Samuel Mae lives on a smallish island near the bottom of the world and writes speculative fiction and poetry. He's sold fiction to places like Electric Velocipede and Kaleidotrope, and one day plans to drive from Halifax to Anchorage.
With a flick of her jeweled cane, the fur-coated woman at the counter announced, "I would like your finest dromedary, shopkeep. It must be large, and its hump well-formed."
Maria didn't reply. She didn't know how to reply. Before this woman had marched into the shop five minutes ago, coat flapping behind her, spectacles bobbing on the edge of a stout nose, followed by two flustered young men in old-fashioned gray suits and sporting matching handlebar moustaches, Maria had never heard the word. But the woman had uttered it at least ten times since entering the shop, all while hurrying up and down the aisles, swatting the air with her cane. Whatever a dromedary was, she obviously wanted one bad.
"Did you not hear me, shopkeep?" the woman said, leaning across the counter until her nose almost touched Maria's chin. Her hair was lacquered up in an outlandish bun, and her cheeks jiggled. "Get me your finest dromedary. Now."
The man at her right tried to say something, but received a whack on the mouth with the cane before he could get any words out.
Not only was the woman's cane jeweled, Maria noticed, but each of her fingers bore a chunky ring, the gemstones in them larger than any Maria had ever seen before. Sapphire, topaz, ruby, emerald, diamond. They were gorgeous.
"Young lady, I'm tiring of your insolence," the woman snapped.
Maria tore her gaze away from the rings. Maybe the woman was after some cream, or something. She certainly sounded like she was a bit itchy.
"Sorry," she said. "We don't really got anything like that. We're not a drugstore. Got Vaseline, but that's about it."
"Nonsense. Every general store worth their salt has a dromedary or two."
The man at her right tried to speak again, and got another whack from the cane. He and the other guy might've been twins, both with strong jaws, sweptback blond hair and tiny waists.
"We definitely got no Dromedary brand of anything," Maria said. "I'd remember a funny name like that on the stock list."
The woman drew herself up to her full height and puffed her ample chest out. "This will not do. Tomorrow I embark for the Sahara, and it's imperative I have a dromedary for the journey."
"Sahara? Africa Sahara?"
"Of course. To what other Sahara would I be referring?"
Woman needed a loony bin. But Alexi was always telling her the customer was the real boss. And he watched the security tapes from the night shift the next morning, so he'd know if she told the woman and her crew to beat it.
"Look," Maria said. "Maybe we got an alternative to your dromedary thang. You tell me what it is, exactly, and I'll see if we got something like it on the shelves."
"An alternative?" The woman's face turned red. "An alternative?"
The man on her left reached into a pocket and pulled out a picture. Head bowed, he slid it across the counter. A camel stared up at her.
"Ah," Maria said. "You after smokes?"
The man shook his head. "No. The animal."
Enough was enough. Maria glared at the woman. "This some kinda joke? We ain't no pet store. Ain't no camels in Brookfield anyway, apart from the zoo."
"The zoo?" both men said in unison while the woman continued to splutter.
"Yeah, the zoo, Skippy."
The man on the right cleared his throat. "Whereabouts is this ‘zoo,' exactly?"
"We're... new in town," the man on the left said.
Maria snorted. "Yeah, well I'd never have guessed. You can get to it a couple of ways, either past Riverside High, which is off Washington, or off West Thirty-First. Thirty-First is probably easier."
Both men stared at her blankly.
"Ah, right," she said. "New. Tell you what. We got a real good roadmap here. Real detailed. Only three bucks."
"We'll take it," the man on the right said. "We haven't any buckskins, but we do have pillar dollars. I hope those are acceptable."
He plonked some coins on the counter. They had Spanish writing around the edges and an image of a double-globe wearing a crown in between two pillars also wearing crowns. Could almost be an artist's impression of the three crackheads standing in front of her. Definitely not American currency.
She shrugged. The maps were actually free promotional things a car-dealer friend of Alexi's had piled on their counter one morning, and that they couldn't get rid of no matter how hard they tried. Maybe she could make a necklace out of the coins.
"Y'know what," she said. "Take one each. No extra charge."
"Oh, thank you," both men said, again in unison. The woman had now produced an ornate hand fan from somewhere inside her coat and was busy fluttering it in front of her face, her color almost back to normal.
"Zoo'll be closed now, of course," Maria said. "Best go in the morning. You get in early you'll beat the crowds, and you can watch the camels as much as you like."
"No," said the woman. "We will go tonight. I leave tomorrow, and I must have a dromedary for the journey."
With that she turned and stalked out, her cane knocking over a display stand of sunglasses on the way. Both men hovered at the site of the display stand for a moment, then rushed after the woman. Maria shook her head and went to tidy up.
Saw some strange things on the night shift, but at least this lot hadn't robbed the place.
In the morning the headline on the front page of the Landmark read, ‘Camel busted out of Brookfield Zoo, police humped.'
She put the newspaper aside and decided it'd be better not to say anything. When Alexi asked who the weirdoes were that'd come in last night, she told him they were on their way to a fancy-dress party.
The camel was never found.