This is the 16th round of The Alphabet Challenge mentioned in THIS<<link post. As a refresher, the Broxson twins, Gary and Perry, and I will each write one story for each letter of the alphabet. Meaning, a story whose title begins with the given letter. For this round, it’s the letter “P“.
Readers have two weeks from the date of publication to vote for their favorite story in the current round. Points will be assigned to each writer based on total votes received.
In each round, the story with the most votes gets three points. Second place gets two points, third place gets one point. In the case of a tie, the points for the tied rankings are added and then split equally among the writers who tied. At the end of the year, we tally up and crown the winner with the most points.
Long or short, each story will appear on its own post and the trio will be followed by a fourth post where readers can vote.
Here we go. Presented anonymously, the third of three stories with titles beginning with the letter “P” as submitted by its author.
Copyright 2020 — E. J. D’Alise
(6,282 words – approx. reading time: about 24 minutes based on 265 WPM)
When the Giant Hadron Collider had a breakthrough — literally —the world as we knew it turned on its head.
I mean, it was good for me, but not so good for lots of people. Before the breakthrough, I barely qualified for holding down a fast-food service job, and not the prized drive-through window position, either, with the fancy headset and access to fresh air. Well, mostly fresh air since, occasionally, the exhaust from the idling cars wafted in.
After the breakthrough, I had a better job. What breakthrough? The barrier between the “real” and “fantasy” worlds turned permeable, and the two worlds began to see intrusions, with fantasy creatures— some magical, some not — wandering into our reality, and regular people popping over to the fantasy worlds for a look-see.
It almost sounds like it would be great fun, until you’re driving to work and get stuck in a massive traffic jam because a sorcerer and their pet dragon crossed over and are strolling down the center lane of the highway in the middle of rush hour.
It wasn’t fun on the other side, either. Regular people showed up with what are innocuous objects here, but which turned into powerful magical weapons once on the other side. You’d be surprised the damage the Bic Ultra-fine Pen of Bob did in Alfheim before Bob — the owner of the pen — realized that whenever he waved it around or wrote himself notes, he was casting powerful spells. Alfheim almost went to war, thinking Vanaheimr was mounting a magical attack.
And, that’s nothing compared to the Flonase Magical Mist of Margaret episode. That required a monumental clean-up effort because, whenever Margaret — the lady who had crossed with the spray — sneezed, she brought into existence massive quantities of . . . well, snot. And not the clear stuff, either. Sticky, pale-green, and runny snot that got into the nook and crannies of Olympus. The reparations included a ban of all sprays crossings and a resurgence of the pagan gods.
Anyway, that’s where I come in. As a member of the Permeability Police — a poorly though-out name — I deal with problems arising from unauthorized crossovers and enforcing the Crossover Rules and Fit Together Treaty.
The title doesn’t make much sense until you see the acronym . . . The CRAFT Treaty. That’s the one thing all sides agreed to without reservation: the name of the treaty.
The treaty established acceptable rules of conduct as well as an agency to review and approve all crossovers. The agency included representatives from each realm, and they considered who, when, why, and how, before approving crossings, thus aiming to minimize any negative impact on the native population.
That was the theory. The practice was something else. It turns out that the one thing the populations of all realms have in common is that they are terrible at following rules.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
I got a call just as I was getting into my car.
“Nick,” the Chief said, “we got a situation. Get in as quick as you can.”
“Quickly,” I corrected.
“Never mind. What kind of a situation?” I asked as I buckled in and turned on the overhead lights.
“We’re getting a visitor from the other side. Something about dogs, and a couple of missing staffs.”
“Heading there now, Chief,” I answered.
Dogs have been a problem ever since some unknown sorcerer had crossed over and made them sentient. All of a sudden, many dog owners found themselves taking care of sentient beings ranging in maturity from toddlers to teens. Older dogs were fine, even great to be with, but younger dogs were much worse than kids since you couldn’t just hand them a game console to keep them busy now that chasing their tails no longer held as much interest.
Some suspected the same sorcerer had also made cats sentient, but since they were as aloof as always, no one knew for sure.
Anyway, if one of the realms was sending someone over, it meant a dog — or a pack of dogs — had crossed and caused trouble.
The Chief liked me present when beings from the other realms visited because I’m a Magic damper, which means Magic stops working when I’m around. There’s a good number of us, but rare enough for most stations to have just one.
It’s theorized our lineage includes many skeptics. You know the type; always demanding proof for extraordinary claims and asking believers to replicate said claims . . . now we know why they always failed. To replicate their claims, that is.
Others believe people like me come from a long line of IT support techs for the same reason; because users could never replicate computer problems when techs were around.
Anyway, attending these meetings usually was OK . . . but not when Tinker Bell comes flying through the barrier.
Whatever Magic she used to fly — them tiny wings were mostly decorative, I later learned — stopped working the moment she crossed over and got near me.
She yelled something I assumed was Sidhe for Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, and dropped in an uncontrolled dive. I dove in a more controlled manner, got between her and the floor, and rolled, making sure not to crush her.
I ended up on my back, and she ended up standing on my chest.
“That was fun. Thank you,” she said as a big smile lit up her face.
“Uh . . . you are welcome,” I replied and made to get up. That threw her off-balance and back she went, down my chest. I stopped moving, and she landed on her backside, slamming my solar plexus and ending up in an undignified pose. She was no more than eight-inches tall, but unlike the Disney version, she was solid muscle and looked like she worked out. Not muscle-bound, but not petite, either.
“Humph!” the grunt was involuntary as the impact knocked the wind out of me, and I quickly looked away as she struggled to regain her composure, balance, and modesty.
She burst out laughing and kept laughing as the Chief produced a basket large enough for her to stand on, and she held on to the handle for balance as he lifted her.
“Thank you,” she said, still smiling, as he deposited her on the conference table.
After various apologies and acceptance of said apologies, the briefing started with introductions and a mild disappointment.; not Tinker Bell.
“I am Dana of the Tuatha Dé,” she explained said, “sometimes generalized as a Sidhe. Some of you,” she turned to me when speaking, “might be more familiar with an inaccurate adaptation of my kind in one of your popular animated stories, hence why I chose this particular mode of dress.”
“Uh, you’ve met Nick,” the Chief said. “He’s our lead and your contact and escort for this case.”
“Yes,” she smiled as she continued looking at me.
I had to remind myself Sidhe fairies are tricksters, and little they show or say is without calculated planning and for their benefit. Still, it didn’t help I was remembering my childhood crush on Tinker Bell.
“Right,” she said after the introductions. Turning serious, she spelled out the reason for the visit.
“Gentlemen, we have a problem. You have no women in your ranks.” She stood tall, her balled fists on her hips, her chin held high, although that last part might be from having to look up at us.
We looked at each other.
“Uh,” the Chief began . . .
“I’m joking,” she said. “As you know, our kind don’t like competition, so this is fine.”
“Doesn’t,” I corrected.
“Nevermind,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Ah, to the matter at hand,” she continued, “we have a bit of a problem that might affect your world more than ours.”
She paused for effect.
“Circe’s and Merlin’s staffs have left their realms, and we lost track of them once they crossed near here.”
“Staves,” I corrected.
“What?” the Chief asked.
“Staves, that’s the plural of staff,” I explained.
“That doesn’t sound right,” he said.
“I agree,” Dana chimed in. “Staves sounds weird. I don’t think most people would even know the usage.”
“Yes, but . . . wait,” I said as what she said sunk in, “Merlin and Circe staves? In Idaho?”
“But,” the Chief picked up, “you’re from a different realm to either of them.”
“Yes and no. I mean, yes, generally, but . . .”
“Hercules and Fantasia,” I finished. “Disney’s adaptations of Greek and Arthurian legends.”
“Correct. Tenuous connections, at best, but the other realms didn’t care enough to send anyone. Gods can be like that,” Dana explained.
“Tell me about it,” I chimed in, earning a dirty look from the religious folks in the room. How they still held on to their religious beliefs, I didn’t know.
Dana turned to me.
“They may have used the Subtle Knife.”
“The Subtle . . . ?” the Chief asked.
“Knife,” I answered. “From the Dark Materials?” I asked.
“Yes. We think that’s how they crossed so easily from realm to realm,” Dana said and continued to explain. “Normally, a deliberate or accidental incantation is required, and the crossing itself perturbs the barrier. But, with the Subtle Knife, you just slice open a portal and walk through.”
“And, you think it was dogs?” the Chief asked. As an ex-dog lover, he was prepared to believe the worst, especially having three Labs teens at home.
“They . . . uh . . . left traces,” Dana replied.
“Yeah,” I said, “they may be sentient, but they still like to mark their passage.”
“That too, but they also took a dump on Merlin’s favorite shoes,” Dana added.
After the formal declaration of intent to cooperate without obligation or remuneration, Dana and I were left to plan our strategy.
“You’ll have to carry me,” she said.
“Well, because of you, I can’t fly, and walking around might prove problematic.’
“I’m not sure how . . .”
“I can sit on your shoulder, but I’m not sure what I’d hang on to,” she said while looking at my ears.
“Uh . . . it might be a bit undignified, but I have a satchel you could stand in if I leave the flap open.” I got a mental picture of crossing some old lady carrying their Chihuahua in their purse and me carrying a miniature female.
No matter what, it was bound to garner attention. Then again, people were getting used to seeing all sorts of strange things.
“I suppose that could work, but I’d much prefer a more intimate . . . er . . . higher, vantage point. If you leave for a moment, I’ll go get something that might help.”
I looked at her and had to suppress the idea of Tinker Bell coming on to me. Fairies liked to play with human emotions, and Dana was proving to be no different.
I went to get a coffee, and when I returned, Dana handed me a finely woven gold harness not unlike a vest but with a platform — complete with a railing — that hung just about navel height.
“It’s yours to keep,” Dana said, “for when we meet again.”
“No,” I quickly said, holding the harness as if contaminated. In a way, it was. Accepting gifts from the Sidhe was tantamount to incurring an obligation to do something in return, and you couldn’t trust them to be reasonable in what they asked for.
A hurt look crossed her face but quickly passed.
“No obligation, Nick. You have my promise.”
I put the harness on without hesitation. The Sidhe were known for deviousness but also for keeping their promises. Once adjusted, I leaned over so she could climb in.
“Just grab me and get me near, Nick, it’ll be much easier. Just don’t lift me by my head,” Dana said, again smiling.
Not exactly politically correct in these days and age, what with the PC Reformation Act not even a decade old, but I grabbed her as carefully as I could without putting her in danger of dropping, got her to the platform, and she swung in there.
“You’re blushing,” she said.
“Look,” I replied, “if we’re going to work together, I’d appreciate it if you would keep this as professional as possible.”
“Right!” she said in mock seriousness. “Where to?”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Our first stop was to visit the Independent Dogs. These had been dogs in pounds, strays, and dogs who hadn’t liked their owners and who had organized, with support from various animal protection organizations, and formed their own societies. The more accurate term was ‘gangs,’ but ‘societies’ sounded more civilized.
The particular gang I had in mind was run by an English bulldog named Nova. Her given name was Butterball, but, like most dogs, she’d changed it once sentient.
After entering the compound, the German Shepherds and Doberman Pitchers perimeter guards escorted us to the main house, which used to be one of the largest private animal shelters in the area. I could see human workers tending the grounds — a euphemism for ‘picking up dog shit’ — and answered Dana’s questions.
“Dogs were deemed eligible for UBI by the landmark SCOTUS case of Fido v. State of Utah, so, yes, those humans work for — and are paid by — the dogs themselves. Probably minimum wage as dogs are notoriously against sharing what they have,” I explained.
One of the Dobermans snorted as I heard another give the “Like humans are any different!” retort.
They dropped us off on the veranda, where a Border Collie named Arnia took over and herded us into the waiting room outside Nova’s office. Given the reputation of English bulldogs, I suspected Arnia was the power behind the throne. Waiting to be shown in, I reflected on how sometimes dog gangs mirrored human institutions.
“Nick,” Nova said, once in the office, “and friend.”
“Nova, you’re looking well,” I answered. I never got used to dog slobber, but I learned to ignore it as long as none of it landed on me. “This is Dana, from the Sidhe realm.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dana,” Nova said, and then added, “Take care not to make sudden movements when on your own. Some of us are less successful than others at suppressing our hunting instincts.”
I was pretty sure Nova had never had to move more than five feet to reach her food, and certainly not quickly, but I let the comment slide.
“Nova, we’re inquiring about dogs that might have done an unauthorized crossover. Have you heard anything at the hydrants?”
“No,” Nova answered. “Few dogs are interested in the other realms as we’re usually represented either as goofy or monsters.”
“Nothing at all? The intrusion was an organized and well-executed raid to acquire certain artifacts, and made use of an artifact that likely came from a dæmon.”
“Sorry, Nick,” Nova said, shaking its head. “I’ve not heard of any crossing of late.”
I watched a thick drop of drool swing under her chin, detach, and land on the sofa, making me glad I’d decided to stand.
“OK, then. Well, if you hear anything, give me a ring. The artifacts could spell trouble from both humans and dogs.”
Nova’s ears perked up.
“Trouble for dogs? How?”
“Well, Circe’s staff, one of the two stolen items, can change people into animals and vice-versa. Come to think of it, so can Marlin’s staff.”
“Who’d want to be human?” Nova asked.
“Well, sometimes it was done against the subject’s wishes, like turning you into a cat,” I answered without thinking.
Nova growled, and Arnia flattened her ears and showed her teeth.
“Sorry,” I hastened to clarify, “it was a stupid example. Surely no one would do that!”
“Goodbye, Nick,” Nova said in an icy tone. “Arnia will see you out.”
On the way out, halfway down the hall, Arnia stopped and waited, looking around as I also stopped and made my way back to her.
“I’ve heard of some dogs having trouble with cats lately,” she said in a low voice. “I swear cats are also sentient because their actions are so purposeful, but then, they always were sneaky bastards.”
“Any cats in particular?” Dana asked.
“No, it was just noted at the last quarterly meeting that a few dog breeds are clashing with cats,” Arnia said. “Competing for the attention of humans, I’d wager.”
“Do you know which dog breeds they’re clashing with?” I asked.
“Most of the Toy breeds,” Arnia said.
We thanked her and left.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
“That makes sense,” I told Dana.
“In what way?”
“Well, since dogs became sentient, humans now know what their former pets want and think, and it’s strained the relationship a bit. Many previous dog owners are turning to cats as pets as simpler, if sometimes distant, relationships.”
“I still don’t understand,” Dana said. “Explain it to me as if I’m a helpless female, and you’re the male coming to the rescue.”
“Are you having me on?” I asked.
“Uh . . . nothing, but you’d be a hit with many human males,” I said.
“But not you?” she asked.
I pulled the car over and put her on the dashboard, where she sat, dangling her legs over the edge.
“Dana, I don’t know what you think you are doing, but you’re acting a bit weird. You know we can’t have a relationship; it’s forbidden in the CRAFT Treaty, even if it were possible.”
Her expression sobered (but she could have been acting). She looked down at her knees before replying.
“Nick, I just want to be friends. Sidhe society is . . . complicated. We’re always in conflict, always maneuvering to get the upper hand. And here, in the human world, it seems all the attention I get is because I can do Magic. But with you, I know that’s not the case.”
She paused and focused on something distant, or perhaps nothing at all.
“I read about friendship, and it sounds wonderful,” she said, and then locked on my eyes. “I’d like to experience it.”
Well, didn’t I feel like a heel! . . . but, was she on the level?
Crap! This could easily be a Sidhe play to . . . well, I’m not sure what the gain would be, but then the Sidhe were a crafty bunch. Hey! I’d made a pun!
“Let’s just concentrate on working this case, and then we’ll see how it goes,” I answered, avoiding direct conversation on the subject.
She brightened up and started asking questions.
“So, why did sentience put a strain on human-dog relationships?”
“Let me give you an example; in the olden days, the relationship was like this:
‘Oh, does puppy want a treat?’
Dog wags tail and shifts weight from one foot to the other.
‘Oh, yes, you do! Here’s a treat for you!’
Dog wags tail, looks up with big eyes, and rocks back and forth as the owner sticks a dog biscuit in its open mouth.
Now, it’s more like this:
‘Oh, does puppy want a treat?’
Dog wags tail and shifts weight from one foot to the other, and answers.
‘No, damn it! I need to take a dump! And, I hate them dang biscuits. You try eating them! Now, if they added something rotten and the smell of garbage, well, then, sure!’
Probably better for the dog, but not as satisfying for the owner.”
Dana had started laughing and was soon full-on doubled over.
“What?” I asked.
“You have a gift for story-telling, you know that? Plus — sarcasm, I think you call it — not much of it among the Sidhe.”
“Well, maybe I should try publishing my books in your realm because here no one thinks I have a gift for story-telling,” I said, “and no, I’m not asking,” I hastened to add. “I’d hate to think what a Sidhe contract looks like. I’d probably end up having to pay them!”
“Probably,” Dana said, dashing my hopes for a Sidhe publishing career. “So, what are we going to ask the Toys group? ‘Did you take the staffs?’ or something more subtle?”
“Staves,” I corrected.
“It still doesn’t sound right,” she said.
“Right now, I just want to see how they react to us contacting them.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Weiner dogs are at the top of the Toy group, and Edira — used to be ‘Fluffy’ —ending up leading this particular gang was not a big surprise. I’d known her from the early days, before the change. She and her owner used to live in my apartment building before they split up. Now the owner has a cat for a pet.
The Toys gang was very relaxed as far as security went. Pretty much anyone at all could — and often did — walk in and sit with them. In fact, their human help was expected to spend about a third of the time as companion-humans.
I was surprised then when Edira seemed nervous and perhaps a tad stand-offish. Then again, she might be remembering the fact I’m not much of a dog person. It’s a fact I’m not too keen to befriend anyone who licks their privates, human or pet.
“Nick,” Edira said, “and friend.”
“Edira, you’re looking well,” I answered. I never got used to how weiner dogs look, but I learned to avoid busting out laughing at the sight of them. “This is Dana, from the Sidhe realm.”
“Pleased to meet you, Dana,” Nova said, and then added, “Take care not to make sudden movements when on your own. Some of us are less successful than others at suppressing our hunting instincts.”
Unlike Nova, some of the Toys were explicitly bred to hunt small prey, so the warning carried more bite than it had with Nova. Hey! I made another pun!
“Edira,” I jumped in, “have you heard of any dogs crossing over recently?”
“Now, where would I hear something like that?” Edira answered. “We’re too small to range far and wide and don’t mingle much with other dogs.”
“We heard you’re running into trouble with some cats,” I offered up.
“Some of us. It’s the needy ones who miss their owners and are trying to hook up again with promises to not be as needy.” Edira sighed, or what passed for sighing in dogs. Could have been a fart, I don’t know for sure because the smell is the same.
“They don’t see the inherent irony of promising not to be as needy while begging to come back. Anyway, many owners have switched to cats, and tempers flare.”
Edira leaned a bit closer as she spoke, which, given her stature, meant one or two inches, tops. I leaned away from her, worried she might be tempted to snap at Dana.
“Well,” I said, “let me know if you hear anything. Some things have gone missing, and the Sidhe would like them back.”
Despite the famous painting, Edira did not have a poker face. Both Dana and I noticed the poorly concealed reaction.
“Sure will, Nick. Take care, and you too Dana,” Edira licked her lips after saying that, which made me think her earlier attempt to get closer was more about having a go at Dana than a conspiratorial move to confide in me.
On the way out, I noticed an Affenpinscher apart from the others. It was staring at us, and when he saw us looking, made the classic ‘Timmy is down the well‘ move of wanting us to follow him.
We went around the hedge and behind a shed, and the Affenpinscher was there waiting for us.
“I hear you’re looking for things that have gone missing,” it said.
“Where did you hear that?” I asked.
“From you guys, just now,” it answered. “Did you already forget?”
“I like him,” Dana said.
“Never mind,” I said. “What do you know?”
He looked around and trotted to the edge of the shed, had a quick look, and trotted back.
“The Papillons are bragging about a big contract and that, soon, things will be back the way they were,” it said. “It may have something to do with what you are looking for.”
“Can you be more specific?” Dana asked.
“Look, all I know is that a friend of one of the Papillons, a friend who’s still with its former owner, has been dropping by lately. The last two times, I saw the owner open portals between the realms,” the Affenpinscher said. “At least once, I noticed a few dogs, larger dogs, slip through.”
“What kind of dogs?” I asked.
“I don’t know. I didn’t recognize them, but they were big. Bigger than most dogs, and they had a wild smell.”
“Can you tell us anything else?”
“That’s all I know, and I’m risking a lot telling you, but I like being on my own. The best thing I ever did was to dump my owner, and I don’t want to go back.”
The Affenpinscher looked around, looked back at us, then headed off, but looked back and added. “Remember, you don’t know me.”
“Uh, I don’t know you. I don’t even know your name.”
“It’s Mop . . . no, wait; forget I said that. It’s not Mop; it’s . . . never mind, just go.” And with that, it trotted off to resume its alone time.
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
“Coyotes or wolves. My money is on wolves, as coyotes are much smaller, but then Affenpinschers are small, and even coyotes might look big to them.”
“Where would wolves come from, or are they around here?” Dana asked.
“Yellowstone; the packs have been expanding for years.”
“Yellowstone is a magical place,” Dana said.
“Not when I’m around,” I answered.
“I feel sorry for you, you know.”
“Don’t. I’m perfectly happy without Magic. I consider Magic cheating. If I could experience it, it would rob me of having to do things on my own,” I answered.
“So,” Dana said, changing the subject. “How do we find wolves, and what do we do if they have the Staffs and the Subtle Knife?”
“Well, it sounds as if the owner of that Papillon is our next target. We need to figure out who she is, and for that, we need to see a groomer.”
“Yes,” I answered. “The Toy breeds often need a lot of grooming, so most owners are regular customers.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
We visited five groomers before we found the customer. She called herself Roisin, but her real name was Gladys, and she was a Wiccan-for-hire. Wiccans had some basic abilities like making water boil a bit faster and plants grow a bit larger, but opening portals to other realms was not on their list of abilities. I was betting she had the Subtle Knife.
We drove to an old subdivision with lots of mature trees and expansive natural yards. The kind of place that would look spooky on Halloween night . . . or almost any night.
Roisin’s house backed to a wildlife preserve and nestled among large trees. It looked very private and a perfect place for an ambush. We headed up the walk while keeping an eye on the surrounding trees.
“What do you want, peepee-man?”
The Papillon on the porch had an attitude, so I didn’t bother correcting him by saying it was PermPol-man, and not PP-man. Not many people listened, anyway, and peepee-man was much too funny for people to give it up.
“We need to see your owner,” I said.
Roisin wasn’t what one would classify as a hardened criminal, and it only took a little pressure for her to confess to “having some fun with Magic” but she insisted she never hurt anyone. I asked her to show us how she was able to open the portals, and she rummaged in her large arm bag and pulled out the Subtle Knife, offering it to me.
“Do you know what it is?” I asked, taking the offered knife from her.
“How did it come in your possession?”
“Would you believe me if I said I found it?” she asked.
“No,” I answered.
Crestfallen, she confessed to taking the job. It wasn’t the money, she said; it was for the chance to wield a powerful artifact.
“What job are you talking about?” I asked.
“Acquiring the staffs,” she answered.
“Staves,” I corrected. “Staves is the plural of staff.”
“Are you sure?” Roisin asked. “It sounds weird.”
“I’m sure. Are you referring to the staves of Circe and Merlin’s?” I pressed on, beginning to think that, yes, perhaps staves sounded a bit strange.
“And Yama’s,” she added.
I heard Dana give a sharp intake of breath.
“I’m not familiar with that one,” I said.
“It’s Kaladanda, the Staff of Death,” Dana answered.
“Well, forget that!” Roisin said. “Look, they are for a collector. He enlisted the wolves, and all I had to do is open the portals for them to slip through. We got two of them, but the alignment isn’t right yet for the third.”
“Yes. Yama’s from Indian Mythology, so you have to align the portal with the ones halfway around the world.”
“It’s a portal,” I said. “What does it matter if it’s aligned?”
“Sorry,” Roisin said. “That’s above my pay grade.”
I looked down at Dana.
“It’s below my pay grade,” she answered. “I don’t keep track of the details.”
“Why at the Toy compound?” I asked.
“Are you kidding? Did you see the security in that place?” Roisin answered. “Plus, their compound backs to a wildlife corridor. It’s easier for the wolves to come and go unobserved.”
“What’s the deal with the Toys bragging about putting things back as they were?”
Roisin laughed. “They’re Toys. You can practically say anything to get them all yapping and excited. In another week, most of them will forget what was said, and they’ll be yapping about something else.”
“That’s not nice.”
“Not nice? Did you see how happy they were? ”
“Who’s the collector?” I asked.
“Anubis,” she answered.
“Hence the wolves. It makes sense. Where are the staves now?”
“You’re sure it’s staves?” she asked.
“Yes. We’ll need to take them with us.”
“I’ll bring them up,” she said and went down into the basement.
She came up a minute later, carrying two sticks and sporting a puzzled look.
“These . . . these are the staffs . . . er. . staves, but they changed as I was walking upstairs. They shrunk down to sticks,” Roisin said, holding out two sticks about an inch in diameter and about two feet long.
I grabbed and examined them. They looked like regular sticks, which made sense if Magic powered them.
“I’m going to step out or range,” I told Dana. “Stay here and make sure these are the staffs . . . damn it, you got me saying it. Anyway, yell when you know for sure.”
After depositing her on the table next to the sticks, I walked outside.
“Go a little farther,” Dana yelled.
I’d gone another ten feet when I heard a loud crash. At the same time, four wolves came around the sides of the house, two on each side, but stopped when I drew my gun.
As we squared off, I saw Dana running out of the house, carrying the sticks. Behind her, a large wolf giving chase.
At the edge of the porch, as she jumped, she launched the sticks like spears toward me and then landed, rolled, and came up running. I automatically followed the path of the sticks as they fell near me, but meanwhile, the wolf had taken a long leap, landing just behind Dana, and tripped her with its paw, allowing the wolf to catch her and hold her downs.
For a moment, no one moved.
“I want those,” the wolf said.
I shifted my aim closer to him.
“Let her go, unhurt, and leave,” I said.
“Not without the staffs.”
“It’s staves,” I said, “and I’m pretty sure you’ll leave without them.”
“Are you sure?” the wolf asked.
“Yes; you’re going to let her go and leave empty-handed.”
“No, I mean about staves.”
“Whatever you call them,” I said with annoyance in my voice, “they are staying, and you are leaving.”
“I could crush her,” the wolf said.
“And I could pump five or six rounds of lead into you.”
“There are five of us, and one of you,” one of the other wolves said as they spread out.
“One of me, and twenty rounds of hollow-points,” I said. “Keep moving like you are, and you’ll see why I won the regional speed shooting competition three years running.”
“We seem to be at an impasse,” the wolf holding Dana said as the other four wolves slowed but still kept moving.
For a moment, I was distracted by the wolf using the word ‘impasse’ but quickly refocused and assessed the situation. I might be able to take them all out, but the odds were in their favor, and even if successful, Dana might get hurt. And, if even one reached me, I was done for. Plus, I had to assume more wolves might be nearby.
“OK!” I yelled as I picked up the sticks. “Let her go, and I’ll give you the staffs . . . I mean, staves.”
“No,” the wolf said. “Give the staffs to Chip, and I’ll let her go.”
“Chip?” I asked in a surprised tone.
The wolf closest to me answered. “What’s wrong with Chip? It’s a perfectly good wolf name.”
“If you say so. Do you want me to throw them to you?”
“No, that’s demeaning. We don’t understand why dogs play that game,” Chip replied. “Don’t shoot me, and I’ll come and get them.”
“Just move slow,” I said.
I held the sticks away from me and kept the gun pointed in Chip’s direction as the wolf slowly neared. He took the sticks in its mouth and retreated.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now,” the wolf holding Dana said, “the others leave, and when they are gone, I’ll let her go. I presume you won’t shoot me in the back as I leave.”
I didn’t reply but watched as Chip and the other three wolves trotted off into the woods. Once we couldn’t see them, the remaining wolf released Dana, backed away slowly, turned, and ran after his friends.
I holstered the gun and ran to Dana.
“Are you alright?”
“I’m fine,” she answered, but she sounded dejected.
“You don’t sound fine.”
“It’s just . . . never mind,” she replied.
“Friends share stuff,” I said. “It’s required.”
She looked at me to see if I was mocking her and gave me a sad smile when she saw I was serious.
“I was counting on retrieving the . . . staves,” she said. “It would have allowed me to get something I’ve dreamed of all my life.”
“Well, we got the Subtle Knife,” I said. “And you’ll have other opportunities; there’s always stuff going missing.”
She finished brushing bits of grass and mud and wolf hair off of herself, and I looked away as she adjusted her dress.
“If you’re going to do more of this kind of work, you need to get more sensible attire,” I added.
“There won’t be another chance or more of this kind of work. It was a unique opportunity. Besides, you did most of the work; all I did is ride along.”
“. . . and look pretty,” I added.
She laughed and pointed at the platform on my chest.
“OK, I feel a bit better. Get me up there, and let’s get back.”
“Hold on,” I said, walking back to where Chip and I made the exchange, “I got to pick up the staffs.”
“WHAT!?” she yelled, running after me.
“I’ve become accustomed to calling them staffs,” I said.
“No, I mean …”
“I’m kidding; I know what you mean. I always suspected dogs couldn’t tell the difference between sticks when they play catch. I banked on wolves not being any better at it,” I said as I picked up the two staffs. “I just gave them two regular sticks, seeing as there were plenty of them around.”
“You . . . you . . .”
It felt nice, rendering a Sidhe speechless.
“Come on,” I finished, “let’s get out of here before the wolves come back all pissed off and stuff.”
~ 0 ~ 0 ~ 0 ~
Life went back to routine stuff, dealing with the occasional Ogre complaining that humans kept visiting his swamp despite all the “no trespassing” signs, and humans complaining that Big Foot trampled their rose bushes, and this or that god trying to gain converts by rigging sports events.
. . . until three months later, when the Chief called me into his office.
“We finally got approved for additional human resources. As of today, you have a new partner.”
“You know, Chief, I think I got used to working on my own.”
“Too late. Oh, and here’s your partner now.”
“Hello, Nick.” I recognized the voice before I even turned and got the surprise of my life.
“I got the favor I wanted,” Dana said, standing at the door as a human-size person, no wings, and wearing sensible Permeability Police-worthy clothing.
“Uh, Chief,” I asked without taking my eyes off Dana. “What’s the policy regarding co-workers dating?”
“It’s strictly forbidden, and subject to dismissal.”
“Dana, how would you like partnering with me and opening up a private agency dealing with Permeability issues?” I asked.
“I’d love to,” she answered.
Turning toward the Chief, we both said “I quit,” in unison.
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