by William Ham
illustration by Mediocre Concepts Unlimited
While en route to his first assignment, Krassmont couldn’t help but reflect on the rapid series of events that brought him to this place. Fate-ordained was the word that the deep baritone voice which mentally commented on every movement of his life kept repeating. It was fate-ordained. Then the voice added, Well, of course everything is ordained by fate. That ugly tie with the bloated hula-girl, for example, fate saw to it that you’d choose that one. Hey, even fate needs a good laugh now and again. It laughed deep and hard, setting off a tremulous tsunami in his bladder, then faded away and was gone.
The voice was right (as always) – the corner of Forster and 23rd, where he was first “recruited” (and by ordinance of fate, the very location of his present assignment), would take its place in Krassmont’s psychological Rolodex of Locations of Destiny. Like the soda shop where they discovered Lana Turner. Or the movie theater where they shot Dillinger. Or the movie theater where they found Oswald. Movie theaters seem to pop up a lot in these moments-of-truth stories. Krassmont hadn’t been to the movies in years. They depressed him – he was convinced that his very existence was a movie of sorts. Not a very good one, either. The protagonist wasn’t very likable, the supporting roles were sketchy and underdeveloped, and, oddest of all, the print seemed damaged. This was true – he seemed to jump-cut from one scene to another without any transitions, his surroundings often looked grainy and scratchy, and he just knew that one day soon, it was going to snap altogether or just catch in the gate of the celestial projector and melt. That was Before Forster. Beforster. The corner he was presently approaching was the location of the pivotal scene, where suddenly, breathtakingly, it went from dull sepia to Techni-Color, from Super 8 to 70 mm, from tinny mono to full-bodied quadraphonic Dolby SurroundSound. He felt a little like Judy Garland, which was an improvement. He usually just felt like Toto.
Dissolve to: Forster and 23rd. Two weeks previous. Exterior: Morning. The protagonist stands on a street corner, pressing and repressing the “Walk” button, waiting patiently. Why not? He has nowhere to go. But he knows he has to cross the street to get there. The flashing “Don’t Walk” sign mocks him. No traffic on the street, there rarely is, yet the sign continues to flash, “Don’t Walk Don’t Walk Don’t Even Fucking Think Of Walking, Loser.” Sure, he could buck the system and cross… but it would be wrong. So he’ll wait. He’ll wear that damned sign down eventually.
Cut to: Street. A long black sedan purrs slowly down the tarmac, pacing like an internal-combustion panther, searching for prey. POV shot of hunched, defeated figure on corner pressing “Walk” button. The sedan slows to a halt beside corner. Side window rolls down s l o w l y. Unseen figure within speaks:
“Excuse me, sir.”
Krassmont (startled): “Y-yes? What?”
“Do you have a moment?”
“Uh, yeah, plenty of ’em. D-did I do something wrong?”
“Oh, no, sir, assuredly not. Well, not to our knowledge, at least. May I ask you a few questions?”
“Your name and address?”
“Krassmont, George, 81 Powis Square, Newburg, 02540-6016.”
“Excellent. Are you presently employed?”
Krassmont flushes slightly. “Ah, n-no, I’m not. I got laid off from the comb-tooth inspecting line two months ago.”
“Alas. As the Bard said, ”tis a pitiful course, that of the hair-care implement examiner’s soul.'”
“Never mind. Do you now or have you ever suffered from any or all of the following: Trichinosis, halitosis, endomitriosis, myelitis, papayaritis, Lou Gehrig’s Disease, Marv Throneberry’s Nuisance, Yansky’s Turmoil, Ockham’s Razor Burn, melanin drip, the Helsinki Trot, inflamed zygotes, unwashed platelets, inability to line dance, or trapezoid schizopheebia, which is the tendency to go all tingly up one side of your body every time you see a poorly-executed cubist rendering of a Norge refrigerator?”
“Uhh… could you repeat them from the third one from the middle?”
“Mmm, unnecessary, I’ll check off ‘no’ for all of them… have you ever been employed by the Federal Government?”
“I tried to become a mail-sorter once, but I failed the psychological exam.”
“That’s quite an accomplishment… are you interested in a high-paying, low-stress Government job with guaranteed tenure, lifetime health insurance, and your choice of red, blue or hunter-green nametags? Beginning immediately?”
“Is this, like, a hypothermial question?”
“No, Mr. Krassmont, it’s as sincere as the Federal Government is capable of being.”
Cue swelling, triumphant strings.
Side door swings open. A hand extends from within. Krassmont takes it. Fade out.
* * * *
Krassmont felt as if he might be heading towards a rendezvous with death as he stole silently through the mid-afternoon haze. The voice in his head emitted a harsh whistle. Boy, I don’t know about this. For once, Krassmont paid it no heed. If he was indeed going to his death, at least he’d be doing so in a really cool car with real leather on the seats. Going out in style.
The sedan pulled in through the gates leading to a building Krassmont had seen before. It looked condemned. It had been condemned. The “THIS BUILDING IS CONDEMNED” sign on the front door seemed to suggest that. As he was led from the car, flanked by two black suits with Ray-Bans (there may have been people underneath, but that was information he obviously wasn’t privileged enough to know), he thought of that TV-movie he saw once, the one with the guy who killed all those people because of that problem he had. He felt kind of like him on his way to the gas squad or firing chamber, or however it was that he died. He never liked that feeling. Not this early in the week.
When they reached the door, the black suit to Krassmont’s left spoke into his sleeve. “We’ve got a new one for Davis.” Why his cufflink needed that information, Krassmont didn’t know. Nor did it matter much, because as soon as the words had gone from mouth to cuff, the door slid aside, revealing a gleaming, high-gloss reception area. The run-down exterior turned out to be a reverse facade. Odd.
Krassmont’s inner editor jump-cut him to the interior of an office just as shiny as the lobby. A gray-haired, paternal-looking man sat at the biggest, most gorgeous desk Krassmont had ever seen. It cooed to him. Geor-orrrrge. Polish me. Break out the Old English, George, you know how that makes me feeeeel. So mesmerized was he that he hardly heard a word the man behind the desk was saying. The nameplate on the desk said his name was Kendall Porter Davis. Krassmont wished both it and the man behind the desk would shut up so he could pay attention to the desk.
Krassmont had been in enough of these sorts of situations to know to nod every time the man at the desk paused for breath. He droned on for some time. Occasionally, Krassmont could pick out a word or two. “Mandate… preservation… societal decline… necessary… you’re ideal…” With every third nod, Krassmont raised his eyebrows and pursed his lips to feign intrigue. Davis seemed pleased. So did the desk.
Finally, Davis stood up, shook Krassmont’s hand a bit too firmly, and handed him a ring-binder labeled Manual of Operations and a thick manila folder. “You’ll find everything you’ll need in here. Study it carefully; I want you out in the field in a fortnight. Or two weeks, whichever comes first.” Davis laughed heartily and slapped Krassmont hard enough on the back for his inner voice to cry out Hey! Watch the ribcage, bud!
Krassmont smiled. “I’m on the job,” he said. That line always worked, regardless of the situation. He turned to leave.
Come back soon, George, the desk whispered. After hours. You can change my blotter. It’s soooooo dirty.
* * * *
Flash-forward to present day. Krassmont stands on Forster and 23rd, patiently waiting once again. This time, he’s not waiting to cross. He sneers at the “Walk” sign, which is practically pleading for him to cross now. “Tough meat, sign,” Krassmont says. “You had your chance.” The sign blinks forlornly.
Krassmont feels so inspired that his inner voice has been stunned into uncomfortable silence (other than the occasional sigh). He pored over his Manual with such fervor that he could recite any of its codicils at will, as he does now to pass the time. “Section 29b, Paragraph 13 – all FDB agents are required to sleep for no more than three hours a night, in order to maintain the proper degree of dishevelment and lack of composure.” They obviously knew who to recruit – he estimated that, even before his FDB initiation, he averaged about three hours of sleep a week. Dishevelment and lack of composure was his middle name. It should probably be hyphenated.
He pulls his work order from his inside pocket and studies it for the fifth time that hour. A “Beelzebub Inquiry.” One of the FDB’s specialties. He had been on the receiving end of them so many times, it gave him a special thrill to know that he would be carrying one out, as his first assignment, no less. Oh – what’s that? A man, late-twenties, medium build, shoulder-length hair, approaching the Point of Inquiry. His heart jackhammers in his chest. Now is the time.
The inquiree arrives at the corner and presses the “Walk” button. Krassmont counts off in his head. It must be perfectly timed (Section 12g, Paragraph 6). One, two, three, four, five – NOW.
Krassmont turns to the inquiree. “Excuse me.”
The inquiree starts slightly, then turns a wary eye to Krassmont. “Uh-huh?”
“Are you Satan?”
The inquiree gulps. Sweat breaks out in opaque beads on his forehead. “Wh-what?”
“I was just wondering if you were Satan. You see,” Krassmont pulls out the knife he had requisitioned that morning, “…I’ve been looking for him, and you kind of remind me of him, so I was just…”
The inquiree bolts from the corner and begins to sprint down the street. He throws back two furtive glances in Krassmont’s direction before disappearing into a vacant lot.
Krassmont pulls out his notebook. Glances – 2; Escape Time- 00:12; Discomfort Factor- 97. Excellent. Everything has gone according to plan. Porter will be pleased. His desk will be even more pleased. Krassmont checks his Daily Planner. Oops – no time to luxuriate in his success. He has a couple of people to lean in too close to on the subway in an hour. Krassmont crosses, making an obscene gesture to the “Walk” sign as he does. As he heads for his next assignment, he feels a swell of pride he had never felt before joining the Federal Discomfort Bureau. Not just the pride of a job well done. The pride of a man who has found his calling.