Jackie scrolled through the electric blue feed projected above her com-ring. The chairs in the waiting area of the complex lab complex were built for fashion over function and her lower back ached. Had she known she’d be waiting this long for Dr. Weber, she would have brought a book, but instead, she was stuck reading Amelia Levin’s article on the latest beauty products out of Lower Newburg. Jackie didn’t have an interest in makeup; there was a certain saying about lipstick and pigs that she would not demonstrate for people in real life. However, since the article featured recent developments in anti-wrinkle products, Jackie was reluctantly curious. Despite her feelings toward the article’s meddlesome author, she had wondered of late just how her own swine features would age. She had never seen an old pig before. They tended to be cut down in their prime. Would she sprout extra whiskers under her chin in her twilight years? Would her jowls wobble with each turn of her head?
Realizing what she had been focused on, Jackie snorted and closed the article. As if less facial laxity would solve all her beauty ails. At that moment, she detected the smart, sensible shoes of Dr. Weber clacking across the excessively polished lobby floor.
“While I’m gratified you didn’t break into my lab this time, I’m unaccustomed to being summoned.” The waifish woman fixed her with a piercing stare and crossed her arms. “What do you want?”
“I’m here to see the dragon,” Jackie answered, rising to meet her host’s glare. By now it was common knowledge that one of Dr. Weber’s experiments had gone awry in the shape of a dragon and stolen all of the town’s gold. Her stream of angry visitors was kept at bay by a new security force but had dwindled in the last few days seeing as all the gold had been returned and things put to right as much as possible.
Dr. Weber’s brow knitted and she opened her mouth to undoubtedly forbid Jackie access to her lab, but Jackie held up a hand to nip her tirade in the bud. “Mz. Bliss’s orders,” she said, calmly adjusting the sleeves of her fawn-colored leather jacket. Dr. Weber snapped her mouth shut and marched quickly back in the opposite direction. Jackie followed at a normal walking pace, met her at the elevator, and pushed the down button. The door dinged open and slid smoothly closed behind them. They rode in thick silence before the door opened again and they took another elevator up a few floors. All of this was supposed to be an attempt at a shortcut between the lab’s buildings, but Jackie knew it would have been less complicated to just break in again.
Once they had turned to the hallway where Dr. Weber’s lab was housed, Jackie spoke up again. “Mz. Bliss said the dragon reported some anomalies.”
“Yes, several anomalies,” Dr. Weber confirmed tersely as she allowed her lab’s biometric lock to scan her left eye.
The door opened and they passed through a downstream of hissing air before entering the lab’s brightly lit interior. It was a far cry from dark and dank caves where all the dragons in the stories she had read had traditionally called home. Yet, there was the dragon taking up a large corner as it nestled and napped among a heap of unused computing equipment, a mass of wires, a few tables, and one ergonomic rolling chair. Jackie was intellectually prepared to see a dragon but nonetheless was taken aback by its iridescent scales and the sheer absurdity of its presence in the lab.
“There’s the dragon,” Dr. Weber said in a most unhelpful tone as she walked past the sleeping creature to peer into a microscope.
“Does it uhh… does it talk?”
“Yes,” Dr. Weber confirmed again adjusting the focus on the microscope. Clearly, Jackie was going to have to question the dragon on her own. She sniffed and straightened her hat as she walked closer to the creature. It couldn’t be that dangerous if it hadn’t even taken a nibble out of the cantankerous Dr. Weber.
Jackie cleared her throat as the toe of her boot nudged a piece of the dragon’s plastic hoard and she came to a stop. “Excuse me. Sorry to disturb your little snooze there, but I need to ask—“
“What are you doing?” Dr. Weber whisper yelled, all her attention suddenly focused on Jackie. “Can’t you see he’s processing?” Jackie stiffened and regarded the slumbering beast which growled softly and readjusted its enormous head on a metallic claw. “If you interrupt it now I will have to start all over again!”
Jackie padded closer to the doctor whose frosty blue eyes were still glued on her. “What are you working on now?” she asked, gesturing with a quick movement of her chin to the microscope.
Dr. Weber peered into the microscope once more. “This is a hypochronometric microscope,” she said. “You have no idea how many hoops I had to jump through and permits I had to get just to use this. It slows down time within a 5 cubic cm field so one can observe what is happening at a cellular level. I have one of QC’s scales under the lens.”
“What’s a qc?”
“It’s the dragon’s preferred name. He likes to be called QC,” Dr. Weber answered with a roll of her eyes before adjusting the microscope again. “Take a look,” she said stepping back so that Jackie could look into the microscope, her once cold eyes now bright with fascination. Jackie hesitated for a moment, suspicious of the sudden change in her demeanor. When she finally peered through the lens, she was unsure of what she was seeing. Then a honeycomb of cells came into focus, their walls and nuclei like thin pencil marks against the bright light of the microscope. A cell in the center of the group inexplicably disappeared. The cells touching it disappeared soon after, and the cells touching them did the same in a slow vanishing cascade.
“Subatomic particles blink in and out of existence all the time,” Dr. Weber said. “But it shouldn’t be happening on the macro level like this. It’s not normal. Though what’s normal in Newburg isn’t really normal in the rest of the worlds.” As Jackie watched, gradually, the cells reappeared under the lens.
Jackie moved away from the microscope and said, “Makes you wonder why we’re even attempting to Save the Worlds,” she said with air quotes. “How would our normal ever be applicable anywhere else?”
“The rest of the worlds need to catch up!” Dr. Weber said removing the scale from under the microscope with a pair of tweezers. “Astonishing,” She said, shaking her head in reverence at the gleaming scale.
Jackie narrowed her small eyes at the doctor. “It’s been two months since the first missing kid was reported. The police have rounded up the usual suspects and have found no leads. All along, I’ve been saying they can’t have vanished into thin air. But now I’m not so sure.”
Dr. Weber looked befuddled at Jackie’s confusion. “No, if they vanished they would have reappeared like the gold did. We’re talking about particles blinking in and out of existence, not disappearing for months. No, the children didn’t vanish.” She pursed her lips as Jackie leaned casually and drummed her fingers on a nearby table next to some lab equipment.
“Mz. Bliss is well aware that she’s grasping at straws. Because I told her as much. But the dragon’s reported anomalies are the only lead we have and as loose as it is, a job’s a job. I didn’t come here just to look at the dragon. I came to find out more about it, what it knows, what it saw. If I can’t talk to it then at least let me see the data you recorded.”
Dr. Weber laughed in her throat and moved the lab equipment farther from Jackie’s reach.
“I doubt you’ll be able to interpret the data, and I don’t have time to interpret it for you.”
“Where’s your sister? Gertrude. Maybe she can help.”
“She’s at her grandson’s birthday party,” she said flippantly as if she couldn’t imagine being bothered by such things as children and celebrations. She placed the scale into a specimen bag.
“Alright. Just give me a copy of the data, and I’ll do what I can,” Jackie said tugging down the waist of her jacket.
“I’ll give you what’s already been compiled into a readable format.” Dr. Weber opened a file on her com-ring and flung it in Jackie’s direction with the flick of a finger. Jackie caught the file and felt the buzz as it downloaded to her ring. She opened it and scrolled through a mass of information. Census charts, bank information, job titles, mission statements, demographic charts, life satisfaction levels, department growth, population levels, temperature, and weather averages. No discrepancies were highlighted.
“What did the dragon actually say to you?” Jackie asked.
Dr. Weber put one hand on her hip. “He said it was wonderful to find people who were impossible like he is. People who are two people at once, and some people that didn’t even exist at all.” She cocked an eyebrow, a challenge to Jackie.
Jackie scanned the data again trying to decipher the dragon’s riddle. She found no chart listing two names under one person. “There must be a connection in the data somewhere. I just can’t see it.”
“I didn’t think so,” Dr. Weber said, self-satisfied. She placed a different scale in the lightly humming field under the microscope and leaned over it.
“I’ll start looking for people who are two people,” Jackie said as she turned toward the door.
“Best of luck,” Dr. Weber said half-heartedly. She didn’t look up from her microscope.
One of Jackie’s floppy black and pink ears twitched in time with the overhead fluorescent light blinking in and out above her. Her eyes roved over the shelves of the Quick Shop in the far east side of Midtown. Lemon and pine-scented cleaning fluid permeated the air, but she had no clue where it had been used; certainly not on the orange tiled floor which was coated in a sheen of grime. Finally finding what she was looking for, she picked up a small can and went to the counter to pay. She pulled her hat lower over her face to not draw unnecessary attention to her strange barnyard features. She needn’t have bothered. The clerk, a stout bushy-haired woman with short colorful fingernails was fully engrossed in a soap opera projected from her com-ring, eyeing it like a cat eyes a goldfish as she punched a few commands on the register and sent Jackie her receipt. Jackie’s thank you went unnoticed as she pushed the door open to exit, continuing to hold it open as another customer entered.
They wore a large rumpled coat and a stocking cap over wispy white hair. The coat was so bulky, Jackie couldn’t discern whether the person was a male or female. She did however detect that the person hadn’t bathed in quite a while. In their chapped, knotted fingers, they grasped a shiny gold coin and were making a wobbling beeline for the shelf of stale cotton candy arranged as if someone had taken all the clouds at sunset and smooshed them into plastic bags. Jackie allowed the door to close after them with the thought of just how many bags of cotton candy one could buy with a gold coin. More than one could eat she imagined. Certainly more than one would want to eat.
The air was chilly and damp, and she tucked her ears underneath her hat to keep them warm. When she passed a group of beneficial insects huddled around a burning barrel farther down the street, she was momentarily wistful for the fire’s warmth. But she knew they were burning the barrels’ contents, retrieving the warmed refuse with long sticks before savoring it with their insect mouths. So she shoved her hands deeper into her pockets rather than linger around the foul stench.
She crossed an abandoned Water Street and walked directly onto a pier jutting out over the beach some twenty feet below. This wasn’t the scenic beach near Lower Newburg where people went to sunbathe. But if you wanted to catch the biggest waves, this was the place to be. A square building with a lamp perched at its corner sat at the pier’s end and she moved toward it along with several moths which danced around its periphery. The seafoam green building with large picture windows rested quiet and dark within the pier lamp’s light. She knocked on the white wooden door and peeked inside a window.
A couple of surfboards leaned against the wall inside. A hammock stretched from one corner to the other. Otherwise, the little shack looked empty.
Jackie reached into her jacket pocket and retrieved the can she had purchased from the Quick Shop. She popped the top off and set the open can next to the front door. Leaning her back against the wall and crossing one ankle over the other, she waited as the sea breeze carried the smell of canned tuna fish through the air. Not long after, a gray and white cat appeared out of the shadows. It trotted up to the tuna can and lapped at its contents gratefully.
“Hi there, Tom. I thought I might find you around here,” Jackie said, propping herself up from the wall. The cat sat on its haunches and languidly licked the remaining tuna from its mouth. Then it began to stretch, its front legs growing longer, shaping into arms and hands, its pink button nose transformed into a large pig snout instead. The fur on its body retracted and changed into clothing while the hair on its head grew into long auburn locks curled under at the ends. Jackie was face to face with a perfect copy of her body. She had to give it to herself, her hair looked amazing under the soft lamplight. But then that same lamplight caught on her glistening pig nose and she hastily looked away.
“What brings you to my place this late, Ms. Thurgood? Surely you’re not here for a surfing lesson; you’re not wearing a wet suit,” Tom said popping the jacket collar on her duplicate. Jackie walked to his side, still hesitant to look into her own face.
“We’ve known about your transformational skills for a while now. Is there anyone we don’t know about?” Tom had a unique ability to alter his appearance so he could look like a completely different person. Perhaps this is what the dragon meant when he referenced people who are two people in his report.
Jackie saw her twin shrug in her periphery. “I don’t know anyone else. That’s why they pay me the big bucks. Scientists like to study me and try to figure out how I work. But I just do me you know?” Tom leaned against the wall as she had waiting for his arrival.
Jackie crossed her arms over her middle and snorted. “The missing children all were last seen with someone no one could recognize. Are you trying out new appearances, Tom?” Jackie finally looked Tom in her own eyes. Her twin seemed to tremble and then lengthen. The ears and nose shrank, and the hair shortened into a curly blond crop. Jackie was briefly envious of his ability to simply change his face at will, but she shoved the appeal to the back of her mind.
Tom’s face looked pained. “Do you think I took them? I’d never hurt a kid! Or take them from their families. That’s cruel,” his voice was soft and pleading. Jackie didn’t respond, but her eyes continued to bore into his. “Besides, where would I put them?” he asked, peering into the windows of his house.
The sound of feet shuffling through sand caught her attention and made her ears flap. She looked over the splintered wood railing of the pier to see Nicky Grift and his oafish henchmen walking toward the deeper shadows underneath the pier. “What, did Dead Eye catch you cheating on his bar exam again? You know another kid was reported missing yesterday? It’s dangerous out here,” she yelled down to Nicky.
“Yeah, well I’m dangerous, piggy. Hey, as a matter of professional courtesy, I should inform you that you got an extra pair of ears tonight.” Nicky jutted his chin toward the concealing gloom under the pier.
“Yeah, she’s not very good at sneaking around. You gotta have real chops to be a private eye. My only consolation is she’s getting wet sand all in her cute little ballet flats.”
Amelia trudged a few feet out of the shadows and put her hands on her hips. The cold sea breeze whirled for a moment and carried her voice up to the pier with it. “If you knew I was following you, why haven’t you said anything before now?”
“I wanted you to hear that Tom wasn’t involved at all. I’m not here to investigate Tom, just to get information. Like I told you before, if I don’t want to be followed, you won’t find me.” Jackie grinned though she doubted Amelia could see it backlit as she was.
Amelia slipped off her right shoe and dumped sand out of it. She tried to brush the sand off her foot with her hand but lost her balance and stumbled backward a few paces. The three boys behind her chortled and mimicked her tumble dramatically. “Are you certain that Tom is innocent?” Amelia asked. Jackie rubbed her bottom lip to appear thoughtful and to keep from laughing at the boys’ antics that the reporter either didn’t notice or was attempting to ignore.
“I trust my hunch,” she finally answered. “I know good people when I see them.”
“So there’s no one else on Newburg who can shapeshift into other people who might have taken the children?” She tried to shake the sand out of the other shoe and ended up losing her balance again. The boys doubled over cackling. Amelia, tired of fighting the sand or tired of yelling up at the pier, made for the concrete steps adjacent to the pier and began to climb up.
“No one that I know of,” said Tom. “Unless there are people who are trying to hide it. But why would you hide it?” With a Cheshire-like grin, he shrank and turned back into the grey and white tabby Jackie first encountered. The cat scampered into the night’s obscurity.
“So we’re back to square one,” Amelia said, breathless from the stair climb. Strands of blond hair clung to the sides of her sweaty face despite the cold air. Jackie took in the wet hems of the reporter’s pants and her now ruined ballet flats. For as unskilled as she was, she certainly seemed determined, Jackie had to admit. She rested her elbow on the railing and leaned over it again.
“Hey Nicky, You know anyone in the underground who might be trying to hide their shapeshifting abilities from the rest of Newburg?”
“If I knew something, why would I tell you, lady? You already got one favor out of me tonight, that’s it. Dead Eye Dennis banned me from the bar. You can’t get me my drinks of choice anymore.”
“I’m sure potion drinks are all you want out of life, eh?”
“Yeah, yeah,” Nicky said. His eyebrows drew down in angry slashes. “I’m completely content. I want to stay in this puny ten-year-old body forever.”
Ledgers in the dragon’s data scrolled suddenly through Jackie’s mind. “Nicky, you may have just solved this whole thing without giving me any information at all.” She sensed Amelia take a few steps closer to her in curiosity.
“Well don’t that just warm the cockles of my heart,” Nicky said his voice gushing with sarcasm. He waved at her derisively as he walked away, his two cronies trailing in his wake.
“Jackie, what did you just put together?” Amelia asked, her eyes wide and head cocked to the side.
“Hang on. I gotta double check something.” Jackie recalled the data charts and scrolled through the census data. She did some hasty math in her head. The wind from the ocean knocked into them at once like a crashing wave and Jackie caught her fedora just before it blew out of reach. The two women moved to the leeward side of Tom’s beach house. “The total columns,” Jackie said once they were out of the wind. “The census total and the total number of people in each age bracket don’t match up.” The dragon’s riddle ran through her mind. People who are two people at once. Some who don’t even exist at all.
“Are you sure your numbers are correct?” Amelia asked, skeptical.
“I’ve got a mind like an elephant trap,” Jackie answered, again grateful that her strange snooter wasn’t the only abnormal thing about her. Her unusual photographic memory certainly was convenient. “Someone out there is messing around with people’s age. One thing will clinch it. Do you still want to help?” The building’s shadow now covered the bottom half of Amelia’s face but Jackie could see her eyes eager yet resolute.
“Of course,” Amelia agreed.