Alex Reynard's Online Books
Downtown Coryza is a garden of colors. Its citizens hold in their hearts a long-standing tradition of passionate aesthetics. A defiant stand against the savage wasteland beyond the walls. The stores and homes pop like a patchwork quilt. Streetlamps, traffic lights, fire hydrants, and even sewer covers are ornately sculpted with proud craftsmanship. Personalized vehicles fill the roads, in all manner of wheeled and hovering configurations. The old met the new and shook hands. A cohesive whole emerging from a sea of uniqueness.
The videomnibus zipped to-and-fro through traffic, dodging cars with ease. It was stomach-churningly nimble. Junella had her tail wrapped around the central pole to keep herself steady.
She simmered. A happy place could remind a furson of how much happiness they lacked.
Or a cheerful mutt who rubbernecked at everything like a gobsmacked tourist. Who let his tongue hang out and whip in the wind like a nonev leaning out a car window.
"Man alive! Feels like I ain't never really SEEN this place! Ain't it great, Juney!?"
"Cram it up yer tailpipe," she groused.
They zigged and zagged for several minutes, passing bistros, theaters, boutiques, bookshops, and museums. There was a statue or a mural on every block. Zinc was delighted with the tour. He soon deduced that they were headed for the center of town. The bullseye. It made sense that's where city hall would be.
That was precisely their destination. A tree-filled park took the place of a moat, with citizens strolling and children flying kites among the cherry blossom petals. At the focus was a stately white edifice. The city's beating heart. Many official buildings featured a rotunda, Coryza's was nothing but. A pyramid-esque tiered dome of perfect radial symmetry. Zinc thought it looked like a great big wedding cake.
Their little platform darted straight across the lawn, scattering some volleyballers. Junella's eyes went wide when it seemed like they were headed on a collision course with the blank alabaster wall, but a hidden seam split open. The gap was so narrow, she and Zinc had to flatten themselves sideways to not lose any extremities. Still at top speed, the videomnibus threaded the needle with robotic precision. Junella felt her toenails scrape the tunnel wall. Then the entrance resealed, leaving them traveling in pitch blackness.
"Hot damn!" Zinc hooted gleefully. "Just like a ride at Luxyland!"
A pity there wasn't room enough to smack him. "If either of us fall off, we're tire grease!!"
She felt him shrug. "Yeah. Just like at Luxyland."
Junella made a mental note to never visit Phobiopolis' lone amusement park.
Suddenly their blind journey was at an end. Another wall opened, letting in blinding light. The platform didn't stop so abruptly as to catapult them off, but they both certainly stumbled on departure. Junella rubbed her eyes to get rid of the sparkles. Zinc was wagging his tail and running a wrench-hand over the wall behind them, trying to figure out where the opening had gone.
When Junella got her sight back, she realized Lady Crynight wasn't exaggerating. The videomnibus had deposited them in the immediate antechamber outside her office. Portraits of illustrious citizens. Leafy potted plants. Waiting chairs. A secretary buzzing away at her typewriter. And a seven-foot slab of bovine menace glaring directly back at her.
"I don't know why Her Honor chose a gutter-sniffer like you for this assignment when I could have had it already marked 'case closed' by now," he rumbled.
Crynight's personal bodyguard was dressed in a razor sharp black suit and tie, with slots in the jacket's back to allow for his seraphic white wings. His horns were filed to dagger-sharpness. His eyes were hidden behind mirrored sunglasses. His gold nametag showed he was a man of directness: Sgt. Angelbull.
Junella smiled at him with barely-concealed venom. In a straight brawl she knew she could have turned this glorified bouncer's teeth into Scrabble tiles. But sometimes keeping a job meant keeping your gun in its holster, even when it itched. "Maybe she needed you here for the all-important job of opening and shutting the door," she sing-songed.
Angelbull smirked mirthlessly. Then glanced past her, saw Zinc, and snorted in disgust. "Usually we hire people to take the garbage out."
The canine's head swiveled around. Grinning, he walked right up and put his paw out for a shake. "Jesus, Uncle, you're a slab and a half! You ever do any wrestling?"
Angelbull's whole face pulled back like he was smelling fresh manure. He nearly tore the door off its hinges. "Get inside, you defects!! She's waiting on you!!"
Junella ducked beneath his tree branch of an arm and scuttled into the inner office.
Zinc pouted at having his handshake rejected, then followed behind. "At ease, Ferdinand."
The sergeant kicked out a hoof to make the mouthy mutt stumble, but Zinc nimbly hopped over it. Glaring pure lava from behind his sunglasses, Angelbull shut the door between them.
Zinc was about to slap Junella's shoulder and share a giggle at getting that uptight G-man so mad, when he got a load of Crynight's office and went dead silent.
The room they stood in was wholly-upholstered in fur. Shimmering silver, silky smooth, and (Zinc could tell right away by the warmth as he stood on it) alive. The office was larger than expected. Well-lit. Tastefully decorated, if a bit spartan. On the lefthand wall, a wide, narrow window allowed a panoramic view of the busy goings-on outside. On the opposite side, dozens of mouseholes allowed the Vermillion to come and go, dropping off mail. Assistants flitted to and fro like worker ants: sorting envelopes, emptying an older filing cabinet into a newer model, and keeping every inch of the fur carpet neatly brushed and vacuumed. In the center of the room, like a spider's web, an incredible configuration of television monitors and telephones produced a constant fuzzy background mumble. Visible through the cracks between them was a vast, austere wooden desk.
Phobiopolis' biggest open secret was that city hall in Coryza was a revolving door of figureheads. Smiling mannequins pecked at their handful of pet issues, while the real power beavered away behind the throne. If Coryza's citizens were its heart, Lady Crynight was its brain. She had been Deputy Mayor for an uncontested one hundred and fourteen terms. While few were fans of her acidic, withering demeanor, no one would dare dispute her effectiveness. As the old joke went, 'How many Coryzans does it take to change a lightbulb? None. Crynight already did it while you were bringing it up.'
Junella reached out to close Zinc's dangling jaw. "Yeah, yeah, we're in the seat of power. Get over it. Straighten up and look like you might be worth somethin'."
The canine forced his eyeballs to stop roaming around and land on his partner. "Aye aye." He brushed off his jacket and checked his fly. Junella walked across the noisy room and navigated around the wall of monitors. Zinc adjusted his posture as best he could and followed.
It was an effort to not gasp. He'd guessed already by the fluffy floor, but the Deputy Mayor was the room. A tangle of long, many-jointed arms grew out of the walls and ceiling, all snaking their way around one another to hold a phone, sign a document, change a channel, adjust a knob, direct an assistant, or squeeze a stress ball. The big desk was pushed up against the wall, where a head emerged from it, dead center. Past her huge round glasses, Zinc could tell by her ears and stubby muzzle that she was a chinchilla. (He'd thought the fur beneath his feet felt extra-fancy.) Some wunderkind tailor had actually manage to clothe her. An ocean of deep blue fabric framed her face and extended across all her dozens of arms. Each sleeve ended in a tasteful cufflink.
Upon the desk were mountainous piles of papers, plus even more telephones. Looking closer, Zinc could see that some of her paws had mouths on the palms, so she could pick up a receiver and answer it with the same hand. There was also a gold nameplate that read:
HER HONOR LADY TESSERACT MATHILDA CRYNIGHT
"Call me Tessie."
The Deputy Mayor finished six calls, signed eight papers, re-checked her afternoon schedule, then finally looked up to acknowledge Junella standing contritely before her.
"Good morning, ma'am," the skunk said quietly.
Behind those all-seeing lenses, the chinchilla's eyes shifted to Zinc. She assessed him in half a heartbeat. "He looks like you went bowling for winos. Tell me again why I'm supposed to pay you more?"
Zinc was too overwhelmed to feel insulted.
Junella stepped forward. She steeled herself. Feeling humiliated already, she spoke. "My apologies, ma'am. I was overconfident when I agreed to this. I wanted you to believe in me. But, as I have been assessing what we're up against, I've come to realize..." Her fingers were quaking on her grooves.
The chinchilla rolled her eyes. "That you're up shit creek with half a paddle," she finished. "This isn't a one-woman job. I could have told you that two days ago. You need an assistant? Fine. You should have budgeted for that when I hired you."
Junella blushed. Her inner dragon leapt into her throat to argue, but she shoved it back down. "You're right. I'm sorry."
"Skip it. Apologies waste time. Just don't tell me you've been wandering the streets having a crisis of confidence on the city's dime."
"No!" Junella insisted. "I've been researching-"
Zinc coughed into his wrench-hand and took a step closer. "I hate to interrupt but, I'm over here doin' nuttin' like a fencepost while you two yak about me. Seems like maybe I oughtta be part of the conversation, y'know?" He nodded to the deputy mayor. "Hiya, Tessie." He reached out for a shake.
Junella went rigid at his lack of protocol, but Crynight actually smiled. So few people read the nameplate. She placed a dainty paw in his and shook. "Hi back. Got a name?"
He smiled too. "Zinc, ma'am."
"Don't call me 'ma'am', Zinc. I'm not that old yet."
"No ma'am," he blurted, then immediately bit his tongue.
She forestalled a bumbling apology. "How much have you been briefed on the situation?"
"Uhhh... Partially?" he guessed. "Juney 'n me met last night. I've got bits and pieces."
"I showed him the wall," Junella interjected, not wanting to come off like she'd let some ignorant slob walk into danger unprepared.
Crynight nodded acknowledgment. "Smart. That's the most important thing; the rest is all details." Three of her hands shuffled papers around on the desk until they uncovered a handwritten letter. She held it up for Zinc to read. "A week ago, we received this. It's from a brass-nut scumbag named Sulilong." She gathered from the mutt's expression that he'd heard the name but nothing else. "I'd never heard of him either. But then I mostly concern myself with city business. Anyway, he demanded six tons of imaginite from the city treasury or else he'd come in and take the whole wad. I wrote back that he could go have intercourse with a mosquito."
Zinc grinned. He liked this gal already.
Crynight shrugged with ten open palms. "After that, four days of fat nothing. We thought he'd come to his senses. Turns out he was just waiting for our guard to be down. Because then, the wall."
"He's sent nothing else, so we have to assume the original demand still stands. Needless to say, I'm not giving him a crumb. Your partner was hired to teach Mr. Sulilong a simple lesson: that Coryza is inviolate. Do you know what that word means, Mr. Zinc?"
He didn't begrudge the question. "It means that you want us to swoop down on this goon like the holy sword of vengeance and fuck his day up so bad his neck won't even turn in this city's direction for the rest of his natural life."
Tessie Crynight actually grinned. She looked back to Junella. "You picked a good one, Miss Brox."
Junella straightened up. "Thank you ...Tessie. So, like I said, I've kept busy."
Crynight nodded. "Report."
"I've been diggin' into this Sulilong cat. He's supposedly got a mechanical frame and a helluva bodyguard for it, but everything I've read says he's a bit player. A nomad. He's got a travelin' castle and he moves around the wastes and the badlands, stealin' anything he pleases. People tend to get vanished around him. That's why there's not much chatter. Most of what I learned comes from people who got rescued from the desert." She grimaced. "He's got a thing for burying people alive who refuse to join up with him."
Crynight steepled four hands and rested her chin on them. "So how did a roaming pirate captain put a dent in my precious wall, Miss Brox?"
"I don't know," Junella admitted, feeling that Tessie was not a woman to be bullshitted. "Nothing I read or heard about him shows any precedent for this. He's mostly like a vacuum cleaner: his outfit rolls by someone crossing the desert and he cleans 'em out."
The chinchilla grumbled in thought.
"But that implies things," Junella quickly continued. "I ain't no Poirot, but it seems to me like, what if I was some low-end crook who wanted more? And what if I stumbled onto some newfangled voodoo? What if I got too eager too fast and I thought I could break open the biggest piggybank in Phobiopolis?"
Tessie's eyebrows went up. "Plausible, Miss Brox. Got anything more?"
"When we toured the damage earlier it occurred to me: If they were strong enough to do what they did, why didn't they take the easy route? Just waltz right in once the walls were down in the morning? Assuming they ain't simply the dumbest bunch of muttonheads on the planet, maybe it was a choice. Maybe they wanted to show off what they could do first. Scare you into paying up. Or maybe-" Here she smiled sharkishly. "-all the power they showed is all the power they got. At night, there's just a few guards sittin' at slits in the walls. In the daytime, the towers are up and pointing all kindsa firepower at the desert. Maybe our villain's just smart enough to know his limitations."
Crynight began to slowly nod. "If we're lucky."
"Yes. If we're very lucky. All I know is, if it were me, and I had what it took to bust in and take what I wanted, I wouldn't bother firing a warning shot. But he did. Hesitation doesn't seem a part of his profile."
"And that's why I believe I picked a good one in you, Miss Brox," Tessie said. "This job needs a devil on the side of the angels. A thought like that wouldn't have occurred to me."
Junella flushed. "Why thank you."
"If he's a petty bully to tourists, he'd do the same to us if he could. So maybe he can't. Though there might still be a 'yet' attached on the end of that sentence."
"Allright." She steepled three sets of fingertips. "If your target's not all-powerful, sell me on why you need a partner to go flick him off our collective shoulder." Her tone was casual, but her expression was that of a game player.
Junella recoiled at the abruptness of the challenge. Her fingerneedles twitched, searching for a response in her vinyl. "Well... Well... There's still a lot of unknowns about him. And if he's got control of three ugly wall-pounding monsters, they might not be able to take on the whole police force, but they could probly stomp a skunk flat."
"True. And I will absolutely send in the whole police force if need be. But I'd rather not. If all our blueboys scampered off to take down this pitstain, there would be panic in the streets. Entropy bugs me, Miss Brox. My golden outcome here is one where I send off a specialist- or two-" Nod to Zinc. "-they handle the matter with discretion, and my citizens remain in blissful ignorance until they read about the happy ending in the next day's papers. The thought never enters their heads that they might be unsafe behind these walls. Because I've worked my fingers to toothpicks making sure the words 'safe' and 'Coryza' are synonymous." Her eyes were death beams behind her glasses. "Do you know what that word means, Miss Brox?"
It was an extreme effort to take all that without lashing back. But this wasn't a dressing-down. It was a demand for reassurance. A natural thing to want. Junella had asked for one from Zinc earlier. "It means I capital-C Can Not fuck this up."
"Correct," Tessie replied. "My first pick for a superhero said she had a hotel to run, but she knew a frequent guest who could handle the job. Mia's a dear friend of mine. I take her seriously. So I'm willing to trust her judgment on you. But right now it's been two days and all you have to show me is some admittedly-smart insight and a guy with half a hardware store nailed to his carcass."
Junella readied her fingers to reply, when Zinc bashfully eased between the skunk and chinchilla. "I hate to barge in, fair ladies, but maybe a demonstration is in order of what I bring to the table?"
Crynight adjusted her glasses. "I almost forgot you were there while I was squeezing sweat out of your partner, Zinc. What demonstration did you have in mind?" She cast a quick 'no hard feelings?' look at Junella.
The skunk exhaled in relief, and returned it. This was simply business. Lady Crynight had every right to demand the best.
Zinc looked around. "Ermm... weren't your assistants emptying a filing cabinet a moment ago?"
The chinchilla blinked. "Yes. Why?"
"Can I have it?"
She blinked again. "You've got me curious, Mr. Zinc. This had better amuse me." One of her hands poked a button on her desk. "Sarge, did you see a filing cabinet go by?"
The intercom squawked out Angelbull's voice. "Yes, your honor. Just a moment ago."
"Bring it back. I have a feeling I'm about to be treated to a circus act."
Grunts of confusion came from the bull, but he always obeyed the boss. Not a minute later, the office door was opening and in he came, carrying the bulky metal object under his arm. "What is this for?"
She gestured to Zinc. "He asked for it. Give it to him."
Sneering openly, Angelbull shoved the cabinet towards him. "Here."
Zinc accepted it into his wrenches with gentle grace. "Thanks a million. That will be all, Cadbury."
The bull's nose wrinkled, not knowing the reference and thus not knowing to what degree he should feel insulted. He grumbled a bit and left the room.
Tessie was hiding giggles. Besides his ironclad loyalty, part of what made Angelbull valuable was how much fun he was to tease. She looked back to Zinc. "Allright. Stage is yours. Wow me."
Junella looked over to her associate, as out of the loop as everyone else. "Do you need me to...?"
"Just stand back, sister, " he said with a frisky grin. "I used to do this in Rhinolith for beer money." He hefted the filing cabinet up at arms' length, appraising it. "Not with one of these, mind ya, but it's the right kind of metal. I usually do this outside though. So, maybe plug your ears."
Junella and Tessie did.
In a moment, they were both very grateful he'd warned them. All the assistants stopped tending her honor's fur to cringe at the sudden ungodly cacophony. Metal screamed and cried as it was twisted in ways it had never anticipated. Several people on hold thought that something hideous had happened to the phone lines. Junella's fingers hung limp, speechless. Crynight put two fingers to her lips and simply watched in mild concern.
Zinc grunted and strained and dripped sweat down his cheeks. He was a bit out of practice. Still, he was aware he had an audience that mattered a lot more than his usual busking crowd. He let the office fade away and concentrated wholly on the metal. Letting his wrenches caress it, assuage it, find out where it wanted to bend and ease it there. His ears were deaf to the unspeakable screeching. He had done a hell of a lot of things to metal over the years.
Finally, he smiled. Confident that he'd done a good job. With a little more time he could've ironed out some of the details, but in an audition, you don't want to waste the judge's time. He set his result down on Tessie's desk. "There ya go."
Deputy Mayor Crynight actually took her glasses off and craned her neck to get a better look at the impossible object. "Allright, Mister Zinc. I have seen many things in my tenure at this position, but office furniture origami is a new one."
"It's a bunny rabbit!" he said proudly. And sure enough it was. Big feet, big ears, little nose, everything. He'd compressed the four-foot cabinet into a dense sculpture about ten inches tall. "I would've done a crane, but the folds for that are best when starting flat; like sheet metal or diamond plate."
The chinchilla regarded the rabbit a moment longer. "Strength and finesse. Okey-dokey. You're hired."
Zinc's tail wagged. "Really? Just like that?"
"I make decisions quickly, Mister Zinc." She turned to Junella and sighed. "We agreed on two million grit. How much more do you want?"
The skunk's orange eyes lit up. Barely restraining her joyful greed she squeaked out, "D-double?"
A flat look of 'nice try'. "How about three mil?"
"Done!!" Junella burst. She would have been happy with even a handful more than their agreed-upon sum. And, although this still left the overhanging worry of what the hell she was going to do to be worth so much, she was too deliriously giddy in the moment to care.
"Naturally you understand that any expenses you incur can be billed directly to the city, but will be deducted from your final payout?"
"Crystal clear. With a little luck we won't need much more than my blade, my gun, and this guy's wrenches."
"Works for me." Lady Crynight returned to her usual monotone professionalism. "Now get out of my office, you two. If you could mop up this whole mess before we close the walls tonight, that'd be terrific."
Junella had no idea if that was possible. "I'll try my best."
"That's all I ask. Scoot."
Junella turned to maneuver around the cluster of televisions (all of which, she noticed, were tuned to traffic cameras or live news reports.)
Zinc gave the deputy mayor a wink and a wave. "Don't worry about a thing, Tessie. We'll have this Sulilong guy cryin' for his mommy. And you can keep the rabbit."
"Thanks, I'll treasure it." She pressed her intercom. "Sergeant Angelbull, please escort my two guests outside. And I mean the nice way; not frogmarched to the garbage chute."
Palpable disappointment in his reply. "Yes, Your Honor."
Zinc overheard. "You mean we don't get to ride the TV-mobile again? Aw rats."
Tessie looked down at the crumpled metal bunny. It clashed with her usual decor, but would likely make a good paperweight. Or something to throw at reporters.