Story Excerpts

Sinners-at-eight_Hank-Blaustein
Art by
Hank Blaustein

Sinners at Eight

by Michael Nethercott

Five minutes into the cocktail party, Nellie’s nerves slammed together and conspired to kill her. At least that’s how it felt. It had been foolish of her, terrifically stupid, to have come. She should never have given in to Aunt Bebe’s insistent prodding. Nellie hated being thrust among strangers—as Bebe knew full well—but her aunt had been relentless, all smiles and assurances.

“Oh, you’ll thoroughly enjoy the Clays and their crowd,” Bebe had insisted the day before. “It’s always a marvelously lively gathering.”

“But I don’t like things that are too lively,” Nellie protested.

“Now, don’t be giving me that hogwash, my girl! You’re young and brimming with life’s nectars.”

Nellie had winced then, and Aunt Bebe had laughed. Bebe was a repudiated fifty: tall, slender, and spry. In her youth, she’d been a suffragette more-or-less—sufficiently suffragette, as she liked to joke—and was skilled at promoting a cause.

“Listen, Nellie, it’s a great opportunity to meet some sterling people. Charlotte McLaws, for example, is a blood relation of Mrs. Roosevelt. Oh! I wonder if that also makes Charlotte a blood relation of President Roosevelt. After all, he and Eleanor are fifth cousins, aren’t they?”

“I’m not sure, Aunt Bebe.”

“Don’t you want to attend a party with our president’s kin?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Dear, you must toss off that damned shyness of yours and stride out into the world. You’re barely eighteen and could pass for a vintage spinster.” (Bebe herself was no spinster, having buried one husband and abandoned two others.) “I refuse to let you just wither away while you’re here visiting me.”

“But you said they’d be serving alcohol, Aunt Bebe. Alcohol is illegal.”

“Don’t be so provincial! Look, I’ve already told the Clays that we’re coming, so it’s settled. Illicit cocktails at eight and blithe conversation thereafter.”

“But, Aunt—”

“No arguments! We’re all set for tomorrow night . . .”

Now tomorrow night was here. It was only a twenty-minute walk from Bebe’s house to the Coles’. A biting New England wind, strong with autumn, hurried them along. Arriving at the party, Nellie suffered a deluge of introductions, grins, and pleasantries. That’s when her nerves kicked in. There must have been close to forty guests—all unknown to her—and each introduction came like a jab to her intestines. She would never ever be the confident social creature that her family hoped for. Meeting strangers, trading banter, fielding inquiries—it was all pure hell.

Someone shoved a drink into her hand and suggested that Nellie, being Bebe’s niece and all, must be a firecracker. A real firecracker. Nellie responded with a strained smile. The bulk of the guests were squeezed into the living room, a high-ceilinged room decorated with a chaos of brash modern paintings. READ MORE

 

 

Chinese-Dog_Ally-Hodges
Art by Ally Hodges

The Chinese Dog Mystery

by James Lincoln Warren

Why is it that pretty girls always show up unexpectedly at the worst possible time? Is it some natural law, like Newton’s rule about apples bonking you on the noggin with an equal and opposite force in the opposite direction? (Which, frankly, I never really understood either.) Or is it the ancient Curse of the Cramburys, of which we never speak? Although if I were to expect a pretty girl unexpectedly at the worst possible time, it would have to be Nola Channing, who never bothers to knock in the first place. She just swings the door open, her dark wavy hair bouncing and her agate eyes gleaming, and proclaims her presence like a fearless goddess descending from Olympus. Usually with words along the lines of, “It’s Nola! Where are you, parasite?”

Only this time, she said:

“Benjamin! Why are you trying to wrap a tea towel around your head?”

“My name,” I replied, struggling with the towel, “isn’t Benjamin.”

“Then why does everybody call you Bennie?” she asked, her perfect heart-shaped face shining with dubiousness or dubiety or whatever it’s called. “Benedict? Benson? Surely not Benvenuto.”

“None of the above,” I replied, suppressing a sneer.

“But don’t you sign your checks, when you have enough money in the bank to actually write checks, ‘B. Cowes Crambury’?”

“No, I sign them ‘E. Cowes Crambury.’” This was pronounced with my signature soupçon of savoir faire.

“E? Are you sure? What’s it stand for?”

“I’ll never tell,” I said. And I never will, because it stands for Ebenezer.

“Of course you won’t. But you still haven’t explained the towel.”

“You’ve hardly given me a ch—”

“Whatever it is, it’s bound to be ridiculous.” She plopped down on the sofa next to me. “I had a bear of a day at the studio. Rewrites for ‘Bells on Her Toes,’ our latest screwball comedy, ugh. I wish they’d assign me something with a little more oomph. Now. The towel.”

“The thing is, it’s a secret. Life and death. You understand.”

“Yeah, I understand that everybody at the party tonight is going to hear about how I found you wrapping a tea towel around your head, unless you spill the beans.”

“Party?” I sat up straight.

“At the big house. The one your aunt is throwing in honor of Dante Quintana for starring in The Burglar of Basra. Remember?”

This was Oakes Bros. Pictures’ latest big box-office costumer, which I had seen four times.

“Um, I forgot.”

“Anne Standish will be there,” Nola teased, knowing that like every other red-blooded American male, I had a mad crush on Quintana’s costar.

Then I was suddenly struck by lightning, although now that I think about it, it must be very unusual to be gradually struck by lightning. READ MORE