Shaggy Dog Contest

“By an odd coincidence,” said Atherington, “everyone chose that night to do away with the Marquis.” He said it ‘mar-kwiss,’ which made Diane wince; Simon sneered at her and mouthed, “He’s right.” Karl, standing behind her at the sideboard, couldn’t suppress a snort of laughter. The Marchioness frowned ferociously at all of them. Atherington continued, undisturbed: “First on the scene was Lady Pokingham with her vial of exotic mineral salts. Sloppy work, Your Ladyship: we found traces in his toothcup. A truly herculean jolt, if the amount left is any indicator.” He clinked his ice cubes at them affably. “Next, I think, was the young Lord Simon, with his subtle syringe. Oh, yes, we found that, old top, kicked underneath the bed and covered with fingerprints. Oddly enough not with anything else. Hoping for an embolism, were you? Well, nevermind. Then came Miss Pokingham and her young man. A nice bit of work with the knives all around – right into the lungs and not a drop of vino spilled on the bedspread. You’re to be congratulated. In another life you might have made a fair pair of surgeons.”

“As though he’d have let us slip out that way,” murmured Diane. “But thank you.”

“All in all, a full night’s work between the lot of you.” He handed his glass to Karl. “Would you mind terribly? Brandy, please. Thank you.”

“Very good, Inspector,” said the Marchioness, tartly. “Very nicely reasoned. But who killed him? We all wanted to, right enough, but who succeeded?”

“I’m afraid we’re out of the running, dearest,” sang Karl, busy with siphon and stopper.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say so, necessarily,” Simon drawled. “You chose the fastest, most reliable method, certainly. The old beast might have survived until you got to him, though not to morning.”

Atherington chuckled. “Alas for your fame. No one killed him, I’m afraid. He was dead before his head hit the pillow. The shrapnel in his lungs had finally worked itself loose. Lady Pokingham’s poison was still waiting in his stomach when we examined him. No, he died a war hero at the last. Terribly glorious, in a way, don’t you think?”

There was Morning and There was Evening

On the first day she slipped poison into her mother’s food and sat tenderly by the old woman’s bedside as she gasped and choked her way into peaceful death. She cried a little when it was over.

On the second day she caught her brother as he came walking along the bridge and slipped him over the edge. He fell silently, and the green waters below swallowed him whole.

On the third day she took her children for a walk in the woods and lost them. Seven teams worked for months combing the hills and brought them back again, identifiable only by the bracelets they wore, identical like they were. She cried and cried over their bones, wept like a dam spinning turbines.

She saved her husband for last, drawing out his death like an orgasm, edging closer and closer without ever quite slipping over. When he died he was blue as a berry, and the white flowering of her thumbprints stayed on his skin for days.

She counted them to herself as her own life spun down to its close, beginning again when she ended, names clicking through her fingers like rosary beads, structured like prayers.

Always the Inevitable

Outside the rain is pouring down in sheets. Sylvia has had too much to drink and is taking it out on her nearest and dearest.

“I think you’ve had enough,” says Roger. Roger does everything icily – he’s an intellectual – but he’s at his absolutely frostiest now. The rest of the family is paralyzed.

“Oh?” Sylvia slams her hands flat on the table, and presses down until the joints pop. Her eyes aren’t tracking together, but she’s precise in her movements. “Let me tell you something, Roger. Let me tell you about having enough. Let me tell you, Roger –”

His eyes have gone empty as a salt desert and his knuckles are white around the bone handle of his steak knife. “Sylvia,” he says, warning, just as the lights go out. There’s a scream, high pitched and eerie. Lightning flashes into the room, pinning everyone against the walls.

When the lights come back up, Roger is alone in the room. The French windows are open and the rain has soaked his shirt. The pool at his feet is red, and spreading. “I,” he says, and “Sylvia,” and his voice is warm and human.

The Liturgical Hours Have Slipped from the Sidereal

Outside the front door cars approach, bearing news and family, bastards all, demons, wild men and bloody, and aye their women. We gather, the clans, to celebrate, to eulogize, to curse and rage against the end of life, to remember, and, at last, to make peace. To forget. Our father is dead, but not buried, and so we have come to the ancient home, immemorial, incestuous, ingrown seat of plenty, to indulge in expensive liquor and cheap badinage.

The bell in the Catholic church rings, ten, twelve, fifteen times, warning of the storm approaching. Drama, drama. One of Terry’s wolfhounds comes padding from the direction of the library and I aim a kick at it, which through long practice it avoids.

“You’re in a foul mood,” says Terry, trailing behind it. “But don’t take it out on my dogs, poor brutes.”

“Damn your dogs, and damn you, too.”

His eyes are cool, but there are lines around his mouth that lengthen in anger. Oh, he’s a cool one, my brother, self-contained. I would beat him and drive him to passion but he is stronger than I am, four inches taller and forty pounds heavier. “How much have you had to drink?”

“Are you keeping score, now? Are you your brother’s keeper? This false piety –“

“Enough!” And for a moment his hands shake and I see the wild hatred hidden in the planes of his face and would dance if I could.