by Jack Bates
eep me out of the Emerald City.
A light green rain splashed on the windshield of my mono-dragon chariot. The gyros and the wheels squeaked from the splash. It was a warm rain, the kind where a little bubble of sunshine bobbed in each drop. Most folks found the rain refreshing but I felt crushed under all of that heavy green optimism. Ahead of me I could see the great green castle shimmering in the rain and I felt the weight of all that optimism pushing down on me even more.
Queen Ozma had summoned me out of my semi-forced retirement back to the castle to meet with her and the Security Council. She knew what it would do to me to be back there, but I knew she couldn’t be seen slumming around my digs where I now lived in Winkie Country. I also knew why she wouldn’t travel to see me.
For about a week the Emerald City Gem had been running stories about the mysterious and violent deaths of Half-of-Talls from Munchkinland. Someone or something was eating them up. Literally. Reports had been coming from outlying farm areas where first it had been small livestock. Later there was the badly mauled body of a reclusive Half-as-Taller. Then villagers reported horrifying screeches in the night, and wild, lonely screams. Then the severity of the attacks intensified. Half-as-Tallers were fleeing from Munchkinland City in droves and many were finding the road dangerous. What started with the supposed attack of a feral animal wanting a quick meal became a life and death struggle for the fleeing Half-as-Tallers. One victim was said to have been found stretched out to three times his size, frozen in a death crawl, his entrails unraveled like a ball of twine covered in slime between his two halves.
Whatever was happening was enough to make the city elders want me back.
“You’re looking good, Captain Jo Guard.” Queen Ozma’s words echoed around me, bouncing off the cool green walls of solid emerald. Ozma was looking good as well. Her reddish hair was longer and done up, a few pin curls dangling on either side of her smooth ivory face. Her hips and breasts were rounder and fuller, but not overly so. A dusting a sparkling green glitter covered the rolls of her cleavage and her green silk gown hugged tight along her hips. She had grown up from a princess to a queen before all of Oz.
She held out her hand for me and I took it, kneeling before her. I kissed the back of it. Ozma turned her hand over and cupped my cheek, lifting my eyes to see her smiling down at me. I stared into those dark brown eyes knowing nothing had changed in the year we had been apart.
“I’m so glad you’re back,” she said. Even in a whisper her words echoed around us. I brought her hand back to my lips, ran my tongue along the insides of her fingers, rolled it around down between the soft of two of them. I heard her tiny gasp followed by a slight moan.
I didn’t want her to know I was glad to be back in the Emerald City, if just to see her. At one time I was her Senior Captain Jo Guard of Security. At least until our bodies got the better of us. We fucked nearly every night until the Security Council caught on and I was demoted and reassigned. Eventually they forced me out and I became constable in Winkie Country.
That’s why calling me back meant that not only was Ozma scared, so was the Emerald City Security Council.
Behind me a great door closed. It was followed by the shuffling of slipper covered feet along the polished checkerboard floor. Ozma pulled her hand away. I stood up and turned to find the Security Council gathering around us.
“Captain Jo Guard,” Security Prime said to me. He voice was whispers caught on cobwebs.
“Not anymore, Security Prime.” I said.
He smiled a wrinkled smile at me and raised eyebrows that hung like sandbags
“Nevertheless, the Security Council is pleased you have returned.” The six Security Trustees whispered a murmur of approval. It echoed like the hiss of snakes.
“Your welcoming makes me think the Security Council is doubly worried as Queen Ozma.” I said. We hadn’t parted on the best of terms.
Security Prime pushed his agenda along.
“You have no doubt seen the papers. Farm livestock decimated. Half-as-Tallers attacked and murdered. Munchkinland is in total disarray.”
“At first we thought there was a logical explanation. Perhaps a group of rogue Scoodlers looking to increase its food supply.”
“Scoodlers? I thought all their heads were at the bottom of a pit.”
“Which is why, as the attacks increased, we began to ponder other theories.”
Security Prime turned from me and looked at the six trustees. Their heads nodded. They encouraged Prime to tell me.
“Two nights ago Mayor Gerrld of Munchkinland City disappeared.”
“Disappeared? How do you mean?”
“One minute he was there, the next he wasn’t.”
“No, Prime. I mean—was he using a Teleporting Cloak of Invisibility?”
Prime narrowed his eyes.
“It would be difficult to determine,” he said. “As it would be invisible.”
I let it go. It wasn’t the time to get into a pissing match with the old man.
“Any ransom?” I asked.
“Just this.” He handed me a note. We have the Mayor was all it said.
“Any reason to think the Half-as-Tallers are the target of something the mayor knew about and he split on his own?”
“That’s what we were hoping you could find out, Jo Guard.” Ozma said. The concern in her voice softened me. I gave her a reassuring smile and she returned the gratitude. The energy between us seemed to echo as loudly as her words.
Prime cleared his throat. I turned around to the suspicious glares of the Security Council. I tried flashing the same charming smile I shared with Ozma but they weren’t having anything to do with it. After an awkward moment, Prime reached into one of the deep pockets of his robe and withdrew a small mahogany box.
“Do you recognize this, Captain Jo Guard?” Prime asked.
I took the box and held it.
“Sure do. The Great Mahogany Box. It holds the Lead Button.” I shook it. My face fell at the silence. I looked at Ozma. Fear filled those dark brown eyes of hers. “The Imp?” I asked.
“Gone.” Security Prime said.
“He apologized? After all this time?”
Ozma shook her head, the pin curls bobbing around her narrow face. Her beautiful, narrow face.
“No.” she said. “I didn’t release him.”
Escape was supposed to be impossible for the Imp. The Impertinent Imp had been Oz’s public enemy number one. When it was finally caught, it was changed into a lead button and was to remain that way until it apologized for its crimes. When it did, the button would change to aluminum and Ozma or Glinda the Good Witch would be able to rejuvenate the creature.
“Then how did the Imp—?”
“I don’t know.” Ozma said. Her voice was heavy with panic. “I picked up the box one day and noticed it felt different. I thought perhaps the lead had changed to aluminum but when I opened it, the button was gone.” Ozma threw herself against me. “Oh, Jo Guard. You have to help me. I’m so afraid of the Imp. You know it wants to eat my heart.” Her face fell against my chest. I felt her sobs and beneath those I felt her breasts pressing against my chest through the heavy wool of my old uniform. Her soft auburn hair lay beneath my nose and I drew the musk of roses mixed gently with spring water and orange melons. I pulled her closer, a familiar strength and firmness growing between my legs. Ozma put her arms around my neck, pressed her hips against me. Our eyes met. “Please.” she begged.
“Of course,” I said softly. “Of course.”
How could I refuse? She had saved my life when the Security Council wanted to feed me to the Scoodlers’ heads in the deep, deep pit. Those hideous, two-faced heads: One side black face with white hair, the other yellow face with purple hair but always those razor sharp teeth chomping.
“Then perhaps you should be on your way, Captain Jo Guard.”
Ozma and I turned our faces. Prime and the council stared objectionably at us. It didn’t matter. When I finished this assignment; when I saved her from the Imp; when I returned with the answers Ozma would take me back and this time it would be for good. Regardless of what Prime and the council decided.
Before I left, I asked the trustees for access to the Storage Room where I procured a few necessary artifacts, one of which was the Magic Carpet. Prime accompanied me. He stayed quiet for most of my rummaging. When it looked like I had everything I wanted, he spoke to me.
“Jo Guard.” he said. His lips were closed and tight making his smile all the more disturbing. “While I don’t approve of the behavior you and our queen exhibited, I am glad you are going on this mission for us.”
“For her.” I said. His smiled became a straight line.
“Something dark is happening in Oz.” he said. “Darker than has ever settled here before. I don’t quite know for certain what it is. Be careful, Jo Guard. Trust no one.”
“Not even you, Prime?”
I knew there was only one place the Imp would want to go upon being released. Someplace dark and vile. Someplace that would make the Green Skins squeamish. Someplace deep in the heart of the Oogaboo.
The outhouse hole of Oz. All sorts of sewage flows through its streets. Nobody wants to live there. There’s an old maxim about the place: All roads lead out of the Oogaboo. Even if I wanted to take my mono-dragon chariot, it would be days on the road and I was pretty sure the sands of the desert would gum up the gyros and sprockets of the mechanical dragon. A Teleportation Cloak of Invisibility would have gotten me there in a blink but no one could find it in the Storage Room.
Most people like to sit upright, legs criss-crossed, while riding on the Magic Carpet. Me? I have to lie on my belly clutching the two front corners of the rug. Even then I still feel vulnerable. The sag in the thick weave gives me the impression I’ll slide right off the back end. I know that won’t happen because the carpet won’t let it happen but that doesn’t stop me from thinking it could. I roll the corner tips around my wrists and hold tight.
Besides, falling off the carpet was the least of my worries. Flying monkeys, walls of solid air as thick and hard as emerald walls, or even rounds of grapeshot fired from the musket-trees provided more danger than riding on a flying carpet. Even if the carpet flew at ten thousand feet and faster than a zephyr. More disconcerting than any of it, though, were ivory bone underbellies hanging over the Oogaboo.
I let the carpet know it was time to descend and where I wanted to go. I was looking for a little Outlander-run dive called Dorothy’s; a B-girl joint that opened shortly after Miss Gale’s untimely departure from the wonderful world of Oz. Seems a lot of the Green-Skins had a thing for the Kansas virgin, and not because she murdered two of their own. They found her tenacity and spunkiness alluring. Now a Green-Skin could rent his or her very own by the hour or for the night. Word on the street was that a group was thinking up ways to lure Kansas girls into Oz.
I hovered over a narrow street thinking it was an alley. Then I remembered all of Oogaboo was nothing more than a series of alleys. Dark, narrow alleys that stank of spoiled eggs and mechanical oils. A flying monkey perched on the roof of a seedy looking office building. It puffed on a smoker, keeping its eyes on me. A flying monkey this deep in the Oogaboo meant only one thing: It was a rogue off on its own.
A couple of Green-Skin tramps looked up at me. One of them held open her top, flashing me her double nipple titties. The other had her red and white gingham dress over the head of a Half-as-Taller enjoying the pleasures between her green thighs. I could see his stubby little fingers poking out from under the hem, clutching at her ass.
“Hey, look up there, Detrita.” The titty flasher said. “We got us a law-like official keeping an eye on us.”
Detrita took a drag off a smoldering brown roll of tree bark and poppies. She exhaled towards the Half-as-Taller giggling between her legs. Detrita’s hips rocked.
“What you think he wants with us, Archetta?”
“Maybe he wants to have a little fun. He a long way way from home.” Archetta said. They cackled. “Or maybe he wants a little cut of our action.”
“He ain’t getting no cut of my pie.” Detrita took another drag on her smoker. Her eyes slid closed and then she exhaled at me. “And I don’t mean the pie my little man down there is gobbling up.” They cackled again.
The hidden Half-as-Tall slapped Detrita’s ass and she yelped.
“Feisty one.” The cackling was wicked. Detrita’s eyes narrow and she grimaced. She straightened her arms and placed her palms against the brick of Dorothy’s.