The door opened, and a man stepped out.
He had medium-brown skin, high cheekbones, curly hair, and to Welton's surprise, wasn't a pelican.
That is to say, he gave the ineffable impression that he ought to be a pelican. Or so Welton thought. He didn't have a pouchy neck, but it looked like he would have if only he hadn't lost weight recently. His nose wasn't especially large or long or anything, but it looked small and out of place in the middle of his face. Welton could imagine the man diving into the water to snatch up fish in the beak he hadn't got.
A badge pinned to his tweed jacket identified him as "Fleric."
"We're closed," he said, and shut the door again.
Welton knocked a second time. "I'm here for the job opening," he said.
The door opened. "What job opening?" Fleric asked.
"The job opening you'll have once I show you what I can do," said Welton, smugly.
The door closed again.
Welton knocked once more.
"Stop bothering me," said Fleric, this time without opening it. "I'm trying to do a crossword puzzle."
"A crossword puzzle. It's a type of puzzle," Fleric explained, "with words. A word puzzle. And the words cross each other."
"Can you put it aside for later or something? I want to speak with you. It's important."
"This crossword puzzle is what's important. I have to concentrate on it if I'm ever going to solve it. But you keep interrupting me. What do you want, anyway?"
"I want you to hire me," said Welton, who felt he'd already made this pretty clear.
"We're not hiring."
"But you will be," he said, deciding to try this line again, "once I show you what I can do."
The expected "and what is that, exactly?" never came.
"I'm a holo-scribe," he supplied.
The expected "oh, a holo-scribe! Come in and show me samples of your work" also never came.
He waited several more seconds, just in case, but there was only silence.
Obviously, some other strategy was called for here.
He knocked on the door yet again, then without waiting for an answer, called out "What are the clues?"
"To solve the word puzzle. What are the clues that help you figure out what word it is?"
"'Food of the Gods (e.g. dark),' nine letters. I thought it was 'chocolate,' but it seems to start with a T. Or else this other one here isn't 'tallyho.'"
Welton heard the sound of a finger tapping paper, as if Fleric was pointing something out to him.
"That's easy," he said. "It must be-"
"Wait! I didn't say I wanted you to solve it for me, did I? I don't want you to solve it. The point is that I'm supposed to solve it."
"Okay," said Welton. "Just let me know if you give up."
"Does it actually begin with a T?" Fleric asked.
"Yes," he said. "Definitely."
He waited again. The rain seemed to have lessened around him.
"Is it 'tambrosia'?" Fleric asked.
"I don't think that's a real word," said Welton.
"No, no, I suppose not. Wishful thinking."
Welton sat down on the doorstep, where it was dry. He splashed a puddle idly with his foot.
"'Tencoffee,'" Fleric guessed. "A dark roast. But gods wouldn't be satisfied with just one coffee, so-"
"You're way off," said Welton. "It's just one word."
"Don't tell me! Don't tell me!"
"Okay, okay," said Welton.
"How about 'tamarinds'?"
"What are those?"
"A kind of brown, pod-shaped tropical fruit," said Fleric. "They grow on trees. In tropical areas. I don't know what gods have to do with them, but I don't know everything."
"You're very close," said Welton.
"Sort of, yeah."
"Do people eat those?"
"Uh... I'm not sure."
"It's wrong, anyway. I meant conceptually close. Actually, you already guessed it earlier. Technically," he added.
"Wait, you mean I already guessed the right answer? But you didn't tell me?"
"No, you didn't guess the right answer. But you did guess the right thing."
"I'll be right here when you're ready to give up."
"Are you sure it isn't 'chocolate'?" Fleric asked. "It seems to fit the clue very well. You can have dark chocolate."
Welton said nothing.
Minutes passed. Welton twirled his umbrella, then splashed the puddle again, then stood up and stretched.
"Give me a hint," said Fleric at last.
"I've given you plenty of hints," said Welton.
"Give me another one."
"Let me in," he said, "so I can see it properly."
"Why do you need to see it properly if you already know the answer?"
"It'll help me know what's a good hint to give you," said Welton.
"How will it help you do that?"
"I won't know until I see it, will I?"
There was an irritated sigh, and then the door opened again. This time, Fleric stepped back so Welton could enter.
It was a round, tall room, full of little plaques and displays. Near one wall, black-framed couches with forest-green cushions surrounded a coffee table. On another wall stood a bank of elevators, dusty with disuse, next to a staircase running up to the next floor in a glorious curve. A sign in front of the stairs read "Employees Only."
The man sat on a wooden stool immediately next to the door. He had his word puzzle spread out on a podium in front of him. Welton came around the podium to look over his shoulder.
"Oh," said Welton, "so that's a crossword puzzle. Do words go in all the white squares?"
"Yes," said Fleric. "Based on these clues." He pointed at the clues. "It's a very tricky one," he added. "For experts only."
"Is that why you've only figured out 'tallyho' so far?"
"It's a very, very tricky one," said Fleric.
"What about the rest of these clues?"
"I haven't figured any of them out yet."
"So if you solve some of these words, it tells you about the other words because of the way they overlap? Interesting. Maybe you should try to get more letters in this one by doing that," suggested Welton.
"Yes," said Fleric, "that's part of the way these puzzles are supposed to work. But I can't figure any of the other ones out, either."
"Oh, I know this one, too," said Welton. "'Deer pig.' Eight letters, descending from the fifth letter of the one you can't get. And this one next to it! 'Defender of all,' which refers to the end of the AI wars, when-"
"Hold on, hold on, one at a time!" said Fleric. "I said I wanted a hint."
"Okay, uh... the fifth letter is 'b,'" said Welton.
"That's a very direct hint," said Fleric.
"Is that bad? I could say something vague and tricky, but you've got a whole list of riddles here already. I thought maybe you'd appreciate me being a little more direct."
"It's not bad," said Fleric. "It's not bad." He bent over the page, staring at it and chewing the end of his stylus. After a moment's hesitation, he wrote in a great, big capital 'B' in the middle of the word.
"Okay, give me another one," he said.
"The last letter is 'a,'" said Welton.
He drew in the 'A' and then stared at the paper for a while longer.
"One more," he said.
"After the 't' is an 'h,'" said Welton.
They continued like this until Fleric had filled in an 'e', an 'o', an 'r', and another 'o'.
"Theobro-a," said Fleric. "Hmm. Hmm."
"It's not a very common word," said Welton.
"I might need another hint," said Fleric.
"Another hint? Like the last several I just gave you?"
"Yes," he said. "Just like those. Those were very helpful."
"I'm not sure it counts as a hint anymore at this point," said Welton. "I mean, if I give you one more letter, there's nothing left to hint at."
"What do you mean?" Fleric asked sharply, looking up.
"Well, you'll have solved it, won't you? Or at least," he said, "it will be solved."
"There only is one more letter, of course! Look, if you don't know the word, that's fine. The last letter is-"
The man scrutinized the paper. "You're right," he said after a few moments. "If you give me one more letter, there won't be anything left to solve."
"So you still want to solve it yourself?"
"Yeah," said Fleric. "I do."
"Okay," said Welton. He walked over to the coffee table and began digging through his duffel to get the AR projector.
"Is it an 'a'?" asked Fleric.
"Nope," said Welton.
"Okay... is it a 'b'?"
"Er... how about a 'c'?"
"Not that either."
"Am I close?"
"You'll, er, get there at this rate, I'm sure," said Welton.
"Hmm... maybe I should start at the other end of the alphabet," said Fleric. "Is it-"
"I don't think you should do that," interrupted Welton. "Listen, why don't you just rattle off all the letters, and I'll stop you when you get to the right one?"
"Yeah, seems like the most efficient way to do it."
"Okay," said Fleric. "I guess. 'A', 'B', 'C', 'D', 'E'- what are you doing over there, anyway?"
"I'll show you in a moment," said Welton. "Keep going!"
"If you insist," he said. "'F', 'G', 'H', 'I', 'J'- you are listening, right?"
"And it's none of these?"
"Nope. I'll let you know when you're there."
"Okay, okay. 'K,' 'L,' 'M'-"
"-'N'- oh, stop? It's 'N'? Theobrona?"
"No, go back one."
"Oh, M. It's Theobroma."
"Yeah," said Welton. "You got it!"
"Theobroma! How about that."
"Yeah, it means-"
"It's a genus of plant that includes chocolate. Of course, of course. The name literally means 'food of the gods.' I should have realized."
Welton boggled at him. "You mean you knew the word all along?"
"The last letter was a tricky one," he said. "I didn't get it until I said 'M' and you stopped me. But then it was obvious."
"Right," said Welton. "Well, yes. It was."
"You said you knew this other one?" Fleric asked. "Can you give me some hints for this one, too? 'A,' 'B,' 'C'-"
"How about you come over here and look at this," suggested Welton. "Take your mind off the puzzle for a bit. You'll be able to solve it more easily if you return to it with fresh eyes."
"It certainly can't hurt," said Welton.
"Okay, if you'd like." The man walked over to him. "Why are you a pig?" he asked.
"Because it's what I am," said Welton, guardedly. "Is that a problem?"
"That's not much of an answer, is it? 'Because it's what I am'?"
"Well, why are you a human?"
The man looked startled. "Why am I a human?" He looked down at his hands. "Why indeed?"
"There you go, then."
"But you're a body modder, right? Not a real pig."
"I'm a real pig," said Welton, "and a body modder."
"You know what I mean. You weren't born a pig. I mean, obviously not. Ha ha."
"Not as such," said Welton.
"There we go then," said Fleric. "You're really a human."
Welton gave him a pained smile. "Did you ever know anyone," he asked, "who was born into a female body, but then body-modded it to male when they were old enough? Or from male to female?"
"Certainly," he said. "My own mother, for one. Why?"
"Would you say your own mother was really a man?"
"Of course not! Don't be ridiculous."
"So why would you say I'm really a human?"
"Huh? I don't understand how that's relevant," he said. "We're talking about two completely different things, here."
"So if I did a body mod to become a woman," said Welton, "you'd say I was a woman."
"But the fact that I've done a body mod to become a pig," said Welton, "doesn't mean you'll say I'm a pig."
"Now, hold on," said Fleric, "it's not that I don't understand what you're saying. It's just that sex and gender really are a whole separate matter. You say you're a pig, but you're standing on two legs, wearing clothes, and speaking to me. You're a creature of higher reasoning. You have opposable thumbs. No true pig could solve any part of a crossword puzzle. That's why I insist you're a human."
Welton went silent. The truth was, he didn't really have a counterargument to all that. He knew what he was in his heart. He knew he wasn't a human, and that it was fine that he stood on two legs instead of four, and that this man was wrong. But he didn't have the words to argue his point of view. He wasn't entirely sure he could explain it to himself.
"Listen," he finally said, "I didn't come here to argue about this. I came here to show you something." He hesitated for a moment, then added, "I'd like to show it to whoever's in charge around here, too, if they're available."
"I'm in charge around here," said Fleric.
"I mean, whoever has the authority to spend your budget."
"That's me," he agreed.
"Oh. Okay. Is there anyone else around at all? They might want to see this too."
"No. I'm here alone. Head of River Traffic, and Assistant Lighthouse Keeper."
"There's no Head Lighthouse Keeper," Fleric said. "There hasn't been one for decades."
"No?" asked Welton, politely.
"The way the story goes, the old Head Lighthouse Keeper is still around, as a ghost. She gets angry when someone else is given her title."
"And then the murders start," said Fleric. He smiled. "It's a good story, isn't it? It gives the place so much extra flavor and tradition. I tell it to all the visitors during the tour."
"Wait, murders? Really?"
"Yes! Don't worry, it hasn't happened for several years. And of course, there aren't really such things as ghosts, so the murders must've been done by someone else. Some actual person. Not, in fact, a ghost."
"So you're telling me that instead of a ghost, all I have to worry about is that there might be a serial killer lurking around? Okay, good. That's very reassuring." An uncomfortable thought occurred to him. "Incidentally," he asked, "how long have you been working here?"
"Seven years," said Fleric. "Since just before the last batch of murders, actually."
"I see," said Welton. "What a coincidence."
"Fortunately, I was away at the time. Visiting my mother. She lives downriver, outside the city, but I try to visit her at least once or twice a year."
"That's very dutiful of you," said Welton.
"And it means I couldn't possibly have done the murders myself, despite what the investigative team thought." He smiled again.
"Oh," said Welton. "Did they?"
"I don't blame them! I was, after all, the only member of the lighthouse staff to survive. But they couldn't prove anything. Because, of course, it wasn't me. So there was nothing to prove," he said.
Welton wished he hadn't gone over to the coffee table to unpack his equipment, because now there was a sofa between him and the door. Or Fleric himself, depending on the angle.
"In any case," said Fleric, "it's just me here. Just me in the whole building. Well, and you, too, right now."
"It's just occurred to me," said Welton, quickly, "that I've gone and left the power charger for my holo-projector back at my hotel room. Silly me! I'd better go and fetch it." He threw the projector back into the duffel and stood up, ready to make for the door.
"Oh, a holo-projector? You're going to do a holo show? I love those!"
"Yes, but since I don't have my charger-"
"Isn't that it right there?" Fleric pointed into the still-open duffel.
"So it is," said Welton, glumly. "Well spotted."