Authors: Ron Goulart
“From Barnum, yes.”
“This planet isn’t quite as civilized as yours. A man like Joshua Rhymer can pretty well do what he wants,” Jana said. “I’ll be honest with you, Tad, my main reason for running this time was to get away from my husband. I want to see my father away from Blackwatch, but I really didn’t have any kind of plan.” She clenched her fists, paced along the cabin wall. “There’s one other thing I’d better tell you, so you’ll have a better idea of the kind of person I am.”
Tad sat watching her. “What?”
“I didn’t go to that ramshackle Belles Lettres alone,” she said. “I was with someone, a man.”
Tad frowned. “We didn’t see—”
“He left. Awhile before the trouble started,” Jana said. “He did help me get clear of Rodlow, I’ll give him that. Then he must have realized I wasn’t worth the risk. Usually they do. So if you’re considering helping me out, be prepared to come to similar conclusion eventually.”
“I’m going to help you,” he said. “There’s no limit on it. We’ll get your father away from Blackwatch. So you don’t have to—”
“Up and around at long last? Good.” Electro came thumping into the cabin. He had shed his lizard man disguise, was his gleaming chrome self again. “Perhaps, now your vigil is over, Mrs. Taine, you ought to get some rest.”
“A splendid idea. See you, Tad.” Very quickly she left them.
Tad said, “I’m wondering if Cousin Cosmo didn’t build too much rudeness in you.”
“You resent people calling you a mooncalf, yet you persist in behaving like one.” Electro tapped a metal finger on a metal palm. “Don’t go getting sentimental about that young woman. I made a few discreet inquiries after I took care of her husband’s goons. Her reputation around the Belles Lettres was—”
“We’re going to help her.”
Electro gave a majestic shrug. “I’m just another Rhymer servo, thus I must do as bidden,” he said, “However, I feel compelled to point out that—”
“Don’t,” Tad advised. “Instead tell me whose boat we’re aboard.”
“I located Commodore Snow shortly after our tussle,” explained the robot. “Seems the old cat gentleman was having a little assignation and a full course dinner in a room near that of your Mrs. Taine. You don’t associate vegetarians, which the commodore is, with intimate late suppers and bouts of gluttony, but that’s what he was up to. I was able to arrange, since he’s an old friend of Cosmo’s, a satisfactory deal for passage. Though he wouldn’t throw in Mrs. Taine’s fare for nothing and therefore we’re out an extra—”
“What are they rehearsing on deck?”
“This evening’s performance. We’re due to dock at Siltville at sundown. First show an hour later.”
“I’ll go up and watch.”
“You ought to have some breakfast,” said Electro. “Commodore Snow maintains a good galley, for a vegetarian. They tell me the carrot flapjacks are—”
“Not especially hungry.” Tad, his step still a trifle unsteady, made his way to the door.
“My boy,” said Electro toward his back.
“Our recent adventure at the Belles Lettres did not aid our cause,” said the robot. “I was forced to tip my hand, to reveal my true nature, to utilize powers few lizard men possess. Mrs. Taine’s husband is probably as determined a tracker as your Cousin Joshua. We have to be extremely cautious from now on.”
“You don’t have to worry about me.” Tad left the cabin.
There was still a faint mist hanging over the broad river. The huge paddle wheel of the showboat chopped at the water, the bright forest drifted swiftly by.
A cyborg came along the deck, thrust out his hand “Hope my music didn’t wake you.”
“No,” said Tad. “The effects of the stungun wore off and—”
When he shook hands a wheezing whistling sound came out of the cyborg’s metal elbow.
“Excuse that, excuse it. Forgot to turn myself completely off. My first three wives were all the time complaining about that. Fourth one was tone deaf so she never . . . I’m Washboard Will, the One Man Band. You probably have some of my records in your collection.”
“I don’t believe so, no.”
Washboard Will was a lanky man, a combination of flesh and metal. His head was topped with a silver skull cap from which several whistle-like tubes extended. There was a row of dials and buttons built into his partially exposed flesh chest. “Sold over ten million albums in the Barnum System alone. And down in the Solar System. . . . Ever hear of that one? Down there, on a planet they call Jupiter, they have a Washboard Will Fan Club, with seventeen chapters. Idolize me on Jupiter.”
“Did that come out of your ear?”
“Excuse me, excuse it.” Will reached up his metal hand to turn off his ear. “Built most of this equipment myself. Little things will go on the fritz. Drove my first three spouses to distraction. One would hug me, out would come a military march. A kiss on the cheek might produce a rousing polka. Once in bed with, the second one as I recall, a mere playful twist of my . . . but you’re probably not interested in my domestic troubles. Had breakfast?”
“Not really very hungry, thanks.” Tad glanced around the deck. Up forward was a stage and rows of seats. A striped canopy of blue and gold sheltered the stage and audience area. At the moment the seats were empty, an orange-toned man with four arms was juggling a variety of small furniture. “Was that you I heard playing earlier?”
“None other,” replied Will. “There’s only one Washboard Will, and his sound is unmistakable. See, unlike some of your one-man-band acts, I have a bigband sound. Sure, because I made all the modifications of myself. I remember vividly the morning I was hacking off my left arm so I could replace it with—”
“You mean this isn’t because of an accident?”
“Accident? Since when did great art result from an accident?” Will shook his head, the whistles built into his skull swayed. “My first wife was the same way as you. When she chanced to notice me whacking off the arm she let out an awful howl. And later, when I bestowed a friendly pat on the toke, she screamed like a stuck quilp. How many women, in their entire lives, get their fannies fondled by a hand that can make as beautiful music as this one?” He held it up, let the sun catch it. “Well, I’m off to the galley. Sure you won’t join me?”
“Not right now, thanks.” Tad continued along the deck, one hand resting on the railing. They were traveling through an uninhabited area, there was only thick forest on both sides of them.
“Don’t take another step, sonny boy!”
Tad halted. A plump old woman, a huge guitar strapped to her back, was down on her knees directly in his path.
She was muttering, slapping at the planks with her mottled hands. “I’ll have it in a minute.”
“Are you about to have some kind of attack?”
“Not on your life, sonny boy,” she replied. “I’m searching for my left eye.”
“That dumbell Washboard Willie gave me a heavy slap on the back by way of greeting.” she said. “His nitwit arm played several bars of a waltz and my glaz eye went flying.”
“Can I help you hunt?”
“Nope, thanks. I’m an old-fashioned soul. Certain parts of a woman’s body are personal, I believe. That includes the. . . . Ho! there’s the little dickens!” She scooped up something from the deck, inserted it in her face.
Tad extended a hand to help her rise. “I’m Tad . . . Jaxon, a guest of—”
“Know all about you.” A smile spread across her broad face. “You no doubt recognize me as Mother Zarzarkas.”
“Matter of fact, I don’t. See, I’m off planet so—”
“My ditties are famed all over this nitwit universe, sonny boy.” the old woman told him. “Mother Zarzarkas, the Senile Bard of Esmeralda, the Sweet Folk Singer, the Guitar-Picking Granny.”
“I’m not very musical, I guess.” He shook his head.
“You don’t have to be musical to appreciate me,” she told him. “I make social comments. When I recorded ‘Forced Retirement At Eighty Is Stupid Blues’ my old guitar wasn’t even in tune, but that tune sold ten million.” She paused to poke his chest with a finger. “Do you mean to tell me you’ve never heard my biggest hit, the one about substandard housing? You’ve never heard ‘Building Code Violations Rag’?”
“Don’t think so, but as I said—”
“Civilization’s worse blights are going to run right over you, sonny boy,” she prophesied. “Unless you heed the warnings. Come on down to my cabin later and I’ll sell you a batch of my hits.”
“Yes, thanks, I will.” He edged around her, entered the stage area of the swift-moving riverboat.
The juggler was gone, a small man in a dark one-piece suit held the stage. He had prickly dark hair, deep-set eyes, a hawkish nose. He was frowning at the backstage section at the moment, his gloved hands stroking each other anxiously. “You look fine, Altadena. Come on out.”
“Keep your yurp in gear, Bobby,” called an unseen girl from behind the backdrop.
Tad took a seat several rows from the footlights.
“She’s always like this,” the man on the stage said to him. “I know how to pick them. Tall, lovely in a cool and distant way and eternally late.”
“I’m Tad Jaxon. We came aboard last night after—”
“Yes, I heard all about you and your adventures at the Belles Lettres. A perfect illustration of the godawful messes a woman can get you into.”
“It wasn’t exactly her—”
“Mv name is Bob Phantom. I’m the magician with this show, and you’ve probably never heard of me.”
“No, I haven’t.”
The magician came forward, sat on the stage edge. “I’ll tell you why. It’s because of my fondness for a particular type of women. Tall, lovely in a cool distant way and unfaithful.”
“I thought you said eternally late.”
“Late usually because they’re off being unfaithful. Altadena, we have to rehearse.”
“Don’t get your nork in an uproar, Bobby!”
“There’s another factor,” said Bob Phantom. “Consumers aren’t awed by a magician who’s called Bobby by his intimates. There’s no mystery, no awe. Bobby.”
“Don’t a lot of people in show business change their names?”
“I’ll never do that, it’d be a violation of my whole identity. Bob Phantom I was born, Bob Phantom I remain.” He rested his gloved hands on his knees. “The thing which really annoys me is . . . I’m a real magician. You know, I have real powers.”
“Altadena, are you ready?”
“Hold your grouts, Bobby!”
Bob Phantom lifted one hand, nodding at Tad. “I’ll demonstrate one of my powers.” His eyes shut for a few seconds, his fingertip traced a lazy circle in the air.
All at once a tall and lovely girl was on the stage, her left shoe dangling in her hand and a hair ribbon hanging around her neck. “Showing off again?” she asked as she hopped to tug on her shoe. “I truly get tired of being teleported, Bobby. It really turns around my insides, as you well know.”
“Tall and lovely,” said Bob Phantom, “but uncaring.”
“Think that was a trick?”
Tad jerked up straight. “Oh, I didn’t hear you coming.”
Jana Taine sat down next to him. “I can be quite sneaky at times. How are you feeling?”
“I came looking for you,” the blonde girl said. “Thought you might want to have breakfast with me down in the galley.”
Tad grinned at her. “Yes, I would,” he answered.
Trees circled the stone docking area at Siltville. A hundred or more low, thick-trunk trees, with globes of colored light strung in their twisting intertwined branches. As the showboat drifted in toward the twilight shore metal fingers tapped Tad’s shoulder.
He turned away from the rail, expecting to encounter Electro. “Oh, hello, Washboard.”
The one man band said, “Come backstage with me for a
minute, can you?”
“Sure, what’s the problem?”
commodore.” Washboard gave himself a smack across the back of the neck. “My flute attachment is fritzed up.” He administered two more smacks. “There that should
take . . . well, it’s a little better.” He led Tad along the deck and around behind the stage.
Commodore Snow, a large chubby catman in a two-piece blue captain suit, was roaming fretfully across a strip of deck. In his right paw he clutched a raw turnip, which he was gnawing at. “I shouldn’t let you hoodoo me, Will,” he said. “The material is surefire.”
“Not funny,” said Washboard Will.
“It got big laughs in Fetid Landing, Seepage and Raw Sewage,” the commodore said. “Those are all, as I shouldn’t have to remind you, very savvy audience towns. If they laugh at you in Fetid Landing, Seepage and Raw Sewage, they’ll fall off their seats in Siltville. That’s an old theatrical adage, by the way.”
Washboard shook his head, his whistles clacking together. “Didn’t I win the Siltville Drama Critics Circle Award two years in a—”
“What can they know about drama? Giving a gaudy loving cup to a man wth a clarinet built into his—”
“They know what’s funny. They know that much. They aren’t going to laugh, or even snicker, over this opening monologue of yours, commodore.”
Snow beckoned Tad to come closer. “You’re a bright lad, I can see that, although this is the first time I’ve seen you conscious,” he said. “You have a sense of humor, don’t you?”
“Nearly everybody does.”
“Exactly.” With both paws he moved a folding chair over to Tad. “Sit down, relax, behave perfectly naturally. I’ll run through my monologue, you give us your unbiased opinion.”
Sitting, Tad glanced from the ship’s captain to the one man band. “You want me to pretend I’m the audience?”
“The Siltville audience,” amended Washboard. “The very discriminating Siltville audience, which will include at tonight’s performance at least seven of the nine members of the Siltville Dram—”
“Enough for the warmup,” said Snow. “Let me get to the monologue.”
Washboard made a slight bow. “Proceed,” he said. “Tad, you laugh whenever it’s funny.”
“It’s difficult, you know, to respond naturally when people are scrutinizing you.”
“Make the best try you can.” Commodore Snow cleared his throat, rubbed his paws together. “Do you think I need a nose, Will?”