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A Trickster's Tail - Part 17

Copyright (c) 1998 Phaedrus; All rights reserved

My thanks to our fearless leader Thomas Hassan for spurring me to write this. I have an idea for the nasty contest; it's not the sort of story I would normally write, but dammit, I'll give it a try. And I wasn't going to even start on that until I'd cleared this off the decks. :-)

Please note that I've removed the No More Fakes label from this storyline. I'm not deliberately trying to depart from the NMF timeline; it's just that I don't want to try to crosscheck everything against it either.

Kickaha was finding Portland even more to his liking than Seattle. It was still large enough to get lost in, but not large enough to make him feel cut off from the real world. There were parks and trees everywhere, even more so than in Seattle. The air was a little clearer, the sounds a little calmer. And there was this simply wonderful place called Powell's, that seemed to have every book that existed in this world. He was going to have to talk to Keith about setting up housekeeping there tonight; with a little magic, there was no reason why they couldn't... and he didn't think that Keith would need too much persuading. After all, he could always threaten to find other forms of entertainment...

Everything was looking great. Their disguise spells were working perfectly; nobody batted an eye at the fox browsing the shelves at Powell's, or at the coyote loping through the shopping district on all fours.

Of course, all of this good news meant that it was about time for something to blow up. And Kickaha had an idea of what that might be.

Keith was up to something.

About ten minutes after they'd left that old man, Keith had started smiling. He'd stopped at the next decent-sized forest they came to, and Sung for just a few minutes--a land speed record for him. When he came out of it, he'd kept on heading south, as if nothing had happened; he'd even let Kickaha do the flying. But that mental grin of his was ear-to-ear now. He'd figured something out. And he wasn't talking about it--he was waiting for Kickaha to ask, and knowing that he eventually would.

And, of course, that redoubled Kickaha's resolve not to ask; he'd been someone else's straightman just a wee bit too often lately. Oh, sure, he could just look in Keith's mind... but that would be cheating, and they both knew it. Twice over the course of the afternoon, he started to peek... then immediately caught himself, and went nonchalantly on about his business, as if nothing could be less important than Keith's little insight. And Keith's grin got just that little bit wider...

It was about seven o'clock--the workers had largely cleared out of downtown, and the streets were coming alive with the nighttime rush. Keith wandered the streets at random, taking in the sights; Kickaha amused himself--and distracted himself--with incidental magic. An odd trail of spilled drinks and Freudian slips marked their passage.

Just as Kickaha was getting bored, and deciding how to sell Keith on the Powell's thing, he noticed the magician working the corner across the street.

{{Mind if I take over for a sec?}}

{By all means, go right ahead.}

{{Damn, you're agreeable today,}} Kickaha muttered, as they rippled into coyote form.

Keith just grinned some more.

Gregor was about to pack up his card table and go home. There couldn't be more than ten dollars in his hat, and he'd put half of that there himself. His tricks were working fine, and people were stopping to watch, but not for long. Maybe this whole street-magic thing just wasn't what it was cracked up to be.

As he shuffled his cards, he noticed a new onlooker--a guy in a coyote suit, wearing a cloak. Just when the day couldn't get any more surreal. Cool suit, though. Well, it never hurt to try...

"Perhaps you could help me, sir." He slid the deck across the table, letting the cards fan themselves out face-down. "Would you be so kind as to pick a card?"

"Anything for a total stranger," the coyote said. He tapped a card with his claw, and Gregor flipped it over--the Queen of Diamonds.

"Watch that card carefully, sir; you never know where it might turn up next." As he said this, Gregor smoothly gathered the cards back up, palming the Queen in the process. Squaring the cards up--and sliding the Queen back on top of the pack--he shuffled them repeatedly, keeping the Queen on top each time. Finally, he squared the pack up once more, palming the Queen again in the process, and started dealing cards off the deck. "Now, sir, I need you to concentrate on that card--and when you feel its presence, tell me to stop."

The coyote smiled, let him deal cards for a few more seconds. "Now, I think."

"A fine choice," Gregor said, picking up what was left of the pack in both hands, and dropping the Queen back on top once more. "Now, let us see what we've arrived at." He smiled, picked up the top card, and slowly flipped it over, to reveal... the joker.

"A tragedy, really," the coyote replied sadly, drooping its muzzle. "It's the story of my life. Whenever I go in search of feminine companionship, I find nothing but laughter and jests... and the object of my affections always seems to hide at the bottom of the deck."

Gregor stared at the coyote, eyebrows raised. He slowly turned the pack of cards over in his hand... and there on the bottom was the Queen.

"And there she is," Gregor said, almost as much to himself as to the coyote.

"Say, you are good at this," the coyote replied.

An older couple had stopped to watch, along with a young man in a business suit. The couple applauded politely, and the husband put a dollar in the hat. After a moment, the young man followed suit. A group of four college students stopped to see what the fuss was about.

"I feel like I should pay you for such a wonderful trick," the coyote continued, fishing into his cloak and pulling out a bill. "But I'm afraid I don't have anything smaller than this twenty. Perhaps we could make this a contest. I can't help but notice those three cups on your table. May I assume that you are familiar with the Cups and Balls?"

"Why, yes; I believe I could manage that trick," Gregor replied, the smoothness coming back into his voice. He didn't like the idea of another magician horning in on his turf--and that's clearly what this coyote character was. But he'd just made more in two minutes than he'd made in the last two hours; he wasn't going to look a gift horse in the mouth. And he really wanted to know what happened to that last trick...

"Splendid. It's a favorite of mine. I would truly appreciate it if you would perform it for me--and if I can't guess which cup has the ball, these twenty dollars are yours. But if I guess correctly, I get five dollars from your hat. Fair enough?"

"Fair enough." To be honest, Gregor was more than a bit taken aback by the wager--if this fellow knew the trick, then he knew that Gregor could make that ball show up anywhere he wanted. Why would he want to make a bet that he knew he would lose? He had an angle somewhere. And Gregor would gladly give five dollars to find out what that angle was.

So Gregor arranged the cups, showed the ball to the coyote, and let him put it under the center cup. Then he started shuffling the cups, keeping up a steady stream of patter. Three more people stopped to watch, then two more, forming a solid wall around the table. Every so often, he raised a cup to show the ball... and, just after the last time, he made The Move, and he felt the ball slip under the back of the cup and into his palm. A few shuffles later, as he slid another cup, he raised the back edge just a bit, and slipped the ball underneath. He snuck a quick glance at the crowd, and at the coyote in particular; there was no hint of recognition.

He quickly shuffled for a few more seconds, then shuffled, and waited for the coyote to make his choice.

The coyote smiled--How do you make a mask that can do that?, Gregor thought--and pointed to the leftmost cup. He was right, and he was wrong. The ball had been there, but it wasn't anymore. Smiling, Gregor lifted the cup, to show the empty air.

The coyote lowered his muzzle again. "I can never seem to follow it--it's always that last move that gets me. Where was it?"

Gregor almost felt guilty. "I have the same trouble myself--the cups just seem to blend together, don't they? It was over here, I believe."

He lifted the center cup--and nothing was there.

"Perhaps that last move was even better than I thought," Gregor said with forced cheer, and lifted the rightmost cup. Nothing there either.

"Well, I've never seen that happen before," the coyote said, clearly puzzled. "Under the circumstances, I think we'll have to call it a draw. Perhaps if we reverse roles? If you can pick the cup where I've hidden the ball, the twenty dollars is yours--if you can't, I take the five. Agreed?"

Gregor gave a nervous glance at the crowd; this wasn't the right time to make waves. And, dammit, he'd give twenty himself to see this guy work. "Agreed."

"Fine, fine. But we still seem to be missing a ball. Perhaps we can improvise something... excuse me, miss? Would you terribly mind if I borrowed your son's yo-yo for a moment? I promise to return it promptly."

The young mother chuckled, nodded. The young boy next to her wrapped up the string on the yo-yo, then handed it to the coyote, giggling. The crowd was getting thicker, Gregor couldn't even see how many people were watching.

"Yes, this will have to do." The coyote put the yo-yo on the table; it was so large that it barely fit inside the cup. He started shuffling them, clumsily. Every time he moved the cup with the yo-yo, the entire crowd could hear it sliding; every few seconds, the end of the string would even peek out from under the cup. The coyote didn't seem to notice. The crowd chuckled, but a bit uncomfortably; was he really that dense?

Finally, the coyote stopped--sliding the leftmost cup one last centimeter, and producing that telltale sound--and smiled. "Go ahead; guess."

Gregor tried to keep a straight face. "I'm not at all sure; you've clearly done this before. But I would have to say... that one." He pointed at the leftmost cup.

"Why don't you look for yourself? I'm really rather nervous."

"Certainly, kind sir." Gregor lifted the cup... and his jaw dropped, as the crowd gasped along with him. There was nothing there. He even flipped the cup over, to see if the yo-yo had somehow gotten stuck in it--knowing all the while that it wasn't; the extra weight would have been a dead giveaway. Sure enough, there was nothing there.

Disbelievingly, Gregor lifted the other two cups; there was nothing there either. The buzz of the crowd grew to a dull roar.

"Now this is just becoming bizarre," the coyote said. "We're still getting nowhere, and now I owe this poor child a yo-yo. Where could it be?"

The crowd was staring at the coyote, in rapt attention. Gregor was an afterthought.

"There must be a logical explanation for this," the coyote continued, thinking out loud. "They say that nature abhors a vacuum. So, logically, if an object were to disappear, the most likely place for it to turn up would be the nearest empty spot. Now, where would that be... I have it!" Without the slightest hesitation, he slapped his right ear--hard--with his right hand.

And the yo-yo sailed out from his left ear and landed on the table. The ball was right behind it; it bounced once, then landed neatly in one of the upturned cups.

The crowd stared in absolute silence for a moment... then erupted in applause. Kickaha presented the yo-yo to the boy, bowing; the boy laughed, turning the yo-yo over and over in his hands, as if looking for the magic. Someone threw a five-dollar bill on the table; a flurry of money followed it--ones and fives, mostly, but several tens mixed in.

"Well, that's one mystery solved," the coyote said, smiling. "But I'm afraid that our little contest still seems to be a draw."

"On the contrary," Gregor said, still not believing what he had just seen, but determined to play his part for all it was worth. "You certainly guessed where the ball was--even if it was after the fact--and I certainly never guessed correctly. In fact, you would appear to have won twice."

"Why, how kind of you to look at it that way. And it seems that there is more than enough here to go around." The coyote tucked one of the tens from the table into his cloak. "Well, I fear that I have stayed up far past my bedtime tonight. Best of luck with your career, young man." And with that, the coyote turned and walked away, to another ripple of applause from the crowd.

Gregor applauded along with them. "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. But I fear that I have had enough for tonight as well." And there's no way in hell that I'm following an act like that.

The crowd nodded, applauded once more, and started to disperse.

"Maybe I should get a suit like that," Gregor muttered, as he gathered the money into his hat.

"A suit like what?", a man standing nearby asked.

"Like that coyote suit. Have you ever seen one as good-looking as that?"

The man chuckled nervously. "I don't get it."

Gregor looked up. Most of the crowd had dispersed, but several of the people who were left were staring at him with confused expressions as well.

Gregor looked in the direction where the coyote had gone not twenty seconds before. There were several dozen people there, walking in the right direction, but nobody looked out of the ordinary at all.

But just then, one of those people--a man in a black shirt and blue jeans--turned and looked back at him for a moment, and smiled. And just for that moment, Gregor could see the long ears, the muzzle still turned up in a grin.

"Don't mind me," Gregor said quietly. "Just a little private joke."

He went back to gathering up his props.

It was five in the morning. Powell's was dark and quiet; even the late-night stock clerks had finished for the night. Not a creature was stirring.

Well, one creature was stirring.

In the Rose Room, curled up on top of one of the massive bookcases, a fox was just finishing The Dilbert Principle.

{{I still don't believe that people actually spend their lives doing these things.}}

The fox just nodded. {Believe it. A few years ago, I was there.}

{{And now look how far you've come.}}

{Yep. I'm sleeping on a bookshelf. How could I ever ask for more than that?}

{{I don't see anybody sleeping...}}

{I was just about to bring that up.}

{{You know, it's not as if we need to sleep at this point.}}

{Humor me. It feels good. And it's a few hours of peace and quiet.}

{{I can't argue with that.}}

The fox closed the book, then curled up nose-to-tail, and closed its eyes.

For a few seconds, there was silence.

{Okay. You win.}

{{Ummm-hmmm. I win what?}}

{You've got more self-control than I thought. You never did ask.}

Kickaha didn't have to say {{Ask about what?}} They both knew.

{Remember when we were trying to figure out what sort of magic I had?}

Interesting. {{Ummm-hmmm. Any insights in that regard?}}

{Could be. Could be.}

{{And will you be sharing these insights with the rest of the class?}}

{Could be. I just need to check one thing first.}

{{The tension is electric.}}

{I thought so. Could you do a little magic for me? Anything will do.}

{{Mysteries upon mysteries. Okay, I'll play your little game.}}

Kickaha thought for a moment... then the fox's eyes opened, and concentrated on the book still lying next to them. The nose twitched... and the air above the book shimmered. In a moment, a second copy of the book had appeared, on top of the original.

{{There you go.}}

{Scott Adams is gonna be pissed at you, buddy. But that'll do. Now, watch this.}

Now Keith concentrated on the books. Kickaha felt the strange magic flow--from the feel of things, quite a bit more than Kickaha had used. Kickaha waited to be impressed...

...and nothing happened.

Absolutely nothing.

The fox grinned.


Kickaha said nothing for a few seconds. {{All right. I'm waiting for the explanation. And you know you're dying to give it to me.}}

{It's simple. Look at the books.}

Kickaha looked at them.

{{Congratulations. They're still books.}}

{No, no. You're missing it, and you'll kill me if I tell you. Look at them. Look.}

{{Oh, for the love of...}} Kickaha took full control of the body; it shifted into coyote form as he did. He got up and paced around the books, looking at them from every angle. He shifted his forepaws to hands, and opened them up, comparing a few pages. As near as he could tell, they were absolutely unchanged, and absolutely identical. There was nothing unusual about either of them. There wasn't even any aura of magic around them.

So why the hell was Keith so damn smug?

Grumbling to himself, Kickaha flipped the books shut again, looked at the covers once more. There had to be somewait a fucking minute...

No aura of magic?

Concentrating harder than he ever had since he'd shown up on this godforsaken planet, Kickaha stared at the second book, the one he'd just created two minutes ago. There should be magic seeping away from it, ticking away the moments until it vanished into the ether from whence it came.

There was absolutely nothing there.

But that meant...

Kickaha sat down on his haunches with a thud, still staring at the book.



{{Am I really not seeing what I'm not seeing?}}

{That would depend on what you're not seeing, wouldn't it?}

{{Keith. There's. No. Magic. Here.}}

{Really? What an interesting observation.}

{{Keith. Are you telling me that this is fucking PERMANENT?}}

{I'm sorry, but I'm afraid that I've stayed up far past my bedtime tonight. We'll continue this fascinating conversation in the morning, okay?}

{{We're already in the damn morning!}}

{Then it won't be long now, will it? Pleasant dreams.}

Kickaha started to reply--then he caught himself. He curled up just as Keith had done, and closed his eyes. But those two books were still etched in his mind--the books that he knew would still be there when he woke up.

For long minutes, his mind buzzed with all the possibilities.

Then he picked out a few possibilities he liked.

And when he finally got to sleep, his dreams were indeed pleasant.

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