Crouching Buzzard, Leaping Loon

Chapter 1

"Mutant Wizards," I said. "Could you hold please?"

I switched the phone to my left ear, holding it with my awkwardly bandaged left hand, and punched a button to answer another line.

"Eat Your Way Skinny," I said. "Could you hold please?"

As I reached to punch the first button and deal with the Wizards' caller, I heard a gurgling noise in front of me. I looked up to see that the automatic mail cart had arrived while I was juggling phones. A man lay on top of it, his head thrown back, one arm flung out while the other clutched the knife handle rising from his chest. He gurgled again. Red drops fell from his outstretched hand onto the carpet.

"Very funny, Ted," I said, reaching out to press the switch that would send the mail cart on its way again. "You can come back later to clean up the stage blood."

I could hear him snickering as the cart beeped and lurched away, following an invisible ultraviolet dye path that would lead it out of the reception room and into the main office area. Ted leaned upside down over the side, waggled the rubber knife suggestively, and made faces at me until the cart turned to the left and disappeared.

I scanned the floor to see if he'd shed any more valuables this time--after his first tour through the reception area, I'd found eighty-five cents in change and his ATM card, and a coworker had already turned in a set of keys that would probably turn out to be his. No, apparently his pockets were now empty. I wondered how long it would be before he came looking for his stuff--I wasn't about to go chasing him down.

Then I glanced at the young temp I was teaching to run the switchboard. Uh-oh. Her eyes were very wide, and she was clutching her purse in front of her with both hands.

"What happened to him?" she asked.

"Ignore Ted; he's the office practical joker," I said. "He's harmless."

I could tell she didn't believe me.

"What about that?" she asked, pointing over my shoulder.

I followed her finger.

"Oh, that's just George, the office buzzard," I said. "He's harmless, too."

When he saw me looking at him, George shuffled from foot to foot, bobbed his head, and hunched his shoulders. I suspected this behavior was the buzzardly equivalent of a cat rubbing itself against your ankle when it hears the can opener. At any rate, George had started doing it on my second or third day here, when he realized I was the one delivering his meals. I'd actually begun to find this endearing--doubtless a sign I'd been at Mutant Wizards too long. The temp edged away, as if expecting George to pounce.

"Don't worry," I said. "He can't fly or anything. He's only got one wing. One of the staff rescued him from some dogs and brought him back to be the company mascot."

I vowed once again to try convincing my brother that a buzzard was an unsuitable mascot for his computer game company. Or at least that the mascot shouldn't live in the reception area, where visitors had to see him. And smell him.

"He stinks," the temp said.

"You get used to it."

"You've got four lines lit up," the temp said, pointing to the switchboard, and then started as a loud snarling noise erupted from beneath the reception desk. I knew it was only Spike, the nine-pound canine-shaped demon for whom I was dogsitting, testing the wire mesh on the front of his crate, but the sound seemed to unnerve her.

"Why don't you take over now?" I suggested. "I can stick around for a while until you get the hang of it, and then--"

"I'm sorry," she said, backing toward the door. "I probably should have told the agency not to send me out at all today. I'm really not feeling very well. Maybe I should--"

"Meg!" my brother shouted, bursting into the reception room. "Take a look!"

He proceeded to fling himself about the room, performing a series of intricate shuffling movements with his legs while flailing his arms around, hunching his shoulders up and down, and uttering strange, harsh shrieks at irregular intervals.

Normally, the appearance of my tall, blond, and gorgeous brother might have provided some additional incentive for a temp to stay. At least a temp this young. Under the circumstances, though, I wasn't surprised that the temp fled long before he ended up, perched on the toes of his left foot with his right leg thrust awkwardly out to the side and both arms stretched over his head.

"Ta da!" he said, teetering slightly.

I sighed, and punched one of the lines on the switchboard.

"Mutant Wizards," I said. "Can I help you?"

"Meg?" Rob said, sounding less triumphant. "Was my kata okay?"

"Much better," I said, as I transferred the call. "I just wish you wouldn't practice in the reception room."

"Oh, sorry," he said, breaking the pose. "Who was that, anyway?"

"Today's temporary switchboard operator," I said. "She decided not to stay."

"I'm sorry," he said. "I guess I did it again."

I shrugged. It was partly my fault, after all. I was the one who'd invented the fictitious Crouching Buzzard kata--named, of course, for George--and taught it to Rob in a moment of impatience. Or perhaps frustration at his unique combination of rabid enthusiasm and utter incompetence.

And to think that when Rob first became obsessed with the martial arts, I'd encouraged him, naively believing it would help build his character.

"Give him backbone," one of my uncles had said, and everyone else around the Langslow family dinner table had nodded in agreement.

Rob had brains enough to graduate from the University of Virginia Law School. Not at the top of his class, of course, which would have required sustained effort. But still, brains enough to graduate, and to pass the bar exam on the first try, even though instead of studying he'd spent his bar exam review classes inventing a role-playing game called Lawyers from Hell.

He then turned Lawyers from Hell into a computer game, with the help of some computer-savvy friends, and after a rather negative experience trying to sell it to an existing computer game maker, he'd decided to start his own company.

As usual, his family and friends tripped over each other to help. My parents lent him the initial capital. I lent him some money myself when he hit a cash flow problem and was too embarrassed to go back to Mother and Dad. Michael Waterston, my boyfriend, who taught drama at Caerphilly College, introduced him to a computer science professor and a business professor who were restless and looking for real-life projects, which was how Mutant Wizards ended up located in a small, rural college town instead of some high tech mecca like San Jose or Northern Virginia.

And now, less than a year later, Rob was president of a multimillion dollar company, inventor of the hottest new computer game of the decade, and founder of Caerphilly's small but thriving high-tech industry.

Not bad for someone who knew next to nothing about either computers or business, as Rob would readily admit to anyone who asked--including Forbes Magazine, Computer Gaming World, and especially the pretty coed who profiled him in the Caerphilly student paper.

At the moment, the young giant of the interactive entertainment industry was looking at George, and frowning. George ignored him, of course, as he ignored everyone too squeamish to feed him. Although I noticed that when Rob was doing his phony kata, George had been paying more attention than he usually did to humans. Maybe I'd accidentally invented something that resembled buzzard mating rituals.

"He's looking a little seedy," Rob said, finally.

"Only a little?" I said. "That's rather an improvement."

"Seedier than usual," Rob clarified. "Sort of . . . dirty. Do you suppose he needs a bath?"

"Absolutely not," I said, firmly. "That would destroy the natural oils on his feathers. Upset the chemical balance of his system. Play havoc with his innate defenses against infection."

"Oh, right," Rob said.

Actually, I had no idea what washing would do to a buzzard. All I knew is that if George needed washing, I'd be the one stuck doing it. No way.

"Then what about birdbaths?" Rob said.

"For small birds," I said. "Songbirds. And even they only splash gently."

"That's right," Rob said, his face brightening. "They clean themselves with sand."


"We can get a sandbox, then," Rob said. "You can rearrange the chairs to make some room for it. What do you think?"

He was wearing the expression he usually wore these days when he suggested something around the office. The expression that clearly showed he expected his hearers to exclaim, "What an incredible idea!" and then run off to carry it out. At least that was what his staff usually did. I was opening my mouth to speak when--

"Rob! There you are!"

We both looked up to see the Mutant Wizards' chief financial officer at the entrance to the reception area.

"We've got a conference call in three minutes."

Rob ambled off, and I dealt with the stacked up calls. A sandbox. I'd been on the verge of coming clean. Confessing to Rob that Crouching Buzzard was a practical joke, not an abstruse kata.

Instead, as I dealt with the backlog of phone calls for Mutant Wizards and for the motley collection of therapists with whom we shared office space, I began inventing a new kata, one that would be even more fiendishly difficult and even more amusing to watch.

Stop that, I told myself, when I realized how my mind was running. I wasn't here to invent imaginary katas. Or to mind the switchboard. I was supposed to be finding out what was wrong at Mutant Wizards.