Skinned in the Willows

Published on Amazon (14 Oct. 2016)

This long story tells the tale, frightful and factual, of Fordhamshire's most heinous murders. Detective Chief Inspector Badger and others who worked the case put forth their recollections of how the killer of Portly Otter, Ms. Rabbit, and her bunnies was finally brought to justice. Part true crime, part fuzzy animal story, Skinned in the Willows also features crime scene art, making it something of a scrapbook cataloguing the meandering — and oftentimes fruitless — investigation.

Not for the faint of heart!

This is one of the many happy collaborations I've had with my best friend, the artist Kevin Storrar. All art and the layout of this ghastly little tale are his work. He and I are interested in the form of true crime narratives, whether they're written, documentaries on TV, or podcasts. The way murderous tragedy is packaged in entertaining ways somehow seems all the more perverse when the players are animals from children's literature. Something about cute woodland creatures suffering grizzly abuses smacks hard when many have been desensitized to it all when it's about real people. One of my students once read this and told me on a Monday morning that she gained a lot of respect for me for how messed up it is. "I never thought you had that in ya," she said. "Good work!"

"http://youareforgiv.en"

Published by The Fexible Persona (2 Feb. 2015)

Collected in Tales From the Internet (2015)

This story actually holds an array of significances for me in ways most other stories I’ve written do not. For one, it is the very last thing I wrote while living in Ireland. I was there for over four years and wrote a lot on that island; knowing this was the last thing to come out of me while I was there makes it personally special. The other great thing to come out of this story was its publication in The Flexible Persona, which led to the editors, Alexander Hogan and Cheska Avery Lynn, asking me to be an editorial assistant for the magazine. As far as stories go, this one has boomeranged more goodwill in my direction than any other:

It shows up on no Google search. Those who ask Jeeves and throw a bone to Lycos find their inquiries unanswered, the site unfetched.

But they say it’s out there, somewhere on the web, and if you can just find the right link or conjure up the proper search terms or—miracle of miracles—guess the domain name, there is a website that, once found, absolves everything. I or you or anybody else could find it through any browser, on tablet, phone, or laptop, and upon arrival have the sum of our trespasses unto self and others wiped away. All we have done that has brought forth hurt would be cleansed of us. Simply by arriving at this site, we will be made whole again…

"No Country For Old Mascots"

Published in College Green (Sep. 2014)

This is another one of the Nub’s Novelties stories, this one being told from the point of view of Nub himself. I got to thinking about how sad it is when advertising mascots vanish from our lives. I started worrying about what happens to them. Where do they go? How to they exist without purpose anymore? Who Framed Roger Rabbit certainly shaped the aesthetics of this one, that whole real people interacting with cartoon characters has always fascinated me:

I’ll tell you what happens to those logo mascot characters after their businesses go kaput: They lurk. Haven’t you ever wondered where they go? For years a blue rabbit represents life insurance or a can of beans the canning factory and then the companies fail and those characters seem to vanish. But see they don’t. They just go somewhere out of sight for a while, only to turn up later on some unforeseen day when we suddenly remember them. Something to do with collective memory or something. I’ve experienced it myself. Was sitting right there, right at the end of the counter at the Curry King, eating my samosas and checking the shop’s August report, when in doddered Phil’s long gone cartoon mascot. He sat two stools down and I thought to myself, “Now this is something.”

Recognized him straight away. The goldenrod body with each kernel’s undercurve tinted by an orange stroke. The drooping cornsilk topknot. The black arms and legs no thicker’n broomsticks and the shucked green shorts. Animated. I mean flat to the eye. This was no whelp in a costume like you’ll see winding up the crowd down at the ballpark. No, he was solid colors in a black outline, moving with slapstick, Vaudeville grace. And he’d seen better days. Round his frown was a stipple-stubble five-o’clock shadow and under his black oval eyes, sinking under the frames of his glasses, were crescents the color of bachelor’s buttons. As if that didn’t illustrate his condition enough, his posture was all wrong for sweetcorn. He curved like a gherkin and had the smell of corn whisky on him. This toon was pickled.

Looking to the door I expected to see Rod Serling standing there, ready to introduce the episode, but nope. We were still in Des Moines.…

"Personhood"

First published in The Subtopian (7 Jan. 2014)

Anthologized in The Subtopian: Selected Stories, Vol. 2 (Subtopian Press: May 2015)

How awful would it be a kid entering puberty in a country that’s outlawed masturbation? Imagine living in a house where Dad quietly thinks it’s a stupid law but Mom’s totally behind it. I was certain this story would never see the light of day, but then The Subtopian ran with it and, better yet, included the story in their second best-of print volume:

“Milton. Milton, wake up.”

Milton woke to his wife, the rib from his own cage, pressing him into the mattress. “What, what?”

“Are you awake?” Her face was close enough to kiss in the dark. “Are you?”

He smacked his chops. “What is it?”

She sat on the edge of the bed, her weight tilting him toward her. “I was just up because I had heard the bathroom door close at 11:07 but then it hadn’t opened again by 11:28—I thought twenty-one minutes would be sufficient—so I got up and went out and I could see through the light, through the bottom of the door, I could see the shadow coming out from there, through the slit at the bottom of the door, that the shadow—”

“The shadow what?”

“I could see that the shadow was different than when someone is sitting on the toilet.”

Milton rubbed his face. “Okay.”

“So I knocked and it was Jeff and I asked if everything was alright and he said everything was alright.”

“Mhmm.”

“And I asked if he was sure that everything was alright, and he said that, yes, yes, everything was alright.”

“Well was he alright or wasn’t he?”

“So I opened the door—”

“You opened—”

“The door.” She took a sharp breath, starting to shake and squeak.

Milton sat up. “Is Jeff okay?”

“He—”

Milton forced himself from the sheets, his wife’s butt pinning them on his side of the bed. He scrambled to stand but she stopped him with surprising strength. “Well if I’ve got to go help him…”

“Milton,” she sniffled, “he was on the floor,” she whispered, “masturbating.”

Milton slouched…

"The Apotropaic Weathervane"

Published in Spoilage (Vol. 2, July 2013)

Weird tales are something I’ve always enjoyed writing, being so influenced by them all my life as a reader. This falls into that category, presenting a couple of characters, a dispute, and a bit of the supernatural to sort things out. One of the great features of this kind of storytelling is its ability to grapple with difficult subjects without flinching. When Spoilage, which was published by fellow Iowans, accepted this one for publication, I was happy to have something coming out in my hometown. I have my buddy Michael Morris to thank for teaching me the word “apotropaic,” which is an adjective describing something that is used to ward off evil:

There it was, perched on top of the Winnebago in the gravel lot overlooking the spillway, its directionals marking the cardinal points. Above, pointed into the northwest wind, a Native American brave stood with an arrow set to fly from his bow. The ornament charmed her the first time she saw it atop a barn on her inaugural visit to what had been Mr. White’s farm. It was a charming piece, unlike anything she had ever encountered on her weekend antiquing jaunts around the state. Hand-hammered copper clouded all over with verdigris, the figure was more than two feet tall, and still in fine condition despite its age. A blanket covered the brave’s shoulders, about to fall free, its right arm extended at bow’s length and its left bent into a wing—string taut and arrow straight. Atop his head he wore a hair roach with a single feather arcing back. One could even make out beads strung from his ears, and on the blackened medallion hung around his neck was the profile of a face. The weathervane bore that folksy, nineteenth-century, prairie-life authenticity that appealed so much to collectors like her. She wanted it even before a search online for similar pieces revealed a weathervane not unlike this one had sold at auction in England for three and a half million pounds—which she knew would be even more in dollars, conversion rates favoring British sterling…

"The Pixelated Paladin"

Published by Pantheon's Artemis issue (July 2013)

Collected in Tales From the Internet (2015)

I am so chuffed that I landed a story in an early issue of Pantheon, one of the best speculative fiction journals out there. This one wound up in my collection Tales From the Internet, too, because it dives into family dynamics playing out in an MMORPG. In this case, we see a son’s struggle to accept his dad moving on after his parents’ divorce:

The almost real sun burned bright from the monitor, setting ten times faster than the real one. Its heatless, coded beams flared the autumnal leaves of the maple tree his character stood beneath and fell into eclipse behind the five-spire basalt fortress on yonder plateau. Seen from an over-the-shoulder perspective, the Nordic paladin, donning white crystal armor bedazzled with glinting gold rivets, idled with an occasional programmed turn of his helmeted head. Jean-Luc, who customized this character down to power bonuses and width of eyebrows, shared no physical resemblance to him save for being of Norwegian stock. Whereas HoNoR_BlAdE91 (the username HoNoR_BlAdE was already taken) looked to be forty with a bodybuilder’s physique, Jean-Luc was nineteen with receding acne and a curvature accentuated by the tight XL shirts he wore. Sitting before his desktop computer, he idled in his own way, impatiently taking gulps from a two liter of Diet Mountain Dew. He’d just talked to his Dad on the phone so the wait was increasingly irritating.

Finally a figure approached, ambling up the hillside, obscured by metronomically swaying prairie grasses. When the other crested, Jean-Luc stuck out his jaw. Standing before him was a spritely, grin-lucky Garden Elf, waist-high with green hair tufting out of a brown Robin Hood cap. A leather Peter Pan leotard left nothing to the imagination. His father, a financial advisor who told people how to invest their money, had customized a character wearing booties with bells on the ends of their curled points.

[Jean-Luc?] asked a chat prompt from Jean-LucsDad.

“Dad, talk into your mic like we talked about,” he said into his headset. He’d specifically told him to not pick any of the elves for his race because of about a thousand reasons.

“Come in, Jean-Luc, can you hear me?”

“Dad.”

“They don’t have apostrophes for the login name.”

“Look, it’s okay,” he said. “But I told you not to be an Elf and you picked the worst kind!”

“Sorry,” he said. “He just looked funny so I picked him.”

“What class did you pick?” Jean-Luc took another swig of pop. “Tell me you’re at least some kinda Mage.”

“I picked the Courtier.”

Jean-Luc groaned…

"The Hedgehog & the Lemon"

Published in The Adroit Journal (Issue 7, 2013)

I classify this as one of my fables. Again, my love for the hedgehog finds expression:

The hedgehog knew the candlemaker’s ghastly secret: the husbands dusted in lye in the shed. All the neighbourhood wildlife, even the starlings, understood it best to avoid her garden, where holly and honeysuckle disguised that unassuming tomb. But this hedgehog was in love. And love, as everybody knows who’s ever come close to it, cancels out certain kinds of fear.

Drawing him on his nocturnal rounds to the hedged-in plot of moss behind the candlemaker’s detached red brick house was a thing of mystery. A life-shining jewel, a sunshine fruit, a living glint of daytime’s celestial circle that was too bright for the quilled creature’s soft eyes. There, in the conservatory, the candlemaker grew something altogether mystical. Each night he darted from the blackthorn, traversed a pile of broken plaster moulds that smelled of wax, and climbed onto a watering can set under a downspout. On the other side of glass stood a grow lamp, its miniature sun illuminating the glossy green leaves of a tiny tree bearing the one thing the hedgehog could not understand: a lemon…

"Heartbreak in Space"

Published in P. Q. Leer (Winter 2013)

One of my great aspirations is to master the sad bastard short story. This one feels like one small step in that direction at least. I have plans to write more stories about the space mission described here, but we’ll see when I get around to it. I have to say I was pretty bummed out when P. Q. Leer closed up shop, too; they were publishing a lot of exciting stories. I’m grateful all the same that they accepted this for one of their last issues:

Lieutenant Alderyard, selected for his impeccable self-discipline as one of “The West's Thirty-Three,” was seven-years trained and prepped for the long cold slog across space. Five years to Europa; six months on the surface; five years back to Earth. Not once in the lead-up did he ever consider that the mission, which required each of its members sacrifice all earthly ties for more than a decade of life, would be a joy from the very first night in space. Sure, he had paused for moments of awe throughout his career. Scintillations upon atmospheric reentry once thrilled him, as had witnessing the auroras from the observation deck of the Western Alliance Space Platform, and of course the first time he stood sole-deep in Moon dust, he couldn't resist lifting his gloved hand to hold the Earth between forefinger and thumb. That became the first and last gesture he made on his seventeen assignments to the Moon. But up to this mission, the first of its kind and the farthest human beings had yet realistically conceived of traveling, work always came first. Perhaps this glee was a byproduct of the honor to be one of the first to head to Jupiter, or even just a response to looking down the barrel of five years of relative relaxation before making moonfall. But no, of course he knew it wasn't either of those factors. What had constellated the lieutenant's heart was Dr. Úna O'Donoghue...

"Edgar's Way"

Published in Independent Ink Magazine (No. 07/08, 21 Dec. 2012)

This is another episode from my story-cycle about Nub's Novelties, an independent toy store in the East Village of Des Moines, Iowa. This particular story focuses on the store's manager, Edgar, and why he's such a stick-in-the-mud:

He shifted from one cheek to the other in the duct-taped leatherback rolling chair and scowled at the two of them. “I don’t care which of you threw the baby into the street,” he lied.

“I did it.” Maisy licked her bottom lip. Problematic Maisy. The way she said it, so self assured and unapologetic, no remorse for dragging James down with her.

“Well, but, I helped,” James defended, all but fawning at her over his horn-rims.

“Well, but,” she went on, “I threw it in front of the Escalade.”

They stood before him in the office like a pair of jostled bobbleheads, Maisy as indifferent as she could be to the severity of her actions and James risking his integrity for enthrallment with a girl he’d never catch. Twentysomethings behaving like middle schoolers...

"Apophallation"

Published by Lowestoft Chronicle (1 Dec. 2012)

The first day I was training a woman on the job (way back in 2005), she told me that slugs are both male and female and occasionally suffer an unfortunate mishap while mating that scientists have named “apophallation.” How could I not write a story after that exchange? Luckily Lowestoft Chronicle swooped in and published it:

Dr. Stufflebeam hoped against reality that the one rapping on the slugatorium's insulated door might be Dr. Estes, his former colleague, who left two weeks prior for a more promising bio firm up in the Twin Cities. Instead, in stepped the fairest creature ever to grace the worm-wet oubliette. She was small and wore a spruce green turtleneck, her hair in two loose braids behind her ears. He would always recall that first sight of the new chemist, before realizing how he must have looked to her: meek and stomached, the slug herder amidst his terrarium flock, tinkering with the misting lines.

"Hi, I'm Mariel Greenblatt."

"Where'd you come from?"

"Scappoose?" she answered, as if asking herself. "I'm the new chemist."

"You're Doctor Greenblatt?" Estes's replacement. Successor. Godsend. The only woman on the project. "I'm Bill." He pulled in his stomach. "Stufflebeam."

"Nice to meet you." She offered her hand, which he took, holding her so-soft fingers so as to kiss them. But he didn't. He let go, put his hand in his lab coat, stood Napoleonically. She didn't seem to notice, peering into one of the terrariums at a European Black Slug chewing a strip out of leaf lettuce.

"You're the malacologist. Dr. Harrison said you might be here."

She tilted her chin and followed the slug, a dribble of living India ink, as it coursed over the edible hill. "I start tomorrow but I wanted to bring in a few boxes."

"Well," he managed, "welcome."

"Thank you." She squinted. "Arion ater."

His heart twirled at her expertise. "You know your species."

"Not yet. I just read the label on his tank."

"Oh, right…"

"Ex-President Fenk"

Published by Vol. 1 Brooklyn (13 Nov. 2011)

This is another of the Nub’s Novelties tales, this one focusing on James Fenk, an aspiring cartoonist who’s reluctant to attend his ten-year high school reunion:

James, doubled over on the stool behind the practical jokes counter, sat like a slinky stopped between steps. He drew defensively with one arm fortifying his Moleskine. Meant to be illustrating the poster for the store’s Fifty-Ninth Annual Silliest Sneakers Contest, he instead sketched an idea for a strip he’d been working on. He had to work fast because Edgar, manager by birthright, was in the back taking inventory. Despite no artistic leanings, his boss always had a word of criticism for James’s store-commissioned artwork. The thought of him poopooing these private efforts was too offensive to allow for drawing freely.

He kept sketching when the phone rang, waiting for Ryan at the wind-ups counter to get it. Ryan, schooled at Chicago’s improv institutions and fallen to open-mic stand-up at the Ha-Ha Hut in West Des Moines, thought it funny to let the phone go three rings and a chirp into the fourth before answering, simply because it hackled Edgar. “I want that phone answered after the first ring” — which they all thought redundantly hilarious — “and no later than the third!” Wanting to keep Edgar in backstock long as he could, James trumped Ryan’s comedy of delay by picking up on ring number two.

“Nub’s Novelties,” he answered, his pencil stitching crosshatch into his protagonist’s loincloth. The caller, speaking with corn-syrup-and-caffeine urgency, sought a videogame console the store did not sell. Being a retail pro, James took care to let him down gently. “Oh right. We carry a selection of games but none of the video kind...”

"The Martyr Dumb"

Published by How To Hug Your Ex (Oct. 2011)

Collected in Tales From the Internet (2015)

This story was published by the short-lived How To Hug Your Ex, a fun online magazine edited by the great Rhys Leyshon Evans. I first drafted this story way back in 2006 and kept reworking it over the years. The driving concern I had was the problem of marvelously stupid people and how they might walk right into traps without any kind of awareness as to how their foolish behavior looks to others. The idea came to me during the whole To Catch a Predator craze on TV. Given the link to online communication, I collected this one in Tales From the Internet:

The drive to Muscatine from Des Moines takes nearly three hours, but Jacob is grateful to be out of the city and bearing witness to the countryside. Riding over Iowa’s living hills, alternating crowns of corn and soybeans, there’s no doubting it: this is God’s country. He spent all night rehearsing the Sinner’s Prayer for her to recite. He also printed out the addresses of the three Sanderson households listed for Muscatine so he can deliver Rachel to her mother should she resist.

Having never been to Muscatine, the storefront town charms him straight away. Of course he’s early, so he drives down to the river and looks at it for a while from the car. That the Mississippi is muddy strikes him as a shame. Old Miss needs her own John the Baptist to make that water clean. He could open up a stand, like one where the kids sell lemonade, but right on the river’s bank, selling baptism instead. Except it’d be free. Salvation is priceless, after all. The image really tickles him and he has to make sure to remember it as he drives away. Pastor Brenner’ll love it.

Dairy Silo stands right where MapQuest said it would. It beckons tall, an antique grain silo with a soft-serve swirl rooftop that probably lights up at night. Sitting at one of the picnic tables out front is a girl in a ball cap with curly red hair. He parks at an angle in the gravel lot and reaches behind for the Bible he’ll give her. But it isn’t in the backseat. Not on the floor either.

“How could I forget it?”

Oh well. Sending up a prayer, he shimmies out and doesn’t bother to take the keys from the ignition. This is a small town and all.

His feet slide on the gravel, making him conscious of his scarecrow stride. It’s okay. He is otherwise presentable, wearing a striped dress shirt with khakis and mousse in his hair. He tried spiking it, but the aerosol foam simply made it droop.

“Rachel?”

It’s devastating to see how temptation has seeded her. Besides the Cubs hat, she wears hoop earrings ample for perching canaries, a yellow polka dot pink halter-top, an el cheapo magenta miniskirt, and white knee-high boots with leopard-spot faux fur trim. Worse, she is fellating a frozen treat on a stick. Jacob winces. Teenagers of this type are not the easiest to Save, especially without a Bible. He’ll have to rely on the verses he knows by heart, which aren’t many. Blasted memorization never came easy.

“I’m Jacob.” He tries to smile, his lips dry despite the humidity. “Told you I’d be here.”

She slides the creamy Silo-sicle out of her mouth and licks her fuchsia-painted lips. “Hey…”

"To Trap a God"

Published in College Green (Sep. 2011)

This story grew out of a question I couldn’t get out of my head: What would happen if two middle school kids summoned Dionysus? A fun part of this one was putting my fledgling skills in Ancient Greek to use by appropriately applying lines Dionysus speaks in plays by Euripides and Aristophanes to the situation he finds himself in when summoned to the living room of a couple of dingbat kids in modern-day Des Moines:

The boys did it with help from inky tomes they came across in the occult section at the downtown branch of the Des Moines Public Library. You had to go downtown to find the good books, the musty volumes full of magic and force. All they carried at the neighborhood libraries was kid stuff. Their research began the first day of summer after seventh grade. They spent a month and a half riding downtown daily, Nate on his ten-speed and Phil on his BMX, to pour over everything they could find on power-harnessing cult ceremonies, ancient rituals, and mythic rites, always jotting notes of their findings in a beat-up green spiral notebook that Nate had used for drawing pictures of wrestlers in Math class. They left the pencil drawings in, writing around the margins of their rippling muscles, and with a paperclip scraped R + M’S OCCULT STUDIES into the cover.

The whole summoning was Phil’s idea. A shiny-cheeked obese woman in a green suit had spoken to his church youth group that Spring—his divorced Born Again mother made him go—and railed against the danger of reading novels full of child wizards. According to her, magic was a very real and destructive force, nothing to be messed around with. The tubby crocodile was so vehement about it that she blathered herself to the point of tears, recounting stories of boys and girls she’d known who were lost to Satan’s Army after mere Ouija-dabbling. Phil decided to add meddling in old time cult magic to his list of things to mess around with over summer vacation, along with videogames and fireworks…

"Torrence & Friends"

Published in Stimulus Respond (Number 12: Toys, Autumn 2011)

Anthologized in Hand Picked Stimulus Respond (Pavement Books, April 2014)

This was the first Nub’s Novelties story that got published. I’ve been writing an on-again-off-again story-cycle project about a fictional toy store in the East Village of Des Moines, Iowa, for over a decade now. I was thrilled when the editor of Stimulus Respond not only published it but later anthologized it in a print edition of the magazine's best pieces. Inspired by my own career as the Director of Wind-Up Toys in a toy store, this one focuses on the sort of imperious child that can be found lording over the train table at any educational toy store in North America:

Asher clasped his five-year-old hands like a primary share holder en route to a board meeting, riding in his three-wheel stroller towards the back of the store. Arriving at the train table in time to immerse himself without the distraction of idiots each morning was an exercise in herding his mother. If he could only count the number of times he had to spur the woman, both verbally and with shin-whaps, to finish folding the laundry, to clean up breakfast, to drive, drive, drive, to hurry up with his car seat and get the stroller out of the trunk… It had happened before, them arriving seconds after the store opened to find some toddling nobody having his or her ignorant way with the little wooden trains, trains with distinct names and personalities which apparently bore no credence to anyone but Asher. Even his fool of a mom couldn’t tell them apart. For years he tried to educate her in distinguishing all eighty-six from one another but none stuck, save boy blue Torrence. His patience had waned. It was too late for her…

"Larpers"

Published in Fourteen Hills (Vol. 17.1, 2011)

This was my first published piece of fiction, hard won after more than a decade of submitting stories to magazines and journals. It was rejected something like fifty-one times before Fourteen Hills graciously picked it up. A writer's first published work often enough portends what he or she will do later, serving as a kind of overture. As such, I think "Larpers" is a fine representation of my ethos. It's gently funny, it appeals to awakening one's imaginative livelihood in the midst of everyday drear, offers up a wacky-and-totally-immersive subculture—and there're a couple guys carousing as a samurai fox and hedgehog in it. Pretty solid preview of my artistic direction:

Venturing into the seeded summer grass behind Hoffman Middle School, a sack of cat food under arm, Mr. Haller sought one kind of movement in the dark and found another. It took a moment for his eyes to adjust. Those shimmering black sticks, bobbing back and forth in agreeable conversation, were katana swords. Two unlit figures, huddled low, wielded them. While he knew kids got up to mischief on the back lawn late at night, nothing he’d ever glimpsed over the fence from the kitchen window led him to believe they were toting Japanese weaponry. It was a neighborhood of family lawyers, comptrollers, and gastroenterologists—not hoodlums.

They wore full samurai battle dress. Homemade, by his reckoning, the tape seams evident. Rigid, rectangular plates shielded their shoulders, chests, and thighs like pangolin scales, the emblem of a green oak tree on both breastplates. Only one donned a helmet, shiny in the night with sweeping sides and two pointy ears, black synthetic fur with white felt insides, poking out of its crown. The wearer, turning to look at Mr. Haller, wore an orange rubber dog nose, affixed with an elastic string, and face paint: black in the pits of his eyes, orange from forehead to cheekbones, and white from there to chin. His friend had a cartoon mouse snout, tipped with a black olive nose, and gray and brown streaks radiating from the center of his face. He wore a hoodie, completely impractical in the humidity, cinched tight with row upon row of brown foam spikes jutting out of it. In each of their swordless hands, triangular sandwich halves.

“’Ark,” the pointy samurai hailed in Dick Van Dyke cockney, “a lone wanderer, My Liege!”

The other took a bite from his sandwich. Relieved at encroaching upon thespians instead of armed junkies, Mr. Haller nevertheless backed away.

“Good sir, do you take us for thieves?” The spiky guy withdrew his scabbard and sheathed the sword with a shumf. Tossing his sandwich crust, he said, “We’ll do thee no ’arm.”

He hesitated.

They both raised their painted eyebrows.

“The last hour or so did either of you see a cat?”

“Is that what brings you to ’Offman Prairie?” He went on as though it were natural to butcher the accent. “Methoughts you’d snuck ’ere to eat your kibble in private.” He pointed to the cradled bag of cat food.

“Oh. No.” Mr. Haller gave the sack a loud shake and squinted over the grass, hoping for the arc of a tail. “He usually comes when I do this at home…”