I turned late. That’s a bad way to start a duel. By the time I’d spun around and lifted my AR, my opponent had pulled their trigger twice.
Their first round fired true — a 5.56 mm, full-metal-jacketed slug struck me center of mass, right over my sternum. The Kevlar fibers and steel trauma plate in my vest kept the bullet from penetrating, but I felt every bit of the round’s scorching 3000 feet per second. I gasped and lurched in pain, then felt a new agony as their second round grazed my upper left shoulder.
They’d gone for center of mass rather than a head shot first, failing to adjust tactics for the vests I had insisted on. Then they were too quick on the trigger for the second shot, failing to adjust for recoil. My opponent’s inexperience was to my benefit. Hopefully it would be enough to counter their speed, youth, planning, and a white-hot anger stoked by untold generations of resentment.
I sidestepped right and fired. The bullets whizzed close by and my diminutive challenger crouched low, scuttling to the left toward a wooden crate — giving me a clue to how they moved. I continued right and we both exchanged another pair of shots before mutually reaching cover.
Hidden behind a crate of Korean engine parts, I winced and pressed a hand to each of my wounds in succession. Things were so much easier in the old days. Back then it was swords upon the moor or single-shot pistols at dawn, all negotiated by seconds, with a marshal at hand to keep things above-board. Our generational duel had seen all those sorts of battles and more during its long history. But now it was M4s and 30 rounds at midnight in a railyard warehouse, all arranged via text messages to a burner phone.
What would the next generation see? Lasers in orbit around the Moon?
Damn it, would this feud never end? When would they finally forgive me and my line? Why did I have to bear the scar of the first betrayal?
Emma. Oh, Emma, what can I possibly do?
I felt the dread I’d been warned about all my life as soon as I saw the body in the morgue. Stephanie Reed, the Barron County medical examiner, pulled back the sheet to expose the corpse’s face. It belonged to a Caucasian man in his 40s, with unkempt brown hair and a chubby face full of stubble. I frowned at her. “This is the guy they found in the alley? Any idea who he is?”
Steph shook her head. “We’re not quite positive, Mason. The ID in his wallet said Thomas Mays, but he had a bunch of other matching IDs as well. There’s one for Brophy, Devon, Berg, Southcotte . . . you name it. Probably some sort of con artist or identity thief. Forensics took his prints and they’re running them now.”
I nodded and looked at the body closely. “So, what’s so special about him? The Sheriff said this homicide was weird.”
Steph smiled wickedly, like a little girl about to spill a juicy secret. “You’ll love this. Cause of death was gunshot trauma to the heart and excessive blood loss. But the bullet? Not a bullet.” Steph reached around and held up a half-inch diameter spherical bearing. “This is a .52 caliber lead musket ball. Like the sort you’d fire from a Revolutionary War muzzle-loading smoothbore musket.” She turned back and brought up another item in an evidence bag. “Or in this case, an early 19th century percussion cap dueling pistol. Which we found in the victim’s hand.”
She held forth just such a pistol, with a red-stained walnut stock and an ornately engraved blue steel barrel and lock, accented by brass hardware. It was a beautiful, deadly antique, and seeing it caused my heart to pound rapidly within my chest.
I licked suddenly dry lips. “I don’t suppose he shot himself, did he?”
Brad, Stephanie’s assistant, walked up with a grin. “No way, Deputy Farmer. The pistol’s been fired, but not into himself. The vic has black powder residue on his right hand, but if he’d shot his own heart, there’d be significant burn stippling around the entry wound. No, this fella got percussion capped at a good distance, presumably by the missing twin brother of this bad boy. Dueling pistols were usually manufactured in matched pairs.”
I nodded at the pair of grinning MEs, but panic prevented me from joining them. There had been a duel in Barron County. But it was over. It had nothing to do with me. It had nothing to do with the mark. That was just an old family legend. It wasn’t real and this wasn’t my fault.
Steph and Brad waited patiently as I fought down an overwhelming sense of terrifying inevitability. At last, I tried to speak. “Um . . . so we don’t know the victim’s ID. Did he have any distinguishing marks we can search for if his prints aren’t on record?”
Brad laughed. “Somebody already told you, didn’t they? Yeah, he’s got this big tattoo of a fish in a skirt!”
Steph shook her head and pulled further down the sheet covering the body. “It’s not a fish in a skirt. It’s a humpback whale in a tutu. Still ridiculous though. I have no idea what it was for.” She looked at me and continued, “It’s a new tattoo, probably about a week old. Should be fairly easy to track down . . . .”
Steph trailed off, no doubt taken aback by the expression on my face. I did not notice her reaction, too absorbed in the awful confirmation the tattoo represented.
The dead body’s pale chest, sprinkled lightly with graying chest hair, did indeed feature a tattoo of a dark blue and gray humpback whale. The cetacean appeared leaping almost out of the water amid wind-tossed waves, alive and carefree. Inexplicably, the frills of a stiff pink ballet tutu circled around its mid-body, between the dorsal and pectoral fins. There was no telling what it had signified to the unidentified victim, but the shape…the outline…was immediately recognizable to me.
I grabbed the autopsy photos from in front of Steph and fled the morgue, ignoring the confused queries she and Brad shouted after me. Through passageways and stairwells I ran, stopping for no one and acknowledging nothing until I reached my office. The glass door bore my name and title, Deputy Mason Farmer, Barron County Sheriff’s Department, Criminal Investigation Division. I pushed it open and slammed it behind me, then quickly shut the door’s blinds so no one could look in.
Next to my desk, a full-length mirror hung upon the wall. I stood before the mirror and ripped open my tan uniform shirt, lifting my undershirt up. My gaze frantic, I compared my reflection to the photos the MEs had taken of the victim’s tattoo.
Marring my left pectoral was a large, irregular birthmark, colored angry maroon. I had always thought of it as a narrow, vertically arced oval, trisected by a chevron and a cone, atop a number of radiating, spiked lines. Looking at my birthmark and the tattoo side-by-side however, the outlines were remarkably similar: the oval and chevron was the whale, pectoral fins extended; the truncated cone was the stiff fabric of the ballet skirt; the spiked lines spreading out at the base were the waves out of which the whale jumped.
But the birthmark on my chest was no ill-considered tattoo. Each generation, one male in my extended family line had borne this same mark somewhere on their body — a mark which targeted them for a blood vendetta as old as mankind itself. And at some point in their lives, someone had sought each of them out to demand satisfaction, to somehow punish my family for the transgressions of the distant past.
The mark had not always been a birthmark, however. Originally — it was said — the first mark had been transcribed upon our progenitor by the finger of God Himself.
It was the scar of the first betrayal.
The Mark of Cain.
Emma Clark’s hand reached out across the table to take my own and squeeze it gently. I looked up into her gorgeous green eyes, lit like flashing emeralds by the restaurant’s sconces and candlelight. I tried to give her a sincere smile, some measure of reassurance, but it failed. Not only did I worry about the pair of us, now I had to worry over this victim’s implications.
She smiled. The right emotions seemed to come easier to her. “Mason, is everything okay? You’ve hardly said a word all night.”
I nodded. “It’s just work. Some . . . old family business. I’m trying to make sense of things. But you don’t need to fret. It’s not a big deal.”
Emma chuckled. “Honey, I want to fret. If we’re going to be together, we have to share each other’s burdens. Two people carry the load better than one.”
“You don’t have any burdens.”
She barked an incredulous laugh, causing the people around us to look over. Emma’s face turned almost as red as her shoulder length hair and she hunched down, blocking everyone else from her peripheral vision. “Oh, geeze! Believe me, I’ve got burdens . . . inappropriate public outbursts among them. So spill it. Let me play the supportive girlfriend role.”
I grinned, considering her words. “Is that what we are now? Boyfriend / girlfriend?” We had been dating for three months, but both of us were relatively slow movers. Emma was a recent transplant to Barron County and the Sheriff’s Department, working down in Records. We had met and hit it off from day one. Since then, we saw one another several times a week, but only recently had we taken the next step.
After we made love that first time a couple of weeks before, Emma had been standoffish and withdrawn. What usually were the magical moments of new love became awkward and forced. I thought it had been my fault, but Emma assured me she had only been working through old history. We started seeing each other again, spending the night at each other’s places and things were improving. To anyone on the outside looking in, we were the perfect couple, but it was still not as easy as it should have been.
Emma nodded and took both my hands in hers. “Yes. Boyfriend and girlfriend, you and me. At least until you piss me off by not talking. Spill it.”
I nodded, then squeezed her fingers. “This is sort of a non sequitur, but do you remember the story of Cain and Abel?”
Her brow furrowed. “From the Bible?”
“Yes. The story you know is based on a Hebrew myth from the Torah, in Genesis.”
I shrugged. “I’m not very religious. Anyways, you know the story. Qayin and Hebel, or Cain and Abel, were the first children born in the world to Adam and Eve. Cain was the eldest, and he cultivated the land as the first farmer. Abel husbanded animals and became the first shepherd. One day, they each made offerings to the Lord. Cain presented the bounty of his crops. Abel slaughtered some of his firstborn and the fattest of his livestock. When the Lord appeared, he accepted only the offering of meat, showing favor to Abel’s over Cain’s. This angered Cain, but God asked him, ‘You offered property, but did you divide it as favorably as Abel? By skimping and then showing jealousy, you risk opening the door to sin.’ God ascended and the brothers returned home, but along the way Cain led Abel into a field and slew him with a rock.”
Emma stared at me, a confused look on her face. “Well, family can be tough that way.”
I grinned. “Later, God returns and asks Cain where Abel is. Cain responds like an asshole, asking, ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ God figures out what happened, because, you know, He’s God, and He punishes Cain for committing the first murder. He takes the land from him. No longer will the soil produce for Cain, since he had sown it with Abel’s blood. Cain is driven from home. Eventually he marries — presumably to one of his own sisters — and settles in a distant land. He and his sons become city builders. Masons.”
She smiled and placed her hands in her lap. “That’s sort of like you: Mason Farmer.”
“That’s where my name comes from . . . among other things. God’s punishment included something else. He placed a distinctive mark upon Cain. He wanted him to live his whole life with the guilt of his unrighteousness, and the Mark was a warning to others not to kill Cain. Some traditions hold the curse was passed down to his descendants. They were all supposed to have died out in Noah’s flood, but . . . maybe they didn’t. Maybe it survives even to this day. Or maybe it’s just an old myth.” I took a drink. “What do you think?”
Emma shrugged at me. “About the Sunday school lesson? I dunno. It seems to me that Cain got off pretty easy.”
I laughed, surprised. “Really? The land itself rejected him and he had to leave everything behind to start a whole new life and career. He was cursed with a mark for all time, an object of public disgust and under the constant threat of death. Don’t you think that’s a pretty horrible sentence?”
“It’s not how I’d want to spend a few centuries, since those Genesis patriarchs lived so long — but he did get to live. He wasn’t jailed. There was no death penalty. He got to have a litter of sons and . . . I dunno, build cities, I guess. Abel was just gone, his whole future lineage and accomplishments wiped from the Earth.”
My brow furrowed, but before I could respond, my phone vibrated and its screen lit with a text message. I looked down and read it.
It was from an unknown sender, but the message was identity enough: Primum Proditione.
Latin for “First Betrayal.”
I went cold all over. Emma must have seen it in my face, because she took my hand again. “What is it, Mason?”
Feeling helpless, I gestured uselessly at the phone. “I . . . I have to take this.”
“Work? Sure. I need to freshen up a bit anyway. Be right back!” Emma stood and I half arose from my seat. As she walked back to the Ladies room, I sat and texted back: WHO IS THIS?
You know. Did you get the challenge I left in the alley?
My eyes narrowed, thinking hard. YOU PAY/FORCE A MAN TO GET A TATTOO AND DRAW HIM INTO A DUEL? ALL AS A CHALLENGE TO ME?
An unscrupulous predator, easily found online. He deserved death, as do all who bear the Mark. The time has come to answer for the inequities of your line.
I’M A GODDAMN SHERIFF’S INVESTIGATOR! A GOOD PERSON. YOU CAN’T KILL BASED ON A BIRTHMARK & FOLKLORE!
The next text appeared almost a full minute after my last. God’s will circumvented true justice upon the betrayer Cain. Flood failed to wipe out yr diseased line. Those w/the mark must answer for evils of the world. One “good” man doesn’t matter.
I shook my head and sent nothing.
Will you meet the challenge? Or will your bitch and everyone else you care about have to die first?
Hot blood pounded within my ears. My thumbs flew over the phone’s screen. YOU WONT TOUCH MY PPL – WANT DUEL? NAME PLACE/TIME. WPN CHOICE IS MINE.
I looked up from my phone, breathing heavy, nostrils flaring, as Emma returned to the table. She frowned in concern. “Mason?”
Standing up, I motioned for the check and took her by the elbow. “I’m sorry. I have to cut our plans short tonight. Something’s come up and I have to go to the station immediately. Can you take a cab home? And I mean right to your place, right now?”
She nodded, her expression numb. “What the hell’s going on? How was that story any explanation for what’s happening with you?”
I took the check and laid down a wad of bills. Emma didn’t fight me as I led her to the restaurant’s bar. “Call a cab and stay in here, surrounded by people until it arrives. Okay? Then go straight home and lock yourself in. Don’t open the door for anyone but me. Will you do that?”
“You’re scaring the shit out of me, babe!”
“Will you do it!?”
I nodded and caught her up in my arms. We held each other tightly. Bending down, I kissed her long and hard, like a soldier saying goodbye to his bride as he goes to war. I left before she could say anything that might snap my fragile bravery.
Outside, the air felt brisk. I saw a short, wiry man leaning on the wall next to the restaurant’s entrance, scrolling through his phone, the collar of his overcoat turned up against the wind. Bundled up, I turned and went into the parking lot.
The wiry guy stood straight and followed.
I had to walk almost sideways to keep him in sight, to make sure he couldn’t sidle up close and stab me in the back. Such a thing would not be in the spirit of a duel, but all my personal knowledge of this process came from apocryphal family history.
I reached my car and turned around, face into the wind. The man trailing me did not react as I stared at him, watching his every move. He passed me and continued down the rows of cars until he reached a late-model blue sedan. I got into my own car, started it, and sped out of the lot.
The blue car did not follow, and it did not appear as I drove to the Sheriff’s Department, making a number of extra turns to identify a tail. Nothing turned up.
At work, the evidence locker held an arsenal, including a pair of military M4 carbines from a drug bust, ammo, and some high-grade bulletproof vests. While I prepared, the text came. Kia parts warehouse. Barron Railyard. Midnight.
The warehouse door stood open and unguarded when I drove up. The blue sedan was nowhere to be seen in the lot outside, but it could have been hidden away or swapped out . . . or not involved at all. My heart pounded in my ears as I parked my car.
Shouldering the two carbines and an extra vest, I entered. Wooden and cardboard crates climbed to the rafters amid bright spots of mercury lamp illumination and deep, unrelieved shadows. A central canyon had been cleared and my opponent stood in the center, dressed in black fatigues and facing away. My steps echoed off the crates, announcing my arrival, and they turned around.
I stopped dead. My brain shut down as Emma faced me.
My love smiled, but it was a cruel twist of her lips I’d never seen before. “The Progeny of Seth greet you, Marked One. Are you prepared to face justice?”
I let the rifles drop down. “What the hell, Emma . . . .”
She put a hand at her hip, hovering over a pistol. “I’m not here to chat, Mason. I’m here to avenge the line of Abel. Cain brought unrighteousness into the world. We’ll never know what we could have been if Abel’s lineage had been allowed to blossom. All evil in the world is Cain’s fault, and he paid nothing for it. But the Mark lived on, a gift from God, so each generation could avenge our loss of innocence and hold the final darkness at bay.”
“That’s crazy! I love you! I’m not going to duel you over some screwed up Judeo-Christian allegory. Just draw that pistol and kill me now!”
“And bring further dishonor? Accelerate our fall to darkness? The Progeny are not Cain. We’ll do this fairly.” She dropped her hand from the pistol. “Or we’ll destroy all you hold dear.” Her voice held no indecision. She meant to fight me one way or another.
I picked up the M4s and walked over, dreading each step. “Did you ever really love me, or were you some sort of…cult plant this whole time?”
Meeting in the middle, she reached out and took a rifle. Emma knew her way around the weapon. “No. You and I were random chance. I didn’t know you bore the Mark of Cain until that morning…the morning after. But then I knew it was all real. It was God’s will that we meet, that I stamp out the evil I’d been warned about as a child. I’m sorry, this is fate.”
I held her vest out. “Wear this too. My weapons, my choice.”
Emma raised an eyebrow but strapped it on. “This won’t be decided by first blood, vest or no. This duel is to the death.”
I shook my head. Without another word, we each turned and stood back to back, the last time we would ever touch. There was so much I did not know, about her, about this Progeny of Seth, about the long history of secret enmity that had followed us through time.
And I could only begin to answer my questions if I killed the woman I loved.
Emma spoke. “Ten paces, then turn and fire. May God decide who is righteous, who deserves justice.”
We both stepped off. 1. 2. 3. 4. 5. 6. 7. 8. 9. I listened closely to her footsteps, for the indication she began her turn.
We each spun about and began firing, maneuvering, and seeking cover. Her first shot took me in the sternum, but was stopped by my vest. Another grazed my left shoulder. I missed once, twice, three times.
Was I missing on purpose?
I dove behind a crate and checked myself. I called out in the sudden silence, “Re-think this! Let me speak to this Progeny myself!”
Soft, quick footsteps approached to my right, so I ran left, leading with my carbine pointed downrange. Emma was prepared. As I cleared the crate, she fired multiple times, her aim and recoil recovery improved. Three rounds hit. One gouged my right forearm. Two punched me in the gut. With no trauma plate there, the Kevlar only slowed the rifle rounds a bit, ripping into flesh.
Struck, my training took over and I fired even as I dropped to the ground. My first shot pinged off her M4’s upper receiver. Shards of metal struck her face and she staggered. The next round stopped her cold when it punched into her chest’s trauma plate.
Standing straight, shocked and out of cover, my last round penetrated her throat in a spray of gore. Emma fell like a marionette with its strings cut. Her rifle clattered to the concrete floor.
I allowed my own weapon to drop. Slowly, bleeding from my gut but still able to move, I struggled to my feet and shuffled to my dying girlfriend’s side. Sitting beside her, I drew Emma’s head into my lap. Her breath labored in gurgling gasps, becoming increasingly hesitant and ragged.
I pulled back the reddish bangs from her forehead and ran my fingers through her hair, trying to comfort her. I spoke softly, “I’m so sorry, Emma. Evil isn’t from any mark. It’s from a cult that would twist a girl so much, she believes she has to kill the man who loves her to keep the world safe. I’ll find this Progeny. I’ll show them what they truly are.
“Cain wasn’t his brother’s keeper. But I will be.”
During the day, Thomas A. Mays is a career US Navy officer and all-around Serious Person. At night, when the moon is full, he taps out science fiction with a feverish madness that would likely get him cashiered if his Uncle Sam knew about it. He is the author of numerous short stories in online magazines, and he has published a well-received collection of his military sci-fi shorts, REMO. His debut military SF novel / space opera A Sword Into Darkness, is available on Amazon or your favorite online book retailer. Helpful links can be found on Tom’s blog, The Improbable Author, at: http://improbableauthor.com/. You can reach him on Twitter @improbablauthor.