Chapter Twelve

3/19/07

It's nighttime now, and looking out the open window of Aurora's apartment at the city glowing softly, muted to pale seagreens, aquamarines, through the diffused light of a million gaslights and torches, it's hard to believe that a monstrous blackness is making its way in a slow crawl towards this ethereal place.

And feeling the soft breeze caress my face, calming, warm like the Santa Ana wind, it's hard to believe how frantically pissed off and agitated I was this afternoon.

But I had a good reason.

I left Aurora to deal with her restaurant, and wandered out into the street. I figured I'd wander around a bit more, then look up her friend Mikio. Aurora had insisted that we'd be bosom buddies in a matter of seconds, and though I scoffed, she's usually right about things like that.

Directly across the street from the Burrito was a charming little park, about a half a block long, filled with statues (I guess of distinguished Ozians of the past), a beautiful multi-tiered fountain that somehow managed to have the water change colors as it tumbled down to the next level, and several lovely, exotic looking trees. The trees were filled with birds, rainbow-hued toucan-esque things with long necks and peacock tails, and they sang like a roomful of drunken, lovesick flautists.

I went through the gate and sat down on the lawn. I was feeling really satisfied, despite the conversation we'd just had, all the unfinished business and impending doom. All I wanted to do was to sit down somewhere nice, chill out, digest my breakfast and do a little typing into my laptop.

Being careful not to sit directly under any of the birds, I booted the laptop. This time it played some circus music, and the desktop spun around three times before settling into normalcy. My little friend was still with me, evidently.

"Do we still have a deal?" I asked it.

The laptop went "WOOP, WOOP, WOOP" and a modified clown head filled up the screen for a second and winked at me. I took that as a "yes," and opened up the word processor.

It was pleasant there, burping, farting, and recalling my morning, happily tapping the keys, until I noticed a shadow intruding upon my solitude.

I looked up and saw a guy about my age, long hair, T-shirt and jeans, a pair of All-Stars on his feet.

"Hey, man," he said, smiling, "you come through the gate? I'm Jules, man. I'm from Austin. Where you from?" He extended his hand and I shook it.

"Yeah, hi, I'm Gene," I replied. "Nice to run into you, hope I see you again." I didn't want to be a prick, but I was enjoying my little moment, and didn't want it interrupted.

"Yeah. Hey," he said, not taking the hint at all, "Nice laptop, dude. Can I check it out?"

"Well, actually - Jules, is it? - I'm right in the middle of something, and I kinda don't - "

And he lunged for it, that sonofabitch, made a grab for the laptop, and I grabbed back, and we wrestled ludicrously around the lawn like a couple of third-graders, until I felt Jules lose his grip and go "uuuuhh"

I cradled the laptop in my arms and flipped around into a sitting position to see what was going on.

This eurasian-looking guy was high-jumping, something out of a Jackie Chan movie, and kicking the bejesus out of old Jules, who crawled off with a wounded and suprised look on his face, then painfully got onto his feet again and ran like hell.

The eurasian guy was still jumping around doing that animal imitation karate shit - what is it - a crane or something? Whatever it was.

"I know who you are, dickhead!" he screamed out to Jules, "You better sleep with one eye open, fool!"

I'm starting to get a complex. I mean, jeez, what is it, three people have saved my ass in as many days? And some of them more than once.

"You're Gene?" Then he did a little bow. "Mikio Furi. Allallo down at Topeka said you would need help at the park. He didn't elaborate."

"Charmed," I said, and bowed back a little. So this was Mikio. Tall, skinny, long stringy black, black hair, and half-Japanese looking, and smart, smart that you can smell a mile away.

"Wait," I said, catching my breath, "Allallo? Is that the Indian guy? The bartender? What's his trip, anyway?"

"Not an Indian. Native American kind, anyway. His people are Ozite all the way. Best indications are they're of the Mississipian Culture, came through the Salina gate about a thousand years ago." He grinned at me with big white, even teeth. "And he's not exactly a bartender like we think of them. More like a shaman - medicine man."

"Any idea why somebody would want to steal my laptop?" I asked him, as I checked to make sure it was still functioning, remembering what Aurora had said about her heart and brain.

He chuckled over that one. "Any idea why somebody wouldn't want to? This place is crawling with C.I.A., ex-K.G.B., probably Israeli, French operatives, not to mention the nasty guys who already live here. You've got a living artificial intelligence in your hands, buddy. Wanna sell it?"

I noticed that the little guy in question had written something while the scuffling occurred, probably the cyber-equivalent of pissing its pants. It looked like gibberish to me: unnumber cloud, unnumber man, an admonishment to look at the sky...

I let Mikio see it. "This mean anything to you?"

He read it, got a puzzled look on his face, then without a word, motioned for me to follow him. I powered down the laptop and stuffed it in my pack.

Mikio walked over to one of the taller trees in the park, had a few words with it. Some branches came down and boosted him into the lower reaches of the tree. In a few moments he was so high up that I could barely see him.

"Come on," he called down to me, "It's cool - you won't fall."

I shrugged, and got the same treatment from the tree. Soon I was, with little effort on my part, being pushed high into the tree. The floutist-birds shuttled and flapped out of my way, and I found myself situated, finally, at the top of the tree with Mikio, perched on a wide bough, staring out over the tops of the towers of Emerald.

I was digging the view; Mikio, however was not so excited.

"This is bad," he moaned, "Damn. This is not good." He pointed over towards the northeast, not one of my favorite places, and I could see a blackness covering a third of the horizon over there, reaching up to what looked like the top of the atmosphere. It might have been my imagination at the time, but it looked like it was moving.

Our way.

"Why do I think this doesn't mean it's going to rain?" I asked.

We got down out of the tree and hiked over to his place, which was not more than a few blocks from the park and the Burrito. It was across the street, kitty-corner, from Ozma's Gate, a giant gingerbread house of a place (green of course), the place you went to when you got to feeling like there's no place like home, or lemme the fuck out of here, whichever came first. There were purportedly other ways out of Oz, but this seemed to be the safest way out. Of course, like the Salina Gate, there were no guarantees. That was rather a chilling thought to me, as I was quickly approaching the "lemme the fuck out of here" stage.

As we crossed the street, I could see that there was a line around the block, consisting of mostly Ozite traffic, psychedelic Oakies lugging children and personal belongings. It still suprised me that so many of them wanted to go to Earth, but the more I hung out here, the less surprised I was.

"Ozma's gonna close that up any minute now," Mikio said as we climbed the stairs to his place. "She's gotta know all about that cloud. Probably most of those people across the street know about it, too - hence the line."

"Isn't she gonna do anything about it? I mean, shouldn't we do something?"

He looked away for a second, choosing his words. "Nothing we can really do yet. We'll know when the time comes. You have to understand these people. They don't do anything the way you'd expect. Especially Glinda and Ozma. Inscrutible, inscrutible, inscrutible. In-scrutible is the key word here."

I could hear music coming from behind the door as he opened it onto a big loft space, filled with all manner of crap, chochkies, knicknacks, toys, electronic devices, and people. Half a dozen people were kicking back, one of them playing a guitar - a Fender Mustang - and the rest were either clapping in time or dancing in a rather curious manner.

"Roommates?"

"Naww," he said, "I just have a lot of friends."

The guitarist was playing some really out stuff, like a bi-tonal, nine-and-a-half-bar blues. The guitar sound was stunning, transparent. I could hear the deep time-worn curly-cues and inflections of whatever native melodies he'd practiced in order to learn how to play. You could tell that Hendrix was an afterthought, an addition to already proficient chops, and the thought intrigued me.

One of the dancers caught my eye almost immediately. I wanted to consult, "So You're Going to Oz" to see what nationality she was, but would have felt really uncool. So I guessed, from her naturally violet hair, that she was a Gillikin. Not that it really mattered so much - she was a really cute girl, which was her significant attribute, and since I hadn't so much as touched my weiner in an impure manner for over a week, she was a really, really cute girl.

"You want a beer?" Mikio inquired.

"Beer?" I replied, "They have beer?"

"I guess that means 'yes'," he said, and went off to fetch me one.

As I wandered over toward the group, glancing at this or that little tiki or altar, past a pumpkin-like gourd resting in a pail of viscous pink stuff and trailing wires attached to a Rube Golberg assemblage of meters and dials, the really cute girl danced over in my direction and, with outstretched arms and a lascivious smile, coaxed me to dance with her.

"No, thanks," I said, waving her off, "I'm really not much of a dancer."

But she insisted, taking both my hands, and I ended up trying to copy her modified bunny hop. It probably looked really silly, but I have to admit it was fun once I got going.

The guitarist whipped out a few more chords and ended with a flourish, followed by applause, and introductions all around.

I have to confess, I don't remember any of their names but hers.

"Lidelei," she said, in a voice like orange blossom, or some such sweet or perfumey item. I was quite taken. Lust at first sight.

"I'm - "

"Gene of Los Angeles," they said in chorus.

"Your reputation proceeds you," Mikio said, handing me a bottle of beer. It was big, not quite a forty ouncer, and covered with a label and writing - "Green City Brew" - not unlike the Weird Aspirin.

"Reputation for what?"

"Well," he said, taking a swig off of his own beer, "for being Aurora's friend, first off - for meeting and fighting alongside Nick Chopper within the first day of arriving, for getting away from the Hollow Man's army at all... Oh, yeah, and you're from L.A. I can't see it, personally, but these people are nuts for all that - " He waved his hand around dismissively.

I looked at the other people in the room, all in what looked like their twenties or thirties, wearing a mishmosh of Earth fashion from the last fifty years - one Winkie guy had a pompadour, the top half of a Zoot Suit, complete with gold watch and chain, black Speedo biker shorts and a pair of platform shoes. A Munchkin lady wore a Gault-ier/Madonna metal poker brassiere, a big blue Afro, a bobby-soxer skirt, white socks and saddle shoes. Evidently they liked American Pop Culture alot, but didn't quite get it. I stifled my urge to laugh, realizing I knew next to nothing about their cultures, and in that, they had me at a disadvantage.

The Winkie guy, obviously quite proud of the look, fixed me with a smirk and announced, "We have a band. ARock Band. We play tonight at Topeka. You can be on the - " He looked really thoughtful for a second, then looked over to Mikio to help him out.

"Guest list," Mikio offered.

"Guess list," the guy repeated.

Then Mikio said to me, "Of course, it doesn't cost anything to get in, but they want it to be official. Gene, meet "Liquid Secretary." They're the first live rock band in Oz. They've been learning things in dribs and drabs from Aurora's CD player, playing it acoustically, but when they heard the loud stuff in the restaurant, they begged me to try to make it work for them. Turned out to not be so difficult.

Same principle, really. Check it out."

I really wanted to go over and drink my beer in the wooly blue claw chair over next to Lidelei, but was also sort of interested about how that exquisite sound was produced, so I followed Mikio and the vine he was tracing, for my benefit, from the guitar to a assemblage of giant shells - King-Kong-size coconuts, that were tied together with some sort of twine. They had leaves and feathers, little bells, wrappings of brightly colored string, and twisty fetishes all over them. In the back there were little open boxes looking like avant-art constructions, parodies of circuit boards, but with crazy things in there - wires with transistors hanging off them soldered to a fork stuck into a dinner roll, etc.

I looked at it, up at Mikio. I would have thought him a complete lunatic if I hadn't heard the results, here and at the Emerald Burrito, with my own ears.

"How does it work?" I asked.

"Fuck if I know. How does electricity work? What is electricity? Everybody knows what it does, but what is it?

Sorry, I don't mean to be cryptic.

"I'm working backwards here. I just see something work, and try to reproduce it. Trial and error. Sometimes I get lucky."

I got the feeling that he was just being modest. According to Aurora, this guy was doing things after living here for a year that no research team or think tank had been able to do for fifty years.

"Everything here operates according to rules," he continued, "they're just different rules."

He'd built a couple of these Gilligan's Island amplifiers for guitars, and even a small P.A. system.

"I tested the P.A. over at Topeka today, and it worked okay. We'll check it again later, to make sure. I found this little ear-horn in an antique shop; I got it to work as a microphone. Sounds better than a Neumann. Go figure. Next problem is how to record. But one thing at a time."

Having examined this stuff, I picked up my beer (which was suprisingly good) and made my way back over towards the beautiful Gillikin girl.

She was obviously miffed by my choice of audio gear over her, however, and was now flirting with the guitarist.

I sat down on the claw-chair anyway, and every once in a while

she would glance over at me and look me up and down.

I sat there for awhile, listening to the funhouse-mirror guitar and watching the dances, until the sun ducked under the towers and the greens began to ease down, mixing into the furious orange and red of the sunset. You would almost have thought that nothing was wrong anywhere, it was all the sunsets of the world, all sunsets, and these were like children, so trusting of their sovereign queen that they chose to drink beer, dance and play music all afternoon rather than worrying about impending doom. They, and Mikio, and I think even Aurora to a certain extent, believe that Ozma's got it covered. I got the somewhat creepy feeling also, that if Ozma told them all to run into a burning building and shut the door, they would do that, too.

From time to time I attempted a conversation with Lidelei, with limited success. I had snubbed her, in her view, and it was gonna take a little work before she was going to be as friendly as when I walked in the door. That was alright with me, I thought, I had all night.

Mikio finished his last of several beers, lit a small gas lamp that somehow managed to brightly illumine the entire room, and informed everyone that the party was over - it was time to hump all the musical gear over to Topeka and do a sound check.

I got up and quickly offered to be a roadie: I had done my share of helping friends' bands hump gear all over Hollywood and Silver-lake, and even had a band myself for about a week until I realized it was actually work.

My offer was gratefully accepted, and I soon found myself walking down the street in the company of Mikio and the band, carrying an assortment of vines, boxes and shells.

Three blocks later, I happily dumped the load of gear in front of Topeka, huffed and puffed a little bit. It hadn't been completely exhausting, though, which suprised me. I guess that three days of marching around and killing guys with Tinman and the gang had toughened me up.

Allallo appeared at the door, looking skeptically at the equipment, and at the motley crew that was going to use it. "If you play it too loud," he said, "you have to stop." I guess some things are constants anywhere. Then he spotted me with them. "Gene!" he shouted, smiling, like we were old buddies, "Glad to see you're okay! Come on in and have that drink now" And slapped me on the back, kind of hard, and led me inside.

After being checked off the guess list, I sidled up to the bar, counter, or whatever you want to call it, at Allallo's insistance, looking around a little guiltily at the rest of the crew loading in and setting up, but nobody seemed to mind. I turned around to see the big guy blowing the dust off of an old bottle made up of stacked rings of fused glass. The contents were ruddy, rusty, and lethal-looking.

"This is special," Allallo whispered. "Good stuff" He pulled out two little pale green cups shaped like just-opened flower buds. "I think I'm gonna join you."

Mikio walked by with a box of stuff, and got a concerned look on his face. "Gee, Lallo, go easy on the guy. You're gonna make him puke."

The bartender waved him off. "Aw, one little one won't hurt him. I wasn't gonna let him drink more than two or three anyhow."

"What is this, anyway?" I asked Allallo.

He put a finger to his lips. "Holy stuff. Big offense to utter its name - bad medicine. Just drink it."

The two old guys, who looked like the same ones that had been sitting there when I stumbled in earlier in the day, looked on with what seemed like looks of astonishment on their faces. Reflecting on it now, I think they were just incredibly fucked up.

He held the two cups up between his palms, closed his eyes and uttered a silent prayer to somebody or something, then took one, and handed me one.

"Well, skoal," I said, and downed it.

And it was incredible. It was nectar. It was the finest single malt scotch. It was a Stag's Leap Cabernet. Refreshing as diving into an alpine lake on a sweltering summer day. And none of those things. The remnant of it danced on my tongue, producing subtle harmonics of the big note.

As soon as it hit my stomach, the buzz ran warm through my body, a tricky buzz, a subtle buzz. There was more than alcohol in that brew, and I liked it, whatever it was.

"You're supposed to sip that," Allallo said.

"Well, Lallo," I said, "may I call you Lallo?" He nodded his approval. "Pour me another one, and I'll sip it."

He did so, repeating the little prayer procedure, but only pouring the one for me. "Enjoy," he said, with a satisfied look on his face, and went back to work.

I sipped that one, savouring each taste, then regretfully set the empty cup on the bar, and wandered over to where Mikio was unrolling vines and tying lots of little things onto other little things.

"Take this," he said, proffering the ear trumpet and some string, without looking up, "and tie it to the pole up over there on the stage. Then say something into it, okay?"

I did as I was asked, going over to the "stage," which was really just a cleared out corner of the room. I moved carefully, as there was a heavy vine precariously attached to the thing. I somehow managed to secure the ear trumpet to the pole using some knots I learned in Boy Scouts.

"Heeeyyyy!!!" I started yelling into it. "Test, one, two! Test." What came out was strange: my voice followed by some tight, dop-plered echo remnant, trailing off. Normally, I would have said it was being run through some effects, but there were no effects. Hell, there wasn't even any electricity.

When I started singing "Blue Moon of Kentucky" Mikio told me to shut up, that was enough, thank you. I guess I was starting to feel the effects of The Drink That Shall Not Be Named.

I noticed the place starting to fill up with people. There were all kinds, not just more "rockers" like the band. Farmers, merchants -  people were genuinely curious.

A couple of waitresses, quasi-young women who looked like hardened veterans of earth-bars, came in to help Allallo. It seemed strange not to see somebody taking money at the door, but then I remembered how things worked here. The band would actually be compensated somehow by the people watching. Everybody got whatever they wanted here, they just had to provide some kind of valuable, free service for other people.

I know, it shouldn't work. I guess this is the only place it could.

Thinking about this reminded me to ask someone just when exactly when I was expected to start earning my keep - but it could wait. I was having too much fun right then to worry about reality.

I got off the stage and went back over to the bar, watching as the band got up to play their sound check.

It was no surprise that the band itself consisted of everybody that had been at Mikio's place. There was the guitar player, and the pompadour guy, who was obviously the singer: he got up and grabbed the ear horn/mic and started making wailing noises into it. Lidelei was the totally Archies tambourine player, and the munchkin girl was playing on another Mustang with heavy bass strings wound on it. Another guy was setting up some ancient-looking drums that looked like they'd been swiped from some marching band: an oversized bass drum, a little snare, some cymbals and some long skinny drums of a type I'd never seen before. Another guy was playing something like a cross between an accordian and a bagpipe.

The drummer counted off, and they launched into a fairly competent version of "Pretty Vacant" by the Sex Pistols. I was surprised. Oh, it was weird alright, like when you say something backwards into a tape recorder, then play that backwards. But they had the guts of it nailed. And they were loud.

Allallo had his hands over his ears, and was shaking his head. I thought it was gonna be all over with, but he didn't do anything about it, just glowered over at the stage and poured another drink for somebody. It was getting busy, and I guess 'busy' won out over 'loud'.

Just as they hit the second "We're so pretty, oh so pretty..," a disheveled group of very wasted winged monkeys stumbled through the front door. They were bandaged, some of them limping, and all of them looked like they were going to have a good time, if it killed them, or anybody else that happened to get in their way.

My heart sank as I flashed on the vision of the horde of monkeys blanketing the horizon, diving into the cuisinart that I'd been handily rescued from. All the stuff I'd been trying to forget, had successfully buried most of the day, hit me full in the face when I saw them.

Allallo either read my mind or was a really good bartender. He put one hand out and squeezed my shoulder, and plopped down a beer in front of me with the other. It was too loud to say anything, so I tipped the beer in his direction and took a big swallow of it.

The band decided - I guess after seeing how crowded it was already - to just go ahead and start playing their set. It was amazing, if just in how unselfconsciously eclectic it was. They did "Crazy" a la Patsy Cline. They did "Hello Skinny" by the Residents. Then they played "Wouldn't It Be Nice" by the Beach Boys (complete with harmonies) followed by "Don't Worry Kyoko" (Lidelei sang the lead on that one, with a perfect Yoko impersonation that only caused me to be that much more in lust.)

We made eye contact a few times, and each time, she'd smile like maybe she forgave me. I wanted nothing more at that moment than to make up for my behavior earlier in the day. But this was not to be.

Right about the time I started speculating about whether or not Lidelei lived by herself, I spotted a long-haired, completely shit-faced, derelict-looking guy over in a dark corner. He was sitting by himself, not far from the table full of winged monkeys who were bouncing up and down, chugalugging, perched up on their chairs, hooting and beating their chests. I'd seen this behavior before many times, except for the wings, but I wasn't ready for this guy in the corner, with his beard hanging down into his pint, filthy dirty except for where tears had cleaned parts of his face -

It was Ralph.

I couldn't believe it. I was sure he was dead or at least captured. There had been no way out of there - well, few ways.

I pushed through the crowd and sat down next to him, just as the band, to wild applause and a strange sort of warbling the Ozians do when they like something, announced their first break.

"Ralph.." I said, "Ralph, hey. It's me." He looked up blearily, squinted at me.

"How the hell did you get out?" I asked him. "What about the rest of them? What about Tinman?"

Ralph pointed at me, still squinting, holding his index finger out shakily. "Lou. Neal? Je - Jeff..."

"Gene."

"Gene. YEAHH. Gene. OF LOS ANGELES!" He was yelling, and people started looking our way.

He quieted down. "Gene. Gene. Have some drinks, Gene." Ralph waved sloppily to the nearby waitress. "Hey, Eileen, bring somethin nice for me and my fren. Gene.

"Gene, Gene, the Laptop Man." He tipped his pint to me, spilled half of it, then drank.

I was nearly speechless. "Jesus, Ralph, what happened to you? I thought you told me you were clean and sober? And how exactly did you get out?"

"How did you get out? How did you ged out? Huh? How did you? I saw you and your skeleton girl. I fukin saw you. I saw you." His scowl turned into a chuckle, and he started singing, "I wanna liiive witha skeleton giiirrll...I could be happy... I..."

Then he was sobbing. He was all over the place, like he hadn't

aired out his true feelings, for anything, for years.

"I fukin walked out of there, that's how. I fukin walked out, and called me a cab. That's how.

"That fuck let me go."

Then Eileen showed up with two glasses, and a bottle of something vile-looking. I looked up at her like she was crazy. This guy was already so tanked that I was afraid to light a match near him. Eileen just shrugged her shoulders, and sauntered off. Ralph grabbed the bottle, opened it, and sloshed out two glasses worth. He shoved one at me, and lifted one into the air.

"To Gene. Gene, Gene, the Dancing Machine." And downed the contents.

Against my better judgement, I downed a hit of the amber stuff in the glass. It wasn't half bad.

"What 'fuck' let you go?" I asked.

"That fuck. That fuck bitch shit... Tha fuhh... with the Towers, that fuck. The ones... you saw the smoke, man. Up underneath em are dishes. Giant sattelite dishes. But they still - they're still workin, man...You seen the clouds?"

I guess concentrating on telling me the story sobered him up a little - because now he started making a little more sense, but not much more.

"Now he runs the goddam show. We were trying to suck in animates. Mickies, like in your laptop. Thought we could harness some new amazing power source. Maybe build a living computer. Anyway, that didn work, huh?"

I didn't have the slightest idea what he was talking about. I asked him to clarify. About a year went by where he waved off the question, searched his pockets for cigarettes, then finally succeeded in lighting one. I asked him again.

"All that dish bullshit. Didn't do fuck all to pull in animates. Ozma must have known it. Let us play with our toys." He blew out some smoke. "But she must not have been able to see across the desert. Cause we called something - awful - from out across the wasteland, from who knows where.

"It came through the satellite dishes.

"The Hollow.

"We called it."

Then he sat back and sucked in some smoke.

I sat back and sucked down some of my drink. And as I drank, starting to develop a taste for the stuff, something really obvious dawned on me.

"Ralph, when you say, 'that fuck', do you mean The Hollow Man?"

"Bingo, my friend, DING DING DING DING DING! That little lame ass, MUTHERFUKIN JERK!"

Now the monkeys were looking over, and they didn't know Ralph, and drunk off his ass or not, he took the hint. They were ready to kick the shit out of anyone that looked at them funny. He tipped his glass at them and smiled, real big. "Gentlemen..." And he downed another glass. I joined him.

I was starting to feel almost as nice as Ralph. No, on second thought, I don't think I've ever seen anyone standing up who'd had as much to drink as Ralph. But I was getting there.

"Who are you, Ralph? What are you doing here?"

He stared me down, crosseyed. "Who do you think I am, bud? Who do you think I was standing right behind you when that big jerk was peeing on the tree? Huh? Nice laptop, Laptop Man."

"Nice what? You were almost making sense for a minute there."

"I'm C.I.A., get it? Intelligence. I'm the Boogie Man. BOOOO!"

Laptop. C.I.A. Mickey. Artificial Intelligence. It was starting to make sense - not much, but some. My own altered state of consciousness wasn't helping things.

"Jesus, Ralph, you were following me? I mean, my laptop? Why didn't you just take it? Why go through all the trouble of chasing me around?"

"If nothing happened, I'm was supposed to help you get where you were going, you being a U.S. citizen after all, then split. If, on the other hand, something extraordinary occurred, like it did, I was supposed to snatch that thing in the interest of your U.S. security. I was getting around to it, but we kinda got sidetracked for awhile, didn't we?" He clanked our glasses together, and drank some more.

"You were just gonna take it?" I asked him. "What if I didn't want to give it to you? You'd beat me up? Kill me?"

He made a face at me, as if injured. "Persuade you. However I could."

"What about now? Why don't you try to grab it now?"

This made Ralph laugh. "Do you know how many people are trying to grab that thing? At least three in this room right now. They wouldn't try it here, but my suggestion to you is to get through Oz-ma's Gate just as soon as she opens it up again. If she does.

"I don't want it anymore. What am I gonna do with it? Give it to that FUCK? Get it out of here. You get out of here, Gene. This is a really bad time to be here. Really bad time. I hate my fucking stupid life."

He started crying again. Talk about an emotional roller-coaster. Then he stopped all at once, like he turned a switch, and looked me in the eye. "I don't know what I'm doing anymore. I'm everybody's friend, I'm everybody's enemy, I'm a big fat professional LIAR LIAR LIAR."

The flying monkeys looked over again, and Ralph put one hand up to either ear and wiggled his fingers at them. "LIAR LIAR, PANTS ARE ON FIRE!!!" he shouted at them. Then he started singing the Wicked Witch theme music from "The Wizard of Oz."

I didn't want to turn around. I heard several chairs shuffling, and prepared for the worst. I could see their shadows come up behind us, smell alcoholic hot breath close behind my head. Ralph was grinning at them like an idiot.

I turned around, and saw one of the ugliest faces I'd ever seen, even on a monkey, about an inch from my face. That whole nose-to-nose thing.

"You're bothering us," the ugly monkey face said.

"Look," I said, "My friend is really, really drunk and he doesn't mean anything by it, really..."

"So?" He picked me up by my shirt, my really nice Gigantor shirt, ripping it, and held me out in the air in front of him. I heard a bottle breaking against something.

"ALRIGHT," came a loud voice from behind me. I was promptly dropped back into my seat, right on my tailbone. It hurt. Allallo was standing there with something that looked remarkably like a baseball bat. "Inky, why don't you take your friends out of here until you can learn to behave yourself a little better? What's wrong with you guys? Huh?"

The monkeys looked suddenly like a bunch of schoolkids who'd been caught smoking in the lavatory.

"Go on, now."

While the hushed crowd made way for them, with heads hung low they filed out of the front door.

Then Allallo looked at Ralph and me. "Haven't you had enough now, Ralph?"

"You don't have enough."

Then he spoke to me. "Why don't you fetch Mikio, and get this guy some food in him, then into a nice bed somewhere? I hate it when he gets like this. I shouldn't have allowed it - but it's hard to say 'no' to Ralph."

I found Mikio, who was a little bummmed about missing the rest of the show, but assured me that he could come get the equipment tomorrow, and would help me get Ralph out of there, not to mention run interference with respect to anyone who might want to make a grab at my backpack.

Ralph protested a little bit, but with some coaxing we got him up, and out the front door.

I was getting that sick feeling in my stomach - the one that happens when you have too much alcohol in you and not enough food -  so a couple of tacos, goomer or otherwise, sounded really good. And since I hadn't checked in with Aurora for awhile, The Burrito sounded like the place to take Ralph. Then, also, perhaps I could convince her to let him crash at her place, or maybe the restaurant, or something...

Also, it was the only restaurant I knew about.

We got Ralph out into the cool night air, and it felt good after the stuffy bar. He could walk, but looked a little rubbery, so we stood on either side of him as we walked, just in case.

I looked around at the soft glow on everything in the quiet night, like green colored lights on snow, and heard the faint sounds of hooves clacking, wheels rolling over cobblestones. The placid scene was all the more unreal when I remembered the black terror approaching the city.

What would this place look like and sound like tomorrow night?

I said as much to Mikio, who reaffirmed his belief in the mysterious and powerful natures of Ozma and Glinda.

I hoped those "inscrutable" matriarchs knew what the hell they were doing.

We got up to the street the Burrito was on in no time; the air seemed to have had a good effect on Ralph, who started to walk okay on his own, and in fact started walking so fast that Mikio and I could barely keep up. We had no trouble with anyone - we barely saw anyone. Evidently the prescence of Mikio and Ralph, drunk or not, was enough to deter any would-be computer-snatchers.

We rounded the corner, and even though I'd been witnessing marvels at every turn for the past few day, I wasn't ready for what came next.

There was a lion sprawled in front of the restaurant, placidly plopped down in front of the door like a sphinx, guarding it, with a line of people behind him, some of them petting him like a house-cat. He was purring - a loud, languid sound - and he never took his eyes off the front door. A tiger was pacing up and down in front of the crowd, like it was agitated about something. Soon enough I saw what it was.

There was this - thing - standing out in the middle of the street. It looked like some kind of rubber latex monster out of the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers - ten feet tall with a head covered with eyes - except that it was real, and incredibly menacing.

Mikio looked geniunely disturbed. "This is definitely not right," he said, looking over the crowd in the street, " - something wack going on here."

Ralph walked up to within five feet of the monster guy. He yelled at it, with a bemused look on his drunken face. "Skeerak! How's it hangin," ol' buddy?"

The thing let out a slow growl from somewhere within the front of its pants.

"Good," Ralph said, "nice to see you too."

Then we all skirted around it, towards the Emerald Burrito.

Slowly, checking out the scene, we moved towards the front door, hoping that our extenuating circumstances would absolve us from standing in the line. Maybe Aurora had a guess list, too. When we got to within maybe twenty feet of the door, a sound like the sky tearing in half ripped down out of the atmosphere.

All eyes shot up, and people in the crowd started screaming, some of them ran.

From out of the northeast, a jagged line of blackness, something like a photo negative of a lightning bolt, snaked out across the heavens. It scrambled like a brittle hand searching for something in the dark, then lurched down onto and straight through the roof of the Burrito. "Oh my god..." Mikio said, staring with his mouth open. The lion was up in a flash, pawing the door open. And responding to some caveman fight-or-flight instinct, we all jumped through the door with him.

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