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.

Who Trusts Himself Trusts A Fool

Buzz opens the door to the study without knocking, one of a half-hundred things he does that infuriates the old doctor. “Doc?” he sings out. “You in here?”

“Well, who the hell else were you expecting,” growls Dr. Philips.

“Now don’t be like that, old man, you know it’s bad for your heart.” Buzz settles himself lazily into a recliner and helps himself to some of the brandy. “Mind if I bend your ear for a second?” The doctor glowers at him, but he sails on, unabashed. “You see, I seem to have stolen some of the bank’s money, and I—”

Thump of glass hitting carpet as Dr. Philips drops his snifter. “You did what?

“Stolen, ah, some of the bank’s money, do keep up—”

“How much?”

“Oh, rather all of it, I suppose. Most of it in dribs and drabs, but with the audit coming up, I knew the balloon was going to pop sooner rather than later, so I cleaned out the rest of the vault today. Hrm, maybe three, three and a half million?” He grins happily. “Now, take it easy, take it easy, remember your heart!”

“By god, I won’t stand for this,” the old man manages, as he reaches for the phone. “If you think I’ll sit here and listen to you—”

“Oh, well, if that’s the way you feel, dear heart, you go right ahead, but I’d have thought you cared more for your daughter than that.”

Long, dangerous pause with his finger on the dial. “What does Sylvia have to do with this?”

Buzz laughs delightedly. “Why, nothing directly, but my goodness, what a scandal! To have her name dragged all through the papers like that? ‘Husband of Society Heiress on Trial for Embezzlement’? Why, she’d never live it down, you know she wouldn’t.” He swallows brandy, eyes cold and still above the rim. “No, better to hush it all up quietly, don’t you think? Now, if you give me the three and a half million, I can put it back in the vault with no one the wiser, and surely that’s cheap for peace of mind, don’t you think? Your heart, old man!”

Shaggy Dog Contest

“By an odd coincidence,” said Atherington, “everyone chose that night to do away with the Marquis.” He said it ‘mar-kwiss,’ which made Diane wince; Simon sneered at her and mouthed, “He’s right.” Karl, standing behind her at the sideboard, couldn’t suppress a snort of laughter. The Marchioness frowned ferociously at all of them. Atherington continued, undisturbed: “First on the scene was Lady Pokingham with her vial of exotic mineral salts. Sloppy work, Your Ladyship: we found traces in his toothcup. A truly herculean jolt, if the amount left is any indicator.” He clinked his ice cubes at them affably. “Next, I think, was the young Lord Simon, with his subtle syringe. Oh, yes, we found that, old top, kicked underneath the bed and covered with fingerprints. Oddly enough not with anything else. Hoping for an embolism, were you? Well, nevermind. Then came Miss Pokingham and her young man. A nice bit of work with the knives all around – right into the lungs and not a drop of vino spilled on the bedspread. You’re to be congratulated. In another life you might have made a fair pair of surgeons.”

“As though he’d have let us slip out that way,” murmured Diane. “But thank you.”

“All in all, a full night’s work between the lot of you.” He handed his glass to Karl. “Would you mind terribly? Brandy, please. Thank you.”

“Very good, Inspector,” said the Marchioness, tartly. “Very nicely reasoned. But who killed him? We all wanted to, right enough, but who succeeded?”

“I’m afraid we’re out of the running, dearest,” sang Karl, busy with siphon and stopper.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say so, necessarily,” Simon drawled. “You chose the fastest, most reliable method, certainly. The old beast might have survived until you got to him, though not to morning.”

Atherington chuckled. “Alas for your fame. No one killed him, I’m afraid. He was dead before his head hit the pillow. The shrapnel in his lungs had finally worked itself loose. Lady Pokingham’s poison was still waiting in his stomach when we examined him. No, he died a war hero at the last. Terribly glorious, in a way, don’t you think?”