“I couldn’t possibly have any more... I want to say ‘octopus...’” Rubbing her belly, Jalas politely pocketed another handful of the squirming creature. These Regionals sure have some strange appetizers!
“And I’ll have the beef strudel,” my stomach growled at the stationary maître d’. He (clearly a he, female Regionals have short nose hair) sniffed at me suspiciously and set off to the kitchen, a bloody towel draped over his left shoulder blade in the traditional manner.
If you’ve never been sniffed by a Regional, the trick is avoiding eye contact. Not between your eyes and their eyes, for you see (pun intended) they have no eyes. It’s strictly echolocation. Tiny holes around the base of their necks, some emit the sound, others accept the waves.
And in the area where a human face would be are four (five in childhood) nostrils. When they all flare up in unison to sniff you... well, let’s just say I’ve been through two pairs of glasses.
“Put the polycarbonate on my tab,” a chillingly tortured voice rasped from the potted plants.
In lieu of shivering, I siphoned off my excess adrenaline for later. One of R & D’s latest projects in a fear-powered hovercraft and I would be a hypocrite if I didn’t pitch in.
Jalas had no such reservations.
“Zapf. I vowed over the burning ruins of Caldera that you would... know... strudel...” She threatened, becoming increasingly distracted by the waiter returning with my dinner. No Novan can resist another man’s strudel.
“Hermann Zapf, fontographer! How’s that Foundry of yours doing?” I inquired pleasantly. Too pleasantly.
“I’m retired,” Zapf grinned, twirling a wine stem betwixt his fore and aft-fingers. “Although I do keep busy.”
“You sold the Calderans their fonts!” Jalas screamed. “They never would’ve posed a threat if not for those begotten fonts!”
“Restrain yourself or the light won’t blink off,” I said, tapping my portable dashboard. One of the table legs vibrated and I handed Jalas the attached phone; my arch-enemy the Generic Canadian had recently started a telemarketing campaign directed at all international airbases.
Humming disconnectedly, Zapf reached into the potted plant behind him and unearthed some yellowed papers. He proceeded to look them over and hum while Jalas stared at him murderously. I took advantage of the unexpected break to look around the landing bay.
Less than a week since we’d declared our rented airship an international refugee base, hundreds of people had come by biplane, triplane, hot air balloon... enhanced ostrich? We get all sorts here. All come looking for a better life, and as the self-appointed diplomatic head, that burden is ultimately mine.
Fortunately I’m trying to be evil so I don’t have to care about any of them.
A group of young Regionals and some of my less faithful Naven henchmen were gathering by the cardboard boxes piled to separate the main galley from the toiletry bucket. Each Naven was wearing the standard issue garb: a bright orange jumpsuit and tennis shoes; the Regionals wore ragged animal skins over sinewy coats of grime. One of them had six nostrils. Freak!
“Are you a betting man?” Zapf asked. Veins bulged on his eyeballs.
“I’m a betting man than you.”
He laid five cards out on the tabletop. Each had a different sentence written on it:
“Sphinx of black quartz, judge my vow!” Adjusting quiver and bow, Zompyc killed the fox. Few quips galvanized the mock jury box. “Now! Fax... quiz Jack,” my brave ghost pled. Five quacking (!) zephyrs jolt my wax bed.
“Which one doesn’t belong?”
My goatee trembled. “That one... no, that... no, I was right, that one,” I held up the first card.
“Why that one?” He fanned out the remaining four, unconsciously tracing the characters with an invisible pencil.
“Simple... this one, you can tell from its diagonal stress that it’s an old-style serif font. This one has a huge disparity in line width, it’s definitely a modern serif. This one is smack dab in the middle, totally Timesian. And this one... oh, I just love slab serifs! Beautiful and underappreciated.”
“Why that one?” he repeated. “What makes this card different?”
I knew the Regionals couldn’t understand speech very well but this conversation was turning personal, so I set off a series of supersonic longitudinal waves. The kitchen staff fled in terror, running blindly into walls and furniture.
“Clearly, those letters are all the same width. Though it has serifs, it is technically monospaced.” Leaning back, I congratulated myself on a job adequately done.
Using his tongue like a boneless arm, Zapf snatched the phone from Jalas and brought it to his fuzzy earhole. “She’ll call you back later,” he slurred, beads of greenish saliva warping the plastic case’s coloring as gravity guided them home.
“How uncouth!” my second-in-command commented conceitedly, counting the contradictions of our company’s casual cordiality and (currently) condemnable churlishness.
“Yes. Button your tongue,” I chimed alongside her chide.
Zapf picked up the table (an incredible feat for an old man, considering it was bolted down) and punched it so hard that several reams of paper fell to the floor. “No.”
“Fair enough.” I stammered hastily. “Do I win?”
“Your observation was correct,” the geriatric German grimaced. “So I’m giving you my library card. With it, you can open any door at my offshore foundry by San Serriffe.”
Courtseying, I delicately took the card in my palm. An uneasy feeling coursed through my appendix. “Isn’t San Serriffe ruled by General Pica? A tinpot dictator with dreams of conquest and boundless brutality?”
Laughing ominously, Zapf sulked toward the latrine. With a single pinky, he bust the sink up pretty badly; then with both hands and a foot, peeled the back wall like an orange and slid down the pipes. The faint sound of rotors and an occasional karate chop could be heard from beneath the floorboards.
“That was an awful lot of trouble to go through for a library card,” Jalas grumbled, finally recognizing the right of the paper reams to exist. “We got into Zapf’s foundry, but now we’ve got to deal with some kind o’ Ozymandias wannabe?! What is so important about this foundry?”
By all rights I should have struck her down where she stood, but something about her drawn dagger gave me pause.
“Canada, Jalas.” I turned my head to draw her attention to the world map hung over the cardboard room divisor. My nemesis’ non-face was drawn boldly over the tundra. “The San Serriffe Foundry is within striking distance of Canada.”
“What of the Generalissimo?”
“That was in the 70’s. They’re a democracy now.”
“You just said...!”
“Times change, you naive Novan! Secure the railings! Rally the Navens!” A blood-red cape with black spirals sprouted from my shoulders. “And find me a puppy to drown!”
Man, this library card is burning a hole in my pocket.