You can try to escape from the mundane, or with the help of Paul Di Filippo, you can take a short, meaningful break from it. In the vein of George Saunders or Michael Chabon, Di Filippo uses the tools of science fiction and the surreal to take a deep, richly felt look at humanity. His brand of funny, quirky, thoughtful, fast-moving, heart-warming, brain-bending stories exist across the entire spectrum of the fantastic from hard science fiction to satire to fantasy and on to horror, delivering a riotously entertaining string of modern fables and stories from tomorrow, now and anytime. After you read Paul Di Filippo, you’ll no longer see everyday life quite the same.
If you’re allergic to surprises, Paul Di Filippo is not the writer for you. With a total of fifteen stories including two original to this volume, Di Filippo delivers conventional stories unconventionally and unconventional ones straightforwardly. With a magic imagination he transforms traditional science fiction formulas into strange coruscating gems. Many of the tales in Shuteye for the Timebroker mix scientific rigor with wild and hilariously weird fantasy, producing delightful alloys of the surreal and the mundane.
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About the Author
Di Filippo is also a highly regarded critic and reviewer, appearing regularly in Asimov’s Science Fiction and the Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. A recent publication, coedited with Damien Broderick, is Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985–2010.
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Shuteye for the Timebroker
By Paul Di Filippo
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2006 Paul Di Filippo
All rights reserved.
Readers of my Neutrino Drag collection will perhaps recall the presence there of two early stories of mine: "Rescuing Andy" and "Yellowing Bowers." As I explained in those pages, these stories were the start of an abortive series set in the mysterious New England seaside town of Blackwood Beach. Two other installments were written but never sold.
On a whim recently, I went into my cave of memories (a large closet in my office full of moldering boxes) and dug out the manuscripts of those two tales, which I had not looked at in nearly twenty years. I was amazed to see they were at least as readable as the two that saw print, and so I determined, rather nostalgically, to give them a long-delayed life.
Following the seasonal motif established by "Rescuing Andy" (summer) and "Yellowing Bowers" (autumn), the third story, "Captain Jill," illustrates the events of a typically atypical Blackwoodian winter. The knitting motif herein traces its origin to the vocation of my mate, Deborah Newton, who at the time I was embarking on my career with this story was starting her own as a knitwear designer.
Someone was singing in the cellar.
T. Clayton Little, sitting stiffly in his ornately carved canopy bed, the still-strange room around him darkly full of the accumulation of two hundred years of other peoples lives, wondered if he should investigate.
Perhaps, he thought, if I simply lie here, Granny will go and checks it out. And if she doesn't get up, then it can't be anything serious.
For a moment, that train of reasoning reassured him. Its derailment, however, was almost immediate. Granny Little was partially deaf and suffered from arthritis in several crucial joints. Additionally, she would never see the blithe side of ninety again. Weren't these very facts the reason why Clayton had let his father convince him to come live with her and manage her affairs, not the least of which was the Little Mistletoe Farm of Blackwood Beach? Have to drive out there early tomorrow and show some extra attention to Ethel, thought Clayton with absurd irrelevance, before dragging his mind back to the problem at hand. What was he thinking of, hoping the frail old woman would save him the unpleasant task of venturing out of his warm bed at four in the morning, padding down three flights of steep stairs into a cold, damp basement, and finding out just who—or what—was making that cacophony?
Ashamed of his selfish trepidation, Clayton tossed back the thick comforters and swung his long, gangly legs over the side of the bed. Midwinter moonlight shafting through a leaded-glass window revealed one of Clayton's best-kept secrets: a fondness for old-fashioned nightshirts most unfashionable in a young man of thirty-two. Catching sight of the dim ghost of his reflection in a mirror, he winced, recalling the derision Marianne had heaped upon him back in Asheville when she had discovered this gaucherie. Her insensitive laughter had been one of the prime causes of their breakup, freeing Clayton from his last tie to the town of his birth.
He shook his head in wonder at the inexplicable twists and turns of life. Had he not been so enamored of being unromantically comfortable while sleeping, he might never have broken up with Marianne. Consequently, he would not have been inclined to move north, to this strange New England town of his ancestors. And therefore, he would not, at this instant, have been shuffling from one frozen foot to another, postponing the inevitable moment when he would have to descend to locate the source of the mysterious singing.
Chafing his big, rawboned hands together nervously, Clayton left his bedroom. Out in the long third-floor hall, he turned left and proceeded cautiously past Granny Little's room—whence gentle old-lady snores issued—to the head of the stairs. The noise was more easily heard here, drifting up from the depths of the large house like the notes of an infernal symphony. Although Clayton could not make out any words, the lusty soprano seemed to convey unpleasant intimations of villainy and unholy glee.
Down the stairs, with their threadbare woven runner, to the second floor, Clayton slowly made his way. Pausing, he sought to discern at least the refrain of the song, hoping to recognize a pop tune and thereby draw the reassuring conclusion that the radio had somehow shorted itself into activity. No luck.
On the ground floor of Claytons new home, tiny fragments of the song became recognizable. Standing in the kitchen, with its massive wood-gas stove and cantankerous icebox, Clayton thought to make out the words "dead man," "treasure," and "rum." Not exactly the components of any current Top 40 hit he could recall. And anyway, the innocent radio sat quiescent on its shelf.
Now Clayton began to grow intrigued, despite his fears. Who could be responsible for this bellowed chantey? Some drunk who had wandered into their cellar to escape the cold, no doubt. Emboldened, Clayton took a long-handled flashlight from its resting place and moved to the locked door leading to the stone-walled cellar.
The rickety stairs leading down were lined with old galoshes, empty Ball jars, broken crockery, and other relics of life led by generations of Littles. Clayton descended cautiously, reaching the dirt floor without barking his bony ankles, a minor triumph.
Here the song welled up in its full glory, only slightly muted. Clayton recognized it now for a version of that beloved boyhood favorite, "Fifteen Men on a Dead Man's Chest." Odd, he hadn't thought of that song for decades. He wondered that anyone still sang it. And the voice! Was it that of a throaty woman, or of a high-voiced man?
The familiarity and innocent connotations of the song lifted Clayton's spirits even further. Some teenager it had to be, bent on mischief.
Flashing the beam of his light around the web-shrouded, unpartitioned space, cluttered with generations of offcast miscellany, Clayton looked for an open window that could have granted the intruder access. But as far as he could see, the small, dusty casements were all fastened securely with rusty hooks and eyes. Perhaps elsewhere, out of sight, a window had been breached. Clayton pictured the inconsiderate singer, supine and drunk, lying facedown on the damp earthen floor, bellowing in his muffled manner. Not wanting even an annoying vagrant to catch a cold, Clayton moved away from the foot of the stairs and walked down irregular aisles of cartons and loose junk, furniture and Flexible Flyers.
A thorough investigation of the capacious cellar, however, revealed no open window or supine drunk, but only more assorted trunks and boxes, a gigantic furnace with its pile of coal boxed by three wooden walls, and a dilapidated sleigh covered with cobwebs and smelling of musty leather.
The unseen singer had switched tunes by the time Clayton had completed his search. The new song was unfamiliar, but of the same genre, detailing unsavory depradations and plunderings, accompanied by graphic bloodshed.
Clayton returned to the foot of the stairs and stood there, baffled. Where the hell was this intruder who had disturbed his sleep?
He cocked his head. Was the sound issuing from below?
Suddenly he was ten years old again. Gran'pa Little, long dead, stood beside him. "Yup, Clay, this town is wormier than Swiss cheese. Laced with tunnels dug by the old freebooters and smugglers. Why, one of them surfaces right here."
Perhaps the old man hadn't been joshing. Clayton went to the southwest corner of the cellar. There, shifting a box or two, he uncovered the trapdoor set in its wooden frame. He pried up the rusty ring set in its top and heaved. The door opened with a ghastly creak, and surprisingly fresh, sea-scented air rushed out in a puff. A set of rungs led straight down into the black hole.
Flashlight in one hand, its lonely beam directed uselessly upward, Clayton took the first step downward.
His return to Blackwood Beach was proving a bit more arduous than he had anticipated.
* * *
Once upon a time, Blackwood Beach had been, for young Clayton, a place of no responsibilities. In those days he had never had to contend with late-night caterwauling; nor had he had to manage family businesses.
Every summer for thirteen years, from the age of six to eighteen, Clayton had left behind the mundane for the miraculous by means of a simple sixteen-hour drive north with his parents. Departing hilly Asheville, North Carolina, where his father was the curator of the Vanderbilt mansion, Clayton always felt as if his soul were being freed from the bondage of his school work and his paper route and reformed into a purer, more marvelous thing.
The feeling would persist until his father would yell at Clayton and his sister, "Get your goddamn feet off the back of my seat, you two depraved young monsters, and count out-of-state license plates!" Reality reasserted itself then, informing Clayton that he was not entirely free. Still, something of the sense of emancipation would remain with him through the long months of June, July, and August, spent amid the straggling, elm-shaded streets of Blackwood Beach.
For the first few trips, Clayton was never quite sure of how they arrived at the old seaside town. Pestering his father to tell him the precise directions, he got back such instructions as "follow a dark star" or "turn left where normality turns right." By the age of ten, though, he knew the route as well as Mr. Little, though he could not put it into phrases any less opaque than his fathers.
Although it took some getting used to, Blackwood Beach eventually became Clayton's favorite place. (What child could fail to fall in love with a village where, for instance, the town coordinator possessed scales, webbed fingers, and a penchant for raw herring?) When, in his teens, he came to read the works of Asheville's most famous native son, Thomas Wolfe, he found a sentiment that tallied with his feelings for Blackwood Beach:
"America is the only place where miracles not only happen, but happen daily."
Throughout his teens, Clayton continued to enjoy his yearly stays with Granny and Gran'pa Little, especially the visits to the Little Mistletoe Farm, which lay a few miles out of town. As the years passed, however, other interests naturally grew to assume equal importance. When it came time for him to enter college, he regretted that having to work during the summers would mean that he could not keep up his visits. After a time, the town and its weird doings shrank to relative insignificance, a parcel of happy, youthful memories wistfully untied and examined during the more stressful moments of adult life.
At the age of thirty, Clayton had returned to Asheville to live with his parents. His own business—a video-rental store specializing in recordings of various elderly actors reading the works of Romantic poets—had gone bankrupt, thanks to an appalling lack of taste on the part of the general public, and he needed some time to recoup his inner resources.
Somehow, two years had drifted by while he held a succession of odd jobs. A wan romance had developed with an old friend, now divorced. Its ending had almost ruined the pleasure of nightshirts for Clayton, leaving him bitter and confused.
Then had come the letter from Granny Little, written in her familiar crabbed script, which looked as if a drunken spider dipped in ink had wandered across the paper. Requesting help with the family business, the letter was too plaintive to go unheeded.
And so Clayton had taken the well-known road north, finding that he hadn't forgotten the final, crucial passage into Blackwood Beach, and feeling as if the tawdry years were dropping off his back like a snake's too-small skin.
* * *
The splintery ladder had left its calling cards in the soles of Clayton's bare feet and under the base of one thumb. Standing beside the ladder, he tried to aim the flashlight at his injury with the same hand with which he was attempting to remove the sliver in his digit. The whole procedure was both ineffectual and frustrating, so he gave up and concentrated on taking in his novel surroundings.
The ladder vanished above into a deep black square that was the cellar trapdoor casement. The tunnel ceiling around the hole was braced with wooden planks and beams, mossy and green with age. The rickety ladder hung down like a dipstick in an oil tank, not far from the earthen wall of the passage, so that one might almost have missed it without moving slowly through the subterranean shaft and carefully shining a light.
The passage—obviously part of the extensive network underlying Blackwood Beach—was wider across than the span of Clayton's outstretched arms, a not inconsiderable distance. From behind Clayton came a moist breeze meandering in from the sea. Ahead, the beam-ribbed tunnel stretched cold and damp.
It was from this direction that the singing came. So much was clear. Also apparent was the nature of the voice. It was a woman's, reminiscent of that of the young Lauren Bacall. (Clayton still got shivers when he recalled the neophyte actress telling Bogart how to whistle.) Had this woman wandered in from the seaward end of the tunnel and gotten lost? She certainly didn't sound frightened, unless she was singing solely to keep her courage up. Clayton doubted, however, that someone who was terrified could put so much almost palpable joy into lyrics about maiming, looting, and burning.
Down the tunnel, flashlight probing ahead, Clayton cautiously advanced.
He was not ready for what he encountered.
The young woman sat on a big crate. Her hair was a wild mass of red curls, like a bank of roses in spring. Her skin was white as country snow, save for random freckles and ruby lips. Her green eyes seemed to catch the flashlight's rays; they shone like a cat's. Her small nose managed to imply an impudent archness.
She was dressed rather unconventionally. A white shirt of masculine cut, big balloon sleeves tight at the wrist, its buttons half-undone, causing it to hang off one shoulder. A short black skirt with a jagged hem, revealing long, exquisitely tapering bare legs, which were encased below the knees in high boots. A wide leather belt, from which depended a sheathless sword.
Swigging from a bottle, she let one leg dangle; the other was bent sharply, the heel of her boot caught against the upper edge of the crate. The whole effect was exceedingly indelicate, and had Clayton's mother ever caught his sister sitting in such a fashion, the girl would have gotten the walloping of her life.
An icy drip started to fall from the root-tangled ceiling of the ancient, beam-braced tunnel, directly above the befuddled Clayton. It seemed the very essence and distillation of frigidity, a succession of pure arctic droplets, each stinging like the Ice Queen's kiss.
Clayton didn't even feel them. He stood barefoot—his robe twitching halfheartedly in the tunnel's mild breeze, his collar growing wetter by the minute—unable to believe what he was seeing.
Bellowing out the final refrain of her chantey, the woman paused to drink long and heavily from her bottle, afterward wiping her mouth with the back of one hand. Clayton noticed then that one board of the crate had been pried off, revealing numerous bottles packed in straw within. When she lowered her head, her gaze at last fell upon Clayton.
"Company!" she shouted. "'Sblood, but I do hate drinking alone! Haul your carcass over here, man, and help me hoist a few."
She patted the empty spot next to her invitingly, with a lascivious twinkle in her eyes that Clayton found disconcerting, to say the least. He gulped, coughed, and found his voice.
"Uh, sorry, ma'am, but I make it a policy not to mix spirits with spirits."
"Ah, a regular tavern wit, I see! Very glib, indeed. But your caution is overnice, in this case. I'm no ghost, you mooncalf! Look at me! Does this flesh look less than solid?"
Subtly shifting her position, allowing her skirt to hike up in an apparent attempt to meet her downward-trending blouse halfway, the woman offered herself for inspection.
"Ma'am, please!" Clayton begged, averting his reddening face.
"Have some spine, man! Are you a eunuch? Why, the scurvy potboy, lowest of my crew, would have known how to react to such an invitation by Captain Jill Innerarity, Hellcat of the East Coast, known from Cape Cod to Cape Hatteras as a mortal terror and expert wench. All right, you can look again. I've composed myself all ladylike for your eyes."
Excerpted from Shuteye for the Timebroker by Paul Di Filippo. Copyright © 2006 Paul Di Filippo. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
- Captain Jill
- Billy Budd
- Slowhand and Little Sister
- Going Abo
- We’re All in This Alone
- Walking the Great Road
- The Mysterious Iowans
- Shuteye for the Timebroker
- The Days of Other Light
- The Secret Sutras of Sally Strumpet
- Eel Pie Stall
- The Farthest Schorr