Orpheus for Hire: Kingdom of the Cats

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“ The Magic has gone out of the world” Katrinne said out of the blue.

This triggered an embarrassingly atavistic ‘yarf?’ on my part. I blinked at her, my partner, across the tiny fold down tables that separated us. Since I was, essentially, a ‘magical creature’ I was completely nonplussed. Katrinne merely smiled back at me from under her black pixie cut bangs and gestured at my tax forms. Whatever she was about to say was interrupted by the voice of our train’s conductor announcing our current stop and reminding us that we would need our passports and military ID if we were disembarking at the Cat Kingdom Rip a few stops further on.

My youthful human partner just grinned wider pointed up at the nearest speaker grill above our heads in the gently rocking train coach.

“My point, My point and…”

She slapped down the paper she had been reading, folded neatly to reveal only the business section, so that my taxes were now overlain be an advertisement for ‘Odin’s Wisdom Limited: Financial Advisers and Investment Managers’ With the now pin-stripe suited old Norse god himself smiling from the page like a used car salesmen.

Also visible was a article about where some financial pundit was declaring the Charon would favour Gloverton, New Brunswick’s bid for the shipbuilding contract on his new and improved river Styx ferry service.

I had barely a moment to glance at the article before Katrinne used one of her slender well-manicured hands to flip the paper over to the celebrity gossip section and give me a glance at blurbs about Artemis turning yet another paparazzi into a stag, Bacchus having another party that resulted in police intervention, and Aphrodite having yet another failed marriage.

Katrinne said “My point the third… or more.” then chose to elaborate.

“Ancient gods are celebrities, or big business news, We are riding a commuter train to a magical kingdom where our passports will be routinely examined just like any other border crossing, and you, red fur, three tails and all, are trying to figure out how to tell the Canada Revenue Agency what you do for a living in thirteen letters or less…”

Nodding so firmly that her gray fedora was nearly jostled over her eyes, she concluded. “Everything is mundane now. There are no mysteries. The magic has gone out of the world”

Trying to exude a suitably vulpine air of canniness, I pondered her thesis. I could sort of see her point. Most people would say magic had been coming INTO the world since the early nineties when the first Rip opened in Greece and the gods of Olympus strode down from their mountain top to declare themselves the divine royalty of that country. Incidentally buying the agreement of most Greeks by saving their nation from economic meltdown. This was followed by the Dante Rip, from which there was literally hell to pay. Then the now defunct Asgard RIP from which Odin and some of his kin believe they have escaped Ragnarok. The list goes on, a Rip in the bottom of an otherworldly lake draining into New Orleans, My own people announcing to Japan that the animal spirits in which they always professed to believe really did exist, and so on for nearly twenty years. And as for mysteries, there was one sitting right opposite me…

Katrinne was a study in contrasts. Old eyes in a youthful face. A schoolgirl’s curves displayed in an exquisitely tailored silk suit that otherwise might have been more suited to her grandfather. She drove a cut down Porsche but worked for the peanuts I could toss her way. Her personal life was a closed book. She was a woman with cheerful wide eyed curiosity who asked few questions and gave no answers.

“Partner” I replied. “If you think there’s no mystery in the world you haven’t looked in the mirror lately”

She had the grace to blush.

Then it was back to my taxes. One window, Occupation, was tasking me.

“Bounty hunter?” suggested Katrinne with disingenuous innocence. At first I just looked at her.

“I’m not a bail bondsman and you know that any other kind of ‘bounty hunting’ is illegal in this country.”

“Well… you could always go traditional and…”

I cut off this foray before it got started “Orpheus? Not on your life. One, he was an amateur. Two, he failed. Three, it sounds too much like ‘orifice’.

“Well I just put Private Investigator myself, it’s pretty much what were are…”

I sighed, “Right down to searching for lost pets”

“Well” she shrugged “If you were a big private military company you’d have an accountant team to deal with your taxes and I wouldn’t be working for you.”

Orpheus, the guy who failed to rescue his love from the afterlife, that was our trade name. ‘Orpheus for hire’ was the collective label applied to private eyes, mercenaries and even big exploration and extraction companies as long as our contracts drew us through a Rip and outside the mundane world. Unlike the original, we were expected to bring something valuable back. I suppose it was yet another point in favour of Katrinne’s thesis that the best I could come up with for what I do was specialization of the private investigator.

“P. I. It is then.” I said as I happily filled out that last empty window.

That done I tucked the forms into an envelope and deposited them in my overnight bag. The scenery rolling by outside had shifted from buildings to greenery, mostly pastures and croplands but the occasional windbreak of trees would chop the sunlight with a stroboscopic effect.

We spent the rest of the trip people watching.

By that I mean we competed in a little game of Holmsian ‘spot the clues to this guy’s story’ and compared notes. It was a bit of a challenge since nearly two thirds of the car was dressed in Canadian Forces green on green pixelated camouflage, or by the souls clad in some other CF uniform. Those in parade or ‘walking out’ uniforms were too easy. A soldier wears his resume on his uniform. More interesting was trying to spot the new recruits out of the civies or who in “relish” was returning from leave versus who was starting their mandatory two months active service

Katrinne had a unique additional challenge. She was one of the rare people who was completely ‘magic blind’ she’d text me when she thought she’d deduced something magical about a passenger from mundane cues. I would sniff out the truth and let her know…

Kat: Cat, look at how he moves.

Kitsune: Shape shifts well, but yes, he smells like a cat to me.

Kat: That one is either on drugs or a mage, she’s looking at stuff I can’t see.

Kitsune: Yep, the scents of both her magic and the stuff she probably sees as pretty lights are… nice.

And so we passed the time until our stop, a Canadian Forces Base, once a lonely little glass booth in a farmer’s field. Now CFB Smokey Hollow was an appendix that had outgrown the original document. The nearby city of Brantford was long ago reduced to a military service town.

Unlike most armed camps, the defenses were pointed inwards. Fencelines, sandbags and bunkers getting thicker as you moved through tighter concentric circles of security, armed M.P.s directing us efficiently into lines in front of various check points. The stations involving each particular document check or baggage search running as smoothly as a sausage machine. Our own little branch in the machine was for ‘visiting personnel’, anyone with military ID who wasn’t actually reporting for duty at this base. Which was, nearly everyone not in uniform who got off here.

“I do solemnly swear….” the rank of ‘civies’ chanted in unison, as we declared that we had dutifully notified our reserve unit of our absence and that we understood that in a case of a general call-up we return immediately to this base for our emergency assignments. And oh yeah …

“…And I have no live rounds, pyrotechnics or empty cases in my possession.”

That formality out of the way we lined up before a bank of logistics techs to get assigned the rifle, helmet and load bearing vest that would be issued to us in event of said emergency. Ours looked utterly displeased with the state of the universe, or maybe just his current assignment. He remained civil enough at first.

“So, master corporal” he began with Katrinne after reading her papers “It says here you’re a conscientious objector. Why do you need a rifle at all?”

Standing braced to attention despite her civilian dress Katrinne answered mildly “Sergeant, I don’t know why regulations stipulate that I am to be issued a self defense weapon, Just that they do. Unless the Sergeant is ordering otherwise?”

The Sergeant expressed his disappointment at not getting a rise out of his target by stamping Katrinne’s papers with extra force “Inspect your weapon, memorize your serial number and return it to me, NEXT!”

One look at me seem to brighten his day, With a nasty grin he announced “Oh hey TAILS how’s your buddy Sonic doing?”

“That’s leftennant Tails to you Sergeant.” like any junior grade bully the outranked sergeant was taken aback. I didn’t let him recover “I’ll only need a sidearm issued as you can see from my official occupation”

The now very pale young man gulped as he read aloud “arcane specialist… you’re a Mage… uh… Sir?”

I smiled without humour, showing my teeth and said “Just do your job Sergeant,”

Under the cowed technician’s chastened direction, I examined and returned a nine-millimetre pistol filled out the relevant paperwork and headed with my partner to our next stop.

Once we were out of earshot I had to ask:

“Conscientious Objector? You’ve never struck me as a pacifist”

Katrinne smiled grimly “Just one more barrier between my conscience and someone with more silver on their sleeve”

“Silver” I thought to myself, “that’s odd. Canadian ranks tend to be in gold” and in the process missed her muttered addendum. It sounded something like “never gain” Gain what? I wondered but didn’t ask I could tell she didn’t feel like talking.

Our passage to the innermost perimeter continued apace. Rounding on corner we became inadvertent witnesses to an unfortunate private’s dressing down by a clearly upset senior NCO.

“…don’t care what kind of slack and idle unit you came from private, here we keep our shit wired tight. We are sitting on Rip just a few miles north of the US border. I don’t care how harmless YOU think cats are. We have shapeshifting magic users here, who could easily infiltrate our southern neighbour if they so desired. And they are sitting on a strategic supply of copper ore. Mess up here and the ‘observers’ embedded among us will have us saluting the stars and the stripes before you can say ‘Security Threat’”

We carried on discretely.

The rest of the journey through sand bagged emplacements and tedious bureaucracy passed uneventfully and we finally were guided through the last barrier of razor wire and minefields to the Rip.

It stank.

Maybe stink wasn’t the right word. I’ve had humans describe a Rip as “Colours that don’t exist”, a Rip just smells wrong. Not wrong like a bad wound or a chemical spill, but wrong as if it doesn’t belong to the rational world… which I guess it doesn’t, after all it’s a hole in reality. Right now it was a spot on a open field surrounded by guns but just back of the lines wafted the scent of fresh asphalt and most of our fellow tourists were geologists laden down with the wherewithal to cut grid line, take soil samples and expose bedrock. There was even a plow tractor with a backhoe rumbling into the queue.

Aside from the smell, which Katrinne didn’t even notice, there is nothing to experience while passing through a Rip. One instant you’re stepping on that strange amorphous spot of unworldly non-stuff, the next you’re blinking at a dislocated sun and trying to figure out where all the heather came from and why you’re on a hillside. Then you have move your ass to let whatever is behind you through. This is complicated by the angle of arrival out of what is essentially a point source being totally random, The backhoe’s engine chugged in complaint as the driver found himself suddenly heading straight up a steep incline, everyone scattered with yelps and curses as the vehicle careened wildly before stalling. A couple of people disappeared again as their dodging took them back into the area affect of the Rip. I guessed they’d have to queue up again on the other side.

At the top of a neighbouring hill sat an impressive European middle ages style castle while below it in the saddle between the two hills nestled a small city of similar antique style. It even had cobblestone streets and what looked like an open market in its central plaza. Nearer at hand was a road with a gate post with some sort of out building attached. Almost everyone else was bypassing it to head out deeper into the valley below but a few of us, Katrinne and myself included, headed for what I presumed to be the local customs post.

The gate was up and a hand lettered sign graced the window of what one would assume was a guard booth.

“Off Duty, come on in”

A different hand had drawn an arrow and written above the words ‘off duty’: “Forever”

Leaving behind the abandoned Kiosk, we continued to the city our business was in the Castle itself. Most of the other arrivals were blithely ignoring the control point as if it’s dysfunction was old news.

The road at least was well paved, and, if neglected, as yet to show any signs. We followed its asphalt track into the city.

It stood with it’s gates open and was busy to the point of chaotic. Traffic snarled up at every intersection, the little European style cars favoured by the cats bleeping plaintively at each other. Pedestrians walked freely between the stopped vehicles wherever they found it convenient. Shops spilled their wares out onto the side walks and seemed to enjoy energetic business. It was a city alive with people, most of them cats…Cats…

“Are you okay? You seem… unsettled” Katrinne asked.

“Tanuki, Kitsune, Neko” I muttered.

“Pardon?”

“Badgers, Foxes, and Cats” I repeated in English, “are you familiar with the hierarchy?”

“An Imperial Capt… er… A guy I knew, described it as a rating system for women?”

“That as well,” I had to laugh. Then cough as my nerves strangled the impulse “It’s also a class structure the Tanuki are commoners, Kitsune are the gentry, and Neko are royals. Everyone here smells like royalty to me.”

Katrinne ‘hmmed’ thoughtfully and then held up a hand. “Wait one… I have an idea”

She promptly disappeared into the collage of shops littering the streets, leaving me to contemplate my surroundings.

We had made it to the central plaza which was a jumble of open stalls under make shift awnings with no obvious path for the foot and even vehicle traffic to get through I swear I even saw one using the side of a truck as a support. A truck whose driver seemed to be arguing with that of a car parked nose to nose with his truck. I might have been mistaken.

The chaos was novel to some of the other pedestrians I gathered as I overheard snippets of conversation.

“…this mess! It’s been like this since the old king died”

“But you know there’s always a transition…”

“Transition! It’s been months and I hear he’s too busy with the… pleasures of office to even bother to sign the civil service’s paycheques…

More conversation either deploring the current chaos or complaining about the new King’s inattention distracted me nicely until.

“Here”

My nose was suddenly overwhelmed with the scent of cheap perfume as someone spritzed my face with something from a gaudy bottle. Coughing and gagging I looked over at Katrinne who smiled and said:

“I bet you can’t smell anything to make you nervous anymore”

The odour of cheap perfume kept me nose blind until we reached the official offices within the hilltop castle. I’m not sure the trade was worth it but she was right I wasn’t nervous, I was angry.

“Don’t do that again.”

By the time we arrived in the Kingdom’s official chambers I was pretty much over my anger. I had to admit, it completely took my mind off the prevalence of cats. I even found the serenity to explain my take on the Cat’s monarchy without rancor.

“So…” Katrinne summed up “Basically you’re saying no one understands how or upon whom the mantle of kingship will descend, but that it’s unmistakable and his authority is irrefutable?”

“That’s how it seems to work, yes.”

“…aaand the current King is both new and … shall we say not living up to what is expected of him?”

“More like ignoring anything that isn’t about his personal pleasures”

“and they put up with it why?”

“Because he’s the King. Apparently, that’s sufficient.”

We finally made our way into the halls of government located in the castle. The echoing corridors seemed strangely empty. The rare desk seen was unoccupied. Some were marked with dust covered signs saying the owner will return in a few minutes. Unimpeded we walked our way to what appeared to be the largest and most central office before we encountered anyone.

According to her desk plaque, the regal woman sitting before us was the chamberlain of the privy council. Visually she was sleek, composed and human, but she smelled like sex and despair.

Before we spoke she was holding up a hand letting us know:

“The king is not granting any new land or resource claims, the crown doesn’t have the resources to deal with competing claims claim jumping or really any other human activity on crown territory. If you’re here about anything related to that I can’t help you.”

“Actually we were hoping for an audience with the King.”

“Not possible! The King is not receiving any but a select few playm… persons”

The Cat Chamberlain paused thoughtfully, “You didn’t identify yourselves nor state why you wanted to see the king…”

“We’re Private Investigators and our business with the king is personal. Consider us envoys from his family”

“From his family you say…”

She shook her head “I’m afraid I can’t help you. I certainly can’t tell you that the King takes an evening stroll in the private gardens nor that his guards are currently… off duty. Have a good day”

With that she began busying herself at her desk to make it clear we were dismissed.

Outside I asked Katrinne “what did you make of that”

“Sounds like we AREN’T visiting the King this evening.”

That evening, after preparing a few things from our luggage, we headed up to the palace again aiming for the walls surrounding the private royal gardens. We were aided in our efforts to get inside by a conveniently unlocked main gate.

I murmured to Katrinne, “I don’t think talking with him is going to work. If he was the sort to listen his Kingdom wouldn’t be in this mess.”

“So … Plan A then?”

“Ha ha, yes, you have the carrier?”

“right here”

With that we were off to find ourselves a King.

We found a God.

Power and Majesty radiated from the massive figure striding through the garden before us, it was apparent why this was the King of the Cats and why his authority was absolute. I was already trembling before he noticed us and his lordly ire was roused.

“WHO DARES….” he began and I attempted to bolt.

“here” said a familiar voice and my nose was assailed with the familiar stink of “Katrinne’s recently purchased perfume. Blind to magic I turned to look at the king and saw…

The angry little furball bounced about the pet carrier hissing and spitting and shouting (in cat) “you can’t do this to me I am KING … KIIIIING”

“Well actually your highness…” I corrected, grateful for a nose full of cheap perfume “…here in Canada you’re City of Toronto Pet License Number 234327, also known as Mr. Cuddles and dearly, expensively, missed by your family”

Katrinne piped up from the other side of the carrier, “A terrible injustice that I’m sure will be corrected once your Chamberlain gets your signature on the relevant treaty. Of course before then she might consider it to be in the Kingdom’s interest to re-establish the police and military, also maybe pay your ambassador his back wages…”

“If I were you” I added “I’d sign everything your Chamberlain mails to you. Ooh is your mail system working? At any rate I’m not you.”

The train home chose to rock a little more violently than normal so I missed Katrinne’s next words.

“I was just remembering an English, or Scottish, ‘spooky story’ “ she explained. “A sexton witnesses a formal funeral procession composed of cats and is given directions to inform someone he doesn’t know of the death of another person he doesn’t know.

She continued “When he gets home and tells wife the story, their old tom cat suddenly sits up and shouts “Old Tim is dead? Then I’m King of the Cats” and disappears up the chimney never to be seen again.”

She sighed “Somehow this adventure didn’t live up to the ‘spookiness’ of that story”

“Well if you’re looking for a mystery I’ve got a good one for you.” I retorted.

Waving yesterdays paper at her I pointed at Gloverton’s successful ferry building bid and asked “Why does Charon suddenly anticipate a need for bulk passenger service?