Underground With Nickelan Wand, Book One: Kid City

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Chapter 24

Fischel Bocephus kicked open the swinging doors of the candy saloon. A pianist was picking a bubbly tune from the keys, but upon seeing the intruders his hands crashed into a dissonant chord. Then there was only silence. The patrons were slumped over their malteds and rootbeer floats. Their eyes landed apprehensively on the two silhouettes with the small robot hovering between them like a fly. They were framed in the bright light coming from outside.

It was dark in the saloon, but not so dark that Fischel missed the barkeep. He was approaching from what he thought was Fischels blind side. He had a soda bottle in his hand, but not to drink. The bottle was still capped and the barkeep held it by its long glass neck.

Fischel snatched the bottle from the barkeep. He popped it open with his thumb and took a long slug of sweet pop before tossing it over his shoulder. Ow!came a voice from the street.

Ah-ah-ah do-do-do-dont want any trah-trah-trah-trouble,stammered the barkeep.

Dont be scared,Fischel placated the barkeep. Im not here to cause trouble.

Im nah-nah-not sc-sc-scared!the barkeep protested. Ah-ah-ah sta-sta-sta-stutter. Do you have a prob-prob-prob-lem wit-wit-wit-with that?

No. No problem.Fischel looked sideways at Nickelan, who shrugged his shoulders. Im just looking for somebody.

Well, com-com-com-come on in,the barkeep said warmly and placed a candy cigarette in both of their mouths. Fah-fah-fah-first drinks on me, fell-fell-fellows.

Nickelan ordered a chocolate milkshake; Fischel had a vanilla. They both wiped the frosty mustaches off their upper lips and turned on their barstools to survey the dark bar. The pianist was tapping out a friendly song again and the crowd returned their attention to their fountain drinks.

I never thought Id see you in here again,said Lucy Fur, as she bellied up to the bar besides Fischel. Lucy wore a frilly dress that was tailored to ride low in the front and spread out over her ankles, but it was cut several sizes too big. The lace at the top of her dress tickled her chin and her feet disappeared in the pool of loose fabric she dragged over the floor. You told me youd never set foot in here again. Never wanted to see me again. Never would drink another malted again.

Its a shake,Fischel said, taking another sip. And never is a long time.

The backroom is still open,Lucy said coyly. Some of your pals are there now.

Fischel jumped out of his seat, picked Lucy up with a strong bear hug around the waist and twirled her around the bar. Come on, Nickelan!he said, putting Lucy down. We got to get the Red Team back together.

Why dont you come up and see me sometime?Lucy told Fischel as he headed to the backroom.

Thanks, Lucy. Youre a good girl,Fischel said.

When Im good Im very good,Lucy said, but when Im gooder Im goodest.

Fischel made no comment about Lucys grammatical absurdism. He marched into the backroom as if on parade. Inside it looked like a funeral. The Red Team was all there, but they looked less assembled than disassembled. Spike Vrusho was licking a spilled strawberry shake off his baseball bat. Hop Long had his feet on the table and his cowboy hat over his face. Hooken Ladder was picking his teeth with a fire ax. Shiny Buttonsprincess costume was covered in streaks of melted ice cream. Chairman Meow was whipping her nose with her tail. Count Blood was asleep on the floor, wrapped up in his cape.

I thought I might find you guys here drowning your sorrows,Fischel boomed in a voice ridiculously in contrast to the mood of the room.

That voice acted like water to a thirsty plant. The room stirred, bodies rose as if only able to stand tall under the nourishing call of Fischel Bocephus. The Red Team was enlivened and encircled Fischel in what can only be called a group hug.

Nickelan also was embraced in this mass affection, yet he was not truly noticed by the group. It was Spike who acknowledged Nickelans presence first. He did not extend the gush of goodwill that poured out to Fischel. In fact, the tap ran dry upon seeing Nickelan. Spike carried not a drop of kindness as he said, What are you doing here?

Hes here to storm the palace gates,Fischel answered, putting a strong arm around Nickelans neck and pulling him near. And he brought a secret weapon.

Spike and the others were willing to suspend their damnation of Nickelan, who they blamed for the cause of their woes, at least until they got a glance at this secret weapon. They all loved weapons and secretsthat the two could be combined perked their interests beyond the instinct to cause Nickelan pain and discomfort.

Secret weapon?Nickelan asked.

Fischel led the group out of the saloon. On the porch, tied to a post like a horse, was Gelsomina. Scrap orbited her empty head, keeping watch. When Spike and the rest saw Gelsomina, they rallied around her with an elation that eclipsed even the outburst of joy that greeted Fischel in the saloon. When they noticed that Gelsomina was indifferent to them, the team took on a more somber tone. Then they directed their disappointment and confusion to Nickelan. It quickly turned to anger.

What did you do to her?Spike demanded, his baseball bat cocked over his shoulder and his eye on Nickelans head as if it were a curveball.

I found her like this,Nickelan shouted back at the angry crowd enclosing in on him.

Back up, team,Fischel said with a wicked smile on his face. Hold on to that anger because were going to need it when we visit the Fun House. Things are going to get ugly.

Things were already ugly. Gelsomina was being led by a rope tied around her waist. Scrap flew above the Red Team as a lookout. Fischel had taken over as leader in Gelsominas mental if not physical absence. The rest of the team marched through the streets with one eye caringly on Gelsomina and the other judgmentally on Nickelan. He wanted to object to their unaired accusations, but was too busy formulating the speech he would make to the President of Kid City asking for leniency for his parents.

What protocol does one follow to get an audience with the President?Nickelan asked Fischel, the only member of the Red Team that didnt hate him.

Protocol?Fischel laughed, as if in on some joke that Nickelan didnt get. Nobody speaks to the President. The President never leaves the Fun House. Why bother? Everything he needs is there, and the citizens of Kid City dont require any legislative leadership. That would only get in the way of the fun, right? The only laws are that there are no laws. Eat candy all day long. Stay up as late as you want. No brushing your teeth after any meal, because there are no meals. Play ball inside. Play in traffic. Dont wipe after you poop. Who needs a President?

Then why are we even going?asked Nickelan.

Because hes the President of Kid City,Fischel said. He made Kid City. He imports the sugar on which our economy is built. He built the roads, the houses. All this,Fischel opened up his arms to take in the mad majesty of Kid Citys street life, is because of the President. And if he can provide, he can take away as well.

He can help my parents?Nickelan asked, passing another poster advertising the coming execution.

No doubt,Fischel said.

He can help Gelsomina?Nickelan asked.

He better,answered Fischel, losing the smile for the first time. Or hell build a hospital with doctors who can.

There are no hospitals in Kid City?Nickelan asked.

No hospitals,Fischel said.

But what if you get sick?Nickelan asked.

How can anyone get sick on a steady diet of candy and soda pop?Fischel asked.

Before Nickelan could respond, he looked up to see an imposing structure. It was the biggest building in Kid City, yet it almost sneaked up on Nickelan. There were towers that pierced the sky and nearly scraped the Pipes. Unlike the other buildings, it was not made of edible material, but rather cold steel. The walls had no windows. The towers had windows, but they were so high it was impossible to see inside.

Welcome to the Fun House,Fischel said.

It doesnt look that fun,Nickelan observed.

There wasnt any door or obvious entrance to the Fun House. The team stopped and strained their necks to look up its steep, slick and strong walls.

Who goes there?called a voice from one of the towers. Still straining their necks, and now straining their eyes, the team was unable to discern the source of the voice, except that it came from high above.

Its Fischel Bocephus,shouted Fischel with his hands cupped around his mouth to amplify the sound. Im leading the Red Team, who is here at my side, and weve come to lodge a complaint with the President.

Get lost!shouted the voice from above.

The President,Fischel said, is a baby!

Even the members of the Red Team, battle-scarred vets of many an nasty campaign into the dark heart of Thunder World, were rendered speechless by this ultimate offense uttered by Fischel. Calling someone a baby was the worst thing any kid could say to another kid. It was a crime, the only crime in all of Kid City. To call another a baby meant harsh and immediate retribution.

Baby, baby,Fischel mocked, stick your head in gravy!

Youll be exiled for this!the voice declared.

Youll have to catch me first,Fischel said, but he didnt run or hide.

The Red Team looked at one another. Though an officially sanctioned arm of government, they had never met the President, the executive officer of the federal government, leader of the executive branch and the commander in chief of the armed forces of Kid City. Their orders came from the Fun House, but never through any personnel channels, rather they were written on the wall like graffiti and followed as though divinely ordained. The leadership of Kid City was based on faith, faith in the Presidentfaith that there was a Presidentwho Fischel was now aggressively disrespecting. The Red Team was trained to obey the President, but they were also loyal to their leader, Gelsomina, and presently Fischel in her place. The Red Team stood firm behind Fischel.

What stinks?Fischels nose rolled up his face. Did you poop your diaper, baby?

You wont be exiled,the shrill voice shouted. Ill have you executed!

Hearing the word executed inspired Nickelan. How will you execute us, baby, by making us smell your stinky poop diaper? Baby!Nickelan added for emphasis. He understood what Fischel was doing. Fischel smiled conspiratorially at Nickelan. They were going to see Nickelans parents, even if it meant theyd land in the jail cell opposite them. What theyd do next Nickelan had no clue, but at least they were doing something.

Ooh.The voice was stymied by Nickelans put-down. You stay right there. Ill be right down. Dont move. Im going to give you such a pinch!

Good one.Fischel slapped Nickelan a bit too hard on the back, but he was happy with him for the first time since they met.

Now what do we do?Nickelan asked.

We wait,Fischel said.

And then what?Spike asked.

I dont know,Fischel was still smiling, though his expression seemed a bit forced.

The Red Team was nothing if not obedient. They waited. Nothing happened. The Fun House loomed over them, its shiny steel façade quiet and oppressive. They looked up at the spot where the voice had spoken to them from one of the high towers. Nothing.

Then something unexpected happened. The ground shook. The Red Team looked down at their feet. Their feet were gonenot exactly gone, but buried in the loose dirt. The ground continued to shake and throw up loose dirt as it swallowed the Red Team.

Earthquake!Hop Long screamed, pulling out his six-shooters and blasting noisy caps at the hungry ground that was pulling him under.

Quicksand!Shiny Buttons yelled. She beat the offending earth with her wand.

No,Fischel said. This is an unnatural disaster.

Mechanical hands popped out from the crumbling ground and grabbed hold of the team membersankles. The grips were as solid as the metal from which they were made and dragged the team underground with an unstoppable force. Before they could struggle or even curse their poor luck, the team was submerged in the churning dirt, only their fingers visible above, waving like blades of grass.

Then those fingers were pulled under and the ground returned to its stationary state. The only movement was just above the dirt. Scrap flew in frenzied circles hissing and crackling its discontent. Unable to dig its way through the now solid earth, Scrap flew up in the opposite direction, towards the high tower.

Nickelan saw nothing. He felt the rough earth against his face and body as he continued being yanked from the surface further underground. He began his journey having been sucked underground, down the drain of his tub and through a complex maze of pipes before he was deposited in this strange new land. Now he was being taken even further underground, if there could be an under-underground.

There was something, and it was hard. Nickelan hit it with his bottom and then fell onto his back. It was moving. No, Nickelan was moving. The mechanical hands still held his ankles and were now dragging him across a sleek floor. Nickelan could now see. The mechanical hands were attached to mechanical arms riveted into the mechanical bodies of mechanical men. There was one mechanical man for each team member, who, like Nickelan, was flat on his or her back being dragged somewhere.

Where are you taking us?Fischel demanded, though it was difficult to demand anything while being pulled along the floor like a sack of potatoes.

You wanted to see the President, wise guy,the mechanical man spoke in a natural voice most unlike its unnatural appearance. Your wish is my command.

Are you the poopy diaper baby?Fischel asked. The mechanical man answered by squeezing Fischels ankles firmer between its mechanical hands. Ouch! Dont be so sensitive, baby.

The hallway opened up onto a large chamber. The room was vast, with a ceiling that rose up as high as the eye could see. The walls encircling the chamber were so far away that the many doors that lined them looked too small for even a mouse. In the center of the immense room was a raised platform on which was mounted a large but simple throne. Someone was seated on the throne, but his face was hidden behind his hand, which rubbed his forehead as if he were in pain. It was the President.

The President looked more like a king. He wore a long flowing robe and a crown of shiny gold on his head. In the hand that was not busy massaging his head, the President held a bejeweled scepter. He was slumped over in his throne and didnt exude an air of one in power. Rather he looked as if broken under a great strain. He looked up as his imprisoned subjects were dragged to the foot of the platform. Standing, the President addressed the Red Team. Good to see you again,he said. Sorry about the entrance. Im still working the kinks out of my mechanical guards.

The President of Kid City was none other than Selwyn Harris.

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