The Apex Book of World SF 4, available now as an ebook for just $4.49, contains 28 stories from all over the world. We’re proud to feature one of them, “The Good Matter” by Swedish author Nene Ormes, as an exclusive excerpt here at io9. Learn just how twisted someone with a psychic ability can become.
“You see,” Gustav said to the woman in the armchair, “relics are hard to come by these days, so many turn out to be forgeries or distortions rather than the real thing. And it’s not as if there are that many new saints to collect from.” He poured the tea for himself and his guest, the thin bone china making discreet tinkling noises as he set each cup and saucer down on the table. “You might say that goodness has fallen out of fashion.”
They sat in armchairs angled towards each other with a small table filling the space between them. The room was illuminated by candles on side tables and the soft backlight from the wall mounted glass display cases containing his prized possessions.
The woman in the other armchair - she had only given her first name, Eve - reached for her cup with a gloved hand and sipped her tea. “I wouldn’t say that goodness has ever been in fashion,” she said, “but that does make it even more unique when it appears, wouldn’t you say?”
She briefly looked Gustav straight in the eye before turning her attention to the room itself.
It was a room worthy of study, if he said so himself, hidden at the back of the antique store and filled with things of great variation, but at this moment the one feature of the room that interested him was his guest and what she’d brought.
Eve was impeccably dressed, her shoes beautifully uncomfortable and the stockings opaque. She had let him take her coat but had kept her gloves and scarf on and they complimented her suit nicely. A single strand of pearls lay on her collarbones and moved when she swallowed. It was a serious mode of dress, for a serious transaction.
Keeping her gloves and scarf on could be a display of her ability, or it could be a courtesy, to keep him from accidentally touching her.
No matter her attire or the intriguing question of her abilities, Gustav felt his eyes return to the briefcase at her feet and he trembled. The mere thought of the contents of that case and the possibility inside made his mouth dry and sucked at his attention.
But this moment had to be savoured. The possible end of a quest, the treasure-hunter’s excitement before opening the vault and catching the first glitter of treasure.
Or of dust.
There really was no telling which it would be until he had his ungloved hands on it.
Her legs, next to the case, uncrossed, stretched, and crossed again, the movement pulling him out of his reverie. With effort he lifted his eyes to hers again. She was watching him, one well-painted eyebrow cocked.
Eve did not tremble. A smile formed on her lips, the first since entering the antique shop, and he was sure she had watched him as he gazed at the case.
He couldn’t help but blush and hope against hope that she hadn’t noticed. Like a young, eager lover, he thought, amused and embarrassed at himself.
“You could have a closer look at my collection, if you want to.” Gustav nodded towards the glass displays set into the walls. “I think I may have a couple of artefacts that could be of interest to you, or your client, even if most of them are of a more personal value.”
She rose in one fluid movement, her poise pure elegance, like a ballet dancer. Her bearing made Gustav straighten in his chair.
She made a circuit of the room. Each case got a fair glance, and some made her tilt her head a bit, but she didn’t ask about any of them. Not about the broken fan, open to show its fractured ribs, not the child sized dinner set in pale blue, not the bell on its stand even though that case was open. No, it was obvious after a moment that she gravitated towards the last glass case, her face turned so that she missed seeing the glass orb and the verdigrised bronze belt buckle. She stopped in front of the obsidian dagger.
“I assume it’s authentic.” It wasn’t a question. but Gustav nodded anyway, not that she looked at him. “May I open it?” she asked.
He murmured a consent and held his breath when she moved the door to one side. The knife was displayed on a pink silk cushion and the greenish-black glass had an inviting shine, in stark contrast to the jagged saw teeth punched into the blade.
The hair on his arms stood on end. Gustav had only touched the thing once, to verify its age and value, and would never do so again.
She placed her gloved hand on the blade, exhaled and withdrew it. With languid movements she took off her glove, one finger at a time. Very slowly, she touched the edge of the blade with her index finger.
From the armchair, Gustav could see waves of shivers run through her body, her cheeks flushed and her back arched slightly. She pulled away, reluctantly, he thought, and turned her back to him. A few moments passed. Gustav tried to not show any reaction to her heavy breathing and the struggle to regain control over it, and pretended not to notice how she twisted the glove between her hands, over and over again. He knew something of how it felt and would’ve liked privacy himself.
“I dare say you that have at least one item that my client might be interested in.” Eve’s voice, less calm than before, reminded him of a smoky whisky, rough but still warm.
He cleared his throat. “Would you like some more tea?”
“Please. Or if you have something stronger.”
Gustav opened a bottle of cognac and poured the amber liquid into two perfect nineteenth century crystal glasses. He handed her one of them.
“Now, I can’t promise that this is the very cognac that they drank at court in the day, but it is possible. The glasses come from the very table of Emperor Napoleon. They came to Sweden by way of his steward and ended up with me as part of a gambling debt. Together, they make for the most delightful experience.”
He watched her expectantly. Would he be right? Was she like him? Would she feel the passing of the decades back to the engraver who had patiently and proudly worked each glass by hand? Or would she feel something else?
After what seemed like an eternity she reached towards the glass and grabbed it by its foot. She held it in three fingertips, her hand unsteady as she lifted the glass to her lips.
Gustav felt a knot in his gut and could not take his eyes off her. The cognac passed the rim of the glass and she swallowed, looking beyond the confines of his room.
If he had been less focused on her, he would never have noticed her body going limp, her arm losing strength and almost dropping the glass. He quickly stretched over the table, grabbed her by the elbow and placed his other hand under the glass. Without touching her skin.
“You didn’t get these thanks to a gambling debt,” Eve said. “The financial dilemma was caused by other vices.”
“Trust me, knowing people’s darkest secrets is my … specialty.”
“Oh, I am so sorry!” Gustav felt rather slow. He really should’ve guessed, after the knife. “I didn’t mean for you to go through something like that without due warning…”
She smiled at him again, warmly. “Don’t worry. My ‘gift’ doesn’t trouble me. I just thought that you ought to know.”
Without withdrawing her arm from Gustav’s firm grip, she twisted her wrist to move the glass to her lips again and touched the rim with her tongue. It was soft, pink, and moist from the cognac. He swallowed hard.
“He was quite a character, your nobleman.” Her voice had a dreamy quality. “Deviant, depraved, and ruthless. Most delightful.”
As she set down the glass, she let her hand travel along his sleeve to the cuff, where she rested it and looked at him.
“Would you be willing to negotiate the knife for what I have brought? Or should we leave it for another time?”
“Ah… yes. I mean, let’s have a look at the item before we discuss that, shall we?”
Gustav cursed his trembling voice and the dryness of his throat as she placed the briefcase on the table and opened it. Set into the middle of the padding was a small box. She took it out, closed the briefcase and placed the box on the table before taking a small key from her jacket pocket and unlocking it.
“Now, I would like to see the payment before proceeding.”
Gustav retrieved a large carton box from the sideboard, and opened the lid. With two sets of tweezers he peeled back the tissue paper inside to reveal a faded, embroidered waistcoat.
“One piece of clothing, worn by Marquis De Sade.” He couldn’t control the wave of shivers going up his arm.
“Excellent.” Eve opened the box. “Mother Teresa’s head-cloth. Guaranteed authenticity.”
Gustav could barely think straight. His ears were buzzing and his fingertips itched. Would he finally experience true goodness? Unaware of his movements, he reached for the box and was surprised when she grabbed him by the arm.
“I would prefer that we finalised this transaction first. We don’t want to risk damaging any future dealings between us, do we?”
He, reluctantly and with some difficulty, tore his attention from the tempting glimpse of white. It was no more than a piece of fabric, but it had been part of something bigger. A wholeness. A life.
“You contacted my client, through an agent, and made an agreement regarding Mother Teresa’s head-cloth, in part or whole, in exchange for clothing worn by Marquis De Sade, of which you have given previous proof of authenticity.” She placed a small stack of documents on the table. “As per the agreement, these documents give a detailed account of all locations that the head-cloth has passed through since Mother Teresa last took it off. The people who have handled it have been kept anonymous for… business purposes. That, too, is in accordance with the agreement.”
Gustav scanned the documents, not really caring, and nodded, looking up at her. “Everything seems to be in order.”
“Good.” She slid the box over to him and, for a brief moment, her fingers touched the back of his hand. Gustav caught a short glimpse of an obsidian blade caressing a woman’s leg, over a stocking and naked skin before cutting a garter in one swift motion.
When the vision had faded, he found her sitting with her legs primly crossed and her gaze fixed on the knife display.
“Ah, yes, about the knife… Perhaps we could reach an agreement?”
“Perhaps.” She smiled warmly at him as she pulled her glove back on, wrapped up the large box and stood up. “But I can see that your mind is elsewhere, and that knife deserves complete attention, wouldn’t you say?”
Since Gustav could not let the glimpse of white out of his mind, he had nothing to say, but her comment still made his mouth go dry. As she stood, Gustav rose immediately, got her coat and held it out for her.
“It has been a pleasure doing business with you. I do hope to see you again soon.”
That was a weak version of what he would’ve liked to say, but he stumbled over even that.
He knew that she had seen his desire at the same time as he had seen the vision of hers. So, he made an effort to quiet his mind and think of nothing but the woman in front of him. Of her ability, of the knife, of everything that two people with such similar, but still opposite, gifts could have to offer one another. She stood very still as he put the coat over her shoulders, and with her subtle scent in his nostrils he caressed the skin right above her pearls with the tips of his fingers. She gasped and stepped away.
“I believe we will meet again,” her voice rough around the edges, “soon.”
Without a second glance she took the large parcel and walked out of his sanctuary. He heard the chiming doorbell over the front door as she left the shop.
Gustav sat down again, reached for the box and set it on his lap. The wood was cool and smooth. He made himself sit with it just so, closed, for a little while. If this was to be the end of his quest, he wanted to treasure this moment of anticipation. And if not?
Well, there was only one way to know.
With trembling fingers he opened the lid, gripped the delicate fabric and lost himself. The world fell away and turned into minute details: vegetable fibres, processing, weaving, sewing, then the daily use, the gentle touch of hands shrivelled with age. Snapshots of prayers, wishes and pleas for mercy flickered by. Desperation, rapture, deep love. Worship. Kindness. Mild and tired. It filled him to the brim and he flowed over.
But it was not what he had been looking for.
Not a pure, unadulterated feeling of goodness.
Gustav wiped his cheeks with the backs of his hands, stroking away the tears that kept rolling, before he carefully put the fabric back in its box and locked it.
Better luck next time, he thought, draining the last drops of cognac from her glass.
Nene Ormes has a past as an archaeologist and as a tour guide in Egypt and now lives in Malmö, Sweden. Her debut novel, Udda verklighet (Touched), is the first in a series of urban fantasies set in her home town. The second novel, Särskild (Dreamer) won her a culture award. “The Good Matter” takes place in the same world as the novels.