January 2013

As with any form of human expression, graffiti has undergone the full spectrum of reactions from proscription to embrace by the avant-garde. From the crude tags put up by amateur vandals to the sophisticated pictures that enthusiasts proclaim as “street art,” it is in the public eye as never before. Once might even argue that, with the international success and recognition of graffiti artists like Banksy and Invader, that the form has become respectable, even passé.

Well, it’s at least as true that whenever a form of human expression seems to have said all it can say, when it’s become too comfortable, someone will shake it up.

Urban explorers poking through Detroit’s Michigan Central Station found a sumptuous graffiti tableaux featuring an infant held in an unfolding flower bud. Text ringed it like a picture frame: they were born into a world overgrown/of crumbled walls the rats called home/but beauty springs from any soil/of its own but often with toil. Next to it was another painting, this one an almost photo-realistic picture of a blank wall in a decaying building.

The explorers, struck by what they saw, documented the find online and appealed for help in identifying the location. They soon established that it was the nearby Roosevelt Warehouse, also in Detroit; upon locating the wall depicted in the previous graffiti, they found it bedecked with another painting. This one depicted a small child of ambiguous gender and race wandering through weed-choked ruins and beholding a luminous golden keyhole bedecked with jewels and, impossibly, golden wings.

Its accompanying text: potential is there, in they and you and me/all that’s needed to unlock is the key/but though we know where the keyhole be found/where might a key be when falsehoods abound.

Another near-photographic scene accompanied it, a breadcrumb to the next stage of the story. Before long, the secret had spread well beyond the tiny community of urban explorers in Detroit to encompass a website, where enthusiasts cataloged the location of each new stage of the story and collaborated to decipher the clues as to the next location of the art.

All this independent of the artist, who remained anonymous and unnamed. By the apparent conclusion of their first “story,” fans had taken to calling the artist Breadcrumbs.

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The thing a lot of people don’t realize is that the skills available to a person are directly impacted by the contents of their day to day world. In the old days, the natural life energy that flows forth from the Divine Source might have graced a lucky Greek warrior with strength or high-invulnerability. The Chinese occasionally found their entreaties for ten thousand years of life at least partially granted, and magicians were able to call on at least some of the cantrips that are now associated with them in legend.

But today? Living in a consumer society with disposable income? The gifts that flow from the Divine Source reflect that environment. Gifts like miraculous extra mileage in an SUV, the occasional 500-calorie chocolate bar that registers as zero, and an intrinsic field that causes iPhones to lose their charge.

And then there’s Alethia Bussel’s gift: sodamancy.

She could manipulate any carbonated beverage, with the degree of control varying by how carbonated it was. Full bottles of soda pop could be levitated and manipulated, while flat Coke could only be coaxed to dance a little bit. She could also cause soda to instantly release all its carbon dioxide, shattering its container, or instantly cause painful gastrointestinal swelling (or monstrous belching) in anyone who’d recently imbibed the stuff.

Her favorite trick, though, was to take control of the stream that issued forth when you dropped a Mentos into soda. Soda dancing was perhaps the only joy Alethia got from her otherwise bothersome gift.

Then again, that was before the Agnates launched their secret campaign against everyone with a gift from the Divine Source…

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The connection was terrible, but Simson could make out most of what Bicke was saying.

“Yes, I checked the files like you said. The information you got from the satellite uplink was correct; the Mimi-Decorse language is only known from a single word list collected around 1900. Mistake, hoax, and everything in between have been theorized. Nobody’s ever found a living speaker.”

“Well, I’ve got news for you,” Bicke said through the static. “I found a native speaker.”

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Irrawaddy led his ‘guests’ through the decrepit remains of the lab. “The funding was cut off in the 1970s. But what we were doing was too important to abandon, so some of us volunteered to stay on and continue the work. Over time hunger, disease, cold, and wolf attacks took their toll, and now only I remain.”

A squirrel scurried over the rusting remains of lab equipment. “It’s only through my research, my devotion to Aquerna the Norse goddess of squirrels, and the companionship of Nibbles here that’s these 30 years have been bearable.”

“Squirrels…don’t live that long.”

“Of course not. I’m not crazy,” snapped Irrawaddy. “Whenever Nibbles dies, he’s reincarnated as another squirrel. Like the Dalai Lama. It takes a few months, but I find his latest incarnation and restore it to its rightful place. This is Nibbles XII.”

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The incident started on July 16, 1975 in the fourth-grade classroom of the Mary G. Cantor Elementary School in Steeplehaven, Ohio. During a lecture on long division, three girls at the back of the class began causing a disturbance. They were Lea Estes (10), Krystal Simmons (9), and Deirdre Suarez (10), close friends who normally sat together in the back corner of the room.

They had begun laughing in the middle of the lesson, and found themselves unable to stop. Attempts by their teacher to quell the laughter were unsuccessful, even as the girls protested (in what spare breaths they could manage) that they were trying to stop. In fact, the laughter soon spread throughout the classroom, and by the end of the period even the teacher had been consumed with it. By the end of the day 75% of the teachers and staff at Mary G. Cantor were affected, and as the children were bussed home for the night (the principal, unaffected, insisted that the children be returned to their families rather than examined medically) the laughing spread among their families.

By the morning of July 17, half the businesses in Steeplehaven were shut down, their owners helpless with laughter. The city’s public transit system, police force, and fire brigade each collapsed as the mysterious affliction spread and those unaffected found themselves unable to deal with the resulting load. By some estimates, between 66 and 80 percent of Steeplehaven residents were affected at one point or another, and smaller outbreaks had been reported in the surrounding areas.

Eventually, the effects seemed to wear off. Some were affected for as little as two hours, while others suffered continuous spasms of laughter for up to a week; the last patients were not discharged until July 24. The laughing epidemic had claimed the lives of 27 people, mostly children and the elderly, including two of the three initial sufferers. Despite an investigation by the CDC, no infectious agent or toxin was ever officially discovered; the outbreak was eventually dismissed as “mass hysteria” by the government and the press.

However, it’s interesting to note that the blood and tissue samples taken from survivors and postmortem examinations of the dead disappeared from the CDC records and have never been officially accounted for.

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The editor put out a cigarette in the ashtray. “Yeah. Sixteen weeks at number one, and a sold-out tour. Starlet’s on the up before the inevitable bullet train to the bottom and tabloid punch lines. Every performance, every song, every goddamn tweet devoted to this guy of hers, who’s so private none of the paparazzi can get a shot of him.”

“More or less what I was told,” Ransom said. “Your man in LA said as much.”

“He also said that you had something for me,” the editor said, lighting another Parliament.

“Yeah,” said Ransom. “I’ve looked and poked and prodded, and there’s no record of anybody by his name, anywhere, ever. The starlet’s muse? He doesn’t exist. He’s a delusion…a hallucination.

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The acclaimed songwriter behind the 1970s pop ballad “My Dear Lovely One” is another example. Stanley McManus had been an art student at the University of Leeds and roomates with Herbert Tretheway, better known by his later stage name “Cordoba.” Cordoba was in the process of assembling his first musical group, and had approached McManus to draw posters for them. The young student had done so and, in gratitude, Cordoba and his band gave him a blanket pass to their engagements.

McManus, shy and retiring, attended out of a sens of obligation even though he had no real regard for the music. He would bring sheafs of paper with him to doodle on and often composed small poems to women in the audience–things he regarded as doggerel and never actually delivered. After one performance, McManus forgot a stack of poems and Cordoba found them. Intending to return them to his friend, he read them and was inspired to use them as lyrics in a song that the group sang as an encore.

The reaction in the dingy club was ecstatic, and within a month the song was getting local airplay. Cordoba and his bandmates were careful to credit McManus as songwriter and when they were signed by EMI for a self-titled debut album, they signed away a portion of their royalties to him. “My Dear Lovely One” went on to become an international smash, charting at #2 in the UK and #1 in the USA, and McManus was quickly overwhelmed with offers to write songs.

For his part, McManus bitterly resented the circumstance. He regarded himself, first and foremost, as a visual artist and dismissed his poems and other writing as worthless. The notoriety made it impossible for him to sell his artworks or to find a career as a commercial artist after graduation, as prospective employers were all convinced that a “songwriter” couldn’t possibly have the artistic chops they sought.

Though he cashed the royalty checks, and didn’t deign to sue when Cordoba turned more of his poems into hit songs (though once again fully crediting and compensating him), McManus eventually withdrew from the world. He purchased a large country home with his royalties and set out to paint on his own terms. But even there he wasn’t truly isolated: throughout the tumultuous rise and drug-addled fall of Cordoba and his various groups, there was no shortage of fans and aspirant musicians to seek out the “lyrical genius” behind Cordoba’s earliest and best-regarded songs. Even after McManus disconnected his telephone, admirers still found their way onto his property.

An intruder who climbed through his bedroom window in 1987 was apparently the last straw for McManus; he overdosed on sleeping pills and died in his home. Cordoba, long past his prime and mired in a cycle of addictions that would take his own life in June 1990, paid for the funeral and a lavish headstone from his already dwindling funds.

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They call me Tuesday because that’s the name on the door. It’s not my name, mind you; it’s just on the door. The last gumshoe in this office went by that name; fittingly enough, he disappeared on a Saturday. but his last rent check was dated Tuesday, or so the landlord tells me.

I really ought to change the name on the sign. But Tuesday is a good name for drumming up private investigation business, much more so than my given name of Hurgo Smendlings IV.

When the dame called at my door, she looked down the length of her nose at me. It wasn’t because of the fifth of gin in my hand or the revolver on the table or the stains from last week’s lunch on my suspenders so much as the fact that she was two and a half feet taller than me. Also she was in stiletto heels and I was at my desk.

“You Tuesday?” she said in a sultry voice. I mean that in the most literal way possible; even at my desk I could feel the humidity rolling off her tongue.

“That’s what the sign says. You need something detected?” I took in her dark sunglasses and the subtle bobbing and weaving of her headscarf…clearly a Gorgon, maybe even one with a real license instead of the fake ones passed around at the docks by snakeladies who petrify people for kicks. Luckily, my shades were Gorgon-proof–basic tool for the private investigator gig. Unfortunately, they were also in my coat pocket at the dry-cleaners.

“One of your people stole something from me,” the Gorgon said, still exhaling moist snake-breath all over my otherwise dry and pleasant office. “I’m looking for someone who knows the halflings and their ways to retrieve it.”

I leaned back casually and put my shoes up on the table. It hurt my back to do that, but people expected it of a private investigator almost as much as the gin and the gun and the fedora. “I have my sources, sure,” I said. “I can give it a shot. But you ought to know that ‘my people’ in Halftown don’t fully trust people like me who leave the community and do unhalflingish things like wear shoes and ask a lot of questions.” That was kind of true, but I was also a little anxious to hurry the humid snake-lady from a people famous for their duplicity and cruelty out the door so I could get back to my nap.

“I’ll pay the full going rate plus expenses and double it if you find the item.”

“Deal.” Then again, a customer was a customer. “What are you looking for?”

“A single lock of my hair,” hissed the Gorgon.

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Without Bear to guide her, the girl could only wander aimlessly and desperately through the endless forest. She’d have given anything to have him back by her side, despite his often irritating old-fashioned demeanor, despite the secret fear that the others from school would laugh at her if they knew her childhood toy had escaped the dumpster (which had long since consumed her classmates’ toys).

Absent his determination, his steel, she was lost. It was painful to admit; twelve years old was practically grown up, after all, and what sort of grownup relied on teddy bears to guide them through far and enchanted wolds? What sort of grownup hovered on the verge of tears instead of taking charge?

And what sort was consumed by a deep and trembling fear when it was clear something was following her?

Horrified that it might be more gobs, or worse, the girl deliberately wandered through a muddy patch backwards, making it look like she had stumbled in the other direction, and then carefully doubled back through patches of fallen leaves that would betray no sign of her passing. It was a trick she had honed in years of hide and seek in the woods at Grandpa’s house, and her naturally light step allowed it to be pulled off without more than a soft rustle of fall foliage to betray her position.

The girl approached the shadow in the woods from behind, with the gob dagger drawn, though she had no idea how to use it. As the approached, the creature came into focus: a great grey blob that floated on the still air, controlling itself with large and gossamer fins. It looked like nothing so much as a large fish.

Hoping to scare it, the girl burst out of the underbrush with what she hoped was a very fierce yell and the gob dagger raised high. The curious fish-thing pivoted and faced her with a terrible gurgling sound, and the girl prepared to bury her dagger in her pursuer up to the hilt.

Then she saw its eyes.

Wide, sorrowful, fearful…they were like a mirror of her own. The girl lowered her weapon. “You’re just like me, aren’t you?” she said in her most soothing tone. “Lost and afraid.”

The creature bobbed, approximating a nod despite its lack of a neck.

“What do you say we travel together, then?” the girl said. She approached and calmly stroked the beast’s scaly surface. “We can be lost together.”

Gentle fins lofted her off the ground and onto the fish-thing’s neck, and the girl rode her newfound companion in the direction of the setting suns.

Inspired by this image.

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Kapteynport had, at once time, been a center of trade and commerce. At the mouth of the River Barnard, it was a key artery in bringing trade from the inland cities to the colonies. That had changed when the river mouth silted up and it changed course–the trade now flowed through Maanenburg. But Kapteynport had maintained a low-key prosperity of a sort with its fishing fleet, enough that the grand old buildings from the old days could be maintained and occupied after a fashion.

That all changed on the day the Black Ship arrived at the bay mouth.

Larger ships still called occasionally to take on salted fish or when the wharfs of Maanenburg were full, but the appearance of a tar-black carrack was still unusual. Aside from the white of its furled sails, every inch of the vessel–even its lines–was as if blackened by pitch. Stranger even than that was its position: anchored within the sheltering arms of the cove but not anywhere close to the docks.

After it had been there for nearly a week, a group of townsfolk boarded it and found the ship to be deserted, without so much as a nail aboard that wasn’t part of the blackened timbers. No further parties were sent, as every last member of the boarding party was stricken dead within a week, either by illness or an unfortunate accident. That, and the subsequent failure of the next month’s fishing, led the citizens of Kapteynport to conclude that the black ship was a cursed vessel.

Many abandoned the town, but others resolved to rid themselves of the curse. Volunteers cut the anchor line and attempted to tow the ship away, but their vessel foundered before much headway could be made, as did its replacement. Despite the calm waters and nearness to shore, there were no survivors from either wreck. A final attempt had desperate Kapteynporters flinging lit torches onto the ship, which burned for hours without incurring any visible damage.

The conflagration that swept through town less than 48 hours later led to Kapteynport’s final and total abandonment.

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