Flu Season by John M. Floyd

“If he’s sick,” O’Neal said, “maybe he’ll die on his own.”

Patty shook her head. “It’s just a cold. Sniffles and sneezes.”

They were crouching together in the woods, watching Tom Tennison practice. Even before Patty and Tom were married, he’d practiced two hours every day.

Tom Tennison threw knives for the circus.

“Colds can be dangerous, when you’re old—”

“No,” Patty whispered. “He’ll outlive us both, unless we do something.”

“Then what’s the plan?” O’Neal flexed his muscles as he spoke. At thirty-eight his strongman act was still a good draw. He was not, however, very strong in the brains department. Patty didn’t care. She was smart enough for both of them.

“The plan is, we hurry things up a little,” she answered, her gaze fixed on her husband’s back, there on the far side of the clearing. His assistant, a young blonde named Roxanne, stood beside him in the grass, handing him his knives like a surgical nurse. The blades thunked into a nearby oak. Behind it, the main tent loomed dark against a blue sky.

“What do you mean, hurry things up?”

Patty turned to O’Neal. “Nothing good happens in this world unless you make it happen.” She took a new bottle of decongestant from her pocket. FOR COLDS AND FLU, the label said. “He asked me to get this for him today. Tonight, after the show, I’ll lace it with rat poison.”

O’Neal’s eyes glittered. “Why not now?”

“Because I don’t have the poison now. I’ll sneak some from the supply truck tonight.”

“And if he needs a dose before the show?”

“He can wait. Everyone’s sniffling, it’s that time of year.”

O’Neal, still rippling his muscles, said, “Why don’t I just twist his neck?”

“Because I don’t want you—or me—to go to prison. We have to be cautious.”

He snorted. “If we were cautious, you wouldn’t still be part of his act. We been together six months now, and you still let him throw knives at you every night.”

“That’s how I know we’re safe. He knows I wouldn’t risk that, if I were fooling around.”

“Guess not,” O’Neal agreed. Sixty feet away, Tom Tennison’s knives flashed in the sun.

“Stop worrying. From this point on, we’re in control.” She pocketed the bottle. “He’ll take his first and only dose of cold remedy tomorrow morning. And then I’m free.”

O’Neal gave her a sly grin. “At least free of him.”

She giggled, folded herself into his arms. Together they moved deeper into the shadows.

• • •

That night the big top was full. Hundreds watched the performers fly through the air and gallop in circles and juggle fiery torches in the name of entertainment and money.

The highlight was Texas Tom Tennison.

Conversations and breathing were suspended as Tom and his pretty assistant took center stage. Tom’s eyes were puffy, but no one noticed. He blew his nose and beamed at the crowd. Within seconds his knives were dancing in the lights, spinning and whumping into a backboard twenty feet away. Balloons popped, candles were snuffed out. Roxanne stood at his elbow, holding his knives and trying not to look bored.

Finally Patty Tennison appeared, in a shiny leotard and boots. She bowed and blew Tom a kiss. He tipped his hat. The crowd loved it.

Amid cheers and whistles she took her place against the backboard. Everyone grew quiet. Patty stood with chin high and arms spread while drums began to roll. Balloons and bullseyes and candles were gone now. This was the real thing.

And then Tom went to work, tracing the outline of his wife’s body with perfectly thrown five-inch blades. Patty never blinked. It was a stunning display of skill and nerves. After every throw the crowd roared its approval.

But on the tenth throw, which was supposed to plant a knife an inch to the right of Patty’s slender white neck, something went wrong.

The tent fell silent. Time seemed to stand still. An instant later the whole crowd—except for those who had fainted—started screaming. In the center ring, Tom and his assistant stood and stared, eyes wide with shock.

“Gesundheit,” Roxanne said.

Newton’s Law by John M. Floyd

Hobbs burst into the one-room cabin, slammed the door behind him, and leaned back against it, his eyes closed and his chest heaving. “Apaches,” he said. “Other side of the river. At least a dozen.”

Old Amos Bassett, who had already jumped to his feet, spit out half his biscuit and swallowed the rest whole. The third person in the room, a long-haired man named Jack Fountain, stood also, but a little more slowly: his wrists were handcuffed behind his back.

“Did they see you?” Amos sputtered.

“Don’t matter,” Hobbs said. “They saw our smoke.” He glanced around the interior of the cabin. It was an old line shack, dark and rundown and smelling like years of woodsmoke and unwashed cowboys. His gaze stopped on the rope-handled bucket, still empty, that he held in his right hand. He stared at it blankly for a second, then flung it into a corner. “Let’s get movin’. If we can make it to the woods and double back to the river . . .”

The old man was already gathering his gear. “What about the horses?”

“Leave ’em.” Hobbs took out his pistol, spun the cylinder, holstered it again. “We’ll have to go out the back window—”

“Give me a gun,” Jack Fountain said.

Both the others stared at him. “What?” Hobbs asked.

“You heard me. Take off these cuffs and give me a gun.”

Newton Hobbs regarded him a moment. “Let me explain something to you, Fountain. I’m the Law, he’s the tracker, you’re the prisoner. Prisoners don’t get guns.”

“Yeah, well, I ain’t no regular prisoner, Deputy. For one thing, I ain’t really been arrested yet, have I. And if that’s Red Shirt’s bunch out there”—Fountain nodded his shaggy head toward the closed door—“you’ll need all the help you can get.”

Before Hobbs could reply, Amos Bassett said, “He’s right, Newt. We’re just supposed to bring him in for questioning, you said so yourself.”

Hobbs turned to the old man. “So what are you saying, Amos? Give him a gun so he can kill us like he killed them two women in Hays?”

“I didn’t kill nobody,” Fountain snapped.

The old tracker swallowed and lowered his voice. “What if he’s tellin’ the truth, Newt? One of the Cado boys did say he saw him in Dodge at the time.”

All three men fell silent, thinking their own thoughts.

“Come on, Deputy,” Fountain said, half-turning and jingling his handcuff chains. “We’re wastin’ time.”

Still Hobbs hesitated. Finally he muttered, “God help us,” and nodded to the old man, who fished a key from his pocket and unlocked the cuffs. When that was done, Hobbs pulled a second pistol from his belt, flipped it over, and handed it to the prisoner. “Head for the window, I’m right behind you,” Hobbs said. He turned to grab some jerky and a canteen from the tabletop.

When he turned again, stuffing the jerky into his vest pocket, he froze.

Jack Fountain had taken two steps back, and was standing alone in the center of the room. The borrowed pistol was pointed straight at Newton Hobbs’s chest. Amos already had his hands high in the air, and was gawking at the gun as if hypnotized.

“What’s this?” Hobbs said.

Fountain cocked the pistol and studied both of them a moment. His lip had curled into a cold, bitter smile. “Let me explain something to you, Deputy,” he said. “You’re a dead man, he’s a dead man, I’m a free man. As of right now. And free men don’t get taken back to hang.

Hobbs nodded. “So you did kill ’em.”

“You bet I did. Enjoyed it, too.”

Old Amos suddenly spoke up, sounding hurt as well as scared: “But Sam Cado said you was in Dodge that day, with him…”

Fountain’s gaze flicked to Amos. “I’ll give you some advice, old man,” he said, still smiling. “Don’t believe everything you’re told.”

With that, he raised the revolver, aimed it at Hobbs’ head, and pulled the trigger.

The hollow CLICK sounded loud in the confined space of the cabin. For an instant Fountain just stood there, staring in disbelief. Before he could recover, Deputy Hobbs’s own gun was drawn and cocked and ready.

“Jack Fountain,” Hobbs said, “you are under arrest for the murders of Clara Garvey and Janie Sims. Amos, take his gun and cuff him again.”

newtonslawJohn M. Floyd’s publishing credits include The Strand Magazine, Woman’s World, Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, and The Saturday Evening Post. A former Air Force captain and IBM systems engineer, he won a 2007 Derringer Award and is the author of four books: Rainbow’s End (2006), Midnight (2008), Clockwork (2010), and Deception (2013).

The old man, who was every bit as stunned as the prisoner, blinked and nodded. While Hobbs held his pistol pointed at Fountain’s heart, Amos retrieved the empty revolver and with trembling hands snapped the cuffs into place.

In the silence that followed, Jack Fountain’s twisted grin returned. “Pretty cute, Deputy,” he admitted. “But you’re still dead men. Red Shirt and me go way back, but you and your tracker’ll be scalped and roasted by noontime.”

Amos Bassett swallowed again, and glanced over Hobbs’s shoulder at the closed door. “He’s right, Newt—it’s too late to run now. What about the Indians?”

Keeping his eyes on Fountain, Hobbs backed up until he was leaning against the doorframe. “Let me put it this way, Amos: So far he’s only been right about one thing.” Without looking, Hobbs hooked one of his spurs into the crack of the door behind him and kicked sideways. The door swung open again, to reveal a wide deserted clearing, a shallow river, and plains that stretched flat and empty all the way to the distant mountains.

“…Don’t believe everything you’re told,” Hobbs said.