Sunday, 29 June 2008

Boy meets grill

Jeremiah came into class on Thursday with thin burn lines across his face. During gym class, when he got changed in the locker-room, we saw that he had more thin burn lines across his chest. He refused to shower after gym, and his pants looked padded out, so the conclusion was kind of obvious to us all. No-one said anything, but after school I headed down to the mall, where I knew he'd be hanging out. Sure enough, he was in the ice-cream shop, sat at the counter looking uncomfortable.

"Dude!" I said, slapping him hard on the shoulders and sitting down next to him. He looked at me with tears in his eyes, biting his lip to whiteness. "Hell, sorry man," I said.
"What do you want?" he said back, sniffing. "Apart from making me hurt?"
"What happened to you, man?" I said. "Dude, you look like someone's sent you to Guantanamo for a week."
"It's nothing," he said, turning away from me.
I slapped his shoulder again, and he winced. "It's not nothing," I said. "Nothing is where I have to punch you in the nuts to get a squeak out of you. When I can give you a shoulder massage and watch you pass out in pain, that's not nothing man."
"Dude, just leave it, right?" he said. His voice sounded kind of choked.
"Dude, you can tell me what happened, or I can keep hitting those shoulders of yours. Your choice man, but I know what I'd be doing right now."
"Yeah right," he said. "Your mother doesn't get home from whoring on street corners for another hour, so you'd be sat at home playing with yourself."
I leaned in, and squeezed his shoulder. He looked at me, and I punched him in the chest. He couldn't hold the tears back this time.
"Smartass," I said. "Now tell me the deal."

It was the timeless story of course, the one that everyone's been through one way or another. Sometimes the players change a little, but this one was a classic.
"We met in the park," he said, slowly, hesitantly. "She was a beauty, I could see that right from the start. She was barbecuing, managing a dozen burgers, a dozen hotdogs, some sides of onion and slaw with no trouble at all. The sun was shining in a blue, cloudless sky, there were children being mauled by dogs nearby, and their parents were all drunk and rolling out in the kiddie's sandpit. Yet she handled it all with dignity and aplomb, and got that 'cue cooked to perfection. Something inside me knew it then, but I just turned away and walked on, and tried not to regret not making a move."
"But I went back to the park the next day, and she was there again, this time doing fish, with a tinfoil tray of tomatoes and peppers blackening alongside, and I thought to myself, she's versatile. She's flexible. She's got what it takes, and she can go with the flow. She knows how to handle herself. And I nearly went up there then, but there were two guys with her, and I couldn't be certain, but it looked like she might be with one of them. So I walked off again, and forced myself not to look back."
"And it's kind of been like that for a few weeks, but when I went to the park yesterday, she was on her own. She was sat there, cold and magnificent, but she was alone, and so I went up to her, and ran my hand down her side, and she was amazing. I touched her grill and smelled my fingers, she smelled of charcoal and there was a lingering scent of beef; no fish at all. She was mostly clean, but she was dirty where it mattered most, and that was just such a turn-on for me. And she was encouraging me, I could tell. She was such a cute little minx."
"I turned her on, I heated her up, and I took her when she was most passionate."

"Dude, you screwed a barbecue grill?" I said. "Way to go, homie! We thought you were the goat-fucker for sure!"

And there you have it, the timeless tale of 'boy meets grill, grill heats boy, boy ends up in intensive care.' Even Romeo and Juliet doesn't measure up to this.

Monday, 23 June 2008

It's better not to ask

Coxpip, a hobbit of a long-established line of hobbits who dwelled on the other side of the valley, pushed open the heavy wooden door to the Inn of the Shire, and padded inside. The Inn had been serving hobbits for generations, and was owned now by Furzepurple, or Fuzz to both of his friends. Behind his back, which was scarred and knobbled as the result of a childhood bout of Nettles, a particularly odiferous hobbit disease, people referred to him as Furzepustule, but only in quiet voices as the Inn of the Shire was by far the most convenient place to drink. The Inn today was quiet inside, with only three other patrons, all passed out in front of the cold, grey fireplace. Coxpip sniffed the air and recognised the bonfire smell of Americy, a strong narcotic smoked only by indolent and ne'erdowell hobbits. He avoided the unconscious hobbits by the fireplace, and seated himself at the bar.

"Ho Furzepurple!" he called, looking around for the owner cum barman and wriggling uncomfortably on his stool as he realised that it was wet, and that something was now soaking into the seat of his pants. "Furzepurple, are you here?" he called, wondering if he could change seats before anyone else came into the Inn. There was no reply, so he slid off his stool, and perched himself on the one next to him. He looked again around the bar, and this time noticed the stairs beyond the fireplace than led up to the bedrooms. He remembered hearing that once upon a time hobbits had stayed at the Inn when travelling and had praised its cheer and hospitality, but now it seemed that the Inn was not somewhere to spend the night.

Furzepurple fell down the stairs, bouncing on his face as he reached the floor, and sliding along on his prominent nose and chin for a good number of hobbit footlengths. He said nothing, but pulled himself to his feet, which Coxpip noticed were shaved completely smooth and had thin cuts running in parallel lines across the tops of them. He glared at Coxpip until one of his eyes fell out and clunked on the floor. It started to roll, but Furzepurple stuck out a foot and trapped it expertly. He picked it up, and put it back in. Backwards. Coxpip realised at this point that the eye must be made of glass, and forced himself to relax.

"What do you want, 'obbit?" said Furzepurple in glutinous tones. "Why are you disturbing the peace of the Inn?"

"I came for a drink," said Coxpip nervously, hoping that Furzepurple wouldn't make his eye drop out again. "I heard that the Inn of the Shire serves the best Brandywine in the whole of the Shire."

"Not today," said Furzepurple flatly. "All the beer's off today."

"How can that be?" said Coxpip in wonderment. "Can it be that the hobbits of the shire have drunk you dry last night?"

"No, you bleeding pillock," said Furzepurple. He reached up to his face and started to worry at a long splinter in his upper lip. Little droplets of blood formed where he picked at it. "The beer's off cos there's a dead 'obbit in every barrel. Most of 'em drowned in there, but there's a couple that were put there cos 'is wizardship thinks it's a preservative."

Coxpip had gone pale at the mention of spoiled beer, and went paler again at the mention of the dead hobbits.

"What wizard would kill hobbits?" he gasped. "Even in the time of Mordor..." he tailed off, unable to say any more.

"Gandalf, you cretin," said Furzepurple. "Sauron's eye, what kind of cumdump was your mother anyway? Ever since they diagnosed him as having Gulf War syndrome 'e's been a right piece of--" Furzepurple's voice was drowned out by an explosion from somewhere upstairs. "-- and if I wasn't providing 'im with 'obbits for target practise there'd be no Inn of the Shire any more."

"But you're a hobbit yourself!" spluttered Coxpip.

"Nope," said Furzepurple with a toothy grin. "I'm an Orc with a makeover. Now, if you could just go and run to the door and try and escape, I reckon 'is wizardship's 'angover has probably receded enough that he'll give you a bit of an 'eadstart before blowing your legs off and making them dance by themselves while you watch. And bleed to death."

Quality Assurance

"Sandy!" Ron was stood in the door of Sandy's office, shouting cheerfully. His face was red, and he was sweating even in the cool of the office's air-conditioning. "Good news, my boy. The review board have been very pleased with your work in the last three months, you're showing real signs of dedication to our cause. They've recommended that we turn the water and heating on in your little flat."

Sandy tried to smile, but his face seemed to just crease like an aborted piece of origami. He looked tired and dishevelled, and had been sitting behind his desk for the last 35 hours, working on a brief that argued that Oxfam's presence in third-world countries was on a par with that of Nestle. The abacus, with its beads made from tiny human skulls, rattled gently in front of him where he'd been using it just before Ron had turned up.

"Hot water?" he said slowly. "Strong!"

Ron's eyes glazed over slightly as he thought about what else he had to say. "There was something else..." he muttered, half to himself. "Something you could help out with. Oh, that's it! We're employing your mother, so we thought you'd be the ideal person to show her round the company and get her acquainted with the way we work."

"My mother's dead," said Sandy coldly. He found that he could only deal with this by suppressing all emotion when he had to talk about her. "You had her killed to incentivise me. I didn't dare go to her funeral for fear of what else you'd do."

"Well that's the thing," said Ron, looking embarrassed. "Our HR department was looking at their five-year plan of people they'll be surplussing, and the Director pointed out that whenever you see psychics on television, the dead always seem to know a lot more than the living. Being on the other side gives you a far better view of the world. So they've surplussed the entire QA team, and replaced them with a semi-famous psychic, and he's channelling your mother to do the QA job. It's a far more efficient use of resources."

"But what if the psychic channels the wrong person? Or what if my mother doesn't spot a QA issue?" said Sandy. He massaged his temples, feeling a pressure headache starting to build. His eyeballs felt hot and seemed to be popping out of his face.

"Well, that's why we picked your mother," said Ron, shifting his bulk awkwardly. His thighs rubbed together, and little sparks of static electricity crackled in the air. "If there's a problem with her work, we can punish you. You were the person she was begging to be allowed to see before she died, you see, so we're pretty certain she wouldn't want to see you taking the fall for her mistakes..."

Sandy picked the abacus up silently, and started rattling the skulls on their wires from one side to another, apparently calculating. Ron watched him for a few moments, apprehension written clearly across his face, and when nothing else seemed to be happening, relaxed slightly.
"I'll fetch the psychic then," he said. "I think you'll like him, his name's Moloch and he's got a real way with people. Only this morning he was telling me that there's a great shock in store for me in the near future, and that that will take me somewhere that very few people get to go." He shuffled out of Sandy's office, his shoes rubbing on the nylon carpetting.

"Idiot," said Sandy softly, almost under his breath. "We can all see that coming." There was a loud bang and a sudden, high-pitched cry from half-way along the corridor. "The build-up of static was going to get you sooner or later, Ron, all it needed was someone to leave something that could earth it for you lying around where you wouldn't see it until too late." The abacus clicked and rattled ominously. "And very few people get to go to the intensive care burns ward." Finally the rattle of the abacus died away, and Sandy put it back down on the desk.

"Now let's bring on this psychic and see if he's really met my mother."

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Crossing the desert

When I came to crossing the desert, I worried that I hadn't read enough philosophy. I wasn't even half-way through when I concluded that in fact, I'd read too much. What I saw on that journey has stayed with me for the rest of my life so far, and I doubt I'll forget any of it now. There are days though when I wonder if I'm still crossing the desert, and just hallucinating that I've crossed it; but there are other days when I can't get out of bed because I know I died in the desert and can't possibly be here now.

I think those are my good days.

I had been alone in the desert for four days when I met a man who painted round his eyes with something bright, that sparkled in the sunlight and kept me from seeing his eyes. He was older than me, probably in his late thirties, wore a khaki shirt open at the throat, dusty blue shorts and battered brown sandals. His skin was golden brown, lighter than I'd have expected for anyone out in the desert, and he had a rucksack that held bottles of ice-cold water. He tied an orange scarf over his head to protect himself from the sun, and when he smiled at me all I could remember where his teeth; white and even and somehow evoking the quintessence of toothiness.

I was walking across sand at that point, one of the patches of shifting sandy desert that were part of the whole expanse, but on the horizon I could see the bare brown branches of trees, and that was where I was headed. I had a rucksack of my own, and bottles of water enough for six days, but in the desert it is better to be near water than not. It was hard walking, my feet slipped in the white sand, and where it mounded into dunelets, my calves burned as I struggled to the top. The sunlight glared off it, and I squinted until the muscles around my eyes hurt as badly as my calves. Then a shadow fell across my face, and I looked up, and at the top of the latest dunelet was a man who's face glittered and shone like a biblical angel.

He introduced himself as Mordechai, and tried to shake my hand. I had reached his level though, and had raised my hand to shield my eyes and see him properly, so his hand missed, and he didn't offer again. I wasn't worried. Four days of my own company and my own thoughts had made me understand the metaphor of crossing the desert for investigating my own soul, and then understand that it was nothing more than a metaphor. Thinking like that would let the desert kill you.

He told me that he lived a couple of days away on the edge of the desert, and I asked why he was so far out. He was an artist, he told me, he sought inspiration, and he sought artifacts from the desert to use in his work. He took some smoky glass from his pocket and showed it to me: fulgurite, he said. It was formed when lightning struck sand, and was uncommon in the desert. I admired it for him, but it seemed unimpressive to me. The sand particle occluding it seemed to spoil it, and his argument that it was a part of the desert trapped in solid form and made durable didn't convince me.

He walked along with me, sparkling in the afternoon sun, his gaze sweeping across the sand looking for found-things to turn into art, and I didn't object. At first it was night to have company again, and a few hours later, it was interesting that we were still talking and had not exhausted our conversation reservoirs. When the sun sank behind the horizon abruptly, as it likes to do in the desert, and a chill wind sprang up out of nowhere, I stopped. The stars appeared as fast as the sun had vanished, and a cold light let me see my footsteps, but not the trees in the distance. I did not want to stray from my course in the dark; I was already aware that without a fixed reference the wanderer in the desert will walk in circles.

Mordechai evinced surprise that I was stopping, but when I freed the lightweight tent from the bottom of the rucksack and released the catches on the elastic poles to expand it, asked if he could beg shelter for the night as well. I could find no convincing reason to say no, and so he stayed.

Something, and I don't know what, woke me some hours before dawn. The desert has its nighttime noises, but I had already accepted them, and had slept well both night previously. I woke, lying on my back, and then sat up to stretch. I turned slightly, intending to lie back down and go to sleep again, and saw Mordechai, lying also on his back, his arms akimbo. In the dark, in the tent, with no light source to illuminate them, the stuff around his eyes still sparkled slightly, a softly phosphorescent glow, that I could clearly see now were tiny little tentacles like those of a baby squid. They waved, perhaps filtering the air around them, and the eyes sockets they surrounded were dark and empty, mere holes into a man's head.

I rose quietly, slipped my sandals on, and sat outside the tent for the rest of the night, shivering in the desert's chill, building collapsing walls of sand to try to keep the breeze at bay.

Mordechai left in the morning when the sun came up, not saying a word, and I was as silent. I packed the tent, checked my water, and headed off towards the trees, and tried to forget whatever it was I had walked in the desert with that day.

Saturday, 7 June 2008


We'd had a robot dog for years, because my sister was allergic to anything more intelligent that her. My mother, a stern but forgiving woman, had still wanted a pet, so she bought a robot dog. Unsurprisingly the dog outlived my sister, who was run over while chasing a car round the neighbourhood. My mother never cried, she just upgraded the dog until it could check my homework for me and find mistakes. I hated it.

When I left school I went to work in a bakery and moved out into a shared flat with two girls and a mechanical canary that would whistle the Marseillaise whenever they undressed. I closed my door and installed a bolt on the inside, and my mother had the dog upgraded again and sent it to university. At some point, she renamed the dog after me, and me after the dog. I took the hint, and refused to visit.

The mechanical canary exploded, its little head shooting off its body so hard that it embedded itself a foot deep into the ceiling. That was the day after I moved out, and I heard about it through the bakery grapevine. I changed jobs, going to a new bakery and a better salary a few days later. My new flatmate had robo-fish that kept rusting. I kind of liked them.

My mother's dog graduated from university and did three years at graduate school, after which she upgraded again, using designs that it created for her.

The dog killed her three days later, and fled the country. We've not seen it since.

My relatives say it's robo-dementia. I melted my screwdrivers down and flung the shapeless ingots into the river.

Import, Export IV

I have my secretary back, though I'm not sure how long for. I have her in a witness protection programme, although keeping her identity secret for long is probably impossible. I'm hoping at the very least that I can hang on to her for long enough for her to train up her replacement, but it's all very touch-and-go at the moment.

I got her back a few days ago. I sat the board of directors of the firm round the table (a good Redwood round table I got for a song at the Kamisole Karaoke Klub somewhere near Bond street; while I was singing and people were wincing, a couple of my guys were taking the table out the back way), manacled their ankles to the legs of the chairs (upholstered with genuine penguin skin), and put a Ouija board on the table on front of them. We were going to hold a seance.

The Ouija board was one I'd bought specially for the occasion. I did have a small stock of cedar-wood boards I've been selling through eBay, but as the wood was made from the exhumed coffins of unbaptised children (you just need to know the right hospital morgue) I was aware that there was anecdotal evidence that they tended to invoke vengeful spirits. The board was matte and unimpressive, even the font used for the alphabet was boring old Helvetica. The planchette, which I'd coated with adhesive to make sure that the board couldn't take their fingers off it, didn't even sparkle in the brightest of lights.

I checked that the board all had a finger each on the planchette, and sat back from the table, and began the session with the typical invocation,

"Is there anybody there?"

The planchette duly trundled over to the word Yes. I raised an eyebrow, wondering if the board were playing games with me.

"Can you speak?" I said.

Yes indicated the planchette again, but no-one did. My eyebrow stayed raised, and I took a dull brown stone out of my pocket and laid it on the table. I was pleased to see that the planchette seemed to flinch.

"Do you know what this is?" I said.


"Tell me, then."

An Auquiwak exorcism stone indicated the planchette, hurrying from one letter to another fast enough that the board members were grunting in pain.

"Yes," I said. "Used to inflict a lot of pain on the spirit that's misbehaving. Fetch me my secretary and have her manifest herself. Now."

There was a sensation of tension leaving the room, and the board of directors seemed to slump slightly in unison. One or two tried to let go of the planchette at that point and discovered the adhesive. The bravest of them opened his mouth, but before he could speak I pointed at the exorcism stone.

"It works on the living too," I said, and he closed his mouth again and stayed quiet. It was sort of true -- it was surprisingly heavy for its size and would certainly have hurt him when I threw it at him. And I would have kept throwing it at him.

My secretary appeared silently behind one of the older, greyer members of the board, who had a soul-patch that belonged on a man thirty years younger than him. She seemed more silvery that when I'd last seen her alive, and her jaw had been reattached which was quite a relief. She looked at me calmly, the same way she did when I was trying to remember which set of income tax papers to submit.

"I need you back," I said without preamble.

"I've been called to a higher task," she said. "God himself needs a secretary, and I have been chosen."

"He gave you cancer of the jaw in order to summon you into his office?" I said, surprise causing my mouth to gape like a yokel. "What was wrong with the rapture? Hell, Jehova's Witnesses don't get to suffer for six months before they go, and they deserve it!" I didn't mean that last bit, I use the JWs a lot to sell my japanese pornographic manga bible to schoolkids. They never bother to open it to find out what kind of bible it is.

"Well," said my secretary looking a little bit startled, "I hadn't thought of it like that..."

"And is it really fun? Heaven's supposed to be perfect. What do you do all day? Do you have to handle irate customers coming in and voiding their warranty all over the shop-floor? Or do you just make the tea and compliment the angels on their wings?"

"A little bit dull, compared with working for you..." she was wavering now, and I pounced.

"Then come back and keep working for me, at least for a little bit. I can't cope without you, you know!"

"I had noticed that you seemed to be having a hard time hiring my replacement," she said, smiling at last.

"Come back then!" I said.

I had to watch her face like a hawk at this point, and the instant she relaxed her smile, showing that she really did like the sound of the idea, I picked up the exorcism stone and hurled it at the youngest board member. It bounced off his forehead onto the table, and something off-white spilled backwards out of his head. It billowed in the air for a few seconds, trying to find a shape. My secretary was simultaneously sucked forwards by the sudden spiritual vacuum left in his body, and was absorbed. The board member's body collapsed, and I watched anxiously.

"I say," said the newly homeless spirit. "What happened there?"

"You've been made redundant," I said. "Good luck with the rest of your existence."

My secretary sat up slowly, stretching her new body and glaring at me. When she started swearing in three languages I knew that I had her back, body and soul.

There have been some oddities since then though, strange little sick miracles, that make me think that God is on the look-out for where my secretary has gone. I came in one morning to find that one of the mechanics had developed a kind of Midas touch, and everything he touches turns to mould. I have him in cold storage while I figure out the selling angle on this one. Another morning we had a rain of dogs, so I have a corral full of large hairy woof-ing things with assorted broken limbs. At least I don't have to worry about a sell-by date there.

But business is back to normal, at least for a little while!

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Import, Export III

Business is probably doing well at the moment, but I'm finding it hard to tell. I came into a shipment of terrapins about a week back, none of which were expected to survive more than a month or so. Marketing first suggested we sell them as disposable pets, but the last time I had a run in with the RSPCA I discovered that they have a paramilitary branch. I can still remember being pursued across moorland by two very angry Doberman Pinschers and a poodle with a remotely detonated bomb strapped to its chest. So I nixed that idea.
Their next idea was a good one though; we're selling them as instant turtle soup. You pop the top on the can that hold them, pour in boiling water and use a hand-held mixer to whizz the soup up, then drink it. We've had to shell the terrapins, obviously, but the shells make reasonably good casings for splinter grenades, and there's still a market for small explosives.

The problem is that my secretary succumbed to her cancer of the jaw two weeks ago, and I'm having trouble without her. The amount of paperwork that comes our way is mountainous, and a lot of it needs attention to make sure that the right set of carefully reconstructed documents is sent back with it. Send out the wrong set, and there's a whole world of people who need persuading to look the other way again. And I can't cope with it anymore, I just don't do paperwork well.

I've gone through five replacements for her in one week, and none of them have been up to the job. The first one let the clockwork penguin out of the locked safe and it waddled to the middle of the goods yard and stood their ticking to itself again until I sent a couple of the explosives lads out to recapture it. That thing gives me the creeps. I locked the new guy in the safe with the penguin, to see if that casts any light on the enigma.
The second one somehow managed to staple himself to the photocopier half-way through his first morning. The third one decided to inventory the warehouse and we found him deliquescing near the holding pens we use when we're sending giraffes out.
The fourth one is actually the second one again -- I unstapled him and performed a quick'n'brutal lobotomy to see if we could curb curiosity without damaging too much higher-brain function. For a few hours everything seemed to be going well; he was more of a mouth-breather than before, but at least the email was shifting and the postsacks were starting to empty. Then we found him stapled to the photocopier again. This time I left him there for anyone who wants him.
The fifth one tried emailing copies of everything to the local tax office (which thankfully still hasn't recovered from the EMP pulse). The mail server spotted the unauthorised email address and electrified the keyboard. The office smells pleasantly of roasted pork.

So I'm missing a secretary, the paperwork is mounting up, and my stress levels are through the roof. I have had a bit of a brainwave though, about how I might be able to get my old secretary back. I shall need to do some planning.