From the author: Don't get stopped in Anthropomorph....
PAY TO THE PIPER
By David Perlmutter 2, 642 words
The first indication that he had gone past the boundaries of reality was when he felt the loud thud of running over something with the front wheels of his car, followed by an abrupt, loud cry of pain, and then, just as abruptly, silence.
Ravenscroft stopped the car as soon as he heard the collision of solid matter that was not road with the best tires to come out of Akron, Ohio (as he had been told they were weeks earlier by the used car salesman who sold him the vehicle). He assumed that it was simply some dumb animal who was not familiar with cars or what they could do to them, and had blundered onto the road.
He was right, but only after a fashion.
It was such an animal, a white-tailed deer, in fact. But it resembled a man in appearance and bearing, with a vertical spine and hooves that protruded out of its body like arms and legs. More to the point, it was wearing a carefully tailored suit- not unlike the one Ravenscroft himself was wearing at that moment.
A closer examination of the corpse revealed the full truth to Ravenscroft. Where red blood should have flowed onto the two-lane blacktop highway, black ink, not visible until it obscured one of the white markers on the road, flowed instead. And the typical fecal smell that occurred when a dead body voided its bowels was replaced by that of several freshly opened cans of paint, along with the equally pungent smell of burning celluloid.
He could not have known it then, but he was no longer in the world that he knew and understood. Instead, he was in a place where simply being a human being would not be nearly enough for him to be treated in the manner to which he was accustomed.
He had crossed the boundary of the mysterious, unpredictable realm in which the beings his world knew as “cartoon characters” (or, pejoratively, “ ‘toons”) resided. And he was about to discover exactly how much his “kind” were truly “liked” there.
The first clue that he was in trouble came soon afterwards, when the police, or a facsimile of same, drove up in the opposite direction from where Ravenscroft had come.
Great, he thought. Just what I need.
By trade, Ravenscroft was a lawyer. He specialized in entertainment law, a natural thing for a lawyer who lived and worked in Los Angeles to be involved in. As such, through the work of his employer, a motion picture studio with a large animation division, he’d come to deal with “ ‘toons” more often than the average person. So, while the average human being might have thought “ ‘toons” were harmless, benign and happy, Ravenscroft knew better. Off-screen, where their manners and behaviour were far different than on-, he’d witnessed his fair share of toxic negotiations with them, particularly over money, and this had coloured his attitude towards them negatively.
His experience had given him a sense of what were the correct and incorrect ways of interacting with them, and he thought- incorrectly, as it turned out- that he could easily negotiate a way out of any legal problems that might emerge from his current hit-and-run scenario.
A single squad car, its enormous headlights gleaming brightly in the pitch black darkness, and its siren caterwauling loudly, came to an abrupt stop mere inches from Ravenscroft and his victim. The single occupant of the car, dressed in the traditional blue and black police officer’s uniform, walked towards the human lawyer.
Whereas most police officers would resent being called “pig” metaphorically, this would not be an issue with this one. For that was literally what he was.
“Sir,” the pig-cop said dryly, like one of his human brethren speaking to a pulled-over drunken driver, “I’m gonna have to ask you to show me your….”
Then he noticed the corpse beneath Ravenscroft’s front wheels, and he shrieked a shriek worthy of a female human actor in a vintage horror film, in a decibel range that almost shattered Ravenscroft’s eardrums. A corpse was obviously not something this cop usually encountered on his beat.
“Look,” Ravenscroft said when the shrieking stopped. “I can explain…”
The cop cut Ravenscroft off by pulling out his gun and pointing it at him. It was a revolver with a nozzle much longer than any the man had ever seen before on such a weapon, plus a larger-than-average chamber with who knows how many bullets in it.
“Explain nothing!” the cop spat. “You killed him. That’s murder.”
“How could it be?” said the lawyer. “It was an accident. Look. I’m a lawyer, so I know that, for it to be murder, it has to be a pre-meditated event, and it wasn’t. I’m sorry about the death, of course, but there’s not much I can do.” He headed back to his driver’s seat. “When I get back to Los Angeles…”
The cop wasn’t listening. He quickly fired his gun. A bullet not only perforated Ravenscroft’s windshield, but, inexplicably, caused the vehicle to explode into flames.
“What the FUCK?” Ravenscroft shouted. “How the hell did that happen?”
“How would I know?” the cop said, as he holstered his gun, got his handcuffs out, and prepared to put them on Ravenscroft. “Stuff like this happens all the time here, and nobody says anything. You just get used to it.”
“Oh, I’m “used” to this kind of stuff from you damn ‘toons, all right.”
The cop quickly got his gun out again and pointed it at Ravenscroft.
“Sir,” he said, “I strongly suggest that you withdraw that racist remark before I…”
“What racist remark?” asked a disbelieving Ravenscroft.
“You know what you said. The ‘T’ word. We dislike that term strongly. In fact, it is a capital offense to utter it in the presence of an officer of the law in Anthropomorph.”
The cop shot the lawyer in the foot.
“SHIT!” shouted the latter.
“I’ll ask the questions around here, fella!” the cop warned him. “Now: are you sober?”
“Are you, like, uh….the opposite of crazy?”
“Sane. Yes. At least I thought so until you showed up.”
“Then I arrest you in the name of the law,” the cop said, as he came forward and quickly handcuffed Ravenscroft.
“For what?” demanded the lawyer.
“And you humans think we’re slow. ‘Cause you murdered the deer over there!”
“I told you, it…”
“And you used a racist slur to an officer of the law.”
“I didn’t know…”
“Just shut up, okay? Unless you want to get charged with not shutting up when I told you to, ‘cause that’s another crime.”
“Can’t I just pay you something to resolve the….?”
“You mean a bribe?”
As he uttered these words, the cop’s demeanor changed. His eyes got big as saucers with fried eggs cooking in them, and he clasped his hands together as if praying, while uttering an unexpected schoolgirl- style giggle. Ravenscroft got the hint. He’d seen this too many times before. He broke free of the grasp the cop had put on him.
“Of course not,” said the lawyer. “I meant going before a judge, and…”
The cop kneed Ravenscroft in the balls.
“None of that!” he said.
“None of what?” said the other.
“Making fun of me!”
Ravenscroft stopped talking when the gun came out- again. And was pointed at him- again.
“Listen, fella,” the cop said. “We ain’t got that complicated legal system you got back in your fancy-pants country. We keep it simple. I saw you with the corpse of the deer, I heard you cuss me out, and that’s all you need to stay here. In jail. For life.”
“Yep. All I need to do is tell Chief Toad what happened. I might even get promoted, if she’s in a good mood.”
“Maybe it is to you, but it’s how things have been done here. Always. Now get in the car!”
Ravenscroft got in the back of the car as ordered, the cop got in the front, and they drove off.
Unfortunately for them both, Chief Toad was not in a good mood.
Unlike her employee, she was dressed in the fashion of an English “bobby”- a large blue conical helmet with a large yellow star in the center, and a blue coat with copper colored buttons, all done up. Despite being an amphibian (by the standards of Ravenscroft’s world), she had arms and legs, the latter shod, a freckled face, black eyes, and reddish tufts of hair poking out from beneath the helmet. For unexplained reasons, she hovered above her desk via a rocket-powered jetpack, the position she was in when she was “introduced” to Ravenscroft by Officer Pig.
Chief Toad was singularly unimpressed with the two of them, and let them know it immediately, in highly unprintable language. The majority of her wrath was, however, directed at her underling rather than the human trespasser. When he admitted that he had not retrieved the dead body, so that the medical examiner could conduct an autopsy, she punched him violently in the face several times, flagrantly insulted his “manhood”, and threatened him with Chinese water torture if he was not able to do his job better in the future. She then ordered him to leave and retrieve the body “RIGHT NOW”, and the pig did as told.
During this scene, Ravenscroft thought he might be able to sneak out unseen, but, as he tried to leave in the wake of the pig’s departure, the Chief spotted him.
“SIT DOWN!” she ordered, pointing to the chair strategically placed in front of her desk. He had no choice but to comply with this command.
“Do you realize the severity of your actions?” she said, in calmer but still harsh tones. “I don’t know how you regard these kinds of things where you come from, but we take them seriously. Far more so than you could possibly imagine.”
“I didn’t think that you….”people”…took anything seriously,” said Ravenscroft.
“And what gave you that impression?”
Ravenscroft began to explain to her where he was from, the circumstances of his employment, and what his interactions had been in the past with “ ‘toons”. But, before he could get past that word, she cut him off.
“Do not continue to use that word,” she snapped.
“What word?” he asked, indignantly.
“Do I have to utter it myself? You were already brought here, in part, for uttering it once. Uttering it again, especially in front of me, will only increase the severity of your….”
“Okay,” said Ravenscroft. “I get it. I won’t say it again. But why are you so against being called what you literally are?”
“Because that label was forced upon us. At least where you come from. There, we have to grin and bear it to earn a living, because you do not consider it offensive. Here, however, we are the ones who decide what kind of language is fair and just, and, if we agree on anything at all, it is that that term is a slur of the first order. And, as you danced to our music, so to speak, you now have to pay to the piper.”
“I’m not contesting the charges, ma’am. I know what I did. However, if I may say so, I feel that being sentenced to life imprisonment for something that, in America…..”
“This is NOT AMERICA!” she shouted, with the full force of a hurricane. As she regained her breath, he tried to clarify what he meant.
“You think so, huh?” he said. “The last time I checked, I was in California, which has been part of the United States of America since the 1850s. And Toontown, which I assume is still the name of this place, is part of Hollywood, and, therefore, under the jurisdiction of the District Attorney of the County of Los Angeles. So if anybody should be deciding if I….”
She smacked him violently on the head with the truncheon hanging from her belt. A large, pinkish lump grew with inexplicably quick speed where he had been struck.
“What the HELL?” he said, grasping his head in pain.
“Fitting you should mention that place,” the Chief said. “It’s where people like you belong!”
“What did I say that was wrong?”
“You uttered another categorical slur against us by referring to this place by an outmoded term used by only the ignorant and belligerent. It’s not unlike, say, you referring to your country of Zimbabwe by its old, discarded name- Rhodesia.”
“So where am I, then?”
Chief Toad flew off to a side wall, pulled down a wall map, and began using her truncheon as a pointer, not unlike a college professor giving a lecture.
“This place, sir,” she explained, “is the Commonwealth of Anthropomorph. Specifically, you are in Gennett, the capital and largest city, located here. Our boundaries are everywhere and nowhere, and we, as individuals, are capable of being anything and everything that we desire. Your concepts of law, science, government and gentility mean nothing to us, for we have our own. They are concepts that you humans, especially the Americans, will never understand.
“The area that you humans have mistakenly referred to as “Toontown” since the mid-1910s is merely a lower-class district of Gennett, whose residents have manners and morals that are loose even by our traditionally liberal standards. Somehow or another, a portal came to exist in the early twentieth century which connected the area to the American city of Los Angeles, and trade began between the two areas. Certain film producers “discovered” our residents, and hired them to perform their unique abilities on camera, for a few dollars here and there. Hence, the beings your people know as “cartoon characters” came into being. I presume you understand what I mean?”
“I do. So you’re saying that all of them….”
“Including the stars?”
“Especially the stars.”
“But you must be proud of….”
“Haven’t they helped to….Anthropomorph get exposure in my world? And prestige?”
“Hardly! That crowd of wastrels and tax exiles has done nothing to help the people of Anthropomorph, save to stereotype us in the minds of the likes of you! You see us as clowns, meant to prance and caper and bow and scrape at your beck and call. Not as beings with real identities, real feelings or real jobs. Perhaps we may look and act funny to you. But when we look and act seriously, we mean it. Especially when one of you slays one of our own! I might not have been able to avenge the many deaths we have suffered in your world, but, in ours, I damn well can! So, mark my words, you will pay for what you have done!”
“Look, I didn’t….”
She choked him violently, and lifted him up in the air with one hand.
“You have exhausted what little remains of my patience!” she snarled.
Still holding him up, she opened the door of her office, and ordered one of her underlings to come to the doorway. A cop resembling a cute rabbit responded.
“This….’man’….is to be executed! Immediately!” said the Chief, pronouncing ‘man’ with intense hatred. “Use the big barrel of TNT in the storeroom. And, for God’s sake, wait until you get outside the stationhouse, and very far away from it, before you light the fuse this time!”
The rabbit hustled a protesting Ravenscroft away, and Chief Toad slammed the door shut.
“Why do they always have to kill us when they blunder their way in here?” she said to herself. “And why can’t any of them ever tell me I’m beautiful?”
A waterfall of tears fell down her cheeks as she began to cry.
This story originally appeared in Strange Mysteries 5 (2018).