Image © Yuri S. 2017
|by Caleb Echterling||March 7, 2017|
A barbarian horde surged through the open doors of the Louvre. American tourists in flower-print shorts and plastic footwear moshed and elbowed to be the first patrons to set eyes on the Mona Lisa. Carvaggios and Raphaels whizzed past like so many cornfields. The first footfalls arrived at the wooden crowd-control barrier. A collective gasp blended with the clatter of a thousand iPhones hitting the floor. A little girl tugged on her mother’s Hard Rock Cafe tank top. “I see him, mommy, I see him. Waldo’s behind the smiling lady.”
The world’s finest art forensics experts confirmed what seemed impossible. The oil on the poplar panel all dated to the 16th century. The style of the brushstrokes on the red-and-white capped intruder matched those of his more well known female companion. “Whoever did this had access to Leonardo’s paints and the master’s hands,” the lead investigator said at the standing room only press conference. Most of the crowd wept. Those who didn’t, clutched their knees to their chest, rocked slow pendulum beats, and muttered to themselves. The president of France called a national day of mourning, only to be topped by the Italian prime minister’s two days of mourning. The mayor of Florence upped the ante to three days. The United Nations Secretary General called for a full week, but said that’s it – we’ve got real problems to deal with here, people.
Bozo the Theoretical Physicist collected his lecture notes for How Many Quarks Go Into a Banana Cream Pie, filled the reservoir for his squirting flower, and polished the bell of his bicycle horn. Three women in dark suits, dark glasses and white earpieces blocked his office door. “Sorry to bother you Dr. Bozo, but I think you should see this.” They handed over a cardboard square.
Bozo squinted, looked at both sides, and handed it back. “Abbey Road. On vinyl. I have class in five minutes. If you’d like to continue our game of twenty questions, please call to make an appointment.”
The woman jabbed the album into Bozo’s midsection, which produced two blasts of honk/squeak. “Look closer. Do you notice something odd about it?”
Bozo sighed. He held the picture twelve inches from his face and let his eyes stroll over the image. “You’ve photoshopped Waldo on top of the white Volkswagen. Very clever. Now if you’ll excuse me …” He wedged an elbow between two visitors and pushed toward the door.
An arm restrained his chest. A jet of water spurted from Bozo’s lapel flower and drenched a set of sunglasses. “No one photoshopped anything. Every Abbey Road album cover switched to this picture yesterday at 11:28 Greenwich Mean Time. Something fishy is going on with the space-time fabric, and we want you to figure out what.”
Bozo took three steps backwards. He plopped into a swivel chair, and propped oversized shoes on the desk. “I don’t believe you ladies have told me who you work for. That seems an appropriate place to start.”
“No can do. Top secret.”
“I’m not helping you unless I know who I’m helping. You could be from Disney for all I know.”
The three women passed a sidelong glance back and forth. “Fine. We can tell you, but only after you’re so bombed out of your skull drunk that you won’t remember.”
Bozo stood up. “Seems fair. Who’s buying?”
“Of course the Bureau will pick up the tab. All your expenses are covered.”
One of her compatriots pinched the speaker’s nose and twisted. “You numbskull. He’s not drunk yet.”
The speaker’s arms flailed like electrified spaghetti noodles. “But I didn’t tell her nothing.”
Bozo held up his hands. “Please. We can skip the bits about getting me drunk. I’ll help. What I need from you is a first class ticket to Geneva.”
Meyrin, Switzerland. Bedroom suburb to Geneva. Home of the Hadron Collider and the world’s largest concentration of physicists. Bozo hopped out of a cab in front of Shroedinger’s Cat, the diviest dive bar in town. A maitre-d in a tux greeted patrons at the door. “Monsieur Bozo, it is a pleasure to have your company this evening. Will you be sitting at a table, or at the bar?”
Bozo leaned in close. “Keep it down, would you? I’m working undercover.”
“Undercover? Monsieur, you are the only world renowned theoretical physicist who dresses as a clown.”
“What about Chuckles? She won a Nobel Prize.”
“Oui, but her field is astrophysics, n’est-pas?”
Bozo honked his bicycle horn. “Forget it. We’re not going to name every clown who has a Ph.D. in physics. I came here for help. You know this town better than anyone. Have you seen anything suspicious lately?”
The maitre-d leaned forward and cupped his hands over his mouth. “Oui, monsieur. Professor Chicken is consorting with unsavory characters in expensive casual clothes. I think they’re from California.”
Bozo stroked his red nose. “My old nemesis Professor Chicken. Perhaps it’s time I paid him a visit.”
Bozo’s red wig ducked inside a window. His size 37 shoes balanced on the rickety trellis that looked out of place against CERN’s ultramodern office building. He shimmied through the square opening, and tumbled to the floor. An extended honk, the sound an amorous gander might make, oozed from his vest. Three men in Armani suits and black tee shirts stood over him.
“Totally wrong for the part. Too many colors. It’s supposed to be a red and white outfit. This guy’s a clown.”
Bozo scrambled to his feet. Three blasts jumped from his lapel flower. The Armani crew clutched their faces and screamed. A ear-splitting squawk rose from behind a bank of blinking bulbs. White feathers fouled the air. “You ninnies,” said a giant chicken, “it’s only water. Unless the film industry’s been taken over by vampires, it can’t hurt you.”
Bozo’s painted on red smile belied his real mouth’s frown. “Professor Chicken. I knew I’d find you here.”
“Of course you did. It’s my lab and my name’s on the door. What’s more impressive is that I knew I’d find you here. You walked into my trap. Or should I say climbed into my trap. Once these goons from Miramax are finished with you, you’ll be sorry you tried your hand at secret agenting.” A herd of brown Prada shoes galloped toward Bozo.
A stream of seltzer from Bozo’s lapel doused three Armani jackets. The goons howled and stripped of their jackets. A cloud of white feathers shook from Professor Chicken’s flapping wings. “What are you doing? Get him!”
“These jackets are dry clean only. We’re not making a special trip to Barney’s because of this clown.”
A bank of machinery belched a burbling beep. ‘Ready’ flashed in neon green. A garden gnome-sized hatchway popped open. Bozo searched deep into the recesses of his muscle memory, and dug out cramming-into-tight-spaces skills he hadn’t used since clown college. The hatch slammed shut behind him. The instrument panel was one giant flashing dial that looked like a combination lock. Bozo dialed in his locker combination from freshman year in high school, and yanked down.
A blinding white light engulfed him. The small compartment shook like the inside of a dryer tossing a bowling ball. The hatch door popped open and Bozo fell onto red shag carpet. Dented office furniture peppered the room. Three women with dark glasses and white earpieces stared down at him. “Man, am I glad to see you,” Bozo said. “I need help.”
“What are you talking about?” said one woman.
“How do you know who we are?” said another.
Bozo shook carpet lint from his rainbow wig. “You ambushed me in my office. Then you flew me to Switzerland. Does any of this ring a bell?” He pumped three honks from the bicycle horn.
“Dr. Bozo, our flight to San Francisco isn’t until this afternoon. We’ve never spoken with you. We’re hoping to have the element of surprise, so perhaps you’d be willing to forget this little encounter?”
Bozo’s knees wobbled. His body swayed like a building undergoing seismic testing. His ass made its acquaintance with the floor. “Oh my God. Do you know what this means?”
“Yes. It’s a pronoun used to refer to a specific thing or event.”
Bozo blasted a spray of seltzer. “It means that Professor Chicken has a time machine. I left his lab two minutes ago. And three days in the future. Three guys from California were with him. I need the FBI to figure out who they were.” Bozo scratched his rainbow wig. “Or who they will be. Verb tenses are about to get a lot trickier.”
The three women played hackysack with an oh-shit expression. “We can ask the FBI. But I’m not sure they’ll go along with it.”
Bozo dispensed another seltzer soaking. “You told me you work for the FBI. Or should that be, you will tell me that you work for the FBI? Either way, I distinctly remember that coming from your mouth.”
“You must have misunderstood. We work for the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. Or ‘the Bureau’ for short. I can see how that might be confusing.”
“Dammit.” Bozo stomped his size 37 shoes. “Does the Bureau have a lab I can use to tinker with this thing? Professor Chicken will be coming after us. It’s the first thing you learn at physics school. If you can build one time machine, you’d better build two. The integrity of space-time is in jeopardy. We have to act fast.”
The heat and stench of molten zinc fouled the air, like a Hollywood mock-up of Hades. Silvery, liquid discs travelled down a conveyor belt into a copper bath. A stamp ca-chunked a picture of Alf the Alien onto the finished product. A bucket at the end of the line collected the new-look, still useless currency.
Bozo stripped down to a barrel held up by suspenders. Sweat and face paint trickled down his torso. The sweat stains on the three women’s dark suits joined forces to create a haze of perspiration that clung to them like Pigpen’s dust cloud. Bozo cranked on a socket wrench. “There. I’ve installed a more user-friendly interface, one that doesn’t require you to calculate the velocity of the third quark from the left. Now any idiot who knows the atomic weight of francium can travel in time.”
Bozo yanked off the cabin door with a crowbar. He arranged three solid zinc posters extolling the virtues of the new penny into an extended hallway, and nailed them into place. “Now we can all travel without feeling like we’re riding the Tokyo subway. The only downside is that exposure to Alf has caused PTSD in lab animals.”
Bozo tapped the time machine with his hammer. The frame vibrated. A row of lights went from blue to green to yellow. “Get inside! Get inside!” He grabbed three suits and yanked. The women resisted like leashed labradors on the trail of the most interesting pee-mark ever. “Dammit, we have to go. The machine is leaving whether we’re in it or not.”
The three women stumbled behind Bozo. The last one through slammed the hatch shut. Wide eyes beat down on Bozo. “Where are we going?”
“I have no idea. But chances are better than average that I can get us back.” The space around them buckled and swirled. Heads slammed into bas-relief images of Alf’s hulking honker. The spin cycle subsided. The hatch flew open, and the occupants fell onto a street full of soldiers, sailors, and women in calf-length dresses. Buildings towered overhead. Wobbly legs carried the time travelers over cigarette-strewn pavement. A sailor dipped a woman at the waist for an extravagant kiss. A flash bulb went off.
“We’ve got to get out of here,” Bozo yelled. “We’re becoming part of documented history.” Everyone clambered into the time machine.
“Let’s go home,” one of the Bureau agents said.
Bozo shook his head. “No. Professor Chicken will see our picture and have a trap waiting for us. We’ve got one chance to catch him.” He fiddled with the combination lock and pulled down.
Bozo and the three women crept through the Iwo Jima jungle. The full moon glimmered off pillow cases full of nickels slung over their shoulders. Bullets whizzed overhead. The thud of artillery fire rattled their fillings. Bozo cut through the canopy with needle-nose pliers. Progress was slow. “Can’t we go any faster?” a Bureau agent asked.
Bozo snipped a leaf from its branch. “Faster won’t do us any good. Speed is meaningless if you’re hunting someone with a time machine. ” The ground shook like an after hours dance club. The trees in front of them splintered into a thousand toothpicks.
A washing machine wrapped in aluminum foil crashed through the branches. A blanket of smoke snaked around tree trunks. A hacking cluck cut through the haze. A six foot tall chicken staggered through the shag undergrowth. White feathers dropped from flapping appendages. “You again, Dr. Bozo. Your Alf the Alien penny advertising stunt befuddled the rest of the world. But not me. I knew I’d find you here. This time your little water trick won’t work. I’ve got the three least clothes-fussy Miramax vice-presidents to deal with you. Check mate.”
Three men in black tee shirts and Armani suits emerged from the haze. Their fingers picked bits of jungle detritus from lime green jackets. “You didn’t say we were shooting on location. We would have worn our Christian Dior black jeans. I don’t see how we can work in these conditions. Let’s call it a wrap.”
Two honks blasted from Bozo’s bike horn. “I’ll see your three Hollywood executives, and I’ll raise you three agents from the Bureau. Advantage, Bozo.”
The three women in dark suits walked toward Professor Chicken. Sacks of nickels twirled over their heads. “Not the FBI, Professor Chicken. We’re from the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.”
The air that escaped from Professor Chicken’s beak straddled the elusive line between snort and cluck. “You think I’m afraid of penny-slingers? Wait until my vice-presidents explain the storyboarding for Aqua-Man v. The Wonder Twins. No one can withstand that beating. Go get him, boys!”
“And ruin our Armani suits? No, thank you. Let us know when we’re ready to shoot the Waldo promo. Preproduction starts in a month, so don’t dick around for too long.”
Professor Chicken clucked, and scratched his talons in the moist ground. “We have a time machine, dammit. It’s useless to say that something starts in a month. We have more time than we could possibly use.” A stream of water drenched his face. A bike horn warbled like tornado siren drunk on helium as Bozo tackled Professor Chicken around the waist. The two combatants crashed through chest-high ferns into a clearing, where a squadron of Marines grappled with a flag. A flash bulb detonated.
The men in Armani suits approached the Bureau agents. “Would you be interested in cross-promotion? We’ve got a Waldo movie to hype, and you’ve got some useless currency to pawn off on folks. What do you say we leave the two jokers here and add some product placement to the Hindenburg explosion?”
Yuri S. is 10. He’s cool.