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SECOND HEAT
by Quentin "Cubist" Long
Quentin "Cubist" Long -- all rights reserved
 

I hear some of you prefer Cliff's Notes to the original manuscript. Just for you, here's the short form: The Blind Pig Gin Mill acquires a new regular. A puzzle is solved, and the solution creates more puzzles. A lost soul begins finding its way back.

That's it. Now you can go away.

And the rest of you, who do want details? Stick around, they're coming.

My name is Jubatus, and I'm a cheetah-morph. Yeah, I can practically hear you thinking, "Hi, Jubatus!" to yourself, but don't bother saying it. There's no 12-step program for Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, no matter that a lot of people would be much happier if there were. Me, for one.

A couple years back, when the Martian Flu hit me and I SCABbed over, I pretty much went into freefall -- cut all ties to family and friends, buried myself in work and reading, only just meeting the MDR of social interaction. Pathetic, really. But I can't blame the disease; I was damaged goods already, and SCABS was more in the line of The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back.

Mind you, SCABS is one king hell monster of a straw. It killed my voice.

I can speak, I'm not mute... I just can't sing. And two years down the line, even thinking about what's gone still hurts like gargling razor blades.

On the plus side of the ledger, I can now shift my personal time-sense up or down, from a high tempo of maybe 30 times faster than the norm to a low tempo of around one-third as fast as norms, with a default tempo of 6 or so. Although this ability has proven itself useful on occasion, for some reason I don't regard it as an adequate substitute for what I've lost.

But I digress.

Anyway: Once I got SCABS, my sanity started dribbling away faster. I didn't really know how bad I was getting; I sure as hell didn't acknowledge anything, not even to myself. I put up a pretty good front, keeping the inner demons at bay with nothing but sheer willpower, but even the best band-aid can't do squat for appendicitis.

I think the crisis point would have come 26, maybe 27 months after my fur coat arrived. I think I know the general outlines of the breakdown that would have occured, and I'm pretty sure I'd have gotten bigger headlines than Charles Manson ever did. Don't ask, neither of us needs the nightmares.

I first dropped into the Blind Pig at time T plus 25 months. That initial visit is when and where I met the rabbit whose throat I near-as-damn-all ripped out on sight, and who got my sorry ass into therapy. He doesn't know about the throat thing -- it went by too fast for him to notice. His name is Phil Geusz, and I owe him, big time. So from now on, my motto is, Nobody fucks with the rabbit.

One month, maybe two. Damn right I'm a lucky son of a bitch.

I don't usually introspect, but today is special. Today I kill time in a waiting room. It's my first physical examination in just under two years, or it will be whenever that sloth of a Good Doctor deigns to see me. I've already read every magazine I could find, cover to cover, and conducted another exhaustive search of the entire floor just in case there's a copy of Good Housekeeping or SCABbard I missed the first time around. Same goes for the bulletin boards, posters, and other words on the walls. I think about it, but I'm still not desperate enough to touch the yellowing, poorly-dusted National Inquisitor some mouth-breathing norm left here 10 months ago, going by the cover date.

This is part of the price I pay for living at so much faster a tempo than the rest of the world: I always have time to kill. Always. I now regret having chosen to leave my laptop in the car -- with my intrinsic speed, I really don't have to be all that cautious about my belongings.

It occurs to me that there's quite a lot of things I've been overly cautious, if not downright paranoid, about. And one of those things would do nicely to keep me occupied until the doctor finally shows. While I haven't tried it before, I see no reason why it shouldn't work.

I downshift

from the

already

slow

human

tempo

and upshift

back to norm

when someone rushes towards me. Correction: Something, large and arthropoid. I believe it's Bryan Derksen himself, although it's hard to tell with polymorphs. Then again, it's a cockroach-morph and a physician -- what are the odds? Gotta be Derksen, world-class researcher and so on. No complaints, but I am curious to know how come I rate his personal attention.

"You are Jubatus?"

"That's me. Dr. Derksen, I presume?" We shake hands. His chitin has an interesting feel to it. I find his scent vaguely irritating, for some reason -- I don't ask what he thinks of mine.

"Correct. Is that your first or last name?"

"Both, just like on the Smothers Brothers." He doesn't get it. Another perfectly good obscure reference wasted. "To what do I owe the pleasure of your presence?"

He chitters -- it must be insectoid laughter. "I heard about your first night at the Blind Pig." Oh, Lord, he doesn't mean..? My face flushes, not that it's visible under the fur. "Is it true that you ran all the way across the ceiling?" He does. Damn.

"Look, I was blitzed." And I was, too, in spite of having a nitro-burning, fuel-injected metabolism that eats alcohol like a Bunsen burner. Had I known he was actually up to the task, I'd never have asked the bleeding minotaur to get me soused. "You --"

Derksen raises a shiny hand. I shut up. "Well? Did you?"

I have no truly clear memories of what I did before I lapsed into a coma that evening. I'm certain I made a complete, absolute, unmitigated imbecile of myself, and I've been too embarrassed to ask anyone about it. Whatever else happened, I'm pretty sure there was one point at which I looked up at the floor 10 feet over my head, even if I can't quite recall how I got into that position. "Well... I think so, yes. Like I said --"

Derksen shuts me down again. "Then that's why we're here. I can think of a few different methods by which you might have accomplished that feat, most of which imply at least one very interesting corollary."

"And you're going to find out which is true if it kills me."

He chitters again. "Right the first time -- you cheetahs are fast. Shall we repair to my laboratory?" He puts an odd emphasis on the word laboratory; I am abruptly reminded of Colin Clive, who first played the mad scientist to Boris Karloff's Frankenstein monster.

"Lead the way. I'm warning you, though: I see even one Jacob's ladder buzzing away, I'm out of there so fast it'll twine your antennae together."

The next several hours are simultaneously dull and filled with activity. Not in the order of occurance: I get several tomographic scans, both whole-body and specific portions thereof. My eyes and ears are probed. I donate samples of blood, bone, muscle tissue, cartilage, saliva, fur, claw, and lymphatic fluid, among other substances. I get a variety of reflex tests. I run on a treadmill with my entire muzzle comfortably seated within a SCABS-friendly gas mask, and a forest of telemetric devices sprouting from random locations all over my body. I get tracer chemicals injected into some of my favorite blood vessels. The respective acuities of all my senses are charted. Environmentally sealed cameras are inserted up/down/into various of my bodily orifices. And so on, and so forth, procedures without end (or so it seems), amen.

I perform the physical tests several times over, at a different tempo each time. Such fun.

The doc roach and I end the festivities with a detailed examination of my voice (or lack thereof). Derksen got real interested after I pointed out that natural-born cheetahs have a wide variety of vocalizations, including a number of sounds made by no other cat; hell, cheetahs can even do bird calls! Decidedly strange, in view of my deficiency in this area.

I wish to God I had the background to understand more of the data that's been collected. Derksen, a highly competent scientist, says only that until he's had a chance to collate and analyze the data, his spiracles are sealed. Bastard. He does promise to page me as soon as he reaches any solid conclusions, which is something.

I deliberately scheduled this for an otherwise-empty day. I could've rescheduled my other appointments, except that my calendar only has one other appointment, which I'll be damned before I reschedule for any reason. Therefore, say it with me, children: Jubatus has some time to kill. I take a nice, relaxing walk back to my car at my normal tempo, by way of the entire outer perimeter of the hospital grounds with numerous excursions into the surrounding neighborhood.

Well, well, well. I see that my Ford Extremis has entertained a visitor, and he forgot his switchblade. I am shocked -- shocked, I tell you -- to discover that there is anti-SCAB bigotry in this fine city. Yeah, right. It's not the first time I've met up with this kind of situation, and I strongly doubt it'll be the last.

The knife protrudes from the left rear tire. I memorize every scent on the handle before I do anything else -- whoever the clown is, I want at least the option of ripping him a new orifice if I pass him on the street. Judging from the color, odor, and consistency of the green goop that's oozed around the blade, the visit occured at 3:15 PM or so, about 3 hours ago. I take my camera from its pocket in my vest (which is normally the only garment I wear); I collect three sets of images, one in visible wavelengths, one in IR, one in UV. I can't sniff out any foreign scents anywhere but on and around the knife. I take deci-millimeter-resolution images covering everything within a half-meter of the blade itself, then millimeter-res covering the rest of the car (including roof and undercarriage) and the parking lot within two meters thereof. They'll be admissible in court -- I made a point of looking into such things when I decided to stick around here. I extract a can of DeadGlove polymer coating from another vest-pocket and spray a goodly film of the stuff onto both hands. DeadGlove is inert and impermeable, it allows me to pull the blade out of the tire and not muck up the evidence with skin oils or whatever. I take a pre-creased Mylar sheet from yet another vest pocket, fold it up to completely encompass the blade and handle, and another shpritz of DeadGlove seals up the natural goodness inside the envelope.

Some folks can't believe how well I handle it when this kind of thing happens. What I can't believe is the fact that they find it unusual. Look, I'm a SCAB; do the math, already! I and my car are perpetually attractive targets for certain types of sleazeball, therefore I've previously had to collect evidence a time or two, so how stupid would I have to be to not get better at it, hmm?

By the time I finish, the pre-oozed green goop looks about ready to drop off the tire on its own. It pulls off with no effort, revealing a narrow slit filled with much darker green stuff, and no air loss. 'Slyme' is the goop's brand name; in my experience, it's the best sealant on the market. The fact that its appearance is enough to make idiots think it's full of Martian Flu virus is an added bonus.

The layer of DeadGlove peels off my hands easily -- it doesn't even adhere to fur, hardly. I drive on over to the local precinct house, curious to know whether or not these particular police officers treat SCABs like people. I swear out a complaint, they take my statement, I beam the images onto their system, they take custody of the knife, a bloodhound-derived morph checks out the tire. All very businesslike and competent. If there's any cause for concern, I'm not seeing it. I make a mental note to send scabsonthenet.org a report.

I'm back in the driver's seat at 7:53. No word from the doc roach yet -- as if I'd really expected anything this soon. I drive. Before long I'm parking near the Blind Pig, and anyone who's ever seen an Extremis knows why "near" is the operative word. That model has been aptly described, with surprisingly little exaggeration, as 'a suburban bungalow on wheels'.

I am wary as I approach the door, but not for the reasons you might think. From what I've gleaned off the Net, this bar is a hotbed of practical jokes; it seems that being the victim of a prank is a fairly reliable indication that the regulars regard you as one of their own. Acceptance into a larger community -- what a concept.

Doesn't mean I have to blindly walk into a pie or sit down on a whoopie cushion, however. Perhaps they got it out of the way during my first visit -- how could I tell, smashed as I was? -- but until I know for certain, I'm going to exercise caution in my daily affairs. Especially with that lemon on my left, as the saying goes.

As I enter the 'Pig, nothing happens. Yet. Fine by me; I pick up a bag of Fritos and a tall, cool Meisterbrau from the counter, pay Sinclair, then move towards the piano where Wanderer is holding court. Son of a bitch, he's got a glee club going here!

I should turn away, not torture myself, but I am weak enough to succumb to temptation. I sit off to one side and listen to them sing. They're rehearsing... yes, it's Lydia Rose from The Music Man. I do feel a sharp twinge, but I ignore it because I'm (figuratively) wearing my Reviewer hat. I cock my ears and focus on the mechanics of song. They've been doing this for a while. I detect a few flaws, nothing horribly serious. Pan's pipes, I've heard worse from professional vocalists! I revise my initial judgement of their quality upwards as they continue...

I blink. Time has passed. Yes, Virginia, there is such a thing as being too focused. "Excuse me?" I ask, looking around to see what got my attention.

"O'er here, Jubatus," says Wanderer. "Thine rapt attentiveness hath not passed wi'out notice. Prithee, would'st grant us the honor of thine opinion regarding our poor attempts at singing?"

"Helluvalot better than mine," I snap back at him by irritated reflex. No, I shouldn't ought to take it out on Wanderer; it was just a normal question like any performer, amateur or otherwise, might ask. Not his fault that my SCABS killed my voice. I shake my head, take another sip of my 'Brau. "Sorry, it's just, kind of a sore spot for me. Singing, I mean."

I inhale deeply, release the breath. "Okay. You're the tenor?" I ask one of Wanderer's little boys, a mere two meters tall. He nods, and I go on before he can speak. "Your enunciation sucks. Gotta work on that. Did you have that much trouble with it before your vocal tract got remodeled?"

"Cr-r-rave pardon, pard!" No need to wonder who said that. More quietly, Wanderer continues, "Would you mind leaving us our egos intact? We're not getting paid to do this, you know!"

"You're not getting paid?" I echo Wanderer, my surprise clearly evident to all. "You mean, this is strictly amateur?"

I think Wanderer is amused at my reaction, also pleased. "Yes. I take it you took us for professionals, then?"

"Damn right. I mean, why wouldn't I? Okay, different standards," I reply, shifting mental gears. "As amateurs go, you guys are one of the better -- drat. Hold on."

With the impeccable timing of the inanimate, my pager chooses guess which moment to vibrate. It's nominally silent, but I can hear its motor whine anyway -- the ears aren't decorative. I pull it from its vest-pocket, read its display. Derksen, already? I table the question of whether this surprise is good or bad.

"Excuse me, I must make a call," I say before hustling out to the nearest phone niche. I've got plenty of change with which to feed the machine.

"Hello. Is this Jubatus?" Derksen asks.

"Sure is," I reply. "I must admit, I hadn't expected you to page me tonight. You've got something?"

"Not me, but the speech pathologist in Chicago I sent the voice package to. He just got back to me, and I don't think you're going to like it..." Then with a few concise sentences, heavily larded with Latinate terminology, the bug turns my world inside-down and upside-out (and yes, I know what I just said). I couldn't be more shocked if demons had just flown out of my nose. Derksen says other things I respond to mechanically, purely on autopilot.

I hang up when the nice operator instructs me regarding the proper procedure for making a call. I walk back out into the common room, decidedly preoccupied, glancing lightly off of random customers as I go. Wanderer sees me, does a double-take.

"Are you okay, Jubatus?" he asks, his tone uncharacteristically somber. I am distantly aware of his concern. 'Distantly' is how I'm aware of everything, at the moment.

"Fine. Just fine," I respond without tone or inflection. I haven't blinked once since Derksen dropped his bombshell on me. "No worries at all."

"So, what news?" he asks ominously. "Did Dr. Derksen find out what's wrong with your voice?"

"Yes. Yes, he did." I continue to stare forward. After a while, I realize that Wanderer is waiting for more details. "It's my vocal tract. I haven't got one."

"Oh, well, if -- what??" He really punches up his bass on that last word.

"No vocal folds. Sinus cavities all wrong. That sort of thing."

Wanderer opens his mouth to respond, shuts it, frowns. For some reason, he goes with a bad James Earl Jones impression: "Then how..."

"Yeah. Me, too. The doc roach says a speech pathologist arrives Monday. I need a drink."

Wanderer nods slowly, and keeps the Jones riff going. "Yes. I think you do at that."

The normal chatter sounds muted in my ears. Everyone I pass by is thoughtful enough to make no sudden moves. The state I'm in, that kind of kind consideration is the only thing stops me from tripping over an outstretched leg or whatever. When I reach the counter it takes Sinclair close to 3 seconds just to notice my arrival, after which he plods wearily towards me. Must have had a long, hard day.

I stare at the wall blankly, as my mind is blank, waiting for the minotaur -- all very Zen. In the fullness of Time, my field of view is gradually eclipsed by one of Sinclair's handwritten notes: [WHAT WILL IT BE, MR. J?]

"Mini-CD 50." This cryptic phrase is a request for equal parts water and catnip daiquiri (i.e. the vile concoction that got me blitzed first time around), served in a beer glass rather than a 2-liter bottle.

Sinclair's bovine head creeps down, then up, before he slogs away to mix my drink. Everything he's done, he's done in a ponderous, enervated manner... and that's when I realize something is off. Make that has been off for a while, since just after I talked to Derksen, in fact. Bingo! Now I know what's up, and why. Of course -- what should I expect when I'm hit with the sure knowledge that by rights, I shouldn't even be able to talk? Of course my control slipped! But now I'm back on top of things. It wasn't much of a puzzle but I solved it anyway, and as so often in the past, the solving helps me regain my equilibrium.

I sped up because I was distracted... It's a sobering thought: Absent a continuing, undisturbed act of will, I am a semi-intelligible blur to every other sentient being on the face of the planet.

I swivel on my barstool to look at the crowd, let myself revert back to my normal tempo. Scent doesn't change, but audio dopplers down and colors shift. I survey the gallery of voltage-starved audio-animatrons which (to my eyes) is the Pig's common room.

Downshift: It's a cheap dive filled with pain and triumph and stupid jokes and music and hurting and booze and hope and fear and bright lights and arguments and fellowship and shadows and diversity more infinite than Roddenberry ever imagined and life, damnit, it's alive in a way I haven't been for quite some time now.

Upshift: It's a strangely-lit exhibit of crude anthrobots in a sterile museum hall.

Downshift: I hear laughter and sobbing and singing and gossip and shared confidences.

Upshift: I hear a droning, alien sound effect, deep in the lower register, whose harmonic structure changes with the glacially slow turning of the seconds.

Two different worlds. Mutually exclusive. And a voluntary act of will allows me to commute between them.

A voluntary act of will... and I don't have to volunteer, do I?

I could live in fast-time all the time. I could do it, I really could. Hellfire and damnation, I have done it! In the last few weeks before I hooked up with the 'Pig, I hardly bothered to downshift at all, unless I needed something that wasn't available online for whatever reason. Fast-time has many advantages, not least of which is that it's safe. When I upshift, I am purely un-fucking-touchable. Okay, a laser charbroils me as easily as any of you slowpokes, but if it's not a direct hit, I'm elsewhere faster than any norm can hope to track me. And for anything much slower than photons, to say nothing of hand-to-hand attacks, fuggeddaboutit! We cheetahs are extremely damned good at running away. Not that I was so bad at running away as a human, mind you, which was (no, make that 'is') part of my problems.

Permanent fast-time. I could do it.

Never get hurt again. Never have to deal with another Humans First asshole. Never miss another professional deadline. Never have to scent or see that initial shock of fear on a norm's face when they first meet me. Yes, there are lots of reasons to abandon the slow world, if I've a mind to. The proposition is not unattractive...

...except for a very specific image in my mind's eye. I see an oversized rabbit, the interior of his trachea clearly visible from the outside, his body slowly cooling in a deep puddle of his own blood. That is, I see what I didn't do to Phil, but oh-so-horrifically-easily could have.

I really don't want to go there. And if avoiding that fate means I get to suck up a little suffering on the side, I say it's cheap at the price.

Time to rejoin the human race, Jubatus, old SCAB, I tell myself. Irony: It's not just for breakfast any more.

I turn to face the counter. That's interesting -- how long has Sinclair been there, my Mini-CD in hand? Never mind, doesn't matter. I thank the minotaur kindly, trade some cash for the drink. I sip lightly and cautiously; even cut with equal parts water, a little of this stuff goes a long way.

I am on my way over to Wanderer and company when my bladder butts in on my internal dialogue. Best to relieve hydraulic pressure in the customary chamber, which ain't the common room. There's a wolfish type I don't recognize, clothed in well-worn denim overalls, at the bathroom doors. He stops me from entering the men's room: "Excuse me, sir, but we're working in there. You'll have to use the other bathroom."

I nod, acknowledging the plumber's words. I hadn't noticed the arrival of any plumbers, but then I was preoccupied. I get that way sometimes. I step thr --

-- attack: overhead: threat level unclear --

-- and my back is to the wall, 7 feet off to one side of the door. Gotta love those hardwired instincts of mine, which have apparently upshifted me to a very high tempo. For the moment I seem to be something like 30 times faster than human, judging from the color of my fur and the stately downward motion of what's immediately above the door. Hmmm. That's one honkin' big water balloon, whose support was apparently rigged to give out when the door closed. And that was a lupine morph in overalls, steering me directly to the drop zone? He's a Lupine Boy. Gotta be, I'll bet C-notes to crumpets he is.

Now, why the hell would they want to drench...

They have accepted me. Only answer makes any sense. Now I know how Sally Fields felt and, well, it's a feeling I am not accustomed to. Just for a moment I seriously consider stepping beneath the balloon and downshifting; it's surely one way to acknowledge their comradeship. As well, whoever implemented this prank, it would be a pity to let their work go to waste, so..?

Naaah. I got a better idea. Rejoin the human race, yes, but I'll be damned if I'm going to just stand there and let someone make a fool of me.

Let's see... yep, it's all here. Duct tape from my vest, the folded chunks of cardboard that formerly supported the balloon, wastebasket liner and a roll of toilet paper from one of the cabinets under the sink, and of course the balloon itself.

This first bit's the trickiest: Catch the balloon, currently at head level and falling with ever-increasing celerity, without busting it or getting splashed if it breaks anyway. I wrap the trash liner around the balloon, hold tight, downshift with care, annnnndddd... got it! I sniff cautiously, and the unmistakable aroma of pine-scented cleanser assaults my nose through the synthetic rubber of the balloon. Figured as much. As for the cardboard bits, they carry enough of a foresty scent to overpower any other that might be on them -- clever Boys.

From here on in, it's a piece of cake.

Upshift, some assembly required, downshift. When I'm done, the balloon (part A) is securely taped to the wall (part B) over the door (part C). A long, solid piece of cardboard (part D) is taped to the bottom of the balloon (part A) -- one good tug on it, and say hello to tropical storm Pine-Sol. The roll of paper (part E) is taped to the free end of the cantilever (part D), and also has some tape looped around it sticky side out (part F). The cantilever (part D) is currently sticking out at an angle, supported by another piece of cardboard (part G) that's taped to the door proper (part C) and also has a duct tape "rope" (part H) connecting its free end to the wall (part B). And lastly, there's an area on the door (part C) full of double-sided tape loops (part I) that patiently awaits the kiss of their sister tape-loop (part F).

Rube Goldberg would be proud.

I examine my handiwork with a critical eye, envisioning how it will work. When I open part C to leave, part G gets pulled out from under part D; but that's okay, because part C will take up the slack. When part C closes, part D swivels down, lowering part F to make contact with part I. At this point, the door is armed and ready to zap whosoever next opens it. Even better, I'm effectively co-opting the Lupine Boy to ensure that no innocent target gets hit, since he will presumably continue directing noncombatants away from the line of fire.

I grin like a lunatic, I can't help it. Sure, I could have simply reset everything to the way it was before I walked in, but where's the fun in that? And fun or no, you just don't leave a work of art unsigned.

Never before have I dodged a bullet in a bathroom. It's a heady feeling -- no, sorry, that's my drink. Whatever. Either way, I don't for a millisecond believe that I can keep it up indefinitely. It's only a matter of time until the Boys factor my reflexes into their battle plan, or else they come up with something that can't be short-circuited by sheer, raw speed. Good. It'll be a battle of wits, and I find myself relishing the prospect.

I review my handiwork once more and pronounce it good, then go about the business I originally came here for. I'll have to go into detail about the Pig's toilet facilities sometime; SCABS can add a frisson of interest to even the most mundane activities. I take another sip from my Mini-CD -- what, you think I'm gonna leave a drink out there without at least an armed guard? -- and walk calmly out the door.

The overall'ed wolf-type is where I left him. He doesn't stifle his surprise quickly enough to prevent me from noticing. Yep, he's in on it.

"I hope everything was satisfactory, sir?"

"Sure was," I say. What the heck, let's see if I can hit a nerve. "I must admit, some of the fixtures struck me as a bit odd... but then I don't spend a lot of time in women's bathrooms." He's good. This time he either doesn't let his reaction show at all, or else he buries it before even I can detect it. "Be seeing you," I conclude with a cheery Village-style salute.

I head back out to the common room. I see that Wanderer is already halfway to the facilities -- such a coincidence.

"Ah, Jubatus! I trust thou 'rt well?" he says. I don't know why he insists on going all Elizabethan at the drop of a hat, but I have my suspicions. My guess is that he figures he'll never be able to do Inconspicuous ever again, so why not try to hog every spotlight within line of sight at every opportunity? He may have a point. To norms, a wolfman is a homicidal monstrosity, but a Shakespeare-spouting wolfman is a canine of quite a different color entirely. For me, it's bad jokes, puns, and obscure references do the job.

"Ay, indeed. Most well am I, and both hale and hearty to boot. The doc-roach Derksen, recently messed with my head, but now I'm okay."

He looks puzzled for a moment, then smiles as he gets it. "In sooth, our cheetah / Be ment'ly well enow to / Improvise haiku. Say, are the plumbers done with the men's room yet?"

Gonna play it that way, are you? I shrug, my anatomical structure forcing my shoulders to move more forward than up. "No, according to the crossing guard there. Women's room is open, though."

He nods. "Certes, I be in thy debt for thine courtesy. Crave pardon whilst I attend to business most insistent!" Not insistent enough to make you cut out the Elizabethan jazz, I do not say.

"Go for it," I say to Wanderer's back as he continues on with all deliberate speed. He gets to that overall'ed lupine; they talk for a bit; he walks through the door to the women's room, at which precise instant several liters of aromatic fluid (like I said, it was a big water balloon) descend upon him.

I smile. Houston, we have splashdown. Poor lad's cape will never be the same.

It was definitely a well-conceived prank. At the moment of release, everyone within a 5-meter radius is instantly aware of the new aroma; doesn't take more than a couple seconds before every Blind Pig occupant with a nose is likewise aware.

All sound dies out.

There is a pause, not unlike the stillness which must have preceded the first test of an atomic weapon.

Long seconds later, a redolently dripping Wanderer steps out of the bathroom. He unlimbers a creditable glare, turning to take in each and every person in sight.

"You're all dethhhpicable." Bastard -- his Daffy Duck isn't bad at all. The room detonates with laughter. He walks over to me with a steady, measured pace, seemingly oblivious to the surrounding merriment.

"I want you to know that I shall loathe and abominate you, with every fiber of my being, for all the remaining days of my mortal life," he declaims in a rich, ringing tone somewhere in the neighborhood of Patrick Stewart. Unfortunately, the fact that this full-bodied voice is coming from what looks very like a rain-soaked dog does work against the effect he's trying for...

I'm definitely feeling the effects of the Mini-CD. I let my eyes grow wide, put an expression of Innocence Betrayed on my face as best I can. I spotweld a quaver onto my voice: "But -- does this mean the engagement is off?"

Wanderer is a highly skilled actor. His own face is a cast-iron mask of Disapproval, offering no clue to what's really going on inside his head. He says nothing, turns around with a theatrical swirl of his cape that flings pine-scented droplets every which way -- yes, I do intercept a few of them -- and stalks back to where the Boys are waiting to razz him, up, close, and personal. Looks like rehearsal's done for the night.

Now what do I do? I suppose I could try to strike up a conversation with someone, but my decades of avoiding personal contact have left me ill-equipped for interaction on a purely social level. If I ever did have a library of opening gambits such as I imagine most other people collect, I've long since forgotten it. I find this realization mildly disturbing, and I'm not sure why; I made certain choices about how to live my life, for reasons I considered good and sufficient at the time, and this is simply one of the consequences of my decisions...

...hmmm. This must be my day for introspection. Either I'm not very good at it, or else you're not supposed to reach any well-defined conclusions when you introspect, I'm not sure which. My pocket watch tells me I spent about a quarter-hour lost in my thoughts just now -- good Lord, what has Wanderer gotten up to during that time? I cock my ears, eavesdrop from across the common room. Alright, I try to eavesdrop from across the room. The signal-to-noise ratio is terrible, but I don't want to risk moving closer, and I do understand some of what they're saying: "... fast ... if we ... Juba- ... volleys ..."

Good enough; they are planning out their next trick, and I'm the guest of honor. I take another sip of Sinclair's evil potion -- diluted as it is, I can still feel it doing me harm. The taste ain't half bad, though.

I think I'll change the wolves' subject for them. I upshift, zip on over, sit down next to Wanderer, downshift. I might as well have teleported in, as far as slow eyes can see.

"Hi, guys. Miss me?"

My sudden appearance has the desired effect. I collect a variety of surprised reactions for my trouble -- twitches, brew-spews, double-takes, and so on. Wanderer recovers first. "Well! 'Tis most certain that we did, friend Jubatus, albeit the precise mechanism by which our aim was diverted be yet a mystery."

I shrug, wave the implied question away. "I'm a moving target. Anyway, you really were serious about the glee club here not being pros?"

"How could we be? I don't know how to pronouce anything, and I'm sure the rest of us aren't any better." It's the tenor, apparently still unhappy with me.

I look amused. "You really need to develop a thicker skin. Bad reviews come with the territory when you're a performer," I reply. "Yeah, I said your enunciation sucked. But you know what? There's a whole lot of people out there whose enunciation sucks a whole lot worse than yours, and those guys still get paid."

"Oh, yeah? Name two."

I count them off on my fingers. "One: Bob Dylan. Even before he needed that respirator, he was one of the few vocalists bad enough for me to now have half a chance of singing better than. Two: The lead singer for the Kingsmen, I forget his name, but he's the schmuck who laid down vocals for Louie Louie that were so damned sloppy, the FCC officially declared that recording 'unintelligible at any speed'." Despite himself, the tenor smiles at that phrase. Good. "So if you guys just want to noodle around, sing in the shower and maybe volunteer for the occasional local gig, you're good to go, as is. Have fun.

"But if you want more, if you want to take it further, maybe see if you can attract and hold a paying audience? For what it's worth, I think you might well be able to do that right now. But, again for what it's worth, I also think that if you're all willing to invest some effort in smoothing out the rough edges, then you'd be more than good enough to turn pro."

If I'm reading their reactions correctly, this is not the first time they've discussed the P-word; said discussion resumes. I can actually offer some helpful comments, thanks to my having self-published a small number of tapes and CDs back when I had a voice. I touch on copyrights, compulsory mechanical licenses, what to keep in mind when assigning the order of songs for a project, other related matters.

Time passes without my being particularly aware of it. The discussion ends only when Sinclair calls closing time, which task he uses a hand bell for.

"So you're going to email me a record of your speaking voice, right?" I ask the tenor. "Until then, I'll get some netbots search --"

-- attack: multiple projectiles: direction 10 o'clock --

-- upshifted again. Good old hardwired instincts.

I shake my head in disappointment, looking at the spheroids inching their way through the air towards me. Surely they can't imagine they can tag me with a mere volley of water balloons, not after that earlier demonstration of just how effective that sort of thing isn't? They're coming from a narrow range of directions, it's trivial to dodge the lot, just a step and turn --

-- SPQWLTLTT! --

-- straight into a pie. Lemon meringue. A pie that Wanderer just happened to be holding at the right position and angle for me to slam my face into. Part of an old song leaps, unbidden, to mind: "When I tried to step aside / I moved to where they hoped I'd be."

Thinking back, there was a period when Wanderer was absent; hell, people were coming and going all throughout. Plenty of opportunities for him and his crew to plot and spread the word, especially with me being as oblivious to extraneous matters as I often am. And he just stood there with that pie, not moving quickly enough to trigger my 'early warning system', waiting for the surgically precise moment to use it.

Hell, he's a Looney Tunes fan, too. I can't do the appropriate voice, but the words alone should suffice. With a toothy grin, not to mention blobs of meringue and lemony stuff dripping off my face, I say: "I hope you realize -- this means war."

His grin is a match for mine. "I wouldn't have it any other way." We shake hands. "Welcome aboard, Jubatus!"

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