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November 16: On top of a 2,900-word story of my own, I'm also proud to present a guest story by Thrames. Read on for mine, or skip down to the guest contribution.

           November 16, 2003 ... The pet lady ........................... (Permalink)

EDITOR'S NOTE: Today's story is the result of a contest in which readers submitted elements to be randomly chosen for inclusion in a TTU story. See here for details and here for the elements from which this story was generated.)

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"Generic dog food?" the white-haired older woman asked uncertainly, holding her poodle protectively. "Are you certain?"

The instructor -- a kindly-faced and intent-looking middle-aged lady, wearing too much makeup and smelling of patchouli -- clasped her hands together. "Oh, absolutely, my dear. It's essential. The key to helping your dear Rufus transcend his dog existence into the world of glorious sentience is to stimulate his higher spheres of thought while stifling his attention to the lower, base body. I know you want to pamper him -- you want the best for him; we all do -- but you mustn't give in to the temptation to give him material gifts. Pamper his astral light being, not his tummy."

The older woman paused to think this over as tinny New Age music tinkled out of the boom box's speakers in the background. "But he's so finicky. I can't even think of the last time he would eat kibble."

"I understand, honey," the instructor said, bending over to hold Rufus' head and making kissy motions at him. "Who's a good boy? Oh, yes, you're the good boy. You're going to help out your auntie and eat generic dog food, aren't you?" She looked back up at the older woman. "But you must. For his sake. He won't have any incentive to transcend his dog existence if you give him a life of base comforts." She rested her chin in a hand briefly. "But, if it helps, I do have some essential-oil candles that will help modulate his appetite. Burn them at each meal, ten minutes before he starts eating."

"Anything that will help," the older lady said. "... How much are they?"

"Four for twenty. And you did want those crystals for his dog collar, too, right?"

Rufus craned his head, looking around the trees lining the field in Crotona Park, and yipped at a bird, squirming in his owner's arms. "Yes, yes," she said. "Can you watch him while I take out my purse?"

"Sure," the instructor said, taking the small dog's leash and letting him down to the ground, where he ran toward the tree, yapping furiously and straining at the end of the tether. She ignored him as she rummaged through a tote bag full of supplies, placing four candles and several quartz charms in a plastic baggie.

The supplies and leash were exchanged for three crisp, new bills, and the instructor turned back to the group of onlookers who had assembled on the grass in the warm New York spring afternoon. "Who else would like to unleash the power of their pet's inner soul? Haven't you dreamed of being able to talk to your dear little one? Give them some real power to protect your home? Help them transcend their mundane pet life and join you in living up to their full potential? I can help you." She paused meaningfully, scanning the crowd. The sounds of wind chimes and a babbling stream flowed from the boom box's speakers, barely audible over the growl of traffic from the Cross-Bronx Expressway a block to the north. "I see several of you walked your dogs here. Think of the new life you could offer them."

"Are you saying you can turn pets into theris?" called a short, thin young woman, with deep skin tones and a dark green Bronx Community College sweatshirt. She was watching the goings-on with an amused smile, and held the end of a leash in her crossed arms. The other end was attached to a huge husky that appeared to weigh as much as she did, which was sitting on the ground, looking around patiently at the other nearby pets, wagging its tail in big sweeps.

"Honey, that's such a demeaning way of putting it," the instructor protested. "I help strengthen your pet's astral light, help them transcend their base --"

"You turn pets into theris. You have any success stories you can show us?"

"Honey, it's a process that takes many months, a slow cultivation of their spiritual capability. But I'm just one of many teachers, and it's helped thousands of pets across the country --"

"Has it helped yours?"

The instructor looked slighted. "Of course. A dear dog and cat --"

"How come they aren't here to show off the results of your method?"

The instructor sighed. "Look, now that they've transcended their previous existence, it's not just as simple as taking them around on leashes everywhere. They have their own interests and things to do. Patches has, ah, taken up knitting; she wanted to finish a quilt today."

"Oh," the young woman said, apparently satisfied. "And you can do this to any pet?"

"Well, it depends. Some pets have more potential than others. Every one is capable of transcending, but it's hard to know in advance how long it will take." The instructor smiled. "You've got a beautiful dog there. Would you like to bring him up and give it a shot? Wouldn't you love to be able to talk to him? Give him walks without getting yanked around on the leash like a rag doll?"

"Well ..." the young woman wavered, glancing down at the husky. "Yeah, there's that. Laika!" She stared down at the husky and tugged on its leash. The dog looked up at her, wagging its tail and refusing to budge. "Laika! C'mon." She tugged at the leash again, the dog not even seeming to notice the pressure on its collar. "Silly mutt. Get up." The husky stared up at her face, tail thumping against the grass. The young woman glanced up apologetically. "She's a big sweetie, but thick as a brick sometimes."

"Aw, that's okay," the instructor said, and half-crouched, adjusting the shawl around her shoulders. "Laika!" she called, with some kissing noises. "Here, sweetie."

The husky's ears perked up. She sprang to all fours and trotted forward, tail wagging. "Whoah!" the young lady said as she was dragged forward at the other end of the leash, stumbling as she tried to keep her balance.

"Aw, what a good girl," the instructor said, reaching out tentatively to pat the husky on the head. The husky ignored her and sniffed at her ankles, then in the direction of the boom box -- now playing an Enya song. "Here, honey," she said to the younger woman, "can you hold her still for a second?" She reached into the tote bag and pulled out a device that looked like a cross between a thermometer and a voltage meter, connected by a long, flexible wire. "I just need to measure the strength of her aura."

The young woman grimaced at the device. "Ew. Where does that go?" The husky turned around and reached its nose up to sniff at it, excitedly bouncing up onto her back paws momentarily in an effort to get some extra height.

"Just in the ear. It's harmless and doesn't hurt. Here, sweetie, see?" the instructor said, holding the wand end down for Laika to sniff. The husky opened its jaws and lunged forward to grab the wand; the instructor did a double-take and jerked her hand back.

"Down, girl," the young woman said, grabbing Laika around the neck.

The instructor stepped forward, cautiously, as Laika's tail swished back and forth. "Who's a sweetie," she said comfortingly as she flicked the device on and angled the wand toward Laika's ear, trying to keep it out of the dog's sight. With a little maneuvering, she got its tip into the ear. The dog squirmed and tried to turn her head toward the wand; the young woman held her steady.

"Well, well," the instructor said, pleased. "Look at this." She flashed the device's readout at the young woman. "The needle's up near the top of the yellow. I'd say Laika here has some potential. Most pets start down near the lower end of the yellow scale. She might even be eligible for my abbreviated two-month course."

"You don't say?" the woman asked. "And what exactly does that involve?"

"Well, it's different for every pet," the instructor said, launching into the sales pitch. "The important thing is to get her in touch with her spiritual side with a rigorous course of study and of adding resonance to the frequency of her astral light being. A regimen of physical asceticism combined with crystal and essential oil therapy is the most effective means short of a magical awakening, and that is best undertaken only by trained professionals in very controlled settings. Would you like me to determine Laika's astral frequency? That way you can even start the at-home therapy today -- that's a week of work you can get done without having to wait for the first meditation session."

The young woman glanced around as the boom box piped out a reed-flute rendition of some vaguely recognizable Celtic folk song. "Determining her astral frequency?"

"It's simple. I'll show you. Hold on, honey," the instructor said, and hustled over to the picnic table several feet away on which the boom box and the small generator she had plugged it into were sitting. She reached under the table, pulling out an odd contraption that looked like a disco ball on a tripod, with holes cut out in a strip along its circumference. She plugged it in next to the boom box and set it up on the picnic table's bench, angling the disco ball downward slightly and turning it on.

The ball sprang to life, spinning in a lazy circle, an inner light turning on, shining astrological shapes down at the ground. Laika loped over, fascinated by the moving shapes.

"Now we see which ones she's attracted to ..." the instructor said, watching the husky closely.

Laika sniffed at the ground, turning her head to track the blobs of light. She stared at one as it went by, craning her head closer to it. "Ah!" the instructor said. "She seems drawn to Sagittarius ... let's see what she does with a full go-round."

The husky glanced up at the instructor, then back down to the ground to stare at the moving light shapes again.

Then the lights went out.

The boom box halted to a stop mid-song. The generator coughed and shuddered to a stop.

The instructor looked up. "Oh, for heaven's sake ..." she said, and whacked the generator on the side. "Not again." She pulled at the start cord, but it failed to turn over.

"What's wrong?" the young woman asked.

"I really need to get that replaced," the instructor sighed. "Oh, well. I'll make do for now. I think it's safe to say that Laika there is a Sagittarius ..." she said, grabbing a sheet of paper from her tote bag. "So you would want to get her topazes to increase her resonance and expand her light source, along with rose and cinnamon essential oils, rose for the daytime, cinnamon at night. If you start her on a diet of generic kibble now --"

"Wait, wait, crystals? Essential oils?" the young woman interrupted. "Topaz? How is a topaz going to help Laika transmigrate, or whatever the word was? What would she do with it?"

"Well," the instructor said, fishing through a pocket and pulling out a bright yellow charm. "Proximity is the important thing." She crouched down in front of the husky. "The more you have, the quicker the process, of course. I recommend hanging the biggest one from her collar, like this," she said, thrusting the charm underneath the husky's chin.

The dog twitched and blinked, looking around -- at the picnic table, the instructor, the small crowd gathered at the edge of the path, at the young woman holding her leash. "Jenny?" the dog said, in a raspy tenor.

The instructor yanked her arm away and stumbled backward, startled, sitting on the grass. The young woman's face lit up. "Laika?"

"Jenny!" the dog said, bouncing up off the ground.

"Laika! It's a miracle!" the young woman said, dropping her end of the leash and flinging her arms up in the air. Several members of the crood whooped or broke out into applause.

The dog swiveled her head over to them and snorted, sitting down on the grass. "Miracle, heck. What was that weird lady going on about, anyway?"

"Laika?" Jenny asked innocently. "Whatever do you mean?" The instructor sat, open-mouthed, and stared.

Laika turned to face the crowd and swiveled a paw back toward the instructor. "First of all, what's this nonsense about generic kibble? That stuff could choke a horse. I mean, asceticism, okay, maybe, but dry kibble is ludicrous! Do you know what they make that stuff out of? And it's not even nutritionally complete! How am I supposed to transcend if I don't get my full day's supply of Vitamin C?"

Several of the onlookers glanced nervously back and forth at each other. One or two chuckled uncertainly. The instructor stood up, still speechless.

"Now, Laika, let's not be too harsh," Jenny said sweetly.

"Harsh? Don't even talk to me about harsh!" the husky snapped, addressing the crowd with an energetically wagging tail. "Speaking of which, lady, what's with the perfume? Patchouli's tacky in the first place, but you're supposed to wear it, not bathe in it!"

The crowd laughed. The instructor sputtered. Jenny smiled. "Come on, Laika, there's no need for personal attacks," she chided.

"Don't even get me started," Laika said, trotting over to sit at Jenny's side, tilting her head, and scratching behind her ear with a hindpaw. "I mean, come on. Sagittarius? Where did that come from? Are topazes more expensive than citrine or something? Last time I checked, I was a Capricorn. How's her little disco ball supposed to measure that? And how the heck does that have anything to do with an 'astral frequency,' whatever that is?"

"Hey, now --" the instructor protested feebly.

"Gosh, that's a good question," Jenny said, a look of surprise on her face. "I didn't think of that."

"And, please. Aura strength? With a modified thermometer? I'll tell you why pets score low, but humans read in the green and I read almost out of the yellow. Our ears are bigger! You can fit the probe further inside and get a more accurate measurement! Of course you're not going to get much needle movement out of a rat or a guinea pig if you can't get the measuring device close enough to the heat source!"

"There's a proven basis --" the instructor started indignantly, drawing her shawl tighter around her shoulders.

"Don't fall for the scam, people!" Laika barked. "Waving crystals and funny-smelling stuff around doesn't magically make your pets smarter!"

The instructor colored. "Go away! Shoo! I'm trying to run a business here!" she roared, flailing her arms at Jenny and the husky.

Jenny grabbed her backpack and ran away, laughing. "Common sense and critical thinking!" she yelled at the crowd over her shoulder. Laika bounded after her, unleashing a full-throated wolf howl, leash trailing on the ground behind her.

The two dashed around the corner of a nearby public restroom and paused to catch their breath. Jenny collapsed on the ground in giggles. "Oh, man, that was cool. Did you see the crowd when you first talked?"

Laika snickered. "Didn't I tell you that would be sweet? Thanks for the backup. I've wanted to do that for weeks."

Jenny got control of herself long enough to sit up and open the strap on Laika's collar; the husky reached up with a hindpaw to yank it off her neck, then closed her eyes in concentration.

"Oh, man, I wish we'd gotten someone to videotape that. You should have seen her face when you made the patchouli dig!" Jenny snickered, then collapsed into giggles again.

Laika's form wavered, then distorted, arms and legs lengthening with an odd noise like the echo of a fizzing soda, torso taking on human proportions. She stretched her furred arms above her head, opening her muzzle to stretch her jaw muscles, and then sat up, giggling herself. "You know she deserved it. I mean, turning pets into theris? Have you ever heard of something so ridiculous? I bet she's been scamming old ladies for months now." The werewolf reached for Jenny's backpack, digging out a baggy shirt and pair of shorts with a tail-hole cut raggedly into the back.

"Yeah, no kidding. And 'transcend your base pet life'? Crystal collars and generic dog food? Man, you'd better believe I'm going to anonymously leak this to Edward for the school paper. This is comedy gold."

"True that. Hey ... hang on." Laika stopped in the middle of putting on the shirt. "That gives me an idea. Want to go harass that one street preacher before word starts getting out?"

Jenny smirked. "I like the way you think."

           November 16, 2003 ... Fatwa ................................... (Permalink)

EDITOR'S NOTE: This TTU news bulletin is a guest contribution by Thrames. Thank you, Thrames!

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Fatwa from Ayatollah Khamenei
by William Metuo/Reuters Correspondent
January 3, 1997

TEHRAN, Iran (Reuters) -- Iran's top religious official has demanded the overthrow of the U.S. in an edict released on Thursday.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has issued an important edict yesterday in Iran. In it, he calls for the overthrow of the United States, as well as all other "immoral, decadent, and Zionist governments." In addition to this, he claims that the appearance of therianthropes is "the final showing of the Great Satan's Godlessness and immorality" and is "just cause for the crushing of their country of devils."

The edict begins by stating that magic and shape-changing is "witchcraft in its most dangerous form." Khamenei also said it is every Muslim's duty to "slay all collaborators with jinn, sheitan, and devils." Later on in his statement, he claimed that it is "the Great Satan's decadence and immorality that has brought such an evil on the world."

The ruling doesn't necessarily mean that every Muslim is expected to kill theris.

"Citizens of Iran and others who follow Shariah must allow the just and moral governments to seek out these witches. Those in immoral countries must overthrow them and follow Shariah themselves," the edict says. The Shariah is laws based on the Koran and the hadiths, which are sayings of the prophet Muhammad.

It is also the first therianthrope-related proclamation that is expected to become official state policy. Khamenei supporters have a majority in Iran's Parliament, and Khamenei, as Iran's Supreme Leader, has the authority to dismiss President Mohammad Khatami if his more liberal supporters attempt to block or blunt the fatwa's execution.

The fatwa's effects have been immediately felt on the streets of Iran. Anyone who can change into a form other then a human one or who can "mystically manipulate nature" is "guilty of witchcraft," the fatwa says. According to Khamenei, the penalty for witchcraft is immediate execution.

With the issuing of this fatwa, the already icy relations between Iran and the U.S. have gotten decidedly frostier. The Ayatollah has stated that "the U.S. must immediately be toppled by the Muslim world for its decadence, and every witch must be slain."

In response, the United States has pulled all U.S. personnel out of Iran and has demanded the Iranian ambassador in the Pakistani embassy be deported immediately.

The State Department has already issued a statement calling Khamenei's fatwa "choleric, hasty, and a danger to peace throughout the world." Madeline Albright has issued a travel advisory warning against visiting Iran.

President Clinton has said that such a statement from Khamenei "does not surprise [him], but saddens [him]" for hopes of better relations in the future.

Additionally, the State Department said that it will increase customs security and will take other measures to insure the safety of Americans from the possibility of Iranian terrorist elements.

So far, American reaction to his decree has been muted because of concerns closer to home, such as the Flyby on Jan. 1 in New York City. Inside the U.S., only fundamentalist Muslim groups appear to have given it any consideration, and many Muslim groups have denounced the Ayatollah's fatwa as being divisive.

"The fatwa harms relations between foreign Muslims and America greatly," the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said in a statement. "What Khamenei has done is terrible. We worship the same God as Christians and Jews."

"Islam is a peaceful religion and Khamenei is distorting it horrendously," their statement went on to say. "This is considerably worse then the hostage situation in 1979."

           November 17, 2003 ... Kata ................................... (Permalink)

Step. Finger strike -- rather, claw stab. Sidestep and wheel. Chop -- rather, claw slash. Pivot and rear back, balancing on one paw. Then ...?

J.E. froze, considering, arms back for counterbalance, one haunch up against her stomach, knee hovering below her breasts. She'd originally been rearing up for a snap kick, cribbing snatches of other katas that sprung up almost as muscle memory. But snap kicks felt ... unsatisfying now. They didn't have the incredible power of kicks built from a leg extension. She had predator haunches. They were for springing forward, pushing out.

She raised her foot some more, not without effort; straightening her leg was tough in this new form. Maybe a feint of a push kick -- angling the kick differently to strike with the pad of her foot rather than the thinly padded top surface -- then an actual hind-leg shove, bringing those muscles into play? J.E. grimaced. Bad leverage. And two-part strikes like that were slow and risky.

She lowered her leg, dropped her arms to her side, and paced in a circle, deep in thought.

"Dammit," J.E. said to the empty room, grabbing the towel draped over the lone chair near the center of the mats. She reflexively reached up to towel her cheeks and neck -- except that the fur there was keeping the sweat from beading. J.E. sighed, wiped her wet nose, and flung the towel to the floor.

She couldn't concentrate. The wolf kata would have to wait. She needed to do something to clear it from her mind and approach it from a new angle.

She turned and faced the mirror, bowing to herself and preparing to run through the Tora-Bassai kata. With a deep huff, she crouched into the first stance, bringing up both arms clasped in front of her muzzle.

Pivot. Block. She thrust her left forearm upward and outward, sweeping away an imaginary attack -- and that attack had a name, which leapt to her mind, out of her conscious control: Jeiburton. A second block, sweeping the right arm out: Jeiburton. His two sons, both at once.

Pivot back to face the mirror again. Cross-block, sweeping her vertical forearm across her chest, taking care not to whack herself in the muzzle. This attack was less a punch than a slap: Ellerbee. J.E. thrust her right arm out in a second block to the same position, sweeping away the memory of Sarah's terrified face.

Pivot. Block left. Brown. Block right. Lawrence.

Pivot, drawing back, her left arm held ready across her chest, her right arm back, palm forward. Right punch, fighting back: Caleb. Left punch: Jennifer.

Wheel around. Throw her weight sideways onto a left stance, blocking: LeFebvre. Shift back to center and punch --

J.E. realized in a moment of passing shock that she'd run out of friendly names.

Out to a right stance, arm up in a block -- and those names kept coming. Connor. Pivot and step back, right arm up in a modified block, palm out. Shaunnessey. Advance a step, left arm whipping up into a block. And the whole damn advanced class --

J.E. stared at herself in the mirror, concentration shattered. A werewolf in a sports bra and pair of baggy jogging shorts stared back at her, one fist raised up in the air, legs bent underneath her in a pale mockery of a front stance. The realization fully sank in. She was going to lose the entire advanced class. Even if by some miracle Mrs. Ellerbee's stupid little jihad didn't cost her any more of those students ... Caleb wasn't good enough to teach them.

And now she was physically incapable.

J.E. screamed incoherently, grabbing the chair she'd used as a towel rack, whirling, and throwing it violently across the room. It hit the back wall, legs first, with a heavy whunk, and embedded itself there through the plaster. J.E. collapsed forward onto the mat, crumpling to the ground, curling her knees to her chest and sobbing.

She'd locked herself in the dojo for two days straight trying to figure out what this new body could do -- and with every new stance, attack, and movement she discovered, she was training herself out of the now-useless mockery of the human moves that she would have had to use to teach the kids. Not only that, but word had gotten out about her shift in form, and her students, her business' lifeblood, were being bled away by terrified parents.

Her dreams were colliding -- unstoppable force, immovable object -- and her world was falling to pieces around her.

Caleb dashed out from the back room. "Oh my God," he said, frantic, crouching down at her side. "J.E.? You okay?" It was possible, J.E. noted in an attempt to break her mood, that the chair legs through the wall behind him had caught his attention.

She sat up, tears running down her muzzle, forcing herself to take a deep breath. "It's no use," she said raggedly. "The dojo's dead. Thanks for all your help, Caleb, but the dojo's dead."

"It's not," he protested. "I've been talking all evening with your students' parents. Everyone who's going to leave has left. And I know the landlord is making noises about doubling the rent -- seriously, you really need to sic a lawyer on that bastard, he can't drive you out like that -- but even if that happens, even with all the departures, you'll make just enough to hang on."

"No, I won't," J.E. said, and started sobbing again. "The advanced class is gone, I know the numbers, that's the profit margin and then some --"

"J.E.!" Caleb interrupted. "They're not going anywhere. I called, I double-checked --"

She jerked her muzzle up to glare at him. "You don't understand!" she shouted. "You can't teach them! I can't teach them! I can't charge them money to sit and, and, twiddle their thumbs." She looked away, sullen, the taste of tears around the edges of her mouth.

"I ..." Caleb started to protest, mouth opening and closing, then sat down heavily on the mat, looking defeated. With a muffled creak, a slab of plaster fell out from the rear wall, and the chair slid out, falling to the floor with a crash.

"Thanks for all your help. Go home. I'll get your last paycheck out in the mail tomorrow," J.E. said, turning away to sit and stare at the side wall, not able to look Caleb in the face. "Um. I mean, Monday."

She felt the weight of a hand on her shoulder, and turned her head, baring fangs. Caleb jerked his hand back guiltily, deliberated, and walked forward and crouched by J.E.'s side. "Sensei," he said, in a quiet but earnest voice, "Please. Don't give up. I ..." He swallowed. "This place turned my life around. I owe you a lot, and I respect you more than anyone I know, and it hurts me to see you crumble like this."

"It hurts you?" J.E. asked sullenly.

Caleb looked down uncomfortably. "I'm sorry."

J.E. sighed guiltily. "I ... no, I'm sorry. I shouldn't take out my anger on you. But I fought so hard for this place ... fought to bring karate upstate, fought for respect as a female teacher, fought to make the finances work." She began to cry again. "And now it's dead. I get my other lifelong dream and this one crumbles to dust."

"But it's not dead yet," Caleb insisted. "I know how bad it looks, but they're just problems, they can be worked around. Don't give up. I'm here too -- I'll put anything into this place you need. I'll work for free for a while if finances get tight. Please, just don't give up."

"Caleb, I won't shortchange the kids. They're why we're here. And, and, I'm sorry ... but, look, you just can't handle the advanced classes."

He looked down at the ground. "I know. I won't try to change your mind on that. But I'll train. I'll learn. Maybe in a couple of months, and you can work something out until then."

"But I can't," J.E. said, standing up and dropping into a crouch. "Have you seen me in a front stance?" she said, gesturing to her digitigrade legs. "Have you seen me snap-kicking? I can't do half the old katas. My falling style has changed now that I've got this tail behind me. I'm not going to teach this crap to human kids -- it would be useless. And maybe I could start a martial arts studio for shapeshifters back in New York City, maybe, but here upstate? I'm probably the only one in driving distance."

Caleb stood up and ran a hand through his hair with a heavy sigh. "Not that the city is looking all that much better these days. Did you hear about the riots this afternoon? The radio says Los Angeles last night, then a bunch of other big cities this morning. They're deploying the National Guard across the country, and it looks like it's working, but still. It's crazy. The world has just gone absolutely nuts." He paced over to the fallen chair, stood it back upright, and started to collect the fallen plaster. "That's another reason you can't let this place die. With everything that's happened since, since ... the media's calling it 'The Changes' now, I guess ... everyone's looking for some stability. Everyone's afraid that this is the end." He looked at a large, triangular chunk of plaster contemplatively, then hurled it like a Frisbee at the garbage can in the corner. It glanced off the rim of the can and bounced onto the floor.

"How can I give anyone any stability?" J.E. said bitterly, plodding over to the side wall and sitting down heavily in one of the other chairs. "I'm a frickin' werewolf. I'm one of the new freaks that are getting people scared in the first place."

"You're a sensei," Caleb said, walking to the corner and chucking his armful of plaster in the can from a more reasonable distance. "You've got a job to do. You can get up in the morning and do it." He walked over to sit down next to J.E., leaning forward and looking over at her. "And you can show them that werewolves are jes' folks. Just like any of the rest of us," he said, motioning at his chest.

J.E. sat in tired silence. "Caleb?" she finally asked. "What about you?"

"What about me?" he replied.

"What do you think of me? You've been ... I don't understand it. Have you even gone home since Thursday night? Don't you have a girlfriend, what's her name, Bev? I mean, I taught you karate. I give you a paycheck. I'm a werewolf. You're ... you're throwing your life away at me. Go home and get some sleep."

Caleb reached up to rest a hand on J.E.'s shoulder; this time, she let him. "Before you were a werewolf, Sensei, you were the person who gave my life focus. Before that, you were the five-foot-two chick who kicked my ass." He smiled. "You never let anything stop you. That meant a lot to me. And ... I want to give something back, you know? It's like everything good that's happened in my life has been since you opened this place up. Werewolf or no werewolf ... J.E., you're my teacher, you're ... you're my friend." Caleb leaned over, before J.E. could react, and wrapped his arms around her shoulders in a hug.

The werewolf blinked, staring down at him uncertainly. Then closed her eyes, tears starting to trickle again. Tentatively, she placed her hands on his back, and sat there in the embrace -- still feeling lost, but not quite so lonely.

Caleb drew back, looking up into her eyes, wrinkling his nose. He laughed self-consciously. "Oh, man, wet fur smell," he said with a gentle smile. "And I bet I stink, myself. I need a change of clothes. We probably both need a shower. If we both go home for the night, you promise to get some sleep, and come back tomorrow, and we'll figure something out for the advanced class?"

J.E. smiled, for the first time that day. "Shower. Sleep. Heh. I'll see what I can do."

"Oh, yeah -- and give Jennifer a call when you can. She says she's a friend of yours, she was trying to get back ahold of you, but you said you didn't want to be disturbed by anyone."

"Okay, thanks," J.E. said. She took a deep breath, looking at the mirror on the other side wall, and let it out in a slow sigh. "Look ... Caleb, I wasn't kidding. We'll have to drop the advanced class. Please don't get your hopes up. But ... well, you're right. It's too early to give up entirely. In the end, I may not have a choice, but if it means that much to you, I'll go down fighting."

He smiled. "Thank you, Sensei."

J.E. reached over to hug him again. "Thank you."

           November 18, 2003 ... Top of the world ....................... (Permalink)

Chris lunged, straining upward with every muscle in his body, right arm outstretched, fingers locked in a curve, ankles straining to keep his toes in contact with the sliver-thin imperfections in the rock he was using as footholds. His fingers slapped against the granite wall -- the too-smooth granite wall -- and slid, friction burning at his fingertips.

His left foot -- which had provided most of the force of his lunge -- slipped. Adrenaline shot through his body like an explosion as his deeply bent left arm tensed, trying to take up the sudden extra weight, muscles screaming in protest but not daring to disobey.

Chris didn't even have time to panic -- that was the way of climbing. By the time your conscious reactions kicked in, you were already on your way down.

Or, as the case often was, you weren't. His right hand, sliding helplessly down the rock, suddenly caught, with a jarring impact, on the deep horizontal groove in the granite he had lunged for just a little bit too far. His fingertips fell into the inch-wide ledge, naturally taking a solid grip, and just as suddenly as he'd been in danger, he was out of it. He clung to the rock, hanging by his right arm, gripping with his left, butt thrust well out in the air for balance, left foot dangling helplessly, the arch of his right foot hugging an almost invisible hold in what would have seemed to an untrained observer like a smooth vertical wall.

He froze there, forcing himself to take a deep breath, as his left arm's muscles started to burn out into anaerobic shutdown, and slowly, deliberately, drew up his left leg to grope with his toes for the foothold he'd lost. Within a few seconds, he'd found it again, and he tentatively turned his foot out, dug his arch into the rock, and let some weight settle back on the foot. His left arm relaxed, muscles protesting in delayed pain.

From here, he thought with a grin, it was cake.

He put some more weight back on his feet, using his right arm to brace himself for safety as he shifted his left hand up to the long, thick ledge, straightening his body back out from the left tilt he'd had to assume to grab that earlier handhold. He held himself steady with his arms while he folded his right leg up and tilted his foot to nestle into a long, skinny diagonal crack, then lifted his left foot to the shallow knob he'd used as his left handhold just a second ago. He pulled himself up to a half-standing position again, gaining several feet. The next section of rock was deeply gouged, and the holds came naturally. Within seconds, he was standing on the inch-wide ledge, allowing himself to relax, perched on the rock rather than clinging to it.

He took a look down at his fingers -- he'd really misjudged that lunge, and the skid had sandpapered some skin away. But there wasn't even any bleeding, just a general raw feeling, and that was nothing, not even registering on the scale of climbing injuries. He then looked up, and his heart soared: the mountain flattened out onto the summit's plateau not twenty feet above him, with huge holds, cracks and creases everywhere.

Ah, to heck with the rest break. He could take this next bit.

"If we burn our wings," he started singing as he spidered his way up the rock face's remaining height, "Flying too close to the sun ..." It was loud and somewhere between tuneless and off-key, but who cared? Who else was around to hear?

"If the moment of glory is over before it's begun ..." The angle of the rock eased off, and Chris stood straighter, walking from foothold to foothold, using his hands for little more than balance and safety.

"If the dream is won though everything is lost ..." he belted out as he walked onto the summit. There was the peak register's metal canister, and, yep, there was the pile of rocks stacked up to clarify the mountain's actual highest point. He grinned and threw his own twist into the lyrics: "Then we'll have climbed Mount Permafrost." Even though there wasn't any snow on the open rock face and the warm summer sun kept the thin air at T-shirt temperature -- but who said it had to make sense? He leaned over to the rock pile and tapped the topmost one with a finger, then leaned back and let out a shout of triumph. "WAHOO!"

He lowered himself to sit on the rocks, then lay back with a blissful smile, feeling the cool granite at his back, the warm sun on his skin, closing his eyes. There'd be plenty of time to take in the view. He just wanted a few minutes to revel in the greatness of it all.

His muscles burned with satisfied exhaustion. Every breath he drew in to his lungs was sweet, intoxicating, giddying. The world was in perfect silence save for a slight breeze whistling past the rocks. Ice and fire mixed, stone and air -- with him, there, right there, alone at the glorious center. It was timeless zen. The sort of experience he climbed for. The sort of experience he lived for.

Suddenly, the light behind his closed eyelids dimmed; his skin cooled. Chris blinked his eyes open and twisted his head around toward the sun to find himself in the shadow of a dragon.

Its wings were what was blocking the sun -- outspread, flared, as it flew at him. The rather obviously male dragon was approaching with his golden body almost vertical, his rear feet thrust downward as he coasted in to a slow landing at the summit. Chris sat up hurriedly as the dragon's talons contacted the summit's scree with a rattle and his forelegs came down.

As the scaled figure folded his wings inward, he shook his head -- twisting it from side to side -- and thrust his belly toward the ground, arching his back downward in a catlike stretch. "Whooo, what a flight!" he exulted in a surprisingly mid-pitched voice, looking around -- and then swiveling his head back to Chris in a double-take. "Whoah! Didn't see you there. Hey. Sorry if my landing startled ya."

"Buh," Chris said incoherently. This was a very different experience than watching them on the news. Especially the size difference. He could have stood up and maybe reached the end of its nose. Suddenly, in a moment of clarity, the wilderness advisories made sense.

"Awesome day to be up here, huh?" the dragon said cheerfully, lifting a forepaw and gesturing around at the unbroken horizon. "Great summer weather." He reached up to his neck, unzipping an oversized belt pack that he was wearing like a choker, and pulled out a brightly labeled red plastic bag. "Want some beef jerky?"

"Uh. No thanks," Chris managed, feeling very small in a way that the two-mile-tall mountain hadn't managed to make him feel.

The dragon smiled at him, baring a mouth full of wicked-looking fangs. "Suit yourself." He wedged a claw inside the top of the bag, opening the zipper, and snared a piece of meat, tossing it in his mouth like a popcorn kernel. "Mmm. Great stuff. Not so much for the energy, but a nice morale boost."

"I bet," Chris said uncertainly.

The dragon swallowed, satisfied, running a forked tongue around the edges of his mouth. He looked around. "Where's the peak register?"

"Uh, there," Chris said, pointing, and stepped out of the way.

"Thanks," the dragon said, pacing forward and maneuvering his forepaws to twist open the canister's lid. "So, how 'bout them A's?"

"Uh, what?"

The dragon glanced back at Chris. "The sports team." He grinned. "It's a conversation starter. This is where you say 'Yeah, they're going all the way this year,' and I admit I don't actually know anything about baseball. Or else you stick up for the Giants and we go into friendly cross-Bay rivalry machismo mode. Or maybe you say 'I don't follow sports' and I congratulate you on your intellectual integrity. Of course, given the setting, maybe I should have done the obvious thing and asked you if this was your first peak this season."

Chris' face flushed. "Um, no. I'm making the circuit of Yosemite. I usually stick more to the backcountry, but, well, I didn't want to give up the climbing season, and with --" he abruptly stopped himself, just short of talking about the wilderness advisory. That was probably sensitive territory.

"That's cool. I'm on a circuit myself," the dragon said proudly. "An old friend challenged me to hit all the state's 12s" -- which Chris recognized as climber jargon for 12,000-foot-plus peaks -- "in four days. Just me and my wings." He fished out the notebook, carefully, between two claws, gently shaking it free to keep all the loose papers from falling out of the canister and scattering. The dragon smoothed it out on the ground, fished a thick felt-tip marker from his neck pack, and scrawled "#7! -D 7/23" across an empty page. "So I just flew over from Matterhorn, and boy, are my wings tired. Yuk! Yuk!"

Chris looked at the dragon strangely.

The dragon folded up the peak register and crammed it back in the metal tube. "Ah, well. Guess that joke doesn't work when you actually have wings."

A loud eagle cry pierced through the air from the skies above them to the northeast. Both Chris and the dragon looked up. A tawny-furred gryphon with white wings was circling fifty feet above them in a holding pattern. It lifted one eagle claw to its beak, and shouted down, "Hey down there! Park yer scaly butt off the runway!"

The dragon grinned. "Hey up there! There's plenty of room! Learn to fly!" he shouted back.

"Learn to fly yourself!" the gryphon shouted back, circling lower and angling for an approach at the summit. "If you'd noticed me in midair I wouldn't have had to follow you all the way here from Half Dome, Dean!"

Chris sat back down. This afternoon was getting weirder by the second.

The gryphon swooped in at the peak, pulling up at the last second, flapping its wings madly, braking to a stop and falling several feet before its rear paws hit the granite. "Boy, I haven't seen you in a while. How's it been?" it said in a high, smooth voice.

Dean twisted the top back onto the peak register, turned, and walked forward, gently bumping his nose against the end of the gryphon's beak in greeting. "Hey, Skyree. Took some time off work. I'm in the middle of a little wilderness adventure. What brings you to Yosemite? I thought you'd settled down near Santa Barbara."

"Wanderlust, I guess," the gryphon replied. She craned her head to one side to stare around the dragon, looking at Chris with fist-sized yellow eyes bisected by black slits. "Well, hello. Have we met?"

Chris waved at her, smiling uneasily. "Uh, no. I just climbed up here. Don't mind me."

Skyree looked at Dean through half-lidded eyes, fluttering her ear-tufts. "Shame on you, Dean. Harassing the climbers again?"

"No, no," the dragon protested with a smirk. "Harassment would be sitting up here while he climbs, and kibitzing. I'm merely keeping him entertained. Oh, and offering him beef jerky." He held the bag out to Chris again. "Sure you don't want some?"

Skyree trilled a bird noise that sounded suspiciously like a laugh. "With some of the experiments you've tried, that's almost harassment in itself."

Chris worked up the bravery to step into the conversation. "Do I want to know?"

Dean turned back to him and waved the bag in front of his face. "It's utterly harmless. I just had a bad incident once where I mixed up the habanero sauce with the barbecue sauce. She still won't let me live that down."

"Ah," Chris said, and cautiously took a piece from the bag, nibbling at its edge. It was definitely beef jerky, a heavy but pleasant smoky flavor, meat surprisingly tender. He stared back and forth between it and the creatures in front of him, still trying to mentally piece everything together.

"Well, since he doesn't seem to be falling down and twitching, I'll take a piece," Skyree said with another flutter of the ear-tufts. "Although I reserve the right to change my mind if the aftertaste gets him."

"Of course, my dear," Dean said, offering her the bag.

"And don't look now, but I think we've got more company," Skyree said, lifting a wing and waving it vaguely to the west. She popped a piece of meat into her mouth. "Mmm. I think this batch gets a passing grade," she said, grabbing a second.

A blue dragon was coasting in toward the summit, riding the wind slightly below the level of the peak. When Dean raised his head to look out at the newcomer, he called out toward the group. "Metal? That you, Metal?"

Dean looked over at Skyree, then back at the blue. "I think you've got the wrong gold," he called back. "But c'mon over." He waved the bag. "Have a piece of beef jerky and say hi."

The blue dragon considered, angling upward to gain some altitude and slow his approach. "Sure," he called. "Gangway."

Chris stared, stunned, as the second dragon circled the peak and glided in to a landing on the increasingly crowded summit. With a strange sense of foreboding, he turned around, scanning the skies. Sure enough -- there was another figure moving across the valley in the peak's general direction, and there, something doing aerobatics ...

As the three mythics chattered animatedly behind him, Chris bent down to pick up the peak register, unscrewing the cap and removing the notebook and the included pencil. He sat down with his back to the stacked rocks of the peak itself and flipped to the page past Dean's scrawled message.

"7/23/97. More crowded than I've ever seen it up here," he wrote with deliberate understatement. "Not often you fight for space with four folks all arriving independently. Definitely not what you expect after a 5.7 solo approach. Beautiful view as always; clear day. Missing the silence, but the dragon's beef jerky is better than expected."

He chewed the end of the pencil and decided that there really wasn't anything else to add. Besides which, Chris thought, he had a sneaking suspicion his entry was going to be far from the weirdest one in there.

EDITOR'S NOTE: The Nov. 19 story was written on time, but I couldn't post it on time due to an Internet connection failure at home. I'm backdating it accordingly. -- Baxil, Nov. 20

           November 19, 2003 ... Shelter ................................ (Permalink)

I'm not so certain the world's going to end any more.

Not yet, anyway. We're still hurtlin' at full speed straight toward the last day ... but this isn't it. I woke up this morning not knowing if the Lord Himself was gonna come thunderin' down from On High and end it all -- but I'm pretty sure now the sun's gonna rise tomorrow.

The Reverend doesn't think so. The Rev's tellin' me to sit tight, pray for salvation nonstop, 'cause it's the last chance we're gonna get. But then, the Rev didn't lose his house to the tornado.

Jim says the Rev was one of the lucky ones. The Rev says God spared him. I hate thinking ill of the Rev, but God has a funny way of choosin' who to spare. Three houses in the neighborhood left standing -- George was making eyes at Luther's wife Betty all Christmas, and guess who the other two chosen folk were?

Jim's tryin' to read too much into that, I think. But that's a common failing these days. One step from Rapture and you read too much into everything. It's hard to know what to think. Most of all when you're crowded in the high school gym out at Rat Hole with two hundred weeping mamas, crying babies, and men looking awful ready for a beer.

It was Wednesday when the storm hit. Maybe that was to be expected -- The Beast showed up the Wednesday before Christmas, and New Year's was a Wednesday. (Maybe that's another reason the world can't end -- The Lord's waiting for another Wednesday. I dunno.) Anyway, I was out on the road back from the refinery, listenin' to the radio. Senator DeWitt getting sidetracked from a discussion on Clinton's executive order into arguing that theris had no human rights, then getting into a shouting match with Rep. Devreaux about it. Suddenly the announcer breaks in with the storm warning. Not much I could do, bein' out on the road. I stayed clear, prayin' Chrissy and the kids would be okay in the basement, then lit out for home as soon as the tornado finished raging through.

Well, you know what I saw. There was enough warning that most folks were unhurt, although the firemen had to do a lot of digging through wreckage to get to some of the basements. Chrissy cut her arm tryin' to dig the jewelry box out from what used to be the bedroom. I tried to pull the quilts she sewed off the bed, but everything was so waterlogged I had to leave 'em and pray that a few days of rain wouldn't wipe 'em out.

There was nothing to do for it, really. They herded us out to Rat Hole. Half our neighbors' cars were wrecked, so I piled Jim and his folks and two dogs in the back of our pickup. It started rainin' again on the way. In between that and the waiting outside the school, we were all soaked by the time we got into the gym. The Red Cross managed to get cots set up by bedtime for the folks like us who couldn't save our sleeping gear, and half of Rat Hole turned out with spare blankets and hot meals. There was a lot of prayin' that night. And a lot of cryin'.

Nobody slept very well. Stragglers kept arriving through the night. Folks that got treated at the hospital up across the state line would show up, bandaged up, if their wounds weren't too bad. Latecomers would drive in from the neighborhood after spending hours tryin' to get what they could out of the wreckage -- me, I figured it could wait until daylight and sunshine. At about 1 a.m. they brought in a group from Creekbed. They looked worse off than we did.

It was a little after breakfast the next mornin' that the wolf-man showed up.

He was wet head to toe, wearing a rain slicker torn in half a dozen places. The Red Cross workers, and two burly firemen, talked to him for a long time. After a while the sheriff showed up, and then they talked even more. Nobody was real sure what was going on up front -- not until word started passing back from the guys at the TV.

The Beast had declared war, they said.

That's when I started wondering if the world was gonna end.

Some folks started heading up front. The mood got a little uglier. I mighta been one of them, but I was too busy taking The Rev's advice at the time. War meant it was time to put your life in order -- only a matter of time 'til the angels showed up and none of it mattered any more.

Jim came over a few minutes later. The sheriff had kept folks from fighting, he said, and the wolf-man had lost his home in the twister. The theri was here for the same reason the rest of us were.

You're kiddin', I told him.

Take a look, Jim said. And that's what changed my mind.

They set a cot up for him in the corner. He sat on it, shivering, talking to the sheriff, as the Red Cross folks dug up a spare blanket. Someone handed him a mug of chicken soup, which he lapped up dog-like. And ... he was crying. The wolf-man lay down to get some rest, just another crying man who walked in with nothing but the torn, soaked clothes on his back.

I went over to watch the TV some -- they were talking about The Beast's statement, about his meeting and his videotape and his thousands of signatures. They had him on one of the talk shows, trying to say he wasn't declarin' anything, wasn't starting any wars, he was just takin' a stand against the government wrecking the life of thousands of people like him.

But in a way, I already knew that. The wolf-man wasn't no soldier. I put in my time, and I know from soldiers; if The Beast was putting together an army, it wasn't gonna be frightened folk losing their homes in tornadoes.

And even if that's his army -- even if all Satan can muster is a handful of frightened sinners -- what kind of crazy war is it where both sides sit in the same cleared-out schoolbuildings and drink the same reheated chicken soup?

Don't get me wrong, I do think The Beast is planning something. I think he's as dangerous as the Rev says. But I also suspect that when the Last Day comes, none of us are gonna know until Saint Peter's knockin' on the doorstep. This ain't gonna be a war of killing in the streets -- not any time in the near future, anyway.

And maybe ... just maybe ...

It just seems so sloppy, I guess. The night before the Final Battle and all God can manage as a final plague is one twister through a North Texas city? Well -- there's the Wednesday thing. That works, I guess. But if this really is the End Times, it's just such a disappointment. The disasters seem so random. You'd think The Lord, if he was pullin' out all the stops, would set everything in order, just to make sure everyone knew. The Bible's so clear, and the world's so messy.

So maybe even this -- even The Beast -- is just more human meddling. More sound and fury here on Earth, with the angels still snoring. I mean, I refuse to believe God would let things go out with a whimper. So there's got to be more to this than we're seeing.

The Rev doesn't think so. The Rev thinks I'm crazy for wanting to clear out my lot and start rebuilding the house.

I wonder what he'd think if I told him I was going to help the wolf-man rebuild his, too.

I mean, just 'cause he's touched by the Mark of the Beast doesn't mean I can't show him some basic human kindness. And maybe ... just maybe ... we're all in this together.

           November 21, 2003 ... Snow cats .............................. (Permalink)

The young buck trotted up to the stand of conifers, then stopped, nose to the wind. It froze and looked around, its attention caught by some sense of wrongness, some hint of danger its nose could only barely catch. All around was a sea of white. Snow piled on the ground in two-foot-high drifts, choked tree branches and bushes, and obscured vision more than a few hundred feet away as fallout from a light storm whispered to the ground.

It swiveled its head to look upslope; downslope; left and right through the trees. Nothing. It loped over to the young red fir, tearing off a mouthful of short, broad needles and beginning to chew.

Behind its antlered head, a striped arm slowly extended, holding a pistol in a ready grip, finger resting alongside the trigger guard.

The arm poked the muzzle of the gun into the back of the deer's neck. "Bang," its owner said, in a deep, smooth voice.

The deer leapt awkwardly off to one side, then whirled, stumbled, and bounded downhill, terrified legs kicking up a cloud of fresh snow every time it landed and pushed off again.

The furred arm, orange and black, retracted toward the white, hooded cloak its owner was wearing. The figure pushed back its hood, becoming a strange disembodied head floating in the sea of white -- a tiger's head, broad, eyes widely set, his blunt muzzle pointed at the retreating animal. He snorted, sending a puff of steam writhing out to melt away in the white skies.

"Stupid deer," he said, tone smooth and detached. He looked down, checked the safety on the pistol, and slung it back in his shoulder holster. "It stumbles through life blindly, only seeing what it's used to, and spends its time scrounging for scraps and running away from shadows. What a perfect metaphor for human society. Stupid, blind deer."

A second figure, invisible in a similar white cloak, pushed back its hood, revealing a tiger face that seemed almost an exact duplicate of the other's. "Stupid, blind deer with nuclear bombs," he said, in a voice that was equally deep but more gravelly. He paused thoughtfully. "Look, Shadow, I agree with you about moving the base. But out here? Into this stuff?"

"You seem far too concerned about that, Hessus," the first tiger said. "Eight mages. And it's only weather."

"You live in the snow and everything gets wet and frozen," Hessus rumbled in protest. "And where would we store the supplies? The guns? Not back at the house -- I thought that was the entire point of the move."

"I'll say it again," Shadow emphasized, waving his hand in a circle and pulling a topographic map from midair near the center. "Eight mages. Survival is not going to be an issue. And let your golden boy handle the logistics -- that's what you got him for, isn't it?"

"I'm not saying we can't do it," Hessus replied, stepping toward the fir tree with uneven paces. "I'm saying that weather this harsh doesn't leave room for error. If we wait until spring, it'll be a lot less of a shock to everyone. We'll be able to focus more on training and less on survival."

"Survival is training," Shadow said. "And, face it, Jag and Bella and your new guy especially would benefit from harsher living. They don't have that edge we need. I won't fault your magical training, but you need to push their other limits more. We need people that won't break."

Hessus stared into the stand of trees, then sighed and limped away. "It does mean isolation. It does mean teaching self-reliance. I know. I'm not disagreeing."

Shadow looked down at Hessus' cloaked figure, a note of concern briefly crossing his features. "I thought I saw you favoring that. Is that leg still not healing?"

Hessus grimaced. "I wish I understood it. Don't blame me. Blame my father."

Shadow looked away, frowning -- then looked back at Hessus, and was all business again. "Not to mention that the house is awfully crowded with eight. If you want anyone else to join us we'd have a hard time expanding. Out here, you just add another sleeping bag to the end of the row."

"I promise you, Shadow," Hessus said firmly, "I agree with this move. I just question whether now is the time."

"And I just question whether you're taking enough chances. Good leadership means getting everyone to perform up to their potential."

"Good leadership means not taking unnecessary risks."

Shadow stared wordlessly at Hessus, then turned downhill. "You're the boss," he said evenly.

Hessus sighed. "And good leadership means knowing when to take good advice. Let's teleport back, get Mars and see what he says on some of the logistical issues. And maybe I can spend a night out here to see what it's like. I've never slept in the snow before. I don't think any of us have."

Shadow snapped his fingers. The snow around his paws suddenly vanished with a voosh and rush of steam. "I think the trick is to not have to," he said drily.

           November 22, 2003 ... [News] Lottery winner ................... (Permalink)

News of the Offbeat
January 28, 1997

OXNARD -- After a month of persistence and patience, hundreds of tickets, and several thousand dollars' worth of magical assistance, Devon Diaz's work paid off as a set of his numbers hit California's $7 million Super Lotto jackpot.

There was only one problem: The ticket wasn't his.

Diaz, 37, said he was telling his ex-wife Maria Reynoldo, 39, about his sure-fire lottery system when she challenged him to prove it.

"She told me to magic her up a set of picks, and she'd choose a set at random, and she'd buy two tickets and see which one did better," Diaz said.

After Saturday's draw, Reynoldo discovered that she held the sole winning ticket -- the one with Diaz' numbers. Those matching picks beat out her random ticket, Diaz' own six tickets, and approximately 6,500,000 others throughout the state.

Being right was small consolation to Diaz. Their divorce became final shortly after New Year's, and Reynoldo says she doesn't plan to share the winnings with her ex-husband.

"I'm trying to take this philosophically," Diaz said. "The good news is that I know that this magic works. The bad news is that I have a greater need to learn a lesson from this than I have a need for the money."

And why didn't Diaz buy a ticket of his own with those numbers so they could have ended up splitting the winnings?

"It's bad luck to use the same set twice," Diaz explained. "I'd already generated my numbers for the week, so I had to do a clean reading for her."

California Lottery Commissioner Jeffrey Rand was a little more dubious about the idea of magic playing a role.

"Magic has not changed the rules of the game," Rand said. "We have millions of players every week. We rigorously ensure that all of those millions of players have a fair and equal chance to walk away with the big prize, and that there is no number-picking method -- magical or otherwise -- that lets you 'game the system.'"

Reynoldo, who chose the lump-sum payment option, says she will be moving from her single-bedroom apartment into a condominium and cutting down to 40 hours a week at her U.S. Postal Service job.

And Diaz?

"I'm giving the number-picking divination tools I bought one more chance," he said. "I'm not going to ask for a jackpot this time -- just enough to cover everything I've spent."

           November 23, 2003 ... Waiting room ........................... (Permalink)

"Can I help you?" the nurse on duty asked.

Swiftpaw held up his left hand, wrapped in a bloody paper towel folded into a strip. "I stepped on a nail."

The nurse looked up at him strangely for a second, then her eyes widened. "You ... stepped ...?"

Swiftpaw cut her off. "Yes. Puncture wound."

The nurse, a small woman with expansive hair, shrank back slightly, glancing around the emergency room's waiting area. Swiftpaw waited, in quiet but irritated patience. She blushed slightly and glanced down at her desk, recapturing her professionalism. "Well, uh, fill out the form and we'll get you looked at ... um. Can you write?"

"I'm right-handed."

"Okay, good," she said, extending a clipboard tentatively, then handing him a pen -- holding it by the very tip and waving it in his direction, hoping to give it to him without direct contact.

Swiftpaw glanced down at the forms. It started with "Name." Of course. He sighed and wrote down the one he'd been given at birth, then his parents' address back in San Francisco, the Social Security number he never thought he'd have to use again, the other relics of a life not quite left behind. He scribbled his signature at the bottom, pushed the form across the desk, and turned, trudging over to one of the chairs against the near wall.

He looked around the waiting room. It seemed like everyone else had either not noticed or was politely ignoring the exchange. A pair of parents were holding their crying chubby-faced five-year-old girl. An thin elderly man with loose skin was sitting across from Swiftpaw, his persistent cough breaking the silence in an odd rhythm. Two skinny women, a mother and daughter, were in one corner, the teenager wrapped in a blanket, staring through silver-rimmed glasses at the wall. A mother and grandmother sat on either side of a three-year-old boy, dressed in a bright yellow sweater, nothing seeming visibly wrong. A white-bearded man in a fedora, plaid flannel shirt, and dirty-kneed jeans read a magazine.

"You want something to drink?" the crying girl's mother asked her child, who nodded. "You can't drink if you're crying. What do you want? Sprite, or something like that?"

The child swallowed and sniffled. "Sprite."

"Okay," the mother said, and walked off toward the vending machine. The father held the girl comfortingly.

"Douglas?" the nurse called. The elderly man stood up, coughed loudly, and shuffled away. The mother returned with a can of soda.

Swiftpaw glanced down. Old Smithsonians and Sunsets, and a Newsweek with the cover half torn off, lay scattered on the table next to him. He sighed and settled back in the chair, staring out into space in that waiting-room way, inwardly simmering. Dumb nail. Stupid abandoned half-built treehouse, up the hill from the subdivision down the street. Stupid jerk kids who built it, thinking they owned the world, that it didn't matter that they left supplies scattered around because there was nobody there to tell them no. They'd probably grow up to become the litterers that threw cigarettes out of car windows and left soda cans alongside hiking trails.

He looked down at his hand, pulling back the makeshift bandage. The nail had gone clean through. Shifting back to human form had stabilized the wound and basically stopped the bleeding, but it still hurt like anything. And he couldn't shake the memory of his parents, when he was a kid, telling him stories of his great-uncle who had stepped on a nail and been laid up in bed for two weeks, muscles frozen and spasming, hovering at the brink of death. Swiftpaw wasn't going to take that chance, especially not when he was hoping to live up in the hills, away from any real access to medical care.

"Honey, you want to sit in your own seat?" the mother asked the sniffling girl.

"No," she said, clinging to her father while sitting on his lap.

"You still cold?"

The little girl mumbled something incoherent. She looked down at her hand and started to cry again. The father offered her a sip of Sprite, holding the can to her lips.

"It's alright, sweetie," the mom said. "The nurse said she was going to get the stuff that you put on and it makes you feel better, okay?"

The little girl bawled. "I don't care if it still hurts."

"You don't care if it still hurts," the mother chuckled, glancing over at her husband to share the joke. "Well, just don't touch it."

"I'm scared," the little girl sobbed.

Swiftpaw shifted around in his seat, curiosity overcoming him. "What happened to your daughter?" he asked the parents.

The mother looked up at him. "She was playing with a new friend. I guess a fishhook was stuck to the back of the friend's dress. She spun around, and it just caught ..." She gestured to the girl's hand; Swiftpaw craned his neck to look over, and a flash of metal caught his eye. He winced.

"I thought it was a safety pin at first," the mother continued. "I was trying to pull it out, and she was hollering, of course, and it was caught to the other girl's dress ... we had to cut it off the dress. I guess we owe her a new dress when we get out of here, huh?" she asked the child.

The teenager's mother jumped into the conversation from across the room. "That's rough. The same thing happened to me when I was a kid. I remember it was really traumatic, but I'm probably remembering it as worse than it was."

The odd camaraderie put Swiftpaw at ease somewhat, and he held up his own hand, showing off the red-blotched paper towel. "I'm here for something similar. I stepped on a nail."

The teen's mother winced. "Ow. Makes me glad she's just here for a sinus infection," she said, gesturing toward her blanket-wrapped daughter.

"See? There's lots of people here that don't feel good, huh?" the girl's mom said to her daughter comfortingly.

A nurse walked in -- not the one at the desk -- carrying what looked like a syringe. She made a beeline for the crying girl. "I'm sorry this is taking so long," she apologized to the parents. "We're swamped today."

"What's that?" the girl asked.

The nurse showed her the syringe. "This is cold. It'll make your finger go to sleep. It's not a shot, it's just jelly."

The girl wailed as the nurse moved the syringe in. Swiftpaw looked away. "You guys will have to hold it there," the nurse said.

"It's cold!" the girl blubbered.

"It is cold," the nurse said. "It's a good thing." She looked back at the parents. "That's only going to last about eight to ten minutes. Here. If feeling starts to return, go ahead and spread some more on. We're working to bring her in as quick as we can."

Then it was back to the staring at the walls and the periodic, repetitive comforting noises from the fishhook-snared girl's parents.

Swiftpaw looked down at his hand again and sighed. He was starting to have second thoughts about this emergency room visit ... he was going to be sitting there a while, as swamped as the nurse had said they were. But if he just walked out, where was he going to get a tetanus shot? Maybe he could track down a mage, one of the ones he'd met at The Meeting ... but could magic even prevent that sort of stuff? He wasn't sure he wanted to trust his health to anything he understood so poorly.

"Excuse me," the teenager's mother said, leaning toward Swiftpaw and interrupting his train of thought. "I couldn't help but notice ... you said you stepped on a nail?"

"Yeah," he grunted.

"... With your hand?"

Swiftpaw held up his left hand and smiled. The awkwardness with the admitting nurse aside, he usually enjoyed the perverse pleasure in seeing people's reactions to his therianthropy. "With my paw."

"Oh," the lady said, a bit surprised but not terribly thrown. Not bad, Swiftpaw thought. Maybe she already knew some other theris -- or maybe it just wasn't fully sinking in, since he was back in his human form.

"How'd it happen?" she asked, making conversation.

Swiftpaw shrugged. "I was walking around out in the hills. Some kids half-built a treehouse out there. I walked over for a closer look, and boom."

"Oh," she said. More waiting.

"Have you been a, um," the teenager's mom broke the silence again. "Have you been a theri long?"

"Since the beginning," Swiftpaw said. "But it's pretty rough out there in the snow, so it's only the last few weeks I've really started to go out there and explore."

"Is this the first time you've had something like this happen?" she asked after another lengthy pause. "It must be pretty hard, being a theri."

"I make do," Swiftpaw said, not really wanting to make small talk. "First nail through the paw, that's for sure."

"You're probably going to want to get a tetanus shot for that."

"That's what I'm in here for, yes."

"Although ... I don't know. Would tetanus even infect theris?"

Swiftpaw shrugged. "I don't know. I don't feel like taking that chance."

"That's smart," the woman agreed, then lapsed back into silence.

Swiftpaw sighed and flipped open one of the magazines at random. The Newsweek article was some random blathering on about Whitewater and said something about evidence that the Clintons were involved in some sort of real estate scandal. He tossed it back and grabbed a second magazine; it had an article about Ben Franklin's life during America's War of Independence. That caught his attention for several minutes.

"Just think of the stories we can tell at Easter brunch," the girl's mother said to her child. "You've had it in for almost an hour and a half now."

"When are they going to be here?" the little girl asked, sniffling but again reasonably calm.

"They'll be here any minute -- they have to take care of a lot of people. There are a lot of people who are sick," the mom said.

As if on cue, the nurse who had brought the Novocaine gel out earlier poked her head around the corner of the doorway. "Jenna?" she called.

"Okay, come on, let's go," the girl's mother said, getting to her feet and helping her down from her father's lap, triggering a fresh round of tears. "Come on, come on." Jenna's wails echoed out into the hallway and the staging area beyond.

Swiftpaw put the magazine down and glanced at the clock. He blinked. Four o'clock already? It was going to be a long afternoon.

At least the waiting room was silent, he thought, now that the coughing man and the crying girl were gone.

The clock ticked off an agonizingly slow minute, everyone sitting stock-still, staring out into space in their own little pit of malaise.

He looked down at his hand, then around at the other dead-eyed visitors, and wondered in hindsight whether that silence was, in fact, a good thing.

           November 24, 2003 ... [News] Duck amuck ...................... (Permalink)

News of the Offbeat
January 24, 1997

LOS ANGELES -- A humanoid duck walks into a bar, orders a round of beer, and tells the bartender "Put it on my bill."

It sounds like the punchline to a joke, but bar owner Ivan Deshid wasn't laughing. And despite the duck therianthrope's insistence that it was a practical joke gone awry, those ruffled feathers have led to a misdemeanor petty theft arrest.

It started when Xander Drake, 22, walked into Deshid's Ninth Street Tavern at about 4 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, according to police reports. He quacked a few jokes and asked Deshid, who was bartending at the time, to pour one for all the regulars.

After finishing his own drink, police reports state, Drake got up to leave. Deshid reminded Drake of the tab for the six drinks. It was then that Drake allegedly uttered his quip and flew the coop.

Deshid cried fowl and called police, who caught up with the theri at a nearby restaurant -- eating lunch with several unidentified friends -- and detained him for questioning. He was ultimately arrested on one charge of petty theft and released on his own recognizance.

Drake insists that the situation isn't all it's quacked up to be.

"I did it in the spirit of performance art," he told the Los Angeles Times. "It was never my intention to leave with the tab unpaid. I stuck a 20-dollar bill under my empty glass before I left. I guess [Deshid] didn't see it."

Deshid acknowledges that an hour after the incident, he found $20 under one of the empty glasses on the bar, but that "by the time I found it, it was impossible for me to tell who put it there."

Nevertheless, he's asked the authorities to drop charges. "I did get my money," Deshid said. "I don't want to blow this out of proportion."

Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Ted Petweiler couldn't confirm that the petty theft charge would be dropped, but said that in such minor cases, typically the victim's requests are honored.

"Every case is unique," Petweiler said. "Our office has a policy to carefully review every file to make certain that justice is served. But the victim's recommendation carries a lot of weight."

Drake -- an art student at University of California, Los Angeles, who has "always been drawn to ducks" due in part to his last name, and who changed into a therianthrope a week and a half after the first dragon sighting -- now finds himself walking on eggshells.

"This has been a big hassle for what was meant to be a way to spread some good humor," the theri said. "I'm not going to do it again."

Perhaps, but he'll still have a heck of a tail to tell.

           November 25, 2003 ... [News] Ad battle ....................... (Permalink)

Around the State
March 5, 1997

SAN FRANCISCO -- Only one week after a local therianthrope activist's death, a new ad from the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals depicting a dead minotaur has stirred up loud outrage among San Francisco's theri community.

The ad, which one theri group calls "utterly inappropriate and frankly appalling," is the first in a new series of PETA ads touting vegetarianism as a moral imperative. It depicts a freezer filled with slabs of beef hanging from meat hooks, and in the center, an unclothed, frozen minotaur hanging limply among them. "Now that the lines between animal and human have blurred," the ad caption reads, "how can we continue to slaughter our fellow travellers?"

The ad has touched a raw nerve among the tightly-knit theri community here, many of whom lost a friend and mentor when minotaur Russell "Ember" Hill, 28, died after being struck by a car on the night of Feb. 26. The minotaur in the ad appears to resemble Hill.

"Ember meant so much to all of us," said a humanoid ferret who identified himself as Frekk, a resident of the Castro district apartment building in which Hill lived. "The ad would be inappropriate at any time but it's especially painful right now as we grieve his loss."

Theris Together United, a Bay Area theri-rights group in which Hill worked as logistical coordinator, issued a statement strongly condemning the ad.

"This utterly inappropriate and frankly appalling ad seeks to capitalize on the death of our beloved friend in order to further a cause of questionable importance," spokesman Erik "Typhoon" Waisal said. "Shame on PETA for letting their greed for publicity get the better of their sanity."

The California chapter of PETA, however, called the similarity between Hill and the ad's minotaur "an unfortunate coincidence" and insisted that no offense was intended.

"Our hearts go out to the theris who lost a friend in Mr. Hill," PETA spokeswoman Ellen Dunlop said. "Production on the ad finished in mid-February, and we certainly did not anticipate the tragedy that occurred."

Asked whether they could have delayed the ad due to Hill's death, Dunlop said "it's also important to keep in mind that millions of similar tragedies occur every day across the United States to voiceless animals with no friends to speak up for them. If anything, this reminds us of the importance of the struggle for animal rights."

Hill's mother Lisa Hill, 49, said that her son was a vegetarian but didn't know whether he would have supported PETA's campaign. She declined to be further interviewed for this story.

Frekk doubted that Hill would have approved of PETA's ad.

"Ember was only incidentally a vegetarian. He was passionate about theri rights. His life revolved around theri rights," Frekk said. "If he was alive, I think he'd have some big questions about how the ad cheapens our lives by equating theris to feed animals."

Dunlop said that stance was misinterpreting the purpose of the ad.

"Far from saying that theri lives are worthless, we're trying to say that all life is valuable. Mr. Hill's death was a tragedy and crime, and so is every unnecessary slaughterhouse death," Dunlop said.

Attempts to track down and speak to the minotaur who posed in the PETA ad were unsuccessful. Dunlop refused to divulge the model's name, citing confidentiality concerns, but did confirm that it was not Hill himself.

Meanwhile, authorities continue to probe Hill's death.

San Francisco Police Capt. Tony Malloy says an investigation is continuing into whether the automobile collision that killed Hill was deliberate or accidental. One witness on the scene said that the car swerved toward Hill at the last moment, driving over the curb and striking him on the sidewalk, preliminary police reports state. A second witness said that the car was weaving as it drove down the block toward Hill, possibly indicating a drunk driver.

The car that hit Hill, a blue Ford Taurus with a sunroof and California plates, drove away from the scene before authorities arrived. Police are asking for the public's help in locating the hit-and-run driver.

To report tips, call the police department at (510) 555-1403. A $5,000 reward has been offered for information leading to the driver's apprehension.

           November 26, 2003 ... [News] Rock invitation ................. (Permalink)

News of the Offbeat
December 22, 1996

LOS ANGELES -- With so many kids getting gifts each year, does Santa Claus really check his "naughty or nice" list for everyone?

The world may never know, but one thing's for certain: The "Antichrist Superstar" didn't get his Christmas present this year.

Shock rocker Marilyn Manson issued an invitation Saturday asking dragon Dennis Redwing, the star of the now-infamous Dec. 18 tape, to join Manson onstage for his hastily organized "Antichristmas" concert. Earlier today, through a spokesman, Redwing refused.

"We're not interested," said Elf Warren, Redwing's media secretary, who explained simply that Redwing had "other plans."

The musician said he was undeterred.

"December 25 will be a day of celebration for the new age in which we find ourselves, in which the money cults that masquerade as religions will be exposed for the mockeries they are," Manson said in a subsequent press release. "Whether or not The Beast is at the concert, he will be with us in spirit, laughing at the irony of those damned by their own blind subservience."

Some say that the entire invitation smells of a cooked-up publicity stunt, though.

"Marilyn Manson's entire gimmick is to dig for Christian outrage. Why would he pass a chance like this up? But I wish he'd leave therianthropes out of it," said Eyelli, a self-described witch from Los Angeles who on Thursday turned into a furred, rodent-featured humanoid and on Friday night was observed aiding Redwing in combating the Los Angeles riots. Many of the changed beings have taken to using the term "therianthrope," from the Greek roots meaning "beast person," to describe themselves.

"I come from an old pagan tradition. I have nothing against Christianity. I don't believe in 'Satan' and I'm not anti-'God'," Eyelli added. "It's unfortunate that (Manson) seems to want to convince people that theris want to destroy Christianity. That's absolutely not the case."

Manson, who is known for his violent lyrics attacking Christianity and recognizable by his corpse-like makeup, is no stranger to such controversy. He released his third album, "Antichrist Superstar," in October, one more step in a career that has included rumors of onstage sex, advocacy of drug use and Satanic rituals.

Redwing, who has come across in this weekend's TV interviews as a deliberate, thoughtful dragon with easygoing charisma, seems an unlikely match for the ghoulish, pull-no-punches Manson. One expert suggests Manson was trying to build his anti-Christian credentials through an alliance with a creature identified with Satan in the Bible.

"In Revelation, dragons are associated with the Antichrist during the Earth's end times," said University of California, Los Angeles, religious studies professor Deirdre McAdams. "It's only natural that a professed Satanist like Marilyn Manson would be interested. That this particular dragon appears to have been the first sighting after Earth's rules changed is only icing on the cake."

           November 27, 2003 ... Thanksgiving ........................... (Permalink)

(We interrupt BaMoTTuSto -- which doesn't have Thursday updates, anyway -- for this brief, nonfiction holiday post. -- B.)

"Thea, do you feel like your life is complete now that we're together again?" I asked her. I couldn't help it. She just looked so perfectly content. And I knew just how much time she'd spent searching for me as if it was the only thing that mattered.

She smiled and brushed her cheek against mine. "My life's not complete, but I have what I want," she answered.

... She does. I do. That's all there is to it, really.

It can be hard to remember that after a season of loss ... but I really am where I want to be. And I'm thankful both for everyone dear to me now, reminding me that I've found that sense of equilibrium again; and for the people coming into my life, renewing my hope that I can also steer my future to where I want it to be.

A happy holiday to you all.

(We now return you to your regularly scheduled TTU stories.)

           November 28, 2003 ... Grudge ................................. (Permalink)

Gerrold angrily stabbed the speed-dial button again, his answering machine squawking in the background. "Come on. Come on! Pick up!" he muttered. After two rings, it did.

"David Lynch, attorney at --"

"Dave! What in the hell is going on?"

"Gerrold," the lawyer said, sounding at once both relieved and unsettled. "You got my message?"

"I get home and the first four messages on the answering machine -- one's from the Messenger, one's from the Paducah Sun, one's from the Louisville Courier-Journal, and one's from the sheriff! He says there's nothing to worry about, there's just some paperwork to take care of, just drop by his office at my convenience! What the hell has that bastard Tom done this time?"

"You didn't listen to my message yet?"

"No, Dave. I'm so mad I can barely see straight. I'm too old for this shit."

"It's alright, Ger --" The lawyer stopped himself. "Okay. Okay. Just calm down. I'm on top of things. I've got a little bad news but --"

"A little bad news!" Gerrold roared. "He's been after my seat for two months and even at your rates he's cost me $4,000! What the hell's a 'little' bad news? Did he finally go over the edge and shoot my wife?"

"Gerrold, please calm down --"

"I wish the bastard did, then at least I'd be able to land his ass in jail and be rid of him." Gerrold rubbed his aching temple -- all this fuss was giving him a migraine, he was sure of it -- and took a deep breath. "Okay. I'm calm. What did he do?"

"Alright, well ..." David began, paused, and decided to jump straight into the deep end. "He got a preliminary injunction declaring you legally unfit for the McLean County School Board seat."

"Wha!" Gerrold sputtered. David raised his voice and talked rapid-fire over him. "I've already filed for a stay, that's the important thing. He must have gotten the judge on his side, there's no other way, the suit was so obviously frivolous, so I'm going straight for a dismissal from the Kentucky Court of Appeals, I just want a stay on the injunction and there's nothing Tom can do to stop one. That way you keep your seat until this damn thing's thrown out."

Gerrold stood speechless through the monologue. "Dave?" he finally asked. "We went through this in November and he got shot down hard. How in blazes did Tom get me declared unfit now?"

David halted, uncomfortably. "You didn't get my message?"

"I already told you, no."

"You're not going to believe this," David said.

"Nothing would surprise me any more."

"His suit claims ..." David laughed helplessly. "That there's an implicit requirement of being human to hold a School Board seat. And that you're a therianthrope."

"I'm a ..." Gerrold started, then burst out laughing himself. "You're kidding. He says I'm like that Redwing guy? He says I'm a dragon?"

"A werewolf, to be specific. I just got a copy of his complaint ten minutes ago, but it looks like he's claiming missing poultry from his property, evidence of wolf tracks, sightings of a wolf near your house, and that you've got a motive to cause him financial distress."

"Whoo! That's absolutely nuts," Gerrold said with a chuckle. "This would be hilarious if it wasn't Tom doing it to me. No wonder the newspapers are calling. Damn! That boy's really outdone himself this time."

David laughed too, glad to have the tension broken. "That's probably why Pat called you, too. I just noticed the police report Tom filed as a supplement to his suit. Knowing the history here, and knowing Pat, he probably just wants to have a good laugh over it with you."

"Yeah," Gerrold said. "I'll drop by the sheriff's in the morning." He paused, and sobered. "Give it to me straight, Dave. How much time you going to have to put in on this?"

David sighed. "Depending on how quick it gets laughed out of the Court of Appeals? Another fifteen, thirty hours."

Gerrold scowled. "Jesus. Here we go again. If I'd known that winning by one vote was going to lead to this I'd have voted for the bastard myself."

"I'm sorry, Gerrold," David said. "I know how much of a hassle this is. I've already cut you a deal that barely pays my bills --"

"It's not your fault."

"I know. And the guy is a bastard. I don't know how anyone in the county takes him seriously any more," David grumbled, "especially the judge."

"This is really starting to cut into my retirement fund," Gerrold said numbly. "Isn't there something we can do? Countersue? ... Hey, isn't that slander what he said?"

"Libel, actually," David said. "It's a written court document. I ... wasn't going to suggest it, but --"

"Why not?" Gerrold challenged. "He can't go around making ludicrous claims like that. And he's damn well cost me enough."

"Well, libel has to be defamatory -- check; he says you're not fit for a public office. He may argue that you're a public figure, which means you have to prove actual malice -- that's for the jury to decide, but I could build a strong case there given the other four suits we've gotten tossed. It's just ..." David trailed off.

"Just ...?"

"Gerrold, you know and I know this is absolute bullshit. But the suit has signed affidavits from two of Tom's cronies about the wolf sightings. If a libel case goes to the jury -- he can argue that it's not libel because it's true. And then he's got witnesses, crooked as they are, and circumstantial evidence, as cooked-up as it is ... and how the hell do we prove you're not a werewolf?"

"But I can just say -- " Gerrold protested. "Oh. Uh ... Aren't there blood tests or something?"

"Not that I've seen," David said grimly. "Look at Clinton's executive order yesterday. You think if there was any way to tell human theris from human humans that he'd have to basically put it on the honor system and say please?"

"Nah, I guess not," Gerrold admitted.

"So it's bad evidence versus no evidence. The reality of the matter is, there's so little to be said, it all comes down to what the jury thinks of you and him. Given the vote in the School Board race, you'd be throwing thousands of dollars after a coin flip -- and that's not even counting his appeals, which go to the state, which is even more of a wild card, and by then of course you're looking at maybe October before a final verdict is in. And then maybe you get all your fees paid for, and maybe you're out three times what you've paid up until now. Hell -- a libel case on therianthropy? Maybe this is something the Supreme Court would even want to look at. And let's not even get into the costs if Tom goes there. Gerrold, suing the bastard back means upping the ante ... maybe that's just not worth it."

Gerrold sighed. "Yeah. Geez. Damn, Dave. If it weren't for the principle of the thing I'd just cut my damn losses here. I ain't going to let him get away with calling me a werewolf, though. I can't."

"I don't know what to tell you, Gerrold, except that I can get this case chucked like I did the last four."

"Maybe if I accuse him of being a werewolf back?"

David paused. "As your attorney I'd advise you against it. It's upping the ante again. But that way it puts the decision of whether to sue for libel right in his lap."

Gerrold sighed again. "Yeah."

"Keep your chin up. There must be something. I'll comb through his paperwork off the clock tonight."

"Alright. Geez. Well ... keep me informed."

"Will do, Gerrold. 'Night."


Gerrold thumbed the phone off and paced through his living room, staring out into space, for several minutes. Finally, he grabbed the pad of paper on which he'd taken notes on the phone messages, dialed a number, and waited.

"Hello," he said into the phone. "Courier-Journal? ... Yeah. This is Gerrold McElroy, returning your reporter's call. Yeah. Hi. ... Yeah. Well, to answer that, let me tell you a story. It begins with a single vote ..."

           November 29, 2003 ... Opening night .......................... (Permalink)

Roy adjusted his tie and peered past the edge of the curtain. "James, are you sure about this?"

James smiled, loosening his belt so that he could adjust the pants to stop pulling at his tail. "Roy, you know me. I wouldn't be an actor if I didn't have a keenly developed flair for the dramatic. And what possible better time would there be?"

Roy looked back and smiled wryly. "I can't deny it's dramatic. But ... well, I'm just glad you at least did your changing bit before dress rehearsal last night, gave us all at least that much time. This all still seems so weird."

"I'm keenly aware of that," James replied with a lot more calm than he felt, re-cinching his belt and fumbling for his dress shirt's left sleeve button -- which had come undone again -- with sharp claws, trying not to rip the fabric or sever the button. "My tie straight?"

Roy snickered. "Do you think one person out in that audience is even going to notice that?"

"I will," James pointed out, "and I don't want it to make me flub a line. I'm already a bundle of nerves."

"Point. It looks fine. Here, let me get that," Roy said, grabbing James' sleeve. "You think it's true, the mayor will be in the audience?"

"That's Allen Greer's mom," James said, feeling an itch in his muzzle, and looking down to see his whiskers on one side twitching. He scratched it with his free hand, digging his claws through the short, thick fur. "Remember, Tina said he was grumbling because he said his mom was going to drag him along."

Roy threaded the button into place and stepped back, looking up and down James' body. "You're set. ... I still can't believe you're really an acro-fox, though."

"Anthro-fox," James corrected. "Anthro. Two-legged. Humanlike."

"Whatever," Roy said, rolling his eyes. "I mean, all this time, all that talking you've done with all those weirdoes on the computer. All your obsessing over foxes. And it actually amounts to something. That's even spookier than the dragon yesterday, you know? That a bunch of random freaks you talk with on Compuserve really do have the secrets of the universe figured out. Like you got in on the grand floor of some global conspiracy."

James held a furred hand up, turning his head sideways and trying to angle an eye up to the edge of the curtain without his muzzle getting in the way. "Sssh. I think they're coming up on my cue."

"Whoo, boy," Roy said. "Then I need to head back to the light panel." He snickered again. "You want a big spotlight on your dramatic entrance?"

"I think I can carry my entrance on my own," James said understatedly, baring his teeth in a grin.

Roy paused on his way out the stage's side door. "Your parents are going to absolutely kill you."

"They'll have all performance to get used to it."

"Maybe they'll kill you anyway, on general principle," Roy suggested. "Or just maim. Or shred. I hear mauling's coming back into fashion."

James couldn't hold back a chuckle. "Oh, stop it. I've got to be able to deadpan these first lines."

Roy smirked. "Break a paw, fox-man."

James gave his friend a thumb up, then turned, taking a deep breath, and stole one last look out into the audience. About two hundred kids, teachers, random people -- and parents. Somewhere out there were his. And the mayor. And the newspaper reporter he'd spotted in the lobby.

Six weeks of concentrated rehearsals -- he knew his lines cold. But those first-night jitters never went away until you settled into your persona out on the stage. Until you caught everyone up in your act, drew out enraptured silence, drew out laughter. Then the jitters were still there, of course, but the rush of audience energy charged you up, lit the fires of your afterburners to send you rocketing through the show until the exuberance burned off in the rush of handshakes after it was over.

His newly sharpened hearing caught his entrance cue easily -- from back here it was usually a bit muffled, with the other actors projecting out away from him into the cavernous auditorium. His whiskers quivered in anticipation. He tried not to think about just how many people he'd be coming out of the closet to as a fox-morph.

One thing was for sure -- this would be the oddest "Odd Couple" the world had ever seen.

James took a deep breath and strode out proudly into the lights.

EDITOR'S NOTE, Dec. 1: I am on a three-day trip to Southern California. BaMoTTuSto's final story was written the night of the 30th. It's saved on my laptop. I have been able to briefly get net access; I cannot, however, seem to get the Ethernet card on the darn thing to work, so I'm using another computer to log on. I have no easy way to get the story online until my return, when I can get my machine back on a wireless network.
The story will be retroactively posted on the night of Tuesday, Dec. 2. Until then, please enjoy the other stories that I have written this month, all 25 of them. A list of stories is available here.
Sorry for the inconvenience. -- Baxil

(UPDATE, Dec. 2: Here you go. -- Baxil)

           November 30, 2003 ... Hiss and Purr .......................... (Permalink)

"Well, this is it," the bearded man said with a smile of relief, sitting down at the center of the table on the raised platform. "Somehow we've made it through the weekend. Hi, folks. If you don't know me, I'm Mike Snowfoot, convention chairman, and I'd like to welcome you all to the last panel of Furconium 1997, 'Hiss and Purr,' where you, the attendees, tell us how we did and what we can improve for next year.

"Before I start taking comments -- and I see some hands up already; I know there are some hot issues, and I'll get to that in a second -- let me introduce some other members of the convention staff, the fine people who made this all possible. Starting with my vice-chair, Toraneko." Mike gestured to the slightly built, dark-haired woman at his left; she waved and smiled. "Metal," and Mike gestured to his right at a lanky, tanned college kid, "was our information director, in charge of publications, the at-con newsletter, the info desk, and the computer lounge.

"Palu," Mike said as he pointed to the young woman past Metal, who was wearing a headband with fake fox ears, "headed our Programming Division. She organized and scheduled the panels and coordinated the con's major events. Typhoon," he said, pointing the other direction at a slightly chubby, earnest-looking humanoid reptile wearing mirrored glasses, "went above and beyond the call of duty as our hotel liaison, and frankly it's due to his superhuman efforts that we're holding this convention at all." Mike paused briefly and began clapping; the audience joined in. Typhoon looked down at the table, acknowledging the attention with a dip of his aquamarine-colored head.

Mike let the applause die down and pointed past the therianthrope at a short, wiry man with a manic grin, who was fidgeting in his chair restlessly. "Then there's Skips," Mike said with a grin, "who would have been born a ferret if the universe had any sense. He was our registration director."

"Don't forget that memberships for Furconium '98 are available at the registration desk," Skips called out to the audience, cutting in. "Only $25 if you pre-register before the con officially ends."

"Thanks, Skips," Mike said, and gestured to the far end of the table at his right, where a heavyset woman sat, fingers playing restlessly with a cane. "And Sasha was our Gofer Mom, responsible for herding our small army of volunteers. We're missing a few of our other top staffers just at the moment -- Dealer's Room was having a little trouble at shutdown -- but remind me to introduce them as they arrive."

Mike looked around the room at the audience. "I'm not sure whether to be glad the room is so full this year, or not," he admitted wryly. "I know attendance is down, so that must mean a lot more of you have things to say. I guess the thing to do is open up the floor."

In addition to the dozen hands and paws that had been in the air since the beginning of his speech, Mike saw over half the room -- fifty or more -- raise their hands almost simultaneously. He winced.

"Okay ... tell you what. Let's not jump into the deep end just yet. Does anyone out there have praise or criticism that is not related in any way to our theri policies?" Mike asked. Most of the hands went down. "... Or the media policy?" All hands, except for a few stragglers, reluctantly lowered.

"Okay, great. We'll get back to the rest of you in a bit. You, sir?"

A raven-haired, moustached man stood up. "Thanks. First of all, I know it must have been a struggle for the con this year with all the publicity. I want to thank you all for getting it together regardless. And I especially want to give props to the gofers. When both the second and third floor ice machines broke, they really kept the room parties running." Several people in the audience clapped.

Sasha shook her head, frustrated but sympathetic. "I appreciate your enthusiasm," she said, "and I know we've got several prominent mages who volunteered for us, but I have to inform you that the same hotel policies that gave us trouble over therianthropy also restrict our convention from promoting or sanctioning magic use. This was made very clear to all of our staffers and volunteers. I'm glad to hear that your problem was resolved so well, but we had nothing to do with the ice cube guys. And if any of them represented themselves as Furconium staff members, we need to be informed about it."

The moustached man stared, confused and indignant. "Wait, what? You have rules against magic? Since when was this con anti-mage, too? I didn't see anything about that in the waivers or registration forms. And there was sure enough magic out in the halls."

"Uh," Mike cut in, "Just to clarify, our contract with the hotel prevented us from engaging in or sanctioning any acts of magic with convention personnel or in convention-controlled space. Like in the panel rooms -- which is why a few got cancelled -- or in the Dealer's Room, which is why those six booths moved out to the hallway. Elsewhere in the hotel, we officially have no control; it's up to the hotel what it allows on its property, and the hotel manager was a lot more sympathetic than the hotel chain's administration that we had to deal with."

"But you can't even let your gofers help out the room parties?" the moustached man asked incredulously.

Sasha sighed. "I'm sorry. Nobody's happy with our policies this year, but in order to keep putting on this convention from year to year, we need to play by the rules."

"There was some last-second discussion of putting a notice about the magic rules in the registration packet," Metal added, "but communication ended up being an issue. We put it in the first newsletter instead, but I guess you didn't see that." He sighed. "Next year things will be a lot smoother. We have a lot more time to get the contract issues straight."

Mike nodded. "We can hope. And let me cut this off here, because I see a lot of you wanting to jump in, and we'll return to this discussion later. Next question. Popcat?"

An audience member stood up, a humanoid lynx with graying cheek-fur. "You asked to hold off on the theri policy questions. Fine. I'll wait. But one other thing. What was the hold-up at Registration on Friday?"

"Aaah," Skips said with a helpless shrug, "head crash nuked the hard drive with our pre-reg data. Of course, since we couldn't use magic to fix it," he said, grinning at Mike, "I had to drive home for the backup on floppy. Sorry for the delay. We processed everyone as fast as we could."

Mike sighed. "Okay. Does anyone else have any questions that have nothing to do with theri policies, or media, or magic, or anything that we've been banging our heads against the wall for months over? Any comments like 'The masquerade needed more root beer'? Anyone?"

An elderly lady sitting next to Popcat raised her hand. Mike nodded at her.

"I thought the 'Therianthropy Through The Ages' panel was very well-researched," she said, nodding at Palu. "That young lady made a wonderful presentation."

"Thanks," Palu said with a smile. "It's my thesis project, actually."

"Thanks," Mike said. "Anyone else?"

A slightly pudgy, brown-haired man raised his hand. "The hotel restaurant stopped serving sushi this year."

Typhoon scratched the scales on the side of his muzzle. "You're not the only one that's missing it. Unfortunately, I think their sushi chef left, and we don't have much control over that. But I'll emphasize to them again that there certainly is demand."

"Anyone else?" Mike asked. "Any general comments?" He looked around the room. "Alright. Guess not." He took a deep breath. "Before we get into any discussion of our theri and media policies, let me assure you that the Furconium staff spent months -- months -- arguing bitterly about how we wanted to handle them. We heard all the arguments, especially on the theri issue. That a furry convention was for furry fans and shouldn't be a social club for theris. That we should make an effort to accommodate everyone and run separate tracks for both sides of our membership. That theris were the 'new face' of furry and we should cater just to them. That 'lifestylers' had always been a plague and weren't going to get any better now. That there was so much overlap between last year's fans and this year's theris that we were wasting time thinking it would be an issue. Believe me, folks, we've heard it all.

"We settled on a compromise. Then the hotel canceled our room blocks, and I don't want to get into that mess here. We had to start from scratch and ended up changing our solution -- with another deep round of arguments -- in order to get the hotel to sign off on the contract. So please let me assure you that we're not taking any of this casually. We never did. We are very well aware that how we handled things upset people -- and, yes, attendance is down almost 20 percent, and we were bracing for that -- but any compromise would have hurt someone, and we worked for what we collectively thought was the best possible solution for everyone attending here."

Mike paused to collect his thoughts, running a hand through his hair. "And please let me also assure you that there were deep divisions among the staff here as well. I know this year's policy came off as very harsh on theris. It was not intended that way. Our original compromise was much less drastic, but the hotel came into negotiations with a flat no-theri policy. We took a vote and found that an unacceptable solution. Some of us --" Mike indicated Metal and Typhoon -- "are extremely unhappy that we were able to get as few concessions out of them as we did, but we're breaking new ground here, and I hope that we made this a worthwhile event regardless." He leaned back in his chair. "Before we get into the commentary and criticism -- does anyone have any specific questions about the theri policies and our reasons behind it?"

A dozen hands went up. Mike pointed to the first -- white-furred.

"If the hotel was being so unfriendly on theri attendance, why didn't you just move to another hotel?"

"Good question," Mike said, and began to answer, but Typhoon raised a hand. "Mike? I'll take this one." The chairman nodded.

The reptile leaned forward, resting his scaled arms on the table. "We looked into it. It would have been a drastic measure, since most of our attendees already had reservations, but we looked into it. And what I'd like to point out here is that, believe it or not, this is not just a discrimination problem. If anything, actually, the hotel has been downright friendly to this convention in the years we've been here. They like hosting us, we've been good for them, and the owner is quite sympathetic to furries and theris. However, they also have to run a business, and the extra costs and liability issues involved in theri attendance are astronomical. I'm not even talking the possibility of conflicts -- I'm talking about things like Fire Code compliance, upper floor access, and structural weight limits. The chain's 'no theris' policy was extreme, but considering the legal issues, it was unfortunately understandable.

"I actually did shop around to several other local hotels. The best deal we got was not substantially different than the one which we eventually took here, but the out-of-pocket costs to the convention would have tripled. We used that offer as leverage to wring some concessions out of the chain. This was all we could get. With more time than two weeks I think I could have negotiated something fairer. I hope next year's con will be substantially different."

"Thanks, Typhoon," Mike said. "Next?"

"I hope you guys aren't trying to discriminate against dragons," a blond-haired man said, standing up. "You've got one on your staff, after all." He pointed to Metal, leaning back in his chair, who nodded. "But how come when I tried to walk through the lobby in true form, I didn't get four steps before I had three of the, um, con security guys -- FLARE -- in my face?"

"That goes back to the liability issues," Metal said, raising his voice but still leaning back, chair balanced on its two back legs. "I know it seems unfair we got singled out, but stairs weren't designed to hold our weight and doors weren't designed for us to fit through. We had to make the concession in the contract in order to get much better treatment for the rest of the theris."

"But there were dragons in the Masquerade Ball and the Art Jam!" the blond man protested.

"The Art Jam? Not after we found out," Palu said apologetically. "We didn't want to, but we had to crack down on the Art Jam modeling session after word reached us. Again, if we don't follow the rules, we can't put these events on at all. And as for the Masquerade, we got a special exemption, and paid through the nose for it. Notice we moved the ball downstairs this year, to the outermost event rooms, the ones with the big loading dock in the back. Even so, we had to personally certify we met Fire Code spec, which ended up involving paying City Fire to man the event for the duration -- and purchase supplemental event coverage insurance for the hotel, which you don't want to know the cost of."

"Why only dragons, though?" piped up a voice from the back of the audience, near the door.

"It wasn't," Typhoon said calmly. "Check your registration packet. We had a list of acceptable and unacceptable species. Basically, anything that would cause a weight or maneuverability issue, or anything that wouldn't fit easily with other human-sized beings in an elevator."

"But doesn't that effectively lock out a lot of theris who wanted to come, but couldn't shapeshift back to human form?" another voice complained.

"I assure you we argued about that," Mike said wearily. "For next year we'll make our best effort to be more inclusive, but there are big legal issues to contend with, and I can't make any promises. If you're interested in a specifically therianthrope-friendly convention, all I can say is, so are many of our staffers. Talk to Typhoon after the meeting if you want to help him organize a 'TheriCon' this coming November."

A murmur ran through the crowd, followed by a loud round of "sssh"ing. Mike let the noise die down. "More questions? Okay. Go ahead, sir."

A werewolf in the audience, with strips of fur dyed blue in slanted lines on his head and body in a zebra-stripe pattern, stood up. "Why did you ban theris from the Masquerade's costume contest?"

"Uhh ..." Mike started uncertainly. "Palu, how about you take that one?"

"Er," Palu stalled. "We didn't. I don't think we did. Did we? Who told you they were?"

"What's-her-name. Quoque. The costume contest judge."

Palu made a face and looked around the room. "And ... she's not here. To be honest, I don't know what's going on there. I'll have to ask her. We discussed that idea -- to keep from discouraging the fursuiters who go for realism, and to make judging simpler -- but I thought I had communicated clearly to her that we didn't want to discourage theri costuming that way. I'm sorry about that. I'll make certain it doesn't happen again." She blushed and scribbled several lines of notes down on the notepad in front of her.

"I'm sorry, too," Mike said. "We've tried to keep the mistakes to a minimum, but it's been a very crazy convention. That is an issue we will definitely address for next year. ... Next question. Philosiraptor?" He pointed at a straight-haired college-aged lady.

"On another topic," she said quietly but decisively, "did you pick up today's Mercury-News?"

Mike looked around at his other staffers -- who shrugged -- with a deep sense of foreboding stirring inside him. "Ummm ... not me. Do I want to know what we're missing?"

"Page A3." She pulled a copy from under her seat and opened up the front section. "I just thought that this might help clarify the upcoming debate about this year's media policy. I'm not sure who decided that allowing any media on-site to a furry convention with theris at it would be a good idea, but ..." she folded the paper back and displayed it toward the table of staffers. "'Animal people -- and the people who 'love' them,'" she quoted, showing off the headline.

A resounding groan, punctuated by several catcalls, went up from around the room. Mike twitched, and several of the staffers winced. "You think that's bad, you should read the story," Philosiraptor called over the din. "Apparently there were some ... interesting private room parties I somehow missed out on."

Mike leaned forward and slowly pounded his head against the table several times.

"Regarding our media policy," he said weakly. "We've tried to keep the mistakes to a minimum, but it's been a very crazy convention ..."

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