|Trouble at the Valencommune:
Moments later a figure appeared out of the shadows at the edge of the stage. The valentrio looked at each other and then Piquet exclaimed "Who are you? and what do you want with us?" Sage stood to her feet and added "Yeah, who are you? and what have you done with my cats?"
The old man blinked slyly and said, "What do I want with you? WHAT DO I WANT WITH YOU??? Why nothing my dears, but that you should delight and entertain our audience with this tale you tell... You say you have an invisible friend with you named Christine, eh?"
The old man turned and winked broadly at the audience.
"And you say you have cats that no one can see? Hmmm, very interesting. Do tell us more... let the cat out of the bag, as it were..."
Turning to the audience, he winked broadly again, and as the Applause/Laughter sign lit up, the audience burst into raucous laughter and wild applause. Clearly they loved this madman.
The tall, cloaked woman who had emerged from the shadows, and who had been gawking at the old man throughout this soliloquy, now strode forward in a determined swirl of black cloth.
"You doddering old fool, Honeydew!" she spat, brushing the old man aside as though he were a dead leaf or a sad ball of dust, "they mean who am I!" She paused for a moment, collecting herself, and then turned once more to our heroes. "I am...," she began, and paused as a sign flashed "DRUMROLL" and was obeyed. "the dread Ellen Cairo!" she screamed to a flare of trumpets.
"And you sorry lot," she added as something of an afterthought, "are now my captives."
Piquet, deciding that this couldn't be stood for, leaned over and whispered something first in Sage's ear, then in Kalaleq's. They nodded back.
"Ready?" said Piquet. "One, two, THREE!"
On that cue, they all jumped up. Sage, providing a distraction, yelled at the top of her voice for the cats, while Kalaleq ran straight for Ellen Cairo and attempted to grab her cape. As crew members ran to their ringleader's assistance and Phil Honeydew gaped helplessly, Piquet ran as fast as she could into the abandoned control booth, slammed the door and locked herself in. Moments later, her voice boomed out over the loudspeaker: "Attention! I have control of the public address and lighting systems!"
As Ellen Cairo gasped in horror, Piquet pressed the "Applause" button and the audience burst out into loud clapping and cheering.
"Please have a seat, Mr Honeydew," offered Sage with a smile. The bewildered and flustered host sat nervously in a nearby chair.
"Ladies and gentlemen," announced Piquet over the address system, "There has been a late change in today's topic; the revised focus of this esteemed programme is... Talkshow Hosts, and Their Fully Justified Terror of Extremely Grumpy Tortoiseshells Named Claire."
Phil Honeydew turned pale, as Claire, a low growl in her throat audible even over the rapturous applause of the crowd, moved slowly closer to the trembling figure...
"Of course," suggested Kalaleq casually, "we could amend the topic to, oh, Talkshow Hosts Who Spill Their Guts and Tell the Nice People Where Sage's Sweetie, Todd, Is Being Held."
Claire continued slowly towards Phil Honeydew, who hurriedly babbled "Please! Get that cat away from me!!! I'll tell you anything you want!"
As attention focused on Honeydew, Ellen Cairo pulled a small black box from the folds of her garment. A look of malign glee lit her eyes, and she pressed the small red button that was the box's only adornment. In an instant, the soundstage became a maelstrom of whirling bleachers, sets, and props. Phil Honeydew disappeared with a strangled shriek down a sudden opening in the floor, and our intrepid heroes found their neutrally coloured carpet island spinning round to face a strange new set.
With looks of uncontainable horror, Sage and Kalaleq comprehended the macabre sight in front of them: the control booth, with Piquet locked tightly inside, was displayed on a large monitor to one side. As Piquet frantically pressed now-inoperative effects buttons, the booth was slowly being eaten away by a bubbling liquid that filled the vat in which it sat.
"Not so smug now, are we?" emenated Ellen Cairo's voice from somewhere overhead. A floodlight flashed on, illuminating three large doors marked 1, 2 and 3.
"Will they be satisfied with their lives and flee," she asked as a door to the outside opened behind the two, "or will they try for an even bigger prize behind one of these doors?"
But the Dread Ellen Cairo was not to be successful in this particular evil plot, because suddenly, without warning, surprisingly, at that very moment, to everyone's shock, in that moment of that day in that year... what was I saying again? Oh, yes -- Ellen Cairo's cloak flipped itself over her head, covering her eyes! "Aiiiieeeee!" screamed Ellen Cairo, tripping and falling into the same opening that Phil Honeydew had disappeared into.
Christine, looking smug, faded into view. "I thought the old Put-The-Cloak-Over-The-Evil-Villainess'-Head trick would work," she said.
The audience, not knowing what to do without their Applause/Laughter sign, promptly fell asleep.
"Wow!" said Sage, "You did a great job!"
"Yeah, really," said Kalaleq. "That was quick thinking."
"AHEM," screamed Piquet, "YOU JUST LET ME KNOW WHEN YOU'RE DONE CONGRATULATING YOURSELVES AND HAVE A LITTLE SPARE MOMENT TO SAVE ME FROM THIS DAMN CONTROL BOOTH!"
Suddenly, from the monitor, came Ellen Cairo's voice, "It seems as though our contestants may have miscalculated! But they still have a chance. Behind one of these three doors are the controls to our Control-Booth-O-DoomTM. Behind the other two are fifty ravenous insurance salesmen!! But that's not all! If our contestants do guess right, they still have to figure out how to stop the Control-Booth-O-DoomTM from dissolving in highly concentrated acid! If they get it wrong, not only do they lose all their points, but our guest will be quite dead. Well contestants? You have five minutes to make your decision!"
The monitor flickered off, leaving our heroes (minus Todd, and now Piquet) staring in horror at the three doors in front of them.
"Which door?" asked Sage.
"I guess we'll just have to choose one and hope for the best!" replied Kalaleq.
"GET ME OUT OF HERE!" screamed Piquet.
"What's over here?" asked Anita, having completely missed the point, pushing open door number 2, which, conveniently enough, was actually a swinging door. Before anyone could stop her, she was through the door.
The monitor flickered back to life, this time showing Ellen Cairo again, on a very colorful sound stage. "It looks like our contestants have chosen door number 2! What have they won, Phil?"
At that moment what appeared to be fifty thousand insurance salesmen came rushing out of the door, followed by Anita, who looked rather bemused.
"Wrong door! Wrong door!" Kalaleq shouted.
Christine, fading from view again, moved quickly over to the hole where the evil Ellen and Phil were holed up. Disgracing her verse, she hollered "I need insurance. Quick, I have many dollarettes... I want insurance!"
The rabid salesman, following the voice, ran over and promptly fell into the hole, and the monitor was obscured by the sight of falling bodies, legs and arms flailing, insurance forms floating in the air.
As the dust -- and the forms -- settled, Sage, Kalaleq and the cats began searching frantically for some exit, hoping it would lead them to wherever the control booth, with Piquet inside, was sequestered. They stopped short, however, as screams of delighted laughter burst forth from the sound system.
"How wonderful!" came Ellen Cairo's now-familiar voice as the laughter died to intermittent giggles. "You 'valen' people so are amusing!"
With a flash of coloured light and a flare of trumpets, Ellen Cairo stood once again before our bewildered heroes, her black cloak unruffled. She brushed a stray insurance form from its folds and her jolly expression faded with maniac swiftness, replaced by a stern and unforgiving scowl.
"Now," she said, "we can keep this up forever if you like. But you must realise that, unless you start to play by my rules, you will never leave this place, let alone find your precious Todd." She snapped her fingers imperiously, and suddenly Piquet and Christine, both visible, stood with everyone else. Piquet's left shoe smoked slightly, the toe half-dissolved.