Mad Science and Magic, Together at Last

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

-Arthur C. Clarke

The above is a very well-known and often quoted rule, at least by fans of science fiction and fantasy. And the reason that this bon mot is so often dropped is that it is absolutely true. If you went into the past, your smartphone would effectively become a magic tablet, even without cell service. Let’s face it, we don’t use phones to talk to one another but let’s get back on track.

In movies, TV, books, and comics there is a clear delineation between magic and technology. Magic is inscribing runes or glyphs, speaking specific words, and making gestures to make the impossible real. Technology uses physics, chemistry, and engineering to make the impossible real.

So what’s the difference? Well, physics, chemistry, and engineering are all real and magic is not, as far as I know. But they essentially accomplish the same things, narratively speaking. Whether you’re firing a plasma pistol or shooting magic flames from your hands ends up with the same result, someone’s painful death. Unless you miss but let’s just say that orc or stormtrooper got what they had coming.

Again, aside from flavor, how do they differ? A plasma pistol should have a limited number of shots, like any projectile weapon. Do wizards have ammo? It depends on if they are using their own reservoir of magical energy, in which case, yes they have ammo and it’s limited. Even if they are channeling magic from outside their bodies, that has to take a toll so again, a wizard is limited on how much they can do.

Of course, an energy weapon can be hooked up to an external power source that would effectively give the shooter unlimited ammo, or near enough to deal with their foes, so that’s different. Of course, a wizard could use some sort of ritual that allows them to focus magic from another dimension. It becomes a zero-sum game.

Some science fiction tries to use real science to justify the fantastic things that are accomplished in the course of their stories. This is more prevalent now than it was in the past. In the Lensman books by E.E. “Doc” Smith, faster than light travel was accomplished by use of an inertialess drive. Other than the idea that being inertialess would allow you to travel faster, it has no scientific legitimacy. If you’ve not heard of the Lensman stories, the first one, “Triplanetary”, was published in 1934.

Note: A man by the name of Michael Pedler claimed to be developing an inertialess drive and raised $6.8 million to make it a reality. Spoilers, we do not have inertialess drive space ships.

So how does inertialess drive work? It just does, that’s all you need to know. In fact, that’s how a lot of science fiction tech works. I’m sure there are some that have a basis in theoretical physics or other disciplines, and I’m quite confident that some of my readers can cite examples that counter this. While I admit I’m painting with a very large brush, I don’t think I’m wrong.

For magic, it’s the same thing. Why does saying certain words and waving your hands or a wand allows you to break the laws of physics? Because it does.

In the Harry Dresden series, which is about a wizard private eye operating out of Chicago, magic has rules. He can throw up a shield spell to protect himself but it takes energy. If he does it too much it can wear him out.

Too counter that, he makes rings and a bracelet that captures the energy he generates while walking around each day, like a self-winding watch, and uses that power to avoid being damaged or to throw some of that force back. While this is clearly something we cannot really do, it does have a scientific feel, despite being magical. And like the inertialess drive, it works because it does. Side note, if you’ve not read them, I suggest you check them out. After you’ve read all my stuff.

Does the lack of a solid scientific basis make it less enjoyable? For me, not at all. When you create a weird and wondrous world, it doesn’t need to be entirely realistic. The rules just need to be consistent.

In a very real way, science fiction and fantasy are closer than people think. It may come down to a matter of preference.

I have a friend who loves fantasy and superheroes but does not care for science fiction. To me, this is puzzling, not just because of all the reasons I’ve listed above but because to my way of thinking, superheroes and science fiction are very closely linked. While there are magical heroes and villains, most have origins closely tied to scientific means or more accurately pseudo-scientific means. If radiation really bestowed superpowers, I would’ve dosed myself a long time ago. I know I’m not alone in this.

In spite of that fact, he just doesn’t care for science fiction and nothing I could say would change his mind. He likes what he likes.

Of course, fantasy leans into the destiny of heroes and queens and kings and science fiction tends to be a little more inclusive and more democratic but the idea of a hereditary nobility still persists in the distant and not so distant future. But in both, emperors are usually evil. Another overlap on the ven diagram of these two genres. Interesting.

Maybe we should think of fantasy and science fiction as potato chips, each with a different flavor. You might love sour cream and onion or barbecue but they are both crispy and delicious. Also, they are both still chips.

So conjure up, or nano-build, a big bowl of crunchy goodness, share it with your favorite cyborg or sorceress, and realize you aren’t so different after all.

Kill The Messenger-Part Three

As promised, here is part three of Kill the Messenger, where our hero‘s mettle is tested and the fight betwixt Classical and Abstract art continues. Please enjoy!

This is dishonorable!” said the Amber Thane, much too loudly, in Paul’s opinion.

You must admit, it’s damnably clever,” appropriately whispered Dominic.

How else can we move around the camp?” asked Paul with a lopsided purple mouth.

They shambled amongst the Abstract troops who were loping, oozing, hopping, shuffling, and otherwise moving towards the sounds of combat.

Paul thought it was damnably clever of him to disguise all of them as Abstract troops. His less than classical training in art assured them that they would not be recognized. Dominic was impressed with his ability to ape their enemy’s style, and Paul was thankful that his lack of rendering skills had a practical application.

Where did they take your blade?” Dominic asked the Amber Thane.
The Knight scanned the camp with his asymmetrical eyes, squinted and pointed to a large tent-like structure in the back of the camp.

It must be there!” he declared.

Thinking of the Thanes’s terrible eyesight, Paul asked, “Are you sure?”

Do you think me a fool!” challenged the Amber Thane.

Fool was not the first word that sprung to Paul’s mind but Dominic quietly interjected, “I’m sure your squire but wishes to speed your return to the front.”

Of course! I was about to say something very much like that,” said the Amber Thane.

What are you three doing?”

They turned to see an Abstract, it was difficult to tell if was an officer, Paul wondered if they even had any like a chain of command. In any case, this one was large, easily eight or nine feet tall. All of them froze, unsure of what to do, though Paul saw the Thane’s fist, or what passed as a fist curing up.

We’re about to fold the edge of the inside layer,” croaked Paul in his raspiest voice, the one he used when there was no caller ID on a call and wasn’t sure if was someone he knew.

The large figure stared at them, or it would’ve if it had a face, for a beat and said, “Then get going.”

Yeah,” Paul wheezed as they moved on to the back of the camp.

An entrance as a challenge to find but they soon did and slipped in. The Amber Thane’s sword was leaning against something in the center of the tent. This was something non-abstract and definitely not impressionistic. It was a glass sphere, fitted on bottom and top with metallic caps and filled with a clear liquid with a pale yellowish tint. Attached to it was an a tangle of what looked like cables connected to a clock face that was draped over a tree.

By the canvas…” said Dominic in a hushed voice.

What?” asked Paul and the Thane simultaneously, though for different reasons.

It’s Hieronymus’ Solvent,” replied the soldier.

Whose what?” asked Paul who looked closely; there was a subtle scent of pine and licorice.
Dominic looks at his companions, his vertical eyes gone wide, and said, “The jar from Hieronymus Bosch’s lost painting, Revelations.”

And…” inquired Paul.

The jar was held aloft in the hands of the Four Horsemen,” said the Amber Thane softly, as he looked closely at it, squinting his one tiny eye and the other lopsided one.
That chilled Paul, not from what was said but the fact the Amber Thane did not shout.

So, what’s in there, a mix of plague, war, famine and…” he asked.

You are a simple soul, the last one is pestilence,” remarked the Amber Thane as he patted Paul on the head.

No one knows, but it is said that whatever it contains, it means the end of all things,” replied Dominic.
They all stood there for a moment, just staring at each other. Finally, Paul spoke.

Well, there’s only one thing we can do.”

Agreed,” said the Amber Thane.

We need to steal it,” said Paul, while the Amber Thane said, “Enter the battle and die as men!”
“What?” they both said to each other.

It is the only honorable course!” proclaimed the Amber Thane.

How is it honorable to let everyone die?” countered Paul, who thought this a very fair question.

There is nothing to be done in the face of this infernal device! Better to die in combat than wait submissively for oblivion to take us all!” said the Thane and with that he took up his blade, unsheathed it and electricity arced along the edge.

Paul feeling as though he had nothing to lose at this point (quite true) felt it was time for a bold/foolish action.

I didn’t think someone like Major Veronika would love a coward,” said Paul with more confidence than he truthfully felt.

The sharp end of the power blade didn’t pierce his throat but it certainly could move into that neighborhood with little difficulty.

A poor choice of last words,” said the Thane.

Dominic held his hands up and suggested, “I think, perhaps, that the

stress of the situation has addled his brainpan.”
Paul breathed in and said, “No, it hasn’t. You want to run away and die, then don’t call it bravery. We need to do something about this jar, if we’re going to die either way lets try to save everybody.”

This last statement hung in the air. Sounds of distant battle could be heard, with the tick tock of the draped clock moving in inexorably towards their own doomsday. The Amber Thane sheathed his power blade and nodded.

You are far more daring and less simple that I gave you credit for my Squire,” pronounced the Thane.
It was both praise and an insult, but Paul also knew it was not the time to quibble.

What is the plan?” asked Dominic.

First, they shed their abstract disguises, the Amber Thane was especially pleased to do that, and they looked at the tangle of cables connecting the clock to Hieronymus’ Solvent. The Amber Thane wanted to cut them all but both Paul and Dominic persuaded him that would likely set off whatever the Abstracts has set up.

Paul had seen enough movies to know that choosing the correct wire to connect was tricky business and often was cut in the last few seconds. But the characters in those movies were often experts in this sort of things and had the good will of the screenwriter on their side.

Paul’s only experience with explosives was throwing firecrackers as a boy and he was fairly certain that if he had some mysterious creator who was ultimately in his corner, he or she was of a mercurial nature as her or she put him in increasingly dangerous situations.

So moving it is as dangerous as severing those tendrils?” asked Dominic.

I don’t really know, but probably, yeah…” replied Paul.

Damn those Gloppy Devils!” cried the Amber Thane, “They vex us even in their absence!”

It was at this point that three abstract fighters entered the tent, they resembled armored figures but their proportions were decidedly asymmetrical.

Seize them,” said the middle one with a voice like wood breaking in an echo chamber.

Whatever Paul thought of the Amber Thane, he was a furious warrior, he leapt into action before the enemy warrior ended his somewhat predictable command. Electricity could faintly be heard sizzling bellowed alternating war cries and insults as he sliced through his foes.
It was so impressive, that it had the unfortunate, in Paul’s opinion, of attracting more Abstract soldiers. While it might worry Paul, and it did, it seemed to delight the Amber Thane who was jubilantly carving up all comers. He spread oddly hued viscera everywhere, and grinned while doing it.

Dominic grabbed Paul by the shoulder and said, “Whatever plan you have, now it the time to set in motion, your Thane can only last so long!”

Indeed, while the Amber Thane was clearly having the time of his life, numerically, it was simply a matter of time before the Abstracts overwhelmed him. Paul looked at the rat’s nest of cables and wished he could know which one to cut. If they only have something to move it…

Dominic, paint a steel ball around all this,” Paul said, waving his hands to indicate the jar, wires and clock.

But that won’t protect us!” replied the artist solider, “It’s simplify blow apart!”

Trust me!” Paul said a grin.

Dominic quickly and expertly created an iron sphere around Hieronymus’ Solvent, the snarl of cables, and the droopy clock. The metal had a grey metallic sheen, symmetrically spaced bolts. It radiated strength and heft and looked as if it had always existed and always would.

It will not hold for long,” said Dominic as he shook his head.

It doesn’t need to,” said Paul who took out his own brush.

While ray guns were his favorite thing to draw as a boy, there were several other things that filled the margins of his school notebooks and he now painted one of them. The tent ripped and tore as the thing Paul created stood. Paul knew that he would never be the artist that Dominic was but if there was something he knew how to render, it was a robot.

Candy apple red and silver, it stood fifteen feet tall with antennae on its head that arched electricity back and forth.

Clearly, this did not go unnoticed. Dominic’s eye went wide. The

Abstracts froze, fighting stopped and craned what passed for their heads up. Even the Amber Thane paused, though he saw an opportunity to take several heads and did so, but he did so without any martial proclamations.

RX-13, the name he gave to his creation, reached down and picked up the iron sphere and spun his arm round and round until it was a blur.

Five, four, three, two, NOW!” shouted Paul!

On NOW, RX-13 released the payload and it shot straight into the air with the sound of loud whistling that faded as it got smaller and smaller until both object and noise disappeared. A pause followed, then a thundering explosion. What, at least to Paul’s eyes, looked like a glorious sunset blossomed, though it was very high in the sky and not at the horizon, but no less glorious for being in the wrong place.

The Amber Thane, and Dominic mopped up what was left of the Abstract forces around them. Paul did little actual fighting, but directed RX-13 who took care of a large share of the foes. As the Forty Seventh Pigmenteers over ran the camp with a great variety of weapons (too numerous to list here), the battle and day was won.

Paul, Dominic and the Amber Thane fielded many congratulations from the troops, and RX-13 was justifiably ogled and inquired about, what

was it exactly, how did he think of such a weapon, would he teach them to make one?

The sounds of celebration suddenly faded and Major Veronika parted the troops and approached the Amber Thane. He smiled and it was the happiest Paul had ever seen him. Leaning in, the Major whispered something in his ear. The Thane went a little pale.

Are those terms acceptable,” said the Major. It was clear that there was only one possible response.

For you, and you only,” he replied.

And with that they kissed and there were many cheers, hats tossed in the air and huzzahs.

RX-13 faded, as creations that are made in battle were want to do, their purpose fulfilled. The camp was soon made classical, as Paul was told not to say it was non-abstract, and things settled down.

Until, of course, the celebration. Huge kegs of beer and wine were created, long tables, bent under the weight of delicious food and songs were sung. A huge bonfire was lit and everything was cast in a warm orange glow.

Paul was enjoying telling the story of Hieronymus’ Solvent, not for the first time that evening when Dominic tapped him on the shoulder.

The Major wants a word with you,” Dominic said, as he led him to the command tent.

Major Veronika and the Amber Thane stood with goblets in their hands and Paul and Dominic were each handed one.

I wished to thank you both personally, for your daring and innovated rescue,” she said as she raised her wine, “To perspective!”

To perspective!” everyone echoed and drank.

Veronika glanced at the Thane, who sighed.

Squire, you have proven yourself beyond what could be asked of you, I must confess, far more than I had any reason to expect,” said the Amber Thane.

It was, without question, a backhanded complement, but it was perhaps the kindest thing the Amber Thane had ever said to him so Paul murmured, “Thank you.”

Such gallantry warrants reward,” said the Major.

Yes of course,” harrumphed the Thane, picking up a scroll from the table.

Unrolling it, he squinted, making an unpleasant face. Major Veronika cleared her throat; a small sound, Paul nearly missed it. However it had a visceral effect on the Thane. He sighed and produced a brown leather case, opened it, and put on a pair of black rimmed, round spectacles.

The Major smiled and it looked as if the Thane blushed. Paul thought that such an absurd notion that it must be true, as most things in the borough were. Clearing his throat, the Thane spake, “Kneel, Paul of the Borough.”

I’m sorry, what?” asked Paul, who could think of no happy outcome of such a request.

The Thane’s eye narrowed and awkwardness flooded the tent with a preternatural rapidity. Paul glanced at Dominic who gestured a discrete downward motion. Hoping for the best, Paul knelt.

I, the Amber Thane, Guardian of the Labyrinth of the Inner Realm, Slayer of the Nine of the five Chimeras, Defender of the Lost, ennoble the Squire before me,” intoned the knight.

These are the last blows you must endure without recourse or revenge,” said the Amber Thane as he stuck Paul on the shoulders and neck with the flat of his blade, (happily, without electricity surging through), though Paul thought could have been gentler.

Now arise Paul, to be henceforth known as the…” the Amber Thane turned to Major Veronika and loudly whispered, “Must I? It seems cruel”

Paul, who was mid-arising, did not like the direction this was heading when the Major replied, “Quite.”

Very well,” continued the Amber Thane, “Arise Paul, to be henceforth known as the Clever Thane.”

Thank you,” Paul replied and he finished standing.

You’re first quest as a Thane will be to find your weapon. It is a sacred and peril filled task, but…” the Amber Thane paused, “I’m assured that you are up to the challenge.”

Okay, great…” said Paul who was not sure how to react to such nonplussed encouragement.

Major Veronika looked at him and said, “And since you enlisted as a Squire and have been elevated to Thane, you are Most Honorably Discharged.”

Until this very moment, Paul hadn’t given much thought about how long he would have to spend in this painting and found great relief in the knowledge he would be returning to the Borough. There was a twinge of regret mixed in, the 47th Pigmenteers were a decent group, but there was still much of the Borough to explore (he had absolutely no idea of how much) and he wanted to return.

With a smile, Dominic saluted smartly and Paul returned in kind. That set off a round of saluting that seemed as if it would go on forever until the Major spoke up

Private, would you do the honors?” asked the Major.

Yes ma’am,” he replied.

After that there was a round of saluting, which went on too long, until the Amber Thane bellowed, “Enough!” There was one more round of saluting, which thankfully ended quickly, and Dominic led Paul to a clearing a short distance from camp, avoiding the feast, as they both knew that farewells would go on forever.

Well my friend, it been an honor serving with you,” said Dominic.

You too, thanks for putting up with me,” replied Paul.

There was nothing to put up with.”

Paul looked around the clearing and asked, “So, do we need to paint a door or stairway or something?”

Or something,” said Dominic as he quickly painted a brass telescope and handed to it to Paul, “Just look up. But don’t blink.”

All there was left was to shake hand and say thank you, both of which were done, and then Paul gazed skyward. At once he was flying through the magic spin art tunnel as he flew upward, and after an eye watering trip, found himself parting a velvet curtain and was once more in Mrs. Po’s art shop.
“Ah, you’ve returned,” remarked Mrs. Po, “Come along, let’s get you sorted out, Clever Thane.”

Wait, how do you know about that?” asked Paul.

She fixed him with a look that conveyed pity and contempt in equal measures.

You’ll need to stop asking foolish questions like that if you wish to avoid mockery,” she said as she opened her ledger.

After making some notes, she turned it around and instructed Paul to sign it in three separate places, after which she took a lockbox out from under her desk and counted out a pile of coins, placed them in a small pouch and handed it to Paul.

You are now officially mustered out,” she said.

Right,” said Paul.

They stood there for a moment, looking at each other.

That means you can and should leave,” Mrs. Po said.

Paul did so, if only to avoid mockery.

Rather than going straight home, he stopped in a café a few blocks from his apartment, ordered a coffee and pastry called a Blue Forest Blob, which was neither, blue, forest themed nor blob shaped. It was square, filled with a creamy almond paste and made him happy.

As he drank his coffee and enjoyed his Blue Forest Blob he noticed people giving him sidelong glances. He looked to see if he got any almond paste on his shirt (it had happened before), but he was free of crumbs or goop. Finishing up, he signaled for the bill.

The Waitress came over and said, “It’s been taken care of.”

Who…?” asked Paul.

On the house,” she said with a blush and rushed off.

Paul didn’t understand, a feeling he was well acquainted with but instead of asking questions that he knew would present more questions, he left a too large tip and went home. Just before he opened his door, Parsnip and Looseleaf’s doors opened and he was hustled inside with a “Hurry up,” from Parnsnip and a “Many thing to discuss!” from Looseleaf.

It was less of a discussion and more of an interrogation. There were questions, counter questions and many clarifications. Finally they were satisfied, or at least as satisfied as they got and let him go to bed.

If he had been less exhausted, he might have noticed that there was an addition to his front door. But he shambled off to bed. Anyone would’ve with a day like the one he had, and it was only a day, in spite of all that had occurred. So Paul may justifiably excused from noticing the addition of a shield shaped, metal plaque with the image of a robot holding two rayguns and on the bottom, a blue badger.

Or perhaps, it was a cat.

Kill the Messenger Part-Two

Paul looked all around him. The Amber Thane was nowhere to be seen.

“Son of a bitch!”

“Hey! Knock it off! No swearing in the Forty Seventh Fusiliers!” snapped the soldier.

“Uh, sorry, sir?” said Paul.

The soldier laughed, “I’m just funnin’ you, swear all you want. One of the few rights we have, that and complaining. Just don’t do either around the Major.”

“Major Veronika?” asked Paul.

“The one and only.”

It turned out, fortunately, for Paul, that the Major insisted on meeting each new recruit personally. The soldier, whose name was Dominic DéMarche, brought Paul to her tent. There was a meeting going on, officers stood around a table, there was a heated discussion going on when they entered, which stopped as soon as they entered.

Dominic saluted sharply, in contrast with his informal demeanor.

“Major! New recruit!”

Paul tried to mirror the salute but it lacked the polish of his new companion.

The officers parted, and revealed the Major. Wearing a burnished breastplate over a red jacket, tight blue breeches with a gold stripe up the side, polished black boots, and a pelt of what looked like a leopard, if leopard spots were bright yellow, blue, green, pink, red, orange and purple on a black background.

She had chestnut hair, skin like honey and dark eyes with copper flecks. There were crinkles at those eyes; she had the worries, the responsibility of command. There was an air about her, it wasn’t just that she was gorgeous(she was) but upon meeting her, Paul had this sudden urge to make her proud. There was a great stillness about her, not that she was inactive but more as if she would always be there, whatever came and that inspired an instant loyalty.

Dominic nudged Paul, who stepped forward.

“What’s your name son?” she rumbled.

“Paul, Ma’am, Major, Major Ma’am,” stammered Paul.

She smiled indulgently, “Welcome to the painting forty seventh. Private, sort him out.”

“Yes Major!” barked Dominic.

“Excuse me Major,” said Paul.

Everyone froze. Paul knew he had made a faux pas, but it was better to get this out.

“Yes?” asked the Major, which was laced with an undercurrent of ‘this better be good’.

“I came here with the Amber Thane.”

All the others were dismissed and exited quickly. Paul explained how he had delivered the letter from Looseleaf and Parsnip, his subsequent squirehood with the Amber Thane, and trip trough the painting.

“Damn his eyes!” said the Major as she pounded the table.

“He was very excited about seeing you,” added Paul.

“Too excited to get spectacles!” she replied.

“I’m sorry?” asked Paul who didn’t understand how those two things were related.

“His eyesight is ghastly! But he’s too vain to get the help he needs! Now, who knows where he ended up!”

Paul, who learned to deal with all sorts of oddness since moving to the Borough, still hated listening to someone rant about their significant other.

There was no right thing to say, so after trial and error, mostly error he had to admit, he found the best course of action was to nod periodically and make small agreeing sounds.

“Of course, he does have such lovely eyes,” said the Major as she smiled.

“Hmmm?” offered Paul.

“You are a fine squire, Paul of the Borough, I thank you for bring me this news,” she said.

It occurred to Paul that he had very little choice in the matter but he saluted anyway, which seemed to please her.

“I need to send out scouts, if I can find him before the enemy, we could-“

The rest of that thought was cut short as Dominic entered.

“Begging you pardon Major, but a messenger has arrived,” the private said.

“Bring him in,” she said.

Two other soldiers, one in arctic cammo, the other, a woman dressed in Greek Hoplite armor escorted the messenger in. It looked like an abstract impression of an avocado colored man, or woman, the gender seemed, like it’s appearance, a matter of perspective. One leg was much longer than the other, it’s arms undulated like silk scarves in the wind and it had two eyes on one side of its head, which seemed to be two dimensional, or at the least, very flat

“Major Veronika, I come with a gift,” it said in a voice that sounded like it was speaking though echoey mesh.

It opened what could have been a sack or a lumpy smudge and produced the helmet of the Amber Thane.

Paul looked at the Major, if she felt any fear or shock; it was simply evidenced by a minute flaring of her nostrils.

“What are your terms?” she asked the abstract messenger.

“Leave the Umber Valley or we will be forced to make the Amber Thane a palimpsest,” said the messenger.

“Damn your same sided eyes!” shouted Dominic.

“Calm yourself private,” said the Major evenly.

“Sorry Major.”

Walking up to the messenger, the Major regarded it with a quiet contempt.

“We will not surrender one inch of canvas, not one classically rendered tree or bush. We will not rest until this painting has been restored to its former glory, and your ill-rendered rabble has been wiped clean from this classic masterpiece.”

Paul began to clap, her delivery was so moving, but he quickly stopped when it was apparent that no one else was following suit.

The messenger made wheezing, rattling sound, and shook its head.

“The brave and valiant Major Veronika, so dedicated to her cause that she’ll sacrifice her one true love for her ideals. You didn’t even hesitate, we will have to tell the Thane as we scrape the pigment from him and make him one of us. His rage will be unquenchable. Perhaps your death at his hands will silence his scream. For a while.”

“Lock this thing up,” ordered the Major.

Dragged from the tent, it made the same wheezing rattling sound. Paul thought it might be laughter.

“Private, inform my officers that we must prepare to move ASAP. Take the squire here and begin the lantern light maneuver,” said the Major as she moved to the table and rolled out maps.

Dominic grinned and saluted, “Yes Major, right away!”

He clapped Paul on the arm and said, “Lets get you some weapons,” as he lead him to another tent.

Weapons, as it turned out meant a bandoleer of brushes and a belt of paint bottles.

“So no real weapons?” asked Paul.

Dominic laughed, “My friend, theses are better than any gun or knife. With those, all you can do it kill. But with this,” he said, twirling a brush with panache, “you can create anything!”

Paul thought that a philosophical attitude for a solider, which spoke well of Dominic’s mental state, but gave little confidence to the future of whatever the lantern light maneuver was.

“Hmm,” mused Dominic, “We need to get you into a proper uniform.”

“Do you have a spare?”

Holding out his thumb at arm’s length, Dominic regarded Paul, quickly dipped his bush into a jar and started flicking paint at him. Paul felt as though he has been suddenly doused in cold syrup.

“What the-“

“And there!” interrupted Dominic.

Paul was about to give his new friend a good yelling at, or at least let him know that he was not happy about having paint flung at him, when the sensation faded and he felt normal. At least as normal as he got these days.

“You look a proper solider now,” said Dominic with a smile, “Look.”

Dominic pulled a drop cloth off a mirror, and Paul looked at himself. He now wore a uniform like Dominic, ironically minus the paint splatters, but with a tall fur hat, with brass accessories.

“But you just waved the brush around, how…”

“It’s all the mind’s eye. If you can think it, you can make it.”

Paul, whose artistic endeavors were strictly of the stick figure school, had his doubts that he could create anything even close to realistic. But

Dominic assured him that it was easy as he lead him to a wooded area just outside the camp.

A clump of bushes were pushed aside to reveal a tunnel leading downward,

Dominic lit a lantern and they entered. The light was warm and bathed everything in warm light. It made Paul feel as though he was looking through a windowpane made of pale honey. The tunnel was painted in rich dark brown tone, which evoked damp earth, held up with wooden beams rendered in glowing detail, Paul could see the swoops of the grain and the pegs that were fitted with great skill.

“Did you make this?” he asked his companion.

“I did the beams,” said Dominic with a smile.

“They’re very good,” said Paul.

“Thank you, I’ve quite proud of the way they turned out, it’s a pity so few will see them.”

“Because?”

“It is a secret tunnel after all!”

“Right, yeah…”

They continued in silence for a while, until Paul asked what he was thinking.

“Uh… Where are we going?”

Dominic stopped and shook his head, Paul was afraid he asked a stupid question.

“My friend, I must apologies, in my haste I forgot that you had only now joined us. You must think me a fool!”

“No, you’re not a fool, it’s just that I want to be able to help, so… if I knew what the plan is…”

Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “I would expect no less of the squire of the Amber Thane! You’re raring to get right to the action!”

“Right!” said Paul with considerably more enthusiasm than he actually had with regards to action.

“This is of course, is a rescue mission, this tunnel leads directly under the enemy camp. Once we reach the end, all we need do is paint a tunnel up and we rescue your master.”

Paul didn’t think of the Amber Thane as his master, but this was clearly not the time to bring that up. Dominic continued down the tunnel and Paul hustled to catch up.

“Do you have a map of the enemy camp?” asked Paul.

“That would be worthless, it shifts according to their whims, Abstract Dogs!”

“But how do you know we’ll come up in it?”

“The location is fixed, it’s the layout that changes.”

“Right…” said Paul “But there is a plan?”

“Of course! We tunnel up, find the Thane, and escape, while the Major leads the rest of the 47th Pigmenteers in an all out assault!”

Paul didn’t think that was a plan, so much as a hopeful wish, but Dominic seemed quite confident, so he continued onward.

After a period of time, it was difficult to gauge, what with no sun, and his phone saying that time was old, they arrived at the end of the tunnel.

Dominic took out a paintbrush with a flourish and began to create a ladder.

Not a crude sketch, but a solid oaken affair, the joints were joined with cuts in the wood that clearly needed no nails or studs. It was one of the sturdiest things he had ever seen. Paul had once put together a bookcase from Ikea and he felt fairly handy afterwards in spite of the handful of bits that he was left with and was unable to identify.

“That’s very… good,” Paul said quietly.

Dominic smiled a smile that said, ‘I know, right?’, but he managed a slightly humble thank you.

“Now, it’s your turn, when we get to the top of the ladder, you will create something to break through the topsoil,” said the artist warrior.

“Are you sure you don’t want to do it?” Paul asked, “Those stairs are really good.”

“You’ve very kind (I am an excellent artist), but I couldn’t,” insisted Dominic.

“It’s okay, I don’t mind (I’m not really any kind of artist),” Paul said with no trace of false modesty.

“No, I literally can’t, when two soldiers collaborate on a mission, they must both contribute,” explained Dominic.

“Right…”

Dominic clapped him on the shoulder and grinned, “Just think of something that can dig and still be silent.

Paul thought about that conflicting set of requirements. Everything that came to mind that could dig was by definition, loud. Bulldozers, jackhammers, even shovels and picks made noise. A few weeks ago, he had seen something that was called a Geo-Pinnace, a cylindrical tube with a huge drill bit on the front, or the prow, as he had been corrected by the pilot. It had cut through earth and stone like spoon through flan, again as described by the pilot, but it had made a hellishly loud racket and even if he could paint it (doubtful), he had no idea how to start, let alone steer it.

Paul’s mind began to wander as he racked his brain trying to find a solution.

He thought of his Aunt Natalie, who loved two things, baking and puzzles, both physical and mental, mostly mental. When he would visit, she would give him a riddle, which he had to solve before she would give him some of her excellent cookies. This was just the sort of thing she’d test him with, and when she’d eventually told him the solution, which she often did, as she was fond of her nephew and ultimately a bit of a soft touch. But if she took it easy on Paul, she was at war with Josiah, the cat that lived next door, who clearly was born only to drive Aunt Nat to distraction and destroy her small garden.

Josiah, who was gink-toed, could dig up a garden with infernal glee. Nat swore he tunneled in under the fence. Paul had once seen him pop up from under the earth and then leap across the yard pulling a long tomato vine and winking just before he escaped to the safety of his own yard. Paul wasn’t sure if he had imagined the wink or if it was a story that Nat had told but that cat could dig…

“I got it,” Paul said.

The dirt shifted and Paint Josiah emerged into the Abstract camp. Paul and Dominic followed, they were shielded by two large crates but they could as easily been any large…things.

“Very clever, painting that badger in an abstract style, if someone sees it they will won’t know we’re here,” whispered Dominic.

“It’s a cat actually,” said Paul quietly.

“Right,” replied Dominic with a knowing wink.

Creeping around the ‘crates’, they saw six Abstract soldiers standing in a circle at attention, though their bodies seemed to be fidgety. Arms, legs other parts stretched or shrunk with no real pattern, at least that Paul could see.

“What are they doing?” asked Paul in his softest voice.

Dominic didn’t reply but tapped Paul gently on the shoulder and looked up. Hanging, from an absurdly long chain was an even more absurdly large birdcage. Inside, however, was not an absurdly large bird, but the Amber Thane.

“Blaggard! Let me loose at once!” bellowed the imprisoned knight.

“You’ve been asking that since we put you in there, what makes you think that we’ll change our minds now,” asked one of the guards in a hollow, echoey voice.

“I will never give up! I will fight till my last breath and beyond!”

“Can he do that?” asked the largest guard breathlessly.

“Dunno,” replied the first guard, “but it won’t matter in a bit.”

“Ha! You have a broad yellow stripe running down your back!” sneered the Amber Thane.

It was true, there was a long splash of bright saffron along his back.

“Yeah, so?” asked the guard.

Dominic pulled Paul back behind the undetermined things.

“We must act swiftly, these abstractoes are about do something terrible,” whispered Dominic, “I’ll tackle the guards, you free the Amber Thane.

“What should I-“ said Paul but Dominic painted a large armored tiger with a saddle, leapt upon it and road off to attack the guards. The great cat savaged the guards with claw and tooth, and Dominic unsheathed a saber from the saddle and slashed away. Paint was splattered everywhere.

Paul, who was not at all prepared for this, or any battle if he was being honest, tried to think of how he would open a giant bird cage that was twenty feet or so above the ground. Hook and ladder, cherry picker, giant robot claw? He had little confidence of being to able to paint any of those and unsure if they would work. A cat that resembled a badger was one thing.

“Now my friend!” shouted Dominic, whose tiger had herded what remained of the guards directly under the hanging cage.

Pulling up memories of doodling in elementary school, Paul created his favorite thing to draw.

PEW PEW PEW, went the laser pistol, severing the chain and sending the cage, with the Amber Thane within, to squish the last of the guards.

“Well done!” cried Dominic.

The Amber Thane picked himself up from the floor of his cage and bellowed, “What new impressionistic deviltry is this?”

“It’s me,” said Paul as he moved up to the cage.

Whatever else he had to say was cut off by the grip of a resin gauntlet encircling his neck and lifting him off his feet.

“If you think you can play dice with my sanity, you will die with that as your regret!” said the Thane.

Dominic leapt off his battle tiger, rushed up and said, “Amber Thane, we’re been sent by “Major Veronika!”

“Where is she?”

The sounds of battle could now be heard in the distance with ever increasing volume.

“Hah! Of course, she leads the attack!” said the Amber Thane with a wide grin, “Let us now join the fray!”

Paul, whose vision was fading into a grey haze, croaked, “Let. Me. Go.”

Squinting, the Amber Thane pulled him close and said, “It’s you,” and released him.

Dominic helped Paul to his feet.

“My temper got the best of me, I did not meant to strangle you,” said the Amber Thane with little regret.

“We should join the rest of the regiment,” suggested Dominic.

“Not before I recover my blade and helm!” insisted the Amber Thane as he strode towards the exit.

“Your… Helm is back at the camp, they sent it to show that you had been captured,” said Paul, “Dominic can paint you a sword, right?”

“It would be a honor!” Dominic said.

“Nay, it must be my own blade, it was gifted to me by the Azure Thane upon my ascension to knighthood,” declared the Amber Thane.

“Of course,” deferred Dominic, “you need say no more.”

Paul, however, thought that some explanation was in order, but since he was in the minority, he pushed his concerns down, something he found himself doing more and more since moving to the Borough.

“A frontal assault is the best course of action!” declared the Amber Thane.

“I have an idea,” suggested Paul.

The Most Dangerous Challenge

In many kung-fu stories, the fate of the world and even the multiverse is determined by martial arts prowess. This seems like a terrible method of governance. It feels like it would favor bullies and thugs, unlike our system that… Well, it’s got problems. This story offers a different option. Is it any better? You’ll have to decide that for yourself.

“My Prince, the Dread Masters have arrived,” said the majordomo as he bowed.

Straightening his abnormally high and over-embroidered collar, the Prince of Highlandia gestured that the unpleasant guests should be shown in.

Clad in black armor that somehow also glowed black, the Dread Masters entered the throne room. Their leader, known as the Most Dread Master, and his lieutenant, the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master strode in followed by the other Dread Masters. Their names all indicated where they all stood in the hierarchy of Dread, but since they only got longer, we will not list them here.

“The time has come, oh Prince,” sneered the Most Dread Master, “The three moons of fate have eclipsed the seven suns of destiny.”

Sighing, the Prince of Highlandia replied, “Yes, yes, it’s pretty hard to miss.”

“Are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?” asked the Most Dread Master just as he had rehearsed with his Dread Acting Coach.

“ARE YOU?” added the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master.

“I thought I said to just glower, menacingly,” the Most Dread Master whispered at his lieutenant.

“Just thought it would help,” sullenly replied Lesser.

“Well, it didn’t!” spat the Most Dread Master, “Did it?” he then asked the Prince.

“Not really.”

“I prepared a song. A very scary song,” Lesser said hopefully.

The Most Dread Master pushed down his disappointment. Just because someone is excellent in martial arts, doesn’t mean they had any sense of theater. He had to take care of this before it became a ‘thing.’

Lesser’s face lit up. “Really?” 

“Listen, I asked you to glower because you’re so good at it. The best, in fact.”

“Absolutely! You are my best glowerer, hands down.”

“I think I need to hear that. It’s been a rough week. My girlfriend-”

“Let’s talk later, okay? After the Challenge That Will Shape The World.”

“You got it my Most Dread Master!”

Turning back to the Prince of Highlandia, the Most Dread Master intoned, “So my Prince, are you prepared for the Challenge That Will Shape The World?”

“You already said that.”

“Well, it’s literally the event that will determine the fate of every being in the realm for all eternity. It deserved to be said twice! Maybe even three times!”

“Would you like to say it again?”

“Twice, I think imports the gravity of this event,” declared the Most Dread Master in a tone he felt was both wise and threatening.

“Agreed,” nodded the Prince as he sagely stroked his beard. The beard stroke really sold the sagacity.

“As was written in the scrolls of sacred conflict, let the champions present themselves!” declared the Most Dread Master as he stepped forward.

The Prince, who was in his late middle age and had what could be accurately described as a ‘Dad Bod’, stood up.

“You? You are the champion?”

“I am,” he said with a shrug.

The Most Dread Master waited for a ‘mere jest’ or a ‘got you’ or even a ‘psych!’ It did not come.

“What happened to your loyal cadre of warriors? Johnny Lightning Hands? Myka Mistress of the Razor-Whip? Mysteroid, the Living Smoke? The Mongoose Twins, Ebi and Abi? Bunfar, the Guy with Swords for Feet?”

“Oh, they’re up there,” the Prince said pointing up a balcony. 

All his champions waved and cheered, which resulted in some clanking in the case of Bunfar who stomped his feet swords with great enthusiasm. 

“Are you not going to take this seriously?” asked the Most Dread Master with unmasked irritation. 

“Of course I am, this will shape realm forever.”

“So you think you can defeat me?” 

“I don’t think that.”

“Haha, you will-”

“…I know it.”

It was a classic burn. The Most Dread Master was rapidly losing the mystique of menace that he had spent years cultivating. Time to make some big power moves.

“Okay, Prince ‘I don’t know what I’m doing.’ Check this out.”

With a flicker of darkness, the Most Dread Master teleported about the throne room, shattering vases on plinths with masterful kicks and strikes. Appearing and disappearing into and out of puffs of oily black smoke, which he thought was extremely cool. The fact that the smoke smelled of potpourri was perhaps less cool than he wanted it to be.

“And that’s just the tip of the dark iceberg of my martial arts techniques!”

The Prince applauded and said, “Impressive. Very much so. I enjoyed the potpourri.”

“It’s not potpourri, it’s the scent of dying springtime!”

“Sorry, it just reminded me of potpourri.”

“Well, you were wrong!”

“Would you like to hear the challenge?” stated the Prince in a serious manner.

“Indeed I would!”

Carrying the scrolls of sacred conflict, the majordomo entered and unrolled them to a specific spot.

“I’ve been reading over the scrolls and I discovered something of great interest to me.”

“Do you think you’ve discovered some loophole that will allow you to avoid this?”

“Not at all. But listen to this, ‘The challenged, in this case, me, may choose the nature of the conflict, and the challenger must abide by this or forfeit on pain of disintegration.’”

“I know, I know! It’s a proviso so you can choose where and how we fight. It could be in the Ice Volcano on the edge of the Sea of Fire, or on a Dragon-Owl’s back in a lightning storm, or if we both are blindfolded and have to compose haiku while leaping from branch to branch in the forest of very slippery leaves.”

“Yes… And no.”

“What the hell does that mean!”

“The thing is, the challenge doesn’t have to be a fight,” the Prince offered with a smile.

“Don’t be absurd! That’s what we do! Our whole way of life is based on superiority through martial arts! You can’t just go changing it!” sputtered the Most Dread Master.

“The scrolls do not specify the challenge needs to be one of fighting.”

“Where is my Dread Litigator?” 

There was a great deal of reading and arguing between the Master and his attorney. Part of it was why their copies of the scrolls were on black parchment with purple lettering. It had seemed so very metal when they were made but turned out to be extraordinarily difficult to read. Finally, the Most Dread Master spoke.

“On advice of counsel, I accept that the challenge need not be one of the martial arts. Even though it makes a mockery of everything our most sacred and profane traditions stand for.”

“Very magnanimous of you,” said the Prince.

“I thought so,” replied the Most Dread Master.

There was a dramatic pause.

“Now, and only now, will I reveal my challenge to you, my foe.”

“It better not be trivia! If it’s trivia we should have teams!”

“While that might’ve been entertaining, I had something else prepared.”

At that, servants set up a long table and placed cloth-covered trays upon them. A distinctive acidic smell wafted across the throne room.

“By the sightless eyes of the Iron Crone… No.” 

“Hot wings. Marinated with the essences of one hundred different peppers. Including the feared Pandemonium Pepper which only grows in the darkness of Valley of the Mad. Whoever can eat the most, will mold the world for evil or good.”

While the Most Dread Master enjoyed things that would make the hardest hearts weep, he could not stomach spicy foods. Even black pepper was too much for him. But the challenge had to be met.

He took off his cape with a flourish to show he still had style, and also to prevent it from being stained. As he handed it to the Lesser But Still Very Dread Master, he said quietly, “Send a dark crane to the Dread Gastroenterologist. Tell him I will need his services very shortly.”

Sitting across from his ancestral foe, the Most Dread Master looked at this, his final battlefield, and uttered these words.

“So, no blue cheese dressing?”

An Odd Missive-Part Three

Here, as promised, is the third and final part of An Odd Missive. Given how the world is now, I know finding a secret neighborhood with an absurdist and whimsical bent is very appealing. Full disclosure, it’s still a dangerous place, but in a mythic way. Is that any better? It’s more entertaining. I am quite proud of the whole thing, but then again, I am biased.

Please enjoy!

He was in a forest. There were trees — thick, heavy trees, which seemed misshapen somehow, not that Paul was an expert, but there was something wrong about them. All of the smells and noises he noticed before were now intensified.
Looking back the way he came, he saw Parsnip and Looseleaf peering downwards through a doorway that was set upright into a large tree.
“Three things,” began Parsnip, “One, never leave the path. That’ll be the end of you.”
“Quite right,” added Looseleaf. “Two, don’t eat or drink anything, or you’ll never leave.”
“Leave where?” asked Paul, who felt a panic attack approaching.
Ignoring his question, Parsnip said, “And when you’re dealing with the Old Lady, always be polite but do not volunteer any information.”
“Is that three or four,” asked Looseleaf of his partner.
“The last bit is linked, so I think of it as the third thing,” protested Parsnip.
Looseleaf considered that for a moment and said, “Seems fair and just.”
“As I endeavor to do in all things,” replied Parsnip.
Paul felt well enough to stand, which he did, and moved towards the door, which was starting to swing shut.
“Wait!” cried Paul, lunging towards the closing door.
“One last thing, Julia has the key!” said either Parsnip or Looseleaf, it was impossible to tell.
Paul tried to open the door but it was locked and immovable. He tried banging on it, but all that accomplished was to make his hand sore. Not knowing where he was or what was going on, he did what most people do in such a situation, he took out his smart phone. Just map where he was and he could find his way to a subway; this must be a park. There was of course no signal. Paul sighed and slipped the phone back into his pocket. He felt the card that Ms. Karkowski had handed him this morning.
It finally occurred to him that, during his brief meeting with his boss that morning, there was no humanly way she could have written all that he had read so far on this card. And the fact that it always had some up-to-the-minute, context-aware information on it — and that it still seemed to otherwise be plain old ink on paper — was proof that something was very, very wrong. It was not, in fact, Internet-enabled “e-paper”. Removing it from his pocket, he read it once more: “Just do what they told you and everything will be fine.”
Paul did not think that outcome was possible, but with apparently no other choice he walked into the woods, keeping on the path, as he was told.
As he walked along the path, which was well-worn and lined with stones, Paul had the unpleasant feeling that he was being watched. This intensified until he wheeled around and saw a squirrel behind him, holding an acorn with both hands. With eyes like liquid night, the squirrel held his gaze. It felt like one of those moments in an action movie, just before a gunfight broke out, except that Paul didn’t have a gun and all the squirrel had was an acorn. Paul turned slowly back around and the squirrel did the same, mirroring Paul.
Paul quickly turned back again, but the squirrel was gone, off to bury its acorn, if he knew anything about squirrels (which he did not; few really do). He picked up the pace and passed a number of odd things, such as a small waterfall that fed a little pond, whose surface was undisturbed and shone like burnished silver. In the pond, he could see the reflection of the surrounding trees and what looked like a tall tower, although the tower otherwise wasn’t there.
He saw a group of standing stones, through which a wind blew and the faintest of music could be heard. It was tempting to get closer — he knew that if he stood in the middle of them he could hear the song fully — but the words of Looseleaf or perhaps Parsnip echoed in his mind, “Never Leave The Path Or That Will Be The End Of You”. So he put his fingers in his ears and hummed tunelessly, which incidentally was the only way he knew how.
Paul passed a rabbit on the side of the path, looking at him from a patch of tall grass. Unlike the squirrel, which had a very suspicious demeanor, this rabbit seemed, well there was no other word for it, amused. It cocked its head and grinned. Then it chuckled. Rabbits can’t grin or laugh, thought Paul, but there it was, enjoying the sight of Paul, for reasons of its own. With one final guffaw (guffaw?), it disappeared into the grass. At least it didn’t have a pocket watch, but that’s something he shouldn’t have to think about wildlife. Ever.
Winding downwards, the path led into a clearing where two people sat around a wooden table on which sat a rustic teapot and cups. The first person was an old woman, dressed like a peasant from somewhere in Eastern European, complete with babushka. All the colors were yellows and reds. She was pouring tea into three cups.
The second was a beautiful young woman dressed like a peasant as well, but with a wholly different effect. She had hair the color of honey, with subtle highlights of gold. Her eyes were gray, which recalled clouds seen just as you arrive home ahead of the storm, safe and dry. Her nose was a little crooked, which only enhanced her unique appearance. As for the rest of her, Paul had a difficult time thinking of a polite way to describe her, other than “Wow”.
“Julia?” he asked, his mouth gone dry.
“It seems your hero has arrived, my dear,” said the old woman.
Julia looked him up and down and sighed. “Parsnip and Looseleaf, why do I bother.”
“Now, now, sweetie, he may have hidden talents,” said the old woman with a sly smile. “Please, hero, have a seat.”
Paul sat down.
“I’m not a hero,” he said.
Julia shot him a look that made it clear she agreed with that assessment.
“Now that remains to be seen,” the old woman said, “Let us now introduce ourselves. You may call me Gran.”
I’m P-…” Paul suddenly remembered the advice to not offer any information. “I’m the one they… sent.”
“That’s a rather long name,” replied Gran. “Do you mind if I call you Hero?”
“Uh… sure,” Paul said. He looked at Julia with a smile and shrugged. She stared at him as if he were an idiot. Lots of women had looked at him that way, and over time he had accepted it as an unhappy fact. But he wanted to prove Julia wrong.
“So, you are here for this fair maiden?” asked Gran.
“I’m not a maiden,” said Julia, with vehemence.
Gran tutted, “Not a thing, in my day, that a young lady might say so willfully or proudly.”
“Not ‘your day’, is it?” countered Julia.
“That remains to be seen, doesn’t it?” replied Gran.
With that, both women looked at Paul. It was clear they were waiting for him to say something, but he had no idea what. Julia shook her head and Gran smiled.
“What?” said Paul. He nervously fingered the card, looked down at it, and it read “Say why you’re here”.
“Oh, right, I’m here to bring Julia back,” Paul declared.
Julia gave him a look that said “Finally”.
“Excellent!” said Gran.
“Oh, that was easier than I thought,” said Paul.
“Would you like a cookie? I baked them myself,” said Gran, holding out a plateful.
Paul was suddenly ravenous. He’d not eaten since a bagel on the way to work that morning, and those cookies looked amazing. He took one and popped it in his mouth.
“You are an idiot,” said Julia. This was the first time she had spoken to him directly.
The little voices of Parsnip and Looseleaf that had been chiming in and keeping him from harm had gone silent. Or he had just forgotten. Either way, Paul had the sense of encroaching doom.
“Why didn’t you say anything?” he asked around the chunks of cookie in his mouth.
“I couldn’t!” Julia said.
“Why?” he persisted.
“Don’t eat or drink anything! How hard is that to remember?” Julia yelled at him.
“My two children, I have so many things for you to do for me,” Gran said, her smile widening to show many tiny, sharp teeth. It reminded Paul of a nature show he’d seen about weird fish that lived in the deepest part of the ocean.
“It was just a cookie,” he said. “Why can’t we just leave?”
“By all means,” said Gran, as she gestured to the path behind him.
Paul began to get up but found he was stuck to the chair.
“We are bound by her will,” said Julia.
“Indeed you are,” Gran said.
“All you had to do was not eat that damned cookie,” Julia said.
“And why can’t you leave?” Paul asked.
“It’s a long story,” Julia replied, looking away.
“Did you eat a cookie too?” he asked.
Julia’s cheeks flushed — adorably, he thought — and she said, “It doesn’t matter.”
“Why?” Paul asked.
“Because shut up!” she said.
There was a sound, like nuts and bolts poured over aluminum foil, and they both looked at Gran, who appeared to be laughing. Her shoulders shook with each exhalation.
“This is going to be, oh, so merry,” Gran said, as she wiped a tear from her eye.
“This really is unfair,” said Paul loudly.
Julia rolled her eyes, but Gran said, “No, you are correct, Hero. It is unfair; you came into this with a pure heart.”
Gran looked right at Julia and said, “Truly pure.”
“What do you–“ asked Paul, but was cut off by Gran.
“I’ll make this wager: We will each make a portrait of fair Julia here, and the most accurate will be able to do what they will.”
“Portrait?” asked Paul.
But Gran had already produced an easel with a canvas, a pallet with paints, bushes, and an hourglass.
“When the sand runs out, then we will judge,” said Gran, who turned the hourglass over.
“What am I supposed to use?” asked Paul, who had not brought art supplies with him that morning.
“Whatever you like, dear, whatever you like,” said Gran, who was already painting away.
The hourglass was more likely a minute glass, with the rate that the sand was falling. Paul frantically went through his pockets; he had a pen, excellent! But the only paper he had — other than the notecard his boss had given him, and he probably needed that — was a ripped receipt for the Thai takeout he had the week before. The sand was running faster and faster, as he reached into his last pocket and felt a smooth, cool shape.
With a confidence he rarely felt, Paul pulled out his smart phone and snapped a picture.
“Done,” he said, as the last grain of sand fell.
“Pardon?” said Gran.
“Here, take a look,” he said, and showed the old woman the picture he took. It was entirely accurate — even more so than the one Gran had done, though her work was eerily accurate, but still not as complete as a digital photo.
He showed it to Julia, who favored him with a smile. “Good work, hero,” she said. Not a sonnet, but it did make Paul feel as if he deserved the title.
Gran’s eyes narrowed, and she looked as if she were ready to inflict grave damage. Instead, she pulled out two twigs from somewhere and broke them. With that, Paul knew he could get up and walk away.
He stood, offering a hand to Julia, which she took (yeah!), and they walked towards the path.
“I misjudged you,” said Gran, “I thought you a stupid oaf. I will not make that mistake again. Go, for now.”
Paul did not care for the “for now” part of that, nor for the “stupid oaf” comment, but he had fixed this and was enjoying the moment. In fact, as they proceeded back to the doorway, the Rabbit winked at him, and the squirrel dropped an acorn into his pocket. He felt, and quite rightly, that this was a sort of praise.
As they walked, Paul who still felt pretty good about the way things turned out, turned to Julia and asked, “What was that all about?”
“It’s kind of a long story,” she replied, avoiding his eyes.
“But who-“ he began.
She stopped and looked him straight in the eyes, “Listen, do you have relatives that you might not talk to if you weren’t related?”
Thinking of his cousin who had joined the Salvation Army to meet girls and subsequently deserted when it was apparent that while women loved a man in uniform, it didn’t mean they loved every man in uniform, Paul said, “Uh… sure.”
“That’s the short version,” she said.
Paul felt that pursuing this line of questioning would ruin the moment, so he just enjoyed the companionable silence.
Once they arrived at the door, Paul said, “They said you had the key.”
“What key?” she said, distractedly.
Paul felt a bubble of panic rising in him. While he enjoyed strolling through a forest with a beautiful woman, he was quite certain that if he was stuck here, he would die pretty quickly.
“Oh, you mean this key?” Julia asked, as she produced a brass key from a hidden pocket.
“I hope so,” he replied.
She smiled and turned the key in the lock, and the door swung inward to show the ceiling of Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment. She took his hand and together they stepped forward and onto the table. Paul again felt vertigo, but much less this time. Parsnip and Looseleaf stood on either side of the table and said in unison, “Welcome back!”
There was a feast in the apartment, which seemed very appropriate, with excellent food and beer. And there were stories that were at once funny, exciting, sad, poignant, informative, and scary (but only the one about the Coppermen). Afterwards, he could not recall even a word, with one exception. He had said, perhaps aided by the exceptional beer, that he wished he could stay there. Soon after that, Paul got up to stagger home and Julia kissed his forehead, which was the last thing he remembered clearly.
* * *
Paul woke up in his own bed. He couldn’t recall how he got there, and everything that had happened seemed like a dream — except, unlike most dreams, he could recall everything with complete clarity, except for those stories.
He looked at his clock, 7:30am. He needed to rush to get to work on time, so he jumped in the shower, grabbed an energy bar, and walked out of his apartment door into the front yard. Front yard? He looked around. He was standing in front of a door with a brass A on it, which was next to a smaller door. He looked back through the doorway — that was his apartment, but now it was next-door to Parsnip and Looseleaf’s apartment.
Just then, Looseleaf, in a tatty brown robe, opened his door.
“Good morning! Ready for work, I see,” he said cheerily.
“What’s going on?” asked Paul, who was not sure he wanted to know.
Parsnip, sporting a spotless green robe, stuck his head out and said, “Excellent! Early for work. I like the cut of your jib!”
“What is going on?” Paul repeated.
“You work for us now,” said Parsnip.
“No, I don’t,” said Paul uneasily.
“Indeed you do, young sir!” chimed in Looseleaf.
“’Twas your request!” added Parsnip.
Looseleaf produced a folded-up piece of heavy paper. It was long and contained many heretofores and in-the-event-ofs, but at the bottom was Paul’s signature, countersigned by Parsnip and Looseleaf and witnessed by Julia, and apparently made official with a wax seal. Quite official, in an unfair sort of way.
“But my apartment…?” Paul asked.
“All part of your signing bonus. Traveling expenses taken care of,” said Parsnip.
“No worries, old boy!” added Looseleaf, with a hearty slap on the arm.
Paul took a moment. This was crazy, this sort of thing didn’t happen. He had a life, and friends. He couldn’t just pull up and leave. He turned to say just that, when Julia walked up and opened the front gate. She was dressed in an aviatrix jacket, cream-colored silk blouse, tight brown pants, and high boots with buckles up the side.
“You’ve joined the team, have you?” she asked.
“Yes,” Paul said, and he meant it.
“Welcome to The Borough,” she replied with a smile.

An Odd Missive-Part Two

As promised, here is part two of An Odd Missive, in which Paul ventures further into a very different part of New York. Will there be more oddness? Spoilers, yes there will. Next week, the conclusion.

Paul came up a stairwell and out onto a street lined with trees and cozy-looking brownstones. It looked like an affluent neighborhood in Brooklyn, which, given the time he had just spent underground, made sense. What made less sense was that it looked like late afternoon: The sun was low in the sky and everything was bathed in a golden glow that made Paul think of warm caramel being poured over a large bowl of vanilla ice cream flecked with tiny bits of vanilla beans.
He shook his head and looked down at the card, which again contained new instructions — he wondered for a moment where his boss had managed to buy an apparently location-aware notecard. Maybe it was that “e-paper” he’d read about? Something made by Google? He shrugged to himself and read the instructions: “Walk on the even side of the street till you see the greenstone house. Turn one hundred and eighty degrees and look for the door with the brass A on it. Walk to that door and knock on the smaller door to the right…”
There was an ellipsis. Paul turned the card over: “Knock twice, then once more, and enter when bid, but not before.”
He noticed the doors started at Z and went backwards from there. Given the amber afternoon light, picturesque buildings, and tree-lined street, Paul took his time. It seemed wrong to hurry here, so he strolled. Thoughts of the work awaiting him back at the office seemed a distant and minor concern. When he had arrived at the office that morning, he seemed to be facing an endless workload, and he had resigned himself to another late night and not being able to meet friends for drinks, which, as always, depressed him.
But now, none of that seemed to matter. There was a pleasant breeze and the birds were singing, in what sounded like harmony. Could birds do that? Paul had never heard of that happening, but here it was, so he had to admit that it could happen.
Looking to his left he saw that he was close to his destination… E, D, C, B, and finally A. There was a smaller door to the right of the main door of the house, and a little path, in the small front yard that all of these houses had, split off and led to the smaller door.
He walked up to the smaller door, which had two knockers, and looked at the card again. It read, “Knock both at the same time but don’t drop the pies”. Paul looked around, but there wasn’t a place to rest the bag, so he held it in his teeth and rapped both knockers simultaneously. Twice, then once more.
Immediately, two small peepholes opened and two eyes looked out. One eye was brown with flecks of green and the other was green with flecks of brown.
“Who are you?” asked Brown.
“And what do you want?” asked Green.
“I was about to ask that!” protested Brown.
“I can’t wait all day for you to ask the correct questions!” countered Green.
“Do you believe this?” asked Brown, “The absolute temerity!”
There was a pause as Paul listened to this argument, which had the rhythm and comfort of something often said.
“He asked you a question,” Green said.
“I’m sorry?” said Paul, as he took the bag from his teeth.
“So cheeky!” exclaimed Brown.
“Perhaps he didn’t hear you,” said Green, “Maybe he’s deaf.”
“He’d have to be, to not hear you!” said Brown.
Paul looked at his card, which advised “Tell them you have a letter, but do not slide it in the mail slot”.
“Uh, I have a letter,” said Paul.
“Please just put it here,” said Green, who flapped his mail slot open.
“You’ll just lose it,” said Brown to Green. “In here, please,” as he flapped open his own slot.
“I’m not supposed to do that,” Paul said, wishing he could.
“I’m afraid we’re at an impasse then,” said Brown.
“In this we are agreed!” added Green.
Paul looked at his card, which only said, “HOT PIES”.
“I have some hot pies,” he offered.
“Savory?” asked Green, enthusiastically.
“Or sweet?” asked Brown, with equal fervor.
“Uh, both,” replied Paul.
“Why didn’t you say so!” said Brown.
“You hardly gave the poor soul a chance to slide a word in!” said Green.
“As if you every stop chattering!” said Brown.
“Please come in,” Green and Brown said in sync.
* * *
There was a click and a line appeared down the dead center of the door as it slowly swung open. Paul stepped into a long room that was bisected by a neat yellow line of paint. On the left side it looked homey, if a little sloppy; books were stacked on most available surfaces, there were odd-looking devices on the shelves that whirred quietly, and the furniture looked worn but comfortable. It seemed a place where an eccentric professor might live. The man with the brown eye (he had in fact two eyes, Paul noted) stood on that side, dressed in a green suit. His coat was long, longer than was in fashion, as Paul understood fashion, but it looked freshly pressed and fit him well.
The other side mirrored the layout exactly. Well, not entirely exactly, Paul realized. There was the same furniture, but it was neatly organized with books on shelves, odd devices in glass cases with brass plaques at the bottom, and it was spotlessly clean. Green was dressed in a brown suit, but unlike his companion — Paul was unsure if they were friends exactly — it was worn and showed some food stains.
Both of them inhaled through their noses and smiled.
“The Table,” they said simultaneously, and hurried to the center of the room, where each took hold of two seemingly invisible points on the yellow line of paint and pulled back, revealing a rectangular stone table that rose up from the floor, along with three chairs, one on either side and one at the head.
“Shall we?” they said, pointing to the middle chair. Paul sat down and placed the sack with the pies on the table. Brown produced from his pockets a placemat, small plate, and silver fork and knife. Green pulled out a greasy, crumpled piece of newspaper from his pocket and smoothed it on the tabletop. They each took their respective hot pies and ate them. Brown in small, careful forkfuls, and Green with his hands and spilling flaky crumbs down his front. Brown neatly dabbed his mouth with a napkin, though there was nothing to dab, and Green licked his fingertips and collected the remains of the pie and popped them into his mouth.
“That was splendid!” said Brown.
“Top notch!” agreed Green.
They both seemed in a very good mood, now that they had eaten. Paul thought they might be hypoglycemic; his last girlfriend had that and was a terror if she missed a meal. Paul had taken to carrying energy bars in his jacket to avoid arguments.
“Now, young man,” said Brown, “what may we call you?”
“Indeed, names are important,” agreed Green.
“But not your full name, of course,” added Brown.
“Indeed not! Keep your secret name, well… secret,” said Green.
“I’m Paul,” replied Paul.
“A good name!” said Brown.
“Solid, reliable,” added Green.
Paul did not feel quite solid at all. In fact he felt as though he was in a dream, even though it had a through-line that was unlike most of his dreams, which made no narrative sense when repeated out loud afterwards. Or so the girlfriend before the last seemed fond of telling him.
“Thank you…” Paul said.
“You’re welcome,” said Green.
“Quite welcome,” added Brown.
All three stared at each other till Brown said, “Have we introduced ourselves?”
“I’m sure he didn’t come here by accident,” said Green.
“Surely not, but it is rude not to do so,” countered Brown.
Green thought a moment and said, “Agreed.”
Brown said, “I am Lucius Parsnip, esquire.”
Green immediately added, “And I am Petronius Looseleaf, esquire.”
“So, you’re lawyers?” asked Paul.
“Oh my, no!” said Parsnip.
“We are gentlemen!” added Looseleaf.
“It’s just that–“ began Paul.
“I believe you brought a missive?” said Parsnip.
“I’m sorry, a what?” asked Paul.
“The letter,” said Looseleaf.
Pulling it out from his coat pocket, Paul put it on the table.
“Lovely penmanship,” observed Looseleaf.
“Quite. It’s a dying art, I’m afraid,” said Parsnip.
Neither reached for it, but they did look at Paul.
“Would you mind terribly?” asked Looseleaf.
“Just turning it over,” finished Parsnip.
“Sure,” said Paul, as he flipped the envelope, revealing the wax seal.
“Oh, well, this is a surprise,” said Parsnip, although he did not sound surprised in the least.
“Shocking,” casually replied Looseleaf.
They each took out a small pocketknife and sliced through the wax seal. With an exhalation of air the envelope unfolded itself, getting larger with each unfold until, lying flat, it fully covered the table. Parsnip and Looseleaf grabbed their place setting and newspaper, respectively, just as it finished. It was an illustration of a doorway standing in the middle of a forest glen. The image was rendered in black ink, but so highly detailed that it seemed almost real. The foliage seemed to flutter in a wind. Which was impossible.
“Very well, in you go!” said Parsnip hurriedly.
“No time to waste!” added Looseleaf.
Paul had enough. He stood and said, “What is going on here?!”
“You need to go through the door and retrieve Julia,” said Parsnip.
Paul, who felt he’d been a pretty good sport about everything today, said, “It’s a picture of a door! Not a real door! If this is a joke, it’s over! And not really funny!”
“It’s no joke, old boy,” said Looseleaf, who grabbed the doorknob on the paper and flung it open as he stepped aside, the door falling back and hanging off the side of the table.
Surprised, Paul leaned over and looked in. He saw a forest glen at dusk, the horizon at a right angle to where he stood. Crickets chirped, and a nightingale sang. There was an earthy smell, rich and loamy. Paul didn’t know what loam was, but that’s the word that sprung to mind.
“What is this?” asked Paul, as he looked back at these odd men.
Without a word, Parsnip and Looseleaf each bent down, grabbed one of Paul’s ankles, and tipped him over and down through the doorway. Paul felt a wave of vertigo as he passed though the doorway and landed in a heap on the forest floor. Shaking his head, which did nothing to ameliorate his nausea, he then closed his eyes, took deep breaths, and did not move. When he felt as though he was no longer going to vomit, he opened his eyes.

TO BE CONCLUDED.

An Odd Missive-Part One

This is part one of a short story I wrote a while back. I’ve broken it up into three installments, partially because is it longish for a short story, and partially encourage readers to come back for more. On a self-indulgent note, story won the 2016 New England Science Fiction & Fantasy Association Short Story Contest, which, if you’ll forgive my bragging, is something I’m quite proud of. Now that that’s over, please enjoy An Odd Missive, Part One.

The letter arrived inside an interoffice envelope and was put in Paul’s inbox, and in that way it was ordinary. But there is where ordinary stopped. The address read like this:
Messrs L. Parsnip & P. Looseleaf
752 Inside Thoughtful Lane
Chamber of the Next to Last A
North-South Webbton, Old York
The Borough
123456-654321
The names were odd and the address absurd. There was no place called “Old York”; even the one in England was simply called “York”.
It also was handwritten, with the sort of care only given to weddings and other such events. The envelope itself was made of a thick paper — clearly handcrafted — and the very feel of it was smooth. The final touch was it had been sealed with wax, a copper-colored wax that was impressed with the image of a bottle.
There was a heft to it; whatever was in it was heavy, but not rigid like metal or plastic. The idea that it was plastic seemed somehow wrong. It had a slight give when pressed, gently of course; something told Paul to press gently.
There were no other instructions on the envelope, no memo, no stickies, nothing. Picking it up, Paul went to his supervisor’s office, Ms. Barbara Karkowski. Ms. Karkowski was a good boss in Paul’s estimation. She neither micromanaged nor attempted to be pals with those in her department. Questions would be answered, if asked, and paychecks would be passed out twice a month, which was all he asked for.
Paul stuck his head in Ms. Karkowski’s office and said, “Boss, I have a question.”
Ms. Karkowski did not look up from her laptop screen; she continued to tap away but did say, “Shoot.”
“I got this odd letter…” he began to say, which caused his boss to stop whatever she was typing and look up.
“Close the door,” she said, as she shut her laptop and gestured to the chair in front of her desk. The whole office was super-clean and functional, as if it had been decorated by Scandinavians from the future. There were no personal touches. No photos of loved ones, no tchotchkes, no themed calendar of dogs or cats, or anything else, for that matter.
She took out a key ring from her purse and unlocked a desk drawer, removing a wooden box and placing it in the center of her desk. The box was in sharp contrast to the rest of the office, as it was battered, stained, and clearly extremely old.
“What’s –“ he began.
“Please be quiet,” she said, but not unkindly.
Paul did as he was bid; this was odd, she almost seemed nervous. She was never nervous, occasionally irritated, but not nervous.
Paul watched as she pulled out a tiny key that hung from a thin chain around her neck. It looked a little dull to be jewelry, and Paul had never noticed it before. Ms. Karkowski didn’t wear a lot of jewelry, and the chain the key hung from was thin, so it must be normally hidden inside her blouse.
With a loud click, the box was unlocked, and she removed a leather-bound notebook. Like the box, it was stained and worn, but it did not seem in any danger of falling apart.
“What is written on the front of the envelope?” she asked.
Paul tried to hand it to her, but she made no move to grab it, saying, “Put it on the desk, facing me.”
He did so. She read the address and said, “Now turn it over.”
Again, he complied. This was getting odder and odder.
“Huh,” she said, and opened the notebook. She checked several pages and found what she looking for. Taking a card from the box, she wrote down what looked like several sentences. She then put the notebook back in the box, locked the box, placed the box in the drawer, and locked it once more.
“Paul, it is very, very important that you do exactly what I tell you to do,” she said.
“Can you tell me what is going on?” he asked.
She stopped and looked him in the eye for a good minute. He felt as though this was a test of some sort, not that he could tell what for, but he didn’t look away.
“You need to deliver that envelope,” she replied, and handed him the card she had written on. “Follow these instructions exactly.”
Paul read the card and said, “This doesn’t make any sense.”
“Just do exactly what I wrote, and there should be no problems.”
“Listen, is this some sort of hazing? I know I’m the new guy but –.”
“Paul, you’re a good worker, please just do this and it will sort itself out,” she said.
He looked at her; there was no hint of humor, no twinkle in the eye, no sly smile. There was however, a slight furrow of the brow.
“OK, I’ll be back when I’m done,” said Paul.
“Yes, of course, why wouldn’t you be?” she replied.
He was about to step out of her office when she added, “Be careful of the Coppermen.”
Paul wanted to ask if he had heard her correctly, but she was back to her tip-tapping on the laptop, and he knew that meant this conversation was over.
* * *
Paul put on his coat and left the office, the letter in his inside pocket. He pulled it out. The first part of the instructions were, “Take the 6 train downtown to the end of the line, riding in the last car”.
The 6 train was just two blocks from the office, but it began to rain, so he ran most of the way.
Paul walked to the back of the subway platform, and the train arrived just as he got there. Some good luck, he thought, as he pushed his wet hair out of his eyes. The car was crowded, but he was able to wedge himself in. Stations came and went — 50th Street, Grand Central Station, 33rd street, and so on — till they reached City Hall, end of the line. By then, it was only Paul, an old lady with a shopping cart, and a tall, thin man with a handlebar mustache and wearing an old-style suit with enameled pins on his lapel — clearly some sort of hipster, Paul thought.
Paul got off and looked at the card again. “Go down the metal stairs at the end of the platform till you reach the seventh step. Then walk backwards (this is important!) five steps and then forward nine”.
There was a metal stairway leading down at the end of the platform. It looked like there was normally a chain across it, presumably to keep people from doing what Paul was about to do. The area was poorly lit as it was, and it looked dark down there. This had to be some sort of elaborate prank. Paul didn’t like pranks, usually because he was the victim of so many, but he tried to be a good sport about them.
He counted out his steps carefully, watching his feet: forward seven, backwards five, and forward nine more. On the ninth step, he looked up and saw a tiled archway and an old-fashioned turnstile ahead of him. Oddly, the lighting seemed better now. There was no slot for a Metrocard, but he saw a metal sign reading “Entrance” and below that “5 Cents”.
He looked at the card his boss gave him. There seemed to be new instructions on it somehow: “Enter the turnstile, DO NOT JUMP! Wait for the Y train. Get on and ride till you reach Stuyvesant Square station, but before that, go to the hot pie stand and buy two”. Paul, who had never jumped a turnstile in his life, fished through his pockets and luckily found a nickel, dropping it in the slot and pushing through the turnstile, which made a metallic thunk as it turned.
Walking down a tiled, arched corridor, Paul eventually came out to the platform for the W train. Like the corridor he had just passed through, it was tiled and had a curved but higher ceiling. It did look like a subway station might’ve looked when you only had to pay a nickel to ride. Must be one of those station restorations the city did to commemorate the subway’s long history, and he probably entered it through some little-used back entrance — a shortcut, Paul thought. There were even people dressed in what, at first glance, seemed like period costumes. Upon closer examination, though, there was something off about the clothing.
One young woman wore a hoop skirt with denim jacket over a yellow tank top and a tiny hat with blinking lights. The man from the subway with the handlebar mustache was there, reading a newspaper. Another gentleman, in a bowler and goggles, checked his pocket watch and raised his eyebrows. Three women wearing military jackets, jodhpurs, well-polished boots, and some sort of veiled hats that suggested a very stylish beekeeper nodded at Paul as he passed them, murmuring something he couldn’t make out.
This was clearly some sort of subculture gathered here, Paul thought; hipster-ish, what with all the old-timey clothes and affectations. He figured it was best to go along with it. Then he saw a cart selling, according to the sign, “Hot Pies”; so Paul walked up.
“Two hot pies, please,” he asked.
“Sweet or Savory?” asked the old woman standing behind the cart. Paul consulted the card his boss had given him; it now said, “Buy both, eat neither”.
“One of each, please,” he said.
“I like your manners,” the Hot Pie lady said, with a smile. She pulled two pies out of the cart, wrapped them in paper, and placed them in a brown paper sack.
“Ten cents” she said, as she held out bag.
Paul fished a quarter out of his pocket and received the change. Glancing at the coins she gave him, he saw that the nickel had Jefferson on one side and an owl on the other. The Dime had a wasp and the profile of a woman he didn’t recognize.
“Ummm… my change,” Paul began.
“Would you rather have pennies?” asked the Hot Pie lady, who held out a handful of copper coins of varying sizes and shapes.
“No. I’m fine,” he said, “Thank you.”
Paul mingled in with the others waiting for the train. As he looked around, he saw, worked into the tile, the name of the station: “New City”. If this was a hazing, it was the most elaborate he had ever been in.
He felt a light breeze and saw a light coming down the tunnel. The sound of clattering was heard and the train thundered into the station in a cloud of steam. The train stopped, doors opened with a hiss, and a new group of unique people poured out, and Paul was fighting a rushing river of lace, crinoline, old leather, silk, and canvas. With some effort and more than a few excuse-mes, he made his way onto the train just as the doors slid shut.
Paul fell into the wicker seat, and nearly into the lap of a spindly man as the train took off. The man was dressed as if he were submarine mechanic, based on the brass and steel tanks that sat on the floor between his legs, the helmet with many small, thick glass faceplates that he held on his lap, and the many tools that hung from his broad, rubberized belt.
“Sorry,” Paul said, over the noise of the train. Submarine Mechanic said something in what sounded like Chinese, and shifted down two seats with a dirty look.
Normally, Paul enjoyed reading on the subway; it made the time go faster and usually prevented strangers from talking to him. However, he didn’t want to miss his stop and get lost. A little voice in the back of his head told him that would be bad, very bad.
A short man wrapped in a coat many times too big looked up at Paul, then closed his eyes and lowered his head. Paul normally took great care in picking out clothes that blended in with his surroundings, but now he was the odd man out. If he were dressed in a Napoleonic Calvary officer’s jacket and a kilt made of fur, he’d blend right in. Of course, that would be silly, as there already was someone sporting that particular ensemble at the other end of the car.
Stations came and passed: Pieter’s Point, Inside Star, (the Submarine Mechanic got off there), Old Amsterdam, Widower’s Walk, Svetlana Boulevard, and Lonely Hill, to name a few. Paul glanced at the card, which now read “PAY ATTENTION”, and he looked up and saw they were pulling into Stuyvesant Square Station.
He leapt up and exited, carrying the paper sack with the two hot pies, which seemed to still be hot. Looking around, he saw people walking towards an archway with the word “EGRESS” across the top. He vaguely remembered that was another word for exit, albeit an old-fashioned one, but that seemed to be the order of the day