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Shadows on a brick wall

Tais Teng is a Dutch sf writer and illustrator with the quite unpronounceable name of Thijs van Ebbenhorst Tengbergen, which he shortened to Tais Teng to leave room for a picture of exploding starships or a clever steam-punk lady on the covers of his novels. In his own language he has written everything from radio-plays to hefty fantasy trilogies.

To date he has sold sixty-eight stories and essays in the English language and two children's books: When the Night-gaunt knows your name, and The Emerald Boy. "Phaedra: Alastor 824," set in the universe of Jack Vance, has recently been published by Spatterlight press.

His most recent sales are to Unreal, Cirsova, and Mythaxis. Visit his English-language website: tasting.atspace.com, his art site: deviantart.com/taisteng/gallery/44388876, or see him on Facebook @TaisTeng.

"They are very new, you know," he said. "Like those butterflies that sat on black trees. Because of the coaldust and smoke. Moths. Whatever. So they turned dark themselves."
He was trying to charm me, calling me "love" and touching my elbow at every third word. He was also rather drunk, which made his explanation a bit hard to follow. Still, he was the only man in that Manchester pub about my own age and I was running out of time.
"You are talking about camouflage?" I asked. "Mimicry?"
"Right. Couldn't think of the word. Mimicry. All those empty factories and abandoned warehouses. Our glorious industrial heritage. That means new territories." He nodded. "New territories always get colonized first by generalists like rats and cockroaches and then by specialist organisms."
"They turned dark like the moths?" I asked. Keep him talking. If he became halfway sober he could be good company, the right kind of company. He clearly knew what he was talking about. Specialist organisms sounded quite scientific.
I collect strange tales and urban myths for obvious reasons. This might just be what I was looking for.
"Tell me more. What kind of specialist organisms? Chipmunks that eat brick? Butterflies with stainless steel wings?"
"You are making fun of me. But, no, those new territories are clearly made for humans, so they should look like humans to fit in. They can melt into the shadows like any clever cryptid, but they do one better. When they walk along a brick wall their skin shows the same pattern. Like a chameleon or a squid. They are near perfect."
He took out his iPhone, swiped the screen.
"A brick wall?" I asked. "You're showing me a brick wall?"
"Look at the shadows, love. There is a faint shadow on the wall with nothing to throw it."
"Not exactly a world-shaking proof." Never sound too eager.
"I put my camera on burst, took twenty, thirty pictures. I have a program to stack them. You know stacking? It throws all the noise away. Sharpens what is left."
The new picture showed a clear outline. It was still a brick wall and no stone was distorted but you could pick out arms and legs more slender than humans mostly sprout, a head on a long, almost swanlike neck.
"I think they are a kind of elf," he stated. "Changing and mutating to fit in the gaps."
"You must be some kind of professor," I said. It never hurts to flatter.
"I don't have tenure. The whole Cryptozoology faculty is just me and any students I can lure into in my lair. Cryptozoology is the science of hidden animals.'
"Like Bigfoot," I nodded. "Nessie."
He flinched. "Not the best examples. But these are real. Brand-new, not some left-over Jurassic lizard in an African lake, but right here." He sat up, folded his arms and became almost sober.
I could about see the paragraphs of his dissertation marching across his eyeballs.
"You are the expert. What can you tell me about them?"
"Well, they must be quite low on the food chain. Grazers if they feel the need to camouflage themselves."
"That wouldn't be because of the humans? Because they don't want to be seen by us?"
"That, too. Humans are the apex predators now. But I think there is another parallel ecology out there now. I saw spectral toadstools growing on the boilers, ghost grass sprouting from the broken tarmac."
"All unseen by us?"
"Not necessarily. There is an app for everything. I used one that sees in infrared. All ghostly things are colder than the ambient temperature, so they clearly show up."
I forced a smile and laid my hand on his elbow this time. "Ectoplasmic moss trailing from the rusted cranes?"
"You got it."
"Show me your famous brick wall."
He half rose, fell back in his chair. "Shit! I am just too soused."
I touched the tip of his nose: "No, you aren't."
"That is a great trick," he said.
I saw fear blossom in his eyes. Suddenly getting stone cold sober does that to a man.
"You! You are one of them!"
"Not exactly. Come. Show me the brick wall."
The Joseph Holt's must once have been a working man's pub: Union Tavern and Ales and Stout the sign on the outside wall proudly declared.
We walked down the road, past a field with rusting cars, a warehouse plastered with posters for singers that must be bouncing their grandchildren on their knees if they were still alive. Trucks roared past and there was that heady smell of metal transmuting into crumbling rust, ancient grease turning into something precious and strange, like the amber of a steampunk whale.
I held his hand and there wasn't the slightest pretense that he was anything other than my captive.
"I saw too much," he said. "I should have kept my mouth shut." He looked me right into the eyes. "You are going to kill me? Taking me to a place where no one can hear me scream?"
I smiled. "That would be the last thing I want." I squeezed his hand. "Just bring me to the wall."
It was all there: an acre of ghost grass waving in the breeze that blows from the Other Stars, the wall overgrown with spectral mushroom. Long necked grazers and cellophane birds cleverly camouflaged as wind-blown shopping bags. I felt my mouth watering.
The new high rises and the bankers had turned the Docklands into a dessert, but this was a pristine wilderness, prime hunting ground.
"There is always a price to pay when you change too fast," I told him. "All our males are still born. Kiss me."
He did. Eagerly. Elves have often been called cold, but that never kept mortals from desiring us. Pheromones help. And perhaps I did him an injustice: I was the very first cryptid he held in his arms, the fulfillment of all his dreams.
Well, no need to be explicit. Elves aren't built that differently from humans, even if we parted ways half a million years ago.
"We never stole your children," I told him afterward. "That is a lie. But we still need your seed."
"How much time before you bear a daughter?" he said. He gazed at me the way a man looks at a woman, not like a scientist and his specimen.
"We are a higher race, more evolved. Thirty months."
"Will I ever see you again?"
"Well, we are brand new as you said. We still have to establish our population." I reached in my handbag and handed him the two talismans wrapped in plastic.
He frowned. "What is it?"
"Call it my wedding present to you. It doesn't look like much, but that brown tuft is a piece of skin from a yeti. I caught one three years ago and the DNA should check out. Somewhere between a homo habilis and bonobo."
"And the teeth?" His eyes widened. "It can't be!"
"Well, Nessie shreds his teeth as fast as a shark, but they mostly end up on the Other Side." I touched him on the elbow: "Happy tenure, but I have to hunt now. Better look the other way. It is all kind of ugly."
"No, I want to see."
Well, he didn't scream or even close his eyes when my nails grew into black claws and my poison fangs curved across my lips.
Later he even shared a piece of ghostly liver with me, the ectoplasm dripping from our hands.
There is much to be said for scientific objectivity in one's mate.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, April 23rd, 2021

Author Comments

There are some places that give me a quite uneasy feeling. I don't belong there and I am certainly not welcome. Especially old industrial sites with abandoned machine shops and high chimneys overgrown with bramble like cut rate Sleeping Beauty towers. Life is endlessly adaptable and I got to wondering what animals could adapt to silent lakes made of dazzling green chemicals or a forest of rusty cranes.

- Tais Teng
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