Joe Avery and the Old World Visitor
Charles C Cole
Did you ever have one of those days when the world just seems off? Most days, exotics lined up at our office door like we were the only bar in a corporate mining town. It’d been two hours since we’d opened. Nobody and nobody’s kid sister had come calling.
I’d sent my half-rosebush receptionist, Calendula, to the city arboretum and Central Park, in part to drum up business and in part to find out how our community was really doing: there were rumors that “supernatural authorities” were discouraging folktale creatures from coming to us for help.
I hung a makeshift “Out to Lunch” sign on the hall door and went up to the roof to dabble with flying a kite – and consider our options. The landlord had just finished construction on a new penthouse apartment, but the tenant had yet to move in. What was it like to afford a penthouse? I arrived to the rooftop backyard via the fire-escape and rewarded myself with a cigarette.
My modest kite was small and plastic, store-bought, with a picture of a Pegasus. While I had seen many different species since my first exotic case with a genie, I knew we had just scratched the surface. Until today, I’d never for a second considered advertising: those in need had a way of finding me. And I was happy to oblige, even if it meant my traditional clients went elsewhere.
Such was my preoccupation when a small cloud, no bigger than a taxi, drifted directly overhead and, for lack of a better term, parked. There was a soft droning from inside, and a four-foot tall humanoid with a hide like an elephant, a hooked beak like an eagle, and loose leathery webbing between his arms and trunk, like a flying squirrel, glided gently down. At first, I didn’t know whether I was experiencing a special delivery or an abduction.
“Detective Avery? I’m Ombard. We have mutual friends.” He was calm and focused.
“Nice to meet you, Ombard. Care to join me in my office or is this a social call, having spotted me on your radar? By the way, I love your transportation: very subtle.”
“I need help, and I need discretion. Do you offer both?”
“It depends on how many doors I have to knock on and whose, but I can promise I take your privacy seriously. Something missing?”
“A one-of-a-kind statue. You’d call it a totem pole. Our version of a family tree, a shrine to my late father, with him at the top. We had it in the middle of the wilderness at a remote compound. Winter came and we retreated to the neighborhood cave, only to find our precious heirloom gone along with the snow.”
“Do you have reason to believe it’s in the city?” I asked, suddenly wishing I had a notebook and pencil in my hand.
“It was mentioned in an article online. Yes, some of us appreciate the digital age. If I grab it, which I have a right to do, I realize I’m disrupting the delicate balance between humans and…the rest of us.”
“You want me to steal it?!” No doubt, a forked vein began to swell on my warm forehead.
“I want you to return it to its rightful owner. Isn’t that what you do?”
Ombard shared the link to the article, and I offered to make some inquiries.
Thankfully the city, as densely populated as it is, still has some of the attributes of a small town: more often than not, we’re all connected within six degrees within our overlapping social networks.
* * *
I met Dierdre Hanes for coffee. She was a curator of folk-art. Some she bought, some she sold, and some she imitated in her art studio. She considered herself a preservationist of the ways of the pre-industrialized world, though I’d heard a few of her celebrity clients were more interested in provocative curios to entertain guests and magazine journalists. In other words, her heart was in the right place, but the world used her for its own end.
“They found it in the woods, abandoned,” she explained. “I saw pictures of the site. I wouldn’t have bought it if I’d thought for a moment it was stolen.”
“The owners hibernate in winter. It doesn’t fit in their cave.”
Her lips shaped a single silent word: Exotics!
“Are you really surprised?”
“Not entirely. It’s amazing! Of course, Old World people created it.”
“Old World exotics,” I corrected her.
I knew, in her mind, Dierdre was back in the office looking at her recent acquisition with renewed appreciation. “I paid a pretty penny. It was worth every cent!”
“If you’re willing to part with it, I have an idea,” I offered.
The next day, we waited on the roof of her gallery/warehouse as a now-familiar cloud hovered overhead.
“Is that him?” she asked in a precious whisper, grabbing my wrist excitedly. I left her hand where it was, a comfort for both of us. “Very subtle.”
“That’s what I said.”
Ombard made his unique landing and introduced himself.
“You look just like the top of the totem pole!” gasped Dierdre.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree,” said Ombard, impressing both of us with his appropriate use of a human colloquialism.
“Your people are beautiful!” opined Dierdre. “The totem pole doesn’t do you justice.”
“Thank you,” said Ombard, in an uncanny balance of pride and embarrassment.
I jumped in to get the glare of the spotlight off my new friend. “Here’s my idea. You quietly return the family heirloom to Ombard. In return, he agrees to teach you his culture’s secrets for carving a ‘totem pole,’ authentic tools and methods, not to be shared outside your gallery, including Ombard offering to model for you as you create your own works of art.”
Dierdre’s blue eyes opened wide as if to accommodate her new view of the old world. Her delicate lips trembled. “Ombard, this is very generous! More than I was expecting. You would do this?” asked Dierdre.
Ombard looked briefly heavenward as if for permission or approval. “I would like to give the city a glimpse, but only a glimpse, into my culture. I think you would be the right person to make this happen.”
“I’m in! When can we start?” Her hand clamped tighter. In nervousness? In thanks? Something more? Surely, an unconscious gesture. “And do I get to see what’s behind the cloud, maybe go for a ride?”
“We can start anytime, but the ‘cloud’ remains my secret…for now.”
And so, the human world and the world of exotics came together, tentatively, out of sight of human and supernatural authorities. And I wondered if I would live long enough to one day see a new “six degrees” of overlapping social networks.