The Hotel in Portmerion (filk)

To the tune of “Hotel California”

On a long British highway
damp wind in my hair
claps of ominous thunder
still hang in the air
Up ahead in the distance
a big, bouncy ball
What’s up with the pallbearer?
And unconscious I fall…

I woke up in my own room
or a facsim’le thereof
outside was wholly other
with choppers up above
It was all very pleasant
but my surroundings caused me strife
a stern guy with an umbrella
welcomed me to my new life…

Welcome to the Hotel in Portmerion
Get your button ‘fixed (Get your button ‘fixed)
You are Number Six (You are Number Six)
Come to the Green Dome at the Hotel in Portmerion
In case it isn’t clear
We Want Information, here…

They play mind games that are twisted
to their nefarious ends
Who is us and who is them?
After a while your mind bends
Stay within proscribed limits
don’t try to desert
Or Rover will hand you your *ss
When they call Orange Alert!

So I came up with escape plans
and every one of them failed
even when I thought I’d won
in the end I was nailed
Even when I got out of The Village and far away
I’d be snatched in the middle of the night
And be back the next day

Welcome to the Hotel in Portmerion
It’s for the Good of all (It’s for the Good of all)
Don’t be Un-Mutual (Don’t be Un-Mutual)
Be Seeing You at the Hotel in Portmerion
When all is said and done
Who is Number One…?

Cameras in the ceiling
and all over the place
We are all just Prisoners here
all we can do is pace
And in the masters’ chambers
The ending is such a twist
Who is Number One? Why
YOU ARE NUMBER SIX

Last thing I remember
I was running once more
I got into KAR 120C
and put the gas to the floor
Number Two is in Parliament
I’m such a fool to believe
Even if you somehow get released
You can never leave…

-The Gneech (“Be seeing you!”)

(Originally posted to my LiveJournal)

Categories: Risk a Verse

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The Jackalope

Behold the noble jackalope
vicious fangs and gleaming eyes
he lives a life of freedom
under western skies

a cousin of the pooka
that rare and skittish breed
the jackalope shares none
of their shrinking violet creed

For he has mighty antlers
and his jaws will never fail
to tear you a great big new one
if you mock his fluffy tail

But beneath this prickly honor
he is not an angry brute
in fact in normal circumstance
he’s actually quite cute

He is a strange enigma
that much is plain to see
a cuddly little bunny
who shouts “Don’t tread on me!”

So treat you well the jackalope
if you ever get the chance
underneath the western stars
to see his ancient dance

Be courteous and friendly
be respectful and be nice
or else you risk your neck
on the luck of ancient dice

I know from hard experience
I am not a ranting nut
I stepped upon a jackalope
and he kicked my sorry butt.

-The Gneech

(Originally posted in my LiveJournal.)

Categories: Risk a Verse

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Lords of Khaldun

Lord Escaren, Steward of the Black Flame, ruler of Khaldun, lay dying.

He knew it was coming, he could feel it, creeping over him like a pervasive chill on a damp winter night. Outside, he could hear the temple bells, ringing out to the Goddess of the Black Flame, calling her to come and collect his soul. In his imagination, he could hear his advisors, trusted blood-loyals, high priests, and generals in the great hall, arguing and perhaps even killing over who would be the new Lord of Khaldun, just had Escaren had done when his predecessor, Voltner, had died.

Escaren had killed a handful of men to become Lord of Khaldun; he would have killed a hundred more if needed. He had been the best choice for the role, and everyone had known it. He had rich family connections, he had military genius, and he had an instinctive understanding for the ruthless world of international politics. He knew what had to be done, and did it, with no regrets. Under his rule, Khaldun had prospered. He had joined forces with Syrethia to force Iskedium to back down on its strangulation of sea trade. He had forced Kithria to fortify its borders, thus ensuring that the trade roads were patrolled — at someone else’s expense. He had even arranged for the building a temple to the Goddess of the Black Flame in Rastur, much to the consternation of Bastamishi.

Escaren had been a great ruler, one worthy of Khaldun, and now his life was slowly and inexorably slipping away. Part of him resented it; part of him was just glad it was over.

He became aware of a draft, suddenly, which caused the gauze around his bed to flutter. He heard the scrape of stone on stone, and realized that someone had entered the room through the hidden passage. As far as Escaren knew, only three living beings knew about that passage, and he was one of them.

“Edros? Sarnha?” he called out, weakly.

“No,” said a dry, cracking voice. “Not Edros. Not Sarnha.”

Escaren blinked; it was a voice he recognized instantly, even though it was distorted and weak, as if the words were spoken by someone who could barely breathe. It was Voltner, his predecessor, the former Lord of Khaldun. Escaren’s movement was limited, but he was able to jerk his head around enough to see the mummified thing that lurched up out of the secret passage.

“Voltner?” Escaren whispered, bleary eyes wide. “Returned from the dead?”

“Not returned,” said Voltner. The skeletal form seemed to be impossibly weighed down in an exquisite set of polished, blue-painted scale armor; a chain hood was on its head, and a thin gold and silver crown sat upon the hood. Cold white light burned in Voltner’s eye sockets as the dead lord came forward to loom over Escaren. “Your time to join us comes soon. Be prepared.”

“Join you?” said Escaren.

“Join us, yes, the Lords of Khaldun.” Voltner gestured to the secret passage, where more figures where coming up out of the darkness. Like Voltner, they wore the finery of kings … and like Voltner, they were all quite obviously dead. “You have spent your life in service of Khaldun, and you have ruled well. You are too valuable to be lost to death. Your knowledge, experience, strategy … all of these things, Khaldun cannot afford to lose. And it will not, for you will join us.”

Another figure stepped forward, its skeletal form wrapped in ancient leather. It spoke in a voice like dust hitting a windowpane. “We operate in secret,” it said. “We stay hidden from the eyes of the living. But as we served Khaldun in life, so we do in death. Did you really believe that so many of your great moments were entirely your own doing? The strange figure that caused Touros of Kithria to be flung from his horse? That was one of us. The voices in the night that drove Chancellor Parun mad when he opposed your alliance with Syrethia? That was our work.”

A cold worse than he had already felt crept into Escaren. “But … how…?”

“Sorcery,” said Voltner. “Necromancy. Black magic. It has been this way since the birth of Khaldun. We take only the most worthy into our numbers, those who serve Khaldun and the Black Flame best. We have watched you long and carefully, and decided that you would join us.”

“No,” said Escaren. “I have given my life — my whole life to Khaldun. Surely it can ask no more of me. My soul needs rest!”

“Soul?” said Voltner, with a dry coughing sound that may have been a cackle. “You traded your soul for lordship long ago! As did we all. Khaldun was all, to us, and to you as well. Put away such foolish notions. You are about to become the ultimate expression of loyalty to your land and your goddess. Don’t you see what an honor this is? Don’t you see the greatness you’ve achieved? You should be eager for this chance!”

“It’s horrific!” Escaren cried out.

“You will adjust to it, in time,” said Voltner, as the other shapes began to shuffle back into the secret passage. “We all do.”

“No,” said Escaren, as firmly as his weakened body could manage. “I have given Khaldun everything, but I will not give it this.”

“Your time is coming,” said Voltner. “I can feel your life draining away. You will be taken to the great temple, and interred there for a brief time, as we all were. But have no fear; soon you will walk again.”

“Have no fear?” Escaren groaned at the retreating mummified form. “What could I possibly fear more?”

-The Gneech

©2002 by John Robey, all rights reserved

Categories: Lords of Khaldun

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All I Want is a Cup of Coffee

3 Comments

Daniel stared at the money in his hand, as the people behind him in line waited impatiently. $2.05. It wasn’t enough.

“God,” he said. “All I want is a cup of coffee … that’s all … after everything, is even just a cup of coffee more than I can have?”

Daniel had, until today, been a happy enough guy. Not perfect, nobody’s ever perfect, but happy enough … he had a good job, a girlfriend he’d met on that job who seemed promising, a car he liked and a nice house. He was what you might call “successful.”

Until today.

This morning, out of the blue, his girlfriend, Joyce, had said, “Daniel, I’m leaving.”

“What?” he’d said. “Why?”

“Well Daniel, to be perfectly honest, I never really liked you. I was only sleeping with you to get ahead at work.”

Daniel blinked as if he’d been shot in the stomach. “You … what? Why?”

“You’re buddy-buddy with Jon K., and I thought if I got in with you, it could get me in with him … and he’d give me a promotion. But I just found out in my e-mail this morning that the promotion went to Cynthia. So I’m screwed. So, since there’s no point in staying with you any more, I’m leaving.”

Daniel couldn’t understand it … this wasn’t Joyce, the charming woman who’d laughed so happily at his bad singing and worse jokes, was it? This was some shapeshifting harpy who’d eaten Joyce and taken her place!

The harpy was still talking. “But, so it shouldn’t be a total loss, I’m going to claim that you promised to get me that promotion in exchange for sleeping with you, and sue you for sexual harassment. You’ll hear from my lawyer.” And she’d walked out.

Daniel had finished getting ready for work that morning in a stupor … he didn’t watch what he was doing, or even think about it. His toast was left neglected in the toaster when it popped, and his coffeemaker bubbled away unnoticed.

Jon K. was waiting in Daniel’s office when Daniel finally managed to get into work. He was tapping a well-dressed foot on the beige carpet. “Daniel,” he said, “we need to talk.”

“Hi, Jon,” said Daniel, listlessly. “Can it wait until I get settled in? I’ve had a rough morning.”

“No, Daniel, it can’t wait.”

Daniel looked up at the tone in Jon K.’s voice.

“Daniel, Joyce has filed a sexual harassment suit against you.”

“But—!”

“This couldn’t come at a worse time for this company, Daniel! We’ve got everything riding on the line, right now; we can’t afford any embarrassment. So I’m afraid you’ve got to go.”

Daniel blinked, again, as if he’d been shot in the stomach.

“But I didn’t DO anything! She was just using me to get—”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” said Jon K. “Your irresponsible behavior may very well cost this company our biggest client, if the press gets ahold of this. I want you to clean out your desk, and be out of here in fifteen minutes.”

Daniel’s shoulders dropped. “Can’t I at least get a cup of coffee first?”

“No.”

So Daniel found a box and dumped all of his personal effects in it, plopped the box into the back of his car, and turned the key.

Click.

No engine.

Click, click, click.

Nothing. Either the battery was dead, or the car was. It had worked fine on the way in; now, nothing.

“What did I DO???” Daniel cried at the interior of the car, but it didn’t answer him. So he pulled out his cell phone to call the auto service, but its battery was dead.

The guard wouldn’t let Daniel back into the building to call the auto service, so he walked half a mile to a convenience store to make the call. Their coffee machine wasn’t working.

He rode back home in the passenger seat of the tow truck, listening to some hate-filled religious zealot on the radio.

“He’s right, y’know,” the driver said. “It’s them jews’ fault; them and the fags and the feminists, all trying to make people forget morality. Oughta just shoot the bastards.”

“Oh yeah,” said Daniel. “I’m sure God would really approve of that.”

A cold feeling settled in Daniel’s stomach as they got into his neighborhood; gray smoke hung in the air, and there were cars and people everywhere. As they turned onto his street, the red-and-white flashing lights told Daniel everything he needed to know.

If fit too well; it was just inevitable.

He got out of the tow truck and staggered past the “Danger — Do Not Cross” tape that surrounded the black mass that had one been his house. A stern man with a bushy moustache approached him. “You the owner of this house?”

“Er … yeah,” Daniel finally managed to say.

“So it was probably you who left the coffee machine on when you left this morning?”

“Yeah,” said Daniel. “It probably was.”

There were forms to fill out by the ream, and half of the information Daniel didn’t know, because he kept it in a file in the house … and that was gone. The driver of the tow truck had cheerfully charged him an extra $150 for making him sit there and wait while Daniel dealt with the fact that his house had burned down.

“Damn, fella!” the driver had laughed. “Can’t you even get a simple cup of coffee?”

It started to rain as Daniel sat on the curb in front of the smoking ruin of his house for an hour, just sat, staring at his inoperable car, letting the water wash over him, wondering what he had left. Everything, no matter how big, no matter how small, was beyond him, now. He would have to start over. He may have cried; he wasn’t sure. The moisture on his face might have been rain instead.

Without putting much thought into it, Daniel stood up, and walked. He walked for 45 minutes, trudging along the side of the road in that slow gait that says, “I’ve got a long way to go, and I’m not going to think about anything until I get there.” He was soaked through, and cold, and feeling half-drowned by the time he reached his destination.

It was a coffeehouse. Amber light glowed through its windows, and its green and white sign had been carefully crafted by some PR person to suggest a kind of exotic culture and sophistication. But the place smelled good, and it was warm, and Daniel went in and stood in line, dripping on the tile floor. When he got to the register, the guy asked what he wanted.

“All I want is a cup of coffee,” he said.

“Okay, that’ll be $3.25.”

Daniel stared at the money in his hand, as the people behind him in line waited impatiently. $2.05. It wasn’t enough.

“God,” he said. “All I want is a cup of coffee … that’s all … after everything, is even just a cup of coffee more than I can have?”

“Let me take care of that,” said a voice behind him. Daniel turned around, to see a strikingly tall man in a long, black coat. The man had startlingly blue eyes, that were deeply wrinkled around the edges, even though the rest of his face seemed young.

“Thanks, mister…” said Daniel.

“In fact, buddy, you look like you’ve had a rough day.” The blue-eyed man turned to the cashier and said, “Give him an extra-large mint mocha, my treat.” He handed the cashier a $5 bill, and said to Daniel, “I won ten bucks on the lotto today; my lucky day, I guess. I figure I ought to share my good fortune with somebody.”

Daniel couldn’t even begin to say anything. He just stared at the man for a long moment, and then said, “Wow … gee … thanks again.”

“My pleasure,” said the man. “And keep your chin up. You’ll be all right.”

“Yeah, well … I hope so.” Daniel collected his extra-large mint mocha, and found his way to a chair in the corner. He sipped it slowly, feeling its warmth seep down into him, settled back into the chair, and smiled.

Okay. He had a cup of coffee. He could at least do that much. He would build from there.

Outside, nobody seemed to notice when the blue-eyed man removed his coat, letting bright, white-feathered wings stretch out free, and kicked off into the sky.

-The Gneech

©2002 by John “The Gneech” Robey, all rights reserved

Stray Cat Strut

© 1996 by John “The Gneech” Robey

Michael Malcolm Macbeth sat in his car, with his head rubbing the upholstery of the ceiling, and it dawned on him that what was really irritating about everyday problems was the very fact that you had to deal with them every day.

Michael was relatively placid in the face of major catastrophes … wars, terrorism, tornadoes and earthquakes, the cutting of university funds … all of these things he could face bravely and without rancor, because they were Big Problems that simply came up and required dealing with. Everyday problems, on the other hand, were a constant annoyance and, unlike Big Problems, were unsolvable by definition.

Everyday problems included such things as the pathological horror that car manufacturers and clothing designers shared for people who were taller than 5’11” and more than one and a half feet wide. Car manufacturers dealt with this horror by simply denying the fact that such people existed, while clothing designers tried to overcome the objects of their horror by dressing them in ill-fitting and badly made clothes that suggested that all that these larger people did all day was to stand around golf courses looking spectacularly tacky.

This was a problem Michael was intimately acquainted with. Being a rather enormous 6’4″ and a few inches over two feet wide, he had been unable to fit comfortably in cars or reasonably attractive clothing since he was fourteen. Whenever he confronted car dealers or clothing salespeople about this, they unanimously agreed that it was Michael’s own damn fault for having the gall to grow so bloody big. And while specialty shops and mail-order catalogs would occasionally have something Michael could stand to wear, he had yet to see a “Big and Tall Used Car Dealership.”

Another everyday problem was rain; that is to say, not the rain itself, but the way people in Virginia react to it. In Seattle or London or some other place where rain is more literally an everyday occurrence, people ignore it. But in Virginia, when clouds appear, as they are wont to do in the depths of summer, people immediately head for their cars. “I’d better get on the road before it starts to rain and all the idiots come out,” they all say, and instantly cause a large, damp traffic jam.

This was the situation that Michael found himself in, now, sitting in his immobile car, bumping his elbow against the door and his head against the ceiling, rain drenching his left arm through the open window because it was summer and his car’s air conditioner didn’t work. Just enough of his car did work to make it cheaper to hold onto than to buy another car, but only just. That was another whole set of everyday problems that, for the time being, Michael was content not to think about.

He took some consolation in the fact that he would have been on the road whether it was raining or not, and therefore he didn’t qualify as an idiot. He was a detective of sorts, and he was on a case, and that case required him to make his agonizing way across the Huguenot Bridge, crossing from the West End of Richmond over to the South Side, even though the entire population of the city appeared to have decided right at that moment that they wanted to cross the bridge as well.

Strictly speaking he wasn’t a licensed investigator of any kind, nor was he actively involved in any form of official law enforcement; he was simply a man with a rapacious intellect, a knack for solving problems, and what seemed to be a powerful but not exactly reliable form of clairvoyance. He could from time to time, without the slightest conscious knowledge of how the mechanism of it worked, see into the ethereal plane (whatever that may mean), pick winning state lottery numbers (unfortunately, he could never tell just which state the numbers would win for), get psychometric flashes and visions of the past or future (except they tended to be events that have little or no bearing on whatever he was doing at the moment), or even get telepathic flashes (reading, of course, the most embarrassing thoughts of whomever).

He had tried marketing himself as a ‘psychic detective,’ but found himself getting nasty phone calls from people who referred to themselves as ‘real detectives,’ who deeply resented Michael’s existence in general and his sullying of the profession of private detective in particular. These calls were rapidly followed up by a visit from a small and badger-like man representing an important-sounding but nevertheless obscure regulatory agency, who demanded to see his Investigator’s License and asked how long he’d been a Compliance Agent and just how he’d become one without their noticing. When Michael responded innocently that he had no idea what a Compliance Agent was, the man had gleefully shut down his fledgling business right there and then and made all sorts of threatening noises about prosecution. In a strange occurrence of bureaucracy working in the public’s favor, however, the case had been lost under a file cabinet or something similar and appeared to have been forgotten. Since Michael’s intention had been to help people in his own way, rather than to defraud anyone, he chalked it up to good karma and moved on.

Another drawback of the title ‘psychic detective’ was that he also frequently received calls from people wanting advice on their financial situation or (more commonly) their love life. Whenever he’d start rattling off his fees on a per-day or per-case basis, they would immediately hang up.

This whole situation had led him to coin the phrase ‘Paranormal Consultant,’ which had thus far served him much better, if for no other reason than he didn’t receive irate phone calls from real consultants. It was a bit more difficult to find work, however, because the question that everybody asked when they heard the title was, “So what exactly is it that you do?” Detectives, after all, detected things. Since there didn’t seem to be a Virginia State Consultation Regulatory Office (or if there was, it hadn’t come after him yet), all he’d needed to do was get a business license and pay his taxes, and everything would (hopefully) turn out all right.

Michael’s current client was one of the first since his professional rebirth, a somewhat harried-seeming young woman who had been referred by a friend’s friend who had met Michael’s parapsychology instructor at VCU. She seemed to be convinced that her cat was the victim of some sort of supernatural possession and wanted Michael to remove the unnatural influence; Michael’s instinctive reaction, of course, had been How can you tell the difference? Nevertheless, it was work and it was work that, if there was anything more to it than a peevish cat and a hysterical owner, was definitely suited to his unique talents.

The cat had taken to disappearing for extended lengths of time and ending up in another woman’s back yard in an all together different part of town. Michael’s client lived in West End, while the cat’s destination was always a house in Bon Aire, which was across the river. Michael had to admit that it was a very unusual hike for a cat to choose to make, since the only ways across the river entailed crossing fairly busy bridges that had no sidewalks, or taking a dip in the rushing brown water of the James, something cats were not generally prone to doing.

Ariel Tanring (the cat’s owner) had found the cat beside the road, half-dead, over a year ago on a visit to New York, and brought him home. Aside from a general moodiness and a complete ineptitude at feline things (Ariel had never seen him catch a mouse or play with string, and he never landed on his feet when he fell, which was amazingly often for a cat), he seemed to be fairly happy. When he took a fairly serious spill off of Ariel’s curtain-rod, she decided to get him checked out, and took him to Ms. Yolande Aeaea, a southside veterinarian who worked out of her house. As soon as ‘Snuggles’ had seen Ms. Aeaea, he’d shrieked like a banshee and shot out of the house; the next day, he ran off and was found sitting on the vet’s stoop, myowling angrily. Ariel came at Ms. Aeaea’s call and picked him up, but he just got out and went back.

The cat had gone missing just last night for the third time, and Ariel hadn’t even bothered to wonder where he might have gone off to. She simply gave Michael the address of Ms. Aeaea’s house in Bon Aire and said, “Here’s where he’s going. Go get him, and while you’re at it, figure out why he’s going there and make him stop it.” So Michael had loaded Ariel’s cat-caddy into the passenger seat of his car and headed south.

The traffic came to an even more resolute stop than it had before, and Michael noticed for the first time that there was no attendant traffic coming from the other direction. Although the line of brake lights extended around a curve and out of sight, Michael deduced that there’d been some sort of traffic accident. He sighed and resolved himself to sitting here for the next half hour, putting his car into ‘Park’ and reaching into the back seat for the practice chanter for his highland bagpipes. Before he put the kazoo-like instrument to his lips, however, he noticed movement in his passenger side mirror.

This was a bit odd, because the mounting on the mirror was worn out, so the mirror was always pointed at the ground. Michael glanced over and saw, wet and bedraggled and hurrying past his car, a grey cat, with patches of black and white, and white paws.

Michael put down the chanter and got out of the car quickly but quietly, pulling on his wide-brimmed hat partially to keep the rain off of his head but mostly because he felt naked without it. He crossed over to the side of the road and saw, a few car lengths ahead and receding rapidly, the cat, who very closely matched Ariel’s description of her poor, demented Snuggles (not that Michael could blame any cat for being a little unhinged after being called ‘Snuggles’ for a year). Not knowing what else to do, Michael knelt and said, “Here, kitty, kitty!”

The cat turned briefly and gave Michael a look that said, Buzz off, jerk! more eloquently than any annoyed woman in a seedy bar ever had.

Michael frowned. “Kitty, kitty, kitty, kitty? Nice kitty.”

The cat stopped and looked over its shoulder with a withering look of disdain. Michael could almost hear it, voiced over the cat’s expression like a vittles commercial. I ain’t no kitty, kitty, kitty, the cat seemed to be thinking. It turned and continued its lope through the rain. Michael stood up and followed it; the cat looked over its shoulder and saw this, and picked up its pace. Michael sped up to match, and the cat sped up again, and shortly they were both running flat out down the narrow strip along the side of the bridge.

The cat, having twice as many legs as Michael and one tenth the mass, easily outdistanced him. Michael stopped with a heave of his chest and watched the gray streak pass off the end of the bridge, dart under an immobile car, and into the trees on the other side of the road. “Fine,” Michael said out loud, staring after the cat. “You take the low road; I’ll still be at Ms. Aeaea’s before you, assuming the traffic lets up.”

Approximately half an hour later Michael got past the traffic accident and made his way without further delay to Ms. Aeaea’s neighborhood. It was a fairly ordinary sort of suburban neighborhood, built during a housing mini-boom in the 1980s, home to children and pets. It was clearly not a neighborhood prepared to cope with weirdness, particularly not weirdness of the variety represented by Ms. Aeaea.

Her house was the largest one in the neighborhood, at the crest of a hill on an obtuse corner between streets. The house was surrounded on all sides by a high chain-link fence, through which a tangle of shrubberies and trees seemed to be trying to escape. The house itself was barely visible through the trees and vines. The neighbors on either side of Ms. Aeaea made a point of putting anything that had to be stored in the yard along the boundary with Ms. Aeaea’s, as if a wall of sheds, piles of wood, and lawn-mowing implements could block her out of their world.

Perhaps she’s a large person and they all manufacture cars, Michael thought idly, pulling his own car up in front of her house and getting out. The rain seemed to have gotten tired; instead of actively falling on you, it hung in a thin mist and depended on you to walk through it to get you wet. Michael approached the gate of the fence, which was decorated with a small, hand-painted, cat-shaped wooden sign that said, “Yolande Aeaea, Animal Doctor — Please Come In, But Close the Gate Behind You.” Michael did so, then wound his way through the dense shrubbery to get to the cleared area around the house. An enormous station wagon that was at least fifteen years old sat in front of the house, and a small army of cats huddled under it. Most of them steadfastly ignored Michael as he went up to the front door and knocked.

After a few moments of silence, the door opened, revealing a tall (I knew it!), dark-haired, dusky-skinned woman who appeared to be in her forties. She had a very square jaw and a high forehead, and her eyes had the light-sucking quality of onyx. In short, she was ugly, but it was a refined, strong ugliness that transcended aesthetic standards and somehow made her all the more attractive. Nevertheless, the strong animal smell about her was definitely a turn-off.

“Hello?” the woman said, obviously examining Michael with care. Her voice was low and exotic, as if she were female Bela Lugosi.

“Good afternoon,” Michael said. “Sorry to disturb you, Ms. Aeaea, but I’m here to pick up Ariel Tanring’s cat.”

The woman frowned. “But Snuggles isn’t here,” she said.

“Maybe not, but he’ll be along. If you don’t mind, I’ll wait for him.”

“No, I don’t mind. Won’t you come in?”

“I’d prefer to wait outside,” he said. “Concentrated doses of animal hair do unpleasant things to my sinuses.”

“Very well. Suit yourself.”

She began to close the door, and Michael said, “Quite the feline menagerie you have, here.”

She stopped and looked back at him, with a slight smile. “Thank you,” she said. “You are a cat-lover?”

“Only in the most platonic sense,” Michael said, with a shrug. “It seems strange to see them clustered together like they are under your car, there. I always see them as basically solitary.”

“Well, they are,” Ms. Aeaea replied. “But even the most solitary animals need to learn to be civilized and live with others. Even if it takes their whole lifetime.”

“Is that why those are sentenced to huddle under the car in the rain?” Michael said.

“Precisely. When they can learn to behave, they’ll be allowed to come in.”

“I seem to remember a little proverb that says, ‘Never try to teach a pig to sing —’

“I know the one. ‘…It just wastes your time and annoys the pig.’ There’s a lot of truth to that. But cats and pigs are rather different, you know. I used to raise pigs, as a matter of fact. I had quite a large farm of them.”

“That wasn’t around here, though, was it?”

She looked at him, vaguely baffled. “What do you mean?”

He shrugged. “I just got the impression that you were an immigrant of some variety.”

She smiled. “How very perceptive of you. As a matter of fact, I am. But the farm I was referring to was here, in the United States.”

“New York state, somewhere?”

This time she frowned. “I think you have the advantage of me, sir,” she said. “Would you mind telling me who you are?”

He handed her a card. “My name’s Macbeth. Ms. Tanring has contracted my services to discern why mad, impetuous Snuggles has taken to frequenting your doorstep.”

“What are you, some sort of animal psychologist?”

“No, simply a troubleshooter.”

“What led you to pick out New York state in particular?”

“Simply that Snuggles’ odd behavior suggested that perhaps the two of you might have some previous history. Since Ms. Tanring found him in New York state, I assumed that to be where the two of you had known each other.”

Ms. Aeaea smiled. “As I said, perceptive.”

“Thank you.”

“As a matter of fact, Snuggles used to be my cat. Of course, I knew him as Richard.”

“Richard? Odd name for a cat. Do you always give your pets human names?”

“Certainly, and why not? They may lack social graces, but they are every bit as intelligent as you or I.”

“I suspect that you are considerably more intelligent than I am,” said Michael. “A sorceress of your obvious skill would have to be.”

“Mrow,” said a pitiful voice from the gate. Michael turned and saw Snuggles (a.k.a. Richard) sitting on the other side of the fence, dripping wet, covered with red clay mud, and looking thoroughly miserable. His bearing also suggested that he was quite startled to see Michael again so soon.

“Now don’t you feel foolish for running?” said Michael, opening the gate for the cat. “I would have brought you straight here in the relative comfort of my car.”

The cat glared up at Michael with narrowed eyes, then stalked through the gate and up to Ms. Aeaea. He plunked himself down onto his haunches, and with an accusatory tone, said, “Myow!”

Ms. Aeaea looked down at the cat and nodded. “Hello, Richard,” she said. Then turning back to Michael, she said, “What was that you said, about a sorceress?”

“I said that a sorceress of your obvious skill would have to be quite intelligent.”

“I thought that’s what you said, but I wanted to make sure. For a moment, I thought I may have imagined it. Do you practice the craft?”

“Sorcery? I’m afraid not.”

“Then how did you know?”

“Well, by your pseudonym, of course. Aeaea was the island home of Circe, the Greek sorceress who would trap errant or knavish sailors and turn them into swine.”

“Actually, she would have said they were already swine who’d been turned into humans,” Ms. Aeaea said. “She just brought their true natures to the fore.”

“So you’ve taken social dropouts and changed them into cats,” Michael said, “presumably to teach them to be more civilized. Is that correct?”

“In a nutshell,” Ms. Aeaea said.

“Yes, well, I’m afraid that Richard has a long way to go in that respect. For being unable to speak, he still managed to be astoundingly rude to me on the Huguenot bridge.”

“Mrow!” said Snuggles/Richard.

“He’s always been a problem,” Ms. Aeaea said. “He ran away constantly when we lived in New York. Then one day, he ran away and didn’t come back. I assumed he’d been killed on the freeway. I was surprised but very pleased to find him here in Richmond.”

“Running from the law, are you perhaps?”

Ms. Aeaea laughed. “Do you know that an idiot of a police detective thought I was murdering social misfits to feed my cats? What a notion!” She looked over at a large orange furball huddled under the car. “Know better now, don’t you?” she said to it.

The orange cat managed somehow, even without the appropriate facial muscles, to scowl.

“See here, Ms. Aeaea, this can’t continue. While I’m fairly sure there’s no law on the books making it illegal to turn men into cats, I’m also quite certain that there would be if people of a legislative bent knew that it was an issue. Furthermore, what you’re doing is still kidnapping.”

“Small minds always try to interfere,” said Ms. Aeaea. “It’s true that my children find it unpleasant, but discipline never comes easy. When they finally learn the joy and peace of mind that comes from working for the collective good, when they’re finally ready to become human in the truest sense, they thank me, Mr. Macbeth. As you will.” She retreated into her house.

“I don’t like the sound of that,” said Michael.

“This card you’ve so graciously handed me is all I need,” her voice continued from inside, somewhere. “Once you’ve had as much practice as I have, it’s a very simple spell.”

“Er, excuse me, Ms. Aeaea,” Michael called through the open door, “but I fail to see how turning me into a cat serves the collective good. For that matter, kidnapping and transubstantiating a police detective is hardly civil.”

“Survival,” replied Ms. Aeaea, coming back to the doorway with a small ceramic bowl. In it was a black and oily slime, into which she had sprinkled the torn up shreds of Michael’s card. “My work is for the good of humanity, and in order to do that work, I must be unimpeded. Do you have any particular way you’d like your possessions disposed of? Given to a relative, for example?”

“No, thank you,” Michael said.

“You seem remarkably calm for someone about to be turned into a cat. It’s an admirable quality. Most men, when they realize what’s happening to them, become quite flustered.”

“I’ve always been very clear-headed in a crisis,” Michael said.

Invoco mutatem mutatium…” she began to chant, closing her eyes.

“Ms. Aeaea, I think you should know —” Michael said.

Artem magicam me da…

“— that you won’t find it —”

Hunc felei domestico verte!

The black slime ignited suddenly, burning itself and Michael’s card away into nothing but oily smoke in less than two seconds. Ms. Aeaea opened her eyes, and jumped back a bit when she saw Michael standing before her, unaffected.

“As I was saying,” Michael said, “I’m highly resistant to supernatural influences.”

“Oh dear,” said Ms. Aeaea. “That complicates things a bit.”

“Things were easier in the old days,” Michael said. “If I were Ulysses or Lancelot, I could threaten to lop off your head until you promised to undo all this nonsense.”

“I count the blessings of the modern world every day,” Ms. Aeaea said. “So, we are at an impasse, then.”

“Not quite,” said Michael.

“On the contrary,” said Ms. Aeaea, “we are. Perhaps I can’t perform my magic on you, but what can you possibly do to me? Call the police? They’ll assume you’re a lunatic. Large and imposing as you are, I sincerely doubt that you seriously mean to threaten me with bodily harm. It’s undignified.”

“I can make a few phone calls to New York, or to the FBI. I don’t have to mention cats at all, simply the disappearance of a police detective.”

“That would be an inconvenience at most. If I have to, I can simply move again. I have disappeared many times, I can do it again if I need to.”

“I guess you’ve got me, there,” said Michael. “Gosh, I certainly underestimated you. Whatever shall I do. Alas, I am defeated.” Looking down at Snuggles/Richard, he said, “Hey, fuzzy, you want a lift back to Ariel’s house? I’ll tell her to give you real people-type-food instead of that tic-tac-toe shaped crud.”

Snuggles/Richard looked up at Ms. Aeaea, looked back at Michael, then padded off to Michael’s car with a resigned sigh. “Good day, Ms. Aeaea,” Michael said, tipped his hat, and went back to his car. “You know,” he said to Snuggles/Richard as he opened the door, “you really don’t have it so bad. Imagine if Ariel had decided to have you fixed.”

“Mrow!” snarled Snuggles/Richard.

Ms. Aeaea smiled smugly, and watched from her doorway as Michael piled into the heap of steel and fiberglass he generously referred to as his car and drove off.

She was no longer standing in the doorway fifteen minutes later, when he drove up in front of her house a second time, pulled a pair of pliers out of his glove compartment, and used them to steal the wooden “Yolande Aeaea — Animal Doctor” sign from her fence.

# # #

Michael finished the last bar of ‘Scots Wha Hae’ on his pipes and exhaled deeply, smiling in satisfaction at the sound of his landlady banging on the floor of her house, above him. “Just you wait,” he said to the ceiling of his basement apartment, “some day I’ll move out to the West End, and you’ll miss me.”

A peculiar keening sound came to him in the relative quiet of the early morning, some sort of an animal cry from outside that had been drowned out by his pipes. He put the pipes down gently in their reserved chair, pulled a robe on over his pajamas, and went to the front door. Opening it, he discovered a large, black cat sitting on his porch and glaring at him.

“Ms. Aeaea!” he said. “What a pleasant surprise! Come in, come in!” He opened the door wider, and the black cat oozed around his legs and into the apartment. He closed the door and followed the cat into the main room of the tiny apartment. “Can I get you something, a saucer of milk perhaps?”

The cat hissed loudly, extending her claws.

“None of that,” Michael said. “In your current state you’re somewhat vulnerable. I take it you’re here because you’re unhappy about the current state of things?”

“Mrowr!” said the cat.

“Now you know why Richard was so disagreeable. Have you had any hairballs yet?”

The cat hissed again, then said, “Myow!”

“When I told you that I didn’t practice the craft, I neglected to mention that I know a few people who do, and that one or two of them owe me a few favors. I’m sorry to have vandalized that lovely wooden sign, but the relatively small amount of material required for the spell means that I have quite a nice reserve of it should I need to have the spell cast again.”

“Mrow!”

“Here’s what I propose, Ms. Aeaea, and I suggest you accept it. I shall return you to human condition and drive you home; once you’re there, you’ll undo all of the shape-changing you’ve inflicted, and you’ll refrain from ever doing it again. I’ll be checking up on you, and I’ll know. And if you ever move away from Richmond, well, I’ll assume that you’re up to your old tricks again and have my friends cast the spell. As I understand it, it’ll work no matter how far away you run.”

The cat hissed.

“Don’t like that, eh? Very well, you can keep all four legs indefinitely. Let me just go call the pound and have them pick you up. I’m not allowed pets in the apartment, I’m afraid.”

“Mrowr!”

“What’s that?”

“Mrowr!” The cat’s tail drooped, and she nodded her head.

“I take it that means you agree to my terms?”

The cat nodded again.

“Wise choice, Ms. Aeaea. Wait here, and I’ll get the items to undo the spell. You might want to get under the blanket on the sofa, there, to preserve your modesty.”

The cat glared at him, but jumped up onto the sofa and worked her way under the blanket.

# # #

“Hello, Macbeth Paranormal Consultations. This is Michael Macbeth speaking. How may I help you?”

“Mr. Macbeth, this is Ariel Tanring.”

“Ah, Ms. Tanring! How are you?”

“Mr. Macbeth, about Snuggles…”

“Yes?”

“Well, um, he seems to have changed into a … er, a … naked man.”

“Ah. That’d be Richard. I suspect that he won’t be running off to Ms. Aeaea’s house any more. Your problem is solved, then. I’ll send my bill along to you in the mail.”

“But wait a minute!”

“What?”

“What am I supposed to do with him?”

“What you do in your own house with a naked man is none of my business, Ms. Tanring. That’s not a matter I feel qualified to consult on. Good day.”

The End

Categories: Stray Cat Strut