I fear boredom, so it’s no surprise that I would take a case when the war with Maelstrom hit a slow spell. The surprise comes from the war itself. Big? Check, I was expecting that. Brutal? Check and double check. But boring?
Maybe only boring to me, because the recent action has been in dimensions where I can’t go. The far Frames, so remote that I can’t Travel to them, much less fight unspeakable evil there. Someday I’ll be strong enough. But not yet.
And so I’m a desk potato, meeting with clients who have problems they think somebody should solve. I like to agree their problems matter, because that’s the optimistic perspective. (Nobody’s problems will matter if Maelstrom wins.)
We were in the initial interview phase, me ‘n’ my latest client. She sat erect and still in a marginally stuffed armchair that would make a statue squirm. I slouched and fidgeted, per usual.
She was a rose come to life. Delicate peachy complexion protected by thorny spikes of hair. She made a lovely gesture toward the words on my glass entry door. S.T.A.T.Ic. and Watkins, Private Investigations. “Your door implies that your name is an acronym. What does it mean?”
We’d already tap-danced about my first name. I’d confirmed that Nica was short for Veronica. Time to help her get to her point. “Long story. Let’s not get sidetracked. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t need something a.s.a.p.”
She swiveled to face me, her skin darkened to plum. “I suspect my husband is cheating on me. I’ve come to you for proof.” She was beautiful, confident, furious. If I were her husband I’d never get tired of gazing in those flashing baby blues. Alas, desire rarely knows what’s good for it.
“What if he’s innocent?”
She waved her hand like I was splitting hairs. “Yes, of course, I’m hiring you to confirm or deny. I love him. I don’t want to terminate him if he is faithful.”
When I yanked my feet off my desk, they stomped the floor. “Did you just threaten to kill him if he’s cheating?”
Her poise flickered as though my reaction was the part of our conversation that was screwy. “Why, yes. I always fulfill my obligations.”
I had been riding the Duh train but now I debarked. She must be from a Frame where spouses are required to kill cheaters. Just because she seemed human, I’d assumed she was from my Frame and shared my mores. When you offa your guy and there’s no hue and cry, that’s a–more.
“You haven’t mentioned your name or where you’re from,” I got us back on track.
“My apologies. I — a moment, please.”
She stared out my skylight, silent while a cloud floated by. Which confirmed she was a Frame Traveler, not a Neutral. Frame Travelers are wary of speaking near clouds, because they know that clouds can be messengers — or spies. Neutrals are clueless about clouds and most else.
The skylight grew empty of clouds. I prompted, “Have you talked with anyone else about your suspicions?”
“I was telling my neighbor about a co–worker who had to kill his wife and the poor man has been simply miserable ever since. My neighbor was always talking about ending her marriage, she said she might as well be a single parent for all the help she gets. They have three teenagers, and those three are so wild, one time I caught them with …”
You know that firework in a cardboard cylinder that you light at arm’s length then run like hell until you stop running and think this one must be a dud because it stands still for so long but then — kablooie! — it spews flaming sparks? Well, if the sparks were gossip and the lighter, an innocent question, that deceptively still cylinder would be this client.
I yearned out my skylight. Any clouds up there to put her on pause? While I filed that idea, she had revved into another detour. “…they didn’t want anyone to know about the surgery so they lied about why they were away…”
If words were sand, her mouth would be the Sahara. And in the blink of my thought she had switched topics again.
“If I might interrupt,” I screeched. I couldn’t wait for her to get to a point. I’ve only got a human’s life span. “Let’s dash back to the beginning. What Frame are you from? And while you’re at it, toss in your name.”
She must get interrupted a lot. It didn’t seem to faze her. “I started my life as a Neutral right here on Ma’Urth, but I married a man from Next Vast and we live in my husband’s Frame so that we can enjoy one another as animate beings.”
Now that marked her as a rare bird. Most people in Neutral Frames never know about other Frames, much less move to them or marry the locals. And wait, that’s not all. Next Vast is a Frame where Pixar movies would be watched as documentaries. None of the natives are humanoids. In fact, when in Neutral Frames, its beings often appear as inanimate objects. My ears tingled with curiosity about how my client met her husband but I dared not turn her loose in back story.
I realized, “You must really love the guy. No marriage is easy but inter–species marriages are the toughest.”
She wasn’t prepared to encounter sympathy.
I swiveled my chair to look out the window, letting her take a few to compose herself, then said, “You were about to tell me your name. Better tell me his name too.”
“I’m impressed that you know enough about Next Vast to ask for both names. I imagine that’s why you came so highly recommended.”
If only I’d jumped on that aside and asked who recommended me. I ignored the first rule of detectivizing: what you don’t know can hurt you. Instead of identifying the recommender, I basked in the highly and indulged in a bit of smug. What a denizen of the Frames I was. I knew that Next Vast spouses swapped names when they exchanged vows.
“My husband’s married name is Elizabeth James. My name is — on this.” She slid a lengthy slip of laminated paper across my desk. “I keep a copy of my name with me. I still have trouble pronouncing it.”
“That would be a Next Vast name, alright. Here, let’s say it together.” We tried. Seventeen syllables, all consonants. Or that’s what it seemed like as the sounds crashed against my eardrums.
We tried. We failed. We laughed. We bonded. She agreed that I could call her Betty and her husband, Jim.
The fun ended when Betty brought out photos of her spouse. Looking at them drained all color from her day. Her gorgeous nostrils flared. “This was the one tradition from home that I insisted upon — taking photos at our wedding. I never expected to need them to engage a detective.”
Betty the glossy photo bride stood in the doorway of a rustic, 8–sided gazebo, slouching against a festooned trellis. It must have been her first wedding to give her that look of shy lust.
I flipped to the next photo, the next, the next. All shots of her in the gazebo.
“I’m going to need a photo of Jim, too.”
She tapped the glossy image in my hand.
Hmm. Maybe that murky shadow behind her shoulder. “Is your husband behind you in the gazebo? The light contrast is –”
“My husband is the gazebo.”
“Ah. Of course.” Sheesh. Mine had been a typical Neutral reaction. I mistook a being from Next Vast for an inanimate object. But — wowza. My client was married to an animate, sentient gazebo.
She watched me like I was a tea kettle boiling with oil. “I can’t hire you if you disapprove of my marriage.”
“No way do I disapprove.” The suggestion offended me. Couldn’t she see that I was a citizen of the Frames, where anything is possible, somewhere? “He looks very nice. Very. Um. Thoughtfully designed.”
“We’ve encountered so many bigots over the years. Neutrals should stay away from Travelers, that’s what they say.”
“‘Neutrals go home.’ I’ve met with my share of that.”
Her perfect eyebrows rose. “You are hiding your true reaction.”
“Damn. Kind of, yes. Because it’s none of my business but I’m wondering. What it’s like, how you and Jim manage. The S. E. X.” I studied the skylight in case she wanted privacy.
Betty chuckled. “Ultimately it’s all about energy flow.”
I couldn’t tell you what she said after that. I got stuck pondering energy flow.
On Ma’Urth, Jim was an inanimate structure in a dilapidated park near downtown Los Angeles. His clean handsome lines almost made the drought–yellow crabgrass look good. Where paint had flaked away, the exposed wood had a rich warm grain. His planters were packed with dry dirt, and the park was littered with garbage, but the gazebo’s interior was spotless.
“Sometimes you like somebody before you meet him.” I only felt a little silly, talking to an empty gazebo. Of course, the gazebo had no way of knowing I was talking about him. If he could hear me talking. Are sentient beings aware of their existence in Frames where they stand as inanimate objects? I’d often wondered this, but hadn’t had a chance to find out. I’ve been Traveling the Frames for almost a year, and I’ve learned a lot, but there is still so much I don’t know.
I sat on a step and thought. About my new client, and her marriage, and whether she ever got sawdust in undisclosed locations. I like marriages, so I was rooting for reconciliation. Jim’s vibe was so positive, it was hard to imagine him as any kind of a bad guy, even as garden–variety as a cheating spouse.
In quiet moments, worries gnaw inside my skull. This case added a humdinger bite: What if I proved the husband guilty of adultery — would I hand over evidence, knowing it would get him terminated? OK, that was rhetorical. Short answer, no. If I found out he was guilty, well, I’d figure something out. The gnawing resumed. I left the park at a half–marathon pace. There’s only one sure way to fight that gnawing. Avoid quiet moments.
I Traveled for the first time in weeks, to visit the gazebo’s park in other Frames. I was hoping to catch a private word with him, somewhere where he was sentient. For once I enjoyed the feelings that go with Frame Travel. The swooping nausea, the sensation of an elevator plummeting sideways. I’d missed Traveling. Now that I knew Earth — excuse me, Ma’Urth — was surrounded in all directions by other dimensions, staying at home had become claustrophobic. Living in a Neutral Frame had become a tunnel inside a cave.
Jim was present in every Frame I visited. This did not surprise me. It’s especially common for natives of Next Vast to have persistence — to exist in Frame after Frame. But — much to my surprise — he was inanimate and insentient in all. Just as handsome, just as noble, but just a structure.
If he was stepping out on the spouse, it wasn’t happening in a Frame where he was just a structure.
Much as I wanted to chat with him away from the missus, I was glad to leave each of those Frames. I encountered no overt warfare, but Maelstrom’s threat loomed everywhere. I could almost understand why Anya had given me strict instructions to do no Travel until she sent for me. What made no sense, of course, was why she thought I’d follow such an instruction.
Anya is the leader of the Allies so I had obeyed her as much as I could, though, which made me awkward and rusty with my Traveling. It takes a peculiar conflicting mindset to move from one Frame to the next: you pay close attention while keeping focus elsewhere. Fortunately, my sleuthing would help to get me back in shape. I’d need my skills sharp when I rejoined the struggle.
The struggle of the few, the brave, the Allies. We who will save the free Frames from Maelstrom. I took a brave lofty step into a low solid patch of dog poop.
I groped for a gazebo wall to lean against, failed to connect, hopped on one leg to scrape the reeking ooze with dead leaves. Might there be a Frame where my impromptu cleanup tools — or the poop itself — were sentient beings?
Nica! Focus! I had failed to connect to a gazebo wall because, in this Frame, Jim the gazebo was gone. The missing structure had left an imprint in the dirt and the imprint had fresh sharp edges. Jim had been here, probably recently, and had moved elsewhere. Progress! I’d found a Frame where he could move around. He wasn’t just an inanimate structure here. I’d check back to this Frame in case he returned to this park.
While cleaning my shoe, I changed Frames once more. Multi–tasking, I ignored a key rule of Frame Travel. Give it your undivided. You never know what might be waiting for you.
Icy fog, so thick it muffled sound and made the world a dense gray void. Hope and energy left me, drained by life’s futility. I lacked the energy to straighten and contemplated my shoe in despair.
The fog, the futility. Maelstrom was here. I forced myself to hold still. I knew I was in danger of surrendering to Maelstrom because I’d witnessed it before. His nearness renders beings hopeless; they give up without a fight.
Footsteps pounded past me in the fog. Splatters of hot oil fused my shirt to my spine and flying chainsaws buzzed overhead, about where my neck would have been, had I been upright. More splatters of hot oil hit me. I willed myself not to whimper and clamped my mouth with my hands, fighting the part of me that wanted to announce my presence to the flying chainsaws, Maelstrom’s mechanical beasts.
Whoever was running must have had a strong will to live. Nonetheless, the buzzing caught up with the pounding footsteps. The runner’s screams thinned to whispers in the fog. I honored the passing of the unseen runner by sending my wishes for a quick journey to the land beyond the far Frames, where the dead are said to go. Without unbending, I eased myself out of Frame.
I stopped dicking around and Traveled to Next Vast, a Frame I knew to be safe. Incredible forces protect it. Maelstrom will have to conquer just about all the universe before he can take Next Vast.
In Next Vast, Jim the gazebo’s park had thick soft grass, the green of eternal spring. I threw myself on the damp lawn and gasped with joy when the damp soaked my pants and stained my knees. I could enjoy these annoyances because I was still alive.
A scooter zipped by, the kind that kids on Ma’Urth push with one foot while balancing on the other. In Next Vast, this scooter didn’t need somebody else’s feet to propel it. Riderless, it popped wheelies and spun in spirals, churning dust in the indented area where Jim the gazebo must have stood when he was here.
“Hi stranger!” The scooter’s voice was a gritty giggle, sandpaper by way of laughing gas. “You must be the one who’s investigatin’ him for cheatin’ on her.”
Now this was disappointing. Case research is more successful when I can conduct it incognito. Admittedly, my being incognito was a tad unlikely here: with no humanoids native to Next Vast, it was inevitable that I’d be recognized as a Traveler. But to have this two–wheeler know my whole case before I said one word!
On the other hand, he knew so much. I must have happened upon a family confidante and that could save me some time. “Mind if I ask you a few questions?” I replied.
“Sure thing, but don’t you wanna talk to folks who know one of the spouses?”
“You don’t fall in that category?”
“Nopey dopey, I only know what everybody says about ’em.”
Restless of mind and body, the scooter popped wheelies for punctuation and whistled fragments of tunes when not speaking. I needed to stop finding him annoying. He was too much like me.
“By ‘them’ do you refer to Mr. and Mrs. Elizabeth James?”
The scooter dipped his handlebar in a nod. “Those two, yup.”
“What does everybody say about them?”
“Mostly, what a shame that nice young couple.” The scooter looped a circle, spraying dust. I refused to cough.
“What do the others say, the ones who aren’t mostly?”
His chrome flashed. “Good on you for really listenin’! They partly say they knew it could never last but they expected the Neutral would do the cheatin’.”
I sighed. “And the rest? What do they say? The ones who aren’t mostly or partly?”
“They say her head hit wood once too often and she imagined the whole thing.” The scooter spun a 720.
I kept my smile in place. Grit coated my gums. The ground was awfully dry where the gazebo had stood. “How long has this spot been empty? How often do you see the husband here?”
The scooter cocked his handlebar. “He’s here all the time, it’s his job.”
“His job? Please tell me more.”
“School is tough here. Lotta kids fail their exams and they come talk to him, or their families do. He helps the kids figure out what their talents are. Everybody is good at sumpin’, he always says, they just dunno what it is.”
“He sounds like a good guy.”
“Yup, the family suicide rate is climbin’ since he disappeared.” The scooter said it like we were talking about the price of beans.
I peeled damp cloth from my knees while I processed the manageable bit of information. “How long ago did he disappear?”
The scooter circled the other direction, muttering, then stopped and spoke with certainty. “At least three chrons ago.”
His tone said that three chrons was a middling long time. I tried to find out what a chron is but I mentioned that Neutrals on Ma’Urth keep time by counting orbits around the sun. The scooter laughed so hard that he popped a bolt. I wasn’t much help looking for it — I kept getting distracted.
Somewhere, in that big open park, somebody was watching me. How did I know? I always know. Maybe because I’ve got the exhibitionist gene. I get this itch between my shoulder blades, the spot only a yogi can scratch. At first I ignored the itch because I expect to be stared at, here, where humanoids are a scant minority.
I helped the scooter replace his bolt. He alternated front–back–front wheelies and volunteered, “Bizarro, the way the husband disappeared. Gotta suspect foul play, not foreplay.”
“Maybe,” I murmured. The itch kept getting stronger. The park seemed to be empty. “This may see like a weird question but have you noticed anybody looking at me?”
“Nobody here to do the lookin’.”
I gestured at the water fountain, benches, playground equipment. “None of these are beings?”
“At a park playground? Of course not.” The scooter’s reaction fell on the disgust–shock continuum. “Our Frames gotta be real different if you could think a thing like that.” Curiosity made his chrome gleam.
“They’re a lot different and a lot the same. You should come visit.”
“Can’t risk goin’ to a Neutral Frame. If I lost sentience there, I couldn’t Travel home. Sure would like to see one though. Especially Ma’Urth. That’s been a dream of mine.”
“Maybe someday I can take you.” I stepped onto a gravel path. I needed to find the source of that itch.
“Like when?! Now? Not now? How ’bout after supper?”
“I’ve got a case I need to finish first.”
“Oh. Sure thing.” He didn’t believe me. Maybe he was right not to. Who knew when we’d share Frames again.
The scooter popped backwards wheelies toward an exit. I wracked my frontal lobes for the right parting words, but the itch was as distracting as sunburn on poison oak.
I moved toward the wall that edged the park, head down as though following clues in the soil. There. A flicker of movement behind the wall. Someone had changed position to keep me in view.
I sauntered toward a bench, made a show of changing my mind, exited the park. This put me on the sidewalk with a clear view to the someone.
It was Betty. My client was spying on me. She did an awfully good job acting surprised to see me.
I asked, “Got a minute?”
She hesitated then joined me on a bench. Her pearly cheeks were even lovelier with that hint of blush. We stared at the empty area defined by her absent husband.
“You forgot to mention that your husband has been missing for several chrons.”
“It can’t have been that long. Can it? The last time I saw him was right here. I came to tell him how the repairman had plowed our fence with his brother–in–law who’s a bulldozer. You might not believe it was an accident but the brother–in–law ‘s family has been in such turmoil, the mother and the father went off to fight Maelstrom and they left their grown kids to care for grandpa, who –”
“A bigger problem is that you’ve discussed your husband’s alleged infidelity with every sentient being in a ten–mile radius.”
“Not every one.”
I hate it when a hyperbole isn’t. “How did you expect me to get useful information after all your blabbing?”
“I’m so sorry. I haven’t been thinking clearly. I’m so afraid. I don’t know where Jim is and before he disappeared he was keeping secrets, I know he was. Please find him for me.”
My frustration kept me from acknowledging the pain underlying her words. “Now he’s missing? Is that in addition to, or instead of, he’s cheating on you? Which case am I supposed to be solving here?”
She heaved huge forlorn sobs.
I felt like a crumb in a clogged sewer pipe. “Never mind, doesn’t matter. Either way, my first step is to find him.” I spoke as though finding him was certain.
That seemed to comfort her. Anyway the sobs stopped. She pointed at my shoes. “You don’t seem like a callous person so you must not know about the athletic shoes.”
I joined her in staring at my feet.
“They’re sentient here. Somebody has been kidnapping them to sell in Neutral Frames where they lose their sentience so can’t escape. It’s a fate worse than slavery. I was sure my mechanic was doing the kidnapping. I warned everybody about him so we could catch him in the act but then he disappeared. He must have heard that we suspected him.”
“That can happen when you tell everybody in a ten–mile radius.”
“I never considered that as a consequence.” Her lovely blue eyes fogged with tears.
The best hope of curtailing a loose cannon is to do the aiming. “I could use an assistant. How about you sit here in this park and, when anybody passes by, you ask them if they know when the gazebo will be back. No emotion to it, just a how–are–you, by–the–way. Think you can do that? Great! Then if you learn anything, come find me, I’ll keep looking for Jim but I’ll change Frames slowly so I’ll be easy to track.”
She nodded like a bobble–head on a trampoline, then shook her head just as vigorously. “I don’t know how to do that. Follow somebody through Frames.”
“Um. Then I’ll keep checking back here for your reports.”
Betty settled into a corner of the bench and I headed out of Frame. Starting from here, I might be able to follow Jim through the Frames. When they aren’t consciously hiding their path, Travelers leave behind a trace of life force. The trace fades over time, but Jim’s presence was so strong in this park, that gave me a good starting point. As I released my hold on Next Vast, I bloodhounded his trace through several Frames. My progress was slow, because I approached each new Frame with caution. No more blundering into Maelstrom’s icy fog.
But I was too distracted to follow Jim’s trace for long. That unscratchable itch was back between my shoulder blades, and it persisted from Frame to Frame. Someone was following me through Frames.
Was Betty spying again? She had said she couldn’t follow a Traveler’s trace but anyone can say anything. I made a surprise jump back to Next Vast, expecting to find her bench empty. Yet there she sat, curled in the same corner.
Her tone was guilt–free. “Hello! Nothing to report yet. I wasn’t expecting you back so soon.”
“I lose track of time when I Travel. I’ll be back erratically. Are you okay with that?”
She nodded. Damn! The itch again. Someone was watching me talk to her. Maybe Betty had never been the watcher to begin with.
I could have given my watcher the slip. I knew how to hide my own Travel. But if I did that, I would show that I knew I was being watched — before I could find out who or why.
It was unlikely that my watcher was a long–lost pal. So I let the watcher follow me to Marzipan, where the locals would give me any help I might need. (They’re indebted to me. I’ve helped save a lot of Marzipani lives.)
In Marzipan, Jim’s park bustled with street vendors selling highly addictive pretzels called proustels. Most of the vendors and customers were blue–furred humanoids.
“Nica, this way,” a warm voice called. A willowy vendor with a Modigliani neck beckoned me like a mother getting her child out of the street. “Come, quickly.” She was covered in dark blue fur like Christmas velvet.
I jogged then sprinted to her, trying to outrun the scent of the proustels, or my yearning to have just one. With each bite I could relive my dearest memories and regain my lost loved ones. For a time.
The vendor and I exchanged greetings while I extracted Betty and Jim’s wedding photo. “I’m looking for this gazebo. Have you seen him?”
“Why, yes. I sold him a gift box recently. He said it was for his anniversary, a celebration that may not have occurred as of yet. He was concerned about proustel potency over time, however he had to buy on that day. He couldn’t return to buy fresher stock, closer to the anniversary.”
Hmm. I’d need to ask Betty about the anniversary. That might help narrow the date of Jim’s disappearance.
The itch returned between my shoulder blades. I took the vendor’s arm and steered us out of the park, saying loudly, “It is good to see you again. Walk with me a bit.”
As we crossed the boulevard, backs to the park, I whispered, “Watch for someone following me. Delay him or her if you can do so without raising suspicion. Be careful.”
We made a show of adieus. She returned to the park, I kept my back to her and whoever she might intercept. I went around a corner as though I cared what was there, changed Frames, changed again, leaving a broad casual trace of my passage. Then I snuck back to Marzipan, hiding my trace during my return Travel, and crouched behind a mailbox at the corner.
“Hello. Have we met?” The mailbox had a mail–slot door that squeaked when it spoke.
“Hi, and no, and could we wait to chat later? I need to hide behind you for now.” With non–humans you can never be too direct.
“Mm hm,” the mailbox clamped its mail–slot door shut.
Two humanoid men were talking to my vendor. They wore impeccable workout clothes and had eyes so dead they belonged on plastic sharks. The eyes were all the scarier atop those bogus smiles. They smiled a lot — my vendor was flirting to delay them. I owed her! Their eyes didn’t smile, though. To make those eyes smile, you’d have to give the guys puppies to torture. I was lucky these deadeye guys hadn’t found me alone in an empty Frame.
It’s harder to protect yourself against unknown dangers. Who were these two and why were they following me? I needed to understand the WTF here.
One of the deadeye guys stayed at my vendor’s cart. The other one left the park, following the route I had taken. He disappeared out of Marzipan, presumably following my trace. Which he would soon lose. Sorry, guy.
He came back as angry as an infected boil. Shows how defeating our expectations can be. He expected me to be gone, so when he got back to Marzipan he made no effort to sense my trace. If he had, he would have detected me behind the mailbox. Instead he stomped back to my vendor’s cart, spoke a few gutteral words to his partner.
The look they gave my vendor. For one terrible moment I feared I’d underestimated them and sacrificed her in my error.
She handed them bagged proustels. “Try these at your leisure. When you return for more, be sure to look for my cart. You’ll always get a good deal here.” Her voice stayed warm and friendly. She offered the bag with one hand, while her other hand rested behind her cart in a recess that must hide a weapon.
One of the deadeye guys snarled, the other smashed the bag to the ground. Just as well they didn’t eat proustels. I got a cold spot, speculating about what fond memories those two would want to relive.
They headed back the way they came and were out of Frame before I finished standing up. My vendor gripped her cart and bowed her head, allowing fear to shake her now that the threat was gone.
“Thanks for the shelter.” I murmured to the mailbox and jogged after the deadeye guys.
“Mm hm,” the mailbox kept its door clamped. Now that was a discreet mailbox.
My vendor spotted me following the guys and shook her head like it was on fire. I put finger to lips for silence then made a gesture that tried to communicate I don’t want to follow them but I must. More likely the gesture suggested a Mafioso in his first acting class.
I didn’t register her reaction. I had turned full concentration on following the deadeye guys into Frames unknown. Fear makes me meticulous.
The farther they got from Marzipan, the more disgusting their traces became. Mind you, a trace is not physical but a trailing aura, a whisper of a being’s psyche. These two must have made tremendous effort to merely seem like creeps on Marzipan. I regretted comparing sharks with them. Sharks are noble beings who just happen to have disturbing eyes.
Their steps quickened and they seemed invigorated when they reached a Frame that swirled with cold fog. They disappeared inside a crumbling brick building. My self–preservation whimpered. I only felt hopeless here, not despairing, which meant Maelstrom wasn’t present but he had been, recently. Which implied that his chainsaws or other fighters were present, still. I couldn’t leave though; I needed to see what the deadeye guys would do next.
There was nowhere I could hide. Certainly, not behind that mailbox, which muttered like it was haunted. It had been in Maelstrom’s cold fog a long time, too long to believe in abstract fantasies such as honor. It would betray me.
Instead of hiding, I returned to Jim’s park, where every surface was slimy with cold mud. I joined a line of locals waiting for a turn on a playground merry–go–round. They’d climb aboard, stand staring outward, circle joylessly, step down and re–join the line to get another turn. I’m guessing that whoever invented the technique ‘hide in plain sight’ hadn’t had to worry about flying chainsaws. Nonetheless, I waited for my turns without wincing.
I was on my seventh joyless spin on the merry–go–round when the deadeye guys stomped past, covered in bruises and looking meaner than before.
I caught up with them in a Frame free of Maelstrom’s influence. Blue sky, meandering clouds, birds that paused their chirping only briefly as the deadeye guys passed. In this Frame, Jim the gazebo’s park was a field of wildflowers and unflattened grass. Jim hadn’t been here for a while.
I wasn’t close enough to hear what the deadeye guys asked — no, demanded — from passersby in that park, but the locals all shook their heads and hurried away.
They Traveled to another Frame and I witnessed the same deal: question passersby in the park, get shakes of heads. Another new Frame, same deal. Yet another new Frame — and there stood Jim, warped and peeling, with the vibe of a structure, not a being.
The deadeye guys piled trash and dead leaves at the gazebo’s corners, then set the piles on fire. While the flames grew, they kicked at Jim’s trellises and yanked on shutters that looked loose but held firm.
My mind raced down one avenue up another, searching for a way I could stop their destruction without turning it on myself. Fortunately, albeit disorientingly, a herd of zebras galloped up. With kicks and bites, they chased the deadeye guys out of Frame.
The zebras kicked dirt to smother the flames. I righted the trellises, which gave me an excuse to hold on to Jim. The sudden turns of events had left me wobbly. And confused. Were the deadeye guys after Jim, not me?
I wobbled up the steps into Jim’s interior and planted my butt on his plank floor. Every few moments a pair of zebras would circle by outside, watching the park entrances. They must think the deadeye guys would try again.
“I need to talk with the gazebo named Elizabeth James,” I intoned and patted Jim’s floor. “My name is Nica S.T.A.T.Ic. and I’m a private investigator. Your wife hired me. She claimed she wanted to know if you were having an affair, but she seemed more worried than wronged. Turns out she knew you were missing. Did she know that bad people are after you? Why is that, anyway? The guys who tried to burn you, they’re Maelstrom’s. Why are they out to hurt you?”
My words hit the floor in the empty, silent gazebo. “Look,” I resumed. “I’m a Neutral and I only recently learned to Travel and I don’t know much about beings like you who exist in many Frames simultaneously. Are you aware of what’s happening in every Frame you’re in? Even the ones like this one where you don’t seem to be sentient? Did you feel those fires just now when those guys tried to burn you? Am I talking to anybody?”
The only sounds were the distant clops of zebra hooves.
Alrighty then. It was time I had another conversation with my client. The case she’d thrown me into didn’t match the case she’d hired me onto.
We sat in my office on Ma’Urth, she with disciplined posture and run–amuck mouth, me slouched and managing to not say most of what I was thinking. Betty had been talking for most of an hour, but when I peeled away the gossip and digressions, I could fit her explanation into a nutshell. If a nutshell can also be a labyrinth.
I raised my hand to put her on pause. “Let me recap to make sure I got the gist. You knew your husband was going into hiding. He told you that you were in danger and you would only be safe if you were not with him and left your marriage. But you could tell he was hiding something so you concluded he was trying to trick you into leaving him because he had found someone else and wanted you out of his life, but didn’t dare tell you, given your obligation to off him as an adulterer.
“Now, today, you received his anniversary gift to you, which before he vanished, he arranged to have delivered. And this gift makes you realize you’ve been wrong about him. He truly loves only you and he is in danger. Now you want me to find him so we can bring him home.”
When she frowned, her forehead wrinkled elegantly. “Hearing your recitation, I realize I sound like a perfect idiot and I appreciate your not telling me so.”
I shrugged. Holding my tongue was a novelty and not one I could take credit for. I had to thank today’s passing clouds. There had been many. Maybe none of them were spies, maybe all of them were. So. Every time a cloud crossed my skylight, we stopped talking and I got to count to ten.
“It was the note, as much as the gift, that awakened me to the truth about my husband.” Betty removed the lid from a handsomely carved wooden gift box, releasing a fragrance that hit me like a ton of fish hooks. Inside the box was a proustel.
My longing for it was intense and instantaneous. I sat on my hands to stop their shaking.
She unfolded the note. “‘If I don’t come back to you, always remember how much I love you.’ Jim would never write such a note if he didn’t mean it.” She repeated the note, then added sadly, “You can’t keep looking for him, it’s too dangerous.”
I slung my knees over the arm of my chair. “I’ll be okay, I’m good at ducking danger.”
“I meant dangerous for him. You could lead them right to him.” She returned the proustel box to her purse. “Of course your safety concerns me as well.”
A string of clouds stopped our conversation. I paced around my desk, waiting for the skylight to clear. Suddenly I heard a medley. What kind of fool am I mashed with Oops I did it again. The deadeye guys might be looking for Jim but they had followed me to Marzipan. How had they known to follow me? How had they known I would be looking for Jim?
At last the clouds were past. I crouched beside Betty’s chair. “You told a lot of people you would be hiring a detective. Who did you tell that you were hiring me?”
She pulled into the farthest corner of her chair. I stopped invading her space and resumed pacing. She watched me for a couple laps. “No one. I haven’t spoken about your work. After all you’ve had no results yet. No one in Next Vast has asked me. After all, private detectives don’t exist there, so the concept is off their collective radar screen, if you will. It was only by luck that I got your name, in fact. I told some Travelers about my dilemma and they recommended you. I’m grateful for that. I’m not upset you have no results yet.”
Damn damn triple damn. Another cloud interrupted our conversation. I grabbed a sheet of paper and printed, DESCRIBE THOSE TRAVELERS.
Instead, she revealed herself to be a talented caricaturist. She sketched accurate cartoons of what looked like the deadeye guys. Same body types and hair, same impeccable workout clothes.
They clouds gave us a break and Betty spoke quickly. “These were visitors to Next Vast, getting exercise at Jim’s park at the time when I was asking everyone if they had seen Jim or any lady visitors. It only occurs to me now that I should have wondered why they could recite your address when they recommend that I enlist your services.”
Her bad, for trusting those strangers. My badder, for not asking who had recommended me.
“It’s as though they wanted me to hire you,” she mused.
For a smart person, she could be deeply dim. I bottled various replies and jerked open my office door. The milk glass in the transom window shuddered.
Betty followed me into the hallway. “What is your next step?”
“I’ll keep you posted,” I found something to adjust on the transom.
“You don’t trust me to keep your plan secret.” People are such an amazing species. She actually sounded surprised.
Now she sounded discouraged. “I don’t know. I don’t mean to talk yet I so often do. I’ll wait at home to hear from you.” She hurried out of Frame so quickly the air strobed as she disappeared. Her departure brought regret and relief.
Talk to locals in Next Vast, snoop on the deadeye guys, search for Jim. I couldn’t get my feet to step in any of my possible directions, which meant my thinking was mired in mud of its own making. I grabbed a water bottle and headed outside. I needed a run.
In my neighborhood, quitting time is ideal for running. The day’s food trucks and hipster professionals are gone, the homeless have not yet returned to their evening doorways. Thanks to rush hour traffic snarls, no car can move fast enough to hurt me.
The endorphins were just starting to flow when my name filled the air overhead. “Nica Static, I need to speak with you.” It was a voice I’d never heard before, warm and solid with an echoing after–creak. Between words was a distinctive vibration that meant a cloud was delivering a message. Clouds are often used as messengers from Frame to Frame. I looked up. Sure enough, a cloud hovered overhead, floating against the breeze to keep directly above me. All the clouds this afternoon had looked just like this one. Had it been waiting to speak to me alone?
“Who’s there?” I asked, unnecessarily. I’d get no answer — cloud messages are pre–recorded. Anyway, the voice had to be Jim’s, it sounded like a gazebo should sound.
“To assure you of safety, I will meet you in a place of your choosing. Show the cloud and it will lead me to you.”
His mention of safety made me uneasy. What if this was an enemy pretending to be Jim? Could a cloud participate in an ambush?
The cloud hovered steadfastly overhead although tendrils of its essence streamed away in the breeze.
Where could I lead the cloud that I could be sure that no one could ambush me? I didn’t know and I didn’t know. Then suddenly, I did know. I love it when that happens.
I Traveled to Frivolous Bedlam, a Frame of such intrinsic goodness that no evil could follow me there. The cloud followed me without a hitch. I sat on a curb and waved goodbye, in what I hoped was a friendly manner. The cloud departed.
Behind me, a glass and steel building began chanting and other buildings picked up the refrain. “Cat Shaver! Cat Shaver!”
A food cart swerved up, braked in front of me, and yelled to a cluster of food trucks on the cross street, “It’s really her! Cat Shaver is back!”
In Frivolous Bedlam I’m very popular and they call me Cat Shaver. Long story.
The bright sunlight went shady. The messenger cloud floated overhead. Down the block, something scraped the asphalt, making the food cart turn and say, “Woah!”
An eight–sided gazebo moved up the street in a smooth gliding translation that rarely touched the ground. Sentient and animate, Jim’s presence was an intriguing blend of finely crafted and rough–hewn. His walls were sturdy and his entryways inviting. The grain in his smooth plank walls continually shifted and every whorl shimmered with vitality. His room was inviting, a great place for a slumber party, a sanctuary, a party, or, yes, a honeymoon.
I was in love but he was my client’s husband and okay also a gazebo. I got a grip. By the time I took his four steps and entered his octagon, I was more determined than ever to find a happy ending for my client and her husband.
“You must be Elizabeth James,” I began.
“Hello, Nica, I’ve heard much about you and look forward to a better day when we can converse. Our interaction now must be terse and one–sided so that I can return to Anya. Battle looms and as always, the Allies are outnumbered. She assures me that you will understand.”
“You’re fighting beside Anya.” I fought a wistful envy. That’s where I wanted to be. Anya was not just the leader of the Allies, the only hope to save the free Frames from Maelstrom. She was also my mentor. Except I didn’t get to see her enough to be mented much.
“Soon I will join the fight. For several chrons, I’ve been in training. I am learning to wield powers that few others can. Anya detected my untapped ability and recruited me. I am, as you might say, a secret weapon. If our enemies learn that I have joined the Allies, my loved ones will be at risk, particularly my wife. I cannot tell my wife any of this.”
“I get that. She’s the soul of indiscretion.”
“She holds nothing back, she does not know how. That is one of her many charms.”
No one who talks about his wife in that smitten tone is having an affair. “Your wife has fears that you’re cheating on her.”
His sigh rattled his timbers. “That misapprehension won’t hurt her, but she must not learn the truth.”
I flopped on his floor. “She’s going to keep looking for you. If you want her to stop, we’ll need a great alibi for where you went.”
“Based on what I’ve heard from Anya, I’m confident you’ll come up with one.” He turned so serious that his whorls stood out in high contrast with his grain. “I fear for my wife’s life. Please. Convince her to return to Ma’Urth with you, and protect her there. Please. She is everything to me.”
I tried to decide which of those requests was the taller order, which left me temporarily speechless.
Before I could process what was happening, he tilted on edge, causing me to slide out his door. He adjusted his angle several times to bump me gently down his steps and onto the street.
“I’ve never been dumped so gently,” I was about to say.
But he was already translating out of Frame, trailing a final plea. “I must go. Please help us.”
I found Betty at the park in Next Vast. In hopes of disguising the deceit in my voice, I called to her from across the lawn, “Still no sign of him.” I flopped on the bench beside her. “I’m realizing that finding Jim could take a while and it’s starting to interfere with my business. Now don’t worry, I’m not giving up. But I’m hoping you could help me with some of my other cases. Could you maybe stay on Ma’Urth for a while? Help me at the office while I’m searching for Jim?”
She looked around the park like she was memorizing it. “Yes, I could so that.”
Maybe with Jim gone she was feeling homesick for Ma’Urth, for life around other Neutrals. Maybe she always wanted to work in a detective’s office. Actually, I had no other cases at present, but that was a detail. I’d achieved Step 1. I was getting Betty out of Next Vast. When the time came I’d figure out the rest, because I had to.
She went home to pack a few things and I had fun watching scooters race around the playground. One of them spotted me and skidded my way. It was my buddy, the one who was curious about Ma’Urth but afraid of losing himself in a Neutral Frame.
“Are you feeling adventurous?” I greeted him.
“Every day!” He popped a 760 wheelie then paused mid–air. “Will the adventure scrape my chrome? I just had it buffed.”
“I’ll be carrying you so you should be okay. I want to show you where I live. You game?”
“And how!” He flipped his hinge, folded himself flat. I held him in both arms and took a deep inhale. Travel was painful and hard when carrying a second being. But this would be worth it. How often do you get to fulfill somebody’s dream?
And maybe now I’d learn whether beings from Next Vast stayed sentient on Ma’Urth. If it was time for me to learn that.
Then I’d find something for Betty to do around the office, and I’d do my damnedest to keep her alive, and I’d go back to what I’m most practiced at, nowadays. Waiting for the Allies to call.