by E. Bundy
There was somebody sitting . . . no, a dwarf standing . . . on the three concrete steps leading up to my dark porch. I slowed from a purse-swinging walk to a stroll to give my senses time to inspect him. I had a vision: a bearded corpse lay in a tunnel, the body a misshapen and boneless puddle of flesh. That slowed my walking pace to a shuffle.
I glanced around to see if more dwarfs were about, especially enforcers, those who carried sharp shovels. But it was a moonless night, and the dark folk were good at hiding themselves, so instead of using my eyes, I sniffed the air and listened. Crickets giggled in the clover and moss covering my front yard, and dogwood leaves grumbled in the night wind. Usually I heard dwarfs, their wheezing coughs or grunts, or smelled their fungal odor before I saw them. This dwarf seemed to be alone.
I didn’t need my psychic senses to know this wasn’t a neighborly visit. I got along with their underground community better than most, but that didn’t mean we sent each other Christmas cards. Besides, male dwarfs looked on females like me as an inferior subspecies, an attitude I found as pleasant as waiting for a mammogram exam. And there was the fact that current relations between humans and dwarfs were jittery because a majority of them wanted independence, wanted to form their own country—under ours.
Then I saw this wasn’t just any dwarf: his name was Brialdur. If I were ever to pin a nickname on him, it would be Snoopy, because like me, he was a detective. So this visit was official. I could forget my plan for this evening, which had been to use my psychic powers to pick lingering old-time radio waves out of the night sky and listen to them while I sipped white wine by a gas-log fire. Brialdur was going to lock me into the present tense.
“Long time I am here,” he said.
Maybe his nickname should be Grumpy instead of Snoopy. I remembered my momentary vision. “I don’t know anything about any of your folk lying dead in a tunnel.”
He scowled at me, as suspicious as the diminutive bearded prophet he looked like, then nodded, and there was a second’s worth of respect in his gray eyes before gruffness returned to them. “Ach, you so psychic, maybe you should know I stand here. Maybe you come more quickly.”
Like an overachieving female servant. I got out my key. “Schnapps okay?”
He licked his thin lips with a globby tongue a chameleon would covet. Lip-licking was a definite yes. To leave me in no doubt, he skipped to my red front door and stood there, his head twelve inches below my copper knob, eager as a hound for its beef and gravy supper.
But I knew not to mistake Brialdur for a tail-wagging pet. He was built in the style of a wood burning stove, solid and wide and heavy, and tucked in the sleeves of his leather jerkin, he kept magical throwing knives, the kind that always hit point-first. Like guided missiles, they hit their mark if he concentrated on the target.
He bulled into my cottage, plopped down on the bricks set in the floor near the fireplace, looked over his shoulder, and frowned at the cold hearth as if it were an insult to him. Maybe being psychic, I should have lit it for his visit before I had gone to a neighbor’s house to lay out a tarot card reading.
I turned on my gas logs and left all other lights off. Their sight tolerated fires or candles, but for some reason, electric light irritated dwarf eyes like smoke. I got out two bottles of schnapps, one butterscotch and the other apple, and held them up for him to choose. He grunted and looked away: butterscotch was for kids. I poured his dose of apple brandy in a tumbler and my wine in a stemmed glass. He quaffed his drink as if it were bitter worm medicine he had to get down in three gulps. Brialdur got teary eyed, got his breath back, smiled, then handed me his glass for a refill. I felt tension vapor off him. Now my company was tolerable.
We both stayed quiet. My den took on Brialdur’s earthy smell—lichen on wet limestone. He lay on the bricks, stretched out on his side, propped up on one elbow, and looked along my maple wood floor with quiet contentment.
His feet were wrapped in goat-leather boot moccasins. I had seen dwarf toes once, all twisted together. My dad had told me that in the ancient days when giants hunted dwarfs and roasted their carcasses on spits, the latticed toes were chopped off in one piece and given as crunchy pretzels to a favorite daughter or wife. I imagined there was no need to salt them because they were flavorful enough as they were.
“There is a human with a display of bodies in the city,” Brialdur said without preamble. “One of them has no bones. You will find out how he do that, how he get a body with no bone.” Brialdur had a German accent—his th’s were d’s, his w’s were v’s—even though he had been born and raised under the foothills of North Carolina.
“I read about that exhibit. Same rate of pay as always, an ounce per day?”
The value of precious metals had climbed high enough to induce people to sell their gold coins or earrings, so of course Brialdur now wanted to change his method of payment. “Emeralds,” he said.
“Not interested,” I answered and meant it. I didn’t need the money because I went to a Cherokee casino once a year and used my psychic powers while playing roulette. But I felt it my quirky duty to oppose any male, dwarf or otherwise, with an ego so huge and unbreakable it resembled a snow-topped mountain.
He shrugged. “Ach, we will argue this later.”
Brialdur’s eyes were half-closed. Dwarf hearts pump slowly, in turtle fashion, a species trait that causes them to live ages though it can also make them seem sluggish. Seem was the word to note. Though the schnapps was knifing through his brain, gutting it and killing thousands of gray cells, I sensed he was alert. Urgency radiated off him.
Did he think because I was female, I was stupid enough to negotiate my fee after the work was done, when he could pay me whatever he wanted? “Let’s settle on a price now. I’m willing to take an ounce a day and pay my own expenses out of it.”
Brialdur acted surprised at my considering on-the-job expenses an additional cost. He rolled his grubby hand in a peculiar motion and held it up, palm toward me, to indicate we had a deal. Now I was wary. Why would he let me have my price so easily?
“So what’s up?” I asked. He glanced up at the ceiling and frowned, so I rephrased my question, “What is the problem?”
“Ach, found a body without bone. No teeth, no bone.”
Again I remembered my vision. “Looked like a jellyfish wearing leather?” I poured him a third schnapps, looked at the mouthful of clear liquid remaining in the bottle, shrugged, and poured the rest of it into his tumbler. “So this isn’t about somebody with an axe to grind, somebody with a grudge against the dead dwarf?”
He grunted. “I am thinking this was a delicate murder.”
I thought I heard him say, “Deli cut murder,” and shivered.
He paused to decide how much he should tell me, then sighed in surrender. “This make us at war.” I saw a picture in his mind of a white-bearded, powerfully built dwarf haranguing a crowd. “Our leaders want to separate from your kind,” he said. “Your cities spread. We want forest land where we live safe underground.”
I could understand where dwarfs might feel threatened by our leaking PVC lines or angered at water tables polluted by our pesticide sprays or irate when arsenic from our poultry farms leeched into forest streams. “And this murder gives them a focus for their hatred, right? They can say, look the humans are now killing us. Finding a deformed body makes everyone start looking over their shoulder.”
“What kill a dwarf will kill a human,” he said, as if I needed more motivation than preventing a war. “Tomorrow you go to man, Virgil Russell, and get me information.”
“I’ll serve him questions for breakfast,” I said.
Brialdur didn’t know, and of course I had no intention of telling him, that some visions haunt me until I resolve them in daily life. The image of the flaccid dwarf felt like one of these. To rid myself of it, I would work for free.
“May I ask you a question or two about your work?” I asked with a respectful attitude and shy smile.
He considered me in a jowly way. I wore a silk turquoise suit, the hem of its skirt embroidered with a simple Celtic design (feminine but not too frilly), slingback sandals, and silver earrings in the shape of hearts. I didn’t look like a reporter or fan who would embarrass him. He studied my face before lowering his gaze to my breasts.
Then Virgil looked for approval across the table at a woman without a wedding ring. Her silver hair was cut so short it resembled a woolen cap, and her white skin was waxy like pollen. She continued buttering golden-brown toast with the back of a silver teaspoon and didn’t acknowledge his look.
Another guy at the table, one with uncombed hair and a working man’s breakfast—bacon and eggs, pancakes, orange juice, coffee—looked interested. The smell of his fried bacon made my mouth water.
“I can only give you a minute,” Virgil said in an accent that was slight and unfamiliar to me. He nodded at the crystal pot filled with apricot jam to indicate he was serious about eating.
The hotel’s dining room featured white damask tablecloths and spotless silverware heavy as rolled coins. Two grade-school girls with excellent posture who sat at an adjacent table waited to hear my first question. (What were they doing out of school on a Tuesday?) I decided I might be asked to leave if the matronly woman escorting the girls heard me discussing corpses.
“It has to do with some of your procedures,” I said to Virgil. The woman sitting across from him, Ms. Silverhair, showed her disapproval by making a tchucking sound with her tongue. “I would like to speak with you for a few minutes after you’ve eaten your egg and toast,” I said.
“Sure. Come by my room in a couple of hours. I’ll make time then.”
An alarm bell tingled in a subterranean part of my brain. I tried to scan his mind and was surprised to find I could only skim its surface. But I didn’t need my psychic powers to realize Virgil Russell had no intention of answering my questions. His reptilian smile told me that.
The guy with the bad hair concentrated on his bacon and eggs. The silver-haired woman smirked at me as if she had won an argument we were having.
Virgil’s cell phone rang. He flicked it open, listened, scowled, got up, and walked away from the table with it pressed to his right ear, the one without the diamond stud. Something sinuous rippled underneath the back of his left pant leg. It would not have been noticeable except it writhed in agitation at what he was hearing. I held my breath. He had a long tail. He was a Skurnj.
The silver-haired woman saw my surprise before I could hide it. Calculation hardened her waxy face for a moment, then she stared at my left shoulder in an unfocused way. I watched Vigil stride along under a row of chandeliers on his way out of the room and tried to understand why a dwarf had me interviewing a Skurnj.
There was a time in human prehistory, when bands of Homo erectus lived on sea shores. Biologists tell us our hair patterns show evidence of this. Most of our ancestors migrated inland, adapting to living first in Africa, then all over the world with the exception of Antarctica. But a tribe of our ancestors settled in the sea and became Homo maritimus. They never developed gills, but over half of them had tails for swimming. They communicated in the water through telepathy, especially the females, who had to watch over their young. This somehow made their minds immune to probing.
Stories of selkies, female seals who took human form after shedding their skin, were exaggerated tales of Skurnjs who married solitary fishermen.
If the silver-haired woman was with Virgil, then she knew what he was. I tried to scan her mind and couldn’t. So . . . she too was a Skurnj.
The woman slithered out of her chair and followed Virgil. I watched the back of her loose black skirt but couldn’t tell if she also had a tail.
I sat down uninvited across from the bacon-and-eggs guy. “It must have been an important call to pull him away from his breakfast,” I said. The guy’s feeling toward me was one of pity, which put me on my guard. “Mr. Russell won’t be here in two hours, will he?” I asked.
“No.” He managed to make the word sound contrite.
Encouraged by his honesty, I asked, “You work for him?”
“In a way.” I let the silence hang over our table until it bothered him. “He finances the projects and sets up the exhibits, but preparing the bodies is my work.”
“So how do you prepare them?” I asked.
His name was Brad, and I drank a small silver pot of coffee while he talked about his life’s work in complicated, scientific detail for a frustrating hour. Chemistry was radio static to me. By the end of it, I knew only that he dissected the bodies, used acetone to dehydrate them, put them in a vacuum where he introduced a polymer to harden the cells, then preserved the corpses. I asked how he deboned them.
“That’s proprietary information I’m not allowed to divulge,” he answered in the set legal phrase of one dodging a question.
It wasn’t fair, of course, to be angry at Brad because Virgil Russell had treated me like an amateur reporter working for a student newspaper, but I was irritable and had a headache, probably from drinking too much coffee and cream. So I sounded like a scold when I asked, “What if I told you a body showed up with no bones?”
He frowned. “No one can duplicate that process. Only Virgil can do it.”
He believed what he said, that much my psychic senses told me. “If that’s true, then why did he murder and debone a dwarf?”
“Murder?” He picked up a shiny fork, twirled it between his blunt fingers, then aligned it beside his plate on the white table cloth. “That can’t be? A dwarf, you said.” He glanced at a watch with enough dials for a cockpit. “We’re moving the exhibit tomorrow, and I’ve got to go supervise.” He stood up.
“You can’t just leave boneless bodies lying in your wake and not do anything about it,” I told him. “Police won’t like it.”
“There’s no connection.”
His dismissive tone rankled. “I’ll send the police your way then, and you can try to convince them,” I told him.
Brad dropped back into his chair and leaned aggressively toward me, his face now flushed with anger. “Blackmail?” He had given me detailed information for an hour while the dining room cleared out, and I had listened to him with limited interest, and so he thought we had developed a rapport that exempted him from underhanded behavior. “Police will slow things down,” he whined. “It’ll delay the exhibition in Asheville.” To him the dead dwarf was only an inconvenience he had to overcome so his schedule would not be delayed. “There’s no connection,” he repeated.
Then why are you still here? “What would it be like to die like that?” I asked.
“What? They’re already dead when we . . . oh, you mean the dwarf.” The idea of being deboned while alive interested his scientific mind. “I guess you’d linger. Even with your bones dissolved your organs would still function, your blood still flow, your brain still think, your muscles contract. You’d still be you.” He shrugged. “Might not hurt much either. Probably suffocate or bleed internally.”
“So how do you get the bones out without messing up the body?”
“It’s done with smart microbes. They eat only calcium. Don’t touch other tissue. After they’re finished, we radiate the colony to neutralize it, then preserve the body.”
I sensed there was something he was not telling me.
“Why do you call them smart microbes? What’s so smart about them?”
“They promote their own survival by mutating quickly and adapting to different conditions. For example, when we first found them, they were totally anaerobic, but now they tolerate oxygen fairly well.”
I had assumed he had developed the microbes in a laboratory, but he had found them. “Where do these microbes usually live?”
Brad swept a hand over our table to indicate the room. “Everywhere. In all of us.”
“So they were already in the bodies you dissected. And they are in us now, in you and me? How do you activate them?”
“You’ll have to ask Virgil about that part. I just do the grunt work.”
I didn’t remind him that when we started our conversation, he had made a point of saying he didn’t work for Virgil Russell. At that time, he was the pivot point of their enterprise. Now everything centered on Virgil. “And Mr. Russell won’t talk to me?”
“Doubt it. He’s probably on his way to Asheville right now. He has to make sure the hall is ready to receive the bodies I send him tomorrow. That is, if no one sics the police on me?”
I told him what I had learned. He told me to pick him up in my Volvo in one hour. We were driving to Asheville, because it was time for him to talk to Virgil. He downed his honey-colored whiskey in a gulp that made my eyes water and my throat sting with sympathetic pain, then left.
Behind his order, of course, lay the arrogant assumption that he could bully more information out of Virgil than I had. I tried not to let his hairy chauvinism gall me. Tried but failed.
So an hour later I drove out of our two-stoplight town to the edge of a forest where the dwarfs lived underground. Though it was childish for me to do so, I kept my headlights on high beam. The glare would blind and irritate Brialdur.
Dwarfs abhor light and for good reason. Sunlight turns them into rocks or toads or something, which is why they are active above ground only at night. Which is why they are called the dark folk.
Brialdur was waiting for me under a dogwood, its white blossoms luminous in my headlights. His reason for being optimistic about his chances of getting Virgil to talk stood beside him: two dwarfs holding shovels. A professional shovel-carrying dwarf is called a skovlmand, a word we might translate as “goon.” They hone the blades until they are able to slice your leg in half with the flick of a gnarled arm. I once saw a skovlmand split an oak trunk the size of a barrel with a thrown shovel.
I wondered if Skurnjs had a high tolerance for pain.
Traffic on I-26 slithered along slowly in places, a fact that didn’t improve my mood. I still had a headache, nothing debilitating, but annoying all the same. I rolled my window down an inch. Being enclosed with three grim dwarfs made my nose feel as if it were stuffed with mushrooms.
“The TV news reported some unpleasantness near Asheville,” I said. The network had also interviewed a man from Arizona who claimed dwarfs were hostile aliens from the ice-covered dwarf planet Pluto, but I didn’t mention this.
The skovlmands pretended I hadn’t spoken. Females should be like tools, useful when needed but otherwise ignored. Brialdur, Mr. New Age dwarf, nodded. “Ach, two dwarfs hurt, three humans. Fight on independence. Explosion at electric plant,” he said in his German accent, referring to the bombing of a coal-burning utility plant near Asheville. “Arnvidhr vas big in independence movement.” He saw I didn’t understand. “He corpse vid no bones.”
I saw a dwarf wrapped in a birch-bark shroud lying on top of a burning pyre. No doubt the dwarf community had burned the body quickly to prevent the spread of any disease that might prove contagious. They considered fire a holy cleansing agent, which was generally true if its smoke didn’t carry contaminants.
“Arnvidhr feel tired, have headache, then his bones tingle,” Brialdur said. “In morning he found dead in tunnel.”
“These people we are going to see are Skurnjs,” I said.
The information turned Brialdur’s face crusty as a scab. “Should tell me this before at cottage.” I was a bad dog, but I didn’t droop my ears. “Skurnjs don’t like humans,” he said with some satisfaction. He saw me about to tell him that Skurnjs were humans too and added, “Ach, don’t like land humans.”
I decided to let him have the last word and stayed quiet during the rest of the trip.
The exhibition hall was a group of cubes, very Italian looking with a red-tiled roof and terra cotta walls. The four of us, two carrying shovels you could shave with, climbed the front steps to a portico, found the iron-decorated front doors unlocked and walked into a square atrium with a fountain in the middle where water flowed over a contorted male nude and rustled into a pool at his feet. A room on our left glowed with subdued light, so I opened its door.
Virgil Russell and the silver-haired woman stood as if on exhibit in the center of the empty hall. Off to one side, a guard in a black uniform examined a crack in the wall. Maybe he had a brother who was a plasterer. Golden light glowed off the oak floor, no doubt an irritant to dwarf eyes. It also sparkled off Virgil’s diamond stud.
The female Skurnj sneered at the shovel-carrying dwarfs marching behind us and asked Virgil in a gurgling voice, “Should they not wear hardhats?”
I smiled at her joke. Virgil, though, was not amused. He reared up to full height, frowned, and told us, “You can’t be here.”
“Yah,” grim Brialdur said with contempt. “We here.”
The guard walked over with his hand cupped over his pistol butt. He watched the skovlmands, who unlike the plaster wall didn’t look as if they would crack.
“Get out or we’ll call the police,” Virgil ordered.
Brialdur nodded. “Then you defend process to them and us same time.”
“Problem?” the guard asked.
“If this gets out, your exhibit is over, or at least put on hold,” I said to ease Virgil toward cooperation.
One corner of his mouth twisted upward. “His name was Arnvidhr, right?”
Brialdur asked, “What business had Arnvidhr with you?”
“Is this a problem?” the guard asked again.
Virgil ignored him and shrugged at Brialdur. “We did nothing illegal. We just explored the possibility of doing an exhibit with dwarf bodies in it.”
I could see where the novelty of showing cutaways of dwarf bodies would be even more impressive and lucrative than the preserved human corpses in his current exhibition. My diminutive companions, though, were shocked by this sacrilege. “And Arnvidhr was going to supply them?” I asked.
Virgil nodded. “He was their equivalent of a grave digger, or in this situation, the guy who burns the dead.”
“And he knew you were going to exhibit them?” I pressed.
“He didn’t ask why we wanted them, and we didn’t tell.”
Brialdur and the skovlmands vibrated with rage; the odor of fungus oozed from their pores.
The Skurnjs, instead of being afraid, were amused. Virgil shrugged. “I know not if it violated their rules, but I thought it Arnvidhr’s duty to protect his own kind.”
“And of course, he would be found out as soon as the bodies went on display,” I said. “But you didn’t care about him, because you not only have the tail of a reptile, you also have a reptile’s attitude.”
The security guard must have pressed a button on his radio or something because two of his fellows hurried into the empty hall, their boots resounding on the floor. Both of them immediately unsnapped the leather holster straps over their pistols. The skovlmands turned with their honed shovel blades lifted toward the guards. The female Skurnj stared at my left shoulder as if looking into a dream, her eyes as opaque as jade. Virgil smiled. He liked having the cavalry come to rescue him.
“This isn’t the time,” I told Brialdur. He ignored me. “You want to start a riot here?” I shouted.
He was gasping for breath, almost out of control, ready to test shovels against pistols. “Don’t be womanish,” I said.
He whipped the back of his hand upward at my face, but I jerked my head out of the way, and he missed and stumbled sideways. He whirled back toward me. “You’d fight a woman?” I yelled.
Brialdur was shocked by the idea. He blinked, took a deep breath, said something to the skovlmands in a language that sounded like two rocks scraping together, then strode toward the door. The shovel-carriers trailed him. I, their ride home, followed them.
Virgil’s nasty laughed made my skin creep. I looked back at him in time to see the silver-haired female slide her index finger into her mouth, pull it out wet, and stick it teasingly in his ear.
Two nights later, my doorbell rang. I looked through the peephole, saw nothing, and knew who I would be talking to when I opened the door and looked down. It turned out not to be much of a conversation. Brialdur said, “Come.”
I got my work purse out of a closet and followed him into the dark woods, where we met the two skovlmands, who ignored me. Brialdur didn’t offer an explanation for our night jaunt, and I didn’t ask for one because I thought it would show weakness on my part if I did. I could cope with any challenge he threw at me, especially since there was a cylinder of stun spray in my purse.
I heard an intermittent murmur that became louder as we walked deeper into the woods, where gray moonlight lay like dropped cigar ash on waxy mountain laurel leaves and heart-shaped ivy running along the ground. After a few minutes, I heard an angry voice ranting. The murmur was a crowd responding. Brialdur led us onto a path inset with stone slabs and hurried along it until he stopped under the umbrella of a silk tree in flower. The raised voice stopped too. I looked over Brialdur’s head into a clearing where about a hundred dwarfs, all male, were gathered.
I could feel, rather than see, the admonishment in their eyes. Their collective smell made me breathe through my mouth. I had no doubt that if they were dropped into a swimming pool, the sludge that floated to the bottom would fertilize a mushroom farm. One dwarf wearing a fedora, his white beard bristling to his knees, stood on a stump, facing the crowd. A few paces off to one side of him stood Virgil and his companion, her silver hair shining in the moonlight like a bathing cap.
“You brought a human?” the leader called over the assembled heads to Brialdur, his voice weighted with scorn.
I knew then this was an old fashioned political gathering with a stump speech. These were dwarf separatists. I felt like a civil rights activist in the middle of a Ku Klux Klan meeting.
Brialdur pushed through the crowd. I followed him with my purse protecting my stomach as my elbows brushed muscular, leather-clad shoulders. When he stood in front of the leader, whose face was a callus in need of an emery board, Brialdur said, “You brought humans to meeting.”
The leader pointed a finger thick as a spike at Brialdur’s face. “They are Skurnjs.”
“Ach, humans,” Brialdur argued.
The crowd was silent and still, its presence a cocked revolver, a menace Virgil must have felt, because he sidled behind Ms. Silverhair. She seemed bored and stared at my shoulder again. It began to itch, a feeling akin to having a tarantula crawling inside my arm.
“Water humans,” I said. As a rule, dwarfs liked water less than they did humans. Maybe that was why they smelled like worm farms.
Everyone ignored me. Women had no voice in assemblies. I realized that was why Virgil was here. He was the Skurnj mouthpiece, not its leader. It was the nameless silver-haired woman who mutated the microbes with her brain powers, not him. My shoulder itched because her stare had activated these organisms in me. Germs now danced on the head of my humerus. And fed. My stomach felt like an empty pit.
The only reason Virgil was needed was because no dwarf would listen to a female. “They use you to make war with us,” I said to the leader.
Standing atop the stump, he was at my eye level, but he looked down at Brialdur instead, “You have a woman speak for you?”
There was amused contempt in the bearded faces around me.
“Ach, no. I speak for myself and as one who is not manipulated by humans from the sea.” One of the leader’s skovlmands tensed, not liking the insult, and pointed his shovel blade at us. Both of Brialdur’s skovlmands crouched, ready to parry a thrust. “They killed Arnvidhr,” Brialdur said.
“He says not the truth,” Virgil yelled.
The leader tensed. Dwarfs didn’t have a word in their throaty language for lie because they always told the truth. The faces around me now showed confusion more than amusement.
The female Skurnj turned her attention to Brialdur. “Don’t let her stare at you,” I told him. He looked at me in surprise, annoyed at the interruption. “She will infect you as she did Arnvidhr. As she has done me.”
“The females are much better with psionic powers,” I said.
Brialdur’s mustache-covered mouth collapsed into a tight-lipped grimace. He snarled and in a blur of movement threw one of his knives cartwheeling through the air.
It hit the Skurnj woman in the throat. Her head jerked backwards, her eyes flared, and she made a windy, gurgling sound. She clutched the knife’s handle with both hands, choking on iron. Blood flowed down the front of her blouse. She stood very erect, her eyes open and unseeing, with a stripe of moonlight reflected in the dark blood across her breasts. Then she collapsed to her knees and fell sideways. Her facial muscles quivered.
Virgil stared down at her with disbelief for a moment, then looked at Brialdur. He raised his hands chest high with his palms forward to indicate he was no threat.
Brialdur turned his back on the leader wearing a fedora and told the crowd. “You listen to one who lets himself be used by water humans.” Then he pushed his way through the gathering with the two skovlmands and me following him.
“Any trouble with Virgil and the female’s death?” I asked. He frowned at me and shrugged, and I knew both Skurnjs were dead and burned. Brian would have to run the exhibit alone. I changed the subject. “There was a riot near Linville last night while we were out in your woods.”
He shrugged. “Freedom movement continue there, here too.”
“So the leader we saw still has power?”
Brialdur smiled at me. “Ach, now we work together.”
“Oh.” I hadn’t realized Brialdur was a separatist too. I began to feel as if he had used me to advance his position in the movement. “So what did we accomplish?”
“No more boneless dwarfs,” he said gruffly.
“I’m sorry. That, of course, was worth the effort.”
Mollified, he added, “Freedom movement us now, not outsiders. More peaceful.”
“Maybe here it is,” I said, remembering the riot in Linville. Again I changed the subject. “I went to the doctor today, and he x-rayed my left shoulder.” When Brialdur looked bored on hearing my medical history, I added, “It tingled because the female Skurnj mobilized microbes to begin eating my arm bone.” I had his full attention now. “Radiation kills these microbes. You should get radiated too. She stared at you too, if only for a moment.”
“My headache’s gone. The tingling, by the way, doesn’t start immediately.”
“How you know. . . .” He shrugged. Of course, I knew he had a low-grade headache—I was psychic. “Ach, for a woman, you worth the gold,” he said.
I raised my crystal wine glass to acknowledge his compliment.
E. Bundy lives in the magical North Carolina woods where chocolate is a vegetable, female chipmunks are called chipnuns, coyotes come by to tell him stories about cunning coyote heroes, and mice claiming to be cousins move in for the winter then take the towels when they leave in spring. The federal government pays him not to work in one of their offices. He has published fantasy pieces recently in Paradigm Shift and Tales of the Talisman and has stories forthcoming in Aoife’s Kiss and Bards and Sages.
Story © 2010 E. Bundy. All other content copyright © 2010 Abyss & Apex Publ
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish