Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 53
Stories
Not on the Gallows
by Harry Turtledove
The Fairy Godfather
by Tim McDaniel
Carry On, Torus
by Gregor Hartmann
Turncrowe
by Michael Meyerhofer
It Becomes You
by Laura-Marie Steele
Why Death is Silent
by William Fischer
IGMS Audio
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Vintage Fiction
The Toll
by Chuck Wendig

The Fairy Godfather
    by Tim McDaniel

The Fairy Godfather
Artwork by M. Wayne Miller

I fluttered into the Don's inner office and hovered there, my wings beating a hundred times a second, waiting for him to notice me. The office was a walled-off section of the attic above an accountant's, who probably had no idea we were even there. Usually there was me, maybe one or two other guys hanging around, ready to get whatever or whoever he needed to talk to, but today he was alone in there. He was bent over something on his desk, something red, something he was slicing at with a sharp, sharp knife. As I watched, he grunted, then slowly placed the knife down on the desk.

He looked up at me with a lopsided grin that displayed just two teeth on the right side of his mouth, pressing the lips on the left together. He picked up the knife again and carefully wiped it with a cloth he brought out of a pocket, and then put it down. Then he gently took two edges of the red thing, and lifted it up for me to see.

"Just sculpting some rose petals," he said. "Gotta get it just right." He smiled. "Frankie!" he suddenly bellowed.

Frankie came in right off; he'd been hanging around just outside the doorway.

"Frankie. Get this and take the others, and see that they get attached to the rose bush right next to Mrs. Crandel's back door. The back door, got it? She should have a nice surprise in the morning. And Frankie--" he paused until Frankie met his gaze, "see that it gets done right. Hear me? No slipups, Frankie."

Frankie gulped and nodded and buzzed out.

The Godfather picked up the knife again and gestured. "Just keeping my hand in, you know?" he said. "Just passing the time. So what's up, Paulie?"

"Got an old gent here wants to see you," I said. "Someone maybe wants a favor or something."

"I see." The Don opened a drawer and slipped the knife into it. He swept the rose scraps from the table. "So show him in, then."

I went back out and got him. An old geezer, must have been two, three thousand years old. His wings couldn't hardly hold him up no more, and he flew backwards and sideways almost as often as forwards. But the Don had a soft spot for these old guys from the neighborhood.

I got him settled in the chair in front of the desk and then flew off to one side.

"Hey, Flisswing, I didn't know it was you!" the Don said. "Paulie, you never said it was Mr. Flisswing waiting out there. I would have had you in here pronto. Good to see you, you old spindletail."

Yeah, he called him a spindletail, right there out loud, and the old guy stiffened. I averted my eyes. The Don's wife used to put the squelch on that kind of talk, and I think he kind of enjoyed his freedom a little too much, but it's especially bad because he didn't use it with any finesse. But anyway, the old guy wasn't exactly in a position to take offense.

"Godfather," Flisswing said. You could hardly hear him.

"So, what can I do for you today, Flisswing?"

"I kind of have this problem."

"Sure, sure. That's all right. That's what I do. Handle things."

"I kinda need it taken care of, you see."

"Sure you do. Tell me about it."

Flisswing fidgeted, his wings doing that little half-flutter. "So I thought, I know you two been apart for a few years, but you must still got some pull, get me in. Maybe if I could just see her--"

The Don frowned. I kept my face absolutely still. "'Her'? We don't need to involve my wife in every little thing. Not in guy stuff, right? Just tell me what you need done, Flisswing."

Flisswing sighed and tried to catch my eye. I didn't meet his gaze.

"OK, I guess," he said. He still waited.

"Well?" Now the Don was putting a little iron in his voice. Not a good thing.

"It's just--" Flisswing looked back at the door one last time, then continued. "You know I got a little place over at Schuett's Fine Chocolates. The usual deal. I keep the place clean, the rats distracted, and they leave me a little, you know. The good stuff."

"The 'good stuff' is right," the Don said, leaning back in his chair. "Prime stuff, chocolate. Not a fairy in town doesn't envy you your situation."

"It's nice," Flisswing said.

"Nice. Yeah, I guess so. A spindletail like you, and you get the big prize just for a little light housekeeping." The Don leaned forward. "I was always wondering. A little curious, you know. So--just between us friends--tell me. How much they give you? A few shavings once a week? Maybe a broken-off corner of a bar once in a while?"

"It's not something I like to talk about--"

The Don waved the reluctance away with a hand. "Sure, sure. I understand. I do. No need to encourage any more envy than what you got already. But I mean just between friends, you can tell me." The Don held Flisswing's eye until the old spindletail looked down.

"I actually think--I suspect--I mean, I'm not all that sure that they actually leave me anything," he finally said. "I think they just drop a crumb or two, and don't even realize it."

I just smiled, but the Don slapped his desk. "Ha, ha! Oh, that's just lovely. That's absolutely perfect!" He laughed again. "The chocolate-shop people don't even know they have a deal with their resident fairy! Oh, I like this, I really do." The Don chuckled with a hand over his mouth.

"It's OK, though," Flisswing said. "I still get the chocolate. Sometimes quite a lot, depending on the day."

The Don slowly mastered his chuckles. "Yeah, yeah," he said. "Hey, in any case, you're still the envy of the neighborhood. Tubby Tony the bigbonce, and Glowbelly, the old floathugger, only get dog food. Dog food, and even then it's just the dry stuff! Dash takes the cheese they leave for the mice. So you're doing just fine, as far as I can see."

"Yes, I think so. I mean I am happy there."

"But."

"Yes, but. There's a big refrigerator at the shop, in back. I guess fifty years ago or whenever, that area was part of another shop. So another fairy has dominion there. A woman by the name of Slaphappy. A real mean floathugger."

"She bothering you?"

"The thing is, back in the refrigerator she has milk. Lots of it. There's chocolate, too, but she can't get at it, because it's all wrapped in that plastic stuff, when it's in the back room. They don't unwrap it until they bring it out to sell."

"Damn plastic."

"Yeah. But she can get at the milk. So she trades it to me for some chocolate. Last few years, her cut is a third of what I find."

"Expensive. But we're talking milk. That don't come cheap."

"I know, I know. And I had no problem with that. But lately she's been demanding more and more. Sometimes a half. Sometimes even more. And that milk--I mean, once you've had a taste of it, once you like got the habit--"

"Sure, Flisswing, sure. I understand that. You're not the first fairy to get hooked on the udder sap. Riding the white tornado."

"But she's asking for more and more. I'm losing weight!" Flisswing was vibrating half out of the chair, his voice rising. "And the anxiety--it gets to a guy. And a guy my age? I don't need the stress!"

The Don patted him on the hand. "I see the problem, old fellow. And I think I can help you with this Sliphippy."

Flisswing recoiled. "Gee, Don, I mean, I don't like her, but to call her that kind of thing, I mean--"

The Don slapped his shoulder. "I got carried away. Anyway, I will take care of things, got it?"

He often got carried away, I thought to myself. But that kind of thing would get talked about.

Flisswing seemed to forgive the lapse, at least in front of the Godfather. "That's great, Don, really great," he said. "I appreciate it. You know I always speak up for you when the guys are out front jawing away. I always tell 'em, they gotta show some respect."

"Yeah, Flisswing, yeah. But you know how this works. You've been around. I do something for you--"

"Sure, Don. Sure. I know."

"--you do something for me. Maybe not right away. Maybe the bill never comes due. But that's the agreement."

"Of course, Don. Sure, sure. You know me. I'm a standup guy."

I saw Flisswing out the front door, and then swooped back into the Godfather's office. He had his knife out again, but he wasn't cutting no rose petals. He looked up at me.

"You've been humming around here all morning," he said. "You want something, Paulie?"

"No, no, I don't want nothing, Don. Nothing at all."

"Look at you. So nervous your feet don't hardly touch the floor. All morning you been like that. Out with it! It's not some problem you have with your girl, is it?"

I bit my lip. He shouldn't have mentioned that. He should have remembered. Silverwing had broken things off with me a couple months before. She'd made it clear that, nothing personal, but she wanted no part of me. Maybe she didn't much like my line of work, I guess. Can't really blame her. A girl like that, she needs a guy who's going places.

"No, no. Not that. But there's something's come up, Don. I been looking for a chance to talk to you, like. When you're alone. On account it's kind of a private matter, this thing."

"Well, we're alone now," he shrugged. "So what is it?"

I put my hands up, palms out. "First I want you to know, I just want to tell you, I mean no disrespect in this thing I have to say. I mean that."

"OK," the Don said slowly. "So, no disrespect. That's good."

"I mean, this isn't coming from me, see? It's not from me. It's Flutterneck. He's been talking, Don. Talking a lot."

"Talking, huh? To whom, Paulie? Who's he been talking to? He been talking to Chroniclers? Mother G or the Brothers? He trying to change things around in the big book?" The Don's grip on the knife tightened.

I flew back a couple of paces. "No, no, Don! Nothing like that. But he's been talking to the guys. Talking about you. Saying crazy stuff."

The Godfather froze, then slowly turned away. "He been name-calling, Paulie?" I could hardly hear his voice.

"No, no, boss! Nothing like that! Where'd you get an idea like that? No, he's just been saying things, you know."

The Don let a breath out and turned back to me. "Think he's fixing to make a grab? He's already got the firefly crew. Is he getting together allies for a takeover?"

"I don't know. I just know he's been chewing at your ass."

The Don opened a desk drawer and threw the knife into it. "Bring him in. Get him in here for a chat. Now."

"He's way over in--"

"I said bring him in!"

"Sure thing, boss. Right away."

As I turned to flit out, the Don said, "And Paulie?"

"Yeah, boss?"

"Paulie, thanks for bringing this to my attention. You're a loyal kid. I won't forget that, Paulie."

"Thanks, boss."

I found Flutterneck hanging out at the dump, a few of his firefly bullyboys at his elbows, all of them half strung-out on honey and motor oil.

"Hey, Flutterneck. The Don wants to see you, like right now."

He opened one bulging eye. And large bigbonces like him have those huge eyes. "Drop your dust somewheres else, flyboy." He licked some decomposing Twinkie off a finger. It takes a long time for that stuff to go bad. But judging by the twist of his mouth, this one had gone really bad.

"Hey, Flutterneck, if it ain't me, it's going to be a whole lot of other guys," I said. "Guys who don't ask twice, all polite like I'm doing."

"What's the old fraud want to see me for?" Flutterneck asked. "Hey," he said to one of the fireflies, "maybe it's a promotion, right? Set me up all high and mighty." Of course the firefly couldn't say anything. Being a firefly.

"Better get moving, Flutterneck," I said. "The Don, he don't like waiting."

"Yeah, yeah, sure, sure." It took him three hops to get airborne.

One thing about bigbonces, they sober up quick, and the honey and oil had run clean through Flutterneck by the time we arrived at the Don's office. I tapped at the door and the boss said, "Come in."

When he saw Flutterneck, the Don leaned way back in his chair and gave him the cold eye. "Flutterneck."

"Boss." Flutterneck was nervous, sure, but he was trying to hide it. Those big blues were pointed at the floor, at the painting on the wall, at the window, everywhere but at the Don, and although he was on the ground his wings kept twitching, like those on a shopkeeper come collection day.

"So you're here. Hope your visit here don't disturb any of your big plans, old Flitternuck."

I heard the Don talk like that before, but I wasn't getting used to it. I mean, names are what you might call fundamental to reality. You just don't screw with names. Flutterneck winced. "Ah, come on, boss. Why you gotta mess with my name?"

"Yeah, I'll mess with it! I hear you been doing some talking. Talking about me. That right?"

"The guys are always talking, boss. You know how it is."

The Don tilted his head just a little to one side. "Joking around, or something more? You been saying things about me that I maybe wouldn't appreciate hearing?"

"Just the same usual crap, boss. Just talking out my ass, you know? What they call metaphorically, not like a whirlfoot does when you get a drink into him."

"And what kind of crap would that be, exactly?"

Flutterneck kept quiet as long as he could, but the boss could keep quiet as long as he needed to, and finally Flutterneck broke.

"Yeah, yeah. I been doing some talking. 'Cause I realized some things, OK? I found things out."

"What things did you find out, Flitternit?"

Flutterneck put a hand up, like he could push away the name-calling, but he didn't give up. "That you ain't got no real power, that's what," he said. " Sure, you can have the wings pulled off some poor mook, but all that wish-granting stuff? That's strictly her turf, and you got none of that action. The sprites were talking, and they laugh at you. You're a big joke. The spectral unicorns and the elves think it's hilarious, too, you strutting around like you do. Like you're some kind of big shot."

The boss clenched his teeth and his eyes blazed. "That's what you've been talking about, huh?" he ground out.

"Yeah!" Flutterneck was full of himself now. He jabbed a finger at the Don. "You're a phony. You're nothing. She's got you on a tight leash, and she's the one with all the mumbo. Turning mice into doormen and pumpkins into carriages, turning puppets into real boys, that's all her. You--you're just her attendant. Her toy!"

"You think by bringing me down, you're going to be the one in charge?"

Fluttlerneck laughed, his sagging throat pouch quivering. "In charge of what? I'm saying it's all meaningless. She's got the power, and you're just playing like a leprechaun calling up ghost shadows from a severed finger. It's just play-acting. You think I want to be the great pretender? Nah--I'm fine where I am. I got my little deals, my supporters, and that's as high as I want to get because that's as high as anyone can get. Even you. And if you think you're something more than that, like some great Power, you're pretending even to yourself."

"I think maybe you'd better leave, Fletternook," the Don said, quiet and slow.

And again. This name-calling business.

"I'm not the only one who knows, chief," Flutterneck said, all red in the face. "You're nothing."

"I said get out."

Flutterneck may have been pumped up by his own words, but he knew enough to leave then.

After he left I stayed near the wall, eyes down. You never knew when the Don might lash out at some innocent bystander. But he didn't say a thing. I just heard him breathing, fast and hard.

After a bit he cleared his throat. "Paulie," he said.

I flew close. "Yes, boss."

"The guys--they talk that way, Paulie?"

"I don't know, boss. They know better than to even think about talking that way when I'm around, maybe."

"I could have him taken out. Have him whacked. But everyone would know, and everyone would figure I did it just to shut him up."

"Maybe so, boss."

"Yeah." He looked down.

"Uh, boss?"

"Yeah, Paulie?"

"Well, I just got to ask. I mean, fairies is always talking crap. Don't matter who's in charge, they just do. So why's this thing with Flutterneck got you so riled up? I mean, screwing around with the poor sap's name--and not that he didn't maybe deserve some of that--but that's--I mean, that's pretty serious stuff."

The Don went quiet, and I figured maybe I had crossed that line. But then he looked up.

"The lack of loyalty with that guy, it burns me." He turned away and made a fist, hit his other hand with it. Then he turned back to me. "OK," he said. "You, I can trust. And you know the missus, the disgruntled missus, and me, we don't talk so much these days."

"Yeah." Actually I'd heard them back at the house just the other day. Throwing things. Crashes. What they call emotional outbursts. And I'm not real squeamish, but I'm pretty sure the Don did talk, maybe some bad words, though I would hate to tell anyone that.

"But she's made it clear that she'd rather I not do business the way I currently operate. Says it's time to bring our operations in line with accepted practices."

"That doesn't sound like it has to be so bad, boss."

"I don't know. It's like she just wants to stick her nose in."

"Ah, she misses you, you know?"

"Well, if she misses me so much, why doesn't she just--ah, go on, get out of here, Paulie. You probably got things you want to do. Go see your girl."

What else could I say to him? I just left, and behind me was one sad, broken fairy.

Go see Silver? That would just be painful. She didn't change her mind so easy.

Then I realized. I'd have to do it.

Not talk to Silver--no, no.

I'd have to talk to her.

The Don's office was a private space. Just a few guys hung out there. Her office, now, that was completely different. Being who she was, her office didn't need to be tucked away in an attic or a basement or unused closet. It was right in the lobby of the Gold Five Star Hotel and Resort, only fixed so humans never even noticed it. It was really nice. Bright lights, a waiting room with a receptionist and a sofa and some nice chairs, a splashy fountain and some plants, people flitting in and out all the time carrying messages and reports or whatever.

I hung around the door. Maybe I shouldn't go in. Probably better to wait outside, try to catch her on her way out. This had to be low profile. I was just turning to leave when the receptionist looked up and saw me.

It was Silverwing.

I flew right into the edge of the door. Knocked out two teeth.

"Paulie," she said, real quiet, hardly glancing up even.

I ducked my head, trying to fit the teeth back in without being too obvious about it. "Hey, Silver," I mumbled.

When she first saw me Silver had lifted a bit out of her chair, though she tried not to show it. Now she stopped hovering and lowered herself back into it. But even then her wings were still buzzing. "So, long time, no see," she said. She bit her lip, and her gaze flickered to me and then away, fast as thought, again and again. "Where you been keeping yourself?" she asked.

I drifted closer. It was real good to see her again, and good to see her behind that desk, all that responsibility. She was good people, and it was the life she wanted. "I been around."

Silver closed the book she had been writing something in. She took a deep breath. "Well, good for you, Paulie. You look like you're doing all right." She was keeping up the cool routine. Talking to me like I was a casual acquaintance, sort of.

"Sure, sure, doing fine," I said, giving her my best smile. "But you…" I gestured at the office around her. "Quite a place you found for yourself, huh? Congratulations."

That worked. She blushed turquoise. That's a kind of green-blue color. I learned the name of that color after I met Silver, so I could describe it to myself in my mind. "It's not so much. I just help her, you know. Do what I can."

"Well, that's great." And now why was she looking at me like that? She was the one who broke it off, not me, so what was with the soft eyes?

She blinked them hard again. "Can I help you with something, Paulie? I don't guess you just buzzed by just to see me. Even though you coulda. I don't keep no grudges. I gotta work with all kinds of people."

"Well, I woulda, you know," I said. "I didn't know you was working here now. Anyway, I been busy. You know what I mean."

"I guess I do."

"Well, yeah. And you--I mean, I have to talk to, I mean, you know." What was wrong with my mouth? "But if--I mean, if she is free--I only need a couple of minutes. Just a quick word, like?"

"Ah. You came to see--all right. She's busy as ever, but she'll always make time for her oh-so-favorite nephew." She zipped over to the office door and opened it, and ducked her head in a minute. Then she looked back at me. "Come on over. She can see you now."

"Thanks, Silver. I appreciate it."

She almost smiled and went back to her desk. I took a breath and went through the door.

It didn't look much like an office. No big desk, no spindly chairs facing a big desk, no bookshelf with booze next to a big desk. It looked more like someone's sitting room, with comfy sofas and chairs and pillows. Mirrors and drapes on the walls. Shit like that. Real classy.

The fairy Godmother was on one sofa, looking over some papers. Her crown and wand were on a little table next to the sofa. Without that crown, without the glamour it gave her, she was just aunt Sylphie. A little fatter, maybe. A little more jowl.

"Paulie!" She came off the sofa to hug me, give my cheek a pinch. "How long has it been, huh? You come to see me like this. It's like I only see the back of your wings when you're leaving the house on some job, or across the table on a holiday. You finally find some pity for your old lonely aunt?"

"Ah, you ain't lonely, Aunt Sylphie."

"Without you, of course I am! Now come sit with me." She led me back to the sofa, plopped me down, and settled in next to me. Her brows suddenly creased. "There's no problem, is there? Your uncle, he's not--I mean, no one--"

"He's fine, aunt."

"Oh. Good! So, what is it? You need something? Just a flick of my wand, you know. Just don't ask for one of those cheap flutterby girls again, with their painted wings--"

"Come on, Aunt Sylphie! I was like, twelve!"

"I'm just having some fun. But it really is time you found someone, you know. Start to think about settling down. I was always so sorry when you and Silver--"

I cut her off quick. "Ah, I got time for that, to find a nice girl and spawn some little ones for you to spoil. But Aunt Sylphie, there's a kind of trouble. Not with me--nothing to do with me. But I hate to see what it might mean for uncle. And sure, I know you two aren't exactly together no more, but I thought you might want to know about it."

She became serious. "What kind of trouble?"

Now that it was time to spill, I lost my nerve. I mean, this was the Godmother, not just my aunt. And here I was, going to her and talking about the Godfather, which he wouldn't appreciate. I could be cutting my own neck. I gulped. "Nothing much," I finally said. "Just thought you could, maybe, you know, just keep an eye or two out, maybe be aware of things. Like that."

"You're not being clear, Paulie," she said. She sat up straighter, and her glamour kind of swelled inside her. She suddenly looked nine inches tall. "Tell me." Her voice sounded like it was coming from inside a big bell.

I spoke before I realized what I was doing. "It's just some of the guys--well, one of the guys. He's been telling everyone that uncle doesn't have no power, just a reputation and some followers, and it's really only you that got the authority." I spread my hands. "Now, sure, that's all true. But you know uncle. Even if you don't live with him no more, you know what kind of guy he is. This kind of talk, this reminder, it really cuts at him, you know?"

Aunt Sylphie leaned back. "Yes, I sure do know," she said. "I think that's the real reason we broke up. You guys with your pride!"

"I thought it was because of that whirlfoot from the bar, the one with the--"

"Nah, I could have forgiven him that. No, he just didn't like the constant reminder. He felt that every time I magicked something, helped somebody, he felt like I was throwing it in his face. I mean, he knew, deep down, that I wasn't, but--"

"Yeah, I get it."

"It upset him."

"Yeah, he was real angry," I said. "Started--you know. Talking."

"Talking?"

"Yeah." I looked down.

"I need you to be a little more specific, Paulie. What kind of talk?"

"You know. The hurtful kind."

"Hurtful?"

I was still looking down, but I knew she was looking at me in that way. I broke. "Yeah, hurtful. He was--he was calling the guy names, aunt. Messing around with his name real bad."

I risked a glance up, and Aunt Sylphie leaned back, her face hard. "Was he," she said. Not asked. Said.

"Well, yeah."

She breathed hard, her gaze lost focus, and I was ready for an explosion.

"Name calling. No, no. We can't have that kind of thing, Paulie," she said tightly.

"Yeah, yeah, I know. That's why I came to see you. Even though the Don, he's going to have me for breakfast once he--"

"Cannot have it."

"Yeah, sure."

She took a deep breath. "I guess you push some people, they lose control," she said. She sighed and looked up. "OK. That's that." She slapped her thighs. "Well, I help people, right? Why shouldn't that include my estranged husband? Now you tell me, Paulie, what brought all this on this time."

The candy store, Schuett's Fine Chocolates written right there on the glass in black swirly letters, was dark, on account it was after hours. So the only light was from the streetlight outside the big window, and from our own glows. And there was a lot of glow, because it seemed like everyone was there.

The Don was off in the corner, alone. He moved his chin, so I joined him.

"You know I value loyalty, Paulie." His voice was low.

"Sure, boss." I fidgeted.

"You talking to the Godmother, behind my back--that hurts me, you know?" He put a hand on his heart. "Behind my back!"

"Yeah, yeah, boss, I know, it's just--"

"Shhh." The Don spoke even more quietly. "I understand. You was in a hard place--were you going to be loyal to what I needed, or what I thought I needed? And you know what?" He punched me light in the chest. "You made the right call. You did. I respect that. Took some guts, I know."

I started breathing again. "Thanks, boss." I figured I better not say anything more.

"Right," he said. "Let's get this sham show started, then." Louder, he said, "Get into place, everyone."

He walked out into the room. Frankie and me stood next to the Don. Flisswing and the floathugger, Slaphappy, there in front of us, like it was a trial. And around us was a whole bunch of the boys, including Flutterneck, who was leaning against a wall with his arms folded. I really did want to gut him.

But I knew that up there in the back of a shelf, hiding, their glows dimmed, were Aunt Sylphie and Silverwing, so I was on my best behavior, you might say.

"So I guess youse guys is wondering why I called you all here," the Don said. On the outside, he was smooth, confident, in control. He puffed out his chest and frowned, all judge-like. "It's because I wanted you all to see some justice done. It's not often in this world we get justice, you know. And sure, this case here may not seem like such a huge thing in the scheme of things. But these little things, they add up. They cause disruption in the community. It's bad for morale. It's bad for business. And that's when I feel I got to step in, make things right."

He looked around at everybody. "Flisswing."

The old spindletail stepped forward. "Yes, Don." He swallowed. "And I just want to say, Don, I don't know what you are going to do. I don't even know what you can do. But whatever it is, I just want to say, in front of all of these people here, that I appreciate that you care enough to get involved in this."

The Don waved the gratitude away. "Slaphappy." The old woman stepped forward, too. She didn't look too happy. Her lips were pursed up tight and her feet were all curled up. Couldn't wait to get out of there.

"Let's make sure we got the facts right. Slaphappy, you been sharing your milk with Flisswing in exchange for chocolate. That right?"

The old girl had to clear her throat before she could croak, "That's right."

"I see. And what is the rate of exchange?"

"The what?"

"What does he give you? How much?"

"We got a deal," she said. "He gives me a cut, and I give him the milk."

"Yeah, so I heard. And I heard you used to get a third of his takings, for that milk."

"That's about right."

"But nowadays you're charging extra. Half, or even more."

"It's what they call inflation," she said. "And I got real good milk. From cows. You just try finding that in a trashcan sometime."

"Sure, you got milk. But I think most of us here--" he gestured around the room "--would think a third is a pretty good deal. I mean, we're talking chocolate here. Fine chocolates. Brown gold. The sweet stuff. The bonbon paragon." The Don looked around at the crowd. "I don't think many of us here get chocolate all that often. Frankie--when's the last time you had some chocolate?"

Frankie scratched his head. "I don't know, boss. Maybe seven, eight months back. Licked a Milky Way wrapper."

"Milky Way? That's got caramel, don't it?"

"I was careful, boss."

"Uh huh. Backslider, how about you?"

Slider grabbed his fat belly. "Oh, chocolate? A little longer than forever!" That brought out a lot of chuckles.

The Don smiled. "Little Vinnie? Can't remember? How about you, Spine? Not getting any? Yeah, it's hard to acquire. Seems to me that you got yourself a pretty good setup, Slaphappy. And then you started messing with it, causing what you might call a tumult in our society. And that's going to stop. You're going to go back to the mutually advantageous deal you two had, before. Got it?"

Slaphappy looked at the Don, looked around, her mouth working. She spied Flutterneck in the crowd, and she stood up straighter. "No." she said. "No, I don't think so." The crowd made angry noises, but I saw Flutterneck smirking.

"No?" the Don said. "Is that what you said?"

"That's right." Slaphappy said. "I been talking--I been listening. Godfather, you ain't got nothing. You can't force me to do anything I'm not in the mood for." She smiled a crooked-tooth grin. "What? You going to have an old fairy like me beat up? Ooh, that would help your reputation, wouldn't it? Yeah, you're some big guy!"

"I ain't going to have anyone beat you up," the Don said.

Slaphappy preened. "Of course not! Not your image! So what can you do, Godfather? Huh? You got nothing else. I heard--it's all her. The Godmother has the mojo, not you. So scuttle back to your corner, you fat fairy, and leave me alone." She turned to Flisswing. "You went crying to the Godfather for nothing, Flisswing! And now, you want any milk at all, you're going to give me eighty percent!"

The Godfather stood still, looking at Slaphappy, his face serene. Slaphappy looked away from Flisswing, and saw the Don watching her. "You still here?" she said. "Get out of my shop!"

The Don slowly shook his head. "Slaphappy, you don't quite understand the way these things work." He started pacing, looking at the ground. "Yeah, in the normal course of events, sure, my boys do what I need to have done. And they take care of things just fine." Now he glanced back up at Slaphappy. "But things get out of hand, I sometimes have to step in. Do my part."

Frankie and I walked up behind the Don and stood at his elbows, just like we'd rehearsed. They call it a show of force.

"See," the Godfather continued, "my wife, yeah, she's got the heavy dust. But live with her as long as I have, it can't help but kind of rub off, you know?" He lifted his hand, and snapped his fingers. A blue spark flamed briefly, and you could hear people taking breaths. "And now some reluctance to abide by the community's standards is forcing me to use it. Now, what were we talking about?" He scratched his chin. "Frankie, you remember what the argument was concerning? Oh--that's right." He snapped his fingers again. "MILK!"

He clapped his hands over his head. There was a sound like thunder, and then milk--good, clean, white milk--was raining down from above. Gushes, torrents. Everyone went wild, gulping it out of the air, splashing it on themselves, cupping hands to catch it. It pattered on the floor and glass counters, droplets flying all over. People were tripping over each other to get at it, flying above the crowd to take it in mid-air. Slaphappy was running around, squawking, her eyes big, trying to stop everyone. Then she just stood, looking at the Godfather, hands clasped before her.

"And what else was it, Paulie?" The Godfather had to speak loudly to be heard over the splashing of the milk and the sound of the party. "Oh--CHOCOLATE!" He clapped again, and the glass of the counters shattered. From the shelves the chocolates came flying out--chocolate covered strawberries, dark chocolate wafers, chocolate with almonds, milk chocolate, chocolates with cream fillings. It was everywhere. The riot doubled.

"Hey, Flutterneck." It was the weirdest thing. The Don, he didn't even raise his voice, and with all the splashing and chewing and giggling no one should have been able to hear him. But when he spoke all the other sounds were like pushed to the background.

I glanced up, and the Godmother saw me. She winked.

Flutterneck had been having just as much fun as anyone else, his face already smeared with chocolate, milk dripping off him. But when the Don spoke, he looked up, and his eyes got even bulgier than usual.

"Yeah, Flutterneck, I'm talking to you," the Godfather said. "Maybe you can inform me as to why you think you were invited to this party?"

Flutterneck had nothing to say.

"You little cafone! You empty suit! What are you, anyway? You look like the child of a mutilated ape and a visible fart!"

I might have been the only one to notice that the Don glanced real quick-like at the Godmother, but I guess this kind of language wasn't crossing her line. He'd probably cleared it all with her beforehand, to make sure.

Now no one was talking. No one had ever heard anything like that, and we were all stunned. Especially Flutterneck.

"Well?" the Don said. "What are you waiting for? Get out of here, you jamook, and if I see you again I'll burn your ears off!"

Flutterneck turned and tried to take off, but he was shaking so much he just floundered in the milk. Finally he got himself airborne and was out the door.

"Have fun, everybody!" the Don said, and suddenly the sound was back on full.

By now the milk was up to our ankles, up to our thighs, and chocolates spun through the air, drifted on the milk, right there for the taking. You never seen so much. You sure never seen so many people lose their freaking minds. Me, too. I lost track of the Godfather. I don't know what happened to Frankie. I was caught up in the joy, crying with ecstasy, filling my mouth and soul.

Later--I don't know how long--I came back to myself. I was lying on my back, floating in the milk, my stomach full and my face muddy with chocolate. And my hand--oh, that was the sweetest thing. My hand was holding Silver's hand. I turned my face to look at her. She was there beside me, her eyes half open.

"Hey, Silver."

She opened her eyes all the way. "Paulie."

"Are we like, together again?" I asked her.

"I don't know, yet."

"'Cause I never even knew, you know, why you broke things off."

Silver frowned. Not angry, sad. "Oh, Paulie. You--you and the Godfather, you're really close."

"Well, sure."

"And I begun to wonder, you know? Where he stopped and you started. If you had any initiative."

"What do you mean, like a backbone? Because I do, Silver. You got me all wrong."

"You followed him like a shadow. You probably didn't even realize it."

I let go of her hand and looked away. "So if I am so bad, how come you say 'I don't know' if we're together again? I guess it's pretty clear."

She put a hand on my cheek and turned my face to her. "Paulie, when you came to see the Godmother, and when I heard what you told her, I knew. I knew that you weren't following him blindly no more. I knew that you were standing up for the right thing. You were standing up for yourself."

I shrugged. It wasn't easy to do that, floating there that way.

"And that's the kind of fairy I can respect," Silver said.

A chip of chocolate drifted close to her face, and I picked it up and pressed it to her lips. She opened her mouth to take it. Then she closed her eyes, and I closed my eyes, and it was the best time of my life right then.

Well, before morning came the Godmother tapped her stick and all the milk was cleaned off the floor, all the chocolates, whole and un-nibbled, were back on the shelves, and all the glass back on all the display cases. Like nothing had happened at all.

But the other fairies were still stuffed, and they looked at the Don with new eyes, and tiptoed around him, all respectful-like. Word came that Flutterneck had taken some of his firefly buddies and disappeared, who knows where. Me, if I had to look for him, I'd start on the far side of the city dump, but I ain't looking for him.

Still, everything has to be paid for, and two, three nights later we were in the Godfather's house when poof, there was the Godmother. And Silver, who looked at me and tried not to smile.

I'd been going over the accounts with the Don, but when the Godmother appeared he pushed them aside and said, "Give us a moment, Paulie."

"No, let him stay," Aunt Sylphie said. "Paulie, how you doing?"

"Really good, Aunt Sylphie." I patted my stomach. "Still all full of milk and chocolate."

"Good. You know, you're a good boy, Paulie." She gave Silver a look, and Silver turned that wonderful turquoise color again. Aunt Sylphie turned to the Don. "Time for us to talk."

The Don stood up. "Yeah, I know." He took a deep breath. "You saved my hide back there, Sylphie, made me look real good in front of my boys. I needed that. So whatever you want, you just say the word. Like we agreed."

I raised my eyebrows. I looked at Silver, who did a little shrug. The Godfather seemed quick to give in. Maybe he missed Sylphie more than he let on. And probably that wasn't even a maybe.

Sylphie nodded. She started walking around the room. "All right. First: things are too violent. I need you to tone it all down."

"Ah, it's not that violent," the Don protested. "Most of that is just for show, keep people in line."

"Don't tell me it's not violent."

"Well at times, sure, you got to make a statement. Like Peeper, in the insurance office, had his wings took off by some of my associates. So, yeah, he was in the cocoon for a couple weeks."

"He was slow to pay the protection," the Godmother said. "I understand. That's not what I am taking about."

The Godfather pulled at his collar. "So you mean like when two weeks ago Lazy Mike's leg was broken."

The Godmother took a deep breath. "He should have stayed in his own territory," she said. "It's expected."

"So you must be talking about when I had Green Louie whacked--"

"No, no. That was just a couple of times. And I know you're all best buddies again, now. You know what I am talking about." She turned her back on him.

The Godfather had a sickly smile. "I had Leafcutter beat up," he said, sweating. "He--"

Sylphie whirled around to face the Godfather. "Enough!"

And the Godfather was quiet.

"I realize that you have a certain reputation to keep up," the Godmother said, "and that you boys have your own way of doing things. I'm not asking you to play nice. But you will have to tone it down. Breaking Lazy Mike's leg, fine. But I have it on good authority that when you did it you also said something sarcastic!"

"Sarcasm, huh? Well, I don't know. I may have. I know that's pretty mean," the Godfather said. The Godmother glared at him, and he looked down. "But I guess I been letting my mouth run a little too much."

"Oh?"

"Sometimes it feels like people deserve that sort of thing," he said, opening his arms wide. "Maybe at first I start a little light, with some innuendoes, some passive-aggressive comments, like that. Then before I can control myself, I move on up to puns. It just happens sometimes."

"It's got to happen less. A lot less."

"Yeah, OK, OK, sure," the Don said.

"Language is not something to be trifled with," she said. "Next time, just rip off someone's wing, or make up an insult out of nonsense, like I do with 'bippity-boppity.' Don't give him the silent treatment for a whole day instead, or refuse to laugh at his jokes. That really hurts."

The Don grimaced. "I understand that, I do. I mean, a few days, the wing grows back, but the silent treatment, that can really gnaw on your ass."

The fairy Godmother frowned at him.

"So yeah, OK, I guess we can make that work, sure," the Godfather continued, hands outspread. "Yeah. We'll bring the boys in, give them some sensitivity training. The new way of doing things."

"I never expected you to be so accommodating so fast," the Godmother said, narrowing her eyes.

"Don't get me wrong!" the Godfather said. "I know this kind of change won't come easy. This kind of emotional stuff--keeping that bottled up, and going back to the physical punishments--it's going to be hard. I know I've just got too used to that type of cruel."

"It's time you tightened your rule," the Godmother said, crossing her arms. "The very first time Flutterneck came to you and spouted off, you went right to the name-calling. No one's going to respect someone who sinks that low right off. Physical pain--now that's a thing everyone can respect. How do you think I keep my people in line? You ever hear a toothfairy complain about me? Any bluebirds chirping crap? It's because they know what they would be in for." Then she uncrossed her arms, and her voice went soft. "You're taking this well. I didn't expect it. You were always so proud and independent, by which I mean stubborn, before."

The Don shrugged. "I guess--well, I guess maybe I been reconsidering my attitude about certain things."

"Really?"

"Well, sure. For a while now. The realm is all messed up. I mean, even the roses--" The Godfather twisted his hands together. "I guess the thing is, Sylphie, I kind of missed having you around the place, you know."

"Maybe we both can reconsider things," my aunt said. "You need to make a snide comment about someone now and then, I guess I can live with that."

"Really?"

"I guess. As long as you check with me, first. Hey, you still got some empty rooms in this place? If I come back, you know, I will need room for some of my staff--"

"I can make room!" the Godfather said. Then he looked at me and Silver. "You two don't got anything better to do?"

"Let's go," I said, and led Silver into the kitchen. I turned to face her.

"Nice to see them getting back together, after all this time," she said.

"Sure is."

"I mean, it's obvious they missed each other. It was just his pigheadedness that kept her away for so long. If he had just agreed to make a few little changes, she would have come back long ago. Maybe he was just too--"

I took her hands in mine. "I get it, Silver! So just tell me what I got to do."

She tilted her head, like she was considering. "Well, like she said, no more of the violent language."

"Yeah, yeah, we've already agreed to that."

"And I'm not giving up my job, so don't even think I will."

"Sure, that's no problem. Anyway, if she and her staff are in the house, we'll see a lot of each other, even at work."

"So I can keep an eye on you," she said, smiling.

It's been like half a year, and things have been pretty good--well, really good. Peaceful like, and everyone working together, for the most part. It feels like spring almost all the time.

And Flisswing--yeah, he pays the Godfather back for the help he got. Once a month little pieces of chocolate, on a nice little dish. The Godfather saves it up, gives it away to people who come to see him with problems, or for whatever kids there are.

Sure, sometimes I see that look in the Godfather's eye, remembering the old times. But then the Godmother tells him about some new moneymaking scheme she's conjured up, or one of the kids comes running up and jumps on his stomach, and from his smile I guess he can live with any regrets he still has.

Plus he has more time nowadays to work on making plenty of rose petals. Even the dandelions and the ivy are sporting those rose petals now.

The neighborhood, it never looked so good.

Me and Silver was in the Godmother's office, at Silver's reception desk. I used to go there, fly her home from work. This time it was pretty late, and we was talking, and most everyone else had gone home already.

I stopped saying whatever I was saying and noticed that Silver was just looking at me. I raised my eyebrows.

"This is nice," she said, all soft. "Having you with me. I'm happy the way things turned out."

I drew her close. "It's mutual," I said. I moved in for a kiss.

She drew back. "Hey, I'm an honest girl," she said. "So make me an offer that I won't refuse, already."

So I did, and she didn't, and that was that.


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