They’re always changing iPhones so you have to upgrade to the next one. Slightly bigger screen, longer battery life, transdimensional conference call with supernatural beings—it’s alway something you don’t really need. Or want.
It’s eventually going to get to the point where you turn on your phone and it immediately explodes so you have to buy a new one. Marketing genius.
“Whatever were you thinking?” asked the voice coming out of the little box. She sounded amused. She also sounded like a kidnapper using a voice-changer, calling to demand a ransom or the kid’s ears get sent to you by Fedex. It puts the lotion in the basket.
“Hello, Yuqi,” I said. “If I’d known you were only a phone call away I would’ve been in touch sooner. I have so many questions for you. Are you an idiot? Call this a plan? Who the fuck put you in charge? So many…”
“Do you, now? Do you really?” A long, manic laugh spewed from the small device like it was a music box for the criminally insane. What was she laughing about?
The people on the other side of the desk who were allied to Yuqi and under her protection, shifted uncomfortably. It wasn’t like she could reach across from the other side and physically harm anyone, but somehow it felt like she could. Or maybe she could. This was magic at work, it was probably best not to rely on vague, unreliable concepts like the laws of physics.
I took an involuntary step back and bumped into something. I turned to find the others had somehow collected behind me, which was a remarkable feat in itself. I don’t have that long a shadow, but they had all squeezed in there.
One by one, I shifted my party from where they huddled and repositioned them so they were in a line, shoulder to shoulder. There was a little resistance, but those who refused to lift their feet got a swift kick in the shins to get them moving.
The cackling eventually subsided leaving the room silent as everyone waited for someone else to continue the conversation. Calling it a day and a nice dinner would have been my choice. No such luck.
“Did you really think you could upset my plans so easily?”
“Kind of hard for me to upset your plans when you haven’t told me what they are?” I said.
Jenny looked over her shoulder to look at me. “Shouldn’t you be standing in front of us, you know, as the leader?”
“It’s fine. I’m happy to share the limelight. Plus, she has a habit of firing lightning bolts at me and it’s not very good for my skin. I think I’m allergic to being electrocuted.”
All five of them were peering over their shoulders at me. I waved my hands at them to face front.
“Your friends are here too, are they? How nice to meet you all.”
“Oh, so you can’t see us through that box?” This was a relief. Harder to aim when you can’t see your target.
“No, but I feel like I can. Especially the girls. Scarface, Fatty and Big Nose.” She collapsed into a fit of giggles.
Even from behind it was obvious none of the girls appreciated the joke. Their bodies tensed and fists clenched. Dudley and Maurice awkwardly shifted from foot to foot, not knowing how to respond.
“Okay,” I said, “so this is Yuqi. Everyone say hi.” Silence. “Come on, guys, manners cost nothing.”
The three girls swished their heads around to glare at me. I was amused, but not by Yuqi’s insults. I was just pleased to have them realise what I’d been dealing with. I couldn’t see them refusing me anything that would lead to getting rid of this nutcase.
“Yes,” said Yuqi, “we’re all on the same team, here. We’re going to work together, those who are beautiful, who have the hearts of warriors and the souls of sorcerers. And you three. Hee hee hee.” She was fucking delighted with herself, giggling away
“We aren’t going to help you do anything,” said Jenny very evenly. “You can stay in whatever hole they put you in and rot.”
“Oooh,” said Yuqi. “Aren’t we full of ourselves? You know, my original plan was to have the three of you taken by the masters. It would have been a much less bloody way to infiltrate the Palace, but the masters have a certain aesthetic standard. Imagine the lives that would have been saved if only you three were a little visually stronger.” The lilt to the voice flattened. No more laughter. “Listen to me, you bitches. You have a lot to learn about how things work in my world. If you don’t do as I say, you’ll never find your way home. You’ll be stuck here forever.”
“You’re the one who’s stuck,” said Claire. “Sixteen years? Sixteen years and you still haven’t found a way out. We’ll do just fine without you. We’re not the ones trapped in a little box.”
“We shall see,” said Yuqi. “We shall see who has—”
She was cut off mid-sentence as Flossie stepped forward, scooped the box off the desktop and snapped the lid shut.
This took everyone by surprise.
“Ah’ve had just about enough of her,” said Flossie. She put the box down her front where it disappeared into her cleavage.
“You can’t do that,” said Dorma. “That’s mine. Give it back.”
“Shan’t,” said Flossie.
Varg puT a hand on his sword and stood a little straighter, his eyes moving to Flossie’s chest.
Dudley stepped in front of Flossie. He was almost as tall as Varg, but he didn’t have a weapon. And even if he’d had one, I doubt it would make much difference. The last time he’d tried to protect Flossie like this, it hadn’t turned out so well.
“We’ll let you have it back after we’ve finished,” I said. “You have other ways to contact the Jester, right? Meditation or something.” I looked over at David who had been watching things unfold from the back wall without once seeming like he was going to get involved.
Maurice leaned back pulling a concerned face and whispered. “That’s a bit racist.”
“What? How is that racist? I don’t mean because he’s Chinese. Non-Chinese people meditate, too. What the fuck? Would it be racist if I asked him if he knows kung fu.”
Maurice slid his eyes sideways to look at the others.
“Yeah, kind of,” said Claire.
“No, it Fucking wouldn’t. David?” I said. “Know any martial arts?”
“Yes,” saiD David. “My mother runs a Tai Chi studio. I’ve been learning since I was two.”
“See! And you know what else, I knew he had training because I’ve already seen him do his woo ha, wuxia jumping around bullshit. That’s right, I know things you guys don’t, so please keep your assumptions to yourselves. Some of us are operating on a higher level. Honestly, some people just love to point the finger because they think their shit don’t stink. Well, it does. Everyone’s except mine which smells of lilacs and roses.”
“No, it doesn’t,” said Jenny.
“Metaphorically!” I shouted at her. These people annoyed me so much with their baseless accusations and poor grasp of literary devices.
Dorma was a bit stunned by this sudden squabble, but he quickly rallied. “I don’t know what you people are going on about, but you will return the Codex to me.” He held out his hand.
I walked towards Dorman, pushing through my less than effective buffer (everything still ended up on my plate in the end) and put my hands on the desk.
“Listen, General, we won’t be doing things your way. We won’t be sacrificing thousands of lives to distract the masters. Not because of my love for the people of this city—they’re all horribly stupid and deserve a damn good beating, to be perfectly honest—but because it’s a stupid plan with very little chance of success. Just as you have very little chance of getting what you want if you follow the Jester.”
Tact, diplomacy, compromise—all valuable approaches I would imagine. In this case, I already knew this man was only interested in his own agenda. If he thought his chances were better with us, I felt pretty sure he’d jump ship.
“Varg,” said Dorma through gritted teeth. “Get my Codex back.”
Varg took out his sword. I looked over to David, but he hadn’t moved a muscle.
I wasn’t too worried. It wasn’t like death was big deal here (except to me, and I had no intention of going near anything sharp or pointed) and at worse we’d have to give back the Codex. I wasn’t even sure we needed it.
We waited for Varg to make his next move. And continued to wait. He had stopped with sword half-drawn from his scabbard. Dorma had also frozen in place.
“What’s going on?” said Flossie from somewhere under Dudley’s armpit where she had buried her head.
“Phil,” I said. “He must be here. Let’s just hope he hasn’t brought his friends with him.”
“Wait here.” David ran to the door which obviously wouldn’t open. He turned, eyes darting around the room, and then rushed to an open window and jumped out. It was only open a crack, but he slithered through without hesitation. Jenny went over and could hardly get her arm through.
“Shouldn’t we try to get out of here?” said Maurice.
I went over to where Jenny was still trying to force her head through the gap. He nose was flattened against the glass. Not attractive. It really wasn’t much of an opening. David must have bones made of rubber.
“I don’t think there is a way out until Phil turns time back on.”
Claire moved closer to Dorma’s stiff body. He was in the middle of standing, bent forward. She leaned down and peered into his ear. “We can’t trust him.”
“Really?” I said. “You needed to read his mind to figure that out?”
She threw me an annoyed grimace. “He isn’t thinking anything right now, but he’s convinced he’s going to be a king. ‘First the money, then the power, then the goats,’ that’s his mantra. I don’t even know what that means.”
“I guess that’s how you think in a goat-based economy.” At least, I hoped that’s what it meant.
Flossie ducked out from under Dudley and walked over to Varg who was posed like the cover of a Conan novel. “Ah should punch him right in the goolies.”
She’d probably break her knuckles if she tried.
“Wait, how are you moving?” I said, suddenly realising something. “Where did you put the Codex?”
“The Bitch Box?” said Flossie. “Right here.” She reached in between her breasts and took out the Codex. She was moving it freely. It wasn’t stuck in time like the other inanimate objects which meant it wasn’t of this world… or there was a way to make certain things immune to Phil’s power.
David had a sword which must also be immune. If we could figure out how to selectively release certain objects from the time stop, that could come in incredibly useful. If only there was some kind of manual that explained how it worked.