A/N: With sincere apologies to Walt Disney himself for warping his personal time line and probably seriously screwing with his personality. But really, this is not so much about Walt Disney as it is about a man named Walter who just so happens to share a great deal of similarities with the aforementioned.
Reviews are welcome.
Disclaimer: I do not own anyone or anything belonging to the Disney Company or its affiliates. Disney owns all.
Chapter One: The Train
On a lonely stretch of track, a steam train rumbled along through the countryside. It appeared from and easily vanished into the night as though it were a ghost train. Lights did not shine from the four carriage cars attached to the baggage car, as this was an older train that had not yet been equipped with electric lights and the lantern fuel needed to last as long as possible. Many of the passengers had disembarked two stops past, leaving less than a dozen people riding this train to its destination.
Night had fallen over the land, bringing with it heavy dark clouds and chilly March rain. The season of snow had passed by, more or less. Spring was getting set to make its annual return, but for the moment, winter still kept its cold grip. It was damp and miserable outside; the sort of weather that encouraged a body to warm up by the fire with a mug of hot tea or cocoa in hand. Perhaps with a thick wooly blanket as well. This was not the sort of weather to be out and about in. Especially not on a train where drafts made themselves at home, chilling the bare fingers of the passengers.
It was extraordinarily noisy aboard the train. Every so often, the seats would give a slight jerk as the wheels ran over wide notches in the track. The carriage seemed to sway back and forth in a gentle, but decidedly distracting manner. The windows kept rattling like they was going to fall out of their frames; a constant taktaktaktaktak noise. The lanterns overhead would creak with the motion of the train. And one passenger was snoring so uproariously that it was probably a small miracle he didn't wake himself up from the noise he was making.
And here Walter had wondered why he couldn't sleep.
The snoring culprit was his elder and closest brother, Roy. He always snored on the train. Maybe it had something to do with sleeping in a sitting position such as that, instead of being able to comfortably recline. In like a congested bear, out like the clogged engine of a motor car. It was a noise that Walter was plenty familiar with. It was comforting in its own way. It was a noise that Walter had often fallen asleep to; after bad dreams or restless nights or during long trips. But it was going to keep Walter up all night if he didn't make his brother try and sleep on the floor.
A thin haze of smoke clung to the ceiling of the last train carriage like an evil spirit, diluting what little light was left in the carriage. It was empty but for the two brothers. Their neighbors had left them long before the sun had sunk below the horizon, able to return to their warm, comforting homes. They had all stepped off the train with smiles on their faces or with relief in their eyes. Their demeanors had clearly shown that they had lost nothing of any importance to them. For them, everything was right where they had left it.
Walter tried not to feel too jealous of the departed passengers as he endeavored to restore warmth to his partially numbed fingers. He was quite chilled; the carriage car wasn't heated to any sort of satisfaction. But a glance out the window informed that he was much better off with a roof over his head and four walls on either side of him.
Dreary and miserable outside, it was. Rain pelted the ground, half-frozen so it left icy specks on the window. Yes, he was much happier inside where he could remain dry and marginally warmer. Perhaps a smoke would warm him some...
No, he didn't want to thicken that haze at the ceiling. It already looked too much like a ghost was taking up residence up there and in the darkness, the shadows had assumed an eerie quality. The air had taken a bit of a foul stench to it as well. He supposed that was the reason the train operators politely requested that their passengers please refrain from smoking while aboard the train.
He didn't feel particularly keen on a cigarette either. In just the past few days, he had reduced so many cigarettes to ashes. More than he ever had in a month. They had done wonders at calming his nerves, though.
But he felt that his nerves were too frayed and raw for a cigarette to be of any use to him now. And if he came back home smelling like an ashtray, Lillian wasn't going to kiss him until he brushed his teeth and gargled some mouthwash.
A grunting snort drew his attention away from idle thoughts about another cigarette and the creepy-looking shadows. Walter turned to regard his snoozing brother with an emotion he definitely knew was jealousy. He had no idea how Roy could possibly sleep at a time like this. And so peacefully too. It was as if-- As if Roy didn't fully grasp the consequences of what had happened. As if this was nothing a setback; barely a trifle that could be remedied with just a snap of the fingers. One touch with a magic wand and all would be made well again.
All would not be well. They had lost Oswald...
And then, just like that, Walter was on his feet again.
He couldn't sit still after that thought had crossed his mind for the umpteenth time. He was back to pacing the aisle between the seats, brimming with restless energy that he couldn't burn off no matter what he did.
He was certain that he wasn't going to sleep tonight, Roy's snoring or no. But it was because of this restless energy that he had already endured several sleepless nights so far. What did one more night matter?
He'd had no appetite since they left Manhattan. Food had tasted like cardboard in his mouth; hard to swallow and even harder to keep down. This not-sleeping thing wasn't doing him any good either. His body felt heavy and every time he tried a cigarette, it would get difficult to breathe properly. The cough that often tickled at his throat would come worse than ever and sometimes, he would be left gasping for air, coughing so hard he would nearly retch.
He was exhausted. He could feel his fatigue pulling on him even now, but he just couldn't close his eyes and fall asleep. If he did, he would be treated to a replay of the ill-fated conversation that had spelled the end to Walter's ownership over Oswald the Lucky Rabbit.
Though, when he thought about it, Walter supposed that he had never really owned Oswald in the first place. Yes, he had been responsible for giving Oswald life, but he didn't consider himself any sort of owner of the character.
The only thing he owned -- well, he and his brother -- was their animation studio on Hyperion Avenue, back home in Los Angeles. Walter made the cartoons that brought the money in and Roy made sure they didn't go bankrupt trying to make those cartoons. It was a partnership that had worked out well so far and they could see it being a success in the future.
That was why Walter and Roy had been in Manhattan in the first place. Their current series, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit had been going strong. The titular character was popular; even more popular than they had originally anticipated. Oswald had captured peoples' attention and it had been their support that had turned him into such a popular character. There was clearly a niche in the world for animation.
The popularity had come with a price, though. Quite literally in this respect. The budget for the Oswald series had been growing with every new cartoon the studio made. With the budget stretching thinner and thinner, Walter had come to Manhattan to ask his distributor, a man named Mintz, for an increase in the budget. If Oswald was going to continue becoming more and more popular, then they needed the money to keep going.
But for reasons Walter still couldn't understand, Mintz had instead demanded that he take a twenty percent budget cut. A budget cut would get them nowhere. The quality would dip, Walter wouldn't be able to pay anyone for their hard work (not even himself) and their little studio would go bankrupt.
Mintz had taken care of the wage problem before Walter could even think about it. It seemed that Mintz had hired almost all of Walter's employees to a new contract with Universal, leaving Walter with just two men to call his employees. Not enough to run a studio and expect any real ongoing success out of it.
Obviously, that hadn't been enough for Mintz. As if to twist the knife further, he reminded Walter that the latter did not own the character. The rights to Oswald belonged to Mintz and Universal.
This, of course, had left Walter at a loose end. To fight for Oswald would take time and money he could not afford to spend. Not if he wanted to keep his own little studio out of the hole. They were just about broke as it was.
Seeing no other recourse, he had given up.
Walter was unhappy about losing Oswald to a man who was doing nothing more than riding on the success the little rabbit had brought. He had helped bring that character to life; gave him a name, a reason for-- everything! Oswald existed because of him! What would happen to that poor rabbit now? Would he continue to be a success under such a different atmosphere? Handled by a different set of people? Was Walter going to end up seeing his first real animated creation fade into anonymity because Mintz wouldn't know what to do with the character?
Walter stopped mid-stride when he realized how he was acting. Just like a concerned father who had just seen his only son vanish into the depths of the world. And maybe that was what Oswald had been to him. A representation of everything he hoped to achieve in his time on this earth.
Mintz had stolen that.
His fists tightened and his feet fell a little louder on the carriage floor. The restless energy turned into anger. Anger at the system; anger at the way things had worked out; anger at Mintz.
Oswald was my character. He got taken away because someone else owned him. Walter thought, almost grinding his teeth. I will never work for anyone else ever again. Anything that is created in my studio will remain in my studio.
It was a promise he vowed to keep. Both of them. He would never lose the rights to another character ever again.
Barely seconds after these thought finished coming to fruition, the train lurched. Well, it didn't so much as lurch as it did convulse like a person choking on a cherry pit while getting the Heimlich administered.
There was solid-sounding *thunk* that turned out to be Roy's head hitting the window, followed be a series of thuds and surprised curses as inertia heaved him out of his seat. At the same time, Walter was thrown right off his feet, like the carpet had been ripped out from underneath him.
Either the universe was trying to indicate that his idea was a good idea or a monumentally stupid one. Regardless, he tried not to look at it like an omen.
The brakes squealed and screamed and the train rapidly lost momentum. It lurched a few more times before it successfully came to a juddering halt. The whole time Walter pressed the palms of his hands into the floor, feeling all the weight of his body pulling on the skin of his palms. It was all he could do to not go sliding forward down the aisle. With a final, thin squeak, the train stopped moving completely.
All was silent for but a moment.
The thuds from a moment ago seemed to repeat themselves as Roy fought his way out of the cramped space he had been unceremoniously lodged into. He leaned against the seat and gazed down at his brother. Walter was picking himself up off the floor, carefully looking this way and that.
"What happened?" he wondered out loud.
"Damned if I know." Roy said, shrugging. "And I was having such a nice dream, too." he added with a heavy, wistful sort of sigh.
Walter suddenly realized that he had an empty package of cigarettes available to throw at his brother. He didn't -- just to be nice -- and walked over to the closest window to peer out into the rainy gloom.
"We've definitely stopped moving." he announced, looking left and right for any sort of sign that might have indicated why the train had come to a sudden halt. But the darkness was too thick to make out much more than the general shapes of the nearby trees.
"I can see that, little brother." Roy said tiredly, running his fingers through his hair as he stepped out into the aisle.
He yawned so widely it seemed like his mouth would split and shook himself to wake up a little more. His clothes were ruffled from the somewhat restless nap. He hadn't actually slept well, regardless of what words left his mouth. The future of the studio had been dominating his thoughts ever since they had left Manhattan. It was a terribly uncertain future.
What was going to happen now? He kept asking himself that and continued to fail at finding a positive answer. He kept having visions of the studio going under so fast it would make his head spin. The studio was Walter's dream and the last thing Roy wanted to see was that dream deferred
In a well-meaning effort to keep his brother from breaking down, Roy tried not to let on how worried he really was.
He wondered if it was working.
Walter hadn't been sleeping very well, though.
"I'm going to try and have a word with the conductor." Roy said, feeling a sudden and strangely urgent need to put some distance between himself and his kin. "I'd like to know what happened and how long we're going to be stalled. Are you going to stay here?"
Walter glanced away from his examination of the rainy night and towards his brother.
"Yes. I'll be right here."
Roy nodded; a strangely solemn gesture, Walter thought. Then the older brother shuffled off towards the door while the younger continued to gaze out the window. Roy had a hold of the handle when he paused a moment.
"You know, Walt." he started. "We'll get through this. We'll make it work again. We're not licked yet."
Walter didn't respond. Roy just sighed as quietly as he could and with all too much haste, it seemed, he opened the door and vanished through it, leaving behind a swirl of March air and a few drops of rain.
Though he was glad that one of them could be optimistic about this, Walter just wasn't sure how they were going to pull themselves up from this. Mintz had backed them into a corner first before swiping not only Oswald, but nearly all of the employees as well. That fight was over. Oswald wasn't coming back. Walter had resigned himself to that much.
But he hadn't resigned himself to giving up completely. There simply had to be a way. Roy was right to say that things weren't over yet, but it was a matter of finding that way to keep going.
Walter extracted a pad of paper from his back pocket, along with a pencil. The pad of paper was battered from spending so much time in his pocket and then being sat on. It hosted a number of little drawings he had doodled down in his spare time whenever he was too distracted to think properly.
He opened it up to a fresh page and leaned a little closer to the window because it was lighter there, then started to draw a familiar form. He had the sketch finished within minutes; having drawn Oswald so many times before that he could probably make a safe bet that he could do it in his sleep with very little trouble.
The cartoon rabbit smiled up at Walter from the paper. The arms were splayed out in a welcoming gesture, like he was going to capture the next person in a big squishy hug that made you feel all good inside.
This was probably the last time he was going to draw Oswald, but there was nothing wrong with doing it for the nostalgia. He was, after all, the creator and there was bound to be some attachment to the character.
He knew that he could never use Oswald again. If he did, Mintz would call the copyright laws into place and Walter would likely lose everything he had worked to gain. It was a depressing thing to think about.
He sighed heavily. There was no help for it. They had to come up with another character.
The only problem was, there was just no way to tell whether or not a new character would be as successful as Oswald until they got it out there to the public. The rabbit had been wildly successful, but would the new character be able to carry off that same charm?
What would the new character be?
It had to be an animal that appealed to the audience. He wasn't going to make the character a human. Everyone had thought Julius was more fun than Alice. Everyone had focused on Julius in the end, even though the cat had acted more like a person than a cat. So the character had to become someone the audience could relate to on a human level. That was what had stirred success with Oswald. The rabbit had encountered very human problems; losing his romantic interest to a rival, for example. The new character needed to encounter everyday things that people regularly dealt with. The audience needed to feel sympathy and even empathy for the new character.
But they needed a new character first and foremost.
Walter tapped his pencil on the paper in thought, frowning at the sketch. It wasn't his best one because he had drawn it in the dark, but there was something about it that just looked off. He took out an eraser and rubbed away almost all of the long ears until Oswald just had two stubs left on his head. Still frowning, though less than before, Walter slowly drew a circle over each stub; something like mouse ears. He held the altered sketch away slightly and examined it critically.
That looked a little better, but something was still missing.
Aha! The shape of the body was too much like a square. Something more circular then. And perhaps longer arms as well.
Something new was rising from Oswald's ashes. Something new and better. He was on to something here. He could almost taste it. If he could just get this right, then maybe--
A flash of color distracted Walter from his task and he jerked his eyes off the sketch. Just like that, his calm state of mind fled and he was reminded of where he was. Standing on the stalled train somewhere in the middle of what he thought was Pennsylvania while it rained heavily outside.
Walter breathed out a great gust of air and looked back at the sketch. It was now some weird mash-up of Oswald and -- something else. Something that looked vaguely like a mouse or maybe it was a cat. He wasn't sure what it was supposed to be. The thoughts of what he was drawing hadn't even come to full fruition before he had been distracted by-- what? A flash of color? What color? It was the middle of the night. Every color was muted by the dark; reduced to grays and blues and blacks. It wasn't lightning either. It was much too early in the year for storms and anyways, he would have heard the thunder by now.
He turned towards the window again and looked outside. Once again, this task was impeded by the fact he could barely see beyond the tree line. But as it transpired, it wasn't what lay outside the window that was the most interesting. It was the window itself.
For a second or two, Walter thought his eyes were playing tricks on him. He blinked and rubbed at his eyes, momentarily convinced that he was so tired he had fallen asleep standing up and this was but a dream.
A rainbow of colors was playing faintly across the windowpane. They moved gently; soft and translucent like a soap bubble. Walter waved a hand in front of the window, seeing if it was some projection of light. The shadow of his hand failed to interfere with anything. He breathed on it and only caused the colors to move a little faster, swirling away from the spot where his breath hit the glass.
Was it even glass anymore?
He slapped his cheek with the sketchpad. The impact did absolutely nothing except cause a brief, brief pain. Then he realized that he was not asleep and dreaming, and what he was seeing was in fact, real.
It looked like someone had managed to stretch a soap bubble across a window frame.
Knowing better than to go sticking his hand into strange substances he couldn't fully identify, Walter poked the window with the tip of his pencil experimentally. To his utmost astonishment, the graphite went through the glass pane like it had no more substance to it than water. The swirling colors immediately surrounding the tip of the pencil brightened a little.
More out of surprise than anything else, Walter yanked the pencil out of the window (he was just going to call it that for now), making the window wobble and ripple like it had turned into rubber. This only served to reinforce the soap bubble comparison. The glowing faded away and faint colors continued their slow dance as if they had never been disturbed.
"What madness is this?" Walter wondered in awe. "What delightful madness?..."
He felt like a little child again, watching the world go by for the first time and being amazed by the power it contained in even the smallest spaces. This was new. This was different. He couldn't make heads or tails of it and yet, he wanted to. This was a puzzle he wanted to decipher and learn it secrets. Would anything happen if he just -- touched it?
Walter stared at his pencil but could detect nothing different about it. The window didn't appear to have done anything to the graphite or the wood. Maybe it wouldn't do anything to him. There was only one way to find out. He looked quickly over his shoulder to see if his brother was coming back and shook off the feeling that he was doing something he oughta not be doing. Then he raised his hand and pressed the tip of his finger into the window.
There was a second's worth of resistance and then his finger slipped through. Whatever the window was now was thicker than it appeared and felt pleasantly cool, like water. It might as well have been a pond. The swirling colors were glowing again like the stars at night, brighter and moving faster than before. But Walter felt fine still. Nothing was happening to him; except for his skin taking on a blue-ish hue, but the pencil had done that too so he wasn't worried. Feeling emboldened by this development, he dipped his entire hand up to the wrist and the cuff of his sleeve.
A trickle of doubt slipped through his mind that maybe what he was doing really wasn't such a good idea. After all, he really had no idea what this was or what it could do to him (if anything).
The feeling that he was doing something he shouldn't came back with uncomfortable heaviness. He should probably go get Roy and show him this. Maybe the conductor and the driver as well. They would probably want to see something like this, in case it was a bigger problem than it seemed.
Walter started to pull his hand out, but the window pulled back. It yanked back, more like, ripping him off his feet and into the soap bubble-like glass. He went with nary a scream. No time for a scream. It happened too fast.
In a flash, he was gone.
With perfect timing reserved only for scripted movies, the door opened and Roy walked back into the carriage car.
"There's a barricade on the tracks. Someone actually took the time to cut down enough trees to barricade the tracks." he announced with a slightly disbelieving laugh. "I haven't the foggiest clue why. The conductor thinks that it's going to take at least half an hour to remove it. We'll just have to sit tight Walt--"
Roy broke off, realizing that he was talking to naught but thin air. The train car was empty. There was no sign that his little brother had ever been aboard, save for the stunted cigarette butts lying in the ash tray at the other end of the car.
What Roy didn't see (and that was probably a good thing in retrospect) was the soap bubble-like window become just a window again; solidifying back to simple glass and losing that magical sheen it had possessed moments ago.
In the meantime, Walter was busy falling; a headlong plummet into god-only-knows what. Pulled along by an impossible vice-like grip on his right hand; an invisible force dragging him down through a tunnel of flashing colors; all the colors he had ever seen and quite a few that he had never laid eyes on in his life. It may have just been his imagination at the present moment, but this whole thing didn't look quite real. Like it had been drawn on a sheet of paper first and then rolled up. Like Alice's rabbit hole.
This was Alice's rabbit hole. And he had just assumed the role of Alice.
What was at the bottom of this rabbit hole?
It was quite the fleeting thought since all but a small part of his mind that was occupied with screaming his head off like a ninny.
In his defense, there was a strong possibility of being reduced to a smear upon landing.
He did have to stop to actually breathe and when he did, he saw a deeply blue spiral laying ahead of him, its five arms curving outwards like an octopus. It resembled the sketches of the galaxy that had been drawn by scientists claiming that this was what a galaxy looked like. Stars glittered in millions of places; as if someone had spilled a bowl of glitter. Tiny sparkling motes of light. They swarmed around him like deranged fireflies, threatening to fly up his nose and into his eyes. They were so bright and so close that he was about blinded.
Walter yelped with his regained breath and swiped at the motes of light, shoving them away from his eyes and nose and mouth. Each time they made contact with his skin, he felt a little tingle that reminded him of static electricity.
The swarm passed him by -- or maybe he fell right through it. His vision cleared until he could see the deeply blue spiral again. At its glowing heart, something black was opening up. A perfectly round black circle.
No, it wasn't a circle. There was a sort of depth and three-dimensionality to it. It wasn't a circle; it was a hole.
Here was the rabbit hole.
And much like Alice had, Walter plunged into it. It swallowed him whole.
In years to come, Walter knew that he would never be quite able to organize into proper sequence the events that took place within the black hole. It seemed that one second he was stretched out like taffy and then another second he was smashed into something the size of a golf ball.
Then, for a few horrifying seconds, there was literally nothing. Nothing at all. No sense of direction or movement. He was numb; unable to see or hear or speak... He could barely think coherently. He was certain that he was still conscious, but--
There was loud *pop!* and Walter was chucked face-first into something alternately hard and soft; it had give when his body landed. And exceedingly smelly as well. There was a raucous clang as a lid or something banged shut over him, encasing him completely in darkness and that foul smell.
For a moment, he just lay there, trying to suppress his gag reflex and not breathe too deeply at the same time. Lordy that smelled terrible! If he had to wager a guess, he found himself now in a dumpster. That was the only thing he could think of that would contain so much garbage and such a bad smell.
He took the opportunity to collect himself; to wait out the dizziness and get his head back in order. What on earth had just happened to him? The lights and the tunnel and the black hole... Like a dream...
Maybe he had fallen asleep on the train after all.
Though, this was a very vivid dream.
Walter turned over so he was facing the lid of the dumpster and reached his hands up to see how far away it was. When his fingers found the hard rubber, he slowly sat up, ducking his head to avoid hitting it on the lid. There shouldn't be anything on top of it so it should--
He aborted his action almost immediately and sat still for a second or two. Then he pressed his ear to the rust-spotted side of the smelly box and listened carefully for the noise he had just heard. It had sounded like a voice.
"--heard somethin', boss. Came from over here."
Yes, it was indeed a voice. A nasally sort of voice that didn't sound very friendly at all. It had a strong Spanish accent that made some of the words difficult to understand. Walter listened carefully as the speaker piped up again.
"Somethin' fell. It went bang. Heard it."
He froze while the tips of his fingers went cold. The owner of the voice was clearly referring to the noise that the Walter had inadvertently made during his landing. He cursed the fact that the first person to discover his presence might very well be someone who would remove intestines without asking for his name or even showing any hint of good manners.
"I don't see nothin'." commented a second voice that sounded like they were trying to refrain from belching out a heavy smoker's cough at the same time. "Betcha need to getcha hearin' tested, Greasy."
There were titters of grungy laughter. Walter didn't know how many people were standing out there, but he guessed at least four, maybe five from the laughter. They didn't strike him as being very pleasant company.
He jumped slightly when fingernails began tapping the outside of the dumpster. They started on the opposite end and traveled along the outside until they reached the point where Walter's ear was still pressed to the rusting side.
"Anyone in there?" The third voice brought to mind images of oil slipping across a parking lot after a rain. "It's after curfew ya intraloper. Ain't no one opposed to be out after curfew. It's the law 'round here."
Still more titters of that grungy laughter, but Walter was left in confusion. Frankly he didn't know where "'round here" was, but in all the cities he visited, he couldn't recall ever being told there was a curfew.
To be quite honest, he wasn't sure where he was now at all.
"Course, we may just let ya run on home." the oily voice added nonchalantly. "Me an' the boys have had a good night. We're feeling a bit charity, right boys?"
Laughter burst outside the dumpster, as if Oily had just told the funniest joke ever. This time Walter was able to pick out four separate voices, in addition to the fifth that hovered near the lid of the dumpster. He made no moves to exit the dumpster, however, taking caution over curiosity. He stayed put.
"Ehhhh, I'm not gonna wait all night on some freak in a dumpster." Oily decided after a moment. "Let's go boys."
The five departed in a noisy manner, shuffling their feet and making whining sounds until Oily gave them a sharp scolding. They scuttled off after that, but Walter still sat there in the dumpster for another minute, listening for any more sounds that would indicate the five had stuck around. Finally, he just couldn't take sitting in the smelly garbage a moment longer. He need some fresh air.
He pushed the lid open and sucked in a grateful breath that didn't sit on his tongue like a dead parrot. More like a dead grasshopper. The air outside was only marginally better. It smelled like a combination of exhaust from one of those new cars, horse manure and the fainter scent of sour milk. Riding the wind straight into his nose. Joy.
The pencil and the pad of paper had been carried along with him, he noticed. They had separated from his hands -- probably upon landing and now lay on the topmost layer of garbage. Walter picked them up and returned them safely to his pockets, before climbed out of the dumpster and looked down at himself.
"I'm glad I wasn't wearing my good suit."
Whatever had been in the dumpster had been in there for a long time already and it was at the stage where it had gone all soft and squishy and therefore, clingy. He brushed it off, wincing slightly when it all hit the pavement with a splatter. The concrete was dirty enough as it was; he really didn't need to go adding to it. Actually, to hell with just the concrete, the rest of this place wasn't any better.
He stood in a narrow alley that was overflowing with refuse; most of it so far gone that there wasn't even a stink anymore. The buildings on either side of him rose tall into the black night sky; the likes of which he had only seen in Manhattan. The stucco walls were caked with grime to a height of about five feet and the windows were either cracked or so dirty no light could get through. The fire escapes creaked and swayed in the gentle breezes that propelled loose poster papers across the street. One such poster caught on his ankle. Curious, Walter bent down and picked it up.
By the order of Judge,
All citizens are to be within their homes by sundown every evening.
Anyone found on the streets after curfew will be sentenced to the Dip.
No exceptions. No excuses.
It was stamped with an elaborate wax seal bearing a raven and a cat gathered around a mirror. Walter gazed at the missive, a terrible realization sinking into his mind.
"I'm not... This isn't where I started." he whispered. "This isn't Manhattan and it isn't Los Angeles."
"Whatcha talking about?" asked that same wheezing voice from earlier just before it broke into heavy coughing. The poster was crunched between Walter's hands as he turned to face the source of the cough. From the shadow cast by a dim streetlight (so dim it might as well have not been there at all), there was a rising trail of smoke and the glowing end of a large cigar.
"'Course this is LA." the wheezing voice finished. The orange glow brightened as the owner sucked in another gout of smoke.
"I'm sorry, but this does not look like Los Angeles to me." Walter said patiently. "Though I admit that I'm quite lost. Perhaps you could tell me what part of the city I am in."
The smoker replied by hacking up half a lung. Not literally though, but he was coughing so hard Walter thought it a miracle that no internal organs ended up on the ground.
"What the hell kind of freak are you supposed to be?" the smoker asked, laughing that same grungy laughter from before. Definitely one of the men who had been in alley while he had been in the dumpster.
"I beg your pardon?" Walter tried to keep his voice calm, but he had already felt a spark of anger at the insult. "I demand you face me, sir. And apologize at once."
The smoker started to laugh and cough at the same time, an ugly, unhealthy sound -- but he came sliding out of the shadows nonetheless. And revealing that he was no man at all.
He was a weasel.
The weasel stood -- stood on his hind legs, roughly four feet tall and wore clothes -- clothes! -- over his smoky blue fur. The clothes consisted of a wrinkled dress shirt, a black vest, a loose black tie and no trousers. Resting between his ears was a grayish-white bowler cap littered with the butts of many cigars and cigarettes. Long, nicotine stained fingernails clutched a fresh cigar.
Walter stared with wide eyes. His mother's words about how it was impolite to stare came back to him right then, but how could he not stare? It was a weasel wearing clothes, walking on two legs, smoking a cigar and apparently was intelligent enough to insult him.
Mad high-pitched laughter jittered out behind Walt and as reluctant as he was to look away from the talking weasel, he turned to see what new arrivals he had. He was far from disappointed, as they were also weasels in an identical state as the smoking one; walking on two legs and clearly able to speak.
The weasel in the lead had brown fur and wore a light pink double-breasted suit coat and trousers with a gold chain in the left pocket. A reddish-pink, bejeweled tie rested on a white dress shirt. On the weasel's head was a light pink hat with a darker pink rim-band and spats around his black shoes. One clawed hand held a revolver aimed in the general direction of Walter's belly.
Another weasel had long greasy black hair and dark brown fur. He wore a green suit styled trench coat along with spectator shoes and green trousers hiked up all the way to his chest. This partially obscured the pink tie and white dress shirt. A tall green hat sat on his hand. He kept snapping a knife blade up and down, eyeing Walter in a way that man definitely didn't like.
The third was the most unstable-looking, in Walter's opinion. This weasel was dressed in an unbuckled Canadian Long Jacket straitjacket. His muzzle is prematurely white and his eyes were blue with yellow and white swirls. His fur was unkempt at the hairline, giving it a spiky appearance. In one muffled hand was what Walt recognized as a barbershop straight razor.
The fourth weasel (or fifth, he supposed) wore a horizontally striped blue and white T-shirt that was a bit strained by the overweight belly, a red beanie with a propeller on top, and white tennis shoes that were untied; the laces dirty and straggling. He had a pigeon-toed stance and he was holding a baseball bat with a nail through the top. His lower jaw hung open a little and his eyes didn't seem to be quite in focus.
But what Walter couldn't ignore about any of these five weasels was just how unnatural they looked.
They're walking, talking weasels, Walt old boy. That in itself is unnatural. He chastised himself.
Or maybe it wasn't that. There was something distinctly off about their appearances -- not the clothes or the shoes of the weapons, but something else. They reminded him of -- of the window and the rabbit hole! Just like the window and the rabbit hole, none of the weasels seemed entirely real. Like they belonged on a drawing board.
Like they should have been cartoons.
"We-e-ell, lessee what we got us-selves here this time, boys." the pink-suited weasel said to his cohorts with a leer. The voice revealed him to be none other than Oily from earlier. He kept his revolver trained on Walter's belly as he walked forward. It was a bit of a waddle, but it got the job done.
Walter clenched a hand into a fist and silently dared the weasel to try something funny. If Oily noticed the scowl on the man's face, then he didn't comment on it. He stuck his nose forward and sniffed at Walter.
"Lessee... Male... 'Bout mid-twenties..." Oily was muttering to himself between each inhale. He smirked. "Ain't a eunuch..."
The pink-suited weasel started to circle Walter while the rest of the weasels kept a sharp eye on the stranger. One hand circled around Walter's waistline. The weasel continued to sniff and mutter, drawing various conclusions about the man based on smell alone. His voice was just barely audible. The hand trailed behind its owner, dipping down almost negligently towards--
Walter's reaction was based on pure instinct, otherwise he would have thought a second before punching the weasel in the nose.
Oily staggered back with a cry of pain, holding his nose with one hand. The other four weasels surged forward with retaliatory shouts. The one in the straightjacket let out an insane little cackle and jumped on Walter's shoulders, the straight razor brandished wildly. The sharp blade flashed in the dim orange light from the street lamp. The weight of the weasel bowed Walter over, allowing the smoking one to seize the collar of his shirt.
"You gonna get it now, boyo." he hissed, blowing a cloud of smoke into Walter's face.
"Cut it out, boys!" Oily shouted suddenly. Other than his nose looking a little off, he was fine.
The weasels let go of whatever body part they were clutching and backed off; except for Straightjacket still perched on Walter's shoulders.
"Get off the freak, Psycho." Oily commanded. "You ain't know where it's been."
Psycho made a disappointed sound and reluctantly slid off Walter's shoulders. The weasel squeaked out a series of unhappy noises that made Walter very glad indeed that the crazy little weasel didn't have that straight razor anywhere near his throat anymore.
"Want I should plug him full of lead, boss?" the smoking weasel asked. The cigar bobbed in the corner of his mouth, but in his hands was a Tommy gun.
Where did that come from? Walter wondered.
All the weasels were holding their respective weapons in a manner that was more than just a little threatening. Walter was painfully outnumbered and outgunned to boot. There was nothing he could do except hold still and wait for Oily to finish his inspection.
The pink-suited weasel did it very quickly however. One cursory examination and quick tap to the knee later, he was stepping back amongst his fellows.
"I know what he is. He's a freak!" Oily concluded triumphantly. He grinned toothily at his comrades. "An' we know just what to do with freaks, don't we boys?"
In his youth, Walter had once seen his neighbor's cat stalk a sparrow across the yard. Fascinated by it, he hadn't interrupted. He remembered with distinction the way that sparrow had taken to the wing in fear upon realizing the danger it was in. At this moment, Walter wished he was that sparrow; because at least it got to fly away. He was stuck on the ground with five grinning weasels. He knew they were up to no good. he had never known a weasel to be up to any good.
So he punched the pink-suited one in the nose again and stole the revolver.
"Stay back or I'll shoot!" Walter threatened. The gun felt heavy and unwieldy in his hands.
The weasels looked at him and then at each other. Then they laughed; those grungy titters and that high cackling.
"And then what?" the green-suited one sneered. He was the one with the strong Spanish accent and in addition to the switchblade, he had a revolver as well.
"Yeah, what happens next?" the smoker taunted, hefting his Tommy gun.
Walter drew a blank. He was smart enough to admit to himself that there hadn't been very much to his plan in the first place. He had sort of been hoping that these weasels were the cowardly type that would get discouraged when their prey started to show some backbone. But that was obviously not the case.
Fine by Walter. He had flown by the seat of his pants more than once. He could do it now.
Aiming lower, he squeezed off one-shot at the weasels' feet, making them jump back in alarm. Then he dropped the gun and ran.
"Get 'im, boys!" Oily shouted, shoving them down the alley. "Can't have a freak on the loose!"
"Freak on de loose! Freak on de loose!" Psycho trilled, waving his arms as he ran. The tone couldn't strictly be called "happy". A rather psychotic version of 'happy' maybe...
Running away was a pretty lousy plan even by the low standards Walter had set for the time being. But it was far better than just standing there and letting those weasels do as they jolly well pleased.
It just didn't stop the plan from being lousy; an idea that was reinforced when it occurred to him once again that he had absolutely no idea where he was. The smoking weasel had mentioned something about this city being Los Angeles, but it was no Los Angeles Walter had ever seen. The resemblance was minimal. This place was plenty built up, the buildings rising higher than LA back home. The billboards advertised things he had never seen before and the streets failed to intersect in the pattern he was familiar with. He knew for certain that Hoover St. never even touched Avalon Blvd. But here they were. Intersecting like there was no tomorrow.
It was this lack of knowledge that worked against him. Just when he decided to take a run down Hoover St. (because back home it always got within spitting distance of Hyperion Avenue if he went far enough north on it), a motor car lurched out of the adjacent street, bletching black smoke from the tail pipe. The tires screeched and squealed and generally made a raucous as the driver struggled to control the vehicle. There was a horrible shriek when the driver stomped on the brakes and brought the vehicle (more like a paddy wagon, complete with siren) to a halt in front of Walter and cutting off his path of escape. Oily leaned out the driver's side window.
"Nice try, freak." the weasel leered. He leaned over his shoulder. "Book 'im, boys."
The weasels piled out of the wagon, tripping over each other as they did. Walter looked left and right, wondering if he still had a chance to run, and he noticed that lights were coming on in some of the windows of the buildings on either side of the street. Curtains were twitching back as the occupants peered at the scene curiously. At least he assumed that they were curious, because he didn't see a single face. Barely an eyeball in most cases.
Are they scared? He wondered, seeing one curtain practically slam shut when he glanced in the general direction. They must be. People who aren't scared don't act like they've done something wrong.
The beanie-wearing weasel was coming towards Walter now, holding a large pair of handcuffs that would surely slide right off Walter's wrists. Ringing the inside of the cuffs was a clear plastic tube filled with a cloudy white liquid.
"Heheh... Put de trash away." Beanie said with a stupid-looking grin. He started to unlock the cuffs, but they didn't move an inch. He frowned at them like they were the world's most difficult puzzle, then tried the method of simply pulling on them and getting no results.
"Gimme those, Stupid!" Oily snatched the cuffs away from the beanie-wearing weasel and easily winched them open. He brandished them, leering all the while. All around them, curtains suddenly flew back into place.
"On what charges am I being arrested for?" Walter asked quickly.
Oily paused mid-stride. "What are you sprouting now?"
"You heard me. On what charges am I being arrested for?" Walter asked again, his arms crossed. "I don't believe it is the right of the law officers to go snatching people off the street when they haven't done a thing wrong. I have reason to believe that you're trying to arrest me under false pretenses."
"False what?" The weasel's pointed snout crinkled in confusion.
"I demand to see your commanding officer or whoever is in charge of the law enforcement around here." Walter said, puffing his chest out defensively. "And let them decide for themselves whether or not I've broken any laws."
His words definitely struck something with the group of weasels, though judging from their reactions, it was fear that he inspired. All five of them noticeably cringed and ducked their heads, their ears laying flat to their skulls.
The pink-suited weasel -- whose name was actually Smart Ass -- exchanged a furtive look with each of his brothers (all from the same litter) before grabbing Wheezy the smoking one and Stupid the-- well, stupid one and hauling them into a close football huddle so the freak couldn't overhear, even by accident. Greasy and Psycho followed suit.
"'Kay, Smart Ass. Whaddya we do with the freak?" Greasy asked in a low hissing voice. "Though we was gonna Dip him."
"Dunno... Something about him I dun like." Smart Ass admitted, glancing over his shoulder to Walter, who simply stood by, waiting patiently for a verdict with his arms crossed.
(Walter considered taking the opportunity to run while they argued, but that might make him look guilty. These weasels seemed to have a somewhat twisted idea of what justice was. He didn't want to give them any ammunition.)
"Real shafty, if ya know what I mean." the pink-suited weasel finished. "Don't trust the Dip to work on him. You ever see a comp like 'im? Never! Don't trust him!"
"We takin' 'im to the Trium-- Triumv--" A bout of coughing from prevented Wheezy from finishing so he opted for: "Those three witches?"
"See witches! See witches!" Psycho giggled, rubbing his hands together. "Take freak to see witches!"
The pink-suited weasel seized his brother by the collar of the straightjacket. Psycho squealed and tried to escape, but a straightjacket was designed to keep the wearer inside the article of clothing.
"I'm the one who makes the divisions around here! Not you!" Smart Ass snarled angrily. He let go and Psycho stumbled back. "If the freak wants to see those witches, then we take 'im to see them. Let the witches have fun with 'im. No dirt on our hands."
It was an appealing idea to the weasels. Anything that kept the spotlight off of them and on someone else. They were the cowardly type, but only when there was a real threat. To them, Walter really wasn't a threat. He was just a freak.
Besides, wasn't it the Triumvirate's job to deal with freaks like that one?
Otherwise, they had no reason to be in charge.
With a newly acquired grin that stank of ill ideas, Smart Ass broke the huddle first and turned back to Walter. The man showed his more attentive side to the loathsome creature.
"All right, freak." the weasel sneered. "Since you wanted it, we're off to see the witches."