The husbands always died in pairs.

It was a concession the Dames of Dwale had agreed upon after their first attempt at settling disputes several years earlier.

Before that initial Reconciliation, the ladies had never even considered what would become of the surviving husband, so anxious were they to decide whether to paint their sanctuary butter-creme yellow or pale mauve — butter-creme won, thanks to Ed Franklin.

But Ed didn’t just thank the Dames for their hospitality and walk home hand-in-hand with Margaret, grateful for having had the opportunity to skewer John Hopewell with a Civil War bayonet.

No, Ed had been downright agitated, and it was only due to some quick thinking by Sally Thompson — God rest her soul — that he hadn’t made it out of the women’s center and then to who knows where. Probably the Stanton Police Department, judging by the horror and indignity he had expressed during and after his duel with John.

A well-placed wallop upside Ed’s head, with Sally swinging a wrought iron bulldog like a Louisville Slugger, dropped him to the natty carpet, dead. It had been easy enough for the 20 women gathered that night to drag him home, spread him akimbo on the concrete stairs leading out his back door, and clean up the blood spray he and John had left behind.

The disappearance of one man and the traumatic death of another, neither of them yet in his seventies, was big news in Stanton, but John’s funeral overshadowed the scandal of Ed deserting his wife, and the town soon went about its business of preparing for the Spring planting season.

The Dames had managed to survive their lack of planning unscathed, but they determined to never put themselves in danger again. They set about making a foolproof plan and then refining it with every iteration. Nothing would be left to chance.

And so, on a crisp Saturday morning in September some 15 years later, the Dames had little to fear as they readied for yet another Reconciliation.

For one thing, they had learned to handle most of their differences through less drastic means, saving their husbands for the most important and stubborn of impasses. Not only did this reduce the Dames’ exposure to being discovered (and stopped), but it also helped preserve the sanctity of their marriages as long as possible.

For another, both deaths were always plotted out weeks or months in advance, and they were never announced at the same time. It helped a lot that Teresa Preston had hooked on with the coroner’s office several years back. Even so, Reconciliation was a major hassle, and the women generally did their level best to avoid it.

When Pam Hedge moved to Lasley and took her pottery supplies with her, though, the debate over what to do with her abandoned hobby room had flared immediately. A small group of women had wanted to continue throwing clay, but most of the Dames wanted to do something different. In a matter of minutes during their first meeting after Pam left the flock, the ladies had aligned into two factions: those who supported Mary Anderson’s vision of transforming the room into a sewing center and those who preferred Joan Graber’s idea of founding a growers’ club.

The debate had raged for weeks, and, little by little, it became apparent that no easy solution would be found. In late July, someone — no one could remember whom as Fall approached — had suggested that Reconciliation was the only option.

That’s when the planning had begun.

By the time Chuck Graber shuffled through the front doors of the building that Saturday carrying a flat of tomato plants, Larry Anderson was just stepping back into the sanctuary, having dropped off a sewing machine and a box of spools.

Each man thought that his wife was taking over the hobby room and that he had been roped into helping with the setup.

As the men greeted each other and traded quick quips about how henpecked they were by their wives, glass walls descended from a suspended perch on the sanctuary ceiling and snapped into the floor with a loud clang.

Chuck and Larry exchanged confused expressions, then hurried to the edges of their confinement. There was no door, and the window-walls had no give. The partitions were 15-feet-high sheets of slickness.

The men were trapped.

By this time, the Dames were standing card tables around the outside of the makeshift cell, and several of the women carried cups, plates, and napkins from the kitchen on the backside of the building. Others brought folding chairs and snugged them up to the tables, facing in toward the befuddled husbands.

A bell gonged from some unknown recess, and the women formed two lines in front of the glass box, stretching toward the street entrance. As Chuck and Larry pounded on their glass prison, a dainty woman entered the outer room through double doors, carrying a large sheet cake. She promenaded in cadence with unheard music, and, after three or four steps, Mary and Joan appeared behind her.

The first Dame placed the cake in front of Chuck and Larry, who were calling to their wives. Instead of acknowledging the men’s shouts, though, Mary and Joan set about cutting and serving the cake, each slicing off a hunk, placing it on a plate, and sending it around the square of tables before going to work on the next piece.

When all the women had been seated and had duly taken their first bites, two sturdy wooden planks clattered from the ceiling into the glass cage.

A woman’s voice greeted Chuck and Larry, seemingly materializing in the air around them.

“Gentleman,” she began. “You have been called here today to help us settle a dispute. Whichever one of you succeeds in overcoming the other shall win ultimate sway for your wife in the matter of how best to utilize our hobby room. Your weapons have been provided.”

Chuck and Larry looked at each other again, then at the boards. They stood stunned, motionless.

“And lest you fancy any hesitation, we have also arranged for some motivation,” the cool voice concluded.

And with that encouragement, the floor buzzed to life, sending a jolt of electricity through Larry’s left foot, then another through Chuck’s right.

The women sat captivated by the game now underway in front of them, hungry for a resolution even as the decadent icing thrilled their tongues and slithered down their throats.

(This story originally published in response to a Flash Fiction Challenge at Chuck Wendig’s Terrible Minds.)

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