The pilot of Edridge Roundstone’s Gulfstream greeted Lumin with a smile at the airstrip; a kind looking man with a bushy grey mustache. “Right this way, Miss Mira. I’ll be your pilot tonight.”
“Obviously. You’re wearing the hat,” said Lumin with a grin.
“This is Captain Saunderson,” said the lone flight attendant. “Shall we get going?”
“Yeah, I’m ready,” said Lumin. She started up the steps, following the captain and the attendant.
“The flight won’t take long, unless I decide to do a few aileron rolls,” said the captain with a grin as he stepped into the plane and opened the door to the cockpit.
“Excuse me?” asked Lumin.
“Most people call them ‘barrel rolls’ but they’re wrong.”
Lumin’s eyes went a little wide.
“Just joking, Miss…don’t worry.”
Lumin laughed. “Sorry…it’s just that when the people I normally associate with threaten to do something dangerous or irresponsible they are usually serious.”
“Rough bunch,” said the captain. “Well, take as seat and relax. I’ll have Andrew bring you a refreshment. What would you like?”
“Whiskey; rocks please,” said Lumin. “Thanks Andrew.”
“I like your style,” said the attendant. Andrew was a shaggy-haired young man who looked uncomfortable in his cheap suit. “Take a seat wherever you like and fasten your…bla bla bla, you know the drill.”
“I’ve never been on a G6, but yeah. I get it,” said Lumin.
“G8.” said the captain, giving Lumin one more nod before going into the cockpit.
Lumin chose a seat in the middle of the cabin and buckled up. Her anxiety was starting to bubble up.
Andrew emerged from behind a curtain with Lumin’s whiskey. After handing her the glass he sat in the seat next to her and sighed.
Lumin was surprised to have seatmate on such an empty plane. She took a sip of her booze. It tasted dry and expensive.
After a moment, Andrew opened his eyes and looked at Lumin. “Nice to meet you. I’m not usually a…plane butler?”
“Flight Attendant,” said Lumin, chuckling.
“Right. I’m actually Eldridge’s personal assistant.” He grabbed Lumin’s hand and shook it limply. “It’s kind of nice to be on the plane with someone. I’m usually alone back here.”
“Really?” asked Lumin with confusion.
“Yeah. Wow, your hair smells good!”
“Oh…hey, I can leave you alone if you want. Sorry,” said Andrew. “Lately, when I’m not hanging out with Eldy I’m usually on my own. It’s kind of made me a social retard, you know?”
“Eldy? Eldridge?” Lumin smiled hearing Roundstone’s nickname. “No! It’s fine, stay,” Andrew seemed a little naive but he was sweet.
“Do you mind if I take off my pants?”
“I kind of do,” said Lumin, raising an eyebrow.
“I have basketball shorts on underneath. Eldy wanted me to dress up a little so you wouldn’t think I was just some dude who sneaked on the plane.”
“Go ahead, get comfortable,” said Lumin.
“Sweet,” said Andrew. He pulled off his slacks revealing a long pair of basketball shorts. He had a Godzilla t-shirt on beneath his dress shirt.
Lumin looked down, noticing he had decided to keep on his dress shoes and black socks.
“Forgot to bring my kicks,” said Andrew.
“How old are you, Andrew?” asked Lumin.
“Add ten,” said Lumin. She took another sip. “Damn, this is good.”
“Being hella rich, Eldy only gets the best–at least I assume so–I stick to beer usually.”
“How long have you been Eldy…Eldridge’s assistant? Are you two…?” asked Lumin, raising an eyebrow.
Andrew chortled with surprise. “Oh! No no no…strictly professional! I’ve been Eldy’s P.A. for about a year. Awhile back I submitted some artwork to his Roundstone Foundation to try and win a scholarship. I didn’t win, but afterwards Eldy called me up personally and put me under retainer for a massive art piece at Z.”
“It’s the name of his compound.”
“Oh, I see. What kind of art do you do?”
Andrew grinned. “He lets me do whatever I want. I’ll show you when we get to the compound. It’s developed into an ongoing project. Eldy felt a little guilty about it taking up so much of my time, so he bought my diploma for me and decided to keep me around as his P.A. until we decide the project is complete.”
Lumin squinted. “He bought your degree?”
Andrew smiled. “Yeah, I mean, it’s just a bachelor’s of art so its kind of worthless anyway. It’s not like I’m going to be cutting people open or building rocket engines so relax.”
“I’m cool, it’s all good,” said Lumin, trying not to laugh.
“I think we’re going to land soon.”
“Yeah, I’m gonna go up and talk to the pilot for sec. I like you Lumin…you’re hot and smart but you don’t seem judgey or stuck-up,” said Andrew, matter-of-factually as he stood up and walked off.
Lumin leaned back in her seat, feeling a little wonked. Do weirdos just flock to me? Am I in some kind of searchable database?
Minutes later Lumin looked out the window as the jet began to descend, seeing the sunset bathe the low hills in the distance with golden light. They were soaring over a valley densely packed with short, bushy trees. A massive estate came into view featuring two identical mansions at its center. The pair of huge homes sat among lush green landscaping dotted with topiaries and marble fountains. Dozens of large warehouses were lining the edge of the campus.
Lumin bounced as the jet’s tires touched down to the runway. Andrew emerged from the cockpit. “We’re here. You’re going to like Z. Would you like me to ask the pilot if we can use the inflatable emergency slide? It’s kind of fun.”
“No, the stairs are fine,” said Lumin. After the G8 rolled to a stop she followed Andrew down the steps. The pilot waited for her at the bottom. He smiled and brushed his grey mustache as Lumin’s heels clicked over the concrete runway.
“Have a nice flight?” asked the captain.
Lumin nodded. “Smooth as silk.”
“Glad you found it serviceable, Miss,” said the pilot. “What do you think of Mr. Roundstone’s compound?”
“It’s massive. Quite Impressive.” said Lumin. She realized she hadn’t had any time to prepare for the meeting while on the plane and would have to wing much of her presentation. She looked up at the two mansions on the grassy hill a few hundred yards away. They were both identical, except for one major detail.
“Is that…a bouncy castle? A bouncy mansion?” asked Lumin, looking up at the inflatable replica home.
The pilot laughed. “I’ll have Andrew explain that one.”
Lumin turned to Andrew, “Where is our meeting? Where’s Roundstone?”
Andrew looked at the pilot then shrugged. “I don’t know…and…I don’t know. He’ll turn up when he wants to, don’t worry.”
“Alright,” said Lumin, feeling a little frustrated.
“That bouncy house is the art piece Eldy commissioned me to do. Hold tight for second!”
“That’s your art?” asked Lumin, surprised.
Andrew ran off, and returned seconds later from a nearby shed driving a black golf cart. He beeped the horn. “Hop in, we’ll take a quick look before Eldy shows up.”
“He’s not to fond of that nickname, by the way,” said the pilot, as he got in the back of the cart beside Lumin. “I need to pickup my paycheck from Mr. Roundstone, so I’m going to tag along if you don’t mind.”
“No, that’s fine,” sad Lumin.
Andrew zoomed up the hill past a hulking stone fountain of a mythical Greek chimera and stopped in front of the giant inflatable structure. “This is it,” said Andrew, “my masterpiece!”
Lumin was speechless.
“It’s an inflatable replica of Eldy’s real mansion, each piece–inside and out–was molded or constructed by hand in vinyl and nylon. I have a couple of guys who help me update it every day.” Andrew went up and opened the door. “Check it out!”
Lumin looked inside. The interior was entirely inflatable as well. There were balloon versions of couches, house plants, appliances, framed artwork. An inflatable bookcase held an array of inflatable books with titles hand painted on their spines. Puffed up magazines sat next to a bulging chaise lounge. The inflatable fireplace featured balloon bricks and a wobbling balloon fire. A wobbly spiral staircase climbed to more rooms that threatened to feature more of the same madness. She peered into the back of the mansion and saw an inflatable kitchen with inflatable food on a fake balloon granite island next to bloated knives and sauce pans. A pile of replica balloon junkmail was next to her on a balloon bench.
“Oh my god,” said Lumin as her eyes widened.
“The inflatable interior is updated to match the interior of the actual mansion daily. Everything is shifted around to match the current state of Eldy’s house: books, plants, papers…whatever. If something is missing I make it. If something is taken away I get rid of it. I’ve been filming the changes every day and documenting them on video.”
“But…why?” asked Lumin.
“I don’t like to explain my art, but, you can probably get a sense of what this is all about,” said Andrew.
Lumin shook her head. “Not really,”
“Oh, well…you could say the piece is a comment on consumerism. It forces you to notice things we take for granted and consider the labor it took to produce everyday objects and if we really need them at all…I guess.”
“Cool,” said Lumin, smiling. “It’s a little insane but I can appreciate it.”
“The daily updates were Eldy’s idea. I don’t know if was just to keep me busy, but it adds something to the work.”
“Yeah, that’s the nuttiest part,” said Lumin. She took off her shoes and stepped inside. “Do you mind?” She bounced herself over to the couch. Andrew followed her in.
The pilot stayed outside, shaking his head with his arms crossed. “Roundstone better show up soon, I’ve got a family to feed.”
Andrew plopped next to Lumin on the couch and bounced her out of it. She laughed as her butt landed against the fake, rubbery, hardwood flooring. “Hey, watch it!”
“Sorry,” said Andrew with a grin. “Sometimes Eldy challenges me. He’ll buy some elaborate antique knowing I’ll have to recreate it. The worst day was when he smashed a bunch of dishes on the floor and I had to make inflatable replicas of all the shards. It took forever.”
“Really?” asked Lumin. She laughed, then remembered this maniac was the person she was relying on to save her project. She stood up, collected herself and bounced back outside.
“You want to take a bounce, Captain?” Lumin asked the pilot.
The pilot shook his head. “No, that’s alright Miss, I’ve seen this thing plenty times. It’s old hat to me by now.”
Andrew looked a little impatient. “Well, Eldy ought to be coming out anytime now.”
The pilot held Lumin’s hand as she put her shoes back on. “What brings you up here, anyway, if I may ask?”
“I’m here to see if this rich loon will fund the completion of my organization’s giant robot so it can fight another giant robot…for charity.” Lumin realized her project was just as absurd as Andrew’s bouncy mansion, or more so. “I know it sounds ridiculous but if we can’t finish our build our donors will lose faith and pull their contributions to the competition’s prize money. If we manage to defeat the Japanese Team we’ll use the purse to end poverty for millions around the world.”
The pilot took of his hat and stroked his surprisingly thick, chestnut hair. “Why wouldn’t they just donate their money directly to the charities?”
Lumin sighed. “Some of our benefactors don’t really seem to care about helping the needy; they just want to see two robots fight, which is fine by me…their money’s the same.”
“I see,” said the pilot, rocking on his heels.
“Plus, the pay-per-view rights will bring in millions more along with tickets to the event.”
“Sounds rad,” said Andrew.
The pilot laughed. “It’s a little goofy but at least it’s for a good cause. It sounds fun.”
Lumin grabbed Andrew’s hand and pulled him out of the bouncy house. “Andrew, I’m a little weirded-out by your art but I think that’s the point, right?”
“Yeah, pretty much,” said Andrew.
Lumin cut her eyes at the pilot. “It must be nice to be so rich you can follow any whim you like, to pursue any opportunity imaginable…it probably makes you feel like you can get away with anything. Do you think Roundstone has a god complex?” Her tone was deadly serious.
The pilot shrugged. “I just fly the plane, Miss. I’m no psychology major. I–”
“Alright, stop,” interrupted Lumin, “I’ve been waiting to follow through on this ‘Scooby Doo’ moment for awhile now, and I can’t wait anymore.” She stepped up to the pilot, and ripped off his fake, grey mustache with a swift pull.
“Hey, gentle!” complained the pilot.
Andrew laughed. “She’s good!”
The pilot took a step closer and held out his hand with a smile. “Eldridge Roundstone, pleased to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you as well,” said Lumin. shaking his hand. “Forgive the harsh words, but I figured you deserved a few for treating me like a fool.”
“No worries. How did you figure it out?”
Lumin tugged at Roundstone’s neck, loosening a flap of latex. “Your appliances are lifting a bit. My first clue though was your hair; it doesn’t match the color of your mustache at all and it’s a bit too lush to belong to the older man you’re pretending to be.”
Roundstone tugged off a latex collar and cheek appliances, revealing a man in his early forties, at most. “Ah, damn…rookie mistakes.”
“How long have you been a pilot?” asked Lumin.
Roundstone finished tugging the spirit gum off his face. “I’ve been flying since I was in high school. It’s one of my true joys.”
Lumin was unimpressed. “Alright…but why go through all this trouble just to mess with me?”
“Well, I admit it was partly for fun but I had other motives as well.”
“Whether they’re intimidated by my money or influence, people seem unable to act like themselves around me. I wanted to get a honest gauge of your personality and a few clues to what you really thought of Eldridge Roundstone’s eccentricities before I revealed myself.”
“You certainly have plenty of them.” Lumin crossed her arms and forced herself to look into Roundstone’s striking grey eyes. “Well, what did you discover about me? I understand if this is the end of our meeting but I can’t suffer people trying to deceive me.”
“Ah, don’t take things so personally, Miss Mira. One day you’ll laugh about this and have a great story to tell. I obviously get a little bored around here.” Roundstone pointed to the inflatable mansion.
“How’d I do, Eldy?” asked Andrew. “Sorry Lumin, I was just doing my job.”
“I’m over it,” said Lumin.
“You did fine, Andrew, sorry I made you lie.”
Andrew shrugged. “I’m over it, too.”
“Lumin, let me show you around some more, that is, if you’ll further suffer my company.”
“Of course,” said Lumin, “I want your money, after all.”
Roundstone chuckled. “I appreciate your blunt honesty. Alright, let’s go.” The three hopped into the golf cart again and drove to the other side of the bouncy mansion.
“I was going to show you my monkey race track next, but maybe we should skip ahead to something more…grounded.”
Lumin did a double take. “Wait…what?”
“It’s hilarious!” said Andrew. “He’s got these mandrills in tiny cars with little helmets, it’s great!”
“Sounds a little cruel,” said Lumin.
“Oh no, they enjoy it. Well, at least they think they do. Their helmets alter their brain waves enough to make them extremely receptive to training and influence. As long as their basic survival needs are met, they stay completely obedient. Trust me, they’re treated like kings off the track.”
Lumin took a deep breath. “So, it’s a mind control experiment?”
“Essentially, yes. It’s just one of the hundreds of scientific experiments I’m hosting and funding at Z.” Roundstone pulled up his phone and sent a quick text, while driving with his knees on the cart’s steering wheel. “There, I’m having my groundskeeper Landon set up a quick demonstration. He’s getting my three best racers out of the enclosure now.”
Lumin frowned. “That’s really not necc–”
“Here we are!” Roundstone pulled up to the ridge overlooking a asphalt oval surrounded by empty stands and towering lights. The lamps flashed on and three small go-karts modeled after Italian sports cars rocketed out of a chain-link gate. Sure enough, they were being driven by a trio of howling, blue-faced monkeys.
Lumin furrowed her brow, baffled by the sight.
“Their screams get louder as they near the finish line. Excitable fellows,” said Roundstone.
Andrew pointed past Lumin’s shoulder. “Look!” The go-karts’ tires belched clouds of rubber smoke as the mandrills rounded a corner. “King Caesar is up front, he’s definitely the most competitive. Second place is Moguera, and Baragon is taking up the rear; he always hangs in back then makes a big push for the lead on the final lap.”
“Got it, thanks,” said Lumin.
“I let Andrew name them,” said Spotswood as the monkeys literally screamed through the finish line. The simians drove their karts back into the enclosure willingly and parked in an orderly fashion. Roundstone’s grounds/monkey keeper gave them each a banana and removed their helmets. They immediately ran off into a stand of trees. Roundstone stretched his arms. “I think one lap is enough, unless you want to see more?”
“I’m good,” said Lumin.
“Let’s move on then,” said Eldridge.