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Sword in Hand

Andy Nunez and David Bruce Bozarth


Sally was weary, much too weary for a 21 year old.

She was also cold, being nude except for high heels that had just enough straps to hold the stilettoes to her well-manicured feet. Her back and feet hurt from the heels. If she weren't leaning against a five-foot long sword for support she would have keeled over long ago. She sighed.

Click.

It was all part of the business, she supposed. Times being what they were, a cheesecake photography shoot put food better than McDonald Happy Meals on the table and kept the power on in her tiny apartment.

Click.

Click. Click. Click.

"All done. You can get dressed."

The photographer had promised dinner and a ride home because the hour was so late. He fussed over his cameras, taking his time dismantling and putting away the peripheral equipment. She could have put on a robe but she was just too tired from holding the heavy sword in dozens of poses for more than three hundred photographs.

The photographer's back canyon studio was his home, an old two story adobe with white washed walls. The starkness of the studio made her eyes vibrate as she tried to focus on him against the white background. He reached into his pocket and produced a wallet, making a show at pulling out her fee and keeping the wallet open at an angle so that there was no mistaking more bills in there. He handed Sally her fee.

"Where in the hell am I going to put it?" the naked blonde asked with a trace of irritation.

"Oh, yeah, sorry."

She wondered how experienced was Butch the photographer.

She rose, placing the sword against a chair back, and began dressing. Butch held the money until her pants were on. Sally shoved the bills into her pocket, pulled on a tank top and suede leather jacket. She picked up her purse. "I'm hungry."

"I thawed some steaks earlier. There's a barbeque pit out back. Salad fixings..."

It was at least a forty-five minute drive back to town. "I suppose so," Sally replied. She put down the purse and followed Butch when he gestured toward the back of the house.

The kitchen was adobe, wood, and tile. It was clean. He opened the refrigerator and took out a platter with two very thick steaks.

"Got anything to drink?"

Butch produced two cans of beer. Sally took one, though she frowned. "I meant a Coke or soda."

"Filled with preservatives," Butch laughed. He patted his stomach. "Not good for you."

Sally sipped the beer, watching the photographer competently season the meat and collect his cooking tools. Again, at his gesture, she followed him outside to a large patio off the back door. A few concrete beds of flowering bushes edged the sand-covered flagstone. A talus rock and brush-covered slope rose steeply from the rear of the lot to the top of the canyon wall. There were no houses to the left or right.

"Pretty isolated up here," Sally observed.

"Yeah," Butch replied. "I like the solitude."

He fired up the gas grill and threw on the steaks. Raising his eyes, the photographer looked at the girl as the last of the sunlight lingered in the cooling night air.

"You're a real looker, Sally. I am not just saying that, either. You have great potential. You could model for some of the best magazines in the country instead of this artsy stuff, which is really soft-core porn for the genteel."

"I just need a few bucks until an acting job comes along."

"Hollywood is a tough place on women, particularly pretty young women. You need someone to look out for you."

"Who?" Sally asked, putting the beer down—suddenly not interested in finishing it. "You?"

"Maybe," Butch grinned. "What is your ideal man like?"

"Tarzan," she said, "or Lancelot. I want a man who can carry that big sword—one who isn't afraid to use it to defend what was his. A man with guts, with honor. I'll know him when I see him."

Butch snorted. "That kind of man went out with Bill Clinton's non-sex and Kenneth Lay screwing investors while he gets paid. You'll never find a knight in shining armor, but what you could find—and really need—is some smooth booze, mellow weed, and all-night sex."

Butch had crossed the patio as he spoke. He put his arms about the girl and roughly drew her close for a kiss. "For what I paid you, you can be a little appreciative..."

"You son of a—" the girl snarled. She shook free and slapped the photographer.

His fist knocked her head half around her neck and the salty taste of blood filled Sally's mouth. He grabbed her again and tried to grope her breast. "Don't be fight it. You'll love it."

Sally reacted automatically. Strong white teeth bit down hard on the photographer's nose. Butch screamed in pain and harshly choked her until Sally let loose. Butch then began to methodically beat the girl until Sally was nearly senseless—and he was sweating and out of breath.

He started to take off her jeans and abruptly stopped. Swearing, he stepped toward the light to take a look at the knuckles of his right hand.

Holding her whimpers silent, Sally crawled to the barbecue pit and reached up. She was frantically feeling around for the knife or fork when she heard:

"That's not playing nice, Sally," Butch growled.

He ran forward just as the girl gripped a handle. She swung wildly and was astonished to see the eight-inch blade enter Butch's chest. The photographer did not seem to notice. He knelt over the bloody girl, gripped her chin with one hand and the back of her head with the other and twisted hard until Sally heard something snap.

* * * * * * * *

Sally awoke to find herself looking up at the bottom of the barbecue pit. She rolled away and stood up. An instant later she screamed when she looked down to see her lifeless body covered by the dead photographer. She jammed knuckles against her teeth and backed away, confused.

The girl ran trembling hands over her naked body and discovered she was whole and uninjured. But how could she have two bodies? Her rising fear gradually melted to confusion when the expected flaming chariot or chorus of angels did not appear in the sky.

Instead, only stars wheeled above her. One in particular pulsed with a strange red glow. She felt drawn to it, as if it radiated hope and solace. Her confusion became an unexplained yearning, a deep desire to cross from the world she knew to another, to the object with its ruddy aura. Without thinking, she held up her arms as if in supplication.

Sally's gesture was answered by a strange lifting sensation, and a hurtling unlike any roller coaster she had ever ridden. There was strange click, like a wire snapping.

Opening her eyes, the entire landscape had changed. Instead of the familiar grass and scrub trees and desert of California, her surroundings were unearthly, yet not unpleasant. The ground had a warm ochre color. Spongy moss tickled her toes and the heat of a smaller sun was comforting. All about she saw endless ochre carpeting, relieved only by rocks and occasional shrubs. Her amazement at this unknown world was cut short by the clink of metal behind her.

She turned to observe a bizarre spectacle. There was a giant beast, twice the size of the largest draft horse, its eight legs quivering. The creature's head was like that of some iguanas she had seen. How this monster could have come up upon her unawares mystified her, but she saw that its legs ended in nail-less pads. Only the shifting of its accouterments gave the animal away—or perhaps its rider did.

Her fear of the beast was replaced by wonder at its master. He was nearly a head taller than herself, dressed in a leather harness from which an arsenal of weapons depended. His skin was a dark copper color. His hair and eyes were deep black, with features that were regular and firm. In that instant Sally felt as if she knew this man, though she could not say why.

What caught her eye most was the bejeweled hilt of the large sword strapped to his back. The sword was nearly identical to the one Butch had in his studio, but more so—the difference between a child's play toy and a warrior's weapon.

Had she died and gone to a heaven of her own making—a heaven confused by her last hours of life? Yet the moss beneath her feet felt real, as did the breeze upon her bare skin. Even as she asked herself if this stark and barren world could breed a man like the one she yearned for, the warrior held out his hand and smiled.

The hesitation was slight on Sally's part. She refrained from smiling back though her heart fluttered in her breast. With determination she walked to the side of the huge animal.

The rider's beast snorted but made no vicious gestures. She grasped the warrior's hand, finding his grip strong and electrifying. He effortlessly lifted her up. Sally threw her leg over the creature's spine and settled against the warrior's back. Without hesitation she put her arms around his waist, feeling his well-developed muscles. She put her cheek against the rider's back, eyes locked on the sword in its worn leather sheath. Instead of agonizing over her fate, she was content.

The warrior touched her arms at his waist for a heartbeat, then urged the fearsome mount forward. The great beast rolled swiftly over the sward. Soon the two merged with the horizon, another speck in the whirl of life.

THE END

AFTERWORD:

(email from Tangor to Gridley:)

Remember the girl with sword contest that ended up not being a contest? Clearing things off my hard drive I came across your IS THAT A SWORD IN YOUR HAND, OR ARE YOU GLAD TO SEE ME? story. One reason I didn't publish then was the transfer was so close to my Dead Cities of Mars—the other is there were no other entries. However, you did have one attribute to the story that was different (sexual harrassment). So, Tangor meddles again. I will let you say whether you'd like to see it published or not.

(Gridley's reply:)

Works fine for me. Give yourself equal billing and post away.