“Just watch,” Clacks said, pointing at a man in whiteface, making balloon animals beside a fountain.
A group of children stood before him, watching in awe as the man blew up a long, blue balloon. “Ok, who wants a snake?”
A look of disappointment swept over the kids, as the painted man smiled. “Just kidding, I thought we’d start with a doggy. Who would like a doggy?”
Sarin watched as a young boy of about five years old raised his hand.
“Ah, and what is your name, little one?” The white-faced man asked.
“Tommy,” said the lad.
“Ah Tom, that’s a strong name, and is your mom or dad here?”
“Yeah,” Tommy pointed at an auburn tressed woman, also wearing green.
“Ma’am, is it alright if I make Tommy here a doggy?”
She smiled and shrugged before reaching into her purse. She pulled out a dollar and dropped it into the top hat with a red scarf tied about it that sat on the edge of the fountain.
“Thank you much, miss,” the man said as he began to twist the blue snake into something that quickly resembled a dog.
“Seriously, a balloon artist?” Sarin asked of Clacks.
“First, they call him Loon, and he’s not just any ‘balloon artist.’ He’s a gifted Twister.”
“Twister?” Sarin asked, shifting his oft-patched backpack, the strap more duct-tape than fabric, from his right shoulder to his left.
“Like I said, watch,” he said as he pulled a pair of scissors out of one of the deep pockets in his too-thick overcoat. He crept up behind the park bench where the old man was sitting with his granddaughter, feeding the pigeons. Slowly he extended his arm and snipped the red ribbon that tethered the mylar happy birthday balloon to the blonde, pig-tailed girl.
“Papa!” She exclaimed as the balloon began to float away.
Loon looked up and saw the birthday balloon ascending into the clouds and handed the half finished blue dog to Tommy. “My balloons are needed elsewhere, buddy. I’ll finish yours in a minute.” With that, he pulled a pink balloon from a pocket of the tweed jacket he wore and blew it up. His hands a blur of movement, a butterfly swiftly took shape. “Now here’s where the real magic happens.” He pulled a roll of clear tape from his other pocket and quickly made a loop, sticking it to the head of the butterfly. With a tug, he reached out and untied the red scarf from his top hat. Walking over to the now-sobbing girl, he winked at the old man. “Sweetheart, will you hold out your hand?” Loon asked, holding out the butterfly.
Sniffling, the girl did as she was asked, taking the offered rubber creature into the palm of her hand.
Loon draped the red scarf over the butterfly and leaned in close, whispering something so softly, that not even the girl could hear it. Smiling, he blew on the scarf, which began to twitch. With a flourish, the man pulled the scarf from atop the balloon butterfly, which sprang to life, it’s wings beating feverishly as it drifted higher into the air.
The girl gasped, and then despite her sniffles, giggled. The inflated insect climbed higher and higher, chasing the birthday balloon, which had already drifted out of sight.
“Now, Tommy, where was I,” Loon turned back to the boy, who stood, mouth agape, holding the half finished dog. Loon took the balloon and after a few more twists, he pulled a black marker from a pocket and drew eyes and a nose upon the canine’s head. “Here you go Tommy,” Loon handed the animal back to the young boy. “Who’s next.”
He had almost finished a balloon sword when one of the other boys in the group shouted.
“Look,” he pointed into the sky.
“Shit,” Sarin followed the gaze of the rest of the crowd, and could not keep the exclamation to himself.
“I told you to watch,” Clacks said as the butterfly floated back down toward Loon, towing the birthday balloon. “Come on,” he motioned to Sarin to follow as he approached the Twister.
The Twister handed the sword to a young, curly haired child as the butterfly landed on Loons shoulder, he reached up a once white, now grey glove, and pulled the girls balloon from the piece of tape. “Here you go sweetheart,” he pulled a new ribbon from his pocket and tied it first about the balloon and then about the girls wrist. “Hope that’s not too tight.”
The girl shook her head and thanked Loon in a meek voice, before giving him a hug. “Papa, look!” she said, more excitedly to the man on the bench beside her.
“I see,” the old man said with a smile and a nod. “Thank you,” he said, turning from his granddaughter to Loon. “Thank you,” he said again as he pulled out his wallet. “Here,” he offered the balloon artist a five dollar bill. “I don’t know how you did that, but it was definitely worth at least this."
With a Cheshire-Cat grin, Loon took the money and stuck it in his pocket. “Thank you sir,” he said with a bow. “Ok kiddies, I’ll be back, looks like Ol’ Loon has some friends he needs to talk to.”
“That was some- Well, that was something alright,” Sarin said as Loon walked over, “Care to tell me how it was done?”
The man in the white make-up looked at Clacks, who nodded.
“You must be Sarin,” Loon said, extending his hand and ignoring the question.
Sarin smirked as he shook the offered hand. “I wouldn’t tell either I suppose.”
Loon chuckled, “there’s not much to tell, besides, have you figured out how Clacks here does his trick?”
“Touché. Care if we walk for a minute, I’m not a fan of all the young ears.”
“We can’t go far, I did tell them I’d come back.”
“Fine, once around the pond, then?”
“That’ll work, but first,” he runs over and grabs his top hat, tying the scarf about it as he walks back to join Sarin and Clacks. He pulls a few bills from within the hat, looks them over and shoves them into his pocket before donning the hat.
The three set out, Clacks falling in a step behind the other two as they began the short jaunt.
“So, Clacks tells me you’re looking for a few additions for your crew.”
“You could say that.”
“Crew for what? I do pretty well for myself up here,” he pulls a worn leather wallet from beneath his jacket and then grabs all of the bills from his pocket. Counting them, he smooths each out against his chest before placing them in the wallet. “This alone,” he says as he stuffs the fiver into the billfold, “will cover all of my balloons for at least two weeks. And I’m not interested in any funny business.”
“Nope, no funny business, at least none planned-”
Clacks smacked Sarin on his shoulder.
“Hey, I’m just being honest.”
“Ok, I hear that, but you still haven’t told me what you need a crew for.”
Clacks stepped forward, shoving his way between the two men. “Sarin here has a boat on the Underground Sea, mainly running supplies between the Black Bazaar and The Outer Gate, sometimes more, sometimes less, if you catch my drift.”
Sarin started to groan at the apparent pun, to which Clacks apologized.
“Ah, and how am I supposed to help?” Loon said, look from one man to the other.
Sarin stepped in front of Clacks and slowed just long enough to fall back into step with Loon. “I’d be lying if I said I knew, but I was given your name and I’ll be damned if you didn’t just impress me back there.”
“I’ll need to think about it. What’s in it for me?”
“I’d give you some bullshit about seeing the world, but- You’ve been down to the Black Bazaar?”
“A couple of times, I make a lot more up here, but I occasionally have need of some of the services they offer, if you know what I mean.”
“I do,” Sarin said as he lifted his loose t-shirt, showing a pair of six inch scars on his left side. “Martha can work miracles,” he added with a smile and a wink.
Loon winced, “what are you asking me to get into?”
Sarin’s smile widened, “Ha! This?” He laughed as he let his shirt drop, “I got asked to grab one of the sewer gators about three months ago. You should see what I did to it!” He pulled a thin silver necklace from within his shirt, a pair of pointy teeth dangling from it. “Your question, what’s in it for you, well,” he said with a chuckle, “if you run into any sewer crocs, I’ve got them.”
“Frankly, there’s not much chance of that up here.”
“Noted. The Underground Sea is not much for looks, but you’ll get an equal share of anything we bring in as a crew. Hell, here,” Sarin reached into his pocket and pulled an iridescent sphere from his pocket. “Pearl, probably worth enough to keep you in balloons for a year, you can keep it if you come along or not.”
Loon took the sphere, and closing one eye, held it up to the sun. “Thing’s got to be an inch across.”
“Yep,” Sarin said, pulling a drawstring pouch from his belt and opening it. “There’s more where that one came from,” he said, showing a pouch full of what looked like marbles to the painted man.
“Color me impressed,” Loon said, slipping the pearl into a pocket inside of his jacket. “Clacks, what’s your take on this?”
“I’m the one that arranged this meeting, didn’t I?”
“Guess so. I’d still like to think about it. Oh, and next time you want a demonstration, you can find a better way to get my attention. The ribbon was cut” Loon chided as they arrived again at the fountain. With a slight frown, he added, “What do the tiles say about this?”
Clacks laughed, “see for yourself,” he said, pulling his own drawstring pouch from his belt. He held it out, open, before the Twister.
Loon reached into the bag, his hand closing about a few tiles. He opened his had as he withdrew it and shook his head. “How do you do it?” The white-faced man asked Clacks as he looked at the word the tiles formed in his open palm. ‘JOIN’
Sarin smiled, “So?”
“I said I wanted to think about it, and I still do. I’ll be here tomorrow with your answer. I have one more question though.”
“Yeah?” Sarin said as Loon returned the tiles to Clacks’ pouch.
“Who told you about me?”
Sarin motioned for Clacks to hold the pouch out, and reached his own hand within, pulling out seven tiles. “Ask him,” he said, opening his hand and revealing the word 'BALLOON.'