Fairy tales are more than true:
not because they tell us that dragons exist,
but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.
Speaking With Your Demons
Copyright © 2017 Vincent Berg, all rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.
Product names, brands, and other trademarks referred to within this book are the property of their respective trademark holders. Unless otherwise specified, no association between the author and any trademark holder is expressed or implied. Nor does it express any endorsement by them, or of them. Use of a term in this book should not be regarded as affecting the validity of any trademark, registered trademark, or service mark.
As always, I’d like to thank all of those who’ve put up with me during the highs and lows of this story’s creation. It’s hard supporting temperamental authors, and the rewards aren’t always as clear cut as more time and attention.
I’ve got a long line of people who’ve helped with the story, but I’d like to thank:
• Edited by: Gary Davis, Jim Whiteshield, Mike Omelanuk and Woody Innh.
• Cover image, “Sad and lonely girl beside wall” by pololia and “funny monsters” by artenot, (all images adobestock).
• Cover and Chapter Title fonts, Demonius from JumboDesign, Mink by Ahmet Altun of myfonts.com and author font Debock Regular by Tama Putra.
• Chapter header image, "Decorative lines dividers. Vector illustration" by Vladimir Zadvinskii.
• Section break image, "Design elements, Decorative line elements and ornaments" by Vladimir Zadvinskii.
• Section images:
I: “Silhouette collection of mythological people, monsters, creatures: fairy, elf, nymph, magician, unicorn, gin, dragon, hydra, chimera, mermaid, griffin, sphinx, vampire...Hand drawn vector illustration set” by Gluiki.
II: “Vector silhouettes of girls with balloons” and “Vector silhouette of a family” by majivecka.
III: “Silhouette collection of mythological people, monsters, creatures: fairy, elf, nymph, magician, unicorn, gin, dragon, hydra, chimera, mermaid, griffin, sphinx, vampire...Hand drawn vector illustration set” by Gluiki and “Blackboard” by Javier Castro.
IV: “Silhouette illustrations of a businessman in a suit and tie with his pants down to the ground” by blambca.
V: “Dragones” by franciscojose.
A group of misfits discover they have more in common with otherworldly aliens than with their families and the rest of humanity. They set out to learn more about where they came from, and end up searching for their ancestral home, or at least somewhere they can call their own.
The Cuckoo’s Progeny
Lost with Nothing to Lose
Building a Nest of Our Own
A House in Disarray
Detective Em Rules investigates her boss, NYPD Police Commissioner Eddleson, even as her own life is thrown into disarray by the arrival of her sister-in-law and niece, Becky.
When Phil Walker starts seeing the demons within, the world of those afflicted with mental illnesses radically changes, dragging Phil, medical establishment, and everyone else along with it as he combats demons, dragons and fairies.
The Demons Within
Speaking With Your Demons
The Zombie Leza
A woman shows up, a decade after the zombie apocalypse began, who lives, communicates and controls thousands of the undead. Whether she’s mankind’s last, best hope or the source of their ultimate demise is anyone’s guess.
The Nature of the Game
The athletes at Windsor High are aiming for professional sports careers, and dislike making waves. But when Taylor meets the flamboyant Jacob, there’s a distinct clash of cultures. Casual meetings under the bleachers risk not only embarrassment, but millions in lost earnings.
An experimental interstellar voyage goes horribly wrong and the unlucky test pilot, who died, ends up back home unhurt. Eric Morgan battles through internal, personal and Congressional investigations as he struggles to perceive exactly what he’s become.
Stranded in a Foreign Land
Josh discovers an injured, shipwrecked alien, and not only cares for and shelters it, but seeks to rescue its companions, despite being pursued by American military forces and other nations’ too.
Books can be found on my website at:
If you want something you’ve never had,
you must be willing to do something you’ve never done before.
Fall seven times,
stand up eight.
Abe Fallows was enjoying the rare winter sunlight in Seattle’s tiny Pioneer Station Park, frequented primarily by drug dealers, the indigent and those hurrying past. While cold, the sun felt warm, the wind wasn’t bad, and he couldn’t spend another day in the shelter. As he lay with his head tilted back, his arms spread wide and his muffler wrapped around his neck, he noticed someone approaching, glancing at the various vagabonds huddling in the small park. Figuring it wouldn’t hurt; he reached for his cup, still damp from his morning coffee from the shelter.
Seeing Abe, the man changed direction, heading towards him. He was older, wearing a dark trench coat with the collar turned up, a gray wool ski cap, and carried a decorated metal cane. He was clean shaven and a bit portly. Abe held his cup up, rattling the change in it. The man smiled, reaching into his pocket.
Abe lowered his cup, not waiting for the donation. “Wait, I know you. You changed your appearance, but I’d recognize you anywhere. You’re—”
“Shh,” Phil said, holding his finger to his lips. “The fewer people who identify me, the better.” Rather than using the cup, Phil handed him a folded bill.
Abe shook his head adamantly, not even glancing at the denomination. “I’m sorry, there’s no way I can take anything from you. You’ve already done so much for so many. You’ve given us all hope.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Phil said, waving the praise aside. “But this isn’t a gift. I’m hiring you. I’ve got a task I need your help with. Ask someone to watch your stuff; just don’t tell them who I am.”
Abe continued shaking his head. “For everything you’ve done for us, I’ll do anything you want for free.” Throwing his blanket off, he used the low brick wall he was leaning against to stand. “Let me talk to Frankie.”
Abe rose, faster than he usually did, but then it wasn’t every day he was visited by someone this important. This was the man who’d single-handedly emptied Philadelphia’s homeless shelters, curing the mentally ill, hiring those without ready job skills, and giving everyone he couldn’t cure hope they might still eventually be. He’d suffered for such largess, as a surgeon brought a suit against him, backed by his hospital, forcing Phil to undergo an unwanted surgery which resulted in the loss of his unique ability to help others. Since then, he’d been in hiding, running from one city to another, avoiding the spotlight, rarely remaining anywhere for long. Always intensely private, he was more upset at his inability to aid those coming to him—even though they asked nothing of him—than he was unappreciative of their admirations. He wanted no recognition, he only wanted to help those no one else could or would. The medical professions’ pills were ineffective, and even then, they were expensive, requiring regular doctor visits which few homeless could manage. Few doctors ever volunteered to meet the homeless on their own turf, treating them as equals rather than creatures of pity or scorn.
Abe wanted to brag, pointing him out to everyone, but was curious what Phil wanted. Abe knew he no longer retained his abilities since his abortive surgery, yet he was also aware Phil was involved in research into the beings he once combatted.
The claims—repeated endlessly by the homeless whenever they met—were that mental illnesses weren’t caused by people’s malfunctioning brains, but by invisible creatures from other worlds who came here only to inflict as much suffering as possible on the poor and destitute. Knowing their afflictions weren’t of their own volition meant the world to the mentally ill, even those with little hope of reaching Phil in Philadelphia. It meant their mental illness was part of a larger war against an alien race intent on mankind’s destruction—recasting the homeless from helpless layabouts to front line warriors combatting the invisible aliens the rest of humanity didn’t care about. Realizing that, they refused to give in and accept their depression, schizophrenia or addictions. Instead, they chose to raise their heads, facing their difficulties head on, taking their prescribed medications but arguing with doctors about reducing the amounts to more manageable levels so they could think clearly enough to improve their lives.
Abe was familiar with the mental illnesses, having his own issues. Despite a strong work ethic, an unfortunate incident caused his life to crumble and ever since he’d struggled with them himself, eventually accepting it as his wont in life. Now, however, he knew it was anything but.
“Frankie, could you watch me shit? I’m … going for a walk.”
He glanced up, noting Abe’s benefactor behind him, facing the other direction as he studied the decorative totem poles along First Avenue where it bisected the park.
“You know better than goin’ off with some stranger ya don’t know. He might want anything. We’re best supporting each other.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout ‘em,” Abe assured him. “I knows ‘em. I’d trust ‘em with me life!”
“If you’re sure, though if you ain’t come back soon, I’m calling someone to check on ya.” However, Frankie grabbed his artificial leg, strapping it on so he could reach Abe’s spot if necessary. “Be sure to take your whistle and mace.”
“I will. I never go nowhere without ‘em. My momma don’ raise no fool! And don’ worry, I’ll be back to collect me stuff, though I don’ know how long we’ll be. I thinks he’ll buy me some grub.” That was something virtually all the homeless understood, accepting aid from strangers in the form of food—even if you didn’t completely trust them.
“Just be careful,” Frankie suggested, concentrating on his leg rather than the stranger behind Abe. It was clear he hadn’t recognized him. When Abe turned, Phil was already heading down First Avenue, almost to Yesler Way. Worried, Abe trotted after him, not wanting to risk disappointing him.
“We need a quiet corner where we won’t be disturbed,” Phil said as Abe caught up.
“Won’t be disturbed, or won’t be seen?” Abe asked, dropping the poor speech he adopted to fit in with the other homeless. They never trusted the well-educated. Even though he was rusty at speaking in full sentences, Abe was eager to impress Phil.
Abe directed him down James Street, which cut back in a diagonal direction. “I thought you couldn’t do the things you used ta?”
Those two simple words almost caused Abe’s heart to cease. He clutched his chest, jogging forward so he wouldn’t fall behind. This was beyond a mere miracle, this was positive Divine intervention. He didn’t know what he’d done to win this opportunity, but he wasn’t about to squander it by asking stupid questions.
Abe Fallows wasn’t the type people typically granted favors to. A big, stocky man, he served in the army in Afghanistan, tracking down Al Qaeda agents until an improvised explosive incapacitated him. He was medevaced to Germany and then San Antonio, where they performed several emergency surgeries. They’d managed to extract the shrapnel, but they left pronounced scars which disturbed people. Worse, he suffered from severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which would throw him into fits of panic at the slightest disturbance, scaring those around him.
Discharged with only a twenty-five percent medical disability, he couldn’t land a job because of his unstable personality and his looks. Unable to work, he lost his home and then his wife. Not wanting to scare those he cared for, he set himself apart and ended up living on the street, which is where he found himself now.
He possessed a large, ugly scar running down the side of his head where they’d operated, something he shared with Phil. The sides of the scar were still an alarming pink. He had another crossing his nose, making it difficult for people to look him in the eyes.
Despite what had happened, he was still a decent man who only wanted a chance to prove himself. Somehow, Phil, a man who’d seen the invisible, saw his hidden potential. He wasn’t about to disappoint him. He may never get this kind of opportunity again.
“There’s no place you won’t be noticed in the park, but there is an alley just beyond the Pioneer Building where the druggies shoot up. Someone might stumble across us, but they’re more interested in a fix than in who we might be.”
“Lead on. Don’t worry about anyone troubling us.” Phil raised his cane. “I have protection.”
Abe turned left at the Marcela’s Cookery into a narrow alley where the tall buildings blocked the sun, allowing the cold to penetrate his heavy coat. As he led Phil down the alley, ending up behind a few empty dumpsters, Phil turned to him. He unbuttoned his trench coat, folding down the lapel hiding his face, and began circling him slowly.
“What’s your name, son?”
“I’m Abe Fellows.”
“Well, Abe, you can’t move, for obvious reasons. I haven’t battled these before, so I’m unsure what to expect. I’m a bit out of practice, but at least they have no reason to suspect I can affect them. What is it you suffer from? I can see the depression, but that’s not as severe as your main concern. Your dragons are few and small, but the others might be tricky.”
“I have PTSD … You’re actually gonna cure me?” Even realizing it was counterproductive looking a gift horse in the mouth, he couldn’t stop himself. “Why me? I mean, no one ever gives me a second glance. I can’t accomplish nothin’ if no one offers me the opportunity.”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ve got a full-time job for you. It ain’t always easy, but it’s vital. Here, you’ll need these,” he said, passing him something.
Glancing at it, he saw a tiny bit of plastic and a thin, miniature flashlight. His mouth went dry. He recognized and knew how to use them. He’d heard the stories repeated multiple times. Like everyone with mental illnesses or living in the streets, they recounted them endlessly.
Without warning and with Phil behind him, a knife blade thrust by him. It turned blood red, and without time to think, visions of being attacked flashed through his mind. But before he could do more than flinch, the knife turned silver again, as if by magic.
“I told you not to jump.”
“Sorry, my PTSD makes it difficult for me not to.”
“Well, if you can keep from losing it, I’ll take care of that for you.” Phil continued circling him, glancing at things Abe couldn’t fathom. “They don’t look overly dangerous. In fact, they’re almost lackadaisical—until you jumped, that is. Now they’re alert, ready for anything. Try to relax, maybe with some deep breathing.”
“It don’t help. I’ve tried multiple times.”
“Then think of being free of them. Hopefully that’ll keep you focused.”
“How many are there?”
“Two dragons, but another three … Viking Berserkers.”
Abe turned, considering his savior. “Say what?”
“That’s what I said. They’re wearing fur loincloths, body paint, and they’re carrying swords.”
“It’s not quite what I’d expect, but warriors are … strangely apropos.”
Abe heard a loud ‘thrack’ behind him, followed by Phil muttering, “Oh shit!”
Without hesitation, Abe blew his whistle. Phil’s feet shuffled around, his breath coming faster, so Abe turned to see if he could help.
“I got one, but only wounded it. Your whistle bought me some time. Hold on …”
With little warning, his arm flew out, casting something into the air. It unfolded, ensnaring something Abe couldn’t see, which resisted—trying to escape—but unable to.
“Step on the net,” Phil instructed, no longer as panicked.
“You got it, boss!” Abe grasped the other end of the net hovering in the air which Phil was pulling down. Phil kept yanking his hand away, only to switch hands. Dragging the net down, Abe was shocked how powerful these invisible beings actually were. No one had ever seen them, aside from Phil, so no one had warned him how strong they were. From the descriptions of their size, he’d never expected such brute strength. He realized how dangerous they were, but assumed their danger lay in their claws, speed and agility.
“Be careful, they’re different sizes, so a couple may slip out if given half a chance.”
Instead of acting individually, the berserkers began issuing orders, which the dragons appeared to obey. One Viking pushed forward, chopping at Abe’s fingers with his sword. Seeing its opportunity, the dragon raised up, lifting the net, while the others tried to slither out.
“Geez!” Abe yelled, recoiling but not releasing his hold, pulling back hard enough to knock his attacker off balance. This was too important to surrender, even if it cost him his whole hand.
“Hey, bitch, concentrate on this!” Phil thrust his knife between the netting and the lift keeping it aloft disappeared, causing that section to drop. Abe yanked the net the rest of the way down, jumping back and stomping on it with both feet, spread as far apart as he could manage.
“Sorry about that. Normally they concentrate on me. How badly are you hurt?”
“Not bad,” he said, glancing briefly at his finger. “Don’t worry about me, is the thing secure?”
“Things. There’s another dragon, though it’s wounded, and another …” his cane smashed down, “two berserkers, though they aren’t going anywhere.” Phil seemed to enjoy waiting to act. Abe realized he was tormenting the creatures, the same way they targeted Abe, taking glee in their panic and despair.
“Are you gonna kill ‘em or not?”
“I will, but I want you to experience what we’re dealing with. This is your life from here on out. I selected you, because few people look at you. With you by my side, I’m hoping they won’t look long enough to identify me. While I can fight invisible monsters, your power is granting me your invisibility.”
Abe shook his hand. A line of blood speckled his fingertip. “I’ll need to bandage my finger sometime. I don’t quite live in antiseptic conditions.”
“Not to mention the condition of these creatures. While the dragons groom themselves, the Vikings are a bit … grungy. I don’t think they bathe often.” Phil glanced up, keeping his cane handy in case one tried to escape. “You aren’t injured? He hit you with a two-handed blow with his sword.”
“He drew blood, but for as strong as they are, it did surprisingly little damage.”
“That’s ‘cause they can only partially affect physical things. They can call, prod or pull, but they can’t do much harm. I’ve never known them to cause physical injury to anyone besides me before. I’m guessing he exhausted himself, phase-shifting enough to hurt you. His friends are attacking your boots. Good thinking wearing combat boots, by the way.”
He glanced down. “Yeah, I see the scuff marks, though they’ll have trouble cutting thru the steel reinforcements.”
“What the ‘ell are you doing?” someone in a business suit passing by shouted, causing Phil to glance towards the street.
“We’re attracting attention. I’d like to interrogate these, but we don’t have time. Let’s finish up and get you taken care of.”
Lifting his cane, Phil swung in overhead with both hands, only it never connected with the ground. The net collapsed, though little mice-sized things kept shifting, trying to wrestle free of the fine mesh.
“The dragons are done, I took out another berserker.” He thrust his switchblade forwards, but the blood which appeared disappeared immediately. Phil paused, waving the blade around, teasing his foe, before thrusting forward, the net finally settling to the ground.
“It is. Never having dealt with these before, I’m unsure how much of your problems are due to them and how much is physical brain damage. However, we’ll discover that together. If nothing else, your depression is gone, so you should be able to concentrate again.”
He motioned for Abe to back up. He did and Phil collected the net. “Let’s grab a cab and get out of here. If anyone observed me flashing that knife, the police may come calling. Work on your story in case we’re stopped,” he cautioned, as they both ran for the street.
“It looks like lunch was a good call.” Phil sat back, observing Abe dig into his steak.
“Aside from what the food bank provides, it’s slim pickin’s. I don’t often get real sirloin.”
“Well eat up. You deserve it.”
“I don’t know. I didn’t do much.”
“You’re still learning your way, though you did well on your first try. After you’re done, I’ll take you shopping for some new clothes, but don’t throw away what you have, as you’ll still need them.”
“Trust me, after living on the street for so long, I don’t toss nuthin’.”
“I’ll also rent you a room nearby so you can shower.”
“That’s nice,” Abe said, cutting off another juicy slice. “But I gather you’re building up to something.”
“Alas, I am. While I’m hoping your help will allow me to escape notice, I still don’t dare show my face much. I need you to build a team. At least one other person, maybe two if you think they’re dependable. You’ll be bouncing between parks, but sleeping in the hotel, keeping me apprised of the prime targets—those in the most desperate shape. Once they get the hang of it, I’d like to take a more measured approach. I really want to question these beings, figuring out what each does and what they’re weaknesses are.
“I’ve spent a lot of time considering why I failed—aside from getting caught that is. I’d rather work smarter, taking my time to identify the best strategies, choosing my targets instead of jumping in whenever I meet someone in need. The longer we can avoid exposure, the more I can prepare. Once we do, we’ll be inundated with the curious and the desperate, leaving us little time to think.”
“It sounds like a plan.” Abe set his knife and fork down, considering Phil. “Despite your worries, after that initial scare, I haven’t suffered any more episodes, even though you were fighting for your life. I was trained to react to danger, rushing in when everyone else hesitates.”
“The odds were stacked in my favor, though I’ll be more careful the next time I face those damn Vikings. Your combat experience is encouraging, though I doubt it’ll be necessary. If anything, I need someone to run interference, holding off anyone intervening until I fight off anything attacking me. Unfortunately, that sometimes involves confronting armed cops—putting yourself between them and me.”
“Although I have some scar tissue in my brain, I’m guessing the PTSD is separate.”
“Probably, but I suspect the physical injury opened up a susceptibility, allowing these things to affect you with minimal physical contact. With luck, as long as you don’t open yourself to them again, you should be safe indefinitely.”
Abe motioned for the waitress. “I’ll take the rest to go, thank you. For now, I’d like to clean up and consider possible candidates. Don’t worry, I won’t let you down. How … free am I to select people? I mean, can I include friends just to help them out, or are you worried about the locals noticing.”
“I’m looking to keep a low profile,” Phil said, laying enough money to cover the tab beside his plate. “Previously, I got in trouble trying to do too much, too fast. Now, I prefer taking things slowly, learning as I go so I’m better prepared to make a bigger impact. I trust I can’t keep things quiet for long, but I’d rather remain under the radar for as long as possible.”
“In that case, let’s hit the road. Now that you’ve given me this opportunity, I’m eager to earn my keep. I won’t disappoint you, believe me.”
Do I not destroy my enemies
when I make them my friends?
Abe jumped as Phil approached, trying to hide the person he was with. For a larger, older man, Phil moved quietly.
Phil noticed the young woman behind him, but glanced around anyway. “So, did you find any likely candidates? I don’t see anyone nearby.”
“I … I did,” Abe said, biting his lip. He hesitated a moment and then stepped aside, revealing the young girl. “This is my niece, Meg Whiting.”
The girl did a little curtsy, smiling brightly but nervously. “Pleased to meet you.”
Phil groaned, slapping his forehead. “What did I tell you? I need someone who won’t attract much attention for a dangerous job! Someone who can assist me battling unseen …” He caught himself before revealing any more before the young girl, “… challenges. I can’t afford to be doing favors at this point. Maybe later, but there are several things we need to establish before we can continue.”
“No, no,” Abe argued. “I gave this serious consideration. Despite her age, she’s ideal. You want to remain invisible, and I help you by making people turn away. Well, Meg does the opposite, she draws everyone’s attention. They see her bright smile and hardly notice anything else. They may glance at you if you’re near her, assuming you’re her father, but they’ll focus on her instead of you. If she isn’t beside you, they won’t notice you at all.”
Phil stroked his chin. “That’s an intriguing premise, but how can she help me in my … struggles?”
“She’s a bright girl. If you want someone to defend you, stand up to the police, or look good on camera, she’s your girl. As for the danger, you’re the only target. She can blow your dog whistle without any trouble, and despite her size, she can still wave your UV penlight by reaching up a bit.”
“I can,” she promised, biting her lip.
“I guess a first step might be explaining exactly why they both work in these cases.”
“I know the whistle hurts their ears, without any humans being able to hear it and noticing, just as the light confuses them, while no one else can see it,” Meg argued, countering Phil’s objection.
Phil considered her, reevaluating her potential. Meg was a little slip of a thing, barely a hundred pounds, with dark wavy hair, fair skin, and a smile you couldn’t darken with a marker. She also looked natural in Pioneer Park with the homeless, drug addicts, tourists and business people. Her hair was medium length, curling in uneven waves down her face, and she wore a pinkish children’s trench coat and a red flower hair barrette. Even though she was nervous about Phil’s decision, she continued to beam. What’s more, everyone passing smiled at her when they passed, not paying any attention to Abe’s scars or Phil at all. He had to admit, she’d be the perfect disguise.
She stood in stark contrast to her Uncle Abe. He had a grizzled appearance, a heavy beard and a ruddy complexion, ignoring his scars. He looked like he could carry a half dozen of his niece without slowing, at least three under each arm.
“Is this because you want me to help her with her depression?”
“Her what? She’s not depressed. She smiles all the time.”
“Trust me,” Phil said, regarding her, “she’s depressed. Aren’t you?”
She hesitated before reluctantly nodding.
“Her smiling is a defense mechanism. Whose feelings are you protecting, sweetheart?”
She glanced at Abe and swallowed. “My mom. She doesn’t need my mood bringing her down.”
“Her mother, my sister Betty, is in rough shape. She’s addicted to drugs and is unable to hold even the simplest of jobs. I typically keep Meg near me to keep her out of trouble.”
“I knew there was something you weren’t telling me.”
“It doesn’t change the fact she’s ideal for the position. She knows the shelters, people here recognize her, and we’ve been to most of the parks. She’s known and trusted wherever you want to go. What’s more, she can win over the most skeptical individual if you need to go anywhere else.”
“Except, it’s illegal endangering a child. Not only might we get into trouble, but she’d draw cops worried about her.”
“No, I’m her uncle. There’s no problem with her accompanying me. Her mother knows when she’s with me and expects me to watch out for her. The local police know us both and won’t hassle us.”
“Other cops won’t,” Phil countered. He knelt, studying the young woman. “Tell me about your mother.”
She again glanced at her uncle before saying anything. He nodded his head.
“She tries. She really does, but she’s had a tough time and turned to drugs. She can’t help herself.”
Phil looked at Abe. “In order for this to work, and I’m not agreeing to it, we’ll need her mother to sign an affidavit allowing me to escort her around the city.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem, as long as I vouch for you.”
“I can treat her mother, to save you the angst over this, but when I do, it’s entirely possible she’ll want to resume her life, keeping Meg under her control.”
Abe shrugged. “She’s your best option and this helps all four of us. It’s a chance we’ll have to take.”
Phil stood. “All right, let’s see what Mom has to say. I’m still not convinced this is wise.”
They found Meg’s mother, Betty Whiting, trying to score a hit closer to Cherry Street. It didn’t look like she’d had much success. She was brooding, staring at nothing, her eyes unfocused and bloodshot.
Meg glanced up at Abe before releasing his hand and running towards her mother. “Mom!”
Betty’s head snapped up, swiveling, taking a moment to lock onto her daughter. She opened one arm for her, but instead Meg grabbed her hand, pulling her up.
“There’s someone I want you to meet. He can help.”
Betty looked beyond Meg, seeing Phil and Abe. She didn’t stand, but crossed her arms, leaning back. She said something to her daughter, which neither man could hear. Meg took a step back.
“Good morning, Betty,” Phil said when they approached, nodding to her.
“What do ya’ want?”
“Ma, this is Phil. He can help us; let us get a home again.”
Betty waved her daughter off with the back of her hand, not taking her eyes off Phil.
“Hello, Betty,” Abe said. “Your daughter is correct. Phil’s here to help.”
“No one gives us nothin’ ‘less they want somefin’.”
“You’re right about that. I do want something. I’m interested in hiring your daughter to do some busy work for me. Don’t worry, it’s nothing questionable, and I’ll pay her a decent salary. In exchange for you allowing her to work for me, I’ll help the two of you get your lives back on track.”
At the mention of money, her head tilted back and she seemed to awaken. “How much?”
“I’ll pay her one fifty a day. Aren’t you interested in what I can offer?”
She watched him intently, swatting away something by her face. “What you offerin’?”
“I can eliminate the monkey on your back, end your addiction forever.”
“I bin through therapy b’fore. It ain’t do nothin’.”
“I’m not talking about a clinic. It’ll only take a couple minutes.”
She cocked her head, glancing at Abe. “Is he legit?”
“He can do what he promises.” He spread his arms. “I’m clean. No tics, no longer jumpy, calm and clear thinking, with no need for medication. He’s employing me, too. I’ll be there to watch Meg the entire time. You have nothing to lose.”
She studied him. “Wha’ch gonna do?”
Betty was as thin as her daughter. Though bundled for the weather, her cheeks were shrunken and there were bags under her eyes. She had long straight hair, unlike her daughter’s curls, though the same color as Meg’s. Her eyes were a mottled brown, her hair uncombed and her full lips chapped without the cover of makeup.
Phil glanced around at the passing traffic. “Let’s move somewhere slightly more private. There’s a lot of … distractions here.” Without saying anything more, he led them further into Pioneer Park, under the cover of the trees which cast mottled shadows in spots. Meg and Abe waited for Betty, who was still reluctant to budge, but she followed.
Phil stopped by the low stone wall, the main source of seating in the area, since the few benches were usually taken. When Betty sat, crossing her arms, Phil stepped closer, lifting his cane. “This won’t take long, only you can’t move.”
She pushed herself back, drawing her legs up.
“Don’t worry, I won’t touch you. You’re perfectly safe.”
She didn’t say anything, which Phil assumed was a passive acceptance. He stood still for a moment, not doing anything as Abe wandered over by Betty’s side. Suddenly, Phil lashed out with his cane. It stopped about seven inches from her face. Betty flinched, raising her hands.
When Phil lowered his cane, she stood, hands still raised.
“I ain’t interested in no intervention!” she declared.
“Don’t you feel better?”
“I feel like I need another hit.” She backed away, having to sidestep her daughter. “Keep your distance.”
“Is it okay if Meg works for him?” Abe asked, hoping to achieve a partial win.
She turned, still backing away, heading back where she was before. “As long as she’s safe, you can do whatever you want, but I’ll count so’s I knows you ain’t cheatin’ her.”
“That’s fine, for now,” Phil called after her, “but consider how you feel. You’ll likely wait longer before your next fix, as it’s not calling as urgently. You can beat this, but only with my help.”
“Don’t come near me,” she warned, storming off.
“That didn’t go well,” Meg observed, watching her mother depart without her.
“It’s a step in the right direction. Not everyone wants to get better. Hopefully, though, she’ll notice the slight improvement and want more after she considers it. We spooked her.”
Abe glanced around. “People be watchin’ us. If you’re not careful, someone may recognize you.”
Instead of turning to verify Abe’s claim, he went in the other direction, heading for Yesler Way, turning his collar up again. “We’re done here.”
“Is you really gonna pay me?” Meg asked, trotting after him. “I never had a payin’ job before.”
When she settled in beside him, he answered. “I sure will, honey.” He dropped his voice. “I’ll pay you five hundred a day. You need to keep the extra safe, where your mother won’t find it and no one else can steal it. If you want me to hold it for you, I will, or I can set up a bank account where you can deposit it, so it’s ready when you need it. Just don’t let your mom know.”
“Don’t worry. I know better than that, though she’ll just get high with the money you give her. She’ll never get straight with so much cash.”
“There’s only so much we can do, but at least she’s allowing us to continue.”
“You’re giving up on the signed authorization?” Abe asked.
“For the moment. Once she starts receiving the money, she’ll consent to signing for more,” Phil assured him.
“You got that right,” Meg said. “She’d do anything to stay high.”
“Don’t worry, she’ll come along … eventually,” Phil promised, although he wasn’t entirely convinced.
“All right,” Phil said, studying the small park near the statue of Chief Seattle, the city’s namesake. “Normally, I’d treat your depression here and now, Meg, but I have a different plan for the moment. Please bear with me. I want to try a new approach.”
Phil surveyed the street, hoping to find the right person, already knowing they weren’t in the park itself. “Before, I got into trouble by acting first, only figuring out what I was doing after the fact, which drew an inordinate amount of attention. I paid the ultimate price for that—the loss of my ability to help. Now that I’ve regained those abilities, rather than advertise it to the world, I’m hoping to take my time and learn a better approach. In order to achieve that, I’m looking to speak to a couple fairies.”
Meg glanced at her uncle. “Did he really say that?”
“Alas, he did.”
“We don’t call them that anymore,” she corrected him. “We’re supposed to call them ‘gay’.”
Phil chuckled. “No, I’m not talking about those fairies. I’m referring to the literal fairies.”
“You’re unlikely to find them here,” Abe advised. “We should try Occidental Park, which is only another block to the south. It has a variety of shops along with a collection of food trucks, so it draws a lot of people.”
“Lead on,” Phil urged, indicating the way with his cane.
Abe took Meg’s hand and crossed Yesler Way, leading them down a narrow alleyway. At the end of the block, a wooded park, sheltered by a vine covered wall of shops on one side, and a row of food trucks on the other. In the middle there were a variety of artworks, including totems and a fire truck, along with plenty of people sitting around or passing by.
“Ah, here we are,” Phil announced. As Meg and Abe glanced at each other, Phil headed towards a young woman, sitting on a park bench, casually doodling in a journal.
“Excuse me, miss. Do you mind if I take a moment of your time?”
She looked up, distracted, but smiled anyway. “No, I guess not. What do you need?”
As she and Phil spoke, Meg looked over her shoulder, noticing her doodles were actually character sketches of the various people in the park, capturing their emotions, actions and expressions. She was impressed. The woman knew what she was doing.
“This will seem odd, but I need to speak to your muses.”
Instead of answering, Phil leaned forward, poking the air in front of her, startling both her and the invisible fairy passing by her face.
“Pardon me,” Phil said by way of introduction.
The fairy, surprised, spun around, not noticing anyone immediately until he poked her again.
“Yeah, it’s me,” he said. “The name is Phil, and I want to speak to you.”
“Uh, what the hell is he doing?” the young artist asked.
“The heck if I know,” Meg answered.
“Just watch, I think we’ll all learn something interesting,” Abe suggested.
The fairy, stunned at being addressed by a human, stared at him wide-eyed and open mouthed. Luckily, she didn’t shout a warning as others had done in the past. However, the effect was similar, as the other fairies circling the woman’s head paused, watching the strange interaction unfold.
“All right, now that I have your attention, I need some answers.”
“How … how can you see us? How can you reach out and touch us?”
“Ah, as usual, you fairies manage to see the things the rest of us never pick up on our own. That’s why I’m seeking you out. You’re the only species who remained true to your calling, helping humans while the others have lost their way. The demons, devils and dragons seek to destroy us instead of aiding us like you continue to do. I need to understand the difference.”
The tiny fairy shook her head, trying to reorient her thinking. While he waited, Phil shifted to the side, still maintaining eye contact with the fairy, and knelt, though the woman noticed he wasn’t addressing nor looking at her, instead staring into blank space.
“You want us,” the tiny fairy made a vague motion, indicating her companions, “to tell you what we do?”
“Oh, don’t get me wrong, I know precisely what you do. However, I’ve been granted a … special dispensation by your creators. I was tasked with correcting an imbalance: addressing the behavior of the more wayward creatures. So far, I’ve sought to destroy those trying to hurt us. Only, that hasn’t worked out well. At the very least, I want to differentiate between the good,” he said, indicating her, “and the more destructive of your kind,” he continued, pointing to another nearby fairy. “I need to know what the dynamic is. Rather than killing every demon I encounter, I have to learn how to relate to them, so I can convince them to return to their true calling.”
The fairy, at a loss for words, turned to its companions for help. They each shrugged, though they gravitated around Phil’s head, ignoring their host, peering into his eyes and seemingly deep into his soul.
“When you say … ‘creators’ …”
“I mean exactly what I said. The alien race that created you and the other species who afflict us humans. They too, lost their way, and lost communication with you for hundreds of years. They’re only now regaining their skills, but to limit the damage—part of their making amends—they chose me to intercede on their behalf—stopping the destruction their downfall triggered.”
The tiny fairy again glanced at the others before turning back. “You’re … him!”
“The name is Phil,” he said, giving her a little wave.
“This is so … odd,” the artist said, observing Phil obsessed with talking to himself. She was young, blond with green eyes and long streaked hair.
“Pay attention, you’ll learn something,” Abe said.
“Rumors are circulating about you. Our newest member, Lastitul, told us about what little they’ve heard about you back on our home world. You … really exist?”
“I do, just as you fairies, demons, dragons and other creatures exist. Believe me, I was as stunned as you are.”
The little thing shook her head again, trying to regain her train of thought. “And you want to know what?”
“What are the different roles each of you play, and how may I reach out and convince the other species about correcting their behaviors. Slaughtering everyone wholesale has immediate benefits, but comes at a steep cost and doesn’t change anyone’s behavior. I need a new approach.”
The fairies congregated and whispered among themselves. Phil could follow much of the discussion, but not enough to make sense of what was being said, so he addressed the woman staring at him. “Pardon me,” he said, pointing at one, “they’re discussing strategies. I’m hoping to get some answers soon.”
The fairy he first spoke to—and poked—addressed him again, assuming the role of spokesfairy. “We don’t associate with the other species, although we sometimes interact with them.” She indicated another female fairy. “We have our own specialists, instead of working with the other creatures. Tristan, whose name means ‘faith’ in our native tongue, deals with our human’s regrets—what you’d call her depression. It results in the human becoming less productive, but it’s a necessary task in keeping her grounded and able to relate her talents to others, so they can learn from her, and our, insights.”
“So I was led to believe, but I’m hoping for something more specific. Why is it you fairies kept your mission front and center, while the others abandoned theirs?”
She shrugged, cute on a fairy, as the motion cast off bits of fairy dust, which sparkled in the dappled sunlight of the surrounding trees. “Again, we don’t communicate with them, but … we have a long and storied tradition, and pride ourselves on aiding humans to see their better selves. By reminding them of their flaws, they’re able to appreciate how to reach out to others, and can express our ideas to thousands. In the end, their reward is our success. We not only assist our assigned human, but through that human, many others.”
Phil stopped to consider that for a moment, during which time everyone: man, woman, child and fairies awaited his response. “All right, in that case, what is your prize? When do you return home, and what provides the greater glory when you do? I’m assuming you return at your host’s death, like the other creatures, so what do you consider the accomplishment of your mission?”
She shrugged again, not used to conversing with humans. “We take the advances of our human as our honors, but we return once we’re no longer needed. That is, once they progress beyond our meager abilities to help or become too old to make a difference in others’ lives.”
“Fine, I can understand that, but what’s the precise mechanism? Do you simply decide to leave on your own, or how is the decision made? In short, how can I convince the more destructive species to ‘do the right thing’?”
“When it’s our time, we fade away from this realm and return to our home world. When we do, we celebrate, wishing our companions farewell and conveying our hopes for those we left behind so many years ago. They’re considered heroes, regaling the fairies back home with all that our human achieved over their lifetime, and how many lives we changed by our actions.”
“Ah, so there is an alternative I can offer the others. I just need to understand what it is, and how to convince them.” Phil perked up, snapping his fingers, surprising everyone. “I have it, but … I need another favor. It’s a big one, and may delay your return, but it’s for the greater good, as you’ll help millions of humans escape the ravages of the other species and prevent me from slaughtering thousands of them, too.”
She glanced at her other fairies before turning back. “What is it you ask?”
“I need one of you to serve as my spokesperson with the other species. You’ll have to abandon your human,” Phil indicated the artist, whom he hadn’t yet learned the name of, “but you’ll advise me, and help convince others. I’m assuming having one of you speaking to them won’t be quite as … disconcerting … as my poking you was.”
They turned, congregating and whispering together, though a few of their voices rose in excited exclamations. Though it all Phil patiently waited.
“We’ve discussed your proposal and selected Tristan. Since she concentrates on the negative aspects of our human’s life, she’ll be the one best able to assist you in communicating with the … others.”
“Welcome, Tristan,” Phil said, his smile growing. He reached out to shake her hand, but quickly realized the futility of the action. Instead, he patted his shoulder, offering her a place to rest her weary wings.
Tristan glanced at her friends, before flying to the offered spot, settling into the recess between Phil’s neck and shoulder. As she did, the fairy Phil originally spoke with began to fade. Phil blinked, unsure whether his vision was failing, but the other fairies grew excited, shouting out to her.
“This is it!” Tristan whispered in Phil’s ear. “This was obviously the correct choice. Limrick is being sent home for her role in helping you.”
Phil waited as the fairies congratulated Limrick and passed on their messages for her to carry back home. When she finally vanished, he addressed those remaining. “She goes with great honor. This will change the role between the different species. If so, she’ll forever be recalled as a pivotal figure for millennia.”
As they cheered, Phil spoke to those waiting, standing again. “Well, that was … interesting. First, the bad news …” Tristan again spoke in his ear, “Taylor. It seems you’ve lost two of your five muses.”
“Five … fairy muses?” she asked, skeptically.
“Well, only three now. Limrick went on to her fairy homeworld, to great acclaim, for helping thousands through your work and mine. Meanwhile, Tristan,” Phil pointed to his shoulder, where she still sat, “is joining me to help rescue the other species.”
“I understand your skepticism. It’s a normal response, but if you stop to consider your feelings, I’m sure you’ll notice a difference. For now, your muses are quiet, as they’re still celebrating. The one who’s coming with me was responsible for your consistent depression, so for that reason alone you should be more productive. Also, given how Faith left, I’m assuming you’ll receive a replacement before long.” He paused and nodded his head. “I’m told that’s correct. If you lost your voice, they wouldn’t return, but if they achieve their objective, they’ll be replaced by someone newer so they can learn from the others.”
“That’s so romantic,” Meg crooned, holding her hands together as if praying, her eyes gleaming.
“This is so weird,” Taylor said, glancing around at each of them.
“Is it? Okay then, how’s this? Your head is already buzzing with ideas for new artwork featuring myself, reaching out to bring peace between fairies, dragons, demons and devils.”
“I thought that was only because of the conversation?”
Phil shook his head. “They’re currently suggesting the name for the piece, The Ascension of Limrick.”
Taylor’s eyes widened and her mouth gaped. “You’re listening to my thoughts?”
Phil smiled as Meg and Abe chuckled. “No, I’m talking to your muses. I’ve given them a new topic to regale you with ideas for. I suggest you get busy, striking while the iron is hot. They’re very excited!”
“I … I have so many questions.”
“Save them,” Phil said, waving his hand. “Instead, listen to your muses. They know all the details. Your story concepts will be both fantastical and historically accurate.”
She dropped her eyes, hurriedly fleshing out ideas before they dissipated. “Man, I need to get busy!” She glanced up again, addressing Phil. “Is there some way I can contact you in the future?”
“No. It’s better if you don’t know who I am, other than my name. I’ve had enough trouble with public acclaim, and your work will be better in the abstract. Don’t try to apply reason to your muse’s suggestions. They know your work better than you. That’s why they’re there.”
She continued scribbling and sketching. “So … many … ideas …” Phil motioned for the others to follow as he walked away, heading back north again. Taylor didn’t seem to notice.
“So where does that leave us?” Abe asked.
“Well, first of all, we need introductions. Tristan, this is Abe and this is Meg. Like you, they are new recruits. Because I’ve become so renowned, it’s difficult for me to move around freely. Besides assisting me, they help prevent people from focusing on me.”
“Excuse me,” Abe said, “but I was under the impression the other … creatures aren’t well spoken. Yet it sounded like you had quite an in-depth conversation.”
Tristan leaned in, whispering into Phil’s ear, and he nodded silently before speaking. “It has to do with the different cultures. Since the fairies retain an interest in helping us, they study our language. As the other species resent us for their own lack of advancement, they have little desire to learn our ways besides shouting obscenities at us.”
“So where are we heading now?” Meg asked. “Aside from sitting to talk to the fairies, you haven’t stopped walking yet.”
“I’m going back to where we were before, because I want to confront the devils associated with addictions. I need to understand how to convince them to change their ways.”
“That ain’t likely to be easy,” she replied. “They rarely listen to anyone when they’re dying for a fix.”
“Should we be doing this in one place?” Abe asked. “People will notice us walking back and forth, especially if you continue bashing things with your cane.”
“I’m trying to minimize those actions. This is a fact-finding mission, but you make a good point. If this goes south, we’ll need to relocate to escape attention.”
“I can manage that,” Abe said, “but what about Meg? I can’t leave her alone if you do.”
“Yeah, I’m aware of those issues. I’m trying to work them out as we go.”
As they reentered Pioneer Park, passing the sunken parking garage, Meg glanced around, pointing under the trees. “There’s Ma. It doesn’t look like she took any more drugs. She’s still fidgety.”
“That’s because she hasn’t gotten any money yet.” Phil crossed the street, heading for her. “If I can’t get her to relent, I’ll have to start somewhere else, which will only spread the rumors of my return.
“Meg, I know you’re interested in helping your mother, but I want you to pay attention to me while we’re talking. If I raise my little finger like this, blow the silent whistle I gave you. Make it loud but keep it short. You want to surprise her devils, not damage their hearing.”
Phil spoke softly to Tristan. “This might be tough to watch, but this is how I’m currently forced to operate. This is also how I’ll continue to work if I can’t find a better way of reaching these other species.” Meg and Abe had no clue how she responded, and didn’t press for answers either.
When Betty noticed them approaching, she changed direction, moving away, but they caught up.
“You got my money?” she demanded.
“Your daughter’s only been helping me for less than an hour. I’ll pay her at the end of the day, after I get her cleaned up and in some nicer clothes. She can’t help looking like a ragamuffin.”
Betty stopped, crossing her arms and eyeing him suspiciously. “You gonna try that sneaky stuff again?”
Phil held his hands up, palms out. “Nope. I’m trying something else. There’s a new technique they’ve tried in Philadelphia which might work here. I don’t have to do anything to you. You’ve got to imagine your life as bad as it can be. Picture your life if you don’t get better, if you can’t get your next fix, no longer have access to money and aren’t attractive enough for people to grant you favors.”
She turned to Abe. “I hope he’s paying you plenty, cause he’s crackers.”
“I’d do this even if he didn’t pay me a cent, but he’s allowing me to clean up my act, and I’m not about to look a gift horse in the mouth. Neither should you.”
“I ain’t seen none of it yet,” she pouted.
“Go ahead and try,” Abe urged. “I’ve heard the other schizophrenics discussing it. It supposedly helps. You imagine things as bad as they can be, so when you finish, you aren’t as bothered by how they are now.”
She walked to the nearest bench, sitting again, still keeping her arms crossed. Phil stood on her far right side, where he had access to slip between the park benches, while Meg was on her left and Abe was before her.
“I can’t see how feeling bad about myself helps anyone but you. I try to avoid those feelings.”
“Come on, Mom. Try it. If it works, you’ll feel better. If not, you don’t have to do it again.”
Betty frowned, but turned up her head. “Go on, I’m imagining it.”
Phil began describing what her life would be like. When he paused, Abe took over while he remained silent. After a few minutes, he lifted his little finger, Meg blew her whistle—which no one heard aside from a couple dogs who barked in the distance—but Phil thrust his switchblade behind Betty’s head. She never noticed, still frowning with dissatisfaction.
“It t’ain’t workin’,” she announced.
“Not only that, but now people are watching us,” Abe advised, glancing around at those surrounding them.
“Don’t worry, given what they’re up to, they’re not about to call the police.”
“‘Cept it’s the tourists who’re looking.”
“What you doin’, boy?” Betty asked.
“I’m going to try something different, now. It’ll seem odd, but play along. I’m going to do a little play acting where I pretend to talk to your addiction.”
“You sure got plenty of dumb ideas.”
“Anyway, here goes.” He turned his head slightly. “Get their attention for me, Tristan.”
“Tris who?” Betty asked.
Tristan flew off his shoulder, tapping one of the naked black devils on the back. Since the devils were loud and coarse, they never noticed the quieter fairy approaching, and the one she interrupted jumped.
“The human wants to talk,” she said, indicating Phil with her thumb, in a uniquely human gesture.
“Huh?” he said, his companions quieting as they considered the interruption. Betty’s head perked up, as she seemed surprised when her cravings ceased.
“You heard her,” Phil said, leaning forward and poking him in the belly, fairly hard for his size. “In case you haven’t noticed, I’ve already eliminated two of your companions. I’m your worst nightmare, and there’s nothing you can do about it. I can slit your throats, and you’re too small to defend yourselves.” He paused, allowing that to sink in before continuing.
“However, it’s not a productive strategy, as it leaves plenty of dead devils but doesn’t change your approach. So I’m willing to reason with you.”
“Fuck off, Human!” he sneered, doing a decent imitation of an Italian gesture. Phil, in response, lifted his hand, flicking the release on his switchblade, which clicked as it snapped open. That got their attention. They fell silent.
“Here’s how this is going to work. Either you work with me, or I’ll send your mangled corpses back for your relatives to grieve over. Either way, spreading fear among your kind helps me, because it makes them question their actions. Unfortunately, if they don’t know what I want, they won’t know how to change. I’m offering a compromise on your species future extinction.”
They glanced at each other. Betty was no longer bitching, instead staring at Phil in a befuddled fascination. “What you want do ‘stead?”
“Tell them what I did with you, Tristan.”
She described, in simple terms, even throwing in a few curses of her own, what Phil had done with her clan. She explained how Limrick returned a hero, without anyone having to die. As they considered the switchblade in Phil’s hand, and his not-so veiled threat, they paid attention.
“That’s not how work. We return when human die!”
“That’s not how it always was,” Phil pointed out, “only the way you’ve perverted things to operate. Since your alternative is to return with a knife in your gut and your body sprayed over everyone back home, do you want to quibble over it?
“I’ve been authorized to act on behalf of those who created you. They recognize that—in their long absence—many of you have lost your way. I’m free to handle this any way I want, whether it’s slaughtering each and every one of you, or getting you to see we can all benefit by doing the right thing.”
“Human scum never do right! They only want escape. Don’t care cost. If they could better, they would.”
“Yet, the fairies manage to convince humans to do better, even when they’re forced to cripple their humans with self-doubt. There’s a way to motivate, and a way to destroy. I won’t allow you to harm any other humans!”
Another devil spoke up, this time a fat, dark female. “Humans only better when no other way out. We make their lives hell, some survive, others not. Either way, we win, they lose.”
“No, you all lose. Why do you think you’re not doing as well as the fairies? They remain true to your creators’ wishes and continue to advance even in their absence, while you’ve become a degenerate species with nothing to gain other than mutual destruction.” Phil indicated Meg’s mother. “Look at her. Do you think she can sink any lower? Clearly, your message is falling on deaf ears. Anyone who persists in making the same mistake, over and over for generations, without considering a new approach, is a fool! If that’s the limit of your capabilities, I’ll be glad to send you on your way, as that’s the easier option, anyway.”
One of the devils held its hands up, pleading for him to reconsider. “How … how you want us act?”
“Simple steps. Whenever your human does the right thing, say avoiding getting high, you reward them. When they slip up, you do as you’ve been doing, making them suffer for their bad choice. But you limit how far you push them. It’s what we humans call the carrot and stick approach. You offer the carrot to lead them in the right direction, but every time they go the wrong way, you slap them across the face to discourage them.”
“Too many word. Slow!” the original devil insisted.
“Fine. Stop being asses! Help humans, and you’ll return home sooner. When you do, you’ll spread the message that there’s a better way to work with humans.”
“They not listen. Never listen before!”
“No, but you haven’t seen the hundreds of dead I’ve scattered over your world in a very short time. They know something is up. You may have trouble convincing everyone, but they’ll be forced to consider options. Whether you live or die as a species depends on your ability to adapt.”
“Bah! You mad. What you smokin’? We not about to—”
Phil ended his diatribe with a quick thrust of his switchblade into his heart. He vanished instantly, though they all knew what became of him.
“Do I hear any other arguments, or can we reach a compromise?”
“We comp’omise! We comp’omise!” the female devil shouted, glancing at the others to ensure they agreed.
“Good. Since I’ve halved your number, your human should already be doing better. Her continued good performance is up to you. I don’t care how you accomplish it, but get her on the right track. Show some initiative for once.
“Aside from that, though, I want a volunteer. Like Tristan here, you’ll come with me to act as an emissary with the other species.”
When no one volunteered, the other devils pushed the female who’d spoken up before forward.
“Take Mizo!” “Take Mizo!”
“Fine. I’ll take Mizo and we’ll live more happily than you. However, if you do as I advise, you’ll quietly fade away, returning to your home world in one piece.”
“But, we feed on human despair. How we live if human happy?”
“Simple. If your human succeeds, you won’t be needed. Each will return home sooner, and younger caretakers will replace you to ensure she doesn’t fail in the future.”
“Sound too easy!” another argued.
“What’s simpler than dead devils?” They had no response to that.
“Fine. I’ll take that as a reluctant consent. I’ll be checking back to monitor your progress. Don’t allow Betty to slip up or you’ll pay for it!” He turned to the solitary figure looking lost. “Come along, Mizo. We need to talk.”
She flew to him, taking the indicated position on his other shoulder, and he walked around, pocketing his switchblade and facing Betty.
“How do you feel now?”
“Better!” she admitted. “During your spiel, I didn’t have a single craving. I also wasn’t overwhelmed with crippling guilt.”
“Good. Then you see the light of the same argument your devils are. If they slip up, making you feel terrible, tell them I’ll be back to make them pay for it. Believe me, they’ll listen.”
“But … what if I can’t help myself?”
“Then you’ll feel horrible, though that never stopped you before. However, you were never offered the carrot either, only the stick. A whipped dog never does anything other than whine. It never dreams of rescuing others, only of biting anyone drawing near.”
Phil indicated for the others to follow him, as he turned away, leaving her to figure things out for herself. “I’ll be by with your money tomorrow, along with clean cloths and some food. I’ll also have an affidavit granting me permission to watch your daughter. Be prepared to sign it, meaning you’d best be clear-headed enough to read.”
As they headed to his hotel, the Best Western Plus, near the Alaskan Way viaduct, they were all lost in thought, even Tristan and Mizo. Stopping across the street, under another shaded area, Phil stopped by a bench, pointing to it. “Stand where I can reach your dragons.”
Meg jumped right on it. Standing high enough to stare him in the eye, she leaned forward, wrapping her arms around him.
“Thank you ever so much. I’ve never seen my mother look like that. She’s tried to get straight before, but it never lasted. I think this might be different.”
“She’ll still relapse. There’s no way around that,” Phil cautioned.
“Maybe, but if she’s not continually bombarded with cravings, she won’t be as likely to turn away from help.”
“I’ve gotta say, you’re one mean hombre,” Abe added. “I was in combat, but you scared the piss outta me, and I was standing behind you, only listening to one side of the conversation.”
“I’m glad you warned me,” Tristan said. “I was ready to flee when I saw what you were capable of. We’d never help a human who did those types of things … yet, I must admit, they worked. The devils listened, and I think they’ll do as you suggest.”
“Do you really think we can return by helping humans?” Mizo asked.
“I do,” Phil responded, turning his head to address her so the humans would know who he was talking to. “You just need to see it in action, and then get your fellow devils to testify that it’s possible to your brethren.”
“Breth… you mean the jackasses I work with?”
“Yeah, I do. I’m curious, though. Is your name, Mizo, short for miserable?”
She blushed, something Phil had never seen a devil do before.
“Don’t worry, it sounds similar to a Japanese soup. I’ll get some for you to try. You need to begin thinking positively, though I won’t object to some dirty, snide jokes from time to time.”
When he stopped, Meg demanded his attention again. “Are you finished? Are we doing this or not?”
“You know what I’m planning?”
“It’s not hard to figure out, given your approach so far. I’m tired of hiding behind a dark cloud while pretending it’s sunshine and kittens outside. I’m ready to feel better.”
Instead of poking her dragons, Phil shouted at them.
“Hey, you! I know you’ve seen what I’m capable of. What about you?”
The two young dragons turned, hissing and spreading their wings. Phil chuckled.
“Please! You don’t scare me. I’ve dealt with your kind before. I’ve wrestled with plenty of them. I received a couple scratches while none of them remain. Are you willing to cooperate, or would you rather die pointlessly?”
They both folded their wings and fell silent, glancing at each other.
“We lissen,” one answered.
“Same deal as I offered the devils and fairies. You change your tactics, modifying behavior rather than punishing humans. One of you accompanies me to convince the other dragons. If you’re not convinced now, you will be once you see the benefits firsthand. When you return home, you testify how my approach works, while theirs results in hundreds of dead.”
“And is we don’s?”
“I think you already know the answer.”
“We sry, though no promise. If work, we do as wish. Slavsin go. I say. Like girl. Rather not wait her die.”
“Sounds fair. Come on, Slavsin. Let’s go for a walk.”
“I don’t think the other one will stay long,” Meg said, jumping down, assuming the negotiation went well. “I’m still worried about my mother, but since things are looking better, I doubt he’ll have a job for long.”
“Now that all that’s out of the way, let’s get you that shower, some clothes and a decent meal while we discuss particulars. There’s still a lot to cover.”
As they walked away, Phil smiled, recalling his parents, the trigger point which originally prompted him to attack the creatures which tormented their humans. Though his surviving family and friends didn’t know the details—since he never discussed it—they defined who he was. His mother would spend months at a time unable to function, so he was forced to raise himself as well as caring for and hiding her disability. As such, he’d learned to sympathize with those facing hard times, while valuing independence. As a result, he had no problem sitting with the homeless, or giving his employees time off, but when the talk was over, he expected everyone to get back to work. He never wasted time treating people with kid gloves, and everyone realized he didn’t hold their troubles over their heads. He made allowances, but he expected everyone to do the work required of them. He was sympathetic when necessary, but when the talk was done, he would provide a hand up without holding them back. Once you stated your problem, for Phil it was a done deal. The same was now true for these creatures. They’d screwed up for hundreds of years, worsening over time. But now that they knew the road forward, he expected them to work at bettering themselves, and they realized he’d judge them by their action, not by their past mistakes.
He now realized where he’d fallen short. He’d always seen the creatures responsible for his parents disability as an evil force who wrecked their lives and caused everyone misery. Now, he saw those creatures as the same sort of lost souls as those they afflicted. They didn’t know any better. By reaching out, he was giving both them and those they afflicted with a way out of their despair, which granted everyone renewed hope.
He was confident his mother would have been proud of this change in tactics, as it allowed everyone to get back on track with a minimum of fuss. However, he didn’t kid himself. It wouldn’t be easy. He still killed a lot of those he’d worked with today, but that was mainly to illustrate how serious their situation was. If these beings didn’t realize that this was a life and death decision, they would have no reason to play ball. Even then, it would be a gradual struggle. Still, it attracted less attention, allowing him to proceed at a slower but steadier pace.
Yes, this could work, though only time would tell just how successful it might be. Even so, it would take more time, yet had the potential for a bigger payoff in the end.
Happiness is having a large, loving, caring,
close-knit family in another city.
“So you’ll be okay for the next hour or two?”
“Yeah, we’ll be fine,” Abe assured him. “Meg wants to scrub herself clean, which should take a while. After that, she’s excited about going grocery shopping with the money you gave her.”
Phil chuckled. “She’s some kid. I thought she’d want to squirrel some away, but you’d assume she’d want ice cream and cake too.”
“No, she’s interested in some decent food for her school lunches, and plans to stock the hotel room so she’ll have something whenever she needs it. She’s also interested in something for her gym teacher, who lets her use the showers before classes start.”
“She’s way too mature for such a young girl, but that’s what makes her ideal for her new role. Alright, I’ll see you for dinner at the hotel’s dining room. I’ll be indisposed until then.”
Hanging up the hotel phone, Phil launched his laptop’s Skype program. His call was answered almost immediately.
“Hello, Dad. It’s wonderful seeing you again. I see you’ve dyed your hair. It looks good, though I like the old you better. Hold on a moment while I connect everyone.”
Separate windows showing images of Emma and Ethan, Melinda and Jane opened up beneath the main window. Aside from Toni and Jane, his daughter and wife, Melinda was a psychiatrist who supported him early, while Emma and Ethan helped guide him as he figured out how to combat the various creatures. Each was now involved with the Walker Institute in Philadelphia, promoting his work without him.
“Hey, old man, you’re looking … less ancient,” Ethan teased. “How’s the cold and drizzly Northwest treating you?”
“I’m fitting in well. I’m even making new friends and going out to eat occasionally. I’m still recognized, but if I stay away from the obvious locations, it’s not too bad.”
“That’s terrific,” Toni interrupted, recognizing her father wasn’t comfortable talking about himself, “but before this goes too far afield, we wanted to focus more on these creatures who’re triggering the mental disorders. We’re hoping that if we can understand how they operate, we may develop some better strategies for combating them, ourselves.”
“I can’t give you anything specific, but I’ve got a decent idea of how they came to be. Mind you, most of this is conjecture, but it’s based on what I’ve gathered and assumed from other clues. It’s also rather involved.
“The creatures were created by an advanced alien civilization, who found space travel too limiting. Since it takes almost a full lifetime to reach the closest star, it wasn’t practical. Once there, trade or support wasn’t feasible, as it requires the same time to send back only a small sample of goods, with hundreds of years passing by the time they return.
“Instead, they discovered a way to transport travelers almost instantly in a different phase state. This had the additional advantage of allowing them to observe distant worlds without harming the environment or disturbing the natives. Thus they could pick which planets were worth investigating. When they found one with primitive cultures, each investigator would remain long enough to do an in-depth study, ranging from five to forty of our years. They’d live off the resources of the native inhabitants, rather than scrounging for sustenance, and couldn’t be detected by those they were studying. It seemed the perfect system for observing foreign worlds.
“However, in time they saw myriad ways to help these primitive cultures. After a long struggle, they created an array of bio-engineered subspecies who could become sufficiently solid for them to pass on information without being detected. They whispered to the primitives who couldn’t technically hear them, but who accepted the ideas as their own. They’d suggest alternative solutions to problems, and let the native inhabitants develop them however they saw fit.
“Over time, they extended these creatures abilities, with each subspecies focusing on different segments of the culture, targeting separate emotions. Some specialized in guilt to modify negative behavior, some on depression to force them to relate to those less fortunate, and some on emotional weaknesses so the people would seek help sooner.
“What’s more, they targeted creative artists, since they were best able to spread their ideas to others. That’s how each culture developed similar concepts concerning how these ‘magical creatures’ appeared. Storytellers told tall tales of them showing mere humans the errors of their ways, while others invented new ways of solving common problems.
“After thousands of years, at least here on Earth, this advanced race fell on hard times. Instead of focusing on other cultures, they focused on themselves and lost what drove them to succeed in the first place—the very things they tried to foster in other cultures.
“As they stumbled into their own dark ages, losing much of the technical knowledge required to reach other worlds, the subspecies they designed lost their way, too. Since these creatures were developed primarily as messengers, they didn’t have the resources or motivations to succeed or adapt on their own. No one guided them the way they guided others, helping them learn their own way forward.
“As such, they grew resentful, and instead of helping those they were assigned to guide, they sought to destroy them. Thus, the once helpful messages focused on self-destructive advice, and they targeted everyone, not just those who could communicate their ideas.
“In the end, that’s why the original aliens selected me. It seems there is something in my genetic makeup which allows me to handle the phase change these creatures use. This allows me to see, hear, and touch them, allowing me to fight them.”
“Wow! This is fascinating stuff,” Toni said, huddled over her notebook, jotting down notes. “But how did you come upon this much history? From what Emma recalls, you only spoke to a few of the creatures you fought. Somehow, I doubt they’d tell you not only why they were created, but also why they failed—specifically if they didn’t understand it themselves.”
“Did you ever communicate with the creator race?” Melissa asked. “Is that how you learned so much?”
“Alas, no, I didn’t,” Phil lied. “Instead, just before I lost my abilities, I had a dream where they described what was happening. At the time, I didn’t take it seriously, assuming it was my mind’s way of processing what happened, but over time—”
“You realized you were being guided,” Emma surmised, finishing his thought. “The same way they led everyone else, by making you think their ideas were your own.”
“I must say,” Melissa observed, “it’s an ingenious method of motivating people, using their egos to motivate new behaviors!”
“This is fascinating, but it’s hard to figure out where to go from here,” Toni said. “Did they give you any clues how any of this works, or how we might limit their abilities?”
“I’ve had a few ideas which I’m trying to work through, but I didn’t want to distract you from the important tasks you’re doing.”
“Wouldn’t it be better to discuss it? Maybe we could provide some insights into how to approach the problems?”
“Nah, my ideas are too unfocused, the concepts too preliminary. I’ll need to flesh them out before presenting them; otherwise you’ll be as confused as I am. Besides, they give me something to concentrate on rather than my own issues. I prefer wrestling with these details in solitude, instead of drifting restlessly while avoiding everyone.”
“That’s classic behavior for my father,” Toni advised the others. “He never likes to tell anyone what he’s planning until it’s fleshed out and fully scheduled.”
“Tell me about it,” Jane said, grinning. “Every year, I’d swear he’d forgotten everyone’s birthday and our anniversary, and he never wanted to be reminded. Yet, at the last minute he’d spring a big surprise, well thought out, paid for in advance and requiring us to run out the door at a moment’s notice.”
“Well, this is intriguing, though I’m not sure how much it’ll help with treatments,” Melissa said. “We’ll need to take this offline and discuss it among ourselves, but it’s more informative than helpful.”
“What about the different species? Do they have any noticeable weaknesses or limitations?”
“Many utilize tools, like pencils and pitchforks. They appear largely symbolic, but there’s no telling how they’re constructed. It’s possible that if we could limit their access to those items, it may limit them. They use them to strengthen each individual’s susceptibility.”
“We could try creating electric shocks or electrified netting they’d have to pass through,” Toni suggested. “Unfortunately, there’s no way to measure its success.”
“It’s at least something for us to work with,” Melissa responded. “Though I suspect the simpler ideas, like Phil’s focusing on their worst fears, seem more productive.”
“All right,” Toni declared, “it sounds like Dad has his own plans to consider, so let’s take this offline and see what leads we might generate from them.”
“Oh, one last thing: do you have any contacts with psychology schools in Seattle? I’d like to observe various people in a controlled environment while trying different techniques.”
“I do, in fact,” Toni replied, using her phone to find the number and message it to her father. “The University of Washington contacted us, asking for information. I’ll send you the links for the Psychology department head, Nancy Ellison.”
“Ah, I should of thought of the University first. It’s perfect.”
“The university?” Toni pressed.
“Sorry, since it’s such a central part of life here in Seattle, that’s how they refer to it. Either that, or simply UW.”
“I’ll remember that the next time I talk to them,” Toni assured him.
“Thanks for the contact, I appreciate it.”
As Phil closed his connection, Tristan hovered near his ear.
“Are you sure you’re comfortable lying to your family and friends?”
“I’d rather not let them know what’s happening until I decide whether this new approach works. While it appears more practical, it depends upon everyone’s participation, which affects the results. Since everyone back home is focused on their own goals, I prefer not distracting them with false hopes until I have something specific.”
“You sure you no feel bad?” Slavsin asked, perking up, his tail twitching.
“No! I’ve nothing to be depressed about. It’s purely a matter of focus.” Phil took a moment to consider their new addition. “You seem to understand more than you did earlier?”
Tristan giggled, a delightful sound coming from a fairy who threw off fairy dust with each chuckle. “I’ve been coaching him while you were busy. He’s developing nicely.”
“Figure no ‘vince others, if all I say is bad words.”
“That makes sense,” Phil acknowledged as he picked up his phone. “It shows you’re already modifying your thinking, considering alternatives. I like it. Now if you could include Mizo, we’d all be working on the same page.”
“I’m workin’ on it, but she’s less receptive,” Tristan admitted.
“This dumb. Devils torment!” Mizo countered.
“Who are you calling now?” Tristan asked.
“I’m making plans to document how effective our new approach is,” Phil said as the call was answered.
“Hello, University of Washington, Nancy Ellison speaking.”
“Good afternoon, this is Phil Walker. You may not be familiar with—”
“Wait, this is the Phil Walker? The one from Philadelphia?”
Phil smirked. “I expect there’s more than one in Philly, and several more in the nearby suburbs, but yes, I’m the one you’re thinking of.”
“Oh, my goodness. When I spoke with your daughter, she said they weren’t in a position to suggest treatment or training options. How … how may I help you?”
“I’d like to ask something unexpected, and I’d prefer it not get back to my center in Philadelphia. I want to come in and discuss it, but since it’s fairly significant for the University’s future, I’d like to meet with a psychology researcher, yourself and one of the administrators of the University—someone authorized to underwrite investments.”
“I’ll contact them, though we’ll see how open their schedules are. When will you be available?”
“I’m already in town. If you can arrange it, I’d like to meet tomorrow. I suspect this will have a major impact on both of our futures, so I’m sure the people involved can make time. To make it easier to schedule, I’m thinking two in the afternoon, though I’m open to shifting the time if necessary.
“That sounds good. We have your number from our caller ID, so we’ll call to confirm.”
After he hung up, Tristan fluttered in front of his face, her face scowling.
“You realize, she thinks you’re proposing investing in the university, don’t you?”
“You not expose us?” Mizo asked.
“Not directly, but it’s important I remain independent of the university for this to work. Other than that, you’ll have to wait until the meeting, tomorrow.”
“What will you tell Mom when you see her?” Meg asked, studying Phil as they walked back to Pioneer Park.
“First, I want to see how she’s doing. If her devils are carrying their weight, I’ll leave them be. If not, I may need to persuade them again.”
“Wouldn’t it be better if you killed them all?” she asked.
“Shh,” Abe cautioned, glancing around them. “Watch the language.”
“It would, but I want the devils to know I’m watching their every move. Anyone else, I’d disappear and never see the results. Here, I’m not about to back off, regardless of who knows about me.”
“That’s not the same, but I’m glad you’re sticking it out.” Meg paused, her brow crinkling as she tried to remember the details of things she couldn’t see. “The devils are her addiction, right?”
“The black devils, yes. There are also red ones, too, which are more dangerous to Phil, at least,” Abe said, indicating he knew more than he’d revealed before.