John Strausbaugh, Stories

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Illustration by Takeshi Tadatsu
(click image to enlarge)

 

 

 

 

The Unknown Soldier

 

 

 



 1

 




Dad pulled up to the front gate of the Lord and Lady Howling-Sphincter estate. The gate looked like a wedding cake of iron. He leaned out of his truck and was about to push the intercom button when a UPS van stopped beside him. A young guy stuck his head out wearing a poop-colored cap.

"Carry this up for me?"

Dad looked at the brown wrapper package the kid held.

"What is it?"

"What you care? I'll sign for um, mister. Be a pal. I'm real behind."

Dad rested the package on the seat and talked to the intercom.

"Whatizzit?"

"Trimmer."

The gate buzzed itself open. The driveway was a narrow line of white crushed stones that ran straight up toward the mansion between walls of twelve-foot privet. The walls of privet were trimmed plumb-bob straight and Dad knew the tops of the hedges were flat as his hairdo and level enough to play shuffleboard on. He'd just trimmed the whole damn property a week ago, but the Howling-Sphincters liked him to come every week and touch up because they could afford it so what the hey. The Howling-Sphincters had grown up in the city and had cityfolks' inherent misgivings about nature that looked natural.

When the driveway popped out of the privet it continued across a vast lawn as perfectly flat and uniformly green as a giant pool table. Some other guy took care of that. Here and there stood a thin tree with a perfect ball of leaves at the top, neat and symmetrical as topiary. Tree guy did those. Dad just did privet.

The Howling-Sphincter mansion was copied from a photograph of an English castle, expanded a hundred times. It had more rooms than the Plaza, dining rooms the size of football stadiums, its own IMAX multiplex, six four-star restaurants, a Rolls-Royce dealership, a rooftop runway for the private jet, and indoor facilities for everything from swimming and squash to sky-diving and sailboat races.

Dad followed the driveway around to the back, where the lawn continued, broad as the Great Plains, dotted with more geometrically perfect trees and a lot of fake statues, photo-exact copies of real Greek and Roman ones only a hundred times bigger and molded out of a space age polymer to last till the end of this and all other universes. He carried the package up to the back of the house and rapped on the kitchen door. Right away a little dog started yapping in there. Someone told it to shut up and opened the door.

It was Lady Howling-Sphincter. Lord and Lady Howling-Sphincter weren't a Lord and Lady in the English way. He was a former rapper and now music and fashion mogul from Jersey City whose parents, Mr. and Mrs. Howling, named him Lord because they thought it sounded swank. Lady Sphincter had been a pop singer and enjoyed a brief career appearing in a few movies with no clothes on. They knew a lot of Jews in the music biz like Yidl Ben Tikkel-Mielmo, Hi Chaya-Chaim and Kochava Canner-Pease, so they got hyphened when they got hitched.

She looked at him through the screen. She was in a quilted housecoat and big slippers. The dog snarled up at him from behind her ankle. Its name was Rushmore and it looked like the business end of a dust mop.

"Madamn," he said.

"Yeah?" she said. "Whaddya want?"

"Delivery guy left this for you."

"Whatizzit?" Lady Howling-Sphincter said. “I didn't order nothin."

"It's got your name on it, see?"

She took a step back into the shadows. The dog ducked her slippers on the linoleum.

"I don't got my glasses. Read it to me."

"Guy said it was for you."

"I don't accept nothin I didn't order," she said. "It's your problem."

"Whaddya want me to do with it? The guy's gone."

She half-closed the door. "How should I know? Set it over there on the chaze lonj. Maybe my husband ordered it. Who the hell are you anyway?"

"Trimmer," Dad said, hefting the package under his arm.

"What's it say?"

Dad squinted at the label.

"'Li'l Lord Howling-Sphincter. Parts and Remains Of.'"

The breath caught in her throat and she took another step into the shadows.

"Get outta here. That ain't our boy."

"What it says."

She clutched her housecoat to her throat.

"Get outta here."

"I'm just readin it here."

"I mean get outta here. And take that thing with you."

Dad frowned. "Madamn?"

"That ain't our boy," she said again, stepping back completely into shadow. "It's a lie. Liar. Get out before I call out the dogs."

Rushmore yelped.

"The real ones."

Dad backed away from the door. He'd seen the real ones. Dobermans big as racehorses, and faster. He dropped the package on the chaise lounge as originally instructed and went to sit in the truck. Crazy broad. Crazy rich broad. Most of his clients were rich and most of them were crazy. He didn't know which came first. It was a chicken and Faberge egg thing.



*
 


A UPS van blocked the driveway when Dad got home. He parked his truck against the curb, which he didn't like to do on account of the hot rodders.

Mom said, "That you honey?"

"No, it's the plumber. I come back for seconds." Dad threw his keys on top of the bills.

"Gee I like it when you talk romantical."

"What's that van blockin my driveway?"

"I guess they're deliverin a package or something."

"Tackhead. I mean why they got to park at my house?"

Knock knock.

"Don't answer it," Dad said. He shivered, like a shadow crossed his spine.

"But honey."

"I didn't order nothin. You order anything?"

"Maybe it's a singin telegram. I could use a little music."

Knock knock. Buzz buzz.

Dad sighed and opened the door. A different UPS guy in a different poop hat stood there with a different brown wrapper package under his arm.

"Sign here."

"Whaddya want?"

"Package for you. Sign here."

"We didn't order no package."

"This your name? Your address?"

"What is it?"

The UPS guy squinted at the label on the package.

"'Sonny. Parts and Remains Of.'"

Dad's heart skipped a beat. Behind him, Mom's breath caught in her throat.

"There must be some mistake,” she said in a small voice.

"I just deliver um, madamn. Now who wants to sign?"

"I don't think you should honey," Mom said. "Remember the roofers."

"I remember the roofers every time it rains. Why you always got to bring that up? I oughtta staplegun that contract to the front of your face so you could all the time remind me of it without openin your trap."

"Look, you folks refusin the package?" the UPS guy said.

"That ain't my son," Dad grumbled. "If it was Sonny there'd be postage due."

"Give me a break here sir. You want me to say you refused delivery on your own son?"

"Young man, our boy couldn't possibly fit in that little box," Mom said.

Dad looked out past the UPS kid. His hair would have stood on end if it wasn't already a flat top. UPS vans were all up and down the street, with UPS guys carrying brown wrapper packages up to half his neighbors' doors.

He grabbed the package from the kid and slammed the door in his surprised mug.

"Dad, you don't think?"

"No."

He carried the package into the living room and dropped it on the coffee table in front of the sofa.

"Don't touch it," he told Mom. "Don't open it. That's how they stick you. If you open it you gotta accept it."

"You don't think he."

"Keep your sunny side up, will ya? Movin the truck."

When he went outside Pop, the neighbor next door, was out there running a weed eater over his lawn. Their lawns were the opposite of the ones Dad saw all day at rich people's homes. The ground was clay packed with rocks. The lawns were stinkweed and dandelions.

Pop followed Dad to the truck.

"Say, Dad."

"Just now. You?"

"She's in there starin at it," Pop said. "Half the block got um. What you think's going on?"

"Howm I supposed to know?" Dad grumbled.

"You didn't open yours?"

"You crazy? What'd you tell her?"

"What we agreed," Pop said. "That he joined the Peace Corps."

"Stick to it," Dad said, climbing into the truck. "And don't let her open it no matter what."

 


*
 


Mom sat on the edge of the sofa.

I feel like a dummy, she said to the package in her head. I mean a real dummy. I feel like there's a empty place in me, like the hole in a dummy's back where somebody is supposed to put their fingers. I just wish they'd reach in here and give me things to say and do. You know? Sonny? That you?

Sonny didn't say anything. The tv was on with no sound. Mom picked up the remote and absent-mindedly rustled through the channels. A lady crying about a dinette set. A beautiful hostess pulling cookies out of the oven. Lizards on a rock in a big field of dry grass. A cop knocking a man through a railing. A Christian. More Christians. A young couple who didn't need the exercise exercising. A car commercial. Another car commercial. Another car burning in a street full of broken glass and bricks. People were running up this street past the car toward the camera. They were mostly young people, and you could tell somehow they were foreigners. Some big armored vehicle turned a corner coming after them. The people looked angry and scared. A young woman fell down and the others ran right over her. She was crying and she held out her hand at Mom.

"Turn that junk off," Dad said, startling her. "Supper ready?"

"Oh," Mom said. "I got distracted. I can speed up some of last night's spaghetti in the microwave?"

She got up heavily and went to the kitchen. Dad picked up the remote and put it on his favorite news channel. He turned the sound on low.

"Chaos and bloodshed continued to spread in Tangyangy, Africa today as anarchist rebels battled UNMGOC Peacemakers in the streets of the capital."

Dad saw a bombed and burning city of low, crappy buildings and muddy streets strewn with garbage, gutted cars and bodies. The sky above was black with smoke and prowled by attack helicopters. Little dark-skinned boys in ragged t-shirts and shorts darted across the street and low rooftops shooting M-16s and tossing Molotov cocktails at a tank rumbling down the street flanked by two files of Peacemakers on foot, who fired their automatic weapons at the kids and tossed grenades in open doors. From the roof of a low, gutted building a little kid who couldn't have been more than seven pointed a rocket grenade shoulder launcher at the tank. The tank slid its big gun in his direction and fired. The building and the kid disappeared in an explosion that jostled the camera.

"A rebel spokesperson said they are protesting the replacement of Tangyangy's elected government with a UNMGOC regional office. UNMGOC has said the removal of the former government was required due to widespread corruption as well as failure to achieve contractually mandated earnings for three consecutive quarters."

The tank wore advertisements on its sides, like a city bus. So did the helicopters. The Peacemakers' uniforms and helmets were covered like race car drivers' with logos for a variety of UNMGOC products.

"Tangyangy is the seventh region of the corporation's global operations wracked by violence so far this year. Founder and Chairman Sir Progeny Endive Bart-Bart-Farquahr-Bart charges an international network of anti-profiteering terrorists, funded by former subsidiary and now rival Black Oak Arkansas Anodyne Metasystems Inc., with inciting unrest among consumers, shareholders and innocent victims worldwide. Even the new UNMGOC headquarters at Luna City has been in a protracted water rights dispute with Moon Base Alpha, the formerly secret installation established in the 1960s as part of the US Air Force's black ops manned space domination program. Speaking by proxy as he vacationed with his fifteenth and sixteenth wives at his private compound on the shore of the newly renamed Oceanus Progenarum, Sir Progeny said that claims by rebel leaders that they have inflicted thousands of casualties on UNMGOC Peacemakers in recent weeks are beneath comment."

Dad ran his hand over his hair. It made a sound like a wire brush scraping paint off an old board. He watched a recruitment commercial for UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp Peacemakers, showing fresh-faced young men and women in logo-patched uniforms with state-of-the-art weapons hanging all over them smiling and shaking hands with innocent victims around the world. It ended with the familiar slogan What Else Can You Be?

Dad slid his eyes uneasily to the brown wrapper package. He had encouraged Sonny to try out for the Peacemakers. The boy needed discipline and he needed a job. He was a worthless lump when he finished high school. Not graduated, just finished. The Peacemakers offered to train him and toughen him up, plus great benefits. The ads made it look like they really did make peace wherever they went. All those foreigners grinning and hugging them. He'd be a lot better off than his old man, a self-employed trimmer with bad knees from keeping one jump ahead of the taxman.

Pop and half the other dads on the block were thinking the same thing about their kids. If they didn't intend to lie around the house into their old age, which plenty of them did, the Peacemakers was pretty much the only job around. What else could they be?

The moms might be a problem. The moms saw all those space-age weapons in the ads and got the wrong impression. So the dads put their heads together and told the moms that their kids were joining the Peace Corps. Probably Lord Howling-Sphincter fed Lady Howling-Sphincter the same hooey to get Li'l Lord in.

Now Dad eyed the package and had second thoughts. He didn't like second thoughts. He was more comfortable having first thoughts and sticking with them through thick and thin.




2
 



Mom, let me out.

Sonny? That you? I knew that was you.

Sure it's me. Who'd you expect?

I didn't know if it was real.

Real as it gets. Can you get me outta here?

I can't. Your dad told me not to touch it. You know how he gets.

Well at least get me off the coffee table. I feel like a bowl a salt peanuts.

I'm asleep, Sonny. This is just a dream.

Dream nothin. If there's one thing I learned out there it's that crap like that don't matter.

Why do you talk that way?

Sorry Mom but it's true. I learned all sorts a stuff out there you don't want to know. Things ain't the way they look when you're sittin there in front of the tube.

Sonny why are you here? You done with the Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps. Yeah I guess you could say I'm done.

You never call. You don't even send a postcard.

Wasn't much going on I felt like sharin with you.

We never know how you are.

Guess that's kind of a mute point now.

What's a matter Sonny. You sound so different.

Different? Course I'm different Mom. I was just a dopey kid. Now I'm a dopey kid in a box.

You always know how to hurt my heart.

Sorry Mom.

Sonny, I'm gonna wake up now. I'm gonna wake your Dad up and he'll know what to do.

Nah let him sleep. What difference it make now anyway. Just get me up off the table.

Sonny? Sonny?

"Roll over," Dad grumbled. "Yappin in your sleep."



*


Dad pushed the buzzer at the Howling-Sphincter gate.

"Waddyawant?" a male voice barked.

"Trimmer."

"What?"

"Privet."

"Lawn?"

"No. Privet."

"Trees?"

"Bushes."

"Whyn't ya say so. Get in here, fool."

As Dad parked his truck behind the mansion, the kitchen door swung open and Rushmore flew out, yipping. Lord Howling-Sphincter followed it, wearing a velour smoking jacket, diamonds on every finger, and a scowl. Dad had never dealt with him before. He was surprised at how petite he was. Dad knew next to nothing about rap. For years he thought Sonny was saying wrap music. He thought rappers were all big thugs with prison yard physiques and golden teeth. Lord Howling-Sphincter had the physique of a little girl. Dad thought Li'l Lord must be really li'l.

Lord Howling-Sphincter seemed equally struck by Dad's size. He eyed Dad up and down as Rushmore yapped and sniffed his shoes.

"Look at you. Look like we got Paul freakin Bunyan up in here. And wuddup widdat flat top, pops? Tell you barber nineteen fiddy two come and went."

Dad didn't know what to say to all that so he said nothing. Rich people were all the time saying things they didn't act like they expected him to reply to. They talked at people like him the way they talked at their dogs.

"You the genius brang my wife that package?" Lord Howling-Sphincter scowled up at him.

"Ups fella ast me."

"Get my wife all worked up, you no friend a mine, friend."

"Got one of them packages at my house too. Says our boy's in it. Half the neighborhood got um. All askin ourself what's goin on."

"How should I know?"

"You're in that line of work."

"Own a music label, pops," Lord Howling-Sphincter said. "I ain't Fred freakin Turner." Then he waved a tiny conciliatory gesture with a tiny hand. "But as a matter a fack I did call a few friends. It bad. Them Uniwhositwhatserface fools losin it all over the joint. Peoples uprisin. Sick a the man rapin they land and leavin um squat. Armagiddeon time. Get up stand up. Whole planet gonna blow. And fools like you and me put our kids right in the middle of it."

Lord Howling-Sphincter turned his face away and gazed out over his immense and perfect back lawn. Dad didn't understand one word in ten of what he just said but he got the drift anyway.

"Know what I told my boy?" Lord Howling-Sphincter mused through a bitter face. "'Peacemakers make a man a you.' Yeah. Dead man."

They commiserated in silence for a moment, while Rushmore wandered off.

"Open it?" Lord Howling-Sphincter asked Dad.

Dad shook his head. "Told the wife not to. That's how they stick it to you. You open it you gotta accept it."

"Oh you best believe they want you to accept it, pops. Told my old lady da same thing but she never listen. Know what she found? A plastic comb. A  little bottle a them drops you put in your eyes, whatchucallit, Eyezine. And a sock. One sock. Believe dat? Li'l Lord wasn't no road scholar, but even he knew you put your sock on two at a time. Who they think they kiddin?"

Dad gave him a quizzical look.

"It a conspiriacy, pops. That ain't my boy's. Just random junk. Either them kids gettin so kilt and mashed up ain't nothin left to send home, or either it all a hoax and who know where they is. Could be on the flat side a the moon for all we know."



*



The inside of the Howling-Sphincter mansion was modeled on the floorplans of the Hughes Skarey-Wanker castle in Fresno. The place was so vast inside that Lord Howling-Sphincter bought Segways for himself, his wife and son to get around on. He had them custom built with seats because he didn't get the point of any vehicle you had to stand up to use. Lord Howling-Sphincter believed that there were rules of conduct for the wealthy. They included:

Never Stand When You Can Sit.


Never Walk When You Can Ride.


Never Buy What You Can Borrow or Steal.


The staff were not permitted to ride the Segways.

Lord Howling-Sphincter tooled his Segway into the Greatest Dining Hall, which was based on the Great Dining Hall in Fresno only much bigger. It was bigger than the interiors of all the terminals at JFK combined. It was so wide that the phone on the sideboard at the west end had a different area code than the phone on the breakfront at the east end. On the walls hung dozens of massive, dark oil portraits of lords and ladies in various getups looking like Revolutionary War reenacters or the poor fools who work at Renaissance fairs. They were all photo-realistic repros and not a single figure in them was related in any way to Lord or Lady Howling-Sphincter.

As he rolled across the room Lady Howling-Sphincter hove into view at the far end of the dining table, a mile of shiny mahogany. She had the contents of Li'l Lord's box on the table and was compulsively arranging and rearranging them.

"Don't touch those," he hollered at her when he rolled within hollering distance. "You don't know where they been."

"Oh Lord," she sighed. "You don't think?"

"No. When he ever comb his hairdo? Why he wear one sock?"

"If this ain't him, where he at? How come he never calls?"

Lord Howling-Sphincter leaned the Segway against the table.

"That how it is in the Peace Corpse baby. They always out in the boonies somewhere, teachin ignunt savages how to dig a well or sumpin sumpin. No time to call home."

Lady Howling-Sphincter looked up at him. Well, not up. She was as tall sitting as he was standing.

"Find him? I wanna hear his voice."

"Oh now I Snoop Dogg the Bounty Hunter?" Lord Howling-Sphincter snapped.

He got back on the Segway and rolled away. He prowled the mansion's endless hallways for the next few hours. He thought about what that big Sasquatch-looking fool said. Lady Howling-Sphincter opened the package, but she still hadn't accepted it.

Like most everyone in business, he did a lot of business with UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp and its subsidiaries. He even met Sir Progeny Endive Bart-Bart-Farquahr-Bart once. Well, not met. It was at a big fundraising dinner for the Clumsy Strippers Fund. One of Lord Howling-Sphincter's fashion lines donated the peel-and-eat gowns. Sir Progeny didn't attend, but he sent his hologram. Lord Howling-Sphincter chatted with it for five minutes about expanding the charity's purview to include a new Lousy Lapdancers Fund. Went home that night and bought him three of them hologrand things.

Like a lot of the ludicrously wealthy people Lord Howling-Sphincter met now that he was one of them, Sir Progeny was a pure-D one-percenter. Born with a platinum spoon in his ear and diamonds in his nose and a block of Wall Street up his fundament. Parlaying that into UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp was child's play. In fact he was still a child when he did it.

Being madly rich was so easy for the one-percenters. They was born widdit, went to school widdit, played widdit, married it, had more of it, was on all the board widdit, swapped wives and lies widdit, clubbed widdit, lunched widdit, vacationed widdit. A self-made rich guy like Lord Howling-Sphincter could buy their company, but he would never be widdit like they were. They knew who they were and they knew no one else was who they were. If you weren't born widdit you could never really get widdit. If you were born widdit you had to work real hard not to die widdit and most folks born widdit didn't like to work that hard.  

Lord Howling-Sphincter was nobody from nuttin, a self-taught jillionaire. He wanted more for Li'l Lord. He knew that matriculation was destiny, so he sent the boy to all the right schools, from the I. B. Mizzable Pre-School Academy to Harbridge. Then he had second thoughts and decided the boy should see a little of how the ninety-nine percent lived. He knew that all the Peacemakers did was make peace for UniMegaGlobalOmniCorp all the places around the world where Sir Progeny and his board stuck a big straw in and sucked out al the riches. Still he thought it might toughen the boy up a little.

Fool.




3



Mom sat with the scissors in her lap and the package on the sofa beside her. She knew Dad would bust an O-ring but she had to look.

"Sonny?"

Roll over Mom you're talking in your sleep again.

She pushed the tip of the scissors into her thigh.

"Ow. No I'm not."

Huh. Change the dose on your nerve pills?

"Don't think so. Sonny what happened out there?"

Oh you know. Peace is harder work than you'd think. Lot a unpeaceful people out there.

"Sonny I know you didn't go join the Peace Corp. I ain't the stupe you and your father think I am. Why'd you go and join those Peacemakers? See them on tv and it always looks terrible."

UniMeg's the biggest company in the world, Mom. They run pretty much everything. Heck even President Lemur works for um. Peacemakers the largest standin army on earth. Do good there, you're set for life. Looked better than whackin weeds with Dad.

"Why all them people mad?"

They're backwards and superstitious. Paid agents feed um a lot a bunk about how UniMeg doin um dirty. Get um all wound up and watch um go. Then we had to step in and keep um from hurtin innocent women and children.

He sounded just like his Dad.

"So what happened Sonny?"

Crap happened Mom. Paid agents workin overtime. Somethin about third quarter dividends we was told. Like I know. Uprisins on the uprise everywhere. Had us policin a little podunk town somewheres you and me never heard of. Got caught out in the open. Let's not go into the gory details.

"Oh Sonny. I look at it on the tube and it looks like children fightin children. It hurts my heart real bad."

Always been that way, Mom. Kids the only ones dopey enough. You ever watch the History Channel?

No she did not. Mom didn't like history. All those old-time-looking people getting all worked up about things that didn't make sense and nobody remembered anymore anyway. It made her feel like nobody would remember the things everyone was supposed to get worked up about now, in which case what was the point? Of anything?

"Sonny I'm gonna let you out a there."

Nah Mom, skip it. Changed my mind. Dad would have cows and I don't feel like hearin him holler at you. Kinda like it in here. Funny what you get used to.

"Sonny? Sonny?"



*


It was dusty as hell on the moon but it was a clean dust, a cosmic dust, dust no creature had ever stepped on or slithered across or peed on or pooped in. And even if one ever had on some planet somewhere at some time it was all irradiated clean by now. Sir Progeny's tekkies were all the time warning him about cosmic radiation, but he liked it. He thought of the solar system as a giant dry cleaners.

Sir Progeny had a thing about dirt, and people, and organic life in general. He liked the moon. Now that corporate headquarters were up and running he planned never to set foot on earth or breathe air that didn't come out of a canister again.

"A Lord Howling-Sphincter to see you sir."

"Who? Here? How'd he get in?"

"His hologram sir."

"Oh. Fine. Send one of mine."

They met out by a smallish crater. Lord Howling-Sphincter looked unnerved, even though he was just a hologram. He also looked about eight feet tall. Sir Progeny made a mental note to ask his tekkies if he could make his holograms do that.

"Jolly to see you again dear boy. Been eons," he lied to it. "To what do we owe the pleasure?"

"It's about my boy, Li'l Lord. Went to I. B. Mizzable with Progeny O'Progeny?"

"Of course. Splendid li'l fellow," Sir Progeny lied some more. "And now he's outgrown the short pant and seeks a position?"

"Already seeked it," Lord Howling-Sphincter said. "Peacemakers."

"Capital outfit."

"Come home in a box the other day."

Sir Progeny nodded. "Nicked that from the Japs. Back during the War of the World, the young Jap soldier who fell in battle was cremated, and his ashes sent home in a little box, wrapped in pretty paper and tied with a bow like a packet of toffees from Harrods. The idea was that his heroic sacrifice was a gift to his family, the gift of eternal honor."

"Wunt no ashes," Lord Howling-Sphincter said. "Just junk. Don't even look like it his. Wrapped crappy, too. Lots of um comin home dat way I hear."

Sir Progeny's hologram put on a serious face.

"Bad business. Troubled times. Black Oak villains restlessing the natives all over the compass. Peacemakers called to valiant duty. Protecting our interests. Yours and mine. Filthy business. Some must fall but heroes all, what?"

Lord Howling-Sphincter turned to spit in the dust. Sir Progeny was alarmed, then remembered it was hologram spit.

"We argue why the people uprisin some other time. Right now my only interest is findin out what happen wid my boy."

"Certainly my good man. I'll have General Bizzmark be in touch, all right? He'll have the records. Anything for a fellow Mizzable dad. Aha."

Lord Howling-Sphincter's hologram narrowed its eyes at Sir Progeny's.

"Can I ax you sumpin? How many kids you got?"

"Lost count I'm afraid," Sir Progeny lied again. He kept a precise count. It was central to his legend that he was not only the wealthiest man in the world, but one of the most prodigiously fecund. He'd been inspired by an ancestor, Sir Smoothey Farquahr-Bart, known as the Pink Pasha of Cairo in the golden age of empire. Like many overeducated, overrefined British males, the Pink Pasha gave every outward appearance of being a queer. Not just a "gay man" in the parlance of a later age, but a mincing, shrieking, ballgown-and-fluffy-mules-wearing six-alarm flamer. And yet in his sexual activity he was manifestly, outrageously het. When Victoria sent him to Cairo to command the colonial administration for Egypt, he brought along his wife, Sylvania Heathrowe Tollhouse-Cookey-Farquahr-Bart, who, like so many upper crust English women, gave all outward appearance of being a lesbian, a raw-boned, horse-faced, baritone and humorless clam-digger. She grimly bore him one son and one daughter. She then looked the other way when he established for himself a harem, stocked at its height with twenty-two local women and girls, who during his twelve years in the land of the pharaohs bore him an estimated one hundred and thirteen bastards.

As a young man Sir Progeny got it in mind to emulate his ancestor, but he had no interest in spawning an army of bastards. Instead, he began collecting wives and begetting offspring at a diligent clip. The current count stood at sixteen of the former and forty-two of the latter, each of whom received a plum job with the company on his or her eighteenth birthday.

"But Progeny O'Progeny your hair apparent and firstborn son," Lord Howling-Sphincter observed. "Come home in a box?"

The two holograms stared at each other. Sir Progeny's progeny was helping to run the Central European regional offices in Gstaadt. Sir Progeny would never have dreamed of letting him join the Peacemakers. It was ludicrous. The Peacemakers was for young people of another station. The ones born and raised to be cannon fodder. It had always been that way. If this Lord Pinkster fellow didn't know how to keep his son from harm's way, let it be on his own head.

"Li'l Lord our firstborn and onliest," the fellow was rambling on. "Come late. Wife already at the end a her rope. Adored dat kid. Give him everthing he dreamed up wanting. Ax for a pony, bought him a ranch. Want a clown for his birthday, hired da whole Ringding."

"Of course. We dote," Sir Progeny murmured, making a mental to note to lash his secretary for not screening the holograms more closely. He lashed his secretary often. They both enjoyed it.

"You got dat right," Lord Howling-Sphincter said. "Doted him useless. Boy was soft as snot and a brat and a snob too. Make Damien look like a choirboy. Staff hated his guts. Didn't like him much myself. Peacemakers my idea. Figure they beat some snot out. Never knew dat shit get real."

"Who did?" Sir Progeny said. "Black Oak blackguards."

Lord Howling-Sphincter's hologram gave him a look.

"Anyways dat why I gotta know. Boxful a crap wid no note, no explanation don't cut it. Waddup widdat? I didn't like da boy but I didn't not like him dat much."

"You're right old man," Sir Progeny said. "Shoddy business. Caught offguard I imagine. Procedures not in place. I'll speak to those in charge."

"Damn skippy," Lord Howling-Sphincter said.

There was an uneasy pause as the two holograms pretended to stand there next to the crater.

"Well," Sir Progeny's said. "Was there something else?"

Lord Howling-Sphincter's eight-foot hologram peered down at his for a moment, shook its rushmore head and winked out. Sir Progeny's hologram sighed and vanished too.

He was back in his study, standing at a grand picture window offering a sweeping view of the moon's magnificent desolation and cleanliness.

"Sir?"

"Get me Bizzmark. And see what we have on this Lord Haw-Haw brute. And when you've done that get back in here and assume the position."

"Sir."

Beyond the moon's severe horizon, the earth rose. Sir Progeny scowled at it.




4



Mom? Where's Dad?

"In your room," Mom told the package.

What the heck?

"He's talkin to your computer."

You're joking.

Before he left, Sonny had showed Mom and Dad his iDope, the simplest computer ever sold. It was built for people who were not just computer illiterate but illiterate period. No keyboard, no mouse, nothing to hook up, no commands to learn, nothing to read and no screen to read it on. It was easier to run than a toaster. You just talked to it and it talked back. Like on Star Trek only simpler and words of one syllable. Sonny figured Mom and Dad would never go near it but he hoped they would for its sake. The iDope was built to be user friendly. Very very user friendly. It should have been called the iDog. If you didn't talk to it once in a while it got real lonely and pined its little heart out, which they said was bad for its circuitry. He hoped Mom or Dad would at least look in on it from time to time.

What's he talkin to it about?

"I don't know Sonny. He closed the door. You need him?"

Nah. Let um alone.

The phone chirped.

"Dis da bushwhacker house?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"Big flathead cut hedge."

"Hold please."

Who is it, Mom?

"I don't know. He don't speak English. I'll get your Dad."

Mom eased the bedroom door open. Dad was hunched over Sonny's desk, the one he built for him when he was in elementary school. He had his elbows on it and was running his hand over his head bristles. The iDope was nattering cheerily about death, casualties, destruction, rebellion, refugee camps, thwarted relief efforts, charges and countercharges of corruption and intrigue. It sounded so doggone happy to have a visitor it hurt Mom's heart to interrupt it.

"Hon? Phone."

Dad grunted and sat up. He reached for Sonny's phone without facing her.

"Yeah?"

"Dat you Sasquatch? Yeah dat you. Check it out. Gimme your boy name. I might could find out sumpin sumpin. Gimme dem other kids on your block too."

Dad rattled off all the ones he could think of.

"Coolio. Come see me day after tomorrow. And don't go blahgin about dis to no one. Sumpin fishy in Denmark. I gonna see what I can see."

Mom had closed the door gently and padded back to the living room. She sat down on the sofa next to the package.

"Just somebody Dad works for I think," she told it. "Sonny? Sonny?"



*


Dad drove out the country roads toward the Howling-Sphincter estate. He could remember when it was all farms and woods out there. Now it was a vast suburb for the ridiculously rich, their properties big as small states, their McMansions and McCastles set way back from the roads, invisible behind their stone walls and iron gates and dobermans big as Clydesdales. Most of Dad's clients were out there and all of them had so much money it made his head ache and most of them acted mizzable anyways, mizzable and cranky and drunk and drug-addicted and perverted and crazy. A lot of them were shambling wrecks he could easily picture on a sidewalk in the city with a cardboard sign Help Me I'm A Knothead.

The last two days he'd been spending a lot of time in Sonny's room, asking the iDope a lot of questions and thinking about its answers. He'd been putting one and one together, a syllable at a time, and had come to think that Lord Howling-Sphincter was right. Sumpin sumpin was fishy in Denmark, and not only Denmark either. Maybe Lord Howling-Sphincter could tell him more.

As he approached the Howling-Sphincter estate a cloud of black smoke suddenly boiled up toward the sky from behind the trees that lined the road. Dad's hair would have stood on end if it wasn't already. At the same moment he heard sirens rushing up the country lane behind him. He just had time to lurch the truck to the shoulder when a pair of fire engines screamed by, followed by a trio of UNMGOC armored vehicles, the ads on their flank flashing as his truck rocked in their wake.

Dad drove on, slowly. He was almost reluctant to get there and see what he knew he was going to see. The black cloud grew into a column of smoke that looked thousands of feet high. He heard more sirens.

By the time he reached the Howling-Sphincter gate it was obvious that the smoke was coming from the Howling-Sphincter mansion, and it must have been a humdinger of a fire because the black cloud was filling the whole sky. A pair of UNMGOC helicopters hovered up there. One of the UNMGOC armored vehicles blocked the road and Peacemakers in logo-patched uniforms and helmets stood pointing futuristic weapons at him.

One of them approached his window.

"Back it up, sir. Road closed."

"What's goin on?" Dad asked him.

"What's it look like?"

By the time he got home it was all over the local news. From the helicopter cams the Howling-Sphincter mansion looked like it had been the bull's eye of an aerial bombardment. The whole big damn house was collapsed and broken up and licked with flames and churning out black smoke. The fire engines poured useless, desultory streams of water into the flames, like kids peeing on a campfire. No word on casualties yet but Dad knew.

"That's awful," Mom said, coming up behind him.

Dad stood there running his hand over his head quills. They said it had been bombed by terrorists working for a rap music label that was Lord Howling-Sphincter's major rival. Dad had different ideas about that. Maybe he was wrong, but if he was right it wasn't a good idea to stick around and find out.

"Go pack a bag," he told Mom. "Goin on a trip."

"Really? Gee we ain't been on a trip so long I can't remember it. Where to?"

"Don't stand there playin olden goldies. Move. Throw some things in for me. We're out a here in ten minutes."

Dad went into Sonny's bedroom and asked the iDope about a few destinations. Then he unplugged it and brought it into the living room. Mom joined him there, lugging a suitcase with one broken latch and shirtsleeves trailing out it.

"Honey, is something wrong?"

Dad looked like he was about to call her a tackhead. Then they both heard a sound outside the house. Approaching helicopters.

"Sumpin sumpin," Dad said. "Go get in the truck."

He went to the front windows and peered out a slit in the curtains.

Mom looked at the brown wrapper package on the sofa.

"Leave it," Dad said. "That ain't our boy."

Mom murmured, "But."

Go on, Mom. Dad's right. I ain't here.





 


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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