There’s a place, not much of one, where all the characters too old and insignificant to copyright wind up. It’s a town fading into obscurvy, the disease of irrelevance, but Wai Tai Chen is still making a go of it.
She’s a tenner, meaning her name showed up in her original work ten times or less. The reference page over her heart, all she got from her author, barely has any usable words. She mostly winds up smacking people with fish.
Still, she tries her best and minds her own business, but all that changes when the copyright company comes to town, offering jobs that seem too good to be true. All of the nobodies from the classics are falling for it, but not Tai Chen. She begrudgingly investigates, finding questionable contracts, a few old flames, and murder.
(reading time: 54 minutes) (reading time for entire novella: 3 hours, 25 minutes)
The Public Domain
The sail-barrow bucked forward on the last concrete step, sending Tai Chen and her cargo spilling onto the sidewalk. She hissed and swore, not at her ripped pants and skinned knees dripping black ink, but at the sight of the dented boxes and broken glass she was trying to deliver. She grabbed her fisherman’s cap off the ground and tucked her short hair back under it.
Cool your engine, she thought. Nobody needs any of this in the next hour, except maybe… She picked up a small box tied with a leather strap and shook it. The rip in its side was too small for any of the tablets to escape; the medicine was safe. Tai Chen limped over to the sail-barrow and loudly righted it. The sail was broken, ripped, and covered in street dust. When she was certain it was useless the sail shrank back to its tiny paper form. She reached inside her jacket and under her blouse, touching her thin pale fingers to the skin above her left breast.
There was no heartbeat. There was no heartbeat because she lived in Carlo. There was no heartbeat because Carlo was the most remote district of the Public Domain. A beating heart to pump your ink, or maybe even blood, was a privilege she could never access. Carlo was a bog of foggy concrete, smokestacks, and fish scales. Useless things were manufactured there and shipped by boat to the kinds of places where people could afford useless things. Carlo had tried to sustain itself with fishing, but the last herring plant had shuttered months ago. It didn’t matter how hard they tried, the world wouldn’t let tenners like Tai Chen get ahead.
She didn’t like calling herself a tenner because that invited the question: how many? It’s the kind of question where lying about it stings as badly as the truth, because anyone who really cared could just go look it up in the town records. When she bothered to answer she told the truth. Three. Her name appeared a measly three times in her original work… and she wasn’t called Wai Tai Chen there.
She grabbed a corner of the reference page on her chest and peeled a fresh sheet away. It turned to paper as it lifted off her body. She didn’t need to scan for the right word because she’d used it so many times. Her thumb pressed down on the word sail. It glowed with an extra bold blackness; then she expertly, with one hand, folded the sheet of paper into an origami sail. Once in place at the tip of the wheelbarrow it bonded to it, grew, and became wood and canvas. Just like a real sail.
Tai Chen gathered up all her goods and piled them back into the sail-barrow. Her knees would have to wait, at least until after she delivered the medicine. She mounted the wheelbarrow and put one foot on the metal lip at the bow and one foot on the stern. She grabbed one of the wooden handles and pulled the vehicle up so it balanced on its single wheel. The entire thing wobbled when her knees quaked. It wasn’t the most efficient means of getting across town, but it was hers. She took pride in finding a way to use everything on her page. The kind of people who let those gifts sit idly by were the kind of people who got so stuck in a rut that they needed Tai Chen to run their errands for them.
She peeled off another reference page and pressed her thumb down on the word breeze. Her hand crafted so fast that its movements could barely be made out. In a second the paper was pleated into the shape of a fan. She waved it back and forth rapidly, filling the sail with wind and pushing her rusty little land ship forward.
The streets were largely bare at midday. Tai Chen didn’t pass so much as a hotdog cart across three blocks. Only when she crossed the invisible border into the destitute part of town did she start to see pigeons and vagrants sharing meals out of the same trashcan. She spotted Vilimas: an eleven year old boy with dark skin, an oversized bowler hat, oversized spectacles, a satchel, and a bundle of newspapers clutched under his arm. He waved one around in the air and shouted headlines.
“The news of Carlo right here!” he shouted. “Come get your news! Keep yourself up to date in this crazy world of ours! These are the stories of your lives! Don’t miss out unless you want the obscurvy to get in your bones! Mayor of Carlo to wed! City council to vote on new prohibitions! Get your ticket to the know right here!” He spotted Tai Chen as she went by. “Hiya Tyke,” he called after her. She immediately swiveled the sail-barrow around and hopped the curb. She came to a stop next to Vilimas and slammed the vehicle down on its supports.
“How many times do I have to tell you not to call me that kid,” she chastised as she bent down and pushed his big hat back so she could see his eyes. They were dark and sharp; the whites clean like eggshell thanks to his permanent youth. He thought like he was eleven, but he was also the cleverest eleven-year-old most people would ever meet. The boy made use of his reference page well. It had the word newspaper, so he made and sold newspapers. There was no need to do any of that pesky reporting or editing. Beyond that, he even knew that was the best corner to sell papers on. He was right on the line between the poor and less-poor parts of town; he caught both the working stiffs who wanted the evening entertainment of a paper and the unemployed who needed to scan the classifieds. His parents were principal characters in his work, so they didn’t live in Carlo. He never told Tai Chen where he slept nights.
“I didn’t mean it like that,” Vilimas said. I meant it spelled T-Y-K-E. Like a nickname.”
“You’re the only tyke I see around here kid.”
“No need for name-calling. I didn’t mean anything by it, honest. Bernenstein just said the other day that he was going to start calling you that.”
“What are you talking to Bernenstein for?”
“He knows good jokes. He tells them to me and I put them in the funnies for everybody else. What do you call a hen that lays black eggs?”
“Why is Bernenstein calling me a tyke?” she asked, hoping to circumvent the punchline.
“He said you would think it was cute. Want me to tell him what a big fan of it you are?”
“No kid, I’ll tell him. Since you stopped me with your loud mouth you might as well give me a paper.” Tai Chen dug into her jacket pocket and pulled out a three cent piece with Rudyard Kipling’s face. She put the coin on the kid’s head and then lowered his hat back over his eyes. He handed her one. Without so much as scanning it she rolled it up so tightly that it squeaked and then swung it through the air a few times like she was up to bat in the major leagues. Nothing was better for swatting scorpions than a good piece of fish wrap and she had the feeling she was about to go somewhere infested.
“Those are for reading you know,” Vilimas said with a snicker, happy to scold her right back.
“I’ll be sure to do that once we’re worth reading about again,” Tai Chen said as she mounted her sail-barrow and made a fresh fan. She took off again. The newspaper would stick around long enough for her to use it before it turned back into a flimsy page. Everything made by reference pages was temporary, but you could still get use out of it for four or five hours. Food and medicine worked, but tasted like paper. Tai Chen had hoped that the word fish on her page would let her sell fatty tuna steaks to every restaurant in town, but nobody wanted fish with the flavor of postcards.
At first Tai Chen couldn’t remember which of the identical tiny apartments belonged to Hortotef, on account of him moving around a lot, but when she saw the eviction notice nailed to the door she knew she had the right place. She jiggled the knob; it was locked. Damn it Hortotef. You’re really set on making it harder every time aren’t you?
“Hortotef it’s Tai Chen. Let me in.” There was no answer. “I’ve got your quinine tablets. Let me in.” Still no answer. “Let me in before I bust the door down and force feed you the whole bottle.” Stubborn silence. She was starting to get very annoyed, especially since she’d skinned her knees trying to get him his pills on time. Malaria was just part of the baggage Hortotef brought with him from his original work. The author never stated he had the disease, but the great screw-up of creation filled in the holes anyway. A realistic character has to have realistic problems. Reality fleshed Hortotef out with a parasite.
Luckily for him, someone in Carlo had the word quinine on their reference page and they were willing to give it away out of the kindness of their heart. Otherwise Hortotef would be stuck buying pills when he couldn’t even afford food.
It wasn’t really someone who made the quinine; it was a dog. The dog’s name was Spanker. He came from White Fang along with his owner, a Native American woman named Kloo-kooch. Every week Tai Chen visited the woman and her dog; they lived in a small cabin in Carlo’s city park. Technically it was against city ordinances to live there, but sometimes you can’t stop a character from feeling at home. Kloo-kooch was a quiet woman who treated Spanker like her child. She would rub the thick fur on the nape of his neck and gently peel a reference page off his belly. Then she would make the quinine, put it in a box, make a strap of leather from another page, and tie it up all nice. Tai Chen always wanted to ask if she liked the name Kloo-kooch; it reminded her of her own naming snafu. Kloo-kooch sort of sounded made-up to her, but what did she know about how Native Americans got their names? Jack London seemed like a swell enough sort, so he probably did his research. There had to be a reason he was on the dime.
Tai Chen peeled off a reference page and looked for a way to bust down Hortotef’s door. She had quite a few things at her disposal, especially for a tenner: mat, bowl, rice, eggs, lo-quat, drum, fish, lightning, illusion, wheel-barrow, sail, breeze, onions, gourd, millet, paste, and water. None of them seemed particularly appropriate for the situation. A bolt of lightning could surely do it, but she knew better than to ever use that word. She’d seen plenty of desperate cold tenners try to use the word fire and burn their hands. If she so much as put a thumbnail to that word the sudden rush of electrical energy would probably kill her.
She ended up going with wheel-barrow again. She tossed the tiny origami sculpture up; it became full-size and heavy in the air and then crashed down on the doorknob, breaking it and the lock right out of the frame. Tai Chen stepped inside, coiled newspaper at the ready. There were no lights on in the apartment. Hortotef had always taken a liking to his original role as an ancient Egyptian high priest, so the place was decorated with iron and bronze statues that wore ivory jewelry. Stoic metal men stood on their pedestals with rippling muscles and the heads of cats and baboons. There were spider webs everywhere, but a curious absence of spiders. In their place were scorpions. There were snakes this time as well. They slithered about on the floor leaving trails in the dust. A crusty black scorpion waved its pincers at her from an end table. She smacked it across the room with the paper. What a surprise, the Egyptian built a tomb.
She couldn’t tell what kind of snakes they were, but Tai Chen gambled that they weren’t poisonous. The same with the scorpions. They were just for show. Hortotef trying to pretend he was dying with dignity and wanted to protect everyone by keeping them away from his downward spiral. Tai Chen nudged the hissing serpents out of the way as she drew closer and closer to the back of the apartment. She batted five scorpions off a lampshade and tried to turn it on. It seemed Hortotef’s electricity had been evicted as well. She spotted an arm chair pointed towards a closed window. There was a spot on the window with less dust than the rest of it, like someone had cleared it just enough to glance at the world. “Hortotef?” There was no answer, but she saw a hand on the edge of the chair’s armrest. Maybe he wouldn’t need the quinine after all. She approached slowly and leaned towards the window to look at his face.
What she saw shocked her, but she didn’t let it show. Really, she should have expected it. The last two times she’d seen him he’d been lethargic, with his eyes appearing grayish. They had slowly rolled towards whatever he was looking at. That was not a symptom of his malaria, but it was a symptom of obscurvy.
Hortotef was from a work called Brood of the Witch Queen, which was not exactly the most popular story to begin with. When the authors and readers a few worlds away stopped reading about you it could be very hard to find a reason to go on. That manifested in most characters as obscurvy: an illness of irrelevance. It took a hold of the mind like a depression, slowing your movements and clouding your thoughts. It made everything seem pointless. It made every period on your reference page look like the end of the story. Obscurvy was at its worst in places like Carlo, where most of the characters were only given names out of convenience. They didn’t even have stories given to them when they were born from the pen.
Her friend was an ellipse away from death. His skin was gray and covered with just as much dust as the furniture. His eyes were so cloudy she could barely separate the pupil from the iris from the white. A scorpion crawled across his bald head. His mouth hung wide open; it was filled with a cobweb. The only way Tai Chen knew he was still alive was the light puff of breath on the web. She grimaced and reached into his mouth to pull the web out. His body twitched after she did and he went into a coughing fit. He lifted himself from the chair so he could bend over and spit a thick gray rope of drool onto the floor. He nearly collapsed but she grabbed him and held him upright as best she could, despite the fact he had six inches and plenty of weight on her.
“Who are you?” he asked. Confusion was a symptom of the disease, a symptom Tai Chen liberated him from by smacking him violently across the face. Thwap! Hortotef coughed more. “Go away Taik. Leave me to die. I put out the snakes and the bugs so you would stay away. Why won’t you take the hint?”
“Shut up Hortotef. Come here.” She put one of his arms over her shoulder and led him into the bathroom. Washing the dust off was the quickest way to get him back in his right mind. She turned the cold faucet and got nothing but a palm full of air. “You didn’t feel like paying for anything did you?”
“What use does a dead man have for water?” he moaned. “Burial at sea perhaps? Should I try that?” Tai Chen peeled a reference page and pressed on water. The page became like a damp rag and she wiped the grime from his face and arms. Then she stuck the cold ball of paper down his back just to irritate him into activity. He reached for it weakly while she pulled his suspenders up over his shoulders where they belonged.
“If you had wanted me to stay away you would’ve told me to stop bringing you your medicine. All these critters are just an elaborate cry for help. Only next time maybe I’m deaf,” she threatened. “Clean yourself up. I’m taking you to work; that’ll get your head straight.” She tossed a towel onto his head and closed the bathroom door. Then she leaned up against it and rubbed her face with her hands, forgetting that his obscurvy dust was still on them. She watched idly while a scorpion on the shoulder of a statue turned back to paper and slipped to the floor.
He called me Taik, she thought. Does he deserve another good smack for that? No, it was just the dust making him forget. If he calls me princess all bets are off though. After a few minutes she knocked and said she was coming in. She found him trying to shave without any cream or even a wet face. There was a droplet of ink on his chin where he’d nicked himself. She took the razor and told him he looked good enough while she dabbed at the ink with the towel. She ripped open the box she’d brought with her and shoved two quinine tablets in his mouth.
“You’re a good woman, Tai Chen,” he mumbled while he rolled the pills around in his mouth. “Looking out for a four like me.”
“We’re all tenners,” she said, “don’t stratify us more than we already are.” She sighed and looked at him as he wobbled back and forth. His eyes were already clearing up; she could see his dark irises now. “What are you doing Hortotef? I find you in some state every week. Why are you tearing yourself down?”
“In my story I had the magical power to transfer my soul into a new body, like reincarnation. I want that again. I want to fall asleep here and wake up somewhere else. Someone else. Someone who’s part of a story again.”
“This is the only one you get,” she chided. “Don’t throw it away. Where’s your jacket?” He pointed to the couch, where she could see a sleeve sticking out from under a pillow. She walked over and lifted it, shaking it loose to separate a few paper snakes. She put it on him and dusted off the sleeves. Then she stuck her finger in the middle of his back like it was the barrel of a gun. He played along and lifted his hands into the air while she marched him past the statues and toward the door. She noticed his arms slowly falling back down; they didn’t even have the energy to stay up for more than a few seconds.
“I don’t have any money for a taxi,” he said through a yawn.
“We’ll figure something out,” she said and shoved him out the front door and into the gray light of day.
The Copyright Company
Grogan’s Smokes was a smoke shop in the middle of the busiest part of Carlo. It was so bustling in fact that when Tai Chen and Hortotef walked inside there was already one whole customer browsing Grogan’s selection of aged reference pages under their heavily fingerprinted glass cases. The back wall was covered in diamond-shaped pincushions with all sorts of documents pinned in place: IOUs, tabs, receipts, a list of banned characters, and advertisements for businesses that were long shuttered. On a shelf in front of that stood a row of square glass jars the size of mailboxes full of shredded reference pages mixed with herbs like thyme and rosemary. The air in the shop was thick and smelled like shoe polish and peppermint, which Grogan used to mask the smell of burning paper that was otherwise infused into every item in there.
When the two walked in a bell over the door rang, causing Grogan to come out from his back room and lean over the counter. He was a big man in an ironed button-up shirt, as hairy as Hortotef was bald. He did not look pleased to see them.
“What are you doing here?” he asked Hortotef.
“Reporting for duty boss,” the Egyptian slurred back.
“Is he drunk or webbed up?” Grogan asked Tai Chen.
“He was webby this morning but he’s fine now,” she said.
“Is he fine enough to remember that I fired him three days ago? He was smoking twice as much as he was selling.”
“Does that mean you’re hiring?” the single customer interrupted, his head shooting up at the prospect.
“No it doesn’t,” Grogan said. He turned back to the two of them. “So what are you doing here?”
“Tai Chen, I just remembered that I might have gotten canned a while back,” Hortotef said with an innocent smile.
“Look Grogan, he needs his job back. The man’s got bills to pay,” she said, grabbing Hortotef by the cheeks and turning his face back to the counter. “You want his death on your conscience?”
“No, but I also don’t want him in my store. He’s practically falling down where he stands. I can’t have that around. People will think my product causes obscurvy.”
“Your product does cause obscurvy,” she stated. “That’s what happens when you inhale a story like a drug instead of actually living it.”
“None of that’s ever been proven,” Grogan said with a fat finger jabbing in her direction.
“So you’re throwing us out on the street?” she asked. “I’m just checking because you know nobody else is hiring.”
“That’s where you’re wrong missy,” Grogan said. “There’s a place down at the docks that’s hiring right now. Some big company’s set up shop in the old herring plant. They’re taking anybody with two legs, two arms, and a head, so your boy there is in luck.” Upon hearing that the customer excused himself and scurried out the door, not even bothering to throw an apology over his shoulder when he closed the door fast enough to knock the bell on the floor.
“What company?” Tai Chen asked as Grogan circled around the counter to pick up the bell. She’d seen Vilimas earlier and his papers didn’t say anything about a new racket in town.
“How should I know? As long as they’re hiring that’s good. That means people will get paid. Then they can come back here and pick up smoking again.” Grogan reached up to affix the bell back above the door, but he couldn’t quite reach. Hortotef, who was thinner but taller, grabbed the bell and did it for him. Grogan didn’t bother thanking him before returning behind the counter.
“You sure you don’t want to just do me a favor and take him back?” Tai Chen asked. She really wasn’t in the mood to drag him down to the docks. As a delivery girl she was expected to do some work of her own.
“I’ve already given him the boot once and I’m not interested in completing the pair,” Grogan said as he pulled out a reference page from the glass case in front of him. He pinched a mixture of herbs from a jar and spread them along the center of the page, adding some powdered cinnamon as well. Then he rolled the page up tight and held it that way with a piece of waxy gum.
“Fine, thanks for nothing,” she grumbled and opened the door to leave.
“Wait,” Grogan said. He struck a match and lit the end of the long page he’d rolled. He puffed on it twice. Tai Chen could see little words in the streams of smoke coming from his nostrils. He grinned like a catfish in a bed of crawdads. “You’ve got to try this one before you go.” Tai Chen tapped her fingers on the side of the door. She eyed the cigar like it was a big slimy leech.
“My workday’s wasted anyway,” she sighed and approached the counter. She took the cigar from Grogan, put the end to her mouth, and pulled about half of it in one breath. The end glowed brightly as ashes sloughed off in big chunks. The smoke filled up her mind like warm cider. Suddenly her feet didn’t feel like they were connected to the ground anymore. They felt like they dangled off the edge of a wooden raft, basking equally in warm sunlight and the skin of a quick river. She heard trees rustle. The airy hum of a dragonfly. She opened her eyes expecting to see a fat peach she could pluck from a branch hanging out over the river, but instead she saw Grogan’s smoke shop and the two men waiting for her reaction. She coughed to pretend the smoke had gone down rougher than it actually had. “Where’d you get a page like that?” she asked.
“Huck Finn,” he whispered.
“You’re a damn liar,” she accused, even as she took another drag on the cigar.
“I don’t mean the Huck Finn. If a character like that shows up around here it’ll probably mean the end of the world. I got it from a guy who was in Huck Finn. Damn if it doesn’t taste like a main character page to me though. He swapped me twenty copies for two bottles of schnapps.” Tai Chen took a third long puff. Her pale fingers hung over the edge of the counter and stirred the smoke. The word river wrapped around her ring finger. She accepted its proposal and took another sip at the river’s lapping edge. You can have me baby, she told the river in her head. If you carry me you can have me forever. Hortotef pulled her from the illusion by slipping the cigar out of her fingers; he wanted a taste of his own. Tai Chen plucked it from his hand as he opened his mouth and handed it back to Grogan. She rubbed her eyelids to get the hypnotic smoke out of her lashes.
“Hey!” Hortotef protested. “You had some!”
“Nobody fired me,” she countered. Grogan took another puff of the warm, sweet, southern water. His expression softened while he looked Tai Chen up and down.
“You know, if you want a job here I think I could be hiring,” he offered. “Sass sells.”
“I can’t,” she said. She felt a twinge of pain that was sharper than she’d anticipated, like a dumbbell dropped on her lungs. She pushed on Hortotef’s shoulder to move him back towards the door.
“Why not?” Grogan asked, not particularly bothered by her rejection. It was hard to be bothered by anything with your toes dipped in the water.
“I’d smoke you out of business faster than anybody,” she said. The door closed behind them and the bell rang. The shop became silent.
“If only somebody would stop me,” Grogan whispered to the indifferent smoke. The words in the air carried him into the backroom and stretched him out on his desk so he could bask in the sun.
Tai Chen couldn’t fit Hortotef into one of her sail-barrows, so she had to spend her own hard-earned money on a cab. Coming down from that incredible Huck Finn stuff made the sting of handing over two Stoker bills all the more painful.
Her reward upon reaching the docks with him was a face full of fishy smells that knocked the last of the smoke off her face with a wet slap. The only fishing done there anymore was from the flimsy rods of old hobbyists who only managed to catch things like shark pups and oil cans, but the place still reeked of herring anyway. She wasn’t sure if she preferred that or the boat fuel stench that took its place when they started walking by all the moored vessels that hadn’t seen open water in months. Two of the boats caught her eye as they were quite unlike the others. The first was a strange ship called Nancy Nox that was definitely not a fishing vessel; it was some sort of palatial houseboat resembling a regular vessel with a barn plopped right onto its deck. She thought she heard the sounds of laughter from inside the boat. Tai Chen’s curiosity got the better of her and she stopped to investigate.
She hopped up and grabbed the edge of the boat’s deck. She pulled her elbows up and over the side to get a better look. The boat was in a horrible state of disrepair. Cobwebs that looked almost like the symptoms of obscurvy decorated every corner and were coated in crusty salt. Mold and splintering had done a number on what had surely been the extremely fine and expensive wood of the deck. She could just see inside one of the house’s open doors as it creaked back and forth in the air; there were more than a dozen small tables and plenty of overturned chairs. It looked like, years ago, there had been a big party and all the guests had decided to take a piece of the decor home as a souvenir. All the place settings were gone, fixtures were ripped from the wall, and a chandelier, plucked of its dangling gems, hung there like the metal skeleton of a bird. She wondered if the owner of the boat had gotten so drunk at his own party that he forgot he even owned it. Guess I didn’t hear laughter. Not even the spiders are home.
“Is there anybody onboard?” Hortotef asked, absentmindedly wondering if he was about to sign up to be a sailor.
“No,” she said and dropped back down to the dock. If nobody was going to do anything with that boat, there was no reason Hortotef couldn’t live on it if he did get evicted. She decided she would suggest to him that he squat there should their efforts to get a job that day prove unsuccessful. She could also suggest that he stay at her place, but Tai Chen’s friendship had its limits. For now she kept the idea to herself.
The second ship was odd mostly in its newness. The sides were polished enough to check your teeth in, its metal rails oiled, and there wasn’t a barnacle in sight. An older man was checking the boat’s moorings. He was instantly recognizable thanks to his pets; he had a pigeon perched on one shoulder and a thrush on the other. A baby mongoose stuck its head out of one of his jacket pockets and stared warily at the two people approaching with its beady black eyes like drops of ink.
“How did a salty old crab like yourself afford a boat like this?” Tai Chen asked as they reached him. Captain Adolphus Ranger March pulled the last rope tight and turned to greet them. His clothes were just as filthy as ever. Adolphus’ name only showed up in Stoker’s The Lair of the White Worm once, so Tai Chen always thought obscurvy would get him one day. While disheveled, he appeared to very much be himself and in good health.
“If only I could,” he said with a gap-toothed smile. “I’ve been hired to captain her. It’s a good job. Mackenny made her.”
“What do you mean?” Tai Chen asked. She’d heard about the man Mackenny before, but never met him in person. What she’d heard didn’t suggest he had the money to hire a captain for anything.
“The company paid him to make her. Mackenny’s got the word yacht on his references.”
“Why would any company buy a boat that’s going to turn into a piece of paper in a few hours? Why don’t they buy a real one?” she asked. She looked over at the vessel and saw, in place of a name, the letter C with a circle around it.
“That’s what the company does you see. “They’re called the Copyright Company and they know how to make references permanent. Course you have to sign up with them to get that. I’m just freelancing. Mackenny’s yacht here is permanent as taxes though.”
“How exactly do they pull that off?” she asked.
“Trade secret,” Adolphus said with a shrug as he rubbed the bottom of the cooing pigeon’s beak with a hairy knuckle.
“Are they the ones hiring?” Hortotef asked in the middle of a yawn. The sea air wasn’t doing much to pull him out of his daze.
“Aye they’re hiring,” the captain said. Tai Chen detected a distinct lack of respect.
“Something wrong with their money?” she asked. The captain removed his hat and scratched his head delicately enough to not disturb the finch nestled in his white hair. Maybe it’s all those animals he keeps making that keep him going. Can’t get grayed out when there’s always something chirping in your ear or chewing your pocket lint. Maybe he’d be a regular Rockefeller if it was a dame doing the chirping instead of sparrows.
“Money’s as good as anybody else’s,” he said. “I don’t mind ferrying them and their paperclips around, but something about the lot of them makes me feel oilier than working a herring boat ever did. It’s like they’re all lawyers. Every last one of them. The guy in charge carries his lawyering degree in his briefcase like it’s his birth certificate. Every trip they’re blabbing about judges from other domains and filing briefs and complaining I don’t have any coffee on my ship. They have a doll of a secretary in there but she asks questions like a prosecutor. Keeps her hair tight and her glasses clean just to make sure you don’t see her as a real woman.”
“If their worst sin is the secretary not flashing you a dimpled smile, they don’t sound so bad,” Tai Chen said.
“Lawyers,” the captain muttered in response.
“Are we going in?” Hortotef asked, looking up at a cloud that was barely holding its rain in. Tai Chen pulled his face back down and aimed it at the old herring plant. Then she grabbed him by the elbow and dragged him towards the building. A pair of large garage doors was open. They saw a professional-looking sign ushering in potential employees. The sign was so successful that there was a line of Carlo’s finest unemployed that snaked out of the doors and around the front of the building. Tai Chen grimaced.
“You’ll be fine from here right?” she asked Hortotef. She normally wouldn’t wait in a line half that long even for a rollercoaster and some cotton candy.
“Yes, I’ll be fine,” Hortotef said. He attempted to cut in line. The heavy woman behind him pushed him back out and cursed at him in Italian. He tried to cut in even closer to the front with similar results.
“You have to go to the back of the line,” Tai Chen moaned through gritted teeth as she pulled her cap down over her eyes.
“I know. Just tell me where the back is,” Hortotef said.
“You’re being thick on purpose,” she accused. He smiled and looked at the ocean in a way that suggested he was thinking about taking a nice swim.
“Ugh, come on you dolt,” she said and pulled him around the side of the building to the back of the line. She started compiling a mental list of all the things he would owe her once he was back on his feet and he’d done some feather dusting in that skull of his.
Things Hortotef Owes Wai Tai Chen Upon Steady Work:
- One hot meal at that Moroccan place on L. Frank Baum Boulevard.
- A bronze bust of me he’ll keep in his den to remind him who saved his lousy life.
- He’ll name his firstborn after me if anyone in Carlo ever has kids.
- He’ll keep me away from Grogan’s if I ever need it.
- One ride on the Ferris wheel. If I can’t see the domain where Kai Lung lives from the top then it doesn’t count.
- And he can pick up his own damn drugs from Kloo-kooch.
Tai Chen looked up. They were only halfway through the line; the garage door overhead sent a cold drop of water crashing onto the back of her neck like an icicle. She pulled Hortotef towards her and then took his spot. The Egyptian didn’t seem to mind the water splashing on his skullcap. Tai Chen withdrew back into her thoughts to finish the list. As the wait dragged on she drifted to things she knew her friend could never provide.
- He can dig up Ernest Bramah and have him start writing again. Put me in the light for once. Get me a nicer place across the sea. Make it so I don’t have to worry that every time I close my eyes I might wake up with cobwebs over them.
- At least a legal name change. I’d settle for that.
- He can tell us all why characters aren’t moving to Carlo anymore. He can explain where all the fresh ink is going so we can at least stop chewing our nails over it. Damn it Hortotef. You’re an ancient magical priest… why can’t you just do these things for me? Why do you have to be as drained and boring as the rest of us? Is there nothing of your old story left?
She knew perfectly well he could only bring to Carlo the same things she had. The only part of the story tenners get to keep is the page where their name is most frequent or most important. Your reference page. You only get what’s on it. Everything else stays behind in the world of the protagonists. They’re too busy being adored and showered with purpose to look across the foggy sea at the slums the bit players slog through. They get to have their body heat, their color, their sunshine… because their stories are the ones everyone wants.
“Next,” a voice droned. Tai Chen came out of her pouting daydream. They’d made it to the front of the line. There was a row of ten temporary offices set up in the garage bay, each separated from the other by black room dividers emblazoned with the blocky words property of the Copyright Company. One of them was open. A stern man with a flat head and salt and pepper hair waved them over from behind his desk. Tai Chen grabbed Hortotef and pulled him up to the desk. There was only one chair, so she pulled it out and stuffed him in it before standing off to the side.
“Shut the door,” the man said. Tai Chen turned around and pulled the screen closed. The man looked from the droopy-eyed Hortotef to Tai Chen and back again. “What are you his wife?”
“Never mind what I am. I’m just here to make sure you hire him and take him off my hands.”
“You’re not making the best first impression,” the man said, but he started handing paperwork to Hortotef anyway. Tai Chen scanned the man’s desk for a nameplate, but saw none. There was no clock in the tiny room. No desk toys. Just the desk, a filing cabinet, and the man seated behind it. Everything was labeled either with the company name or that C with a circle around it she had seen on the yacht.
“What is it exactly that you do here?” Tai Chen asked.
“We provide work. We’re sort of a talent agency that covers every talent. Even the boring ones.” The lackey turned to Hortotef and popped the cap off his fountain pen. “Name?”
“Hortotef,” the Egyptian answered.
“Brood of the Witch Queen.”
“You haven’t heard of it?”
“Give me his birth name, not the one he scribbled all over you.”
“Arthur Henry Ward.” The lackey opened a file on his desk and lifted half of a large stack of papers. He went down the list on it with his fingertip.
“This the same man who created Dr. Fu Manchu?”
“Yes. He created many characters.”
“Fu Manchu’s not exactly a hot name right now. The Chinese hate him. The people who like the Chinese hate him. He’s a caricature these days.” The lackey looked into Hortotef’s eyes, which were a little sharper since he thought he was hearing the lackey insult his author. “You’re not some flying carpet caricature are you?”
“I am Egyptian. I was a priest with vast knowledge of life and death. I knew powerful sorceries. When I got to Carlo I couldn’t even do card tricks…”
“Is it a caricature for Egyptians to be magic?” the lackey asked Tai Chen.
“How should I know?” she shot back. Damn good thing I don’t need a job here. I don’t think they’d take a Chinese girl with a nonsense name cobbled together by an Englishman.
“It’s your lucky day pal. We’ve got some work for you, assuming you’re able-bodied and there are no warrants out for your arrest.”
“I don’t think so.”
“You don’t think?”
“There aren’t any.”
“Good man. We can have you start tomorrow. Show up here with clean clothes and a smile. Now sign here, here, over there, under this, and initial here. Oh and date it there. Today’s the seventeenth by the way.” Hortotef took the pen from him and touched it to the contract.
“Hold on a second,” Tai Chen said. She leaned over the desk and dropped the tip of her index finger on top of the pen so Hortotef wouldn’t move it. “What’s he signing?”
“I don’t care Tai Chen,” Hortotef said. “I’ll take the work. I’ll make you proud.”
“What’s in this stack of papers?” she asked again. She was thinking about Captain March’s reluctance to sign a contract of his own.
“It’s just boilerplate,” the lackey said, as if he’d merely handed Hortotef a tissue for his runny nose. “He signs the papers and he has a guaranteed job for a minimum of five years. After that he can leave or renew the contract.”
“Five years of work,” Hortotef uttered, the words practically drooling out of his mouth. He started signing sloppily, disregarding the weight of Tai Chen’s finger. “You brought me here Tai Chen. Don’t stop me now. I need this.” She lifted her finger.
“You want one too?” the lackey asked as he started pulling another contract out of his desk.
“No, I work plenty hard. Can I leave you here Hortotef? You going to stay upright after I’m gone?”
“Yes, thank you Tai Chen. I’m fine now; they’ll see what I can do.” Tai Chen patted him on the shoulder and let herself out of the portable office. She immediately noticed that she was now trapped inside the building. The recruitment line had grown so fat and disorganized that a wall of people filled the garage doors. The last thing she wanted to do was get snagged on that line again, so she stopped a secretary as she walked by. Her hair was in a tight bun. Her narrow hips and long plain skirt made her look like an empty caulk canister.
“Can I help you?” she asked. Tai Chen didn’t respond right away, startled as she was by the tattoo on the woman’s forehead. Bold. Black. A C with a circle. Now that’s company loyalty, Tai Chen thought.
“Uh yeah, help a girl out here. I’d rather not wade through the crowd just to leave. Is there another way out of here?”
“Up those stairs and to the left. At the end of the hall there’s a metal door that’ll take you out onto a catwalk. You’ll have to jump a few feet to the ground, but you look capable.”
“Thanks,” Tai Chen said, but the secretary didn’t stick around to blush. Tai Chen made her way to the stairs and up them. The sounds of shuffling feet and coughing vanished as soon as she was in the hallway, replaced by the hum of some unseen machinery. There was a row of small windows on the right side through which she caught passing glimpses of the docks and boats. The bay was nearly devoid of activity, its surface far too glassy for it to be part of a healthy ocean. It looked like nothing lived in it or even crawled along its bed. It looked as if any boats that dared let go of the shore would only make it ten feet before ripping through the delicate surface and plummeting into a bottomless black abyss.
Tai Chen stopped and stared outside. The line to get in had grown two tails, one circling each side of the old plant. What kind of work is this that there’s so much to go around? she wondered. Suddenly, a blinding white light filled the window. Tai Chen was forced to back up and rub her eyes.
“Twaining son of a,” she swore out loud as she pulled her cap down to act as a visor. She stumbled out of the way of the beam of light and examined it from the side. It rested on the door on the left side of the hallway. She guessed it was some sort of spotlight on the deck of one of the boats, but when she tried to look through a different window the light followed her and blinded her again. Whoever was pointing it did not want her to see them. “What do you want?” she asked the beam of light, fully aware no one could hear her through the glass or over the machine noises that had become much louder near the middle of the hallway. There was nobody in sight, so the light show was just for her.
The beam slowly drifted out of one window and into the next. It kept going down the hallway. Tai Chen followed behind it slowly, careful not to get caught in its intensity again. Each time it hit a window the beam landed on the opposite closed door. It traveled down six doors before it stopped. There it stayed. Marking one door in particular. Through the shining light Tai Chen could barely make out the plaque on the door: No admittance. She reached into the light and jiggled the door knob. Locked. “Whoever you are you need to cut it out. I can’t get in there. I don’t have a key.” The light would not listen. It stayed on the door steadfastly, to the point where it even seemed to heat the knob some. You don’t seem like the type to let that stop you, the light seemed to tell her with its steadiness. It grew brighter. Curiosity gnawed at Tai Chen. It’s a locked door in an old fish factory, how fascinating could it be? she asked herself. It’s probably just a closet full of more room screens. Still, her hand kept trying to pull the knob towards her. It’s just a simple lock. I can say I fell on the handle. I’ve got enough cash to replace it. I can go extract the money from Mr. Flashlight out there if I need to. Last time I went where I wasn’t wanted I saved Hortotef from a foggy grave.
Her hand drifted to her reference page. As quickly as she could, she created a wheelbarrow, slammed it down on the knob, and then let it transform back into a tiny paper sculpture. The broken knob rolled over it and settled to a stop. She looked to the left and right; nobody seemed to have heard over the machinery. She reached her small hand into the hole in the door and curled her fingers around the inside. She pulled it open gently.
An office. An ordinary office. A desk, exactly the same make as the one Hortotef was seated in front of downstairs. Two filing cabinets labeled with the C symbol. A couple chairs that didn’t look particularly sinister. Tai Chen thought about leaving, but the light felt like it was pushing her further into the room. She took a step forward and noticed a very large stack of papers centered on the desk. She thought perhaps it was more contracts; she approached and turned the heavy stack around so she could read it. The text was legalese piled on top of doublespeak. That C symbol was everywhere. Paragraph breaks were few and far between. Bullet points looked like just that, dark precise punctures with ink bubbled up and ready to overflow. It was difficult to find a place to start, but she read a small section anyway.
It is at this point in the transaction that both parties will engage in mutual review of all stipulations proposed by the opposite party in an appropriate fashion. Each party may call a cessation of discussion and take up to three business days to consult with relevant legal associates regarding any confusion in terms but may not reveal the information found in subsections E,F, and G of the contract as it contains sensitive information that, if released, would be sufficient grounds for legal action against the offending parties. Should negotiations conclude successfully the transfer of property will begin within two business days and conclude within twelve business days. At this point, even as property is in the process of transfer, all ownership rights of the signee have been legally voided. The presence of any legally transferred property in any of the signee’s places of business or personal residences will not be considered indication that any rights of ownership remain with the signee. Any objections created by or dispersed by the property in question are to be disregarded by all parties involved as it does not constitute anything of legal substance to the terms of this contract or the continuing processes of the Copyright contracts active in other domains and including but not limited to the initial Copyright agreement. Ownership will be complete and absolute with no regard given to the date of expiration of the original author or the duration of any previous rights assigned to the property under their own authority or the signee’s. See subsection I for any concerns regarding prior verbal contracts between the property and the signee, between the property and other property owned by the signee, between the property and other property owned or Copyrighted by other parties, and between the property and the Copyright Company itself. The Copyright Company will not be held accountable for any lingering terms of outdated Copyright Company contracts regardless of whether or not they were considered legally binding in Carlo, the Public Domain at large, or any other domain that has existed, exists, or will come into existence. Specifically, prior documentation of Copyright Company contracts that have been transferred, edited, or altered to become local ordinances of any aspect of the Public Domain are void as they do not pertain to anything ever authorized by any current party within the Copyright Company with significant executive authority. Furthermore…
Tai Chen lost her place and rubbed her eyes in frustration. I broke in for this? She leaned down to check for anything under the massive contract. The person-shaped shadow on the back wall did not change when she moved. It still stood tall. Tai Chen turned around. The light was still blinding behind the figure in the doorway. She thought it was a man, but she couldn’t see his face. He stood there. A threatening question bubbled out of his invisible mouth.
“What do you think you’re doing in here?”
“Sorry pal,” she said and smiled. “I got lost looking for the little girl’s room.”
“You thought we had the johns behind lock and key?” The shadowy face did not move.
“Well it’s an emergency. I’m not quite thinking straight. When you’ve got to go-”
“You do have to go.” The spotlight shut off. The man rushed in and swung a heavy wrench. Tai Chen ducked to the left; the wrench smashed into the desk and sent splinters flying. Tai Chen reached for her reference page. She only had one word for situations like this and unfortunately it wasn’t quite as good as having a wrench. She pressed her thumb on fish and folded the page. A long heavy mackerel now weighed her hand down. She gripped the silvery fish by its forked tail and waited for the man to rear back for another strike. He lifted his wrench and she swung the fish with all her might. Its big flat eye smacked into the side of his face, leaving behind glistening scales. She wound up the fish again and sent it straight up between his legs. He grunted and collapsed; Tai Chen rushed out the door.
That was Mackenny, she realized. Though they’d never been formally introduced she’d seen him around the docks when he was applying varnish to some of the boats. Only now he had a big bold C on his forehead. She remembered overhearing that he was from a short story called The Pit. It was supposed to be a trilogy of stories chronicling the journey of a shipment of wheat, but the author kicked the bucket after the second one. The first one was about the farmers, the second one was about stock traders involved with grain, and the third one was supposed to be the people who consumed the eventual bread. Mackenny was from number two, a story infused with all the mad selfishness of the trader’s pit. Perhaps it was that that made him attack her. Or maybe it was the angst of being from an unfinished project. Either way he was committed to being bad news.
She tried to run back the way she came, into the people who could protect her, but another man blocked the way. She’d never encountered Edmundus de Prato, a nobody from She, before, but another C was all she needed to see to know he was trouble. Of how he knew she was coming, Tai Chen had no idea, but he was ready to fight. He pulled out his own reference page and created a sharp sherd of pottery. An antiquated spelling no doubt, but just as dangerous. Edmundus charged towards her. She prepared to swing her mackerel, but the spotlight returned and blinded him. She took that as her cue to hightail it the other way. Before she could even reach the door the secretary had told her about, she heard the pounding of two sets of feet behind her. Edmundus and Mackenny were staying on her. All this over peeking at some paper? I don’t even know what I was looking at! Tai Chen used her free hand to grab another page and make some eggs. She spun while she ran and tossed them at the men’s faces, but even the direct hits only slowed them momentarily.
She burst through the door and out onto the metal catwalk. The structure hadn’t been used in some time and the whole thing rattled under her weight. She leaned over the railing, hoping she could shout to the people waiting in line below. To her horror, the line had disappeared. There was nobody in sight. Mysteriously vanishing crowds. Great. Superb. Another chapter in ‘Princess Taik’s Tales of Rotten Luck’. Mackenny and Edmundus were catching up fast; they were close enough that she could see goopy bits of yolk and shell running into the creases on the sides of their grimaces. There was nowhere to go but down, so Tai Chen dropped the rest of the eggs and jumped down the stairs three at a time. The catwalk shook violently as the two men reached it. When the stairs came to an end she hopped the several feet to the ground and ran around the back of the building to where the boats were moored.
Once she was around the corner she saw the crowd again; it had scrunched up against the garage doors. People were banging on the doors, shouting, and shoving. Either the Copyright Company was closing its doors for the day or they were out of positions. Whichever one it was caused a bit of a mob to form. They were all so focused on flooding inside that not a single one turned to look at Tai Chen as she shouted for help down the length of the building.
Tai Chen cursed and fumbled with the corner of another reference page. Her plan was to quickly build a sail-barrow and escape that way, but the copymites (as she’d already deemed them in her mind) had caught up. Mackenny swung his wrench again; Tai Chen back-stepped and pinwheeled her arms to avoid falling backward into the bay. She hopped to the side and dueled him with the mackerel, trading blows back and forth. His dealt significantly more damage. One particularly rough blow landed on her neck and sent her to the ground. She felt the bruise forming and her head getting heavier. Edmundus came in with the sherd like he was Van Helsing with a wooden stake. They’re actually trying to kill me! she realized. This isn’t just a rough-up. I hate to pull the royalty card boys, I really do, but you can’t treat a princess this way.
She peeled another page and made a friend for the mackerel. Using the rest of her strength she hopped to her feet and swung the fish in a big circle to force her attackers back. She knocked the sherd out of Edmundus’ hand and it shattered upon the dock. When he bent over defensively she pummeled the back of his head with both fish. Mackenny tackled her, held her down, and battered her ribs with the wrench. Between his knee and the blows, she lost all the air in her lungs. Her chest hurt so much she felt like she couldn’t even inhale, like the gentlest breeze would slam into her chest like it was a speedbag and send all its stuffing everywhere.
Suddenly Edmundus was back, looming over her with a fresh sherd. She tried to say something, but could only manage a silent cough. She tried to swear at them, but her body didn’t allow that either. The sherd came down. It punctured her between two ribs. Ink spurted from her wound and left punctuation marks all over Edmundus’ face. He let go of the sherd, leaving it embedded in her, and stumbled backward. It was clear he’d never killed anyone before, at least not outside of his story, where every death served a legitimate purpose. Ink bubbled out of Tai Chen’s mouth. Even through the pain she noticed how much she hated the taste of it.
“You’ve got to finish what you start,” Mackenny barked at Edmundus, but the man just kept backing up. Mackenny growled and grabbed the end of the sherd himself. He twisted it and pushed it deeper. Tai Chen saw dark knives in the corner of her vision stabbing their way toward the center, slicing the world away from her sliver by sliver. She started to forget what it was like to breathe. Not like this. Not in some alley behind a fish factory. I’m no casualty. No innocent victim. I’m not an inciting incident for some Dick Tracy. I’m the protagonist of my life and I say it doesn’t go down like this!
With her one free hand, now as pale as bone, she reached into the black puddle spilling over her chest and pulled out one last page. Her own ink stained it, but the one word she wanted was plainly visible. Lightning. I’m dying anyway, might as well take these bastards with me. Her thumb trembled as it centered over the word. Mackenny grabbed her wrist and saw the word she was going for. He knew if she so much as touched it they could both be goners, so he released the sherd and stumbled backwards, trying to get clear of his potentially explosive victim. Cowards, she thought. Her ink loss was so great that the situation started to seem a little funny to her. She smiled as the world spun. Seems like a good day for a swim. Tai Chen pretended she had more strength than she did, tossed the page aside, and rolled across the wooden dock into the water. Her mackerels were caught up in the roll with her, two little splashes right after hers.
She wasn’t the first body tossed near there; the water happily swallowed her. The sherd was still jammed in her chest. The ink coming from the wound billowed like an undersea volcano, hiding her in the water while she sank. Mackenny and Edmundus rushed to the edge to try and find her, but they were distracted by a sudden crack of thunder. They looked up to see storm clouds that hadn’t been there five minutes earlier. The sky tore and the thunder boomed again. The excitable crowd around the garage suddenly changed direction and scattered. They had come to the same conclusion the two thugs had reached just ten seconds prior; no job was worth getting struck by lightning.
With the fleeing characters making it impossible to pull Tai Chen out without being seen and the thunder threatening to tread on them every third second, the two men decided she was dead enough. They waded through the stream of unemployed and let themselves back into the factory. Reference pages didn’t work when they were too wet anyway; they just don’t fold. The nosy girl was now just the prettiest anchor in the bay.
Tai Chen thought the same thing when her back struck the rocky bottom. The water pushed her up against one of the dock’s posts. She weakly touched the sherd in her side and felt a twinge that a healthy body would call pain. To her it was just a poke at the edge of her wiggling soul as it dispersed in the water around her. She watched Death approach, a shadowy figure marching across the seabed in her direction.
That’s not Death, she realized. No cloak. No scythe. Who’s this fishy bozo? Does he only show up for the stars? Do we tenners get somebody else? Let me at least die as if I actually lived. I know I deserve that much.
There was a strangeness to its slow steps like it was walking on the moon. Its joints made little sounds like iron pans banging against a stove. When the figure reached her it bent down and lifted her in its arms. Whatever it was it wore a complete suit of metal armor; it looked ready for a joust. There was a coat of arms across its chest depicting a king writing on a scroll with an ink-dipped sword. Her knight in soaking armor marched toward the shallows, every heavy footfall kicking up lethargic minnows and a cloud of silt. The knight plodded along, ignoring the piles of rusty cans and broken chains.
The knight had a life-preserver around its shoulder. It pulled the striped ring off its arm and placed it over her head, just far enough that it stayed around her without touching the sherd. The knight let go. She rose towards the surface. Tai Chen briefly wondered what the light she was heading towards hid. The moment she touched the surface what was left of her mind was pulled out from under her and everything went black.
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