If like myself you’re a time traveller, or timewalker as we tend to call ourselves, then you’ll know already the most important pieces of wisdom on the subject: wear comfortable shoes and socks, and clutch a roll of loopaper hard when you feel the pull. You’ve no idea how many times don’t contain these three important things.
Of course that’s when you’re pulled by magic, invocation or something of that nature, and get to wear the clothes you had on and take the objects you are holding. If technology brings you, then the chances are you’ll stumble into the Arrival Time naked and covered in some sciency kind of goo. You know the sort of thing. This can be embarassing when they’re expecting a muscular hero; but unfortunately, people usually get what they’ve specified, regardless of looks, and from time to time that’s me--forty, fat and female, and quite cheerful about it.
Sadly, the people doing the calling had no problems calling me strongly enough. If only! No, they had no problems, and it wasn’t so much a timewalk as a few seconds of mad sprinting into what turned out to be, um, somethingth century Russia. I never found out the exact date--well if it’s the pre-newspaper era then how does one tell? – but it was in the time of the Tsars, as I found out later, and it was Spring. Melting snow, birds hopefully tweeting, little flowers, all that. Very pretty, and so were the people. Bright long skirts, headscarves, all hand made of course, as was the ‘peasant’ furniture of beautifully carved wood, probably priceless in my hometime. We were at an inn in a small village square.
I began as I usually do, ‘Hi there, I’m the Timewalker. What year is it please, where am I, and what do you want me to do?’
At which point they all began speaking in what sounded like Russian, and I understood nothing. Then a teenage girl stepped forward.
I say teenage; somehow the concept of the teenager doesn’t fit various types of young person. To me, she was a sharp young woman. To her father, she was probably his lovely clever little girl. She had dark hair and black, bird-quick eyes; she looked strong rather than shapely and had a decided look about the mouth, which I liked. She gazed at me without fear or awe but with great curiosity, which I also liked.
"Good day," she said in gorgeously accented English, "I am the only one to speak English in this village. You are in Russia. I am known as the Clever Little Girl."
"Pleased to meet you," I said cheerfully, and sat down on one of the wooden chairs.
The villagers showed great sense by providing the pair of us with food (dark, flavoursome bread, pickles, fresh vegetables; a divine salad; and some meat which I refused. I'm trying to cut down my red meat consumption) and drink – sweet tea or beer. I had both.
"This is nice," I remarked. "So, what do you want of me?"
"We would like you to solve a riddle," answered the Clever Little Girl.
"Um, I’m not great at riddles," I said uncertainly, never having been asked to do this before and having little experience of riddles outside the pages of Tolkien.
"That doesn’t matter," said the CLG with a dismissive wave of her hand and a pout. "The riddle is easy, and you have plenty of time to solve it."
"If it’s easy, why don’t you solve it yourself?" I asked, reasonably enough, I thought.
The CLG explained.
"The Tsar has set the riddle. He was told by a magician that he must marry the one who can solve the riddle. I have no wish to marry him, or anyone for that matter. I wish to be educated, and to travel, before choosing a husband, if I do so at all. And he certainly won’t be a great lout who plays god and rules with a rod of iron! To which end, if no one solves the riddle, our charming Tsar will start burning villages and making war and so on, as this fool magician has told him that his happiness and reign are dependent on getting it solved. So someone must solve it – but no one has. Except me--and I won’t do it!"
"I see," I said, and thought for a bit.
"I don’t want to marry the Tsar either," I said firmly.
"I’ve thought of that," said the CLG. ‘You can just go through with the ceremony, and then we can send you back to your time and place."
"As long as you do..."
"I give my word."
Famous last words. I sighed, and decided to trust her.
"OK, as long as you promise no honeymoon on the sly. And if you don't come through, I can always tell the Tsar the secret--that you solved the riddle first, not me. What is the riddle?"
"You have to turn up at the palace neither mounted nor on foot, neither eating nor fasting, neither clothed nor naked, neither alone nor attended, and neither speaking not silent."
"Oh for gooodness’ sake. How childish."
"Magicians are like that," sighed the girl.
"So I have to express a load of contradictions. Oh I HATE this."
"But you will do it?"
"If I can," I said rather feebly.
"I have thought of that too," smiled the horribly efficient CLG. "You are from the future, are you not? So you must have many books, many documents, and the accumulated knowledge of centuries."
"And the accumulated stupidity, but yes, go on," I said. "I don’t suppose you’ll just tell me the answer?"
"I can’t do that or the Tsar might hear of it and demand to marry me. No, you must do it. We’ll send you back to your time, you can find the answer, and then we’ll pull you back."
"That’s not been done before that I know of," I said thoughtfully. "You can really send me back and forth like that?"
"We are a very strong people," said that determined mouth, "Especially me."
"I’m beginning to see that," I muttered.
"So we’ll send you home now. You’ll have about a day to find the answer, and another to prepare it. Then we’ll pull you back, just outside the Palace."
"Terrific," I sulked. "I’m so glad. May I take one of these chairs with me?"
Only a few seconds. Well, hundreds of years, but it felt like a few seconds as I stumbled rather than walked through time, clutching my soon-to-be-antique chair tightly. They were good at this.
Usually when I get home after a timewalk I’m happy and relaxed. I breathe a sigh of relief that I’m home and that the event, whatever it was, is closed. Naturally it was different this time. I checked the clock, thought about the riddle, and began to panic. Then I ate the contents of my fridge and went to bed. Well, you can’t solve riddles tired, anxious and on an empty stomach.
The next morning I began my research. Do you remember research? One sometimes sees it in old films. Information is needed, so one invites a professor to tea. After three hours of buns and banalities, one is given the facts one had hoped for. Or one has to search for hours or days, accompanied by creepy music in a dusty, dirty library of rare and ancient volumes. My research was rather different. That sounds quite impressive; what I actually mean, of course, is that I turned my computer on, and typed ‘riddles’ into a search engine.
What am I? I am the size of a castle but lighter than air, and a thousand men and their horses can't move me.
I decided to try to solve this, as it might help my mind get into the right groove to solve my riddle. Hmm. So it’s something big, but light. A cloud? Why a thousand men? Is the number significant? What have the horses got to do with it? What can’t horses move? An opinion?
Ten furious minutes later, I checked the answer.
I am the shadow of the castle.
Now come on. If the thousand men and their horses destroyed the castle, then the shadow would be destroyed too. In fact a cloud passing over the sun can destroy it, as can the coming of night. And light? How is a shadow light or heavy? Can shadows be weighed?
I simmered down and tried another.
How many letters are there in the alphabet?
Depends which alphabet, doesn’t it? What a ridiculous question to ask unless a context is given.
There are 11 letters in ‘the alphabet’!
Well if you had punctuated it correctly the first time, I could have answered the question correctly. Punctuating poorly to cause ambiguity isn’t riddling, it’s just annoying. Or is that allowed in Riddledom?
And so on through various circles of riddle hell. I found the answer in the end by checking a mixture of Russian history and some fairytales. I remembered the CLG’s words: "You have to turn up at the palace neither mounted nor on foot, neither eating nor fasting, neither clothed nor naked, neither alone nor attended, and neither speaking not silent."
--and I looked up various bits of that until I found it.
Originally it was a Norse fairy tale, apparently, which found its way across Europe in various forms before reaching Russia. The heroine rode on a goat with one foot trailing on the ground, she sang, nibbling an onion, wearing a fishing net, with a bird on her shoulder. The magician had obviously heard the story and decided it was a good one to tease his patron with--when the villages failed, the ‘magician’ could explain the solution and look really clever.
Which was all fine and dandy, but I had hardly any time yet in which to procure these things. Fishing nets in a landlocked city? And who does same-day-delivery of goats? Not even online shops could oblige.
A few hours later I was ready and waiting for the pull. As I felt it I braced myself and clutched all the necessary items to me; and then came the fast steps through time, and there I was, outside what looked like a new palace near some marshland. A richly-dressed bloke stood there with sundry attendants. He saw me, and began to cross himself while uttering what looked and sounded like desperate prayers. The attendants’ mouths dropped open and they too began to pray. A little extreme, I thought, but then I suppose that they hadn’t seen a spectacle quite like the one I presented, before. Imagine it:
I was wearing a PVC peephole bra and matching crotchless knickers (which had been very hard to find in a large enough size), pushing myself along on a little scooter, with a robot dog beside me, while I sipped a diet shake and gargled noisily with it.
I thought that was pretty good. The assembled villagers did too after the initial shock, and applauded me loudly, the CLG laughing to herself.
"Come on," I said to the Tsar. "Let’s get married then."
It is to his eternal credit that he did not faint.
The CLG came with us and did all the translation, thankfully. It was all taken care of. The Tsar, who had gibbered somewhat and expressed some distaste for the union, got a stiff talking-to from the CLG.
"Now listen," she said. "You started all this nonsense by listening to that idiot magician. And if you don’t marry her, then every time something bad happens you’ll blame it on not fulfilling your side of the bargain. But don’t worry, she’s as reluctant as you are. Just go through with the ceremony, then pretend that she’s gone to a nunnery or something, and we’ll send her back to her, er, village. You’ll have fulfilled the terms of the riddle, and I suggest that after this you send away that magician. You’ll have enough problems as Tsar without this sort of nonsense."
After that it was all utterly gorgeous. I got to wear a fabulous dress (all hand-done embroidery with little brilliants and lots of floaty skirt), and jewellery that was probably real (I had hoped to take some back to my hometime, but sadly I had to give it all back after the ceremony) and walk up the aisle of a posh church and say things in Russian that the CLG, my bridesmaid, whispered to me. It was great, like being in a movie. She and I smiled at each other. I kept her secret about solving the riddle, and she kept mine about being from the future. It seemed fair.
After the ceremony and an enormous meal, some maids came and took all the finery away and dressed me in a petticoat thingy, all giggling away like nutters. I think they were preparing me to lose my virginity, in which case they were in one sense hundreds of years too early, and in another sense very, very late. Just as I was starting to curse the CLG and her promise to return me, I timewalked and fell straight into my own time.
Ah, the relief. Ah, the joy. I had done the Task and was alive. And what had I gained? Well, I’d had a fantastic wedding day without having to put up with a husband afterwards. I'd saved the CLG from marriage with a fool--he had decided to build a city on a swamp, apparently. There was also the carved chair, which I had sent to an antique-dealing friend for appraisal. The following day I received this note from him:
‘Various factors, such as the condition of the wood and the wear of the edges, lead me to believe that it was made very recently. It is a likeable enough peasant chair, but worthless as it is so new.’
--which is the other thing I meant to tell you. Stick to jewellery and ceramics when bringing back souvenirs--they’re the only sure things. The rest of the antiques market is a riddle.
About Cathy Bryant
Cathy Bryant was convinced that her writing was no good, until her best friend blackmailed her into submitting some to magazines. She only sent them to prove to him that no one would want them, only to find that two were accepted! There's been no looking back, and Cathy won the 2012 Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Prize for the (intentionally!) worst opening line of a novel, and is a former blogger for the Huffington Post. Her stories and poems have been published all over the world in such publications as Storm Cellar, Third Wednesday and Popshot, and she performs her poetry in her home town of Manchester, England, and all over the country. As well as winning the Bulwer-Lytton, in 2012 Cathy won the Sampad 'Inspired by Tagore' Contest, the Malahat Review Monostich Contest and the Swanezine Poetry Contest. She co-edits the annual anthology 'Best of Manchester Poets' and her collection, 'Contains Strong Language and Scenes of a Sexual Nature' was published recently. Contact Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org , or you can see more of her work at http://cathybryant.co.uk/publications.html
Poco Vista Golf Course, Parrot Bay Florida
THE FIRST HOLE
“Yeh, I know, but just who in the hell does he think he is… Tiger Woods?” Moorcroft whispered behind the cover of his slender, gloved hand. Peter Moorcroft was the golf pro at PV and had been since it was designed back in the late 90’s. Not used to hosting anybody of any real note since they hosted the Conan O’brien Open back in 2014, having the president of the United States play here and being ‘asked’ to round out the official foursome was perhaps more than he could handle. He leaned over his driver in dismay.
“Let me break it down for you Pete,” Lester Conrad replied as he rotated his golf ball in his hand looking for latent dings or smiles. “You’re a well paid golf professional on a picturesque golf course in south Florida. I’m the assistant secretary of transportation. He’s Brent Kirk… the President of the United States.”
Conrad walked over to the old suds and towel ball washing machine. He eyed out at the president who was wafting pulls of grass into the air for some type of wind reading. “Now if you don’t want to end up a middle-aged caddy at some nine hole public course in Boca Raton and I want to avoid becoming the ambassador to Guam or some other remote location we had just better learn to get along with his little quirks and fantasies out here on the links…capiche?”
“Gotcha’,” Moorcroft sighed as he shrugged his shoulders in submission. “Okay guys,” Laura Pratt the Assistant Press Secretary offered as she passed by them on her way back to the cart to retrieve a different club for the picky president.
“Give it a rest. Let’s just play the game.” She gave them an impish wink from under her pink visor.
And so the foursome, finally, began their round. Not knowing that soon all hell would break loose.
“Roger that,” President Kirk replied, trying to stick with the military tone of this advice. “Who has the honors this hole Laura?”
“I believe that would be…you sir,” she replied as she bent her blonde head down and glanced over her tally card as if she were verifying it professionally.
“Just a minute—just a minute,” she spouted out as she checked the secret service audio/video monitor just below the presidential GPS screen. “We’ve got a problem sir. Shadow-One is paging us. Sumthins’ up!”
“Let me get that,” Kirk said with more than a hint of annoyance in his voice. “One of those nervous nellies probably spotted a suspicious gopher or squirrel from his camouflaged perch up in one of these fairway trees. He yanked out the retractable phone. “This had better be good Shadow,” he said with irritation. “We’re trying to play a peaceful round of golf here. What have you got?”
There was a crackle of squelch and some spitting static on the line and then an animated shrill voice broke in. “We’ve got incoming sir,” the voice shouted. “You’ve got to get outa’ there sir—”
Kirk reached around to the front of the cart’s bulletproof window and adjusted the jutting little dish antenna.
“Incoming?”the president almost laughed. “What is it son, a flying squirrel? Maybe a suspicious circling hawk of some sort?” he cut in. A few seconds of silence followed this sarcastic questioning, and then… “Uh, Mr. President we got a confirm on a low flying UAV in your sector. We…uh, think it is—”
“What’s your name agent?” Kirk broke in. “Gilroy, sir.” The voice responded quickly.
“Well listen up Gilroysir,” Kirk said slowly so as not to be misunderstood. “Cut out the G.I. Joe crap and tell me, in plain English, what the hell is going on!”
Another moment of nothing but sporadic static and then the nervous agent piped up. “An unmanned aerial vehicle…a drone is thought to be honing in on your position. That is…I mean…heading your way.”
“Where is it right now son?” Kirk challenged sternly. “Approximately five o’clock from your position. Coordinates are as follo—”
“Dammit! Where in the hell is it?” Is it one of ours?”
“It’s coming out of the south sky sir,” Gilroy replied. “It’s only a few miles away. I can’t say for certain just yet. You have to abort your game Mr. President. Please check your scorecard. Your party needs to proceed to the eighteenth green. Head to the far side sand hazard there and we’ll escort you to the safety shelter.”
“This is insane!” Kirk shouted as he rotated his finger in the air to alert his foursome of their imminent hasty departure. “We have a bunker inside a bunker?” he said in disbelief. “That’s affirmative…yes we do. Please sir…hurry.”
“Okay,” Kirk said with a sigh. “We’re on our way. But you guys had better be right on this one mister. I’m up a couple strokes right now on these folks shadow man. I don’t want to be driving for a sand trap that I could probably easily avoid by laying up over there on eighteen,” he announced as he checked the back side of his little paper scorecard. “Got it?”
“Er, yes sir, I understand,” Gilroy replied with an awkward hesitation. “Godspeed sir.”
The foursome had gathered around the president’s golf cart for an impromptu, if not hurried, debriefing about the situation. The sky was beginning to ominously cloud over. Kirk pulled off his sun glasses and peered off to the southern horizon. He shook his head in consternation.
“What’s up Mr. President?” Conrad tried awkwardly.
“What’s up is an attack drone aircraft is heading this way,” Kirk responded as he looked them all over there beneath the dipping branches of a spreading chestnut tree. “We gotta’ hightail it for number eighteen. My ubiquitous guardians are going to escort us into a secret protective bunker there until this situation is resolved. I’m terribly sorry, but there’s no time for questions. Let’s just do this. Get in your carts and follow me.”
The two carts were off and running, cutting across this fairway and negotiating in and around water hazards, sand dunes and flower laden hedges. Kirk was a proficient multi-tasker as he switched from brake to throttle, studied the scorecard map clipped to the center of the steering wheel and scanned the darkening sky for a sign of the approaching robotic marauder. The disheveled Laura Pratt held on for dear life.
“Are we there yet?” she half joked.
“Just up ahead there,” he replied as he pointed off to the ivy covered clubhouse complex. We should be—”
“Look up there,” she cut in with a shout as she pointed off to their left. Off in the distance, just below the rolling gray-black clouds, a daunting shape like a small inverted letter v was gradually descending…approaching them it seemed. There was an abrupt snap of white lightning that zigzagged across the darkening horizon. Then a barely audible buzzing noise emanated from the soaring intruder.
“Jeezus!” Kirk shouted back. “That’s the drone. We’ve no time to lose.” And at that he slammed down on the accelerator pedal and they ripped across a huge blowing garden of white and red begonias as they headed for the pea-stone driveway that led up to the side of the final hole by the clubhouse. Conrad and the chest grabbing, horror-struck Moorcroft were struggling to keep up.
“He’s ruining the whole damn course,” Moorcroft shouted as both carts crashed over a brick facing and splashed onto the little pebbled cart path. The obnoxious buzzing noise of the UFO was now just behind them. It was very close. “Shut up Pete,” Conrad yelled back just before another booming clap of thunder and lightning. Moments later, just as the wild carters were pulling up to their sandy objective, the rain began to patter. A large knot of men dressed in ridiculous camouflage golf outfits was milling about the periphery of the soaking sand trap. A young boy cuffed to the safety bar of a golf cart marked POCO VISTA SECURITY was crying into his shaking chest.
“That’s Kendrick Moss…the course chairman’s son!” Moorcroft said excitedly from his shotgun seat.
THE EIGHTEENTH HOLE
The president de-carted, as did the others in his haggard group. Kirk reached behind and deftly withdrew the golf umbrella from his red, white and blue leather bag. The spitting rain had now turned in to a full-fledged downpour.
“You all better stay right here,” he said over his shoulder. He marched over to the olive drab gathering of secret service agents. A tall, taciturn figure carrying a black metal box adorned with an assortment of dials and little thumb sized joysticks emerged from the soaking group. The man, carrying the box out in front of him as if it were some kind of bomb or birthday cake, slowly approached the seemingly very displeased President Kirk.
“You’re agent Gilroy I take it,” Kirk spoke out from under his billowing umbrella with a steely glare. “Uh, yes sir Mr. President,” was the decidedly less than glib reply.
“Whatcha’ got there Gilroy?”
“Well sir, you see…it seems as if this control box belongs to that kid over there,” he looked over at the bawling boy in the security cart. “It seems that we’ve made a sort of faux pas in our--
He was rudely stopped in the middle of his embarrassed explanation by a loud, cracking crash in the mushy sand bunker just behind them. Everyone froze in place for a few moments as they looked over at the sad arrangement of twisted, broken pieces and parts. There was another rumble of thunder off in the distance. The sobs of the shackled pilot had grown louder still as he witnessed the terminal landing of the birthday gift from his father.
“You’re not a licensed CSO pilot are you then agent Gilroy?”Kirk half-smiled as he reached out and grabbed the toy planes’ control box.
“Sir?” the embarrassed agent replied. “Combat Systems Officer,” Kirk said. “They’re the ones who fly the UAV’s in our elite drone squadrons. Now, unless you and your band of merry men have a better idea, I’m going to return this to your captured terrorist over there. I can only hope that he will accept our humble apologies for bringing down his plane. I will see to it personally that we make the arrangements to buy him a new…drone! Okay?”
“Roger that… er’ I mean yes sir.”
Guess we should have known by the hotel sign. 96 LETOM, it read. A clue, for those who needed to get one, that our stay might be just a little unusual. Not to mention cocked up.
But we three gals—me, One-Eyed Mary, and nuclear-physicist-turned-poledancer Cherry Noble--weren’t much into figuring anything out just then. It had been hard enough just inching our way down the infamous Landing Strip to our retro-trendy getaway-in-the-city for the night. It was down to one lane in each direction, to accommodate all the new vegetation planted to replace the old-growth trees they’d ripped out the week before. To make room for the toll lane. Their slogan? “Pay-as-you-grow.”
Anyway, we were there because our friend Dyna needed us. One final night before the @#$%storm hit and she was blued and tattooed into matrimony. She’d promised “a wet-n-wild frolic of four free women.” A last hoorah for the hoo-ha, as it were.
We pulled into varlet parking—boy, were they churlish—and brought out the booze. Nothing like getting things started with crabapplejacktinis and sourmash chasers. The highfalutin’ stuff would come soon enough, we figured.
“Who’s on his way?” Cherry asked, tugging her minibar carry-on into the bathroom. She always set it up there. Nearer my john, to thee, we guessed.
“You ordered him,” Dyna slurred, trying to sit up and collapsing back onto the pile of plush twisted blue fibres. For a moment it looked like she was trying to crawl through a giant smurf head.
“We ordered who?” I demanded. Dyna mumbled something into the carpet and fell asleep.
One-Eyed Mary looked guilty.
“I did,” she said. “Hey, they said 50% off with suite rental, I figured, where’s the harm.”
“What, some guy delivering pizza?”
“Male stripper. Hey, don’t blame me. It’s a bachelorette-party tradition.”
She grabbed the flyer. The garish psychedelic font read “Strippers to-go-go! In the privacy of your hotel room. Your choice of male, female, both, or neuter. Cash or credit. Fun, fun, fun!”
“Cool,” Cherry put in from the kitchenette as she popped open a bottle of champagne—prosecco, really, but oodles better than the cold duck we’d packed—and poured three full wineglasses’ worth. She eyed the upsweep of foam in her glass, added more, then flopped onto the couch and downed it in one long gulp. Leather, chintz, repeat.
Mary and I took the appetizers we’d brought and set them out on the table. The hotpoppers had to go in the oven, but the chips and the hummus-and-PETA snacks—no animals, only the least sentient vegetables used—were good to go. We began munching and swigging prosecco and Mary started a pot of coffee brewing for our guest of honor. Maybe she’d remember something of her own party someday. Hey, a girl can dream.
We’d just gotten the first caferucito rojo—a quadruple-bypass espresso with a shot of cinnamon liqueur—into our blotto’ed friend when the knock came at the door. We patted our hair, touched up lipstick, powdered our noses. Mary propped Dyna up and as we answered the door she actually opened her eyes.
Okay, he wasn’t THE ugliest guy I have ever seen. But then I used to work in Public Policy. This guy was a contender, though. Swarthy, squat, with hair sprouting from his ears and nose and a big toothy grin. Couldn’t have been a day under forty. And reeking of burqa-shave.
He waltzed in, oblivious to the bloodcurdling shriek that had greeted him, stepped over poor Dyna, still out cold on the floor, and went to the window. Backlighting didn’t help. His neck had fat rolls, and his five o’clock shadow had apparently stayed up past midnight.
The fella politely handed us a little clipboard with a pen and a printed receipt. We looked at each other and shrugged. What could go wrong? I threw down a credit card and Cherry signed off on the release. We stood there, glasses in hand, watching him set up a little mp3player and turn on some generic chick-a bow-wow music, very tinny. He got right down to business, I’ll say that much. Smiling unctuously—we could see he was greased up, and probably well lit—he took off his cheesy faux-velvet jacket and laundered tie and swung them around his head before sending them flying across the room. Hips swaying, he did the same with his snap-down shirt and his shabby wifebeater. You could have lost an army in the jungly thatch on that chest. He shimmied out of his loafers, peeled off his sweaty socks one by one, and made them soar over the bed. One of them hit the Thomas Kinkyade knockoff on the wall. It crashed down onto the carpet. Dyna groaned a little but did not wake.
Then he took off his hat.
His head came with it.
Cherry went down for the count. Fortunately she fell backwards, right onto the hotel bed. Mary and I clutched each other, but it was hard to take our eyes off him. It. Whatever. The head had kinda snapped off, as if it were attached by a ball joint. We saw no exposed circuits or anything. No blood either. Hey, at least no muss, no fuss.
The guy’s arms set the head down on the side table near the pleather couch, turning it so the detached kopf, wearing its big-toothed smile, could watch us and still keep an eye on what was left of him. Then the body started dancing again. Now this was just bad directing on somebody’s part. The head totally pulled focus. It was weird having our reactions gauged, too. Not sure how Mary took it, but I felt exposed. The headless body did some bumps and grinds, keeping the beat to the music. Then it sped up. Pretty soon the arms were flailing in so many directions it looked like they were multiplying. Made me think of the goddess Kali, a non-blue version, down on her luck and stripping for money. Half off when you book a head.
The song slowed down to a kind of heavy fire-alarm backbeat. Mary grabbed the prosecco and poured another round. We needed it. The body did a little catwalk-turn, only the catwalk underneath his feet was an uneven electric-blue meadow. He lost balance and nearly fell over. Real slick. Next the arms next did some hula waves. I started getting seasick. The guy uncinched his belt and used it to whack his own ample rear end a few times. Sexy it was not. Though it did give me a new perspective on corporal punishment. Finally the hands reached down and slowly, tantalizingly undid the zipper. The pants slid to the floor.
You know how it is, when you’re driving someplace and you see there’s an accident up ahead, with the ambulance and the police cars, and you pass by and you just gotta look but boy you wish you hadn’t?
Yeah, this wasn’t like that.
It was so much worse.
First off, the guy was wearing Grandpa-Moíses-style paisley boxers. The pattern and colors made me think of cornucopias disembowelling themselves. They soon gave way to shiny mauve speedos. A little the worse for wear, if you know what I mean. Actually, a lot. Protip: Woolight. Just use it, OK, guys? I winced and Mary squealed like a lolcat that has just lost its cheezburger. We hoped—actually I was praying--that the guy would just prance around a little more and leave it at that. No such luck. The music’s tempo shifted again, and the speedos sped off into the night. We tried to avert our gaze. We failed.
And we couldn’t believe our eyes. All three of them.
There was another head. A small one. Where his...well, you know. Should have been.
Gotta say, this one was a heckuva lot better looking than the smirking one perched on the hotel table. This little guy was blonde—that’s right, carpet did NOT match drapes—with a square jaw, a firm, aquiline nose, and gorgeous green eyes. Clean-shaven, to boot. For once, manscaping kinda made sense.
One of the hands switched off the music player, and the little head batted its eyes with their exasperatingly long eyelashes and smiled up at us. As it opened its mouth, I panicked a little. What if it got--excited? Who knew what might come out?
I was right to worry. But not in the way I expected.
It started singing.
And it couldn’t carry a tune in a sludgebucket.
OK, so “I’ve Been Working On the Railroad” was never gonna win any awards for auditory aesthetics. But this version so mangled the original that it was murder-inducing. Mary and I waved our hands and tried to cut it off but the thing steamrollered on. Seemed to be angling for a rap vibe, but it came out more prison-gangnam-style. Then the other head—I was privately calling it Big Ugly—chimed in. Probably going for harmony but only getting the harm part right. The duo went on for several verses, sounding like an amped-up concert of cats in heat. Just as they got to a reprise of “Someone’s in the kitchen with Dinah,” Dyna sat up woozily. She stared at the tableau before her, glassy-eyed, uncomprehending.
Then she reared her head back and started hurling full force. Her aim was true, if probably unintended. Caught the little head straight in the mouth.
Which was, of course, open.
Well, at least it made it stop singing.
Mary and I back-somersaulted over the bed—barely clearing Cherry--as the barf fest broke out in earnest. The two mouths kept trading volleys at each other, though Dyna had the clear edge in ammunition. We tried to pull her away without getting splattered but she was dead weight and her heels kept getting caught in the carpet. The body, its little head spewing for all it was worth, was trying to shield itself from Dyna’s torrent but kept bumping into the wall, the window, and the bed. On the side table, Big Ugly was shrieking and blubbering and demanding to see his contract. Just when we thought the duelling Vesuvius eruptions might be running out of steam, we heard several loud BANGS! from the kitchenette. They were followed by big puffs of smoke and a hint of flame. Mary and I looked at each other in horror. We’d forgotten the hotpoppers in the oven. Now THAT was a lesson learned the hard way. The directions specified not to overcook them, but they neglected to say that the damn things would turn into lethal weapons if you did.
Next thing we knew, the kitchenette curtains had caught on fire. Mary and I raced to put them out and save what we could of our supplies, trying not to step on Dyna, still moaning and coughing on the floor. In seconds the ceiling sprinklers came on. Poor Cherry was almost flooded off the bed. She leaped up shrieking and crying, her tank top plastered to her fake boobs. Big Ugly leered at her from the table. That made me mad, so I tossed a couple sacks of Frankenrice Cheatos at the thing. Knocked it off balance and onto the floor behind the chair, where it lay groaning on its ear. There was yelling outside in the hall, and pounding at the door. Our barf-covered stripper’s body, the little face streaming with tears, grabbed its soggy pants and started yanking them up. Wouldn’t you know, the poor tiny nose got caught in the zipper. It squalled like a banshee until it got unstuck. With the little head empantsed and no guidance from the big head, the body was forced to grope around the room to find the rest of its clothes. We had to slap the hands a couple times when they got fresh. The thing was in such a rush to get away, it left the big head in the corner, threw its boxers over its shoulders, and sprinted out of the room. Didn’t even take the clipboard. Which was good, since my credit card had been declined.
The fire crew trooped in, then the hotel manager, half a dozen insurance adjustors, and a brace of agents from HomeWorld Security. Then it was our turn to do a little strip-tease, only nobody was teasing.
“Mutants,” explained the concierge, when we enquired about our room service. “They got the stripper concession last year. Up for renewal next month.” He clicked his tongue. “Gotta say, this isn’t gonna look good for ‘em.” Grabbing the head by a tuft of neck hair, he stuffed it, hat and all, into an empty bowling-ball case. “Can’t leave your equipment behind like this. Unprofessional.” He picked up a stray sock and the speedos and tucked them into the case, not noticing he was shoving them right into Big Ugly’s mouth.
We packed up, signed off on the damage estimate, trundled Dyna to the car and poured her in. It was past midnight and the stars were out. Not that we could see any, with all the bright lights of the Landing Strip. Still, we liked to think they were there.
“Half off,” One-Eyed Mary muttered glumly as she adjusted the shoulder harness. From the back seat, Dyna hiccuped and giggled. “More like a two-for-one special.”
“Guess you get what you pay for,” Cherry said through chattering teeth.
I turned the heater up to full blast. “Yeah, well. Wet and wild, maybe. Frolic, my eye.”
Mary glowered. “You trying to pick a fight?”
I tossed a tip at the parking guy, and we raced off into the night.
Q: How long have you been writing? What things inspire you?
I have always loved to write and had a great imagination as a child, but it was only in the last few years that I was able to hold onto an idea, research it, and watch it come to fruition. I'm inspired by all the wonderful people I have met, all the fabulous books I've read, and particularly stories that transport us to another world.
Q: What's the most played song on your iPod or MP3 player?
Right now??? I listen to music most often when I run, Linkin Park, Muse, Prince, Tom Petty, just a lot of different things.
Q: A little birdie told me you're working on your first novel, care to share a little about this project?
The Energy Crusades takes place after the Great Oil Wars have destroyed the majority of civilization on Earth. An alien race has taken over, creating a government based on the currency- energy. All children are required to join an Energy Crusade by the time they are 18 years old. Kaia has lived her whole life as a dedicated Athlete for the Reformation Republic. Her ability to generate energy for her Grid affords her a life of privilege and celebrity. But when the Resistance attempts to capture her in the ruined city, she begins to understand that she has a bigger part to play in the struggle between the Reformation and the Resistance. She thought she knew who the good guys were, but now she's not so sure. Discovering the truth may be the key to her own identity.
Q: Who are your favorite authors? What was your favorite book as a child?
Wow, I have so many. I absolutely LOVED Mark Twain and Huckleberry Finn is my all time favorite book. I loved the Harry Potter Series, the Percy Jackson Series, the Lord of the Rings trilogy, and so much more. I just finished a book called The Orphan Master's Son, by Adam Johnson, which was fantastic. I love George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series too, but darn it, I wish he would finish already!
Q: This next question is going to be a bit personal-- feel free not to answer-- but everybody is dying to know, do you prefer pop-tarts or cereal? Why?
Cereal!! I don't think I've ever eaten a whole pop-tart. We weren't allowed to have them when I was a kid.
Valerie has a background in property management and an education in food science. While studying chemistry, an idea for a story began to take root, and she has recently completed her first novel. It's a science fiction story for young adults called The Energy Crusades.
Because Valerie is both awesome and a great writer she was hired to ghost write a non-fiction project, an endeavor she's still working on. (Hopefully Valerie will come back for a second interview about ghost writing when the project is finished. I know that would interest a lot of writers.) She has a new a blog, www.noblevalerie.com which she says was inspired by my contest. (I'm blushing!) She recently attended the The Big Sur Writing Conference hosted by The Andrea Brown Literary Agency. ( In other words, the creme de la creme.)
She says, "There isn't much there yet, but I plan to work on it."
You can connect with Valerie on twitter @noblevalerie .
M.R. Jordan is a writer, editor, sporadic blogger, and lover of beer. Lives in South Korea with her two cats, Bear and Geumbi.
Bear (Gom in Korean) then (above) now (below)
Geumbi (Gold in English)... then (above) and now (below).