Authors: Ron Miller
A collection of short stories running the gamut from fantasy and horror to mystery and science fiction. An esteemed sportsman likes to collect the heads of were-animals, an astonishing discovery is made on Mars, a secret cult builds their own god, a nice little old lady likes cats too much, a scientist discovers his best friend is a moon and a future society invents a novel way of executing criminals among other surprises, all to say nothing of the terrible secrets of Frankenstein, Jack the Ripper and the end of the world.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 Ron Miller
Cover design by Ron Miller
“Interview With the Mad Scientist” was originally published in
Strange Pleasures 3
, Prime Books, 2005
“The Funeral” was originally published in
, Hadley Rille Press, 2007
“MS Found at the End of the World” was originally published in
All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Electronic version by Baen Books
only wish that all the jokes you’ve heard about traveling salesmen were true. It’s crossed my mind more than once, I can tell you, that I’ve never gotten my share of farmers’ daughters. In fact, I’ve never even
a farmer’s daughter. I’m not even sure I’d know what to do if I did. Probably try to sell her Lustron porcelain-clad siding, I suppose.
I do know that porcelain-clad steel siding wasn’t the first thing on my mind when the black-haired girl opened the door in answer to my knock. But then, she was no farmer’s daughter, either. Tall, slender as one of those
models but a lot healthier-looking, with startlingly wide-set green eyes set in a face as white as a #2 Vanilla Creme Premium panel. It seemed to take her a second to focus on me, as though it were an effort to swing those wide-set glims onto something standing as close to her as I was, like a Navy gunner taking aim on an enemy cruiser with a rangefinder.
“Yes?” she said, pleasantly enough, though there was something about her voice that sent a shiver down my back. But a good shiver, if you get what I mean.
“Good morning,” I said. “My name is Barrow, Creighton Barrow. I represent the Lustron company, manufacturers of the finest porcelain-clad steel home siding on the market today. I have an appointment with a Mr. Helsinki...”
“Isn’t that nice!” she interrupted with what seemed to be genuine enthusiasm. “I’m Susi. That’s with an I but no E. It’s Finnish. Please come in. I’m sure my—husband—will be delighted to hear what you have to say about your splendid product.”
She stood aside to let me in, but I passed close enough to her to smell her. She wore a strange perfume, musky and earthy. She smelled a little like a pet shop but I liked it and thought about saying something, but figured I’d better concentrate on my job. If she wasn’t the one who paid the bills around there, flattering her wasn’t going to get me anywhere and I had two more appointments later that evening.
She closed the door behind me and, with a gesture, indicated that I should follow her, which I did and was glad of it. Her swaying hips reminded me of the slow, sinuous undulations of a cobra.
She led me to pair of sliding doors. She indicated that I should wait, opened the doors just wide enough to allow her to lean into the room beyond and say, “Arno, there’s a man here to see you.”
She must have gotten a positive answer because she stepped aside and, with a smile, gestured for me to go on in. I hefted my sample case—porcelain-clad steel is no featherweight, you understand—and did.
What a room! I’d never seen anything like it, at least not since my last visit to the Natural History Museum and that had been when I was a kid. There must have been five hundred stuffed animals in the place if there was one, and there was. Every level surface had some sort of critter sitting on it while the walls were covered from floor to ceiling with heads mounted on big wooden plaques. Dozens and dozens of glassy-eyed faces were staring down at me from every direction, making me feel uncomfortably like a participant in some strange spectator sport, or maybe the victim in a car accident as a crowd of rubber-neckers gathered around to gawk at the mess.
What I had taken at first to be a stuffed grizzly bear whimsically decked out in a red velvet smoking jacket and cravat startled me by removing a cigar from its mouth, grinning like a demon and extending a hairy paw toward me.
“Good evening, Mr. Barrow!” it said in a very good imitation of Wallace Beery. “I very much appreciate your coming at such a late hour!”
There’s hardly any need for me to describe Helsinki any further other than to say he looked as though someone had told Max Baer he ought to audition for the part of Mephistopheles in a revival of “Faust”, if “Faust” is the play I’m thinking of. His big, hairy hand engulfed mine like a badger sucking down a mouse as an after-dinner mint.
He was one of those big, hearty manly men who are so aggressively masculine you wonder what they keep in their underwear drawers to dance around in when the doors are locked and the shades drawn. But to keep this short, if you think of the gypsy in Walt Disney’s “Pinocchio” you got it about right.
“Glad you could come! Glad you could come!” he roared, drawing me across the room like a little red wagon. “I was afraid when I called your office they wouldn’t have anyone to send out on such short notice!”
“I always check in before calling it a day,” I said. “It’s often paid off for me.”
“Well, I’ll be betting you’ll be thinking you hit the jackpot today, my friend! Did you take a look at my house as you came up?”
Of course I had. The place was as big as the main top at Barnum & Bailey and just about as tasteful. But I said, “Sure did, Mr. Helsinki! Beautiful layout you got here, mighty fine!”
“You bet your sweet life it’s fine! Biggest damn house in the tri-county area! Can I get you a drink? You look like a scotch-and-soda man to me!”
Any sort of alcoholic beverage makes me break out, but I said, “Sure thing, Mr. Helsinki! It’s after six so I guess I can sort of consider myself kind of off duty. But just a small one, please, with lots of ice. I got to keep my wits about me if I’m going to be doing business.”
“Smart fella! Plenty smart! But a quick jolt never hurt a real man! Here you go!” he bellowed, shoving a tumbler full of amber liquid into my hand. “Here’s to good hunting!”
“Um, yes, to good hunting!” I replied, making the most enthusiastic salute I could with my glass. If I drink this thing, I thought, I’ll wake up in the morning with blisters all over my face the size of biscuits. I took a sip and set the tumbler onto the glass-topped bar.
“Now, Mr. Helskinki—” I began, hoping I could distract him from the alcohol.
“Arno!” he boomed. “Arno! We’re all friends here! Just a couple of bluff, hearty fellows talking some plain, down to earth business talk!”
“Uh, yes. Well, um, Arno...my office told me that you were interested in cladding your entire, um, house in Lustron porcelain-clad steel siding...”
“You got that right, my friend! The whole shebang! Top to bottom! Side to side! Every damn square inch!”
Holy smoke! I tried to keep the glitter of sheer avarice out of my eyes. The entire house! Why, the thing must have a surface area measurable in acres!
“That’d be fine, just fine!” I managed to say. “An excellent decision, Mr., um, Arno, an excellent decision, indeed! Lustron porcelain-clad steel paneling is the best investment a man can make in his home.”
“Tough stuff, ain’t it?”
“Oh, yes indeed, indeed it is! Here, let me show you a few samples!”
I scrambled to get my case open before he could realize that I was ignoring my drink. He wasn’t ignoring his, I noticed. In fact, he was pouring another pint for himself as I undid the latch and revealed the samples. I could tell that even a big brute like Helsinki was impressed, as well he should be. The gleaming squares of porcelain-clad steel looked as brilliant and clean and inviting as ice cream. I would have said jewels except that jewels aren’t normally opaque and four inches square. No, ice cream was the simile that always came to my mind, if simile is the word I want. Cool, glimmering, smooth and in all the colors ice cream comes in and more. I took one of the gleaming tiles from the case and handed it to Helsinki.
“Great heavens! It looks like marzipan but it’s as heavy as armor plate!”
“You bet it is, Arno! A genuine Lustron porcelain-clad steel tile is as tough as any battle cruiser! Rain, hail, B·Bs, baseballs, you name it, Lustron can take it! That finish, sir, may look as fragile as the varnish on a lady’s dainty fingernail but I can tell you right now that it’ll outlast the house you put it on! You’ll never have to paint again...just hose ‘er down every now and then and she’ll be as bright and pretty as new!”
“Amazing! And tell me...this is proof against hail, baseballs—as you say—but what about animals?”
“Yes, you know...the tearing, rending tusks of the enraged wild boar, the razor-sharp talons of the blood-maddened puma, the scimitar-like weapons of the berserk kodiak...you know, that sort of thing!”
“Well, I do know that bullets will bounce off it. We tried that and you can see the amazing results in our promotional film, ‘Lustron Beauty versus Tommy Gun Lead’. It’s a wonderful little movie. Shows how Dillinger would be alive today if he’d only hidden out in a Lustron-clad house.”
“Excellent! This gets better every moment!”
“Yes, not even one of those monsters up there,” I said, gesturing grandly toward the snarling, glassy-eyed heads that loomed on the walls that surrounded us, “could get through a Lustron-clad wall!”
“Not even the horn of the mighty rhinoceros?”
“Be like a can opener trying to unzip an aircraft carrier!”
“Not even the gleaming tusks of a charging rogue bull elephant?”
“He’d bounce off it like a ping pong ball!”
“Well, I think you have sold me, Mr. Barrow! Indeed I think you have!”
“Not that you would ever have to worry about such things, not in rural Illinois, at any rate,” I said perhaps a little too lightly, the sip of whiskey I’d had earlier obviously having gone to my head.
“Do you hunt, Mr. Barrow?”
“Pardon? Hunt? No,” I said, a little puzzled by the sudden change in topic. I hoped he wasn’t thinking twice about the sale and determined to get him back on track before too much momentum was lost, if momentum is the word I want. “I’m afraid I’m strictly a city boy. Never hunted for anything wilder than a parking space.”
“Hum! I have hunted all over the world...as you can see! There has not been a creature worth hunting that has not fallen before my eagle eye, steady nerves and lightning-like trigger finger. The mighty bear—brown, black and grizzly—the bighorn sheep, the cape buffalo, water buffalo and bison, wildebeest, zebra and elephant—African and Asian—swans, ducks, bantengs, the kangaroo, crocodile, wild pig and wild groat, the caribou, chukar, goose and grouse—both black and red—hare, elk, peccary, muskrat and moose, the pronghorn antelope, wild boar, turkey, pheasant and woodcock, deer—red, roe, fallow, sika, muntjac and Chinese water—walrus, seal, polar bear and whale! I suppose you can imagine how boring this became after a while?”
“It was then I discovered the existence of an entirely new world of hitherto unknown game animals! What a revelation it was! It was like discovering a parallel universe, one which existed alongside our own but entirely unknown, unperceived by everyone! Unperceived, yes, but hinted at in the old myths and legends!”
I had no idea what he was talking about. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was getting to be very late. The last glow of sunset had faded and, through the east window, I could see the milky glow of the full moon about to rise. If Helsinki kept this up I wouldn’t be back to my hotel before midnight. Still, it wouldn’t pay to be too abrupt so I decided to humor him for a few more minutes before turning the conversation back to Lustron porcelain-clad steel siding.
“You mean like the Loch Ness monster?”
“Something like that! But better and infinitely more dangerous, more cunning, more worthy of my mighty skills as a hunter!”
“Well, I can’t—”
“You are familiar, of course,” he said, his voice suddenly dropping to a conspiratorial whisper, “with
“You mean like Lon Chaney?”
“Pfft! Lon Chaney is as a tame Pekingese compared to the mighty creatures I’m talking about! A mere lap dog! Imagine a human being with inhuman strength and speed, imagine an animal with human cunning and cruelty! There you have the werebeasts!”
“There’s more than one kind?”
“Study the folklore of every nation and you’ll find tales of were animals that will keep you awake and wide-eyed for weeks! Not only your common or garden-variety werewolf, but werebears, weresnakes, werebats, wereboars and werecats of every kind! You name it! Why, the Irish even have were seals, of all things!”
“Were seals, eh? Well, well! Think how pretty a seal would look, surrounded by glistening white Lustron...”
“It’s taken years and years but I’ve gotten them all! Oh, the stories I could tell you...”
“And you have no idea how anxious I am to hear them, but...” I gave a subtle glance toward my watch, but Helsinki was not a man susceptible to subtleties.
“They were terrifying at first, even to me, if you can believe it! But I soon learned that I could beat them, beat them all! Soon enough, they held no further terrors for me! If anyone had any reason to be afraid, it was
, the werebeasts! But...” He refilled his tumbler. I had lost count of how many times he had done this, but I did notice that the bottle was now empty. Helsinki looked at it rather forlornly, as though it were a brilliant child who had just brought home an F on its report card. “But,” he continued, “times have changed since the middle ages! This is an age of communication and organization! I discovered that it was no longer I against individual prey, but a prey that had unionized! I might shoot a werewolf one night, but that next day his kith and kin were telephoning and telegraphing one another—and not only their fellow werewolves, but werebeasts of any kind, all of whom had to become human some time during the day, all who were anywhere near a telephone or telegraph office! And in this day and age who is not? I would find myself on another hunt a week later surrounded by were creatures of every type, animals who would never be caught dead together in the wild were now organized against their common enemy: me! Now I think you understand my interest in your fine product, Mr. Barrow!”
“The Lustron porcelain-clad...”
“Yes! Yes! I want my house to be armor-plated! I want it proof against claw, talon, hoof, antler, horn and tooth!”
The man was obviously insane and I wondered if it were in the cards to get his name on a contract before he went completely berserk and started snapping at my ankles and cackling like a chicken. Or even worse, as I realized that in addition to the macabre collection of stuffed heads the room was a veritable arsenal of deadly weapons. Guns of every vintage and variety, knives, swords, axes...God knew what all...filled cabinets and littered the floor. I then noticed, to my horror, that a huge pistol lay within inches of the hairy brute’s trembling fist.