Busted Flush


Chapter 1

Double Helix



Melinda M. Snodgrass

I FIND MYSELF AVOIDING the passages about ashes and worms. The pages are thin, almost feathery beneath my fingers as I turn them, looking for another passage that won't fill my throat with bile. I know my father is dying. I don't have to read about it.

Here's one. It reads more like a page out of Lord Dunsany than a collection of musings by long-dead Hebrews. "Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the water: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind." I have a good voice and I know how to use it. I use it now, softening and deepening the final words. I know he should sleep. I don't want him to sleep. I want to talk to him. Hear his voice before it's silenced.

That damn lump is back. I keep swallowing, trying to make it smaller. Through the mullioned panes I can see a glint of sun on the sluggish waters of the Cam. It's August, and it feels like this endless summer will never end. The room is breathlessly warm, and the heavy air holds that sick/sweet scent of fatal illness. I can feel my shirt clinging to the skin of my back. Outside there's the sputtering growl of a lawn mower somewhere on the street, and a dog carols his annoyance. I'll probably need to mow the lawn for my parents, or find a teenager. Through the open window I can smell the green. The branches of the apple tree out back sag under the rosy burdens. Maybe that's what happens to every living thing when they have to breed.

My father touches the back of my wrist. His skin feels just like the onion-thin pages of the Bible that now rests in my lap. "Thank . . . you." His blue eyes are surprisingly alert in a face reduced to harsh bone and stretched skin. "There's wisdom between those covers," he adds, and transfers his hand to the Bible. "Maybe by reading to me you'll find some of it."

Fantasies and fairy tales, is what I think, but I keep control of my features. "So, you think I'm foolish." I grin at him. "Thanks."

"No." His expression is serious. "But I know that something is wrong. I raised you, Noel, you can't hide things from me."

He's smiling, but I still have that visceral gut clench that affects every child when their parents display that kind of preternatural omniscience. It passes quickly. After all, I'm twenty-eight, and I amuse myself for a moment wondering what he thinks I've done. No pregnant fans. I'm a hermaphrodite, so I'm sterile. I'm not in debt. Both my public job and my secret job pay me quite well. What could he imagine I had done? For a moment I toy with the idea of telling him.

You know I'm a member of the Silver Helix, Dad, a division of MI-7. What you don't know is that I'm their designated assassin. I don't remember how many people I've killed. They say you never forget your first. His face is as blank as all the others.

But of course I don't. Standing, I set aside the Bible and stretch. "Tea? There's lemon tarts, and some boiled tongue for sandwiches. Will you eat something?"

"I'll try."

Our kitchen is small and cluttered, and several days' worth of dishes form towers in the sink. A fat fly moves lazily between the trash can and the dirty dishes. The buzzing is almost hypnotic. No, no, no. A sharp head shake drives back the sleepiness. Looks like I'm going to have to hire a maid as well as a teenager.

The tongue, sullenly red and pimpled with taste buds, gleams with congealed fat under the refrigerator light. American kitchens are almost obscene with their gigantic refrigerators crammed with food. We English are starting to go the same way. Who has time to shop for each day's meal that day?

I wonder who had cooked the tongue - certainly not my mother. She never cooked. My father took care of the house and the kid, and prepared every meal, and he fit every cliche about English cooking. A spurt of anger flares in the center of my chest, but I back down from it. It isn't Mum's fault he's dying. She was the bread winner so I suppose she had the right to dodge the drudgery. But I suspect if she hadn't worked she still wouldn't