“It’s simply that a koala isn’t what I was anticipating ,” said the client.

“Oh, so you think that koalas are somehow inherently unable to do mercenary work?” the bear said, its voice strangled and unnatural, issuing as it did from the koala’s nasal vocal folds..

“Well, I’ve never even met a mercenary before, much less one who was a kolala,” the client said quickly.

“I’m one of the handful of critters that can properly handle a gun,” the koala sighed. “With two thumbs, I can shoot better and more accurately than anyone or anything else! I can see better than humans and smell better than humans to boot.”

Genuine curiosity and defensive scorn; the client was seemingly torn between both. “Why haven’t I seen any koala mercenaries before, then?”

“Dolls. Recently humans’ dolls have gotten fat enough so their clothes are our size,” the mercenary koala said, “and that’s what’s been holding us back in the eucalyptus trees all these years. The only thing.”

“So, can you help me?” The client shifted uneasily.

“Yes, provided you can meet my fee,” the koala said. “50 pounds of young and tender eucalyptus shoots a day, plus expenses.”

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The photoshoot had gone great, Reid thought. It was rare enough to find a willing model, much less one that had the combination of good bone structure, natural-looking long blonde hair, and violet eyes.

It had gone so well, in fact, that Reid’s assistant had drawn him aside during a break. “Does something strike you as a little…odd…about this model?” he asked.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean, love,” said Reid.

“I dunno. Something about her just seems a little…unnatural.”

“Well, that’s not her natural hair color, if that’s what you mean,” Reid laughed. “But you ought to know that by now, love. No human has that color naturally–it’s dye or wig or chromosome engineering from one of those fly-by-night gene labs in the Beral Lands.”

“But…her eyes, and her skin…I just don’t feel like they’re real,” Reid’s assistant persisted.

“Well, I can assure you that they are her real eyes and her real skin,” laughed Reid. “Not a skinjob, this one! But I agree, she does have a very exotic otherworldly beauty about her. Sometimes I can scarcely believe it’s real myself!” He turned away abruptly and clapped his hands. “Okay, that’s a wrap with this one! Miss, you’re been lovely. Please send out the next model from the green room, if you please.”

The model nodded, and walked into the small room that Reid had set aside for the use of his models, locking it behind her. It was completely empty, save a for a small trunk.

The model took off her hair–a very convincing nanofiber wig–and replaced it with one that was short, dark brown, and tightly curled. Then she took off her nose and ears–they were both prostheses made of nanomaterials as well. Carefully hovering over a selection of replacements, she decided on a pair of small lobeless ears and a wide nose with flared nostrils, both dark-skinned. She could have opted for more flexible shape-and-color changing nano-protheses, naturally, but custom-made ones with a single shape were less likely to stand out and had a more natural look.

As she shimmied into a fresh outfit laid out by Reid ahead of time, the model adjusted the chromatophores in her eyes and skin to fresh hues. The photographer had asked for dark skin and green eyes, and so she obliged–matching her overall hue to that of her fresh prostheses and her eyes to a color wheel with the aid of a mirror.

There was a knock on the door. “Ma’am?” said Reid’s assistant.

“Ready in a moment, dear,” the model cried, rearranging her multi-layered vocal cords to produce a much lower, huskier register.

It would be easier to have the assistant and camera crew in on the fact that their model was a Callistan, surely. But Callistans were hated, discriminated, against, even outlawed–not least because they were spies and assassins as often as they were fashion models. But–in the model’s mind, anyway–if she had the ability to change her appearance at will, and the prosthetics and wigs to make it happen, why not use it to earn a little safe money at the expense of others?

The unspoken code of Callistans was very clear on that point: it was perfectly okay to fool, rob, or kill Zeussians (as they called all other humans), so long as you didn’t abandon your secret Callistan identity or fall in love with one.

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He remembered, all right. Dr. Carlsson had left a garageful of books to the library, but his illness meant that the only living things that’d set foot in there for five years were rats and roaches. Half the books had to be thrown out—including some more than 200 years old—because they’d been chewed to pieces for rat nests or smeared with droppings and mold. Even so, the donation had been a treasure trove, with books dating back as far as 1697 in excellent readable condition.

“He took it out with a community user card. The card was real enough—we issued it—but the address is bogus. This street only goes up to 750 and the address is a 902.”

“Those kids at circulation dropping the ball again?”

“Don’t be so hard on them. This guy obviously went to a lot of trouble to get his hands on the thing; you can’t be prepared for that sort of thing.”

“No, I guess not.”

“So where does that leave us? ‘On Symbologie’ has walked off with this Mr. Richat.”

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This post is part of the March 2013 Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s prompt is “What the Leprechaun Said,” your generic St. Patrick’s Day sort of thing.

Our last thrilling episode!

“The Leprechaun took it.”

It didn’t surprise me that the trail led back to the Leprechaun. Every piece of gold in Halftown, everything that could possibly be converted into a piece of gold in Halftown seemed to wind up in his pot eventually. Many a gumshoe had gotten a good working over from his goons, provided that they were small or sloppy enough to be overpowered by halflings. So I suppose you could say not that many gumshoes had been worked over, since it was mainly me and Marlow the Low in the Halftown PI gig.

I found the Leprechaun at his usual watering hole, The End of the Rainbow Club, a little speakeasy under the city’s main sewer line. He was at the head of a sumptuous banquet, a fine old halfling tradition that had been driven (literally) underground by banquet prohibition. The guard at the door let me in for some reason when I said I had business with the Leprechaun, probably because I’d come out black and blue every time I went (or was dragged) in.

“Word on the street is that you have a Gorgon’s head-snake in your pot,” I said, cutting straight to the head of the feast with a causal lope. “Just so happens I’m in the market for one.” I casually took out a pack, shook a cigarette into my hand, and then bit the end off. Candy cigarettes kill more halflings than real ones; we like our sweets early and often.

“That so, Tuesday?” said the Leprechaun. He slid off his chair, which put him at about eye level for me. He’s a halfling, of course, not a real leprechaun–that’s just a silly idea. Everyone knows leprechauns are extinct. But if you’re a halfling redhead named Mungle Snuh, the name has a certain cachet.

I tugged on the brim of my fedora. “That’s right. Girl likes her hair the way it is and hired me to bring it back.”

“Do you have any idea what a Gorgon’s snake is worth to the right people?” the Leprechaun continued. “It sees everything they see, hears everything they hear. It’s an easy ticket to blackmail or more, and it’s going to take more than the sayso of a shoer punk like you to make me give it up.”

Halflings don’t trust anybody that wears shoes, you see, least of all their own kind. Me, I kind of like mine–gum sticks to it a lot better than the alternative. Being called a “shoer,” a shoe-wearer, is one of the worst slurs you can sling at a halfling, right up there with “kid” and “dieter.” “Oh, you’re going to give me what I want, Mungle,” I said, hooking my thumbs under my suspenders. “And you’re going to do it for free.”

“Is that so?” The Leprechan’s feastgoers began to rise, looking rather put out and brandishing clubs and small-caliber mohaskas. “And how exactly are you going to do that?”

“That’s an excellent question, Mungle,” I said. “I’ll let you know when I figure it out.”

The exciting continuation!

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
dolores haze
Lady Cat
Ralph Pines

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It’s never a good sign when a client wants to meet you in an alleyway instead of your office. Granted, the average alleyway smells a bit better than my office and lets in less water when it rains. But the clients always want their suspicions to be alley’d, and I oblige; for my part, I think they’ve seen too many detective movies. I know I have; it’s where we both get our expectations for dress and the proper hardboiled tone for narration.

Evryali the Gorgon was waiting for me in the alley next to my office, her back turned, protected from the rain by a cheap paper parasol from Chinatown. “Your message said you had acquired it,” she hissed. “Let me see.”

I pulled out an old wooden crate–it’d held my last factory order of Lil’ Devil brand snack cakes– and dropped the small, wet packet on it, opening it to reveal the small but highly poisonous snake that had sent me to the emergency room three times and the toilet seventeen times since my halfling “brother” Mungle Snuh had surrendered it under duress of having his feast ruined by a torrent of sewage.

“I’m gonna bite you again, you know,” the snake said. “Even if you are bringing me back to my mistress. It’s just what I do.”

“You just do whatever you have to do,” I said. Sure enough, the tiny snake rose up and sank his teeth deeply into the iron knights’ gauntlet I was wearing, a late borrowing from Gilberte the Small, Knight Errant of 57th Street. The snake cried out in pain and recoiled.

“That’s him, all right.” Evryali turned and approached me, an envelope in her hands. “And here is our agreed-upon fee.”

I reached out to take it, but the snake interrupted my train of thought (money money money or something along those lines) with a startled squawk: “That’s not my mistress! What’re you trying to pull?”

I looked up, surprised. I should have known something was up; statistical analysis shows that 2/3 of my clients try to double-cross me (with the remaining third just settling for skipping out on the bill).

“Too bad you had to open your scaly mouth,” Evryali purred. She grasped her shades, ready to pull them down.

For my part, my anti-Gorgon shades were still with Chang’s Dry Cleaning and Pressing, so I pulled out my gun. I tried to, anyhow; it’s hard to handle a gun made for human hands, even human children’s hands, as a halfling. I dropped the gun instead, and it went off with a crack, with the .22 caliber bullet (hey, it’s the biggest round I can manage, recoilwise) ricocheted harmlessly off Evryali’s normal-looking but subtly armored skin. She laughed, and exposed her blood-red eyes.

Luckily for me, petrification isn’t instant death. As long as your ‘statue’ is intact, anyone with a little mandrake juice or harpy tear salve can being you back. In fact there are roving freelance gangs who do just that, picking up statues and holding them for “safekeeping” while relatives scrape together the cash for a de-petrification. That was the next thing I saw: a cigar-chomping satyr in suspenders and wifebeater, de-petrifying my face (and only my face) so I could arrange to buy my way into a full de-petrification.

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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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“You can’t go back there!” the waiter cried. I brushed him off and swept into the kitchen. Hollister’s notepad said something about a short-order cook, after all.

I’d barely taken three steps in the kitchen when a green flash of something wrapped itself around my neck, just tight enough to be uncomfortable. “Didn’t you hear him? The kitchen’s employees only, hun.”

The short order cook, as it happened, was a Cantonese Wyrm–a younger one, probably less than two hundred years old, but still large enough for her front end to be working a wok while her back legs washed dishes in the kitchen sink ten feet away. She regarded me with intense yellow eyes, framed by the pink rollers that held her whiskers up and away from the food under a hair net.

“I need to speak with you,” I squeaked. “About Hollister.”

“Don’t know nobody by that name, sugar,” said the wyrm. Her rear claws emerged from the suds, each wearing a rubber glove. “But I bet wherever he is, it ain’t my kitchen.”

“He says otherwise.”

“And I say maybe I’ve got a new hunk o’ meat for the dinner rush.”

I had to think quickly. “I think you know that wyrms aren’t on the approved list of foodservice workers,” I said. “Health inspector’s coming on my tip in half an hour. What d’you think he’ll think of that? Let me go and I’ll cancel the call, then we can talk over tea.”

This post is part of the March Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s challenge is to describe a secondary character that surprises you in some way in 50 words or less and then to post a scene that shows why this character is special in 100 words or less.

Officer Charlie Bulforth, GRPD: eight-year veteran of the force who’s only just transitioned from his high school nickname ‘Bullshit Charlie’ to the more socially acceptable ‘Bullhorn Charlie’—appropriately, given his gravelly voice and lack of volume control. He is cheerfully, openly corrupt, though he sticks by friends—to a point.

“You need to figure out how to work a little extortion and corruption into your workaday life. How do you think I manage to keep myself in the style which I’ve become accustomed on a cop’s lousy take-home? I seek business opportunities wherever I can find them, be they shakings down, beatings up, or something sideways.”

“Frank about it, as always.”

“It’s a long way from being an upstanding citizen to a bastion of cheerful corruption like myself,” Charlie said. “But here we are. Just don’t ask me to do actual police work; I’m not sure you can afford it.”

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Ralph Pines (direct link to the relevant post)
Yoghurtelf (direct link to the relevant post)
Proach (direct link to the relevant post)
Knotane (direct link to the relevant post)
Dolores Haze (direct link to the relevant post)
smaddux (direct link to the relevant post)
LadyMage (direct link to the relevant post)
xcomplex (direct link to the relevant post)

This post is part of the February Blog Chain at Absolute Write. This month’s challenge is to describe your antagonist in 50 words or less and then to answer the question “what would you say to your antagonist if you met them in real life” in 100 words or less.

Estranged and partially disinherited for her political views, industrial scion Allison Durant is enormously ambitious with far-ranging designs to ascend in political, social, and economic circles. Her vivaciousness and intelligence conceal the fact that she’s willing to betray people and principles to further herself, content to rationalize after the fact.

“Do the industrialists like my brother and Mr. Berkley still bribe citizens like yourself to ignore their dirty work, or is it just part of your tax refund by his point?” said Allison.

“Being apathetic’s damn hard work,” I said. “Take it seriously. If you’re hot and bothered about it, your trust-funded scions of industry can make a better offer.”

“Are you trying to goad me?” Allison said. “Get me to cause a scene? If so, you’re badly out of practice at provoking people. I hear more offensive tripe from my brother whenever we meet; would you like some tips?”

Check out this month’s other bloggers, all of whom have posted or will post their own responses:
Proach (direct link to the relevant post)
Steam&Ink (direct link to the relevant post)
AuburnAssassin (direct link to the relevant post)
Dolores Haze (direct link to the relevant post)
xcomplex (direct link to the relevant post)
LadyMage (direct link to the relevant post)
aimeelain (direct link to the relevant post)
jonbon.benjamin (direct link to the relevant post)
Ralph Pines (direct link to the relevant post)
Forbidden Snowflake (direct link to the relevant post)
knotane (direct link to the relevant post)
JerseyGirl1962 (direct link to the relevant post)
ElizaFaith13 (direct link to the relevant post)
yoghurtelf (direct link to the relevant post)
Amanda McDonald (direct link to the relevant post)
FranYoakumVeal (direct link to the relevant post)

They keep to themselves, the Callistans, and not without reason. The kind of work they’re hired to do is rarely pleasant; at the very least, the person they imitate or the place of business they infiltrate is in for a cash loss, if not a rapidly spreading rusty stain on the carpet. No one’s ever come forward to claim responsibility for engineering them; the Callistans themselves hold that they’re self-created and bred into existence over generations, or so they say to the sociologists who have managed to interview them.

But it’s obvious to everybody else that they’re engineered. Back in the day, before the bleeding hearts got all righteous about it, a number of Callistans that were iced during jobs were analyzed. Over 10,000 genes from outside what you’d traditionally think of as the human genome were floating around in there, including two kinds of chromatophores for natural camouflage (from the mimic octopus and chameleon respectively), jellyfish (to combat aging and free radical accumulation), salamanders (regeneration of injured parts), and many others.

All that means they have exceptional resilience and longevity, of course, but also no natural skin tone. Those same sociologists say the Callistans assume unnatural (for humans) colors to identify themselves to one another, with each lineage having its own distinct “normal” color and pattern. No hair of any kind, either–the better to blend in using creative wigs, since hair color can’t be changed on the fly. All that’s well and good, but what people reportedly find really repulsive about them is their lack of external ears and a nose; just slits there like you’d see on a burn victim (along with a lack of fingerprints). They substitute a variety of prostheses instead, the most elaborate of which can supposedly mimic the flesh tone around them.

In other words, somebody put an awful lot of loving care into engineering the Callistans for disguise and infiltration. That they don’t take credit for their work is probably a testament to the fact that their creations have long since surpassed and destroyed them.