Trickster's Gold
by Doug Linger


Part 4
Home Is Where the Head Is

I was in a good mood as I rolled into Los Angeles. The trip from Las Vegas had been hot but uneventful. There was a checkpoint in crossing the California border, to check for fruit, but it was as lax as the Canadian border. I passed without incident.

I had been looking forward to this part of my trip west almost as much as I had for Vegas. An old friend from my hometown in New Jersey had gone to college somewhere around here, and had decided to stay after she graduated. I hadn't seen her in two years.

The LA area was one huge mess of towns that had probably seemed far enough apart when they were established. Now, though, the towns had all grown so much that many were growing together. Others were just heavily built-up suburbs, but it would only get more so.

I remembered sleeping witout a motel those nights in Colorado and Utah, looking at the sky so full of stars. No point doing that here, I thought sadly.

Light pollution wasn't the only problem posed by LA. The makers of the original towns must all have gone to the same school of city planning, because there were a lot of street names repeated. Which made the directions to my childhood friend's apartment useless. "Turn left at Sunset Boulevard" is not much help when a person can take the wrong Sunset Boulevard. And I did. Multiple times.

Eventually I gave up and called, at which point I found out I was, perhaps predictably, in downtown Los Angeles (Well, of course! She lives in LA, right?) whereas the street she was talking about was in Santa Monica.

We finally met at a shopping plaza right on the coast called the Third Street Promenade. It had taken me longer than I had expected to get there, even though I hadn't gotten lost this time, so it was dark by the time I saw her. She had become a mid-degree cottontail rabbit morph.

"Hey Tracy," I called. "So this is LA, huh?"

"No, this is Santa Monica, remember? What happened to your sense of direction?"

"I lost it in a poker game at Las Vegas. Look, I'd better get some dinner, or else I'll start looking at people -- like, say, you -- in ways they'd rather me not." I hadn't had lunch, since I'd been continually thinking I'd meet up with her Real Soon Now. And she did smell very tempting...

Ten minutes later, Tracy was looking over her salad at me eating a burger with all the toppings. "Don't you get sick eating that?" At my confused look -- or perhaps scent -- she added, "All those different types of food. Bread, veggies, meat..." I explained how my dietary requirements had survived largely intact. "Lucky," she said enviously.

"So," I ventured after munching a bit more, "did you manage to draw any Powers?"

"Not really. Just Norm-shifting." Tracy shrugged, obviously considering this too minor to be called a Power.

"Lucky. I didn't even even get that." It wasn't even a lie, such as it was, which helped as I tried to mimic her envy of a minute ago. She shook her head in sympathy.

We ate a little more in silence. Eventually I queried, "So, how did your Change go? I was told by my parents that something interesting happened, but they wouldn't say what."

Tracy looked up from her food and sighed. I could smell her mood immediately take a nosedive. "Yeah, you might say that. David became a raccoon." David had been her roommate and good friend for some time before Change Day.

"So?" Then a possible second meaning dawned on me. "Oh...wait. You mean...?"

"Yeah. All the way. I'd slept through the entire thing, of course." I nodded; the Change had started around 5 AM, Pacific time. She chuckled wryly. "I nearly had a heart attack when I woke up. But it wasn't because of me. It was because there was a wild raccoon sitting my bedspread. Then Dave wouldn't come when I called for him...

"I chased him around for a while, trying to get him out, before I saw myself in a mirror. Then I almost had a second heart attack. With the raccoon there, I hadn't noticed myself. It was..." She shrugged. "I dunno. Incredible. It only took a few seconds before an idea of what might have happened -- did happen -- came to me."

The conversation paused for a few seconds, as I waited for her to continue. "What then?" I eventually asked.

"Well, I stopped chasing him, of course, and I turned on the news to see if there was any explanation. They mentioned others who had lost their minds, and then I knew for sure. But it was two days before people came to pick him up and take him to the hospital; there were just too many others, and then there were the riots and everything."

"Man." I shook my head in sympathy, then suddenly remembered something. "Hey, waitasec. I think I read something about a group around here trying to heal people like that."

Tracy nodded. "Yeah, the Smith Foundation, down in La Jolla." Again I looked at her, confused. I wasn't familiar with the west coast yet. "It's in San Diego."


"Anyway, Dave has been accepted to be a part of the program."

"His family can afford it?"

"I think they could, if they needed to, but they don't. What the heck article did you read? It's free, run non-profit, charity, all that."

"Ah, well, I just skimmed the page." She just rolled her eyes.

When we finished eating she showed me around the Promenade, pointing out stores she liked and filling me in on some of the details of the Foundation. After a few hours, after the stores had closed, we split up, she going back to her apartment and me to my hotel.

Over the next few days I took my grand tour of LA. Most of the time, I did so alone, since Tracy had to return to work and so was only free in the evening. The highlight of the tour was when we attended a taping of an episode of "Kevin and Kell", the one where they introduced Ralph. It was one of the better sitcoms to come out since the Change. Since before it, too, for that matter.

I visited a lot of tourist sites over those days, and I'll admit I had a good time. But I breathed a sigh of relief when left LA. It was just too too big and built up.

Six weeks later I sat, looking at the TV showing yet another sitcom but not watching at all. I had been getting more and more depressed over the last few days, and I finally was trying to figure it out.

The drive up the coast had been quick, having decided not to prolong the journey much longer. Within a week of arriving at my new home a few dozen miles north of San Francisco I was unpacked. It wasn't much longer before I was back at the tracks.

Things at the track went very well. It was even easier not to raise suspicion here than it was in Kansas, because whereas there there had been only the one track within easy reach of Lawrence, there were three tracks close by to where I now lived. I just spread my gambling out among them, and rarely got more than a curious stare.

By all the logic I could muster, I should have been deliriously happy. The Change had handed the world to me on a platter. I was rich and getting more so, thanks to my Power. Some college friends lived nearby. I had good friends, and time and money enough to do whatever I wished.

So what do I wish to do with my time and money?

Maybe that was the problem. I hadn't done anything with myself in the time I'd lived in the San Francisco area. I'd done some exploring, sure, but there's only so many times a person can look at the scenery around him before it shifts into the background. For me, anyway. I can't look at or do the same thing over and over; I get bored too easily.

That was it. Not depression, just boredom. In which case, I needed to do something about it.

I began to pack.

Glorious! I thought for perhaps the ten-thousandth time. I looked down at the ground, far below me. With my eyes I picked out details that still amazed me. I could count the people driving in a lot of the cars, and read all but the smallest type on the roadsigns.

I looked westward, and saw the sun was low and red. Dammit! Time goes too fast. I banked, heading south to my rendezvous, and gave out one last, piercing scream of joy. Flight unassisted by anything made by man was such a thrill: the view incomparable to that from a plane, the wind exhilharating as it ran over my feathers.

The light was fading as I overflew Puget Sound. I rode the currents low, tempted by both instincts and consious mind to snatch one of the fish that swam just beneath the surface, blissfully unaware of my watching them. I refrained, though; time was really too short to indulge in dinner.

It wasn't much longer before the building I was heading for came into view. I read the store's sign while still above the water, already knowing what it said: "Animorph Adventures". The name was inspired by a book series; the author got a bit of money in royalties.

I landed on a perch, and gave a quick preen of my feathers as a low degree ferret walked up. "Cutting it kinda close, Trickster. Another few minutes and all those insurance forms would have meant something."

The woman in front of me, Samantha Higgins, had set up AA along with several other people with the Cloning Power in February. The company catered to people who wanted to shapeshift, either to norm or another species entirely, but couldn't. They would shift clients for anywhere from an hour to a week for a hefty fee, which was halved if you were a morph they hadn't already acquired and you allowed them to do so. Unfortunately, coyotes were far too common for me to be able to take advantage of that.

For the past week I had tried various morphs and norms. Guides were there to keep an eye on customers and make sure they didn't get into trouble, and Samantha had been mine. She had come along for my norm adventures, usually in a duplicate form (changed by a coworker). Today, though, she'd said I was ready to spend full day alone as a norm bald eagle. I felt like I'd graduated.

I hopped down from the perch and looked up at her. I had time to chirruk once, and then the time limit ran out and I started to shift. It felt very different from the Change, almost ten months ago. This was continuous, making me feel like my body was flowing to its new form. Or rather, its old one.

"Woah. That was close," I admitted, moving my limbs about to get used to being plain coyote again.

Samantha nodded gravely, then shrugged. "But there was no harm done, so don't worry about it. Next time, though..."

I grinned back at her. "I'll be more careful next time. Whenever that is."

"Where're you off to now?"

I shrugged. "I dunno. I'm running out of places to aim myself at."

"Seven months of traveling will do that. Well, how about you figure out where to go over dinner? I know just the place."

I looked slyly at her. "Is that a date?"

"I never date customers."

"Ah, but I'm not a customer any longer."

She smiled. "True."

The restaurant she led me to wasn't far away, and it was perfect. Classy, but not a shirt-and-tie place. It wasn't long before I was defending my atlas of North America from vicious attacks of grease from my pork ribs. "Any suggestions?" I asked, waving an onion ring at the pages between us.

She leaned over and pointed. "How about Florida?"

"Are you kidding? Except for a few -- very few -- places, that state is one big tourist trap."

"And you're not a tourist?" She took another bite of her salad. Ferrets are mostly carniverous, but she was of low enough degree that her diet hadn't altered. Indeed, her only Change had been the ears and tail, making her look like she stepped out of some animé.

"I like to pretend I have some class."

She chuckled. "Pretending is all you can hope for, fella. All right then, I guess that means Hawaii's out too..."

"Not really. There's more to see there than beaches and hula dancers. But I'm hoping to drive as much as I can; you see more that way. I'll see it eventually, but not yet."

"Hmmm..." She scanned the atlas briefly, then shrugged. "Well, I give up, then. Why not just stay around here and see Washington? I can play tour guide."

I looked at her face carefully. There were several ways to interpret that. "What about AA? The company's only just started up, after all."

She cocked her head, thinking. "Well, true. But we have enough people to cover the customers we're getting so far. That won't be true in three or four weeks." At my curious look she continued, "A reporter from Time is coming up here in two weeks to do an article."

"Wow. That should help business a bit."

"Yeah. I expect to be too busy to take off then, so I'd better do it soon."

"Well, now, how can I turn down an offer like that?"

She smiled winningly at me. "You can't."

I didn't.

It was too bad Samantha wasn't an avian morph of some kind. Then, with a little helpful Cloning, we could fly around together. It certainly would have made climbing this mountain easier. But alas, she was not, and so we did it the old-fashioned way.

It wasn't a very big mountain, at least compared to some of the others in the area. It could be climbed most of the way to the top without needing more gear than backpacks. Other than being in good shape, preparation was almost unnecessary. But it was still high enough that it tired us out on the way up.

"What a wonderful view."

Samantha elbowed me in the ribs. "Oh, hush. It's a lot better when it's not raining."

"Oh, yes. Doubtless." She rolled her eyes at my wagging tail-grin and looked out again.

Today's rain was hardly unusual. It had rained often during the last twelve days, sometimes rather hard. Today, though, it was the achetypical light spring shower. It hadn't been enough to stop the more avid of the outdoor enthusiasts, though. Samantha, as I had discovered early in my state tour, could be included in that category. We spent most of our time traveling to various national parks and forests to do some camping.

And so here we were on the eastern edge of Olympic National Park. We sat beneath a tree, recovering from the climb, a spare poncho beneath us to keep us dry. Or at least less wet. Samantha was still mostly human, with mostly human concerns. With my fur, I wasn't bothered by rain as much as I had been when I was fully human, but it could still be irritating.

"Actually, it's rather beautiful as is." I paused, gathering my nerve. Here goes... "Almost as beautiful as you."

She turned her head slowly to look at me. Her face was totally expressionless as she said, "Are you saying that I'm only slightly prettier than a rainy day?"

She let me sputter for a few seconds before bursting into laughter. "I know what you mean, Trickster," she giggled. "And I think you make a handsome coyote."

"Uhh..." My ears swiveled, entirely out of consious control, and I was blushing under my fur. Now that my nervousness was...not passed, but lessened, I noticed some scents the rain wasn't heavy enough to hide. She smelled of amusement mixed with happiness. There was a third scent in there, one that I knew I had smelled before, but for the life of me I couldn't consciously identify. Then Samantha leaned over and kissed me on the tip of my muzzle.

Ah. Attraction. Then further thought left me as I concentrated on kissing her back. I had to concentrate; kissing with a snout, I discovered, is difficult. It was fun figuring it out, though.

It's time like this that I wish I became a feline. Purring would be the perfect expression of how I feel right now.

We were lying side by side on our backs, Samantha gently rubbing the fur on my belly. It felt damn good. We had replaced the poncho with a blanket and set up a tent once we realized we'd be here a while. We'd talked, and snuggled, as the weather had finally cleared up somewhat. The rain had stopped a few hours ago, and we were able to watch through holes in the cloud cover as the sun set over the mountain range above us.

"Nice night."

Samantha smiled wryly. "For once."

We lay in silence for a few minutes, just looking at what stars we could see. I could identify a few constellations, thanks to the better memory that seemed to come standard issue with most people's Change.



"What do you *do* for a living?"

I shouldn't have been taken off-guard as badly as I was. I had known for a while that she would ask that eventually. But in my mind it had always remained eventually. But eventually had become now.

Dammit. I was presented with the same dilemma as the one at the Social ten months ago. Not long afterwards, I had resolved not to tell anyone what I do. The resulting argument that would surely follow I could certainly do without.

So I lied. "I won the lottery back in Kansas, not long after the Change." I'd said that to enough people now that I could even fool people's noses into believing me. Samantha hadn't Changed enough to need that, unless she's in norm, but it has come in handy elsewhere.

Samantha Ahhh-ed. "How much?"

"Twenty million." The number was actually a bit low; by the time a real lottery would have paid that much I'd have made several times that. I planned on claiming any extra being from excellent investing.

"And so you've taken the money and run, hmm?"

I chuckled. "You might say that. See the country and all that. Maybe drive ove the Bering Bridge in Alaska and see Asia, eventually."

"Sounds interesting. You ever think of settling down, though?"

"Yeah, some. A lot more, lately," I said as I turned to look at her.

"Really?" Samantha asked hopefully.

"Well, sure. Unless you want to go galivanting gregariously... uh... I seem to have run out of G's."

She laughed hard, no chuckle this time. "No, I don't think I can go galivanting anywhere just yet. Animorph Adventures is just getting started; I can't leave now."

Rather what I'd expected. "Well, that leaves me the choice of either going sightseeing alone or staying here with you. I know which choice I prefer."

"Going away and never seeing me again?"




"Heh. So what's the plan, then?"

I shrugged. "I'm not sure. This wasn't something I'd planned on when I came to Seattle."

"How's this sound then: you move in with me and you find a job or something to do during the day. Maybe you can work at AA."

"Gah!" I exclaimed. A job? Why do you think I do what I do at the tracks?

She frowned. Rather nicely, too, I noted. "'Gah'? Excuse me?"

I chuckled softly, less in humor than to give me time to think up an excuse for my reaction. I'd momentarily forgotten my cover story. "Sorry. It surprised the hell out of me, is all. You sure about this? Isn't this a I've only known you for three weeks or so." I congratulated myself on my recovery. It was even a legitimate concern.

"These are the nineties, Trickster. Everything's fast." She paused, waiting for a respose I didn't give. "So, will you move in, then?"

"Hey, I'm game if you are. Come to think of it, with AA, we can be game." I was actually coming around to the idea of having a job at Animorph Adventures. The various forms would be just as interesting to explore as the country.

Talk turned to details, such as how and when my things would arrive. Eventually, though, it started getting late, and we got ready for bed. We were both tired; it had been an eventful day, and it was going to be an eventful day tomorrow. We needed to get back to Seattle and AA, since she had to be there if the photographer came early.

As I was drifting off, facing Samantha alongside me, I couldn't help but think, Maybe I've finally found home.

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