THE PROBLEM WITH PISKIES
The DTs weren’t supposed to set in until after you gave up the booze. Since I’d been on a bender ever since I’d discovered I was super-freaky—not only “blessed” from childhood with the third eye, but now a lycanthrope to boot after a tussle with our friendly neighborhood werewolf—there was no chance of withdrawal. Unless the combination of the Sight and The Change had driven me mad, the critter that I was about to smash was much higher on the headache scale than a mere cockroach.
The pisky stared at me with leaf-green eyes and an expression of comic shock as the shadow of my shoe fell on him. He looked like nothing more than a bundle of twigs strung together with a bit of flesh held aloft by onionskin wings.
“You can see me!” he squeaked.
“For about another tenth of a second,” I answered, hefting my shoe threateningly. I was hoping he’d take the hint and skedaddle, having no real urge to hurt the critter or risk the wrath of a pisky posse.
“Sanctuary!” he cried.
That stopped me. “Say what? Does this look like a church to you?”
The pisky looked around as if actually considering the question, then wrinkled his nose in an expression of distaste.
“Smells more like the stables.”
“There’s the door,” I answered, pointedly thrusting my shoe at the entryway. “Don’t let it hit you on the way out.”
His eyes widened and he backed away from the door as if it had suddenly grown fangs.
“I can’t… they’re after me.”
Great, a paranoid pisky. Just what I needed. Since my bluff with the shoe hadn’t worked, I hurled it away in favor of the bottle of whisky I’d abandoned. It was my last. When it was finished I was going to have to move on to something a hell of a lot cheaper. Disability pay only stretched so far. ’Course except for the few days a month when I grew all wild and wooly, there was nothing wrong with me. But after the mauling witnessed by my partner, which did nothing for my macho image, I couldn’t very well show my perfectly healed face around any time soon.
In my wallowing, I’d forgotten all about the pisky until he appeared on the lip of the bottle I had half-raised to my lips, looking completely at ease with a tiny tumbler of his own.
“What the—!” The only thing worse than a paranoid pisky was a drunk paranoid pisky. With my luck, he’d start hiccupping horseflies or some such. There was a reason I preferred “pisky” over the more common sprite or fairy—it was just one letter off from pesky, which pretty much summed up the breed.
“I didn’t think you should be drinking alone,” it answered.
The contrast of the pre-pubescent falsetto issuing forth with the scotch fumes was jarring.
“I’m still drinking alone. You’re a figment of my imagination,” I said, just to annoy him. Threatening hadn’t chased him off. Maybe obnoxious would do the trick.
In a flash of fairy dust, the tumbler was gone and the pisky stood on the lip of the bottle, hands on hips and eyes blazing. “Am not. Now, you going to help me or not?”
A no-brainer. “Not.”
“Fine, then I’ll just have to make your life hell.”
The pisky snapped its little fingers and the bottle vanished entirely, leaving him floating in mid-air.
“I think you’ve had enough.”
“Hey, bring that back,” I roared, lunging for the obnoxious creature.
He flitted up, up and away out of reach.
“Fine, I’ll get more.” I staggered into my kitchen and tore through my cabinets, but they were bare of booze.
“Pisky!” I hollered.
“Bob,” he answered, popping into view before my eyes.
“Short for Bobbin.”
“Great, lovely. Now that we’re finished with the introductions, I’ll have my scotch back please.”
“No,” he answered with an annoyingly chipper little smile.
Grandma Vincenze had warned me there’d be days like these. She’d been the one, unbeknownst to my family, who’d taught me about the fairy realm, told me stories from the old country. She’d been the one to realize that my “imaginary friends” weren’t so imaginary and to explain to me that other people couldn’t see them. Up until then, I’d thought everyone was just having fun at my expense. Apparently, the joke was still on me.
“Do you want my help?” I asked.
“Does a hummingbird hum?”
“Actually, no.” I gave a smirk of my own.
Bob’s smile faded as he thought about that. “Well, maybe not by classic definition, but all the same—”
And that’s when we both heard the knock, knock, knocking at my chamber door. Only it was more of a pounding, followed by, “Bob, we know you’re in there!”
No piskies, these – not with voices that sounded like they rumbled up from the very depths of the earth. My third eye was great for seeing through illusions, but walls were another matter.
“Friends of yours?” I asked.
Bob shook his head violently. “Look, help me and you can have all the hootch you can handle. I’ll even fix it so you’re off certain days every month with no one the wiser.”
I eyed him suspiciously. “You know about that?”
“Bub, we had the goods on you when you were just an overgrown Italian stallion with the Sight. You factor in the badge and the whole Johnny-cum-werewolf thing and, man, the entire fairy underworld is buzzing.”
Before I had the chance to wrap my brain around that concept, Bob’s friends renewed their pounding. “Open up or we’ll melt the door right off its hinges.”
Dwarves, I was betting, between the voices and the threats. They had a particular affinity for metal.
I eyed Bob. Piskies weren’t known for their trustworthiness. If he had the power to help me, why couldn’t he help himself? Still, I couldn’t quite bring myself to throw him to the dwarves, at least not without knowing what it was all about. They had a reputation as tough customers.
“Okay, okay,” I hollered. “Hold your horses.” To Bob, who looked ready to bolt, I added, “Stay put. Let me see if we can’t work things out.”
Man, I’m far too sober for this, I thought, making my way to the front door. Per habit, I looked through the peephole. No one. But then, if they were dwarves, that was to be expected.
I slid back the deadbolt and opened the door, gaze sliding downward until I came upon two escapees from Lord of the Rings. I was used to being tall, but I was starting to feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians.
“Yes?” I said, standing so as to block the entrance.
“Vic Costanza?” asked the hairier of the two.
“The Vic Costanza?” the less hairy, more ruddy one asked with something approaching awe.
“Asked and answered,” I said impatiently. “Can we move on?”
He drew himself up, adding a hair’s breath to his height. “Wayland and Ignatius Grizzle, Dwarven Metallurgists Union.” His partner flashed a card. “We need to have a little talk with a certain sprite, name of Kneebob, a.k.a. Bobbin, a.k.a. Bob.”
“In connection with?”
“Substandard fairy dust shipment.”
Wonderful – a paranoid felonious pisky. The night just kept getting better and better.
“Oh, Bob,” I called, “some friends here to see you.”
No response. If I was lucky, he’d moved on to become someone else’s problem. It was too much to hope.
“Bob,” I yelled again, addressing the apartment at large, “you want my help. It’s now or never. In ten minutes I’m either going to be drinking or sleeping. Tomorrow I don’t know a damned thing about an annoying pisky named Bob. Capisce?”
The pisky appeared on my shoulder, cowering behind my right ear.
“Listen up. I’m going to invite these nice gentlemen in.” I fixed the dwarves with my best suspect-intimidation glare. “Then we’re all going to sit around and discuss this calmly. First sign of bloodshed I’m going to get all Wolfman on your asses. Got it?”
The dwarves exchanged a disgruntled look. “By Section 84C, Subsection 4 of the Janevre Convention, we’re authorized to use force to acquire our subject.”
“Janevre Convention, eh? Well, since no one invited me, I’m not too inclined to play along. You’ve heard my terms. Take ’em or leave ’em. Time’s ticking away.”
Another look exchanged and Wayland shrugged. “We’ll go along for now. If it doesn’t work, we’ll go all Gimli on your ass.”
Instinctively, my lips peeled back from my teeth to match his feral smile with one of my own. “Bring it on,” I growled.
Even stone-faced as dwarves were, I thought I saw a hint of uncertainty flicker in his eyes.
However, he very calmly responded, “Good, then we understand each other.”
I stepped aside and gestured them to my couch – or anyway the futon that served the same purpose -- and chose the easy chair for myself, though I kept it upright. Didn’t want to struggle to extricate myself if action was required.
Bob, who apparently bored easily, had taken to playing with the cartilage in my ear. It tickled. I swatted at him and he flitted to the chair’s arm instead – vast improvement.
“Now, what’s this about a substandard shipment?” I asked to get the ball rolling.
“Bob has a contract to supply us with monthly shipments of fairy dust, which we use on custom orders – swords that quicken reflexes, provide courage, whatever. It’s a straight dust for lupins deal, payment in advance. The last shipment was impure. The spells fade quickly. Luckily we discovered it before our last weapons order went out to Dolph Lunden. He tends to behead first and ask questions later.”
Sounded like a hell of a way to do business.
Already my brain hurt. “Okay, so by fairy dust you mean dust from fairies, right? Tinkerbell style? And by lupins you mean…?”
Wayland’s head wrinkled as if he were trying to understand the question. “Lupins.”
“Yes, and those would be…?”
Again the bafflement. “Not at all.”
I let it pass. “So, Bob here just needs to return your flowers then, right? Bob, give the nice man his flowers.”
Bob looked pained – or constipated. It was a tough call.
“Can’t,” he answered miserably.
I turned my suspect-squirming stare on the pisky. “Can’t?”
He fell apart like a house of cards. “You see, there’s this girl, Jasmine. Ah, her hair is like flax. Her voice –”
“Spare me the details.”
“Well, you see, the lupins are gone. Mine are spent. The others distributed. The whole arrangement – well, it worked great for awhile. Fairy dust for lupins. Nothing easier. Lupins were all the rage in fairy society and we shed fairy dust like you humans shed skin.”
Bob wrinkled his nose. “Don’t ask. Place is filthy with it.” I was ready to wring his tiny little neck. “Anyway, all I had to do was get some friends to collect their leavings. Then they recruited others, and so on. It wasn’t my fault the lupins weren’t trickling down.”
“A pisky pyramid scheme?” I asked, incredulous. Man, I needed a drink.
Bob at least had the grace to look sheepish. “Well, anyway, it all fell apart and I didn’t have enough collected for the last shipment.”
“So you cut it.”
Bob stole a quick glance at the dwarves, who stared back stonily, before nodding.
“Body glitter.” His face grew animated again. “Inspiration just struck. I mean, they’re both so sparkly!”
The combined weight of our stares quelled him. “I mean – bad, bad Bob. For shame.”
I ran a rough hand over my face, sighing deeply.
“Tell it to the judge,” I answered unsympathetically.
Bob was shaking his head vigorously, and I’d swear that his eyes had grown to the size of nickels.
Ignatius cut in with the explanation. “It’s an internal matter. Since Bob was nowhere to be found, it was decided in absentia. Unless he can pay in full, with damages and interest accrued, he’ll be working his debt off in the mines.”
“That’s why I came to you. I knew if the rumors were true, you’d help me. You can’t send me to debtor’s prison. With the interest and all, I’ll never get out. I’ll die in the mines,” he said, melodramatically clutching a fist to his heart. He climaxed with a shout of, “Innocent until proven guilty!” as if rousing the troops.
“Bob, you confessed,” I pointed out, trying to remain unmoved.
I knew better than to fall for it, but somehow that impassioned speech delivered in a piping little voice by a critter roughly the size of my finger got to me. Maybe I’d had too much whisky earlier or not enough. I wasn’t even sure piskies could die, though the alternative was worse. If interest continued to accrue, he might be dead-on about his chances for freedom.
Damn it – I was going to help him. Not a freakin’ clue how, but I was going to do it. I let my head fall back against the headrest and kneaded the bridge of my nose, waiting for inspiration to strike.
“Yeah, boss?” he asked humbly.
A cut crystal glass of whisky appeared in my hand. I sniffed appreciatively before taking a hearty sip. Peaty, smokey and smooth. Nope, couldn’t throw the damned pisky to the wolves. More’s the pity.
Ignatius cleared his throat. “So, now that you understand, we’ll just take our pisky and go.”
I set the glass down gently and narrowed my eyes at him. I’m pretty sure the nostrils flared as well. That kind of thing had been happening lately – the growl that slipped out, showing the teeth, scenting the air – even in human form. If I ever returned to polite society, I was going to have to learn to control that. Who was I kidding? I didn’t know any polite society.
“Not so fast,” I said, a little rumble starting in my chest. “Bob owes me. He offered aid for aid and he’s going to keep his part of the bargain. Can’t let you guys spirit him away.”
“You go, Vic!” Bob squeaked.
I cut him a glare. “Can it.” I turned back to Ignatius. “We all know Bob’s going to be useless to you in the mine. He’s practically useless as it is.”
“Hey!” Bob interjected.
“Wouldn’t you rather have your shipment plus interest?”
“And damages,” Wayland added.
I turned my gaze on him and he fell silent. “You’ve already admitted the defect was found before any harm was done.”
“Except that the weapons will have to be re-imbued. Spellcasters cost money.”
And dwarves were notoriously non-magic, affinity for metal aside. They’d have to hire out.
God, this was getting more complicated by the second. I took another sip from my glass. But it was good whisky, I thought. What the hell. I knocked back the rest of my drink to fortify myself for what I was about to propose.
“Okay, then, you get me an estimate of what it’ll take to square Bob with the union. We’ll find a way. You can release Bob into my custody.”
Bob flew at my neck, presumably coming in for a hug, but I blocked him – any alcoholic impairment offset by my bitchin’ new reflexes.
“No touchee,” I said firmly.
“Hmph,” he answered, stamping a foot in mid-air.
Wayland and Ignatius conferred. Finally, Ignatius nodded emphatically and spoke up. “We’ll have to bring your proposal to the board and we’ll need a guarantee.”
My turn for forehead-crinkling. “Like a bond?”
“It’s not that we don’t trust you, of course,” Wayland assured me. “It’s just that piskies can be tricky and we need to assure the board that you’ll be properly motivated to see that he meets his obligations.”
“Let me guess, you’re the bean-counter,” I answered wryly.
Wayland grew even ruddier. “Attorney, actually.”
“And you?” I asked Ignatius.
“I get things done.”
“Interesting. Is that an official title, He Who Gets Things Done, or more honorary?”
I couldn’t help myself. They were running way past their ten minutes and the whisky was loosening my lips. Next thing you knew, I’d be calling him Iggy. Iggy – I liked that.
He ignored me. “As to the bond – what about that fine sword over your mantel.”
I was momentarily at a loss until I realized that “mantel” was his fancy way of referring to my entertainment center.
“My grandfather’s World War II saber. I don’t think so.”
“It’s meaningful to you?” he asked.
“Good. Then you’ll take pains to see that it’s restored to you.”
I looked from him to Bob to the sword.
“No,” I said, an edge creeping into my voice.
“I actually like the sword.”
“Hey!” Bob protested again.
“Point taken. Still, we leave with the sword or the pisky.”
I could take them; there was no doubt of that. Of course, just because I could didn’t mean I should. Might not making right and all that.
Bob was still floating indignantly in front of me. “I could stand a little more inspiration,” I told him.
He fumed, but my glass was filled once more. A guy could get used to this, I thought.
What it came down to was sentiment versus a man’s – pisky’s – life. I knew what I had to do. Didn’t mean I had to like it.
“Fine. Take the damned thing. But any harm comes to it, I don’t get it back in pristine condition, I hunt you down and open up a can of whup-ass.”
“That is entirely dependent on your fairy friend.”
I hit Bob with the evil eye. “Oh, he will pay up. Won’t you, Bob?”
He swallowed so hard he bobbed in the air. “A-absolutely.”
“Good.” Then to my dwarven houseguests, “Take it and go. Wait – how will we get in touch?”
Wayland reached into a pocket for his card while Iggy removed the sword from the wall. I let them see themselves out so that I could keep watch on the pisky. Not that he couldn’t pop in and out at will, but I had his scent now. If he bolted, there wouldn’t be enough of him left for the dwarves to imprison.
Sheesh, and I’d thought I had problems when I started the night. How in the world had I let myself get roped into this?
“Bob.” I put all the menace I felt into that one word. “You don’t make good, you’re dead meat. You know that, right?”
His voice trembled just a little as he answered. “Yes. But how…?”
“No idea. You just keep that inspiration coming.”
Tap tap tap. “Vic.” Tap tap tap. “Vic!”
I swatted at the annoyance drumming on my nose and rolled over emphatically. Big mistake. Movement put my head in danger of busting open and spilling my brains out on the pillow.
Something tugged at my ear. “Vic!!!”
In reaction, I bolted upright and was suddenly sure that my head would shatter into a million pieces. The room swam around me. My stomach roiled. I nearly fell back on the bed to curl into a fetal position and lie very, very still when it registered that someone had been hollering in my ear. No, not just someone. Bob.
“Out,” I said quietly, in deference to my head.
“But, Vic, I only—”
“Out!” I thundered.
The pain burst loose like a torrent, and I clutched at my head as though I could keep it intact with counter-pressure. When my vision cleared, the pisky was still there, hovering just out of swatting range.
“Bob, get out or I swear—”
“I know a great hangover cure,” he cut in.
“Fine,” I growled, “then you and I—”
A tumbler filled to the brim with a peppery red substance appeared in front of me and began to pour itself down my throat.
“Drink,” Bob ordered.
I nearly choked, but managed to get the lion’s share down the right pipe. Bob snapped a finger and it seemed as if my entire body went on hyperdrive. I could hear my blood rushing in my ears, my heart doing double time, before the rush fell off. My vision snapped back into place and my head, while tender, felt like it might just stay put.
I glared at Bob. “Next time warn a guy.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Look, we’re burning daylight here. I know how we can make enough fairy dust to repay the debt — and maybe make a tidy profit on top of that.”
Uh oh. I groaned. “Listen, Bob, you just let me do the thinking. Your schemes have landed you in enough trouble.”
Bob alighted on the knee that peeked out from beneath my sheet and I glowered pointedly until he moved over to the nightstand.
“Just hear me out,” he insisted, then rushed on before I could respond. “We’ve only got to orchestrate the next craze. It was lupins, before that doodle bug racing. Mab knows what they’re onto now, but I’ve figured out the next big thing.”
It scared me that he actually seemed to be making sense. “Okay, I’ll bite. What?”
“You!” he said triumphantly, spiraling into the air with glee.
I sank back against the headboard. “Not a chance in hell.”
Bob sank back to the nightstand. “But – but it’s perfect! A quick change for the court, maybe a kid’s party or two and ‘Grrr, arrgh’ – we’re in the money. The court’s always looking for some new mortal to entertain them. You’re already a hit. The marketing’s done.”
I groaned again. “I’ve got a better idea. What about all that wonderful whisky you’ve been conjuring? There’s got to be some way to make money with that.”
My heart fell into my lap at the look on Bob’s face.
“Um, well, you see – I’m not actually creating the booze, just, well, borrowing it from somewhere else.”
The one perk of the whole situation snatched away with a single sentence, continuing my downward spiral. Great, I’d not only been harboring, but aiding and abetting. Bob must have seen the imminent explosion on my face and rushed to head me off.
“It’s not like they miss it. I mean, it’s twenty-year-old scotch for Mab’s sake. Why wait? I figure they must be drinking all the good stuff first.”
I nearly choked. Twenty-year-old scotch. No wonder it was smooth. As much as I’d consumed last night, we might be running into felony territory. I counted to ten to control the urge to throttle him. He probably got that a lot.
“Bob, you’re a menace. Okay, no booze.”
And suddenly, I had an idea. A wicked grin spread over my face, the first since my accident. Bob eyed me warily. “What?”
“Well, if you’re going to make me a monkey’s uncle, I guess you’ll have to be my monkey.”
Bob just stared.
“Oh yeah,” I said, warming up to the idea. “My very own organ-grinder’s monkey, cap and all, clowning for tips. After all, you got us into this.”
“No buts. You’re in or I’m out.”
“But what if they recognize me?”
“Oh, I’m counting on it.”
I drew the line at pin-the-tail-on-the-werewolf. There was absolutely, positively no freakin’ way.
Once Bob had put the word out that the Vic Costanza was available for parties, we were booked solid. I was still trying to come to grips with the fact that somehow I had my very own fan club – like being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed was some kind of blessing – but I couldn’t deny that we were so in demand we could pick and choose our engagements. That meant I could avoid kids parties all together – or so I’d thought. Apparently, one didn’t turn down a command performance at the birthday party for Mab’s only niece.
That was how I’d come to be surrounded by pint-sized pisky pests clamoring for the very last shred of my dignity. I shot a sidelong glare at Bob, who actually seemed to enjoy clowning for tips in his organ grinder’s monkey guise. He was oblivious to my glare, as always.
I took another inspirational sip of my drink and set it down on the nearest toadstool.
“How ’bout a story instead?” I asked, aiming what I hoped was a charming smile at the birthday girl.
“The one about the big bad wolf?” she asked hopefully.
I bit back a groan. What had I expected?
“Aren’t you a little old for that one?”
She and her posse shook their heads vigorously.
They dropped like stones. As I went on I actually found myself getting into the whole thing – putting an effort behind the huffing and puffing, giving each of the little pigs a distinct voice. Try as I might, it was pretty hard to knock hero-worship.
As I wound down and the big bad wolf tried to break and enter the brick house through the chimney, I reached for some lubrication to sooth my parched throat. Growling was pretty tough on human vocal chords.
“What’s that you’re drinking?” Rose Flibberty asked, too observant by half.
I swallowed. “Touch of nectar,” I said, poker-faced. Of the gods I added silently.
She looked askance at me, too observant by half, but was diverted by the piercing cry of “Cake!”
Children were the same all over. She and the others were off like a shot, jostling me as they passed. I smiled indulgently and raised my glass to toast their departure – instantly sputtering as the liquid hit my tongue.
Nectar. For real. This was going to be a long, painful payback.
You can find the further adventures of Vic and Bob in "Imaginary Fiend" in the anthology Strip-Mauled, edited by Esther Friesner.