Jean Marie Ward

fiction, nonfiction and all points in between

Excerpt: “Protective Coloring”

Tim Patterson had known his share of demanding guests at Atlanta’s
MagnaCon, but writer Manasa Gault was something else.

Print Phoenix Cover

“No parades,” Manasa Gault said. “I’m simply not human before lunch.”

Since it was after four, that shouldn’t have been an issue. Still, Tim Patterson couldn’t shake the feeling there was something odd about this year’s MagnaCon literary guest of honor. Maybe it was her appearance. Her glass eye resembled a large topaz instead of matching its dark brown mate, and the bronze skin bulging out of her corset top had a strange, oily sheen. Maybe it was her pretensions. She didn’t sit on the poppy red sectional sofa in her Hyatt suite. She occupied it like a seat of state. She even arranged her entourage—four flavors of androgynous with identical, short, gender-neutral haircuts—like attendants around a throne. But maybe it was simply a southern boy’s natural response to her snooty British accent.

Whatever it was, he couldn’t let it get in the way of his main job: keeping Manasa Gault happy. His boss, the con’s director of Guest Operations, had been emphatic on that point. But Tim didn’t see why keeping Manasa happy had to mean making life miserable for everybody involved in Saturday morning’s MagnaCon Parade. He spread his hands in a gesture of appeasement.

“The folks in charge of the parade didn’t know that. I didn’t know that until you told me. But it’s your call. I’m sure the director can rework the line-up.” It’s not like she has anything else to do between now and Saturday morning. But sarcasm wouldn’t get him anywhere. Instead, he injected a note of wistfulness in his voice. “It’s a shame you have to miss it. More than a hundred fans signed up to march as characters from your Uroboros Cycle books. But you won’t be able to see them from up here on the Club Level. It’s hard enough to see them from the sidewalks. Half of Atlanta shows up for this. Riding on the back of one of our convertibles, on the other hand…

“Wait, I did mention the convertible, right?” he inquired anxiously, as if a description of the car wasn’t part of his original run-down of her Saturday schedule. “The con leases a fleet of new convertibles for the parade, and the drivers keep the air conditioning running the whole time. It would mean so much to your fans—and to the Parade volunteers. They’re fans, too.”

He pasted a hopeful expression on his face. His hopeful face had softened up more than few prospective dates. There was no reason it shouldn’t work for a parade.

But Manasa didn’t cave. Her brown eye fixed him with the kind of stare used to level small mountains.

“You’re new,” she said at last. Her accent made it sound like an accusation.

Luckily he’d mastered the knack of sounding agreeable even when he felt the opposite. “This is only my second year in Guest Ops. But I worked in Security for three years and a year in the Press Office before that.”

Her chin dipped in a single, slow nod. Every move she made was slow and deliberate. He was convinced it was another pose, but damned if he knew why.

He escaped as soon as he confirmed she was satisfied with her accommodations and knew how to contact him if anything changed. It was odd to think of it as an escape, but it sure felt like one, although neither she nor her posse moved a finger to restrain him. Even the air outside her suite felt freer, cleaner, not weighed down by the thick sandalwood perfume she used to mask her scent.

Mask her scent? Where did I get that idea? He thumped his temple. He had bigger problems. It was only Thursday afternoon, three hours before the pre-con concerts, and his headset was already shot. He might be able to keep Manasa happy with a busted headset. Her entourage could always reach him by phone. But he couldn’t serve as one of Guest Ops’ roving troubleshooters if people couldn’t reach him in a hurry. As soon as he told Guest Ops the bad news about the parade he needed to swing by Tech Ops and pick up a replacement.

On second thought, maybe he should visit Tech Ops first. Most of the Tech people had been around forever. One of them might know why the con chair and top department heads treated Manasa like royalty when she was strictly C-List, someone you expected to headline a local science fiction/fantasy convention, not a forty-thousand-person, media behemoth.

Sure, she was a cult favorite. (Witness all those Uroboros Cycle cosplayers who registered for the parade.) But despite the glowing write-up they gave her on, her work never made the crossover to manga or comics, much less video. The books’ combination of polymorphic sexuality and south Asian mythology was too kinky for HBO. She hadn’t hit a bestseller list in fifteen years. Worse, she was at that awkward age for a writer: too old to be edgy but too young for the geezer awards.

Yet the con not only comped her travel, deluxe accommodations and expenses, they sprang for two extra rooms on the Hyatt’s Club Level for her entourage—and even shuffled all the other comped rooms to keep her party together.

Not his problem, he reminded himself. He glanced across the open atrium of the hotel’s main building. “Elevator Hell” wouldn’t start in earnest until Friday, but thanks to the check-in rush, the glass elevators serving the atrium guest rooms were stopping at every floor. Rather than wait to ride down, he crossed the bridge to the hotel’s International Tower and took “the Tower Express”.

No stops later, the doors whooshed open at the lobby level. A gust of swampy air flooded the car an instant ahead of the advancing waves of overloaded luggage carts, giant wheeled coolers and frazzled fans schlepping too many bags to their guestrooms. Zigging and zagging against the tide, he reached the main lobby just in time to see a skinny, blonde woman wearing an unlikely mash-up of a white velvet frockcoat, lacy blouse and harem pants flounce from the concierge desk to reception.

She pounded the counter. Sweaty, red-faced fans trapped in the snake’s nest of check-in lines shifted and grumbled in irritation. Tim didn’t need to be psychic to know what they were thinking. The blonde had a con badge and no luggage. Why was she holding up reception at the worst possible time?

“I need to be connected with Ms. Gault’s room!” she shouted.

That couldn’t be good.


Read the rest in The Rise of the Phoenix from Gilded Dragonfly Books.