Myth-Taken Identity Excerpt

 I swept out my arms, just in time to grab a cutpurse by the collar, a skinny, pink-skinned Imp. I held him up over my head until I could determine that he hadn’t gotten a hold of my wallet. A dozen billfolds and pokes rained down from his pockets onto my head.
        “Sorry, sir. Sorry,” the Imp protested, crushing his hands together in supplication. “It was just a mistake. A mistake, I swear…aaaaaggghh!”
        “Apology accepted,” I replied, heaving him overhand into the nearby fountain, which stood about thirty feet away. 
        The authorities were on the guy almost before he landed. A couple of the blue-skinned Flibberites in comic-opera uniforms, complete with white marching-band style hats, Florentine quilted-front tunics and puffy trousers, looked my way. I glared back, daring them to call me out over the incident, but they gave me point-nailed thumbs-up. I even got a few grins from my fellow shoppers. Brushing money bags off my shoulders, I turned back to my companions. 
        “The moral of that story is that people-watching always pays off.”
        “I see,” Chumley acknowledged.
        “That just leaves us with one problem,” I said, downing my fourth, or maybe fifth, beer. “How are we going to find the person who’s masquerading as Skeeve?” 
        “By following him,” Chumley exclaimed, jumping to his feet. “There he goes now!” 
        I turned in the direction he was pointing. I saw a yellow-haired Klahd in a dark purple tunic come out of a jewelry store with a parcel in his hands and head up the corridor away from us. 
        “You! Klahd! C’mere!” Chumley shouted, in his Big Crunch voice, trying to sound friendly. 
        The person turned toward us, then away without a flicker of recognition. I felt my jaw hit the ground. The blue eyes, the narrow nose, the strong jaw, the mobile mouth with the ready grin and puny rectangular teeth – it was Skeeve to the life – but it wasn’t. This Klahd looked astonishingly like my ex-partner, but I knew deep down inside it wasn’t the real thing. An impostor! 
        I felt my ire rising like lava in a volcano. Someone, some magician, some shapeshifter was running around this dimension pretending to be Skeeve, and ripping him and a whole lot of merchants, off. I sprang up.
        “Get him!” I roared. 
        Massha floated away from the table and arrowed away after the Klahd. Chumley and I bounded out of the café, dodging past the bards and the security guards hauling the wet Imp out of the fountain. 
        The impostor’s eyes widened, then he took off running. He might not be Skeeve, but he had the same kind of long legs and slim build. In the thick crowd, those were an advantage, unlike my more muscular frame and shorter limbs. I plowed ahead, tossing shoppers out of my way right and left.
        “Allow me, Aahz!” Chumley called, and thrust in ahead of me. “Aaaarrrr-aaaggghhh!” he yelled, waving his mighty arms. “Get out of way!” 
        No being who heard a full-throated growl would obstruct our forward passage for long.
        So much for a subtle approach. With a full-sized Troll trained in crowd management, we soon cut the distance to about ten yards. 
        It was a weird feeling, pursuing my ex-partner. You’d think that with all the experience I had exposing magikal fraud I could put the dystopia to one side, but I couldn’t. I kept getting the feeling that if we jumped this guy, it might really turn out to be Skeeve.
        We entered a crossroads. Our quarry faked left, then right, then right again, loping into another avenue filled with stores, tents and stalls. Massha, sailing along overhead thanks to her gadgets, stayed right with him. She fumbled with her jewelery, clearly trying to find one gadget in particular.
        “Can you grab him?” I called to her.
        “My tractor-pendant’s on the fritz!” she shouted back, holding up a smoking topaz. 
        But she gamely dipped down, stretching out a ring-filled hand toward the running Klahd’s shoulder. She made contact. With a snarl, he spun around, and raised three fingertips in her direction.
        “Whoa!” Massha levitated suddenly.
        A lightning bolt crackled just underneath her belly, and impacted upon the center pole of a white pavilion tent in the middle of the corridor. The carved golden griffin at the apex fell like a downed pheasant. 
        “Massha!” I yelled.
        “I’m okay!” she called back, and rose into view once more
        The creep really was a magician! With a grim set to her shoulders, Massha continued the aerial chase. I made a promise that if this jerk wasn’t Skeeve, I was going to give him the walloping of his life, just before I tore his arms and legs off. If he was…well, I would think about it if that unlikely situation arose.
        Arms forward, our suspect dove into a pale blue tent with iridescent circles embroidered on each flap. I took a deep breath as I plunged in after him. 
        No air filled this one; the interior was awash in eight feet of water, in which mermaids sold jeweled brassieres to the general public. My prey kicked off in a dog paddle. My physique was much more suited to dry land than sea, so it helped when Massha grabbed me by the collar and dragged me along over the surface. I spared a quick glance back for Chumley. 
        The Troll was doing a creditable crawl stroke and gaining rapidly on the two of us. I seemed to recall one night around the table in our tent in the Bazaar when Tananda had revealed her big brother had been a champion swimmer at school on Trollia. The big lug was too modest about his accomplishments. Such reticence never paid off, in my philosophy. 
        At the far end of the tent, our prey hit the ground running. I sloshed out after him, into a tiny boutique that sold ladies’ unmentionables (even more unmentionable than the mermaids’ wares). Now I had him! 
        The shimmering white tent was hardly bigger than a boudoir. Reaching the back wall he turned at bay, his long arms and legs poised for some kind of single combat which I was confident he’d lose. I slowed up, gathered the muscles in my legs, and sprang! He dodged to one side.
        I landed on my face, my arms empty. The back of the pavilion was illusionary, not an uncommon practice when persons of modest virtue (or less than modest) wanted to disappear discreetly. The shrieks of females surprised in various states of dishabille pierced the sound-deadening spell protecting my ears. 
        “A man!”
        “Sorry, ladies! Just a routine inspection,” I said hastily over the screaming. 
        Maybe that hadn’t been the best choice of words. As I scrambled to my feet, I was pelted with shoes, purses and shopping bags by half-naked women from fifty different dimensions. Making a hasty retreat, I fled back into the small pavilion. The sturdily-built gray-furred felinoid female, one of her own red satin foundation garments supporting four rows of two bosoms each, pointed sternly to the wall at the left. Sheepishly, I followed her direction, and picked up the wet footprints left by my quarry and Chumley, whose head I spotted above those of the surrounding crowd as soon as I got outside.
        The blond head swiveled back at us. Those familiar features were twisted into an expression of alarm I never thought would be directed at me. It gave me the creeps, but I didn’t let it slow me down. I bounded past another set of bards, then another, passing through modern jazz, back into plainsong and forward into punk rock. He made another break, this time into a wide tent full of mirrors.
        The first thing I saw was my own handsome countenance. The proprietors, a couple of Deveels who probably broke a few pieces of merchandise behind unwary shoppers when business was slow, gawked at me when I dodged the framed mirror at the door and started running toward the image of Skeeve I could see close to the back. When I got there I realized that it was another image. I spun around, just in time to see a flap of the tent waving. I shot out into the corridor again. 
        “Chumley!” I shouted, holding my hand high and pointing toward the fleeing impostor.
        “After him!” Chumley called, then changed his voice. “Er, get Klahd!”
        In a scramble of long legs, our prey dashed out and headed up a side passage that led us through tent flaps and hanging banners, with Massha flying point above. We weren’t going to lose sight of him now.
        “There he goes!” Massha shouted from overhead. 
        I glanced up. She pointed. Still running, I pulled out the map. The little blue dot looked pale from having to follow us all over the map, but it gamely pointed to the location we currently occupied. I smiled grimly. This time the fake Skeeve had boxed himself up. There was no way out of the dead end ahead. I put on a burst of speed that propelled me past Chumley.
        We shoved through a metal door left flapping by the passage of the man we were pursuing. The little dot on the map in my hand kind of hung back, as if ashamed to go into the leg of The Mall in which we now found ourselves. 
        A wave of stench that reminded me fondly of Pervish cooking wafted past my nostrils. Unlike the absolute pristine cleanliness of the building everywhere else, this area was furnished with heaps of garbage, dumped in between huge stacks of crates, piles of cages and skids full of bags. This must be where shipments came in and trash went out. 
        A loud beeping noise cut through the air, and a heap of carved wooden boxes higher than my head appeared into being underneath an ornate letter ‘W’ etched on the wall. Obviously, someone’s expected delivery had just arrived. 
        Ahead of me the kid was flagging. He must have been aware that the stone wall ahead meant the end of the chase. 
        “He could try and pop out, Massha,” I called, though I doubted it. 
        If he’d wanted to dimension-hop he could have done that any time while we were running after him. Before I’d lost my powers, I had bamfed out on the fly I couldn’t tell you how many times. An experienced traveler would have done it without all the running around. I was beginning to draw a mental picture of what kind of being we were dealing with.
        “I’m ready,” she shouted back, holding up a chain with a green eye pendant hanging from it. “This’ll tell me where he’s gone. It’s a new gizmo from Kobol.”
        Movement caught my eye in the dwindling light toward the end of the corridor. I spared one erg of attention for the clutch of huge brown rats that were crawling around in the rotting heaps of food that had come from one of the restaurants and hadn’t yet been cleared away by magikal means. 
        Twenty steps now. Ten. Five. The three of us converged on the ‘Skeeve’ as he neared the shadowy wall. 
        “Now!” I bellowed. 
        All three of us dove for him – and cracked our heads together before bashing into the stone barrier. He was gone. Chumley clutched his head with one mighty hand as he felt around in the garbage for our quarry. I sprang up. 
        “Where’d he go, Massha?” I asked.
        The Court Wizard of Possiltum wrenched her hefty self out of the trash and applied her skill to interpreting the beeps and twitterings coming from the green glass eye. She shook her head.
        “It says he’s still here,” she informed us with a puzzled expression.
        “Not possible,” Chumley shook his head. “I had my hands firmly around his neck for one moment, then he was out of my grasp.”
        “At least we know he was substantial,” I said, kicking aside heaps of paper. 
        A large brown rat, unearthed from its burrow, glared at me with little beady eyes. I glared back, and the vermin retreated with a scared squeak. 
        “It’s not some kind of illusion. He’s a magician or shape-shifter of some kind. Keep looking. There must be some clue as to where he went.” 
        I pushed over a stack of worn wooden skids, and started to dig through a pile of burlap bags.
        “Smile, boys,” Massha said, from behind us. “The locals are here.”
        “Hands-a up!” a gruff voice barked. “Turn around, very slowly.”
        I know when I’m outnumbered. Very slowly, I turned around, with my hands up, as instructed. Chumley did the same. Hovering in mid-air Massha had already raised her arms over everyone’s heads. 
        Facing us up the soiled corridor was either the chorus from “Rose Marie,” or a large portion of the security force of The Mall. I stopped counting at a hundred, as more and more of big, strong, blue-skinned beings in Renaissance costume pointed a nasty array of weapons in our direction.