Authors: Mark Tiedemann
These stories are dedicated to the Clarion Workshop class of 1988 with special appreciation to Kate Wilhelm and to the memory of Damon Knight
About the Author
Mark W. Tiedemann began publishing science fiction stories professionally after attending the Clarion Workshop in 1988. He has subsequently published more than fifty short stories, numerous reviews and essays, and ten novels.
was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award in 2002 and Remains for the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2006. He served on the board of the Missouri Center for the Book for nine years, five as president, during which time he oversaw the creation of the Missouri State Poet Laureate post. He is a lifelong resident of St. Louis. He works part-time for Left Bank Books and is represented by the Donald Maass Literary Agency.
Also by Mark Tiedemann
Aurora: An Isaac Asimov Robot Mystery (Isaac Asimov's Robot Mystery)
Chimera: An Isaac Asimov Robot Mystery (Robot Mysteries)
Metal of Night
Mark W. Tiedemann
This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author's imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright Â© 2014 by Mark Tiedemann
Cover by John Kaufmann
All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
Printed in the United States of America
Published by Walrus Publishing, Inc.
4168 Hartford Street
Saint Louis, MO 63116
“Miller's Wife” first published in
Black Gate Magazine
, Winter 2003.
“Private Words” first published in
Sirens & Other Daemon Lovers
, edited by Ellen Datlow & Terri Windling, October 1998.
“The Disinterred” first published in
“The Playground Door” first published in
Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
, May 1993.
Egan Ginter pulled into Saletcroix with a vague sense of accomplishment diluted by a distant anxiety that having arrived he now had to do something. For a few moments he considered turning around and leaving the valley, but he had come here to sever himself from complications that threatened to bind him to a life he did not want.
Driving over the last ridge, he looked down across a pocket of land that offered the escape he sought and a place that offered little he could want for very long, the ideal stop along the way. The town consisted of half a dozen buildings that merged with the dense Ozark scrub. Their foundations were scaly and leprous and appeared to be made from half-poured concrete mixed with vines and lichenous dirt. Only the tavern looked solid. “The Pumphandle,” a wide red and white hand-painted sign declared. Though Egan was certain it had been at least the second place built on the side of the two-lane state blacktop, it seemed newer than the other structures. A bright blue and yellow neon advertisement glowed in its window. Egan saw no church, and the gas station was
identifiable only by the row of pumps standing like sentries before it, their brand names eroded to illegibility.
Egan pulled into a parking space in front of The Pumphandle and shut off the RV. He reached across the driver's seat and drew the sheet of typed instructions toward him. Curt Albright's A-frame was supposedly a few miles from here, but the directions cautioned him that the turn-off was hard to find. Egan folded up the page and tucked it into his shirt pocket, then went into the tavern.
Inside the tavern, the dark interior reminded him that he disliked bars. He went through cycles with them. As a child, he once believed they were all lined with a light-absorbing material that made it impossible to illuminate them sufficiently. When he got older he decided it was the regular patrons who sucked the light out of the air. He had liked that idea for a while, especially when he considered himself a regular patron and wanted the anonymity such places allowed.
A row of booths lined the wall to the right; a few tables grew out of the ancient wooden floor that creaked amiably underfoot. The bar stretched to his left. Three large men huddled against it at the far end. One booth was occupied by four men bent over tall glasses. An older woman sat at a table near the front, a bottle before her. She watched Egan with mild curiosity.
Egan blinked at the woman behind the bar. Her eyes were large and bright. Gray streaks lined her thick, pulled-back hair, and she smelled faintly of tobacco and soap.
“Uh, yes. I'm looking for the Albright place. I wanted to make sure I had the right directions.”
Her eyebrows drew together briefly before she looked down the length of the bar. “Tommy, you know where the Albright place is?”
One of the three men nodded. “Five miles north, on the left, right past Menlow's place.”
“He ain't there,” someone else said.
Egan turned toward the booth. “I know. I'm a friend of his. He's letting me stay there for a couple weeks.”
The men stared at him for a time, then nodded and returned to their subdued conversation. Egan waited for another question, but the silence continued.
The woman at the table drained her bottle and stood. She came to the bar, dropped a dollar bill on the counter, and looked at Egan.
“Hello,” Egan said.
“Welcome to Saletcroix,” she said. Her voice was sharp and carried a faint New England accent. “Are you married?”
Egan laughed. “Excuse me?”
The woman smiled. “I suppose not. Sorry, don't mean to pry. Just wondering if you'll be staying long.”
“I don't know. I hadn't thought that far ahead.”
“Uh-huh. Well, folks are nice enough.”
“If a bit nosy?”
Lips pursed, she nodded and left.
“Don't mind Mrs. McCutcheon,” the woman behind the bar said. “When new folks come through, things take a turn for the exciting.”
Egan looked at her, trying to decide if honesty was a good idea just now. “So are you married?”
The woman laughed quietly. “No, as a matter of fact, and I'm not looking to be.”
“Good. Then we'll get along.”
“Fair enough. Anything else I can do for you?”
“Where can I buy groceries and things?”
“Right next door,” she pointed. “Lloyd's got about everything you need.”
“I doubt that,” Egan quipped. “He hardly knows me.”
She raised her eyebrows and for an instant Egan felt foolish. “Welcome to Saletcroix, Mister. Lemme give you one on the house.”
“Thanks. Mind if I take a rain check? I still have to find this place.”
“Long as you promise to come back.”
He watched her walk back toward the customers at the end of the bar. Her jeans were tight, and he enjoyed the roll of her hips, wondering briefly how she looked in a good light; then, impatient with himself, he left the tavern.
Leave it alone, he thought, climbing back into the Cherokee. Don't start trouble for yourself again.
The older woman who had been interested in his marital status sat in the cab of a pick-up, watching him. When he saw her, she smiled thinly, nodded, and pulled out. She drove down the road in no great hurry back the way Egan had come.
Maybe I should leaveâ
He started the engine, jammed the gears, and took the blacktop toward Curt's place.
As he drove, he began to notice that his first impression of the valley had been deceptive. Taken at a glance, Saletcroix seemed lushly green with rich farms and thick forest. Now, he noticed how dry everything seemed, the grass going brown, crops thinning above hard grayish earth. It looked as though it had not rained in weeks.
Egan slowed at the sight of black smoke billowing up above the tree line. Two more turns and he saw an open gate and a straight gravel road leading directly to a house in the midst of a collection of farm buildings. A single fire truck was nearly lost in the dense clouds. The lights of a police car flashed.
Egan drove slowly past. Less than fifty yards farther on he saw another gate and the signpost Curt had told him to look for. The dirt road was steep and curled sharply into a flat area in front of the A-frame that rose up out of the ground as if grown from seed. He stared up at the house, aware of a growing revulsion. Everything smelled musty and thick with spring even through the tinge of smoke. The woods seemed nothing but a vast collection of spindly young oak and maple. Egan's feet sank in the after-winter humus as he stepped onto the yard.
“Tell me again why this is a good idea,” he said aloud, mounting the porch. The spring on the screen door was broken and the thin frame slapped the wall in the breeze. Egan fished the key from his pocket and let himself in.
The air inside made his nose twitch. Light flooded the high windows and still failed to illuminate the interior. Wicker chairs and an old sofa furnished the main floor. An impressive stone fireplace filled the rear wall. Overhead, a loft hung like a shelf without evident means of support. Egan did not want to see the bed yet. He went back outside, unlocked the rear of the RV, and started unloading his bags.
When he came out for the second load he stopped. A man stood nearby studying his vehicle, a shotgun dangling casually in the crook of his arm. He wore bib overalls under a faded green corduroy coat and a colorless cap with a broken bill.
“Can I help you?” Egan called.
The man looked up. His face was wide and lined, eyes hidden in the shadow of the cap's bill. He stared at Egan for a few seconds, then nodded once.
“Stayin' here?” he asked.
“For a couple of weeks.”
“Uh-huh. This is Albright's place.”
“Do you know Curt?”
“Met him. You kin?”
“Just a friend. He's letting me use it for a while.” When the stranger was silent, Egan added, “My friends thought I needed to get out of the city.”
“Maybe.” He looked at the RV again. “Looks good.” He nodded again as if in approval. “I'm Brice Miller. If you see my wife, Esther, don't let her in.”
“I'm lookin' for my wife. She comes by, tell her to go home. Don't let her in.”
Egan bristled, abruptly resentful. “Lookâ”
The sound of another vehicle on the road cut him off. He turned to see a police car pulling in alongside his RV. Egan wondered if it was the same one he had seen by the burning farmhouse.
With the engine still running, a tall man in a khaki uniform shirt and blue jeans emerged from the car. He placed a campaign hat like those that state troopers wore on his balding head and came toward the house with a long, slow gait that Egan found both amusing and irritating.
“I'm Sheriff Edmunds.”
“Hello, Sheriff. My name is Egan Ginter. I'm a friend of Curt Albright.”
“Ginter. That's the name he said. Curt called me yesterday and said you were comin'. How long you plan to stay?”
“Couple of weeks. Maybe three.”
The sheriff nodded. “Well, all right. I wanted to meet you and let you know I'm around.” He looked at the other man then. “Brice, you found your wife yet?”