On Monday mornings, I send out a story via email: ultra-brief tales of 1,000 words or more, usually in genres including horror, science fiction, and the supernatural. Those stories collectively are called Once Upon A Time. I’ve also published several ebooks and compendium volumes of those stories so far.

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Dale McCullen was tired, but at least he was going in the right direction.

Avoiding the rush hour traffic by going home when everyone else was going to work — the night shift had few benefits, but this was definitely one of them. The quiet suburban street he lived on was usually almost deserted at just before 7 AM, allowing him a chance to get into the house, have a quick shower, eat something, and go to bed. He typically slept until around lunchtime, then had a top-up nap in the middle of the afternoon before eating a light dinner and going to work.

Today was a Wednesday, which in McCullen’s experience was one of the slowest days. His shift had been uneventful as usual, which was a big part of the reason why he was so grateful for his job. Once upon a time he’d briefly been with the police, but the offer of a private security position at the research facility was impossible to turn down, and he could always return to the force later. His new job was free of hassle, much better paid, and came with numerous benefits that he’d never have been given anywhere else.

The contract was a little strict, sure, but that was just the way business was done these days. Working in security you might see anything at all, and companies guarded their secrets fiercely. McCullen was happy to sign the confidentiality agreement with all the penalty clauses, because he wasn’t married, had no kids, and was quite content not to talk about his work at all with his friends. It lent him an air of mystery that he appreciated, even if the reality was that he was paid to sit in a very nice security office overnight monitoring a whole bunch of displays, and do regular walking patrols inside and outside.

He smiled to himself as he made the last turn of his journey, onto his own street. Another minute and he’d be inside, in the blessed quiet of his own home. He counted down the house numbers as he got closer and closer. Eighty-six, eighty-four, eighty-two, and then he pressed the brake to slow down, frowning. Surely he was mistaken. But no, as he came closer to his own house at number seventy-two, he saw that he was right after all.

Someone was parked in his driveway.

McCullen stopped in front of his house, unable to accept what he was seeing. There was plenty of parking at the kerbside, all along the street on both sides. Every house had a driveway, and each one could take two cars front to back without overhanging. Besides, there was no possible reason to ever park on someone else’s property without asking first. It was beyond rudeness or inconsideration. He was already getting a headache.

He got out of his own car and locked it, looking around at the silent houses as if an explanation might suggest itself spontaneously, but none did.

“Unbelievable,” he said, a little too loudly. He shook his head, but he knew there was nothing for it. He wasn’t going to go knocking on people’s doors this early, and in all likelihood the car would be gone by the time he woke up later. Dwelling on it right now would just keep him awake, and he’d pay for that at his next shift. He took a deep breath, reminded himself that people’s thoughtlessness wasn’t personal, and walked up his driveway towards the door. He ignored the unfamiliar car itself, knowing it would just annoy him more.

McCullen unlocked his front door and went in, closing it behind him and locking it again. He dropped his keys on the narrow table in the entranceway, hung his jacket on the coat rack, and toed off his shoes. He was already feeling calmer, as he always did when he got back here.

“Welcome home,” a voice said from his living room.

McCullen actually staggered back against the door in surprise, but then he immediately grabbed the baseball bat he kept behind the coat rack for exactly this sort of situation, and charged into the living room.

The stranger was sitting in his favourite armchair, holding his favourite mug. Steam curled from the top of it, and after a moment the scent drifted over to McCullen, confirming that it was indeed his favourite tea.

“You won’t be needing that,” the stranger said, nodding towards the bat. McCullen only tightened his grip on the weapon.

“I will unless you explain who the hell you are and why you’re in my house,” McCullen said. “And maybe even if you do.”

The stranger smiled, seemingly untroubled by the aggression, and took another sip of tea. “I’m no-one, really,” he said, “but the second question is extremely important. Incidentally, I apologise for taking your parking space. I thought it would look less suspicious to your neighbours if it seemed like I belonged here.”

“Except that you don’t,” McCullen said, rapidly tiring of the conversation. “Now, you’ve got thirty seconds to give me a bloody good reason why I shouldn’t break your legs then call the police to take you away.”

The stranger seemed to find the remark heartily amusing, and waved off the threat. “As enjoyable as that sounds, Mr. McCullen,” he said. “I’m actually here about your work.”

McCullen snorted. Truthfully, he’d been expecting something like this for a while now. Industrial espionage was big business, and security personnel were always the most logical point of attack. The jobs usually weren’t very well paid, but their responsibilities naturally provided an accessible way to bypass any protective measures. McCullen knew that the joke was on this trespasser, though, because not only did he honestly not have a clue what went on in the laboratories he was paid to guard, but he was also compensated very well for his diligent ignorance. Nor did he have anyone who this man could threaten, or anything he could be blackmailed with.

“I’ll pass,” McCullen said, tapping the bat against his other palm to get his point across. “Now it’s time for you to leave.”

The stranger nodded and set the mug down, then stood up. He straightened his nondescript grey suit, and smiled again. “I couldn’t agree more.”

The small device was in the man’s hand before McCullen had a chance to move, and the flash of light was shockingly bright in the unlit room. McCullen didn’t feel anything in that instant, but he certainly felt the impact a moment later as he crashed to the floor, every muscle in his body relaxing completely at the same time. He couldn’t even speak, and he felt panic rising in him as he realised he couldn’t even breathe.

The stranger approached him and crouched down, reaching out to lay his fingers upon McCullen’s cheek. There was a different sensation, brief but nauseating, and then it stopped. McCullen’s lungs were bursting, but he couldn’t inhale even the smallest breath.

“I’m truly sorry,” the stranger said, his tone neutral and contemplative. “But I really do need to borrow your biometrics.”

The stranger stood up again, coming back into view of McCullen’s paralysed eyes. As the darkness closed in, the last thing McCullen saw was that the stranger’s face now matched his own.

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