(reading time: 46 minutes)
The Ambulance Taxi
Carlo’s hospital was a small building combined with the local doctor’s office. It had only three operating rooms. People in Carlo, when they got sick, usually stayed home and let the webs take them over instead of troubling anyone for an aspirin. There was no doctor on duty that day, just the nurse. Even she was absent when Tai Chen awoke.
At first Tai Chen thought she was getting her head shrunk, since she was lying down on a couch with her hands over her sternum like she was in her display coffin. Someone had tucked her in with a hospital sheet. There was a desk and a framed picture on the wall. A cuckoo clock ticked in the corner. When it struck the hour, six, it made a quiet grinding sound, like someone had broken the kneecaps of whatever tiny wooden workman was supposed to come out and dance. The ticking resumed. She tried to move, but every part of her was as stiff as a frozen slice of bread. Her head felt spongy; she wondered if the ticking was actually her vital essence dripping onto the floor from the back of her skull. She saw her cap perched on the corner of the desk.
She tried to pull herself into a sitting position, but a lance of pain pushed through her ribs and hit her stomach. She wheezed and tore at the sheet until half of it was flat on the floor like a deflated ghost. She lifted her shirt to examine her wound. There was only the slightest shadow of a scar, which was truly remarkable considering that just a few grindings of that cuckoo ago she was emptying half her well into the sea. She ran her fingers along the slight indent in her soft skin. That was when Juno walked in. Tai Chen pushed her shirt back down quickly and forced herself upright. She swallowed the pained moan in her mouth. Her bare toes touched the carpet. Somebody took my shoes off. Since when do you need to see somebody’s feet to close a chest wound? She reached for her cap, but Juno pushed her back to the couch.
“Your hair’s not even dry yet,” Nurse Juno said. She sat on the desk facing her, her feet dangling. Her little white shoes presided over Tai Chen’s exposed toes like angels descending towards a pair of diseased wretches. She tilted her little white hat and crossed her arms to mimic the scowl of a bouncer. Juno was an extremely beautiful young woman with slightly uneven eyebrows, light eyes that looked just like her pearl earrings, and wide hips. Those are wider than I remember, Tai Chen thought. Either she’s been hitting the donuts or it’s the job. People coming through here whimpering and crying, making her act like their mother because they never had a real one. Before you know it she’s got a mother’s hips so she can express disappointment in them by planting her hands on her sides.
“Diana would’ve left my cap on me,” Tai Chen muttered. “She probably would’ve brought me a coffee instead of that frown you’re wearing.” She reached for her cap again. Juno started to slap her hand away, but ended up grabbing it instead. She rubbed her hands on Tai Chen’s and blew on it gently to get the ice out of her veins. Juno never could keep up the stern routine for long. It must be the donuts then.
“I don’t care what my sister would’ve done; she’s not on duty. She didn’t save your life,” Juno said, her voice velvety and calm. She stood up and grabbed Tai Chen’s other hand to warm it. Then she sat down next to her patient, their hips touching. Juno lifted Tai Chen’s shirt to examine the wound. Tai Chen coughed to express her displeasure.
“It’s not like saving lives is hard for you,” she commented. “One reference page and the job’s done. You’re a nurse, not a heart surgeon.”
“In your case I think it will take… three references,” Juno said, glossing over the insult. She poked the scar and Tai Chen flinched. Then she reached into her blouse and pulled out a page. Her thumb stopped over the word medicine. It was such a beautifully vague word. Specificity can be a real devil in the Public Domain; Spanker’s quinine treated Hortotef’s malaria, but little else. A word like medicine could mean so much: pills, ointments, syrups. It was medicine, so it healed, regardless of whether it was treating a busted arm or a raging fever. Instead of folding the page Juno simply rubbed it between her fingers until it transformed into a cool lotion. Then she applied it to the tiny scar on Tai Chen’s side. She felt a plume of cooled ink under her skin. The pain dulled. The scar shrank even more. Little clouds appeared in her mind, engulfing the oldest memories and stopping them from gnawing at her: the signature sensation of Juno’s panacea. “That’s number two.”
“I’m not taking the third dose,” Tai Chen said.
“That wound is part of me. I’m not fresh from the book. I have experiences. I want to keep them. I survived getting stabbed with a piece of ancient pottery and I’m not letting that go.”
“You could just hold a grudge instead.”
“I’ll do that too. How did I get here Juno?”
“Same way you always get here. Bernenstein brought you in. Except this time you were banging on Death’s door like he owed you money.”
“Death…” Tai Chen muttered as she recalled the metal phantom that had sent her back up from the depths. “I know this sounds loony, but Bernenstein wasn’t wearing a suit of armor was he?” Juno gently touched Tai Chen’s eyelid and pushed it up with her finger. She stared into the white of her eye, looking for signs of head trauma or scurvy. “I told you it sounded loony. I was a goner. I was sucking the sandy sludge at the bottom of the bay. Somebody in a suit of armor showed up, like they were straight out of The Once and Future King.” She decided she couldn’t handle that particular ridiculous mystery, so her mind meandered back to her current predicament. “Why am I in this office? Something wrong with the beds?”
“It’s a slow day,” Juno said. “And this couch is comfier than the beds anyway. I thought you might like some undivided attention for a while.” She smiled.
It’s not flirting, Tai Chen reminded herself. Probably not anyway. Diana and Venus are the same way. Juno and her two sisters shared the same four words on their common reference page: bread, dust, shoes, and medicine. If it wasn’t for the last one the trio of women might’ve been swallowed whole by Carlo, on account of their names only appearing in A Crystal Age once. The strangest thing about them was the way the Public Domain had defined them. The novel didn’t say they were sisters. The novel didn’t say they were anything.
Juno, Diana, and Venus were mentioned by the protagonist in passing. They never appeared. They were never described. In all likelihood their names were simply references to classical deities of marriage and fertility, but it wasn’t explicit. They weren’t explicit. Their work was in the Public Domain and they had names, so they just were. They were called sisters not because of any ink relation, but because they acted that way. They lived together. They shared shifts at the hospital, dispensing medicine and friendship to anyone that needed them. There was no family resemblance, but there was a soul resemblance. They acted like their medicine, enigmatically and comfortingly. Juno wasn’t flirting with Tai Chen, or maybe she was. Or maybe Venus was the one that really flirted. Or maybe none of them did. Whether they came from divine stock or not, the things the trio did always felt like small miracles.
Tai Chen stood up. Juno stood with her and placed one hand on her back in case she fell backwards. The room didn’t quite spin; it just tilted enough that it seemed like her cap should’ve fallen to the floor. Juno grabbed the cap and placed it lightly on her own head.
“This makes you look like a boy,” she said.
“Is there a problem with that?” Tai Chen asked.
“No. If you wear it to get Bernenstein off your back I can tell you it doesn’t work. He was talking like you were Juliet in a wedding dress when he dragged you in here. He cried for you. And he had your ink all over his shirt.”
“I wear it because I look incredible. Bernenstein’s not here is he?”
“No, he got another call. Something happened down at Lady Skelmerton’s. Seeing as he drives an ambulance though, I’m sure he’ll be back shortly.”
“I better scram before that.”
“You could at least let him see that you’re alright.” Tai Chen snatched her cap away from the taller woman and placed it on her own head. She wiggled her toes.
“Why’d you take off my shoes?”
“I was afraid you’d get hypothermia. Wet socks never did anyone any good.”
“Well where are they?”
“I forget,” Juno crooned. She led Tai Chen out of the office and into the empty corridors. They started checking the rooms for the missing socks and shoes. “You could tell me what happened to you. Who hurt you?”
“Scum, that’s who. Mackenny and another guy. I was down at that new Copyright place heaving Hortotef back onto the horse. I snuck a peak in some room and then they attacked me. They had these big black C tattoos smack between their eyes.”
“I’ve been seeing those around. I don’t like them. They look like brands… like on cattle.”
“All that matters in Carlo is if the cattle get fed,” Tai Chen spat. She spotted her boots tucked under a bed thanks to the small puddle of water that was inching its way out from under the shadow. The water was gray from her ink and dotted with silt. She shoved her foot in one of the boots. Squich! The cold water in the sole glommed to her toes. She stood there, foot halfway in the shoe.
“They’re not dry yet,” Juno reminded. “Nothing’s dry yet. Sit back down. Wait for Bernenstein. He’ll take you home.”
“I can get myself home. I’ve got the sail-barrow remember?”
“I remember your toy. I also remember how you’ve been in here no less than three times because you crashed it.”
“Three. I’m counting the time Venus caught you instead of me. Come to think of it you didn’t want to keep any of those scars.”
“Those were accidents, not events. Nothing to write home about.” Squich! Tai Chen swore. Squich! Squich! She came to the conclusion they definitely were not dry. Juno took her to the waiting room near the entrance and sat her down in a chair. She put the wet boots in the chair next to her so she wouldn’t get too anxious and then she went to fetch her patient a cup of hot chocolate. Momentarily free from Juno’s relaxing presence, Tai Chen’s brain finally got down to the business of figuring out what happened.
Somebody was in that armor. How they knew I would hit bottom there and that I would need a life preserver, I have no idea. Mackenny and the other guy didn’t finish the job for some reason. Maybe the crowd got too close. Maybe they can’t swim. What was on those papers that would make them want to kill me? What did it say? I remember the words but it’s like there’s no order to them. They write it that way on purpose, a brick of letters and commas. By the time you read one they’ve put down a hundred and built a cell around you. Captain March was right. Damn lawyers.
The doors in front of her swung open just as Juno returned and handed her the cocoa. In rolled a stretcher with a covered figure resting on it. Bernenstein pushed it inside. He was well over six feet tall and pale as a volleyball. His height always irritated Tai Chen; she always felt like there was a flickering lamppost right over her when he was near. His hair and clothes were wet; the sheet over the prone figure was dotted with rain.
“Tyke!” he exclaimed when he saw her alive and well. He abandoned the stretcher and lumbered over to her. She shielded her cocoa so his hair wouldn’t drip into it. “You’re awake! You’re a godsend Juno. I thought she was done for sure.”
“Don’t call me Tyke,” Tai Chen warned.
“Oh no,” he snorted, “You see I’m saying it spelled differently. Like a term of endearment.”
“There isn’t anything endearing about it. Don’t call me that.”
“Okay, I’m sorry. I’m just glad you’re alive!”
“I just got out of the water and now you’re dripping all over me. Back up.” Bernenstein obeyed, his shoes squeaking against the tile. “Is it raining?”
“It sure is,” he said. “Didn’t you hear the thunder?”
“I guess I wasn’t up yet,” she said, as if she’d just been napping. “Who pulled me out of the bay?”
“I don’t know. Somebody. They called it in on a payphone. I found you set on a bench. Who did that to you?”
“Mackenny and some other guy.”
“How the hell should I know? Aren’t you busy Bernenstein? She looks like she needs help.” Tai Chen pointed to the figure covered by the sheet.
“She’s past help,” Bernenstein said. “Lady Arthur Skelmerton is dead.”
“Oh my,” Juno said and put one hand to her lips. She moved to the stretcher and pulled the sheet down to look at the lady’s face. Tai Chen couldn’t help but look as well. The lady wasn’t the prettiest woman in town, but in life her big eyes had a powerfully pathetic magnetism. She looked like she needed help and like she deserved it. Seeing her in death, puffy lids pulled down over those eyes like thick window shades, was upsetting even to those who didn’t know her.
“What killed her?” Tai Chen asked. Bernenstein pulled the sheet back on one of her arms. Much of the tissue was shredded. The inky flesh was starting to pale in the cold. She had slashes along her side as well.
“Not what… who. I’m no expert, but I think it was some kind of animal attack,” Bernenstein said. “These aren’t knife marks. It looks like she was surrounded because they’re all over her. There aren’t too many animals in Carlo, so I’d wager someone made some from a reference and then sent them after her. She was gone by the time I got there.” Juno covered her with the sheet again.
“I’ll take her down to the morgue. Did anybody call the police?” Juno asked.
“Yeah they were finishing up when I was leaving. Didn’t seem like they cared to spend too much time there. Without knowing what kind of animal it was they can’t check reference records anyway. Could’ve been anybody with anything from a coyote to a badger,” Bernenstein said. Juno took the stretcher and rolled it down the hallway, swaying her hips as she went. Tai Chen sipped loudly at her cocoa while Bernenstein stared. “Can I give you a ride home?”
“You’re the ambulance driver. If there are any more dead people today they’ll need you more than me.”
“Are you kidding? There were already two calls today. That’s practically a record. Plus the storm is kicking up the wind. Your sail-wagon thing won’t go anywhere in that.”
“It’s a sail-barrow.”
“Sorry. Say… who’s the company you’ve got staying over? I know it’s none of my business but I’ve never seen a car at your place before.” Tai Chen spit some cocoa back into the cup, splashing a tiny marshmallow over the edge. It bounced silently across the floor. Bernenstein bent down to pick it up; Tai Chen swore she could hear a sound like a catapult preparing to fire as he went. The ambulance driver tossed the puff of sugar towards the trashcan. He missed.
“You saw a car at my place?” she asked.
“Yeah on my way back with the poor Skel. Dark car. Whoever it was works for those new guys in town. Had that big C on the side. They sure are aggressive with that advertising.”
“It’s not advertising. They’re pissing that crescent on everything to mark their territory… Now you’re telling me they’ve pissed on my lawn?” Tai Chen moved to toss the cup of cocoa into the trash, but Bernenstein stopped her.
“I’m real cold. Can I get the rest of that?” She handed him the cup and started pacing around him as he sipped. He was more irritating than a rash on your dominant scratching hand, but he made a fine piece of furniture to center yourself around.
“Those goons showed up at my place in case I wasn’t dead. That’s the kind of thing you order goons to do. That means there’s a bigger goon who doesn’t like me. They didn’t come here though. They just figured it was one or the other. Dead or not dead. They forgot to check the middleman.” Even if they’ve left they can just check my place every day. If I turned on the lights or got the mail I’d be dead.
“You didn’t invite them?” Bernenstein asked, breaking the wonderful furniture illusion. “Those Copyright guys did this to you? And to think I thought they were doing this town a favor. You shouldn’t go home Tyke… Tai Chen! Sorry. You can stay at my place if you need to hide. We can call the police and get it straightened out.”
“Yeah, the police,” Tai Chen scoffed. “Big company handing out jobs like snickerdoodles versus a Chinese delivery girl who’s been brought into the precinct no less than twice for public intoxication. Who do you think they’d believe?”
“You don’t smoke anymore,” Bernenstein argued. “Everybody knows you’re not like that anymore. Maybe if you told everybody you’re a princess they’d take you more seriously.”
“I told you not to call me Tyke you big dope. Can’t you figure out that means I don’t want anybody calling me princess either? Princess Taik is a name made up by an Englishman who didn’t know squat about China. It doesn’t even sound Chinese, but here I am walking around with a Chinese face. If he was wrong about the name then he was wrong about the title and I can tell, sure as you’re standing here dripping on everything, that my name is Wai Tai Chen. It’s the name I chose, so it’s me! I’m not a bit player in his stories anymore. Neither are you for that matter! Where are you from Bernenstein? Huh?”
“The prisoner of Zenda,” he muttered.
“And what’d the author do to you without your permission?” she asked, her words practically cutting him.
“I got shot.”
“You got shot! You see what I mean? I was shoved into a throne so some schmuck could go be a hero in my racist-nonsense-name and you were shot. Bullet or arrow?”
“Your author put a gun to you and he didn’t even have the decency to mention your name more than ten times. How many is it Bernenstein?”
“That’s personal Tai Chen.”
“What? You’ve been trying to talk to me all this time and now you want to clam up. You tried to dump that term of endearment on me so you owe me beanpole. How many?” She knew she was being too harsh on him. Bernenstein had seen plenty of carnage, but he was a helper at heart. Tai Chen didn’t know why that made her so angry. She told herself it was the hubris of believing everyone could be helped.
“Two,” she whispered like she was standing over a fresh grave and chastising someone for committing suicide. “He made you and had you shot and he couldn’t be bothered to look your way more than twice? You meant nothing to him. Do you see why I don’t touch the name my author gave me? Do you see why calling me Tyke just makes me want to bust your lip?”
“Yes. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean anything by it. Let me make it up to you. You can lie low at my place and I won’t say a word to you all night if you don’t want me to.” Tai Chen rubbed her face with both hands. I just called him worthless and he’s still trying. Does he just keep doing those puppy dog eyes until everyone else looks like the bad guy?
“Fine,” she relented, surprising herself more than Bernenstein. True to his word he simply opened the exit door without making a sound. Tai Chen forced her wet boots on. Squich squich. She winced. For a moment she’d forgotten about Juno, but she made sure to take a reference page and scribble a thanks on it with a pen from the front desk. She left it there and followed Bernenstein out into the rain.
As they cruised down the streets and listened to the pitter patter of rain on the metal roof, Tai Chen peeled another reference page and read it. It’d been a while since she’d given her moment in Kai Lung’s Golden Hours the once-over.
“There are other things that I would learn of your craft. What kind of
story is the most favourably received, and the one whereby your
collecting bowl is the least ignored?”
“That depends on the nature and condition of those who stand around,
and therein lies much that is essential to the art,” replied Kai Lung,
not without an element of pride. “Should the company be chiefly formed
of the illiterate and the immature of both sexes, stories depicting
the embarrassment of unnaturally round-bodied mandarins, the
unpremeditated flight of eccentrically-garbed passers-by into vats of
powdered rice, the despair of guardians of the street when assailed by
showers of eggs and overripe lo-quats, or any other variety of
humiliating pain inflicted upon the innocent and unwary, never fail to
win approval. The prosperous and substantial find contentment in
hearing of the unassuming virtues and frugal lives of the poor and
unsuccessful. Those of humble origin, especially tea-house maidens and
the like, are only really at home among stories of the exalted and
quick-moving, the profusion of their robes, the magnificence of their
palaces, and the general high-minded depravity of their lives.
Ordinary persons require stories dealing lavishly with all the
emotions, so that they may thereby have a feeling of sufficiency when
contributing to the collecting bowl.”
“These things being so,” remarked the maiden, “what story would you
consider most appropriate to a company composed of such as she who is
now conversing with you?”
“Such a company could never be obtained,” replied Kai Lung, with
conviction in his tone. “It is not credible that throughout the Empire
could be found even another possessing all the engaging attributes of
the one before me. But should it be my miraculous fortune to be given
the opportunity, my presumptuous choice for her discriminating ears
alone would be the story of the peerless Princess Taik and of the
noble minstrel Ch’eng, who to regain her presence chained his wrist to
a passing star and was carried into the assembly of the gods.”
“Is it,” inquired the maiden, with an agreeable glance towards the
opportune recumbence of a fallen tree, “is it a narration that would
lie within the passage of the sun from one branch of this willow to
“Adequately set forth, the history of the Princess Taik and of the
virtuous youth occupies all the energies of an agile story-teller for
seven weeks,” replied Kai Lung, not entirely gladdened that she should
deem him capable of offering so meagre an entertainment as that she
indicated. “There is a much-flattened version which may be compressed
within the narrow limits of a single day and night, but even that
requires for certain of the more moving passages the accompaniment of
a powerful drum or a hollow wooden fish.”
“Alas!” exclaimed the maiden, “though the time should pass like a
flash of lightning beneath the allurement of your art, it is
questionable if those who await this one’s returning footsteps would
experience a like illusion. Even now–” With a magnanimous wave of her
well-formed hand she indicated the other maiden, who, finding that the
danger of pursuit was not sustained, had returned to claim her part.
“One advances along the westward road,” reported the second maiden.
“Let us fly elsewhere, O allurer of mankind! It may be–“
“Doubtless in Yu-ping the sound of your uplifted voice–” But at this
point a noise upon the earth-road, near at hand, impelled them both to
sudden flight into the deeper recesses of the wood.
Thus deprived, Kai Lung moved from the shadow of the trees and sought
the track, to see if by chance he from whom they fled might turn to
his advantage. On the road he found one who staggered behind a
laborious wheel-barrow in the direction of Loo-chow. At that moment he
had stopped to take down the sail, as the breeze was bereft of power
among the obstruction of the trees, and also because he was weary.
“Greeting,” called down Kai Lung, saluting him. “There is here
protection from the fierceness of the sun and a stream wherein to wash
“Haply,” replied the other; “and a greatly over-burdened one would
gladly leave this ill-nurtured earth-road even for the fields of hell,
were it not that all his goods are here contained upon an utterly
Nevertheless he drew himself up from the road to the level of the wood
and there reclined, yet not permitting the wheel-barrow to pass beyond
his sight, though he must thereby lie half in the shade and half in
the heat beyond. “Greeting, wayfarer.”
“Although you are evidently a man of some wealth, we are for the time
brought to a common level by the forces that control us,” remarked Kai
Lung. “I have here two onions, a gourd and a sufficiency of millet
paste. Partake equally with me, therefore, before you resume your way.
In the meanwhile I will procure water from the stream near by, and to
this end my collecting bowl will serve.”
What a crock, she thought, crumpling up the page and tossing it out the window into the rain. I’m never even seen. If he’d just given me a title I wouldn’t be stuck here now. I wouldn’t have to be anything at all. If I had just been ‘the princess of the land’ I’d never have to duck corporate goons in an ambulance. She thought about asking Bernenstein if she could read his, but stopped herself just after she opened her mouth. Bernenstein took it as a sign that he was allowed to speak.
“So you really don’t know why those guys attacked you?”
“They thought I saw something top secret. Some contract behind a locked door. I couldn’t even make heads or tails of it,” she explained. “You didn’t see anybody in a suit of armor around when you picked me up did you?”
“No, nothing like that. Like I said you were just on a bench. The thunder felt like it was right over you though. It looked like you’d ripped through the bottom of the storm.” Tai Chen ran her finger down the cold windshield. She traced the path of a few raindrops. Suddenly she didn’t feel like lying down anymore. She couldn’t rip her reference page off her chest, but she could do something with it. She could use it until the skin around it was raw.
“You said Skelmerton was murdered?” she asked.
“That’s what the police said.”
“You get a lot of murder victims Bernenstein?”
“No, not really. Plenty of suicides. Plenty of obscurvy.”
“What are the odds of someone killing her and someone trying to kill me on the same day? Does it sound to you like somebody aggressive is stalking around Carlo?”
“I suppose it does,” Bernenstein said, eager to say anything that would please her.
“I changed my mind. I want you to take me to Skelmerton’s so I can look around a bit.”
“What, like play detective? I think that’d be trespassing.”
“She’s dead Bernenstein; she’s not going to file a complaint.”
“What do you think you’ll find?”
“I don’t know,” Tai Chen admitted. “Probably nothing. It’s getting dark though and if I’m going to do an investigation I want to take the first step tonight. Otherwise I won’t be able to get off my ass over it at all. Strike while the iron is hot and all that. I don’t want to be dreaming webs tonight.”
“So does that make me your Watson?” Bernenstein asked with a smile he was careful not to let get too big.
“Watson wouldn’t be caught dead in Carlo, let alone Sherlock,” she said.
“Are you kidding? There are plenty of great mysteries in Carlo.”
“Are you kidding? We’re the trash from all the world’s open books. What does a Carlo mystery look like?”
“No, that’s just it you see,” Bernenstein tried to explain. “We’re the faces in the crowd. Nobody knows anything about us because they’ve never bothered to look. We’re hiding in plain sight and they have no idea we’re every bit as interesting as the Tarzans and the Van Helsings out there.”
“If I was as good as Van Helsing it would’ve been those copymites who got sunk instead of me.”
“Hey that’s pretty catchy. Copymites.”
“Maybe I’ll trademark it when I have the time,” she said. “You are taking us to Skelmerton’s right?”
“Oh I forgot,” Bernenstein said. He stopped the ambulance at a crossing and did a U-turn. It would’ve been dangerous if there were ever more than five cars on Carlo’s roads. “Now we’re going to Skelmerton’s.” After several minutes of driving Bernenstein pulled the ambulance into the driveway of a small but expensive house. It was off the beaten path enough that it had a yard. Behind it stood the dark shifty trees of an impenetrable forest. They called it the cardboard forest on account of how flat it looked from a distance, like stage scenery. It didn’t seem possible to get lost in a stack of standing paper like that, but the forest acted like a brick maze anyway. Like the sea on the other side, nobody from Carlo, even when they found the will to try, could find an unauthorized way out. Only the boats came and went.
Tai Chen dropped out of the ambulance and started looking around the lawn. She asked Bernenstein where the body was found and he curled his lanky arm around and pointed to the backyard. She stomped her way through the muddy grass to the other side and found a small hill that looked like the storm had collapsed it. The dissipating rain supplied three muddy streams running toward the forest. She was about to ask Bernenstein if her body was found at the top or the bottom of the hill, but then she noticed the water-filled footprints around the water-filled imprint of a body on its side. She hopped into the mud and slid down to the spot. She said something to Bernenstein but he couldn’t hear on account of him staying at the top of the hill. She twisted and shouted.
“They said this was an animal attack?”
“Yeah, because of all those wild scratches.”
“There aren’t any paw prints.”
“The rain must’ve washed them away.”
“But I can see the officers’ prints. And these here look dainty like Skelmerton’s would. So if it was an animal attack… it had to be a bird?”
“What kind of bird could do that?”
“Use your imagination Bernenstein. There are plenty of terrifying birds out there. Haven’t you ever read that short story? I swear it was scarier before they went and Hitchcocked it. Anyway… think birds of prey: hawks, eagles, condors. I wouldn’t put it past any of them. You know anybody with one of those words on their page?”
“Ummmm,” Bernenstein pondered. “Captain March has birds. I guess he could make birds of prey if he wanted to. Vilimas has chickens.”
“I highly doubt it was chickens,” Tai Chen scoffed. “I saw March today. I don’t think he’d quit working to come kill some old lady.” She stared at the brown wet depression where Skelmerton’s shoulder had sunk into her yard. I am here to look for clues, she reminded herself. She rolled up her sleeves and plunged both her arms into the muck, right where she estimated Skelmerton’s pockets would’ve rested. The cold muck cozied up under her fingernails. She shifted small stones out of the way and pulled up handfuls of chunky mud. She squished it between her fingers and when it all fell away and left nothing behind she dug her hands back in and pulled out some more.
“What exactly are you doing?” Bernenstein asked.
“Something I bet the police didn’t.”
“No, I didn’t see them doing that.”
“That’s because they’re lazy. Carlo criminals aren’t the thinking type, so the cops aren’t either. Watch and learn Bernenstein; this is how you keep obscurvy out of your rearview. You have to get your hands dirty.”
“I’ve never had the scurvy,” Bernenstein said casually. Tai Chen whipped around and tossed a ball of mud at him. It splashed across the bottom of his shirt. “What did you do that for?”
“I’m not lying. I’ve just never had it. I always had something to do with myself. I have the word door, so I made a hobby out of giving people really fancy ones for their houses. After that I really got into my sword word and learned fencing. Now I do this, and nothing makes me feel better than saving a life. Are you mad because you get it more than a pretty girl like you should?”
“Shut up Bernenstein or I’ll land the next one right in your chronically-noisy mouth.” She wouldn’t admit it, but she was jealous. How could someone as naïve as Bernenstein hold off the disease? She’d fought it more than her fair share. Once she’d woken up in a barn, with no idea how she got there, dressed in overalls and so covered in webs that she couldn’t see anything else. Here was Bernenstein saying he’d never had it, like it was just the chickenpox.
She pulled up two more handfuls and watched the globs splash back into Skelmerton’s depression. On the fifth try she noticed there was something wrapped around her ring finger. She gently found the end of it and unraveled the object; it was a piece of paper. She very carefully grabbed the ends of it and stretched it. She spit on it a little and tried to rub the mud away delicately, like she was washing a grasshopper’s back. Still illegible. Mud’ll do that. She massaged the paper until she saw the faintest impression of ink. Is that what I think it is? Tai Chen pressed her thumb against the word; then she rolled it into a ball between her fingers like a wad of chewing gum and tossed it on the ground. She watched. For a moment nothing happened.
Reference pages didn’t usually work when wet, but this object was simple enough in principal that it cooperated. The tiny muddy wad slowly expanded and smoothed. It grew round. After about fifteen seconds it was the size of a medicine ball. It lifted out of the puddle under its own power. Tai Chen rose from her crouch along with it. When she was standing tall the round thing kept going. The last winds of the storm snatched it and pulled it towards the cardboard forest.
“Was that a balloon?” Bernenstein only asked once they’d lost sight of it.
“More like a clue,” Tai Chen said. “I know somebody who has the word balloon. Maybe she can shed some light on this. It’s probably hers anyway; she’s from Jules Verne. That guy’s always going on about balloons.”
“I know I said I could drive you, but I really should get back to Juno. I always help her with Vilimas’ crossword puzzle.”
“You’ve got a radio,” Tai Chen said. “She can call you if she gets stuck on thirty-three down. Aren’t you curious what’s going on here? This is the crossword of life Bernenstein. We can’t just pop ‘balloon’ into a few boxes without finding the boxes.” She trudged back up the hill, ignoring Bernenstein’s outstretched hand to instead hold her arms out like a tightrope walker every time she started to slide back down. When she was up she grabbed one of her own reference pages, pressed water, and wiped her arms down.
“Where are we going then?” the paramedic asked.
“What time is it?” Tai Chen asked when she couldn’t tell from the gray sky.
“It’s almost seven. It’ll be dark soon.”
“Seven huh… you know where the theater is Bernenstein?”
“Yeah. I saw a show there the other day. It was supposed to be a one-man show but then some guy showed up who claimed he’d booked the stage and it turned into a two-man argument. I enjoyed it.”
“Good, take me there.”
“I think we’ve reached the point in the favor where you should start saying please.”
“Please take me there.”
“Wow, you must really want to go. Okay. Hop in.”
The two climbed back into the ambulance and started driving. Tai Chen tried to convince him to use the siren so they had an excuse to speed, but even Bernenstein had his limits. He barely fit inside that driver’s seat but he apparently had adequate room for his scruples. So they traveled at an agonizingly moderate speed to Carlo’s two-stage theater. The marquee was empty, except for one lone letter, F, sitting on its side like an overturned chair. Tai Chen grabbed the doors and pulled, knowing they’d be open. The owners never locked the theater on account of there never being anything to steal. In addition they rented it out to whoever wanted the space when there wasn’t any drama going on, and rather than bother making several sets of keys they just told people to come on in. They didn’t have to worry about any squatters because tenners tended to get nervous around empty stages. It gave them some kind of existential performance anxiety, like god was watching and they’d forgotten their lines. It was the stage of yet another story they weren’t part of.
Tai Chen told Bernenstein to wait in the ambulance, on account of men always making Elspeth nervous. She walked through the left aisle of the dark theater quietly and listened to the lone performer sing on stage. There was no audience, no spotlight, and no scenery, just a woman and her voice like a giant boa constrictor, snagging the edges of the room and pulling them towards her. Tai Chen was pulled into the squeeze. She silently took a seat in the front row, with no idea if Elspeth had seen her or not. There were no words to the song, just notes crashing over each other like water. It was as if Elspeth was seeing if she could get that constrictor of sound to rear up viciously and tear the roof off the theater.
She looked like she was in her thirties, but Elspeth carried as much experience as four bitter old dames arguing over a poker pot. Lots of women were jealous of her story and her power. In her original work, Five Weeks in a Balloon, Elspeth only appeared once. She had one adjective tacked onto her: aged. Yet here she was with her mother-of-pearl smoothness and her falcon eyes and her footsteps quieter than a ghost’s yawn. When she’d come to Carlo on one of the boats people gathered around her like she was the christ child, like she was some miracle of the flesh that would only be at home on a stage or walking around on main street for everyone to see.
That wasn’t the way she was supposed to look. Everyone had heard tell that she started out her life in the Public Domain differently. The sailors who ferried her said they picked up an old woman with a veil who looked like she was attending her own funeral. She had disappeared below decks and when she came back out feet from the Carlo docks she had metamorphosed and become the woman she was now. Elspeth only explained herself once. She claimed she reinvented herself by reinterpreting her adjective. Aged can mean a hundred things, she had said to the jealous, implying they could’ve done something similar if they’d just tried harder. Tai Chen took that to mean she’d rejuvenated her body by aging her soul. Many people saw her as cold and sharp, but Tai Chen knew it was just the difference between their molehill intellects and Elspeth’s towering wall of stony experience.
Elspeth’s song faded away. She turned towards the back of the stage. Tai Chen figured it was best to get things moving, so she applauded. Elspeth didn’t turn; she didn’t flinch.
“Hello Princess,” she said. Tai Chen gritted her teeth. Now was not the time to argue; she needed information from Elspeth and if she refused even an elephant stomping on her chest wouldn’t squeeze it out of her. The elephant would wind up with a sore foot. Elspeth had often told Tai Chen she could’ve used the title princess to reinvent and become actual royalty in Carlo. Tai Chen never could get it up that towering wall of stone that being stuck on a throne while people ogled her would be a fate worse than death.
“Hello Elspeth. Nice pipes. Did you give Lady Arthur Skelmerton one of your reference pages?”
“What makes you think you can just ask me questions like that? You come in here, interrupt my practice, and then start interrogating me?”
“Come on Elspeth. We’ve had some good times. I like you enough to call you a friend. I thought that was mutual.”
“I didn’t say it wasn’t. Those good times ended for what seems like no reason.”
“I stopped smoking.”
“You never told me.”
“We had good times, not good nights. It wasn’t like you were my girl.”
“I could’ve been.”
“I don’t recall telling you I swing that way.”
“I’ve heard about you and Juno.”
“Fooling around with a goddess doesn’t count. She’s not a woman so much as comfort incarnate. Doesn’t mean I play with dolls.”
“Why did you quit smoking?” Elspeth asked after a moment of silence. She finally turned to look at her audience.
“Because those pages weren’t my life. They were a distraction,” Tai Chen answered truthfully.
“What does that make me?”
“Someone who could pull me away from my life. Someone who could pluck my ghost from my body and carry it around in her coin purse, using it to dab the corners of her mouth whenever she needed a napkin.” Elspeth seemed satisfied with the admission.
“What was your question again?”
“Did you give one of your reference pages to Lady Arthur Skelmerton?”
“The Lady and I have tea once a week. She is more my speed than all the young girls asking me for make-up tips. We meet less lately thanks to her engagement.”
“Who is she engaged to?”
“The mayor of Carlo: Bill Smithers,” Elspeth said. Tai Chen stood up. She pulled herself onto the stage to examine Elspeth’s pupils. They weren’t grayed by smoke. She was one for withholding information, not fabricating it.
“What was the page for?”
“I gave her one to test. She thought maybe I could supply her with balloons for her wedding.”
“Elspeth I hate to tell you this, but Lady Skelmerton is dead. Murdered today by somebody who’s got a raptor word on them. Bird raptor… not dinosaurs.” Elspeth turned away. If she was going to cry, Tai Chen wouldn’t get to see it.
“Did she suffer?” Elspeth asked, her voice wavering, the stone cracking.
“By the look of it, yes,” Tai Chen said. She watched Elspeth’s hands move to her face. One sob escaped and went to cower in the balcony. “I’m looking into it. Don’t ask me why; I’m not looking to make anybody else a target.”
“Nobody in Carlo has the aim to hit a target.”
“Somebody with the initial C does. You don’t have to do much as long as you don’t sing about it tonight. Knowing Vilimas he’ll get it in his papers by tomorrow.”
“The poor mayor,” Elspeth said in a voice as close to a whimper as she was capable. “I didn’t vote for the man, but still. He seemed very attentive. The Lady seemed overjoyed to be dropping her written name and gaining her husband’s.”
“I imagine marrying the mayor has other benefits,” Tai Chen said.
“I think it’s time you left princess,” Elspeth said. Without another word she walked behind the curtain and disappeared.
“It was good seeing you too Ellie,” Tai Chen whispered. She hopped off the stage and walked back to Bernenstein. She hopped in the ambulance and told him they had one more stop to make: the home of Mayor Bill Smithers. By this point he’d given up on arguing and simply turned the key in the ignition.
The home of the mayor was nice, but not so much that it didn’t fit in Carlo. Huge hedges loaded with flowers blocked the view of most of the house, but the flowers had been stripped of half their petals by time and the day’s rain. His gate was rusted iron and it was missing the latch. Tai Chen let herself in. When nobody answered her knock she tried the door, found it unlocked, and let herself in again.
“Mr. Mayor?” she called down the dark corridors. Three seconds of silence.
“I’m in here… I mean… the art studio. To your left,” a voice moaned. Tai Chen followed it into a room with a wall of windows on one side and a wall of potted plants on the other. There was an easel set up in the middle of the room. A man in his fifties sat before it, trying to paint the translucent figure of a woman that stood by the window. Tai Chen approached the figure. It was an image of the Lady Arthur Skelmerton, drained of life but without injury, hovering several inches of the floor. Tai Chen swept a foot under it. Nothing happened; it just stared out the window at the retreating storm clouds.
“What is this thing?” she asked. When he didn’t immediately answer she moved closer to examine her elected leader. He was balding, he wore spectacles and a turtleneck, and his paintbrush looked very heavy in his scarred hand. The portrait of the phantom was a watercolor. He must have just started it because there was no body connected to the image of her head, just paint dripping down from the base of her neck.
“I have the word phantom,” Bill Smithers blubbered. He dropped his face into his hands and got paint all over his forehead in the process. Tai Chen looked at the specter of the Lady again and saw a paper heart beating in her transparent chest. “This is the most lifelike she’ll ever be again… Who are you?”
“My name is Tai Chen Mr. Mayor. I’m nobody special, just a constituent. I’m looking into your fiancé’s murder.”
“Are you with the police?”
“No. Do you think the police will catch who did it?”
“No… will you?”
“I’ll give it my all. You don’t look up to that yet Mr. Mayor. Let me give it a shot until you are.” She wasn’t being completely honest with him. She thought she didn’t count as a constituent unless she’d actually voted for him. Carlo did not take pride in itself; Bill Smithers had run for mayor unopposed.
“It doesn’t matter,” the mayor said. He dropped the paintbrush on the ground before standing and moving to the wall of potted plants. A framed picture of the Lady stood on a shelf, surrounded by flowers. “All that matters is that she’s gone. My Lady.” He sniveled and pulled out a reference page. She thought he was going to use it as a handkerchief, but he pressed the word gospels and folded it until it transformed into a big black book. He turned to a random page and read aloud. “Death is when a character shifts out of one story and into another; it is ink transforming into ideas and back again. – Saint Racomb.” He giggled a little.
“What’s so funny?” Tai Chen asked.
“This quote. It’s not real. It’s not even as real as us. The word is gospels; it doesn’t say if they’re christian or not. My page just makes any sort of gospel it feels like. Every time I make this book it fills itself with new spiritual platitudes. Only… maybe they’re not platitudes. Surely the answer to my grief is within me. If it’s in me it should be in this book. I’ll keep looking until I find it.” He turned to another random page and scanned down it with his finger. “Your impact is measured by the craters of happy tears, not mournful ones. – Laureate Barely. Nobody actually said that. There is no Laureate Bailey. It’s just letters in my head. That doesn’t mean it’s not true though.” Tai Chen slipped the book out of his hands. She didn’t bother to read anything out of it; she just tossed it over her shoulder and hoped it would land in the paint. “That wasn’t a very good version anyway,” he said. “I’m sure the next one will be better.”
She pulled him away from the flowers, the painting, and the phantom. She wanted to make sure he wasn’t looking at any image of the Lady for the rest of their conversation. She asked him if anyone wanted to hurt her. He said no. She asked if anyone suspicious had been seen around his place or hers. He said no.
“Listen to me,” Tai Chen said. “I can’t imagine how you’re feeling right now, but I can imagine how you’re going to try and get away from it. I can tell you right now it won’t work. The painting, the phantom, the books… they won’t do you any good. You’ll learn to think they’re fine replacements for Lady Arthur. They’re not. You can’t settle for them. If you do you’re going to catch obscurvy. It’s as simple as that.”
“I can’t believe she’s gone,” he bawled. He dropped his head onto her chest. She patted his back and sighed.
“Yes you can. You have to. You’ve got a city to run.”
“I don’t even do anything. I just hold all our rights.”
“Our rights. Your rights. My rights. We’re all characters. Somebody has to hold the rights to us. It’s like holding a big armful of bubbles. They weigh nothing, but my arms get so tired anyway. One of them pops without warning and then there’s nothing I can do about it.”
“You’re important,” Tai Chen said. What’s this rights stuff? We’re in the Public Domain. He must be talking about our freedoms. I guess he is technically in charge of those. He does oversee the sheriff. “You’re very important.” She knew she didn’t sound convincing. Bill was a tenner like everyone else, just a poor nobody who’d fall out of any copy of The Red Badge of Courage if you shook it by the spine because some other character had trod on his gripping hand. She thought about anything and everything she could ask. “What do you know about the Copyright Company?”
“Shot in the arm,” Bill said, his demeanor improving a little. He wiped his tears away and walked back to the phantom. He tried to hold her hand. “You know they’re saying that once you work for them you literally become immune to obscurvy. Imagine that. No more busting down doors of people you haven’t heard from in a week and finding them mummified by isolation. They really are a shot in the arm! They’re an inoculation! They called half an hour before you got here to give me their condolences. Wonderful characters.”
“How did they know she had passed?” Tai Chen asked.
“Who knows? I’m sure some of the police are moonlighting with them.”
“What would you think if I told you two Copyright goons attacked me and nearly killed me?”
“I’d say you should go to the police. I highly doubt it’s company policy.”
“Did the Lady have anything to do with them?”
“Hmm?” The mayor slowly grabbed the paper heart out of the phantom’s chest to see if she would stay behind without it. Her face twisted into a silent scream and then she became so much billowing smoke. Bill gritted his teeth and shredded the heart into a hundred pieces. He collapsed against the window. “My Lady was taken from me. Thank you for your concern Ms. Chen, but I think you should leave. I want to be alone with my memories.”
“You shouldn’t be alone Mr. Mayor. You need to surround yourself with people who feel more alive than you do. It’ll hurt. It’ll burn. And it’ll keep you from sinking.”
“Please leave.” She didn’t need to be told a third time. Tai Chen turned on her heels and left. When she plunked herself down in the ambulance’s front seat she didn’t immediately give Bernenstein instructions. He managed to keep quiet for five whole minutes.
“I’m not going to your place Bernenstein,” she said. He dropped his forehead onto the steering wheel.
(Part One) (Continued in Part Three)
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