Excerpt for Nica of the New Yorks by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Nica of the New Yorks

(Frames, Book 2)







Copyright 2016 Sue Perry

Published by Sue Perry at Smashwords.

All rights reserved.

Cover photographs and collage by Sue Perry.

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DEDICATION

For Deborah

Table of Contents

0. Thunder Building a Storm

1. Don't Invite Psychoanalysis

2. New York Fool

3. Only Cross At Red Lights

4. I'm Your Musician

5. Tattoo On My Heart

6. A Place Of Great Power

7. A Deeper Mode

8. Again? Already?

9. Tell Me About The Brainwashing

10. Flannel Sheets On A Winter Night

11. Negative Power

12. A Wee Bit Of Resentment

13. When We Were Still Safe

14. I Knew That Flash Mob

15. Should Every Question Have An Answer?

16. Those Left Behind

17. The Basic State of Being

18. I Trust Your Instincts

19. Our Time Arrives

20. The First To Die

21. The Futility Of My Request

22. Books Don't Mean Bad

23. Your Steps Must Be Your Own

24. A Convention Of Middle–School Principals

25. Tantamount to Treason

26. All In Favor?

27. Scuffed By The Steps Of The Wicked

28. Your Nature Is Not A Flaw

29. Everybody Including Hernandez

30. I've Got Your Secret Answer

31. New York Rat Stories

32. Something Tickled My Memory

33. And It's Dangerous

34. T-E-X-T-C-O-M-E-S-B-A-C-K

35. Any Knowledge Will Help My Quest

36. I Don't Have To Believe You

37. The Impulses Of Their Masters

38. A Beginners' Recruitment Meeting

39. Personalized Trances

40. Affinity With Books

41. Here's the Worst Part

42. I Sense What Is Actual

43. Marzipan Stands Against Evil

44. You Brought Her Here

45. We Weren't In Bedlam

46. I Know About You Now

47. What Lesson Can You Learn From This?

48. You Don't Want To Be Seen With Me

49. Don't Feed Maelstrom

50. I Thought I Hated Them Before

51. The Time Of The Traitor

52. Yes, Dearie

53. Leave Alone

54. Must Be So Important

55. Like There Was A Wind, Except There Wasn't

56. Four Beings Survived

57. At Full Speed, Hold On

58. Everyone I Love Is At Risk

59. What Frame Are You From?

60. With Books We Win

61. The Trouble That Happens

62. His Mother Was A Hero

63. Pandemonium's Mechanic

64. Go There, Stop It

65. The Bipolar Roller Coaster

66. Separate To Survive

67. Simple Pleasures

68. Assassination Attempt?

69. Our Spirits Shall Not Be Broken

70. What Makes You Think I Have Cats?

71. Trust Is A Tether

72. We're Just A Bunch Of Neutrals

73. We Plotted Destruction

74. Bridges Aren't Made To Twist

75. When My Side Killed It Would Be Noble

76. What I'm Supposed To Do

77. Almost And Nearly

78. More Jenn Through The World

79. I Clutched It To My Heart

80. I Can't Go Back There

81. Nica's Army

82. The Evolution of Meanings

Acknowledgements

About Sue Perry

0. THUNDER BUILDING A STORM

Tonight marked the end of life as we know it, though few of us understood at the time. Tonight, Maelstrom got free.

The first explosion boomed from the northwest, way behind me, maybe back on the Columbia campus. I didn't remember jumping at the noise, but here I was jogging atop the seats of benches. I was already skittish before the blast startled me—I knew I had no business crossing Central Park alone after sunset, but I needed a run and had persuaded myself I could outpace trouble. I hopped back to the path, sheepish but unobserved—all attention was on the park's perimeters, where glorious fall foliage lined the cobalt horizon. Fall. I'd been in New York more than two months—had moved here to fight Maelstrom—and at the moment, my effort felt pretty much for frigging naught.

Another explosion bleached the sky, this time east of the park. Then north. Then south. Then west. Then west again. People called the blasts simultaneous, but actually they spanned about fifteen minutes. Simultaneous would have been easier to handle.

As I curved back into the city, I heard more echoes of blasts, near and distant, all over the island. With each boom, the air grew further pressurized, as though thunder was building a storm. South of Columbus Circle, the air pulsed in a series of rapid blasts, punctuated with the deep screams of grown men. Suddenly the building's top floor, under reconstruction, was in flames—and from the sounds of it, several workers were caught on the burning floor. I swerved to get out of the way of men, clinging and swinging on the scaffolding, becoming acrobats to reach the ground faster than was safe to move. But of course safe is relative.

By the time the last of them were down, the flames were out. The men began bickering about whose carelessness had caused the explosion—debate that terminated when a construction site across the street exploded in similar flames. I didn't have to see more; already, I could have told them that this was happening at remodeling sites around the city, to free Maelstrom, a being of legendary power and evil who had long been imprisoned.

I knew the exact moment when Maelstrom got free. The air pressure built and built, then with one more explosion, pffft, the pressure was gone. I was surprised when my next breath took in oxygen, because the air felt so empty. The explosions had made the ground rumble but now it settled with a groan just below detectible hearing, like the planet had expired.

I resumed running to flee feelings of impotence, failure. Maelstrom 's freedom was inevitable, that's why the allies focused on preparations for the warfare that would follow, as he moved to consolidate power and rule the Frames. We allies couldn't match the military forces of Maelstrom, but we had to prevail. Sure, Maelstrom and his minions, Warty Sebaceous Cysts, had the advantage. But history is full of the vanquishing of big strong bad guys. And not just in my Frame, as it turns out.

My two months working for the allies in New York were not pointless, as they felt at the moment of Maelstrom's escape. They were essential to the long–term goal: Maelstrom might not be contained but he had to be stopped. I gave myself this pep talk but tonight it didn't penetrate. I'd been much more confident about fighting Maelstrom when I was back in Los Angeles last summer, trying to explain the allies and the Frames to Jenn.

1. DON'T INVITE PSYCHOANALYSIS

When your best friend since third grade thinks you're crazy, it gives you pause. I was confident that I was sane, but if I told Jenn how I'd spent my summer while she was away, she'd be crazy not to think I was. Crazy.

Correction. Not if I told her, when I told her. Jenn had been back in Los Angeles for two weeks and every day that I avoided telling her about my case, she got more distant. I had to tell her the truth, but whoever said honesty was the best policy didn't have to explain detective work in other dimensions or sentient lawn chairs.

I confess, my experiences sounded crazy to me, too, now that I was cut off, back in my own Frame, awaiting word about what my next move should be. I was already fighting fear that the word would never come—that my engagement in the Frames was over. I didn't need to add maybe I'm nuts to my list of things to never think about.

Jenn and I were having a last night together before she left town again, on another quest to improve her health through spiritual retreat. Two years ago, Jenn was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, and the doctors have been surprised at how rapidly hers has progressed. Never surprise your doctors.

She was draped across the futon in my office, her back to me at my desk. She was in the middle of a daily ritual: install a free phone app, try it, decree "Loser," delete it. Meanwhile, I watched the skylight for clouds that held messages, and checked internet travel deals to see if any resonated. Nope. None of the deals made me think yes, that is where I'm supposed to go next, to fight Maelstrom and reconnect with Anya and Anwyl.

When I closed the travel web site, Jenn didn't look up from her phone. "Loser," she murmured and made a few clicks.

If I had any interest in women, Jenn would be my main event. I love her luminescent skin and her eyes that are green enough to be cat–worthy. She has a well–formed opinion for every occasion. Also, she can out–curse a rapper.

But she hadn't cursed all evening, not even a measly damn. That's how uncomfortable I'd made her with my refusal to tell her about my detective work. I couldn't let her leave town with our friendship in this state.

She looked up again. "What's with the snort?"

"I was picturing you in a t–shirt that says 'Some of my best friends are crazy', one of those lame shirts with an arrow pointing to me."

She lowered her phone, I shut my laptop.

I started before I could change my mind. "As you know, while you were at your latest retreat, I became a private detective and, amazingly, I got clients. I was busy the whole time you were gone."

"I'm happy for you. You've been searching for a new direction. Do you think this is it?" Formal and polite. Not good.

"Yes, I believe it is." I withheld my doubts about when/if/whether my case would resume. "I haven't been comfortable talking about my work and as I've been all too aware, that makes you unhappy."

Jenn tapped fingers against lips in a fake yawn. Get on with it.

"Everything I'm about to tell you is confidential." This got full attention, as I knew it would. "My information will sound bogus and I can't prove it right now but I will—at some point." She frowned, perhaps reacting to my uncertainty. But she also curled her feet under her. Listening.

"My clients are other beings—people, maybe, humanoids, definitely. Never mind about that, it's a detail. My clients are named Anya and Anwyl, and they're not from this world. I wish you could meet them. She is—she's like a living sunrise. He is—scary, but in a good way."

"They're not from this world. Your clients are aliens."

"Not like spaceships and death rays. They're from another Frame, which as near as I can figure is another dimension. It turns out there are Frames all around us in all directions, with all kinds of life, all living simultaneously."

"Fascinating! How do we go to a new Frame? I want to see one."

I tilted my chair to look out the skylight. "I don't know how to go by myself. My clients would take me. We would walk through a tunnel between Frames called a Connector. Or they would just take my hand and bring me with them. They are beings of great power so they can do that."

"What's going on in all those other Frames? Magic? Space colonies?"

"Just—beings, living their lives. About half the beings know they're in Frames, the others are like us, in Neutral Frames. Neutrals don't know about other Frames, with a few exceptions."

"You're one of the exceptions. And now I am, too. We're special."

I could hardly begrudge her sarcasm. "Some of the Frames look like ours, but they're not like ours. And stuff can turn out to be alive. This building, for example, is sentient. Her name is Henrietta and she held the door shut one time when it was dangerous for me to enter."

"Someone else might think the door was stuck. I didn't know you had a cat."

I followed Jenn's gaze and saw the reason for her non–sequitur. Dizzy, the building's formerly stray cat, strolled in from my waiting room. "That's Dizzy. She lives here when she's in this Frame. I haven't seen her for days. She's probably been Traveling in other Frames."

Jenn made a noise like I cut her off on the freeway. "I'm not laughing."

"I'm not kidding. That cat saved my life once in another Frame."

Jenn sliced a finger across her throat. No more about the cat.

Maybe I should have stopped. But then Jenn was certain to conclude I had made up a ridiculous story to exclude her from my case. "Another thing about the Frames is that the Watts Towers are sentient. Anyway, the two tallest ones are. They're sentient and animate—they move around. They talk. They have rad powers, actually. One of them disappeared, though, on an espionage mission, and we think he's hurt."

"He disappeared? Nobody noticed that a ten–story tower disappeared?"

"The Neutral version of him didn't disappear in our Frame. Beings like the Watts Towers, who are not animate and sentient in every Frame, have different versions of themselves in different Frames. I'm not clear on how that works."

"Interesting that your favorite folk art sculpture would be so powerful and special. And a spy, too."

Talking about the Frames had energized me, but this snagged my balloon on a power line. "Of course you don't believe me yet, it would be weird if you just accepted all this. I'll skip a lot of the details, they'd take longer than we've got."

"You mean there's more? Can we order pizza first?"

She made the call, then I went out to fetch our pies from the pizza joint across the street. Dizzy walked ahead of me down the hall. I squeezed my eyes a couple times to clear them. Too much time on the internet, my vision was blurry. The threadbare paisley rug was bleeding into Dizzy's gray and white fur.

Correction. I could see the rug through the cat. Dizzy was becoming transparent. The cat did a gradual fade out and right before she vanished, flicked her tail. I felt honored—never before had Dizzy allowed me to see her change Frames. But why couldn't she do that in front of Jenn? That would have cut through Jenn's disbelief. Not for the first time, I had to wonder how much conversation the cat understood.


Every meal is Christmas morning for Jenn. While she compared pizza slices, I resumed my spiel, occasionally waving my slice of jalapeño with green olives.

"My clients, Anya and Anwyl, introduced me to the Frames. They have a prophecy that says I could help them. They're leading an effort to save the Frames."

"From evil, I assume." Jenn crammed pizza into her mouth but I caught the snicker and was grateful for its modesty. Situation reversed, I'd be at the guffaw stage. She chewed, she swallowed, her tone got serious. "Just a few months ago, you were feeling lost and pointless after Ick died. Now here you are with a new career and a job to save the universe."

Jenn knew, better than anybody, how rough it had been after the death of my fourth husband—she pulled me out of that tailspin. But still. "Thank you, Dr. Shrink. Please don't psychoanalyze me."

"Don't invite psychoanalysis."

She ate pizza. I played with my food.

Jenn broke first. "I'm sorry," she said, "tell me the rest."

"The rest won't be easier to believe. There's this super evil being named Maelstrom, who's in prison, but wants to rule the universe like he did once before. We—Anya, Anwyl, the Watts Towers, all the allies including me—have to stop him."

"He can rule the universe from prison?"

"His henchmen are working to free him. There are three henchmen, they're called Warty Sebaceous Cysts, and they act like morons but they're cunning and cruel." Thinking about the Cysts iced my heart. They acted goofy while they orchestrated genocide, then hunted and murdered witnesses; while they ransacked my thoughts, then told their flying chainsaws to finish me off. I'd be dead if it weren't for a sentient volcano, who –

"Did you say 'warty sebaceous cysts'? Like the lumps on Sadie's stomach?" Sadie was Jenn's dear departed mutt.

"That's not the real name, that's just as close as I can get to saying it—a lot of the names are in languages I can't pronounce."

"Of course they are. Languages of other Frames."

"Someday I'll be able to prove this to you. But I can't right now, because we took Warty Sebaceous Cysts to court and we lost. The court is a special tribunal called the Framekeeps. The Framekeeps forbade Anya and Anwyl from associating with me because I'm a Neutral. But they said 'stay away from Nica of Los Angeles' so that gives us a loophole. I'm going to move, and then I won't be Nica of Los Angeles, I'll be Nica of Somewhere Else, and I can get back on the case."

"You're moving! Where? When?"

I dropped into a chair, refused to slump. "I don't know. Anya said 'you will know' but I don't—yet. I'm. Expecting to get that information. Any time now."

Jenn folded her plate and wiped her hands. Her staccato movements told me her attitude was unchanged. What had I expected? Not to be believed, certainly, but that she would see my sincerity, see that I believed, and wonder.

Jenn pulled her hair at right angles to her ears, her gesture of utmost frustration. Her hair was garnet underneath, burgundy where the sun kissed it. People think she dyes her hair because the colors are so rich. But there is nothing artificial about Jenn. "I thought you were going to talk straight." Her voice lost decibels. "I didn't know you were moving." She held out her pizza debris for me to dispose of. "Are you writing a screenplay, bitch? I know I make fun of wanna–bes but I wouldn't make fun of you. Hardly at all. You know that, right?"

"Of course I know that. I did tell you straight, and I –"

"I need to talk about something else."

And so we did, and although hearing about the Frames annoyed her, our friendship was back on track, thanks to the prospect of separation for an unknown length of time.

I considered driving her out to meet Hernandez, who had shared many of my Frames adventures. But he was in such a funk lately, I wasn't sure how that meeting would go.

Maybe he'd act like a veteran with delayed P.T.S.D. Maybe that's what he was. Maybe all those tours in war zones had finally nailed him. Maybe the signs were there already: educated, skilled man working as a custodian, after all. Which made me feel disloyal to Hernandez.

Another explanation for my summer adventures was psychotic break. Which made me feel disloyal to myself.

No. Things happened like I said. That had to be the reality. I'm not a masochist. I wouldn't hallucinate the Frames then exclude myself from them.

2. NEW YORK FOOL

When I first detected that New York was my relocation destination, I ignored the evidence. I love New York but I've been there often. I wanted unknown and exotic. Nica of Shanghai sounded about right. But no one consulted me. Instead, my travel services emailed alerts about fabulously low airfares one way to New York. Every day there's a deal going somewhere, I sniffed. When I stopped for coffee, the sound system blasted Laura Nyro—New York Tendaberry. I hadn't heard that for decades. Leaving the coffee joint, I took a short cut through a parking lot and every car had a New York license plate. This was all before lunch. Come afternoon, the homeless guy who asked for change had a Brooklyn accent; public radio launched a series on vintage jazz, live from the Blue Note; and the top news story was the bomb scare near Wall Street.

When I went to toss trash in the dumpster behind my building, the cinderblock wall grabbed my attention. Hummingbirds are my favorite bird and someone had spray–painted two giant lime green hummers in confrontation mode: beaks down, chests arched, wings back. I once had a yard with a faux honeysuckle and the hummers spent all day around it—seconds eating and hours confronting others who tried to eat. This drawing captured the essence, which had to be awfully hard to do with spray paint. Was this graffiti new? Surely I would have noticed it before. Then I discovered the lime green writing that gleamed atop older, basic black graffiti. I dropped my garbage bag, moved closer. The inscription smeared when I touched it. NEW YORK FOOL the blocky graffiti shouted. Tagger's signature or talking to me?

I needed to find Hernandez. He was the only Neutral who'd shared the Frames with me and we'd spent many hours speculating about where I would be called to go next. Hernandez was due to start his custodial shift in my building, so I jogged to the parking garage to intercept him.

"It's New York," I yelled as Hernandez pulled his battered red pickup into a parking space.

"How long before you leave?" He slammed the truck door then patted it apologetically. He had not yet adjusted to the revelation that his truck was sentient.

"A week at most, I figure."

"No time to waste." He unlocked the custodial closet without looking at me. His daughters recently left for Spain to live with their mother, and people leaving him was an issue. In fact, from the moment his girls took off, he kept himself crazy busy, with a second custodial gig and hours of daily driving around southern California, doing reconnaissance for Anya and Anwyl.

I trailed after Hernandez as he pushed the custodial cart into the elevator. He set to work as though I weren't there. I'm not into forcing friends to talk with me, so we did the adieu thing and I went to find the Henrietta's building manager.

The building manager gets a gleam in his eye around me, because he has been led to believe that I'm doing police work and he lo–o–oves police work. I informed him that my case would take me to New York for an unknown stretch of time. I paid four months rent in advance and—jackpot!—he offered to set me up with a rental in the owner's property in Manhattan.

I wanted to tell Hernandez but his truck was gone—he must have cut his shift short. I looked for Dizzy, but hadn't seen her since the night she vanished in the hall. I felt so disconnected from my life in L.A., I might as well already be gone.

What with my scrambling to get out of town and his overbooked schedule, I didn't see Hernandez again before I headed for New York. Our last contact was an empty text exchange.

:: At airport, boarding soon. Keep me posted on yr recon work.

:: Safe flight! Will do.

With that, I added Hernandez to the growing list of loved ones I didn't know when I would see again.

3. ONLY CROSS AT RED LIGHTS

I couldn't remember the last time I'd felt lonely, but I spent the first couple weeks in New York fighting a creeping nostalgia. Everything reminded me of something. Somebody. The absent and the dead. And I was irritable, as irritable as my second father–in–law's bowel syndrome. Here I was, already—moved, already—but nothing had changed. I was still excluded from all things Framesian. For all I knew, Maelstrom and the Cysts might be vanquished by now, without my involvement.

When I wasn't sulking, I did believe that Anya and Anwyl would fetch me when it was time. I was unsure what to do with myself until then. I had developed confidence in my private eye abilities—I rarely turned to fictional detectives for advice nowadays. I could open up shop as a private detective, but hadn't decided how to attract clients and hated to leave a case unfinished if—correction, when—Anya and Anwyl appeared.

My new abode was on the Upper West Side, just shy of Columbia University, in an as–is brownstone with a name etched over the front stoop: The Julian. Call it lovingly unrestored. The Julian had decayed with dignity intact. The front stairs, jagged with missing concrete chunks, rose to a magnificent lead crystal door that shimmered softly, day or night. The inner foyer was scuffed by so many feet that the parquet grain was plaid. Two lean mahogany staircases led to five stories of narrow apartments on separate, locked halls. Mine was second floor, west half. In the main room, floor to ceiling windows gave plenty of light to examine the peeling pastiche of wallpapers. I loved my apartment from the moment I stepped inside, sharing space with so many generations of tenants.

And I loved roaming outside. At night, I killed hours and energy on zigzag walks during which I thought of nothing but the color of the next traffic light. My initial rule was keep moving so I crossed streets going whichever direction was green. Then Manhattan's pedestrian anarchy overtook me: lights don't matter. You cross the street if there is a lull in traffic, or if you suspect that oncoming driver is a wimp who will brake for you. With this realization, my rule became only cross at red lights. To follow that rule I had to pay attention, whatever the hour, which made brooding impossible.

Each day, to become familiar with my new stomping ground, I rode a different subway line to its farthest terminus, then tracked back by a combination of walking and station–hopping. The regime gave me purpose; and reason to spend time on the subway.

I glanced out today's train window and an express train with film–strip windows flashed by. The train paced mine briefly and in each window was a still life of unknown souls, then the windows shot ahead—and down! Did that train go down or did my train go up? How many levels were there in this underground universe?

Was it any wonder I loved the subway? It was as close to Frame Travel as I would get for now.


On one day's exploration, I passed a bookstore and my first impulse was to run. In other Frames, I'd witnessed books as mercenary soldiers who flew upside down, shedding razor–edged text that cut through anything—or anyone.

This was my first bookstore visit since discovering the violent lives of books in other Frames, and I was relieved that being surrounded by books felt every bit as cozy, restorative, and enticing as it ever had. Books could not be inherently evil, their natures must have somehow been twisted. So far, this was the only way that my Frame seemed superior to other Frames: here, we appreciated the true nature of books.

The bookstore clerk flirted, "I bet you're a California girl. You've got a real even tan."

"Okay," I said and escaped to the back aisles. I was overdue to dye my hair.

I knew, because encounters like this were on the rise. My natural hair shade is beach bunny blonde. That—coupled with my skin's tendency to tan after the briefest sun exposure—is the bane of my existence. Yes, I would be a better person—stronger, healthier, yada yada—if I accepted my looks. But I barely made it to sweet 16 before I grew terminally sick of guys hitting on me because they suffered from blonde fetish. And so I dye my hair. When I was a teen, I went for a mottled print that suggested leopard skin. I have also enjoyed nuclear yellow hair, which makes me feel like a Marvel heroine. Nowadays I'm mostly a chestnut brunette, which keeps moron encounters to a minimum.

The bookstore had a display of best sellers, including Lose Twenty Pounds of Worry in Twenty Days. Self–help hogwash that would never have come into my life, had Jenn not bought me a copy. In another Frame, a copy of Lose Twenty Pounds had died at my inadvertent command. As a memorial, I would buy a copy of Lose Twenty Pounds.

The clerk lost his flirty smile when I set my purchase on the counter. With a sucked–a–lemon look, he rang me up quickly. Interesting that Lose Twenty Pounds could be a bestseller yet sound a dork alert. Maybe I should carry a copy at all times—think of the blonde trouble that would avoid.

I was kidding but within a block I felt an urge—a necessity—to return to the bookstore. I fought the feeling for another block then went back and bought the stock of Lose Twenty Pounds—four more hardcovers, two paperbacks. It made no sense but I had to. Maybe this was a sign from beyond my Frame.

4. I'M YOUR MUSICIAN

Or maybe it was a pointless whim. I spent the next several days interpreting all manner of pointless whims as messages from other Frames. Meanwhile, I traversed a different subway line each day, which helped me calculate how long I'd been waiting here for Anya and Anwyl to reconnect.

On my eleventh day, I just missed a train at Columbus Circle station. Next train arrives in 9 minutes, the message board assured me.

The train and its racket receded and that was when I heard it. Him. The slide guitarist, set up at the far end of the platform. He looked like a retired biker, with a shaved head and an anarchist's beard and thick coarse worn garments suitable for long trips on rough roads. He played a blues that was as beautiful as it was mournful. It took me back to the unparalleled glorious sunset on the day that Ick died.

Next train in 4 minutes. Next train in 10 minutes. Next train in 13 minutes. It was impossible for me to leave that music. The longer I listened, the deeper it reached. It dragged my yearning and frustration to the surface, then shouldered them with me, then took them from me in a gentle catharsis.

I sat on a bench, close enough to read the script in cracked lime green paint on the open guitar case: Kelly Joe. I only had a twenty–dollar bill so I dropped it in the case. If I'd only had a fifty I would have dropped that in. "I thank you for your kindness," Kelly Joe murmured without looking up from his strings. I bet he needed to concentrate. I play a lot of instruments a little bit, which was enough to recognize how difficult that passage was. He made it look as effortless as a pelican skimming waves.

While he played, one leg tapped an erratic beat. He didn't sing but he hummed in a resonant baritone. Intricate drawings covered his forearms—tattoos that seemed to animate as he played.

The next two days, I chose subway lines that went through Columbus Circle station and was thrilled to find him playing in the same spot. The day after that, he wasn't there and I spent most of the day checking back for him, in vain. I found him on the following day and I stayed for hours.

I wasn't the only one who spent excess time in Columbus Circle station to hear to him play. Among the regulars was a young woman, Manhattan trim and savvy, who listened with tears flooding her cheeks. To give her privacy, I watched Kelly Joe's hands glide over the frets. I was frustrated at my powers of observation, or lack thereof, because his tattoos looked different than I remembered them. Today there were totem animals that I hadn't noticed before. When I looked up, I must have frowned and the young woman must have thought the frown was for her. She shoved the heels of her hands across her face to dry her tears.

I reached a hand toward her, yanked it back. Not cool to touch a stranger. "Sometimes crying is all we can do," I said. Which set her to bawling again. A train came, she moved to board it. "See you tomorrow," I called, and when she braced herself to clutch a pole in the packed train car, she showed just a hint of smile.

Right when I said 'See you', Kelly Joe's music paused then shifted melodies. As the train pulled that teary face away, the music spread through my bloodstream, changed my pulse. By the time the train disappeared into the tunnel, I relived every leave–taking that ever mattered to me. They no longer made me sad. I felt their inevitability, sensed our lives flowing in currents now parallel, now merged, now divergent.

I moved closer to Kelly Joe. As always, the grace and strength in his hands entranced me. I wanted him to never stop playing.

I grabbed his wrist and stopped him. "Hey!" I said. Among his forearm tattoos was a lime green hummingbird in confrontation mode. No way had I missed this tattoo previously. It had not been on his arm until now. "What the hell! What is this?"

He got very still but did not pull away. He murmured, "My messages," which, I later learned, is what he calls his tattoos. He means messages to, not from, him.

He looked up from his frets. I saw his eyes and dropped his wrist. "Who are you?" I whispered. His eyes were a deep shifting blend of grays and blues like unpolished silver. Like Anya's eyes. They looked at me, into me, beyond me. He gathered the change people had tossed in his case, packed his guitar, and stood.

"I'm your musician," he replied. "Tomorrow your lessons begin. Have an enlightened evening, Nica."

A train arrived and commuters flowed around Kelly Joe, the only one not in a hurry. He tucked his earnings into the clenched hands of an old man, sleeping or passed out below the escalator. Then the rush–hour crowd absorbed them.

5. TATTOO ON MY HEART

On that same day, I met the cat, Leon. Stray cats are a fixture back home in Los Angeles and in many cities I've visited, but I'd never seen one in New York. Or maybe I did but mistook it for a smaller–than–average rat. The cat sat on the stoop of my building. He was an orange tabby with long fur or short dreads. He looked like he had rolled in glue. I sat at the other end of the steps, hoping to make friends with him. As soon as I sat, he jumped down to the sidewalk. He was small for a pony but the largest cat I had ever seen, and a graceful jumper, floating from the stoop to the sidewalk with a ripple of spine. Below me, he rolled on the cement. His fur was so matted that when he rose, his coat had sprouted cigarette butts.

His thinking was equally unkempt. When a big dog went by on its evening walk, the cat held his ground. However, when I stepped to the door—away from him—the cat fled.

Inside my apartment, I allowed myself one comprehensive recollection of my encounter with Kelly Joe, my musician. At last things were moving in a promising direction! However, with nothing but time on my hands, it was too easy to wander too far inside my own head, so after the single recollection I washed my face at the bathroom sink. I stared into the mirror, pondering which subway route to—gak! A face appeared behind my shoulder in the mirror.

Outside the bathroom window, the unkempt cat clung to the fire escape railing in a balancing act better suited to a bird.

All that evening, the cat wouldn't come inside and he wouldn't go away. He was on the stoop when I went out to get some dinner, across the street from the pharmacy as I shopped, and back at the window when I prepped for bed. My bathroom window has bars so I was comfortable keeping it open that night as an invitation to him.

By morning, the cat was perched on my chair. I shut the window and corralled him in the bathroom, where he pinged like a tennis ball on the space station. I stayed with him until he accepted or forgot he was trapped, and meanwhile read all seven languages' instructions for the hair clippers I bought at the pharmacy. While he watched, I clipped myself first, converting tresses to dense velvety fuzz. I hadn't had a clip for years and the liberation was immediate. I petted my head and sighed.

"It feels great, you'll be glad you did it. Think of the savings in furballs!" I held him in the sink and he didn't resist near as much as I expected. He so needed to be touched, he didn't care what I did to him. I'd known times like that and perhaps he felt my sympathy.

After I clipped the cat, I opened the window. He shot out like horizontal lightning, but then stopped on the fire escape and watched me bag his nasty clumps of fur. I went out for breakfast brew and by the time I returned, he was asleep across the back of my couch.

Without fur, he was nothing but bones. And scars, which looked like knife cuts. Across his skull was a jagged homemade tattoo that said Leo, with an o like a diamond. It was probably his name—he had the long nose, hint of crossed eyes, and lion markings if you squinted while drunk, which his mutilator probably had been. But in case Leo was his mutilator, I dubbed the cat Leon. "Why did you let anybody do that to you, Leon? What are you, part dog?" I knew the answer. He was too sweet to fight. A terrible trait for a street cat, whatever your size. I scritched his head and he broke into a purr that rumbled the dishes and made me nostalgic for earthquakes, confirming my homesickness.

From that instant, I had a Leon tattoo on my heart. He kept falling over while I petted him, because he would lean into my hand with such gusto that he lost balance. I hadn't laughed like this in weeks. Hell, this was the longest I'd spent with another being in weeks. Lesson there. I moved to New York because I was so eager to be part of something special with Anya and Anwyl; instead, here I was, cut off and alone.

Could I trust Leon? Monk and Miles, the Watts Towers, once told me that it was okay to love Dizzy, but that I shouldn't trust her because cats have only their own side. What were the odds that two cats in a row would have a side that aligned with us, the allies, against Warty Sebaceous Cysts and Maelstrom? If Leon was trustworthy did that increase the chances that Dizzy wasn't? Did you ever notice that male cats seem less bright than female cats? Maybe it's because they are more easy–going, which means that –

Nica! Focus! I was late getting out the door for today's subway line. Although I was reassured to catch myself digressing. First time in ages. I really hadn't been myself lately.

Self–knowledge gained. I liked being alone when in my city of birth with loved ones nearish–by. Being alone across the continent made for a whole other shebang, and only felt okay now that I knew Kelly Joe and Leon. Momentarily this made me feel weak, but needing loved ones nearish wasn't a trait that I could change, so I acknowledged it and moved along.

6. A PLACE OF GREAT POWER

My plan was to take the number 7 train under the East River into Queens. I got to Grand Central then kept walking. I didn't like using either mega–station, Times Square or Grand Central. Going inside was like entering scenes from before I was born.

"Good morning, Nica." I recognized Kelly Joe's baritone and spun around. He was right behind me.

"Hey." I suffered a sudden loss of conviction. Maybe he wasn't a tutor from the Frames, maybe he was some weird street busker that I had just made a date with. Except how did he know my name or where to find me? Well, if he were a weird enough street busker he could.

I got a grip. After all, I wore Anya's lanyard across my torso, hidden under my clothes. The lanyard signaled me when I was in danger and it never let out a peep around Kelly Joe, although it had been driving me nuts since I arrived in New York, with prickling warnings of no consequence. Just this morning, it gave a jolt of pain because I was about to step in a puddle.

Kelly Joe stood motionless while I worked through all this. We were close to Grand Central so the sidewalks were crowded and people flowed around us. He studied my head.

"I cut my hair off," I acknowledged.

"You did. It suits you both ways."

I wanted to know a lot more about him. He didn't talk or act like a Frame Traveler. Except for playing music of unearthly soul. And, p.s., having tattoos that changed.

"We should get started. Anya gave me a list of ways you need to be trained," he said.

Anya. Hearing her name come out of someone else's mouth. If hope is a brain scan, mine just spiked after a lengthy flatline.

"An –"

He rested a finger on his lips. "We won't mention her again," he said.

Which left me with so many questions I had a logjam between brain and mouth. Why not? Was she in danger? Were we? From the Framekeeps? From Warty Sebaceous Cysts? How did he know Anya, anyway? To passersby it may have seemed like I was sharing my guppy impersonation. I hoped Kelly Joe wasn't someone who put much stock in first impressions.

"It's a fine morning for a walk," he noted.

I shut my mouth and joined him heading east, across Lexington Avenue and away from Grand Central. It was indeed a fine morning for a walk. Sun warmed the air but did not yet bake the sidewalks. Commuters had commuted, so traffic noise was no longer continuous. All around us, pedestrians whistled for taxis, placed orders at food stands, barked instructions into cell phones. Hell–bent bicyclists swerved at the last minute and yelled like a collision would be your fault. It must be Kelly Joe's presence that made my sensations so acute.

Or it was just New York. Dirty loud crowded vibrant alive. On the streets there, I was isolated and part of a whole. I could not comprehend the variety of lives around me but felt they were people much like me.

Kelly Joe held out his hand. "Will you take my hand? I want to show you where you are."

I wanted to push his sleeve up to check his forearm tattoos—did they change all the time? were they changing right now?—but figured I should wait until I knew him at least six minutes. I took his hand instead. His skin was cool and dry despite the humidity, his grip was casually strong, and his clasp distracted me. Those long thin musician's fingers. I stopped thinking about ways to play them when I could no longer hear myself think.

New York is always loud but this was to loud like a supernova is to a cigarette ember. I searched for the source, but the noise came from all directions. This wasn't the New York I knew. Around us, the buildings looked familiar but all signs of people had vanished and vehicles seemed to be grazing on the asphalt, as I had seen them do in Miles and Monk's Frame, Next Vast. This was not my Frame. My musician was a Frame Traveler, powerful enough to take me with him when he shifted Frames.

I was so excited I felt shy. I tried to sound cool and collected, but I stripped my throat yelling above the hubbub, "Did we Travel to Next Vast?"

Kelly Joe leaned close to reply. "Thereabouts." His voice remained soft yet I heard him, or felt the words. With his cool breath on my ear lobe, I wished he'd say more. Instead, he gripped my hand tighter and we Traveled to another Frame where it was quieter, although still much louder than home.

Here the streets were under water and each block's sidewalk bobbed like a dock. Our steps intensified the bobbing and made buildings bump each other. Which was impossible! I had a slew of questions but he touched a finger to his lips.

I sensed rather than heard him say, "When I have questions, I observe more closely until I have answers." Then he chuckled.

"What are you laughing about?" I yelled. Me, the answer had to be.

"Anwyl said I'd need time for questions."

"He knows me!" I looked around, taking it all in, grinning. At last I was Traveling again.

As we approached the East River, a disturbing noise grew, like someone cackled while gargling. With each cackling episode, I grew more uneasy.

"That's just the river," Kelly Joe assured me. "Pay it no mind and it will ignore you, as most predators do."

"Okay but why does –" I cut myself off, challenged to prove I could walk one block without questions. "It sure is loud here."

"And in all the New Yorks," he nodded. He Traveled us back to the first Frame we'd visited, the loudest of them all. The noise was like a thousand mix tapes, played simultaneously, backwards. I tried to pick out individual sounds but the harder I tried, the more I got lost in the rush of noise.

"I hear everything but nothing," I complained.

"Soften your attention," he instructed. "Take your focus away from what interests you."

I couldn't get it. He began to hum. I tuned into his baritone and gradually the background noises sharpened and separated. They were voices. Hundreds of voices, near and far. Yet I saw no beings in this Frame.

Eventually, over many visits, I pieced together the situation, no thanks to Kelly Joe, who seemed more willing than Anwyl to tell me stuff, yet—like Anwyl—rarely told me things I could understand.

New York is a place of great power, with a persistent presence through many Frames. Of course it has sentient structures, as all cities do. What is different about New York is that the land itself transmits so much power that it imparts a little bit of sentience to every structure, from the Waldorf Astoria to the pretzel cart across the street. The sentience derives from the construction materials, the wood and metal and glass and rock, much of which comes from sentient beings. Every structure is a mixture of sensibilities that, in places of power, becomes a personality. Usually the sensibilities add together and create a modest intellect, occasionally they conflict and induce schizophrenia. Each personality persists through all the New Yorks, that is, all the Frames where the land imparts power. The land's power is strongest in the Frame where we walked now, (whose name sounds to me like) Frivolous Bedlam. The land's power weakens with distance from Frivolous Bedlam and in those Frames, fewer buildings have sentience so the noise level diminishes. In the New Yorks, a quiet Frame is one that is far from the source of power. Or it's a Neutral Frame. Neutrals can't hear the buildings because of filters that shield Neutrals from awareness of other Frames.

As my own Frame teaches, sentience guarantees neither intelligence nor wisdom, and as Kelly Joe and I walked in Frivolous Bedlam, most of the chatter around us was simply that: buildings gossiped, discussed the weather, complained about leaks and creaks, told jokes. The truly sentient structures—the beings like Henrietta, my home in Los Angeles—were quiet. They only speak when they have something to say.

"That one shaved herself and then a cat," I heard a voice, followed by titters.

I stopped walking. "Hey, they're talking about me!"

"As they do, as they will." Kelly Joe murmured.

"How do these buildings know or care? They didn't see me shave the cat. I don't live anywhere near here."

"Few Neutrals are Travelers nowadays. The buildings like to keep an eye out."

I stumbled. Struggling to keep up with the pace of information, I'd stepped in a pothole.

All too soon, Kelly Joe brought us back to my Neutral Frame, where a typical Manhattan work day suddenly seemed silent.

"Thank you for taking me to other Frames! I've missed Traveling. So much! Even though Traveling used to make me feel like crap. How come that didn't feel bad? One time when Anya held my hand and we jumped off a roof, Traveling didn't hurt then, either. Was it because you held my hand? Why is that less bad? The worst was the time Anwyl took a bunch of us to far Frames really fast, to escape Warty Sebaceous Cysts. Is going to far Frames the hardest?" Ahhh. I hadn't had a good babble in weeks. Kelly Joe stood, fidget free, as patient as a broken clock. "You're welcome to answer any of those," I concluded.

"When I take your hand, you Travel on my energy and I share your journey. You'll feel less pain as you Travel more."

"What if –" I plugged my question spigot.

Kelly Joe's finger was back to his lips. "It's time that you learned to Travel on your own."

That left me speechless.

7. A DEEPER MODE

Cut to unknown hours later. "So your instructions are, relax and don't think about it while concentrating with every molecule of my being. In your Frame, do you have the concept 'mixed message'? Wait, don't count that as one of the questions I'm hardly ever allowed to ask, rhetorical shouldn't count."

"This is my Frame, too," was all Kelly Joe said.

"Sorry, failure makes me testy."

"Success will come."

"It really doesn't help that you're so calm and reasonable."

He watched a traffic light change. "Would you like to take a break?"

"No way. Not now." And I strode up Second Avenue as though the next Frame had a head start.

My feet advanced, left right left right. The only thing on my mind was stepping into a new Frame. Walking into a new Frame was all I thought about and that pallet the delivery guy just dropped with a thud that chattered my teeth which reminded me I might need to find a dentist –

Crap.

I stomped back to my teacher. Kelly Joe met my gaze, face unreadable. His expressions were on par with Monk's sentences. If you thought you got the meaning, that only proved you didn't.

He took out a harmonica from a jeans pocket that had a white worn strip where the harp lived. Much as I loved listening to his music, I needed to get this right. I strode forward. The only thing on my mind was stepping into a new Frame. Right left rightleftrightleft.

Kelly Joe strolled behind me. He bent bluesy notes, all keening, yearning, and sighs. The music distracted me, but with it I tuned out other distractions. Left right left right left right. I heard the music as I pulled away from it. And then –

– something clicked, my thinking shifted to a deeper mode, no longer influenced by my thoughts, which were pollen in the winds of daily life. Now I had to strain to hear the harmonica because it was so loud here, so many voices chattering at once. I stumbled with a sudden vertigo, like I dropped sideways in an elevator. At the same time, I thought I might barf.

The stumble converted to a victory leap. This combination of sensations was what I felt when I changed Frames in the past! I jumped up and down while shouting, "I did it! I did it!" By the time I had leaped back to Kelly Joe and clasped his biceps in an awkward hug, whatever had clicked in, clicked out again and I was back in my Frame. I continued to whoop my success.

New York is a good place to act like—or be—an idiot. I could have run down the block with a roman candle in each fist and armadillos looping around my wrists—and the only sign that any pedestrian noticed would be the minimalist change in direction to avoid collision with my circus.

I stopped on a mental dime. "Wait. Was that me or you who did that?" If I needed his music to change Frames, what had I accomplished on my own?

"Compare this experience with our earlier walk."

"This time I felt woozy and nauseous! That was awesome!"

"Yes, that's the proof that you found your way. My music showed you how to focus. Soon you won't need help."

I took off west without him or his harp. I tried changing Frames another dozen times, succeeded maybe twice. I grew ever more dizzy and nauseous. Fortunately, we returned to our home Frame within a short dash of a trashcan and soon I was no longer nauseous. Unfortunately, that was because I vomited a considerable volume into the trashcan.

Barfing is wrong. I so hate it. Go ahead, call me emetophobic, you won't be the first. My first and third husband, Ben Taggart, learned the medical term so he could tease me about my phobia in two languages. Whatever you call my concern, over the years it has been a deterrent to all manner of bad behavior. Shows how much I love Frame Travel; I'm willing to emeto for it.

Kelly Joe extracted a neckerchief and water bottle from his denim jacket. He dampened the cloth and gently wiped my face, then encouraged me to empty the bottle down my stinging throat.

"Thanks, you'd make a good dad, Kelly Joe." I returned his empty water bottle.

"Those are words never spoken," he said, with an un–positive expression I didn't know him well enough to define.

We got to Columbus Circle subway station and he stopped at entrance.

"You'll want to go home. A visitor left you a message."

"How do you know?"

"The way that all information spreads in the New Yorks."

"The buildings in Frivolous Bedlam!" Was that a chuckle? "Did you just laugh at me? How was I funny?"

"Your accent is unique when you say..." he thought his words were inflected differently but they still sounded exactly like "...Frivolous Bedlam."

Damn. I'd never get those names right. But I slammed the door on frustration—at least I had some new Frames to mispronounce now!

"I need to hear you play a couple songs before I go home. I've had a rough day."

"Have you?"

"Amazing but exhausting and don't forget I barfed."

"Then come along." For a moment, I thought he might smile.


That afternoon, his music was giddy and fun. It sent me flying to the moon on homemade wings and dancing a jig around Saturn's rings. A pair of kids seemed to inspire the difference. The girl, maybe four, and the boy, maybe three, bounced in place as kids do when they must move but can't go far.

The platform was packed, a train delayed. Typically, this generates bad tempers, and usually, when a late train arrives, the crowd presses en masse into the cars. Today, many lingered to keep listening. Now there is a testament—Kelly Joe's music kept New Yorkers from pushing forward.

I slid back on a bench, ignoring the way one pants leg stuck on something. Glad I wasn't wearing shorts. A train pulled in; a train pulled out. I closed my eyes to let the music penetrate more deeply. Could music be addictive?

A gulp and a sniffle. On the other end of the bench, someone was crying. It was the same young woman who cried here yesterday. Her eyes said she recognized me, too. She turned her head away.

"Did you come to this station every day before he played here?" I tried to break the ice, waited a New York hour for her to respond, closed my eyes again.

"Ye–es," her voice cracked, "it's my commute."

"Did you stop at all since yesterday? Crying, I mean."

"I don't remember." She stared at the cavity left by the most recent train.

"You remind me of me after my fourth husband died." She reacted to the fourth. "It takes me a while to get things right."

"Didn't you have hair yesterday?"

I snorted. How to answer her underlying question. Why had I buzzed my head? The blonde thing hadn't genuinely bothered me for ages. Starting new? Solidarity with Leon? Behind the gentrification, it's still Travis Bickle's Manhattan? My companion shared my hair color. Maybe blonde was her crowning glory. If I ever got to know her better, I could ask her. Her question held a splash of concern. When you're twenty, you buzz your head and people figure style. Let a couple decades elapse and a new guess arises, chemo.

She waited—polite, patient, bemused. I rubbed my silky scalp. "Long story."

"My brother cut his hair like that. He allowed me to rub his head but no one else could." She stormed up again. Even dry, her eyes would be the watery blue that goes best with blondes. My brown irises had let me skip that stereotype.

"I'm sorry you feel so miserable. Let me know if a private detective could help."

She reacted with surprised thoughtfulness. "Maybe—I—that might—I—never thought of that. But I couldn't afford that."


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