Dear Readers, At last I do no need to apologize for an extended period of blogging silence. Instead, I point you to the links for any necessary review, and happily introduce the closing chapter of what has been a most enjoyable story to write.
“Don't!” shouted the sweet-smelling blacksuit, and he held up his hands, fingers splayed wide to display at least a dozen rings. The Ringmaker, his own hands halfway out from behind his back, froze, eyes widening.
“I don't know what these would do and I don't care,” growled the blacksuit, “but each of us can rub ten or twenty at a time, and one of those is bound to do something unpleasant. So you will stand there and do nothing while we take each and every ring from your fingers.”
Nathanael eyed Graybeard, then looked down at his own pocket. Graybeard tilted his head in acknowledgment and cleared his throat.
“You know,” he began, and then cowered back as the blacksuits turned their wands and rings on him, “I said, you know,” he began more quietly, “I always thought you were overdressed – sunglasses and coats inside -- but this, well gaudy perfume is just embarrassing!”
The smelly blacksuit's cheek twitched.
“I don't know, Graybeard,” smiled Georgie in her sweetest voice, gesturing hyperbolically, “It's such a delicate fragrance, so elegant, so ostentatious! Where did you get it?”
One of the blacksuits coughed. The aromatic leader turned to eye his compatriot with a gaze even darker than his glasses, then turned back to Georgie. “You will regret that,” he rumbled, and stepped towards her.
Georgie stepped to meet him, jaw clamped angrily.
Nathanael's hand had been sliding ever-so-gently towards his pocket. Now it dove in and found the ring. Graybeard, seeing the blacksuits completely distracted by Georgie, grabbed his and rubbed it for good measure.
At first Graybeard thought the sound overhead was popcorn, but after a moment he realized it was the rapidly swelling chords of jazz music. A table and two chairs, containing a large pizza and a radio playing jazz, Miss Doris, and the Cabbie, respectively, crashed to the ground around them. Two blacksuits were pinned by the table. The smell of garlicky crust filled the warehouse as popcorn began to accumulate on the bill of the cabbie's flatcap.
Nathanael found himself nose to nose with the cabbie, who had apparently been standing up to get another piece of pizza. “Ya tries to have a date, jus'a nice simple date, and whaddaya get?” the cabbie asked Nathanael.
Nathanael was opening his mouth to answer when the blacksuits interrupted him with an indescribably miserable howling.
“Garlic!” Georgie heard the leader choke out, grasping for his throat, and then he was gone into the darkness. The others followed, except for the one unfortunate enough to land under Miss Doris' chair. The fairy secretary leaned over upside down, brandishing a garlicy crust in one hand, and began explaining exactly how many ways she could vaporize him.
“Well done, Georgie!” Graybeard grinned in excitement as the Blacksuits staggered away. “You had them thoroughly distracted.”
“I wasn't trying to distract them,” Georgie's face flashed between grin and glower, “I was just mad.”
“Whaddis goin on here!” yelled the cabbie, once the howling had died away into the dark.
“Sorry to call you like that,” explained Nathanael, tipping his hat and slipping out from between the table the the cabbie, “but, you see, we were under considerable duress.”
“And we need to take a look at all the rings you were given for the frequent user's special. Unless, of course,” he turned to the Ringmaker, “the proper ring was one of these two,” he held up his own ring, and motioned with his other hand to Graybeard's.
“The Incomparable Ring of the Magic Taxi? And The Popcorn Shower Circle? No, definitely not. Neither of these will be of any ultimate use against the blacksuits.”
“All we need,” exclaimed Georgie, exasperated, “is a ring of garlic!”
“Well, we, er, got rid of that one,” the Ringmaker raised his hand as if to scratch his head, but thought better of it. “There were too many complaints from users, even after we started marketing it as the Ring of Ensured Seclusion from All But the Severely Olfactorily Challenged.”
During this conversation the cabbie had eaten two more slices of pizza and washed them down from a bottle of beer. Now, grumbling, he snapped his fingers, at which gesture his taxi fell from somewhere above them and bounced on the floor a few feet from where they were all gathered. By the time everyone had climbed up from the floor, where they had hurled themselves in an effort to avoid being squashed, the cabbie had restored his stogie to its familiar position between his lips, and retrieved the container of rings from the taxicab.
“Why would you do that?” asked Nathanael, as he, Graybeard, and the Ringmaker went over to investigate the rings.
“Yes, you could have killed someone!” agreed Graybeard.
“No,” Nathanael interrupted the Cabbie's “whaddya mean...” by explaining, “I meant, Mr. Ringmaker, why on Earth – or, in this case, why on this particularly ridiculous world -- would you destroy the only ring sure to repel the blacksuits? How could you be so foolish?”
The Ringmaker wilted under Nathanael's remonstrations. “It was going to be a hard fight either way and we...the Council of Wise Fairy Tale Characters (we call it 'Cwyftyc' for short)...decided that we might stand a better chance of being sent some good users to help us if we put ourselves into an extra dire state.”
“I'm afraid not. There were some protests from the grandfatherly wing about the ethics of putting everyone more at risk to try to trigger some kind of happy fate, but the arch-villain party insisted this was a partisan argument and that in times like these we had to reach across the aisle.”
“You must have access to C-SPAN,” muttered Nathanael.
“As a matter of fact we do. Now, this ring here is capable of turning any food in any world into chicken....”
While the Ringmaker examined the rings and the cabbie stood with his arms crossed, puffing his stogie and glaring at the darkness surrounding them, Georgie went to talk to Miss Doris, who now had the blacksuit waiting upon her, though there was not much for him to do, since she was already within reach of the pizza and her bottled water.
“I love what you've done with your wings,” ventured Georgie, smiling boldly as she eyed Miss Doris' delicate wings, on which were painted curly-cues and flowers in shades of turquoise and aquamarine.
“Turn down the ra-di-o!” shouted the fairy to the blacksuit, then, her grimace of command changing to a sweet smile, “Awww, thanks deary,” she replied to Georgie's compliment. “The cabbie tells me you go to school. Whaddaya wanna be?”
“...and this one,” the Ringmaker said, “is the Temperature Indicator of Good and Bad Jokes,” he shook the empty can and his head. “None of these! None of these!” he once again made as if to rub his head, getting his hat off this time before realizing what he was doing and whipping his hands behind his back. The cabbie examined his floorboards with a shrug.
Nathanael stopped tapping his chin with the head of his umbrella. “I say, cabbie....”
Benjamin Dobbs stretched and yawned. He'd wasted most of the last half hour gazing emptily at the sunset out the window. Now it was dark and his head, which had started hurting hours ago, was beginning to protest loudly. The last students had passed through after dinner. A study group had formed at one of the tables, so he had moved to one of the couches beneath the television, books spread heavy and hot across his legs. His notebook was a mess of scribbled and many-times-erased calculus.
There was a presidential press conference on the news. He frowned at the screen, trying to discern from the cryptic statements on the ticker what was the current crisis. The president himself was no help, having paused to sneeze. Benjamin couldn't help but smile as the sneezing continued and intensified. How embarrassing, Benjamin though, allergies acting up on live tv.
Benjamin cocked his head and frowned. The president's sneezing was exceptionally powerful and constant. But even as Benjamin thought so, the president stopped, gasping for breath and pulling a handkerchief out of his pocket. Benjamin relaxed and sat back.
The sneezing recommenced.
Benjamin stopped to watch. The sneezing stopped.
He shook his head dismissively and looked down, pulling his ring out of his pocket where he had been absent-mindedly playing with it. The sneezing began again.
Benjamin wondered. He held the ring still. The president stopped sneezing, shoulders now heaving, aides whispering to each other in the background.
Benjamin rubbed the ring. The president sneezed.
Benjamin ignored his buzzing cell phone and repeated the test.
The president sneezed to the beat of Mission: Impossible before Benjamin believed it. He examined his ring closely, looked up at the televised view of the conference room, then back down at the ring. The tiny symbol against the background banner was indeed the presidential seal of the United States of America.
He glanced at his phone as it began to ring a second time. Seeing who it was, he snatched it up.
“My ring makes the president sneeze!”
“Really?” Graybeard asked intensely “(it makes the president sneeze!)” Benjamin heard him call.
“Listen, Benjamin,” we think your ring is the key to solving our problems. We're not sure how yet, just rub it and don't stop.”
“How would it help? The president looks pretty worn out, anyway...”
“Just rub it! Now!”
Benjamin closed his mouth and began rubbing.
“You really think it's the one, Ringmaker?” Graybeard inquired, covering the mouthpiece of his cellphone.
“There can be no doubt,” the Ringmaker said enthusiastically.
“But it makes the president sneeze.”
“Yes, it does at that.”
“Who thought that one up?”
The Ringmaker stared at Graybeard, and a thoughtful gaze full of curiosity filled his face. “I can't quite recall...”
“Oh, it doesn't matter. I just can't believe my cell phone got through,” said Graybeard.
“Yes,” Nathanael chuckled, “I don't blame you, but you can never tell in fairy tales, I guess.”
“Hold on,” Graybeard put a hand to one ear as he listened to his phone. “Benjamin says the press conference is canceled; the president is being taken to detox. They think it's some sort of poison or terrorist plot or something...”
Far above them there was a thunderous crash. Sunlight and the roar of jet engines poured in as pieces of the roof plummeted to the ground. Several metallic craft sank through the hole towards them.
“More Blacksuits!” Graybeard growled.
“Ringmaker, anything you can do?” inquired Nathanael.
“I'll hold them off for as long as I can. You had better run. This is the climax, so I bid you farewell!” The Ringmaker tossed his light ring to Graybeard and disappeared into the darkness. Blacksuits were already zipping down ropes into the dark around them, and soon there was the sound and flash of thunderbolts from the direction the Ringmaker had gone.
There was a shrill scream from behind them. They all whipped around.
“Georgie!” yelled Graybeard and Nathanael.
“Doris!” yelled the cabbie.
They rushed towards the sounds of violence, Graybeard rubbing the light ring furiously.
Their run brought the blacksuit into view. He was face down on the floor, at the feet of Georgie and Doris, who stood laughing, arms around each other's shoulders like old friends.
“Sorry for screaming,” said Georgie.
“He tried to make a break for it!” explained Miss Doris indignantly. “We had to smack'im.”
“Let's go!” suggested Nathanael vehemently, starting for the light that was the trailer door.
“Bub,” said the cabbie, not moving, “if yous think yous can get out on yous feet, be my guest. I'll be takin t'cab.”
“But how will you get out of here?” Nathanael changed his course and once again they all piled into the cab.
“I'll take care of that!” the cabbie rumbled, opening the passenger door for Miss Doris. The three friends in the back seat raised their eyebrows as he gave her a hand in.
“The latest word is that the president's sneezing attack continues...” entoned the news anchor.
“This is one of those things,” commented a student, standing behind Benjamin to watch the television, “that you can't help but laugh at, but might not turn out to be funny. They're acting like he could be dying.”
The study group had ended when someone noticed the television reporting that the president was being taken for emergency medical treatment. Now a number of students were clustered around Benjamin who, with a rising sense of guilt, tried to hide his ring hand and furiously rubbing thumb from view.
“Graybeard!” he hissed into his phone, “this could hurt him! Why in the world am I supposed to be doing this?”
“Look!” Graybeard shouted back over the phone, “It's the Ringmaker!”
As the cab flashed past, they saw that the Ringmaker was surrounded by a half-dozen protective auras and waving his hands in desperate ring-rubbing combinations that sent fire, ice, grandfather clocks, sea turtles, and yogurt hurting into the line of advancing blacksuits. Behind the line roared their dropships, jet turbines turned Earthwards to maintain their altitude. Streaks of orange light burst from the pods on their wings, and everyone ducked their heads as the first of the rockets exploded, having been detonated by the materialization of a giant snow globe around it, presumably brought about by a wave of the Ringmaker's hand. Fragments of what had probably been models of Santa and his reindeer swirled furiously in the few moments it took the globe to plummet to the Earth.
“The door's too narrow!” shouted Graybeard, peeling his eyes away from the fight behind them.
“Just buckle yous seatbelts,” growled the cabbie, and swerved to the side as a rocket blew a crater in the ground in front of them. Miss Doris screamed.
Georgie sank down as far as she could into her seat, feeling very carsick.
Graybeard clung to the interior of the car and watched the trailer door approach.
Nathanael glanced back in time to see one of the rockets hurl the Ringmaker to the ground, and the blacksuits rush to surround him, wands flashing blue. Another rocket shot towards the cab.
The cabbie, watching in his side view mirror, swerved out of its path; then, as the rocket nosed into the ground where they had just been, he swung the wheel over so that the cab swerved into the explosion.
Expanding air and shrapnel batted the cab onto its side, and, sparks flying and metal shrieking, the vehicle shot out the narrow opening of the trailer door and fell the few feet to the warehouse floor, rotating around its front fender before crashing down on all four wheels again.
“Well,” said Georgie from where she sat squashed between Graybeard and Nathanael, “that's awkward.”
Nathanael muttered about diamonds and Roger Moore as Graybeard and Georgie clambered off of him.
Miss Doris did not clamber off of the cabbie, but clung to his shoulder, scolding him.
The cabbie grumbled defensively as he unsuccessfully tried to restart the cab. Shrapnel had eaten chunks out of its front, and smoke was pouring from the mangled hood.
“Graybeard? Graybeard?” Benjamin's concerned voice came muffled from the floorboards where the cell phone had fallen.
Two more dropships landed beside them. Black sunglasses peered into the windows.
Graybeard picked up his cell phone.
“Benjamin, tell my family I love them,” he said cheerfully, “better tell all our families.”
But the blacksuits reached to their earbuds, listeneing attentively. Then they turned away, climbing back into their dropships.
The dropships rose and hurtled away through blasted holes in the roof of the warehouse. Everything but the hissing of the radiator became very quiet.
“Why are they leaving?” asked Georgie.
“Guys? Guys? Graybeard, what's happening?” hissed Benjamin.
“We seem to be fine now,” replied Graybeard, looking inquisitively at Nathanael for answers. His friend shrugged and shook his head.
“What's going on there?”
“They've locked down the White House. They think it may be a biological attack of some kind...um...they're moving the vice president and the joint chiefs of staff...the military is on high alert...the Secret Service has all been called up to secure....to secure...” Benjamin's face lit up in understanding just as everyone else's did.
“They look just like Secret Service agents!” Georgie giggled.
“Of course!” Nathanael slapped his knee.
“No. Not 'of course'. Why would the blacksuits have anything to do with the Secret Service?” asked Graybeard. “Are they the Secret Service?”
“Well,” reasoned Nathanael, “they probably have their fingers in as many governements as they can get them. What better way to know the pulse of a nation than to infiltrate its upper level of security? And when they were all called up just now, because the president cannot stop sneezing, they had to call off their attack or be found out by the government; or rather, not found by the government, which would mean the same thing -- the end of their infiltration.”
“Seriously?” asked Georgie. “That sounds pretty unlikely.”
“Well,” said Nathanael sadly, “I don't think we'll be able to ask the Ringmaker. He was right about not living through the end of the story.”
“I suppose he was the Christ-figure,” murmured Graybeard.
“When I was talking to him, when you two were climbing into the trailer,” said Georgie, “he told me he had a wife and three kids. He said I could come babysit sometime and he would pay me with custom rings.” She sighed.
“You count as a frequent user now, deary!” Miss Doris leaned back and patted her on the shoulder, searching for some way to comfort her “You'll get a ring.”
Georgie smiled politely back, but a sad silence still clung to them as they watched the cabbie work under the hood.
“And then!” Nathanael could hardly contain his laughter, “the cabbie gets back in the cab, starts it up, turns to Miss Doris, and says 'Whaddya say wes gets married, Doris?'”
The friends' table in the Great Hall erupted with astonished laughter. Benjamin leaned in to make himself heard.
“What did she say?”
Georgie took up the baton as Nathanael leaned back in his chair. “She slaps him,” she paused for a roar of laughter, “says 'Cabbie! Not in fronnadda fare!', takes off his hat, and gives him a big kiss.”
“She said she would invite me to the wedding!” she concluded proudly, as the laughter finally died down and the friends wiped the tears from their eyes.
“So we get to keep the rings?” Benjamin asked. “I still feel bad about mine. It took hours for everyone to calm down about the president.”
“I wouldn't worry too much,” Nathanael reassured him, “they're talking about giving him a Guinness world record for longest sneezing fit, and the news channels had their highest ratings this year,” he broke into a chuckle.
“I wish I'd gotten a ring,” Sheep said.
“You can have this one!” Graybeard handed it across the table, “I don't like popcorn, and I have the light ring anyway.”
“Thanks!” Sheep glanced around at the other tables and rubbed the ring enough to bring a few scattered kernels falling around them. He laughed “this could be great in the middle of class.”
“Well,” said Graybeard, “since this is a fairy tale there has to be a moral.”
“Don't use taxis?” chortled Nathanael, buttering his dinner roll.
“Don't stay home from a fairy world adventure to do homework?” suggested Graybeard, and Benjamin rolled his eyes.
“I know, I know. Next time I'll come, ok?”
“Good!” Graybeard nodded approvingly. “Now I'm going to get dessert, and when I get back I want to know what you all think. Was what they did ethical – the fairy council, I mean?”
“Creating a situation so bad that we would get drawn into it? Hmmm.” Nathanael fell into deep thought.
“I've got to go, guys,” Georgie smiled at them all as she stood. “It's been great.”
“Georgie,” Nathanael looked up from his thoughts to ask. “You said the cabbie let you pick a frequent user ring. What did you get?
Georgie grinned. “I don't think I want to tell anyone yet; you'll find out eventually.” she left in the middle of a chorus of disapproval and goodbyes.
Graybeard sat down with his milkshake. “So,” he said.
“So,” replied Nathanael, “there's a limited number of options when we're dealing with...”
The two philosophers argued ethics for some while, until finally Nathanael raised both hands with an air of finality. “Look, all I can say is that I'll be quite happy if no one ever puts a magic ring in my breakfast again.”
“Oh, I don't know,” laughed Benjamin, “it sounds like it was a lot of fun, and they were right, you know, you did save them.
“For now!” corrected Nathanael sternly, a finger and an eyebrow raised in caution. “We saved them for now! We never know when they'll come barging in again.” He glanced slyly at Graybeard, who was gazing thoughtfully past him, and, leaning across the table, drank his milkshake.
"I have held many things in my hands, and I have lost them all; but whatever I have placed in God's hands, that I still possess." -Martin Luther