Given that we know that Sly Fox can create monstrosities that partake of the appearance of several different organisms, it seemed an obvious fit for the Big Messy Project. And for a change, it could follow fairly directly from what had gone before. Although I might have continued the protagonist's conversation in "Car Wash" a little further, I decided to start the next morning -- and it still ended up being one of the longest things I've written for this group.
Secret of the Car Wash
The next morning I headed straight back to the gas station. I felt bad about not being able to offer anything to my hosts for putting me up for the night, but they understood about my having left my purse in the car.
At least I felt better fortified with a good breakfast. The sun had that mellow quality of when summer gives way to fall. School's started, but the crops aren't quite ready to harvest.
I got to the gas station just as the owner was unlocking the door and flipping the sign from "Closed" to "Open." He must've seen me coming, since he held the door open for me. "Good morning, ma'am. What brings you here?"
His politeness came as a surprise after what I'd gone through up at the Elementary Building – had it been just yesterday, or had time twisted on itself again while I traveled the tunnels back to town? I was astonished enough that it took me a moment to find my words.
"I'm looking for my car." I explained how it had overheated and broken down as I was turning off US 136, and I'd barely managed to coast it into the parking lot.
He gave me the strangest look, and I realized there was no way I could explain about going into the Primary Building and finding the entrance into Sly Fox's underground realm, or everything that had come out of that. So I just said I went looking for a phone to call for help.
He seemed to accept it as a reasonable explanation for coming back to find my car missing. "Unfortunately, I don't have any information about a car left at the Primary Building. If the district had it towed, they didn't call me about it. Sorry to disappoint you."
A lump of sick dread settled in my stomach. I managed to stammer out an expression of gratitude, but my mind was reeling, on the verge of panic. How would I get back home with a car? I had classes to teach. Was I going to be trapped here forever, with no car, no ID and no money?
I walked back out on shaking legs, struggling to fight down the panic that threatened to overcome my rational mind. Think, I told myself. The car couldn't just vanish. It had to have been taken somewhere.
The car wash caught my attention, and I recalled Mr. Reed's story about its peculiarities. At the time I'd been trying not to bristle too obviously at the implication that I considered myself too big for my hometown. Thinking back on what he'd said, I wondered if there might be a lot more to that place than it appeared.
For starters, what was the mechanism by which the car wash transformed ordinary cars into supercars? The fish-man transformation was not an event but a process, and a pretty horrifying one at that. So it stood to reason that a process was involved here.
I walked over to take a closer look. It appeared to be an ordinary coin-op system, although it didn't have the keypad and card reader I would've expected of one in Grinnell, just a coin slot and a knob to turn. More surprising was the price – just a quarter. And given that it looked to be purely electromechanical, I expected it would only take exact change.
When had you still been able to get a car wash for a quarter? Not a discount with a fill-up, but just a wash? I had a vague memory of going down to Clark County to visit some of Dad's family and stopping at a car wash on the way, and Dad being annoyed that it had gone up from a dime to twenty cents.
No matter. I'd already seen too many anachronisms to think the price would tell me what year this was supposed to be. And it wasn't helping me find my missing car.
Now that the doors were open, I could walk into the wash bay and examine the equipment. The sprayer and brushes didn't look that different from the ones at the car wash I used in Grinnell, so it didn't look like a transformation was happening to the car itself.
Could it be some kind of swap, like a sleight-of-hand magic trick? But that would require a mechanism to perform the switch so seamlessly the driver didn't even realize it was happening right around him.
On the other hand, such a mechanism would also be very useful to hide a car that needed to be disappeared. In which case, the problem would be finding it and activating it without entrapping myself, and then finding my way to wherever my car had been taken without running afoul of any of Sly Fox's goons.
I walked through the bay, looking carefully for any sign of a hidden door that could conceal the machinery that performed the swap. I wished I had a better understanding of the technology, but none of my various part-time jobs over the years had included a car wash. Most of what I did know was from innate curiosity, watching the mechanism work when I took my own car through.
So there I was, looking up and down the machinery, not sure what I was seeking but hoping I'd recognize it when I saw it. All I'd need right now would be to have a legitimate customer show up and want to know what the heck I was doing poking around the place.
And then the floor under my feet grew soft, squishy. Alarmed, I jumped back to the base of one of the rollers and grabbed its swing-arm tight.
As I watched, the floor began to sag as if it had suddenly turned into rubber, then became steadily thinner and less substantial. I could see mechanisms underneath it – not the drainage system to carry the water away, but machinery reminiscent of a robotic arm, or perhaps a design of a car lift I'd never seen in any car shop I'd ever taken a vehicle of mine to.
I've triggered it. The thought should've been triumphant, but instead my knees grew weak and I had to fight down a sudden fit of the shakes.
What I'd just witnessed had no sensible explanation. Sure, I'd read that kind of stuff in science fiction, but it was usually the work of some super-advanced civilization thousands or millions of years in the future. Not something in my old home town, even one oddly transformed by the anachronistic juxtaposition of elements from different parts of my life, as well as the secret world of my imagination.
Not to mention how I could ever trust it enough to pass through the aperture it had opened. And that went double if it were indeed Sly Fox's doing.
As I watched, the mechanism began to rise out of the basement area, which looked to be much larger than could be accounted for by the surface building. The harder I tried to look at it, the more difficult it became to focus upon it – which made a terrible sense if it were supposed to swap cars without the driver even realizing it was going on. Might it involve some kind of holographic technology, or a form of hypnosis?
I knew one thing: I did not want to get caught up in it. Not just the ordinary danger of being too close to machinery, which everyone who grew up on a farm knew from stories of neighbors being maimed or killed by a moment's carelessness around a corn picker or a rotating PTO shaft. But the risk that it could somehow captivate my mind, enthrall me to the point I became easy prey and would walk right into Sly Fox's clutches.
By force of will I shifted my gaze away from the mechanism, to what I could see of the chamber in which it operated. Was that a stairway leading up to the surface level, maybe five or ten feet to the left of the aperture?
That would put it right by the pole for the coin-op box. It made a sort of sense, since there'd have to be some kind of connection between it and the machinery of the car wash.
I edged along the wall to the entrance door, keeping a careful eye on the machinery rising from the under-floor plenum but not looking too closely at it. However, its peculiarities did not appear to include being able to reach beyond the legitimate car wash machinery to grab people walking along the walls, even people that Sly Fox wanted to capture.
When I got outside, I began looking around for the door that had to be at the top of those stairs. I doubted it would be a trap door, since the intent would be for Sly Fox's goons to come up from his underground realm when it was necessary to perform maintenance.
No, it would most likely be one that had to be lifted. I'd have to hope my strength was equal to the task, since I didn't relish the thought of having to recruit help from the gas station or the restaurant. Even if the locals found its sudden arrival suspicious, they were not the sort of people who'd be eager to go poking around inside it.
However, just finding the door proved easier said than done. Back at the farm where I'd grown up, I'd found both secret doors by the simple expedient of looking for a section of wall that didn't look right. Here, everything looked perfectly ordinary in the morning light.
And then I realized that the concrete slab began further over than the stairs should be located. Could it be hidden under the gravel?
With no shovel or other tool handy to move it, I had to scrape the gravel back with my feet, scuffling along the ground. All the time I worried that someone would come along and want to know what the hell I was up to.
Only when the entire door was uncovered did it become visible to me. I grabbed the recessed handle and pulled it up.
The hinges creaked a little, but it came up much more easily than I would've expected for something heavy enough for vehicles to drive over. The clearance was high enough to admit a full-sized pickup, maybe even a cargo van.
On the other hand, might the handrails contain some kind of piston mechanism, similar to the rams that held up the hood of my car when I did my oil and coolant checks? All the same, I stepped down very cautiously, not wanting to discover I'd walked into a trap.
I must've been right to guess that this door was for the use of Sly Fox's goons, because I descended to the pit level unmolested. Feet safely on the ground, I looked around, realized the mechanism had retracted and the floor of the car wash had once again become solid.
However, I saw no evidence of any cars eing held anywhere around here, not ordinary cars like the Chevette Terry Best had given Kit, and not muscle cars like the Corvette Kip had come out with. Instead, there were some devices that looked like pumps for the actual car wash, and the folded-up device that had risen from the dissolving floor as if to capture me.
Looking closer, I could see some parts that reminded me of the stuff in Todd Adams' cell. Could I have been completely wrong about the mechanism by which the car wash could change an ordinary car into a super car? Did Sly Fox just enjoy torturing his victims by drawing out their transformation into an exercise in body horror, while he was in fact perfectly capable of making the change instantaneous? Or was it a matter that cars were machines and could be altered on the fly, while biological systems like the human body required a slower and more deliberate process?
However, I really didn't have time to investigate the mechanism by which Sly Fox was doing his little wash magic game. I needed my own car back, and if it had been brought over here to the car wash and brought down here, I needed to find it.
The doors weren't that hard to find, once my eyes adjusted to the lower light level down here. Three of them were pedestrian doors, but the one at the far end was a garage door.
It took a little searching to find the controls, but once I did, the door opened without any problems. Beyond it was a long sloping passage lit by canister lights on either side. I could see a slender trail, like oil or other fluids dribbling from a car's engine, leading downward.
As I walked, I could hear sounds in the distance. Not just the echoes of my own feet, or even the machinery of the car wash behind me, although running water was most definitely a part of it.
Yes, those sounds were the glurbling speech of the fish-men. Make it definite that I was in Sly Fox's realm again, just a different part of it. Not exactly the sort of place where I wanted to go strolling down the middle of a corridor.
I flattened myself against the wall and began working my way down the corridor toward wherever the fish-men were working. I didn't really expect them to have my missing car, but if those fluids had come out of it, I didn't want to lose my chance to retrieve it. However, while I couldn't understand anything they were saying, the tone and cadence of their voices made me think of a bunch of factory workers grumping about a foreman they considered unreasonable.
As it turned out, they were on the other side of an open doorway about a hundred yards down the passage. As I realized that the weird acoustics of this place had made them sound closer, I paused at the doorframe and very carefully looked around.
Beyond it was what I can only describe as a water station. All along the wall were taps, and the fish-men were carrying rolled-up objects that I first took to be rugs. However, that only lasted until the fish-men attached the objects to the taps. As the water filled them, they expanded into globular form, and I realized they were water balls, back to be refilled after they'd been emptied and wrung out.
Except this time the fish-men were not going to let another one plead for help, even if it managed to get away. As soon as they removed each water ball from its tap, they forced a large plug into its mouth. A couple of them struggled and wailed, but there wasn't much a completely spherical creature could do to resist. In the end the plug went into its place. A couple of the water balls annoyed the fish-men sufficiently to get a sharp knee to the side, resulting in a spout of water from their mouths before the plug was forced into place. No doubt those sharper-sounding glurbles were the fish-man equivalent of cursing.
Even silenced, the water balls quivered and rocked as they waited to be rolled to their destination. Now and again one would manage to get rolling, but none of them got far before one of the fish-men would notice the attempted escape and run to retrieve it.
Much as their casual cruelty made my ire rise, I knew there was nothing I could do about it. I'd been able to overcome one fish-man by surprising him, but there had to be a dozen or more working here. Without weapons to take them out, I'd simply be handing myself over for capture. And if they were made from bullies, they'd be happy to torment me before handing me over to their master for whatever cruelty he might think up for me.
I had no desire to end up in one of those cells, being transformed into one or another horror. All I wanted to do right now was retrieve my car and find my way back out of here, back to sanity.
So I tiptoed past the door, hoping none of the fish-men chose that moment to look in my direction. Thankfully they were all so engrossed in their task that they didn't even seem to notice my passage.
The further I went, the thinner the trail of dripping fluids became. Not surprising if it were something leaking out of my car's engine. Eventually the source would be exhausted – which was not a good thing even if I were to be able to follow the trail all the way to the car. Although I did carry a quart of oil among my supplies in the trunk, it would not begin to replenish the crankcase if it had drained altogether, and trying to start the engine on a single quart of oil would be a good way to ruin it.
And then I became aware of a sound in the distance, a sort of scritch-scritch-scritch sound like claws on a hard surface. Was something following me? Or was it just going about its own business?
I had no great desire to encounter any of Sly Fox's servants, but there wasn't much of a place to hide. And running back the way I had come would only make enough noise to draw pursuit straight to me.
So I crept along the wall, hoping that I wouldn't be so obvious about sneaking that I'd draw more attention to myself than I would've walking normally. And then I saw the source of the sound.
At first I thought it was a spider – until I realized this creature had too many legs. Yet its bulbous abdomen was far more arachnid than crustacean, and there were no grasping claws, only a set of legs extending directly to the front in the manner of a spider. On the other hand, it also had antennae like a lobster or crawdad, and its huge many-faceted eyes were more reminiscent of an insect like a grasshopper or dragonfly, even if its mouthparts were more akin to those of the arachnid clade.
Not to mention its impossible size. The thing had to be as big as a mastiff, if not a pony. It should've collapsed under its own weight – the really huge lobsters are only able to survive because of the buoyancy provided by the marine environment.
Was that thing looking at me? I pressed my back against the wall and did my best to keep completely still, reminding myself that most predators tracked motion, not shapes.
But that assumed it was a natural organism, shaped by evolutionary factors. If it was yet another of Sly Fox's monstrous mis-shapings, there was no telling what it might be able to do. Especially if it were, like the fish-men and the mock-turtles, a human being who had been captured and twisted into a creature of his purposes.
Barely daring to breathe, I scanned the area for something, anything I could use as a weapon against that thing. If it didn't ignore me, I did not intend to go down quietly.
I also got a response in for the weekly Indies Unlimited Flash Fiction Writing Challenge. My response is a post-apocalyptic story of the decision to create an order of scientific quasi-monastics similar to the mathic world in Neal Stephenson's Anathem.
As always, you can participate in Odd Prompts by sending your prompt to email@example.com. It can be a snippet of prose or verse, a song, a video clip, a picture or cartoon, just make it evocative.
And there'll be a new prompt up at Indies Unlimited on Saturday. In the meantime, voting will start on this week's contributions tomorrow, and run through 5PM Pacific Time on Thursday.