Cast of Wonders 372: Little Wonders 22: #FantasyWorldProblems
“Whatever the Price” and “The Supervisor of Accountants and the Great Grey Wolf” are original to Cast of Wonders (2019)
“An Evil Opportunity Employer” was originally published in Unidentified Funny Objects 6, edited by Alex Shvartsman (2017)
Whatever the Price
by Matthew Bailey
The road to defeating an evil Corpse Lord is long, the oracle had told me, but it always starts with proper financing.
With a deep breath, I stepped into the Rootbridge Savings and Loan praying I wouldn’t have to sully my honor. Knowing I would, if it came to it. One way or another, I was getting what I came for–whatever the price.
At least the place wasn’t as imposing as the larger, marble-hewn banks I’d already tried back in the capital. Banks that would laugh at anyone without their own personal standard and at least one hornblower. Banks that existed solely to help those who already had money make more of it.
This place, I hoped, would be different. Located in a part of the country bound by the Crown’s laws but unfavored by the Crown’s largesse, it just had to be.
The oracle instructed me to look my best, so I’d purchased a sword made of at least 47% widowsteel (second-hand, but who could tell?) and a violet cloak spun from the finest imitation fairy hair. The only thing that gleamed brighter than my newly-polished breastplate was my smile.
Still, as I walked over to the man I had come to meet, it was hard to keep my heartbeat steady.
One does not simply walk into the Rootbridge Savings and Loan, the oracle had warned. One must have an appointment.
The man I’d come to see sat under a small framed tapestry bearing the spear-and-scales insignia of the house. The nameplate on his desk said, Polonius Ghent, Individual and Unlikely-Enterprise Loans. He looked up as I approached, a slight smile playing over his lips as his eyes flickered from my breastplate to my boots.
“Miss Felinia Kemp?” he said.
“I take it you’re not here to open a shop.”
“No, I had something much…grander in mind.” I chose my words with care. I’d met enough bankers to know they couldn’t be trusted. They used words like amortization and gods, I’ve never seen a credit score this low; spells that drain the life force right out of you.
But that wouldn’t happen here. This time had to be different. Because if I didn’t stop the Corpse Lord, who would?
“Very well,” Ghent said. “How can I help you today?”
I licked my lips. I hated pitching. “I’m putting together a team.”
“Yes. A kind of sisterhood, really.”
Ghent arched an eyebrow. “A trade organization?”
“Well,” I said, “more like a band.”
“I see. And its nature? Do you have a mission statement?”
I straightened in my chair. “To journey through pain and peril, winter and woe, to the necrolands of the Corpse Lord to rid the world of his foul presence forever.”
“A quest, then,” Ghent said. “And you’re looking for a loan?”
“I am looking for women and men of valor to –”
“Yes, but for that you need funding. Very well, Miss Kemp, I only have a few questions. I’m sure this won’t take long.” He produced several sheets of blank parchment. “Please fill these out.”
I took one. The moment my fingers touched it, words appeared.
QUEST-LOAN APPLICATION FORM
SECTION 1A: APPLICANT INFORMATION
1. Are you a lost heir to royalty? Y/N
2. Are you currently in exile? Y/N
3. Has any member of the nobility personally solicited your aid? Y/N
4. Are you a farmboy (or farmgirl) seeking to undo a curse upon otherwise agriculturally-productive land? Y/N
5. Are you the subject of any prophecies made by a licensed, reputable prophet? Y/N
My hands shook in anger. A necromantic plaguemancer ruled the north, and this provincial little scroll-shover was giving me the same forms as all the rest? The oracle had assured me this place would be different; that here you didn’t need money to make money. That I should look not in the cities to find what I sought, but rather in the more bucolic districts. That in every age of the world, it was never the great and grand that overthrew evil, but the little and low.
Now I wondered if she simply did her banking here, too. Likely we would both get a free spit-roaster if I opened an account.
“I will save you time,” I said, “and tell you the answer to all this is no.”
“Oh dear,” Ghent said, but he was smiling from ear to ear. “Have you any other sources of funding? Any–ahem–collateral of your own?”
I swallowed. I’d spent the last of my gold on the outfit.
“Then I’m afraid I must deny your application,” Ghent said.
I felt the bottom drop out of my stomach. “But you haven’t heard my ideas to –”
“Immaterial,” Ghent said. “Quests are expensive. The going rate on mercenaries is astronomical. Then there’s liability insurance, toll-road fees, backcountry permits, weapons, food–no one considers food. And of course, we’ll have to commission a cartographer. Know how much they cost? The north is all corpse-lands now. It’ll be years before even a semi-reliable map is produced, and you can’t go on a quest without one. At least, I never knew anyone who did.”
“But the Corpse Lord,” I persisted. “He must be stopped.”
“Politically, I agree,” Ghent said. “I don’t hold with centralized policymakers of any ideology. But overthrowing him would create a power vacuum which could upset capital markets.” He shuddered. “We’re a small, regional bank, with none of the royal connections held by some…larger institutions.” The envy in his voice was unmistakable. “Our deposits are uninsured.”
“So, you’re saying,” I snarled, “that I should wait for someone wealthier to step up. Meanwhile, people die…and the dead rise.”
“What I’m saying,” Ghent said, “is that you can’t expect me to approve a loan for such a speculative enterprise to someone with a fake fairy cloak and a discount blade.” He chuckled.
Rejected, again. Laughed at, again. And this time by a small, piss-poor, backwater branch. The fact it was less wealthy but no less greedy than its larger cousins was most galling of all. I couldn’t stand it. This would not be borne!
To defeat an evil Corpse Lord, the oracle had said, let nothing stand in your way. Whatever the price.
So. It had come to this.
In a flash, I drew my sword and vaulted over Ghent’s desk.
“Guards!” Ghent cried, backing against the wall. “What are-”
He stopped as I put a finger to his lips. Then, I reached behind him and sliced the tapestry from its frame.
“I’ll meet many people on this quest,” I said. “Women of business, men of means. Innkeepers, smiths, you name it.”
“So, wouldn’t they be interested to know your bank is ready to help with all their financial needs? Especially when other, larger banks might say no?”
I held the tapestry up against my breastplate. The spear-and-scales logo clear for all to see.
Whatever the price…
That’ll be thirty-seven crowns, the oracle had said. Minus a ten-crown rebate if you refer a friend.
“The road to profitability is long,” I said, “but it always starts with proper marketing.”
Ghent’s smile vanished, but there was a new spark of calculation in his eyes. He steepled his fingers. “Go on…”
The Supervisor of Accountants and the Great Grey Wolf
by Donald Crankshaw
Ah, you recognize me. I wasn’t sure that you would. There are hundreds of officials in your court, and I have noticed that your eyes tend to glaze over when they’re introduced to you. No, no offense meant or taken. Just because the likes of me has to remember every country squire and his bastard son that passes through, that’s no reason to expect someone of your importance to remember the Supervisor of the Accountants to the Second Under-Treasurer.
But, should you wish to know, my name is Jerome. I spoke to you about some irregularities in the accounts a little while ago. Do you remember? It specifically pertained to those funds paid out to the knights hunting the Great Gray Wolf. Yes, you remember that part, I see. I pointed out that the knights were submitting expenses well in excess of what you might expect in a typical hunting expedition. For example, the rates they were paying for accommodation were outrageously high. And the other expenses–I know the price of leathers and horses, and you could outfit a small army for what they claimed they were paying. I went over the accounts, broke down the expenses for you, and explained why I believed that those knights were cheating you. I suggested that it was more likely that the knights were wandering the countryside with their wives and mistresses, children and servants, and staying at the finer inns, rather than actually hunting the beast. Do you recall what you told me then? I’m sure you do.
You said, “Perhaps you would do a better job. In fact, Accountant, take it as a royal command. Go out there, and don’t return until you bring me the head of the Wolf.”
For reference, I am not an accountant. I am a supervisor of accountants, and more specifically the Supervisor of the Accountants to the Second Under-Treasurer. Not to make too fine a point of it, but I do believe that people need to be recognized by their proper titles.
But, supervisor or accountant, I am certainly not a knight or a huntsman. Both you and I knew that, but I also knew that it was most improper–not to mention hazardous to one’s well-being–to disobey an order from the king. So I took it upon myself to do what you asked, though it seemed impossible. I blackened my outdoor boots, put on my best bad weather hat and jacket, and hired a carriage to take me to the darkest part of the Old Woods. Or as close as it would go. The coachman dropped me off at the village of Esterby, near the River Thirel. There I went to the best–and only–inn in town, and inquired about their rates and the whereabouts of any visiting knights. I was not surprised that the knights had been nowhere near Esterby, and that the inn’s rates–which they assured me were representative of those charged by inns in any village near the Old Woods–were low enough that the knights could be buying out every room of every inn of every town in the vicinity for significantly less than they recorded in their expense reports.
You’ll see that rate, along with that of my meager meals, in my own much more modest expense report.
Once I had spent the night in the inn, I inquired about the Old Woods and the Great Gray Wolf. The villagers were able to point me to the woods, and a number offered their stories and rumors about the Wolf himself. There were a few who claimed to have seen the Wolf, but only from a distance and hidden by trees or mist, so I wasn’t sure whether they were describing the Wolf, or some other large beast, such as a bear or an elk, or perhaps some particularly wolf-like shrubbery.
After I had heard everything the Esterbs had to say on the matter–yes, they call themselves Esterbs. I, myself, would have thought to call them Esterbians, but they were quite insistent, and, as I’ve said, I’ve always believed in addressing people by their proper titles. In any case, once I’d learned what I could from the Esterbs, I decided that there was no help for it but to go out into the woods myself. So I polished my brass buttons, brushed the dirt from my jacket and hat, and waxed my mustache, before heading out into the Old Woods.
There are no paths through the Old Woods. Well, there are, but only through the areas which we call the North Forest or the Tall Wood, which are all part of the same larger forest. But the part we call Old Woods is quite pathless. Fortunately, there is little underbrush, either, and I was able to make good time. Good time to where, though? Just deeper into the forest? All that meant was that when the sun began to lower, I was farther into the Old Woods than I might have been otherwise. By then it had become obvious that I would not be seeing the Great Gray Wolf that day, though I had seen two bears, one elk, and an oversized fox, all of which might have been mistaken for the Great Gray Wolf from a distance. I had not seen any particularly wolfish shrubberies, though. Once I decided it was time to turn back, I turned on my heel and walked back the way I had come. I followed my own tracks as best I could at first, but as I mentioned before, I am no huntsman, though I am apparently better at not leaving tracks than I am at following them. And while I had tried my best to follow a straight line on the way in, I had occasionally had to sidestep trees or find my way around streams, so I was not able to simply walk a straight line back.
I had quite lost my trail when the sun set, leaving me deep in the Old Woods.
I am not a superstitious man. I do not believe in ghosts or goblins. But the forest is another matter. There is something unnatural about a civilized man being alone in a setting as primal as the Old Woods. There were strange noises–creaking branches and scuttling in the dead leaves, animal and bird calls I couldn’t recognize. And there seemed to be movement all around–the leaves and branches moving out of proportion to the slight wind, shadows and light dancing, darting shapes in the distance, growing gradually closer as the shadows lengthened. Even the smell–so earthy and brown. I will admit, I became more than a little unnerved.
To keep myself focused, I began to recount the figures for courtly banquets in my head. 1200 leris for pork, 1400 for fowl. For someone who is not an accountant, I have an excellent recollection for numbers. By the time I’d totaled the full cost of last month’s Feast of St. Olus–I was off the actual amount paid by 120 leris; I still need to track that down–it was fully dark, and I came to a standstill.
I had no idea what to do. I could not continue walking. Every step, some unseen root or hollow threatened to twist my ankle and send me tumbling. I wasn’t entirely sure I’d see the tree trunks before braining myself on one. But was I just supposed to lie down in the dead leaves and sleep? I wasn’t sure I could bring myself to do that.
Then I heard a growl.
I turned slowly, and though I could make out neither tree nor ground nor sky, the glowing golden eyes were quite visible.
I did not see a wolf in the darkness, but I knew that I faced the Great Gray Wolf. Surprisingly, I wasn’t terrified, or even unnerved. The very worst had happened. I was facing my worst fear, and I merely felt resigned.
“Good evening, Sir Wolf,” I said. “Do you mind if I call you Gray?”
Gray did not respond.
“The King has tasked me with seeking you out. It seems there is a small matter of you preying on livestock in the area and, more relevant to the King I should think, the deer in the King’s private reserve in the Tall Wood.”
There was a deeper growl as the eyes came closer.
“He’s quite unhappy with you, and he’s spent a small fortune paying knights to ride around the area–not this particular area, mind, but someplace adjacent to the vicinity–looking for you. He eventually gave me the task.”
Finally, Gray came close enough that I could see him, even in the dark. He had a sharp snout, sharper than that of any hound, and huge teeth, which he seemed to want me to see, as his dark lips were peeled back. And he was a great deal shaggier than any hound I’d seen, with long, scraggly, dark gray fur. And he was bigger. About three or four times the size of your big yellow bitch, I’d say. He looked like he could take down a horse, scarf it, and still be hungry. His back was level with my chest, and though I’m not a tall man, that was far taller on me than any hound I’d met, and some ponies.
“Tell me, are you prepared to answer to the King?” I said with all the irate authority of a supervisor reprimanding a lazy accountant to the Second Under-Treasurer.
The wolf growled louder.
“Stop that!” I snapped.
Gray stopped mid-growl, leaving a deep silence.
“I don’t believe that you understand the seriousness of the situation. The King wants your head. And I mean that rather more literally than when I tell the same thing to my accountants. You can growl at me all you want, eat me and crack the bones and suck out the marrow, but that won’t stop the king from sending knights after you. Inevitably one or two will wander this way, after all the inns get too full of the other men the King keeps sending out, or at least too full of their servants and wives, mistresses and children. I’m fairly sure one of them will be at least a little more dangerous to you than I am. Frankly, I expect one of them to get lucky slightly before the King’s treasury runs out. And then what will happen?”
It was hard to tell whether Gray was actually listening to me, but his head was cocked slightly to one side, so I had some hope that he might be. Then he began to circle around me, snuffling as he stuck his cold nose in some rather uncomfortable places. This was outside the bounds of what I was used to at court, even from my more unruly accountants, so I tried my best to ignore it, looking straight ahead and refusing to track the wolf.
Finally, he came back around and sat down, looking at me. I swear, his eyes were nearly level with my own.
“Now,” I said, “you can either come with me and get this straightened out, or you can stay here and wait for someone with an actual weapon and perhaps some knowledge of how to use it. I would strongly advise the former.”
Gray cocked his head to one side, but didn’t say anything.
“Very well,” I said. “I’m heading back. If you wish to see the King, come with me.”
I turned and started to walk away.
I heard the wolf chuff behind me. I’m sure the sound I heard was a chuff, though at the time it sounded for all the world like Gray was clearing his throat.
I turned to see Gray making an odd motion with his head, pointing his snout in nearly the opposite direction from the one I’d been going.
“As I said, I’m heading back.” I began walking in the direction the wolf indicated. Gray was soon following in my footsteps. It was still dark, but Gray would helpfully chuff whenever I was about to collide with a tree or tumble down an embankment, so we made it safely out of the forest.
The villagers were rather alarmed to see a wolf–the Wolf–following me. The knights, once we finally saw some, were rather more so. Some of them even drew their weapons, and Gray was forced to defend the both of us. I made sure he didn’t kill anyone, and most of them will surely recover, though I’m afraid that your Captain of the Guard’s hand won’t be growing back. But despite some challenges, we did make it here.
And so, here you have it. One Great Gray Wolf’s head, delivered on your royal command, wolf still attached. I’m sure that won’t be a problem. You could, I suppose, order your headsman to detach the head from the body, but you’d first have to find someone to hold Gray still, and all your guards are either too injured or too afraid to do so.
Might I suggest an alternative? I’d be happy to draw up an account of what Gray has cost you, and what he can pay or contribute through other means. A full accounting of debits and credits will go a long way toward sorting things out.
Just remember that I am a supervisor, and not an accountant. I believe I’ve mentioned the importance of recognizing people’s proper titles. In fact, from now on I think that my proper title should be Lord Supervisor of the Great Gray Wolf.
An Evil Opportunity Employer
by Lawrence Watt-Evans
Read the contract. I tell everyone that – everyone. You know how many people actually do it?
Okay, I don’t know either, but it isn’t enough of them, I can tell you that. I swear half my business and 90% of my losses come from people who didn’t do it. I don’t suppose I should complain, since that’s also at least half my income, but I get so fed up with clients who have no idea what they’ve signed that I just want to punch someone, even if I have to do it in my civilian identity.
Yeah, I admit it, I’m one of those dual-identity vigilantes – I hesitate to say “superheroes,” because quite aside from any trademark issues, it sounds so boastful. It’s not for me to say whether I’m a hero, let alone “super.” I’m not going to tell you my nom d’aventure, but you’d probably recognize it; I’m not one of the really big names, not one of the Kryptonians or Asgardians or anything, but I have certain special abilities and I’ve earned a few headlines.
What I haven’t earned from crime-fighting is a living, so I have a day job as a contracts attorney.
And I know what you’re thinking – contracts? Not criminal law? Yes, contracts, because unlike some attorneys I could name, I understand the concept of conflict of interest. I also understand how difficult it is to keep from being recognized in court by someone with whom you’ve just had an epic two-hour brawl. Masks can slip and tear, and people do recognize voices and body language.
Most thieves and thugs don’t sign any contracts before robbing a bank or taking a busload of commuters hostage, though, so I can put my law degree to use without worrying about constantly confronting people from my other work.
But there are exceptions, and I’m here to tell you about one of them.
This big guy with a battered old briefcase walked in wanting advice on whether he should sue his employer. Nothing out of the ordinary there. I was nodding and getting some papers ready and only half-listening at first because I get these all the time. He’d been asked to do stuff he thought was outside his job description and pretty clearly illegal, and he had agreed because his boss has a mean streak, but now he was having second thoughts, and he wanted to know what I thought he should do.
But then I asked who he worked for, and he answered, and I sat up straight and stared at him.
“Say that again,” I told him.
“I work for Dr. Catastrophe,” he repeated.
“Dr. Alice Catastrophe?” I asked, just to be sure, because yes, Catastrophe is an unusual name, but you never know.
“Yeah. The Doctor of Disaster. Her.”
I sucked in my lips and considered this. I don’t really like to call people “super-villains” any more than I like to call myself a superhero, but I have to admit the term fits Dr. Catastrophe better than any other description I can think of. I’d never gone up against her myself, at least not directly, but several people I knew had, and they all spoke of her with respect. I had the impression that if they weren’t all professionally fearless, they’d speak of her with abject terror.
The guy – I’ll call him John Doe – had my full attention now. The possibility of getting a lead on Dr. Catastrophe’s current whereabouts definitely caught my interest, not so much as a lawyer as for my other line of work. “Tell me more,” I said. “What exactly is it you do for Dr. Catastrophe?”
“I’m a henchman.”
“So you’re not a lawyer or engineer or scientist or lab assistant or experimental subject?”
“No. I’m just a henchman. I run errands, operate equipment, do some security work, some light construction and maintenance, occasionally chauffeur the boss or her friends around.”
“And you think she’s asking you to do something outside your duties?”
I drummed my fingers on my desk. I knew something about the hireling business, albeit only from the outside, so I had a pretty good idea what henchmen and minions and serfs and underlings and the other categories did, but the exact lines were often vague. “Mr. Doe,” I said, “I don’t quite see how that’s possible; are your duties defined anywhere?”
“Yes, they are,” he said, lifting his briefcase onto my desk. “I’ll show you.”
I had a moment of alarm there, thinking that maybe this was all a set-up of some kind and he had one of Dr. Catastrophe’s diabolical devices in there, that someone had found out about my other identity and decided to take me out, but then he flopped a sheaf of ordinary paper from the case onto my desk. He shoved it toward me.
“That’s my employment contract,” he said.
I just stared at it for a moment, then pulled it over and began reading.
It was indeed an employment contract, but not quite like any I had ever seen before. Parts of it were standard modern boilerplate, but other parts were strangely archaic, even more so than ordinary legalese, such as a clause giving the party of the first part – that is, Dr. Catastrophe – “full power under such circumstances to do with the party of the second part at her pleasure, be it either body, flesh, blood, or goods.”
It also defined half a dozen different jobs, including henchman, but when I got to the signature page I noticed something odd.
“So all of Dr. Catastrophe’s people sign this?” I asked.
“That’s right. Apparently she’s had some problems in the past with her employees double-crossing her, so she had this drawn up.”
I knew something about that – Dr. Catastrophe spent eight years in prison after some of my crime-fighting compatriots convinced several of her flunkies to turn on her. Two full pages of this contract had been written specifically to prevent a recurrence, providing elaborate but carefully legal-sounding penalties for disobedience or betrayal. I had doubts about whether these provisions would hold up in court, given the various whistle-blower laws – in fact, since her entire operation was probably a criminal enterprise the whole contract should be unenforceable – but they certainly looked good enough to deter most hirelings.
But that wasn’t what I had been looking at. I turned the contract back around to show him the signature page. “This is you?” I said. “You signed this?”
“Yeah, that’s me. I’m not claiming I didn’t sign, but paragraph 36…”
I interrupted him, still holding it open to the signature page. “Paragraph 36 doesn’t apply,” I said. “Look here.” I pointed to a list at the top of the page where one box was checked, and only one.
“What did… I don’t…”
“You aren’t a henchman,” I said. “You’re a minion. It says so right there.”
He leaned back, shocked. “But I applied to be a henchman!”
“Doesn’t matter. What matters is what you signed, and it says right there that your employment category is entirely at the discretion of your employer, and cannot be changed once the contract is signed. You’re a minion.”
“The doctor said I was her henchman!”
I shook my head again. Hirelings are always surprised when they find out their bosses have lied to them. I used to be surprised when they were; what do they expect from criminal masterminds? But I’d gotten used to it. “Doesn’t matter,” I said again. I flipped pages. “Paragraph 83 – the party of the first part shall have full authority to lie to the party of the second part, to mislead, deceive, or defraud in service of her goals and purposes. She can call you anything she wants, but the contract says you’re a minion.”
He glared at the contract, his face going red. After a moment he said, “So how does that change things?”
“Well, the rules are different for minions; I’m sure you know that. Minions swear total obedience – to fetch and carry, to serve without question. See Paragraph 38? You’re required to obey any order she gives you, no matter how stupid, if it doesn’t directly endanger your life – or if you’re in her presence, even if it does directly endanger your life. Henchmen get more latitude on what orders to obey, and how much they can argue. But there’s a trade-off there – see Paragraph 44, reasons for termination and methods of termination? She can’t just shoot you if she’s angry, the way she can a henchman. Henchmen are responsible for their screw-ups, and minions aren’t, because henchmen are assumed to be using their judgment and minions are supposed to be mindlessly obedient.”
“So she thinks I’m a moron.”
I managed to resist pointing out that he had signed the contract without noticing the big black check-mark in the “Minion” box at the top of the page, which did not speak well of his intelligence. Instead I tried to be conciliatory. “She may not have had any henchman openings left. It’s hard to find good minions.”
“So does this affect my case?”
“I’m afraid it pretty much destroys your case,” I said. “Paragraph 38. Nothing she tells you to do is outside your job description. As for it being illegal, come on, Mr. Doe – you’re working for Dr. Catastrophe! Everything she does is illegal, pretty much.”
“So I really need to go steal all those kittens?”
I did a double-take. “Kittens?”
“Yeah. She wants… well, never mind.” He picked up the contract and dropped it back in his briefcase.
“Kittens?” I said again.
I admit it, I have a soft spot for kittens. My two cats at home, Bruiser and Caliban, are both grown and both fixed, but… kittens. I love kittens.
If Dr. Catastrophe was going to do something horrible to kittens, I had to stop her.
“Hang on,” I said, getting out of my chair and crossing to my reference shelves. “I’m pretty sure there’s a precedent on this. Uh… do you know what Dr. Catastrophe wants with the kittens?”
“How many kittens are we talking about?”
“She said she needed at least forty, and fifty would give her a margin, just in case. She assigned three of us to fetch them.”
“I think there’s a precedent about minions and cute furry things. I’ll need to look that up.” I began scanning the shelves for the volume I wanted. “By the way,” I said, as casually as I could, “did you notice that henchmen who try to leave can be hunted down and killed – it says ‘terminated,’ but we both know what that means – for their disloyalty? But minions who desert are ignored. The contract assumes they don’t know enough to be dangerous.”
He looked puzzled for a second, then realized what I was saying. “Wait – so I could just walk away?”
I nodded. “You’d be out of work, of course.”
“But I wouldn’t need to steal any kittens.”
I could see he was thinking that over as I found the book I wanted and carried it to the desk.
“I think I’ll do that,” he said. “Thanks for the advice.”
I waved it away. “It’s nothing,” I said.
“No, I appreciate it. Thanks. I guess you won’t be representing me, but I’ve taken up your time, so what do I owe you for the consult?”
“Nothing. Really. I haven’t accepted you as a client, and I’m not going to. I won’t accept a cent from you.”
“What? Why not?” He frowned. “Because I’m just a minion?”
“No,” I said, as I flipped pages without looking at him. “Because if you’re my client, this whole conversation would be privileged communication, and I couldn’t tell anyone about it without your permission. If you’re not my client, then we’re just a couple of guys chatting, and if I mention any of this to anyone I’m not breaching confidentiality, which would be an ethics violation, I’m just making conversation.”
“I don’t see… oh.” He lost a little color. “Maybe I do.”
“Mr. Doe, have a good day – and I really think you’re making the right decision not going back.”
Then he picked up his briefcase and hurried out, and I put the book back on the shelf. I never did find that precedent. Maybe cute furry animals don’t actually have any special legal protections.
But I took the rest of the afternoon off, and made a few calls, and that night a coalition of costumed vigilantes used their superhuman abilities to track the sound of mewing kittens to Dr. Catastrophe’s lair, and to put her back behind bars.
About the Authors
Donald S. Crankshaw
Donald S. Crankshaw has a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from MIT, which was more useful for writing fantasy than he had expected, though less helpful for writing science fiction than he had hoped. He has previously published stories in Nature Futures, Daily Science Fiction, and Black Gate.
He and his wife, fellow writer Kristin Janz, currently publish a professional-rate-paying e-zine called Mysterion, which publishes speculative fiction about Christianity. It can be found at www.mysteriononline.com, and has a Patreon page at patreon.com/Mysterion.
Matthew Bailey lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his incredible black belt-wearing wife and three amazing sons. A ghostwriter by trade, he spends his free time playing five different instruments, and in a former life was a professional saxophonist. His short fiction has appeared in Lightspeed Magazine, Daily Science Fiction, Unidentified Funny Objects, and other places. You can read more of his stories at www.matthewjordanbailey.com.
Lawrence Watt-Evans has been a full-time writer for almost forty years, with fifty novels and well over a hundred short stories to his credit, mostly fantasy, science fiction, and horror. He’s best known for the Hugo-winning short story “How I Left Harry’s All-Night Hamburgers,” the Obsidian Chronicles trilogy, and the ongoing Legends of Ethshar fantasy series. He has been reading superhero comic books since 1959, and lives in Takoma Park, Maryland, just outside Washington DC.
About the Narrators
Matt Dovey is very tall, very English, and most likely drinking a cup of tea right now. He has a scar on his arm where he tripped in the fog as a teenager, fleeing a police drone after curfew. He now lives in a quiet market town in rural England with his wife & three children, and despite being a writer he still hasn’t found the right words to fully express the delight he finds in this wonderful arrangement. His surname rhymes with “Dopey” but any other similarities to the dwarf are purely coincidental.
He has fiction out and forthcoming all over the place, including not so long ago on this podcast, with episode 364, “Remember to Breathe”. He’s even an indentured servant I MEAN WILLING VOLUNTEER in the PodCastle slush mines, digging for the shiniest stories to present to the castle dragon in exchange for one more day of not being eaten.
You can keep up with the rest of it at mattdovey.com, or find him timewasting on Twitter as @mattdoveywriter.
Khaalidah Muhammad-Ali lives in Houston, Texas, with her family. By day she works as a breast oncology nurse. At all other times, she juggles, none too successfully, the multiple other facets of her very busy life.
Khaalidah has been published at or has publications upcoming in Strange Horizons, Fiyah Magazine, Diabolical Plots and others. You can hear her narrations at any of the four Escape Artists podcasts, Far Fetched Fables, and Strange Horizons. As co-editor of PodCastle audio magazine, Khaalidah is on a mission to encourage more women and POC to submit fantasy stories.
Of her alter ego, K from the planet Vega, it is rumored that she owns a time machine and knows the secret to immortality.
Marguerite Kenner (she/her) is a California transplant living in the UK city named after her favorite pastime.
She runs Escape Artists with her partner Alasdair Stuart, and practices as a technology lawyer in London. She loves to voice minor characters in podcasts and play video games, often where people can watch.
Her contributions to genre fiction include being a 2021 Hugo Award Finalist, editing Cast of Wonders from 2013 to 2019, project groups for too many industry orgs to count anymore, community organising, mentoring, and teaching business skills to creatives.
You can follow her adventures across various social media platforms.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.