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The Bureaucrats (an excerpt)

Short story By: Gideon Elrod
Humor



Although the following tale was inspired by Kafka's Poseidon, it is not an extension of Kafka's story.


Submitted:Sep 7, 2011    Reads: 49    Comments: 5    Likes: 3   


Dedicated to all those in the world who hold power over the individual and the species as a whole. It's time you stop switchin' the stickers on the Rubik's cube, folks, and get a clue.

-

The man in the brown derby slipped quietly around the corner and began climbing the long winding staircase that disappeared into the clouds above his head. With every bend of his knees and extension of his feet, the staircase leading up the side of the mountain became shorter. Predictably, each one of his previous steps fell into oblivion, echoing off the nothingness below; even more predictably, he took the next step without a care or a bother at how high he was getting. When he was about halfway to the first cloud -- a nice fat cumulus -- the out-dated magic carpetbag he was toting began pulling him faster toward what he hoped would be a leisurely trip through Nirvana, but in all likelihood, considering the luck he had turned out the past fifty years, it would be the end of the road for him . . . or the staircase, as it were.

Removing his hat from his heavily balding head, Mr. Lazarus entered the cumulus and stepped onto what appeared to be the first of many floors tucked away in the heavens. All around him were offices which were also cleverly hidden behind wisps of that most enchanting of water's ensembles. Just as he was about to open his mouth to speak to the receptionist behind the ridiculously large desk dominating one side of the cloud, she held up a finger and gestured for him to remain silent. She then picked at her tall bangs with the end of a fountain pen and pointed him to an empty chair all the way on the other side of the waiting room. Her gold name tag, etched with the words Ms. Drocsid, glistened in harnessed sunlight as she followed protocol by sending him on his way with a mouthed "thank you" and a fake smile before returning to the bit of gossip that was taking place over her headset.

She listened for a moment, smacking her gum and filing her nails while throwing in the occasional "uh huh" here and there. Once he was seated, she rolled her eyes and gave him another mandatory courtesy-smile.

To his discomfort, Mr. Lazarus could hear the sordid details being dished out in the receptionist's annoying voice.

"So then Iole told Heracles,"she informed the person on the other end of the conversation, " that her younger brother's great uncle's second cousin's ex-girlfriend's half-sister's oldest daughter Dejanira told Nessus 'The Centaur' he could just go . . . well, ya know, go scrub himself.

"Uh huh . . .

"I know, right? Like his body odor is the worst of their problems."

Mr. Lazarus, exhausted from the climb, replaced his derby and looked over at the flustered, old muse seated next to him. Her free hand fluttered like a hummingbird near her sagging breasts as she accepted a glass of water from a secretary. After taking a shaky sip, she began speaking to two detectives, who had apparently been standing there for some time trying to get a description of the young titan that had stolen her purse.

"Now, ma'am, if you could just take a deep breath and slow down . . ."

"Slow down?!" asked the muse. "I celebrated my nine-thousandth birthday the day before yesterday, how much slower do you need me to be?"

"We understand that, ma'am --"

"Now, hunny, I might look like a Hades' throw-back, but if you call me ma'am again I'm gonna snatch off one of these orthopedic sandals and smack you over the head with it!"

The two detectives raised their eyebrows and looked at one another.

"You know," mused the muse, "you fine young, strapppin' satyrs might find this hard to believe, but I was a real siren back in the day." She gave the side of her big blue hair a pat and flashed the detectives the remnants of her most sensual come-hither smile.

Detective One hid a snicker beneath a cough while Detective Two cleared his throat and jotted something down on the screen embedded in the palm of his hand.

"Ma'am -- I mean, Ms. Terpsichore, if we could just stick to the subject that would be great," said the youngest of the two satyrs.

"And when we get done with the purse situation," added Detective One, "maybe we can discuss that little speeding ticket of yours."

"What's wrong, darlins," asked the muse in her raspy voice, "afraid of a little experience?"

"No," said the first detective, covering a large grin with his hand as Ms. Terpsichore batted her eyes at Detective Two, who was obviously uncomfortable with the matriarch's desperate attempts to flirt her way out of a ticket, "just afraid of too much of it all at once."

The old muse put a little shimmy into her shoulders. "I can understand that, sugar; I'm whole lotta woman with whole lotta lovin' ta give.

"How old did you say you were again, hunny, two -- three thousand years old?"

"Four," answered Detective One, "but who's counting?" He then slapped his partner on the shoulder. "My partner here's just out of his first millennium. Ain't that right, Sandy?"

The younger detective smiled halfheartedly and motioned to the notes on his palm.

"Really?" The muse began to flirt even harder with the young satyr. After shifting her dentures back into place, she put on her best Artemis impersonation and growled: "I like 'em young and tender."

Detective Two, young but professional, choked, and then coughed up a hairball. "Excuse me," he said, wiping away a stray tear that had been strained from his eye, "I just had a disturbing flashback."

"Me too," said his partner.

Ms. Terpsichore wiggled her thinning eyebrows up and down. "Ya know, boys, it's been a while since I gave into someone's advances -- especially someones so young and handsome -- but since the two of you seem intent on gaining my personal information, I guess I'll just have to -- "

"Hold on, ma'am," interrrupted Detective One with a shaky laugh. "We pulled you over because you were pedaling your unicycle too fast through the strip mall, remember? Not because we were looking for a date, as fetching as you were with your muumuu flapping in the gale-like winds and all."

The muse suddenly looked disappointed. "Then why the Hades did I go through all the trouble of getting the two of you to follow me if neither one of you is goning to take me out for a night of body-shots and pole dancing?!"

Mr. Lazarus, understandably deciding that the conversation between the muse and the two satyrs -- as entertaining as it was -- was more than a little too revealing, found other things in the waiting room to occupy his interests until whatever he was waiting for . . .

"Mr. Lazarus?"

The man in the brown derby looked up to see someone's personal assistant: a young-looking man with gold wings embroidered on both sides of his dirty white sneakers and his pristine white baseball cap. When Mr. Lazarus failed to answer right away, the assistant cocked an eyebrow and asked:

"Are you or are you not Mr. Thaddeus J. P. Lazarus?"

Mr. Lazarus stood up from his seat. "Yes."

The assistant, seeming put-out, sighed."Yes you are, or yes you're not?"

Lifting his derby and scratching his bald patch, which was plagued by a bad case of psoriasis, Mr. Lazarus answered: "Yes, I'm Thaddeus J. P. Lazarus." He blew a few flakes of dead skin from the tip of his bulbous nose and then politely extended his hand.

Instead of shaking it, the assistant looked at the other man's slightly grubby hand as if it were a dead skunk. "No thank you," the assistant told him. " Such formalities are not necessary. Now, if you'll just follow me, I'll take you to your first appointment."

Mr. Lazarus snatched up his carpetbag and and began following the assistant up a second flight of stairs. "Excuse me, I know you're very busy, but if you don't mind me asking, what is your name and where are we going?"

The younger looking man waved-off a couple of assistant's assistants. "The name's Hermes; I've just recently been reassigned as Mr. Apollo's personal assistant, better known as 'Mr. Drama' himself. I swear," he said, taking some proofs from a woman and approving them, "sometimes I don't know who's the bigger queen, Apollo or Ares."

"Is that where we're going? To meet Apollo?" asked Mr. Lazarus.

Hermes let out a long exasperated sigh and handed the proofs back to the woman. "Of course that's where we're going. You want to get to Cloud Nine don't you?"

"Cloud Nine?"

"Yes," said Hermes. "Your own personal cloud? Everything you need to know about obtaining your own cloud nine is in the pamphlet that the receptionist gave to you.

"You did read the pamphlet, didn't you? Please tell me you read the pamphlet."

"Well," said Mr. Lazarus, "I would have, only I didn't receive one."

Hermes gave a high-pitch shriek and bit his fist. After a moment of vein-popping suspense, he removed his fist from his mouth and said in a voice that was a little shaky,"That witch is deliberately out to destroy my career, I know it! Ever since I won Aphrodite's Nasty Hot and Fabulously Mischievous Under Most Circumstances award at last year's winter solstice, she's been screwin' me over here at work -- always 'accidentally' loosing my calls or 'forgetting' to inform clients of the basics.

"Well, this is the last scroll I tell you. The last scroll!"

Mr. Lazarus remained quiet while the assistant continued his tangent for another minute or so. When Hermes was finished, he took a deep breath and began leading the man with the brown derby and the knackered nose up the stairs again. As soon as they reached the second floor, they immediately made their way around a large group of paparazzi armed with camera's and dressed in football gear and climbed the five gold steps in front of the door to Apollo's office.

"I was just thinking," said Mr. Lazarus.

"Oh, this can't be good."

"Shouldn't Mr. Apollo, you know, be on one of the higher floors?"

"Please," said Hermes, "that drama queen? Uh uh. He has to have all of the attention all of the time, that's why he positioned himself on the second floor, where there's the most traffic . . . and the most secretaries. Of course, he would never admit that he's an attention hog or a womanizer or that he can't do anything for himself; or that he's too busy pretending to be a hardworking 'simple guy' to notice that he's one of the biggest hypocrites in this bureaucracy we're all forced to contend with at Mount Olympus, Inc." The assistant paused and seemed to reflect upon something for a moment, then continued:

"But I have to admit, even though he's not what you would call intelligent, when it comes to saving his precious squirrels he's a genuinely passionate being -- perhaps with even a little depth added to his otherwise pathetically inept and often shallow existence."

Mr. Lazarus let his head slowly shift back until it rested on his humped shoulders. Taking in the large sunlit door in front of them, he mumbled, "Mr. Apollo can't be all that bad, not if he's granted such splendor by his employer."

Hermes snorted. "Only because he demands it. He doesn't throw tantrums like Mr. Ares, but still, what a whiner."

The assistant opened the door and shooed Mr. Lazarus into the disgustingly decadent office beyond it. In the center of the room, draped over a large pillow and surrounded by photographers, was a golden man with a splendid physique giving an interview.

Mr. Apollo lay comfortable and unashamed in his gold speedo, picking daintily at a bowl of fruit while flirting with the female reporter conducting the interview. Keeping his attention focused on her, he shouted at a young woman with a makeup kit:

"Can I can get a little more glitter over here?!

"I like to sparkle on camera," he told the reporter, before giving her a suggestive wink and a flash of a smile that was even more suggestive than the lazy way in which he lowered and lifted his eyelid.

She giggled, the only response left to her under his intense gaze which reflected a mind intent on fulfilling its naughty intentions. After a few moments of talking dirty to each other with their eyes, the young woman with the makeup kit interrupted them by clearing her throat and nodding to the photographers.

Interviewer and interviewee reluctantly tried to find their way back to the topic.

"What were we talking about again?" asked Mr. Apollo.

"I think," answered the woman in a voice that was throaty and full of desire, "we were talking about your squirrels"

"Ohhhh. Yes, they're definitely squirrely, all right . . . just like their papa. Tell me -- Mrs. Daphne, is it?"

"Miss."

"I see. Well, Miss. Daphne, how do you feel about squirrels?"

Daphne raised her hand to her chest, looking as if at any moment she might swoon while seated in the chair across from the golden man with the flaxen surfer-mane and the slightly crooked nose. "I don't know that much about them," she whispered, "except that I like the tingly sensation I get when they run up and down my trunk."

"Baby girl, you might be a little thick in the middle, but I would hardly call your lovely body a trunk." He reached out and stroked the woman's dark supple thigh with the back of his finger. "I prefer my women like the belly dancers of yore: voluptuous."

She bared her teeth and growled before playfully smacking his gold hand with her dark one. "Now you straightin' up and behave yourself, hear?

"Squirrely little devil."

"Sweetheart, there's nothing about me that's little. Squirrely, yes. Little?" He gestured to his eight-foot frame still reclining on the pillow. "Besides, have you seen the size of my feet?" Apollo lifted his foot and wiggled his big toe. "You know what they say about the size of a god's feet, don't you?"

Miss Daphne giggled, wiggled in her chair, and then licked her lips.

Hermes, leading Mr. Lazarus to a chair near to the nearest window, rolled his eyes before slowly walking off to answer the snap of Apollo's fingers. While his assistant was fetching two chalices and a bottle of Apollo's Sparkling Ambrosia Liqueur: The Drink of the Immortals, Apollo continued his interview, which turned to more serious matters, such as his personal cause and the state of mortal affairs.

"Earlier," said one of the photographers, highjacking the interview, "you stated that you believed saving Earth's squirrel population would put an end to famine, pestilence, war, high fuel prices, and the lack of original talent in the entertainment industry. Do you really think all of that's possible, especially when one considers the number of remakes that Hollywood has put out in the last decade?"

Mr. Lazarus soon understood the assistant's description of Mount Olympus' public relations guru as Apollo opened his mouth to speak of things other than that of the sensual variety. Before he spoke, however, he rubbed his chest and chin and tried to appear as if he were a philosopher in deep thought. Finally after a long uncomfortable silence for everyone else in the room, everyone except the reporter who was busy motioning for Hermes to pour out another chalice-full of Apollo's self-promotional beverage, he spoke:

"Look, other than being a god in beauty, charisma and wealth, I'm just an average guy. I don't expect myself to have all the answers to the world's problems and neither should you. But I can tell you this: I strongly agree with my hypotenuse about squirrels and their impact on human society. I mean, just look how cute they are. And any invertebrate with a backbone and half a brain will vouch for the contributions that squirrels and other marsupials have made to the environment. You know, like planting mango bushes, guarding peoples' feeders from bird attacks, and cleaning up all of those pesky nuts that are dropped into yards by unappreciative trees."

"Riiiight," said the photographer to his colleagues, "we wouldn't want to forget about all the disgruntled trees out there."

Daphne laughed. "No," she said, taking the bottle from Hermes and filling her chalice, "ya don't want to do that. No, Sir. You mess with the wrong tree and your liable to get an ass-whoopin'."

Mr. Apollo smiled. "I had a tree give me a whoopin' once when I tried to seduce her as a chipmunk; It was absolutely invigorating!"

"I know, shug," said Daphne with a wink, "I was the one who gave it to you." She sat the bottle on the table next to her and slapped him playfully again, this time on the rump.

Popping a grape into his mouth, he slowly looked her up and down with appreciation."Oh you little nymph. That was you?"

She licked her lips and took a drink. "Uh huh."

"Apollo?" Hermes interrupted.

"How many times do I have to tell you that it's Mr. Apollo, especially when it comes to you!?" he scolded his assistant. "And don't think I've forgotten about what you did to my heard of poor defenseless dairy cows at the last company picnic either, you sick little freak!"

Hermes did his best to keep a straight face while telling the god that the next appointment had arrived and that it was time to get busy with the rest of the day's schedule. After a few more pictures, Apollo agreed and sent the photographers, the makeup-girl and the reporter on their way.

As she was leaving, Daphne slipped her business card into Mr. Apollo's speedo and blew him a kiss. "Call me," she was able to whisper before Hermes led her through the doorway and swung the door shut in her face.

Mr. Apollo stood up and slipped on a robe, then motioned for Mr. Lazarus to take the reporter's seat.

The man in the brown derby, a notorious gambler and a terrible kleptomaniac, did as he was bidden. At first he tried waiting patiently with his carpetbag in his lap while Mr. Apollo scolded Hermes for placing the wrong shampoo in the god's shower, but he soon became bored and his eyes began to wander. When his eyes finally came to rest on the bottle of ambrosia liqueur still sitting on the table next to the chair, he lifted it, made sure no one was looking, and slipped it into his bag. This very act-the act of taking something that belongs to someone else-was how Thaddeus J. P. Lazarus came to be at Mount Olympus in the first place. It was true that the man in the brown derby had been on the run many times in the past, but never from someone as dangerous as Marco "The Maniac" Mancini.

Mr. Lazarus silently thanked the gods that only those with an invitation could find the secret staircase leading up Mount Olympus; of course, Mr. Lazarus had changed the name on the invitation from the man he had stolen it from, Marco, and had replaced it with his own. But as he saw it, Marco had done the same thing, so therefore, procuring the invitation with light fingers and miraculous slight of hand could hardly be considered a crime.

All he had to do was make sure that he never crossed paths with Marco again.

"So, Thad," Mr. Apollo said, grabbing a brush and returning to his pillow, "from what my team of yummy secretaries has told me, the date of your signature shows that you've just recently received one of the three invitations that was sent to the realm of mortals six thousand years ago."

"Someone tried cashing in the first one and failed," Hermes informed him. "The third invitation was retrieved from the belly of the hydra, minus its owner. Mind telling us how a man with your level of . . . sophistication and hygienic aptitude acquired the third?"

Mr. Lazarus pulled a dirty handkerchief from the pocket of his jacket, which was mostly a jumble of snagged tweed and patchwork, and wiped his face with it. "Uh . . . I won it in a card game," he lied, hoping the two immortals were unable to read his thoughts.

Mr. Apollo seemed oblivious to everything except for his well-defined abdomen as he brushed his hair; Hermes, however, seemed to sense that something was out of sorts.

The assistant, with eyes that revealed a cleverness unlike anything Mr. Lazarus had glimpsed in the window of a mortal soul, studied the man in the brown derby for a long moment, then asked, "Is anything out of sorts, Mr. Lazarus? Anything you wish to divulge to us now before we continue with your interview?"

Mr. Lazarus shook his head a bit nervously. "No. No, nothing I can think of. He quickly dabbed at a stream of pus that had been born from one of the many large pimples on his pocked cheeks and put away his handkerchief. "So what happens next? Are there forms I must sign in order to obtain a cloud nine of my own?"

"Yes," said Mr. Apollo. "If you make it to the next level, that is."

"Pardon me," said the man with the brown derby and the pus-stained cheek, "but 'level' of what?"

The god traded Hermes the brush for a lovely jar containing body oil. "Administration," answered Mr. Apollo, oiling up his chest. "What else?"

"Of course, you won't have to bother with any of that," added Hermes, "if the 'O Exalted One of Super Fantastical Awesomeness' finds you unfit to pass on and tosses you back into that quagmire you came from." He held the side of his hand up to his mouth and whispered in Mr. Lazarus' direction, "Might be less painful than the one you'll be ground through on the way up."

Mr. Lazarus laughed shakily and then swallowed over a lump in his throat. "So am I . . . fit enough do you think?"

"Depends," said Mr. Apollo. "Do you have anything in that humble, unassuming bag of yours? Perhaps something worthy of a god?"

"Actually," said Hermes, "only those who are qualified- meaning hardworking, self-sacrificing individuals who follow the rules and present their offerings on time-are the ones who are suppose to advance through the system; however, a small token of appreciation could earn you a favor, if the token is worthy of a favor that only a god can give."

Mr. Lazarus ran a list of the bag's contents through his mind. When he came to the bottle of Sampson's Kick-Ass Hair Tonic, he opened the bag, which a moment earlier would have appeared empty to anyone curious enough about its contents to peek inside, and plucked the bottle from the bottom.

He handed the tonic to Mr. Apollo. "From what I understand," he told the god, "it's the last bottle in existence."

"By my divinity, the last bottle!" Apollo exclaimed with excitement. "Oh Aphrodite's rockin' bod, I love this stuff. I used to use it all the time-almost had Sampson ready to give up the ingredients before he lost all of his hair and part of his senses, not to mention his surfboard, over that little tart he met in the valley."

The man in the brown derby, though feeling a tinge of regret at having given one of his possessions-a possession that he had been looking forward to using on himself-to Mr. Apollo, scooted to the edge of his seat and waited with heavy anticipation to learn if he had earned advancement; after all he was lobbing for his life, since it would be in great peril if ever he were to return to earth while Marco was still on the hunt for him.

No, Mr. Lazarus needed sanctuary and he needed it in a hurry.

"Well," said Mr. Apollo, trying to hide his excitement, "I guess this will do. Do you have your invitation?"

Mr. Lazarus pictured the invitation in his mind, then reached into the carpetbag and pulled out a scroll that was trimmed with gold and which had a map that only the owner of the signature could call forth.

He handed it to the god.

Mr. Apollo glanced at the invitation before handing it to Hermes who examined it more closely before adding it to the other two scrolls,which were currently being held in the mouths of a giant stuffed, three-headed dog.

The assistant placed the last invitation in the center head's mouth, the one that was empty, and turned to Mr. Apollo. "It's almost time for your afternoon smoothie and colonic cleansing massage," he told the god. "Afterward, you'll be meeting with leaders from the Brotherhood of the Thirteenth Line, as well as several members of your fan club."

Mr. Apollo pouted. "No nap?" he asked.

The assistant's face transformed into one of mock sympathy. "Nope, I'm afraid not."

Mr. Apollo sighed, scratched his ass, and asked, "Those Thirteen brothers-or whatever-they're not the same guys that go around beating baby seals with blunt excrements, are they?"

"You mean blunt instruments?" asked the assistant.

"No, Hermes" said Mr. Apollo in a tone that was meant to be condescending, "I don't. I know you and everyone else at Mount Olympus thinks you're clever, but let's face it, your lack of common . . . learning-things is embarrassing. As a matter of fact, from now on you should really think about thinking before you speak?

"Example: We're talking about clubs and stuff, not lyres and drums."

Hermes smiled. "Yes, of course. Stupid me. I'll just add 'blunt excrement' to my list of your definitions and insights, shall I?"

Apollo seemed to give the idea some serious thought. "Okay," he finally said. "But I want full credit for everything I say concerning my unique fountain of knowledge; it's good for Mount Olympus' image that people know how smart I am."

"Trust me," Hermes told him, "I would never dream of taking credit for anything you think or say; it would be a great disservice to both of our careers."

"Good," said Apollo, taking the pink drink that had been thrust into his face by his assistant. "As for you,"-he turned his attention to the man in the brown derby-"congratulations, good luck, and all that other 'blah blah.' Now, if you'll excuse me, I like to watch cartoons while I drink my smoothie, the combination soothes my brain so it's more powerful when I have to talk, ya know, about technical stuff, like my personal feelings on the harvesting of squirrel placenta by companies that make anti-aging cream for people's pet pigs."

Mr. Lazarus quickly got to his feet "Yes, I can see that you're very busy." He waited patiently by his chair for the god to tell him what to next, but Mr. Apollo was already engrossed in afternoon snacks and cartoons. Finally Hermes led him out of the room and told him to take the third flight of stairs up to the legal department. Then the assistant returned to the room to answer another one of Mr. Apollo's finger snaps.

Mr. Lazarus watched the door shut in his face before turning and making his way toward the staircase. Along the way, he was given a viscous verbal lashing by several ground squirrels when he stepped over one of their leaders. He was still apologizing to them when he began climbing the stairs a moment later.

With the fear of being attacked by a mob of angry rodents behind him, the man in the brown derby whistled and danced his way up to the third floor where he was greeted by drab gray clouds that cast a depressing aura over the many creatures that were waiting for their appointments with Mount Olympus' legal department. Because of the lack of seating, Mr. Lazarus was forced to stand near a very foul smelling harpy who was keeping herself busy by screeching at her centaur husband.

After two hours of standing, Mr. Lazarus was able to obtain a seat when the harpy and the centaur were called for their appointment. Since no one else in the room felt like chatting, he passed the next hour or so by twiddling his thumbs. When his name was finally called, he carried his bag over to a large dark-robed figure hovering near the hallway. A bony finger attached to a bony hand extended from one of the sleeves of the figure's robe as it pointed to a gray door at the other end of a long dreary hallway.

"Th-thank you," stammered Mr. Lazarus.

The creature beneath the robe held up its finger and shook it at the man in the brown derby then turned around and floated off.

Mr. Lazarus walked slowly down the hall. He could see a sign on the door but was unable to read the words printed on it until he was standing only a few feet away. The sign read: Mr. Prometheus and Mr. Epimetheus.

He knocked lightly at first.

No answer.

He knocked again, this time slightly harder. To his relief and his dismay all at once, the door creaked opened, revealing a room much more depressing than the rest of the third floor.

Mr. Lazarus removed his hat and stepped into the room. "Hello?"

"Over here," said a monotone voice.

The man holding the brown derby maneuvered around file cabinets and column-sized stacks of folders in his search for the voice's owner. After almost fifteen minutes of fumbling about the dimly-lit room, he came upon a set of twin brothers chained to a table as drab in appearance as they were.

"Mr. Lazarus?" asked the brother in the dark gray suit, the owner of the voice.

"Yes," said Mr. Lazarus. That was the last word he would say for the next forty-five minutes, not because he was shy or because he didn't have questions for the twins, but because he wasn't given the chance to speak again. Every time the man in the light gray suit, Mr. Epimethius, would stop talking long enough for Mr. Lazarus to speak, his brother in the dark gray suit, Mr. Prometheus, would add something that he had either forgotten or had not thought of. So, when all was said and done, Mr. Lazarus had signed scroll after scroll and had initialed one sheet of papyrus after another until he was so confused that he actually lost his equilibrium for several seconds. He was then escorted to the door through a thick haze that had recently begun to overwhelm the brother's office by the same robed figure that he had met outside.

The figure accompanied him to the stairs, speaking not a word the whole time.

Mr. Lazarus climbed to the fourth floor alone, which was the headquarters of Mrs. Aphrodite-Hephaestus, head of marketing and distribution. Her floor, unlike the previous one, was a lot brighter and free of rain clouds.

"My lady will be back soon," the secretary, Miss Psyche, told him as she let him into the goddess' office. "Can I get you something to drink while you're waiting? A cup of tea perhaps?"

"Yes, please," said Mr. Lazarus, trying to catch his breath after another long climb. He made himself comfortable in one of the room's elegant chairs. "A cup of tea sounds lovely right now."

Miss Psyche, endowed with beauty, charm and a sweet disposition, smiled prettily. "Tea it is then. Do you take one lump of sugar or two?"

The man in the brown derby hesitated before answering sheepishly, "Six, please-if it's not too much trouble."

"Of course it isn't too much trouble." She leaned over ever so slightly and whispered, "I usually take five lumps in mine, but I would never tell her that." Miss Psyche pointed to the ornately-carved desk and chair in front of them. Then she glided elegantly out of the room in search of a cup of tea and six lumps of sugar.

Whilst Mr. Lazarus was awaiting her return, a hog in a diamond collar and pink tutu came barging into the room, followed by what appeared to be a female lumberjack.

"Be with ya in a sec, shug," she said, disappearing behind a silk screen that, unfortunately for the man in the brown derby, was illuminated from behind by a lamp.

The hog, bigger than most Mr. Lazarus had seen, brushed passed him and climbed up onto a the couch.

Mr. Lazarus shifted in his chair uncomfortably as the woman, perhaps a foot shorter than Mr. Apollo and whole lot heftier, began to undress behind the screen, her silhouette leaving nothing to the imagination.

"Oh, that feels good," she moaned, as she removed her enormous brassiere and tossed it over the screen to join her plaid shirt and matching plaid knickers.

The man in the room removed the bra from his brown derby and tossed it onto the pile of cloths that was accumulating to the right of him. Thankfully, Miss Psyche entered the room just in time to stop him from getting clobbered by a size sixteen boot.

She handed him his cup of tea with its six lumps of sugar and began picking up the clothes on the floor.

"Is that you girl?" the woman behind the screen asked in her brash voice.

"Yes, ma'am," answered the secretary. She deposited the clothes into a hamper in the bathroom, then returned for the boots. "I'm just tidying up a bit," she said, placing the muddy boots next to the door.

"Well, stop whatever it is you're doin' and help me lace up this corset."

"Yes, ma'am."

"And stop with all that ma'am stuff; it makes me feel old. Besides, if you're gonna be a-marryin' my baby boy soon, you best get use ta callin' me Ma. I don't want my grandchildren runnin' around callin' me ma'am, understood?"

Miss Psyche joined her soon to be mother-in-law behind the screen. "Yes, ma'am-I mean, Ma."

"That's better." What followed next was a lot of grunting and complaining by both women as they tried to stuff Mrs. Aphrodite-Hephaestus into her corset. Finally the women emerged breathlessly from behind the screen with the goddess dressed up like Mae West during her golden years.

"I'm sorry I'm late, darlin'," she apologized to Mr. Lazarus once she was seated at her desk, " but I was helpin' my husband finish up the pen for the flyin' horses; he's my little handy man over in the maintenance department. Anyway, it's important that all of us at Mount Olympus pitch-in and make sure that the taxpayer's coin is put to good use."

"Indeed," said Mr. Lazarus. Then: "It must of cost the taxpayers one pretty drachma to build a pen with a roof that strong."

"Oh, it cost a pretty drachma alright," said Mrs. Aphrodite-Hephaestus, "but the pen doesn't have a roof; that seemed a little excessive. After all, they're just horses for Zeus sakes, who cares if they get rained on?"

The hog on the loveseat grunted.

Mr. Lazarus, although not in agreement with the the purpose of the flying horses' pen or how the taxpayers coin was being spent, nodded his head in agreement.

Pleased, the goddess opened the drawer of her desk and took out a mirror, then checked her reflection. "So, darlin', I hear you're the lucky holder of invitation number three."

Mr. Lazarus took a sip of tea and then tried to balance the cup on its saucer."Yes, ma'am."

"Now don't you go a-startin' with all that ma'am nonsense; I still have a reputation to uphold as the most buxomest beauty that ever existed. If ya wanna use the word ma'am, use it on that old muse that was arrested earlier for exposin' herself to a-coupla officers in the waiting room."

The teacup and saucer rattled slightly in his hand. "Forgive me, I seem to have temporarily misplaced my manners."

The goddess laid down the mirror, took off her slippers, and flung one of her corn-covered feet onto the desk. "Maybe they're in your bag, honey. Why don't you dig around in it and see if you can't locate 'em while my son's fiance, here, gives me a nice thorough foot-rub."

While Psyche busied herself with the unpleasant task of rubbing the goddess' feet, the man in the brown derby pretended to rummage through his carpet bag. He pulled forth a rather handsome pumice stone and handed it to the secretary.

Again, Mr. Lazarus felt a pang of regret, but obtaining his own cloud nine, it would seem, meant playing a game of incentives, which he was more than willing to do to stay out of Marco's hands.





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