“Oh, for the love of God, not again!”
That was me, telling the universe what I thought about its sense of humor. I had just gotten off the bus within sight of home, ready to rest and recuperate after being grilled by unsympathetic Metro Detectives and bureaucrats and then I find myself back in that same godforsaken fairyland where we were while trying to find the wizard Landau Bain. The only thing I needed to make my day complete was that fop of an elf lord showing up, what was his name? Oh, yeah, Titus… something. In his own way, he was even more irritating than Frankie on a tear.
Instead of looking down a quaint San Francisco residential city block lined by century-plus old Victorian homes, I was staring open-mouthed at that same hideous brick walkway that curved away from me toward a hill shaped like some clichéd Hollywood designer’s fantasy.
Me? I’m Tony Mandolin, Private Eye to the weird and not so wonderful. I’d just finished up a case dealing with Santa’s less than congenial twin, Krampus Klaus where that thorn in my side Agent Radlum was revealed as one of Lucifer’s lieutenants and had the immense satisfaction of sending said demon on his way to an extremely uncomfortable eternity. Do I need the work? No, not really. Not since I got paid for a case where the original vampire, Count Dracula himself was the client. Seems guys like that pay in ancient gold coins, lots and lots of ancient gold coins. Melted down, they’d make me a millionaire many times over, sold at auction as collectibles, the dollar amount gains dizzying Bill Gates heights. So it’s no wonder I’m keeping that stash under the watchful eye of a Norse God by the name of Odin. In his human guise, he’s the owner of my favorite neighborhood watering hole, The Snug.
My home, San Francisco, Fog City to the long-term residents, is lousy with people like that. You can’t spit without hitting a wizard, witch, elf, fairy, or any number of inhuman peoples and things. Maybe that’s why it has the personality and reputation it has. Go ahead, wander on down into the Castro District during the Halloween season and try and tell me that’s all human. I’ll wait.
As weird and rotten as it is, it’s still home, so it’s no wonder I was seriously pissed at being shunted from my reality to… whatever this was.
Just like before, the colors were all wrong, it was like being in the original Wizard of Oz with the color knob turned just too far. Frankly, it was giving me a headache.
You can only stand and fume so long. A hell of a lot of practice dealing with the comic book that had become my life taught me that movement was more conducive to survival than standing still. Besides, there was a chance, however slight, that I just may run across someone, or some… thing that could point me, or even send me toward home. I started walking.
I also kept my eyes and ears open. It was almost as if those senses had been turned up to eleven. Guaranteed it was nerves, not magic. With the word magic rattling around in my brain, I reached for the pendant Bain had made for me when I was dealing with a certain out-to-get-Mandolin faerie Queen by the name of Medb. It contained what the faerie world calls cold iron, pulled from my own blood, and the wizard made it as a form of protection against magic. I don’t know how he did it, and I was there watching. Regardless, the thing worked, and me being alive proves it.
Thinking of the pendant and its ankh shape took me over to thinking about the world Medb came from. She called it Tír na nÓg, in Gaelic it means, Land of Youth because those who live there never die of natural causes. That doesn’t mean they aren’t dying from unnatural causes every damn day, but, well, it’s Irish. But wherever I was wasn’t there, this was somewhere else. It had more the look of what had been bled into Medb’s world when we ran into all sorts of Grimm’s fairy creations, including an old witch with her own cauldron. And then there was the old forest and the carnivorous grapes. Don‘t ask.
Figuring I had nothing better to do than mooch on down the yellow brick road, well… more baby poop-color than anything else, and see what was on the other side of the hill. Turned out the other side looked much the same as the one I’d left behind me.
As I walked my eyes caught the assorted bits of evidence flitting here and there proving this wasn’t my beloved Fog City. Also, there was no horizon I could see and the identically-shaped clouds scudding by in a far too blue sky cemented the notion. The flitting bits were not insects, unless insects come bipedal with perfectly matched female breasts.
When I hit the flat at the bottom of the other side of the hill, I saw a dark line off in the distance. Stretched to either side of me, as far as my eyes could see was wave upon wave of grass with pink and violet flowers showing, again so evenly spaced it could not be natural.
A splash of color hit the sea of grass and began to come in to view as I walked. And after a bit more walking the color began to show as flowers, poppies, I thought. Now, why did that ring an alarm bell in the back of my mind? There was something about poppies that signaled danger. I decided to look and not touch, but that had also been the rule the last time I visited.
There was a scent coming from the poppies. It was also familiar and very, very inviting. I kept reminding myself to just keep walking. The dark line was now recognizable as a line of trees. I focused on that and quickened my pace away from the field of flowers.
“Eat grass and die!”
The tiny cries came from the direction of the poppies. It seemed wiser to imagine what the mouths issuing the insults looked like rather than finding out for sure.
The tree line was quite clear once I was past the petulant poppies, and something vaguely pinkish came out of the trees. At first I thought it looked like a guy riding a large pig. And then, as it got closer I realized it was actually a guy riding a large pig.
He was dressed in some kind of Middle Ages costume including a Robin Hood-style hat with a red feather stuck in it.The pig was… a pig, with a bright pink ribbon tied around its neck, and it had a cigar jutting out of its mouth. Small pinkish clouds of smoke puffed up from the other side of the pig’s mouth, like little clumps of cotton candy. As I got even closer I could see it was smoke coming from an ornate meerschaum pipe.
The guy on top of the pig reined in as I drew near.
“Well, good day to you, traveler,” He said.
I replied, “Uh… yeah. Same to you.”
“Would you be interested in a trade?” He asked, smiling down at me from the pig. Yes, I said down, because his head was about a full foot above mine. This was one huge hog. Said pig was eyeing me as the rider and I talked.
The question caught me by surprise. I said, “Trade? Trade for what?”
The rider waved a hand in the air, “For what, indeed! That is the game, my friend. I,” He placed the hand on his chest, “Am know as Clever Hans. I trade this for that and that for this and never once have I come out the lesser for the play.”
Something told me to not trust this guy the slightest fraction of an inch. “Yeah, well…” I said, “Good luck with that.”
“You will not trade?” He sounded disappointed, almost desperate.
I shrugged, and replied, “From what I can see, Hans is you have nothing I’m interested in. Thanks anyway,” I finished and turned to keep on walking.
I heard what sounded like muffled hooves on stone, a kind of a kliph-kloph, kliph-kloph and then the pig was galumping past me and then it turned and blocked my way.
Hans wasn’t smiling this time, “You… have… to… trade,” He rasped out.
I slowly felt around in my coat for my gun. Quite a ways back, Landau Bain, the scariest wizard in all creation, had umm… enhanced the gun and its ammo. It was an FN 5.7 with a bullet that looks like it came from some kid’s beginning .22 rifle and the recoil is next to nothing, but when it hits it has an impact like that of a fifty caliber sniper round. It also seems to works on the magical types ordinary human weapons won’t touch.
I asked as I put my fingers around the gun’s butt, “Why?”
Hans stared at me as if I was speaking gibberish. He sputtered, “Y-you can’t ask that! No one can ask that. Not here!”
Seems I’d touched a nerve, so, because I am who I am, I pressed, “Why?”
Hans flinched and looked over his shoulder, “Stop… saying that!” He hissed in a whisper.
I was tempted to begin repeating it in a sing-song, but as I’m a mature, healthy, okay, healthy anyway, male I didn’t. Instead, I asked. “Again, why?”
The pig broke in with a voice very much like Danny DeVito’s, “G-wan, tell ‘im.”
Now you would think that a giant pig smoking a German-style pipe that puffs out cotton candy-colored smoke would give a guy pause. You would think that unless you’ve had the sort of life I’ve had this past decade. As far as I was concerned a talking pig was way down there on the weirdness scale. If you want details, ask the dragon who runs the San Francisco library system. Better yet, ask Santa, he’s a chum.
Hans looked down at the pig and said, “But—.”
The pig repeated itself, “G-wan, tell ‘im.” This time making it an order, not a suggestion.
Hans sighed, looking very put upon and then said, “There are rules…”
“Screw da rools. Tell ‘im.”
Hans asked me, “Do you know where you are?”
I shrugged, figuring that, at this point, brevity was a good survival skill.
Hans made a wide sweep of his hand and declared, “This is Märchenland, where every dream has come to life.”
I nodded, and then a thought struck me, so I put it into words, “Why are there rules?”
“Pu-leese don’t say that word,” Han pleaded in a hoarse whisper.
I tried going at it from another angle and asked, “All right, what is the problem with that word? Do the rules have anything to say about that?”
“Tell ‘im, buttboy,” the pig grunted, “G-wan.”
“I’m trying!” Hans nearly shrieked out the phrase.
“Try harder,” The pig grunted.
“All right!!” Han screamed, and then he settled himself down and said, “The W word is forbidden to be spoken here because it causes… ripples.”
Yep, I blinked. “Ripples? I asked.
“Changes then,” Hans said, in a calmer tone, “It causes changes, and changes are not allowed to be caused by those who live here.”
I nodded, understanding none of this. “Fine,” I said, then I guess I’ll be going.”
The pig shifted to block me, “Gotta trade somethin’,” It croaked.
“Because its the rule, right?” I replied.
“Hey,” The pig said, smiling, yes it smiled, really, “Youz a right guy.”
I fished around in my pockets and came up with a quarter. I thought, “What the heck?” And held it out, “What’ll you give me for this?” I asked.
The pig reached out with its snout and sniffed, “Can’t eat it,” It grunted.
Hans reached down with an open palm, “May I?” He asked.
I dropped the quarter into his hand, “Yeah, sure,” I replied.
Holding it up against the light, he squinted as he examined the coin. “Hmm,” He murmured, “Lovely sculpture work. Is this a man of some importance?” He asked.
He flipped it over and exclaimed, “What a beast! Did he ride that?”
The beast was the buffalo on the other side of the quarter. I seriously doubted if George Washington ever knew they existed, but it was damned impressive.
I lied, “He had millions of them, so who’s to know which one he rode?” Well… technically it was a supposition, not actually an outright lie.
“Ah…” He said, still looking at the coin, “Then this has value.”
The way he said the word value meant he wasn’t thinking about the two bits in the same way I was.
I asked, “All right, what would you trade for the coin?”
Hans smiled broadly, “Ah… now it begins.” He reached down onto the other side of the pig and pulled up a frilled soft leather satchel.
“What do we have… what do we have,” He muttered to himself as he rummaged.
The pig got restless, “C’mon, c’mon, we’re burning daylight here and I ain’t getting any younger. We got to get there in time, y’know.”
“Okay… okay…” Hans replied, still rummaging.
I would not have been surprised to see him climb in and then pop out of the satchel head first with his find.
“Here we are!” He exclaimed, holding up a small pouch. He upended it over his hand and three familiar-looking beans poured out.
I looked at them and Hans watched me looking at them. Together we shook our heads, saying, “No…”
The next thing he held up was an old Persian style lamp.
I said, “Oh, hell no.”
“O… kay…” Hans said, diving back into the satchel. “How about… a map!” He declared, holding it high above his head.
Now that could prove useful. I held out a hand, and asked, “May I see it?”
He held the quarter closer to his body and then slowly extended the map. I took it in a quick snatch before he could change his mind and then opened the thing up.
It looked to be hand drawn with a dark brown ink on a pale ochre type of paper or perhaps parchment. Who knew, based on where I was. It had the various roads laid out with nifty drawings of forests, creeks, rivers, mountains and so on. It looked like your basic fantasy map like the ones in the hardback Lord of the Rings copies. Some of the names were in red and other were a darker brown than the lines. The trees were in green and there was one road done in a sort of golden brown.
I said, “Yeah, this could work. Deal.”
Hans laughed and declared, “Done, and done.”
The pig grunted, “Finally. Good talkin’ to ya, stranger.” And off they trotted.
I watched the still amusing sight of the guy riding the pig for a few seconds and then turned my attention back to the map. Something told me there should be more folks on the road. It had the look of being maintained, but in the past couple of hours, all I’d seen was Hans and his hog. Well, there had been the foul-mouthed poppies, but really, who considers the flowers as part of the gathering?
I mumbled, as I looked the map over, “I wonder where in the dickens I am on this thing?”
The map twitched and then a spot appeared as if an ink drop hit wet paper and then it shrank into a small red dot.
I asked the air, “Is that dot supposed to be me?”
The dot swelled and then shrank back into its original size in a sort of pulse.
I asked again, “Was that… a yes?”
It pulsed again, a repetition of the first one.
I remembered something from my childhood when mom would read me stories. I asked, “What if the answer’s a no?”
The dot pulsed twice.
“I got it,” I said, “Once for yes, twice for no.”
The dot was on the yellowish colored road. I looked down. The bricks were the same color as the drawing.
I said to myself, “Well, this could be interesting…”
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