Truth be told, the Menagerie could be quite boring. Alby Jarvis didn't like to admit it, because the family was so proud to introduce him as an unnaturalist.
"Our Albert's going to be an authority," his mother would say smugly to their grandmother, Hildegard, who was the head of the family and had to be impressed.
"He'll be writing bestiaries soon enough," said his father, in that gruff way of his.
"It's good that you're doing well,' Grandmother would say, while his Aunt Marigold fumed. Her oldest, Sonia, had become senior partner of one of the most prestigious firms in the city. For a long time, her career in law had been her mother's final airstrike of personal success at family functions. Now it didn't matter. They had someone in the Menagerie, and Grandmother Hildegard had always had a love for unicorns. Her boudoir attested to this.
"I don't see much of them," Alby was always admitting. "The girls are better with them. One of the bucks tried to gore me once. He needed a new shoe."
"Marvelous," said Grandmother Hildegard.
"Albert is so smart," said his mother. Aunt Marigold glowered.
The truth was Alby was bored with his job and wished he could quit. He wasn't an unnaturalist. He was a broke graduate who'd taken an internship and had been brought on full time. He got the job by virtue of his degrees (he had two), his two semesters of Latin (most older beasts still spoke it), and an instinctive ability to not kill people who annoyed him. He was a technician, which sounded impressive, but what it really meant was that he cleaned cages and swept stalls while the occasional researcher dropped by to tell him what he was doing wrong. The fact that he could take this had recently led to a promotion to senior feeder. This meant little more than some extra hazard pay to cover the inherent logistical problems of shoving frozen rats down a hydra's throat.
This would be the extent of his upward climb within The Menagerie. He had a degree — two, even — but no field experience, no hunting license, and no doctorate. Assistant and associate positions were filled by researchers' relatives, former classmates, or 'intimate colleagues'. Alby was none of these things. He liked working with strange creatures, he'd gone into the field for that in the first place, but the monotony of the busywork and the arrogance of the researchers left him bitter and disillusioned about it all. He often fantasized about ways to quit.
'I'll take those observational papers that Doctor Hale's ignored on his desk, throw them into the sphinx's enclosure, and say that's where I left them, if he'd like to finally sign off on them.'
'I'll release all the cockatrice, spread grain over Doctor Mirkle's office, and laugh all the way to the door as my feathered minions do my bidding.'
'Strip down in the main offices, throw the uniform over the entrance desk and march out in a blaze of naked glory.'
Alby didn't so much as turn in a meek letter of resignation. The Menagerie was the leading facility in its field, and, anyway, he had no notion of what else he'd even like to do. He liked beasts. The bigger, the scalier, the better, but it seemed the only thing he was actually qualified to do was clean their cages and figure out the best way to slip them pills. He was a sad sight in the staff cafeteria: quartered off in the corner with his old bestiaries, nose deep to avoid the conversation of the other techs. They didn't really talk with each other so much as at each other.
"Doctor Raleigh nodded at me today. Oh god, do you think she guessed who skipped out on re-watering the ROUS this morning? Do you think she knows? I think she knows. But, like, it's not my fault. I had to make a CALL and then my back started hurting, and then..."
"Doctor Mirkle wants me to up Bast's dosage today. He just knows these things. Why, I've read all his essays on Sphinx anatomy and my dissertation references..."
"Well, of course Doctor Hale knows his stuff, but I think that his essay on the optical systems of the northern basilisk is slightly banal and required a better proof reader. Some of the errors in dating of the historical research are remarkably careless! Do you think he'd mind if I gave him a list of corrections?"
"Not at all," said Alby, tiredly. Their fake enthusiasm and desperate posturing bothered him, but it was easier to accept it as another part of the job. The benefits were good, the salary acceptable, and it impressed the family. Alby knew he was in a rut.
"You smell agitated," murmured Bast, when he came with the lump of raw beef that was her afternoon feeding. The tag listed her as an Egyptian Sphinx, native to Cairo. Her name was actually Cassia and she'd been born in Greece, but the researchers never seemed to listen when she corrected them. Cassia had come in with a broken wing a half-year ago, and was probably one of the largest beasts in the main compound of the Menagerie. She was at least the largest in-house carnivore. She'd upped visitor attendance and donations by thirty percent that year.
The doctors had liked to keep her under sedation during her recovery, but her wing was nearly fully healed and Alby had been lowering her doses when he could. It meant more risk during feeding times, but Cassia was very well-bred. She came from a wealthy family, she'd said, though she'd run away when she was young. She was quite a lovely sphinx, with a deep, black coat and a round woman's face. She watched him lay down the tray in the center of the enclosure, a slash of her straight, black hair falling across her high cheekbones.
"There was a kind-of mess this morning," admitted Alby, straightening and backing off slowly. "Someone had Edwards give the basilisk its shots."
"I don't like him," hummed Cassia. "He's a stiff."
"Now he's stiffer than he should be," said Alby. "He'll be better in a few hours, but I'm doing his work now."
"Lucky for me."
Alby laughed. "Thanks."
"You think about these things." Cassia stalked over, her wings folded elegantly at her sides. He gave her a wide berth as her claws came down over the hank. "Even if you don't sear it. I prefer that. Maybe with some saffron."
"They wouldn't let me into the kitchens."
"Shame," said Cassia, ripping a fine pink strip off of the chunk. She liked to take her meal in little pieces. She nearly made it look elegant. Nearly. "Shame, shame. But you shouldn't overdo yourself. If the people are giving you hell, then do something to change that. Try something different. Why not try the nightshift?"
Alby tensed up and tried to go through his multiplication tables the way you were taught to do when a sphinx asked you any sort of question, but, although his mind fuzzed briefly, she was satisfied with her meal, and had meant nothing more than what she'd asked. "That's a thought."
She smiled with red lips. "You're a sweet kid."
Alby put in for a couple of night shifts the next week: twelve to eight, and he discovered he liked it. The main compound was quiet at night, and while it meant you could feel a little crazy at the seventh hour, there was no one else but a bored security guard out front, and a skittish groundskeeper who turned corners before he could say 'good evening.' What's more, he could spend time with the beasts without getting odd or reproving looks from the doctors and his fellow techs. He put in for it the next week, and the week after, and while it felt a little like avoiding the real issue, it made things a little more interesting at least. The only drawback was he had to bring his own food on those nights, since the cafeteria was shut and he didn't trust the hotdogs in the vending machines.
"You could sneak into the kitchen," suggested Cassia, resting her flank against the observational glass as he walked by one evening.
"They shut off the gas," said Alby, who'd already in the name of scientific discovery attempted to put a burner on for one of the aging phoenix hens, who was best comforted by an open flame. Another time he'd taken an antsy chimera for a walk around the compound. This nearly caused trouble when maintenance discovered hoof tracks all over the freshly buffed floor, but somehow no one thought to look to him. Doctor Hale, who kept to his offices until twelve, caught hell for it, and he spent the next week or so standing over Dr. Mirkle's shoulder noting Very Pointed Things about his last paper. This made the atmosphere during the days very tense, and hapless Edwards, caught in one of their cross fires, was asked a question by Cassia and had to be driven home.
His mother found some way to spin his odder hours as a badge of personal competence. The doctors clearly trusted him. He would clearly go far. This had nothing to do with the fact that a lot of the more nocturnal beasts had hypnotic powers and the last night tech had filed for worker's compensation.
"How do the unicorns look at night?" asked Grandmother Hildegard.
"They, uh, glow," said Alby. "You can see them across the compound. I, uh, try to keep a distance..."
"Enchanting," said Grandmother Hildegard. "What were you saying, Mari?"
"Nothing, Mom," sighed Aunt Marigold.
His mother felt Thanksgiving went rather well.
He'd been working nights for three weeks when things finally changed in the endless routine that was the Menagerie. The day before was a strange prelude to this: Doctor Raleigh had discovered one of the pixies missing from its cage, and an entire hall had to be put on lockdown, much to the endless complaints of the visitors who'd come that day for the 'Spotted Pixies of the North' special. It had been recovered buzzing around the sphinx enclosure and Alby had been required to go after it. Pixies didn't listen to reason, or butterfly nets. In the end, he'd done well with a vacuum cleaner. He'd brought it out just in time for Raleigh to snap the stray back into a carrying case and round on the maintenance crew for allowing a hole in the vents to give it its freedom. Each of the pixies therefore had to be counted, to be sure no one else had gotten out, and much to everyone's confusion they kept counting one more than the officially stated number. Raleigh was furious. The pixies were amused. Everyone got their hair pulled and their noses changed strange colors. Finally Alby count called up the right number (twelve), the hole was fixed, and everyone went home slightly giggly from an extreme dousing of pixie dust.
The next evening Alby came in with his coat on. Temperatures in the main compound were kept low at night, to keep the reptilian subjects calm and to save on heating costs. The one space-heater was kept in Doctor Hale's office, but he turned it off and locked his offices when he went home for the evening.
"Have a good night, Doctor Hale," said Alby, on reflex as he came up the steps. The doctor came down the steps, head ducked low. He didn't look to have heard, but this was normal. Hale had lived in his own world on the best of days and since his tiff with Mirkle had gone even more distant. Not that a technician would have easily caught his attention on a good day, unless they'd mixed up the labels on a cage.
The security officer on duty gave a slightly warmer welcome. She looked up from her book and nodded as Alby shuffled past the desk. He fumbled for his ID, discovered Hale had left the doors ajar, and slipped in. He went to the lockers, washed up, changed into his uniform and then put his coat back on over his uniform. He checked the schedules. Nothing had changed. He did his typical route, starting with the smaller tanks and moving up to the larger enclosures. He saved the outside pens for last. Remembering the day before, he made a special point of checking the pixie tanks, but aside from a sticker a visitor had left on the glass there was nothing to report. He thought he caught a bit of light out of the corner of his eye, but on closer inspection it proved to be a guttering fluorescent light. He'd have to write that up for maintenance.
Alby was pulling on his gloves when he remembered he'd left the card key for back enclosures up in the dispatch office. Cursing, he backtracked, winding his way up the steps and back through the giggling pixie halls until he turned into the larger space of the main concourse. He'd get the key, go out, check to see the unicorns were all still lit up and that the chimera weren't fighting, come back in, and sit next to the phoenixes for warmth while he wrote up the same status report he'd been writing for the last two years of his life. He'd go up to the computer lab, copy it, slide a copy under each researcher's door, where it would be ignored, unless there was something they arbitrarily disagreed with — then he would hear about it in about two weeks. After that, he would sit with Cassia and catch up on his reading. At three in the morning he'd do another check, and administer any required medications or feedings. Then he'd feed himself. Then he'd nap under one of the cafeteria tables for a couple of hours. It would be an average night. As soon as he got the key. He pulled off his gloves in front of the dispatcher's office. He never had gotten the hang of opening doors with them on.
The voice echoed through the empty halls like a crack of thunder. Alby leapt and whirled. It'd come from the other side of the hall, near the main entrance. It hadn't been female or old and querulous, so that ruled out the guard or the groundskeeper. Alby popped his coat's collar to try and look bigger, and made a cautious progress towards the main doors. Sphinxes and chimeras, these he had a great deal of experience with and had little fear of them. Strangers in dark places were a different problem. He wished he was allowed to carry a taser. Halfway to the door, it occurred to him it might be Doctor Hale back for something.
"Yes?" he called. "Can I help you?"
"Oh, very good," said the man behind him. "I had hoped I would find someone. Are you Doctor Mirkle?"
"Agh!" cried Alby, launching himself against the wall. "Who are you and what do you want?"
The man blinked. "Delivery," he said.
He looked a few years older than Alby and was dressed badly for the weather outside: jeans and a beaten, black jacket made more for a day rolling out of summer than a night coming well into winter. In the dim, fluorescent light he had a grayish-dark complexion, and a face that was as alarming savage as it was handsome. His nose had at some point been smashed into an artful crookedness and his eyes were a brown so pale that they looked gold in the right light. His hair hung over this arrangement in ragged, reddish curls. It must've been dyed. He was half a head shorter than Alby. He looked nothing like a UPS guy.
"And... security let you in?"
The man sneered. Or Alby thought so for a second, after a moment it came to him that that was just an effect of his jutting jaw. He was actually smiling. His voice was warm and mildly accented. "Yes. That Miss Warren was very kind. I showed her my paper." He lifted his clipboard. "And she wrote my name. Kamran Barikos, before you ask. I am here to see Doctor Mirkle. There are three things I am here for. You are not him, are you?"
There was something close to a leer in his voice. Alby edged away. "No... it's... way past his hours. You don't mean Doctor Hale?"
"No. Mirkle. The name was somewhat distinct."
"Right. Waaay past his hours. I'm the tech on duty." And you could kill me with your finger, thought Alby dully, noticing Mr. Barikos' broad shoulders. "There must have been a mix up. I can check the computers, if you want." And possibly sound an alarm. The computer lab's got those. "Can I just see...?"
Mr. Barikos tipped the clipboard his way. His nails were long and dark. The whorl of some tattoo peeked out from under his sleeve. Alby pointedly ignored this as he checked the bottom line first. There was Mirkle's looping signature, that awful script that only a select few could translate. That checked out. "...This way. You can take your coat off, if you want."
For all of the alarming surety of his stance and the thickness around his thigh, Mr. Barikos followed the winding way to the lab with an awkward step, moving like there was some drag on his left leg or like his boots were on the wrong feet. Still, he walked with a surprising lightness. For all his experience with odd beasts, Alby wasn't one to believe in ghosts, but for a second or two, hearing only his own footsteps in the hall, doubt flickered in his well-educated head.
"Okay," he said, as the computer booted. "If he signed off on the delivery it should be in here. You're lucky, you know. Usually you have to hold a man at gunpoint to get him to sign anything around here." Why did I just say that, thought Alby. It wasn't a comfort when Mr. Barikos laughed.
"I have been very fortunate, lately. It's spelled with a 'K' by the way," he said, when the screen came up. "Most fortunate to be here. I have heard much about your collection."
"It'll take a bit to load... Yes, finest collection in the Western World," sighed Alby, sitting back. "And the leading experts in the field. I've heard we're pretty prestigious."
"You sound less than thrilled."
"No, I'm overjoyed to be here. Makes me a hit at family functions."
"Ah," said Barikos. "Family. Yes. I know something about this. I've always been very bad at impressing family. My wife would agree with me."
Maybe it's the tattoos. "Must be nice."
"It has its perks." The computer's groans ceased. Four results popped up, one involving an order Raleigh had placed involving those pixies. "That third one is it, I think. What is your name?"
"Albert Jarvis," answered Alby, absently. Sure enough, a delivery had been expected for that night. It had been expected a few hours ago, when Doctor Hale had been in, but as it was arranged by Doctor Mirkle it was no surprise that Hale hadn't lingered for it. He checked the contents.
'Manticore,' the file told him, matter-of-factly.
"Oh," said Alby. It would figure no one would have told him this. It would only be the most important delivery that month. "Er. The... truck must be outside?"
"Yes," said Barikos. His voice sounded hoarse. "I believe it is. I cannot imagine it would be moving soon."
"All right." He was making a trip to the outside pens anyway, it looked like. He leaned over the arm of the chair, looking back. "I can get the groundskeeper to open the gate. You can drive right up into the sanctuary. We can just let him out in the compound. That should save us having to call in a few keepers..."
The gold eyes and bent nose were still very much Mr. Barikos. The rust-colored lion's body stretched out behind that face, however, was decidedly not.
"Done," said Kamran Barikos, with a smile like a knife. "Now, the next thing."
In retrospect Alby wondered if it was a product of the inherent boredom of night shifts that he was not panicking. Maybe it was that there was no particular alarm that could be sounded. He had been through orientation. They had taught him ways to deal with the potential of beasts breaking out. Beasts breaking in, that they'd skipped. Now, here he was in the veterinary ward, face-to-face with a twelve-foot long Persian man-eater and all he could think was '...the bestiaries get the mane wrong.'
Not that it wasn't an impressive mane. It looked very much like it had when he'd thought Mr. Barikos was a man: a dark, reddish black, curled jaggedly over his pronounced brow. Now it swept back over his neck and shoulders, and a little around where neck met his body, but it was far from the full explosion of red as depicted in books. He was sleek rather than boxy, his gait low and gliding like a cat's or — and this comparison was more fair — like Cassia. He even held his wings the same way at his sides, though hers were glossy and feathered. His were leathery and jointed like a bat.
"Are you well?" he asked. Alby had been asked a question. He came back to himself and shook his head, remembering at the last minute not to make the movement too sudden.
"I'm sorry," he said. "You know, you're the first manticore I've met."
"Flattered," said Mr. Barikos. "You are lucky it should be me. But can you help?"
"I'm not our chief vet," said Alby. That was Mirkle's nephew, and he was pretty smug about it. "I mean, I completed a few courses, but my practical skills—"
"You know something," said Barikos.
"I'm not a vet."
"Should I come back during the day, then?"
Alby put his hands up. "Tell me where it hurts."
Barikos swung his tail around, and Alby learned another thing that the bestiaries had failed to mention: A manticore had a tail barb, this much was true, but it was far from that single scorpion's stinger tucked demurely in the tip. He counted at least ten barbs, arrayed at random across the widened end of his tail, each of them glistening and grooved from venom and each of them bristling with irritation. The smallest was about as long as his middle finger. The largest was as long as his forearm. They hovered half a foot from his face.
"Here," said Barikos. "The center one. It will not retract."
"Okay," said Alby, forcing himself not to blink. "Thanks. That's... very specific."
One thing that bestiaries did agree on was that manticores were deadly venomous, able to shoot venom from their tail at least ten feet if they so chose. Goggles, gloves, and a mask were therefore a must, though some species spat acid, so it was only a small comfort that Alby managed to break the lock on the supply cabinet. It didn't strike him as good manners to ask for confirmation.
"Okay. I'll... need you to lay your tail on the bench here. I'll have to tie it down. I don't have an anesthesiologist on hand, so er, I can't do too much to numb it."
Barikos took this with surprising grace. "I understand." He was alarmingly polite, but then he could afford to be. He settled his tail along the bench as instructed. The thick club, which housed the folded barbs, was the size of a volley ball. "I am used to such things."
Are you used to it in a way that won't take off my head in one swipe? wondered Alby, but he reached for the straps. He kept his bestiary open on the chair. It was a basic unreal anatomy text from his school days. It told him the venom sacs were located at the base of the manticore's club. One lobe of it produced the venom, the other stored it. Muscles attached to the club from the tail squeezed it up through a pronounced duct into the central barb. It happened in a fraction of a second. It was a predatory and a defensive mechanism. The slightest wrongful touch could cause a reflexive squeeze of these muscles. The only way to avoid a mouth full of neurotoxin (aside from muscle relaxants he didn't have access to) would be to clamp off this duct to prevent the passage of venom from the sac, to the barb, to the face.
The top part of a manticore's tail was made of hard, knobby hide. The dead tissue hardened into a ridge, similar to a human's nails. This stiff hide was especially concentrated around the head of the beast's club. The underside of this club, on close inspection, was quite soft. The padded flesh and thin, white hair served as a cushion to the barbs. Alby counted thirteen. The number made no biological sense, but for an unnaturalist it was the number upon which a career was built.
At the base of each of these barbs the skin rose obligingly to accept them as they lay neatly tucked against the club, six on each side, and the main barb — a wicked curved thing — undeniably central. Here, Alby saw the trouble: it didn't lie flat. It extended at a bent angle off of the club. It twitched painfully. Close to the cuticle the skin was red and inflamed. No wonder Kamran Barikos had walked so stiffly. Under the flap of skin, which should have cushioned the barb and concealed the ligaments that allowed it to extend, Alby caught a glimpse of a glossy, artificial surface peeking out from under the reddening flesh. Once, this surface might have been white, or maybe a light blue. It was now a dingy grey, darkened by dried manticore's blood — which was black. Still, there was no mistaking the unnatural-ness of this ragged edge.
"You didn't have a swing at anything recently?"
The manticore's arched red body leaned in response. A muscle close to his shoulder twitched in remembrance of an apparent strike. "Yes."
"...Can I ask what?"
"A truck," said Barikos.
"Right," said Alby, who shouldn't have asked. It was probably part of the hood. He reached for the clamps. The duct wasn't too hard to locate. It was a distinct tubular rise along the underside of the tail, blotchy blue like a vein. Only the main barb shot venom, which made it all the more precarious. He'd have to clamp it at the top of the sac's double-mounded rise at the base of the club, and then again beneath the barb, just to be sure. With how inflamed the tissue looked, this would not be comfortable. He clamped the sac off first. A shudder ran up and down the manticore's flanks.
"Sorry," said Alby, automatically. He snapped the second set shut.
The table leapt half a foot up and Alby leapt a whole foot back. The knotted muscles gave a squeeze, causing every barb to snap out and back down in unison. The central barb could only return halfway, coming down for a moment over the injury. The manticore didn't roar, but his wings unfurled to their full spread. They were twice as long as his body, with cruel natural hooks and added jewelry dangling off of these hooks. There was a groan. This was not the patient. It was the floor tiles. His claws had unsheathed into the tiles, leaving large roves in the floor and showing the concrete underneath. By some miracle the clamps held.
"Should I continue?" Alby had no choice at this point, but he didn't dare go on without asking.
"Yes," rasped Barikos, in a voice like leather over sand.
Alby retrieved the forceps from under the bench. He sprayed the area with a disinfectant and —watching the way the barbs twitched as he did this — carefully applied a numbing gel to the area. It was the kind used for cold sores and would do nothing for the actual extraction. The main barb quivered dangerously. Alby eased off till it was still.
"Can you tilt it to the right?"
Barikos did. Its shadow fell in spiny relief across the floor. Alby edged his way to the head of the table. He'd have to be very, very delicate. The last spasm had lodged the shred of metal further under the skin, but the forceps could still find purchase on its last exposed corner. He would have to be fast, too. Another slap of that barb and his fingers could be forfeit.
"Can you feel this?" he asked, brushing that edge. He leaned sideways till he gained a firm hold.
The manticore growled, softly. "Some."
"Some's better than a lot," said Alby, lining himself up with the tip of the barb and the metal's bloodied edge. He angled himself so that the barb was aligned slightly to the left of his vision. "I'm going to count to five."
He pulled at two.
The barb snapped. This time the beast did roar. It sounded like an ancient war cry all mixed with a terrible lion. It blasted Alby's ears and rattled the compound walls. The tail came up. The straps snapped in swift succession and the barbs sliced the air in a bone-colored flash, splaying blocked blood and venom in a messy arc. The tiles sizzled. The room stank like Aunt Marigold's pool. Barikos was, it turned out, an acid-shooter.
Alby lay against the cabinets seven feet away. He stared. He found his breath. For a moment all he could see was the metal splinter. The shard was six inches long, two inches wide, and a centimeter thick. The thick end was pale and the narrow end, which had been lodged deeper, was a deeper black. It was clamped between the forceps. He was still holding the forceps. The object shook in his vision. He began to laugh at the sight of it.
"I got it," he said, not thinking. "I did it."
A clatter brought his attention to the scene beyond the forceps. The clamps fell, first the one under the main barb, then the one at the base of the club. He could see the shape of the manticore, doubling his body around itself in the boneless fashion of cats to examine his injury. He gave the tail a flick, and rattled his barbs. He sprang them, and retracted them. The long one stuttered, and his wings quivered in a wince, but it lay flat. Bobbing his head in satisfaction, Kamran Barikos turned.
Head low, shoulders gliding, his shadow fell over Alby. His wings unfurled halfway, his eyes lighted on him. His face was not all a man's. This much was clear on such close inspection. His eyes were more gold, and the pupils more narrow, his ears were pointed, and his jaw had grown stronger in support of a notable under bite. The rows of long teeth in those jaws appeared in a great ripple of his dark lips. He had a scar across those lips: a small, white line, which ran slantwise from right to left.
Alby mostly saw the teeth. They were well-kept and very white. He could see his face in the incisors. "I... " he began.
The manticore sat. "Thank you," said Mr. Barikos. "That bothered me."
In anticipation for his head's probable removal, all thought had packed up and evacuated in an orderly fashion. Now that his head was still firmly attached, the thoughts crept back: items of interest shamefully bundled. They returned all out of order, because the first thing out of his mouth was: "You don't want me to stitch that up?"
The manticore swung his tail around his haunch to inspect it. The skin was still discolored and it bled freely. Barikos licked away the fresh blood like a proper cat. He turned it from side to side, and stuck out his pronounced bottom lip in thought. Alby pressed his shoulders to stay clear of the flexing barbs.
"It will heal now," said Barikos, decisively. It vanished back behind him.
Alby sat up. "Well, keep it clean and use some disinfectants. Keep, uh, sprays to a minimum and it should heal in a month." He sounded like a doctor. The corners of Barikos' eyes crinkled with amusement. It emphasized the horns that ran up his brow.
"You know how to speak with us," he said, softly. "Which is more than most idiots in your field. You should consider your own practice, Albert Jarvis. You came well-recommended."
The warmth of newfound authority slipped away. "What?"
"I was referred by one of your patients."
"Patients?" Alby remembered then that Mr. Barikos was a manticore. "You're welcome. I'm a few degrees off from a clinic, though. Will... that be all?" 'Yes,' Alby told himself. 'You want the answer to be yes.'
The manticore said, "No."
"I said I was here for three things." The manticore stood, curling towards the door. He held his tail in the more customary scorpion's arc. His wings fanned and un-fanned. "The first was to deliver myself to this facility. The second was the medical issue that you have settled. The third..."
He waited. The fluorescent lights above went dim. When they flicked back to their normal state, a speck of light was hanging next to the manticore's pointed ear.
Alby squinted, sliding his back up the cabinet.
It was a pixie, a striped pixie. They were native to the Southern regions of Europe and the Menagerie had never kept a single one.
"My wife is checking out," said Kamran Barikos.
There were three different alarms in the Menagerie:
There were the basic fire alarms. These were tested every month to the staff's intense irritation. It was a repetition of a long, deep moan, held for three seconds, with a one second interval, and then another three-second bleat. It was accompanied by small, flashing white lights located at the ends of every hall. Alby was familiar with this. It used to go off every time Doctor Raleigh tried to have a smoke in the break room.
There was an alarm in the computer labs, indicating forced entry or removal of expensive equipment. This was a high, urgent twitter, set to scream out 'thiefthiefthiefthief' or 'vandalvandalvandal' till security found the switch. The same principle went for the motion detectors, which often chose their own time to go off, and sang until they'd been removed from the wall, their batteries were ripped out, and their remains ceremonially burned.
There was one more type of alarm Alby had never heard. He had been assured in orientation that it would never be heard. The Menagerie was the pre-eminent western facility in the field of unnatural sciences. It boasted a fine collection of beasts and the most up to date equipment with which to keep them, be assured. Alby was promised never to hear the triple siren that was set to issue from the main lobby, the back entrance, and the front gates. He would never hear the intercom system override to chime pre-recorded instructions on how to exit the building in the safest route possible: the ones that best bypassed all of the facility's main attractions, especially the hydra's pen. Alby was promised never to see the security cabinets installed in each room unlock revealing their contents of very long, very sharp, very silver 'safety rods.'
This was, after all, the alarm set to go off should every cage within the facility suddenly and unexpectedly unlock and fly open at the exact. same. time.
'Oh god,' thought Alby. 'The unicorns.'
He saw the craggy cut of the manticore's shadow fold its wings close and flow out the door.
Alby stumbled to his feet. The noise was rattling, and the grey and white of the infirmary took on a pressing quality in the jabber of the alarms. The police would be on their way, but what could they do? They didn't know monsters the way Alby did.
He grabbed a silver pole, to be sure, and launched himself into the hall. The voice belting instructions was heavily distorted, and he couldn't make out the directions. It didn't matter. He retraced his old route for avoiding his coworkers. It took him up past the pixie cage, where the glass panels hung open. Colors flashed like a night club. He felt tiny hands grab at his head and coat, and kept running.
Rushing out into the lobby, he fell. His shoe caught on empty air and bent on its sole. Screeching, he tumbled forward, splaying out an arm to break his fall. The rod went rolling. He lunged for it. The doors banged open behind him with a force that broke the safety glass. He fell on his stomach, covering his head against the pieces that rained around him. With his face pressed to the floor, he couldn't be sure the thumping he felt against his cheek was the sound of clawed feet or shoes. He opened his eyes. Under the sliver of visibility afforded by the space under his forearm, for a second he saw both.
"Be presentable!" snapped a voice from down the hall. They were decisively shoes, after that. They were little shoes, for they belonged to little, round people with hair that flared up in single crests above their heads. They wore puffy winter coats in which their arms stuck out at the sides like wings. He watched them come into sight and waddle towards the main doors. They bumped and jostled each other the whole way, their voices like clucking. The doors closed behind them with a mechanical hiss. None of them had glanced back, a fact for which Alby was profoundly relieved. The tracks they'd left weren't shoe prints. They were long, diagonal scratches. He could just make them out in the glare of the once well-buffed floors.
The rod was only a foot out of reach. Alby slid up on a knee to reach for it. His fingers bumped the handle. It rolled away. In the reflection of the scuffed floor he caught another living shape crossing the broken door behind him. There were no footsteps this time, only a sort of rush of air. Alby covered his head and, with eyes cracked open, he could just make out the forest of legs in dotted stockings come down around him. A group of women, with pert faces and colored hair, gossiped nastily amongst themselves as they drifted out with a light buzzing. They were taller than the first group, though not by much — not a one of them stood over four feet tall. They might have passed with no remark, but one of them paused. The eyes that lit on Alby were sharp and ruthless.
"What about that?" she asked, in a cold, high voice. "Could use a laugh for the road."
Alby remembered the hands in his hair and his clothes. He might have scrambled to his feet. He might have made to run far away as fast as he could. All these ideas came to a halt as a foot came down between his shoulders and pushed him back into the floor. The pressure was not a hard one, but somehow overpowered him. A second foot came down next to his face. It wore dainty pumps and a striped sock that went all the way up a long, skinny leg.
"Can't!" said a voice, higher than the first. "Boss says no!"
"Oh, screw her," said the first girl, but she threw her arms up and marched out the door. In spite of the apparent heaviness of her steps, her feet made no sound.
Fingers tickled the back of Alby's neck.
"Keep your head down, or someone might wanna keep it," whispered his striped guardian. "There were thirteen by the way. Thanks for covering for me." And then she was gone too, looking just like the rest, except for the stripes.
Baffled by this, Alby wasn't ready for the scratch of heels fussing their way over the empty door frame, now hanging crooked on its hinges. He was less ready for the great expanse of red that flooded his sight. It was the bottom of a faded red dress, and while its skirts hung in strips, it was a mighty bottom, for it belonged to a large, elderly lady shaped approximately like a pear. She held an old shawl draped over her meaty arms. It was a faded set of orange and mauve, with frayed yellow embroidery looping flames into the cloth. She had several swaying chins, a stately nose, and a pair of wide, proud eyes staring down at him. Her hair was a very light red.
"I do find it a pity about the stoves," she clucked deep in her jiggling throat, "but thank you for trying."
"You're welcome?" Alby could barely feel himself speak.
The corners of her eyes crinkled. "An acceptable response."
The ankles that flashed through the pieces of her swaying dress were surprisingly thin.
She was followed not long after by a great clopping and clacking that sent pieces of glass bouncing round Alby's head. A herd of slim men in white, Elizabethan blouses flowed out around him like quicksilver. They had high foreheads and long faces and their white hair swirled behind them in thin and elegant tails. Their shoulders were perfectly squared and their rears were perfectly sculpted, and Alby froze in the grip of pure unmitigated dread. One of them swung his long neck around to look at him. His tall, high-heeled boots stopped an inch from Alby's nose. One was better buffed than the other.
"You had great nerve to approach me as you did, unclean creature that you are," he said in a soft, solemn voice, "but as I know that you have not yet laid hand upon a poor maiden, you might yet be forgiven for your trespass."
He tossed his head and followed the herd at a bounding cant. Alby watched their pale rumps flow out into the night, shimmering like moonlight and vanishing like the stars at dawn. The man could've just kicked him.
After that, it was quiet, unless you counted the alarms still sounding in a persistent wail that had become nearly like a musical accompaniment. The police would be there soon. Alby tested his legs and discovered they still worked. He slid a knee forward and lifted his head.
He was immediately level with a dark throat and a very sharp collarbone. It stuck out aggressively from the open neck of a slinky black dress and pointed with its ending contours towards the beginning rise of a woman's well-proportioned chest.
"Oh," said Alby.
A hand held his arm. It was slim and dusky, with long nails.
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"That's not right," said Alby. "You're supposed to be aclavicular. You were this morning."
The woman shrugged. Her shoulders were covered by a feathery black coat that trailed over her bent calves. She was crouched across from him. "Don't worry yourself about it," she said. "Hi, by the way. You didn't come by tonight. I missed you."
"I got tied up," said Alby. "Sorry. Were the cages you?"
Cassia smiled. Her teeth were as sharp as always. "There was a computer." She pulled him into a sitting position. "I asked it a question. Aren't you good, waiting for me. Hope you're okay."
Alby's head swam. "I don't know." He could make out Barikos, standing straight-backed behind her, four or five steps away. He looked like a man again. His hands were shoved into his pockets, but if Alby screwed up his eyes he could see his wings folded and his tail crooked.
He blinked and there were pockets and a jacket again. Barikos shifted and made an impatient sound deep in his throat. "Cassia," he murmured. "They will be here soon. We have taken enough time."
"And whose fault was that?" snapped Cassia, with teeth. Barikos' head jerked at the question, but being of a stronger constitution than the average intern he shook it off with little more than a brief moment of crossed eyes. "Nevermind my stupid husband. You're cute, and you were so hospitable. Sorry to be leaving so soon, but I just thought it was time."
"Can you fly?" asked Alby. Her flight muscles were still weak from her long confinement. Dr. Mirkle had kept those exercises minimal.
She rolled her shoulders in both a shrug and demonstration. "I can make a short flight. That'll do, for now. You're a doll to ask, though. Want to come with?"
The question caught him off guard. Pain flared between his ears and behind his eyes with the force of it. Why don't you. Why don't you. The words banged around in his skull and he couldn't make sense of them in singular form, let alone together in a sentence, let alone together in a question, let alone figuring the answer. He thought the answer might be to throw himself off the roof, if only to think clearly again...
...but Cassia was feeling kind, and she answered for him. "No, guess you can't." Alby sagged, his mind blessedly blank again. "You've got some business to finish yourself, but don't be a stranger." She patted his cheek and stood, straightening her dress. "Come, you ugly son of a bitch," she said to Barikos, who clacked his teeth at her as she sidled up beside him. The scar on his lip was more pronounced then before.
"And I came all this way to get you," he growled.
She looped her arm around his. "So let's go."
"Maybe I do not want to anymore."
"Maybe you're just a baby."
"And maybe you are simply a..." he paused, and for the first time seemed to feel the need to acknowledge the third party left in the lobby. "Albert Jarvis. You will not forget us, will you?"
Alby swallowed. "Don't think I ever will."
"Heh," said Kamran Barikos. "Now we can go."
Cassia swatted his head. "You said that to look good!"
They walked out the door. They were arm and arm, shoulder to shoulder, pressed together like cats as they sidled out into the night. Alby could not be sure if he was seeing a man and woman or a manticore and a sphinx, but it didn't really matter anymore. The manticore was walking easier, and there was some satisfaction to be found in that.
Alby got to his feet. He looked around. He could hear sirens now, ones that didn't come from the building. The pair had left just in time. The security desk was empty. Miss Warren had probably made the call. The lobby was a mess of tracks and broken glass, and he couldn't even begin to figure how much work it would take to fix all this, but all at once he knew he didn't care.
He left the rod where it was and picked his way back over the frame of the broken inner door. The hydra had not made it far. It was cool, and winter made him sleepy. He lay in a heap of serpent in front of the offices. Alby stepped over two of his heads. It was only out of the corner of his eye that he thought he saw a man in a snakeskin suit passed out against the wall.
The door to Doctor Mirkle's office had been kicked open. The claw marks in the door were familiar. Alby paused to appreciate their elegant shape and proportions. The inside looked like a hurricane zone and smelled strongly of cat and acid, a bold "YOU WILL HEAR FROM OUR LAWYERS" carved into the desk.
"Huh," said Alby. He'd never thought of doing that.
The computer was in pieces on the floor. Alby dug up a pen and one of the pages scattered around the murdered fax machine. He didn't need to sit down. The letter didn't take too long. He'd had it written in his head, word for word, for the last two years.
Having turned in his letter of resignation, Alby buttoned his coat. He left his keycard at the security desk. He went out and sat on the steps. There were lights like eyes across the parking lot. He saw them, raised his hand, and waved. He was still sitting there when the police arrived, approximately ten minutes later.
Alby was in some trouble after that, but his cousin Sonia was a senior partner in the best law firm in the city. The news really wasn't interested in Alby. After what few beasts could be retrieved were retrieved, an investigation of the compound revealed that Doctor Hale had filed a grievance against Doctor Mirkle on account of 'blatant plagiarism' and 'general unpleasantness' and that Doctor Mirkle had intended to sue him on account of defamation. Investigation of company files and in-office communications had uncovered evidence of several murder plots, but most of these were so convoluted it was hard to see how they might have killed anyone. The one the news liked best involved the tweaking of a basic security program that opened every single cage in the compound on a night when Doctor Mirkle ought to have received the second half of a leonine breeding pair he had recently acquired. In the media and legal storm that followed everyone forgot about Alby, except for Sonia, who did such a good job of establishing his uselessness during the whole debacle that it was all the family would be talking about for years to come. Aunt Marigold glowed in triumph.
"What a fine girl," said Grandmother Hildegard. Sonia sat awkwardly beside her. "There is something to be said of the modern woman. Oh, Lilian. What about our silly Albert? He doesn't write enough."
Alby misses most family functions these days. After everything settled he left to study in Greece, which is said to be the best place for a young unnaturalist to gain any sort of field experience. With everything that happened, it might not have been possible, but lucky for him he received a grant from the CassioVari Society: an organization that had seen his graduate work, caught his name in the news, and had determined that someone of his qualifications would be well suited for some hands-on experience. He's interning at a new clinic on the island of Kithara, now. The intensive nature of his study keeps him from traveling, but the Mediterranean climate has agreed with him and it's said that someday he'll be one of the finest clinicians in the field. He can usually be found talking a cockatrice into giving him its wing, or keeping a safe distance as he asks a silvery gentleman where exactly he thinks the pain is coming from. Sometimes he's taken out for dinner by the clinic's main benefactors: a charming married couple who summer there every year. They're rumored to own the island itself, though no one can really be sure, and they look a little odd in the wrong kinds of light. The CassioVari clinic is not nearly the household name that the Menagerie was, and it's hard to impress people at parties, but Alby could ask for nothing more. He gets dozens of patients a day, of all shapes and sizes and all backgrounds, there's always conversation, and there's never a dull day in sight.
Every so often, he writes Grandmother Hildegard about the unicorns.