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Art by Hillary Lyon 2019



Tom Barlow



     At the command, a dozen rifles spat into the cool desert air. Harmon wasn't blindfolded but he had closed his eyes, yet could still see the flash from each rifle barrel. Bullets zipped past his ears. A stream of urine worked its way toward his socks.

     Unwounded, confounded, he opened his eyes.

     The commander of the rebels, the one with the million dollars bounty on his head dead or alive, was pointing at Harmon's pants and laughing. The others dropped the barrels of their Kalashnikov knockoffs and joined him.

     Harmon stole a glance at the three bodies, mercenaries like him, who had already met the firing squad that afternoon.

     At the direction of the commander, the youngest of the rebels approached, drew out his K-bar and cut the zip tie suspending his arms above his head, secured to rebar protruding from the wall of the mostly demolished apartment building. He grabbed Harmon by the collar and dragged him forward until he was nose to nose with the commander.

     The leader's breath was overripe with garlic. "You see how quickly people can die out here? If it isn't a bullet or a missile it’s a scorpion bite or AIDS or a famine. The only magic that keeps you alive is money. Are you ready to work some magic for us?"

     Harmon nodded vigorously.

     They pointed the way down the street with their rifles. As he walked, Harmon couldn't stop thinking about his mates, how, when asked one by one why they should be kept alive, all played a false card: children at home, sympathy with the rebel cause, expertise that could be useful. He'd been the only one savvy enough to declare that he could be ransomed for money. Lots of money.

     He was guided into the shell of a storefront, where more rebels squatted against the walls. The commander handed Harmon the cell phone he'd taken from him when they were captured. "You call. We want a million dollars. American dollars."

     Harmon took the phone, wondering if his captor was so unsophisticated that he didn't realize the army could use it to target him. He pulled up his supervisor Tom's cell phone number, dialed the international code first. Luckily, Tom answered after a couple of rings.

     Harmon explained the situation.

     "Oh sweet Jesus," Tom said. "And the others?"

     "They won't need ransomed."

     "You mean they escaped?"


     "Well fuck. Look, I need to talk to the CEO. Give me half an hour."

     "Don't waste time," Harmon said. "I doubt I have much."

     He hung up, turned to the commander. "They'll call back."

     "I give you an hour," he said, directing his men to once again restrain Harmon's wrists and ankles in zip ties.

     After what he guessed was twenty minutes, the phone rang. The commander picked it up, said, "Hello." He listened for a moment, then held the phone up to Harmon's ear.

     "Tom?" he said.

     "I'm Harold Branch," the voice on the phone said. "The company attorney."

      "Sorry, Harold, but I don't need legal advice at the moment. I need a million dollars."

      "I understand your predicament, but it's not that easy. A million dollars is a lot of money. How much do you think they'd settle for?"

     "A million dollars."

     "And the others are dead?"

     "Roger that," Harmon said.

      "Jesus," Branch said. "That's terrible."

      "Let's not make it four for four. When can you get the money here?"

     "A million bucks? It's just not going to happen, Harmon. We're barely above water this quarter. Tell him we can do $250,000. That's the limit of our insurance. Now, if there was some way we could get our hands on the reward…"

     "You cheap bastards," Harmon said.

      The commander stamped a foot, grabbed the phone from him. "A million bucks," he said into the mouthpiece. "Or we shoot your friend in the head tonight."

      Harmon couldn't hear Branch's response, but he could tell it was longwinded and displeasing to the commander by the frown that buckled his lips.

      "No, you understand," he eventually said. "This is not a negotiation." He picked up his rifle, whispered something to the solider closest to him, then fired a single round into the dark. Immediately, the soldier screamed for him.

     "That's just one leg. One million dollars. You call back when you got it, we arrange the swap."

     He listened for another long moment, then said, "Not going to happen? You really don't give a damn about your employee, is that it?" He hung up.

     "You don't seem to have any friends," he said to Harmon. 

    "That must be a hard way to live. You see these men?" He gestured toward those surrounding them. "We die for one another. Your friends, they won't even open up their wallets."

      "Give them time," Harmon said. "They'll come around."

     "We'll call one more time," the commander said. "In the morning. Then, the bullet."

     The group was evidently exhausted from running from the army day after day, and soon fell asleep, all but one guard stationed in the doorway who never took his eyes off Harmon.

     At dawn, just as the growing light gave Harmon hope that things would change with the next phone call, he saw, crossing the face of the sun, an approaching cruise missile. 

In the instant before he exploded, Harmon had the time to realize that for a company whose bottom line was death, the choice of collecting a million-dollar bounty or paying a million-dollar ransom was really no choice at all.

Tom Barlow’s other stories may be found in anthologies, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013, Dames and Sin, and Plan B Omnibus, and periodicals including SwitchbladeRed Room, Pulp Modern, Heater, Plots with Guns, Mystery Weekly, Needle, Thuglit, Manslaughter Review, and Tough. His novel, I'll Meet You Yesterday, from Bundoran Press and short story collection Welcome to the Goat Rodeo, from Pagespring Press, are available on Amazon. 

Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.   

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