Crazed artist Julia Siddons has been systematically stalking synaptically challenged lawyer Bronco Flanaghan for weeks, believing he has information vital to her nefarious plans. Here she catches up with him very early one morning. Note: the day labour office is not an awful lot different from those I used to frequent.
Julia had ran for blocks. Sputtering and gasping, she spied the lawyer leaning against the pole, still talking to himself. For once she thought that she was actually going to catch up with the quarry easily and without a fuss, but suddenly he spun and accelerated away just as she was drawing near.
She started to run after him. Blind in thought, he turned a corner and knocked over a newspaper box. She tripped over it. Passing under a tree he pushed a branch out of the way. It swung back in her face. Crossing the railway tracks, he derailed a train. She had to clamber over the wreckage.
Thinking that nothing could possibly get his attention, except perhaps a bullet in the brain, and that only briefly, Julia saw him turn the corner of an office block. She cut through the alley behind it, burst out of the darkness into the street, and pretended to be struck down by one of those miniature nocturnal garbage trucks--even though it was just parked at the curb at the time. She fell prostrate at Bronco’s feet.
He tripped over her. “Sorry Mac,” he said. “Been there myself.” He dropped a few coins and started off once more, but Julia lashed out at his feet. He tripped. She pounced on him.
“Oh help me, help me! They’re trying to kill me!”
“That truck! It tried to run me down because I know too much--I mean, too little--about, uh, about submarines!”
“Submarines? What submarines? Wait! It’s--it’s you!”
“Me? Little old me? Why, it’s you, Brooklyn! My saviour! How could I have expected my darling, my lover, my hero, to be here in my time of need, but then, of course you would! Of course you should! Why there’s the fiend now! Kill him!”
She pointed at a civic worker in a visibility vest carrying a shovel and listening to a Ipod, its tinny sound at odds with the quiet night. He stopped still at the tableau.
Bronco got up and confronted the man. “Is this woman bothering you?” the lawyer asked with concern.
The worker shrugged, stepped into the cab and drove away.
“Oh, thank-you, thank-you,” said Julia. “They were onto me for sure. That was, uh, Dab Hand, the most ruthless of their executioners, who, uh, drives around with his own compactor to take care of the--”
“Well, it was nice to run into you again,” Bronco interrupted. “I’m, uh, glad to see there’s enough slack in the restraining order to keep up acquaintances--now I have to run along, serious escaping--er, thinking to do--”
“Such a beautiful night!” Julia rhapsodized, clutching his arm. “So many stars--three, four of them I think! And there’s Venus--or maybe it’s a street light a block from here, I can’t be sure with this fog, or smog, or whatever, but anyway, who cares, it is the idea that counts, isn’t, the idea of Venus--the reality, of Venus...oh, I’ve missed you, Brooklyn!” Julia stepped on her toes and tried to bite Bronco’s neck, but she missed and snagged her tooth on his collar button.
“Aagh!” she fell into a crouch, covering her mouth. “Aagh!”
Bronco turned back. “I can’t believe that you’re related to her.”
“Hergle? Hergle hoo?” she gargled.
“That woman. The woman. The woman of which I cannot speak for shame.”
“Oh, Venus? Of course I’m related to her. I’m a woman. But don’t feel bad. She likes you. I like you. Let me show you--wipe the blood off my mouth first...where’s a waste bin when you really need one--”
Bronco opened his mouth to speak, but it only stuck in place.
Julia blithely continued. “You know I would like to take you home and ravish you exactly as you are, but that harrowing ordeal is too much too early for a poor girl like me, so let’s go find a place where we can unwind.” She looked around, hands on hips. “It looks pretty dark everywhere around here, doesn’t it?”
They were standing in a small side street. There were several coffee shops and restaurants, but they were all dark.
If he were in his monastery, Bronco thought to himself, this would be nothing. Two am, four am, six am, it was all the same: celebrate God and the complete absence of fatal lunatic females. At least, he hoped. “Uh, it’s only 5:30,” said Bronco.
“Wait! Isn’t there a light up there? And there’s some people lined up. Gee, it must be popular. Lets’ go.”
Julia dragged Bronco by the arm and led him down the street where a sick yellow light shone out of a non-descript building. There was a group of men in work clothes idling about outside. Some were smoking and chewing the fat, while others were just chewing their legs, pretending to do up their bootlaces. But they deceived no one, what with the salt packets caught in their trouser cuffs.
The couple pushed through them and through the door.
The first thing that hit them was the smell, the stale tang of a football team that had not only not showered for decades, but cultivated its fungus for their kitchen window planters.
Bronco spun on his heels, surveying the scene. It was a moderate sized square hall, filled with men sitting on cheap plastic chairs staring into space or into a television suspended from the ceiling. The walls were white with large scenes of men at work--crushed by logs, falling off buildings, zapped by transformers--silhouetted in green paint, some splattered Pollock-style with a very realistic shades of blood.
“From the looks of things we’ve hit one of those ‘alternative’ coffee shops or something,” said Bronco. “I think maybe we should move on and--”
“Move on is right, bud. Hurry up and sign in, I ain’t getting shafted with another anvil unload today.” said a voice from behind. “We get in early enough maybe there’ll be one of ‘em good anthrax jobs. Or botulism clean-ups.”
The couple turned to find what looked like a prospector from the Wild West with a craggy, hard lined face, beetling brows and a drooping moustache. Behind him were a dozen more of the same with minor variations of age, size, and level of desperation. Somehow the would-be lovers had gotten co-opted into a line-up and were being propelled inexorably to a counter at one side of the room.
“What did he say?” asked Julia.
“Hmm, we have to sign the guest list or something, before we can eat,” replied Bronco.
“That seems odd.”
“Maybe it’s a real exclusive place. I hope that I don’t have to buy a membership.”
There was a sharp crack and the man in front of Bronco suddenly crumpled to the ground. Now it was the lawyer’s turn at the counter.
“Kick him out of the way. Step on him. I don’t care,” said the guy behind the desk. He was an anthropologist’s dream, with the thuggish good looks of a mastodon victim from a Neanderthal diorama: a flat nose, black dead eyes, and a brow ridge that had gone out of fashion with the pithecanthropines.
“Uh, what, piss-ant? What’s the matter with you? Don’t you want to work?” He belted Bronco in the jaw. The lawyer staggered back. “Can’t take it? Can’t take an honest day’s work?” The man punched him in the eye. “Wimp! Faggot! You want a job?” A right undercut. “You got to work for it around here! Do you hear me?” A smack both sides of the head. “A hard day’s work for a hard day’s pay. Is that so hard to understand?” A roundhouse right. “Am I asking too much? Am I? Look at me and tell me it ain’t so.” Two fingers in the eyes. “What’s the matter now? Gonna beg off sick now, girlie? Sissy! Cunt! Pussy!”
The throwback was winding up for another when Julia stepped in.
“Hey, Mister. Guess what! I am a cunt.” With that she shot her arm, fingers extended, into the caveman’s throat. He nearly exploded from all orifices at once, clutched his throat and turned blue. Julia reached over, grabbed his shirt, and pulled him into his computer monitor with a sickening crack. As he slowly slid to the ground she said. “Think that next time you think pussy.” She turned to Bronco. “Oh Brookie-wookie, did the mean man hurt you? We better sit down and lick your wounds!”
Julia shepherded him to a couple of empty chairs. A voice from the counter called out to them. It was another clerk, a string pole with an expressionless face. “Here. Don’t forget to fill these out.” She got up and retrieved them, puzzled.
She sat down and read it.
Labour Deadly*: Work Today, Die Today.
Vanderville’s Preferred Job Placement Centre.
In the event of your death, you assign all your worldly assets to us. In lieu of worldly assets, your body or what remains are recoverable will be sold.
*Another Fine G.B.I. Affiliate.
She looked around the room. It had completely filled up with grey men and a handful of grey women. They sat in chairs or shuffled around. They openly counted their fingers and toes, checking they still had as many as the day before. Others were bent over double, their friends trying to straighten them out with crowbars or claw hammers. Others were grimly performing warm-up exercises for the day to come, smashing their head against the wall or pounding the back of their hands with rocks.
“What is this place?” she asked of no one in particular.
“It’s Hell,” said a bland young man next to her, staring blankly into space. “No--worse than hell. In hell you get what you deserve. Here you don’t even get that much. Look what I got paid yesterday.” He shook a cellophane bag of peanuts.
“Peanuts? You got paid peanuts?”
“No. Peanut shells. At least they last. I’ve been chewing them since yesterday.”
“Want some? I can spit up a few.”
Julia was about to demure when the office phone rang. Everyone jumped to attention.
The string pole answered the phone. “Labour Deadly, Billy speaking... Uh-huh...Uh-huh....Let me get this down. Your semi overturned on the highway. Right. And where exactly?...Dead Man’s Bend, right--been in the news a lot lately, ya, I heard. Still haven’t found the school bus, they say. So your truck--it’s what, half on, half off the road? Okay. Is it the cab, or the trailer that’s hanging over the cliff?... Okay. What’s that you say? Oh, hell yes. We’re a lot cheaper than a crane. Yeah, we’ll just get out a few of our guys with some chains, and a couple of axes, and we can put down a skid road of logs no problem....What’s that? The trailer? What was in the trailer?...Oh, you think some of them got out, do you? Well are they all dangerous?...Only the infected ones you say. Uh-huh. How many guys do you think?...Wait, let me write that down. ‘One to distract them, one to hunt them, one to carry the dead.’ What dead? The animals you mean? No?...Not a problem. Just wanted to clarify that. Uh-huh. Okay, we’ll send out some of our best guys. Thanks for calling Labour Deadly.”
The string pole looked down the list of employees signed in and called out a half dozen names. A half-dozen men groaned and began to weep openly. They slowly shuffled to the counter. But too slowly for the Neanderthal, whose head finally re-emerged from behind the counter. With one arm hooked over the countertop, the other he used to launch a barrage of office supplies--staplers, three-hole punches, rolodexes--croaking malevolently, “whatsa matter with you guys? Don’t you want to work? Sissy boys! Faggots! Ass-wiping dog-fuckers!”
The men batted the stationary away and grimly filed out, shaking hands and embracing their oldest friends. The spectacle finished, the remaining crowd turned their attention back to the television. They were enrapt with a game show, The Price is Nice! where an octogenarian host led addled fat farm escapees through a daycare playground. Stunning models with cardboard gestures draped themselves over sports cars, cruise missiles or food blenders, caressing the chrome wistfully. By putting one block on top of another, or just counting up to ten, the contestants could win any or all of these prizes, or just an awful lot of money.
“Eight! Eight! Go for the eight! The eight! Eight comes after seven! Not six! Not nine! Eight! Eight! Eight--ohhh, nice try anyway,” groaned one worker in the room. He was a physicist down on his luck, his groceries, his rent, his wife, and his friends, but he still hadn’t lost his knack for math.
“Square! The square peg in the square hole! Not the round! Not the--oh, you bozo,” said an empty space in the corner. In fact, there was someone there, but he had waited so long for a job no one saw him anymore. Character demolition was standard practice in Labour Deadly, but becoming outright invisible played havoc with his personal life, especially crossing busy streets or trying to pick chicks up in a bar.
“France! France!” spat a gaunt old man in the corner, his face lost in shadow, or perhaps it was just lost. “Paris is in France! Not Liechtenstein! Not Abyssinia! For the love of Christ and half a million bucks, just say...Zanzibar?” He snapped a pencil in half and turned to a battered copy of Candide, muttering. He might have done well with a half million. He lived underneath a school bus that he parked behind the Mega-Motor lot off Piscine Drive. He had lived in it until the authorities told him it was against the code. But since the code said nothing about sleeping on, over, around or under a vehicle, he moved downstairs and has had no worries since, except a faint taste of oil in the morning and gravel in his socks.
“You know, Brooklyn,” Julia said to the lawyer, who was just coming to, “I think that you and I should get out of here.” The two got to their feet and were making their way to the door when it flew open and a corpse dragged himself in, slithering on the floor like a slug.
Technically speaking it was not yet a corpse, as one arm still moved, dragging the body forward by means of a claw hammer swung into the floor. The head had a sheet of paper in its mouth. When it reached the desk the string pole reached down and snatched it out of its mouth. He looked at with disdain, then punched a few numbers in the computer. The printer zipped out another piece of paper. The string pole addressed the corpse, which had not moved since it reached the counter. “Here’s your cheque, Roger. I had to make a few deductions. All the usual crap, then there’s my commission for getting you the job, and Derrick’s there cuz he’s the manager. And then the owner gets his cut--of course, since he moved to Monte Carlo none of us can be sure...and...oh! then I had to take some off for that little trip to Emergency--tsk, tsk, Roger--and we just had to compensate the client for the clean-up of the gore you left behind--and now there’s the tiles you just messed up here, and we’ll probably have to replace that hammer, too. Oh! And the printing charge for your cheque. I forgot that. But...here you go, Roger! One dollar and seventeen cents! I know you’ve been looking forward to that all day.” He leaned over the counter and tucked the cheque into the thing’s collar. It still had not moved.
Bronco and Julia in tandem lifted their feet and were about to sneak out the door when the office manager appeared out of nowhere with a nail gun. He waved it around menacingly. “Don’t you thinks of going nowhere, fancy-pants. I got a job for you two.”
“That won’t work without being plugged into a compressor,” said Julia matter-of-factly.
“Oh, so you’re an expert, are you? Well, I’ll show you!” He stuck the air hose into his mouth and puffed and puffed until his head near exploded. He collapsed backwards, firing three rounds into the wall.
“Geez. I’m impressed. This guy really is a gorilla,” said Bronco.
“Whatsa matter! (gasp, wretch) Don’t you want to work? (gargle, rasp)” said the office manager.
“Oh, give it a rest,” said Julia.
“Don’t touch me! Don’t touch me!” said the manager.
“Alright!” called the string-pole from across the room. “Siddons, Flanaghan, you’re with these guys.” He gestured to a motley group of workers slowly assembling their bags, and looking in their wallets for the last time at the pictures of their loved ones.
“Where are we going?” asked Bronco.
“Don’t ask questions. Move along if you know what’s good for ya’s.” said the office manager.
“We don’t know exactly where were going,” said one of the men. He introduced himself as Sean. He was a tall, gangling fellow who looked like he might have rustled cattle before his decline in fortune. He was holding an envelope. “It’s somewhere south. We can’t open the work ticket until we’re already on the road. And then of course we can’t stop till we get there, because they got my brakes as ransom until the job gets done.”
They left the office. Outside it was still dark, but the cool early morning air was ambrosia in comparison to the stench of the working life. They breathed in deep. “Enough of that bullshit,” said Julia. “Brooklyn--we have to go--” But at that moment there was a low growl of something that might have been large and canine and murderous, but only if they were lucky. It seemed to come out of a bush next to the building.
“That’s old mad Charlie,” said Sean. “I wouldn’t mess with him, or it, or whatever it is. Labour Deadly gives him the bush to live in as the unofficial enforcer of the joint. You skip out and your butt’s not worth a plugged nickel.”
“This--this isn’t right!” said Julia.
Sean shrugged his shoulders. “It’s just Friedmanomics. You know--part of the divine plan, like locusts and raining toads. Reduce enough people to ruin, so they say, and all will come right in the end. Now, thirty years on we’re finally at the Endtime, when like a summer storm, thunder will shake the heavens, and the sky will turn to gold, and the people will rejoice, for yea, unto them will come a hail of silver and a rain of gold, and the rivers will flow black with oil, and the ground will be as dividends and stock options, and swords will be beaten into ploughshares, and those shares will be sold on the market, and the market will be available to everyone, even the peasants. ‘Fear not for thy miserable wages’, sayeth Billy in there, ‘cuz’ any day now the Endtime will be upon us, and who knows, even on thy way back from a job there might be a...a thickening in the air, as it doth grow heavy and slow like unto those tropic realms beset by a dolorous storm, and thou shallt not be able to draw breath for the...wealth...in the atmosphere that--after so many years of Sacrifice and Restraint and Sound Stewardship--‘” Sean shook his head, “has so clogged the poor little molecules they can’t help but finally blow it bigtime and presto-chango goes the air into solid quarks of gold and silver and gobbets of greenbacks, glory hallelujah.” He spat on the ground. “That’s the theory.”
“You believe that?” asked Julia.
“It’s bullshit,” he spat on the ground again. He looked at his watch. “We best be movin’.”