If it’s Tolkien, we must have a hefty serving of deus ex machina, right?
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Read, or the Owl Will Eat You – by James (This is not the real title. He doesn’t have a title yet.)
My life ended the day I awoke to the sight of an owl perched at the foot of my bed.
I didn’t realize it at the time, of course, so at first I just rolled over and closed my eyes again, hoping I was dreaming. If I was, it meant the nightmares that visited me every night were over, replaced with advertising for one of the many nature documentaries I favored. My hope quickly faded when it hopped along the sheets until its little talons were digging into my neck. It pecked at my ear and I fell out of the bed.
“Where did you come from?” I demanded. Well actually, I think the first thing I did was yell. Or scream. Yes, my voice had a decidedly screamy quality to it. I’m not used to owls waking me. Who is?
Still on my bed, the smug featherbrain cocked its head to one side and hooted. You know how they always say owls go “who, who?” This one didn’t. It sounded maybe like a cross between a cat’s purr and a pigeon cooing. I think they call it trilling. Whatever, I’m a linguist, not an owl-ologist. I stood up and backed away from the little bird. It hopped along after me and trilled again.
“What, did the real estate market for nests collapse? Why are you in my apartment? Shoo!” And now I was arguing with an owl. Its call went up a few octaves as it shrieked at me. I picked up my phone from the nightstand and shook it at the bird. “I’m calling animal control.”
It hooted indignantly and fluttered silently out of the bedroom. I followed it into the living room just in time to see it wing its way out of my open window. Oh yeah, I’d forgotten I left it open so I could listen to last night’s rainstorm. There had been a screen, but now it sported a big hole. I guess the owl was a vandal as well as a trespasser.
My phone rang, its screen burning brightly with the picture of Khanh Trinh, my friend. I hit the answer button. “Hello?”
“Tom!” His excited voice was a little tinny. Probably another new bluetooth set. “Tell me you finished, buddy.”
“At 2AM,” I groused. Khanh wasn’t just my friend. We worked for the same employer. He develops voice recognition software, but it’s my job to train it. Being multilingual comes in handy. “Yeah, I finished the last of the conversational Sango vocabulary last night. Why? Don’t we present it to the VP tomorrow?”
“That was before Nancy Greymar herself showed up early and demanded a personal demonstration.” He was speaking a mile a minute now, and if I knew Khanh, he’d be pacing a divot in the floor out of agitation. “I don’t know Sango from gibberish, and if we don’t give a good demonstration, she could pull the plug on our project. You have to get down here. Mr. Arik is talking shop with the old hag right now, radio frequencies and antenna design or something. I think she wants to inspect the cell tower first, so we have a bit of time. Maybe an hour.”
“All right.” I wiped my eyes and groaned. The clock on my dresser told me it was 9:30AM, so my plans to sleep till noon just weren’t in the cards. “Call me a cab. Have it meet me in forty-five outside the Seven Rishis.”
He gave a squawk of protest. “Forty-five minutes? But—”
“It’s plenty of time, and I’m not doing a demo on an empty stomach, Khanh.” I shut off the phone and tossed it on the bed, then hurried my way through getting ready for work. As a speaker of twenty languages, I have a skill set in demand and can usually get away with dressing however I want. If this was a meeting with my team, I’d just pull on a polo. In the company food chain, however, I was a fluffy bunny to Nancy Greymar’s Tyrannosaurus Rex. With her, you suit up.
That was probably why I was greeted with catcalls when I stepped into Seven Rishis twenty minutes later. “Nice suit, Tomcat!” Darcie, the barista, had an American Midwestern accent I couldn’t quite place. “Want your usual, or are you ordering off the menu today?”
“The usual, please. To go.”
She grinned at me and started work on the drink, then called back to the kitchen. “Penny, Tom’s here. Same old crap, give it legs!”
A cheerful sound of assent emanated from beyond. In case you haven’t figured it out, I eat at the Seven Rishis a lot. Probably more than I should, if I’m being honest with myself. But it’s close to home, they sell authentic Indian food, and the staff are a genuine treasure. Darcie is a tall, willowy blonde who I’ve seen steal the hearts of half the clientele. “Auntie” Agnes is a wizened weekend part-timer with more salt than the Atlantic, though she wasn’t here today. Then of course there’s Penny.
“Hello, Mister Tomas!” As if on cue from my train of thought, Penny chirped a greeting from the kitchen. She’s short, round, and dark—Darcie’s complete opposite, but the best street food cook I’d met outside of the Kerala region. She held up a bag for me to take. “Rava dosa to go, and one medium masala chai. That will be $9.99, please.”
I paid her with a ten.
She smiled and fished in the register, then slid my change across the counter. I reached for it, but she kept her finger on top of it. “You look so serious today, Mister Tomas. And so fancy. Penny for your thoughts?”
“Just work.” I picked up the bag and enjoyed the savory smell of warm coconut chutney. “I have to give a presentation today, that’s all.”
Nodding, she lifted her finger off the penny. “Well, you look very handsome.”
I grinned at her. “Thanks.”
A steaming hot beverage slid across the counter and stopped between us. Darcie called out from her workstation. “I upped you to a large, on me. You look like you need the caffeine boost. Go knock ‘em dead.”
“Thank you, Darcie.” I saluted her with the cup and ducked back outside.
The cab rounded the corner, so I wolfed down the food in two quick bites. Just as I tipped back my chai for a sip, hard little needles dug into my shoulder. I yelped like a kicked dog and spilled the fruits of Darcie’s labor down my shirt. If you haven’t already guessed, I don’t handle surprise very well. It was the owl again. He preened himself, looking smug.
“Seriously?!” I tried to brush him off, but he only nipped my hand and dug his talons in even harder. It hurt. “Fine, fine! You can stay, just loosen up a bit.” He relaxed his grip, and my shoulder stopped feeling like hamburger. I brushed the droplets of tea and the bits of cardamom off my front. “You ruined my shirt.”
The bird hooted contentedly and fluffed up his feathers. Or maybe it was her feathers. How do you tell with owls, anyway? Whether owl or—owlina?… owlrietta?… owlette?… whatever—its persistent magnetism towards me had turned a sharp outfit into a wreck. I woke up my phone and checked the time. The cab was early, so I might have time to change if I could convince him to wait. I walked up to the window, ready to explain the change in route.
“Don’t you bring that thing in here,” the driver growled at me. Perhaps he was normally a really cheerful person, but today he was grouchy. Maybe he didn’t like Wednesdays. Maybe his breakfast hadn’t agreed with him. Or maybe it was just me.
“The bird.” He gestured a meaty arm in the direction of my shoulder. “I don’t take no pets.”
“It’s not a pet,” I protested. “It just won’t leave. Look!” I pushed at the owl, and it bit me in response. “Ow!”
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