An unexpected call
Sage awoke from a pleasant dream about a magical bottomless cup of Flonettau Dark Roast. "Just one more sip..." she muttered piteously, before waking enough to realise the sound she heard was not, in fact, the sirens of the Coffee Police come to confiscate her marvellous find, but rather the insistent ringing of the phone downstairs.
"Yougeddit," she mumbled indistinctly, rolling over and prodding Todd. "I hate annering phone."
Todd - who had already been lying awake listening to the phone ring for half a minute - sighed somewhat resignedly, pushed Shelley off his feet, and heaved himself out of bed. Sage heard him clump down the stairs, and settled back into the pillow to continue her enjoyment of the dreamland cuppa. Like most dreams, however, hers was too ephemeral to recapture, and she found herself, reluctantly, wide awake.
She glanced at the bedside clock, which read 5:02. "Five in the morning? Who calls us at five in the morning?" she thought. The Valencomme had a well-established schedule involving eleven o'clock breakfast. Curiosity getting the better of her, Sage rose to follow Todd downstairs.
On her way down the hallway to the stairs, Sage made a wide detour around Kalaleq's door. Sure enough, just as she passed it, it burst open, missing her by a few inches. Kalaleq stumbled out and blinked at her short-sightedly.
"What's the..." Kalaleq began, but got no further before Karma came barrelling out the door between his feet, sending him sprawling back into the room.
"Wet food! I hear wet food! It must be wet food!" yowled Karma, dashing off down the stairs. Eight other pairs of ears perked up in various rooms, and Karma was shortly joined by the other cats. Fili, lagging a bit behind, looked up at Sage concernedly.
"I heard a crash," he said. "Kal again? Is he hurt?"
"It's just his morning ritual," said Sage reassuringly. "He'll recover."
Sure enough, the subject of Fili's concern chose that moment to reappear in his doorway, glasses now firmly planted on his nose. "I thought I heard the phone," he said, stifling a yawn.
"You did," Sage affirmed. "Come on!" And they headed down the stairs, Fili purring as they went.
In the kitchen, they found Todd frowning into the phone, the headset wedged between his chin and shoulder as he spooned food into a large array of bowls for the insistent cats. As the others entered the room, he straightened up and said "Hold on, dear - the others are here. I'm going to put you on speakerphone. Believe me, I know speakerphones are obnoxious, but i think everyone needs to hear this." Covering the mouthpiece, he whispered to the others: "It's Lleshye. You remember, from way back when Mr. Saaa was evil and had Kal locked in his dungeon?"
Fili looked puzzledly up at the others, whose mouths were hanging open. "Lleshye?" he asked. "Who's she?"
"She was working for Mr. Saaa way back before we met you," said Sage, visibly gathering her wits. "She nearly seduced Piquet and ruined our rescue effort!"
"B.. But she wasn't really evil, as it turned out," said a shaken Kalaleq. "Saaa had her under some kind of spell, and she actually turned out to be very nice. Though we haven't heard from her in all these years," he added.
Todd gestured towards the phone, then placed it in the centre of the table and pushed a button. "All right, Lleshye, they can hear you now," he said, gently.
The Valentines could hear tears in the voice emanating from the tinny speaker. "Oh, I'm so sorry for calling so early, but... but I didn't know who else to turn to! You were so nice to me, even after everything that happened, and I thought... I thought maybe... It's so horrible!" she said, new determination entering her voice. "I don't... I don't even feel like I know who I am anymore!"
"Go ahead, dear," said Todd encouragingly. "Tell them what you were starting to tell me."
"Well," continued Lleshye, "after everything that happened in Mr. Saaa's dungeon, I was free from his clutches... for the first time in my life, really. He'd been raising me for that role since I was little, and all of a sudden it was over, finished. I was free and I didn't know what to do next!" She paused to sniffle.
"When I left Mr. Saaa's fortress, I knew I had to find some work, and earn a living somehow. Imagine my horror when I eventually discovered that, no matter what I tried, I just couldn't do anything right! I couldn't cook, I couldn't juggle, I couldn't even clean properly. I once got a job with a house cleaning service for a while, and somehow ended up burning down a client's house!"
"Then, one day, a travelling talk show troupe came through the town where I was living on the street, and put on a show. It was all about men who had cheated on their wives with their bosses' second cousins' bastard sons' highschool sweethearts. The townsfolk were entranced! They couldn't help themselves! They laughed, and they booed. They hurled accusations at the men and their wives. They awwwwwwed sympathetically. They... they were a live studio audience!" Lleshye paused, apparently unable to continue with her tale.
"You poor thing!" exclaimed Sage. She and the others had tears in their eyes and nothing but sympathy in their hearts, for they knew well the evils of the Talk Show.
"But that's not the worst of it!" Lleshye found the strength to go on. "I was in an alley nearby, and when i saw the lights, heard the laughter, I couldn't help myself. I was... drawn to it. I came and sat in the audience, and soon I was cheering and booing with the worst of them! And then... and then... when one of the cheating men said he was forced into the affair, I climbed up on stage and attacked him, screaming `You were asking for it, dressed like that!'" Here Lleshye broke down and cried.
The Valentines sat in stunned silence, each privately realising that this, this was the yardstick by which all horror must be measured. When Lleshye had collected herself a bit, she explained: "I think there was just enough left of Mr. Saaa's Extra Control Hair GelTM in my system that it was the one thing I was still really good at. Talk shows." She made a disgusted sound. "Oh how I loathe them. Distasteful, scandalous, debased... and yet, when the lights are up, and the guests are shouting, and the host is asking all the right questions to make everyone angry, and the audience is..." she paused, "is interacting, well... I just can't help myself!"
"Anyway," she continued, "it didn't take long before the troupe signed me on as a regular guest. We relocated to Las Vegas, where I am now: flashing lights and bad celebrity casinos twenty-four hours a day."
Fili shuddered, and pawed the air in front of his nose as though trying to push away a bad smell. "Talk shows," he declared, "are pure evil. Second only to Las Vegas, from what I've heard." He added, "We didn't have much to do with either of them in Viewacknuzia, fortunately, but there are some things you just know."
Lleshye seemed not to have heard, and continued in a rush of breath while Fili was still expostulating: "And I'm at the centre of it all! I don't want to be, but I can't resist! I appear every night on a different show as a different guest. I've been a narcoleptic stripper, I've been a psychic sewer urchin, I've been a woman who thinks she's a superhero. Why," she laughed somewhat desperately, "just last week I was a best friend who broke her friend's heart by eating her beloved goldfish! I've never eaten a goldfish!" She broke off, panting.
Hearing a sudden sound behind them, the valentines and all the cats turned in unison to see Piquet - who had been standing on the stairs listening for some time, now slumped on the bottom step, head in hands.
"I should have seen this coming," said Piquet quietly to herself, "and the worst of it is that these sorts of cases so rarely end up with happy endings."
As if to underscore Piquet's statement, Lleshye continued, "And that's not the worst of it - my habit has gone out of control. I auditioned for, and got a part on 'Surreal World' - that horrible reality show where several different people are expected to live together and be filmed the entire time. Any minute now a van full of video equipment will arrive and take me to the house in..." Just then, however, Lleshye was interrupted by a loud pounding on her door. "I have to go!" she said "the cameras are here... <click>"
"We have to do something!" said Fili.
"Finish our wet food?" asked Karma.
"I have an idea," Kalaleq said, "what if we joined Lleshye on the show where we might find an opportunity to get her out of there?"
"Great idea, Kal. But how do we find out where she's going? And more importantly - why are we out of coffee filters all of a sudden?" asked Todd.
"Hurry! Hurry!" shouted Ellen Cairo, curled up in a corner of her overstuffed chesterfield, under a tassled afghan. "You'll miss the beginning!"
Mr. Saaa shuffled in, burdened with an extra-large bowl of popcorn, a plate of brownies, and several bottles of root beer. These were deposited on the coffee table with a "clump!", and Ellen noticed that Mr. Saaa made a similar noise as he deposited himself on the couch. Without Evil to attend to, it's so hard to keep in shape, she thought to herself.
Her ruminations were cut off by a rising tide of music from the television: the theme song from the Surreal World! Ellen and Mr Saaa joined in, singing along with the tune, hollering and tootling on kazoos. "I can't wait to see how Lleshye does - it was a stroke of genius convincing her to try out for our favourite show!" said Mr. Saaa through a mouthful of popcorn and root beer. "She's perfect for it!"
The intro sequence faded out, replaced by a shaky digital video shot of a distraught woman fending off the camera as she climbed into a van, her face obscured by a large smudge of mascara running down her cheeks. "Vital Statistics" scrolled across the screen, detailing her sordid past, usual style of lingerie, and other titillating details. A picture of Piquet looking rather disapproving flashed by as they listed former love interests, followed by a parade of plastic and inflatable implements designed presumably to shock.
The other participants were introduced through similar short sequences of breakneck editing and outrageous fictions, though most of them seemed rather more upbeat, a couple even preening under the attention. "Well, that didn't turn out so well," said Ellen at the commercial break. "Did you see how upset she looked?"
"Her hair's all gone to pot now that she uses those competing products. That's her problem," grumbled Mr. Saaa, helping himself to another brownie.
While Lleshye was struggling to get into character, the Valentines were madly brainstorming how they would find her.
"I know!" said Fili. "We'll all try out for that new soap apera, I Own More SpleatherTM Than You. Then, when we all get our studio passes, we can infiltrate. We're bound to find her!"
"I don't know, Fili," answered Sage. "I've never really liked the feel of spleather. Besides, auditions were yesterday."
Piquet looked up dreamily. "Mmmm, spleather...so black. So shiny. So..."
"This isn't getting us anywhere!" Todd burst out. "I still can't find the coffee filters!"
Sage moved over to give Todd a demonstration of coffee-making, cowboy-style. As she passed Kalaleq, she noticed he had an expression on his face that managed to be both myopic and far-off at the same time.
"Kal? Earth to Kal. Do you read me?" But Kalaleq took no notice of Sage, instead leaping to his feet and running for the garage.
"Come on, everyone!" he shouted, "to Drusilla!" And with that he was out the door. The Valentines looked at each other, shrugged and prepared to follow Kalaleq.
"I feel so undignified," grumbled Fili. "Other superheroes have jetcars or webslingers or something glamourous."
"Yeah," answered Piquet, "but the Bionic Woman had to run. Imagine, having to excercise to get somewhere. Yuck!"
Todd laughed and handed a thermos to Fili. "Here, Fili, have some coffee. It'll take your mind off your precarious position."
As it happened, Fili's position was indeed a wee bit precarious. While the other Valentines were crammed into Drusilla's sidecar, and the cohorts were stuffed into the saddlebags (with the cohort ghosties drifting behind), Fili was perched on the handlebars with his legs dangling beside the enormous front wheel. Kalaleq was on the seat, pedalling furiously and ringing the bell intermittently (Kalaleq firmly believed that one should ring the bicycle's bell intermittently when one is riding one's bicycle on an important mission to save a friend).
"This may seem like a strange question, but WHERE ARE WE GOING!?"
"Oh. I thought I you lot knew. We're going to see the one person who can help us locate the signals from the show Lleshye's in, and she may even have some helpful inventions we can borrow."
"You mean Dr. Cat Timidness? The mad scientist?"
"That's right, Piqqy. But first, we have to pick up Ellen Cairo and Mr. Saaa."
"Hello? Anybody home?" Kal poked his head around the screen door at Ellen Cairo and Mr Saaa's home. The inner door hung ajar, and Kal pushed his way into the TV room after a suitable pause, followed by the rest of the troupe. A plate of brownies stood on the coffee table beside a bowl of popcorn, and several bottles of root beer stood on the portable fridge the newlyweds had installed beside the easy chair.
"Hello?" Kal shouted this time, calling up into the house. They proceeded down the hallway and up the stairs to the bedroom, which was a terrible mess. Someone had obviously packed up in a hurry: clothes were strewn about, various bags and suitcases had been piled beside the bed, and many of the drawers hung open, empty. The bathroom was the same: items hastily swept clear of the shelves, with the occasional random toothpaste tube or cotton ball dropped to the ground or lying forlornly in the sink.
"Well," said Kal, "it looks like there's nobody home."
"But where could they have gone?" asked Fili, "--and why are we looking for them anyway?"
"Just a hunch," muttered Kal, looking suspiciously about the bare rooms. "Just a hunch..."
"We've got to find Lleshye!" said Ellen Cairo, lugging an overstuffed suitcase behind her. "She's going to ruin everything!"
"I've packed a good supply of hairgel just in case," said Mr Saaa determinedly. He scanned the flight information displays and the two hurried off to their gate, Mr Saaa dribbling from his pockets crumbs of the brownies he'd snatched from the coffee table during their hasty departure.