The Case of the Tiny Man

by Richard Wolkomir

 

So I’m hearing two-ton feet clomp up the stairs to my office, and I’m smelling landfill, and I’m thinking: “Uh-oh.” I pull the .45 out of my drawer and lay it on the desk, my way of saying, “Howdy.”

Sure enough, the door opens—no knock, thank you—and it’s a troll. Big buster, too. He’s got to duck through the doorway. He’s wearing blue sunglasses. He’s also toting a jumbo rolled-up white parasol, which you can bet he carried opened outside, because if sunshine hits him, you’ve got a troll statue. He lowers himself into my client chair, and I’m thinking, you break it, you buy it. But it just creaks, and he sits glaring at me and reeking.

I’d open a window, except my office doesn’t have one.

To kill the aroma, I finger a smoke out of the pack on my desk and stick it in my kisser and butane it with my .45. Then I lean back, blow a smoke ring, give him the raised-eyebrows look.

“Need a shamus,” he grunts.

“Get an elf shamus,” I tell him.

“No,” he says. “You.”

He’s glaring at me with those cape-buffalo eyes, and I’m thinking, maybe—in demonstrating that my .45 merely ignites coffin nails—I erred. A real pea shooter would be helpful. But just now I’m short the kale.

“I don’t do magicals,” I tell him.

“Need a human,” he says. “You.”

“I don’t work over in Magictown,” I tell him.

“She says, this young man, he could sniff out a lost pickle in a pickle factory,” Big Stinky tells me.

“Who says?” I say, cracking wise. “My mother?”

“Yes,” he says. “Your mother.”

I’m thinking, Damn it, Mom!

She’s got this shop over where our half of the city nudges Magictown, and she sells everything organic and herby in there, from dried St. John’s wort to genuine fairy dust, flown in fresh every Friday from wee factories in Europe. She’s got human customers, from right here in Folkcity, plus all sorts creeping in from Magictown, a regular little shop of horrors.

“She says you need money,” says the troll. “Boss will pay $50,000.”

He had me at “need money.” At “$50,000” I felt faint.

But I play it cool—lean back, blow smoke rings at the tin ceiling. Big Stinky doesn’t need to know I’m three months into the shamus business, and so far my only case was a granny a-twitter because her heirloom earrings got heisted, and it turned out she’d absent-mindedly stashed them in the drawer with her undies. Twenty-five bucks for that. And the office rent due.

Big Stinky doesn’t say anything. Just watches me blow smoke rings. No expression except ugly.

“What’s the job?” I finally ask, faking a yawn, to indicate I sometimes do lower myself to accept a $50,000 case, but only if it offers both edification and spiritual development.

“You find the homunculus,” he says.

Okay, it’s edifying.

“Bring homunculus back,” he says.

Spiritual? You betcha!

“I’ll need a third up front, for expenses,” I say, like that’s my policy with these minor cases. “Also, I need facts, like what’s up?”

You can see he’s struggling to marshal his mosquito brain’s three neurons. But his strong suit is muscle. I figure he’s bodyguard for some Mr. Big, which is a bull’s-eye.

“I work in the Magictown Mayoral Personal Protection Division,” Big Stinky divulges. And then he whispers, as if invoking the deity: “Mayor Duskowl.”

“Ah,” I say, and blow another ring at the ceiling. “Wulf Duskowl won two gold medals in the Sorcery Olympics, then got elected Magictown’s mayor, slogan being ‘Let’s Have a Spell of Progress,’ and he gets kudos in the Magictown Monitorfor providing benefits to aging gnomes and boggarts, and orphaned pixies, and going after Saturday-night-special wands.”

I’m showing Big Stinky I’m up on his bailiwick’s news. I’m keeping it to myself that his ilk—Magictown’s citizenry—gives me the creeps.

“Election coming,” he says. “And the ogres…”

Turns out Mayor Duskowl’s up against the Ogre-Goblin Alliance in the next go-round, and they’re running on the platform, “Is It Dark Enough For You?” Wulf Duskowl and his Go-To-The-Light Party should be a shoo-in, but the ogres and goblins play dirty, zinging in well-placed spells, a hex where it hurts…

“Mayor needed a homunculus,” Big Stinky confides.

Duskowl, he says, contracted with Amalgamated Alchemical Laboratories, Inc., to brew a homunculus, which Big Stinky says is “a little guy, grows in a flask.”

I glean that a homunculus will magnify the mayor’s sorcery, double his whammy. And that will offset the ogre-goblin mud-balls.

But now the homunculus has gone missing. And a homunculus in bad hands…

“Went up in smoke?” I ask.

And I think Big Stinky’s going to cry.

“Long day—meetings and meetings,” he says. “Then a speech, then a soiree, and I’ve got to be watching because, well, you know how goblins are, and then it’s night, and I’m in the mayor’s office guarding the homunculus and…”

He looks, believe it or not, pathetic. The big lug.

“Hey, spill it,” I say. “I’m feeling your pain.”

“I fell asleep,” he moans. “On the mayor’s sofa.”

When he woke up, the next morning, no homunculus. He tells me nobody can get into the office but trusted aids, like him. Big Stinky’s convinced the homunculus went AWOL.

“Bugger!” he says.

He holds up his thumb, which is the size of my head: at the tip, it’s got a nasty bite mark.

“Homunculus, he’s a lemon,” Big Stinky says.

He tells me that Amalgamated Alchemical cut corners. For one thing, homunculus brewing’s main ingredient is a mandrake root dug up under a gallows. But the Magictown Fair-Trade Commission investigated—turns out Amalgamated got their mandrake root from a low-bid supplier, who claimed it was gallows certified, when it actually came from his backyard. Also, the Alchemical Regulatory Act stipulates a black dog must dig up the root before dawn on a Friday. But the supplier deployed his aged golden retriever, who slept in Friday, finally dug up the root on Saturday afternoon, then went back to sleep exhausted.

Net result: a malfunctioning homunculus.

“Why hire me?” I ask. “You’ve got plenty of elf shamuses over there.”

“Homunculus only talks to humans, the bugger,” says Big Stinky. “And he’s probably hiding over here in Folkcity, so we need a human shamus.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’m on it, just send my check—I’ll keep you informed.”

He picks up his parasol. He shambles to the door, taking his reek with him. Just as he’s about to duck out, I say, “Hey, one more question.”

He turns, stooped over, half in, half out.

“Who cleans the mayor’s office?” I ask.

“That would be Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services,” he says.

“Maybe I’ll give them a try,” I tell him. “Dust in here inflames my sinuses.”

I hear those two-ton footsteps clomping down the stairs and I’m feeling queasy. I’d vowed, no cases involving magicals. That their whole tribe has negative appeal, like a wart on your nose, that much I know. Otherwise, it’s all don’t knows.

I pocket my trusty .45—who knows?—and head for the obvious place.

Except, when I exit my edifice, across the street a twosome eyes me, a butterball of a guy and a woman with carrot-colored hair sticking up in that chic stuck-my-finger-in-a-light-socket look. He’s got a cast on one leg and a crutch and she’s got her arm in a sling, and they’re both peppered all over with Band-Aids. They pretend to check out omelet pans in the window of a used kitchenware store over there, but I’m not buying it. On the other hand, I don’t know what to do about it, either.

So off I go on my mission.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom?” I say.

It’s a busy day at Piffin’s Naturals. Mom’s handing over a biodegradable corn-based plastic baggie, tied with a twisty and filled with yellow stuff, to a guy with pimples and a pallor who could probably benefit from just about anything. Meanwhile, a young woman is waiting to pay for three sticks of cinnamon, and behind her stands a gray-faced gnome with a bottle of Nature’s Glue.

I join the lineup, behind the gnome, and shout, “Mom—you know a big troll, wears blue sunglasses, smells like garbage?”

“Arlo,” Mom mouths at me. “Be polite.”

Now she’s ringing up the cinnamon sticks.

“That’s my son, Arlo,” she tells the young woman. “He wasted his childhood reading thousands of private-eye novels, and now he’s a shamus, when he could be helping the planet, like being an organic farmer, and that will be $6.57 for the cinnamon sticks, with tax, Janie—they’re particularly efficacious for your affliction if you brew them with jasmine tea.”

Janie stares at her purchase.

“You don’t think with rain-forest-friendly organic cocoa, Mrs. Piffin?” she asks.

“It’s your itch, not mine, dear, but I do think jasmine tea…”

Janie goes off to fetch jasmine tea. Now the gnome’s forking over a fiver for his Nature’s Glue.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

Mom sighs.

Addressing the gnome, she says: “I thought, since he’s a genius, he might get an exchange-student scholarship to Thaumaturgy U. in Magictown—he couldn’t be a clinical wizard, of course, but I thought maybe on the theoretical side…”

“Theoreticians are important, certainly,” says the gnome, pocketing his change. “Where else would the new spells come from?”

Mom sighs again, displaying her sad, disappointed look. Me, I’ve got my own disappointments. Like, since Dad took off for Nepal with a Starbuck’s barista, when I was three, Mom’s worn only black Victorian-era widow’s gowns, with little black bonnets, and who wants to bring fellow students home from the Folkcity Institute of Criminal Investigation to see that?

“Remember, don’t use too much glue, Edlok,” she tells the gnome. “And press the two pieces of bat’s wing together for at least five minutes, so it seals nicely.”

Exeunt gnome.

“Mom,” I say. “About the troll…”

“It was Grunlie,” she tells me. “He needed a human shamus, and guess who I said? Grunlie stops in for persimmon juice, for his digestion, and… Arlo, are you getting enough to eat?”

Now some guy in a gray suit comes over to pay for a broccoli-sprouts-and-organic-portabella-mushroom sandwich, with soy cheese, on organic spelt bread, in a biodegradable container made from compressed organically grown peanut shells. He’s looking at me, critical.

“This boy’s too skinny for a shamus,” he tells Mom.

He hands over his money, still eyeing me.

“Awfully young for a shamus, too—what, just out of college?” he tells Mom. “And he ought to lose that skimpy little mustache because it gives the impression he’s trying to look more mature.”

Mom, ringing up the transaction, sighs.

“Mr. Bridges,” she says. “You have no idea how many times I’ve told him to strengthen his chakras…”

She sighs again. Mr. Bridges shakes his head in sympathy with my mother’s burdens.

Exeunt Mr. Bridges.

By now Janie’s back with jasmine tea, which works well with cinnamon sticks versus the itch.

“Mom,” I say, “I’m on a big case here, and I’m wondering if any of your customers mentioned seeing a little guy around, small enough to take a nap in an orange-juice carton?”

Mom rings up Janie’s cinnamon sticks and jasmine tea.

“Well, somebody mentioned a human-headed pigeon perched up over the subway entrance at…”

But now Janie turns around and gives me a look.

“Funny you should mention that,” she says.

It turns out her boyfriend, just an hour ago, stopped for a brew at Sneaky Pete’s Tavern, three blocks from Piffin’s Naturals, and sitting in there on a bar-stool is a one-foot midget, wearing a Roman toga, totally skunked, buying beers all around, and regaling everyone in the establishment with a stream of invective targeting Magictown’s mayor, his assistants, and all the various races of magicals in general. So, like a slug from a revolver, I shoot out of there.

Then I shoot back.

“One question, Mom,” I say. “Ever hear of Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services?”

“No,” she says. “Have you tried the phone book?”

I give her look. And then I do shoot off to that tavern.

* * * * *

He’s there all right.

If he stood up real tall he’d be halfway to your knee. But, in fact, he’s lying on the bar on his back, snoring. His toga’s got a beer stain on it, but he’s got the face of a cherub. To me, though, he looks like $50,000. I just need to whisk him off to his rightful home.

Sneaky Pete, a bald beefalo with a seen-it-all look in his squinty eyes, is standing behind the bar wiping just-washed steins with a towel and clinking them onto a shelf. I give him a friendly wink.

“If you’re done with my Uncle Maynard here,” I say, nodding at the supine homunculus, “I believe Auntie Bridgett wants him home to help polish the silver.”

He gives me an “oh, yeah” look.

“Haul him out of here,” he says. “But not until—as his beloved nephew—you pay the thirty-two-bucks he owes, buying rounds.”

“Let me start a tab,” I say.

“Cash,” he says.

I’m thinking of snatching the little fellow and running like hell. But then I hear a woman’s voice behind me.

“Such a dear, cute teeny man, and that toga’s to die for,” she says. “Oscar, let’s pay his bill, as a charity.”

I turn, and it’s the woman I saw across the street from my office, with electrified red hair. Standing beside her is Mr. Butterball, and they’ve both still got their assorted casts, crutches, slings, and Band-Aids.

“We insist,” she says, snapping open her purse.

She extracts a Jackson, a Hamilton, and two Washingtons and slaps them onto the bar.

“Accept our family’s gratitude,” I say, scooping up the $50,000 homunculus before she gets her blue-enameled talons into him. “When Uncle Maynard wakes up, I know he’ll love you for it.”

“Our pleasure,” she says. “We’ll say our goodbyes outside, won’t we, Oscar.”

Her partner gives her a wink. I’m not liking this. But I’ve got the homunculus in my mitts, and I’m headed for the door, and I don’t see what these two bandaged-up semi- cripples can do about it.

Outside the bar, I feel something hard pushed into my back.

“That’s a .45,” says Oscar. “Hand over our little friend.”

“What you’ve got there,” I say, wry, “is a butane lighter shaped like a .45, examples of which I’ve seen.”

I feel the pistol withdrawn from my back. I turn, and Oscar’s holding the thing, looking at it.

“Why would you say that?” he says. “I paid a lot for this weapon in a gun shop this morning, and I’ve already test fired it in the alley in back of our apartment, and if you’re implying that I’m no good as a shopper…”

Clearly he’s got the nervous twitchies. Which bodes ill in a fellow waving a loaded Smith and Wesson. Especially since I notice we’ve got the street to ourselves.

“Look,” I tell him. “What I’m saying is, murder somebody for a midget, you sit on Old Sparky.”

“I’ll just shoot off your kneecap,” he says.

“Gimme,” says Carrot Top.

And she takes.

So now she’s holding the little darling, who’s still snoring. And I’m standing there with Oscar shakily pointing his popper at me. And I’m thinking, so what’s wrong with being an organic farmer?

“Turn around,” Oscar says.

When I do that, my head explodes, from getting hammered with Oscar’s pistol’s hilt. Next, I’m sitting on the sidewalk watching shooting stars. And when the fireworks end, I’m sitting there all alone, sans the $50,000 homunculus, but with a headache.

Which gets my gumption up. So I moan my way to a telephone booth and check the book.

* * * * *

I find the place squeezed between a plumbing equipment wholesaler and a glass-repair shop. Its faded window sign says: “Folkcity Superior Janitorial Services—We’ll Come Clean.” Smaller letters spell out “Oscar and Nadine Slocum, Proprietors.” It’s closed-up tight, nobody home.

At the glass shop next door, I check their phone book for Slocum. Then I’m on my way. But, en route, I duck into a pet store and purchase a kitty carrier, using the last of my fortune. So I’m toting that when I walk up the front steps of their grimy brick tenement, where a muscle-bound bearded guy in a black suit and a black fedora leans against the balustrade, smoking something black and acrid. He gives me a yellow-eyed look.

I check the foyer mailboxes, then slog up three flights, smelling various residents’ cuisine, mostly hotdogs. I fetch up at 3C, from which emanate thumps and thuds.

I’d guess the Slocums are practicing their free-style dance routine, except I also hear an “Ouch!” I can’t see anything through the keyhole. But I have in my pocket a wire for jimmying locks, which is illegal. But $50,000 trumps scruples.

I get the door open an inch, peep inside, and see Oscar on his keister beside an overturned lamp. He’s rolled up one trouser leg to examine a gash in his shin, and Nadine’s brandishing a kitchen chair, lion-tamer style, to ward off the homunculus, who’s waving a fork at her, yelling in a high squeak: “Fraternizes with the enemy!” Off to one side I see a chicken-wire cage, where I suppose they were keeping him, with the door busted open. I’m betting Oscar doesn’t have his automatic handy.

So I step right on in with my kitty carrier.

All three stop their mayhem and look at me. I pull out my own .45 and wave it at Oscar, then at Nadine, and forget to mention it’s only a smokes lighter. Then I turn my attention to the little fellow in the toga, still holding his fork and eyeing me, undecided.

“Hey there, Mr. Homunculus,” I say. “I’m with the Folkcity Anti-Kidnapping Squad—have you been abducted?”

“Hah,” he says, in that squeaker of a voice.

He peers at me, looking like an infant. Except that he’s a perfectly formed man the size of a squirrel.

“Don’t listen to him,” says Nadine. “He’s a shamus working for Wulf Duskowl and…”

I show her my .45, wordlessly threatening her with the wrath of butane. So she zips it and I give the homunculus a warm smile.

“Let’s get you out of here,” I tell him.

He narrows his eyes, expressing distrust.

“What’s Duskowl paying you?” Oscar says, from the floor.

“Our people will double it,” says Nadine.

“Trust ogres and goblins?” I say.

Now the homunculus puts down his fork and applauds.

“Ogres and goblins are slime,” he squeaks. “Wizards and sorcerers are puke, and elves, kobolds, pixies, kelpies, and imps are goat spit, and…”

Such thoughts have occurred to me. But squeaked out loud, they sound bigoted.

“Just because a few bad apples,” I start to say, “act in ways we might disapprove…”

But the homunculus sticks out his tongue at me and utters a Bronx cheer.

So I grab the little bugger by his toga and toss him into my kitty carrier and lock its door. He’s screaming curses at me and kicking the wires with his perfectly formed tiny foot.

“Toodle-oo,” I tell Oscar and Nadine, on my way out the door.

But then I back into the room again, because charging down the hall is the yellow-eyed creep in black who was hanging around the apartment house’s front stoop. And as he comes he’s transforming into a gangster-clothes-wearing wolf. I have a really bad feeling about this.

In his kitty carrier, where he is now sitting cross-armed and cross-legged, like a pipsqueak yogi, the homunculus proclaims: “Werewolves eat donkey dung!”

I’ve got my .45 out, pointed at the wolf’s drooling snout.

“Hold it right there, Rin-Tin-Tin,” I say.

I mean it to sound tough, but it comes out a shriek. Upon which the werewolf sits down on his hairy butt and starts silently laughing, shoulders shaking. He wolfishly grins, showing off his fangs.

“You took your time getting up here,” Nadine tells the werewolf. “And you people never told us the homunculus is a little jerk who bites and kicks and scratches and that he might bust free and go on a toot, and…”

A growl shuts her up. Wolfie gives them a yellow-eyed glare, then turns those yellow eyes on me. He crouches for a spring, planning a dinner of shamus tartare.

I’m thinking, maybe I can butane him, and then he’ll stop to hold his burnt nose. So I’m aiming my .45, except I’ve got my eyes closed, yearning for magical powers of my own, like the ability to change a werewolf into a werecanary, waiting for that hairy body to hit me, and the teeth…

But nothing happens.

I open my eyes and there on the floor at my feet stands a confused-looking canary.

So I hoist up the kitty carrier and evacuate the joint, drunk-lurching on rubber legs. I wobble down the stairs, and only after I’ve put a couple of blocks between me and Chez Slocum do I realize the homunculus shot out a little magic on my behalf.

I peer into the kitty carrier.

He’s sitting in his yogi position, arms and legs folded, scowling.

“Thanks,” I say.

He looks away, making it clear we’re not on speaking terms.

“Hey,” I say. “You’re the magical, not me!”

He won’t look at me.

But I’m looking at $50,000. It’ll almost make up for losing his friendship. Now I need to get him to Magictown’s City Hall without getting hexed. I figure they’ll be watching my office.

So I go to the obvious place.

* * * * *

“Hey, Mom,” I say. “My cell phone’s getting zero bars—can I use your landline?”

We’re sitting in her office cubicle, just off the shop, and she’s counting the day’s take. She looks up at me over her octagonal rimless reading specs.

“But I always get lots of bars here,” she says.

“Uh-oh,” I say.

I try the landline phone. It’s dead.

So I won’t be calling Big Stinky at the Magictown Mayor’s office, saying come collect the merchandise. I inch back the window curtain to peep at the street. Two goblins lean against separate telephone poles. Two more skulk in a doorway, smoking. They’re all wearing black fedoras. One wears a Miley Cyrus backpack. And they’ve all got their beady reds fixed on Piffin’s Naturals’ front door, which is its only door.

“They’ve blanked the phones,” I tell the homunculus, who’s sulking in his kitty carrier. “So you choose—Mayor Duskowl? Or those goblins out there?”

He gives me a raspberry.

“Look, give me some support here,” I say. “Pop some more magic—do it for the Gipper.”

He turns his back.

“Arlo, homunculi don’t do magic on their own,” Mom tells me.

“He just turned a werewolf into a werecanary,” I say.

“Oh, dear,” Mom says, giving me a wide-eyed look.

A bang on the door.

We’re disinclined to open it. So now the door gets the full running four-shoulder whamo. That busts its puny lock. It careens open, and I’m looking at four sets of red eyes.

“Arlo,” my mother says. “We have to talk.”

“Not a good time,” I say, pulling out my .45 and showing it to the goblins.

One of them lazily points a finger and the gun sears my hand. I drop it, trying to shake away the burn, which gives the goblins the giggles. Now they spot the homunculus in his kitty carrier, and my question is, do we get out of this still breathing?

I see my mother take a deep breath and sigh.

“Arlo, you should know your dad’s mother was an undine,” she tells me. “His father—your grandpa—met her at an inter-university mixer.”

Now the goblins start toward the kitty carrier, on a collision course with me. Because in this little cubicle I’ve got nowhere to duck.

“I thought you should know,” Mom says.

I get whammed onto the floor. I see goblin hiking boots pass over my prostrate form. I see a hairy goblin hand, claws badly needing a clipping, reach for the kitty carrier. I see the homunculus looking from me to the goblins.

I find myself longing—a deep, aching yen—for Big Stinky’s companionship.

The goblin holds up the kitty carrier, peering at the homunculus inside. The homunculus glares back.

“Goblins,” the homunculus declares, “are bat guano.”

Which causes the goblin to shriek and shake the cage, proving goblins are so sensitive it’s a wonder they get through their days. And do they always stash rope in their backpacks?

Because now Mom and I are sitting on the floor, each with our ankles tied together, and our wrists tied behind our backs. And the goblins are holding a meeting, of which I hear snatches.

“…witnesses…”

“…yeah, and the Elections Commission would…”

“Burn the place down, with them in it?”

Goblin giggling.

Out of the backpack comes a can of lighter fluid. A goblin pours the stuff around on the floor, whistling while he works. Meanwhile, another goblin digs in his pocket for matches.

“So, because of your paternal grandmother being an undine, Arlo, you’re one-quarter magical,” Mom whispers. “Which opens up the possibility…”

“Magicals disgust me,” I moan. “I’ve always despised them.”

“Arlo, that’s because of a suppressed childhood memory,” Mom says.

I’m watching the goblin finally strike a match. He stares at the flame, giggling.

“It’s my fault,” Mom whispers. “Because your father didn’t actually run off to Nepal with a Starbucks barista, which I told you because I was so mad at the hussy.”

She sighs.

“Actually, he ran off to Nepal with a succubus, whom I thought was sort of my friend and… I think you knew the truth, though, and it left you with this sad prejudice, as if one depraved, sex-addicted, toxic-waste-super-site of a succubus means the whole race of magicals is…”

I glumly watch the goblin lean down to ignite the puddle of lighter fluid on the floor.

“I’m only a quarter magical,” I tell Mom. “It’s not enough.”

“This homunculus is a magic magnifier,” Mom says.

I squint my eyes shut and think: snuff the match!

I open my eyes and the goblin is staring with irritated red eyes at a snuffed match. He reaches for another.

How big can I go with this, I wonder. Fill the room with pink fog that puts goblins—and only goblins—into a deep snooze? Probably beyond me. Also, I see the homunculus glaring at me from the kitty carrier. He hates goblins, he hates me. If he’s not a willing magic magnifier, does the enterprise fizzle? Now the goblin has match number two lit. I’m about to snuff it, when I notice that all four goblins hold lit matches. Which they throw onto the lighter fluid on the floor before I can say presto, and giggle around the resulting campfires, pretending to warm their hands.

One of them gives me an ironic salute, clawed forefinger to his forehead, and they start out the door with the homunculus in his carrier. And I’m thinking, there goes the magic.

“Arlo, do something,” Mom says.

And I’m really, really wanting to. But all I can think of is “rabid canary,” remembering my werewolf triumph.

Next, all four goblins back into the cubicle again, where the fire is crackling and it’s getting smoky—a werecanary is flying at them and pecking, while they try to swat it away. I squint my eyes again and wish real hard and when I open them the fires on the floor are snuffed.

But now, while two goblins swat at the attacking canary, which is executing barrel rolls and nosedives, the other two gaze at the homunculus, then at me, with wild surmise. They start toward me with a red glare in their eyes.

I squint my eyes shut and wish away my ropes. Which works. I stand, retrieve my .45 from the floor, squint again, wish again, and voila! I am now holding a genuine automatic, which I point at the goblins, figuring that if they point at my hand to give me the burns, the trigger gets pulled.

So we’re all glaring at each other when something big and smelly, wearing blue sunglasses, shoulders through the doorway.

“Hey, what took you so long?” I say.

“Your message comes, all funny and hard to understand,” he says, one-handedly grabbing two goblins by their shirt fronts and with his other paw grabbing two more, and holding them up like chickens he just bought at the Chinese market.

Coming in behind him is a skinny guy, not much older than me, wearing a wizard’s robe.

“I’m Wulf Duskowl,” he says, taking in the scene.

“I’m Arlo Piffin,” I say. “And in that kitty carrier is your homunculus, and you’re welcome to him.”

“Did you know we’re distant cousins?” Duskowl says.

Turns out my paternal grandmother, the undine, was his maternal grandfather’s sister. Are we all family, or what?

“How do you feel about nepotism?” he asks.

* * * * *

So that’s how I come to be sitting in my new office, over here in Magictown. Sign on the door says: “Mayoral Bureau of Special Investigations, Arlo Piffin, Director.”

Salary? Substantial.

Benefits? Cool.

Satisfaction? Not bad, except for the reek—Big Stinky’s got the office next door. And the homunculus has his tiny desk beside mine, and we don’t get along.

 

Man-Flier

Man-Flier

Illustration by Alan F. Beck

by Richard Wolkomir

 

EVENING ONE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife Sitting
on the Sofa in Her One-Piece Black Bathing Suit

She sat with her arms clasping her drawn-up knees. Tonight, a strand of reddish-brown seaweed entwined in her wet hair.

She stared quizzically at Lo.

He removed a bowl of left-over noodles from the refrigerator and ate a few bites. Then he changed from his office suit into his white flying robe. He went to the kite room.

A huge silk kite’s unassembled components leaned against the wall: scaly thorax, wings, coiled tail. Atop the workbench rested the final piece, a disembodied dragon’s head. You do not fly such a kite holding a string—you ride it into the sky. Lo touched the dragon’s black eye, encircled by rings of yellow and scarlet.

But the man-flier must not fly first. It flies third. The dragon ends it.

So he studied the smaller kites hung on the wall.

Perhaps the rat?

He had painted it fallen-leaf brown. For background, he chose gray, like late autumn’s stratus clouds, which bring winter’s first chill. The rat’s tail served as the kite’s tail: at its base, robust as a healthy newborn, but tapering to a point.

One year now gnawed away, as if by rodent teeth, all but these three final ceremonial days. And the rat signified time skittering by. But when he painted the rat’s black eyes, he impulsively sprinkled in powdered glass, so they glittered. Now he saw why: does not the rat peep out from hiding, possibly to venture forth, after morsels?

He cursed himself, hanging his head.

“A-minus?”

His father speaking, thirty years ago, scowling at his report card.

“Not A-plus? Why do you shame us?”

Besides, he should chop off the tapering tail at its thirty-ninth segment. But then the kite would fly improperly.

So he took down the fox kite instead.

Its square shape signaled a man flew it. But he had painted the fox a vixen, to show the man stood grounded, watching the woman soar. Dog fox and vixen hunt together. But time ultimately separates them. Then the dog fox hunts alone.

Around the kite’s perimeter, he had painted a band of black.

He carried the fox kite onto the balcony. A breeze out of the northern desert stirred it.

Mai now leaned dripping against the railing at the balcony’s far corner, looking down twenty stories to the street. Cars honked, and voices babbled up, reminding Lo of sixteen years ago, when he first saw his future wife in a little beech-tree park squeezed between noisy avenues, practicing in the pool with the provincial swim team.

Each succeeding evening he walked home that way, to see the lithe woman’s intense gaze as she dove in with hardly a splash and surged through the water to the pool’s far end, then somersaulted and kicked off from the wall and surged back, and climbed out of the pool dripping and laughing.

He looked at her now, and spoke: “I thought you an athlete at life.”

But she only looked at him quizzically again. On her wet arms, sand grains glinted.

He sighed.

Unwinding string from the kite’s spool, he closed his eyes and mouthed memorized ancient phrases. Then he presented the kite to the breeze, as a falconer might unfetter a hawk on his glove, thrusting it to the sky. He felt the kite shudder.

It flew.

He let out string, watching the fox rise into the golden evening sky. Nothing in the ritual tomes said when to sever the string. The flier chose.

He let out more string, so the rising kite dwindled southward along the long row of apartment buildings, toward the sea.

“Enough?” he asked Mai.

She looked at him, sadly amused, as you might regard a beloved child toting a poorly wrapped bundle, who proclaims he is running away.

On the balcony’s little table, beside his binoculars, lay his knife. As he reached for it blindly, while peering at his distant kite, he saw something fly out from a building down the line.

He put the spool of twine on the floor and stepped on it, to hold it. Then he raised the binoculars, twirling the focus knob. It was a kite, sent out by another apartment dweller to fly beside his own.

He scowled: to intrude on another’s ceremony! Barbarism!

He glanced to see if it offended Mai. She now leaned her back against the railing, studying the distant kites. Then she turned her eyes on him.

From her hair, she pulled the strand of seaweed. Still looking at him, she put it into her mouth. Slowly, she chewed. She swallowed.

“I do not understand,” he said.

She looked back toward the distant kites.

Upset, he looked through the binoculars at the interloping kite, and saw it was triangular, so flown by a woman. At its center, a large black circle signified loss, despair. Yet, the kite’s background, pale blue, like the dawn sky, suggested hope.

Lo sighed.

He put down the binoculars on the small table. He picked up the knife. He gazed down the row of buildings to the fox kite, a dot, ignoring the interloper beside it.

Mai, leaning against the rail, watched him unhappily, as when he defied his doctor and brought home deep-fat-fried chicken.

He cut the string.

Now he put down the knife and again raised the binoculars. He saw the fox kite gliding free down the row of buildings, toward the shore. But the intruding kite, too, was cut free. It chased after the fox. He watched through the binoculars as both kites dwindled and then disappeared.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked Mai.

But she only looked at him silently.

EVENING TWO:
Mr. Lo Comes Home to Find the Living Room Empty,
but Knows His Wife Has Not Gone

He ate some of the left-over noodles. Then he changed into his white flying robe and went into the kite room.

Mai sat in a corner, in her black bathing suit, dripping. She had tipped back the chair so that her shoulders leaned against the wall, and her legs sprawled to either side, her feet resting on the floor. She looked at him, he thought, with reproach.

A memory, from their marriage’s first year: he arrived home from work to find Mai and her swim-team friends draped in the apartment’s chairs like otters and muskrats, their legs dangling over the arms, each woman sipping tea or a soda. They stopped talking when he came in, amused.

Afterwards, in an angry voice, he had scolded Mai for letting her friends take up all the chairs, so he had no place to sit after another dreary day at the bureau, and because she and her teammates offered no respectful greeting, as if he intruded in his own apartment. And what amused them? And when they traveled to meets, and she was away, what happened there?

At first she had looked angry. But then she seemed to feel sad for him. Later he felt small, a fool, because he feared she preferred her friends to him. Her black eyes still reproached him, down the years.

“Which kite for this second night?” he asked her.

She shook her head. So he studied the remaining kites hung on the wall.

Ox?

Did her lips imperceptibly curl up? Sometimes he would dryly comment about his office travails, perhaps likening his superior to a god of ineffectuality, duck headed. Mirth would rise in her eyes, and it warmed him.

“Ox, then,” he said.

A large, boxy kite, of paper. He had shaped its prow as an ox’s thick head, with horns and a nose ring. Oxen plod, without imagination, doing their work. They mean no harm. But they can step on your foot inadvertently, or move their bulk and crush you against a fence. They have no flare for life. If an ox dies, only its labor is missed.

“Do you wish you had married a racing stallion, or a tiger?” he asked.

She spread her hands, palms up, exasperated. Her black bathing suit dripped salt water. He saw, clinging to her wet arms, grains of sand, and he shut his eyes and moaned.

One year ago tomorrow.

At the beach, side-by-side in their canvas chaise lounges, he reads a newspaper, letting the office week’s acid drain from him. Mai, glancing at him, sees the office still fuming in his head. She tosses down her novel onto the sand. She stands, stretches.

“Lo, swim with me,” she says.

But he studies a report on steel-production shortfalls, which peripherally affect his department’s work.

“Not now,” he tells her, not looking up.

When he finishes the article, he does look—her head bobs far out, beyond all the other swimmers, and she surges through the sea as if it were a pool. Minutes later he looks again. He cannot see her. But then he does see her, just the dot of her head, far out, too far, rushing away, too fast…

Riptide.

When he finally returned to the apartment that night, he did not switch on the light. All night he sat still, back straight, hands clasped in his lap.

“An ox cannot swim,” he told Mai now.

He opened a jar of red paint. He dipped in his brush. Then he stabbed the brush at the kite, where the ox’s heart might be, leaving a puncture in the paper, which dripped crimson.

He carried the kite out onto the balcony. He mouthed the second evening’s phrases, which he had memorized from the book of ancient rites he found in the library. Then he held up the kite, offering it to the wind.

Mai came out. She regarded him, hands on hips, elbows out. After retiring from competition to coach, she had often stood just so, frowning at a protégé in the pool, whose arm strokes missed the proper rhythm.

“Why did you eat the seaweed?” he asked.

She knitted her brow at him, as if frustrated he did not understand.

He let the ox free. It lifted from his hands, then faltered. He pulled the string, swinging it into the wind. Now it plodded upwards. As he let out twine, it lumbered south down the row of apartment buildings.

Just as happened yesterday, far down the row, another kite flew out. It bobbed in the air beside his own. He raised the binoculars, frowning.

This kite, triangular, displayed the image of a white hare, evoking timidity. A hare hides under bushes. Danger is everywhere. Yet, fearful, the hare ventures into the meadow. It feels the sunshine as it nibbles flowers. It is weak, but its appetite is strong. It is fecund. This kite’s perimeter was black.

Lo, upset, looked back to see if the intrusion troubled Mai. She stood studying the distant kite. Then she regarded him thoughtfully.

Sometimes, when he came home depressed, Mai would gaze at him that way and then announce: “Poker.” She would get out the cards. Assuming her riverboat gambler face, she would shuffle the cards, making them arc between her hands, defying gravity, or she would work them like an accordion, pulling them apart so they hung momentarily in the air, then squeezing them back together, and all the while she would look droll. And he would laugh.

“I loved…”

His face contorted. He composed himself.

Expressionless now, he cut the string. Through the binoculars, he saw his boxy kite plod southward toward the ocean. He saw the hare, also cut free, chase after his ox. He watched until both shrank to nothing.

EVENING THREE:
Mr. Lo Comes Home and Finds His Wife in
the Kite Room, Examining the Dragon Man-Flier

She stood studying the dragon’s unassembled components. As always, she wore the black-one piece bathing suit she had on that afternoon at the beach, and her wet hair hung in sodden strands around her ears.

Looking from the kite to Lo, in his white flying robe, she knitted her brow, squinting quizzically. He remembered once telling her he would resign, because the better he performed, the more his superior resented him, and sniped. She had squinted at him then, with this same quizzical expression.

“Find a better way to kick,” Mai had told him. “Don’t let him be your father.”

Lo carried the dragon’s head out to the balcony and set it down on the slates. Mai followed him out, and they both looked down at its face, yellow, with blue eyebrows and green leaflike appendages and red tendrils. Grinning, the dragon displayed peg-like white teeth, the canines sharpened.

A year’s work for Lo, every night in the kite room. His fingers remembered the feel of stretched silk.

He returned to the kite room to carry out the dragon’s thorax and its wings, stiffened with bamboo struts to bear the combined weights of kite and flier. Finally he brought out the segmented, coiled tail, so long it could straighten only in the sky.

Lo attached the head to the body, using dowels and silk twine. Then he attached the wings, and the tail.

He showed Mai the levers he had affixed to the bamboo handlebars, hidden in the dragon’s body—when he squeezed the levers, strings would pull out the dowels holding on the wings, and the wings would fold. He would then be over the sea.

As he tested the kite’s bamboo frame for tightness, Lo spoke to Mai without looking at her.

“I could not swim, so I stood like an ox, and I watched the riptide take you away,” he said.

He kept his eyes on the kite as he worked.

“I should have run in, let the ocean take me, too,” he said. “But I stood like an ox.”

And he said. “I am shamed.”

He lifted the kite and found its lightness amazing, although he had created it. He raised it up over him and down, so that his head fitted inside the dragon’s head. He looked out through eyeholes, placed all around. He gripped the handlebars, where his hands could easily find the levers by feel.

As he carefully climbed onto the balustrade, the long tail began to uncoil behind him. Balancing, he stepped over the low railing, first one foot, then the other. He looked down at the tiny people and toy cars.

Mai frowned at him.

“I’ll fly over the ocean,” he told her.

She looked down, shaking her head in exasperation, as she did when a swimmer she coached failed to grasp some technique, such as correctly cupping your hands.

Closing his eyes, he mouthed the final memorized phrases.

He stepped into the air.

He plummeted.

But he leaned back, even as the street rushed toward him, angling up the dragon’s wings to catch the wind. And the kite steadied. It rose, until he hung suspended before his apartment’s balcony, where Mai stood looking at him, shaking her head.

She pointedly looked southward. He followed her gaze: far down the row of apartment buildings, something flew out. And, when he turned back to Mai, he thought she looked thoughtful.

Gazing toward the distant kite, she held up her hands, dangling them from her wrists, making forward motions. It was a gesture she made at meets, to coax a protégé to swim intensely, to vie.

A gust sped the dragon kite along the row of buildings. Now he made out the other kite: a man-flier, like his. It took the shape of a luna moth, the palest of greens, its wings delicately rounded, tapering in back into long lacy tails.

A luna moth is almost air. It must go where the wind pushes it, perhaps into a bat’s mouth, or perhaps to a safe perch, where its beauty might be perceived. A luna moth can only flutter and hope.

He looked back and saw Mai watching him from the balcony, her hands still motioning him forward.

“You lie in seaweed on the ocean floor,” he shouted back to her. “You ate it to show acceptance.”

With her hands she motioned him on.

A second gust: he surged through the air, as Mai had surged through the pool. It exhilarated him. He looked back to see if Mai saw. But she was gone.