#FridayFlash: The Test

"The Test"
by Tony Noland

He turned the card over, but the back side was blank. The instruction was block-printed with a wide pencil. With his thumb, he smudged the words; a gray streak followed across the creamy cardstock, smearing the crisp writing. A soft lead pencil, sharpened to a medium point. Sketching charcoal? No, not that soft. An HB 1, maybe. He set the card aside for the moment.

Other than his name, written in a cramped hand with blue-black ink, the envelope was blank, too. Held up to the light, he saw no indentation in the paper. Gently, he ran a fingertip over the words, felt nothing. He smelled the envelope, moistened a fingertip to smudge the ink and smelled it again. Fountain pen ink, from a pen with an extra fine nib. He held the envelope up to the light once more and considered it for a while. The loops of the capital T and N, the slant of the n's and the y... whoever wrote his name was familiar with good fountain pens, but usually wrote calligraphy. This spidercrawl was a poor attempt to hide an artist's hand.

But not the same artist who wrote the message on the card.

He set them aside, next to the wrapping papers. On the desk lay the olivewood box, glowing with linseed and beeswax. An old fashioned polish for an old fashioned gun case. He stepped around the back of the desk and reached over to slowly open the box from behind. The lid came up more easily than expected; he stopped it halfway. Millimeter by millimeter, he eased it open. At about the three-quarter mark, a needle-tipped dart shot upward from a small hole in the crushed velvet lining. The sleek glass syringe sailed through the air to impact against the lowest shelf of books near the fireplace. A reddish-brown liquid splashed and dripped from the broken needle.

Had he been in front of the box, it would have caught him just under the chin. Probably would have broken off under the skin, too.

With one smooth motion, he opened the lid the rest of the way, then backed away toward the window, keeping the desk between himself and the open lid. He crossed his arms and noted the time. Five minutes? Better make it ten.

It didn't take nearly that long. Thirty seconds after the lid was fully open, twin streams of liquid shot upwards from what had appeared to be hinge screws. They spread into a loose spray at about chest-height and rained down onto the carpet. The fine old wool began to smoke, giving off an acrid stench. The delicate image of flowers and leaves, knotted in Samarkand more than a hundred years previously, dissolved in char and spreading ruin.

He opened first one window, then the other, throwing them wide in their casements to let the rain come slashing in. The gusts pushed into the room, twisting and thinning the coiling smoke. Holding his handkerchief over his nose and mouth, he stepped to the side table, pulled the orchids from their vase and threw them into the fire. With a smooth motion, he dumped the vase's contents onto the rug. A bubbling hiss rose as the water met the acid, the dying noise quickly subdued by the force of the deluge. From the burned center, the flood spread, darkening the rug from the color of a desert sunset to that of old blood, a rough circle of transfiguration centered on him and the box.

Using the tip of his knife, he flipped back the partition that covered the inner part of the gun case. The pistol was a fine weapon. Old and heavy, .50 calibre. A strong man's weapon. Long barrel, bird's eye maple grips. He lifted it out of the box, balancing it through the trigger guard. Yes, heavy. It would take practice to fire this with any kind of accuracy, and probably special exercises to strengthen the wrists beforehand. The gun made a pronounced, resonant sound as he set it down, like the last ring of a church bell. Under the gunrest, nestled in its own velvet-lined space, was a pasteboard box of cartridges, unlabelled. This was harder to remove, but eventually, pinched between his knife and his pen, he lifted the box out and opened it.

Thick brass rounds rolled across the desk, each with a star-indented hollow point of pure silver. He didn't have to smell the cartridges to know what they were.

For a long time he stood, contemplating the gun and the fifteen bullets in front of him. The wind blew harder and the rain spray fell across the small glass-topped bar. Sherry and port, brandy and akvavit... the droplets splashed and ran down the sides of the crystal decanters to pool in the silver tray.

The card lay on the desk, just where he'd set it.


He picked it up and turned it over.


Heart pounding in his chest, he gripped the gun, lifted it and cracked it forward, exposing the five empty spaces, wide and waiting. He picked up the first of the bullets and slid it home.

And through the moan and shriek of the wind and rain, he could hear a wolf, howling in feral joy on the first night of the full moon.

===== Feel free to comment on this or any other post.


  1. Love, love, LOVE this! Great pacing, suspenseful, and a great pay off at the end!

  2. I loved this! Really loved it. Loved all the tests and the ending was perfect.

  3. I loved this, it gripped one right from the very beginning. Now I wonder what it is he is to do?


  4. Ah it just clicked - he wouldn't be hunting wolves would he? ^__^

  5. Ah, good stuff, so dark and suspenseful. You built wonderful tension in this, and ended at just. the. perfect. place.


  6. Great suspense. I wonder how he know there would be traps. DO NOT LOAD THE GUN. Indeed.

    Happy werewolf hunting, but don't tell @smreine!

  7. Thanks, everyone. After last week's, uh, excursion into the wilds, I return to more conventional fiction. I'm glad you liked it.

  8. I have been over this story three times and can certify that there is no explicit sex, and no unexplicit sex unless all that new-fangled wolf-stuff is euphemism.

  9. I would have failed every test. I'm always in a hurry to open packages, lol. This pulled me right into the room - great writing!

  10. Ah this was just great! Builds up the suspense and then you drop the clue about the silver!

  11. Whoop whoop on this one - great setup, funny, tense, absolutely begging for more.

  12. The tiny details sell this: HB1 pencil, bird's eye maple grip, plus the sounds, sights and smells. Full imagery, and a payoff. Fine writing, Tony.

  13. Great piece, Tony. Especially all the details early on, the weight of the gun, the observed handwriting. And really good build in the suspense too, didn't see the supernatural side coming.

    Small point, is there such a thing as HB 1? 9B to 9H, but HB in the middle is just HB isn't it?

  14. Absolutely lovely. You don't really tell us where this is set, but it feels like 1870 or so to me. (All the booby traps made me think of "Wild, Wild West", I think). I assume he's about to go after some lycanthropes? :)

    p.s. You lost me on the "smell" of the bullets -- could you explain?
    p.p.s John Xero beat me to the pencil thing. :)

  15. Wow! You're really, really good. I'm going to go weep in my shower now.

  16. John: To be fair, though, Chapter Nine of this story has got some of the most skin-tearing werewolf sex you can imagine.

    Apple: I'm glad you liked it!

    Icy: Just a little hint. So much better than a sledgehammer reveal.

    dijeratic: Thank you!

    pegjet: I was worried those would sound obsessive, but that's the kind of detail-oriented guy he is.

    John Xero and Janet Lingel Aldrich: Art pencils run from 9B to 9H, but you do see graphite inserts for mechanical pencils designated as "HB 1". That's an excellent fact-check point, though. Janet, pure silver smells different from lead. However, when silver tarnishes, it also looks blacker than lead; that's why he didn't need to smell the bullets to know what they were and what they were for. Good eyes, both of you. I'm glad you liked the piece!

    Jodi: Wow! You're really, really good. I'm going to go weep in my shower now. Um... thank you and I'm sorry?

  17. Fabulous piece of fiction. The building of suspense is second only to the exquisite detail. Really brilliant, Tony.

  18. Brilliant piece, Tony. The imagery was so tasty and inviting. I really got into it.

  19. Bravo! Everyone else already said everything I wanted to so...

  20. your craft has really sharpened and this tale is as fine as an example - nicely done tony

  21. Nice job Tony, Great Details and a methodical build-up. I must assume he knew of the test because of some information passed down for father to son?

  22. Great details and very captivating story Tony.

  23. I half expected Watson to burst in at any moment. Same period perhaps, and terrific atmosphere.

  24. WOW! This is fantastic. I read it twice already, and probably will again. Tension, suspence, such a clever character, the images you lead my mind to create were - are - marvelous. Brilliant writing.

    (As an aside, you have no idea how hard it is for me to resist the temptation to adopt the pen name "Anonymous Q. Botpost".)

  25. Great exposition of the craft.
    Adam B @revhappiness


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