LNH: Dashing Tales #8
ben.rawluk at gmail.com
Wed Sep 9 23:52:18 PDT 2015
DASHING TALES, episode the eighth,
"Bathtub of the Damned,"
by Ben Rawluk
It's basically a flying bathtub. "Is this how we die?" Marco grips the lip of the tub even tighter. He's not calling this is a flight.thingee. Did Marcel Duchamp design this thing? It was clearly not meant to fly. April's working the controls down at the end, like turning taps on and off. Behind him, Emma Dash -- Intrepid Reporter -- is whooping and hollering and laughing. Too bad Marco's pretty sure this is how everything ends.
"We're not going to die," says April. "I read the instructions. Parking Karma Kid gave me lessons as part of my training. He says this flight.thingee works fine."
"I've seen flight.thingees! They look like starships and planes and stuff! This is a bathtub!"
April shrugs. She stands there, hands on the controls, like they're barely moving. She probably likes roller coasters. She's so poised! Marco wants to be nice, wants to get along, wants to team up and be a proper net.hero, a team-player, but it's hard to let go of the irritation and envy. "This is what was available," she says. She doesn't vary her tone. She sounds so condescending when she doesn't vary her tone. "This is better than an hour on the bus from LNHQ to Hovel Homes." And she's right, he knows she's right -- he lost flight privileges, he should be thankful they even let him near the launch bay.
But they're so far up in a flying bathtub.
Emma won't stop roaring in his ear. "We're flying!"
And then April twists something and they descend, straight down, pausing over just above the traffic lights. People are looking up and pointing, yelling things. April touches something else and they rocket forward, along East Bromwich. Marco can't help but scream. So yeah: net.hero.
They park the flying bathtub on the roof of the Netizen's building. April hovers a foot off the asphalt; Marco nearly falls on his face when he climbs out. She could have landed, but he doesn't say that. He is trying not to start an argument. It is very important that he not start an argument. So he huffs and stares up at Emma while she dismounts and he sprawls on his ass. "Are we talking to Mister King?"
Emma's settling her elbows on the edge of the roof and looking out across Hovel Homes. "I don't want to," she says. She doesn't look back at him. He knows that King has been calling her daily since she got back from Hell, that he's been demanding she take over Bogus's assignments. Does he even know what happened? That the fate of Clement Bogus would make a pretty good story? Except, what's the point of running something on the front page -- the only colour page -- if it's just a picture of a black and white guy?
April steps down off the bathtub and reaches over top the fuss with the controls. "You're sure we should start looking here? You found him in the warehouse district."
"He would have started here," says Marco, before Emma has that chance.
"We'll need to start from the office and work our way out," Emma says, pushing off from the edge. "As much as I don't really feel like dealing with that asshole, I don't really have a choice. Bogus was sleeping here most nights -- he was getting pretty drunk, regularly, and passing out on the couch."
Marco stares up at April, who has turned to face him with her hand out. He lets her haul him up and they stand there like that for a moment, but he doesn't say anything out that. Instead, he says, "King's been calling you regularly like he doesn't know what happened -- wouldn't he notice, if something happened here?"
Emma squints at him and he is reminded of the first day he showed up at the Netizen, answering the posting for interns. Full to brimming with desire to work for a real newspaper, however peculiar it's reputation. His mother had yelled at him failing to get a real job, but this is Hovel Homes. Emma gave him attitude all day and made him carry boxes and boxes of research from one end of the office to the other, mostly so she could build a barricade between her and Bogus. "Victor King wouldn't notice if he was shot in his own face by a deconstructionist vigilante," she says, and for a moment he has trouble reconciling this Girl Reporter with the one that was straight-up squealing while they flew across town. "This is the centre, guaranteed. We have to work our way outwards."
"Okay," Marco says, because doesn't really know what else to say when Emma is like this. She's resolved, cold as steel, and it's not like she doesn't have a point. He's not entirely convinced Bogus even had an apartment. He occurs to him that he's feeling a little weepy about Bogus, in an abstract way, but Bogus isn't really dead, is he? Maybe Occultism Kid can cure him. Maybe Marco should let Occultism Kid know where they are, what they're doing, that they're actually following up on the question of vampire plagues spreading across the city. "I should call in," he says, careful to avoid making eye contact with either Emma or April. He's trying not to go red.
"Ugh." Emma is glaring at the door. It's locked. "Maybe we should fly down to the street. I don't think King even comes up here since he stopped smoking, and Spinoza and Bradley smoke weed in the alley. Unless you want to try something," she turns as she says it, staring back at Marco.
Apparently that's his job now -- exploding doors. "Stand back. Cover your ears."
Emma does as she's told, dutifully, even turning around. April stays silent and perfect and straight-backed, and he wants to ask if she thinks she's somehow immune to the effects of bad poetry. She closes her eyes, but leaves her ears uncovered and takes what looks like a deep breath, holding it in. He's seen her do this at the readings of mediocre poets, a kind of thoughtful appreciation for the banal, like she can somehow translate even the worst verse into a meaningful art experience. He opens his mouth but he freezes.
It's embarrassing, to have someone actually listen to his poetry, at this point.
(And then, there was that thing that happened with Steve.)
He recites. He's irritable and that comes out in his voice. He recites a poem about doors, about the frustration he feels, and April looks so beatific listening when he knows that everything he's saying, every image and turn of phrase, all of it is beyond trash. He bites out the words, and bolts explode out of hinges, the door wobbling and then falling forward, slamming into the ground. He's closed his eyes. He opens them again, and he realizes it's worse than that -- car alarms are going off on the street.
"Good work," says April, and he wants to scream.
"I'm not everybody's doorman," he says.
"Christ, I've been looking for the Intern for nearly a week now!"
Something clenches inside Marco almost the second they walk through the door to Suite 304 -- the words NET.ROPOLIS NETIZEN stencilled onto the glass in gold paint, lined with thick black borders. Something clenches inside of him and he has to take a full step back. April swings right around him, so he's in the back, with Emma right up front, Victor King yelling in her face. He's an angry, rumpled old man, deep lines in his face, skin flushed and puffy. He wears stained slacks and an old, ratty button-down. He reflects his environment: the Netizen's bullpen is a single, large room with desks spread out around it and newspapers hung all over the walls, half the desks covered in heaps of paper. The threadbare in the couch, vomit-green, where Bogus probably slept on overnight and half the reporters have passed out on following deadlines. The trashcans are full throughout the office, spilling onto the stained brown carpet. Apparently only the Intern takes the trash out. Marco chews on the inside of his mouth. He doesn't see Bradley anywhere, maybe she's out covering a story -- some alien abduction thing, probably, outer space is her gig. Probably getting drunk in at O'Donnell's down the street, throwing darts at a dartboard to decide which net.hero she's going to out as a spaceman this week.
("Ultimate Ninja the Long-Lost Crown Prince of Planet X," reads the full-page torn out of an old issue and hung up on the wall over her desk.)
Spinoza's working at her laptop, Twizzler sticking out of her mouth. "Dash," she says, but not very loud, because you're never very loud when Victor King is yelling.
"You knew where he was," Emma is saying. "He joined the Legion of Net.Heroes. I'm writing a story on it. We've gone over this like fifty times, King."
"I thought that was some other intern you were talking about! Not this intern!"
"We don't have any interns! You don't trust anybody!"
"Well, we need him here."
"He's a net.hero now, King. I'm writing you front-page gold." Marco winces as Emma says it -- doesn't matter what you think, Victor King's the one that determines "front-page gold." And she knows it, she's the one that told him. You can never predict it either -- something will catch him, some trace of an idea or turn of phrase, and he'll have declared your article has "true gravitas." And then he starts using the word "tremendous" over and over and it's always like an nuclear bomb has gone off. "He has a duty--"
Marco doesn't realize he's doing it until it's done. He utters about two stanzas of a prose-poem -- under his breath at first, but then louder and louder. Spinoza's computer pops and bangs. She's slumped backward over the back of her chair. Emma sprawls with her face pressed to carpet that probably hasn't seen a vacuum cleaner, and Victor King is flat on his back.
Only April is still upright. "Well, that was certainly one way of defusing the situation."
"You weren't exactly doing anything," he says, not turning to look at her. "And when I do something, there's a fifty-fifty chance something's going to explode."
"Marco, I thought we were getting along."
She said something. Marco comes up short, freezes, hands at his sides. Balled into fists. He takes a breath. "I know," he says, eventually. He lets the breath out through his nose. In through his mouth. "I said before, I didn't sleep well and I'm -- my life was kind of a mess right before I joined up."
April is kneeling down to check on Emma. She's checking her pulse. "We're net.heroes," she says. "We have to maintain a standard, Marco. That's how people like Cheesecake-Eater Lad end up as legends."
He finds himself nodding. "I'm sorry. I'm just -- Bogus is, is, is he dead? Or something? Everything's still a mess, even though I'm a net.hero." He shuffles over to Spinoza, and eases her head forward. She's already groaning, coming to her senses. He needs to find some way of controlling his power, predicting its effects. One wrong syllable and everybody's hair's on fire. "Hey," he says, when Spinoza starts blink.
And then he's easing his hands away from her head, stepping over to where Victor King is beginning to stir. April is helping Emma up. When he sees King's eyes flutter, he pull his badge off his belt, brandishing it in front of him. LNH is golden block letters, catching the dismal light from the too-small windows with the frames painted over. They don't open. King grunts and pushes himself up to a seat. He glares. He starts to say something, but Marco cuts him off. "Legion of Net.Heroes," he says, like he's on a cop show or something. "Bad-Poetry Boy. This is my associate, Sonnet Queen." King's rheumy eyes flick over to April, then back to Marco. For once in his life, he doesn't say anything. Who knows if he's ever been close to a net.hero before. "One of your reporters -- Clement Bogus -- was involved in an paranormal incident." Okay, more than one, but still. "We're investigating."
"Incident?" The way King says it translates as, What's the story here?
If they say anything, anything at all, next week's copy of the Netizen is going to read VAMPIRE PLAGUE IN HOVEL HOMES on the front cover in burning red letters.
"I can't give any more details," Marco says, and even as he says it he knows that next week's copy of the Netizen is NOW going to read LNH ENGAGED IN COVERT CONSPIRACY TO INFRINGE ON FREEDOM OF SPEECH. Emma's back on her feet, and slipping past King and Marco alike to check on the couch, like it's going to give off vibrations she can read or something. Nobody here has any sensory powers. Or equipment, either. Marco clears his throat. "Two days ago, did you notice anything unusual in here, that morning?"
"Unusual? What are you talking--"
"Nothing," says Spinoza, her voice hitting an octave Marco swears he's never heard her use. "Everything was the same. We haven't actually seen Bogus in a while. Not since," she gestures with the fingers of one hand, in Marco's direction. "He hasn't been around. He hasn't been filing. I've been working late most nights," and it is a testament to her professionalism in the face of near continuous crap that she's able to keep her face blank and her voice solid when she says that. "He hasn't been around. All the telltale evidence that he was sleeping here has stopped, ah, accumulating."
He catches sight of Emma, watching him. Watching him maybe because he flirted with Bogus, sometimes, maybe. Or because she's never seen Marco like this. He's never seen himself like this before. "Nothing looks out of the ordinary," he says, trying to mimic the solid, B-Movie voice of Doctor Stomper. "We should widen our search. You don't know if he had an apartment somewhere, do you?" He isn't bothering to look at King, who looks like a barely contained tornado of bluster. He focuses on Spinoza, who has begun to veer into something like bemusement. She's never been on this side of an interview before.
"Bogus? I'm pretty sure he got evicted. I think he said something about losing his building's water-heater in Hell by accident."
"Well, I mean, it's a dumpster," says April. Her face puckers. The three of them are standing in the back alley behind the Netizen, surrounding the blue dumpster with the lid pulled open. Who knows the last time it was emptied -- it's practically spilling over the edge. Net.ropolis Sanitation doesn't like to spend too long in Hovel Homes. "I know Squeaky Clean's been doing moonlight clean-up around the city -- what with the city's budget cuts. I should call this in, he'll have a fit."
Marco peers at her. "Squeaky Clean?"
Emma crosses her arms. "Budget cuts?"
"Do you not--" She sighs, and pinches the bridge of her nose before looking back up at them again. "You're a reporter, Emma. I mean, I guess you're always chasing after swamp monsters and alien stories or whatever, but--"
"Not the issue right now," says Marco, because he can almost feel Emma's hackles rising, and if he's not going to get into petty arguments with April, she shouldn't either. "I mean, it looks normal -- besides all the extra trash -- but I mean, if he did skulk back here from time to time." Something catches his eye. A small pool of black liquid, and black splatter against the metal of the dumpster. "What is that?" He runs his finger through it. It's cold now, and starting to dry, but there's something about it that -- "This might be me making things up, but does this look like blood to you? Like, you're watching an old horror movie blood." He holds up his finger and finds his eyes locked with Emma's. "That's weird, right?"
"I think the flight.thingee's equipped for minor field analysis," says April, who has probably read the damn manual cover to cover.
"Oh great," he says. "It's a flying crime lab bathtub."
April rolls her eyes. "See, this is why you don't have a boyfriend."
"I'm ignoring that," Marco says. He could be an asshole, but he won't. "I'm calling in," he says. "This is an occult crime or whatever. Occultism Kid might know how to -- I don't know. Read the scene? With magic or whatever. Maybe he can tell us what to--"
"Sure, sure," Emma says. "Go call Occultism Kid."
He doesn't respond. He looks back at April and says, "Go get the bathtub." And then: "I'll be back in a second." He walks to the mouth of the alley and stands over by the gas station. It could have just been motor oil. Maybe he was reaching. He doesn't linger on that thought, though; he hits the badge square in the middle of the N and says, "Bad-Poetry Boy to HQ."
There is a brief hum and then a tinny voice says, "This is Multi-Tasking Man. Go ahead."
"Can you patch me through to Occultism Kid?"
"Hold on a second."
Marco stares at his shoes, fingers curling around the badge. He feels stupid standing there like that. He could at least pretend like he's talking on his phone or something, not a sci-fi communications device. There is another hum, and then a familiar voice. "Occultism Kid here. That you, Bad-Poetry Boy?"
Sigh. "Yes." He really hates his codename.
"Where are you? I'm just about to go down to the holding cells and check on Bogus."
"I'm -- we're in Hovel Homes. Following some leads. Nobody really told us what to do, but we figured we could try and solve the mystery on the streets, in case there are more vampires--"
"Did you find something?"
"Blood. I think. Out behind the Netizen. I was wondering if you could, I don't know. Take a look?"
Occultism Kid makes a noise at the back of his throat and then says, "There's something I can try. Are you alright if I try something?"
"There's a spell I can do from here. It's going to be disorienting."
He could say no. Marco can hear that in Occultism Kid's voice. But he's supposed to be a net.hero. He's supposed to be able to make the hard choices and deal with crisis situations. "Sure," he says. "I can handle it."
There is a full beat and then Marco doesn't really know what happens, but the world seems to slow down. Everything is filled with this light, this rich, warm light. Amber. He's staring at his hands. At his finger, drenched in whatever black liquid that was. It's his hand, but there's a second, transparent hand superimposed over it. "What -- Occultism Kid? Are you doing something?" He stumbles. Nothing seems real, and all the details and angles of the world seem like they've tilted. He doesn't like the feeling at all.
"Sorry," Occultism Kid says, and his voice is emanating from Marco's badge and vibrating directly inside his mind. "Astral projection. I'm looking -- that's definitely blood. Drained of its colour -- nasty." And then he hums, and Marco feels like he can't control his limbs. "That reminds me a little of Adventure Time--"
"Gnh," says Marco.
"Sorry," says Occultism Kid. "If you take me over to where you found this." Take him over? Like he's standing right here, needing to be escorted? Marco stumbles back in the direction of the girls. April is leaning against the flying bathtub, which hovers next to them. He's embarrassed. If Occultism Kid is in his head right now, then he probably knows-- "Maybe try to stay focused, Bad-Poetry Boy," the Kid says. "I'm not actively invading your privacy, but things bleed through." Oh crap. Oh crap, oh crap, oh crap. "We're on a case here, Bad-Poetry Boy. I might not like Bogus, but he deserves better than--"
"Marco," Emma says, as he almost collapses in front of them back by the dumpster and the strange black pool. "Marco, what the hell--"
"Ladies," says Occultism Kid, and forces himself to his feet. Occultism Kid is just slightly out of synch with him, his spectral limbs moving freely, gesturing wildly. "Marco called. I had a look at the blood sample. Ah, Sonnet Queen, you've got the flight.thingee's analysis kit."
"Sure," says April, but she isn't looking at him. She's looking at Marco (almost the same thing, right?) and there's some sympathy there. God, he needs to get drunk right now.
"This is easier than remote viewing," the Kid says, and he does something that makes Marco's head jerk up to look at the immediate area. "I can extend my mystical senses to Bad-Poetry Boy for a few minutes, though the side effects are a little -- well. Marco, please stay focused."
"I know. I just need to look at the scene for a second." Marco can feel a headache blossoming. "There were two of them. Not the same -- not identical kinds of vampire. Two totally different vampire types working together? That doesn't exactly fill me with wonder and delight."
Emma clears her throat. "Can you see -- what? An after-image of them?"
"More like the vibrations they gave off. One of them attacked -- I think that's Bogus. The smaller one." He sniffs, and Marco can feel his nostrils flaring. This is so embarrassing. "Retcotheric energy. Not quite wild enough to be magic. Implications of retcon. Is one of you getting this down?"
Emma holds her phone. "Recorder app."
"Good. I'm going to slip away in a second. I don't want to linger too long with Bad-Poetry Boy."
"Could you at least call me Marco?" But Occultism Kid is already gone.
Bad-Poetry Boy (Marco Ramirez), Emma Dash, Sonnet Queen (April Fu), Victor King, Clement Bogus, Spinoza and Bradley owned by Ben Rawluk, copyright 2015.
Occultism Kid created by Josh Geurink, free for use.
Multi-Tasking Man created by Jeff Coleburn, free for use.
Doctor Stomper created by T.M. Neeck, free for use.
Squeaky Clean's creator is unknown!
Oh, like you don't love the Fantasticar. Like the Fantasticar isn't pop perfection.
After talking to Andrew about the politics of net.heroes in Hovel Homes I'm stuck thinking about the kind of work that the LNH would be doing in its community, and that's probably something that's going to linger and bubble up a bit for the next little while. I want to expand on the Netizen a little bit and more of the street-level weirdness for a while. I'm also curious if there are more Legionnaires like Limp-Asparagus Lad's crew, who don't live in the LNHQ and maybe spend most of their time dealing with the street-level issues and conference-callling in.
More information about the racc