I turned around.
There was a woman sitting at the bar, glass in hand. Short and broad, with close-cropped golden hair and relatively wide shoulders.
I wasn't paying attention to the details of her features, though, because she was making eye contact with me. To clarify: her face was turned to the bar, but she was making eye contact with me. The woman literally had eyes in the back of her head.
"Surprised?" She said. "Don't be. Not in this neighborhood. I'm one of the ones who made a wish I shouldn't have." She wrapped a bandanna around her scalp, and turned to face me. "I'm kind of surprised, though. You got in from the back door. Which means you know how to survive Silver Chicago." She took a swig from her glass. "Which means if I try to hit you with a bat, you'd shatter my bones or something. Well, I can't do anything to you or your friends -- come on out, kids, I saw you already."
Four hooded and bowing figures, one in red, one in yellow, one in blue, and one in dark green, shuffled forward into the light.
"Well now," said the woman, "What is this display of humility? Could it be that you don't intend to harm me or rob my bar at all? And yet here you are in the dead of night. What do you mean by it?"
Aurore spoke first. "Pray forgive us, madame bar keeper. We are the sort to stumble into great knowledge half by accident."
"Half, eh? Keep talking."
Aurore explained the circumstances of our journey. "We hope you will forgive the intrusion," she said.
"I may do," said the bar keep. "Though your decision to open the door in the first place means you're on thin ice. It's not as though you were being chased by anything -- before you ask, I know about the books, and I know they never go as far as my door. You entered this place of your own will, like it's a dungeon in a video game. I have half a mind to inform the neighborhood of your trespass. Who knows if you ever will be welcome around here again? But hell, you were curious, and after following those footprints for so long, I can't imagine you would have wanted to leave that stone unturned."
"You seem unconcerned about the footprints," I said. "Were they yours?"
"Then who -- "
"Heya, sis," said a voice from the shadows.
Marina stepped into the light. She had on her usual grin, as well as a large sack upon her back. It had a giant dollar sign on it.
"Sister," I said, "It's been a while. Sorry about not visiting home more. Now tell me, what the hell were you doing in the great library?"
"Saving your hide by accident, apparently." She set the bag down on the floor with a thump. "And collecting research. The mountain wasn't going to come to mohammed, so..."
"Research for what?"
"Wink." She pulled a book out of the bag, went over to a table, and made a big show of opening it.
"Did you just -- "
"I think introductions are in order," said the bar keep, getting off her stool. "My name is Shirley. And you in the red robe who's still cowering, what's your name, and why are you standing like that? I'm not as mad at you as I was before."
"Apologies," said Jo. "I am Jo, and my companions are Aurore, Sean, Sameer, and Pat. Four of us are cowering because we can feel the distrust of this neighborhood already. It prickles the skin and weighs upon us."
"In this bar you are forgiven," said Shirley. "Do not feel unwelcome here when you enter by the front door, but take care to remove your cloaks, hats, and whatever magical crap you have on you. Oh, and buy a drink, don't just come in and put your feet up like you own the place. Now, I heard the name Pat." She turned to me. "Let me guess, you're the Rat Girl?"
I scowled. "I thought I made it very clear that I will not answer to that title or any requests made upon it."
"You did, you did. Sorry. So what are you, then? Your face is in vaguely the right shape. You don't have a cloak. You're running with these wizards, and yet, you're in here without bowing. What are you?"
"In need of a stiff drink at 3 AM," I said.
"How old are you?"
"Got any ID?"
"You can just forget it then, young lady."
"But -- "
"Look, you've probably got schoolwork to do in the morning. It's 3 AM, you just had an incredibly long journey, I'm tired, you're tired --"
"Not tired at all," I said.
"The point is, we should pick this discussion up later."
"Tonight, perhaps," said Sameer. "Pat said she wanted to bring us all here, and she did, but this isn't exactly the proper circumstances."
"When all the regulars are here?" said Shirley. "I don't know if they'd go for it."
"No better time to establish diplomatic relations between two estranged communities," I said. "Marina, will you be there?"
Marina was not there.
The regulars were, though. The evening began with a fair amount of tension. I had instructed my Wizard friends to enter with their cloaks on, then take them off and give them all to me. The patrons of the bar seemed pleased by this display, but my friends, well, you try getting a wizard to part with their cloak. We'd argued about all along the way to the bar, and I'd only managed to win them over by promising that I would sit down and actually learn some spells from them for once.
So four wizards sat at a long table, around which sat also Jimmy-jim-jim-jim, Eyeball Kid, Mr. Budny, Mahalia, Layla, and Warren. And Clem was on the table.
"You smell like barnyard," said Jimmy-jim-jim-jim. "It is somewhat offensive to my sensitive nose."
"My apologies," I said, "My work for the Academy is somewhat...unusual and removed. I can't really say I speak for them, nor can I speak for the people of this neighborhood, this...what do you call it again?"
"Oddball City," said Warren."So you've brought a bunch of Wizards into our bar, and you're the moderator, is that it? Do we have a time limit for speaking or something?"
"This is meant to be informal," I said. "I mean, it's important, but we're meeting in a bar. It's not like this is the United Nations. We actually stand a chance of getting something done here. We don't really NEED rules, if we chosoe to be polite and civil, and remember that the wizards you see before you have freely chosen to remove the focuses of their power for the sake of peaceful conversation. And, my wizard friends," I said, turning to Aurore, "remember that you are guests in a place of refuge for people who have suffered much at the hands of other wizards." I turned back to the table at large. "Now, who would like to ask the first question?"
Clem shook his branches.
"All right, Clem, go ahead."
Clem grabbed his pencil and wrote, What the hell do you think you're doing, bringing Yellowcoats in here? One of your friends is wearing a yellow cloak. Did you think nobody would notice? I'm sorry. I'd be more civil, but I've been waiting to express my surprise and anger for ten minutes now.
"I'm sorry you had to wait so long," I said. "I daresay the slight was an accident. My goal here, after all, is to help a few student wizards try to understand what has been going on between their community and this one. Does anyone have questions about the Wizard Academy?"
None of the Oddballs said anything.
"If I may," said Aurore, "I would like to know just what the Wizards have been doing to you, to make the sight of a yellow cloak anathema."
Eyeball Kid hopped up and down in his jar.
"I'm sorry," said Aurore, "I don't quite know what it's trying to say."
Layla's face never moved, and yet I could feel her scowling.
"Eyeball kid is a he," I said, "Not an it. Remember that. He communicates by...you have to look into his pupil and, um...just pick him up and let him show you what he's trying to show you. Go on."
Aurore gently picked up the jar, and gazed into the unblinking eye. "I see...a burning building. What does that mean?"
"Let me see that," said Mahalia. She gazed into the unblinking eye. "Yep, that's Pantagruel's place."
"Can I have a look?" I took the jar from Mahalia and gazed into the unblinking eye.
There was a snapshot of a building on fire. And in front of the building were three people in yellow cloaks.
I passed it to Jo, who looked in, and frowned in puzzlement. "I don't quite understand. What are the Wizard Police doing there? Where are the fire trucks?"
"With Wizard Police around, other rescue agencies tend to stay away," said Mahalia. "The Wizards say that they can handle the situation."
"But they're clearly letting this building burn," said Jo. "It doesn't look like they're lifting a hand to stop the flames or -- what was so special about this building that they had to show up and let it burn down?"
"If I had to guess," I said, "It was a little talking dog named Gargantua. Who chose not to live in Oddball City where the Wizards can't go. Who was highly visible among the people of the city. Who spoke to me quite freely on the train."
"The veterinarians in Englewood loved that dog," said Jim-jimmy-jim-jim-jim. "He was so polite during checkups. I think the ability to communicate helped allay his fears, so he was never whiny or bitey like the other dogs. Yeah, everyone who knew him loved him. And the Wizards...couldn't let him exist, or something? I don't know. Maybe he refused to get a license. Point is, they let his entire apartment building burn, and a lot of people died who wouldn't have if the fire department had been there. Including, maybe, Gargantua. We haven't seen him since. And who the hell does a death certificate for an unlicensed dog? Nobody."
"I could check the place out," said Sameer. "Wizard glasses work wonders."
"That's a nice thought," I said, "But...I'm wondering something."
"It's just..." I looked at the door. "Four Wizards managed to come in here tonight, even though Wizards aren't supposed to be able to get into Oddball City. Which means that it's possible that certain other Wizards were able to follow us. Certain Wizards who have demonstrated their intention and abiliy tot remove any threats to their idea of order."
"Wait," said Layla, "Are you implying -- "
"we need to cut this conversation short," I said. "I want everyone out of this room right now. Get everyone out the back door - -the special back door -- and bar it from the outside. Orderly exit. Mahalia, Layla, all of you go tell eveyrone to get out now. Go!"
I rose from my seat and went to the windows as Layla and Mahalia went around the room. First thing to do was shut the blinds. Then lean on the door to keep it closed while everyone else filtered out into Silver Chicago. Assuming that would do anything. if Wizards could warp reality, they could easily make a hole in the wall.
Ah, but they knocked first, politely.
The patrons were not filing out in a particularly organized manner. I expect they had not expected this development, since Oddball City was supposed to be safe. Some of them hemmed and hawed, some of them said they were going to stay out. These particular people, Layla hauled out of their seats and marched them to the back door. Shirley was at the door ushering people out one by one. Aurore was grabbing people and teleporting them out one-by-one -- she'd have been able to do more, but I had her cloak in my hands.
I dashed over to her and threw her cloak onto her shoulders -- whops, that was Sameer's. Well, ti woul dhave to do. I passed out cloaks to the rest of my wizard friends. None of them seemed especially pleased. Aurore was hopping up and down instead of teleporting people. She grabbed a few people at one time and vanished, then reappeared, then vanished again.
Fairly soon the room was all cleared out.
And someone at the door knocked again.
I finally had the presence of mind to slide the panel over the door window open. There was Pantagruel, just asking to be let in. Hehe, whoops. False alarm.
At that moment, a figure in a yellow cloak appeared and grabbed Pantagruel. Then they were gone. And more people in yelow cloaks were appearing.
I slapped the grate shut and grabbed my friends and dragged them out the door into Silver Chicago.
The patrons of Meyer's Bar were no longer standing in front of the door. They had managed to get up the cliff, and were murmuring amongst themselves as they gazed upon the moonlit river. I heard the clink of glasses.
"Alright," said Shirley, "There's a lot of people here in the cold April night wwho would like to know what you meant by rushing everyone out of the bar like that. What do I tell them?"
I sighed, and watched the river roll slowly towards the sea.
"Come on, Pat. Give me something to work with here."
"Fine, fine. Fine. It's...I have a bad habit of causing destruction wherever I go, alright? There's an entire city destroyed because I wasn't supposed to be there and the intruder-alert system manlfunctioned. There's another, smaller city turned into rubble because I was a catalyst of their rebellion. The books of the Great Library are probably all out of order because I ventured into the stakcs without permission. And now your bar is going to be trashed, or something, because I tried to establish a rapport between Oddball City and the Wizard Academy. So...tell everyone I'm sorry for the disruption and for putting them in danger. Tell them I'm going to try to get the Wizard Academy on their side. That unity is necessary. Something like that. Alright? Tell them that it might sound like I was just trying to get everyone to settle down, but my goal is genuine peace and freedom."
"Big words, coming from a member of the elite."
"I'm not...well, i guess I am, in my current position. I'm not proposing to lead them in this effort, alright? I just wanted to get the ball rolling. Establish diplomatic ties. That kind of thing. Please don't make the the leader of this effort."
"It was your idea, Pat."
"It has to come from them. It has to be something THEY want. The most I can do is try to get the Wizard Academy in on it. Go ask them if it's something they're up for -- if not, I can scrap the effort and not have to talk to the Head Wizard and potentially get arrested by the Wizard Police late one night. I don't want to risk being away from my sheep farm."
"Hm. Well, you've got something started." Shirley looked at the door. "Those Wizards have made it abundantly clear that Oddball City is not the perfectly safe haven we thought it was. More like a containment unit. I'll go and see what my patrons think about it." She strode around the bend in the cliff.
I stood alone in front of the door, wondering for the second time in 24 hours how I was going to get home.
Where was Aurora? Where were Jo and Sameer and Sean?
"Hey, Pat," said a sweet voice from above me. "Come up here and have a drink."
I looked up. Jo was holding a bottle of Jack Daniels in her hand.
"First of all, I'm underage," I said, "Secondly, Whiskey is gross. What else have you got?"
"Hard lemonade? We didn't manage to get much else out in time."
"Fine by me."
I crouched, and leapt up to the top of the cliff, where Jo and the gang were hobnobbing with the rest of the bar patrons.
"So you have to wear your own cloak," said someone with glowing eyes, to Aurore. "What's it like when you wear one that doesn't belong to you?"
"Very similar to the need to use the bathroom", said Aurore. "I will forgive Pat for not knowing -- oh, Pat there you are! Have a glass."
I felt like I had earned a smack on the back of the head, but, liquor would do.
I looked forward to seeing the sheep in the morning, and Masie.
After everything I'd been through since last night, I was prepared to face whatever hell they gave me. Not that I could claim that my efforts had been in any way fruitful - -I didn't know how oddball City was going to react to this revelation. And i hadn't managed to obtain one damn word about -- why did my pocket feel heavy?
I fumbled around in my pocket and took out a little book. Written on the cover were the words:
God Dammit, Marina.