Creating Genrenauts: An Interview with Michael R. Underwood

Michael R. Underwood is the author of a number of urban fantasy novels, including Genrenauts and the Ree Reyes series. He was kind enough to answer some of our burning questions and give us a few hints about his future work.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Genrenauts is the first in a series. Can you share your plans for future books?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Oh, what plans I have. I had so many plans that Lee Harris, my editor, had to get me to dial it back a bit (I was ready to sell 30 novellas all at once off a full series proposal. I admit that was a bit ambitious).

Genrenauts is structured to evoke a television series – it’s organized into six-episode ‘seasons,’ with five seasons planned for the complete arc. The first two episodes are in the can for Tor.com Publishing, and I have four more episodes written and in various stages of revision. My plan is to publish all of season one, preferably by the end of next year if all goes according to plan. Once the whole first season is out, I’ll see how folks are liking it and decide how to continue.

Episode 1 – “The Shootout Solution” takes our heroes to the Western genre to confront a bandit posse, and Episode 2 – “The Absconded Ambassador,” shows them visiting a region of the Science Fiction world inspired by works such as Babylon 5 and Deep Space 9, to track down and return a kidnapped ambassador in order to salvage a nascent galactic alliance.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about the novella format that drew you to write one?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: I really enjoyed writing a shorter story in the Ree Reyes series with Attack the Geek, so when Tor.com announced their novella project, I jumped at the opportunity to play in that space again, to focus on shorter, but still rich stories, with enough words to flesh out a world but without the need to fill it with sub-plots. I thought a lot about the format of TV and TV miniseries when designing Genrenauts, as well as the serial storytelling in comics. I’ve written a whole season for the series so far, and I’m really enjoying the novella as a form, which means I’ll probably be writing more, even outside Genrenauts.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: It’s been called a fresh take on the portal fantasy, although you’re billing it as comedic SF. Can it be tied down to any one genre?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Part of what I love about Genrenauts is that it’s very intentionally playing with genres – it’s a story about stories, how and why we tell them. Each episode will have some of the feel of the genre world the heroes are visiting, and the sense of humor and play with genres will always be present, but I can definitely see why people would interpret it as portal fantasy – it has some of that sense of enchanted estrangement, where people from our world visit strange and exciting realms.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If you could travel to any of the worlds in the Genrenauts multiverse which one would you travel to and why?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: If I were single, it would definitely be the Romantic Comedy region of the Romance world, since I’m a big fan of Rom-Coms, even with the big heaps of cultural baggage that most of them carry. But since I’m very happily involved, I’d say that my #1 wish would be to travel to the Traditional Fantasy region of the Fantasy world. To get the chance to walk among dwarves and elves, to see magic in a marketplace, to lift a glass of ale in an inn, to put on a cloak and sit in a corner and give a group of adventurers a task to go clean out a nearby cave, would be about the coolest thing for me as a life-long fantasy geek.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What drew you to stand-up comedy as a job for Leah?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Genrenauts, being all about stories, is also about storytellers. Each member of the team has a different perspective and set of skills as a storyteller, so when designing Leah as the main POV character (she’s the new recruit, and therefore serves as the reader’s self-insert character in being introduced to the Genrenauts), I wanted a style of storytelling that required analysis and humor, but also improvisational skills, the ability to work on your feet. I’ve been impressed by stand-up over the years, especially comedians like Eddie Izzard, and stand-up is also a form of storytelling that is explicitly comedy-focused (at least for many performers), and I wanted to bring a comedian’s perspective to the story, being a comedy-minded writer myself.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: She’s a very interesting character. Did you draw upon any real people to create her?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Thanks! I didn’t so much draw on any one specific person so much as bits and bobs from a lot of women that I know and have known over the years. Leah has my curiosity about and love for narrative genres and how they’re put together, but she also has really high-end emotional intelligence/empathy skills. She’s great at reading people, in a way drawn from a few wonderful people in my life (wonderful for many reasons, including the fact that they use their empathy to try to help people). That ability to read people made sense as a non-supernatural super-power for a stand-up comic with an improv background, and her skill lets me unpack a lot in the stories as well as making it easier for me to lean into characterization and interpersonal dynamics, which is a part of craft and storytelling I’ve always been fascinated by and have been working into my fiction more and more.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Is this a departure from your usual oeuvre?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: I actually think of Genrenauts as being a big return to form for me. It’s my first straight-up science fiction book series, but in tone and topic, Genrenauts shares a lot with the Ree Reyes books, my first (and longest) published series. It’s a fun action-adventure with sharp, sarcastic characters while the structure of the world (magic in Ree Reyes, the multiverse in Genrenauts) lets me do a lot of work in examining stories and why people are passionate about them – what stories do personally and socially.

The format is a departure, as I’d only written one novella before starting Genrenauts. I thought a lot about other novella series I’d seen (fellow Tor.com Publishing novella writer Matt Wallace’s SLINGERS, for one), as well as ‘fiction in TV seasons’ series like Yesterday’s Gone by Sean Platt & David Wright, online serialization like Catherynne M. Valente’s first Fairyland book, as well as the more recent round of digital serials from Tor and Amazon. Of course, now there are even more serial fiction setups like SerialBox in the world, so it seems like I’m in good company, which helps me from feeling adrift in terms of format and structure.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Which genre world are you most looking forward to writing about and why?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: This is a tie for me right now between Wuxia and Horror. I want to write a Wuxia story because I like the genre, and because I have plans to explore non-Western/European storytelling genres as the series goes on, to talk about different cultural context, how stepping into and engaging with stories from an unfamiliar genre can tell you about the culture that created it. I’ve got plans to do this kind of story in Genrenauts a few times throughout the series as the team heads to other bases around the world (which cover those non-Western genres). The team in Genrenauts is intentionally multicultural and multi-national, which gives me a bigger range of character subject positions to investigate those differences from.

I want to tackle horror because it’s a genre I didn’t grow up loving, but am coming to appreciate more as an adult, largely through my fiancée introducing me to the milestone texts (mostly films) for her as a big horror buff. Horror has a lot of deconstructions and meta-narratives, but I have an idea for a Genrenauts Horror story with a deconstruction/metafictional angle that I don’t think has been done before, nor do my expert sources.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

MICHAEL R. UNDERWOOD: Let’s go with ‘if you could have beers/drinks with any deceased author, who would it be?’

There are an almost infinite number of answers for this, especially if I got to apply the Star Trek Universal Translator rule and chat with people whose language I don’t speak.

Some strong options: Chuang Tzu, author of book of the same name – an important Yin/Yang school writer who would later be rolled into the Taoist tradition. Chuang Tzu was a very compelling storyteller, more literal and narrative than the Lao Tzu (the better-known book associated with the Taoist tradition). I’d ask where the stories came from, what he meant by cutting through the empty space in the tale of Cook Ding, and more.

William Shakespeare – because seriously, Shakespeare. I’d ask about re-contextualizing new stories, about story-crafting for multiple social classes all at once, about reading a crowd and about refining work through performance. And I’d see if I could break the time stream by having him write an allusion to one of my stories into a play which people can then gripe at me for ripping off. But I’ll know better.

But ultimately, I think the one I’d have to pick is someone I might have only missed by a few years, if fate had gone just a bit of a different way – Octavia Butler, who died suddenly in 2005, just as I was getting into the world of SF/F prose publishing. I’ve read and been incredibly moved by Butler’s fiction, but also her essays, especially those in her collection Bloodchild and Other Stories. Her work tackles power and oppression and worldview head-on in a way that totally kicks my ass, and I would have loved the chance to speak with her about writing and social justice. If by ‘speak with’ one means ‘mostly listen and occasionally ask follow-ups,’ which I do.

The Blue-Nosed Reindeer by Mike Resnick

“Bah,” said Mallory, as he entered the office with a Racing Form tucked under his arm. “And while I’m thinking about it, humbug.”

Winnifred Carruthers turned to him and dabbed some sweat from her pudgy face.

“You don’t like the way I’m decorating the tree?” she asked.

“Christmas trees are supposed to be green,” said Mallory.

“Just because they were green in your Manhattan doesn’t mean they have to be green everywhere, John Justin,” replied Winnifred. “Personally, I think mauve is a much nicer color.” She pushed a wisp of white hair back from her forehead and stepped back to admire her handiwork. “Do you think it needs more ornaments?”

“If you put any more ornaments on it, the damned thing will collapse of its own weight.”

“Then perhaps some tinsel,” she suggested.

“It’s just the office tree, Winnifred,” said Mallory. “If people need a detective agency, they’ll come here whether we decorate the place or not.”

“Well, it makes me feel better,” she said. “I’d string rows of popcorn, but…” She glanced at the remarkably human but definitely feline creature lying languorously on a window sill, staring out at the snow.

“Yeah, I see your point,” said Mallory. “Though she’d probably prefer that you string up a row or two of dead mice.”

“I’d rather kill them myself,” purred the creature. “You do it too fast. That takes all the fun out of it.”

“We’re feeling bloodthirsty this holiday season, aren’t we, Felina?” said Mallory.

“I feel the same as always,” said Felina without taking her eyes off the falling snow.

“I think that’s what I meant,” said Mallory sardonically.

“I’m going to sit down for a minute or two,” announced Winnifred. “I’m not the woman I was fifty years ago.”

“You want me to put the star on the top?” asked Mallory. “My arms are longer.”

“If you would,” said Winnifred gratefully.

“You don’t want to do it now,” said Felina.

“Why not?” asked Mallory.

“Because you’re about to have a visitor.”

“You see him outside?”

She shook her head and smiled a languorous feline smile. “I hear him on the roof.”

“A visitor or a thief?” asked Mallory.

“One or the other,” said Felina.

Mallory walked to his desk and took his pistol out of the top drawer, then walked to the front door and waited.

“He’s not coming that way,” said Felina.

“Which window?” demanded Mallory.

“None.”

“There isn’t any other way in,” said Mallory.

“Yes there is,” said Felina, still smiling.

Mallory was about to ask her what it was, when he heard a thud and an “Oof!” coming from the fireplace. He walked over and trained his gun on the huge figure that sat there, dusting soot off his bright red coat.

“Is that any way to greet a client?” said the man, staring at Mallory’s pistol.

“Clients come through the front door,” replied Mallory, still pointing the gun at him. “Thieves and intruders slide down the chimney.”

“Slide is hardly the word,” said the man. “They’re building ’em narrower and narrower these days.”

“Maybe you’d better explain what you’re doing in my chimney in the first place,” said Mallory.

“It’s traditional. Now, are you going to keep aiming that gun at me, or are you going to give a fat old man a hand and maybe talk a little business?”

Mallory stared at him for another minute, then shoved the pistol into his belt and helped the huge man to his feet.

“Ah, that’s better!” said the man, brushing himself off and smoothing his long white beard. “You’re the guys who found the unicorn last New Year’s, and exposed that scam at the Quatermaine Cup, aren’t you? They say that the Mallory & Carruthers Agency is the best detective bureau in town.”

“It’s the only one in town,” replied Mallory. “What can we do for you?”

“Who am I speaking to?Mallory or Carruthers?”

“I’m John Justin Mallory, and this is my associate, Colonel Winnifred Carruthers.”

“And that?” asked the man, pointing to Felina.

“The office cat,” said Mallory. “And who are you?”

“I doubt that you’ve heard of me. I’m from out of town.”

“We still need your name if we’re to write up a contract,” said Winnifred.

“Certainly, my dear,” said the man. “My name is Nick.”

“Nick the Greek?” asked Winnifred.

He smiled at her. “Nick the Saint.”

“What can we do for you, Mr. Saint?” asked Winnifred.

“Call me Nick. Everybody does.”

“All right, Nick. How can we help you?”

“Something was stolen from me,” said Nick the Saint. “Something very valuable. And I want it back.”

“What was it?” asked Mallory.

“A reindeer.”

“A reindeer?” repeated Mallory.

“That’s right.”

“We’re talking a real, live one?” continued Mallory. “Not a ceramic, or a jade statue, or…”

“A real live one,” said Nick the Saint.

“I knew it,” muttered Mallory. “Unicorns, pink elephants, and now this. Why is it always animals?”

“I beg your pardon?” said Nick the Saint.

“Never mind,” said Mallory. “His name wouldn’t be Rudolph, would it?”

“Actually, his name is Jasper,” answered Nick the Saint.

“Not that there are a lot of reindeer in Manhattan,” said Mallory, “but it would help if you could describe him, and perhaps explain what makes him so valuable.”

“He looks like any other reindeer,” said Nick the Saint. “Except for his blue nose, that is.”

“He doesn’t like dirty books?”

“This is hardly the time for humor, Mr. Mallory,” said Nick the Saint severely. “I absolutely must have him back by Christmas Eve. That’s only four nights off.”

“This nose of his,” said Mallory. “What does it do–glow in the dark?”

“You know the way red shifts measure how quickly astronomical objects are moving away from you?” asked Nick the Saint. “Well, blue shifts measure how fast they’re approaching. There’s a lot of garbage up there where I work–satellites and space shuttles and such–and old Jasper’s nose lets me know when they’re getting too close. The brighter it gets, the sooner I have to change my course to avoid a collision.”

“He smells them out?” asked Mallory.

“I don’t know how it works, Mr. Mallory. I just know that it does work. Without Jasper, I’m a target for every heat-seeking missile that picks me up on radar.”

“I see,” said Mallory. “Where did you keep Jasper? The North Pole?”

“Too damned cold up there,” replied Nick the Saint. “I just use it as a mail drop. No, Jasper was stabled at the Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch just north of the city, up in Westchester County.”

“How long has he been missing?”

“About three hours.”

“So you haven’t received any ransom requests?”

“Not yet,” said Nick the Saint.

“Who runs the Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch?”

“An old Greek named Alexander.”

“Have you had any disagreements with him or his staff recently?”

“Nothing that would make him want to steal a reindeer.”

“Anything that might make him want to kill one?” asked Mallory.

“Bite your tongue, Mr. Mallory! Without Jasper I’m a sitting duck up there!”

“Aren’t you exaggerating the danger a bit?” asked Mallory. “I always heard flying was the safest way to travel.”

“Try flying over Iran and Iraq and then tell me that,” said Nick the Saint.

“I’ll take it under advisement,” said Mallory. “And you’re sure you can’t think of anyone who might want the reindeer?”

Nick the Saint shook his head. “Why would anyone want to steal anything from me? I’m the friendliest guy in the world. Always got a ready ho-ho-ho, always a cheery smile, I’m the first one to put a lampshade over my head at our Christmas party…. No, I can’t think of anyone who doesn’t like me.”

“Well, then Jasper is probably being held for ransom,” said Mallory. “Colonel Carruthers and I will see what we can do from this end, but I strongly suggest you sit by your phone. I wouldn’t be surprised if you got a call in the next twenty-four hours, telling you how much they want for him and where to make the drop.”

“The drop?”

“The payment.”

“Then you’re taking the case?” said Nick the Saint. “Excellent! I’ll go right home and wait for a call.”

“Try using the door when you leave,” said Mallory.

“You have no sense of style, Mr. Mallory,” said Nick the Saint.

“No, but I have a sense of economic survival,” said Mallory. “We’ll require a retainer before you go.”

“A retainer? And here I thought we were getting along so well.”

“We’ll get along even better once I know we’re getting paid for our efforts.”

“How much?” asked Nick the Saint.

“Five hundred a day plus expenses, and a ten percent bonus if we get Jasper back to you before your deadline.”

“That’s outrageous!”

“No,” answered Mallory. “That’s business.”

“All right,” muttered Nick the Saint, pulling a wad of bills out of his pocket and slapping them on the desk. “But don’t be surprised if all you get for Christmas is a lump of coal.”

#

“Well, I suppose the first thing I’d better do is contact the Grundy,” said Mallory.

Felina hissed.

“Must you, John Justin?” asked Winnifred. “He’s so frightening.”

“He’s the most powerful demon on the East Coast,” said Mallory. “He’s the logical place to start.”

“You’re not actually going to his castle, are you?”

“No, I thought I’d invite him here.”

“I don’t want anything to do with this,” said Winnifred, walking to the closet and grabbing her coat and hat. “I hate dealing with him. I’ll do some shopping.”

“He was our first client,” remarked Mallory.

“I didn’t trust him then, and I don’t trust him now,” said Winnifred, walking out of the office and slamming the door behind her.

“How about you?” Mallory asked Felina. “You going or staying?”

“Staying,” said the cat girl.

“Good for you.”

“Oh, I’ll desert you in the end, John Justin,” she added. “But I’ll stay for a little while.”

“How comforting.”

Mallory picked up a phone, dialed G-R-U-N-D-Y, and waited. A moment later a strange being suddenly materialized in the middle of the room. He was tall, a few inches over six feet, with two prominent horns protruding from his hairless head. His eyes were a burning yellow, his nose sharp and aquiline, his teeth white and gleaming, his skin a bright red. His shirt and pants were crushed velvet, his cloak satin, his collar and cuffs made of the fur of some white polar animal. He wore gleaming black gloves and boots, and he had two mystic rubies suspended from his neck on a golden chain. When he exhaled, small clouds of vapor emanated from his mouth and nostrils.

“You summoned me, John Justin Mallory?” said the Grundy.

“Yeah,” said Mallory, as Felina hissed and backed away into a corner. “Ever hear of Nick the Saint?”

“A high roller from up north?” asked the Grundy. “Owns the Kringleman Arms Hotel?”

“That’s the one.”

“What about him?”

“His most valuable reindeer just turned up missing,” said Mallory. “I thought maybe you might know something about it.”

“Of course I do.”

“You’ve got power, money, jewels galore, everything a being devoted to Evil Incarnate could want,” said Mallory. “What the hell do you need an old man’s reindeer for?”

“I did not steal it, John Justin,” said the demon. “I said I knew something about it.”

What do you know about it?”

“I know who stole it, of course.”

“Okay,” said Mallory. “Who?”

The Grundy smiled. “I’m afraid it isn’t that easy, John Justin,” he said. “It is your function in life to detect, and it is my function in life to exalt the evildoers and hinder the moralists.”

“Do you always have to sound like a professor of Philosophy 101?” asked Mallory.

“It is my nature.”

“Fine, it’s your nature. Now are you going to tell me who’s got the reindeer or not?”

“Certainly not.”

“I’m going to find it with or without your help,” said Mallory. “Why not make my life easier and I’ll split the fee with you.”

“Making your life easier is not part of my job description, John Justin Mallory,” said the Grundy. He began laughing, and as he laughed his body grew more tenuous and translucent, then transparent, and finally vanished entirely, as the last note of his laughter lingered in the air.

“Well,” said Mallory, “it was worth a try.”

He poured himself a drink and waited until Winnifred returned.

“Did he show up?” she asked.

“He wasn’t any help.”

“Is he ever?”

“I have a grudging admiration for him,” responded Mallory. “Except for you, he’s the only person in this Manhattan who’s never lied to me.”

“Well, what do we do next, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.

“I should think Nick the Saint will be getting a ransom call any minute now,” said Mallory. “I mean, what the hell else is a blue-nosed reindeer good for? Still, I suppose it can’t hurt to start doing a little legwork, just to prove we’re earning our fee.”

“Where to?”

“The Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch seems the logical starting point,” said Mallory. “I’ll drive up there myself. You stay here and keep in touch with Nick the Saint. Let me know as soon as someone contacts him with a demand for ransom.”

#

“Welcome to the Sunnydale Reindeer Ranch,” said the old man as Mallory walked up to the barn. “My name is Alexander the Greater.”

“Greater than what?” said Mallory.

Alexander frowned. “I hate it when people ask me questions like that!”

“Well, actually I’m here to ask you some other questions,” said Mallory. “I’m a private investigator, working for Nick the Saint.”

“Ah,” said Alexander. “You’re here about Jasper.”

“Right.”

“Follow me,” said Alexander, leading him into the barn. “There are fifty stalls, as you can see. Jasper was in Number 43, up the aisle here. When I came out to feed him this morning, he was gone.”

“It snowed last night,” said Mallory. “Were there any signs of footprints or reindeer tracks?”

Alexander shook his head. “Nope. It’s like he disappeared right off the face of the earth.”

“Has this ever happened to you before?”

“Have I ever lost Jasper before? Of course not.”

“Has anyone ever robbed you before?”

“No. Most people don’t even know this place exists.”

“You mind if I look around?”

“Help yourself,” said Alexander.

Mallory spent the next few minutes walking up and down the barn, looking into each stall. There were forty-nine reindeer, but none with a blue nose. He considered checking the surrounding area for tracks, but it had snowed again since morning and he was sure any sign of Jasper’s departure would be covered by now.

Finally he returned to the old man. “I may want to ask you some more questions later on,” he said.

“Happy to have the company,” said Alexander. “There’s just me and my reindeer here.” Suddenly there was a loud screech. “And an occasional banshee living in the rafters,” he added.

#

Mallory sat at his desk, taking a sip from the office bottle.

“Where do you look for a reindeer?” he said. “Who’s got the facilities to keep it while they’re negotiating a price?”

“The zoo?” suggested Winnifred.

“The race track,” said Felina.

“The dog pound?” offered Mallory.

“I suggest that we split up,” said Winnifred. “We can cover more ground that way. I’ll take the zoo and you take the race track.”

I’ll take the zoo,” said Mallory. “Felina and I are no longer welcome at the track since our last little experience there.”

“All right,” said Winnifred, checking her wristwatch. “We’ll meet at the dog pound in, shall we say, three hours?”

“Sounds good to me.”

Felina suddenly leaped across the room and landed on Mallory’s shoulders, almost knocking him through the wall.

“I’m going with you, John Justin,” she said happily.

“Why am I so blessed?” muttered Mallory.

#

“All right,” said Mallory as they walked into the zoo. “I want you by my side at all times.”

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

“I mean it,” he said. “If you cause any trouble, you’re out of here.”

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

“Do you even know what a reindeer looks like?”

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

“Why don’t I trust you?” he asked.

“Yes, John Justin,” purred Felina.

They passed the sphinx and the griffon, which both looked chilly in their open-air confinements, and then came to a number of students, some of them human, some goblins, a few reptilian, who were picketing the gorgon house, demanding that the four gorgons on display be returned to the wild.

“Come on, Mac,” said one of the picketers, a greenish goblin about half Mallory’s height. “Will you and your ladyfriend sign our petition?”

“She’s not exactly my ladyfriend,” replied Mallory.

“This is no time for technicalities,” said the goblin. “Surely you don’t approve of keeping gorgons caged up?”

“I hadn’t given it much thought,” admitted Mallory.

“Well, it’s time to start thinking about it, Mac,” said the goblin. “Sign our petition to return ’em all to the wild.”

“Where’s their natural habitat?” asked Mallory. “Africa? Asia?”

“Grammercy Park, actually,” said the goblin.

There was a huge, building-jarring roar from inside the gorgon house.

“What do gorgons eat?” asked Mallory.

“Oh, you know–the usual.”

“What is the usual?”

“People,” said the goblin.

“How about goblins?”

“Are you crazy?” demanded the goblin. “You’d put a goblin-eating monster in the middle of Grammercy Park? What kind of fiend are you?”

The goblin glared at him for a moment, then turned and walked away, and Mallory, taking Felina by the hand, continued walking past the harpy and unicorn exhibits. When he found a keeper who had just finished feeding the unicorns, he caught his attention and called him over.

“Excuse me,” said Mallory, “but where do you keep your reindeer?”

“Me?” replied the keeper. “I ain’t got no reindeer. Got a dog. Got a wife who yells at me all day long. Got three sons who won’t look for work and two daughters who won’t look for husbands. Even got a 1935 Studebaker roadster. But reindeer? Where would I keep ’em?”

“I didn’t mean you, personally,” said Mallory. “I meant, where does the zoo keep its reindeer?”

“Don’t rightly know that we have any,” answered the keeper. “Got a pegasus, if your girlfriend is looking for pretty four-legged-type critters.”

“No, we need a reindeer,” said Mallory, flashing his detective’s credentials. “Are you sure one didn’t arrive today?”

“Ain’t seen hide nor hair of one,” said the keeper. “Got a real nice Medusa in the next building, if that’s to your liking.”

“Who would know for sure if you had any reindeer?” asked Mallory.

“I would, and we don’t,” said the keeper. “By the way, you better keep an eye on your girlfriend before she falls down and hurts herself.”

Mallory turned and saw Felina some thirty feet up the bole of a large tree that housed a number of banshees, who were screaming and hurling twigs at her. She had a predatory leer on her face, and as the banshees saw that their imprecations were having no effect on her, they flew to higher and lighter branches, with Felina following in nimble pursuit.

Mallory climbed over the fence that surrounded the tree and stood beneath it.

“Felina!” he yelled. “Get down here!”

She glanced down, smiled at him, and continued climbing–and suddenly Mallory heard an angry grunt directly behind him. He turned and found himself facing an enormous, broad-backed, elephantine creature with three heads.

“I say,” said the first head, “he looks absolutely delicious. Shall we eat him?”

“He looks like he’d go very well with onions and mushrooms, and possibly a wine sauce,” agreed the second head.

“We’re all in agreement, then?” said the first head.

“I ain’t talking to you guys,” said the third head.

“Oh, come on, Roderick,” said the first head. “I said I was sorry.”

“Don’t care,” sulked the third head.

“Now see here, Roderick,” said the second head. “Reginald has apologized to you. Isn’t that enough?”

“No,” said Roderick. “We always agree to kill people, and then he always ends up eating them.”

“It goes to the same stomach,” said Reginald, “so what’s the difference?”

“If there’s no difference, let me eat this one all by myself,” said Roderick.

“If that’s what it will take to get you talking to us again,” said the second head with a sigh.

“Now, just hold on a second, Mortimer,” said Reginald. “Who gave you leave to make the rules? I saw him first, so it’s only fair that I get to eat him.”

“It’s not fair!” complained Roderick. “Just because I’m near-sighted, he always sees them first and gets to do the eating. I’ve got half a mind to crush this puny man-thing to a pulp so nobody can eat him.”

“Uh, let’s not be too hasty here,” said Mallory, backing away toward the fence.

“Didn’t anyone ever tell you it’s bad manners to interfere in a family argument?” said Reginald. “Now please be quiet while we decide which of us is going to eat you.”

“As the potential dinner, I think it’s only fair that I have a say, too,” persisted Mallory.

“You know, I never looked at it that way before,” said Mortimer, “but of course he’s absolutely right. He certainly has to be considered an involved party.”

All three heads turned to Mallory. “All right,” said Reginald. “Which of us would you prefer to be eaten by?”

“It’s a hard decision to make on the spur of the moment,” said Mallory. “How about if I spend a few minutes thinking about it and get back to you?”

“All right,” said Reginald. “But you have to remain in the enclosure.”

“Right,” chimed in Roderick. “After all, fair is fair.”

Just then there was a huge amount of shrieking overhead, and Felina fell through the air and landed nimbly on the three-headed creature’s back.

“I told you not to leave my side,” said Mallory.

“But they looked so tasty.”

“You broke your word. If I survive the next couple of minutes, you’re in big trouble.”

“It’s not my fault,” said Felina.

“Then whose fault is it?” asked Mallory.

“Uh… I hate to interrupt,” said Mortimer, “but weren’t we deciding which of us was going to eat you?”

“She’s the reason I’m here,” said Mallory disgustedly. “Eat her.”

“Eat her? We can’t even reach her.”

“I’ll get her for you,” said Mallory, walking around the creature and climbing onto its back via its tail. “Well, no one ever said they were bright,” he whispered. “Can you jump over the fence from here?”

“Of course,” said Felina. “Jumping is one of the very best things cat people do.”

“Then would you please jump over it and bring back some help?”

“I thought you were mad at me,” said Felina.

“We’ll talk about it later,” he said. “Right now staying alive and uneaten is more important.”

“First you have to say you’re not mad at me,” said Felina stubbornly. “Then I’ll get help.”

“All right,” said Mallory, wondering what his blood pressure reading was at that very moment. “I’m not mad at you.”

She shook her head. “You have to say it with sweetness and sincerity.”

“Hey! What’s going on back there?” demanded Roderick.

“I’m just telling her I’m not mad at her,” said Mallory.

“What’s that got to do with anything?” said Reginald. “We’re hungry.”

“Felina, they’re hungry!” hissed Mallory. “It’s only going to take them an hour or so to figure out that if they roll over, I’m dead meat.”

“Oh, all right,” she said, leaping lightly over the fence.

“Hey, she’s running away!” said Roderick.

“That’s all right,” said Mallory. “You’ve still got me.”

“But we can’t reach you!”

“I can’t tell you how sorry I am about that,” said Mallory, looking across toward the unicorn house, where Felina was talking to the old unicorn keeper. Finally he nodded and trudged across the sidewalk after her.

“Okay, you guys,” he said when he arrived. “Let the detective go.”

“Aw, we were just having a little fun with him,” whined Roderick.

“And maybe a little lunch,” added Reginald.

“You know what I’ve told you,” said the old man. “If you keep eating the customers, pretty soon we ain’t gonna have none, and then where will we all be?”

“How about if we just eat a leg or two?” asked Roderick.

“You let him go, or there will be no PBS documentaries about your mating habits for a week,” said the old man.

“No! We’ll let him go!” cried Mortimer. “Get off our back now!”

Mallory slid down to the ground and raced to the fence.

“He looks kind of stringy anyway,” said Roderick.

“Besides, he’s a detective,” added Mortimer. “Did you ever try to clean one of those?”

Mallory scrambled over the fence while the three heads were busy rationalizing their loss and telling dirty stories about the last documentary they had seen.

“Thank you,” he said to the unicorn keeper.

“It’s people like you that give carnivores a bad name,” said the old man, turning on his heel and walking away.

Mallory checked his watch, saw that he just had time to meet Winnifred at the dog pound, and started walking toward his car, half-hoping Felina would stay behind. A moment later he felt a ninety-pound weight on his back and heard a loud purring in his ear.

“I’ll say this for my luck,” he muttered. “It’s consistent.”

#

“No luck at the track?” asked Mallory as he met Winnifred in front of the dog pound.

“None,” she said. “How about the zoo?”

“The only luck I had there is that I’m still alive.”

“By the way,” added Winnifred, “I checked in with Nick the Saint, and he still hasn’t received a demand for ransom.”

“That’s damned strange,” said Mallory, frowning. “What the hell else can you do with a reindeer?”

“Eat it,” suggested Felina.

“What do you think, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.

He shook his head. “If that was the motive, why steal the most valuable one? No one’s going to eat his nose.”

“Then I suggest we stop wasting time out here and check out the pound,” said Winnifred.

“Just a minute,” said Mallory. He led Felina back to his car, sat her down in the back seat, secured the safety belt, and then locked all the doors.

“She created problems at the zoo?” asked Winnifred when he had rejoined her.

“Not half as many as she can create at a dog pound,” answered Mallory. “I know that trouble is our business, but she seems bound and determined to turn it into our hobby as well.”

They walked up to the main office, where a large shaggy man with a face resembling a Saint Bernard got up from his desk and greeted them.**

“Good afternoon, dear friends,” he said, drooling slightly from the corner of his mouth. “Welcome to the Manhattan Dog Pound. How many I help you?”

“We’re looking for a reindeer,” said Mallory.

“One with a blue nose,” added Winnifred.

The man growled deep within his throat. “Why would you expect to find a reindeer here?”

“Just a hunch,” said Mallory.

“Well, you’re certainly welcome to inspect our premises, but I guarantee you won’t find what you’re looking for,” said the man, starting to pant slightly. “Let me get one of our employees to accompany you.” He pressed a button on his desk, and a moment later a lean man with chalk-white skin and black spots all over it entered the room. “Tyge,” he said, “please give these two visitors a tour of the premises.”

“Rrrright,” said Tyge. He turned to Winnifred. “Pleased to meet you, ma’am.”

“Likewise, I’m sure,” said Winnifred, extending her hand. Tyge took it in his own hands, held it to his nose, and took a deep sniff, then repeated the same procedure with Mallory.

Arfter me,” said Tyge, leading them through a door at the back of the office.

They found themselves in a narrow aisle between two sets of chain-linked runs, and inside each was a man, woman, or child.

“I thought this was a dog pound,” said Mallory.

“Yep, it sure is, yep, yep, yip,” said Tyge. “Each of these people wants a dog for Christmas, so when any stray dogs show up, we send ’em in here and see if they want to go home with any of them.”

“Back where I come from, dog pounds hold dogs, not people,” said Mallory.

“No dog deserves such ruff treatment,” said Tyge, barking the word. His upper lip curled back, revealing a row of clean white teeth. “I never heard of anything so brutal. Imagine, putting dogs in cages and letting people choose which ones they want!”

“Different strokes,” said Mallory. “Do you have any reindeer here?”

“Never heard of a reindeer wanting a dog before,” chuckled Tyge. “That’s a larf!

“Then we won’t take up any more of your valuable time,” said Winnifred.

“It’s been my pleasure, ma’am,” said Tyge. “I wonder if you could do me one little favor before you leave?”

“What?”

He turned his back to her. “Could you just kind of scratch between my shoulder blades a bit?”

Winnifred reached forward and scratched.

“Now under the chin?”

Winnifred scratched again, and suddenly Tyge’s left leg began shaking spasmodically.

“That’s enough, ma’am,” he said. “Thank you.”

“My pleasure,” said Winnifred, following Mallory back to the exit.

“Well, that was a waste of time,” said Mallory. “Maybe we’d better check in with Nick the Saint and see if anyone’s contacted him yet.”

“Maybe we’d better rescue the car first,” said Winnifred, walking out into the open, for Felina had somehow worked her way loose and had three dog pound employees, each more canine in appearance than the last, cowering on the hood of the car while she grinned and displayed her claws to them.

Mallory walked behind her and encircled her with an arm, lifting her off the ground while she writhed and spat. The three employees raced toward the safety of the pound, howling their terror.

“Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?” said Winnifred when Mallory had stuffed Felina into the car and started the engine.

Felina licked her forearm and turned her back on them.

“I’m speaking to you, young lady!” snapped Winnifred.

“I think it’s going to snow again,” said Felina, looking out the window.

“You know,” said Mallory, who had been silent since leaving the dog pound, “now that I come to think of it, my Manhattan wasn’t so bad.”

#

Winnifred hung up the phone. “He still hasn’t gotten any ransom request.”

“I think,” said Mallory, “that it’s about time we started considering the fact that the damned reindeer wasn’t stolen for ransom, and begin examining other possibilities.”

They were back in the office, and Felina had been banished to the kitchen, where she had turned on the tap in the kitchen sink and was watching, fascinated, as the water swirled down into the drain.

“I’m open to suggestions,” said Winnifred. “Why else would someone steal a reindeer?”

“Not just a reindeer,” Mallory pointed out. “But a blue-nosed reindeer with certain talents that none of the others had.”

“The military?” suggested Winnifred. “They’d give a pretty penny to get their hands on an animal that could dodge heat-seeking missiles.”

“No, I don’t think so,” said Mallory.

“Why not?”

“Because they would give a pretty penny for Jasper,” he said. “If they wanted him, they’d simply appropriate the funds to buy him.”

“What if Nick didn’t want to sell?”

“Then they’d have found some way to confiscate him,” replied Mallory.

“All right,” said Winnifred. “If not the military, then who?”

“I keep going over it and over it in my mind,” said Mallory, “and I keep coming up with the same answer: a competitor.”

“He doesn’t have any competitors, John Justin.”

“Well, he does now,” said Mallory. “He’s without a lead reindeer, and someone else has one four days before Christmas.”

“Where’s the motive?” asked Winnifred. “It’s certainly not profit, not if this competitor is giving away presents all over the world.” She paused. “And the kind of person who has enough goodness to give them away isn’t the type to steal another man’s reindeer in the first place.”

“What kind of person does steal Nick the Saint’s reindeer four days before Christmas?” mused Mallory.

“I don’t know,” said Winnifred.

“I think,” said Mallory, “that I’d better pay another visit to Alexander the Greater first thing tomorrow morning.”

#

Mallory pulled his car up to the barn and got out of it.

“So you’re back again?” said Alexander the Greater, walking out of the barn to greet him.

“That’s right.”

“Got some more questions?”

“Better ones, too,” said Mallory. “But first I’d like to take another look at Jasper’s stall.”

“Be my guest,” said Alexander. “You know where it is.”

“Thanks,” said Mallory.

He entered the barn and started walking past the stalls, peering into each of them. When he came to Number 43, which had belonged to Jasper, he walked right past it and down to the end of the barn, then returned to Alexander.

“You’ve been doing a little business, I see,” said Mallory.

“Not much,” answered Alexander. “Things are pretty quiet right before Christmas.”

“You’re too modest,” said Mallory. “Just yesterday you were boarding forty-nine reindeer, and today you’ve only got forty-one. That means you sold eight of them since I was here.”

“Well, they come, they go, you know how it is,” said Alexander with a shrug.

“No I don’t,” said Mallory. “Suppose you tell me how it is.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“Who did you sell the reindeer to?”

“That’s none of your business, Mr. Mallory,” said Alexander the Greater.

“As a matter of fact, I’ve got a feeling that it is my business,” said Mallory. “Was it the same person who took Jasper away yesterday morning?”

“You’re guessing, Mr. Mallory.”

“I’m a good guesser, Alexander,” said Mallory. “For example, I’d guess that you’re looking at five to ten years for aiding and abetting in the theft of Nick the Saint’s reindeer. I’d also guess that I’d be willing to forget your complicity if you’d supply me the name I want.”

“Not a chance,” said Alexander stubbornly.

“Then I’d guess that I’m going to walk into your office and find it on my own.”

“Two out of three ain’t bad,” said Alexander with a nasty grin. He put two fingers into his mouth and emitted a loud whistle, and suddenly three wiry little figures, each half the size of a grown man, raced out of the barn. “Meet my security team, Mr. Mallory,” he said, indicating the three leprechauns. “Team, this is Mr. Mallory, whose presence is no longer desired here.”

“We’ll kill him,” growled the nearest of the leprechauns.

“We’ll rip his head off his shoulders,” added the second.

“We’ll gut him like a fish,” said the third.

“There won’t be enough of him left to bury,” said the first leprechaun.

“We’ll slice him to bits with such dexterity that we’ll be awarded both ears and the tail,” said the second.

“The bigger they are, the harder the fall,” said the third. “He’ll never know what hit him.”

Mallory had been retreating toward his car. Once there, he opened the door and Felina jumped out. She faced the leprechauns, grinned, and stretched out her fingers. All ten of her claws glistened in the morning sunlight.

“Of course,” added the first leprechaun, “we could avoid a lot of needless violence and bloodshed and simply discuss the matter.”

“Right,” said the second. “Maybe we could cut a deck of cards, like gentleman. If he’s low, he leaves; if he’s high, he gets to inspect your records.”

“Besides, my lumbago’s been bothering me recently,” added the third leprechaun.

“Yours, too?” said the first, as Felina took a step toward them. “Suddenly my rheumatism is acting up. Must be the weather.”

“I’ve got weak kidneys, myself,” said the second. “In fact,” he added, “now that I think of it, I gotta go to the bathroom!” He turned and raced off.

“The door sticks,” said the first leprechaun, following him at a dead run. “I’ll help you.”

“What a bunch of cowards!” said the third leprechaun contemptuously.

“Then you propose to stay and fight?” asked Mallory.

“No, but only because my religion doesn’t permit me to fight on Tuesdays. It’s a matter of high moral principle.”

“This is a Friday,” said Mallory.

“It is?” asked the leprechaun.

Felina grinned and nodded.

“My goodness!” said the leprechaun. “It’s only four days from Tuesday. I’d better be on my best behavior, just to be on the safe side.” He turned to Alexander the Greater. “Sorry, Chief, but I’m off to sacrifice a fatted lamb, if I can find one.”

He turned and raced off across the landscape as fast as his muscular little legs could carry him.

“Well?” said Mallory.

“You win,” said Alexander with a sigh. “I’ll give you the name you want.”

“I’d rather see it in black and white,” said Mallory. “Somehow I’ve lost my trust in this place.” He turned to Felina. “Keep an eye out for the leprechauns, and warn me if Alexander tries to leave the barn.”

He went to the office, which was just inside the entrance, and started thumbing through paperwork that hadn’t yet been filed. Within two minutes he found what he was looking for. He put the papers in his pocket, waited for Felina to reluctantly give up waiting for the leprechauns and jump into the back seat, and drove back to town.

#

“You have a triumphant smirk on your face, John Justin,” said Winnifred when he returned to the office.

“Not without cause,” he replied.

“What did you find out?” she asked.

“I know who stole Jasper, and I think I know why,” said Mallory.

“But?” she said. “It sounds like there should be a ‘but’ at the end of that sentence.

“You’re very perceptive,” said Mallory. “I know who stole the reindeer, and I think I know why… but I’m not sure that justice will be served by pressing charges.”

“It’s your job to arrest criminals,” said Winnifred.

He shook his head. “It’s the police’s job to arrest criminals. It’s our job to make our client happy, and I think I see a way to do that, but first I’m going to have to confront the thief.”

“Is it safe?”

“I’ve met him once before, the first night I came to this Manhattan,” said Mallory. “He didn’t kill me then; there’s no reason why he should kill me now.”

“You probably didn’t have information that could send him to jail then,” Winnifred pointed out.

“He’ll know I’m not stupid enough to have it with me,” answered Mallory. “If anything happens to me, I expect you to use it.”

“I don’t even know what it is.”

“I’m about to lay it out to you,” said Mallory, removing the papers from his pocket. “And then I’m going to see what kind of deal we can make.”

#

The Old Abandoned Warehouse was practically hidden by the thick fog coming off the East River, but Mallory knew where it was, and he knew–or thought he knew–what he would find there. He parked in a lot about three blocks away, then walked past a row of bars and restaurants catering to goblins and a strip joint promising that Slinky Scaly Sally would shed everything, even her skin, to make her reptilian audience happy, and finally he came to the unmarked door that he sought, and knocked on it.

“Who’s there?” demanded a deep voice.

“John Justin Mallory.”

“You got an appointment?”

“No,” answered Mallory. “You got a good lawyer?”

The door squeaked open, and Mallory found himself confronting a huge blue-skinned man in a purple sharkskin suit, light blue shirt, violet tie, and navy blue shoes and socks. He stood just under seven feet tall, and weighed in the vicinity of five hundred pounds.

“Well, well,” said the Prince of Whales. “So the Grundy hasn’t killed you yet.”

“Have you got some place where we can sit down and talk?” asked Mallory.

“Why do I want to talk to you?” asked the Prince of Whales.

“Because I know all about the blue-nosed reindeer.”

“People have died for saying less than that to me,” said the Prince of Whales.

“Yeah, I suppose they have,” answered Mallory. “But they were stupid people. They probably didn’t tell you up front that whatever they had on you would be turned over to the police if you laid a finger on them.”

The Prince of Whales glared at him for a long moment, then shrugged. “All right, shamus,” he said. “Follow me.”

He led Mallory through the enormous warehouse to a small office built into a corner of it, then ushered him inside.

“Drink?” he said, holding up a bottle containing a blue liquid and scores of small fish swimming around in it.

“I’ll take a pass,” said Mallory, sitting down.

“Good,” said the Prince of Whales. “There’s that much more for me, then.” He lifted the bottle to his lips and drained its contents, fish and all.

“Do they tickle when they go down?” asked Mallory curiously.

“Not so’s you’d notice it,” answered the Prince. “Now cut the chatter and let’s talk deal.”

“What makes you think I’m here to offer you a deal?”

“If you weren’t, you’d have sent the cops,” answered the Prince. “So let’s have it.”

“Okay,” said Mallory. “Let me start with what I know.”

“That shouldn’t take long.”

“I know that you leased eight reindeer from Alexander the Greater this morning. I know you took them away with you. I know the lease expires in a week.”

“And that’s it?” asked the Prince.

“Not quite,” said Mallory. “I know you’re the biggest fence in Manhattan.”

“Everyone knows that,” said the Prince of Whales, “but they ain’t never proved it in court.”

“Now let me tell you what I think,” continued Mallory.

The Prince of Whales reached into his pocket, pulled out a penny, and tossed it the detective. “For your thoughts,” he said.

“I think that they’re getting awfully close to proving it,” he said. “I think you’ve gotten word that sometime shortly after Christmas they’re going to raid your warehouse, before you have a chance to hide or unload your merchandise.”

“You think so, do you?” said the Prince.

Mallory nodded. “And I think you saw a way to get rid of your inventory right out in the open, where nobody would even dream of trying to stop you.” He paused. “I think you stole Jasper and leased the other reindeer so that you could dump all your illegal goods on Christmas Eve. After all, who arrests Santa Claus for giving away millions of presents? And so what if this year there are a few more video recorders and toasters and boom boxes and a few less toys? Most of the people will be just as happy, and when the bust comes in a week or two, your warehouse is empty and nothing can be traced back to you. You won’t even have the reindeer, and I’ve got a hunch that Alexander will suddenly find poor old Jasper grazing in some nearby forest, where everyone will assume he’s been living for the past week.”

The Prince of Whales stared at him for a long moment.

“You’re pretty good,” he said. “I’ll give you that. You got everything but the tax angle.”

“Tax angle?”

“It’s the locals who are trying to bust me for fencing. The Feds don’t care what I do as long as I pay my taxes. I figured to deduct a couple of billion dollars for charitable contributions after I made the rounds on Christmas Eve. I could carry that forward for the next twenty years on my taxes.”

“Maybe you still can,” said Mallory.

“Okay,” said the Prince of Whales. “You talk, I’ll listen. What’s the deal?”

“What if I can get my client to agree to drop all charges against you?”

“What’s it gonna cost?”

“First, you have to return Jasper today,” said Mallory. “I assume he’s somewhere in the warehouse?”

“Yeah, he’s back there with the others in a bunch of stalls I made up. What else?”

“My client is a tough old bird, and I don’t know if simply returning the reindeer is enough,” said Mallory. “But if you sweeten the pot by turning over all your goods to him and letting him dump them on the market on Christmas Eve, I think he might go for it.”

“He’ll sign a document certifying that I gave them to him free of charge?”

“I think he will. Anything he doesn’t use this year, he can use next time around.” He paused. “Do we have a deal?”

“You bet your ass we have a deal, Mallory!” said the Prince of Whales. “The only part of this scam I didn’t like was flying around behind those damned reindeer. I’m scared to death of heights.”

“All right,” said Mallory, walking over to the phone. “Let me talk to my client and make sure he’s willing.”

The deal was official ninety seconds later.

#

“Bah,” said Mallory. “And while I’m at it, humbug.”

“What now, John Justin?” asked Winnifred.

“Here it is Christmas Eve, and that old geezer hasn’t come up with our expense money or our bonus yet. That’s a hell of a note, considering who he is.”

“You’d just spend your share betting at the track anyway,” said Winnifred.

“Well, there’s an elephant called Flyaway running at Jamaica tomorrow,” admitted Mallory. “I’ve got a hunch.”

“Didn’t you once tell me that you bet a horse called Flyaway in your Manhattan some ten or fifteen times and never won?”

“Eighteen,” admitted Mallory. “But it’s such a great name. The name alone is due to win.”

“I’m glad you attack our cases with more intelligence than your wagers,” said Winnifred.

“He’s here,” announced Felina, who had been sleeping atop the refrigerator.

“Who’s here?” asked Mallory.

“The blue-nosed reindeer.”

“How can you tell?”

Felina smiled. “Cat people know things that humans can never know,” she purred.

Suddenly there was a small clanking noise in the fireplace, and Winnifred walked over to it.

“Well, it looks like he kept both promises,” she said, picking up a small parcel.

“What do you mean?” asked Mallory.

“This,” she said, holding up a roll of bills, “is for us. I’ll take it over to the bank and put it in the night deposit window.” She paused. “And this,” she added, tossing him a small object, “is for you.”

Mallory caught it and examined it with a wry grin on his face.

It was a lump of coal.

The Ghosts of Blackwell, Maine by Emily B. Cataneo

“They really make very good companions,” Jo tells her mother. “You hear bad things about them, you know, about how they’ll get into your bedroom at night, shake their chains at you, howl and drape themselves in moss and all that, but really, that’s more ghosts down south or in Europe or wherever. But my ghosts, they’re not like that. They’re respectful, restrained. They love me. I love–”

“It’s all right, Josephine,” her mother says. “Not everyone has a career. Not everyone has children. It’s all right.”

The heat rises on Jo’s neck. She makes her excuses, hangs up the phone and peeks out her pane-glass patio window. Outside, shimmering figures play hopscotch behind the nine-by-twelve barbed-wire fence that hems in the crumble-stone graves in her muddy backyard.

#

Jo always pulls on her shearling-lined duck boots before she treks into the graveyard at this time of year–early spring but it feels like dead of winter, the puddles still frozen with dirty ice. But she won’t let the nasty weather stop her from heading outside. She’s never noticed the cold the way some people do–she was born here, after all–and after her latest conversation with her mother, she needs to be among her girls.

She hikes round back of the house, past the tiny weathered-wood shed where she stores the candles and the Ouija board in winter. She unlatches the gate and squelches into the pen. Addie is running her bitten-nail fingers along the Christmas lights strung on the chicken-wire fence. The lights aren’t plugged in, but when Addie’s index finger touches each of them, it pops with a silvery light that hurts Jo’s eyes if she looks at it too hard.

Addie’s prodding the lights urgently, whimpering and running her other hand over her patched dress. Her single playing card, the Queen of Spades, is shoved into the top of her boot. Jo crouches, pulls a white candle out of her oversize coat pocket, lights it, and screws it into the mud next to Addie’s broken boot. Addie examines the candle, then returns to popping the Christmas lights on and off.

Addie was the first ghost Jo found, back when she was sixteen years old and biked Old Route 17 to photograph an abandoned mill building for a school project. In the barn, Jo found Addie hanging from the rafters, a tangle of hair and patched dress. Addie whimpered and swung down, tugging on Jo’s coat-hem and ruffling her hair. Jo tried to shake Addie off of her, but Addie followed her out of the barn. As soon as she hit the cold air outside, Addie disintegrated, losing her form and drifting into smoke. Jo panicked, found a glass root beer bottle in her backpack, and scooped Addie right inside. Her hand trembled around the bottle all the way home. How was she supposed to care for a ball of vibrant cold energy quivering in glass?

Jo decided to wing it and trust her instincts: she loosed Addie in the small Puritan-era cemetery behind the family house.

Now, Jo doesn’t know why Addie’s ignoring her. She sinks to the still-frozen ground, the conversation with her mother clenching at her again, ignoring the cold seeping through the seat of her jeans.

#

The next week, Jo runs into her cousin Marcie in the grocery store parking lot in Blackwell.

“I need to talk to you about something.” Marcie leans on the handles of her shopping cart, which is overflowing with boxed macaroni and cheese and bottles of apple juice. “We, um….” Marcie licks her lips, avoids Jo’s eyes. “We want to sell the house.”

“Who’s we?”

“Um, well, me, my parents, Becca, Jerry. Even your mom said–”

“So everyone? You mean everyone?”

“My mom and your mom talked, and they think it’s for the best. We all could use…I mean, I have three kids, Jo, and this economy….Our moms said we could split the profits, even though Grandma left the house to them.” Marcie smiles with all her teeth and not with her eyes. “I’m sorry, I know how much you love it there, but, it’s time.”

#

Jo dreams of skyscrapers that night–their lights are hard, and yet she can’t look away from them. In those hazy moments between dreams and this low-ceiling room she’s known her whole life, Jo squirms towards the skyscrapers. Where would she put her 18th-century armoire, her china cabinet with the one wobbly leg, her Governor Winthrop desk, in those steel monoliths?

Then Jo wakes up fully in her sleigh bed, shakes off the skyscrapers and settles back into this house and clearing, comfortable as the suede quilted coat she’s worn forever. This is her place, among the pines of winter and the whispering Queen Anne’s Lace of summer. She’s stood here in this clearing her whole life, watching a parade trickling out of the house: Mom, to Florida. Becca, to Chicago. Jerry to Boston and Grandma to the Catholic cemetery next town over and Marcie away from their girlhood of hair braids and catching frogs in the creek to her family life in one of the developments near Main Street.

Now it’s just Jo and her ghosts, the girls, Addie and Em and Prudence and Samantha, and now Marcie and Mom want to take them away from her, too.

#

It’s March, but it’s still sleeting the day Marcie sweeps into the house without knocking.

“Oh Jo,” she sighs. “Oh boy. We have our work cut out for us, don’t we?”

Marcie’s nose wrinkles at the lumbering stacks of books, the four gleaming bottles Jo used to cart her four girls to the house, the Polaroids of her girls strung up on white string in old picture frames. Marcie runs her finger along the wide wood farmhouse table and examines it. “At least it’s not filthy.”

“I’m not a child, you know,” Jo says. “Although you’d probably be nicer to me if I was.”

“I’ve arranged for a real estate stager to come through, straighten all this up. Mom and Aunt Carrie are thinking of putting the house on the market next month. Does that give you enough time?”

Jo scoots herself up onto her counter, swings her legs against its wooden siding like she has since she was a little girl. “I don’t want them to sell it.”

Marcie plunks her purse on the table, slaps her hands against Jo’s knees, bends her head to try to force Jo to look her in the eyes. Jo ducks her head.

“We need the money,” Marcie says softly. “We all do. And–you need to get out of here. Come live with us for awhile, til you get on your feet. You know you’re always welcome with my family.” Marcie shoves off Jo’s knees, surveys the room. “Look, I’ll help you pack. It’ll be fun.” Marcie reaches towards the wobbly china cabinet where the girls’ four gleaming bottles sit, and Jo has time to bark out half a warning before Marcie grips the shelf, the cabinet shivers, and Adie’s bottle teeters and smashes on the cedar-plank floor.

For some reason, as the remnants of the bottle bounce over Jo’s wool-socked feet, a line leaps through her head, something she read a long time ago, or maybe wrote herself–who can remember? But the line went: in New York City, ghosts drift through the streets like steam through manholes.

And something lifts from Jo’s shoulders, the tiniest lightening lift.

Then Jo’s back in reality, shoving away that New York City line, shaking glass off her socks, glaring at Marcie, who’s saying, “I’m sorry, Jo, but come on, you can’t bring all this stuff with you.”

Marcie sweeps up the remains of Jo’s oldest bottle and throws them away, and Jo brews some tea and defrosts some blueberry pie to change the subject. But the whole time Marcie’s there Jo can’t stop thinking I won’t need to bring all this stuff with me, because I’m not going anywhere. This is my home. Those girls are my life. I need them. They need me.

After Marcie leaves, Jo slides open the trash can, where the shards of Adie’s bottle gleam among soggy teabags and the empty pie tin. Jo stares at them for a minute, imagines tying up the tops of this green plastic trash bag, hauling it out to the curb, never seeing that bottle again. She extracts the tea-slick shards out of the trash, one by one, and lays them on the counter.

Then she pulls on her trapper hat and hurries into the graveyard. The girls are huddled together, their long silver hair tangling together as they whisper among themselves.

“Girls.” Jo shuffles forward, her hands deep in her pockets. The girls turn, raise their eyebrows. “I have–Marcie–you remember her? She used to live here, a long time ago?”

The girls snort and shuffle. Of course they remember Marcie, who would never come into the graveyard, who scoffed when Jo asked her to leave candles at the gate.

“You know what she wants to do, don’t you? Well, I want you to help me,” Jo says. “I want you to help me stop her.”

Four pairs of eyes on her: Em’s, dancing with the bared-soul emotion of her hefty book of poems; Addie’s, scared and confused; Samantha’s, unreadable; and Prudence. Prudence’s eyes are angry: her eyebrows two silver lines, one hand balled in a fist. Jo hasn’t seen that expression on Prudence’s face since the All Hallows’ Eve ten years ago when Prudence gripped Jo’s hands and with the pressure of her ghostly fingers communicated to Jo the pain and rage of dying young.

“We’ll be able to stop her,” Jo says, “if–”

Something cold and rough explodes across her cheek. Prudence crouches with one arm cocked back, mud dripping from between her shining fingers.

“Prudence, what–” Jo starts forward, reaches out a hand, but Prudence snarls, her long braids swinging against her back as she crab-crawls backwards. Addie examines her playing card. Em flips through her book. Samantha simply glides away.

All afternoon, Jo tries to get their attention. She places planchettes just inside the gate for them, and they turn their noses up. She sets down cups of tea, her hand shaking so porcelain rattles on porcelain, and they skitter away. They whisper and glance at her, but whenever she raises a hand to them they veer away and race to the far side of the pen.

#

Two weeks later, Jo stands by her bay window. The days are getting longer, but slowly, and it’s already dark as she watches the girls glow in the graveyard. They’ve ignored her ever since she asked for their help. The real estate stager is coming in the morning, to rearrange the furniture that Jo has kept the same, just the way she likes it, for the past ten years. How will the real estate stager get the marks out of the carpets from the places where Jo’s china cabinet, end tables, dressers and desks have stood for so many years? Jo’s sure she has some kind of real estate stager trick. Not that it matters: if Marcie gets her way, soon this house won’t even be Jo’s anymore. If only the girls would help her, use the seething power of the dead that she knows accompanies their graceful games and bookish ways…well, then, of course they could stop Marcie. So why do they race off every time she squelches into the graveyard?

What if they can sense that line that leapt through Jo’s mind: in New York City, ghosts drift through the streets like steam through manholes. And there it is again, running through Jo like a train that can’t be stopped. What if they’re angry, because she keeps having this thought? What if they’re angry because as Jo shook the glass from Adie’s broken bottle off her socks, something lifted from her shoulders, as though the bottle had been a burden instead of a precious thing? But those were just thoughts. She kept the bottle shards. She wants to stop Marcie, wants to prevent her cousin from sending her out into the vast world of skyscrapers and manhole covers alone, prevent her from leaving her girls to fend for themselves.

Jo turns from the window, pulls on her boots and coat, and marches outside. She flings open the gate and stomps into the graveyard. The girls are draped around and over the graves, listless.

“The real estate stager is coming tomorrow.” Jo crosses her arms over her chest. Addie, who’s lounging on a grave adorned only with the faded outline of a winged skull, fiddles with her card and hisses. “Do you know what a real estate stager does? She’s going to move around all my furniture, throw away a bunch of my things. Get the house looking like some stupid catalogue, to prepare for some new people moving in here. Is that what you want?”

They ignore her. They fidget and shift and sigh and none of them make a move.

“I would think you’d help me,” Jo whispers. “Why won’t you help me?”

She trudges back inside, a sick feeling clenching at her stomach, that feeling before the drop, when you’re about to lose something bigger and more monumental than you ever dreamed of losing.

She sits at the kitchen table, fiddles listlessly with the shards of Addie’s bottle.

The bay window rattles. Jo looks up.

Addie’s standing outside the window, her palms pressed against the panes, her face stony and her teeth gritted, her arms already trailing into silvery ribbons. Jo leaps up. The girls never leave the cemetery and lose their forms. What are they doing? Have they changed their minds? Are they coming to help her?

A rattling at the front door, and Jo flees through the house, knocking over her chair in the process. She flings the door open. The girls stream inside, their footsteps making no noise against the faded carpet in the front hall. Their hair trails behind them, and they’re holding hands, and their dresses are shredding before Jo’s eyes, disintegrating into mist.

“Girls,” she says, “I–”

Addie hisses, and knocks a vase off an end table.

The vase falls to the ground and shatters.

Jo only has time to gasp in a breath, before the girls emit a collective shriek, a long and lonely and horrible keen that maybe comes from the earth itself.

And then they tear through the house.

They sweep books off shelves and the pages grow hoarfrost and melt away beneath their fingers. They shatter wine glasses and cut-glass decanters, they rip down paintings and put their fists through the canvas, they turn Jo’s African violet upside down and shake the plant onto the floor.

“Why are you doing this? What–why?” Do they want her to leave them? Have they come to hate her? Do they not need her anymore?

Jo screams at them to stop, as she watches her life smash and shatter and disintegrate around her, but they ignore her. As they destroy the house their forms fall away completely, until her girls are nothing but swirling shadows, ripping through her extra blankets and smashing a snow globe. When they sweep the three remaining catching bottles off the china cabinet, when Jo watches the hardy green-tinted glass explode against the floor, she fights back tears.

At last the howling, spitting shadows sweep down the stairs and flood out the front door. Jo’s left with her own thudding heart and the erratic tick of her injured grandfather clock, and the wreck of the things that she once held dear.

And her shoulders relax. Her clenched stomach loosens.

It bursts through her, this identification of the feeling sweeping through her body, the same feeling that swept through her when Adie’s bottle broke. It’s relief.

Why? Why are parts of her glad to see her precious things smashed and broken?

She steps out the front door, tiptoes to the cemetery. The girls are gasping, their howling shapes resolving back into ghostly arms and fingers and legs and hair. Addie’s on her hands and knees, and Prudence is leaning her head against Samantha’s shoulder, quaking. Em’s off to the side, stony-faced and straight-backed against the chicken wire fence.

“Why did you do it?” Jo whispers to the night, to her girls.

Samantha shifts, sits up. She looks almost ordinary now, the same old Samantha, although her edges still quiver slightly. She palms her chalk and scrapes its edge against her chalkboard.

YOU ARE NOT US.

Jo’s stomach swoops, and the hard mud beneath her seems to tilt. The scene burns into her mind: the acrid smell of woodsmoke drifting from some other house, the glint of lamplight on dirty snow, this moment, when she loses them.

When they give her permission to be lost.

Jo leaves the graveyard, carefully closing the chickenwire fence behind her. She steps back into her silent, destroyed house. She pulls black garbage bags from beneath the sink, and she picks up glass, torn books, all her scattered broken memories, drops them into the voluminous plastic. She sweeps the floor with her old splintery-handled broom. She wipes down the counters.

Light is seeping into the house when she packs her sleek leather suitcase, laying in just the few things she needs. No shredded books. No bottle shards. She clunks down her stairs for the last time, pushes out her front door, and steps into sunlight, into fragile hot dawn. She’s sweating in her coat and vines are twining around her front railings. The trees are heavy with the dusty leaves of mid-to-late summer, and bees buzz around the bluebells dotting her lawn. How did she become so suspended in time? How did roots and seeds shift within the earth, trees burst forth in bloom and spring rains wash away the snow, without her noticing?

At the back of the house, she pauses, memorizing the carvings on the gravestones, the slumped bodies of her sleeping girls. As she turns to go, Addie stirs, stands, and slinks between the gravestones. She presses her playing card into Jo’s palm, and before Jo can do or say anything, she’s gone, slinking back to her ghost-sisters.

And Jo closes the gate for the last time behind her, wondering what time the train rumbles out of town heading for points south.

#

The next time Jo walks up the moose path from Old Highway 17, she’s wearing a new coat. Her hair is short. She carries the playing card in her wallet, but its edges are creased and its picture is stained by hundreds of coins and bills wending their way past it.

An unfamiliar car idles in the driveway outside the house. The chipped white paint has been replaced by pale yellow. Jo hears a little boy’s shout, long and sustained, from somewhere inside.

She sneaks around back, past beds full of unfamiliar plants. Ahead of her looms the old gap-toothed graveyard. The wire pen is gone, the barn dismantled, but there, among the gravestones, glimmer her girls: Em, flipping through the pages of Emily Dickinson, Addie pricking her finger against a strand of Christmas lights, Prudence and Samantha leaping their way through a game of hopscotch.

“Girls,” Jo calls. “Girls.”

They look up. They cock their heads at her, frowning. And they turn back to their pursuits.

“Girls,” Jo whispers again.

This time, only Addie looks up. For half a second, her face changes, her cheeks soften and she gives Jo half a nod, a bashful smile. And then she holds up her Christmas lights, turns her back on Jo.

Jo shoves her hands in her pockets, sneaks out from behind the house and walks back out the moose path to Old Route 17 and to other lives.

Wicked by Jennifer Armentrout Reviewed by Kayla Dean

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If you’re a fan of the steamy relationships and New Orleans setting in The CW’s Originals, then you might want to check out Wicked by Jennifer Armentrout. The first in a trilogy, Wicked has it all: a badass MC, a secret society, a passionate romance, a hot hero, and lots of sex. However, besides the latter, Wicked doesn’t fully deliver on all of its promises. The novel may be a wild ride, but it’s slow-going at the beginning.

Twenty-two year old Ivy Morgan is a college student and fae slayer extraordinaire. Or so she thinks. Ivy’s job was simple: stalk the streets of New Orleans at night, kill the fae who cross her, and protect humans. Until one night she runs into a creature she couldn’t stab and send into the ether. She thinks the ancient fae have returned, but her superiors and friends don’t believe her. Except for Ren, the six-foot-three, green-eyed transfer from Denver, on a mission to destroy the Ancients Ivy knows she saw.

Ivy’s life seems ideal on the surface–she has a steady job with the Order, a charming apartment, an endearing pet Brownie, and Val, her best friend–but she leads a lonely life. Not only did she lose her birth parents, but her adoptive family and boyfriend were killed in a tragedy only three years before. Ivy hasn’t known love in years, but Ren finds his way into Ivy’s private world and challenges her to live again.

Armentrout effectively weaves urban fantasy elements through Wicked: we get many reminders that we are in New Orleans. She gives us a taste of the famous French Quarter and the atmospheric Bourbon Street, with its tourist traps and mouth-watering beignets in every corner café. However, she could have elaborated more on the setting. While Armentrout mentions street names, she doesn’t truly immerse us in the setting. I would not have minded if the setting was more than just a backdrop to Wicked.

The characterization in Wicked was not particularly strong outside of the two main characters. While Ivy’s motivations and emotions made sense, she was definitely a Mary Sue. There weren’t any flaws about Ivy: she’s an attentive friend to Val and never lets her eye stray from her mission with the Order. As tragic as Ivy’s situation is, the story is more of a cliché for it.

However, what really dragged down the book for me was Ren himself. Ren is extremely arrogant. Armentrout constantly makes it a point to tell us that women on the street gawk and throw themselves at him. From the beginning, Ren seems to expect that Ivy will have feelings for him. He also acts suspiciously–I’m still in doubt over whether Ren broke into Ivy’s house.

Let me say it again: Ren is six-foot-three, and the book makes sure to let us know over and over again. It’s nice to read about a handsome man, but there was nothing to relate to in Ren. I know, he’s supposed to be perfect. It’s tempting to write about a man that many women would swoon over in real life. We as readers are supposed to gawk at Ren, too. However, it would have been nice if Ren had real flaws. Or, for once, if the man didn’t have to be skyrocketing over six feet to be considered masculine or attractive.

Besides all of these shortcomings, the strongest moments in Wicked were its love scenes. Ivy and Ren may not have flaws, but their chemistry was sizzling. Every single scene that pits them together is fueled by sexual tension. Their feelings for each other are passionate, and the intimacy they share crackles over the page. It was the love scenes in the novel that brought Wicked back from the point of no return. The writing was also best in the love scenes, which went into exquisite detail, but were not bogged down by crudeness. While the scenes are graphic, Armentrout’s writing was the strongest when she evoked this particular connection between her characters.

In the rest of the novel, I was not as satisfied with her writing. While Ivy’s voice is strong and clear, her inner thoughts are often redundant. Armentrout also descends too far into colloquialisms and doesn’t attempt to explain things beyond the surface.

Fans of Wendy Higgins or Abbi Glines will likely love the book, as it has strong elements of romance. While the book was a fun read, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to the world of Wicked, but I will keep an eye out on Twitter for book two’s cover release to see where Armentrout might take the story next.

Thinking in Pieces by Rhiannon Held

When the woman built her mind from crows, she chose them for their cleverness, their puzzle-solving. She had not expected to find them so stubborn, so resistant to thinking together. But she’d had few good choices with no mind of her own, she supposed.

The crows chose a seat at the coffee shop’s picnic table, outside in the intermittent spring sunlight, so her sunglasses wouldn’t excite notice indoors. Not that normal people ever seemed quite easy around her, however she tried to act. She set her croissant on the table and tore off tiny pieces, holding it still with her other hand. She scanned her surroundings as she ate. The coffee shop was a white, free-standing building, with long eaves. The garbage bins were stored at the side of the parking lot in a square of fencing.

But that wasn’t the direction the crows needed her thoughts to go. She reached for her truth to steady herself. The crows’ truth was that she would kill the sorcerer. It had been her truth for years, but soon that would change, and she’d need that truth no longer. She wouldn’t need any truth, because she would be able to rest.

But first she needed to find a way to enter his home without breaking his wards and warning him. He traveled in and out in his car, but that was warded too, taking him to places where an attempt on his life would be seen, stopped before it succeeded. The crows had trained her thoughts into enough order to get this close, but now she could get no closer. The waiting tried her control.

That was when the crows saw the sorcerer’s servant. She was surprised, then wondered why. She’d been the sorcerer’s servant, once, before she was the crows. There had been servants before her, perhaps stretching all the way back across the centuries to when he began his quest for youth. There would have been servants after her.

This servant had properly black hair and the sorcerer’s magic in the spaces behind her eyes. The crows wondered if the servant was far enough from the sorcerer the servant would not recognize the crows for what she was. The crows beckoned her over. The servant was interesting. The crows wanted to see her.

And perhaps the servant was the key, for the crows to kill the sorcerer. The wards would open for her and the crows could follow behind. The hard part would be preserving the servant when the sorcerer discovered them both. The crows did not wish another servant to die. The sorcerer had killed so many. After the crows was done, he would kill no more, but if his toll could be one less, that would be well. If, however, one more was needed to save all that would have come after, the crows would also make that trade without hesitation.

“Do you know your name?” the crows asked the servant, in her harsh voice, when the servant approached. The crows looked at the young woman from one side, and then the other. She had a lean face.

The woman’s brow furrowed. “I’m…getting coffee. I’m sorry. It’s very hard to remember.” Resolution firmed her expression, and she took two more steps for the shop’s front door. “I want…”

The crows knew what the servant wanted. To be able to think straight. To be able to escape. That she had made it so far in this small rebellion spoke well of her strength of character. But it would fail. That was why the sorcerer allowed it.

“Maybe I should go home.” The servant turned away, head down.

“I will come with you.” The crows left her unfinished pastry for those of a similar mind to hers who would come after, and stood. “Tell me when you remember your name.”

They let themselves out onto the road through a gate at the side of the parking lot. In this rural area, there were no sidewalks, only gravel settled flat by feet beside the asphalt. The crows walked on the asphalt because it was easier, and moved aside each time she heard a car. There weren’t many.

“Ashna,” the servant said, with dawning frustration, after they had traveled some few steps. The crows didn’t bother to concentrate enough to count. More than five, anyway. “I can’t believe I forgot that! I hate the way I can’t–can’t–” She pressed the heels of her hands to her forehead.

A car-crushed squirrel sprawled across the gravel, eyes not yet eaten. The crows stepped over it. “We draw closer. Do not fret.” That was all that was necessary, but curiosity caught at the crows. Memories of being like this woman made the crows feel a little more human. “How long have you been with the sorcerer?”

With each step, Ashna’s face tightened and her eyes filled up so the sorcerer’s magic was not so visible. “About two years. I met him my junior year at UVic, he was talking about hiring a research assistant, but then he showed me magic. And of course I wanted to learn magic–” She gestured, helplessly.

She planted her feet suddenly, blocking the crows’ way. “Who are you? How did you know about the sorcerer?”

The crows looked to the sky and thought briefly of gliding, wind ruffling–No. She had her truth. She was going to kill the sorcerer and the servant was the key to let her in. “My name is Virginia.” That was what it had said on her driver’s license, when she’d been able to read again, so she’d written it on everything since.

Ashna examined the crows. For an instant, her eyes were so full of intelligence that nothing of the sorcerer could be seen. “You’re the one he says died by her own hand, aren’t you?”

The crows took a moment to admire the conclusion, the beauty of it. Assembled whole, so easily. “I’m going to kill him. Will you stop me?”

Ashna kicked the gravel savagely. “Of course not. I’m a prisoner. The farther I get from him, the more I lose myself.”

“First you can’t remember how you were going to escape. But if you push on, you can’t remember why. And if you are too stubborn to stop then, you can’t remember that you were escaping at all and the only thought left is a longing to go home and have thoughts again.” The crows smiled in empathy, an awkward-feeling expression. Her attention skittered back to the squirrel they’d left behind them and the sky above and the metallic glint of a beer can in the weeds. She waited impatiently for her thoughts to align again.

Ashna nodded, eager now. “And he pretends like all his other assistants died from accidents, but I don’t believe him. You obviously didn’t commit suicide. Did he try to kill you? Is that how you got free?”

“He eats all their minds eventually.” The crows let her expression fall away again. “The minds won’t make him young, but they keep him from dying. When he first showed you magic, did he tell you that if you helped him find youth, you’d live forever with him? I don’t know if he believes that anymore. I don’t know if he ever did. But he still gathers young minds. First he gets his hooks in deep, and you can’t leave without your mind pulling away. And then he grows hungry for the time a mind grants him, and eats yours. I did not wait for him to grow hungry. That is why he thinks I killed myself.”

Ashna paced around her, so expressive in her face, in the wariness of her body when she could think. “But you’re–what’s wrong with you?”

The crows had known, she supposed, that when Ashna regained enough of her mind, she would notice the crows’ strangeness and be bothered by it. “I thought with bees first, when my mind tore free.” Memories of that buzz and wiggle and a certainty of a path were as removed from the crows’ thoughts as that human smile, but she touched their edges. “As I had planned. Bees already know how to think in pieces. That helped me, when I collected the crows.”

Ashna was directly before her, so the crows took off her sunglasses and showed the servant her eyes. They were so dark as to seem black, side to side. Ashna flinched, because she was more human than the crows would ever be again.

The crows resettled her glasses and started on her way again, toward the sorcerer’s house. Ashna jogged to catch up with her. “What about me? What happens to me when you kill him?”

The crows did not mention the danger the servant was in, if the crows failed. She suspected the woman could guess, and if she could not, the crows could not afford to have her take fear. “You take your mind back, quickly, before he’s gone.” She sought the servant’s eyes. “I need you to take me through the wards. Will you help me?”

They drew nearer to the house as Ashna thought with every bit of her mind allowed her. “Yes,” she said, finally. “I will.”

#

The sorcerer’s house had its garbage bins hidden away behind it. It was too grand for them, so much glass and stone facade. It was not the house that the crows remembered, but the crow was not sure she remembered houses. Faces were easier. They passed through the wards with no shouts inside, no signs of alarm at all.

Ashna opened the house’s door, and the crows walked in rhythm with her steps, into the hall, so extra footsteps would be blurred. The crows withdrew her knife from the sheath tucked into the back of her waistband.

“Dinner had better not be late,” the sorcerer said, emerging from a door.

The crows remembered his face. He was white-haired and so thin, balanced forever at the last moment of straight-backed power before he dwindled to nothing more than an old man. He looked no different for the passage of time, no older, but no younger either. No closer to his all-consuming dream of youth. The crows supposed her face had not changed either. She’d eaten the minds–and time–of so many crows she’d lost count, but then again she found it hard to count very high anymore.

“You–” he said, and his face went slack.

She stepped into him and gutted him in one smooth stroke across the abdomen, then another across the other way. She’d waited so long for this. She’d thought with sharp pieces that did not want to be whole thoughts, inhuman and alone among all other humans, for this.

He collapsed, no more dignity than the dead squirrel now, as the blood and the bowels slipped out between his fingers. Soon he would be tasty carrion, but not for the crows. She would be able to rest.

The crows found Ashna and pointed to the sorcerer with her knife. A single drop of blood gathered and trembled at the tip. “Take your mind. Quickly.”

Ashna stared at her and his magic shimmered in her eyes, filling rapidly widening gaps. “I don’t know how.”

The sorcerer smiled a rictus grin. “You can’t save her.” He relaxed his head back from trying to see what his fingers could not hold, and seemed to resign himself to death, if he could take one more servant with him.

“Please…” Ashna said.

The crows lowered her arm. The drop of blood fell. Her truth was that she would kill the sorcerer, and then she could rest, and no longer think with thoughts unsuited for the kind of thinking she needed. No longer pretend to be human, and fail at it. She had killed the sorcerer. But if she let the crows go now, Ashna would die too.

And if someone had saved the crows, once upon a time years ago, she wouldn’t be the crows now. It would be well to save someone else, the crows decided. It was not such a hard thought to think as she had expected.

The crows knelt in the blood and pulled minds from the sorcerer instead. His eyes widened at her strength, and she realized that she was stronger than him now. Crow thoughts did not hold together so easily as young human women’s thoughts pulled away.

She gathered up what she thought was Ashna’s mind, but the thoughts kept coming and coming. Too many minds, too many pieces of minds. Ashna, Virginia, a cascade of other names, growing more worn with the centuries. She could not sort out one set without all the rest slipping from her grasp, and she couldn’t grasp them all without continuing to think thoughts of her own.

The woman who didn’t know who she was, now, locked her strength onto a few crows, because they were familiar, and used that foundation to push half the thoughts into Ashna. The vacancy of her eyes filled up with the roil of Ashna and others and perhaps a crow or two, swept up by mistake.

Virginia and crows and others breathed for some space, while Ashna began silently to weep. With the shock of her new thoughts, perhaps. The hallway stank of blood and worse. She’d saved the servant. Now she could let her thoughts go.

“There’s…pieces of other people. Virginia, I don’t know how…” Ashna curled over on herself. “Please, help me.”

Not saved quite yet, then. Virginia and crows let the others go, and the crows filled the cracks to create something that felt almost…whole? At least in comparison. Virginia and crows wondered that Ashna was so upset. Thinking in pieces of humans was nothing to thinking in bees. “To think in pieces you need…your truths,” Virginia and crows said carefully. New thoughts shifted how she spoke. “What are your truths?”

“I don’t know. What are your truths?” Ashna knelt in the pool of blood too and clutched at Virginia and crows’ hands. Her eyes were all colors, blue and green and brown swirling like paint that would never agree to mix.

“I am Virginia and crows.” She’d killed the sorcerer and she’d planned to let all her thoughts go then, but she wasn’t so sure now. Virginia was sticky and held the crows to her when the crows had always been eager to fly apart. What was her truth now?

“I know how to think in pieces,” Virginia and crows said slowly, feeling it out. “But I want to think whole.”

“Yes.” Ashna squeezed her hands tightly. “Yes, how do I think in pieces?”

“I will teach you.” Virginia and crows smiled and it was so natural. Natural like grief that was welling up now, an emotion that needed more wholeness to encompass it than she’d had in a long time. Grief and fierce joy. “I am Virginia and crows. I want to think whole. And I will teach you to think in pieces so eventually you can think whole as well. Those are my truths.”

“I am Ashna and Virginia and crows and so many others…” Ashna’s breath made a sob, but she continued. “My truth is that I will learn to think again.”

“We have many things to learn together,” Virginia and crows added, because that was a truth, too.

Welcome to the December Issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine

Just wanted to keep it simple this month and say thank you. Thank you to the staff for all the help and support you’ve given me during my time as editor. Thank you to the authors who trusted me with their work. Thank you, readers, for giving our magazine a place in your reading time this year. We hope to have more stories in your hands very soon.

-Katrina S. Forest

Creating Giant Thief: An Interview with David Tallerman

David Tallerman’s short fiction has appeared in dozens of professional magazines, and his story, “Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place”, is featured in this month’s issue of Urban Fantasy Magazine. But he is also a talented novelist. The Easie Damasco trilogy, which consists of Giant Thief, Crown Thief, and Prince Thief, was published by Angry Robot books in 2012/2013. We’re excited to hear his thoughts on the world and characters that he’s created.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What is it about the fantasy thief trope that attracted you to write the Easie Damasco trilogy?

DAVID TALLERMAN: Partly distrust, I think. Thief and rogue are almost synonymous in fantasy, and we’ve seen an awful lot of thieving rogues and roguish thieves. But thieves aren’t quite so entertaining in real life, and the ones I’ve had personal experience with weren’t charming at all, so I thought it would be interesting to write about a fantasy thief who just plain wasn’t a nice person – as Easie Damasco most definitely isn’t, especially at the point when we first encounter him.

On the other hand, it was really appealing to have a character who could say or do the things that no one else would; as some reviewers have pointed out, Damasco really isn’t the protagonist of the books so much as a hanger-on who sometimes manages to nudge the plot one way or another and generally gets to comment on it from an outsider’s perspective. Having someone who’s a thief and a genuinely dishonest human being who has no place in the company of more traditional fantasy heroes, but who still basically thinks he knows better than they do, that was a lot of fun to write.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Is the door closed to any further Easie Damasco books?

DAVID TALLERMAN: The short answer is, yes. The slightly longer answer is that I did have the bare bones of a fourth Damasco novel in my head, and the keen-eyed will find the odd clue as to what it would have been about in Prince Thief. It’s a fun story, and one I’d have liked to have shared. But the truth is that I don’t own the universe or characters – the publisher, Angry Robot, does – and the response to the initial trilogy wasn’t strong enough for them to express interest in more books.

Truthfully, though, there are so many other things I want to do, and as far as Easie Damasco goes, I feel like I told the story I really wanted to tell. I was hugely lucky to get to do that. So while my thoughts sometimes drift back to Damasco and what the future might hold for him, it’s not an itch I’m desperate to scratch.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: The transition from amusing fantasy rogue to someone with a burgeoning conscience feels very natural. How hard was that to get right?

It was definitely tricky. I wanted any developments in Damasco’s character to feel genuinely hard-won. Here was a character with a clear philosophy of why it was basically okay for him to do the things he did, who was immensely good at justifying his own wrongdoing, and someone like that doesn’t just change overnight. So, yeah, a lot of work went into trying to make the character development convincing, to have Damasco sometimes backslide, to make it a conscious process rather than just him waking up one day with a fully-formed conscience. After all, even when you want to do the right thing, it’s not as though it’s easy to see what that is.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Was this always the planned character arc?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I always intended that Damasco would be a somewhat better person by the end of Giant Thief than he was at the start, even if that wasn’t entirely the same as him ending up as a “good” person. But until I sold the first book, I only had vague ideas of what a sequel or sequels would involve. Once I knew I had two more books to play with, it seemed sensible to continue with what I’d begun. On the other hand, like I said above, I was adamant that any kind of continuing moral development couldn’t be smooth sailing. So if Damasco’s conscience grows more involved as the story goes on, it doesn’t necessarily mean that he makes better decisions on the back of it!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Although the Tales of Easie Damasco are pretty light hearted there are some complex moral issues explored. Do you feel that fantasy is a good medium for exploring complex moral issues?

DAVID TALLERMAN: Absolutely. Fantasy lets you talk about huge issues in the abstract, without getting bogged down in the specifics that tend to derail real-life debates. A fantasy world can serve as a great Petri dish in which to fling ideas about and to set ideologies up against one another; in the real world we tend to moralise after the event, whereas in a fantasy novel you can present these difficult situations and face them head on, as they’re happening.

One of my goals with the Tales was that there would be no easy answers and no clear right and wrong: all the characters have good reasons for the things they do, and the ones with what may seem like the best intentions don’t necessarily achieve the most good. You know, it’s easy to pick on the fantasy warlord, to present that kind of character as being flat-out evil, but in real life they would have their motives, their people they’re trying to do right by. So I wanted to write characters, both good and bad, who genuinely believed that they were doing the right thing, even when it was obvious to the reader what the negative consequences of that were.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: Your stories have appeared in a great many markets – is there a binding theme to them?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I hope there isn’t. I always try to fit the themes, and everything else, to the particularly story rather than the other way round. I find preaching boring, in or outside of fiction, so I try never to push a standpoint or an agenda. For me, the debate is more interesting than the conclusions, so often I’ll let characters voice opinions that run directly contrary to what I think, or use stories to challenge my own ideas; which means, I suppose, that any themes that do get through are ones that have escaped my self-vetting!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What would you say your voice in short stories says about you as a writer?

Again, I write in so many different genres and sub-genres and styles that I hope there isn’t a characteristic voice; if there was then I suspect I’d be doing something badly wrong, because you can’t approach fantasy, science fiction, horror and crime all in the same way. The main thing I’d want a reader to take away from my short fiction is that they enjoy a given story and consider it well-written, and if that should make them seek out something else by me then that’s great.

Urban Fantasy Magazine: If you could travel inside the world of any fantasy novel, which world would you want to visit and why? Which one would you never want to visit?

DAVID TALLERMAN: I wouldn’t mind hanging out in Jack Vance’s Lyonesse books; they seem like a fun place, and it might even be possible to survive the experience. As for ones I’d avoid, I’d have to say absolutely everywhere else. Fantasy worlds tend to be pretty hideous places, especially for those of us who just want a quiet corner, a glass of wine and a good book. I mean, I can’t imagine that attitude going down too well in Westeros!

Urban Fantasy Magazine: What’s one question you think would be really fun to answer, but that will probably never come up in an interview?

DAVID TALLERMAN: That’s a tough one. I guess for me, since as many of my influences come from things like comics, video games, films and anime as they do from genre literature, I’d find it interesting to get to talk about how those other media have fed into my work. If only because I don’t get to geek about comics, video games, films and anime as much as I’d like to!

Dead Records Part 9

Part 1: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/03/dead-records-part-i-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 2: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/04/dead-records-part-2-by-steven-savile-and-ryan-reid

Part 3: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/05/dead-records-part-3

Part 4: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/06/dead-records-part-4-2

Part 5: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/07/dead-records-part-5/

Part 6: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/08/dead-records-part-6/

Part 7: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/09/dead-records-part-7

Part 8: http://urbanfantasymagazine.com/2015/10/dead-records-part-8

We stayed there for two weeks, never setting foot outside the church.

Every night, we ate dinner with the church staff, helped to wash up, and to do other chores to help to earn our keep. As much as we were made to feel welcome we both knew it wasn’t a permanent solution. When we looked out the window of the room in which we slept at night, we could see a man leaning on the hood of his car, reading a newspaper and smoking a cigarette. We knew he was with Dolgov, because the spot in which he parked was directly underneath a silver maple – and thus almost pitch black – and yet he seemed to have no problem at all with the newspaper.

We had access to the internet through a laptop I bought online and had delivered to the church, so we could download movies and music, but eventually we began to get a little stir crazy. It wasn’t like the church hosted AA meetings or fundraisers. The best we got was eaves dropping on Da Vinci Code fans sure that the holy grail was actually hidden under one of the tomb stones of the old knights upstairs. Even that started to wear thin.

On the second Friday of our stay, just as the man with the newspaper parked his car under the silver maple outside, I heard a familiar sound coming from the Rotunda. Chunky bass and screaming guitars. It was a cover of O Come O Come Emmanuel, and it wasn’t half bad. Curious, I made my way down there and stood in the back of the room.

The band was unlike any I imagined would play in a church – emo punks with dyed black hair and elaborate leather outfits. Their name was “Flock” and after a few songs, I realized they were a Christian rock band and not ironic about it at all. Not even the name was ironic.

And, would you believe it, they were pretty good.

The crowd was young, but I spotted a familiar head of blonde hair in one of the pews.

“I never suspected you were a religious man, Rick,” I said as I slipped into a pew next to him.

Casterly rolled his eyes. “I’m surprised you didn’t burst into flames on the threshold, Reardon.” He wore a loose Rolex on his left wrist, and he fiddled with it before speaking again. “Look, the whole Wembley thing. I’m sorry, man. It was uncool. I had no idea Martine was off her rocker. I feel badly that it killed your girl’s career. She was a phenom.”

I was stunned.

Casterly was apologizing to me? Of course! He had no idea that I was the one who’d set Martine up. From his point of view, he’d booked a troubled young act onto a bill that was doomed from the start. “Water under the bridge,” I said generously.

“That was quite the stunt you pulled, the suicide thing. Who knew the press would take it literally? How’s she doing, anyways, your girl?”

I looked towards our room. “Good. She’s found religion. Speaking of which, what are you doing here?”

He looked at Flock appraisingly. “There’s a market for this stuff. I could name several bands that had their start in Christian rock. Creed. Evanescence. Et cetera.” I’d never heard of Et cetera so they couldn’t have been that hot. He winced as the boy with the microphone slipped into a falsetto, and then stood to leave. “Their singer is shite though, so that’s it then.”

I walked him to the door.

“Look,” he said, “I owe you one. You have my number, ya?”

The business card with the palm tree clip art held pride-of-place in my wallet. Rick Casterly of Performance Edge owed me a favor.

And I knew just how I’d use it.

#

Two weeks later, on a Tuesday in May, London’s only true Caucasian entered the Broken Doll with several of his goons at his heels. Dressed in a black suit and tie with a red rose in a buttonhole, he looked dramatically out of place, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He walked over to my booth and sat down. One goon stood behind him, and the other beside me, blocking the booth’s exit.

“You killed Dimitri,” he said, folding his hand on the table. “Let us start there.”

“Technically, not my fault. I didn’t lay a hand on him. It was Aura,” I said calmly, laying the blame anywhere but at this particular table in this particular gin joint.

He inclined his head. “And where is young Aurelia? I expected a phone call, a letter …an e-mail,” he said this last with distaste. “I thought that after paying for your studio, all your expenses, that she would have at least said goodbye. Most disappointing.”

I knew then that Dolgov would never leave us alone. We had humiliated him publicly. This was personal for him.

Behind me, the band on the other side of the chicken-wire fence began to play.

A steady drumbeat was soon joined by the bass, and we had to lean closer to be heard.

“If you leave right now, we can both walk away from this like it never happened,” I said.

His red lips split open, revealing a mouthful of fangs and he laughed. It was not a nice laugh. “Is that supposed to be an offer I can’t refuse? You are a funny guy,” he said. He faked getting up and laughed again. “You know I nearly had one of my boys put a centaur’s head in your bed over at the church. But he pointed out that was just a human head. Called me a psycho. I didn’t appreciate that. I’m not like that. I’m just a business man. So I killed him.”

I remained stone faced.

My confidence wiped the smirk off his face, and his eyes narrowed in suspicion. “What are you playing at?”

“The band you are now listening to is called Flock, and I think you’ll be interested to hear they’ve hired a new singer. You’ll recognize her. She’s a real nice girl.”

Behind me, Aura stepped onto the stage, dressed in tight leather pants and a white blouse, fitting the band’s emo image but somehow rising above it. She picked the microphone off the stand, found us in the audience, and nodded tightly at me. I nodded back.

My girl.

She began with a hum, a chaste, beautiful thing like a mother waking her sleeping infant. Her eyes closed and she swayed slightly, letting the music take her away.

Then she broke into song.

Dolgov lurched back in his seat and his goons fell to their knees. The Russian gangster clamped his hands to his ears as his bald scalp began to smoke.

“You really should have left when you had the chance, Yevgeny. Don’t you know how it works? No, of course not, you’re used to talking, not listening. Well let me explain what’s happening to you.” More smoke steamed off his head. For a minute there it actually looked like it was coming out of his ears. “Aura’s voice amplifies the power of the songs that she sings, so when she sings the Blues, well she’s suicidal, so all those guys out in the audience want to slash their wrists; when she’s poppy, she’s shiny happy people on acid, you get the idea?” I like to think Yevgeny nodded but he was long past nodding. “Flock are a Christian band. You know what that means?”

One of the goons stumbled backwards and fell across another patron’s table. Instead of smashing it, as a man his size should have, he collapsed and with a soft implosion powdered into a pile of dust and ash. The other goon broke for the door, but with every step he took, part of his leg turned to ash. Half a second later he was running on stumps and shrinking by the second. Unable to retain his balance, he too collapsed into a pile of dust.

“You should never have killed the Fortunate Fridays, Yevgeny,” I said. “Then maybe you wouldn’t be having a Terrible Tuesday.” The line sounded a bit corny when I said it out loud. It wasn’t exactly the most pithy of taunts.

He growled and leapt for me. He caught me one good one, leaving a scar on my right cheek, before he too succumbed to the faith of Aura’s song burning up inside him and turned to ash. I think the scar makes me look pretty distinguished. I could have had plastic surgery but I’m not that vain. I stood and dusted myself off as the music stopped behind me. Aura left the stage and came running towards me.

I caught her up in a hug and planted my lips on hers.

She tasted like a peach. She still does.

As we were leaving the Broken Doll, the man who’d been sitting at the table where Dolgov’s goon had burst into ash stopped me. It was Polanski, formerly of Red Sky Entertainment and, at one time, proud owner of an Aston Martin DB9. The original Rainmaker. “Who was that girl?” he asked. “Seriously. I have to know.”

I smiled at him. A fish on the hook. Well, more of a man on the fishhook I suppose. Or the siren’s hook.

“Her name is Shepherd,” I said. “The band’s called Flock.”

“As in wallpaper?” He looked genuinely confused by the idea.

I decided to help him out. I handed him my card with Dead Records stamped in gold foil over a siren on the rocks. And no, that’s not a kind of drink.

“Nope, as in make like a shepherd and get the flock out of here. C’mon, babe,” I said to Aura, “Let’s go make some noise.”

THE END

Bad Times to be in the Wrong Place by David Tallerman

First published in Interzone #250.

Darlene had been shouting that morning, and I guess I’d been shouting back, both of us going at it pretty hard.

It was all about the pickup, who got to drive and when. Or maybe it wasn’t. Maybe it was about other things: money, and children, and forgiveness, and the way we didn’t seem to have much of any of those, even after five hard years. But neither of us was going to make the other see sense with all that language passing back and forth. I grabbed my coat, shouted something mean and easy that I knew I’d regret later, and got out.

The forest smelled fresh, like new snow. It wasn’t so far to the truck stop on the highway, not a bad hour’s hike. Fall had ignored the warning signs that hemmed the national park and set the trees on fire, and it felt good to be out there, too good for anger.

That didn’t mean I let it go. The best I could do was pack it deep down–something for later, for the next time. With Darlene and me there would always be a next time.

So I pocketed my anger like a dirty dollar bill and walked. The sun was bright but cold, as if it was dying but still trying its damndest. I kind of liked it that way. It made me think of hunting trips with my pa, before the cancer took him, when things were simple and decisions were something older people made. I walked, breathed deep, and didn’t think too much about Darlene, or the things she’d said that stung for being too near the truth.

When I got to the stop, it was all but empty. It was too late for breakfast, too early for the lunchtime trade, so there was just me and the sad-faced kid who serves when Judy’s busy. I was stuck with the same dilemma; I’d eaten breakfast two hours ago, wouldn’t want lunch any time soon. I settled on coffee, and picked a booth near the door. I sat staring into my cup, willing it to cool a little.

Both me and the kid looked round when a car pulled up. It had a well-maintained growl that told me it wasn’t from anywhere nearby. Sure enough, when I glanced out the window there was a sleek estate pulled up beside the pumps, some foreign make I didn’t recognise.

Two men stepped out on the near side. The driver was old, but well-preserved old, the only real telltale the grizzled beard lying past the collar of his white suit. The other wore a black shirt and silver-buckled black slacks that matched his goatee and slicked hair. Around the other side I thought I saw a little girl getting out, but when I looked again I realised it was a woman in her early twenties. Something in the way she moved made me think of a flamenco dancer–somehow awkward and elegant at the same time.

As the two men came in, the one with the Johnny Cash getup was saying, “Is this really necessary?”

“I’d like a coffee. Is that all right?” White-suit sounded English, I thought at first. Then I corrected myself, European. But that wasn’t really it either.

“You know what I mean.”

“I’ve got my duty, bro, like you’ve got yours. You’d think by now you’d have learned a little patience. Also, I seem to remember the coffee here is pretty good. Am I right?” he said, speaking now to the zit-pocked teenager hovering behind the counter. Not waiting for an answer, he went on, “Make mine black, kiddo.”

“White,” said Johnny, “two sugars.”

The woman, who’d just come in behind them, added, “Can I get the same to go?” To the men she said, “If you two are arguing again I’ll wait outside.”

She spun on a heel and marched back out, the door jangling hard behind her. They took it in their stride, as though this sort of thing happened enough for them to expect it. White-suit took his coffee to a booth at the far end and sat down. His companion trailed after. The next time they spoke, they’d dropped their voices too low for me to hear.

I looked around instead. Sure enough, the woman was waiting outside, slouched against the tail of the car. She’d lit a cigarette and was just blowing a first plume of grey towards the glassy sky. Again, there was something in her pose–the tilt of her head, the way her forearm rested on the trunk–that struck me as very refined somehow. When she exhaled again I thought of smoke signals. At the same time, I remembered the last thing Darlene had shouted, and how scrambled and ugly her face had been while she said it.

I got up and grabbed her drink in its takeaway cardboard cup from the counter, where the kid had left it while he hunted for something beneath the counter. Even as I shouldered through the double doors I had no clue what I meant to do, but there was a kind of relief in letting the impulse drag me. It felt like letting out a breath I’d been holding for too long.

She looked older close up; a well maintained mid thirties, probably a little past my own age. It didn’t make her any less attractive. I held out the cup and said, “Thought you’d want this.”

She didn’t look surprised, although I could tell she’d realised I wasn’t an employee at the ‘stop. She took the cup and sat it on the roof of the car, then pulled a battered cigarette packet from a pocket and offered it–some foreign brand I didn’t recognise. I hardly ever smoke these days, but I still had my old Zippo in a pocket of my jacket, so I took one and lit it, telling myself it was to be polite.

“Those friends of yours, are they always like that?”

“They’re family. And yes, when my father and uncle work together they tend to fight.” She let the shrivelled remnant of her own cigarette drop and ground it neatly into the tarmac. “I suppose when people do a job for a long time they get into habits.”

“You’re here on work?”

“I’m just along for the ride. So is uncle, I suppose; he argues about it, and then insists on coming anyway. Father is the only one actually working.”

“So what does the old man do?”

She looked at me properly for the first time. Until then she’d been concentrating on her cigarette, or staring towards her own outstretched foot. Her glance weighed me up. No, it did more than that. I felt like an open book, except it was as if she’d skipped through the contents and gone straight to the index. It took her barely an instant, and then she looked away again. “He’s making sure it’s all here,” she said.

Still taken aback by that look, I asked, “All what? The diner?”

“All everything.”

I was starting to regret this conversation, attempted seduction or whatever the hell it was. Her voice had that same not-quite-European twang as her father’s. Probably she thought it was funny to be out here in the boondocks, with some redneck thinking he had so much as a chance with her. Probably she did this all the time. I wanted to say something clever or funny, but all I came out with was, “Are you in property or something?”

She laughed. It wasn’t a mean laugh, at least. “You wouldn’t believe me.”

“Try me.”

“You know what? Fine. It’s not as if it’s a secret.” Still, she only seemed half decided. She brushed a strand of dark hair out of her eyes, pulled out another cigarette and lit it. Even then, she took a couple of draws before she began again. “Have you ever worked around computers? Do you know what a backup is?”

“Sure.” Darlene’s father works for some blue-chip IT outfit down near California, and every Christmas–mainly to screw with the rube that wasn’t good enough for his little princess–he’d bore me to tears with talk he knew I couldn’t understand. I’ve a good memory, though; after the third time I started to keep up, and even join in a little, which wound him up no end.

With a sweep of her arm that took in the diner, the pumps, the highway curling towards the mountains one way and the city the other, the glossy crests of the pines beyond, even the crystal sky sharp above us, she said, “This is a backup.”

I echoed her laugh with a nervous one of my own. “Right. Gotcha.”

“A copy,” she said. “For if the real one ever goes wrong. Father makes them. He makes sure they’re all there. And, when they’re finished with, uncle erases them.”

“I don’t get it.” Truth was, I understood perfectly, but I didn’t know what else to say. Was she joking? It didn’t seem too funny. The worst part was, as soon as she’d said it I had this sense, like the things around me had grown suddenly thinner, like if I pushed too hard at the car door or the rusting phone booth or the sign by the slip road my fingers might just pass on through. Any other day I’d probably have just shrugged it off, but on this one, her words dug in like fishhooks.

“Well maybe you don’t need to.” She glanced over my shoulder, and added, “Hey, don’t worry about it. You should just go back to your girlfriend and get on with your life.”

So that was it, she was some crazy friend of Darlene’s I’d never met. I almost sighed with relief. Instead, I laughed another awkward laugh, and said, “Maybe you’re right. Thanks for the smoke.”

“Don’t thank me. Those things will kill you.” She didn’t sound like she believed it.

I nodded, started back toward the diner. Half way there, I hesitated. I didn’t want to ask, but I couldn’t help it. “So how long do we get?”

She didn’t even pause to consider. “A while,” she said, “Not too long.”

I passed the two men on the way in. They didn’t look like guys who could make or break whole realities, but there did seem to be something about them–like they were a little clearer than everything around them. We exchanged a nod, and the one in the suit–who I figured, somehow, was her father–tipped an imaginary hat and said, “Time waits for no man.”

When I sat back in my place I had just time enough to watch them climbing into the car. The woman getting in on the other side looked far too old to be the one I’d spoken to, older than either of the men, but by the time I’d seen her she was gone.

My coffee was lukewarm. I carried the cup to the counter, gave the kid a nod, and went out. I glanced both ways up the highway, but the car was nowhere to be seen.

#

I was half way back to the house when the jumble in my head, the anxious confused mood I’d been carrying around since that conversation, turned into something else. It was as if I’d climbed higher and suddenly I could see how all the things around me were really just one thing, one single scene.

It was a good feeling, and a little scary. It began with a single thought, as clear and bright as winter’s first frost, and afterwards that thought kept batting back and forth, too big to shake itself loose.

Back home, the first thing I noticed was the pickup gone. Darlene would have gone to see one of her girlfriends in town. That would lead to drinking, and maybe she’d call to make up and see if I wanted to join her, but more likely she’d stumble in long after dark, set on finishing what we’d started that morning.

I went straight to find a piece of paper, as though the thought, so solid a moment ago, was now something that might vanish if I didn’t get it down. At the top, in big shaky letters, I wrote,

Darlene.

Then, like a gasp, came the thought:

Life is short.

I hoped there was something more behind this than what the crazy truck-stop woman had said–that it was an understanding I’d come to over years, a glacier of truth that had finally worked itself free of my ice-locked thoughts. That was how I felt. But in the end, did it matter much? I knew it was true. It didn’t make any difference if the world was about to blink out, not really. Life was too short for two people to make each other miserable.

I wrote a little more, not much. I said I was going away for a while. I’d take what I needed and some money, and everything else was hers as far as I was concerned. I’d ring Jack sometime about quitting at the mill; if she saw him, she was welcome to tell him, and if he coughed up my back pay she could have that too.

I didn’t say where I was going. I don’t think I knew.

And I didn’t write ‘I love you’. It was a lie, and I was done with those.

#

So how long is a while?

I’ve been walking for about a month, I think–I haven’t been bothering much with dates. If I had to say where I was going I’d mention my brother’s down in Denver, but there’s a long way between here and there, and I’m not hurrying. Sometimes I stop in a cheap motel. Sometimes I sleep rough. Sooner or later my money will run out, and maybe then I’ll have to get some work, at least for a while. Not yet though, not right now. And who knows what tomorrow will bring?

One time I thought I saw that car go by. The side window was down, and her face was just visible, hair all tousled with the breeze. She didn’t so much as look at me, and afterwards I wasn’t sure. Still, I whispered a ‘thank you’ under my breath.

Thanks for the warning. Thanks for the second chance.

How long is a while? Damned if I know.

But maybe, just maybe, it’s enough.

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway Reviewed by Sara Patterson

Review2-CoverArt

The Gone-Away World by Nick Harkaway

Reviewed by Sara Patterson

ISBN: 0099519976 (Paperback)

Windmill Books — 592 pages. Audiobook/Hardcover/Ebook also available.

The Book:

Imagine a technology that can erase the molecular building blocks, the information, of matter itself— making it simply “go away.” What would humanity do with such an amazing accomplishment? Why, turn it into a weapon, of course. A weapon capable of winning wars… and ultimately changing the face of the world forever.

It is in the aftermath of the terrible “Go-Away War,” that we meet the main character along with his childhood best friend and fellow ex-special forces solider Gonzo Lubitsch and their compatriots—members of the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company. The team is recruited by Jorgmund, a mysterious and powerful corporation with seemingly endless influence, to protect the world’s greatest asset.

The war and its “Go Away bombs” had an unexpected side effect: Wisps of code-less matter, dubbed “stuff”, sweep across the world and, when it comes in contact with human dreams—or nightmares—, it solidifies and becomes reality. But Jorgmand had found a solution to this problem in the form of FOX, a chemical that neutralizes the effects of “stuff” and makes the surrounding areas familiar and safe. The Jorgmund Pipe, a pipeline network which loops the entire world like a belt, distributes the FOX, thus keeping a small population of humanity able to live relatively normal lives—until now. Someone has set fire to the Jorgmund pipe, and it is up to the Haulage & HazMat Emergency Civil Freebooting Company to find out who and stop them.

The Review:

When I started The Gone-Away World, I can say that it was not the sort of book I usually read. For starters, I had trouble bonding with the nameless (and for the most part unremarkable) main character despite the fact that the novel follows him as he recounts nearly his entire life and then some. There were also various tangents throughout the novel—mostly political and theological themed but also one very long backstory for a very minor side-character—that were, quite literally, sleep-inducing.

That said, the world that Harkaway built, destroyed, and built again was fascinating. The complex network of events and characters raised some very intriguing questions. Some seemed unimportant and others downright ridiculous given the state of the world, but I was eager to see how all the threads would finally come together. Which brings me to my final praise for The Gone-Away World. Though the epic moment of clarity is a long time coming, Harkness more than delivers in the end—and with a kick-ass fight scene to boot.

In short, The Gone-Away World is an investment, in both time and thought. But, in this reader’s opinion, it was a challenge well worth it.