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BERT MECKLER AND
THE PHONICS OF DOOM
(Dum dah DUM DUM!)
by Stewart Brower
Bert sat nearly motionless, his back against the lightly glowing indigo wall of the drainpipe. Impatiently, he blew his long forelock away from his face, while waiting for Devon to finish reading. Devon was young, blond, great-looking and rich, not to mention thoroughly knowledgeable in things occult. He really pissed Bert off sometimes.
Devon and Bert had formed a kind of partnership, after Bert had managed once to get a priceless package to Devon intact, all the while avoiding being killed by the deadly old dragon Gol-Bothom. Devon took a liking to this punk-courier-Omega, and promised him work. Since then, Bert had made several runs for Devon, and had been well-paid. Todays excursion, then, was one of curiosity and professional courtesy.
Devon finished tracing the lightly glowing pattern on the wall, then closed his book. Bert looked up.
"Well?" he asked.
"It's written in a Altaenian subdialect of Eastern Grimlouche."
"So, is that anything like German?" Bert quipped.
Devon considered his young friend for a moment. "Only in that it predates the Germanic languages by over ten thousand years."
Bert's mouth dropped open. "Shit." He knew these tunnels, "drainpipes" he called them, were old. His Omega granted him the power to access the tunnels and use them for transportation. He figured that the glyphs and etchings which covered the walls must mean something, maybe serve as a clue to who built these extradimensional pipelines in the first place. He had never really considered just how old these things must be.
"So," Bert asked cautiously, "what does it say?"
Devon looked confounded. "I have absolutely no idea."
Bert was amazed. "You can't read it?"
"Took me this long just to figure out what language it was, Bert. With months of exhaustive study, I might be able to make out parts of it."
Bert thought for a second. "Maybe someone else. Do you know anyone who would translate this for us?"
Devon looked sternly at Bert. "There are about four people on this planet who could read this. Two of them would have no interest in helping you at all, the other two would just as soon kill you and take the tunnels for themselves."
"Great," replied the little skatepunk, "which means I'm back to square one."
Devon knealt down beside his young friend. "Bert, can I give you some advice?"
"Whatever is on these walls, it was meant to be protected. Why else hide it where no one but you could get to it, and only because of your Omega? It's bound to be important information, and you are probably the first person in thousands of years to walk these tunnels. Take advantage of that. Learn this language yourself."
Bert looked cautious. "You just said it would take years..."
"For me," Devon interrupted. "I already know about thirty-five different languages, about thirty of those being stone cold dead. It gets to a point where you kind of saturate on dead languages, especially when they bear virtually no resemblance to one another."
He paused. "But you only know a couple of simple modern languages at best, Bert. And frankly, it's not like you have much else to do."
Bert hated the sound of it, but Devon was right. When he wasn't making a run for Devon or for some street louse, he tended to be at his apartment, drinking beer and netsurfing on his roommate's computer, or just vegging in front of the TV and eating Coco Roos, the delicious Coco Puffs knock-off-product-in-a-bag. His life, like so many other college burnout scabs, wasn't much to do or talk about. Just a string of token jobs and timekillers.
But this could be something, he thought. Something good. "How do I get started?"
Devon smiled. "You'll need to do some information gathering. You'll need grimoires, scrolls, lettersanything written in that language to use as a starting point."
"Cool," Bert said, "I'll jump on my roommate's Mac and surf some linguistics pages"
Devon just laughed. "Sorry, Bert, but there's not going to be anything about this language on the Internet. Or in anything published in this century for that matter. Listen, let me do some checking around. I'll find you something."
Bert sighed a little. "Why are you always so nice to me, Devon? What do you want from me?"
Devon's face became a shadow. "I help you so one day you can help me. I have a destination, Bert, and I believe, now more than ever, that these tunnels can take me there. Someday, I'll ask you to repay these favors, and I'll expect you to do so without question."
Bert just looked at Devon like he could care less. "Whatever, man. Sounds like a small price to pay."
Devon stood up quietly. "With magic, no debt is ever small."
After dropping off Devon at his penthouse apartment, Bert returned to his cluttered little apartment. His roommate Ernestine was taking a bath, so Bert snapped her little Mac on. While it was booting up, he poked his head through the bathroom door. "Hey, Ernie!"
"Hiya, Bert," replied the naked woman in the tub.
"Going out tonight?"
She snorted in reply. "Not reallyjust hooking up with Fuzzy and Paula down at the Triangle."
"Is it cool if I set up some stuff on your Mac tonight?" Bert asked.
"S'pose," she shrugged. "But I'm running out of space on the hard drive. You might need to backup some stuff to floppy."
"No problem. I've got some leftover AOL disks I can reformat." He paused for a second. "Ernie, do you know any of the foreign language profs on campus?"
"No, not really," she said while running a soapy rag between her toes, "but I think Paula is minoring in Japanese. Why?"
"Well, I'm not sure yet, but I might need a little expert advice on languages."
"Oh," she replied. "I'll ask Paula tonight if there's anyone she recommends."
"Great," Bert said, and then he closed the door behind him. As he wandered off, he heard the little telltale quack of Ernie's favorite bath toy.
Bert spent the next two hours fruitlessly scouring the Web for information on Altaenian anything or something Grimlouche, to no avail. Just as Bert logged off from the university's PPP server, the phone next to him began to ring. He didn't even get out a hello before Devon started talking.
"Bert, I've found a possible lead, and close by. But it's going to require a job from you."
"For you?" Bert asked.
"No," Devon said, "for an associate of mine. Terrington Correa deals in rare and unusual antiquities. He says he has in his possession a scroll written in Altaenian Grimlouche which has been partly translated into Canto-Slavic Bryllean glyphics."
Bert rolled his eyes. "Oh, that sounds useful."
"It is if you have a Bryllean translation wheel."
"You do?" Bert hoped aloud.
"No," came the earnest reply, "but Correa does. He'll part with both items if you make a run for him."
"Just one run?"
"No cursed items?"
"No cursed items. Correa would not dare..." Devon sought out the word, "encourage me that way."
"Well, if you think it's cool..."
"Bert," Devon said calmly, "if you want to do this thing, this is your first break. According to Correa, this should give you a working vocabulary of about ninety words. Not bad for one night's work."
Bert looked at the computer screen. Nada. Ninety beats nada. "OK, Devon. Where and when?"
The pipe opened up in an alley just behind the old brownstone bookstore. 'Correa's Antiquities and Items' read the sign, and the windows were covered with iron bars and white butcher paper. Bert opened the door and the incense nearly knocked him out. He squinted his eyes and entered the dark old place.
There were a couple of customers here, one seated at a table and pouring over what looked like twenty or thirty huge handwritten leather tomes. Another customer had a small crystal in her hand and was excitedly jabbering with Correa over it.
"If it does what the books say, then it's worth every penny of the price you're asking, but if it doesn't work at all then I'm out that money for no reason at all, don't you see? It's beautiful, but if it doesn't work then it doesn't work and I'm out that money, don't you see?"
Correa looked the young woman square in the face. "It is the same crystal as from the book, Doris. Buy it or don't. Your belief system means nothing to me either way."
Her face dropped a little. Slowly she reached into her tiny purse and pulled out a wad of bills. She carefully counted them and laid them on the counter. "One, two, three, four hundred dollars. Bastard." She turned and headed for the door.
"A pleasure as always, Doris," he said after her. "See you next week!" Then the aging old bookstore owner turned his grizzled features toward Bert. "What do you want?" he asked gruffly.
Bert pulled himself up a little. Best to drop a name, he thought. "Devon sent me to see you."
Correa's old features suddenly went softly ashen. "Oh. For the package," he said. "Come around here. What's your name again, boy?"
"Alright, Bert. Here's your destination," he said, handing over the address. Bert recognized it as one of the more elegant estates in town. Currently owned by Garrison Wheeloch IIIold, old money from the heyday of steel and cars.
"And the package?" Bert asked.
Correa fumbled for a moment, then said, "Go to the alley behind the shop. I'll meet you there in a minute."
Bert decided to showboat a bit, and used the opportunity to open a pipe to the alley in back. "In a minute," he echoed, then stepped into the tube and soundlessly closed the portal.
When the old man met him in the alley, he was not alone. With him was a beautiful Asian girl who looked to be in her mid-teens, with long fine black hair, dressed in a short silk robe.
"What's going on here, old man?" Bert asked cautiously.
"This is the package," he said, with a kindly sadness in his voice. The sound of a man who knows what is wrong, but feels helpless to keep it from happening.
"Unacceptable," Bert said sternly.
"You won't do it, I find someone else who will," Correa retorted. "And good luck finding another sample of Altaenian Grimlouche anywhere in this miserable burg."
"Wait," Bert heard himself say. "What's the score here, old man? What's going on?"
Correa's face became like stone as he began to explain. "This, boy, is a thing of beauty and history." He pulled the robe away from one of the girl's shoulders. Her skin, Bert could see, was covered in glyphs and markings. "One like her born every thousand years to a single family line in most ancient and secluded part of China. She is called a Walking Grimoire, a living spellbook. One spell she hasshe grants the caster immortality. But it cost her her life."
"Wheeloch is going to kill her?" Bert asked incredulously.
"He will take her virginity. She will kill herself. He will live on forever." He moved her robe back to her shoulder, patting her kindly. "Sucks, huh?"
"You do the joball you have to do is deliver her. Money has already changed hands, understand?" Bert caught something in the old man's manner that made him think. Maybe there's a way out of this.
"OK," Bert said. "I'll take care of this."
The old man smiled. "Good. Good kid."
As Bert and the Walking Grimoire made their way down the drainpipe he'd created, Bert was running over his options in his head. He could not show up, and never get the scroll from Correa, but then, what would he do with the girl? He couldn't stand the thought of giving her over to some whitebred pig and letting him have his way with her. And the one thing he would never let happen, would be to let this girl kill herself.
"Stinks, stinks, stinks, STINKS!" he yelled. He looked over at the girl. She was far more interested in the walls of the tunnel than she was in his yelling. She was running her fingers over the wall, tracing out the symbols there the same way that Devon had earlier that day.
Waitaminnit, Bert's mind shouted at him. He stopped the girl and faced her. He then pointed at the wall and then to her eyes. "You-read-words- on-wall?" he asked stiltedly. She looked oddly at him. He pointed at the wall again and then to her. "You-read-words? Me-words-speak. You-speak- words?"
"Better than you, probably," she replied. "And, yes, I read Altaenian Grimlouche. Doesn't everyone?"
"Gah!" Bert was ecstatic. "OK, we've definitely got to save you now."
"Look," the girl replied, "I'm no more happy about the prospect of killing myself than I am about the prospect of being rapedbut this is the way things are done. I'm my father's property, and he sold me, OK? Done deal. So let's just get this over with."
"Oooohh, no." Bert said. "You are not just going to be some fat cat's hors d'ouevre on the lunch cart of immortality. Not if I can help it."
"Look, Bert," she replied, "my family is not rich. Living in seclusion means not being able to have jobs, so the money they get for me has to last for a thousand years. This guy can have them killed for a helluva lot less than he paid for me, and he will if he doesn't get what he wants."
"So," Bert thought aloud, "we have to make him think he's getting what he wants." He paused for a moment, then grabbed the girl by the hand and started running. "Devon!" he said. "We need to see Devon!"
"I don't know about this, Bert," Devon said.
"Look, Devon, I can't just let her be killed. She apparently has an inbred knowledge of over a thousand languages," Bert felt himself getting sidetracked, "and she's only fifteen years old for crying out loud. What kind of people are you magicians anyways?"
"Many of us are sadistic bastards, Bert," Devon replied, " and that's the savage truth. Of course," he paused, "no one said that this guy is any kind of mage."
"He's not?" asked Bert.
"If he is, I've never heard of him."
Bert thought for a moment, then got a wicked look on his face. "Got it, chief! Thanks for your help!"
Devon yelled out at Bert as he stepped into the drainpipe, "If you both survive, bring the girl here. I know a sanctuary for her." Then Bert was gone.
"Now," Garrison Wheeloch III panted, "now you finish the job. Finish yourself, girl." He walked around to behind his desk and withdrew a long thin bundle. He unwrapped the folded silk from around the silver blade, then returned to the girl's side.
"Do it," he commanded, still breathing so heavy he could barely make the words. "Do it, and make me...immortal."
Her trembling hand took the blade from him. Her eyes went wide for a moment, and she cried out her parents' names. Then she looked at the fat man, and her eyes narrowed. For the briefest of moments, he thought for sure she was going to lunge at him. Then she cried out some words, hollow and sacred in this sad place, and plunged the knife into her chest. She screamed and shuddered from the blow, and blood spilled from her, vast amounts of the stuff spewing from her small chest. She fell forward onto the floor, shivered a moment, then became totally still.
"I'm going to live forever," he said to no one in particular. Then a hand touched his shoulder. He whirled around to find the young punk who had delivered the girl to him.
"For one thousand dollars, I can make her and myself disappear, and no one will ever know what you did here tonight."
The large, ugly, sweating man smiled. "Alright, you little scab. You have a deal."
"Go get in your car. There's a bar near here. Drink heavily and make friends tonight. Buy everyone a lot of drinks, you hear me? Create an alibi." He looked over at the small, unmoving body on the floor. "I'll take care of this."
The big man just stood there, confounded.
"Get me my grand, you jackass!" Bert blurted out. "Then get out of here. What I have to do, you don't want to see."
Garrison Wheeloch III paid the punk one thousand in cash out of the safe in his desk, then left the room for the night.
After his footsteps faded away, Bert afforded himself the slightest of smiles.
One half hour later, Devon, Bert, and the Walking Grimoire were all having dinner at Denny's, and laughing their heads off.
"And then," Bert guffawed, "the big dummy paid me!"
"I had no idea you were such a great illusionist, Bert," Devon weakly got out after his peal of laughter.
Bert just smiled. "Not really illusion. Just like some of the little gags I used to play in high school, only a little more involved. I just got a good vantage point by 'porting into his office, so I could time everything. The rest was some brilliant acting on the Grimoire's part."
"Look, for the last time, call me Julie, OK?" said the Walking Julie.
"When she shoved the knife into her 'chest' for the ritual suicide, I just opened up a tiny 'pipe and squirted a huge bag of fake blood through the hole. Knife goes in. Blood comes out. Oh, no, she must be dead."
"Not dead," Julie replied, "and still a virgin."
"What I can't believe," Devon said, "is that this guy couldn't tell the difference between, well, Julie and one of your 'pipes. I mean, we're talking about your basic 'knothole in the fence' routine. How did he not know?"
The Walking Julie just smiled and said, "I dunno, but I'd just betit was probably his first time, too!"
The laughter echoed long into the night. And Bert, for the first time in a long time, picked up the tab and left a healthy tip.
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