"It's a good thing you didn't bring your Wizard friend with you to this place," said Jimmy-Jim Jim as he guided me to his table. "Not like she'd be welcome in here. At all."
Jimmy-jim Jim Jim -- he insisted on his full name -- might not have stood out in Chicago, although people from, say, the Gold Coast, might have thought 'Oh he must be from the south side'. Unfortunately for him, "might not" was obliterated by his huge ears and huge nose. I'm talking BFG ears and Cyrano nose. Cops who would have picked him up for "fitting the description" must have looked at him and thought "nah, they didn't say anything about his ears, this must not be the guy". Imagine being known for something like that! Nobody would ever include you in a heist if there was any chance of people seeing your face. Which is a shame, Jimmy-iim Jim Jim had told me, because those ears could hear the cops coming from a mile away, and he could smell them coming too.
Jimmy-jim Jim Jim lived a life where too many people were too rude to avoid pointing and staring. But he'd found a place where he didn't stand out at all, and we'd chatted about the establishment known as Meyer's.
What I'd seen at first glance, when I stepped through the door, was a big room with tables, booths, reddish wood walls, and a bar at the far end. Typical watering hole. Also probably there was no fire exit, judging by what I've heard about these sorts of bars. And there weren't any windows.
Then again, nobody was smoking, except for one lady who had smoke coming out of her nostrils. Only, she wasn't holding a cigarette. And there weren't any electric lights on the ceiling either, or anywhere, really. Yet the room was brightly lit, mostly. Some shadowy corners. Very sharp shadows. Very deep shadows, out of which gleamed eyes, occasionally more than one pair from the same face.
I would have said these were the people who were too ugly to even show their faces clearly in the bar. But no, there at the tables sat men with scaled skin, and people with catfish-like barbels growing out the sides of their faces and waving in the air. And a small spruce tree on a table, that was holding a bottle of ale. Everyone had a drink and a smile.
That was about the point that Jimmy-jim Jim Jim pulled me aside and sat me down at a table. "Don't stand in the doorway staring," he said. "You don't want to look like you're new here until you're ready to announce yourself. Nice to meet you, I'm Jimmy-jim Jim Jim. You smell like the Wizard Academy. What are you doing hanging around those folks? I figured they'd shoo you away, or something."
"Well, uh..." Was I going to tell him what brought me to Chicago? Was he going to find out later anyway? Maybe it was best to play my cards close to the chest for now. "Let's say that's an issue I still have to work out. Relating to why I left my beloved New York."
"Ah, yes. Old Lady King told me about that."
"Old...you know my grandmother?"
"A hell of a lot of people know about your grandmother. I never expected to see her here in Chicago, though. Thought she was the one on the run. But nope. It's you. Coming here with a human shape and a big rat's shadow."
I glanced behind me.
"Heh. Not literally. But that was the other reason I pulled you aside, kid. Marina announced you, and everyone's kind of expecting you to show up, so I wanted to get you up to speed with this place before you have to stand up in front of everyone and answer questions about your past. You need someone in your corner, kid. I need you in my corner, more like. There's things you can do for me...for the city...that I think would be beneficial."
"Which are what?"
"We'll get to that in a bit. First, meet Mr. Budny. Oh, and he's got Eyeball Kid with him."
A short man with white hair and lined face sat down at the table. He wore a suit that looked like it would have fit him perfectly when he was 40. "Evening, newcomer," he said. "You're in a bit of an odd place for someone who doesn't look all that odd." He placed a jar on the table that contained a big eye. "And this is a place where the oddballs come, so I trust you either have a good explanation for your presence, or a promise not to start trouble, at least. Mr. Hawkins and I and a lot of other people are here to avoid that. So."
"Nice to meet you, I'm Pat."
Mr. Budny paled.
"And you have my word," I continued, "that I'm not going to start trouble. Anyway, Gargantua -- if that is his real name -- invited me here. I kind of figured he'd be the one to meet me at the door. Is he here? Is Pantagruel here?"
"No," said Jimmy-jim Jim Jim. "Which is odd. They're usually here every night. Bolek, Did any of your fellows see or hear anything?"
"No...They're not in the same neighborhood as Gargantua's place. We could ask the Flat-Cap Folk, but the stuff they see is kind of random."
The eyeball in the jar jumped a few times.
"Oh," said Mr. Budny, "You think you know? Alright, kid. Let's see what you got." He picked up the jar, turned it so the eye was facing him, and stared at it for a while.
After a while, he said, "I see a building on fire. All aflame. And...that looks like Gargantua's place. No wonder the place is on fire, the owners never bother with fire safety codes because they've got a man favoring them in City Hall. I tell that dog once, I tell him a hundred times, find someplace better, put a bed in my closet, I don't know, sleep on the roof of Meyers. Get you and your human out of there. Does he listen? No. Did he escape? Who knows. I need a drink now."
He rose. At that moment, the door opened. In stepped Pantagruel, bringing the faint scent of smoke along with him.
The conversation in the bar slowly died away as each table and booth turned to look at the arrival, recognized Pantagruel, and then looked down, and noticed that a certain little dog wasn't there. Some people were nudging each other and whispering, but nobody dared speak as Pantagruel made his way right to the bar.
He pointed to a big bottle of whiskey. The bartender picked up a glass, but Pantagruel shook his head, and pointed to the bottle again.
"I can't do that," said the bartender. "In the state you're in? Half a glass of beer would do you better."
Pantagruel shook his head and pointed to the bottle again. The bartender didn't budge. Pantagruel finally pointed to one of the beers. The bartender opened it and poured a glass.
I turned back to Jimmy-jim Jim. "How did you know I have a wizard for a friend?"
"Let's just say the paving stones have ears. Now, I'd like you to meet some more of the regular crowd." He turned to an adjacent table and waved them over.
The first person to rise was a woman with pale, curiously shiny skin, whose face never moved. She was kind of stiff and jerky. The rest of them looked...normal, from what I could see. Well, two of them. The third was some kind of bonsai maple.
The four of them sat at the table. Well. Three at the table and one on it.
The shiny woman extended her hand to me and said, "Nice to meet you. I'm Layla."
"Wow," I said, "You're a real d—”
"Don't go there," she said. "Don't fucking go there."
"I'm Warren", said a short skinny man. As I shook his hand, I notced that his skin, despite having the color one would expect of a human, was all scales.
"Mahalia," said a short fat lady. "I'd love to shake your hand, but I don't want you to get hurt."
"Thorns. And this —" she pointed a thumb at the Bonsai — "is Clem. And he's a good example of what happens when you wish unthinkingly. Maybe we all are. Maybe we're responsible for our fates."
"Nonsense," said Jimmy-jim Jim. "You ran into a Genie who takes things literally for his own amusement. That's not your fault. You're always so hard on yourself, Mahalia."
"I know, but if I had just said things a little more carefully..."
"He would have tried to misinterpret anyway," said Mr. Budny. "I know how he works. Look, maybe there was something you could have done, maybe there wasn't. It's too late now. Just let the past go. Alright? I'd rather have the Mahlia willing to use her fearsome fists than I'd have the Mahlia who sit in the corner and cries."
"Do not mock my pain, Bolek. Do not mock anyone's pain. Just because you have it better than any of us —"
"Do you think I enjoy being mind-linked to every old Polish idiot who wears a hat? Do you think I wanted to be roped into that club? I've got almost no connection to the old country and yet here I am, constantly running to save one member or another of a group I never agreed to join, with their damn thoughts in my head about standing up in the face of the enemy! What enemy? Nobody calls anyone a Polack anymore! Nobody calls us Kikes! Nobody even makes Polish Jokes! All I wanted was to hang around people who were a little more like me, and what did I get? A bunch of old farts who can't let go of old pain! Don't take the same road those jerks did, Mahalia."
"To be fair," said Layla, "It's not as though any of us are completely willing to be in this club, either. But, you know, if it's the only safe place..."
"Back up," I said. "Who gave you all these wonderful and terrible gifts?"
"Guy hangs around the South Loop," said Jimmy-jim Jim. "You can see him in the shadows of the El, sometimes, and other times in the reflection of shop windows. Says he'll grant you the thing you're wanting most at that moment. Or whatever you ask for. He's not picky. But he makes you hurry up, because he says he's got stuff to attend to. So you wind up making a hasty wish and he gives you just what you ask for."
"I asked to no longer feel the cold and the heat," said Layla.
"I asked to become untouchable," said Mahalia.
The Bonsai maple reached out with two branches, grabbed a pencil and notepad, and wrote, I wanted to be something other than human.
"I just wanted to be a reptile," said Warren. "They don't have to eat as much. Kind of a bitch in the winter, though. Maybe I should have considered that this is Chicago."
"His name," I said. "What is his name?"
"well," said Layla, "He calls himself Tall John the Conqueror."
"And he always says the same thing," said Warren. "With this gift, you shall conquer. Pfft. Like any of us can conquer."
I ay my forehead on the table. "Great," I said to the floor. "Here I thought maybe I wouldn't run into that joker again. Who am I kidding? We're in North America. I probably can't escape him. And now...but wait." I raised my head. "I know this guy. He's big on exact wording. You've experienced it more than I have. When he said "you shall conquer," do you think he was saying you would have to do it alone?"
"All he said was 'you shall conquer'", said Clem. "That could mean any number of things."
"Exactly. Maybe you all need to work together. The things you asked for can be of use. Like Layla. You're ceramic. You can walk through an industrial oven without burning up and through a blizzard without freezing. Mahlia. Bolek here already said your fists are feared. Clem, you can spy on any meeting. And Warren...uh...can you talk to lizards or something?"
"Lizards have very little to say. Believe me, I've tried to get them to talk about politics or religion or something. but no, it's all this bug is tasty or she really digs me or you don't want to go to Green Chicago. Crushing bores, all of them. And before you ask, no, they're horrible spies because they hardly remember anything. So...I don't know. Maybe I can make money by signing up for a Freak Show. But what exactly are we conquering anyway?"
"Whatever makes you wind up here."
"You think it's that easy?" said Jimmy-jim Jim Jim. "It's not like there's some Evil Overlord in Shadow Chicago who would scourge us with whips if we oppose him. People just...treat us like crap if they know about us, and fail to hire us for jobs, and call the Wizard Police if they think we're getting out of line, which is anytime we try to stand up for ourselves. what makes us wind up here is basically everyone how doesn't like us. So, we do what everyone does when they find people like them who have the whole world against them: band together, establish our territory, make it clear that this is our domain where we meant to be safe. We have this bar, and the blocks around that we consider a safe haven —"
"And which we maintain by any means necessary," said Mahalia. She pounded a fist into her palm for emphasis.
"So...you're a gang. With a bar. What is this, the Twenties?"
"All the immigrant groups used to be like this," said Bolek. "You had your neighborhood, and it was YOURS, and if any of those damn mics or spics or wops or chinks crossed the line into your territory, you called your friends and beat the snot out of them. We're kind of like that. We've got our territory, other gangs have theirs, and if someone crosses a line, well, you know what to do."
"And you do this to Wizards as well?"
"Hell no," said Layla. "Wizards can bend reality to their will."
"At least they try," said Jimmy-jim Jim Jim. "I've seen a few of them fail. And you know, I see the older ones kind of fade, year by year. They get translucent, and then they get transparent...that's assuming they don't explode beforehand."
"Look," I said, rising from my seat, "this is nice and all, but there are some people I need to speak to immediately —"
Jimmy-jim Jim Jim pushed me back down. "What's your hurry? We've still got so much to talk about, Rat Girl."
"You could be useful to us, you know. Bring out the beast in you when we need help. Stay by our sides as we hunt for the Colors of Chicago. I bet if you took your true form and stayed by the door, nobody coming in would start a fight."
"That's not my —"
"Rather have you on our side than on anyone else's," said Mr. Budny. "So how's about it? Are you going to join our venture? Or will you become our enemy?"
"I don't like that kind of framework for —"
Jimmy-jim Jim Jim put his hand on my shoulder, somewhat heavily. "Make your decision now, kid. We don't have that much time."
I rose, grabbed JImmy-jim Jim Jim by his shirt, and held him above my head. "Listen, James, I don't have time for this. And I will not, under any circumstances, make agreements under the duress of peer pressure and implied violence. And you will not test me, because I can do a hell of a lot to any of you without even having to become a beast. I did not need that form to save New York City, and if I do use it in your presence, it will not be to save you. That power does not save people. I will not return to what I was." I set him down. "Do you understand?"
"I'm disappointed that I had to resort to that, but you were putting me under serious pressure. And I'm disappointed that you feel the need to violently maintain territory in order to survive. But then, you sound like you're under pressure as well. Am I right?"
"You don't know the half of it," said Warren.
"Well, maybe I'll hear about it later. i've got some friends -- some Wizard friends -- who need to hear about this as well, so I'll bring them along next time. Just so you're forewarned."
Jimmy-jim Jim Jim sputtered. "You can't just -- why would you -- "
"You're scared. I get that. But let's just say, shaking off your chains involves rattling your bones." I turned to the rest of the bar, who were all staring at me silently. "I'm not going to be intimidated into helping you," I said. "You can either ask nicely, or you can lose my support. What's it going to be?"
At that moment, my eyes fell upon the place where Pantagruel had been drinking. he was no longer drinking. In fact, his glass was untouched. The bartender had a bat out ready to strike, but was lowering it, because the fight was over already -- Pantagruel had won without a scratch. He wasn't even breathing heavily, though his fists were clenched. Before him lay a man, not moving.
I strode over to the bar, and knelt beside the one who had fallen.
I closed my eyes, and extended my senses towards him. Not that I knew exactly what I was doing. But i figured, if I was able to call out to brick and stone, maybe I could call out to bone as well. After all, isn't a body made up of members?
The skull, for its part, showed itself clearly in my mind. No part of it was cracked. Nor did any other bones look broken either. But the brain...didn't exactly appear damaged. How was I supposed to know? I wasn't a neurosurgeon. Would I have to be, though? Would I have to call out to someone's brain, and read their thoughts accidentally? Doctors knew how to deal with tricky medical ethical situations, not me. All the same, the guy was out cold. That was supposed to be a bad sign. But what could I do for him? Or anyone?
The Wizard academy had a nurse's wing, didn't it?
I grabbed the man by his shoulders and lifted, taking care to support his head on my shoulders. Maybe I could drag him all the way to the school. Pfft. Right.
"Help me out here," I said. "This is kind of your mess. And I don't think either of us are welcome in this bar at the moment."
Pantagruel picked up the man's lower half, and together, we walked out the door.
Three blocks later, i was beginning to break into a sweat. This wasn't going to be all that easy after all. I decided to look for a regular old hospital that was closer.
Jus then, Aurora appeared out of the shadows, followed by Sean.
"Well," I said, "Nice to meet you two again."
Sean glanced at the man, adjusted his glasses and said, "looks like serious brain trauma. He might not make it. What exactly did you do in that bar?"
"This hothead here -- " I nodded to pantagruel -- "Ended a fight too quickly. So we're finding a hospital we can drop this guy off at. How did you know where to find me?"
"The mirrors have eyes," said Aurora. "Courtesy of Sam."
"And you couldn't have met me three blocks earlier?"
"This is the closest we could get," said Sean. "Something about that neighborhood repels us. Anyway, let's get this guy to the infirmary. He's a simple case in comparison to the usual injury."
Pantagruel dropped the man's legs and stepped back.
"What?" I said. "You can come along. It's not like they would be able to tell if you're from Meyer's bar. Right?"
Pantagruel crossed his arms.
"Honestly," said Aurora, "even I don't know all of what Wizards can do. If he doesn't think it's safe, don't make him come."
"It's not like he has anywhere to go," I said. "His apartment burned down and his dog is...missing. And the bar is off-limits for tonight. Pantagruel, where would you go?"
Pantagruel sighed, and signed, We look out for our family. Big family, big neighborhood. I am safe there. Bar is small part. See you.
He turned and walked back the way we had come.
Aurora spread her cloak around me, Sean, and the unconscious man, and we were gone.