Saigon Kiss (Part 2 of 3)

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The building is both ornate and crumbling; gaudy luxury, slowly succumbing to decay and rot. We ride in an elevator with gilded brass doors stamped with fine scroll work depicting olive leaves, peacocks, poppies. The doors open to a hallway lined with dark green wallpaper stained with mold. Soil-brown carpet plush enough to hide our footfalls. Fake crystal electric chandeliers, waning like dying suns. No other signs of life in the building. We arrive at the entrance to Jill’s apartment; a massive pair of black oak doors that curve inward at the top, then rise to a point. The tarnished brass doorknocker, a demonic gargoyle. Hon shies away from it.

“This girl is okay,” I tell her. “I’ve worked with her a couple of times. She is a little weird, though.”

“It’s a weird night,” Hon answers.

I silently agree. Mong flying like a discarded marionette, going from person to scrap meat in the blink of an eye. Boris dead too. The police questioned us for six hours. Fines were paid for “disturbing the peace,” then they let us go. I grasp the ring and knock it three times against the door. After a brief wait, I can hear the sounds of metal bars being slid back.

Jill stands before us. Still skinny as a kid, but undeniably a woman. Long blue hair and a lollipop. She’s wearing an old-school, black VR helmet with goggles that cover her face, a white tank top and very short pink shorts. What makes Hon gasp are the numerous cords and tubes running from Jill’s neck, wrist and spine ports to a rig on the ceiling, suspended over what looks like a black dentist’s chair.

“Come in,” she says, taking the candy out of her mouth. “Be right with you.”

She turns away, dragging the forest of coils with her. Some of them are semi-opaque and dyed in pastel colors, lighting up in hot pink, baby blue and teal green as electricity courses through them. We remove our shoes and I reengage the locks, then turn to face the apartment.

A small pair of rooms, made smaller by stacks of computer decks and monitors, each one showing something different; coding elements, live chats, Japanese cartoons. There are couches and chairs in a variety of styles from Victorian to Mod. On the floor, dirty dishes, wrappers, half-finished books, discarded clothes. Next to the dentist’s chair, a low coffee table, covered with random items; electronic components, empty bottles, clockwork dolls, a gas mask, tiny animal skulls. Bioluminescent fish flash on and off in a tank and I spot a sheathed samurai sword, an electric guitar and yoga mat in the corners.

Jill lies down on the chair and moves her hands in the air like she’s conducting an invisible orchestra. She’s wearing fingerless gloves that are wired to the rig.

We wait.

“Almost got it…shoot.”

She shakes her head and sighs, then pushes her goggles up, revealing her large brown eyes with slight epicanthic folds. Touches a panel and hoses began to detach with hisses of chilled air. Stands up and yanks her jacks out by hand until she looks more or less normal, with the exception of mobile, self-modifying tattoos that wander up and down her arms and legs and across her collarbones.

“Welcome to The Chancel,” she says.

“It’s been a while,” I say. I know better than to offer a handshake or a hug.

“Hello,” says Hon.

Jill raises an eyebrow. “Hello! Who’s this?”

“A bystander,” I say.

“Has she got a name?”

“Hon, this is Jill. Jill, Hon.”

“He save my life,” Hon said. “Now I follow.”

“Cute and articulate,” Jill teases me. “Okay, what did you bring me?”

I hold out the object I took from the case. Jill plucks it from my fingers, turns it over.

“This is single use,” she says. “You plug it into a bio port. I can probably crack it and make a copy to work with. What’s on it?”

“We were hoping you would tell us. Some serious players are after it.”

“Oooh!” She says over-dramatically, her eyes widening. “How serious?”

“Chinese Triad trigger man with a 3D-printed shotgun. Several people are dead already.”

Her face falls. “I’m sorry.” She brightens. “Tea?”

“Sure.”

She bounces to the kitchen nook and starts filling up a kettle.

Xin li em gái,” Hon calls after her. Bn có nói được tiếng Vit không?

Jill turns around, smiling. Vâng! And the two of them begin chattering away. Bored, I watch the monitors. I never bothered to learn the local language. It’s a matter of holding on to my identity. When you’re debt-exiled from your homeland but you still miss it, you want to preserve every little piece of your culture that you can.

Jill’s story is different. Half foreigner, half local, she doesn’t fit in anywhere. Gets called “spawn of a whore” for being the result of a local and a tourist’s one night of passion. She began to develop agoraphobia a couple of years ago, and now she never leaves her building. Drones bring her supplies and she freelances on-line; coding, hacking, dream-shaping, whatever pays. There’s a faded red scar in the shape of a pair of lips on Jill’s left calf. A lot of locals and not a few expats have the same mark. They call it a Saigon Kiss, and you get it when you accidentally brush a bare leg up against the hot exhaust pipe of a sky bike. Saigon burned Jill too many times and she never got over it.

We sip tea while Jill works with the object plugged into an isolated computer to protect herself and her equipment from viruses or worse.

“No way,” she pronounces, then looks back at us. “Are you being serious with me?”

“What is it?” I ask.

“This isn’t data. I mean, it’s got a protocol on it to deliver the contents to the user, but most of it is a chemical compound.”

“So it’s a drug.”

“Yes and no. It’s a catalyst that stimulates a natural neurological process and then regulates it. You’ve heard of serotonin, right?”

“Sure. Body’s natural pleasure drug.”

“Yeah, okay, so what this supposedly does is artificially ramp up serotonin production but then holds it in a reservoir and then releases it very slowly.”

“Why would you want to do something like that?”

One of serotonin’s jobs is to give us our sense of time. This configuration–” she gestures at a group of interlocking hexagrams on her monitor that mean nothing to me. “The user is going to experience time at a significantly slower speed than everyone else.” She pauses, wonder creeping across her face. “This is going to be the biggest drug in history.”

“I don’t get it. So it slows down time?” I say.

“It slows your perception of time. Things still happen at the same speed, but for you, they seem to take forever. Think of the uses. Your honeymoon could last as long as you wanted it to. A prisoner could serve a sentence that would take a few minutes in real life but still seem like years to them, so they could get the punishment but still have their life at the end. Are you starting to see the possibilities here?” She is flush with excitement, a glow that gives my heart a sudden, strange ache.

The power goes out. We sit in near-total darkness.

“Generator in the basement,” Jill says. “Give it a second.”

The lights kick on again, albeit dimmer.

“They’re here,” I tell her.

“Dude, don’t worry. I’ve got countermeasures and stuff.” She starts reattaching her cables and hoses.

“What do I do?” Hon asks.

“You might have to go in the garbage chute.”

“What?”

I can’t tell, but I am reasonably sure Hon is seething in the dark.

“That’s our exit point. If we have to escape, we go down the garbage chute. Stand by it, make sure it’s clear, that nothing’s coming up it,” Jill replies.

“What could be coming up the garbage chute?” I ask.

Jill reactivates the monitors hooked to the security cameras.

“Them,” she says.

It takes me a moment to figure out what I’m seeing. We’re down to emergency lighting; dim red beacons that barely pierce the shroud of darkness. The entire neighborhood must be out of power.

Things move in the shadows. Unnatural shapes. They’re climbing.

They have hands like people. Evolution has yet to produce a better gripping appendage than the opposable thumb, so why not copy it? The things coming up the sides of the building have four of them-one at the end of each of their overlong arms and legs. The result is that they can move very quickly up the side of the building. There are at least three of them.

“Arties,” Jill says.

Advanced Rugged Terrain Robots. With their backward-bending knees and black chassis, they look like some kind of hellish, headless hounds. Once they have reached Jill’s floor, they can employ a variety of tools to cut, drill or blast their way in. Probably they won’t just detonate. Probably. The Cabal doesn’t want to damage their prize. Doesn’t rule out poison gas, though. Jill has one gas mask. I wonder if I can grab it before she does.

“Who are these people?” I ask casually, eyeing the mask. “Boris mentioned a Cabal?”

“Not really a solid entity,” she says. “More like an understanding between shadow governments, private banks, companies with offshore accounts. They work together to pull the strings. They almost never talk about it openly. It’s all done with symbols and codes. They have one rule: eat the sheep, not the other wolves.”

The Arties’ ascension is swift. Hand over hand, they scurry up the side of the building, finding purchase on the lips of balconies, railings, window ledges.

“They’re almost here,” I observe. “Whatever you’re going to do, do it soon.”

“Did you order something?” Hon calls out.

Jill and I turn to look out the window, where a swarm of mini-drones hovers.

On another monitor, I can see that a team of masked men has breached the ground floor. Black bulletproof armor and hand-held rail guns.

“Get down!” Jill yells. “And hold on to something!”

 

To Be Concluded…

 

 

Author’s Note: I’d be happy to credit the art work if I knew the source. Retrieved from http://postadosol.com

 

 

 

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Where Do Story Ideas Come From (Part 4)

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There’s an ancient joke about how many guitarists it takes to change a light bulb; the answer is ten—one to change the bulb and nine to say “Eh, I could do it better.” As a guy who has a dad who played guitar in several bands in our hometown, I can confirm that this is the sentiment of a lot of them. It’s occurred to me more than once that writing is like playing guitar in more ways than one. Most writers are not original; we recycle the same genres, archetypes and plots. The art comes in our individual small choices to be different—a little flourish or run here or there, an unexpected turn or interpretation of something we’ve all heard before. Every writer has had the experience where he reads something and thinks that his little touches would require more talent, more skill than what he’s just read. That’s if we’re being nice. Sometimes, we’ll ask anyone who will listen, “How did this piece of crap get published?” before sinking into despondence and depression at the state of the publishing world or the supposed stupidity of the public.

Or we can use it as an opportunity to say, “Eh, I could do better,” and then actually go and do it. This requires more than being an armchair critic. It’s putting your money where your mouth is. If you’re such hot stuff, prove it. Retell the story, but fix where you think it sucked. You may end up going in a completely different direction than you intended, but that’s okay. That’s what being an artist is all about.

So that’s my advice. Feel free to stop reading there, because the rest of this is going to be a long, self-indulgent rant about a crappy book that I read 18 years ago, why it sucked, and so forth. If you care about that kind of thing, read on. If not, I bid you adieu.

As I’ve been writing The Novel, several times it’s happened that what I have just written reminds me of something else that I read once and I have to go back and check and make sure I didn’t completely rip it off. If anything new comes out that sounds remotely similar, I have to read/watch that as well. Yes, all artists steal, there’s no original ideas, blah blah blah. I take pride in trying to add my own touches. I’ve never understood writers who seem to take glory in something they’ve written that’s completely derivative. They have to look at themselves in the mirror and realize what they are, and I don’t know how they live with themselves. Maybe they dry their tears with the money.

Anyway, I went and did this back check, because I remembered another book that I’d read that was basically the same premise, and I had to see if they were different enough. The book in question and I have long parted ways, so I bought it again and re-read it. I seem to remember at the time it being kind of bland. This time, it was worse than I had remembered. Not just bland, but aggressively stupid.

The main character was supposed to be angry, in fact, “angry” is in the title. Other than in the beginning, where he gets into fights, he never displays anger or seemingly feels it again. It’s not like he grows as a character or anything; the author could have shown how the new planet changes him; it could be a growth process where his anger puts him into conflicts and he has to realize, learn and change. Nope. The author seemingly forgets about showing the anger—or any other personality trait.

Speaking of conflicts, there aren’t many of those either. He leaves his translation machine and the space port and so can’t talk easily to the natives, and that’s about it. The other two action scenes are 1.) a dream sequence and 2.) a scene where you think something’s happening but it’s really just a movie being filmed. Two of the laziest, most overused clichés in writing.

This is a romance, but that’s pretty thin as well. There’s no conflict there, no lovers separated and brought together in the final act. It could have been a great chance to explore the emotional dynamics of what an interstellar, inter-species love affair would be like, but the protagonist fornicates with a consenting, talking octopus and that’s it. No reflection. The author seems to be saying, “Look kids! A guy screwing a squid! Isn’t that cool? Science fiction!” There are not even any good sex scenes.

This is a set on an alien world, but there are no gee-whiz flights of imagination. It could have just as easily been told in a mundane setting in a foreign country on Earth, with a girl from another race as the love interest. In fact, I’m almost 100% certain that this was the genesis of it.

The final indignity of this cur of a story was that for science fiction, it contained almost no science.  Now, I’m not strictly a hard science guy; some of my favorite authors are Bradbury, Gibson and Dick. These are guys who dwell not so much on scientific fact as the human condition in light of technology or aliens. But as I’ve already said, there’s not much of the human condition explored in the novel, either. (There’s one scene where the protagonist goes to take a picture of an alien woman selling vegetables and then decides that it’s wrong to do so because this is her daily life, not a photo opportunity. That wasn’t bad.) So not every sci-fi book has to be Greg Bear-tier, but you should make an attempt to not have any science errors that would be laughed at by a 6th grader.

To wit: the protagonist goes to the new planet on a rocket. Not a spaceship. A rocket is a device good for helping one escape Earth’s gravitational pull, but not much else. This rocket, by the way, doesn’t have a light speed drive, neither does it go through a wormhole or anything that might help it get to another solar system in a time span of less than hundreds of thousands of years. There’s no cryogenic chamber in which the space traveler may rest in suspended animation for uncountable centuries. Nope. Just a rocket.

Now, it’s been said that audiences will grant science fiction approximately one impossible thing per story. Adhering strictly to the known laws of science is fairly limiting, but the unspoken implication is that such things might be possible by some as-yet-discovered invention or exception to the laws of science. (We jokingly refer to this technique as “hand wave” technology, as in, just wave your hand to dismiss any questions of how it might work.)

So I will grant the author one hand wave. During the aforementioned fights (which are not, by the way, graphic, detailed, choreographed, or in any way interesting,) the street brawlers use some kind of advanced medical technology to heal themselves so they can keep fighting and avoid arrest after the inevitable trip to the emergency room. This is actually cool, and is one of the few good ideas of the book. Maybe the only one.

After this, the author gets super lazy, because he sends the protagonist to a completely underwater world to teach English to octopus people. What octopus people would do with English is never quite explained. Emigrate to Earth and live in our oceans? Don’t need to speak for that. Stay on their planet and talk English with…tourists who come to their mostly agrarian underwater society? Earth businessmen wishing to travel millions of miles to trade seaweed?

You may be asking how the humans breathe. Well, aha, the author has thought of that. Rebreathers! The hero removes the carbon from his exhalations and breathes his own stale, recycled oxygen…for a year. And how does he talk underwater, in order to teach English to these intelligent squid? Hand wave.  How does he keep his skin from waterlogging? Hand wave.

After re-reading this book, I became angry. Someone wrote this tripe; okay, it happens. First thing I wrote was a piece of crap. I was even foolish enough to self-publish it.  But someone took this out of the slush pile, kicked up the chain of command, and everyone signed off on it. Several editors approved it. A talent agent represented it. A PR team put together a promotion.  And along the way, nobody went, “Hey, this is excrement.”

Lest you think I am simply talking sour grapes, allow me to quote from the (9) reviews on Amazon:

“As I read it, I kept on hoping that it would get rolling and all the seeming promise would be fulfilled. As the book went on, I became more and more frustrated and disappointed. Surely it would get better. It didn’t.”

“… (the book’s) science often falls apart (how did a liquid-covered planet ever develop metallurgy?)”

“Don’t read it for the Science in “Science Fiction”; it would probably disappoint you.” 

(The other stunning, 4.5 star reviews sound like they were written by flacks working for the publisher.)

The book was published in 2000, which means it was written in the nihilistic 90’s. There were a lot of books published in the 90’s that were pointless and wandering. It was a pointless, wandering time. The author‘s weltanschauung matched society’s zeitgeist. So, at best, the book is outdated, which is probably the worst thing a science fiction book can be besides unimaginative, which it also is.

So, can I do it better? Can I write a novel that has interesting characters, an active plot, philosophical commentary, suspense, twists, scientific realism and originality? Stay tuned.

 

 

Saigon Kiss (Part 1)

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Nighttime in the neon jungle. The buildings are supernal trees of plexiglass and titanium planted close enough that you can parkour from one rooftop to another. There’s a permanent cobalt twilight created by the glow from the city lights, muted and diffused by the marine layer from the river and smog from robot factories in the countryside. Solid light does stab the gloom; search beams from heliships and seizure-inducing strobes from hundred-meter-high holoboards. The rain slashes at an angle, the light painting it as long streaks, like white tracer bullets. Half the city is awake; I can see figures in a thousand lit windows, their silhouettes putting on shadow plays of tragedy and romance behind a pallete of pastel-colored window shades. A magnet train slips past on the elevated tracks and hover taxis glide by like ghosts. There is no sound but the swish of the rain on concrete.

When the rain is over, the city’s denizens will return to the streets; the security guards hustling hash, the kids peddling skin, the automatic monks hawking the latest illegal upgrades for your wetware. Every city has its fleshpots where you can indulge in whatever brand of vice the locals offer and not count the cost until much, much later; years maybe, before you figure out that the place has pick-pocketed the part of you that cares about anything. In Saigon, they call that area Pham Ngu Lao. Technically, the street where everything happens is Bui Vien, but for some reason Pham Ngu Lao Street is the reference point everyone uses. Pham Ngu Lao. It is a password, a mantra, a spell; your key to an exotic, spice-scented escape from your normal life. Saigon itself begins whispering it to you as soon as you step off the hover jet. Sky cabbies murmur it with a wink and a sly smile and a nod. They know why you’re in their country, and it’s not for the rice noodles. Pham Ngu Lao himself was some kind of ancient war hero, and I always wonder what he thinks of his namesake.

I’m in a nameless bar; concrete walls, rotting wicker chairs, and ceiling fans that chop through what some would romantically refer to as mist but is really more like smoke. One fan sputters and rattles like a dying propeller. The bartender–a woman named Mong–has one breast. I think she lost the other in a fire. The lone waitress, who is called Hon, listlessly drifts from table to table, using metal tongs to drop slabs of dirty ice into your drink whether you want it or not. Hon has an eye patch and will give full massages for five bucks if you ask her. Above the bar is a stuffed monkey, its mouth permanently open, fangs bared in an eternal silent scream of hate. Hon is wearing white jean cutoffs with the top button missing, an orange mesh shirt and red cowboy boots. She clumps up to me, bow-legged.

“Today you no work,” she chants, stumbling over the simple phrase. Hon’s English is broken and no one has ever bothered to fix it. I look up, mildly annoyed. I had just achieved the perfect balance between the effects of coconut rum and synth, and now she’s upsetting my hard-earned tranquility.

“It’s raining,” I point out.

“You always here, you never work. Why you no go home you country?”

“I’m retired.”

“You no old man. Maybe 30. How can retire?”

“Cryptocurrency.”

She scrunches up her nose, indicating she doesn’t understand or much approve. Any tech beyond instant messaging might as well be rocket science to a girl like Hon.

“So you don’t want me to be here?” I asked. “Is that what you’re telling me?”

Hon makes a show of shrugging. “You go, more foreigner come, I no care.” She turns and lopes away. I wonder what she’s getting at. One night she told me that she had worked at the bar for 23 years, which seemed improbable. Maybe she’s had some gene-crafting done. She has high cheekbones, pouty lips and not an ounce of fat. Why hasn’t she gotten her hooks into some tourist and ridden him back home to greener pastures? I’ve never asked. Maybe no one wants her because of her missing eye. She’s never bothered to get an implant. I never ask her about that, either.

I have a theory that there are only two things that are certain in life: McDonald’s and whores. Anywhere you go in the world, you will find them. This comes as no surprise. When you have a product that everyone wants and you can mass-produce it cheaply, then you have a recipe for success. Your franchise will spread across the world, offering people familiar, tasty relief. People will flock to your temple of deliciousness, health risks be damned. I’m talking about whores, but the same holds true for McDonald’s. Hon’s a whore in the same sense that she’s a waitress and a janitor and a shoe shiner and a peddler of batteries and bags of peanuts. It’s just one more service that she provides, no more or less meaningful than any other in her repertoire.

It’s not true that I never work. It just looks that way to the uninitiated. Other foreigners visit me from time to time, we chat, and they walk away, leaving a backpack or a briefcase behind. When I see them again, I give it back to them–hey, you left this here last time–and the contents have changed from cash to something else. Mong has a pretty good idea what’s going on, but I slip her a cut every month and she conveniently leaves my activities out of her monthly reports.

I take another hit from the synth and try to recapture the transcendent bliss that the raven-haired doxy dispelled. I’ve just about achieved it when Boris comes careening through the front door. His clothes are disheveled from the rain and probably from sleeping in them. He’s carrying a case, which is good because it means a job. He’s also leaking blood from several places, which I understand is generally considered bad.

Mong is out from behind the door in a flash, screaming about the mess she’s going to have to clean up, the damage to her reputation, the negotiations with the police, the lost income when everyone gets scared off. I look around the bar and it’s otherwise completely empty. Boris halts in front of me, gasping for air. At least two of his wounds are bullet holes. The rest appear to be knife slashes and scrapes from falling on pavement. His thick face is lined with pain.

“You have to hide this,” he murmurs, thrusting the black case at me. “Don’t give it to anyone.”

“Boris, you need a doctor,” I tell him, like he doesn’t know already.

“No,” he said. “Boris is done. They’re coming.”

Boris’ real name isn’t Boris, of course. I never know the real name of my contacts, just like I never know what’s in the cases. Insurance policy. I don’t think Boris is even Russian. He might be Bulgarian or something.

“Who’s coming?”

Mong steps in the middle of us. She’s stopped screaming, but she’s got a dirty mop and she’s scrubbing away at the blood spots, smearing them and cursing in her native tongue.

“The Cabal. They want what’s in here.”

“Money? Whose is it? And what’s the cabal?”

He shook his head. “This is the goods from another deal. Went bad. Everyone dead.”

“No,” I say firmly. “I’m not getting involved in someone else’s—”

“Will you listen to me? This is most serious cargo you have ever handled. World changing. It’s—”

I hold up a hand. “I don’t want to know. Let this…cabal…have their case. I’m taking you to Cho Ray.” Cho Ray Hospital is all the way over in District 5, but they’re open all night and don’t ask questions if you wave enough money at them. We can use Hon’s sky bike and be there before Boris bleeds out.

Boris pulls a gun. Mong curses louder. Hon screams and drops a bottle. Where did Boris get a gun? Even I have trouble getting my hands on one in this country.

“If Cabal gets it, they will rule this world forever.” He charges out the back door, leaving me holding the briefcase.

A volley of shots in the alley. Their metallic clatter echoes through the open door. I know that Boris is dead without even going outside. Moments later, his killer strolls into the bar. Tall. Unusually tall for an Asian. Chinese, maybe. I heard they’ve been growing them in labs. Black trench coat, sawed-off shotgun over one shoulder. Sunglasses. At night. And a face absolutely devoid of empathy or pity.

Mr. Merciless Sunglasses points at the case.

I extend it to him. “We didn’t open it. No idea what’s inside. And nobody here will remember what you look like or that you were even here.”

“Put the case on the floor and back away from it,” he says in flat, flawless English.

I start to comply, and hesitate. Something’s wrong. I can feel it. He’s going to kill all of us. Don’t know how I know, I just do.

Mong steps forward just then. Fury radiates off her. She pokes the guy in the chest and unleashes the most god-awful burst of profanity I’ve ever heard. It’s in at least three languages and involves unspeakable acts of depravity involving the gunman, his mother and several barnyard animals. The guy actually takes a step back from this tirade and I think he’s going to bolt.

Then his arm comes down and he pulls the trigger on the shotgun. Mong is blown backward and she goes flying like a rag doll in a high wind. I don’t even have time to decide how I feel about this, because the next thing that happens is Hon cracks him over the back of the head with a full bottle of alcohol. She had to reach up to do it, but it distracts him. I don’t want to be shown up by a couple of girls, so I do the only thing I can think of—I throw the case at his head. It doesn’t do much, but it feels good to be involved.

The gunman is leaning over, though, and Hon takes a running start and leaps on his back. She gets an arm around his throat, but he twists out of it and throws her tiny body on the floor. He points the shotgun at her. But she’s bought me all the time I need.

When you’re smoking synth, you have to keep the flame applied to it constantly. I’ve got an industrial grade burner in my pocket and I whip it out and pull the trigger, thumbing the flame control over to maximum. Of course I’m not going to be able to use the burner from where I’m standing, but I can throw it. The flame stays on and I lob it like a grenade at our attacker, whose head and shoulders are soaking in Mong’s homemade moonshine, which is part ethanol and part hover jet fuel. The Chinese gunman is suddenly enveloped in fire and he screams in a way I know that I’ll never forget. He starts running, flames sheeting off of him, and after banging into a couple of tables, he staggers out the door and disappears down the street. The rain has quit; otherwise he’d be put out in seconds.

Hon and I look at each other, panting, shell-shocked. “Well,” she says. “You boss now.”

I don’t reply; just walk over to the case that has caused us so much trouble. The cops will be on the way, and I’m not looking forward to their questions. My mind is spinning. Do we run? Do we stay put and proclaim our innocence? The case has broken open and I pick it up. Can’t help but look inside.

There’s a small, circular wafer of metal with a jack on one end. Looks like its compatible with a neck port, but no way am I plugging it into me without knowing what it is first.

“Okay, when police coming, we know nothing. Russian man and Chinese man fight,” Hon says. She’s already sweeping up the broken glass.

“That’s not going to work,” I tell her. “They’re going to want to know why he killed Mong.”

“So give them case. Problem solve.”

“Yeah, about that…”

The thing about Boris is he isn’t—wasn’t—an idiot. A drunk, yes, a cad, and a lay-about, but not a fool. He didn’t stick his neck out. If he took this cargo with him instead of just leaving it, he must have had a good reason. What had he said? “World-changing.” That sounded like a fat payday to me, maybe one that could allow me to actually retire.

“I don’t want Boris and Mong to have died for nothing,” I say. “I’m going to find out what this is. But first, help me drag Boris’ body in here. It will help support the fight story.”

 

To Be Continued…

 

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Where Do Story Ideas Come From (Part 3)

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Whatever your art form, if you’re stuck for inspiration, there’s one sure-fire way to get things going: travel. I know, you’re saying, “I can’t afford to travel.” The thing is, you can, it’s just a matter of prioritizing. In 2012, I used my tax return to buy a round-trip ticket to Asia. There were a lot of other things I could have spent that money on, but I wanted to shake things up. I got a job here so I could stay longer and go deeper, and long story short, now I live here. You don’t have to go that far, but changing your input can definitely change your output.

One of the first places that I went was Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (It’s the temple from one of the Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider movies.) I went in October, so it was less crowded. Most people go for the sunrise; it’s definitely a bucket list item. Once these people had their photo op or selfie, they mostly disappeared, leaving me virtually alone with the magical and mysterious temple.

Something I learned from an older woman who had grown up in Cambodia was the wat’s strange and spooky origin. It’s a massive and sprawling complex and a feat of engineering that rivals some of the greatest monuments in the world. But this woman told me that the Cambodians will confess in quiet moments that they did not build it.

Local legends say that it was built by demons. At night.

Man, that is cool. It got my writer’s wheels turning and it’s the kind of thing that I never would have heard if I hadn’t traveled. Another cool thing about the temple is the dinosaur pillar:

tr2

What was most remarkable about the carving is that the locals were so nonchalant about it. They didn’t hype it; they were really casual. It was like it was just a part of the fabric of their normal lives. Now, I don’t think this is really a carving  of a Stegosaurus; for one thing, it’s got no spiked tail. Also, it could have been carved the previous week for all I know. It doesn’t really matter; my creativity was triggered. I started writing a novel, which I think is about a year away from being ready for publication.

So,  I would highly recommend changing your location for awhile. You may have to make some sacrifices, but doesn’t all great art require sacrifice?

Wired

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I was washing my hair when I found the electric plug growing out of my head.

My hair was short back then, so I would really scrub my head hard when I washed it, like you’d scratch a dog. Whenever I did this, it would send chills across my shoulders. It was in the middle of one of those self-massages when my fingers brushed against a pair of tiny hard lumps in that shallow groove that everyone has above their neck.

The lumps had definitely not been there the day before. Replaying the past 24 hours in my mind, I tried to remember if I had bumped my noggin anywhere. Came up empty. Eyes stinging from the shampoo suds that had begun to leak into my eyes, I finished my morning ritual. A quick look with the help of the shaving mirror revealed two red, round marks, like insect bites.

At work, I couldn’t stop touching them. Sitting at my desk, I tried to focus on filing reports, but the bites itched. A lot. I put some rubbing alcohol on them, but it didn’t seem to help. There was a pressure on the inside, like the insect had laid eggs in my neck and the larva were struggling to break through the skin.

During lunch, my co-worker Amber came up behind me and said, “Hey, Steve! Nice nape piercings! I had no idea you were into that.” Amber is one of those people who seems to have gotten her entire lifestyle from a Daddy-didn’t-love-me kit; piercings, tattoos, blue hair, long sleeves to hide the cut marks.

I had no idea what she was talking about, so I reached behind me and touched my neck. The bumps were definitely bigger. And they felt like metal. I turned around and gave her what I hoped was a knowing smile, but inside, I was terrified. What was happening?

The hospital was a nightmare. I tried to explain to the intake nurse (who was obese—how can you be in health care and be that fat?) what the problem was and she didn’t seem to get it. “You been in some kind of accident?” she asked, looking up from her computer. She had these absurdly long purple fingernails that clicked and clacked as she typed.

“No,” I explained. “I don’t know how it happened. I’ve just got these things and they’re—” I stopped. I didn’t want to say growing. That sounded insane. “They’re pushing their way out,” I finished lamely.

She looked at me with bulging eyes. “You got metal in yo head and you don’t know how it got there.”

“Basically, yeah.”

“Have you taken any psychotropic substances recently? Bath salts? Spice?”

“I don’t do drugs. Look!” I turned around and pointed to my neck. “Does it look like I’m hallucinating those?”

“You gonna need to check your tone with me, sir,” she said, popping her gum. “I don’t have to sit here and take your abuse.”

Turning back around, I put my hands up in a placating manner. “I’m sorry. I’m just a little freaked out right now.”

“Mmm-hmm.” she said, picking up a desk phone and punching a number but not breaking eye contact with me. A little while later, a burly male intern came in and hustled me off to radiology. He took X-rays of my head. Then I sat in a room for what seemed like days but was probably only thirty minutes. Finally, a doctor came in with my X-ray results in his hand. He looked far too young to be a doctor.

“Hello, Steve. I’m Dr. Nguyen. How are you feeling?”

“I’m okay. Except for—you know.” I gestured to my neck.

Dr. Nguyen didn’t reply, but put my X-rays into the holding clips on the light screen. I sat there in shock. There was quite clearly an electrical plug in my head, and what looked like about six inches of cord coiled up. The other end of it seemed to be attached to my brain.

He turned back towards me. “All right, do you mind telling me how you did this?”

“How I—”

“Well not you. You had this done somewhere. I’ve never seen trepanning on the occipital before. The plug is in the gap…here…right between your skull and your spine and the cord goes right along your brain stem to the pineal gland. If you were going to have a plug inside your skull, that would be the only place to put it. That is some major surgery and it’s going to take a lot to get it out.”

“Get it out?”

“Yeah, I would highly recommend not having an object that size inside your head. If it shifts and starts pressing on your cerebellum, you won’t be able to walk.”

“But I don’t know how it got there. Don’t you think we should figure out where it came from before we start messing with it?”

“Look, I’m not interested in playing games with you. Obviously you want it out; that’s why you’re here. I’ll need to put a team together to start planning the procedure. Need to run some more tests…how’s your insurance? This won’t be cheap.”

“I’ve got some from work. HMO.”

“I hope they cover this. Meantime, does it hurt?”

“Itches.”

“I can give you some topical cream for it, but that’s about it. I gotta tell ya, this is the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen.”

***

My girlfriend Jenny seemed far less worried about it than I did. “It looks like it’s forcing its way out,” she said, showing me a picture that she took with her phone. I was astounded to see that the square edges of the plug were now on the outside. The strangest part was that there still wasn’t any hole in my head. It just looked like the plug was part of my head. “It’ll probably just come out by itself.”

“Will you stay over tonight?” I asked. Jenny hadn’t moved in with me yet, even though we’d been seeing each other for months. I didn’t mind at all. I liked the freedom. Felt like college again. The truth was, I was scared now and I wanted her close to me.

Later, as we held each other, she asked, “Can I touch it?”

Somehow, this seemed even more intimate than anything we had ever done together. Finally I said, “Sure,” trying to sound casual. She handled it gently, carefully running her fingers over the prongs. There were three of them now; two rectangular brass pins and a cylindrical grounding pin. The housing on the plug was hard, black plastic.

“Hey, what would happen if you plugged it in?” she said suddenly.

I shied away from her, my hand going up to protect my head.

She looked wounded. “Just joking, Steven.”

“I don’t think this is a joke.”

“You’re stressed.  Just thought I’d try to lighten the mood. But it does make me wonder.”

“About what.”

“The doctor said it’s going to your pineal gland.”

“Yeah?”

“The pineal gland produces melatonin. It helps you sleep. But the mystics thought it was the physical location of the soul. The third eye.”

“I don’t believe in any of that stuff,” I said.

“You have an honest-to-God electric plug coming out of your brain. It’s passing through your skull without bleeding or causing you pain and you have trouble believing in the supernatural? What more do you want?”

“There has to be a rational explanation for it.”

“Such as?”

“I don’t know! I’m not a doctor or a scientist.”

“Neither am I. But I’m pretty confident that the human body doesn’t produce inorganic material. So we have to start thinking irrationally. Somebody put it there. God. Aliens. Who knows? But a plug’s purpose is to be put into an outlet. Why don’t we plug it in and see what happens? This could be the next stage in human evolution. Aren’t you excited?”

“It could also be that I fry my brain with ten thousand volts until my eyes explode like coffee creamer containers.”

“That…is also a possibility. But it’s a risk I’m willing to take for fame and fortune.”

Finally, I cracked a smile.

“Gotcha,” she said. “Now let’s go to sleep.”

***

The presence of the plug had become a problem. I couldn’t go to work anymore. Too many questions would arise. I didn’t even go out of my apartment unless I wore a scarf. Fortunately, it was fall, so I could get away with it. All winter long if needed. I didn’t know what I would do when spring came, but I’d deal with it then. I used up all my sick leave and vacation days, and then I quit. Jenny moved in to help pay the rent. Dr. Nguyen called me a couple of times, but I brushed him off. The plug was fully out, and the cord could be pulled out until it automatically retracted, like one of those cords on the vacuum cleaner. It tickled my head a little bit as it went in, but otherwise, nothing about it had changed.

I had changed though. I was moody, distracted. I sat flicking through TV channels and websites without staying on anything for more than a couple of seconds. At the same time, I couldn’t sit still. Like I had all of this energy, but outlet for it. I paced around the apartment, clenching and unclenching my fists in a rhythm. Close, open. Close, open. My eyelids followed the same pattern, and after a while, I noticed my breathing was doing it too. Everything in me was surging and then falling. Surging and falling. I had to do something before I went nuts.

Drugs turned out to be a mistake. I bought some marijuana from the neighbor’s kid. I’d never been high before. He rolled me a joint and after I stopped coughing, I was calm for awhile. Then, I started thinking about a movie I had seen recently. It came back to me in vivid detail but super fast. Like I re-watched the whole thing in about two minutes. Then my brain jumped to something else, a dream I’d had a few nights before. That played really fast, too. At first, it was cool. Then I got bored with it, but the images wouldn’t stop. They kept coming faster and faster, each scene breaking its frames and crashing into the next one—circuses, riots, fireworks, car crashes, sporting events…it all ran together in one big nightmare of garish colors and distorted sound. I started to get paranoid that I had made myself crazy and it was going to be like that forever. The rational part of me realized that I was just having a bad trip and I would come down. I did, and I resolved never to do that again. But now I had nothing to take my mind off of my problem.

Things eventually came to a head (ha, ha.) I came home from one of my long walks and found Jenny had put her stuff into boxes. She was sitting at the kitchen table and it was clear she’d been crying. There was a pair of scissors on the table.

“What’s going on?” I said casually, my heart plunging several stories inside my chest.

“I think you know,” she said.

I hadn’t seen it coming. Sure, I was feeling a little off, but I thought things with us were fine. I tried to figure out where and how we’d gotten to this point, but it eluded me.

“I can’t get through to you, Steven. This is the only way I know to get your attention. It comes down to one of three choices. One, I leave. Two, you cut the cord. Or three-”

Or three, I plug it in and see what happens.

“Is that what you want?” I asked.

“At this point, I don’t care. I can’t keep loving someone who won’t take care of himself. So either we say goodbye, or you take care of this. Maybe something great will happen. Or, yeah, maybe you’ll die. But you have to do something.

She was right, of course. I stood there for a long time. Finally, I picked up the scissors and reached behind me. Jenny closed her eyes, sending more tears down her cheeks.

The cord was really long now; maybe seven feet. I don’t know how it all fit inside my skull. It seemed to have grown. Like it knew this moment was coming. It was long enough now that I could plug it in and still be standing for whatever happened.

I stood there with the plug in my hand. Jenny opened her eyes and then got up and put her arms around me. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry to make an ultimatum like that. You don’t have to plug it in. I don’t want you to hurt yourself. Just cut it. Do you want me to help?”

I shook my head. For reasons I couldn’t explain, a sudden bold determination had seized me.

“Go stand by the breaker box,” I said. “If this goes bad—”

“Are you sure?”

I nodded. “Either way, I change my life.”

She went to the hall. Opened the gray metal door. Found the switch for the kitchen. She was shaking. I was too. I knelt and lined the pins up with the holes in the outlet.

“One small step for man…” I quoted, and plugged in.

And then—

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Way to Kill Witches

 

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It was colder in the hills than Charlie had anticipated. Of course he’d studied the weather forecast for this day as part of his planning, but predicting the weather was not an exact science. An Army blanket warmed his lower half quite nicely and another one protected him from the wet grass, but from the waist up, he was exposed as he leaned on his elbows and trained the binoculars on his objective. The weather provided some camouflage in the form of a mist that clung to the ground, and for that, he was grateful. It didn’t matter, because he didn’t expect to live much longer after completing his mission.

Charlie had advanced pancreatic cancer. There had been few symptoms; some occasional minor pain in his abs and back, but he had chalked that up to being over 40. He’d had some weight loss from not having much of an appetite, but this had delighted his wife Karen, who suddenly found him attractive again. By the time the jaundice arrived and he went to see the doctor, the disease had spread to several other organs. The doctor gave him three to six months, perhaps a year with aggressive chemotherapy. He declined. If he had less than a year to live, why spend it in hospitals, weak and nauseous from pills? This was unacceptable to Karen. “The man I married would have fought to the end,” she cried, as she packed her suitcase.

Alone and with time on his hands, Charlie began to study his disease. His condition made no sense. He didn’t smoke, eat red meat, or drink alcohol. His blood sugar was low. There was no history of pancreatic cancer in his family. Maybe he’d been exposed to some DU in the service. There was no way to tell. One doctor after another seemed unconcerned with the cause of his illness, only puzzled or offended by his refusal to accept treatment. He sought answers on-line, and before long, his quest took him down the darker paths of alternative theories. Cell phones, vaccinations, corn syrup, pollution, radiation from Fukushima…the world was apparently a toxic stew of carcinogens. One idea in particular jumped out at him; chemical sprays from airliners, commonly referred to as chemtrails.

At first, the idea had seemed ludicrous to him. Why would anyone indiscriminately spray dangerous chemicals on an entire population? How could the necessary equipment avoid detection by hundreds of thousands of ground crews, flight crews, or just observant passengers who were familiar with the structure of an airplane? He had almost rejected the theory when he caught a particular news headline:

HUNDREDS SICKENED BY CROP DUSTER MIX-UP

It seemed that a farmer in Iowa had miscalculated the amount of pesticide when loading it on to the airplane he used for crop dusting. Winds blew the clouds of toxin to a nearby town, where it caused burning eyes, itching skin, vomiting and diarrhea. The story went on to deny a link between long-term use of that chemical to lymphoma and cancers of the kidney and pancreas, despite Internet rumors to the contrary.

Charlie knew it was only one of many possibilities, but he grasped at it. Here was an enemy that he could fight. He couldn’t save himself, but maybe he could help others. It would take more than a strongly-worded letter to the chemical conglomerate that manufactured the pesticide. If the company was aware of the side effects, they were suppressing them for the sake of profit. He had to act. Charlie made some calls to the surviving members of his unit, got some contacts, and made some discreet inquiries until he found what he needed.

Hundreds of years ago, most farmers believed that their greatest foe was not the weather, insects, or disease, but practitioners of witchcraft, who would curse the land and bring all three. The witches’ motives varied; some hated mankind, others thought that culling the number of humans would be beneficial in maintaining a balance between man and Nature.

 The method that most villagers would use to combat witches was to lure them to the bottom of a valley and then attack them with burning objects.  Anything that rolled would do: barrels, wagon wheels. Sometimes there were wooden wheels tall and thick enough to hold a man inside. All were covered with pitch and set ablaze, and the sight of a hillside filled with hundreds of these flaming juggernauts daunted even a seasoned practitioner of the black arts. Taking to the skies on their brooms, the witches were met with waves of flaming arrows and burning disks launched from slings. If they fell, the villagers had placed reaping scythes with their blades up and many a witch was impaled upon them. The witches cast their spells when they could, but there was simply not enough of them to fight back. Witchcraft eventually lost its hold in Europe and never returned.

The last witch ever to be executed, a young girl named Anna, cursed the grain in the village where she was burned. She declared that all who ate of it would be poisoned, and each generation would become sicker and sicker. The year was 1782. Two hundred years later, Goldi, the company that manufactured the same pesticide that would one day make Charlie sick was built on the site of that village.

There was never any question in Charlie’s mind about the rightness of what he had planned to do. Once you identified a hostile, you isolated them and eliminated them. Kid, old woman, didn’t matter. If they had a gun or even if they just didn’t stop moving when you yelled at them, you greased them. That’s how it had been in Fallujah. Hesitating or second-guessing got innocent people killed.

Charlie checked his watch. It was time. Putting down the binoculars, he carefully unpacked what he’d brought with him. Five feet long and weighing nearly seventy pounds, it hadn’t been easy to transport for a  man in his condition. A child’s red wagon had helped. It was the first time he’d ever pulled one. A child’s wagon, that is. That’s what happened sometimes when you put off having a baby year after year for your careers. Karen hadn’t wanted to adopt. “You never know what you’re getting,” she had said.

Checking the battery and the argon gas levels, he powered up the launcher. It had a range of only five miles, so he would have to wait for the perfect moment. He didn’t have a spotter helping him. He would have to eyeball it and trust the technology to do the rest.

His watched beeped.  Kneeling, he heaved the weapon to his shoulder, then raised his left knee and rose to a crouch.

The morning sun glimmered off the wings of Flight 92, bound for a private island. Twenty-two executives of the Goldi Corporation, headed to a corporate retreat for three days of partying. The entertainment, it was rumored, was to range from a twenty-six year-old dominatrix from Bangkok to a couple of 11-year-old kids the managing director had bought in Cambodia for ten thousand bucks. It wouldn’t surprise me, he thought.

The plane, like a silver broom carrying the modern witches through the sky.

He took a small breath. Let it out.

The viewfinder glowed red, then green. It had found the heat trail of the private jet.

Fire.

 

 

 

 

The Heart of Hell

 

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Just before midnight, the devil knocked on my door.

I answered it, my stomach rock-hard with nervousness, like a boy on his first date. The winter night was as crisp as an envelope. It was so quiet out there, I could hear the cotton-on-cotton sound of falling snow and so dark that I could only see it falling in the amber cone of a streetlight.

In other words, a perfect Christmas night.

Except for the devil on my doorstep.

I don’t mean the Devil, capital D. They’d probably sent the lowest imp on the totem pole to run my little errand. He looked the part. About five feet tall, bat ears, and horns like an ibex. Skinny as a heroin addict, sharp teeth, red eyes, and a black scarf around his neck. Red skin, cloven hooves and a spade-shaped barb at the end of his ropy tail.

He looked me over—thirties, balding, slight belly. Smirked.

“You got it?” he asked. His voice sounded like too many cigarettes.

“Sure” I said. “You keep your end of the deal?”

He grit his teeth. “Like I had a choice,” he spat. “Let’s get on with it. I’m freezing my corkscrew off out here.”

“So how does this work?” I asked him. “Do I give you mine first, or what?”

He sneered. “You mean, you really don’t know?”

“This is my first time.”

“Well, I promise I’ll take it slow and call you tomorrow,” he mocked, flashing a smile that was colder than the winter night.

“How do I know I can trust you?” I said.

“Why would you think you couldn’t?”

I glanced meaningfully at his horns, his tail, and finally, his hooves.

“Don’t be such a bigot,” the imp replied. “Sure, okay, the Boss has built his entire franchise on deception, but a demon doesn’t lie unless he has something to gain. There’s literally nothing in this deal for me.”

“My Grandma said that the Devil always has nine things going on at once, and ten of them are crooked.”

“Funny. I saw your Grandma last week. She’s with us.”

I blinked several times. “What?”

“She’s really popular down there. Word has it she’s Beelzebub’s personal sex puppet.”

“But Grams was a…a paragon of virtue and decency! She gave to the poor!”

“Yeah? Well she forgot to cross a T or dot an I somewhere…long story short, we got her now.”

“I can’t believe that she…wait.”

The demon was sniggering. “You should have seen your face. See, now that was a lie. I deceived you for gain.”

“What could you possibly have to gain from that?”

“My own personal amusement. Look, dimwit, let’s speed this up. I’ve got a lot to do this week.”

“At Christmas.”

“It’s our busiest time of the year. Drunkenness, adultery, greed, suicide. You have the fennel seed?”

I nodded and held out the bag I’d been keeping at my side.

“Cost me $21.50 at Whole Foods.”

“And I have brought the money,” he said, producing his own bag. It was one of those old-fashioned gunny sacks, tied together at the top. It looked like it was positively bulging with cash. My mouth went dry.

“I will count to three. On three, we drop our bags in front of us, then each grabs the other bag. Have I made it clear enough so that even you could understand it, or should I go through it again?”

Shaking my head to clear a sudden vision of myself naked and rolling around on piles of money, I said, “Yeah. On the count of three. Got it.”

“One.”

I tensed. This was it.

“Two.”

“Wait,” I said.

He sighed. “What?

“What do you do with the fennel seed? Do you not have it down there?”

“I’m a big fan of black licorice.”

“Come on, seriously.”

“You really haven’t a clue, have you?” His lips peeled back to his fangs. He hesitated, and then spat it out.

“I have to count it,” he said.

“What?”

“I’m compelled to pour out the bag and count every last seed. If I lose count, I have to start over.”

“That’s—”

“Ludicrous? Moronic? Asinine? I agree. It’s one of the lesser-known terms of the Secession Agreement. ‘If any mortal shall gather a bag of fennel seed on Christmas night, the devil is required to bring him a bag of money. The devil shall furthermore be required to count those seeds, etc. etc.’ It’s all in the fine print, which I assume you didn’t read when you cannibalized whatever medieval mystical text you dug up in order to summon me here. Hell only knows why we agreed to it or why that tyrant Upstairs requires it.”

“Maybe for his own personal amusement,” I offered.

“Ha, ha.” the demon said. “May all of your orgasms be premature.”

“I’m starting to like your sense of humor.”

“I wasn’t joking. Three.”

Our bags dropped. I snatched his up, grunting under the weight. He coolly retrieved mine.

“Well, bye.” he said.

I watched him turn and retreat. He was shivering. I could hear his teeth chattering. It wasn’t a pleasant sound. Like someone rattling a drawer full of knives.

I set the bag of money down. “You want to come in? I’ve got wassail.”

He turned around with a look of pure incredulity.

“You’re inviting me into your house,” he pronounced, as if to make sure he had understood me correctly.

“Sure.”

“Why?”

“It’s cold out here.”

“So?”

“So, I thought you might want to get warm.”

“You’re kidding.”

“I make a good wassail. Spices and everything.”

“No,” he turned away again.

“And brandy.”

“Now you’re talking,” he said, and in a flash, he was back on my doorstep. “Can I really come in?”

“Yeah. Five minutes won’t kill either of us. I won’t tell if you don’t.”

“And you won’t try to pour holy water on me or anything like that?”

“Don’t have any in the house just at the moment. As long as you don’t try to possess or tempt me, we should be fine.” I regarded his teeth and claws. “No biting or scratching, either.”

“Should I wear a muzzle?”

“Hopefully it won’t come to that.”

We stepped inside and shut the door. It was an odd feeling, having a demon in your house. A visible one, I mean. If we could peer into the spirit realm all around us, we would probably never stop screaming.

“I don’t know what to call you,” I said.

“Better you don’t. That gives you advantages over me.”

“Krampus?”

He stopped. “Krampus. Krampus is covered with black hair and has a tongue like Gene Simmons. Do we all look the same to you, or what?”

“I meant no offense.”

“Then bring on that drink,” he said.

***

Alcoholic drinks are like problems. You have one and it attracts others. Before long, we were cheerful, then boisterous, swapping stories with a real feeling of bonhomie.

“No!” I howled with laughter. That is not where retarded people come from!”

“It’s true. When the Boss was let go, they didn’t trust anyone to escort us out of Heaven. We might tempt others, you see, with our dangerous ideas. So the angels found the simplest souls with the least corruptible minds. Later, they were born as the mentally challenged. So when you see those people, the slow ones, they’re actually the purest souls in the Universe.”

“Wow. So what you’re saying is…” I furrowed my brow, trying to capture the slippery conclusion that was eluding me. “What you’re saying is that we should all try to be more retarded.”

“Yes! Exactly!” he laughed, slamming his glass down with a roar. He laughed until his shoulders shook and tears streamed down his cheeks. I was doubled over, gasping for air. When I finally managed to straighten up, I could see that the tears were still coming, but his mouth was twisted in anguish.

“We were just trying to help everyone, don’t you see? To let people be free to do what they want instead of that tyrant’s plan to make people suffer. And now what. Now it’s all gone sideways, hasn’t it?” He put his head into his hands and sobbed.

Shuffling my feet and clearing my throat, I cast about for the right response. “Look,” I said finally. “I’m not a theologian, but…maybe you could…you know…go back? Say you’re sorry? Ask for another chance.”

The demon looked up, sniffing. He blew his nose loudly on his scarf, which he was still wearing for some reason.

“It’s too late for that now. The Devil never changes his spots. He can’t.”

He sighed, a tremor passing through him. He looked up with pride and defiance. “We still changed things, though, didn’t we? ‘The heart of hell is the clock of the world,’ right?”

We fell silent. After a while, he seemed to remember himself. He got to his feet. “You are a good fellow.”

“I thought you hated all that was good,” I said.

“Oh, I do. When I say ‘good,’ I mean that you’re an idiot. What kind of person helps his enemies?”

Striding to the door, he opened it and turned to me. “Hope I never see you again. I mean that.”

“You too,” I said, repressing a smile. I shut the door.

Then, remembering my bounty, I went to the bag. The string was leather and I fumbled with the thick knots. My excitement made it more difficult. I could get my student loan repaid, catch up on the mortgage payments, take some vacations, maybe get a sports car. I thrust my hand inside and brought it out to the light. Multicolored bills with a lot of zeroes. Too many. Bold lettering that read “Reserve Bank of Zimbabwe.” I had probably spent more on the seeds.

From the other side of the door, I could hear the imp’s mocking laughter, which seemed to hang in the air long after he had disappeared into the icy darkness.

 

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