Flash Fiction: On the Evening of the Comet


It was nearly sunset when the comet streaked overhead, trailing ice and rock. My feet were sore after a day of hiking and eager to return home, but still I stopped and stared and wondered.

At first I thought it was a plane, but the more I watched the more certain I became. There was nothing earthly about that sight. Nothing human.

Its official name was X/-271 R9, although I did not learn that until much later, but for me it was always the comet. What use are names in the face of awe? Where is the wonder in a series of numbers and letters, dashes and dots?

I had a camera in my hand that night, a proper one with a 50mm lens. I was old fashioned that way like my mother.

She had been a photographer of some small renown in her youth and our house had always smelt of chemicals.

She would have loved to see the comet–that gorgeous flash of white across a sky of  blues and pinks and purples–and would have treasured my photograph for the rest of her days.

I was too slow, however. Too busy staring. And as the comet blazed its icy way across the heavens, my camera waited in vain, resting limp and unthought of in my hand.

The thought didn’t even occur to me until I lay down in bed that night. Opportunities lost.

I never told her. She would only have been disappointed. But I still have my memories and my wonder.

And my regret.



Flash Fiction Friday: The Stargazer


He had always loved the stars, ever since he was a little boy. When he was four years old, his father had bought him a telescope kit and brought him out to a field.

They were miles away from home, far from any road, only he and his father. And the stars.

There were hundreds of them. Thousands. More than the eye could see or the mind imagine.  But his father knew all their names, those that had names at least. Cassiopeia, Scorpius, Andromeda, Taurus. Each with a myth and story to call their own.

But his favorites were the ones without names. The ones whose stories had never been told. So he would name them. Silly names at first, names to make his father laugh. But over time they turned more serious. He named one after his first crush and made a story for her star. He thought about telling her once, but was too afraid. She would have laughed anyway.

His first wife didn’t laugh, when he pointed to her star. It had take forty minutes to drive from the city, and she had to use the restroom badly, but she hadn’t laughed. Later when she left him screaming and heartbroken, he had considered renaming her star, but that would have been a lie. Not all stories had happy endings and not all stars were kind.

He didn’t give his second wife a name until they had been married almost ten years, although he gave their son one on his first birthday. He felt guilty about that, but he had learned his lesson. Names were as precious as stars.

So when his son was four years old and his wife was thirty-eight, he took his old telescope set down from the attic where it had been collecting dust, drove them to a distant, secluded spot, and showed them their stars.

They were beautiful.


Flash Fiction Friday: Full Fathom Grave


They lowered him to the ocean floor slowly and with great deliberation. The rope twisted and swayed in the cold and the current, but held firm.

Down, down, down the man fell, encased in iron and brass. He couldn’t hear anything but the silence raging in his ears, or see anything but the fog of his own breath on the glass. His helmet was heavy and confining like a prison, and his diving suit kept his limbs locked in position. He wasn’t truly a man anymore so much as the flesh component in a heart of metal.  A blind and deaf witness to the miracles of the deep,

It took nearly an hour to each the bottom, or as close as geography and rope would allow. In this part of the sea, the ocean floor was not a plain or a field but a series of slopes and ridges, like the foothills at the base of a mountain range, but these peaks delved deep in to the watery depths rather than upward towards the sky. More than once, the man thought he had reached bottom, only to stumble forward and tumble further into the abyss.

The fish abandoned him first, followed by the light. Darkness rose to meet him swallowing him whole in his stiff, soundless blindness. And that was when the ocean spoke to him. There were no words, no sensations, but he understood the message clearly. He felt it in the the creaking and cracking of his diving suit and in the chill that burrowed deep into his bones.

You do not belong here. Take your metal and your horded breaths and leave. 

The man wanted to obey, but it was out of his hands. The men on the surface would lower him until there was no more rope and only then would they haul him out from what might prove his watery grave.

A thousand fathoms down.


Flash Fiction Friday: The Hospital of the Dolls

deca1898823a19b9680bcc57cdc95ea5No one ever went into the doll’s hospital. It had been there for years, perched grotesquely on Main Street between the post office and the ice cream shop.

Children hurried past, casting grim, curious glances at the dismembered doll heads and little bodies, the same morbid collection as ever. One of them even seemed to wave at passersby as they hurried along.

Once when Jefferson Hinchcliffe-Jones was seven years old and eager to prove his bravery, he waved back at the doll, creaking back and forth on its string. It was the scariest moment of his life. All the dolls stared back at him.

The owner of the hospital was a delightful little man. Mr. Whitaker was a favorite at the local bar and was always full of laughter and stories, always willing to help his neighbor.

“Shame about the shop,” his friends would murmur to each other in secret. “He’s such a nice man otherwise.”

No one doubted Whitaker’s dedication or his craftsmanship. The few pieces he was known to have repaired, mostly antiques, were restored, even transformed under his touch. As good as new or better. But neither could it be denied that there was something creepy about them afterwards.

Dolls that went into Whitaker’s hospital seldom returned, and if they did, then they were never the same again. Well-known companions became strangers, watching from behind familiar, glass eyes. They could never quite put their finger on what had changed, and no one dared ask Whitaker.

And so, slowly, year by year, people stopped bringing their dolls to the hospital. But the storefront never changed; the door was always open; Whitaker was always waiting.

And the dolls were always watching.

Flash Fiction Friday: Dreams of Snow


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.

Flash Fiction Friday: An Apocalypse of Alpacas


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


“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


“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!”



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


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?”


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


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.