The waves coming in on the gravel shore were sewn through with dragons, pencil-sized, silver, each spinning a froth droplet in its fore-claws.
Two women sat side by side on one of the memorial benches and watched the prison moon rise over the breakers. One in a corduroy coat, the other curled into herself, only a thin shawl against the wind.
A samovar cart jingled and sloshed from the direction of the pier.
“Do you have a least-brass?” said the woman in the heavy coat. The other woman placed a coin on the ones already in her palm.
Two paper cups of tea; three small cookies, an afterthought, dropped in the hand of the woman in the shawl.
Thirty years before, these women were not friends. The woman in the shawl used to run a shop on the ground floor of the building where the other woman lived. She extended credit to her neighbors. She overcharged on a random basis, knowing they’d never complain.
The moon lifts; the sky darkens; colony lights flicker into view. Coldgate. Artemis II. Shandren. They’ll wait, like they do whenever they happen to walk out at the right time on a cloudless, full moon night. It happens more often than chance would allow.
The tea is harsh. Some of the dragons needle out from the water to snatch wind-blown crumbs from the cookies and tumble them in place of their froth-orbs.
Seventeen years ago, the woman in the coat was taken away and charged with crimes against the ruling pattern. She protested, but there was evidence from an anonymous witness, and she went up for nine years, and came back to find the woman in the shawl had taken over her shop in her absence. A gift from the patterners, although she never explained, and the other never asked. (The patterners pay; they do not give.)
The paper-edges of the cups soak a little further through with every sip.
There it was: Hsieu’s Bridge. They rose together from the bench. The woman in the shawl held her breath a moment, as if expecting the other woman to make some statement, but the other woman remained silent. Whatever truce lay between them in the place where forgiveness would never be, it would last another month, at least.
The women continued their walk up the beach. The woman in the shawl leaned into her companion’s corduroy arm.

My name is Deadbolt, Hasp Deadbolt. I’m a P.I. In my business, trouble often comes calling. This time a giant bug grabbed my elbow and jerked me around, tearing my shirt.

“Lady,” I said, “violence is not necessary.”

“Emergency!” She screamed. “My house is on fire, my children will burn!” She pointed. A plume of black smoke rose a few blocks away.

“Did you call the fire department?”

She nodded, urging me in the direction of the blaze and ripping my sleeve clean off.

“Then fly away home; I’ll be along.” I started running.


By the time I got there, the fire was out. Her children huddled around her skirts, crying. She counted frantically. “Ann, my youngest, isn’t here!”

I waded into the rubble. I started in the wreckage of her kitchen. “Here she is ma’am,” I called, “under the pudding pan.”

While the frantic mother was cuddling the baby, a local cop arrived. Constable Johns and I went way back. Bridget had a sharp eye, she was tough, and she owed me, since the “Boy Blue” incident.

“Good work Hasp,” she said, “but why are you interfering with an arson investigation?”

“Arson!?” I exclaimed. “This just happened.” If I’d been thinking a little faster I would’ve claimed Mrs. Ladybird was my client, but just then the lady in question turned to us.

“Arson!” She looked at me. “Hasp Deadbolt?” I nodded. “I want you to help me nail the bastard who tried to kill my babies.” She turned to Constable Johns. “What do the police think?”

“Well, ma’am, I’m not at liberty…”

“Deadbolt, you’re on the case. Is 100 a sufficient retainer?”


“Constable,” I said, “we need to talk. Let me buy you a pastry.”

“I’ll fill you in,” she said, taking a bite, “if you help me.” There’d been a string of suspicious fires on the north side.

“We’ve kept quiet. We don’t want copycats.”

The fires were set in broad daylight; it had to be somebody who spent a lot of time in this part of town. I rubbed my chin. Old Miz Hubbard was doing time in the happy house. “This is not Georgy Porgy’s style. I like Dr. Fell, but I can’t say why.”

Bridget nodded thoughtfully. “I can put him near two fires, maybe more.”

“Let’s check his house.” I couldn’t do that legally, but Bridget could. The next day we waited until the doctor left on his rounds and we went in the back door.


Not much can turn my stomach, but all I will say about what we found there is this: I do not love thee Dr. Fell.

The end

For those unfamiliar with the two nursery rhymes referred to here, these are links to versions similar to the ones I used.

Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home

I do not like thee Dr. Fell

So this beanpole walks in the bar, says I’m the buyer, I just bought the Earth and I’m checking it out. And I say so how do you like it so far. Remember, and I’m saying this to you and not to the guy, remember I’ve had a few, well more than a few I’ve had a lot but that’s the way it is when you’ve been subjected to the kind of day I had. But enough about me, we were talking about the guy.
It’s kind of fixer-upper, he says, from under the crust on down it’s solid, well not solid but you know what I mean. The atmosphere, though, and here he waves his hand in front of his face in a whew what a smell way. That’s just going to have to go, but I think I can save the water and a representative sampling of the life, you know, enough breeding pairs to keep most species going, at least most of the megafauna. But the rest, he makes a bulldozer blade hand shape and runs it along the bar, swoosh, just flatten it all and turn it into a big park.
A park, I say, is there a lot of money in that? Naw, he says, it’s a government thing, there’s got to be a park every so many cubic parsecs, and somebody’s got to buy up the land and clear it.
Who’d you buy it from, I say, and he says, from this guy, and gestures vaguely outside, and what does it take to get a drink around here? This last is to the bartender, who brings him a Bud and a Bushmills. So, he says, I’m looking for a few guys to help me out, could be a box in the org chart with your name on it.
Now see, up to here it’s just a story. Could be legit, could be phony. But see, I read too many philosophy books. Maybe that’s got a lot to do with me having the kinda day I was having, but let’s forget that for now.
Do you believe in God? Say you do and he exists, yay, big win for you. He doesn’t exist, no big, you just die. Say you don’t believe and he exists, uh-oh, you’re doomed. He doesn’t exist, oh well, at least you weren’t fooled.
So the guy’s looking at me. Do I want a job? Do I want to be saved if his story is true? I hold up my glass and tink it against his. I’m your man, I say.

Maddy was asleep, a smile on her face. Cliff slid out of bed and padded, naked, to the hall. Curiosity always got the better of him in a new place, and most girls didn’t seem to mind. He had already seen every room of Maddy’s small apartment except the spare room. Maddy was … perplexing. Tall, dark, her face oddly proportioned, as if she had been made by someone who had had women described to him but who had never seen one. Different in bed too. Earlier he had felt like his entire body were about to explode. Afterwards he had patted himself down, just to make sure he was all there. Her d├ęcor…. Her books had never been opened, the TV was dusty. Only the bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen had seen any use at all. He eased open the door of the spare bedroom and slipped inside. The only light came from the hall.

He took a few steps in, waiting for his eyes to adjust. There was not a sound except his own breathing, but he felt as if the room were crowded. This might have been a bad idea. The door closed with a snick and the light came on. Maddy pressed herself against him from behind, pinning his arms with hers. He was staring at a stone idol that almost brushed the ceiling. It sat with legs crossed and arms curved forward as if to catch whoever stood in front of it. Its teeth were large and sharp. Eight eyes, or, rather, empty sockets where they should be, seemed to stare right at him. Masks, censers, diverse weapons, and other paraphernalia lined the room, but he could spare no attention for it. The idol seemed to be flexing its muscles. Maddy was flexing hers too. She whispered in his ear.

“It’s me or the god,” she said. “Join me, worship him, or join him a different way.” She turned him around and stared into his eyes. “Choose.”

“You’re freaking me out.” He pulled back and she let him go.

“Goodbye Cliff,” she said sadly.

“Wait.” He licked his lips. Rough hands seized his shoulders. The nails were sharp and long.


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