06 July 2008

Saturday Fiction: Special Sunday Edition

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It was a humid night in the city in the mountains, but the afternoon thunderstorms dropped the temperature enough to make the humidity bearable. The waxing moon was just visible above the ridge on the east side of town as I walked over to the Five Spot for a drink.

"Hey, Guy," Jimmy said as I entered the bar and took my usual seat. "What can I get you this evening?"

"I think I'd like something different, Jimmy. How 'bout something chocolate? Maybe with a little Bailey's?"

"I got a new bottle of Godiva's just today. One Irish Lady coming right up, Guy," he answered and turned to his work.

"Excuse me, are you Guy Noir?" a soft voice behind me asked. I turned and saw her. The bar lights showed the highlights in her dark brown hair to perfection. She was wearing a short sleeve shirt so tight that it could stop traffic, and jeans that fit like a glove.

"Why, yes. Yes I am," I stammered. "May I help you with something? Buy you a drink?"

Another voice drew my attention "Ah, I see you found him." It was Dirk Easley, one of my fellow private eyes. We had worked together on a couple of cases, but his style was very different from mine. While I was a details man, Dirk tended to look at the whole picture.

He stepped up beside the woman and said, "Noir, this is Black. Black, Noir. You know what to do."

"Oh, forgive me for not introducing myself, Mr. Noir. I'm Emma Black." She paused as Jimmy set my drink in front of me, then said, "That looks good. May I have the same?"

"Put it on my tab, Jimmy," I said to the bartender. "And, please, call me Guy."

"I always call you Guy, Guy," Jimmy replied.

"I was talking to the lady, Jimmy."

"Oh. Right," he said, then went to fix another drink.

I looked into the brilliant green eyes of the woman and asked, "So, how may I help you, Miss Black?"

She flashed a brilliant smile and replied, "Call me Emma. My cousin, Eloise, told me that you might be able to help me. You helped her out a while back, remember?"

"Oh, yes. How is her research going, now that the simulacrum has been dealt with?"

"She says it's going well, and asked me to express her thanks to you." She took a deep breath and continued, "I have a similarly ... odd problem. I'm an Antarctic Ornithologist - I study petrels, skua and penguins in particular. Mmm, this drink is fantastic," she said to Jimmy, who blushed at the compliment - but then, Jimmy was famous for blushing when a pretty woman so much as walked by. Jimmy was ... inexperienced.

"Guy? ... Mr. Noir?" Emma's voice brought me out of my reverie.

"Yes, yes. Antarctic ornithology. Sounds fascinating. So what's... what's the problem?"

"I'd, ummm, rather not talk about it here. Could you come by my place tomorrow?" she asked, handing me her card.

"Sure thing. Around 10 okay?"

"Yes. Thank you, Guy. I'll see you in the morning." She finished her drink, smiled at Jimmy - which set him to blushing all over again - and left.

The next morning, I caught a cab to her address, and knocked on her door promptly at 10. She invited me in, and led me to her home office. As I looked around the office - typically, for a scientist, it was cluttered floor to ceiling - I noticed that Emma looked harried. She was dressed in sweatpants and a black ribbed tank top and, after gesturing me to a chair, sat slumped behind her desk.

As she sat there staring at nothing, I couldn't help but believe that she was thinking that, surrounded by piles of files and papers at work, surrounded by piles of dishes, laundry and bills at home, she began to wonder if she exerted some strange gravitational pull on paper and filth. It was just that kind of look she had on her face.

I waited patiently, since I had nothing else to do anyway, and she finally sighed and looked over at me. She smiled briefly and said, "I'm sorry, Guy. I was trying to figure the best way to explain what's going on.

"As I told you last night, I'm an Antarctic ornithologist. As such, I spend a lot of time in the field down at the bottom of the world. And, as you might imagine, there aren't a lot of people who specialize in my field. So, I spend most of my field time either alone, or with one or two graduate research assistants.

"On my most recent trip down there, I set up camp near a colony of Macaroni Penguins, to study mating habits. I was there alone for the first five weeks - my one assistant for the season would arrive then." She stood, and began moving around the room while she talked, straightening piles of books and papers, and moving things from one place to another, seemingly at random.

"The first few days, I was busy setting up camp and acclimating the colony to my presence. Then it was time to get down to serious business. I easily determined the leader of the colony, and concentrated on him.

"And... he seemed to be taking as much interest in me as I was in him. That was when..." she paused for a long time, then took a deep breath and said "that was when he started talking to me - and asking questions."

My only outward expression was to raise an eyebrow, but she obviously (and reasonably) knew that I was quite surprised - and a bit unnerved - by this statement, and she continued quickly. "Before you get up and walk out, please watch this." She pressed play on the DVD player sitting on a TV in the corner, and, for the next ten minutes I stared raptly at the screen as she and a penguin had a long conversation.

When the DVD stopped, she continued with her story. "As you can see, he was quite interested in human civilization, and what we're doing to the planet. I wondered if maybe I was going crazy, and waited anxiously for my assistant to arrive. In the meantime, though, I began - at his request - teaching him to read. There was a rock outcropping nearby, and I used the natural slate as a chalk board for our lessons."

She sat back down at her desk and said, "By the time Sherri arrived, Clarence - I couldn't pronounce his real name, but that's a close approximation - was reading on a high school level. I couldn't believe how smart he was and couldn't wait to see the look on Sherri's face when I showed her."

I leaned forward and said softly, "Let me guess. When your assistant arrived, he stopped talking?"

Emma hung her head and replied, "Yes. He continued to hang around the camp, and when Sherri was otherwise engaged he would whisper questions to me, but if she was in earshot... silence."

"Well, I'm not sure how I can help you."

She turned the gaze of those green eyes on me and said, "I want you to go down there with me. I ... don't know what good it will do, but you were so helpful to Eloise - not to mention not saying anything to anyone else about ... what happened in her lab - that I'm just sure you'll be able to help me!"

As I stared into the verdant depths of her eyes, I realized It was time. Time to escape the boredom, the mundane, the beloved and redundant familiar. I could use some time away from everything, and you can't really do that better than being in Antarctica.

"Okay, I'll do it."

A week later, the military helicopter landed gently near the large outcropping that Emma had told me about. The loadmaster helped us with our equipment and supplies, and then the chopper lifted off, leaving us on our own.

As soon as the aircraft disappeared in the distance, Clarence came over and started following Emma around as we set up camp - glancing often at me, and making no noise whatsoever. And so it went for the next five days. I was reassured to find out that she hadn't faked the video, because, just like the previous time, when it was just Emma and Clarence, he would talk to her, and she would record the conversations. It was only when I was around that he was silent.

Until, as I said, the sixth day.

I woke to the sounds of an argument. I couldn't make out all the words, but it was evident that Clarence wanted Emma to do something she didn't want to do. I lay in my tent, listening quietly, and when the voices stopped, I raised up to look out the flap.

Clarence was waddling back toward the colony, and Emma was stamping toward her tent.
I pulled on my boots, and clambered out of the tent, as she got to hers.

"Did you hear?"

"Sort of. I couldn't understand most of it, but I certainly got the ... intent."

"He... wants me to... join him. Join with him, I mean. I think... I don't know what to think." She pulled her pack out of her tent and got the bottles of Bailey's and Godiva Chocolate Liqueur that we had brought with us, along with some powdered milk.

I thought better of mentioning that it was a bit early in the day to be drinking, as Emma was clearly upset by this new turn of events.

I sat next to Emma as she downed several stiff drinks and talked herself into humoring Clarence, knowing that it wouldn't really mean anything if she did go through with the ritual. But she would have one requirement of her own - that I be allowed to attend and film the encounter.

She went off to tell him her decision and requirements, and returned with several fish. "Clarence says that it's part of the ritual. I'm to eat all of these before he comes to take me to the actual ceremony."

She lit the cookstove while I cleaned the fish, and then gave them to her to cook. She sat down to eat them, and was almost done when she turned pale. The chocolate and halibut suddenly disagreed in her stomach and she ran for the outhouse.

After several trips to the outhouse, she seemed better, and just in time, too, as Clarence and several other penguins were approaching across the snowfield. The attendant penguins each had a large fish grasped tightly in its beak and, when the entourage reached us, laid the fish at Emma's feet.

"Since you are not comfortable with eating the sacramental fish raw, your attendant will be allowed to cook it," Clarence said.

I scooped up the fish, quickly cleaned it, and put it in the skillet with the leftover halibut. When it was done, I dumped all the food onto a plate and returned to the waiting group. The attendant penguins began a muffled, braying chant as they led the party over to the edge of the open water.

Waiting there was the rest of the colony, including an ancient one that I immediately identified as a priest or shaman penguin. I set up the digital recorder on a tripod, as I was now part of the 'wedding party', and the ceremony began. When the shaman gestured to me, I held out the plate for Emma to take some of the cooked fish. I could tell that she was having a hard time not giggling, as she was still a bit drunk from the Irish Ladies, but she was able to maintain her composure as the ceremony reached what I assumed was its conclusion.

What happened next, neither of us expected.

A shimmering began, and quickly enveloped Emma's body. It grew in intensity until I was nearly blinded, but I realized that her body was changing shape. Emma looked over at me, horror in her eyes, because suddenly she realized that she had ingested the wrong fish. It was the sacrament of the herring, not the sacrament of the halibut, and obviously the Great Penguin was having His revenge upon her. She resolved to do double penance at the local Ice Cathedral at the next Celebration of the March of the Penguins.

When the light faded, Emma was no longer human, but a Macaroni Penguin. Clarence waddled over to me and said, "We shall be stronger and more complete with her joining to our society. Do not worry, as she is happy now." And with that, they all - including penguin-Emma - slipped into the water and swam away.

I walked over to the camera, popped out the memory card, and threw it into the ocean. Then I walked back to the camp, sent out an emergency call to McMurdo base, and waited for the rescue helicopter to come.....

When I arrived at the temporary camp, I attempted to question Mr. Noir to find out what had happened. Subject was completely unresponsive. As he started at the blank slate he realized he had nothing to say.

Special thanks to my editor. I couldn't have done it without her.

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