Unicorn Trade by Anderson, Poul. Part four


The flames roared. They stood aloft from the house in cataracts of red, yellow, hell-blue, which a breeze made ragged and cast as a spray of sparks against cold November stars. Their blaze roiled in smoke, flashed off neighbor windows, sheened over the snow that lay thin upon lawns and banked along hedges. Meltwater around burning walls had boiled off, and grass beneath was charred. The heat rolled forth like a tide. Men felt it parch their eyeballs and stood back from trying to breast it. Meanwhile it strewed reek around them.

Blink, blink went the turret light on the fire chief’s car. Standing beside it, he and the police chief could oversee his trucks. Paint and metal gleamed through darkness, background for men who sluiced thick white jets out of hoses. Hoarse shouts seemed remote, nearly lost amidst boom



The Unicorn Trade

and brawl. Still farther away were the spectators, a shadow mass dammed in the street to right and left by a few officers. And the view downhill, of Senlac’s lamps and homes in peaceful arrays, the river frozen among them, a glimpse of grey-white farmland beyond, could have been on a planet circling in Orion.

“Yeah, about as bad as they come,” said the fire chief. His breath made each word a ghostly explosion. “We just hope we can keep it from spreading next door. I guess we can.”

“Damn, there goes any evidence,” said the police chief. He slapped arms over chest. The fury he watched did not radiate very far.

“Well, we might find something in the ashes,” said the fire chief. “Though I should think whatever you can use is in, uh, the other place.”

“Probably,” said the police chief. “Still … I dunno. On the face of it, the case looks open and shut. But what I’ve heard tonight— I’ve seen my share of weirdos, not only when I was on the force in Chicago, Jim, but here in our quiet, smallish Midwestern town too, oh, yes. And this business doesn’t fit any pattern. It smells all wrong.”

Brroomm, went the flames. Rao-ow-ow, Sssss.

Leo Tronen’s wife made no scene when she left him. She deemed they had had enough of those in the three years they were married, culminating in the one the evening before. That was when he stormed into her study, snatched her half-written thesis off the desk, brought it back to the living room, tossed it in the grate,



and snapped his cigarette lighter to the strewn paper. As he rose, he spoke softly: “Does this convince you?”

For an instant Una flinched away. An odd little breaking noise came out of her throat. She was a short woman, well formed, features delicately boned, eyes blue and huge, nose tip-tilted, lips forever a bit parted, face framed between wings of blonde hair. And Tronen loomed six feet three, and had been a football star at his university. Then she clenched fists, stood her ground, and whispered almost wonderingly, “You would do such a thing. You really would. I kept praying we could work our troubles out—”

“Jesus Christ, haven’t I tried?” His voice loudened. “A million times at least. From practically the first day we met, I explained— I don’t need a college professor—an Egyptologist, for God’s sake!—I need a wife.”

She shook her head. “No.” Soundless tears coursed forth. “You need, want, a status symbol. A mirror.” She wheeled and walked from him. He heard her shoes on the stairs, and how she fought her sobs.

Ordinarily Tronen drank no more than his work required, including, of course, necessary cocktail parties. Now he put down a fair amount of Scotch before he too went to bed, thinking how magnanimous he was in taking the guest room. That would be a point to make tomorrow, when he must take the lead in cleaning up the chaos that had overcome their relationship. For instance: “Be honest. The main reason we don’t have a better sex life is you’re still stuck on that


The Unicorn Trade

Quarters character. I realize you don’t admit it to yourself, but you are. Okay, you dated him in college, and you both like to talk about countries dead and gone, and maybe my action yesterday was too extreme. If so, I’m sorry. But don’t you see, I had to do something to make you understand how you’ve been letting me down? What is Harry Quarters? A high school history teacher! And what use to you, to us, would your precious master’s degree be, that you’re making a forty-mile commute three days a week to study for? You’re an executive’s wife, my dear, and we’re bound for the top. You’ll visit your Pyramids in style—if you’ll help out!”

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Categories: Anderson, Poul