Laura Ruby Laura Ruby


The Wall and the Wing


The Chapter Before the First
The Professor Remembers

In a vast and sparkling city, a city at the center of the universe, one little man remembered something big.

He was very old, this little man, his full name forgotten over the years. He called himself The Professor. His specialties were numerous, and included psychology, criminology, mathematics, history, aerodynamics, zoology, and gardening. He also collected beer cans.

Other than the delivery boy who left his groceries at the back door, The Professor hadn't seen anyone in at least ten years. It was just as well, since a hair-growing experiment had left him with a head full of long green grass. Also, he didn't like clothing, so he wore ladies' snap-front house dresses and rubber flip flops with white socks. He spent much of his time fiddling in his workshop, feeding the many kittens that popped out of his pockets, and looking things up on eBay.

Today, he stood in front of his blackboard—which was covered with mathematical equations—tugging at a dandelion that had poked up through the lawn on his scalp. Suddenly, his eyes widened. He scrawled a few more equations. Yes! He saw it. Right there, in his many calculations.

A child.

He stared at the figures dancing across the board, his forehead creased with annoyance. How on earth he could have forgotten that such a thing, such a person, existed was beyond him. But The Professor simply didn't like people. Not their company, not their conversation, nada. Anything having to do with people made the roots of his teeth pulse with irritation. And here on his blackboard was proof that a very particular sort of person had been born into a cruel and stupid world filled with cruel and stupid people.

Frankly, The Professor wanted nothing to do with any of them.

But facts are facts and The Professor liked to keep his straight. Shaking his head at himself, he sat down at his lab table, pulled his notebook from underneath a large tabby cat, and made a few notes. Approx. once every century or so, he wrote. Wall. Usually, but not always, female.

After scribbling these notes, the Professor smoothed out a rumpled map. "One lived here," he muttered to himself, putting a dot on the map, "another here. This one was born there and moved here." When he was finished plotting points, he connected the dots, then took out a protractor to measure the angles between. Lost in thought, he tapped his teeth with his pencil. Something wasn't quite adding up. Where could this girl be?

After working for two frustrating hours, he walked over to his filing cabinets, unlocked the bottom drawer, and pulled from it what looked like a human hand mounted upright on a black marble stand. The Answer Hand. He did not like to consult the Answer Hand and very rarely did. The hand, being a hand, could not speak and was therefore difficult to comprehend (it knew the Sign Language alphabet, but had to spell everything out. And then it talked in circles). The Professor could not deny, however, that the Answer Hand often had the answers to perplexing questions, which was exactly why The Professor had purchased it (on eBay of course, from some guy in Okinawa).

He put the mounted hand on top of the table and pointed at the equations on the blackboard and then to the map. "Where?" he asked.

The fingers on the Answer Hand drummed thoughtfully on its marble base. After a few moments the hand began rambling about a number of irrelevant topics: the average rainfall in Borneo, the merits of California wine, the fat content of hot dogs.

"Focus!" barked The Professor, pointing again at the black board.

Insulted, the Answer Hand made a waving gesture at the map. When The Professor still didn't understand, the hand bent at the wrist and finger-crawled across the table, dragging its heavy base behind it. It grabbed the pencil from The Professor, scrawled a star on the map, and gave the pencil back.

There, that's where, the Hand signed. Happy now?

"I've got to hand it to you," grumbled The Professor sarcastically. He had the distinct feeling that this recent discovery was only going to cause him trouble. Plus there was the fact that one of his cats, Laverne—strong-willed, even for a cat—had somehow escaped the safety of his apartment and despite the flyers he had paid a service to hang around the city, no one had called. In his book, wandering girls and wayward cats added up to a whole lot of unhappiness.

Someone knocked on the door. The Professor scowled, as there hadn't been a knock on the door since, well, the last time there was a knock, possibly months before, years even. The Professor ignored it.

The knock came again, louder. "I only take deliveries Tuesdays and Sundays. Go away," grumbled The Professor. "Go, go, go."

There was a crash as somebody kicked in the door, splintering the jamb. The Professor, always peeved when he was disturbed, was especially rankled. He liked the door the way it was.

Two men strolled down the steps leading to The Professor's rooms. One was handsome, with thick gold hair and a rosy complexion. The other was impossibly tall and dark, a vicious and terrible scar like a huge zipper running diagonally across his face. Both looked familiar, but The Professor couldn't remember where he'd seen them before. A book? A newspaper? And there was something odd about the way the scarred man moved. Not walking as much as drifting, or floating.

"Professor," said the handsome one cheerfully. "I hope you don't mind the intrusion."

They were, now that he'd had a few moments to consider it, rather intimidating. "I have important work to do," said The Professor, sounding not the least bit frightened, though his knobby knees had gone weak as egg noodles.

The handsome man stared pointedly at his head. "I see that you have some dandelion issues." He patted the pockets of his overcoat. "I might have a weed whacker around here somewhere."

"What do you want?" The Professor made more notes in his book: Two scary men. Need weapon. Sharpen pencil?

The handsome man hesitated, as if waiting for The Professor to say something else. "I'm being rude," he said. "I'm Sy Grabowski."

How do you do, Sweetcheeks? the Answer Hand signed politely.

The Professor dropped his pencil to the floor. "Sweetcheeks Grabowski?"

"In the flesh," said the man, obviously proud that his reputation had proceeded him. "This is my associate, Mr. John."

"Odd John," said the Professor. Odd John grinned. The Professor could see his teeth were tiny, like a child's. And he could also see that the scar was not like a zipper, it was a zipper. The silver tab on his forehead glittered when he moved. The Professor decided he should not like Mr. John to unzip his face. No. That wouldn't be pleasant, he was sure of it.

Sweetcheeks reached out and plucked the dandelion from the top of The Professor's head, making the little man wince. "We're a little curious."

"Yes, you are. Um, I mean, what about?" said The Professor. He was trying not to focus on the Answer Hand, which was busily erasing the star it had marked on the map and putting another star somewhere in Brooklyn.

"About your research, of course." Sweetcheeks eyed the cats warily, his lip curling up with disgust. "I thought these animals were rare."

"They are," The Professor said, and pulled a rambunctious marmalade kitten out of the pocket of his housedress. "Just not here." He placed the kitten directly on top of the map, obscuring what had been drawn on it.

"Hmmmm?" said Sweetcheeks, before turning the notebook around to read what The Professor had scribbled there. He smiled when he came to the last bit about the scary men.

"I do lots of research," said The Professor. "What are you interested in? Zoology? Psychology?"

"Oh, a scrap of this, a shred of that," Sweetcheeks said. "I'm especially interested in this curious little thing that happens once every century or more. This very odd thing. Do you know the thing I'm talking about?"

"Yes," said The Professor, wondering how the man had found out about it. He sighed. "You want to know when it happened, I suppose."

"I already know when it happened. I need to know where and I need to know who. And," he said, turning the notebook back to face The Professor. "I need to know now."

"Who? I don't know who it is," said The Professor. "How would I know that until she shows herself? Er, I mean, until she doesn't show herself, rather. As for where, I can't be sure?"

"You can't?" said Sweetcheeks. Using his thumb and forefinger, he lifted the tiny kitten from The Professor's map. "Look on this map, John. A star!"

"Oh, that?" said The Professor. "You mustn't pay attention to that. That map marks the sites of vampire nests around the city, that's all."

"Vampires? Tsk, tsk, Professor. I would think that you would be able to come up with something more creative than that." Sweetcheeks took the map, folded it, and slipped it into his breast pocket. "That takes care of where. Now I need to know who."

"I'm telling you, that map is meaningless to you."

"I think The Professor needs a little encouragement, don't you Mr. John?"

Uh oh, signed the Answer Hand.

"But?" stammered The Professor.

"Please," said Sweetcheeks. "I know that you're a genius. Everyone knows that. I also know that given the proper motivation, you'll find a way to get the information I need, won't he, Mr. John?"

The big man smiled with his baby teeth, and clasped the silver tab of his zipper, drawing downward ever so slowly.

The Professor had been correct.

Not pleasant. Not pleasant at all.