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A Trickster's Tail - Part 12

Copyright (c) 1997 Phaedrus; All rights reserved

This message has been certified Conspiracy-Free. It is guaranteed to contain no mention or reference to any plot, plan or scheme for the large-scale conversion of any humans or primates into any other form, other than the reference incorporated in this sentence. This message is suitable for readers of all species. Please report any violations of this policy to our Biodiversity Sensitivity Task Force immediately. Thank you for your cooperation. We hope you will enjoy tonight's performance.

A plain-looking black van rolled south on I-5, leaving the downtown skyscrapers behind. The driver was dressed in sunglasses and a black suit; he flicked the radio buttons, finding a traffic report. "I-5 north and south through the city still movin' along just fine. There's a blocking disabled on eastbound 520 at the western highrise; I-90 is definitely your bridge of choice tonight. If you're heading downtown this evening, steer way clear of First and Pike; there's a horrible backup there--no word yet on what the hold-up is, but police are on the way. And we just got word of a car-semi collision southbound on the Valley Freeway; at this rate, looks like it's gonna be a rocky commute tonight..."

In the passenger seat, an almost-identical man picked a few stray brownish hairs off his suit. A small tranquilizer gun sat in his lap; a revolver was holstered at his hip.

The side walls of the van were loaded with cabinets of various sizes, their contents hidden from view. At the very back, a small bench was mounted to the left, a large cage to the right.

On the bench sat a man, who looked like he had just stepped off the cover of a fantasy novel. Every inch of him screamed "wizard". His eyes had just the right amount of fire; his silvery beard was just the right length; his boots had just the right curl at the toes. His blue robes crawled with magical symbols. He stared levelly at the cage.

And in the cage, a coyote lay motionless in a corner. A thick black collar, with no sign of a buckle, was tight around its neck; a muzzle was strapped to its head.

It finally stirred.

"About damn time," the wizard muttered.

Keith slowly raised his head, looked around, towards the front of the van.

"Over here, you dumb mutt!"

An unseen force gripped Keith's muzzle, wrenched it around towards the wizard. He couldn't move, couldn't even blink. He felt cold, despite the fur; he knew that there was no trace of power in him.


There was no answer. The link was dead.

The wizard looked right into its eyes, leaned over until his head nearly touched the side of the cage.

"So, we finally meet, Kickaha. Or should I say, Mister Dorner? Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Maelstrom. Not that it matters to you, since you're never going to be in a position to call me anything at all."

This certainly isn't how I expected to die, Keith thought.

"You know, this is really all your fault," Maelstrom continued. "If you'd had the common sense to just go along the first time, we could have met under better circumstances. We might even have been partners. As it is, you made me look bad. Do you have any idea how embarrassing it is to have the person you're interrogating turn out to be a rat? With your superior watching? Do you have the slightest clue how many explanations that takes?"

He smiled coldly, leaned back casually. "But frankly, I'm glad now that it turned out this way. I actually thought that catching you would be a challenge. But frankly, you were a joke. And if there's one thing I can't stand, it's working with losers."

He stood up, stepped forward, and leaned down on the roof of the cage, head and hands pressed against the bars, smile never wavering. Keith was still frozen in place; he could no longer see Maelstrom's face, and he was not at all unhappy about that. But he felt an unseen icy hand stroke the fur on his cheek, work its way down his side, a mockery of tenderness.

"So right now, Mister Kickaha, you are going to see my employer. He's very anxious to talk to you. And I suggest you pray very hard that he decides to kill you himself. Because if he turns you over to me, I have some ideas of my own that I've really been looking forward to trying."

The unseen hand stroked Keith's tail.

Maelstrom smiled, still leaning on the cage. He could watch this all day...

A few hundred feet ahead, a garbage bag swirled in the breeze, just above the right center lane.

A Ford Escort swerved to avoid it, cutting in front of an old pickup in the left center lane. The driver jammed on the brakes for a moment, honking and swearing in German. In the bed of the pickup, a heavy oxygen cylinder lurched forward. A rusty chain snapped. As the pickup accelerated again, the cylinder toppled over, rolling backwards, building momentum. It slammed into the tailgate, popped it open, and rolled those last two feet off the edge, bouncing off the pavement and into the left lane, just in time to disappear under a passing black van...

The van vaulted into the air, spinning sideways, front axle swinging wildly, fuel spraying from the undercarriage. It landed on its roof, skidded upside-down for a few dozen feet, then caught on something, flipped end-over-end, and slammed down on the remains of its wheels with a horrendous crash. Facing backwards now, it scraped its way down the pavement, leaving a trail of parts and fire, then finally ground to a halt against the median.

Keith shook his head, groggy from being slammed against the cage. He was his old Kickaha-self again, crouched in the cage, collar gone, cloak wrapped around his chest. He could feel the power in him again; how could that be?

He twisted around, looked towards the front of the van. Smoke and fire filled the windshield. The two men in suits were slumped in their seats. Between them, someone lay dead on the floor, neck bent at an impossible angle. He was dressed in blue jeans, Keds, and a gaudy blue robe that was clearly bought at a costume shop somewhere

He couldn't have been older than fifteen.

Keith turned his head away.

{{Would you terribly mind if we didn't roast in here?}}

Keith found himself condensing, shifting into raven form. The door of the cage popped open, followed shortly by the rear doors of the van. Keith found himself flying out, circling, gaining altitude, finally heading north.

{{A damn illusionist. I should've known. It was all so perfect.}}

{It was just a kid,} Keith mumbled, still disbelieving.

{{That's the breaks... Sorry. Bad choice of words.}}

Below and behind them, the van exploded in a plume of fire.

{{You know, it's like I said before. Getting killed twice in one week is just too damn much. I think it's about time for a long change of scenery.}}

Keith was silent for a few seconds. {Not yet,} he said finally.

{{Huh?? Ummm, Keith, need I remind you that...}}

{There's one thing I need to do.}

It was Kickaha's turn to pause.

{{You know, I'm not usually in a position to say this. But this isn't very smart.}}

There was no answer.

{{I'm not going to be able to get a moment's peace if I say no, am I?}}


{{That's what I thought.}} Another pause. {{What the hell.}}

The raven turned, headed west.

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