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.”