So, where was I?
Oh, yes. I'd just met Ned down in the library's basement store room.
Since it was already late Friday night and Ned kept saying he had to get to work, we agreed to meet the next day and move all the stuff together that we'd been moving separately in opposite directions the past few months. All day Saturday and all day Sunday we worked, and by eight o'clock Sunday night, we were done.
It hadn't been the easiest job, and Ned, well, he's made of wood, cloth, and cardboard so he doesn't sweat, but he wiped the back of one hand across his narrow forehead and blew out a breath. "You mean you do this stuff for a living?" he asked me.
I shrugged, surveying the bare concrete floor, something that hadn't been visible before. "Well, it's only ten hours a week: I'm a student, so they won't let me work any more than that."
He shook his head. "I used to see the field hands work when I was growing up, and I guess I figured manual labor wasn't so, I don't know, so manual." He flexed the pin joints of his elbows, and they creaked like squeaky hinges. "Not the sort of thing I'd want to do if I had a choice."
Again, I shrugged. "It's the only job I could find on campus."
"Really?" He cocked his head. "Y'know, my boss was talking about hiring someone else, someone who knows the area and can get around a little more than I can: scarecrows aren't quite as inconspicuous in Orange County as they used to be." He gave me a nod. "Why don't you come up to the office with me tonight?"
Now, I'd like to say that I jumped at the chance, that I came all over psychic and realized that this offer was going to be the one that changed my life forever. But in all honesty, I thought he was offering me a job as a scarecrow somewhere. "Nah," I said. "Thanks, but I've never really wanted to work on a farm."
He blinked at me. "Farm? What farm? There aren't any real farms around here any more."
I blinked at him. "But I thought you were a scarecrow."
He sighed. "Look, just come up to the office with me, okay?"
I just gave another shrug. I mean, the night before had been New Year's Eve, 1983 giving way to 1984, and I'd spent the evening here cleaning out a basement: I'd had nothing else to do, y'see, and I had nothing else to do now. So... "Sure," I said without an inkling of what lay in store for me. "Why not?"
We left the library by Ned's usual route, a quick climb up an air- conditioning duct and out a loose grating under the loading dock behind the library. Ned just crawled through the bars--he doesn't have much in the way of width-- but I had a bit more trouble, getting the arm of my jacket caught on the rusted-off head of a screw and leaving a brown gash in the fabric.
I got to my feet beside him in the little parking lot there behind the library, ran a finger through the tear, and glared through the darkness at Ned. "This was my favorite jacket..."
He blew out a loud breath. "Come on," he said. "I'm already gonna be late." He turned and started around the building toward the park at the center of campus. "Besides, this is Southern California. What do you need with a jacket?"
I hurried to catch up with him. "I've had this jacket for almost six years, I'll have you know. I wore it every day when I was in high school, rain or shine, every day, regardless of--"
"Things change," he said. "They pave over the farms to put up South Coast Plaza, you tear your jacket..." His wooden shoulders went up and down. "You've gotta take these things philosophically."
We had wound our way down the concrete path to the walkway that circled the park by this time, and Ned turned right. Past that side of the library, past the end of Gateway Plaza, past the side of Gateway Commons--this was back when Gateway Commons was still a cafeteria: now it's all study space belonging to the library--and Ned turned right again up a wooden stairway set into the side of the hill to another little parking lot, this one behind the Commons.
It had a loading dock, too, and for a minute I was afraid I was going to have to crawl through another grating. But Ned went up the steps onto the dock itself, pulled the double doors open, and gestured for me to go in.
I did, walking up to the elevator I saw there. "Nope," Ned said. "We can't get to the office on that." He pointed one twiggy finger down a little hallway off to one side. "We've gotta take the stairs. And besides, the way those guys from the radio station abuse it, I wouldn't trust it."
"Really?" I followed him down the side hallway into the bottom of the stairwell. "I've never had any trouble with it."
Ned paused on the first step. "When do you use the Gateway Commons elevator?"
I grinned at him. "I'm one of those guys from the radio station, or at least I will be when I get my license from the FCC: I've had all the training, sent in my application, everything."
The look he gave me then, the burned corks of his eyes narrowing, the slit of his mouth going sideways, I could almost hear his opinion of me shifting in his brain. I almost thought he was going to tell me he didn't want me coming up to the office after all, but he turned and started up the stairs without saying a word. So I climbed up after him.
If you've never been up the stairs in Gateway Commons on the campus of the University of California at Irvine, they work like this: you have two flights of stairs between the ground floor and the second floor, and three flights of stairs between the second floor and the third. I'd never even noticed the few times I'd used these stairs going to and from the radio station on the third floor, but this time...
I followed Ned up the first flight of stairs, we turned at the landing, climbed the second flight to the landing with the doors leading to the room on the second floor, then went up the first of the three flights between the second floor and the third.
On this landing Ned stopped. He ran one bushy hand over the bannister, I heard a click, and the whole flight of stairs in front of us swung up into the air like something out of a "Get Smart" rerun to reveal a short hallway. Ned stepped in, motioned for me to follow, and after a moment of staring, I did. He walked the few steps to the end of the hall, poked a button in the wall, and the concrete slab of steps above me started down.
I moved forward to stand beside Ned, the stairs closed with a thunk, and I saw for the first time the door there on the left side of the hallway. The door had a pane of frosted glass in it, and inscribed on the glass was a face.
It was like one of those "Smiley Face" icons you still see every once in a while, except this one didn't look too happy. The eyes were huge round circles, and the mouth was open wide and turned down at the corners: an "Alarmey Face" I guess you'd call it. Above this face was printed the word "LOOK," below it the word "OUT," and curving around the face in semi-gothic script were the words "The Darkling Eclectica." It's at the top of this page if you really want to see what it looks like.
As soon as the stairs had thudded back into place, Ned grabbed the knob, pushed the door open, and we came into one of the smallest offices I've ever seen.
Well, it's not so much that the office was small. It's just that it was absolutely crammed full of stuff. Four full size desks, two with credenza attached, pressed against the walls, the walk way between them no more than a foot wide, six filing cabinets squeezed into the corners and between the desks. What little wall space this all left was taken up with black bookcases, four of 'em, only one with any books in it. And standing in the middle of the room, arms crossed, face red, a white Mars Plastic gum eraser protruding from his lips, stood possibly the fattest man I'd ever seen, his brown suit more like a tent.
"Mr. Hyniof," Ned said with a swallow. "Hi. Uhh, you were saying something about wanting someone else to help out around here?"
For a moment, no part of Mr. Hyniof moved except the eraser, growing shorter as it disappeared into his mouth, then he moved forward, his bulk slooshing up around the desk with a sound like water flowing. He came up in front of me, swallowed the last bit of eraser, and raised one smooth, pale hand, the fingers pulsing, to poke at the tear in my jacket sleeve.
"No," he said then, his voice a gurgle, and turned to start back between the desks.
I heard Ned sigh. "Oh, well." He came around and stuck out his hand. "Maybe I'll see you around."
I was still a little taken aback by Mr. Hyniof--a walking, talking scarecrow is one thing, but I was pretty sure, watching the way Mr. Hyniof's body flowed under his suit, that he wasn't even remotely human--but I shook myself, took Ned's hand, and said, "Yeah, well, maybe so. I mean, as soon as I get a show, I'll be right upstairs at the radio station once a week: maybe you can stop by and--"
A wet plop from the office behind Ned made me stop, and Ned turned, too. Mr. Hyniof had spun the upper part of his body around, his suit coat twisted at the waist like a dishrag, and some milky fluid had squirted out over the top of one of the desks: as I watched, the fluid gathered itself up, crawled across the desk, and Mr. Hyniof put down a hand to soak it up. "You work radio?" Mr. Hyniof rumbled.
I blinked. "As soon as I get my license. I've been training at the station upstairs, see, and--"
"Ned." Mr. Hyniof's trousers had flowed around by now, his body untwisting till he was facing me again. He raised a hand and pointed at me. "Hire this one as Air Personality." He snapped his fingers, turned, waddled back to a door that had Chaircreature printed on it, went through, and closed it with a thunk.
Ned gave me a grin. "There. That wasn't so hard, was it?"
So that's how I became an employee of "Hey, Your Nose is on Fire" Industries," January 1st, 1984. I didn't get my radio license till February, though, so...
But this thing's getting a little long. I'll get into the rest in Part Three.
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