Cast of Wonders 123: Taxidermy and Other Dangerous Professions
Theme music is “Appeal To Heavens” by Alexye Nov, available at MusicAlley.com.
Taxidermy and Other Dangerous Professions
by J.R. Johnson
By late afternoon the day was hot, hot and hot, my feet burning up through flimsy red canvas shoes. My skin too, even with its built-in mocha café au lait sunscreen, out all day with no protection but a nondescript outfit topped with my stifling jean jacket. I kept that between me and prying eyes, always.
The last of my water went down warm and barely dented the void in my stomach. A police chopper flew overhead but I didn’t look up, just hunched deeper into my jacket before turning into the Joe’s Hot Dog Heaven parking lot. I was scared and running, sure, but the cops weren’t looking for me. No one was.
Aging picnic tables crouched at the edge of the lot were splintered and stained, but still looked more welcoming than the street. Crumpled napkins and used cups littered the gravel under my feet but the place felt safe enough. We used it as an after-school refuge when classes were on. The owner kept the place free from the worst trash; you wouldn’t step on a needle here. I needed shelter and this place, surrounded by dust and wild day lilies, was as close as I would get. Settling against the shaded wall at the back of the lot with relief, I closed my eyes against the day. Lord, my feet hurt.
“Come with us.”
I jerked sideways at the noise, denim smudging the graffiti-covered concrete. It was a pretty day, at least on the outside, and these fellows fit right in. Short enough for me to look in the eye, the speaker had one of those little pork pie hats that are back in fashion; I dubbed him Porky. His friend wore a flower in his lapel so he got to be Petunia. I stood, keeping my back to the wall.
They both wore crisp summer suits, pressed shirts, and faces bright and shiny as the leather of their shoes. Petunia held a clipboard and a silver-streaked pen with an odd little net at the end. Not social workers, though, not in those outfits. They looked like male models dropped into the slum for a photo shoot. Too pretty to believe.
Looking around the quiet parking lot with feigned bravado, I put on what I hoped was a tough-girl scowl. My stomach chose that moment to rumble and ruined the effect.
“Why not you?” Porky let out an exasperated sigh. To Petunia: “Why do we get the ones that talk? And think they can think?”
His buddy rolled his eyes. “I know, right?”
Porky turned back to me and snorted as he noticed me scowling like I do when I have no idea what is going on. Cheeks warming with embarrassment, I leaned back and tried to look cool.
He smiled, perfect white teeth made all the more suspect by the bag of candy in his hand.
“You’ll be perfectly preserved, I promise.” That struck me as an unusual way to guarantee someone’s safety. “It’ll be fun.”
I knew better, but whoever these guys were, they were not Felix, Mom, or the rest of my deeply disturbed family. My fingers toyed with the wide leather gauntlet I wore to cover the marks on my wrist. I stopped when I realized it only drew attention to the oddity of wearing such a thing. In July.
I thought about the fact that I didn’t have anywhere to go when the sun went down. I thought about yesterday’s fight and the new bruises now layered over old. Stupid me, wanting a cake for my birthday. It doesn’t pay to ask for things at my house, but you don’t turn sixteen every day. When Felix went for the meat tenderizer I knew it was time to go.
Running is safe; I’ve never been strong enough to fight. My mother doesn’t report me missing, not after the first time, just waits until I get too hungry or scared. My step-father would hear my key in the lock and laugh, so walking through the door I’d see his lips curling into a vicious snarl, beady eyes icy with anticipation.
“Look who’s come crawling home, it’s little Bridget. Go to your room, bitch. I’ll deal with you later.” Mom staring at the floor saying nothing, like she’s been taught.
This time I wasn’t going back. I decided last night, wedged sleepless into a musky corner under the school bleachers. No matter what.
One night on the streets was enough though, thanks, but I couldn’t even afford a Border Brat special at Joe’s. What I needed was a way out. Porky and Petunia’s suits were unwrinkled despite the afternoon heat and their car, parked just past the picnic tables, new and clean. My eyes flicked from one to the other, then drifted to the cellophane bag in Porky’s hand.
“What the hell. Why not?”
Porky straightened as if shrugging off a minor weight.
Already doubting the wisdom of my choice, insecurity and a complete lack of options wouldn’t let me back down. No way was I crawling home this time. My jaw firmed with false surety. “But I want the candy.”
“Of course!” They smiled wider and handed over the bag. Stepping back a few paces, they talked together but otherwise stood manikin still.
“I told you the candy was a good idea; works every time. Glad we’re done with kids at least,” Porky said. “That’s my last sack.”
It was a mixed bag, Tootsie Rolls and Smarties next to cream-filled caramels and individually wrapped licorice sticks. I worked a butterscotch out of its crackling yellow wrapper and into my mouth, reminded of the treats my grandfather kept in his glove compartment. Back when he was alive, of course, and able to watch out for me.
The suits let me eat in peace, observing with unnerving patience. My fingers shook as I closed the bag. Petunia put a checkmark on his list, then showed his teeth again, smooth white surfaces reflecting like marble in the afternoon light.
“Step into the vehicle, please.”
Porky reached for the back door. The side of the car sported a logo at odds with the late model. Its stylized font on a field of shooting stars looked straight from the 1950s.
Out of This World Exhibits! Below that a second line read, Preserved! Mounted! Framed! We Do It All! Best in the Galaxy!
My second thoughts were having third thoughts. Stopping a few paces short of the car, I fished Tootsie Roll from my teeth to buy time. My hesitation must have been obvious; Porky and Petunia started coaxing me forward in high-pitched voices, like they were luring a puppy into a trap.
The first suit cocked his head like a bird. “That’s right, almost there. You’ll go amazing places, promise.”
Petunia nodded, holding the peculiar pen up like a wand. “Unbelievable places. You won’t have to do a thing.”
Stones skittered under my feet as I backed away from the open car door.
“Look, guys, thanks for the snack and all, but I… I’ve changed my mind.”
Porky scowled. “You heard the part where that was the last of the candy, right?” Suddenly they didn’t seem so friendly. His arm lashed out an impossible distance, fingers crossing the void to grab my lapel. The jacket’s metal rivets went icy cold against my skin. “We don’t have time for this, honey. Get into the nice quiet car so we can get on with it.”
I twisted away, fear and adrenaline surging, my oversized jacket peeling off as I shook free. Treatment like this I understood, but for once I came prepared.
My grandfather’s straight razor flashed in the afternoon sun as I laid the suit’s arm bare, cutting through fabric to the flesh beneath. Creamy folds of pressed linen peeled open as Porky pulled back to inspect his damaged arm. I looked too, and suddenly forgot that I was terrified, alone, and about to become a face on a milk carton.
My blade was sharp, the cut about six inches long and deep enough to gush. Instead of a normal red, Porky’s forearm oozed what looked like green glitter paint. A cut but no blood. Odd. Also, why wasn’t he screaming? Porky sighed, looking at his arm like I’d spilled relish on his favorite shirt.
“Come on, are you kidding me? I’m onsite two damn days and already need a tune up?”
Petunia bit his lip like he was trying to keep from laughing. “When were you last here, man? I told you, the candy schtick is old. They’re on to us.”
“Cripes, when did kids get so annoying? This used to be an easy gig.”
I stayed crouched, razor at the ready in case. My gut twisted, not with fear this time but something new, the thrill of self-protection. Eyes narrowed, Porky gave me a long look and then shrugged in resignation.
“Fine, whatever, we’re done here. The order specified no troublemakers and,” he said, arm akimbo as he tried to keep whatever he was using for blood from dripping all over his loafers, “she definitely qualifies.” He grabbed a handful of paper napkins from inside the car and pressed it to the wound.
Petunia consulted his watch, the red flower in his lapel radiant in the late-day sun. “It’s after five o’clock. Beer?” The car disappeared in a spray of gravel and I collapsed, shaking, in the parking lot.
The sound of heavy footsteps sent a fresh spike of fear through me. Razor up, I only relaxed when I recognized Joe’s care-worn face. He heard the fight and came to help, if the baseball bat in his hand was any indication. He must have missed the green blood; he didn’t look anywhere near as shocked as I felt. I kept my mouth shut and didn’t look at the sparkling puddle on the ground. As bad as it was at home, a lockdown psych ward would be worse.
Joe picked up my jacket while I straightened my clothes. He looked me over, sure, but not in a pervy way. More like he was checking that I still had all my parts. He pointed back toward his stand. “Let’s get you cleaned up.”
The adrenaline was wearing off and I didn’t know what to say, just gave a shaky nod in thanks. The metal stool burned hot through my jeans as I studied the counter’s cracked Formica surface. Its orange clashed well with the bright yellow walls. Joe handed me a damp towel, then surprised me by sticking out a calloused hand.
“I’m Joe.” Up close he looked older. Rough skin met mine in a firm grip, then slid away as he moved back into the kitchen.
“My name’s Bridget.”
He nodded. “I’ve seen you around. Nice to meet you.” I imagined what I must look like, all defensive awkwardness and thrift store clothing. “Do you want me to phone anyone for you? Your parents?”
Eyes on the counter, I shook my head no. It was only when I crossed my arms that I realized I wasn’t wearing my jacket. He’d hung it out of my reach, on a metal hook behind the counter. I gave my skinned elbows a quick wipe with the towel, then tugged my T-shirt sleeves as low as they could go.
I watched Joe through my lashes as he worked in the kitchen. He carried a deep scar across the bridge of his nose and frowned a lot, but he couldn’t be all sour. He didn’t mind kids hanging out in his lot, which is why I washed up here. And I’d seen him smooth the ragged edges of a photograph taped to the wall like a good luck charm, or a fading memory. The portrait showed a young girl in pigtails and braces.
I almost cried when Joe slid a steaming hot dog onto a paper plate and placed it in front of me.
“Eat,” he said, waving away payment. The sausage was a foot long and crispy around the ends; I covered it with ketchup and sauerkraut while he watched, chewing gently on his lower lip.
“What?” I inhaled another bite, trying to remember my manners and failing. The meat tasted better than anything I’d had in recent memory, its rich salty flavor spiced with hunger.
“I’ve got to make a call.”
I stopped eating. Joe rocked back on his heels, the glance he gave me too perceptive for comfort.
“You probably don’t want any trouble, right? Running from something?”
I guess I couldn’t be the first kid to end up at the edge of his parking lot. I shrugged.
“I get it. Still, we better let the authorities handle this.”
“No, wait,” I said, heart racing as I pushed off the stool. If I could just get my jacket I’d be gone. My friend Marleen is in foster care now and told us what it was like during lunch one day. I had trouble sleeping for a week.
“I’m fine, really. There’s no reason to call in…”
My voice trailed away. Joe must have been a principal or a security guard in a past life; he could glare with the best of them. He reminded me a little of Grandpa, actually.
“I’m not talking about the cops.”
The old man reached for the phone and dialed twenty-three digits from memory, then hung up. I’ve been counting things since I was a kid; it’s soothing, especially when I’m nervous. Exactly thirty-seven seconds later the callback came through.
“Agent Josefus Winkleback.” A pause. “Yes, that’s right. The Collectors are back. Fresh skins, same agenda.” He grimaced. “One hundred percent. Check the files, I deported them last time. Requesting pest control… hang on a sec.” He turned my way.
“Did those suits happen to mention how long they’ve been in town, if there were any other kids, anything like that?”
About to shake my head, I stopped as I realized I did know something useful. “Two days, Porky said.” The corner of Joe’s mouth twitched. “And he was pissed that they were out of candy, so I’m guessing it’s not the first time they’ve tried this stunt.”
Nodding, he went back to the phone. “Right, control and possible retrieval.”
Hold music came through the ear piece, a tinny version of Van Halen’s “Jump” drifting out to tickle my ear.
I felt a grin start as the pieces fell into place. No wonder Joe hadn’t looked surprised earlier. He’d seen the green blood, it just wasn’t the first time. And he looked confident, focused, nothing at all like a run-down hot dog vendor. I wanted that too.
“Wait, you’re a… No way! You hunt aliens?”
His eyes narrowed as he frowned.
“No, no, no,” I said, holding up my hands to show him that I wasn’t poking fun. “That’s amazing! Where do I sign up?”
The frown deepened, but he didn’t bother trying to deny it. Sure, the green paint for blood and elongating limbs scared me, but that was nothing compared to Felix. Mom I’d miss, but she couldn’t help me; she’d proved that often enough. Now this.
It was a shot at something I grew up thinking beyond my reach, a life that meant something.
“Please, just… give me a chance. I’m older than I look and,” I felt an unfamiliar swell of pride, “I can handle myself. You saw me out there.” He pursed his lips, thinking. I pushed my point home.
“Let’s face it,” I said, “it’s not like anyone’s going to miss me.”
His eyes spent a long moment on the bruises stippling my arms.
“They’ve still got one more kid to find and a whole list of orders to fill. I know the streets and I want to help. Please let me help.” I couldn’t keep from bouncing on my seat, hands clenched together as I mimed begging. Joe seemed to like the enthusiasm; I could have sworn I saw his lips twitch again before he turned back to face the wall.
Van Halen stopped.
“Yes, that Agent Winkleback. What?” He took a deep breath. “Reassigned?” He still frowned, but this time he reached out to touch the little girl in the picture. A cardinal burst from a nearby tree, circling once before darting over the orange lilies and away.
Finally, and without looking my way, Joe said, “An hour then. No, no need for wipes.”
I waited, holding my breath.
“I’ve also got a minor inductee so bring the appropriate paperwork… That’s right, I’ll take responsibility. We’re on site and ready to assist.”
Relief flooded my chest as I smiled, looking out past the concrete access road and up into a brilliant blue sky. My bruised arm was too hot in the leather gauntlet. Releasing the clasp, I whistled “Happy Birthday” under my breath as I let the heavy weight fall.
About the Author
JR grew up in the folded Appalachian hills, where she learned to love Fall, blueberries straight from the bush, and the stream beneath the willows near her house. The fact that Fall is inevitably followed by Winter, that picking berries means crossing paths with bears, and that the stream was laced with dioxins may also have had some impact on her outlook. For more on her latest projects visit her website.
About the Narrator
M.K. Hobson is a writer of historical fantasy fiction, and records stories for Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Zero Books. She’s also the cohost of a Web series for Zero Books titled “We Live in a Society.”
Her work has appeared in many publications such as Realms of Fantasy, The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy, Interzone and Sybil’s Garage. Her debut novel The Native Star was published to critical acclaim in September 2010 by Ballantine Spectra.
She can be heard frequently on PodCastle, both as guest host and narrator, and has long been a beloved part of the Escape Artists family. Follow her online or on Twitter.
About the Artist
Barry J. Northern
Barry is a game developer based in Bournemouth, England making freemium games for clients such LEGO and the BBC. His latest game is breaking all records on iOS, not surprising with a title like L”. It’s for younger kids, but if you fancy blasting alien brains check out LEGO Hero Factory Brain Attack.
All this game developing has meant that Barry hasn’t been as active in the podcasting and fiction world as he used to be. He still does the occasional narration for other shows, such as The Drabblecast, and appears on Cast of Wonders from time to time.