I’m stuck sometimes trying to find my voice as a writer. I have a lot of ideas that probably aren’t marketable, like mixing hard science fiction and a Christian worldview in the same piece. Most science fiction publishers and fans seem to want staunch atheism, which is something I can’t give them. Many Christian markets seem to only want a sanitized, sterile worldview wherein no one smokes pot and people only make babies after they’re married. I can’t compartmentalize sections of reality. I’d be giving you garbage if I did. I can only give you the world as I see it, with speculative elements to facilitate storytelling.
This story is my Jackson Pollock piece, throwing alcoholism, urban fantasy, and dad jokes at paper. For the protagonist, alcoholism is necessary to his quest. The puns are necessary to his magic, but I could never send this to Neil Clarke, since part of his “don’t you dare send me this” list includes:
- “funny” stories that depend on, or even include, puns
Poor Neil–you’re missing out on some of the best humor.
This got an Honorable Mention from WotF before “Moonlight One” placed. It’s longer than the flash fiction I’ve posted here recently, but I think you’ll enjoy it.
The Green Fairy
“Will do magic for liquor.”
That’s what my sign says. It’s black Sharpie on cardboard, but people are curious nonetheless. They don’t know if the unkempt guy with the beard living in a shipping crate might be an out-of-work stage performer with something worth seeing.
A boy and his mom slow. The mom pulls her son along, but the son wants to see some magic.
“I want to see a trick!” the kid says, threatening a tantrum until his mom pulls out a dollar. A dollar isn’t liquor, but I’ll take what I can get. I unveil my pack of cards, tell the kid to pick one, and do a little prestidigitation. My fingers tremble from withdrawal though, and I fumble the cards, spilling them everywhere.
Mother and son turn their noses up at me, harrumphing with disgust. Then they’re gone. The shame falls on dead nerves, but the abandonment stings a little.
An hour goes by and the sky turns from pink to black. The Curmudgeon Beer sign flickers on across the street at Gilbert’s, advertising booze I can’t afford. Folks walk by, calling me a dirty hobo and worse, before a pair of polished leather shoes stops in front of me.
“Show me some magic, good sir, and the bottle’s yours,” the shoes say. I look up and find a man attached to them, smiling and holding a green bottle of absinthe. The fluid within refracts the light of the Curmudgeon Beer sign. It lends the bottle a magical glow.
I focus, telling my fingers to behave for just a few moments, and the guy in the shoes laughs when he pulls the four of clubs out of his sock at the end of the trick.
“You’re good,” he says. “What’s your name?”
“It’s Wallace,” I say. I think it’s Wallace anyway. It’s been a while since I used a name.
“The bottle’s yours Wallace. Enjoy it,” he says, handing it to me. I catch sight of a lapel pin with the letters “W-A-D-L” on it–probably some club for rich people.
I climb back into the privacy of my crate before ripping the seal from the bottle and taking a long pull. It burns before the warming tendrils crawl down my throat and through the back of my skull. Only now do I look at the label, which says, “Lucid Lucy’s Lovely Elixir: Finest Absinthe.”
In the middle of all those words is a drawing of a pixie with light green skin, red hair in a high bun, and leaves for clothes. She’s winking at me from the picture, like she knows something I don’t.
“Here’s to the Green Fairy,” I say, taking another pull.
An hour later, half the bottle’s gone, and I’m surprisingly unsurprised when a coif of ginger hair pops through the top of the bottle with a tiny green face below it. Lucy climbs out, clad not in leaves but tiny black yoga pants, a white tank top, and furry boots. She flutters stained-glass butterfly wings and drops to the ground in front of me as delicately as a whisper. A purse as colorful as her shimmering wings hangs from one elbow.
“You’re Wallace?” she asks. “You’ve really let yourself go.”
I snort with amusement at my tiny heckler. Everything amuses me when I drink.
“It’s about time you got into something that would cut through the Inhibition,” she says.
“What’re you talking about?” I ask.
“The Inhibition keeps you from doing magic. There’s another spell blocking your memory, but it’s rooted deeper.”
“I can do magic. I did magic to get ahold of you.”
“Do you even know any card tricks wherein the mark’s card ends up in his sock?”
I think for a moment.
“I did that. But I’m talking about real magic,” Lucy says, and I can tell she’s getting impatient. “You haven’t been a hobo all your life, you know.”
I chuckle again, unsure why I’m amused. I reach for the bottle.
“No!” Lucy shouts, fluttering up and swatting my hand away. “You’re loose enough for now. I don’t need you passing out on me.”
“So what do you want from me? I’m pickled, Tink.”
“Well I’m tickled pink that you are, but we need to get across town before you sober up. I’ll be gone when you do, and so will your magic. I need your help to find my sister.”
“You’re a figment of my imagination,” I say.
“I’m not,” she says, “but it doesn’t matter if you think I’m a drunken fantasy. Wallace the Wizard was always an adventurer. You can’t turn me down even if you don’t believe me.”
“Who’s your sister?”
“Is she on a vodka bottle?”
“Nope. It’s rum.”
“Oh. I thought…”
“Of course it’s vodka, you washed-up warlock. Got any money for the bus?”
“Do I look like I have money?”
My new tiny life coach taps her foot, thinking.
“Start yelling,” she says. “Yell until your throat hurts.”
“Your source of power is awful humor. Auto-amusement is the only way you can pull energy from the telluric currents. Trust me.”
What the heck. Why not?
I start belting out the Gettysburg Address, until I realize I only know about the first score of words. Several angry faces throw shade down my shady alley, but it doesn’t bother me. I’m un-Inhibited right now. I’m making magic happen. I start yodeling an old drinking tune, and several feral cats join in, but only on the chorus.
My throat feels funny, and so do my feet. I keep yelling until my voice gets raspy.
“I feel a little hoarse,” I say, as I look down at my tingling extremities. My feet are hooves.
“Yell until you feel a lot hoarse,” Lucy says.
I do, and soon I’m galloping down a city street–a powerful black stallion who can cross the city on a single tank of absinthe. I hear a police siren far behind me, so I duck down an alley and come out on a parallel street. I realize I’m not wearing my clothes, and wonder momentarily if I’m just a naked homeless bum sprinting through the streets after a merry bout of singing with the local fauna.
“Does this bring back any memories?” Lucy shouts. She’s riding between my ears atop my flowing mane. I feel her pull my mane left, then right. She’s steering us toward something.
“Neigh,” I say. I mean Nay, but now I have an accent. I start singing, “It’s a beautiful day in my neeeeiiiighborhood, it’s a beautiful day for neeeeeiiighbor,” as I tear through the streets like an unleashed typhoon. Lucy holds onto my mane for dear life, wings buzzing in the wind.
I gallop for thirty minutes without tiring, invigorated by what feels like static coursing up my legs from the heart of the world. We find suburban houses, all made out of ticky-tacky. They all look just the same, except for the three hundred foot obsidian tower.
I look up to the place where the obsidian meets the night sky, black on black. A strange purple glow pulses from the top, flickering like fire, then arcing out to the stars like lightning.
“What is this place?” I ask, certain we could have no other destination in this neighborhood.
“It’s the Cat Lady’s house,” Lucy says. There’s a slight tremor in her voice. “There’s a glamour on it, so you’d just see a shack with an old spinster and a thousand cats if you were still Inhibited.”
“Impressive digs,” I say. There are no windows or doors though, at least on this wall.
I trot around the base of the tower, leaping over white picket fences and scrambling past angry guard dogs. They don’t stand a chance of catching me. My mane flutters in the night air as I return to the place from which I started.
“How do we get in?” I ask.
“I don’t know,” Lucy says. “I’ve never been inside. I’m hoping your wit and wizardry will work something out.”
“Apples,” I say, and flick my tail with delight. I trot over to a smallish attempt at a backyard orchard.
“Apples will get us inside?” Lucy asks.
“No,” I say, “I’m a horse. I like apples.”
I munch one greedily, sticky apple juices dripping down my chin and my fingers.
I have fingers again. My clothes have returned, though in my present state I probably wouldn’t have cared either way.
Then an idea hits me.
“Do you have a knife?” I ask my spritely sidekick.
Lucy reaches into her purse-of-many-colors, rummages around for a moment, and pulls out a switchblade as long as she is tall. It shouldn’t fit in the purse.
“Nice trick, Felix,” I say.
“Cat jokes already? We’re not even inside yet,” she says. “A witch-doctor made this for me. It’s bigger on the inside.”
“Exactly,” Lucy says. She hands me the mother-of-pearl- handled knife. It looks like something a 70’s pimp would carry in a furry coat pocket.
I push the button and a silvery needle of a blade snicks out. I cut the apple in half.
“What are you doing?” Lucy asks.
I close the knife with one hand and drop it back in her outstretched purse, where it clunks amongst what sounds like a garage full of junk. Next, I take both halves of the apple and slide them seamlessly back together.
“Two halves make a whole,” I say nonchalantly, as though this is something I do every night. I feel a nagging déjà vu, as though I’ve done things like this many times in forgotten dreams.
I step through the hole that appears in the wall of the tower with the pixie perched on my shoulder, and pull the halves of the apple apart. The hole closes behind us. I may need an exit elsewhere later.
Inside the tower, we find a table and chairs hewn from the same solid block of obsidian as the structure itself. Two spiral staircases, cut into the inner walls of the tower, circle each other like a DNA double helix until they disappear into the shadows three hundred feet above. Ghostly purple flames dance on the walls with unseen torch bases.
“Who’s this meow?” a silky voice purrs from behind us. I look behind me and up, to find a large feline studying us from a recessed shelf.
“I’m Wallace the Wizard,” I say, starting to believe it myself after the whole fruity door thing. “My friend here is Lucid Lucy.”
“I wasn’t told to expect anyone,” the cat purrs. The purr starts to sound a bit like a growl.
Lucy pokes my ear and points behind us to show me that two other large cats are slinking down the spiral staircases.
“We just need to talk to the Cat Lady,” Lucy says. “We need information.”
“She’s busy,” the first cat says, “and not to be disturbed. Didn’t you see the Aurora?”
“We did,” Lucy says, “but…”
“You’re trespassers,” the ring-leader says. “Tasty, tasty trespassers.”
I grit my teeth, feeling an old, not-to-be-trifled-with wizard emerging from behind a mental blockade.
“Looks like it’s time to bear arms,” I snarl. I rip at my left sleeve, then the right as Lucy flutters into the air above my head. I hold the picture of a belt-fed M240B machine gun in my mind, waiting for one to appear in my hands as the torn sleeves fall to the floor. The cat’s eyes grow wide. He knows something of my former reputation, it seems.
Instead of a 7.62 X 51mm crew-served weapon, my arms sprout thick brown fur. Black claws sprout from the beds of my fingernails.
“Abraca-dammit,” I hiss. Bear arms. Seriously?
One of the Cat Lady’s hairy henchmen launches itself from the base of the staircase.
“Rawwwr!” I rawr. I swing a powerful paw at the flying feline and connect, knocking his unconscious form into the wall. I swing my other paw at the third cat just as I feel the ring-leader’s teeth sink into my shoulder. Infections from cat bites are no joke, and I twist like Chubby Checker getting electrocuted, trying to shake him off. More cats race down the stairs, emerging from shadows. Lucy stabs one in the paw, then grabs the tail of another, causing it to furiously whip around as she darts away.
“STOP!” a voice bellows from the stairs. “Stop this at once!”
The meowing militia freezes in mid-attack. All eyes turn to the voice’s origin, and I see a figure in a long purple gown descending the spiral. She has the body of a woman, but the head of a cat.
“What is this nonsense?” she asks. Her eyes narrow on me. “Wallace? I thought you were dead.”
“You’ll have to forgive me,” I say. “My memory seems to be a little foggy of late. Do we know each other?”
“I know who you are, of course. It is my business to know things. My name is Bastet. What can I do for you and your fae friend?”
“My sister–” Lucy says, “Vivacious Vicki. Someone’s kidnapped her.”
“Ah yes,” Bastet purrs, “Vicki. I know where your sister is. Nothing in this world is free, though. What are you offering?”
Lucy has obviously anticipated this, and opens her purse-of-many-colors. She rummages through the contents, then wrinkles her nose when she can’t find what she wants. Her arm disappears up to the shoulder. She withdraws it, pokes her head inside.
“Found it!” her muffled voice comes from the handbag. She pulls a bottle from within, holds it aloft. Its black contents reflect no light.
“Is that…?” Bastet starts to ask.
“Yes,” Lucy says. “It’s time from a black hole, distilled so you don’t get the whole planet-crushing gravity bit. It’s from the Croce Collection.”
“I see,” Bastet says. “Old Jim was on to something. I wonder how he did it. Such sorcery in his music too, and all the parents were worried about Ozzy Osbourne.”
“I’d say it’s more than worth what I’m asking,” Lucy says.
“Indeed,” Bastet says. “Follow me.”
We follow Bastet’s swaying tail up the winding stair, and I find myself noticing what a nice piece of tail she is. Still, she’s part cat, so it’s a weird attraction and I look away. Such things are better left to caped vigilantes.
Halfway up, I find myself huffing and puffing from all the exertion. By the time we reach the top, I’m ready to collapse, but the sight that awaits us as we step onto the roof pushes all other thoughts from my mind.
The purple maelstrom of lightning we saw from the ground spins with ethereal fury. Purple is the color not only of royalty, but of madness, and I find myself wondering why Bastet wears it.
A million tiny winged bodies flutter around the Aurora as it sends static tendrils into the night sky.
“What are they?” I ask. These pixies are about half the size of Lucy. They flit about with a nervous energy, unable to look away from the purple light.
“They’re good idea fairies,” Bastet says. “I draw them here at night while creative minds sleep. I have deals with several major companies and movie studios. I’m the reason you’ll see your own ideas produced in metal and plastic or on screen even if you never tell a soul.”
Bastet grins coyly, the purple gleam reflected in her cat eyes.
“That’s not why I brought you here though,” she says. “It’s easier to see from up here.”
“What is?” Lucy asks.
“The ley line that will lead you to your sister,” Bastet says. She shoots me an amused glance. “Unless I miss my guess, the key to unlocking your memory and removing your Inhibition is there also.”
“Great,” I say. “Ley it on me.”
Bastet raises a hand and extends a womanly finger to the west. A purple tendril flashes out from the Aurora, indicating the path of the ley line, confirming my suspicion that Bastet controls the thing with her mind.
“There is an underground stronghold beneath the intersection of the red and blue subway lines. To reach it, you will need to cross through the territory of the Mole People who live in the sewers and abandoned tunnels.”
Lucy says, “But that’s where…”
“I’m afraid so. The Snob-Goblin has your sister,” Bastet says. She looks at me again. “The rumors of your death, while apparently exaggerated, start there. You always were an adventurous sort, Wallace. I wonder what you were up to in the Snob-Goblin’s lair.”
“You and me both,” I say.
“One of his diabolical good idea fairies found my Aurora and spilled the Goblin’s secret. Perhaps you were trying to stop him.”
“What was the secret?” Lucy asks.
Bastet raises an eyebrow.
“The bottle first,” she says.
Lucy hands her the glass bottle, no bigger than a hip flask, with its light-nullifying contents. Bastet removes the cork and sniffs.
“An hour of unfettered time,” she says dreamily. “Is there more where this came from?”
“Perhaps,” Lucy says, every bit as sphinxlike as Bastet.
“A choice, then: I can tell you the Snob-Goblin’s secret end-game, which you’ll likely discover anyway if you best him, or I can send Ajax with you.”
As if on cue, a large black cat appears from a shadow, yellow eyes glittering with the Aurora’s reflected purple. He looks like a small panther–silent, sinewy, and formidable. Ajax cocks his head at us, saying nothing. He licks a paw.
Lucy looks up at me. I raise my eyebrows. If I’ve negotiated with cat-people before, I’ve forgotten.
“Ajax,” Lucy says finally.
“Wise of you,” Bastet says. “Now, let me offer you my hospitality for what remains of the night. You’ve obviously travelled far, and you’ve many miles to go.”
I wake up in a ditch, covered in leaves and sweat. The acid stench of vomit stings my nostrils almost as much as the sunlight does my eyes. I’m not sure if it’s my vomit or someone else’s, but I don’t see anyone else nearby.
Thankfully, I’m in a grove of trees, removed from prying eyes and the full force of the sun. The obsidian tower has vanished, leaving a run-down single story house with an overgrown lawn in its place. Cats of all sizes and colors study me from the porch, roof, and windows.
I try to stand up, but find that I haven’t quite crossed the fuzzy line from still-drunk to hungover. I spend a full minute dry heaving into the leaves before I try to stumble toward the Cat Lady’s house. I hear a mew from somewhere above me and find a small black cat swishing his tail on a tree branch.
“Ajax?” I say. “Where’s Lucy? Where’s the absinthe?”
The cat, much smaller than I remember Ajax, simply cocks his head and mews at me. If I don’t find Lucy before this buzz fully subsides, I’ll have to start begging for beer money again.
I stumble to the back door of the house and knock.
I knock harder.
Still nothing. The maybe-Ajax cat appears beside me, rubs against my leg. When I look down, he drops a half-eaten mouse on my foot.
“Thanks,” I say, shoving the thing away with my toe. He mews angrily at me.
I stagger out onto the sidewalk, trying to focus on keeping one foot in front of the other, and having only marginal success.
A bicycle bell chimes behind me.
“Outta the way, dirty hobo,” a little girl’s voice snarls.
I turn to find a blonde girl with pink ribbons in her pigtails that match the color of her bike. She glares up at me with self-righteous derision, though the teddy bear in her bike’s wicker basket seems indifferent to my presence.
“Shouldn’t you be in school or something?” I ask.
“It’s Saturday,” she says. “Don’t you have a calendar in your dumpster?”
She inches the front tire closer to my foot.
“Is there a place around here I can get a drink?” I ask.
“Harmon’s deli,” she says, hooking a thumb back over her shoulder. “It’s thataway. Now scram before I tell my dad you’re out here.”
She steps on the pedals, missing my foot with her main tires but running over my toes with one of her training wheels.
This is definitely hostile territory for folks who look–and smell–like me.
Harmon’s deli isn’t hard to find, since it’s the only non-house in the area. It’s a quaint neighborhood mom-n-pop that fits in well where the suburbscape meets a major road.
The only problem with it is that they don’t have alcohol.
I rack my grog-addled brain for an idea. I probably only have time enough for one before the Inhibition fully sets in again. I look at the chalkboard menu over the counter.
Small sodas are a dollar.
I have exactly zero dollars in my pocket, a fact which I confirm as maybe-Ajax starts rubbing against my leg again.
“Hey man, no pets in here,” the proprietor says from behind the counter.
“Oh,” I say, “He’s not my pet. I’m a wizard, you see, and…”
Maybe-Ajax drops a wadded-up dollar bill on my foot. Then he whisks silently out through the slowly closing door like smoke in the wind. I pick up the dollar, relabeling maybe-Ajax as 99%-sure-Ajax.
“Could I have a small soda, please?” I ask the man behind the counter. Something in my subconscious tells me I have an idea, but I’m not sure what it is yet.
The man wipes the dollar bill with a dishtowel and hands me a small paper cup.
“Free refills,” he says, pointing to a soda fountain. “Help yourself.”
Now understanding the conspiracy shared between Ajax and my subconscious, I begin folding corners into the round cup. I crease them gently, meticulously, until I have what I think is a square cup.
I look up at the proprietor, who looks away quickly, pretending he’s not curious what Wallace the Wizard has up his sleeve–except I don’t have sleeves anymore, after the whole bear arms thing.
I place my square cup under the root beer dispenser. Root beer squared = beer, and a delightful dark lager appears in my all-you-can-drink paper cup. I chug the first one, feeling my headache subside. I drink another.
It’s time to find Lucy.
“Abraca-absinthe!” I command, stretching out my hand for a bottle that should fly into it at any moment.
The moment passes.
“Klaatu bartenda nikto? Acci–”
I catch myself before accidentally summoning J.K. Rowling’s lawyers.
The man behind the counter is watching me with amusement now. He must not get many wizards.
“My absinthe is absent,” I explain.
I don’t really know any absinthe-fetching puns. I get a third lager from the root beer tap and sip it slowly. I probably need to get some useful calories in my system anyway, and beer has carbohydrates.
When I turn back to the table, I find Lucy sitting with her legs dangling from the edge of the napkin dispenser. She’s changed from the yoga pants into a plaid Catholic schoolgirl skirt with a white blouse and librarian glasses.
“That was clever;” she says, “very Messianic of you.”
“What was?” I ask.
“Turning root beer into beer,” she says, but I still don’t get it. “Water into wine?…The Bible?…Oh, never mind.”
“I thought you lived in an absinthe bottle.”
“I live behind the veil that separates your mundane world from the Fae. You just can’t see me until you lift it.”
“Ah,” I say. “I’d love to be able to do that without drinking quite so much. So how are we going to get to the Snob-Goblin’s lair without spending all day walking? I think suburban police might be a little more attentive than the metro division to a vociferous vagrant yodeling himself into a horse.”
“Getting subway or sewer access would be difficult as well, though I do think Sewer Stallions would be a good name for a band.”
“Speaking of our band, Ajax awaits us outside,” I say. I top off my lager before stepping through the door.
The cat, with one paw in the mundane and one in the Fae, now shows me his larger self as he perches on a newspaper-vending box just outside the deli.
“Thanks for the dollar,” I say.
“I got it from that nasty little girl with the pigtails,” he purrs. “It was to be her ice cream money.”
“I’m doubly grateful then,” I say, feeling adequately avenged.
“You should’ve eaten the mouse,” Ajax says. “Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. I’m trying to look after you, you know.”
A bus pulls up to the corner just in time to save me from replying to him, and I have an idea.
“We could take the bus to the subway terminal,” I say, “except I don’t have any money.”
I study Lucy’s handbag for a moment.
“What is it?” she asks.
“I don’t suppose you have an ink bottle and paper in there, do you?”
“I think I might,” she says.
She offers me a pen as well, but we don’t need one for what I have in mind.
After several minutes of focussed effort, we’ve poured pools of ink onto several of her tiny stationery sheets, then folded them in half to create symmetrical Rorschach tests.
“What do you see?” Lucy asks, holding up the first card, unsure where I’m going with this.
“My disappointed mother.”
“And this?” she asks, holding up the next card.
“My disappointed father.”
I feel myself getting smaller. We run out of cards after I see my disappointed Great-Aunt Helen.
“How did all of that make you feel?” Lucy asks.
“It doesn’t matter,” I say. I’m five inches tall now. “Looks like it worked. You’re a good shrink.”
Ajax, Lucy, and I wait on top of the covered bus stop. When the next bus pulls up, Lucy flutters into the air. Not trusting me to make the jump, Ajax lets me climb onto his back before he leaps onto the roof of the bus.
I get a better look at Lucy now that we’re the same size. She fills out the Catholic schoolgirl uniform nicely.
“You ever date wizards?” I ask, the summer breeze whipping my beard and making her wings buzz again.
“Yick,” she says. “No. Beards are disgusting.”
“They’re great for storing extra soup from soup kitchens,” I say, “especially when it’s cold. The leftovers freeze in the curls of my beard. It’s like…”
“Stop,” Lucy says. “For Puck’s sake, stop.”
We reach the subway terminal, and no one notices Ajax’s wraithlike passage. Lucy and I sit astride his back, and I marvel at his silent agility. I’m not sure if he’s actually using his paws or just whisping through the shadows like spectral smoke with yellow eyes.
Minutes later, we’re gliding through the subway tunnels, laying flat atop the train so we don’t get blown away in the wind.
“I really hope the whole shrinking thing doesn’t wear off while we’re up here,” I say.
“How would that make you feel?” Lucy asks idly.
“Messy, I think.”
The psycho-analysis wears off just as we slow to a stop in the station and I find myself a normal, Wallace-sized Wallace once again. Ajax leaps to the tracks from the back of the train, with Lucy fluttering down as gently as leaf behind him. I’m a little slower, and barely make it down without stepping on the third rail as the train starts moving again.
“Bastet said the Snob-Goblin’s lair was under this station,” I say, “where the red and blue lines meet. How do we get down there though?”
“These places always have rats,” Ajax purrs. “Give me five minutes.”
Ajax disappears into the shadows. A moment later, we hear frantic squeaking, a hiss, more frantic squeaking, then nothing.
“Never trust a rat the first time he tells you something,” Ajax says when he returns. “There’s a maintenance door just up ahead that opens onto a staircase that leads to the lower levels.”
We find the door locked, but before I can think up a lock pun, Lucy pulls a tiny crowbar from her purse. It’s about the right size for a lockpick.
“I’ve got this,” she says. She hands me a tiny prybar with its head at a sharper angle than the crowbar’s.
“You’ll have to apply tension to the lock cylinder to bind the pins while I push them up,” she says. “Just don’t torque it too hard, or I won’t be able to lift them at all.”
She balances on the pry bar while picking the pins. A gust of wind Marilyn Monroes her schoolgirl skirt and I glimpse pink panties with a unicorn on one cheek.
“Nice unicorn,” I say. It’s the cheek, more than the unicorn, that’s nice.
“Don’t make me gouge your eye out with this,” Lucy says, but I catch a faint smile as she continues lifting the pins.
After a couple of failed attempts and impatient hisses from Ajax, we pick the lock. I close the door behind us as we descend into the dark, mysterious, subterranean realm of the Mole People.
“Welcome to Mole Central,” a young man says in a faint Russian accent. He’s human, or appears to be.
We’re standing in a large, open lobby with bright lights and comfy-looking chairs. “Please have a seat anywhere you like. The Snob-Goblin will be out to speak with you momentarily.”
“What?” I say. “Wait…really?”
I keep staring at him. After Bastet I’d expected, well, Mole People.
“Certainly, sir. Mr. Goblin is eager to clear up what he views as a huge misunderstanding, and has been expecting you.”
I shake my head and sit in a chair, grateful to rest my weary bones for a moment.
It’s a moment I don’t get.
Ajax only has enough time to hiss once as iron tendrils whip around my hands and feet, binding me to the chair. More tendrils snake up around my neck and clamp my jaw shut, rendering me mute. I won’t be making any puns for the foreseeable future.
The ambush was well-coordinated, I realize, as I see Lucy fluttering inside a butterfly net and Ajax hissing under another, larger net.
Twenty Mole Men, gray and furry with squinty eyes have surrounded us. They range from three to four feet tall, and each holds an AK-47.
At least they’re real moles, I think. This was starting to get weird.
Re-trussed and manacled to a furniture dolly like a psychiatrist with questionable eating habits, I’m wheeled along a winding stone tunnel by a pair of Mole minions. I wrinkle my lips against the duct tape with which they’ve gagged me, trying to loosen it.
I cannot see Lucy or Ajax, but I feel that my Great-Aunt Helen’s disappointment is currently well-deserved. It was such a simple trap, and I fell for it.
It wasn’t even a booby trap–I usually end up falling for those, even if I see them coming.
We find ourselves in a damp stone cell with a steel door. There are no cracks or drains large enough for either of my companions to squeeze through.
A narrow slit opens in the door about three feet from the floor, revealing a pointy snout and a pair of squinty eyes.
“I suggest that you make peace with your Maker,” the Mole Man says. “You will be drawn and quartered at dawn.”
“That’s a tad on the medieval side,” Lucy says.
“The Snob-Goblin likes to catch the likenesses of all his victims in charcoal sketches before dumping enough quarters on them to crush their bones,” the Mole Man says. “He may be generous enough to show you his gallery before you die.”
“Not as brutal as I thought,” Lucy says, “but still less than pleasant.”
Then it’s dark again. Only the faintest glimmer lets me make out Ajax’s dejected form, chained to the opposite wall.
“All that cleverness,” Lucy says from a tiny iron cage, “and you fall for the old ‘let-down-your-guard-and-put-your-feet-up’ trick.”
I’m licking the duct tape that covers my mouth, but my tongue is dehydrated from drinking so much and it keeps sticking to the tape.
The voice is faint. It comes from the stone wall to my right.
“Lucy? Is that you?”
“Vicki? Yeah, it’s me,” Lucy says.
“You shouldn’t have come here,” Vicki says from what I assume is an adjacent cell. “The Snob-Goblin’s a monster. Oh, I wish you hadn’t come.”
“Are you alright Vicki? Has he hurt you?”
“I’m fine. He has me holed up in his distillery during the day making vodka for him, but that’s all.”
“Vodka?” Lucy says. “Why?”
“The Snob-Goblin may be smart, but he’s no physicist. He has Russian nuclear scientists down here building him an arsenal so that he can hold the city for ransom. High-quality vodka is harder to trace than money, so that’s how he’s paying them–cases of Vivacious Vicki’s Vodka. It has higher liquidity than cash. He has a team of Russian commandos too, and they’re all too eager to watch our city go up in flames.”
“We’ll find a way to get you out of here,” Lucy says, but she doesn’t sound very sure.
A memory comes back to me, like a forgotten dream. The Wizards’ American Defense League (WADL) had picked up rumors of the Mole People discovering a “yellow brick road” under the city several years ago. I’d volunteered to investigate, and discovered that they were mining a rich deposit of yellowcake Uranium for the Snob-Goblin. The Mole economy had flourished overnight from his investment.
“That poor wizard,” Vicki’s voice says. “He’s out there on the street somewhere, robbed of his power, with no idea who he is. The Snob-Goblin thought it was a more humiliating end than just killing him.”
“Wizard?” Lucy says. “You mean Wallace? He’s here too, as much good as he is. I’ve been carting around this drunken, smelly, bearded, pervy hobo for the last day and a half, and he jumped right into the first ambush he found.”
I feel scathing pixie eyes burning me in the near-darkness. It is at this juncture that I manage to partially loosen the tape on my mouth.
“Allow me…” I start, accidentally sticking the tape to my upper lip with the first syllable. I sound like I have a cleft palate now, which doesn’t help my case. “Allow me to retort.”
A glass retort full of sulfuric acid appears in my left hand, which is shackled to the frame of the dolly. I carefully drip its contents onto the left foot-shackle below.
A minute later, with only five or six acid burns on my thankfully alcohol-numbed leg, I free my left foot.
I stretch my foot out, lean my head forward, and slowly tip the dolly so that I’m scraping its edge along the stone floor as I hop with my left foot.
I hop past Lucy’s cage, taking twice as long to hop over to Ajax on the other side of the cell.
“It’d be faster to let me out,” Lucy says.
“Ajax isn’t a butt-hole,” I say with my duct tape cleft palate.
I drip acid carefully onto the kitty’s constraints, far enough from his shackled neck to avoid burning his fur.
“You’ll have to open the door for me,” Lucy says when Ajax trots over. “The whole thing’s cold iron. It’ll burn me.”
We’re free a minute later, but still locked in the cell.
“Can’t you just cut something in half and make a hole again?” Lucy asks.
“It wouldn’t be funny to me the second time around,” I say. “The telluric current only responds to genuine amusement.”
“So you can never repeat yourself?”
“Only if it’s a really bad joke and it makes people want to stab me. Then it’s funny again, at least to me.”
“So how are you going to get us out of here? They took my purse, and we’re out of acid.”
“I’m not sure I’m qualified to get us out of this cell,” I say, indignant. “I’m just a drunken, smelly, bearded hobo.”
“You forgot purrvy,” Ajax offers. He nonchalantly licks a paw.
“Thanks,” I say. “Forgot that one. Now if only we had someone who was koala-fied to open these doors.”
The door slit opens, revealing gray fur and a pair of large black eyes.
“The Moles have bad enough eyesight that they can’t tell I’m not one of them,” the koala says. “I’m going to open your doors. Give me a full minute to get out of here, then make your escape. I can’t blow my cover just yet.”
I wriggle my eyebrows at Lucy.
“You didn’t just make him out of thin air like the acid,” Lucy says. “Even for me, that’s far-fetched. He’s been here this whole time, and just happens to show up when you make a koala joke.”
“Free will, predestination–same difference,” I say. “It’s like eating an omelet with chicken in it.”
The lock clicks. Soft feet pad over to Vicki’s cell, and I hear another click. We wait for a minute, then open the door.
Vicki is nearly Lucy’s twin, but blonde with pale white skin and light blue eyes. Her wings are also stained-glass membranes, but lighter.
I catch myself staring when she says, “Thanks for coming for me. We’d better get moving though.”
We’re just about to make a stealthy exit when two AK-47-wielding Mole Men round the corner.
“Stop right there!” the first one yells. “You can’t be out of your cells. It’s forbidden!”
“I’m not big on rules,” I say, thankful that the Mole set me up so well. “You might say I’m something of a cheetah.”
I’m spots and fur faster than the Moles can raise their carbines, and gone in the blink of a squinty subterranean eye. Bullets ricochet down the hall, but we’re long gone. Lucy hangs on to my fur for dear life with one hand, and clutches her sister in the other. Wings buzz and they’re astride my back. I’ve snatched up Ajax in my teeth like a mother cat, though I feel bad for saving him in such an undignified manner.
We race down one passage, turning when we see another squad of Mole Men, then turn down another. I get the odd feeling that they’re funneling us. I dart into a dark room with an open door and shut it gently. We hear Mole feet scurry past a moment later.
“Sorry about that,” I say to Ajax. “I didn’t have many other options.”
I hear Ajax purr in the darkness.
“When I was a kitten, my mother said, ‘It’s better to be carried in the teeth than carried in a coffin.'”
“She’s a wise woman, from the sound of it,” a voice says from somewhere behind us.
I’d thought this room was small, but the voice sounds as though it’s thirty feet away.
Lights come on.
“I’m sorry to startle you,” a green, tuxedo-clad little man says. His nose and ears are huge, rodent-like, and pointed.
He stands on a banquet table, surrounded by silver platters of food and crystal champagne flutes.
“You won’t remember our last meeting, I think,” he says. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am the Snob-Goblin.”
He gestures to the feast laid out on either side of him.
“You must be famished after all you have endured,” he says. He’s clearly pleased with himself, toying with us. “Please eat a little something, at least an hors d’œuvre.”
“An amused douche offers me an amuse-bouche?” I ask. “I wish I could say this happens every day.”
“So crass,” he says, feigning disappointment. “So uncultured.”
I turn and try the door with my paw, only to find it locked.
“Don’t go,” he says. “Please. This may come as a shock to you, but I’m your own subconscious trying to save your life.”
“That’s cute,” I say.
“What is more plausible:” he asks, “that you are a wizard who suddenly regained the use of his powers during an absinthe-bender and has a fairy and a cat to help him stop an evil genius, or that you’re a hallucinating, homeless alcoholic living in a fantasy world?”
“Don’t listen to him,” Lucy whispers.
I take into consideration that she crawled out of a bottle of absinthe the first time we met.
“Behind me is a door,” the Snob-Goblin says, gesturing to indicate said portal. “Behind that door is a staircase with twelve steps that will take you back up to the real world, to rehabilitation, and to the rest of society.”
Twelve steps. That sounds familiar for some reason.
I listen to my gut. My liver is not to be trusted, but my gut never steers me wrong.
“I don’t believe you,” I say. “You’re not fooling anyone.”
The Snob-Goblin studies me only a moment longer before he breaks into a broad grin.
“You’re right,” he says. “It isn’t the truth. I’m lion.”
Then, though I don’t believe my feline eyes, the Snob-Goblin grows vicious claws and an orange mane. He’s huge–three times my size.
He roars, and the force of the sound paralyzes me for a moment. Lucy and Vicki are blown back. Even Ajax’s eyes go wide.
“I didn’t just take your memories when I put the Inhibition on you,” the Snob-Lion growls. “I learned your telluric-tapping secrets as well. Welcome to the Circle of Death, Wally.”
I hate it when people call me Wally.
Speed is still my friend, and I dart out of the way just as the lying lion leaps at me. I run circles around him, but I know I’m bound to be human again long before his lion pun wears off.
He snaps at the spritely sisters, but they flit out of his reach. I watch Lucy dart under the banquet table when his back is turned.
“We can do this all day,” the Snob-Goblin says, “or I can just call in my personal squad of Russian soldiers to riddle you with bullets. It’s more dignified if you stop running and die like a man. Cheetahs never win.”
His soldiers are within earshot. That gives me an idea.
“I know I can’t run forever,” I say. “I was just Stalin for time.”
The Snob-Goblin laughs a hearty lion laugh as I sacrifice my speed for the form of the Soviet leader. He slinks closer.
“Guards!” I shout. My Russian accent is perfect.
“Joseph Stalin’s been dead for over sixty years,” the Snob-Goblin says. “They’ll probably shoot you just for looking like him.”
He’s right, and I know it.
He slinks closer still. He’s close enough that I can smell his rancid lion breath in my face. I’m going to be eaten.
I see Ajax in the corner of my eye. He’s climbed a wall and clings to a light fixture, ready to pounce on the back of the Snob-Goblin’s gigantic form.
I will not die alone.
Ajax will fight to the death, not because he owes me anything, but because we came into this fight together. He is my friend, and I don’t know that I’ve ever had one before tonight.
I hold up a finger. The Snob-Lion’s paws pause in mid-stride. He wants to hear my last pitiful words.
“Lucy,” I say, projecting my voice as best I can, “I’m sorry. I failed you. You had faith in me and I failed you. Thanks for Putin up with all of my horrible jokes.”
It’s at this exact moment that the Russian commandos kick open the door and charge into the room, carbines at high-ready.
They look to the fae form of Vladimir Putin standing behind the banquet table.
“The Snob-Goblin has raised Commissar Stalin to witness the Americans’ downfall,” Vladimir/Lucy says to them. “This shapeshifting Wallace Wizard is trying to eat the Commissar.”
“Wait–” the Snob-Goblin starts to say, but Russian commandos are notoriously trigger-happy. Ten 30-round, 7.62 X 39mm magazines are empty before he even knows he’s dead.
The relief in Vladimir/Lucy’s eyes is evident, but she doesn’t miss a beat.
“Send some of the Mole Men in to clean up this mess,” she commands, gesturing to the leonine corpse. “And have them bring me that little fairy girl’s fancy handbag. It is so precious that I would like to take it back to Moscow with me.”
I wake up in bed with crusty eye-boogers and a pounding headache.
It’s my bed. I remember it now. I’m wearing clean clothes that don’t smell like cat urine. I have an apartment that police aren’t going to arrest me for occupying.
“I gave you some Tylenol,” Lucy’s voice says from my night-stand. “You’re probably going to need this Bloody Mary, too. You managed to eat half a sandwich before you passed out, but that’s about it.”
“Thanks,” I say. “Imagine waking up and realizing you’re not homeless anymore.”
“WADL will probably want a report from you,” she says, “though I’m sure it can wait. I gave them the basic gist over the phone.”
“I can’t believe I forgot everything about everything,” I say. My memory blockage seems to have died with the Snob-Goblin, and details flood back into my brain.
“For what’s it’s worth, you probably saved a lot more than just the city. You probably prevented a serious international incident.”
“We,” I correct her, “not me. Did Ajax make it out okay?”
“He’s fine. WADL made him an honorary member, even though he’s a cat. He said he’ll only go on an assignment with you again if you leave the feline fighting to him, though.”
“That’s reasonable,” I say. “I wasn’t that good at it.”
I scratch my beard, or try to. I put both hands to my face.
My beard is gone.
“Oh yeah,” Lucy says, “I had to shave off your beard. Sorry. It had…um…Goblin brains in it…or something.”
I’m not sure what to say. Where am I going to store my soup now? It takes me a few moments to remember I have a refrigerator.
“If it’s any consolation, you look a lot better without it,” she says.
“Yeah. Between that and not smelling like cat pee, I’d almost agree to give you another Rorshach test. It’s too bad it wouldn’t amuse you the second time around.”
“We could go out for ribs,” I say. “It’d be a meat-cute.”
She graces me with her worst joke in the world look.
“Give me a shout,” she says. “I’m on Faebook.”
Then she steps out though the window, leaving only a faint shimmer in her wake.
I lay on the bed as the pixie dust vanishes into nothing. I stare at the ceiling, analyzing odd color patterns that might be mold stains. I pretend they’re ink blots.
I don’t think mom and dad would be so disappointed.
I remember my Great-Aunt Helen telling me I’d have to grow up some day. Regardless of whether she’d be disappointed or not, today will not be that day.