Not Non-Fiction

Stories.

Doctor X Will Build A Creature.

The following story was written by journalist Allen Walker and appeared in the October 2016 issue of Catchall, an alt-weekly for which he is a feature writer. It’s reprinted here with the author’s permission. His articles have also appeared in Matrix, Road Hogs, Elsewhere, and other publications.His essay Patagonia Dreamin’ is included in the anthology The Journey Of A Thousand Miles. Other stories by Allen Walker that have appeared here are A Werewolf Problem In Central Indiana, Living Or Dead Is Purely Coincidental (Part 1, Part, 2, Part 3, Part 4), That Was The Year That Was, and Submerged.

“Isn’t he magnificent?” Dr. Xavier says as she flips the carcass over on the exam table. Magnificent is not the word that comes to my mind. In fact I feel slightly ill. The glare of burnished metal brings out details that might normally only be seen under a magnifying glass, but here there’s nothing between us. His–since we’re calling it a he–legs are folded inward toward the center of its body in the classic death position of normal-sized specimens, and he gives off a musky, slightly sweet odor reminiscent of rotting hay. Dr. Xavier is gently prying the legs apart to expose the underside.

“How can you tell he’s a he?” I ask quietly, taking a step back.

She presses gloved fingers to different parts, using technical terms and explaining that if it were a female this would be longer, that would be shorter. She points to a cluster of bulbs at its rear. “The spinnerets would be much bigger, although with the original species we bred from there’s not that much difference in size between the males and females. That’s one reason we chose from the family Sparassidae.”

That’s a relief, I think. I’d read that in some species the female is ten times bigger, or more, than the male. The specimen in front of me is big enough as it is, thank you very much.

I am, of course, at the renowned and controversial Praetorius Institute in eastern Tennessee, near where the state shares borders with North Carolina and Virginia. The Institute, or PI as everyone here likes to call it, has been praised, criticized, celebrated, demonized, and even scrutinized by government officials and watchdogs, and yet its work has gone on, thanks in part to its defenders. When scientists first cloned Dolly the sheep in the late twentieth century that was controversial too, but was a great leap forward in understanding biology. And this breakthrough has great practical potential as well.

At least that’s what the PI’s researchers and its defenders argue. There are a lot of people, including me, who still have trouble with the idea of a spider three feet long roaming around.

Since no human, alive or dead, has ever seen such a thing it’s difficult to find the right words. The joints of its cylindrical legs are machine-like, and yet they’re hairy. The upper, narrower thorax is mostly bare, a dull black, with a look of molded plastic. The round abdomen is covered with smooth gray fur with bands of dark brown.

Dr. Xavier’s straight dark hair hangs down as she turns it right side up again and deftly moves it around. I ask her how much it weighs.

“Alive he was twelve, maybe thirteen kilos. About eleven now. They dry out quickly. Would you like to touch it?” She grins. “Unless you think it’ll bite.”

That’s exactly what I’m thinking. Intellectually too I know there‘s no real danger. On my arrival I am given a press packet and taken straight to Dr. Xavier‘s corner office where pictures of her partner and two children decorated her desk along with pictures of spiders. A web knitted from yarn hangs in front of the window overlooking the valley. After offering me some tea in a Spider-Man mug Dr. Xavier starts to give me her prepared speech. Spider silk is the holy grail of engineering materials. As strong as steel but extremely light it has limitless possibilities for everything from medicine to construction to space exploration. The problem has always been getting it. The Praetorius Institute, like some other organizations, started experiments with implanting spider genes in female goats which would then produce spider silk from their milk glands. It had limited success but the silk had to be extracted from goats’ milk and required a lot of processing. “We knew we could do better,” Dr. Xavier says. “And the answer was simple. Instead of cutting out genes from spiders and sticking them somewhere else we had to go straight to the source.” She then pulls a slim book from behind her desk and hands it to me. It’s a children’s book of prehistoric creatures and she’s opened it to a picture of a primeval forest with giant insects.
“The world used to have giant dragonflies and meter-long millipedes,” she says. “There may even be mega-spider fossils we just haven’t found yet. One reason bugs don’t get so big anymore is the atmosphere used to have as much as forty percent more oxygen than it does now.”
“So,” I say, “if one of your spiders were to get loose–“

”It would suffocate before it could even leave the building.” But what if there’s some reflex that causes even the dead ones to react? I wish I’d gone with the group tour instead of the solo option when I accepted the invitation. Then when there was a call for volunteers I could hang back, let someone else put their hand in harm’s way. As I think this Dr. Xavier comes around to my side of the table and grabs my arm. She puts my hand on the abdomen.

“Just stroke it. See? It’s like petting a cat.”

I wonder if this will affect my feelings for my real cat, Emily, whose fur is also gray. In fact it’s nothing like petting a cat. The fur is soft, but the body underneath is hard. It’s like petting a mannikin wearing a mink stole.

“We thought they’d be prickly,” Dr. Xavier goes on, “but they’re surprisingly soft. That’s just one thing. Look at the feet.” She bends a hairy leg backwards. The underside is covered with deep grooves that form circles, like a fingerprint. “It’s almost like a gecko,” she says. “Fortunately they can’t climb. Then she turns the spider’s face to me. I step back, but she doesn‘t notice. “And look at how the palps and mandibles are different from what you’d find in a regular spider. Even after three decades we can’t always predict what will happen when we tinker with DNA to this degree.” Above the broad beak six greenish orbs seem to glower at me.

We go to lunch in the PI’s cafeteria. On a lower floor than Dr. Xavier’s office it overlooks a small artificial pond and the surrounding forest. It’s crowded and I’m reminded that the spiders are just one of a dozen or so projects that sound like science fiction going on at the PI, and yet no one here looks like a mad scientist. Least of all Dr. Xavier. Over our lunch of Caesar salads topped with seared steak I bring up the controversial nature of the mega-spiders. She sighs.

“I’ve had this debate with practically everyone I know, including most of my family. I don’t want to be glib about anyone’s feelings but humans have been manipulating genes for as long as we’ve had agriculture. The mega-spiders are as natural as a hybrid tomato. You want an abomination? Look at a Labradoodle.”

To try and relieve some of the tension I change the subject.

“What made you want to study genetics? Your parents weren‘t scientists.”

“No. My father wanted to be but he went into hardware instead to support my grandparents after they came over from Vietnam. He encouraged me, though, and I’ve always had an interest in bugs. I got a Barbie Dream House one Christmas and used it to raise palmetto bugs.”

“Giant palmetto bugs?”

She laughs. “As big as they get. I was more interested in their life cycle and behavior, though. It was reading about fruit flies that got me into genomics. The idea that everything we are is determined by a single long molecule just fascinated me.” She puts her hand over her mouth as she thoughtfully chews a larger piece of steak. “The problem with mega-spiders, of course, was where to start.”

“Which came first: the spider or the egg?” I start to laugh but she pounces on this.

“Exactly! We couldn’t just flip a switch and make spiders grow big. That’s why it took more than three decades of research before we could get them to this size. It took several generations and more than two dozen changes to their DNA.”

She continues as she cuts a piece of blackened steak into smaller pieces. “There were some terrible mistakes too, horrible things. You wouldn’t believe some of the challenges we faced. But we learned a lot too. Like, what do you feed a three-foot spider? Normal spiders liquefy their prey’s guts and suck it out, but they’re feeding on insects, other arachnids, things with exoskeletons. The genes we changed triggered other changes too. Like beaks. We feed the mega-spiders rats. They paralyze them and swallow them whole.” She takes another bite of steak. “A lot of fur comes out in their scat.”

I push my salad away and make a mental note to suggest that on future tours she save this information for after lunch.

She pushes her salad away too. “Come on. It’s time for you to meet the kids.”

At first “the kids” are no-shows, but their enclosures are fascinating. Through clear plastic walls I can see ferns and what look like small palm trees shrouded in mist.

“Cycads,” Dr. Xavier tells me. “Also horsetail, moss, liverworts. They’re what even some scientists call ‘primitive plants’ because they’ve been around so long. They seem to tolerate the high oxygen better than other plants, and we hope it makes the spiders more comfortable. We have to keep it humid too, for the spiders. Some of their wild cousins live in the desert, but these, well, just to maintain their body mass they need more of everything.”

The plants in the enclosures look more futuristic than prehistoric. Also surprising is the absence of any sign of webs. This is a source of frustration for Dr. Xavier and her entire team.

“Tarantulas don’t build webs but they can spin silk, and their size made them an obvious choice. We just assumed we’d be able to extract silk from them. So far that’s been harder than we thought it would be. Maybe with what we’ve learned we can try with another family, maybe Aranea or Nephila, but that would be like starting all over.”

As she speaks one of the spiders creeps out of the mist. As it moves across the mossy floor its slow plodding is fascinating to watch. I wonder if it’s stirring up genetic memories, perhaps passed down from some of my mammalian ancestors. Its movements are deliberate, reaching out gently with its forelegs.

Dr. Xavier tells me they have nine in all, kept in separate enclosures. Originally they were kept together until one of the females turned aggressive and killed her sisters.

“And when the males started hunting in packs, circling around the rats we put in there for them, we thought maybe we should keep them separate.”

This spider is brighter in color than the one we examined earlier in the lab, with coppery fur. As it turns to face me a each of its dark green eyes is bisected by a single beam of light, like a precious stone.

I hear Dr. Xavier talking to someone behind me, but I’m too entranced by the spider to pay attention. Then she steps up next to me and says , “This is Carl.”

“Hello Carl,” I say, looking down at the spider. Then I jump as a bass baritone voice says, “Hello to you too.”

I turn around. A stocky man in a dark blue coat is standing next to Dr. Xavier. He puts out his hand.

Dr. Xavier apologizes. “I’ve got to go make a call, but Carl can keep showing you around.” As she hurries away Carl and I turn back to the spider.

“Creepy, ain’t they?” says Carl. He chuckles.

“I’m not sure that’s the right word,” I say. “In fact I’m having trouble finding the right words.”

“Come with me.”

In the elevator Carl swipes his ID card and a few moments later we step out onto the roof of the Praetorius Institute.

“I like to come up here once in a while for a little fresh air and a think,” he says.

“What do you think about?”

He chuckles again. “Anything. Nothing. Just take it all in.”

I step to the edge and look out at the forest below. In the distance I can see a low cloud settled over a hill. It looks like a web.

 

Across The Universe.

FROM: THE GALACTIC COUNCIL, MILKY WAY
TO: PEOPLE OF EARTH
SUBJECT: FIRST CONTACT

Dear People of Earth,
We hope you don’t mind being called that. You do have a lot of names for your planet as well as each other, and even the mid-sized yellow star your planet orbits. It gets very confusing. We decided to pick one and go with it.
Now down to business. While this signal may make you say “wow” understand that it is not to be considered a formal first contact. We expect you to carry on as you were, but since a growing number of you accept that you are not alone in the universe we thought we’d make this little courtesy call. We’ve been monitoring your transmissions, although your recent switch to satellites that direct signals directly to locations on your planet, what you call “cellular” communication, rather than broad-range wave-based technology has made this more difficult. We’ve also studied your culture extensively, although almost entirely without your awareness. There have been a few unfortunate incidents when we were sloppy. They were incorporated into what you call “mythology” or “religion”, but since we understand this is a sensitive area for you we won’t go into further detail.
The reason for this message is we’d like to assure you that everything will be fine. Well, perhaps “fine” isn’t the right word, but you can take comfort that your formal first contact with creatures from another planet will be exactly as you’ve predicted.

Your first contactees may be a hostile and scavenging species that is intent on draining your planet’s resources as they sweep through the galaxy.

They may be gentle and enigmatic creatures.

They may be completely carnivorous.

They may see you as food.

They may be vegetarians.

They may be vegetables.

They may make a dramatic appearance in large craft that suddenly appear in your skies.

They may crash land in a small ship.

They may come in large numbers only for you to discover that a small group crash-landed here some time ago.

They may bear such a close resemblance to you that they can and even have passed among you with the aid of little more than hats, socks, or slightly eccentric footwear.

They may be so completely unlike you their forms cannot be contained in anything comprehensible to you.

They may be intimately familiar with your planet and your ways.

They may find you as alien as you find them.

They may land on your planet.

You may land on theirs.

You may encounter each other in space.

They may be bipedal.

They may be mammals, molluscs, cephalopods, insects, avians, fish, amphibians, reptiles, or a form of life that defies all categorization.

They may be machines with an advanced level of intelligence resembling your own.

They may be organic creatures contained within machines.

They may be microscopic, perhaps even viruses, that operate by inhabiting either organic host organisms or specially designed machines.

They may be able to breathe your planet’s atmosphere.

They may require special equipment just to be among you.

They may be gelatinous blobs.

They may communicate, like you, through audible and visual cues.

They may communicate by exuding pheromones, liquids, or by the direct transfer of electrical discharges from one individual to another.

They may not have any interest in you.

They may want to put you in cages and experiment on you.

They may be carbon-based.

They may not.

They may look like giant guinea pigs that wear purple capes and defecate sapphires. This is unlikely, but it’s a big galaxy. A lot of things can happen.

They may have a single planet-wide monoculture.

They may be clones of each other.

They may be at least as culturally diverse as you are.

They may be highly varied, even multiple species working collectively.

They may want you to join their multi-species collective.

They may not.

You may want to have sex with them.

They may want to have sex with you.

They may look like ordinary pets: dogs, cats, ferrets.

They may be arachnids whose enormous size defies the laws of physics.

They may look like creatures from your mythology.

They may merely adopt the look of creatures from your mythology or some other familiar form in order to make you more comfortable.

To sum up, we can say with a high degree with certainty that your predictions are accurate and the first aliens you encounter will look exactly like what you’ve come to expect.
Or they may not.
We hope everything goes well and wish you the very best of luck on your first contact, but ask that when it happens you please at least pretend to be surprised.
Sincerely,
The Galactic Council, Milky Way
cc: Andromeda Galaxy, other members, Local Galactic Group

 

Next Time Order Online.

Hello! Thank you for calling Plank Pizza. Please hold. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Plank Pizzas come in your choice of thin, regular, deep dish, and casserole crusts, and in size ranging from our one-person piece to the Plank Party special. It’s your choice. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Plank Pizza crusts also come in your choice of flavors: white, sourdough, marbled rye, parmesan, romano, olive oil, pretzel, graham, sriracha, cheddar, bleu, cornmeal, peach, and gluten-free. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. We know you value quality and that’s why our dough, cheese, sauce, and all toppings are prepared and packaged fresh. That way you can enjoy quality Plank Pizza no matter where you are. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Thirty-four years ago Kevin Plank sold everything he owned to offer the best pizza at the best price. Then, three months later, facing bankruptcy and complete ruin, he sold his soul. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Kevin Plank had just one wish: to make the best pizza in the world, and also wealth beyond the dreams of avarice. With a lot of hard work and a little black magic he made that wish come true.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. That’s right. In a bizarre midnight ceremony involving the sacrifice of a goat with a pizza slicer by the light of a burning can of sardines Kevin Plank summoned Asmodeus, archduke of the ninth circle of Hell and, we’re told, a real pizza lover. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. At the time eternal damnation seemed worth it, and if you’ve already tried a Plank Pizza we think you’ll agree. That’s why we’re the most successful pizza franchise in the world with locations on all seven continents, including Antarctica. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. Kevin Plank, as you may know, wasn’t content with delivering a pizza that even the world’s top food critics describe as tasty as sin. He’s also one of the most generous business owners in the world, a major contributor to global charities. What you may not know is he also employs a full-time staff of priests, ministers, rabbis, imams, Hindus, Buddhists, and even a small number of modern day Druids in a desperate attempt to save himself from an eternity of pain and torment in the bowels of a pit that far exceed the wildest imaginings of Dante. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. It was Kevin Plank’s army of lawyers, though, who finally found a loophole in the contract written and signed in blood and currently locked in a vault in the safe room of his San Francisco mansion. And you can be part of it! Yes, you can be the secret ingredient. One of our cheesy representatives will be with you in just a moment.

[Jazzy instrumental music]

Thank you for continuing to hold. The only way Kevin Plank can save himself from an eternity of unspeakable horrors is if his pizza draws in a large enough number of innocent souls. Then, and only then, can he escape. So be sure to ask about our special, and how every pizza you eat—

[CLICK]

Thank you for calling Plank Pizza. May I take your order?

Fall Into Autumn.

Fall, the season of cooler weather, falling leaves, and shorter days is here at last. Some prefer to call the season “autumn” after the Latin autmnus, meaning both the season and the harvest. It’s the time to reap the fruits of spring and summer labor and prepare for the winter to come. Whatever you call the season here are some ideas to help you celebrate it.

Store Nuts For Winter

Go to a bank and get a safe deposit box. Specify that you want one low to the ground. Fill it with nuts to see you through the winter.

For extra authenticity do this while wearing a squirrel costume then forget which bank you stored your nuts in. As long as you avoid going back to the same bank you can do this repeatedly over several years. It’s not like it’s going to affect your credit rating.

Make Spider Webs

Spider webs are larger and, thanks to cool morning temperatures which causes dew to collect on them, more visible at this time of year. This makes them an ideal symbol for the season as well as a reminder of the circular rhythms of time. You can craft spider webs of your own out of string or pipe cleaners.

For extra authenticity knit an “egg sac”. Stuff several small children into it. Ce sac n’est pas un jouet. Release them in the spring.

Celebrate Seasonal Differences

Have someone in Australia write “Happy Spring!” on postcards and mail them to you. Notice how they change to “Happy Fall!” when they cross the equator.

Enjoy Seasonal Flavors

Pumpkin spice-flavored drinks have become a popular fall tradition. Try making your own pumpkin spice-flavored beverages at home.

For extra authenticity make a pumpkin spice-flavored latte with only ingredients that would have been available to the early European settlers. So, basically, mash pumpkin and milk together. Yeah, never mind. The result looks and tastes like orange-tinted plaster.

Add pumpkin spice to orange-tinted plaster. Serve it along with some real pumpkin spice-flavored lattes to your friends. See if they can tell the difference.

Do NOT make a rhubarb pie.

Rhubarb is at its peak in the late spring and early summer and is really just celery that’s possessed by demons.

Have a bonfire.

Ideally bonfires should be held in the country or in a large open field, but don’t let living in the city hold you back. Learn from my example, though, and point out to the authorities that technically construction hadn’t started on that site.

Go on a hay ride.

For added fun throw yourself in front of the tractor and get seriously injured, then become the tragic hero of a young adult novel about the rewards and risks of farm life.

Note: Discourage others from following your example. A bunch of injuries can bring down the mood of a fun, jaunty hay ride, and you also want that young adult novel to focus on you.

Have a leaf-raking party.

Raking the leaves that clutter the yard is an annual chore, although no one’s really quite sure why we do it, except that some people are just weird about their yards and have tricked the rest of us into being the same way. Why not make it fun? Everybody loves a party, so invite your friends to help rake leaves in your yard. If you can convince them to bring food, drinks, and their own rakes, well, you can pretty much sit back and rest. Suckers.

Name That Season

Have a debate with a friend over whether the season should be called “Fall” or “Autumn”.

Standard debate rules apply: participants will have their left hands bound together with a one-foot cord, but instead of right hands holding the traditional switchblades participants will try to scald each other with cups of hot cider. It’s educational and delicious!

 

To-Do List.

At home Billy Joel maintains a large garden and does many of the household chores himself. “It’s very relaxing,” he says, “and helps me take my mind off the big things for a while.”

-Philadelphia Post, June 31, 2017

Mow the lawn, pull some weeds, time to plant the spring seeds,

Patch the brickwork, seal the deck, now replace the back door screen,

Cut the bushes, prune the trees, thank goodness for a cool breeze,

Paint the shutters, fill the feeders, trimmer needs more gasoline.

Yell at squirrels, mulch the beds, why are all my roses dead?

Move the rocks, spray for pests, time to take a little rest,

Clean the gutters, feed the soil, now the mower needs some oil,

Spray the rails, step on snails, watch out for that wasp nest!

I didn’t start the dryer!

The clothes are in the washer and they’re full of water.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Cut the lettuce, pull the beans, squash is looking real keen,

Now it’s time to hoe the row, zucchini is a no-show.

Check the pumpkins and the chard, broccoli is really hard,

Onions, those are beets, when did I plant cilantro?

Cabbages should start to sprout, marigolds keep rabbits out.

Cauliflower’s growing great and I think I saw a snake.

Peppers are up in smoke, I thought this was an artichoke,

Get the sprinkler and the rake, this tomato is a beefsteak!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

Hang some pictures, make ‘em straight, and the foyer’s looking great,

Clean the blinds, take down the drapes, throw away those plastic grapes,

Get the polish, move some chairs, put new carpet on the stairs.

Clean the windows and the panes, time to get more duct tape.

Time to clean the fireplace, chaise lounge takes too much space,

Make a list for the store, put the flashlight in the dresser drawer,

Dust the table, feed the fishes, gotta wash those dinner dishes.

Scrub the toilet, mop the floor, I can’t take this anymore!

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

The laundry needs tending

Because it’s never ending,

I didn’t start the dryer!

I did the laundry so it’s ready.

I didn’t start the dryer!

Don’t know how I missed it, I had it listed.

He Also Had A Hammer.

From: Kevin DuBrow, CEO, DuBrow Grains

To: All Staff

Subject: Company Morale.

Hello Everyone,

Word has gotten back to me that most of you are unhappy with my decision to fire James Alger, better known to everyone in the company as Jimmy. Well let me be perfectly clear about something: I liked Jimmy too. He’d been with us a very long time and from what I heard was always a good employee. Stories about his practical jokes got back to me. I’m glad he played a part in cheering people up even though I had to speak to him about not doing it on company time. There’s nothing wrong with a little fun. I know that better than anyone. I’m the one who hung up that poster of the cat hanging from the tree in the breakroom, the one that I then had to take down after someone wrote a bad word on it. But let’s make sure we focus on work when we’re working, people.

That brings me to my main point: the reason I fired Jimmy. His actions were bad enough but what really disturbs me is how the rest of you also acted. As you know we had a two and a half ton shipment of corn that Jimmy, for some reason, decided to run through the auxiliary mill. Now first of all every one of you knows the auxiliary mill is exclusively for wheat and millet, not corn. We have never used the auxiliary mill for corn and Jimmy’s decision resulted in extensive and costly cleanup. The corn was supposed to be delivered to the customer whole, since it was popcorn, and I’ve had to try and find a new buyer. If I can the corn will still be sold for a lower price. That will be reflected in everyone’s paychecks for the next quarter.

I’m really sorry about that but Jimmy used the mill when I wasn’t here, and I feel like everyone bears some responsibility. Nobody acted to stop Jimmy or tell him not to move that shipment of corn. No one stopped him from operating the mill by himself. Do I have to spell this out? Jimmy cracked corn and no one cared because I was away.

Everyone, we need to pull together for the success of this company. Please remember what my grandfather, who founded this company, used to say: There is no I in cooperation. We used to have a banner that said that in the breakroom, although I had to take it down when someone wrote a bad word on it. Maybe I should get another one made but banners are expensive. That’s why we only have one every year on my birthday.

I hope you will all reflect on this and I hope I can trust you. Don’t forget that my door is always open when I’m not in a call or really busy and I am always here if you need help or want to talk. Except next week when I’ll be at a conference in Duluth.

Thank you, and let’s all pull together to do a better job.

Kevin DuBrow, CEO, DuBrow Grains

P.S. Casual Fridays are cancelled until further notice.

The Case Of The Missing Case.

Source: Wikipedia.

Found in the private papers of Dr. John Watson, London (1855-1930), under the heading “Sherlock Holmes & The Unsolvable Case”:

Even a detective with the sagacity of my friend Sherlock Holmes must, on occasion, decline a request, but this particular instance was so extraordinary that I feel compelled to put it to paper. At the time we happened to be at our Baker Street residence, I feeling the need to see my old friend in spite of the complete marital bliss which I’d enjoyed for some time. Holmes was in a restive mood this evening and kept returning to the spirit case and gasogene he kept in the corner but libations, his cigars, cocaine, laudanum, opium, ether, mescaline, isoamyl nitrite, tincture of cannabis, a bottle of pills containing acetylsalicylic acid, as well as a handful of betel nuts that had been the gift of a client who’d returned from the Far East, held little interest for him. Turning from these dalliances he would then march across the room, arms crossed, head on his chest, his usual manner when considering a problem. But at this time, of course, the problem was the absence of a problem, one which even Holmes, with all his perspicacity, could not resolve.
I was on the point of taking my leave when Mrs. Hudson showed in a young urchin bearing a note. Holmes immediately stepped forward and took it, his dark eyes darting over the paper. Then, with no hesitation, even with an apparent lack of awareness of the rest of us in the room, he dashed down the stairs. I gave our young Hermes a penny and offered a few words to placate Mrs. Hudson’s concerns about mud on the rug before I followed.
It was only once we were in a hansom cab racing towards London’s banking district that Holmes spoke.
“The note was from Inspector Lestrade, Watson,” he said in a voice that any other might have taken for calm and measured but which I recognized as positively ebullient. “There has been a robbery of a London bank and he needs my assistance.”
A simple robbery hardly seemed to demand the genius of Sherlock Holmes, but when the Inspector showed us the scene the reason became clear.
“The walls, which are completely undamaged, are over a foot thick, comprised of large stone bricks,” he said. “As you can see the door was bolted from the outside. There is no way in from above or below, and yet the thief was able to make off with a case containing ten thousand pounds’ worth of gold bullion.” Lestrade’s sallow rat face looked very grave in the flickering gaslight. “I don’t like to admit that this case is quite beyond any of us, Holmes,” he said quietly. Then, raising his voice, he added, “Also all twenty guards are still present and their whereabouts completely accounted for. None of them are suspects.”
Holmes cleared his throat. “Yes, Inspector, and I can also tell that you’ve been here yourself at least twenty-four hours.”
“I should think that would be obvious,” Lestrade replied, “since it’s been raining nonstop almost the whole day and my clothes are completely dry.”
Holmes raised his finger and seemed about to speak then abruptly turned to the room. He walked in a full circle, examined the walls closely, and looked at both the ceiling and floor.
“Well, Inspector, this is certainly a most curious case, and I wish you the best of luck with it.”
Lestrade sputtered. “Surely you’ll assist us!” But Holmes only shook his head.
“If only I could, Inspector. However I have promised my services to the Atkinson brothers in Trincomalee, and I must make immediate arrangements to leave. There are, of course, other private inspectors in London who I’m sure could help you with this case. Perhaps my brother Mycroft, or that fellow Entwistle.”
“Holmes,” said Lestrade in an almost inaudible growl. “Isn’t Entwistle that buffoon you said once put his lips to a violin and tried to play it as though it were a trumpet?”
“This is no time to discuss music, Inspector. Come, Watson, I’ll need your assistance in my travel arrangements.” With that he turned and stepped hurriedly from the room, and I followed, throwing a meager apology to the Inspector.
An hour later we were on the other side of London in a pub below street level dining on questionable oysters and a slightly less questionable dark Irish beer. It wasn’t until Holmes had filled his pipe that I spoke.
“Holmes, are you sure you shouldn’t have taken that case?”
He drew deeply and sent an azure cloud into the air above our heads.
“A man must know his limits, Watson. Never exceeding them is a true key to success.”
An epiphany struck me.
“This is rather like that case with the King of Bohemia, eh what?”
“Don’t test my limits, Watson.”

Learning To Fly.

Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. I guess I should really say “pilot”. I’m not really a captain of anything. It’s not like I own this plane and I can’t order anybody to walk the plank or swab the decks. I think there’s someone that comes in and vacuums the carpets and empties the trash, and we don’t really have a plank. I guess I could make you slide down that inflatable emergency ramp or maybe walk out on the wing, but that’s a pretty long drop even when we’re on the ground. I’m not going to open the door while we’re in flight, at least not once we really get up there, because that could get really bad from what I’ve seen in movies and on TV. What I’m saying is I’m not going to throw anybody out while we’re in flight, but don’t push me because I will land this plane and drop you out no matter where we are.

I’m also going to be upfront with you and say this is my first flight. Like, ever. So I’d suggest you keep your seatbelts on the entire time. There’s supposed to be a button that makes that seatbelt light come on, but you would not believe how many buttons there are up here. Also a bunch of gauges, meters, dials, and these big levers. I thought by now they’d have some of this stuff digitized. My mother’s old Camaro had a digital display and it was from, like, the eighties, you know? I’d invite everybody to come up and take a look at this but we’re on a schedule and once the flight starts I’d feel better if everybody stayed seated. If anybody has any helpful tips on these gauges and things though just tweet me. I’ll try and check my feed once we get up there. No promises, though, because I’m going to need my phone to navigate too.

Oh, hey, I just found the button for the seatbelt sign. And there’s one for no smoking too. Are there any flights you can still smoke on or have they just not taken that out yet? I’m not sure what the rule is on vaping either. Let’s just be on the safe side and don’t do it, okay?

Our flight will also be taking a little longer than usual because we’ll be following the interstates. Sorry about that. Like I said we haven’t quite got the navigation part up and running yet. It’s still in development, but we should have it working soon. And we’re gonna be seriously blowing through some speed limits because we’ll be up in the air and you may not know this but planes move really fast. Keep an eye out the windows, though, and if you see any police planes coming up next to us tweet me or yell at one of the flight attendants. This is weird but planes don’t have rearview mirrors so if there’s anybody coming I won’t know until they almost pass us. That seems kind of weird. I hope I don’t, I don’t know, back over a flock of bald eagles or something. That would be pretty embarrassing.

Anyway in a few minutes the flight attendants will be walking you through the emergency measures, and I know how everybody is about those. Please, seriously, pay attention for once because if this thing goes down it’s going down hard, you know? Those little oxygen masks might save your life if we have a fire or something. But, and don’t tell anyone I said this, you can leave your drink tray down the entire time. You just might want to put it back up when we land to make it easier to get out.

Okay, we’re just about to take off here. According to my phone here it’s rainy and seventy-two degrees at our destination. I don’t know how far anybody has to walk once we get there but I hope you have umbrellas. Wait, lost the directions. Okay, there they are. And I just saw some of your tweets. Come on, people, let’s try to stay positive. You know what they say about how you’re safer in the air than you are on the ground. That’s probably because there’s so much less you can run into on the ground.

And thanks for trying our new flight sharing app. I hope you’re as stoked about our new startup as I am. All right, let’s make it happen, cap’n!

 

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