This was the story I wrote during Viable Paradise (my “horror-that-was-Thursday” story).
My classmates liked it! Steven Brust liked it!
All the markets I submitted it to sent it zinging back with polite little “nope, sorry, not for us” notes.
So it goes.
That means you get to read it here!
The prompt involved a grab-bag draw, from which I received a red foam-rubber clown nose, and asked us to write a story about a future in which a thing that is presently legal has been banned…
“The Fun Police”
by Kellan Sparver
It was early afternoon on a Thursday. The blinds were mostly closed. The light coming through them was wet and grey.
The office was still too bright for my hangover. I was nursing it with a glass of water, my third of the day. It wasn’t helping.
The bell above the door rang as it opened.
The client was short and skinny. College-aged, maybe, a kid really. His hair was trimmed short on the sides and spiked long on top, or it would have been if it hadn’t been wet. He was wearing a small backpack and a cheap poncho that were both soaked with rain. The poncho was pretty shapeless, but the wet plastic clung to his body, such as it was. I admired the effect through half-closed lids and coughed.
He wrinkled his nose. “What’s that smell?”
“What smell?” I asked.
“That… smell,” he said. He was trying to be helpful.
“Cigarette smoke,” I said.
He looked at me like I had just told him I kill kittens on the weekends.
“Cigarette smoke?” he asked.
“That’s what it is,” I said.
“Do you smoke?” he asked. He reached for the door like he might bolt if he didn’t like the answer and stared at the turret arm on the smoke detector as though it was a gun pointed at his head. Then again it pretty much was.
“Do you kill kittens on the weekends?” I asked.
“Do you kill kittens on the weekends?” I asked.
“No! Of course not!” he said.
“Then, no, I don’t smoke,” I said.
“Then why does it smell like cigarette smoke in here?” he asked.
“The same reason it usually does,” I said.
He looked at me in pure confusion. I took pity on his lost soul and led him to salvation.
“I used to smoke in here,” I said. “Before the Fun Laws got passed.”
“Oh,” he said.
Quitting had been fun, like whips and chains kind of fun. Not really my style, despite the reputation.
“So how can I help you?” I asked. I forced my eyelids open enough that I could get a good bead on him.
“Oh!” he said. “Right. So, uh… you do missing persons, right?” He said it just exactly like that, “do missing persons,” not “find missing people.” That right there was a worry.
“It depends what you want done,” I said.
“Huh?” he said.
“What do you want me to do to them?” I asked.
“Oh! Find them, I mean. I want someone found,” he said.
That was better. He had probably just watched one too many private eye shows. An occupational hazard, in this line of work.
“What’s your name, kid?” I asked.
“I’m Darren Schurman,” he said.
“And who do you want found, Darren?” I asked.
“I want you to find my ex-boyfriend,” he said.
“You want me to find your ex-boyfriend,” I said. I raised my eyebrows. Then I had to squeeze my eyes shut as the light stabbed them.
“Please,” he said. “You have to help me!”
“Calm down,” I said. “Why do you want to find your ex-boyfriend?” I asked. I opened my eyes to slits. I needed to watch his eyes as he answered.
“Because I haven’t seen him in days, and I think he’s in trouble,” he said. There was no tension in his gaze.
“Why do you think that?” I asked.
His face got red, and he looked down. “Well, because he was mixed up in some… stuff.”
“Was that why you broke up with him?” I asked.
He sniffled. “Yeah,” he said.
“What kind of stuff was he mixed up in?” I asked.
“It’s… embarrassing,” he said.
“Embarrassing? Or illegal?” I asked.
“Both,” he said. He sniffled again.
This was hard work. My patience was running low. I snapped at him. “Look, kid, if you don’t tell me what he was mixed up in, I can’t help you find him. I won’t know where to start,” I said.
“All… all right,” he said. He sniffled again.
I pulled a tissue out of the box on my desk and handed it to him.
“Thanks,” he said. I winced as he blew his nose noisily.
He hesitated. Then the words came tumbling out of him. “I think he was a clown,” he said, and broke down in tears.
I had to pull out my second tissue box before I was all finished mopping the kid up.
“Are you ready to go on?” I asked him. He nodded.
“What makes you think your boyfriend was a clown?” I asked.
He sniffled again. I was worried he would start crying again, but he held it together.
“Well, so, I found this drawer he had in his room, right?” he said. “And he had this pile of makeup and stuff. Like, stage makeup, not makeup makeup.”
I closed my eyes. “Makeup isn’t a crime. Did he wear makeup regularly?”
“No! That’s just it! And this one time I found him practicing hand-walking in the quad at school.”
That got me to open my eyes. “All right, that’s a little odd. Anything else?”
“And he gave this… thing to me once. ‘For safe-keeping,’ he said.”
“What kind of ‘thing’?” I asked.
“This,” he said, and he pulled a red foam rubber ball out of his pocket. “It’s got a slit in it,” he said, “you can put it–” and he made like he was going to put it on.
“No!” I said, nearly knocking over my water glass as I stood up.
“What?” he asked, but he stopped with the ball two inches from his nose.
I glanced significantly at the turret on the ceiling. “It isn’t going to like that,” I said.
“What?” he said. He dropped his hand to his side, though. “The turret in my dorm didn’t activate when I tried it on there.”
“Your college got the expensive insurance policy,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. He wrinkled his nose.
“All right, so your boyfriend was a clown,” I said. I sat down heavily and took a deep swig of my water.
“And that would be why you haven’t taken this to the police,” I said.
Darren nodded. “I don’t want to get him in any trouble,” he said.
It was a little too late for that, really, but I didn’t want any more waterworks so I didn’t say anything.
“When did you last see him?” I asked.
“Two days ago,” he said.
“Where was he?” I asked.
“Well, he was in the dorm, but he said he was heading to this club he went to some times. The Big Top.” he said.
I knuckled my forehead. “Kid, your boyfriend went to The Big Top and you weren’t sure he was a clown?”
The kid held up his hands. “I thought it was an S&M club!”
I punched myself gently in the side of the head. “Right. Okay. Here’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to go out to The Big Top. And we’re going to see what we can find out.”
Two big guys tried to stop us at the door. “Sorry, sir, we’re not open,” one said. He was wearing a black suit with a plastic daisy in its pocket.
“I’m hear to see Mr. Bubbles,” I said.
“You got an appointment?” he asked.
“Knock it off, Heavy.”
He grinned and slapped me on the back. It was like being hit by a battering ram. “Aww, just funnin’ with ya!”
I grimaced in pain. “Uh hunh. Thanks, Heavy.”
Clubs were always weird to visit during the day. The lights were up. You could see all the dings and dents.
The old clown clubs were even weirder. In most clubs, everything was painted black at one point in its existence. In a clown club, things were red, yellow, green, purple — every color but black or white.
In this context, clowns made sense. Their coloring was protective camouflage.
The modern underground clown clubs looked like any other club. The Fun Police could raid at any moment.
So Mr. Bubbly was a clown out of context.
The kid and I found Mr. Bubbly at the bar. Rainbow hair in long greasy dreads spilled down his back. A bottle of whiskey and a glass sat beside him. He was devouring a plate of fries with one hand and smoking with the other. The kid tugged his poncho up over his nose and mouth as we approached.
“Hello, Mr. Bubbly,” I said in the loud tone reserved for the elderly or, in his case, people who have blown out their ears with too much loud music. He took a long drag on his cigarette before turning to me.
“Whaddaya want?” he asked. Ketchup spilled from his too-wide smile over white greasepaint as he chewed.
“I want to know if you’ve seen this young man,” I said, holding Darren’s phone up with a picture of his boyfriend on it. “What’s-his-name?”
“Lance. Lance Vandehey,” said the kid through the poncho.
Mr. Bubbly looked at the phone with disinterest. “Hard to say,” he said. “If I *had* seen him, he’d’a been wearing a hell of a lot of makeup, and he wouldn’t’a been using that name.”
“Any idea what his stage name is?” I asked Darren.
His face fell. He shook his head.
“Then I don’t see what I can do for ya,” Mr. Bubbly said, turning away. He took out another cigarette and lit it off the one he was smoking.
“Somebody called him Pepper Pickles once. He didn’t like that,” said Darren.
“Oh, you mean Pickle Peppers?” Mr. Bubbly turned back to us. “Yeah, I know him. He’s in here on Thursday nights. Whaddaya want with him?”
I hooked my thumb at the kid. “He’s his boyfriend.”
“Oh really,” said Mr. Bubbly. “Because Pickle left that night with a young clown who was definitely not you.”
Darren looked like he had just slipped on a banana peel.
“Who did he leave with?” I asked.
“He left with Chunky Beanstalk. He lives over on River Street.”
“Well then, let’s pay Chunky a visit.”
Chunky lived in a well-kept rowhouse on the other side of town. Darren and I stood on the front porch out of the rain.
The young man who answered the door still had traces of makeup around his eyes and the corners of his mouth. He was wearing a too-small Ringling Brothers T-shirt which had been worn to translucency.
I didn’t mind one bit.
He took one look at the kid and me and fixed his gaze firmly on me.
“Chunky Beanstalk?” I asked.
He looked away. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said.
Bingo. “Is Lance in? Pickle Peppers?”
“Yeah, Lance is here, look, what do you want?”
“We’d like a word with him,” I said. “Could you get him for us please?”
“Yeah, all right. One sec.” he said. “LANCE!” He left the door open and disappeared into the house.
I motioned the kid in and closed the door behind us. We were in a little hallway lined with the usual coats and hats. A bare coiled bulb hung from the ceiling next to the mandated smoke alarm turret.
Lance poked his head in. “Oh. Uh. Hi, Darren,” he said. He came into the room and stood there looking past us. He was wearing a baggy T-shirt and sweatpants. Darren could have him.
“Hi Lance,” said Darren. He was staring at Lance’s bare feet.
“You, uh, left this with me,” said Darren, taking out the clown nose.
“So I guess you know by now,” Lance said, looking at Darren but nodding at me. Lance crossed his arms.
“Know that you’re… a clown?” asked Darren.
“Yeah,” said Lance.
“Oh, sweetie, I knew you were a clown for a long time,” said Darren.
“You did?” asked Lance.
“Yes!” said Darren. “Sweetie, you hung out at The Big Top and gave me a clown nose. How could I not know?”
“You sure played pretty dumb with me,” I said.
The kid grinned like he’d just won the lottery. “I sure did. How else could I get you to help me? You couldn’t refuse a damsel in distress.”
I shrugged and looked down. The kid really had watched too many private eye shows.
“Oh sweetie,” said Darren, “I just wanted you to accept that you’re a clown. That’s what I was trying to tell you!”
Lance looked up at Darren. “Really?” he said.
“Yes, really,” said Darren. “Oh, lance, honey, I love you.”
“I love you too,” said Lance.
“Here,” said Darren, “let me prove it to you.”
“What?” said Lance.
Embracing him, Darren squeezed the sides of the clown nose and fitted it snugly over Lance’s nose.
“What? No!” said Lance.
Seems Chunky’s landlord hadn’t got the expensive insurance either.
Copyright Ⓒ 2013 Kellan Sparver. All Rights Reserved.
The cover image is “No Clowns” by weegeebored, on Flickr, used under the terms of its Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 license. The image is used for illustrative purposes only. All people depicted are models, and no endorsement or association is intended or implied.