Book 47 of 52: "The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack" by Mark Hodder

This book is Mark Hodder’s sequel to “The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man,” which I read last week.  Adventurers Sir Richard Burton and Algernon Swinburne are back, this time facing down a rogue time traveler!

This is where the fact that I’ve accidentally read a future book in this series comes back to bite me.  While I don’t remember all the details, I do have some idea what’s going to happen to Edward Oxford, our time traveler from the future, and it’s sometimes a little tough to read his doomed story.  Of course, Hodder makes it pretty clear that the poor fellow’s doomed from the start, so it doesn’t totally overshadow the story.
In reading this book, plus previous steampunk adventures, I’ve come to recognize that, for a story to be steampunk, it needs several elements:

1. It must be set in Victorian England.
2. It must feature at least a couple real-life famous individuals from history as characters, whether those be authors (H.G. Wells), scientists (Darwin, Galton), inventors (Babbage), or other famous folks.
3. There must be some advancement of technology, often using ridiculous principles that were only disproven later (the idea of the ether, clockwork contrivances, strange genetic breeding, etc.).

Mark Hodder certainly succeeds in hitting all three of these criteria!

On one hand, steampunk can be fun to read because it’s a new spin on science fiction – but still within a set universe that I’ve come to know at least somewhat well.  But on the other hand, it’s sometimes frustrating to read about these characters, with nothing more than cogs and springs, accomplishing things that we still cannot do, with all of our advanced technology, today.

It’s certainly an escape from our world, at least!

Time to read: 5 hours.

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Lost.

The ship drifted, the deck softly rocking back and forth beneath me.  I could feel the shifting of the rough boards against my back, in gentle constant motion.

Gazing up into the sky, I watched sleepily as the mast rocked back and forth, its motion amplified by the boat beneath me.  Back and forth it swung, tracing a line back and forth across the innumerable points of light on the night sky’s backdrop.

Adrift.  Lost.  The words flitted through my head, but they meant nothing to me.

Almost out of time.

Occasionally, a spark jumped from one of the spar lines, earthing itself in the wooden boards.  My eyes couldn’t help tracking those bright little points of light, but I knew they were meaningless.

The last of my time, burning itself away.

What could they do?  I knew there wasn’t enough energy to jump away.  Adrift, all I could do was wait as the last little reservoir of energy slowly expended itself.

Eventually, I knew, there’d be no energy left.  I couldn’t produce enough on my own to keep the entire ship warm.  Everything would stop, and I’d be frozen, out of time.

There’d be no rescue.  After all, I hadn’t told anyone where I was going.  That’s the point of an adventure, isn’t it?  Brashly, I’d jumped out beyond the bubbles of fast time, out into the far reaches.  I had sought adventure, had been willing to embrace danger.

Had I been foolish? I wondered, feeling my fingers starting to grow colder.  Perhaps.  I’d been told that running out of time felt a bit like freezing to death.  Once it had progressed past the point of turning back, it didn’t hurt, but felt instead just like falling asleep.

I wouldn’t mind falling asleep.

Beneath me, the ship drifted.  I didn’t know how it ended up out here, way out in the far reaches of Slow Time, far beyond any civilization.  I’d searched the boat, hoping to find some hidden store of Time that could help me jump back to civilization, but I’d seen nothing.

Abandoned, empty, just another cold place for me to lay as my time ran out.

At least the sight was pretty, I thought drowsily, slowly, to myself.  All those little points of light, little points of time, comforting even just out of reach.

Slowly, I closed my eyes, crossing my hands across my chest.  I doubted anyone would ever venture out here, into the depths of Slow Time, but I’d like for them to find me at peace.

With my eyes closed, the boat still gently rocking beneath me as the last vestiges of my time burned away, I waited for anathema to claim me.

Suddenly, just as that bitter cold crept up my legs, I thought I heard something.  Some sound, just at the edge of my hearing.  I tried to ignore it, not wanting to stop with my eyes open.

There it was again.

I couldn’t lay in suspense any longer.  Despite the bitter cold of timelessness creeping around my extremities, I opened my eyes.

Another pair of eyes stared down at me.  Blue eyes, brilliant blue, dancing with suspicion, determination – and amusement.  They watched me carefully, watching as renewed time flooded back into me, warming me.

“Well, well.  Not what I expected to find out in the Far Reaches.”  The voice was deep, amused – but on guard.  I could hear the steeliness, beneath the friendly surface.

I said nothing, staring back into those eyes.  Their owner looked down at me for a moment longer, and then shrugged as he turned away.

“Coming?” he called back after me.

I’d planned on freezing, running out of time peacefully out here, but it seemed as though I was destined to end up somewhere else.  Fighting my cold, still half-timeless muscles, I pulled myself up and followed after my new companion.

A few minutes later, the boat came to a gentle stop as the last of its time ran out.  Objects couldn’t hold time well, and the last few sparks of time jumped off of the boat, vanishing into the nether.  With its last passenger gone, the boat cooled into blackness.

Eventually, there was only a dark shape, left forever adrift on the endless sea.

A day in the life of a secret agent

The door slid open to reveal two hefty men, both of them clad in identical black outfits and both wearing identical angry scowls.  They gaped at me for a moment, and then lunged forward, grabbing for the guns at their belts.

That moment’s pause was their undoing.  Relying on my years of training, I slid forward, ducking under the swing of the nearest.  I rose up with a powerful uppercut, connecting squarely with his jaw and sending him flying backwards through the air.

I pivoted as soon as the blow landed, opening my hands to grapple with the man’s companion.  He’d freed his gun from his holster, but I snagged his wrist, keeping the pistol aimed up into the air.

The gun fired, a sharp retort that echoed through the air, but I twisted at his hand, snapping his wrist and knocking the pistol from his hand.  I caught the gun by the barrel with my other hand, swinging the butt up to connect with the man’s temple.  He collapsed down bonelessly next to his fallen companion.

Readjusting my grip on the pistol, I sighed.  Were all henchmen so easy to beat up?

Up ahead of me, I could see stairs rising up, entering the main chamber.  Up ahead, I knew, the evil Dr. Universe was putting the final touches on his Total Annihilation Ray.

Just another day, I grunted resignedly to myself.  Remember, Jeff, once I make it through this trouble, I’ve got a fresh six-pack waiting in the fridge at home for me to arrive.

That thought was all that kept me moving forward.  I sighed, shook out the tension in my shoulders, and then bounded forward, the pistol held in a two-handed grip and pointing ahead of me.

Sure enough, as I climbed up the stairs, I found myself standing inside the massive, domed interior chamber of the old observatory.  There, in the middle, the huge and twisted shape of the Total Annihilation Ray rose up, pointing out towards the closed observatory doors.

And there was Dr. Universe, fiddling with the massive control panel in front of the Ray.  He glanced up at the sound of my approaching footsteps, giving a cackle as his eyebrows rose up above his reflective goggles.

“Ah, Jeff the Secret Agent!” he hissed at me.  “Here to stop me, I see – but you’re too late!  The Earth will soon cower before-“

I groaned.  Not the world domination speech again!  I hefted the gun in my hand and put two shots into the console beside Dr. Universe.  A shower of sparks erupted out from where the bullets hit, scattering and dancing across the metal observatory floor.

“Come on, Universe,” I called out.  “Haven’t we been through this enough times already?  Just give up, and I’ll haul you back off to jail.  We don’t have to go through-“

“Too late, Agent!” the man screamed dementedly back at me.  “Even if you stop me, I’ve already activated the Annihilation Ray’s automatic countdown!  You can’t shut it off-“

Ugh.  I stepped forward, past the insane scientist, over to the base of the Total Annihilation Ray itself.  I flipped open a small control panel, revealing a red lever, and pulled it down.

For a moment, the electronic hum in the chamber rose to a fever pitch – and then, suddenly, it cut out entirely.

“You always build your emergency shutoff levers in the same place, Universe,” I pointed out grumpily as the man stared at me.  “Come on, I’ve stopped you what, a hundred times?  Can’t we just cut the charade-“

“Agent Jeff, you fool!” the man shouted back at me.

Apparently not.  I raised the hand not holding the pistol and rubbed my temples.  I could already feel my headache starting.

“By disabling the Ray, there’s nowhere for the pent-up death energy to go!” Dr. Universe called out to me.  “Now, it’s all going to go critical!  We’ve got less than a minute until total meltdown, killing us – and sinking this entire island back into the ocean!”

On the control panel behind the mad doctor, a series of numbers appeared, counting down.  The meltdown was coming.

As always.

With another groan, I stepped closer to the doctor.  “Okay, where’s the secret escape?” I asked.

“Uh, the what?”

I waved the gun half-heartedly at him.  “Come on.  You always build some crazy stupid escape door into these lairs of yours,” I said.  “Remember, I’ve stopped you dozens of times before?  Just show me where it is.”

“Never!” the man shouted back at me, pointing at me with one white-gloved hand.  “I’d sooner perish with my invention than let you escape-“

He never told me.  I always hoped that he’d come around and see sense, but apparently logic wasn’t one of the doctor’s skills.  I looked past him, and spotted the small door set back against the far side of the observatory wall.

“Hey!  You can’t go there – that’s off limits!” Universe shouted at me as I ran for the door.  “Wait, that’s not allowed!  Stay here and perish!”

I hit the door with my lowered shoulder, and it burst open.  I squinted my eyes at the bright sunlight shining outside, feeling it cut into my head and intensify my headache.  Holding up one hand to shade my eyes, I scanned across the landscape.

There!  The harbor!  I leapt down from the observatory, charging across the island.  Behind me, I could hear Universe puffing as he tried his best to keep up with me.  Despite his grand speeches about devotion to his ridiculous science experiments, the man never actually seemed willing to stick around and die with them when they invariably started exploding.

I burst out of the jungle brush and onto the road, leading down to the harbor.  I could see a couple small boats bobbing up and down, although none of them seemed to have a motor.

Not that I worried.  “What I wouldn’t give for some aspirin,” I muttered to myself.

Suddenly, the sound of aircraft propellers cut through the air.  Down from the sky descended the Project Zero, a tilt-rotor aircraft that had been custom outfitted for my mission.  The airplane’s door had been slid open, and I could see Montebusty leaning out, holding out her slim, feminine hand to me.

“Over here, Jeff!  Hurry, we don’t have much time!” she called out in that sultry voice of hers, her long blonde hair flapping in the downwash from the plane’s engines.

I angled towards the plane, reaching out and catching the woman’s hand.  She hauled me up aboard, somehow managing to keep her large, busty chest rubbing against my head the entire time.

I stifled another sigh.  Great.  My coworker probably wanted to have sex in the plane again.  We were supposed to be professionals! I wanted to yell at her.  We’re supposed to be hunting down terrorists, not having wild, bendy, athletic sex in the back of our experimental aircraft!

As the plane pulled away, I heard the series of earth-shattering booms coming from the abandoned observatory.  Lifting off, the aircraft shook from the shock wave of the Total Annihilation Ray melting down, but we managed to stay in the air, even as the ground split and exploded beneath us.

“Oh no!  It looks like Dr. Universe is escaping!” Montebusty called out, pointing out the window with one perfectly manicured hand (and somehow straining out her chest in the process, to the point where I expected at least one tit to leap free).

Trying not to glare at her overt sexuality, I followed her pointing arm.  Sure enough, I could see Dr. Universe’s white coat on board one of the boats – it seemed he’d just managed to reach the harbor and cut one of the boats free before the dock sank below the surface of the waves.

“I see you, Agent Jeff!” I heard him shout faintly up to me.  “Next time, you won’t foil my plans to dominate the world!”

With a little surge of pleasurable satisfaction, I flicked him the bird as the plane pulled away.

“We’ll send the Royal Navy boats out to catch him,” Montebusty promised me, stepping forward towards me.  “He won’t get away!”

I knew she was wrong.  Universe always somehow managed to escape the searching Navy vessels.  But I didn’t bother to correct her – what’s the point?

Meanwhile, Montebusty pushed me back into a seat, her hands crawling over me.  “Now, I must make sure that you’re okay,” she murmured up to me, as her hands slid up my thighs.  “After all, you’re a hero – and you deserve to be given whatever you want as a prize!”

I held up one hand, trying to block out the view of her massive cleavage pressing in against my crotch.  “Listen, Monty-“

“Montebusty,” she corrected me, accenting her full name, even as her damn chest melons strained to burst out of her low-cut, skin-tight top.  I could see both nipples standing out, hard and erect.  Her hands slid over my lap, feeling for the bulge in my pants.

It wasn’t there.  “Monty, I’ve got such a headache,” I groaned, pushing her back.  “Listen, can we just fly back in silence?  Come on, my head is killing me.”

Montebusty pouted at me, pushing out her supermodel lips and fluttering long lashes.  “Are you sure?  I’m feeling especially flexible.”  She lifted one leg up until it pointed up at the ceiling.

I pointedly closed my eyes and tilted back in my seat, staring up at the ceiling.

God, I couldn’t wait for one of those beers at home.  I knew that the Queen would want to present me with another medal or something, but surely we could skip the whole ceremony this time.  I already had boxes of the damn medals sitting all over my apartment.

As the plane winged its way across the sky, I let myself daydream.  Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have any other job, I thought, not for the first time.  Anything but this one.

Why had I ever answered that damn newspaper ad for a secret agent?

NaNoWriMo winner, 2015 edition!

Another National Novel Writing Month challenge bites the dust!

That’s right, I just passed 50,000 words on my latest novel!  And all of it done in under 30 days, with an average of approximately 2,300 words per day.  Not bad at all!

Of course, the novel’s not done yet.  50,000 words is a good start, but I’ve probably got 10k more to go before the story’s wrapped up.

And then comes editing, and cover design, and compiling, and rewriting…

Still, I’m pretty proud!

Book 46 of 52: "The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man" by Mark Hodder

Steampunk and more steampunk!  I seem to have gotten myself hooked on a new genre, but I swear it’s not my fault – someone keeps on putting books with such catchy, appealing covers out in the library for me to check out!

Mark Hodder certainly does Steampunk well.  His books follow two individuals – the brave, strong Sir Francis Burton and the wiry little poet Algernon Swinbourne – but these two characters are accompanied by a whole host of other historical figures, including H.G. Wells, Charles Babbage, the great scientists Darwin and Galton, Detective Inspector Trounce, and others.  The characters ride in crazy mechanical contraptions, breed strange and curious monsters, and face down mediums, monstrosities, and all manner of clockwork – classic steampunk tropes everywhere.
If there’s one thing that’s clear about Hodder’s writing, it’s that the man never takes a rest – and neither do his characters!  They plunge from adventure to adventure with barely enough time to bandage their wounds before tackling another monster.  Reading these books feels a bit like watching a Michael Bay movie – there’s guaranteed to be action around every corner!

Unfortunately, I started reading this series out of order.  This book is the first, but I read “The Return of the Discontinued Man”, book 4, before this one, so I have a little advance insight into what fates may befall some of the characters.  Still, the writing is good, the plot is tight, and the action is definitely intense.

Time to read: 4 hours or so.

Taking the Piss

“Hold on.  No, hold on.”  I didn’t hear any objections coming from my companions as we stumbled out of the club, heading down to the parking garage, but I still felt the need to protest.  “Hold on!”

Finally, Jack glanced back at me.  “Dude, what is it?”

“I, uh, I need a minute.”  I felt my bladder stretched to its limit, about to explode at any moment if I didn’t relieve the pressure.  “Just hold on, okay?”

Without waiting for an answer, I headed away from the group, up towards the tree line of the nearby woods.  I stumbled in past the first couple of rows of trees, but I couldn’t make it much further before need overwhelmed me and I came to a stop, fumbling for the zipper on my jeans.

Feeling desperation rising along with the water level, I managed to tug my equipment out, aimed it hurriedly at a tree, and then sighed as I let go of that tension.  A powerful jet shot out, spraying against the tree and scattering droplets in all directions.

“Ohh, yes.”  I closed my eyes, sagging back as I felt my bladder finally, mercifully, beginning to empty itself.  This felt better than sex!

“Um, excuse me??”

My eyes shot open at the unknown voice.  Had someone caught me?  Was I about to be arrested for public urination?  I stared wildly ahead, but the sight didn’t explain anything to my drunk-addled brain.

In front of me stood a luminous figure, a tall man dressed in a white robe, or toga, of some sort.  Below his blonde hair, his face glared at me, his reflection somewhere between furious and utterly bewildered.

“Oh!  Uh…” I took a step backwards.  I hadn’t even heard him approach!

Unfortunately, I’d forgotten about the fact that I was still halfway through the process of emptying my bladder.  I couldn’t cut off that stream halfway through, and my sudden movement back altered the direction of the spray, sending a rush of golden droplets ahead of me-

-directly onto the man standing in front of me.

“Oh my god, I’m so sorry!” I burst out, quickly shoving my hands down and trying to redirect my stream.  There was something bothering me about the sight of the man in front of me, but I couldn’t quite place my drunken finger on it.  “I, um, I can’t stop halfway through!”

Guiltily, I glanced at the bottom of the man’s toga getup.  Sure enough, it looked quite wet, now with a newly acquired yellow hue.  Oops.  Nice going, drunken me.  “I’m so sorry.  As soon as I can stop, I’ll, um…”

Halfway through that sentence, as the man kept on making disgusted little noises and trying to shake drops of wetness off of his hands, my voice trailed off.  Finally, my brain managed to kick in and point out what had seemed odd about him.

Slowly, my eyes rose up to the man’s head – and then kept on rising even higher.

There, floating a couple inches above the top of the man’s golden hair, a ring of light hovered, bobbing up and down slightly.  I peered a little closer, hoping that this was just part of some costume getup, but it didn’t appear attached to anything.  It just hung in the air, glowing.

Floating.

The word “halo” flitted through my mind, carried in on a golden wave.  Another word followed behind it, one that I didn’t want to consider.

I stared dumbly at the man (but he really wasn’t a man, was he?).  “Are… are you here to punish me?” I asked faintly.

He blinked, looking even more confused.  “Why would I punish you?”

“Er.”  I didn’t want to explicitly point out that I’d just urinated on a Heavenly being, but the fact seemed pretty unavoidable.

Okay, then – redirect.  “Why are you here, then?” I asked instead.  “Are you a prophet?  Are you here to deliver a message?”

The being – fine, the angel – sighed again.  “No.  Except maybe that you need to make some better choices with your life.  Seriously, what are you doing with your limited time on Earth?”

“Um, pissing?  Getting drunk?”

The angel just looked at me for another minute, and then shook his head.  “Maybe this will have to wait for another time,” he muttered to himself.  “Honestly, all the humans to watch over, and I get this one?”

He stepped forward, reached up, and lightly slapped me.

When I opened my eyes after taking that slap, I found myself alone in the forest.

I might have stood there for hours, my equipment still hanging out of my jeans, staring around and trying to figure out what had just happened.  Instead, however, my ears caught a shout, snapping me out of my fugue.

“Hey!  Dude, are you coming?  We got the car!”

That was Jack’s voice.  Hurriedly, I tucked myself back in, not even caring about how a dribble of warmth ran down one leg.  I stumbled back out of the forest, over to the road, where Jack and the girls were already sitting in the car.

Jack eyed me as I approached.  “Everything go okay in there?”

“Uh, no?  Yes.”  I shook my head.  “Let’s just get home.”

Climbing into the back seat, one of the girls we’d met at the club that night (Anita?  I couldn’t remember her name) slipped a hand over my thigh, but then pulled it back in disgust.  “Ugh, you’re wet!”

Any other night, I might have tried to convince her that it was nothing, just dew from the forest.  Tonight, however, I just leaned back, closing my eyes.  Maybe I wasn’t making the best of my life, after all.  And getting with Anita, or whoever she was, wasn’t going to help make things better.

After all, when a guy pisses on his guardian angel, I thought to myself, he’s probably at the lowest point in his life…

Morning Routine

I stumbled into the bathroom, blinking as I tried to rub the remnants of sleep out of my eyes.  My bare feet padded across the cold tile, and I vaguely wished that I’d had the forethought to pull on my slippers.

Entering the bathroom, my hand banged against the wall, searching for the light switch.  I found it, and the fan in the ceiling hummed to life as the lights came on.

Glancing up at my mirror, I blinked.  Where was my reflection?

There it was.  For a moment, I’d thought that the mirror was blank, that nothing was echoed on its silver surface.  But no, there was my reflection, blinking back at me with the same mussed hair and half-asleep expression.

I turned on the water, letting it run as I brushed my teeth.  For a moment, I thought that steam was rising up from the bowl of the sink, but when I took a gulp of water to wash out the toothpaste from my mouth, it was ice cold.  I sloshed it around in my cheeks before spitting it back into the sink.

Leaving the bathroom, I returned to my bedroom.  Outside my window, the sun hadn’t yet broken above the horizon, but I had to get ready to leave for work.  I turned next to my closet, pulling open the sliding door.

For a second, I saw rows of pine trees, their heavy boughs covered in a thick coat of snow, stretching off into the distance.  I blinked, and the dark rows of trees became dark rows of coats, hanging from the pole stretched across the length of my closet.  Behind the row of coats, I saw nothing but the blank back wall.

I picked out one of the suits, brushing a few flakes of something white off of the collar.  Sure, that one would work.

Once changed, my tie still hanging half-knotted around my neck, I headed for the kitchen.  Had to get something into my stomach before I left.  I felt a gnawing hunger settling in the pit of my stomach, growling and roaring with each step, demanding sustenance.

Outside my bedroom, in the hallway, my foot bumped against a small crinkly ball, which rolled away from me.  I grimaced.  Jasper, my cat, passed away six months ago, but for some reason I kept on finding more of his toys, still strewn about the apartment.

For a moment, as I passed my little kitchen table, I thought I saw the skeletal outline of a cat lurking beneath, its bare skull glinting as it hissed up at me through exposed teeth.  I pushed the chairs in beneath the empty table.  There was no cat there, alive or dead.

Pulling open the door of my refrigerator, a putrid smell assaulted me, making me wrinkle my nose.  The smell seemed to be coming from the crisper drawer, which I almost never used.  My hand stretched down towards the drawer’s handle, trembling a little, but I changed my mind at the last second and picked up a small yogurt container instead.

I leaned against the counter as I peeled the top off of the yogurt.  When I reached into the silverware drawer, the spoon that emerged seemed to have a fine coating of some sort of dark, clinging slime.  I wiped it away with a thumb before digging into the yogurt.

A glance at my watch showed me that I was about to be running late.  Hurriedly, I tossed the empty yogurt container into the overflowing trash container beneath the sink.  I frowned in at the mound of decaying matter.  I’d have to take that out when I came home.

Heading for the front door, I only just remembered to grab my car keys off their little hook beside the door.  The ring of keys jingled, bouncing together as I scooped them up.

I stepped outside, but as I went to lock the door, I paused.  Holding the key ring up in front of my eyes, I frowned at one of the keys.  It seemed long, elaborately carved from a white substance.  Bone?  I didn’t recognize it.

But there, behind the bone key, I found the key to my front door, and locked my apartment.  I turned and headed downstairs, off on my way to work.

Just another normal day.

Book 45 of 52: "When to Rob a Bank" by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

I’ve always been a fan of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner.  For anyone who doesn’t recognize the names, these two economists are the authors of Freakonomics, along with its direct sequel (SuperFreakonomics) and a book on their methods (Think Like a Freak).  These books aim to apply economics reasoning to many questions we face, often with surprising results.

For example, in one of their books, the authors asked whether drunk walking or drunk driving is more dangerous.  Despite what we might assume, they showed that on a per-mile basis, it’s actually more dangerous to walk drunk than to drive!  And although this conclusion seems incorrect at first, the actual evidence and statistics support it.
Levitt and Dubner also run a blog, where they regularly update with many shorter stories and observations.  Now, in “When to Rob a Bank”, they’ve compiled their blog posts into a new book, loosely organized by category of post.

On one hand, this isn’t a book – not really.  It really does feel like reading a blog; the posts are only loosely connected to each other, and it’s more like a collection of little essays than a true story with a coherent narrative.

But on the other hand, all these little factoid tidbits are just so interesting that it’s hard to stop and put the book down!

I’m always going to be a sucker for applied data, and Levitt and Dubner do a great job of presenting complex questions in an easy-to-understand framework.  While their books sometimes feel a little fluffy (this only took a couple hours to read), they’re still enjoyable enough for me to always snag them off a library shelf.

Time to read: 2 hours.

The Art of Coffee Shop Sketching

I glanced up from my sketch book as she stopped in front of my table, her free hand tapping at the chair across from me.

“This seat open?” she asked, giving the words an upward lilt to suggest a question.  Brown hair fell in waves around sparkling hazel eyes.

I nodded, only briefly eyeing her, not wanting to lose my focus.  My pencil remained poised over my half-completed sketch, about to complete an important stroke.

I heard her pull back the chair, settle into it.  The corner of my eye caught her coffee cup as it landed on the table, only inches from my own.

I focused on my work, but when I next looked up, I saw her eyes observing me.

“You’re good at drawing?” she asked.

“Sketching,” I corrected.

“What’s the difference?”

A loaded question.  I handled it carefully.  “Drawing is a scene, a still object, capturing what it is.  Sketching is fast, in motion, capturing the sense of the object.”

She nodded, her hair bouncing in gentle waves around her face.  A pretty face, with those hazel eyes that caught my attention.  She smiled, and I noted the dimple on her left cheek.

I knew what question would come next.  It always did, at some point in the conversation.  Sometimes I would say no, sometimes yes.

Today, I pushed to get it out, instead of waiting for the conversation to meander its way there.

“You want me to sketch you, don’t you.”

A smile, quick but genuine.  A hand rose up to self-consciously push back a strand of hair behind her ear, although it immediately freed itself.  “If you’re willing,” she demurred.  Even as she brushed off the suggestion, however, I could see her leaning forward, showing her eagerness.

Why not?  I gave her a smile, a brief little smile, a secret between the two of us that she cautiously returned.  I flipped the page on my sketchpad, hefted my pencil.

For a long, indeterminate moment, I watched her, looking not at what she was, but her essence.  How can I describe the unspeakable in words, when I could show it, capture it, on the page with my pencil?  My pencil flew across the paper, sure lines joining each other.

Once I began, I worked quickly.  Rarely did I need to glance up at her; I held the image I wanted in my head, rushed feverishly to transfer it to the paper before it faded.  She leaned forward, grinning, but I kept the pad tilted away from her.

“Not yet,” I warned her.

“I want to see!” she teased me, but she sat back, waiting, pouting as those hazel eyes smiled at me.

My mind, wandering as my hand flew across the page, imagined our future together.  I saw the curves of her body, exposed and no longer hidden beneath her coat and garments.  I visualized as she arched her back, moaning in ecstasy as our bodies coupled together.  I saw those bright, hazel eyes shining at me, filled with love and devotion, as I pushed back the white veil that covered her head.

My hand ceased moving, and I smiled at my captured image.

I turned the page around, letting her see.

For a moment, there was silence.  I watched, feeling my lips quirking upward, as she stared at the page.  Her eyes widened, and then narrowed.  Her mouth dropped open, but no sound came out.

With a huff, she burst up from her chair, the motion explosive.  Those hazel eyes glared down at me, furious, as she snatched up her cup of coffee.

“Rude.  Unbelievable,” she grimaced, as she walked away.

I frowned, but said nothing as she stormed off.  I turned back my sketchbook, looking at the image.

A luscious, ripe pear, with such soft curves.  Despite the black and white starkness, I felt as though I could lift the fruit from the page, sink my teeth into its juicy flesh.  The swell of its bottom, the slight shading to suggest the breasts and buttocks… I felt myself waver on the edge of arousal.

The sense of her, her lusciousness, captured forever and bound to the prison of the paper.

I added a few more details, some cross-hatching, when I heard the tapping.

I glanced up from my sketch book as she stopped in front of my table, her free hand tapping at the chair across from me.

“This seat open?” she asked, giving the words an upward lilt to suggest a question.  Blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, revealing bright blue eyes.

I nodded, only briefly eyeing her, not wanting to lose my focus…

"No, You Take Him."

Gadriel was the first to arrive, and as he stepped into the mortal plane, he briefly exulted, glad to see that he’d beaten his fallen counterpart there, if only by a few fractions of an instant.

It wasn’t until nearly a nanosecond later – practically five minutes, to Gadriel’s perception – that Laxazz appeared, bursting forth from a red-tinged portal, his roar of satisfaction quickly shifting to a surly growl as he caught sight of Gadriel’s glowing wings and folded arms.

“Oh.  You’re already here,” he grunted, practically each word accompanied by a droplet or two of spittle, thanks to his hulking fangs.  “Finishing fast, huh?”

Gadriel didn’t know how this was meant to insult him, but he could recognize the tone, and chose to ignore it.  “Listen, I beat you, so I get first pick of the soul,” he stated instead, letting one of his hands drop down to rest, ever so lightly, on his sheathed sword.  The thing didn’t flame up in the sheath, but Laxazz knew how easily that blade could burn his flesh.

“Yeah, whatever,” he grunted back.  “Let’s just get this done so I can get on to the next harvest.”

With the initial exchange concluded, both the angel and the demon finally looked around at their surroundings – and the angel’s face fell.  Both of them had emerged into a gray cell, with only a small window offering much light, most of which was blocked by the thick steel bars.  This was, most definitely, a prison cell.

Laxazz clapped his hands together.  “Yes!  Looks like I’m going to get to claim this soul!”

“Not so fast!” the angel protested.  “Maybe he’s innocent, or he repented!”  Gadriel couldn’t quite make his tone sound confident, however, and the demon chuckled.

To combat the darkness, both the angel and the devil summoned up lights; Gadriel summoned a small, brilliantly white glowing sphere, while Laxazz called forth a sullen ever-burning flame.  Both of the lights lit up the interior of the cell, and they spotted their target for the first time.

As one, both the angel and devil drew back slightly, their expressions twisting.  The look of revulsion looked much more repulsive on Laxazz’s face – Gadriel just didn’t have the tusks and warts to pull the look off effectively – but both faces clearly portrayed the same emotion.

“Well, looks like he’s one of yours,” the angel spoke up first, already beginning to move his hand in the gestures to summon an exit portal.

“Hey, wait a minute!” the demon snapped back at him, raising his batlike wings a little in protest.  “I don’t want this one!  I’m willing to pass him back to you!”

With a sigh, Gadriel ceased twisting his fingers in the complex patterns that seemed to somehow pass through each other.  “No, that’s okay, you can take him,” he replied, giving the soul in the corner another look of disgust.  “I think he’ll fit much better in Hell.”

As the angel and demon bickered back and forth, the soul had slowly been coalescing back into its human shape.  When first severed from their host body, souls tend to dissipate as a featureless mist – but over time, they’re pulled back into the body shape that they’ve come to know so well for the last several dozen years.  Now, the man in the corner managed to sit up, blinking for a moment at his shimmering, translucent hands before raising his attention to the bickering supernatural entities in front of him.

“Hey!” he called out faintly, needing to focus even to make a sound.  “What’s going on?  Why are you two arguing?”

“This doesn’t concern you,” Gadriel snapped at the soul brusquely.  “Just let us talk.”

If Laxazz had done the snapping, this might have shut up the soul, but Gadriel just couldn’t project that same level of command.  The soul frowned, but then opened his mouth again.

“I thought I was supposed to be judged,” he commented, looking back up at the pair.  “Isn’t that what you’re here to do?”

As the soul spoke, Laxazz was making a fierce argument, muttering something about how “no, that’s just gross, we don’t want that sort of stuff in Hell” and jabbing Gadriel in the chest with a fat, leathery finger.  But as the soul spoke up, Gadriel suddenly held up a hand.

“That’s a good idea, actually,” he said.  “The soul needs to be judged – and who better to know his crimes, than him himself?”

Laxazz still wore a frown, as much over the syntax of that last sentence as over its content, but Gadriel was already turning to the soul.  “So, mortal,” he spoke up, putting on a smile that seemed to hover an inch or so in front of his face without touching the rest of his features.  “Where do you think that you belong?”

“Whuh?”

The angel’s smile didn’t budge at all, although his eyes looked slightly more strained.  “You know all the good deeds and sins in your life,” he pointed out, accenting the sins a bit more.  “Do you think you belong in Heaven?  Or in Hell?”

“Hey!  Not fair!” Laxazz cut in.  “You lot have convinced them all that they’re sinners!  He’s just going to pick me!”

The soul looked back and forth between the arguing pair.  “Wait a minute,” he said, shaking his head.  “Do neither of you want me?  Is that what’s going on here?”

Neither the angel nor the demon answered, but they both glanced away, the angel pretending to whistle, the demon reaching up to pick something out of one of his fangs.  Both supernatural creatures looked quite uncomfortable.

“Well, yes,” Laxazz finally answered, his wings dropping a little in embarrassment, his scaly tail flicking back and forth against the backs of his hooves.  “You’re a pretty terrible person, you know.”

“What?”  The soul shook his head, or the protoplasm that formed the semblance of a head.  “Doesn’t that mean that I should go to Hell?”

If Laxazz could sink into the floor, he surely would be doing so right now.  “Normally, yes.  But the things you did…” The demon grimaced – which is something to see on a face with horns and tusks.  “That’s not exactly the sort of thing we get in Hell, even.”

“So what?  I’ve been too wicked for Hell?”

“It’s not even wicked, not exactly,” Gadriel pitched in, unable to bear the awkwardness any longer.  “It’s just, well….”

“Ew,” Laxazz stated succinctly, and the angel nodded.

“Yeah.  Ew.”

The soul stared back and forth between the two, his mouth hanging open for a moment, before managing to reply.  “So what, you’re trying to decide who has to take me?  I’m the one that nobody wants to choose??”

“Yeah, basically.”

But then, just as everyone fell silent, the demon in embarrassment, the soul in outrage, Gadriel suddenly straightened up, snapping his fingers.  “Ooh!  I’ve got an idea!”

He leaned in towards the demon’s twisted, wrinkled ear, whispering.  At first, the demon looked surprised, but then, after a second, he started nodding.  “That could work,” he agreed.  “Of course, neither of us could report on it.”

“That works for me,” Gadriel replied.

The soul, looking back and forth between the angel and demon, grew more and more frustrated.  “Hey!  What the hell’s going on?  Someone talk to me!  Tell me – I want some answers, dammit!”

Both the angel and the demon turned back to the soul – and, simultaneously, they both snapped their fingers.

His mouth open halfway through another curse, the soul vanished, with a slight “pop” noise.

For a second longer, both the angel and demon stood in the empty chamber.  Gadriel was the first to move, twisting his hands through the portal summoning gestures once more.

“Well, that was a waste,” he groaned out loud.  “See you at the next one, Laxazz.”

“Yeah, see ya,” the demon replied, still staring at where the soul had, until a second ago, been angrily standing and ranting.  “Where do you think he went?”

As his portal appeared, Gadriel shrugged.  “Who cares?” he answered.  “The point is, he can make another attempt, and hopefully not muck things up quite so much this time.”

The demon considered this for a moment, but then shrugged.  “Eh, he can’t do much worse,” he replied, thinking back to the list of the soul’s activities and shuddering.  “Guh, I know that I take sinners off to Hell, but some of those thing were just-“

“You don’t need to remind me,” Gadriel answered, grimacing.  “Point is, we’re done with him for now.  And I’m off, before one of my bosses wonders what exactly happened here.”

The angel did strike a good point, Laxazz reflected, as he called up his own portal back to Hell.  After all, he was supposed to collect souls, not send them away.  No matter how disgusting their activities had been while they were alive.

#

The demon’s portal, as is typical of most portals to Hell, left a good amount of residual heat behind.  That heat crackled the stones and soaked down into the earth, causing some of the insect eggs mixed into the dirt to accelerate their hatching processes.

From one egg, a small worm twisted, wriggling its way out into the dirt.

Worms generally don’t have much in the way of thoughts at the best of times, and even when they do, most of those thoughts tend to be reflections on things like soil temperature, mineral content, and humidity levels.  A worm’s universe is intimately small, and comprised almost entirely of things passing through its digestive tract.

For this worm, however, as it crawled into existence from inside its egg, it found itself dealing with some strange thoughts.  First among those was one that shouted out, “Reincarnation!?  That’s not what I wanted!  Why the hell did they reincarnate me!?”

Worms, however, don’t have much of a long-term memory – or, really, any memory at all, so this strange thought soon faded.  Soon, the worm didn’t remember anything of its past life, or even its present life.  Instead, it focused on chewing its way through the dirt.

And hey, maybe that wasn’t so bad, after all.  Worms can’t get up to too much trouble.