Since no publicity is bad publicity, and since Claire Eleanor Huffnagel was always willing to help out, this Saturday morning she was at one of the city's largest local flea markets. The term flea market was a misnomer; had been for years. It had grown into a venue large enough that some big vendors even showed up from time to time. Vendors like Huffnagel candies, for example. They weren't a multinational conglomerate, Bubblegum thought, but they were big enough she supposed.
'How often do you come here?' Chizuru asked.
The rokurokubi had stretched her neck out and was looking at a seller of bootleg DVDs across the way. A corner of her mouth quirked in amusement as she noticed several Ryoko Kyubei movies among them: before she left for today, she thought she might report this guy.
Bubblegum snaked her neck up beside her so they could speak freely. No one in the market took much notice of them; Claire's was a familiar face, and was free enough with her abilities that people weren't shocked to see two ladies stretching about: 'A couple times a month, usually. More often during the summer with the tourists.'
Chris Bellwether came up to them, breathing heavily it looked like he'd run the length of the market, which wasn't small although the flush on his face and light perspiration might have been from excitement. 'You two need to see this,' he said, then looked directly at Bubblegum. 'Looks like your marketing model is catching on.'
Claire's brow furrowed. 'There's another candy-seller here? And she's copying us?'
Chris's grin was enigmatic. 'Not exactly. But it's sure something I've never seen. Luise saw it first, and she's grumpy, because she thinks they're infringing on her schtick. Liesl thinks she's an idiot for thinking that.'
Gracefully, liquidly, Bubblegum turned her head back to look at her parents. 'Mum? Dad? I'm gonna go with them and check it out will you be too overworked if I do?'
Smiles and headshakes indicating assent.
Well, you were right,' Chizuru said. 'It's certainly different.'
'A travesty is what it is,' Luise, the Rubber Baroness said. Her fingers were clenching and relaxing as though itching for the hilt of a sword that wasn't there. Liesl, her taller younger sister, socked her playfully on the shoulder.
This wasn't a fly-by-night operation the presentation booth looked very professional and slick. There were piles of glossy literature everywhere. But the product still took them by surprise.
Tires? Bubblegum thought to herself.Seriously?
And there were, arranged neatly beside the booth which was also, aside from the great view, doubtless why they'd chosen to book an entire back wall of the market. All sizes, from bicycles, to monstrous truck tires it would take several people to move.
Something was wrong, though. The booth, and the short stage beside it, were empty. No attendant stood there. And despite this, the area in front of the display was packed People in various modes of dress cyclists, farmers and mechanics in overalls were moving among the columns of tires, inspecting the wares.
'How do they expect to promote their product,' Bubblegum said to Chris, 'if there's no one there to promote it?'
He winked at her. 'Wait.'
Then she heard it: the slow, familiar, wooshing sound of something filling with air. Being inflated. All heads turned as one. Something black was swelling into existance on the stage beside the booth; taking on form. A female form.
The legs first, shapely, coated, not suprisingly, in sleek black rubber. Then, the hips, the torso, trim and fit, naturally. Next a bust that strained the limits of credibility. On the chest was displayed a logo in silver: line art of a tire in three-quarter view, with its treads displayed, and a small hint of track on the 'road' in front of and behind it. Just under the front piece of track was a small stylized P. Then the arms branched out, equally shapely and fit.
The head emerged, the face young and pleasant with a wide mouth, and aristocratic nose, framed in shoulder-length curly dark hair that flounced lightly with movement. Her eyes were a soft, warm, almost mousy grey. She plucked up a cordless mike lying on the top of the booth, and grinned broadly at her audience. 'Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.' She had a slight French accent, Parisienne, and enough to add a hint of exoticism to her otherwise flawless English. 'I'm very happy you decided to come out today; this is my first time here. Some place, huh?'
'Beats the hell out of the Michelin Man, doesn't she?' Chris joked.Then he winced as Chizuru punched him savagely on the shoulder with one of her middle knuckles.
'My name is Pneumatique,' the woman said, being sure to give it the correct French pronunciation, 'and I am from France, as you can probably tell. And yes, these are tires I'm selling. We're a small business, but in France, with Michelin being so beeg ' she stressed the accent and inflated her cheeks for comic effect, then released the air slowly so her voice didn't escape in a rush on the next phrase ' we thought we might want to expand our market.' Her bust swelled even larger while she spoke, and there were wolf-whistles and a smattering of applause. 'That's right, sex sells, doesn't it?' A couple shouts of 'Yeah!' 'Right on!' and similar sentiments. 'But, there's families here today: no school, so there'll be no more of that.'
A disappointed groan as she deflated to still-impressive proportions. 'Now, now, think of the children.'
'Fake,' Chizuru said, her voice filled with venom.
'Are we talking accent, Chi-chan,' Chris said carefully, 'or gazongas here?'
'Both,' Chirzuru said, her voice now coming through clenched teeth.
'I took French too, Chi-chan; it sounds pretty authentic to me. As for the second charge, seems to me the whole thing is rather irrelev-aahhhh!' He rubbed his shoulder.
'I can't say I approve of that stunt,' Claire Huffnagel said, 'but she definitely knows how to work a crowd. She's relaxed and confident up there whuh?' This last as a rubber-clad hand snagged on her wrist and dragged her forward; too started to even resist. Pneumatique was reeling her through the crowd like a fish. Claire hadn't even seen her get down from the stage.
'Qui-est-ce?' the young woman said in her native tongue as she climbed easily back up, pulling in her prize. 'I thought I saw you standing there.' Gently, but with obvious strength, she lifted Bubblegum to the stage beside her, raising Claire's arm over her head as though she were a victorious boxer.
'Mademoiselle Claire Huffnagel, ladies and gentlemen, purveyor of fine candies, and may I add, a personal inspiration!' She turned her dazzling, high-watt smile on Bubblegum, 'Merci. Thank you.'
Bubblegum blushed almost as pink as her clothing. 'You're welcome.'She glanced over at Pneumatique's booth, piled high with its glossy-looking professional literature. 'I like your style up here -- mostly. Listen, do you think the two of us might get together and talk shop? I'm interested in some of your ideas and technique
' She looked at the ground momentarily. 'Some of it.'
Pneumatique's smile got even wider. 'I'd be delighted. I've much I'd like to learn from you. As for my presentation
' she gave a Gallic shrug. 'It is mostly men who buy things that go, hein?'
This got some knowing laughs from the crowd.
Bubblegum felt herself smiling. The woman's attitude was infectious. 'True enough, I suppose.' She stretched her neck slightly, rolling her shoulders as if loosening a cramp. 'I'm done here at three. How about you?'
'D'accord.' Then in her perfect, accent-brushed English, she said 'That's fine.' Raising her voice louder, she said to the crowd, 'Mademoiselle Huffnagel, ladies and gentlemen, Huffnagel's Candies. And what a great sport!' She set Claire down on the ground and the people stood back for her, and applauded.
Claire could hear Chris whining as they all went back to her booth. Abruptly, as they passed through the ragged fringes of the crowd, she heard Luise grunt slightly, and the Baroness swung around. Liesl did the same, two highly-trained soldiers in perfect synch.
''What?' Bubblegum said again. The Baroness said, 'We thought we saw something or someone."
Acid, dredged up by unpleasant memories crawled in the pit of Bubblegum's stomach. As an heiress, she was no stranger to kidnappings attempted or otherwise. But there was that one or had it been a dream? where her driver had kidnapped her, and the second time when
Open wide, please.
She shivered, despite the warmth of the hall, and the mass of bodies clustered around.
'Bubblegum?' Chizuru said, laying a concerned hand on her shoulder. 'Claire?'
'I'm okay,' she said quietly. Then the Baroness and her sister laid their hands on her other shoulder. 'Sorry we startled you,' Liesl said. 'It was a mistake. Sometimes the training makes you jumpy.'
She sighed and blew hair out of her eyes. 'It's fine, guys. Fine. We all got on edge there for some reason.'
That one, please. No, not that one, the other one, the black one. Move over. More
more. Yes, that's it. Thank you.'
A pause. Then: 'Do you think this looks good on me?'
Sound of a man clearing his throat: 'I'm not sure. In what way do you mean looks good?'
Exasperation: 'Does it, you know, cover everything? And, get me a pair of those, there. The grey ones.'
guess so. But, are you wanting realistic, or what? Because I gotta say, I don't have anything like that here.'
'No, this will be good enough. Just to get someone's attention, that's all it's for.'
'Ah.' A pause. 'Jump out and say boo? That kind of attention?'
'Maybe. Why are you so interested in other people's affairs?'
Embarrassed cough. 'Forget I said anything. $45.57 please, with the tax.'
A rustle of bills. 'Keep the change.'
'Thanks and have a nice day oh, wait!'
'You look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?'
'No. You don't. Good day.'
Three 'o clock, in the food court. Claire stood, twiddling her thumbs, unconsciously elongating and twisting them together as she did so.
'There you are!' Dark hair, broad smile, figure hidden under a fashionable jacket though unbuttoned enough to show her silver tire trademark, a duffel bag slung over her shoulder, Pneumatique was coming towards her. Claire smiled back. 'What do you want? Coffee, something more substantial? Thai, Italian? This'll be my treat.' The young Frenchwoman looked nervously around for a second.
'I need to use, ah, the facilities first
' she said.
Hardly a call for secrecy, Bubblegum thought. Not something you mention in polite company, maybe, but why the nerves? 'Sounds like a good idea,' she said, 'I could use the little girls's room myself. It's back here,' she said, and led Pneumatique towards the toilets.
As they went through the door marked Ladies, there was a soft, slapping sound, and Pneumatique said 'Merde.' Bubblegum looked, and saw a pile of literature had spilled from her duffel. Apparently one of the pockets hadn't been zipped. 'I'll get it for you,' she said, knelt and felt a tiny stabbing pain above her hip. 'Ouch!' She looked up just in time to see the woman palming the tiny needle. Needles, again. She then wanted to ask the standard question 'Why?'
but she wasn't sure which one to ask. There were two Pneumatiques in front of her now, rippling like heat haze. Then four. Then eight, twelve
and each of them becoming fuzzy and less defined than before, as her vision blurred. Idly, her mind wondered where her accent had gone
and why her hair looked straighter than it did when she'd met her for the first time today
Pneumatique prodded the unresisting Claire with her toe for a moment until she was satisfied she was really under it had gone just as smoothly as the last time. She wished Bubblegum were still awake to hear, but she said it anyway.
'I warned you the last time; there's a penalty for missed appointments. Didn't you listen?'
Then she reached up and tugged off her straight black hair a wig, which she then replaced on her head after letting her real hair and scalp breathe. The hair underneath, however, was red. She took a small plastic bottle, and squirted the contents into her eyes Blink, blink the cheap contacts shifted for a moment before they settled back. Enough to show anyone who might have been there that the eyes beneath were green. She unbuttoned the jacket all the way, revealing the trademark on her chest as one of the silkscreened tee-shirts that buxom French bimbo'd had on sale. As for the literature? Well, there had been a neatly-lettered Please Take One sign in French and English atop a sizeable pile. Like she'd told the stall man with his cheap makeup props, she hadn't expected, or needed the disguise to stand up to a detailed inspection. Just long enough.
While she worked, Flossy kept an ear out for sounds. Thankfully, it seemed all the other female shoppers had control of their bladders and bowels at the moment. But just in case, she levered the limp, unresisting Claire Huffnagel to her feet after shoving the young woman into her own coat, and over to the sinks, a comradely arm round her shoulders, and turned on the water, not very strongly. With her back towards the door, she turned her head so Claire's face was obscured by the fall of her hair, and made patting motions with her hand on Bubblegum's shoulders.
'C'mon, cry. Cry. Just get it all out. Trust me,' she said, pitching her voice loudly enough to carry over the water, and for the benefit of anyone coming in, 'you're better off without him. He's a bastard. A complete prick, if you'll excuse my saying so. You mean to tell me he slept with your best friend, and now he wants you back? Believe me, he ain't worth it. Oh, I know it
The words flowed for five minutes, like the water, and still no one came. Flossy then cursed an oversight in her plan: she was a hygenist after all, not a criminal, damn it! Take her in the bathroom, yes, but she really should have considered how she was going to get her out. Now, she'd have to walk the gantlet of the entire flea market and its shoppers. She couldn't trust her coat to conceal Bubblegum why hadn't she brought one with a hood for God's sake her face was too well-known, and if one of her friends managed to come across her
or even that French airhead she was posing as...
Steady, steady, she told herself. Think of this as a dental exam. Her father telling her in his rich patrician's voice: 'Florence, your hands, your mind, must always be steady. Calmness is the key. A slip can be hazardous for both you and the patient. You will make errors, but the calmer you are, and the steadier your hands are, the less serious they will be.' Her mother, harsher and more blunt: 'Florence..don't screw up.'
She thought of her parents back home, and wondered what they were up to. If Dad wasn't in the office, he'd be golfing if the weather was nice, or sitting in the back garden, reading. Professional literature, probably, or perhaps a biography. He had no patience for fiction, claiming it was 'The product of minds unsuited or unable to deal with reality.'
He could even be working on his own manuscript, a vast work she'd remembered seeing as a girl, covered with notes and revisions in that royal blue ink he preferred for his fountain pen. She loved that colour.
Dad said his book would be the definitive work on the history of dentistry and dental tools. How they'd saved and were saving the world from its own slavishness to sweets and sugar. He even had the proper title picked out, had it for years: An Inconvenient Tooth. He wasn't a fan of the pun it smacked of lowest common denominators, which he disliked, but he realized, to stimulate the average man, you had to speak their language. And the whole thing was a painstaking process, he told her, because he was aiming for the casual reader's mind and attention. 'Once we slap some sense into their flabby heads, Flossy,' he'd told his ten-year old daughter, 'they'll thank us, because they'll truly understand, why we do what we do
and more importantly, what they've been doing to themselves.'
it was hard to say what Mum might be doing now. Bridge club
heading to the factory to supervise some new design
or writing an angry letter to the paper about how schools were letting the side down because of their insistence on selling sweets to the students, in their cafeterias and vending machines. Not that their parents were innocent, oh no. Flossy could see the lines on the page, could hear her mother's stern voice: Dear sir, etc., etc
Sweets make the children hyperactive due to elevated blood sugar and endorphin levels, proven conclusively by science, etc. etc. etc
lack of discipline, raising a nation of monsters
and so forth. I remain, humbly and respectfully. It would go on for pages, to be thoughtlessly pared into a hundred-and-fifty word précis that utterly missed the point, and followed by italics with an equal amount of smarm and snark: Perhaps you should lay off the sugar for a bit, Mrs Huffnagel. Or switch to decaf. The Editors. Nyah, nyah, nyah
Never mind that now, girl. You left the dimensional equipment in the car
and that was a mistake. What you need to do now is get you and your patient out of the building.
'Christopher,' Don Huffnagel said.He looked up from the carton he was packing away.
'Mr Huffnagel,' Chris said, smiling. 'What's up?'
'Have you seen Claire?' her mother asked. Chris frowned. 'No, I haven't, but
' He turned to his girlfriend. 'Chi-chan? Have you seen Claire?'
Chizuru, who was actually standing several feet away, bopped her neck over to meet him. 'Haven't seen her. She said she was going to talk to Pneumatique later, remember?'
'Right,' Chris said, scratching his head.
'Pneumatique?' Don Huffnagel said, frowning. 'I know a few people in your and my daughter's circle
but that one's new to me. Or is she the princess? I like her. I've seen her bodyguards around
'Her Rubber Highness,' Luise said, snaking her torso up in front of Don like a giant snake, hands on her hips, 'is Princess Plastic. And, she's currently back home, with the Queen. What were they doing again, Lise?' she said, stretching her neck back towards Liesl.
'Commemorating the opening of a new something,' Liesl said. 'I can't remember either if it's a mill, a town meeting hall, or a university. It could be all three. She didn't think we were needed.'
'I apologize,' Don said, inwardly feeling a tiny bit nervous.
Combat-trained women of Amazonian stature tended to do that to him. 'I meant no offence.' The Baroness smiled at him as she retracted her neck, and put a hand on his shoulder.
'There wasn't any,' she said, 'I was just correcting you.'
'She tends to do that,' Liesl chimed in, and stuck her tongue out at big sister.
'Pneumatique is new,' Chris went on. 'That is, none of us saw her until today. She's got that big display at the one end ' then winced as Chizuru walked herself over and punched him on what was now a very tender shoulder. 'What's with you?'
'Sexist.' Chizuru hissed, 'chauvinist pig,' but she was smiling as she said it. She lowered her voice in imitation of Chris: '"She's got that big display at the one end." That's rather suggestive, don't you think?'
'Oh come on,' Chris said, grinning back
'That attractive and rather endowed young lady in black hawking the tires and auto equipment?' Felicity Huffnagel said. 'Speaks with a hint of accent?'
'That's her,' Liesl confirmed.
'I didn't actually meet her,' Felicity said, 'but I could swear I saw her and Claire around three, at the food court.'
'Hello, my friends!' a voice called cheerfully. Everyone turned as one at the sound to see Pneumatique making her way towards them. She didn't walk so much as bounce towards them, her legs effortlessly compressing and relaxing against the ground to propel her forward.
Pneumatique, grinning,bounded towards Don and Felicity Huffnagel and threw her arms around them in an affectionate rubbery hug, kissing them both on both cheeks in the French fashion. 'You must be Mademoiselle Huffnagel's father and mother! I'm so pleased to meet you both! And speaking of Claire
' she spread her hands, palms up, and shrugged her shoulders, clearly confused. 'Where is she? We were supposed to meet at three, and I went to the food court like she asked me to, but she never showed. And that was almost two hours ago. I waited an hour, had a coffee, and went back to clean up my stuff. C'est etrange,'
she said. 'She doesn't strike me as the sort who wouldn't keep a comittment. I figured something must have happened, we misunderstood each other
I hope nothing serious. So
' She cocked her head to one side. 'Madame Huffnagel?'
Felicity's face was white and drawn, lips pulled back from her teeth. She pointed a finger at Pneumatique; it was tight and shaking with emotion. 'I saw you with her earlier today in the food court! Just what do you think you're playing at? This can't be happening again! My baby
' She put her hands to her face.
Pneumatique, clearly confused, looked at Don Huffnagel. 'Monsieur?' His face turned to stone, and he put an arm around his wife's shoulders. They shook, and they heard a deep moaning coming from inside her hands: 'Claire
why does this always happen to you?' Then she sobbed.
Pneumatique looked completey and utterly bewildered. Her eyes flicked from face to remaining face, and her face settled into an expression a cat's might have when it's treed by a pack of dogs.
'It's strange,' Chris Bellwether said, in a voice eerily free of expression, 'how in fiction and real life it seems the rubber ladies with the French names always cause the problems. Madame Rouge just as a for instance. Nice acting by the way.'
'Elastique,' said the Baroness.
'Which version?' said her sister. It was framed as a genuine question, not a hint of playfulness. Luise's lip curled up at one corner in a cold smirk. 'Does it matter?'
'Plastique,' said Chizuru. 'Mme Caoutchouteuse. La Gomme Femme
'This is a mistake,' Pneumatique said, gulping air, accent thickening in fear. Her body quivered. 'I swear to God.' Her hand went to her throat, and they saw something there they hadn't seen before, gold and glinting against the black of her uniform and the silver of its logo. A crucifix. 'I didn't do anything.'
'I don't care if you're Catholic, Protestant, or Seventh Day Adventist,' Chris said. 'But it looks like that guilt is catching up with you. We could tell you stories about the people who've messed with us.' He held up his maimed hand with the missing fingers, and she put her hand over her mouth. 'Frankly, we're all tired of it. Tell us what you did with Bubblegum, we'll find her, take you to the police, and that will be that. Luise and Liesl are particularly fond of her; she's unofficially the third person, aside from the Princess and
her mother they consider their job to guard. Princess Plastic? Inseperable when she's not needed to perform her duties at home. And that's barely half the people she knows who'll go to bat for her. I'm just telling you
you're over your head. Stop this now.'
Pneumatique drew a deep breath, and her body swelled up with a hiss. Everyone tensed; Luise
and Liesl dropped fluidly into fighting stances. Chris hung back by Chizuru, and she whispered delightedly: 'Finally, you get it. It only gets your ass kicked.' The young Frenchwoman's lower lip quivered. 'Je
je..je suis I
,' she said brokenly, deflatedly, fingering the cross at her neck. Then her head drooped, and her body whispered down to its normal proportions. She stuck her arms in front of her, palms down in a gesture of submission, looking only at the ground. 'Go ahead. I surrender to you.' Her voice rustled
like dry leaves.
Chris turned to Chizuru, raising an eyebrow. 'That's it?'
Chizuru said, 'Maybe they're learning.'
Luise said, 'I'll get some restraints. Do they have any policemen here?' Chizuru shook her head. 'Private security, but I think they do have powers of arrest. Which means handcuffs.'
The Baroness nodded. 'I'll find one, then.'
This Flossy told herself, is not your day.
She'd got out to the parking lot with the patient, the security guard had been most helpful, if the ancient tobacco yellowness of his teeth had set her own teeth to grinding a bad habit, she chided herself.
She'd been right about the thing, though. She'd left it in the car, carefully hidden, and undisturbed. It was a wonderful device; it'd taken a lot of scrimping and saving and some deft negotiation to get her hands on it. The people who'd procured it for her had been slippery
as eels. She remembered their white hair, their inscrutable, playfully menacing smiles, and their strangely affected accents. It had been a relief to finally take the damn thing and leave. Even now, thinking about them made her sweat. It was the only time in her memory, that perfectly white, even, teeth had looked
wrong. There was something primal about the two of them elemental -- that was utterly beyond her. To them, the whole thing seemed funny. They made her jump through hoops to get it and then handed it over like they didn't care. Just a momentary distraction, a game.
She shivered. Then she plugged the jack into the car's cigarette lighter something that seemed anachronistic now even in this dimension -- and settled back to wait.
It's like working a cell phone, they'd said. Conveniently leaving out the fact that it sucked power like a black hole, and drained to nothing in minutes, unless you'd turned it off, or left it plugged in. Or recharged it, which was what she was doing now.
It has a universal adapter. Flash of white, white teeth, that looked strangely pointed the more you stared, tongues that stop it.
Beautiful thing. It fits anywhere. No matter where you go
it always works. Tongues that split at the tip, flicking pinkly outward to Stop. It.
Flicking pinkly outward to taste the Enough.
She supposed she had time for a preliminary exam. It would keep her mind on her work, if nothing else, and off
she reached for her tools before the thought completed itself. Gently, she pulled open Bubblegum's mouth, and started.
The Nouveau Reach, Hallowe'en XXXX
The party was in full swing, and everyone was enjoying themselves immensely. Families, children everyone was having a good time. The candy, not surprising, was excellent Huffnagel
Candies had supplied it, of course, and neither Claire nor her parents would ever have dreamed of pawning off inferior or faulty product on anything that made kids happy.
Most of her friends were in costume, and Claire was no exception. She was still working,
but instead of her usual pink stretchy bodysuit, she wore an old-fashioned soda jerk costume, white with pink stripes with the company logo on the front, and her hair hung in a neat ponytail beneath a matching cap, also with logo.
The costumes were good, she had to admit, but picking out her friends was still fairly easy, even if masked. Luise and Liesl both had several inches on most in the room, and of course Liesl had several inches on Luise. Chizuru had washed the dye from her hair, cropped it with an airy 'It'll grow back,' put on a sleeveless leather jacket, blue jeans, blocky boots and sunglasses, and displayed her tattoos proudly, as a biker mama. Chris had been persuaded, almost certainly against his will, to wear the geisha costume
and he looked ludicrous in it with his linebacker's build.
There was the required gentle teasing, of course, but nobody minded much.
Claire wished Martin and Ess were here tonight they usually made the point of making a real effort. She took a sip of the non-alcoholic strawberry daquiri she was drinking, and put her hands on the bar. Elongating her neck slightly, and cupping her hand at the length of an extended arm round her mouth to serve as an impromptu megaphone, she asked Elena Elongalos, 'How're you holding out for bonbons?'
Elena was wearing a dress tonight and Claire had to admit, it looked really good on her and slinky enough to have not been rented from a costume shop. She had a pair of opera glasses behind the bar as a prop, and occasionally raised them to her eyes and looked round the room for effect. Bubblegum didn't blame String Bean for slipping an arm round her partner's waist whenever she could find a moment; Elena wore such practical functional clothes most of the time, you forgot how sexy her Mediterranean features, those ones apart from her face, were.
'We're good for another couple of hours at least,' the Greek woman said. 'It's eight now, which means most of the younger kiddies will be heading home in about an half-hour, hour and a half at most, but the older ones will stay later. To say nothing of the older drop-in crowd then. Gonna be a long night. Give it an hour, maybe?'
Bubblegum took another sip of daquiri. 'Sounds good.' Then she grinned. 'But hey, we're all flexible here, right?'
'Damn straight,' Elongalos said, and grinned back.
Squeals of youthful excitement, sounds of a large wooden object being dragged across the floor, and sloshing water turned their heads for a moment. A large wooden tub was being dragged and pushed into a clear space on the Reach floor. Apples bobbed in the water. A few more eager children rushed forward, and had to be restrained by a mass of limbs both rubbery and parental.
'Wait, wait, wait,' Liesl said, holding up her hands for silence. The kids quieted. She'd chosen to make the most of her country-girl complexion by dressing up as a stereotypical farmer, complete with overalls and checked shirt, a straw hat that was almost a sombrero, and a stalk of grass
sticking out of the corner of her mouth. She'd used makeup to emphasize her freckles, and add some humorously fake ones. 'I know you're excited, kids, but do we want anyone getting hurt?'
'No,' said a number of small voices, in that sad tone that tells you they're looking down at their shoes.
'Do we want to have fun here tonight?'
'Yeah!' said the little voices, this time clearly excited.
'Okay,' Liesl said grinning, 'then I want you all to gather round the tub quietly. Make sure you give each other plenty of room. And then, the Princess here ' she pointed to Princess Plastic beside her, whose concession to costume tonight was wearing a pink traditional fairy-tale style uniform, complete with a beribboned conical hat in place of her realone, 'will tell you when to go. Can you do that for me?'
The kids nodded and lined up smartly in complete silence. Liesl met her sister's eye, and playfully stuck out her tongue at her, Luise liked kids, but tended to fall back on her drill-sergeant habits when handling large groups of people. Such behaviour could scar a number of young psyches
tonight, and who wanted that?
Princess Plastic smiled at them. 'Ready,' she said in that friendly, yet commanding tone she had, and dozens of little bodies tensed
Then jumped at the sound of a sharp crackle behind them. There were a few whimpers that were quickly soothed by Liesl and the Princess. 'Easy, it's just electrical. That's all.'
At the bar, Claire raised an eyebrow and looked at Elena. 'Are we expecting anyone through the gateway tonight?'
'No one that was announced,' the former superheroine said, the muscles in her jaw twitching. That could be a bad sign, Bubblegum thought. No names were spoken, but there were two in particular she was
The crackling turned to a sound like Rice Krispies in milk, or radio static the sign that someone was coming through the gate, and then faded to nothing as the circuit was made, the connection completed. Bubblegum heard several instances of indrawn breath behind her, and saw Elena Elongalos's mouth drop open, and her arm slowly swing up to point over Claire's shoulder.
Claire half-turned on her stool
And saw herself. Literally.
Same hair, worn loose over
shoulders. Same bright green eyes. Even the dimple that sometimes appeared at the corner of her mouth when she smiled. And she was wearing her usual pink bodysuit. Someone, probably Chris Bellwether Claire could picture him hiding his made-up face behind his geisha fan said, 'Forget the best costume contest. I don't know anyone who can compete with that.'
'You certainly can't,' Chizuru teased.
Claire saw herself walk toward herself and extend her hand. Which she took.
The rest of the evening was a blur due, in no small
part, to the mickey the ersatz Bubblegum had slipped into her drink. Woozy, and
half-aware, she was escorted to the bathroom by her doppleganger who waved away
offers of help, and smiled cheerfully. 'Too much to drink,' she said, and
everyone was so shocked and charmed by the impersonation they'd overlooked the
fact Claire had been drinking non-alcoholic fare all night.
More blackness, more lost time. And when she woke from
the amyl nitrate capsule being broken under her nose
Bubblegum had found herself bound upright with bungee cords to a hand dolly. She probably could have escaped them if she'd had her wits about her. But the drug was still in her system, and her head felt stuffed with cotton. Her double, now wearing what looked like a white doctor's coat over the bodysuit, was turning from what was clearly a sink, walking towards her with a
plastic cup, a straw poking out of it.
'Drink,' she said. 'The stuff's an effective sedative but dehydrates you worse than the Sahara. Can't have a patient ' 'even you,' she said with a sharp hiss, ' -- in poor shape before the exam. Not only is it not ethical, but it's dangerous. Not that I'd shed a tear for you if something went wrong, but I intend to be
In her peripheral vision, Claire Huffnagel saw she was in what looked like a dentist's office. No, not just looked, she corrected herself was. The classic chair stood in the centre of the room, with its attendant light. The stainless steel sink, the flourescent lights it all looked very
cold and clinical.
Then she saw, as she bent her head to take the straw in her mouth, something stranger. A piece of cloth was tied around her neck. Not the bluish paper-towel affair the hygenist put round your neck on that thin clip-chain that's always so cold on the back of your neck, but a napkin, that even to Bubblegum's untrained eye, looked like very crisp, fine, white linen.
'What's this about?' she asked, meaning the napkin. Judging from her 'twin sister' and her body language, she got the feeling everything else would be explained soon enough, and in some detail. The dentist, hygenist, whatever she was, checked her watch, and blew a loose strand of red hair out of her eye with a sigh of exasperation.
'Right now,' she said, 'dinner time. My folks insist on meeting you. Something about "never having seen a criminal up close" or some rot. I told them. "Mum, Dad, would we invite a mass murderer to tea?" But they're very insistent.' She moved behind Bubblegum, tilted the dolly back, and wheeled her out of the room.
Bubblegum was relieved that the crazy young woman who looked exactly like her, didn't have parents identical to her own. They shared the last name Huffnagel apparently and that was it. Where she was involved parallel dimensions, which was a relief. At last something she could cope with!
The father was tall, white haired and bearded, patrician-looking, with fashionable glasses. She wasn't surprised he was a dentist. The mother was attractive, but somehow stern looking, wearing for dinner an elegant simple black number with a single string of pearls round the
neck. She'd built an empire on dental instruments, apparently.
And their daughter, Florence Flossy to them, and to her close friends, no doubt -- dental hygenist nonpareil sat next to her, buttering a fresh roll and bringing it to Bubblegum's mouth as though she were feeding an invalid. She took the most delicate bite she could, and nodded. Flossy took it away, not bothering to conceal her ill grace, and wiped Bubblegum's mouth after she'd carefully chewed and swallowed. Bubblegum appeared about to speak, but she hesitated.
'What is it?' Flossy's mother said. Her voice was at odds with her appearance, softer than one might think.
'I'd really like some more of that salad,' Bubblegum said, feeling her face flush, '
if it's not too much trouble,' she finished quietly.
'Of course you can. Flossy,' her mother said, and pointed to the bowl in the centre of the table.
Flossy snarled wordlessly, pretty face twisted in a grimace, and knocked Claire's water glass over with her whipping hand. It shattered musically, and they heard the sound of water dripping to the floor. Her mother's mouth turned down in disapproval.
'That,' she said to her daughter, 'was uncalled for
'How can you coddle her like this?' Flossy cried. 'You know what sort of business she's in, and yet you insist on treating her like
'Florence. Claire. Huffnagel.' Her mother spaced her name as though it were a threat. 'We know perfectly well what she does. And yet you are the one who insists on lowering yourself with this
' a pause while she blotted her lips with her own napkin, 'ungracious behaviour. You're no longer a child, but if you cannot be counted on to act like an adult, perhaps you should go back to your office and wait for her there.'
'Fine,' Flossy snapped, getting up from the table, 'I'll do that. The last thing I would have expected is for my own mother to play Judas.'
Her mother's face changed. It lost all expression, and became masklike, pale, except for two bright spots of colour on her cheeks. 'What did you say?'
Flossy was already on her way to the door. 'You heard me.' She stomped through and disappeared.
Her mother sighed. 'Children. Then she looked at Bubblegum with what almost could be considered sympathy.
'I'm terribly sorry about that.'
Claire smiled as best she could. 'It's quite all right. I just wish I knew what this was about.'
Flossy's mother's face went sad. 'It's almost tragic, really. You look so much like her,' she said. 'So well-mannered -- you could be her sister. And to think you do those things to children '
Bubblegum's startled inhalation sucked spit into her windpipe, and she gagged. Flossy's mother came round the table, offering her own water glass. 'Sip slowly.' She did, and the constriction in her throat eased. The woman's hand not holding a glass reached out as though to stroke her
cheek, but stopped short of touching.
'I've never harmed a kid in my life,' Bubblegum said. 'Ever.' Flossy's mother tut-tutted and
shook her head. 'You never think you do.' Her husband nodded in sage agreement.
'What have I done,' Bubblegum said, 'that's so terrible?' Husband and wife exchanged a look that said How can this seemingly gentle soul be so lost?
You peddle poison,' the father said. He had a rich, deep voice with an accent that seemed almost English. 'It's so cunning. You work your way into the dental offices '
'Young dentists,' Flossy's mother said. 'Just out of school. Naïve and trusting. They see that smile and think nothing evil could lie behind it. A tiny ball of sugar on a stick, given to a child as incentive or reward for good behaviour. The very thing! They'll take three boxes to start with, please at a discount, of course.'
Claire Huffnagel's brow wrinkled. 'Suckers. I'm the Anti-Christ of dentists, because I offer suckers they can give to kids?'
'The gateway drug,' the father rumbled. 'It always is. They go to school, discovering vending machines in the cafeterias the demon chocolate. Seducing the tastebuds, fermenting into acid and attacking the enamel, worming their way through, exposing the tender nerves.' Set on the table in front of him, his hands trembled. 'Have you ever seen a five-year old have a
tooth extracted because it's rotted away? Turned black. Have you?'
'No,' Bubblegum said truthfully. She didn't need the force of the man's beliefs to tell her it was probably unpleasant.
'Then why do you do it?' he said softly. 'I can see you're not a monster. Why?'
'My parents,' Bubblegum said. 'It's their business. They asked me to help.'
'Ah,' the man said, in a voice full of sorrow. He took off his glasses, began polishing them with a silk handkerchief. 'They got you early. I see.'
'Walk away,' his wife said forcefully. 'Leave. Don'ttake their blood money; they've doubtless planned to give the whole thing to you, yes?'
'Yeah,' Bubblegum acknowledged, curiously feeling guilty now for no logical reason, and needing to defend them. 'But they're my parents, they
With a chill feeling, she saw both of their faces had closed, and turned to stone. The mother raised her voice and called 'Flossy?'
Bubblegum heard footsteps behind her, and stretching her neck just enough above the bindings to turn her head she'd regained that much control at least -- saw her white-coated twin standing behind her with the mother of all smirks on her lips.
'She didn't break, did she, Mum?'
Her mother gave a slight nod.
'I told you this good-cop bad-cop routine was a waste of time,' Flossy said. 'Not to mention a waste of good food and a perfectly decent glass. I'll be downstairs, probably until the wee hours. Good night.'
Mother and father smiled genuinely at their daughter. 'Good night, dearest.' Then the mother looked directly at Bubblegum and said, 'May God have mercy on your black, rotten soul I have none.'
Bubblegum felt herself tilting again as Flossy took hold of the dolly's handles and dragged her backwards.