Toe-tally Mildew

About a six weeks ago I flew into Orlando for a non-magic related convention. I'd been on the plane for seven hours with a single brief stop in one of America's many cookie-cutter-can't-tell-what-city-this-is hub airports. It had been a long day and I was looking forward to a nice soak in a hot tub and turning in early at the Orlando Hyatt.

I jumped off the plane and zipped down to the baggage claim area to grab my single item of checked luggage. Walking past one of the claim carousels, I happened to notice a very travel-worn ATA case coming my way. It was badly bruised and showed several layers of paint in various stages of distress, but had a bright new green-on-purple vinyl sticker that read "Totally Mildew!"

I lost voluntary control of my legs at that point -- they just pivoted and began running away from the case, leaving my head still pointing in the direction of that horrible auspice. After a moment I realized that, although my legs were still running, I had only moved a couple feet before something had impeded my forward motion. It turned out to be two somethings: a post that held up the roof, and a slightly built man sandwiched between the aforementioned post and myself. Yes, the man was wearing plaid pants. I had run directly into Flash Mildew and the post he was leaning on.

Although his face was pressed quite firmly into my chest, Flash was able to speak a muffled greeting, "Ah, good friend! Perhaps you would like to share a taxi into town?" My higher brain centers had regained tentative control of my actions. Unfortunately, curiosity overpowered my still recovering logic long enough to force my mouth to blurt out, "I've got a car."

The ATA case that started this encounter was one of seven such bulky cuboids. They were simply not going to fit into the Nissan Sentra I had reserved for my purposes -- but the rental agency had a small van available for a price not much higher than what they might have asked for a 12 cylinder Italian sports car. The phrase "into town" also had a hidden danger, as Mr. Mildew had not specified which town. The town turned out to be Sarasota; about 130 miles to the southwest, where I was to drop Mr. Mildew off at a place called "Ugly Bobs Bait Shop and Package Liquor Emporium".

The sun had dropped below the flat Floridian horizon and I was actually enjoying the drive into the fading twilight. Flash, who had apparently been asleep in the navigator's seat since our departure from the airport more than an hour ago, suddenly sat erect and then hurled himself into the back of the van and rummaged around in the cases. I was not terribly worried as I had the option of driving across the highway median and into an on-coming semi-truck if things started to go badly.

"You're gonna love this!" he said. I saw by the dim green glow from the dash lights that he had removed his jacket and was putting on an odd vest. He then reached into another case, whereupon there was the unmistakable sound of a pop-top beverage can opening, followed by furious activity involving small items from that same case. His jacket went back on, and he stepped back into his front-row seat, a beer in his hand.

"Thought this up myself!" He grinned wildly in the diffuse lighting. He pulled back the jacket to reveal a vest made of heavy material. All over the front of the vest were what I took to be jumbo thumb tips, dangling open-end upward. A pair of wires entered each tip, and the wires converged at a small numeric keypad low on the right side of the vest. I thought I saw a hint of movement at the top of one of the tips.

"What's in all the thumb tips?" I asked ingenuously.

"Not thumb tips. Toes. Mannequin toes. Met a guy who makes mannequins for novelty entertainment purposes. Ordered too many toes. Got these cheap. Free actually. Bigger! More room! Great, huh?"

"OK, so what's with the toes?"

An even larger grin spread across his face. He took a long drag on the can and set it in the holder. "I call it 'Any Live Bait Called For'. Got a wad of flash cotton in the bottom of each of the toes. Waterproofed. They're all wired up to the control pad over here. It used to be a Mac keyboard 'til I had it sawed it in half."

I definitely saw a feeler stick out of one toe for a moment, and a salamander peeked out of another. My eyes opened wider, and my mouth must have dropped a bit.

He continued, "So I cram a different bait in each toe. The spectator calls out any live bait they want, I pivot to my left, hit the corresponding button and it pops out like a reverse topit right into my hand."

Matching his words, he twisted around to profile and extended his left hand out into the air in front of him. His right hand dropped to his side and...

"Damn! Battery's dead. Takes a lot of juice. No sweat..."

Mildew jerked the beer can out of the holder and dumped it on the floor. He popped out the cigarette lighter with his left hand and simultaneously ripped the wires out of the keypad and jammed them into the lighter socket with his right. I never had a chance do more than inhale before...

** BLINDING FLASH ** "Whoomp!"

I couldn't see a damned thing and there was a sticky wetness all across my face. I stood on the brakes and tried to remember which direction "straight" was. The van fetched up against a guardrail designed to keep motorists from becoming alligator food, and an ATA case bounced hard off my shoulder.

My eyes started to recover from the flash, but something wasn't right: it was too dark in the van. No light came from the dash or thru where the windows should have been. I reached out past the steering wheel and touched something hard, but covered with a cool, granular, slimy film. Wiping some of goo to one side, I got a little light into the cab. The entire inner surface of the van was coated with -- my mind struggled to put events into logical order -- "live bait smoothie".

The mannequin toes must have been made of a cellulose material that had turned unstable during long storage. When Flash stuffed the wires into the lighter socket, all the cotton went off at once and set off a chain reaction in the toes. The various worms, crustaceans, minnows, amphibians, and lesser invertebrates packed into those phalanges of death were homogenized in a millisecond and sprayed across the interior of the van in an expanding cloud of gubbins that now covered every glass, vinyl, and human surface inside the van. I suspect that a certain amount of Mildew was also in the mix.

I wiped the dome light clear and clicked it on. I could see Mildew's feet sticking up out of the footwell and resting on the seat. I grabbed and pulled. Not much remained of his jacket or vest, and the goo that covered him was lightly steaming.

The van was mechanically undamaged. After a minute or two of scraping slime from the inside of the windshield with a credit card I made a beeline for the hospital in Tampa. The only sign of life from Flash came when he licked his lips free of the puree and murmured approvingly.

Death always seems to be looking away from Mr. Mildew (wouldn't you?); he has recovered nicely. The doctors think that the layer of liquefied lower animal gunk provided an instant skin graft that was too close to Flash's own genetic makeup for his immune system to argue with.

The boys down at Ugly Bob's made up a new vest for Flash with non-flammable toes. He's doing three shows a day over by the live bait wells. The gig plays thru February. If the shop's closed, you can usually find him molesting the manatees out in the bay.

Oh... if you are brave enough to "test the vest" and call out a bait -- DO NOT request the "tube worm". Trust me on this.