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Copyright (C) 1997 Phaedrus; All rights reserved

I usually don't think of myself as an author. If I called myself an author, that would imply that I come up with my own ideas--that I think my own characters up, for example. And sometimes, I believe that's true. But most of the time, I can't shake the suspicion that the characters think themselves up. Then they show up on my doorstep--probably because the people on the list who can actually write are already booked solid--and wait for me to do something intelligent with them. So I feel kind of bad when a story misfires; I feel like I've let the character down.

Greywing showed up a few weeks ago. This is the best home I've been able to come up with for him so far. It's far from my best--it has pretty much every "wrong thing to do in a short story" from our recent discussion on the list. Please don't hold it against him. :-)

Greywing smiled to himself. It had been a good con, well worth showing up for. The crowds had been reasonably well-behaved, the organizers were on the ball, and the ventilation system in the hall was wonderful. The hall was nearly dead now--it was a Sunday night, the last night of the con, and people had lives to get back to--and many of the tables were empty now, their occupants already heading home, or for the next con. But the aisles had been packed for most of the day, and for Friday and Saturday before that, and sales had been good.

And, if he was any judge of character, they were about to get better.

_Go ahead. Make the first move. You know you will._

The man in the grey Erma Felna T-shirt had already passed his table three times, maybe more. Each time, he had stopped for a few moments, looking at the table out of the corner of his eye, then moved on. This time, he had stopped two tables away... but he was still looking this way.

_Not quite ready yet? That's fine. I'm not going anywhere. And I bet you aren't either. Go on, have a look at his stuff. It's good. But you're after something else, aren't you?_

He was old for the room--in his mid-thirties at least, maybe even his forties. His T-shirt and jeans were new, and his shoes were expensive Nikes. And he had that little look of wonder and discomfort on his face, that screamed "This is my first con" to anyone with the eyes to see it.

_You've heard the stories about me, though, haven't you? Don't worry. See? I don't bite. I'm not even making eye contact. Wouldn't you like to meet me? You're not going to do it standing over there, you know._

A midlife crisis, probably; too much money to know what to do with, and out to recapture his lost childhood. Perfect.

_Still wondering whether you'd rather spend your money somewhere else? Take your time. Take all the time you need._

Smile never wavering, Greywing picked up a sketchbook from the pile, flipped through it. A theme book--Lions and Tigers and Bears, Oh My! He chuckled, considering his options. A lyin', bare tiger, perhaps? No; wouldn't fit with the rest of the book. He sharpened a pencil, then started on an anthro lioness, holding the book where the man in the Felna shirt could almost--but not quite--see what he was doing.

_Wouldn't you like to have a look at this? This is nothing, you know. I have so many wonderful things to show you. Just a few steps this way..._

He was about a third of the way through the sketch when the man in the Felna shirt finally walked up, grinning nervously.

Greywing closed the book, put it back on top of the pile. "May I help you?" _You know I can._

"Um, yes. It's a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Greywing... I've seen some of your work, and I'm very fond of it. I understand that you do commissions? I have something in mind..."

"That I do," Greywing replied, handing him The Binder. His best stuff. Not the originals, of course, but good color copies. "I've got about a six-week backlog right now, but I can certainly schedule you in. Why don't you have a look through here? If you can point out something that's close to what you want, it'll help me know where to start. And if you happen to find exactly what you're after, well, then you've saved yourself some money."

_No, you won't find exactly what you're after. You know it, and I know it. You don't want something that ten people already have. You want an original. It's all over your face._

"Sounds good," the man replied, and opened it. Greywing watched his reactions carefully.

_In two pages, you'll reach the price list, and one of two things will happen._
_You'll keep going, and you'll be mine._
_Or you'll put the book down and give me an excuse for why you'll be back in a few minutes, and I'll never see you again._
_But you don't want to do that, do you? A man like you won't let a little money stand in the way, will you?_

The man turned a page, turned another... paused for a few long seconds, then continued, turning pages slowly.

_Told you so. There, see how easy that was?_ Greywing smiled just a bit more, and went back to his lioness.

Ten minutes later, he'd sold three portfolios to a bunch of kids looking to blow the rest of their money before they headed home. He was putting the finishing touches on the lioness when the man reached the last page.

"See anything you like?"

"Well, there's one here that's close to right."

_Someone who doesn't say, "Oh, I like everything." A point for you, sir._ "Then let's have a look."

The man spread The Binder open on the table; the colored ribbons glued to the spine were tucked in between various pages. _And someone who can figure out what a bookmark is for. Another point._

He flipped to an anthro fox. "This is just about what I'm after... the eyes, the proportions, the stance. But the style isn't quite what I had in mind; it's a little bit too cartoony. I was hoping for something a little more along the lines of what you did with this otter..." He turned to another page.

_Good taste._ "So, you're after something realistic, but still not crossing over into 'grim'? Just a little bit on the light side?"

"Yeah, that's it exactly. And the color scheme... the red is a little strong. Could you mix in a little more brown, like you did on this one?" He flipped back to the fox, pointed out a natural one on the next page.

"Okay, I see. That might make the white in the chest seem a little brighter; do you want me to mix a little more grey in that?"

"No, I don't think so; leave it like that. And the tail... maybe it's just the perspective, but the tail seems a little shorter than I had in mind."

"All right. Let me get this all down." Greywing pulled out a pen and an order sheet, wrote down several lines. Most of it was gibberish, even to him. _Doctors and lawyers have it right... if the patient can understand it, it loses half its appeal. If someone wants to spend their money, help them feel like they're spending it on something deep and Byzantine, something they couldn't possibly understand. They'll enjoy it all the more._ "Everything else looks okay? The posture, the hands and feet, the ears, that sort of thing?" _This is where you come up with one more little change, so you feel like you had the last word._

"Well... the ears could be a little bit wider, more rounded. Other than that, it all looks great."

_Very good._ Greywing drew a few quick ear curves on the sheet. "Something like one of these, then?"

"That last one is perfect."

_Of course it is._ "All right, I think we're set." Greywing circled the last curve, added a few more nonsense abbreviations, dropped the pen on the form and pushed them both across the table. "Just fill the rest of this out... and your check, of course..."

_Not a bad choice, actually. It'll be more than worth the money, won't it? You'll show it off at all the parties, and tell your friends where you got it. Trust me._

Some weeks later, George was at his desk, leaning into his speakerphone. He was not a happy man.

"Dammit, Jay, you were supposed to have this fixed three builds ago! QA is breathing fire down my butt... we were supposed to go beta a week ago! What is the damn problem here?"

"Boss, we've been through this... I've traced it every which way, and it's NT screwing up, there's no other explanation. I've got Micro--"

"Jay, if I had a dollar for every time I've heard 'It's an OS bug', I'd be on a beach in Hawaii right now! I don't care... who..."

He ground to a halt. Something was tickling his ear.

He reached up, and felt... fur.

For the first time all day, he smiled.

"I'm turning into a fox, Jay. Could I call you back?"

There was a long pause. "Umm... sure, boss. Good luck with that." The line went dead.

But George didn't hear it. He was already halfway to the bathroom. Thank God, it was empty. He stood at the mirror, and watched.

The change had already covered the top of his head, spreading downward in smooth, steady strokes. His ears had just the curve he was after. He turned his head to one side, then watched in fascination as his muzzle rippled out from his face in six quick lurches.

His arms came next. followed by his chest and back. He had been so wrapped up in watching the change that he had forgotten to remove his shirt; no matter--it simply disappeared, bit by bit, as the fur encroached on it. He hurried to a stall and pulled off his shoes and pants, just before his new claws sprouted from his hands.

He sat on the toilet, watched as the wave of reddish-brown slowly worked its way down, as his legs and feet gradually twisted into their new digitigrade shape. He stood up, marvelling at how natural it already felt. As he did, he felt a tingle; he looked behind him, and saw his new tail lengthening, stroke by stroke, until it touched the floor. He wiggled it experimentally. It felt good.

He went back to the mirror--leaving the remains of his clothing forgotten in the stall--and stared again at the mirror, at his face, at his now-green eyes. Just as he had imagined. And even a little bit better.

He felt one last tickle, on the front of his left leg, just above the ankle. He looked down, and saw it... a greyish marking, subtle, but clearly visible in the reddish fur. He didn't recognize it at first; then something clicked. He smiled, and lifted his foot up to the mirror. Sure enough; in the reflected image, it was perfectly clear... a flowing "G", and the stylized curve of a bird's wing.

He nodded to himself. Perfect. He couldn't wait to show it around.

But first, he headed back to his office. Jay was going to have to do a hell of a lot better than that...

Greywing smiled, waiting for the ink to dry, admiring his work. He stretched his arms, feathers ruffling against the chair. _You know, he's right; that color scheme does work. You learn something new every day..._

He muttered two Words, then passed a hand over the page, locking the Matrix in place. He stamped his address on the back of the drawing, slid it into a sheet protector, slipped that into a mailing envelope--along with his catalog, of course. Thirty seconds later, the envelope was sealed, addressed and in the mailbag.

_Another satisfied customer._

He scanned the next order sheet in the pile--an Appaloosa stallion. He licked the edge of his beak, mapped out the color scheme in his mind, and started to draw...

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