When would the laughing stop, and why were they laughing?

More chapters from Night Side of Dark

A VG Serial: Night Side of Dark

Episode 16

The somber splinter of a shadow passed across the blonde’s face, and she turned away from him. Ambrose Lincoln felt her shoulders tremble and turn rigid as though she was three days dead. Her breathing was rapid and shallow. She closed her eyes and retreated back into the dark recesses of her own mind. If she didn’t see it, it didn’t exist. If it didn’t exist, it couldn’t hurt her. What didn’t exist would one day kill her. Lincoln was convinced of it. What didn’t exist would one day kill them both. Humanity feared the first death. The second was the stuff of nightmares.

Lincoln did not bother to look up. He didn’t need to.

He could see the barrel of a rifle jammed under the blonde’s chin, pressing into her flesh. She choked and a yellow bile formed on her lips. The rifle looked like some odd and sophisticated version of a Mannlicher M1935. They were the guns that dead men fired. Lincoln had seen them scattered in the mud and the blood of killing fields after the armies had marched away and faded into mist and smoke.

Celia’s lips formed the words.

Yea, thought I walk through the valley ….

The prayer ended as quickly as it began.

She waited for the shot.

She waited for the end time.

She had already seen it once.

“The lady fainted,” Lincoln said. His voice was soft but direct.

“She has a job to do,” the soldier said. His face was as dark as his hair, and it bristled beneath the gray metal helmet that shaded his eyes. He wore five stripes on the shoulder of his gray uniform. Lincoln had no idea what they meant.

“The delay is only temporary,” he said.

He stood, took Celia’s hands, and lifted her back to her feet. He stared hard into her eyes, and finally she looked at him.

He nodded and smiled. “It’s all right,” he whispered.

“Name,” the soldier said. It sounded like a pistol shot.

“Celia,” she whispered.

“Number.” Same pistol shot. She jerked as if she had been shot.

“Three Sixty-four,” she said.

“Twenty-two Fracs,” the soldier snapped.

Celia looked puzzled. “I don’t understand,” she said.

Her words were lost in the sound of a brass band.

Two trumpets.

A tuba.

A slide trombone with the slide missing.

Lincoln did not recognize the melody.

He doubted if there was one.

“Infractions,” the soldier said. He sneered. “You now have twenty-two. You do not want to reach one hundred.”

“What happens at a hundred?” Lincoln asked.

“Judgment day.”

“Where are we now?” Lincoln asked.

“Don’t you know?”

“No one’s said.”

“You are neither here nor there,” the soldier said. “You are like a fly trapped in a spider’s web. It’s all over, and you have not realized it. The General has not yet decided your fate.”

“He make the final decision?” Lincoln asked.

The soldier grinned. He cocked the rifle and placed the barrel next to Lincoln’s face. It was hot like a poker drawn from a fire.

“Sometimes I make it for him,” the soldier said. “It all depends on whether I like you or not.”

He grabbed the blonde’s blouse and pulled her roughly to him.  “I can reduce her Fracs down to nothing,” he said. “It is, of course, up to her. I have the ability and the authority to make this existence bearable for us both. ”

Celia could feel the heat of his body.

The soldier’s face was awash with sweat.

It was national the day of laughter.

He laughed.

The soldier ripped the buttons off Celia’s drab gray dress and tore the dress from her shoulders.

He leaned forward to kiss her.

She was fighting, and he was fighting back, and his lips peeled back over his teeth. His nose flared. His eyes widened with anticipation.

He was cupping her left breast with a big, callused, and misshapen hand when the rifle fired.

The sound stunned him.

Celia dropped to her knees.

The soldier ‘s face turned pale. He clawed at the sharp stab of pain where the bullet had torn a ragged hole through his throat.

He turned to Lincoln, and his eyes were asking only one question.

Why?

Lincoln’s eyes answered him.

Why not?

The solider had a brief moment to glimpse the second death before he descended into the pit, darker than before . He had time for a single scream.

His face turned white.

So did his eyes.

A milky white.

Lincoln stepped back and let him fall.

Behind him, he heard a laugh.

It was a single laugh at first. An awkward laugh. An uncomfortable laugh. And then it began to catch on as the laugh moved cautiously from one throat to another, not much more than a ripple of laughter that began to grow louder until the laughter had swept from one side of the cultural arena to the other, and those who were not laughing were smiling, and most of them had not smiled in a long time.

Lincoln raised his eyes and searched among the faces until he found the Minister of Laughter.

The impresario in full military attire with gold braid on his shoulders and a string of medals dangling from his jacket was seated on a raised podium so he could look down on them all. He was regarded by those feared him, and everyone feared him, as the all seeing eye, the giver and the taker of life, a man who laughed at the dark even when he laughed alone.

The minister was slowly rising to his feet, a politician grown soft with power. His face and his belly were swollen from too many rich foods, from too much red wine, for surely he drank wine the color of blood, and his eyes were black, not unlike the night when the lights went out.

They had learned to hate a long time ago. The Minister of Laughter glared back at Lincoln. It should have been a good day for him. It was exactly the kind of day he had wanted, the kind of day he had decreed it to be.

Everyone was laughing. Louder now. Feet were stomping against the metal bleacher seats. The laughter had drowned out the brass band. The tuba lay alone on the floor.

The laughter was hearty and genuine. It came from deep in the belly.

The Minister of Laughter wasn’t laughing. He slowly raised his left arm. He snapped his fingers. The lights went out.

The darkness was blinding.

Lincoln could hear boots running toward him.

Eight was a dead man.

It was only a matter of time.

He grinned.

Poor bastards.

A man who hesitated, if only for a heartbeat, had no heart left to beat.

The soldiers had seen where Lincoln was standing and Celia kneeling. They had small lights attached to their metal helmets. They were on a dead run across the arena, the narrow splinters of their light beams bouncing across the metallic floor, jerking from face to face, up and down, back and forth, hesitant and defiant, moving ever closer.

Lincoln glanced toward the front door.

He saw nothing but lights, tiny splinters of light.

No exit.

Life had no exit.

The Minister of Laughter was on the microphone.

His voice was deep and matched the hatred in his eyes.

“The General wants him alive,” he said with harsh, clipped words. “The girl can die.”

Someone fired.  A spit of flame cut through the night.

Someone died.

So did the flame.

Someone screamed.

The screams died away within the sounds of laughter.

A splinter of light caught the face of the dead soldier.

His skin was ashen.

His eyes were empty sockets.

His mouth was gaped open as it had been when that last, agonizing scream spilled out of his throat.

All the soldiers saw around him was darkness.

And the darkness had become a wall as black as the night.

The splinters of light spilled from one face to another.

None of the faces belonged to Ambrose Lincoln.

He had slipped away into the darkness, and he had taken the blonde with him.

Chapters of Night Side of Dark will be published on  Saturday and Sunday.

Please click the title, Night Side of Dark, to read more about Caleb Pirtle III and his novels on Amazon.

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