Just to the south of the hulking Stern Beverage beer-distribution warehouse in Milan sits a relatively tiny and decidedly nondescript building. It has massive rocks between the parking lot and the structure that look decorative but are actually a low-tech security measure designed to prevent a smash-and-grab theft.

In August, Tennessee-based Strategic Behavioral Health unveiled plans to build a 72-bed psychiatric hospital in Scott County. The for-profit company's proposal - which will be considered by the Iowa Health Facilities Council in February - was greeted with enthusiasm by many public officials and community mental-health providers, dozens of whom wrote letters of support.

Our 2015 short-fiction contest featured 15 prompts from spooky fiction both famous (Dracula, Frankenstein, 'Salem's Lot) and obscure. Entrants were required to include one of the prompts and craft a story in fewer than 250 additional words.

Here are our winners and favorites. Enjoy!

Our 2015 short-fiction contest features 15 creepy prompts, and the deadline for entries is 9 a.m. on October 20.

We'll publish winners and favorites in the October 29 issue of the River Cities' Reader - just in time for Halloween. Stories don't need to be scary, but ... 'tis the season.

Even a brief visit to Davenport's Nahant Marsh will show something unusual: a wetland habitat nestled in an area that includes an interstate highway, a railroad, and various agricultural and industrial uses. You'll likely see plants and animals that you won't find anywhere else in the Quad Cities area, just a few minutes' drive from the Rockingham Road exit of Interstate 280 in the southwestern part of the city.

In Matthew Hentrich's novel Damned City, the magic has gone - literally.

The self-published debut novel from the Quad Cities author takes place in a world in which everybody has magical skills - but its hook is that the residents of Spectra have been abruptly robbed of those abilities. There are additional complications for the city: Its highest elected official has been found dead, and it is enveloped in a spell that makes time pass much more slowly than in the rest of the world - making daylight span days. Spectra's residents are certain that an attack on the city is imminent, and they need to figure out how to defend themselves with their magic gone.

The premise, Hentrich said in a recent phone interview, was a reversal of the typical fantasy what-if of characters having magic. "The one twist I thought I could put on the concept was to go the opposite direction and say, 'What if you had people who had magic, and now it's been removed from them?'"

That narrative starting point is plenty clever, and Hentrich is also strong in his pacing, in his management of story rhythm with multiple main characters, and especially in the way he melds disparate elements into a compelling hybrid. His world shares plenty with ours (from coffee and booze to representative government) while still being foreign. (In one nice oddball touch, a city with no need for mechanical transportation finds itself using bears for travel when magic disappears.) The plot brings together fantasy and mystery, and Hentrich trusts readers enough to leave out expository background that would bog down his quick-moving story; everything is familiar enough to grease the path.

Dave Heller. Photo by Kevin Schafer (KRichardPhoto.com).

It goes without saying that Dave Heller is a baseball guy. He is, after all, the Quad Cities River Bandits' managing partner, and he has an ownership stake in three other minor-league teams.

He talks about his first ownership experience - as a business partner with legendary players Don Mattingly (Heller calls him "Donnie") and Cal Ripken Jr. And about road trips to see his baseball idol Tom Seaver when he pitched for the Mets and Red Sox.

When I inquired about his favorite River Bandits player, he quickly answered, "Carlos Correa, without question. ... Great work ethic, great natural ability, great with kids. He'll be a special star. ... The idea of having an overall number-one pick like Carlos here is really exciting to us. Two years later, and he's in the major leagues and tearing it up."

Heller grew up in Baltimore, but he wasn't an ardent Orioles fan. "I wasn't passionate about the Birds the way other people were," he said. "I really kind of just loved baseball writ large. I could watch a Cardinals-Cubs game and enjoy myself every bit as much as watching an Orioles-White Sox game."

Yet the 53-year-old doesn't run the River Bandits - or any other team he owns - like a sports enterprise. In an hour-long conversation last week, the game itself felt incidental. Heller said his model for the myriad improvements, additions, and promotions at Modern Woodmen Park during his tenure was "county fairs. ... I think the idea of bringing some of that county-fair atmosphere into a ballpark is really healthy and fun and productive."

Treating the ballpark like an amusement park might rankle baseball purists, but it's good business - particularly when one considers that minor-league owners manage the venue and not the team. The goal is to get people through the gates - and all the better if some of them only know ERA as an acronym for the Equal Rights Amendment.

Davenport started Iowa's debate over using cameras to ticket vehicle owners for speeding and running red lights, so it's appropriate to look at one of its intersections as an illustration of the current situation - 11 years after the city began automated enforcement.

From 2001 to 2004 - before any traffic cameras were installed - Kimberly Road and Elmore Avenue averaged 7.0 red-light broadside crashes per year. From 2011 to 2014 - years when speed and red-light cameras were in operation - it averaged 1.0 red-light crash annually, a drop of 86 percent. The percentage decrease is slightly greater if one only considers red-light crashes in the directions of camera enforcement - east- and west-bound speed and red-light cameras.

From the city's perspective, this represents clear evidence that the traffic cameras have improved safety at the intersection.

Yet earlier this year, the Iowa Department of Transportation (DOT) ordered that the City of Davenport turn off traffic cameras at Kimberly and Elmore, which it did in April. While the city presented data on broadside crashes - those in which somebody running a red light was a direct cause of an accident - the state looked at all crashes within 150 feet of the intersection.

And here the picture becomes muddled. In three pre-camera years, total crashes averaged 10.3. The DOT evaluation found 15.5 total crashes per year after camera activation, including 23 in 2013.

Gary Statz, a traffic engineer with the City of Davenport, said those numbers aren't really in conflict: "In 2013, we had a spike in crashes out there, and I don't know why, but we just did. So the average of [total crashes] those two years was pretty high, and they came to the conclusion that the cameras weren't effective ... .

"My argument would be that most of the crashes had nothing to do with the cameras. The red-light crashes were almost nonexistent, but we had a lot of rear-end crashes that were well back from the intersection. Traffic backed up further than people thought, [and they] just weren't prepared to stop. That seemed to be most of them. ...

"I found the vast majority of the rear-end crashes occurred well back from the intersection" but within 150 feet of it. "We only found three [in 2013] ... that occurred during the yellow or at the beginning of the red. ... When it happens five seconds after it's red, and it's 10 car lengths back from the stop bar, you can safely say the camera had nothing to do with it."

Ultimately, though, the City of Davenport opted not to appeal the DOT's order at Kimberly and Elmore. "I didn't really agree with what they said," Statz said, "but we didn't argue it."

This anecdote highlights a few key elements of the present battle over Automated Traffic Enforcement (ATE).

In the opening chapter of Robin Oliveira's My Name Is Mary Sutter, the midwife of the title shows up at the door of a doctor struggling with a childbirth. It is the dawn of the Civil War, and Sutter expertly takes over, changing the baby's position in the womb and delivering him without complication.

There has been some confusion, however. The surgeon had summoned her, but Mary was unaware of that. She had come on her own, having been denied an interview at the Albany Medical College, and she had a request of the doctor.

"Miss Sutter," the physician asks after the baby has been safely delivered, "what was it you wanted from me this afternoon?"

Her reply propels Oliveira's debut novel: "I want to become a doctor." And her tenacity - at the doctor's office and at a Sutter family dinner that night - shows that she won't accept "no" for an answer.

The doctor wants to be a field surgeon in the war effort, and Mary presses him during the meat course: "You want to see what can happen to the human body. You want to see inside it. You want to solve its mysteries. Not that you should be ashamed. It is no less than I would wish to do. Given the opportunity."

Without forcing the parallel, there's a lot of Mary Sutter in Robin Oliveira, who will be discussing her 2010 book at three area libraries April 22 and 23 as part of the All Iowa Reads program. And in both Sutter's and Oliveira's stories are important lessons about the power of persistence.

When Iowa's motor-fuel tax increased by 10 cents a gallon on March 1, it represented a road that was both brave and opportunistic.

It was also stupid, for two key reasons: Raising the gas tax doesn't fully address the funding need for critical road improvements, and over time it will provide less and less money while road-construction costs continue to increase.

Despite that, the hike was still brave, because raising taxes is never popular among voters - especially when they feel the pain every time they visit the gas pump. The Des Moines Register has polled Iowans about a gas-tax hike for the past five years. While the amount of the hike in the question has varied over the years, opposition to an increase was 70 percent in 2011. Opposition has eroded since then, but it was still 58 percent in February 2014.

Which leads us to opportunistic. Mirroring national trends, from July 2014 to early 2015 gas prices dropped from more than $3.50 per gallon in the Quad Cities and Des Moines to under $2, according to GasBuddy.com.

Prices have risen since then but are still more than a dollar cheaper than in mid-2014, so legislators saw a window of opportunity. The February 2015 Des Moines Register poll found 48 percent support for a 10-cent gas-tax hike and only 50 percent opposition - and the cost of fuel was certainly a factor in that shift.

The timing was great in political terms, too, just after a statewide-election cycle. The problem of deteriorating roads and bridges - and the choice for a solution - had been on the table since late 2011, but there's nothing like the longest period of time before an election to spur legislators into unpopular action.

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