Fifteen tasty tales from a master of fantasy!
The dead. The undead. Those who wish they were dead. They're all here, along with a legend from a Pacific island, a legend from beneath a Pacific island, and much, much more. Frogs and dogs, knaves and slaves, and maybe a smidgen of real but impertinent food. Extend your imagination and have a nibble. You'll come back for more.
Includes the never before published story "Fetched."
"Alan Dean Foster is the modern day Renaissance writer, as his abilities seem to have no genre boundaries."– BOOKBROWSER
"One of the most consistently inventive and fertile writers of science-fiction and fantasy."– The Times (London)
"Alan Dean Foster is a master of creating alien worlds for his protagonists to deal with."– SFRevue
"Foster's greatest strength remains his world building, easily creating evocative alien landscapes and populating them…."– BOOKLIST
Introduction to ALI BABETTE
If you eat regularly at a restaurant, eventually the waiters and waitresses will come to know what you typically order. Especially if it's breakfast or lunch. There used to be such a place here in my hometown called TRISH'S. Some several decades ago, one of the waitresses was a tall, truly beautiful woman. One day when she was taking my regular omelette order I noticed she seemed particularly sad. Inquiring gently, I found out that, unsurprisingly, her dejection involved a guy.
"I've been married three times," she told me. "The first time it was for looks. The second was for money. By the third go-round I wasn't too picky. He turned out to be an alcoholic."
I nodded sagely—as if I knew anything. "So, what are you looking for in a man now?"
She turned thoughtful. "I don't care what he looks like. I don't care if he has any money." She looked down at me. "I just want somebody who will treat me with some decency."
Soda was glad she didn't have to close for the night. Even without being stuck with the responsibility of securing the place, Monday nights sucked. True, a less-than-grand total of four customers since nine o'clock made for no fights, no arguments over who had the next game on the one slightly unsteady pool table, and reasonably clean restrooms, but it also meant next to nothing in the way of tips. When you were young, single, and tending bar in greater New York (actually it was Hoboken, but greater New York sounded so much better), you needed every buck from every jerk. She bid good night to Dave, who would handle the closing, and left.
Only one fool hassled her on the bus on the way home. It was too late and too cold outside even for the average pervert. Glancing left and right before getting off the bus, she assured herself no one was lurking in the shadows waiting to jump her. Concluding the brief reconnaissance, she knew she was luckier than many late-night commuters. Her building was only a block from the bus stop.
It was dark, it was freezing (hey, it was Jersey in January), and she was drained. The weekend had gone pretty good, but now she needed rest. She had the next three days off, and she intended to use every one of them to catch up on her sleep and Those Things What Needed Doing. Maybe Gerry would call. Or Stax. Stax was sharp, looked great, dressed fine, but he was a lazy narcisstic bum. Bit of a raging male chauvinist, too. By contrast, Gerry didn't look like much, but he was pleasant enough and made good money working for the Port Authority and was occasionally nice to her. After five years working steady behind the bar at the DEW DROP INN on Clancy Avenue, and after an equal number of failed relationships, she was ready to sacrifice muscles for money and compliments for kindness. Her mother called it maturing. Soda called it growing tired.
Soon after graduating from Carver High she had discovered that being moderately attractive in the wider world didn't automatically guarantee you the hand of a Prince Charming. It didn't even guarantee you a chance with the Evil Grand Vizer. Most of the guys who wandered in and out of the DEW DROP INN were little more than testosterone-powered lumps of clay.
Not that she was in desperate need of permanent male companionship. By now she was used to being on her own. But—it would be nice to have someone warm to curl up next to at night. Someone to confide in, someone you could talk to secure in the knowledge that your words wouldn't be taken the wrong way, wouldn't be twisted into something nasty and hurtful.
She'd had her fill of that.
The pillow caught her eye because of the way it reflected the light that was bolted over the entrance to the apartment building. It caused her to hesitate at the bottom of the landing. A dozen or so heavy cardboard boxes had been dumped beside the stone steps, next to the regular garbage bin. They were pregnant with junk, the refuse of a life or lives too busy to bother with their contents. Most of what she could see in the dim light looked just like that: junk. But the pillow was different.
Nobody was peeking out any of the first-floor windows, watching her. The panes of the old brownstone were dark. No one else in the building that she knew of worked hours as late as she did. Moseying over to the pile of cardboard, she peered closer at the corner of the pillow that protruded from one. The covering material looked like silk, or maybe satin. It did not appear to be stained. Either way, it was a cut above what she had on the second-hand couch in her tiny living room.
After a brief struggle with the box resting on top of it, she pulled it free. It was a throw pillow of average size. Gold tassels decorated the four corners and gold fringe, apparently intact, lined the seam. The fabric itself was silvery. Her couch was a patterned forest green, but the potential contrast didn't concern her. Architectural Digest was unlikely to come calling to do a story on her place any time soon. Intricate embroidery in a script she didn't recognize decorated both sides of the shimmering material. Under her gentle ministrations it fluffed up quite nicely. Finding it almost made up for the lousy night at the bar.
It looked good, snugged in a corner of her couch, resting up against one rolled arm. Setting aside the mug of instant hot cocoa she'd prepared, she reached down to carefully smooth out the fabric so the elegant gold embroidery would show clearly, rubbing her open palm from one corner of the pillow to the other.
On the third pass of her hand, the pillow exploded.
Well, didn't actually explode. Smoke and haze erupted from it, but the only sound was a soft underlying hissing. Afraid that it might contain some harmful substance, she put her hand over her nose and mouth and stumbled backward toward the kitchen. She was hunting for the phone to call 911 when through the rapidly dissipating vapor she found herself staring at a singular figure.
Sitting on the couch atop the inexplicably reconstituted pillow, the cat stared back.
This in itself was nothing remarkable. Staring was a common attitude of cats. What was extraordinary was the cat's attire. In fact, she mused as she forgot all about the telephone, calling 911, and everything else, any cat attire was extraordinary. Cats came clad in fur; long or short. They did not dress in diaphanous silk pantaloons, jewel-encrusted turbans, miniature vests of gold and silver thread, and small boots of crimson silk boasting upturned toes. When they visited apartments in northern New Jersey they tended to arrive via cracked doors or half-open windows, not exploding pillows. Otherwise, the interloper appeared to be a perfectly ordinary gray and black housecat.
That was a very big Otherwise, however.
Clutching her robe tight around her, she swallowed hard. Before she could pause to reflect on the absurdity of it, she found herself asking, "How did you get in here?" Perhaps not surprisingly, the cat rose to stand on its hind legs, crossed its front paws over its chest, and replied, "Thrice you rubbed the enchanted Pillow of Sitting and Sleeping. I came at your command."
"It wasn't a command," she protested, thinking to add, "You can talk."
"Verily, fifty-five languages and one hundred and sixty-two dialects can I speak, plus the languages of the djinn that no human can understand."
"Djinn? You mean, you're a genie?" Aware that she was speaking nasally, she removed her hand from her nose and mouth. If it hadn't hurt the cat, the smoke and mist that had heralded its improbable arrival was probably harmless to her as well. She was tired and bewildered, but otherwise felt all right. Physically, anyway.
"I am the djinn Asami el-Razar el-Babesthi the Magnificent, of the line of Al-Bintetta the Stupendous, of the djinn of fabled Samarkand. The great and ancient Samarkand of trade and legend, not the sorry Central Asian pitstop it is now."
She swallowed. "How—how did you get here?"
"Air courier. I was a gift that was not appreciated, and was peremptorily cast out without the vessel wherein I dwell being appropriately caressed." Burning bright yellow eyes regarded her thoughtfully. "You have released me from the Pillow. Thereby am I commanded by the Great and Almighty Turazin, ruler of all the feline djinn, to grant whosoever caresses my container appropriately, three wishes."
"Three wishes!" This wasn't happening, she told herself. But then, why not? This was Jersey. Anything and everything could happen in North Jersey, and often did. Visions of riches vast enough to embarrass the Lotto began to swim in her head. Or at least, they did until the djinn spoke again.
"Alas, there seems to be a problem."
A catch. There was always a catch. That was true of Jersey, too. "What problem?"
"You are not a cat. I am not a djinn of the human kind. I am a djinn of the Felidae. I am empowered to grant cat wishes to cats. That is one reason why I was not released earlier from the Pillow. The one who dwells high above you and who received me does not associate with cats."
"That's pretty dumb of them. Me, even though I've never been able to afford to keep one, I've always really liked cats. Sometimes I'll feed one or two of the neighborhood strays, but they never stick around."
"Most altruistic of you."
"If you don't mind, I think I'll have to call you Razar. Your full name is a bit of a mouthful for me."
Dropping back down to all fours, the djinn looked around the apartment. "Speaking of mouthfuls, I'm been asleep for two hundred and twenty years, and I'm famished. You wouldn't happen to have any cream around, would you? Or a dead mouse?"
"Sorry. Fresh out. Although it shouldn't take long to find rats in this neighborhood. How about some milk?"
Long whiskers and pink nose screwed up disdainfully. "I prefer thick cream. But no djinn can choose its place of release. Milk will do."
She sipped her cocoa and watched the cat as it sat contentedly on her kitchen table and lapped milk from a saucer. "About those three wishes, now. You're sure they have to be cat wishes?"
Sitting back on his haunches, Razar daintily licked his right paw and used it to clean his milk-stained whiskers. "I very much fear that is the way of things. While I cannot conjure mouse or milk for my own meal, I could for example provide my new Master with an unending supply."
"Hey, no way! Remember what I told you about the neighborhood rats. If that's what I wanted, I wouldn't need to wish for it."
Razar the Magnificent belched softly, in most stealthy feline fashion. "Not bad milk. I prefer that what comes from the dromedary, but this was most eminently satisfactory. I confess that beyond my customary bindings I find myself favorably disposed to you—to you…."
"Soda," she replied quickly. "That's not my real name, of course. My real name's Emmaline Ray Coarseguth. From Waco, originally."
"I can see why you prefer the other." The cat turned thoughtful. "As I say, I quite like you, Soda. But the Law is the Law, and I cannot break it. What can I do to favor you within the strictures that are imposed upon me? How about a charmed scratching post that will never wear out?"
"No thanks." She brightened, crossing one leg over the other. Part of her robe fell to one side. "Could you make it, say, an 18th century ivory and precious stone-inlaid French marquetry cabinet with a scratchable leg?"
Protruding through small slits in the top of the golden turban, fuzzy ears inclined forward. "Alas, it is not within my power to manifest such transparent circumventions. The wishes I grant must be those any true cat would long for."
This wasn't going as well as she hoped. "How about a life-time supply of canned tuna?"
Razar brightened and stood up on his hind legs. In that posture he looked terribly cute, she decided, in his admirable miniature genie outfit. "Now that is something I may easily obtain for you! Your first wish?"
"No, no." She waved him off and he dropped back to all fours. "I'm just trying to establish some parameters here, that's all. Actually, I'm not real fond of tuna."
"You have no taste." The cat was clearly disappointed. One paw rose to indicate the rest of the modest apartment. "But your dwelling confirms that."
"Look, I didn't wish for criticism, either. This is nothing that a small bejeweled palace swarming with servants wouldn't fix." She waited a long moment before adding, "I suppose that's out of the question, too?"
Whiskers bobbed as Razar nodded gravely. "No solid gold cat boxes, either. Gold means nothing to a real cat."
Then what would, she pondered? If she was a cat, what would she wish for that would also prove of some value to a human? The djinn had mentioned cat boxes. She doubted wishing for one filled with small diamonds instead of clay litter would fulfill the requirement of asking for something a cat would also want. For that matter, a cat would probably disdain diamonds in its litter box, gemstones being decidedly non-absorptive.
She might be able to wangle a nice bed out of The Magnificent, but she already had a bed. Dammit, this wasn't fair! She had recovered the pillow and freed its torpid occupant. Didn't she deserve a proper reward? So she was taller and had less hair than a Siamese or Calico, so what?
That line of reasoning would gain her nothing but frustration, she realized. It wasn't Razar's fault. He seemed more than willing to please. But it appeared that rules were rules, even for feline djinn. Just like she couldn't serve anyone under 18, and sometimes had to cut off regulars who'd imbibed too much.
No matter how hard she tried, she couldn't think of anything that would appeal to a cat as well as herself. Then it came to her. Setting her empty mug aside, she drew her robe tighter around her. Outside, the cold depth of night still chilled the city.
"Cats love strong smells, right? I want a vial—no, make that a gallon. Yes, that's it. A gallon of the finest perfume."
"Ashelemak—so it shall be." Rising again onto his hind legs, Razar brought his front paws together in—well, not a clap. They were cat's paws, after all. It was more like a soft pouf. From within the pouf, an exquisite oversize decanter appeared, filled to the brim with a bright golden liquid. Delighted, she reached excitedly for the stopper. Removing it, she brought the inner tip toward her nose.
It never got close. Hurriedly, she restoppered the gallon decanter.
"What the hell is that? It smells awful!"
"To a human, perhaps." Razar was unapologetic. "To a cat, it is the essence of aromatic beauty."
"But I wanted perfume suitable for a human!" she protested.
Front paws spread wide and the djinn shrugged soft, furry shoulders. "You wished for perfume. I am compelled to bring only that which is intended to satisfy cats, not humans."
She nodded slowly and sat back in the chair. This was going to be harder than she'd imagined. At least the fine crystal decanter was salvageable—provided she could ever get that hideous smell out of it. And she'd wasted her first wish. She wouldn't make that mistake again. She couldn't afford to. Perhaps she should try to be as realistic as possible about the situation, scale back her wants.
"What about a lifetime credit at the Fulton Fish Market?" Visions of endless lobster dinners sallied through her head.
"Your second wish?"
She shrugged. She was dead tired, and the conundrum she faced seemed insurmountable. "Hey, why not?"
"Arelemoku!" Paws traced a complex pattern in the air. By now she was used to the smoke and vapor. It seemed unnecessarily theatrical.
A square piece of parchment appeared on the water-stained coffee table in front of her. Frowning, she leaned forward to get a better look at it. "This isn't a card granting credit."
"Of course not." Razar shook his head slowly. "Did you think a cat would carry a credit card, or any kind of human document?" One paw tapped the parchment. "You must memorize this. As soon as you have done so, it will vanish."
"What is it?" she asked dubiously.
"A detailed map of the market to which you wish unrestricted entrance, showing every entryway and exit plus the times of day and night when they are never watched. During those times, you may slip freely into each booth and secure whatever seafood you desire. This ability will now be with you forever."
"I can't steal fish! That isn't what I wanted. Even if I could do it, I can't spend that kind of time away from work."
Razar the Magnificent shrugged again. "A cat could. Any cat would be thrilled to be granted this kind of access."
Two wishes gone. She absolutely, positively, could not waste the third and last. "You said that you liked me. But you're not being very helpful."
"I'm sorry. Truly I am." He sounded sincere. "Don't you see, Soda? The enormity of the problem facing you has defeated many, many humans down through the ages." He sighed. "It is ever the same when I am accidentally called forth by a human instead of by a cat. Humans and cats simply want different things. There is no way around it." He met her eyes evenly. "You might as well spare yourself the mental agony and just wish for something simple to get this over with. A toy play mouse, perhaps, or a ball of string. And could I have some more of that milk, please?"
While she poured him another saucer full, she ruminated on the unfairness of it all. A real genie, three genuine wishes—and all three of them apparently useless to her. She could think of many things to wish for: all of them priceless to a cat and far less so to a human.
She could wish for a lifetime of good health, and probably receive it—provided she was willing to see veterinarians for the rest of her life. She could ask to never go hungry again, and probably wouldn't—provided she was willing to eat cat food. Face it: cats' wants were simple and straightforward. It seemed they did not, did not ever, coincide with those of human beings.
She straightened in the kitchen chair. It was hard and cold against her back. Like so many of the things in her life. "Here is my third wish, Razar."
He stopped lapping and rose one more time onto his hind legs. "Are you certain, Soda? I truly feel for you. But believe me when I say that you have been preceded in your frustrations. I hope that I may grant you something a little useful, at least, before I must leave you."
Having given the matter considerable thought and come to a resolution, she nudged the saucer closer to him. This time, she was reasonably certain what she was going to ask for would be understood by any cat. Or at least, by any female cat. "My third wish is for a male companion for the rest of my life. One who is forever kind, thoughtful, and considerate. One who won't abuse me, or curse me, or steal my paycheck. One who won't spend all his time watching television, or complaining about my cooking, or the way I look when I wake up in the morning. One who'll sleep beside me in bed, and help to keep me warm, and whose love will be undying, no matter where I live or if I put on a little weight when I grow old."
The djinn nodded understandingly, impressed by her wisdom. Reaching toward the ceiling with both paws, he hissed the command "Asenarelt!"
There was a sizable pouf of mist. When it cleared, he was still there. Only now his fine raiment had gone, turban and slippers and vest and pantaloons and all, down to the last gleaming jewel. Only he remained. Reaching out as he contentedly resumed sipping his milk, Soda slowly stroked the head and back and tail of Razar the Magnificent, late of glorious and splendid ancient Samarkand. Glancing up from the milk, he winked at her. Then he began to purr.
She was entirely content.