinary folk can apply for one.

“As to why? One: she did it knowing she’d get in trouble, and two: before the Witch’s Council, she swore up and down—there were several different curse words involved, so I hear—that  she’d destroy urbanization, bit by bit, all over the world until each area was as rural as the day it first existed.”

Random CT Member #2 gasped. “Even New York City?”

“Yeah, that’s where she intended to go first after England.”

“Wow,”  Random CT Member #2 exhaled hard, imagining it. “Wait, can ghosts have familiars?”

“It’s complicated, but yes. They can’t buy cat food or open cans, but familiars can do all that. Poltergeists have an easier time of it.”

Josh—who’d been conversing with a random guy in the restaurant—came strolling up to them, hands buried in his shorts pockets. “What are you guys talking about?” The lowered sun was shining directly into his eyes, so he was squinting.

“Familiars. Are you familiar with them?”

“Oh, yeah. I had a werewolf uncle who had a familiar. She was impulsive. He drove her nuts. He kept foiling her plans to take over the world in cat form. They went on a train trip once, he stopped her—again—from accomplishing her goal.

“She ripped open a window and jumped out. Of a speeding train. He still misses the way she used to nip at his fingers at bedtime. They loved each other like friends even though she did find him maddening.”

Random CT Member #2 wondered, “Are all familiars female?”

“Of course not,” OrphanMaker answered. A satisfied smile sat on his mouth. Until he noticed a curly-haired girl running past them. She didn’t spy OrphanMaker but headed straight for a blue Volkswagen.

OrphanMaker drew Josh and Random CT Member #2 in his arms, turning their sides to the girl and pulling them toward his vehicle. “Come, let us make merry. In the height of this magnificent summer. Let us wine and dine and bask in the glory of friendship.”

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Segment Thirty-Eight

“You look like hell laid an egg and it cracked and broke over your head,” Josh helpfully informed Sith.

“Do you know what time it is? My bedtime. Thirty minutes of sleep. Yeah, I feel like a squirrel!”

Champ laughed overhearing this. “That’s what you get for going to bed at insane hours.” He looked bright and cheerful and rather squirrelly. Minus the scampering up trees to fling acorns at fellow CTians.

“I’ve only been up for five minutes,” Sith added, “so excuse me for not looking like a male model.”

Ike, with raccoon circles around his eyes, rasped, “Don’t listen to them. They’re just jealous of us.” He flexed his muscles. “We get all the girls.”

“Oh,” Champ breathed. “Meeko is the next Brad Pitt.” He scratched his head. “Gee. And I wonder why I didn’t see that coming. I’m ignorant, I suppose.”

“I need sleep,” Ike mumbled. Then he poured a cup of coffee and drained it in ten seconds. “But I shall last. Once we get walking, I should wake up.”

Everyone was chattering excitedly and/or grumpily, but no one looked more excited than Jwool. If he were a fairy, the glow surrounding him would be brighter than Deepcanyon’s.

He appeared happier than any man who had ever won the lottery. And much, much happier than anyone who won a presidency campaign and got blamed for everything he had zero control over would feel at the end of his eight years as he told America, “Hasta la vista, baby!” and retired to The Bahamas.

Jwool looked like the sun.

CoolGuy showed up at the parking lot with a minibus. Everyone piled in.

As they drove off, Jwool turned on loud, bouncy music that got everyone’s hearts thumping. Sith fell into an extremely uncomfortable sleep.

After about three hours of driving, CoolGuy slammed on the brakes, and Jwool flipped off the music.

“Guys,” Jwool said, “I need you to check your tickets.”

“Yeah,” CoolGuy agreed. “Look at your eTicket codes. Backwards.”

Sith awoke in a throng of confusion. “What’s going on?”

Champ gasped as Ike tossed his ticket to the floor. “I knew something funky was going on,” Ike muttered.

“Where are we?” Birdman squinted out the window.

CoolGuy replied, “I’ve been driving in circles, so not far from the hotel.”

Mkw narrowed his eyes. “That’s why we haven’t passed a gas station.”

“What?” Sith felt like they were all speaking a foreign language.

“Check your ticket code,” Terrie commanded.

Sith read it. “UDKNRPLOOWJ.”

“Backwards.”

Sith squinted as he checked. JWOOLPRNKDU. “You mean,” he uttered slowly, “this is a fake ticket?”

“As fake as my driver’s license, baby,” Jwool informed. “Which is how I got them for free.”

“And CoolGuy knew about this?”

CoolGuy saluted him. “Guilty.”

“Which one are we cooking first?” Sith demanded.

“Down, boy,” CoolGuy lectured. “You’re a murder suspect. This is the evidence they’re hunting for.”

“But I didn’t…” Sith quickly clamped his mouth shut. BTVKIDS widened his eyes. “Darth Vader, give us the bloody alibi.”

The real Darth Vader appeared at the windshield wearing a Joker mask, for a split second, inducing a few CTians to happily jump out of their skins.

CoolGuy stared out. “Cher!”

Everyone waited. Then Ike started laughing. “She’s not coming.”

“Jessica Rabbit!” CT Member #5 yelled.

Nothing.
 

“You do it, BTV,” ordered CT Member #5.

“No. That was a coincidence. And I’m not calling for a redhead. I’ll do Cher though to prove it.” He turned to Terrie. “Cher! Sing for me!”

A limousine almost hit their minibus.

“Well,” Mkw patted CoolGuy’s shoulder. “Perhaps we should’ve let Jwool drive after all.”

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Segment Thirty-Nine

Shark, OrphanMaker, Josh, CoolGuy, and Flash went to an indoor amusement park to blow off the steamy disappointment that they would not be going to DisneyWorld.

“Of course Jwool didn’t win us tickets,” muttered Josh. “What kind of idiot gives twenty Disney tickets away? Whoever decided to make Toys R Us need to file for bankruptcy, perhaps?”

Shark shook a finger at Josh. “Do not speak of that in this holy place.”

“Gotcha.” Josh tried to smile, but the scowl consumed his features. He was pouting.

“There sure are a lot of kids here,” muttered OrphanMaker. “For 10 a.m. on a Friday. Is home schooling this huge, or are all these kids playing hooky?”

Flash eyeballed him. “Orph…it’s July. School’s out.”

“Oh, right.”

A mother, sitting slumped in the minibowling section, turned exhausted, friendly eyes upon them. She opened her mouth to say hello as she searched them at navel height. When she realized they didn’t have a kid with them, her mouth slammed shut. Those tired eyes sharpened. Folding her arms over her chest, she glared suspiciously.

CoolGuy folded his arms over his own chest, licked his teeth, glanced at her kids, and gave the mother a leer worthy of the Joker.

Angrily, she marched off, leaving her kids exposed.

“Fresh meat!” CoolGuy joked. He poked Shark. “I dare you to introduce yourself to those kids and be warm and welcoming.”

Shark beamed at him. “No way.” Then he yanked the whole group to the go-carts, which were on the opposite side of the building.

“Shark,” OrphanMaker growled. “We can drive. Real cars. Way faster.”

“But we can’t race unless we want a speeding ticket.”

“Too true,” Flash answered. “But in a leg race, I always win.”

“Dragon is waiting for that speed of yours to fail,” CoolGuy muttered.

“Yeah, he is welcome to wait until dinosaurs are no longer extinct,” Flash assured him. “I’m never losing my speed.”

They joined the line, waiting five minutes before their turn came.

All five of them got separate cars, and five kids were in their group. Two of the kids had a father riding with them.

As soon as the green light flashed, Shark took the lead. CoolGuy was on his bumper. As Shark and CoolGuy sped ahead, it became apparent that one car was awkwardly sluggish.

The driver in this one scowled as he attempted to force it to pick up speed.

When Shark passed the finish line the first time, CoolGuy was halfway beside his car. The second time Shark passed, they were neck-to-neck. Therefore, it wasn’t shocking when CoolGuy inched ahead of Shark and ended up being the victor.

OrphanMaker was in the middle. Josh was two cars behind him.

Dead last from start to finish, Flash meekly climbed out of his car.

“A snail moves faster than that thing. I was framed!”

CoolGuy draped his blue ribbon across Flash’s cheek. Flash made a move to grab it but couldn’t.

As they were leaving the go-cart room, the exhausted mother came marching up to them with a manager in tow.

She glared bullets at them. Her face was red, teeth ground, and eyes sharp but bulging. “These men,” she spat the word “men” the way a dog-loather would spit the word “canine”, “were looking to kidnap my four precious boys!”

“Yet, you left us alone with them?” CoolGuy wondered.

“What makes you think that?” the manager asked the woman.

She exploded. “I am not crazy! They don’t have kids, yet they’re in a kiddie store!”

“Ma’am,” the manager uttered calmly, soothingly, “this isn’t a kiddie store. We have tons of men and women come here on dates—without kids.”

“Oh, yeah. For the immature adults, maybe,” she scoffed. “Believe you me, if a guy brought me here for a date, I’d slug him.

“And FYI, that guy,” she pointed at CoolGuy, “gave me such a grin that stopped my heart cold for my poor kids’ health. I want him tossed out. Now.”

The manager glanced at CoolGuy. “Ma’am...no offense, but he has a point. If he were going to do something to your kids, he would’ve when you left them alone.”

She blew up, spitting out curse words and screaming about how unfair he was. That all the evidence was on her side, but he clearly had something against women if he wasn’t going to lay a finger on them.

“Call the cops! Have them arrested!” She was frothing at the mouth.

One of the kids walked up to her. “Hi, Mom. I just met this guy. His name is Derek. He invited me to his house. Can I go, Mom? Please?”

She wasn’t even listening. “Uh-huh. Be home by dinnertime.” She lasered her eyes on the manager. “What kind of business are you running that you let kids get stolen right under your nose?”

He was frowning deeply as he watched the kid strut off. “Ma’am, I’m going to have to ask you to come with me.”

“No way! Stop being a,” the worst word she could possibly have used came from her lips. “Take some action! Get these idiots out of here!” Only, she didn’t say “idiots”.

“If you won’t come with me,” the manager uttered in a no-nonsense tone, “you will either leave of your own free will or be escorted off the premises by security. These guys are doing nothing wrong, but your behavior, on the contrary, is disturbing and stress-inducing. This is a place of fun, not judgment.”

“None of my friends will come here again,” she stormed.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” the manager uttered matter-of-factly, “because your boys seem to be having a good time. I hope their aunt will bring them again. You are welcome to come back if you put the profanity away. Otherwise, please take your business elsewhere.”

As they walked off, Shark muttered, “I can’t wait to tell Xavi about this. This is utterly insane.”

“I’m telling you,” Flash said. “One of these days, a kid is going to make the news for sticking a bull ring in his kidnapper’s nose. It’s going to be epic.”

“Kidnapping is lame,” Josh declared. “It takes the fun out of it.”

“I wouldn’t kidnap with a ten-foot pole,” OrphanMaker announced. “Kids have way too much energy for me. I—”

Then he saw her. His sentence cut off immediately as she made eye contact with him.

She smirked and made a threatening step toward him. Forgetting that he had friends, OrphanMaker raced off to the one place he was sure the curly-haired kid would not follow.

The men’s room.

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Segment Forty

“That,” deduced Flash, “is the weirdest thing I have ever seen. A vampire running from a seven-year-old.”

“What is up with that?” Josh wanted to know. “She’s a cute kid. It’s not like she has a spider-shaped wart on her cheek.”

“Balderdash,” Shark muttered. “It isn’t our business. Let’s go play some games.”

“No,” CoolGuy replied simply.

“What do you mean ‘no’?” Shark growled playfully. “I’m an Administrator. You can’t tell me ‘no’.”

“I mean,” CoolGuy enlightened, “we can stay all day. But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I’m gone.” Then he walked over to the girl, who was talking to her big sister.

CoolGuy paused when he glimpsed the older sister’s face. Josh was suddenly at his shoulder.

“How ya doing?” he asked in a deep voice. She giggled and aimed a gorgeous smile his way.

CoolGuy, on the contrary, was all business. He put his full attention on the seven-year-old. “Hey, kid. You know our friend?”

Coyly, she curled her hair around her finger. Smugly, she smiled. “What friend? The clown?”

CoolGuy glanced behind him, wondering if she meant Shark or Flash. Bright red in the background drew his eyes to a clown statue. “Good god,” he muttered.

She fluttered her lashes then turned away self-importantly.

“Kid, do you have a name?”

She tilted her head up at him, amusement strong on her face. “I have a name. And it’s a girl’s name too.”

“What’s that?”

“Priscilla.”

“Okay, Prissy. The friend with the black eyes.”

Priscilla let her eyes linger on CoolGuy’s visible friends. “I see no black eyes among you.”

“He left. Had to…” CoolGuy coughed. “Reapply makeup? He’s an actor.”

She snorted, the smirk never dipping from her mouth. “No he’s not. He’s a vampire.”

“Can’t he be both?”

“Nah. Not him. He was too weaik the night we met. Too desperate. No actor is that talentless.”

“Okay, but why is he so scared of you? Do you have a bunch of kryptonite rocks in your purse?” Her purse was shaped like a porcupine. “Did you try to drive a steak in his chest? ‘Cause if you used the meat, wrong stake.”

She laughed deliriously. Touching his chest, she again fluttered her lashes. “You’re so funny.”

“Quit changing the subject.”

Priscilla glanced at her sister. Then she dropped the cute act. Her voice roughened, posture became a slouch, and the adorable smugness vanished from the young face.

“Alright, Mr. Batman and Beyond.” CoolGuy glanced down, realizing he was wearing a Batman shirt. “What happened was…he tried to vamp me up, and I kicked his butt.”

Josh overheard. He laughed derisively. “You little liar! You can’t hurt steel. He told me humans can’t hurt vamps.”

“Ask him.”

Her sister put in, “She’s a black belt. She’s the best butt-kicker I’ve seen. She took out a twenty-five-year-old man with huge muscles last month. He was trying something fancy on me.” She linked her arm through Priscilla’s. “Thank heavens for little sisters.”

“Ask him,” Priscilla ordered. “And if that boy tries to lie, make sure he knows I’ll get him.” She flipped her hair over her shoulder and resumed imitating her sister by straightening her shoulders and softening her expression.

***

Not even Super Sleuth CoolGuy wanted to sit and wait on OrphanMaker to leave the men’s room, so the four remaining CTians went off on a fun adventure.

They were in the middle of miniature bowling when OrphanMaker poked his nose out of the shadows.

“Did the kid leave yet?”

“Oh yeah,” CoolGuy replied, “and how dare you?”

OrphanMaker’s eyes narrowed slightly. “Huh?”

“She told us you chopped off her hair.”

OrphanMaker choked on his own spit. “What?”

“She said she was fast asleep,” Josh provided tonelessly, “when you came at her with scissors.”

OrphanMaker leaned too far to his right and fell over. “I did no such thing,” he stated from the ground. Then he sprang to his feet.

“We want to believe you, man,” Flash shook his head sorrowfully, “but we can’t.”

“Shame on you,” Shark mumbled without looking up from his bowl.

“I…she…it…”

“What is the purpose of cutting a child’s hair?” Flash demanded. “Do you derive pleasure from it? Don’t you have more exciting things to do, like chop off a woman’s hair?” He waggled his eyebrows at OrphanMaker then took his turn.

“I didn’t cut her effin’ hair! I was weak. I needed to feed! I…I tried…” OrphanMaker sank to his knees.

“You tried to make her look ugly so you could gloat,” clarified CoolGuy, sounding despondently disappointed.

OrphanMaker slid a hand down his face. “Nope. I went for her. I couldn’t get one of the big ones alone, so I went looking for anybody by themselves late at night.” Throatily, as if a frog was in his throat, he added, “She was taking out the trash.”

“Sleepwalking?” Josh breathed. “Doing chores in her sleep? And you had the scissors? You monster!”

“There were no scissors!” OrphanMaker blasted. Calmer, he continued. “I needed to feed. She was right there. So I cornered her.”

When he showed no sign of advancing, CoolGuy folded his arms over his chest. “And you killed her?”

“She’s alive, isn’t she?”

“You’re not.”

“Don’t remind me. No, I didn’t kill her. I tried. Well, to turn her into a vamp anyway, but she’d be undead…

“Only, I couldn’t.”

“And why’s that?” Flash prodded.

“The kid is a black belt. No vamp can overcome a black belt unless he just fed two hours before. And it’d need to be a good feeding. Someone in perfect health. A full-grown person.”

“So she body-slammed you,” Shark mused.

As CoolGuy took his turn, Josh sputtered, “I thought you said humans can’t hurt vampires.”

“They can’t. She didn’t hurt me. She overpowered me.”

“Can anything hurt you?” Josh wondered.

“Embarrassment. Her father took me to a dumpster, and I was unable to move for twenty-four hours. Sure didn’t feel hot after that. Luckily, I managed to get out, tidy myself a bit, search for Sith’s cape…”

“I can’t believe you tried to take advantage of a little girl,” CoolGuy groaned.

“Believe you me, I learned my lesson. Desperate times do not, in fact, call for desperate measures.”

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