My superhero costume sent electric tingles through my body when I stepped through the secret door in Drew Kirby's closet. The tail piece of the spandex suit, ordinarily stiff and bulky, seemed lighter. Its fur stood on end like a child with his hands on a Van De Graaff generator. The squirrel ears on my head wiggled as if alive.
The slight brush of by boyfriend's body against the tail, and the vibrations of his voice, set off new waves of tingling. "What is this place?"
I slowed my breathing, focusing on my dusty surroundings: Cobwebby antique canopy bed, sagging double dresser, filthy old fashioned full length mirror. "This place is unsexy, but my squirrel sense is going crazy!"
Nick laughed. "Squirrel Woman doesn't have a squirrel sense. She's not Spiderman."
I scowled at his ridiculous puff sleeve princess dress. "Yeah? Well Princess Peach shaves her legs. I'm telling you, I'm getting some kinda, I don't know, Spider tingle from this place. All my hair feels like it's standing up!"
"What, you think Mrs. Kirby lent you a magic costume or something?"
I shivered. "I don't know. The way the man disappeared, I'm starting to wonder if magic did have something to do with it."
This made him chuckle some more. "I think the party and all that comic book stuff in this mansion is getting to your head."
I crossed my arms indignantly, making my suit purr. "Or maybe we've found a clue to his disappearance!"
I strolled up to the mirror, the creaking of my costume deafening in the quiet room.
A charcoal pencil sketch of an evil cat glared at me from the wall beside the wooden frame. Nasty looking four fingered paws clutched a cartoon mouse between two slices of bread with an olive and all the fixings.
The tingling sensation came on stronger now., pulsing through me like a wave. With a shuddering breath, I put my hand to the wall.
My outfit blazed with a bright pastel brown, unnatural for such dingy surroundings. The pulsating waves got so strong that my legs trembled, and I had to lean on the wall for support.
My boyfriend rushed to my side. "Ash! You all right?"
"Y-yeah," I gasped. "Fine."
"Whoa." His eyes bugged out. "That is...amazing! It's not digging holes into your skin or drilling your brain or anything, is it?"
I shook my head, letting out a breathy giggle. "You and those horror movies!"
He took out his phone, setting it up for a picture, then frowned at the screen. "Crap. The battery just went from ninety nine percent to zero in one second."
When I checked my own, I found it likewise dead. "Well, shit. So much for photographic evidence."
"What's it feel like?"
"Uh," I moaned. "It doesn't feel like anything."
"It doesn't feel like I'm wearing anything."
He slid a hand down my back. "It feels like...plastic film..."
I opened my mouth to say something about his hand being on my booty, but then the drawing on the wall moved.
Unlike all those Tom and Jerry shows I'd seen as a kid, the cat actually ate the mouse, and it stayed eaten. Gore dripped from the cat's mouth.
We both laughed, uneasily. Although fun to wish for the cat to win for once, we didn't expect a cartoon from The Twilight Zone. I think we were both close to screaming.
"Moving on..." I stammered, removing my hand from the wall.
My boyfriend marched past me, examining another cat drawing, this one in a hyperrealistic style.
The moment my hand touched the charcoal, an orange ball of hair exploded from the wall with a frightened meow, knocking me back on my ass.
A real cat.
Just jumped out of the wall.
The creature bolted from the room like its tail was on fire.
"I'm not sure where to begin," Nick said. "How did it get in there? How long was it in there? What did it live on? Whose cat is it? Was it real before you touched the wall, or did you make it real when you touched it?"
I rubbed my chin thoughtfully. "God, I hope there's no people in there!"
A still life decorated the corner section of the wall. With caution, I poked it with my finger, and found it going through like the wallpaper were water.
My hand touched something smooth. When it came out again, I held crystal bowl filled with apples, oranges and a banana.
On impulse, I took a bite of an apple, but immediately spit it out. "Wax."
"I think a real one would have rotted away by now."
"Yeah? What about that cat?"
Shrugging, Nick pointed to a sketch above an end table. "Hey, try your magic on that one."
"Why don't you try one?"
He tugged on his puff sleeves. "Sadly, this doesn't give me any Super Mario abilities. I have to rely on you for the special effects."
"How about we trade costumes?"
Even in the dim lighting, I could see him blushing. "You...look way better in that outfit. Better than I ever would."
"Damn straight," I snickered. "For that, I'll keep supplying the special effects."
We stared at the drawing.
A closed window.
When my hand touched the sketch, the window gained definition, projecting from the wall like a real window, the frame wooden and varnished.
Nothing larger than a dog's head could fit through the opening, but it seemed to have enough depth for a real object to be tossed through it.
Through the glass, we viewed a scene straight out of The Smurfs cartoon. Little mushroom shaped huts with polka dotted roofs and crooked chimneys. Although none of those trademarked characters made an appearance, the clouds moved, the grass waved in the breeze, and across the way animated steam rose from a pie in someone's window.
Above the pillows, we came across something even stranger: A realistic drawing of a folder, with an army stamp and serial number across the tab.
Operation Blackout, it read.
The battered tan piece of card stock came out at my touch, and I could flip through the papers: A dossier about a midget sized German scientist from World War II who invented a bomb that operated on the principles of string theory.
A monochrome photograph showed a bald little man with large round glasses writing equations on a chalkboard. It seemed he'd been a colleague of Einstein.
Operation Blackout itself appeared to be a sort of EMF weapon designed to disable all electrical devices within a ten mile radius of enemy territory.
The bomb didn't quite do what they thought. Electronic devices remained in operation. A black and white television oddly displayed a color picture, but they dismissed it as a distortion brought on by heat damage.
A weird part: The bomb caused unnatural glowing in a set of railroad spikes discovered at the blast site. An attached note described how touching a spike to a blueprint caused "hallucinations" of the building growing in three dimensions from the paper.
The next section: Detailed sketches, cityscapes, building interiors, cars, and several pieces of paper filled with scrawled handwriting...in German.
A blueprint of a missile, along with a complicated formula I couldn't decipher. Several key portions had been clipped out with a scissors for some reason.
I handed the packet to my boyfriend. "This reads like Project Blue Book conspiracy shit, but I just pulled it out of a drawing on a wall..."
Nick furrowed his brow as he thumbed through the pages. "You think Mr. Kirby owned one of those...spikes?"
"Your guess is as good as mine!"
A few feet down from the folder, we found a life sized drawing of a door. Like everything else in the room, it responded to my touch, this item materializing into a flat shaded unnaturally lit image with a large bulbous knob and a small keyhole.
We both tried pulling on the thing, turning the knob back and forth, but it only stretched the door like taffy.
The moment we stopped trying, a mouth and a pair of googly eyes appeared on its surface, looking rather bored.
"Where's the key, buddy?" it said.
"Key?" I stammered.
"Mmm hmm," the door replied, its large eyes bugging out as they traveled up and down my body.
The mouth let out a wolf whistle, then disappeared.
The eyes, giving me a wink, also vanished an instant later.
"Well," I groaned, hands on my hips. "A key. Where would I find that?"
Nick chuckled. "It's a cartoon. And it digs you. Maybe you can just, you know, sit on its face or something?"
The door was only a drawing now, but I could pretty well guess its reaction.
I glared at my boyfriend. "No way. I'm not whoring out my body just to get into cartoon land."
"Fine. Let's keep looking around. Maybe we'll find something."
We found musty moth eaten clothing in the dressers. Sweaters and slacks. Kind of frumpy college professor type stuff.
It amused me to find garters in there. The owner, I guess, lived in an era where men wore such things all the time, maybe because they didn't have elastic in their socks or something.
Nick found monogrammed handkerchiefs, but no keys.
I, in the meantime, had opened a nightstand, setting a bible aside to dig around underneath.
When my hand came out, I held a glowing gun.
I pointed it at the wardrobe, pulling the trigger.
In a flash, a cartoon toilet plunger popped out, blasting across the room.
The plunger suckered onto the side of the wardrobe, then, without warning, the gun retracted the rope, flinging me headfirst into the wood paneling.
At the moment of impact, a cluster of tweeting bluebirds circled my head. "Nick! Are you seeing this? I'm getting little birdies!"
"Yeah. I see them, all right."
One of the birds checked out my cleavage and gave a low whistle.
"Damn, wish my phone worked."
The birds flew in lower circles, landing on my breasts. I giggled.
Another whistled, then a larger one, strangely enough, went "Rrrow," causing the other birds to stare at him.
It just shrugged its wings, as if to say, `What.'
I held out a finger, and one perched on it, whistling that little ditty they keep whistling on The Hunger Games.
The second hopped higher on my finger, chirping the instrument line to Rockin' Robin.
The large one hopped on my knuckle, whistling Patience by Guns N' Roses.
Again, it got stared at.
"Are those the Car-X birds?" Nick asked.
I squinted at them. "I...don't know."
The birds turned around to stare at me, cocking their heads in puzzlement, pointing blue wing tips at their little breasts.
Then the fat one sang, "Save a bundle with your Car-X man!" in a deep baritone.
I smacked my head. "Oh great. Just what we need. Animated commercial sponsors brought to life."
On cue, an orange head popped out of the wardrobe, yelling, "Ya-hoo! I'm kookoo for Cocoa Puffs!"
The door slammed shut an instant later.
"Isn't this great?" I giggled as the birds hopped back on my cleavage.
"You're...just going to let those things sit there?"
I gave him a look that seemed to say `Are you kidding.' "They're animated, and they're cute. Have you ever had something animated sitting on your breasts?"
"Well, uh, no," Nick admitted.
The smallest bird stuck out its tongue at him.
Seeing the edge of a drawing behind a nightstand, I pointed. "What's that?"
"It's a little dresser."
"No, I mean, I see something behind it."
We pulled the nightstand back and found a drawing of a safe.
"I feel like I'm playing Paper Mario," Nick muttered.
"Well, you are dressed like Princess Peach..."
"`You do me a solid, I do you a solid.'*"
That comment went way over my head. "What?"
"Kingdom Hospital. Never mind."
I knelt in front of the drawing, touching my hand to the wall. The safe materialized in real life, but I couldn't open it. It required a combination.
"Great. What are we going to do with that?"
"The more important question is why that folder was out here when it could have been stored inside this safe?"
"I don't know. Maybe because people don't normally put on spandex costumes and pull drawings off walls?"
Shaking my head, I turned the dial.
Unfortunately, when both my hands left the wall, the safe snapped back like a spring, becoming a drawing again. "That's funny. I didn't have a problem when I was looking at that folder..."
"Maybe the folder was real to start with, and the safe is animated. You were touching the wall those other times. Need some help?"
I brought the object back out of the wall. "Do you even know how to crack a safe?"
Nick shook his head. "But it's a cartoon safe. It shouldn't be that hard, should it?"
I paused and thought a minute. "Generally, cartoon safes are opened by dropping them out windows."
"Oh no. If we do it that way, we'll probably send someone to the Emergency Room."
"Why? It's not a real safe."
"What about that toilet plunger gun? Did hitting that closet feel good?"
"Not...especially," I admitted. "But I got birdies!"
"Do you want someone's corpse with birdies around it?"
"Okay, okay," I groaned. "Point taken."
The moment Nick touched the knob, the birds fluttered off my breasts, perching on the safe.
"To everything, turn, turn, turn, turn," the largest bird sang.
"That's ironic," Nick said.
"You think it's a hint?"
"I'm not sure I'd read that far into it."
When he turned the dial, the bird sang again. "I turn right, then I turn around, turn left, then I turn around, turning, and turning, and stop."
"I guess it is a hint," I muttered.
When Nick turned the dial right, the big one sang The Loneliest Number by Three Dog Night, so he put it on 1. He turned it left, and the bird sang a jazz song entitled Sixteen Different Ways. Turning right yielded "When I was twenty one, it was a very good year..."
After a few more games of musical numbers, the door popped open.
A stack of paper bills, all bearing the likeness of Daffy Duck, Bugs Bunny and Mickey Mouse lay neatly stacked on the top shelf, along with, several blueprints, including the missing squares from the ones in the folder. Below it: Blueprints for devices whose purpose I couldn't fathom, including a modified version of the missile, a real handgun, complete with holster and bullets, and a wallet stuffed with vintage currency.
Nick pocketed the wallet, threw the rest of the stuff on the bed. "Interesting, but totally unrelated to Drew Kirby."
"Are you absolutely certain?"
"And no key?"
I got up, pulling back the other end table.
"Here!" I laughed, holding aloft a jangling key ring.
When we stuck the key in the cartoon door, the keyhole chewed on it, bit it off the ring, and swallowed it. "Delicious."
I crossed my arms. "Okay, door, you've had your fun! Open sesame time!"
"Fine, fine. You may pass." The door swung open.
Strangely enough, it turned into a real door when this happened.
We stared a painting of a dark alleyway, where a blue animated cat with a bandaged tail dug fish bones out of a garbage can.
I stuck out my hand to touch the picture, but I only encountered air. "This has got to be it. Drew Kirby probably got so obsessed with his cartooning power that he walked into this place and never came back out."
Nick didn't look so sure. "Are you positive that's what happened?"
I jumped through the doorway, clomping down the illustration of pavement.
When he didn't come along, I grabbed him by the collar of his dress, pulling him across the threshold.
The door slammed shut behind us.
"Uh, Ashley?" Nick stammered. ""Even if we do find this guy, could you answer me just one question?"
"How the hell are we going to get out!"