Cotner’s Bot

“A robot didn’t do this.”

I said it with flat certainty, though I knew it was the last thing the boss wanted to hear. I flipped through the last couple pics of oil paintings on Nathan’s slate. “But whoever did has decent technique and obviously understands the trends of the last couple decades.” We sat in the gallery’s cramped office; it was actually my office, but when the owner stopped by it became his (as his feet on the desk made clear). “Nathan,” I said, “why didn’t you just send these to me? Hate for you to waste a trip over here.”

I looked up and realized he hadn’t heard a word I’d said. Nathan had that feral, hungry stare I’d seen a hundred times, looking past me through the glass door into the gallery’s showcase area. I didn’t have to turn and look to know there was an attractive female wandering about. Some billionaires buy stretches of Thai beach property to get women. Some buy Hong Kong movie houses. Nathan Pendergast, hot shot investor, bought a Soho gallery. He once told me he had a thing for artsy pussy.

“Nathan?”

He turned his attention back to me. “So they’re good, right, Alex? I want to show them right away.”

“We can’t.”

“What? Why? They look pretty fucking good to me.” Always dogged and overbearing, Nathan never tolerated the word no for more than a few seconds. His face abruptly changed into what I called stage one anger: eyes widened into a hot, incredulous stare that said how could you possibly not see it my way?

At this point I had to be careful—stage two was explosive: screams, threats, fists pounding the desk. “It’s not that they’re bad,” I said. “They’re actually pretty decent. But there’s no way a robot did this, trust me.” He seemed to grasp the confidence of my appraisal; I was relieved to see the frustration fade into contemplation.

“All right, Alex, I suppose you’re the expert. But check it out in person anyway. You never know when a good play might present itself.” His eyes again wandered past me to the showcase area. He gave me a quick wink, stood and exited the office for what would surely be a more stimulating conversation.

Sisters

When Sarah was not-quite-two and I was not-quite-twelve, she ran headlong off the side of a pier that jutted over the frothy waves and shattered rocks of a beach on the West Coast. Or she would have, if I had not grabbed her shirt collar in the moment between her launch into space and her inability to fly.

I stood by the pier rails and was in the perfect position to grab her, but even so I made a near-miss of it. She was serious about jumping. Swimming. Flying. I screamed her name and hugged her close, then pushed her away, my hands on her shoulders, shaking her.

“What were you doing?” I said, not wondering if a kid that young could answer that question.

She sighed. “Nother me,” she said, pointing to the rocks below.

All I saw was seagulls screaming away from wave caps.

“Sarah,” I said, shaking my head.

She threw her chubby arms around my neck and planted a kiss on my cheek. “Kay-kay, Linda,” she said. “Nother-me!”

I laughed, astonished. Stupid fearless baby. I hugged her in return, tight. Maybe I cried a little, too.

Sarah’s run caught our parents flat-footed. The constant background hiss of their angry conversation cut off in mid-accusation. They rushed to catch up with us. Mom wrenched Sarah away.

“What are you doing to her?” she screamed.

Dad gave me his #1 considering stare. He waited to speak until Mom and Sarah walked a few yards away.

“Fair leap, that,” he said. “Saved us the cost of a funeral.”

I stood up.

“Dad,” I said. “I caught her.” I hoped for praise. Didn’t I deserve it?

Dad had gotten quiet since he and Mom began arguing. I guess he reserved all his words for her. He didn’t say anything, just turned away from me. He walked fast and grabbed Sarah’s hand. She beamed up at him.

I followed along behind. They walked in silence until the end of the pier before starting their argument again. Sarah ran back to me and grabbed my hand.

“Sister,” she said.

A Land of Deepest Shade

It looked like you were pretending, like you could just open your eyes and get up off that table and come home with me. It didn’t show that your back was broken in three places and the rear of your skull was crushed. Get up, Tommy! Stop teasing. Don’t make this be real. Don’t let me hear what they’re trying to tell me. But you weren’t teasing and I did hear.

First minutes after they said you were gone, all I could think of was never ever laughing with you again, never again laying with my forehead pressed against yours, my arms around you, your hands traveling down, and me whispering, “Stop! What if Cammie or Jesse wake up?” Funny. First it’s parents we gotta be careful not to wake, then it’s kids.

But then other thoughts came creeping in. What do I do now? How’s my one job gonna keep a roof over me and the kids’ heads, when you and me couldn’t keep up when we had your job as well? Your two jobs.

Damn that second job. If you hadn’t of taken that job, maybe you’d still be here. Just until we get out of debt, you said. Then I’ll quit.

I love that about you, that you’re honorable like that. But nobody can work day and night and day and night without something giving. Just saying you can do it don’t make it so! Work evenings at Catalano’s and then go out roofing with Nick and Hatim in the morning? No problem, piece of cake! You smiled as you said that, but it wore you down, and being tired can be as bad as being drunk. It can make you misstep. Make you fall.

“What do I do now?”

I said the words out loud. They just kind of fell out of my mouth and into the emergency room.

“We’ll need to do an autopsy, and once that’s complete, we can give you a death certificate and you can contact a funeral home,” said the one nurse who was still in the room.

“A funeral home? I can’t even pay for the ambulance. How can I pay for a funeral?”

The tears started spilling out of my eyes again. You just can’t be dead, Tommy. It takes way more money to die than we have.

The lady gave me a thin blue box of tissues and patted me on the back. “I’m very sorry for your loss, Ms. Macy. You know, the county does have an indigent burial program, at the cemetery on Green Street, if you’re truly without means. You’d have to fill out some forms, and there’s an income check.” She said more stuff, but I wasn’t listening, just caught at the end that she’d be back with more information for me and some papers to sign. Then she left me alone with you.

You ever been by that cemetery on Green Street? It’s got a chain-link fence around it, and it’s all gravel and weeds in there. No gravestones or statues or nothing like that, just homemade crosses and fake flowers, like people put by the side of the road where somebody’s died in a car crash. All your hard work–and that’s what you come to in the end?

“Doesn’t seem right, does it.”

It was an older guy, all dressed up, shiny shoes and a suit jacket. He stuck out a hand.

The Korgun

“Prepare! Prepare!” The squeal came from behind Philip, and then above him. “He comes today. He comes to return that which is due.”

Philip’s hands shot over his head. A snap of air rushed up the back of his neck. A few strands of hair were plucked form his scalp. The tiny thing had flown in through the window. It had come in right behind him, filling the room with the sound of frantic wings and a smell like that of boiled ham left on the stove for too long.

“The Korgun comes today.” The thing was moving up in the rafters now. Its voice came from right above him, and then from near the door. “Surely you have been waiting for this day when you can take back that which is yours, when the Korgun shall return that which he took so long ago.”

Blood rushed to Philip’s head. He held his breath for a moment before forcing it back out through his nose, and then set his chisel back on the table, taking care to put it in the exact spot where it belonged so that he could retrieve it again when needed.

“The Korgun? You are mistaken.”

The thing flew down to the table, landing with a great clattering. “Yes, the Korgun. He comes today to give a blind man back his sight.”

Philip closed his hand over the misshapen lump of wood that had just started to take shape, massaging shallow grooves that needed more time with the chisel. “But I sent word to the Korgun. I sent notice that our arrangement should be final.”

The thing seemed to almost tiptoe up to him, making a tack-tack-tack noise on the table. Tools rolled across the tabletop. One fell over the side, toppling to the floor. “You have no choice, human. Such things were decided long ago.”

Philip bent to retrieve the tool, wondering how long it would take to get them all back in their proper place. The smell of the creature almost overpowered him, wiping out the warm sweet scent of wood shavings that he never got completely off the floor no matter how often he swept. “Well, he has wasted his time then. He need not have made the journey here.”

As if on cue, there came a loud rap at the door, a firm knock that echoed into the room and was quickly followed by two short taps.

“You had best answer.” The thing seemed to be grooming itself now, each word was punctuated with a wet sucking sound. “The Korgun does not wait.”

Unexpected Pigment

Ted knelt beside The Painter’s statue and tried to pray himself out of existence. He’d managed a few minor miracles during his training–he’d captured the scent of a still-life lily and animated a painted dove–surely The Painter wouldn’t make him go through with this ridiculous marriage? He visualized himself fading like a watercolor left out in the rain, his pigments washing away drop by drop.

It didn’t work.

Marcie, the prime cause of his unhappiness, stomped up behind him. “I figured I would find you here. You need to stop moping.”

Ted sighed. “I am not moping.”

“No?” He could hear her arched eyebrow. “What would you call it?”

“I’m praying,” he snapped. Maybe if he didn’t look at her, she’d go away. All he wanted was for her to go away.

Marcie sighed. “I don’t like this any better than you do. I’m not exactly head-over-heels for you. But our fathers have decided that we’re going to be married, and that’s that.” She laid her hand on his shoulder, and he flinched away from her touch.

“I’m a priest. I have devoted myself to the church,” he whispered. “The path before me is toward the divine, not the secular.”

“Sometimes the canvas of our lives is covered with unexpected pigment.”

Ted looked up at her. He hadn’t been expecting her to quote scripture.

“I was trained at the temple,” she said. “I never got beyond mixing paints, but I was happy there. Then my brother died, and I was called home.”

“Don’t you miss it?” Ted asked. “The magic? Feeling The Painter’s hand upon you? Knowing that your life has a purpose?”

Marcie shrugged. “I guess I just found a new purpose.”


Marcie was as pretty as a picture in her simple wedding dress. She walked up the aisle like an angel, and he couldn’t see a trace of bitterness in the smile she gave him.

How could she be so content? She hadn’t chosen this path, either. Ted’s eyes ached from angry weeping, and he’d painted nothing but dark, twisted self portraits for weeks.

The priest–lucky bastard–sang the marriage vows and painted gold rings on each of their palms.

Ted hesitated. Every eye in the chapel fell on him. Marcie squeezed his hand, and her eyes pleaded with him. They were the color of the sky after a rainstorm. A pale, fresh blue. How had he not noticed that before?

Maybe she didn’t resent this marriage because she actually wanted him. The thought sent unfamiliar butterflies dancing in his stomach. It felt almost like magic. He bowed his head, plucked the heavy ring from his skin, and repeated the vows.

His old dreams fell away, but as he slid the ring onto Marcie’s finger, new dreams replaced them.


Marcie curled beside him in their bed. Figures danced on the insides of Ted’s eyelids. No matter how he tried, the estate’s books never seemed to balance. He’d always hated math. He missed painting.

“You know,” she said, “I can handle the books.”

Ted blinked at her.

She snuggled into his side. “You’ve done nothing but work since our wedding. It can’t be making you happy.”

“No,” Ted admitted. “It’s making me miserable.”

“Let me help. We’re partners now, remember?”

Ted had never had a partner before. He kissed her forehead. “I’ll try to keep it in mind.”


Ted squeezed Marcie’s hand while the midwife urged her to push. Something was wrong–Marcie’s strong fingers were limp in his, and her colors were faded and distorted, like a picture that had been left out in the sun too long.

“Don’t leave me,” Ted whispered. “We’re partners. I need you.”

“You’ll be fine. Find a new path.” Her eyes slipped closed. “Take care of our baby,” she whispered. Her voice sounded far away. She slumped back into her pillows, and her hand slid from his.

Ted’s tears fell on her faded cheeks.

Long moments passed, and he pulled himself together. Then panic clutched his chest. “Why isn’t the baby crying?”


Ted returned to the temple. He poured all of his energy into his training. He performed scores of miracles. People traveled for hundreds of miles for his blessing. He had everything he’d dreamed of as a young man.

He painted Marcie and their stillborn son a thousand times. But no miracles touched his brush, no life ever moved the painted faces.

Still, he held onto hope–onto faith. The Painter had placed him on this path–surely this wasn’t his destination. He picked up his brush and started again.

Jamie Lackey has attended James Gunn’s Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop at the Center for the Study of Science Fiction in 2010. Her work has appeared in The Living Dead 2 and Stories from the Heart: Heartwarming Tales of Appalachia. Another of her stories is forthcoming in Daily Science Fiction. Jamie Lacky is also a slush reader for Clarkesworld Magazine.

Farrago – Part 3

Looking for Part 1? Click here to read the beginning of Cassandra Rose Clarke’s novella Farrago.


Henry sat down at the interrogation table. Cecilia’s hands were folded in her lap and she looked up from them as Henry’s chair scraped across the floor. She’d washed the makeup off her face, but the antlers still jutted out of the tangled mat of her hair.

“I want to help you,” she said.

“That’s good,” said Henry. The heart mechanism was clicking inside of his chest, measuring out his heartbeats. He was aware of Felton standing in the corner, watching, recording, analyzing. “Why don’t you repeat what you told me in the car.”

Cecilia nodded, and then she said it again — Emmett Margum was my father.

“Explain what you mean by that,” said Felton.

Cecilia looked over at him, her eyes bright. “He created me. That was how Mother — Naomi Rohn, she’s the one you’re looking for — always said it. She told me I was created in a test tube, grown in a vat.” Cecilia blinked. Henry heard a whisper in the back of his head — Checking on Naomi Rohn now. I’ll let you know what we find out. Officer Minette. Everything in the interrogation room was completely still, but Henry knew there must be a flurry of motion outside its wall, as the officers listening in reacted to that name.

“Thank you,” said Felton.

“You’re welcome.” Cecilia looked down at the table again. “What else do you want to know?”

“Why was Naomi Rohn at Margum’s lair? Has she been there since the bust?” What Henry really wanted to ask was, Why were you at the lair?

Cecilia shook her head. “She went there a few weeks ago to hide. She didn’t think you’d make the connection — she didn’t know about the photographs. That’s why she didn’t take them with her. I put them there, a long time ago.”

Henry didn’t say anything. His heart mechanism clicked away.

“She knew you were watching the house in Ballard.” Cecilia lifted her head shyly and looked Henry right in the eye, then looked back at Felton. “I didn’t tell her, if that’s what you were thinking.”

Henry had been thinking that, and he looked down at his hands in response. He wanted a drink.

“How’d you get to the lair?” asked Felton.

“Mother brought me there. She kidnapped me after she heard you had talked to Father — to Emmett Margum. I didn’t think she knew I was back in town, but apparently she did, she’d known for a long time, she just didn’t — didn’t care.” Cecilia shrugged. “They never cared about me, either one of them. I was just a test — a test experiment? To see if they could do it. Splice together people and animals. I ran away as soon as I could.”

“Why’d you come back?” said Henry. He felt Felton staring at him.

“Ran out of money,” said Cecilia. “And some people found out about me –” she gestured toward her antlers — “I wanted to come home but I didn’t have one, you know? I couldn’t go back to them. But I still felt safer here, I know it’s stupid, but — I came back and rented a room in Capitol Hill. I was in California before,” she added, looking up at Henry. “In case you needed to know.”

“Why’d she kidnap you?” Redirecting the conversation back to the investigation, even if he did want to know more Cecilia and California.

“I don’t know. She said she knew I’d been talking to you, but then she just left me there when you showed up. I think the real reason was that she was lonely.” Her voice grew smaller, and it trembled in the emptiness of the interrogation room. “Ever since he went to jail. You have to understand — Father used his DNA to make me. I think she missed him.”

Cecilia pressed one hand to her eye, where a line of tears glittered in the harsh light. Officer Minette’s voice flooded into Henry’s brain. The name’s real but we’ve got nothing on her. The address listed is for an apartment complex that burned down five years ago.

Cecilia opened her mouth to speak, but Henry held up one hand, not wanting to miss Minette’s information.

Other than that and a picture, there’s nothing on her. No arrests, no traffic tickets — hell, she doesn’t even have a license number listed. See if you can find out anything else from the girl.

“What are you doing?” Cecilia asked.

“Nothing,” said Henry. “I was listening to someone.”

Cecilia brow’s wrinkled. Felton stepped forward, pressed one silver hand against the table.

“Have you heard reports about monster attacks out in Redmond?” he asked. “The suburbs?”

Cecilia nodded.

“Do you think that’s your parents’ work?” A slight hesitation before the word parents, one Henry only noticed because of the upgrades.

“I know it is,” said Cecilia, and this time Henry imagined the silence that had probably fallen outside the interrogation booth, as Officer Minette yelled for everyone to shut the hell up and listen. “She told me about it. She’s been creating an army. She didn’t tell me why, just she was building an army — literally building, the way they built the whores, the way they –” She stopped.

“She didn’t tell you why?” Henry leaned forward over the table. “But she said she was doing it? She said she was responsible for the attacks in Redmond –”

“Yeah.” Cecilia shrunk back a little in her chair.

Holy shit, said Officer Minette. I just came in. Did she —

Henry pushed her out of his head. “It’s okay, Cecilia, we aren’t going to let anything happen to you. Tell us everything you know.”

Farrago – Part 2

Looking for Part 1? Click here to read the beginning of Cassandra Rose Clarke’s novella Farrago.


“It’s a woman.”

Henry slumped at his desk, ran his hand over the scattered paperwork. Felton stood beside him.

“A woman is just as capable of manipulating genetic makeup as a man.”

“Not really a matter of intellectual capacity.” Henry rubbed his forehead. “I just can’t picture a woman doing it, is all. That kind of meanness.”

“This does help us,” Felton said. “Certainly narrows the field.” He paused. “You did well in there. I know how squeamish you are about the up–”

“There isn’t a single lady scientist on file,” Henry said.

Felton paused. Henry didn’t look at him. “I’m aware of that,” Felton finally said. “But she can’t hide behind her sex any longer.”

Henry leaned back in his chair, listened to it creak beneath his weight. He rubbed at his jaw, the stubble scratching his palm.

“She’s gonna clear out the house,” Henry said. “Have we got a warrant on it yet?”

“Still waiting. Should have it soon, though.”

“Shit. Figures.”

“We’ve got men down there, still watching the place. Haven’t seen anything.”

Henry sighed. Felton stood too close to him. He thought he felt the air buzzing, some faint output from Felton’s systems. Or maybe it was his own network of wires and circuits. He looked down at his arm. A lopsided rectangle of a scar, pink and faint. It’d be gone by morning.

“I think Cecilia’s into you,” Henry said. Felton dimmed his eyes but otherwise said nothing. Figures. “You should ask her out for coffee.”

Before Felton could reply — assuming he had any intention of it, who the hell knew with robots — Henry grabbed his coat and headed into the cold gray mist outside. Felton didn’t follow him. No one did.

Henry walked three blocks down to the bar on the corner, a shabby little hole-in-the-wall that changed names every couple of months but kept the windows tinted so people driving by on their way home from work couldn’t glance over and see their neighbors. When he stepped in the smell hit him like a punch, sour beer and stale cigarette smoke and the musty damp of winter. At least no one looked up from their drinks. It was that kind of place.

The bartender smiled a little when he approached, like she recognized him from those first few weeks after Melanie left, when he came in here every night, before he took up bowling again.

“What can I do you for?” she said, even as she reached for the stack of whiskey tumblers. Whiskey on the rocks. Terrible for human and machine both: the circuits webbing out inside him, the liver nesting shriveled and worn against his ribcage.

The bartender handed Henry his drink, then returned to wiping the counter with a damp dishrag. Henry sat down at a booth in the corner. The ice clinked against the glass. He leaned his head against the booth’s cracked red plastic. Studied the patterns etched into the lamp hanging overhead.

When he closed his eyes, he saw Melanie, he saw Cecilia.

Melanie left because of the upgrades. It wasn’t a secret: she told him, flat out, as she packed her clothes in that round blue plastic suitcase he bought her for their fifth anniversary. Bruises ringed her wrist like a bracelet. He hadn’t been angry when he grabbed her, just excited, brimming up with love and lust and the upgrades hadn’t understood either. And he wasn’t used to his strength yet.

“I can’t deal with this,” Melanie said. She never cried, not once, not in the entire time that their marriage dissolved. Every time she spoke her voice rang flat and tinny. That hurt him most of all. “I don’t want to worry you’re going to kill me every time you touch me.” She didn’t look at him. Her hair swung across her face as her hands plucked up another blouse, another skirt, another pair of stockings, rolling them up tight and tucking them into the suitcase.

And Henry hadn’t done anything but watch, because the upgrades were pulling apart his insides, wanting him to fight. He trembled in the corner, sweat beading out of his pores. He dug his nails into his palm until he drew blood, and when that wasn’t enough he tore his skin to shreds. And then he had watched her walk away.

Henry drained the glass of whiskey, held the glass up over his head until the bartender nodded and poured him another. The rain had picked up — drops pinged against the roof, knocked against the darkened windows. Sounded like the whole world was falling apart. Melanie leaving, that he could understand. She married a man and he went and made himself half-machine. But figures the one girl he met since then, the one girl he thought about at night, listening to the heater rattle and huff in its corner as he fought back wave after wave of loneliness — figures she’d be a robbie-lover. One wanted a man, the other a machine. When you fall in between you get nothing.

And a lady mad scientist? Henry sipped at the whiskey, let it soften his brain. Before the upgrades, he couldn’t even have begun to imagine something that wild. Not anymore.

Farrago – Part 1

They had a new girl working the shoe rental. As Henry paid the twenty bucks for his three rounds (the owner liked him, liked that he was a cop, so he gave Henry a discount), the girl glided in front of the row of shoes, passing it over with the buzzing decontamination stick, the glow staining her hands pale blue.

Henry didn’t need to rent any shoes — he had his own pair, specially made, tucked away in his bag — but he lingered for a moment at the shoe counter anyway, until the girl glanced up, strands of her blonde hair falling across her eyes, which were, startlingly, the exact color of honey.

“What size?” she asked.

Her voice had a low thrumming quality to it. Her words reverberated off the side of her throat.  Henry shook his head, stammered a little.

“Sorry, I don’t — got my own.”

He jerked his bag up. The girl blinked at it and shrugged and then passed the decontamination stick over another set of shoes. Henry dragged his hand across the top his hair and trudged over to his lane. It was a Tuesday night in November, icy rain slicking across the city, and the alley was nearly empty. Just Henry at one end and a pair of teenage girls at the other end. He sat down on the bench and ordered a beer from the touchscreen and waited for his partner to show.

The last time he went to the cyberneticist they’d told him to lay off the alcohol, that it was corroding the bits of metal and plastic lining his stomach, and also they hadn’t exactly upgraded his liver, but he’d never listened to doctors before and he wasn’t going to listen to cyberneticists now. He traded out his scuffed black boots for bowling shoes. At the other end of the alley, pins clattered against the hardwood, and the two teenage girls shrieked and hollered. Henry leaned back over the bench. He craned his neck. The girl at the shoe counter slid in and out of view, her head bent low, the glow from the decontamination stick tracing the movement of her hands.

“Hello, Henry.”

Henry jumped. “Felton,” he said. “I didn’t see you standing there.”

Felton’s two glowing eyes brightened and dimmed. “Well, you appear pretty distracted.”

Henry chose not to respond. He stood up, pulled out his bowling ball — weighted for the bones of his steel-enforced arm, the finger holes measured against the span of his fingers and laser-cut for precision, the whole thing dyed dark green at his request — from its bag.

“Can’t start ’til I get my beer,” he said.

“Oh yes. I’m aware.”

Henry set his ball on the return and Felton did the same with one of Henry’s old cast-off balls — the in-house ones were all too light for him. As if on cue, the server-bot whirred out of the doorway to the lounge, a single bottle of beer on its tray. Felton followed its trajectory across the alley. He had told Henry once, at a bar, how he hated that the serverbots didn’t speak and Henry’d had no idea how to respond.

Henry and Felton were partners as cops, working together on Vice. They were bowling partners because Henry needed someone to bowl against now that he’d been upgraded. The guys down at the station kicked him out of the intramural league after the procedure, saying it wasn’t fair, he had too much of an advantage. The upgrades were supposed to get Henry out of Vice but all they did was get him out of the bowling league.

Felton bowled first and knocked over three pins. He wasn’t very good. Henry suspected he didn’t care enough to try, but he gave him pointers anyway.

“You need to swing your arm back more,” Henry said. He gestured with his beer bottle as he spoke. “Guide the ball with your thumb.” Felton rotated his head around and dimmed his eyes and didn’t respond.

Henry rolled a strike and swigged his beer in celebration. He looked over at the shoe rental, trying to be casual. The girl leaned across the counter. She wore her hair teased up and the lights caught on it so that her long narrow face appeared framed by a shimmering halo. Her hair made her look sophisticated, like she was about to leave for a holiday party. She stared at the score monitor hanging above the lanes but didn’t seem to really sae it.

“You’re being obvious,” said Felton as he picked up his ball from the return.

Henry laughed. He ordered another beer. “Like you know anything about it.”

Felton’s ball landed in the gutter. “I know you should talk to her instead of stare at her.”

Henry drank the last dregs of his beer because because he didn’t have anything to say to that. Felton knew more about Henry than he should. He knew about Melanie, for example. The commissioner had warned Henry not to get too friendly — “Even if you are part robbie now,” she said — but it was tough, riding around with the thing everyday. Sitting with him during the stakeouts. Teaching him how to bowl. You had to talk about something.

Felton wasn’t even one of the ones that sort of look like people, although he wore clothes like one. He was sleek and silver and jerked around sometimes, especially when the temperatures dropped below freezing. His eyes lit up and while this mouth did move, the movement didn’t always synch up with his words. The commissioner said witnesses would let themselves get questioned by a robot, as long as they knew for certain. As long as they didn’t think the city was tricking them.

“But we still need to have a human around,” she’d said. “For insurance. You know.” This was last summer, the days all long and bright and hot. The box fan she’d set up in her office rattled against the closed window. The edges of papers lifted up from her desk. “Nobody else is willing to work with the thing. You’re the closest we got.”

Henry had wanted to say something. He wanted to point out that he’d only gotten the upgrades because they told him he could make Homicide that way. How they’d given him all that literature about the importance of the department having an edge in this world of robots and mad scientists, genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. But he hadn’t.

The Keeper’s Heart

This is the kind of Friend
You are –
Without making me realise
My soul’s anguished history,
You slip into my house at night,
And while I am sleeping,
You silently carry off
All my suffering and sordid past
In Your beautiful
Hands

– Hafiz

Yusuf had the largest hands of any man in the entire Hatay province. Even bigger, rumor had it, than Munah-the-Fisherman who had once wrestled a giant squid from out of the blue sea. Even grander some folk said than Coskun-the-Generous, who could hold eight ice creams in both his hand without crushing a single cone.

His hands had been revered since he was a small child. The Holy Man, in particular, had watched them with great interest.

‘He has Keeper’s hands,’ he had gushed. ‘Our village has not had a Keeper for over two hundred years. Yusuf is a blessing. He is a blessing to all of us.’

Yusuf’s mama had politely nodded. Yusuf was indeed a blessing. Her ninth such blessing in as many years.

As a child Yusuf was made to sleep in goatskin gloves and forbidden to play anything but Tavla and cards. It embarrassed him deeply to have such beautifully kept hands. The other boys had wild stories etched upon their skin; scars from fist fights and pide burns, brazen scratches from climbing trees. But Yusuf’s hands were soft and supple. They smelt of sweet rose oil.

‘You have Keeper’s hands,’ his mama said whenever he complained. ‘They do not belong to you my child. They belong to all of us.’

But Yusuf did not want Keeper’s hands; he wanted Skinner’s hands instead. Skinners made good money he’d heard, especially those with big hands like his.


Now when he was sixteen Yusuf was taken from his mama. Led away by the Holy Man up to Jebel Aqra.

‘Don’t despair,’ the Holy Man said as they walked the mountain’s ragged slopes. ‘Once you have become a Keeper you can come back home to us.’

He then left the boy on the bare limestone peak and returned back to the village.

Yusuf was gone for exactly ten years – one for each digit that spanned his great hands. At first he had stubbornly resisted becoming a Keeper at all, arguing petulantly with the gods that he would make a better Skinner. But as time passed, and his temperament slowly mellowed, his dreams of such menial work gradually ebbed away too and he began studying the Keeper’s Edict, carefully learning every word.

A Keeper is a chosen vessel whose hands are not his own. His only purpose is to hold the burdens he is given throughout his life. In the day he should keep them in his open hands but at night he may let them sleep in the crook of his arm. He should listen whenever they speak to him but never answer what they ask.

Remember you can never break what has been truly broken!

When Yusuf eventually returned to the village only the Holy Man and his mama could recognise his face. Gone was the boy with the unruly tongue and the frown of a put-upon. Instead was a man with black untamed curls who used his eyes to speak. Such beautiful eyes too; the colour of ripening almonds – with long, blinking lashes that fluttered like small wings.

Yusuf’s mama begged him to remain in the village but the years on Jebel Aqra had made him humble so he lived up among the mountains nearby. A cave not far beyond the village walls where the evening sky cast lavender shadows across his rock-strewn home.

Traction

Hef first turned up at one of our meetings looking, and smelling, the worse for wear.

“Wife problems,” he said. “Can I come in?”

I was secretary of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. I looked at the huge, squint-eyed bloke swaying at the door, his overalls stained with oil and the smell of alcohol layering over a sulphurous reek, and decided he’d fit right in.

“Are you interested in trains?”

“Anything mechanical.”

“Come in. We’re always looking for new members.”

“Can’t say I’m much of the joining kind.” But he signed the guest book where I indicated in a black scrawl, then held out his hand.

“Hef,” he said, crushing my fingers and half burning them too – he had the hottest hand I’ve ever grasped.

“My name’s Colin,” I said, “and I’m club secretary.”

“Good to meet you.” Hef looked over my shoulder at the assembled members of the Hoddesdon Model Railway Club. “No women. Good.”

“Oh, I’m sure we’d be happy to have some female members, it’s just that none have ever applied.”

“Make sure they don’t.”

“I can hardly stop…”

Hef left me bleating about equality legislation and fairness, and stomped into the clubhouse, over to where Barry was inspecting the skeleton of our new layout. He held out his hand, crushed Barry’s proffered reply, and slipped a pair of glasses over his nose.

“Now, what have you got here?”

I left them to discussing the finer points of the plan and set about arranging the chairs and putting out the agenda. Tonight was our annual general meeting and since we’d completed the move from our previous club house – which actually was in Hoddesdon, unlike our new premises down the line in Broxbourne – and had settled in nicely, I didn’t anticipate any problems.

“I move, under article 3, clause 4 of our constitution, that Colin is asked to step down as club secretary and I nominate Hef in his place.”

Sitting at the table that served as the focus for our meeting, I fear I must have appeared about as witless as an unexpectedly stranded fish, mouth opening and closing more in surprise than for breath.

Barry sat down.

“Seconded.” That was Simon. I’d never heard him express interest in anything other than trains before. To hear him call for my removal was like your own mother telling you that you were a complete disappointment to her – and mine did, so I know what that’s like.

Another hand rose, and another voice, and another, and another. I would have probably continued my stranded fish impersonation indefinitely if Hef, from where he was sitting in the front row, hadn’t stood and raised a hand.

The seconders and thirders and fourthers immediately fell silent, which was odd, because trying to get that lot to be quiet was like asking a cage full of budgies to stop tweeting.

“Thank you for your faith, but I fear I can’t accept…”

Chorus of “Nos” and boos. This time Hef simply raised a finger and they fell silent. I remember thinking I ought to try that next time.

“No, I cannot. Colin has held the position for many, many years and it would be grossly unfair to cast him aside now. If, however, he were to admit that the job has grown taxing, and were to resign and the position fall vacant, I would be happy to put myself forward for election.”

As he spoke my name, Hef turned to look at me and it was that more than anything else which prompted my next words.

“If you want me out, you’ll have to kick me out.”

If Hef had just left it with all the blokes I thought were my friends calling for me to go, I’d have stepped down without a murmur. But not only was he trying to sack me, he wanted me to do the dirty work for him.

I stood up.

“Come on then. If you want this to be a vote of no confidence, someone’s got to propose it.” I scanned the room. Eyes dropped, or suddenly found the ceiling joists a matter of intense interest, or began cataloging back issues of ‘Railway Modeller’.

I was just about to sit down when a voice piped up. I looked around, trying to see who was speaking, for it didn’t sound like anyone I knew. Then I saw him: Simon, poor, slightly mad Simon, twisting his leather cap in his hands, the thin strands of his comb-over glistening on his scalp. I noticed he’d taken to tucking his trousers into his socks. His eyes, which normally either fixed on you with unwavering intensity or wavered around the room, were now attempting to do both.

“I… prop…pose a…vote…of no…con..fi…denCE.”

The last syllable came out as a shouted gasp and Simon clapped his hands over his mouth as if he’d just said a rude word. He looked surprised at what he’d just said.

But the motion was proposed.

“Any seconders?” I sounded weary even to my own ears.

Hands were raised. Tentatively, one or two at first, and then a veritable copse of arms pointing heavenwards.

I put my pen down on the table. I wasn’t going to look at Hef, I wasn’t….

I looked, of course.

He sat in the front row, positively glowing with self satisfaction, and already receiving congratulatory pats on the back.