Authors: Ron Goulart
“Skip the nose,” advised the one man band. “The nose isn’t going to help in Siltville.”
“I wear, let me explain, young man, a very whimsical red bulb nose when I deliver the opening monologue.”
“Does that notion strike you as funny?” Washboard inquired of Tad.
“I’d have to see it before I pass judgment.”
“It won’t take a minute for me to fetch it from my cabin.”
“We’re tying up at the Siltville dock,” Washboard pointed out. “Do the monologue, so we can get to work revising it.”
The commodore’s cheek whiskers stood up; he made a growling sound. Finally he said, “This is a monologue about stookers, young man.”
“Stookers . . . wangstix, diddlers.”
“I don’t think any of those words—”
“See commodore, he doesn’t get it already and you’ve barely commenced.”
“I mean pritzes, jabbers, diddywingers,” continued Snow, his paws drawing vague pictures in the air. “What the blue blazes do they call a penis where you come from?”
“Oh, I see what you’re getting at,” said Tad. “Well, on Barnum the most used slang word would be—”
“Barnum?” Snow glared at Washboard Will. “This mooncalf is off planet. What kind of ringer are you trying to foist on me? How’s he going to be able to test my stuff?”
“Real humor is universal,” said Washboard. “Knows no boundries, no frontiers. If something is truly funny it’ll get a laugh in the farthest reaches of the galaxy. Now go ahead, and give him a sample of the dreadful stuff you’re going to try to get laughs with tonight.”
Commodore Snow smoothed down the fur on the top of his head. “Critics, you start listening to critics and this is what happens.” He shuffled his booted feet, coughed into his paw. “Well, folks, it seems there was a quilptrapper who gets drunk on a visit to the big city. He’s wandering the streets late at night when he realizes he has to take a weep. He sits down on the curb, unseams his baffler and wimps out his dangler.” He paused, scrutinized Tad’s face. “Are you following it so far?”
“I think I get it. Am I right in assuming, though, that the joke isn’t over yet?”
“No, it’s not over, no.” Snow rubbed at his furry head again. “I’m deftly building up to the smash punch line. At any rate, two groutrunners happen along and decide to get prankish. This quiltrapper has fallen asleep on the curb, with his wanger still out. They tie a length of blue ribbon around his bonger, as a joke. Now the next morning he awakens, the quil-trappers does, and he notices . . . maybe you’re right, Will. I should have had a giggle or two by this point. The little ribbon-tying business with my paws usually gets an appreciative chuckle.”
“I’m telling you, commodore, we have to shift to new material.”
“Let me try one more of my sure-fire wagstaff gags on this young man.” Snow gazed up at the darkening sky. “It seems this lizard man has a date with. . . . You do know, don’t you, lizard men are reputed to possess exceptional quiffers?”
“I hadn’t heard that, no. Is your joke based on that premise?”
“Yes. Yes, it is. This liz buys a new lecart and decides to take his sweetie for a . . . lecarts are small, That’s an important point to keep in mind. Small vehicle, large lizard man noted for his extraodinary boofer. You might say that the premise of this little—”
“Two premises might be too many,” suggested Tad.
“He and his sweetie go for a jaunt in the country, And the sweetie is getting pretty excited. When the liz finally stops the lecart she jumps right out and spreads a thermket on the swark and . . . you’re frowning. Is there something else you don’t understand?”
Tad said, “I was only wondering if this is going to be the old joke where the girl says, ‘Hurry up before I get over this mood,’ and he says—”
“It’s not an old joke! It’s a fresh new joke, written by me.” The commodore put his furry fists on his hips. “Have you maybe seen my act previously?”
“Probably a different joke. The one I’m talking about we used to tell in Middle School back on Barnum. Except we didn’t use lizards, we—”
“This is a lizard joke!”
“Ours used Venusians and the punchline was, ‘I can’t get out of this car until I get over my mood.’ “
“Will, go down to my cabin and get the wig and dress,” the commodore suddenly ordered.
“I wouldn’t advise it,” said the one man band.
“When nothing else works it’s time to dress up in lady clothes,” said Snow, with a determined nod of his head. “I’ll open with my drag monologue. Never mind fetching it, I’ll go myself. I’ll use the red nose, too.” With an anxious snort, he went trotting away.
“He’s really got a fairly sound sense of humor,” said Washboard Will. “The pressures of this business, though. . . .” He shrugged, and music came out of his knees as he followed the commodore away.
“My boy.” Electro stepped up beside Tad.
Standing, he asked, “What is it? And why that outfit?”
The robot had donned a purple cloak and a floppy wide brim hat. “Another disguise, obviously,” replied Electro, whispering. “Assumed so we can unobtrusively slip away during the first show tonight.”
“It isn’t safe, especially after all the frumus we kicked up in Fetid Landing, to stay aboard this craft much beyond nightfall.”
“There’s no indication anyone is wise to us.”
“I wouldn’t be certain of that, my boy,” said the robot, his voice even quieter. He tapped his purple-clad chest with a forefinger. “I’ve been able to determine someone on this barge has been using a radio communicator, my sensors show that beyond a doubt.”
“Radio? For what?”
“I can’t monitor it; Cosmo never got around to building in that particular ability,” said Electro. “My guess would be someone has alerted Joshua to our whereabouts.”
“Sounds unlikely to me, but if you want to go, okay,” said Tad. “I’ll tell Jana, so she can get ready.”
Electro restrained him with a hand on his arm. “She may be the one who’s informing on us,” he said.
“I’m tired of people calling me a mooncalf, whatever that is,” said Tad. “I’m tired of people trying out their routines and their theories on me. You don’t like Jana, okay. I do. You haven’t any proof she—”
“But I have, my boy.” Electro bonked the side of his glistening skull. “My detectors took me right to the spot where the radio sending set is stashed.”
“You mean it’s in Jana’s cabin?”
“Not in her cabin, in Mother Zarzarkas’ cabin. Jana, however, was in there.”
“Paying a social visit to the old lady, probably.”
“The old dear wasn’t even there,” said Electro. “She was down in the engine room entertaining the crew with a ballad entitled, I believe, ‘Renegotiate Your Contract Every Two Years.’ Catchy tune, although an oversimplified view of labor-management relati—”
“You still don’t know Jana is trying to turn us into Cousin Joshua,” said Tad, angry. “You trailed her around, found her in somebody else’s cabin. You’re building a whole halfass theory on— “
“What was she doing in there, then?”
“Here’s a better question. Why does that doddering old folk singer have a radio set?”
“Mother Z may be an accomplice.”
“What would Jana gain by turning us in, by betraying us? Cousin Joshua’s people will drag her straight back to her husband.”
“If she has a husband,” said Electro. “We have only her word for it. Everything the young lady claims may well be false, simply a cover story.”
“Sure, she’s really a spy planted by my cousin.” Tad shook his head, throwing the robot a disgusted look. “He’s so clever he got her to the Belles Lettres inn two whole days before we even thought about taking off from Foghill.”
Electro said, “I am only suggesting she could by something other than what she pretends. The fight in the saloon, the goons attempting to carry her off could have been stage dressing, my boy. Bish, though a one-time man of the cloth, may have handed us a line of baloney. He recovered, you’ll recall, impressively fast from the stunbeam used on him.”
“Because the robot was old and out of shape.”
“Cousin Cosmo built a real paranoid streak into you.” Tad started walking away from the backstage area.
“I was designed to look after things, to be a guardian if need be.”
Tad strode rapidly along the deck. “I’m not all that certain I need a guardian.”
“You need something,” said Electro, close on his heels. “If you were on your own in this caper you’d be back at Foghill eating bread crusts by now. Your attempts to handle situations have resulted in blows to the skull and then a blast from a stungun.”
Tad didn’t reply. He pushed his way through the crewmen who were letting down a gangplank. Already several dozen customers were lining up on the stone dock.
The door to Jana’s cabin was slightly open. When Tad knocked it swung inward. “Jana?”
“Caution, my boy. Use caution.”
Tad went into the small room. The girl wasn’t there. “Do you have any idea where she is?”
“Let us try Mother Z’s cabin.”
“Okay, we’ll look there.”
“Four doors down this very corridor.”
Tad got no answer when he knocked on the old folk singer’s door. He took hold of the knob, then shoved on the door. It opened.
“Goodness, these old ears are failing me. I didn’t hear your knock.” The old woman was standing wide-legged in the center of the cabin, holding her guitar by its neck.
Sprawled on the floor was Jana.
“What the hell did you do to her?”
“Who? Oh, you mean Mrs. Taine.” Mother Zarzarkas made a fluttering motion with her free hand. “I was about to holler for the commodore. The young lady suddenly fainted. Very odd.”
Tad knelt beside the unconscious blonde. “There’s blood on her scalp. You must have—”
“Whoa!” Electro’s right arm swung out, caught the guitar before the old woman could bop Tad over the head with it. “You should have more respect for your instrument.”
“Take a hairy leap for yourself,” said Mother Zarzarkas, tugging to get possession of the guitar. She let go of it suddenly, jerked a blaster pistol out of her dress bosom.
Tad jumped, tackling her while slapping at the weapon with the side of his hand.
The guitar, flung aside by Electro, cracked into three pieces, strings twanging when it hit the cabin wall.
The robot pointed his left little finger at the gray-haired folk composer. A misty line of blue light jumped from the fingertip to Mother Zarzarkas’ head.
“Yowie!” she exclaimed in a deep voice before dropping to the floor in a deep sleep.
Tad returned to the girl. “Jana, try to—”
“I’m okay . . . or nearly so.” Her eyes opened. “I shouldn’t have let him smack me from behind.”
Tad said, “Yeah, Mother Zarzarkas is a guy, isn’t he?”
“One of Rhymer Industries’ crack espionage agents,” said Jana, sitting up with Tad’s help.
“You mean he works for RI? And he tried to conk me with that damn guitar.”
“He’s on Joshua’s side, not yours,” reminded Electro as he crossed to a closet and opened it. “Yes, herein lies the radio set.” He demolished it with one kick of his metal foot.
“He’s notified them about you two,” said Jana. “I heard him, while hiding in the washroom over there. Unfortunately he discovered me and bopped me a good one before I could get away clear.”
“How come Cousin Joshua has an agent on this showboat?” asked Tad. “He couldn’t have known we were going to travel this way.”
“This agent’s chief job is to spy on various river town activites, especially the doings of RI’s rivals,” said Jana, standing. “He recognized you, contacted RI. They confirmed you were missing and wanted.”
“How’d you know he was a fake?”
“When I was still in the good graces of my husband and the Rhymer forces,” answered Jana, “I met this guy, when he wasn’t in costume. After we’d been onboard awhile I recognized him. I figured he might be someone sent out to grab me, so I tried a bit of espionage work on my own. With not too terrific results, as you may have noticed.”
“We took care of him,” said Tad, “and we know what he—”
“What is their alleged plan?” Electro asked the girl. “What is Joshua Rhymer planning to do about us?”
Jana said, “There’ll be a gang of men coming aboard when we dock at Siltville. They’ll be posing as customers come to see the show.” She glanced toward the open cabin door. “Have we docked already?”
“Yep, while you were knocked out.”
“Then they’re on the boat by now,” said Jana. “We’re as good as caught.”
“Far from it,” said Electro.
“A splendid bit of work, I must admit.” Electro, one hand clasping the opposite elbow, took a backward step. “You both look amazingly lizardlike.”
“I feel that way, too.” Jana turned to inspect her disguise in the wall mirror. “You’re a whiz at getting that scaly effect, Electro.”
“Yes, you’re absolutely right.”
Tad scratched at the back of his green scaly hand. “You really think we can fool a whole gang of thugs?” Both he and the girl had been converted into fairly convincing facsimiles of lizard people.
Jana was, using a needle and thread found among Mother Zarzarkas’ effects, taking up the hem on the purple cloak the robot had loaned her. “I bet we’ll be able to fool the whole lot of them,” she said. “What sort of disguise are you going to use, Electro?”
The robot bent, tugged the wig off the slumbering RI agent. “I’ll become a sweet-tempered old lady.” He plopped the wig on his skull, stepped closer to the mirror to change his gleaming face to a semblance of wrinkled flesh.
“This Rhymer Industries agent recognized us.” Tad adjusted the floppy purple hat the robot had insisted he wear. “Most likely others will, too.”
“He recognized us because we made the error of appearing undisguised,’” said Electro, rapidly changing his appearance. “My fault, letting down our guard. We should have remained in makeup.”
“You couldn’t have,” said Tad, “anticipated an RI spy on board this showboat.”
“A person of my abilities should have, my boy.” He cocked his head far to the left, far to the right. “A striking replica of the Sweet Singer of Senile Songs.” He stepped over to the fallen agent, undressed him quickly and slipped into his garments. “Ah, three more pistols concealed on him. A very crafty chap.” Electro began prowling the cabin, peeking into closets, squinting under the bunk. “Ah, exactly what I seek. The old dear carried a spare.” He hauled a second guitar from beneath the rumpled bed.