Arthur flies in on the red-eye from Orlando, coming off a three-week job that ended with him doubling his cut when the mark got wise and paid him to reveal what they’d extracted. He should be heading home to New York, where he can disappear onto the crowded streets, faceless and on his own schedule once again.
But Eames called and Arthur owes him one, so he grabs a taxi to a fucking suburb in El Segundo and tries to keep the rising sun from frying his brain. The house has yellow stucco, a terra cotta roof, and blends in with every other house on the block. He frowns at the Crown Victoria in the driveway and tries to look inconspicuous as he approaches the front door. It opens before he can knock and Eames manhandles him across the threshold and into the kitchen. The house appears empty save for the two of them.
“Okay, I’m here, spill.” Arthur crosses his arms and waits.
“I’m well, Arthur, thanks ever so much for asking,” Eames says with a smirk. “How was your flight?”
“I could be at home, Eames. In my own bed, sleeping.”
Eames leers at him over the granite countertop. “Oh, Arthur, do tell me more about this bed of yours.”
“It’s waiting for me and I will shoot you to get to it.”
Eames looks unimpressed. “You’re always so violent, darling. Didn’t anyone tell you you’ll catch more flies with honey?”
“Are you comparing yourself to an insect that starts as larva and eats shit?” Arthur asks, tilting his head.
“Me? No, Arthur, you’ve had me since the moment I laid eyes on you in Caracas. Do you remember that day?”
“I remember you vomiting on my shoes when you woke up from Sadie’s Somancin mix.”
Eames scoffs. “That woman is a menace. She shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near chemicals.”
Arthur smiles. “If you’d just admit you have a delicate constitution I’m sure she’d agree to work with you again.”
Eames glowers. “We’re getting off topic. Back to the matter at hand, shall we?”
Arthur shrugs. “You’re the one stalling, not me.”
Eames grumbles and leans further across the counter. “Upstairs lies a woman who holds the secrets to making us very wealthy men.”
“I’m already wealthy, what else you got?”
Eames looks outraged, his voice going quiet and harsh. “You think I would call you here for a small fortune? No, darling, I’m talking about millions.”
“Millions? As in more than one?” Arthur teases.
“As many as seventy,” Eames says, looking smug.
“Seventy million dollars?” Arthur asks, skeptical. “US dollars? Because I haven’t forgotten that time in—”
“Yes, US dollars,” Eames grouses.
Arthur sits down, drumming his fingers on the counter, thinking. “If she’s sitting on that kind of cash, why is she living in El Segundo? I mean, at least buy a house with a view.”
“Look around you, Arthur, what do you see?”
“Country kitchen chic circa 1987,” he answers immediately.
“You’re impossible,” Eames tells him, but the corner of his lip is curling so Arthur knows he means it affectionately. “The pictures. Look at the pictures.”
Arthur frowns and gets to his feet, shoving his hands in his pockets as he wanders down the hallway towards the back of the house. There are at least a hundred pictures on the wall, most of them of a woman he assumes is the mark, with children. Some are signed, but Arthur doesn’t recognize anyone until he finds one of Richard Nixon on the table behind the couch. Then he spots Marlon Brando, James Stewart, and Rock Hudson, all smiling and posing with the same woman. It’s not until he spots Evel Knievel astride a motorcycle with a blue puppet dressed to match his stunt suit in his lap that it finally clicks.
The woman is Karen Blanchard, the creator of the the most loved puppet in the world. Zooper. Star of his own hit television show that ran for thirty years, thirty years , and honorary best friend of every kid who watched, including a bright and angry little boy named Arthur.
“Told you,” Eames says from where he’s leaning against the wall. His shoulder has knocked a frame askew and Arthur rushes over to right it.
“Watch out, this is of Jim fucking Henson, you lout.” He fixes the frame, his fingers trailing over the people behind the glass. Kermit the Frog and Zooper are sitting between Karen and Jim, guitars propped in their laps.
“What do you think an uber fan would be willing to pay for the original Zooper puppet?” Eames asks.
“It’s got to be in the Smithsonian or something,” Arthur answers. “I remember she donated all her puppets when she retired.”
“The ones from the show, yes. But I’m talking about the first incarnation of Zooper,” Eames taps on another photo, this one showing a very young Karen Blanchard and a vaguely Zooper shaped blue puppet with a shock of orange hair.
“Does it even still exist?” Arthur wonders. “Or would she have made it into a later version?”
“Oh, it still exists, she admitted as much in an interview three years ago. But no one but her knows where.”
“I loved Zooper,” Arthur admits, staring at the photo. Karen is impossibly young in it, barely old enough to dress herself, but she knew even then what she wanted to do. “He helped me through some hard times.”
“You and two billion other children around the world,” Eames remarks.
Arthur turns to him. “What about you?”
“We didn’t have a telly, but I nicked a Zooper comic when I was eight, just to see what all the fuss was about.”
“And?” Arthur asks, smiling.
Eames’ grin grows to match his own. “Brilliant. Zoop, zoop.”
They stare at each other for a minute, enjoying the feeling of nostalgia, but the truth of the job nags at Arthur.
“I don’t know if I can take this from her.”
Eames sobers, nodding along. “I felt the same. But she doesn’t remember him, pet. She’s got no family to speak of, and she’s ninety-three with Alzheimer's. Plus, it’s seventy-million dollars , Arthur.”
“And you’ve been guaranteed that? He’s actually going to pay you and this isn’t you operating on a hunch?”
“Darling, you wound me,” Eames presses his hand to his chest.
“Says the guy who chased after buried treasure halfway across the world using a map hand-drawn on the back of a paper menu from Dairy Queen.”
“Fine, you have a point,” Eames concedes with grace. “But yes, I have a buyer.”
“How long do we have?” Arthur asks, shrugging off his jacket.
Eames looks at his watch. “Oh, about twenty-seven minutes. The sedative I gave the care nurse will wear off about then.”
Arthur stares at him, and he really should be surprised, but he isn’t. “Tell me the PASIV is already set up.”
“Didn’t you bring yours?” Eames asks, innocently.
“I really hate you sometimes.”
“No, you don’t,” Eames laughs, grabbing Arthur’s bag and shuffling him toward the stairs. “I keep your life interesting.”
“I’m a dream thief,” Arthur counters. “I have an international reputation.”
“But that’s work, Arthur. This is fun!” Eames’ voice grows quiet as they ascend the stairs, his breath ghosting over Arthur’s neck and eliciting a shiver.
They enter Karen’s bedroom on silent feet, Eames handing over the PASIV before leaning over her supine form and untangling her arm from the covers. The room is still dark, heavy curtains keeping the sun from waking her and Arthur thinks that’s probably on purpose. If her mind is as far gone as Eames says, she could hurt herself if she wakes up before her nurse. She should probably be in a facility that can watch her 24/7, but Karen had the kind of independence and determination needed to break into a male-dominated field in a time when women were expected to be wives, and mothers, and little else. He doubts that level of chutzpah diminishes with age.
Once he has the PASIV set up, he hooks Karen up as gently as possible. Her skin is warm and papery, her veins weak, but he gets it in on the first try. He’s considered the best in the world for a reason. Eames is next, sitting on the floor beside the bed, then Arthur, who sits in the chair by the vanity. Eames presses the button and the cold whoosh of Somnacin overtakes them.
Arthur opens his eyes to bright reds, blues, and yellows. He’s in Zooper’s cottage on Coconut Lane and all the furniture is oversized and cartoonish. He catches sight of himself in the reflection of one of the pots hanging from the roof. He’s a child again. No more than seven, if his memory can be trusted. He’s wearing jean overalls and a green and white shirt. There’s a hole in the material over his knee from when he tripped over Trixie, their dachshund, in the gravel driveway. He remembers the shock of pain and the panic when he saw blood in the dirt. But his father had cleaned the wound and kissed it better and Arthur and Trixie had been off on another adventure before his tears had dried.
His father had been killed two years after that, but Arthur can’t dwell on it because he’s nine when it happens and he’s only just turned seven. Nine seems impossibly far away. He explores the cottage, hand trailing over the glossy paint, the wood of the fixtures smooth even where it’s chipped. It’s safe and sunny and perfect, and Arthur’s belly feels warmly at ease.
The door opens and there’s no apprehension of who it might be because this is Zooper’s cottage and everyone’s a friend here. He’s so deep in the dream that he feels that child-exclusive buzz of hysteria when Zooper himself walks through the door. Applause and laughter erupt around them, just like on the show.
“Hello, darling,” Zooper says in Eames’ voice and Arthur suffers a moment of pure confusion.
“Eames?” he asks, his voice quiet and unsure.
“Arthur, you’re precious!” Eames laughs, coming closer to ruffle his hair.
Arthur blinks away his shock and gathers his wits. They’re in a dream. Here to do a job. He can’t let himself get distracted. Only there’s this weight in his chest and his breathing’s gone all funny.
“Arthur?” Zooper asks, his voice the sing-song curl Arthur remembers. “Is everything okay?”
“Yeah,” Arthur chokes out, wiping his arm over his eyes. “I’m fine, we should find Karen.”
“She’ll be along. Would you, do you want to play a game?” Zooper asks carefully.
“I’ll be fine, just threw me a bit. I’m not used to changing my appearance so drastically, don’t know how you manage to do it so effortlessly.” He sniffs and squares his shoulders, which he realizes too late must look adorable instead of responsible.
“I never said it was effortless, I’m just amazing at it,” Zooper tells him, Eames’ ego breaking through.
“Smug is not a good look for Zooper,” Arthur says, jumping when there’s a knock at the door.
“Zoop, zoop! Whoo could it be?” Zooper asks in his trademark Zooper way. He opens the door and a school-aged Karen appears to more clapping. “It’s Karen!”
The invisible audience calls out, “Hi, Karen!” and Karen waves.
“Who are you?” Karen asks, frowning at Arthur.
“Karen, this is my friend Arthur,” Zooper says, taking her by the hand and leading her further into the house. “He’s come for a visit, isn’t that nice?”
Karen looks unsure and clings to Zooper’s hand. “I thought it was just going to be you and me.” She’s missing one of her front teeth and it softens her words. Arthur runs his tongue over his teeth, finding two spaces where his left canines should be.
“I don’t want to mess up your day,” Arthur tells her, shoving his hands in his pockets. “I know Zooper is yours.”
Karen frowns and looks to Zooper. When he turns her gaze back to Arthur she’s aged a few years. “I made him.”
“Because you were alone?” Arthur asks. “If I felt alone I’d make up a friend just for me, too.”
In a blink, Karen goes from ten to fourteen, her head nearly brushing the ceiling of the cottage.
“I was always alone,” she says, staring at her hands. “And when I wasn’t, I wished I was.”
“But with me, you’re never alone,” Zooper says.
Karen smiles at Zooper, but it’s sad and by the time the first tear drops she’s twenty. “I made you to keep me safe. Father hated dolls of any kind and he wouldn’t go near you, not even when he wasn’t drinking. And when I was old enough to protect myself, I gave you to other children.”
“Did you have children of your own?” Arthur asks, knowing she didn’t.
“Thousands,” Karen says, proudly. “Every child who watched the show and wrote me letters and sent drawings of themselves with Zooper, who told me Zooper was important to them. They were my children. They were all I needed.”
She’s aged with every word, and though she’s nowhere near ninety-three, there are lines at the corner of her eyes and smile lines around her mouth.
“Zooper made a difference in a lot of lives,” Arthur tells her, going to kneel beside her when she sits. She’s older again, her body turning frail and thin. “You made a difference.”
“Do you really think so?” she asks, her voice quieter, her hair gone silver.
“I know, I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it.”
“Oh Zooper,” Karen laughs, patting his orange hair. “You were always such a kind soul.”
“Zoop, zoop,” Zooper says quietly, nuzzling her cheek with his yellow nose.
“Do you remember the first time?” She asks, still laughing. “You didn’t look much like you did at the end.”
Arthur winces at the reminder of why they’ve come.
“What did I look like?” Zooper asks.
“You didn’t have a nose, for one. And your hair wasn’t as bright. I used wool from one of my mother’s shawls. I got in so much trouble for that! But she saw how much I loved you and didn’t tell father.”
“Where is that Zooper now?” Arthur asks gently.
“Oh, he’s around here somewhere,” she says, now closer to her current age. Her fingers go to her mouth and her eyes grow distant. “He was just here, wasn’t he?”
“It’s okay,” Zooper says quickly. “I’m here with you.”
“You always are, dear,” Karen says, patting his blue cheek. “But I can’t have forgotten…”
“It’s really fine, I don’t need to see him,” Arthur tries, wanting to take it all back.
“Oh!” she cries, pushing to her feet like the younger woman she was a moment ago. “Of course I remember, how could I not? When the men from the museum came they wanted him, but I said no, they could have any other Zooper but him. He was my first.”
The far wall of the cottage transforms as Karen reaches it. Gone are the bright primary colours and in their place is the garishly cheerful wallpaper of her bedroom. She thumps the top of the vanity Arthur’s body is sitting in front of and a section of the wood drops down from the bottom. Inside is faded blue felt and a slash of curly, orange wool.
Seven minutes after they entered the dream, Arthur is pulling out his line and turning around to smack the top of the vanity. Sure enough, the original Zooper is there, smelling of mothballs and the memory of Karen’s perfume. Eames tucks her arm back under the sheets and presses a kiss to her brow.
Four minutes after that they’re making their way out the front door. Eames’ car is four blocks away, on the edge of the subdivision. Eames opens the door for him and Arthur presses a kiss to his lips before sliding into the leather seat.
“She’s lovely,” Arthur says once Eames is pulling away from the curb.
“Your buyer doesn’t deserve Zooper.”
“Not in the least,” Eames agrees.
Arthur turns to look at him. “So what do we do?”
Eames stops for a red light and meets Arthur’s eyes over the top of his ridiculous aviators. “Let’s go home, darling.”
Arthur smiles and rests his hand along the back of Eames’ neck. “Drive on, Mr. Eames.”