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Mustard, Knife—No Colonel, No Library
About the Author: Mara Buck writes, paints, and rants in a self-constructed hideaway in the Maine woods. Recently short-listed for the Alpine Fellowship. Winner of The Raven Prize, Scottish Arts Club Short Story Prize, two Moon Prizes, F. Scott Fitzgerald Prize, Binnacle International Prize and others, with works in numerous literary magazines and print anthologies. The ubiquitous novel lurks.

“Mom, I think I found something interesting here.”

“Forget it, Ben. Remember we’re just looking. We can’t afford to buy anything and for God’s sake, don’t raise your hand and bid.”

“I don’t think my bottle money will cover the cost of it anyway, cause it’s really cool. It’s this knife with blood on it.”

“What? What knife? You didn’t cut yourself, did you?”

“I’m not an asshole, Mom. Not MY blood. OLD blood. Come look.”

“Watch your language! Okay, where is it? This?”

“Yeah. It’s got a nifty handle made from a deer antler and there’s blood in the cracks.”

“Well, it’s probably deer blood. The guy who owned it was probably skinning the deer he’d just shot.”

“I tested it. With the CSI kit in my backpack. It’s people, I mean human, blood.”

“What’s that you got there, son? Bowie knife? Jesus, that dumb auctioneer shouldn’t have left it just lying around. Somebody could get hurt. Didn’t cut yourself, did yah? Best hand it over to me so I can put it someplace safe. Put it in the case.”

“Thank you, sir. My boy here fancies himself to be quite the private eye. Like them folks on the TV. Give the man the knife, Ben. Handle first like your dad taught you.”

“Your fingerprints’ll be on the handle now, sir. Like the guy who used it.”

“I suppose lots of people have handled this knife, sonny.”

“Nope. I got it right out of that carton of stuff on the floor over there. I only found one set of prints on the handle and one on the blade. Same prints. Only one guy ever touched it in a good long time, I guess. Took a photo of the prints with my camera. You’d think it’d be hard to pick up because the handle is so irregular, but there’re some flat areas where you can see them clear as day.”

“Well, now yours are on there too, kid. Maybe you’re a stone-cold Jack the Ripper.”

“Not hardly. Didn’t you see I’ve still got my gloves on? It’s chilly in here.”

“Ben, put the nasty old knife back where you found it. Or better yet, just give it to the auctioneer. It’s about ready to start. Let’s go find some seats.”

Big Al Compton was a showman to rival Barnum and he played his bidders with every trick in the auctioneer’s handbook. Of course, some would say Big Al had written the book himself, and others would say there wasn’t any handbook at all, that you learned by the seat of your pants. But Big Al knew it was talent, pure raw talent like a pitch-perfect singing voice, and he used his own booming vocal instrument to wheedle and to chant, his sing-song reaching to the rafters, pulling down bids like greenbacks drifting from heaven. In his teens he’d been a sheep-shearer on his uncle’s farm until he discovered that fleecing bidders was less grunt work and far more fun. In record time, Al Compton became Big Al and his legend grew. People didn’t tend to screw around with a legend. His gold front tooth twinkled in the strident neon, strategic spotlights pinpointing the best of the merchandise. Today’s pickings were mighty lean, mostly leftovers from a divorce settlement. But Big Al always enjoyed a challenge, getting the most for the least. Some kid had just handed him this rusty old knife. Seemed as good a place to start as any.

Big Al had many methods to what his acolytes considered his madness, and one of his favorites was a technique he’d named The Fast Drop. Kept the audience on its toes. Made them sit up straight in their seats. He’d lead off the auction with something cheap, wave the object in the air, and blurt out, “First dollar bill takes it!” No matter what the damn thing was, all hands would reach for the rafters of the smoky hall, and his pudgy finger would point at someone and he’d scream, “You bought it!” His skeletal runner Clarence would then deliver the treasure and the real bidding would start now that the sheep were milling about, anxious, ready to sacrifice their wool on the altar of chance.

Big Al waved the knife. “Lookee here! This must’ve been used by the great Jim Bowie himself!” The knife looked significantly smaller in Big Al’s massive paw. “First dollar bill …”

Ben’s hand shot up. The gavel came down.

This story appears in our OCT 2022 Issue
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