Rare Books, Bought and Sold

“An odd anthology.” Takes a drag on the herbal cigarette, fiddles uncomfortably with the spent match. “Publication date of 1953, but several of the stories reference events and people from much later. Not famous things, mind; not the sort of thing you’d spot unless you were actively looking for it. No overt technological anachronisms, nothing substantially paradoxical, just… background details.” Glances out the bay window overlooking the street. No sign of any disturbance; that’s good.

“Give me an example.”

“Sir.” Straightens up. “Take for example the story The Man Who Collected September 23. Information hoarding. Lots of lists, trivia, non-literary culture, ad jingles, that sort of thing. Very comfortably postmodern, easily the sort of thing you might find in a 1953 collection of literary or aspirationally literary stories.” A grey car with Montana plates turns the corner; nearly time. Leans in, starts talking slightly louder. “But the details are all wrong; ads for soaps that wouldn’t come on the market for another couple of years, unsuccessful, mostly forgotten songs that weren’t released until the 60s, hair styles and fashions that are nearly but not quite right, that sort of thing.”

“Some printer’s error?”

“No, we tested the paper, the glue, the end pages; all the usual tests. The book dates from 1953, sure enough. That’s not the only problem story, either; they’ve all got some minor impossibility or other in them. Took us forever to figure out what was going on, but—” grinds the remains of the cigarette out in the ash tray; the car slows to a stop outside the window. “—we think we’ve figured it out.”

Glass shatters.

Malamutation

She’s got a malamute and she solves crimes: she is the Dog Trainer Detective.

She’s sniffy about the difference between Siberian Huskies and Alaskan Malamutes, but understands the confusion; she’s got long practice at explaining the differences, which are as stark as alligators and crocodiles, crows and ravens, chalk and cheese. Similar climates, different purposes.

Loyal, stolid, concerned, not necessarily clever: she’s entertained the idea of training one of her ‘mutes for a Utility Dog classification but mostly as a joke. Training for it might be fun, but actually mastering the specific skills, eh, is fairly unlikely.

One time a murderer knocked her out and tried to kill her by looping her own dog’s leash around her neck and ordering it to mush. “Mush!” Idiotic; even as she grimly unlooped the lead from her larynx she couldn’t help correcting him mentally: folks who run sled dogs yell “Pull!”

She took some pleasure in letting the dog sit on his chest when she caught up to him. The dog just lolled its tongue happily as the cops pulled up, the sweet innocent.

Then There Were Seven

They rode white-lipped and silent through the pass, hands clamped hard over the six panicked faces of the women they’d abducted. The snow this early in the season was wet and treacherous, and any sound risked an avalanche. Once through, they whooped with joy to watch the snow come crashing down behind them, sealing the way out of the valley until the spring thaw. Plenty of time to win them over; their only regret was that they hadn’t managed to grab a priest to put a gloss of Christianity on their Sabine plot.

That joy doesn’t last — the women exile them from the bunkhouse, and refuse to so much as make eye contact. Millie, Adam’s wife, is beyond disgusted; they retreat at gunpoint, still laughing. Edged laughter, but still laughter. Give them space — at the end of the day there are six of them, broad and massive as the barn they sleep in. They can afford to be patient. Adam is the only one truly outraged, and storms off in a fury to the hunting lodge way up in the hills to brood.

Benjamin is the first; face down in the snow by the sheep pen. They laugh when he doesn’t come to the barn, then get worried as the killing cold night stretches on, then spread out in a panic in the morning. His body is cold and frozen hard as the ground they pickax open for a raw wound of a grave.

Caleb is next, weeks later, tumbled among the banked snow of the fields, glued to the earth with his own frozen blood. Blood on the horns of the ox tells a story, but Caleb was careful and the ox was docile. They cannot quite bring themselves to doubt.

But then Daniel, then Ephraim, then Frank, until only Gideon is left, alone in the now-silent barn. At the top of the hill, the lights blaze bravely in the house, and the sound of laughter and singing echoes faintly through the valley. He buries himself deep in the straw and curses himself for a reader.

All Friends Here

Another Saturday, another interminable cocktail party where everyone pretends to like each other to cover up the fact that they’re all pretending to hate each other so no one will know that they’re all sleeping with each other. None of it works on any level.

Penelope leans against the mahogany bar in the corner furthest away from where John is aggressively playing the piano and doesn’t even bother to cover her yawn. The martinis have gotten to her, made her sleepy and surly, and there’s no one here she hasn’t slept with a dozen times more than she should have. Zoltan, her current husband, is off by the ferns making time with Reedly, the hotshot chemist who just moved into the neighborhood and who is working on some sort of outlandish lavendar lipstick with Chivonne, the other hotshot chemsit who’s been living in the area for a while. Reedly and Chivonne have some sort of complicated relationship, love or rivalry or professional jealousy, she can’t be bothered to keep it all straight.

There was some scandal about them that she only vaguely recalls, a murder, maybe, or some blackmail thing, or maybe just a pair of quick divorces in Reno, who cares, what does it matter. Maybe they’re brother and sister, maybe they’re running a con, maybe they’re just too well-dressed and symmetrical for chemists, it gives her a headache to even try to remember.

She takes a sip of her thirteenth martini of the day and longs for death.

Beware the Elevator Shaft

Everyone is cheating and no one is faithful. The married rich man’s hard, cynical girlfriend kisses him unsentimentally on the nose and shoos him out the door so her boyfriend, his louche, handsome failson, can slip out from behind the curtain for a kiss more passionate, a clinch more clinging.

All a lie, of course; he’s got a wife on the side and they’re planning to murder the old man and pin it on the girlfriend. They don’t know, unfortunately, that they’re being watched by the old prospector and his burro, or caught on film by the freelance nature photographer, but they’ll find out soon enough when the two collide in the apartment hallway looking for blackmail.

“After you, old man,” says the photographer, a blonde roughneck with his camera bolted to a rifle stock.

“Tarnation,” mutters the prospector. “Ain’t this beat all.”

The burro says nothing, but it has dark designs on the sugar in the prospector’s pocket.