The Daughters Of Loki
Roger Lord Zeck
The bus is packed, as usual. To Leon, returning to work after his recent vacation, it’s not a means of transportation, it’s a sardine can with wheels. Like those rollercoasters that have height restrictions, this should have a sign — If you are less anorexic than this, you cannot go on this ride. If there’s an accident, though, he’ll be safe enough: all these other people will act like bubble wrap and absorb the impact. It’s a cold British July morning, and the air inside the bus is thick with the scent of underarm deodorant, as if someone has brought along an overactive potpourri for a show and tell presentation.
He shuffles along to make room as much as he can, but finds himself being massaged towards the centre door, the one that passengers alight from. He grabs the overhead rail and tries to stop his progress, but this proves impossible. Then the new intake of passengers have boarded and paid, and the bus is in motion again. He has read somewhere that in Japan, men are paid to push people into underground train carriages. He shudders to think what it would be like in such a compartment if there were some sort of breakdown in the middle of a tunnel. A power failure, for example? Would people get claustrophobic, and go crazy?
His beard is itching, as if an ant were crawling over his cheek, but his free hand is jammed at his side, and he doesn’t want to let go of the overhead rail with his left. In hotter countries, it must be a nightmare travelling in these conditions, he thinks, because flies just land on you and walk around your face like it was a public park. He’d hate that. It would make him feel disgusting.
He goes over what he is going to say during his presentation, but his mind wanders back to the bus. If it did have a sign like that, about being under a certain weight, it would be the complete opposite of airlines, he muses, because they are very strict about how much luggage you have, but you can be a sumo wrestler and you’ll pay exactly the same for a ticket as if you are a ballerina. How can that be fair or just? On his recent holiday, he had to pay almost thirty dollars to the airline because his baggage was just one kilo–a stinking two point two pounds–over their hardly-generous allowance. How were you supposed to bring home gifts and souvenirs and smuggle in an extra couple of bottles of rum from the Dominican Republic with only twenty miserable kilos baggage allowance? Hell, his suitcase weighed eight kilos. He knows, because he weighed it once he emptied it back home. On the bathroom scales, and we all know they never lie, he thinks, and chuckles to himself. Shouldn’t it be your case and twenty kilos extra? Where was the fairness to people investing in sturdy cases which prevented damage to the contents, and thus lessened claims for damages against the airlines themselves? In the end, the airlines were the winners. Wasn’t it time to give some of that back? And meanwhile, people in the queue in front of him had paid exactly the same for their ticket as he had, even though they were clearly several belt sizes bigger than him. And he would be the first to admit to the beam in his own eye on that score, what with having a sweet tooth and liking cheesecake and such.
He wonders how much of the extra weight had been down to that spider he found in his dirty laundry when he unpacked. It was huge, he recollects, about the size of his hand. And scarlet! He’s tried to find information on what species it was, but couldn’t locate anything on the Internet. He speculates how it got into his laundry, or rather, why. The smell alone should have been a deterrent. Perhaps it was looking for somewhere to build a nest and lay eggs.
When he saw it, Leon froze. Fortunately, it simply scurried away into his kitchen, and he hasn’t seen it in the intervening two days. It’s probably hiding under the sink unit, and devouring cockroaches for me, he thinks.
Then it happens. The bus slides into deceleration, the brakes make a sound like two gargantuan metal wheels, something from a Conan the Barbarian movie, grinding together–in his minds eye, he can see the orange sparks flying off in all directions like startled fireflies–then judders to a halt, pitching everyone forward. Cell phones clatter to the floor and someone loses their sunglasses, amid supplications and swearwords. The front and centre doors hiss open, and as people are filing onto the bus, he finds himself carried, like a surfer toppled from his board and pummelled by the undertow, towards the exit like a Roman reveller towards the vomitorium. He scrabbles, but his fingers are wrested from the rail. ‘My bag!’ he cries, and then he is outside, horrified, a potential auditioner for the title pose in the stage adaptation of Edvard Munch’s Scream: The Musical, as the doors blink shut like reptilian gills and the bus, bumping on potholes, seems to scamper away.
His fellow passengers disperse, leaving him to stare and swear. The next bus will arrive thirty minutes from now. He’s going to be late, and his presentation is due first thing. He delves inside his pocket for his cell phone, and realises with horror that it’s missing. One of the phones he heard drop to the floor of the bus was his!
Despite his beard, he feels his cheeks go cold with dread and embarrassment, and suddenly he feels tiny, a mote of dust in the universe’s wind. The impression is reinforced when he looks about him, for he stands at the edge of an ill-maintained road running through what used to be an industrial park. It is in such poor condition, it reminds him of a previous holiday he took, a safari, when he came upon the shedded skin of a snake so large, he wouldn’t want to be within twenty metres of it on a day when it felt hungry.
The skin had disgusted him. The thought that had come to mind was that it was the biggest scab he had ever seen. Up until now, it held the record. Now this road has taken over as holder of that title.
From behind him he hears a voice murmur ‘Is it he?’
He surveys the surrounding buildings, separated by space and desolation so vast they belong in a Terry Gilliam animation, as they swallow up the now ant-like figures of his erstwhile fellow passengers.
‘Not sure,’ someone answers.
‘Oh, great!’ he says.
‘It is he,’ the second voice says.
He wheels round. He is faced by two cheerful-looking women in their fifties, one grey-haired, blue-eyed and florid cheeked, the other peroxide blond, brown-eyed and gaunt. Both are dressed in beige raincoats, despite the warm weather. They are leaning against a chain link fence separating the pavement from what was a car park in the days when the building behind it still functioned as an office, but is now a strip of badly maintained tarmac with weeds poking up through cracks. The women have the hopeful air of charity flag-day collectors, but they do not produce a donation tin.
‘Excuse me, may we have our photo taken with you?’ the grey-haired one asks.
‘Why?’ he asks.
The women look at each other, smile, and the wiry one speaks. ‘You wouldn’t believe us.’
‘Have you got a mobile phone I can borrow?’ he asks.
‘Oh, we don’t believe in mobile phones.’
He decides that, given their age, this is plausible, even in 2011. ‘What about a landline? You work nearby? Maybe there’s a payphone in your lobby?’
The grey haired one smiles cheerfully and nods with gusto. ‘I do believe there is!’ she says, but does not move. Rather, the women continue to stare at him. They do not seem to blink, but he feels this is just him being fooled by his imagination.
After a moment, he said ‘So, can we go there?’
‘May we have our photo taken with you?’ the grey haired one repeats.
Leon frowns. ‘I hate having my photo taken.’
The blonde woman pouts. ‘Please?’
Leon considers. ‘If I agree, we can go to the phone?’
‘Of course, of course!’ the grey haired woman says, and almost starts dancing.
The women crowd on either side of him and the grey-haired one holds a camera aloft, clicks, checks the result, and shows it to Leon. Considering she held the camera at arm’s length, the three of them are surprisingly small in the shot, but what makes Leon’s blood cold is the cloud formations: a bus, a gondola, a megaphone, and a horned man, laughing.
The woman then pockets the device, and they set off toward the gateway in the fence, with their arms looped around his. ‘I am your acolyte Sam,’ she says.
‘I’m your acolyte Max,’ says the wiry one.
‘Acolyte?’ he says, convinced he must have misheard them. ‘Isn’t that a sports drink?’
The women lean forward, exchange a conspiratorial glance like models in a shampoo advert, and laugh.
The building has clearly been abandoned for some time. Some windows are smashed, and the front door is missing.
‘There’s a payphone? Here?’ he asks.
‘Oh yes,’ wiry Max says.
As they cross the threshold, Sam calls ‘We’ve brought him.’
A vinyl-floored, ochre-coloured corridor now presents itself. From a room some way down a voice calls back ‘Oh good!’
‘Where’s the payphone, please?’ he asks.
They turn into the third doorway off the corridor into what looks at first like someone’s den: the ceiling and walls are canopied in mulberry-coloured chiffon, and lights and candles are clustered at various points. The effect is that of being in a tent. Behind a desk, a woman the same age and wearing the same coat as Sam and Max rises to her feet and removes reading glasses to look at him better. She picks up a book from the desk, opens it to a bookmarked page, and compares whatever is on the page with Leon.
‘He was right on time,’ Sam says, and picks a grey hair off her coat sleeve.
‘He said the words?’ the woman asks.
‘Not “my back ogre ate” but close. “My bag oh great.”’
‘We must always allow for a certain playfulness. You’ve met Sam and Max. I’m Liberty. They call me that because they say I’m diabolical!’ She held out her hand and laughed in gusts.
Leon shakes hands and says ‘You have a phone?’
Liberty says ‘Yes, but it’s not connected. We have pigeons, though.’
He doesn’t understand he connection and blinks, then says ‘I have to tell work I’m going to be late. I’m supposed to give a talk this morning about why I’m indispensible to the company. It’s like The Apprentice, and if I screw up, I’m fired. Given the current economic climate, I think you’ll agree that would be a bad idea.’
‘Well, we three are victims of that, too. That’s what brought us here. Daughters of Loki. If you can’t beat them, fuck them, that’s our motto. Talking of which, and of the climate, if I’m right, a hailstorm will begin in forty two seconds.’
‘Daughters of Loki?’
‘God of mischief and practical jokes. We may be unemployed, but we have fun, in the name of art. Flash crowds, that sort of thing.’
A hammering sound comes from outside.
‘Hail!’ Liberty says ‘Right on time! Leon, we have to have sex. Now.’
‘What do you mean? And how do you know my name?’
‘Loki told us!’ She holds up the book. A crayon likeness of his bearded face looks back at him.
Max says ‘And surely you know what sex is?’
‘Yes,’ he says, ‘but we have to? As in must?’
‘Something bad will happen if we don’t,’ says Liberty.
His throat tightens. ‘Like what?’
Liberty loosens her coat, lets it slip away from her naked shoulders to reveal cleavage, a purple and black basque, and fishnet stockings. ‘Trust me,’ she says, ‘you don’t want to find out.’
‘But what about them?’ he says, indicating Sam and Max.
‘Don’t be silly,’ Sam says, and she and Max also divest themselves of their coats, revealing similar outfits to Liberty’s. ‘We’re joining in.’
He experiences a mixture of feelings. ‘Why could this never happen when I was fourteen?’ he mutters.
They surround him, caress him and look into his eyes. Then they steer him over to the coach and begin to kiss and undress him.
‘No!’ he says suddenly, and stands up. ‘I’ve got to get to work.’ He pulls up his trousers and fastens them. ‘Much as I appreciate…’
‘There is no work.’ Liberty sits down and brushes off her knees. ‘Not any more.’
‘If you say so,’ he says, and exits. There is no door to close behind him.
The hailstorm lasts over an hour. He lurks in the lobby, ready to dart out if one of the women appears, but they don’t. When it stops, a rainbow glares admonishment in the July blue, the air is damp, and the hail on the path crunches like gravel when he walks.
The road is a fast-flowing river of water and icy pebbles. He doesn’t wear a watch because the time is displayed on his phone. In consequence, he has no idea of the time. He estimates perhaps an hour and a quarter have passed since his bus ejected him, so he should have only a fifteen-minute wait for a ride.
After five minutes, a coffin-shaped boat, propelled by a man with a pole, makes its way up the street. The man’s head is obscured by a red and white candy stripe ski mask, so only his bulging green eyes and bulbous lips are visible, and an enormous wall clock hangs over his chest, as if he has watched one eighties hip hop video too many. He sings like a Venetian gondolier, although his baritone voice delivers bawdy rugby songs rather than canzione and lieder.
The eyes spot Leon and don’t budge. The gondola glides to a halt in front of him. ‘Get in,’ he says, and smiles. The mask has the effect of making the gondolier’s teeth seem about to leap out and bite him somewhere unpleasant. Leon catches a flash of gold.
‘Where are we going?’
‘You want to go to work?’
‘I’m waiting for the bus, yes.’
‘Buses finished an hour ago. Can’t work in the hail. Moisture gets in the air intake and BAM!’ The Gondolier smashes his right fist, which is gripping the pole, into his open left palm.
Leon’s eyes widen. ‘The bus explodes?’ He is suddenly glad he was ejected from the bus.
‘Everything goes quiet. Engine dies.’ He cocks his head sideways and says the next words as if speaking of pure evil: ‘And this is diesel, mind you. Makes you wonder…’
There is a silence.
‘You getting in or not?’
‘How far is the city centre?’
‘If it’s all the same to you, I’ll walk.’
The gondolier grins and his moist yellow teeth seem like mozzarella cheese sculptures. ‘You’ve got to cross this road sometime.’
‘Then I will do it now!’ Leon makes to step off the pavement.
‘No! No! No!’ The gondolier holds his pole vertical and dips it into the water. It sinks a metre.
‘What happened to the road?’
‘Gets even deeper in the middle. You want to die of the chitter-chats?’
‘No. Ice eels. Carnivores. Strip your flesh from your bones with razor teeth. Slowwwwly.’
‘Are we still in Liverpool?’
The gondolier taps the side of his red and white mask-covered nose. ‘Should have complied with their wishes.’ He nods towards the building Leon sheltered in. ‘You’re to be their main priest and demigod. If the chitter-chats don’t get you first.’
‘Will we pick up other passengers?’ Leon asks. He is thinking that he doesn’t wish to be the only person with this weirdo.
‘Okay. How much?’
‘Inflation. Supply and demand. It’s what the market will bear. Market forces. Economic climate. And most of all, this is Britain, I went to Eton, so bend over and take it.’
‘Oh. Okay.” Leon takes out five pounds from his pocket and hands it to the gondolier, who welcomes him aboard.
Once Leon is seated, the gondolier pushes away into the stream. Leon looks into the sky to see what cloud formations are visible now. All that remains is the megaphone, which has grown in size.
Seconds later, the gondola comes to a halt. ‘You have arrived at your destination. Please check you have all your belongings with you as you leave the gondola, and have a pleasant forward journey,’ the gondolier says.
‘But…all we’ve done is cross the street.’
‘You can make it from here. Just follow the signs, and always take the path more travelled.’
‘Five pounds to go across a street?’
‘Five pounds to avoid the–‘
‘Chitter-chats, I know. Bloody robbery.’ Leon climbs out.
‘See you later,’ the gondolier says.
‘I doubt that.’
‘Oh, the Daughters of Loki aren’t finished with you, my lord. Just make sure you’ve got five pounds.’
The gondola pushes away and is carried rapidly like an ant-bearing leaf on a mountain stream. It turns right about half a kilometre later and disappears.
Leon crunches his way along the footpath as instructed. At one point, he looks back to observe his trail of solid white footprints amongst the millions of miniature ice spheres that lie sparkling on the ground.
He begins to mentally reconstruct his presentation. He is going to tell his audience that he is indispensible to the company because organisations need to prepare for problems that don’t even exist yet, and he is a creative type. That’s the only way they will stay competitive–by being ready with a solution, way ahead of companies that merely react. He is going to use the proactive approach to the Y2K bug as an example, and point to Toyota’s lead in hybrid engine technology, making other car giants look like dinosaurs. While his intention was to start his speech with some statistics from the YouTube video Shift Happens, he is resolved to begin with the words Something Weird Happens Every Day.
He nominally has five minutes, but knows that once he scares them, they will listen longer. He recites his speech many times in his head, refining, pruning and sculpting it. He is oblivious to the fact when he walks past the now abandoned bus he was originally on.
He walks until he can see the tower where he works in the distance.
He is relieved. The words of Liberty sting in his ears ‘Work no longer exists.’ It is good to find she is wrong.
It is then he notices the megaphone cloud shape. It is no cloud, but a peacock-tailed slow-fall meteorite. It is about to hit the building where he works.
He remembers the words of the gondolier, shrugs, turns and begins to retrace his steps to the Daughters of Loki.
Behind him, the meteorite impacts with a roar. He doesn’t look back, and ignores the sound of debris landing behind him as he concentrates on following his footprints.