Friday, June 30, 2006

Chapter Three

"You sick, twisted, little bastard," Brambleshot finally managed to utter after staring at Satan for several moments.

"Occupational hazard. I've learned to live with it," replied the devil.

"You exile me here in this... place, but as soon as there's a little family crisis in the home office, you come up here pretending to beg for my help."

"Do you know why you were demoted?"

"I know the reason you gave me at the time. Unauthorised operations. The Irony Project made you nervous. You said it was because I hadn't followed the proper processes, filled out all of the paperwork. I didn't believe you."

"You were right not to believe me," offered Satan. "I lied. I do that sometimes."

"Of course, I was right," shot back Brambleshot. "Irony just scares you. It's unpredictable and you didn't want it to blow up in you face."

"No, you misunderstand me. It had nothing to do with the Irony Project, although I suppose the irony of that has now come back to roost."

Brambleshot had thought he'd found the direction of the conversation and could just follow along, but suddenly it had taken a wild turn and he felt lost again. "What do you mean?"

"Clarplegist told me about you and Synthia."

"Clarplegist? You take your tips from Clarplegist now? You know he just likes to stir things up, don't you?"

Satan's nostrils flared as he grew suddenly to three times his size. He loomed over Brambleshot, glaring angrily. "Of course I know that, you insignificant little turd. I-" He stopped suddenly, took a deep breath and reverted back to his previous stature. "Sorry about that. Sometimes my emotions just get away from me. I was taking anger management courses for a while but I kept incinerating the facilitators and they asked me not to come back. After that there was no place to come back to, so..." His voice trailed off as he seemed to get lost in thought. Suddenly his focus returned to Brambleshot and he acted as if nothing had happened. "Clarplegist is the Assistant Director of Jealousy. Of course he likes to stir thing up and I have that in mind every time he hands me a report. He tipped me off, but I did my own investigation. I was appalled."

"Look, Nick. We never meant for it to go that far. It was just-"

"Don't!" Satan held up a hand to stop Brambleshot in mid-sentence. "Don't hand me excuses. You took something as beautiful and pure as carnal lust and you tainted it with love. Tenderness. Compassion. And with my own daughter, yet. The very thought of it sickens me!"

"So, you demoted me while I was on assignment?"

"And you rebelled against me. You defected and sought political asylum on Earth. Didn't really achieve much beyond confusing a horde of bureaucrats, but it was a bold move."

"It, uh, seemed like a good idea at the time," said Brambleshot, regretting the statement as soon as the words passed his lips.

"Did it, now?" asked Satan. "Happy with the life you’ve made for yourself here among the soul-boxes? No, I think not. You were so eager to be shut of me that I saw no point in resisting. I embraced your decision."

"And reinforced it with banishment."

"If you want to argue semantics, yes. I was only trying to help."

"If I set foot back in hell, I immediately become a permanent resident again, starting in the lowest pit. No rank, no seniority, nothing. That's how you help someone?"

"Well," pointed out the grinning red devil, "I am Satan, the Fallen One, Lord of the Underworld, Prince of Darkness, et cetera. Helping simply doesn't come naturally to me. I do my best."

"Right and now you need my help."

"Synthia needs you help," corrected Satan. He paused looking earnestly at Brambleshot. "Alright," he admitted, "I need your help. Find Synthia. Return her safely to me and I'll wipe the slate clean. Your life will be yours. No conditions, no demotion, no indentured servitude. You will be a fully powered demon and master of your own destiny. You will be unique in the universe in that respect, but the option will be yours; stay here, in the life you've managed of forge for yourself, or return to hell, with a promotion and complete autonomy."

Brambleshot considered the offer for several moments. Then he considered it some more. Just to piss Satan off, he then mentally reviewed all of the television programs he had watched in the last three years. Having done that, he considered the offer again and came to the same decision. He made a shopping list, rewrote parody lyrics to several Beatles songs and did a complete internal recitation of the works of Franz Kafka, before considering the offer one last time. He did all of this without taking his eyes off of Satan.

When the dark lord started to squirm uncomfortably in his seat, Brambleshot knew he had let him stew long enough.

"While I work on this case, I'll still have a business to run here, you know. I'll have to pay rent on this office, I'll have expenses, overhead, bills, that sort of thing. So, while I will take this case and track down Synthia, it is conditional on several other factors. In addition to the offer already on the table, you will pay my regular fee of one thousand dollars per day."

"Agreed," replied Satan.

"Plus expenses. I will have to assemble a team, experts in various fields, that may be needed in order to safely extract Synthia from whatever situation she may be in. You will pay their standard rates, plus expenses also."

"Money is not an problem. I am the Prince of Evil and money is the root of all evil. I'm good for the cash."

"No doubt. One other condition. When Synthia is returned safely to you, you will give her the same autonomy and freedom you offered to me."

Satan stopped, startled by the boldness of Brambleshot final condition. He closed his eyes and relived the experience of frying thirteen anger management instructors in the eternal pits of hellfire. This had a soothing effect on him and he eventually opened his eye with a calm expression on his face. "Agreed," he said.

"Fine," said Brambleshot. "You just hired yourself the best demonic private investigator in the business. Tell everything you know about Synthia's disappearance."

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Chapter Two

As he climbed the stairs to his office, Brambleshot wondered why Big Red would bother with such a clumsy attempt. Surely he didn't think Brambleshot would fall for so obvious a ruse. There must be something larger happening and this was just a small part of it. Well, as long as he remained just a small part of the big picture, Brambleshot expected he could just ignore it and get on with his life. When he unlocked the door to Brambleshot Investigations, entered his office and heard that dreadful voice, he realised that wasn't going to happen.

"Ignatius! Wonderful to see you again, my lad."

There, sitting in Brambleshot's chair, hoofed feet resting on the edge of the desk, was Satan. His dangerous smile surrounded by deep red skin, two perfectly symmetrical bony protrusions on his forehead, the meticulously coiffed hair and pointed beard left no doubt about his intentions. He only wore this visage when offering deals. Brambleshot had an uneasy feeling.

"I said to make an appointment," grumbled Brambleshot, knowing any attempt at intimidation would be wasted, but feeling the need to try anyway.

"Oh, but I did. Reputation aside, you know I can't actually break the rules. Just bend them a little." The devil paused to consider his statement. "Okay, bend them a lot," he conceded as he slid Brambleshot’s appointment book across the desk.

Brambleshot looked down at the book. It was open to the current date and there, in Brambleshot's own handwriting, he saw, "Nick - 2:00." He checked his watch and glared at his visitor. "You're early."

"It's now a sin to be punctual," offered the devil. Brambleshot wasn't certain whether it was actually a question or a statement. One could never be certain with Satan. His voice seemed to not so much speak to you, but speak into you.

The voice had always bothered Brambleshot, in many ways, the most significant of which was that it just didn't match his face, his frame, his overall appearance (no matter which appearance he chose). The timbre was wrong, the volume didn't seem quite right, a little too much treble, not enough bass. It wasn't until he'd been on Earth for a few years that Brambleshot made a shocking discovery about the voice. He'd been watching television, randomly channel surfing, when his ears perked up at the sound of his former boss's voice. He paused and watched the channel for a moment. On the screen he saw a small man sitting in a large chair. He wore black-framed glasses and clasped his hand together between his knees. He seemed to be telling a joke. It was very unnerving and Brambleshot had changed the channel quickly for fear of being drawn into one of Big Red's traps.

What he had seen, though, left no doubt. Satan spoke with the voice of Ronnie Corbett. Or maybe Ronnie Corbett spoke with the voice of Satan. He had never been able to confirm one over the other, but either way it was a disturbing discovery.

"Get your feet off my desk," said Brambleshot, shoving the cloven hooves onto the floor. "You'll leave burn marks on the oak."

"Oh," replied Satan, standing and walking around the desk with a repentant look on his face. "Forgive me." After moment's pause, he burst into a giggling fit of laughter. Brambleshot sat in his chair and stared at him, balanced on the edge of patience. Eventually the Prince of Darkness managed to suppress his laughter got himself under control again. "Heh, that's still one of my favourites," he confessed as he collapsed into the smaller wooden seat opposite Brambleshot's large leather chair.

"Whatever," growled Brambleshot, glaring at the devil who had managed to invite himself into his office. "Your flunky says you need my help. I couldn't care less, but you have an appointment, so I'll listen to you for the time allotted."

Satan's expression was suddenly serious and focussed. "Thank you, Ignatius. This is actually something of a somewhat sensitive nature. I wouldn't normally approach you without-"

Brambleshot held up a hand to stop the rambling devil. "New policy. All appointments are now one minute in duration. You have until 2:01 to convince me that I'm even the least bit curious about your problems."

The devil leaned forward and placed his hands on the edge of the desk. "Synthia is missing. She's been kidnapped."

Brambleshot's memory cast him back, a slave to her name. Years before, when he'd still been a minion of Hell, he and Synthia had indulged in a variety of sins of the flesh and, for a brief time, had suffered an unexpected and unfortunate side-effect. They fell in love and it had ended badly. He hadn't seen her since but it all came crashed back to him at the mention of her name. He hadn't thought that Satan knew about their romance, but obviously he did and was now using that knowledge to intrigue him, trick him, for some reason.

"You're kidding," Brambleshot finally said. "Who would kidnap the daughter of Satan?"

"That's what I want you to find out," came the reply, "and I'm willing to offer you complete freedom. No more conditions, no more double-speak guidelines, just complete freedom." The devil paused, seeming uncomfortable, then with determination he uttered one more word.
"Please," begged Satan.


Chapter One

At first, Brambleshot didn’t see any connection. At first, it all seemed decidedly random and, of course, in some ways it was meant to seem that way, but still...

The near miss with the bus as he crossed the street; the sidewalk lamp-post falling a little over an inch away from him; the fleeing bank robber who sprayed a proverbial hail of bullets in Brambleshot’s immediate vicinity without actually hitting him. Any of these events, individually, would be worthy of introduction into a conversation, or a suitable response to a "How was your day?" query. Collectively, this series of events would make him the focus of attention amongst the story-tellers down at the pub for hours.

Unfortunately, Brambleshot never went down to the pub and thus did not view things in terms of the stories that could be told about them. Indeed, he didn’t even have anyone interested in asking, "How was your day?" Let alone actually listening to whatever answer he might have.

So, it wasn’t until the piano plummeted down and crashed into the sidewalk in front of him that Brambleshot got the message. It wasn’t the piano itself that triggered the realization. It was the complete lack of ropes, cables, pulleys or any form of hoisting equipment whatsoever. That and the absence, in the building he was passing, of any windows large enough to pass a piano through.

It was then that the realization (if not the piano) finally struck him.

Someone was trying to get his attention.

Brambleshot quickly looked around, examining every face in the crowd. Almost immediately he spotted the person he was looking for. It was a frazzled looking, middle-management type with a boring suit and an even more boring haircut. It was also the only person looking the other way.

Under normal circumstances, not looking at someone is the perfect way to hide the fact that you are watching them. However, when a large piano suddenly drops from absolutely nowhere and shatters on the sidewalk, not looking is the perfect way to stand out like Bea Arthur at a Spike Lee film festival.

While a crowd of apparently suicidal on-lookers rushed toward the remains of the piano, seemingly to fling themselves into the path of a potential second piano, Brambleshot casually circled around the group to approach his watcher from the left side. Another problem with not actually looking at someone that you're watching is that, unless you're very good at it, you can easily loose track of them and end up not watching them at all. Thus it was that Brambleshot managed to get within ten feet of his target before the little devil decided to look back at the piano and the crowd and not Brambleshot.

"You!" growled Brambleshot in his most intimidating voice. His watcher turned his head so swiftly in response that Brambleshot actually heard bones snap in his neck. Not really an issue for this particular person, Brambleshot knew, but still, it was nice to be able to instil that degree of shock and fear into one of Big Red's minions, even after all this time.

"Gah!" screamed the minion before being engulfed in a thick black cloud that smelled of brimstone.

"Oh, no you don't," said Brambleshot as he lunged with startling speed to clamp his fist around the scrawny neck of his prey. When to smoke and stench cleared, Brambleshot drew the smaller man's face close to his, let his eyes redden just enough to show that he was not in the mood for games, and snarled, "Why are you here?"

"Ow!" Yelled the red-faced creature held in Brambleshot's grip. "Look what you did. That hurts."

Brambleshot hoisted his captive a bit higher so that he could get a better look at the rest of him. There wasn't much to see. Flailing arms in a white shirt and dark jacket. A dark tie hanging from a sweat-stained shirt collar. All of it coming to a sudden stop just below the ribcage, cauterized in an almost perfectly straight line from side to side. Portions of the jacket smouldered and sizzled, ruining the aesthetic balance of the line.

"Well, you have to expect that when you wear cheap polyester," said Brambleshot.

"Not the suit, you big lummox. Me! My legs are gone."

"Quit your whining. They'll grow back," replied the larger man and, as if on cue, the bottom of the severed torso began to bulge outward. With a horrible crunching and cracking sound legs formed and grew until they reached the ground. With a smirk, Brambleshot glanced down and said, "That's got to be embarrassing. Put some pants on."

With a defiant snap of the fingers, the smaller man invoked dark pants, black shoes and, for reasons Brambleshot could not fathom, white socks.

"That's probably better," commented Brambleshot as he lifted the fashion-challenged demon a few inches higher, raising the newly formed black shoes off the ground. With a slight shrug, he released his grip on the smaller creature's neck, letting him drop so suddenly that he nearly slumped into a heap before leaning against a parked car to regain his balance. "Now," continued Brambleshot, "I asked you a question. You haven't answered it yet. I hate repeating myself, but you're obviously a slow-witted little fellow, so here we go. Why are you here?" He let a slight rumble rise from the back of his throat before adding, "Don't make me ask a third time."

"No need to get nasty," came the reply. "The boss sent me. He, uh, he needs a favour."

"You're kidding."

"I'm not kidding. I don't do kidding. A bit of mischief, random deceit, but no kidding. It's, you know, too continental."

"Yeah, right. Whatever you say, Slick. What kind of favour does Nick need?"

The demon scratched nervously at his horned forehead and looked around. "He wouldn't tell me. Just said he needs your help and I should bring you to see him. Something about his daughter."

Brambleshot reached out and grabbed one of the horns on the creature's forehead and snapped it off with a flick of his wrist.

"Hey," cried the demon. "Growin' things back gets tiring, you know?" Already the open wound on his temple was healing over and forming a pointy lump.

"Tough. What in the nine circles makes you think that I would voluntarily go to him?"

"I don't know. He just said, is all."

"I walk back in there of my own free will and I'm a prisoner of the pits again. No, if he wants my help, he can come up her himself. He can come to my office, like anyone else who wants my help." Brambleshot flicked a business card at the demon and turned to leave. "Tell him to call first, make an appointment."

The nervous demon slumped relieved to the ground and watched the huge, former demon walk casually down the street, moving through the crowd and stepping effortlessly over the piano rubble. Reaching down with a shaky red hand, he pick up the business card and looked at the raised lettering. The words, "Ignatius Brambleshot - Private Investigator," stared back at him.

In a burst of filthy black smoke, he disappeared, leaving only the smell of sulphur as evidence that he had been there at all.