The Sky Was Full of Fish 24

Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude were about as thrilled with my new information as I had been. Which is to say, not at all. We were sitting around the kitchen table at the suite, discussing the matter.

“And what’s with Carver’s gibberish?” Gertrude was saying. “I’m surprised you didn’t just smack him upside the head.”

“I doubt that would have improved matters,” said Matilda.

“I don’t see how it could have made things worse,” Gertrude countered. “Both the League and Mr. Bob say that the other one is to blame for the fish, and they’re both insisting that Andrew get rid of the fish. I don’t see how the situation could be more fucked.”

Matilda and I nodded glumly at the same time. “How are you?” she asked me.

I thought about it for a minute before I answered. “I’m worried,” I admitted. “But I’m also confident that I can work this out. If I could just think of what to do next.”

As though it had been choreographed, we all turned to Sara, who was the smart one among us. Sara noticed us gazing expectantly at her and sighed wryly. “I’ll see what I can come up with,” she said.

While we waited, Sara started thinking. She absently chewed a fingernail. After a brief time, she looked back up at us. “I can’t think of anything either,” she said. We all sighed. “But it seems to me,” she continued, addressing me directly, “that you have some untapped resources. There’s that independent contractor, what was his name?”

“Roger Binks,” I replied. “But I don’t want to use him unless I have to. I don’t fully trust him.”

“There’s also Barbara,” said Sara. “Would she come and help if you asked?”

“I don’t know,” I said, “but it’s certainly worth a try.”

Just at that moment, we heard the tick-tack-tick of dog toenails on the vinyl floor of the kitchenette. We all turned towards the sound, and there was Barbara making her way sedately toward us. She stopped at the foot of my chair and said, “Please convey me to the tabletop.”

I did as she asked. The beloved quartet looked at her with undisguised interest, and she returned their gazes. “Hello, Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude,” she said. “I am honored to meet you. Andrew holds you in high regard, and so indeed does the God of Toast.”

Heather blushed, and the others appeared flattered. Matilda spoke for them. “We are likewise honored, Barbara,” she said. “Thank you.”

Barbara nodded and turned to me with a businesslike air. “First,” she said, “I must ask that you not summon me in that fashion again.” I started to apologize, but Barbara held up a paw. “I am not offended,” she said. “You couldn’t have known, since I neglected to tell you, that calling upon an enlightened child of the universe in that manner is…” She trailed off as if casting about for the right word.

“A faux pas?” suggested Sara.

“Precisely,” said Barbara.

“It won’t happen again,” I said.

“Thank you,” said Barbara. “And now to the matter at hand. Why did you summon me? How may I assist you?”

I had no way of knowing how much Barbara already knew, so I explained the whole situation to her. She listened without interrupting until I finished.

“You have not answered my question,” she said. “What is it you want of me?”

“Well, that’s just it,” I said. “I’m kind of stuck on what to do next and I wondered if you had any ideas.”

“I see.” Barbara regarded me implacably. “I’m afraid it doesn’t work that way,” she said.

“You mean you won’t help us?” said Gertrude.

Barbara turned to her. “I didn’t say that,” she said. She turned back to me. “Tell me, what is it that you need right now?”

“We need your help,” snapped Gertrude. I gave her a warning glance and she flounced back in her chair, lips tightened in annoyance.

After some thought, I replied to Barbara. “I need to know whether the League or Mr. Bob is responsible for the fish in the sky.”

“I would tell you the answer if I knew it,” said Barbara. “Sadly, I do not. Is there anyone else you can ask?”

I thought some more. Then I said, “I can’t ask the League. Even if I could get the question to Management, simply posing the question would arouse suspicion.”

“True,” said Barbara. “Who else might tell you?”

“Mr. Bob,” said Sara.

Everyone looked at her. “It’s the only choice,” she said. “Sad to say, but he’s a safer person to ask than the League. If you ask to see proof that the League is behind the fish, he might even show it to you.”

I was about to protest when I realized she had a point. Whether I liked it or not, Mr. Bob was my best option for getting information at the moment.

“Where’s Barbara?” said Heather suddenly.

Sure enough, Barbara had vanished while our attention had been diverted.

“I think that’s our answer,” said Matilda. Even Gertrude nodded in agreement.

Click here for episode 25

The Sky Was Full of Fish 23

I blinked. As you might imagine, I was not at all pleased. Two powerful factions who both wanted me to do the same thing were each implicating the other to be at fault, and I was smack dab in the middle. This was not good.

I decided to get the hell away from Carver (and any other representative of Management) for the time being, until I could get things sorted out. To this end, I said, “Great, thanks for the update. I gotta run. I’ll catch you later.”

Carver took my arm, checking my retreat. He took a second to look around and make sure no-one was within earshot. Satisfied, he turned back to me, leaning his head towards mine. “Hopscotch switcheroo,” he whispered. “Penguins dream of formless, unloved salad smoke.”

I blinked again. I’m sad to say I lost my cool at that point. I snatched my arm from Carver’s fingers and whispered hotly, “I have no idea what the hell you’re talking about.”

Carver raised his eyebrows and made a thoughtful grimace. “Interesting approach,” he said. “I’ll have to get back to you on that.” He clapped me on the shoulder and shot me a half smile. “Be careful.”

I left Carver with an uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach.

My route out of the Complex took me past my department’s cube farm. As I was walking through, I ran across Harold, who smiled at me. “Hi Andrew,” he said. “Are you in the office all day? Maybe we could finally get that lunch.”

“No,” I said. “Sorry,” I added as an afterthought. I began the subtle dance of getting away from someone who is trying to strike up a conversation.

“Gee, that’s too bad,” said Harold, crestfallen. Then he brightened a little. “So how’s the fish thing going?” Harold was always fairly enthusiastic when it came to talking shop and gossip. It occurred to me at that moment that he might be a useful source of information on Management. I stopped dancing.

“Things are going,” I said noncommittally. “But listen, about that.” I leaned in and lowered my voice. “Have you heard any rumors about Management concerning the fish?”

Harold shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. Everyone’s talking, but nobody knows anything.” He paused, considering something, then apparently decided to forge ahead. “Do you need any help on this? It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the fish are a big deal around here. Maybe you could use me.”

I shook my head. “No. Absolutely not. For one thing, it’s totally against the rules.”

“Yeah, I know, but I figured–”

“For another, this is looking like it will get nasty. Believe me when I say you don’t want to get involved.”

Harold shrugged. he was a little put off, but not really upset with me. “It’s your call,” he said. “I just wanted to make the offer.”

“I appreciate it,” I said, and meant it. “Thanks anyway. Look, I gotta run…”

“Yeah,” said Harold. “Catch you later.” He turned and walked off.

The uncomfortable feeling in the pit of my stomach had gotten worse.

As I made my way out of the Complex, I thought about Harold. He had been with the company almost as long as I had, and we had been fairly close workplace friends in the early days. Over time, as we each proved ourselves, we earned an increasing level of responsibility and workload that drew us apart. But we had always been on good terms. I thought it was nice of him to offer his services, even though he should have known it was an offer I could not accept.

I could not pinpoint the source of my stomach pain, but I wasn’t overly concerned about it. I had bigger problems than a queasy tummy at the moment. As I hoisted myself out of the Complex entrance hole, my primary thoughts were with getting back to Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude and putting our heads together over the puzzle of the origin of the fish. I headed out of the alley, passing through the hologrammatic wall without breaking stride, and made my way briskly back to the hotel. By the time I reached the lobby, the pain in my stomach had evaporated.

Click here for episode 24

The Sky Was Full of Fish 22

We did end up hugging and kissing a lot, but not at home. We spent the night in a hotel. Rather a nice one, since it was on the League’s nickel. We got a suite with a kitchenette, as there was no telling how long we’d need to stay there. The pond that had replaced my house had not been marked with an expiration date.

I was extremely pleased to have the beloved quartet out of Mr. Bob’s clutches. The patch on her face was a constant reminder, however, that the danger was far from over.

The next morning, over a breakfast that included some delicious toast, I talked with Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude, recounting the events that had transpired since I had left her on what was, to her, the previous morning. They listened with interest. When I had finished, they sat back and processed everything for a bit. Then Sara said, “That the League might be behind the fish in the sky is troubling.”

“Yes,” I agreed. “I’m not sure what to do about it, though, even if it is true.”

“I think you should go into the office and demand answers from Management,” said Gertrude. “Cut through the bullshit, you know?”

“I wish it were that simple,” I said. “But barging in on Management would be just as dangerous, and as ineffectual, as barging in on Mr. Bob.”

“Yes, I’m afraid subtlety is called for, Gertrude,” said Matilda, placing a hand on Gertrude’s shoulder soothingly. Gertrude snorted but did not offer further comment.

“You got to meet the God of Toast!” said Heather, her eyes aglow. “That is so cool.”

I grinned. “Yeah.” My smile turned rueful. “I just wish I could remember more about it.”

“I’d like to know who wrote ‘Fuck you’ in the bathroom, too,” Gertrude muttered darkly.

“I think Gertrude is right,” said Sara suddenly. We all looked at her. “Partially, at least. About going to the League, I mean. There are ways of getting information that are more subtle than barging down mahogany row. I think you should do some poking around.”

“Sounds kinky,” quipped Heather.

In the end we all agreed that Sara’s suggestion was best, and I left shortly after breakfast and made my way to the Complex.

On the way there, I contemplated the beloved quartet. Gail Millik had applied for a consultant’s position in the Complex shortly after I had been offered one. Unfortunately, she had failed to meet the qualifications. The quartet is formidably capable, with powers that exceed my own. The problem is, under times of high stress, they tend to trip over each other. In a crisis situation, the consequences could easily be disastrous.

Nevertheless, Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude play a vital role in my success. The League offers their consultants carte blanche to designate their own sidekicks, and I did suggest that to the quartet. I didn’t blame them a bit for dismissing the idea. Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude are not sidekicks. They are content to serve as my behind-the-scenes advisors and allies, and I am very fortunate to have their help.

I got to the Complex and tracked Carver down with as little trouble as could be expected. he seemed a little surprised to see me.

“Hello, Andrew,” he said. “Have you any news for me?”

“Sort of,” I said. “I had a run-in with Mr. Bob’s people last night.”

Carver’s eyebrows raised. “And what did they want?”

“I didn’t really wait around to find out. I sent the two reps packing, but I wanted to check in with you to see what I should do if I have more run-ins.”

This was not like me, and I knew it. Carver knew it too. Normally, he didn’t hear from me for weeks at a time when I was on an assignment.

Carver’s eyes narrowed a bit as he regarded me. He said, “Well, I don’t know that you needed to check in with me. Company policy is pretty clear on Mr. Bob and his associates. Still, given the sensitive nature of your assignment, I guess I can’t fault you for being too careful.”

I shrugged. Carver fixed me with a careful expression. I did my best to look blandly back. Finally, his face cleared. “Just as well you’re here,” he said. “I have some more info from Management anyway. It ties in with your Mr. Bob encounter, as a matter of fact. We’ve learned that Mr. Bob’s organization is responsible for the fish in the sky, and I’m to instruct you to include them in your investigation, and to regard them with extreme prejudice. That would seem to be your answer.”

Click here for episode 23

The Sky Was Full of Fish 21

My organization responsible for the sky being full of fish? This was news. But my primary concern was with the safe retrieval of one Gail Millik. I thought quickly, choosing an angle. In the end, I decided that the circumstances called for open dealing.

“It’s funny you say the League is behind the fish,” I said. (“The League” is one name for the organization that employs me.) “Only this morning they assigned me to get rid of the fish. Are you sure your information is good?”

Mr. Bob narrowed his bulbous eyes, which made him look very strange. “My information is solid gold,” he said.

“Well then, that makes no sense to me. Fish removal is my full-time priority as of this morning. If my employers are behind the fish, why would they assign their top agent to clear the skies?”

There was a pause. Then I said, “I don’t think I want to know the answer to that.”

Mr. Bob chuckled. “The League is a many-headed serpent,” he said.

I was uncomfortable, so I decided to change the focus of the conversation. “That’s all very nice. But I want Gail back. You’re using her to threaten me into doing something I was already committed to doing. So why don’t you let her go?”

Mr. Bob shook his head. “I’m not going to do that. I find you do-gooders are easier to deal with if I have a little leverage.”

“That’s not acceptable.”

“Yeah? Well, that’s just too damn bad.”

I crossed my arms. “Mr. Bob,” I said, “You know I respect you. You also know that I could retrieve Gail and turn this place into a mud puddle without breaking a sweat.” My voice was cold. I was not making idle talk.

“But I don’t want to fight you,” I continued. “I just want Gail freed, and after that I want to get rid of the fish. You’re threatening me to do something I’m going to do anyway. You have no reason to antagonize me. And you have every reason to avoid pissing me off.”

Mr. Bob sat impassive for some moments. Then he said, “Let’s call it how it is. You couldn’t turn this place into a mud puddle, and I could make the girl dead long before you could get to her. However, you are powerful enough to be a major pain in the ass, and I’m sure I’d lose some good people in putting you down.” He turned to the henchman. “Bring the woman here,” he said. As the henchman turned and walked to the door, Mr. Bob said to me, “We’re going to compromise.”

“What are the terms of the compromise?” I asked.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” the frog replied. He said no more, and neither did I.

After what seemed like a far longer time than it was, the henchman returned with Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude. My heart leaped to see them safe and unharmed. Gail was shackled at the wrists and ankles, and shuffled towards us with the henchman at her back. Matilda’s eyes sparkled at me, and I knew that the four of them were none the worse for their adventure.

This happy reunion was marred by Mr. Bob, whose tongue shot out and slapped Gail in the face. Where the tongue had struck her cheek, there was a small black square patch of some kind.

“What the hell?” snapped Gertrude.

“That’s the compromise,” gurgled Mr. Bob. “The woman can go free, but that patch’ll stay there until the fish are gone. Cross me, and I guarantee you’ll be unhappy with what happens to it.”

Meanwhile, the henchman had busied himself with removing the cuffs and shackles. Her hands freed, Gertrude reached up with clawed fingers to pull the patch from her face. “Don’t try it,” said Mr. Bob. “It’s sensitive to tampering, and will go off if you get too rough with it.” He turned a sidelong glance my way. “And that’s true down to the molecular level, Mr. Nanobot,” he said quietly.

I was impressed in spite of myself. Very few people know about the nanobots.

“Now then,” said the frog, “I think we can adjourn. Sherraine here will escort you out.” He turned and squished off, accompanied by the henchman. This left the henchwoman, who eyed us warily.

“This way,” she said simply, and started walking. Matilda, Heather, Sara, Gertrude, and I followed the woman. She led us around the pond and down a short passage to an elevator lobby. She pressed the “up” button, and the door slid smoothly open almost instantly. We were ushered inside. The woman pressed the button that said, “Street,” and then we were in motion. I took the opportunity to have Matilda fix my broken finger.

The elevator doors opened into a normal-looking living room. Normal, that is, except that where a fireplace would have been, there was an elevator instead. The woman led us to the front door and all but shoved us outside. The door slammed behind us.

My car was parked in front of the house. It’s those little touches that set Mr. Bob’s organization apart.

I turned to Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude. “What now?” I asked.

“We should go home and hug and kiss a lot,” said Heather. It sounded like a good suggestion to me. We went to the car and climbed inside. Then it struck me.

“Shit,” I snapped.

“What is it?” asked Matilda.

“I forgot to find out what happened to the house,” I said, sighing.

Click here for episode 22

The Sky Was Full of Fish 20

Of course, I recognized the voice immediately. I could have kicked myself for not having figured out sooner just who I was dealing with. But there would be time for self-criticism later. At the moment, I was more concerned with the henchman who was rushing towards a portal on the far wall, no doubt intending to carry out the order that had just been given. My heart was in my throat.

“There’s no need to be hasty, Mr. Bob,” I said loudly. “But so help me, any harm visited upon her will be visited upon you and yours sevenfold.”

The henchman paused and turned back, presumably awaiting instructions. I stopped moving as well, so as not to appear threatening. Even the mysterious glowing orb came to a stop, hovering near the chute opening. Rippling light, reflected from the agitated surface of the pond, danced on the rough stone walls and ceiling.

After some moments, I felt that the pause was becoming more protracted than was strictly necessary. “Well?” I said tentatively.

“Leave it,” said the deep, gurgling voice of Mr. Bob. I was about to ask for clarification when I saw the henchman moving to rejoin the group at the water’s edge; apparently he had been called off. I breathed a little easier.

“Alright, Millik,” said Mr. Bob. “What’s your alternative proposal?”

“Can’t we just talk like civilized businessmen?” I asked. “I have no idea what this is about, but I’m quite willing to listen to whatever it is you wanted to talk to me about.”

Mr. Bob chewed it over for a bit before replying. “So we talk,” he said. “What then?”

“Then we can go from there.” I certainly wasn’t going to make any promises at this stage. To ask him to do so would have been rude, and foolish.

There was another pause. Then Mr. Bob said, “Alright, Millik. We’ll play it your way. Why don’t you come closer so we don’t have to shout?”

“How about a little more light?” I countered. Almost at once, lights came up. They were tastefully and skillfully placed, lighting the cave in an even light while remaining unobtrusive. I could see the figures on the shore quite clearly now. It was Mr. Bob in the middle, with a henchman on either side.

What’s important to know about Mr. Bob is that he is an enormous, man-sized, blotchy green bullfrog. He has opposable digits, and he rules the undercity with a somewhat slimy iron fist. It wouldn’t be entirely accurate to call him malevolent. Rather, call him amoral. At various points in my career, I have had dealings with him and his minions. They are at times dubious allies, at other times formidable opponents. Mr. Bob himself can be disconcerting to deal with, simply due to the fact that he is an enormous frog. Even when you’re used to that sort of thing, it throws you off a little.

Having no immediate need of it, I called back my orb, which slid into my hand. Then I floated slowly towards the group at the shore. I chose a spot about ten feet from them and alighted on the rock floor. Mr. Bob and his henchmen (well, one henchman and one henchwoman) regarded me impassively. Apparently, I had the first move.

“Okay,” I said. “Let’s talk. I’d like to know why you kidnapped my wife. What do you want with me?”

Mr. Bob was unflapped. He regarded me with the calm exhibited only by powerful and dangerous people. “Easy now, Millik,” he croaked. “Let’s get something settled up front. We got the girl, so this meeting is conducted by me, not you.”

I tightened my mouth in irritation and waited for him to get to the point.

“I’ll cut right to the chase,” gurgled Mr. Bob. “We know that your organization is behind the fish in the sky. I want them gone. They’re, uh, bad for business.” He and his henchpeople shared a knowing chuckle, which caught in the frog’s throat and degenerated into several painful seconds of revolting hacking and retching.

“We want you to take care of it,” the frog continued when he was able. “And if you don’t get the job done, you can forget about seeing your wife again. Any questions?”

Click here for episode 21

The Sky Was Full of Fish 19

Fortunately, my feet touched solid ground in less than a second. Unfortunately, the “ground” was very smooth, at a steep angle, and ankle deep in fast-flowing water. I immediately lost my footing and went sliding down a chute or pipe of some kind. As I was twisted and spiraled about, I was reminded strongly of an amusement park water slide. The water ensured that I would slide quickly and be unable to check my descent on the slick walls.

I weighed my options for a few seconds. On the one hand, I had been told that if I weren’t wearing gloves, the beloved quartet would die. On the other hand, I had never yet faced a situation where my right pinky finger and its contents hadn’t improved matters. I didn’t think of it in terms of betting the beloved quartet’s life on it, but that’s essentially what I was doing. I’m not proud of that, but I wasn’t at my best, what with careening down a hellish water slide in total darkness. In the end, I decided to use my finger.

I struggled tentatively, testing my bonds, but I soon gave up; it was pointless. I realized that there was only one way I was going to be able to get my right pinky finger open. Sadly, that method was extremely painful.

I stuck my finger out at a bizarre angle and thrashed about until I managed to crush it between the side of the chute and my body. My finger broke, and it sucked. I grunted, and then did my best to block out the pain and do what needed doing.

With my finger in its mangled state, there was now room in the glove for me to open my right pinky finger the tiniest crack. It wasn’t much, but it was plenty of room to let the nanobots out. I set all three squadrons to work on getting through the gloves and the tape that bound my hands.

The nanobots had the glove off in a second or two. At the same moment, the chute steepened to an almost vertical angle and abruptly ended. I was falling through empty space, with who-knows-what at the bottom. I was very unhappy, and yelped again in panic and alarm.

Then I hit water. I was at a bad angle and got a painful ear-full, but I was otherwise unharmed. My momentum carried me down a good ten feet, but I didn’t touch bottom. As I started floating upwards, I collected my wits and popped my right pinky finger loose. I activated my personal inertial dampener to deal with any gunfire that might ensue, and engaged my automatic levitation matrix.

My head broke the surface of the water. At the same instant, I felt the nanobots finish getting through the tape that bound my hands, and the levitation matrix finished sliding into place around my torso.

For good measure, I got out my mysterious glowing orb. It always helps me calm down, and I was fairly agitated. The luminous sphere floated around the room like a soap bubble, illuminating a large natural cave complete with a pond. There was a man-made waterfall pouring out of the circular hole in the ceiling from which I had emerged mere moments ago. By the light of the orb, I saw figures at one end of the pond. I turned towards them as I rose up out of the water.

“Shit!” said one of the figures. Then there was a shot from a silenced pistol. A bullet was stopped short by the inertial dampener and dropped into the pond at my feet. I began moving towards the figures.

“Hold your fire,” said another voice, this one loud, deep, and gurgling. “His pinky’s in play. Go kill the woman.”

Click here for episode 20

The Sky Was Full of Fish 18

I parked my car a couple blocks from the warehouse, because that’s how it’s done. I got out and started walking towards the ugly, low building that was my destination. Since I was early, I decided to walk around the building before going inside. The warehouse took up an entire block and had several cargo and man doors along each side. I wondered if it mattered which door I used; the instructions had not specified.

Finally, near midnight, I put on my gloves, picked a door at random, opened it, and stepped inside. Apparently, the entire building was one giant room, and it stank of dust and oil. It was completely dark, except for an illuminated circular area near the center of the room. It seemed like the place to go, so I started walking towards it.

I didn’t get far before I sensed someone or something behind me. I went to turn around, but stopped when my head ran into something metal behind my ear. The clicking sound that immediately followed confirmed that it was the barrel of a freshly cocked pistol.

When a gun is being held to my head, I don’t move. It’s a personal guideline. Accordingly, I stood stock still and waited.

“Hands behind your back,” said the man with the gun. It was a nasty, smirking sort of voice. I complied slowly. The gun went away from my head. Before I could take advantage of this lapse, the man said, “No funny stuff. I’m not the only one in here with a gun.”

My hands were seized roughly and tightly taped together at the wrists, effectively binding the gloves to my hands. Once the taping was done, the gun barrel returned, this time in the small of my back. “Alright, now move,” said the man. “Straight ahead.”

I was facing towards the circle of light in the center of the room, so I assumed that’s where he intended me to go. I started walking towards it. As I moved, I thought I caught glimpses of figures in the darkness, but I couldn’t be sure. I had no choice but to assume that I was surrounded by people with guns, and therefore I was on my best behavior.

When we got to the illuminated area, I was instructed to stand roughly in the center of it. There was a faint sound of running water. The man who had been holding the gun to my back withdrew. For a few moments, nothing happened. Then, without warning, the floor dropped away beneath me. I let out an involuntary yelp of panic as I plunged down into darkness.

Click here for episode 19

The Sky Was Full of Fish 17

The mail contained an offer for a platinum card from a credit card company, a wholesale pond care supply catalog (a nice touch, I thought), and one of those gaudy, busily-printed sweepstakes envelopes. I glanced through to make sure I hadn’t missed anything; I hadn’t. Then the sweepstakes envelope caught my eye.

“Don’t throw this envelope away, Andrew Millik!” the envelope shouted in cheerfully urgent orange letters. My name was printed in a white oval in a more businesslike font. Below the big orange letters, in a slightly smaller black font, it said, “Follow the enclosed instructions if you ever want to see Gail Millik and your house again!” The words “Gail Millik and your house” were printed in a similar white oval in the same font as my name. Gail Millik is my wife’s mundane name.

I took the mail over to the bench and sat down. Setting the catalog and credit card offer aside, I focused on the sweepstakes envelope. Aside from the text already quoted, there were no other markings on the envelope. There wasn’t even an address, stamp, or post marking. This was not entirely surprising, however. I stuck a finger under the flap and ripped it open.

Inside, I found a single typed sheet (presumably the aforementioned instructions), and a photograph that hit me like a blow to the stomach. It showed Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude tied to a chair, blindfolded and gagged. There was some writing on the photo; it said, “Do not fuck with us.”

I did my best not to let the cheap shot photo rattle me, but I was only partially successful. I turned my attention to the typed sheet of paper.

I shan’t bore you with the details. The gist of it was that I was to appear in a certain abandoned warehouse down in the docks area of the city at midnight that night. Whoever these people were, they were not long on originality.

I will admit, however, that the P.S. was a bit troubling. “Wear gloves, or the woman dies,” it said.

So I was to be without the use of my right pinky finger. That didn’t make me feel very cozy at all. But of course, I had to follow the instructions. They held all the cards, and they weren’t sharing them.

If nothing else, it was going to be an interesting evening. I took advantage of the intervening time to purchase a pair of gloves, and some shoes that didn’t flap.

Click here for episode 18

The Sky Was Full of Fish 16

I left the coffee shop shortly after Binks did. Unsure of what I wanted to do next, I decided to go home, if for no other reason than to get some sensible shoes.

When I got home, I had a bit of a shock. I discovered that the house was completely gone, and the entire lot was occupied by a nicely landscaped pond. Although man-made, the pond was not freshly installed, if the plant life and the age of the wood chips that were spread over the beds were any indication. This pond had been here for quite some time. Exactly how that could be, I didn’t know. I double-checked that I had the address right, and I did. My house had been replaced by a pond.

My initial concerns were for the beloved quartet of Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude. I had no way to know where they were or if they were safe. My secondary concern was for my shoes. I would be stuck with duck feet for at least a little while longer.

In the front corner of the lot, there was a park bench that faced the pond. I sat down, intending to calm myself so that I could begin to apply my intelligence to the problems before me. The fish in the sky were reflected in the pond’s still waters and seemed almost to mock me. I became convinced that my house’s disappearance had something to do with those wretched fish.

I had been sitting there, thoughts churning, for about two minutes when Barbara crawled from beneath the bench and hopped up beside me.

“Hi, Barbara,” I said. She deigned to let me scratch her behind the ears. “Got any advice for me? I’m in bad shape here.”

“I’m afraid I don’t have much help for you,” said Barbara with a sigh. “It is quite possible that your home can never be restored. Unfortunately, the only thing I can tell you for certain is that your female companion is safe.”

On hearing the news that the beloved quartet was safe, the vise that had been squeezing my entrails for the past few minutes evaporated. The sudden change in pressure made me laugh. Barbara regarded me quizzically. “They’re okay,” I said. “That’s the most important news you could have possibly told me.”

Barbara shrugged. “If you say so.”

“So where are they?” I asked.

“That, I don’t know. I only know that she is currently safe and in no imminent danger. Her whereabouts are hidden from me.”

“Oh. Well, that makes the news not quite as good.”

We sat looking at the pond for a while. After a time, Barbara said, “What are you going to do?”

I sighed. “Well, my first instinct is to see after Matilda, Heather, Sara, and Gertrude. However, I have a feeling that the more selfless and noble course of action would be to move forward with the fish business.”

“Which will you choose?”

“I have a strong hunch that the two choices are interconnected. So if I focus my efforts on retrieving my loved ones, I will also be making progress on the fish front. Hopefully.”

“So you will follow your own selfish ends and leave the world to its fate?”

I looked at Barbara. “I don’t see it that way,” I said. “Fix a small piece of the world, and the whole is improved, however slightly.”

Barbara gave a nod of approval. Then she said, “You still have a mailbox.”

I glanced to the other front corner of the lot. Sure enough, the old mailbox was still there, the only element of my house that remained. “Well, I guess I’d better get the mail,” I said, standing.

“I’ll leave you to it,” said Barbara. She hopped down from the bench. “We’ll meet again soon.” She trotted daintily into the bushes and disappeared from view.

Click here for episode 17

The Sky Was Full of Fish 15

I certainly recognized the man in the wimple, and I could tell he recognized me by the way he did a double-take when he saw me. We stared at each other warily for a second or two. Then, deliberately making sure he noticed, I removed my right pinky finger and set it on the table in front of me, pointing to the ceiling.

The man backed away a step with his hands raised, rightly recognizing my threat. Then he turned and went to the counter. I heard him order an iced chai. Drink in hand, he slowly approached my table, his other hand in full view at all times.

“May I join you?” he asked.

After some consideration, I replied with mock cordiality, “Oh yes, please do have a seat.”

He sat down, carefully, eyeing my right pinky finger. Setting down his drink, he folded his hands and set them on the table in front of him. In his wimple, the position could almost have been worshipful. “I assure you, there’s no need for that,” he said, indicating my finger. “I have no intention of threatening you in any way at this time, and it would ease my mind if we could converse like civilized business men.”

Again, I considered. It was true that he had made no threatening move, we were in a somewhat busy coffee shop, and I could always reopen my digital cavity should the need arise. I picked up my finger and put it back on my hand. My companion relaxed visibly.

“I appreciate it,” he said quietly. He paused to take a sip from his drink. “My name is Binks,” he continued. “Roger Binks. And you are Andrew Millik.”

I raised an eyebrow.

“The reason I know your name is because I was hired to kill you. I’m an independent contractor in the same field you work in.”

“I don’t kill people,” I retorted.

Binks shrugged. “I don’t either, typically. This was supposed to be a sort of test job with my client. If I did well, the understanding was I would get regular work more in line with my areas of expertise. A gateway job, if you will.”

“And?”

“Well, I hope you understand that a person can take a job without fully understanding the ramifications. Particularly a person in financial difficulties.”

“So you want money from me?” I said.

Binks became irritated. “Shut up and listen,” he snapped. “I was hired to kill you before this business went down.” He gestured vaguely at the sky. “I took the job without understanding what your role would be in said business.

“When a man wants out of his contract, he should be able to get out of it. But there was no exit clause. So if I should choose to do you in with a dismantler drone, and if there should be a DDA agent in the vicinity, well, what can I do about it? I tagged you, and in my book that fulfills my contract. Thank you and have a nice day.”

He paused to regard me. “Am I being understood?” he asked.

I kept my face expressionless, but nodded once, slowly.

“Good,” said Binks. He produced a business card from somewhere. I didn’t see him reach for a pocket; it seemed simply to appear in his hand. He set it on the table in front of me. “This is my card,” he said. “I’m making myself available to you in your task. Pro-bono. And that’s nothing to sniff at; my abilities and resources are substantial. Should you need anything, simply lick the card and I’ll be around.”

“Where’s the card been?” I asked sarcastically.

Binks snorted. “I assure you it’s non-toxic, antibacterial and antiviral.” He stood up. “There are trying times ahead, Millik. Even a mercenary like me has to choose sides. I choose to be on your side. Be seeing you.” He turned to leave.

“There’s just one question,” I said. Checking his departure, he turned back to me. “What’s with the wimple?”

Binks smiled a half smile. “What’s with the duck shoes?” he countered. Then he was gone.

I looked down at the card on the table. I picked it up and put it in my right pinky finger. Despite my misgivings, I recognized that Binks had the potential to be useful.

That was twice today that someone powerful had warned me of the future and put themselves at my disposal. I was beginning to worry.

Click here for episode 16