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Sooner Than Gold
By Cory Skerry

I tug on clean underwear in case I get arrested, paint my makeup perfectly because there’s nothing sadder than a grown man in badly applied eyeliner, and climb out my apartment window, onto the fire escape.

I can’t be late to this assignment, and if I go through the lobby, there’s a strong chance the night doorman will have a thing or two to say about the video footage of our card game last night. I forgot there was a camera pointed at the lobby desk.

The asphalt below reeks of garbage and piss; about half of the latter is probably mine. Don’t judge. If I’m drunk enough, there’s not even any point in aiming for the toilet.

My boots land softly as I hit the ground, but the ladder clangs as my weight slides off. I look back up at the enchantment, where it strings out from my leg to the trunk in my apartment.

[Music plays]

Hello, Welcome to GlitterShip episode nine for June 4… ish… 2015. I’m your host, Keffy, and I’m super excited to be sharing this story with you.

I don’t know what the weather is like where you are, but in Seattle it’s gone from kinda-warm-May to high summer death heat— which probably doesn’t really count as that hot for pretty much anyone else but ugh. I mean, we’re talking like 85 degress Fahrenheit. So I know that yes, that does mean I’m a wimp, but that’s really hot for me. And I’m probably doomed as I move over to New York at the end of August. So hopefully I don’t just end up melting into a horrible puddle.

Anyway. Since our last episode a couple things have happened, at the beginning of the month, the Queers Destroy Science Fiction! special issue of Lightspeed Magazine is out. You can read the first two stories for free now, or buy the issue to read the whole thing right away. I think some of the content is going to remain ebook only but more of the stories will be made available for free as the month goes on.

The 27th annual Lambda Literary Awards have also been announced. The winner for LGBT science fiction / fantasy / horror is Chaz Brenchley for his short fiction collection Bitter Waters. The other nominees included Daryl Gregory for Afterparty, Lee Thomas for Butcher’s Road, A. M. Dellamonica for Child of a Hidden Sea, Max Gladstone for Full Fathom Five, Lea Daley for FutureDyke and Craig Laurance Gidney for Skin Deep Magic. Congrats to everyone for making it to the shortlist, or winning if you’re Chaz. The full list of winners and nominees is available on, and I’ll include a link in the transcript so you can check out the other categories.

Our story for this week is “Sooner than Gold” by Cory Skerry.

Cory Skerry lives in a converted garage that belongs to a pair of valkyries. If he’s not peddling (or meddling with) art supplies, he’s writing, reading submissions, or off exploring with his sweet, goofy pit bulls. When his current meatshell begins to fall apart, he’d like science to put his brain into a giant killer octopus body, with which he’ll be very responsible and not even slightly shipwrecky. He promises. For more stories, visit


Sooner Than Gold
By Cory Skerry

I tug on clean underwear in case I get arrested, paint my makeup perfectly because there’s nothing sadder than a grown man in badly applied eyeliner, and climb out my apartment window, onto the fire escape.

I can’t be late to this assignment, and if I go through the lobby, there’s a strong chance the night doorman will have a thing or two to say about the video footage of our card game last night. I forgot there was a camera pointed at the lobby desk.

The asphalt below reeks of garbage and piss; about half of the latter is probably mine. Don’t judge. If I’m drunk enough, there’s not even any point in aiming for the toilet.

My boots land softly as I hit the ground, but the ladder clangs as my weight slides off. I look back up at the enchantment, where it strings out from my leg to the trunk in my apartment.

It’s a violet chain so thin it looks like I could break it with my fingers, glossy and iridescent like niobium. It burns where it enters my skin, a pain so bright and cruel it took me a week to learn to sleep again.

Sometimes I think about finding some woo-woo psychic to tell me what it is or try to remove it, but I’m afraid the person at the other end of the chain will find out.

Desert heat radiates from the ground, warming the soles of my boots, and I worry about pit-stains and failing hair gel. I shouldn’t have worn my jacket, but I cut a better figure with something to embellish my shoulders. And I need to look sharp. I can’t use my charm at a drag queen convention if I look like a microwaved cat turd.

I give in and hail a cab, where I endure five minutes of crackly radio commercials and a Celine Dion song. My reward is AC while I sip from my flask and neurotically check the book for new directives.

The book is old, like grandpa-times-three old. The worn leather cover is flexible and shiny from years of use, but the gilt edges of the pages haven’t rubbed away. Sometimes I flip through all the paragraphs of nonsense, written in languages I don’t recognize, but I usually just open to the page with the ribbon bookmark, the one page that’s in English.

The book says the same thing it said when I woke up this afternoon:


GlitzCon Ball. Saturday night, 8:00 p.m. Pluck the thorns of the black lily. Do not touch her with your bare flesh.


This cryptic bullshit is sometimes worse, sometimes better, but it nearly always works out in the end. I tuck the book back in my pocket as the cab rolls up to the convention. The side mirror shows me still-flawless makeup before the cab pulls away.

Inside the hotel, I follow signs to the ballroom entrance, where the bass from the party is rattling the doors. An employee holds up a warning hand. She has enough cakey makeup and sparkly rings to be a GlitzCon attendee, and she’s old enough to be my mother.

This isn’t the only entrance for me, but I want to see if I look as good as I think I do, so I’ll try it.

“Where’s your con badge?” the Sparkly Cougar asks.

“I don’t have one,” I say.


I step back, cock a hip, and hold out my hands in the universal gesture for “I’m unarmed.” It works even when you’re not talking to cops. “But that room is full of horny, middle-aged queens, and you know what they like even more than bitching about how painful their shoes are?”

I use both thumbs to peel back the fitted black cloth of my coat, exposing my all-black rockstar outfit: lace shirt, pierced nipples, edges of a mystery tattoo creeping up above the low-slung waistline of my skinny jeans. I’m going for “slutty Japanese pop star” tonight.


Sparkly Cougar reluctantly chuckles.

I grin. “I know, right? Come on, honey, you know no one is going to complain.”

She rolls her eyes, but she laughs and opens the door for the best thief she’ll ever meet.

I stroll into pandemonium. The stench of perfume, sweat, fuzzy teeth, and wine is almost too heavy to breathe;  the requisite flock of disco balls spin stars across the crowd; and the electronic music booms and whirs beside the cacophony of hundreds of gaudy floral costumes. One queen is wearing a ball gown that looks like a giant upside-down rose; another has a bouffant wig with real miniature pansies planted in it. Daffodils, lupines, orchids… None of the elaborate, garish costumes is a black lily.

I don’t see any black anything—I stand out like a goth skidmark.

I had this coat tailored just for me, a slim-waisted frock style with buttons made of real antique coins: pieces-of-eight from a treasure chest I never should have stolen and definitely never should have opened. Still, without the chest I wouldn’t have had the cash to pay the seamstress, and now I have over thirty hidden pockets to stuff with jewelry. Even though I’m here for the thorns of the black lily, nothing says I can’t nab some extra rock candy to pay bills like rent and booze.

I wend my way through the garden of glitter, searching for others in male clothing. Dudes or not, their jewelry is more likely to be real.

I pretend that I’ve tripped on a drag queen’s train,  stumble into a fat fellow whose tie tack looks like it might be real diamonds, and walk off wishing I dared snatch the matching cuff links. But even though I did put on clean underwear, I don’t want to risk getting caught.

The author of the book is not pleased when I’m delayed by jail.

I try not to think about that, instead searching for a black flower costume. There must be a thousand attendees in this cavernous geode of a ballroom, plus at least fifteen hotel staff, ten live parrots hanging in gilded cages by the garden-themed photo set in the back, and two service dogs for one old lady. After forty-five minutes of charming my way through the crowd, winking when someone slaps my ass and leaning over to kiss fingers while I tease off rings—that shit works, I’m telling you—I’m still the single smudge of goth couture in this florist shop LARP.

It’s been almost two years since I failed to steal what the book directed.

I am not going to fail again.

Even the AC can’t stop me from sweating now, and I pat at my hairline with my handkerchief. My mascara is waterproof, but that only goes so far.

The fucking book can’t be specific, can it? No, it just gives me riddles. Maybe I’m looking for a small enamel lily pin on someone’s lapel. Maybe the book means black as in African-American, wearing a lily costume of any possible goddamned color.

Around the room again, and again. Checking lapels, checking skin colors against costumes, panicking every time I see people trickle out the doors.

I head for the nearest door—it’s actually the one I came in—and place my hand on the knob. Options blur through my mind: the elevator, the emergency stairs, a utility closet. I choose the last, and when I open the door, that’s where it leads.

I shut the door quickly behind me, because I don’t want anyone following. Now if they try to open the same door, it will lead into the hall, where it actually goes. Relieved, I take a deep breath of the closet’s comparatively fresh air. Just a faint odor of pine, bleach, and the musty suggestion of a mop put away while wet.

Two doors’ distance is all I get. Don’t ask me how it works, or why I can do it, but if I lay my hand on a knob or a handle, I can choose if the door opens into the following room, or any of the rooms that annex that same room. Sometimes it’s a dead end, like this closet, because there’s no other door to open. I’ve chosen the wrong door and gotten arrested before—it’s a bit like trying to solve a maze with a pen instead of a pencil. You just screw up sometimes.


Like sometime, you might go into a room no other human could have found. Maybe you take a chest that wasn’t meant for a human to have. You smugly carry it back to your apartment, but the moment you open the lid, a chain snakes into your leg. The pain is phenomenal. You dig through the chest, looking for something to cut yourself free, but there’s nothing but gold coins and one crappy old book in a language you can’t read.

The intangible chain stretches all the way to the hardware store, where they think you’re a psycho case when you start hacking at the linoleum floor by your feet with garden shears, and then an axe, and then a sledgehammer. The cops mace your crazy ass, but you barely even feel it because your leg is getting worse. You say you were angry and drunk, and you agree to pay the damages, and you go home in defeat.

You can’t even tell the truth to friends or your now-ex-boyfriend, because they can’t see the enchantment.

There is no sleep. Not for days. You consider amputation, start looking up methods on the Internet. Turns out there are fetishists for everything, and their utter batshitness might be your gain. But before you pack your leg in ice to induce a frostbite so severe the doctors will be forced to surgically remove your curse, you wonder about the book.

You open it again, hoping there’s something in there, something to explain, even if it’s just a picture. It’s gibberish until one page, the page that says:


Nautical exhibit at museum at midnight. Brass spyglass from a 1728 wreck. Place it in chest.


You know which museum has the nautical exhibit. What do you have to lose? It doesn’t hurt any more to walk than it does to stay in place. And you miss stealing, since you’ve been hiding in your apartment biting a pillow and swallowing a plethora of Vicodin tablets that do absolutely nothing.

The moment you place the spyglass in the chest, it slides through the wooden bottom, like it’s sinking through water.

The pain in your leg becomes bearable. It doesn’t disappear—it never fucking disappears, never—but you can pass out now. You sleep, and you don’t wake up from a dream about being savaged by a shark or stepping in a bear trap or being allergic to only one of your socks.

So you steal what the book tells you, and you put it in the chest. Gold coins ooze up from the other side, breaching like whales, until there’s a stack to replace your offering.

The burning subsides for a time, but the book always makes more demands.


Now that I have the privacy of the closet, I pull the book out and look again. It says what it said before, plus one more word.




I jam it back into my pocket, take a deep breath, and step back into the bouquet of B.O. and carcinogenic perfumes. I arrange a smile on my face with all the care that a florist takes with a wreath for a state funeral.

Maybe I’m not looking for a person. Maybe the “her” was a statue, or a painting. I close my eyes almost all the way, so I just see a blur of light and color through my lashes, and scan the room. When a dark patch appears, it’s just one of the service dogs I spotted earlier, a saggy-bellied lab standing guard by her owner’s feet. Before I can dismiss her entirely, however, I spot a glint of silver on her service coat.

Hundred bucks says I know that dog’s name.

They’re leaving right now. The door shuts behind them.

I duck around huge hats and ponyfalls, poofy skirts and trailing scarves. When I exit the ballroom, they’re nearly to the elevator.

No, no, no. I break my practiced saunter and jog down the hall toward the woman and her dogs. I hate drawing attention, but I don’t have a choice.

I slow as I approach, creeping up behind Lily’s wagging tail. The pin comes off of her embroidered “Service Animal” coat easily, though the sharp edges puncture the pads of my fingers.

Lily’s tail brushes across my cheek as I get to my feet.

She spins and snarls. Her elderly owner hauls at the leash, her face calm as her four-legged companion tries to get close enough to chew my nuts. I don’t have to pretend to be terrified.

I clench the pin in my hand, trying to pretend it’s not cold as a polar bear’s butthole. It’s not the first object I’ve been told to steal that has strange properties, but it’s the first that numbs my fingers until I can’t even tell if they’re still gripping it.

“Holy shit, your dog is psycho!” I yell, backing away.

“You probably deserve it,” the woman snaps. Her other dog growls low in its throat, but it doesn’t struggle to reach me the way Lily does.

I flee, my heart beating faster than the electronic music in the next room.

Good. Now I’ll go home and throw this pin in the chest and waste Glenlivet by drinking it fast until I pass out. I open the book—still the same message—and tuck the bloody pin under the cover. When I get frisked, they never seem to be able to find the book, so it’ll be safest there.

I no sooner finish tucking it into my breast pocket than someone with a beautiful Spanish accent says, “You’re not supposed to pet service dogs.”

I glance over my shoulder, just to be sure it isn’t security.

It’s a queen, maybe. I can’t tell; she’s lanky, with a Roman nose and overpainted lips. She could be female with strong features, or male with delicate ones. She has blood-red extensions, high-quality toyokalon bound into a messy ponytail to show off her impossibly thin hoop earrings and her black leather choker.

She’s the only other person wearing black, a simple velvet dress powdered with glitter. I didn’t see her in the ball room, when I was looking for black costumes.

I realize I’m staring, and shrug. “Service dogs don’t bite. Pretty sure that lady bought the coat on E-bay so she could smuggle her fleabag into tea parties,” I say. “It’s like a fad with old bitches. Give it a few centuries; we’ll be doing it, too.”

She narrows her eyes but doesn’t speak, as if she can’t decide if she’s offended or not.

“Nice being lectured by you,” I say, and head for the stairwell.

I hate elevators, because I can’t open the doors with my hands, so if I’m trapped in an elevator, there’s nothing I can do. Luckily, I’m my own elevator. I haul back the stairwell’s heavy fire door and it opens straight to the parking garage.

My footsteps echo alone for long seconds before I hear the elevator door open behind me. Heels click on the pavement, and I glance back to find the goody-two-shoes with red plastic hair.

“You’re leaving already? Not enjoying the convention, then?” she asks. She trots closer, inviting herself to walk along with me.

“Drag isn’t my scene. I’m way too pretty to pretend to be a woman,” I reply. The chain is hurting more. I’m taking too long, and the book’s author is angry. I look for doors to get outside faster, but most of them are on cars, which won’t do the trick.

For a moment, I imagine going back into the convention with her and having a drink. She has style, and it’s been a long time since I hung out with anyone I wasn’t stealing from. But the book doesn’t leave room for socializing in the schedule.

“What’s your name?” she asks, toying with the silver disk hanging from her choker.

“Could you piss off? I’m not interested in anything with tits, even if they’re fake.”

“My name’s Lily,” she says.

I’m too slow. I turn to look at her, my mouth opening to ask a stupid question, when she reaches down on the ground and grabs the violet chain.

She pulls, hard, and I thump onto my back.

Even though I think I’m still awake, everything is black and sparkly. It’s like her dress, like the sky, and then I keep blinking until my vision focuses again on the ceiling, with its emergency sprinkler system nozzles and sleeping moths. My head hurts and my leg hurts and I think I forgot how to breathe.

I don’t understand how she can touch the chain when I can’t, but I also don’t understand how she was a dog. The collar is the same, though. I remember now.

The pavement scrapes by beneath me as she hauls me by the chain, toward the elevator. Some people getting into their cars glance over, then studiously pretend not to notice so they don’t have to get involved. To people who can’t see the chain, this looks like a psychotic tantrum, like I’m scooting myself toward Lily.

“Stop,” I plead. It’s barely audible, just a croak.

“I’ll stop when you give me back my pin, you insufferable bag of dicks. If you were scared of me biting you, just wait until you see what I can do with this tether.”

“I can’t—” I start, but I lose my breath again when she whips the chain around a few times, like a jump rope. I curl forward, retching. She lets go, and I lie gasping like a landed fish as her fingers poke through my pockets. She flings jewelry on the ground as she finds it, and finally, gives up.

“What did you do with it?” she asks.

“I gave it to someone,” I say. The pin is cold against my heart, reaching through the book and the coat.

I know my mascara is smeared now, waterproof or not. I have to remind myself that as bad as this is, it will be worse if I don’t put the desired item in the chest. I just need to get to a door.

“I need the silver thorns to do my job. That ‘old bitch’ is down one body guard until I can change back into a dog. I’ve killed for her before, and I’ll do it again.”

“Please, it’s too late.”

“You’re a wretched liar.” She swings the chain around, lifting me off the ground, and slams me into the back of a lime green Escalade. The crunch is either a rear window or all of my bones.

This time the flashing lights are colors. Blue, red. There’s glass in my hair and everything tastes like blood.

There are cameras, I remember, in the parking garage.

I force my eyes open, past the prodding cops, and see them escorting Lily away. She glares over her shoulder, yells about theft.

I’m not sure if I’m coughing or laughing.

They frisk me, looking for her pin, but it’s in the book where they can’t find it. They do find the other jewelry I stole—well, what Lily didn’t already throw on the ground—and they handcuff me.

Fine. If I have to pick from: getting murdered, not putting the pin in the chest, or getting arrested, this is my best option.

They don’t care enough about me to call an ambulance, and after a few minutes, I have to admit I probably don’t need one. The injuries they can measure are just a mild concussion, a split lip, and some bruising.


The book is still in my jacket, and they make me wear ghastly jail jammies, so I spend all night wondering what the page says now.

The first time I failed the author, the book gave me a countdown for fixing my mistake, and when I gave up, because I didn’t understand how bad it would get, the book told me to go into my kitchen, pull out everything with a skull-and-crossbones sticker on it, and pour myself a cocktail.

I had no intentions of doing it, but that’s when I found out the chain reached deeper inside than just my leg, than even my flesh and bone.

My hands mixed every cleaning product I had into the glass I usually use for scotch. My mouth opened, and I poured it down my own throat. The slop burned as it passed through me, for days, from my lips to my asshole. It crept through my veins and flavored my breath, blurred and stung my vision.

When I couldn’t take any more and tried to slit my wrists, I did bleed, but it smelled like Pine Sol and trickled out like rust-colored syrup. It didn’t change my condition. When I tried to leave my apartment, or use the phone, my hands refused.

I was so alone that Death refused to visit, and even my own body was on someone else’s side.


I keep my lawyer’s business card laminated in my wallet, and I call him with my usual lies. He gets me out late on Monday morning, and I’m in too much of a hurry to sit through his warnings and advice. In the cab on the way home, I open the book.


Place thorns in chest. Fifty-four minutes until punishment.


I pull out the pen I stole from the front desk at the police station. I don’t know if this will work, but I’m desperate. Bracing the book against my knee, I write:


black lily touched my skin, tried to kill me for the thorns. got away but can’t steal for you if dead. what now?


My words disappear, but I don’t know if that means they’ve been read. I stare at the page until the cab pulls up outside my apartment building. I am too sore to go up the fire escape.

The doorman I cheated holds up a hand, like I’m traffic he’s directing, and says, “Hey, you owe me forty bucks, or—”

“I’ll get it for you tonight, when your mom pays me,” I say, eyes still on the blank page. I open the stairwell door and step straight into the fifth floor hallway, where he can’t follow fast enough to kick my ass.

As I walk toward my apartment, text appears on the page, showing up in strokes as someone writes each letter.


Place thorns in chest. Thirty-three minutes until punishment. Stab her with iron knife.


I stole an iron knife with a silk-wrapped handle months ago and put it in the chest. My teeth creak against each other. I don’t know where to get another. Who would even want a knife that rusts?

I shut the book and fumble with my keys. I don’t know if I could even use the knife—I can’t imagine stabbing Lily, stabbing anyone. I’m a thief, not a murderer.

I can’t wait to put the pin in the chest so I don’t have to worry about it anymore. My leg feels like one solid cramp. I’m so distracted that I don’t smell the perfume until I close the door behind me.

I look up in time to see Lily grab the violet chain and flip me onto my back again. At least it’s carpet, I think.

“You left your filthy face grease on my tail, so I had your scent,” she says. She’s dressed much as she was Saturday night, in a short black dress and pumps.

I’m not playing this game again. “I’ll give it to you,” I say. I thrust out my palms, my favorite no-weapons signal.

She crosses her arms.

“Let me get it.” My sore muscles tear like wet paper as I struggle to my feet.

“You sure made a shitty deal,” she sneers.

I pause on my way to the chest. It looks like a normal steamer trunk, against the wall under an expensive-ass painting that I also stole, next to an even expensiver-ass plasma screen, which I actually bought because for once it was easier than stealing.


“This isn’t a deal?” she asks, quirking an eyebrow. She dangles the chain meaningfully.

“No. I just… I stole that chest,” I say, pointing. I explain about the chain and the book.

I open the chest, because I want to show her the gold—prove I’m not lying—and see the same iron knife I stole months ago, with the chartreuse silk tied around the handle. The author must be loaning it to me.

Lily flops down on my couch, setting her shoes up on my glass coffee table.

“You foolish mortal. Do you know what you could have gotten, if you’d asked instead of stolen?”


“A contract with a clause stipulating when your service ends. We make fair deals, you know. We always have.”

“What are you?” I whisper. I’ve watched TV; I’ve seen movies; sometimes if no one is looking I even read comics. I don’t want to say any of the silly words out loud, like demon or faery.

She snorts and shakes her head.

“Me? I’m someone who can actually kill you. I’ll just wait for you to start chugging Drano-on-the-rocks again, and then offer a quick death in exchange for my pin…unless you want to take me back to the hotel and show me where you hid it. I smelled you in that utility closet—is that it?”

Lily pours herself a couple fingers of scotch and sips it, watching me. I reach into the chest and slide the knife into my sleeve. It’s cold under my fingers; I imagine sinking it into the soft hollow at the base of her long throat.

I’m suddenly so nauseated I almost fill the chest with half-digested jail food.

“How do I get this chain off?” I whisper. “That’s all I want.”

“Good luck, bitch. Pretty sure you have to kill the bastard writing in the book.”

I pull out the book, flip it open again, stare at the words.


Four minutes until punishment. Place thorns in chest. Stab her with an iron knife.


My only idea is desperate, and stupid, but what do I have to lose?

I hold the book over the trunk and shake it. The pin falls out. The bottom of the trunk swallows every silver thorn before Lily has even gotten to her feet.

Her face crumples with rage, and even if she can’t turn into a dog now, her bared teeth could have fooled me.

“Help me kill him and I’ll get your pin back,” I say quickly, half of a second before she yanks the chain toward her. If I can’t make my plan clear she might kill me, so I force myself to explain even though every word is a scream.

“I can… control doors,” I gasp. “I can get there.”

She scowls. “That could take forever.”

“It won’t.”

I’m more scared of this plan than I am of Lily. The last place I want to go is the place where the pain comes from.

After an interminable moment, Lily drops the chain.

I’m too shaky to stand again. I kneel at the coffee table and reach for my only glass, which has her lipstick prints on the rim and a finger of scotch left in the bottom.

She slides it out of reach. “Start talking.”

“Okay.” I gather my thoughts, trying to ignore the glass. “I can get there and steal the pin back. I just need you to protect me the way you protect the old lady.”

She shakes her head. “The book’s author has a dog, I’m sure, and she’ll still have her pin, because some slutty mortal crybaby didn’t snatch it.

“I am not slutty!”

“Could’ve fooled me, Captain Nippleparty,” Lily says, pointing at my torn shirt. She stretches, rolls her head to pop her neck, and gets to her feet. “Okay. If you can get the pin back fast enough for me to use it, I’ll keep the dog from eating your face. But you’re on your own with the book’s author.”

She grabs my hand, and I feel a thrill at the touch of her strong fingers, until she casually kicks the violet chain on her way toward the front door.

I pull her back.

With my other hand, I close the chest’s lid and grip the cold brass handle. I feel through the possibilities: the tiny wooden room it usually opens to, or the bigger room beyond.

“Maybe you’re not as stupid as you smell,” she says.

I open the lid/door, step in, and we both fall through, linked by our hands.


We land on a desk carved of glittering white stone.

I don’t have time to look around: in a chair in front of the desk, so close I can smell his graveyard breath, there’s an old man with butter-yellow eyes and Count Dracula hair. His waxy, colorless skin reminds me of a maggot.

For just a moment, he looks like he got fisted with an ice cube—and then his eyes drop to see the violet chain coiled on the desk’s smooth surface. He smiles and lays one palm over it.

Pain. I’m on my belly instantly, swimming across the desk. My hands claw at the stone, at Lily, at the still-wet pages of the book he’d been writing in, as if somewhere I might find the switch to turn it off. My boots encounter momentary resistance, followed by the music of hundreds of coins clinking, rolling, and spinning on a marble floor.

I crane my neck at Lily, just in time to see him strike her face with the side of his fist. The quill with which he’d been writing stabs into her cheek, dribbling black ink down her jaw.

In one smooth motion, she slides off the desk and lands in a defensive crouch.

As she backs away, the clicking of her heels multiplies. It’s a dog trotting up behind her. Woolly and beige, like an old couch, it seems harmless until it bares its teeth. The rumble in its throat sounds like a power tool.

This was stupid, so stupid. I should go back through the chest. My left elbow bumps against it, so I know it’s still here on the desktop. Just shut the lid, then open it once, tumble through into my apartment. No doubt I’d be punished, but at least I’d be far away, where I belonged.

The plume hanging out of Lily’s cheek quivers as she stands between the book’s author and his canine mercenary. Then the dog jumps on her, its paws on her chest, tearing into her arm when she swings at its face.

It’s hard to focus, but I force my right arm flat on the desk so I can reach into my sleeve.

The book’s author watches Lily go down to her knees, his face expressionless. I draw the iron knife, and before I can change my mind, before I can get sick again, I slam the blade into the side of his neck.

The blood that dribbles out is iridescent like a parking lot puddle. He paws at the knife with both hands, but a moment later he goes limp and molds to the contours of his chair like wet laundry.

The pain fades, but it doesn’t go away. I don’t have time to worry about that, or the fact that I just went from thief to murderer.

It’s my fault Lily’s here.

I dig through everything I knocked off of the desk, coins and the inkwell and a bunch of jewelry, but I don’t see Lily’s pin. I have to get it to her—a dog against a dog is a better chance than she has now.

I can’t find it. The dog snarls louder behind me and Lily curses. I glance back to see her holding it at arm’s length by its collar, its teeth gnashing the flesh of her arm as if it means to chew it off.

No time to keep digging. I scan the room. It seems carved from a single block of opalescent white stone, even the desk. Sourceless frost-tinted light shows me shelves and shelves of familiar items. I spot a broken pocketwatch that worked back when I stole it, a hat pin I remember sneaking off of a mannequin in a porn store window, and finally, the brass spyglass I stole from the nautical exhibit.

That’s the one I grab.

Lily’s blood is slick under my shoes as I dash over. I swing the spyglass at the dog. I don’t want to hit it, but its mouth is foaming with Lily’s blood, blood she never should have had to spill. When the brass strikes the top of the dog’s skull, it yelps, falls to the side, and is too dizzy to get up. I know how it feels. If I tried to pull the knife out of a dead man I would have passed right the eff out—I’m barely hanging on as it is. I swallow the gush of about-to-puke saliva and breathe through my nose.

Lily stands, her lacerated arm dripping more blood. “Where is my pin?” she asks.

“I don’t know. Why am I still chained?”

“I don’t know.”

We stare at each other, she without her pin, me still attached to the chest by the violet chain.

“Let’s load the chest with all the coins and jewelry,” I say. “When we get back, we’ll sort through it all.”

I take off my coat and rip out the lining to bandage Lily’s  arm. When it’s wrapped tight, she helps me pile handfuls of treasure onto my coat, all of it stained with ink and blood. We lift it together and dump the contents into the chest, over and over until there’s not a coin left.

“I can take you back through,” I say, “so you can go to a hospital.”

“You’d trust me in your apartment with all that cash?” she asks. She starts to grin, winces, and yanks the quill from her cheek. “How come you’re not going back that way?”

“I have to own both chests until I get the chain off,” I say. “I can’t bring it through itself—I don’t know what’ll happen—so I have to go back the long way.”

Maybe I don’t hide my dread well enough. Her eyes are sharp and dark as she looks at the chest, already empty, and then back at me.

“No, thanks,” she says. “I think I want to see what’s through door number two.” I fight the urge to hug her—I’m covered in enough blood as it is.

I grab one end of the chest, and she grabs the other, and we walk toward the door. I caress the cool handle, considering the possibilities. None of them will take us home, but you don’t get through a maze without hitting a few dead-ends.

I choose a hallway, and then another door, and another.

“Sooner than Gold” was originally published in Glitter and Mayhem, edited by John Klima, Lynne M. Thomas and Michael Damian Thomas, published by Apex Publications.

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Thanks for listening, and I’ll have another story for you on June 11th.


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