Unicorn is an antidote, not a drug.
The unicorn hunters looked like addicts. Like Shay's brother Eddie and Eddie's friends. Not the way Eddie and his friends looked when they were high, but sketchy and haggard, the way they looked when Eddie's hook-up fell through or when nobody had any cash or when cops were watching the house. They huddled around a campfire, a few yards away from the tent where Shay was supposed to be learning how to do his new job.
A skinny girl named Naomi, who couldn't seem to stop crying, sat cross-legged and hunched close to the fire like she was cold even though it was the middle of July. She was the virgin--ex-virgin--Shay had been hired to replace. Beside her sat Hector, whose cousin was a friend of Eddie's and had helped Shay get the job. And seated in a canvas-style folding chair on the other side of the fire was Mickey, a big, broad-shouldered guy who could have been Paul Bunyan's stunt double clear down to the beard and the flannel shirt. Except he had no eyes, only hollows where his sealed eyelids had sunken in and taken the shape of his eye-sockets. Mickey carried a knife the size of Shay's forearm and would be the one to actually kill the unicorn.
"Son," said Shay's boss, "do I need to let the tent flap down so you can concentrate on what I'm saying to you?" While Shay'd been waiting, Cap had unloaded the contents of a ten-gallon plastic storage tub and arranged everything on a card table inside the five-man tent he called his office.
"No, sir." Shay moved to the table.
Cap had set out a mallet, a battery-operated coffee grinder, a box of Saran wrap, and a digital postal scale almost identical to the one Eddie always used when he was dealing. He produced a unicorn horn from a cardboard mailer tube he'd brought with him from the truck, then held it up and looked down its length.
"Bit smaller than what we've been averaging lately."
It didn't look small to Shay. It was at least two feet long. Spirally, like a narwhal tooth. The same color as the inside of a seashell and shiny. It was pretty. It would've definitely run a man through.
Cap zeroed the scale, weighed the horn, and jotted the number onto a folded-up piece of paper he plucked from his shirt pocket.
"It's more fragile than it looks." He braced it against the table and gently tapped the mallet against the horn's thickest point. It crumbled instantly into pieces, like a candy imitation of the real thing. One second a horn, the next, jagged chunks and powder that looked disconcertingly like crack rock or clumps of meth.
It was Shay's skill at processing illegal substances that had landed him the job, but he still wished the thing could have somehow magically transformed itself into a couple hundred aspirin-shaped tablets. Unicorn horn was an antidote to poison, not a drug. Not like Eddie's drugs, anyway. It didn't have any negative side effects. It didn't hurt anyone. It seemed wrong to have to break the law to get it.
Cap produced a plastic card and swept all the fragments into a tidy pile. "That's the tough part--breaking it so it don't fly all over the place." He retrieved the coffee grinder and placed it next to the pile. "I reckon you can take it from here."
He deposited himself into a collapsible lawn chair in the corner, beside the stack of plastic storage tubs. He didn't warn Shay about what might happen if anything went wrong or if any of the horn disappeared. He didn't have to.
Shay adjusted the placement of the scale and the Saran wrap, then dropped the larger, thumb-sized chunks of horn one by one into the grinder. He used the plastic card--a laminated library card--to scoop the smaller chunks and powder in on top of the rest, thoroughly scraping up particles of the horn with the edge of the card until there was nothing left on the table, not even residual dust.
The machine grated when Shay put pressure on the lid, which was the mechanism for turning the thing on, then the rumbling smoothed into a low growl. When the horn was as fine as talcum, he dumped it on the scale. 397 grams. Same as when Cap had weighed it the first time. Shay hadn't weighed it again to double-check; it was just easier to work by subtraction than to measure out one gram at a time. But 397 grams was a lot. It was going to take a long time to get through all of it.
Back home, Eddie never could have afforded that much. Of anything. Definitely not horn. Horn was for politicians, corporate aristocracy and Hollywood royalty. It was too rare and expensive for small-time suburban drug dealers like Eddie.
Shay tore plastic wrap off the roll in narrow strips, then used the cutter built into the cardboard box to tear the strips down into smaller squares. When he had a dozen of those, he slid a square partway under the scale so the flat surface of the scale overlapped the plastic. It wasn't any different than helping Eddie make eight balls of coke, except these were smaller.
Shay scraped powder off the scale onto the plastic wrap until the scale read 396, then he shook the powder to the center of the plastic. He bunched the plastic together, spun it, twisted it into a knot, and pulled it tight into a one-gram ball that looked a little like a tiny, lilac-colored cherry because of the way the plastic-wrap stem stuck out the top.
Shay set it aside and moved on to the next, falling into the familiar rhythm of the task. Scrape, shake, twist, and knot. He lined the balls up in neat rows of ten. Eddie always liked it when they were easy to count. Cap would probably feel the same way.
When the light in the tent grew dim, Cap brought out a battery-powered Coleman lantern and set it on the table so Shay could see what he was doing. His growing army of tiny lavender balls numbered in the hundreds. There were so many that they looked a lot like the Pop Pop Snap fireworks little kids liked to throw at sidewalks on the fourth of July.
"You're fast," Cap said. "I'll give you that."
Shay bagged the last dozen grams, then Cap brought out a Ziploc bag full of smaller Ziploc bags and together they divided the tiny cherries into ten packs. When they finished, Cap escorted him out to the campfire, and they distributed a one-gram ball to each of the unicorn hunters. These were accepted with faintly murmured thanks, and everyone disappeared into their respective tents, leaving Shay and Cap alone again.
In a moment, there came the long, drawn-out sound of someone nearby inhaling sharply through his nose. Or her nose. It could have been the girl.
Then the sound repeated from another tent.
Shay and his boss watched the fire for a few minutes, then Cap rolled his shoulders restlessly. "Well, you stay up as long as you like. I don't expect you'll see any action tomorrow."
Cap returned to his office tent and zipped the door closed. Shay heard him moving around, heard the lid of a plastic storage container being removed and replaced, and the soft shushing, sliding sounds of a sleeping bag being laid out. Some rustling. A zipper. Then nothing.
Shay lingered by the fire until he heard the last of the unicorn hunters snort their dose, then he went to his own small tent and lay in the dark.
He dreamed of unicorns. By the hundreds. Thousands. Oceans of unicorns, in all sizes and colors. Unicorns that looked like goats and deer. Unicorns like white horses. Roan, chestnut, bay. Baby blue, lavender, and emerald green. A rainbow of four-legged animals, all sporting horns that looked like the horn Shay had processed for his new employer. They galloped in fields, paced between buildings, trotted through subways, and thundered in herds like water buffalo, over every corner of the earth. They had gotten into everything. An infestation. Not like water buffalo, like giant unicorn-shaped cockroaches.
Shay had a dose of horn in his pocket to give to Eddie, but he'd lost Eddie when the unicorns had flooded the city. Shay checked their apartment, Eddie's girlfriend's house, and even the rehab clinic Eddie occasionally promised to go to but had never actually visited. He checked the church where they held Narc-Anon meetings, and he checked the run-down brownstone where Eddie sometimes went to buy drugs. He found no sign of his brother.
He walked along the edge of a street, maneuvering around parked cars and stepping over gutter trash, paperboard coffee cups, cigarette butts, and broken bottles. And a unicorn horn, of all things, discarded like it was worthless.
"Shay!" said someone.