Story Excerpts

Art by Ally Hodges


by Rebecca Cantrell

Flames licked the ceiling.

“Damn dog is up on a ladder.” Ada didn’t move from her position leaning against the wall because she didn’t want to wrinkle her dress. She had to take it back when this performance was over.

“It’s from the peanut butter sandwich.” Silas grabbed the Irish setter by her elegant hindquarters and lifted her back down to the floor. “Bad girl, Flames!”

Flames licked her lips and looked back at the ceiling.

Silas folded the ladder up and stuck it next to the fridge. Peanut butter glistened on the top step, and he wiped it off.

“What about the ceiling?” Ada asked. “That’s the kind of memorable detail we’re trying to avoid.”

Ada snapped her fingers, and Flames trotted over. She wiped the dog’s muzzle with a wet wipe. Burgundy-red dog hair and peanut butter. “Who’s my favorite circus freak?”

Flames flopped down on the floor and gave her a mournful look. Mournful was her best look. It meant guilty or hungry or sad or clever. It was a multipurpose look.

Silas set the ladder back up, clambered to the top, and wiped a smear of peanut butter off the acoustic tiles.

“Jasper didn’t like the plan?” Ada pointed to the wet spot on the ceiling. Jasper threw things when he got angry, like a toddler.

“He never likes the plan.” Silas climbed back down the ladder and put it away. Then he took a jar of peanut butter off the top of the fridge and dug out a spoonful.

“It’s a terrible plan.” A man in a rust-red jacket came into the dinky kitchen. “They always are.”

“But the performances always work,” Ada reminded him.

“Smash and grab,” Jasper said. “In and out in less than a minute. Wear a mask. Simple. No plan needed. You’re turning this into work.”

Ada twirled a diamond ring around on her thumb. Good quality, worth more than a new car. “I should really get this resized, wear it on my ring finger like a real married lady.”

“Which you’re not,” Silas said. “Not even close.”

Jasper shot his brother a warning glance.

“Maybe I ought to train Flames to work for the circus,” she said. “She can climb up the ladder to a trapeze and hang on by her teeth. One of us ought to break into show business.”

“Maybe we ought to stick to this plan,” Silas said.

“It’s not even her best trick.” She straightened the ring. She was the only woman she knew whose only piece of jewelry was a thumb ring.

“We’re coming up on three o’clock when everyone’s tired and dopey.” Silas came to stand next to her, and Flames perked up. Silas held the spoon down near the floor where Flames licked at it. READ MORE



Art by Hank Blaustein

Book of Hours

by Robert Mangeot

No self-respecting pro would let his doom get this impending. Last year I’d been wandering the Marchesa Ruggieri’s Lombard estate, not hurting anybody, rummaging among her valuables. In her drawing room I’d come across a rare medieval manuscript. An illuminated book of hours, to us in one form or another of the manuscript business, a devotional meant for moments of inner reflection. Her particular devotional had fetched a not-too-shabby price even after the gentleman’s discount. Problem was, tonight found me back in the Marchesa’s drawing room and doubled over a high-res photo of her manuscript, the Marchesa asking me if I remembered her lost treasure. Yep, tonight I had ample reason—if not much time—for a little professional perspective.

The Marchesa nodded, and the Corsican slab of goon stopped pinning me and thudded a meaty elbow to my ribs.

I never said she was asking nicely.

The Marchesa loomed over me, tallness and darkness itself. “You stole this from me.”

The old Ed would have shrugged my signature whaddaya-gonna-do shrug here, let instincts and fast thinking take over. I’d have talked things out. The New Me said, “Sure.”

The New Me got another elbowing. When I could breathe again, the Marchesa thrust my head down atop the photo. Whoever did her nails must have used a whetstone.

“Look at it,” she said.

I looked. Maybe it was my extreme close-up, but tonight I caught every fleck of her manuscript’s gilded edges, every burst of its hand-painted lapis lazuli blues and china greens. Mostly, I had newfound appreciation for those Flemish craftsmen and their eye for impending doom. Captured there on parchment, in a garden overrun with acanthus and ivy, a courtly knight gave the full on-bended-knee treatment to a fair and regal blonde. The slightest of beatific smiles crossed her face, and she held her hands clasped tight to her flowing gown, which meant she kept the dagger tucked up her sleeve.

Me and blondes. Long story. It ended in this return visit to the Marchesa’s drawing room.

The Marchesa said, “You understand what it means to me.”

Not at the time, no. At the time her Cane Corso had started baying, and I’d been packing whatever I could as fast I could. A medieval manuscript in excellent condition was the sort of thing a guy with spare bag space and bubble wrap took along. It had been only after I’d run for the Lombard hills that my recently retired partner Gus had raised his German brow and declared Sir Chumpsalot a genuine fifteenth-century masterpiece. A commissioned masterpiece for none other than Pope Alexander VI, a.k.a. Rodrigo Borgia, way-back-when head of the same Borgias whose red-bull banner hung over the Marchesa’s fireplace.

She spread atop her desk a road map of Italy and stabbed a stiletto fingernail onto a town a few hours’ drive east, where Lombard hills ran smack into a whole lot of Alps. READ MORE