Of all the ramshackle, makeshift “lounges” I’ve ever spent time in during my decades of crisscrossing every dive and hotel in this dusty land, this was the worst. And the smelliest. I should have braced myself when I noticed underneath the flickering neon “Max’s Comedy Castle” sign, one could still read in ghostly bleed-through letters, “Timmons Truckstop & Taxidermy.” I guess an economy class magician in his sunset years can expect no better: I took what I could get.
When I first entered the room, my nose was assaulted by the unnatural mixture of smoke, must, urine and cinnamon. I set down in a beaten green velvet wing back and started in on a watered-down cherry soda. The sweetness of the drink didn’t help the odor.
“You’re on in forty-five,” Max informed me. “They’re gonna love ya, Tim. We ain’t had a magic man since before the fire.”
He left immediately, I presumed to tend to the early patrons.
I looked around at no less than fifty stuffed creatures in various poses and stages of completion, some on the wall, some on pedestals strewn about the place. Predator and prey were displayed, even a Capuchin monkey. Although the space seemed long and fairly wide, it was crowded and poorly lit by three electric chandeliers.
I heard it, but didn’t know from which direction the sound had come.
“Excuse me?” I queried. “Is someone else here?”
Max hadn’t mentioned the possibility of anyone else.
I remembered the time in Reno I was relaxing with a perfect martini in my hand when two dwarfs dressed as cowboys, complete with tiny shooting irons, crawled out from under a coffee table. Scared the daylights out of me! Eddie and Vito; they claimed they were brothers. I forgave them for making me spill my martini, and they forgave me for pulling a knife on them. They still send me postcards at Christmas sometimes.
I stood up and stepped around a massive, but tattered, grizzly bear, ample enough to be hiding three dwarfs.
Did the sound come from behind me that time?
“I say. Who’s there? Is this some kind of joke?” I challenged.
Annoyance was creeping over me.
I tip-toed past a couple of jaguars, ducked under an elk head, sidled past two battling rams, and waited.
Just because Max didn’t mention anyone else didn’t mean there wasn’t anyone else. And what was the idea of sneaking around anyway? I might expect a prank or two at a comedy club, but a lunatic?
“Who’s there? What, are you gonna sing me ‘Happy Birthday’, pal?”
See, one time I heard someone whistling “Happy Birthday” as I was unlocking my apartment door back home in Fresno. I froze! It felt like a bad slasher flick. I could already see the headline in the paper: “The Birthday Killer Strikes Again!” But I wasn’t in any mortal danger. Turned out to be some bum crashed out in the bushes nearby. He high-tailed it when he saw the Gerber in my hand.
This time I had definitely heard it on the other side of the room. This sucker was moving around. Why did this always happen to me?
I crept slowly across the room, needling my way around foxes and beavers and a jackalope.
I drew my trusty blade from my pocket. Had to be prepared, after all.
Blast it! It came from off to the right. Against that dark paneled wall was the front half of a Texas longhorn. I felt trapped in its glassy stare.
He reminded me of the time in Rio Rancho when some crazy chute boss thought it would be funny to let a bull loose in the middle of my act at the Hot Tamale Rodeo. Got a lifetime ban after I jabbed that beast in the nose with four inches of steel. But you could hardly have blamed me, right?
Surely he didn’t just psst me! This wasn’t Narnia. Someone was playing me for a fool.
“Alright! That’s enough of this, buddy!”
I advanced toward the bull, staring it down, brandishing the Gerber, certain that my tormentor would leap out from somewhere nearby.
“Come out from there!”
I charged toward the bull, my eyes darting left and right, waiting for the prankster to surrender with arms thrown high, apologizing and pleading for mercy.
Nothing. I waited. I could feel my teeth sweat. Dozens of cold hard stares eagerly anticipated what would unfold.
Then I saw it, nestled below and to the right of the bull. A Glade automatic air freshener. Apple Cinnamon.
Aw, nuts. I ran it through all the same.