Copyright © 2013 Nicole Kimberling
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Far from the opulent Malachite Palace, in a strip mall in the waiting room of Portia Blanding’s Soul Services Center, Karl Alton shifted in the plastic chair. His orangutan legs were too short to sit properly on furniture made for humans. His arms were too long. His left shoulder and wrist ached from arthritis.
He was uncomfortable.
Though he’d worn this elderly ape’s body for nearly seven years, he had never before allowed himself to think about how wearing the body felt. He couldn’t have reflected on the downside of living as an orangutan and still been happy working as a chauffeur. He hadn’t considered whether or not he liked the pedal extenders required for him to double-park his boss’s, Lord Adam Wexley’s, black, four-door Stallion-Brilliant sedan in front of all the best courthouses in town. Above all, he had avoided dwelling on how much he longed to say a single human word.
The clock read 11:59. At noon, in one short minute, his contract would expire. His body must be in the building by now. Maybe in this very room.
With a sense of intense trepidation, he glanced around at the various people assembled. Most of them looked like they were there to sell, not to return. He didn’t spot his body among them.
Probably, Karl thought, they had his body in back someplace. Maybe it had already been returned and given a good wash, like any other sort of rental.
Overhead the fluorescent lights flickered and hummed.
A man walked in. He looked the right age and height. And he had the right coloring. But unless Karl had lost the ability to recognize his own face, this body was not his.
Unsettled, Karl wondered if he would still be able to remember his own face. What if he’d been scarred? His nose broken? What if whoever had sublet his body had tattooed it?
What if they had let it smoke?
He twiddled with one of the bolts holding the chair together, unconsciously twisting it counterclockwise.
At the best of times, the orangutan whose body he inhabited could barely be prevented from disassembling any object with moving parts. When made nervous by Karl’s own discomfort, nuts and bolts seemed to appear, like magic, in his dark-skinned fingers.
The second hand of the clock ticked over. A receptionist called his name. Karl rose, knuckle-walked down past the service desk to a dull, beige office containing three desks, a water cooler and a noisily rattling air-conditioning unit.
Portia Blanding, Corporeal Sublet Agent, glanced at him and then her appointment book. She was a plump woman in her midfifties with a kind face and the same rigid blonde flip hairdo Karl remembered her sporting when he’d signed the sublet contract seven years prior.
Portia said, “Expiring contract?”
Karl signed, “I’m Karl Alton, I’m here to retrieve my body.”
Portia’s smile grew slightly strained. Karl thought he could see her hairspray stiffening further.
“Mr. Alton, yes, I was expecting you. I think we should move to a more private room.” With a decisive wave of her hand, she indicated a door to her left.
The change of venue aroused Karl’s suspicion. He signed, “Where is my body? Can I see it?”
“If you’ll just come through here—”
Karl slammed his fist down on her desk. All motion in the office ceased.
Portia’s kindly expression hardened and her eyes turned flinty. “Mr. Alton, if you come through, I will help you. If you continue with this display, I’m afraid I will have to phone the police.”
“I’m sorry, ma’am. I’m just a little bit anxious.” Head hung in shame, he knuckle-walked across the institutional gray carpet into a small room containing an oblong table and two more uncomfortable molded-plastic chairs. Karl climbed up into one and waited for the bad news.
Ideas and images raced through his mind. Was his body crippled? Deformed? Burned over forty percent of its surface? Royal law decreed he should be informed should his body die while in the custody of an inhabitant, so he knew his flesh still lived somewhere. But what state was it in?
Portia closed the door behind her and sat opposite him. She folded her hands. “I’m afraid, Mr. Alton, that your body has been stolen.”
For the next few minutes, Portia spoke. She gave him a copy of the police report her company had filed and passed a few brochures across the table for organizations that might help him locate his body. She told him they’d done all they could.
Karl could barely process her words.
His body had been stolen.
That meant he would not be leaving this body today. He would not get his old body back, however broken and used it might be. He might never see his own true face again.
It was as if a window had opened up in his chest and allowed a cruel and bitter wind to sever his dreams.
The sensation resembled the moment he had been separated from his original flesh—a sorrow so intense it felt like dying, like losing everything that had ever belonged to him. And even though he’d only been disembodied for moments, the agony of the loss had stayed vividly with him throughout the years he’d been in this ugly, hairy, quasi-controllable orangutan.
He’d managed to separate himself from the feeling of constant turmoil that the presence of the orangutan’s spirit caused. Though subdued, the animal’s mind rose up like a psychosis, robbing him further of his humanity. And when he grew weary, it took control.
He found himself watching Portia’s lips move, not hearing or understanding her, receding into the safety of his mind. Then the other spirit in his body assumed command.
Rage exploded through him. He seized the edge of the table and flung it against the far wall. Instantly, security guards burst into the room. From his place in the back of the orangutan’s mind, Karl thought they must have been waiting outside the door, anticipating his reaction.
One of the guards got a noose around his neck. Karl’s animal body howled and clawed at the choking thing. He—the orangutan he inhabited—must be disappointed too, Karl thought.
For years he’d been telling the beast he’d be free to move his own limbs, soon. He had promised to buy the animal from Portia and set him free in a sanctuary. He hadn’t thought the orangutan understood him, but now perceived the animal had comprehended those thoughts after all. It was just as the animal advocates at the nonprofit where Lord Wexley worked, The Integrity Foundation, had said all along.
Above it all, he could hear Portia yelling. “I know you’re disappointed, Mr. Alton, but please—you have to get control of your body before it gets damaged. You will be charged for all veterinary care provided because of this outburst.”
As if they were emerging from some other body, Karl heard the orangutan’s choking cries. His host body didn’t deserve this. He had to pull himself together.
With force of will greater than he realized he possessed, Karl pushed the orangutan back down. He regained use of his hands and signed, “It’s all right, I’m back in charge now.”
Cautiously, the security guards loosened the noose incrementally. Karl straightened the cargo vest he wore and began to gather the papers scattered across the floor.
Apparently reassured by this, Portia dismissed the guards and helped him retrieve the sheets of paper that lay scattered like fallen leaves all over the room.
Almost without speaking, they reassembled his file, making sure everything was in order. Then Portia drew herself up. “I’m very sorry, Mr. Alton.”
Karl lifted his hand and signed, “Me too.”
Laden with papers, he left the office and, failing to find any motivation to go anywhere or do anything, he returned to work. He drove to Lord Wexley’s house, parked the car and went searching for his boss. He started in the backyard.
Bent in the garden, trowel in hand, Lord Adam Wexley could have been mistaken for hired help. He had the shoulders for it, the tanned skin. He wore jeans, tawny leather gardener’s gloves and a printed T-shirt advertising the Inhabited Animal Defense League. His blond hair glinted in the warm sunlight. He seemed solely focused on turning the soil beneath an ornamental butterfly laceleaf.
Lord Wexley didn’t respond.
Obviously, he’d removed his hearing aids. Karl knuckle-walked across the mossy ground cover. A great green willow tree occupied one corner of the garden. The orangutan with whom he shared a body desperately wanted to swing through that tree. Karl resisted. He had other things to discuss.
Lord Wexley started when Karl came into his field of vision. He straightened, rubbed his back and cocked his head quizzically. He removed his gardening gloves to reveal his broad, strong hands.
“Karl! I wasn’t expecting you,” Lord Wexley signed. Then Wexley looked closer, as if he was taking in Karl’s entire demeanor. “Are you all right? Has something happened?”
Karl managed a shaky nod. Lord Wexley crouched down and laid a hand on Karl’s shoulder. Finally, Karl was able to force his hands to speak.
“When I started working for you, I told you that my body had died. That wasn’t true, boss. I just said that because I didn’t want you to think I was the kind of idiot who would sublet my body.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why would you think I would think that?”
“Everybody thinks that.” Karl’s gestures grew emphatic, but he couldn’t stop himself. “Even you thought that before you got involved in working for the rights of the disembodied.”
At first Wexley seemed like he might protest. Instead, he shrugged. “I guess you’re right. I used to be more shallow.”
“It’s okay. It doesn’t matter now anyway.” Karl slumped forward, staring at the ground.
Wexley squeezed his shoulder to get his attention then continued to sign. “Tell me what’s happened, please.”
“I went to complete my contract today—to get my body back. Turns out the damn thing has been stolen. Whoever did it removed the tracking chip implanted in the thigh. It was a professional job. The agency has put me on a donor list and says that I can have the use of this ape’s body until a human body becomes available.”
“Do they have any idea when the theft occurred?” Lord Wexley’s fingers seemed to be flying, compared to Karl’s slow and painful signing.
“I guess the soul-services agency lost track of it two weeks after I signed the contract. They hired a body hunter to find it. He managed to track down the chip in a corpse. The police have already been informed. I have the reports and contact names.”
“So your body is dead?”
“No, that’s the hell of it.” Karl puffed in frustration. “The blood type on the body was wrong. It’s not mine. It was my chip in somebody else’s body. A real professional job, so the cops said.”
Wexley nodded. “I’m very sorry, Karl.”
Karl shrugged. “You’ve seen a lot of people in worse situations than mine.”
“That doesn’t make your loss insignificant.” Wexley sat back on the edge of a raised planter. “There has to be something you can do.”
“You know the drill, boss. I go down, refile this report as a legal owner of my body, and they never call me back. It’s been years. My body could be anywhere.”
“What about hiring a magician to search?”
“I don’t have that kind of money or those connections. And it’s been so long that it would most likely be a waste anyway. My body is probably sitting at the bottom of the ocean someplace.”
Wexley smiled kindly. “Well, I happen to have both money and a few connections in that area, and I don’t think it would be so much of a waste.”
Karl’s eyes widened. Deep in his heart he had held a hope that Wexley would take pity on him—that he would agree to use his contacts at the Integrity Foundation to help. Karl’s sudden relief and elation spilled over into his counterpart. The ape launched himself across the back garden and into the willow tree. Hand over hand he brachiated through the branches, ignoring both the arthritic stiffness in his shoulders and Karl’s own mental commands to cease. When he finally came back to earth, he somersaulted up to Wexley’s feet.
“So, should we go to your office, boss?”
Wexley shook his head. “Eventually, but I think I know a faster way. We’re going to collect your identification samples. Then, this evening, we’ll go to the Black Tower.”