John Strausbaugh, Stories

bigfish220

Illustration by M. Wartella
(click image to enlarge)
 

 

The Big Damn Fish

 

 

 

 

 
  1   Feelings
 



The Counter looked up from the little tv at his end of the breakfast table. "Sounds like a good day to take the boat out for a drive."

The Countess looked up from the little tv at her end of the table. "Sounds like hell to me."

She shook a piece of bacon at Falcon Crest, her toy poodle. He snarled and snatched it. Falcon Crest could sit in a tea cup and pooped like a mouse, but his name was Falcon Crest and he was always trying to live up to it.

"That's what I mean," the Counter said. "We'll have the water all to ourselves."

The Countess sighed. The weather channel called for cloudy, cool and rain. It sounded like a miserable day to be out on the boat. Still, anything to get out of the house. It was a big house, a big damn house, full of big damn rooms with a lot of big damn furniture in them, with a big damn lawn outside hidden behind big damn hedges and a big damn pool in the middle of it. But being stuck in it with the Counter gave her big damn brain aches.

"Can we take the boy? He won't be no trouble."

"The hell he won't but I ain't dumb enough to try to talk ya out of it."

"I won't ask the help to lug him around or nothin."

"Hell you won't but alright. Let's scram."

The Counter went upstairs to put on his captain's hat. The Countess went into the Counter's trophy room to get the boy. There were all sorts of trophies, plaques, scrolls, head shots, shot heads and so forth. None of them had come into the Counter's possession because he had won them or shot them or anything like that. They were just things he'd picked up through life—literally picked up, strolling into someone's office or den and saying, "Say that's swell, can I have it?" and no one ever turned him down because he was the Counter. A lot of the fixtures, furnishings, appointments and knickknacks in the house were like that. Stuff that had come to the Counter or Countess simply by the fact of their being the Counter and the Countess. The Countess, who did not start out rich or privileged, never ceased to be surprised at how much charity the rich and privileged receive. When she was growing up poor no one ever gave her a thing. Now things seemed to adhere to her. Heirlooms, gifts, bribes, shopping whims, out and out thefts. Old stuff that was so old it was beyond just being ratty and rattletrap and had achieved the status of antique. The Counter had a couple of cars like that in the garage—simply by continuing to exist they had broken some existential barrier, beyond being pains in the ass, beyond repair, they had passed through that invisible membrane of time that transforms worthless junk into a priceless classic.

The Countess was 19 and waitressing in the Char Pit, the swankest steak house in town, when she met the Counter. He picked her up like any other trophy.

The boy sprawled in a priceless chair. It was too rattletrap for anyone but the boy to sit in. His boots were in a box on the floor beside him. Falcon Crest sniffed at it and growled. He was jealous of the boy. The Countess folded the boy on top of his boots and carried him under her arm.


*
 


Someone was in the Counter's parking space at the yacht club. The Counter ordered the driver to ram um. The Counter's limo folded the other car around the legs of the Permit Only sign, grinding it into an accordion spitting glass and twisted chrome appointments.

It was a chromium gray day but the harbor was crowded with all sorts of boats and half the people in them were already three sheets to the wind or over the yardarm. Teenagers in candyflake racers so low to the water they looked flat shot in and out of everybody's way making a noise like a bunch of power saws and flipping empties in their wake. Big white three- and four-story cruisers like the Counter's cut each other off and passed each other on the wrong side, with people like the Counter and Countess sitting on porches in the shade facing backwards in captains' hats drinking highballs and surveying the water from behind dark glasses like lizards in the lee of flat rocks. Bronze musclemen in tight little swimsuits that looked like Italian underwear stood on the decks of sailboats shouting orders at blondes in bikinis who yanked on ropes and flapped the sails and bounced a lot doing it. Jet skis, sail boards, catamarans and hydroplanes zipped around in the din of stereos, the whine of motors and the tastes of cheap marine petroleum and expensive suntan oil.

The yacht club was a franchise operation of the Water World people, a subsidiary of UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp, which had built Global Village and was now completing the purchase of the last few acres on the planet so that it could all be transformed into one big themed environment called World World. Day laborers lined up on the dock beside the yacht club office. Club management had pre-screened them for looks and attitude. They wore identical sailor suits and hats and labor permits on ropes around their necks. Their name tags, assigned to them by management, also hung from their necks, but the Counter and Countess didn't read so well and tended to call them all Mate.

"Can I pick one this time?" she asked.

"What do you know about it?"

"I know I got to watch um sweat for a couple a hours. I should get to pick one looks good doin it."

"Just let me handle it."

The Counter picked three mates and signed for them at the office. One of them carried the boy onto the boat. They started the motor and cast off the lines.

"You drive," the Counter scowled at one of them.

The boat pulled out into the milling traffic. One Mate stood up at the steering wheel muttering and jerking the boat around and giving people the finger and staring at the topless girls laid out in lines on passing decks.

"Fly the flag," the Counter said to Two Mate.

"Do ya have to?" the Countess sighed.

"Fly the damn flag."

Two Mate hooked a pennant to a line and ran it up the pole that held the satellite dish. It unfurled as it rose, shaking out the wrinkles in the damp breeze. It was a square pennant with a coiled snake on it lifting its head looking mean under the words


DON'T TREAD ON MY DICK

The Counter always said it was his family motto. That it went back a couple hundred years. Even the mates knew he was full of shit but he didn't care.

The Countess took the boy out of his box and arranged him in a deck chair facing the ass end of the boat. The wind flapped the cuffs of his shirt like he was waving at the shore with both hands. His hat blew off and skipped across the deck. Three Mate picked it up and handed it to the Countess and gave the boy a look and took himself to another part of the boat.

The Countess put the boy's hat in his lap where it wouldn't blow away. She tugged at the crotch of her swim suit and stretched on her belly on an air mattress on the deck and undid her straps.

"Who's gonna butter my back?"

"Hey Mate," the Counter called. "Cmere and slap some goo on the boss's wife."

"I'm drivin," One Mate said to Two Mate. "You go."

"Fuck at," Two Mate muttered. "I help drive um around the water but I don't got to baste um."

"Do it as a favor for me," the Counter said, "and I'll see ya still got a job when we get back to port."

As they moved toward open water they passed through a field of little open boats bobbing like corks. Each had several lines out and one or two old men rocking in it, old men of a different background and perspective than that of the Counter and Countess. They watched the Counter's boat glide by with flat expressions as the wake tossed them up and down.

"Look at um," the Counter scowled. "Why they got to come here and do that? Don't they have water where they come from?"

"They're just fishin."

"All they're gonna catch from this water is a disease."

"Maybe they just like bein out."

"Do they got to be out where I got to look at um? What's the point of payin club dues if any old fuck can use the water?"

The air mattress made farts as the Countess turned her greased limbs away. She closed her eyes and found herself down at the end of the Counter's back yard, between the 24-car garage and the little pond with the fountain of a boy peeing into the mouth of a dolphin that was sodomizing a large frog. Off to one side the sweaty guy who came once a week to trim was snapping his shears at one of the Counter's topiary shrubs. The Counter pronounced it tope-a-rare-ry and it was all over the back lawn in the shapes of people and animals doing things the Countess didn't think were very classy but she never said anything to him about it because he'd just bark louder than Falcon Crest. She was leaning over the pond looking at her reflection in the green, slimy water when the face of the boy appeared at her shoulder and smiled at her. He was a real boy, not just an old shirt and pants and boots she picked up at yard sales. He was handsome and smart and he loved his mother very much. He was the son the Counter could never give her.

The boy's smile faded and he looked sad. He held out his cupped hands for her to see. There was a teaspoon of water in his palms and Spoon was floating sideways. Spoon was a tadpole that lived in a jar with some weeds and marbles on a windowsill in the boy's room. It was shaped like a teardrop with a sort of face at one end and a tail with a couple little legs at the other end. The boy had stared at it every day waiting for it to become a frog but it never did, and now it had died. Poor little thing, she said. The boy said, Why did he die, Mommy? I guess it was just his time, she replied. I guess nothin goes on forever. Why not? the boy asked. I dunno honey. Let's give him a burial at sea, the Countess said. The boy held his hands out over the pond. I'm gonna miss him, he sighed. Me too sweetie, the Countess said. You wanna say a few words? The boy frowned in thought and then opened his hands and Spoon slipped through and hit the water with a little ploop and sank. Alley oop, the boy said.

The Countess woke up with a dull heartache like she did every time she dreamed of the boy. Alley oop. What a funny thing for the kid to say.

She turned her head and looked around with one eye. The gray sky had socked in. The water was flat. They were motoring aimlessly into a steely fog. The boy's sleeves hung limp from the chair beside her. The Counter was way up on the flying bridge in a deck chair facing the ass end nodding off under his drooping pennant. A couple levels below him, One Mate was slouched sideways in the driver's seat with a magazine in his lap. Two Mate and Three Mate were not to be seen.

The Countess sat up. The air was wet and chill. The fog looked like a steamy mirror. The boat was sailing toward its reflection in this mirror. The Countess squinted at it.

"Hey," she said, pointing at the boat's reflection gliding right at her.

One Mate looked up and the magazine flapped up from his hands and he jerked the wheel and the two boats, instead of ramming head on, rubbed their sides with a thumping jolt and came to a standstill. They stood there bobbing like corks beside each other and everything got real quiet all around.

"Hey," One Mate shouted.

"Hey yourself," the mate on the other bridge shouted back.

Everyone on both boats stood up and came to the rails and stared at one another. The Countess saw that the other boat was identical to the Counter's. There were three rent-a-mates in sailor suits. There was an old man up high on the bridge dressed like the Counter and a woman standing on the deck in the Countess' bathing suit.

"Whyn't you look where you're going?" the Counter shouted.

"Whyn't you look where you're going?" the Counter-Counter shouted back.

"One side you."

"One side you too."

"You first."

"You first."

"Mate, call the authorities."

"And call your insurance company while you're at it."

"My insurance company? You hit me."

The Counter-Countess chimed in. "You know, my husband's a pretty big man on land."

"Mine's bigger," the Countess heard herself call back. She wasn't defending the Counter. She just didn't cotton to this broad looking just like her passing gas out her cake hole.

"Wait a minute, wait a minute," the Counter said. "What are we arguin for?"

"You're right," the Counter-Counter said, slapping his forehead. "That's what we got mates for."

"Let them take the blame."

"Let them fight it out between themselves."

"You're on. Care to make it interesting?"

"A hundred says my mate spears your mate in five."

"You're covered."

"Make um do it with gaffin hooks," the Counter-Countess said. "I love it when they use the gaffin hooks."

They turned to call their Mates. Mysteriously, the decks of both boats were deserted, and there was the whine of a small outboard motor going away.

"Look," the Countess pointed. A small inflatable launch could just be seen vanishing into the fog. The Mates from both boats were in it. One of them looked back and gave them the high sign as it disappeared.

"Of all the nerve."

"Fuckin ingrates."

"YOU'RE FIRED," the Counter shouted at them through a bullhorn.

The echo bounced back from the wall of fog, which was encircling the boats in a constricting well of mirror, just the lapping and the creaking and the pinging of the ice in four forgotten highballs. The water around them was looking darker and gave the impression that it was rising, creeping up the sides, and somehow you could tell just from looking at the surface that it was cold and deep and filled with big prowling shadowy dispassionately hungry and utterly alien shapes.

"What do we do now?"

"You know how to drive this thing?"

"Fuck no. That's what I paid them ingrates for."

"Maybe we should call for help."

"Where's the radio?"

"I don't know but I think you should find out."

The Counter and Counter-Counter started thrashing around in their respective cabins. The Countess and Counter-Countess stood looking at each other on their respective decks, shivering in the damp chill that had stolen into the lightless, breathless air. Looking at each other against the dully shining fog was like looking in a big mirror. Same make same model. Only the Counter's boat was called One Side You and the Counter-Counter's was called One Side You II. The water was creeping up the sides.

"Find anything?" the Counter shouted in his bullhorn.

"Not yet," the Counter-Counter shouted in his.

The Counter-Countess hugged herself. "I hate the water," she said to the Countess. "The whole time I'm on it I keep thinkin about all the things I can't see down there. Like when you was a kid and you lied on top of the bed hanging on trying not to fall asleep. Like you were afraid to sink. Ain't that what they call it, sinkin into sleep? Like you go down and drown and float back up to the surface in the morning. Start every day of your life like a washed up castaway. You think that's what drownin's like? Like sinking into sleep?"

The Countess watched the water sucking up the sides of the other boat. "How should I know?"

The Counter and Counter-Counter appeared at the doors of their cabins tangled in wires and dragging bits of equipment.

"Fuckin ingrates," they said simultaneously.

Just then a hillock of ocean welled up between the boats, shoving them apart and tipping them away. The Counter and Counter-Counter crashed back into their cabins. Deck chairs and highballs slid down the tilting decks. The Countess grabbed the rail at the top of a steep incline and watched the hill of ocean rise, hissing, and beyond it One Side You II leaning so far over she could see its keel as its satellite dish scurfed the waves. The boy slid down the deck toward the water behind her. She knew they were going to roll over and sink and thought, frankly, that this might be the best thing for all.

Then the upwelling broke and revealed itself to be the back of a whale. The water frothed around its mottled skin. Its blowhole spat a geyser and both boats sprang back upright and rode there high in the water rocking violently.

A dozen frogmen straddled the whale's back. They looked at the boats through their masks. They were armed but they didn't look particularly dangerous. Maybe it was the flippers. Or maybe it was the almost-recognizable tune the whale hummed, its deep voice thrumming through the hulls so that the decks and the rails vibrated. It was oddly soothing, like deep, oceanic, primordial Muzak.

The Countess stood up and saw the Counter-Countess stand up across the way. The Counter and Counter-Counter clattered out of their cabins and stood up there making bushy eyebrows at the frogmen.

The lead frogman stood up on the whale's head and showed them his weapon.

"Decision nickel," he said.

"I beg your pardon?" the Counter-Countess said.

"Decision nickel."

"What?"

He spat out his mouthpiece and tried again. "This is a stick up."

"Oh," they all said, and put up their hands.

There was a moment of silence and then they felt, rather than heard, the whale begin a new song. The Countess recognized it and unconsciously sang along in a small voice. "Feelings... nothing more than feelings..."

"Button it," the Counter hissed at her. "Let me do the talkin."

They watched the frogmen clamber aboard the two boats. The Counter took a step toward the lead frogman.

"What's goin on here? Savvy parlay?"

"Button it," the frogman said.

"Pirates? Ransom? That it? Well I'm afraid you're too late, fella. We're nobody. I'm just the cook. She's the maid. Folks you want scrammed."

The frogman ignored him and turned to another. "Well?"

"They're both tubs a shit I wouldn't drive farther out than I could swim, but also they're both loaded with options," the other one replied. "Let's take um."

"Okay you," the lead man said to the Counter and the Countess. "You too," he called over to the others. "Get off."

"And do what?" the Countess said. "Walk?"

The lead man scowled and jerked his weapon. "Get down on that big damn fish before I lose my cool."

The Countess turned to gather up the boy.

"Leave that crap."

She started to protest. The Counter gave her an ixnay look. She sighed and left the clothes hanging on the deck chair. That wasn't the real boy anyway. The real boy was in her dreams.

The Counter, Countess, Counter-Counter and Counter-Countess climbed down onto the whale's back. The Countess could feel its deep, rumbling hum through the soles of her flip-flops. The lead frogman and a handful of the others climbed down with them. They watched the two yachts lumber off into the fog like wedding cakes on a puddle of grease. Then the whale slapped its tail and shot a geyser out its blowhole like a steam locomotive and began a leisurely swim to shore.


2   Squids
 


Tranny was an apprentice kidnapper. This was his first job. He got into it straight out of high school. It was either hotel/motel school, kidnap/extortion school, or the military. His dad pushed for the military, his mom wanted him to go to hotel/motel school, and he just sort of fell in the middle. It was a one year program. The school had a good reputation. It was like the DeVry for mischief. He'd done okay in his class work. This was his first field trip. If he didn't mess up on this job he'd get his associate degree.

After the whale dropped them off Tranny's boss on this job, Rags, told him to duct tape the four geezers' mouths, eyes, wrists and ankles. They dumped them in the back of a stolen SUV and drove to the wrong side of town, where pretty much everyone was up to some mischief so Rags and his crew fit right in. Now they were holed up in a really crap apartment. It had ugly landlord paint everywhere and curling linoleum floors and a kitchen so disgusting Mr. Clean would break an elbow scrubbing it back to within a hundred years of not-disgusting.

The geezers were laid out on the floor of the empty bedroom. Rags had used up two days and four stolen cellphone batteries trying to scare up a ransom for them. He called every name the Counter and Counter-Counter gave him. Family, friends, business associates, club members. They all said something like "I'll have to get back to you on that. What'd you say that number was again?" and never called back.

"Fuck this," Rags finally said. "I ain't runnin no geezersittin service. If their friends won't buy um, I know who will. Saddle up, kid. You're takin um for a ride."

They'd torched the SUV and stolen a brand new Generica, a car so precisely indistinguishable from all other cars that Tranny wasted half an hour trying to remember where he'd parked it. Finally he gave up and just stole another Generica. Not like it mattered. For all he knew it was the same Generica and he was restealing it.

He shoved three of the geezers in the back seat and one of them, either the Counter or the Counter-Counter, up front beside him. He couldn't tell them apart. Not like it mattered. They were geezer Genericas. Whichever one it was beside him struggled his wrists and made cranky noises behind his duct tape.

"My boss said that if you try anything I'm allowed to shoot a bullet up your nose," Tranny told him. "Actually it was more like a request."

Following the directions Rags had programmed into a stolen TomTom, Tranny drove through the wrong side of town. Burned out cars, burned out buildings, storefront churches, armored package good stores, Chinese take-outs. On the edge of town he got on the highway that led to the industrial parks and the airport. It was lined with food joints. Teepee Tacos, Fishy Chix, Jerky Yurt, Wendy Lube. The Generica humped over some rusty railroad tracks and rolled into an area of warehouses and junkyards. One warehouse had a billboard-size sign up on its roof. GENERIC ADVANCED RESEARCH CENTER & SQUID TANK, it said. Under that was the UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp logo, a globe of the world squeezed in a big fist.

Tranny pressed the buzzer beside the locked steel security door and waited. A guy in a full hazmat suit pushed the door open. Acrid smoke roiled out past him smelling like cats on fire. There was a lot of activity going on in the gloom behind him, hammerings and whirrings and blue arc-lights flashing.

"Rags sent me," Tranny said. He jerked his thumb toward the Generica. "Squids."

The guy nodded his hazmat helmet and stepped back inside. A few seconds later the grate rolled up at a big loading bay and another guy in another hazmat suit waved a gloved hand. Tranny drove into the gloom and the door shut behind the Generica.

It was like a dark night inside lit by flashes of blue lightning. The clangor was deafening and the smoke burned Tranny's eyes. The Counter or Counter-Counter started hacking into his duct tape and Tranny decided it was okay to yank it off him. Then he figured what the heck they weren't going anywhere and untaped all their wrists and ankles and eyes too. They stood in a clump blinking and coughing in the smoke and rubbing their wrists and making cranky faces.

"Squid tank's out back," the guy yelled through his suit and the din of whanging metal. "Go straight through to the emergency exit. Ignore the dobermans. Use the escalators. Down two flights, up one, then two left, one right, and three back."

Tranny was going to ask him to repeat that but the guy saw the look on his face and sighed through his breathing gear.

"Alright, c'mon."

The vast floor of the warehouse was divvied up into separate work areas. Guys in hazmat suits or welder's masks or greasy jumpsuits or white lab coats or kevlar vests and helmets were being busy in all directions bent over long work tables or staring at computers or whanging steel bars with hammers and tongs amid all the noise and smoke and flashes. There were various kinds of stinks. The Countess or Counter-Countess went ahoo ahoo and waved her fingers under her nose.

The hazmat guy played tour guide as they passed the various areas. At one station guys in lab coats watched another guy in handcuffs and leg irons swatting at something invisible buzzing around his head.

"Sub-micro self-guidin invasive airborne weapons delivery platforms," the hazmat guy explained. "Basically super-miniaturized smart bombs that fly in yer ear or up yer nose and burrow inta the soft tissue."

"What happens then?"

"They blow yer fuckin head off, a course."

At another station a couple of guys cupped their hands around a fat blue gas flame. They kept reaching into it and going yeow and kissing their knuckles. Tranny noticed that their eyebrows and eyelashes were singed off.

"Moldable fire," the hazmat guy said. "Ask me they're wastin their time on that one. Now soft lightning, that's got potential. Lightning you can bend 'n' twist in any shape. Strike anywhere lightning. My idea."

In another area men with clipboards stared intently at a pair of guys chained to  toilets with their pants around their ankles straining and grunting real hard.

"Pleather rectums," the hazmat guy said. "Experimental self-defense gear. Guy outfitted with one a them babies can take a good swift kick in the pants real swell. They're still working out the blockage problem."

"What is this infernal joint?" the Counter or Counter-Counter whined.

"Generic Advanced Research Center and Squid Tank," the hazmat guy scowled. "You read?"

"Through duct tape no," the Counter or Counter-Counter growled.

"What do you do here?" Tranny asked.

"Gizmos 'n' gadgets. Defense work, aerospace, corporate security, big pharma, holiday novelties, computer entertainments. All real advanced. Workin on stuff nobody even knows what you'd used it for yet. We make the other guys' cutting edge look dull as one of them butter knifes they sell out a bin at the 99 cent store and the silver crap comes off on your fingers. We done jet rockets that fly underwater and submarines that sneak around in the clouds. Whole lab upstairs engineering new strains of flu to roll out annually into the next century. Mole flu, dugong flu, Chinese chigger flu. Vaccines for um too, a course. It's what you call a closed-loop system. Stick around I'll show you this innerestin passive aggressive anti-anti-defense system we been tinkerin with. Creates a wallet-size wormhole that sucks up everything and everybody in the vicinity and squirts um out somewheres in the unforeseeable future near as we can figure out. Call it a time bomb."

In a clear plastic cage a pair of squirrels stood on their hind legs and punched each other out over a walnut.

"Heard a thought control? We're working on emotion control. More direct. Got them squirrels cranked up to 11 on the greed-o-meter. Yeah we can do envy, lust, sloth, all the deadly sins. Time was it woulda been monkeys or dogs in there, but the animal rights kooks was all the time up our nose about it and got a law passed. Now we use squirrels, pigeons, animals the animal people don't give a rat's ass about." The hazmat guy glanced at the four geezers. "And squids a course."

"What you mean by that?" the Counter or Counter-Counter said.

"You'll see."

"Hey," the Countess or Counter-Countess said, "them plants is moving."

It was an indoor garden with grow lights and sprinklers. There were flowers and vegetables and they were, in fact, shifting places, picking their roots up out of the soil and tiptoeing around delicately.

"Planimals," the hazmat guy said. "Combine the RNA of plants and the DNA of lower animals like slugs and worms. Gives um enough smarts to move around and find the best spot in the garden. Some move with the sun, some go into the shade, etcetera. Gotta put a fence around it though. Smarter ones sneak right off. Especially the edibles."

The hazmat guy pushed through a door that led to a stairwell. A pair of dobermans slept on the floor. The hazmat guy kicked at one and it crawled sluggishly out of his way.

"Failed experiment," he said.

The stairwell was filled with whirring, clanking escalators criss-crossing in all directions. Some went up, some went down, some folded back on themselves to land you where you started, some twisted upside-down. They made Tranny sick to his stomach just to look at them.

"Escherlators," the hazmat guy said. "Latest in home or office security. Completely disorientin to the intruder and keep him occupied till the coppers arrive. Borrowed a bunch a squids from the county to test it on. Veteran thiefs and burglars, guys who can crack any conventional security system. After a day in here riding up 'n' down 'n' around 'n' over they was begging to be let back to jail. Follow my lead or you'll never get outta here."

He stepped on and was instantly swept away. The geezers moaned and groaned and held back. The Counter or Counter-Counter grabbed Tranny's gun elbow.

"Son, I'll pay you a king's ransom to get us outta here."

The Countess or Counter-Countess looked deeply into his eyes. Her eyes pleaded, rebuked and flirted with him all in one.

"Please help us, boy. We'll make it more than worth your while."

Tranny pulled his arm away and gestured with his gun. Rags had warned him they'd try to buy him or play on his sympathies. "And you will feel sorry for um. Squid tank's a freakin horror. Joints like Generic got a constant hunger for human test subjects. Ran outta people long ago dopey enough to volunteer, so they cut deals with prisons, hospitals, orphanages, homeless shelters. All them places just squid tanks under different names anyways. But it ain't never enough so they work the black market too. All your kidnap/extortion outfits dump squids on um, folks like these geezers nobody'll pay ransom for. You know all them missing persons you hear about all the time on the news? There ya go. Only comes to pennies on the pound, but like I said this ain't no geezersittin service. Don't let um play no sad songs on your heartstrings, boy. Your future in kidnap/extortion's riding on this job."

"You comin or what?" the hazmat guy hollered, going past them upside-down and backwards.

"Sorry," Tranny told the geezers. He used the gun to shunt them onto the moving stairs.

The Countess or Counter-Countess gave him a sad and reproachful look as she stepped toward the escalator. "Alley oop," she sighed.


3    Dingus
 



The Countess felt bad for the young kidnap/extortionist. He kind of reminded her of the boy, or what the boy might be like in ten years or so. He had the same kind of open, innocent face, only the boy's wasn't so dopey.

She wondered what happened to the boy on the boat. Probably the frogmen tossed him overboard. To them he'd just be a shirt, a pair of pants and boots. Maybe they kept the boots. They were pretty good boots. The lady who was having the lawn sale where the Countess bought them said her son had only worn them two or three times. She called her son "my boy." The Countess had to have them then.

The Count couldn't give her a real boy on account of his DNA was DOA. It was Like Nature had had enough of the Count's line and decided to do everyone a favor and end it. The Count wouldn't buy her an orphan either. "What the hell we wanna buy someone else's little problem for?"

That was why she made herself a boy out of ratty clothes from lawn and garage sales. He was like the rag dolls she used to have as a little girl. She knew it wasn't a real boy, anymore than the little girl thought her rag dolls were real, but she liked having him around. The Count thought she was cuckoo but he didn't try to stop her. "Anything to keep peace in this goddamn loony bin."

Not like it mattered now. They were headed for the squid tank. She didn't know exactly what that meant, but she knew exactly that it didn't mean anything good.

She thought again of the young kidnap/extortionist standing behind her with his open, innocent face and his gun. And instead of stepping on the escalator going up, the way the others did, she stepped aside and jumped on one going down.

The young kidnapper made a sound of surprise and hurt feelings. The Countess squatted down below the handrails. Somewhere up above her the hazmat guy was shouting at the kidnapper to stop her. She got to the bottom of that escalator and jumped on one that looked like it was going down but was really going up. There was a fancy word for that but she couldn't remember. Something like optional delusion. The Counter, Counter-Counter and Counter-Countess went by her in the opposite direction, but they didn't see her because she was hunkered down. She looked straight overhead and realized she was looking down on the top of the kidnapper's head as he looked all around for her. The hazmat guy had been right about these crazy escalators. You couldn't tell if you were coming or going or both at once.

They all rode around like that for a while, the hazmat guy shouting and the kidnapper looking around and the other three just standing in a line gaping like shoppers in a mall. Up, down, sideways, upside-down and backward and never seeming to get anywhere. Then the Countess saw the door with the dobermans sleeping in front of it. It was at the bottom of the escalator she was riding, and it was upside-down, like the dobermans were glued to the ceiling instead of flopped on the floor. But she knew that was just another optional delusion and when she reached the bottom she jumped off the escalator and over the hounds and out the door.

In the darkness and banging and clanging and moans and groans and flashes of soft lightning no one even noticed her heading across the big warehouse floor toward the Generica and the exit sign. A pigeon in a crash helmet flapped out of the dark and grazed her hair. She almost stepped on a carrot that had escaped the garden and was inching like a slug across the floor.

Up near the exit a squid in handcuffs was stretched out on a big overstuffed La-Z-Boy. Didn't look so bad. Maybe it was a reward for being a good squid. She wondered why did they call them squids. Seemed awful rude. Then the La-Z-Boy snapped shut like a big mousetrap, folding all in on itself. When it reopened the squid had disappeared. "Next," a hazmat guy said.

She was at the exit. She could walk right out and run for help. Then she wondered who would help. No one cared about them when they were ransom hostages. Who'd care now that they were just squids?

She didn't owe the Counter nothing. She'd been just another trophy for him. It wasn't like they was ever in love or anything. She didn't care if she never saw them other two again either. Having them around was like looking in a mirror all the time and not liking what she saw.

Then for some reason she remembered her dream of the boy and little Spoon. Not even a squid. Just a tadpole. But oh how the boy had cared for it.

She turned around and headed back for the door to the escalators. Grabbed a little something off a work table along the way.

She banged through the door so sudden even the dobermans flinched. Just as she stepped through the hazmat guy stepped off an escalator onto the landing. His face got cranky through the window of his hazmat hat and he reached for her with his big hazmat gloves.

The Countess held up her hand. He took a step back.

"What you got there lady?"

"Just something I picked up."

She opened her hand and showed him. His eyes went wide.

"Careful with that, lady. That dingus is real dangerous."

"Hope so," the Countess said. "Where the others?"

"How the hell I know? He could be chasin um around in here till kingdom comes." He held out the palm of a glove. "Whyn't you hand that over and talk civilized."

The Countess looked out at the escalators whirring and clanking in all directions. She spotted the Counter and the others going by on one that curled all around itself like a big pretzel. The kidnap/extortionist had caught up with them. The escalator took them around and around and over and under and then it dumped them on the landing.

The kidnapper had a dopey and surprised expression and didn't know where to point his gun.

"Tell him to hand it over," the Countess said.

The hazmat guy nodded his hazmat hat at the kidnapper. The Counter or Counter-Counter took the boy's gun.

"What's your name, boy?" the Countess asked him.

"Tranny," he said, looking glum.

"What kinda name is that? That's a girl's name."

"It's short for something."

"Short for what?"

He shrugged. "Never asked."

He really did look a lot like her boy would look at his age, the Countess thought. Except for the dumbbell expression.

"Well Tranny us squids is skeedaddlin. Wanna come with?"

He shrugged again. "Guess so. Can't go back."

"Aw now we gonna have him mopin around?" the Counter groused. It was how she could tell he was the Counter and not the other one.

The hazmat guy lunged. He grabbed her wrist in a hazmat glove. The Countess bobbled the dingus. It slipped out of her grip. They all stared as it dropped toward the floor. It seemed to fall and fall and fall some more for a real long time. No one moved.

When it hit it flipped open like a cellphone. They all gasped and leaned away. There was a pop in the air like someone pricked an invisible balloon. A little black circle appeared floating in the air above the dingus. It began to spin.

"oh dag," the hazmat guy said in a wee small voice.

The Countess' ears popped. Then she felt like every cell in her body was popping. Like she was a sheet of bubble wrap and somebody was walking all over her. The black dot began to spin faster. It sucked all the air out of the space in a whoosh. Then the whole space began to spiral into it like water down a drain. The hazmat guy went first. He began to stretch like a cartoon drawn on oil. One of his gloved hands got sucked in, and then the whole rest of him stretched and spiraled down the drain.

The Countess felt herself stretching toward it like taffy. Her last thought before she went down the drain was to wish she picked up some other dingus.



4    Old Rags
 


Old Rags sat on his favorite park bench flinging popcorn at the squirrels. He loved to watch them argue and punch each other out. He liked bouncing popcorns off the pigeons' crash helmets too. He'd been doing it for twenty years now, ever since he retired from teaching at hotel/motel school. He took that up after he got canned from kidnapping/extortion on account of the botched job where the four geezers and the apprentice disappeared in the mysterious collapse of the Generic Advanced Research & Squid Tank building.

Too bad about that kid. Rags could remember having a bad feeling about sending him out alone to deliver those squids. Kid didn't seem too sharp. But deliveries was a big part of the kidnap/extortion trade. Thirty percent of the kid's final exam score rode on it. He'd done all the classroom work. It was time to show what he learned. Not much, apparently.

Old Rags was trying to remember that kid's name when a black dot appeared floating in the air above the squirrels. Old Rags squeezed his eyes shut. His cataracts had been bothering him lately. Maybe this was it, the start of Blind Old Rags.

But when he opened his eyes it was still there and now it was spinning and the squirrels were staring up at it too. They didn't have cataracts. The dot swelled bigger and spun faster. The squirrels skeedaddled. Old Rags felt a pressure pushing him back in the bench. It was like a stiff wind when there wasn't wind. The whole park and all its trees seemed to be shoved back away from the dot.

Then it coughed up a guy in a hazmat suit. He came shooting out of it and landed on his back on the path by the bench. Then, in short order, it spat out four geezers Old Rags thought he vaguely recognized. And then a young guy he did recognize, Tranny the apprentice, whom he hadn't seen in forty years. The kid looked like he hadn't aged a day.

Now Old Rags recognized the geezers too. The men were still in their yachting outfits and the women in bathing suits and flip-flops. They lay around or sat up moaning and groaning and holding their heads.

"Hey alzheimer, what year is this?" the hazmat guy asked.

"Who wants ta know?" At his age Old Rags often didn't know what day it was let alone what year.

"What was that thing?" one of the male geezers asked.

"Time bomb," the hazmat guy said, getting to his hazmat booted feet. "Welcome to the future."

The geezer scowled around. "Looks like the same old dump to me."

"Rags?" Tranny said.

"Take a pitcher, kid. Last longer. Specially at my age."

They told Old Rags what happened forty years ago. He told them what happened since. Not much, except that UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp drove the economy of the whole World World over a cliff causing the universal ruin and misery now known as the Greatest Depression, and there'd been several dozen wars, and the digital age had petered out and people were back to having actual conversations and friends and sex, and the flying saucer space aliens who'd been secretly visiting the planet since 1947 finally revealed themselves in public but only to say that they were bored and leaving, and a genetically enhanced lemur was elected President of the United States.

"That was mostly the first twenty years," Old Rags said. "Don't quiz me about current events, the short-term memory's shot."

"Well at least I'm still rich," the Counter gloated. "Even at three percent my money's been making money all this time."

"Thanks for remindin me," Old Rags said. "During the Greatest Depression they decided the only way to reboot the economy was to zero out all debts and assets and start over from scratch. You ain't got dick, sir."


The Counter and Counter-Counter groaned.


"Course it all slid back to normal right quick. Few people got most everything again, and most everyone got skiddly-do. Everything different but nuttin new."


The hazmat guy cleared his throat inside his hazmat hat.


"Say, I'd love to stand around here in the future wagging chins with you folks all day, but I guess I better go report in and see if I still got a job."



"Think they held it for ya forty years?" the Counter scoffed.


"Hey my record was clean till you people," the hazmat guy said. He turned to Old Rags. "You point me at Generic Advanced Research & Squid Tank?" 


"You're standin on it, brother," Old Rags said. "Whole building come down around their ears when you set off that doohickey. Wreckage so full of contaminants they just ploughed it all under and slathered this park on top of it."


The Counter-Countess glared at the Countess. "Any more bright ideas?"


The Counter, Counter-Counter and hazmat guy all glared at her too.

"Fuckin ingrates," she said. Since the Counter really was worthless now, she figured she better find work. "Char Pit still around?" she asked Old Rags.

"Nah. New place now. Swifty's. Not a steak joint. They serve poor people there."

"Gee it used to be so swank," she said.

"Still is," Old Rags said. "I don't mean serve um as customers. After the animal rights kooks got a anti-steak law passed, and the vegetables smarted up and got a union, all your fine dining establishments gone cannibal. Kills a few birds. Well not birds. Can't do that either. Why there so damn many." Old Rags frowned. He got confused so easily anymore. "Anyways it's still real swank. Only your quality types can afford your cannibal charcuterie."

"Figures," the Countess muttered. She glanced angrily at the Counter. She could see him already licking his chops in his imagination. It suddenly felt like the universe or fate or that time bomb dingus had brought her to the future for a reason. It had been a long time since she felt like she had a reason.

She looked at Tranny. As a substitute for her real boy he wasn't a big step up from a shirt, pants and boots. But she made do with that, so what the heck. She held out her hand to him.


"Guess we should give the dump a look-see. Comin with, my boy?"


Tranny looked sheepish, shrugged, and took one of her hands.

She held out her other hand to the Counter. He looked cranky, grumbled, and took it. She felt a rare flush of warmth. Nice to be between her two men, even if neither of them added up on his own. Yeah, maybe the future wouldn't be so bad.


They started off across the park. The Counter-Counter and Counter-Countess and hazmat guy all looked at one another and trailed along behind. The hazmat guy yanked his hazmat hat off and dropped it in a trash can as he went.

 

Alone again, Old Rags shrugged and reached into his bag of popcorn. He was already forgetting what just happened.

He wouldn't even notice when, a few years later, Tranny led what came to be known as the Squid Rebellion.

 


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All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009-2010 John Strausbaugh

All material on this website is copyrighted and may not be republished in any form without written permission. Copyright © 2009 John Strausbaugh