Peach Cail, a monster of myth that generations of Irish grandmothers had warned their children against, was living the high life.

As a kelpie, a creature literally formed from the raw, sticky tendrils of a seaweed-like creature older than mankind itself, Peach had always been forced to contend with her raw-seafood smell and dead-green color. That required taking victims on dark nights (or those who couldn’t see too well) and only from downwind. She couldn’t count how many times her smell or texture had left the intended victim fleeing and months if not years of wracking hunger pangs.

While in her relaxed form, a pile of quasi-seaweed at the bottom of a brackish estuary in County Kilkenny, Peach would often reflect on the quaint ways of humans as she sucked the marrow from their bleached bones. Another facet or her kelpie nature was that, due to her smell and color and texture and need to retreat to brackish water every so often, she couldn’t take advantage of her victims’ leavings and dress up to go into town. The estuary could be frightfully dull, after all.

Luckily, her human victims had solved the problems for her. Waterproof foundation makeup took care of the dead-green coloration Peach presented to the world when she molded herself into a humanoid shape. Designer perfume expertly masked the raw-seafood smell. Trendy shades obscured the fact that her “eyes” were dead and blank with no pupils. A fine wig was more convincing than any hair she could mold.

That, along with a canny relocation to New York City in a shipment of bog peat, meant that Peach no longer had to worry about boredom or her prey being tipped off by her kelpie nature. Devouring the occasional meal and pawning their stuff meant that all she needed to rejuvenate herself was a quick dip in a saltwater bathtub in a Manhattan apartment.

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In their old haunt, a slum apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, Adam Callahan detailed his plan. “It’s a pretty simple con,” he said, eyes gleaming in the late afternoon sun from beneath a stolen–and filthy–porkpie hat. “We need to get into the Baker-Barrister department store, corner of Broadway and W. 13th St.”

His confederate, Sam Goldman, flashed the winning smile that had kept him alive despite having spent 11 of the 13 years since 1900 in the gutter. “I can use a version of my ‘Mr. Mayweather’ con if you can get me a fresh suit and a business card.”

“Already working on it. I called in a favor with my pal Israel at Shoenborne Printers; cards’ll be ready tomorrow.”

Sam spat on the floor. “And the suit?”

“Picked it up from the cleaner’s on the way out this morning.” Adam’s eyes twinkled as he thought about the cleaner’s turned back, his hand darting behind the desk, and the quick but nonchalant escape that followed.

“Fair enough,” Sam laughed, effecting the nasal upper-class twang that had allowed him to rob the upper crust blind on their own promenades. “What’s the item, and the angle?”

“There’s a Turkish rug in the showroom on the fifth floor,” said Adam. “Custom-made for Baker-Barrister by Caboblanco, their rugmaker on East 19th Street. It’s on the showroom, but has a ‘sold’ tag.”

“Sold to who?”

“G. Arnold Cooper III. He won’t be coming to collect it anytime soon.”

“You…took care of him?” Sam raised an eyebrow. It wasn’t like Adam to resort to violence when skullduggery was by far his strong suit.

“He was on the Titanic. Dead fourteen months, estate in disarray. Rug is bought and paid for but never collected.”

Sam tapped his chin. “In other words, someone who looks and sounds like they belong there can just walk in, have it delivered wherever he wants, and then hawk it for some easy cash?”

“That’s right. But that’s not what we’re going to do. It’s an expensive rug, but at ten cents on the dollar none of the usual fences. My source in Baker-Barrister says there’s something even better woven into the thing.”

“What’s that?”

“Freedom, Adam. Freedom from under Cobb’s thumb for you, freedom from that bitch Sally for me, and freedom from the gutter for both of us. Body and soul.”

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Zines. Short for magazine or fanzine. Small-circulation publications, usually made on a cheap library photocopier. Usually a thousand copies or less of each issue, if there is in fact more than one issue. You’d think that they’d be the sort of thing that would slip under the radar, but as Underwater Basket Weaving proved, academics can study anything. As it happens, the Graphic Arts department at SMU is lousy with people that study zines; it falls to me, as the SMU Archivist for Visual Arts and Ephemera, to collect them.

Time was, most of the zines were outlets for paranoid schizophrenia on the Francis E. Dec level or extreme right- or left-wing conspiracy nuts. That was still true for a lot of them, but of course those weren’t the ones my faculty wanted me to collect. Like everything else that had once been an authentic mode of expression, zines have also been appropriated by hipsters. Now the field is full of people with art, design, philosophy, or literature degrees taking an inordinate amount of time and their parents’ money to try and design an zine that looks like it cost $0.50 to xerox.

So I write to peers in Berkley, New York, Austin, Ann Arbor asking for them to collect what zines they can find and mail them to me. I get piles of zine comics (the creators spell it with an X, comix, but I reserve that term for authentic stuff) trying desperately to be edgy and relevant and socially conscious. They typically wind up somewhere around “pretentious” instead. Then there’s the reams of bad prose poetry, cut up and pasted onto a sheet of notebook paper before xeroxing to make the tired odes to revolutionary consciousness and Free Tibet seem more authentic than the regurgitated leavings of petit bourgeoisie in denial.

I carefully place them into big acid free boxes while people come by to look and write impressive-sounding papers about these grassroots artforms. I haven’t the heart to tell them it’s astroturf.

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“As with all things, the problem comes down to chi,” said Dr. Guthrie-Xue.

“Don’t you mean qi?” said Marietta. “I think that’s how you’re supposed to say it.”

“No, I mean chi,” Guthrie-Xue said, eyes narrowed. “Don’t interrupt.”

Marietta thought of a blistering response but thought better of it. She sat fiddling with her teacup for a moment waiting for the good doctor to continue.

“Based on your description, I’m 99% sure what’s happened,” Guthrie-Xue said after that uncomfortable silence. “They call the process you’ve undergone chi deshielding–literally 破气盾 or ‘broken chi shield.'”

“So what does that mean? I need to hire a geomancer, get some feng shui up in my life? Restore the flow of positive energy?” Marietta was anxious to show her cultural sensitivity even if it stemmed from a single Chinese Culture 107 class and the forewords to the half-dozen holistic cookbooks floating around her kitchen.

“You wish. This insidious attack–which can only be performed by a master in perfect tune with their own acquired and innate chi as well as that of the world–means that you can no longer accrue or process positive chi. Lactose intolerance would be a decent metaphor. Tell me, did anything inauspicious happen on your way here today?”

Marietta nervously scratched the back of her hand. “Well, there was a black cat. And that mirror in the stall on 48th. I had to walk under a ladder to come down here because they’re painting the shop upstairs. And I was almost hit by a cab and lost my metro pass, which I know aren’t traditionally inauspicious but they damn well ought to be.”

“People disappear all the time, especially in Manhattan,” I said. “What makes you think it wasn’t some unregistered Sphynx strangling and eating him in an alleyway?”

“Well, for one, a member of the Dakeg royal family is always accompanied by a bodyguard,” Aria said. “They’ve disappeared too.”

“I read about that,” I said, pointing to the open encyclopedia on my desk. I usually keep it out of sight, as clients tend to get spooked if they suspect I’ve ever read anything longer than a Moxie label. “He’s supposed to be accompanied by a troop of the Galloping Hooves Heavy Cavalry at all times.”

“C’mon, Mitch,” Aria said. “You think a dozen minotaurs from the O’Downl tribe in full dress uniforms armed with ceremonial but fully functional musket-axes are the kind of subtlety you need to move about unnoticed in this town?”

I shrugged. “Ever been on the square at midnight on New Year’s?”

“Dammit, I don’t need you being flip about this! A Dakeg is missing along with six mujina bodyguards, and I’m letting you in on the ground floor.”

“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.”

I began to look for something different. I didn’t have a sense of the possibilities innate in that wonderful word–different–only a vague clenched feeling deep in my chest, a tension that was boiling over at the regularity with which I’d been confronted so far.

My first implulse, like many before me, was to leave Deerton. That is often enough for someone I grew up with to declare victory, but I found the next largest town up the road to be more of the same. The same buildings, the same people, the same cars. Oh, there were superficial differences to be sure, but even the lightest nick or cut would reveal tired old archetypes in new skin, a town created from the same set of stencils as Deerton.

The regional center? Add taller buildings that looked much like the shorter ones when you wormed into them. Biggest city in the state? A beltway that’s nothing more than pieces of I-313 back home re-skinned and re-used. Even the really big places–even New York, Los Angeles–added simply another layer of ornamentation to the basic structure. What, after all, makes a meth addict on the street all that different from a heroin addict–other than the size of their wallet? What, after all, makes the corrupt boss of Deerton’s Republican machine all that different from the corrupt boss of New York’s Democratic one?

Everything I saw and experienced was obstinately similar to what had come before, and that knot in my stomach refused to fade away.

It might seem an odd thing that Maryann Steinman was the last heir to the long-dead city of Iram of the Pillars, but as is so often the case what seems odd at first appears less so on further examination.

Iram of the Pillars had been the key oasis that made travel across the vast Rub’ al Khali desert possible. But as more trade came and went, the water table had fallen and the spring collapsed in 190 AD, leaving the vast and unforgiving desert with no water to sustain travel. The royal family and all those who could do so fled north to Parthian Ctesiphon, for they had long been vassals of the king there. Shortly thereafter, Emperor Severus of Rome had sacked the city. The king of Iram and all his sons died in the defense of the city, with his daughter carried off to Rome in chains.

Purchased by a wealthy family, she was eventually emancipated and married into a powerful family of freedmen and Christian converts. They ran afoul of the later emperor Diocletian, who ordered the family wiped out in 305 AD. Only a single child survived the massacre, hidden by family friends and eventually smuggled to Gaul, where he raised a small family in an isolated village. In time, the village came to be part of France, but during the Great War it was totally razed; those that survived suffered terribly from dysentery and typhus. In the end, the entire town perished–save one man, Marcel Durand, who had left for Paris and later emigrated to New York City.

Before perishing in a typhoid outbreak, Durand managed to conceive a child, to the scandal of many, with one Gloria Feldman in the Bronx. Marrying George Steinman provided some stability for the child, who grew to father one child of his own before a heart attack felled him: Maryann.

A long path, yes, and one beset by the tragedies great and small which determine the fate of all peoples. But it led, inexorably, to Maryann.

Hollister had a Sphynx for a secretary; she was filing her long claws–red not from blood but from polish–with an emery board. She glanced up at me through heavy rouge and a delicately coiffed perm.

“I need to see Mr. Hollister at once,” I said, withdrawing the Smith & Wesson from my shoulder holster. “Here’s my heater.”

“I talk, but I do not speak my mind,” she said with a nasal twang–a Brooklyn sphynx. “I hear words, but I do not listen to thoughts. When I wake, all see me. When I sleep, all hear me. Many heads are on my shoulders. Many hands are at my feet. The strongest steel cannot break my visage. But the softest whisper can destroy me. What am I?”

I sighed. Sphynxes love their riddling talk–it’s a cultural thing, I suppose–which is why they’re in such demand as bouncers and secretaries. Easy enough for someone who doesn’t want to be disturbed to have their sphynx riddle all comers, even though it’s technically illegal. These days they’ll just turn you away for a wrong answer, mostly. But in the old days, and in some dark alleys now as the scuttlebutt has it, they’d strangle and eat you. Hell, their name comes from the old Greek word for ‘strangler.’ Same root as ‘sphincter,’ too; appropriate, since I’d yet to meet a sphynx who wasn’t an asshole.

“An actor,” I said. “Can I go in now?” Teddy Roosevelt loved that one, and a lot of the dimmer or less imaginative sphynxes used it. But you don’t get to be where–or what–I am without knowing all the old sphynxy standbys.

A red claw descended on the intercom. “Someone to see you, Mr. Hollister.”