"—is New You?" Ethan demanded as we flashed back into existence again.
He blinked in surprise, the fact that we were no longer in my living room slapping him in the face like a cold fish. Now we stood in the alleyway between two buildings, alone except for an exceptionally foul smelling dumpster. I think one of those buildings was a sushi shop.
"Warn me before you do that," Ethan griped as I led the way toward the street.
I ignored him and pointed at the building across the street from us. "There. That's where it's hiding."
Ethan looked, then squinted his eyes. "Bartholomew Pumpernickel's School of Belly Dancing for Fun and Profit?"
"What?" I spun around and saw a run down, one story building with large dusty windows. Through them, I could faintly see a shirtless, overweight middle aged man wiggling around the studio like a…no, screw it. Some metaphors just shouldn’t be made.
"No, you dingus!" I snapped, grabbing his head and turning it one building to the right. "That is where we're going!"
Joe's Laughing Barrel, the old neon sign above the door said, alongside the lit up image of someone's feet sticking out of a barrel. The lights alternated, making the feet kick back and forth while the word "ha" flickered on and off. The building was just as old as Bartholomew Pumpernickel's Temple of Horrible Horribleness, but judging by the amount of cars parked outside, it must have been a way more popular place.
"Is that," Ethan said slowly, "a comedy club?"
I nodded. "Exactly the kind of place a maiam could cause the most trouble."
"Well, come on! Let's go!"
He grabbed my arm and started pulling me across the street. I raised an eyebrow, but didn't complain. I could remember a time, just a couple months ago, when he would have asked to wait outside while I killed the maiam. As long as it wasn't after him, he couldn't have cared less. The fact that he was the one charging headlong into danger was enough to make my heart swell with pride.
I had done that. I was the one who had taught Ethan to give a half-eaten cheeseburger about other people. Finally, for maybe the first time in my life, I had done something good.
The fact that Ethan being assertive was hot didn't hurt either.
I ran my eyes over the building as we made our way closer. Ethan couldn’t see it, but this place was practically bursting at the seams with laughter. It was all inside, but the sheer amount of it made the entire club shimmer like the bricks were made out of stained glass. The smell was like all your favorite foods mixed together into a smoothie…actually, that sounds gross. It's nothing like that.
Okay, here's a quick refresher in case you weren't paying attention during the first book (or even worse, if you skipped it entirely, you bad, bad person). Klaons like me feed on human laughter. It appears to us like a glowing rainbow cloud, and we have to breathe it in to keep from starving. But you see, that laughter has to be given freely. If a klaon steals it—like, if they vampirize it right out of some poor sap's mouth—the human will die, the laughter will be tainted, and the klaon will turn into a maiam. A monster that lives only to gorge itself on as much laughter as it can, killing everyone it feeds off of.
That's where I come in. As the Acting Hunter for the Council of Shnoob, it's my job to hunt down the maiams before they can cause any trouble.
Ethan grunted. "That's not good."
"What?" I asked, looking around him. "Oh. Yeah, that might be a problem."
There was a man standing outside the club's front door, arms folded so that his impressive biceps bulged through his sleeves. A pair of sunglasses kept me from seeing his eyes, but it was obvious he was looking in our direction—and judging by his frown, he wasn't happy to see us.
"How are we going to get in?" Ethan whispered, stopping about ten feet away. "This place is twenty one and up. He'll never let us through the door!"
"Oh, Ethan, Ethan, Ethan," I said, giving him a pat on the head, which he slapped away. "When are you going to stop underestimating me?"
I reached into my back pocket and pulled out my wallet. From it, I produced two plastic cards, and handed one of them to Ethan.
"There, see?" I said. "Fake IDs! We'll just show them to the bouncer and waltz right in!"
Ethan glanced at his ID and then looked at me in disbelief. "This says my name is Lumpy Buttsniffer, and I was born in 1943!"
I put a hand to my mouth so he wouldn't see me laughing. Lumpy Buttsniffer. That was a good one.
"Dare I ask what name you gave yourself?" he asked.
I held mine up. "Simone Garfunkel!"
Holding my fake ID out in front of me like a weapon, I led us toward the door. Ethan muttered something about us getting sent to jail, but I ignored him. I knew what I was doing. As the Hunter, I was a master in the arts of stealth and espionage.
"Hold up," the bouncer said as soon as we came near. "How old are you two?"
The bouncer was six and a half feet tall, and his shaved head was shiny enough to reflect a beam of sunlight into my eye. He smelled like sweat, cigarettes, and underwear that hadn't been changed in at least three days.
"Here you are, my good sir!" I said, sliding smoothly into my most mature sounding British accent. He took my ID, and then Ethan's. "I do say, what lovely taxes we've been having, eh, old sport?"
"Uh…I guess," the bouncer said and raised the IDs up for a closer look.
"Henry!" Ethan whispered while he was distracted. "Let's get out of here before he calls the police! We can find another way—"
"Looks like everything is in order," said the bouncer. "Welcome to the Laughing Barrel, Mr. Buttsniffer. And Miss Garfunkel, happy one hundred thirteenth birthday."
Ethan's mouth fell open as the door swung open for us, so I grabbed his arm and dragged him inside.
"How the hell did that work?" he demanded as soon as we were out of earshot of the door.
I just smiled.
“I’ve got a story for you folks,” a loud voice came from the front of the room. I looked up just as a man walked onto the stage, microphone in hand. “How many of you work in customer service?”
A few hands went up, along with a couple good natured boos.
“So, I used to work at Willymart,” he went on. “Great place! Everyone should work there at least once in their lives. You get to meet so many interesting people, and then imagine all the different ways you wish they would just freaking die!”
Apparently, that struck a nerve, because the audience burst into laughter. A shimmering, multicolored cloud rose above their heads, growing bigger and bigger by the second. My eyes widened at the sight and, before Ethan could stop me, I stepped forward and sucked down a big, delicious breath of it. Energy surged through me like I'd stuck a pair of jumper cables up my nostrils.
"Ahhh!" I breathed out happily.
"I think you're enjoying this a little too much," Ethan remarked. I elbowed him in the ribs, and he grunted in pain. "Jeez, okay! The joke wasn't even that funny!"
"That's the awesome thing about laughter," I argued. "Different things draw it out for different people. You may not have thought his joke was funny, but those people did, and neither of you are wrong."
The man on stage was on a roll. "So, one day I’m stocking shelves, and a lady walks up and asks for my help getting something down from the top shelf. But then, before she even tells me what she wants, she says never mind, she’ll find someone else to do it. I ask her if something’s wrong, and she says that she doesn’t trust me. I ask why not, and she says I look—and these are her exact words—like I put my hands down my underwear when nobody’s looking. Now, I tell her that I haven’t had my hands down my underwear, and…”
The audience was roaring with laughter, and by this point I was laughing with them. Ethan, on the other hand, just rolled his eyes.
"Aren't we here to do something?" he asked.
I frowned. The maiam. Right. Taking the lead, I ventured further into the club, winding between the tables where the other customers sat and sipped glasses of spicy toilet water. Up on stage, the comedian kept doing his routine, making the glowing cloud of laughter grow bigger by the minute. Where could a maiam hide in a place like this? With so many people around, surely one of them had to have seen it crawling around. Had I misread the letter? Maybe it wasn't—
I froze. A thin trail of laughter had branched off from the bigger cloud. It wound lazily through the air before drifting out of sight, right beneath…
Oh, turkey milkshakes.
"Ethan," I whispered urgently. "It's hiding under the stage!"
"How do we get it out?"
"How should I know?"
"You're the Hunter! This is supposed to be what you do!"
"Shh!" hissed a person next to us.
I ran my hand over Splatsy's paddle. If there was nobody here, I could whip her out and smash the stage to pieces. But if I did that now, people would stare at me, ask awkward questions like "Why are you smashing our stage?", and then I'd probably go to jail—and the maiam would still kill everyone here. But how was I supposed to clear out a building full of people?
"Your burger and fries, sir," a waiter said, squeezing past us to set a plate down in front of Shushy Sheldon. The smell was enough to make my stomach growl, even though I'd just eaten. Greasy, oily, delicious, and…
I had an idea!
"Stay here!" I told Ethan, and then took off across the club. On the other end, I could see a pair of swinging doors that waiters were going in and out of carrying plates of food. But the food wasn't what I was after, for once.
I burst through the doors and into the kitchen. A skittish cook screamed and swung his frying pan, hurling a half-cooked country fried steak at me. I leaned out of the way, letting it careen past me and into the face of an unfortunate waiter, and spotted what I was looking for.
A big, sizzling pot of cooking oil.
"What the hell are you doing back here?" someone yelled, telling me I hadn't saved myself entirely from the awkward questions. Instead of answering, I grabbed the pot and shoved it.
A huge ball of fire erupted from the stove, mushrooming outwards when it reached the ceiling. The wave of heat made me feel like I was being sneezed on by a dragon. The flames caught, spreading from the stove to the floor, making the kitchen staff squeal like little girls and run for the exit. I followed right behind them, pulling down on the fire alarm as I ran.
"FIIIIIRE!" I screamed as the alarm began to blare. The comedian froze midjoke, and every head in the audience swiveled around to look at me. For a second, I thought maybe they didn't speak English—but then a thick plume of smoke billowed out of the kitchen doors behind me. Someone screamed, and everybody scrambled out of their seats to make a mad dash for the door.
Feeling proud of myself, I sauntered over to where Ethan was waiting for me, a look of disbelief on his face.
"Mission accomplished!" I said.
Ethan looked at me with his eyes wide and his teeth clenched. "You actually set the place on fire?”
"I know! Pretty smart, huh?" I held up my hand for a high five. "Now everyone'll clear out, letting us fight the maiam in private."
He ignored my hand. "But the fire—"
"The sprinklers will put it out!" I rolled my eyes. "Stop worrying about everything and high five me already!"
Even more smoke was coming out of the kitchen now, and I was starting to feel the heat from across the building. Ethan looked at me, and then up at the ceiling.
"This place doesn't have any sprinklers."
Flames began to spread onto the walls outside the kitchen doors, the floor, and even the ceiling. But before the fact that I'd just committed arson could sink in, a loud CRASH came from the stage, and we both spun to look as the maiam punched its way out from underneath. Like a zombie rising from the grave, it slowly climbed out of the hole, clearly wondering where all the laughter had gone.
And then it saw Ethan.
"Great," Ethan said dryly, "we're not just stuck in a burning building, we're stuck in a burning building with a maiam!"
The maiam howled at us, displaying its long, sharp fangs. Behind us, the fire began to attack the tables and chairs. I looked at Ethan, who was glaring at me, and gave him a sheepish smile.