Award winners Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman’s THE UNICORN ANTHOLOGY preview: “The Maltese Unicorn” by Caitlín R. Kiernan

In celebration for the impending release of  THE UNICORN ANTHOLOGY, from the World Fantasy Award-winning tandem Peter S. Beagle and Jacob Weisman.

The Maltese Unicorn

by Caitlín R. Kiernan

New York City (May 1935)

It wasn’t hard to find her. Sure, she had run. After Szabó let her walk like that, I knew Ellen would get wise that something was rotten, and she’d run like a scared rabbit with the dogs hot on its heels. She’d have it in her head to skip town, and she’d probably keep right on skipping until she was out of the country. Odds were pretty good she wouldn’t stop until she was altogether free and clear of this particular plane of existence. There are plenty enough fetid little hidey-holes in the universe, if you don’t mind the heat and the smell and the company you keep. You only have to know how to find them, and the way I saw it, Ellen Andrews was good as Rand and McNally when it came to knowing her way around.

But first, she’d go back to that apartment of hers, the whole eleventh floor of the Colosseum, with its bleak westward view of the Hudson River and the New Jersey Palisades. I figured there would be those two or three little things she couldn’t bear to leave the city without, even if it meant risking her skin to collect them. Only she hadn’t expected me to get there before her. Word on the street was Harpootlian still had me locked up tight, so Ellen hadn’t expected me to get there at all.

From the hall came the buzz of the elevator, then I heard her key in the lock, the front door, and her footsteps as she hurried through the foyer and the dining room. Then she came dashing into that French Rococo nightmare of a library, and stopped cold in her tracks when she saw me sitting at the reading table with al-Jaldaki’s grimoire open in front of me.

For a second, she didn’t say anything. She just stood there, staring at me. Then she managed a forced sort of laugh and said, “I knew they’d send someone, Nat. I just didn’t think it’d be you.”

“After that gip you pulled with the dingus, they didn’t really leave me much choice,” I told her, which was the truth, or at least all the truth I felt like sharing. “You shouldn’t have come back here. It’s the first place anyone would think to check.”

Ellen sat down in the armchair by the door. She looked beat, like whatever comes after exhausted, and I could tell Szabó’s gunsels had made sure all the fight was gone before they’d turned her loose. They weren’t taking any chances, and we were just going through the motions now, me and her. All our lines had been written.

“You played me for a sucker,” I said and picked up the pistol that had been lying beside the grimoire. My hand was shaking, and I tried to steady it by bracing my elbow against the table. “You played me, then you tried to play Harpootlian and Szabó both. Then you got caught. It was a bonehead move all the way round, Ellen.”

“So, how’s it gonna be, Natalie? You gonna shoot me for being stupid?”

“No, I’m going shoot you because it’s the only way I can square things with Auntie H and the only thing that’s gonna keep Szabó from going on the warpath. And because you played me.”

“In my shoes, you’d have done the same thing,” she said. And the way she said it, I could tell she believed what she was saying. It’s the sort of self-righteous bushwa so many grifters hide behind. They might stab their own mothers in the back if they see an angle in it, but, you ask them, that’s jake, cause so would anyone else.

“Is that really all you have to say for yourself?” I asked and pulled back the slide on the Colt, chambering the first round. She didn’t even flinch … but, wait … I’m getting ahead of myself. Maybe I ought to begin nearer the beginning.

For more info about THE UNICORN ANTHOLOGY, visit the Tachyon page.

Cover by Thomas Canty
Design by Elizabeth Story