17. LA TETE DE MORT: Firesign City

The door let in a flash of yellow-red light; it banged back into place, and she looked up, wearily, to see Robert. His jaw was set, for he had determined not to say anything in this moment of their meeting.

Time, they say, is the healer of all wounds. But how can that be true when time is the muddier and falsifier of many a memory, the exacerbator of a hard vendetta, and the very thing that speeds us on to death? For every creature that time treats kindly, there are two less lucky—and there is a turnabout, to be sure, lurking in that happily ever after.

You and I know that time could not heal Robert’s wounds; like an inexperienced doctor, it had poked at his tarnished gills and said, “Nope, not much I can do” —yet it had expected him to pick up the tab…of centuries in pain. It may be more accurate to say, “Time, stealer of all goods, and intensifier of certain bads!”

Few things could further exemplify the painful complexicating of time than the return of Alice to her penthouse. The sudden fling of the door let in a flash of yellow-red light; then the door banged back into place, and Alice looked up, wearily, to see Robert facing her from the wooden chair. His jaw was set, for he had determined not to say anything in this moment of their meeting.

Alice bustled about, hanging her coat and escaping to the kitchen. Robert turned his head to follow her. Testily she said, “You want me to explain? Fine, I’ll try. Dracula got himself lost—I don’t know what got into him—and Jaw is on the loose too. I guess Trials is still out, I saw the news report.” She opened the fridge with a heavy sigh; a handsome glow illumined her, its colors not unlike the aurora borealis. “I was out so long just—thinking—but I couldn’t, I just didn’t come up with a plan. So many live variables flying around, and I don’t know what their priorities are.”

She spread future foods on the table: several tubes, not unlike those used to hold toothpaste, and a log of tofham (which is a ham-like tofu variant bearing unintuitive pronunciation). “Maybe Adam can—oh, bother. He’s gone too?”

Now Robert stood, turned to fully face her, and folded his hands before himself. It seemed a polite pose, one that might be used to greet a dignitary. He said with some casual flair, “You tell me.”

This all struck Alice oddly. There was sarcasm here, but, as Alice was not well equipped to detect sarcasm, it only struck her with a glancing blow. “I would tell you if I knew,” she said, “but I do appreciate how untroubled you are. It almost puts me at ease just to watch you.”

To Robert, Alice’s monotone in this moment sounded greatly sarcastic. “You hit the nail on the head,” he said, returning fire. “I’m glad you feel that way.” He was not glad, though.

As expected, Alice was fast returning to her usual mode. This meant little beyond less sighing. “While I’m certain you had many doubts about me, knowing well that I could be a double-crosser,” she progressed, “I’m sure that over time, I have addressed those doubts to our general satisfaction, causing you to warm up to me and even, maybe, trust me. I am also willing to postulate that Dracula was merely overeager, Trials merely following her catlike nature, and Adam, with his valiant heart, worried sick about Dracula’s safety. If this were untrue,” she said with a brief look at the floor, “I think I’d feel betrayed.”

“Mmhm,” said Robert, agreeing in a certain ironic sense.

“One thing’s for sure: all this running about calls for a reshaping of our plan.”

“Mmm!” said Robert, actually agreeing.

Before long they were sitting at the table of futuristic snacks, face-to-face, folded-hands-under-chin-to-folded-hands-under-chin. Unfortunately, once here, they found they could not concentrate one whit on the food; both of their brains were whirring. They also found themselves staring harshly into each other’s eyes, as if to burrow in and divine certain secrets.

Actually, and doubly unfortunately, they became so ensconced in this eyeward mind-burrowing that they forgot what they were planning entirely. Robert was first to snap out of it, blinking away the trance; Alice rubbed her forehead. “Let’s get a pen and notepad or something,” said Robert.

“Those were uninvented years ago.”

“Oh, right. Got anything else?”

Alice bent under the table, heaved, and brought out what appeared to be a wooden suitcase. When it popped open on the table, however, it showed its true colors: the red-and-black motley of a chess board and its pieces. “A little indirect, but it stimulates the mind,” she explained.

“Interesting,” said Robert, “but I only know how to play checkers.”

“Very well,” she replied. “We’ll play it like checkers.”

They set up their armies, pawns mingling indiscriminately with queens and knights, and in between moves and the clacking of wood, they pondered, and spoke.

“We can go out tonight,” said Alice, her king clopping ahead, “or we can stay in, wait for the others.”

Robert moved a pawn. “What are you suggesting?”

“I’m not ‘suggesting’ anything. We must decide between our safety and some rash heroism.” Click.

“I meant to say” —clock— “what would you have us do?”

Alice’s hand hovered over a rook. “Well, to be honest…”

A snide thought within Robert said, “Good, finally.”

“…I think we could take this opportunity to stake out the Brown House.”

Robert could hardly resist the urge to shoot up and flip the game board. Already they were in the enemy’s camp—and in a government agent’s house, no less—and now she suggested that they go off-script by entering the dragon’s mouth without all their reinforcements? He sat pensive, angry words bubbling in the cauldron of his brain, fully convinced that she was a traitor; this was as good as proof.

“Nah, let’s stay inside and start planning for tomorrow,” he said, and he clacked a knight on.

Alice stared at him. “Alright, only it…wasn’t your turn yet.”

Their game continued, haltingly like this, as the discussion turned to contingencies for the official Brown House break-in. They strove to consider every thinkable scenario: what to do if this person but not this one was there, where to turn if Igor’s location could not be determined, when to press on or give up.


What city had more splendid lights than New York District of Columbia? The moment the sky turned the slightest apple-red, every block smothered itself in lights, artificial nitro-lights that were a blanket to those who had adjusted to them. Even to the eye of a foreigner staring up, they melded into a haze of electric fur. Yellow was the canvas, with spots of blue, orange, green, and laserbeam pink dotting the plain, all emanating from high-powered streetlamps. They buzzed if you climbed the poles and set your ear to them, as Trials had learned.

The magical cat did have a streetwise streak; even if she hadn’t, her manner of slinking ‘round corners and popping out of view, so natural to witches and felines both, would have been sufficient to carry her safely through a werewolf city. And in former days she had been something of a globe trekker, one who laughed, admired, and stopped now and again to topple a bucket of water on an unsuspecting head.

Yet she had avoided urban places for quite a while now. The sky, that was the first thing; all the stars, natural and artificial, were hidden by newfangled groundlight the moment they threatened to appear, and for werewolves to hide the moon they broke was utmost hypocrisy. The people on the sidewalks watching their hologrammic palms were the second thing; not much fun to prank them. Push them off the motorized walkways and they acted predictably: with dazed whirling and a quiet, “Huh?” And the third thing, unexpected, was just how high werewolf hostility had mounted. The few who saw her in the alleyways kicked trash cans atop her and yelled, “’Ey, get the treatment!” They did not dial pest control, oh no…in calling security, they skipped straight to the big guns. More than once, Trials had peered down a packed conveyor sidewalk to see peculiar figures squeezing past—troops in riot regalia, their laser rifles pointed up like stakes.

“Such a commotion,” she mewed the third time, “just for lil’ ol’ me? How nice.”

But as she danced back into the alley and sent her double out to lead the firing squad astray, she could not ignore some longing within her for prey more fun to play with.

Her meandering took her through Washington Square Park and its dwindling crowd, brushing past legs, trees, and storied bronze; and then she was inside a rosebush, looking out at the National Mall—where, amazingly, between all the museums, the Capitol, and the Brown House itself, there was open, grassy space, topped with scattered shrubbery. It occurred to her again what this mission was about, and that she could really do some good, in her small way. She’d do it the best she knew how: with tricks, wits, wiles, and beguiles…by putting the Brown House through some trials!

“But I can’t beguile government employees on an empty stomach – not unless they’re juicy rodents,” she said to herself in the rustling brush. “Snacks Backs Racetracks!” she chanted; an assortment of bright-orange candy peanuts peppered the dirt. Crestfallen, she said, “Aw, I forgot that’s what that spell was.” She ate them anyway.

Lucky for her, the National Mall was the seat of many a picnic, and July was a picnic season. Werewolf families were only just ceasing their gatherings, stashing leftovers in woody baskets, wrapping up their sittin’ blankets.

We cast our eyes now on one such family. As the kneeling mother packed up, the two children of the family were caught up in a game unique to 31st-century werewolfkind. “Bet ya can’t beat me!” growled the first— “Oh, yeah?” cried the second—and neither budged…an unaccustomed observer would think them in a staring contest. But something did move: their mini-moons. Revolving as steady-slow as always, the moons swung around and, at the critical juncture where each orbit intersected, they bashed against each other with just enough force to scrape off moon dust! Then the tiny asteroids, now with tiny comet-trails, went on their way…one more deeply cracked than the other. The loser cried noisily.

“You two!” said the mother, appalled as soon as she heard. “Quit roughhousing!”

Unnoticed behind the picnic basket, Trials snoopily whispered, “Me-wow…what a stupid game! Talk about playing ruff!”

Then the infuriated mother snapped up the picnic basket—so Trials got her tongue and flitted away.

“You’ve ruined your moons and you’re crying! Now do you see what happens when you play that infernal game?”

“Awooooo! Ow-ow-awooo…”

“But Mom, we told you we’d stop if you just bought us flashing robotic Battle Moons.”

“When I was your age, all we had were marbles and our imaginations. We quickly realized that marbles were boring, so we played using our moons instead, just like you, and we suffered for it. I’m not giving up this paycheck just for some new moons—come ’ere.”

Before she could grab the two young impertinents by the arms, a breeze opened the picnic basket, and out popped the head of a crumb-covered cat with a startled look in her eyes.

The mother’s expression changed like day to night; she jittered and juttered! “A c-c-c…a c-c-c…”

But the loser kid, eyes dried, reached innocently for the cat. “Aww…kitty.”

With a hiss, Trials threw herself from the basket and thumped off, running for the shadows of shrubland! The mother howled lamentingly, “Oh good gravy, you kids’ll give me a heart attack! Don’t let me see you do that again—any of it!”

Those peanut butter sandwich crusts were more than enough to fuel this expedition. Trials went smirkingly onward, cavortering through briars at full speed like a master rat through a labyrinth. As she did, she savored the lingering nutty taste which filled her mouth even now.

She wasted no time in locating the Brown House and, with a mighty clang, bumping her snout against its cyber-iron gate. Snorting the pain away, she backed up, analyzed, and noted that she could slink through the narrow gaps in the bars. But it would do no good to squeeze through and find herself in the middle of a vast yard; this was the Brown House, and she had reason to believe its SWAT teams were not the same bumbling oafs as NYDC’s civilians. Suppose they were all on the level of Disgraced Commander Alice and—well, she didn’t give much credit to Alice’s intelligence…

Walking beside the Brown House gate, strutting under bushsome thorns, turning two corners, Trials used sharp ears to stake out the scene. She was mapping out the territory of the Brown House lawn: the house was at one end, the street at another, and a long walkway bisected it. Down this walkway and at the front doors was some gala, if she had to guess. “Purr-fect!” she would have said in this moment of discovery, were she not so keen on savoring the taste of the peanut butter she had eaten!

From the corner of the Brown House lawn popped a black shape like shifting smoke. In mere seconds it had crossed a line of topiary and ornamental trees, rushed before that hairy mastiff of a building, and passed unnoticed into a crowd of wealthy shins. Smoke does not waste time; this drifter ignored the talk of this party and merely followed the flow upward, up a short flight of stairs, into the doorway of this the seat of all world power.

In the cracks between tuxedos and dresses, she began to catch glimpses of the walls, eggshell white, and the brassy edges of presidents’ picture frames. She had made it to the foyer, and these weresimpletons were none the wiser!

Or were they? How could they have been truly witless? Think, Trials: in this post-information age, where one can be tracked by any sense and any trace, and where a precocious black cat has been spotted running rampant—and do recall, a similar cat raised a fuss at Cape Agulhas, and made herself a public enemy—did she really think that nobody would catch her, that this was her playground rather than her trap?

Oh, she was well aware! The fact is, however, that her confidence in her skills was sky-high…for tonight, she believed, a government would be toppled by ‘winging it,’ and magic would overcome science!

So she was not surprised when the eggshell-white walls flashed red, when the sirens rang out, and when she began hearing the preparatory clicks of pistols, of guns beyond laser, guns of every make. She was quite relaxed, if anything, when half the crowd scattered and the other half ripped off breakaway cocktail gowns to reveal padded vests, and gathered around her, ascertained her. Mini-moons, seeming to absorb the red flashes, whirled like little rubies, cinder glints. This was the inescapable fire—and never had she been more in her element!

Gloves reached for Trials, but could not grab smoke. She used a helmet as her footstool, leaping out. Already the lasers were flashing in her wake, careening wildly as if at a rave—incompetent, she observed, almost with a laugh.

An officer yelled, “Seal the foyer!”

The wide doorway she had been racing toward slammed shut, now covered by holosteel with an amethyst glister. Instead of hitting it, Trials swerved into a hard turn like a pivoting mop-head and now faced the approaching mob. Here was where the fun began.

They raised her guns, and she raised her head, opened her mouth to speak a spell. The words, however, would not come.

Nothing would come but the flavor of a recently eaten snack. This time it did not please her, could not assuage the terror that gripped her heart now. Betrayed her, it had! With peanut butter stuck to her mouth, she could not speak!

And a horrible hiss, nearly choked by the mush that had not fully dissolved from her palate, was all that escaped her throat. She cowered. Now not only were the troops so thick as to block all means of escape, but they knew the blocking of her maw, which had helped her escape even death.

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