Feature Rachel Blier

Less of What You See by Rachel Blier 0

I’m standing here at the corner of 5th and Main, waiting for my client and thinking of card tricks. Patter, false shuffles, sleight of hand, palming. It’s long after midnight, and even the omnipresent 7-Eleven has closed, leaving me with nothing but flickering streetlights and the hum of cicadas in the dumpsters. I check the gun at my hip once, twice. I don’t look forward to what I have to do, but I have been left with very little choice. I took the case, so it’s my responsibility to the end.

It was a sticky evening in August when I got the job. The AC in my office had been out for weeks with no chance of it getting fixed in sight, so I had been sweating it out in my shirtsleeves. I was about ready to call it a night—to avoid the heat and save electricity, you know? When in walks this dame—and yeah, that’s the only word I can use for her—all in lavender, one of those really old fashioned getups–she even had this tiny pillbox hat, and a veil, for Chrissakes—I know I’m theatrical, and yeah, Carrie tells me that I see drama everywhere, but really—so I tell her we’re closed. She sticks one of those dainty feet in the door and wants to know who “we” is.

She had this rich husky voice that didn’t match her frame. It was interesting, to say the least. So I told her that “we” was…well…me. I couldn’t help it. When a woman looks at me with those eyes, I just spill. It was always a liability onstage. She smirked then, coral pink lips perfectly made up.

“You’re not closed,” she says, and I agree—heaven help me—and open the door wide for her.

I had been listening to Springsteen on the radio, his mumbling like an incantation set to piano and guitar, but as I ushered her in, I turned it off. It just didn’t feel right for this. She deserved blues and cigarette smoke, and I had neither. She settled in, and I was starting to think that maybe this won’t be so bad, she’s good-looking and seems to have money, and it’s been awhile since I’ve been in the black—and that’s when she told me she was a wizard.

Something in my brain—the more intelligent part, I’m starting to think now, it’s the part that takes care of rent and food and keeps me out of trouble—switched off, and the next moment I’d turned her out on her pretty lavender ass.

Wizards. Genetically modified conjurers. I won’t say freaks, no, but it’s their fault I’m working this job in the first place, rather than performing illusions onstage for a crowd. When science provides a way for anyone to be Superman or Zatanna, shooting fire from their fingertips or flying through the air as easy as breathing, no one wants to watch the kind of parlor tricks me and my kind—professional stage illusionists, that’s the fancy term, although I always just billed myself as Tracy Richards, Magician—no one cares for that kind of thing when they can do it themselves.

Not that my current job is all that bad—it keeps me on my toes, and I meet a wide variety of people, depending on what kind of thing I’m supposed to find—let me tell you something about magicians. Most of us love people. You have to, to build rapport with your crowd. So my second job suits me just fine, even if it isn’t my first choice. But lately the folks who brought us fire-throwing wizards have tweaked their formula a little. Thanks to science, pretty soon anyone will be able to be a Sherlock Holmes as well as a Superman. Super perception, even mind-reading. So they’ve been muscling in on my second job as well.

Essentially? I’m a sort of private detective. I find things. I’m good at it.

I have a knack for getting folks to tell me what they know without knowing what they’ve told me. Patter and misdirection, conversation and sleight of hand. It’s surprising what people will say when they think they have the advantage over you. People hire me when their cases don’t fall under police jurisdiction, when the situation is delicate or complicated or not entirely legal. I’m not usually picky about their reasons as long as they pay their bills.

I started my office up almost by mistake a few years back, and since then I’ve uncovered a few stolen items–rings, papers, photographs, once a piece of key evidence the cops managed to lose, two missing kids, and yeah, on the tackier side, exposed a few cheating spouses and embezzling employees. All in the name of paying the rent on time.

And pay the rent it does. But even though the work isn’t bad, my heart is really on the stage, with the dying art of stage magic. Illusion. Showing an audience something wonderful, giving back some of what science steals from them, the marvel of the everyday like a coin or a hand—or a card.

She’d left her card on the table. It was the same cool lavender blue as her dress, and it actually gave off a whiff of scent as I picked it up. (Like your mom’s clean linens. It probably was lavender, that would be just perfect.) There was no type on it, just a quick handwritten note, jagged with haste.

When did she get that out? I was watching her the whole time. She didn’t open that little clutch purse of hers, not once, and there couldn’t be anything up her sleeves—she didn’t have any. Fast little thing. Theatrical. A wizard.

I should have just thrown the card out too and made a clean rejection of the whole deal. Made a decision. But then the part of me that pays the rent decided to get vocal, so I pocketed the card and closed up the office. Somewhere between the two-hours-too-long bus ride home and the scented candles I’d been using in place of electricity in my apartment, I realized was already prepared to call the number on the card.

Before you get the wrong idea, the candles were a gift from the neighbor girl, Carrie. She’s an alright sort, just out of college, heading off to the Peace Corps next year. Tie dye shirts and khaki shorts and long scrapmetal earrings. We spend afternoons together sometimes, when she’s off work, bickering over the tabloids, which are almost as out of work as magicians, these days. There’s no need for urban legends when the monsters are real, but by God the writers do try. They target the Genome Clinics a lot, which is unsurprising, considering just who put them out of business. Exclusive expose: Monday it’s zombie bioweapons, Wednesday, Frankenstein creatures created to test out the gene modification treatment, on Sunday a special feature covering a trade agreement with a Nazi communes in the jungles of Brazil.

Carrie loves it. Perhaps I lack professional camaraderie, but I just can’t read those things. An old magician standby is to trust none of what you hear and less of what you see. It served me on the stage and it serves me on the streets. I try to tell her this, and she tells me I’ve lost my sense of wonder. Me. Honestly.

Anyway. The candles. Much like the tabloids, Carrie thinks I’m “neat.” A relic of a past era. Retro. So one day she shows up with these beeswax candles, tall, caramel-brown tapers that smell like musk and cinnamon. She’d bought them at an antique store. For me. I’d have been offended—first of all, candles really aren’t a great gift for a guy, any of you ladies reading, and second…really, I don’t need to be reminded that I’m so “out” I’m “in.” But in spite of all that , they do kind of smell good.

I really hadn’t planned to use them, just kept them in the back of my closet in their box, but last month I did some calculations and realized I really needed to cut down on something—it had been a very slow month for private detection—and because I really did want the heater and the AC in my office fixed sometime this century—because of that, it became the electricity in my apartment.

So I got back and saw that Carrie’s candles were almost burned down. And that was it. I needed a job and I needed it bad. I pulled out my cell and punched in the number, and there was that husky voice of hers, answering with familiar ease. Of course she’d know who was calling, ID or no. Telepathy came into vogue last season.

“Mr. Richards, I’d like you to find a person for me.”

“Well that is in the job description, ma’am.” I bit my cheek, waiting for her to continue. I hate to ask for more details. I hate it I hate it I hate it—“Could you give me some more details? A man? A woman?”

She made me wait. “I can’t say who…or what it was.” A pause, static on the line. “I’m looking for my husband’s killer.”

I don’t miss a beat. I know she’s listening for my reaction. “Normally this kind of thing would be handled by the police.”

“I know. And they are handling it, slowly. But I want my own kind of justice.”

“I don’t deal in justice. If you’re looking for an assassin—”

“I’m not. I believe…I believe that if you find him, things will work out on their own.”

I agreed to meet with her again, offered to buy her coffee to make up for booting her out of the office. She swallowed my apology, and the next day we were sitting in the café beneath my office, talking business.

“So I only have to locate this person, and you’ll call the cops on him, is that it?”

“Yes. Essentially.”

Essentially. “One more question.”

“Yes?”

I tapped my finger against my temple. Old stage habit. “You said ‘who or what it was’. Is there a reason for that?”

A long pause while she fiddled with the lid on her honeyed tea, hiding her eyes. “It’s the same reason why the police are taking so long. The body…well…”

I waited. Comforting a woman who is about to cry usually makes it worse.

“Mr. Richards, have you seen a mummy before?”

“I’ve seen sarcophagi.” Worked with them, actually. My variant of Sawing Through A Woman called for one. She probably read it on me.

“No, I mean. An embalmed body.”

Oh. “A magic killing?”

“Yes. We were both wi—spliced. We met at the Clinic, actually. He was the lab aide that gave me my treatment.”

“How nice for you both.” I hid my tone with a sip of coffee, and she politely ignored it.

“We married last July…he was killed on the night of our anniversary.” I could hear the effort she was making to hold herself together in her voice. Wizard or no, I caught myself reaching for her hand, barely stopped myself in time. Neither the time nor the place, Trace. Or the person, really.

I got up, ordered her some more tea, gave her the time to compose herself. By the time we’d both finished our drinks and she’d calmed down, I had a fairly solid read on the situation. Her relationship with her husband had been good, he had no enemies that she knew of, nothing dangerous in his work that would have resulted in a spell backfiring. His desiccated body was found in their home, clearly the result of a wizard’s power. Fluid manipulation. Sucked dry. The police had checked her out, yes. As far as she knew she wasn’t a suspect, in spite of her own abilities, which centered mostly on empathy—as I had guessed—and speed. She had paid for the ability to further her own career as a private investigator, always loved literary telepaths, yadda yadda.

Then, the moment of truth. I was clearing the Styrofoam mugs and recycled paper napkins from the table when she asked the question.

“So you’ll take my case, Mr. Richards?”

I thumbed over the lavender card still in my pocket, thinking of the figure written on it. She was messing with me, but to be fair, I had been sending her nothing but negative vibes throughout our entire meeting. The rent-paying half of my mind said Jump!, and I said, “I’ll look into it, yes.”

It was a barren case. I visited all the usual places, swung by the local Clinic, looked into some police records (some of the records flunkies still owe me over that missing evidence), but found very little. It wasn’t until my weekly meeting with Carrie that everything clicked into place. She was just unfolding her weekly dose of mental junk food when it hit me. I excused myself, made a half-dozen calls before finally getting in touch with my client to tell her I had found the killer. I was strapping on my gun when I realized she really had been very fair. She did give me the “what” option.

“Mr. Richards?” She’s behind me.

Ladies and gentlemen. I would like to call your attention to the card in my hand.

I pivot, drilling myself on an old trick—summoning a card from the deck.

This is the Queen of Hearts.

“Miss Brown.”

She’s a shrewd one, the Queen.

“Not Mrs.?”

But she has a special power.

“I checked with the local registry. Wesley Brown was not married.”

She finds things.

“W-we were lovers.”

Now, if I may have a volunteer—you, young lady.

“I don’t doubt it. Brown’s coworkers all witnessed the two of you together.”

Pick a card, any card.

“I have contacts with the police, Miss Brown. No murder or missing person was reported.”

I’ll show you—I’ve got nothing up my sleeves.

Wind rattles the telephone lines. She stares at me.

Palm the card you need and wait for your moment.

“And, pardon me if I’m wrong, but I keep tabs on my competition. There are no private investigators currently in the city going by the name of Lily Brown. I can understand a pseudonym, but no one answering to your description even works in this area. None of the Clinics had your name in their records, either. I don’t doubt that you’re an empath, but you didn’t gain that ability conventionally.” I rest my hand on the holster at my hip with all the confidence I can muster, definitely not thinking of bullets. Or the lack thereof.

False shuffle.

After a moment, she smiles.

“Very good, Mr. Richards. I assume you were a good citizen and called the police?”

“Creating a perimeter as we speak.”

“I see. Excellent work.”

“Honestly, lady? You left a trail a mile wide. The cops would have been onto you soon enough anyway. So why?”

And now the Queen will show me your choice.

“Why? Which why?”

Help me, milady.

“All of it. Why kill Brown? Why this…elaborate method of being caught?”

She’s a great lady, you know. One must be polite, even someone like me.

Her veil casts crosshatched shadows on her face as she turns towards me. The streetlamp gleams orange against purple satin, sunset after dark.

“The Queen of Hearts, Mr. Richards? How apt. Let me tell you about another trick. Sawing Through A Woman. The trick calls for a man. A box. A saw. And a woman.” Something in her physiology changes as she walks towards me. I back up, my hand going to my hip again. She raises the veil, and I realize there’s something downright insectoid about her face.

“He puts her in a trance. Cuts her in three. Pulls her apart, turns her around and puts her back together again. Sets her free. They smile, bow, make their exit.”  Clicking noises from her joints as she walks. There was no way that was there before. “Telepathy comes from the hivemind, you know. Insect genes. They had to test it on someone.”

She eyes me, purple all over now, not just her dress. Dragonfly iridescence. It’s beautiful, but I can’t keep myself from wondering where the cops are. Just like before, she politely ignores the errant thought.

“Five years in a laboratory cage, Mr. Richards. Wes, dear Wes, was my keeper. He pitied me. Set me free. Tried to bring me back. But deep down, you know, there wasn’t much he could do. I’m at least fifteen percent insect. We eat our mates. Is it really that surprising?”

Is this your card?

“But let me tell you about a different kind of magic. It even comes with an incantation. ‘Thou shalt not kill.’ The human conscience. What could I do? I didn’t want to be caged again. I didn’t want to die. But I couldn’t leave. And Wes is in my head, all the time, asking for justice. But the police don’t investigate the Clinics, you know. Payoffs keep their mistakes quiet. Which led me to the private sector. You.” She’s gotten far too close to me, close enough to touch my cheek with one clawed finger, but I can’t move.

“If I could fool a normal human, then I would go free. That’s what I’d promised myself. After all, one can’t help one’s nature. But you rose to the occasion splendidly.”

“What—what are you?” Some kind of tabloid monster?

She smiles, and dear God how did I miss the mandibles the first time? “You really should trust more of what you hear, Mr. Richards.” She raises her hands, and the special ops finally move in.

Thank you to our lovely volunteer. Take your bow.

I sag against the street lamp, watching the booking. Carrie will have a field day with this when it hits the papers. I hope she appreciates it, because I hate to be upstaged. And I’m certainly not getting paid for this.

Sphinx by Rachel Blier 0

Ellie Evans shouldered the heavy glass door open, slicking her hair out of her face as she did so, much good that it did her.  Although ThebesWare was known for scouting eccentric young talents to its development teams, showing up to a portfolio presentation with her glasses beaded with moisture and her skirt askew from running in a vain attempt to beat the rain was not so much eccentric as irresponsible. The sleek, dark bob that she had spent two hours ironing into place that morning was gone, doomed to frizz as it air dried in the warm building. Next time she would wear a hat. Definitely. Recognizing the defeatism inherent in “next time,” Ellie tucked her portfolio further under her arm and picked up the pace. Sure, she might not have much of a chance, but there’d be no chance at all if she showed late, too.

That was when she noticed the sphinx.

On another day, Ellie might have admired the way golden fur transitioned seamlessly to tawny feathers and olive skin, would have taken pleasure in the classical Greek angles of its face as it lifted its head to look at her. The precise way the wings joined to shoulders would have been worth quite a few sketches—six-limbed animals were a conceptual favorite of hers–but what mattered to her right now was the way it had contrived, like the cat it was, to spread its bulk across the maximum amount of space possible. And it was blocking the elevators. Between the minotaur at CreteCo. last week and the hydra at Marathon Publishing, the constant delays were really getting on Ellie’s nerves.

“Hey.”

It lifted its head from its paws, making a sound somewhere between a mew and a growl. “Myes?”

“You’re in the way.”

“Really.” The sphinx blinked slowly, cocking its pointed chin against one paw.

Ellie bristled, fingers tightening on her portfolio. At least the minotaur had been quick to the point. “Yes. I have a job interview. In ten minutes. So if you could just…” Ellie flapped her portfolio at the sphinx in an obvious shooing motion.

The sphinx stretched, wings spreading wide as its claws scraped the dark tile floor. “I think not. The heat vent is here, you know. And it’s a wet day.” It settled back to the tiles and rolled on its side, baring its belly.

Ellie considered giving it a swift kick with one of her carefully chosen—and currently very muddy—artistic combat boots, but restrained herself to a quick feint, which the sphinx ignored.

“Fine. Then I’ll take the stairs.”

“You mean those stairs?” One barred wing rose from the floor, pointing at the stairwell door located beside the elevator. Behind the sphinx.

Ellie set her portfolio down. “Fine. Whatever it is you want, make it quick. My time is valuable.”

“Now we’re talking.” The sphinx rolled itself up onto its haunches and leaned forward on its forepaws. “How’s your memory of the story of Oedipus?”

“Pretty good.”

“The rules are the same. We play a riddle game. You answer my questions, I let you pass. You don’t answer, I eat you. Fair enough?”

“As long as you’re quick.” Ellie straightened her skirt and took one last swipe at her hair. Might as well make herself look presentable, if she’s going to wait anyway.

The sphinx graced Ellie with another of its slow cat blinks, batting its long human eyelashes. “Very well. What.” It paused, brought a paw to its plum colored mouth, slicked it with saliva, and ran it through its hair, almost imitating Ellie.

What’s what? Ellie wanted to ask. She also wanted to slap the creature across the face, but knew from her experience with housecats and catty women that the more she urged the sphinx to get on with it, the more it would delay. She paced back and forth, listening to her boots squeak on the tile, until the creature finally looked up from its miniature grooming session.

“Well?” Ellie said.

The sphinx blinked at her slowly, without opening its eyes all the way. Ellie folded her arms, waiting for the deadly riddle. Whatever it was, she could handle it. She’d read her Tolkien. And nothing could be worse than bargaining her way past CreteCo’s guardian.

“What walks. On four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs at night?”

Water dripped from the hem of Ellie’s skirt. “That’s it?”

The sphinx’s eyes narrowed, her shoulders and wings pulling forward against her cheeks. “What about it?”

“Well, nothing, it’s just,” Ellie said, trying not to snort, “I was expecting something a bit more esoteric.”

“How so?” A definite growl had crept into the sphinx’s voice, and Ellie was glad she had managed not to laugh. The sphinx was ridiculous, yes, but still dangerous, wings folded tight to its back, hind legs tensed to spring.

“Well. Nothing, except everyone knows it. It might have worked for you back in the day, but word has gotten out.” Ellie ducked the gust of air that came from the sphinx’s suddenly ruffled wings. “Don’t you know any other ones?”

The sphinx muttered something so low that Ellie had to ask her to repeat it. On the third try, she was able to discern something that sounded like “family heirloom.”

“We all have to ask it,” the sphinx said, tail whipping frantically back and forth, all pretense of calm lost. “It’s tradition.”

Ellie paused a moment, imagining herself in the creature’s condition, forced to do what her family dictates no matter how silly it might feel. Like her own family, except with feathers and talons and sharpened canine teeth. An image of Uncle Matthew’s face on a sphinx body flickered across her mind’s eye, and she had to suppress a shudder. That will be her, unless she lands a job as a concept artist. And these stupid monsters are always in the way. With that thought, what little connection she felt with the unfortunate sphinx disappeared. She glanced at her watch. Five ‘til.

“That’s too bad.” She scooped up her portfolio and made as if to edge past the sphinx, heading for the elevator doors. “I’d really hate to be in your paws.”

Just as she cleared the threshold, Ellie heard the sound of rustling feathers, and then she felt herself strike the floor, air rushing from her lungs, with the sphinx’s front paws and the weight of a full grown lioness pressing down on her shoulders.

“You haven’t answered the riddle,” said the sphinx, its face kissing-close, so that Ellie can see the unnatural way its mouth moves, human lips over carnivore teeth.

Ellie gasped for breath, trying to force more air into her lungs, thoughts of I’m going to die competing with thoughts of I’m going to be late, they won’t even look at my portfolio if I’m late. With one hand she scrabbled on the tiles beside her, feeling around for the plastic clad bundle of papers.

“Were you bluffing about the answer to my riddle, little girl?” The sphinx’s claws dug into her shoulders.

Late. Death. Late is death. “Man! Man, okay, it’s man! Everyone knows that!”

The claws stayed in Ellie’s shoulder. “You didn’t answer right away, though. For all your cleverness.”

“I answered. Let me up.”

The sphinx’s curly dark hair fluffed to twice its original size, and her lips pulled back from her teeth. “Do you know how easy it would be for me to simply eat you right now?”

Ellie thought of the review board upstairs. Ten rejections in a row, and she was running out of developers. This was her last chance, short of learning Swedish and trying a foreign company. But probably she’d accept that maybe she couldn’t draw worth a damn, that maybe she should go into the family hardware business. After that, she’d let the sphinx eat her, if it came down to it. But not before that portfolio review. So she ignored the teeth that were nearly in her throat and said, “I’d bet there’s a rule against that, too. Tradition.”

She felt the sphinx’s breath against her skin as it said, “You would be right.” Then it backed away, leaving her to sit up and rub at the marks it had left on her shoulders. Ellie’s watch showed noon, on the dot. If she ran, they might let her explain herself. She spent a moment gathering up her portfolio—her appearance, by this point, was an utter loss—under the watchful gaze of the sphinx.

“So. Can I pass?” Ellie said.

The sphinx backed away from the threshold and wedged itself between the wall and a potted plant. It flicked its tail at Ellie.

Taking this as permission, Ellie crept past and thumbed the elevator button.

“Answer me a question, little human,” said the sphinx, causing Ellie to jump.

Ellie kept her eyes locked on the little lights overhead, watching the it shift from the sixth floor…to the fifth…to the fourth… “If you’re quick.”

“Why bother?”

“What?” Ellie hunched her shoulders. She could feel the question coming.

“Why bother with these interviews if you know you will always be late, and your drawings will never be good enough?”

The elevator light was on the second floor, and it seemed to be stuck there.

“I don’t have to answer that. It isn’t a riddle.”

Again Ellie heard the soft rustle of feathers shifting position, the scratching of claws on marble. “Why try to make it as an artist at all,” said the sphinx. “Even the most talented freelancers have trouble getting by.”

Ellie felt her throat constrict, felt the corners of her portfolio digging into her palm. The light was still on the second floor.

“You are going to be late, little human girl. Why not stay and play another riddle game with me? It doesn’t matter at all.” The sphinx’s feathers brushed against Ellie’s cheek, and again she felt the touch of lips on her neck.

“Get out of my head!” Ellie kicked blindly behind her and felt her heavy combat boot connect with something soft, provoking a yowl of pain and indignation. She slammed into the door that led to the emergency stairs and sprinted the six flights up, hearing and not hearing talons on concrete echoing behind her all the way. When she reached the office on the top floor she rushed past the receptionist and emerged panting and disheveled, into a drab conference room with game posters hanging on the walls.

The reviewers at the table—three men and a woman in wire rimmed glasses—turned their heads as she entered.

Ellie swallowed—they were still here­—and set her portfolio case on the table. Trying to pretend that she wasn’t sweaty, out of breath, and wearing torn clothing, she undid the clasps and pulled out the stack of pages.

“Miss Evans,” said the woman. “We have some questions for you.”