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His World Or Mine Challenge


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Ok, here's my original setting story, with thanks to Bri for proofreading.






Ceres Racing.



The ship will be arriving at the Ceres Intra-System Port in fifteen minutes. All passengers are advised to finish drinks, secure all loose objects and strap into their assigned seats for docking procedures immediately. The gravity section will cease rotation in five minutes.


“At last!†exclaimed the woman Thomas Sutton had been talking to for the last hour or so, straightening her well-tailored business suit. “As if the journey from Mars wasn’t long enough, we have to wait for five extra hours because some idiot couldn’t look where he was going.â€Â


“They suspend the normal traffic control rules for the races. I guess someone got too ambitious trying to pass.†Thomas replied, downing the last of his bourbon and handing his glass to the bartender, who was tidying up for the docking.


“I’ll barely have enough time to get through customs and freshen up before my meeting,†the woman shook her head, then looked at Thomas invitingly. “I’ll be staying at the Hilton, if you want to meet up again later.â€Â


“Sure, I’d like that.†Thomas smiled back. “I hope your meeting goes well. I hear the Gogoth Trade Board likes to stretch things out.â€Â


“Tell me about it,†she laughed, “the only reason I’m out here at all is that they don’t trust communications technology and want to do every deal face to face. And all that ritual and posturing they have to do first. At least the company’s springing for a decent hotel to keep up appearances.â€Â


The gravity warning lights in the liner’s bar lit up. “Well, that’s our cue to leave,†Thomas said “Nice meeting you Madeline, maybe we’ll get a chance to hook up when we’ve both finished our business.â€Â


The liner made its way slowly in to the great yawning borehole that had been part of the first mining operation on Ceres. Now, it served as a means to get ships on the inner surface of the asteroid where the artificially induced rotation could give the inhabitants enough gravity to operate normally. With the docking arms secure and the airlocks opened, the flight attendants dutifully made their rounds, helping the passengers disengage themselves from the web of belts securing them to the flight couches. Thomas had been off and on starships for years and had no need of such assistance, quickly shedding the belts and making his way through the docking lounges, past the entertainment stalls and down into the concourse to collect his luggage.


As usual, the port was buzzing with activity, Ceres being the hub of all traffic between the inner and outer planets and the major stopover point for interstellar traffic as well. The accident that had delayed Thomas’ arrival also meant that a multitude of ships, large and small had docked in quick succession, making his journey from the luggage carousels to customs long, crowded and uncomfortable. By the time he finally arrived at the heavily fortified customs scanners, he was in no mood for the usual trouble he got when entering a new jurisdiction.


“Anything to declare?†the slightly podgy Ceres Security guard asked, fingering the grip of the rifle he was carrying.


“There’s a Glock 47 machine pistol and three hundred rounds in the compartment in my suitcase,†Thomas said wearily, “I’m also wired to see in thermographic, to intercept and transmit broadband radio communications and I’ve got a targeting matrix.â€Â


“Huh. Fancy yourself a mercenary mate?†the guard smirked. “You got a license for all this hardware?â€Â


At least security never looked at a wired man like a freak. They were usually wired themselves. “It’s on my identity card,†said Thomas, proffering his ID, “class C freelancer’s permit.â€Â


The guard squinted at the ID card for a while, before running it through the reader beside him. “Yeah, this is all current,†The guard paused and Thomas knew he was considering doing a more thorough search. But the crowd piling up behind did have some advantages after all. “Alright, move along. And stay out of trouble, freelancer.â€Â




After leaving the spaceport, Thomas caught a monorail to one of Ceres’ large open chambers containing the multitude of hotels, casinos, restaurants and other attractions that kept the tourists, conventions and the business deals coming. Thomas made his way to his hotel, a cheap two star affair, but a place where he knew the staff and trusted their discretion. He unpacked his pistol and the highly illegal security decryptor from the lining of the scan-camouflaged compartment that Ceres Security had missed. It was risky to bring it in, but considering the amount of times it had made a nigh impossible task merely challenging, the risk was worth it. Thomas checked over his pistol, put it in its holster and started out of the door to meet with his employer. Passing the hotel room’s mirror, he took a look at himself and changed his mind. He was late, but appearances counted, and right now he looked more like a bedraggled tourist than a professional freelancer.


After a shower, shave and a change of clothes, Thomas strolled down the wide streets of the entertainment district, getting the feel of the place again, testing the slightly lower gravity, watching for the rhythms in the passing crowds. The night was crisp and cool, the moon large and easily visible through the city lights. Of course, the moon was projected onto the roof of the chamber along with an attendant starfield and designed to be visible at all times. The brochures said it was just like the view from Earth, except that there was practically nowhere on Earth you could see the stars at night anymore. At the edge of the entertainment district, Thomas hailed a cab, which he directed to his destination, the offices of the Reflex Racing team.




Even after the delay with docking, he was barely two hours late, and Thomas knew that the owner of Reflex Racing, Maximillian DeVille, would still be working. It took Thomas no more than five minutes to get past the secretary at the desk and into DeVille’s plush office. As Thomas entered the room, De Ville rose from behind his antique polished oak desk, extending a hand and a warm smile, “Ah, Thomas, welcome to Ceres. I trust you weren’t too delayed by the... incident on the track?â€Â


Thomas took DeVille’s hand, noting that the grey in DeVille’s hair had spread since last they met, though his friend seemed to be taking care of himself, still as in shape as ever. “It was a few hours,†Thomas said as the two sat down, “but frankly Max, I’d rather hang around for a few hours than experience explosive decompression. I assume there’s some connection there with your own problems. The news channels weren’t carrying much, not one of yours, was it?â€Â


“No, it wasn’t one of ours. It was Jin Zhao from the Sangyen team. He’s alright, the ejection systems got him away from the collision, but just barely. You’re right though, this is connected with our troubles.â€Â


Thomas nodded “Then you’d better fill me in, and I’ll see I can do for you,â€Â


“My operations manager knows the details better than I do, I’ll call her in,†DeVille said, pulling his phone from his pocket. “Annabelle, the freelancer I told you about has arrived. Yes, the accident kept him from docking. Could you come in here and give him the story? Right, thanks,†DeVille put his phone away and stood up, gesturing towards his drinks cabinet. “She’ll be here in a minute or two. Want a drink?â€Â


“Yeah, but just a little one, I might want to get straight into things if the trail’s warm enough.â€Â


“Scotch alright?†DeVille asked, pouring two glasses at Thomas’ nod.


Taking his glass, Thomas took a sip and nodded appreciatively, “Good stuff.â€Â


“It should be, it’s been aging for more than ninety years. 2031, it says on the label.â€Â


The next few moments were passed in small talk, until the door opened to admit a petite woman, her pale skin accentuated by the dark severity of the business attire she wore. Thomas looked her over as she crossed the room, taking in her blue-black hair, her purposeful walk and the deadly seriousness in her eyes.


“Annabelle Hurst, this is Thomas Sutton, the man I’ve asked to look into our problem.†DeVille said, indicating Thomas with his free hand.


“Mister Sutton.†Annabelle said, as Thomas stood to shake her hand.


“Miss Hurst.â€Â


“Now, I don’t suppose that you’ll be wanting a drink while you explain our situation to Thomas, will you Annabelle?†DeVille asked, shaking the glass in his hand invitingly.

A brief smile passed over Annabelle’s face. “No sir, not at work.â€Â


“It’s alright you know.â€Â


“No sir, thank you.â€Â


DeVille smiled “Well, now that we’ve established that, let’s get down to business.â€Â


“Yes sir,†Annabelle nodded to DeVille, “Now mister Sutton, you are aware that the Formula Ceres racing circuit has been suffering a heavy spate of technical failures and accidents recently, aren’t you?â€Â


“Yes, but as far as I heard, none of this was limited to your team.â€Â


“No, Mister Sutton, it isn’t. It began some months ago with the occasional probing of our network security. It was nothing major, we thought it was just the usual hacker activity we get from time to time and none of it made its way through our precautions. Then the technical failures began. They were mostly guidance and sensor problems, again nothing especially unusual but they did happen more often than our experience has previously shown.†Annabelle paused to collect her thoughts and Thomas took the opportunity to speak.


“And all of the other teams were suffering the same problems?â€Â


“Not exactly the same problems. From what we could gather, they were having issues with different systems, and while they, and we, were having quite a lot of problems, it’s not all that uncommon at the beginning of a season when the new technical developments appear. But we’ve had two incidents that have convinced us that this is more than just a run of bad luck.â€Â


“The break-in that you mentioned Max?†Thomas inquired.


“That’s right.†DeVille nodded, getting up to get another drink for himself.


“It’s a little more complicated than that Mister Sutton,†Annabelle continued, “Our security systems showed that someone attempted to break into our facility here, but failed. The thing is, our engineer insists that computers were accessed and some of the directional thruster prototypes were disturbed. And she’d know, she’s so wired she can see if something’s out of place by even a micron.â€Â


Thomas was surprised at the lack of disgust in Annabelle’s voice for someone so heavily altered, but he did his best not to show it. “I have to ask the obvious here, but you’ve got no security footage of your burglar, do you?â€Â


“The security cameras just happened to be on the fritz at the time,†Annabelle’s tone easily betrayed her disgust at that particular happenstance. “Even with all that, we would have thought the break-in to be no more than the kind of industrial espionage we occasionally see here on the racing circuit. But five days ago, someone tried to assassinate one of our pilots.â€Â


That must be why Max was so sketchy over the phone. Thomas thought. “Well, that is unusual. How come there’s been nothing on the news channels?â€Â


“It happened when the pilot was on her way home from a public appearance and her bodyguard was the only other witness. Fortunately, she was uninjured and our contacts in Ceres Security have agreed to keep things quiet for now.â€Â


“So are we looking at an elimination or an investigation here?â€Â


DeVille shifted forward, looking intently at Thomas over his glass. “An investigation Thomas. I want to know who’s behind this.â€Â


Thomas nodded slowly at DeVille’s sudden burst of seriousness “Alright, can I get access to the assassin so I can ask some questions?â€Â


“You can if you can find them, Mister Sutton,†Annabelle continued “Whoever it was got away clean and without being seen.â€Â


“Do you have any clues at all I can go on?†Thomas resisted the urge to let fly with a good dose of sarcasm. “What makes you think the assassination and the break-in are related?â€Â


“Because our only clue to the assassination indicates someone with the technical know-how to perform the break-in and cover their tracks afterward. The assassination attempt on our pilot was made using a railgun and our engineer tells us that it was hand built. We think that the assassination was never meant to succeed and it was only meant to scare our pilot. Maybe scare her into joining another team.â€Â


Thomas put his glass down on DeVille’s desk. “I’m still not entirely convinced that this is the work of another team in the league, but it’s a start.â€Â


“No-one else would have the reason to do all this Thomas.†DeVille said, as he leaned forward to pick up Thomas’ glass and wipe the condensation from his desk.


“Well, we’ll see about that Max. I think I’ve heard enough background for now, can I speak to the pilot and the engineer?â€Â


“Of course, Mister Sutton,†Annabelle stood up, nodding to DeVille. “If you’ll follow me.â€Â




Thomas trailed after Annabelle as they passed into the security sector of the Reflex Racing building and on through several corridors filled with closed doors into the team lounge, where both the team’s pilots were still relaxing after the day’s race. The recent remake of the classic movie Casablanca was just ending on the room’s wide-field holograph as Annabelle and Thomas entered, giving Thomas a chance to get a good look at both pilots. The man was dark haired and dark eyed, of medium height and build, but clearly well toned by exercise, corded muscles showing clearly against the tight designer t-shirt he wore. The woman was obviously equally well muscled, but with curves unexpectedly pronounced for so athletic a woman. Though her hair was dyed a vivid blue to match her eyes, she was dressed much less expensively than the man, in faded jeans and a white t-shirt shirt that Thomas probably could have bought for just a few Martian Dollars.


“Alex, Siren, this is Thomas Sutton, the man who Mister DeVille has asked to look into our recent problems,†Annabelle indicated Thomas as the pilots looked over. “Mister Sutton, this is Alex Mason and this is Siren Soulstorm, our two principle pilots.â€Â


Alex got up from his seat and strode over to Thomas with a hand extended and a grin on his stubble-shrouded face, “Howdy Tom, glad to meet ya. Looks like old Max got us a man who really knows what he’s doin’.â€Â


“Thanks for the vote of confidence Mister Mason.†said Thomas as he shook hands with Alex.


“Hey now, none of that ‘Mister Mason’ crap. Any friend of Max is a friend of mine. Call me Alex.â€Â


“I like to keep things professional. But if you insist, Alex it is.â€Â


“I do,†Alex slapped Thomas enthusiastically on the shoulders. “C’mon over Siren, and meet Tom.â€Â


Siren Soulstorm uncoiled herself from her half-recline on a heavily padded armchair and swayed hey way towards Thomas, a cheeky smirk tweaking her lips. She took Thomas’ hand with a strong grip and winked at him. “Pleased to meet you Thomas. I insist you call me Siren as well. And just one.â€Â




“You were wondering if I’ve had any surgery done, weren’t you? Like I said, just one, to get these put in.†A sudden flash of colour caught Thomas’ eye and he looked down just in time to catch the tail end of the logo of a very popular carbonated beverage pass across Siren’s cleavage. At Thomas’ quizzical look, Siren merely laughed. “I didn’t think you watched the races much. Sub-dermal imagers. I get a million per second for that particular location.â€Â


Thomas made a noncommittal noise. “In any event, it’s you I want to talk to Siren. About the attempted assassination.â€Â


“A professional I see. That’s probably for the best,†Siren shrugged and then folded her arms. “Alright, what is it you want to know?â€Â


“First of all, I’d like the details of the attempt itself, anything you can remember might be helpful.â€Â


“Right,†Siren nodded. “I was coming back from the public appearance for the Le Faan perfume launch with Eddie, my bodyguard. We parked the limousine in the annex out back and went around to the side entrance of the building. Everything was fine at the event, it was just a normal evening and suddenly Wham, Eddie went down with the slug in his chest. I dragged him inside as quick as I could and I think another slug skipped off the wall as I was doing it. That’s all I really remember.â€Â


“Do you have any idea where the shots were fired from?â€Â


Siren’s face screwed up in concentration for a minute. “From the way Eddie was facing and the way the slug went in, I’d say Spinwise, up on one of the buildings.â€Â


“So the slug didn’t pass through your bodyguard?â€Â


“No, is that important?â€Â


“It might not be, but it definitely cuts down the variables,†Thomas leaned back slightly and considered what Siren had told him. “And you don’t have any enemies, no-one who’d want to kill you?â€Â


“No. No-one,†Siren paused for a moment, “Not unless you count the sponsors when I don’t get on the podium.â€Â


Thomas shrugged. “Well, I think we can count them out. Thank you Siren, you’ve been most helpful,†Thomas shook Siren’s and Alex’s hands again, then turned to Annabelle. “Now, just a quick word with the engineer.â€Â




The engineering bay of Reflex Racing was filled with the hum of machines, computers and racing hardware working away as part of the team’s endless pursuit of speed, maneuverability and durability. Thomas and Annabelle worked their way through the organized chaos of the engineers, in the direction that one of them had indicated their chief was to be found. Rounding the sleek hull of one of the team’s spacecraft, Thomas was startled by the sight of Reflex Racing’s chief engineer as she crouched, completely naked, peering at something inside the ship, but it was not her nakedness that startled Thomas, for the chief engineer was an Rrshk. The four-armed reptilian humanoid looked up, the silver of her totally bionic eyes betraying not the slightest emotion. Thomas watched curiously as she stood up, for he had never seen a female Rrshk before, though considering the fact that she looked like every other Rrshk he’d seen, maybe he had.


“Shekrr, this is Thomas Sutton. He has been hired by Mister DeVille to investigate the break-in to the facilities and the incident with Siren.â€Â


“I understand Annabelle-Hurst-Manager. I will speak plainly to this human,†Shekrr turned to face Thomas extended her upper right arm, a completely bionic affair, and smiled, her lips baring the mouthful of fangs in her ape-like snout. “I greet you, Thomas-Sutton-Investigator. What will you know from me?â€Â


She’s been around humans a while. Thomas thought But not long enough to know she shouldn’t smile like that. Nonetheless, he smiled back at Shekrr, ignoring the intimidating display of her teeth, and shook her hand. “I just want to ask you a few questions, mostly about the break-in.â€Â


“You may ask, I know things about the stealing of our secrets.â€Â


“According to Annabelle, you insist that the computers here were accessed, but that there is no evidence of that happening. How do you know it wasn’t just normal activity?â€Â


“There is evidence. I have in the computers a device to record their activities. The one who broke in to steal our informations was very, very skilled. The person took care to destroy all records on the cameras and on the computers, but my device is not part of the normal computer. The human only had a little time and my device was overlooked.â€Â


“The human? You know it was a human?â€Â


“No, I just guess that it was a human. Only humans from the other teams would want to steal our informations. Ambassadors on Ceres want to know politics informations, not spaceship.â€Â


“I’ll take your word for that. So you don’t think there is any connection between your break-in and someone trying to kill Siren?â€Â


“Humans kill each other all the time,†Shekrr wiggled her fingers as though washing them. “You kill each other over where you are sleeping. Siren-Soulstorm-Pilot sleeps in other places, so someone must want to kill Siren-Soulstorm-Pilot.â€Â


“She doesn’t understand about men and women. Rrshk in her stage of their lifecycle don’t breed,†Annabelle explained, “We took her to see Fatal Liaisons a few weeks ago and now she thinks humans murder one another all the time about who they’re sleeping with.â€Â


“Oh, right, thanks,†Thomas shrugged and turned back to Shekrr. “Now, speaking of the assassination, Annabelle also says you believe the railgun used was hand built, right?â€Â


“Ah, yes. Marks on the projectile tell me that the magnetic conduit was not perfect made, like in a weapons factory. Very fine work though. Residue of the magnetic field shows much power in the conduit. The maker of the weapon was skilled.â€Â


“Do you have a list of what was accessed in the computers and maybe any technical aspects of the weapon you’ve worked out that I could have?â€Â


“I do. Waiting here and I will get a record-chip.†Shekrr strode over to a bank of computers and began fussing with a stack of data chips.


“Right, I think I’ve got all I can from here Miss Hurst. It’s time I went out looking.â€Â


“As you wish Mister Sutton. As soon as Shekrr has got your data, I’ll show you out.â€Â




Thomas strode around the side of the Reflex Racing building, to the entrance where Siren had been shot at. This whole damn business is so vague. Thomas thought This could take months to clear up and I’ve got other jobs lined up waiting. Maybe I can narrow things down a bit here. He turned back the way he had come, looking for possible vantage points for the sniper. There were eight buildings that would have sufficed, but hopefully the data he’d gotten off Shekrr would narrow the field down to two or three and he could at least make a start on finding out who was there at the time. When Thomas fed the data into his targeting matrix though, he found that none of the buildings was a match.


Even from the farthest building, the slug from the railgun should have had enough power to go right through the bodyguard and about six inches into the concrete to boot. He pondered this for a few moments before it hit him. The sky he was looking at wasn’t really sky, it was a projection on the roof of a chamber, so there was solid rock behind it. He rechecked that data and found it fit the scenario of a shooter on the chamber roof. Or maybe someone on a vector thrust flyer near it Thomas thought. Well, at least it cuts down the options to check. Now, let’s look a little deeper into Miss Soulstorm’s background.


Several hours later, Thomas made his way back to his hotel room, weary from the lightning rounds he had made of the fashionable clubs of Ceres and the trouble he’d had getting into a few of them. Everywhere he’d asked about Siren it had been the same. She’s a real party-girl, they’d said. Always out in the latest fashions, never seen in the same thing twice, always has the most chic boyfriends and changes them like she changes her clothes. It’s a front Thomas thought as he keyed in the entry code for his room The party girl turns on and off like a light and she seems more than a little unconcerned about the assassination attempt. But is it just a front to boost her sponsorship options or is it something else? Thomas rubbed his face as he sat down at his room’s communications port with one last task before him. He hooked up his personal computer to Ceres’ information net and began a search of the local databases for information on anyone who fit the requirements he had for the assassination. Technical know-how, a good shot, experience with magnetic fields, a record of similar work. Leaving that to run and pick out the most promising candidates, Thomas went off to shower and then sleep.


Skimming over the results of his search over his breakfast of reconstituted egg and vat-grown bacon, Thomas frowned. Only a few results to see and none fitted all the parameters. Small-time thugs and slightly dodgy techs was all he got. Except for one oddity that piqued his interest. A master technician with Ceres Maintenance, Vladimir Berensky. He had a spotless record, but a record that only went back for five years, blanking out completely until his time in college. Thomas checked further, sending a query off to Proxima Centauri where Berensky had been born. Some hours later he found what he was looking for. Vladimir Berensky had died seventeen years ago in a Dal’Shan raid.




Barely thirty minutes later, Thomas was at the door to Berensky’s apartment in the Ceres Company hab-block. Thomas pressed the door coms “Mister Berensky? I’m Peter Franks and I was told you were a good man with electronics. Mister Berensky, are you in?â€Â


With no answer forthcoming, Thomas plugged his security decryptor into the door panel and began to work on the lock. A tense few minutes passed, for Berensky, or whoever he was, had improved the lock on his door substantially. At last the door slid open and Thomas quickly slipped inside. The quarters were cluttered and unremarkable, old food wrappers, some posters of various racing-craft, in short the home of a bachelor and a messy one at that. Thomas hunted carefully through the clutter, until beneath a pile of old beer cans, he found a hidden slit in the carpet. Flipping that back, Thomas was confronted with a locked compartment in the floor, another obstacle for the security decryptor.


Working at this second and more fiendish lock, Thomas did not notice the main door opening, nor did he hear the soft footsteps of Berensky until it was almost too late. Thomas barely managed to roll aside from the first attack and Berensky came on without a word, a combat knife held loose and ready in one hand. Desperate to get some distance between them, Thomas hurled a bag of debris, half-crawling, half-staggering backwards. Berensky knocked it aside and swung at Thomas, opening a wide gash on his chest. A savage kick from Thomas only served to make his next wound serious rather than fatal and he knew it would only be a matter of time before Berensky finished him.


In the end, it was the concealing clutter that betrayed Berensky, a beer can rolling beneath his foot and tumbling him to the floor. With a bare few seconds to spend, Thomas reached into his coat and yanked his pistol out, his first shot going wild into the wall, but his second and third landing true, slamming straight into Berensky’s chest and spattering the walls in his blood. Berensky dropped like a stone and Thomas rolled to his feet, his now booted up targeting matrix training his gun dead centre on Berensky’s heart.


“You tried to kill Siren Soulstorm, didn’t you?â€Â


Berensky looked up at Thomas for a little while, chest heaving. “Ah shit. I don’t suppose it matters now, human.†He said in a blood-filled wheeze, “Yes, I tried to kill the traitor. If only I....†Berensky trailed off, but kept breathing.


“I’ll get a doctor,†Thomas began, carefully removing his phone from his pocket.


“Human doctors can’t help me. No drugs, no blood, no fucking nothing.†An odd little smile creased Berensky’s face as he spoke. “Our swear words are better, you know. Malk darath fro’saaahhh....â€Â




“I solved your problem Max.â€Â


“That was quick work Thomas. Are you sure?â€Â


“Absolutely. I’ve got all the documentary evidence you need.â€Â


“So, who was it?â€Â


“Turns out it was a Dal’Shan spy sent here to steal technical data from the racing teams. It’s not military technology, but you guys point the way to future developments and the Dal’Shan governments like to know where we’re headed for the next war.â€Â


“And the attempt on Siren’s life?â€Â


“A smokescreen, something to point the finger at internal espionage and dodgy dealings, like you thought at first. At least, that’s what Ceres Security thinks. She’s Dal’Shar, isn’t she?â€Â


DeVille leant back in his chair and took a long swallow from his glass. “Yes, she is. Her father was a member of the Society for the Union, just as I am. When his government discovered that, he was executed as a human sympathizer and Siren was tainted by association. And because she was one of their finest military fighter aces, they couldn’t take the risk of her being a sympathizer too. A terrible embarrassment.â€Â


“So why come to human space? Seems a bloody stupid thing to do to me.â€Â


“She couldn’t go to another Dal’Shar government, they’d just hand her right back. So would any of the other races, except us.â€Â


Thomas looked speculatively at DeVille “And that’s why she’s so high-profile, isn’t it? In case anyone in authority ever finds out, she can’t be made to vanish in the night. There’d be an outcry, a public spectacle.â€Â


“Exactly. And the Dal’Shar won’t admit she escaped them to live a life of luxury among the humans. The more she’s in the open, the more she stays hidden,†DeVille leaned forward again, tenting his fingers, “Now what’s this going to cost me Thomas?â€Â


“Just the usual fees for my time and medical expenses Max, it’s all itemized on the bill.â€Â


“Mercy for a Dal’Shar Thomas? I didn’t think you had Unionist tendencies.â€Â


“I don’t Max. But Dal’Shar and humans are just as bad as one other. Maybe that’s why we look the same. I got no problem at all in letting Siren stay right where she is.â€Â




Leaving Max in his office, Thomas left the building several thousand dollars richer and with a few weeks to kill before he had to be anywhere. Looking up at the brilliant artificial sun, he thought I wonder if Madeline has finished her meeting with the Gogoth yet?

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My first attempt grew too boring and depressing to contemplate by page 4. This was my second attempt, which ran far too long for the guidelines, and wound up kind of inane on top of that. I've thrown my hands up in surrender since I don't have the time to make a third stab at it. The title is extremely misleading.




You’ll Thank Me For This (Part the First)


Sometimes, a fellow couldn’t catch a break.


Foxley Mastoon squeezed his eyes shut and wished he could be that sort of lucky man. At the moment, it appeared he was about to catch not only a break, but also a few contusions and a bruised breadbasket. “Your name... Morris, was it? Surely we can work out this misunderstanding? We are both reasonable gentlemen, naturally, abhorring violence. Isn’t that right, Morris?â€Â


No, Foxley Mastoon was not a lucky man. He was cunning, full of guile, a purveyor of dirty tricks, a thrower of sand...


Foxley was in deep, deep trouble. The anxiety wasn’t the only thing killing him. He could feel the perspiration trickling and pooling on his moustache. How embarrassing. “Morris?â€Â


The monolith managed to crack his knuckles without easing his grip around Foxley’s throat. Foxley refrained from pointing out that knuckle-cracking did not demonstrate elite manners. The appreciation of proper etiquette, however, was not a universal pastime. Foxley was well aware of this lamentable gap in societal expectations. Besides, he was in the midst of being choked. One had to prioritize one’s concerns.


The monolith began to rumble, his voice blasting like a foghorn. “THE NAME’S MORRIE.â€Â


“You know best,†Foxley assured him. “As for this paltry misunderstanding...â€Â


“YA OWE THE CHEF FIFTY-THREE BEADS. ARE YA CALLING THE CHEF A LIAR? WHAT DOES THAT MAKE ME? A LIAR’S CHUMP? YER NOT CALLING ME CHUMPED, ARE YA? NO BUDDY CHUMPS MORRIE!†And lives went unbellowed, but understood by all sensible persons who liked their necks attached to their skulls. Foxley was no exception.


“Why, your estimation of the debt is resoundingly, infallably accurate, my dear Morrie.†Foxley laughed in giddy delight. The slender flow of oxygen tickled his brain now, luring his tongue to the greatest heights of flummery. “I never meant to imply otherwise, my friend... ggaagh... I’m hurt that you would think me so uncooperative. By misunderstanding, I... grrugah... beg your pardon... I refer to the lamentable timing issue that clouds this transaction.â€Â


Morrie didn’t lean closer for a better stare into Foxley’s bulging eyes. No, he lifted Foxley like a ragdoll, his feet dangling, the molehill visiting the mountain. “WHAT TIMING ISSUE?â€Â


“The one where I need more time, of course,†Foxley said audaciously, as if he was in a position to bargain. “Ten days. I was promised ten days to come up with the beads. We Mastoons are men of honor. You should know this from our, err, prior transactions. I shall deliver the Chef his due, don’t you fret your stubbly head.â€Â


Morrie squinted as he thought. “NO BUDDY WAS BORN ON DOCK 12 WHO WASN’T KIN TO A CHEAT OR A KNIFER.â€Â


“Yes, yes, yes,†Foxley rolled his eyes, possibly impatience, possibly a dizzy spell. “But men such as us... we have evolved beyond the unfortunate crimes of our ancestors, haven’t we?â€Â


More squinting ensued. “I AM A PACIFIST IN MY HEART,†Morrie announced in earnest thunder. “OKAY.†He reunited Foxley’s feet with the ground. “TEN DAYS FROM YER DEBTING. THAT MEANS YA HAVE...â€Â


“Two more to oweage,†Foxley supplied.




Foxley finger-combed his bangs forward, tweaking his new windswept look. “I never had a moment’s doubt, my lamb. Please forgive my boyish enthusiasm.â€Â


Morrie emitted a bullish grunt as he aimed one potato finger at Foxley’s head. “TWO TO OWEAGE. DON’T MAKE A CHUMP OUTTA ME, MASTOON. I’M WARNING YA.â€Â


“Oh, never!†Foxley issued the jubilant promise as Morrie and his fists took their leave. “I can tell you are a soul of sensitivity. I should hate to bruise the faithful bond of trust we have forged this day. Long live pacifism! All hail the Chef! No rain without an umbrella! Progress, onward!â€Â


Foxley’s voice trailed into silence, and his eyes grew cold as he caught his breath. The monolith had left, ostensibly for his next appointment. Foxley swiffed a handkerchief from his suit pocket and fastidiously wiped his face dry. He then matched the corners of the linen, folded them, triangled them, and positioned the hankie to adorn his jacket once more... just so.


Foxley Mastoon commenced a refined pacing of the pavement, paused, then twiddled his moustache with a delicate air of consternation. Finally, he threw his manicured hands in the air and faced the facts.


He was chumped.




Dock 12 set the standard for penal colonies during the early years of the Ibaneu Empire. Out of all the Docks, this was the first institution to truly embrace the notion of, “Better incarceration makes better neighbors.†Gone were the days when the government would dump a few thousand criminals and politicians onto a deserted island and call it punishment, only to have future generations of Dock natives invade the home capital and form the next, great Empire. Just consider the official Ibaneu Imperial slogan: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me!â€Â


The Ibaneu vision came fully shackled and barricaded. It boasted solitary confinement, backbreaking labor and a merciless staff that were rewarded with a retirement in luxury among the Ibaneu elite after a meager twenty years of service. For nearly eight centuries, Dock 12 functioned as the efficient machine of criminal oppression the Elite had intended. The inhabitants were chained, grueled, locked down and chumped. (Chumping was the worst. One always had to be on their guard in the bath pits.) Old inmates died, and new prisoners were shipped to take their place. The gears kept moving, circling, grinding onward with progress.


The Ibaneu homeland had no match for either the bounty of its industry, or an equal in the gleeful enjoyment of its wealth by the non-criminal populace. The horse breeders couldn’t husband at a rate to meet the mounting demand. The wheelers couldn’t deal fast enough. The fry cooks sold their wares like hotcakes. The gears churned and chugged. Progress! Production! Onward!


The Ibaneu were also inordinately fond of interjections. Really, if they couldn’t use an exclamation point, why use punctuation? This absolute enthusiasm culminated in a campaign to officially rename the empire IBANEU!, which the Imperial Marketing Board agreed would give the regime’s title a greater panache and a stronger brand presence. After all, the Ibaneu concept of a heavenly reward was realizing a hundred percent market share. Economic domination and revenue growth -- that’s what made the wheel turn, and citizens die happy.


Then, one cool Spring morning, just after brunch, the unthinkable happened:


A waffle went unsold.


Initially, the event met with bafflement. Surely it had been a fluke? But, no, a few days later, two waffles went unsold. This merited a telegram to the regional Breakfast Foods Consortium, sounding the alarm. Within the month, the wheelers were taking coffee breaks, and the dealers watched soap operas to kill spare time. The gears of progress skipped, then slammed to a screeching halt.


The Ibaneu Empire had reached a crisis of dire economic proportions: their pool of available consumers had been saturated, like syrup drowning so many flapjacks. They desperately and emphatically needed to expand into a new market before the Empire was cursed to expand into a pagan form of commerce such as the service industry.


At first, panic ruled the streets. The public screamed their upset. (Though it was difficult to tell if the shouts were meant to convey their burgeoning political manifesto, or if they were just getting around to ordering a snack after a busy morning of rebellion. An empire of citizens fond of exclamations had the tendency to eclipse the subtleties of vocal delivery.) Riots ensued. Roofs were on fire. Civilization as they knew it imploded for five nights before someone in authority paused to exclaim, “Hey! What are you doing to my bicycle?! That’s not very nice!†The rioters were promptly rounded up and sequestered like the usual rabble, awaiting their ominous banishment to Dock 12.


Then, one balmy Spring afternoon, something fortuitous happened:


Lady Quibble, wife of the Lord High Ibaneu Exchequer of Boxes, voiced an opinion.


“Darling, are we really going to bane those lovely rioters?†she asked between nibbles of a persimmon teacake.


Lord Quibble sniffed. “I fail to see what is lovely about hooligans. Pyromaniacs! Vandals! The lot of them!†He waggled his bushy eyebrows incredulously at his wife. “Have you forgotten, my little crumpet? Those savages squashed your brother in broad daylight!â€Â


Lady Quibble fluttered her napkin. “I can hardly criticize them for that. Not a soul has met my brother who didn’t wish that he’d chump himself.â€Â


“Sweeting! Language!†After a pause for reflection, her husband nodded begrudgingly. “But I see your point.â€Â


“And what harm did the rioters do?†Lady Quibble mused as she stirred maple syrup into her mango tea.


“What harm?!†Lord Quibble’s cheeks (facial) swelled with outrage. “They unbridled horses! They threw hotcakes into the River Vain! They danced out of rhythm! They... they... BROKE THINGS!!!â€Â


“Pish-posh. They bought the Empire temporary relief to our economic muddle,“ Lady Quibble said sweetly. “For the next few weeks, citizens will need to replace their broken bicycles and purchase new mounts. Ibaneu has returned to a cycle of growth! The rioters did us a favor!â€Â


“Hmm,†Lord Quibble murmured, eyeing his scone suspiciously. Was it currant or blueberry? He hoped it wasn’t currant. He hated currants.


“These incarcerated masses,†his wife continued. “Darling, you must see that locking them up serves the Empire no benefit! Consider, Poopsie: no one baned to the Docks ever buys anything!â€Â


“I say! That's rather criminal of them!†Lord Quibble dared a bite of his scone. Currants. He fought back a sob. How had his world reached such a calamitous, unpalatable state without his notice? “For the love of commerce, every Ibaneu citizen should pitch in and spend their last bead! It’s their civic duty!â€Â


“But the citizens at the Docks are prisoners of the State,†Lady Quibble reminded him. “They haven’t two beads to rub together. It’s part of their punishment for being naughty elements.â€Â


“Whose damn fool idea was that?!†Lord Quibble sputtered.


“Why, your great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-

great-great-great-great-great-great-great-Grandpappy’s, dear.â€Â


“Senile old goat. Can’t think of a single reason for such a muddle-brained idea!†Lord Quibble threw his currant scone onto the tea tray with authority. “I shan’t stand for it, Grandpappy’s wishes or no! The days of crooks getting a free ride on the Bicycle of Progress have ended! I will make an Official Exclamation about this matter forthwith!â€Â


And so, Dock 12 ceased to be a prison, per se. The inmates were unshackled and uncaged, set free to forage for beads and consume goods imported at the Ibaneu homeland’s discretion. On official parchment, the Lord High Ibaneu Exchequer of Boxes’s plan was perfect. Dock 12 loitered as the new, needed market, primed for domination!


The one spanner in the works proved to be the new market itself: the inmates. Not a man, woman or weasel among them had skipped on board the slow boat to incarceration by accident. They were cheats, knifers, shysters, and ingrates down to a body. Suddenly loose, suddenly outnumbering their local oppressors twenty-eight to one, the rousing sentiment among the criminals amounted to, “Boo!â€Â


What followed was a period of Anarchy and conflict that spelled the end of the Ibaneu Empire. (Alas, before the Exclamation Proclamation had reached a popular vote. Market analysts agree that the collapse of IBANEU! would have been 24% more memorable among fifth-graders, thereby justifying expansion into a line of action-figure toys.)


The denizens of Dock 12, left to their own devices, developed their outpost into a proper city. Their social hierarchy resembled their Ibaneu heritage for all their complaining about it, their currency remained beaded and sound, their palates voracious and gourmet, and their moral turpitude... well, that remained gratuitously backstabbing.


Sometimes, civilization couldn’t catch a break.




“I thought that would be more relaxing.†Foxley Mastoon confessed, wiping the blood from his switchblade with a towel. When he finished cleaning the knife, he tossed the fabric haphazardly over his victim’s head.


“He was a bit of a skinny fish,†Philonious Bumble told him. Bumble was one of Foxley’s favorite tolerable acquaintances. “If you had the inkling to pincushion a patsy, you should have chosen a chunkier monkey.â€Â


“Yes, yes, yes. Normally I wouldn’t have bothered, but he was the bartender. People shouldn’t expect me to pay for libations in my delicate financial condition.â€Â


Bumble nodded and waddled over to the counter, climbed a barstool and lifted his mug to the tap. “He was only bringing the pain on himself. Can I get you another round?â€Â


“I think not, before I begin to slobber when I speak. Like you, hmm?†Foxley made a very tidy drunk. Seven glasses of taproot ale and three hours of torture under his belt, yet he still made certain to dab away any careless stains on his chin with a napkin.


“I’m hurt, Foxy. A sorrowful might o’ hurt.†The dwarf decided he’d had enough of looking up at his soused acquaintance and hefted himself onto the bar, sitting on the deceased owner’s chest. Propped so, he was in a better position to negotiate, petty-thief-to-petty-thief. “I’m cutting you a break being all friendly, Foxley. I’ve heard you’ve a nasty oweage of beads on board. I swear by my mother’s pancakes, you’ll thank me for this.â€Â


“That reminds me,†Foxley murmured. “I hope there’s a few beads for my trouble in the till. I’ve got bills to pay. And I always wanted to buy a dog. A nice little Sheltie cross, just about your height.â€Â


“If that’s the way you feel, careful I don’t take a piss on your leg.â€Â


“Dignity, Bumble,†Foxley tsked. “Where is your dignity?â€Â


“In another man’s wallet. Mind, Foxy,†the dwarf said, “if you were keen on dignity, maybe you shouldn’t have agreed to that bet with the Chef. Not much dignity for a fella when he’s chumped by The Powers That Got.â€Â


“Bumble. Bumble. Philonious Bumble. You are irrefutably correct. One day I shall kill you for that.†Foxley weaved unsteadily to his feet. “But for now, kick me when I am down and out, Bumble. Offer me an urgent job, and take sixty-percent, like you always do.â€Â


“Awww,†Bumble blushed. “You’re gonna grouse over a little finder’s fee, when we’re such old chums, full of trust and beer?â€Â


“You!†Foxley pointed accusingly at the smaller man, murder in his eyes. “If it weren’t for your blasted finder’s fees, I would have the beads I require, already! I...†Foxley hiccupped. “Pardon me.â€Â


“Belch all you like. There’s more where that came from.â€Â


“I,†Foxley repeated as he leaned precariously to one side and pointed to his head, “I am the brains of this partnership. Without me, you’d still be recycling pencils to afford your flea dips.â€Â


“Let’s not make this personal, Foxy. Each of us is a master of the thieving arts in our own right. What we do is a craft. It takes a village to rob the neighbors blind, etcetera...â€Â


Foxley stroked his moustache in austere indifference. “Perhaps. Do I get fifty percent on this little jaunt or not?â€Â


Philonious Bumble grinned. It wasn’t a happy grin, nor one filed with affection for a dear friend and coworker. His grin had the pride of a man who’d just sold a fish scuba gear. “Weeeeeeell. I s’pose I could front you a forty-sixth of the gross, seeing as how you’re dead meat and all.â€Â


“You are the epitome of close-fisted generosity, my squat savior. I accept.†Foxley attempted a gracious bow of acceptance. He veered to one side, then promptly passed out.


“Heh,†Bumble chuckled as he rummaged up a pitcher of cold water. “You’re a lucky man. Lucky I don’t stab you in the back and make you pay the tab. You’ll thank me for this, Foxy. See if you don’t.â€Â


Bumble tossed the contents of the pitcher in Foxley’s face, who coughed and sputtered awake. All things considered, Bumble was having a fantastic day.




Foxley huddled within his swaddle of damp towels and sneezed. “Pardon me.â€Â


“Here’s your hankie,†Bumble soothed.


Foxley clutched it with beatific appreciation. “Who is our lucky mark?â€Â


“One of the slumlords.â€Â


Foxley erupted in a coughing fit. “Are you mad?! We might as well attempt safe-cracking the Chef’s pastry cart!â€Â


“Don’t think I haven’t considered it,†was Bumble’s ominous reply. “This isn’t breaking-and-entering the company vault, though, Foxy. We’re going to ring the doorbell and ask for the lady of the house.â€Â


“Indeed. Excuse my confusion, Bumble. I was under the impression we were thieves, not wheelbarrow salesmen.â€Â


“That’s where you’re wrong. And you call yourself the brains of this relationship?! Ha!â€Â




Miss Taffeta switched off the storybox, sighing heavily. Another day of soap operas had rolled to an end, and she felt the boredom gush into her empty head within seconds. She stretched and wiggled her toes, contemplating her pointy shoes. Was she overdressed for watching SB serials? Taffy tapped her round chin and wondered how normal people lived. Normal people: the ones without Uncle Gerhardts, the ones who ate with only one spoon, the ones who weren’t heiresses to the largest produce business in the known continents.


Taffy clicked her heels over to the juice bar and poured a double. She was so lonely. Even Uncle Gerhardt had left the house today, abandoning his recombinant DNA laboratory in the basement in favor of the corporate office, where he would present next spring’s new line of genetically engineered fruits and vegetables alongside Cousin Kylie.


Kylie. Taffeta pouted jealously. Uncle Gerhardt loved Kylie best, of course, because perfect Kylie pretended to like cantamangoes and rainbow squash. Taffy, on the other hand, couldn’t share her family’s dismay over apples being different from oranges. That was the point, wasn’t it?


Still, Taffy wondered. If she had a career like Cousin Kylie, would she be so abysmally bored all the time? Not the vegetable business, but something exciting, like bicycle maintenance or quantum physics...


Or shoe sales. Men’s shoes. Taffy spun breezily about the parlor, imagining days filled with cobblery and staring at manly knees. She would be a dazzling success, and, one day, her Prince Charming would loafer along, and he would try on her slippers, and they would fit perfectly.


How could she make it happen? How could she seize her daydream?


Taffeta floated down the cellar stairs, effulgent with her vision of the future. She paused to feed Uncle Gerhardt’s pet bird a leaf of purple polka-dotted radicchio, humming along with the canary’s whistles. Taffy then absently peeled a golden tangerine, and for the first time, she didn’t mind the juice squirting in her eye. She chewed thoughtfully on candy-like beets no larger than a grape, uncaring if she stained her fingers. She tried the chocolate zucchini, and while it didn’t match the full promise of chocolate, at least it tasted nothing like zucchini. That miracle alone had Taffy pirouetting with a squeal, causing the canary to tweet and fluff its feathers.


The answer had been under her nose all along! Suddenly, Taffy understood the importance of the produce that she had dismissed as boring for so many years. All this wonder was part of her heritage! Invigorated, Taffy contemplated how she might share her epiphany. Fruits and vegetables were her future!


Taffy heard a faint knock at the distant front door. She cursed the interruption of her self-discovery afterglow. “Oh, sprouts!†With a sigh, she rearranged the produce on the counter.


Click-click-click-ruffle-ruffle-click-click-clop-clop, she patted her dress then her hair, jogged up the stairs, swept to the door, twittered her fingers about the locks, and flung it open. “Yes? How can I help you?â€Â


Two men stood on the front stoop, one wearing a dark formal suit, his frame lanky, his moustache distinguished. “The question, my little pigeon, is how can we help you?†With a graceful sweep of a long arm, he doffed his bowler toward Taffy, and he offered her a bow.


Perhaps it was because she was still excited over her brainstorming, perhaps it was a lingering aching for company, but Taffy decided she was thrilled to bits by this attention. She clapped her hands, bobbing in anticipation of their assistance - perhaps they had contacts among the fruit stand consortium!


Then she focused on the second man. He was a stocky stump of a fellow. He grinned wolfishly at her, and she saw the flash of a gold tooth. He winked, and Taffy realized the jackanapes was looking up her skirt. Taffy shook her head crossly at him, but she didn’t step back out of peeping range.


Nevertheless, the dwarf let out a curse a moment later. He proceeded to hop on one foot before losing his balance and tumbling backward down the front steps. “Oof!â€Â


“Ahem.†The sleeker of the two visitors cleared his throat and straightened his tie. “I assume I am speaking with the lady of the house?â€Â


Taffy tapped her cheek (facial) as she considered his question. “Woo -- lady of the house? Everything is so subjective, isn’t it? If we are speaking of the antiquated feudal concepts of the pre-Ibaneu era, then I would say ‘no,’ for I claim no personal property here save a collection of sandals on the second floor and a straw hat. However, if you mean to inquire if I am the only person at home available for conversation and snacks, then the answer is ‘yes!’â€Â


Foxley swept off his bowler, cuddling an arm around Taffy’s shoulders as he escorted her over the threshold. “Then allow me to introduce myself...â€Â



End of Part One

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You’ll Thank Me For This (Part the Second)


Foxley Mastoon was smitten. Smitten with the game of grift. It was strange how every emotion became that much more vivid and poignant when one knew one was chumpbait in eight hours.


Miss Taffeta smiled at him, and Foxley became lightheaded, as if Morrie had returned for some pre-emptive choking. Taffeta giggled, and Foxley could hear angels singing his name. Unfortunately, the aforementioned angels sung only of his untimely and painful death if he refrained from robbing the effervescent Miss Taffeta of her legacy.


Foxley remained, at heart, a practical sleazebag and rogue. Pigeons were born for plucking. Either Foxley or Miss Taffeta had to lose in the tango of thief and mark, and self-interest dictated that the loser would not be Foxley Mastoon. If his luck came through, the girl would prove to be the pushover she promised. He just had to play her properly.


Properly did not include Bumble leeching a peek under Tafetta’s dress, nor did it require following his associate’s purveyor-of-fine-wheelbarrows script. Foxley, after all, used thrice the dwarf’s intellect before breakfast.


Such as now, when Bumble was standing on footstools, pick-locking every cabinet and console in the parlor for larcenous finds -- so far his partner had pocketed a silver fountain pen, three hard caramels, and a copy of SB Guide with a busty alien on the cover. It was time for Foxley to put his spat-shod foot down.


“Get away from there, you vulture,†he hissed. “She’ll be back any moment! We are here for seeds, and seeds alone.â€Â


“She sure is taking her time.†The dwarf grumbled, but he relocked the console, jumped to the floor and hoisted himself onto the settee to wait poised with his partner in a more innocent fashion. Philonious Bumble fully understood the value of their target -- it had been his idea in the first place. He’d heard about the corporate meeting, knew this was the one day in three hundred the President of J. Produce, Incorporated would leave his laboratory to the greedy attentions of a few grifters in the mood for industrial espionage.


J. Produce had cornered the fruit and vegetable markets because they had unveiled the most imaginative new strains and species at the end of each growing season for generations. A full cycle passed before the competition could put their own honeymelons or pink broccoli up for sale, and by then J. Produce had outshone them again with their next set of inventions.


What if we lifted the latest batch of birdseed? Philonious had proposed, to the delight of Foxley’s avarice and pressing financial requirements. Bait and grab. You distract the lady of the house with the wheelbarrow pitch, while I slip to the cellar and snatch the future crop. It’ll be like picking apples. Best part, I know a guy who’ll spot us two bangles per specimen. Do you know how many beads that makes? We’ll be stinking rich!


Oh, yes. They were here for seeds, and seeds alone.


Taffeta appeared in the doorway, gifting her guests with a glowing smile. She had measured out glasses of pomegranate juice, combined on a salver with a plate of crudités. Foxley straightened in his chair as she set down the tray, and not just because that gave him a better vantage point to admire Taffy’s cleavage. Bumble practically wiggled his glee.


They’d come in search of the new J. Produce line, and the girl was handing it to them on a silver platter!


“I apologize for the delay,†Taffeta tittered as she offered the men their beverages.


“Our only grief at the delay was the absence of your beauty,†Foxley said, oozing like a jelly doughnut.


“Really?†Taffy asked, her mouth agape.


Bumble gagged into his pomegranate juice.


Taffy cooed her dismay. “Are you alright? It’s not too strong, is it? Not everyone has the palate for pomegranate juice, especially Uncle Gerhardt’s adaptation of it.â€Â


“Pure ambrosia,†Foxley assured her, then took a gulp to prove his words. Mercifully, his eyeballs remained in their sockets.


Taffeta presented them with a handful of cutlery. “Spoons?â€Â


Foxley glanced between the juice and the plate of finger foods, then studied the girl. She appeared wistful. “Just the one, since the occasion is informal.†Taffetta squeaked with pleasure and made of show of handing him a teaspoon.


Taffy spread the other eight spoons by her own saucer, then lifted the selection of crudités. “Would you like a caulisprout and some dip? How about a slice of pear?â€Â


Foxley greedily picked a piece of the fruit. His moustache wobbled. “It’s not pear-shaped.â€Â


Taffy gave him a consoling smile before offering the plate to Bumble, who followed suit. “Uncle disapproves of pear-shaped pears. He finds the skinny ends underachieving.â€Â


“There’s no seeds in this pear, either!†Bumble groused.


“Oh, I took them all out,†Taffy explained helpfully. “Seeds are the curse of fine produce. No one likes having to pick and peck them out in the middle of a meal, and they’re deviltry on dental work, don’t you think?â€Â


Foxley stuffed a candy-striped carrot stick in Bumble’s mouth before he could offer any choice words of candid opinion. “The very devil. Quite thoughtful of you, Miss Taffeta.â€Â


She blushed. “You’re too sweet. I confess, I think lots of things, but I’ve only just begun to realize that any of it matters. Do you understand what I mean, Mr. Mae’var? Do you know what it’s like to underestimate someone? Especially yourself! Mr. Mae’var...?â€Â


“Hmm,†Foxley murmured as he poked one finger at a spongy, silver (regrettably seedless) crescent on his plate. Moonfruit -- what will they think up next?


Taffeta tapped on the side of her glass to draw his attention. “Mr. Mae’var!â€Â


“Mmm, yes. Yes!†Foxley waved a careless hand, remembering to answer to his alias. “I find that I underestimate the chance of rain all the time, m’dear. If only I owned an umbrella franchise, hmm? One would prefer to be in the position to take advantage of such happy short-sightedness.â€Â


“Take advantage? I guess so.†She suppressed a small shiver. “Ooo! Funny how things sound so greedy when one says them out loud. Just thinking them sounds much nicer!â€Â


“I hadn’t noticed,†Foxley said.


Taffeta took a solemn sip of her juice and asked, “I suppose it would be rude if I didn’t ask what your business was. What did you mean when you said you planned to help me?â€Â


Bumble cleared his throat of bananaberry dip and launched into his sales pitch. “What would you say if I called your current wheelbarrow a bit of tat?â€Â


Taffeta gasped.


“Why, this fair damsel would dismiss you as a bore, Beetle!†Foxley interrupted, this time keeping abreast of their secret identities. “We’ll have no talk of wheelbarrows this day, hmm?â€Â


Bumble scowled and hopped off the settee. “Now, wait just a flower-picking minute, Maevy!†He shook his fist furiously. “Every lady needs a fine wheelbarrow, and I says she’s got a bit of tat!â€Â


“I’m sorry, Mr. Beetle,†Taffeta offered meekly, “but my Uncle is the one with interest in wheelbarrows, fine and otherwise. Perhaps you would like to return later this evening, when he is home?â€Â


“NO!!†the partners shouted emphatically.


“What we mean, my little pigeon,†Foxley double-talked as he grasped Taffeta’s hand in a confiding manner, “is that we are not here for the sake of common wheelbarrows.â€Â


Taffy blinked her confusion. “But Mr. Beetle said--“


“Don’t listen to him,†Foxley said fervently. “He hasn’t been the same since...†Foxley allowed a nerve-wracked whimper to escape his throat for the utmost effect. “The Incident. I believe it’s effected his reason!â€Â


Taffeta boggled. “What kind of incident?â€Â


The possibilities were endless, but Foxley decided to keep things simple. “His wife left him for a wheelbarrow salesman.â€Â




They turned to study the small man, who was investigating how many caulisprouts he could stuff into his mouth at once. “His psychosis is understandable,†Foxley said. “He lives under the delusion that, if only he sold a wheelbarrow, his wife would return. Isn’t he brave?†Foxley wiped away the illusion of a tear.


“That is egregiously sad,†Taffeta agreed. “Poor Mr. Beetle.†She tilted her head curiously, eyeing Foxley’s noble profile. (Though glossing over his slight double chin.) “You still haven’t told me what this visit is about, Mr. Mae’var.â€Â


“Haven’t I?â€Â


“No, you haven’t.â€Â


“How terribly remiss of me, my little pigeon.†Foxley winked devilishly, as if they shared a secret. (And really, they did, except for the part where each person knew what the other was thinking.) “I am here for you.â€Â


“For me?â€Â


“To talk about you and every little thing that is precious and valuable in your life. I can restrain myself no longer, Taffeta,†he declared, daring to steal a kiss from her startled lips. Flattery could be an excellent weapon, especially in the case of foolish women. “You’ve bewitched me!â€Â


“Oh!†Taffy said, still on the bemused side. “It wasn’t on purpose. I promise!†A movement behind Foxley caught her eye. “Mr. Beetle? Why are you skulking away?†she called.


Bumble’s ducked his head, livid that he’d been caught out. “I need to... err, visit Mother Production.â€Â


Taffy smiled. He was like a schoolboy, too shy to talk about the bathroom without a euphemism. “Then you won’t want to go that way. Try the corridor behind Mr. Mae’var,†she said, while pointing in the opposite direction of the cellar’s access.


“Too kind,†Bumble said stiffly, shuffling his feet as he left through the useless corridor. “Such kindness gets a body what’s coming to them.â€Â


“How curious,†Taffetta said as the dwarf left. “Your friend makes good manners sound...†She wrinkled her nose, perplexed. “Why, unpleasant!â€Â


This really wasn’t the time for the girl to have a clever thought in her head. “At last, he’s gone! I thought he would never leave!†Foxley exclaimed, aiming to coy her with all the adoration he could muster, which was a surprisingly spirited amount. “Now that we are alone, tell me, Taffeta. Show me what is valuable to you!â€Â


“If you really want to know...†Taffy began shyly.


“Yes! Yes!â€Â


“May I look at your shoes?†she asked.


He studied her innocent expression. No apparent signs of insanity stared back. “If it pleases you, m’dear,†Foxley acquiesced, then relaxed on the settee.


“Oooh. You’re wearing spats,†Taffy crooned. “Spats have a certain elegance that transcends other footwear, don’t you think?â€Â


“I agree they are stylish, yes,†Foxley admitted as he preened. At least this mark had taste.


Taffeta tickled his knees, and suddenly Foxley felt a breeze. He shifted his position to better see what she was doing. Confusion furrowed his brow. “Pigeon, why are you taking off my shoes?â€Â


“I love spats!†Taffy bubbled. “But they cannot be comfortable, Mr. Mae’var. Your ankles cannot breathe! Without the spats, though, you still have your shoes, and that’s just not cozy. Conversation should be cozy, don’t you think? Make yourself at home, and I will show you all the things that are valuable to me, just like you wanted.â€Â


“Since you are sharing...†Foxley said cautiously. “Please. Give me the full tour.â€Â


Taffeta climbed to her feet and tugged him off the settee, urging Foxley to pad behind her in his socks. She brought him to the next room, waving her hands animatedly over the SB set. “This is my storybox! The screen is eight pancakes across!â€Â


Foxley twirled his moustache. The dimensions were impressive. The set alone could fence a bangle. But, no. He was here for seeds. “Worthy of a princess.â€Â


“I adore soap operas, though they are filled with bad acting and tawdry stories,†Taffy confessed. “I know it sounds foolish, but it’s entertaining! Do you like soap operas, Mr. Mae’var?â€Â


“I do not watch much SB, I am afraid.†He’d sold dozens of them off the back of an ox-cart, however. “Make no mistake, m’dear. I’m an aficionado of storyboxes on principle.â€Â


Taffy beamed. “That’s comforting to know.†She twirled behind Foxley’s back, startling him. He turned so that he could follow her with his gaze. “I also love dancing,†Taffeta added. “Cha-cha-cha!â€Â


“Cha-cha-cha!†Foxley echoed, humoring her. He also liked dancing, though it usually involved other people and hot coals.


Taffy triple-stepped across the room, shooting Foxley a winsome glance over her shoulder. He felt the tiniest tweak of remorse in that moment.


Perhaps he was being hasty, not stealing the storybox.


Foxley shook his head and saw that Taffeta was now unlocking a closet. He stepped forward on instinct, sensing precious treasure bolted behind the door. Could this be where her uncle kept his prize cuttings, out of the light?


“This...†Taffy began.


“Yes, pigeon?â€Â


Taffy bounced as she stepped away from the closet doorway; she could hardly contain her excitement. “This is my spoon collection!â€Â


“Oh.†Foxley fought back his disappointment. “Are all of those silver?â€Â


“No. Stainless steel, mostly. Some were made of recycled bicycles from the Ibaneu era! You know! The fabled wheels of progress!â€Â


“I hope you’ve washed them,†Foxley said archly.


“Don’t be silly. I wouldn’t use these spoons to eat with. Greasy spoons are worth more. They’re artifacts! Like this one!†Taffy produced a chunky, plain soupspoon. “This baby is from the first year Dock 12 was open, back when it was a prison. Of course, only the guards got to have spoons in those days. A prisoner would file the bowl and use it as a weapon in a prison break. Couldn’t have that, no, sirree! Did you know that some people still consider spoons to be a symbol of liberty?â€Â


“Yes, yes, yes,†Foxley sighed. The delay was growing tiresome, and he was growing increasingly troubled by the cute way Taffeta’s hair bobbed when she was animated. He was starting to feel... something. Something other than self-interest. It made his fingers twitch, among other objects. “Spoons aren’t the only utensils that have symbolism.â€Â




“Knives.†Foxley pulled his switchblade from his coat pocket and flicked it open. “This knife, for instance, represents your cooperation in showing me to your Uncle’s laboratory.â€Â


Taffeta’s expression became a portrait of consternation. “You don’t really want to go to the cellar, do you? There’s just a bunch of musty seeds down there! And... I’m not sure I want to show you! If you’re... you’re going to rob me at knifepoint, why don’t you take the SB instead?†She lifted one hand and splayed her fingers, reminding him, “It’s an eight-pancake screen!â€Â


“Taffeta, my delectable ninny, you should realize that I am not a man who wants to get chumped, and, rest assured, if I do not get my hands on the seedlings from your Uncle’s experiments, I will be a chumped man.†Foxley flexed the knife, gutting the air between them. “Quit stalling, pigeon.â€Â


“Would you really cut me?†Taffy asked in a small voice.


Bumble appeared, shoving his way toward the cellar stairs. “Like a watermelon, he would.†The dwarf motioned impatiently for the pair to follow. “What’re you waiting for? The business day is ending!â€Â


Taffeta sighed in resignation and slowly descended the cellar stairs between them, her shoulders drooping.


“I tell you what I found the way I came, partner,†Bumble announced. “I found two locked closets. What’s in the first one? Dresses!†The dwarf spat at the plank steps in disgust.


“A closet full of dresses,†Foxley drawled. “What will they think of next? Coats?â€Â


“But locked? It’s just spite! Spite for the professional, I tell you! And the second locked closet? Get a load of the second closet -- it was full of waffle irons. Twenty-six of them, half still in the box!â€Â


“I like waffles,†Taffy mumbled morosely. “We have a lot of fruit. Fruit goes nicely with waffles.â€Â


“But how many waffles irons can one mark use?†Bumble railed. “Twenty-chumping-SIX?!â€Â


“Leave her alone,†Foxley said quietly. There was an edge to his voice, something between impatience and attack. “Waffle irons aren’t important. We’re getting what matters.â€Â


Uncle Gerhardt’s cellar was cool and dark. Taffy flicked the overhead lights, rendering the cellar cool and semi-dark. Various scientific instruments were positioned around the counters: microscopes, a centrifuge, glass columns for titration and distillation, and miscellaneous flasks. Barrels lined the far wall, mixing the scents of compost and potting soil. In the center of the room, however, was the collection of interest: a case with plastic dividers that was typically used to store earrings or fishing tackles. Inside each cubby waited a deposit of seeds, each labeled in tidy script.


Foxley released a long breath through his teeth. “There must be over fifty specimens here.â€Â


“We’re filthy rich!†Bumble chortled.


“Funny,†Foxley mused cautiously. “I didn’t expect so many to look like sunflower seeds.â€Â


“It’s a chosen trait,†Taffeta explained, her tone subdued. “Uncle Gerhardt says that the hard casings provide environmental protection and increased viability.â€Â


“They’ll increase your viability, won’t they, partner?†Bumble laughed, nudging Foxley’s leg with his elbow.


Foxley titled Taffeta’s chine up with the tip of his switchblade, studying her expression for signs of deceit. “Is that so?†he asked. She looked frightened, which pleased him. Fear would keep her honest.


“I just know what Uncle Gerhardt says,†she replied. Her voice sounded warbly, on the verge of nervous tears.


Foxley was quite satisfied with her response. There were better ways to make people scared for their lives than the ham-fisted threats of Morrie’s ilk. All it took was a certain style, a presence. Foxley turned his head, noticing a boxy object that sat on the countertop closest to the barrels, hidden beneath a drape of fabric. “You aren’t holding out on us, are you, m’dear?â€Â


“Don’t lift the hood!†Taffy warned.


Too late. Foxley had already raised one corner of the material. With a flash of yellow, he experienced a stabbing pain in his hand. His switchblade clattered to the floor, narrowly missing slicing off a toe.


Foxley leapt out of harm’s way, clutching his bleeding hand. “What the--?â€Â


“That’s Monty, Uncle’s canary.†Taffy mumbled “He doesn’t like strangers.â€Â


“I’ll say he doesn’t!†Foxley turned bloodthirsty eyes the bird’s way. “Does Monty like cats? How about we put it to the test?â€Â


Taffeta appeared at Foxley’s side, offering him a square of gauze to staunch the flow. “You don’t want to stain your suit.â€Â


He watched as she fussed over the wound, amused at her servitude. “That’s why I wore the black, pigeon.â€Â


His eyes narrowed as Taffy dipped, swiping the switchblade from the ground. He tensed. With a jerk of her wrist, she flipped the knife closed, and she silently handed it back to him. Foxley didn’t say “thank you.â€Â


Bumble called to them from the base of the stairs, the plastic case of seeds hefted in his arms. “Time for the clean getaway. Thanks for the hospitality, Miss Taffeta.â€Â


“I could hardly do otherwise, Mr. Beetle.â€Â


Foxley stared at Taffeta for a silent moment. “I would tip my hat, but it is still in your parlor.†He glanced ruefully at his socks. “As are my shoes.â€Â


Taffeta made no reply.


“Pigeon, this score will save my rather valuable life. Don’t think of me too harshly, hmm?â€Â


“Seeds are a symbol of life,†she said meaningfully. “A brand new life.â€Â


Foxley mind wandered to how fast Bumble was scrambling out of view with all the loot. “Yes, yes, yes. Opportunity is mine for the taking.†He waved one hand casually and turned to go.


“Wait!†Taffeta called.


“I’m in a rather hurry,†Foxley complained.


“I just remembered something,†Taffy said as she walked toward the barrels. She buried her arms to the elbow, then produced a stalk of pea-blossoms edged in blue. “I wouldn’t want you to think I was holding out on you,†she explained wryly. Taffeta approached, securing the pea-blossom in Foxley’s boutonnière before laying her palms flat on his chest. “Wear it in good health.â€Â


“I plan to, Taffeta.†Foxley winked, tipping his imaginary bowler. “I plan to.†This time, he tossed her the wadded piece of gauze and launched up the stairs, two by two.


Taffy sighed and strolled over to Monty’s cage. Lifting the hood, the canary gave a curious tweet, bobbing its crown at the bars to rub gently against her fingers. Taffy dangled the bloodied gauze from her hand. Monty promptly snatched the pad from her grip and commenced violently shredding it with his beak.


“Just between you and me, Monty,†Taffy whispered to the cage. “It’s probably for the best he didn’t thank me for that.â€Â


In the distance, Taffeta could hear sounds from the front door, and her Uncle’s voice calling. “Oh, sprouts!†she cursed, dashing up the stairs.


Uncle Gerhardt was stationed in front of the SB set. “That looks like a storybox.â€Â


“Don’t be silly, Uncle Gerry!†Taffy chided as she urged him upstairs. “You’re imagining things. We don’t have a storybox. You don’t approve of them, remember?â€Â


“That’s what I thought, but that doodad looks awfully familiar.†Gerhardt held up the shoes and spats. “I suppose these are yours.â€Â


“You can read me like a nucleotide, Uncle!†Taffy giggled, taking the footgear. She slinked to a closet, jimmied the lock, and tossed the spats and shoes on top of the pile of loafers and boots concealed therein. “Where’s Kylie?†she asked nonchalantly.


“She’s still at the office. That girl’s a workaholic!†Gerhardt gazed about the upstairs hall and scratched his brow. “What am I doing up here? Taffy?†he called, but his niece was nowhere in sight. Gerhardt shrugged and shuffled down the stairs.


The floor below, Taffy gave the storybox a final push into the spoon closet and locked the door. She made a little twirl, her features lighting as she spotted her Uncle’s appearance on the landing. “There you are! Did you find what you were looking for?â€Â


“I must be feeling my age. I meant to go down to the lab.â€Â


“I’ll come with you,“ Taffy offered. “I need to check on Monty. I think he ate something that didn’t agree with him.â€Â


“Not the chocolate zucchini, I hope. It makes him molt.â€Â


Uncle Gerhardt toddled into the cellar, oblivious to the bare countertop in the center of the room. He made a beeline for the barrels, peered inside one, then another, and another, and he exclaimed, “Where are my seedlings?! Taffy! Call the authorities! We’ve been robbed!â€Â


Taffy prided herself on her genuine look of surprise. All day, her performances had been outstanding. Far better than a silly SB soap opera.



End of Part Two

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You’ll Thank Me For This (Part the Third)


The produce vendor wasn’t happy. He dropped his lorgnette with a disgusted curse. “What kind of joke are you trying to pull? These are sunflower seeds.â€Â


“No, they aren’t, you blind son-of-a-banker!†Philonious Bumble argued. He looked like he needed a nice piece of rawhide to chew. “Those seed casings look familiar on purpose. That’s a whatchamacallit.â€Â


“Chosen trait,†Foxley Mastoon supplied, feeling a chill in his toes. He hadn’t found his shoes (or spats) in the rush to follow Bumble out of the house. His bowler was another story, perched smartly on his head.


“Yeah, yeah!†Bumble cried, flapping his hands in the air, as if he was scratching at a door, desperate for the other side. “The tough seeds gives ‘em doohickeys.â€Â


“Environmental protection,†Foxley quoted diligently. It sounded credible. Didn’t it? He frowned.


“Yeah, yeah!†Bumble yipped. He pawed at the vendor’s leg for attention. Next thing, he’d beg for a biscuit. “And it makes ‘em all whatchamadoo!â€Â


“It increases viability,†Foxley translated, beginning to feel slightly foolish. It was an unpleasant experience.


“You’ve got to be chumping kidding me,†the vendor scoffed. “I know a sunflower seed when I see one, and what you’ve managed to bag here is a grade A packet of sunflower seeds. You guys’ve got nothing.â€Â


Foxley paled. “I cannot afford to have nothing! Look again!â€Â


“Yeah!†Bumble said. “If he has nothing, I’ve got nothing! Look again!â€Â


“Sorry, fellas,†the vendor shrugged, rather disappointed in his own right. “Maybe next time you should study a little botany before you get any bright ideas for a heist.â€Â


Foxley slumped in his chair, his face buried in his hands. The dark inconceivability that he might have been hoodwinked faded, eclipsed by his damnable poor luck.


Sometimes, a fellow couldn’t catch a break.


“I tell you who’s going to be sorry!†Bumble shouted. “That dimwit we stole them from!â€Â


“What does a dimwit know about seeds?†Foxley clipped. “As much as you and me, by the look of things. I knew I should have purloined that SB set.†He sighed fatalistically.


The vendor spared a pitying look for Foxley’s dusty socks and tucked a bauble in his coat pocket. “Here’s a bead. Buy yourself some shoes on me. Wait a sec...†The vendor pointed at Foxley’s jacket. “Get your arms out of the way! Look, look...â€Â


Foxley slapped the produce vendor’s hand away. “I am going to die. What do I care about new shoes?â€Â


“Forget the shoes!†the vendor told him, gingerly daring to lift Foxley’s boutonnière free from his lapel. “Do you realize what you have here?â€Â


“It had better not be sunflower seeds. I’m in a mood.â€Â


“No, not sunflower seeds! You’ve got a live stem of navy peas!†The vendor looked exultant. Bumble looked exultant. Foxley looked deadly.


“So we get paid?†he asked.


The vendor nodded. “Two bangles. That was the deal.â€Â


Bumble was of the mind that one bangle each was better than nothing. “You know what a bangle’s worth?â€Â


The same fence as a storybox set with an eight-pancake screen, Foxley calculated. A lesser man would have been happy to break even and live to steal another day. Foxley did not consider himself a lesser man, not by a long shot.


He stood, flexed his socks, and jammed one manicured hand into his coat pocket. “Two bangles is quite the nice sentiment, indeed, but let us not forget you came prepared to buy the full vegetable market.†Out came the switchblade. “I’m of a mind to renegotiate. Which do you like best? Your bangles, or your hands?â€Â




Foxley Mastoon walked toward the prison block, the stiff leather of his new shoes numbing his toes. He could pick out the monolith that was Morrie from two streets away as the hired muscle left the Chef’s home away from home. Foxley waited until the bruiser was within clear sight and waved hello. Morrie kept walking solidly his way, offering no acknowledgement. Foxley expected as much. Being hired muscle rarely translated into being a social butterfly.


When he was only twenty, maybe thirty, pancakes away, Foxley announced. “My financial resources have taken a turn for the better, my good Morrie. I have the oweage for the Chef. Shall we commence settling the transaction?â€Â


Morrie waited until he was standing face to ribcage, burying Foxley’s shoulder under one meaty paw. “HOLD YER BEADS. THE CHEF WANTS TO ACCEPT THIS IN PERSON.â€Â


“A private audience, hmm? I’m honored.†Visions of business partnerships and ornate banquets followed by liar’s poker gyrated in his head. “I hope there’ll be dining. I’ve had nothing since a square pear at yesterday's tea.â€Â


Morrie made no reply, but Foxley expected that, too. He followed his monolith escort into the old prison, savoring the privilege of viewing the legendary cages. The bars were still latched shut, of course, but nowadays they were plated in gold and jewels, and each cell contained a trove of wealth, most of it obtained in deceptive ways. The sight made Foxley’s mouth water.


The Chef held court in the prison’s former mess hall, seeing that it was the only room large enough in the prison to accommodate the Chef’s scale of operations. A “private†audience required numerous bodyguards, adequate wait staff, and a thorough range of appliances.


The concrete walls of the mess hall had been plastered and frescoed with a mural depicting the Chef’s favorite cycling team, for he was fond of old-fashioned sports. Mounted across from his recliner stood an impressive storybox set, this one at least twelve pancakes across. The Chef raptly watched a cooking show, obviously concerned that his current hazelnut ganache recipe was not foolproof.


The Chef wore the appropriate toque on his head, signifying his authority. His apron was crisp and black, a feature that caused Foxley’s moustache to twitch. Better to hide stains that way... The Chef’s orange jumpsuit harkened back to the uniform of the inmates who had set Dock 12 free of Ibaneu oppression. It was another signal of the power of his position.


At the commercial, the Chef gave Foxley his attention. “Word on the street says you’ve been busy whisking up my oweage.â€Â


“Yes, Chef.†Foxley bowed. “I have your beads.†This was the point in the proceedings where Morrie stepped forward and accepted the payment. The monolith held the money out for inspection, and, at the Chef’s nod of approval, Morrie pocketed the beads and returned to his post.


“Well done! Well done!†The Chef clapped his hands. “I appreciate your efforts, Foxley. I think such hard work deserves a treat. Mel! Offer my company a treat!â€Â


The harried Mel rolled forth the Chef’s pastry cart, honking the bicycle horn bolted to the side as he braked in front of his target patron.


Foxley’s gaze lavished over the cart’s contents, finally settling on a rum cake drizzled with fudge sauce. The commercials ended, and Foxley indulged in his pastry as the Chef watched the rest of his cooking show.


The end credits began rolling. The Chef snapped off the SB and rotated his chair to face his audience. Foxley noticed that the Chef wore brocade slippers. He flexed his toes. His new shoes flexed back painfully. He envied the man his comfy footwear.


“I thank you for your hospitality, Chef. Now that my debting is paid, is there something else you wished to discuss with me?†Foxley asked.


“Perceptive of you to wonder, Foxley.†The Chef snapped his fingers, and one of his servants poured him a carrot juice. “As much as I applaud the swift payment of your debts, your antics with J. Produce put you in a very undesirable position.â€Â


Foxley played it cool. “I wouldn’t know what you mean, Chef.â€Â


“J. Produce is a giant in its industry,†the Chef said, opening his arms to either side as he gave a knowing laugh. “One cannot steal from a giant and not expect someone to pay the consequences. Duplicates of their entire new crop of inventions now float among the shadows, waiting to be snatched up by the highest bidder. J. Produce wants someone to pay for that crime.†The Chef snapped his fingers again, and one of his bodyguards stepped forward carrying a silken pillow. On it laid the navy pea blossom. The Chef arched an eyebrow. “Look familiar, Foxley?â€Â


Foxley grimaced. “You said someone took the entire new crop. It wasn’t me. I tried -- don’t get me wrong, I have the initiative -- but I only scored that one cutting,†he countered.


“You don’t say?†The Chef rubbed his chin thoughtfully. “How much did you make with the fence?â€Â


“Nearly fifty bangles,†Foxley said, halving the figure, just in case this was a shakedown for a cut.


The Chef whistled, and lifted the pea blossom for a sniff. “You deviled egg, you! That’s a tidy fortune.â€Â


“I twisted the fence’s arm a little,†Foxley confessed. “But you see, Chef, I’m not the thief J. Produce is looking for,†he repeated, growing anxious at the other man’s calm.


“I beg to differ, Foxley,†the Chef said, his voice brutally pleasant. “You are exactly the thief I have decided they are looking for.â€Â


Foxley decided to bolt. He was too slow. As soon as he moved to scramble out of the mess hall, Morrie had him by the scruff. The next second, Foxley’s hands were twisted behind his back, and another one of the Chef’s goons was patting him down. His switchblade was confiscated, along with his spare change and his new shoes. The latter was a bit of a relief.


The Chef pulled a bead out of the pocket of his jumpsuit and began to casually play toss-and-catch. “I warn you, Foxley. You don’t want to be difficult. It would be a shame if you wound up like the vendor you fenced the blossom to, or the dear, departed Philonious.â€Â


Foxley spotted a gleam of gold, realizing the Chef wasn’t throwing a bead. It was Bumble’s capped tooth. Foxley winced. “I have an alternative?â€Â


“Normally I would have had Morrie crush you, or Mel poison your rum cake. I find dead scapegoats are much easier to prepare when cooking up criminal activity. Less questions answered with the truth that way. However, you have caught a windfall of fortune, Foxley. The cooler head of my new sous-chef has prevailed.â€Â


“What’s going to happen to me?†Foxley clipped. That question summarized the depth and breadth of his concerns.


“I am creating my own outpost,†the Chef announced grandly. “I am shipping you out.â€Â


Foxley hadn’t expected that. “You plan to dock me? In a prison dock?†he asked incredulously.


“Isn’t it exciting?†The Chef gave him a gleaming smile. “You’ll be the first honored inmate at the new Dock 13!â€Â


“Chef,†Foxley said, trying to wrap his head around this turn of events, “are you remotely familiar with the history of this place?†He motioned to the frescoed walls and the carpet covering the old stone floor.


“I’ve been telling him all about it,†a familiar, bubbly voice said.


“You.†Foxley felt something else in that moment, perhaps betrayal, or a touch of indigestion from the rum cake.


Taffeta made her bouncy way across the room. “After the Chef and I agreed upon our business venture concerning the stolen seedlings, he confided his many headaches. There are quite a few troublesome people he would enjoy docking.â€Â


“That’s what I like about you, pigeon,†Foxley said, his eyes shooting daggers. “Your thoughtfulness.â€Â


She approached him, and Foxley couldn’t resist jostling against his captors. It was to be expected that he would enjoy murdering Taffeta for her setup, murdering her just a little bit.


“I have so many thoughts in my head! Some of them actually make sense,†Taffy mused. “Like it’s better to be a caged goose than a dead duck.â€Â


“Truer words were never spoken, Foxley,†the Chef echoed, switching back on the storybox. “You should thank your lucky stars I’m sparing your hide. Say your goodbyes, Taffeta. It’s time to watch that special on chilled soups.â€Â


Taffeta stood on her tiptoes and kissed Foxley on his cheek (facial). “Goodbye, Mr. Mae’var. I’m so glad you were the one who robbed me.†Foxley felt the girl slip a hand into his pocket, quick as a wink. She left something behind, something shaped like a spoon. Suddenly he understood that, if he had underestimated this bubble of a girl, the Chef had as well. That's pure, unadulterated chump.


Taffy shrank her voice to a shadow and whispered, “Trust me, Foxley. You’ll thank me for this.â€Â


He smiled, but only on the inside. Foxley Mastoon had just caught a break.




The End

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Thanks for the challenge, Domi!


This is the kind of story idea that I usually end up telling in 1000 words or less, so fleshing it out was a big challenge. The ending was rushed because I knew I'd never finish it otherwise. :)


Suggestions for improvements are definitely welcome!



The First Birth


Normally it would have been near impossible to wake Rodney before daybreak, but today was special. The moment the golden curve of the sun peeked over the windowsill of his room in Yesterschool House, he leapt out of bed, scattering assorted books, blanket and a mildly affronted rooster onto the floor. Today was the day of Rodney’s first Birth, the day he would become a man.


His morning ritual of a splash of icy water onto his face and hair was more hurried than usual and the enthusiasm with which he scrubbed his face threatened to take his skin off. At least he did not have to think about what clothes he had to wear for the Birth - Dama had already set out some appropriate clothes for him. Even without his spectacles, he could see the neatly folded pile in the middle of his bedroom, mainly because it was at odds with the surrounding mess.


He launched himself at the clothes in a graceful slide across the wooden floor, managing to combine the action with the removal of his nightgown which was unceremoniously dumped onto the mess of his bed.


His first battle of the day would prove to be getting dressed. The shirt, a somber navy blue piece sporting the Yesterschool coat of arms and the motto, "No Yesterman is a Yesterday’s Man", was starched so stiff that he could barely unfold it without it snapping in half. The long grey trousers were nearly as bad and more closely resembled the lower half of a suit of armour than formal dress. Rodney grimaced - Dama obviously belonged to the school of thought that the more important the occasion, the more starch that was required.


After a few full-bodied contortions, the clothes were flexible enough to allow for a dignified gait. As he bent and unbent his elbows, he pictured how he would appear to the others after the Birth. More wise, more grave, certainly. All of the men coming out of the ritual had looked impossibly older.


His own brother Leon had come out of his own first Birth in a daze, his eyes expressing a strange emotion that Rodney couldn’t read. The bond of silence had held true. No amount of wheedling had moved Leon to say anything about the Birth, except for a single comment.


"It’s messy, Rod. Really, really messy."


Thinking back on the sticky dark stains that had covered his brother’s clothing, Rodney decided to improve his outfit with the rubber apron from his metalwork class. After the apron squeaked over the outfit, he added the enormous fishing waders that his father, an avid fisher, had presented to him the day he had moved to Yesterschool. It might have been overkill, but at least he wouldn’t have to burn his shirt and pants as Leon had done.




Breakfast was always held in the Yestersquire, a building that was unique in the Yesterschool as it was made entirely of clay. It was a Yester tradition that the senior boys would try to dupe the newly arrived juniors into thinking that nearby Yester Mountain was actually a front for the enormous kiln in which the entire Yestersquire had been baked. So far, the record endupement was four months and thirteen days, recorded in the year 1963, before the only bright boy in the class of ‘63 realised that the clay of Yestersquire was unfired.


As a result, Yestersquire was continually in a state of repair. Rainfall made the walls slick and malleable. Heavy rainfall in particular caused the entire building to sag unhappily. Extended days of sunshine made the walls crack and hot dry days were potentially life-threatening for slow-footed students when large slabs of wall fell off the building. Yet despite continuous protests from the Yester community, Yestersquire stayed, mainly by virtue of how cost-effective it was to repair, with the repair clay coming out of the Art department’s budget.

Breakfast was always an exciting affair, with students required to dodge the sudden showers of claypowder that threatened to fall into their bowls of gruel. This necessitated frequent shifting down the long benches that accompanied the giant dining table, meaning that you never knew who you might end up sitting with.


"So, Rod, today’s the day, huh?"


Rodney looked up to see Jacob Westerwinter, junior by three months, looking at him with a mixture of awe and apprehension. He nodded with what he hoped was an air of superiority and infinite calm.


"Don’t worry Rod," Jacob squeaked, "It can’t be that big a deal. Everyone does it on their 16th birthday and everyone lives to not tell the tale."


"I’m not worried," Rodney muttered, though in truth his fingers were beginning to feel ever so slightly wobbly. Rodney’s gruel this morning contained a garnish of three daisyflowers, a silent acknowledgement that Lissa the cook, like Dama, thought that this occasion was of utmost importance. Also not helping was the sight of Yestergoon intruding on his vision. The plain white building where the Births were conducted was unfortunately situated so that it was the prime object of focus if you looked out Yestersquire’s windows. Jacob’s squeaky voice interrupted his thoughts.


"Gee, I wonder what the new kid will be called. I wonder if you get to have a say in it, or maybe it’s up to the teachers." Jacob considered for a moment. "I’d call it Wren."


"You and your birdwatching," Rodney refrained from rolling his eyes. To think that in three months Jacob would have his own Birth. He regarded the pale blonde youngster and the set of binoculars that perpetually hung around his neck. The boy had extensive maturing to do.


"Well what would you call it?"

Mercifully, they were interrupted by a clayshower. Rodney waited just long enough to see which direction Jacob would slide, then slid the other way. He figured the few grains of clay that fell into his gruel were worth the price of a peaceful meal. Until he looked up.


"So, Rodney, today’s your first Birth," Gerald Lanyard, senior by six months, superior by about five hundred years, grinned at him.


"So what?" The day was rapidly going downhill.


"So what?" Gerald expertly flicked the dark brown curls from his eyes, "So what? It’s a big occasion. The boy becometh the man. The mouse becometh the lion."


The asshole becometh the ass. "I know how important it is."


"I see you’ve dressed for the occasion," Gerald smirked.


It was just his luck to be seated opposite the one Yesterstudent who had come out of the Birth unchanged. Perhaps the rumours were true. Perhaps Gerald had been deemed ineligible and had thus been shown absolutely nothing. It would explain his arrogance, as well as the fact that his outfit had been spotlessly clean when he’d exited the building.


Rodney decided to take the noble path of silence, feigning a mouth full of food. This did not stop Gerald.


"Look, Rod, I know I’ve given you a hard time so far. It’s all part of growing up. As I said, the boy becometh the man. Otherwise you’d still be like Jacob, lugging around your bug-collection kit."


"I’d still have it if you hadn’t broken it," said Rodney.


"And look where you are now. On the cusp of manhood and you’re free of that device. You should thank me."


Rodney refrained from showering the smugly smiling senior with a mouthful of gruel. "*Thank* you? I’d almost finished my collection of Henjays! It would have made both me *and* Yester famous!"


A strange expression flickered over Gerald’s face and his tone suddenly became serious. "But wouldn’t you rather be famous for something really important?"


"Henjays *are* important," Rodney growled.


"More important than…" Gerald looked around carefully and leaned forward, lowering his voice. "Look, Rodney, between Breakfast and the ritual, you have a spare half hour. Meet me straight after Breakfast in my room, okay?" Noting Rodney’s expression, he added, "It’s not a practical joke this time. I haven’t wedged anybody since my Birth, or haven’t you noticed?"


There had been a more contented atmosphere around Yesterschool of late. Besides, for once Gerald seemed in earnest, his dark eyes without their normal glint of malice. Rodney nodded.


"Good. Straight after breakfast." Gerald sat back as the glint reignited in his eyes. "And lay off the daisies, Rodster – they’re not your colour."




Gerald Lanyard’s room was a sophisticated affair, all dusky red leather, black walls and creamy fur. Even the fireplace that in every other bedroom was a standard stone affair was adorned with red velvet. Posters of Gerald’s racecar heroes (including his father) adorned the walls and his cornerchest bulged under the weight of grooming products with brand names like "Panther", "Golfer" and "Fiend".

Making sure that Gerald really wasn’t in the room, Rodney slid open the doors of the large cupboard that covered an entire wall of the room. After a brief, mothballed search, he found what he was looking for.


"Clean, isn’t it?" Gerald’s voice made Rodney jump out of the cupboard. They both looked at the Birth outfit in Rodney’s hands.


"You’re wondering why it’s so clean, when everybody else comes out a mess." Gerald crossed the room and took the outfit. He stared at it for a moment. "That’s what this is about.


"You’ve heard the rumours, right? Of course you have. And there’s the proof. I didn’t see a Birth and I won’t get to see one until my 18th." He tossed the outfit onto his bed and rummaged through the chest of grooming products. He selected a can, opened it and fished something out of the cap.


"And this is why." He handed a plain copper key to Rodney. Its head was engraved with the letter D and nothing more.


"I got to Yestergoon early the day of my first Birth." Gerald sat on the edge of his bed. Once again, the malice was gone from his eyes. "So I decided to explore a little. I think Teacher Townsend must have left the door unlocked or something. Anyway, I was drawing a moustache on Highteacher Semthion’s portrait when I noticed that the left corner of painting was crumpled-like. So I tried to smooth it over and found this flap instead. And inside the flap was this key.


"Now I had a full ten minutes before my Birth, so I decided to look for what this key fit into. You know what they say about Yestergoon and treasure – why else is it locked up so tight? So I figured it must be the key to that door that everybody talks about – you’ll see it yourself when you go to your own Birth. It’s the only door that is plain in all of Yestergoon. Every other door has a plaque saying what’s inside, but this one has nothing.

"Anyway, I went to the door and had a peek through the keyhole. There was nothing but darkness, but I did smell something funny. So I tried the lock – it turned out the key fitted."


Gerald took a deep breath. "I’d opened the door slowly so that it wouldn’t creak on me. The light from the hall was kind of dim, but the room was even darker. And boy did it stink! Smelled just like anatomy, so I figured this must be where they stored the body parts for class. I couldn’t find the light switch, so I lit a match.


"I was right. It *was* a place for body parts. The light didn’t reach far, but I could see a big tank and I recognised some of the parts we’d used for class the month before. You know, the one I tattooed with ‘I love Jacob’s mum’. That was a good joke." A brief smile flashed across Gerald’s face, but it quickly disappeared. When he looked at Rodney next, his eyes were large and dark.


"But that wasn’t all that was in the room. There was a really huge, huge glass case on the far side that my flame just reflected off. I went toward it and as I got closer, I could begin to see what was inside it.


"Whatever it was, it was dead. Dead a long time, I imagine, but it must have been stuffed because it was standing upright and it had glass eyes that shone at me. That was all I could see as I got closer, the shape of it standing and its shiny eyes."


Gerald sighed shakily, "That’s all I can tell you, Rod. Because then my match fizzed out and damned if I was going to be trapped in a black room with this dead thing. I must’ve made some heck of a noise as I ran back to the door because when I got there, Teacher Townsend was there to meet me.


"After that, they decided to punish me by not giving me my chance to see a Birth. They took away the key, but you know my memory for these things. It wasn’t hard to make a copy." Gerald shrugged helplessly. "What was hard was trying to go back into that room. That thing, whatever it was, spooked the hell out of me."


Rodney had no doubt that Gerald was telling the truth. The transformation was remarkable. The normally self-confident, cocky student was pale and his shoulders were visibly trembling.


"Do you have any idea what it was?" he asked.


Gerald gave a weak smile. "I think I know… I don’t think I should tell you. Because the reason I’m letting you have to key is for you to see for yourself, and let me know if I’m right in my guess."


Rodney had an inkling of what Gerald was getting at. Ignoring the chill running down his spine, he spoke. "But how will I know what you’re guessing if you won’t tell me?"


"You’re right. I just don’t want to say it." Gerald took a pencil from his writing desk and wrote a single word onto a piece of paper. He folded the paper into a neat square and tucked it into Rodney’s shirt pocket. "Open it when you get into the room. If I’m right, just tell me yes."


He stepped back and looked at Rodney. "I think you already guessed what I’m talking about." He smiled. "You look worried enough."


Rodney found himself being ushered firmly towards the door. Looking at the clock, he realised he had only fifteen minutes left before he had to be present in Yestergoon Room B for the birth.


As the door closed, Rodney heard Gerald call out.


"They’re right you know. It really does have the head of a human."




The piece of paper poked into Rodney’s ribs as he made his way to Yestergoon. Above him. the sky had become an angry grey, a colour reflected by the cubic walls of the large Birthing building. Rodney’s mood felt about the same – how could his day have become like this? He was about to become a man and Gerald Lanyard was ruining it all. He took the piece of paper and without looking at the contents, shredded it to pieces.


"Demians!" he muttered as he let them flutter to the ground. As if the faculty would keep a demian, however dead, at Yesterschool. As if demians even existed. They were a bedside tale that parents told to their children to keep them in line, a purely mythological creation.


He remembered his own father threatening to send him to the demians when he’d stolen all his fishing lines to make a bug net. "And they’ll take you with their clawed hands and rip you to shreds!"


Clawed hands, human heads… and their bodies dripped with an acrid ooze, according to the horror tales. They were just tales. But why the high wall around Yester? Why were the Teachers so silent on the subject of demians?


Rodney remembered his first Hallowsday at Yesterschool. All the juniors had banded together to make or break the Demian curse. Saying the word "demian" three times on the last three strokes of midnight was meant to make a Demian appear.


They’d done it and nothing had appeared, besides a bunch of irate seniors and teachers. They’d been punished with stale gruel and pondwater for the next week. A harmless joke had turned into thirty six semi-starved Yesterstudents and had robbed them of their sense of humour for the better part of a month.


Rodney checked his watch. He had thirteen minutes. Yestergoon loomed above him like a dirty sugarcube. What harm was there in just having a look in the room? Either he was about to prove the existence of Demians, or he would have an excuse to laugh at Gerald for the next week. As he walked past the threshold of Yestergoon, he pocketed one of the emergency torches that hung beside the door.




It wasn’t much of a torch. Rodney could have sworn that the light was so dim because it was struggling to get past the formaldehyde fumes. The moment he’d stepped into the room his eyes had begun watering. He was sure he was pickling his lungs with each breath he took.


The light illuminated a series of empty benches and a selection of bell-shaped glass jars on shelves. Inside the jars, oddly shaped creatures floated in a bleached and endless sleep. He made his way toward the back of the room, trying his best to stop the fishing waders from squeaking too loudly against the vinyl floor.


And then he saw the eyes.


Glass eyes, he told himself. His feet didn’t agree, flatly refusing to take another step forward. From this distance, the torch picked out only the eyes and the glitter of the creature’s claws.


Come on, man, it’s dead! Rodney willed himself forward, though his skin petitioned to leap in the other direction. The torchlight began to penetrate more deeply into the glass box, illuminating a flowing brown mane.


Whoever had made the eyes had done too good a job. They made the creature look alive, and even worse, uncannily humanlike. Rodney found that he could not look away from the yellowy-green gaze. Somewhere, a part of him sincerely believed that it was only his eye contact that prevented the creature from coming to life and shredding him to pieces.


The clink of his torch against the glass snapped him out of his trance. He’d reached the enormous box and the light shone full on the creature’s face. It was the face of a human child. If he let his hair grow without clipping it, he’d have the same mane.


It was down below the head where things became awry. Rodney felt his breakfast come up into his throat. The thing’s arms ended in long, red claws and the toes of its hind paws were a similar crimson. The worst was its torso, a misshapen and twisted mess. Hideous bulges jutted out of its chest and the creature had no genitalia. It looked at him silently through the glass. Almost human. Demi-human. His father had told him that the word had grown shorter over the years to become demian. Gerald had been right.




He was amazed when he stepped outside the room and it was still daylight. He was even more amazed when he discovered that he still had three minutes to go before the Birth was to start. He made his way to room B in a daze.


The heavy tread of Teacher Townsend vibrated down the carpeted hall. Rodney looked up to see the elderly Teacher nod at him as he passed in a sweep of black clothing. Townsend stopped in front of the door to room B and jumbled with a mass of keys on a silver keychain.


"Young Rodney, is it?" Townsend found the right key and jiggled it into the lock. He paused and arched an eyebrow at Rodney’s outfit, then nodded in approval. "Best to be prepared." He swung open the door and gestured at Rodney to enter.


Inside was a small white room, perfectly cubic and perfectly empty, aside from a door set in the opposite wall. Teacher Townsend put a hand on Rodney’s shoulder and marched him toward the door.


"You realise Rodney, that you will be bound by silence and that what you see cannot be spoken of, to anybody of Yester and beyond." Townsend’s tone was grave and sonorous, yet the words were spoken automatically. Rodney wondered just how many times the Teacher had said those lines.


"Yes sir."


"A broken bond will likewise sever the bond that links all Yestermen," Townsend continued. "A broken bond will cause you to be taken outside the walls of Yester, where you will have no protection and no help. There you must survive on your own, on the outside where the Demians live."


Rodney started at the word. It was the first time he’d ever heard a Teacher say it. Townsend gave him a wry smile. Again Rodney wondered just how many boys had given the Teacher that same reaction.


They reached the door.


"Do you understand the bond, Rodney?"


His mouth was dry, but he managed a "Yes sir."


"Then by all means, you may witness your first Birth." And the door swung open.




The first thing he noticed was the smell, always the smell. It was the smell of blood.


The next thing he knew, he was being blinded by an array of powerful lamps.


The third thing he noticed was as a direct result of being blinded. As he blinked away the flashing purple afterimages, his ears caught the tail-end of a wail, a hollow, drawn-out wail that was diminishing by the second.


He felt Teacher Townsend’s palm on his shoulder, holding him steady. As his eyesight returned, a flurry of black-coated motion was emerging, black-coated motion that was struggling with a writhing blanket – no, a writhing man beneath a white blanket. A very fat, writhing man who was wailing in a curious high pitch.


He shook his head to clear his eyes more. The blanket wasn’t white. It had been white, certainly, but was now streaked with blood. And the black-coated motion was fast resolving itself into the shape of Teacher Galanthor, the Anatomy head. The man beneath the blanket shrieked again.


He felt Townsend’s palm push him gently, but firmly toward the blanket, the Teacher, the man. The squeak of his waders disappeared abruptly as he stepped forward and the floor suddenly became slick under his feet. He looked down and realised that he was standing in a mess of blood.


Teacher Galathor’s arms were buried beneath the blanket, at the lower end of the screaming man. Galanthor’s face was brick red as he heaved and pulled at something. Rodney flicked a quick glance at Townsend. "The child," Townsend said simply.


The man screamed again and Rodney found himself staring into his face. It wasn’t a man, but boy. A boy with long hair. The boy reached out a clawed hand to the suddenly shaking Rodney as Teacher Galathor gave a final heave and was rewarded with a tiny wet human. It opened its mouth and screamed.


The demian’s grotesque belly and Rodney collapsed at much the same time.




He woke up in the white room. From the streaks of blood that led from the door to where he lay, Rodney figured that the Teachers had dragged him in here while he was still in a dead faint. No sound now came from behind the door to the Birth room.


Teacher Townsend sat beside him, wringing out a small handtowel. From the looks of it, he’d been mopping up the gore that had splashed over Rodney’s arms when he’d fallen. The fishing waders had probably protected his trousers, but the back of his shirt felt like a sticky mess.


"You are awake." Townsend looked mildly surprised. "Usually the lads are out for much longer." He pulled Rodney to his feet and held him steady as his legs buckled involuntarily.


"Understand that what you have seen cannot be spoken of. Ask what questions you have before you leave this room."


Rodney managed a nod. "Did I- did I come from –"




"And what happens to… to it afterwards?"


"We released it outside the walls of Yester." Townsend looked at him gravely. "We are not monsters, Rodney."


No, just human. "And has it always been this way?"


Townsend nodded. "For as long as I’ve been a Teacher. It seems we all come from Demians." The old man’s gaze became unfocussed. "When I was a young man, I went on the hunts for them. We only took the ones with the swollen bellies. Sometimes they birthed humans, at others they birthed more Demians. When that happened, we set both creatures free." He shook himself out of his reverie.


"Nobody knows how or why a Demian might create a human. It’s a gift. All we know is that that is the only time a Demian is vulnerable, when it is spawning. The rest of the time, it is a dangerous creature." Here he fixed Rodney with a steady gaze. "They are not to be contacted."


With that, Townsend walked to the exit door and pulled it open. Yestergoon’s main hall lay empty on the other side.


"Congratulations," the Teacher smiled, "You are now a man."




As he left Yestergoon, he wondered what he looked like to the gaggle of students who were just amassing at Yestersquire for lunch. He wondered how he would go back to talking of bugcatching and the next day’s classes at the long dinner table when he felt like this. This was probably why most of the students who’d just been through their first Birth usually asked Louise to take their lunches to their rooms. He’d always wanted to know why the burly cook, usually so belligerent when it came to rules, was lax on the new men. Now he knew.


"Rod!" One of the yesterstudents broke away from the lunching crowd and ran up to him. He noted with little interest that it was Gerald.


"So Rod, was I right?" The senior’s face was bright and eager and terribly young. "Was it a-?"


Rodney nodded.


"I knew it! I knew it! Why would the Teachers keep a dead Demian on school grounds? I wonder what it’s for? I-"


Rodney pushed past the excited senior and walked on towards Yesterschool House, deciding that he’d skip lunch entirely that day. He’d think about it more in the privacy of his room. And he’d light a fire in the fireplace that had stood cold and dusty for so many months. It might help to stop the trembling that had afflicted his hands since he’d woken from his faint.


Besides, he had some clothes to burn.





The end.

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And now here is a very little one that again is more of an idea than a story.




There is a planet in the endless reaches of space. It is coloured blue in parts and green in others. Films of cloud whirl over it in silently changing patterns and the entire planet is bathed in the glow of a sun that experts agree is coloured yellow.


If you should look closer at this planet, you would notice small creatures on it, creatures that do not walk on four legs, but rely on two. These creatures build ever taller abodes, stacking them upon each other, making towers that reach for the sun as sunflowers do.


The creatures meet, marry, mate. There is birth, love, death. Large sections of the planet are devoted to those who are gone, and you will see creatures gathering at those places to remember the ones who became too old to continue.


There are billions of these creatures. They all live on the planet together. In their spare time they invent cars and violins.


On this planet there are laws. What goes up must come down. The opposite of short is tall. The opposite of light is dark. The opposite of soft is hard.


On this planet, some words have no opposites, such as grey, ant, and peace.

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A Fork in the Road


Ten paces away from Salim stood a stone pillar, defaced by wind and rain, cloaked protectively in moss, stood on the road junction. One side read “South Navarre Roadâ€Â, and another - “Latoda†in the tongues of Men and Gnomes. On top of the pillar sat undine, dressed in a necklace of acorns, amber beads and one large, blood red nut. Salim had never seen the likes of this exotic fruit, and in the past few moments, trying to keep his eyes of the half-transparent creature and seemingly unable to do so, he compromised and learned every aspect of the accursed nut - every dent in its mate surface, every maroon vein.


“Nunta,†said the spirit to Salim, and cracked the nut between the two slender fingers. Effortlessly.


Resign spilled forth, marring the translucent hand and the undine licked it with quick, feline-like movements of the tongue. Her mouth colored red, where the resign smeared, masking the unsettling light-blue bones, gleaming within her tender flesh.


Like almost any other young man, Salim delighted in the sight of a nude woman, but this degree of nakedness was more prohibiting than the heavy woolen stoles and robes of Donna Chelia's daughters.


There was an irony there, that he, a glassblower's apprentice should come across a creature of the waters, the symbol of his Craftsman Guild – one of the Fourteen Guilds of Latoda - and stand there dumbstruck, as if he still was a boy of nine and was just brought into town to apprentice from his father’s farm.


What bothered him more than his own stupefaction was the fact that the road was empty on a beautiful day in the late spring in view of Latoda's Rainbow Walls.


He would have expected to see a lord's retinue en route to a country estate, a messenger on a horse galloping as if all the devils of Thirteen Pits were on his heels, a stately caravan of an important Southern merchant, carrying the exquisite load of Latoda's delicate linen; gilded lace; perfumes based on the mysterious sea-weed substance which made the infused imported southern aromatic oils' fragrance to linger for two days; blue and yellow pottery; carved wood; embroidered shoes with high cork heels; and the small pouches of dyes: purple, and green, and scarlet and blue, the likes of which were not known in the whole world. And crystalys, crystalys above all: the figurines, that kept a hearth's warmth inside, when placed on a mantle-piece; the beads and hair-bells which depending on the tone charmed men or women as easily as an emerald hypnotizes snakes; the bowls that absorbed poisons; and of course crystalys weapons, sharper than the rippled steel of the South and green bronze of the East.


Or it could have been a pedestrian, just like him, out of the city early, on the Spring Eve Holiday, in hopes that the still chill sea-breeze would clear his head pounding from the excess of the yesterday's mead. But the fork in the road, marked by the pillar, and the white tract shooting through the pines remained empty.


Empty, that is, except for the spirit of the Icy Sea, and the glassblower's apprentice, Salim.


As he tried once again to break the hold the creature’s watery eyes placed on him, the undine slid down from the pillar.


She walked slower than a fly drowning in syrup; she was by him before his heart managed another beat. In a miraculous coincidence the thin cloud covering the sun moved away minding its own wanderings, at the very moment that the undine laid her hand on him.


Nunta – for he had no other name for her - shone in the sunlight, and her fingers stung, like tentacles of jellyfish. Pain did not pass, but Salim forgot it, dazed by the vision of harmony and the silver threads that hold the world together. “It is time,†the undine said in a musical tongue spoken by water, wind, fire and the creatures that the humans artlessly think too simple to have a tongue of their own. “It is time,†Salim agreed, and drained his fear like a washerwoman draining a tub.


Salim woke from a slap to his face. A hairless, dark creature with liquid eyes wrapped in purple cloths - a clean-shaven priest of Lorath - was waving a pouch of the smelling salts and herbs into his face, shouting his name. The slap was gentle, and the voice came as if from a great distance, compared to the sharp fragrance of the nosegay, and the brightness of the fabric.


“How do you know my name, Illustriuos One?†Salim asked, hooking his mind to something he did not understand in his new wholesome world.


“Your talisman, Follower,†the priest replied importantly, holding something brilliant up for him to see, “You are lucky that Lady Riesdella's hunting party came upon you before a ruffian.â€Â


The priest held up a prism of the light-grey crystalys. It had Salim’s name written on each side in the languages of Men, Gnomes, the Dead Tongue of the Priests and the magic script that Salim would have taken for an ornament two hours ago.


The glassblower’s apprentice remembered – it was a gift from the undine for what they had done together, the same thing that he'd done with each of Donna Chelia's daughters during the Carnival time, yet different, because a man, even enlightened to the world, cannot possess a spirit as he possesses a human woman. And because in this coition, he expelled the substance of his soul and sated his spirit.


“It was more like talking,†he thought and grinned at Lady Riesdella's capelin who graciously took him back to Latoda in the Lady's own carriage. It seemed to Salim that the young noblewoman was happy to be rid of them both, when she mounted a hell-horse of one of her retainers, and relegated the priest's docile mare to the grinning victim. There was a reward for that sacrifice, Salim was sure.


The priest felt the otherworldly experience on him, like a hunting dog smells blood, but either out of fear to confirm his suspicion that a layman was granted a miracle, or natural tact, or the concern for his mischievous charge, he'd never spoken a word.


But he drove the carriage with more than fare share of skill and pleasure. Salim was content with silence. It did not distract him from the vision of the twelve towers rising above the Rainbow Wall. He had seen a drawing in the Hall of the Guilds – the only thing that was hidden away when Prince Deivine in his folly had ordered every Master of the Builder's Guild executed for the flaws he had perceived in the Wall. It was milky-white when the Guild first put it up. The Master Builder swore that the colors will come in time, but the Prince lost faith after the eight years of waiting. The Rainbow Walls took on the thirty-three shades two years after the Prince himself died of poison, having outlived the Builder’s Guildmasters by no more than a score of days. Latoda’s citizens loved their rules, but they loved their Artisans the more. The city will have the crystalys towers one day, or so everyone said over the wines and chocolates. They nodded to it for the past six hundred years, hiding the simple truth that the lore of the builders was lost and that no master of Crystalys Guild knew how to make crystalys grow without shattering into pieces big enough only for baubles.


The Illustrious One made a sign of blessing over Salim’s crisscrossed hands before knocking at Master Fernado shop’s door. His Master led him in, his tongue stilled first by the presence of the priest, and then by the sight of the talisman. He looked at it, scratched his beard, and opened the collar of his apprentice's shirt. Again, he said nothing, fingering the long green scar. In silence they drank chilled wine together on the terrace.


When the day grew cooler, Master Fernado shouted for his wife to pack bread and salted beef: “Salim was marked to leave,†was all he said in the way of explanation. And “Good-buy, lad, don’t shame your master afore them, Gnomes.â€Â


So it came to pass, that right before the gates of Latoda were locked for the night, a grey figure walked out, following the last rays of the westering sun. Salim, who was later called the Alchemist and the New Builder, had started out his search for a Gnome Mentor, for he was touched by an undine on a fine spring day. And as we all know, undines are light trapped by the icebergs or glaciers. Very similar, they say, to the magic crystalys of Latoda.

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