"The Los Angeles Freeway Salute?" I asked. I was still out from behind the bar and wiping tables down.
"Of course," said Wuju. "What sort of salute did you expect from an organization dedicated to flipping the bird?"
"Right," I nodded.
The more bizarre his story got, the more matter-of-fact his voice seemed to get. He had to be loving every minute of it.
I was as nervous as hell and hating every minute of it. Jack and I were working our way through the huge crowd of people and creatures who had gathered in the public square to watch the executions. By way of disguises, we were both wearing hats, trenchcoats and dark glasses. It had struck me as the stupidest idea for a disguise to come down the pike since Clark Kent's glasses. After all, the temperature outside was pushing eighty and we looked like the Untouchables. Not a soul gave us a second glance. Go figure.
I found other things to worry about. "The DOSmouse is awfully quiet," I noted to Jack.
"Of course he is," said the little man in the trenchcoat. "After all, he's unplugged."
"Oh, that's why."
"C'mon, we have to be right up front in..." He glanced at his watch. "...eleven minutes."
We worked our way to the front of the crowd where the press corps was yelling questions out to a man behind a podium on a stage. I use the term man in the loosest sense. Although the speaker's suit-and-tied body was not much bigger than Jack's -- maybe even a little smaller -- his head was about three feet in diameter, bright red and shaped like an egg with the pointy end down.
Flanking him on the stage were two identical men who looked like a pair of giant bowling pins in SOB uniforms. I immediately recognized them as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Off to the speaker's right was an enormous blue caterpillar sucking on what appeared to be a huge bubble pipe. This creature was not the irritating but comical caterpillar of either Lewis Carroll's or Walt Disney's Alice In Wonderland, but rather a God-awful combination of Jabba the Hut and Jeff Goldblum from The Fly. He waved at the crowd with multiple appendages that I would have hesitated to call hands.
Opposite the caterpillar, a seven-foot griffin sat crouched on his tawny lion's hindquarters while scanning the crowd with his eagle's eyes. He drummed his talons restlessly on the stage. Taking a second look, I noticed that the griffin's beak had been wired shut.
The last person on the stage was me. Or rather, my double dressed in a black uniform identical to the one I had on under my trenchcoat. Like the griffin behind him, Woo-Julanski was scanning the crowd with cold, pitiless eyes.
|"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone,|
|it means just what I choose
it to mean -- neither more nor less.'"
Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
As we were moving to our position, I caught some of what the speaker was saying: "How we do that within the platform, the preamble to the platform or whatnot, that remains to be seen. But that message will have to be articulated with great clarity," he said. "And the message is this: We must not be laxative in our defenestration of order and justice and, although some may find the sending of condemned and suspected felons to the electoral chair heart-rendering, The Bird is wise!" At that last remark, everyone in the audience briefly covered his, her or its eyes.
"That's The Bird's press secretary, Humpty J. D'Ayle," Jack told me indicating the speaker. "On either side of him are the Tweedles."
"I'd figured that much," I whispered back to him momentarily noticing that one of the SOBs working crowd control was the mirror image of Bernie from Haster's.
"All right, you're so smart," hissed Jack, "who's the big ugly caterpillar?"
I just shrugged.
"That's the Cobalt Caterpillar," said Jack a little smugly. "He's one of the JIL."
"Okay. Who's the griffin? Is he the one who kidnapped Janet?" I asked.
"Probably," said Jack. "That's Commander Griff. Woo-Julanski had his beak wired shut after the scandal that got Griff kicked out of the Air Force."
"What scandal was that?"
"At a national press conference, he said that he thought dragons were responsible for the majority of wickedness in the Air Force," explained Jack. "There were mass dragon riots for a week. Woo-Julanski finally had to have him transferred to the SOBs and wire his beak shut to prevent them killing him."
"I tell ya, there's nothing uglier than a full-scale dragon riot."
"Get it? Scales? Dragons?" Not getting the response he'd hoped for, Jack went on: "And finally, there's our target. You recognize him, of course."
"Only from the mirror," I muttered.
"We gotta hurry up and get in position," said Jack.
Humpty J. D'Ayle was finishing up his response to a question as Jack and I moved around toward the right side of the stage where Commander Griff and my counterpart stood. Behind them were a quartet of what looked like huge blenders, each containing a shackled prisoner. Other prisoners, under armed guard, were waiting in the wings for their turns to come up.
"Mr. Press Secretary! Mr. Press Secretary!" barked a huge pit bull in a three-piece suit. "Is there any truth to the rumor that The Bird is planning an extra-dimensional invasion?" The dog's booming voice drowned out the questions of the other reporters and actually physically scattered some of the smaller members of the press corps before him.
The other Woo-Julanski frowned and jotted down a note on a small pad in his hand.
The press secretary held up his tiny hands disarmingly. "Now, now, Mr. Doggleson, you mustn't make presumptions about matters of national security. Remember: Never presume; it makes a pres out of you and me," replied Humpty J. D'Ayle. There were groans from the crowd and a badger, whom I took to be one of the press secretary's aides, slapped his forehead in exasperation.
Humpty J. D'Ayle, apparently as oblivious to this gaffe as any of his others, went on: "I can insure you, however, that The Bird has promised us all a glorious golden age of preposterity to be ushered in on a thousand points of knives. Now if there was an invasion planned -- and I'm speaking strictly suppositorily...."
"Get ready," said Jack looking at his watch. "Five... four... three... two... one..."
The whine of jet engines plummeting toward us became audible over the noise of the crowd, and from there, drowned it out entirely. It was the Mach Turtle diving at the press conference from a high altitude with blinding speed. Panels in the sides of his shell had opened up to expose a pair of matching grenade-launchers and "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris blasted from the CD player built into his shoulder even over the noise of his engines.
People, animals and creatures screamed and scattered for cover as the supersonic cyborg flying turtle fired flash grenades, smoke grenades and green-paint grenades at the stage. Woo-Julanski and some of his men were quick enough to return fire in spite of the choking smoke and blinding flashes, but those few bullets that found their target just bounced off the Mach Turtle's battle-hardened shell.
Glass flew far and wide as four well-aimed grenades simultaneously found the giant execution blenders and sent the condemned prisoners scurrying to freedom.
Commander Griff launched himself into the air only to catch a paint grenade in the face which sent him careening into the side of a building.
Meanwhile, the Cobalt Caterpillar, having the proportionate strength of a caterpillar, tore up a piece of the stage and hurled it at the attacking reptile as he completed his first pass. The giant caterpillar's throw was guided by his uncanny caterpillar sense and unerringly struck the Mach Turtle in the back of the shell. The impact sent him spinning back toward the stage and the waiting JIL member.
Acting with practiced ease and speed, the Mach Turtle cut his engines. After that, it took him only fractions of a second to re-orient himself and fire his thrusters directly into Cobalt Caterpillar's face blowing him into the press secretary.
As Humpty J. D'Ayle fell from the stage, I saw his head separate from his body and float away into the smoke-filled air. His tiny hands grasped futilely for the string tied to his chin before it drifted out of reach.
While all this was happening, my counterpart had taken cover behind the podium and was squeezing off shot after shot at the intruder. If nothing else, I had to admire his coolness under fire. The Mach Turtle cut his engines again and hovered for a moment offering Woo-Julanski an easy shot at his exposed head and arms.
My counterpart's eyes narrowed and his lips pressed into a tight cold smile. The Mach Turtle smiled back, showed him the Knave of Hearts Underground Revolutionary Front salute and exploded four or five smoke grenades right at my double's feet.
A familiar toothy smile without a face quickly flashed at me from the smoke cloud that had engulfed the other Woo-Julanski. This was followed by a thud and a grunt of pain. The Mach Turtle nodded and rocketed skyward with a sonic boom that shattered windows of the buildings surrounding the public square.
"You're on!" shouted Jack pushing me into the smoke bank occupied, until a moment ago, by my evil counterpart. "Break a leg!"
I stumbled over something and almost did. The dark glasses had protected my eyes from the flash grenades and Jack had warned me to cover my ears before the sonic boom. Unfortunately, there was nothing anyone could do about the smoke until it cleared. I got a good couple of lungs full of the stuff and wanted to die. I ditched my trenchcoat, hat and glasses and waited for the smoke to clear.
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