Real People

by Leo David Orionis

I'll never forget the day I found out the truth about my partner.  He saw to that, damn him.  When I'm an old woman of ninety in a nursing home somewhere, I'll be able to tell you exactly what I had for breakfast that day—cream cheese on a bagel and two cups of coffee—exactly what time I got to work—8:45, a CHTS bus was broken down at the corner of Aurora Avenue and 14th Street, so I had to wait in my little green Buick convertible while they unsnarled the traffic — and a million other trivial details.  And one not-so-trivial detail: my partner wasn't human.

I hadn't been at my desk more than twenty minutes when Captain Olsen began hollering.  When he opened the door of his office and shouted "Jones!  Meade!  Get in here!" I didn't even resent, for once, that he called for Jones first.  I was five months senior to Jones, damn it.

But anything was better than staring at the paper in my typewriter and trying to figure out how to write a report on the Alioto case that made sense.  Any way you looked at it, if you told what actually happened, it was going to read like an old pulp story.  Joe Alioto had kidnapped a coed from Columbine University and said he'd snuff her if Daddy didn't cough up big bucks.  Daddy was perfectly willing to do it, but how do you make sure Alioto doesn't kill her anyway, and get away clean?

While I was following procedure and arranging uniforms at every exit, Jones pulled his patented vanishing act.  I'd barely finished changing into civilian clothes and wiping makeup off, so I could pass as the girl's room mate and take the money in myself, when Jones walks in—without knocking!—and shoves the hysterical hostage into my arms.  "Good work, Diane," he says without cracking a smile in that stone face of his.  "You saved the money, rescued the girl, and caught Alioto."  Then the bastard turned to go!

"Wait!" I said around the weeping girl with her arms around my neck.  "What did you do?  Where's Alioto?"

"Send some uniforms in," Jones said.  "He's not going anywhere."  And then he walked out.

It worked out just as he said.  Somehow all the uniforms believed that Jones had put them in place, while I had gone in with the money.  Somehow, even the Smythe girl believed that I had gotten the drop on her kidnapper, and took him down with ju jitsu or something.  And Alioto certainly wasn't going anywhere—not in the condition Jones left him.  They had to bring him out on a stretcher.

Really, did Jones have to break both of Alioto's arms and both of his legs?  Jones is six foot six and 200 pounds of muscle; if he wanted to pulverize a kidnapper, why didn't he take the credit?  I'm five-eight and never-you-mind what I weigh.  And I'm supposed to have beat up the creep?

All I ever wanted, since I was a little girl in blonde pigtails and my daddy was Commissioner, was to be a police detective.  I never wanted a reputation as a super-woman.  Danny Corrigan, one of the other detectives, said "Way to go, Diane!  Nike herself couldn't have beaten that scum any better."  Comments like that just made me want to retch.

So there I was, trying to figure out how to write a report that wasn't pure fiction ("… and then Detective Jones, who's really The Shadow, used his power to cloud men's minds to give me all the credit.  But it wasn't me!  Honest!"), and had just about resigned myself to typing up Jones' version, when the Captain called us into his office.  "Oh, thank God," I muttered, and left my desk without even putting the cover over my typewriter!

Captain Olsen looked up from his desk, and said, "Jones.  Meade.  We have a bad one at the Fairgrounds."

Jones pulled out a chair for me, and I jumped like a scalded cat.  "Damn it, Jones, learn to make some noise when you're right behind someone!"

"Why?" he said as he sat down, and gave all his attention to the captain.

"Flirt on your own time," said Captain Olsen, which left me completely speechless.  While I was trying to figure out who to hit first, he went on, "Faustus is in the Globe and says he'll send the city straight to Hell if we don't pay him a billion dollars."

Now if you've been living on another planet or something, you might not know that Cherry Hill won the bid for the 1964 World's Fair, beating out New York and Chicago.  The city fathers threw together the Mile High City of Tomorrow in the suburb of Elysium (now a fancy part of town, but back then mostly empty lots), dazzling millions of visitors and no doubt making a lot of money for themselves.  One of the main attractions was Star Woman, who'd been on Earth only a couple of years at that point; the other was this rotating globe of the world, with all the latest data on it, so big it seemed almost life-size.

"Faustus?" said Jones, and for once there was emotion in his voice: scorn.  "What does he know of Hell?"

"I couldn't tell you," said the Captain.  "I don't believe in magic, myself.  But whatever he's got, he's given Leonine and Invictus fits in the past, and he's never been caught."

"We'll catch him," Jones said.  "Isn't that right, Diane?"

"Sure!" I said brightly.  "You can cloud his mind, and I'll ju-jitsu him into a whimpering heap."

"You sure?" said the Captain.  "I know you two are good, but this guy's really dangerous.  If I had some way to get hold of Star Guard, I would."

"Trust me, they're over-rated," Jones said, getting up.  "Come on, Detective Meade, let's go introduce 'The World's Greatest Magician' to a slice of real life, Cherry Hill style."

What could I do but grit my teeth and tag along?  "Good luck," the Captain called.

Somehow I just knew that the report on this case was going to be even harder to write than the last one.

 

We took the Augustine Freeway west in my little convertible (Jones didn't seem to have a car, but somehow he always got where he wanted to be).  The wind messed with my hair, short as I wore it, and only bobby pins kept my policewoman's cap from flying away.  Jones, of course, just sat there looking straight ahead, his trench coat and fedora as unruffled as if they were glued on.

"So what's the plan?" I asked him finally.

For once, he didn't pretend to misunderstand me.  "I'm going to walk in on Faustus, subdue him, find out everything he knows, and take it away from him," he said.  "Then we'll take him back to headquarters and put him in a cell.  It would be best if you waited outside."

"The hell with that!" I shouted.  "Listen, buster, I'm a real police officer, not some bit of fluff here to hold your coat!  I have a bachelor's degree in Police Science, and I took every course the Police Academy offered, and I aced them all!  I'll be damned if I'll twiddle my thumbs in the car while you pull your voodoo!"

"You may be damned if you don't," he said.  "I doubt Faustus knows a tenth as much as he thinks he does—but that's still enough to make him dangerous."

"He's no more dangerous to me than he is to you," I said, and glared at him, daring him to say different.  "Let me do my job, damn it."

Jones opened his mouth, shut it again, and after a moment said, "As you wish, Detective."

Let the record show that that was the only time I won an argument with Jones.

 

We took the Elysium exit and parked in the Fairground parking lot, in a space near the entrance marked "Reserved for the Mayor."  While I took the "Police On Duty" card out of the glove compartment and put it in the clip on the windshield, Jones got out, came around to the driver's side, opened my door, and helped me out of the seat.  I have to give him that, he was always the perfect gentleman.  If I'd been partnered with Danny Corrigan, for instance, I'd have had to remove his hands from my person all the time.

Speaking of whom, Danny was in charge of the uniforms around the Globe.  Danny was handsome, and I'd seen other women swooning over his red hair, with the white streak that grew in after a bullet grazed his left temple.  Somehow, though, he just didn't do anything for me.  I guess the feeling wasn't mutual, though, because his face lit up on seeing me, as it always did, and he gave me his best smile.

"Hey, Diane, good to see you," he said.  "Where's your partner?"

I whirled around.  Sure enough, Jones had pulled a fade again.  Ten to one he was already in the Globe, doing exactly what he'd said he would.

Well, not this time!  "Jones went around the side," I said, thinking fast.  "I'm going in the front.  We'll catch Faustus between us."

"Is that a good idea?" Danny said.  "I could turn the cordon over to Grayson and come with you."

I pulled my .45 from my handbag and made sure it was loaded.  "You and Bob hold the fort out here," I said.  "Jones and I will take care of Faustus."  I took the safety off the pistol, and left him trying to think of more objections.  Men!

 

I was all the way to the control center in the Globe's "core" before I had a sign of Jones or Faustus.  The door was open a crack, and I could hear the loony ranting at someone.  Thanks to Jones, I remember every word he said.

"So, creature," Faustus raved.  "You thought you could creep up on the Sorceror Supreme?  Ha!  Didn't reckon with the Flames of Azrael, did you?  They are the bane of all your kind!"

Careful not to touch the door, I put one eye to the crack and took a peek.  There was Faustus, in robes just like Mickey Mouse wore in "The Sorceror's Apprentice," but not half as cute.  He was standing next to a tripod of black metal, waist high, supporting a bowl of black metal, three feet in diameter.  Green flames were leaping and hissing in the bowl, without smoke; I couldn't see what was burning.  And where was Jones?

"I wonder what kind of demon you are?" Faustus said.  "There's nothing like you in any of my grimoires."

I eased the door open a little bit more, praying it wouldn't squeak (it didn't), and got a look at what Faustus was talking to.  It was a big puddle of butterscotch-colored liquid, maybe five feet across, with little waves dancing back and forth on its surface.  It was hissing, like a cat, or like water just beginning to boil in a sauce pan.

Whatever it was, it seemed to be in pain; and I hadn't come here to watch.  I slammed the door open, yelled "Cherry Hill Police!" and pointed my gun at Faustus.  He raised his hands to chest height and pointed them at me, and I pulled the trigger.  The bullet bounced off the light between his hands, careened left, and hit the tripod.  The bowl of flame trembled, and Faustus shouted, "Careful, you stupid slut!"

No more fooling around.  I centered the sight between his eyes and started to squeeze the trigger.  Before I could, the puddle on the floor reared up in a man-high wave, and broke over Faustus from behind like a butterscotch breaker.  He was bowled off his feet, and the puddle kept him trapped, throwing loops around his arms and legs as fast as he could free them.

Now what do I do? I wondered, watching the struggle.  The puddle didn't seem to be strong enough to hold Faustus; he was regaining his feet, and I leveled my pistol again.

Then a mouth formed in the puddle, and my partner's voice said, "The flames, Diane!  Put them out!"

"Jones?!!" I said, too amazed to move.  Faustus, cursing, was getting free.

"The cauldron!" the Jones-mouth said.  "Knock over the tripod!"

"No!" shouted Faustus, and that decided me.  I ran up to the tripod, stepping in the puddle as I did (eesh!), and looked around for cloth to put around my hands, or something to push with.

But the flames weren't giving off any heat, and the tripod wasn't hot; nor was the bowl.  I pushed on the rim of the bowl as hard as I could, shifting the near side down and the far side up, and then the whole thing overbalanced, falling down away from me.  The flames went out, and I saw what Faustus had been burning.

So I was helplessly throwing up, over and over (one bagel with cream cheese, two cups of coffee …) while Jones turned into a man again.  He held my shoulders and my forehead through the last of it, and wiped my face with his handkerchief.

"Where's my gun?" I gasped.

"You dropped it after you shot Faustus," Jones told me.  "No wonder you threw up—I guess you've never killed a man before."

I looked, and sure enough, there was my gun just out of reach on the floor, and there was Faustus, dead with a bullet hole between his eyes, face up and staring.  I hadn't even heard the gunshot.

"You sure saved my bacon, Diane," Jones said.  "Faustus had me pinned to the wall like a butterfly on a cork board.  Then you came in, yelled for him to surrender, and when he tried to zap you, you shot him dead.  You should get a medal for this."

Why, yes, that's what happened.  Faustus pinned Jones to the wall with magic, but I took him by surprise.  Too bad I had to shoot him dead, but he was far too dangerous to—no.

"No!" I shouted.  "Damn it, Jones, I'm your partner!  You're not going to work your voodoo on me!  You owe me the truth!  What happened here, and who are you?  In fact, what are you?"

"All right, Diane," he said after a long moment.  "The truth, then."

 

"There was an interstellar empire, in this part of the Galaxy," Jones told me, "about ten thousand years ago.  The Sileans colonized a hundred systems, mostly south of your solar system, and inwards, towards the Galactic Core."

"Then there was a war, and don't ask me what about," he said, holding up his hand; "we don't have very long before Grayson and Corrigan and a mob of uniforms come busting in.  A lot of worlds had their whole population wiped out.  Others were thrown back to the Stone Age, and have been climbing back up ever since.  Star Woman's world, Xylassa, is one of those; my own world is another."

"Our worlds don't always get along—never mind why.  When the Skyburst struck Earth, Star Woman came to do what she could, openly; while my world sent me in secret."

"But where's your Star Staff, then?" I asked him.

"I'm not a Staff Bearer.  Staff Bearer is a Xylarian role, wielding Xylarian powers.  My position translates as Shield Bearer; and before that I was an Eaten One.  Still am, because that's permanent."

"I can see how it would be," I said, on the verge of hysteria.

"So that's who I am, and what I am—on the surface.  Just as, on the surface, you are Diane Meade, Detective, Cherry Hill Police Department."

"But I've been an Eaten One for a long time—200 years or more.  And I don't think this universe is real.  Earth, Xylassa, Pailia, Silea, all the worlds, all the stars in all the galaxies, I think it's an elaborate stage, a huge play.  I don't know whether I'm the only real person, or whether there are many real people trapped here.  So I play my part—but I search for other real people, too.  And when I run into an obviously phony person, a walking, talking prop," and he waved in the direction of Faustus' body, "I don't hesitate to 'kill' them if they get in my way."

"Two hundred years?" I said.  "Real people?  Phony people?  You've lost your mind, Jones."

"I haven't," he said.  "It isn't possible for an Eaten One to lose his mind.  I may be wrong; but many decades of experience point to the same conclusion."

"But I'm real!" I insisted.  "I'm not a puppet or a prop.  I have a mind, and a lifetime of experience."

"Yes," Jones said.  "I think you are.  I suspect that's why I can't pull my 'voodoo' on you.  Everyone else in the Department, though …" He shook his head.  And I remembered how I'd never been attracted to Corrigan, as if no one was home behind the handsome face.

"So now what?" I asked him.  "Tell the Captain the story about you being pinned to the wall?"

"No," said Jones.

"What?  Why not?"

"Now that you know what I am, I have to leave.  You wouldn't be able to keep from showing what you know.  It was perfect when you didn't know, and were mad at me all the time.  But now you'll take my powers for granted, and that's a dead giveaway."

"But I don't want you to go," I heard myself saying.  Whoa, get a grip, Diane!  Since when?

"And I don't want to go," he said.  He walked up to me, put one hand on a shoulder, tilted my face up with the other, and kissed me.

Romantic?  More like an electric shock!  I was frozen in place, and couldn't move a muscle.  I couldn't even open my eyes!

"Glad to see something works on you," Jones said.  "Listen, partner; tell them Faustus blasted me to dust, or sent me to another dimension, or something.  Make them believe it.  No one's ever going to see me again."

About then my eyes popped open.  Jones threw me a slight grin—the only one I ever saw on his face—turned, and walked away.  Halfway to the door the sound of his footsteps ceased, and he just faded away into thin air.

A few minutes later I regained mobility, and realized Jones had fixed the whole day permanently in my mind, down to the tiniest details.  On purpose?  A side effect?  Who knows, damn him!

After I cried a little, I wiped my face and took out my radio.  My stockings were ruined from kneeling on the floor and throwing up, I noticed, and my skirt was dusty.  Well, tough.  "Corrigan, this is Meade, over," I croaked.

"Diane!  What's going on?  Are you all right?"

"No," I said, "but it's all over.  Bring in one adult-sized body bag, and six baby-sized ones."  Then I turned off the radio and waited for them.

 

When I reached the control room, my report read, I found my partner, Detective Paul Jones, pinned to the wall by Faustus' "magic".  Faustus said words in a language unknown to me, and a sideways whirlpool, spinning vertically instead of parallel to the floor, appeared in the air before Detective Jones.

At that point I shouted, "Cherry Hill Police Department!  Freeze!" and leveled my weapon at Faustus.  Instead of complying, he turned around and gestured at me.  Another whirlpool appeared in mid-air and flew towards me.  I dodged it and fired my weapon.  Faustus took the bullet between the eyes and fell down dead.  The one whirlpool was still chasing me, however, and the other was slowly moving towards Detective Jones.

Jones shouted, "Put out the flames!"  I had no better idea, so I ran to the cauldron.  The metal wasn't hot, and I tipped over the tripod and the bowl.  As soon as the burning babies hit the floor, the flame went out, and the whirlpool chasing me disappeared.  The other one, meanwhile, had already reached Detective Jones, who was still pinned helplessly to the wall.  He vanished into the whirlpool before it disappeared, and hasn't been seen since.

 

There was no body, but we held a memorial for Jones at Wildwood Cemetery.  Star Guard showed up, and Leonine spoke eloquently on how a couple of cops did what half a dozen super-heroes couldn't.  I couldn't seem to stop crying, which made all the men uncomfortable, but got me hugs from Star Woman and Nike.

No one made the usual comments about women on the force; no looking down at me for crying, no hints that a male partner would've been able to save Jones.  After seeing the burned babies, and Faustus dead with a bullet right between the eyes, I could do no wrong in the eyes of the CHPD.  I wore a real tie and a male officer's hat at the memorial, instead of a policewoman's bow tie and little round cap.  No one said boo: and that's what I've worn ever since.

"Do you want a vacation?" Captain Olsen asked me.  "Or do you want to get right back to work?"

"Let me work," I said.

He nodded as if he'd expected me to say that.  "Whom do you want for a partner?  Corrigan, maybe?"

"God, no," I said.  "Let me have that new guy, Allen.  It'll do him good to get out of the lab."

 

And that was mostly that, except that a year later, Star Guard was on TV, announcing a new member.  I took one look and recognized Jones.  Proteus might have pointed ears and no hair, but the features were the same; and I'd already seen that butterscotch skin.

We don't see Star Guard much in Cherry Hill.  We might take pride in our Mile High City, but the bad guys seem to prefer the West Coast, the East Coast, and Chicago.  Maybe that's because of what happened to Faustus—or maybe Colorado just isn't that important to people in other states.

But sometimes we see Star Guard on television, and once I came around a corner at a national law-enforcement conference and practically tripped over Proteus.  "Commissioner Meade," he said, "congratulations on your promotion."

"Thanks," I said, and then that Silkie creature, with keen female instincts, grabbed him and dragged him away.  That was five years ago, and the only time I've seen him since he was Detective Jones.

I sit in my office, and I look at the pictures of my Dad, Jones, Allen, and a few others.  Was Jones right?  Is this all a stage, with just a few real actors among the mannikins?  Was Faustus' "magic" a way of accessing the stage controls that run our world?

All I know is that I've met very few people who seemed entirely real to me, since Jones opened my eyes.  They call me "the Old Lady", and they'll tell you, with a certain pride, that I'm a cold bitch who takes no crap from anyone.  But how else can I be?  It's harder and harder to go through the motions, pretending that people are real, and what they do matters.

But I would give anything—anything!—to see Jones' brown hair again, and his gray eyes, and that smile he showed me once.  He, I'm certain, is real.

God, how I miss him!

Copyright © 2007 by Green Sky Press.  All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this work, or any portions thereof, in any form.