Friday, March 16, 2018

The Soul of the Plot

The Soul of the Plot
Bobby Derie

"I need the plot of a comedy." Mallory said aloud, staring at her paper. The women next to her didn't even look up from her book as she answered: "A Nazi falls down the stairs and dies."

Mallory looked at the woman. A hoodie stamped with the university logo, pajama pants. The book was Gormenghast. "And the plot of a drama?" she said.

"The Nazi is old, in retirement. Hiding. The MOSSAD agent has been staking him out for weeks. She knew the names and faces of his victims at the camp. Had her grandparents' numbers tattooed on her arm. Not enough evidence to prosecute, no. No way to extradite, no trial, not for a geriatric old man. But a line of fine wire, just at ankle height, at the top of the stairs..." She looked up, to meet Mallory's eyes. "A Nazi falls down the stairs and dies. The last thing he sees is her, waiting for him at the bottom. Watching."

"...a thriller?"

"Someone knows. Watches. The grandson. He's never asked what the old man did, during the war. He prefers not to know. But he sees her, one day, watching the house, the old man on the porch. She asks the hard questions, when they are private, but she worms her way closer and closer into the house... The grandson suspects. He must. He wants to tell the grandfather, resolves to. Ah, yes...there is the struggle... which is stronger in the heart, the woman he just met, or his own blood..."

"Sounds like a romance."

"All good romances have in them the heart of tragedy. All true romances end in tears, not happily ever after. What the grandson fears, at the end, is to be left...not with the woman, not with his grandfather, but with nothing."

"And this MOSSAD agent? What does she get?"

"To see the sun rise, warm and high about the Mediterranean. To know it is done, and the circle is complete."

"Not much room for a sequel."

"You Americans," she put on a terrible accent. "Always so commercial."


Friday, March 9, 2018

Phantom Wings

Phantom Wings
Bobby Derie

Detective Jack Bastard was halfway to the bottle when something soft and stiff brushed his outstretched arm. Pale sunlight, through the city canyons, scattered by the grime of the bar's window made a halo 'bout that head. A stupid pick-up floated through his forebrain - had it hurt when she fell? Then he saw the scars on her fingers and hands, and reckoned it had hurt more when she clawed her way out of where she'd landed. In the background, the speakers started playing Rodney Crowell.

"Detective," her voice was always a breath on the wind to him. "Parenting troubles?"

He shook his head. "She's a good kid."

"Then perhaps the problem is not with her."

Annaya wore a warm rich brown leather coat today, which matched her skin so well they almost seemed to be of a piece, reaching all the way to her knees, where a pair of brown leather boots emerged. Her hair was shorn close to her scalp, some pattern carved there he could not read. Brown eyes laughed as she smiled at him, revealing teeth that had been filed to rough points. He dropped his gaze, back down to her hands. The nails had been torn out by the roots, leaving grey scarred pits where the nailbeds were. Normally, she wore something to cover them - a bit of jewelry, or a pair of gloves. Not today.

"Tell me a story," he asked. Something fluttered past his shoulder as she sat down opposite him.

"The boy ran ahead of the questing knight, down the forest paths. He counted neighbors by mile and by valley, the thin plumes of smoke rising from alternate mountains. It was a thin place - lightly settled, on the edge of things; all authorities were nominal there, both of God and man. Life was old there, and they had their own ways, little bothered by kings and princes.

"The word had gone up of the knight's coming before they ever saw him, as is the way of things. The dust of his passing was seen far-off along the road, and there were few thing that could portend. Then the questing-banner was seen, flying high upon the lance, and it was known that a knight had come to face Callambach, the Old Storm, the Wyrm of the Earth, who drew the poison from the wound of the world.

"The boy had never been to the vale of serpents, but he knew where it lay. All the people did, as the bird knows north and south, and the salmon knows its stream. The knight was worse than blind to such things, and in their own time would have a hard time to find that hidden desolation, but the boy knew there were men and women of the woods who would lead him fair in return for gold, for there was that honesty about even self-destruction among them.

"So he ran, though it was ten miles to travel two miles as the crow flies, around deep ravines and through wooded gullies, past the split rocks and down the Pagan Road, to where the serpents lay in every shadow of every rock, and the earth gave up its vapors. The boy risked his life to reach Callambach, and did not even know if the Old Storm would understand the speech of men - but he had to try.

"The neighbors marked the boy's passage. None of them followed. Yet none stood in his way. The wise ones battened down for what was to come. For the Old Storm rose out of the vale of poison, shook the mountain and wilted the valley, so for three days dead fish floated down every stream, and those who ate them fell ill and died. It was a bad storm, the worst in memory...and on the third day after it ended, and the knight was shelled from their armor, the boy's corpse floated down stream as well. Some say his grin was the rictus of a corpse, but his father declared it was the smile of satisifaction at a job well-done."

"Why?" the Bastard croaked.

"Because the boy was a conservationist. It was his nature. To protect, to preserve. As it is with you and I."

"But what do we protect?"

"Dangerous and stupid beasts, that dwell on the edge of extinction and fight those that try to help them. You know," she winked. "Humans."

Something brushed his cheek. He hadn't felt the tear roll down.

"Do they hurt?" He asked. "Your wings."

"Sometimes," she said, the great muscles in her shoulders hunching beneath her coat. "Yet it is only a phantom pain."


Friday, March 2, 2018

The Black Gloves

The Black Gloves
Bobby Derie

I wasn't damned 'til I'd killed my third man in the ring.

The first one, he came in hurt. His doctors should have known, his trainers should have known, he should have known himself. They say it was a fracture in the skull, didn't show until I damn near took his head off with a right hook. He dropped to the canvas and I was waiting for the count when I saw the piece of bone sticking out his scalp. Bad luck, that, but nobody really held it against me.

My second victim left the fight almost under his own power. Thought he had a concussion, a little punch drunk. Turns out one of those jabs to the heart had fractured a rib, sent a piece of bone into an artery. I actually went with him to the emergency room. Was standing next to his wife when the doctor pronounced time of death. The papers called me "Killer" after that, and I didn't like it. I hadn't set out to kill the guy. It was the nature of the sport. We all take our chances in the ring.

I wanted to go easy after that. Felt a little guilty. Two men dead, and I was the last to lay a glove on either of 'em. Still, I was never one to go for points. You lose your edge in this game if you don't give it all you've got, and every boxer that steps into the ring knows they've got a time limit before they age out.

My last fight was with a slugger. Golden boy, the kind of amateur that comes from nothing and has a bright future ahead of him, with only me in his path. Thought he was an iron man, could take all the punishment in the world. I should have stopped, before the last punch. Told myself that a lot of times. There was something in his eyes, not right going into that final round. The fight had told on both of us, neither was as fast as we were eight rounds ago, but I expected him to block or dodge when he stood there and took a hard left. Dead before he hit the canvas, they told me later, but I knew that as I watched him go down. Like someone turned out the lights, whole body gone slack from the head down.

I talked to the police. The boxing commission held an inquiry. It's the kind of thing that happens. His girlfriend was pregnant, and there was a lawsuit. Wrongful death. Maybe I could have won, but I didn't feel like going through that fight, so we settled and I paid her off. Of course, that made it look worse.

My agent, Finn, he laid it out straight for me.

"Killer, you're blackballed. Ain't nobody wants to fight you. The commission won't say anything official, but you got three deaths in as many fights. Looks bad, real bad, on them and the sport." He fidgeted. Finn was a fidgety little guy, never still. Had the nervous energy of a rat, and wide dark eyes beneath a pair of bushy white eyebrows. The kind of guy that knows every back room of every gym in the city, and seems to collect more favors than money. We'd gotten together in Armanio's Gym. I saw he'd been watching me, asked if I'd ever wanted to go pro. That seemed like a lifetime ago. Three lifetimes, as it turned out.

"There's another option." He waggled his ears and twitched his nose. I always thought it made him look like a rabbit when he did that, but it was just one of his fidgety habits. His hands were busy filling his pipe with tobacco. "It's boxing, but it's not quite...regular rules."

"I'm not down for bum fights or bareknuckle stuff, Finn." I said.

"I know, Killer, I know. This is...more of a private league. The Black Gloves."

Figured I knew what he was talking about. Unlicensed matches. Underground boxing, the kind people could bet on. Blood matches, maybe. You hear about that stuff, but nobody with even a glimmer of sense wants in on that. It's not just getting tossed out of regular boxing circles, there were criminal penalties involved. A part of me had the sneaky suspicion that Finn had set me up. A "Killer" reputation would be good promotion for that kind of thing. I was about to tell him where he could stick it when I found out how wrong I was.

Finn put a pipe to his mouth and lit it with his fingers. I don't mean he struck a match or flicked a lighter, I mean he held his fingers close and a little flame burned there, just a spark and a thin trail of smoke curled up from the bowl. "There's some things we got to talk about, lad." Finn said, around his pipe. "There's more in this world than the Marquess of Queensbury. You've a talent, and I'd like to see you develop it. You've had a black run of luck, but there are those that traffic all their lives in it, like fishes in water. And if you've got the mettle, there's prizes to be won..."

The match was set for midnight, in a ring built in a basement beneath a basement. The room was small, and the lights somehow didn't penetrate far into the darkness to give a good look at the crowd. They were figures more comfortable in the shadows, and the eye tended to slide off them rather than focus. I got an image of tailored suits and dresses, but some of the outlines weren't quite human. A buffalo's head on top of a body like a linebacker, all decked out in a brand-new tuxedo, white tie and all. The dame at his elbow wore a sheer evening gown that showed a lot of cleavage, but the head of a cow, soft brown eyes that seemed to hold my own for a moment before moving on. Finn massaged my shoulders, strong hands kneading the muscles lightly to loosen them up.

"I slipped the charm into your left glove in the dressing room," he said. "That'll put you on keel with this guy. But don't get cocky. You'll have to think on your feet."

I didn't tell him I'd taken the charm out before we'd put the gloves on. Maybe it was stupid, but I didn't hold with using magic to win matches - whether it was in the rules or not. Hell, I never had so much as a rabbit's foot on me in the last three fights.

The referee was a five-foot tall salamander in a striped shirt. Pants were apparently optional, but I didn't let my gaze drift southward. "In this corner," the ref said with a touch of Brooklynese "at six feet and two hunnerd pounds, Mikael 'Bloodfang' Blomquist of Norway. And making his Black Gloves debut, "Killer" Tom Gilly of the United States of America, at six-one and a hunnerd and ninety-five." There was a rumble from the crowd, but we touched gloves and came back to our corners. Maybe it should have felt different, but so far it was just a regular match. Blomquist was a good match to me, not too spare and lanky, blond hair long and wild with a bit of a wild look in his pale blue eyes. I figured him for a rusher, and that suited me fine.

There was the bell.

The Scandinavian came out me like a shot, and ran straight into my left; he was a little taller, but my arms had a bit more reach. The hit put him off balance, and I brought my right up in a cross that brought a little color to those high cheeks. He came at me again, no real art, and I crouched and ducked and weaved away from him. He favored his right, and when he missed a swing I came in with my left, jabbing at his belly. We did that two, three times before our first three minutes was up. I walked back to my corner feeling pretty good. If this Bloodfang didn't show me more than that, I'd wear him down and take him apart. Finn must have known what I was thinking, because he pursed his lips and said. "Don't get cocky. His blood ain't up yet."

I figured Finn must know what he was talking about, so this time I came out swinging. Blomquist and I traded punches for a bit in the middle of the ring, neither giving an inch. He had a few pounds on me, and up close in a melee an inch of arm length didn't make much difference. Then I decided to try something. I left my right circle a little, and his eyes went for it like a dog for a bone, he brought his own left up...and the bolo punch caught him right in the nose. There wasn't a crunch of cartilage, but there was blood on my glove as he fell back a bit and I moved to follow up, but stopped when I saw what was happening.

One thing you don't think of, when you look at a wolf, is their deep chests, and the lanky set of the limbs. I swear I heard the bones snap as that chest folded out; the welts I'd raised in the first round swiftly being covered with a shaggy crest of blond fur. It was the bones that seemed to move under the skin, stretching it tight and thin before they filled out with muscle...only the eyes stayed the same, blue and wild and pissed as hell.

Blood trickled from one black nostril on its muzzle, dark red like a dog's. He seemed to loom at least seven feet tall now, though the arms were thin and lanky, and the gloves seemed tight on his hands - or paws; I never found out which. The feet, though, were more like a wolf's, and he was up on his toes, black claws scraping the canvas. Thin black lips drew back to reveal a row of fangs, his mouthguard vanished like a virgin on prom night. Bloodfang growled, and the real fight began.

It wasn't like fighting a dog, and it wasn't like fighting a man. He had more reach now, and speed; I caught a few punches on my shoulders, turning away from the blows, trying to get my bearings, but he had me now and wouldn't let up. The wolf snarled and snapped, which put me on edge. It was a rough couple of minutes until the next bell, but I waited it out, backing up around the ring.

"You can't rope-a-dope a werewolf," Finn said, as I got to the corner. "He'll take you apart before you wear him down. You gotta give him the left. The charm'll put the hurt in him."

I heard him, and nodded, but the little square of parchment with the incantation in black and red ink was back in the locker room. I had to figure something else out.

My rush caught him by surprise, and I slipped inside his reach, pounded away at his body. He was a bit awkward on the block, the wolf-arms not good for it, but my knuckles hurt as they pushed against those ribs. The bastard was tougher than iron. Then when he tried a left hook, I got him in a clinch.

That turned out to be a mistake. Like trying to hug a rabid dog, those fangs about inches from my face. I could feel the wolf growl as a vibration through his chest. He broke the clinch with ease, and threw me halfway across the ring, right into the ropes - hell, I almost when over the ropes. Then he was on me again. I got the worst of that three minutes, unable to answer a single punch as he kept jabbing at my head, left and right, just out of reach. Blocking didn't seem to do any good, as the glove smashed into temple and chin and cheek, over and over, and against the ropes I didn't have anywhere to move.

Finn looked a bit worried as he mopped up the blood. I had cuts over both eyes. "I don't know what to tell you, Killer. You gotta put the hurt on 'im. This bastard ain't as hard as he looks, but you can't soak up punishment forever. You don't show me somethin' this round, I'm gonna have to throw in the towel." He hesitated a minute. "And Tom, I know I told you what the penalty was for that."
Yeah, he had. Venue rules. I hadn't laughed when I signed the contract. They made me do it in my own blood. I'd never given much thought to dying, and wouldn't mind dying in the ring. But there were fates worse than death, in the Black Gloves.

The fourth round started with me thinking about dogs, and I came out with a plan. Bloodfang was looking for the rush, but when I started to circle my right, he brought up his own right, waiting for a bolo punch that never came - I jabbed straight into that black snout, and his head snapped back and he howled.

Dogs have sensitive noses. Even a hard tap is painful. When I put all 195 pounds into it, I'm fit to make him a bulldog. He was taller than me, so I was punchin' up, but I had him off-guard now, aiming for his head. The spindly thin wolf-arms that weren't great for blocking body blows were even worse for covering his head; it was a bigger target now. I drove him back, right into the corner, feinting and jabbing around his guard, trying to catch him on the nose when I could. The fur of his chest was getting stained with blood, and he had started to yowl and snap at my fists, which drew a boo from the crowd. Then he tried to clinch with me, and I drove an uppercut into that long jaw that lifted the blond bastard right off his feet, and sent one white fang spinning off into the audience.

Bloodfang landed badly. His tongue lolled form his mouth, raw and bloody; his noise was a ruin, damn-near punched in, and his lips were raw and ragged where the teeth had bitten through them. I wasn't a pretty sight myself - I could already feel my left eye and cheek swell up, and there were dark welt on arms and shoulder where I'd fended off the wolf's punches. The salamander slithered over to him and counted the wolf out, and I won't say I wasn't glad of it when he raised my arm to a polite smatter of applause from the darkened crowd. Another round and I was like to have been dog food.

In the locker room, Finn bent over and picked the charm up off the floor. "Son of a bitch," he said. "No wonder you had so much trouble with that bum. Next time, I'm going to sew the damned thing into your glove."

Next time, I thought, through the ringing in my ears. Next time I'd let him.


Friday, February 23, 2018

The Long Walk

The Long Walk
Bobby Derie

Small fists punched the air as she went down. Aisha Esme Ahuja kicked up a cloud of fine brown earth from the dirt road when she landed flat on her back.

The boys laughed as they ran away.

It was an unpaved private street, planted on either side with trees. Her family own the west side, and her grandfather had planted the trees himself when he had come out to this country.

Aisha stood up, and dusted her dress as well as she could, then continued on home.

She made it a hundred yards before the tall boy, Seth Baren Williams, punched her in the back of the head. Aisha fell face forward. He had been hiding behind a tree on the west side of the road, and circled back behind the tree as she approached, like a squirrel. The short boy, Ephraim Gulden Williams, kicked dirt into her face when she was down.

Their family owned the fields on the east side. The road belonged as much to their family as hers.

Aisha tasted dirt and spat it up. By the time she got onto her feet, they were already running ahead.

There are many hundred yards in a mile.

By the end of it, Aisha would walk up to her house, one eye swollen closed, both lips split in three places. Half her hair pulled out. Knuckles and knees raw and bleeding. Yet triumphant.

The Williams boys, she thought through a cracked smile, would not walk home that final hundred yards. They would crawl.

The next day, she would not be molested on her long walk to school and back. Nor ever again.


Friday, February 16, 2018


Bobby Derie

Liquid water, distilled and tasteless, is available in every bar in the system. That way no matter what variety of carbon-based lifeform you might be, you can purchase your alcohol in quantity and then dilute it as necessary to avoid poisoning yourself. Strictly a bring-your-own-bag game, where you pay by the milliliter.

I was drinking with a Cloraxian - that's not what they call themselves, it's just what humans call them because they give off traces of ammonia as a by-product of perspiration - each out of our own bag. I had some hákarl back in my pod and was trying to get her - Cloraxians have two genders, although the specifics are a little more complicated than with Earth life - to come join me for a night of first contacts.

That was when the Televe got the drop on me.

There are places in Earth's oceans where the pressure is too great for any human to stand it, even with mechanical aid; but we can build drones that swim through the dark depths, relaying data back up to the surface. Now imagine if those drones were biological, and fucked and evolved over a few hundred million years to the careful guidance of those above. That's about what the Televe are: biological robots built up like domesticated pets, the three-dimensional part of fourth-dimensional entities.

This one was holding a gun.

I had done a little bit of business with the Televe. They didn't want much, as far as material goods; imagine if you could train a cow to sow and reap its own grain, but a million times more advanced. The fourth-dimensional intellects, though, were very interested in any technology that impinged on their sphere of influence - advanced physics, experiments in faster-than-light travel, singularities, that kind of thing - and they usually have some good material to trade. Unfortunately, the last batch of data I sent them might have been a little hot. Not that I knew that at the time, I was just trying to move it for somebody else. Unfortunately, "fixer" and "limited liability" as concepts didn't translate very well.

You don't want a Televe to draw on you. Their fourth-dimensional selves occupy or perceive, as near as folks can tell, a couple of seconds on either side of what we think of as "the present." A nice edge, when you can see what just happened or is going to happen. When they have the drop on you - which they usually do, because they can see what you're going to do - it's best not to make any sudden moves. Because, as fast as the reaction times for your species might be, you're trying to move faster than an entity that can already "see" how you're going to move and direct the Televe drone accordingly.

I sucked at my bag. The Televe screeched at me. The Cloraxian made herself scarce.

"Look, I didn't know it was stolen." It knew I would say that. I kinda wondered what their perception must really be like. It's not that time doesn't pass, but it's like they occupy more of it than we do, and less space. All a continuum, right? And information has to pass back and forth. We can see the Televe move in real time, see the start and stop of the movements. Since they start responding before the event occurs; their "reaction time" is effectively a negative value: how soon can they begin to respond? What most people don't ask, then, is if they're being puppeteered in something resembling real-time, or whether it's through some kind of program. The interface is still a bit of a mystery, and no Televe has agreed to be vivisected so scientists can figure it out.

Point being, though: once a Televe begins an action, it can't stop. This one dropped its gun and raised its hand in surrender. I caught a whiff of ammonia, and both I and the Televe looked up at the Cloraxian, who was hanging from the ceiling, brandishing a weapon. The Televe, it turns out, are still limited to the sensory apparatus of their bio-drones...who have a terrible sense of smell.

Good to know. Now I really do owe her some hákarl.


Friday, February 9, 2018

Another Whiskey Please

Another Whiskey Please
Bobby Derie

"Ah, Friend Trowbidge, I swear I will die of thirst in the next five minutes if I do not get a drink!"

The petite Frenchman had laid his slippers by the fire, and I indulged him, breaking out a bottle of Canadian rye and filling two snifters on the small table between us. He reached out for the glass absently while staring into the fire, and picked up mine by mistake. The little fellow realized his error immediately, and set it down closer to my side, then took up his own drink.

"A thousand apologies, my friend! I would leave you parched while I down all of your fleeting store of ambrosia!" So saying he drank deeply from his glass, and smacked his lips in satisfaction. My own hand trembled a little as I followed suit—and drank perhaps more quickly than is my usual wont, for it seemed to go to my head almost immediately.

"Ah, mon ami." His permanent guest said. "It was a difficult case. Long will the horror of this night stay with me—though I am glad that the monster was vanquished at last, like the others, the human price of such things does weigh upon me."

"The others?" I said, feeling delightfully warm and drowsy as the fire and alcohol did their work.

"But of course, the others. This is not the first vampire we have vanquished together, my friend. Non! We are veritable fiends to the undead who plague us here... I oft wonder if it is not I that attract them; some sympathetic vibration from my soul. Certainly, wherever I have traveled there has been evil to fight. So I settled here, and now I need not seek it out, for it soon finds me! Yes there may be something in that..." he let the sentence trail off, then placed his empty glass next to mine. "Another whisky please. This so-fine Canadian red, it is not brandy or champagne, but it warms the blood which has been chilled."

I shuddered, involuntarily. The memories of the night were still too fresh, the young boy's broken body, what mercy he had given the girl before he had done what was necessary with knife and wooden stake...yet already a the images of only a few hours before had a kind of dreamlike quality. I shook my head as to clear it, and poured a few more fingers of ruddy liquid into the glasses. My friend held his glass up for a toast, and the crystal clinked before we took our next sips together.

"The one thing that troubles me," I said after a while. "You say this is not the first vampire we have faced together...and I know you have traveled around the world and had all sorts of adventures, delved deep into the dark underbelly of life, the supernatural and all that, and I know we've had a few queer cases here in Harrisonville, yet...yet..." I found I could not finish the thought.

"Yet you do not recall the specifics." The Frenchman finished. "Though you wrack your brains. Yes. It is the hypnotic I secreted in your drink. Combined with the alcohol, it will induce a state of retrograde amnesia. You will sleep deep tonight, and remember nothing in the morning. As always."

He must have seen the look I shot him, and his pale blue eyes met mine steadily, despite the alcohol he had consumed. "It is better this way, mon ami. You are a creature of science, logic, reason; for you are the horrors of the birthing-chamber and the death-certificate. Such mundanity, such skepticism, I need it, yes. Indeed. Nom d'un porc! I could not function otherwise, if you became a mere acolyte in occultism. Many times have I thought to leave, if only to spare you further horrors—but failing that, I say to myself 'What can I do?' and I say: 'I can spare him at least the memory of such things. To seal over the scars of the mind, while they are yet fresh, and let them heal. Yes.' and so that is what I have done...and will do again."

A flash of anger sparked inside me, and I half-rose from my chair. "Now see here..."

"No, my friend." The Frenchman said, and laid his small hand on my wrist. "Do not be angry. What I have done, it is not just for you, but for myself also. It is selfish of me, yes, but when I think of all those innocent ones that I could not save...I would save you, at least."

The sincerity in his voice defeated me, and I collapsed back down. Languor already seemed to settle into my limbs, a bone-weariness that spoke of physical exertions that were already growing hazy in my mind. "How often?" I asked, after a long while. "How many times?"

"Fifteen or sixteen times, I think. It is not always necessary. I preserve it for cases of...lasting horror." The Frenchman flicked an eyebrow. "You remember only four or five such cases, yes? Frauds, fakes, murderers, certainment, but no vampires, werewolves, ghosts, or anything like that. No," he sighed, and his eyes looked far away. "You do not remember the great serpent I cleaved in the Château de Broussac, or the noxious count whose century of horror I ended with my sword-stick, or the victims of the blood-flower and that terrible business with the white lady of the, it were better this way."

"Another whiskey please, Friend Trowbridge. Then we must to bed. You to your dreamless sleep, and I to my nightmares—the only respite from which I have is that I have spared you the same."


Friday, February 2, 2018

Lovecraft and the Tiger

Lovecraft and the Tiger
Bobby Derie

"Howard Phillips Lovecraft did not believe in reincarnation." The tone was irritable, but Price let that pass. Augie, he knew, had many worries - his business, his house, his children. It was why he had suggested the circus as a diversion. They wandered among the gaudy striped tents as April and William ran ahead, clutching cones of cotton candy.

"E'ch-Pi-El did not believe in many things," Price agreed. "A confirmed materialist, utterly refused to acknowledge the supernatural. Not even astrology or telepathy."

"Natural telepathy is possible," Augie grunted, and shelled a peanut.

"But that does not mean the universe is restricted to what Lovecraft believed!" Price said. "And I ask you...if Howard did come back...what would he come back as?"

"Allowing your argument - just for the sake of fun! - I would say he would reincarnate as a man. Certainly, Lovecraft was a high-grade human being, and would not have come back as a lower form."

"I wonder..." Price said, and then they stopped.

The bars of the cage were about as thick as a man's thumb. The stripes that moved back and forth behind them created a strange, contrasting pattern. Price could well imagine the creature in a canebrake, the flash of black stripes against the tall grasses giving just such an effect. Muscles rolled beneath the fur, and the creature stopped and fixed its great yellow eyes on the pair. Even Augie was fixed by that stare.

"Do you suppose..." Price began, but his voice failed.

Augie had paused, a peanut crushed in his hand. "No." he said. "Not possible."

"But it makes perfect sense!" Price hissed. "You know how much he loved and admired cats. Just look at him!"

There was something regal in the tiger as it cooly surveyed them. Circus animals can be mangy beasts, but not this one - not yet. It relaxed into the attitude of the Sphinx, the patterns of stripes around its face seemed to draw them.

"We have to get him out of there," Price said, quietly.

"What?" Augie broke the tiger's stare. "Ed, we can't do that."

"But he's in prison!"

Augie opened his mouth, but whatever argument he was about to make was halted by a sudden, soft meow.

Both men stared at their feet. A piece of the night lay there, in an attitude of solemn attention. It's ears forward and attentive, it stared up at them with green eyes. The black fur was, just visible, crossed with sable stripes, blue-black when the light struck them just right. As they watched, it sat up on its haunches, and held up its right paw, the left forelimb held against its chest, so that the right forelimb seemed to wrest on the paw of the left.

"That's...that's..." Price started.

"Dunsany." Augie confirmed, voice hollow. "Time and the Gods." Then he began to quote, in a soft Wisconsin accent: "For the cat is cryptic, and close to strange things which men cannot see. He is the soul of antique Aegyptus, and bearer of tales from forgotten cities in Meroë and Ophir. He is the kin of the jungle’s lords, and heir to the secrets of hoary and sinister Africa. The Sphinx is his cousin, and he speaks her language; but he is more ancient than the Sphinx, and remembers that which she hath forgotten."

The tiger in its cage bowed its head, and the night-black tom cat resumed the attitude of its species, fled off into the circus.