by Connie Willis
Everybody has a traumatic Christmas memory, and mine was always Christmas dinner, partly because in my family (a term used very loosely)—it’s actually a series of dinners—Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, and a New Year’s Eve buffet, and if my one-time stepfather Dave had his way, we’d also have St. Lucia’s Day and Boxing Day and Twelfth Night dinners, and who knows what else.
He’s very big on family and family gatherings, even though he’s been married at least half a dozen times and has terrible taste in women (including where my mother was concerned), which means he thinks of me as his daughter, even though he was only married to her for about fifteen minutes back when I was eight, and is always really nice to me, even to the extent of helping me with college, so it’s hard for me to say no to coming.
I’m not the only sort-of-relative he invites. There’s also Aunt Mildred, actually a great-aunt of Dave’s second wife, and Grandma Elving, the grandmother of his fourth. Got all that straight?
Also at the dinner are Dave’s current wife Jillian (another bad marital choice), her stuck-up daughter Sloane, Sloane’s boyfriend of the moment, who is always blond and tall and going to law school or med school, and Jillian’s equally stuck-up friends, who Jillian introduces Aunt Mildred, Grandma Elving, and me to by saying, “Dave is so kind. He wants to make sure everyone has someplace to go for the holidays!” as if we were people he’d picked up on the sidewalk outside a homeless shelter or something.
Add to that the fact that Jillian refuses to have roast turkey and pumpkin pie like normal people and insists on serving poached sturgeon and Senegalese locus-pods, that Aunt Mildred complains about everything from the table settings to my failure to bring a date, and that Grandma Elving insists on telling the same interminable story of how she worked at Woolworth’s in downtown Denver one Christmas, and you can see why I start dreading Thanksgiving dinner some time in July.
This year was no exception. Jillian met me at the door with a look that said clearly, “Why didn’t you use the servant’s entrance?” and the news that I needed to go pick up Grandma Elving. “Dave’s on a conference call, and he doesn’t think she should be driving.”
“Couldn’t I go get her instead?” Sloane’s boyfriend said to me. He was named Lassiter this year and was even taller and blonder than usual.
“Oh, no, Lassiter, I couldn’t let you do that,” Jillian said. “You’re a guest. Ori can go.” She turned to me. “And on the way, pick up ice and some turmeric.”
“And don’t drive Grandma Elving anywhere near downtown on the way back,” Sloane said. “I don’t want her telling that stupid Woolworth’s story again.”
“Woolworth’s?” Lassiter asked.
“It was a dime store,” I explained, “a kind of variety store, like—”
“The Dollar Store,” Sloane said, putting her hand possessively on Lassiter’s arm. “She worked there one Christmas back in the fifties when she was ‘a girl,’ and we have to listen to her go on about it every single year.”
“Really?” he said. “That’s interesting.”
“No, it’s not,” Sloane said. “It’s boring beyond belief, so, Ori, whatever you do, don’t mention Christmas shopping or snow.”
“Or Bing Crosby,” Jillian put in.
“Oh, God, yes, especially don’t mention Bing Crosby. Or lunch counters or nativity scenes.” She turned to Lassiter. “And if she starts in, don’t encourage her. She can go on for hours. Just ignore her. Or change the subject.” She turned back to me. “Do not say anything to her on the way here that’ll set her off.”
That was easier said than done. Almost anything, from buses to the weather, reminded her of Woolworth’s. Even the traffic lights. “Look at them, turning from red to green,” she said after I’d picked her up from her retirement community apartment. “They look so festive, almost like Christmas decorations themselves. I remember that Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s getting off work and seeing them, turning red and green on Sixteenth Street.”
“Jillian asked me to pick up a few things on our way back,” I said, pulling into Safeway. “Is there anything you want?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t suppose they’d have hot roasted nuts? They sold hot salted peanuts and cashews at Woolworth’s from this little red-and-white striped cart. It had a yellow heat lamp in it to keep the nuts warm, and little paper bags to scoop them into.”
“I’ll see. Will you be warm enough sitting here?” I asked, looking at her doubtfully. She was bundled up in a black cloth coat and a gray scarf and gloves, but she was awfully thin and frail-looking, and my car heater doesn’t work all that well.
“Oh, I’ll be fine,” she said. “This is much warmer than the bus I used to take that Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s. It was so cold the windows used to frost over and—”
I fled into the store, grabbed the ice and the turmeric and hurried back out, hoping she’d forgotten about the roasted nuts.
She had. She was looking at the Santa Claus collecting money for charity outside Safeway’s main door. “That Christmas I worked at Woolworth’s there was a Santa right outside the front door. He had a cotton-wool beard and a chimney you put the money in. It was made out of—” READ MORE
by Sam Schreiber
“You’ll have to forgive the delay,” the concierge told Nick, smiling conspiratorially over the Talathello marble counter. “It’s our busiest time of the year.”
The hospitality program punctuated the nonsensical assertion with a knowing wink.
“Can’t imagine that joke ever gets old,” Nick said, tucking his hands into his red flannel overcoat and rocking on the heels of his black workman’s boots. The concierge’s static-gray face went blank for a moment as more sober-minded algorithms kicked in.
Booking a room at the Hilbert Astoria was, by definition, always possible. But booking the right room could be a slippery proposition. The Vice Regent of Svartalfheim had spent a month waiting for the palatial suite he’d demanded, or so Nick had heard.
Nick’s own requirements, while nowhere near as extravagant, were exacting in their own way. Though of course he hadn’t been a guest at the Hilbert since before his face had been splashed across Coca-Cola’s 1933 advertising campaign. Nick suspected things had changed since then.
“The existence of your suite has been successfully theorized, sir,” the concierge said a moment later. “If you would give us, say, another hour?”
Nick stroked his beard, nine inches long and goose feather white for the season, and fought the urge to snap at the prim application. No point heaping abuse on the staff, least of all when they were collections of ones and zeroes.
“Bar still where it used to be?” Nick nodded to the non-Euclidean lobby.
“I can only assume so, sir.”
The concierge flickered out of existence as Nick descended into the cheerfully lit topological nightmare. A pair of mechanical gypsum spiders in bellhop uniforms scuttled off with his bags before disappearing over the lobby’s horizon.
Just as Nick remembered, the Hilbert’s bar was a brass and varnish affair, corkscrewing into space with only the odd nebula or galaxy punctuating the blackness beyond the skylight. The bartenders wore vintage red vests and mixed cocktails in classic metal shakers. One in particular gave Nick a pointed look as she polished the glass stein between her paws.
“Christ, Madeline,” Nick deposited himself on the barstool in front of her and turned up his fleece collar. “You couldn’t wait until they set me up in my room?”
Detective Ohk Madeline arched a thick blue eyebrow at Nick and drew in her wings. At just over four feet, she was tall for her kind. Hunched over the bar atop a stool of her own, she appeared more menacing than the Hilbert’s management probably cared for. But as priorities went, Nick imagined that was low on the Agency’s list.
“You want I should have loitered out on Bleecker Street?” she asked rhetorically, a closed-lipped smile on her simian lips. “I’ve been waiting for you all day.”
“Sorry about that,” Nick said, then added: “It’s my busiest time of the year.”
Madeline snorted, put the stein aside, and set an antique tumbler in front of Nick.
“Italian stinger? Or are you back on the Brandy Alexanders?”
“Something brown and neat, if you’re pouring.”
“Don’t tell me you’re off sweets.” Madeline’s smile went lopsided.
“Better yet, why don’t you just tell me what I’m doing here,” Nick said. “I’d like to think we had a good thing going, keeping Agency consultation a strictly off-season business.”
Madeline casually scanned for interlopers, but for a bar that spanned the width of a galaxy, it was a slow night. She slid a manila dossier to Nick.
“You can see for yourself our perp’s the creative type,” Madeline said as he thumbed through the folder. Glossy photographs of corpses in unlikely positions were paper-clipped to the Agency’s trademark stationery. At a glance, Nick could see each victim had been dispatched brutally and idiosyncratically. One man’s flesh had been pinned to the ceiling of his foyer with what looked to be every stick of furniture in his home. A family of four had been stuffed, contortionist-like, into a broom closet that had then proceeded to catch fire.
“Not good,” Nick said.
“No,” Madeline agreed. “But you notice anything about where this keeps happening?”
Nick squinted at the dossier. One scene in New York. Another in Rio de Janeiro. Two in a casino resort in the Dreamless Realm and another in an office park orbiting Tau Ceti. Unrelated at first blush. But comprehension dawned on Nick quickly enough. The locations did have one thing in common.
“Take that drink now?” Madeline said, pouring Hennessy and Galliano into Nick’s tumbler without waiting for an answer.
“You’re sure they’re here,” Nick said.
“Sure? No,” Madeline shook her head. “But it’s awfully hard to explain otherwise. Forty-seven murders, all within a block or so of an entrance to the Hilbert? It just makes sense—there’s a killer hiding out somewhere in a hotel with infinite rooms. Cheers.” READ MORE