In the room, at a lavishly set table, atop a pink doily, Vince sat, holding court among the rag dolls, plastic fashion figures and porcelain princesses.
Vince and the girls were having a grand tea party. Vince was at ease in the middle of the beautiful dolls, which were as varied in their types as Walter’s masculine counterparts. Naboo and Bollo were sitting with the group but in contrast to Vince’s cheery demeanor, they looked sullen, miserable and dejected.
Bollo was draped in a pink flowery doll’s dress which had been hastily pulled over his already absurd red vest. His mouth was smudged with ultra red lipstick and his eyelids sported a metallic blue shadow.
Naboo was wearing a frilly fuchsia calico apron on top of his normal Shaman’s garb. His cheeks were bright red with rouge which was made using the lipstick that had been sloshed onto Bollo.
It looked as if Chloe had set up the tea party before she went to bed and now the pair was stuck in ridiculous but un-removable garments.
“Hey, Howard!” Vince called as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened. “Come and join us!”
Howard breathed a sigh of relief. “Vince! What are you doing? We’ve got to get out of here!”
Vince turned to the girls, who were giggling at Vince’s attentions. “Excuse me ladies, that’s me mate Howard. He’s such a wet blanket. I’ve got go sort him out.”
“Hurry back, Vincent sweetie!” said Lavender, the Bopsey-Brand rag doll, with her pouting red lips. Her soft-sculpture white face saddened when he got up and her impressive cloud of curly red yarn hair seemed to droop.
“Vince, we’ve got to get out of here,” Howard repeated to Vince urgently. “Hasn’t Naboo told you what’s happening to us?”
“Yeah, I know, but Howard, Chloe is such a great kid and she really loves me.”
“But, Vince you’re wearing a ludicrous outfit, clearly not in fashion,” Howard appealed, using the obvious. “Three pompoms down the front? Clashing colors? The jester hat alone…”
“I’ve thought about that quite a bit Howard, and I think I can make it work, maybe even start a trend. How cool is that!”
“What about your nightlife, hey?” Howard attempted. “Pulling shapes at the club? The Camden birds?”
“Won’t miss it,” Vince said, rolling his eyes at Howard’s attempts.
“So that’s it then, is it?” Howard’s exasperation was showing. “We’ve risked everything to get here, to save you and now you want to stay in this place and become a child’s plaything.”
“Look, Howard it has its benefits. I don’t have to worry about anything. All the tea and biscuits I could ever want, and the ladies, well…surely you can see.” Vince smiled and waved at the giggling bevy of dolls who were all clearly enamored of Vince. “Let’s just say, I might be getting very lucky, quite often.”
“Vince, you’re not right! What about…” Howard wanted to say ‘us’, but could not.
“What about your bands? You want to be a rock star, eh? What about Blueberry…what was it?”
“What, Blueberry Cage? Ahhh,” Vince groaned dismissively. “Pretentious losers.”
“Yeah. Blueberry Cage. Don’t you want to be their front man anymore?”
“No, I’m done with that, Howard. I want to stay here.”
“Done with Blueberry Cage, the concept band?” Howard asked. “The group that was so beyond the veil they only conceptualized music?”
Howard felt helpless. His appeals were having no effect and time was running out.
Homage to Julian Barratt’s & Tim Hope’s “The Pod”
Attack of the Pod People
“Blueberry Cage” was one of Vince’s latest former obsessions. They were a rogue band so esoteric and avant-garde that they never actually made any sounds. Sound, they felt was beneath the mo-derne, cutting edge musician. Since Vince could neither sing nor play an instrument, he was ideal as their front man. His job was to pose for obtuse art shots, lounge around in various states of undress and stare blankly at the press until even the most flamboyantly pretentious art magazines, such as sugaRAPE, walked out on him.
Gigs consisted of the five members going to clubs, dressed according to Vince’s fashion directions. They always looked fabulous. They would never stand together, and they never played anything nor stood on the stage. They believed that if they conceptualized music, the people would begin to “hear” their concepts and fall in line. So far, they had no success. In fact no one in the clubs even knew they were actually at a “Blueberry Cage” performance. It was all a part of the carefully laid sneak attack plan, their entre into the subconscious minds of the audience. It was not going very well.
Collectively, “Blueberry Cage” was disappointed with their album sales—and the consistent returns of all units moved— but they knew as artists that people were not able to grasp the enormity of the work, which consisted of a CD that contained 55.04 minutes of silence in cuts which varied in length between 4.27 and 16.5 minutes.
They were incensed by their inability to get any airplay whatsoever, and raged against the system of corporate dictated playlists. When even the outré pirate station that broadcast from a tugboat off the shores of Bristoltwistenanni refused to play them, they raged against the snobbery of the elitist artier-than-thou set.
When their Wall of Lack of Sound was rejected, they merely pish-toshed the primitive public hive mentality which insisted on the out-dated paradigm that music, in order to be valid, must actually sound like something—anything. Their work, they assured themselves, was well beyond the ken of the average uninitiated plebian moron that formed the foundation of the mewling masses. “Blueberry Cage” believed that their eponymous CD would someday be hailed as the masterpiece that it was and that they would take their place alongside other forward thinking giants of art, music and culture. But not anywhere near John Cage; he was an idiot.
“So, you won’t come back for Blueberry Cage, then. Well what about that other one, what was it…?”
“Morte de Bergamote,” Vince finished. “Don’t want them anymore either.”
I Love Rocks N Roll
“Morte de Bergamote” was an emerging talent on the bleeding edge of the horizon (that is, in their own minds). They were impressed with Vince’s work with “Blueberry Cage”, largely because he continually bombarded them with shots of himself lounging about in various states of undress, either looking like a helpless rabbit, a sick walrus or like an angry super model. In any case, the images were unsettling enough to grab the attention of “ModeBe’s” leader, and Vince had joined them and performed at a few gigs right before this whole ugly Toy Maker incident began.
“Morte de Bergamote” actually did believe in creating sounds. Their raisen d’etre was in Rocks (sic) Music. Their sound was not the ubiquitous raging guitars, wailing singers, thrumping bass and driving drums of traditional rock music, but rather music which issues forth from iron-filled stones strewn about in fields of boulders. Evidently what appears to be a large garden variety stone will “ring” when percussion is applied using a ball peen hammer or other heavy blunt object. The greater the content of iron in the rock, the better the tone emitted. This is true.
Again, Vince did not actually have to do anything remotely musical, but he did have to wear a costume dipped in hardening cement and pull shapes representing the various boulders being played and occasionally he would throw his back and shoulders out of place due to the odd poses and weight of the costume.
Their whole problem was in getting roadies or anyone at all to transport their “instruments” to their gigs since their selected travel boulders were many and weighed in at quite a few stone.
The group had another issue. They were facing charges of defiling several public parks as they removed sections of the natural attractions. Their defense was that the earth belonged to everyone and that they were merely borrowing parts of her for the benefit of mankind. Somehow the Judge was not impressed and they were forced to release their “instruments” back into the wild or face prison for their art, a sacrifice none of them cared to make.
In lieu of actual rocks, the keyboardists used samples recorded in the fields to re-create the sound. Tempers flared and the group polarized over the issue of purity vs. feasibility of the whole Rocks Music concept. Three members insisted that without the actual boulders at the gigs, the sound was compromised beyond redemption. Vince joined the keyboard sampling side as he was suffering from his own orthopedic ills. The remaining two band members, one of whom was sporting a severely herniated disk and the other one a broken foot, a pulled ligament and a crushed hand, were adamant about the sampled sounds model. The resulting schism smashed the group apart, but the samplers were going to reform as “Dirty Lil’ Ringing Roxy and the Hyphenated Rowsdowers” as soon as their injuries were healed.
“Fine, then come back to be in a band with me,” Howard pleaded, his desperation apparent.
“Look, Howard, I’m done will all of that,” Vince told him plainly. “I’m Vince Noir, beautiful Harlequin doll…forever.”
“What is wrong with you? Has your brain turned to plastic already?” Howard asked, exasperated.
Howard had nothing left to lose so he pleaded, “What about you and me, the team? Exordium and Terminus? Thing One and Thing Two? Bert and Ernie?”
Vince looked a bit upset for a split second but his sunshine face returned. “We could still be a team, Howard. Why not stay here? Be one of us.”
Naboo and Bollo walked over to Vince and Howard.
“Join you? And, then what?” Howard asked.
“Well, we could have tea parties, and,” Vince looked over at the table of girls and waved. They all giggled. “I know a lot of cute dolls. I could fix you up, Howard. Find you the one with the perfect figure. You could play house.”
“Really?” Howard said, his interest peaked.
“Oh, don’t you start, Howard,” Naboo broke in. “Look, Vince, we have to leave now, and besides…”
“What?” Howard asked.
“If you stay, you won’t even be anatomically correct, if you catch my drift,” Naboo said with a wry look on his face. Bollo chuckled.
“Same’s true for you, Bollo,” Naboo scolded, shutting up the ape. “What d’ya say, Vince?”
“I don’t care about any of that,” Vince said. “You can join me if you want to or leave. I don’t care. I’m staying!” Vince turned and went to the girls and resumed the party, trying to pretend that Howard, Naboo and Bollo were not standing right there.
Howard felt like a trapped rat. Why would Vince not listen to reason? He was about to be enlightened.
It Takes Two, to Make a Dream Come True
There was a reason behind Vince’s puzzling truculence. Chloe’s folks had a tradition of opening one present on Christmas Eve. Vince had been freed from his box the night before Howard and company since Chloe happened to choose his box. He could still see the expression on her face when she first saw him and it embodied pure, instant, unconditional love. She pulled him out of his pretty package with care, then held him to her heart with delight and danced around the room with unadulterated adoration.
“Mum, he’s so beautiful and I love him,” Chloe squealed. “He’s the most beautiful doll I’ve ever seen!”
At that moment Vince felt more loved than he had ever been in his life. He was accepted and treasured, which was far from the uneasy cold shoulder he had been receiving from Howard. There was no longer any need to strive for fame and fortune. He had everything he needed right there in that little girl. When he met the other dolls, he was immediately accepted and loved by them. There was no more rejection of any kind. It was heady stuff.
“What’s going on?” Naboo asked.
“He won’t come back, Naboo,” Howard stated. “I don’t know what to do.”
“We’ll get to the bottom of this,” Naboo told him.
Naboo pulled out his Opal, and looked into it, suddenly enlightened as to Vince’s motivations.
“Howard, take my hand,” Naboo ordered.
“What?” Howard said, puzzled and slow.
Naboo grabbed Howard’s hand, and Howard then understood all thanks to the Opal. He could see into Vince’s mind, such as it was, but the information spurred him on.
With renewed vigor, Howard went to Vince, attempting to bring him back.
“What did you see when you looked into the Snow Globe?”
Howard’s question caught Vince up short. Naboo and Bollo exchanged puzzled glances.
“I…I don’t remember,” Vince lied.
“I know what you saw Vince,” Howard said to him. “I know what you saw because it’s the same thing I saw, your deepest longing.”
A tiny ray of sun light shown through the slats on the window. The sun had risen, and their time was diminishing quickly.
“Howard, Vince, we have got to go. Now!” Naboo insisted.
The rag-tag action figure army was ready to escort the group to wherever they needed to go.
“Vince! What did you see?” Howard tried again.
“Now, Howard!” Naboo insisted.
Chloe was stirring in her sleep, about to wake up.
Howard sighed, defeated in the face of Vince’s decision.
“Dolls get old, Vince. They get discarded, used up, forgotten and put into jumble sales!” Howard told him desperately.
Vince ignored Howard and continued the tea party. A glamorous blonde fashion doll had attached herself to his arm, and there appeared to be some animosity flaring up between her and the much older patchy red-head. Vince assured them that they could all work it out.
“The girl Chloe and the dolls, they only want you because you’re beautiful!” Howard blurted to Vince, who didn’t appear to hear him.
With no response from Vince, Howard turned and began to go with the group.
“I only want you because you’re you,” Howard said quietly, dejectedly to no one in particular.
Howard began walking off with the group. He turned and looked at Vince who was laughing and enjoying himself, apparently oblivious to Howard’s angst. Howard tried to go forward, but stopped, frozen in his tracks. He had tried to leave Vince there, but found could not.
“Now what?” Naboo asked, as he realized Howard was dragging his feet.
“Go on without me, Naboo,” Howard said. “I’m staying with him.”
“Oh no! Howard, you’ll be a toy in hours! You and Vince!” Naboo warned.
When Naboo showed him the Opal, Howard found out what Vince had seen when he looked into the Snow Globe. It was easy since it was exactly what Howard saw in the Globe.
When Howard first looked into the intoxicating magic Snow Globe, he saw a promise of fame, approval and regard. He thought that was his deepest desire. But, as he continued to view it each day, something changed. Slowly images of Vince crept into the picture. Every time he stared into it, he saw the two of them, crimping, playing, talking, just being with one another. He saw that his longing was for his best mate, not for fortune, fame or praise.
In the instant before he was taken into the Globe, Vince was inundated by the same images of their friendship. The difference was that he was afraid it was lost forever all over a stupid prank.
Through the Snow Globe, Howard realized that he and Vince were soul mates. Now through the Opal, Howard knew that Vince knew it too. He could not believe that the thought had never crossed his mind before, but they were just so natural together they took it all for granted. Besides, they were both fairly dense and needed the obvious spelled out for them with pictures drawn in crayons.
It no longer mattered to Howard where he was as long as he was with Vince. He would spend a year, maybe two with Vince until they were no longer wanted by the girl. He would rather be with Vince for a short time under any circumstances than a lifetime away. He would take his chances with the evil Toy Maker.
Naboo sighed. “Bollo and I have to get out of here. If you stay, there’s nothing I can do for you,” Naboo informed Howard. “But, take this Opal for good luck.”
“I get it. It’s imbued with magic powers,” Howard said knowingly. “Will it save us at the last minute?”
“I doubt it.”
“It’s a fake,” Naboo lisped. “Got it at a jumble sale.”
“What?” Howard was puzzled. The stone did seem to have some kind of magic in it and he thought he heard Naboo call it a magic stone.
“Oh, here’s an apron Howard. Good luck.” Naboo removed his frilly apron and handed it to Howard. He gathered Bollo and with the troop they all took off, presumably to return to their world.
Howard shook his head and went to sit with Vince and the ladies. He held the useless Opal in his hand stared at it for a minute before slipping it into his uniform.
“Hey Howard,” Vince greeted and smiled a little bit more, though his face was fast becoming a rigid mask of a gigantic smile. He resembled Mr. Punch more and more.
“Hey Vince,” Howard said, as he tied on the apron. Why not? He already felt like a fool. Might as well go whole hog.
“Howard, what did you just say back there? I mean, after you said they only want me because I’m…”
“Nothing, Vince. Nothing at all.”
“I thought you said that you wanted me because…”
“You’re hearing’s gone wrong too,” Howard growled.
Vince smiled, knowingly. There was absolutely nothing wrong with his hearing.
Sunlight now flooded the room, showing the colorful plastic world they now inhabited. Chloe woke up and immediately went to her lovely new toys. The group was immobilized and Howard knew they would be here forever.
“Good morning, my precious little Harlequin!” she said, as she scooped Vince into her arms. “Oh my!” she said, as she looked at Howard. “How did you get in here?”
She grabbed Howard and ran into her brother’s room and deposited him among the motley group of warriors. Chloe did not want the funny looking soldier doll.
Howard thought of the old saying, “The more things changed, the more they remained the same.” Howard now knew that he would not be with Vince after all, at least not very often.
Walter was awake, so Howard was unable to move, but Howard still felt a deep sense of depression.
With a puff of blackened smoke the Toy Maker appeared to Howard but was invisible to Walter, who was slowly getting ready for breakfast.
“Excellent! You’re coming along nicely!” he gloated as he poked Howard’s arms and stomach as if testing a fruit for ripeness. “I had my misgivings about you Howard, but I do believe you and the Harlequin are my finest work to date! I shall have to enter you for consideration at the next Golem Consortium. I do so adore homunculi, don’t you? Yes! To you, that means inanimate figures that have a spirit trapped inside!”
At that moment, Walter bolted from the room, freeing Howard to move. Howard used that ability to lunge toward the Demon, but found his new friends held him back.
“Don’t do it, Howard!” the Marine told him. “He can really hurt you!”
Howard wanted to grab the smug Demon by the throat and wring it until he choked him to death, but his new friends would not permit it.
“You would not believe what Agony Administration Level 2, in which I earned the only perfect score of my class, would permit me to do to you.”
“Let us go, or I’ll…” Howard said with frustration.
“You’ll what? Mmm?” The Toymaker sighed with boredom. “Now, let’s get down to cases. I’m here to give you your first instructions!”
“Instructions? You think I’m going to do anything at all that you want me to do?”
“Yes. I do.”
“It’s simple. So simple even you and Vince can understand. You must kill the boy. Walter is it? You don’t mind, do you?” he purred.
Howard was horrified. He could no more harm a child than he could set fire to the Nabootique or hurt Vince.
“I’ll have the little Harlequin kill the girl child,” the Toy Maker said flatly, as he examined his nails nonchalantly. The Toy Maker waved his hands at Howard.
“No!” Howard wanted to scream, but found he could not. He was in thrall to the Toy Maker’s will.
“When you’re both done, which should be by midnight, I have a long list of annoying children that must be eliminated.”
Things were looking down.
It Takes Two Baby, To Make a Dream Come True
The Toy Maker vanished as fast as he had arrived, leaving Howard to contemplate his fate. So this was how it goes. He and Vince would kill children at the behest of a crazed Demon. It made no sense.
“I’ve got to get to Vince,” he told the soldiers. “This time I won’t take ‘no’ from him for an answer. We’ve both got to get out of here!”
“It isn’t safe to travel during the day, Private,” the Army man told him. “If we’re seen by anyone, we’ll freeze.”
“There’s got to be something we can do!”
“It’s no use, Howard,” the Marine informed him. “Even if you could escape, the Toy Maker will bring you back.”
Howard thought about that. He was frankly terrified, but what was the alternative? He did not want to do it, but the idea of what was going to happen spurred him on.
He pulled himself up and puffed out his chest. He was Howard TJ Moon, infantryman or something, fighting for the good of all concerned.
He took a deep breath and then began.
“Yes, my friends, the way will be difficult, but we must die, try or die trying, or try and not to die and don’t die…”
“We get the idea,” growled the Orc.
“It’s given to each of us to be a hero. We can claim our birth right or we can forever be craven cowards, ah…cowering in the back corner like frightened rabbits, afraid of our fate, afraid of what lies ahead! What will it be, gentlemen?” Howard pulled himself up with pride once again at the sound of his own voice. He could almost hear the crescendo of movie music playing behind his speech.
“Hey, Howard! Did you just give a rousing speech?” a familiar voice called from the doorway. “Genius! I love it when he does that!” Vince laughed as he spoke to the group breathlessly, his jester bells jingling. Furtively Vince looked back, hoping he was not followed, but he was.
“Vince!” Howard and Vince ran to each other and collided in the middle, nearly knocking each other over.
Several dolls in his entourage were hunting down Vince with murderous intent. The old red-haired rag doll was ripped in a few new places and stuffing was sticking out from various spots on her body as if she were a disheveled chicken. The glamorous blonde was holding her own entire right arm in her left hand and was wielding as if it was a weapon. Several other dolls joined the fray. The Porcelain Princess’ blue velvet dress had been ripped and her perfectly white cheeks were smudged with crayons. All the dolls were chasing Vince and fighting at the same time.
“How did you get here?” Howard asked.
“The whole family went out,” Vince huffed. “Howard, you’ve got to help me! They’re gonna kill me! They’re not big on sharing here!”
“Are you ready to leave now?” Howard asked urgently.
“Howard,” Vince managed with a wry grin.
“You’re speaking to me,” Vince smiled.
“Stop that!” Howard insisted. “Now, let us sally forth,” Howard announced, as if they were about to go fox hunting.
The entire group, which now resembled an insane hastily tossed-together costume party, took off toward the door. The girls still followed for Vince, not sure what to do now that the brigade was protecting him. The troops were at the ready to defend the whole collection.
No sooner did they make their way through the door when they spied an enormous mound of orange tabby, who was very busy basking in the sunlit hallway in a satisfied mid-afternoon stupor. She immediately sat bolt upright at the approaching crowd. At first she was confused, but then crouched down waiting to pounce on the hapless gang. Instantly she sprung and caught an Orc in her shark-like teeth. When the hapless Orc passed out, she set her sights on the other toys.
They hardly had time to be afraid when they all ran back to Walter’s room. Together they shut the door against the feline fury.
“Now what?” Howard almost shouted with frustration. “Vince! Where are you going? Come back here. You’ll be killed.”
Against his instincts, Howard ran after Vince who had bolted out into the hallway, into the clutches of the large predator. Howard was horrified that he might see Vince mangled by the felonious feline killer.
Nobody Expects the Fashion Police
Howard heaved a sigh of relief when he saw Vince talking to the confused creature, stroking her colossal forehead. She had released the Orc figure who had run back to be with the group. The dolls had forgotten their quest for Vince’s duplicitous hide, and stood gaping with everyone else.
The cat began to purr as Vince simply charmed the hairballs out of her.
Vince looked back at Howard. “Told you I was a gifted child, Howard,” Vince grinned. “This is Tabouli. Tabouli, meet Howard. He’s coming with me.”
In a sweep, Vince hopped up on Tabouli’s massive back.
“What you doin’?” Howard pleaded.
“Getting us out of here, Howard.” Vince offered his hand from his furry vantage point. “Or do you want to hurt these children?”
With that Howard found himself atop the beast, clutching Vince for stability.
“Relax, Howard. You won’t fall off.”
“Wait! Vince, take me with you!” came a chorus of female pleas. “I love you, Vince!” some said. “You’re meant to be with me,” others insisted.
“Sorry ladies. Thanks for the lovely tea party!”
“Unbelievable!” Howard managed to groan. “How do you do that?” He was always in awe of Vince’s magnetism.
“It’s not all it’s cracked up to be,” Vince deadpanned, just happy to get away in one piece.
“Where are we going anyway?”
Howard looked around for a possible egress. The windows were all locked shut. They would have to break a gigantic piece of glass, which could slice them all into shreds. The thought of knife-edged sheets of glass sawing them in pieces made Howard shiver.
“Haven’t any of you ever tried to escape before?” Howard yelled toward the group.
“Well, sure, partner,” said the American Old West Sheriff doll. “Plenty of times, but we always get brung back ta here.”
“There are vents in the floor, but they go right into the furnace,” the ragdoll redhead told them. “I’d go up in flames and you would probably melt into a puddle.”
Howard was also aware of one thing; he was almost no longer a human. His entire body was nearly made of plastic. He thought the same must be true for Vince.
Vince’s face had been frozen into a gigantic Mr. Punch grimace, as Howard’s had been frozen into an eternal scowl. Together they looked like Comedy and Tragedy masks over the arch at the proscenium of a theatre.
“Howard,” Vince began. “I don’t want to melt into a puddle.”
“C’mon, Little Man,” Howard chided his partner. “We’ve been in worse scrapes before, heh?”
“Well, no not really, but…” Something caught Howard’s eye. Howard had thought he had lost his prized trumpet, but amongst the kit for one of the soldiers, there it poked out, glinting in one of the sunrays that dashed through the slatted window shade. He bolted off the animal and leapt toward the thing like a man grasping at a life raft.
“Oh Howard, now is not the time for Jazz!” Vince objected. “In fact, there is never a time for Jazz, ever!”
“Watch and learn, Vince!”
Vince rolled his eyes then covered his ears as Howard blew the trumpet.
In a flash, the Spirit of Music appeared before the group and started dancing around.
“Mr. B!” Howard attempted. “Mr. B! We need your help!”
“I’m the Spirit of Music,” he/she announced shrilly. “In you! And you! In all of you!”
“Yeah yeah,” Howard agreed impatiently. “You’re the Spirit of Music. We haven’t got time for this.”
“Is this a joke?” Vince asked. “Who’s this mental midget?”
Mr. B confused Vince’s sycophantic followers, who were unsure of the prancing newcomer’s gender or intentions. A new ripple of jealousy jolted through the girls even though they knew Vince was trying to get away.
“Knew your father, did I,” Mr. B said, as he/she danced near Vince.
“Yeah, that’s nice,” Vince snarked. “Can you shut up now? We’re trying to think.”
“Useless,” Howard said as he once again sunk down. “It looks like this is it, Vince,” Howard announced. “We’ve come to the end.”
Suddenly the sound of whistles pierced the air, causing all to wince against the high pitched noise.
“All right people. Freeze!” commanded one of the smartly dressed people, as he snap-clapped his hands in the air next to his head. “There is a Fashion Crime in Progress.”
“Wince? Whoo-ince Noo-waur? Est-ce vous , cher? Mais, it cahn’not be!” cried a very tall wafer thin woman in an impossibly ridiculous outfit from a fashion runway show.
“Sha-zar! Chico! Rico! Sam!” Vince cried in relief.
“Non! I cannot accept that you have violated the law so severely,” Sha-zar cried, looking at her clip board. “Wince Noo-waur, I must inform you, though it gives me great pains that you are in violation of 17 laws, edicts and mandates.”
“No wait!” Vince began to panic. He had only highest honors from the Fashion Police. It would be unbearable to garner a violation.
“I must also inform you,” Sha-zar paused for a dramatic sniffle, “that your Platinum status is now suspended indefinitely and may be revoked at your trial…”
“It’s not my fault,” Vince defended. “I was forced to dress this way by the evil Toy Maker.”
“Oh, I am so relieved,” she sighed melodramatically. “Ve haf been on his trail for a long time. You could help us put a stop to his fashion lawbreaking ways.”
She took Vince aside, though Howard could still hear her pronouncement. “Your ami, ‘oward, ‘e is always a constant walking violation of what we hold dear. Mais vous, cher. Jamais. Never!”
“Howard, these are the Fashion Police,” Vince informed Howard in his chirping tones.
“Yeah, I got that. I’m a walking violation.”
“Si, si,” chimed Rico. “Howard TJ Moon. A known fashion nightmare!” He checked his small computer and narrowed his eyes at the entry about Howard.
“Can they get us out of here?” Howard pleaded.
“Chico reporting to HQ. The new mode of uber-fashionable transport, gigantic cats,” he paused, hearing the enquiry on the other end. “I’ll ask him. Vince, does the feline have to be an orange tabby or are you open to other color ways.”
“I don’t believe this!” Howard complained.
“You can never go wrong with basic black…” Vince began.
Before Vince could finish his sentence, Chico went back to reporting the new fashion trend of riding giant black cats.
“Of course we can get you out of here! We are the all powerful Fashion Police!” Sam informed them.
“They can get us out of here if,” Vince began and started to think it through.
“They can get us out of here only if it’s fashionable and trendy,” Vince said quietly to Howard.
“Well, there is that,” Sam agreed. “Has anyone of interest ever left this place?”
Vince paused for a few moments then realized he was the trendsetter.
“Me!” he told them. “I’m leaving this place, with my friend, riding a beast named Tabouli, the new trendy transport.”
“Wary well. It is now trendy to leave the clutches of the evil Toy Maker, but only on a giant black or orange tabby cat.”
“Alert! Alert! Powder blue-jacketed Peter Pan androgynies are all the rage,” Chico broadcast to Fashion HQ.
“Come on!” Howard insisted and got up on Tabouli behind Vince.
“Beautiful! Look at the lines!” squealed Sha-zar. “Magnifique!”
Two more cats joined the group. They seemed to materialize out of nothing. Long time companions Chico and Rico cozy-ed up on top of the basic black, while Sha-zar and Sam straddled another orange Tabby.
Vince and Howard finally waved goodbye to the dumfounded group of misfit toys. Several of the dolls were weeping over the loss of Vince.
The All Powerful Fashion Police whisked them all back to the Toy Maker’s workshop.
The Toy Maker looked up from his latest projects, aghast that his latest prizes were not where he wanted them.
“Is that ‘Evil Toy Maker’?”
“Look, what is this? These two have work to do tonight.”
“Mr. Maker, the jig is up,” Howard told him. “Turn yourself in and it will go easier on you.”
“Shut it Howard,” Vince hushed. “Don’t want you calling attention to yourself with this lot. You’ve received Special Fashion Dispensation at my request. Don’t push it.”
“What you on about? There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way I dress. Simple. Practical. Streamlined.”
That comment garnered Howard some icy stares, but the Fashion Police were occupied and focused on taking the Toy Maker to justice.
He struggled against his captors, spouting on about his degrees and laurels.
“Oh, and that’s another thing,” Chico said. “We’ve checked your credentials. You have exaggerated everything about your alleged achievements.”
“NO!” the Evil Toy Maker objected. “I’m a Tenth Level Demon of…”
“And the ones that aren’t exaggerated are completely falsified.” Rico said. “You sir, are a fraud in every way!”
“You are mistaken. I’m…”
“But worst of all, and the most unconscionable thing there is, you have forced a very respected Fashion paragon into an outfit far beneath his station. That is unforgivable and you will be going to Fashion Prison for a very long time until you are completely reformed. Chico, if you will, please read him his Fashion Rights.”
“You have the right to remain unfashionable, however it can and will be used against you in the Court of Fashion. You have the right to a Fashion Consultant. If you waive that right and elect to remain your own Fashion Consultant, you risk spending eternity in Fashion Hell and will have to wear cutting edge haut couture for the rest of eternity or face further repercussions of your Fashion Flaunting lifestyle.”
Chico and Rico clapped the Toy Maker in some snappy looking restraints and carted him off, kicking and screaming in protest as he went.
Howard became aware that he was back in his normal clothes. His flesh was whole again. The same was true for Vince who was smiling just as much as when his face was plastic.
“Au revoir, Vincent! Vous êtes un trésor. You are a treasure,” Sha-zar called. “See if you can help your friend, though I expect he’s pretty hopeless.”
Vince waved and the remaining Fashion Police disappeared, leaving the duo standing in the middle of the vast shop. They walked around then found the exit and left the building.
Outside was as strange as the interior. A ripple of white flakes rolled lazily around in the air. The grass was impossibly green and the sky impossibly blue, though they could see vague but familiar images through the dome that encased them.
“I dunno,” Vince said.
“We can’t just stay here,” Howard began to panic.
Vince found a mirror-like pool and began to examine his appearance. Howard sighed, but did not try to stop him. How long had it been since Vince was able to have a proper preen? It was a small sign of normalcy in an abnormal situation.
Howard sat down on a papier-mâché rock and stared at a rather large plastic daisy. He put his hands into his pockets and found a cool, smooth shape and a light dawned on him.
He had a plan though the outcome was uncertain. It was a long shot at best. He studied the glass dome and again thought of sheets of glass shearing them into pieces or worse. They could be crushed by falling pieces just as easily. But, there was no way they could just stay here.
“Vince,” Howard said.
No response. Vince was immersed in himself again, fussing that his hair was a complete wreck having flattened sections from the jester hat.
“Vince,” Howard said, more insistent. “I really need you to come here.”
Howard was not sure what would happen if he threw the Opal. It could get them out of here but it was equally as conceivable that absolutely nothing would come of it at all. Or they could die horribly. No matter what, he wanted to have Vince nearby.
“Vince, whatever happens I just want you to know,” Howard began.
Vince cringed inside. Not another love confession. He jumped in to avert another silly melodramatic Howard moment and perhaps to patch up a few loose ends.
“That you knew I was faking it all along with the love potion?” Vince ventured with a gigantic smile.
“Ah. Well…” Howard attempted and sighed briefly. “Of course I knew.” Howard smiled knowingly, forgetting about the confession he was about to make.
“Are you ready to get out of here?” Howard asked.
“No! We can’t leave here yet,” Vince said in a panicked tone.
“What?” Howard was concerned.
“My hair’s a wreck!”
“You berk,” Howard shot.
As soon as he had Vince’s often flickering attention, he took out the Non-Magic (or was it Magic) Opal and hurled it at the dome with as much force as he could.
The artificial world shattered, crashing down around them. The pair grasped each other, like frightened sea otters.
“Hang on, Little Man!” Howard shouted. “One way or the other, we’re out of here.”
With a whoosh, the pair found themselves on the floor of the Nabootique like fish out of water, gasping for air.
“It’s about time,” Naboo said, as if they had simply walked into the store as always. “Got to open up the Nabootique and Howard’s still got an errand to run for me.”
“Naboo! Bollo!” Vince leapt up and hugged his friends with glee. Bollo cuddled back.
“I’m fine, everyone,” Howard said sarcastically. “Thanks for your concern.” Howard stood up and dusted off the evaporating bits of magic glass from the shattered Snow Globe.
Naboo handed Howard a copy of the supply list, some money and explicit instructions. Quietly Naboo said to Howard, “Good work.” But it was so fleeting Howard was almost sure he did not say it. Howard smiled inwardly.
“So, I’ll just be off,” Howard told them.
“Hey!” Vince objected. “Wait for me! I’ve just got to change to a traveling outfit, freshen up my eyeliner, straighten my hair, reapply my nail polish, check the Fashion Forecast…wait!”
“No time for that, Vince.” Howard opened the shop door and stepped outside into the early morning. He called back, “I’ve got an important mission to perform for Naboo. A quest does not wait for nails to dry.”
Vince looked to Naboo. He had said he wanted them to open the store. “Go on then,” Naboo told him. “If you don’t go with him, who knows what he’ll bring back here.”
Vince wasted no more time and joined Howard. Together they would survive anything life threw at them.
The unlikely pair traipsed down the street together garnering stares to which they had become inured. Vince looked in all the clothing store windows, and was caught by every pretty sight but still managed to match Howard’s purposeful gait.
Finally they arrived at K’hoohoo’s Shop of Magic and Vacuum Sales and Accessories. They entered the store, a stark contrast to the Nabootique.
It appeared to be abandoned, but the door fell open readily. It was clean and empty save for one black counter which was topped by a smoky glass display case that refused to give up any glimpse of its contents. Bluish lighting emerged from the floor in a few places along the naked walls.
“Is anyone here?” Howard called out. “Mr. Hieronymus?”
“Odd,” Vince said. “I expect Naboo didn’t know they had left.”
As they turned to leave they saw with confusion that the door had completely disappeared.
“He he he he he!” came a cackling giggle from the back of the store. “I just love that trick. Get’s ’em every time.”
“Ah, we’re looking for a Mr. Hieronymus,” Howard’s voice wavered. “We have this list of items to purchase.”
The list was abruptly snapped from Howard’s hand by a tall wizard. He was intensely handsome and commanding, draped in brocade and sequined robes reminiscent of Naboo’s garb, but much finer.
“Is that loser Naboo still hacking around with magic?” he asked with no interest in an answer.
“We would like the ingredients on the list, sir,” Howard requested.
“Hmm. Let’s see. Wing of Griffin, Eye of Gargoyle, Toe of Tree Frog and toothpaste.” Hieronymus read to himself. “What’s he playing at here?”
“Please, sir, we would…”
“Are you still here?” Hieronymus shot at the hapless pair. “Oh, sorry. Yes. The door. What happened to you?” he asked Vince.
Vince blanched with embarrassment. “I told you I needed the time to change, Howard.”
“Well, no matter.” Hieronymus waved his hand and Vince was immediately back in form, complete with a wickedly ornate jacket from Top Shop.
“Thanks mate!” Vince said as he admired himself in the mirror that appeared from nowhere.
Hieronymus cast a glance at Howard. “There’s nothing I can do for you, Harold.”
“Howard!” he corrected. “How did you almost know my name?”
“Whatever. These supplies are not readily available. Many of them are on backorder, and some cannot be bought for love or money.”
“This outfit is brilliant,” Vince told him with glee, oblivious to anything but his own appearance.
“Of what use are you two to Naboo? Are you his errand boys?”
“I am Howard TJ Moon, Jazz Maverick, writer, actor…”
“I’m an errand boy,” Vince burst in, still admiring his new ensemble. “Howard’s a wind bag.”
“I see. Well, then I have an errand you could do for me while you wait for these supplies.”
“We have to get back to the Nabootique.” Howard attempted. “Jazz records don’t sell themselves, you know.”
“You’ve got that right,” Vince said quietly. “They don’t even sell with you trying to sell them.”
“Well, Naboo is still expecting us back…” Howard stated.
“Nonsense. I can bend time and space. Naboo is too stupid…I mean, he’ll never miss you. You’ll be back before you’ve left.”
“You want to know what’s in it for you, eh?”
Howard waited and Vince was finally paying attention.
“It’s simple. You do this for me and I let you keep your immortal souls. Fair enough?”
“Howard TJ Moon does not respond to idle threats, sir.”
“Easy!” Vince broke in. “I’m sure we can work something out without that nonsense.”
“Excellent. I knew you would see it my way,” Hieronymus gloated.