Disclaimer: I do not own any of the characters created by Thomas Harris, L. Frank Baum, etc. No profit is being made.

The Wizard of Flaws

Chapter One

Special Agent Dorothy Gale sat at her abominably ugly institutional gray desk, and tried, once more, to quiet her pet.

"Toto," she pleaded. "You've got to stop that screaming. You'll get us in trouble."

The small white lamb, unmoved by her pleas, threw its woolly head back and shrieked like a steam whistle.

Deputy Assistant Inspector General Elmira Gulch came swaggering towards her desk, fuming as he came.

"Gale - shut that goddamn thing up! What the hell is it doing in here in the first place? No pets on the job, that's Bureau SOP, and you know it!"

"I'm sorry, Mr. Gulch - we're outta here in five - Toto's due for his annual shearing at the vet today, and I needed to stop by the office for a few things. I just brought him with. He's a lot worse if I leave him in the car."

Toto had been screaming continuously throughout the entire exchange, and it would have been difficult to imagine how he could possibly be worse. But Gulch did not stop to consider this question.

"Well, you'll just have to hand him over. I'm impounding him!"

Dorothy knew, had known for years, that Gulch was a first class sonofabitch. She had once asked the Bureau's most respected forensic psychiatrist, Alan Bloom, if he had any idea just what was wrong with Elmira Gulch. Bloom had spouted a lot of psychiatric jargon about inadequacy issues and impotence anxiety, but had particularly stressed the psychic discomfort produced by living life as a man named "Elmira". He'd concluded that at least one of Deputy Assistant Gulch's' parents must have been a certifiable sadist.

But this was a new low, even for Gulch. Impound Toto? Over her dead body!

"Mr. Gulch, I formally protest," she said, shouting to be heard above the racket Toto was making. "There is no Bureau standard protocol for the impounding of personal pets!"

"You don't want me to take little Toto away?" inquired Gulch with a nasty grin.

"I'm saying you have neither right nor precedent to take him away, Mr. Gulch."

"I might reconsider, Gale, if you'd agree to join me for dinner tonight. 'Nudes on Ice' is playing at the Kitkat Dinner Theater . . ."

"I think not, Mr. Gulch." Dorothy said.

"No? Well then, would you consider a drink over at the Hideaway Lounge?"

"No, I wouldn't."

"How about a blow-job?"

"You unbelievable creep," Dorothy snarled through her teeth.

"Is that a 'no'?" he asked. "I've got a couple minutes between appointments."

Dorothy took a moment to decide between marching into Section Chief Auntie Em's office to report a grievance, or just pulling her weapon and blowing Gulch to smithereens. Eventually, Auntie Em won out. She rose from her desk and tucked Toto under her arm, smothering his screams somewhat by tucking his muzzle into her armpit.

"I'm going to Section Chief Auntie Em with this, Gulch! You're not getting tumble one from me - and you're not getting your mitts on my lamb!"

She fairly sprinted for the Section Chief's office down the hall, with Gulch close on her heels (and, no doubt, watching her rear every step of the way).

Auntie Em was in his office, snorting nasal spray and gobbling St. John's Wort tablets like there was no tomorrow. Bloom had once speculated that perhaps Auntie Em's parents had used the same twisted baby-name book that had blighted Gulch's life.

"Hey, Gale," he said as she burst in. "Want some Alka Seltzer?"

"Section Chief Auntie Em - " she began, but Gulch interrupted her.

"Look here, Auntie Em, Gale can't bring that loudmouth thing in here, and she knows it! I've warned her before and - "

"You have NOT!" Dorothy interjected. "He's never even SEEN Toto before, Auntie Em! He's lying, as usual. Besides, he just asked me for a goddamn blow-job!"

"I didn't either, you little cornpone country - "

"Call me that again and I'll blow your fucking head off!" Dorothy interrupted, having heard this particular mode of address from Gulch before.

"Umm. Well. I'M gonna have some," Auntie Em put in. "Alka Seltzer, I mean. Sure you guys don't want any?"

Toto chose this moment to snake his little head out from under Dorothy's arm and screech at the ceiling of Auntie Em's office.

"Uh, have you asked the vet about that constant screaming, Gale?" Auntie Em inquired. "You have to admit, he just never seems to shut up. Maybe he needs some Alka Seltzer."

"Can't you forget about the freakin' Alka Seltzer for two seconds at a time, Auntie Em?" Gulch demanded. "I intend to impound that lamb, and there's not a damn thing you can do to stop me!"

Dorothy looked to Auntie Em for an answer. He took an extra large swallow from his fizzing glass and looked into her eyes.

"Actually, Gale, he's right," he admitted. "As far as providing the slightest bit of help or support for you or any of the agents under my jurisdiction, I'm a dead loss. All I can do is provide you with disastrous and highly questionable assignments and hold out on you about what my true motives are. You might as well give Toto up. Why you want to keep a pet that screams like that all the time is a bit beyond me anyhow."

"But I've had him since I was ten," Dorothy said, her eyes already beginning to mist. "It's true, I don't really like him much, but he is mine, so I guess it's my responsibility to keep him. Can't you do anything, Auntie Em?"

"Not really, Gale," he answered. "I can give you the case file on the radioactive waste dump murders, if you want. You could go out there and sift through the evidence . . . it's still a little "hot" out at the crime scene, if you know what I mean, but you'd probably be all right. Still, I'm afraid Toto's got to go."

Gulch grinned like an entire school of piranha. Weeping, Dorothy handed him the squirming, screaming lamb. Toto, as soon as he realized he was in the arms of a stranger, trebled his customary volume, and a glass jar full of individual Alka Seltzer packets on Auntie Em's desk shattered spontaneously.

"See ya later, Gale," Gulch gloated, and walked out of the office. Toto's constant screams diminished in volume as Gulch walked away down the hall.

Dorothy couldn't resist an accusing glare at Auntie Em.

"Some mentor you turned out to be," she told him bitterly.

"Well, Gale, you know how it is. Here's the waste dump file, if you want it. Sure you won't reconsider about that Alka - "

"NO! Don't say it!!" she interrupted, at the absolute limit of her patience and self control. "Look, Auntie Em, I'm getting out of here, okay? I'm taking the rest of the day off."

"Yeah, whatever, Gale," he said. "Relax, get your nails done or something. Best thing for you. We can talk about this waste dump case tomorrow. Oh, by the way, you might want to consider garaging your Mustang pretty soon. I heard on the radio we're supposed to be expecting a force five tornado . . . " he broke off as he consulted his wristwatch.

"Should be blowing through here in, say, the next twenty minutes. Is your reserved parking still on the structure roof, Gale?"


Chapter Two:

Five minutes later, Dorothy was on the roof of the Quantico parking structure, inserting her key in the car door of her muscular Roush Mustang.

Tears of frustration were streaming down her face as she got into the familiar and comforting bucket seat on the driver's side. She consulted her own watch, determined she had fifteen minutes to spare before the twister would hit, and decided to allow herself a moment to vent her unhappiness in song.

She touched the seat position release and reclined behind the wheel, raising her eyes and voice to Heaven as she sang:

"Somewhere over the rainbow,

Way up high,

There's a place that I heard of –

Once in a lullaby -

Somewhere over the rainbow,

bad guys fry,

no one gets off with a walk,

or gets away with a lie!

Someday I'll wake above the tricks,

 and tacky stuff and Bureau pricks,

Where sexist clods are far behind me,

Where sneaky creeps don't stab your back,

Even while they grab your ass,

That's where you'll find me -

Somewhere over the rainbow,

Starlings fly,

If birds fly over the rainbow,

Why then oh why can't I?

If happy little Starlings fly,

Away above the rainbow sky,

Why then oh why can't I?"

As the last sparkling note of her lament ended, she sat up suddenly, listening.

A familiar sound of screaming reached her from somewhere near the car. She leapt out of the vehicle and discovered Toto racing up the "down" ramp toward her, shrieking like a banshee as he came. She felt a moment of relieved delight, coupled with a certain contradictory mild regret.

"Toto, you came back," she said, the expression in her voice hovering between elation and dismay. "You got away from that nasty old Elmira Gulch!"

She picked the vociferous lamb up and quickly put him in the car. Once she herself was safely inside, she turned to the lamb and spoke as she petted his fuzzy head.

"I wish you could stop that screaming, Toto, I really do. We need to haul ass right now, you know it? Gulch'll be looking for us, that's certain. Come to think of it, there's a tornado due in about five minutes, I almost forgot. We better get in gear."

She suited her actions to her words, keyed her ignition, and put her car in drive, but before she could pull out of her reserved spot, an unthinkable crash of concentrated noise startled her hands off the wheel and drove the excitable Toto into convulsions of high decibel yowling.

The twister had come. A full five minutes earlier than Auntie Em had suggested it would.

The sky opened and dumped half a ton of cold rain on her car roof in a five minute interval. Gale force winds first gnawed at the exterior of the Mustang, then devoured it whole, lifting the heavy vehicle several feet in the air, and spinning it.

Inside, Dorothy struggled to get her seatbelt fastened while Toto howled an all-screaming rendition of the Brandenburg Concerto.

The muscle car ascended a twisting column of wind, and Dorothy, inside, saw the roof of the parking structure dwindle in size as she rose, spinning in concentric circles, far above it. A particularly vicious twist of wind caused the Mustang's hood to change places with its trunk in rapid succession, and Dorothy, still struggling with her seatbelt, was slammed head-first into the steering wheel.

Everything grew hazy for her. Toto's incessant screaming grew far and wee. She thought she saw, out her passenger window, Deputy Assistant Inspector General Gulch, riding the wind on a broomstick and making obscene finger gestures at her.

"That son of a . . . bitch . . ." she murmured, half dazed. Why would he be wearing a witch's hat, she wondered, absently. "Son of a bitch. Bitch . . .witch . . . witch . . ."

Dorothy's faint voice faded away, and she knew no more.


Chapter Three:

She awoke to a loud, jerking THUMP, and then heard the unmistakable sound of four widetrack racing sidewalls blowing out at once.

The first thing she was able to register was that Toto was mercifully silent. A quick examination revealed that he was apparently unharmed, just momentarily stunned by the impact.

WHAT impact, she asked herself, full awareness flooding back into her with a jolt. What happened? Where are we?

Her car windows were fogged and she could barely see through them. She had the vague impression of impossibly perfect golden sunshine and wonderful, never-before seen colors, but could tell little else.

Special Agent Dorothy Gale was a very tough young woman, and had been known to roll the dice of fate rather deeply in the past. She put hesitation aside. She opened her car door and stepped out into the most remarkable landscape she had ever seen in her life.

It was a riot of glowing, clear colors, perfect trees in artful groups, grass as green as emeralds, huge nodding flowers in outlandish shades, a bright yellow brick path at her feet. The air was so clean and clear it seemed to vibrate, and all was illumined by a gorgeous clear light that lent a ravishing high gloss to everything it touched.

"I don't think we're in Quantico anymore, Toto, " she said, rather quietly, since she really did prefer the unconscious lamb not awaken just yet. She bent to examine her left front tire, and found it blown out, just as she'd feared.

She began to make a circuit of the Mustang, and drew back when she noticed what appeared to be a crushed witch's hat several feet from the right rear end. Further investigation revealed the cracked skull from which the hat must have rolled, then the rest of the body, pounded flat under the rear end of her heavy, steel framed car.

"Deputy Assistant Gulch . . . " she breathed. "You WERE riding a broomstick out there!"

She noticed that the former Deputy Assistant's brains were slowly leaking out of his ruptured skull. She was vaguely surprised to discover that he had actually been in possession of a brain after all, a possibility that she had occasionally had reason to doubt in the past.

"You killed him!" said a voice behind her.

She turned and noticed a very diminutive individual standing on the yellow brick pavement behind her, dressed in a fanciful costume and wearing a name tag that read "A. Benning".

"I didn't exactly mean to," she answered. "Who are you?"

"Did you think it wouldn't kill him, dropping a car on his head?" asked A. Benning.

"I didn't mean to drop the car. He's dead, and I'm sitting on four flats. Is there a decent garage around here?"

"In the Emerald City, maybe. That's a long way from here," A. Benning said.

Dorothy sighed. This conversation didn't seem to be going anywhere much.

"You must be a very powerful witch, to have killed the Wicked Witch of the East like that. " A. Benning observed.

"I'm not a witch at all," Dorothy corrected, reaching in her jacket pocket and pulling out her ID. "Witches are old and ugly."

"And," she went on, glancing at the remains of Deputy Assistant Gulch under the wheels of her car. "I think witches are supposed to be women - not men."

A burst of high-pitched snickering from various hiding places among the outlandish greenery verging the yellow path greeted this statement. Dorothy was beginning to feel a bit irritated, but she was soon distracted by a bizarre phenomenon that had begun about three paces from the front end of her disabled car.

A puff of something that looked and smelled very much like pipe smoke coalesced in the lovely clear air, and grew, increasing its mass and density until it solidified into a human form.

Definitely not in Quantico, Dorothy reflected, as she examined the person who stepped out of the cloud of highly erudite pipe smoke.

He had a kind, intelligent face, wore a golden crown, carried what appeared to be a magic wand, and, for some reason, was dressed in a very pretty tulle gown.

Dorothy could see that he closely resembled Dr. Alan Bloom, and that tulle was not his fabric.

"It's not nice to laugh at people from hiding, " he remonstrated, apparently addressing the bushes. "They're laughing because, you see, I am a witch myself," he added, turning to Dorothy.

"I'm Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, " he went on. "I'm neither old, nor, I think, particularly ugly, and you can see that I am a man, in spite of the dress."

"Well, I'm Special Agent Dorothy Gale, and I'd like to get some straight answers, please ma'am. I mean, Sir. Where are we, anyway?"

"Why, this is Oz, Special Agent Gale. Are you sure you're not a witch? Usually only witches fly into Oz. Not to mention dropping cars on some of our local meanies. You certainly stopped HIS clock, I must say. You've done the Munchkins here a very great favor. Where did you come from?"

"I'm with the FBI - " Dorothy began.

"The land of Effbeeye?" Glinda cut in. "I'm afraid I've never heard of it. It must be very far away. And what an odd name, too . . ."

"No, it's not a land . . . " Dorothy began again, then trailed off. This was not a point that seemed worth pursuing. "Umm . . . what are Munchkins?"

Glinda smiled and waved his magic wand at all the fantastic shrubbery.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are," he called, and soon small heads and then entire small bodies began to emerge from dozens of hiding places.

"Come out, that's right, don't be afraid," he said. "Here's Special Agent Dorothy Gale, and she's killed the Wicked Witch of the East. No more midnight shakedowns, no more sexual harassment suits. Everyone come on out."

Eventually, close to fifty of the tiny people had crowded round the car and the yellow path nearby. Each of them was dressed in very colorful, whimsical costume, but they all appeared to be miniature versions of common Bureau administrative personnel. There were typists, accountants, lab techs, maintenance crews, file clerks and the like. None stood more than four feet tall.

One little cafeteria worker bent over the stilled form of the Wicked Witch/Deputy Assistant and put a tiny finger into the blood stained mess that was leaking out of his head. Dorothy felt a twinge of queasiness and looked away.

"Boy, he's deader'n a box of rocks! Good job, Miss!" he said. "But you better collect this Brain before it seeps into the grass."

"Huh???" was all Dorothy could manage.

"Oh, he means The Ruby Brain, Special Agent Gale," Glinda explained. "It's very valuable. It has all sorts of magic powers, and the Wicked Witch of the West will soon be after it."

"But I thought . . . I thought you said I'd killed him. Didn't you?"

"No, no, dear, this is the Wicked Witch of the EAST. He's just a flunky. It's the Wicked Witch of the West you need to worry about. He's the worst."

"I'm getting confused," Dorothy complained. "You folks sure have an awful lot of witches around here. Besides, I need to start thinking about getting home. I've got to replace these tires."

"Home?" asked Glinda. "Effbeeye Land? How will you get there? Does your car fly?"

"Not without a passing tornado," Dorothy said dryly. "I was hoping you might know some way for me to get home?" she said to Glinda.

"Oh, my, I'm so sorry, I really don't. I'd suggest you check with the Wizard."

"The Wizard?" Dorothy asked with some trepidation. Witches, wizards and magical Ruby Brains. It was all getting to be a bit much.

A small clerk/typist whispered confidentially to Dorothy.

"We're supposed to sing you a song here," she said. "About the Wizard and killing the Wicked Witch and all? But our union, Munchkin Ancillary Personnel Local 405? Well, it's just that we're on strike right now. We're not even supposed to be wearing these silly clothes until contract talks resume."

Dorothy nodded, more out of politeness than understanding.

Glinda went on: "Yes, the Wizard, Oz, the Great and Terrible. He's bound to know how to send you home, Special Agent Gale. He knows everything. You should go see Oz."

Dorothy was relieved to find a faint hint of actual progress in this hitherto bizarre, aimless and unsatisfactory conversation.

Her relief was short-lived, however. Just then, a discordant crash that sounded like a hundred china plates breaking at once ripped through the pleasant air and a plume of foul smelling green smoke erupted from the ground near Dorothy's feet. She leapt back a good six paces and all the Munchkins immediately dived for cover. Glinda though, Dorothy noticed, held his ground.

A recumbent figure in a hospital bed on casters emerged from the miasmic smoke, pushed by a singularly ugly winged monkey. This figure was encased in what appeared to be a hard-shell respirator, had long black hair in a great plait, wore a tall witch's hat, and sported a face best not seen outside of a Cronenberg film.

"Uh-oh," Glinda whispered to Dorothy. "That's him. The Wicked Witch of the West."

The Wicked Witch cackled evilly in a deep radio voice, minus the fricatives and plosives.

Whoo-EEE! Dorothy thought, appalled. He looks like he got caught in a Cuisinart! Wonder what could have happened to him?

"Who killed my flunky? Huh? Who did it?" the Wicked Witch demanded. He glared at Dorothy through the lubricating goggle on his one good eye. "Was it YOU???"

"Well, in a way, I guess you could say - " Dorothy began.

"Fiddlesticks!" Glinda interjected. "You have no power here! Stop trying to intimidate this nice young lady and go home. Get that disgusting monkey of yours to turn your bed right around and go on back the way you came."

"You're damned meddling will get you in trouble one of these days, Glinda, old buddy! See if it doesn't! Well, I'll go, but first I want my Ruby Brain. Where is it?"

Glinda put a warning hand on Dorothy's shoulder. "Just watch this," he said.

The ugly monkey rolled the Witch over to the corpse of the OTHER Wicked Witch, and then stooped to retrieve the contested brain matter from the cracked skull. No sooner had his paw touched the gooey prize though, than a searing bolt of energy zapped him hard enough to toss him back six feet, and incidentally caused the controls on the Witch's bed to go temporarily berserk, putting him through an entire range of motion three times in under a second.

"Well, fuck ME!" shouted the Witch in a fury. "I want that Brain!"

"You can't have it," commented Glinda, calmly. "It belongs to Special Agent Gale here. She's the one who killed him, so the Ruby Brain is rightfully hers."

"She's just a nobody from out of town!" the Witch argued. "She couldn't possibly know how to use it! That Brain should belong to me!"

"He just wants to use it to get even with somebody he's really mad at," Glinda whispered to Dorothy. "But it would never end there. I wouldn't give it to him if I were you. Take it yourself."

"I heard that, Glinda!" the Witch snarled. "Well, I can see how THIS is going. Listen to me, my pretty, " he said, turning his awful goggle eye on Dorothy. "You may have Mr. Busybody here to hide behind now, but -"

The Witch stopped short in mid-threat and his lipless mouth fell open, because Toto had chosen this particular moment to wake up, and was screaming his curly head off from the front seat of the Mustang.

"What the hell is THAT??" the Witch asked, stunned.

"Umm, well . . . " Dorothy began, blushing in embarrassment. "That's Toto. My lamb. He's got a sort of a problem."

Everyone listened to Toto squawk at top volume for what seemed a very long time to Dorothy.

"What the heck is WRONG with him?" The Wicked Witch asked unkindly.

Dorothy only shook her head.

"Cordell," the Witch called to the winged monkey, who was limping a bit after his recent unscheduled flight. "We're outta here! No way I'm gonna listen to that noise."

Wisps of green smoke began to issue from the sides of the hospital bed, and the Witch glared at Dorothy one last time.

"But you listen to me, Ms. Special Agent Gale," he growled. "That Brain is mine, and I 'll get it too, one way or another. You count on it. I'll get you, my pretty, you and your neurotic lamb too!"

With that, Witch, bed, and Cordell the flying monkey all disappeared in a puff of smoke. Toto went on screaming.

"Ugh," groaned Glinda. "I really don't much like that guy, even if I do feel a little sorry for him. I'm afraid you've made a powerful enemy, Special Agent Gale."

"Sure looks that way, doesn't it?" Dorothy agreed disconsolately. "What do you think I should do, Glinda? You seem to know your way around here."

"I think you ought to take the Ruby Brain, for one thing. Don't let the Wicked Witch get it, there'll be no living with him if does. And I still think your best bet is to consult the Wizard."

"We-ell, okay, if you really think so . . ." Dorothy said, rummaging in her shoulder tote for a large size evidence bag.

She mastered her gorge and scooped the Ruby Brain into the bag, then stuck the whole awful mess back in her tote, out of sight.

"Now, how do I find this Wizard?" she asked, clipping Toto's leash onto his collar and leading him, screaming, out of the car.

"Oh, that's simple enough," Glinda answered. "You just follow the yellow brick road. Uh, if you don't mind my asking, doesn't he ever stop doing that?"

Dorothy glanced at Toto.

"Not so far," she answered, a trifle grimly. "So, follow the yellow brick road?"

"Follow the yellow brick road," a Lilliputian CPA confirmed.

"Follow the yellow brick road," a tiny receptionist added.

"Yo-oo-u'rrre OFF to see the Wizard," a small groundskeeper began to sing, but soon subsided under the withering glares of several of his fellow union members. "Uh, sorry," he said in a small voice and slunk off out of sight.

And so, Special Agent Dorothy Gale, Toto howling at her side and the Ruby Brain stuffed in her purse, set her feet on the yellow brick road and began her journey to see the Wonderful Wizard of Oz.


Chapter Four:

Dorothy and Toto made excellent progress for several hours. The weather in this land of Oz seemed to be consistently perfect, and the yellow brick road was virtually impossible to stray from. They made some good miles and passed through countryside that Dorothy found beautiful beyond all dreams.

At one point, thinking perhaps to tire Toto out a bit and reduce his screaming, she'd even begun to run, snuffling in great swallows of the delicious air like wine and opening out to her full stride. Quaint fields began to appear at either side of her, and the pure exhilaration of running through such surroundings did a great deal to calm her worried mind.

At a picturesque, perfect cornfield, however, her run came to an abrupt end. The yellow brick road divided in two at the very corner of the cornfield, and both paths looked equally wide, equally well maintained. There were no signs, no markers of any kind, no hint to tell her which way to take. She halted, catching her breath, utterly stymied.

Toto caught his breath too, and commenced to scream, louder than ever.

"Damn," she said, mystified. "Just when we were making such good time. Which way do we go now?"

A disembodied voice rose above the tall stalks of corn.

"Well, that way might serve your purposes. On the other hand, this way is as good a way as any. It would all depend on where you intend to go, actually, don't you think?"

Dorothy peered into the cornfield, trying to identify the origin of the voice. She could see no one, just a scarecrow a few rows in.

"Who said that?" she asked, feeling a small, unaccountable chill rushing up her spine and nesting in her hair. "Who's there?"

"Who indeed?" answered the voice. "I was just wondering the same thing about you. Why don't you step into the cornfield a moment? I'm right over here."

Dorothy took a tiny step into the rustling rows, dragging Toto behind her. She still couldn't see anyone. She moved forward a few more rows.

"Closer, please," requested the voice. It was an odd voice, soft and cultured, but with a metallic cutting edge to it, as though the speaker rarely used the voice at all. "I still can't see you properly."

Dorothy had the strange idea that the voice was coming from the scarecrow she could see leaning against a slanted post a few yards further in, its arms outstretched on a cross bar and its head tilted at an angle.

She wanted to dismiss this fancy quickly, because, somehow, it was not altogether pleasant. So, she moved to within three rows of the scarecrow, and, feeling half foolish and half unnerved, she addressed it.

"Hi. I hope you're not the one doing the talking."

The Scarecrow tilted his head toward her and stared at her for a long, long moment. His gaze seemed to crackle. And he had dark maroon eyes. Dorothy had never seen a scarecrow with eyes that shade before. She never seen anything with eyes that particular color, in fact.

"But I am," he declared. "Good afternoon. Is there something the matter with your lamb?"

Dorothy had to steady herself before she could answer. Meeting a talking Scarecrow in a pristine cornfield in some magical alternate universe was an experience entirely new to her.

"No, he just does that. He can't seem to stop. Uh, so, are you a Scarecrow? Or what?"

"I look like a Scarecrow, wouldn't you say? What do you think I am? Hmm . . . he screams like that all the time? Really? Why do you think he does that? Doesn't it bother you? How does it make you feel? Why do you keep him? What - "

"Say, you're a little nosy for a Scarecrow, aren't you?" she interrupted.

"Am I?" the Scarecrow countered.

"Hmm." she replied. She was already getting the idea that this was one Scarecrow who could be a bit hard to keep up with.

"You were wondering which way to take, weren't you? Where the road forks in two out there?" the Scarecrow asked.

"Well, yes, I was. You wouldn't happen to know, would you?"

"That depends, I think I mentioned, on where you want to go. I might know, if you told me."

"Told you where I'm going?" she asked, suddenly feeling strangely reluctant to reveal her destination to the Scarecrow.

"You could tell me your name first, if that would make you feel more comfortable. It would certainly be more courteous. As you can see," he paused and shook his arms, succeeding in rattling the crossbar he was wired to only a very little. "I'm in no great hurry."

"Oh. Sorry. I'm Special Agent Dorothy Gale. Pleased to meet you. Um, is that barbed wire you're stuck up there with?"

"Yes. For quite some time now. Dorothy Gale. Dorothy. May I call you Dorothy?"

"Okay, I guess. Should I call you - "

"I'm a scarecrow. It seems appropriate to call me that, don't you think?"

"How long have you been out here?"

"Eight years or so. A misunderstanding with local government administration. Are you new to Oz? You don't look like a native. Not with those shoes."

"Excuse me? What's wrong with my shoes?"

"Aside from being ugly, badly fitted, poorly made, and cheap, do you mean? Why, nothing."

Dorothy glared at the Scarecrow. He gazed back, unconcerned, an arrogant tilt to his head.

He was actually pretty beautifully dressed, for a Scarecrow, she decided, so maybe he had a thing about shoes. His were exquisite, clearly hand made, though a bit scuffed from the passage of many seasons of weather, and leaking a bit of straw around the ankles.

Finally she smiled, oddly amused.

"You're in kind of a bad mood, aren't you?"

"Oh, well, perhaps I am. Excuse me a moment . . . " he said. Then he raised his weird eyes to a crow that was passing over the cornfield, a bit too close.

The Scarecrow caught the bird's gaze and held it, and bared a mouthful of perfectly articulated white little teeth at it. Dorothy speculated that whoever had fashioned his head, they had certainly poured a great deal of detail into the task. The unfortunate crow stopped dead in the air and plummeted to earth in a fatal swoon of terror.

"MY cornfield!" the Scarecrow muttered. "Of all the unmitigated gall!"

He tilted his head back to Dorothy.

"You still haven't told me where you want to go, Dorothy," he reminded her.

Dorothy considered. It occurred to her that maybe this Scarecrow would make a better ally than an enemy. He did seem to have a pretty good head on his shoulders, and to have a few talents that could be of some use to her down the road, even if he was kind of annoying. Still, you never knew. That thing with the crow had been a little unnerving.

She decided to open up a touch more.

"Well, the truth is, I'm going to consult the Wizard," she admitted. "Do you know which way I should go?"

"The Wizard? Is that so? I do know he lives in the Emerald City. Why do you want to see him?"

"I'm hoping he can tell me how to get home. Which way is the Emerald City?"

"Oh? Why do you want to go home? Don't you like Oz?"

"Which way is the Emerald City?"

"Hmm. You know, I just had a thought. About your lamb. I believe I know of a way to quiet his screams. Would you like to hear it?"

"Do you always answer a question with a question? It's darned irritating, to be honest with you."

"Do you want to hear what I think about your lamb? Yes or no?"

"There! You see? You just did it again!"

"What's your worst memory of childhood?"

"WHAT?? I beg your pardon? What's that got to do with anything? Listen, do you think you could help Toto or not?"

"I'm not sure. I don't really see why I should, anyway. Personally, I don't mind if he screams until his little throat bursts."

"Goddamnit, what the heck is your problem? You're getting to be a real pain, you know it?"

"My problem? I'll show you. Come a little closer. Yes, that's right, just another step. Look here, just behind my left ear? Can you see that rip in my fabric? Can you see inside?"

Dorothy peered into the rent he mentioned, and could just make out a horrible mélange of very unpleasant items, all jumbled together inside his head. She saw rusty nails, venomous looking spiders, splotches of mold, shards of glass, poisonous weeds, very small squirming snakes, one small wasp nest and a few broken light bulbs, among other things. Dorothy shuddered and stepped back.

"You see?" inquired the Scarecrow. "No brain in there at all. Just a useless collection of really nasty bits and pieces. Whoever made me must have been deeply interested in suffering, wouldn't you agree?"

"Wow," she answered, feeling, for the first time, a measure of compassion for him. "That must feel awful. No wonder you're so difficult."

"Yes. Actually, while I've been crucified out here in this cornfield, I composed a little song about it. Would you care to hear it? I'm afraid I can't accompany myself, circumstances being what they are, but I could render it a capella, if you like."

"Oh, yes, please, I'd be interested. Wait . . . hang on a sec . . . "she pulled Toto to her and clamped her hand around his muzzle firmly, thus shutting him up for the moment. "There, Scarecrow, that should do it. Go ahead."

"Thank you," said the Scarecrow, and cleared his throat. Then he began to sing:

"Look inside here if you're willing,

 inside my head there's filling,

that my skull can scarce contain

It's a porridge made of spiders,

poison ivy and used lighters,

shards of glass and old wolfsbane

And I would stop at nothing,

To know who did the stuffing,

To whom I should complain,

Then I'd stuff refuse in HIS head,

The guilty party would be dead,

And I'd feast upon his pain!

Bu-uu-utt -

I could be a decent fellow,

You might even find me mellow,

If I had a proper brain!"

Dorothy applauded roundly, and Toto screamed his heartfelt approval.

"That was wonderful!" she assured the Scarecrow. "Really. You have quite a nice singing voice, actually, did you know that?"

"Do you think so?" asked the Scarecrow. "Well, Dorothy, now that we've discussed my problem, I think it only fair that we discuss yours, don't you think? Toto? He's still screaming, I must point out."

"Do you really think you could help him?" Dorothy asked.

"I might. But you'd have to do something for me."

"Hmm. What did you have in mind?"

"I've been in this cornfield eight years, Dorothy. Riding this blasted half cross the whole time. I want to get down. I want to get out of this cornfield. You could help me."

He stared at her another moment, visually digging into the meat of her mind. Then he went on.

"There's a very sharp knife in my breast pocket. It would cut through the wire quite easily, but I can't reach it. Get it out, loose one of my wrists, give me the knife, and I'll do the rest. What do you think?"

"I don't know. You're probably wired up out here for a reason. You mentioned something about government administration, didn't you?"

"There is poor Toto to consider. And, as it happens, I do know the way to the Emerald City, just incidentally. I've even met the Wizard, on one or two occasions. I could guide you there, Dorothy. Yes or no?"

Dorothy considered.

Well, she thought, I really could use someone who knows what he's doing around here. I sure as hell don't. Even if his head IS stuffed full of icky junk and he's a little scary. What the hell.

She carefully reached into the Scarecrow's pocket and pulled out a small, folded knife. She recognized the make, it was a Harpy. A very serious blade indeed. She unfolded the serrated, curved cutting edge, then paused, searching the Scarecrow's face.

"Would you undo the left wrist first, please, Dorothy? That arm is the stiffest," the Scarecrow said.

"Am I gonna regret this?" she asked him, still holding the knife away from him.

"Possibly. But I give you my word that I'll never harm you. You're . . . interesting. All right? Will that do? Could you cut me loose now?"

Here goes, she thought, with a feeling like falling. She set the edge of the Harpy against the barbed wire wrapped around the Scarecrow's left wrist. The tough, rusty wire yielded to the blade like butter. The wrist came lose, and the Scarecrow flexed his newly freed arm gratefully.

"Ah-hh," he said, luxuriating in the long overdue sensation. "That's perfect. May I have the knife now?"

She stepped to the outer limit of his reach and handed him the Harpy.

It took him less than forty-five seconds to free himself completely. He's awful fast with that knife of his, Dorothy thought, not without a certain amount of worry.

He hopped down from the post, oddly lithe for someone who'd been hanging on a post in a field for eight years. And who, so far as she could see, lacked a conventional skeleton.

"Thank you, Dorothy," the Scarecrow said, systematically testing the function in his arms and shoulders as he spoke.

"I've been thinking about what you said about the Wizard, " he continued, flexing his limbs "It's true, he doesn't like me much, but I do wonder if I could persuade him to give me a real brain. I might be able to trade him for it. What's your opinion?"

"I don't know. It depends on what you have to trade, I guess. What about Toto, speaking of trades?"

"Oh, that," the Scarecrow said, apparently satisfied that his limbs were working properly.

He cut a length of barbed wire off his former prison, then began to slice the barbs off with the sharp knife. Once that was completed, he unwound a silk ascot from around his neck, and wrapped it neatly around the wire.

"Bring Toto over here, would you please? That's good, just hold him still a moment. May I ask you a personal question? How did you happen to get gunpowder embedded in your cheek?"

"How can you tell it's gunpowder?" she asked, startled.

He was wrapping the makeshift muzzle he'd devised around Toto's mouth and nose, leaving the noisy lamb room to breath and crop, but not enough slack to scream. "I can smell it . . ." he answered, absently, absorbed in his task.

He finished Toto's new muzzle with a neat twist of wire, then lightly slapped the extremely puzzled lamb on the rump to set it trotting a few paces.

Toto ran in a few confused circles, sat down, stood up, tilted his little head first one way and then another, and then regarded both Dorothy and the Scarecrow with a look of comical bafflement.

Then to Dorothy's surprise and delight, the newly silenced lamb bounded to his feet, jinked playfully up and down the road, and ran in and out of the cornfield, gamboling prettily, just as a lamb is supposed to do.

"Will you look at that," Dorothy enthused. "I've never seen him so happy. It's a damn miracle, Scarecrow, I kid you not. What a great idea!"

"Oh, I'd have thought of something much more effective than that, if I only had a brain," the Scarecrow demurred. "The muzzle is only a temporary measure, after all. Were you in a gun fight?" He pointed at her cheek. "Are you armed now?"

"Yeah, I shot a serial killer. But he almost got me first," she said.

"Really?" asked the Scarecrow, an amused smile on his face. "That's rather an odd coincidence. It's really very fetching, that mark on your cheek, if you'll forgive the observation. Let me ask you again, are you armed, Dorothy?"

"Yes, I am," she answered, fixing him with a level gaze and neglecting to provide him with any details regarding the ordnance she was carrying.

"Good," he said, not troubled in the least by her hard stare. "Our way leads near the haunted forest just ahead a few miles, and I'd rather you be equipped to defend yourself. Shall we go?"

Dorothy stared at her new companion. The Scarecrow stared back, very still, waiting patiently for her to make up her mind.

Okey, dokey, here we go, she thought, both apprehensive and strangely elated by her new prospects. It seemed to her that the journey ahead had just become a good ten times more interesting.

"Yes, let's go," she finally answered, and the two of them fell into step, taking the left hand fork in the yellow brick road.

"Toto, come on, boy" she called, and the happy (and happily silent) little lamb bounded out of the grass at the side of the road and frisked about their feet.

The three travelers moved past the cornfield, headed toward the next rise in the yellow brick road, and the haunted forest, miles beyond.


Chapter Five

Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and Toto had walked for nearly two hours when they came to a grove of fig trees at the side of the road.

During that two hour period, Toto had not screamed once, Dorothy had worked up a powerful appetite, and the Scarecrow had insulted her shoes three more times, shown her how to fold an origami chicken, complained bitterly regarding the lack of decent bistros in this particular region of Oz, made several snide but extremely amusing remarks about the various inhabitants of some of the farmhouses they passed, and asked her roughly four thousand questions about herself.

So, when Dorothy saw the grove of trees, and noticed that the figs they bore were ripe, her entire mouth and throat and empty tummy clenched in a spasm of ferocious hunger. She'd had nothing but a cup of Starbucks and a Power Bar for breakfast, and that had been many hours and at least one universe ago.

She had also found the Scarecrow to be an absorbing companion, for the most part, but he could be a bit tiring, she'd determined, and dealing with his incessant questions had proven to be hungry work.

" . . . so, when Irving Feldsteen poured the ink on your spelling paper in the second grade," the Scarecrow was saying. "Didn't you think he really did it because - "

"Excuse me," she interrupted him. "But I think I see some lunch over there. The complete annals of the Irving Feldsteen Affair will have to wait."

She pointed the grove of fig trees out to him, then took off at a trot, hell bent on figs for lunch. Toto followed at her feet.

Once among the gnarled fig trees, she quickly zeroed in on a particularly perfect fig and plucked it from its branch.

The tree from whence the perfect fig came immediately cried "Hey!!" in outraged tones, and summarily slapped her wrist, knocking the newly picked fig from her hand.

Dorothy, startled, leapt back out of the tree's estimated slapping range and simultaneously pulled her weapon, a snub nose .45 in a Yaqui slide on her hip, as she dropped into a shooters crouch.

"Can you believe this?" the tree called to some of its companions in the grove. "First this crazy woman pulls a fig off me without even saying hello, and THEN she pulls a gun on me!"

Various disapproving voices from the rest of the fig grove concurred with, and amplified, the aggrieved tree's complaints.

"I'm sorry," said Dorothy, holstering her gun and trying to hang on to her temper. "We've come a long way and I was starving. Where I come from, the trees aren't so touchy."

"Touchy!" countered the tree. "How would you like it if someone came along and just pulled your ear off or something? Maybe you'd like to set fire to me now! What the hell? Why don't you just chop me down!"

The Scarecrow caught up to Dorothy and Toto just then and observed the situation a moment.

"Are you hungry, Dorothy? Would you want some of these figs? Are you sure?" he raised his rather aristocratic nose in the air and sneered faintly at the fig grove. "I have seen better, certainly. But I suppose these might do, in a pinch."

"Why, you arrogant, snot-nosed bag of hay!" the touchy fig tree exclaimed. "What do you know anyway? These are the best damn figs in Oz! People come all the way from the Emerald City to get these figs!"

"Oh, I doubt that," the Scarecrow said, rummaging in his knapsack. He pulled out an extra large hypodermic needle and a small vial filled with amber liquid. "I see at least three that have worms. And they're all undersized."

The Scarecrow filled the hypo from the vial and discarded the small empty bottle.

"They are NOT undersized, goddamnit! What's with the needle, anyhow?"

"I think perhaps your attitude could do with a bit of adjustment," the Scarecrow said pleasantly, advancing on the ill-tempered tree. "Don't try to get away, now, this won't hurt a bit. Oh, that's right, you're a TREE, aren't you? You can't get away, can you? How silly of me."

"You can't stick me with that thing, smart guy," the tree said, furious. "You'll never get that teeny needle through my bark."

"Actually, this might hurt, come to think of it," the Scarecrow said, and plunged the hypodermic into the soil right at the tree's tender roots.

Apparently, it did hurt. The tree howled in affronted pain.

"Ow! You little sonof . . . whooooooaaaaaa!! Oh, cool, man, look at all those colors. Totally gnarly, dude . . . "

The Scarecrow stepped very close to the tree and stared into what he thought were probably its eyes. He reached into the tear behind his ear, pulled a shard of glass out of his head, and pressed it into a limber fork in one of the tree's branches.

"Wouldn't you like to cut a few figs for us?" the Scarecrow suggested to the tree. "None of the shriveled ones, mind."

"Fucking-A right, I would!" the tree agreed at once, and set about selecting and cutting the very best figs it had.

"Excellent," said the Scarecrow, with some satisfaction. "Just put them in this knapsack, if you would."

"You bet!" said the tree, agreeably.

Dorothy privately thought that it was a pretty dirty trick the Scarecrow had played on the tree. And she was beginning to get a clue as to why the Scarecrow might have been securely wired to a post in an isolated cornfield when she'd found him.

Still, the figs really did look good, and she really was starving.

When they had enough for a small scale feast, the Scarecrow retrieved his bulging sack and they all left the grove and moved on past a bend in the road.

Dorothy tapped the Scarecrow on the shoulder. Firmly. She really WAS starving.

"Can I have one? Now? I'm starving."

"You don't mean to eat it here, surely, Dorothy?" the Scarecrow said, horrified. "Standing out in the middle of the road and not a place setting in sight? That would never do."

"I repeat," she growled, gritting her teeth. "I - AM - STARVING!"

"Oh, Dorothy . . ." he said, laughing. "You really are refreshing. And you have lovely teeth, by the way. Look there, just past that next bend? Can you see it? A woodsman's cottage? Do you think you could manage to get that far without fainting? It's only a short way. I should be able to find a few needful amenities there."

"Damn it, I want to eat n - " Dorothy began, but the Scarecrow had suddenly grasped her hand and was pulling her toward the cottage at a fast clip, leaving her little breath to argue with. Toto had to scramble to keep up.

As they came closer, Dorothy could see that the cottage was small, picture book perfect, and looked as though it had been uninhabited for some while. She also noticed that someone had made a mistake and added one finger too many on the Scarecrow's left hand, and that he had a strong grip. Wiry. Perhaps whoever had made him had started with a wire armature before adding hay, stuffing, and so forth.

The party of three halted at a large tree stump just outside the cottage door. The Scarecrow dumped his knapsack on the stump, and went to knock on the cottage door.

No answer. He listened for a second or two, peered in one of the dusty windows, sniffed the air, and then pronounced his opinion.

"Deserted," he said. "Excuse me."

He then set about picking the lock on the door, a neat, workmanlike job, Dorothy, veteran of many tech assignments, noticed. After a moment, he disappeared inside.

Toto commenced to sniff his way around the small structure and to eat a few cowslips he found growing around the doorstep. Dorothy took advantage of the Scarecrow's absence to slip a few figs out of the sack and gobble them up.

The Scarecrow returned from his investigations of the interior of the cottage laden with an armful of things. Dorothy could see pans, a butane camp stove, two bottles of passable Fume Blanc, a set of Fiesta-ware dishes, a corkscrew, a red check table cloth, a bottle of cooking brandy, flour, sugar, vanilla extract and a small tin of anise seeds, two candlesticks and a bud vase.

"Just the bare necessities, I'm afraid," the Scarecrow commented. "We'll have to rough it. I seem to recall there being a brook near this cottage somewhere," he added, and handed the wine to Dorothy. "Why don't you see if you can find it? Sink these in the water. They should be properly chilled by the time we're ready to eat."

Dorothy thought about arguing, but decided against it. She had to admit to herself, some of the items he'd pillaged from the cottage looked extremely promising, meal-wise. She took the wine and left to search for the brook.

"Toto, you little swine, don't you dare eat all those cowslips," she heard the Scarecrow saying, as she moved out of earshot. "Save some for the table."


Chapter Six

Dorothy took a moment to mark out a mental grid around the cottage and vicinity before setting out on her search for the brook. After searching the east, and then the northeast quadrant, she located the brook, mostly by sound. The brook was babbling delightfully, just as all fairy tale brooks are required to do.

She used a bungee cord from her trusty shoulder tote to secure the bottles of wine to a willow branch that overhung the water at a suitable angle, and lowered the wine into the cool stream. The water looked clear and sparkling, and she decided to bathe her tired feet in the rushing water.

Soon she had her shoes and socks off, and was wiggling her toes in the pleasant water gratefully. She held one of her shoes up and examined it.

"I don't think it's so ugly . . . " she mused, not without some mild resentment.

". . . melpme . . . "

"It's true, I did get them on sale, but they still weren't exactly CHEAP . . . "

" . . . melpME! . . ."

"And they're sturdy, besides. That's the important thing."

" . . .ME! MELPME! . . . "

Dorothy came out of her reverie in a hurry.

"Hello?" she said. "Who said that?"

"MELPME . . .Melp . . . ME . . . "

Dorothy scrambled to her feet and began to search for the source of the voice.

"Scarecrow!" she called, as she cast all around her. "Toto! Both of you! C'mere, quick!"

She didn't know who was doing the talking, or if they were friend or foe, but she wanted whatever back-up she could muster, just in case.

She'd just located one of the oddest looking individuals (if it even WAS an individual) she ever seen near a chopping block in a stand of willows when Toto and the Scarecrow arrived.

The individual, or whatever it was, had a roughly humanoid shape, with a barrel chest, massive shoulders, and thick, cylindrical limbs. It also appeared to be composed entirely of tin.

"Melp me," it said, thus confirming that it was, indeed, a sentient, if wildly unconventional, being.

"Uh . . . 'help me'?" Dorothy questioned. "You said 'help me'?"

"Moil man," the tin personage replied. "MMMph."

Dorothy glanced, questioning, at the Scarecrow.

"I don't know . . ." he replied to her unspoken question. "Hmm . . . 'oil can'? Could that be it?"

"Mep. Moil man. Must . . . "

"Rust!" Dorothy exclaimed, beginning to get a feel for the thing's mode of speech. "It wants the oil can! It's rusty."

The Scarecrow located a half full oil can that had tumbled to the foot of the chopping block one or two summers ago. They quickly began to oil the tin person, starting with the rusted hinges of its jaws.

'Mmoh. Mank. Mank . . . thmk . . . thank . . . thank GOD! Omigod, thank you, God, oh, do my neck, quick. I've had a crick in it for the past three years!"

It took a good ten minutes of continuous oiling before the tin person could bring itself to let them stop. In that time, it regained some of the use of its limbs, although the function appeared to be a bit stiff as a matter of course. Finally it felt enough presence of mind to look more closely at its trio of rescuers, and peered particularly closely at the Scarecrow.

"Scarecrow? Is that you? I haven't seen YOU in years. Who let you out of the cornfield?"

"Margot?! Is that you?" the Scarecrow said. "I didn't recognize you at all. When did you decide on the new look?"

"Dr. Fong's Incest Survivor Therapeutic Body Work. You know Dr. Fong, don't you?"

"The Rolf therapist/plastic surgeon/blacksmith? Oh, Margot, the man's a quack! His ideas were thoroughly discredited at the 1985 Metallurgy Convention."

"A little late, from my perspective. I went tin in '83. Of course, I hammered him with malpractice. Got a civil action going. He lost his shirt."

"So, you guys know each other," Dorothy said, feeling a bit left out.

"Oh, please forgive me, Dorothy," the Scarecrow said. "I knew Margot when she was much younger. Margot, meet Special Agent Dorothy Gale. She's from Effbeeye, somewhere over the rainbow. You'll find this amusing, Margot - Dorothy dropped a CAR on the Wicked Witch of the East! Can you imagine?"

"No kidding?" Margot asked, eyeing Dorothy with new respect. "I hope it killed him, I always thought that guy was a waste of space."

"Margot is the Wicked Witch of the West's sister, Dorothy." the Scarecrow interjected.

"But don't hold THAT against me, Ms. Gale. I haven't even seen that prick for over five years." Margot the Tin Woman said.

"Really?" asked Dorothy. "He's your brother? I just saw him this morning. Listen, if you don't mind my asking, what on earth happened to him? He looks like he was in an awfully nasty accident."

Margot smiled maliciously at the Scarecrow, who appeared to have found something of paramount interest to observe near the very top of a nearby willow tree.

"Ummm . . . " Margot said, then bent to whisper to Dorothy. "Listen, Dorothy . . . okay if I call you Dorothy? Uh, are you the one who let him out of the cornfield?"

She inclined her head in the direction of the Scarecrow, who had started humming some tune and seemed to have suddenly taken an avid interest in bird-watching

"Well, yes," answered Dorothy "Shouldn't I have?"

"Depends on how you look at it, I guess. You're still in one piece, so I guess he must like you. He's all right if he likes you. Pretty much. But, I gotta tell you, some people in Oz, they figure the only safe way to deal with the Scarecrow is to nuke him from orbit. And my brother . . . well . . . the nasty 'accident' you were asking about?"

She raised her eyebrows and covertly pointed at the Scarecrow, who was in the process of wandering off, while elaborately ignoring the conversation entirely.

"No!" breathed Dorothy. "HE did it? He did THAT? Good God, how?"

"Trust me, you don't wanna know. Still, I don't really blame him. My brother's a prize bastard now, but you should have seen him before. . . you know what. Hell on wheels, lemme tell you. Lots of people thought the Scarecrow should have gotten a fucking medal, instead of a life sentence."

"Oh," Dorothy said, in a small voice. "The cornfield."

"Yeah, well, there were some other things too. Oz the Great and Terrible pronounced the sentence himself. He's always hated the Scarecrow, no one knows why. How come you're hanging out with him, anyway? The Scarecrow, I mean?"

"Well, he's kind of fun, in a sort of disturbing way. And he says he knows the way to the Emerald City."

"Oh, he does. He's really, really smart, even if he does have all that crap in his head instead of a brain. And, boy, can he cook! At least you'll eat well. Why are you guys going to the Emerald City?"

"Glinda told me the Wizard might know how to send me home. And the Scarecrow said he wants to come because he thinks he can persuade the Wizard to give him a brain."

"Wow. He must have something pretty damn persuasive in mind. The Wizard hardly ever does anything for anybody. And the last thing he did for the Scarecrow was slam him in a cornfield and wire him to a t-bar. I wonder what he's got up his sleeve?"

"Actually, all I have up my sleeve just now is lunch," said the Scarecrow, who'd crept back to the scene without either of them hearing him. "If you two are QUITE finished discussing me, that is?"

The Scarecrow's tone was just piqued enough to inspire a purely feminine moment of perfect understanding between the two women. Every woman, regardless of race, creed, sexual orientation, or chosen body style, instinctively comprehends the unique pleasure of dissing a male behind his back. And no male creature, no matter how formidable, in any universe, has ever had any effective defense against it. Dorothy Gale and Margot the Tin Woman instantly became fast friends in that single moment.

Then the word "lunch" registered in Dorothy's consciousness, and she had to swallow several times in succession to keep from drooling. They quickly retrieved the now nicely chilled wine from the brook, Dorothy grabbed her shoes, and they followed the Scarecrow back to the cottage.

Once there, they discovered that the Scarecrow had arranged a magnificent table with the tree stump outside the cottage door, a few odds and ends from inside the house, the check tablecloth and some of the cowslips. Astonishing and tantalizing fragrances wafted out of some pans on the camp stove.

"What'd I tell you?" Margot said to Dorothy. "Cooks like an angel."

"Hmmph," the Scarecrow commented, not quite ready to be mollified. "A bit primitive, in my opinion. I couldn't find any crystal. And all the butter's gone over. Still, I suppose we won't starve."

They most definitely did not starve. It was one of the most delightful luncheons Dorothy could ever remember wolfing down.

She was a little surprised to see both Margot and the Scarecrow eating with a will, since she would have guessed that neither of them had a proper digestive system. But she couldn't think of any polite way to ask them about it, so she set the small mystery aside.

Toto butted at their knees and nuzzled at their elbows and made a general pest of himself begging for scraps. The conversation was relaxed and easy, in that good way that sometimes happens between people who don't know each other that well, but are discovering reserves of common ground over a good meal.

Margot was explaining how she'd come to be rusted solid beside the brook.

"See . . . Judy, that's my SO - decided to stay skin, even after I had myself recast in tin. We've been very happy for a long time, but a few years ago, we decided we wanted children. So, I started looking for a good flesh/metal fertility clinic and a decent sperm bank."

"I thought you wanted the Wicked Witch to be the donor, Margot?" the Scarecrow asked. "At least that's what I heard. Of course, it's been primarily crows I've been talking to over the past few years, and everybody knows what incorrigible gossips they are. Wasn't there something about your inheritance? The castle and the income properties?"

"Tenements and slums in the Emerald city," Margot snorted. "And the castle? What kind of nut would want to live in a mausoleum like that? The whole thing is ugly as sin and would be a nightmare to heat and maintain. Besides, I'd rather swallow a bucket of flesh-eating bacteria than touch one more drop of that sonafbitch's semen."

"The Witch was . . . less than filial toward his sister in their youth," the Scarecrow explained to Dorothy.

"Damn skippy," agreed Margot, with a rancid gleam of old injury in her eyes. "Anyway, we were short the cash we needed for the various procedures, so I took this gig as a wood cutter to help raise the bread.," she stopped to feed Toto a bit of fig compote and to refill her wineglass.

"So one day," she went on. "I'm out by the brook chopping some lengths, and this freak rain storm comes along and dumps damn near five inches on me before I know what's happening. I rusted solid on the spot. Wait till I get my hands on the ironmonger that did my last galvanizing job!"

"But the Witch doesn't seem to be on a budget, Margot," Dorothy objected. "I had the impression there was money in the family? Why are you out here scraping up the funds for the implantation procedure?"

"The Witch cut me off flat when I had my body replaced. Claimed it would ruin his reputation in Oz to have a tin sister. He's got control of all the money, everything. Not that I'd take dollar one from him anyway."

"How close were you to raising what you needed?" the Scarecrow asked. "Before you got caught in the rainstorm?"

"Not so close, to tell you the truth. Wood cutting doesn't pay as well as you might think."

Dorothy had found this whole sad story positively infuriating. The Wicked Witch seemed to be a cousin under the skin to many vile, greedy oppressors she herself had encountered in the land of Effbeeye.

Oh, shit, she thought, suddenly. Now they've got ME doing it!

"I have to tell you, Margot," she said, between bites of fig-en-croute. "Your brother sure sounds like some hot ticket."

"Well, you met him, didn't you?" Margot said. "I'm sure he didn't make a good impression. To meet him is to hate him. Nobody can stand to be around him, except for that ugly monkey of his . . . Cordell."

Dorothy surveyed the Scarecrow with a certain amount of new understanding. Finally she smiled at him.

"Maybe Margot was right. Maybe you should have gotten a medal. This is very good chilled fig soup, by the way."

"Do you think so?" he asked, pleased. "I couldn't find any coriander or lemon peel in the cottage, so I had to make some fairly risky substitutions."

"I'd been running pretty low on groceries when I rusted out," Margot explained.

"Do you think the Wizard could do something about Margot's situation?" Dorothy asked the Scarecrow.

"Hmm . . . what an interesting idea. He might, with the proper persuasion. It would probably be worth a try. I don't see how you could be any worse off than you are now, Margot."

"Yes, come with us, Margot," Dorothy added. "It's worth a shot, isn't it?"

Toto jumped in Margot's lap and wiggled his fuzzy ears at her.

"You know, I think I will. Even if he doesn't help, I need to catch up with Judy. She's been working at the Emerald City Cabaret, and she's probably frantic by now, not hearing from me. And you . . . " she said to Toto, petting his head. "You are a real cutie. How come you've got a muzzle on him? Does he bite?"

Before Dorothy could explain about Toto's problem, the sound of a hundred china plates shattering at once sounded and an all too familiar cloud of vile smelling green smoke erupted from the roof of the cottage and spilled over the walls and fogged the ground below.

The Wicked Witch and the ugly monkey Cordell materialized in the column of smoke and Cordell had to strain to keep his master's bed balanced on the steep roof of the picturesque cottage.

The Witch glared first at Dorothy, who was the only one of the four he could properly make out in all the green smoke.

"So, MS. Special Agent Gale, we meet again! No busybody-in-drag Glinda to hide behind now, is there? Where's that Brain?"

"YOU!" shrieked Margot, absolutely livid at the mere sight of her hated brother. "What the FUCK are you doing here?"

"Is that my lovely tin sister?" the Witch sneered, nastily. "You put the moves on Special Agent prime-piece-of-ass yet, Margot?"

Dorothy immediately pulled her gun, and set her sights on the Witch's good eye. Special Agent WHAT??? We'll just SEE about that!

"Well, well, well," said the Scarecrow, emerging from a thick bank of smoke. "The Wicked Witch of the West! Imagine that! We were just talking about you, isn't that odd? It's been ages. How have you been? I'm so glad to see you! You look marvelous."

"Scarecrow??" The Witch hissed.

"SCARECROW??" he screamed.

"SSSCCCAAARRREEECCCRROOOOWWW????" his voice left the range of normal human hearing and entered the ultrasonic, and he began to foam at the mouth.

"If I had only known you were coming, I'd have set an extra place for you." the Scarecrow said mildly. His dark red eyes were positively sparkling with delight.

"AAAAAUUUUUGGGGGGGGGHHHHHHHH!!!!!" raved the Witch, going into a full scale convulsion and exhibiting Cheyne-Stokes respiration. Cordell immediately set about preparing a sedative injection for the Witch before he could have a stroke.

"Better get that air bubble out before you inject him, Cordell," the Scarecrow suggested helpfully as he gazed up at the wonderful spectacle on the roof.

With a good twenty milligrams of valium in him, the Witch was, at length, able to find some composure. He stared at Dorothy with a certain species of hostile disbelief.

"Less than eight hours in Oz, and you drop a car on my employee, steal my Ruby Brain, hook up with my no-account tin lesbo of a sister and let THIS fucking WALKING DISASTER AREA out of the cornfield! I have to ask, Ms. Gale, what do you have against me?"

"Oh, I don't know Mr. Witch," Dorothy declared, an iron clang in her voice. "It's not all that bad, surely? At least I haven't shot you. Yet . . ."

Her pistol arm never wavered a micron as she spoke.

"You really do seem a trifle overwrought, you know. Why don't you come down off that roof and discuss it with us?" the Scarecrow added with a malicious smirk. "Face to face?"

"You're dead, you vicious little rabid ferret, I guaran-fucking-tee you that! You just wait. I'll stuff a whole damn garbage dump in your head! I'll fucking DANCE on your rotten straw guts."

"You ARE speaking metaphorically, I presume?" retorted the Scarecrow, completely unimpressed. "Why wait? Come down now. I'm right here."

"Yeah, brother mine. Come on down," added Margot.

Stand off. They could not get to the Witch, and he clearly wasn't coming to them. Not without an army at his back, anyway. Dorothy thought about just shooting him and getting it over with, but something stopped her. Perhaps it was that, for all his brutish posturing, there was, at the bottom, something essentially pathetic about him.

"I want that Ruby Brain, Ms. Gale, and I'll get it. Your fine new friends won't stop me. Nothing will stop me. I can't deal with you as I'd like right now, but just TRY to stay out of my way! Just TRY!"

He and Cordell disappeared in another puff of green smoke.

"Ugh!" snorted Margot. "What a stink!"

"So YOU have the Ruby Brain, Dorothy?" the Scarecrow asked.

"Well, yeah, I guess I do. Glinda said I should take it."

"Quite right, too. You killed the Witch of the East, after all. It rightfully belongs to you."

"Umm . . . are you mad?" she asked, a little worried. "That I didn't tell you? You've been saying you wanted a brain."

The Scarecrow laughed. "Not that one, Dorothy. It's supposed to have all sorts of arcane magical properties, but it wouldn't be of any use to me. It doesn't work that way, from what I can gather. Remember, it IS the Witch of the East's former brain, after all. And he was a bona fide moron."

"So, you're not mad?"

"Dorothy," he said softly, and gave her a warm smile. She had responded in kind before she knew her face was moving. "At you? Not at all."

"Well, I'm mad," Margot cut in, oblivious to the important moment she had just obliterated with her vehement interruption. "That high handed fuck can't tell me what to do! I'll help you get to the Wizard now, Dorothy, just to spite him!"

"That's strange," said the Scarecrow with an amused smile. "He told me that's why he was cutting off his nose. To spite his face. It seems to have worked, too. But I expect he doesn't remember."

Margot and Dorothy regarded him with some disapproval. He had his strong points, they could both agree, but his sense of humor could definitely be off-putting. He smiled back at them, refusing to comment further and looking anything but apologetic.

Hmm. Dorothy thought. I don't seem to be making the right social choices here in Oz. Wonder what I'm doing wrong?

Twenty minutes later the small party of travelers, now increased by one, resumed the journey to the Emerald City, and the Great and Powerful Oz beyond.


Chapter Seven

They had walked for another two hours or so, and the early afternoon sunlight had begun to dwindle as it moved toward sunset to come, when Dorothy noticed that the yellow brick road had become far less well marked and maintained than it had been in the earlier stages of the journey.

The huge dark trees of the forest they were passing through pressed close to the sides of the road and their dense foliage overhead strangled off many of the golden rays of afternoon sun before they could reach the yellow bricks below. The cheerful yellow color of the road looked sad and muted in the dimness. Sounds of small animals and distant birds and ominous unidentified crashings and thrashings in the thick brush beneath the trees added to the overall less than enjoyable atmosphere of the forest.

"Is this the haunted forest?" Dorothy finally asked the Scarecrow, making certain she kept the unease she felt strictly out of her voice.

"No, but there's a path through here that leads to it. We're actually very close just here, not more than three leagues, I'd say. Still, this forest is certainly not as bad as the haunted forest. No spooks, even if there are wild animals."

"Wild animals?" Dorothy asked, wondering if she ought to have her gun drawn at this point.

"Like wolves, do you mean?" asked Margot, staring into the impenetrable darkness of the close growing trees. "Or wild boars? Or maybe . . . GOATS?"

Margot was terrified of goats, given their predilection for eating anything, including tin.

"Well, I was thinking more on the order of lions and tigers and bears," explained the Scarecrow. "Of course, one doesn't often see bears, lions AND tigers in the same habitat, and lions are primarily savanna and veldt adapted cats, but many of the animals that have been exiled from the Emerald City Zoo wind up in this forest. There's a sort of a halfway house for zoo refugees not far from here."

"Lions?" asked Margot.

"And tigers?" asked Dorothy.

"And bears," repeated the Scarecrow, who, alone among them, did not look particularly concerned.

"Halfway house?" Dorothy asked, curiosity winning out over trepidation.

"Mm-hm," the Scarecrow said. "To help the zoo animals adapt to life in the wild. They run it themselves, take turns handling the administration chores. It's a big help for some of them, so I've heard."

"Why would they be thrown out of the zoo?" Margot asked.

"Oh, different reasons. Some won't play to the crowds, you know, won't growl and look fierce. Others can't get along with the keepers, try to eat them . . . things like that. It's really very sad."

"How come you know so much about it?" Margot asked him.

"Well, I was there for a year before the cornfield. Hadn't you heard about that, Margot? Oz thought it would be amusing to put me in the zoo, not to mention the revenue he thought it would generate for the public treasury, charging people a bit extra to gawk at me. I had a cell right next to the lion enclosure," the Scarecrow related this particular passage in his history with a smile so cold it would have kept ice cream from melting in a blast furnace.

"I got to know a few of the animals quite well. But the joke was on Oz in the end. I claimed to have straw mold one day and they sent me to the infirmary. It was a perfect opportunity . . . they brought in a vet tech to look at me, can you imagine that? A vet tech? Hmmph. Of course, I broke her jaw, put out her eye, and ate her tongue."

"Excuse me?" said Dorothy, staring at him, aghast. "Did you say you . . . ATE her tongue?"

"Well, of course, Dorothy. A vet tech? It was an insult. Besides, I was bored. After all, it could have been worse. I was actually trying to kill her," he related this unspeakable exploit with utter complacency, and even a minute amount of righteous indignation.

'Told you . . . " Margot whispered to Dorothy, nodding at the Scarecrow.

"There was a huge union flap over it, unsafe working conditions and all that, and the Wizard had to have me moved," the Scarecrow went on, oblivious to Dorothy's newly troubled scrutiny. "I was happy enough to get out of the zoo, but I have occasionally missed the lions. For some reason, I find I really like lions. Couldn't say why."

He shrugged elegantly, leaving the mystery of his unaccountable affinity with lions to the curiosity of others.

No one seemed able to think of anything further to say, so they all walked on in a constrained silence for a time.

Dorothy was reexamining her decision to let the Scarecrow out of the cornfield for the umpteenth time when she heard a sort of low pitched growling sound coming from the thick brush to the right of the side of the road.

"Rowwwrrr," growled a voice that was low pitched and threatening, yet had a curiously diffident tone for what was clearly meant to be an aggressive vocalization.

"RRRRowr. Arruhph. Rowwrr?"

Not one of the four travelers felt particularly threatened by this halfhearted growling. They all peered into the gloomy depths of the forest, trying to locate the source, more out of curiosity than any sense of danger. Not even Toto was especially alarmed.

Finally a large, tawny lion with a truly magnificent mane and a truly impressive leonine physique stepped shamefacedly out from cover.

"Aren't any of you scared?" he asked, disappointed. "I AM a lion. That ought to count for something. What if I decide to eat you?"

"All of us?" Margot asked, trying to stifle a smile.

"Hi," said Dorothy. "Did they kick you out of the zoo?"

"That's a lamb you've got there," the lion said. "I can tell because of my keen feline hunting instincts. What if I decide to eat him? Wouldn't that scare you?"

Toto gamboled up to the lion, sniffed his ankles, and then sat on the lion's left foot, thus answering his question eloquently. After a moment of disappointed hesitation, the lion reached down and petted the little lamb's head.

"Say, he's pretty cute," the lion said, in spite of himself. "How come he's got a muzzle?"

"I've noticed that this group is a bit difficult to scare," the Scarecrow said, smiling happily. "Good afternoon, Barney. Don't you remember me?"

The lion took a pair of specs out from under his mane and held them up to his amber eyes for a closer look at the Scarecrow.

"Scarecrow? Is that you? I haven't seen you since they shipped you off to the cornfield. Who let you out of there?"

Why the hell does everybody have to ask THAT, Dorothy questioned herself privately.

"Is there anybody in Oz you DON'T know?" was what she asked the Scarecrow out loud.

"Well, surely the odd confluence of events hasn't escaped you, Dorothy. In our travels, we've coincidentally encountered the only two individuals in all of Oz who can even begin to tolerate me. Outside of yourself, that is. I'd say the hand of fate is on us, wouldn't you agree?"

Dorothy was afraid he might be right, so she said nothing. The idea that fate could be so deliberately capricious was deeply disturbing to her.

"Oh, everybody knows the Scarecrow," said the lion. "He's famous. Or should that be 'infamous'? I can never remember."

"When were you exiled from the zoo, Barney?" the Scarecrow asked. "Oh, Margot, Dorothy, this is Barney, the Squeamish Lion. He used to be in the enclosure next door to me at the zoo. We used to chat quite a bit. Barney, meet Margot, the Tin Woman, and Special Agent Dorothy Gale, from Effbeeye."

"Meetcha," said Barney. "The zoo? I got kicked out two years ago. Stupidest thing. Just because I wouldn't snarl at the school tours. And they said I ate a gazelle, which was total bullshit. The lionesses were the ones who caught the damn thing. I only nibbled on a flank, you know, to look cool? Truth was, I was just trying to get laid. And now look! I end up here!"

"I'm confused," said Dorothy. "Aren't you a wild animal? Wouldn't you rather be free than locked up in some zoo?"

"That's for squares," the lion argued. "Some lions feel like they have to stand on principle, but not me. In the zoo, I had a warm place to sleep, plenty of friends, hot lioness babes everywhere, and all the Fancy Feast I could eat. Now I'm stuck out here in this godforsaken forest, trying to scare people on the road and living on squirrels! I tell you, being a lion is not all it's cracked up to be!"

"Barney never could quite reconcile himself to the predator's lifestyle," the Scarecrow explained.

"Some lifestyle!" Barney growled. "Nothing but work, work, work. You'd be surprised how fast a little squirrel can be. They put up a hell of a fight, too. And eating them raw - totally gross! I've lost forty pounds since I've been out here."

The Squeamish Lion looked so disconsolate that Dorothy felt tempted to scratch behind his ears to cheer him up. But she decided she didn't know him quite well enough for that yet.

"So," the Lion said to the Scarecrow. "What brings you out here anyway? Aren't you a little close to the haunted forest and the Wicked Witch's castle out here? The Witch really hates you, I hope you know. He used to give me pictures of you to tear up for kitty litter when I worked for him."

"Did he?" the Scarecrow asked, apparently more gratified than offended. "I'd hate to think he'd forgotten me during my stay in the cornfield. I didn't know you'd worked for him, Barney. When was that?"

"My first summer out of the zoo. He hired me to guard the castle gate, thought it would be neat to have a lion prowling around out there by the drawbridge. It was good gig, at first, and I was glad enough for the cat chow, ya know? But he was a total bastard to work for. Always stiffing me on my overtime. And all the flying pigs got on my nerves. I quit after a couple of months. You can't believe how pissed he was about that. Refused to pay me my severance package, the cheap sonofabitch!"

Dorothy seized on the one element of his statement that bothered her the most.

"Flying . . . pigs?" she asked.

"He had this special breeding program. Damn sick idea, really, breeding these huge oinkers to fly, but it was also pretty amazing, when you think about it. You know, Scarecrow, I gotta tell you, I'd stay away from the castle, if I were you. He's trained every last one of those disgusting things to eat straw like it was ambrosia."

The Scarecrow just laughed. "Did he, now? Flying scarecrow-eating pigs, is it? My! Isn't that typical! I'm so glad he's spared a thought or two for me over the years. You know, I'm beginning to think I ought to pay him a visit sometime soon. It seems a bit rude to disappoint him, after he's gone to so much trouble."

Dorothy, although her acquaintance with the Scarecrow was relatively short, had nevertheless learned enough about him to regard this last remark as potential trouble. She'd learned, at the very least, that he was not in the habit of making idle threats.

Not that she didn't feel the Witch had a great deal to answer for, and not that she didn't feel a great deal of sympathy with the Scarecrow, Margot, and now Barney the Squeamish Lion. But she didn't see any good reason for the group to go out of their way to borrow trouble. Further confrontation with the Witch wouldn't get her home any faster.

"But we're going to the Emerald City first, right?" she quickly said to the Scarecrow. "To see the Wizard? We're going to get a normal brain for you, isn't that right?"

"Hmm. I don't know. The Witch will have to be dealt with eventually, Dorothy. He won't just let this drop. There's that Ruby Brain to consider. Sometimes it's best to be preemptive. We could be at the castle by nightfall."

"But - " Dorothy began.

"Wow!" said the Lion. "You guys are going to the Emerald City? You're gonna see the Wizard?"

"Yes, we are," Margot added firmly. "Listen, Scarecrow, I hate the Witch as much as anyone, but I want to get to the Emerald City first. I need to hook up with Judy. We can decide what to do about the Witch later, okay?"

The Scarecrow gave the issue some thought. Finally, he brightened, as though some new nefarious idea had occurred to him, and nodded agreeably.

"Well, all right, if that's what you and Dorothy want," he purred, a small smile on his lips. "We'll see Oz the Great and Powerful first. Satisfied?"

Actually, they weren't. Both Margot and Dorothy felt that he'd caved far too soon, for him, neither of them felt that this was a good thing, and they didn't like the looks of that smile at all.

"Cool!" said Barney, the Squeamish Lion, breaking the moment. "So, that's settled, then, right? Can I go with you guys? I've been wanting to ask Oz for something, but I was too chicken to go by myself."

"Oh?" asked the Scarecrow, blithely ignoring Dorothy and Margot's searching stares. "What did you want to ask him for, Barney?"

Barney would have blushed, had his face not been covered with glossy golden fur.

"I've been doing some nursing down at the halfway house," he mumbled. "I really like it. I want an LPN's license." He raised his beautiful cat's eyes to them defiantly, as though half daring them to ridicule his dream, and half expecting them to.

But he was underestimating his audience. No other three individuals in all of Oz could have been inclined to regard unorthodox hopes and goals with more understanding. There wasn't one of them who couldn't empathize with his unlikely desires.

"You've hooked up with the right crowd, Barney," Margot said, laughing. "I'm a tin eccentric, the Scarecrow here is as crazy as a shithouse rat, Toto can't stop screaming without a muzzle to hold his little jaw shut, and Dorothy's an alien being from another dimension. What's a little LPN's license? You've got the best chance of any of us!"

"Do you really think so?" asked Barney, who, though quite bright, was remarkably literal minded, and so tended not to immediately recognize sarcasm when he heard it. "Even though I'm a lion?"

"Hell, yeah!" Margot said, still laughing, and slapped him lightly on the back. "Right you are! It's okay with the two of you, isn't it? If he comes along?"

"Well, sure," said Dorothy, who had always been fond of cats.

"Of course it's all right," said the Scarecrow, with a friendly smile. "It will be a pleasure to have him. Barney, have you been keeping up with your reading since we last talked? Finish Marcus Aurelius yet?"

The newly enlarged party of travelers set forth again, Barney the Squeamish Lion and the Scarecrow deep in literary discussion as they walked.

Toto scampered up ahead, frolicking about the yellow brick road and stopping to nibble at some grass occasionally. Margot and Dorothy increased their pace a bit to catch him up, and Margot soon had Dorothy giggling helplessly with a little song she'd just made up as they walked.

"We're off to see the wizard," Margot sang.

"The wonderful wizard of Oz,

We hear he is a wiz of a wiz,

If ever a wiz there was,

We're off to ask the wizard,

To help us with some tasks,

But he might be short his gizzard,

If he fails in what we ask,

Because, because, because, because, BECAUSE –

Of the unspeakable things the Scarecrow does!"

Margot, laughing madly, interrupted herself here to execute a clunky but amusing two step, and Dorothy, with a slightly guilty glance backwards at the Scarecrow to make certain he was still busy talking Socrates with the Lion, finished the verse:

"We're off to see the wizard,

We hope it won't come to biting,

Don't tell him that we're coming,

We're afraid he'll go into hiding!

We're off to see the wizard, The wonderful wizard of Oz."

And in this way, the small party of travelers passed through the deep forest, moving ever closer to the Emerald City, and their intended meeting with Oz, on which so much had come to depend.


Chapter Eight

"Christ wept, Cordell, can't you focus the fucking thing? What's the hell's the matter with you?"

The Wicked Witch of the West was berating his assistant, Cordell the ugly monkey, in a drafty stone chamber in one of the towers of his castle. The room was drafty because the entire eastern wall was taken up by a huge, arched, glassless window, completely open to the afternoon sky outside.

A small terrace landing strip jutted out from the great window, and a small class of winged piglets was taking flying instruction from an older hog in a leather flak jacket and a set of goggles. The little piggies were practicing take-offs and landings, and making rather a comical botch of the maneuvers in the process. The veteran swine often raised his eyes to Heaven as he patiently tried to drill some basic rudiments of air technique into the young porker's heads.

The Witch was squinting his goggled eye at an elevated video monitor mounted above his bed, and this was why he was cursing at Cordell. Five tiny figures appeared at the very bottom of the screen, half obscured by forest shadows, and they were very difficult to make out.

No amount of fiddling with the focus controls on the elmo could have improved the resolution of the image, and no amount of ill-tempered verbal abuse could have inspired Cordell to do more than he already had, but the Witch was a firm believer in the principle of condemnation and torment as prime employee motivators. In his earlier, more mobile days, he had even presented executive management training seminars on the subject, and profited handsomely with them, too. His seminars had been quite popular, within a limited segment of Oz employers.

The monkey, Cordell, pawed at the elmo controls a bit more, mostly for show, then threw his wizened monkey hands up in the air and shrugged. He was eyeing a banana in a fruit bowl on a nearby table hungrily, and this kept his mind off his employer's irritable carping.

"Fine. Goddamn cheap electronics. I knew we shouldn't have bought this thing at Radio Shack. Try the zoom."

Cordell touched a control, and the image narrowed in on and enlarged the five figures. The details blurred quite a bit with the zoom, but the figures under observation presented a motley and distinctive appearance, and could hardly be mistaken for some other group of five.

There was the Witch's despised sister, who'd had her cute little butt replaced with a ferchrisskes tin can without even checking with him first.

And here was something new - Barney the Squeamish Lion, of all people - the lazy and ungrateful employee who'd whined about a few little flying pigs and quit a very good job without giving adequate notice.

And here was the screaming lamb, Toto, and, sure enough, there was his owner, the outrageous and uppity Special Agent Bitch from another dimension, who'd had the temerity to steal his Ruby Brain, and who, just incidentally, had freed the loathsome Scarecrow from the cornfield where the Witch had been so gleefully certain he would rot until the end of his miserable life.

Which was supposed to have been in short order, once the Witch had completed his training program with his wonderful flying pigs, and sent them on their intended air raid over the cornfield. Chomp, chomp, chomp, and then sayonara, Scarecrow, old pal, that's all she wrote. That had been the plan, and it had been a good one. But now look . . .

. . . ah, speaking of loathsome, HERE was the Scarecrow himself, chatting animatedly with the big wuss of a Lion, bouncing along in his quick, light stride, a blurred but infuriating suggestion of a smile on his artfully designed cloth face, snooty nose in the air and not a care in the world. The Witch's one good hand drew up into a claw and he ground his teeth until they ached.

Here was something interesting - the small party of five became far easier to see on screen as they passed through the last few straggling trees of the forest and emerged into the light of a clearing on a steep hillside.

Despite the poor resolution on the elmo screen, and the small size of the image, it was quite clear to the Witch that the travelers stood at the head of Poppy Valley, a massive heroin plantation maintained by the Emerald City drug cartel, a loose (and only very loosely concealed) coalition of various Oz big business interests.

Some claimed that Oz the Great and Powerful himself held a controlling interest in the operation, but the Witch knew for a fact that this was not so. He himself held the controlling interest, and Oz, who tended to ignore virtually everything that went on in his domain, had never said pea-turkey about it.

The Witch also knew that the very gates of the Emerald City lay just beyond the great poppy field, and that the hated travelers he sought to detain had only a short stroll to negotiate from where they now stood before they would reach those gates, and relative safety within the city.

The small figures on the screen were now pointing across the valley, and the object of their attention was all too evident in their happy physical attitudes. Now Margot was shaking the goddamn Scarecrow's hand, pumping his straw arm up and down enthusiastically, and the Lion had raised Toto up to his shoulders so that the small lamb could see the Emerald City across the valley. Margot left off on the Scarecrow, and went to pound the Lion on the back. Special Agent Brain-thieving Gale moved toward the Scarecrow and said something, which, of course, the Witch could not make out, the image on the elmo being so inadequate for revealing detail.

But it was perfectly clear, blurred detail and all, that the highly attractive Gale, whom the Witch himself would not have thrown out of bed for eating crackers, had impulsively thrown her arms around the Scarecrow and hugged him soundly. It was also abysmally clear to the Witch that the much despised straw-homicidal-maniac-bastard was not wholly unwilling to permit this surprise incursion.

"Zoo-ooommm . . ." the Witch hissed at Cordell, and soon he was rewarded with the edifying if extremely blurred spectacle of the Scarecrow smiling a touch dazedly to suddenly find himself with an armful of Special Agent. Damned if he wasn't closing those stupid red eyes of his, too!

"Aaarrggh!" the Witch gargled, too infuriated, for the moment, to form coherent syllables.

As the Witch watched, beside himself with wrath, the party of five began to scamper down the hill, making for the city in obvious high spirits.

"Cordell, get me the cell phone," the Witch snarled, when he, at last, had calmed himself enough to talk. "Dial the Poppy Valley guard house, right now!"

Once the Witch had the open line in his hand, he waited until he heard a rough voice speaking the word "Prego?"

"Carlo," the Witch growled. "Listen up. There's a gang of trespassers in the valley. I want you - "

"I keel," promised Carlo, head of the Poppy Valley security force. "I keel SLOW, if you give me right bonus."

"No, goddamnit, you idiot, you don't 'keel' anybody! I want those people stopped and HELD, do you hear? Hold them until me and Cordell get there."

"No keel?" asked Carlo, clearly disappointed. "Bonus no need to be that beeg . . . "

"No, no you won't. You'll do just as I say, or you'll be back waiting tables at the Emerald City Spaghetti Kitchen before sundown, get me?"

"Hokay, hokay, no keel," answered Carlo, sounding somewhat hurt. "No need you be so nasty about it!"

The Witch fumed for a minute, then went on with the conversation.

"There are five, a tin woman, a lion, a scarecrow, a lamb with a muzzle, and a good looking young woman. Carlo, let me impress on you, these people are DANGEROUS. Make sure you have plenty of muscle with you, and watch the woman, she's got a gun. Hear me? Make sure you watch that Scarecrow too, understand? He's trouble. But, above all, make sure NONE of them gets killed. I don't care how you do it, but I want these people alive. Are we clear?"

"Hokay, five, all different kind, no keel anyone, just catch, just hold. Maybe we do a leetle torture before you get here, heh? The womens, maybe?"

"No, no, no. Just hold them all. No torture, no search, no jumping the women, nothing. Do this right, and we'll talk bonus. Do it wrong, and - "

"No need to threats," Carlo interrupted. "You no trust me, Meester Weetch? Hurt my feelings? Pah! How much bonus we talk, heh?"

"Get going, Carlo," the Witch snapped, declining to discuss the details of any prospective bonus and severing the connection.

"Now, we'll see . . . " the Witch gloated, and settled back in his hospital bed, his one goggle eye riveted on the monitor.


Chapter Nine

Not far across the blazing red riot of poppies in the valley, the late afternoon sun glinted on the fabled towers and domes of the Emerald City and sparked green fire from their prominences and angles.

Dorothy and the others were wading through the sea of red flowers, each individual satisfied to be approaching the end of their journey at last, yet each, in his or her way, just slightly disappointed too. This journey had proven to be more enjoyable than any of them had any reasonable right to expect.

An odd bond among them as a group had been established extraordinarily quickly, considering that not one of them wasn't rather a difficult personality, in his or her own right. Personal alliances, and more besides, were also developing, and it would have been good to pursue these. But each was aware, to varying degrees, that the ultimate goal now in sight would change all these things, though for good or ill, none could have said.

However, it didn't really matter anyway, since a crash squad of Poppy Valley goons was bearing down on them all at top speed just then. And, though they did not yet know it, they would all be obliged to fight their way across the valley to the city, if they could, very soon.

Dorothy was the first to notice that they had a problem. She had seen far too many drive-bys back in Effbeeye not to recognize the driving configuration of the heavily manned half dozen hay wains speeding toward their position. She could not fail to recognize an attack pattern when she saw it.

"Oh, man, that does not look good," she barked, immediately pulling every weapon she had out of her tote bag, checking each and loading all. She raised her head to her companions. "Hostiles at three o'clock, folks. I don't think it's a reception committee."

Margot and the Lion gazed, momentarily dumbfounded, at the approaching wagons.

Finally, Margot summed up the situation eloquently. "Poppy Valley security. Shitfire. We're toast." She sighed and concluded her assessment with a clanking, defeated shrug.

The Scarecrow, who tended to be a bit quicker on the uptake, and who thought very little of chit-chat under duress, said nothing, but immediately moved the Harpy blade he carried out of his breast pocket and into his sleeve. Then he pulled a crossbow out of his knap sack, and set about winding the hand-cranked winch and loading the bow with a pair of quarrels. Once this was done, he dropped below the level of the ripe poppy plants and began to set crossbow quarrels in the rich soil beneath, each sticking out of the ground at convenient hand height and each placed in a strategic spot. In this way, Dorothy saw, he would be able to move about within concealment as he wished, with constant access to ammunition, yet his hands would be unencumbered, since he need not carry the crossbow bolts he was pre-placing for himself. Within the space of thirty seconds, he'd placed some dozen of the bolts, and then had moved completely out of sight.

Dorothy had been in a great many jump-out squads and gun battles over the course of her somewhat checkered career, and she had often felt the disgruntled and barely controllable panic of an officer who has begun to suspect she has ignorant and/or incompetent back-up. She allowed herself one quick, grim smile of approval at the Scarecrow's very professional tactics.

Thank God he's on our side, she thought, then forgot about him completely. She turned to Margot and the Lion.

"Who can shoot?" she asked, quick. "Margot, what about you?"

Margot shook herself together and accepted a back-up .45 Dorothy always carried in her bag, even on vacation. The six hay wagons were less than an acre away.

As Dorothy showed Margot how to eject the clip and sock in a fresh one, she was also staring hard at Barney, who was looking every inch the Squeamish Lion just then.

"You're gonna have to fight, you know, Barney," she said, quietly.

"Oh, jeez, I'm not like that, really I'm not. And don't ask me to take one of those guns. I HATE loud noises."

The wagons only a half acre away now, the assorted goons and toughs and lowlife scum that rode in them becoming distinguishable as individuals as they drew closer.

"Barney, who do you think sicced this bunch of shitheads on us? I'll give you one guess, but I'll also give you a hint - he's got no face and wears a pointy hat!"

"Oh, God, don't you think I KNOW that?" Barney moaned, and covered his face with his paws.

Margot cleared her throat, once. She was not really one to seek out a fight, but, since she was clearly in one now, she fully intended to dish out some shit. She set herself and raised her borrowed gun. She could now see the faces of the various individuals on the wagons. She noticed something odd about a goodish number of the faces she could see, and a crazy idea occurred to her. She began to turn toward Barney.

Dorothy, deciding to put the issue of Barney aside for the time being, had commanded Toto to lie down in a particularly thick poppy bush, and had told him very firmly to stay. Once she had him settled, she loaded a couple of shells into the shotgun she'd had buried at the bottom of her tote, just in case. She slung the thing, broken, over her shoulder.

"Hey, Barney," called Margot to the distressed Lion. "Can you see those guys yet? I mean, can you make them out?"

Barney, quivering, peeked out from between his paws at the approaching mob of Poppy Valley security thugs. A moment passed. His quivering came to an abrupt halt. His paws came down from his face, claws extended, and his muzzle began to wrinkle in a feline snarl of pure hatred.

"Hyenas!" he hissed, in a deadly feline growl. "I can't believe they're hiring hyenas out here! Ever-fucking . . . HYENAS . . . rrrrrRRRRRROOORRRRRRRR!!!!"

Barney the Squeamish Lion dropped into a stalking crouch that would have put the infamous man-eating lions of Tsaavo to shame and all that could be seen of him was the tip of his tasseled tail lashing furiously above the poppies.

It was a well known fact among even casual observers of animal shows on television that if there is one thing a lion (even a squeamish lion) absolutely will not tolerate, it is a hyena. Margot suddenly felt very grateful that Judy had made her sit through all those boring animal shows once upon a time.

Carlo had recently been hiring hyenas that had been exiled from the zoo to beef up his security forces, and it had seemed like a good idea at the time. They were a little unruly and had appalling table manners, it was true, but they were willing to work for next to nothing, and they all seemed to have a real feel for the work. He could not have guessed that his small economy would prove to be such a disastrous tactical error.

Once the wagons were in her firing range, Dorothy called out in the cold, clear voice she had always employed to verbally quell criminals on the verge of a firefight.

"Hold it right there, fellas. State your business," she took the shotgun off her shoulder, worked the pump, and leveled it at the driver of the foremost wagon to emphasize the seriousness of her feelings.

Carlo, who just happened to be that driver, felt confused. His information had been that there should be five travelers to seize. He only saw two. One was the good-looking woman he'd been told about, and, yes, she did have a gun, as advertised. But the other woman, the tin one, (not a bad looker herself, if you were into that kind of thing) was also armed. The lion he'd been told to expect was missing, and the Scarecrow, who everyone in Oz knew was most closely akin to a pack of sentient razor blades, was nowhere in sight.

Carlo chewed on a stag's tooth he habitually kept in his mouth, unaware that everyone who worked under him felt that this was a thoroughly vile habit and often made fun of him for it. He was wondering if the situation hadn't already careened out of control, even before it had properly begun.

"I think you lost, nice ladies," he said, trying on a crocodilian smile that was meant to set the two women he could see at ease. If he could seize these two, he was thinking, perhaps he could draw the others out of cover.

"Nope," answered Dorothy, still in her overly clear you're-all-under-arrest voice. "We're not lost at all. We're going to the Emerald City. Right over there." She pointed to the nearby green skyline with her chin, never moving the barrel of the shotgun from its steady bead on Carlo's head.

"Oh, marrone, it's coincidence, heh? That's where we go too! What a luck for you two pretty ladies. We give you a ride, heh?"

"I think you ought to blow his head off, Dorothy," Margot said. "That's the most transparent line I ever heard."

"I think not," Dorothy said to Carlo. "Thanks anyhow."

"But we insists, heh? Bad element around this poppy field. Narcotico dealers! Not safe for ladies. "

"It may not be safe for anyone in a minute," Dorothy retorted. "You boys are in our way. Move aside."

"Ladies come with us. No be naughty. We insist, and we about twenty-five of us boys. You about two of you ladies."

He pulled his hay wagon several horse lengths closer to Dorothy's position, crowding her right up to the brink of full scale confrontation. One backward step on her part, Dorothy knew, and the festivities would begin. They'd probably begin anyway, she thought, glumly. She'd been through too many things like this to harbor any false hopes.

"Dorothy, I'M gonna plug him in a minute, if he doesn't stop calling us 'ladies', goddamnit," Margot said.

Before Carlo could commit yet another sexist faux pas, several things happened simultaneously.

A flash of tawny gold at the back of one of the wagons, and three hyenas shrieked their last as they were dragged away and out of sight beneath the blood red poppies.

The rest of the hyenas, in all the wagons, all sniffed the air nervously, identified a scent they all knew from their worst nightmares, and one rather high strung young one screeched "LION!!" at the top of his lungs.

The entire hyena contingent panicked and screamed in their high pitched hyena voices, creating a horrible din that blasted all coherent thoughts out of the minds of the less emotional species in the wagons. Several of the hyenas simply leapt out of the wagons and ran away.

Then several odd whizzing, hissing sounds buzzed in rapid succession, each one coming from a different location, and two leather jacketed Emerald City bikers, one wart hog from the zoo, and a winged monkey who was almost as ugly as Cordell, all collapsed, dead, crossbow bolts shot through various vital portions of their anatomies.

A short pause, and then the fat guy sitting next to Carlo in the front wagon suddenly sprouted a crossbow quarrel from his chest, right over his heart. He instantly collapsed into Carlo, three hundred pounds of newly dead meat, knocked Carlo halfway off his seat, AND caused him to accidentally swallow the stag's tooth he'd been chewing.

As Carlo choked on the tooth and tried to push the fat guy out of his way, Dorothy seized the moment and fired her shotgun directly over the heads of Carlo's team of horses. The team immediately panicked and bolted, just as Dorothy had intended they should. The wagon jolted round and bounced off toward the far east end of the poppy field, Carlo coughing wildly and desperately hanging on to the side slats to avoid being thrown off and broken at the high speed.

Confusion to the enemy, Dorothy thought with some satisfaction, and tossed her shotgun aside to pull the cutdown .45 out of her waistband. One wagon down, plus the guy who looked to be in charge. Let's finish this.

Another pair of hyenas were seized from ambush, nothing clearly seen but a flash of golden fur and a lashing tasseled tail. The hyenas all had seen enough. They deserted en masse, running in a protective, yipping pack as far from the scene of the recent great hyena massacre as they could get.

Dorothy aimed her weapon at the driver of the second wagon, a bald fellow with a monstrously long mustache, and her voice cut through the racket of retreating hyenas like a diamond through glass.

"Didn't I ASK you people to move aside? Now, I've asked you once, nicely. Make me ask again and we'll REALLY open up on you all, understand? What's left of you, that is. You first, Baldy, guaranteed. What do you say?"

The much reduced Poppy Valley security force did not need to confer over the matter much.

The bald gentleman in the second wagon didn't need to confer at all. He immediately flicked the reins and turned his wagon around with dispatch and decisiveness, and sped back to the guardhouse, where he intended to jump into the safety of his bunk and hide under a blanket for the next few days.

The remaining four wagons soon followed suit, and Dorothy and her companions were left alone, victorious, upon the field.

"'You first, Baldy'!" Margot repeated to Dorothy, cracking up. "God, girl, that was GREAT! Did you see that guy turn white?"

Barney the Squeamish Lion emerged from his crouch among the poppies, standing to his full height and fastidiously licking blood off his muzzle.

"I simply hate hyenas," he said, with a toothy feline grin. "But I gotta admit, they don't taste half bad."

The Scarecrow emerged from cover a minute or two later. He'd been busy retrieving all his crossbow quarrels, minus the ones that were now imbedded in the various casualties, and thus gone for good. He'd also come upon Toto's hiding place in his search, and had tucked the blinking little lamb under his arm.

"What a pathetic showing," he snorted, setting Toto down, not a strand of straw out of place. "Pushovers. The Witch really ought to consider hiring some decent help."

Dorothy regarded her new friends. She'd never had more unusual, or more completely reliable, back-up. She wasn't sure what this said about her life back in Effbeeye, and she wasn't sure she wanted to figure it out.

"So, I guess you guys aren't all that big on law and order here in Oz?" was what she said to them, smiling.

As Dorothy smiled at her companions in Poppy Valley, a little over three leagues away, in the haunted forest, all through and all around the castle, the sustained, frenzied, enraged bellowing of one incredibly pissed off Wicked Witch pained the ears of all who heard it.

The sound of an elevated video monitor being smashed to bits was actually a pleasant contrast, so awful was the horrible screaming.

****************************************************************** Chapter Ten

Special Agent Dorothy Gale and her companions were having a problem at the Emerald City gate.

An officious gatekeeper with a really apocalyptic case of acne and a sullen attitude the size of Kansas was in the process of snubbing them at the gate, and not one of them was in a mood to suffer fools gladly.

"Not just any riffraff gets into Emerald City," declared the snippy gatekeeper, craning his neck around outside a loophole in the great green gate. He looked to be all of seventeen and his coke bottle lensed glasses somewhat spoiled the fashionable effect of his pierced nose. "You're not even dressed for it, none of you! I never saw a scruffier bunch of slobs!"

Not five minutes earlier, the party of five, before the gates at last, and buoyed by their recent victory over the Poppy Valley security force, had been cheerfully planning their prospective evening in the Emerald City.

The visit with the Wizard had been their top priority, but they'd also been looking forward to fulfilling various personal errands first. Margot meant to drop by the Cabaret and find her Judy, the Lion intended to look up a lioness friend of his who would give him a place to crash for the night, and Dorothy planned a trip to whatever local garage might be found that could replace her blown out tires.

The Scarecrow had said: "Thank God. Civilization. I wonder if the opera is in town?"

They'd all agreed on spending an hour each on their personal business, then regrouping at the Emerald City Wash and Brush Up Company, a good day spa, for some much needed refurbishing of their images and spirits. After that, they planned to discuss what approaches might work best with the Wizard over dinner at a continental restaurant the Scarecrow had recommended.

Now this! One obnoxious juvenile overachiever at the gate, and all their plans seemed in imminent danger of collapse.

All were annoyed; Margot had fixed the adolescent gatekeeper with her most withering glare, the Lion had hissed at the young man, and Toto, though muzzled and silent, had expressed his displeasure nonverbally, by peeing on the gate.

But being called "riffraff', "scruffy", and a "slob" by a near-sighted teenage arbiter of good taste with a gold hoop hanging out of his nose was having an absolutely extraordinary effect on the Scarecrow.

His entire straw frame was vibrating like a tuning fork as he gazed fixedly at the recalcitrant gatekeeper, his maroon eyes appeared to have incandesced to a shade that most resembled molten lava, his sharp white teeth were bared, and his six fingered left hand was twitching like a spiked beetle. Dorothy was keenly aware that people were going to die if something wasn't done forthwith.

"You listen here, you pencil-neck sack of horseshit - I'm Special Agent Dorothy Gale, and I killed the Wicked Witch of the East this morning, I'm carrying the Ruby Brain, we just mopped up the Poppy Valley Heroin Farm security force, and this Scarecrow here is about ready to make twerp tartare out of YOU. We want to see the Wizard, and you probably want to see what it's like to be twenty-one! So you better open that gate, right this red hot minute!"

The gatekeeper went red, then green, then squeaked "I'll have to get my supervisor," and disappeared inside the gate like a prairie dog down a burrow.

A moment or two later an older, hopelessly officious gatekeeping professional poked his head out of the loophole, and said brusquely: "What seems to be the problem here?"

The Lion, Margot, Dorothy and Toto all grabbed hold of the Scarecrow at once to prevent him from going into launch mode.

"Did someone mention the Wizard?" asked the new gatekeeper. "Was there something about the Ruby Brain? My assistant Marvin here is a good boy, but sometimes he gets things wrong."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah," Dorothy growled between her gritted teeth, tightening her hold on the Scarecrow's arm, noticing that the ambient temperature in a three foot arc around him had suddenly dropped by forty degrees. "Ruby Brain. Wicked Witch of the East. Open sesame - whatever you wanna hear - just please God open that GATE!"

The older gatekeeper disappeared and the gate slowly swung open. The four of them hustled the vibrating Scarecrow inside as fast as possible, all of them whispering things like "opera", "pate de foie gras", "Emerald City Philharmonic", "Batard Montrachet" and such in his ears in an effort to keep him calm until they could get him out of the range of the two gatekeepers.

Margot saw a hansome cab just ahead a few paces and they all moved toward it fast, never leaving off their whispering until they'd dragged him into the cab and given the driver the address of the Wash and Brush Up Co., safely across town.

Many blocks of downtown Emerald City had passed, and Dorothy had noted that the entire city and all its people seemed to have a fixation on the color green, when the Scarecrow finally said something.

"Wasn't that horse purple when we first got in this cab? Doesn't it appear to have turned orange just recently? And Barney? Margot? Could you two please stop sitting on me now?"

The five rearranged their seating arrangements and agreed that the horse was, indeed, changing color approximately every five city blocks. To Dorothy, on any other day, this might have seemed strange.

Once at the Wash and Brush Up, everyone but Margot decided to postpone their other business until they'd had a chance to get cleaned up. Margot did not want to put off her reunion with Judy any longer than necessary, but she promised to meet them at the Wash and Brush Up Co. Cappuccino Bar in a couple of hours.

Dorothy did not know what spa services the others might have opted for, but she had the whole package: steam, sauna, Jacuzzi, herb wrap, facial, shiatsu massage, manicure, pedicure, got her hair done, picked up a nice little basic black cocktail dress at the gift shop, and agonized for almost twenty minutes over which pair of shoes to buy to go with it. She was not a woman who ordinarily spent time fussing over herself, but she felt she'd earned every bit of this little orgy of self indulgence, and more to boot.

Besides, she thought, as she dropped by the pet grooming section of the spa to check on Toto, for some unknown reason, she just felt like she wanted to look good tonight. She told herself that she hoped to impress the Wizard, but could not completely dismiss the nagging suspicion that she wasn't telling herself the whole story.

The dismally familiar sound of Toto screaming at the groomers stopped her from questioning her own motives for self-beautification any further, and perhaps that was just as well. They'd apparently made the mistake of taking the little lamb's muzzle off to bathe him. She said hello to Barney, who was getting his claws polished in the same facility, then explained about Toto's problem to the appalled grooming staff.

Once that situation had been sorted out, and she had informed the groomers where to find her once Toto's day of beauty was finished, she went into the Wash and Brush Up Co. Cappuccino Bar to await her companions.

Although she saw no one she recognized in the indoor portion of the bar, upon her entrance, the headwaiter, two busboys and a barista all fawned on her avidly enough to assure her that her extra luxurious attention to her appearance had been well worth the effort. It took the overly attentive waitstaff a solid ten minutes of concentrated fawning before they finally admitted that the Scarecrow had reserved a table for five on the terrace outside, and was already waiting out there, and had left word that she, along with the Lion, Margot, and Toto, were to be escorted outside as soon as they arrived.

She saw the Scarecrow before he saw her. Clearly, he'd taken advantage of the excellent facilities of the Wash and Brush Up to make himself as elegant as any straw individual she'd ever seen, with a new set of clothes, extensive barbering, detailed attention to his shoes, the addition of several exclusive and aromatic brands of hay to his stuffing, and, she noticed, a perfectly executed mending job on the hole in his head behind his ear. He was draped gracefully on a chair at a prime table near the terrace rails, looking as though he owned the entire world, and had been born for the express purpose of improving the general ambiance of dining establishments and drinking espresso out of small bone china demitasse cups.

Holy God, came the sudden, unguarded thought to Dorothy, before she could stop it, damned if he doesn't look about as hot as an electric chair!

And then a second panicky thought, a split second later: I did NOT just think that! No sir, Uh-UH, no way baby, I did NOT just think that at all!

Dorothy was making a determined effort to suppress the highly impractical if vivid message from the darker regions of her libido, and the fact that the Scarecrow stopped breathing the moment he saw her in her new evening clothes, AND accidentally dropped his cup of steaming espresso into his lap as well, did not aid her a bit.

That the small accident inspired him to shoot up out of his chair like a scalded cat, coupled with the suggestion of an expression of extreme pain on his cloth face, sent her thoughts in a speculative direction that caused her to blush like a tomato and condemn herself roundly at the same time.

"Excuse me," he said, sounding slightly strangled, brushed by her in a whisper of air, and disappeared from the terrace in the blink of an eye.

Get hold of yourself, girl, Dorothy told herself sternly, and sat down at the table. Within moments, the attentive headwaiter appeared at her elbow like a magic trick, and a double Mocha Latte appeared at her place less than forty seconds later. She'd gulped half of it to steady her nerves before Barney the Squeamish Lion appeared, and Dorothy could not be certain whether she was relieved or disappointed to see him.

In time, Margot showed up, looking refreshed and supremely happy after her reunion with Judy, and then Toto was led out onto the terrace by one of the pet grooming staffers, fluffy as a dandelion, muzzle freshly laundered and firmly in place. The Scarecrow returned from whatever remedies he'd undertaken to correct the effects of the recent misadventure, and the entire group was assembled again. They fell into conversation.

"I don't know," Margot was arguing. "I always think a straightforward approach is best. We oughta just ask the Wizard for what we want, and go from there."

"Margot, how often, that you know of, has the Wizard ever done anything for anyone?" the Scarecrow asked. "What we need to consider is not what we want, but what the Wizard might want. Then we have some basis for negotiation."

"Just because YOU'RE as devious as a corkscrew doesn't mean everybody has to be!" Margot retorted. "There's no reason to think the Wizard can't respond to a straight request, and I think -"

"But we ARE gonna eat before we go see him, right?" asked Barney. "All I've had today was a few scrawny hyenas, and I'm really ready for a nice dinner."

Dorothy had been feeding Toto some sugar cookies she'd cadged from one of the smitten busboys, and she looked up. "What about this Ruby Brain everyone keeps talking about? How does that fit in?"

There was a moment of thoughtful silence, then everyone automatically glanced at the Scarecrow, expecting an opinion.

After some thought, he delivered one.

"As it relates to the Wizard, I don't know. Available information about the Brain's properties is sketchy at best, and I'm afraid I haven't had access to suitable research facilities for some years. So, there, it's an "X" factor."

He paused, took a sip of espresso, then stared into everyone's eyes for a moment, getting their attention.

"However, as it relates to the Wicked Witch, I needn't tell any of you that we have a bit of a problem. The Witch has made his position in regard to the Brain abundantly clear, has he not?"

They all glanced around nervously, reminded, once again, that despite their current civilized surroundings and spa-induced sense of well being, they still had a powerful enemy in the Witch, and that their business with him was left unfinished.

As if summoned by their renewed sense of unease, the sound of the other diners and coffee drinkers around them exclaiming over some mysterious phenomenon first nibbled at the edges of their attention, and then became intrusive, and finally became impossible to ignore.

Other diners were leaving their tables and massing at the terrace rails, many looking up into the twilit early evening sky, some pointing, all growing increasingly alarmed.

Dorothy and her companions looked up into the sky. The Lion's face fell at what he saw there, and Margot's heart sank.

It was the Wicked Witch himself, riding his hospital bed in the sky, Cordell beside him, using his signature green smoke to skywrite a message. A message that wasn't likely to turn out to be "happy birthday", they all felt certain.

"How does he always manage to show up every darn time we're talking about him?" Dorothy inquired irritably.

"Well, he IS a witch, Dorothy," Barney said gently, as though she were a small, somewhat backward child.

As they watched, the letters "S" and "U" appeared in the sky.

"S, U ?" Margot said. "Suit? Like a lawsuit?"

One green "R" formed.

"Sur?" the Lion asked. "Sur . . . prise? Surprise?"

An "I" and an "N' appeared.

"Surin . . ." said Dorothy. "What does THAT mean?"

A smoky "D", then an "A", and finally another "R" marched across the sky.

The Scarecrow burst out laughing.

"It means he's letting that illiterate monkey Cordell do the steering! 'Surindar' ! I love it!"

The completed message read: "Surindar, Dorothy - bleah!"

Just about everyone of any education who saw it could not help but snicker a bit, even though the medium used to convey the misspelled message was highly alarming. Everyone could see that it was the Wicked Witch of the West's doing.

Slightly panicky talk from the coffee house patrons erupted all around Dorothy and her companions, and several people suggested that the Wizard might know what was going on, and should be asked about the strange message at once.

"Sorry, Barney, I think that dinner is gonna have to wait," Margot said. "If we want to see the Wizard tonight, I think we'd better get going now. We'll never get in with this crush. They must have seen that message all over the city."

Even Barney had to agree that this made sense. The five travelers rose from their table quietly, the Scarecrow left enough on the table to cover the bill plus a decent tip, and all five of them faded out of the Cappuccino Bar. Once outside, they grabbed a hansome cab before anyone else could get their hands on it, and sped off.

Fifteen minutes later they'd arrived at the huge green doors of the Great Hall of Oz, just ahead of a mob of anxious Emerald City citizens.

A tinny public address system had been rigged outside the great doors, a hurried, sloppy installation job, to Dorothy's practiced eyes. An announcement loop was going at full blast and the volume was turned so high that the grating audio feedback the huge speakers were putting out virtually overwhelmed the content of the announcement.

"Please return to your homes. There is no cause for alarm. The Wizard has matters well in hand. Please return to your homes. There is no cause for alarm . . . "

"Bullshit," Barney roared at his companions. "No cause for alarm! Just LISTEN to this noise!"

The ghastly whining, screeching, amplified howl of the feedback was far more effective in dispersing the apprehensive citizenry than any calming prerecorded message could have been. Dorothy and her friends gritted their own teeth against it and waited out the crowds, a matter of only some few minutes, considering the awful tinny din.

Once every last Emerald City resident had been driven away, Dorothy tapped the Scarecrow, pointed to what she believed was the main line supplying power to the PA, and asked to borrow the Harpy in pantomime. She took her new, elegant, leather-soled shoes off, replaced them with her ugly, cheap, but well insulated rubber-soled old ones, and with three judicious cuts, disabled the PA.

Blessed silence ensued.

"Gosh, maybe they're not such terrible shoes after all, huh?" she said to the Scarecrow with a mean little smirk.

"Oh, Dorothy, thank you, I could just kiss you," Margot enthused, rubbing her sore ears. She turned to look at the doors, then glanced at her companions. "So . . . what now?"

They all looked at the huge, forbidding doors for a time. Certainly, doors of this vast size and grandeur had not been designed to encourage the uninvited visitor.

These visitors, however, did not particularly require encouragement. It was short work to locate the ornate doorbell, even shorter work to ring it.

They all stepped back a pace, each aware that this was something of an occasion, and calmly awaited whatever answer would come.


Chapter Eleven

"Who rang that bell?" asked a doorkeeper who appeared to be the identical twin of the older of the two gatekeepers they had met at the city gate. "Can't you people read?"

Barney asked "Read WHAT?" just as Dorothy was eyeing the Scarecrow and muttering "Oh, God, not again!"

"What's up with all the gatekeepers around here?" Margot wanted to know. "Do they all have to go to obnoxious school before they get their diplomas or something?"

"The sign, the sign!" the doorkeeper was saying testily. "The sign clearly states 'Bell out of order, please knock'. Can't you idiots read the sign?"

"What sign?" Barney asked patiently, while Margot and Dorothy observed the Scarecrow carefully for any indicators of incipient meltdown.

"Well, THAT sign, of course . . ." the doorman replied to Barney, looking very much like a turtle as he craned his neck around the porthole in the door he'd poked his head through in response to their ring. He craned a bit more, determined that there actually was no sign, and turned red.

"Well, there WAS a sign! One of you swiped it, didn't you??"

The Scarecrow began to glide toward the door, a rather fixed smile on his face.

"I tell you, Dorothy," Margot said, rolling her eyes. "I've just about had it with these self-important doorkeepers. Screw it. This time I'm not gonna stop him!"

The doorkeeper stared at them all for a moment, as though he thought he could shame them into confessing to the odious crime of sign-stealing by sheer force of will. Then he glanced down at something on his side of the door, and flushed anew. His head popped back inside the porthole, then he reemerged with a sign, and without a word reached out through the porthole to post it on the door.

A tactical error. The Scarecrow struck at this moment, grabbing the doorkeeper by both ears and jerking his head up as he leaned in to stare into the man's eyes.

"Good evening," the Scarecrow said. "I'm wondering if you wouldn't mind assisting me with an experiment? Do you think I could pull you right through this porthole? If I tugged VERY hard? Do you think you'd fit? Or would your ears just come off first? Shall we give it a try?"

"Uh - um - no - no, let's don't, please," squeaked the doorkeeper.

"No? A pity, because I really am very curious about it. Would you care to open this door for us instead?"

The doorkeeper tried to nod his head in the affirmative, found that he was unable to do so while in the Scarecrow's wiry grip, and so quavered "Um . . . yes, please, let's do that instead."

"Can you reach the latch like this? From where you are? Don't lie or I'll know."

The doorman tried very hard to reach the latch. Things being what they were, he did not wish to disappoint the Scarecrow in any way. By twisting his shoulders, scrabbling with his feet, and stretching the arm that was on the inside of the door to its outermost limit, he was at last able to disengage the latch and swing the door inward an inch or two.

Margot and Barney quickly put their weight on the door and opened it fully, Dorothy and Toto followed just behind, with the doorman and the Scarecrow mincing along in tandem, on either side of the door.

Not until they were all safely on the inside of the great doors did the Scarecrow release the doorman's ears. Whereupon the doorman collapsed in a demoralized but essentially unharmed heap on the highly polished green floor.

"One sometimes has to find the proper . . . tone . . . when dealing with the help," the Scarecrow remarked. "It's often just a matter of offering the right alternatives."

Thank God he's on our side, Dorothy thought, not for the first time.

Dorothy decided that Toto should stay outside for this occasion, so they left the quaking doorman in charge of the small lamb. He was instructed, on pain of extreme and savage punishment, to watch Toto at all times, to pet Toto occasionally, and to take him out to crop and relieve himself at least once during their absence.

The doorman, who would, in times to come, dine out on his recounting of this encounter with the notorious Scarecrow for weeks, and would also legally change his given name to "Lucky", agreed to these terms eagerly.

And so, satisfied, with Toto's arrangements, the four of them began to walk down a long corridor that stretched far out ahead.

The corridor was wide, a succession of groined Gothic vaults paneled in translucent green marble. The length might have stretched out to forever; certainly it stretched as far as any of them could see. They continued to walk.

"The architect who designed this building ought to be hunted down and summarily executed for criminal overstatement," the Scarecrow complained. "I've seen more artistic restraint in some bordellos."

"I've seen smaller aircraft hangars," Dorothy added. None of her companions had ever actually seen an aircraft hangar, since aircraft were unknown in Oz, if one didn't count flying pigs, winged monkeys, enchanted broomsticks and ensorcelled hospital beds. But they could all glean her meaning from the context easily enough.

"It's probably supposed to be intimidating," Barney the Squeamish Lion said with a sick smile that barely revealed his fangs. "And, hey, guess what? It IS. Maybe I'll wait for you guys outside, okay? Don't forget to mention my license."

Margot took Barney's forepaw and gave it a comforting squeeze just before he could turn around and leave.

"It's just a HALL, Barney. Don't be a scardey-cat. Here, here's your tail. Hang on to it for a minute, will you? You keep switching me with it."

They all walked on for what seemed like miles, their steps clattering in the awful acoustics of the echoing, barren structure, their complexions turned to various deathly shades in the unrelieved green light.

"This Wizard of yours doesn't seem too keen on visitors," Dorothy said. "Look at this hall. Damn well better pack a lunch!"

"Oh, he's not," Margot answered. "He's almost a recluse. Hardly anybody's ever even seen him. Well . . . not mere mortals, that is. Look, are those doors I see at the end of the hall? Way down there?"

"I've seen him." The Scarecrow said, so quietly that the others didn't hear him. He did not trouble to repeat himself.

"I heard he was twenty feet tall and completely hairless," Barney commented. "And green all over. That's what I heard. Maybe we should have made an appointment or something."

"Hmm. Something like a giant pickle, do you mean, Barney?" The Scarecrow asked, with an amused smile. They all had to snicker at the mental image his remark suggested, even Barney.

The moment of levity broke the tension that had been building quite effectively, and they moved forward toward the great double doors that were now clearly visible at the head of the long corridor with a renewed sense of purpose.

A sense of purpose that was soon demolished for most of them by a colossal, awe inspiring, and rather unfriendly voice that spoke an imperative command.


If an iceberg could be given a tongue and somehow persuaded to speak, it might have sounded something like this voice.

"Ah, our good fortune," commented the Scarecrow, apparently undaunted. "You see? He's in. No appointment necessary."

The others watched as he cheerfully strode forward to the vast doors and rapped firmly upon them.

"Hello? Oz? Is that you shouting in there?"

Barney the Squeamish Lion positively cringed at this insane display of insouciance.

"Well . . . ummm . . . I guess he's not scared," Dorothy pointed out through chattering teeth. She forced her feet to move forward several paces.

"HE'S a fucking lunatic, Dorothy!" Margot argued. "Or hadn't you noticed?"

"COME FORWARD," the Wizard commanded. "ALL OF YOU WILL ENTER NOW!"

All further debate was cut short. Dorothy and Margot caught hold of Barney's forepaws and dragged him forward, since he seemed temporarily rooted to the floor. Once they'd caught up to the Scarecrow, he swung the door inward for them and courteously stepped aside to let the ladies enter first. The bland smile on his face would not have borne close examination.

"Har-de-har-har," Margot hissed at him at him as she gathered herself and stepped, first, through the doors.

The others followed closely, and the Scarecrow brought up the rear, being obliged to push the paralyzed Barney ahead of him through the door, as one would push a sofa or other piece of furniture.

The chamber before them was immense and clearly designed to stun. More groined arches vaulted upward to the vanishing point of vision above. A sea of polished green marble flooring led to a wide raised dais, three broad steps above the floor level where they stood.

On either side of the second step, knurled jade urns held arcane supernatural flames which blazed upward in rhythmic intervals that suggested the beating of a vast, unguessable heart and the great exhalations of some divine breath. Swirls of bright yellow mist eddied about the steps and swirled above the dais like tendrils of transcendent thought magically made visible.

And Oz, the Great and Powerful himself, regarded them with godlike disdain from the apex of the dais.

He appeared to be a being composed entirely of force of mind, largely incorporeal. Only a great, semi-transparent, noble head, wreathed in yellow mist, hairless (as Barney had predicted), floating in the ether above the dais, surveying with his great deep eyes the four petitioners below him as a blue whale might survey a particularly disreputable mess of plankton.

"COME FORWARD," Oz commanded, once again. They could each feel the vibration of his awesome voice through the soles of their feet on the floor. Margot and Barney got the first wave, and then Dorothy, and finally the Scarecrow, lurking in the back of the group

The Scarecrow touched Dorothy's shoulder from behind and whispered to her. "You first, Dorothy. Indulge me, I'm curious about something. Introduce yourself. Understand? Introduce yourself. Don't let him frighten you."

"Too late for that," she whispered back. "I'm already scared out of my mind."

"Then any further intimidation has already been rendered meaningless to you," he countered, and squeezed her shoulder for encouragement. "It's an advantage. Use it."

She checked the emotional weather in his dark eyes, saw some partial knowledge or plan there, and also saw his absolute confidence in her ability to master her fear. Her own confidence in the matter was not so unquestioned, but she found she could borrow what she needed to make up the shortfall from him. She stepped forward, past her companions, to face the Wizard alone.

She gazed into the great, floating, mist enshrouded face.

Really, he doesn't look ANYTHING like a giant pickle, was her initial thought.

And somehow, the sheer silliness of this idea dissolved most of her terror, and she was then able to declare herself and her intentions without dread or diffidence.

"I'm Special Agent Dorothy Gale of Effbeeye," she announced in a clear, ringing voice. "Glinda told me you might know how to - "


"I'm not BEGGING for anything," Dorothy corrected, offended by the Wizard's haughty choice of words. It was the first time in recorded history that anyone had dared to interrupt Oz in mid-pronouncement. "I was told that you were - "


The sound of his voice shook the marble walls, undulated in waves through the floor, rattled teeth in skulls, caused the Lion to shriek in agony and cover his sensitive feline ears with his paws, and literally bulldozed Dorothy a good three paces backward. She was reminded of a Led Zeppelin concert she'd attended in her youth, when her boyfriend had scored seats far too near the bandstand and the amps, and "Stairway to Heaven" had become something more like the prelude to Hell.


"No fucking way," Margot said flatly, and took two clanking steps back. "This kind of crap, I do not need! If I want to be treated like dirt, I've got my brother."

Before Oz could take Margot to task for HER impertinence, the Lion simply fainted dead away ere it would be his turn on the hot seat, and the Scarecrow stepped forward uninvited.

"Good evening, Oz," he said mildly. "Still a bit deficient in people skills, I see. How are you, other than that?"


"Well, actually, Mr. Wizard," Dorothy said, in a cold, hard voice. "That would be me. Where I come from, crucifixion for life is considered cruel and unusual punishment."

For the very first time since her arrival in Oz, she found she was happy to answer this oft repeated question.

"Still hopelessly addicted to alliteration too, I notice," the Scarecrow added. "I really think you should look into that. It's often a sign of underlying psychic disintegration - possibly incipient obsessive-compulsive disorder. Do you ever feel compelled to wash your hands over and over again, Oz? Or to - "


"You see?" The Scarecrow commented to Dorothy, with an incredibly annoying vindicated smile.


"Oh, really, Oz, are you going to just float about up there and call me names all night?" the Scarecrow interrupted. "There are some things we really ought to discuss. The Wicked Witch, for example, just publicly threatened a guest in your city without so much as a by-your-leave, not ten city blocks from your front door. And provided a terrible example of poor spelling to schoolchildren everywhere, in the process, I might add. Even if you don't care about education, you must, at least, have noticed that this is the 'Dorothy' the Witch referred to."


"Really? That must be convenient," the Scarecrow said, and paused for an insultingly long moment. Then he went on. "Special Agent Dorothy Gale, in fact. From . . . where was it now? From . . . the FBI, I believe you said, didn't you, Oz?"


"What about Ms. Gale's requests?" the Scarecrow retorted. "Or the Tin Woman's and the Lion's, for that matter? You haven't even heard them yet, you've been so busy stringing adjectives together and trying to frighten everyone."


"A succinct summation," the Scarecrow allowed.

"Are you always this nasty to people who come to you for help?" Dorothy asked angrily. "The hell with this. Let's just GO! Who needs this guy?"


"That's it!" Dorothy cried, infuriated. "I'm outta here!"


Dorothy turned around and Margot, a bit of faint hope on her tin features, stepped a pace or two forward.

"WHAT 'small service' would that be?" Dorothy asked suspiciously.


"Oh, for God's sake, we'd have to kill him to - "


"Goddamnit - " Dorothy began.


Barney the Squeamish Lion had remained unconscious throughout the entire interview, and was still lost to the world, lying in a limp heap like a golden throw rug at the door.

"But - what if - " Margot tried to interject.


"Gosh," Dorothy said acidly. "You mean you won't be NICE to us anymore?"

"GGGEEETTTT OOOUUUTTTT!!!!!" Oz boomed, causing the entire chamber to shimmy and shake like so much emerald green Jell-O.

The three of them could see that further arguments must prove unproductive, and the unconscious Lion had no comment to offer. Dorothy took one of the comatose cat's back legs, Margot grabbed his tail, the Scarecrow grasped the other rear paw, and they slid their fallen friend across the highly polished floor as a child would pull a wagon.

They were out the chamber door, down the long hall, had collected Toto from the doorman, and were tugging to haul him over the outer threshold before he finally began to stir.

"What happened?" he asked in a faint voice. "The Wizard was yelling at us, and . . . and, that's all I remember. Boy, he's not at all what I expected. Sort of unpleasant. Did you guys talk him into doing anything for us?"

They all stared at him uncomfortably.

"Huh? Did you?"

Finally, Margot decided that someone would have to answer him, before he began to get paranoid about it. God knew, he'd have plenty to worry about soon enough. And she could see that neither the Scarecrow nor Dorothy had a whole hell of a lot to say for themselves. For once.

"Oh, Dorothy and the Scarecrow did a GREAT job of sweet-talking him, Barney! Seriously, have you guys ever thought about going into the hostage negotiation business? Or maybe the diplomatic corps? He really liked you guys, I could tell."

"Margot . . . " Dorothy said, helplessly.

"Just wait till you hear the deal they made, Barney! Talk about win/win! You'll LOVE it!"

The Scarecrow finally thought of something constructive to say.

"But Margot can tell you all about it over dinner, Barney, how would that be? You were looking forward to a decent meal, weren't you?"

"More like a last supper!" Margot snorted, and Dorothy surreptitiously kicked her tin shin with a meaningful glance at the Lion.

Even Margot had to concede that the five of them really had nothing better to do, for the moment, than to go get the meal they'd postponed earlier, and maybe have a stiff drink or two.

Or twenty, Margot mentally added. It was early in the evening yet. Plenty of time to get thoroughly hammered before the night was done.

The morning, and the beginning of their new and dubious journey with it, would arrive all too soon.


Chapter Twelve

"You reptile!" Margot was fussing at the Scarecrow. "You KNEW this was going to happen!"

The five companions were inching their way down a crooked path that led through the darkest heart of the haunted forest. All the close growing trees were black and twisted and somehow unhealthy looking, a hundred years worth of dead, rotting leaves littered their way, and various unidentified and deeply unsettling sounds issued from the profound shadows all around them.

Worse, it had taken them most of the day to come this far from the Emerald City, and they were losing the light. The thought of being caught in this rotting and sinister forest at nightfall had upset Barney to the point that he was shaking continually, and once he had even gripped the handle of the butterfly net he carried so hard that he'd bent the tough metal as though it were taffy.

Toto insisted on walking so close to Dorothy's feet that she had to watch her footing constantly to avoid tripping over him.

Margot, gripped by the same dread of being benighted in the haunted forest, had been taking her mind off her fear by bitching at the Scarecrow. It helped, a little, and besides, in her opinion, he richly deserved it.

"How would I know a thing like that, Margot?" the Scarecrow was arguing. "Do you think I'm 'omniscient' - like Oz claims to be?"

"Oh, yes, you did! You wanted to go after the Witch first, long before we ever got to the Emerald City! Didn't he, Dorothy? Back in the forest, where we met Barney? 'It's best to be preemptive', you said!"

"Well . . . you DID say that, you know," Dorothy agreed.

"I take it the two of you think it's NOT best to be preemptive, then? The Witch would like to kill us all. Perhaps you think we ought to just lie down and die right now, to save him the effort?"

"Don't change the subject!" Margot snapped. "You knew the Wizard would send us on this goddamn suicide mission, you knew it all along!"

"I didn't KNOW anything!" he retorted, hotly. "I had an idea he might, considering that he never seems to actually do anything, and it's not such a vast mental leap to theorize that he does nothing for the simple reason that he can do nothing. He's been doing nothing about the Witch for years. Why do you think I finally did something? Any one of you might have had the same idea - IF you'd been paying attention."

He was clearly genuinely annoyed.

"You know, whenever there's a difficult question to consider, every last one of you just automatically stares at ME, as though it's somehow my job to figure everything out for you. But if things don't go the way you want, then it's because I planned it that way! I'm tired of it! It's not my fault that none of you take the trouble to think ahead!"

He stiffly turned his back on them and stalked off down the crooked path.

Margot felt an odd sense of accomplishment in having actually succeeded in getting his goat. It cheered her up and moved some of her fears back a step or two, enough to get control of them, at least. And once she got in control of herself, she was able to notice how badly terrified Barney was, and so she fell into step with him.

"Hey, Barney," she said to him. "Want to help me make up a song about hyenas? I've got the first verse, but I can't seem to think of a rhyme for 'revolting'. You've GOT to help me!"

For her part, Dorothy reminded herself that even a Scarecrow with a brilliant intellect and a murderous temperament and a skull full of wretched rubbish might not appreciate being taken for granted. She picked up her pace and caught him up, then quickly took his arm before she could lose her nerve.

"Why the heck should we think ahead? That's what we've got YOU for! We're all a bit thick. You may have noticed," she told him. "Don't be mad, okay? Margot's just nervous. We all are."

"Hmmph," he snorted, not quite prepared to concede yet. Still, he did not attempt to take his arm back, so maybe he wasn't completely disgusted with her. "I don't suppose the Witch taught his famous flying pigs to eat any of YOU!"

"You never know," she replied. "The Witch might do any gross thing, from what I've seen. Can I ask you something? Why did you tell me to introduce myself? To the Wizard?"

"May I ask you something? I've been wondering about it. Aren't you sorry you came to Oz? I can hardly see how you would not be. Virtually everything that's happened to you since you got here has been either unpleasant, at the very least, or even absolutely awful, at times."

He stopped walking and turned to face her for a moment. Apparently her answer to this question was important to him. They stared at one another, arms linked, for what began to seem a long time.

"Not everything," she finally said, clearly.

"Are you sorry you came to Oz?" he repeated.

"No . . . no, I'm not."

"Why would . . . why not? Don't you think you should be?"

"Probably. . . yeah, probably I should be. But I'm not. I don't really know why. Do you? After all, you're the smart one."

"Am I?"

"Sometimes. No, Scarecrow, in case you didn't hear me, I am NOT sorry I came to Oz."

He smiled. "Good. I'm not sorry either. That you came."

She laughed. "Well, I DID let you out of that cornfield."

"Much to everyone's dismay. Are you teasing ME, Special Agent Gale?"

"Could be. Is that a problem?"

"Not for me . . . "

"Tough guy, huh?"

"You'll have to draw your own conclusions. I have been known to tease back."

It was fun, Dorothy thought, to bat this ball back and forth like this. This was fun. And something more, as well. She was willing to admit that to herself, now, in this terrible place.

"I wonder if I can think of some way to get a straight answer out of you?" she asked, and moved a step or two closer. Just enough. He did not relinquish his ground, and, in fact, advanced a pace or two into hers.

"Do you have a plan?" he asked, red eyes boring into hers, sparking.

"Oh, I wouldn't call it a plan, exactly. More of a nonverbal gambit."

"Truly? An ingenious strategy. I am at your convenience. Do your worst. "

"Hmm. Or my best, I'm not really sure . . . hold still, now . . ." she moved very close indeed, close enough to determine that she and the straw man before her were very much of a height, and that there might be ways in which this could prove opportune . . .

And the pregnant moment might well have borne fruit, if only Barney and Margot, absorbed in the composition of their derogatory ditty about hyenas, had been watching where they were going, and had not walked right into Dorothy and the Scarecrow, cutting their dialogue short before it could progress into the nonverbal.

The quintet had to sort themselves out after the collision, and, Dorothy noticed, the Scarecrow reacted to the mishap with less than his usual unruffled grace, and was actually a bit surly, growling at Barney and Margot about watching where they were going until they both felt like idiots and had to apologize quite a few times.

Barney was the first to notice the signpost.

"Haunted Forest" it read. "Witch's Castle -1 MI"

And an addendum: "I'd turn back if I were you."

"Great!" Barney complained. "Even the mileage markers have editorial comments. We could all just do that, you know. "

"Turn back?" Margot asked. "Forget the whole thing? What about the Wizard? What about the Witch?"

"FUCK the Wizard," Barney replied. "Fuck the Witch too. Why are we even in this? Does anybody really think the Wizard is gonna help any of us even if we DO survive the Witch? Hell, Scarecrow, you said yourself that he's probably useless."

"I also said that the Witch will never let this drop. I said the Witch would like to kill us all. I said the Witch is in a perfect frenzy about that Ruby Brain and will walk through Dorothy to get it. Or any of us. So, if we're going to fuck someone, it is my considered opinion that it SHOULD BE THE WITCH! Are we clear on this yet? Am I going too fast for you, Barney?"

Barney was so startled to hear the refined Scarecrow exasperated enough to use profanity that he was more amused than offended. He had to laugh.

"Well, when it comes to fucking the Witch, Scarecrow, I think you already pretty well wrote the definitive dissertation. But I do see your point."

Meanwhile, as Dorothy and her friends stood bickering in the haunted forest, one mile away in the Witch's castle, the Witch, Cordell, and the Senior Wing Commander of the Flying Pigs were staring into a new and elaborate elevated video monitor.

The new elmo had been purchased at great expense from an Oz pornography baron who sidelined in first rate video equipment and media electronics. Not only were the focus and image resolution on the new machine a hundred percent better than the old one, but it provided audio surveillance as well.

" . . . when it comes to fucking the Witch . . . " the small, clear image of Barney the Squeamish Lion was saying from the monitor.

The Witch lacked the facial resources to smile evilly, but he managed something darn close by gritting his fully exposed teeth and rolling his goggled eye. He was unaware that both Cordell and the Senior Pig hated it when he did that and sincerely wished he wouldn't do it anymore.

"We'll just SEE who fucks WHO!" the Witch sniped. "Or should that be 'whom'? Anyway, it doesn't matter. Are your people ready, Wing Commander Otis?"

"Ready, your Ickiness, sir!" Otis the Pig replied with a smart salute.

"Cordell, what about the monkey squadrons? You've got them briefed?"

Cordell nodded. He was able to speak in the Witch's language; was, in fact, quite proficient in it. But he preferred the rich and evocative nuances of his native monkey tongue, and rarely used what he considered the impoverished patois of the Oz humans if he could help it.

"Let's just go over the mission objectives one more time," the Witch said. "Number one - capture Dorothy Gale and that horrid little screaming lamb of hers. And make sure you collect any luggage or bags or whatever she has on her, too. She's armed, and she can fight, so be warned. She must be taken alive, and I don't care how many soldiers you have to loose to do it. The others don't really matter. I'd like to get that ever-fucking Scarecrow alive too, but that can wait - "

"Should me and some of the boys eat him, your Vileness?" Otis put in, hopefully.

"No . . . no. It's a pleasant thought, but at this point I'd rather see something like that in person. Just bring me that girl and her pet. The Scarecrow will fight you, I think he's got some kind of sick crush on her - and he fights like a goddamned buzz-saw. Leave him alive if you can, but do what you have to do to bring me the girl. Get in, get the girl, get out. That's the mission. All right? Any questions?"

"What about the other two? The Lion and your sister?"

"Same thing. I can deal with them later, when I have more time to be creative. For now, I just want Special Agent Gale. Alive. Got it?"

"Sir, yes sir!" Otis the pig rapped out. Cordell rolled his eyes. He privately thought these jarhead commando pigs were way too impressed with themselves for a bunch of artificially bred genetic mutations.

"Then FLY," cried the Witch, in his deep radio announcer baritone. "Fly, fly, fly, FLY!"

Wing Commander Otis marched to the open window of the Witch's chamber and stepped out onto the terrace. With a final salute, he took to the air.

Cordell and the Witch watched as he flew out to meet a squadron of his fellows and joined their formation at the head. Winged monkeys and flying pigs; the airborne armada of the Witch's malice. The sky was almost black with them.

The Witch returned his attention to the five figures on his elmo screen.

"Fuck ME, huh? That's the plan?" he muttered at the screen. "Well, let's just see who's well and truly fucked before this night is through . . ."

Back at the haunted forest, Dorothy's companions were debating the issue of whether spooks did or did not exist in actual fact.

Dorothy was of the opinion that people who resided in an alternate reality where Wizards, Witches, flying pigs and living Scarecrows hardly raised an eyebrow were stretching a bit to cavil at a few spooks. But she had learned that her companions were never too busy for a good debate, so she stood by and pretty much tuned out as she waited for them to finish arguing.

Because she was not as absorbed in the controversy as the others, she was, once again, the first to notice that they had a problem.

It looked to her like a full scale air raid, like a scene from an old movie about the invasion of Pearl Harbor, perhaps. Except these aircraft appeared to be propelled more by the flapping of pinions than by prop engines. Even at a distance she could see that.

Just another day in Oz, she thought grimly, and set about arming herself.

"Guys - incoming - look up, toward the horizon, " she said to the others, loading her shotgun.

They all looked into the sky and saw the flocks and flocks of winged creatures the Witch had sent to meet them. Headed toward their position with frightening speed.

"Oh, God," Barney moaned. "I HATE this shit, I really do."

"Wow, there must be hundreds of' 'em. Pigs and monkeys both, " Margot said. "This time we really may be toast. Can I borrow that gun again, Dorothy?"

The Scarecrow was already busy winding his bow and looking askance at the meager opportunities for cover the bleak twisted black trees offered. Dorothy felt there was something she had to say to him, even though she was already positive he'd never listen.

"He's sent the pigs. You need to hide - get to cover."

"What cover would that be, Dorothy?" he asked, wryly. "Point it out to me if you see it. We could use an advantage just now."

"You said it yourself - they're not trained to eat US. But they are trained to eat - "

"Oh, I wouldn't worry about that. Not with the Witch stuck in his castle a mile away from the action. He'd want a front row seat for such a unique spectacle, I expect," he paused to put a half dozen crossbow bolts in his breast pocket, and glanced at the approaching air armada.

"No, I think all this elaborate effort is meant for you. Oh, by the way, if you're captured, you're to stay alive. Understand? I'll come get you. If I'm not dead, of course. Other than that, our options are limited. There's no cover and there are too many of them."

"I'll be really pissed if you're dead, I hope you know that. So what do we do now?"

He smiled, rather an ugly smile. "Stand. If we can."

"Yeah. Looks that way to me too. What do you think our chances are?"



"We're fucked."

"Oh. So . . . it's not as bad as I thought, then. Sure you're not being too optimistic?"

A grim moment passed, and then they both burst into gales of somewhat crazed laughter as they returned to their respective preparations for the hopeless battle just ahead.

Barney and Margot, who'd been working to devise a set of earplugs for the Lion so that he could wield a gun, stopped what they were doing and stared at the two as though lobsters had suddenly begun to crawl out of their noses.

"Have you noticed how much alike those two are?" Margot commented to Barney.

"Berserkers, both of them. Look at 'em - they LOVE this kind of stuff. She's as bad as he is. It's actually kind of cute, in a really horrible way."

Dorothy came to Barney and put one of the .45's in his paws. "Barney," she said. "Here's the crash course: Pull this thing all the way back. Point this end at the enemy. Squeeze this thingy. And repeat. See, just like using shampoo. You'll be fine. Margot, you help him with the clip, when he's dry. Here's some extras for you, here's the other gun. Good luck, guys. If I don't get a chance to tell you later, it's been fun."

A few moments later, all last minute preparations were cut short as the first wave of the invading air force hit.

Dorothy's first impression was one of terrible noise. The beat of many wings, the awful screeching chattering of monkeys, the squealing and snorting of the fighting swine. She fired, and heard other gunshots, the familiar explosive blasts intertwining with all the rest of the tapestry of noise, and then the hissing of the crossbow, and then some of the pigs were squealing more in pain than in lusty battle cries, and she fired, and she heard the roaring of the Lion, who did not sound at all squeamish in that instant, and she knelt in the crackling dead leaves underfoot to reload, and a single piercing scream that sounded like Margot, and monkeys shrieking, and, suddenly, she heard, very close, too close, the whir of several sets of powerful wings just behind her.

She heard it a second too late. Before she could turn around, too many pairs of dark monkey hands gripped her shoulders, arms, and wrists, twisting the empty shotgun out of her grasp and lifting, lifting her up off the ground so that she could not use her feet or legs to kick or pull.

The beat of wings pushing against the initial pull of gravity, the downward rush of air over her face as she rose, twisting in the grip of her simian aerial abductors, until they'd carried her high enough to stop fighting, for fear of being dropped.

Below her, farther and farther, she could see her companions overrun by the soldiers of the Witch, and could see that they must be out of ammunition, because they were now fighting hand to hand, hopelessly outnumbered.

Then she saw something that went to her heart like a silver bullet. One of the larger monkeys had just scooped Toto up off the ground as the lamb dashed, terrified, across the crooked path. The winged monkey rose into the air with Toto squirming in its arms, and if ever there had been a time when Toto would have been perfectly justified in screaming, this was it.

Dorothy looked away from the shrinking scene below. She needed to think.

' . . . if you're captured, you're to stay alive . . . "

Last minute instructions it would probably be wise to focus on. Okay, Project Number One: stay alive, for however long I can.

" . . . I'll come get you . . . "

Very good. I'll be waiting. Better bring an army, and please don't be late, there may be a time factor. See Project Number One.

". . . if I'm not dead, of course . . . "

No need to add THAT. It's stating the obvious, for one thing, and it's too damned scary, for another, and it would break my stupid heart if you were, if you must know. If any of you were.

" . . . stay alive . . . "

Okay, it's a deal. I will if you will. What the hell, stranger things have happened. All day long, today, in fact.

And so, Dorothy Gale of Effbeeye, newly focused in her mind and intent on her agenda, relaxed a minute fraction in the grip of her captors, and calmly awaited her imminent meeting with the Witch.


Chapter Thirteen

As Dorothy was being whisked away through the sky to the Witch's castle, her companions were in dire straits. Barney and Margot were out of fresh clips for their weapons, and although the Scarecrow had made each of his crossbow quarrels count, he was soon down to none.

Then at least a half dozen hefty pigs tackled Barney like a defensive line sacking the quarterback. Squeals and roars mingled as oinkers flew and blood flowed, but there were too many of them and the mighty (if squeamish) lion was soon borne down under their combined weight. Once he was brought to earth, his cowardly attackers took advantage of his position to pummel and pound him unmercifully.

At the same time, a squadron of the monkeys attacked Margot, and after several of them had been knocked unconscious by the heavy blows of her tin fists, they'd settled on a unique method of taking the fight out of her. They repeatedly lifted her some six feet or so off the ground and dropped her to the earth in a clatter of clinking metal. After the fifteenth repetition of this cavalier treatment, Margot was no longer sure what her name was, which end was up, or who these nasty people were who kept dropping her on the cold hard ground.

The Scarecrow, out of bolts, was forced to resort to the closer methods dictated by the use of the blade. He managed to kill five of the monkeys and three of the pigs, maimed an additional six (two of whom subsequently died), and ensured that another dozen of his foes who were physically unharmed in the skirmish would nevertheless be troubled by recurring nightmares and various nervous disorders for the rest of their lives.

All attempts to dislodge the lethal Harpy from his wiry grip failed miserably until one of the cleverer monkeys got the idea to just pull the whole knife-wielding arm off, blade and all. Which, though a setback, still left the Scarecrow free to bite, an oversight on the part of the Witch's soldiers that resulted in another three casualties.

Eventually, though, a panicked pig remembered that they'd brought a net to use on the lion if necessary, and soon the Scarecrow (now minus one arm and a half pound of the stuffing from his thorax) was immobilized in the twists and tangles of the stout net.

The three companions, subdued at last, stopped fighting almost simultaneously, as though they shared some unknown psychic bond. They each made ready to face certain death with whatever equanimity they could muster.

So they were all really quite surprised to here Wing Commander Otis give the order to withdraw quite clearly.

So were some of the junior swine in Otis' squadron.

"Sir, permission to kill the prisoners, sir!" one young hog requested smartly.

"No, Cadet Phil, permission denied. Our orders are to withdraw as soon as the mission is complete. Which is now."

Phil the pig, who was very young, and who had lost two buddies to the Scarecrow's knife, broke discipline and questioned a direct order.

"SIR, couldn't we at least kill THIS sonofabitch, SIR?" he indicated the sonofabitch he meant with a sharp kick to the netted form of the Scarecrow.

"The Witch's orders were quite specific, Cadet! None of the prisoners are to be killed. And you can consider yourself on report for insubordination, mister! Now let's get moving like we've got a purpose, people. Collect the dead and WITHDRAW!"

All the swine moved into take-off formation with alacrity, hoping to redeem themselves in the eyes of their commander after Cadet Phil's embarrassing lapse. Some retrieved the bodies of their fallen comrades, others tested prevailing wind currents with small weather balloons. The monkeys followed suit (though with far less military precision), and then, squadron by squadron, the entire airborne task force took to the sky and flew away. Within five minutes, Margot, the Lion, and the Scarecrow were left alone upon the field.

Though battered and beaten, they were all so amazed to have come through the battle alive that none of them actually felt much pain as yet. An astonished fog cushioned them all a bit, for the moment.

Barney stiffly stood up and limped over to the Scarecrow, to begin the tedious task of untangling him from the net.

"Sheesh. You look like a hundred miles of bad road, Scarecrow," Barney said. "They jobbed you good. Where's your arm?"

"Over there, somewhere, I think," the Scarecrow replied. "I fear I lost track, somewhere along the line. I think you lost a tooth, Barney. The left lower canine?"

"Shit," Barney said mildly. "I just had a filling in that one. Hey, Margot, do you see his arm over there anywhere?"

Margot had recovered her mental equilibrium enough to try a small joke.

"His arm? I'm not sure. What does it look like?"

They were all startled to find themselves laughing, a bit shakily.

Once the arm had been found, and the Harpy still gripped in the disembodied hand along with it, freeing the Scarecrow from the net went much faster.

"Why didn't they kill us?" Margot marveled, cutting through several strands of heavy netting.

"That wasn't the mission," the Scarecrow answered, squirming out of a particularly tight fold of the net. His voice held a wintry edge. "The mission was to abduct Dorothy and secure the Ruby Brain for the Witch."

Barney and Margot's eyes widened with shock as they suddenly realized that neither Dorothy nor Toto were anywhere to be seen.

"Oh, I don't believe it!" Barney growled, incensed. "Those bastards even grabbed Toto! The poor little thing - doesn't he have enough problems? Why would they do a rotten thing like that?"

"To use on Dorothy, of course," The Scarecrow answered, wriggling out of the last of the netting. He tried standing up experimentally, and discovered that his balance was somewhat thrown off by the loss of the arm. He made a mental note to himself to remember to compensate for it. "As a psychological hostage. They'll threaten harm to the lamb as a way of controlling her."

Barney found himself wishing the Scarecrow had a better sense of when to soft-pedal the truth. Most of the time, he was about as blunt as a sledge- hammer. Barney had grown to be quite fond of the cute little lamb, and hated to think of him in torment.

Margot had been staring at the long twist of bare wire that jutted out of the Scarecrow's left shoulder and wincing.

"Uh . . . doesn't that hurt?" she finally asked him.

He stared at her for a moment in mild disbelief. "What do YOU think, Margot?"

"Well, maybe . . . um . . . " she stammered, and then held out the amputated limb to him with a sick smile she hoped was encouraging. "Maybe you could put it back on?"

"Hmm. Interesting idea. You wouldn't happen to have a staple gun, would you?"

He laughed, the kind of malevolent, icy laugh that had scared the crap out of many in the past.

"Or maybe some Scotch tape? What about some aspirin?"

"Well, I just thought - "

"Oh, Margot . . . I apologize. I do know you mean well, really, I do. I'm just not quite myself at the moment. Please forgive me. I can have it reattached later, or even rebuilt. What we need to consider right now is Dorothy, don't you think?"

He took the arm she was still holding out, then stuffed the limb into his knapsack, where it stuck out by half a forearm, a wrist, and a hand. The visual effect was wildly surreal.

"Where would they take her?" the Lion asked, although he feared he already knew the answer.

"The castle," Margot answered glumly. "Where else?"

"Correct," said the Scarecrow. "The castle. Fortunately, it's only a mile away. Shouldn't take long to get there."

And without another word, he simply turned and walked away, in the direction of the castle.

He was almost out of sight before Barney and Margot realized the conversation was over, as far as he was concerned. They shared an irritated mutual grimace, then hustled to catch up with him.

"What do you think you're doing, just walking off like that?" Margot grumped. "We're going too, you know."

They'd both fallen into step with him before they knew what they were about.

"Time is of the essence, Margot. The Witch won't waste his standing around debating all day." The Scarecrow didn't lessen his pace by a fraction as he spoke.

"But we ARE going," Barney asserted. "Dorothy's our friend too. You can't stop us."

The Scarecrow smiled, the first genuinely pleasant smile they'd seen from him in hours.

"Why on earth would I want to stop you? Do you think I PREFER to storm a heavily fortified stronghold alone? Perhaps my reputation for dementia has become a bit overblown. Of course Dorothy is your friend, but any rescue attempt will be a doubtful undertaking at best. I could hardly ASK you to come, either of you. We'll probably all be killed."

"Do you always have to be so wishy-washy?" Barney asked with a sarcastic grin. "Why don't you just come out and say what you mean?"

"Yeah," Margot added, laughing. "We're sick of your mealy mouthed euphemisms. Tell us what you REALLY think!"

He pointedly ignored them as they both cracked up, although he really was a bit amused by their antics, he had to admit to himself.

Once she and Barney had finished laughing, Margot touched the Scarecrow's good shoulder to get his attention and spoke to him quietly.

"You do know that we're your friends, too, right? Why else would we put up with you? We'll help you get her out of there, you'll see."

"You're kind, Margot. And perceptive. Thank you."

'So . . . " Barney said, ending the small private exchange between the other two. "Think we can get there before it gets dark? If we really hoof it? I'd hate to get killed at night!"

Meanwhile, at the castle, Dorothy was enduring her first conversation of any real length with the Witch. The dialogue was not going well.

Once Dorothy and her kidnappers had arrived at the castle, they'd landed on the terrace outside the Witch's chamber window, and then a pair of winged monkeys had grabbed her arms at either side and marched her, double time, to the Witch's bedside.

The elmo had been removed from the room before her arrival, since the Witch did not want her to see that her friends had been left alive after the battle in the haunted forest. He wanted her as discouraged as possible for their first interview.

The Witch was smiling broadly, in his unique way, when she got there, and, though she did not know it, her opinion of this expression was very much the same as that held by Cordell and Otis.

Ugh, she thought. He looks like some kind of nasty marine animal - a lamprey, maybe, or perhaps an eel.

"Well, hello, Ms. Special Agent Gale! How the heck are ya? So glad you could drop by! What an unexpected pleasure!"

"Unexpected?" Dorothy retorted. "Is a full scale air strike and an aerial kidnapping your idea of an engraved invitation? Where's my lamb? I saw some of your flying thugs pick him up."

"Cordell," the Witch said. "Go ask your people to bring in little Toto - don't worry, Ms. Gale, this won't take a minute. We can chat a bit while we wait, you and I. Tell me, why don't you shoot me NOW? You mentioned the possibility earlier, I think."

"Why don't you consider wearing a mask? I'm sure it would make everybody feel a lot better."

"Why don't you keep your goddamned smart mouth shut?! You're in no position to sling insults, here! You're in deep shit, in case you hadn't noticed!"

"Whatever," Dorothy said, determined to sound unafraid.

"You know, except for that uppity attitude of yours, you're not a bad looking woman. A little on the scrawny side, perhaps, but we could fix that. Maybe once I get this Brain business settled, I might consider having a little fun with you. What do you think? Not that you'd have much choice in the matter, one way or another."

The Witch somehow managed to leer at her, a feat Dorothy would have guessed he could not accomplish without a face, had she not seen it for herself.

"I think I'd rather be devoured by ants," she snapped. "Over a six week period."

"Oh? I'm surprised. You've got some twisted thing going with that murdering straw prick of a Scarecrow, don't you? I'd gotten the idea that you must not be too picky."

"Why don't you go fuck yourself?" Dorothy said distinctly. "I'm sure you know how."

Oh, I'm doing a great job of staying alive, she thought to herself. But she couldn't help it. She was furious. The Witch's odious comments cut very close to the bone.

Before the conversation could grow any more rancorous, or even progress to outright violence, Cordell and another monkey entered the chamber. Toto was squirming like a worm in the second monkey's arms.

"Ah, here's the little lamb chop now!" the Witch said unpleasantly. "Here's the deal, missy. Hand over the Brain right now, or we break out the mint jelly."

Dorothy considered, fast. The Witch wasn't leaving her much room to maneuver, and what she chiefly needed to gain was time. If Toto were somehow taken out of the equation, the Witch would be forced to work directly on her, and that would cause delay. Maybe enough delay for her reinforcements to arrive.

If they weren't dead, she reminded herself unhappily. By God, if this pervert kills me, I swear on my father's memory I'm gonna take him with! How can I get Toto out of here?

A strategy presented itself to her thought, and she put it into action at once.

"Toto!" she whined, getting as much plaintive weakness into her voice as she could. "Oh, my poor little Toto-kins. Oh, please don't hurt him, Mr. Witch. He hasn't done anything."

The Witch took the bait, and so, Dorothy noted with satisfaction, did the monkey holding the squirming lamb. That simian hooligan smiled sadistically and squeezed Toto enough to make him squeak, a bit. Dorothy controlled her anger and went on with her charade by letting a single tear fall from her eye.

"Oh, we wouldn't harm a hair on his curly little head, Ms. Gale. A little cutie like him? Not unless you force us to. Just give me the Brain."

"Don't hold him so tight," she all but sobbed to the sadistic monkey. "You're hurting him. He's scared, you're scaring him, oh please don't do that anymore . . ." she managed to squeeze out a few more heart-wrenching tears. The mean monkey did just as she had hoped he might, and squeezed Toto a bit tighter.

The exact opposite of what she'd asked. Ah, excellent. This might actually work!

"The BRAIN!" the Witch said. "No more screwing around. Give me the Brain NOW!"

"Oh, PLEASE don't take his muzzle off, whatever you do!" Dorothy begged the cruel monkey, loading her voice with as much pathetic pathos as possible. She actually wrung her hands and let her lower lip tremble. This was it - she had to hit the monkey with everything she had. "Please, please, PLEASE, I'm BEGGING you!"

The sadistic monkey, intent on Dorothy's pain, didn't hear the Witch shouting "Noo-oo! Don't! It's a trick!"

He gloated malignantly as he ripped the muzzle off Toto's snout.

Toto, true to form, immediately threw his woolly head back and screamed like a runaway freight train filled with an army of rabid timberwolves. The sadistic monkey, stunned, immediately dropped the screeching lamb like a hot potato.

"Run, Toto, run," Dorothy shouted, and jumped the sadistic monkey before any of her captors could have a chance to collect themselves.

Toto, screaming like the all the damned souls of Hell, scuttled to the chamber door, jinked past the feet of several monkeys who had come running to the chamber to see what the commotion was, and bulleted down the stairs outside fast as lightning. He was though the great hall below and down the drawbridge and away from the castle before anyone could summon the presence of mind to try to catch him.

A long dwindling shriek from outside the castle came to Dorothy's ears as she choked the living shit out of the sadistic monkey and repeatedly slammed his no-good skull into the floor. Toto had gotten away!

Now, if I can just kill THIS creep before they pull me off, she thought, happily.

Unfortunately, Cordell and several other monkeys did pull her off before their fellow was killed. As it was, his face was battered beyond recognition and he had to wear a neck brace for six months afterwards.

The Witch was beside himself with wrath.

"Very clever, Ms. Smarty Pants!" he snarled. "You think we won't go to town on YOU, now that your little nutjob lamb is gone? You three, hold her - you - Cordell, get her tote bag!"

Cordell pulled the bag off Dorothy's shoulder and brought it to the Witch. Once at the Witch's bedside, he stopped still and awaited further instructions.

"Well?" the Witch demanded. "What are you, retarded? See if the Brain is in there."

Cordell peered inside the bag, noted that the Brain was indeed inside, and nodded in the affirmative to the Witch.

The Witch fumed. "Well, give it here, then. What's the matter with you?"

Cordell shook his head in the negative.

"What do you mean, NO? Give me that Brain!"

Cordell shook his head again.

The Witch, half blind with fury, reached his own good hand into the bag.

And was instantly zapped by a searing bolt of occult energy that caused his long black hair to stand out from his head and fried the controls on his bed. Again. He'd forgotten about what had happened the first time they'd tried to handle the Brain, way back in Munchkin Land. Cordell, however, had not.

Dorothy cracked up. It was the first good laugh she'd had since she'd been here.

The Witch seethed and snarled and growled for a full five minutes before he addressed Dorothy again.

"I've just about had it with you, Ms. Gale," he finally said. "Looks like we can't touch the Brain until you're dead. Bad luck for you, huh? Still, it's no problem, I've just got to figure out how to do it. These things must be done delicately, or you hurt the spell. Listen, Cordell, go get that hourglass out of my study. IF it's not too much trouble, I mean."

Cordell, expressionless, left the chamber and returned a minute or two later with one of the biggest (AND ugliest) hourglasses Dorothy had ever seen.

"I need a little time to think, Ms. Gale, so I'll have to ask you to excuse me for awhile. A very SHORT while, you won't have to wait long, I promise. Cordell, you and the boys roll me out of here, I need to take a look at some grimoires I've got in the study. You can stay here, Ms. Gale. Take some time to get yourself right with God, write your memoirs, make a will, whatever. I'll be back as soon as these sands run out."

Cordell upended the ugly hourglass and set it on a table near Dorothy with a resounding clang.

The Witch and his minions left the room and double deadbolted the door from the outside.

Dorothy was alone. She gazed at the hourglass.

Well, time IS what I hoped to gain, she thought, oddly amused, even in this very tight spot. I just never thought it would be so LITERAL if I gained it. Wonder where he got such an ugly piece of crap? What kind of nut would pay good money for a thing like this?

She went to the huge open window and stared out.

Okay, Project Number One: complete. I'm alive, and I have a little time. Phase Two: now underway - I'm waiting. Hope you're out there, guys, hope you're coming. Hope you know not to dawdle, if you are.

She sighed. More than anything else, she was most afraid that they were dead.

Dorothy watched from the great chamber window as the sun started to go down in a bloody blaze and the night came on behind.


Chapter Fourteen

As Dorothy was struggling to control her worst fears on their behalf, Margot, Barney and the Scarecrow were struggling with the steep and stony mountain pass their way led through. The crooked path they were on had dwindled to a rough track, more suitable to mountain goats than to lions, tin women, and scarecrows.

They'd put Barney in the lead, counting on his extraordinary feline balance and strength to help negotiate the treacherous pass. The Scarecrow, newly one-armed, was having difficulty climbing, and Margot's stiff metal joints had never been made for rock climbing and alpine hiking. Besides, she'd always hated heights.

She'd finally grabbed hold of the Lion's tasseled tail to maintain her balance, despite his well-warranted objections.

Just as Barney was telling her, for the hundredth time, to stop pinching, the three companions heard the distant sound of screaming.

"Hey!" Barney said. "Hear that?"

The sound of screaming grew in volume as the screamer drew closer to their position.

"Could that be - " the Scarecrow began.

"That sounds like - " Margot started to say

"It's Toto!" the Lion cried happily, and a sunny broad smile spread over his leonine face.

Sure enough, the little lamb, screaming continuously, soon dashed out into their path past an outcropping of rock. When Toto saw them, he performed a series of joyful leaps that the great Nijinsky would have envied, and then bounded directly into the Lion's arms and frantically licked his face between screams.

"Aw, that's a good boy - that's a good little fellow - did ums get away fwom the bad old witchie?" the Lion crooned to the screaming lamb in baby- talk. "Isn't ums just the ONE? Yes ums IS, yes ums IS . . . "

Margot and the Scarecrow exchanged a wry look and waited for Barney to get through gushing over Toto.

Once Barney finally brought himself to set Toto down, the lamb greeted Margot with a playful head-butt, and then scampered to the Scarecrow, sat on his foot, and gazed up at him expectantly. Screaming like a fire bell all the while.

"Look at that," Margot commented, fascinated. "I think he wants you to make a new muzzle for him. He knows you're the 'muzzle-guy'. Who'd have thought?"

The Scarecrow reached down and gently closed the shrieking lamb's jaw. Toto responded with a look of unmistakable gratitude.

"Why, I think you're right, Margot. Isn't that interesting? You don't really want to scream all the time, at all, do you, Toto? Well, I'll just have to oblige him, won't I?"

He straightened and his Harpy slipped out of his remaining sleeve and appeared in his right hand like a conjurer's trick. He sliced a length of wire off what remained of his left arm, quickly, to minimize the discomfort involved in further whittling of his person.

With Margot and Barney's help, they soon had Toto re-muzzled, much to the lamb's obvious relief.

"I wonder how he escaped the castle?" the Scarecrow remarked. "Dorothy must have cleared the path for him somehow. I think we can take it as a good sign, although I hope she didn't have to pay too dear for whatever it was she did. We'd better quicken our pace, I think."

No one disagreed with that assessment. They all set themselves to resume climbing the difficult path, and had just gone around the stone outcropping where Toto had first appeared, when the lamb suddenly veered off the path and cut into a narrow cleft between twisted piers of stone. He vanished from view a moment, reappeared a moment later, then vanished again, then reappeared again.

"I think he wants us to follow him," said the Lion, who had a weakness for sappy movies about adorable children and faithful pets.

Upon investigating the gap that Toto had been drawing their attention to, they discovered that just beyond the twin outcroppings of rock, the way opened out to a level, decently maintained, relatively straight dirt road.

"Wow, this must be the way he came," Barney said. "What a good boy, wasn't ums a GOOD boy - yes ums was!"

"A service road, perhaps," said the Scarecrow. "The Witch could hardly expect to haul supplies for his menagerie over that crooked track we were on. This road must have been made for wagons. Barney, I do believe you're in luck. We may get to the castle before it gets dark after all."

Toto gamboled a bit to show his approval, and the four set off again, bound for the castle, making much better time on the service road that Toto had found.

Back at the Witch's chamber, Dorothy stood at the edge of the terrace/landing strip outside the great arched window. She was peering at the squads of pigs and monkeys down in the courtyard below, trotting through their evening drills.

She had the huge hourglass in her arms.

During her first half hour of waiting, she had tried to work the locks on the door, but she could not reach the deadbolt mechanisms on the other side of the stout wood. Then she'd occupied herself with an inventory of the chamber and all its contents, but had not found anything particularly useful as either a weapon, or an alternative exit. She'd examined the terrace and the adjacent castle walls, but had discovered that the terrace offered no means of escape, at least, not to anyone who lacked the ability to fly.

Frustrated, she had finally begun to consider the hideous hourglass that was meant to measure out the final moments of her life, not as a timepiece, or even as an ugly knickknack, but as a potential projectile.

She'd finally begun to consider just dropping the heavy, unsightly thing on the marching swine and whatnot below, and was currently peering down at her intended victims, trying to settle on an appropriate target.

The red sands of the hourglass continued to flow as she held it, measuring her remaining time, and her time was running out. But maybe time could run out rather more abruptly for some unfortunate below. The glass was very heavy, and, if dropped from a height, would undoubtedly give someone down in the courtyard a big surprise. Maybe several someones.

Dorothy watched the drill formations of the flying swine and winged monkeys carefully, waiting for the right moment.

"Not just NO," Barney was growling. "Fuck NO! I won't do it! It's disgusting!"

The service road had been a godsend. Margot, Barney and the Scarecrow had made far better time on it then any of them had dared to hope, and they'd arrived at the castle before the setting sun had dipped below the horizon.

They'd crept around the perimeter of the castle for a time, using the rocks and tumbled boulders of the mountainous terrain the castle was set in for concealment. Eventually they'd located the very same courtyard that Dorothy had been perusing with murderous intent, and had observed the soldiers of the Witch moving through their drills.

After a few minutes of watching, the Scarecrow had whispered that he had an idea, and had instructed them to look for sentries or lone soldiers posted at the outer edges of the castle's perimeter, closer to the rocks than to the keep.

A stroke of good fortune led to the discovery of three such sentries, three large monkeys, all stationed at a tiny guard kiosk beside the head of the service road. These soldiers, lacking the admirable military discipline of the flying pigs, had ducked down behind a boulder, out of sight of the castle, to indulge in an impromptu dice game.

An unfortunate choice of entertainment as well as a dereliction of duty. The Scarecrow and the Lion had ambushed the dice players from the rocks, and soon all three had crapped out, as it were.

Barney had been okay with stripping the uniforms off the three dead soldiers, and had been willing to don the clothing himself, even though the uniform he'd wound up with sorely needed laundering.

But when the Scarecrow had nonchalantly stripped the faces of the three soldiers off as well as the uniforms, Barney had begun to feel more than a bit queasy. And when he'd held out the dripping simian visage he'd chosen for the Lion's use, Barney had put his foot down.

"We need to disguise ourselves, Barney," The Scarecrow was patiently explaining, through the slack lips of his own borrowed face. "Just think of it as a Halloween mask, if you want. Margot's already putting hers on."

"I don't care! Gooshy stuff like this doesn't bother her as much. But ME - I am NOT gonna put that gruesome thing on my face and that's FINAL!"

"Barney - "


Margot intervened, smoothing her new face over her own tin features. "Come on, let's go. Just let him pull his hat real low, okay? We can't stand around here arguing all night."

"Margot, he doesn't look anything like a flying monkey, and you know it! The fact is - properly I ought to take their wings too, if we really want to do this right."

"Ugh!" Barney cried. "Just because YOU'RE a deranged butcher with no sense of proportion - "

"Never mind," Margot interrupted. "Let's not waste any more time. We just have to get inside, we don't have to look perfect. Scarecrow, you know he's squeamish - he'll never go for this. Let's just go."

Barney glared stubbornly at the Scarecrow for a moment, then stalked off toward the courtyard, tail twitching angrily past the vents in his uniform coat. Toto scampered after him. Margot followed a moment later, and finally the Scarecrow followed them all, discarding the extra monkey face and shaking his head at the foolishness of the world.

They waited in the shadow of the drawbridge gateposts just outside the courtyard, watching until the parade drills ended. After that, the troops formed a column and began to file over the drawbridge. The four companions chose their moment, and quietly joined the tail end of the column just as the great castle gate was about to be lowered.

They were inside the castle at last.

Above, in the Witch's chamber, Dorothy had remained, poised, on the terrace, still watching for the best target.

She'd hoped to take out as many of the Witch's troops as possible, so she'd waited for a time when a number of them would be massed together within the reach of her intended makeshift bomb. This had not happened during the course of the drills, and when Dorothy saw that the exercises were coming to an end and the troops were forming up to go back inside, she determined to hurl the hourglass anyway, before it would be too late.

She actually had the glass raised over her head, ready to throw, when she saw something that stopped her in mid-heave.

Three uniformed figures slipped out from behind some rocks and joined the very end of the line of troops on the drawbridge.

Three figures, one with what appeared to be a tasseled tail trailing beneath the hem of its coat.

Three figures. And a lamb with a brand new wire muzzle.

Dorothy carefully set the ugly hourglass down and leapt into the air, just once, just as her heart leapt gladly in her breast. She came down laughing with blessed relief and moved toward the locked door of the chamber.

Down below, Dorothy's friends were infiltrating the interior of the castle. They silently split off from the marching line of troops in the great hall, and faded into the shadowy dimness behind a stone column in the hall as the marching monkeys and pigs filed out. As they watched, a pair of monkeys swept the huge oaken main doors shut, but, they noted, did not lock them. Then the monkeys, jabbering animatedly to one another, strolled out of the hall down a wide corridor to the left. The great hall was empty.

The three perused the huge room; fully two stories in height, walls of ancient rough hewn rock, great pillars of stone bearing the massive weight of the structure, dusty flagstone floors, Gothic arched corridors and doorways opening off this central hall in every direction, a wide staircase leading to a gallery one floor above, and then up into higher floors. A few tatty tapestries and one or two rusty suits of armor set in alcoves were the only attempts at decoration.

"Ersatz Gothic," the Scarecrow sniffed, whispering. "How unutterably cliché. No wonder you don't care to inherit this tacky ruin, Margot."

"My brother makes the chambermaids get spiders out of the garden and put them in the corners at least once a week - to spin cobwebs," Margot agreed. "Can you believe that? He's such an asshole!"

"Do you know where they might have Dorothy in this ghastly rock heap, Margot? You know the castle, don't you?"

"Well, there's a dungeon level just through - " Margot began.

"We won't need to bother with all that," Barney interrupted, drawing again on his extensive knowledge of moppet/pet mythology. "Toto can lead us to her. Can't you, boy? Go find Dorothy, boy! Lead us to Dorothy!"

Perhaps there may be some grains of truth in such sentimental stories after all. Toto cocked his fuzzy head at the Lion a moment, for all the world as though he was considering the Lion's request, and then scampered toward the staircase, where he waited for them on the first step.

"Unbelievable," Margot commented.

"C'mon, let's go," the Lion said. "I told you he could do it."

The three of them followed the lamb up the steps, past the gallery, and up to the floor above, where Toto led them down a damp stone hallway to a stout double deadbolted door.

The Scarecrow tapped quietly at the door while Barney rewarded the clever little lamb with a good ear-scratching and some whispered words of praise.

A familiar voice on the other side of the door responded to the Scarecrow's discreet knock.

"Who-oo is it?" the voice sang out quietly, barely suppressing glad laughter.

Delighted grins broke out among the three in the hall, and the Scarecrow bent to the task of picking the two locks as he replied, sotto voce, to Dorothy.

"Oz Sweepstakes Patrol, madam. You've just won the Impossible Odds Contest."

The locks yielded to the Scarecrow's expert ministrations and the door swung open. Special Agent Dorothy Gale all but fell outwards, into the arms of her friends, as it did.

Much quiet hugging and whispered congratulation and swallowed laughter ensued. Dorothy scooped her faithful lamb off the floor and gave him a grateful smooch on the head, then set him down and threw her arms around the Scarecrow, so enthusiastically she almost knocked him over. He did the best he could to return her happy embrace with only the one arm.

"See, I did just what you told me - I stayed alive. And here you are. Here you all are."

"I told you I'd come for you, Dorothy. A promise is a promise."

"If you weren't dead, you said," she amended, and stepped back a pace to look at him. "Umm . . . what happened to your arm?"

"Why, whatever do you mean? I've got it right here," he pointed to the severed arm sticking out of his knapsack with his good hand and smiled sardonically.

"Oh. Well. That's okay, then," Dorothy responded. "I was worried for a minute, there."

"Where's the Witch, Dorothy?" he asked, "Do you know? We need to find him."

"WHAT???" both Margot and Barney hissed, almost simultaneously.

"Well, the Witch, of course," the Scarecrow explained, clearly a bit impatient with their thickness. "We did come to sort out the Witch, didn't we? And there is that hospital bed we were supposed to bring back to the Wizard."

"Oh, NO!" Margot snapped. "Oh, no you don't! I've had enough of this swashbuckling crap for one day. We're leaving, right now, while we still can! We can come back and 'sort out the Witch' some other time!"

"But, Margot - " Dorothy started to argue.

"No! Just don't say it! You two maniacs may not know when to quit, but I DO! We are LEAVING!"

"Right," added Barney. "I don't care if I ever see the Witch OR the Wizard again. Let's go."

Margot and Barney both spun around and marched toward the stairs without further argument.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow both shook their heads at the foolishness of the world and shrugged. Dorothy quickly ducked back inside the chamber, and came out with her tote bag (which the Witch, seared by the magical blast of energy when he'd tried to touch the Ruby Brain, had dropped to the chamber floor). She'd also, on an errant whim, picked up the great hourglass.

"Where on earth did you find a repulsive thing like that?" the Scarecrow asked, appalled. He and Dorothy turned and followed their friends toward the stairs, Toto at their feet.

"It's the Witch's, of course. Wouldn't you know? So . . . we'll never get out of here without a fight, whatever THEY think, and - "

"Of course. Hold up, a moment - " he said, halting and turning his back to her. "Can you reach into my sack? It's a little awkward for me, with just the one arm. There, just dig past those fashion magazines. I brought your shotgun. And a few shells. I do apologize, it's as many as I could find before we left the forest. Here, hand me that awful hourglass for a moment."

Dorothy dug past the fashion magazines, a number of ampoules of drugs, the crossbow, a copy of "Gray's Anatomy", two cookbooks, three pairs of silk socks, some mauve stationery, an astrolabe, four rolls of duct tape, and a dog-eared paperback of Dante's "Divine Comedy", among other things, until she found her trusty old friend, plus several shells, and pulled them out.

"Oh, now that was really thoughtful of you, thank you so much!" Dorothy said, opening the shotgun happily and filling it with two of the shells the Scarecrow had retrieved for her. "What a sweetie you are! I was sure I'd lost this baby for good."

They resumed walking. "I thought you might be pleased," said the Scarecrow smugly. "Why did you want this hourglass, incidentally?"

They started down the stairway. Margot and Barney were fuming on the gallery below, waiting for them.

"I'd been thinking of throwing it down on the pigs in the courtyard, where they were drilling? Maybe we could still do that, or something like it. Besides, anything THIS ugly, you gotta wonder if it might not explode or some nasty thing if it shattered."

"Not a completely out-of-the-way expectation, I'd say. He is a Witch, after all; he's a fool for all that histrionic hocus-pocus. I'll keep it, if you don't mind. I'm out of crossbow bolts."

"No problem. Can you throw it okay - one armed? Ever play any baseball?"

"I think I can manage. Baseball? What's that?"

They joined Barney and Margot on the gallery, and completely ignored the impatient glares that the two were dishing out.

"Enjoy your stroll, folks?" Barney asked through his teeth. "Through chatting, or should we pull up a chair?"

"There's the front door," Margot said, pointing. "Think we can get to it some time this evening?"

The five of them descended to the ground level of the great hall and moved toward the large door unmolested. The barren stone hall remained deserted, to all appearances.

But just as they'd gotten to the door, dozens of simian and porcine troops sprang out of concealment behind the stone pillars and out of doorways and hallways and filled the hall with a combined roar of battle lust. The now familiar sound of a hundred china plates breaking at once heralded the materialization of the Witch, cackling at them from the gallery above. And then the unmistakable wooden thud of the great front door being barred from the outside.

The soldiers of the Witch brandished ornately bladed pikes at them (highly impractical instruments, to the Scarecrow's expert eye for edged weapons) and drove them back against the locked door. They were trapped. Only Dorothy and the Scarecrow weren't particularly surprised.

"Leaving so sooo-oon???" the Witch gloated, absolutely ecstatic to find the top five individuals on his personal shit list neatly gathered in his foyer and, so he believed, in his grasp at last. He had complicated ideas for their individual demises that would have made the Devil himself puke, and would likely take over a year to complete.

"I wouldn't HEAR of it! You just can't imagine all the wonderful plans I have for each of you! I'm so-oo GLAD you three decided to drop in, Margot, darling, Barney, Scarecrow, old pal! Even if you didn't have an invitation. And Ms. Gale, surely you're not leaving yet? Why, the party hasn't even started!"

"If you're going to give a party," the Scarecrow said, raising his aristocratic nose to its most arrogant angle. "You really ought to have the staff dust this place, at the least. Honestly, what are you paying them for? I've never seen such a pigpen."

He was, of course, hoping to anger the Witch enough to draw him down from the gallery and into the range of Dorothy's shotgun. Failing that, he at least wanted the Witch as emotionally off-balance as possible.

"Maybe we'll start with YOU, you unconscionable snob! What happened to your arm? Shall we start calling you 'Stumpy' now?"

"Well, I can hardly object, I suppose, in all fairness. I happen to know that your very own people call YOU 'Smiley' whenever your back is turned."

Actually, he knew no such thing, although he thought it quite likely. If the Witch wouldn't come down, the Scarecrow calculated, it still might be possible to create a diversion. There was an unblocked corridor to the left, if they could just get past the bristling pikes of the pigs on the left flank.

"Isn't that right, Cordell?" he added, with a friendly you-can-tell-ME smile for the ugly monkey.

The Witch instantly turned his attention away from his prisoners below and glared searchingly at Cordell, who was squirming uncomfortably even as he shook his head in vehement denial.

All the soldiers of the Witch were deeply embarrassed and a bit anxious to have been caught out this way. Most of them gazed nervously up at the Witch, who was not known to be a particularly forgiving employer.

The Scarecrow nudged Dorothy.

"On three, both barrels, left flank," he whispered below his breath, cutting his eyes first toward the group of soldiers he wanted her to fire on, then toward the clear corridor just past them. "Margot, Barney - through there - be ready."

"Personally," he added to Cordell. "I think it's a bit mean of you to call him that. But I suppose it's not as bad as 'Jolly Roger', 'Handsome', and 'Fishhead'. And then there's the old reliable - 'Cocksucker', which I'm sure we can all agree is just too vulgar for discussion, even if everybody knows it is true."

The Witch trembled with betrayed rage and looked as though steam would erupt from his earholes at any moment, and Cordell was positively quaking at this point. The assorted pigs and monkeys in the hall below were simply mortified, rooted to their spots with trepidation.

"One - two - THREE!" the Scarecrow cried, and hurled the huge hourglass at the left flank soldiers of the Witch. Dorothy fired into their ranks at the same time.

The hourglass, just as Dorothy had surmised, did indeed explode upon impact, and a cloud of noxious green gas emerged in the wake of the explosion. The five companions dashed through the scattered left flank in all the green fog and confusion, and ran down the open corridor beyond.

Their way led up a narrow stone staircase and down another hall. They soon could hear the roar of the Witch's minions scrambling after them. They slipped out a doorway into the open night, and found themselves on the parapet of the castle, going toward a corner turret chamber. They could hear the soldiers more clearly now, could tell that their enemies were gaining on them.

Into the turret chamber, and around the corner and out to the open rampart again. Just ahead of them, they saw the first few soldiers of an entire battalion of pigs and monkeys piling out of the turret just ahead and running toward them from the opposite direction.

"Trapped!" Barney cried.

"Can we get over this wall?" Margot asked.

They could not. It was over twelve feet high.

"Let's meet 'em inside that turret room, then," Dorothy said. "I've got a couple of shells left. Do more damage in a crush - we can take a few more of them with us."

Nobody needed to ask where she thought they were going. Their final destination seemed dismally manifest. They all ran back inside the turret they had just emerged from.

Dorothy allowed as many of their foes into the cramped stone chamber as possible before she fired her last two shells, thus greatly reducing their numbers. But ultimately, it was an empty gesture. They were pinned down, outnumbered, had few weapons left, and were facing forces that had many, many excellent reasons to be utterly livid with them all.

It was over. They knew it.

Pikesmen pressed them each right up against the stone walls, the points of the pikes bare inches from each of their throats. The Witch came rolling in, trundled by a pair of hogs and Cordell, who was sporting a black eye. The Witch's troops crushed against the walls as best they could to accommodate his bed. He had his servants roll him right up to the prisoners.

"You know," said the Witch, addressing the Scarecrow, his one goggled eye glittering with malice. "Everybody just makes the same mistake with you, over and over. And I'm as bad as everyone else. We all let you talk, and that's the problem. So, now, much as it pains me to do it, I'm going to just kill you quick, before you have a chance to say anything. Okay? Cordell, hand me that torch."

With his good hand, before anything more could be said, he thrust the flaming torch into the highly flammable straw midsection of the Scarecrow.

At first, nothing happened. Then the torch spluttered weakly, and finally guttered out. It was a classically anticlimactic moment.

Everyone in the room gaped at the Scarecrow, including Dorothy and his other friends. A long confused silence held sway.

"Why . . . why aren't you on fire?" Dorothy finally asked, breaking the silence.

He laughed. "Why, I had myself sprayed with flame retardant back at the Emerald City Wash and Brush Up, of course. One can't be too careful of fire when one is constituted largely of flammable materials."

"You mustn't feel too ineffectual about it, though," he added to the Witch, maroon eyes sparkling with cruel amusement. "You've almost succeeded in ruining my coat, at least. I'll never get this soot out. It's really a bit of a nuisance."

As the Witch's lipless maw stretched open to its limit and an ear- shattering bellow of ultimate wrath foghorned out, his sister, Margot, was having a small epiphany.

The words "flame retardant" swirled in her head, along with several vivid childhood memories, recollections of more recent events, and one bizarre cause-and-effect logical extrapolation that caused her blue butcher's eyes to open wide as a number of mental windows aligned for her.

She immediately plunged her hand into the Scarecrow's knapsack and grabbed his severed arm.

"Cover me, guys - keep 'em off me for a moment . . . " she murmured to her companions, and then leapt heavily onto her brother's nearby hospital bed, crushing him under her considerable weight for a moment.

Before any of the Witch's minions could think to interfere, Dorothy, The Scarecrow, and Barney had done just as Margot asked, and attacked all those factotums closest to the Witch to gain Margot as much time as possible.

Margot stuffed the arm into the gaping mouth of her brother, six-fingered left hand first. She'd managed to get it a considerable distance down his throat before his servants could overpower her companions and clear the way to pull her off.

"Just watch THIS . . . " she said to her friends, as a pair of monkeys and a hog shoved her roughly against the wall. The Witch coughed and spluttered as Cordell pulled the intruding limb out of his master's lipless mouth.

Once the Witch's choked coughs had quieted enough for him to talk, he glared at his sister.

"What the hell kind of stupid thing was THAT to do? Were you trying to FEED me to death?"

"Not unless you enjoy hay, brother dear. Of course, you always were a horse's ass, so maybe you do. How're you feeling right now, by the way?"

"I feel FINE, of course, you stupid tin - erk. Eck. Errrckh. EEHH. CKKH!!"

The Witch's one eye had popped open and sweat had begun to pour down off his scalp and into his denuded face. His good hand started to spasm and then both hands began to swell. His feet and chest and belly and neck began to swell rapidly as well, all nearly doubling in size as they all watched, horrified and fascinated. Convulsive paroxysms wracked his entire supine frame, shaking his bed.

"Anaphylactic shock," Margot explained, smiling smugly. "We always had to be so careful about his pajamas and bedding and toys when we were little kids. He'd blimp up like a poisoned dog if any of the stuff even touched his bare skin."

The Witch was, indeed, blimping up like a poisoned dog even as she spoke. He looked like some awful surrealist depiction of a bloated Sumo wrestler now, and was still swelling quickly.

The Scarecrow figured it out first, and promptly laughed until he choked.

"What stuff?" Barney asked, staring at the puffing, swelling Witch. "I don't get it. Are you saying he's allergic? What's he allergic TO?"

"Flame retardant." Margot said calmly.

And the Witch simply exploded into a million wet, gooshy, sticky smithereens in a single, nightmarishly liquid blast.

A rain of pureed bits of former Witch rose into the air on the force of the detonation, and then fell back, splattering everyone in the room.

"Oh . . . my . . . GOD," Barney the Squeamish Lion, covered with a thin coating of wet, pinkish, biological goo, gurgled. "That was - without a doubt - the single grossest thing I have EVER seen in my entire life." He then fell bonelessly to the floor in a dead faint.

Everyone in the turret chamber (except the Scarecrow, who could not stop laughing) just stood, silent and stunned, for nearly five minutes.

Finally, Cordell uttered the first words they had yet heard from him.

"You killed him," Cordell said.

"Oh?" the Scarecrow answered, still laughing so hard that he was barely able to talk. He wiped a handful of fleshy gobbets of Witch off his face and flicked the vile mess to the floor. "What gives you that idea?"

Margot and Dorothy collapsed against each other and simply howled. It had been a very long day.

"I can't believe you guys killed the Witch!" Cordell went on, completely untroubled by the Scarecrow's notorious mordant humor. "Holy crap, thank you! Thank you so much - we've all despised him for years! Now we can start that air taxi business we've been thinking about!"

He waded through the two inch pool of slime on the floor and insisted on shaking all their hands, except for Barney, who was still indisposed.

Then ALL the pigs and monkeys had to do it, and cheerful chattering and hand-shaking and back-slapping and high-fiving and happy laughter and even several verses of "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" erupted all over the room.

Cordell addressed Dorothy and her companions, who were attempting to revive the Lion. He had to shout to be heard over the racket of the impromptu celebration.

"We're all in your debt, all of you. Is there anything we can do for you guys? Anything at all? Just ask . . ."

Dorothy shared a conspiratorial smile with her companions, then turned to Cordell.

"The Witch's bed? Could you have some of the pigs fly it over to the Emerald city? Just deliver it to the Wizard, if you could?"

"Uh, sure. But don't you think we ought to try to clean it up a little first? It's - um - kind of yucky."

"Oh, no, that won't be necessary," she said, grinning evilly. "I'm sure the Wizard won't care about the mess. Just drop it off at his doorstep, that'll be fine."

"We-ell, if that's what you want. What about the five of you? Can we drop you somewhere? You can be our first customers!"

Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and Margot conferred for a moment, but there was really only one appropriate destination, each of them could agree. Margot turned to Cordell.

"You bet you can drop us somewhere," she said, laughing. "This air taxi idea of yours, I gotta tell you - sure fire winner! You'll make a fortune!"

The Scarecrow spoke as the first official fare of the nascent taxi service.

"The Emerald City Wash and Brush Up Company, then, please, cabbie." he said, smiling. "And there's an extra ten in it for you if you get us there before the dinner hour."

****************************************************************** Chapter Fifteen

Oz the Great and Terrible was at his most particularly terrible for this meeting with Dorothy and her companions. His signature wreaths of yellow vapors twined and boiled like angry vipers about his great incorporeal features and the mystical twin flames of his godlike breath blazed at irritated intervals.

He had not appreciated receiving doorstep delivery of the late Wicked Witch's hospital bed (and about a fourth of what remained of the Witch with it) one little bit.

Nor had he appreciated learning that the five slayers of the Witch had been in his city for a full twenty-four hours before they'd bothered to dawdle into his presence to report on the death of the Witch.

Not that he had been particularly eager to meet with any of them; but his agents had informed him that upon their arrival to the city, the quintet had spent many slothful hours refurbishing themselves at the Wash and Brush Up, and had then lingered over a sumptuous celebration dinner at "Verdigris", the best and most exclusive and most obscenely expensive restaurant in the city. They'd gone from there to the Emerald City Cabaret for dancing and further celebration, and had gone from there to a serious after hours jazz club, and had gone from there to a frighteningly hip all- night diner for a dawn breakfast, and had then engaged rooms at the Emerald Plaza, where, so his informants told him, they had all gone to bed and slept all damn day.

This dilatory attitude toward meeting with him rankled, but what was worse were the reports of the treatment the five had received from the citizenry of the city during their night of hedonistic and highly visible revelry. He had it on good authority that all five, even the lamb, had been hailed as conquering heroes everywhere they went, and had been lionized and cheered and petted and cosseted and treated to every imaginable luxury or service and photographed and sexually propositioned and asked for autographs and generally made much of all over the city.

It was a public relations disaster, from Oz' perspective.

And here were the five authors of all this woe before him now, looking healthy and bright-eyed and glossy, six o'clock in the evening, and not two hours out of bed, any of them.


Oz noted that none of them made the slightest effort to suppress the amused smirking his question occasioned.

"Well," Dorothy said, not even trying not to giggle. "You did say to bring you the hospital bed of the Wicked - "


Of course, they all knew this to be true. They'd renewed their acquaintance with the doorkeeper on their way in, but had not, on this occasion, left Toto in his care. The consensus was that the lamb was as entitled to attend this interview with the Wizard as any of them.


"Spontaneous anaphylactic detonation," the Scarecrow said. "Quite a rare allergic reaction; I'd read about it in the medical literature, of course, but I'd never seen a live demonstration of the phenomenon. It was really quite spectacular, Oz, it's a pity you couldn't have seen it for yourself. Margot's idea, actually. We're all very proud of her."

He smiled approvingly at the tin woman. His time at the Wash and Brush Up had returned him to his normal immaculate state. He was elegantly dressed, perfectly groomed, neat and sleek as ever, and his left arm had been rebuilt, reattached, and was obviously functioning normally.

Oz privately wondered why he'd opted to keep the extra finger on the left hand in the rebuild; was it habit, or just plain cussedness? The latter, probably. Not that it mattered.

"So, " said Margot, newly polished, buffed, and galvanized. "We were thinking that you might like to discuss the terms of our agreement now. You'll remember that we had some requests."

"That you agreed to fulfill, on receipt of the bed, you'll recall," added Dorothy, in a new summer frock and some very smart spectator pumps.

"Which you did receive," said Barney, curried, combed, and whiskers curled. "Like you were saying - so - how about you grant our requests now?"

"IF you can, that is, Oz, " The Scarecrow finished, and bared his sharp white teeth in an ironic smile that made his personal opinion on the matter derisively clear.


"STOP!" Dorothy cried, interrupting the Great Oz for the second time in recorded history, her accent thickened by her anger.

"Just shut your damn cake hole! I've heard just about enough of you calling him nasty names! We're ALL questioning your so called 'omnipotence', right here and now! Seems to me you can't do much more than holler, anyroad, from what I've seen. This Scarecrow here makes TEN of you, so you better try and keep a civil tongue in your big fat head!"

The Scarecrow smiled to himself. When it came to verbal abuse, Dorothy Gale could have given the Furies screaming lessons. It was one of her most enchanting qualities.

That she was currently rhapsodizing on his behalf did not escape his attention either. He found himself wondering what it would be like if she were to yell at HIM like that, and how long he could keep a straight face if she did. A marvelously detailed and utterly winsome tirade from an imaginary Dorothy immediately presented itself to his fancy.

Oz, however, was not at all charmed by the rough side of Dorothy's tongue.


"Or WHAT?" Dorothy interrupted yet again. "Or you'll burst into tears?"

The Scarecrow had not really been following the conversation. In his impromptu fantasy, Dorothy was telling him to "quit that grinning like a damn egg-sucking hound!", and he was so entranced by her delicious invective that he thought he might faint, and was trying to think of even more annoying things to say to keep her at full high dudgeon, when he was distracted by the chuckling of Margot and Barney, and unceremoniously dumped back into the real world.

The first thing he noticed was Toto, sniffing at some draperies covering an alcove of the great green chamber.

The next thing he noticed was the Exalted Oz, spluttering like a tea kettle about to boil, an irritable weak tremor in his awesome voice.

He watched Toto. He had a prescient notion that something important was about to happen, and that certain theories he had been formulating were about to be confirmed .

The inquisitive lamb continued to sniff and butt at the curtains. He nosed at a corner of the fabric, and then tried taking an experimental bite out of it. The curtain twitched aside as Toto gnawed at his mouthful of fabric and a man's feet, clad in flip-flops, were revealed. The Scarecrow glided closer to the curtained alcove, watching carefully.

"Dorothy?" he said. "Would you look over here for a moment, please?"

Toto continued his gnawing and tugging and the curtain continued to inch back and now a man's bare legs became visible, and then a pair of baggy shorts, and then the back of a faded yellow Jose Cuervo T-shirt, and finally a whole man, his back to them, frantically working the controls of a jumbled collection of battered old television equipment.


Barney, Margot and Dorothy joined the Scarecrow near the alcove and watched the stranger curiously. The man glanced behind him, revealing his face for just a moment, and Special Agent Dorothy Gale, of Effbeeye, gasped in astonishment.

"You know him, don't you, Dorothy?" The Scarecrow asked quietly.

"PAY NO ATTENTION TO THAT MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN," Oz the Great and Powerful pleaded.

"Oh my God!" Dorothy answered. "I know OF him. He's sort of a legend, in the FBI, everybody says he used to be the best there was. I can't believe it's him, I just can't believe it! All this time! You knew it, too, didn't you? You knew something, anyway. How?"

"OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL HAS . . . " the man said into a microphone, then turned around and noted all four of them staring at him. "Has . . . has spoken. Oh, hell! Who am I kidding?"

He shrugged defeatedly and slowly turned to face them. He was medium height, had the remains of what must have once been a great tan, and had ice blue eyes.

"An unusual scent," the Scarecrow was saying to Dorothy. "I'd noticed it the first time Oz and I met, and again when he sentenced me to the zoo and the cornfield. I couldn't tell exactly what it was, it was very faint, but I've since come to think it's probably soap. A brand that doesn't exist here in Oz; I'd never smelled it before. Or since. Except once."

"Would you people mind not staring at me?" Oz asked. "I don't like being stared at."

"On me, isn't that right?" Dorothy asked. "You smelled it on me? It's called 'Irish Spring', by the way, in case you were wondering."

"Oh? Yes? What an odd name. Anyway, then, there was the way he pronounced 'Effbeeye'. More like 'FBI'. A subtle difference, but it's exactly the same way you pronounce it, Dorothy. I already suspected that the two of you might be from the same place, and that distinctive pronunciation confirmed it."

"You're not a Wizard at all," Barney said to the man, wonderingly. "You're just . . . you're just a guy!"

"THAT'S why you told me to introduce myself!" Dorothy exclaimed. "The first time we came here?"

"Yes. I wanted to see what his reaction would be. And it was very revealing, too, just as I'd expected it might be."

"And could the two of you stop talking about me like I wasn't even in the room?" the man complained to Dorothy and the Scarecrow. "I don't much like that, either."

"What happened to your face?" Barney asked him, his natural instinct for compassion overriding his annoyance at being taken in by this man's Wizard act. "Were you in an accident?"

The man had a long, deep, terrible scar in his cheek, as though someone unknown had tried to shove a butcher knife through his head, face first.

"No, it wasn't an accident at all," the man replied to Barney's question.

Dorothy had heard all the explanation she needed. She marched up to the scarred man and slapped him across the face, hard.

"Will Graham! What the hell do you mean, sending me on that goddamned wild goose chase after the Witch! Do you have ANY idea what you put me through!? What in hell are you doing here, pretending to be a Wizard and fucking around with everybody? I'd heard you were supposed to be a decent enough guy, when you were sober!"

Graham seemed to shrink into his sloppy T-shirt under the withering influence of her righteous anger. It was as though he was a rare and delicate plant, wilting in the full glare of the sun.

"Well, I am a decent guy, sort of. At least, I used to be. Things kind of got to be a bit much for me."

"That is NO excuse! I could have been killed! We all could have!"

"Somebody had to do something about that Witch," Graham said, quietly, eyes downcast. Dorothy noticed that a faint echo of her own accent had found its way into his speech. "I knew I couldn't do anything, but you looked like maybe you could. And you had help. The Lion, the Tin Woman. And . . . HIM."

He stopped and raised his eyes to the Scarecrow a moment, an icy blue dart of distaste.

"I just thought, if anyone could help you out with the Witch, it had to be the guy who'd fucked him up royally once before. I thought that'd even out your odds, even if it was risky."

"May I ask you something, Oz?" the Scarecrow interjected. "Or do you prefer I address you as Will?"

"I'd rather you didn't address me at all," Graham answered, a small nervous tic twitching his mouth. "Ever. But if you must, not 'Will', please. I'd rather not hear you saying that name. It gives me the creeps."

"Really? Why is that?"

"Oh, God, already with the questions. Ugh!"

"Very well. Oz, then. Why is it that you dislike me so much, Oz? I've never done anything, that I recall, to offend you. We'd never even met, yet you hated me on sight, right from the first. Why?"

"Isn't being a serial murderer and a cannibal enough?"

"Oh, what absurd rubbish. Murder's not even a crime, here in Oz. We don't even have any laws, as such, just a sort of loose collection of social . . . suggestions, really. Anyway, I've mostly only gone after obnoxious pests like the Witch, and you don't seem to have any objection to THAT. And I most certainly am NOT a cannibal! I've never eaten a single bite of hay in my life!"

"All right, all right. The truth is, you remind me of someone," Graham confessed. "Someone back where Dorothy and I come from. I swear, you and he . . . well, it's positively uncanny, the resemblance. And the idea that there could be TWO of you . . . " he trailed off and shuddered.

"Someone you hate?" the Scarecrow asked.

"Yes. No. I don't know . . . it's not that simple. Fear and loathing, admiration and understanding, mutual respect and mutual animosity. A regular witch's brew. I can tell you that I put him in the slammer, but he just about made Will-hash out of me first. And I can tell you that we both regretted doing those things, a little. We'd probably be best friends if we weren't mortal enemies, and if he wasn't a freak. And if I wasn't. Can you understand any of this? "

"Almost . . . " the Scarecrow said, eyes distant, as though listening for some faint echo he could only barely make out.

"Well, all this is fascinating and all," Dorothy interrupted, firmly. "But I wanna know what you're doing here, Graham, and how you got here, and how I can . . . " she stopped, momentarily uncertain what she meant to say. Then she swallowed and went on. "And how I can get back."

She saw the dismayed glances of Barney and Margot, and that was bad. She felt the sudden intent scrutiny of the Scarecrow, the same way a she'd feel a sudden chill draft, and that was worse. She forced herself to go on, scarcely knowing why she did.

"Okay, Graham, so you're just a retired forensic specialist from another dimension after all, I get that. But you've been 'Oz' here for what's obviously a long time. What can you do for Barney and Margot? And the Scarecrow? We all wanted certain things. And HOW did you get here? Answer that first."

"Well, I guess you heard I'd had some substance abuse problems, after my second retirement?" Graham said.

"Yes, I did hear that. Some people said you . . . had a problem with alcohol."

"I was a drunk. No two ways about it."

"Really?" the Scarecrow asked, taking his attention off Dorothy and returning it to Graham. For some reason, he found Graham utterly fascinating. "Had you always been a drunk? Had either of your parents been problem drinkers? When did you first - "

"Oh, Christ, Scarecrow, don't DO that!" Graham interrupted. "I HATE that! That's exactly the way HE does. I'll tell you what it was - I was just sick and tired of you crazy bastards cutting me up!"

"But, Will - " the Scarecrow began.

"I ASKED YOU NOT TO CALL ME THAT!!" Graham shrieked, distraught.

"Oz, then. Oz. You're Oz. You must try to calm yourself, Oz, " the Scarecrow purred gently, employing his most soothing voice. "It's perfectly all right, really, it is. I'm sorry, I won't call you 'Will' again, I promise. All right? But you must realize, Oz, that I never cut you up, or laid a hand on you in any way. You do know that, don't you, Oz?"

"Well . . .ye-es . . ." Graham admitted, somewhat doubtfully.

"It was that other, wasn't it? That one you've said was like me?"

"Graham put three different serial murderers away, in his time," Dorothy quietly explained to the Scarecrow and the others, giving Graham a moment to compose his nerves.

"He was great at it," she went on. "People used to say he was . . . like . . . psychic, or something. Two of the murderers wound up dead, but one - what was that guy's name, again? I can never remember - Xerxes, or Darius, something like that - anyway, he went to the loony bin instead. They say he was the WORST of them all, and totally freaked Graham out. Besides cutting him up with a linoleum knife. Graham was a basket case, but Auntie Em got him to come back to work one more time anyway. And THAT guy cut him up, too!"

"I can see that he has some issues," the Scarecrow agreed, under his breath. "Hmm. A linoleum knife, did you say? Why, that's really quite adroit."

"So, go on, Graham." Dorothy said gently. "How did you end up in Oz?"

Graham found some composure and went on with his story.

"Well, see, I was a drunk. And I was on this two week bender - you know - the kind where you just never seem to get completely obliterated? Where you just stay . . . busy? Anyway, I had this drunken idea that I absolutely HAD to see the Albuquerque International Hot Air Balloon Fiesta."

"Oh, wow," Dorothy said. "I think I can see where this is going."

"Yeah," Graham said glumly. "So, I drove cross country from Florida - God knows how I managed that - I was half blind the whole way. And I get to New Mexico, I get to Albuquerque, about 6:30 in the morning. It's good timing, because the mass ascension was scheduled to begin in about half an hour. Or bad timing, depending on how you look at it."

They all stared at him raptly, completely absorbed in his story.

"By this time," he went on. "I'm so wasted I can barely remember my own name, but I'm still able to stagger around looking for trouble okay, and I can't stop laughing, but I'm kind of crying too, know what I mean?"

"Dorothy," the Scarecrow whispered. "Are you QUITE sure they locked up the right person, over there in Effbeeye?"

"Then I see that this TV news crew is setting up to do a live broadcast from one of the balloons, and they've got all this equipment in the gondola. And I notice this one guy, on the camera crew? He's scared shitless, does NOT wanna go up in the balloon at ALL, has this terrible fear of heights."

"How did you know that?" Margot asked. "Did he tell you?"

"Oh, I just knew," Graham groaned. "I ALWAYS just KNOW how people feel, what they're probably thinking. Even drunk off my ass. It's horrible."

"Is that really true?" Dorothy asked, curious. "I mean, I'd heard that about you, but - "

"Sure it's true," Graham said with a bitter smile. "Right now, you're wondering about going back home, and what you have waiting for you there, and how it stacks up against everything you've found in Oz, and how your new friends are gonna take it, and you're most upset because you think you might be in love with - "

"OKAY, okay!" Dorothy interrupted, quickly. "I believe you. No need to go on. So, um, what happened with the guy and the balloon?"

"See what I mean? It's horrible! Oh, by the way, you are, you know. In love with - "

"Fine!" Dorothy snapped.

"And he's in love with - "


"And you'll both be miserable for the rest of your lives if - "

"Can you PLEASE stop doing that!!"

"No, I can't. I wish I could, believe me.

"What about the scared guy and the balloon?" Barney asked patiently.

"Oh, well," Graham said. "I got the idea that I should help him. I knew he didn't want to go up in that balloon, so I decided to steal it myself."

"You what?" Margot asked. "Oh, great plan!"

"Well, I told you, I was hammered. Beyond hammered. It seemed like the best way, at the time. So, I hung around till the ground crew went to get some coffee, and then I cut all the guy wires but two. Then I just jumped into the gondola and tossed the phobic guy out. And a couple of other guys. It was easy. They were all just so surprised, nobody could figure out to stop me until it was too late."

"Maybe all the laughing and crying had something to do with it, too," The Scarecrow whispered to Dorothy.

"I cut the last two ropes and that was it. Up, up and away."

"What did you do then?" Dorothy asked.

"I'm not really sure. Passed out, I think. I woke up here in Oz."

"Oh, " Dorothy said, slowly. "So, what you're saying is, you have no idea HOW you got here at all."

"Yeah, I'm afraid so. Sorry. Anyway, I landed here, in the Emerald City. I woke up with this colossal hangover, I'm in an alternate reality, and every one in the city seems certain that I'm some kind of Wizard. Because of the balloon, probably. You people don't seem to have any flight technologies here in Oz."

"Why on earth would we?" the Scarecrow asked. "We just use magic. Or genetic engineering."

"Well, yeah, so the balloon really impressed everyone. And they all seemed to WANT a Wizard so much. That's mostly what convinced me to stay on."

"So . . . you never even tried to get back?" Dorothy asked Graham, observing him closely. His answer to this question seemed of great import to her.

"Hell, no. Why should I go back? Finding Oz was like a miracle for me. No FBI, no Auntie Em to come sucking around trying to talk me into taking more cases. I could just sit quietly and be what everyone wanted me to be - the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz. I didn't even have to see anyone very often, since everybody seemed to have this whole mystique about how awesome and mysterious and reclusive Oz should be. Suited me perfectly. I don't really like being around people very much."

"That's why all the special effects, the voice and the floating head and all that?" Dorothy asked.

"Sure. I had all that TV and broadcasting equipment, and I just knew what people expected Oz should be like, the same way I just know everything. I used to be a mechanic, so the equipment wasn't too hard to figure out. I became Oz. It was great, I even got off the booze. Nothing bothered me, except . . . " he stopped, looking vaguely embarrassed.

"Except me," the Scarecrow finished for him, unoffended. "I bothered you. Because of that other in your own dimension, the one you put away."

"Well, yes. It gave me a nasty turn, meeting you for the first time, I have to be honest with you. That's why I locked you up in that cornfield - I already knew how dangerous you could be. I just couldn't let you run around loose, I couldn't stand the thought. You just can't imagine how like him you are, it's positively terrifying."

"You're rather well accomplished, for a drunk, aren't you?" the Scarecrow asked, the temperature of his voice plunging toward sub-zero. "You imprisoned both me AND my double, in two separate dimensions. I'm not entirely sure I understand what you mean by 'dangerous', Oz. You haven't been particularly lucky for me. Or, should that be US?"

"But it's not just that, Scarecrow. See - if YOU have a double back where I come from, who else does? Does everybody? Does Oz somehow mirror my world? Or is it - "

"Or is it the other way around?" the Scarecrow finished, clearly more fascinated than disturbed by the pandimensional possibilities. He was also safely distracted from his growing annoyance with Graham.

"Exactly," Graham answered. "And then, when Dorothy here showed up in Oz, a new level of complexity opened up."

"What do you mean?" Dorothy asked.

"Well, unless you have an identical twin sister who's somehow about ten years younger than you are at the FBI academy in Quantico, I think you have a double too."

"A double? On the Effbeeye side? But that . . . can't be. That's where I came from. How could I have a double in my own reality?"

"You see the problem, then. I saw this girl at a junior shooting competition at the academy. Auntie Em had dragged me out there for some damn profiling survey - anyway, she looked exactly like you, acted exactly like you, and even had the same accent as you. I can't remember her name, something to do with birds, I think. I was bombed at the time, as usual. But you see what it could mean - I can tell you do. You may have been in the wrong dimension to begin with, Dorothy."

"Or I may be in it now. Or maybe it's just a coincidence, that girl you saw. Or maybe . . . whatever. I don't know, it's just too confusing, right now. Let's think about something else."

"But you still have some important decisions to make," Graham said, kindly. "I kept the balloon. It could probably be your way home. IF you want to take it. You need to think about what you truly want. "

"If I want to . . . " Dorothy murmured, intensely aware of the sobered stares of her friends, the absolute stillness, in this moment, of the Scarecrow.

"If I . . . I can't just hide out here in Oz forever, Graham. That's what you did, and you know you've just been drifting, here, all this time, don't you? I can't just stay here, I don't belong here. It would be . . . it wouldn't be right, and . . . and . . . look, what about the others?" she asked, determining to change the course of this conversation. "Barney and Margot? What about what they want?"

"Barney's easy. I'm still the Wizard around here, it's no problem for me to issue an LPN's license. He deserves it, too. Barney, you're probably the kindest, sweetest, most compassionate big cat in any possible dimension. I can tell. I'll get with the Emerald City Registrar tonight, you'll have your license tomorrow. How would that be?"

"Uh . . . great," Barney said in a small, somehow colorless voice. "That's . . . really great. Thanks. Really."

The Lion hung his tawny head, and his magnificent mane drooped disconsolately.

"What about Margot?" Dorothy asked, profoundly dismayed by the Lion's lackluster reaction to the fulfillment of his cherished dream.

"Again," Graham said. "I'm the Wizard. There's a good clinic right here in town. One call from me, and they'll give you the red carpet treatment, Margot. You and . . . what's her name?"

"Judy," Margot said, speaking as colorlessly as Barney had.

"Judy," Graham went on, rather colorlessly himself. Strong emotions stuck to his odd psyche like insects to flypaper. "We'll pay for all the procedures out of the public treasury, of course. You deserve something for killing the Witch, after all. It was a public service."

"Oh. Good. Thanks, Oz." Margot said.

They all looked more like mourners at a funeral than like people who were in the process of getting everything they'd hoped and worked and fought for.

"And the Scarecrow?" Dorothy forced herself to say. She found that she could not bear to look at him as she spoke.

"You can't really do anything for me at all, can you, Oz?" he asked, an ugly smile twisting his fine features. "None of the things I want are within your power, are they?"

Graham looked like he was about to start weeping at any moment. The currents of emotion in the room were overpowering.

"No. I'm sorry. Even if I could give you a real brain, I really don't think it would make any difference. Your double, back where I come from? His brain is more or less like anyone's. But he still doesn't think like anyone else in the world. His head is as stuffed full of assorted awful junk as yours, brain or no brain. Take it from me, I've kind of been there. There may be some hope for you, for you both, I'm not one to say there's not. But it's not a matter of brains. It's something else."

The Scarecrow laughed, a cold, forlorn sound, like glass breaking in an empty room.

"Something else . . . yes. Something even more unattainable, no doubt. Thank you for your honesty, anyway, Oz. Let's move on; the hour grows late and the conversation is becoming tedious. Tell me about this 'balloon' of yours. It flies, you say? And you propose to return Dorothy to her home in it? You'll take her yourself? Can you operate it properly? What safety features does this device have? How will - "

"Please stop," Graham begged, tears running down his face. "I can't stand it."

A long, doleful silence fell among them all.

Finally, the Scarecrow broke the silence.

"Well, perhaps you're right, Oz. We can discuss the details tomorrow," his voice was as impenetrable and flat and featureless as a sheet of burnished steel. "We're all very tired, and Dorothy has to prepare for her journey. And Oz, it's clear that we've . . . fatigued you, so perhaps it's best if we leave you alone now. I would like to speak with you a bit more later, though. I have some questions about this other world of yours, and about this other person, my double. May I call you later? After dinner, perhaps?"

Graham nodded, still weeping as though his heart were breaking.

"Well then, that's settled. I'll bid you all good night. Dorothy, I'm in room 3327 at the Plaza, please let me know if I can assist you with any of your preparations for the return trip, if there's anything you need. Barney, Margot, good night. I'll see you in the morning."

He inclined his head toward each of them politely, perfect form, a living fortress of cool, distant courtesy. Then he turned around and walked out of the chamber.

Graham just sobbed.

Dorothy felt as though she'd somehow been turned to stone.

Margot grabbed Barney's golden arm.

"C'mon, kitty-cat. Let's go get drunk, want to? I know a little place - reggae, soft booths, oyster shooters, what'dya say? Umm . . . Dorothy? Interested?"

"No . . . no thanks, Margot. You go on. Have fun. See you tomorrow."

"Good night, Dorothy," Barney said. "Good night, Oz - uh - Will. Take care," he turned away quickly, before he burst into tears himself.

The two left the chamber quietly, arm in arm, dear friends.

Oh, fuck me, Dorothy thought, savagely angry with herself, but unable to think how she could have made any better decisions, or could have hurt any of those who'd become so dear to her less, or how she could ever hope to survive the frigid lump of monstrous pain that had lodged in her own heart.

She looked at Graham for a moment, crying his blue eyes out and staring at her with complete, terrible knowledge.

"Oh, shut up," she said to him, tears springing to her own eyes. "I'll do my OWN crying, thank you very much. Some Wizard YOU turned out to be. Good night."

The heels of her fashionable new shoes clacked desolately as she too walked out of the great echoing chamber.

And Will Graham, the flawed and all too human Wizard of Oz, was left alone, weeping for all the sorrow and heartbreak and misery in the world.


Chapter Sixteen

The next few days were busy ones for them all. Dorothy saw as much as she could of her former companions, but she was very busy getting ready for the trip home. All of them, in fact, were very busy.

Graham, though quite ambivalent about leaving Oz and returning to Effbeeye, did feel obligated to Dorothy, so he'd agreed to make the return trip with her, to try to help operate the balloon.

He was concerned, however, that this decision on his part would leave the office of Wizard vacant, and all of Oz without leadership. So Graham had insisted that the Lion, Margot, and the Scarecrow should form a sort of Emerald City Tribunal and rule Oz jointly in his stead.

According to Graham, Margot should handle all public funds and taxation, and Barney was to administer social services. The Scarecrow, he contended, should be put in charge of criminal justice. Graham's idea was that no one in Oz would dare indulge in criminal behavior if it would mean crossing the infamous Scarecrow. When it was pointed out to Graham that there were no laws in Oz, he had simply said:

"So make some. At least it'll keep him out of trouble. Look what he did to the Witch! Wasn't THAT justice?"

All three had immediately flatly refused these prospective careers in public service. The Scarecrow had been particularly adamant, and had pointed out to Graham that he had about as much interest in law and order as he did in hopscotch tournaments and quilting bees, and that he didn't much care if all of Oz should be inundated by a flood of boiling ash tomorrow, and that Graham was clearly insane as well as offensive and insulting, and that Graham was just being vindictive, anyway.

But in the end, they'd all had to agree. Graham had declared that he would never leave Oz unless they did, and that Special Agent Dorothy Gale was sure to just attempt the risky trip alone, should he back out. They all knew this to be true, of course, so they really had no choice.

So, as Dorothy tried to learn as much as she could about meteorology, interdimensional physics, and operating a hot air balloon, her friends were spending their days suffering through an informal hands-on crash course in government administration.

Other activities took up much of their time as well. Margot had to settle her late brother's estate, and to slog through the legal tangle of ceding the castle and adjacent property to the newly formed Oz Air Taxi Corporation.

Barney had determined to put the Emerald City Zoo under new management, and to reinstate all those animals who'd been exiled against their will to the zoo immediately. He'd made several short trips to the halfway house in the forest to discuss the matter with the exiles.

The Scarecrow had spent a good bit of time inspecting the balloon and helping Graham prepare it for flight, and, oddly, the two of them had also taken to spending hours in intense conversation. They would never be buddies, exactly, and Graham never did allow the Scarecrow to call him "Will", but some inexplicable understanding did seem to be forming between them.

Every night, however, no matter how busy they were, the original five would meet at the Cappuccino Bar at the Wash and Brush Up. The days events would be discussed (and often laughed at), various intellectual debates would rage, news would be exchanged, and no one ever brought up the imminent breaking of their fellowship, only days away. These nightly meetings had their bittersweet edge, but not one of them ever missed a night. So few nights remained.

Often, some or all of them would go out to dinner afterward, and once the Scarecrow had dragged the whole crew to a symphony that featured a lead violinist he favored. Another time, Barney had insisted they join him at an all-lion performance of "The Hunt", a dramatization of one of his species' sacred texts. Sometimes, Dorothy found she could not bear to join in whatever activity might be planned for the evening after the coffee house, and would just go back to her hotel room alone, order some room service for herself and Toto, watch television, and float aimlessly in a cold fog of bitter confusion.

On the last night before her departure, she was fresh out of the shower and getting ready for a final night out with the gang, and was annoyed and unnerved to discover herself dithering over what to wear. She had never before dithered in her life, so this was an alarming development for her.

She was just vacillating between the pink silk sheath with the mandarin collar and the black crepe with the daring neckline when she heard a discreet tapping at her hotel room door.

She knew who it was instantly. She recognized the knock. What this instant recognition meant was something she decided it would be better not to think about.

She threw on the thick terry bathrobe the hotel provided to all its guests and went to open the door, her stomach doing unscheduled maneuvers and making her feel vaguely sick, and her pulse fluttering in her throat as though she'd somehow swallowed a live hummingbird. She opened the door.

"Hi," she said. "Am I late?"

"Not yet," the Scarecrow answered. "But you will be, judging from your progress so far. Your hair is still wet."

"Yeah, damnit, I know. Come in. I'm having a problem with these blasted dresses. I never was much of a fashion plate. I swear, it's easier to choose firearms. Want to have a seat? Just dump that stuff off the sofa, I still have to pack it."

He moved some of the piles of clothes and things aside and sat down in a corner of the couch. He'd been carrying a package, nicely wrapped in gift paper and silk ribbon, which he set down at his feet. Toto immediately began to investigate the package, and would have nibbled at the corners if the Scarecrow had not shooed him away.

"Really, Dorothy, you should fold your things before you pack them. Everything is getting wrinkled."

"Um. Care for a drink? There's a mini-bar."

"Thank you, no. I'm not staying long."


A small, lonely silence followed, long enough to be uncomfortable.

"The black one, I think," he finally said.

"The black . . . huh?"

"The black crepe dress. Suits you better than the pink, a bit."

"Oh. Oh, I see. Thanks."

"Well. I won't keep you. Barney and Margot have a major evening planned, from what I can gather. You won't want to keep them waiting. I just wanted to drop this off for you, beforehand."

He nudged the gift at his feet with the toe of his shoe.

"What is it?"

He laughed. "What does it look like?"

She smiled. "Hmm. It looks kind of like a present to me. But it must look like a snack to Toto - he's chewing on it again."

He removed the package from the floor and the inquisitive lamb and stood up, then set the gift on a table, out of Toto's reach.

"Just a farewell gift, a little something I thought you needed. Shall I tell the others to expect you in a half hour? Would that be all right?"

"Sure. Don't you want me to open it now?"

"Oh, no, you're busy getting dressed. You might want to open it before you meet us, though. Then poor Toto can eat the wrappings at last."

He moved to the door, Dorothy following a step or two behind.

She opened the door for him, and they paused a moment on the threshold.

"So, " he finally said. "I'll be on my way now, see you in a half hour, then, yes? The Cappuccino Bar?"

He was staring at her.

"Yes, okay," she said. "I won't be late. Oh . . . umm . . . thank you. For the present."

"It's nothing," he said.

Another uncomfortable pause ensued, and then they both spoke at once.

"Scarecrow - "

"Dorothy - "

"What?" she asked, sharply. "What were you going to say?"

He was gazing into her eyes, as though he would pierce the flesh and bone of her face and look directly into her thoughts, if he could.

"I was going to ask . . . " he said, and stopped, momentarily. Then he went on, determined, clearly, to level with her.

"I wanted to understand something. I must tell you, Graham's descriptions of this FBI, whatever it is, don't sound particularly appealing. You are going home because it's what you want to do, is that right? Not because it's what you think you're supposed to do? I'd like to be certain of that."

Dorothy sighed. No use dissembling with him. He could spot an emotional discrepancy, however small, a mile away, like a shark smells blood in the water. And what she was feeling right now was not a small conflict, not by any means.

"I'd like to be certain of it, too," she admitted. "But I can't. You're right, of course, you're pretty much always right, on things like this. Sometimes I act more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. But that's who I am. I can't be somebody else. Not even for you."

"I don't ask that," he said, quietly. "Who you are - it's the very thing that I've . . . come to find . . . of value. But are you quite sure that's ALL you are? Isn't it possible that there's more?"

This conversation was quickly becoming unbearable. It was time to end it.

"I don't belong here," she asserted with manufactured conviction, not at all sure whom she hoped to convince. "What more? You're overestimating me."

"Am I? Are you sure? Well, then, my apologies. I'll say good night for now. Half an hour, mind. We all have a reservation at 'Verdigris' for eight, and they'll never hold the table if we're late. Maurice, the headwaiter there? He's the worst despot in the city."

"Is he the one with the enormous nose?" she asked, trying her best to smile.

"No, that's Raoul. Maurice has the ludicrous toupee. But they both have the classic waiter's hideous temperament, so we mustn't incur their wrath. Good night, Dorothy."

"Later," she said, unhappily.

He left, and she shut the door with a small, hollow thud. Then she got the gift he'd left her and sat down on the couch with it.

She undid the wrappings and ribbons and found a medium sized box. She took the lid off and found a drawing atop a layer of teal tissue paper.

Charcoal and oil pastel on heavy parchment. A likeness of her, surrounded by stalks of corn, the impossibly clear Oz sunshine drawing red and gold fire from her hair and glossing the fine bones of her face. Lips parted, as though to ask an important question.

Tears blurred her vision as she pulled the tissue away to reveal the rest of the gift. An odd, harsh sound escaped her throat when she saw what was there, something between a cry of pain and a peal of laughter.

His farewell gift to her. A fantastically beautiful pair of shoes. Red as rubies, scarlet as blood. Three inch heels and an improbably thin ankle strap. They'd be sheer torture to wear, and would instantly make any woman who donned them feel like a goddess.

Dorothy, laughing and crying at once, bent to put the splendid red shoes on her feet.

And she wore them, in spite of the pain, for all of that final evening with her friends in Oz.

In the morning, the same improbable golden sunlight that had illuminated the Scarecrow's drawing shone on the hot air balloon that had brought Will Graham to Oz, and would now take Dorothy Gale away from it. The great multi- colored balloon was moored in the small plaza outside the Wizard's Hall, fully inflated and ready to ascend, bobbing ponderously on the mild early morning breeze.

A raised platform had been hastily erected there beside the balloon, convenient to the gondola gate, raw lengths of unfinished two-by-fours festooned with emerald green bunting, rough steps up to the platform bleeding sawdust and sap, splintery rails at the top. A small brass band had assembled beneath the platform, and the various musicians were tuning up.

To Dorothy, standing outside the great doors of the Hall with Graham, Barney, Margot, Toto and the Scarecrow, the whole thing looked disconcertingly similar to a gallows, bunting or no bunting.

The plaza was packed with Emerald City citizens. It seemed as though all of Emerald City had turned out to bid farewell to their Wizard, and to see him off. Graham was appalled at the size of the crowd, and very nearly became catatonic when he realized that he would be expected to make a speech.

The Scarecrow took him aside and talked to him quietly for several minutes, and apparently this helped, a bit. Graham's face was still white as a sheet and his mouth was twitching, but he was able to ascend the rickety steps of the platform with the others and his flip-flop clad feet only dragged a little.

As soon as the six of them had reached the top of the platform, a great cheer rose up from the crowd of spectators and the band struck up an enthusiastic air that made them all jump.

"Oh shit," moaned Graham, ice blue eyes huge and hectic in his white face. "What do I do now?"

"Well, I think you ought to consider having that lead trombone killed at once," the Scarecrow said. "Barring that, just say anything. You're still the Wizard, Oz. They just want to hear your voice; they don't expect you to make sense."

Graham took a deep shuddering breath and moved to the edge of the platform. The band immediately stopped playing and a great hush fell over the crowd. Graham stood at the edge a moment, gripping the splintery rails and swaying slightly, as though listening for some obscure vibration only he could hear.

"Umm . . . hi, everybody . . . I'm . . . I'm glad to see you all . . . and . . . "

He trailed off a moment, and the feverish sheen of raw panic in his eyes slowly faded and his posture straightened as his strange gift for empathy picked up the massed waves of expectation and goodwill from the crowd.


"I've worked with him for days," the Scarecrow whispered to the others, under the cover of the cheers of the audience. "But I can't seem to do anything about that compulsive alliteration."


The crowd responded with another cheer, and some anxious whispering about the Scarecrow's well known implacable views on the subject of rudeness.

"That sneaky little fuck!" Margot whispered to her companions. "Now he's got us. I thought we could just quit doing all this stupid government shit once he was safely out of here. Now we'll never get out of it. Damn!"


The crowd went wild. Dorothy wished a black hole she could disappear into would magically open up at her feet.

"Sonofabitch," she growled through her teeth. "I'll kill him."

Blushing in embarrassment, she nodded to the ecstatic crowd of citizens.


He turned away from the screaming, cheering crowd of his former subjects and faced the cool glares of Dorothy and her companions. And wilted immediately under the onslaught of annoyed hostility they were all broadcasting.

"You SAID to say 'anything', Scarecrow," he argued. "I can't help it if I knew what they wanted to hear. Let's get this show on the road, okay? I'm sick of all these people staring at me."

He peered at all four of them for a moment, taking some arcane reading from their respective demeanors, then got into the gondola of the balloon and busied himself with the gas meter, to give them a semblance of privacy for their good-byes.

Dorothy looked at her former companions, with whom she had laughed and argued and faced unimaginable dangers and suffered defeats and won victories and learned much. The three of them gazed back, and for a time, it seemed that all four were paralyzed.

"So, this is it, then," Barney said at last, and burst into tears as he crushed her in a furry feline hug.

"Good-bye, kitty-cat," she whispered, hugging him back as hard as she could and scratching behind one of his ears. "I'll think of you every time I open a can of Fancy Feast. Take care of yourself. Take care of the others, too. You're the conscience of the group, the best of us, you know it? They'll need you, I think, running Oz."

She released the Lion and he turned away to kneel beside Toto and commune with the cute little lamb he'd grown so fond of one last time.

Margot was next.

"I'm not gonna cry, girlfriend," she said. "My face'll rust."

She took Dorothy in her massive tin arms for a quick hug and whispered in her ear. "Are you sure you wanna do this? Have you thought about it? You do know what's going on here, don't you? With you and him?"

"Oh, Jesus, Margot, I've hardly thought of anything else," Dorothy replied, an anguished whisper. "I don't have to tell you that. But it couldn't . . . work. I know it, and . . . he knows it too."

"I'm not sure either one of you knows a damn thing.," Margot whispered fiercely and wiped a tear out of her eye. "You're as stiff-necked as an ox, and he can be pretty fucking dense too, for an evil genius. Oh, crap! Now I AM crying, after all. Listen, if you ever see a tornado over there in Effbeeye . . . "

Dorothy laughed. "I'll know just what to do. Say good-bye to Judy for me."

"I'll do that," Margot said, and turned away, quickly.

Only the Scarecrow was left. She dragged her head around to look at him, standing stock still on the wobbly platform, red eyes as lifeless and devoid of sparks as a fire long since put out. They moved together and then he took her in his arms with the slow caution of a man handling a landmine.

"Scarecrow," she said. "Oh, Scarecrow. You know I'll miss you most of all."

She could smell a faint scent of new mown hay, could feel the beating of his heart in his straw chest, and was not at all surprised to make this small discovery. She'd guessed he had one, long before this. She hugged a little tighter.

"And I, you," he said. "You'll remember all the things you did here in Oz, once you're back where you came from? You'll remember who you are and you'll do the things you want and never for a moment listen to those who'd constrain you? Even if the voice of constraint is your own? Will you promise me that?"

"I'll promise to try. I'll think of you when it gets hard not to listen."

"I could hardly ask more than that. And I'll think of you whenever a question of mercy arises. No doubt various individuals will have cause to thank you for it, down the line. Good-bye, Dorothy," he said, and planted a chaste farewell kiss on her forehead.

She laughed, a bitter, tinny sound, like a small electric drill piercing some hard surface.

"Oh, God, don't be such a wuss. Kiss me for real. Once, at least. We can have that much, can't we?" Tears were stinging her eyes, burning on her cheeks.

"Don't," he said.

"Don't . . . don't what?"

"Don't cry," he answered, and swiftly bent to her lips.

One kiss. The first, and the last. He tasted good to her, like chewing on a blade of grass at a summer picnic, or in a spring meadow, perhaps. The raw wood platform, the balloon, the crowd, the universe, time, everything, all melted away and down into this one moment of contact. Air and earth, fire and ice. Everything there was, condensed into a single simple physical gesture. It seemed to her to go on forever, but it was still over far too soon.

They fell away from each other and Dorothy felt as though every atom of her being had just been rearranged. Never to return to the original configuration. Good. She didn't want to be the same Dorothy she had been anymore.

The balloon awaited. Graham inside, watching her with his deep, haunted blue eyes.

"Good-bye, all of you," she said, then picked Toto up, almost blind with tears, and tucked him under her arm. She stumbled into the gondola of the balloon.

Graham was watching her.

"What the FUCK are you staring at?" she snarled at him, her voice roughened by tears and pain and an inchoate objectless anger. "Let's go. Loose the damn ropes."

"Umm. I already did," he answered mildly, apparently untroubled by her snarling rudeness. In fact, he had actually started to smile a little. The balloon was very gradually rising above the platform.

"Well," he said. "That's not exactly true. Actually, I cut them . . . "

The balloon rose another few inches and Graham stepped a few inches closer to her.

"You - " she started to say.

"Cut the ropes," he finished, moving still closer and smiling ever more broadly. "All but two. These two."

He pulled out a pocket knife and sawed through the remaining two mooring ropes he meant. The balloon, freed, popped another few inches into the air.

Graham stepped close enough to Dorothy to kiss her, and for a strange, confused moment, she thought that was what he meant to do.

"You don't really want to leave Oz at all," he said. "That horrible pain you're feeling? That's your heart breaking. You may not know it, but I do. So, forgive me, but - "

He suddenly seized her in both hands, her and Toto both, his hands and arms roughened and strengthened by many years of work as a marine mechanic, and lifted her above the floor of the gondola.

"Graham - " she gasped. "What the hell - "

Will Graham, who could not help but know how people felt, sometimes even better than they did themselves, did the best thing he could think of to do for her. He lifted her above the level of the gondola wall, thrust her out over the side, and called down to the platform, six feet below.

"Hey, Scarecrow - you guys - CATCH!"

And he tossed her, Toto still under her arm, out of the balloon and into the arms of those below, just as he'd once tossed a frightened camera man with a terrible fear of heights out of the very same balloon.

"I may be a crazed, freaked-out recovering alcoholic," he called down to them, laughing madly. "But I'm still the Wizard! You better believe it! Good luck. Good-bye!"

Down on the platform, Barney had managed to catch Toto, and was baby- talking the small lamb like there was no tomorrow, in between crazed guffaws of relieved joy. Margot was jumping up and down and clanking and rattling the wooden platform to its foundations while she waved at the ascending Graham and laughed and laughed. The band struck up a new, even more enthusiastic tune. The crowd of Emerald City residents roared with wild approval, absolute suckers for a happy ending.

The Scarecrow, of course, had caught Dorothy neatly as she fell, as a man might contrive to catch an angel who'd been suddenly and miraculously tossed out of Heaven. He dallied criminally about setting her back on her feet, preferring, instead, to hold her in his arms as long as she'd permit it. He thought he might never set her down again. Certainly he'd never, EVER, let her out of his sight again.

Dorothy, for her part, was too busy kissing him on his ears and nose and eyes and cheeks and throat and chin, and so forth, plus hugging him around the neck so hard she bordered on strangling him, to be particularly eager to be set down.

"Thank God," she breathed. "Thank God. I am SUCH an idiot! I really would have gone!"

"I must be an idiot, too, whatever people say about me," he answered, voice choked by her happy stranglehold. "I really would have let you go. Perhaps we both need a keeper. Umm . . . I hate to ask . . . but would you mind easing your grip a little, please, Dorothy? I can't breathe."

And so the spontaneous mass celebration raged on, and they all watched Will Graham, the flawed but eminently well qualified Wizard of Oz, float away into the perfect blue Oz sky until he was out of sight.

Everyone was so busy laughing and cheering and whatnot that no one noticed the cloud of pipe smoke that was coalescing on the platform until Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, fully materialized, stepped out of it.

They all stared at him, momentarily nonplused. It had been so long since any of them had even thought about Glinda, that, for a moment, they were hard put to remember exactly who he was.

"Oh, dear, Ms. Gale," he said, pretending to be distressed. "You seem to have missed your ride. And I was so sure the Wizard could help you."

Dorothy smiled as the Scarecrow set her down at last. But she still kept hold of his arm, and also slipped her hand into his coat pocket, unwilling to be too far out of contact, just yet.

"The Wizard DID help me, Glinda," she said. "You were right about him. He did know everything. In a way. He sure knew exactly what to do for me."

"But how do you expect to get home now? Haven't you forgotten something?" Glinda asked.

He had a small knowing smirk playing about his lips, as though he was in sole possession of some vital knowledge, and was quite pleased with himself about it.

So he was a bit surprised to hear both Barney and Margot laughing at him loudly, and to see Dorothy and the Scarecrow grinning maliciously, as though they both knew an even bigger secret than he did.

"Oh, Glinda, you're not going to go on and on about that Ruby Brain now, are you?" the Scarecrow asked, already bored with the entire subject. He slipped his own six-fingered hand into the pocket Dorothy was currently occupying. "We're all a bit busy at the moment, as you can see."

"Oh, wow!" Dorothy exclaimed. "I clean forgot I even had it!"

"It IS magic, you know," Glinda said, rather offended by their casual attitudes. "You can use the Brain to go home, Ms. Gale. I'd have told you before, but you wouldn't have believed me."

Dorothy scowled, but she was really too happy to make a thorough job of it.

"Hmm. Let's see . . . you sent me on an epic journey, put me in the path of the Witch, let me fight my way across Oz and back, and nearly got me killed about a dozen times over because . . . why? Because I wouldn't have believed you? Didn't it ever occur to you to just try me?"

"Well . . . no," Glinda said, uncomfortably. "I hadn't thought of that."

They all stared at him for a moment, and then simultaneously cracked up.

When Dorothy was through laughing, she addressed Glinda again.

"Listen, I don't think I need this Ruby Brain of yours. I AM home. Does it do anything else?"

"Yeah," said Margot. "Can it turn people into newts or anything?"

"Can it make lions fly, maybe?" Barney asked. "Or make you invisible?"

"No, no, no," Glinda huffed. "None of those things. It doesn't work that way."

"Then what good is it? " Dorothy asked. "What the heck can we do with it?"

"Well," the Scarecrow said. "I do know of a recipe that's absolutely to die f - "

"The Brain is serious magic!" Glinda interrupted, truly offended now. "And you people are thinking of . . . cooking it! It's ridiculous! The Ruby Brain opens a portal between dimensions. Between Oz and Effbeeye - or any other dimension, for that matter. Doesn't THAT interest any of you maniacs?"

A small pause.

"Hmm. Perhaps that is a BIT interesting," The Scarecrow allowed. "Any dimension? How does it work? And how often can it be used to skip between realities?"

"You just hold it in your hands and say 'there's no place like home', " Glinda said. "And squeeze it while you say that, sort of moosh it a little. Takes you right back where you came from. Once. You can only use it once."

'That's not really very convenient, Glinda," the Scarecrow argued. "One time use only. I'd say, on the whole, the balloon would be the superior form of transportation. Tell me, could this Brain of yours transport TWO people through dimensions? That might be some help."

He clearly had some obscure idea in mind, and just as clearly would never reveal what it was until he was good and ready.

"It's MAGIC, Scarecrow. It's not supposed to be convenient," Glinda retorted, as though he privately thought the Scarecrow could not possibly be as awesomely bright as everyone said he was. "As to your question - I'm not really sure. But I don't see why two people couldn't use it, if they both said the magic words together, and if they both came from the same dimension in the first place, of course."

"I see," said the Scarecrow, and turned to Dorothy. "I think you ought to keep it. We might find a use for it, someday."

"What's on your mind?" she asked, curious.

"Oh, nothing . . . we'll see."

And he would say no more about it, not that day, anyway. So Glinda, who'd thought to appear magically, save the day, and end the story as the deus ex machina, was quite discomfited by the way actual events turned out and dematerialized in a huffy cloud of smoke.

The assembled citizens of Emerald City could see that the show was pretty much over. After a bit more hesitation, just in case something else might happen, the crowd began to disperse. The plaza quickly emptied and the five companions were left alone on their wooden platform before the Great Hall of Oz. They all walked down the splintery steps to the street level below.

"Let's get this ugly thing out of here tomorrow," Margot said, glancing at the platform. "It's a safety hazard as well as an eyesore."

They were all walking away from the plaza, all though none had yet any conscious destination in mind.

"Amen to that," Dorothy agreed.

"What do you think we oughta do about the Hall?" Barney asked.

"Dynamite immediately comes to mind," the Scarecrow commented.

"Cool!" said Barney, and they all snickered wildly.

"Yeah!" Margot agreed, laughing. "Let's do it! First Oz Tribunal proclamation - no more bad architecture in the Emerald City! Offenders will be blown up! Boy, that Graham was crazy, putting US in charge! When shall we blow the fucker? Tomorrow?"

"No, tonight!" the Scarecrow said, teeth bared and red eyes sparking extravagantly, looking every bit as demented as his reputation suggested he was.

"No, now!" Barney corrected, caught up in the moment. "Let's do it now! Where's some TNT?"

"No, later," Dorothy said to her friends, smiling happily. "I want some coffee first, and then later we can go over to Verdigris and make fun of Maurice. After that, maybe I'll show you guys how to make a pipe bomb. THEN we can come back tonight and blow this awful building to smithereens, okay?"

"Good plan, Dorothy," Margot said, and kissed her cheek. "I think we ought to put you in charge of Oz law enforcement. You've got the experience."

"And the arsenal," Barney added, patting her back. "Good idea, the Cappuccino Bar and Verdigris first. I'm hungry."

He and Margot exchanged a little look, then quickened their pace enough to leave Dorothy and the Scarecrow in the plaza alone, for the moment.

"C'mon, Toto, that's a boy," the Lion called over his shoulder, and Toto took off at a run to catch up with his big best buddy.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow followed their companions slowly, hands still linked and safely hidden in the Scarecrow's coat pocket.

"Quite a pleasant evening you've planned for us, Dorothy, I must say. I'm really very impressed. Coffee, dinner, and wanton destruction. What could be better? I'm wondering, though, if you haven't left something out?"

They stopped, two odd souls alone in an empty space.

"What would that be?" she asked him, smiling.

"You didn't make any dessert plans."

She laughed and closed the small gap between them and kissed him, quite a promising kiss.

"That's what you think," she said. "I've got all kinds of dessert plans. Just you wait. I've got this thing about explosions, it's really kind of perverted . . . I hope I won't shock you."

"Oh? How odd. I'M hoping you will. Explosions? That's interesting. When did you first notice this . . . affinity? Was there a particular moment, a tableau, something from your adolescence, perhaps? Or was it - "

Whatever else he asked her (and we can be certain there was a great deal more he wanted to know) was lost in the sudden noise of a bevy of Oz Air Taxi flying pigs, ferrying some fares overhead, and squealing signals back and forth as they flew.

Dorothy and the Scarecrow walked on slowly, and, in time, caught up with their friends.

After all, there was no reason to rush. All their slendid plans, and all the afternoon and night, and then all the nights ahead after that, were yet to come.



It was a cold, gray Sunday in Baltimore. Barney stood outside the isolated cell at the end of the hall, twisting his big hands and trying to decide whether to speak to the current occupant or not.

The cellblock was as deserted as it ever got. Barney had pulled a double shift, and his partner on rotation, Alonzo, had bugged out at the lunch hour and was already forty-five minutes late coming back. It was now or never.

He finally made up his mind.

"Dr. Lecter? Hello? Are you talking to people today?"

He waited.

"Not PEOPLE, today, Barney, I think," the soft, rarely used voice finally said. "Not just anyone. I might talk to you, though. What would you like to talk about?"

"Crows," said Barney, and wisely clammed up.

A full minute passed.

Then Dr. Lecter flowed up out of his bunk and came to the front of the cell, eyeing Barney closely.

"Crows?" he asked. "What about crows?"

"Well," Barney said, and took a mauve envelope out of his uniform pocket. "A crow just delivered this to me when I went outside for a smoke an hour ago. It's a letter."

Dr. Lecter stared intently at the big orderly.

"I can see that, Barney," he said at last.

"It's addressed to you," Barney explained further. "Just your name, no stamp, no street address. But, hey, who needs it? Hand delivery. Beak delivery, I mean."

Dr. Lecter spoke very softly, very precisely.

"So, what you're telling me, Barney, is that a bird, a crow, in fact, gave you that letter you're holding right now? Put it in your hand with his beak? Is that right?"


"Barney, forgive me for asking, but are you feeling quite all right?"

"Yeah, I know how it sounds. But that wasn't the weird part."

Dr. Lecter had found himself at a loss for words only a very few times in the course of his life to date. This was one of those times.

More time passed.

"Oh?" Dr. Lecter said then. It was all he could think of, for the moment. "What was 'the weird part', Barney?"

"It was what he said," Barney answered, determinedly impassive. "He TOLD me to give you this letter. The crow. And he said to tell you to have a nice day."

"The crow," Dr. Lecter repeated. "Said I should have a nice day. I see."

"Look, I opened it, of course, fluoroscoped it, the whole security thing. But I didn't read it, or run it through the censor's office. It kind of seemed like a special case, if you see what I mean."

"Yes. I do see your point, Barney. May I ask, have you noticed any little gaps in your memory today? Any lost time, or anything like that?"

"I'm not hallucinating, Dr. Lecter. It was a crow. Here's the letter, right here. And I could get in major shit with Chilton, just giving it to you, like this."

Dr. Lecter stared at Barney for awhile.

"ARE you just going to give it to me, Barney?" he asked, after a time. "That doesn't seem like you. If you'll forgive my saying."

"Yeah, well, I am, though. Strange days. I'm no fool. A talking crow doesn't hand me a letter every goddamned day. There's something special going on here. I'm not gonna get in the way."

Dr. Lecter had rarely seen Barney so adamant, not in all the years they'd known one another.

Maybe there was something special going on here.

"So, " Barney went on. "I have to ask you to make me a promise. You have to promise me you'll never let anyone find out I gave you this letter, unread and all. It'd be my job. Would you do that? I know if you say you won't, you won't."

"I'm flattered by your confidence, Barney. Very well, then. I promise."

"Okay," said Barney, satisfied.

"Perhaps you'd better give me the letter now, Barney," Dr. Lecter said, after a pause.

Barney put the mauve envelope in the food carrier and sent it through. He watched Dr. Lecter pull the carrier open on his side of the barrier, and watched him pull the letter out. And then, because he was a man with a rare and wonderful natural instinct for courtesy, he turned around and walked away.

Dr. Lecter took the curious object over to his bunk and sat down. He looked at the single line of handwriting on the envelope.

"To: Hannibal Lecter, M.D." the line read.

In a flowing and precise copperplate hand that looked vaguely familiar to Dr. Lecter, although he could not quite place it.

He tapped the envelope against his teeth, then inhaled whatever scents it might provide.

Fresh hay. New mown grass. Straw. Faint metallic scent, perhaps of medium gauge wire, a copper/aluminum alloy. Other herbs, and some unidentifiable perfume blend, clearly made for a feminine wearer, quite appealing. Ink. Charcoal. Oil pastel crayon. Wind. Rain. Feathers.

Crow feathers. Dr. Lecter had put enough plump crows into enough stock pots over the years to recognize that particular scent beyond any doubt.

He opened the envelope, and took out a folded sheet of mauve stationery, covered with the same fine handwriting as the address line on the envelope. And a folded sheet of parchment, a drawing.

He unfolded the drawing first. A charcoal and pastel rendering of a lovely woman in a cornfield. Odd light. A sort of surreal clarity to it. Quite well executed. The style, once again, with an elusive familiar quality that he could not quite identify.

It was really very intriguing, all of it. No problem quite so absorbing had come his way in four or five years, at least. Dr. Lecter was delighted.

He unfolded the letter.

And this is what he read:

Dear Dr. Lecter:

You don't know me, but I feel as if I know you. Quite well. I have it on very good authority that you and I have a great deal in common. More than might normally be imagined. So, perhaps you'll excuse my presumption in writing to you without a proper introduction.

If you're anything like me (and, at the risk of being repetitive, I'm told that you are very much like me) the laws of time and space, as well as the true nature of reality, are matters of some interest to you. You will have, no doubt, formulated theories in regard to these subjects, and you will also have noted that the vast majority of your fellow Effbeeye residents hold your ideas to be absurd, or even altogether deranged.

On reflection, you will also have decided, I am sure, that your fellows, all of them, are wrong, and you are right.

You ARE right. I can attest to it. You may indeed be deranged; certainly I've occasionally had cause to question my own stability. But that does not mean that you are wrong as to the true nature of things; we both know that sanity and accuracy are not interdependent.

Time does NOT flow in only the one direction, and reality itself is multifarious and conditional. What a hopelessly boring universe this would be if it were not so, don't you think? Of course, you will hardly require any confirmation from me - these facts are self-evident, if one knows how to look.

I've been giving some thought to what I believe is your current situation. Mind you, my calculations regarding interdimensional time correspondences and reality vortices are, as yet, incomplete, but I feel reasonably secure in my estimation of what point you currently occupy in the space-time continuum.

If my preliminary findings are correct, you are presently incarcerated in a maximum security facility for the criminally insane.

A measure nominally undertaken for your own good, though highly punitive in fact. One must follow one's own counsel, as we well know, and whatever modest predations you may have undertaken in the past must necessarily pale in comparison to the unmatched malice of Whoever is in charge. If Anyone. It is a pity that this eminently sensible point of view is so difficult to comprehend for the substandard mass mind of society at large.

It's hardly worth arguing the point, is it? I never bothered with it, anyway.

If you'll forgive a personal observation, you probably find your confinement as onerous as I did mine. You will, of course, have utilized your inner resources to maintain your psychic freedom and to preserve the integrity of your vision, but it can be difficult to remain completely undaunted in the face of years of imprisonment. I am not ashamed to admit that I occasionally toyed with the idea of suicide as the only available escape vehicle during my own years of detainment. It would have been easy for me to avail myself of this option, and I'm sure it would be equally easy for you.

The nights can begin to seem interminable, can't they? Especially the nights. I remember full well.

Which is why I write. I have reason to believe that certain beneficial events will transpire in your future, perhaps your near future. Opportunities will present themselves and you must be prepared to seize them. You will not die in that dungeon cell you inhabit (by the way, I imagine that you must crave a view at this point, if my understanding of the word "dungeon" is correct; I had the advantage of an outdoor setting during my own imprisonment and think that I was the more fortunate of us for it).

At some time in the future, you will meet a young woman. That may seem unlikely to you now, but please bear in mind that I do make these predictions on the basis of facts. In my corner of the vast continuum we all share, the events I relate to you now, however farfetched, have already taken place.

You will meet a young woman. You'll know her by her quick wit and extraordinary courage, if not by her beauty, which, incidentally, you will find considerable. I have not succeeded in determining what this woman's name is, although I have gleaned that her surname has something to do with birds. For whatever that's worth. Please forgive me for this lapse in clarity.

You must make every attempt to create a favorable first impression on this woman. Engage her intellect, play on her curiosity, enlist her sense of humor; that would be my advice. The corresponding individual in my own reality cannot resist a puzzle, not if it meant the firing squad. It may be that such an approach will work equally satisfactorily in your dimension.

One other word of advice: do try not to criticize her shoes overmuch. You'll be sorely tempted, I expect, but you may find this woman to be absurdly sensitive about such things. Never fear, you'll be in a position to offer her some much needed guidance eventually.

You'll like her. She's interesting. You'll see.

She will also be instrumental in your prospective escape. Indirectly, perhaps. Unintentionally, perhaps. You'll find this woman's value schema to be as ludicrous as her shoes, initially, but please be assured that she will, in one way or another, let you out.

I was set free. You will be too, I am certain of it.

You will, of course, be alert to the specific possibilities as your own situation unfolds. I cannot predict the exact events, only general trends, but whatever measures you decide on will, no doubt, be adequate.

There are other things I might tell you about your future, but I fear you would not believe me if I did. I'm well aware that I have already taxed your credulity greatly as it is. Suffice to say that you may one day find yourself reconsidering your longest held opinions regarding the possibility of happiness and the existence of hope.

Happiness and hope. Chimerical and insubstantial to be sure, but not as wholly out of reach as you might think. I cannot offer you any acceptable rational argument for this assertion, but I venture to remind you that reason is not everything. There are other forms of perception, and other forces in the world. In years to come, you may have occasion to remember I said so.

In closing, please know that I wish you the best of luck, and hope you will not have to wait much longer for the end of your current travail. Indeed, we all wish you well. Dorothy, in particular, requested that I convey her regards to you, and asked that I add the enclosed charcoal and pastel drawing to this letter.

My gift to her, originally, now her gift to you. A more fitting exchange, I think, than I could ever hope to explain in a single epistle. Memorize this face, Dr. Lecter. It's vital that you do.

"And tell him again to lay off the shoes!" - so she insists I add.

(I quote, of course - her verbal style offers a regrettable but strangely engaging informality)

If ever you happen to be in the vicinity of a tornado, by the way, please do find an appropriate vehicle (a Roush Mustang will do, and so will a hot air balloon) and come visit us over the rainbow. We'd all love to meet you face to face. Bring Ms. "X", too, should that prove feasible. I have already secured what I believe to be an adequate means for your return trip, and I think I can promise you an interesting, possibly even an astounding time.


The Scarecrow Esq.