The Toads Croaked at Midnight by Dave Fragments

Jun 26 2011 Published by under The WiFiles

Cyrus frowned at the mushroom-shaped, oriental cook hosing the piss and vomit from the previous night’s drunks into the gutter in front of Little Dick’s Tavern. Classy neighborhood, he thought. None of the other shops — Ricky’n Tikky’s Tats, Susie’s Scuba, or Frederick’s Funeral Parlor — showed signs of life. Two chocolate-brown, late-teen men stood at the Costume Shop’s stoop with jeans hanging off their wide hips, legs bowed, shoulders stooped and hoodies. They laughed as he rang the bell.

“Who you laughing at?” Cyrus asked.

“He ain’t open. He’s out coaching glee club. An’ you ain’t so smart Sherlock. We’ll sell your car when you go poof like all the other tubesteaks that go in there.” Tyrell said, flashing hand signs to his buddy. Kids! Cyrus thought. They’d sell their souls for drugs ran through his mind as he turned to the shop door. It opened before he touched it. A blond superhero in a sleeveless spandex shirt and thigh-exposing, lace-up tights stepped out and pointed accusingly at the young men. ”

“I warned you two, don’t mind my comings and goings. You don’t want to be the next Jimmy, do you?” The shopkeeper said. They melted into sullen lumps of inarticulate flesh and mumbled.

“Hell no. Not the next Jimmy,” Tyrell’s face sank to the floor. Cyrus caught a flash of fear in the young man’s eyes before he shambled, a rolling unnatural gate with clumsy steps, to a nearby stoop with his buddy.

“Nothing’s going to happen to this man’s car. You’re going to take it, wash it and detail it,” the shopkeeper said, emphasizing the first and last words.

“Got it, Massa. We’ll do his car where it sits, Massa,” Tyrell mumbled. The dark skin on his hands looked older and tougher than his young years as he put earphones in his ears. His shoulders shook to the beat of whatever music the hidden device poured into his head. Cyrus unlocked the car and turned his attention to the shopkeeper.

“Nice neighborhood you got here,” Cyrus said.

“Don’t worry about your car. They’ll take care of it or they’ll answer to me and they don’t want that, considering they’re almost worthless, nothing but orts for society’s maws. Spawned by ignorant parents in the hot grip of casual sex and grown up on an education of ignorant and retarded TV, Internet, twitter and junk food. They wouldn’t know up from…” Cyrus lost patience with the shopkeeper.

“I don’t care if they’re demons from hell. Your advertisement said you had a full body makeup assignment for a stuntman. I came here to apply for the job,” Cyrus barked. The shopkeeper’s head snapped around and confronted Cyrus with cold, evil eyes.

“If that’s the way you feel, let’s get inside and talk contract.” The shopkeeper’s head bent in the direction of the door as though that were sufficient to have Cyrus to follow him.

Inside, a wooden deck created a workspace for computers with multiple screens and benches with sewing machines. Racks of full body costumes crowded against each other. Beyond the deck and the costumes stood a tropical arboretum; three stories tall and over a block wide, a jungle hidden in non-descript buildings in the bad side of town. Cyrus couldn’t see the back wall of the building. He expected a lion’s roar or elephant’s trumpet. Instead, he heard toads croaking and birds shrieking. He thought he heard the hooting of primates but it was the toads that croaked from the deep dark forest echoing off the glass walls. The toads croaked, he though, amusing himself at the double entendre.

“Qualifications?” the shopkeeper asked. Cyrus held out a zip drive. The shopkeeper took it, held it up at eye level and examined it as if he could mentally discern the contents. He smiled, teasing. Raised his eyebrows and shook his head up and down as if he knew what the files on the drive contained. Cyrus scowled at the shopkeeper. The smoothness of the shopkeeper’s skin betrayed the illusion of his costume.

The shopkeeper slid the zip drive into the computer. A password screen popped up to permit access. He held his hands out and mime-like, pretended to type a password before slapping his forehead when nothing happened. Cyrus grabbed the shopkeeper’s shirt with both hands and yanked him upwards, ripping it open to reveal not a young, blond bodybuilder but an older, shopworn man with short hair and a wiry, non-descript body.

Cyrus nearly laughed out loud at the absurdity of the shopkeeper fooling the neighbors and felt a tinge of regret for even involving himself with this fool but a job was a job and money was money.

“You have a annoying penchant for drama, costume-maker,” Cyrus said, leaning over the now smaller, thinner man, his hands on hips, jaw clenched. The shopkeeper shrugged and let Cyrus wait while he stripped the ruined costume and put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses, compression tights and muscle shirt.

“Just a little razzle dazzle. Nothing more. Show ‘em the first rate sorcerer I am,” the shopkeeper sang. He patted Cyrus on the shoulder and chuckled. Cyrus snorted and typed his password into the computer.

“I don’t care what you do. My fee is two million for being in non-human costume.”

“You’re just as earnest as your correspondence. How did you know my blond superhero was a costume, Cyrus Irani Krantz?”

“Does it matter?”

“Only if it makes you doubt the effectiveness of my costumes. I use the superhero disguise to keep those kids off guard. But it’s mass-produced, off the rack, so to speak.” He gestured at a rack filled with duplicates. “You have nothing to worry about. I will custom fit your costume to every bend and crease of your body. It will quite possibly be indistinguishable from the real deal if the real deal ever existed.” The Shopkeeper didn’t impress Cyrus even when his eyes flashed golden brown.

“What’s the deal?” Cyrus asked, deflating the shopkeeper like a spent balloon.

“Your reputation as a buzz kill is well deserved. I need you to be an over-the-top demon, the original horned beast. Here’s the concept art.” He opened a set of drawings on the computer. The beast looked primitive; a scaly, horned demon with the face of a satyr and the body from hell, misshapen legs with retrograde feet and bent, over muscled arms. It also shot electric bolts out of its horns. Both men studied the images as the toads of the jungle croaked out their mating calls.

“It ain’t pretty but it pays well. The antihero of the movie is this demon who’s tired of Hell and all the torture and wants to do some good. So he tries to dig his way out by tunneling into a church offering plenary indulgences. Comically, he misses and surfaces in a whorehouse. After the whores bless the demon with their…” He paused to roll his eyes. “…special Holy Water. They let him stay because he leaves them screaming for more and he pays in gold bullion. Eventually he gets bored of all the whores and sex and denounces them. In retaliation, the whores castrate him and send him back to hell.”

The two men laughed and did fist bumps that guys do when they talk in sports metaphors and are embarrassed by their own dumb ideas. They both acted dumb enough to let stupidity and bravado rule the day.

“It sounds like the convergence of Dogma, Plan Nine and Lair of the White Worm. It might be the ultimate career killer.”

“Nope, I have three finished scripts in hand. The focus groups love them. And in Hollywood terms, it’s got press power. But director’s a screaming tyrant. Three monsters bugged out already. The backers are staging Twitter fights to promote the film and they’re so desperate they’ll pay any stuntman double for the first movie, triple for a month of personal appearances and triple for sequels two and three. All of it filmed back-to-back,” the shopkeeper said. The money surprised Cyrus. Nothing seemed right about this job and yet everything came up legit. So Hollywood, unreal but lucrative for all involved. He came back to the table and gestured with his hands palm up, trying to imagine what question might elicit an answer that would explain the movie. When the silence made him uncomfortable, he settled on the obvious.

“A lot of money for a Hollywood cluster frack.” Greed in all its grand glory convinced Cyrus the job was worth taking regardless of the costume.

“What do you care? Take the job and get rich.”

“Can I be Alan Smithee?” The shopkeeper laughed as he opened a document on his computer and entered Cyrus’ name into the contract.

“There’s already seven Smithees on this film. It’ll be a family affair.”

“Don’t contracts take time and lawyers?”

“Yes but there’s a special conjunction of stars and planets. The backers believe in stellar Feng Shui and they demand that filming start tomorrow night. They are holding the lawyers as ransom.”

“And you can create a full-body costume that fast?”

“I’m the best there is.” Ten minutes later, he emailed a signed contract to the producers, executive VP’s and lawyers. They would examine it for the right clauses, signatures, money transfers and guarantees. Miraculously, video approvals and signed documents appeared less than 20 minutes later. Independent agents acknowledged and verified the escrow accounts. The shopkeeper opened a bottle of champagne and slid a binder containing the scripts to Cyrus.

“To three movies with big box offices.” The shopkeeper raised a glass and toasted to success. The champagne brightened Cyrus’s mood. The effervescence brought a smile to his face and a thrill to his body.

“That costume doesn’t look so bad right now. I’ll bet it’s not as ugly as Alien and not as fearsome as Thade and definitely handsomer than Godzilla.” The thought of becoming the movie villain, a satyr with aspirations of world domination excited him. He read the introductory pages and character descriptions, sipping champagne as he turned the pages. Contented warmth spread through his body, releasing his emotions and draining his inhibitions.

“This stuff’s got a kick. It’s making me feel warm, warm enough to want to see that costume and get all demony and wicked.” He giggled and poured another glass. The shopkeeper leaned back and opened another bottle. Cyrus set his glass on a side table, pulled his shirt off, opened the waist of his pants and slid sandals off. He sat in a recliner. And let his fingers move across and down, speed-reading each page. He read through the scripts several times until there was a soft noise behind him. Tyrell and his buddy shuffled into the room, leaning on each other in that strange gait that rolled rather than stepped.

“Getting late boss, that car is going to be ticketed by the street cleaners if it stays in the street.”

“Then I think you should move it inside. Mister Krantz just signed to be my stuntman and we are going to maintain his car in perfect working order for the duration of the contract. Is that understood?”

“Word dude. We like rugged, good-looking stuntmen. We’ll take good care of all his needs, won’t we, Tiny?” He held out a hand and Tiny slapped it. Tiny, unlike his corpulent rotundity, spoke in a smallish, tenor voice.

“My Momma done told me, the worst sin in the world is to mistreat a guest. She said you ever mistreat a guest. You get down on your knees and pray to the Lord to forgive your sorry ass if you mistreat a guest. Even Father Murphy said dat after he fondled us altar…” The shopkeeper slapped the table interrupting Tiny.

“Don’t be insolent. I am not your fool,” the shopkeeper yelled. Tyrell cocked his head to one side as if to disagree and without a word limped over to Cyrus. The kid’s eyes seemed to say trust me to Cyrus. It was odd that the shopkeeper didn’t treat seem to trust him. Contradictions abounded in this costume shop but money was in the bank.

“May I have your keys sir?” Tyrell asked. Cyrus handed over the keys and watched Tyrell shuffle away, wondering if he was born with deformed limbs or if this was his imitation of a perp walk. He decided not to decide and not to ask. The shopkeeper disrespected them and that was the shopkeeper’s business. Better to let the matter lie unknown. He returned to reading the scripts and taking notes. The quieter sounds of creatures scurrying, toads croaking and birdsong tweeting intensified his concentration on the scripts. Morning passed into afternoon. During the time, Cyrus had the feeling of strange eyes watching him. Late afternoon, the shopkeeper showed up with a plate of sandwiches. He was, once again, dressed in his superhero costume, laughing and smiling.

“The kitchen ran out of lightly-breaded veal sautéed in butter and garnished with truffles,” the shopkeeper said of the modest fare.

“I never was one for fancy food. Where’s the costume.” Cyrus chomped at the sandwich and chased it with champagne.

“The legs, arms and torso are ready. The head is curing,” came the report. Cyrus shrugged his shoulders and swallowed at the same time. He picked up a second sandwich and talked as he ate.

“Last movie I used a costume like this, the creator needed two weeks to sculpt the costume and four hours each morning to mold it to my body.” He paused to drink and eat. “After all that effort, the damn thing kept falling apart. They wasted more days remaking the pieces in silicone and foam over and over, sometimes twice a day. There were scenes in the movie we could only do in one take because the costume was so fragile.” Cyrus finished the sandwich and stood up.

“I guarantee this costume won’t ever fall apart.” The shopkeeper motioned for him to follow through the arboretum. The path wound through lush, tropical ferns. Cyrus began to sweat with the heat. He stopped twice to look around as if something was following them. On one side, he thought he saw cages for animals but when he looked back, he could only see trees. At the very rear of the jungle stood an open pressing-mold the size of a man lined with rubbery material. The head of the creature, a convincing satyr with ram’s horns poking out of the forehead, cured under UV lights. Two full-head masks that looked like Cyrus and Tyrell sat half finished.

“Never saw anything like this before.” Cyrus studied the mold as he removed his clothing for what he thought would be measurements.

“It’s very special. It’s a full body mold. One man enters and in less than thirty minutes, one monster leaves.”

“Why’s the head separate?” Cyrus stood naked. He stepped into the mold, letting the material flow around his body like a stiff jelly. The shopkeeper giggled.

“It’s the way I like to do things. Be sure to get your fingers and toes and other protuberances in the appropriate holes.”

“In all my stunt jobs, there’s a point of no return. Either do the job or back out. This is it, huh?” Cyrus positioned first one foot into the mold and then the other. He fixed his body against the outlines and placed his arms in the proper depressions. The shopkeeper helped him balance in the proper place as he closed and sealed the mold. Only Cyrus’ head stuck out.

“Damn, this stuff feels squirmy and creepy. ”

“The material will bond to your body and create a new, artificial skin. It’ll take about a half an hour. It’s hot and sweaty but nearly indestructible. You’ll feel pressure as the mold shapes your new features. Don’t worry. It’s all perfectly normal.” The shopkeeper pushed buttons on a control panel. The heat rose and Cyrus’ bones ached. His muscles quivered and twitched as the mold turned him into the movie’s villain. He felt his hands thicken, his feet grow, his arms and shoulders gain width and his waist shrink. The mold transformed his body in nearly every detail except his head.

The time passed faster than Cyrus expected. When the shopkeeper returned, he carried a different mask, a repulsive demon that looked more Satanic than Satyr-like. It was monstrously dreadful in all aspects. He carried it over to the mold and climbed a ladder so Cyrus could see it.

“Sorry to surprise you but the director changed the monster.”

“That’s one ugly devil. The Satyr at least was attractive. This is abysmally repulsive,” Cyrus answered. He heard shuffling and movement to one side but couldn’t turn to see what was happening.

“Did you did tell him the truth?” Tyrell’s voice came from the direction of the rustling. The shopkeeper stepped off the ladder without the mask.

“No. As far as he’s concerned he’s a stuntman for a movie. That’s all he needed to know,” the shopkeeper said. Tyrell boosted himself up so he could sit on the bench. Tiny shuffled to the shopkeeper and grabbed him. They weren’t dressed in their baggy clothes. Their bodies looked like the demons in the conceptual art for the movie. They had thick legs thanks to wide hips, narrow waists and broad shoulders with Popeye-like arms. Their feet resembled hands and they both had pads on their butts that balanced out saddlebag thighs. They pulled at their human faces and peeled masks away to reveal demonic heads like the mask the shopkeeper showed Cyrus.

“What the hell?” Cyrus said out loud. Questions of what he had got himself into and how he could get out of this dilemma filled his mind.

“Tyrell done asked you if you told him the truth before you transformed his body in the mold?” Tiny lifted the shopkeeper off the ladder and shook him like a rag doll. Tiny lived up to his name not by being tall but by weighing in about four hundred pounds.

“Put me down first.” Tiny hauled the shopkeeper to a chair and held him there.

“Did you tell the man, like you were supposed to, how you betrayed him before you began his transformation? Or did you wimp out again, you chicken-hearted idiot,” Tiny asked.

“I don’t remember,” the shopkeeper squeaked.

“Open this device right now and let me out,” Cyrus yelled. Tyrell picked up the demonic headpiece and climbed the ladder so he was inches from Cyrus’ face.

“Too late Tubesteak. You got too greedy. You couldn’t wait to get your hands on all that money, could you? Greed is such a powerful motivator to sin.”

“What are you going to do to me?” Cyrus yelled so loud he spit. Tyrell laughed.

“Sheeee-iiit are you stupid. That costume ain’t never coming off. We keep a few humans like the shopkeeper around because they’re helpful when we recruit new demons. You signed up for three movies and you’re going to be the monster. That contract binds your soul for all eternity. Don’t even think about finding a lawyer good enough to break it. They already work for us demons. You’re Hell’s newest monster, signed, sealed and delivered. It’s your thang, baby.” Tyrell started to fit the full-face mask over the back of Cyrus’ head. Cyrus screamed and squirmed as the skin of the mask gripped his flesh and attached itself to his skin. When Tyrell closed the top of the mold, Cyrus felt the bones of his skull deform. He couldn’t stop the transformation.

Pain spread through is body as bones deformed into wide hips and hand-like feet. He felt his spine thicken and skull fracture to handle horns and fangs. Hormones raged inside his body as his internal organs changed, turning on desires that could never be satisfied. He felt the changes race through his body and into his mind. He no longer feared becoming a demon. He wanted the change. He heard snapping noises and felt the cool air as the mold opened. The lights hurt his new eyes and he stumbled on unfamiliar feet as strong hands grabbed him and steadied his new body.

“Can’t call you Cyrus anymore, can we. You don’t look like no Cyrus. Shame too. You was good looking stuntman, all muscles and no fat. Well that’s over now. Now you’re just like us.” The voice was Tyrell’s but the face was pure demon. Cyrus blinked through unfamiliar eyes at strange hands. A rough tongue slipped over sharp teeth and scaly lips. He could smell a dead body in the middle of the arboretum. I smelled good. These new sensations aroused and excited him.

“What am I?” his new voice sounded rough and graveled.

“You a stud demon, handsome as sin when you get to hell. No more wimpy stuntman with pink, delicate skin but a powerful demon with scales and horns in all the right places.” Tyrell fondled Cyrus’s genitals. Cyrus moaned at the pleasurable feelings shooting through his new body. “Feel that? It’s my gift to you for your soul,” Tyrell said, his voice soft and seductive. Cyrus pushed away. He felt his rough body with his rough hands and like the sensations. Tiny and Tyrell laughed. Cyrus bounced on his feet and did a full somersault in the air. He felt huge, buff and muscular.

“You’re going to make that movie and you’re going to learn what it is to be demons, just like us. You ain’t never going to want to go back to being a puny human again.”

“So this is permanent-like,” Cyrus said.

“Like forever,” Tiny said.

“And we’re still making three movies? Why?” Cyrus both wanted and didn’t want to know the answer.

“Why do you think we built this arboretum? You think the Shopkeeper over there likes gardening? This is his hell, a demon forest to water and keep growing and expanding. When those movies go big, there’s going to be groupies and sycophants and wannabees, all of them willing to sign their souls away and we’re going to take them and make them our own clan of demons.”

“I thought costumes were his hobby.” He pointed to the shopkeeper who sat in the far corner, doing nothing.

“Damn, you a real dumb sucka, too. Me an’ Tiny, we’re now the brains behind this endeavor. We wanted to do something better than selling dope, better than turning out whores and busting heads to get recruits. We figured out a way to get sinners to join us willingly. Willing always makes a better demon.” He gave Tiny a chest bump and a hoo-hah.

“And the big paydays, the profit sharing, the scripts I read?” Cyrus’ eyes darted back and forth.

“Your money is our money.”

“None of this was in the script.”

“The script will wait for tomorrow,” The two boys hooted and woofed. “Three movies, double and triple pay, personal appearances as the monster. You got the words, you got te moves and you got the body many freaks out there want. We’ll take their souls and they’ll be happy about it.”

“Yeah. I get it,” Cyrus agreed. The two boys elbowed each other so hard that they fell on the floor, hooting and woofing. Cyrus shrugged his new shoulders, flexed his arms and jumped on them, wrestling like a little kid. His new body felt good and he would still get to act in movies. That satisfied him for now. He knew that he’d regret this in years to come but right now, he was hot and horny as hell and the two demons rolling on the floor with him filled him with animal lust. He let Tyrell and Tiny drag him into the deep ferns in the middle of the arboretum. They played lustily, wantonly and like beasts and demons. They played into the night in the jungle-like undergrowth. Around midnight, the toads croak loud enough to drown out their satiated snores.

*

Dave Fragments retired to the countryside of Western Pennsylvania amid the deer and squirrels to write. He has published short stories in the Spec Fiction and Horror genres in online ezines and anthologies. For many years he did research into coal liquefaction and heterogeneous catalysis.

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