Blackmail Earth - By Bill Evans

There’s no need for retreat but he steps back anyway. For a better view. A body lies spread-eagled on the floor: once a woman, now a bloodied, disfigured form. Red smears on rough planks.

The smells of salt and sweat and blood rise like the crackling madness of cicadas, millions of them beating their belly membranes in the surrounding fields and forests.

A taper burns in his hand, flickering light that dares the shadows to dance, the reckless darkness to come to life.

Carefully, with a true aim, steady hand, he dribbles wax on the five points of a pentacle that he’s carved into her chest, then stares at the smaller stars that he’s gouged into each of her perfect cheeks and her lightly lined brow.

Her empty eyes are open, but even in death—so ravenous and raw—they hold his gaze. Not for long. He will grant them special attention.

He retrieves two white votive candles from his pocket and lights them. The scents of anise, cinnamon, cloves, and rose hips fill his nostrils. Like cookies.

He doesn’t touch her. Not directly. Not anymore. He tilts the taper till it spills hot wax on her fallen eyes, patiently sealing their glum surfaces. The rest of her face, though lit with an orange glow, proves no less opaque, its features drowned in a crimson flood, as if she’s been flayed in a furious rage. Purely unidentifiable at a glance, and that’s all he allows himself, for a calm has come; and his attention to the macabre details of murder is spent. For now.

He smiles. He didn’t choose her. She chose herself. The laws of night coming alive in veils of sudden wonder.

He stares at the red length of her, then places the taper on her bloody belly, where babies might have nested. The candle falls over, sticks to her richly scored skin, and sputters in the silence. As she did. Quickly snuffed. As she was.

Straightening, he runs his index finger and thumb down the slippery sides of a beveled blade, his eyes on the drips that spatter the floor.

Like the rain that never comes.


Jenna Withers could see more than fifty miles from the shotgun seat of The Morning Show helicopter. None of it looked pretty. The farms and forests north of New York City had turned to tinder. Mid-October was as hot as mid-August had been, the third scorching year in a row. Lakes and reservoirs were drying up and the rivers looked like they’d slunk away from their banks, thieves in the night.

It was just as dry—or drier—on the West Coast and across the Sun Belt. The hottest growing season on record. Much of the Midwest had been singed, too, with farmers in Iowa and Nebraska losing 80 percent of their corn crop. Food and fuel prices were rising as fast as the mercury.

Minutes ago Jenna; her producer, Nicole Parsons; and their crew had choppered out of New York City, the heart of a drought emergency that had been declared two months ago. That was the second highest level of official panic, right below drought disaster—conditions so dire that they were bluntly unthinkable in a metro area of twenty million people.

No one in the Big Apple had escaped the vicious grip of the Northeast drought. Water for parks, golf courses, and fountains? Fahgeddaboutit. Let ’em brown, where they hadn’t burned. Car washes? You gotta be kiddin’. Pools? You’re still jokin’.

Not even sprinklers to cool off the kiddies, and fire hydrants were locked up tighter than Tiffany’s. Most of the water for everything but drinking now came from the Hudson River, where crews worked 24/7 to pump out tens of millions of gallons. The water level had dropped to historic lows. Sailors had to take extra steps to climb down from docks to their decks, but this was a minor inconvenience to a city in survival mode. A city that looked like it was on chemo.

Jenna, a meteorologist, didn’t need the Ph.D. after her name to tally up the terror that could come from a cigarette tossed into the brittle brush down below, where a single spark could turn the region crisp as Southern California when the Santa Ana winds wicked all the life from the land, before burning the mountainsides black. Merely looking down at the devastation from the front passenger seat brought to mind the scores of scientific studies linking high temperatures and high-pressure systems to homicide and the full spectrum of urban violence.

The current condition was a classic summertime high. It had originated just