Curating the backlog …

I just finished some work on this. It’s a teaser – the book isn’t written yet – but I’ve outlined 23 chapters and I think it has promise.

via The Dressmaker’s Apprentice – Sample

The Dressmaker’s Apprentice

A Future Past Mystery

Retired deputy sheriff Eric Burton runs a clandestine online store that caters to buyers who live on other planets. Buyers who, as far as anybody knows, don’t exist.

When a fellow merchant goes missing, an ancient society with off-world connections tasks Burton with protecting their secrets.


Chapter 1

Our County Sheriff had a special regard for seasoned veterans who could still outrun eighteen-year-olds in a foot chase. I had a detective’s badge, a take-home Ford Interceptor, and enough seniority to pull straight days. It was a perfect life for me.

Until Laura ran off to Hawaii with her yoga instructor. We’d been married twelve years, and it broke my heart.

There was a month when I couldn’t sleep, so I asked for a uniform car on the four-to-midnight until I could work through it.

My second week, I got a dispatch — “See the man, South Asian, eighty-three years old.”

It was a home invasion at a gated parish in the county. The intruder made it inside, but bolted when the vic set off an alarm. I took a statement while EMS checked out the homeowner, and then waited for someone to keep him company.

Doctor Nadar was a retired gastroenterologist — a dapper, neatly appointed gentleman, even in his housecoat. His home might have been the oldest in the enclave, a spit level prairie tastefully decorated in mid-century and Danish modern. He was frail, but I didn’t see a chairlift, so I guess he was getting around pretty well.

He only needed a few words between us to start figuring me out. “You’ve been to university.”

It wasn’t a question. “Catholic seminary, then Criminology at UTex.” I caught raised eyebrows. “I decided not to be a priest.”

He waved me towards the kitchen. “It’s been my experience that priests wear many disguises. Will you have coffee?”

The man needed to talk. A widower the past 10 years, Nadar was dispirited over recent news that his son and daughter-in-law had died in a train wreck near Ankara, Turkey. Their estate, he said, was an unexpected windfall for his grandson, who was thirty and never had a job.

He gave me a look. “Grey eyes, pretty tall, but I think you have my people in you.”

Black hair doesn’t always mean Asian, but he was right. “My grandmother was born in Nepal.”

He nodded. “Her family went there from Punjab.” Also correct.

I’m not in the habit of sharing with customers, but we were both grieving. I told him about Laura, that we didn’t have kids and how I was two years away from twenty-and-out without plans for the future.

Nadar poured more coffee. “You should consider online merchandising.

Chapter 2

Three days later, the doctor arrived at my house in a chauffeured BMW. I was invited to lunch.

It was January, sixty degrees and sunny. Nadar introduced the driver as Eashar Singh. Modern haircut, no beard or turban, but I’ve been to India and I can spot a Sikh, even without knowing his name.

He was a handsome guy — young, athletic, darker than the doctor, in a lightweight, charcoal grey, tailored wool suit, Savile Row cut.

I remembered the words of a speaker at police academy. “Every culture has a Mafia”.

My instincts said — Executive bodyguard or crime syndicate. Pick one.

Singh might have sensed escalating tension when he turned down a country lane. I found his accent oddly reassuring. “You should tell our friend what we’re doing today.”

Doc gave me a wink. “Eashar is taking us up for a look at the curvature of the planet.”

I never saw ‘The Last Starfighter’ — but it wouldn’t have helped.

The windows fogged over as the car lifted off the roadway. They cleared up after we punched through the cloud layer and then fogged over again. Five minutes later, we were in orbit. Mr. Singh wanted to make sure I knew it wasn’t a trick. He cracked a window for a couple of seconds — it was total vacuum outside the car. I almost lost my hat.

A career in law enforcement does not prepare a man for every situation. I was in a panic.

Singh turned sideways in the driver’s seat. “I belong to an organization that was formed around 1150 BCE, during a period when a race from another planet was visiting the Earth.”

My mind was a blank. All I said was, “Okay.”

He studied my face. I’m not sure he could tell how rattled I was. “We work hard at keeping a low profile. But, secret societies have expenses.”

The conversation seemed surreal. I laughed. “I can see that.”

Singh smiled. “The car is a loaner.” His eyes wandered to the back window. I swiveled to catch the moon rising past the stratosphere over the Indian Ocean. It was magnificent.

My stomach tightened. I experienced a moment of tunnel vision, but wasn’t lucid enough to worry that I might be having a stroke. Singh’s voice came at me from a distance. “The Anye left assets. We’re allowed limited use.”

I’d been processing the notion of aliens from outer space — and realized my brain was working again.

“I guess there’s a custodian.”

“More than one. Anyway, some years ago, we learned about a pair of wormhole conduits leading back to the Anye home planets and asked to set up a commerce route.”

Cognition rushed in. “Online merchandising.”

Nadar cleared his throat. “It’s like selling on Amazon, or maybe eBay.”

Singh turned back around. “It’s profitable. Remittance is through PayPal.”

The doctor found a bottle of water under the seat. “I did it for a hobby, but my priorities have changed. I thought you might want to take over the store.”

I said I’d think about it.

Chapter 3

Nadar kept his inventory at a storage bay in Lockhart. His specialties were mid-century objects and handmade leather goods. I know — those things don’t go together — it didn’t seem to matter.

The space was crammed with merchandise — 45 RPM records, portable players from the 50s and 60s, original artwork, coffee table books, all of it in pristine condition.

He apologized for the clutter. “This will sell, but I haven’t had time to list it.”

I spotted a tooled leather holster with matching belt.

“What kind of firearm does this fit?”

Nadar showed me a single digit stamped on the back. “Nayeer pulse gun, Model 2.”

“Is that an armory in India?”

Singh laughed. “Vidura.” He pointed straight up. “A long way from here. Raj, where do you have these made?”

“Wyoming. I’ll give you the man’s card. If you decide to use somebody else, ask him for the forming dies — they’re mine.”

“Your customers carry pistols?”

“I’m selling holsters, so I guess the answer is ‘yes’.”

“An advanced, spacefaring race, and they still need guns?”

Nadar shrugged. “Are you expecting violence to go out of style, and if so, when?”

I didn’t have an answer for that, so I changed the subject. “Do you think I can make a living at this?”

“Maybe. I’ll show you the accounts.”

I won’t bore you with the details. Yes, in those days, with so few people engaged in the activity, one could make a very good living at it. I asked Nadar to name his price.

He gave me the keys and shook my hand. “Don’t change the name of the store. That would be a bad idea.”

“I beg your pardon?”

He patted me on the shoulder. “You’re a good boy. Have fun with it.”

Chapter 4

The name of the store was simply — Nadar’s. Doc had a loyal clientele, impatient for him to start listing again — so I took his advice not to change anything.

I worried, briefly, over the ethics of not announcing new management, but business was so brisk that I barely had time to work for the Sheriff, much less come up with a new brand identity for my e-biz storefront.

I juggled responsibilities, poorly, for two years, until I was able to retire from the department. That was in March.

In April, I read that Rajat Nadar, 85, passed away while visiting family in Ankara, Turkey. The obituary overflowed with a list of accomplishments and good works.

I hadn’t visited him but four times since he gave me his store. It weighed heavily on my conscience and I prayed, for the first time in years, that someone he cared about was with him at the end.

Later on, when I learned it was a disappearing act, I was a little peeved.

It hardly matters. I should have made the effort to be a better friend, at least in consideration of his generosity. That’s on me.

Chapter 5

Most of the merchandise I sent up the pipe to Vidura and Jivada — the two Anye planets on the other side of those wormholes — was sourced on eBay. The profit margin was that good.

It’s still a lot of work, and merchandising — that is, figuring out what will sell, finding it and then selling it — can be a fickle proposition.

Fortunately — I guess it’s fortunate — the Anye can surf our Internet all they want. It’s done with ansible networking, across light years. No delay. That’s all I know about it.

The point is, customers would sometimes find what they were looking for on their own, and send me to get it.

That’s how I found myself at an estate auction in Oklahoma staring at eighteenth-century KPM (Berlin) table china with my hand in the air. I had just said ‘four thousand’ — that’s right, four thousand dollars — when my phone buzzed twice, meaning ‘text message from somebody on another planet’.

I was already thinking I might let the fool across from me buy it — his determination was starting to piss me off. And then, there was always the possibility that my client might have changed his or her mind.

So, when the guy bid forty-one hundred, I shook my head and walked off. He didn’t look all that happy to have won. Go figure.

It was a message from Vidura Exchange, asking if I would retire to a private place and take a voice call.

The Exchange had never, repeat never, communicated with me on a voice call — it was all text or email that somehow vanished off my queue within seconds after reading it.

The conversation went something like this:

“Hello, you don’t know me, but I know you. I understand you’re a retired deputy sheriff.”

“That’s right.”

“Would you go to Fredericksburg and look in on another merchant for us. I understand it’s not far from Austin.”

“I’m in Oklahoma right now.”

“Could you be in Fredericksburg tomorrow?”

“I suppose. What’s going on?”

“The merchant sent us a text saying she might be in danger, and now we can’t get in touch with her.”

“How long ago was that?”

“Three days.”

“Do I get paid for this?”

“What do you need?”

“Three thousand a day, plus expenses.”

I have no idea how I came up with that number. The man said ‘okay’.

An hour later, I received an email with a printable ID attached. I was summarily an employee of Pathfinder of Puget Sound, a security company in Seattle with a license to operate in Texas.

My reaction was, “If they have an on-call detective agency, why are they sending me?”

It would be several months before I got an answer to that question.

Chapter 6

I didn’t get to Fredericksburg until the next morning. My stomach was sour from too much coffee and I had the jitters so bad it was making my scalp crawl. I thought that if I didn’t throw up on somebody’s front step it would likely be a perfect day from then on.

Google Maps led me to a white cottage perched on blocks of pink Texas granite, encircled by a picket fence. A narrow strip of lawn transitioned to a pair of nicely dressed mannequins in a display window where a living room is supposed to be. The landscaping needed attention.

I knocked, but shunned the doorbell for fear of alerting dogs in the neighborhood. After a minute or two, I palmed a locksmith’s key gun and let myself in.

Nobody was home. The place had been tossed.

I performed a walkthrough, and then looked for an animal that, based on litter box aroma, had to be in distress. I didn’t smell death, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything.

Pictures of a lavishly upholstered kitten were all over the refrigerator. I thought I’d at least have to turn the bed over, but this one was desperate —  She came out the instant I started calling.

I’m Eric Burton. The missing dressmaker was Sandra Zinn. Her cat was named Betty.

I still have the cat.


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