Daily Thoughts 70: Book Fast Update

Author's Selfie I’m wearing my new hoodie from TeeTurtle. It’s a fun Nevermore design. For many years I’ve worn a Blogger sweatshirt that Google sent me, but it was falling apart at this point.

My Book Fast

Last October I posted about my book fast. Not a fast from reading! A fast from buying or borrowing new books. I allowed exceptions for books required for school or nonfiction audiobooks. The reason? I have many books that I haven’t read yet! Books that I purchased, that I want to read, but haven’t managed to read yet. I’m currently reading one of those books, Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver, a gift that has been on my shelf for quite some time!

How well have I done?

Pretty good. Not a 100% perfect. I have bought books that were not technically required for school but were related to my courses or expanded on the material covered. I also have bought some art books. And I have borrowed a few fiction audiobooks.

Plus, there have been a few Kindle e-books added to my library. Some of those were free, Kindle First titles, some others were nonfiction books either related to my studies or writing, but there were a couple fiction titles that found their way into my library.

So no, not 100% on the whole book fast concept. It’s a work in progress, much like getting in shape or other efforts at self-improvement. I plan to continue and resist the siren lure of new books. I have enough to keep me busy reading for a long time, it’s just hard when fantastic authors keep coming out with more books. Still, I have unread titles by King, Hamilton, Cherryh, Rusch, Donaldson, Barker, Simmons, Powers, and more!

Daily Thoughts

Self-portrait of the authorIt has been a busy day! I’ve been going since I got up this morning. First, walking. Then out to the Evergreen State College library to return books I checked out for this semester’s project. Followed that with shopping, taking the family out to lunch at the Shipwreck Cafe, and then out to see Fantastic Beasts. Worn out!

Books!

Cover art for Scratch Programming PlaygroundFor someone on a book-buying fast, I seem to be getting a bunch of books! Not novels. The books today are all nonfiction, some required texts for next semester, and some optional, but helpful titles like Scratch Programming Playground.

I’m taking a course in gamifying information, which will involve some Scratch programming. It looks like a lot of fun, and something that I’ll enjoy playing around with before the semester starts. The Globalization book looks interesting, and will no doubt be helpful, but is far more academic. I have another that hasn’t arrived yet today. Should be delivered shortly.

Computer!

This next semester I’ll have my new computer. I received an email today that it is on the way and should arrive this week. The computer I built over eight years ago continues to slog along, doing the best it can, but parts are wearing out and it is simply behind the times at this point. It will take some time to get everything set up on the new computer. Hopefully, that process will go smoothly.

Fantastic Beasts

If you haven’t already seen Fantastic Beasts, I recommend giving it a shot.

I love the Harry Potter books. The movies, I enjoyed but found they paled so much by comparison to the books. This movie was just that—a movie set in the wizarding world, but one that we haven’t seen before. A different time, a different setting, and new and interesting characters. Out of all of the movies in this universe, I enjoyed this one the most.

 

So many books, so little time

Packed bookshelves
I’ve read most (but not all) of these books—a bunch of them several times!

I have a wall hanging above my bookshelves quilted by my mother. She is a terrific quilter. The wall hanging shows a bookworm juggling books in front of a long bookshelf. And the saying, “so many books so little time!

I work in libraries. I am surrounded by books nearly every second of the day. I usually have several books in progress — reading that is — both in print and e-book formats. I also listen to audiobooks on my morning walks and while driving. I read a lot of books! That’s essential as a writer and as a librarian. I’m not kidding anyone. I would do it anyway.
Here’s my guilty secret: I have far too many neglected, unread books!

That’s probably not unusual for most book lovers. I compulsively buy books. I have the most trouble with e-books. I’m a sucker for a good $1.99 sale. “I wanted to read that!” Followed by the one click purchase and then the glee of looking at my Kindle downloading new titles.

Recently I started adding my print books to my LibraryThing collection. I’m not done yet. There are still many bookcases left to go through. And I haven’t even started on the e-book collection. One of the things that I’ve noticed? Many of those books I was excited to purchase or receive, I haven’t read! Yes, I’ve read far more of the books that I haven’t read, but I have book guilt for the titles that have sat unread on my shelves.

One might say that if I haven’t read the book already then I’m not likely to read it and I might as well give it away — maybe donated to the library. I don’t buy that argument. Books are experiences. And there’s always room for new experiences. A book is like having a vacation all packaged up and sitting neatly on the shelf just waiting for you to take it down. I have a lot of vacations planned!

No, the real answer is that instead of booking new vacations, I need to start taking the ones I already have. So I’m going to save some money and start taking those vacations. I’m going to read those books before I buy more.

I can hear the book lovers laughing right now. A book fast can be a challenge. However I’m not taking a reading fast, I’m just not going to buy any new books unless needed for school. What about checking them out of the library? Although technically that doesn’t involve buying new books I want to put restrictions on that as well. Specifically, I will not check out library books in less they meet one of two criteria:

  • Nonfiction audiobooks
  • Books required for school

Books are no longer scarce. The new book that comes out will be available in the future. I plan to stay busy with the books I have instead of always adding to the pile.

How long will the book fast continue? Until I get through the books!

I also plan to keep track of the books that I’ve read — those that have been sitting unread on my shelf. I’m currently reading one e-book from the library, so I will finish that one. I also have one book preordered (Crimson Death by Laurel K Hamilton). But no more!

What about you? Do you find yourself inundated with unread books? Let me know in the comments!

What Dragged in the Cat?

In this quiet suburban neighborhood, Monica Clayton runs a successful online business collecting and selling old books.

Violence shatters her peaceful life with the terrifying death of her cat, Scrunch. Something stalks her.
Toying with her. Taunting.

To survive she must uncover the secret, and answer the question.

What dragged in the cat?

💀

It all started Tuesday morning with Scrunch in the living room. His flat Persian kitty face looking back at the rest of his body with a familiar look of indignation, as if his last thought was, shit, doesn’t that beat all?

Monica couldn’t go back down there right away. She stayed on her bed with her knees tucked up against her chest, and tried to reason it out. After the first half-hour she wondered if she had simply imagined what she had seen. His body smaller without the inside parts.

Maybe it had been some laundry she left on the floor? It was early and the living room was still sort of dark. His legs scattered like sticks. Except she didn’t leave laundry around the house. She kept the place neat and clean. Blood flecks bright red on the pale carpet but not as much as she would have expected. Something else then. Or maybe nothing. Maybe she had dreamed that she woke up and went down to the living room. Long black and white fur, the softest fur, matted with blood.

Except she was dressed to meet with a seller later, she had on her makeup, and the sunlight made the loft look bright and cheery. Monica pushed her hands down against the bed. She had to go look. She got off the bed and took a shaky breath.

“You can do this,” she whispered.

Monica crossed the loft to the railing, grabbed onto the smooth wood, and looked down. She screamed.

💀

It took the police twenty minutes to arrive. Two squad cars pulled up into her driveway. Four officers got out. They all walked towards her. A big blocky woman officer took the lead.

“Ms. Clayton?”

“Yes. Monica Clayton.”

“I’m Officer Fabin. Are you okay?”

Monica let loose a strangled laugh. “Sure. Great.” She took a deep breath. “I’m okay. I had to cancel my meeting.”

“Just tell us what happened.”

It didn’t take long. There wasn’t that much to tell. When she finished the officers talked among themselves for a minute and then the other three moved off towards her house. Officer Fabin stayed with her in the yard.

“This is a nice place you have here. You live alone?”

Monica nodded.

“Boyfriend?”

“No.”

“Can I ask what you do?”

“I buy and sell rare books online.”

Officer Fabin looked around at the yard. “You must be doing okay?”

“Yes.”

“Did you notice any signs of forced entry? Did you hear anything?”

“No. There’s blood in the kitchen, and on the pet door.”

Officer Fabin talked into a mic on her shoulder for a second. “Okay. I know this is hard. Can you think of anyone that might bear a grudge against you?”

“God, no. I don’t think so.”

“Are you going to be okay if I go help the others? Do you need me to stay?”

“No.” Monica forced herself to smile. She wouldn’t fall apart. “I’ll be fine.”

The police had been inside for fifteen minutes. Monica knew because she kept checking her watch while she waited and paced the yard. The neighbor’s pug, Popeye, charged up and down in their yard on the other side of the fence. He wheezed when he barked. Popeye’s smashed in face was a canine reminder of Scrunch. This is silly, she told herself. Scrunch is dead. Deep breath. She had to deal with it. She couldn’t stay out in the yard all day. She started up the stairs to the porch. Before she reached the top Fabin opened the door and came out carrying a white plastic trash back. In the light Monica could see streaks inside and something heavy and dark at the bottom.

“Ms. Clayton,” Fabin said gently. “We cleaned it up the best we could. You’ll need to do something about the stains. Would you like us to help you bury him?”

Monica felt like someone had their fist down her throat. She coughed. “No. I can manage. Do you have any ideas how…?”

One of the other officers, a nice looking guy about her age, stepped forward. “A raccoon, Ms. Clayton. It must have injured the cat outside and then followed it in through the pet door to finish the job.”

“A raccoon?”

“Yes,” Fabin said. “It must have been shocking to see that this morning.”

Monica gave a nervous, relieved laugh. A raccoon. Of course. She felt a bit flushed. “I’m sorry to call you out for something like this. I was so startled.”

“No problem, Ms. Clayton.” Fabin gently let down the plastic bag. “Take care.”

Monica squeezed her hand. “Thank you. I will. Really, I’m sorry to bother you.”

The officers left. Monica retrieved her shovel from the garage and buried Scrunch in the front planter near the rock where he liked to sun himself. She cried a bit saying goodbye, then went inside to clean up. The police had cleaned up everything except a few brown stains on the carpet. After scrubbing away the stains she showered, then made some tea and decided to use the remainder of her day off lost in a good novel.

💀

Wednesday morning Monica slapped at her alarm and instead hit something warm and a bit squishy. She opened her eyes. Popeye’s head sat on her nightstand looking with cross-eyed surprise at his corkscrew tail which hung from his mouth. Monica screamed. The alarm buzzed on.

She scrambled back from the nightstand. Her hand landed in something wet. Monica slipped and fell back against the sheets and felt the back of nightgown become instantly soaked. A thick butcher shop smell ran across her face. Screaming in great shuddering breaths Monica thrashed and rolled off the bed. More liquid splashed against her front but she got off the bed. She backed away while great sobs shook her body.

Blood pooled on the sheets. Popeye’s deflated corpse lay scattered on the pillow. Monica fled to the bathroom. For several minutes she kept her eyes closed and tried to regain control. It was on her, she knew. She didn’t want to see. It stank. She stank. Monica opened her eyes. She looked ghastly. The lights seemed unnaturally bright. Most of her nightgown clung to her in vibrant wet red. It was splattered across her arms, her neck, and even her face. A drop ran down her lip. She licked automatically.

Monica heaved and collapsed against the sink. Her gut kept heaving until nothing was left. Gradually it subsided. Monica shuddered and pulled the nightgown off. She dropped it in the trash can without looking and climbed into the shower. She didn’t come out until the water turned cold and even then it took her several minutes to open the door.

Monica dressed quickly and hurried downstairs. She called the seller and left a message apologizing for canceling twice. She’d reschedule later. After hanging up she pressed nine and stopped with her finger shaking about the one. She set the handset down. How would this look to the police? Popeye was killed in her bed and she didn’t wake up? How was that possible? And putting his head on her nightstand—his curly tail sticking out of his mouth—that wasn’t something that a raccoon would do. What if they thought she was crazy? They might decide that she had done this. Monica took a deep breath. But what had? She couldn’t go to sleep tonight not knowing.

Monica stood up. First she’d clean up the mess upstairs. Then she’d start investigating.

💀

A search online failed to turn up any recent reports of attacks on pets. Monica settled back in her chair and absently rubbed at her hands, still raw from scrubbing her fingers. She had buried Popeye along with her bedding and nightgown in a new flower bed along the back. She didn’t want the neighbors to think that there was anything odd so she had dug out the sod in a large curving bed. She had gone Home Depot and came back with bags of soil, bark, and a selection of new plants. Then she had spent the better part of the day working on the flower bed. At one point Joseph, Popeye’s owner, had been out in the yard calling for the dog. She had felt guilty when he asked if she’d seen the dog that she didn’t say anything. What could she have said? Yes, I’m sorry, but I woke up this morning with his butchered carcass in my bed? Monica took a deep breath, let it out, and looked back at the screen.

There wasn’t any sign that anyone had broken into the house. She hadn’t noticed any signs that anything else had been disturbed. The possibilities seemed limited. Could she have done it? Maybe in some sort of unconscious state? Popeye had been barking at her yesterday when she was in the yard. Monica didn’t think it likely but she refused to rule it out right away. What other options were there?

Bookshelves lined the walls of her study. It was a collection unlike any that would usually be found in someone’s home. The shelves were full of rare volumes. She had cases for the most delicate and valuable volumes. A couple safes for the really spectacular finds. That’s what she did—collect and sell rare books online. It was the perfect job. She traveled around the world. She got to work at home. Best of all she had the opportunity to read some of the most extraordinary things. Yet with all of this knowledge at her fingertips, and the internet through her computer, she was still at a loss to explain what had happened.

Maybe she should have called the police. Monica sighed and pushed her chair back from the computer. After dinner she’d try again. She got up to leave, stopping to straighten a box of new deliveries that had fallen over beside the door.

Scrunch’s fault, she thought as she picked up the books. He was always jumping on things he shouldn’t. Her eyes moistened. He wouldn’t be doing that anymore. Monica wiped her eyes and picked up the last book. The binding was broken. It might have happened when the box fell. Some of these books were very fragile. When she had a chance she would see if it could be repaired or not. She put it in the box, then went to the kitchen.

Although Monica spent the evening looking for answers she didn’t find out much. Raccoons did, at times, attack and injure house pets. There wasn’t any mention of the sort of thing that had happened to Popeye. She checked the newspaper’s online archives, animal abuse sites, and arrest records. Nothing came up that sounded like what had happened to her. So far, except for the notion that she might be doing this in an unconscious state, she didn’t have a clue what was going on.

Monica rubbed her eyes and groaned. She should get to bed. She was afraid to sleep. Would it be so bad to stay up? She could watch movies all night. If anything happened she would call the police. But first she wanted to make sure that nothing would happen. She shut down the computer and left her study. Then she went through the house and made sure every door and window was locked. She taped the pet door closed with excessive amounts of duct tape. When she finished she made some popcorn and settled in to watch her musicals, starting with Singing in the Rain.

Monica jerked awake. Something had woken her up. She listened. Other than the music for Brigadoon’s menu she didn’t hear anything unusual. She hit the mute button. There was a sharp intake of breath behind her. Monica twisted around.

What light there was from the television reflected across a curved, boney spine. Monica’s first impression was of a skeletal child, skin stretched tight over bones. It was crouched over something with its back to her. There was a stiffness about the bony shoulders. It knew she was watching. It was waiting for her to do something. Monica felt a scream building in her throat. What would it do if she moved again?

The head lifted slowly and Monica lost the impression of a child. Whatever this was, it wasn’t a child. It had a bald skull with a few bristly black hairs. There were spots on the papery skin like liver spots. But the ears were what really killed any childlike impression. They looked chewed. Mangled strips of flesh which hung in tatters around the ear channel. Monica didn’t dare move.

Bony arms reached down into the shadows around its lap. Monica heard flesh tearing and bones snapping. With a faint snarl it threw something away towards the wall. The object landed wetly and looked back at her with glazed eyes. It was the head of a Scotty dog. Smacking sounds drew her attention back to the creature. It was eating with great gasping, gobbling sounds. The noise and the stench made Monica’s stomach clench painfully. Her head swam. No—

She stood up.

The creature hissed and dissolved into a thick black smoke. The dog’s remains splashed on the floor. Monica swayed as the smoke oozed across the floor into her study. She waited a moment then edged around the couch and followed. She turned on the lights as she went. Much of the study remained dark but there was some light in the doorway. Monica crept up and reached in for the light switch.

Claws darted into the light and raked across the back of her hand. Blood poured over her fingers as she snatched her hand back, crying out. She backed up and her heel hit the dog’s head. She bit off her scream and took a step to the side. She saw a sense of movement, just out of the light. It was in there, probably on the box of books next to the door. But it doesn’t like the light, she thought. She didn’t think the light hurt it since it hadn’t been enough to drive it away from the dog. Monica edged towards the floor lamp.

It still hadn’t moved. At least she didn’t think it had. Monica grabbed the lamp with her good hand and pointed it at the doorway. For a second she saw it starkly illuminated. It was crouching on top of the books as she had thought, licking its claws and fingers with a broad purplish tongue. It had a wizened bat-like face. When the light hit it the big yellow eyes snapped shut. It hissed. A second later it vanished, replaced by the inky smoke which sank down into the book.

Monica carried the lamp as far as the cord would allow then stretched out her injured hand towards the study light switch. She could just about reach. With a grimace she sat the lamp down, took a step, and flicked the switch. Warm light filled the room. There wasn’t any sign of the creature.

Carefully, to avoid bleeding on it, Monica picked up the book that had absorbed the smoke. It was the one she had noticed on the floor earlier with the broken binding. The invoice for the shipment was in the box too. She gingerly picked it out. The translated title on the invoice was A Collection of Stories about Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

Whatever that thing was it had come from the book. And if a broken binding had let it out she didn’t dare burn the book or otherwise destroy it. She looked at her hand and winced. First, she’d bandage her hand, but then she’d come back in here and repair the binding and clasp on that book. Then she’d take everything out of the safe and lock it in there. She could get a new safe in the morning.

Monica carried the book to her desk and pointed the task light at the cover. Her Latin was rusty but a literal translation seemed to be A Gathering of Demons, Imps, and Haunts.

No mention of stories. From now on she was going to do her own translations. She winced again looking at the ragged cuts on her hand. She didn’t think she needed stitches but it was going to be sore for a while. Plus who knew what that thing had under its claws? Monica shuddered. She’d better take care of it right away. Two steps away from the desk she stopped and looked back at the book starkly illuminated by the task light. She hated to leave it alone.

She turned and went over to her work table. She pulled down a large number sixteen plastic book cover and spread it out on the work table. Then she turned on the table’s task light so that it was pointed directly at the center of the cover. She went to the desk and carefully picked up the book with her free hand. The cover twitched in her fingers.

Monica gave a startled gasp and nearly dropped the book but managed to keep a hold of it. She hurried back to the table and put the book face down on the cover. Quickly she wrapped the long ends around the book and then folded the short ends over as if she were wrapping a present. She pulled a large piece of book tape from the dispenser and taped the cover shut around the book. For good measure she turned the book face up so that the flaps were held down the back the book’s own weight.

“Now just rest,” she whispered. “When I get back I’ll fix up your binding.”

Monica still didn’t like leaving the book, but she was dripping blood on the floor. The sight of the blood was making her sick. She hurried out of the study, edging around the dog’s remains, and went upstairs to her bathroom. After pouring a liberal amount of hydrogen peroxide on the cuts she pressed a gauze pad to the wounds and wrapped her hand with an Ace bandage. It didn’t leave her with much mobility in her hand. She took a couple ibuprofen.

Her reflection looked pale. There was a smear of blood on her chin. Monica scrubbed her face with a wash cloth. She took a couple deep breaths until her shuddering subsided. She just had to finish this and everything could go back to normal.

💀

Downstairs, she froze in the study doorway. Her hands went to her mouth.

“No,” she moaned against her fingers.

The plastic cover was swollen. Inky black smoke, so thick it looked liquid, pressed against the cover, ballooning it out around the book. A trickle started to run out from beneath the book, bleeding down from the work table.

“No!” Monica ran to the table. She slammed her hands down on either side of the book, ignoring the pain that flared in her injured hand. She yelled right at the bulging blackness. “No! Stop it!”

That twisted bat-nosed face swam up out of the blackness. Yellow eyes squinted against the light as it pressed against the plastic, distorting its wrinkled face further. Its fat purple tongue writhed against the cover and left slimy tracks as it made slobbery noises. Sharp teeth snapped as it tried to get purchase to chew its way free. More smoke oozed from the underside of the book, bringing with it a fecal and blood smell. Monica took a step back from the table. She looked around for something that could help her.

The task light on the desk! Monica rushed over, grabbed it and yanked the plug free. She hurried back to the table and put it down so that it pointed right at the struggling face. Her hand shook as she plugged it in.

The thing’s face vanished back into the smoke. More light, Monica thought. She needed more.

She ran back out to the living room and unplugged the area lamp. She carried it back inside, plugged it in and pointed the lights at the work table. With a faint crinkling sound the cover started to deflate. The edges of the book reappeared. Monica thought quickly. What else?

Finally, after several minutes of scouring the house, she ended up with two more area lights, a large flashlight, and her Coleman lantern. The book lay bare within the blaze of illumination. Monica eased into her chair. Her sore hand was throbbing with her rapid pulse. She bit her lip as she turned the book over and began cutting the cover free with her Exacto knife. Once she had it free she discarded it to the floor. Gingerly she turned the book over and opened the cover.

It was a beautifully illustrated manuscript. Under other circumstances she could see a collector paying a handsome price for such a rare find. She laughed nervously. Of course they wouldn’t have any idea just how rare this book was. She turned the pages and covered her mouth. Horribly disfigured creatures leered from the pages with almost life-like intensity. Monica bit her lip as she turned to the section with the broken binding. There it was. The creature glared at her from the pages. The drawing was split by the broken binding. Monica felt chilled as she stared at the stark illumination. Her hand shook as she reached for the glue and started to work.

When she finished she bound the book by a large four-way rubber band that would hold everything in position until the glue was firmly fixed. Outside the sky was turning pink as the Sun started to rise. If Scrunch had set the creature free by knocking over the box, causing the binding to break, then repairing the book should bind the creature once more. But she had to make sure.

With a careful eye on the book Monica started turning off the lights. As each went off the study darkened. She kept her hands on the last two switches after turning them off and watched the book. Nothing moved. She didn’t see any smoke coming from the pages. She watched it until the Sun came up and flooded the room with light again. Then, stiffly, Monica got up to take care of the final precautions.

She shrink-wrapped the book. Three times. Then she emptied her fireproof rare items safe and locked the book inside. For now it would be enough. Eventually, however, she knew that more steps would have to be taken. Books decay over time. This one would have to be preserved against acid and environmental degradation. She needed to do far more research into the book’s origin. Maybe she could discover another way to bind or destroy the things bound in that volume.

For now, at least, she was safe. The book was repaired. Nothing else would be coming out. She had another unfortunate victim to bury in the garden and some cleaning to do but after that she wanted to get some much deserved sleep. Monica yawned and went out to face the day.

💀

3,875 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 54th weekly short story release, written clear back in July 2003. It’s the oldest story I’ve kept in my inventory. Why? Because it was the first story I sold, appearing in Alien Skin Magazine. It wasn’t a pro market but I was still happy to sell the story. Eventually I’ll do a new standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the stories. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Garden of Evan.

Flame Breaker

Estelle lives a simple life, her needs easily met with the gratitude of those she serves. Her wagon provides shelter and purpose with the magic contained in the simple walls. Colic, her snub-winged drake, provides companionship and pulls the wagon.

Inquisitors threaten her peaceful existence with accusations and threats. Estelle faces them not with sword, but with her wits.

If you love fantasy and books, check out Flame Breaker.

📚

A beautiful day, at least up until the point when three black horses with uniformed riders came pounding down the forest trail and surrounded Estelle’s modest wagon. Colic, her snub-winged drake, hissed in alarm and tried to twist around in the harness. Estelle hissed back.

“Still yourself! You silly lizard!”

Colic glared at her with one golden eye and slowly pressed his entire green-scaled self down into the muddy path.

Not bandits, these men. Estelle could tell that much by the quality of their cloth. The red suits and black neck ties cinched their identity. Inquisitors. Trouble-makers by another name. Thugs, some said and she never disagreed. Gold thread hemmed the cloak of their leader. A small concession to vanity that identified the leader to her. Not that she wondered. He placed his horse right in front of Colic. Ignoring the drake which under other circumstances wouldn’t mind a nice bite of horse flesh. He sat straight, all ruddy fat in the face and contempt in his narrowed eyes. The tall dark evergreens surrounding the path served as mute witnesses to the encounter.

Pity they lacked eyes or tongues. A matter that might change, should circumstances require it.

The Inquisitor raised on black-gloved hand and pointed at the wagon behind her. “What sort of cargo do you haul, mother?”

“No brat ever escaped my loins,” Estelle said. “Neither am I a merchant to haul cargo. My home, that’s all I carry like the snail with its shell.”

“You lie, lady. Poorly, I might add. Best you confess now and avoid the screws.”

So mote it be. “Fly your pole somewhere else, Inquisitor. Nothing I carry concerns such as you.”

The ruddy bastard laughed. Fat cheeks shaking. More chuckles from the two lesser inquisitors on either side. The leader leaned forward, saddle creaking. Colic sneezed. The horse whinnied and jerked back. The inquisitor nearly tumbled forward from the saddle, only just catching himself his horse’s neck. He straightened up and his already red cheeks burned like coals in a fire.

He waved a hand at his men. “Search it!”

Estelle held up her hand. “Warrant? I’ve seen none.”

He started to lean forward and his eyes glanced down at Colic. He stopped and pressed a hand to his chest. “I am the official representative of the Magistrate. Surely no one with legitimate business would refuse to cooperate? Resisting could be construed as probably cause.”

“Your tongue wiggles more than my lizard’s –”

Colic snorted.

“– and isn’t nearly as truthful. Any search of my dwelling requires the presentation of a warrant. I don’t need your men pawing through my underthings.”

He stared at her and she looked back giving neither an inch or any obvious offense. His stupidity remained the primary question. He raised a hand and rubbed at the side of his head.

“I’ve heard reports of dangerous books appearing in otherwise wholesome communities.”

“Dangerous? In what way? Are these books more prone than others to cause paper cuts?”

His eyes narrowed. “You claim to know nothing of these reports?”

“First I’ve heard. Who makes these claims?”

“Citizens of good standing wishing for their children to remain safe.”

“From paper cuts?”

“From dangerous ideas. Blasphemy. Black arts,” he said. “Your wagon might transport many such books.”

Estelle shrugged. “Any books I transport are my own and dangerous only to ignorance. Are you seeking something to read?”

He pointed at her. “Trading in forbidden books brings substantial penalties.”

“How fortunate we are to live in a free society,” Estelle said. “Many miles I must cover before dark, if I may continue?”

A cluck of the tongue and a flick of the reins sent his horse side-stepping out of her path. Colic rose up and yawned, displaying an impressive array of teeth. Estelle whistled and the drake lunched into motion, pulling her and the wagon away from the inquisitors. She waved cheerfully as she passed.

📚

Her destination for the night? Raven’s Craw. Another dozen or so miles down the road from the site of her encounter with the Inquisitors. Not a direct shot, either. At the crossroads she took the path heading South, South-West. Left the tall trees behind, replaced by mounded prairie. The mounds rose up in general about as high as her wagon. The road wiggled back and forth between the mounds, cutting in the sides of some. As bumpy as a toad’s behind but much prettier. Wildflowers covered the mounds and all over bees, birds and dragonfly-riding fairies flew around the mounds. A squadron of fairies buzzed her wagon twice. On the second pass pelting her with grass seed. No harm in it. A perfunctory welcome, nothing more.

Nothing much at Raven’s Craw of note except the mill and the steamer dock. By the time Estelle rolled into town the sun hung low above the prairie and the buildings cast long shadows. Beside the mill and the dock warehouses the town included one hotel, a general store, a small school building, doctor’s office and the houses of those calling the place home. So few people came to town by road that Estelle’s arrival soon filled the streets. From little ones running around in nothing but diapers to the oldest watching from windows and porches. These people knew her. Mothers, fathers, uncles, grandfathers, cousins and all the rest. Word spread through town faster than a fire. At the center of town a junction of the prairie road and the road to the steamer docks created a sort of town square. Estelle’s whistle and sharp flick of the reins brought Colic to a stop.

Colic raised his throat and let out a ear-scratching warble that drew shrieks and laughter from the children already gathering with their arm-loads of branches. With the children stood many adults and most all carried arm-loads of branches. Colic snapped his tail, a loud whip-crack that split the air. Twice. A third time and the crowd stilled in anticipation. Time to take the stage, then.

Estelle rose up from her bench, trusting Colic not to jerk the wagon and send her sprawling. She clutched her hands to her chest. When she spoke her voice rang out over the gathered townsfolk.

“Good evening, my what a welcome! It warms the heart. I see many bundles of twigs and branches here.” She looked a fair-haired young girl standing bravely near Colic. “Who can tell me the purpose of these sticks?”

The little girl spoke up, her voice like the piping of birds. “Books! Books! Books!”

Laughter spread among those gathered. Estelle nodded. “Very wise, young one. Books, indeed. If someone will help an old woman down from this perch, let’s see what we can do.”

A broad-shouldered young man with coal-stained hands came to her aid. She held his fine, strong callused hand and made her way down the folding steps from the bench to earth below. He smiled down at her, showing a mouth full of straight teeth.

“Looking at you warms this woman’s heart and makes me wish for the return of my lost years,” she said.

“Surely there aren’t too many years lost,” he replied.

She swatted his shoulder. “Flatterer.”

More laughter from the crowd. Estelle walked to the side of the wagon. She beckoned to the little girl who spoke earlier. “Since you answered so smartly, you may be first.”

The girl walked over clutching her bundle of branches. “I’d like a book please.”

“Of course. What’s your name?”

“Missie.”

“Okay, Missie, whisper what you want in my ear here and we’ll see what we can do.” Estelle bent down.

The sweet child leaned in close. She cupped tiny hands to her mouth. “Alice, if I may?”

Estelle winked at her. “I think that is possible. Let’s feed the hopper.”

Along the bright green wooden side of the wagon was a red hatch. Estelle unlatched it and pulled it open, revealing a long drawer. She bent and picked up the little girl around the waist and hoisted her up. No, not so many years lost, in truth.

“Feed the hopper!”

Missie tossed her branches into the hopper. Estelle set her down and shoved it closed. She reached into her cloak and produced a short fat wand of gleaming oak. She whispered to the wand and then shoved it into a hole in the wagon beside the hopper. The wagon shook. Crunching and grinding noises sounded inside like as if she kept a beaver to eat the wood. A moment later the noises ceased. Then a loud thunk, as if something fell. Estelle bent and lifted Missie once more.

“Open the hopper, see what’s inside.”

With both hands Missie pulled the red hopper open. She shrieked and reached inside, lifting out a brightly colored book. She held it up and a murmur of delight passed through the crowd. Estelle brought Missie down and nestled the child on her hip.

“May I see?”

“Yes.” Missie held the book so that she could see the cover.

“Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I believe you will enjoy this book a good deal.”

Missie nodded enthusiastically and hugged the book to her chest. Estelle let her down and turned to the crowd. “I see much fuel for my hopper. Who will be next?”

A boy with hair curly and dark as night stepped forward with a small bundle of twigs. Estelle beckoned him close. “Your name, son?”

“Patun.”

“Okay, Patun. What sort of book do you seek? Whisper it here in my ear.”

Estelle bent down.

“Fishing book, so I can catch fish for my ma.”

Estelle patted his head. “That’s a good boy.” She pulled the hopper out and held out her hands. The boy handed her the branches. She tossed them in and then pulled the oak peg from the slot. She whispered to it and shoved it back into the hole. Then she pushed the hopper closed.

Once again the wagon shook and trembled. Colic snorted and settled. The wagon fell silent again. Estelle opened the hoper and pulled out a book. The bright picture on the front showed a man with a pole and line in hand. The Art & Craft of Fishing. She handed it to Patun.

“Gee, thanks!” He shot off running with the book. The crowd parted and like a pebble dropped in a pond he vanished.

Estelle smiled. “Everyone will have a chance. Who’s next?”

“I’ll try your wagon,” a voice rang out. A voice she recognized having heard it not so many hours before.

She turned and sure enough, the inquisitors on their horses. The ruddy-faced leader swung down from the saddle. Up front of the wagon Colic twisted his long head to see around the wagon. He sneezed loudly. The inquisitor reached into his shirt and pulled out a blue sheet of paper. He held it up in the air.

“By order of the Magistrate, as stated in this warrant, I intend to search this wagon and confiscate anything illegal. Clearly this lady runs a scam of sorts and I promise the good people of Raven’s Claw that I will uncover the truth and her accomplice inside.”

Estelle held out her hand. “I’ll see that warrant which you did not produce when you stopped me only hours ago outside of Raven’s Craw.”

He smiled nastily and slipped the paper back into his shirt. If he heard her correction he gave no sign of it. “I’ll not have you tossing the warrant into your device there to be torn to pieces.”

“I only seek to verify the wording of the warrant.”

The crowd’s murmuring grew louder. The inquisitor cocked his head at the other two, who moved their horses up, nudging the crowd back from the wagon. The protests grew louder.

“Clear off, all of you! By order of the Magistrate, return to your business elsewhere!”

Some among the crowd moved back. Others drew off a bit and spoke among themselves. No one really left, Estelle noted.

“Inquisitor, what do they call you?”

“Harris, lady. Now open the wagon for inspection.”

Estelle walked to the end of the wagon and opened the small door at the rear. “Look, if it will give end to this business, Inquisitor Harris. Only you, and I trust you’ll not damage what few things I own.”

Inquisitor Harris swung down from his horse. Grunted when his boots hit the ground. He briefly placed a hand on his back. Then he stomped over to the wagon and leaned in the small door.

“As you see,” Estelle said. “Only my meager bed and little else.”

The Inquisitor rifled through the few books she kept on her small bedside shelf. He lifted the mattress and knocked his knuckles against the wood. Then he straightened and bent to look beneath the wagon. He came up scratching at the side of his head.

“What manner of sorcery is this?” Inquisitor Harris faced her. He shook his hand at the wagon. “How is it that these books are produced?”

“Another demonstration, perhaps?” Estelle looked at the Raven’s Craw townsfolk, none had gone far. She beckoned to another child. “Lad, come here with your branches.”

The fair-haired boy walked over to her, his mother close behind with a wrinkled brow. She kept touching the boy’s shoulders. Estelle smiled. “Worry not, mother. The good Inquisitor Harris aims only to safeguard this town and its people. We will reassure him.”

She crouched down in front of the boy. “What are you called?”

“Ricky.”

“Okay, Ricky. What book would you like?”

He shrugged. “I dunno.”

“What sorts of things do you like?”

Ricky smiled. “Bears.”

His mother touched his shoulder again. “He’s always going on about bears.”

“I know just the thing.” Estelle took the branches from the boy and stood. She held them out towards the Inquisitor. “Inquisitor Harris, perhaps you’d care to do the honors?”

He took the small bundle. Estelle went to the hopper in the side of the wagon. Inquisitor Harris jerked his head at one of his men. “Watch inside.”

The man in question dismounted and went to the open door at the rear. Estelle drew open the hopper, then pulled the oak peg from the hole. She whispered to the peg and then shoved it back into the hole.

“Toss in the branches, Inquisitor.”

Inquisitor Harris tossed in the branches. She pushed in the hopper. The wagon started to shake. The crunching and grinding noises started. Up front Colic sneezed. Inquisitor Harris took a step back. He looked to his man at the rear of the wagon.

“What do you see?”

“Nothing, sir!”

The shaking and noise reached its peak and then stopped. The wagon settled down. Estelle gestured to the hopper. “If you will, Inquisitor Harris?”

He rubbed his jaw then stepped up to the wagon. He grabbed the round knob on the front of the hopper and pulled it out. He reached in and lifted out a book. He looked at the front cover.

“Winnie-the-Pooh?”

Estelle reached up and took the book from the Inquisitor’s hand. She held it out to Ricky. “A very special bear.”

“Thank you!” Ricky hugged the book.

His mother looked at Estelle. “Thank you.” She looked to the Inquisitor. “Thank you, sir. Come on Ricky. Let’s go home and you can read your book.”

Inquisitor Harris raised his hand. “People of Raven’s Craw! Bring those branches here!”

Excited voices rose up. The people drew in closer. Inquisitor Harris beamed at the assembled crowd clutching their bundles of sticks and twigs. Abruptly his smile vanished like a drop of water on a hot stove. “Toss your branches at the base of this wagon!”

Cries of protests rang out. He held up his hands. “This woman trades in forbidden books. Her mechanism, this infernal wagon, must be destroyed!”

The young man that had helped her down from the wagon stepped forward. “Inquisitor, do not do this.”

Inquisitor Harris shook his head. “I do this for your sake, lad. And the good of this town.” He motioned to his men. “The branches, now.”

The third inquisitor dismounted, then he and one at the rear of the wagon went among the people. They snatched the branches and twigs away and threw them at the base of the wagon. Colic rose up and started to pull the wagon away.

Inquisitor Harris drew his sword. “Still the beast or I’ll still him for good.”

Estelle hissed at Colic. “Be still, you brute. Let me release your harness, you daft creature.”

She left the inquisitors to their wood-piling and went to the front to release Colic. He came free snapping his tail like a whip. She patted his ugly scaled head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Estelle motioned to the young man with the coal-stained hands. He joined her. “Yes, lady?”

“Please watch this stupid drake. Make sure he doesn’t do anything injurious.”

“Of course.”

Estelle left the drake in the care of the young man and went back to the wagon and the inquisitors. Inquisitor Harris held up a hand at her approach. “Do not interfere. This device must be destroyed.”

“Why, exactly?”

“You trade in forbidden books!”

“What books? I give the books freely, it costs me nothing. There’s no trade involved.”

“You receive nothing?”

“Their gratitude, nothing more. My needs are simple and easily met.”

“It matters not.” Inquisitor Harris pulled out a match from a pocket along with a flask. “Such a device might produce dangerous books as easily as a children’s book.”

“And who decides? You? I believe we live in a free society. Isn’t that what we claim? I only give people what they ask for. Freedom to read what they wish, surely that’s the foundation of any free society.”

“Security is the foundation of a free society.” Inquisitor Harris flipped the cap on the flask and splashed the contents on the piles of branches. He struck the match and dropped it onto the pile. Flames spread blue and yellow across the branches. Cries of dismay rang out from the crowd.

Estelle walked around to the rear of the wagon. None made any move to stop her. She hurried and climbed inside. She heard Inquisitor Harris shout something but didn’t wait. Up front, strapped to the side of the wagon she pulled down a red cylinder. She scooted back out and slid out of the wagon. A cheer went up from the crowd. Inquisitor Harris grabbed her arm.

“Foolish woman! What is so worth your life?”

“Knowledge, books.” Estelle pulled away. She pulled a silver pin from the top of the cylinder and pointed the nozzle at the flames. A cloud of white vapor shot out, engulfing the flames. She worked her way along the pile until every last flame was extinguished. Excited murmurs spread through the crowd and became cheers. The people of Raven’s Craw started clapping. Colic snapped his tail three times.

Inquisitor Harris caught up with her. “What is that device?”

“A fire extinguisher,” Estelle said. “It is very useful dealing with fires. Inquisitor, have you considered that there might be many useful books you might ask for? Things that might help you in areas other than persecuting someone like me?”

His eyes narrowed. “What sort of books?”

“Leadership, tactics, books on all sorts of instruments you might find useful?”

Inquisitor Harris stroked his jaw. “Perhaps I should confiscate the wagon, and keep it for myself.”

Estelle shook her head. “It works only for me.”

“I could take you, along with the wagon.”

“You could and find I have forgotten how to make it work.” Estelle smiled. “Inquisitor Harris, do not make your job harder! Ask for a book and I shall happily provide it to you, as I do anyone who asks. Not in trade, or from coercion. Perhaps one final demonstration?”

When he made no move to stop her Estelle pulled open the hoper. She picked up scorched branches from the pile and threw them in. She took out the peg, whispered to it and put it back. Then she closed the hopper. As before the wagon shook. When the noise and shaking ceased she opened the hopper and pulled out a book. Without looking at the title she handed it to Inquisitor Harris.

Color drained from his ruddy fat face. He looked up at her, back to the book, then shoved the book into his vest. He waved his hand at the other inquisitors. “Mount up! By order of the magistrate this woman shall be free to continue her business, unfettered and unencumbered.”

Inquisitor Harris mounted his own horse when his man led it over. He mounted up and then rode away without another word. Estelle chuckled and turned to the crowd.

“Where were we, then?”

📚

Dew covered the mounded prairie grass the next morning when she stepped outside her wagon and stretched. From atop one of the mounds beside the wagon Colic lifted his scaled head and blinked sleepily. The wagon creaked behind her. Strong young arms wrapped around her waist.

“Must you leave so soon?”

Estelle reached up and patted Martin’s, the young man of the coal-stained hands, face. “Yes, but I shall return. People will want more books.”

“It never stops, does it?”

She leaned against his solid chest. “I hope not.”

Above the mounded prairie the sun rose again with the promise of a new day.

📚
3,572 WORDS

Author’s Note

This story is the 49th weekly short story release, written in May 2010, and originally released under a pen name. Eventually I’ll do a standalone e-book and print release when I am satisfied that I can create the cover art that I want for the story. In the meantime I’m enjoying these weekly releases. Stories will remain until I get up the new  e-book and print versions and at that point I’ll take the story down.

If you’re interested in longer works, feel free to check out my novels through the links in the sidebar or on the Books page. Check back next Monday for another story. Next up is my story Two for Death.