Saturday, 31 October 2009

Episode 15

"Ray used to be a plumber, you know," said Nicole, as she bustled backwards and forwards about her huge kitchen with its impressive array of sleek-looking modern appliances. Harold and Teatime were seated at the kitchen table. Ray had just gone out with the dogs to the local watering hole, as he called it, to get some celebratory alcohol.

Ever since they had arrived, Nicole had not stopped fussing over Harold and Teatime like some modern-day Florence Nightingale. Were they hungry? (A definite yes in Harold's case, Murder at the Blood Drive being neither appetising nor sustaining) Thirsty? Too warm? Too cold?

At first it had been a bit of a novelty to be so nicely treated, but now her and Ray's overly solicitous attentions were beginning to grate just a little. Harold half-expected her to ask for his autograph.

She plonked a generous plate of trail mix down on the table in front of a somewhat bemused Teatime (who had been hoping for cake, to be honest). "Ray calls this stuff 'parrot food'", she laughed, "But the kids used to love it so I keep some around for when they visit. Have I showed you Cathy, Caitlin and Carrie - my triplets, my Lord?" she asked, and when he didn't answer immediately, "My Lord?"

To distract himself from Nicole's inane chatter, Harold had been thinking of triplets of an entirely different kind: in his head another new piece (he was going to call it A Chill Wind's a-Blowing) had been getting born just nicely, but it disappeared with a disappointed silent pop as he realised that Nicole was actually addressing him directly and that she actually expected an answer of some sort.

"Er, yes, I believe you did." he answered, lamely, "Fine-looking children, they were too."

"Tell Nicole you want a bath," whispered Teatime. If there was not to be cake, then they might as well get down to brass tacks and start getting organised.

"But I don't need a bath, Teatime," said Harold, somewhat puzzled. Demons' vessels did not sweat and bacteria could not live on them in any case, so bathing was rarely necessary. Surely Teatime knew this?

"I know you don't, old button," replied Teatime patiently, "but we need to talk – preferably in a quiet place where we won't be disturbed. Honestly, old shoe, do I have to explain every little detail?"

Harold shrugged, "Er, Nicole?" he said.

Back at Aunt Aggie's, Agent India was almost ready to hug herself with satisfaction. She had been absolutely on the money. OGS had been a little lax and had not followed its own procedures properly. India liked procedures, they minimised the variability of human decision-making and kept things nice and controllable. Now India knew that the slip-up was probably because of the last-minute change of plan imposed upon Joshua squad by Director Opal, but all the same, procedures were meant to be followed even if – especially if – something unusual cropped up. In this instance, however, she was pleased to note that, just as she'd thought, the demon's bag had not been searched very thoroughly at all. She looked down at the device in her hand. On its screen, a little red dot was glowing steadily.

"Bubbles are always perfectly spherical, aren't they?" mused Harold as he soaked in the scented water of Ray and Nicole's massive marble sunken bath. He'd seen people bathing on TV and had had the odd shower himself, but this! This was really pleasant. No wonder humans enjoyed it.

"Yes, it's because surface tension exerts an equal force in all – " Teatime stopped himself, mid-lecture, "Look here, old sock, I didn't mean for you to actually have a bath, merely to ask for one."

"I know," said Harold lightly, "But now I'm here... Anyway, how come we were slumming it at the Sleezee when we could have come here and lived it up?"

"That's part of what I want to talk to you about," replied Teatime, "Now listen."

Friday, 23 October 2009

Episode 14

"Easy as rolling off a log!" crowed Ray, as he finished checking the duct tape binding India's and Mercury's hands and feet. "I can't believe you fancy-pants OGS agents with all your special training, Captain Midnight decoder rings, silly names and whatnot fell for the ole' bogus 'couple in distress' routine, I really can't".

The two agents glared at him in incensed silence. They had little choice: Ray had pressed a strip of tape over their mouths once Mercury had (reluctantly) uttered the formula that would release Harold.

"Right-ho, old shoe," declared Teatime, "Time we made ourselves scarce, I think.""

"You sit tight now. I'm sure someone will come along – eventually - and find you." Ray sniggered. "Agent Dumb, Agent Dumber, it's been a pleasure." He sketched a mocking bow to the two agents, and walked back to his car.

"Where to my Lord?" he asked Harold.

"Oh, mm," Harold hadn't the faintest idea where would be a good place to go but Ray and Nicole were looking at him expectantly. Fortunately, Teatime had an idea.

"Your house, I think." he said, "We can plan what to do from there."

"My Lord?" Ray looked to Harold for confirmation.

"Yes," declared Harold, "let's do that." One of these days, he was really going to have to start making decisions for himself.

When they had gone, the two agents immediately began to try and free themselves. Ray had been pretty thorough, however, and they made little headway. Eventually, they gave it up as a bad job. When they missed their nine o'clock check-in, someone would be despatched to investigate. Until then, there was little else to do but wait.

"The look on those OGS agents' faces!" laughed Nicole as they sped along the road. "They must have thought they were being sooo good-Samaritan-like, rescuing us!"

"Yeah, and when Mr Teatime started talking I thought they were going to have a conniption," Ray chuckled, "Bet their fancy training manuals didn't cover that!"

Meanwhile, in the back seat, Harold was trying to make sense of it all.

"Teatime," he asked, in Infernal, so as not to be overheard, "Who are these people and, come to that, who are OGS?"

"These, dear fellow, are Black Sheep, our little helpers here on the Brightside. In exchange for a life of wealth and comfort, they do odd jobs for the likes of you and your father."

"I see," said Harold, "But how did you manage to call them?"

"I was fortunate enough to find a public telephone and, one quick reverse-charge call later...." Teatime looked very pleased with himself.

"Ok, but what about this OGS thing?"

"Well," explained Teatime, settling comfortably into his role as tutor, "OGS stands for Order of the Good Shepherd. They're committed to the cause of Light and work to protect human souls from us – well, you demons, specifically. They are, shall we say, somewhat noted for their zeal"

"But, how come you know all these things and I don't?" Harold wanted to know. "I know I wasn't always paying attention, but I'm pretty sure no-one mentioned this stuff."

This put Teatime into an awkward position: he knew perfectly well why Harold hadn't been told anything about OGS, Black Sheep – or plenty else that a demon needed to know before venturing to the world of men – but wasn't about to let on, not yet, anyway.

"I'm sure it was an oversight, old sock. Anyway," he continued brightly, "That's why your father sent me along to help out, I expect. Oh look, I do believe we're here.""

Ray and Nicole's home was a magnificent sprawling mansion set in its own grounds. The gates, huge steel things, perforated in a beautifully intricate pattern, swung silently open as the car approached, courtesy of Ray's remote control.

Hearing Harold's low whistle of appreciation, Ray laughed. "It certainly is something, isn't it, my Lord?" He stopped the car in front of the magnificent front doors and they all disembarked. Harold gazed at his new surroundings. This was certainly a whole lot nicer than the SleepEZ Motel!

"Ray had the architect customize just about everything," Nicole said proudly, "Even the bath-taps!"

"Woman, will you ever shut up about them taps?" Ray pretended to grumble, "Can't a man have his initials on something without hearing about for the rest o' his life?"

They walked into the cool spacious elegance that was the house's hallway. Ray's two huge dogs, Haz-Mat and Sidewinder, bounded up to them, barking joyfully. What do you know, someone's actually pleased to see us, thought Harold. That makes a change.

Eventually, Agents Prada and Othello arrived to free India and Mercury. When they heard what had happened, they shook their heads wearily.

"It constantly amazes me that people are willing to risk conniving with demons when it could cost them their very souls." said Prada,

"True," agreed India, massaging some feeling back into her hands, "But they probably don't think it'll ever come to that. They just see the benefits they're getting right now."

"Well," sighed Othello, "I guess we lost this one, I don't suppose we'll be seeing that particular fiend again anytime soon."

India was just about to agree when an idea struck her. If it checked out, they'd be seeing that demon again soon enough – and this time they'd be sure to nail that perishing monkey as well.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Episode 13

The early morning light was burning off the last few wisps of mist, giving the day a washed-clean look. Overhead, the light edged what few clouds there were, turning them into fluffy cotton wool balls. It was going to be a glorious day.

There was little traffic on the road and, with Agent India at the wheel, they were making good time. So good in fact that, upon hearing India's stomach growling, Agent Mercury had allowed a brief stop to pick up coffee and muffins for them both.

Needless to say, they didn't offer any to Harold, which the latter thought was a bit mean since he hadn't eaten anything since the previous afternoon. Maintaining a physical vessel here in the world of men took energy, surely they knew that? Oh, well, if they weren't going to give him proper food, he'd have to improvise. He reached into his rucksack and pulled out one of his paperbacks. It was better than nothing, he supposed. He tore out a page from Murder at the Blood Drive, screwed it up and popped it into his mouth.

Agent Mercury caught the movement in the rearview mirror.

"What are you doing?" he demanded. Harold chewed quickly and swallowed, so as to be able to speak.

"Having breakfast," he said, tearing out another page. He glanced at it briefly, "Oh, what do you know. Looks like the janitor did it." He screwed up the denouement and ate it. It tasted like wet leaves, but it was an energy source of sorts. Agent Mercury shook his head in disgust and turned back to face the front once more.

Up ahead, there was a car parked on the shoulder with its hood up. A sandy-haired man stood looking into the engine compartment, scratching his head, clearly baffled. On the grassy verge at the roadside, a young woman with a swaddled baby in her arms looked on anxiously. As the van drew near, the couple waved frantically at them to stop.

"Shall I stop" asked India.

Mercury sighed, another delay! Still, all they might need to do is phone for a tow-truck or something, he couldn't in all conscience just pass by without helping.

"Yeah, pull over," he said, and India did so.

As the van stopped, the woman ran up to the nearside, a look of relief and gratitude on her face. Mercury wound down the window.

"Oh, thank goodness!" the woman cried, "I thought no-one was ever going to stop!"

"That's alright ma'am," replied Mercury, "what seems to be the trouble?"

"The engine just cut out on us. Please, could you take a look? Ray's not really very good with cars and I'm sure it's something simple. Please?"

"Well, OK," said Mercury, "But I'm no expert either. Mechanics is a bit of a dark art to me." He turned to India, "I'll just be a minute." then to Harold, "You stay put and don't try anything."

Harold shrugged and carried on eating.

As Mercury was walking towards the other car, Ray turned towards him. He had something in his hand, a tool of some kind, Mercury thought. As the object came into full view, however, Mercury realised it was actually a gun.

Agent India was surprised when the woman suddenly let her "baby" fall to the ground, revealing a gun of her own, pointed straight at her.

"Everyone out of the vehicle!" shouted Ray, his gun levelled squarely at Mercury's chest.

Moving slowly, India complied. No matter how much they train you, she thought, there are always things they don't prepare you for.

Harold reached for the door handle but immediately felt the warning prickle of Mercury's Binding. Stay put, he had said. That was pretty unequivocal, and to disobey would be painful. The thing was, if he stayed put, Ray might react badly and start shooting. Harold had no affection for these two humans after the way they had treated him, but he didn't particularly want them to die either. He stalled in indecision, feeling like Pinnochio with his strings cut.

Mercury, seeing that Harold hadn't moved, called to him to do as the man said, which he did.

"You must be the one who did the Binding," said Ray. "You have until a count of three to release my Lord."

Now Mercury realised what these two were.

"No chance, Black Sheep" he snarled. The man laughed.

"Your bravery is admirable, my friend," he said, "but, pray tell me, are you willing to let your lady friend die because of your stubbornness?" He called out to his wife. "Nicole, shoot the girl"

"No!" cried Mercury and Harold both together. "No shooting!" added Harold. If he was their Lord, they should obey him, right?

"Sorry, my Lord," said Nicole, "we have orders not to do anything you say until you're released."

"Whose orders?" asked Harold.

"Why, mine, of course, old sock, whose do you think?"

Harold looked down in astonishment to where the voice was coming from. Teatime shook off the baby blankets and climbed nimbly up to his usual place on Harold's shoulder.

"You didn't think I'd abandoned you, did you?" he said, grinning.

Friday, 9 October 2009

Episode 12

Mr Teeth was not happy at having to meet Mr Peck so early in the morning, but the latter had insisted as he wanted to provide an update before leaving town for a couple of days.

The two men met for breakfast in the Mayflower Hotel. Mr Teeth didn't go in for the sort of fancy breakfasts these places dished out, usually contenting himself with some crackers with cottage cheese and a protein shake. He had to admire the artistry of the pastry chef here though. His creations, all variations on a theme, were little short of stunning. Glazed pastry animals of all kinds were set out alongside the more usual fare of bacon, eggs, beans, toast, fruit salad and whatnot. They must have had to set up a veritable production line to turn these things out in such numbers. Hard working waiters bustled about the place, getting coffee and toast for the patrons while overhead, an old-fashioned ceiling fan turned lazily under the intricately moulded plaster of the ceiling.

"What have you got for me?" said Mr Teeth, setting aside his orange juice.

"Well, the person we're looking for left town by train at about four in the afternoon, the day of the fire." replied Mr Peck, flicking a pastry crumb from the sleeve of his Armani suit with a perfectly manicured fingernail.

"You sure?" asked Mr Teeth. Mr Peck looked at him in silence for a few moments before replying.

"Yes. I have seen camera footage taken at the train station which confirms it. I have some still images if you wish to see them."

Mr Teeth waved the offer away. If Mr Peck said he'd seen that little trumpet-playing punk get on a train, that that's what the little punk would have done, you could bank on it. That's what fifteen hundred a day bought you: certainty. So he was probably out of town when the fire got started – unless...

"Maybe he snuck back into town later by bus or something," he rumbled, "keep checking."

"As you wish," said Peck smoothly.

The little trumpet playing punk in question was passing time mentally composing his latest jazz piece. He was going to call it The Sky is Falling and it would feature some deliciously creepy harmonic minor scale runs. Yeah that ought to do it. Harold wondered if these hostile, hard-eyed humans would actually let him have his trumpet back any time soon. Probably not, but at least composing music kept his mind off what was probably coming.

If he had understood the situation correctly, they were going to send him back to the Basement. Most demons really hated this, it was a badge of abject failure to be so summarily ejected from the world of men and, because of the way a Dismissal worked, they could not return for at least a year and a day. Harold knew that his father would be furious with him for messing up so spectacularly after such a brief spell on the Brightside - and Harold's father's wrath was legendary. Demons with more bravery than Harold possessed had withered under it.

It wasn't entirely his fault though, surely. After all, no-one had told him about the crazy humans and their crack-of-dawn raids. Come to think of it, he had not really been told that much at all about what to expect once he got here. Harold was self-aware enough to know that he was not the most attentive and focused pupil that had ever lived, but he could absolutely not remember anything about these agents with their tasers and hallowed words of power. Food for thought, indeed! He made a mental note to ask Teatime about it if they ever got the chance for a private talk.

Agent Mercury appeared in the doorway to the break room.

"You." he barked, pointing at Harold, "With me."

Harold followed Agent Mercury out of the room. Agents India and Othello fell in behind him, tasers still drawn although there was no need, Harold wasn't about to try any "funny business". Teatime, perched now on Harold's shoulder, took the opportunity to have a good look around as the little group walked through the operations room to Opal's office. It didn't look good though, he had to admit: these Shepherds were annoyingly vigilant and well-prepared. Escape was going to be extremely difficult.

Director Opal was a distinguished-looking African American man of late middle age and if he was surprised to see a little monkey perched on Harold's shoulder, he didn't show it. As Harold and the others entered, he pointed wordlessly to a seat in front of his desk. Harold sat down and saw that they had emptied his rucksack onto the desk for some reason. There was a small pile of spare clothes, his shoes, a couple of paperbacks - The Case of the Broken Finger and Murder at the Blood Drive – that he hadn't got around to reading, two empty soda bottles and (hooray!) his trumpet. Opal leaned forward and indicated this last item.

"What is the purpose of this?" he demanded. His dark eyes boring into Harold's baby blues.

Harold was nonplussed, of all the silly questions to be asking! Surely the human knew what a trumpet was? Did he think it was some kind of secret demonic weapon? Its music could be beguiling for sure, but honestly, it usually took more than a pretty tune to ensnare a soul. OK, not much more in some people's cases, but still. As he pondered these things, Harold became aware of an unpleasant prickling sensation which was gradually worsening: a warning from Agent Mercury's Binding that he'd better play nice and answer the question.

"It's a musical instrument. I enjoy playing music." Harold explained. The prickling receded. "Would you like to hear something?"

Opal looked at him as though he had suggested something incredibly filthy. That would be a no then, thought Harold. He was beginning to wish that they would just do the ritual and send him back home already, if that's what they were planning. This relentless suspicion and hostility was getting old! Oh, wait, the human was speaking again.

"What do you know about the disappearance of the demon, Baron Samedi?"

That was an easy one for Harold. "Nothing at all," he said, "Except what I heard on the news." Opal frowned.

"You're in the club's CCTV film, what were you doing there?"

"I went to see if the Baron would let me play at the club, it is the best jazz club around, you know – or was, anyway."

Opal grunted, "And the Baron said 'no', I take it?"

Harold nodded. He was not proud of the stupid blunder he had made in trying to set up shop in another demon's turf.

"OK," said Opal, leaning back in his chair, "We're done here. Mercury, you know what to do."

"Yes, sir!" said Agent Mercury, pleased at last to be doing something.

Oh well, this is it, thought Harold. Back to the Basement. If he was lucky his father would get over his rage in a couple of hundred years or so. If he was lucky.

They had ordered Harold to pack all the stuff on the desk into his rucksack and bring it along. On leaving Opal's office, Agent Mercury took the little group towards the double doors leading to the reception area and the outside world. Seeing Harold's look of surprise, Mercury couldn't help himself.

"Bet you thought we were going to send you home, didn't you?" He said, "Well, we were going to do just that, but it seems that HQ has requested the pleasure of your company."

On Harold's shoulder, Teatime stiffened. Oh, this was terrible news! He would definitely have to do something now.

As they got outside the building, the first light of dawn was just beginning to creep across the sky, edging the powder puff clouds with pale light. Well, it's now or never, thought Teatime.

All of a sudden, the little monkey leapt off Harold's shoulder and was away around the corner of the building in the blink of an eye. Harold was about to go after him but Agent Mercury would have none of it.

"Get in the van!" he ordered.

"At least let me try and get him to come back," pleaded Harold. The prickling sensation was beginning again.

"Now!" insisted Mercury.

Harold reluctantly got into the van. He hoped that Teatime knew what he was doing.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Episode 11

Even as a child, growing in a small town in Pennsylvania, Agent India had never been afraid of monsters in the closet; as a teenager, she had yawned her way through countless movies about zombies attacking small towns in search of the inhabitants' brains. These things did not scare her because she had always had a firm idea about what was real and what was not. Zombies and closet-dwelling monsters were not real. Demons, on the other hand, very much were. For as long as she could remember, India had been able to sense them when they came near.

At first, she had had no idea what it had been about certain people that made the hairs on the back of her neck stand up. She had asked her parents about it and they had not known what to tell her. Eventually, she had plucked up the courage to speak to the priest in her local church. He had explained her gift to her and had put her in touch with the Order of the Good Shepherd, who, he said, could make good use of it.

How right Father Nolan had been! India was full of elation as she and the other members of Joshua squad, along with their captive, bounced around in the back of the van which was now bowling along at a good clip away from the warehouses and back to base.

Harold, on the other hand, was decidedly not full of elation. He had fallen straight into the humans' trap. Honestly, even someone with the IQ of a bath brush would have realised that they had left the doorway so invitingly unguarded on purpose, but not him, oh no!

The paralysing effect of the taser had not had chance to wear off before the leader of the humans was standing over him, reciting the words of Binding. Few humans even knew these words and fewer still had enough faith to make them stick, but stick they did. Harold could feel the effect of them like a cocoon of barbed wire wrapping him from head to toe. At the moment, because he was sitting quietly and not causing any trouble, the wire was only loosely wrapped and he could only just feel it, but he knew that if he did anything out of line, the wire would tighten. No wonder Teatime had been so insistent that he put as much distance as possible between himself and these humans. Harold hoped Teatime was alright - the little monkey hadn't said a word since the female driver of the van had thrust the pillowcase with him in it roughly into Harold's arms with the stern injunction that he sit still and keep the monkey quiet, or else.

Agent Mercury had been about to begin the words of Dismissal to send this fiend back where it belonged when the approaching wail of a police siren had interrupted proceedings. Someone, it seemed, had heard the noise and had called the cops. OGS agents had no more powers than any other private citizen and it was unlikely that the police would be even remotely understanding if they were to come across a small group of people performing some strange ritual in a deserted warehouse. There had been nothing for it, therefore, but to de-camp to base and do the ritual there.

Agent Prada brought the van to a halt outside what looked for all the world like a small industrial unit in a nondescript business park just outside town. A fading sign on the unit even proclaimed that this was the home of Aunt Aggie's Mouth-Watering Family Cheesecake. Cheesecake production had ceased more than twenty years ago, however, and the unit now served as OGS's local base of operations.

Agent Mercury slid open the van's door and ordered Harold out with a jerk of his thumb. Cradling Teatime's pillowcase carefully, Harold complied. He desperately wanted to talk to Teatime, make sure he was alright. He didn't dare risk it yet though because, although he had not specifically been told he couldn't, he wasn't sure how much leeway the Binding permitted, if any (if only he'd paid more attention to his teachers!). Also, the humans might be suspicious if he started talking to his "pet" in Infernal, which was the language the two of them had always used.

The deserted reception area of Aunt Aggie's was much like any other: there was a counter, some fabulously uncomfortable seating, a coffee table bearing out-of-date magazines and on the wall, a picture of a bowl of African violets and butterflies which was a triumph of anodyne mediocrity. This was, of course, all a front and Harold was surprised to discover, upon passing through a set of double doors, that a bustling, brightly-lit operations room lay beyond.

"...was actually holding hands with her, can you believe it? I know! Oh, wait, I'll have to call you back." A fresh-faced young man quickly put down the phone as the small group passed his desk.

"Sir?" He called out, "Agent Mercury, Sir?"

Mercury turned to face the youngster, a look of irritation on his face.

"What is it?" he barked.

"Opal wants to see you in his office right away."

"Tell him I'm kind of busy." Mercury gestured vaguely in Harold's direction.

"He knows that, sir. That's what he wants to see you about."

Mercury sighed. More delays! Was he ever going to get rid of this demon?

"Ok," he said, addressing the squad, "Go and wait for me in the break room. You –" he said, turning to Harold, who had been gawking like a hick tourist at the bright lights, computers and whatnot, "Go with them and don't try any funny business".

Funny business was the farthest thing from Harold's mind as he sat in the OGS break room with Agents India and Othello, et al eyeing him in a less than friendly fashion. On top of the refrigerator next to him someone had left an old Pizza Hut menu and an unwashed mug with a cartoon of a weeping clown on it, along with the words laugh and the world laughs with you. They got that right, thought Harold.

Feeling Teatime stir, Harold loosened his grip on the pillowcase and the little monkey poked his head out and looked around.

"Excuse me, can I let him out now?" Harold asked Agent India, "He won't be any trouble."

"I suppose so," she replied. He's just a little monkey after all, where's the harm.