Flash Fiction Friday: Dreams of Snow

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They slept in two tents side by side, the scientist and her wife. It had started as a joke back at base camp. Like those poor married couples in old  Hollywood films doomed to spend their onscreen marriages in separate beds. But the joke had taken on a life of its own.

The ground was covered in frost and snow, and a cold, biting wind was blowing from the north. The tents flapped and shuddered and more than once they seemed to be lifted bodily from the ground.

The scientist lay in her sleeping bag, listening to the groans and creaks of the storm. This will pass. She told herself. One day all this will be just a memory. 

One day your wife will forgive you.

It was a prayer as much as a hope, although the scientist believed in no god but the snow.

She hadn’t wanted her wife to come to the Arctic. There had been a litany of reasons and arguments, but her wife hadn’t listened. She never did.

“This is our chance to be together!” she had said. “You’re always running all over the place, and even when you’re home you’re still dreaming of snow.”

The scientist had sighed unable to think of an answer. She was right. Over their two years of marriage, the scientist had spent all but four months in the Arctic.

“It’s too dangerous,” she tried half-heartedly.

“I’ve climbed Everest,” her wife replied.

“Yes,” the scientist agreed. “I suppose you did.”

But she still wasn’t happy.

The Arctic was hers. The solitude. The snow. The dreams.

“I just want to be alone!” she said finally.

Her wife came anyway, but she slept in another tent.

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Flash Fiction Friday: An Apocalypse of Alpacas

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The Alpacalypse? Llamageddon?

Where were you when the apocalypse came? When the alpacas descended in their thousands and lay claim to our cities, our homes, and our fields? Do you even remember the time before?

My brother is too young. George was only three when our alpacan overlords arrived. He has known no other world but the mist and the Alpacaracy–one llama one vote. But I remember.

I was nineteen and cycling through Belgium, the last summer before real life was supposed to start. Jobs and rent and mortgages. A thousand and one worries. Two thousand and one dreams. All gone in an instant.

We were just outside the town of Lambert Saint-Martin, peddling up the winding hills when the fog rolled in, thicker than I’d ever seen. We could barely see the path in front of us, let alone the curves in the road or the sheer drop waiting for us.

Jake and I wanted to stop, to find a safe nook or cranny, snug against the mountain where our footing was secure, and wait out the fog. But Molly was having the time of her life, laughing and yodeling at the top of her lungs. We had no choice but to follow her into the mist.

It was a long, slow, nerve-wracking ride and I was certain that at any moment I would ride my bicycle over the edge and plummet to my death. To this day, I’m not sure how we survived. Perhaps Molly’s pure, unalloyed joy was enough to hold back the grave.

After what felt like hours, but was probably twenty minutes at most, we reached Lambert Saint-Martin, an isolated outcropping of houses clinging to the mountainside and drenched in mist and fog. There was not a soul in sight.

Apart from the alpacas.

They were everywhere. Lying insolently on the road and along the edge of the cliff and staring. Their eyes were terrible to behold. They seemed to look right through you, as if humans were barely worth their notice.

It wasn’t until that night, huddled around a tv set and the local pup, that we learned the alpacas were all over the world–in every city, town and road–as if they had multiplied over night.

Even listening to the Belgian newscaster’s breathless report, none of us took them seriously. They were alpacas for christ’s sake. The world was supposed to end in nuclear war, or global warming, or asteroid impacts. Or aliens. No one expected the Invasion of Alpacas.

Then the killing began.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Telephone and It’s Dog

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“Operator,” the dog barked. “I would like to make a long distance phone call.”

He was becoming quite indignant. The stupid human on the other end was being surprisingly unhelpful. Clearly, he had never been properly trained. Man might be a dog’s best friend, but he was a stupid animal, barely able to function without canine supervision.

“Operator!” he barked again, enunciating carefully.

“Is this a joke?” the man asked.

“No!” the dog replied, his ear twitching angrily. “This is not a joke!”

But the human still didn’t seem to understand. “Hello…?” he asked tentatively. “Is anyone there?”

“I am, you bipedal moron!” the dog snarled.

“Look, if you’re not going to make a call,” the man said. “Then get off the line!” He sounded cross himself, although human emotions were difficult.

“I would make a call,” the dog barked, “if you let me!”

The operator hung up.

The dog erupted in a series of highly agitated barks and snarls, some of which are untranslatable, none of which were remotely polite.

“Humans!” the dog barked finally. “The idiots never listen!”

Flash Fiction Friday: The Needle and the Haystack

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“We’re looking for a white van,” the policeman said.

I. The Haystack

“We’re looking for a white van,” the policeman said, looming out of his patrol car in with a glare. His face was made for frowning and he had the weight and bulk of a boxer in his full and violent prime.

“Well,”  the attendant said nervously, “y-you’ve certainly come to the right place…”

“Excuse me?” The policeman hand not slept in over forty-eight hours. He was tired, bleary, and borderline homicidal.

“Collins,” his partner whispered. “Collins!”

“What?!”

“Look!”

Sergeant Collins blinked and followed his diminutive, equally exhausted partner’s finger. They were surrounded by a sea of white.

The police would later count precisely fifty-three white vans in the parking lot that day, glinting in the hazy, cloud choked sun. Some were new and gleaming, others splattered in mud.

“Oh,” Collins said, turning to his partner. “Shit.”

II. The Needle

It was unseasonably cool summer that year, but the lower temperatures did little to help the growing fever that had set into the town. Lake Wilbert and the surrounding area had a population of only 40,000 and there had not been a serious crime in four years, nine months, and thirteen days. For a given definition of serious, of course. There had been twenty automobile accidents and five incidents involving a bear.

But that summer there were five murders in as many days. Motiveless. Ruthless. And utterly senseless.

Chief Wogram was young for his position, barely forty, but he had an engaging smile and a calming temperament. Both were stretched to the limit as panic tore through Lake Wilbert like a plague. On the third day he was forced to reassure the mayor’s office, the local mason’s lodge, and a hastily arranged delegation from The Purple Hatted Ladies of the Lake, otherwise known as the local knitting circle.

When they were gone, Wogram admitted to his secretary, in confidence of course, that the knitting ladies were the scariest of them all, and that if he had his druthers, Wogram would simply unleash them on the suspect. They had been sharpening their knitting needles for just such an occasion.

Cooler heads ultimately prevailed and he assigned Deputy Rye Lindstrom case.

Three bodies. All stabbed with an ice pike. All left along the lake in various states of undress. None of them women.

Lindstrom and Wogram were stumped. And soon enough the fourth body was found and then the fifth.

It was on the sixth day, however, that they received their first and only break in the case. A white van had been seen driving away from the scene of the crime with blood on the back doors.

Immediately, the entire Lake Wilbert City Police Department had been mobilized to find the van.

Sergeant Collins and his partner had just been about to finish their shift when the orders came down over the radio, and with a sigh they began their day-long search for the van.

A search doomed to end in utter confusion and a sea of white.

Somewhere in that parking lot was their van and their killer. Finding her would take days.

A needle in a haystack.

 

 

Flash Fiction Friday: The Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco

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San Francisco 1900. It had been five hours since Big Tilda had been arrested, and she was very upset. The police had locked her in an interrogation room without any respect for her status or so much as a by-your-leave and had promptly forgotten her. It was downright disrespectful. Insulting even. She was the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco, not some common thief or crook, and she expected to be treated as such.

It had taken three strapping young men to subdue her on the trolley, and she was fairly certain that she had broken one of their noses and given another a black eye. Big Tilda was absurdly proud of that. Her daddy had been a boxer in his youth, and had taught her to throw a punch if nothing else.

She had been dragged to the station, fingerprinted and photographed, leaving her fingers splotched and her eyes blinking back tears. Newfangled inventions for a newfangled century. Big Tilda distrusted them both and remained stubbornly silent throughout. She only spoke once, when she first arrived. 

“Quirke and Wry,” she said. “I want to see Quirke and Wry.”

After much stern protesting, the docking officer had finally agreed with a disapproving frown, but Quirke and Wry hadn’t come yet.

No one had.

*

Big Tilda occupied herself by whispering a few of her favorite songs and belting the bawdier lyrics at the top of her lungs, but even that had not managed to attract anyone’s attention. Outside the interrogation room doors, the station was a hive of ceaseless, nervous activity. She could hear raised voices and pounding feet and taste the barely restrained panic in the air.

Finally, the door opened and Inspector Quirke entered, followed by his faithful shadow, Sergeant Wry. 

Quirke sat across from her and studied her face closely with Wry scowling behind him.He was a distinguished, particular man with a pointed mustache and dark woolen suit.

“I understand you wanted to see us,” Quirke said, somehow turning the innocuous statement into a borderline threat. “May I ask why? It’s rare that anyone, let alone someone with your record, asks for the pleasure of our company.”

Big Tilda snorted. “Can’t imagine why not.”

Wry glared. “If you’re just going to waste our time…”

“Yes,” she interrupted. “I can you’re busy today, running around like headless chickens.” Big Tilda leaned forward conspiratorially, her handcuffs clattering on the table. “Wouldn’t have anything to do with them Chinamen murders, would it?”

Quirke had an impressive poker face. The old inspector barely flinched, but she caught a glimpse of surprise in the corners of his mouth and in a slight tightness around the eyes.

“What do you know about that?” Quirke asked with studied indifference.

“I read.” She grinned. “Devoted follower of the San Francisco Oracle, me. They always have the best murders.”

“You mean the most gruesome,” Wry said with a scowl.

“Same difference.” She shrugged. “And I was told you fine gentlemen was always willing to make a deal.”

“Who told you that?”

“Teddy.”

Wry’ scowl deepened. “Atwood! That little…”

“Curious,” Quirke interrupted, holding out a calming hand without breaking eye contact. “I have always found Mr. Atwood to be remarkably tight lipped in these matters, especially for a newspaperman. Why would he give you our names?”

“He owed me a favor.”

“Ah.” Quirke nodded. “Of course. You understand that even with Atwood’s…sterling recommendation I can’t simply let you go.”

“’Course not. That’d be silly.” she waved that concern away easily. “But I can pay.”

“We don’t want your money!” Wry snapped, rising to his full insulted height.

“Not talking about money,” Big Tilda said, her expression clearly called him an idiot. “I’m talking about your little murderer.”

“The Rabbit-Mask Killer?”

“That’s the one.”

Quirke and Wry exchanged skeptical glances. “And how would you know…?”

“Easy. I have his watch and chain.” She was gloating now, savoring the looks on their faces. “And I have his wallet.”

“You picked the murderer’s pocket?” Wry demanded incredulously.

“Who do you think you’re talking to?” she asked. “I’m the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco! I pick everyone’s pocket!”

 


Quirke, Wry, and, of course, the Pickpocket Queen of San Francisco herself all appear in The Alchemist in the Attic.

I love all three of them from the cheerfully nonchalant pickpocket to the sneeringly judgmental sergeant, and poor Quirke who only ever wants to get on with his job.

This was a bonus little character scene just for fun, and because I wanted to revisit them again like old friends.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Greatest Detective in the World

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In a long, narrow building at the end of a long, narrow street lived the Greatest Detective in the World. He had never solved a single crime, but in his long life he had read countless mysteries, and devoured every true crime novel and newspaper report he could get his hands on. And he had solved them all.

In truth, the Greatest Detective in the World had often found his literary counterparts unaccountably slow. Even Sherlock Holmes had his moments, and the less said about the little Belgian fellow the better. It was not their fault, of course. Mystery authors seldom played fair with their readers or their detectives, and newspaper reports were often devoid of helpful details. But more than once, he had heard about an arrest on the evening news and nodded smugly to himself. Knew it.

The neighbors were not fond of him, and his beady little eyes. From time to time they would catch him watching them, peeking through his rear window with a telescope or binoculars. Always eager to catch a glimpse of a crime. They had disappointed him for years, providing only a a litany of daily life, and the occasional watered down scandal, but no robberies or conveniently placed murders. He hated them for that nearly as much as they hated him.

“He’s just a harmless old man,” a new arrival would say and the old timers would shake their heads.

“You’ll see,” they said. “You’ll see.” And invariably they did. Invariably he learned all their little secrets and rejoiced in telling them their own life’s stories.

It was a quiet, brooding life on that long, narrow street as the Greatest Detective in the World wiled away the days and hours impatiently waiting for a mystery worthy of his talents. But as the years passed and his hair turned white, and his hands became brittle claws, he found that he had waited in vain. No one, it seemed, was willing to get themselves murdered on his behalf. It was very selfish of them. After all, they were going to die anyway. And he wasn’t getting any younger.

The Greatest Detective in the World was 83 when the coughing started. A slight tickle at first, but it lingered and deepened over the following months. And sometimes there was blood. Bedridden, he peered through the curtains desperately hoping against hope, that he would finally see a crime. But there was nothing. Only tedium and the long, slow slide into death.

A few of his neighbors did manage to pay him a visit from time to time—the retired actor downstairs, the young couple across the street, the nursing student three doors down. He wondered why they came. He had never been kind to any of them. They didn’t owe him a thing.

It was only later, as he lay in a hospital bed miles away half-listening as the doctors and nurses whispered among themselves about pesticides and rat poison, that he understood. He had always thought the Belgian had been an idiot for not seeing it sooner, but he had been just as slow. There had been a murder after all.

His own.

Flash Fiction Friday: In the Silence of the Muse

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Alice always wore a mask when she played. Pure white porcelain, unadorned, and perfectly sculpted to her face.  She loved that mask. The coolness against her skin. The way her fingers danced. She was not Alice in those moments. There was no Alice.

There was only the music.

The mask gave her that. It freed her from her tyranny of being and gave her a world of notes to hide behind. The technique she had learned herself–bleeding her fingers white eight hours a day, seven days a week, for years on end.

Her parents had worried in a distant, bemused sort of way. She was making something of herself, after all, and not descending into idleness like her brother. Her passion was, perhaps, over-zealous and almost violent in its execution, but her sister had once strangled a rabbit out of love, so violence in their family was all-together relative.

Besides, Alice’s mother had dreamed once of being a concert pianist and in her daughter she saw her hopes reborn and burning.

And so, Alice was left to her music and her mask.

No one could remember buying or receiving the mask, however. One day it had simply appeared in her chambers, as if it had always been there. It was her shield, her conduit, and her muse of porcelain, blood and music .

And there was never, ever, a moment of silence.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Great Fire

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The old man watched as the house burned.

The fire spread from room to room in a crackling orgy of smoke and flames. The smell. The noise. The heat. There was a strange beauty to it—a fatal, blackening dance that consumed everything in its path.

The old man was not sure how long he stood there alone with the fire and the flames. The house was on the end of a long winding road deep in the woods. The nearest town was at least 40 minutes away, and the closest fire department was even further. He made no move to call either, or to fetch help. There was no point.

Eventually a fire truck came, the siren blaring in the night. Someone must have seen the fire blazing like a lighthouse in a sea of trees. The firemen knew their jobs and they acted quickly, expertly. It was too late for the house, of course, as the old man knew it would be, but they strived mightily to keep the flames from spreading.

The trees and brush were unusually dry for the time of year, and a forest fire could have consumed a whole swath land. There had already been three in the past month. An epidemic or a plague.

One of the firemen asked a serious of questions in a low, calm voice, as if speaking to a child, and the old man responded slowly in a monotone voice.

“Where did the fire start?”

The attic.

“Was their anyone else in the house?”

Just me. I live alone.

“Are you hurt?”

No.

They left him alone after that, although he caught a few worried glances. They thought he was in shock, of course. Only natural. But he wasn’t. He was simply lost in the flames.

“Do you have anywhere to go?” the fire chief asked finally. He was big man with a greying mustache, caked in soot and ash.

“I have my hat,” the old man said. “And I have my coat. Don’t worry about me.”

The fire chief frowned. “Are you sure? One of my men could…”

But he was talking to the air. The old man was gone, as if he’d never been there. Leaving only footprints in the dirt.

“Where did he go?” the fire chief demanded. The others shrugged. They had been watching the fire. “Did you even catch his name?”

No.

There was a suitcase waiting in the bushes about half a mile down the road. The old man reached down into the bramble, ignoring the minor cuts and bruises, and retrieved the battered, leather  case. It was nearly as old as he was, and untouched by any flames.

He turned at the end of the lane for one final glimpse of the fire. A wisp of a smile crossed his face and then he was gone.

It was not his house. He just liked to watch the world burn.

Flash Fiction Friday: Along the Waterfront

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They waited on the waterfront for Mr. Birch to arrive. There were five of them—distinguished men in long coats and expensive shoes. Their cars were parked down the road, and their drivers were milling around out of sight. None of them wanted to be there.

Mr. Summerscale checked his watch for the third time and sighed. He was familiar with Birch’s peculiarities, and had brought a crossword to pass the time. Five across was proving exceptionally stubborn, but he had no intention of admitting as much. The others would have laughed.

Young Mr. Bennett, who must have been nearly fifty by now, would have sneered and made some spiteful comment about his age. Summerscale had never like the little upstart and the feeling was mutual. In fact, Summerscale was not particularly fond of any of his compatriots. Burton was an uncultured snob, who substituted volume for taste. Isenberg was always smiling as if he knew a secret no one else did, and he might. And as for Preston, Summerscale shuddered. No one liked Preston.

He was standing apart from the others feeding the birds. They flocked to him, pigeons and seagulls mostly, squawking and bitting and flapping. Preston preferred birds to people. He had an entire taxidermy collection that was infamous in certain circles. PETA was rumored to have an entire filing cabinet devoted solely to the east wing of Preston’s mansion and another for the west.

These were the people Summerscale was forced to consort with, the other members of their little cabal.

Birch had chosen them all years ago, perhaps on a whim, and bound them together with shared secrets and shared wonder.

Summerscale checked his watch again. 3:00 PM precisely.  It was time.

He folded his newspaper under his arm and removed his reading glasses. Around him the others stirred nervously. Isenberg’s smile became strained, as if his store of secrets had turned sour and even Preston shuddered briefly beneath his coat.

Finally there was a great flash of light that burned across Summerscale’s eyes, igniting his corneas in an explosion of stars.

When the lights faded, there was a man standing on the waterfront, brushing ash from his suit.

Mr. Birch had arrived.

Flash Fiction Friday: The Last Flamingo Trainer

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It was two o’clock on a Friday afternoon, when the flamingo trainer presented his card. He was a stout, little man with oil-slick hair and a dark woolen suit.

“You may inform your master that Mr. Frederico Ardovini is here,” he announced grandly. “The Greatest Flamingo Trainer in the world!”

The old man who opened the door regarded him skeptically for a long moment with sharp, milky eyes.

“I am the master of the house,” he said finally. “And I have no need of a flamingo trainer, the greatest or otherwise.”

You are the master of the house?” Ardovini asked incredulously and with not a little scorn. It was a very grand house, after all, with over a dozen bedrooms, four libraries, an orrery in the attic, and over five acres of grounds. The thought that such a man would answer his own door was unthinkable. Almost as unthinkable as a man in possession of a flamboyance of  flamingoes not requiring a flamingo trainer.

“I am,” the older gentleman said with all the wounded dignity of a man of sufficient wealth and station to answer his own door if he wished to, and to close said door in the face of any itinerant flamingo trainer.

“Forgive me,” Ardovini said with a bow and a tip of his hat. “I meant no offense, Mr….?”

“Albert Barnett Jennings, esq.” The old man smirked. “And no doubt you were simply expressing surprise at my…?”

“Humble demeanor,” Ardovini interjected without a moment’s hesitation.

“Ah.” Mr. Albert Barnett Jennings nodded with a mocking twinkle in his eye. “Of course. Well, Mr. Ardovini, regardless of my demeanor, I am still not in need of a flamingo trainer.”

“But you have some of the finest flamingoes in the country here,” Ardovini protested. “They are known far and wide for their plumage and their bright color.”

“Indeed,” Jennings agreed, whose flamingoes had, in fact, recently won best in show at the 87th Annual Flamingoes, Finches, and Duckbills Festival. “And while that explains why you might wish to work with me, it does not explain why I would need you.”

Ardovini ran a hand through his hair and smiled far too brightly. “I understand your reluctance, Mr. Jennings, esq, but give me five minutes with your flamingoes and I’ll show you what I can do. Please…”

Slowly and against his better judgement, Mr. Albert Barnett Jennings nodded. After all, what was the harm?

*

There were forty-three flamingoes in Mr. Jenning’s flamboyance or colony. They were all gorgeous, pink, long-necked creatures with a violent disposition that ranged from grumpy to down-right homicidal. They inhabited a medium-sized pond, which Jennings had commissioned especially for them and equipped with a constant supply of brine-shrimp and algae.

“If I might have a moment alone with these exquisite creatures?” Ardovini asked, his hat doffed in his hands.

Mr. Jennings raised a dubious eyebrow. The flamingoes were all perched on one leg, staring balefully at their would-be trainer.

“It’s your funeral,” Jennings said. “I’ll give you five minutes and then you’re gone.”

“We shall see.” Ardovini seemed supremely, even suspiciously confident.

“Keep an eye on him,” Jennings murmured to his gamekeeper. That worthy fellow nodded silently and put a finger to his nose. He had been Mr. Jenning’s batman in the war and could be relied upon for his discretion and his willingness to protect the flamingoes as if they were his own children.

*

When Mr. Jennings, esq. returned precisely five minutes later, he found a bewildered groundsman and a grinning flamingo trainer.

“Usually I have more time,” Ardovini said. “To become acquainted with the birds individually, but I’ve done the best I could in the time allotted. Every flamingo is secretly a drama queen, after all. Now, with your permission?”

Jennings glanced at his groundsman who merely shrugged helplessly.

“Very well, Mr. Ardovini. Impress me.”

“As you wish.” Ardovini tossed his hat into the air with a flourish, and cried in a loud, clear, unaccented voice. “Ah one, two, ah one, two, three, four!”

And then, before Mr. Jennings’ eyes, his award-winning flamboyance of flamingoes began to dance the polka in perfect, pink unison.

“So,” the flamingo trainer asked, “are you impressed yet?”