Return of the Orange Virgin

Chapter Twenty-one—Card Tricks and Cheap Tricks

At a comfortable remove from the failing cosmos, snug in a sub-basement of the former Hotel Taft on New York City’s Seventh Avenue the Fata Morgana blinked and said, “Thursday... But, but...”

“Thursday as defined as an ordinary day in the equinoctial precession—a wink and a whistle, actually. That’s a give or take,” said the eidolon. “Nature doesn’t allow paradoxes. I repeat: What the doers have done, the doers must undo. I am but a messenger, and that’s the message.” The eidolon turned to stare at El who was fiddling with a watch fob in a pocket of his host body’s vest. “Isn’t there something you should be doing? I mean somewhere else.”

“They say New Jersey is lovely at this time of the year,” said the Orange Virgin with an un-goddess-like smirk. There was an icy note of calm in her voice.

“Nonsense. I am everywhere,” said El. “I can make holes in time and start new solar systems spinning, upend the pyramids and unwind the skein of probability in a dozen different realities, but he can’t go home till I let him.” El specified the burly bearded frame of Gershon Meyrowitz with a two-handed gesture. Gershon bowed. The cat hissed. He hissed back, chagrined at perhaps having said too much. He looked mildly frantic and waved the omelette pan in the cat’s face. “Not Teaneck...” El/Gershon flapped his arms and brandished the scorched omelette pan in a futile gesture of menace.

“You have burned your quiche, godling. An insignificant farrago,” said the eidolon. “Compared with...”

“Funny.” Linda Winkelman giggled.

“Funny? I don’t think any of this is one bit funny,” said the Fata Morgana, Orange Virgin, Queen of Heaven, etc., etc. “Forget this, Linda. Forget everything. I’ll get back to you as soon as I can.” Linda’s head fell forward to her chest; she made gentle snoring sounds.

“...Teaneck, New Jersey,” continued the eidolon. “There is no option. You may interpret this as a direct pronouncement from the Old Ones. You are underfoot and together the two of you are creating an incredible hash of things. One of you should be elsewhere. You. And get that poor man a bath,” said the eidolon. Squaring his shoulders, the demiurge shambled to the service elevator. “And now for you, Miss Piggy.” The eidolon and the cat turned as one to stare at the Fata Morgana.

She sat down. “Ouch.” She had hurt herself. She stood to check her rear end. There was a curly pink tail—the tail of a piglet—protruding at the base of her spine. “A cheap trick,” she bellowed at the sky. “El. I know this is his doing—not yours nor yet the Old Ones, this on-again off-again piglet business. I thought it was a convenience for befuddling this pig-killer of mine, this Harry Pease. While I realize I am at your mercy, Lord Eidolon, and here under your sufferance, there is no requirement in our dispensation to thus be constantly hectored. Return my own regal fundament to its proper condition. Please?”

“Please and Thank you—the magic words. No. Not immediately, O Beautiful One. There is an issue.” The dislocation traveled on, taking her with it as the eidolon flapped leisurely alongside.

*  *  *

In the cellars of the Hotel Taft, Linda was left alone with the cat. There was an insistent scratching at the door. She tried to rise and found her knees stuck under the table. She was wedged in tight. “It’s open.” She must have ordered out for Chinese.

The scratching was louder now, more insistent. “I said come in, godammit,” Linda shouted as she fumbled around for loose cash. She was broke. Where was the checkbook.

The door splintered and fell open. The cat gave out with a yowl of abject terror and departed vertically, up the side of a stand of stainless steel shelving that reached to the ceiling.

“You wouldn’t have a match on you would you, girlie?” the visitor asked hopefully. The creature was a distillation of the fears that grow best alone and in the dark: a Manticore, a myth. Between its bared fangs was installed the now-defunct butt of a thick, short black cigar. The Manticore exuded the odor of rainy childhood afternoons, pious old people and the chemical composition of the afterlife. The creature’s eyes flashed lime-green highlights, verdigris and gold: a summer housefly buzzing at the window.

Linda Winkelman breathed in the odor of her great-grandmother’s kitchen curtains: wood smoke and cinnamon, a smell of fly-speckled pictures, peeling kitchen paint and the slops bucket under the sink. With the smells came a recollection of Sundays and hellfire from a pounded pulpit, a reluctant child dragged along to hear the litany. The apparition was a visitor from her great-grandmother’s blameless grave.

“Do you believe in Hell?” Linda asked. “Sorry, that was a dumb question.”

The Manticore sighed, a draft of wet paper matches sputtering. “No question is dumb. This is how we learn, honey.” He was diffident. “This Hell, though—no, can’t say that I have.” He scratched his ear with a foot. “Heard of it, that is. Believing is something else. My turn. What is Hell and why do you ask? I mean, I have suggested this to you, right?”

“The red-haired woman with no clothes on, that skanky guy who needs a bath. They are your partners, ancient gods and goddesses, whatever? You don’t have to worry about giving anything away. Everything they said was gibberish to me.”

“Sorry about that. And this, too. I am only trying to be helpful.” He batted his eyes at her and flashed a grin. Weird and strange, the creature reminded Linda of the big, dumb, loving collie dog she had as a child. And, like the dog, its smile showed many rows of sharp teeth. She cast about for something—anything—to defend herself with. Ah, the frying pan. The Manticore regarded the charred remains that clung to the pan. “A kidnapper’s quiche. Mighty tasty, I hear. I am the Manticore. It was chloral hydrate, Mickey Finn, you know—that was what they injected you with.”

Linda rubbed her ankles. “That may be your name, but who are you? All of you; there seems to be a porcupine in there with you. I know where we are but why are we here? More to the point why are you here? And what are you?”

The Manticore again scratched at an ear. “Actually, the story is much more interesting than the mere facts. The stones,” he said.

“The stones...”

“Bedrock, the castle keep. I mean tens of thousands of years—more or less—and a fellow buried up to his neck in cement there’s a lot of time for reflection. My companions were not much for serious conversation. The Goat—a joker, I couldn’t get a word in edgeways. The Cow—all wrapped up in his own affairs. A silent fellow, Cow.”

“He...” Linda rubbed at her chafed wrists. The Supreme Being’s cords had left a bruise. “A cow is a she. You are confused whatever you are.”

“A Manticore, as I have told you. A long and illustrious line. Now set to tending after tumescent toddlers by the Queen of Heaven. Or one toddler. He looks full grown, our Biff. You haven’t seen a male personage about—stark naked with the lineaments of an ancient Greek god by any chance?”

“I am sure I would remember...”

“In the usual course of things, I agree. Remembering is what separates us sentient beings from the lesser creatures.”

“I remember that I haven’t seen a naked man hereabouts. This is the basement of the Hotel Taft; all sorts of things are possible on Seventh Avenue,” said Linda. “Have you checked Times Square?”

“You will have to pay attention if we are to be getting on with things, young woman. We were speaking about cows and sex. A popular topic in the dungeons of the Lady of the Wild Things, let me tell you. Cow insisted that he was a bullock. Goat ragged on him mercilessly, thus raising the spiritual temperature of our fetid underground. Dudgeons were raised. We bickered and quarreled but to no avail. The tell-tale parts of Cow’s anatomy were firmly fixed in the stones. There was no possible way to ascertain the truth or falsehood of Cow’s assertions.”

“I’m afraid that you are only a figment. You are nothing but a bad dream and I shall presently wake up and get about my business.”

“How distressing. That you do not believe in me. I do hope that you are asking a simple question of names, backgrounds and map coordinates. There could be a...”

“For starters, I would be pleased to hear anything about just what the hell is going on.”

The creature looked crushed. Linda had a flash of recollection from that life before now, when she had been somebody else. When? A neighborhood boy had shown her his collection of matchbook covers and wild birds’ eggs. She had laughed, then afterwards felt bad.

Linda paced. Though an infrequent smoker, she craved a cigarette. “You are not answering any question I ask. You are making a big show of making a big show. You are making every effort in fact, to avoid answering my questions while all the time trying to appear helpful and cooperative, and I simply don’t believe you for one minute. You are a kidnapper plain and simple. I have been abducted and I want to know why. And right now, please.”

The Manticore performed a stagy bit of sleight-of-hand and pulled a package of cigarettes from behind her ear. “The tobacco’s okay, pre-war. The good stuff. I get them out of the radio.” He thumbed one up and offered her the pack. “Here.”

Linda accepted gratefully. He gets them from the radio. She decided not to ask. The creature touched off a broom straw at the stove and offered a light. The kettle El the demiurge had set on to boil whistled a summons and the apparition busied himself with tea things. Filling a porcelain pot with leaves and water, he wiped off two cups and straddled the bench. Leaning an elbow on the table he stared at Linda. “You haven’t asked me if I can read your mind.”

“Can you?”

“No. Can you read mine?”

“I don’t have to, and if you think coming on to me is going to get you off the hook, think again. I want some answers.”

“Irony and venom both, pity. That you can’t read my mind, that is. Because I find you quite fascinating and that is the simple unvarnished truth.” It stood up. “One of our people can read minds but she’s occupied on the Other Side right now. Uh, where you come from, that is. She can put on a real crackerjack of a show. Actually you have met her already. But here, our tea is done and I’m getting ahead of myself. The truth of why you are here is sort of complicated and doesn’t lend itself to easy answers. Let us have a nice walkabout and you shall learn everything.”

Linda stood, stamped her foot and smashed her teacup against the iron range. “I do not want to be diverted, I do not want to be talked down to like a child and I don’t want your goddamned tea and unctuousness. I want to know what the hell is happening and I want to go home. Now.”

“A violent punctuation. Your words would have been sufficient.” The Manticore waved a taloned hand majestically in the air. “Get a load of this,” he announced. A flickering blue and pink neon sign appeared. Its pink parts fluttered and sparked irregularly, something was arcing. There was a smell of ozone. Strong steady blue lettering proclaimed Say Goodbye To Unwanted Hair With The Amazing Remov-A-Tron.

“And you do tricks. How charming.” The visitor with the tail of a lion and the quills of a porcupine definitely had her attention. Linda feigned indifference. “That’s very nice, but I don’t see...”

“Well, of course if you don’t like that we can always try again. You will have to pardon me; I am a little peckish today. I’m not used to spur-of-the-moment performances, but I think I can come up with something stirring.” Linda was making him sweat. “Ta-Dah!” This time the sign was orange, the letters large and even. There was no smell of ozone. WELCOME TO THE NEW JERSEY TURNPIKE. REDUCE SPEED APPROACHING PLAZA.

“That’s very nice. A regular touch of home.” Linda walked around the letters expecting backwards writing, a mirror image. No matter which way she looked at the turnpike warning it read forwards. The letters had no back. “Neat. Does it do anything?” The sign vanished with a small ‘pop.’

“Being is what it does. Or did,” sighed the Manticore. He had tried, really tried. Next she would be asking for card tricks. “It’s Art. It is its own reason for being—it doesn’t have to do anything.”

“You don’t do any card tricks, do you?” Linda asked.

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