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A Trickster's Tail - Part 4

Copyright (c) 1996 Phaedrus; All rights reserved

For those of you who have been skipping my stuff because nothing ever happens, take heart; actual plot developments happen this time. Really. Honest.

My profound apologies in advance to Picklejuice; you'll see why when you read it.

I would have illustrated this instead of describing it, but pity stayed my hand... pity I can't draw worth a damn. :-)

(November 1)

{How do you walk on these things?}

{{Quickly. It comes in handy.}}

{Don't remind me. You really expect me to look like this?}

{{Oh, come on. You'll love it when you get used to it. And besides, we made a deal. When we're out in public, you can use yours. Anyway, we look great where I come from. Stylish, even.}}

{We are not where you come from.}

{{And whose fault is that, Mister Needs-A-Life-Story-For-A-Simple-Costume-Party?}}

Keith was at a loss for a comeback on that one, so he just sighed, and went back to the present problem: learning to walk. At least there was nobody else in the forest to witness his embarrassment.

The next time Keith agreed to let someone "fix up" his body, he was going to be more specific. What he had in mind was being his old self, or at least human. Instead, he was, well...

He had to admit that the fur--his fur, he told himself firmly, at least for the time being--was much nicer now. Instead of the flat golden-brown of the costume, it tapered off to a lighter tan at the chest and the tail, with white patches at the hands and feet, as well as at the face and the tip of the tail. The fur was finer, with a white undercoat underneath; it was also quite a bit cooler, which was a relief--he could get used to a lot of things, but he wasn't sure that panting was one of them. He had no problem inspecting his back, because his spine now bent in ways he found vaguely disconcerting; but he supposed that could come in handy.

He could deal with his arms and hands. The shoulders felt different somehow, and the fingers were shorter, and the pads on the soles of his hands and fingers were still a bit off-putting; but at least everything seemed to bend the way it was supposed to. The head was okay too, he guessed. He still couldn't quite get used to having that long muzzle in his field of vision, but having smell and hearing this good had a lot to recommend it. His vocal chords could produce a good rendition of his old voice, though Kickaha also demonstrated a distressingly realistic set of howls. The eyes had disconcerted him when he first saw them in the pond; they were green with flecks of gold, with no trace of humanity in them--mirth, yes, but not really human mirth. But oh, Grandma, what good eyes he had. ({I thought dogs couldn't see in color.} {{Who are you going to believe, me or some book?}} {The book.} {{Smart man. There's a certain line at which realism stops being fun...}}) And he had to hand it to Kickaha; he imagined that very few people could have made a muzzle that could still manage a grin.

And he was actually starting to think that the tail was kind of neat. It still seemed a bit long to him--almost brushing the ground--but once he'd gotten used to the idea of using it for balance, he could see where it would come in handy.

And he could use all the help with balance he could get.

He was still a long way from convincing himself that his new legs were an improvement. He stood on the tips of his feet--well, "paws" would be a better description now, he supposed. What used to be his ankles had moved to what used to be halfway up his lower legs; his knees had moved up as well, leaving him in what felt like a permanent squat... though at least he had successfully reached the point where he could squat, and even walk a bit, rather than just fall down repeatedly. Kickaha's repeated assurances of the virtues of this arrangement had so far failed to win a convert.

And then there was, well... The good news was that he was now, again, anatomically correct. The bad news was that he was now anatomically correct for a coyote... a rather large coyote. ({What am I going to do with this???} {{If you can't think of anything, I'd be happy to make suggestions.}} {That's what I was afraid of... What happened to the line where realism stopped being fun?} {{We all draw our lines differently...}}) That had been perilously close to a dealbreaker; but at least the fur and the sheath managed to hide things from casual inspection.

{Well, at least I'm not menacing,} Keith mused. {Not exactly ugly, either; kinda cute, actually, in a primal-homely-kinda way... I just can't shake the feeling that I'd be as good on four legs as on two in this.}

{{Oh, damn. And I was hoping to save that for a surprise.}}

{Great. Any other surprises I should be aware of?}

{{Then they wouldn't be surprises, would they?}}

{Sorry I asked... Wait a minute. Shit. What time is it?}

{{Oh, midafternoonish.}}

{Shit. They'll have towed my car hours ago!}

{{You know, a car isn't exactly on your list of must-haves at this point.}}

{Yeah, but if that gets on my credit record, it'll...}

{{You know, credit isn't exactly on your list of must-haves either.}}

Keith wanted to scream, but he was afraid he'd wind up howling instead. {Look... Kickaha. Today has been really... incredible. I can honestly say that I'm glad this happened; I'm not sure how, but I can. But I have a life, too, and I'd really like not to completely mess it up just yet... okay? All we have to do is get the car and the hotel straightened out and catch my flight back home, and then you can magic us right back here and watch all the 'fun' if you want to. Okay?}

Keith was expecting a {{You know, airplanes aren't exactly...}} Instead, he was somewhat surprised to get an almost apologetic: {{Hey, no problem. This is gonna take a little getting used to, for both of us. Besides, I've showed you my place; it's about time you showed me mine. And do they really give you all the drinks you want in these airplane things?}}

{Only in first class.}

{{Well, what other class would the two of us be going in?}}

{I can't argue with that, I guess. Just be quiet, if they figure out there's two of us in here, they'll find some way to charge me for an extra seat...}

{{Some things are constant, no matter what the world.}}

A few minutes later, they were flying over the city. More specifically, Keith was flying; he was remembering the good points of this arrangement.

{{Hold it,}} Kickaha said, but Keith was already on the way down.

In an alley below, a rabbitmorph was down in a heap.

Keith looked around quickly; nobody nearby. He swooped down, mentally handing off to Kickaha as they neared the ground. The raven rippled, expanded, became a coyote as it hit the ground. The rabbit didn't move.

Kickaha surveyed the damage; a few blows to the back and legs, one to the back of the head, all with blunt objects. A broken leg; a minor skull fracture. Figured. Not even enough guts to attack a rabbit from the front. Some things are constant, no matter what the world. Not fatal, but needing treatment, treatment he couldn't give. Not permanently, anyway.

He took a few extra seconds to scan the rabbit's mind. As he had figured, the attack had been from behind--and the rabbit's flight reflexes had kicked in as soon as it started--but he had still gotten a clear look at his attackers as he ran. Four of them; big, with short haircuts and thick wooden sticks. Laughter as the blows came down. Some things are constant.

Kickaha concentrated, shaped the magic, and slowly applied it.

A few seconds passed; then the rabbit stirred, groaned, tried to stand. He looked up from hands and knees, saw the coyote standing over him, and squealed...

{{Paul, it's all right,}} Kickaha thought softly.

The rabbit blinked, at the shock of the voice in his head, and the fact that the voice knew his name. He finally gathered the nerve to speak, in a high thin voice. "What happened? Who are you? There were..."

{{A friend. Don't worry about that right now. You need to get to a... hospital. To a hospital. Right away.}}

"But I feel... okay. How do I feel okay?"

{{Trust me. You need to get to a hospital. Tell them you need observation overnight. They'll figure out what's wrong. But it's very important that you go.}}

"Uh... all right. Thank you, Mister..."

{{You're welcome. And when they ask you about this part, you're a little vague about the details, okay?}}

"Uhhh... Okay. Thank you..."

Slowly at first, then more quickly, the rabbit walked away. The coyote watched him go, waited for him to round a corner, then leaped, rippled back into a raven, and climbed into the sky.

{{Still want to catch that flight?}}

{I can get the red-eye; it'll leave a bit after midnight.}

{{Perfect. That'll give us some time. I take it that we're agreed? Something must be done?}}

{Yes. What do you have in mind?}

{{While you were practicing, I was going through your history a bit. You know, there's some fascinating parallels between your mythology and ours.}}

{Somehow, that's not surprising. Anything interest you in particular?}

Kickaha told him.

{Interesting. Poetic justice, I must admit. Isn't it a little too violent, though? Even for this?}

{{Ohhh, we can fix that.}}

{Hmmm. You're right. I must admit, I like it. What gave you the idea?}

{{Well, it's perfect, isn't it? Besides, it's early in the alphabet. As good a place to start as any, right?}}

{I was afraid you were going to say that. When we get to Lycaon, I'm out of here.}

{{Nag, nag, nag. Still think we're so different, you and I?}}

Keith didn't answer. He was busy flying. And thinking.

From a window several blocks away, a figure watched the raven fly away, through a very impressive-looking pair of binoculars. He spoke clearly into his recorder, taking careful notes...

Getting checked out of the hotel was no problem; the desk clerk wasn't in the mood for small talk, and for once Keith was glad about that. He was just glad to be on his own legs again, though for some reason they were itching a bit. A generous tip to the doorman got him a quick cab to the airport. He calmly changed his reservation to the later flight--using some frequent flier miles to upgrade to first class, and stoically ignoring Kickaha's chuckles in the background. Checking in his bags, he finally approached the rental counter; this was going to be the tricky part. He mentally rehearsed his lines, waited until nobody was in line, then walked up and slapped his membership card down in front of 'Kelly'.

"I'm here about my car," he said, in a quietly menacing voice.

"Certainly, Mister... Dorner," Kelly replied, with a forced-Christmas-cheer kind of smile. Her fingers flew over the keyboard; then her face fell into a oh-you-HAVE-been-naughty look. "According to this, Mr. Dorner, the car was towed in late this morning..."

"Yes, it was," Keith interrupted, in a no-longer-quietly menacing voice. "I was working LATE last night, trying to get MY BUSINESS done, so I could get OUT of this two-bit town. The next thing I know, there's POLICE everywhere, and NOBODY knows what's going on, and they won't even let ME get to MY CAR! And THEN, when I call YOU this morning to find out what WE are going to do about that, you put ME on HOLD for FIVE MINUTES! Now, am I going to see a MANAGER here, or am I going to take THIS CARD and make FRENCH FRIES out of it?"

"Yes, sir; just a moment, sir," Kelly replied, and ducked for the back. Keith heard the faint voices, and the sound of keys tapping; he could imagine the manager scrolling through his record, seeing the number of rentals listed there. {Five, four, three...}

'Lisa - Floor Manager' came out, zeroed in on Keith; she was clearly in Full Contrition Mode. "Mr. Dorner, I've just heard what's happened, and I want you to know that we're truly sorry about all this. There was an... incident... downtown last night, and we're still trying to figure out how to get things straightened out today. But let me assure you that I will personally see to it that all of this is taken care of, and of course we'll handle those towing charges. Now I know how upsetting all this must be to you, Mr. Dorner, and we'd like to make up for the inconvenience you must have suffered; would a week's free rental next time be all right?"

Keith grumbled, quickly allowed himself to be 'talked into it,' settled the bill, and walked away, finally allowing himself a smirk.

{{Where did that come from?}}, Kickaha said, a mixture of amusement and amazement in his 'voice'. {{Are you keeping other personalities in here that you haven't told me about?}}

{One of the perks of frequent flying is the occasional right to be an asshole.}

{{Speaking of assholes, we have a few hours, right?}}

{Right. A-hunting we will go?}

{{The park first, I think; a quick recharge wouldn't hurt.}}

{You should have thought of that before we left,} Keith thought, in his best fatherly voice.

{{But I didn't neeeeeed to go theeennn...}}

{One more word like that, and I'm turning this body right around...}

Bags streamed down the conveyor belts in the airport's service corridors. A uniformed guard checked his list once again, grabbed a few bags as they passed, and loaded them onto a cart, which was wheeled off to a door marked "AIRPORT SECURITY"...

Night was falling over the city, and with all the confusion still in the air, few people had made plans for the evening; the streets emptied out rapidly... except for the people with nowhere to go. Which was just the way Spike and his friends liked it.

"Let's go play some hardball, right, guys?", Spike laughed.

"We're gonna hit one outta the park tonight!"

"Who, us, Officer? We were just out playing..."

"Gonna cite us for cruelty to animals, Officer Friendly?"

"Cool it, guys."

"Okay, Spike."

The park was the first place to check, Spike thought. These freaks always seem to stop at the park. Then maybe down by the shelter...

But the park was clear. Damn.

"Hey, gimme a minute, guys, okay? I need to pee."

"Sure thing, Spike."

Spike went behind the racquetball wall, leaned his Louisville Slugger up against it, and started unbuttoning.

From a rooftop two blocks away, a coyote watched. He pointed, aimed, gestured a bit.

{{Just a little farther, a little farther... yes, right there... yes. Now.}}

The magic flowed.

Spike suddenly leaned against the tree. Dammit, he hadn't had anything to drink tonight... had he?

Then he felt the pressure. He looked down just in time for his pants to start to split.

The change was so fast, he barely had a chance to realize what was happening before it was complete. His legs grew, twisted; his feet and hands rippled, condensed into hooves. A stab of agony hit him, as the antlers sprouted from his head; he never noticed his shirt disappear, or the remains of his pants. He tried to shout, but all that came out was a low moan.

He staggered out from behind the wall...

"There's one!"

"Get it!"

Spike looked up, saw them coming. He thrust his arms out in front of him, shook his antlered head wildly, moaned again; then he saw that it was hopeless, and turned to run on unfamiliar legs. That was hopeless too.

He could hear them closing in.

Then he felt the blow, in the small of his back.

Then another, in the leg.

He went down.

{{And now.}}

Spike looked hopelessly up, saw the leering faces above him, surrounding him. Another blow hit, then another... a bit weaker.

Then the bat slipped from one of their hands.

Another screamed. Then the scream turned into a howl...

As Spike looked on, he saw their faces lengthen, saw the fur sprout, saw them fall to their hands... to their front paws. He heard the howls of fear.

Then the three hounds, still barely recognizable as human, turned and ran--haltingly at first, then gaining speed and rhythm.

After a minute or so, Spike uncertainly got up, and headed in the same direction.

Kickaha brought his finger to his muzzle, blew over it.

{So, what happens when they get to the hospital?}

{{That won't wear off for a couple of days. In the meantime, they'll have spilled; they don't have the brains to keep their story straight as humans, much less this way. So hopefully the police will take care of things. And if not... well, now that they're convinced that it's contagious, I don't think they'll find their little game nearly so entertaining.}}

{I can imagine. But how long will they go on thinking that?}

{{Sometimes, you don't have to change people's minds; sometimes you just have to reinforce what they already suspect, and they'll go right on thinking that on their own.}}

{How conveeeeeenient.}

{{Quite. Well, shall we catch this airplane of yours?}}

{Don't you need a recharge first?}

{{We've barely known each other a day, and already you care about me. It's so... touching... I may weep.}}

{Care, schmare. I just don't want to turn into a coyote at 26000 feet.}

{{That's your own brand of caring.}}

From a window several blocks away, a figure in a black suit watched the grainy red images through his viewfinder. The camera shutter clicked, clicked again.

He tongued the push-to-send on his headset.

"We have a situation here."

Flight 804 to Seattle-Tacoma sped through the night. Kickaha found it all fascinating. Keith was glad it was a nonstop... the itching was killing him.

{Kickaha, what the hell's wrong?}

{{I don't know. It's like something is fighting this form.}}

{Well, what do we do about it? I don't know if I can take this all the way to Seattle.}

{{I don't know if we can do this all the way to Seattle.}}

{Shit. What's the alternative?}

{{Well, we could try a partial change and see if that relaxes the pressure.}}

{Shitshitshit. Wait a minute.}

Keith went to the first-class bathroom. He felt the fur sprout under his jeans, and almost gasped in relief as the itching subsided. He went back to his seat; was it his imagination, or was the lady in 3A staring at him?

{{I already told you; nobody's watching. Don't be so paranoid.}}

{I've earned the right to be paranoid.}

{{In that case, can we be paranoid with some more of those peanuts?}}

Keith had never been so glad to be in his condo. He quickly took off his clothes, then collapsed into coyote form with an almost audible pop.

{{You've gotta be kidding me. This isn't a home; this isn't even a house. This is a box. There's not even a potted plant in this place!}}

{Can we just save the decor tips for a minute? What's happening here?}

{{I don't know.}}

{What you mean, you don't know?}

{{Which word do I need to explain? You think I enjoy hearing you gripe about it? Mr. Dorrrner can't get what he wants, so nobody else can have a good time, huh? Can't we just get a good night's sleep, and we can work this out in the morning?}}

{Kickaha, I ought to... I don't know. You know what? A night's sleep is a fine idea.}

{{I'm glad I thought of it.}}

For some reason, the mattress wasn't particularly comfortable for Keith's new form. Kickaha apparently managed to get to sleep right away anyway. Keith took a bit longer.

(November 2; 10:00 am)

Kickaha had assured Keith that he was working on the problem. He hadn't needed to leave to recharge; apparently the nearby greenbelt was close enough for some spillover. Meanwhile, Keith was grimly practicing on his new legs, and had at least reached the point where he could walk with some semblance of dignity.

There was a knock at the door.

{{Oh, this should be interesting,}} Kickaha said.

"Mister Dorner? We need to have a word with you..."

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