SIMILARITIES TO PERSONS LIVING OR DEAD
The afternoon sun was shining down, hot and bright. The warm Bermuda sands were thick with bikini-clad tanned flesh, lounging in the heat. I was on a yacht, about fifty yards offshore, lounging on one of the deck chairs. A platinum blonde came up from below deck in a bikini I could almost see through and wasn’t covering very much anyway. Her long, silky hair danced in the warm breeze. Her body was a dizzying balance of fitness and curves. As she walked closer, her hips snaking from side to side with each step, I noticed she had a pitcher of some fruity drink in one hand and two bottles of sun tan lotion in the other. I could see I was going to need a whole bottle of lotion just for those legs. Then, she smiled and I didn’t notice anything else at all…until a door slammed.
I was awake. As I sat up slowly and lifted my private eye hat (standard issue) off my eyes, I saw that I was in my office. Damn. I realized the fingers of my left hand were tangled up in a slender gold chain. I looked in my hand and saw I was holding an amethyst heart. Whitney’s amethyst. Wasn’t I just dreaming about--?
“I’m back, Brick,” Jonni sang out with what I was coming to realize was a characteristic and possibly disturbing perkiness.
“And with such an entrance,” Harmony said.
“Swell,” I said. “Did I miss anything?”
“All quiet here,” Harmony said.
In front of me on my desk, the delicate pinging sounded again as the chatty plastic prize tried to get my attention. I looked at the gray screen.
“Is it saying something, Brick?” Harmony asked.
>Dream has been successfully recorded.
>Ready for replay in user-selectable format, described in text or archived for later retrieval.
“Oooh, I wanna see,” Jonni said excitedly, hurrying around my desk.
“You’re too young,” I said. “We’ll just archive that until I can figure out how to erase stuff.”
“Oh, poop!” Jonni said indignantly. “You been jewelry shopping? Or is that a clue? Looks fancy. Is it old and pricey?”
“Don’t worry about it,“ I said, shoving the pendant back into my shirt pocket.
“You do know that it’s glowi--”
“Didn’t I send you out for information?”
“Aye-aye, sir,” Jonni said. “Information I‘ve got.”
“Hallelujah. Spill it.”
“Well, we were hitting dead ends. We’ve still got nothing on SOC yet and it was looking pretty bleak with the pictures, too,“ she said, handing me a week-old newspaper, “until I found this one.”
“You found a newspaper in a newspaper building?” Harmony asked.
“How proud your parents must be,” I said.
“Just look at the picture on page 6, Grumpy,” Jonni said. “Her name is Sheila Taylor and she was found dead in her townhouse just over a week ago.”
“Ironic,” I said.
“How so?” Jonni asked.
“These photos of her,” I said. “These two were meeting in a cemetery.”
“Oooh, spooky,” Jonni said.
“So Mr. Taylor was the client that hired Lew for his last case,” Harmony began, “and Sheila Taylor was the wife he was following?”
“Well, she is in these photos with a guy we’ll assume wasn’t the client and, thus, not Mr. Taylor,” I said. “You find anything on him?”
“Sure did,” Jonni said, grabbing a doughnut. “His name’s Alex Gold.”
“Anything more than a name?” Harmony asked.
“That’s the funny part,” Jonni said.
“Make me laugh, blondie,” I told her.
“He’s dead, too.”
“OK, so Mrs. Taylor starts sneaking out on Mr. Taylor to spend time with Mr. Gold,” I said. “Mr. Taylor gets suspicious and gets Lew Manning to follow her around and get pictures. Mr. Taylor finds out what his Mrs. is up to and sends her and her friend off to wherever people go when they’re done with their bodies. Now Mr. is hunting Harmony down to recover any evidence that might link him to the whole sordid affair. Another mystery solved and the crowd goes freaking wild.”
“Except that there have been multiple people chasing me, Brick,” Harmony said. “It’s been days and I’m not sure if he’s even one of them. It looks like they have something to do with these SOC cards, though.”
“Well, maybe he’s part of a coven or something that’s getting messages through the cards,” I said. “There’s something supernatural going on when they’re going to keep coming at us through the hail of bullets, which reminds me: I’ve got to pick up a new order of bullets. If the husband’s still loose and looking for our Miss Storm, then we’ll assume the police didn’t see fit to detain him in connection with his wife’s demise. Maybe if we could check out Gold’s body, we could get something more on him. Where’d they find him, Jonni? How’d he die?”
“In a big, loud, fiery car wreck…three years ago,” Jonni told us.
“Yet he’s alive in pictures taken this month,” I said. “So, either those are fake, his death was faked, or someone was after some benefit derived from Gold still being above ground and hanging with Mrs. Taylor.”
“Which could also be a reanimation or an actor,” Harmony said.
“Notice how I‘m not laughing,” I said. “I remember this guy I had to track down once who used a magical disguise. It was one of those fake glasses, rubber nose and mustache things…but enchanted. It was the…Mantle of Proteus!”
“You think this might be that?” Harmony asked.
“Nah, it was unique as far as I know,” I said. “I was just reminding myself of how little amusement I usually get from magic. This is obviously going to take a little extra time. And apparently some leg work. And probably more bullets.”
“Sorry, boss,” Jonni said. “I didn’t mean to make things more complicated.”
“Story of my life. Excuse me a moment, ladies. I need to visit the euphemism. I‘ll try to resist the urge to flush this thing and be right back.” I slid the plastic square into my pocket as I stood, wondering if it might not put me out of my misery quickly. I tossed my private eye hat (standard issue) and private eye trench coat (standard issue) onto my desk and headed for the bathroom door in the corner of the room.
As I closed the door behind myself and reflexively reached for the light switch, I realized that the switch wasn’t where my hand usually found it. Or maybe it was as I slowly came to realize that the dimly lit room I was in wasn’t my bathroom, which meant that I was the one out of place. I saw a shelf a few feet away with a curious-looking statue on it. Walking toward it, I saw that it was three odd little men, carved from stone and squatting back-to-back-to-back. It didn’t look too comfy and…each one had a third eye in its forehead. There was a note taped to the shelf that read: Store for further study. Next to the statue were a lot of other random items that I guessed fell into the same category. There was a lead fountain pen, a crystal rabbit, an open pocket watch that was running backwards--
“We meet again, Mr. Stone,” a gravelly voice said from behind me.
I turned to see what appeared to be a tiger, walking upright and wearing a silk robe. I‘d been on this ride before. “How’ve you been, Tony? Still keeping the laughter in the slaughterhouse?” I asked the talking, pipe-smoking tiger.
“Tip-top, old chap. Flattered that you remember me.”
“You’re tough to forget, Tony.”
“To be sure,” he said. “I wanted you to meet some of my associates in the Cult--”
“--That Collects Weird Stuff, so you brought me to your…storeroom. I think I get it.”
“Admittedly, inauspicious,” Tony said, “but the Hall of Sacred Mysteries is reserved for devotees of our faith.”
“Like your friend there,” I said, giving a nod to the black-robed tiger behind him.
“Indeed. She is another of my tribe,” Tony said, “and Tillmaren,” he continued, drawing my attention to the dwarf at my knee who was holding a gnarled wooden staff that stood just taller than my waist.
“Good day, Mr. Stone,” the bearded dwarf said, bowing formally in his white and red robe. “I am the exalted wizard Tillmaren. If you’ve something for me to sign, I’ll give you an autograph at half-price, but do try to restrain yourself from fawning. It’s terribly undignified and quickly grows tiresome.”
“I…left my autograph book in my coat,” I said. “Darn. Next time.”
“Next time it will be full price,” Tillmaren warned.
“Mr. Stone,” Tony said, “you’ve opened the box.”
“Divination is but a trifle for the great Tillmaren!” the dwarf proclaimed.
“Open,” Tony said, “it was traceable.”
“Right,” I said. “Alarms went off and you pulled me in. Swell. I hate to burst your bubble, but all that was in it was this.” I pulled the plastic square from my pocket and held it up to show them. It began to ping again.
>Don’t leave me here!
>Don’t leave me with them!
>Anywhere but here!
Well, how about that? I wasn‘t even going to try to guess. “Usually, when I get a lame prize out of a box, there’s at least cereal,“ I told them.
“You got that from the box?” the second tiger asked with a slightly higher gravelly voice than Tony.
“Right,” I responded.
“That’s all that came from it? Nothing else?” Tillmaren asked. “No casualties?”
“Hard to believe, I know,” I said. “I had to take a second look, too.” They started to talk in hushed tones amongst themselves. “I haven’t quite figured out what to make of it yet,” I offered. “It hasn’t shown me what makes it as dangerous as it’s supposed to be yet.” The mumbling grew more agitated and arms were waved. I saw Tony’s eyes glance my way.
I wasn’t sure I hadn’t overplayed my hand. Having sprung the secret surprise from the elusive treasure box, and shown them that I had it on me, they could have easily decided that I’d outlived my usefulness. They were probably debating what to do with the little plastic card, how many pieces to chop me into and whether I‘d go best with white or red wine.
“Mr. Stone,” Tony said, “you should go now.”
Tillmaren tapped the floor with his staff and a door began to creak open in what had appeared to be a dark wall. A bit of light showed through from beyond, displaying the outline of my exit.
“That’s it, huh?” I asked, watching the threesome extremely carefully.
“We’ll be in touch,” Tony said. “We have…issues of import to consider.”
“OK, then,” I said, heading for the door. “Enjoy your weird stuff. Thanks for having me over.” Stepping through the door, I really didn’t know where I was heading, but I figured it had to be a step up.
The door closed behind me as I stepped back into my office. Harmony was sitting at the newly revealed desk and suddenly noticed that I had returned. It looked like she had opened up a box of my old case files and was reading through a stack of them. “A little light reading?”
“Brick!” she blurted my name sharply, jumping a little bit in the chair. She was obviously startled. Then, I noticed her fidgeting with the pen in her hand.
“What’re you doing?” I asked, walking toward the desk for a closer look. “You find something interesting?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, hanging her head. “I ran out of paper clips.”
“What’re you talking about?” I asked her, my eyes scanning the desk top. “There’s a pile right there. It looks like there are boxes of them.”
She grabbed at the little pile of twisted steel bits and lifted a bunch of them off the desk high enough to show me that they had been chained together. “You were gone and Jonni left and I was starting to get anxious waiting and…and…I started chaining them.”
“Till you ran out.”
“Yeah,” she said, “and then I had to find something else.”
“Did you consider unchaining them, perhaps?” I asked.
“That’s not the way it works, Brick,” she said, giving me a look that said I clearly didn’t understand the situation. “I started looking for things to read and I was trying really hard not to start tearing the paper into little pieces--”
“Thanks,” I said. “I remember the diner.”
“--but I kept noticing…the holes…”
“Holes?” I asked, looking at the page in front of her where I saw what she had been writing or, more accurately, scribbling. The page was still readable, but there was definitely a lot more ink on it than there was ever intended to be.
“In the letters,” she explained. “Next thing I knew, I had a pen and I was filling in all the holes. Every ‘O’, ‘P’, ‘R’--”
“I get it. I get it,” I assured her. “You OK?”
“Now, I guess. Where’ve you been?” she asked.
“I’m not sure how to answer that,” I said. “Somebody wanted a meeting.”
“You disappeared,” she said, walking toward me.
“Only for a few minutes.”
“No, you disappeared. I checked the bathroom.”
“Say, where’s Berlin?”
“In Germany,” she said. “Is that important?”
“Only to residents, I’d imagine. I meant, my new secretary. Where is she?”
“Oh, she went on to get started on your apartment,” Harmony said. “You’ve been gone over an hour. I was starting to get worried.”
“I must’ve hit a timeslip,” I said, “and I still need to pee.”
“Yeah, I’m not even trying this door again today,” I said. “It’s obviously not working right. I’ll wait for the next one.”
“OK,” Harmony said. “What’s our next move?”
“We go make some other people worry,” I told her. I tapped at the plastic square. It pinged back at me.
>Is it safe?
“Is it ever?” I asked it back. “File a reminder: we’re going to have a talk later.”
I shoved it back in my pocket as Harmony and I went for our hats and coats.