By Mikel Andrews
A nameless, manilla semi trailer with a door stood before us. I took the first step onto brushed metal incline.
“You’re sure this is where he went in?” I asked April.
“What—did he use the front door?”
“Don’t be stupid,” April replied. “He probably has some little, like, monkey way in.”
I rubbed the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger, feeling the ache deep in my sinuses. “I don’t think I could’ve ever imagined a situation where you’d have to say that.”
“Just knock on the door,” April coaxed, but she didn’t wait for me. She just reached around my shoulder and rapped on the tin, ribbed door that was only given away by its hinges and latch. Then she slunk back behind me. Classic April.
At first nothing happened. I half-expected some kind of trapdoor to open up and swallow me. Just me, not April. She was well out of harm’s way—don’t worry.
“Anything?” she asked from practically across the street.
Before I could answer, a voice bellowed from inside the trailer. It was throaty purr, like a grizzly bear; plenty of buildup before it actually formed a word.
“Uh,” I managed to reply, caught off guard. “Do you, um—is there a monkey in there?”
“Are you kidding me?” April whispered.
The throaty growl (that never actually stopped) manifested into a string of obscenities. The trailer rocked as boots thudded along the interior. A clinking from the latch was the only warning I had—I stepped back a split-second before the door swung open.
Ominously, nobody was standing there. Of course there wasn’t.
“Get in here,” came another growl. “And be quick about it.”
I glanced back at April. The corner of her lip tugged nervously. “I guess be quick about it.”
The inside of the trailer just appeared to be a long, dark hallway covered in old flyers and newspaper clippings. It was somebody’s Memory Lane.
I could vaguely make out a desk set up at the far end of the trailer. As I headed there, my eyes tried to pick out individual headlines from the walls, but the ink matched the shadows too perfectly.
And the biggest shadow was the man at the desk.
When I got close enough to separate him from the darkness, I found an older gentleman that was made in the image of a boulder. Broad shoulders, no neck, and hefty. His teeth bared from beneath a thick, graying mustache.
He extended a thick, calloused hand and the sleeve of his dress shirt peeled back as he did. “Mr. Z—of Mr. Z’s Roving Carnival and Automotive Repair.”
I took his hand. “Seriously?”
Mr. Z shrugged. “Yeah, well. The ‘Roving Carnival’ business is rapidly in decline.”
“What do they call you, kid?”
“Oh, um, my name’s Marcus,” I answered. “Marc.”
“Marc,” Mr. Z tried out. Letting go of my hand, the old man raked the last strands of his hair across his liver-spotted skull. He took a seat and offered me the one facing him. “Marcus. Marc. You said something about a monkey?”
I’d almost forgotten the surreal series of events that had brought me before Mr. Z. And they sounded even more ridiculous as they balanced on the tip of my tongue. I cleared my throat.
“Well, sir,” I began. “I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, well—I got robbed. By a monkey.”
Mr. Z squinted me and clenched his teeth—very Clint Eastwood-esque “You don’t say.”
“I know it sounds crazy, but—”
“McCallister!” Mr. Z bellowed before I could continue. His voice thundered off the walls of the narrow trailer and very quickly produced a furry little monkey in a denim vest. Close up, I could see the monkey’s hair was patchy and beginning to gray. His face looked old and sad, like a droopy clown, and I suddenly felt sorry for the little bugger.
That is, until I saw my wallet bulging from his little vest.
“That’s him!” I blurted.
“It ain’t exactly a lineup, kid,” Mr. Z muttered. Then he addressed the monkey. “McCallister, you little flea bag. Give this young man back his wallet. Pronto.”
The monkey—McCallister—looked up at Mr. Z and chirped plaintively. Was he defending himself? Did Mr. Z understand him? These were all questions I didn’t want the answer to.
“No buts, McCallister,” Mr. Z said, showing the monkey the flat of his palm. “Wallet. Now.”
The little hairball coughed up the leather wallet my dad had given me and Mr. Z quickly transferred it from his hand to mine.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Welcome,” Mr. Z said. After he thought about it, he added, “You know, he’s an old circus monkey I, ah…inherited. Got a bit of dementia now—good days, bad days—unfortunately his bad days put him right back into his pickpocket era. Didn’t mean nothing by it, I’m sure.”
“Well, no harm, no foul,” I replied, holding up my wallet a second before it was back in my pocket. McCallister gave a shrill shriek and bounded off the desk to the backrest of Mr. Z’s chair and then up a curtain.
No, it wasn’t a curtain—there were no windows in the trailer. It was a white cloth draped over—over something.
A mannequin maybe? A statue?
Mr. Z caught me eyeballing it and quickly stood, eclipsing whatever it was from my view. “Alright, well then—can I offer you anything else? Free ride tickets? Something like that?”
I shook my head. “No, no. Not necessary. I gotta get my spot for the airshow anyway.”
Mr. Z’s head bobbed and he waved me away. “Of course, the airshow.”
Never one to bow out of a conversation gracefully, I asked, “Heard anything about it?”
The old man fixed me with a flat stare, cold as penny in a freezer. “Yeah. I heard there’s no break between the coronation and the fireworks anymore. That’s going to be good for business.”
“Ah,” I whispered, backing away from the desk slowly. “Well, Mr. Z, it was nice meeting you and, um, McCallister. I guess.”
Mr. Z just humphed and threw me a quick wave; whether it was genuine or merely shooing me out, I couldn’t tell. I did, however, watch the sheet-covered monolith shrink away; it disappeared like a phantom, soaking up the darkness like spilled ink.
“Did you get it?”
I held up my wallet to show April, but hid it away just as quick. I could almost feel a monkey paw closing around it, the bony fingers scraping against my rear. I wondered how long it would take for that creepy feeling to pass every time I went to pay for something.
“Got it,” I replied. “Thanks for the backup.”
“The perimeter is secure,” April said gruffly, mocking a little salute that flicked white gold strands of her hair into the breeze. “Now can we please make an appearance at your wet dream so I can get back on a plane to New York.”
Next to the baseball diamond, a wooden stage had been erected, decorated with tassels and the names of local shops and sponsors. The sandy field—rarely used for actual baseball anymore—was littered with people. And litter. Children screamed, chasing their cousins around with popcorn and melting fudgesicles, wearing those little glow necklaces that cost way more than they were worth. A couple guys I had graduated with clung to the chain-link fence like a pair of sloths. Sloths without t-shirts.
Was there some dress code in this town I didn’t know about?
Atop the wooden stage, girls in dresses and sashes were fanning out into a line. All makeup and smiles, none of them looked more interested in the Miss Cookhurst scholarship than the crown.
At the edge of the stage was Callie and her dad. Mayor Brechtold wore a tuxedo and that ridiculous top hat he wore every year. Callie on the other hand wore a strapless white dress that took on a pinkish hue towards the hem, as though she’d been walking through a thicket of sunset clouds.
My vision was glossy as I watched her; a veil of starlight.
“Come on,” April said, shattering the effect. “They said they’d be by the beach.”
“Hold on,” I told her. “I want to watch this.”
“Please tell me it’s just for Callie and not for the political intrigue,” April groaned, crossing her arms.
I ignored her and watched as the coronation began. Callie took her place on a makeshift throne, and Mayor Brechtold gave a politician’s grin from behind the bulbous microphone.
“Good evening, Cookhurst!” he roared obnoxiously and the crowd went wild as his voice boomed from loudspeakers around the ball field. “Welcome to tonight’s coronation! We have—”
His voice was suddenly drowned out by the endless ripcord whine of an airplane engine. Then another gas-powered hum filled the sky. And another. Mayor Brechtold scanned the skies along with the rest of the town. Whispers grew to murmurs as folks began pointing past the stage, out across Pleasant Lake.
An armada of biplanes with pontoons were skimming just above the water. Seaplanes the color of ripe apples.
The Crimson Gulls.
Mayor Brechtold laughed nervously causing the sound system to shriek with feedback.
“Well, well. Looks like our friends at the Crimson Gulls Extraordinary Airshow have kicked things off a bit early,” he said, dabbing at his forehead with a kerchief. “Perhaps someone could get them on the horn and remind them of their cue? Yeah? Is that a possibility? Ed?”
The motors just got louder and the Gulls just got closer. I could now make out the flurry of their propellers—those were red too. The girls on stage looked like some kind of automated theme park show as they glanced around stiffly in their dresses, trying to keep genuine smiles plastered to their faces.
“Dad, what’s going—” came Callie’s voice through the loudspeaker before she realized she was too close to the mic. The Brechtolds’ conversation continued like a mime show as the front three planes drew near the shore.
The middle plane splashed down, sinking its big red duck feet momentarily into the lake. The planes on either side of it kept going, tearing over the crowd with an ear-piercing rumble before continuing into a loop that sent them back towards Candelabra Island.
The audience was a chorus of screams; a tidal wave of flesh and strollers that began receding from the shoreline. April burst with colorful expletives but she held my arm like a prom date.
The pilot of the beached Gull hopped out of the plane and sloshed onto land. He bounded towards the stage wearing garb like an old-time pilot from the movies. Skullcap with goggles, winged trousers, bright red bomber jacket.
And a gun. Definitely a gun.
I watched the firearm slink it’s way on stage, as if the pilot was just some kind of scarf in tow. The man jogged up the stairs onto the wooden platform and kept the gun trained on Callie, but a flick of the wrist would have made Mayor Brechtold the new target.
It was all happening so swiftly, barely anyone had time to react. Even swifter, the pilot snatched the microphone and held it up to his lips.
“Been a change of plans, folks,” came the pilots steely voice, a hint of London on his breath. “Seems your beloved mayor doesn’t want to pay our agreed upon fee—so guess what? Price goes up.”
The pilot’s free hand shot out as the crowd gasped and clutched Callie’s wrist like a handcuff. “A hundred grand for every finger on your daughter’s hand. And this time, Mr. Mayor, I think you’ll pay it. Savvy?”
And just as fast as the blood-colored hurricane waxed, it waned, with Callie in tow. I heard her scream. I saw the porcelain flash of tears on her cheeks. And I watched as the red seaplane twirled, coughed exhaust, and hightailed it back to Candelabra Island with the girl of my dreams.
For a second, all was a still life painting. A modern day, high-resolution version of Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte.
Then panic. Screaming. Bloody-murder anarchy. Arms flailed and legs ran. Children were scooped up. Loudspeakers erupted with cooing reminders to stay calm and were promptly ignored.
Mayor Brechtold slumped into the makeshift throne, ridiculous top hat at his feet.
“Jesus,” April breathed. “That just happen?”
“Yes,” said my voice.
“My god, Marc,” April said with a shiver. “Did you see all that?”
“What—what should we do?”
I spun around, hoping my vision would keep up with how fast I turned.
All I saw was a monkey in a vest.
“McCallister!” I called out to the chimp. He was perched on top milkshake stand, looking panicked as people flowed around the kiosk like a raging river around a stone.
“What are you doing?” April called out to me, but I was already gone. Truthfully, I didn’t know. Something, was the only answer that came to mind, but I kept it to myself.
I made my way to the shake stand, bushwhacking through the forest of arms.
“McCallister,” I said again, and reached an arm up to the tiny monkey. Those black eyes set like marbles in his droopy toy face recognized me—or, at least, something about me. He hesitated for a spell, then climbed down my arm like a branch. Those bony twig fingers didn’t spook me as badly as they had the first time and McCallister propped himself on my shoulder, scanning the area like a little radar dish.
For the first time, I noticed he was clutching a sheet of yellowed paper in one paw. Nervously, gently, I plucked the parchment from his grasp.
It was a flyer, decades old. It showed a carbon-copied photo of a man in a white lab coat and goggles holding some kind of gaudy remote control. He was standing next to a towering metal statue; a figure all metal and rivets, pipes and valves. The headline read:
Professor Zambda and his Incredible Clockwork Man!
I squinted at the picture. Professor Zambda had a thick mustache and a Dirty Harry scowl. My eyes popped wide with realization. I stared up at McCallister, jaw unhinged.
Over my shoulder, April read from the flyer as she took it from my hand. “Bulletproof! A Real Super Man! The Remarkable Remote-Responsive Automaton Continues its Tour! What the hell is this?”
“I think I know where this thing is,” I told her. “And if it’s real—maybe it can go after Callie.”
April put her hands on her hips. “Are you insane?”
“A little bit right now, yes.”
“You want send a robot after the mayor’s kidnapped daughter,” April recapped. “What’s it going to do against a bunch of, of—air pirates?! Sink?!”
“I think it can fly,” I said, jogging back towards the carnival. Towards the trailer of the mysterious Mr. Z.
“How?” April called.
“Look at the flyer,” I said, turning and jogging backwards as I pointed to the scrap. “It’s from an airshow!”
* * *
“How’d you get in here?” Mr. Z said from behind his desk, standing as briskly as he could.
“The monkey let me in,” I answered. “You gotta help me.”
“Help you?” he laughed. “Kid, in case you hadn’t noticed, your town is trampling my carnival like it’s Pamplona out there!”
“I need your robot.”
I stamped a foot. “Oh, come on! You’re Professor Zambda,” I accused. “And that big thing behind your desk is your Interesting Clockwork Man!”
“Incredible,” Mr. Z corrected.
“Exactly!” I said, jabbing a finger at his chest. “You are him!”
“So what if I was?”
I groaned like a tea kettle. “Look, there’s no time for this. That thing flies right?”
“The mayor’s daughter just got kidnapped by the Crimson Gulls!” I shouted. “They’re holding her for ransom!”
“What? Where?” Mr. Z asked, becoming human again.
“Candelabra Island,” I told him. “Look, if that thing still works, you could send it over there, take out those pirates, and bring back Callie!”
Mr. Z bit his fingernail. “Who?”
“Mayor Brechtold’s daughter,” I clarified. “I…went to school with her.”
“Look, are you gonna help or not?”
Mr. Z fumbled a bit. “It’s not that simple—”
“Does that thing still run?” I asked, feeling exasperated.
“Well, yes, but—”
“Then what’s the problem?!” I cried. “You invented a bulletproof robot! Fly it over there and save the girl! You’ll be a hero!”
“It’s not a damned robot!” Mr. Z shouted, slamming his fists on the desk. The shock wave rattled pencils and ruffled papers. McCallister whimpered from a nearby shelf.
“What?” I said, but the sudden loss of hope had drained most of my voice.
Mr. Z cussed and shook his head. “It’s not a robot. It’s a…a suit—it needs a pilot.”
“But the flyer,” I stuttered. “It—it—the flyer said—”
Mr. Z clenched the wrinkly folds of his eyelids and wiped at his forehead. “Kid, it was 1962. Do you really think I built a robot?”
His words made me tired. All the adrenaline had been burned up and now my body was out of fuel. My plan was even more stupid than I had originally thought.
And it was about to get stupider.
“Fine. You need a pilot?” I sighed. “You got one.”
– TO BE CONTINUED –