A History of the Darkling Eclectica

Well, from my point of view, anyway

by Michael H. Payne, Air Personality

Part Nine

         I've been dreading this part of the history.

         Not that anything horrible happens--quite the opposite, really. But, well, the previous parts have been up on the page here long enough for everyone in the office to read them. And comment on them.

         Their reactions were pretty positive, all told. I mean, El Brujo complained because I hadn't yet mentioned the blaze of silver fur she has on her forehead--"My best feature, and you just gloss right over it!"--and Ned didn't think I'd quite captured his character correctly-- "But I s'pose you can't expect low comedy to get that deep, right?"-- but in general, they agreed that I'd gotten most of the details in.

         Carmen, though, well, she perched on the stool at the typing desk, chuckling every once in a while as she read, then poked the machine off with one black claw and turned to me, her long, pointed snout curling one of her dolphin smiles at me, her turquoise eyes twinkling. "Well," she said, a little grayish-blue coming into the pearly-white of her skin. "I guess I'll be coming in in the next one, won't I?"

         "Yep," I said. And that, that was the exact moment--standing there, looking at her--that was when I realized that I could never possibly describe Carmen without, well, without making her sound like some kind of monster.

         My face must've fallen because she laughed, came over, and put an upper tentacle around my shoulders. "Oh, now, don't worry. I'm sure you'll describe me just fine." One of her middle tentacles came up and tapped a claw against my nose. "Remember, though: you've got a performance evaluation coming up." And with another grin, she turned and sauntered back into her office.

         El Brujo snickered from her desk behind me. "Go for it, Mr. Big-Time Author."

         I looked back at her and scowled. "Thanks for your support."

         She stretched out a paw and closed her eyes. "You worry too much, you know that?"

         "Well, shouldn't I?" I squeezed between the desks and sat down at mine. "I'm trying to write a history here, and with Carmen...I mean with you, I can just say 'El Brujo is a black long-haired cat,' and--"

         "With a silver blaze on her forehead." El Brujo opened one amber eye and glared at me with it. "And don't forget it again."

         "All right, all right." I rubbed my forehead, pulled open my desk drawer, and got out a piece of paper and a pencil. "Okay. What if you start with a dolphin floating upright in the air, her tail down and her head bent forward so she's looking you right in the eye?"

         "What?" El Brujo opened both eyes at this.

         "Yeah." I wrote that part down. "Then you get rid of the fins and the flukes of her tail and give her five pairs of smooth black tentacles as thick as your arms but a little longer spaced evenly along her flanks, each tentacle ending in something like a crab's pincer but softer, more like a hand with the fingers grown together into one part of the pincer and the thumb serving as the other. Her legs are another pair of tentacles, too, but thicker and with more structure: I mean, she has knees and ankles, but she doesn't have elbows and wrists." I started writing that down, too.

         "Oh, yeah." El Brujo sat up and stretched. "I'm seeing this in my mind's eye."

         I stopped writing and scowled at her again. "You want to give it a try?"

         "No, no." She waved a paw at me. "Go on: you're doing so well."

         "Uh-huh." I looked at the paper. "Of course, you'd have to start with a big dolphin-- Carmen's, what, six feet tall? And her snout turns down at the end and tapers to a point instead of being long and round and thin like a dolphin's. And maybe her claws are more like the grabber things on the end of an elephant's trunk." I looked over at El Brujo. "You think?"

         El Brujo shook her head, jumped down, and padded toward the door. "I'm getting outta here before this gets any uglier."

         The door opened then, and Ned came stumping in, flowers clutched in his twiggy fingers. "Evening all. Is Carmen in yet?"

         "Yeah." I gestured back to the office door. "Ned, maybe you can help. I need to describe Carmen for the next installment of the history, and I--"

         "Describe her?" Ned's forehead wrinkled. "Why?"

         I blinked at him. "Well, the readers need to know what she looks like, don't they?"

         He shrugged. "They can just click back to the main page and look at the picture of her there. We're in the machine age, remember?"

         That got El Brujo laughing. I scowled at her some more, but it didn't do any good. Ned just looked confused. "I miss something?" he asked.

         I crumpled up the paper I'd started working on and dropped it into my wastebasket. El Brujo brushed past Ned and out into the hallway. "Just say," she called back, "that Carmen's this big lizardy-insecty sorta thing with a whole mess of tentacles. That oughtta do it."

         And that got Ned started, his cork eyes spinning, his hat flying off as he rounded on El Brujo--

         But that's neither here nor there. The point is: when Carmen comes in later on in this installment, go back and look at her picture on the Main Page. That's what she looked like the first time I saw her. Okay, yes, she was wearing a big floppy hat and carrying suitcases, but it'll give you a general idea.

         So, back into the past.

         By the time 1984 slipped into 1985, Ned had given up fiddling with the Pauly-Wisowa E25. Of course, El Brujo had had to make good on her threat to use his leg as a scratching post if he kept "pounding away at that goddamn hunk of junk while honest folks are trying to sleep!"

         But El Brujo's a pretty small cat, so when Ned got to feeling a little shabby, walking around with his right ankle all splintery, I just took one of the older brooms from the janitor's closet in the basement of the Main Library, and we carved it into a new leg. Health care's a lot easier when you're a scarecrow, all told.

         For my part, I was looking forward every day to word from the main office that our new chaircreature was on the way. I was well into my second year at UCI, carrying seventeen units and trying desperately to come up with a major while working ten hours a week sweeping at the library: the last thing I wanted to worry about were the various arcane forms and reports I was required to fill out each week as acting chaircreature for our little branch of the company.

         So when I spotted the distinctive alarmed face of the "Hey, Your Nose is on Fire" logo on a manila envelope in the stack of mail I was leafing through on my way up the Gateway Common stairs one Santa Ana-blown night in early January, my stomach unclenched for the first time since about September. I took the steps two at a time till I got to our landing, jiggled the appropriate part of the banister, and slipped in under the rising staircase before it had even opened all the way, slapping the 'close' button on my way past and bursting into the office.

         It must've been a Tuesday because Ned was sitting at the typing desk beside the open windows, the Santa Anas rustling through the straw of his head, and working up the show report, something we always send in on Wednesdays. He looked up from the Pauly-Wisowa E25, gave me a nod, then went back to his typing. We'd decided to follow Gustav Pauly's advice and use the machine as a regular typewriter even though it kept making strange noises at us: the keys gave this little whoosh when you pushed them down, and the type striking the paper against that weird, oversized glass platen sounded more like silverware clattering on a dinner plate than anything else.

         I shook the manila envelope. "Good news, I'm thinking," I said, tossing the other mail at my 'in' basket and missing so it scattered all over the floor.

         Ned didn't even look up. "How's that?" he asked.

         I shook the envelope again. "Official 'Hey, Your Nose is on Fire' documents. I'm betting it's something about our new chaircreature."

         "Oh, great," I heard from the desk beside me, and El Brujo rolled over in the nest of shredded paper and cardboard she'd made of her blotter pad. "We need a new chaircreature like I need a shave. You haven't been that bad: you haven't asked me to do anything. I respect that in a boss."

         I squeezed into my desk. "Nonetheless, all this administrating isn't in my contract. I'm barely trained to be an Air Personality, after all: being chaircreature's way out of my line." I picked up the envelope and started trying to open it.

         El Brujo puffed through her nose, but whether it was her breath or the gusts of the Santa Anas that rattled the papers in front of her, I couldn't say. "Whatever. I just bet we'll get some corporate fathead, coming in here, throwing his weight around, wanting me to spin new wards over the office. Buncha blood- sucking bureaucrats..."

         "Yeah," Ned said, pushing his chair around while I wrestled with the envelope. "Some bean- counter, prob'ly, afraid to spend money on the technological advances necessary for a modern office like ours."

         I managed to tear the gummed flap off the back of the envelope, but that didn't actually open it at all. "Oh, now," I said, fishing a paperclip out of my desk and straightening it. "I know neither of you saw eye-to-eye with Mr. Hyniof on some subjects there at the end, but I don't see that we have to assume headquarters is going to send us someone else like him." I worked the tip of the paperclip through the envelope and pulled, but try as I might, the thing just wouldn't rip.

         "And besides," I went on, laying the envelope down on my desk, anchoring it in place with one knee and grasping the paperclip in both hands, "no matter...who they send..., we're all going to have to...to pull...together...to...to..."

         A sound like a bag of potato chips being ripped open, and I found myself tumbling backward, paper all around me. It's a small office, though, so I fetched up against the wall before I fell very far, but one glance at my desk set me scrambling to get up: the envelope lay in several sections, two or three pieces of paper still lying in it, while the rest of the pages danced with the Santa Anas coming in at the window.

         The wind, as might be expected, was going out as well as coming in, and, well, it was carrying most of the papers out with it. "Grab them!" I shouted.

         Ned was already on his feet, snatching papers as they whizzed by. I got myself upright and managed to catch a few, and even El Brujo snagged a couple that settled on the desk beside her. As for the rest, all I could do was stand and watch them whisk out the window and away on the breeze.

         El Brujo smacked her tongue against her teeth. "Deft, I think, is the word I'd use."

         I gave her my best glare--all she did was laugh--but Ned spoke before I could come up with a reply: "Hey, this looks like a photocopy of a newspaper clipping."

         "What?" I looked from El Brujo to Ned, saw him staring at one of the papers he'd snared.

         "Yeah." He held the paper closer. "It says 'New Operetta from Richard Vulpes Smash Hit of Season.'" He blinked over the paper at me. "Why would head office send us this?"

         I shrugged, looked down at the sheets I had, saw a list of schools attended, awards won, jobs held, and snapped my fingers. "Hey, maybe that's our new chaircreature. This looks like his resume here." I shuffled till I came to what seemed to be the first page, but... "Carmen Lacertae," I read aloud from the top line. I looked up at Ned. "I thought you said it was Richard something."

         Ned squinted at the paper. "I did. That's what it...oh, wait. What name did you say?"

         I looked again. "Carmen Lacertae."

         "Okay, here she is." He poked a twiggy finger into the sheet. "'Also standing out in the generally excellent cast is Carmen Lacertae as the Pirate Queen. Her entrance at the end of Act One incorporates the exact blend of comedy and menace required by the role and fully justifies Vulpes's decision to cast Lacertae, a business student at DelFrays University and known locally for the eclectic musical cabarets she organizes, in what must be one of the most difficult roles he has yet written for the stage. Her several duets with the veteran Mafhachan...'" Ned stopped and looked up, his cork eyes spinning. "So, wait: this singer's our new chaircreature?"

         I'd been studying my papers as he read. "Well, this's her resume, as far as I can tell. I'd guess she--"

         A growl from El Brujo cut me off, and I looked over to see her sitting on some of the papers she'd caught, her tail lashing. "Oh, great! We're her first management job!"

         I looked over. "What've you got there?"

         She batted at it with a paw. "Must be part of a personal essay. I mean, listen to this: 'I feel that the education I received from DelFrays's finest professors will stand me in good stead handling the business aspects of the position.'" El Brujo's ears went down as her eyes came up. "Sounds like everything she knows came outta some book or some graybeard! These academic types haven't got clue one about how to run a real-world office!"

         "And an opera singer!" If Ned had had ears, I'm sure they would've been folded down, too. "The artistic position on staff's supposed to be the Air Personality, not the chaircreature! What was head office thinking?"

         "Whoa, whoa, whoa!" I held up my hands. "Let's not jump the gun here. Yes, according to her resume, she's just out of business school, and yes, most of the other jobs listed here seem to be festivals she's organized and whatnot. But, hey, when you get right down to it, the Darkling Eclectica's a kind of mini-festival. Why not someone with her background to help us put it together every week?"

         They both just looked at me, and Ned's mouth went sideways. "That's one theory," he said. "Here's another: we're such a small branch, head office has decided to combine the chaircreature and Air Personality positions. This Carmen Lacertae has better credentials for your job than you do."

         I hadn't thought of that. "Well, uhh, we'll, uhh, we'll burn that bridge when we come to it." I put the papers down on my desk. "Close that window, and let's see about getting this place cleared up."

         Which is why Ned and I were crawling around, gathering up what few things hadn't gone out the window, when the knock came at the door. "Excuse me," a pleasant, contralto voice called out. "Is this the Darkling Eclectica office?"

         I was under Ned's desk, and I remember being so startled, I sat up, clonking my head: we don't get much walk-in business, you understand, in our location. I'd left the office door open, I knew, but I was sure I'd closed the stairs behind me as I'd come in. Another few seconds to get myself out from under the desk, and when I finally rose and looked across the office, I saw, standing in the doorway--

         And here's where you go back and look at the picture of Carmen on the Main Page. Hit your "Back" button, or, heck, you can even click here if you want to.

         'Cause that's who I saw, smiling her dolphin smile, some suitcases gripped in several of her lower tentacles and a big, round, wide-brimmed hat on her head.

         "I'm Carmen Lacertae," she said in the voice I'd heard while under Ned's desk. "This is the Darkling Eclectica, isn't it?"

         "Uhh," I said, then, "Yes, yes, it is." I moved out from around Ned's desk, squeezed down the aisleway, and held out my hand. "I can't tell you how happy I am to see you."

         Her upper pair of tentacles came around, and she took my hand in her soft claws. "I'm glad I made it. The traffic on the intercauseways this time of year is always murder."

         I introduced myself, then inched over to one side. "Come on in, Ms. Lacertae. It's not much, but--"

         "Oh, please." She scooted past me. "Call me Carmen."

         I nodded. "Well, Carmen, lying on the desk to your right there is our El Brujo."

         Carmen stepped forward and held out a claw. El Brujo sat up, sniffed the claw's tip, then yawned and said, "Charmed."

         "Likewise," Carmen replied. "And I have to compliment you on your office wards. If I hadn't spent four weeks studying magical systems with Per Trajari, I know I would've walked right past."

         El Brujo blinked. "Trajari? Really?" A look of, well, on anyone other than El Brujo, I would've said a look of some excitement crossed her face. But it was gone quickly, and El Brujo settled back onto her desk with a wave of a paw. "Well, yeah, griffins do some good stuff, I mean, for mythical folks. In real life situations, though..."

         Carmen was nodding. "Exactly. I can't tell you how happy I was to hear I was going to have a feline bruja here at my first posting."

         I could almost hear El Brujo purring as Carmen moved past her. Ned was standing by the typing desk, one of the papers clutched in his fingers. Carmen held out her claw. "And you must be Ned Priapus. Pleased to meet you."

         Ned nodded, held out his hand, stopped and stared at the paper in it, shifted the paper to his other hand, then held that hand out to her, the paper rustling. "I must be," he said. "I mean, yes, hello, we were, uhh, we were..." He stopped again, noticing the paper, crumpled it quickly up, looked down at the Pauly-Wisowa E25, and dropped onto the chair. "The show report! I was just finishing the--"

         "Oh, my..." Carmen had let her cases go and was squatting down to look at the machine. "A Pauly-Wisowa E25. But you don't seem to have the antenna up."

         Ned's cork eyes widened. "You...you know how to work one of these?"

         Carmen waved an upper tentacle, the others snaking up to run over various parts of the machine. "I took a whole semester on 'em." She manipulated something, popping a little drawer out from beneath the keys, and tapped the tip of a claw into it. "Feels like your fluid level's a little low, too. Once I get settled in, I'll take a look at it. For now, though, let's get this antenna wire strung." She turned to face me. "Have you got a hammer anywhere?"

         I didn't want to explain the trouble we'd had trying to get the antenna wire up--all that stuff back in Part Eight--so I just gestured to the wall where the hammer still hung, embedded in plaster despite Ned's and my best efforts.

         Carmen followed my pointing finger, blinked for a moment, then nodded. "Remind me to requisition a tool box." She picked her way between the desks, wrapped her two upper claws around the hammer's shaft, and with one fluid motion, pulled it from the wall. "A few nails?" she asked then.

         Ned still had them in his desk, and Carmen quickly tacked the length of antenna wire to the wall beside the window. "There," she said, one tentacle offering the hammer to Ned while another rubbed along the length of her snout and several more crossed themselves in front of her. "Give the pedal a pump, will you, Ned?"

         I guess Ned's mind was working as slowly as mine, because his face brightened at the same time I realized she meant the sewing machine pedal attached by a cable to the side of the E25. Ned stomped a foot on the pedal, and the big glass platen of the Pauly-Wisowa slowly took on an orange glow.

         Carmen gave a crisp nod. "That should do for now," she said, picking her cases up again. She looked back at me, one upper tentacle waving to the door into the back office. "I take it that's my office there?"

         "Uhhh," I said, then, after a moment, added, "Yes. Yes, it is."

         "Good." She gave me another dolphin smile. "I'll get settled in, and tomorrow you can start showing me the ropes." She moved past the typing desk, turned the doorknob with one claw, and pushed her way into the back office.

         The door clicked shut after her, and no one said anything for a while. Then El Brujo rustled her nest of papers. "So maybe she'll be okay," she said.

         I nodded: I think it would be safe to say that Carmen had made a fairly good first impression on me.

         Ned, however, was still staring at the closed door. "Her eyes," he said after a moment. "Did you see the color of her eyes? I don't even know what you'd call that color...."

         El Brujo yawned and waved a paw. "Blue green?" she offered.

         I rubbed my chin. "More a turquoise, I'd say."

         "No." Ned drifted around in his chair, dreamy the only word I can think of for the look on his face. "They're an absolutely verdant azure."

Next time, we find out how the Pauly-Wisowa E25 is supposed to work. Kind of. Just click here to go on to Part 10, and it'll all become clear.

And you can look at pictures of all our staff members by reading their Staff Profiles. Click here to get back to the Main Page, then scroll down to where everyone's names are listed.

Or to go back and re-read Part Eight of this History, click here.