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Oric the pixie lived in a trailer that had been painted an obscene shade of green. It sat on a lot at the edge of the woods, at the end of a long, bumpy, dirty road. Iris, who was not used to a long car trips, was feeling a little sick to her stomach. She'd never vomited since becoming a ghoul, and she didn't intend to start now, so she just set her jaw and clamped her lips shut.
It was late afternoon, and the sun hung heavy over the treetops. Mountains crowded the horizon, light blue in the distance. If Iris hadn't felt so miserable, she might have thought it was pretty.
They were a day ahead of schedule, but when Billy knocked on the door, Oric didn't seem surprised. Oric had decked himself out in the illusion of a tall, thin black man. His skin was a deep, coffee bean color, and his hair was high on top, but shaved on the sides. He wore a royal blue suit with large lapels and under it an orange t-shirt.
"Omigod, Billy!" he exclaimed and threw his arms around Billy. He patted Billy's back with his fingertips and pulled back. "Ja-aq," he said, holding his arms open for her. She walked into them. He gave her a similar hug and touched each of his cheeks against hers making loud kissing noises. "Oh, honey, it is so good to see you."
Iris hung back. This was Oric?
Oric pulled away from Jaq and looked at Iris. "And you," he said, pointing at her. His elbow was pulled tight against his body, but his hand moved loosely on his wrist. "You must be Iris."
Iris tried to make her hesitant smile bigger. "And you must be Oric."
"In the flesh," he said. "Well, don't just stand there, girl. Come here and give me a hug. Billy told me all about you on the phone. I feel like I know you."
"Um," said Iris.
"Get your butt over here," he said.
Iris shuffled up to him and gave him an awkward hug.
"All right," said Oric. "Inside, everyone. I'll whip us up some hot chocolate. Tastes just like it's real." Oric ushered the three of them into his trailer. The front door opened onto the living room. All the furniture in the living room was plastic blowup (a neon green blowup couch and two blue blowup chairs) except for several orange beanbag chairs, which were scattered around the room. The room was lit with about thirty lava lamps of varying shapes, sizes, and colors. Lava lamps sat on the floor and on shelves built in the walls. Lava lamps decorated the breakfast bar, which also served as a divider between the living room and kitchen. Opposite the kitchen, a beaded curtain hung in the entryway to the hall. The place was a mad cross between hippie and hip-hop.
Iris settled down in one of the blowup chairs. Oric, Jaq, and Billy squeezed together on the couch. Oric waved his hand and four china cups filled with hot chocolate, perched on saucers, appeared in the air. One floated to each of them. "Marshmallows?" asked Oric.
"Yes, please," said Jaq.
A wave of shimmering dust burst from Oric's fingers, traveled across the room to Jaq's cup, and popped into marshmallows, which settled gently into Jaq's hot chocolate.
"Anyone else?" asked Oric.
"No thanks," said Billy.
Iris just shook her head. She was staring warily at her cup. It looked okay . . .
Oric took a sip of his hot chocolate. "Mmm," he said. "The best thing about magic food is there's no calories."
Iris didn't think pixies had to eat.
Oric started to fold his hands over his crossed legs, but seemed to notice his cup was in the way. "We need something to set these on," he said.
Again, shimmers flew from his fingers. They swirled around in the space between the chairs and couch and became a coffee table. Oric put his cup on it. Billy drained his hot chocolate in one gulp and followed suit.
Iris took a tentative sip. It was good!
"Sorry we're so early," said Billy.
"Don't be sorry," said Oric. "It's been ages since I've had company. It's so good to see you."
"We left in a rush," said Billy. "Jaq was paranoid—"
"I was not," said Jaq.
"It doesn't matter. Don't give it another thought," said Oric. "So. Tell me everything. What have I missed? Gossip, please."
"I've actually been a little out of the loop," said Billy.
"I've been in jail," said Jaq.
"And not much has happened," said Billy.
"Oh come on," said Oric. "I hear you and Kei are splitsville. That's big news."
"Yeah. I guess," said Billy.
"So, what happened? How'd you get away?"
"Um . . . I told her I didn't want to see her ever again, and I haven't," said Billy.
"Omigod. What did she say when you told her that?"
"She told me she was planning on feeding the entire human race to Zain the Devourer."
"She was serious," said Billy. "She raised him. That's why we're here."
Oric's jaw dropped. "You mean to tell me that Kei raised an ancient make-believe being?"
"He's not make-believe," said Billy.
"Well, obviously not if she raised him. That Kei has been going downhill for centuries. Talk about paranoid. She's been convinced humans are out to get us since sometime around the French Revolution. Every decade she gets worse, but this . . . well, this takes the cake. Honey, you are so much better off without her."
"Yeah," said Billy. "I think so too, except for the fact she's trying to kill off me and my entire race."
"Mmm," said Oric. "Can you say overkill? What is that girl thinking? She was never much for rational thought. Do you remember the time she tried to put magic money in that change machine?"
Billy laughed. "Oh yeah. Man, that tipped off the pixie police so fast. We ran for two miles straight until we lost them."
"I told her," said Oric. "I warned her, but she wouldn't listen to me."
"Yeah I know. You were practically dragging her away, and she kept at it," Billy said.
"And what about that time—Jaq you were there—when she wanted to make a magic cab to take us home?"
Jaq rolled her eyes. "I remember. I still think she just wanted to shove me in it and make it so I didn't know where I was."
"She didn't like you much, did she?" said Oric. "All her talk about not being tainted by humanity, and she was jealous."
"She sure acted like it," said Billy.
More reminiscing ensued. Iris began to tune out. She sipped her hot chocolate and surveyed the inside of the trailer. She'd never met a pixie before, but somehow this wasn't how she'd pictured a pixie living. His living out in the middle of nowhere made sense. She could see why a pixie would want to be as far from civilization as possible. But she hadn't expected a pixie to be so, well . . . gay. Now that she thought about it, she didn't even know if pixies had sexual orientation. She didn't know if they even had sex. She guessed they'd have to reproduce. She knew that they had really long lifetimes, but they did die of old age. So they must have baby pixies. But she'd never heard of a baby pixie. She should ask Billy. He'd probably know.
And to be fair, she didn't really think Oric was attracted to men. Well . . . maybe he was. But this body he had was an illusion. Magic aside, he was just a little wrinkled brown thing. Still it was odd he chose to make himself appear human. There was no one around to see. Except the three of them. Maybe he'd done all of this for their benefit. That gave Iris pause. Hell, maybe there wasn't even a trailer here. Maybe they were really just sitting on the ground and there was nothing here at all. It just seemed weird for him to have made all this up for the three of them. After all, they knew what he was. The only viable explanation was that Oric must enjoy this illusion in some way.
Could he fool himself? Iris could always see through her own illusions, and Billy could see through her illusions as well. She couldn't see through Billy's illusions. She imagined that Oric could see through Billy's. But could pixies fool other pixies? And Billy's magic came from a pixie. Maybe pixies couldn't see through his illusions either. She should ask Billy that too. She wished she had a notebook so she could write down all these questions.
Oric just seemed so . . . normal. Okay, not really normal. He was flamboyant and over the top. But he seemed human. Except for the magic cocoa and the shimmer dust, that is. As bright and eclectic as his trailer was, it was possible that a human of Oric's personality might put it together. In a way, for a being of Oric's age and caliber, the trailer was mundane.
"Is the trailer real?" Iris asked. She hadn't meant to say it out loud. The words had just come out.
Oric turned to her, drawing his hands to his chest. "Oh honey, that's like asking a girl her age."
"It's considered impolite among daions to ask what's illusion and what's not," said Billy.
So they could fool each other! "I'm sorry," said Iris.
"Don't worry," said Oric. "If it rains, we won't get wet."
"Speaking of being impolite," said Oric, "we've been excluding you from our conversation."
"It's okay," said Iris. "You guys catch up."
"Girl, if we do much more catching up, we're going to outrun each other," said Oric. "You came by for a reason, out with it."
"Like I said," said Billy, "Kei's trying to destroy the human race."
"Oh yeah," said Oric. "Like I said, that girl is crazy. But I washed my hands of her. That's why I moved here. Whatever mess she gets into is her business."
"Sure," said Billy. "We wouldn't expect you to try to stop her or anything."
"Of course you wouldn't."
"But we were actually wondering if you knew anything about Zain."
"Why?" said Oric.
"Because she raised him," said Billy.
"I remember you telling me that." Oric started to take a sip of his hot chocolate, but he was out, so he pointed his finger at the cup and it filled back up again. "So, why do you want to know about him?"
It was fairly clear, wasn't it? Iris thought it was.
"Um . . ." Billy trailed off.
"We don't want to die," said Iris.
"Oh!" said Oric. His eyes widened. "Well, I guess I didn't think about that."
"How could you not think about that?! We told you—"
Oric made a "tnchuh!" noise, cutting Iris off. "No need to get hostile, girlfriend."
"I just meant—"
Billy shook his head warningly. Iris stopped talking.
"Anyway," said Jaq. "We thought you might know something about Zain. Something that might help us stop him."
Oric laughed. "You can't stop Zain. If he's real, anyway, you can't stop him. In all the stories, he's indestructible."
"Kei said something about him needing a sacrifice to come into his full power," said Billy. "You ever hear anything like that?"
Oric considered. "No. Sorry. I honestly never paid much attention to those stories."
Great, thought Iris. This is a bust.
"My mother used to tell them to me," Oric said, his voice growing softer. "In the last days of the ancients, before the humans, a great protector of the daions walked the earth. He devoured our enemies, and in our hour of greatest need, he will return . . ." He shook himself. "Well. It's not our hour of greatest need, and humans aren't enemies. Maybe you've got nothing to worry about."
"Maybe not," said Billy. But his eyes caught Iris', and she knew he didn't think so. "Anyway, thanks, Oric."
"Sorry I wasn't more help," said Oric.
"It's just so good to see you," said Jaq.
"And don't for a second think you're leaving," said Oric. "I made up rooms, and you are going to love them." He paused. "Oh, I hope you didn't come all the way here just to ask me that!"
"No," said Billy. "We're on our way to visit Jaq's witches circle to ask about the daion queen."
"Melora?" said Oric.
"Um, maybe?" said Billy. "Hey, you don’t happen to know where the court of the daion queen is, do you?"
"Oh God, you aren't thinking of going, are you?" said Oric.
"We thought she might be able to help," said Billy. "Get Kei in line, maybe. Do you know? It would save us a trip."
Jaq glared at him.
"Melora moves that thing so much I can't keep track," said Oric. "But I wouldn't even bother if I were you."
"Why not?" said Iris.
"She's a bitch, that's why."
"We've got to try at least," said Billy.
Oric shrugged. "If you've got to. Just make sure you bring her a gift. She won't see anyone who doesn't bring her something."
"Really?" said Iris. "What does she like?"
"She doesn't like anything," said Oric. "She's the oldest daion on earth. She's hell to shop for."
"So what should we bring her?" asked Billy.
"I have no idea. Last time I went to see her—sometime during the 50s, I think—I brought her a beautiful blue velvet robe, and she wouldn't see me. She turns away anyone whose gifts she doesn't like. I haven't been back. What burned me up was that she let in some alghul who brought her a hair dryer."
"A hair dryer?" said Jaq. "Why did she like that?"
"I have no idea," said Oric. "I do not understand her. I've never liked her anyway. She's a terrible monarch. The last time I actually talked to her, I was worried about humans catching us, you know, for experiments? Do you know what she said? She said, 'Blend in.' I don't know if you've noticed, but I don't 'blend' well. The nerve!"
"Maybe we could bring her a hair dryer," said Iris.
"I say don't go," said Oric.
"Could she stop Kei?" asked Billy.
"She's the daion queen. Of course she could," said Oric. "But if she won't even talk to you . . ." He shrugged. "Anyone for more hot chocolate?"
Buckingham kept turning over his actions the previous night, trying to see if there was any place he'd made a huge error. He knew he should just go home. He was the only person left in the office, his desk lamp casting a small circle of light in the dark. He stayed because he had resources here. Once he figured out what he'd done wrong, he'd be able to fix it. Price had seemed almost gleeful when he'd informed Buckingham that no one had been in Iris Tanner's apartment. Buckingham was sure it was only because they hadn't gotten there fast enough.
But if he was going to do what he though he might do, he had to be more than sure. He had to be certain without a shadow of a doubt. So he was testing and retesting his suspicions and assumptions. Thus far, he hadn't come up with any glaring discrepancies. He'd also dug up the news articles on Jaqueline Schmerfeld's case. Turned out Schmerfeld had killed the wife of her boyfriend. Maybe out of jealousy, maybe because she thought then they could be together. Whatever the reason, she obviously had a twisted mind and shouldn't be running free now. After an exhaustive search, he'd finally located a photo of the boyfriend. It was the guy from the coffee shop.
The way Buckingham figured it, this boyfriend—his name was William Jordan—had been trying to find a way to spring his girlfriend for some time. Maybe the two of them had planned the murder together, or maybe Jordan thought his wife's murder had been a favor. He'd found a ghoul, Tanner, and enlisted her help in the jailbreak. Tanner pulled some magical strings, confused the guards, and presto! Schmerfeld was free. What Buckingham didn't understand was why Tanner had agreed to the scheme in the first place. Jordan could have paid her off. By all accounts, he was a fairly wealthy man. But the offer of money didn't seem like it would appeal to a ghoul. Ghouls need to keep a low profile for fear of discovery, and spending a large amount of money would draw unwanted attention. Maybe Tanner was especially stupid. She did, after all, perform in public, and that wasn't exactly keeping a low profile.
Buckingham didn't think his confusion over that minor detail made much difference. He'd tried to bring his ideas to Price, but Price hadn't been inclined to listen. He'd made some speech about respecting Buckingham's work etc., but he didn't see any reason to continue investigation on what was clearly a dead end. He wouldn't even look at Buckingham's report on Jordan. If the organization wasn't going to pursue justice, then Buckingham would have to seek justice outside of the organization. During his days as an activist, he'd worked closely with Jenna Murphy, a television journalist. Back then, Jenna had been a small time correspondent, but she was now co-anchor on the CBS evening news and had a significant amount of influence. Bringing this story to her might very well force the organization's hand. They'd have to look into it. Also, bringing the case into the public eye might prompt the public to help find Schmerfeld.
The only thing that bothered him was this business with Tanner's motivations. He didn't know why it bothered him so much. She'd broken Schmerfeld out of jail, after all, and that was a crime. Still, it didn't make sense, and it made Buckingham worry there was something more to the situation than he'd seen. If there was something more, and that something more was big, making the case public was a bad idea. Because once this story broke, if Jenna did it he way he thought she would, there would be a public outcry, demanding action. So something would be done and quickly. As long as Buckingham was absolutely certain he had everything right, that was great. If he didn't—
But he did. Everything. All the pieces fit together perfectly. Except Tanner. Tanner didn't fit, unless she was paid off. Which could easily be the case. Easily.
His phone rang. It was an inner office line. He picked it up. "Buckingham."
"It's Householder." Householder was an old pal who worked in the enforcement division. "You said to let you know if there were any developments on the Tanner surveillance?"
"Is she home?"
"Nope, but we've got the guy she asked to watch her apartment while was gone in custody."