It was a rainy night in the city, a hard rain on a harder night.
In the dim glow of the computer monitor, a fevered face watched with darting eyes, hands hovering over the darkened keyboard. Almost inaudible fans cooled the computer, and there was a hum just at the edge of human hearing, and nothing else broke the stillness except the occasional giggle, which could have been a sob.
And then, one solid click.
On the set, nothing was going right. The script had been rewritten fifteen times, twice today, and nobody knew which version was right for the scene. To make matters worse, that … that … Well, Jessica didn't use that kind of language. She was a lady. But if she did say those sorts of things, she'd be saying plenty of them about the star.
"Stuck-up" was a good one. "Untalented" was better. Jessica sighed and wandered by the makeup mirrors again. She checked her hair, though of course her hair had never been out of place by a single strand, not unless she wanted it to.
"Out of my light," said Lara, and she jostled Jessica out of the way to sit in front of the mirror. Jessica started to glare daggers, even felt the points pricking out of her eyes, and willed them back. "And get me a coffee," said Lara, watching her own perfect reflection in the mirror.
"Of course," Jessica said, instead of "Die, you synthetic trollop." Then she made her way to the snack cart. A few of the men on-set made appreciative looks as she passed, and she gave a little extra shake of her hips as she walked just to please them. Habit. From star to cabaret singer to faded jewel to this. But she had her pride. She wouldn't go to Japan and beg for an anime job, no matter if anime was the only thriving part of the business these days.
She wouldn't do it. Not yet.
"Ms. Croft wants her regular, Larry," Jessica said to the guy behind the counter. Larry kept his eyes on Jessica's cleavage the entire time he made the coffee and handed it over without a word. But then, that's who he was, down to the leisure suit.
"Your coffee, Miss Croft," Jessica said, handing it over genteelly. Lara took the cup and drank deep, then did Spit Take #4 all over Jessica.
"What's in this?" She dumped the contents into the trash as Jessica, horrified, grabbed for something to wipe herself off with.
"I asked for the regular." She found a face towel and dabbed as the coffee stains spread over her pretty new dress.
"Your regular probably has rabbit droppings in it," said Lara, and Jessica bit back her reply again. There weren't a lot of jobs for a not-quite-classic toon – at least not on this side of the Pacific Ocean – and she'd already lost four, not counting the eighteen that Roger had lost her one way or another.
"I'll get you more, Miss Croft."
"Leave it," said Lara irritably and stood up. She looked as perfect as she did as when she'd sat down: smooth computer-drawn lines sleek all the way around her lithe body. No lines, Jessica noted as she always did, because that made all the difference.
"Now!" shouted the director. Lara pushed past Jessica without a glance. The weapons handler passed over her twin USPs which she grabbed as she took her place in front of the camera.
"What's my motivation?" Lara asked in a bored voice. Jessica was long past lecturing young upstart actresses on how to behave though she would love to have a few words with this one. Jessica was her third assistant on this film, and this was only the second day of shooting.
The director said, "You were just discovered raiding a tomb. The holy guardians who've been protecting the resting place of their greatest leader are going to attack you one by one while you shoot them." He sounded and looked as disinterested as Lara.
Jessica sighed. She hated when the old toons went on about "in their day." She wouldn't be caught dead in a room with Slappy Squirrel again. But there used to be standards.
Lara aimed her weapons at the target off-camera, and instantly, she was Lara Croft, the heiress adventurer, perfect in every way. Jessica hated her, just a little.
"Action!" shouted the director.
Lara moved smoothly back three paces. "This one is for … "
"Cut!" shouted the director. "Croft!"
There was no answer. The director turned to Jessica. "Find her."
Jessica hurried back to Lara's trailer. This wouldn't be the first time Lara had gone off in a huff, though she didn't usually disappear. Must be a new digi feature, she mused in the privacy of her own head.
No one in the trailer. Nothing at all except …
The ruins of the computer were strewn around the trailer floor, trailing bits of frayed wires and crumpled circuit boards.
Lara hadn't vanished. She'd been deleted.
Roger whistled while he worked. He'd picked up the trick from some Disney toons way back and found that whistling made his day go faster and brighter. Whistle whistle whistle. Whistle a merry tune. Stop and wave as the celebrities walk by. Whistle some more.
Sometimes, though, Roger stopped whistling and began to sing. Singing was another way to make his day go faster.
"Mop mop mop! I like to mop all day! Mop mop mop! At mopping I will play!"
When he sang, Roger would eventually stop mopping and start dancing with his mop. The floor still got clean and shiny. And so did the walls, the desks, the windows (the ones he didn't break) and the security guards. Roger continued to sing as he held his mop passionately and pretended it was his wife:
"Mopping mopping is my game! Mopping on the Walk of Fame!"
Inevitably, Roger would stop dancing with his mop and would enlist the help of people who walked by. "Mr. Padalecki! Oh, Mister PadaLECKee! Hold this ppppplease! Mister Ackles! This end please!"
For some reason, he always got fired before the limbo contests ended. It was a hard life for a toon.
Roger had just cleared his throat to start singing when he saw Ralph the security guard approaching. "Hiya, Ralphie! Put 'er there, pal!"
"No no no, Mister Rabbit. No more joy buzzers. You was told."
Roger's ears fell. There was just no respect for the old classics. He pushed his mop around the floor, reshining the same spot he'd bee washing for the past hour. "What's up, Ralphie?"
Ralph stopped and got the glazed look on his face he always did when he was trying to put a thought together. Foghorn had always said ol' Ralphie was as sharp as a bowling ball. "Um. You has to come quick, Mister Rabbit. It's Missus Rabbit."
Roger dropped his mop and hopped over to Ralph, grabbing him by the big blue lapels on his guard uniform. "Jessica? Where is she? What's wrong?"
"You has to come quick," said Ralph, and he turned around, with Roger still attached, and lumbered off.
Jessica was standing outside a trailer covered in yellow police tape, her pretty face covered in tears. Roger hopped down from his ride and bounded over to her. "Jessica!"
"Oh, honey bunny," she sniffled, taking him into her arms. "It's awful!"
"What is, my peach, my love, my turtledove?"
"Lara …" She sniffled some more. "Lara's dead!" She burst into tears.
Roger burst into tears with her. "That's terrible!" Big, honking sobs were pulled out of him, and he grabbed a handkerchief from his pocket, blowing loudly into it and stuffing the soggy thing back. "That's the worst news ever!" He wept more and then, hitching his breath asked, "Who's Lara?"
"Lara Croft," Jessica said, dabbing her eyes with her own handkerchief. "The star of the movie!"
The last name clicked into place, and Roger remembered the smooth, sleek CGI woman with the enormous guns. "But my sweet, you hated her guts."
"I know!" wailed Jessica. "That's why they think I killed her!" Jessica threw her arms around Roger's neck, choking him as she sobbed.
"You're not a killer! I should know. I'm not a killer, either, and we recognize our own kind!"
"That's not enough," said a booming voice behind him. Roger turned and saw someone who had "Chief of Police" written all over him. (Roger guessed he'd run into Huey, Dewey and Louie on his way over. They'd been vandalizing a lot lately. It'd be permanent marker, too.) "The lady was caught red-handed."
Roger grabbed Jessica's hands, and sure enough, she was wearing crimson gloves today.
"But I told you, Officer. The director told me to go look for her and I found the computer already smashed."
"Computer?" asked Roger.
"Yeah," said the policeman. "Only way to kill a digi: smash the hard drive."
"I didn't kill her!" said Jessica dramatically.
"That's not what the evidence says. You’re coming downtown, lady."
"Pppplease!" Roger begged. "Don't take my Jessica away!"
"Don’t worry," the cop said, handcuffing her in the front and paying very close attention to her as he did. "The innocent have nothing to fear from the LAPD." Jessica and Roger exchanged horrified glances.
The other police came out of the trailer carrying a large, misshapen black zipper bag. Through the door, Roger could see the white outlines of where the computer bits had been, and he shuddered.
"In the car, lady," said the cop, and pushed Jessica more roughly than necessary towards one of the police cruisers parked nearby.
"Wait!" said Jessica. "You didn't read me my rights!"
The cops all laughed, except for Goofy, the only toon in the group. He scowled as the chief said, "Toons don’t have rights. They're toons."
Jessica sat in the back of the car forlornly as Roger plastered himself to the window outside. "Jessica!"
"Find out who did this!" she said, as her mascara ran prettily. "You're my only hope, Roger!"
The car squealed away, leaving Roger suspended in midair until he finally fell to the cold, hard ground. It was dirty, and he didn't have his mop.
"Jessica …" he said weakly.
Freddie Valiant was not the kind of detective to be put off by simple things like having no money, no clients, no physical address other than the office, and no way to pay next month's rent on that office. Opportunity might have been something that happened to other people, but Freddie was bound and determined to detect, even if there was nothing in particular to go detecting for. It was a family tradition, started by Grandpa Eddie and his brother, maytheyrestinpeace, continued by Dad and Mom, maytheyalsorestinpeace, and culminated in Freddie's degree in criminal forensics (student loans still to be paid off) and job offers from places Freddie had no intention of moving because they weren't L.A.
Thus, clad in sunglasses, a long trench coat and big fedora in the 80-degree heat, Freddie was at a coffee shop quietly observing the activities of a young human couple three booths down. They hadn't done anything either illegal or immoral yet, but you never knew. Anyway, it was practice.
The door flew open, and a large toon rabbit bounded into the shop and made a beeline for Freddie's table.
"Freddie! Freddie Valiant!" Roger hopped into the seat across from Freddie in the booth. "Hiya, Freddie! Why the outfit?"
"I'm on stakeout!" Freddie hissed, lowered the sunglasses just enough to stare at Roger. "What are you doing here?"
"I need your help. Jessica's been framed for murder. I have to clear her name."
"That's ridiculous. Jessica would never kill anyone." Except maybe you one of these days, Roger my friend.
"I know!" Everyone in the coffee shop was watching them now. So much for subtlety. Freddie took off the glasses. And then, the trench coat, because it was miserably hot anyway. "They think she killed Lara Croft!"
There were gasps, and Freddie looked around. Yeah. At least two or three guys in the room, and at least one chick, who looked like they played the Croft chick's game one-handed. Pervs.
"Croft's dead? How? Thought you couldn't kill a digi."
"The murderer smashed her hard drive! There were pieces everywhere! It was horrible!"
Freddie flinched. "That couldn't've been pretty."
"They think Jessica did it because she found the computer."
"And she hated Croft," Freddie said.
"But she wouldn't kill her! My Jessica's a real lady. She'd just talk about her behind her back. She wouldn't even hit her with a mallet! That's classy."
Freddie sighed. "All right. Say I believe you. Jessica didn't kill Lara Croft. Who did? Who had a motive?"
Roger screwed up his face in thought. "The other two assistants she fired yesterday. The guy she kicked in the turnips this morning. The snack guy. The butcher. The director. Oh, and all us toons hate her guts, too. But we wouldn't kill her," he added.
Freddie frowned. Everyone who'd breathed air in the last ten years knew what was up with that. CGI animation had supplanted traditional toons, and now the "digis," as the toons mockingly called them, had gotten all the good parts. Roger was working as a janitor, Jessica as an assistant. Bugs and Daffy never showed their faces outside Toontown anymore. Mickey had been under contract and had to go CGI; other toons called it "The Devil's Bargain," and shunned anyone who converted.
As for Pooh, he'd sold out and gone digital too, coercing his team to undergo the painful process with him. The last time Freddie had been to the Disney backlot, Tigger had been bounding along on his tail and flinching every time. Poor Christopher Robin had Dipped himself rather than turn digi, and they'd scrambled to find someone to replace him.
It was a hard life for toons. No wonder they hated the digis.
"Okay. You and me, we'll find out who killed Croft. We'll clear Jessica's name."
"Thank you, Freddie!" Roger jumped over the table and gave Freddie a big, slobbery toon kiss. Freddie dripped goo onto the cup and saucer.
"And Roger? No more kissing."
Their first stop was back at the studio. Freddie loved this place. All the sights and sounds of Hollywood. Smells, too. "Roger, you missed a spot," Freddie said, wiping off something that was probably not chocolate.
"Oh, they don't let me clean up here," said Roger. He'd grabbed a mop from somewhere, and Freddie had grabbed a broom and a bucket. Now they were invisible: just two janitors working the backlot.
Freddie waved at Papa Smurf as he and Brainy led a tour group. Over to their left, a line snaked along one side of a soundstage. "Voiceover tryouts" was written on a sign on the door. Humans and toons jostled together, hoping to get a part.
"Goliath!" Roger said delightedly. A purple gargoyle looked up from his papers.
"Hey there, Roger."
"Car ad." His voice dropped a register. "'Slip behind the wheel and enjoy the power.'" He grinned. "What do you think?"
"Fantastic!" said Roger. "You're a shoe-in!"
Goliath bent down to Roger's level. "Thanks. Just between you and me, I'm only doing this for some quick cash. I'm working for the SoCal Shakespearean Festival starting tomorrow. I'm going to play Othello."
"That's great news," Roger said. "Good luck!"
"Thanks!" Goliath straightened up with a grin, and noticed that the other people in line were staring at him. He put on a sulking, brooding face instead, and began mouthing the words to the car ad over and over.
"Great guy," Roger said as they continued to walk. "They're replacing him with CGI in the film. Poor fella."
"Yeah," said Freddie. They needed a list of suspects. Problem was, every toon in Hollywood was a suspect.
They found the trailer, still surrounded by police tape. Nobody noticed people with cleaning supplies. While Roger made a show of trying and failing to clean one small dusty spot about ten feet away, Freddie slipped inside. The police had done their jobs and left: tape marked the spots where the smashed computer had fallen. Stray bits of dark powder marked where they'd dusted for prints. Toons didn't leave prints, though. Just paint, and that rarely.
There was a commotion outside and Freddie peeked out. Roger, true to form, had shanghaied half a dozen production assistants into an impromptu game of sponge baseball, and they'd just broken a lamp. People were shouting from all around as the PAs scattered, leaving Roger alone in the midst of a soapy mess, bubbles coming out of his mouth forlornly.
Freddie hurried out of the trailer before anyone saw. "Nice going, buddy."
"I swung when I should have held," said Roger.
Freddie looked around. "You sure seem to have upset someone."
"Yeah," said Roger, watching the running people. "Why's everybody so unhappy?"
Freddie grabbed someone. "What's going on?"
"Buzz Lightyear is dead!"
Roger led Freddie to the set. "Toy Story 3" was filming at the studio. Roger had even had a chance to clean there twice before that sad incident with the bucket and Mr. Lightyear's helmet.
He followed the sound of the crying cowboy. Sure enough, poor old Woody was weeping over the broken pieces of a computer hard drive as hangers-on looked around. Freddie pulled out a cellphone and dialed 9-1-1.
Roger touched Woody on the arm. "Woody?"
"I was yelling at him, Roger," Woody said, brokenly. "I told him he was too buzz-brained to read his golldarn script, and he was gone before I could say I was sorry." Roger patted Woody on the shoulder as he sobbed.
"He was a good guy," Roger said soothingly. And he was. "Toy Story" had broken records and ushered in a whole new age of animation, and if that new age didn't have a place in it anymore for toons like Roger, at least Woody and Buzz had never put on airs or treated toons any worse for it.
"He was … " Woody's breath hitched again. Roger understood. Of course he understood. If Roger lost Jessica, he'd be devastated too.
"We'll find whoever did this," Roger promised, holding his hand over his heart solemnly.
"Just get me a name," Woody said, from deep within his pain and anger.
Roger heard sirens.
"And don't leave town!" the cop said as he released Jessica's handcuffs.
"Yes, Officer," she said demurely. Jessica had learned "demure" long before this cop had been born, and was an expert.
"Jessica!" Roger said, jumping into her arms. She squeezed him tight.
"How did you do it, honey bunny?"
"I didn't, my desert flower. There's been another murder."
Jessica gasped as she released him. "Who?"
She put a hand against her chest and closed her eyes. "How's Woody taking it?"
"I don't understand," Jessica said. "Lara Croft was a conniving, backstabbing, vicious … "
"Motive, my darling plum," Roger reminded her, gesturing at the cop who was still standing within earshot.
" … wonderful digital person whom I personally shall miss deeply," Jessica finished smoothly. "But Buzz? He was a friend to everyone. Woody, too. Who would wish him harm?"
"A deranged mind," Roger said.
Freddie coughed. "But not Roger. He was with me the whole time."
"Yeah," said Roger, the insult flying right over his head. Jessica watched it flutter away.
"Someone is murdering digis," she said. "And one of them was our friend. We have to find out who and we have to stop them."
"Let's go to Toontown," Freddie said.
Toontown was Freddie's favorite place to go. When Grandpa Eddie had been alive, he'd taken the whole family here on the weekends to visit his old pal Roger and his other friends. Freddie had been entranced as a child, and then disinterested as a teenager, and after Grandpa had died, too lost in nostalgia to notice the crazy anymore. It just felt like home.
Roger and Jessica's place had been a mansion in its day, though in toon terms: saggy pillars, snoring plants in the front garden, and staircases that never led to the same place twice. Freddie had spent many an educational childhood weekend just walking up and down the stairs.
The flowers woke up briefly as they entered the house. "Hi, Roger, hi, Jessica," growled a tiger lily before it went back to sleep.
Roger had maps in the study. Most of them talked or sang, but he brought out a quiet one to show to Freddie and Jessica. "This is Toontown. More or less."
Freddie examined the map. Trying to define the terrain of a semi-imaginary location was never easy, especially since the locations changed abruptly. Still, it was a place to start.
"Okay, we'll split up. Ask questions. Find out who knows anything. I'll take the kids at the corner store. Jessica, you chat up the Princess Brigade in Fairytale Land. Roger, go pay a visit to Bugs."
"Bugs doesn't get out much," said Roger uncertainly.
"I know. But he's got friends." Freddie looked at the time, but who could say what the real time was here in Toontown? Clocks were alive and wristwatches shut down in solidarity. "Do you two have phones?"
Jessica pulled out an old-fashioned crank phone. Roger pulled out a telephone booth. As he set it down, Superman stepped out, and looked around in confusion. "Sorry," he mumbled, and flew off.
"You have your underwear on outside your clothes!" Roger shouted helpfully, but Superman didn't look back. "Oh well. I'm sure someone will tell him."
"Let's go," said Jessica.
Freddie stood outside the corner store nervously. All the toons from the kiddie programs gathered here. For a child, it was paradise. For an adult, it was a trip down somebody else's memory lane. Case in point: a small hand-printed sign in the window said Jem and the Holograms would be performing here later tonight. Freddie remembered going to a Holograms show once, back when they were famous. Tickets had been impossible to get but Grandpa Eddie had done a favor for Riot, and Riot had gotten Freddie a front-row seat. Now the band was working for hat at a coffee shop trying to raise money to get to Japan.
Coming out of the pawnbroker's next door, Freddie saw something highly unusual: the Care Bears. Normally, digis stayed clear of Toontown after they took the Devil's Bargain, but the other toons on the street were giving the bears a wide berth and not making trouble. Odd.
Then Freddie saw what they were carrying. "Hey, Tenderheart," said Freddie. "Is that a .… "
"Don't ask," said Tenderheart. "Because you really don't want to know."
Freddie saw the riding crop and knew the bear was right. "All righty then."
Inside the corner store, the scene was a little saner. Freddie passed by a table where Lilo was complaining to Kim Possible and Emily Elizabeth about her contract: "And I make half as much as Stitch! Can you believe it? My name is listed first on the title of the show!"
"I hear you," said Emily Elizabeth. "My name isn't even in the title. I'm playing second fiddle to that stupid big red dog." Freddie had heard there was some bad blood between Emily Elizabeth and Clifford, but didn't want to pry.
The Little Einsteins sat at a corner table, keeping to themselves; they were 2-D toons in a 3-D series, and so were uneasy in both worlds. Max, Emmy and Enrique sat poring over the wants ads. Freddie nodded to Arthur and Buster at their table as they sat doing their homework. Buster waved his mug of cocoa back companionably.
"What's up, guys?"
"Hey, Freddie," said Arthur, glancing up from his books. "We don't see you here very often."
"I've been busy. Sorry."
"That's okay," Buster said. "We might be coming to see you."
Freddie finally spied the title of one of the books. "How to Be a Detective?"
"Yeah!" said Arthur excitedly.
"We're looking towards the future," Buster said. "We figure, when the show gets cancelled …" he took a hard breath, and Arthur shut his eyes, "we'll still have something to fall back on."
"And detectives are cool," Arthur said. "You’re a detective, right, Freddie?"
"I'm trying," Freddie said with a smile. "And speaking of which, I'm working a case. I'll give you guys a call later, okay? Maybe I can find you some better books to study."
"That'd be great," Arthur said.
"Thanks!" said Buster, and they both turned back to their work. Freddie sighed. Poor kids. What they didn't know was that humans wouldn't hire toon detectives. But they deserved the chance to dream.
At the counter, the octopus barista asked, "Whatcha want?"
"Latte, half-fat. Shot of hazelnut." Freddie paused, counted to ten slowly, and then heard the shotgun blast and the crash as the hazelnuts hit the mug. "Thanks."
And there in the back of the room, Freddie saw him. "Hello, Hogarth."
The boy looked up from his coffee, vibrating faintly. The baristas weren't supposed to give him any, but sometimes an order went awry and Hogarth was always there to drink the dregs.
"How's things, Hogarth?" Freddie asked, sitting down across from him.
"T-t-t-things?" The boy grasped his coffee. "They're g-great! T-t-thanks for asking."
Freddie felt bad for him, and for making him lie. One movie, no endorsement deals. Hogarth was a never-had-been, an eternal child who couldn't even get a decent paying job as a toon. So he sat in this shop and he drowned his sorrows in what little java people would buy for him.
"Glad to hear it. Hey, you haven't spoken to the Giant lately, have you?"
"N-n-n-n-o," he said around another slurp of coffee. "He g-g-g-got a job. Municipal trash compactor in Alb-b-b-b-buque-k-k-erque."
Freddie nodded. "I'd heard." The Giant was in the worst spot, even more so than the Einsteins. He was a CGI creation who looked like a toon, and there was no room anywhere for him. "Dunno if you'd heard, but someone's been going after the digis."
"I hadn't heard," said Hogarth. "D-d-d-do you think the Giant is in d-d-danger?"
"Could be. He was an early digi. And somebody took out Buzz."
Hogarth gasped. As far as Freddie could tell, it was genuine. "I need information," Freddie said in a whisper. "We're thinking it might be a toon. Can you be my ears here in the corner store? For the Giant's sake?"
Hogarth nodded, and Freddie pulled out a slim card from a pocket. "It's a Starbuck's card. It's got $50 on it. It could be yours right now." Okay, so it was a lie. The card had been a gift and had maybe six dollars left. But Hogarth looked at the card like it was made of gold, and that was all Freddie needed.
"Are you sure you don't know anything?"
"Yeah," said Hogarth, watching the card hungrily. "No. I was at Warners the other day. Looking for a j-j-j-job." Freddie thought privately that he was probably going through trash cans at the studio looking for half-empty cups and coffee grounds, but let the lie slide. "I m-m-m-may have heard s-s-s-s-s…" He trailed off, and took a long drink of joe. "Two g-g-guys talking. A virus. S-s-s-someone wrote a virus."
Freddie sat back. That wasn't in the script. The M.O. of the murderer thus far had been to smash hard drives, though a virus could probably take out digis too, if it corrupted the right data.
Interesting. "Did you see who?"
"N-n-n-no," said Hogarth, and then he grabbed the card from Freddie's fingers. "Warners. Building t-t-t-twelve."
Outside the corner store, Freddie's phone rang, but it wasn't Roger or Jessica.
"Hey, Uncle Fred." Fred Flintstone was an old friend of the family, just like Roger. After he'd saved Freddie's dad's life during that incident with the saber-toothed tiger, Dad said he'd name his firstborn after the caveman. Fred had been like Freddie's uncle ever since.
"Listen, kid, the grapevine says you're investigating these digi murders."
"That's right. Have you heard anything?"
"Nothin' useful. But I'm at Disney today and Baloo just told me Lightning McQueen bought it an hour ago."
Freddie gasped. "We lost McQueen?"
"Mater too." Poor truck. On the bright side, he'd been so stupid he probably didn't know he was dead yet.
"Let me touch base with my partners and we'll be there soon."
"Thanks, kid. You be careful, okay? I've heard Jar Jar bought it today, too, but you know how tightlipped the Lucas people are." In the background, Freddie could just make out voices. Marlin shouted: "Has anyone seen my son? Please, I need to find Nemo!"
Desperate digis, desperate toons, desperate times.
"I'll be careful, Uncle Fred. Thanks."
Jessica ran her finger over the gold leaf trim of her saucer as Cindy poured tea into her cup. Mrs. Potts grumbled but didn't spill the tea. Belle sat at a desk nearby, glasses perched on her nose, looking up something online.
"You could join us," Snow said to her icily.
"Busy," said Belle. Jessica added a bit of sugar to her tea, and remembered that Belle hadn't been very social even before she'd discovered Project Gutenberg. Belle let out a disgusted sigh. "Imbeciles! Surely they can't believe the underlying theme of A Prayer for Owen Meany is simple anti-war rhetoric!" She pecked angrily at her keyboard, and Jessica reflected that Belle had only gotten worse since she started flaming people on Wikipedia.
"Well, isn’t this nice?" said Aurora, stirring honey into her own tea. "Jessica, you so rarely come to visit us these days."
"You know," said Jessica. "Work."
"Pity about your residuals," said Cindy.
Snow said, "We can't all have multiple sequels, Cindear." Cindy flinched at the nickname.
Jessica laughed it off. "Oh, it's not so bad. I was a toon of a particular time. I've made my peace with that. And I have Roger."
Eilonwy giggled. "Roger's not really a prince, though."
"He's my prince," Jessica said, as kindly as she could. Eilonwy was just a kid, and she'd gotten shafted when it was her turn, too.
"How is Roger?" asked Aurora.
Jessica smiled warmly. "He's Roger." She let herself drift into happy memories for a moment. "But I didn't come here to talk about Roger. How are all of you?"
"We're perfectly fine!" said Cindy is a brittle voice. Snow took her hand.
"We're all right," Snow said. "It's just that bitch Giselle … " She stopped, color high in her pretty cheeks.
"I haven't met her," Jessica said. She'd heard about "Enchanted," but that was all.
Aurora said, "She makes fun of us in her movie. That's not right."
"We're classics!" said Cindy, clearly trying to smile and stay perky, also clearly about to snap. "There are protocols."
Yes. There were. You didn't bite the hand that fed, and you didn't mock the foot that wore the slipper before you.
"You're getting worked up again over nothing," said Belle. "Fame is a culturally-shared delusion, ephemeral and meaningless."
Cindy started to cry. Snow placed her arm protectively around her shoulders.
"Sorry," Snow said. "She's very sensitive these days." She looked over her shoulder and said in a louder voice, "As some people should know."
"Not my problem," said Belle.
Snow said, "Why don't you go download more obscene photographs and leave Cindy alone?"
Belle said, "Just because I happened to find that video of the two of you does not mean I look for porn."
Cindy sobbed. "Charming said he'd destroyed that movie!"
"Not the first thing he lied to us about, sweetie," Snow said soothingly. "Now drink your tea. You'll feel better."
Jessica decided a topic change was in order. "I don't know if the news has reached you yet, but someone has been murdering the CGIs."
Cindy and Eilonwy gasped. Snow's and Aurora's mouths both formed shocked little O's. Even Belle looked up from her computer. "Anyone we know?"
"Buzz Lightyear. Lara Croft."
"Not Buzz!" cried Aurora. "He was the best!"
"I know," Jessica said. "I want to find the person who did this. But I need your help. Have any of you seen or heard anything out of the ordinary? Anyone complaining about digis lately?"
"Only everyone," said Eilonwy. "Ariel won't speak to me just because I said they're not so bad. There's a toon who wouldn't mind every digi on the planet getting wiped out."
"Where is Ariel?"
"Sulking in the lake," Aurora said. "Mulan and Poca went to talk some sense into her just a little while ago, but you know Ariel. They'll be there for hours."
Jessica nodded. "Anyone else? I know Jasmine has worked with digis before."
Aurora made a noise in her throat and sipped more tea. "Jasmine's been hitting the hookah pretty hard lately. But you know what you ought to do? Go ask Alice. I think she'll know."
Jessica found them deep in the forest. The Caterpillar sat on his mushroom, smoking out of a large hookah pipe. Alice and Jasmine sat languidly on the mossy ground, both heavy-lidded and serene in the drug haze. Shaggy snoozed with his head on Scooby's CGI tummy; not even the Devil's Bargain could keep those two apart, or away from here for long. Rainbow Brite was passed out and drooling. A song from the Grateful Dead played somewhere nearby.
Jessica bowed before the Caterpillar and then sat by the girls. "Hello, Jasmine. Hello, Alice."
Jasmine waved a pretty hand, one finger at a time. Alice smiled. "Jessica, it's been too long. Want a toke?"
"No, thank you. I just had tea."
That seemed to satisfy Alice, who turned her head to the music and started to sing: "Sometimes the light's all shinin' on me; other times I can barely see. Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it's been."
"I need to ask you something," Jessica said. "Someone has been murdering digis. I need to know who. Can you help me?"
Alice made a noise deep in her throat. Jasmine laughed and threw herself back against the ground, still laughing. "That's awesome," she said.
"What? Why is it awesome?"
"They get to be one with the universe, Jess. There's nothing better than that."
Shaggy snored himself awake. "Hey Jessica, like, good to see you."
"Like, did you bring any snacks?"
"The brother is the mother," said Alice. "The son is not like the father. He wants to swallow his siblings alive."
Jessica's jaw dropped, required the use of both hands to put it back where it belonged. "What?"
"You heard me," said Alice, and sang: "Livin' on reds, Vitamin C, and cocaine. All a friend can say is 'Ain't it a shame?'"
Shaggy started snapping his fingers, more or less in time to the music. Jasmine hummed.
"Shaggy," Jessica said. "You need to be careful, too. If they're going after digis, they might go after toons who stay friends with them."
"Oh man," Shaggy said, running his head. "I don't need that on me right now."
"Forget it," said Jasmine. "It'll be or it won't. Totally up to the universe." She reached out and scratched the sleeping pooch.
Jessica got to her feet before the smoke in the air got to her further. "See you."
Her phone rang.
Bugs lived in the mad scientist's fortress because he liked the view. Roger approached from the road. If he'd brought a hat, he'd be twisting it in his hands now, but he didn't, so he settled for making unhappy noises and squeezing his own ears.
As he neared the fortress, a giant green monstrous rabbit head appeared overhead and boomed: "Who Goes There?"
"Me!" squeaked Roger. "Roger Rabbit! Sir!"
The giant green head turned and peered down at him. "Roger?"
The big face lit up with a grin. "Roger! It's been ages! Come on inside. Hold on, let me turn dis ting off!" The monster head disappeared and the gates clanged open.
Roger tiptoed inside. Everything was dark and imposing.
"Roger!" came two shouts, and he was bowled over as the lights came on. He and his attackers spun in a cartwheel until they collided with a wall and fell over. Babs and Buster dusted themselves off and them leapt at Roger again, choking him around the neck.
"Roger, old pal!" shouted Buster.
"We missed you!" shouted Babs. Together, they placed big sloppy kisses on his cheeks and then he pulled them away.
"Back off, kids," said Bugs, coming into the pool of light. He had a carrot chomped in his teeth. "Hiya, Roger!" Bugs said, lending him a hand. "What's a toon like you doin' in a nice place like dis?" Bugs snapped his fingers and Daffy appeared in a maid's uniform. "Bring my friend here a carrot."
"Yeth, Bugth," said Daffy, splashing spit all over him and skulking away.
Bugs put his hand to the side of his face and said in a whisper to Roger: "He lost a bet."
"Me." Bugs grinned.
Daffy came back with a carrot resting on a purple silk pillow. Roger lifted it to his nose and gave a careful sniff. "California?"
"Florida. Have a seat, Roger."
Instantly, big, cushy chairs appeared. Roger flopped down happily into a pink polka-dotted one. Babs and Buster fought over the green one, ending up with Babs sitting on Buster's head. Bugs grabbed a bright orange and red striped chair and sat like a king, munching his carrot.
"What's up, Roger?"
Roger took a polite bite of his carrot. "Bugs old pal, there's terrrrrible things going on. Someone's killing CGI toons."
"They're not toons," Bugs spat. "They're digis. Don’t forget it."
"Yeah, yeah," Roger said. "But someone's murdering them."
"Someone deleting 'em?"
"Smashing hard drives." Funny. Bugs didn't look surprised.
"Anybody drop an anvil on one?"
Roger scratched his head with a foot. "Nope."
"Did any of 'em get hit with a giant mallet?"
Roger paused. "I don't think so."
"Then it ain't a toon. And it ain't my problem."
Roger ate more of his carrot while Buster and Babs argued. Babs was still sitting on Buster's head.
"Bugs, if you know somethin' … "
"I know tings," Bugs said. "I know digis took all da jobs that used to be done by hard-workin' toons. I know dere ain't no real toon projects in da works 'cause of dose shiny, smarmy joiks."
"But Bugs … "
"We're all just toons. We're here to make people happy."
Bugs finished off his carrot. With a snap of his fingers, Daffy brought him another, though this one was a lit stick of dynamite. Bugs pinched the fuse and handed it back. Daffy peered at the carrot. Then it exploded. Covered in soot, he trudged off to get another carrot.
When Bugs had his second carrot in hand, he finally looked at Roger. "We used to be about makin' people happy. But who's gonna look out to make sure the toons are happy? We do our jobs, and dey laugh at us, and then dey forget us."
"No one's gonna forget you, Bugs!" Roger said.
"Hah! Dey don't even show my classics anymore. Too 'controversial'. Too 'violent'. It comes to somethin' where you can't show a rabbit wearin' a dress and stickin' his finger inna gun and blowin' up the hunter. If the digis are havin' their reckonin' now, I say let 'em!"
Roger set his carrot down. "Take care, Bugs," he said, and he stood and walked out.
As he walked down the steep road away from the fortress, he heard feet flapping on the dirt. Daffy was out of breath running after him.
"Don't blame old Bugsy," he gasped when he caught up to Roger. "He's been in a bad mood."
"Daffy old pal, do you think Bugs killed those CGI toons?"
"Bugth? Naw. Not his style. He'th just mad he didn't get a new deal. All the old greats are gettin' new movie deals because of the Gen Xers. The Thundercatth got a movie deal. The freakin' Chipmunkth got a movie deal. Even that sissy boy He-Man got a new show a few years ago. But not Bugs. The best he getth is the occasional Sixth Flagth opening. He'th bitter."
"I saw," said Roger sadly. "But Daffy, whoever it is killed Buzz Lightyear."
Daffy looked shocked. "You should have told him there'th a Buzz Killer loose."
"I never had the chance."
Daffy patted him on the back, leaving large clouds of soot behind as he did. "Good luck finding the chump. Let me know if you need anything."
Roger's phone rang. He pulled out the phone booth. Superman poked his head out, and then so did Lois. "Excuse me, Miss Lane," Roger said politely, and pushed in past them.
"Roger, it's me."
"Hiya, Freddie!" Outside the phone booth, Daffy had distracted Superman with a rock painted green, and was kissing his way up Lois' arm. Lois looked like she wanted to object, but also like she kinda wanted him to continue.
"Roger, there's been more murders. We need to get to Disney."
As they joined the crowd of gawkers around what had been the set of "Cars 2," Freddie took stock of the faces in the crowd. The rest of the Cars cast. Marlin and Nemo in matching fishbowls. Tour Guide Barbie unsuccessfully trying to direct people away from the scene, and the mostly human crowd with her. Chip, and Dale, and with them, Alvin, Simon and Theodore; the brothers had taken the Devil's Bargain just this year but still seemed to be on good terms with their toon friends. Baloo – who'd been working security – stood nearby with his hat in his hands.
Freddie overheard the chipmunks talking amongst themselves. Alvin said, "Theodore is supposed to be the chubby one. That's our shtick."
"I'm not chubby!" said Simon and Theodore at the same time.
Dale said, "Simon, you have been putting on a few pounds lately. Wanna try my jellybean diet?"
Simon made a face. "The jellybean diet is not supported by scientific data, Dale."
Chip said, "We know. But he's in a much better mood than when we were doing Atkins."
"I suggest prayer," said Theodore to his brother. "Only when you are in touch with the divine will you find inner peace. Inner beauty will shine without." Freddie had heard that Theodore had found religion recently, possibly as a side effect of the CGI process.
Alvin said, "Then you've got a lot more prayin' to do, Theodore." Theodore scowled.
Over at the crime scene, Freddie noted that there were no large black bags this time. The police chief saw the three of them standing behind the line together and frowned.
"Listen, Mrs. Rabbit," he said to Jessica. "You really need to stop showing up at the crime scenes, or we're gonna take you back in."
"Leave her alone," Freddie said, grabbing Roger's mouth before he could respond more forcefully. "You've got nothin' on her."
The chief finally noticed Freddie. "Ah, Freddie Valiant. Everyone's favorite soft-boiled detective. Look, Valiant, stay out of this case. You got in our way during that standoff and the Coyote bought it because of you." Freddie couldn't meet his eyes. Wile E. Coyote had snapped, and had taken hostages. The negotiator had been on his way, but Freddie had tried to step in, and yeah.
Poor Wile E. He'd deserved better.
"I will," Freddie mumbled
The chief nodded. "Anyway, it's a cyber crime now. No smashed hard drive this time. Whoever it was just deleted both of them. We've got our forensic computer specialists on the case now. Go home."
Freddie turned and stalked away. Roger and Jessica hurried to keep up.
"But Freddie!" Roger said. "We're not quitting now!"
"No," Freddie said quietly. "Now we're going to visit Building Twelve at Warner Brothers."
As they passed under the watertower, Roger heard Dot yelling at her brothers. The Warner sibs had been welded into their prison this time, and hadn't escaped in over ten years. Their long-lost parents Bosko and Honey showed up every so often to talk to them through the steel walls, but in general they were left alone to stew and plot revenge.
And speaking of plotting ….
"Hiya, guys!" Roger said happily.
Pinky and Brain paused. Brain led a large chicken on a leash, while Pinky – an overlarge pair of rubber pants on his head, flapping in the breeze – was dragging along a chainsaw behind him, and was clearly out of breath and grateful for the break.
"Hiya, Roger!" Pinky said, waving. "Narf!"
"Roger," said Brain. "I regret we do not have the time for social pleasantries right now."
"Why, Brain?" Roger asked. "Whatcha doin'?"
Brain sighed. "Guess. Come, Pinky."
"Bye, Roger!" The pair, and the chicken, made their way towards an alley. Just inside the alley, Roger could see Taz going through the trash looking for something to eat. He wasn't supposed to do that, but he'd eaten the last three guards who'd tried to kick him out.
Roger bounded to catch up with Jessica and Freddie.
He'd never been inside Building Twelve before, and when he looked around, he knew way. Cartoons weren't made here. Movies weren't made here. This was a building where people in neckties compared pieces of paper with numbers on them and tried to make the numbers say what they wanted.
"It's all right, honey bunny," Jessica said. "Accountants aren't contagious."
"Building Twelve, Building Twelve." Freddie looked nervous and out of sorts. "Where was he?" A light bulb went on over Freddie's head. "Of course!"
Freddie raced off and Roger and Jessica followed until they found themselves in the canteen.
Jessica said, "The murderer is a Snickers machine?"
"No," Freddie said, pointing to a coffeemaker. "But my source was here. I'm sure of it."
Roger looked at the top of the wall above the coffeemaker and saw a vent. "I wonder where that leads?"
Roger later reflected that the words: "I wonder where that leads?" should not be spoken by the smallest person in the group, especially if that person was a toon with a dust allergy. "Ah choo!"
"Do you see anything?" Jessica called from behind him.
"Spiders. sniff The lost script for 'Goonies 2.' Ah choo!"
Roger's sneeze blew him backwards and out another vent into an office. The office was occupied, though the occupant wouldn't mind a flying rabbit landing in front of him. Or in fact, mind anything ever again.
"I found something," Roger said, and very carefully moved away from the dead man.
The police chief read from his sheet. "George Davis. Computer programmer. Worked at Fox until last year, started here three weeks ago. And you just happened to find the body."
"Yep," said Roger. Jessica tried to fade into the background, but she'd been drawn to stand out, and she did.
"You three don't know how serious this is," said the cop.
Freddie said, "There's a dead man in there. We know how serious it is."
"These were digi murders," the cop said. "That might not even be illegal. But this is a human."
"Was," said Roger helpfully.
Roger shrank. "Sorry."
Freddie said, "We think he was connected to the other murders. My source overheard someone talking about a virus. Maybe Davis wrote a virus to take down CGI toons."
"I'll have the boys look at his files," the chief said. "Now get outta here before I arrest you. I mean it."
The three scampered out as the police came in with another black bag.
Outside and under the watertower again, Freddie sighed. "Another dead end. I'm starting to think he's right. We should stop looking and let the police do their jobs."
"But what if they're too late?" Roger asked unhappily. Sure, he had his problems with digis. Every toon did. But that didn't matter now. "What if it's Woody next? Or Pooh?"
Something was bothering him. It was on the tip of his tongue. He stuck out his tongue and crossed his eyes but couldn't see anything, so he went to scratch his ear with his right leg.
"Hey, what's this?" There was a piece of paper stuck to the bottom of his foot.
Freddie snatched the paper and read it aloud in the dying light:"Davis –
We had deal. You dead man.
"Hm," said Roger. "I wonder if that's a clue?"
The three of them stood outside the building. If Roger and Jessica's place had been tired and decrepit, this place would have been condemned anywhere outside of Toontown. Instead, the Happy Shiny Fun-Fun Retirement Palace oozed rather than sat on its plot of land, and moldered quietly into oblivion just like its residents.
"I hate this place," said Jessica.
"We gotta do it," Roger said, jittering.
They went in.
Inside, the rooms were garishly bright. Most of the toons who lived here were in B&W, but they weren't the only ones. Toons who hadn't gotten work in years, toons who'd forgotten who and what they were, and worst of all, toons who'd simply been forgotten, all lived here.
"Jane, stop this crazy thing," muttered George Jetson as he shuffled by. "Jane, stop this crazy thing."
Jessica placed a sympathetic hand on his arm. "Hello, George."
His face lit up. "Jane!"
"No, George. It's Jessica. Jessica Rabbit?"
"Oh." Poor George. Jane had run off with Shipwreck shortly after G.I. Joe debuted. Worse, she'd left him out on the dogwalking machine when she'd walked out, and he'd been found there three days later -- dehydrated, delirious, and covered in filth -- by Elroy and Judy.
They continued to walk, passing the Puppy, who was still trying to find his boy, and a tribe of feral Monchhichis. Slappy Squirrel was yelling at Snagglepuss, and Jessica hurried by, hoping she wouldn't be seen.
Out by the pool, they found him.
Freddie put a photocopy of the note in his face. "Cavy, we need to have a talk."
Captain Cavemen, who'd been snoozing in the sunlight, jerked awake. "What? What you want?"
"Listen up, pal," said Freddie. "There's a dead human and a pile of deleted digis and we want answers."
Captain Caveman squinted. "Answers? Me have answers." He dug around in his body hair and pulled out Cliff's Notes on Rand's Atlas Shrugged. He held it out with his fingers in pincers and made a face. "Yuck!"
Jessica asked him, "Did you kill George Davis?"
Captain Caveman's jaw went slack. "Davis dead?"
"As a doorknob," said Roger, momentarily changing his head to be doorknob-shaped.
"But Captain Caveman no kill him!"
Freddie said, "You threatened him. Why?"
Caveman scowled. "Him promise to make Captain Caveman digi. Him lying turd. Me glad he's dead."
Jessica sat down beside him. "You were going to make the Devil's Bargain."
Caveman wouldn't met her eyes. "Yeah. Movie deal fall through. Dem Chipmunk bastards get movie instead."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Jessica said.
"It okay. Digis dumb anyway. They all nuts."
"Don't say that," Jessica said. "Some of them are perfectly lovely. Buzz was a fine CGI toon."
Caveman waved one hand. "Not dem. Toons what turn digi. Bargain make 'em cuckoo." A cuckoo burst out of the end of his club on a spring. Caveman stuffed it back it. "Sorry. It go off all the time."
Freddie said, "Captain, do you have an alibi? Where've you been the past few days?"
"Here!" Caveman waved his arm. "Got sun, got girls," he waved to Taffy, Brenda and Dee-Dee, who were putting suntan lotion on each other. He winced. "Got hiatal hernia. Not been anywhere. Not goin' anywhere. Got witnesses."
Unsatisfied, they left him there and went back inside.
"I could've sworn it was him," Freddie groused.
"Cap?" asked Roger. "Naw. He's a good toon. Just angry."
"Not angry enough to kill Buzz Lightyear," Jessica said. "No one was."
There was a sharp laugh, and Woody Woodpecker began pecking on the walls. "Lemme outta here! Lemme outta here!!!"
Two burly wolf orderlies grabbed him and injected him with something that made the woodpecker go limp. They carted him away as Jessica watched sadly.
"It's not a good time to be a toon," she said.
Jessica flinched. "Hello, Slappy."
"And Roger! Put 'er there, pally boy!" Roger shook Slappy's hand vigorously.
"Slappy Squirrel! It's been too long!" He hugged her, oblivious to Jessica's discomfort.
"You ain't aged a day, though," Slappy said, jabbing him in the ribs. "I got lumbago, rheumatoid arthritis, osteoperidontalitis, and I have to shove these great big pills up my …" she spread her arms wide and Jessica interjected:
"Slappy! Do you remember Freddie? Freddie Valiant?"
Slappy squinted as Freddie extended a hand. "You Eddie Valiant's kid?"
"Grandkid," said Freddie. "Still in the family business, though."
"That's great to hear. Your granddad saved my bacon back in the day. I was gettin' ready to star in a brand new cartoon. It was called 'Bombs to You.' My old nemesis Walter Wolf was tryin' to blow me up again. In our last cartoon before that, I'd shoved some dynamite down old Walter's pants. We had a blast!" She laughed, which turned into a cough. "Anyway, in 'Bombs to You,' I had to perform a tap-dance on top of a bomb, and the director wanted to use a real bomb instead of a prop."
Jessica knew that this story would never end, or come to a point, but she was dragged helplessly along in the disjointed flow of Slappy's memories, which twisted and turned and got caught in eddies of old names.
"Slappy," she said. "We've got to go."
Slappy's eyes narrowed. "Listen up, Jessica. I may be a has-been, but at least I did stuff with my career. My page on IMDB puts Roger's here to shame."
"What's an 'eye em dee bee'?" asked Roger.
Slappy made a disgusted noise. "Only the most important website ever. Everyone who was anyone is on it. I got to write my own bio and upload my own pictures. Wanna see me kick Roger Ebert in the walnuts?"
"Not real … " Jessica started, but Freddie interrupted.
"We'd love to."
Slappy's room was right next door to Dexter's. Explosions occasionally rattled the room while Slappy beat on the walls shouting at him to pipe down already. Slappy's laptop was in great condition, unlike the rest of her bedroom. She gave a quick look around and shrugged. "Skippy don't visit no more. He got a job as a roadie for some band."
She jumped up to her desk and clicked the Firefox icon. The computer brought up a page with Slappy's fifty-years-out-of-date photo to one side and a list of cartoons below her biography. "I set it to my homepage," she said. Jessica looked over Slappy's head at Roger, who looked mystified but delighted.
"What happens when I press this?" he asked, but Slappy swatted his hand away.
"Stop it! Stupid motherboard already crashed once this year. Look, there's you." She pulled up Roger's page. His picture was of him sticking out his tongue with little bluebirds flying over his head.
"That's amazing!" Roger said.
"That's nothin'," Slappy said. "Wait till you see the Hamsterdance page."
"Hold on," said Freddie. "Can you pull up a name for me?"
Slappy looked disappointed. "Sure."
"Davis. Davis. Lotta George Davises."
"That one," Freddie said.
Jessica peered at the credits. Computer graphics, special effects. "That sounds like him."
Freddie asked, "What was the last project he worked on at Fox?"
They scrolled. "Alvin and the Chipmunks," Slappy said. "Why d'ya wanna know?"
The sets hadn't been struck yet. Everything hinged on the opening weekend numbers, which wouldn't come in for a few weeks. A good weekend, and work would begin on a sequel. A poor start, and the cast – including the toons who'd taken the Devil's Bargain to work in the film – would be unemployed, possibly in Greenland.
Jessica found what she didn't know she was looking for in the bedroom soundstage. She followed the sounds of sobbing. With a shushing motion, she brushed off Roger and Freddie and went to sit beside the weeping toon.
"Hello, Jeanette," Jessica said kindly. "Do you want to talk about it?"
"No," said the Chipette. Then she burst into fresh tears and buried her face in Jessica's arm. "I begged him not to do it. But it was all of them or none."
Jessica patted the girl's head. The Devil's Bargain always left someone behind. She snapped her fingers behind Jeanette's head and Roger pulled out a polka-dotted hanky, which Jessica gave to Jeanette. Jeanette made a foghorn sound into the handkerchief.
"Jeanette, honey, did you know a human named George Davis."
Jeanette nodded miserably. "He was the one who did it. Who made Simon into a … a … " She couldn't finish.
"And you wanted revenge," Jessica said carefully.
"What?" Jeanette asked through her tears. "No. I just wanted a normal life. And instead, my children are going to be freaks." She started bawling again.
Children? "Jeanette, are you … ?" Silently, Jessica cursed Fred and Wilma for starting a very weird trend.
Jeanette shook her head. "It should have been me." She let out a bitter laugh. "'Side effect,' he said. I call that a pretty big side effect, wouldn't you?"
While Jessica comforted Jeanette, Freddie and Roger searched the set for clues. Davis had worked on the movie, had turned the Chipmunks to digis, and had written a program that wiped out digis? It didn't make sense.
"Something's fishy," Freddie said.
"That's me," said Roger, pulling out a tuna sandwich and polishing it off. "Sorry."
"No, I mean about this whole mess. If Davis turned toons to digis, why would he write a program to delete them? And who's been smashing hard drives? Who was his partner?"
They turned the corner off the set and ran smack into a gun. The human holding the gun was wild-eyed and staring, and the gun shook in his hand. "Can't you leave well enough alone?!" he said.
Freddie and Roger put up their hands. "Ross Bagdasarian!" Roger said, flabbergasted.
Bagdasarian trembled and looked confused. The gun dipped. "Wait, you're not … " Freddie punched him, hard.
"Ow." Knuckles throbbing, Freddie looked down at the stunned man. "Roger, call the cops. Tell them we've found our killer." Sure enough, Bagdasarian had guilt written all over his face. "And tell them Huey, Dewey and Louie need to have their markers taken away."
Roger pulled out his phone booth. Lois peeked her head out, saw Roger and said, "This one's occupied." Then she slammed the door shut again.
Roger looked at Freddie. "Can I borrow your phone?"
"So let me get this straight," said the police chief. "Bagdasarian paid Davis to write a program to eliminate the digis, and then offed him so he wouldn't tell. Why?"
Roger clutched his heart and said, "Vengeance. Jealousy. Passion."
Freddie said, "His father created the Chipmunks. Ross Junior always lived in their shadow. Maybe he hated them."
"Look what happened to Brian Henson," Jessica added darkly.
More toons had gathered at the set as the rumor spread. Marge watched, wringing her hands, while Homer scratched himself. Bart had already gotten bored and wandered off. To the side, Gollum and Dobby watched wide-eyed as they huddled in Horton's large shadow. Jar Jar's loss had hit them the hardest.
The Chipmunks has just arrived on the scene. Simon and Jeanette stood next to each other, digi and toon, not quite holding hands. The police had searched the unconscious Bagdasarian's coat and found a CD-ROM.
"He was gonna kill us?" asked Theodore. He made a cross in front of himself and began to pray: "Lo, though I walk through the uncanny valley, I will hold no fear."
"Shut up," said Alvin, staring at Bagdasarian, who was beginning to come around.
"What happened?" Bagdasarian asked. He saw Freddie. "Why did you hit me?"
The chief said, "You're under arrest for the murder of George Davis. You have the right to remain silent."
"George? No! I didn't kill George." He began to struggle with his handcuffs as he realized he was bound. "I didn't kill anyone!"
Roger said, "You were going to shoot us!"
"Not you! It was a threat. I was … " He broke off, and he looked at Alvin.
And then it clicked. Freddie said, "You were trying to stop him."
Alvin's face went ugly, but he stayed quiet. Bagdasarian said, "George told me about his plan. I couldn't believe it."
"He's a madman," Alvin said. "He killed all those poor digis. Lock him up!"
"No," said Bagdasarian. "I know it was you. I didn't want to go to the police. It'd be bad publicity for the movie. I just wanted you to stop."
Alvin squeaked, "I demand you arrest this man! He tried to kill us!"
"But he didn't," said Roger. "He could've smashed your hard drive anytime."
"You killed Buzz," Jessica said. "You killed Lara. Why?"
Alvin stared defiantly at them, and then faster than sight, he grabbed the DVD from the policeman's grasp and dashed to the computer sitting on Bagdasarian's desk. He shoved it into the drive and hovered with the mouse over "Execute."
"Stay back! Or I upload this to the Web and every digi on the planet gets it."
Simon and Theodore edged closer. "Alvin," said Theodore gently. "You don't want to do this. You're a digi too. It'd be suicide."
"No," said Alvin. "I made backups of the three of us. We're safe. And when I install this, we'll be the only digis left. They'll have to come see our movie! We'll be kings!"
"It's a fool's game," Simon said.
Alvin scowled. "You just bought yourself a deleted backup."
"No!" shouted Jeanette, and launched herself straight at him. She knocked him off the computer, and Freddie saw his little finger click the mouse as she did. They fell to the floor brawling, toon and digi locked in combat. Alvin fought to win, but Jeanette fought for her would-be litter, and she fought dirty.
There was a yip, and Jeanette's teeth were in a very uncomfortable place for Alvin.
He passed out.
Simon jumped to the computer. "He's already uploaded the virus." He turned to the chief. "Call the studios and tell them to shut down their networks." The chief paused. "NOW!"
The chief pulled out his phone and shouted an order to someone. "How bad are we talking?"
"That depends," said Simon. "Most studios don't keep their CGI computers online, but the minute someone signs on to check their email, any digis on their systems will be dead."
"What about you?" Roger asked.
"Alvin didn't have time to delete our backups." His wee hands moved over the keys. "I can't fix it."
"We could study the virus," said the chief. "My people could create a fix."
"Not enough time." Simon stared intently. "We need someone to get in right now."
"Let me make a call," said Roger. He pulled out his telephone booth. When Superman emerged looking somewhat disheveled, Roger said, "Go get Freakazoid. Now!"
Superman took off. Lois emerged from the booth a moment later, buttoning her blouse. Right after her, Batman came out of the booth too, readjusting his utility belt. He saw the gathered toons, coughed, and then scuttled off.
Roger's eyebrows raised and he peeked inside his phone booth. "Out!" He tugged Robin out of the booth. Robin grinned. Roger pointed. "He went thataway." Robin hurried after Batman.
Superman landed with a squirming blue toon in his grasp. "You requested this?"
Superman nodded. Then he looked around. "Um."
"That way," Roger said, pointing to where Lois went.
"That way," said Jessica, pointing towards the Dynamic Duo.
"Come here," Freddie said, grabbing Freakazoid. "It's like this. You need to go into the 'Net and take down the virus Alvin just uploaded before all the CGI toons in the world get permanently deleted."
"Just go!" Jessica shouted, and Freakazoid jumped into the computer.
"We're going to die, preciousssss," Gollum said to Dobby.
"Do you trust this guy?" asked the chief.
"Of course!" Roger exclaimed. "With my life! Best toon I ever met!"
"Any reason to like digis?"
"Yes," said a voice from behind them. Hogarth shambled into view, flanked by Arthur and Buster in their bike helmets. "He likes the Giant."
They waited. Jessica took Roger's hand. Jeanette gave Alvin another kick and went to stand by Simon.
The monitor hummed and Freakazoid emerged, dripping electricity behind himself. He clapped his hands together. "Fixed in time for dinner!"
"Yippee!" said Roger. He high-fived Gollum and then Dobby. The other faces in the room were solemn.
Freakazoid said, "Don't everybody thank me at once! I'd be too embarrassed!"
"Hooray," Simon said. "The digis live. And toons are still going to be out of work or forced to make a terrible choice." He rested on hand on his abdomen, the other on Jeanette's arm.
"Says who?" Freakazoid touched the monitor again. "Buster, my bunny buddy, can you read that out loud?"
"Um. Sure!" Buster came over to the screen. "It's Variety. 'Enchanted' Enchants Audiences." He mumbled his way through the review, then perked up. "'With this movie, Disney has shown that traditional 2-D animated is still a strong art form, and we expect to see many more animated properties come to the big screen in the wake of the film's success.' They like us!!!"
Buster hugged Arthur and Hogarth as a cheer went up from the crowd. The only one not cheering was the chief, who bent down to the still-unconscious Alvin. "You have the right to remain silent."
Freddie asked, "Now there's a problem. Can a digi stand trial?"
The chief picked up Alvin by the scruff of the neck. "That's for the courts to figure out. All I know is, it's gonna be a long time before this guy makes any sequels. And Valiant?"
The cell was cold, and dark, and completely enclosed in plastic. No air holes. No mouse holes. No escape. If Alvin could breathe, he'd be dead by now. Instead, he waited. He could afford to wait. His lawyer was already dragging his heels as much as possible. If the case even made it to trial, it wouldn't be for years.
His useless brother had birthed half a dozen kids. Alvin hadn't seen them, but the last time the other worthless brother came by, he brought pictures. They looked like the Giant: 2-D lines, 3-D smoothness. "Freaks," Alvin said in the darkness.
"Alvin," said a voice.
Side effects. Hah! Simon had the wrong parts. Theodore was always ranting about the uncanny valley. Alvin was grateful that he himself was unchanged.
"I'll get out of here," he muttered. "And then they'll see. They'll all see."
The plastic bubble sighed and opened. The owner of the voice stepped into Alvin's cell.
Alvin wet his lips. "Hi there, Woody."
"Alvin, I think it's time you met my friends."
Tenderheart and Funshine stepped into the cell and stood beside Woody. Funshine had a gag.
Outside the studio, three surly-looking young ducks scribbled hurriedly on a brick wall: "The End!"