"Funny how things work out," said Wuju.
I was out from behind the bar and spritzing some cleanser on the tabletops behind him.
"The day had started so normally, and now there I was in another dimension searching for the mirror duplicate of the woman I loved in the company of a band of Alice in Wonderland freedom fighters," smiled Wuju. "It just goes to show you can never tell how a day is going to wind up." He had summed up his incredible adventures so far in the same tone of voice her might have used if he'd been talking about the weather or some product he'd seen advertised on television.
I laughed. "That's for sure," I agreed.
"Thayloth's tentacles! Where have you been?" demanded Art when I picked up the mirror he had given me. "I've been trying to reach you for nearly two hours!" I saw his worried-looking image looking up at me from the mirror.
"It's a long weird story," I told him.
"Never mind then," said Art. "I've been rereading The Big Book of Mirrors & Gateways."
"This is going to be bad news," I said. "I can feel it in my bones."
"You have a very perceptive skeleton, Wuju," remarked Art. "As long as you and that dimension's Janet are on that side of the mirror and the spell remains incomplete, the gateway'll stay partially open. That means anyone or anything that puts its mind to it can pass through the looking glass."
"Like my double," I said. "We already knew that."
"There's one other thing," said Art. "According to The Big Book of Mirrors & Gateways, the Mirrorverse you're in may not be an exact mirror image of this world. It may be one of an infinite number of alternate realities. It could be very different from reality as we know it here."
I looked around at the members of the Knave of Hearts Underground Revolutionary Front. "Thank you for telling me that before it was too late, Art," I said as evenly as I could.
Art scowled. "What's happened, Wuju?"
I held the mirror up so Art could see my companions and vice-versa. "Art, meet the Knave of Hearts Underground Revolutionary Front: Big Al, Jack of Clubs, the DOSmouse, the Carpenter, the Mach Turtle and Agent Cheshire," I said. "Knave of Hearts; Arthur Robert Anson, amateur wizard extrordinaire."
Big Al was thinking out loud: "The Bird's been mobilizing Her forces for an invasion," she said. "If She's got Janet Blake, then it stands to reason that She knows about the gateway being open. She's planning to take over your world."
This was not what I needed to hear.
Art shook his head. "Whoever this bird is, she's only got about fifteen hours before the link between the two Janet Blakes fails, thereby closing the gate and maybe destroying a good chunk of both our worlds in the process."
"Supposing She gets Her talons on your Janet Blake?" questioned Big Al.
"Let me check." There was a pause as Art consulted The Big Book of Mirrors & Gateways. "Uh-oh."
That wasn't what I needed to hear either.
"According to this," said Art, "if she can stabilize this dimension's Janet over there, she'll be able to use the two of them to open gateways whenever she wants, to wherever she wants for as long as she wants."
"What are we gonna do?" I wanted to know. "I don't know about The Bird, but my counterpart's ruthless. He'll go after her."
"I'll give her a call," said Art. "She'll be safe if I can get her to my shop and set up some security spells. Give me her phone number."
I gave him the number. "Too bad we didn't have those security spells up earlier," I noted a little peevishly.
"We wouldn't have been able to get Janet through if we had," replied Art shortly. "At least, not in one piece."
"I'm sorry, Art. It's been a hell of a morning," I apologized. "Just keep her safe."
Art nodded, but looked a little worried as he dialed. "What'll I tell her?" he asked.
I just shrugged. Mostly I was concerned about Janet, but a small part of me took a certain amount of satisfaction in seeing Art have to share some of the discomfort that our mutual bad judgment had caused me.
"I'll get back to you after I get Janet safely here," said Art. "Then perhaps you can talk to her." He gave me a tight-lipped smile. I was definitely going to have to start watching my thoughts around that old man.
Art's image faded from the hand-mirror and I found myself looking down into a reflection of the ceiling above me. Now I'm a vampire, I thought, and then another thought followed it. More of a prayer, actually: Please be okay, Janet.
Big Al's authoritative voice brought me back to what was serving as reality at the time. "All right, Woo-Julanski," she said. "We need to get cracking."
"First of all," I said, "call me Wuju. Woo-Julanski's the other guy."
"Not much of a reflection on you, is he?" commented the Mach Turtle. "No pun intended."
"None taken, I'm sure," remarked Agent Cheshire dryly.
"While you were getting cleaned up," continued Big Al ignoring the banter of her teammates, "the six of us worked out a plan to have you impersonate your counterpart. You'll note that we've already replaced the clothes you had on when you came in with a standard SOB uniform."
It was true. After Jack had untied me, they showed me to a bathroom where I was able to take a shower and try to get myself together. When I came out, there was a pressed black uniform waiting for me along with -- thankfully -- a bottle of aspirin and an ice pack for my head. The uniform had silver trim along the pockets and sleeves, and on the shoulder was a large patch depicting the silhouette of a bird of prey tearing the flesh from some lesser creature with its talons. The logo on the patch read -- backwards, naturally -- SERVANT OF THE BIRD. The belt had a couple of small pouches for my wallet, mirror and other personal belongings.
The uniform had one other accessory, which was a shoulder holster containing a gleaming silver pistol. "This thing doesn't feel right," I complained.
"That's because you've got it on the wrong arm," advised Agent Cheshire. "Your right arm goes through the loop so you can draw your sidearm with your left hand."
"But you're a northpaw," said Big Al. "We should've realized."
"Luckily, our plan doesn't call for you to do any shooting," said Agent Cheshire. "We didn't even give you any ammunition."
Before I could question that decision, I heard Art's muffled voice urgently trying to get my attention from inside my belt pouch.
"Wuju!" he said as I fished the mirror out. Art's face was ashen. "I was too late!"
My body temperature dropped several degrees and my stomach tilted sideways and fell a few inches. "What do you mean by too late?" I asked, dreading the answer.
"I got her on the phone," said the wizard. "She was frantic. Something about a griffin on her dresser."
"A griffin?" I heard Big Al ponder.
"She screamed and the line went dead. I ran a tracer spell right afterwards, but there's no sign of her anywhere. I think she's on your side of the mirror now," finished Art.
"Very likely," said Big Al, moving around so she could see Art's face in the mirror. "Was she able to describe the griffin at all?"
Art shook his head. "Why?"
"Woo-Julanski -- our Woo-Julanski -- pals around with a griffin named Commander Griff," said Big Al. "He used to be affiliated with The Bird's Air Force before the scandal. He's got ties to the SOBs and I wouldn't put it past Woo-Julanski to send him out to capture your Janet Blake."
"So we can assume your bird has both Janets," said Art. "At least, with both of them on the same side of the looking glass, we don't have to worry about the spell failing and killing them."
"Thank heaven for that," I breathed.
Big Al shook her head. "Being The Bird's prisoner can be far worse than just getting killed," she said. "We're going to have to rescue both of them now. We need to get moving."
"I'll be here," Art told her. "Keep me advised if there's anything I can do to help."
"Good," said Big Al. "A wizard might come in handy."
"Good luck, Wuju," Art told me as his image once again faded from the mirror.
"Let me give you a quick overview of our plan, and then we'll go into a more detailed briefing of what it'll take for you to successfully impersonate your counterpart," said Big Al, not missing a beat.
"The executions downtown are scheduled to begin at oh-nine-hundred and thirty hours," continued Big Al. "At precisely oh-nine hundred and twenty-eight hours, the Mach Turtle will create a very large distraction which will disrupt the entire proceeding. At that time, Agent Cheshire will materialize behind Woo-Julanski, grab him, and exit in the same manner..."
|"'All right,' said the Cat; and this time it vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending|
|with the grin, which remained some time after the
rest of it had gone."
Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
"Materialize?" I asked.
"Like this," purred Agent Cheshire obligingly. With that, he smiled that toothy smile of his, bowed and faded from sight. I jumped when I felt his gloved hand on my shoulder. "The only way to travel," he said, suddenly next to me.
"Right after that," Big Al went on, "you, Wuju, will step in to take his place. When the smoke clears, for all intents and purposes, you will be Martin Woo-Julanski, head of the SOBs and liaison to the JIL."
"An acronym," advised Agent Cheshire who had vanished again and reappeared across the room, near the DOSmouse who was mechanically pacing around the computer.
"It stands for the Jubjub Imperial Legion," said Jack. "They're a team of super-powered agents serving The Bird. Big Al and me used to be members."
I looked at the scrawny four-foot-six Jack. "You were a super-powered agent?"
"Actually," supplied Agent Cheshire, "Big Al and her late husband, Miraculous Max, were members. Jack was their teenaged sidekick."
"Oh. Big Al was the super-powered agent," I said looking over at her. That was slightly easier to believe.
"She can tear a phone booth in half with her bare hands," boasted Jack.
"None of that is stuff you need to know right now," said Big Al.
"Correct,"squeaked the DOSmouse. "I have probed once again into The Bird's computer network and learned that most of the JIL and the Ex-Men are on various missions throughout the Realm to round up dissidents and prepare for the invasion."
"Who are the Ex-Men?" I wanted to know.
"They're another team of super-agents," said Big Al.
"A band of mutant transsexuals," added the Mach Turtle.
"I hate those guys," said Jack.
"Fortunately, all of them are maintaining order on the Western Frontier some nine hours away by plane,"said the DOSmouse. "They will not be a factor."
"Beamish," said Big Al. "We can consider them an ex-factor. What about the JIL?"
"Several of them are still local,"said the DOSmouse, "but they will not have time to react to our plan until it is complete."
"What do I do after I've taken Woo-Julanski's place? And how do I get to Janet?" I asked.
"The rescue of both Janet Blakes will be up to Agent Cheshire once you shut down the Aerie defense systems," said Big Al.
"Hold up," I said. "We skipped something here."
The tall woman nodded. "After we perform the switch," she said, "you will proceed to the Aerie. That's the big mountain you saw from town. It's The Bird's roost, and it's also the headquarters of the JIL."
"That's where your sweetheart's probably being held," put in Jack.
"Why can't Agent Cheshire just teleport in and do it?" I asked.
"Among the defense systems is a complex anti-teleportation grid," said Agent Cheshire. "It surrounds the entire mountain. Were I to attempt to pass through it, I would materialize in several different locations in steaming chunks."
"I see. How am I going to find this defense system and how do I shut it off if I do find it?"
"As for the first part," said Big Al, "Jack will be going along with you to advise you. You will also make contact with two of our agents inside the SOBs, Tweedledum and Tweedledee."
"Tweedledum and Tweedledee?" A Jack-Wuju-Tweedledee-Tweedledum combination was not one that stirred within me any strong feelings of confidence and/or hope for success.
"That's right," said Big Al either not noticing or not paying any attention to the doubt in my voice. "As for the second part, the DOSmouse will be riding in your pocket. Once you get to the right terminal, just plug him in and he'll do the rest."
"If Jack used to be a member of the JIL, won't he be recognized?"
"Not if he changes his suit," said Big Al.
My doubts increased about twenty-fold. "I don't think a change of clothes is gonna do it," I said, trying not to offend the giant woman. "The guy's got a big J and a big club tattooed on his face."
"They're not tattoos, they're birthmarks," corrected Agent Cheshire.
"Anyway, I didn't say he'd be changing his clothes," said Big Al patiently. "We're going to change his suit. Take a look."
Across the room, the Carpenter had a black magic marker and was carefully turning the club on Jack's cheek into a spade.
"The Ace of Spades is a member of the JIL," explained Big Al. "The Jack of Spades is his sidekick. He'll fit right in, if he's with you."
"What if the real Jack of Spades shows up?" I wanted to know.
"Not a chance of it,"the DOSmouse assured me. "Computer records show the Ace and Jack of Spades are both out of the country on a secret JIL mission."
"Won't the JIL know he's not supposed to be here?" I asked.
"No one you meet will have the eggs to question his presence if he's with you," said the Mach Turtle as the Carpenter finished up Jack's disguise and put the cap back on the pen.
"All you have to do," Big Al told me, "is be Woo-Julanski for us. Jack, the Tweedles and the DOSmouse will be able to go straight into the heart of the Aerie and complete our mission and yours. No one would dare challenge the Chief of the Secret Police with the possible exception of The Bird Herself."
"Not a chance," assured Jack. "The Bird almost never leaves Her nest."
I had run out of concerns to voice. The plan sounded easy, but it also sounded dangerous. I struggled to get out of the shoulder holster and put it on correctly. Janet's life was at stake. Both of them. I nodded. "I'm ready."
"Frabjous," said Big Al. "Cheshire, Mach; get moving. I'll be in touch."
Agent Cheshire disappeared and reappeared moments later, this time wearing gray-green coveralls and a long-billed cap which hid his face in shadow just as his musketeer's hat had earlier. "The truck's already warmed up," he purred.
"Truck?" I asked.
"We have a delivery truck which contains the turtlepult," explained the Mach Turtle.
"Oh. I see. The turtlepult," I said.
"It's a mobile device to launch me from the ground without leaving a vapor trail that can be traced to our base," the Mach Turtle went on. "It throws me about a hundred feet in the air where I tuck, roll and turn on my jets. To The Bird's detection devices, I suddenly appear in mid-air."
"Clever," I decided, nodding.
Agent Cheshire was at the door leading to the underground garage where the truck was parked and the Mach Turtle was lumbering after him when Jack called out.
"Hold it!" he said. "You're all forgetting again."
"What?" asked the Mach Turtle.
"The anthem," said Jack.
"It's really not necessary," said Big Al rolling her eyes.
"It's in the charter," insisted Jack.
"Oh, very well," conceded the team leader. "Go ahead."
The DOSmouse began to beep out a martial tune while the Carpenter kept time by tapping a Phillips screwdriver on his mask. Jack began singing in a slightly off, but consistent key. The others joined in:
"One brillig when the sun set in the east
And twilight fell 'cross froamus waves,
From shore to dount, The Feathered Beast
Laid nobbly souls down into their graves.
Now sleetharn stalk the Tulgey Wood
Bandersnatchi roam hills and fields.
The time has come when we all should
Draw vorpal swords and shammite, shammite shields.
The Bird that flies deserves to fall.
The good fight's fought in deed and word.
And She that crools shall soon crawl
When we overthrow the Jubjub, Jubjub Bird!
One brillig when the sun set in the east
And twilight fell 'cross froamus waves,
From shore to dount, The Feathered Beast
Laid nobbly souls down into their graves."
I suppose the Knave of Hearts' anthem was no sillier than "O say can you see by the dawn's early light" when it comes right down to it. Except....
Except as they finished, as one, they all gave the Los Angeles Freeway Salute.
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