The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium by Julian Mortimer Smith

Desperation was the worst thing you could bring to the Emporium, but there was nowhere else to go. The Emporium was the only place that would have what I was looking for. It always had what I was looking for. So I brought my desperation with me, like an albatross around my neck, like a black spot.

You could get it all at the Emporium. But not for money; Mr. Handlesropes didn’t operate that way. Sometimes one of the art addicts who dealt in the alley would come in and offer huge sums of stolen cash for one of his items—a piece of cured human skin bearing a rare tattoo, or the shell of a dodo egg, hand-painted by a prisoner on the day before his execution—but Mr. Handlesropes would just laugh.

“You’ve got to play the game like everyone else, son,” he would say, even if the petitioner were a woman many years his senior.

During the day, the Emporium acted as a gallery of sorts, its display cases overflowing with rare artifacts and curiosities. But if you wanted to possess one of the items that Mr. Handlesropes stocked, you had to wait until closing time when he would blow out his lanterns and lead you down the narrow twist of a staircase into the cold, stone basement where his balance was set up on a circular bar table.

I was a habitué in the basement of the Emporium. I often came seeking treasures that could not be had anywhere else. But that night was different. I was all atwitch with worry and exhaustion. I hadn’t slept in as long as I could remember. I was kept awake by gallons of cheap coffee and the buzz-saw whine of anxiety. Usually there was a sense of excitement when Mr. Handlesropes led the hopefuls down to the basement, but that night I only felt panic and paranoia.

There were three others there that night. Two were regulars—Mama Alphonz-Custer and Dame Prudence Weakforce. I had seen them many times in that cellar, playing for outrageous prizes, risking priceless treasures, losing as often as they won. Sometimes we would meet up afterward to celebrate or commiserate or strategize over pints of Hogtown Peculiar at Crobbleknock Tavern. We called our little club The Aficionados. We prided ourselves on being expert at Mr. Handlesropes’s game, but we all knew that nobody was truly expert.

The third player that night was a newcomer. A small, fox-like man with sharp eyes and a glittering smile. I had never seen him in the Emporium before but I instantly disliked him. He sat in silence as Dame Weakforce and Mama Alphonz-Custer offered unsolicited advice.

“It’s all in the materials,” whispered Mama Alphonz-Custer. “Mr. Handlesropes knows how much your wager is worth, and that determines the material of the token, and the weight. You can never get away with trying to cheat him. You’ve just got to offer him a fair deal and you’ll win every time.”

“It’s more than that,” Dame Weakforce chimed in. “He knows how much your wager is worth to you. Or the tokens do, at any rate. And what’s more, he knows how much you want the thing you’re playing for. You’ve got to be honest with yourself. What would I give to obtain this tchotchke or that kickshaw? How much would I really be willing to part with?”

The fox-like man smiled and nodded. I shivered and kept silent.

One corner of the cellar was always hidden from view by heavy curtains, but there must have been a piano back there, and a piano player, because once we had all taken our seats Mr. Handlesropes snapped his fingers and music began. It was a breed of music I have never heard anywhere else, somewhere between a dissonant funeral march and a frantic, stomping ragtime. It worked its way into your dreams, that music. If you listened carefully you could also sometimes hear a low growl and the clink of chains from behind that curtain. The pianist wasn’t human; of that we were certain.

Mr. Handlesropes poured everyone the customary shots of his noisome, homemade absinth and made a toast to the balance, and to Lady Luck, and to the Gentleman of Loss.

And then the game began.

••

Mr. Handlesropes’s game was simple and strange: each customer in turn would name the object that he or she wanted from the Emporium and Mr. Handlesropes would produce a circular token from his voluminous pockets with a picture of that object etched into its surface. Mr. Handlesropes knew his inventory with an uncanny precision and it never took him more than a moment to pull the correct token from his pocket, apparently by feel alone.

The tokens were made out of all sorts of different materials—mahogany, steel, slate, iron, teak, bone, ivory, cardboard, shell—and varied in size and weight quite dramatically. The smallest were the size of small coins or shirt buttons, the largest were the size of your hand with your fingers splayed. Mr. Handlesropes would lay the token on the table in front of him, to the left of the balance.

Next, each customer would name another object—something she was willing to risk in order to gain the object of her desire. And here’s what I could never figure out: Mr. Handleropes would have tokens representing those objects too, each token bearing a precise etching of the object in question. He would pull it from his pocket as quickly as he did those representing his own merchandise, and place it before him, to the right of the balance.

I had often wagered things he never could have seen: one time it was an old rocking horse that had belonged to my great grandfather. He pulled out a token made out of wood—and there it was, etched onto the face, the lines filled with dark ink. Not just any rocking horse, but my great grandfather’s rocking horse, complete with missing eye and broken tail.

After the two piles of tokens were lying there on the table, on either side of the balance, the weighing would begin.

Mr. Handlesropes would place the token representing the thing you wanted in one pan of his balance; the token representing the thing you were risking would go in the other pan. If they weighed the same, or thereabouts, you got to keep both, but if the balance tilted to one side or the other then Mr. Handlesropes got to keep both.

And that was how it worked.

Mr. Handlesropes’s stock included wonders from all over the world, things I obsessed over, things I lusted after. There was a heavy skillet with gunpowder mixed into the iron that would pop and spark as you cooked, searing your meat with a thousand tiny explosions, flavoring it with acrid smoke. There was an umbrella with spokes as sharp as razors and grooves to channel rain or other liquids into a small reservoir inside the handle. There was a wallet with three secret compartments—one for liquids, one for powders, and one for spiders—each carefully designed and unmistakable in its purpose. There was a corkboard with a hundred insects pinned to it—insects that did not exist in nature, did not exist anywhere outside of the Emporium.

But that night I was not there for wonders. I was there because I was desperate. And Mr. Handlesropes preys on desperation.

••

Mama Alphonz-Custer was the first to play that night. She wanted a map of the city that hung above the fireplace in the secret back room of the Emporium. I had admired that map myself. It showed all the spots where people had fallen in love or seen ghosts. The map sparkled with a million pinprick dots in red and green, all over the city, but with easily discernible concentrations: Branbury Manor, Elsa’s Bluffs, Old Forking Street, Portobello Close.

Mr. Handlesropes spent a moment rummaging in his pocket, and withdrew a token of leaded glass. He placed it gently on the table, beside his balance. On its surface was a likeness of the map, etched into the glass with exquisite precision.

Mama Alphonz-Custer had nearly ruined herself countless times on such extravagances. I had seen her lose jewelry that had been passed down through her family for generations, magnificent paintings from the collection at Custer manor, valuable silverware and china, a Stradivarius-Brunel cello. She had also lost the respect of the other Alphonz-Custers, and won it back again. When she wagered too much or too little, and lost a family heirloom, they called her a wanton gambler who was squandering the family’s fortune and reputation. But when she won, she won such wonders that her family would ooh and aah in reverence and all would be forgiven: “And to think, it didn’t cost her a shilling!”

Dame Prudence Weakforce was next. She was a stern woman with a kind heart. She was just as extravagant in her wagers, but was never visibly upset when she lost. She treated Mr. Handlesropes’s game with an almost scientific disinterest, apparently more concerned with the process itself than with the treasures she stood to win. That night she told Mr. Handlesropes that she would be playing for the moon chest that stood in the window. Its latches included sensitive gravitational components that kept it locked at all times, save during full moons.

Mr. Handlesropes drew a wheel of cheese from his pocket. Veins of mold patterned its surface, describing the chest in lines of blue-green.

Dame Prudence Weakforce smiled as Mr. Handlesropes laid the cheese beside his balance. She had told us once, over drinks at the Crobbleknock that she suspected Mr. Handlesropes was teasing her, perhaps even flirting with her, through his choice of materials.

The fox-like man was the next to play. He cleared his throat, with what sounded like a low growl. He spoke quietly and precisely: “I wish to play for a certain phial in your possession, Mr. Handlesropes. It is a phial on the seventeenth shelf of your third wardrobe. It contains a thick, black liquid. A drug, I believe.” The man turned to me and met my eyes, and smiled his glittering smile.

My heart stopped. My blood froze and boiled and ceased to circulate. I sweated and shivered and felt hot with sudden fever, with sudden rage. I sat silently, impaled by the fox-man’s gaze, as Mr. Handlesropes pulled from his pocket a disk of painted wood, depicting the phial in neat brush-strokes. My phial. The phial I needed more than anything in the world.

The fox-man’s smile stopped time, so I don’t know how long I sat there, transfixed and terrified, but when at last I found myself able to breathe and speak again, Mr. Handlesropes was looking at me expectantly.

I stammered. I babbled. “No, no. He can’t. That’s mine. It’s the thing I want. I need. He can’t have it. I need that phial. The one on the seventeenth shelf of your third wardrobe. With the black liquid. I need it. Please.” I turned to the man. “Please. You have to . . .”

The man’s grin broadened.

Mama Alphonz-Custer and Dame Prudence Weakforce began to whisper to one another. They had never seen two people play for the same item before. None of us knew how that worked. They saw this as an intriguing new development, a bit of vicarious excitement.

I suddenly hated them: “You don’t understand,” I told them.

Mr. Handlesropes was rummaging again. A look of slight surprise crossed his face, and he shoved both hands into his hip pocket. His old shoulders tensed as he strained at something huge and heavy. His pocket gaped wide—wider than should have been possible—and he heaved something from it that should never have fit in there in the first place.

The table rocked and nearly tipped as Mr. Handlesropes set the thing down with trembling arms. It dwarfed the other tokens, a whale among sardines, a warship among coracles. It was a slab of black iron, cracked and sloppily wrought, a hulking hunk of sheer heaviness with a sketch of the phial scored into its face.

I stared in horror at the massiveness of my need.

The others stared with me. Here was a double wonder—the largest token any of us had ever seen, and definitive proof that the weight of the token varied depending on how much the petitioner valued the object in question. The fox man’s wooden disk sat neat and compact beside my iron monstrosity, each standing in for the same prize. I could see Dame Prudence Weakforce taking shorthand notes in her game diary.

The fox-man smiled to himself with obvious satisfaction. I would have killed him then and there if I thought it would win me the phial, but Mr. Handlesropes did not abide violence in his shop. Behind the curtain, the pianist let out a low growl.

“Well well well well well,” said Mr. Handlesropes, who seemed quite amused by the whole thing. “If it isn’t an unevenly distributed double-entreaty for an irreproducible object of unknown provenance.” He gave a little laugh as if he had made a joke. “But we’ll cross that bridge if and when we come to it. Mama Alphonz-Custer, your wager please.”

I watched the proceedings with a peculiar intensity, like a child who finds fascination in anything that is not the horror of an upcoming exam. Mama Alphonz-Custer wagered a tapestry depicting the Alphonz and Custer family trees, with each of the noble clans represented by a different branch, each mythical ancestor by a root. I had seen that tapestry with my own eyes in Custer Museum. It had been kept updated for over two-hundred years, with successive generations adding new branches and sewing creeping chokeweed onto the tree—the weed strangling branches as family members died off or were excommunicated. A recent drought of children meant the chokeweed had nearly reached the highest limbs.

Mr. Handlesropes drew from his pocket a lump of fossilized wood, with an exact copy of that tree chiseled into it. He placed it to the right of the balance.

“Dame Weakforce?”

Dame Prudence Weakforce eyed the cheese, estimating its weight and performing mental algebra. I imagined a set of balances at work in her mind, weighing the cheese against each of her possessions in turn.

“Ariadne, my nightingale,” she said at last, “with her cage.”

Mr. Handlesropes’ hands once again dipped into his pockets. Out came a gorgeous disk of ebony, the bird and cage chalked onto its surface.

Then came the awful man. He licked his lips and paused a moment, but there was no hesitation in that pause. He knew what he was going to wager: “My good Mr. Handlesropes,” he said. “I would like to wager the pleasure I take in sneezing.”

Mama Alphonz-Custer laughed at this, and Dame Prudence Weakforce jotted furiously in her notebook. They whispered together: “No . . . he can’t . . . how?” But Mr. Handlesropes delved into his pockets and withdrew a brass token, much the same size and shape as the one with the phial painted onto it. On its face was a precise depiction of the fox-man’s wager—his pleasure in sneezing, eloquent and unmistakable. Mr. Handlesropes placed the token to the right of his balance.

And then it was my turn. I found myself staring at the lump of iron. It filled my vision. I felt its weight on my chest, crushing the breath out of me. It seemed to heave and pulse, like a living thing, like some grotesque internal organ, ripped from a giant.

The others were all staring at me, but they quickly looked away when I met their gazes. The magnitude of my need was embarrassing to them. I tried to think like Dame Weakforce, to treat this as a game and nothing more, an exercise in logic and judgment. All I needed to do was name something that I valued as much as that little black phial and it would be mine at no cost. But what else was so important? What else did I need so utterly? I found myself unable to think of a single thing that I owned, as if all my worldly possessions had been repossessed by the agents of my panic. That iron slab filled my head, blotted out all else save the phial on the seventeenth shelf of Mr. Handlesropes’s third wardrobe.

The words came without my willing them. For a moment I thought they had been spoken by someone else, the fox-man perhaps. But then I felt their aftertaste on my lips, I recognized the echo of my own voice, and I realized that I had indeed spoken the words.

“My son,” I had said. “I wager John Magpie, my son.”

The whispering and scribbling began again. The fox-man’s grin broadened and I slumped back miserably in my chair. I had a sense that Mr. Handlesropes and the others were conspiring against me.

How much could such a wager possibly be worth? How could anyone weigh the value of his few remaining days against the possibility of saving him? Surely that was beyond even Mr. Handlesropes’s powers of estimation.

But Mr. Handlesropes reached into his pockets and again he strained against something big and heavy, something that should not have fit in any pocket. It was another behemoth, a slab of silver and mother-of-pearl, with chrome bolts driven through it around its circumference, and there, in its mirror-surface, I saw not my own reflection, but my son’s face staring back. I let out a whimper as Mr. Handlesropes heaved it onto the table opposite the black iron slab.

Mr. Handlesropes snapped his fingers and the pianist played a sustained trill, like a circus drum-roll, perpetually almost-finished, one step away from resolution.

“The weighing,” announced Mr. Handlesropes, grandly.

In the left-hand pan of his balance he placed the piece of fossilized wood that represented Mama Alphonz-Custer’s family tapestry; in the right, the leaded glass. He held the balance steady, and then released it to gravity. It swayed on its fulcrum as the weights fought one another, then settled at a slant. The fossilized wood was heavier, the tapestry worth more to her. The piano trill resolved to a heavy, minor chord—the sound of failure.

She let out a hiss of disappointment and her face turned red. “I knew it,” she breathed.

They say you are never really surprised by the outcome of Mr. Handlesropes’s game.

Mr. Handlesropes passed the disk of leaded glass to Mama Alphonz-Custer. A reminder of her debt. “I expect delivery of the tapestry by noon tomorrow,” he informed her. She nodded sullenly. She would bring it. Nobody ever tried to cheat Mr. Handlesropes.

The piano began its trill again and Mr. Handlesropes cleared the balance. He placed the wheel of cheese in the left-hand pan; he placed the ebony token in the right-hand pan. When he released the scales they barely moved at all. The moon chest cheese and the nightingale ebony weighed the same. Dame Prudence Weakforce smiled to herself. Once again, she had succeeded.

The piano resolved to a triumphant major chord. Mr. Handlesropes gave her the cheese. She would turn it in upstairs, during regular store hours, in exchange for the chest.

Then it was the fox-man’s turn. The piano began again. Mr. Handlesropes took the wood and brass tokens in his wrinkled hands and placed them in the pans. As he released the balance, a tremor shot through his old muscles. The balance swayed crazily, and for a moment, I tricked myself into believing they would not balance, but with each sway the thing shed energy and my hope withered. It reached equilibrium with its arm as straight as the tabletop. The piano sounded a major chord and Mr. Handlesropes handed over the brass token.

“The phial has been won,” announced Mr. Handlesropes. “All further wagers are canceled. I bid you goodnight, ladies and gentlemen.”

I sat numb and shaking. The lump of iron and the glittering silver disk sat on the table, useless and inert. Unweighed. The others packed up their things and headed up the stairs. Dame Prudence Weakforce placed a hand on my shoulder as she passed. A small gesture of compassion. Though I had lost nothing, she seemed to understand the extent of my tragedy. There it was, laid out on the table for all to see.

I was still sitting there when Mr. Handlesropes left the basement. I found myself alone, with my two huge tokens on the table, the balance between them. I reached for them, my hands shaking. A low growl came from behind the curtain, the sound of something straining against chains. I withdrew my trembling hands with a gasp but I resisted the urge to flee up the stairs. I had to know.

I reached forward again, ignoring the growls, and lifted the two huge tokens onto the scales, not knowing what to hope for.

••

When I left Mr. Handlesropes’s shop the sun was just beginning to rise. I felt very tired. I had been tired for as long as I could remember, but until now sleep had been incomprehensible, like a foreign language. Now I felt a tremendous urge to curl up in the doorway of the emporium and fall asleep on the cold, hard cobbles.

Something moved close by. Someone was waiting for me.

The fox-man spoke in his small, precise voice: “I have something that you want.”

“Yes, you do,” I said. My exhaustion left me all at once, driven off by sudden adrenaline. I knew the exhaustion would return later, stronger than before, but for now I had all the strength I needed. My fingers tightened around the handle of the knife that I always carried in the seam of my coat.

The fox-man kept his distance, perhaps guessing my intent. He held his hands up to show he did not want trouble.

“What are you?” I hissed. “How did you do it? Why? How did you know about the phial?”

The fox-man smiled his awful smile. “I am a thing of business,” he said. “An entrepreneur.” He made it sound like the name of an animal. “The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium provides fertile hunting grounds for those such as myself.”

Stitches snapped as I pulled my knife from its seam. “Give it to me,” I demanded, taking a step toward him.

“A thing that is correctly valued is worth nothing,” he continued, as if I had not said anything, but he held up his hands again and this time his posture was threatening, warning me not to come too close. His fingernails were talons. “You always have to pay full price and you can never trade it for more than it is worth, so profit is impossible. But when a thing is misvalued—now that’s a different matter entirely. Mr. Handlesropes stocks nothing but misvalued goods. His currency is mistakes. He lives on them, trades them on the error markets.”

“I did not make a mistake tonight,” I told him, raising my knife. “And I would advise you not to make one either. Give me the token.”

He pulled the brass disk from his pocket and held it up, taunting me with it. “I live on a different kind of currency,” he said. He flashed me his hideous grin, and all at once I realized he was not human.

“How much do you want for it?” I asked, suddenly weak again, my courage fading. “I don’t have much money.”

“I believe you would give me all the money you possess,” the fox-man said. “I believe you would kill for it. I believe you would kill me.”

“I would,” I told him.

“But I am not interested in money. And I am certainly not interested in killing or in being killed over a drug.” He snorted. “The phial is worth as much to me as my pleasure in sneezing; it is worth as much to you as your own son. A mutually satisfactory price will therefore fall somewhere in between those two extremes. Clearly you are desperate and willing to resort to violence. I wish to avoid violence and so this gives you some leverage over me. If I set my price too high you might judge it worthwhile to risk an attack. This, of course, depends on your judgment of my ability to defend myself. Hmmm. It’s all very complicated isn’t it?” He pondered this, or pretended to ponder it. He tapped a fingernail against his teeth, whistled a little tune, mumbled some arithmetic.

Then he named his price.

••

My son’s brow was very hot. His room stank of sickness. I hadn’t noticed the stink before. This was the first time I had spent any length of time outside his room since it had begun, all those weeks ago. I leaned over him and pressed my lips to his burning brow.

“I have it,” I whispered, unsure whether he could hear me. “I have the antidote.”

His eyelids flickered as I poured the sludgy, black liquid down his throat. I winced at the effort it cost him to swallow. He coughed and spluttered but I made sure he drank it all. Then I gave him some water with sugar and salt. He was too weak to eat, too weak to speak or open his eyes. I could barely remember a time when he had been strong, could barely imagine him running red-cheeked through the playground or climbing the apple tree.

I leaned over him and kissed his forehead again. “You’re going to live,” I whispered, smiling, my cheeks wet with tears.

Then I did what I had to do. I took my son’s laughter from him. He was far too weak to resist. I don’t think he even noticed. I took it from him and wrapped it carefully in tissue paper, then in brown packing paper. Then I tied it with string and slipped it into the inside pocket of my coat.

“I had to do it,” I repeated to myself, over and over until the words lost their meaning, as I walked back toward Fumblers Alley.

I wondered if he would understand. I wondered if he would forgive me.


Julian Mortimer SmithJULIAN MORTIMER SMITH lives in Southwest Nova Scotia where he writes short stories for speculative fiction magazines and websites for small businesses. He has previously worked as a teaching assistant (for a university), an editor (for a board game company), and a clarinetist (for an army). He has published short stories in Daily Science Fiction, Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and AE: The Canadian Science Fiction Review. Julian currently holds the title of North American Conkers Champion. His website is: julianmortimersmith.com


Review: London Falling by Paul Cornell

Reviewed by Pete Sutton

 

  • E-book / Mass Market Paperback (ISBN 978-0-765368102)
    Tor Books, April 2013
    432 pages

Rob Toshack is a crime lord that has somehow come to run pretty much all the crime in London. DI Quill heads the operation to bring Toshack to justice & there are two undercover cops in the organisation helping to do so. When Toshack is caught however things take a strange turn and Quill, the two undercover cops and an analyst are drawn into a supernatural world. As the detectives investigate further they are drawn into this supernatural world of witches, football matches and a version of London that once they encounter it means they will never be the same again.

Originally a TV script (and now optioned for TV) there are a few issues with the book that may put off other readers. The characters are a bit stock at the beginning for example and would be better differentiated on screen I guess, with visual clues. There is also some exposition provided in flashback that could be seen as being a bit clumsy, although the writing is good enough for me to forgive this. However the hints and glimpses of the world underneath (or above?) London are great and the plot, once it kicks in, cracks along at a good pace with our four protagonists growing as we understand more as we flit from one to another POV. There were points where the book gave me a visceral emotional reaction including a shiver up the spine and a solid “woah” from a reveal. To me that’s a sign of a good book. There is some clever stuff in here and it gets the balance right between revealing enough to get a handle on what’s going on whilst concealing enough to keep you intrigued and wanting to follow on. Good job really as there is a sequel due in May this year. I for one am eagerly awaiting it.

Overall – Police procedural with supernatural elements, the start of what promises to be a great series.


Pete SuttonPETE SUTTON did a postgrad in Publishing at Oxford Brookes with every intention of working in the publishing industry. Life appeared to get in the way and he now works for a French technology company but asks that you don’t hold that against him. Always deeply absorbed in a book, sometimes has several on the go at once, he also writes stories in his spare time and some of them sometimes get published. You can find him on Twitter as @suttope and his general musings on books


UFM Book Club: Mark of the Demon checking in!

Hi everyone!

I am just trying to get an idea of how far along we all might be in Mark of the Demon.

I know that we got a late start, so I am contemplating making this book a December/January book.

Let me know what you think, where you are in the book, if you are still waiting for Amazon to get it to you…

Please leave a comment at either our Facebook Page for the Book Club or at the post on the regular Urban Fantasy Magazine blog page, in the comments.

Thanks all!

M.

PathoLogic: How Our Fear of Diseases Built Old Myths and New Media by Robert William Iveniuk

Diseases are our boogeymen. Unlike the things we believed were hiding under our beds when we were young, however, illnesses are quite real and often deadly. Their alien quality, facelessness, and dangerous impact on our lives make them formidable antagonists. More than that, they have left their mark on our species over the millennia, weaving their way not only into our histories, but into our fables—for better or for worse.

In the days of old, sicknesses and disorders were categorized as a loss of humanity to some otherworldly force. Porphyria, a blood disorder that causes an iron deficiency and sensitivity to sunlight in some, served as the inspiration for vampires across Europe. Similarly, illnesses like Wendigo Psychosis, the sudden desire to eat human flesh, have seeded myths of voracious man-eating giants among Algonquin peoples—although the debate over whether or not the disorder exists continues to this day.

Regardless, the advance of science has slain, or at least debunked, the idea of the ill person as someone cursed, and identifies them as someone to be examined and treated. The goblin tap-dancing in your body is actually a kidney stone, and your cousin’s demonic possession is actually schizophrenia at its finest. Explanations that are more definitive make the conditions easy to identify and to solve.

Over the decades, our need to make sense of the fantastic has married yesterday’s folklore with today’s science, and has left a lasting impression on our media. This particularly became the case with the spread of diseases like HIV, SARS, and bird flu over the past thirty years, and the ensuing panic that swept across the world in their wakes.

The zombie virus phenomenon in particular holds strong in today’s germ-phobic society. Max Brooks’s popular novel World War Z went into the logistics of a zombie outbreak, while the rage virus of 28 Days Later added an extra level of terror to the trope by replacing the rigor mortis-riddled shamblers with faster and more feral infected. Building real-world parallels between the mindless meandering of the rotting undead and the prevalence of illnesses like rabies and leprosy appeals not only to the fantastically minded, but also to those mad souls who regularly envision the plausibility of doomsday scenarios.

Adding scientific logic can create an interesting layer to the myths we have built around these creatures. Truth is stranger than fiction, after all, and adapting the bizarre side of reality to our favorite kinds of tales can play to our fears on a deeper level.

On the other hand, the dark side of this development is the possibility of demonizing the sick. Facing a global pandemic is frightening, to be sure, but there’s an underlying pro-euthanasia message in the “Us versus The Infected” stories that is quite loud, and quite unnerving given the current climate.

Consider our view of victims of HIV. There are many among us who still fear such people, afraid they’ll bleed on us by accident and send us on the same death-march they’re on. Regrettably, our views have not changed much since the disease began spreading in the 1980s. Following the news, and consulting the web, does little to alleviate such concerns, if at all.

In fact, many use fear to their advantage. Internet crackpots insist chronic illnesses can be cured through kale and lentils. The rumor mill in rural parts of the world insist that deflowering a virgin will cure AIDS. Religious fundamentalists are paid ludicrous amounts of money to pray away cancers. Disinformation spreads with surprising ease, providing destructive and tragic ends for those who listen to it.

Yet, who can blame people for wanting a quick fix? Life, for some, is a never-ending horror movie. Many seek the convenience of a deus ex machina to save them, putting little faith in cures for their ailments being found in their lifetimes. Plus, whatever stories we weave that do tackle such topics tell audiences that the easiest way to deal with our troubles is to hit them as hard as we can.

This is where shows like the BBC’s In The Flesh give me hope. The series follows a survivor of a zombie virus whose symptoms are relieved through medication, and who deals with the stigma against sufferers of his condition. Unlike The Walking Dead, which promotes murdering infected people for the sake of stability, In The Flesh tells us cures are possible, to be sympathetic toward the ill, and to work toward bettering their lives rather than ending them. If anything, Flesh is a strong case for funding the HAART treatment.

One is free to lament the lack of the fantastic element in stories like those listed above; zombie fiction in particular is extremely lacking in necromancers lately. Whether real or imagined, however, stories about diseases and disorders are effective. They appeal to our collective hypochondria. The illness is nigh-invisible. It hides in the darker corners of the world, creeping across doorknobs and toilet seats, oozing across a stranger’s pores on the subway to fester inside their bodies.

Worst of all, unlike creatures of lore, viruses are ever-changing. New strains of Ebola and gonorrhea have been discovered recently, ones that are extremely aggressive and resistant to old treatments. When have there ever been vampires that are resistant to garlic? Evolution is lost on the vampire, the zombie, and the wendigo. Folklore beasts are bound by stringent laws. Illnesses have a constant unpredictability that forces us to change our tactics along with theirs.

And just as viruses change, so must we. Media reflects the values of our generation, but should also challenge them and encourage the cultivation of fresher ideologies. We need to embrace the idea of the infected as tragic figures who want to function normally again. Progress is not found through relying on old standards. If we’re ever to move forward, we need to disinfect ourselves of our old beliefs and develop new ones.


Robert William IveniukROBERT WILLIAM IVENIUK is an author and columnist from Toronto, Canada. His short fiction has been featured in Schlock Magazine, The Alchemy Press, and Crossed Genres Publications’ Long Hidden anthology. He has also written articles for BlogTO and Archenemy Magazine on arts and culture.


Horseman, Pass By – An Introduction to Fantasy For Good by Trent Zelazny

The following is taken from Fantasy For Good: A Charitable Anthology, edited by Richard Salter and me. All proceeds from the sale of the anthology go to the Colon Cancer Alliance. Colon cancer is a silent killer that disproportionately affects writers (and others who sit for a living). Many people aren’t aware that Roger Zelazny passed after a long battle with colon cancer and the disease has recently claimed another contributor to this anthology, Jay Lake. Paul Pederson (who donated the cover) has a brother-in-law who is fighting it; and the wife of Richard Salter, my co-editor, was diagnosed with it as we were putting the anthology together. Please consider supporting the fight against colon cancer by buying a copy at the link below.

Click here to buy Fantasy For Good

Horseman, Pass By
An Introduction by Trent Zelazny

I lost my father when I was 18. Kidney failure associated with cancer. Colorectal cancer. Colon cancer. He was only 58 when he died. I’d known he was sick for quite some time, but he’d asked his kids to keep it quiet, not wanting the SF&F community to know about it. Also, he was foolishly certain that he would beat it.

He didn’t. I wish to God that he had, but no dice. I honestly believe that a part him truly thought he was immortal. He often wrote about immortals, but he was not immortal himself. He was a human being, just like the rest of us.

For years after, I thought about something a lot, and I still think about it from time to time. What if he hadn’t insisted on keeping his illness a secret? This, of course, was in the early and mid-nineties, before the Internet was in virtually every home on the planet. But news could still get around in those days. I remember, at the hospital, a few hours before he died, a close family friend and member of the community, heartbroken and pissed off that they didn’t know a thing about it. “You should have told us,” she said.

And so I’d ask myself, why didn’t they know about it? Because they should have known about it. A lot of people should have known about it, because if people had indeed known about it, more could have been done. That, however, is the only result I can promise would have been different.

More could have, and would have, been done. This is not to say he didn’t have good care. He had probably the best available. But I’m not talking about medical care here, or the few who did know, who busted their asses, going through their own utter hell to help him.

It had to be a secret, and so three Zelazny children wandered around, harboring this painful secret, instructed not to talk about it, which we didn’t, or we did very little, and only in the strictest confidence. I don’t recall a single conversation with my brother or my sister about it. It could have been a time for much needed family bonding, but instead it caused us all to sort of drift apart, each trapped in a personal daze with a hefty dose of denial.

It was inadvertent ignorance on my father’s part, and—while unintentional—it was cruel. Cruel in that we had to walk around and pretend everything was hunky-dory, while inside, just like my father, we were being eaten alive.

I’ve never been angry at my father for this, however, and there’s certainly no point in being angry with him now; but that question still comes along and revolves round in my head. What if his friends and colleagues knew about it? Speculative fiction is all about the question, “What if?” and so I speculate, and most every scenario I come up with is more positive than the actual outcome, whether he had lived or died. He wouldn’t have hurt his family and friends so much; he would have known more fully just how deeply loved he was—by a whole lot of people. He was a well-loved man, but I’m not sure he ever really knew just how loved he was.

I loved him deeply. I still do. While I don’t think he ever would have been a candidate for Father of the Year, his intentions were always good. He was a good man, a very good man, and those he touched he touched deeply.

But he kept his cancer a secret, and in my opinion, he shouldn’t have. He had his reasons, though I don’t personally find them to be good reasons. Well intended, maybe, but not good; and so I admire, respect, and support anyone brave enough—and compassionate enough—to let their friends and peers know that they are sick. This in no way means I didn’t or don’t respect my father. I did, and do, very much. But in this situation I learned what not to do. Don’t keep something so important a secret.

Just as the wonderful editors and contributors did with Horror for Good, I’m thrilled beyond comprehension by these editors and contributors. And talk about the talent in this collection… well, I can’t, really, as I am speechless, but I will say I’m grateful to both Richard Salter and Jordan Ellinger, as well as to every author who took the time to contribute to this collection.

In your hands you hold a book that does more than entertain, more than give the reader a little something to ponder. Like Horror for Good, this book has an additional magic power. It has the power (and the want, maybe even the need) to help, and who it wants to help most are those sick with the same thing that ended my father’s life too early, because colorectal cancer is treatable. Having it does not automatically put one in the grave. Diagnosis is quite different from burial.

I could go off about healthcare in this country but I’m not going to. This introduction would be as long as the entire book, if I did. Instead I’ll offer a couple of simple items that can do wonders for those diagnosed and for their loved ones: communication, openness, love, support, strength, and books like this one. Every author in this book (myself included) cares. Yes, they care about you, deeply, whether you are the diagnosed, or a family member or friend of the diagnosed. Everyone in this book cares about you.

I promised the editors that I would keep this short, so in closing, I simply want to ask three small favors of you.

First, please don’t do what my father did. Don’t keep something of such importance a secret. Reach out. Don’t be afraid, don’t be ashamed, and don’t be embarrassed. I promise that you and your loved ones will be thankful, if not immediately, most certainly in the long run.

Second, enjoy the wonderful stories collected in this book, and know that the stories here were contributed out of love, compassion, and the desire to make a difference.

And finally third, thank yourself, both for buying a wonderful collection of stories, and for simultaneously contributing to a wonderful cause.

My father may no longer be with us, but wherever he is, I know he is very pleased that this book has been compiled, as am I.

Thank you.

Trent Zelazny
January 5th 2014

The Beaux Wilde by Carrie Vaughn

It was said of Miss Elizabeth Weston that she was a young woman of great fortune and little accomplishment. Since the former went some ways toward making up for the latter, all was well, or should have been. But at twenty-two years of age, Miss Weston remained unmarried.

She played the pianoforte adequately, but would not play before strangers. Her needlework was loose at best, her dancing merely functional. She was pretty, with honey-brown hair, a pert face, and clean skin; but she was shy, and so did not catch the eye as she might have if she smiled more.

What she liked best was to read, and while conversations and games of whist might go on around her, she would sit alone with a book of Scott or Radcliffe. She could sometimes be prevailed upon to read aloud, but within a line or two, her voice would grow so timid and constricted she had to leave off.

Elizabeth knew what people said about her in whispers behind their fans and glasses of sherry. Since she could not help what they said or what she was, she withdrew further and avoided the kind of company a highly marriageable young woman in her prime should have sought out. It was a paradox that gave her mother and father some anxiety.

She did not have to hear or be told what the gossip said about her; she knew, with an inner sense that might have been a curse.

Elizabeth would not have attended the ball at Woodfair at all, but Woodfair was the home of the Brannocks. If Elizabeth had a best friend in all the world it was Amy Brannock, because what Amy said and the feelings behind her words were just the same. When the invitations went out, Elizabeth accepted, because Amy would not question why she did not wish to dance.

Mr. and Mrs. Brannock greeted the Westons at the door, and Elizabeth immediately looked over their shoulders for her friend, but alas, she was not in view, and Mrs. Brannock had another plan. She and Mrs. Weston exchanged a wink that meant they had been conspiring.

“Miss Weston, it is my great pleasure to present to you Mr. Richard Forester. He is a cousin on my mother’s side, and expressed a great interest in meeting you after hearing of your many charms!” Mrs. Brannock offered up the handsome young man as if he were wrapped with ribbon.

Blushing enough to make her head ache, Elizabeth curtseyed, and Mr. Forester grinned as he bowed. Her great charms . . . her fortune, was what he was thinking. Why was that the first thing anyone learned about her?

“Miss Weston,” he said, as he was expected to, as this situation was contrived to arrange. “Would you do the honor of dancing this next set with me?” Music was playing in the next room. Of course the dancing had already begun, Elizabeth could not have delayed just a half an hour more to miss it. She looked pleadingly at her mother, but Mrs. Weston seemed so happy, Elizabeth could not argue.

“Of course,” she said, and held out her hand. He led her to the ballroom, where couples lined up for the next figure.

His touch was cold. Not physically—she was wearing gloves and could not feel his skin. But something in his eyes, a stiffness in his carriage, held a chill.

“If I may be so bold, Miss Weston, you are the brightest ornament at this gathering. My gaze was drawn to you the moment you stepped through the doorway.”

The movements of the dance took her away from him; when next he took her hand, he said, “You are grace itself.”

“I thank you, sir,” she said, little more than a whisper. Not a single compliment he spoke was sincere.

She heard his words, but another meaning entirely lay behind them, some feeling that came off him like the scent of soap used to launder his shirts, rude and unkind thoughts. His true motivation, his true feelings: she was a silly girl, but someone ought to have her money, so why shouldn’t it be him? She wasn’t even a prize to be won, but an obstacle to be overcome.

The dances here were like hunts, gentlemen and ladies chasing after one another.

Her foot missed a beat and she stumbled. One of the other ladies, the kind Miss Allison, took her elbow and steadied her. Elizabeth caught more than the kind look in her eyes; there was also the belief, the certainty, that Elizabeth was a talentless creature who ought to be pitied. While Elizabeth might not hear the words, the feelings directed toward her were plain, sharp as the screaming edge of knives.

Much speculation went on among her parents and their friends about what could make a girl like Elizabeth so quiet and withdrawn. Mrs. Weston had decided that her dear girl by some accident of birth was simply too sensitive to withstand the rigors of society and the world. Likewise, Mr. Weston declared that the fineness of her disposition made her superior, but also vulnerable. Those outside the immediate family were sure that the girl obviously had been too coddled, too sheltered, and so would always be weak and sniveling. A gentleman who aspired to marrying her fortune would first have to persuade Miss Weston that she was strong enough to accept a firm proposal. But the more forceful a suitor appeared, the more timid Miss Weston became. Another paradox.

These speculations never happened within earshot of Elizabeth. She knew of them, just the same.

In truth, Mrs. Weston nearly had the right of it: Elizabeth felt everything. The thousand petty dramas of the typical gathering were as shouting in her ears. She felt the prides and hurts of others as pains in her own heart. She knew what she shouldn’t: which young gentlemen carried on affairs with their mothers’ maids, which young ladies were so desperate to escape indifferent families they were prepared to throw themselves into unsuitable marriages. Men who worried over debts, coachmen nursing lame horses—she knew. She could not say how, but she did. She knew that one of the brusque suitors she’d refused, Mr. Rackham, would be cruel if he succeeded in winning her. Another, Mr. Carroll, would simply ignore her. From the ladies, she felt the gossip about how she was proud and odd and would die an old maid if she were not careful. The old men wondered what was wrong with her, that she should turn up her nose at their sons.

She felt herself to be like the ancient Greek oracles, caught up in the torture of ecstatic revelation. Empathy was the word she found—profound, damaging empathy. And she could not tell a soul.

At last, finally, the music ended, and Elizabeth curtseyed with a sigh of relief. Mr. Forester insisted on seeing her to a chair, when all she wanted was to flee.

“Miss Weston, you seem quite flush, do let me bring you a sherry,” he said, but he was not concerned with her wellbeing, only with flattering her so that she might fall in love with him.

“No, I thank you, I only need to sit—”

“Elizabeth! How long since you arrived? I did not see you! Here, come with me, I’ve been longing to speak with you—oh, pardon me, Mr. Forester, but I must steal Miss Weston away from you, I’m sure you understand.” Without further explanation, Amy Brannock swept between them, hooked her arm around Elizabeth’s, and pulled her into the next room, leaving Forester staring.

“Thank you,” Elizabeth breathed.

“Richard Forester is such a bore, I’m sure you have had quite enough of him. I knew my mother was going to waylay you. I had wanted to be there, I was watching for you, but then she sent me off to see that Emma knew to fill the punch bowl. Mother can’t leave well enough alone.”

Amy looked very well, as she always did, with roses in her cheeks, wearing a pink muslin gown that complemented her light hair and creamy features. Elizabeth wore a gown of blue with lace—it suited her because Amy had helped choose it, and her friend beamed at the compliment Elizabeth paid her by wearing it.

In the drawing room they settled on a pair of chairs. Elizabeth could listen contentedly for hours while Amy gossiped. She might not move for the rest of the afternoon.

And then three strange gentlemen entered the drawing room.

The trio stopped at the door to look about, and because they were strangers, everyone else paused to study them.

“Goodness, will you look at them?” Amy said, hand on her breast like some romantic heroine. “Have you ever seen such . . . shapely gentlemen? Is shapely the right word for it?”

“Yes,” Elizabeth said. “I think it is.”

All three had powerful forms under well-made suits; they possessed broad shoulders and took graceful steps. They . . . prowled, looking about with a hooded darkness in their gazes, which scoured every surface, every face. Elizabeth could not take her eyes from them. Mr. Brannock immediately went forward to meet them, shaking hands all around, and the room returned to a normal state of pleasantness, as if a cloud had passed by the sun.

“Who are they, do you think?” Amy asked.

“It’s your ball,” Elizabeth said. “Do you not know?”

“I’ll just go see, then.” She flounced up and made her way to where her mother sat with the matrons. Elizabeth felt herself shrinking in her seat, hoping that no one felt the chivalrous need to come and speak with her.

Fortunately, Amy came back soon enough. “I’ve gotten all the news of it from Mother. They are the Misters Wilde, brothers who’ve come into the neighborhood and have taken the lease at Lilies Park. Father met them in town and invited them to introduce them to the neighborhood. It never hurts having more beaux among the number, yes? I imagine Father thinks to put them in my way.”

“Brothers? They don’t look anything alike.”

Indeed the tallest of the men was fair; the shortest had a brown complexion, calling to mind the West Indies sun; while the middle had dark hair and striking gray eyes.

Amy furrowed her brow, an expression her mother was always complaining of because it marred her features. “They don’t, do they? Ah well, who’s to say.”

The middle one, with the gray eyes, caught Elizabeth staring. She quickly looked away, but knew he still studied her—she felt a focused attention that put her in mind of a hawk.

“That one there has his eye on you, I wager,” Amy said, her smile mischievous.

With increasing dread, Elizabeth watched the Wilde brothers make bows to the host, who brightened after a moment’s conversation and turned toward her and Amy.

“Oh, you see?” Amy said brightly. Of course she was thrilled. New gentlemen meant new attention.

“Do stay close,” Elizabeth said, clutching her friend’s hand.

“Of course, but promise me that if he asks you for a dance, you will accept? It’s only a dance and perhaps you will like him. Not all men are Mr. Foresters.”

That was Amy—every gentleman deserved at least one dance.

Elizabeth looked up and met the gray-eyed gentleman’s gaze. This time, she could not look away, though she was sure she ought to. He held her fast, and her heart sped, like that of a rabbit fleeing the hunt. He offered a polite nod. She had forgotten to breathe.

He was intrigued by her—the same way she could identify arrogance and pity, she knew he was intrigued. But his interest would quickly fade once he actually spoke to her, surely. When she stumbled during their inevitable dance.

“Truly, he will not ask me for a dance,” she said to Amy. “Will he?”

“I am certain he means you no harm. Don’t be afraid.”

She steeled herself as if she were walking into battle. “Then I promise. Because you asked. I may even enjoy it.”

“With that one? Oh, please enjoy it!”

At last the gentlemen approached, and the ladies stood to make curtseys as Mr. Brannock presented them.

The tallest one was Vincent Wilde; the shorter, swarthy man was Francis Wilde; and the middle, dark-haired man was Edward Wilde.

Amy’s father said, “This is my eldest daughter, Miss Brannock, and her good friend Miss Weston.”

“How do you do?” Amy said for them both.

Mr. Brannock said suggestively, “Do you think the music is very good? The quartet came highly recommended.”

“It’s very good,” Amy agreed.

“Indeed,” the first Wilde said.

There was only the slightest pause before Francis Wilde bowed again. “Miss Brannock, will you grant me the next dance?”

Amy’s true feelings were as eager as her smile. “Thank you, sir.” She took his offered hand.

That left Elizabeth standing before Edward Wilde, whose emotion was plain to her. Though the strangeness of it . . . the gentleman’s interest in her was, indeed, for her. Not her money, her family, or her brown curls. He might have been as intent as a hunting hound, but the attention was honest. This as much as anything startled her. Perhaps he simply had not been in the neighborhood long enough to hear of her fortune or her oddness.

“Miss Weston, I would not be left behind by my brother, if you will do me the honor?”

She did not think twice before taking his hand. Yes, her stomach might still be roiling. But the feeling was not dread this time. Edward Wilde’s touch was light, as if he knew that any pressure on her hand would incite panic. If she wanted to flee, he would not hold her. This comforted her to a degree that surprised her. In turn, Mr. Wilde’s feelings also settled.

She would engage him in conversation, if she only knew what to say. She did not have Amy’s open nature, alas. The benefit of dancing was that she could pretend to be so engrossed in the music and where she placed her feet, that she need not speak.

The couples lined up. Elizabeth repeated steps to herself, watched others for the proper cues.

Mr. Wilde’s gaze kept drawing her. In spite of herself, she kept wanting to look at him. To study him. To learn exactly why he was so different from anyone she’d ever met. Him and his brothers, really, but he was the one standing before her.

Of course, she stumbled. It was the part of the dance where one crossed over with one’s partner, and one was meant to look into his eyes and not at her feet. She always feared losing her place or running into the other gentleman—and that was what happened. She took a wrong step, saw herself about to collide, and quickly moved to avoid it, which meant she lost the rhythm of the entire sequence and ruined the figure for her partner and the other couple besides.

Mr. Wilde rescued her deftly and without fuss. When the next bar of music came, and it was his and the other lady’s turn to cross, he touched her elbow and pressed her over while nodding to the spot she should have been, next to him, before the music told them to turn half a circle back to their original places.

What was more, he did not express contempt or pity, as others before him had done when they tried to dance around her mistakes. He did not leer, did not roll his eyes, and his emotion was . . . sympathy. If he smiled, it was not to laugh at her, but out of understanding that there was nothing more difficult than remembering where to put one’s feet while others were watching you.

The other gentleman, however, chuckled, passing a mocking glance to his lady. The behavior that Elizabeth had come to expect.

Edward Wilde growled at him.

She distinctly heard the burr in his throat. He glared hard at the other man, who stopped, wide-eyed and trembling before his partner pushed him into the next phrase of the dance.

“I beg your pardon,” Edward whispered hoarsely, and they crossed over with the next couple in the row. Far from not granting him pardon, she wanted to thank him.

She did not make another mistake for the rest of the dance. When Mr. Edward Wilde asked for the next dance as well, she accepted.

Propriety dictated that for the third dance he move to a new partner, and Elizabeth politely declared that she must rest. Much of the company was watching her as she found a chair to sit and catch her breath. She realized this was because she was smiling.

Those in attendance had known her since her girlhood, and they were shocked—no, that was too strong a word, more they were all wonder—because she was not slouching. Might she even be enjoying herself? Because of this new gentleman? When he wasn’t dancing, Edward Wilde stalked the edges of the room, glaring at any who dared look at him, until the light-haired brother touched his arm and brought him back to himself.

The music ended, and Elizabeth looked up from her seat to find Mr. Edward Wilde and Amy approaching.

He said, “Miss Brannock asked me to escort her to sit beside her best friend, so here we are. Might I be so bold as to bring you both refreshment?”

“Oh yes, please, that would be lovely,” Amy said, patting Elizabeth’s wrist. “Wouldn’t it, Beth?”

“Oh, yes,” Elizabeth said. “Thank you.”

Mr. Wilde made a bow and went away.

Amy took both of Elizabeth’s hands in her own and gave her a smile large enough to knock her over. “Well?”

Elizabeth bit her lip. “Well what?”

“What do you think of Mr. Wilde?” she said with mock frustration.

“Which one?”

“Oh, Elizabeth!”

“He is very kind.”

Amy seemed to be nonplussed at this. “I will take that to mean you like him.”

They had to leave off then, because Mr. Wilde returned—along with his brother, Mr. Wilde. This could become quite confusing, Elizabeth reflected. She couldn’t tell by looking who was eldest. They seemed of an age.

The brothers had brought them glasses of punch, and Francis drew Amy off for a conversation—intentionally, Elizabeth was sure, leaving her with Edward Wilde seated attentively beside her. Francis Wilde offered a smile that was not entirely as kind as his brother’s.

She made herself sit very straight and proper.

“How do you like the ball, Miss Weston?” Edward Wilde asked in a way that suggested he had practiced this question as a crutch for polite conversation. He was looking about warily as if he expected someone to leap at him.

“I like it very well,” Elizabeth said, and meant it for once. “And you? I mean—you are new to the neighborhood, it must be quite overwhelming meeting so many new people. How do you find it all?”

“I believe I find it quite agreeable. I’m not often comfortable in gatherings such as this,” he said. “So many . . . people in such a close space.”

Would that she could stop blushing. “I understand—about gatherings, that is. They can be very trying. Especially—well. It would all be so much easier if I liked balls and assemblies as much as Amy—Miss Brannock—does.”

“Easier?”

She pressed her lips in a sad smile. “At my age I am supposed to be seeking companionship, not avoiding it. And yet, I feel most at ease when I am alone. I am told this will not do for a young lady.” His frank interest was startling her into honesty when she should have kept quiet. She rarely talked so much.

“The matrons throw their sons at you in hopes of marrying you off. I do see how that could be tiring.”

She laughed; the sound startled her, and she put a hand over her mouth. “I had three marriage proposals before I turned eighteen. I was able to put them off by claiming my youth, but that excuse no longer serves.”

“You are one of those romantic girls who wants to marry for love.” The jest was meant kindly. His smile was conspiratorial.

“I want to marry for trust, Mr. Wilde. For trust.” She lowered her gaze.

He looked thoughtful. “I think I understand you.” And he did. Her words had sparked his appreciation.

“I beg your pardon,” she said, blushing so fiercely she thought she must faint. “I speak far too freely.”

“You do me a great compliment by speaking freely. Thank you.”

She was sure that he could hear her heart beating faster. Again, he put her in mind of a hawk—or perhaps a fox.

Because she had said far too much already, she added, “Mr. Wilde, if you are not comfortable in places like this, why tolerate it? You can do whatever you like. You aren’t expected to come to assemblies and make a good show of it. You can run free in the woods if you like, and people would merely think you eccentric—”

He looked at her with something like shock, as if she had uncovered some deep truth. She couldn’t see the truth itself, only that she had exposed him. She fell quiet because, obviously, she kept saying the wrong thing. His thoughts turned chagrined—he had been working very hard to hide his discomfort, she realized. She had exposed him, and now she was sorry for it.

“My brothers and I,” he said, taking a steadying breath, “decided we would like to come in from the woods. There are . . . attractions to drawing rooms and assemblies.”

She felt a great welling of desire, and could not tell if it came from him, or from her.

“Edward! My goodness, but people will talk, with you dominating this poor young lady’s attentions!” Francis Wilde came over and taunted his brother. Elizabeth couldn’t see where Amy had gone to.

She started to say that no, Edward wasn’t a bother at all, and then excuse herself to find her friend, but Edward bristled. An emotion that was half annoyance poured from him—the other half was anger. He rose and faced the other. “Francis. Do not interrupt where you’re not wanted.”

“I’m saving you. No—I correct myself. I’m saving the lady from you. From the gossip you will incite.” He bowed at her, and his smile was mischievous.

She wanted to smile at his playfulness, but Edward’s anger confused her. Something more than what was visible was happening here. The two men had both stiffened, and their glares held challenges.

“You are provoking me, sir,” Edward said, his voice constrained.

Francis blinked a moment in apparent surprise. “Yes, perhaps I am. And how are you getting on with that?”

The two brothers glared at one another, their expressions were fierce.

“Miss Weston, you must pardon my brothers.” This was Vincent. He’d deftly stepped between them, grabbed them both by the necks, and glared pointedly until they drew back. The brewing argument vanished. “They are prone to teasing one another.”

Francis started, “It was only a conversation—” But Vincent threw him such a look, the small man wilted and ducked his gaze.

Edward, his shoulders still bunched with tension, looked away. “I will remember myself.”

“Good,” Vincent said to him. “Do endeavor to be pleasant for at least another hour.”

Elizabeth could not interpret what she had witnessed—rivalry, authority, uncertainty, all of it. The goading, the reprimand—perhaps it was that they were only brothers, deeply competitive. But there was more than that at work here. We decided we would like to come in from the woods. . . .

Francis bowed something that was like an apology and went off to another room. Vincent followed him, and she expected Edward to do likewise.

Instead, he turned to her, his expression chagrined. “My deepest apologies. Tell me you will forgive me and grant me one more dance?”

She should have been frightened of him, after what she had seen. But she took his hand and stood before she knew what she was about.

••

“You like him,” her father said, as they sat at supper. She was with her parents near the Brannocks. The brothers Wilde were at the far end of the table. She didn’t dare steal a glance at Edward, though she was sure he was stealing glances at her.

Elizabeth gathered herself as well as she could, folding her hands before her. “I don’t know that I would use so strong a word,” she replied. “Mr. Wilde is very . . . interesting.”

“That is more than you have said about any other man who has ever turned an eye toward you, my sweet girl.” He kissed her hand and smiled knowingly.

Perhaps she could persuade Edward Wilde to return to whatever woods he had come from, and take her with him. This thought was shocking—and pleasant. She wrapped herself up with it.

••

While the gentlemen smoked and drank their brandy, Mrs. Brannock led the ladies to the drawing room. The gossip that followed there was mercenary. For once, the thoughts of the women were just as stark as the words they spoke. There were more daughters than available bachelors in the neighborhood, and the arrival of the Wildes was a boon.

“But what of their family? Does no one know anything of them?”

“Clearly, the family made its money in business, this is why no one has heard of them.”

“They do have a rough edge to them, don’t they?”

“But money forgives many faults, doesn’t it?”

A few stray glances went to Elizabeth, who pretended to be occupied with the lace on her sleeve.

“I would know more about them before allowing them to claim one of my daughters.”

“Does anyone know if they even have this fortune that everyone speaks of? Taking Lilies Park isn’t a sure sign of it—”

“They’d have had to prove their credit before taking the estate, surely—”

“I’m sure I don’t understand such things—”

“But they do seem very fine, don’t they? Ah, to be young again, I might try to catch one of them for myself!”

The worry over money was true, but it had a second function: to put off rivals. Whatever they said, the mothers would be happy to have their daughters married to money. None of them was so fine that they could easily refuse anything upward of three thousand a year. If the marriage went poorly years hence, whether because of money or disposition, they would all say that they knew from the first it would be so. None would remember the talk of this evening.

Amy leaned close to Elizabeth. “You are thinking very deep thoughts, my friend.”

“Oh? I’m told that thinking in ladies is unattractive.”

“Usually it is, but it makes you appear quite mysterious. I approve.”

“Amy, you’re a bad influence on me.”

“Good! Now, do share.”

She took a deep breath. “I am thinking, what a pack of vultures.”

Amy burst out laughing, and the matrons and their daughters turned sharp looks to them, which caused Elizabeth’s friend to choke back even more laughter.

The gentlemen joined the ladies soon enough, and there was music and whist. The younger of the company drifted to an adjacent parlor, talking around the fireplace with the illusion of privacy, chaperoned by the company in the other room.

“I think our introduction to the neighborhood has been a great success, brothers,” said Francis, the merry one as Elizabeth thought of him. “What say you, ladies?”

“A triumphant success, I think,” Amy exclaimed. “But you will have to hold a ball of your own soon to truly establish yourselves.”

“Ah, of course,” Francis said. “We cannot escape the balls, can we?”

Vincent and Edward showed sour expressions at this, though they made a good show of fortitude. The drawing room was not their natural habitat, as Edward had indicated. Francis masked discomfort by being forward. Vincent and Edward did not mask it at all.

“But now—I am going to be quite rude,” Amy said. “I hope you will not think ill of me for it.”

“How could anyone ever think ill of you?” Francis asked.

“We know nothing about you,” she said. “Where are you from? What can you tell us of the Wilde family? If you do not wish to answer directly, perhaps we can play a game of questions. You need only answer yes or no, then.”

“There is nothing to tell, really,” Vincent said, eyeing his brothers.

“No, please, a game of questions would be delightful! Are you from the north?”

“Ah . . . no,” Vincent said.

“The south, then?”

“No.”

Amy pursed her lips. “Well then, where are you from?”

“Miss Weston,” Edward said. He began to pace. “Do you play the pianoforte?”

Elizabeth flinched, startled. “Not very well, I’m afraid.”

Francis laughed. “Then we must hear you play, Miss Weston, for all ladies say they do not play well, to better display their genteel humility.”

Amy stood and gave a brilliant smile. All the gentlemen must swoon. “Mr. Wilde, we are having such a fine conversation, I’m sure no one wishes to leave it even for a moment just to play something.”

Rescue. Elizabeth’s relief was physical.

Francis seemed put out. “Really, I thought this was how it was done. The lady is asked to play, she demurs that she does not play well, her assembled friends assure her that she plays very well indeed, and then the lady is allowed to demonstrate her skill without being accused of undue pride.” He was teasing. His manner was bright, containing no malice at all, but Elizabeth might wish she weren’t the subject of his banter. She was ill equipped to bear it.

“Mr. Wilde, do be still,” Edward said, biting the words. Something rose up in him. His lips curled, showing teeth.

Their exteriors were polite. They did not tear into each other with claws—but they wanted to, with the looks they gave one another, raking each other up and down with sharp gazes. Their lips parted hungrily, their teeth were white and sharp.

Elizabeth stood. She did not have to feign an anxious tremor in her voice. “I think . . . I think I should like to take a walk. A turn about the room. To get some air.”

The brothers turned to her, still annoyed, but they no longer seemed as if they wished to devour one another, and that made a great improvement on Elizabeth’s nerves.

“Miss Weston, are you well?” Vincent Wilde asked.

“In truth, the room seems somewhat . . . crowded.”

“There are less than a dozen of us here!” one of the other young ladies, one often frustrated with Elizabeth’s fragility, exclaimed.

“And yet I think the room is quite full.”

“Miss Weston displays a great deal of insight, I think,” Edward said. “If I may, I will escort you to the window for some air.”

“Thank you, sir.”

They went off a little ways, and Edward pushed open the window. The air that came in was cold and damp. Her mother would be horrified of a chill overtaking her, but Elizabeth breathed it in gratefully.

They had some privacy. They could speak alone in quiet voices. It seemed wonderfully illicit. Some of the others might think this had all been a ploy on her part to get Edward alone. Amy might have encouraged her to try such a trick, but she would know this was honest. Elizabeth wasn’t very good at ploys.

Edward’s concern was genuine. He did not think this was a ploy.

“Thank you,” she said softly. “I was quite overwhelmed.”

“You are not wrong about the room,” Edward said. “It is more full than it appears.”

“I think that is because the personalities of you and your brothers are so very large. When you were boys, your mother and father must have despaired of ever having peace again. Except—you are not truly brothers, are you?”

“How do you guess that? I know we do not favor one another, but it is very forward of you to say so.”

“I have never done a forward thing in all my life but talk to you.”

“You—your insight . . . it astonishes me.” His whole manner had stiffened.

She had never wanted to understand someone as much as she wanted to understand him. At the moment, he was building walls in his mind to keep her out.

“I am not trying to astonish, truly.”

“It makes you all the more intriguing.”

She had never before wanted to kiss someone, but she could finally see why one might want to. If she leaned in, if she put her hand on his chest—it was scandalous. She also felt that if she tried to kiss him, he would let her.

He shook his head and took a step back, and she felt as if a chasm opened between them.

“I fear, Miss Weston, that I have misled you. I admire you, but I cannot do more than that. This is for your own safety, please believe me.”

He was not lying. But he was disguising the full truth.

“Mr. Wilde—” But he had already walked away.

••

Amy interrogated her thoroughly.

“But what did he say?”

Heads bent together, no one could hear them. The evening was over. Elizabeth was in her pelisse, waiting in the foyer for the carriages to be drawn up. The brothers Wilde were nowhere to be seen.

“That this was for my own safety, and then he left. He was unhappy. I could see that he was.”

“Of course he was, to give you up. My dear, he has used you very ill, to draw you in and then drop you like . . . like a handkerchief.” She frowned at her own metaphor.

“I do not know what I did wrong. Perhaps I spoke too freely—”

“Oh, do not blame yourself. Who can understand men?”

They kissed cheeks in farewell and the Westons left in their carriage. When her father asked her how she liked the evening, she only said that she liked it well enough, but that she was tired now and didn’t want to speak.

••

That night, a wolf howled across the valley. She had never before heard such a sound, a plaintive cry, a heart breaking as the piercing note drew long and faded. The tenor of longing and of uncertainty was familiar to her. It should not have been. The sound was the frustration of someone who had been unhappily standing in close company all evening, but who no longer felt at home in the woods, either. The cry of someone who would be pleased to dance, if only he could find the right partner.

Because she had danced so much more than she was used to, because she had spoken so freely to Edward Wilde, she was feeling brave, and so she donned a wrap, and took a lantern, and went out to the grounds of the manor.

She did not think to search so much as she meant to let herself be found. But the wolf did not cry again. “Edward!” she called out once, but her voice echoed strangely and she cringed. Perhaps she should go to the edge of the wooded park and wait for him.

Her slippers grew wet with dew, as did the hem of her nightdress. She ought to have put on better clothes; she thought the woven wrap would be enough. This was all madness—but she did not mind so much. It felt honest, in a world of pretense.

Then she saw him, a huge creature loping across the grass of the park. He was gray, the color of slate and steel, with a touch of mist on his muzzle and belly. His fur stood thickly from his body. His long, rangy legs carried him toward her. His eyes were icy. She should have been terrified, but she was not. She should have imagined the creature leaping and biting into her throat. Instead, the wolf slowed, stopped, and watched her.

He was lost, angry, and terribly sad. She wanted very badly to touch him, to say that all would be well.

At the edge of the wooded park, she sat, hugging her wrap around her against the dewy grass. The wolf sat, too. They regarded each other as a couple in a dance might, looking across a space just barely too far apart to reach out and touch, not knowing what to say to one another. The wolf—she felt him being oh so careful; he did not trust himself to move any closer.

Moments passed, and she found she was satisfied to sit, and listen. The wolf bowed his head, his ears pressed back. There was apology in the gesture. Shame. She had seen hounds look like this after being scolded.

“Don’t be sorry,” she assured him. “Oh please, don’t be sorry. It is such a pleasant evening, I am happy to sit with you like this.” The air was cool, but with her wrap she did not feel the damp.

The wolf settled, lying down and resting his head upon his paws. He sighed a breath that sounded like a whine.

Elizabeth waited.

••

“Bloody hell!” Francis cried out when he came out through the trees. “I beg your pardon, Miss Weston, you startled me.”

The wolf had not startled him; she had.

She blinked awake—she had nodded off. The wolf—he was truly asleep, curled up, tail to nose. She flattered herself that she had given him some comfort, to allow him to rest.

Vincent came up behind Francis. Both stood, wearing coats and looking harried. The masks were gone.

“Mr. Wilde . . . and Mr. Wilde,” she said, thinking that she ought to stand, but she did not want to disturb the wolf’s rest. Something was happening—she did not look away for fear of missing it. The creature’s fur seemed to thin; his limbs seemed to lengthen, claws fattening into fingers. The changes happened with the gentleness of mist fading at dawn.

“Miss Weston,” Vincent said. He seemed tired; his brother stood wary. “What in God’s name are you doing here?”

She hugged herself. “I do not know. A voice drew me.”

“Edward—” Vincent said wonderingly, and she nodded. “But how?”

“Again, I do not know.”

Francis laughed, and the sound was a relief. The merry version of him was more pleasant. “Do not take this as an insult, my dear lady—but what are you?”

“I might ask the same of you.”

The wolf was half man now, a naked face with pointed ears, sharp teeth behind curled human lips. The fur continued to thin.

Vincent said softly, “He spent too long in a crowded ballroom. We . . . we are not so used to polite company.”

“He said you had decided to come in from the woods.”

“Yes,” the taller brother said. “Francis and I have more . . . fortitude. For Edward, it is difficult. He lasted in company longer than I thought he would, and I believe we have you to thank for it.”

“Oh?”

“You give him a reason to be civilized.”

He does the same for me, she thought.

Edward Wilde lay before them now, nude, back bowed in the curled shape his wolf had lain in. He seemed tense, muscles taut, as if dreaming some difficult dream.

“He will sleep for some time,” Vincent said.

“He is exhausted,” she said.

“Yes,” he said. “I am astonished that you understand. You are not at all . . . frightened?”

She smiled. “Assemblies frighten me. Proposals frighten me. This . . . is merely wondrous.”

Her limbs had grown stiff and she took some time rising from the ground. Francis rushed forward to assist but was only in time to touch her elbow and bow an apology. She thanked him anyway. Moving then to Edward, she removed her wrap and spread it over him. He made a sound, a soft murmur that she couldn’t make out, and nestled more deeply into his grassy bed and sighed in comfort.

“I think I should take my leave, sirs. Do have a pleasant evening.”

“Miss Weston, we should escort you home—”

“No, it isn’t far, truly. Stay with Edward.”

They bowed, and she curtseyed, which seemed ridiculous here under the moon by the shadow of the forest, but it also seemed proper.

Taking her lantern, she hurried back to the house, shivering in her nightdress, to warm herself in her bed. Her maid never asked how her slippers had become so muddy and grass stained.

••

Several days later, she received a parcel wrapped in paper and tied with twine. She took it to her room to unwrap, because she was sure what the package contained: her wrap, with a carefully written slip of paper that said, My thanks.

This gave her such a warm feeling she was almost overwhelmed, and she held the note to her breast for a long time.

••

Elizabeth gladly attended the next assembly in town, not for any expectation that the brothers Wilde would be present, but for the hope that they would. Hope, she discovered, was a powerful inducement to feats of bravery.

She refused two dances, with Amy defending her by spreading about that she had a weak ankle, and was sitting in her usual wallflower role in a chair, happy to watch people enter and exit by the foyer.

And there he was. The three brothers entered, much as they had at the Woodfair ball. Edward was in the middle, and his gaze fell on her directly, as a hound on the scent. Elizabeth stood in a bit of a panic. Vincent nodded to her, and took a smirking Francis off to another part of the room.

Edward came to stand before her. He bowed; she curtseyed. The emotions pouring from him were tangled, but the thread she felt strongest was happiness.

He asked if she would like to sit; she did, clutching her hands together in her lap. He sat in the chair beside her. He was like the wolf, ears pricked forward, afraid to move lest he startle her.

“May I speak freely with you, Miss Weston?” he asked finally.

“Of course.” They sat a little apart from one another. The distance seemed a mile.

“I could smell you, when I woke. Your wrap—it smelled of you.” He blushed, trying to find the words. “I have never slept so well. I have never slept so soundly and comfortably, after returning from my other self. I fear I must ask you to run after me every full moon, to drape me with your wrap.”

“I would do it,” she said simply.

He chuckled. “You should stay inside where it is safe. But perhaps I can learn to carry your handkerchief with me.”

“I would give you a handkerchief right now, if I had one.”

“Elizabeth. There is so much you don’t know about us.”

She smiled. “You and the other Misters Wilde are not brothers—well, you are in spirit, if not by blood. It is most strange.”

“Indeed. And yet no one but you questions it.”

“Most people are eager to accept what they are told.”

“But not you.”

“This is my secret, Mr. Wilde: I can feel lies. And almost every word spoken in parlors like this is a lie. I wonder that you are so eager to leave your woods.”

“As I said, there are some attractions here.” This time, he blushed, which was rather gratifying.

“I do like the music,” she said.

“Miss Weston—will you trust me?” The meaning behind the words was more than what he spoke, and she understood him perfectly.

“Yes, I will,” she said.


Carrie VaughnCARRIE VAUGHN is the author of the New York Times bestselling series of novels about a werewolf named Kitty, the most recent installment of which is Low Midnight. She’s written several other contemporary fantasy and young adult novels, as well as upwards of 70 short stories. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop. An Air Force brat, she survived her nomadic childhood and managed to put down roots in Boulder, Colorado. Visit her at www.carrievaughn.com


Review: Streets of Shadows anthology edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

Reviewed by Morgan Hua

 

  • Trade Paperback (ISBN 978-1-939840219)
    Alliteration Ink, September 2014
    363 pages

Streets of Shadows has twenty-one new stories by veteran writers. The theme of this collection is supernatural noir. The book was originally a Kickstarter project, and it is now available from Amazon.

In my mind, noir means a specific look and feel: rain-slicked streets, dark alleyways, and down-and-out detectives who don’t know who to trust. Most of the stories in this collection got the atmosphere right and did some amazing world building, but only a few were full-fledged stories. A fair number felt like vignettes or the opening chapter of a novel. Some tighter editing might have helped too, as I found a handful of typos that made me stumble through some of the stories.

Stories of note in order of appearance:
“A Game of Cards” by A. C. Wise. A former female boxer, now bouncer, solves the mystery of two murders in Las Vegas. I liked the card mythos and Lady Luck, which reminded me of Tim Powers’s Last Call. This story did feel like the beginning of a longer work.

“Shooting Aphrodite” by Gary Kloster. A hooker is paid to shoot up with god blood before servicing a customer. And bad things happen.

“Morrigan’s Girls” by Gerard Brennan. A modern, Irish, mythological tale of Morrigan, a madam of brothels, looking for two of her working girls. The sense of place is quite strong in this story: old pubs, seedy backroom dogfights, and trashed, expensive hotels.

“The Large Man” by Paul Tremblay. A Problem Solver is sent to find the Large Man. The city is controlled by an underbelly of unseen magical powers. Birds, rats, and other groups vie for control of the city and the Problem Solver is pulled into a plot of wheels within wheels.

“Unfilial Child” by Laurie Tom. June visits her grandmother in Chinatown and discovers the secret behind her family history. This story lacks the dark atmosphere, but the core of the story is noir.

“Street Worm” by Nisi Shawl. A runaway kid sees ominous, ghostly worms nesting on blighted buildings. She finds she’s not the only one with powers. Her sense of mistrust and fear drives this story.

“Hand Fast” by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. A woman unravels the mystery of the disappearance of her partner and lover. It also involves a pair of magic guns. In some of the other stories, the crime is just a McGuffin for the detective to follow. This is one of the few stories where everything was tightly integrated.

“Beware of Dog” by Kevin J. Anderson. Zombie detective, Dan Shamble, solves the mystery of a bar disturbance and missing dog. The story was amusing, but not laugh out loud humorous. I loved the various references to pop culture such as Dirty Harry, Cruella De Vil, Tasmanian Devil, etc. The world is sort of a mix between Toon Town and The Munsters.

“Cold Fear” by Lucien Soulban. A ghost detective looks into his own death even though he’s told not to do so. I loved the language used in this story; it drops you right into the 1930s.

“Best Served Cold” by Seanan McGuire. Detective Silva is hired by the Winter Queen to find a missing boy toy and some jewels. I liked the dialog and interaction between Silva and the people she talks with.

“Toby’s Closet” by Jonathan Maberry. Detective Sam Hunter, who has a keen sense of smell, solves a child abuse mystery. Sam’s observations and inner dialog are very amusing and very hard-boiled. One of the better stories.

As you can tell, a fair portion of the stories had female protagonists, which is unusual. None of the stories were mysteries in the classical sense, most were character stories with solid world building and a dark crime that was easily solved. Read this anthology for the noir atmosphere and tough characters.


Morgan Hua MORGAN HUA graduated from both Clarion West and Odyssey Writers Workshops. He has written non-fiction articles and reviews for genre magazines and spends his leisure time designing and GMing tabletop RPGs for fun. When not creating the future at startup tech companies in Silicon Valley, he writes about book dragons, dystopian societies, and uncomfortable things that go bump in the night.


Welcome to the December 2014 issue

Last month we opened strong with stories from Ken Scholes and John Wiswell, and December looks just as good. Our first story this month is a regency romance with a twist from NYT Bestseller Carrie Vaughn; and newcomer Julian Mortimer Smith has penned a haunting story for us about The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium where patrons can wager their prized possessions against their heart’s desire. Our goal at UFM has always been to pick stories that provoke an emotional reaction in our readers and if you’re anything like Emily and me, these two stories will do just that.

A new feature that we’re adding to the magazine this month is the Urban Fantasy Book Club, which is headed by Melissa Bleier. Each month we’ll be featuring a new book which we’ll read together and discuss in our Facebook group. This month, it is Mark of the Demon by Diana Rowland

Mark of the Demon (Kara Gillian)

Diana will be dropping in to talk about her inspiration for the book and to offer some encouragement halfway through the month. Our goal is to make this club unique by giving you access to the author herself/himself, so be sure to sign up for our newsletter at the above page and find out how you can join. This is a free service that we’re offering. We’d like for you to buy the book by clicking on the link on our site so that we get paid as an Amazon affiliate, but there is no obligation for you to do so.

Finally, we’ve been working hard on the guts of the magazine for the past month, and we are proud to say that subscriptions are now working, and you can pay for them either with PayPal, or directly from your credit card using Stripe (the same payment provider Facebook uses for many of their transactions). Additionally, last month’s Pay What You Want offer went so well we’re extending it to this month. Want a copy of the magazine for your eReading device (and we thank you if you’re already doing so)? Download it now in ePub or MOBI format and name your own price.

We’d like to start printing your “letters to the editors,” so please send your thoughts on fiction, the magazine, or on fandom itself to us using our Contact form, or through Facebook. If you have any suggestions for features or columns you’d like to see in the magazine, please share them with us through the same channels.

If you’re reading us on your Kindle, Kobo, or another device, our stories are all now at your fingertips. If you’re reading online, well, you’ll have to wait a few days as we roll our content out across the month. But either way, we hope you enjoy our second issue!

UFM Issue 2

UFM Issue 2

Issue 2

  • Featuring
  • The Beaux Wilde by Carrie Vaughn
  • The Fumblers Alley Risk Emporium by Julian Mortimer Smith
  • Non-Fiction
  • PathoLogic: How Our Fear of Diseases Built Old Myths and New Media by Robert William Iveniuk
  • Reviews
  • London Falling by Paul Cornell
  • Streets of Shadows edited by Maurice Broaddus and Jerry Gordon

Pay What You Want