"Excuse me," a stranger's voice said, when the cheering had faded enough.
It had taken that long for the newcomer to make it as far as the bar. I'd vaguely noticed her doing a larger-than-usual amount of gawking around at The Place on her way, examining it intently enough to have been grading it by some unknown criteria. I turned to see her now, and a vagrant shaft of sunlight pierced the crimson leaves overhead, forcing me to hold up a hand to block it, with the net effect that I probably looked as though I were saluting.
It seemed appropriate. The short dark Caucasian woman who stood there was-in that Key West winter heat-so crisp and straight and stiff and in all details inhumanly perfect that I might well have taken her for a member of the military, temporarily out of uniform, an officer perhaps, or an MP. But she wore her severe business suit and glasses as if they were a uniform, and in place of a sidearm she carried something much deadlier. From a distance I had taken it for a purse. The moment I recognized it for what it really was, I started to hear a high distant buzzing in my ears.
With an elaborate crest on it that was unmistakably some sort of official seal. I felt a cold clammy sweat spring out on my forehead and testicles. Suddenly I was deep-down terrified, for the first time in over a decade. My ancient enemy was in my house.
The others were oblivious; most of them could not have seen the briefcase from their angle. "No, excuse me, ma'am," Long-Drink said politely. " I didn't see you there. Have a seat."
"There's no excuse for either of you dickheads!" Harry said, and shrieked with laughter at his own wit. The stranger ignored him, which impressed me: Harry isn't easy to ignore when you first meet him. He spent a few too many of his formative years in a whorehouse, where the competition for attention must have required strong measures.
"Welcome to The Place, dear," Mei-Ling said. "What are you drinking?"
"Nothing, thank you," the stranger said. She had ignored Long-Drink's invitation to sit, too. Her voice sounded eerily like synthesized speech on a computer, the audio equivalent of Courier font. "I am looking for the parents of the minor child Erin Stonebender-Berkowitz. Would any of you know where they might be found at this point in time?"
My friends are pretty quick on the uptake. By the time she was done speaking, everyone present had grasped the awful truth.
A bureaucrat was among us.
Nobody flinched, or even blinked, but I knew they too were all on red alert now, ready to back my play. The small comfort was welcome: I was so terrified it was hard to get my breath.
* * * * *
She was short, not much over five feet, and fashionably anorexic. I guessed her at fifty-five years old, but could have been low: her greying brown hair was yanked back into a ballerina bun so tightly that there might have been some incidental face-lift effect. Her skin was paler than average for a Floridian, and I could tell by the incipient sunburn on her left arm and the left side of her face that she had just driven down the Keys that morning. But no part of her that I could see was shiny with perspiration…even though a business suit is at least two layers of clothing more than is desirable in Key West.
The best way to lie is to tell part of the truth, in such a way that your listener fills in the blanks, incorrectly, for herself. That way if you get caught you can always play dumb. "Her mother's not here right now," I said. "Is there a message I can pass on when I see her?"
"No. Do you know exactly where she presently domiciles?"
About fifty yards away, in the nearest of the five houses within the compound. "Have you tried the phone book?"
"What about her father?" I wasn't the only one who could answer a question with another question.
"Never met the guy," I said, still miniskirting the truth.
I was very glad I still had all my hair, at age fifty-mumble, and still wore it Beatle-style: those greying bangs concealed the icy sweat dripping down behind my sunglasses now. So far, I was still speaking the strict truth-my wife Zoey was a few weeks pregnant with Erin when I met her-but I was beginning to pass beyond the area where I could later claim to have innocently misunderstood what this woman was asking. And I already didn't like the direction this was going.
She looked around at the others, one by one. This was a little more complex than it sounds, because she did it like a poorly designed robot: instead of moving her eyes from face to face, she kept her eyes fixed straight ahead and moved her entire body slightly each time. You had the idea she was taking a mental snapshot of each face. "Do any of you know where I might find either of the parents of Erin Stonebender-Berkowitz at this point in time?"
Maybe Mei-Ling guessed my problem. "No offense," she said, "but who are you, and why do you want to know?"
"My name is Czrjghnyczl-"
I hastily began drawing her a glass of water to clear her throat-but stopped, because she went on:
"-Field Inspector Ludnyola Czrjghnczl-and I am from Tallahassee."
My heart was already hammering. Now it started flailing away with a maul, putting its shoulder into it. I had taken her for a town-level bureaucrat, or at worst someone from Monroe County. But Tallahassee is the capital of Florida. Ms. Czrjghnczl was state level trouble.
"I am a senior field inspector for the Florida Department of Education," she said, confirming my worst fear, "and I have been tasked with determinating whether Erin Stonebender-Berkowitz is being properly and adequately home-schooled, or is in fact in need of immediational custodial intervention and/or removal from her parents' custody."
* * * * *
The thing to do when you're terrified is to take a step forward, and smile. I did both, and when I was done, I had pretty much shot my bolt, so I just stood there smiling and trying to understand what had gone so horribly wrong.
It was my understanding that Zoey and I were cool with the state education people regarding Erin's home schooling-we certainly had been for the past seven years. And the idea that her education could be deficient in any possible way was ludicrous. To be sure, every single thing we had ever told the state of Florida about her home-schooling had been complete and utter bullshit. But let's be fair: the God's honest truth could only have confused them-at best. Thanks to the intervention of a cybernetic entity named Solace (now deceased) during Erin's gestation, our daughter was born with a higher IQ, a better vocabulary, and a broader, deeper education than either of her parents. Try explaining that to a state functionary with a fill-in-the-blank form, sometime.
I wished Zoey were there so badly my stomach hurt. She was our family's designated Speaker-to-Bureaucrats, not me. She spoke fluent Bullshit. I speak only American, some Canadian and a smattering of English, and I've learned from painful experience how dangerous that is around a civil servant. It would be three more years before Erin would turn sixteen, and become immune to the dark powers of school boards; in the meantime she was, in the eyes of the law, just like any other child: a slave.
Zoey wasn't there. We owned no cell phone. I couldn't recall the last name of the lead singer at whose place she was rehearsing, if I'd ever known it, so I had no way to look up his phone number. It was up to me.
I cleared my throat, and said, "Listen, Field Marshal Von…I'm sorry, Field Inspector Czrjghnczl…I'd just like to-"
"The accent is on the 'rjgh,'" she interjected.
Another long slow breath. "Right. As I was saying, I'd like to-"
Harry picked then to shriek, "I'd like to cut the mustard with you and then lick the jar clean afterwards, you spicy slut!"
She turned bright red and spun on her heel, ready to do battle. Then she relaxed a little. "Oh for God's sake. I thought it was a person."
For once, Harry was speechless. He blinked at her for a moment…then rose into the air with a flurry of angry flapping and flew past me. In a place of honor behind the bar sits an old fashioned pull-chain toilet, a little under five inches tall but fully functional. Harry landed, perched on it, put it to its intended use, and flushed it.
"What a disgusting parrot," she said.
"True, but he's not dead."
She didn't get the reference, and I didn't try to pursue it.
"Excuse me, madam," Ralph von Wau Wau said behind her. "On what basis do you say that my friend Harry is not a person?"
Uh-oh, I thought. You don't often hear Ralph drop that Colonel Klink accent of his…but when he does, it's time to seek cover.
She of course had no way of knowing that, and his tone was soft and gentle. She turned around, and whether she intended to debate with him, or simply tell him she was too important to do so, cannot be known, because when she finished turning he was not there. Nobody was. She had just heard his voice from two feet behind her, and now nobody was there; she blinked in annoyance.
Then she thought to look down.
She had been opening her mouth to speak as she turned. Now it just kept opening, until she looked like she were using it to pleasure an invisible elephant…but nothing could come out of it because she could not stop inhaling.
It was hard to blame her. It's disturbing enough to look down and discover a full-grown, visibly pissed-off German shepherd at your feet. But if it challenges you to argue semantics with it, and you don't lose your cool…Jack, you dead. I sighed. I could already tell this was probably going to cost me.
"I vill admit," Ralph told her, "his sense of humor leaves virtually everything to be desired. But by zat criterion zere are very few perzonss present here right now." His fake accent was starting to come back, an encouraging sign.
She yanked her eyes away from him with an almost audible sucking sound, and looked quickly around her. I could tell she was looking for the ventriloquist who was causing this dog to appear to talk, and she kept trying even though she kept coming up empty. Again, hard to blame her. The night I met Ralph myself, maybe a quarter of a century ago at the original Callahan's Place, he was working a ventriloquist con, in partnership with a mute guy. We only caught on because the guy wasn't very good at lip synching.
But finally she gave up. You could see that she wanted to hit a delete key and make Ralph go away. But she couldn't find one. "Vould you mind telling me just vat your definition of 'perzonhood' entailss?" he repeated.
Since he persisted in speaking she would have to answer him, but that didn't necessarily mean she had to concede he existed. She stared straight ahead of her and addressed the empty air. "The abortion controversialization has made the legal definition quite complexitized; it would be imprudent to paraphrase it from memory. I can however direct you to-"
"The hell with the legal definition," Alf yelled. "Answer the damn question, lady."
She froze. This new voice was much higher in pitch and reedier in tone than Ralph's, did not sound even vaguely canine, and had no accent at all-Southern Florida Standard English, if that isn't an oxymoron. But it came from roughly the same height as Ralph's voice, so she already sensed she was in trouble.
Again she looked down.
And again performed her Linda Lovelace At The Zoo impression. And once again, I could not find it in my heart to fault her for it. Most people are stunned silent by their first sight of a Key deer.
They look pretty much like any other deer…only seen through the wrong end of a telescope: perfect little miniature creatures. One taller than knee-high would be considered a basketball player by his tribe. Tourists who take the trouble to get past the safeguards protecting Key deer and see one up close just about always react with awe. Even without hearing one speak.
Much less speak rudely. "Come on, come on, sugar-we do have all day, but we have better things to waste it on than you," Alf snapped, twitching his tail.
The Inspector could not seem to shake off her paralysis; every time she started to, her eyes refocused on Alfie and her mainspring popped again. Alf's nose is hard to look away from, so big and red he looks like W.C. Fields's lawn ornament-apparently there's an auxiliary brain in there. The bureaucrat tried looking away from it…and found herself staring at Ralph; no help there. I felt an impulse to intervene somehow, but many years ago I gave up trying to find ways to cushion fellow humans against that first meeting with people like Ralph or Alf. There is no way to cushion it, that I've ever found; it's simply a sink-or-swim kind of deal. Best to let the hand play out as dealt.
Long-Drink McGonnigle stood up, frowning.
Shit, where did I put that fifth ace?
He loped over to the chalk line before the fireplace, and raised his glass. Silence. "To manners," he said, emptied his drink in a gulp, and flung the glass into the hearth. The smash was loud and musical.
There was a ragged but strong chorus of, "To manners!" and more than a dozen glasses followed Long-Drink's in a ragged barrage.
Newcomers to our company often find our toasting customs almost as startling as Ralph Von Wau Wau: a sudden thunder of bursting glassware can make some people jump a foot in the air.
"Now, Ms. Belch…" Long-Drink said, turning and advancing on Field Inspector Czrjghnczl. This was not going well. "…exactly what the hell makes you think you have the right to saunter in here and make wild insinuations and vile threats about people you've never even met?"
This was something she knew how to deal with: her blank face congealed. "And you are…"
The Drink nodded. "Magnificent. I know."
"Well, in point of fact, Mr. Nificent, I happen to be fully authorized to-"
"Author-ized?" Doc Webster interjected. "Nonsense. Where's your elbow patches? Your coffeemaker? The beads of blood on your forehead? The line of creditors hounding your footsteps? No offense, Ralph."
"I doubt she's authored a thing in her life," Long-Drink agreed. "She looks like more of an editor, to me."
She rebooted. "In point of fact, I am fully authorized by the state to investigate and make recommendatory suggestions for disposition vis a vis the educational slash residentiary status of minor children deemed to be in a state of potentialized risk."
"Wow," Marty Pignatelli said. "You carry a piece?"
She gave him a withering glare.
"Not even a throwdown?" Marty's an ex-cop.
It had been over a decade since I had last heard someone use the word "slash" in a sentence which did not also have the word "prices" in it. I couldn't help wondering who was responsible for major children. And of course, "…state of potentialized risk," was one for the archives. But I wasn't thinking about any of those things, just then. I was beginning to understand just how much trouble I was in.
This was no mere garden variety bureaucrat: this was the hydroponic monoculture logic-resistant kudzu-gene Frankenfood kind. She didn't need a damn gun. Sweat ran down my back into my shorts.
It was time to start proffering olive branches. "Field Inspector Czrjghnczl," I said, carefully placing the accent on the 'rjgh,' this time, "I don't think anyone here would question your authority, your responsibility, or your probity. Would we, folks?" I put just enough spin on the last three words that the response was a strained silence. I went on, "There's really no need at all to approach this in an adversarial spirit. I'm sure that with open, honest communication we can arrive at a mutually-"
It was working, I could see it in her eyes. My submissive display was pulling her back from the very edge of a snit. There was still hope for negotiation. I was trying to recall everything I knew about stalling, when without warning the situation went completely to hell.
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