Microwave Explosionearliest post first | most recent post first
Clown City. The rough part.
And yes that's a joke -- Clown City is all rough.
The passageway from the clown car cargo hold led to inside warehouse in a gloomy part of town, but it was a part of town I was familiar with. I knew clowns from this part of Clown Town. Binkis, Bimbos, and Buffos. Patches, Peaches, and Popos. The kinds of clowns I used to do business with. The kind of clown that will cut you as soon as you take your eye off the knife.
"This way. I know a guy."
Larry followed like a good soldier, trench coat collar pulled up tight to his fedora. Rain poured down in the streetlight darkness, black and white. Mighty bleak landscape for clowns. Dark and dirty.
"Keep your face behind your brim. And if you get asked a question, don't say a word. You're my mute brother from Poughkeepsie, got it?"
"Well it's not too far from the truth."
I couldn't see his face.
I led us down a familiar alley and slid open a rusty door.
"Well that was an awkward transition," I said.
The Queen of the Hudson closed the hidden panel. It was a tight squeeze, but naturally I'm double jointed.
"Trouble is," I continued, standing and stretching, "now we're trapped even more, holed up in the clown hole." The place smelled like greasepaint. "When the cabbie sees we're gone, all he's got to do is toss some laughing gas down here and it's curtains."
The Queen had gathered herself up and was pacing the compartment. You could fit a good 15 clowns in here. More if they were small clowns.
"You've heard of the Infinite Clown Car gag, right?" she asked.
"It's just a story. Apocryphal. Clearly a promotional myth."
"No." She turned to me abruptly. "I've seen it. I... got a little too close to the clowns, once upon a time. They insisted on showing me their mystery plays."
"But 'infinite?' Seriously? I mean, by definition it'd be impossible."
"Well, not infinite. But three hours straight it was I witnessed. They just kept coming and coming and every tenth clown had a yellow wig and we had to drink."
"Sounds like they had you hoodwinked."
"Oh I was stage sipping. And those clowns never stopped."
"So I think there's more to the clown compartments than you might know."
And with that she popped another panel in the back. This one was big enough to walk through.
"Don't forget the suitcase," she said.
"MmmMmmmp mmm," went the suitcase.
"Looks like you two know how to party," said the cabbie. He was flooring it through the empty streets of Old Town, Omaha. Some stray debris still floating down over our path.
"Yeah, well, that party's over. If you can get us back to the Aerodrome Grand without attracting any more attention, there's a big tip in it for you," Larry said.
"No problem at all, mister. You just sit tight."
The cabbie picked up his radio and mumbled something into it. Smelled like he'd had steak and onions for dinner, and had eaten it with his hands. From the back seat, I could just make out the side of his face in the passing streetlights. There was something odd there. Wrinkles? A burn scar?
Another streetlight passed, lighting it up for a moment. It wasn't wrinkles, it was make up. For some reason he had a thick layer of foundation, but it had rubbed up against his collar, exposing pure white underneath. Not "white skin" but literally white. Like snow. Or... clown makeup.
"Ethay abbiecay isyay ayay Ownclay," I whisper to Larry.
"E'shay ayay Ownclay!" I whisper harder.
I can tell Larry's better at speaking pig latin than hearing it.
So the Clowns were in on it too now. This wasn't a good sign. And he probably wasn't planning on taking us to the Aerodrome Grand at all. No wonder Black Hermione knew we'd been burned.
Clowns. Running their creepy racket through secret agreements with the CGA. Keeping the public focused on the Clone Menace instead of the Clown Menace was in both their interests.
But they didn't seem interested in making friends with the House of Foo.
"MmmMmmmp mmm," went the suitcase. Larry opened it up.
"E'shay ayay Ownclay, osay it'syay ayay Ownclay Arcay. Ownclay Arcay!"
"I thought you said you didn't speak pig latin," Larry asked Hermione.
"So," said the cabbie over his shoulder. "Word is there's an accident up ahead. I'll need to take a little detour here," and he pulled us off in a different direction.
He's a Clown. It's a Clown Car. The kind they stuff a hundred of them in, so they just keep climbing out. Well, I'm no magician, but even I know how that one's done. Clown cars utilize inverted torpoidal convex integration to make their interiors much larger than they appear to be from the outside. There's usually a secret compartment, under the passenger seat... I begin to feel around with my feet, keeping my eyes on the cabbie.
I feel the door click open at my heel. A cool breeze wafts out.
The cabbie turned a corner, and I dropped to the sticky cab floor and wiggled through the hatch. It opened into a large, wide open space, dimly lit with a small dome light high above.
I reached back through the hatch and tugged on Larry's pantleg.
It was chilly on a street corner in Old Town Omaha in the middle of the night. And the streets were empty.
"Still got that cabbie's number?" asks the Queen.
"MMmmmmph mmmmmmph mmmmmph" went the dummy in my suitcase.
I cracked it open. Even if it was just the uploaded consciousness of Black Hermione, it was still a real part of her, right? My teacher, my mentor, my friend...
"I said," continued the dummy, rolling its wooden eyes as its head turned on its neck, "What are you numbnuts still doing out here? You want to get us all killed? C'mon! Scoot!"
"We're calling a cab."
"Yeah, no you're not. Lemme let you in on a little secret, kid. This hidey-hole's burnt. You led them right to it. Now we're on a one way trip to The Color Volcano! Power Electric and Ultra Flash!"
"We're... what? How long?"
"47 seconds till the big show! Now with Sparkle Additive."
I slammed the suitcase shut and started running.
"Come on! This way!"
As we rounded the corner of the block we were almost run over by a cab. The cabbie from before.
"GET IN!" and "DRIVE!" and "THAT WAY!" were words I yelled as the entire block behind us blew up in a technicolor fireball.
"Finally! My favorite student! Returned!"
Black Herminone's dressing room was a mess. Part dressing room, part magician's prop department. Theater mirrors lined with lightbulbs made the room seem bigger than it was... or it did it go on forever?
"Unfortunately, I'm not home right now..."
The voice was coming from the longest legged box I'd ever seen. Great long legs like snakes in black and white striped stockings and red shoes, coming out of an ornate Chinese box the size of a small refrigerator.
"But if you want to leave a message..."
The legs crossed and recrossed themselves.
"Just start talking at the sound of the tone."
@Larry Fantasio was looking around the room. He brushed past me and in a lowered voice said "Esshay owingthray erhay oicevay!"
"What was that?" said Black Herminone. From a stuffed parrot in a bird cage, a globe with a face on it, and a large black top hat, respectively. "I don't speak Latin." The last sentence came from a golden sarcophagus leaning against the wall.
"Here!" Larry cried, pulling a ventriloquist dummy out from under a pile of feather boas.
"Now you just hold on a minute, little fella! Careful with the merchandise, seeeeee?"
The wooden eyes of the dummy shifted in a creepy way as it turned its head towards us.
"THIS is Black Hermione?" I asked? It was kind of a let-down.
"This? Oh no, Black Hermione is... well, a woman. And an old woman at that. At least in this time period. This is more--"
"Her homunculus," finished the dummy, with its drawstring mouth. "Updated 244976 mark 4, standard House of Foo time."
"She's left. But she uploaded her consciousness into this dummy on her way out."
"Waaaaay out." Said the ventriloquist dummy. "Because she's waaaaay out by now!"
"Ha Ha Ha Ha! Welcome to the House of... the House of.. aCHOOO!"
The mechanical clown doubles over violently, then reconstructs itself upright.
"Ha Ha Ha Ha! Welcome to the House of... the House of.. aCHOOO!"
Our little cart is rolls on its track, past the animatronic horror, and bangs open the door to the next room.
"Ow," says the Queen. "I don't care if these seats are padded--that landing was dangerous."
"I suggest you strap in."
In the next room, we enter a rotating tunnel. Splotches of green glowing in the black light. It's a slowly rotating tube. Pipe organ music plays maniacally.
"Uh, I'm feeling sick," says the Queen. The spinning is getting faster, and the tunnel seems to curve before us. A wandering, dizzying path.
BANG we bash through the next set of doors.
"Now," says a mechanical robot doctor, "Eees bees nafraze, kichi bu fumbi." He brandishes a giant cartoon hypodermic needle.
"Oh my kondo, olay. Oh my kondo, olay," I reply with the pass phrase.
The doctor drops the needle. A spotlight appears on an oversized old fashioned eye chart.
"Please cover your eyes and read this chart aloud."
"Eye, don't want, no, bod-eee"
The floor drops out, and our tiny cart speeds down the track, roller coaster style.
"Yes, yes, I"m strapped in," yells the Queen over the noise. "It doesn't mean this isn't dangerous and stupid!"
Suddenly, the cart launches from the track, shooting up through space, and directly towards a large ring of fire.
We enter the ring, and our momentum abruptly slows. We are floating in the center of a ring of fire. Several tendrils of flame reach out and reach our bodies. We can't feel a thing.
And suddenly POOF the houselights come up. We're sitting in a tiny two person cart, poised on something like a mechanical bull apparatus. Or an oversized children's penny ride at the grocery store or a mall.
"Looks like we passed," I told the Queen. "This way."
Larry bangs on the metal door with his cane.
BAM. BAM BAM BAM. BAM BAM.
"I have to ask. Black Hermione. Why is she called that?"
BAM BAM BAM BAM. BAM. BAM BAM.
"We all take stage names in this business. Queen."
BAM BAM. BAM BAM. BAM.
"You sure she's home?"
BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM. BAM BAM.
"It's a long code."
And suddenly the tap door drops opens beneath us.
"So, you folks from outta town?" the cabbie asks.
"Yep! In town for the big convention! We're with the press." Her Queenship is quick on her toes.
"Well, that explains the lack of broomsticks!" the cabbie guffaws. "So, where're you from?"
"I'm from Fort Worth, and my colleague is from Des Moines."
"Ah, colleague. I get it!" the cabbie says with a wink. "Well if you're from outta town, I know the place where you gotta get your steaks. Everybody who comes to Omaha has to have a steak, and they think they know just the place they gotta go because they read it in the Ghost Guide, but lemme tell ya, I know THE place, and it's right on the way."
"No thanks, bud," I say. "You just take us to that address in China Town and we'll be good."
"Aw but there ain't nothin' there! All the dim sum places dried up, moved to the suburbs. Then the city put in those commemorative statues and messed up the feng shui real good, now there's no business at all down there. At least no business you wanna get mixed up in."
"It's all right," I say. "It's an old family friend. Elderly lady. She lives in one of those rent controlled apartments down there."
"Hmmmph," says the cabbie. "Gotta be a tough old bird to be livin' down there. Nothin' but boarded up windows and drug addicts, you ask me. Some people say they're even startin' to see some of them clones in the neighborhood."
"Clones?" asks the Queen.
"Yeah, can you believe it? Clones! In Omaha! Livin' on the streets. That's why our new mayor's got everybody excited. Talkin' 'bout bringing in the CGA, help clean the place up. Bring the business back, he says."
We ride in silence for awhile.
"Well ok folks, good luck. And keep in mind it might take awhile to get a cab back outta here. Ain't many interested in comin' down here late at night. In fact, lemme give you my number. You wanna call me direct, I'll come back for ya myself. Here you go."
The cabbie shoves a soiled card in my hand.
"Hey, thanks buddy. Keep the change."
"Wha-Ho! Thanks mister! You be sure to gimme a call, huh? I'm your man!"
"Omaha Base, this is the Microwave Explosion. We are on approach."
"Roger that, Microwave Explosion. Be advised, the Scarecrow Concern is having a barn raising right along your trajectory. Tack 7 degrees west and join airlane C, do you copy?"
"Roger, Omaha Base, changing trajectory to airlane C now, over."
It's a full moon, and the skies are clear over Omaha. Real rustic kinda place. A little bit country. Nothing like Poughkeepsie. In the fields to the east I see bonfires, shadows dancing, and a huge wooden barn rising above the fields and slowly rotating. It glows green.
"Microwave Explosion we're going to need you to maintain a holding pattern for a little bit, do you copy?"
"You bet, Omaha Base. We've got nothing but time up here. Enjoying the view, over."
"Thanks for your understanding, Microwave Explosion. It's Coven Con IX coming up this weekend, and we've had tour groups from all over coming in non-stop. We've got to get a few of them taken care of, over."
Larry and I watch rank after rank of witches on broomsticks, flying formation and landing. Quite poorly, I might add. Either they were mighty tired, or they'd been having a few stiff ones at every layover from there to Phoenix.
"Thank you for your patience, Microwave Explosion. You are free to touch down. Dirigible pod E, mooring post 2, over."
"Copy that, Omaha Base. Bringing her in now."
The airfield is full of interesting characters. Eccentric barnstormers, sturdy mail carriers, sleek high-end passenger ships and the occasional military. Omaha certainly is hopping.
The ground crew pulls us in and we latch on to mooring post 2 with a satisfying clank.
It had been a long time since I'd set foot in the House of Foo.
Well, a House of Foo franchise, that is. There was no House of Foo HQ, not for a long while. Maybe not ever.
The House of Foo was originally a company based in Shanghai. At least that much is believed. But House of Foo itself was a made up name. They thought it would sell better to the west if it seemed like the kind of made up Chinese name they were used to hearing, and not some boring, real life, hard to pronounce Chinese name.
So from the very beginning, the House of Foo was a shell company. One that manufactured and exported the finest parlor magic apparatus ever made. The Glissering Manacles. The Ashra Wig. Aerial Fishing. The Zig Zag Roller. And it was the finest parlor magic because it was designed by truly brilliant magicians. Ones that had mastered the engineering it takes to truly and literally bend the reality we live inside of. Magicians like Radium Girl, and Aunt Matilda, and the Aztec Lady.
And my mentor, Black Hermione. I hoped she was still where I could find her.
"So, we're still headed west, 'captain.'" I can hear the Queen of the Hudson rolling her eyes even before she turns around. "Care to get any more specific?"
"Omaha," I tell her, leaning back in the chair. "We're headed to Omaha."