Las Vegas, a Loon and “Too Soon?”

Ok, so someone shot up a country music festival in Vegas.  I’m horrified but not surprised.  We as a country care less about a person’s access to mental health treatment than their access to guns.  The end result isn’t surprising anymore, but it is horrifying.  As a result of that horror, a clamor is already up about gun control, with the predictable anti-gun control people clamoring back.  They say, It’s too soon.  Well, It’s not too soon, it’s overdue from the last fucking time we had a thing like this.

Getting out in front of the Right Wing parade, we’ve heard Bill O’Rilley issue what is essentially a shrug in a long form text format.  “The Second Amendment is clear that Americans have a right to arm themselves for protection. Even the loons.”  Here’s something I learned about Bill O’Rilley a long time ago.  He shot off his mouth about something – doesn’t even matter what it was and I can’t remember at this point – and was wrong and called on it.  His response to that was essentially, “Oh that?  Yeah, I was just bloviating.”  I’ve got a fairly extensive vocabulary but I’d never heard the word “bloviating” before.  So, I looked it up.  It basically means going on like a pompous asshole with very little meaning but lots of self-serving words.  From this I learned that in Bill O’Rilley’s world it’s perfectly fine to be completely and unambiguously wrong as long as you are an asshole while doing it.  O’Rilley is not a dumb guy and he knows he’s wrong here.  But that’s ok, because he’s also being an asshole.

The second amendment says nothing about self-defense.   The second amendment says precisely this: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Clear as fucking mud, eh?  One can interpret that a few ways.  My favorite is that it means everyone has a right to join the Army.  Even gays.  Everything in that text talks about the security of the state, not the person.  In fact, that’s exactly how it was interpreted until 2008 when the Supreme Court in a 5/4 decision (Heller) decided that it meant a right to self-defense even though that wasn’t anywhere in the text.  Scalia, the “originalist” and “constitutional conservative” did this bit of mental gymnastics, by the way.  This is not some hallowed right passed down from father to son and ingrained in the American experience, it is something that is as old as some of my favorite tee shirts.  And at any rate, it also says that shit should be well regulated.  ALSO the firearms that the founding fathers had any experience with were packed with a ramrod.  Sure, you can have one of those, right next to your sharp stick and all those extra commas that make the second amendment so hard to puzzle out.

Getting back to the topic at hand, it’s not too early to talk about gun control, it’s too late.  As of this writing it’s currently too late for 58 country music fans in Las Vegas and anyone who loved them.  And anyway, this happens with such frequency and morbid regularity that it’s a topic that is evergreen.  It’s always time to talk about gun control because even if it’s not in the news now, if you wait a few months it will be.

Mass murder is not the price of freedom.  The founding fathers did not write a document that granted us the right to murder each other with machine guns.  In fact, they were against a standing army because they feared a destabilizing military coup more than anything else and wanted to make sure people who were in state militias didn’t have their military guns taken away from them.  It’s a bizarre anachronism that really has more to do with post-revolutionary America than the America of today.

We’ve already seen an example of an amendment which was repealed because the distortions upon the American society became too great to bear.  The Eighteenth Amendment ushered in the prohibition of alcohol and unleashed violence and lawlessness in America.  Now to be fair, alcoholism was a huge problem back then and they felt something had to be done, but the Eighteenth Amendment and it’s laws didn’t take reality into account. Moonshiners, Rumrunners, and Gangsters, all universally armed, plied a now-illegal trade all because a magnified minority wanted the entire US to be dry.  The twenty-first amendment repealed that mistake because things in the streets went completely crazy.  Things in the street are now completely crazy.  Just because it’s in the constitution doesn’t mean it’s a great idea or should be encouraged.

We are a self governing democracy.  We the people CAN say that enough is enough and demand change.  We don’t have to just shrug.  And nothing about the arsenal the loser in Las Vegas shot at those people was “well regulated.”  We should be horrified and we should talk about gun control now or we should not be surprised when a slaughter like this happens again.

Stay Weird and Remember to duck.

-SC

Idle Hands – Episode 3 –The New Girl – Part 3

[Author’s note: This is the last of three parts and will likely not make much sense without parts one and two]

Mitch set up two drinks at the bar for Sal and Dee Dee.  The bar was deserted this late on a Monday, so he was cleaning glasses and listening in for the entertainment value.

“Hi, Sal!  I’m really glad you could meet me so we could go over this.”  Dee Dee took a sip of her Virgin Bloody Mary.

Sal felt both nervous and ungrateful.  “Yeah.  You know, I don’t want to do that job.  It just seems, and no offence to you, but it seems sort of … cruel.”

“Well, I certainly don’t want you to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.  But we do want to see you out working and getting paid, so let’s see what we can do”

She opened up her lap top and pulled up the ever-changing job opportunities board.  Putting in ‘Accountant’, she was dismayed by the choices.

Beaming a plastic smile only slightly too wide for her face she said, “Ok, I want to emphasize that we one hundred percent guarantee that you will get these jobs.”

“It’s that bad a list, eh?  Well, let’s hear it.”

“We have a foreclosure specialist.”

“Keep moving.  I’m not taking away houses”

“Tax auctioneer.  Ah, here’s one!  An auditor for child protective services.  I hear that they have great Benefits!”

She beamed her too-wide smile at him, which freaked him out.

“Oh, uh, you know what?  If this is at the top of the list, we should just stop.”

“But, I’ve got a few more openings!”

“Stop,” he commanded in a quiet tone.

She started to lose her composure and gave him a glaring stare. “Look, I’m sure I can find a job that is good enough for you and your… particular tastes.  You have no idea what placing you means to me.”

“I’m sure these are fine jobs.  I’m just not so… I can’t check my heart at home.  I’m sure others can, but that’s not me.  Really, these kinds of things, selling people’s homes and taking away their babies, that kind of thing keeps you up nights.  I don’t think I’d be good at it, either.”

She glared at him with blue sparks in her eyes before finally saying “Fine! But can you please just finish out the week?  I have other candidates for the job, but I need a bit of time to transition them in.  And I really want to try to get you another job.”

“Sure, I guess.  As long as I can give notice tomorrow.  I don’t want to cause you any grief or anything, I just want out.  I can stay until Friday.  But after that… I don’t know.  These are pretty much all non-starters.”

“Yeah.  Good.”  She got up and stomped to the back of the bar, barely able to control her mounting anger. “I’ve got to go take a wiz.”

Mitch leaned over the bar after she was gone. “Man, What a bitch.  Bet she pees standing.”

“She’s just doing a crappy job, Mitch.  I can sympathize.”

“That’s your problem, Sallie.  You are too nice.”

“Well, I’d rather have that problem than be a bastard.”

Both men turned to the back of the bar as a feedback scream of frustration grew louder and more intense.  Suddenly, the wall at the back of the bar blew open as if a bomb had gone off.  Shrapnel and plaster flew out into the table area near the bar.

“Oh my god!  That girl!  She was in there!”  Sal walked toward the exploded rubble and was about to call after Dee Dee when a large, silver hand shot out and grabbed his neck.  Through the dust, a huge, shock-laden smile stretched across the hole.

Mitch threw a bottle of vodka at the monster in a panic.  It burst into flame on contact with the demon’s sparking skin.  In its surprise, the monster dropped Sal and both men ran for their lives.

“What was that?” Mitch yelled as they scrambled in to the haze of the night.

Sal looked back.  “I don’t know, but Dee Dee!…”

“Don’t even think!” the young man said, breathing hard.  He came to an exhausted stop in a nearby alley.  “Ain’t Nothing you can do, Sallie.”

“Yeah, poor girl.”  Sal walked over and slumped against the brick wall.  He looked back at the now smoking bar, rubbed his throat, and tried hard to make sense of what just happened.

“Who are you calling ‘poor’?”  A voice from farther in the alley startled the men.  Dee Dee appeared from the shadows, dirty but seemingly alive.

“Hey Lady!  You OK?  We thought…”

“Well you thought wrong,” she snapped.  “Look, we need the Police or the army or something here.  Some kind of monster.  Can you call for help?”

Sal looked at his phone.  “Strange, no.  My cell phone is dead.”

Dee Dee walked up to Mitch and put a hand on his shoulder.  “Why don’t you find a pay phone or something and call the cops?”  Her words dripped with fake sweetness.

“Why me?” he shrieked.

“Because Sal’s old, I’m a frightened little girl, and it’s your bar that’s on fire.  Now go!”  She pushed him into the street and he sprinted off into the night.  She smiled a smile that was uncomfortably wide and said softly, “Besides, Sal and I need to have a little chat.”

She turned around and faced Sal.  Her hand went to her hip and she tapped her foot.  The light from the street poured over her shoulder into the dark alley. All Sal could see was her clearly annoyed outline.

“Do you know how hot it is in hell?  I mean really?  You people think that this summer heat wave is hot, but where I used to work, now that was hot!”

Sal looked at her outline and couldn’t comprehend what he was hearing.  “Wha… HUH?”

“Oh, come on, Sal.”  She spoke sweetly but he could now see her spark-filled eyes in the dark, recessed shadow of her head. “You don’t think I’d go through all of this trouble just for a commission, do you?  You see, you are my ticket to a job working on the earth.  There are certain… fringe benefits… that I really like about working here.  The weather is just the beginning.”

She began to walk slowly towards Sal.  He could see the outline of her legs beneath her skirt suit.  They walked toward him in a smooth, sexy fashion, one leg slightly crossing the other.  But when her feet hit the pavement there was a crunching sound.  It was as if the pavement was complaining about having to support her.  Her smile, which was always a little freaky, now stretched to the very bottoms of her ears and her teeth shot sparks at each other.

“You!  You are the monster from the bar!” Sal started to back away from the woman who seemed to grow taller and less human with each passing step.

“Duh!”  Her voice now had a hint of the feedback-scream. “You really aren’t that smart, Sal. But since you brilliantly figured that out, I’m going to give you one last chance.”

Dee Dee’s right hand stretched out, becoming huge and metallic with sparks arcing between the fingers.  Her thin arms became long flexible.  The hand grew as it came toward him, fingers stretching out like knives. It snatched him up off the ground. “Take the job.  Any job. I really don’t care.” The hand made a cage around him and dragged him close.  “I’ll pay you a ridiculous amount of money.  I’ll send your kids to college.  Hell, I’ll even suck your putrid dick. Just take the job.  It really does mean quite a lot to me, Sal.”

His thin hair stood on end and he cried out in terror. “Ah!  Ah!  So, what if I still don’t take the job?”

“Well, that’s easy.”  Her huge mouth curled at the ends in a perversion of a smile. “Do that and I go back to plan ‘A’ and kill you.  Not as advantageous, I’ll admit, but it will make me feel better about going back home.”

Her spark-filled eyes gleamed as she held him above the ground in a strong, vice-like grasp.  She opened her mouth wide and he screamed “Oh God!”

“Not quite.  The boy-scouts stay out of our little game.”  It was a new voice, a man with the hint of a smile under his voice.  Dark red smoke filled the alley.  One rope of smoke formed around the arm that held Sal.  As he watched, it became a pair of sheers which closed and severed the hand that held him.  An inhuman scream erupted from Dee Dee as she turned around to try to find the source of this attack.

Sal dropped to the ground, still in the hand’s unyielding grasp. He kicked at the metallic fingers. They wouldn’t budge, but they no longer squeezed or sparked.  Whatever happened next, he was helpless to do anything but watch.

Dee Dee twirled around as the smoke quickly gathered in one place.  She shrank down to her human form as sparks re-grew her missing hand.  Clutching her wounded forearm, she looked at the man who formed from the billow of red smoke.  His suit was impeccable, and though it was a dark night, he wore yellow-reflective sunglasses.  With his blood red suit, black shit and black tie, he looked like a pimp or a rock star.

The wounded woman looked at him.  “Fuck!  You know how much that hurts, you dick?”

“Dee Dee!  Is that any way to talk to your Boss?  And here I thought we were becoming friends!”

“Friends, my ass!  You stuck me with a self-righteous loser that doesn’t want to work for shit.”

“So, you attack him?” He clasped his hands in front and looked at the ground.  “I suppose you might call that a bargaining technique, but I had asked you not to abuse the clients.  In fact, it’s a dismissible offense.”

Dee Dee snarled. “You won’t do that!  I’ve got the man himself backing me and that trumps your bullshit rules any day.”

He moved around and talked to the air, gesturing with his hands.  “You know, you’re right.  The Big D likes you and he really wants you to fit in and learn the ropes here.  Quite frankly, that is enough to overcome some infractions of the code of conduct.”

Dee Dee’s grin was spark-filled, wild and six inches too long for her face.  “Good, so fuck off!”

The man in the suit walked calmly with his hands clasped behind his back. “On the other hand, your employment was contingent on the successful placement of a certain ‘self-righteous loser’ for a period of five weeks.  And it seems to me that our little test is not exactly going well.”

Her crazy smile started to droop at the corners.  “We were dealing with that when you showed up and fucked it up.  Go back to playing your little games, doomed man.”

“Well, you see, it’s my duty to follow up with our clients and placement employees to gauge their satisfaction.  So, excuse me while I talk to our friend here.”

“What? Wait!”

He quickly became a cloud of smoke and swarmed around Dee Dee.  Re-forming on the other side, he walked over to Sal, still trapped in Dee Dee’s severed hand “Hi!  I’m here to enquire about your satisfaction with our placement services.  Do you have a second, or is this not a good time?”  He smiled a genuine smile which confused Sal all the more.

“What?”  The prone man was wide-eyed in disbelief.

“I’d like to know if you are happy with our placement services.  So, tell me, do you feel that you are in a position where all the elements are in place for you to succeed?”

“Huh?  No!  The job’s a nightmare.” Sal saw Dee Dee approach the man from behind, growing in height, strength and power as she did. He struggled furiously against the constraining, severed metal hand.  “Get me out of here!”

“This is stupid.  I’m being railroaded.” Dee Dee powered up her right hand to swipe at both the struggling Sal and his interrogator.  Her hand came across like a crane boom with talons, but smoke quickly formed around both men and hardened into a curved wall.  Her blow glanced off the wall, throwing her off balance.

The structure dissipated into smoke as quickly as it had formed.  From that smoke, the man in his sharp dark-red suit and tie emerged and walked towards Dee Dee.  She was quickly regaining her composure and was readying for another strike.  He raised his hand.  “That’s enough.”  The smoke rushed at Dee Dee.  She swiped at it with both spark-filled hands but to no avail.  A brick-red crust started to form around her wrists. Once it was thick enough to hold her, it pulled her arms behind her back.

“What the hell do you think you are doing!” She shouted.  Her mouth grew bigger and the sparks that made up her teeth arced out like crazy lightning.  Her voice boomed like thunder.  “LET ME GO!”

With his hand still raised, the man in the suit now pointed a finger and a large, constrictive gag went over her mouth.  He materialized a binder with the Idle Hands logo on the cover and calmly flipped through it as he strolled up to her.  “You see?”  He showed her a page in the book.  “Paragraph 4 of the agreement you signed.  ‘Third party satisfaction surveys are routinely conducted two weeks after an initial placement and every month after.’  You aren’t being railroaded.  It’s in your contract.  Plus, check out paragraph 7.  I can use whatever means necessary to carry out my survey.  You really should have read through the employee handbook instead of just blazing through to the signature page.  Your loss.  So, I’m not going to let you go.  You are interfering with my evaluation.” He snapped the binder closed and it instantly turned into red smoke.  “So, hang out while I finish this satisfaction survey.  Who needs a spell book when you can have an employee handbook?”

Dee Dee glared at him with sparking eyes and fought against her bonds as soon as he turned back to Sal.  “Sorry for the interruption.  So, where were we?  Ah yes. You had problems with your current placement.  Did you bring them up with your Idle Hands representative?”

“Yeah, I called.”  Sal looked down at the now disembodied and immobile, giant, metal hand that held him.  “Hey, can you do something about this?  It’s really uncomfortable.”

“Oh, of course.  How rude of me.”  Smoke swirled around the confining metal cocoon and it slowly relaxed its grip on the middle-aged accountant.  “So, what happened next?”

“What happened next is she tried to kill me.”  Sal dusted himself off and looked at the man.  Fire from the bar lit him from the side, the flams making jumpy patterns on the brick wall behind him.  And those mirrored shades held the flame. “I looked over the jobs she had and I didn’t want any of them.  She lured us out here, got me alone, and threatened to kill me if I didn’t take a job.”

“You know, we have strict rules about that sort of thing.”

Sal shot an angry look at Dee Dee.  The fire dancing off of the shining metal facets of her demonic form.  “I’d hope so.  And why am I not scared?  I should be terrified of you two, but I’m not.”

“Oh, I find I have a calming influence when I get involved in HR matters.  And on that point, are you sure I can’t place you anywhere?  Based upon your experience here at Idle Hands, with Ms. Dee Dee, you are sure you want to sever your relationship here?”

Sal nodded and said, “Absolutely.”  The word carried forever, as if it had broken some sort of spell.

Dee Dee fought wildly against her restraints and finally managed to slip free.  She used this free hand to tear free the gag that held her mouth shut.  “This guy is full of shit.  You set me up!”

“You can think what you want Dee Dee, but he just quit, your contingency came up and now…”  He grinned an evil grin that seemed right at home on his face. “I believe that you are dismissed.”

Dee Dee screamed a feedback scream of utter contempt as she lunged at the two men.  As she attacked, a great burst of hellfire surrounded her.  She continued to reach for Sal even as she burned.  The hellfire yanked her back down to the pit just in time as her lunge stopped just short.   Screaming an awful metallic scream, she was sucked back into hell.

The fire went out in seconds, leaving no trace of ever having been in the alley.  Sal looked at the mysterious man who had saved him and tried to think of something to say.  He finally settled on “Thanks … I think.”

“Don’t mention it.  I’m just doing my job.”

“And what exactly is that?  I have a strong suspicion that I’m not going to remember any of this so you may as well tell me the truth.”  He tried to look the man in the eye but was blocked by his sunglasses.  “I’m right about that, aren’t I?  People don’t just have this kind of thing happen to them and get to tell about it.  You’d have heard.”

“Yeah, Sal, you aren’t going to remember anything odd about me or Dee Dee.  You’ll get paid well … extremely well … for your hours and I’ll make sure there is a bonus in there for you, because…”  He paused and faced Sal.  The man was middle aged, rumpled, and defeated by life, yet he had an air of dignity. He’d never given in to the struggle.  “Because I like you, Sal.  I deal with people all day … and they are assholes.  They just suck, but you … you have done me a favor by just giving a damn and being a good guy.  If I have one true gift of my own it’s to be able to size a guy up and know what he’s good for.  I saw you and knew you’d be able to do this for me because you are fundamentally decent.  And while you were doing that, I have done you an insulting disservice.  Think of the bonus as my way of saying sorry, you deserve better.”

“Well, that’s kind of you.  Thanks again. Money isn’t everything, but it does buy some nice stuff.”

The man chuckled behind his glasses.  “Yes, it does.”

“But I’m troubled.  You seem nice and all to me, but the things you are doing… you and that… whatever that was … They aren’t very nice, are they?” They walked out of the alley and into the stuffy night.  Mitch’s bar was now fully on fire and the two could see him wandering around outside.

“I’d like to say you don’t have the right of it.  But, you see, we didn’t come up with the postings.”

Sal stopped walking, which made the man stop as well.  “But you fill them.”

The fire from the bar lit the man’s face and glinted in his yellow-mirrored sunglasses.  “Sal, the world is a place that is filled with horrible consequences and even worse random shit-storms.  You didn’t deserve unemployment.  That Barron shit kid doesn’t deserve to fuck supermodels.  And no one deserves to be on the receiving end of a screwing, but life is risk.  That foreclosure job?  How do you know those people reached for the ring and came up short?  Actions, consequences, free will.  For instance, no one is forced to work at Idle Hands, not even me.”

“Or me.  This… I’m probably still in shock, to be this calm …”  A throaty woosh came from the bar as something inside of it gave way.  “… but really, I just want to forget all of this.”

“Yeah.  I can do that for you.  Kinda have to.”  The man avoided Sal’s gaze. “Hope you don’t mind.”

“But how do I know that I’m now done, that you won’t test me again or use me as a pawn?  Can I get your assurance that I’ll never be messed with by you or your people again?  Can you give me that?”

The man smiled.  “I give you my word and my promise.”  He raised his hand and said “We are done.”  A small puff of smoke blew out of both of Sal’s ears.  He stared blankly for a while and turned to help Mitch, having forgotten all about his dealings with Idle Hands.

“And Heaven forbid, Sal, that I would ever tell a lie!”  He chuckled, and in the street the echo of his laughter lingered.  The haunting sound stewed in the sweltering heat of the summer night, becoming one with the sound of the burning bar and the approaching sirens.  Real flames now poured out of the broken windows. And the man in the red suit, slowly turning to smoke, joined with them and drifted away.

[Author’s final note:  Sorry for leaving you hanging over the weekend.  I’m still not sure about the final edit on the last bit, but either I left it alone for a week or shoved it out on stage now with cue cards.  Hope it’s not too hackneyed.

And here again I’ll ask you for likes, to tell your friends and random people on the street about the story and the site.  Also, if you like Idle Hands, Maybe you’d like my main ongoing, “The Strange” which has a much slower burn than this, but is starting to tighten the screws.  I’m not advertizing and my social media ability is kinda crap, so word of mouth would be absolutely huge for me and help me justify continuing to write stories for you all.  I love to do it, but it is a bunch of work.  Please help me out if you can.  More than enough said.

Stay Weird.  More Strange coming this week.

-SC]

 

 

 

Idle Hands – Episode 3 –The New Girl – Part 2

[Author’s note: This is part 2 of 3 and will make not a whole lot of sense without part 1 which is here.]

The next morning Dee Dee slipped from behind a street lamppost in the middle of the town’s central park.  The grass was well watered but suffering under the summer’s heat.  The gray paving stones of the park’s walkways radiated heat back at the demon woman as she walked.  To her it seemed like a fine spring day but the people in the park were wilting under the heat and humidity.  In her pinstriped skirt-suit she stalked seductively through the park looking for her new boss.

“You are late.”  From the bench she just passed, the man in a sharp, red suit took a drink of coffee from a red ceramic mug.  The logo for Idle Hands, Inc. smiled from the side as he took a drink.

She smiled as sweet as she could, through the rough lines on her youthful looking face.  “Good morning to you too.  I was, um…”

“Sun glasses.  You should wear sun glasses, especially on the surface.”  He produced a pair of Ray Bans from a cloud of red smoke and tossed them to her. “Makes you look cool.  People like that.”

“I’m sorry,” She flipped the sunglasses back. “I already look cool, thanks.”

“No you don’t.  You look bitchy.  There’s a difference.  There’s cool, and then there’s frigid.”

“Excuse me?”

He put up his hands as an illustration.  “You are giving off two different vibes here.  One of them is ‘fuck me’ and the other is ‘I’m going to kick your ass.’  Combined, it comes out to looking bitchy.”

He stood up and his mug disappeared in another puff of red smoke.  “Let me help you out with something.  You may have been the big D’s pick for this position, but you are still my employee, and that makes me your boss.  You think that D gave you the run of the place, but you are wrong.  Use the glasses.”  She looked surprised that he was talking to her that way.  “Besides, you say way too much with your eyes.  You want to keep that you’re going to tell the big man that I’m mean to you a secret?  Use the glasses.”

She snatched back the sunglasses, put them on and said, “Yes sir!”

He looked at her and smirked “And don’t be smart.  Take a good look around.  The downtown’s screwed from unemployment.  A veritable playground.  See anyone you like?”

She looked at the men with newspapers and pens, some with briefcases in suits.  Pointing at a particularly rough looking young man, drinking from a tall boy beer, she said, “How about that guy?”

“Nah, He’s given up already.”

“Yeah, you’re right.  Taking that guy is a waste of time.  He’s already on his way to hell.”

He looked at her and raised an eyebrow.  “You still don’t understand the plan, do you?”

“I understand fine, I just think the plan is a little ‘pussy’ is all.  I mean, look at these fuckers.  You telling me any of them are good for shit?”

The man stroked his goatee, raised a finger, and pointed at the sour looking young woman.  “Hmm, well understand this.  We need workers, not slackers.  No matter how inherently evil, a slacker makes no impression on the world.  We want people to work to further the cause of misery, because through human suffering, comes human temptation.  It all has to fall out of free will.  People choose to give each other a hard time, leading to more and more desperate circumstances.  Eventually even good people turn to evil of their own free will.  It’s a domino effect, with each domino getting bigger.  And it’s working.  The big D must think so or else you wouldn’t be here.”

“Fine, we play it your way,” she added a snide, “Sir!  But I’d much rather be making some of these bastards’ nightmares come true.”

He quietly said, “This is a placement agency, not a dating service.  You can work on your love life in your own time.”

“What?”

“You heard me.  So, you got anyone you like?”

“No, they all look like desperate losers.”

“Well maybe we can take a break and see if you can score some dates instead.”

She turned on her heel and put a hand on her hip.

Ignoring her poisonous stare, he said, “Come on, I think I have your challenge.”

🙂 😦 😉

 

“God, it’s hot.”  Sal slumped into the shady park bench.  The humid breeze reminded Sal of an open oven from which there was no relief.

The truth was he had seen many of the places that were hiring already.  Every one of them had said that they would keep his resume on file, in case something showed up.

He looked around at the buildings that ringed the park and imagined his resume residing in dozens of offices, just waiting to be hooked up with a job.  “Something is bound to happen,” he mumbled.

From a place beyond the vision of mortal eyes, Dee Dee and her new boss looked at Sal.  “Him?  That old fart is my test? And what is he, like, Fifty-two?  And he’s going to heaven, so far.”

He nodded.  “Yeah, and he still might, even if he keeps one of our jobs.  It’s a strange system, getting into heaven and it’s not even our concern.  We’re spreading woe through the abstract layer of the system, not singling out our workers for damnation.”

“Yeah, but…”

He cut her off.  “Look, I thought you were the people person and the crafty manipulator.  You think this guy can beat you?  I need to give you a challenge, not just a hall-pass to torment the living.”  He waived off the thought. “You get this guy one of our jobs and keep him there? You’re in.  If not, well…”

“How long?” Dee Dee looked at her hand.  It dissolved in a shower of sparks and twisting metal until it became a cell phone attached to her wrist.

“Month.  Five weeks to be exact.”

She snarled with more venom than should be possible with her girlish human face and tiny frame.  “Fine!  Save your reverse psychology bullshit.  Not only am I going to get this guy working for us, I’ll damn his soul too.”  She pressed a button and Sal’s cell phone beeped.

“Hello?”

“Hi, this is Dee Dee from the Idle Hands employment agency.  We ran across your resume and would like to speak to you about a position we have opening up at Barron Brothers Holdings.  Do you have a moment?”

Sal looked around the park, cupping his hand to the phone.  Dee Dee watched him from her invisible vantage point.

“I guess I can take a moment.  One thing though.  What’s the pay rate?”

The small woman smiled a smile that was too wide for her face and she said, “I’m sure something can be arranged.”

🙂 😦 😉

 

Shelly came through the still un-repaired hole in the office wall and sat in a chair.  “She’s a total nightmare.”

Without taking his sunglasses up from the paper he was reading, the man behind the desk nodded. “I know”

“She’s totally botched my filing system and is an utter bitch!”

“I know”

“Did you know that she has been dating topsiders to death for sport?  Not to mention that she keeps leaving us with the bill at happy hour.”

The man looked up.  “That’s actually kind of funny.”

“Not on what you pay us it’s not.  She’s prancing around here like she runs the place.”

“I run the place.”

“Not for long and at this rate there won’t be anything left to run.  You’ve got to wonder what the Big D was thinking, sending her here.”

At that, he stopped and put down the paper.  “Ah yes, the Duke of Deceit.  I tell him we’re growing and need some help and he sends me someone to help force me out and no doubt send me back to eternal torment.”

He kicked back in his desk chair and laced his fingers.  “One thing I learned while wandering in hell’s endless desert is that a fervent devotion to deception, lying and chaos tends to make a being predictable, if you are organized and observant of its behavior.”

Shelly flipped her hand and a bit of blood oozed over her palm.  She mentally pulled it back in. “Moot point if you are sent down.  My afterlife is going to suck.”

Leaning forward, the man smiled under his sunglasses.  “Now shelly, would I make your hereafter a living hell?”

Her face brightened. “You have a plan?”

“I have better than a plan.  I have a man.”

🙂 😦 😉

 

Papers shuffled in nervous hands as Sal prepared for his first meeting at Barron Brothers Holdings.  It had taken three weeks to draw up detailed prospectus sheets on the two companies the firm was looking into and he was happy to find two solid companies.

He walked into the meeting room five minutes early to find people he didn’t know joking and talking.  “I’m sorry, I’m here for the ten o’clock meeting for Foster Inc. and Stewart Manufacturing.  Is this it?”

“Yes!  You must be Sal.”  The young man in a well pressed shirt offered his hand, but did not stand.  “I’m Duncan Barron.  Bill told me you have been going over the Foster and Stewart records with a microscope.  I appreciate the attention to detail.  But can you nutshell it for me?”

“Well, they both are medium manufacturing outfits with reasonable profit margins.  They are solid corporate citizens and both are in reasonable shape with no hidden bombs on the books…”

The smirking young man put up his hand.  “Just tell me, where’s the fat?”

“Excuse me?”  Sal still hadn’t sat down and everyone who had been in the meeting room were now looking at him with half smiles.

“Is there anything in these companies that is doing worse than other pieces?  Less profitable?”

“Well, the Medical Products Division of Foster has operated at a loss for the last two years, weighed down by R&D spending, but is working on a promising new material.  And Stewart’s Auto Parts Section has been hit hard by changes in the auto industry.”

“Ah, well, there you go.  We buy these companies, close down the crappy divisions and sell them off when their stock prices jump up.  Three years, max, make our money back tenfold and wash our hands of the whole thing.”

“But the R&D is what gave Foster the growth in the other sectors, and Stewart has a very good plan to modernize …”

“That’s great and all, but in the now, the companies are weak and our plan is a solid win for our shareholders.”

“But there are four thousand people working in those divisions!”

The room went quiet.  Everyone looked nervously at the seated young man in the crisp shirt and the standing older man in his rumpled brown suit.

The young man smiled. “Well they weren’t working hard enough to be profitable, now were they?  Maybe we can find someone who will want to buy them, but that’s not my concern.”

“Not our concern?  What do those four thousand people do?”

“Look for jobs.”  The room erupted in laughter.  “You are new, so here’s the deal.  It’s all about the quick flip here.  My only concern is to put lipstick on these pigs, make them all sexy looking and sell them to the highest bidder.  If I lop off a few limbs from them, fine.  Thanks for the reports, Sal.  I appreciate the quick turn around.”

The tall blonde man took the two binders from Sal and left him standing in the conference room.  He had the rude impression that he was being dismissed in all possible ways.

Sal looked around the room for a moment and couldn’t believe the apathy of the collected executives.  He turned on his heel and walked out of the meeting room.  As he walked, he could hear the room once again erupt in laughter and understood that he was probably the butt of the joke.

🙂 😦 😉

 

The rhythmic pumping under the railroad overpass came to a climactic stop.  In the pale blue light of an almost full moon, a large man rolled over and revealed a much smaller woman pulling down her miniskirt.  They laid side by side on the railroad tracks, using the hard steel as a pillow.  The smell of cheap happy hour drinks and sweat floated around the pair.

“Wow, you sure are a special kind of woman!”

“You know it, babe.”  She lit a cigarette with a spark from the tip of her finger and straightened her blonde bob cut wig.  “They don’t make them like you every day, either.”  Though there was a bit of sarcasm in her voice, he was much too drunk to hear it.  “It’s been so long for me, Stud.”

He had a goofy grin on his face, which increased the magnitude of his dough-like double chin. “I tell you what, this is the wildest thing I’ve done in … forever.”  He looked over at her, still grinning. “I mean it.  You really are something special.  I’ve got to get your number.”

She smiled a grin that was just ever so slightly wider than it should be.  “Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be sure to stop by so we can relive this night forever.”

“You mean it?”

“Sure I do.  Now lean over here.  I’ve got something to tell you.”  He leaned over onto his elbow and she cuddled up close to his ear.  She sweetly breathed into his ear, “train” and dissolved into a shocking mass of writhing metal that escaped under the oncoming locomotive.

The train passed in a loud, hot rush.  Squealing wheels trampled and crushed the lecherous drunk into man-cobbler.  Minutes passed as the train spread the gore for the better part of a mile before obliviously sliding around the bend and back into the night.

A shower of blue sparks and silver wire coalesced into the form of the woman wearing the blonde wig.  She stood looking at the tracks and watched the last remains of the lecher’s soul slip slowly down into the earth.

Her smile was just slightly too wide, as she said “Oh, we definitely will have to do this again.  But next time, I’ll be on top.”

A few Yards away, a door opened in a solid concrete wall, revealing a bland office corridor.  A man in a dark suit, colored black by the pale blue of the moonlight, came through the door.  She only barely acknowledged the man as she took off the blonde wig.  Her straight black hair, now free, fell to the middle of her back.

“Do you think this wig makes me look bitchy?”

“Uh, No.  It’s not the wig that makes you look bitchy.”

She looked over her shoulder with her hand on her hip.  “I suppose you are here to chastise my choice of dating activities.”

He put his hands up in the air as if in mock surrender.  “Hey, what you do on your own time is none of my business.  Just don’t drag it into the office.  Actually you have someone on hold, waiting for you at your desk.”

“Oh really?”  She smirked.  “They must be important for you to make a new door.  So who is it?”

He smiled. “It’s Sal.”

Her face went white and her smile disappeared as she ran through the door in the concrete slab.  The limbo workers were knocked off their feet by Dee Dee as she passed at a full sprint.  She threw herself into her office.  Straightening her skirt and putting her headset in her ear, she slammed at the phone to get Sal’s call.

“Hi Sal!”  She greeted him with a fake smile and saccharine sweetness in her voice.  “What can I do for you?”

Her face became white, then angry and finally started to crack while listening to the man ramble.  “So, Barron Brothers isn’t what you expected?”  She listened. “It’s really so bad you can’t work it out?  I mean…”  White hot sparks came from the small fissures, metal wires started to snake from the cracks and wind around her face, both binding and breaking.  “Sure, sure.  I understand.  Listen, um, can I possibly meet you somewhere where we can talk about this?  You know, I’d like to be your friend in this.  Maybe you just had a bad day or…”

She continued to nod and reveal more of her monstrous true appearance as a blank-eyed, limbo-bound soul came in carrying some paperwork.  “Sure, Sal, that sounds great.  I know that bar.  It really means a lot to me to see an – uh – upstanding man like yourself up and working.  So, let’s see if we can’t work this out.”  Her face was twisted in a demonic mask of metal wires, spikes and sparks as the last remains of her perky voice chirped “Ok!  See you there!  Bye!”

The man carrying the paperwork said in a limp voice, “Shelly wanted to make sure you filled out all the proper forms for Sal’s change in job status.  She’s a real stickler for that kind of thing.”

Dee Dee suddenly grew a mouth larger across than her desk and lunged at the man.  His eyes bolted wide with panic as she bit his head off with one sadistic “Chomp!”

🙂 😦 😉

Idle Hands – Episode 3 –The New Girl – Part 3

[Another Author’s Note: This is part 2.  Things get a touch nastier here, so … uh … hi mom! 🙂  Part 3 is coming up soon.

I’m still trying to figure out if I’m going Crabtree, Idle Hands or something else after I’m done with “The Strange” so if you like this, please hit the like button or if you have a comment, I’m up for those too.  By the way, “The Strange” is about to get a lot nastier too, so maybe, check that out?  Thanks.

And please spread the word!  I’m trying not to be a self-aggrandizing and pushy bore to people, but it’s tough to let potential readers know that any of this stuff is here.  I’m not advertising so any word of mouth is extremely helpful to me.

Thanks for reading and Stay Weird

-SC]

Idle Hands – Episode 3 –The New Girl – Part 1

Hell, it seemed, had turned its eye toward the city and was slowly turning up the heat.  Yellow and red beams of light tangled with the humidity, becoming solid outside Patty’s bar.  Each red and yellow facet of stained-glass created its own flame, pouring fire out into the sweltering heat of the mid-summer night.

Out of the haze walked an older woman, her graying blonde hair curled by the humidity and heat. She opened the door to the bar and instead of finding the heart of an oven, she found cool relief.  This was not the furnace, it was a respite.  The furnace was the rest of the world.

Though she went up to the bartender, her eyes never left the lone man with a marked up classified section sticking out of his pocket.  “How’s our boy, Mitch?”

The middle-aged man in the rumpled, brown suit stared at his drink.  He looked through the ice cubes, moving them in the glass, making them chase each other around the bottom.

Mitch looked at him with a face of tentative, positive appraisal.  “He ain’t bad, considering.”

“Is he drunk?”

“Nope, just quiet.  He’s been looking at that same drink since I called you.  Seems he ain’t here to be cheered up as much as he don’t wanta feel down no more.  What he’s looking for is in that newspaper, not in that glass.”

The blonde shook her head.  “Sal had a big interview today.  I’m guessing it didn’t go so great.”

“Oh shit, Marcy, I’m sorry to hear that.  How are you all holding up?”

“We’re doing ok.  Got savings.  It’s just hard on him.”  She sighed.  “I better go.  Thanks for being a sweetie.”

“Hey, no problem.”

As the pretty, older blonde walked down the bar, Sal looked sideways at her.

As they watched, Sal seemed to be in a trance.  He stared into the half empty drink glass, at the ice cubes and he started to talk.  It was detached,  as if he weren’t really there.

“I’d be happy to just live up to the life you have given me, Marcy.  But without a job, I can’t pay my way.  I’m not living up to my promise to you, and I’m not living up to the promise I made to myself to do something worthwhile.  My skills aren’t that much, but they come from a life worth of study, and they can make things better for people.  No one wants them.”  He shook his head.  “I just want to be needed again.”

Stroking his shoulder, she said, “I need you, sweetie.  Come on, let’s go home.  Tomorrow’s another day.”

He nodded and absently slid from his bar stool.  He nodded to Mitch.

“Yeah.  See you, Sal.  You take it easy, big guy.”  He watched them go into the hot and muggy night.

🙂 😦 😉

A knock came at the office door and a young woman with a blonde pageboy haircut stuck her head in.  “You’ve got a guest here, boss.  He says he’s interviewing here?”

The man behind the office’s lone desk looked at his watch and said, “Yeah.  It’s a transfer request straight from the big D himself.  Send him in.  Oh, and Shelly,” he added, adjusting his reflective sunglasses, “What do you think of the guy?”

“What do I think?”  She snuck in the door and closed it.  Her slight frame seemed impossibly fragile, yet somehow more feminine than girlish.  “Well, he was kind of a dick to me when he came in, all bossy and ominous.  He lightened up a little after I got him a soda, though.”

“Not the good stuff.”

“Grocery store brand.  Put it in a cup so he wouldn’t bitch.”

“That’s my girl.”  He grinned, stroking his black goatee.  “So in other words, you’d do him.”

She nodded.  “Totally, but I think I’d rather slash my wrists than work for him.”  The tall blonde raised her forearms and giggled, showing long, deep razorblade slashes as she backed through the office door.  “So, you want him now?”

“Sure, send him in,” the man said with a wave.  The blonde girl disappeared and from the hallway he heard a loud thumping sound.  He tugged on his red suit jacket and smoothed his shiny black tie over his even blacker shirt.

Suddenly, the door, frame and all, ripped free of its place on the wall, with a sickening, tearing sound.  Through the hole strode a creature made of metal, wire and blue sparks.  It seemed to be in a constant state of unnatural motion as its arms and legs didn’t seem to keep their length or shape for very long.  The face was a rough sketch made of wire and metal plates, webbed over by constantly changing sparks.  A wicked smile that was much too large for the face grew even larger, showed the sparks that it used for teeth, then said in a voice that sounded like feedback and static, “I’m here to inquire about the job.”

The man wiped dust off of the sleeves of his suit coat and blew the dust off of the desk.  “Yes.  You must be Demon-go.” His hand darted out as he stood and smiled.  Behind the creature, plaster continued to fall. The limbo-bound souls who shuffled paperwork in the office couldn’t help but stare in amazement at the new opening the creature had just made.

“Actually sir, it’s pronounced Dee-MON-go.  Emphasis on the ‘MON.’”

Tipping his finger against his forehead, the man said, “Of course.  Well, are you ready to begin?”

“Sure.  Do you have a copy of my resume?”

“Yes, they sent me an email, and it’s printed…”

The ghastly sparking creature threw a stack of three papers on the desk. “Here you go.  This one has all my formatting and I printed it on some nice paper.”

Picking up the pages, the man felt the weight of them.  “Oh, this is nice paper!  So,” he looked at the resume, “Demongo, I see you have been in the Seriously Fucked Up Sins Department for the past millennium.  What exactly did you do there?”

“Well, I was sodomizing pedophiles,” the thing screeched out.

“Ah,” the man said, lacing his fingers.  “And why do you wish to leave your current position?”

The thing tilted his head and had a hard time looking into the man’s red and yellow sunglasses.  “Well, it was a great job in the beginning.  I started out really strong as a new guy and continued to refine my technique as I was promoted.  But for the last couple decades, I’ve hit a plateau with that kind of work.”

“Understandable.  Even the best of jobs can get old after a while.  I understand you had a lot of client interface in that job, talk to me about that.”

“Well, yeah.”  It smiled and the grin grew even further past the confines of where its face should be.  “It was usually like them saying ‘No!  Not again!’ And after a while I had to really work with them to get that nice scream of total despair out of them.  I mean, after being down there for a while, the clients kind of need some special attention every once in a while, just to keep things fresh for them.  I always gave that extra mile for the clients.”  A large spark shot from its large right eye and hit the curled up end of its humongous metallic smile.  “I like to think of myself as a people person.”

“Well good!”  The man in the red suit continued to read.  “And before that, you were in the Mischief making department.  You got to go out onto the earth and spread misfortune.”

“Ah yes.  I liked that job.  The pay was lousy but I really liked my co-workers.  And my boss, Mr. Woe, he was a right hellion.  Happy hours were a real scream!”

“I bet.  So, you think you can do this?  We place people in jobs here and the jobs are carefully selected to cause mischief.  Do you think you can be both friend and tormentor to these people?  It takes someone special to pull off this job.  It’s a blend of psychology, sweetness and force.”

“I hear that you are the best so I’m sure you will be able to teach me.  But yes, I feel comfortable lying to these fresh souls.”

“Well it’s not really about lying, more about a careful presentation.”  The man looked at the thing while resting back in his chair.  “And I almost forgot.  We do have a dress code here: ‘Business Casual.’  And you generally need to conform to a human appearance.  We’re all former earth souls here and it’s become customary.  Is that a problem for you?  It’s a bit of a lifestyle change, I understand.”

“I’m sorry.  No one mentioned it.  No, no problem at all.  I’ll change now, if you don’t mind.”

The man waved his hand.  “There’s a bathroom right across the hall if you want some…”  The thing had already sprung across the hall and ripped the door off of the woman’s room, eliciting a shriek from inside. “…privacy.”

He could see across the hall that the creature shrank so it could fit in the stall.  A hail of blue sparks shot around the bathroom as the creature assumed a human appearance.  Out of the stall came a small woman with straight black hair, and straight cut bangs.  Her small bust was further hidden by the pinstriped skirt suit.

She walked back into the office and asked, “Is this ok with the dress code?”

“Yes.”  His surprise was evident through his glasses, though he was more amused than shocked. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve a few more questions.”

“Sure.”

“Well, I was wondering what kind of job you would like, under ideal circumstances.”

“You know, I’ve always wanted a job like this.  From what the big man tells me, it’s really about getting the earthly people to be wicked by employing them in select jobs and then send their tainted souls down here.”  She motioned to her resume.  “If I could be permitted to sell myself, I have the requisite skills and have always risen to the top in the positions I’ve held.  In mischief making, I was always very crafty at tricking people into ill will, or putting them in a frame of mind to sin.  Of course, in my last job, I had to fill some time in the nightmare section.  We did a lot of hunting there, and I really like the feeling of giving someone a good, bloody death.”

The man sat back in his chair and put his index fingers to his mouth.  “You know, that’s very interesting.  So, would you describe yourself as sadistic?”

“Oh, sure!  I’m a total sociopath, and I always take great pleasure in coming up with new and interesting ways to kill.”  Her girlish face showed a trace of her former wild unconstrained smile as she talked.  “I can’t wait for the opportunity to go after fresh meat on the surface, though.”  She practically purred. “I hear that they have particularly lovely screams.”

He leafed through the resume, scowling.  “Yes, I can see you are a very talented tormenter, and you do come highly recommended.  Well now, the challenge for me is to see if I can put you to the best possible use.”  He snapped the resume on the table.  “So, do you have any questions for me?”

“Well, I understand that the staff here is almost entirely former tormented souls that got out of their respective torture by agreeing to work with us.”

“Something like that.  In fact, all of our recruiters are former ‘top-siders’ like myself. But you would be our first full demon working here.  I hope that won’t be a problem.  The Big D wants us to have a more diverse workforce.”

“I’d have no problems working with you blackened souls.  I’m sure we can all get along.”

“While we’re on the subject of diversity, I want to mention that we’ve also just added a bunch of souls from limbo for our routine office work.  They are boring guys, but they keep the place running smoothly.”

“Really?  How does that work?”

“Well, if we don’t have them doing any actively evil work, they can be used for organizing duties.  Gives them something to do and helps Shelly out a ton!  We call them a ‘soft asset.’  So, before we wrap up the interview, is there anything else?”

She put on a fake smile that, again, was a touch too wide for her human face. “Actually, I’m a little confused.  The big man was talking to me like I’d already gotten the position and talking to you was kind of a formality.”

He smiled.  “As I said, you came highly recommended.  If you’d like, you can wait in the lobby.  I need to make a phone call.”  He got up out of his chair and extended his hand.

“Uh, Ok.”  She got up and shook his hand and made her way out through the hole in the wall.

He called after her.  “Um, could you…?”

He made a motion to the hole and she said, “Oops, Right.”  For someone so small and slight she displayed every bit of her previous strength by lifting the large slab of wall and fitting it into place as best she could.

The man looked at what used to be his office door and shook his head.  Picking up the receiver, he hit the first speed dial and was almost instantly connected.  “Yes, is this Nancy?  Hi!  Nice to talk to you again.  I was wondering if I could talk to the big D, please.  Is he busy?”

He leaned back in his chair and smiled.  “Thanks, Nancy.  Oh, and before I forget, thanks for the fast work on those reports.”  He nodded.  “Yes, I’ve got my staff poring over them as we speak.  I really appreciate it.  You run a tight ship there. Oh, and before I forget, those souls we got from limbo are a really great addition to my clerical staff.  They are fantastic office drones.  …  He’s free now?  Ok.  Of course, I’ll hold.”

He sat up in his chair and said, “Hello, Sir. …Yes, this is about the applicant you sent over. … Yes, Demongo.  … I agree, Sir. A charming girl. … Yes, a real go getter.”  A frown crossed his face as he listened.  “I understand that you want more actual Demons in high positions here at Idle Hands, but, … Well, yes.  But that’s the issue, isn’t it?  Since most of us, myself included, used to be surface people, we know how to work with ‘em.”

The phone chatted in his ear.  “Well, I’m glad that you are so interested in our project that you would like to franchise, but it’s really a subtle technique, and I’m afraid that Demongo is too heavy handed and sadistic for the system here.  I’m afraid that I’d like to decline your generous offer to have her on my staff.”

Great gouts of flame poured from the telephone’s earpiece, completely incinerating the man’s face and head.  As soon as the flames died down the man’s eyeballs re-grew out of dark red smoke.  While the rest of his head was coalescing from the same dark smoke, the eyes blinked in astonishment.  With his one hand still holding the telephone receiver, his other created a new set of sunglasses.

Putting the sunglasses over his wide eyes he said, “Sir, I can see your point.  Clearly, I’ve overlooked something in this girl that you cherish.  I’ll give her a shot, but if she doesn’t work out, I want to know that I can get rid of her.  I don’t want to compromise my efficiency by having to handle a problem employee.  I’m sure you can understand the importance of what we are doing here.”

The line was silent for a while then spoke.  The man heard the words and said, “Thank you.  I will set up a test for Demongo right away, so she can get a fair evaluation of her skills and,” he paused slightly at this last word, “temperament.”

He smiled and stroked his goatee.  “Yes sir, she will start in the morning.”

🙂 😦 😉

Idle Hands – Episode 3 –The New Girl – Part 2

[Author’s note: This is the second Idle Hands story, though the “episode” numbering is 3.  Long story, If I reorganize this to be a real serial, This bit might even go first.  In any event, I’m cutting it up into three sections just like Crabtree for the sake of convenience.

If this is a story you like, please give me likes on comments.  So far, the serial after The Strange (which is by no means done, is between this, more strange, Crabtree and a couple of other projects I’m working on.  I’d like to know what people like, so I’m asking.  I know my wife likes Idle Hands the best and that’s a strong vote for, but being evil is difficult.  🙂

What’s also difficult is getting the word out.  Please, if you like what you see here, tell a friend, or a stranger, or a friendly stranger or a strange friend.  I’m not advertizing and having days where no one is visiting me but spambots and my mom (hi mom) is a little… Well, it doesn’t help me churn out more words.

Thanks.  That’s it.   Stay Weird.

-SC ]