FP452 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-two.

Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

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This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!

 

Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

Tonight we re-join one of the Collective’s investigators, Maritza “MarMar” Mercado, follows a too-bloody, too-naked, trail of digital breadcrumbs.

 

Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3

Written by J.R.D. Skinner
Art and Narration by Opopanax
and Audio produced by Jessica May

 

Staring down the gray boxes of the Collective Detective’s sprawling archive, Maritza considered what she knew: The company her mother had worked for, AssignMe, and the brief window of two months in which she had been employed.

It wasn’t much to go on, but “solving mysteries with no more than a ghost’s whisper is what the Collective does,” was a regular refrain from her friend and fellow contributor, Harrisment, and she knew a witness statement was far more than most cases they undertook began with.

Besides, it wasn’t a lack that was generally the problem: She considered working with the Collective like being a marble sculptor – the shape of the solution lay in the data, but it was up to her to shave away the excess surrounding it.

She started, as always, with every bit of traffic transmitted across the NSA’s snoop servers over the course of several years.

Adjusting her timeline to cover the summer in question, MarMar did a simple search for the company’s website traffic. The engine began to chug away, retrieving logs and doing its best to feed it back to her via interfaces that would help make some sense of the flood. Webpages were a well-maintained protocol among the collective’s users, but she knew if the management system the company had used was custom she might be bogged down in having to reverse engineer the software necessary to display the stream of information.

Casting a hopeful glance at Ziggy Stardust, pinned on poster paper to her wall, she rummaged in her desk drawer for a piece of gum and ignored the possibility of tedium on the horizon.

The site provided email addresses – another protocol the project easily understood, its unencrypted nature making it especially easy to track. Attached to the requests for time off, excuses for late arrivals, and complaints regarding broken vending machines was the IP data for the facility. From there it took very little prodding to block out a decent range that encompassed everything traveling the company’s wires.

She exhaled with a grin: The interface AssignMe had used to filter and tag offenders was all web-based, and, better yet, included individual usernames that were automatically rolled over into timesheets to determine how much the operators were owed on payday.

There were dozens of Mercados in the database, but only one Alaiza whose records began and abruptly ended during the window in question.

There was no result for a Thick Jim, however.

Again MarMar narrowed her search, this time coming back with what her mind considered a single unbroken thread of data.

Here her work truly began. She could not ask the computer to filter the job further, she would have to flip through the feed and identify the clues by hand.

Still, it was a filthy river to be fishing in. College could be a lonely place, and she was not unacquainted with the occasional naughty picture, but the depths of depravity that unwound themselves from her laptop’s too-bright screen left her wanting another shower and a walk along empty streets.

Six hours into her scrolling, with her bladder in increasing need of a break and her brain demanding coffee, she came across the image. It was not the first photograph mentioned in her mother’s letter – perhaps she’d blinked in her endless examination and somehow missed it. Here, instead, was the white chair, just as it had been described, and the axe handle apparently propping up the anonymous woman whose purple flank was turned away from the camera but all too visible against the gray pallor of her naked flesh.

FP452 - Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 2 of 3The name associated with the account was not Thick Jim, but Maritza’s time with the Collective had taught her that such tricks of memory were common. If anything, it was impressive that her mother, fifteen years after the incident, had retained Stout James as Thick Jim.

That info brought up the shot she’d missed, and the one she had yet to reach. Having chiseled out the final nuggets, she almost regretted her success. She could understand how the first portrait had been missed: Its oddities were obvious to her, but only in retrospect, which, if she were honest, actually bolstered her respect of her mother’s perceptive nature. All too often it had worked against her during her youthful days of mischief, but now she realized the woman might have a knack for work among her fellow detectives.

The final photo – the red and ragged form that had eventually led to Stout James’ account closing – was the sort of thing she might now assume was a still from some too-realistic horror film, some piece of gore porn circulated via online streaming rentals and listed alongside the Saw or Human Centipede movies under a title like “20 Genuinely Upsetting Cult Classics.”

As unnerving as it was, however, it was the next phase that flushed MarMar’s sense of victory, replacing it instead with goosebumps across her forearms and a chill along her spine.

Somehow she’d hoped that it WAS in fact a screen-grab from some strange film, or some project by a special effects artist whose work had gotten out of hand – perhaps, even, some random weirdness passed between fetishists visiting sketchy forums. There was nothing on the internet, especially nothing fifteen years old, that remained unique. Any image, once uploaded and left to settle, would likely blossom into a hundred copies strewn across servers by, at the least, spambots and inexplicable enthusiasts.

Yet this trio of pictures, as exposed and lurid as they were, returned no results in a search for duplicates – had, in fact, no matches across the history of the entirety of the operating network as far as she could tell.

These were no fakes, these were no mock-ups. Her mother’s intuition had been correct, and now the daughter was left to consider the consequences.

She stood, gave Ziggy a nod, and shuffled towards the coffee grinder with heavy feet and a heavier head.

 

Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

Freesound.org credits:

Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

– and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

Spread the word!

    FP451 – Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

    Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty-one.

    Flash PulpTonight we present Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

    Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

    Download MP3
    (Part 1Part 2 – Part 3)
    (RSS / iTunes)

     

    This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Melting Potcast!

     

    Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

    Tonight we join a prodigal daughter – but one member of the loose collection of electronic investigators that make up the Collective Detective – as she stands at the edge of a number of digital graves.

     

    Censors: a Collective Detective Chronicle, Part 1 of 3

    Written by J.R.D. Skinner
    Art and Narration by Opopanax
    and Audio produced by Jessica May

     

    The letter arrived on a Wednesday but Maritza didn’t realize till Friday afternoon, when she found herself with a few moments to sift the dunes of junk mail and bills that had accumulated on the living room table. It was July, so there was little reason for the seven students who split rent on the rambling three-story-house to be discriminating about the flow: Come September careful sorting would again fall into place, to avoid the loss of loan payments or tuition receipts, but for now the envelopes simply collected like paper snow, to be examined only if you, say, happened to be waiting for someone to get out of the shower, and to be likely shoveled into the recycling tub at the next sign of an approaching party.

    In some ways the missive was no surprise at all: Putting pen on paper was typical of the elder Mercado. They’d feuded over calls – Maritza had tried to make clear she was fine with texting, email, or even social media interactions, but speaking into the telephone felt ancient and off-putting to the computer science major. It was otherwise always serious people who wanted to talk to her on the phone, people she owed money to generally, and so she’d been slowly trained into being adverse to using its voice functions.

    Besides, she was better in writing – funnier, wittier, more able to express how she felt. Yet her mother, equally stubborn, refused to engage on a technical level.

    Maritza’s frustration had only grown in the two years since she’d left home. The distance and cost were too great to justify moving back for the summer months, so she’d found a local job and declared her back-bedroom futon her sole haven. Since then communication with her stone-faced mother had become increasingly infrequent, and irritating, and it had been easier to simply let the gaps between attempts widen.

    There had perhaps been some distractions along the way as well: Two brief relationships, one with a housemate who’d dramatically departed the residence after her first semester of classes, and another with an arts student who’d talked a better game than he’d been able to maintain. Largely, however, her non-academic attentions had been absorbed by a project she’d originally encountered through her data structures professor.

    Since that conversation outside her lecture hall the Collective Detective archive had kept her awake and wearing dirty sweat pants on more occasions than she was willing to admit, and her assistance on several stubs had earned her a welcome spot on most open files.

    What caught Maritza off guard about the letter was that it was on the very topic that had consumed so many of her waking hours.

    “MarMar,” it opened, and the first three blocks of tight-packed fine-tipped writing that followed outlined a number of things that her daughter already knew: That the collective’s massive archive was the result of an accidental government leak of every internet interaction that had passed across the United States’ lines in the years of wiretapping the NSA had undertaken of its own people. She even went so far as to highlight a number of cases she had read about, though Maritza hadn’t been involved in any of them.

    Despite the interest in her area of fascination, the girl couldn’t help but feel vaguely annoyed that her mother hadn’t simply emailed her all of this if she’d apparently been spending hours online reading up on the organization anyhow.

    Then the bathroom door opened, and the letter was lost in her flannel pajama bottoms’ deep right pocket.

    It was twelve hours later, as she was gladly abandoning her blue work shirt and khaki pants on the floor of her bedroom, that the pages again crossed her mind. Pulling on an already-coffee-blotted Labyrinth t-shirt, Maritza flipped open her laptop.

    Selecting the icon that would bring her to her Collective Detective login, she punched out the letters of her username with a distracted forefinger – MarMar – even as she scanned the corners of her room for her discarded PJ pants.

    They’d landed in a ball beside her desk. With a trio of deft clicks she started playing Bowie’s Diamond Dogs, an album she’d been strangely obsessed with over the last week, then she retrieved the feat of penmanship.

    MarMar, I have been doing some reading, blah, blah, blah – and then it launched into a story she’d never heard before.

    Apparently her mother, broke and raising her daughter while awaiting the return of her husband from a money-making venture overseas, had once briefly found work in the most unexpected of areas: Online. A school friend had been recruited for a company that acted as both police and waste management for a number of popular social media networks. If someone reported an inappropriate image or post it was they who would swoop in, absorb the awfulness, and determine what action should be taken – mostly to ignore or remove it.

    The job itself sounded miserable, but the pay was better than most local, legal, professions.

    The Collective Detective: A Skinner Co. PodcastSo it was that, when her friend, who’d paused at the gate while walking back from her air-conditioned cubicle, had offered to put in a good word, Maritza’s mother had lept at the opportunity.

    She’d drowned in the filth of the world for two months, then quit.

    Until this point the text was full of her mother’s usual authoritative tone. This was not a personal conversation, it was a history teacher providing a lecture to her student. Here, however, her words softened and she caught Maritza again off guard: She asked for help.

    The woman had spent hours a day scrubbing the internet of soft or hard human anatomy being pleasured or abused in turns; she’d seen porn, pain, and penises inserted into every household object a desperate individual with a phone camera might pull from a closet.

    Yet what had truly upset her most were three specific images, all, she believed, taken by the same man.

    The first had simply been vulgar. A naked woman shot from neck to knees, her hand set provocatively in her lap as she sat in a large white chair. There was something about her skin tone, however, so gray in its shade, seeming so cold against the ivory cushions, that caught her eye.

    Over her shoulders stood a few tantalizing clues as to the setting in which the photo had been taken: A bottle of Jack Daniels sitting on top of a cheap TV stand to her left, and to her right – was that an axe? And, upon closer inspection, was that blood speckled on her shoulder?

    Time was not her ally in her inspection. She’d already spent too long analyzing what her manager would consider a simple case. The user would be issued a warning, the image automatically removed. It was his first offense, no further action was warranted.

    Still, the speckle of crimson had nagged at her. As she’d moused to the dialog that would carry out her judgement, and bring up the next nugget of smut or gore for consideration, she’d noted the username: Thick Jim – then the next junk in a kitchen appliance arrived.

    It was a month before the name popped up again attached to another grainy photo from a too-dark room, again set in the same white chair. This one had her legs crossed, and her body was turned as if to show off her surgeon’s implant work.

    The mother did not fully understand why Thick Jim’s snapshot had planted a hook in her mind, but she’d thought on the original photo more than once while little else in her universe of muck had stuck.

    The brunette – her face didn’t show, but her hair fell across her shoulders in great brown loops – seemed almost too at ease, as if she might melt out of the chair entirely. A tattoo on her left shoulder, a bird or perhaps stars – the aging witness could not quite recall – drew her eyes to the portion of the woman’s rib cage furthest from the camera. Was that a shadow or a vast purple bruise? Then her gaze clarified the shape that ran beside chair and woman: The same ax she’d seen in the background of the previous photo, now seeming to act as crutch beneath the woman’s shoulder.

    Except it did not seem she had settled her weight naturally against the handle – it reminded the viewer, more than anything, of the planks her neighbour had set in place to slow the collapse of his tilting fence.

    She wrote the name, Thick Jim, down, and tagged the photo as containing possible criminal activity. A quick check of his history showed that he had been a regular offender since their first encounter, each incident apparently reported by a user whose profile fell into the general frame of “busy body who made friends with random people on the internet so that they might assist them in collecting 10 goats for AgriCity.

    Perhaps it was this that had allowed him to slip by without a ban, instead having each picture taken down in turn.

    On her third interaction – her final interaction – his account was officially closed. She’d tagged his name to be forwarded to her should it come up again, and had been keeping a careful eye on the stacks of scrolling names. Watching specific people in the crowd was a practice strictly against company policy, which dictated all review procedures be more or less between strangers, yet the habit of such snooping was unofficially maintained by every gossipy grandmother and jealous boyfriend in the building.

    There were few other perks to the endless grind of sexual organs, mutilated animals, and penetrated flesh.

    There was no doubt of the violence in the last image. It was, in fact, only difficult to tell where exactly the organs splayed across the room had come from. There was the same cheap TV stand, now slick with blood, and though it did not seem to be the same Jack Daniels there, too, was a shattered bottle neck, its jagged end clogged with meat and what Maritza’s mother suspected to be organs.

    As the story unfolded the writing had lost its rigid form, becoming increasingly slanted as if its author hoped to outrun the unpleasant conclusion she had come to. There had been plenty of incidents in Maritza’s youth – stained clothes, school fights, lagging grades – over which the woman had criticized extensively, but, even as text, this was the closest her daughter had ever seen to her growing truly upset.

    This terrible momentum continued throughout her conclusion: Vomiting into the garbage can at her desk, the weight of the job and everything she’d seen seeming to suddenly come up with that morning’s eggs. Demanding the account be banned and the police informed, and standing over her manager’s shoulder as he’d okayed the request, then the brief joy of quitting before the weight of not knowing had finally settled over her.

    She had read a lot about this new project her daughter seemed so excited about, but now she needed to know something she had wondered for twenty years: Had Thick Jim, as she suspected, been a serial killer? Had he been stopped? Years of watching the news for some mention had left her with no satisfying answer.

    Could her estranged offspring do anything to solve these lingering mysteries?

    As she concluded her reading and allowed the sheets to return to their natural fold lines, Maritza replied, to her empty room, “yes, yes I can,” then she pressed enter to complete her – until then forgotten – connection to the archive.

     

    Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

    Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

    Freesound.org credits:

    Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

    – and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

    Spread the word!

      FC130 – Nautical Disaster

      FC130 - Nautical Disaster

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      Hello, and welcome to FlashCast #130.

      Prepare yourself for: Terrifying nautical tales, zombie board gaming, Kevin Hart vs Prince, Houdini & Lovecraft – buddy cops, and Muddy York

      * * *

      Huge thanks to:

      * * *

      Pulp-ular Press:

      * * *

      Skinner Co. Announcements:

      * * *

      Mailbag:

      * * *

      Audio-dacity of Hope:

    • Download Reverse Crash
    • * * *

      Backroom Plots:

    • FPSE33 – Singular
    • * * *

      Also, many thanks, as always, Retro Jim, of RelicRadio.com for hosting FlashPulp.com and the wiki!

      * * *

      If you have comments, questions or suggestions, you can find us at http://skinner.fm, or email us text/mp3s to comments@flashpulp.com.

      FlashCast is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

      Spread the word!

        FPSE33 – Singular

        Welcome to Flash Pulp Special Episode #33.

        Flash PulpTonight we present Singular

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        Download MP3

        (RSS / iTunes)

         

        This week’s episodes are brought to you by the Gatecast!

         

        Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

        Tonight we find ourselves chasing many paths that lead to one destination.

         

        Singular

        Written by J.R.D. Skinner
        Art and Narration by Opopanax
        and Audio produced by Jessica May

         

        FPSE33 - Singular

         

        Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

        Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

        Freesound.org credits:

        Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

        – and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

        Spread the word!

          FP450 – Behind the Lines

          Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and fifty.

          Flash PulpTonight we present Behind the Lines

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          This week’s episodes are brought to you by It Gets Weird!

           

          Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

          Tonight we witness that time and distance do not liberate from death or fear.

           

          Behind the Lines

          Written by J.R.D. Skinner
          Art and Narration by Opopanax
          and Audio produced by Jessica May

           

          Two thousand unwashed men had collected about the grassy meadow with rough-hewn swords, pikes, and hatchets in hand. For some coming to this moment had required the sacrifice of budding relationships, the severing of contracts, and the soothing of anxious parents.

          All such stood in muddy boots, their feet firmly on the ground, their hands steady but slick with the nerves of coming battle. Some tugged at leathers or patches of chainmail, but many could not shake the doubt that their best defense would have been avoiding this place entirely.

          It was only their leaders, clad in thick armour and riding chargers worth more than could be earned in a lifetime’s collection of crops, who moved with surety.

          When the time came these officers would head-up the assault, and the lesser ranks destined to fall at their sides would at least do so with the knowledge that they who caused this war also lofted their weapons among the melee.

          Still, beneath the reassuring weight of impenetrable iron, the masterminds felt concern but for the risk to their reputation and landholdings.

          * * *

          Two hundred years later came a moment of change. Upon a grassy plain not so different than those across which his bloodline had been marshalling troops for generations, a singular commander sat atop his mount, his steed – itself the apex of centuries of breeding – striding upon stout legs.

          The beast was urged to walk the line of the general’s followers, and from his position of height it was easy to spot his opponent doing the same before his own forces.

          “Today we beat back those brutes who raided our lands and slew our fathers -” he said, despite knowing his father was safely behind fortress walls many miles from the fighting. While the coaxing speech had remained the same for decades, however, the brutes of which he spoke had developed a new technique in the ancient scramble for dominance.

          Beyond the grasses the brush parted, and a trio of wheeled monstrosities took the field. Curiosity brought a pause to the rallying recitation, and it was this brief halt which saved the noble’s life.

          Fire touched the bases of the long bronze tubes, and the cannons fired.

          Though the horseman would survive, he still bore witness to his stallion’s neck suddenly devoid of head, and to the splintering shot that shattered a swath of farmhands who had not had chance to ready their blades and bludgeons.

          Crawling from beneath the dying mountain of meat and blood, it came into his mind – as it would for many more of his breed in the coming years – that he should perhaps lead from the rear, where he might better organize the complex formations necessary to face such a foe.

          * * *

          It was exactly that field, though centuries after the knightly age, that his people again realized the advantage of a more distant view.

          Even as artillery fell upon the French front, their voices became nothing more than a remote crackle emanating from a rain-damaged radio. The theater of operation was large, they claimed, and there were so many crop tenders and factory workers, spread across thousands of miles of trenches, that it was impossible to coordinate such a puzzle from beneath the pressing demands and threatening clatter of tumbling shells.

          Those same rattling explosions left little clarity in the fighters’ minds regarding why, beyond the dignity of their homes, they were conducting themselves through this mad venture – but it seemed just as suicidal to stay in place when the word “Advance!” came as a snarl along the wires.

          Yet, even as the battle line marched forward, somehow its command crept backward, as it had done, in slow inches, since those early days on horseback.

          * * *

          A quiet man, with a round face and no knowledge of his family’s history as conquerors and commandants, would eventually sit in a small trailer-turned-office at the edge of a secluded airfield, his seat thickly pillowed and his fingers knowing only the trials of a slow day riding a keyboard.

          No longer did his men wield pitchforks and crude steel. They too had come to understand the safety of distance, of having no foot upon the dirt when the fighting grew fierce, and, as such, they had taken to piloting death-dealers so removed that their narrow view seemed to show nothing more than the barren surface of an alien world.

          Beneath their pinning gaze, however, still stood those with mud on their boots; beneath their flying weapons still stood the children of those who had always been summoned to action for reasons not entirely clear to their understanding.

          For the commander there was no call to worry about such considerations. There was, in fact, little of anything to worry about here, thousands of miles from the sudden heat and sundered flesh of combat.

          Flash Pulp: A Skinner Co. PodcastYet, even as the soothing chime of another missive landing in his inbox shivered across his desk, the cushions upon which he sat began to tremble as if they knew sudden fear – as if, perhaps, the missiles he unleashed a half-globe away had finally returned to roost.

          The dust upon his windowsill began to shift and take flight, and beyond the glass the rows of beige shacks, not so different than his own, began to heave. Though he’d hoped to keep mortality beyond the horizon, Kar’Wick the Spider-God recognized no nation’s borders as he split wide the earth and exposed a thousand fractal eyes.

          Though the watcher had planned to live so far from death that he had only to fear a slow collapse into his own bed, that day all – be they upon the field of battle or at its most lonely edges – would know the terror that was the rise of the Arachnid Lord.

           

          Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

          Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

          Freesound.org credits:

          Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

          – and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

          Spread the word!

            FC129 – Shoulda Been John Waters

            FC129 - Shoulda Been John Waters

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            (Download/iTunes/RSS)

            Hello, and welcome to FlashCast #129.

            Prepare yourself for: When Doves Cry, CIA film production, hair theft, Doc Azrael, and Sofia Esperon

            * * *

            Huge thanks to:

            * * *

            Pulp-ular Press:

            * * *

            Skinner Co. Announcements:

            * * *

            Mailbag:

            • Send your comments and questions to comments@flashpulp.com!
            • Thank you for our sacrifices to The Box, Rich the TT!
            • Thanks as well to Nutty for her terrifying tale!

            * * *

            Audio-dacity of Hope:

          • Download Reverse Crash
          • * * *

            Backroom Plots:

          • FPSE31 – Sofia Esperon and Greater Things
          • * * *

            Also, many thanks, as always, Retro Jim, of RelicRadio.com for hosting FlashPulp.com and the wiki!

            * * *

            If you have comments, questions or suggestions, you can find us at http://skinner.fm, or email us text/mp3s to comments@flashpulp.com.

            FlashCast is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

            Spread the word!

              FPSE32 – Sofia Esperon and Greater Things

              Welcome to Flash Pulp Special Episode #32.

              Flash PulpTonight we present Sofia Esperon and Greater Things

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              This week’s episodes are brought to you by Orphaned Entertainment!

               

              Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

              Tonight Queen Sofia Esperon is summoned to a dragon-haunted corner of her kingdom.

               

              Sofia Esperon, Queen of the Hundred Kingdoms, and Greater Things

              Written by J.R.D. Skinner
              Art and Narration by Opopanax
              and Audio produced by Jessica May

               

              There’d been an age when many corners of the Hundred Kingdoms smoked with the passage of dragons, but under royal decree, and with careful consideration, their population had been coaxed into a quiet cohabitation by Queen Sofia Esperon’s command.

              It was with some surprise then that the small farming village of Tolspot, situated along the southern edge of the Sweetfield Peninsula, found itself within the shadow of a mighty wingspan early one spring morning.

              A herdsman by the name of Phosmas was loitering at his meadow’s edge, feeding a stand of spruce his previous night’s wine, when the gloom fell. His head shifted skyward, expecting a persistent cloud, but instead he spotted the blue-black form of a soaring reptile.

              With wet boots he’d collected his sheep and scurried to town.

              Though his position, both societal and geographical, meant he was likely the first to have spotted its trajectory, Tolspot was afire with the news by the time he’d penned his beasts and achieved the square. The whispers he found there were a mix of fear and curiosity.

              Mayor Slowfinger stood upon the low platform that acted as courthouse, stage, and altar, depending on the need of the day. Her arms were wide and her voice hushed.

              “So it is that I’ve dispatched a rider to the capital,” she was saying. “We should have quick word, as we know the Queen takes such matters quite seriously. Still, it is three days ride, so it would be best that we remain vigilant and keep the cattle sheltered as best we can.”

              Elida Weatherspout – her husband Toon at her side and their bairn, Malthus, in her hands – stepped forward and asked, “where could it have come from? Surely others have noticed the passage and the Queen’s Guard is already imminent?”

              The Mayor shook her head in careful turns, but she waggled a finger at Old Man Ross, the hamlet’s living history, as an answer.

              Ross cleared his throat with a papery cough and worked to have his words heard over the creak of his jaw.

              “That’s Murk, as lively as I’ve ever seen him, I’d know that smudge upon the horizon even if Witch Martha hadn’t removed the canker from my eye last wintertide.”

              “Murk?” replied Elida, “I thought the legends of the sky lord nothing more than spook tales told around the harvest fires to keep children from wandering too far into the wildwoods?”

              Here then Phosmas found his opportunity to add to the debate.

              “I believe it,” he said, “He was low over the treetops when he swept across my pasture, and I saw clearly the stump that marked the loss of his second head.”

              In a previous age the Queen had demanded every such beast stand for inspection, and she had determined, with a steadier hand than any in her retinue, that though the right head seemed reasonable enough to be allowed to live, the left was not but animal and must be removed to curb the danger it posed.

              Though many argued she should just slay the monster in its entirety and not risk a misstep, she had not made the decision without consideration: Many who had seen the dragon upon its raids had claimed the right argued endlessly with the left, and that the better half had even shouted warnings of its arrival to those villagers too deep in slumber or a whiskey jug to note its alighting.

              Now, however, as the townsfolk stood and chattered beneath the rising sun, there was little more to do. None cared to approach Mount Tellmore, the sole peak in the area, and the storied home – and, until recently, assumed grave – of Murk.

              The hunter appeared on the second evening, though none had witnessed Murk again since the surprise of the previous dawn.

              He arrived upon a white horse laden with weaponry and leather. His saddle was hung with trophies – bear claws of extraordinary size, the shattered tip of a minotaur’s horn, the ears of a jackalope – and his sword was bejewelled and well-honed.

              “I have come to stalk the beast!” the stranger told all who approached.

              Phosmas thought he looked rather sharp atop his charger, truly a grand addition to any spring rites parade, but he could not bring his mind to lineup the glittering appearance of the man’s breeches and boots with the blood and mud he associated with local deerstalkers.

              “You’ve come from the Queen?” asked Mayor Slowfinger, once the newcomer’s gathering procession had arrived at the center of town. “Where is Erwin?”

              “I am Hans Grizmore, though most know me as Hans the Hunter. I met your Erwin upon his long ride, and your plea brought pity to my heart. This monster will taste my blade the same as the Lord of the Maze, a bovine beast I encountered along the northern coast -”

              His tale stretched into greater theatrics from there, and by nightfall all who had remained to listen were tipsy with their own hospitality.

              At dawn Grizmore rode out, his load reduced to only that which he might need for the journey to the mountain top. By dusk he had returned, and his equipment finally held some aspect of what Phosmas knew of hunting.

              The outsider carried Murk’s skull strung from his stallion’s tack, and he displayed it with pride as he dismounted before the inn and accepted an offered tankard of mead. Though the Mayor frowned at his approach – just as she had when her insistence that he not ride out had been ignored – those same revellers who’d seen him off welcomed his reappearance with gusto, and an unexpected and unsanctioned celebration broke forth. At its peak Hans stood astride the square’s stage, his spoils at his feet, and the Widow Seen’s paintbrush capturing his image upon her canvas.

              The revelry lasted two days, yet on the third morning milky-eyed goblins were caught in the Weatherspouts’ dooryard, and little Malthus was in their hands. Only Elida’s quick work with the farm’s wood splitting ax saved the bairn from a stewpot.

              Panic worked its way through the streets and across the hedgerows, and soon more sightings were collected: The Millthorn’s goats were missing, unknown assailants had spent a terrifying night battering the buttoned windows and tightly cinched doors of the Ghorbani homestead, and the Bekele’s barn had been set afire as the cackles of the hidden men – the local name for the cursed goblins that legend claimed had once inhabited the area – could be heard over the cluck and moan of fearful livestock.

              Calling all from field and hill, Mayor Slowfinger had declared an emergency upon the land, and demanded all able should stand guard at the town’s borders while those unable should sleep within the safety of its walls.

              It was as the residence of Tolspot fashioned pikes and armed themselves with kitchen cutlery that the Mayor stopped Hans from making his exit.

              Sofia Esperon“- and where are you off to in such a hurry?” she asked.

              “My job is done, and it’s clear you’re now occupied, so it’s best I be about my way. I am, afterall, a hunter and not a soldier.”

              “You’re not even that,” replied Slowfinger, “you’re a trophy collector. That said, stay and raise your sword for the barricade or it’ll be my own blade that takes YOUR head for a prize.”

              Perhaps it was the strength of the woman’s words, perhaps it was the many eyes who watched the exchange – and the risk to his reputation those observers entailed – but, whatever the case, Grizmore turned back towards the inn.

              What followed was a night and day of siege. Flasks of looted wine were set aflame and cast into the villagers’ midst, barns were burnt and cattle slaughtered, and knobby arrows rained from the darkness, chased by cackling laughter. Worse yet, for every casualty the beleaguered citizens inflicted it seemed five more toothy faces appeared to challenge the bulwark.

              Finally, unslept and with their food supplies dwindling at their lack of access to crops and root cellars, the gathered defenders turned to formulating a plan to abandon their homes and attempt to escape the now seemingly endless tide.

              With tears on their cheeks and memories of sunnier days in mind, they began to collect what they could – and that is when they heard the horns.

              Queen Sofia Esperon had not come with the intention of combat, but it was rare, in this late day of her reign, that she went anywhere within her Hundred Kingdoms without her weapon at her side and her Guard close at hand.

              Surprises were simply too common along the road, even in such a peaceful era.

              She did not sully her blade, however. The rumble of a dozen warbears, their coats close cropped and their harnesses glittering in the sun, echoed along the valley, and the beasts fell upon those of the imps too slow in retreating.

              Yet it was not the invaders who received the worst of her wrath.

              “You again, Hans?” she asked, once the townsfolks’ greetings and thanks had been established.

              For the first time since Grizmore’s arrival, Phasmos noted the man was quiet – he had, in fact, taken to apparently sheltering behind the dirt-laden forms of the Weatherspouts, though Elida and Toon seemed to have taken the greater brunt of the messy work of defense.

              The hunter stepped forward and took to one knee before his ruler.

              “Yes, your highness, I arrived to save you the work of slaying the dragon Murk, though he was clearly not the only threat that beset these lands. It seems this place is cursed. Surely this must all be the work of some foul mystic?”

              “No,” replied Sofia, “it is but the work of one idiot. A true hunter – one that needs fur for heat, meat for winter jerky, and the bones for their summer stew – knows the consequences of cutting too deep, of culling too far.

              “It is no coincidence that the flood followed your pulling of the plug that had held them in place. I had wrought a deal with the beast, decades ago, that he would scrounge his meals only from the tunnels at the rear of his cave, where the undermountain goblins plot endlessly and refuse all treaties.

              “Now the balance has been offset. You will help correct it. No longer, however, will you be Hans the Hunter. Today you begin new duties, under a new name. We will build you a gate, and you will be sure it remains shut – as shut as your damned mouth if you know what’s good for you.”

              It took only a week to close off the hole in Mount Tellmore, yet it was but the beginning of a lifetime of work for Grizmore the Doorman.

               

              Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

              Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

              Freesound.org credits:

              Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

              – and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

              Spread the word!

                FC128 – Disaster Ghosts

                FC128 - Disaster Ghosts

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                Hello, and welcome to FlashCast #128.

                Prepare yourself for: Fancy boats, fangirls for fangirls, monkey head transplants, new Nancy Drew, and Mulligan Smith

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                Also, many thanks, as always, Retro Jim, of RelicRadio.com for hosting FlashPulp.com and the wiki!

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                If you have comments, questions or suggestions, you can find us at http://skinner.fm, or email us text/mp3s to comments@flashpulp.com.

                FlashCast is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

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                  FP449 – Unlocked

                  Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and forty-nine.

                  Flash PulpTonight we present Unlocked

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                  This week’s episodes are brought to you by The Freelance Hunters!

                   

                  Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

                  Tonight we encounter an unexpected series of visitors.

                   

                  Unlocked

                  Written by J.R.D. Skinner
                  Art and Narration by Opopanax
                  and Audio produced by Jessica May

                   

                  The rear door of the chugging hatchback opened with a hushed click, and Tori Garza, thirty-eight, felt her Honda shift and tilt under the mountainous stranger’s settling weight. She’d known something like this visit was coming, yet the newcomer had caught her sitting in the driveway as she waited for her two children to finish filling their pockets with electronics, gum, and beloved formed-plastic figures.

                  The invaders eyes’ were covered in the thick black plastic of a style that wouldn’t have been out of place on a blind man, and his brow was lost beneath the low-hung brim of his maroon flat cap.

                  Across the street, in front of the Mitners’ empty house – Peggy being at work and Anthony having taken their little ones out for an afternoon of overpriced pizza and ancient videogames at the local Chuck E. Cheese – stood a second intruder. Though he too wore tinted glasses, his bald head was exposed to the sun and his dark jacket a little too tight to be buttoned without making the bulge beneath his left armpit noticeable.

                  “If you’re here to murder me then get it over with before the kids come out, please,” said Tori, but, though a cold blade did come up to touch the side of her neck, she received an answer even more horrifying than that which she’d expected.

                  “No, I wasn’t hired to kill you, I was hired to ruin you,” said Mr. Backseat, and he tilted his head toward the window. The man in the black nylon jacket began to shuffle towards her front door. “My associate is a fellow of especially low moral fiber, though I suppose I shouldn’t talk out of school on the matter given the questionable nature of my own shaggy philosophy. Still, when it comes to executing tykes there’s no one as excited, or as skillful, at the job.”

                  “You won’t get away with this,” she replied. His brow stiffened at her tone. The fear he’d heard before placing the weapon to her neck was suddenly gone – now that the mother knew she herself was in no immediate danger, she seemed calm. Was she as cold as his client, who’d employed the pair to murder his own children?

                  Mr. Backseat wouldn’t have called the chill along his spine fear – he might have laughed it off as something like professional admiration if he’d thought on it at all – but his attention was on his partner’s slow progress.

                  His gloved hand tightened its grip on the knife’s handle nonetheless.

                  He cleared his throat. “I’m sorry, but YOU won’t get away with this. You’re going to claim two large men did it while you were forced to sit and watch, but there will be no prints, no unsightly signs of violence. No one is going to believe you. Better yet, if you resist or attempt to stop us, I get to rough you up a little. I hold a degree in applying self-inflicted injuries and a doctorate in ensuring only those witnesses I want are on hand.

                  “Remember, especially in light of the lack of spectators, that if you should attempt any heroics I will be forced to make it look like a murder/suicide. I think we can agree that such an outcome would be disappointing for all involved.”

                  As the fisherman expects a tug on his line when he knows a potential meal is nibbling at his bait, the cap-wearing man instinctively expected some physical response – a twitch, knuckles whitening on the steering wheel, perhaps a slow move to unbuckle her belt – but he received no such satisfaction.

                  Instead Tori simply sat and watched the front door.

                  The intended murderer knocked twice, ignoring the bell entirely, and there was a pause both in the car and upon the stoop as he awaited some reaction from inside.

                  It was Luther, five, who answered. He was small for his age, his brown eyes too big for his tiny face. He might be a heartbreaker someday, if he lived that long, but he currently reminded his mother of nothing so much as one of the characters from the saccharine mangas his older sister, Selina, obsessed over.

                  Those within the car could not hear the transaction between child and intruder. The man in the backseat braced his arm and tightened his legs, his reflexes working to keep the situation under control should the boy’s mother attempt to run, scream, or otherwise provide some warning to the too-friendly kindergartener.

                  She did not.

                  The killer’s lips moved into a wide grin as he offered his hello, and Luther’s response seemed short and welcoming. Reaching out a smooth-skinned hand, he wrapped his fingers around two of the visitor’s thick digits, then, with little more than a glance at his waiting mother, showed the stranger into the house.

                  “It’s fine if you want to cry,” said the blade-holder. “The officers will expect it one way or another, though they may think you’re faking it.”

                  “I’m fine,” answered Tori. Her words floated out on a breeze, as if she were instead more concerned with formulating a mental grocery list or what movie to rent to fill up her newly-single evening.

                  “Are you?” asked the professional, his occupational pride pushing him to press his weapon further into her flesh. A single droplet of blood drained along its stainless steel edge.

                  “Are YOU?” replied the woman, her eyes finally coming to focus on the black plastic across the bridge of his nose. It seemed to him in that moment as if she could see through the tint as clearly as the windshield before her.

                  That was when his plan began to fall apart.

                  It began with music – familiar, yet he couldn’t place it. Behind his sunglasses, the goon stiffened.

                  Every orifice of the house was forced wide. Screens were popped from their frames and doors were left swinging to the wind. Even through the Honda’s glass the thick rhythm of Casio keyboard and guitar began to overwhelm the hardened intruder.

                  As human forms began to splash from the home’s now gaping mouths, the ruffian’s hand, distracted, slipped away from its tight position against his victim’s skin.

                  Men, women, children – even a dog in a custom-crafted uniform – began to tumble onto the grass, their landings quickly turning into an ongoing frolick. Some took each other’s hands and formed rings, dancing to the thick percussion of the tune. The shorter among them ran circles in and out of such gatherings, and the tallest took to a hand waving dance that bordered on a war strut.

                  Each one wore a small paper sign set upon a string about their neck.

                  “Witness!” it said.

                  Still the flood continued.

                  Two dozen figures turned into a count of nearly a hundred, and finally the man in the black nylon jacket reappeared. He was held aloft, his arms and legs bound to one of Tori’s kitchen chairs, his sunglasses lost somewhere within the shadows of the darkened home.

                  Luthor led the parade that carried him onto the lawn, his arm flailing with a wooden spoon counting out the music.

                  A Skinner Co. ProductionThe man in the backseat was suddenly certain that he was, in fact, suffering an aneurysm and end-of-life hallucination, or that his youthful indiscretions with high-powered narcotics had finally come back to haunt him with an atomic-level flashback.

                  It was neither case, but his trepidation was distraction enough to allow Tori to unbuckle and slip from her seat, joining her son in his victory march.

                  Though she wore the plain jeans and pink hoodie she’d intended to sport at the mall, Selina was there as well, her own oversized disguise bouncing about on her capering head. Otherwise each shape – tall, small, round, or slender – wore the same outfit: A cheap black suit and a rubber mask displaying a pasty face sporting large black mutton chops.

                  Two weeks previous the despondent mother had wept upon her keyboard as she crafted her plea: Would The Achievers help in such a mundane, yet so threatening, situation? She had read Internet whispers that the group might, but she had not even truly believed in their existence until the first of the volunteer vigilantes had arrived: A college student of twenty-three, her mask out of sight and a sleeping bag beneath her arm.

                  What had been a slow moving and lonely divorce, filled with threatening late night phone calls and tears carefully hidden from her children, had then turned into an unexpected two-week sleepover. The basement floor had become a game of slumbering Tetris, the laundry room an industrial operation cheerily handled by more hands than Tori had ever housed previously, the oven a constant source of handcrafted stews and homemade breads.

                  Without warning the assailant still seated in the Honda recalled where he had encountered the music before: It was the extended theme to a show his father had watched religiously, Law & Order.

                  The sirens he heard soon after were not from the soundtrack, however, but by then the dancing mob had disappeared, leaving two duct-taped monsters, a memory stick containing Mr. Backseat’s unknowingly recorded blatherings, and a story the police would never believe.

                   

                  Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

                  Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

                  Freesound.org credits:

                  Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

                  – and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

                  Spread the word!

                    FP448 – The Murder Plague: Turnabout, Part 2 of 2

                    Welcome to Flash Pulp, episode four hundred and forty-eight.

                    Flash PulpTonight we present The Murder Plague: Turnabout, Part 2 of 2

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                    This week’s episodes are brought to you by Nutty Bites!

                     

                    Flash Pulp is an experiment in broadcasting fresh pulp stories in the modern age – three to ten minutes of fiction brought to you Monday, Wednesday and Friday evenings.

                    Tonight we return to Capital City where Harm Carter, father and former military man, has been contending with the homicidal paranoia inducing illness that is The Murder Plague.

                     

                    The Murder Plague: Turnabout, Part 2 of 2

                    Written by J.R.D. Skinner
                    Art and Narration by Opopanax
                    and Audio produced by Jessica May

                     

                    I awoke to a conversation that went something like:

                    “Told you it was worth waiting.”

                    “Easy for you to say, I was the one leaking fluids while lying across the road in the middle of a war zone.”

                    “He came didn’t he?”

                    The chatter wasn’t what struck me first, however. Of note was: 1) I was in a moving vehicle. 2) There were street lights rolling past the windows.

                    It’d been weeks since I’d seen electric illumination beyond the glare of my flashlight and the occasional glow giving away some poor fool’s hiding spot. That sort of luxury was simply one of those things that had slipped away with the rest of the civilized world.

                    My hands had been zip-tied together, as had my feet, and I appeared to be laying on a bench seat in the back of a Prowler car – you know, the silent little electric-buggies that Rambo used in First Blood Part 10 to sneak into the Jihadi base.

                    If the female voice complaining about leakage was Jennifer Galt – Ms. Atlas – then, I assumed, the smart-mouthed guy behind the wheel must have been the fellow the press referred to as “Head.”

                    Noticing that I was shifting around in search of a comfortable position, he asked, “Are you lucid enough for questions? Because I’ve been wondering: Can you really call it a “war zone”? I mean, sure, there are a lot of the elements – gunplay, occasional explosions, loose body parts floating around – but it’s really all one-on-one. Don’t you need two or more semi-organized forces to really call it a war? Isn’t it really more the case that the East Coast is one massive crime scene?”

                    And that’s when I realized, strangely, that I hadn’t considered killing either of them since opening my eyes. I really was lucid.

                    “I’m cured?” I said, and even before they answered “Yes.” I began to cry.

                    It soon became obvious I was on the far side of the military barricade across the Lethe River, somewhere within the infamous Buffer Zone where anyone not wearing a uniform was likely to be shot on sight. We stopped at a makeshift command tent that had been set up on the lawn of an evacuated suburban McMansion. It looked to have been built from the same cookie cutter mold that created the neighbourhood I’d been hiding in: White siding and faux-brick exterior, two car garage, grass that hadn’t seen watering since the apocalypse had begun.

                    FP448Long story short, they’d been looking for me since the incident with the armoured personnel carrier, some weeks previous. I’d been on the cusp of infection at that point and hadn’t thought much of the military since. Apparently they’d been thinking of me, however, as Atlas – Jennifer – explained.

                    “Right now there’s only a few dozen doses of the cure, so we need to use them strategically. The problem of course, was how? Who is higher priority than who? But once the word got back that someone had spotted Harm Carter, gore soaked hero of the zombie war – likely the third most important figure in solving that whole shambling mess – command got excited; and who better to go fetch him than an old pal from his tin can days?”

                    I slept then, because I knew I’d need it, and because you’re never really resting when you suspect every shadow of containing a rabid knifeman.

                    It was clear by the gentle tones of the medical staff, the gurney they lowered me onto, and the way they left me mostly alone in a tent full of high-powered drugs, that they thought I was going to be an invalid for a few days. You can always tell when such undertakings are considered serious business when the practitioners strip you of your pants.

                    I’ll admit to doing very little to dissuade them of that notion, though I worked hard to keep my blankets pulled up and my hospital-style robe closed.

                    The next morning Atlas, Head, and the two Brits newscasters call The Lovesick Twins came through with a gruff old man whose name I didn’t recognize but whose rank was apparent despite his lack of insignia.

                    They wanted to know everything I could teach about the nature of the plague; how I’d survived, the sort of resistance I’d met, and any hints I might have as to how not to be shot, stabbed, or blown-up while attempting to distribute the vaccine.

                    Though cured of Hitchcock’s, I’ll admit a few of the reflexes lingered. During story time, which lasted most of the daylight hours, I managed to glean that I was not only cured, but was also now immune. I learned that the whole world hadn’t fallen – outbreaks were being fought abroad and on our own soil, but that the need for bodily fluid exchange had slowed the march enough to set up holding lines.

                    My deposition remains classified, but, if I’m honest, it was essentially everything I’ve told you up till now anyhow.

                    They recorded my explanation, asked questions here and there to clarify, then left my poor broken self to recoup.

                    “Need anything?” Jennifer had asked as they departed, and that’s when I put in a request for pants.

                    It’s funny, up until that point I hadn’t really known if I was going to carry out my plan or not. Was I being foolish? Had the disease cast some shadow across my brain they had not considered in their medical diagnosis?

                    No. I was just a fellow who’d been left in a particularly valuable tent, a man who had things to accomplish, a man who had just been gifted a pair of ill-fitting slacks.

                    When I was finally alone with the hushed beeping of my equipment, I stood. There was enough slack in the cords running to the various monitors that I could maneuver a bit about the room, and I was left to prod through the carrying case they’d left so carelessly on the folding table where the doctors also wrote up my reports.

                    I wasn’t greedy: There were eight vials within, each labelled as one dose. I only took two, a handful of syringes, and a black plastic garbage bag in which I could wrap the whole package. I taped it all to my chest with surgical tape, then I took a peek through the flaps.

                    Spotlights roamed the streets beyond the perimeter. The rattle of dinner plates and hungry conversation drifted from another temporary structure a few lawns down.

                    That’s when I flipped off the switches, pulled away the sensors, and crept out to the silent prowler, parked not far from where I’d lain.

                    My daughter was out there. Becky was of no strategic value to anyone, Becky had no history or connections to swoop in. Who would save her if not one of the gore soaked heroes of the zombie war?

                     

                    Flash Pulp is presented by http://skinner.fm, and is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

                    Intro and outro work provided by Jay Langejans of The New Fiction Writers podcast.

                    Freesound.org credits:

                    Text and audio commentaries can be sent to comments@flashpulp.com – but be aware that it may appear in the FlashCast.

                    – and thanks to you, for reading. If you enjoyed the story, tell your friends.

                    Spread the word!