Toby let out a great dramatic sigh and almost slapped his forehead with his hand, remembering that he was still holding the tongs just in time to avoid poking his eye out. ‘Young people these days just don’t appreciate the value of a good fantasy world.’
‘That’s because crap like that Eragon gets published.’
‘It’s not my fault you picked one of the worst books on the face of the planet to commence your foray into fantasy literature with. You should have sought my advice, young lady. I’d’ve soon set you on the right path.’
‘Kids’ books with trains and schoolkids on the front and sparkly stars in the border? Sorry. Give me Pet Sematary any time. That was an uplifting kids’ book.’
‘Didn’t the kid get run over?’
Toby winced. ‘At least if a dragon attacks you, you either escape or get fried. You don’t get “mostly eaten”.’
‘Here’s another MS from our darling Mr Sanguijuela.’ Nita thudded the manuscript, which was about the size and shape of a wannabe author’s ridiculously overinflated ego, onto the edge of Linda’s desk. ‘Anything in particular you want me to do with it?’
‘Slush pile,’ Linda said, not even glancing at it. ‘Or the recycle bin. Whichever you particularly fancy.’
‘Like I care.’
‘Like I care.’
‘The cover letter says this one’s sitting at three and a half million words.’
Linda looked up from her computer at her assistant. ‘I can’t believe you wasted your time even reading his cover letter. Is it the latest revolutionary post-modern non-linear literary collage masterpiece, constructed entirely of recycled words taken from carefully selected public domain works in order to circumvent the pointlessly rigid copyright laws, rearranged into a new and excitingly unique original work?’
‘How do you do that without looking?’
‘He reuses the same cover letter the same way he reuses other people’s work. Take it away before I set fire to it and get in trouble for setting off the smoke detectors again.’
Nita raised an eyebrow. ‘Again?’
‘Just make it gone.’ Linda turned back to her work, hearing Nita wander off with the thick stack of pages. Alejo Sanguijuela was the only person who ever submitted anything in hard copy any more, print submissions having gone the way of typewritten – and, before that, handwritten – manuscripts. Linda Delgado’s work was done exclusively on screen now, because Alejo’s work never made it out of the slush pile. In fact, he had his own personal slush pile, which was the highest honour anyone could bring themselves to offer to his work. It currently lurked in one corner of the office like a malevolent paper golem just waiting for the right trigger words to be scribed on one of its countless pages in order to activate it so that it could attack
Once they’d finished dinner, Sodia renewed her invitation for Shani to join her in the bedroom, but Shani declined again, saying that the only thing about Sodia’s bedroom that could possibly interest her at the moment was the bed, sleeping in, for the use of. Sodia directed her to the spare room, gave her a toothbrush (Shani’s own; Shani was surprised that Sodia hadn’t simply ditched it when she’d moved) and kissed her goodnight before Shani could voice any protest.
Shani brushed her teeth and crawled into bed, falling asleep within minutes.
When Shani got up the next morning, Sodia had already left for work, but the cacophonous snoring from the master bedroom announced that Harrison had returned home. There was a note telling Shani to help herself to breakfast on the kitchen bench, and a flat white card that apparently gave access to both Sodia’s flat and the front door downstairs. More than breakfast, though, Shani wanted a shower; the bathroom was huge, with a door leading off to the master bedroom as well as the door from the hallway. Shani locked both. She wasn’t body-shy, but Harrison might be. She had a luxuriously long shower, then put yesterday’s clothes back on; hopefully they’d had enough time to air out a bit, as she’d hung them over the heating duct.
The banging of the pipes had evidently woken Harrison up, because he was standing bleary-eyed in the kitchen, drinking a glass of water, wearing only boxer shorts and a t-shirt. He had short blond hair and a bit of scruffy stubble on his chin, but she’d seen his razor beside the sink. He wasn’t as tall as herself or Sodia, but then, few humans were.
‘Morning.’ He yawned. ‘Shani, right?’
‘Right. Harrison, right?’ She felt absurdly like a lioness sizing up a potential threat that had wandered into her territory, which wasn’t fair, since she and Sodia had never exactly been together together, just... sort of together. It wasn’t anything that she thought she could explain in the next couple of minutes without sounding like a babbling idiot, though.
The pause that followed could have developed quickly into a very awkward silence, except that Harrison yawned widely and then said, ‘Nice to meet you. I’m going back to bed now, if you don’t mind.’
‘Go for it,’ Shani said, watching him shamble back towards the master bedroom. She supposed she had to trust Sodia’s judgement on this one, since she knew him better; besides, it was hardly fair to form an impression of someone based on seventeen words and the fact that they were wearing pink gingham boxer shorts.
Isabelle Jenkins locked her front door and stood for a moment just looking down the road. Fog shrouded everything, reducing visibility to twenty feet, muffling sound and thought. Maybe that was just the exhaustion, though; last night’s train cancellations had meant she didn’t get home until eight-thirty, and Tony had wanted his tea, never mind that she was tired and stressed and he’d been home since six and could have done it himself. He’d shouted a bit, but the dark circles under her eyes had meant only one slap instead of four or five, and he’d at least been happy with the food. He’d even offered to do a round of grocery shopping when he’d seen how empty the fridge was getting, instead of telling her she was lazy.
She realised she had been staring for five minutes, disassociated from the world, mesmerised by the swirling grey. She checked her watch and scuttled down the road, now afraid that she would miss this train and be late for work. They wouldn’t hit her or yell, but she might still get in some sort of trouble.
The fog enveloped her, chilling her legs, though she wore the warmest tights she’d been able to find. Tony didn’t like her to wear trousers; they weren’t feminine enough. At least the jacket of her work suit was warm. She pulled it closer around herself as she walked, her heels clicking on the pavement the only sound she could hear. She became fascinated by the way it didn’t quite echo right, flattened by the fog. She made a game of it, fast then slow, four quick steps tap-tap-tap-tap with their corresponding duller resonation, then slow deliberate click – click – click – click.
The train whistle blew and Isabelle startled at it, and then checked her watch. The train was pulling into the station, she thought; it wasn’t quite time for it to leave yet. But where was the corner of the road? Surely she should almost be at the roundabout. The streetlights weren’t penetrating the fog, but she could tell from the look of the pavement where she was.
She kept walking. The smooth grey concrete unspooled beneath her feet. After another five minutes, she still hadn’t reached the corner. She closed her eyes and listened, but no sound beyond her own breathing came to her. She took a few careful steps with her eyes still closed, and then a few more.
At first when Isabelle felt the springy grass under her feet she thought she’d stepped off the pavement, but her searching foot, backstepping, found nothing but more grass. She felt a sudden rush of warmth, and sunlight beat against her eyelids. With the warmth came scent and sound and, improbable as it seemed, her first thought was of a circus: she could smell animal poo, popcorn and cooking meat; she could hear shouting and laughter and as a backdrop to it all some sort of joyously tinkly music. She was certain that she had hit her head on a branch or something – stupid woman, wandering around with her eyes shut – and that when she opened her eyes again she would see nothing but the fog.
Isabelle opened her eyes.
‘I just met a very strange woman,’ Lisa said. ‘She found me through a library book, she knows we’re werewolves, and she wants to write a thesis on us.’
‘Us specifically, or werewolves?’ Rachel asked, seizing on the part of the sentence that made the most sense to her.
‘Us meaning supernaturals in Melbourne.’
‘Who is she?’ Rachel asked.
‘She calls herself Sophie Smith, although I’ve no idea if it’s her real name. She said she represents a group who call themselves the Coalition of Supernatural Personages Learning about Identity. And she wants to get information on as many other supernaturals as we know so that she can put them in this thesis.’ Lisa sighed. ‘I don’t know what to tell her. I’m not even sure what kind of super she is. I couldn’t smell wolf or anything like that, but she didn’t smell of magic either. And she didn’t say. She was dressed like a Hare Krishna, which I thought was a bit unusual. How many supers do you know who seriously take up religion?’
‘How many supers do you know who’d admit to belong to an organisation called COSPLAI?’ Rachel asked, having spent the last few seconds figuring out the acronym in her head.
Lisa blinked. ‘That’s really awful.’
‘No, I mean that’s really awful. And she seemed so sincere when she was saying it, too. Maybe she didn’t realise what the acronym said.’ Lisa shook her head. ‘What a shame.’
‘Maybe she’s a furry.’
‘Maybe you’re a furry.’
‘I did. That’s how you ended up this way.’
‘Oh, ha ha.’
Lisa barked a laugh. ‘If they think this is comparable to race riots, wait until the puppies start packing and trying to fight for territory. Then they’re gonna see race riots.’
Alexander flicked back to the previous channel. ‘What’s this about police being familiar with what’s going on?’
‘Oh, there’re supernatural cops too. Have to be. Not that they publicise it, mind you, but they’ve got departments for handling people like us.’ Lisa gave him a wry look from beneath her too-long eyelashes. ‘Not that you’d ever cross their paths, I’d imagine. You’re too good.’
‘What did they book you for, eating the zebras at the zoo?’
Lisa huffed. ‘We’ve never been caught, thank you very much.’ She licked her lips thoughtfully. ‘Although zebra’s not bad...’
‘Too much information.’ Alexander felt a bit queasy and wished he’d never mentioned it. Lisa just smirked at him.
‘How about your own abilities, magician boy? Anything unusual happen to you?’ Her eyes lit upon the array of books on the table and she drummed one long nail against the Dungeons and Dragons books. ‘You do know these ones don’t have real spells in them, right?’
‘I know!’ Alexander said, a little flustered. ‘They were out anyway.’ Just to make a point, he picked them up and shelved them, just at the right moment, as that was when the door buzzer rang, signalling that someone was downstairs wanting to be let in. He shot Lisa a suspicious glance. ‘How come you didn’t have to buzz up?’
‘Alexander,’ Lisa said with infinite patience, ‘I was walking a wolf. People have a tendency to get the fuck out of the way for those.’
I managed to hold it together for another hour, during which time I overheard several snippets of conversation from the writing group: someone had attempted suicide, someone else had moved to Canberra but apparently they were thinking of coming back to Melbourne, someone else again was geared up to include ‘several scenes of bestiality’ in her book, she explained seriously, because ‘I think we can’t discount the reality of the changes to society that acceptance of the fursuit lifestyle will present’. To this day I’m not sure if she was serious or not, but the way the others howled her down and she started to laugh seemed to indicate that she wasn’t wholly invested in her theory. They vacillated between silent except for the frenetic sound of their fingers on the keyboards and the occasional hiss of anger as someone misspelled something, and raucously discussing plot points, sex scenes, and the aforementioned suspension bondage. They came back to the counter in ones and twos to buy fresh drinks or snacks, and were generally very polite; it was impossible to tell which of them had been making the comments about the bestiality. It was not the sort of quiet day I ever expected from a Saturday, but it was nice.
Then, for some reason, I broke down.
I was in the back room hunting out another bag of the arabica beans and all of a sudden I was leaning against the fridge clawing at the collar as if it was cutting into my neck all over again, gasping for air even though nobody was choking me, and finally dropping to my knees and resting my head against the sugar shelf, heaving in big breaths and trying not to burst into tears. The enormity of the choice that I had to make had finally made itself truly known to me, and I realised that it really wasn’t a straightforward choice, not at all.
I wasn’t sure if I was in love with Matt yet or not. The years had made me cynical about love and the sanctity of relationships, considering how many of them I had shattered with the ease of dropping a china cup on a tiled kitchen floor. There was more to it than just Matt, though. I knew I’d be dooming him either way, that was a given, but if I gave up my immortality – which, I was certain, would mean my father killing me – then I’d have to spend at least a hundred years labouring in Hell before I got the privilege of being returned to Earth. A hundred years of Hell wasn’t the point, though. The point was that by the time I finally got to go back to the surface (although Earth isn’t geographically located ‘above’ Hell any more than Heaven is located somewhere outside the stratosphere; it’s just an expression that has insidiously made its way into common parlance) everything I had worked to create for myself my whole life would be gone. Mary Tyler’s would doubtless have been replaced by some sort of restaurant where patrons simply consumed food-shaped protein substitutes or some nonsense. I wouldn’t be able to come home from work and shout upstairs to Jamie and spend an evening parked in front of the television with fish and chips, watching endless DVDs and arguing over what to watch next, because he’d be dead; I wouldn’t be able to speculate on what he was doing in his bedroom with Mez and Beth because they’d be dead; I wouldn’t be able to pull Paul and Erin aside after close on a day that had been flat-out busy and feel their arms around me, the three of us rocking together in a tight group hug that always, no matter how many times I’d burned myself on the steam wand or smashed a mug or spilt beans everywhere, made everything better. The city would have crept even further out, solid grey stone buildings eating up the suburbs, eating up the green places, paving over the land with shoebox apartments where people struggled to pay the rent, which made me angry; the minority of the month would still be fighting for equal rights, which made me sad; public transport would doubtless still be running five minutes late from the platform at the other end of the station, which made me laugh for a second.
She was starting to cry, which would have been all right if we were in the privacy of her bedroom, but we were standing in the filing room, and not nearly as far away from the door as I would have liked. ‘I didn’t mean to!’
I opened my mouth to scold her for not using my title, and at that moment Clara came around the corner. ‘Is something – why, Tara, whatever are you doing down here?’
‘She came to ask me some questions about the nature of sin,’ I said. Relax, Audrey, your heart isn’t really beating anyway, so it can’t be racing.
Clara sniffed. ‘Well, I suppose you’re an expert on the subject. Come along, Tara. I’ll get you a tissue and walk you to the lifts.’
I leaned against the nearest cabinet as she hustled Tara away and started counting. I got as far as forty-five and had turned around to put a paper away right when Ralph came stampeding into the filing room like a bull in heat.
‘Why were you talking to her?’ he demanded.
‘She came to me to ask about sin,’ I said again. ‘I can’t help it if for some reason people have decided I’m the most knowledgeable person on the topic in this department.’
‘I don’t want you talking to anyone outside of the department without my permission,’ he said. There was a vein standing out on his forehead and his cheeks were bright red. Sometimes the angels took emulating the humans too far. I just nodded at him and went back to the filing.
Eventually he tired of standing there and stalked off.
It was entertaining for a few days, at least.
‘Ralph, is it okay if I say hi to Maria? She said hi to me.’
‘Ralph, can I ask the cafeteria lady for penne Bolognese instead of lasagne?’
‘Ralph, the cleaner wants to know if we need more toilet paper rolls and I know we need more toilet paper rolls, can I tell him we need more toilet paper rolls or do you want to tell him yourself?’
‘Ralph, does your boss count as part of the department? She called my phone but I don’t want to talk to her if I’m not allowed. She wants to know if everything’s running smoothly down here.’
‘Ralph, would it be better if I got Mary to answer my phone since it’s probably always going to be someone from outside the department calling? Then she can let me know if it’s someone I’m allowed to talk to.’
The others had cottoned on by halfway through the first day and, to my surprise, joined in. Mary went as far as to act as an intermediary between me and whoever it was who wanted to talk to me, passing questions and answers back and forth like a child as the go-between for her divorced parents. It only reinforced what I’d been thinking for some time: they didn’t like Ralph. It seemed as if emulating Earth’s office-style setup had scored them Earth’s office politics, backstabbing, and all the attendant problems. Truly it was a great potential breeding ground for sin, and though I had to be really careful, I did my best to encourage them.
Finally, after three days, Ralph cracked it at me and sent me to my room for a week, bolting the door on the outside. It took exactly five minutes for me to work out how to get out if I really wanted to – through a ceiling panel and a careful crawl along the joists until I found somewhere I felt like dropping back down into, which was more or less nowhere – and then I stretched out on the bed to have a nap. I could hear Mary and Ralph arguing from the office, which was quite some way down the hall. They were being pretty loud. I didn’t think that bitchfighting was on the list of mortal sins, but it probably squeaked in as wrath or something. As far as the sins went I was brilliant at lust and all its derivatives and more or less ignored the rest of them. Except sloth; I was fond of sloth. I could sleep for hours, given the opportunity, and solitary confinement for a week was a grand opportunity.
‘Before we start, can I ask you something?’ I heard myself saying.
‘Yeah, sure. Off the record.’ There was a look in her eyes that told me she’d be remembering what I said, whether she wrote it down or not.
‘Do you - did you see the picture the guy put on my computer?’
Chandler bit her lip and then nodded. ‘Yeah. That dude from Human Resources, the one who looks kind of like a Roma tomato? He already showed us.’
‘So you know that it was a personal attack.’
‘Honey, that’s why you’re getting to talk to me instead of sitting in a little room getting yelled at by Bell. I’ve got to admit, I’m kind of hoping for some recognition from this case that women aren’t the only ones who get harassed in the workplace. I figure every step forwards instead of backwards is a good step, whether it’s for women or not.’ She gave me a serious look. ‘I still hope you didn’t do anything stupid, though. I know how people can react to harassment.’
‘I didn’t do anything except go and have coffee with my housemate Audrey, and then...’ I trailed off, but then decided fuck it. ‘And then I went home and spent some time with my girlfriends.’
Chandler grinned. ‘Good for you. We’ll get to that part. For now, let’s start with what happened yesterday morning when you first got to work.’
Sax was covered in runes. From the cord holding back his dishevelled brown ponytail down to the toes of his well worn black boots (one of which had a spatter of golden paint on it), he was covered in runes. They shifted and flowed across his skin and clothing, a rainbow of colours, a display of magic like none Gloria had ever seen before. What they meant, or how they had come to be there, Gloria didn’t know. Neither did Linalia, judging by the amazed expression on her face. Sax, on the other hand, glanced down at his body and then gave them a puzzled look.
‘What’re you looking at?’
‘Can’t you see it?’ Linalia reached out to touch his hand. The runes shifted away from her fingertips, swarming up his arm. They were tiny, only just legible, and kept swirling and moving so much that it was impossible to read them properly anyway. The only one that remained stationary was a green one on Sax’s forehead, but when Gloria tried to read that one, it faded into his skin, and only reappeared when she wasn’t looking directly at it.
‘See what?’ Sax was rightfully perplexed.
‘You’re covered in magical runes. Completely covered.’ Linalia’s fingers flicked open the top button of his shirt. ‘They’re on your skin, on your clothes, in your hair – but I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
‘It’s not evil magic, is it?’ Now he sounded anxious, and Gloria could see his hands twitching, clearly longing to brush the intrusive runes away.
‘Magic itself is neither good nor evil. It’s the way people use it that makes it positive or negative.’ This wasn’t the most reassuring speech, as Sax’s aggrieved sigh let her know. ‘But I don’t see any evil intent here. That sort of thing shows up very clearly – darker colouring, for one thing, and I’d imagine it would appear as brands in your skin, rather than floating about like this. You say you started feeling strange in Kerinan?’
‘Do you think this has something to do with it?’
‘Yes, but I’ve never been to Kerinan. Magic may work differently there. It differs from water-magic to plant-magic to fire-magic, so why not between different places?’ Linalia tried again to touch the runes, to read them, but again they avoided her fingers and her gaze. ‘Blasted things!’ she said with a definite tone of irritation in her voice. ‘They don’t want me to find out what they are.’
‘Have you any ideas?’ Sax asked.
‘None at all. I’m ashamed to say it, but I’m stumped. At least they’re not harming you, and if they do start harming you, I can probably get rid of them anyway.’ Linalia sounded more confident than she looked.
Gloria came closer and touched Sax’s knee. The runes moved away from her as well. The only one they didn’t seem to avoid was Sax, but he couldn’t see them, which didn’t help at all.
‘Will you boys stop playing around and come and eat lunch?’ Ilsya had her hands on her hips and had already spread out a red and white checked tablecloth on the picnic table. One of the food baskets was open. ‘We might as well make the most of this place while we’re here.’
Sax and Mayhew exchanged a glance, and then Sax pounced on Mayhew, getting him in a headlock and shoving his head under the water.
‘Not fair,’ Mayhew protested when he came back up. ‘You’re bigger ‘n me.’
‘Cry me a river,’ Sax said, getting up and making for the picnic table.
‘Anyone would think you two were flirting with each other, the way you carry on,’ Ilsya said, handing him a chicken leg.
‘Aw, Ilse, don’t say that,’ Mayhew said. ‘Everyone knows that my love for Sax is as pure and clear as that water was before he landed his great big backside in it and got it all loused up with boy germs.’ He helped himself to potato salad, crunching the little bits of spring onion with obvious delight.
‘If you love him so much, what about all your women?’ Ilsya said.
‘Sax doesn’t have quite as much cleavage as I prefer to admire,’ Mayhew pointed out. ‘It’s the one thing he lacks, sadly enough, or he’d make a great soul mate. Granted, he’d have to get in the queue, but I think it’s only a four-year waiting period.’
Mayhew was incorrigible. Although you couldn’t tell him that, because then he’d just tell you to stop trying to corrig him.
This entry was originally posted at http://laurenmitchell.dreamwidth.org/2093.html. Please comment here or there!