BEAUTY AND THE BUTLER • by Stephen V. Ramey

Reggie adores penguins, so stiff and proper on land, so gracefully aggressive in water. That’s why he loves them, their dual nature, their hidden selves.

Suppressing a shudder, he enters the motel parking lot. The Dream Daze Inn is a dump. Even the sign is decadent, bright red plastic pocked with jagged holes, garish fluorescent bulbs within. Shards litter the ground.

Reggie sighs. It cannot be helped. His butler salary might afford a better hotel, but taxis to and from the city’s sights, especially the zoo’s famous penguin collection, would be stretching things beyond comfort. The Dream Daze is within walking distance.

A truck stands near the office door, engine idling. He sees a girl sitting alone in the passenger seat, a young, pretty thing with silky hair and a noble profile. No older than his daughter. What is she doing here?

He mounts the raised walkway fronting the hodgepodge of rooms, each marked by a slanting window and door painted with remnants from a faded rainbow. He strolls closer to the truck, meaning to offer its underage (surely!) occupant a smile and make eye contact. In his years of service he has learned to learn a lot from that small gesture.

She glances away. She’s frightened. Out of her element.

When he blinks, it is his daughter he imagines, blond hair streaked purple, pouting lips, eyes so blue they hurt. His jaw clenches. He recalls finding her sprawled atop the master’s bed, beneath the tiered chandelier Reggie has come to inspect. The master lies face up, manhood fully engorged.

It had taken all Reggie’s composure to walk out without violence. Then, later, “He likes me, Daddy. He really does.” Fifteen years old and she knows these things. “Daddy, you’re such a prude.”

He wonders what new humiliations the master will heap upon her while Reggie watches penguins. I should have called the authorities. If he had a cell phone he might jolly well use it now.

No. It’s not as if this was accomplished against Cindy’s will. She made that patently clear. And who will hire a butler who betrays his employer? No one he knows of.

A man barges from the office door, toward the truck. Reggie reads a lot from his clenched jaw and clenched fist, the way he glares. This is a violent man, a man with violence on his mind.

In that instant, Reggie imagines the rescue, plots it out, move by move, how he’ll wrench open the truck door and pull the girl to safety just as the violent man steps onto the running board. When he opens his door, he’ll find Reggie waiting, Reginald B. Mills, butler by day…

But, no, discretion is too deeply rooted. It is not his place to intrude. He fishes through his pocket for the room key, eyes seeking the girl through a windshield glazed red with reflected lights. Their eyes meet, cling. He feels his hackles rise, feathers standing from his skin. He swallows. He tenses. He takes a step.

The truck’s headlights blast on, forcing him to avert his gaze. Even before the vehicle backs away, Reggie has the motel door open and closed again behind him.

Outside, plastic crunches on gravel. Reggie falls to his knees, imagining shards glimmering from a shattered chandelier.

Stephen V. Ramey has been published on Strange Horizons and PodCastle as well as in Triangulation: Taking Flight. He lives and writes in New Castle, PA USA, where he regularly visits the odd ducks that live along the river.

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