Oh, hi, I didn't see you there. I'm Allegro Valdean, freelance concrete stamper. If concrete breaks when I stamp on it, it's NO GOOD! That's my motto!
that was my motto. As it turns out, stamping concrete freelance doesn't exactly bring in the money. I'm not exactly rolling in dough, making the big bucks, obtaining illicit (or licit, for that matter) greenbacks, grabbing spondulicks by the handful, or any other euphemism for making money that you care to mention. And so, like Icarus falling to the ground after he didn't put his wings through enough focus groups, I found myself working as a transmission operative for the local Chinese canteen. Or, to put it in terms you might be more able to elucidate, I became a Chinese takeout delivery boy.
I know, I know. Someone of my lot in life, delivering egg rolls and almond chicken to the unenlightened masses? It's hard to believe. But what can I say? That's how I roll.
Did you catch that? It's how I roll, by delivering egg rolls. That's what we in the business call a 'pun.' What business, you ask? The business of delivering food. I thought that was obvious.
Anyway. This is all beside the point. We're getting sidetracked. You know me now, and I
well, I can't say I know you, to be honest, but at least you know me, which is arguably the more important dynamic of this relationship. This story actually begins one day at work. So let's take a stroll there, shall we?
Take a look up at the building in front of you. It doesn't look impressive, sure. That's largely because it isn't impressive. "China Nouveau," it's called, and it shares strip mall space with a coffee shop that's never open and a hair salon that's never closed. About one week ago, I went in for my normal evening shift.
"Valdean," the owner said to me in a whisper as I walked in. He was looking at me through a pair of pitch-black shades, the only part of his face I could see. The owner never dressed to any quantity less than the nines, and on certain days, much like the day in question, he was dressed to the tens, or perhaps, if one was feeling mathematically inclined, to the F's (assuming, of course, a base of 16). I wasn't any slouch in the clothing category either, to my credit, but Mr. Goddard Yu beat me handily. It's hard to beat a man who always dressed in a dark trench coat, a fedora pulled down low over his eyes, and even swanky gloves. I tried my best to remember if I had ever seen his face, but it just wasn't happening.
Mr. Yu's name, incidentally, caused no small degree of confusion the day I was hired, in a bit that wouldn't have sounded absolutely stupid in an Abbot and Costello sketch. I'll let you fill in the details yourself.
Mr. Yu slid an envelope across the counter to me as I put on my work hat. My work hat was more or less the same as my regular hat, which is to say, a fedora the only difference was that this fedora was embroidered with the name of the restaurant along the side. A dark gray fedora, tastefully accentuated with black embroidery
how divine. Nothing complements a classy outfit like a classy hat, although I suppose two or even three hats would certainly up the ante.
That reminds me; I wanted to go buy two or three more fedoras. But anyway. That's beside the point.
I didn't need to say anything to Mr. Yu the arrangement was always the same. My assignment would be in the envelope. After I read the assignment, it would probably self-destruct or, failing that, Mr. Yu would tell me to shred the assignment in lieu of it self-destructing. Budget cuts were hitting everywhere hard, after all.
I smoothly opened the envelope smoothly, in this case, meant that I didn't slice open my thumb on the paper. It had happened before, much to my eternal shame; I'd been demoted six ranks for how utterly uncool it looked. Inside the envelope was a single slip of paper. It had only an address. I looked it over, framed the mental image and hung it on the wall of my mind, and shoved the paper into my mouth. It wasn't tasty, going down, but sometimes we all have to make sacrifices in the name of the greater good.
Mr. Yu looked over his shoulder at the paper shredder in the corner. I couldn't help but wonder as to the significance of his action.
The restaurant had no special delivery car, and so I had no choice but to do my run via my own mode of locomotion. To call it a car would be doing a great disservice to it sure, you could call the sun a star, but that would be drastically downplaying how important it is to, oh, everyone on the planet. Likewise, my car isn't just a car it's a finely tuned machine that practically responds to my thoughts. I'd go into the details, but I don't want to bore you. The big things you need to understand about my car are as follows: first, I call it the Allegromobile; and second, it's just about the best thing on the road at any given time.
I jumped into the driver's seat of the Allegromobile, placing the bag of hot, greasy comestibles in the passenger's. After a brief moment of thought, I buckled the passenger seatbelt. One can never be too careful, after all. My seatbelt soon followed, and I tore out of the parking lot with a squeal that woke up dogs two miles away.
The destination was a mere five miles away. The route, as I calculated it in my head with utmost precision, was a straight shot: all I had to do was drive down the main thoroughfare through town. It ran right alongside a lake so large it dwarfed the entire town, and there was always a breeze that smelled like it came in straight off the ocean.
I lowered my sunglasses. "Let's do this."
It was a big surprise when someone actually answered me. "Is that
Chinese food I smell?" The voice was so deep that I felt it in my bones. Looking out of the passenger's window, I saw that the sheer amount of the bass on the voice was causing waves to lap more heavily at the shore.
To be fair, the waves could have also been caused by the killer whale rising from the depths of the lake. I don't like to assume.
The whale fixed one beady eye on my car from its vantage point, bobbing in the water. I watched it back, my gaze just as steely, though I do have to admit the effect was lessened somewhat by the necessity of having to turn back to watch the road every few seconds. I had heard rumors of whales in the lake who hadn't? The university was supposed to have been behind it, but every time the chancellor was asked, he just launched into a tirade of whale jokes, and hey presto, everyone got scared off. It was a tactic that had served him well (or should I say whale?) for the past 23 years, and he had never repeated a joke. According to the university's board, that just proved how capable he was to be the chancellor, but I personally always thought that theory didn't hold water.
It was then that I noticed a few important details about the whale. The bags underneath its eyes. The tell-tale marks on its flippers where it had been opening medicine bottles. A listlessness to its swimming. This, my friends, was a chronically depressed whale.
"I think you should know," the whale rumbled, "that there are only two things that can cure a depressed whale."
"Of course," I said, rolling my eyes. "Everyone knows that. I'm afraid I can't give you the Chinese food, though. I'm on a mission a mission from Goddard."
The whale squinted. "Then it looks like we have to go to option two."
I smirked and gunned my engine. "Drag racing."
Whales are a notoriously picky species, on the whole. You don't see depressed whales too often, but they do tend to be high-profile. More than once, a poor sap who thought he could take on a whale in a race ended up on the news when he got krilled. 'Krilled,' by the way, is a whale term it just means you got beaten so badly that even the krill think you're sad, and then the whale eats you.
The whale needed no encouragement and smirked, an expression that looks really alien on a whale, in case you've never seen it. It pounded its fins on the water, splashing waves onto the shore, then powered forward. I looked ahead. There it was the obvious choice for a finish line the pier. I stomped down hard on the accelerator and took off, leaving a trail of flaming skid marks. The speedometer read 88 miles per hour.
Oh yes, I forgot to mention the third thing about the Allegromobile: its technical name, if you want to use it, is the deLorean.
When my eyes cleared from the brilliant flash of light, I looked around, turning on the defroster to take care of the car's sudden drop in temperature. The whale was nowhere to be seen, and I was at the pier. Since I made it to the finish line before the race even started about an hour prior, by the looks of things I judged victory for that race to go to me. I felt it fair. Sure, the whale might not beat his depression, but I had more important things to worry about. I pulled off of the highway and onto the side road, down which my target lived. Several loud pops, like a series of very small tires backfiring, filled my ears as the Allegromobile started rolling down the road, but that didn't concern me a whole lot; it was par for the course for Bob L. Wrapton Avenue.
Contrary to popular belief, Wrapton did not lend his name to bubble wrap. Bubble wrap got its name mostly because it was plastic wrap inflated into small bubbles. Wrapton instead got his fame from the genre of music that now bears his name minus a 'w', of course.
However, the next series of popping noises I heard were definitely not normal. I pulled the Allegromobile to the side of the road and stepped out. All four tires were flat, and they looked
infatuated? I don't know if you've ever seen a tire look infatuated, but trust me it's not a pretty sight. Perhaps more alarming was that each tire also had an arrow sticking out of it.
I knew immediately who the culprit was. "Cupid," I snarled, clenching my fist. Sure enough, the cherub himself stepped out from behind a tree, sneering.
Let me take a moment to dispel a few myths about Cupid. The common perception of him is a harmless winged child who fires arrows from his bow at people to make them fall in love. Cupid is nothing like that. Take the sweet kid, age him up by about 20 years, and make him built. Next, make sure that you add a rugged beard, as well as hair over very nearly every other available surface. Finally, get rid of the bow Cupid never used a bow. He just spread the rumor that he did, so that nobody would be expecting what he really had.
I was staring down the sight of a machine gun. Capable of firing a couple hundred arrows per second, this bad boy was always at Cupid's side. The man could walk into a town in the morning, and by lunchtime, the entire economy would be shut down people would be fawning over each other too hard to get any work done.
But that was Cupid's job. He was an agent of chaos, after all. And right now, he'd set his intents on me or, as I realized was more likely, the Chinese food sitting in my car.
"Well, well, well," Cupid said. "If it isn't Allegro Valdean, freelance concrete stamper."
"Those days are behind me, Cupid." I tugged my delivery hat down over my eyes. "I deliver Chinese food now."
He took a deep whiff. "I could tell. That aroma is unmistakable. Here's how this is going to work, Allegro. You're going to give me that food, and I'm going to let you go unharmed."
The choice was obvious. "No deal," I said. "You shot the Allegromobile."
Cupid growled. "Hand it over. You know my infatuation powers run off of egg rolls, and it smells like you've got a bumper crop inside that car."
"Advantage: Allegro." I grinned. "Tell you what, broski. Fight me without the gun. If you win, I'll give you the food. If I win, you let me go."
"And what's stopping me from shooting you right now and taking the food?"
I tutted. "Those are love arrows, Cupid, old chum. You shoot me right now, and you'll get my bloodied corpse doting all over you."
He shuddered. "All right. You're on."
ROUND ONE! ALLEGRO VERSUS CUPID!
Allegro: "You need a beating appropriate to someone of your position, C-Man!"
Cupid: "You're gonna love this!"
I took off my delivery hat and gingerly felt the brim. Excellent. It was the hat I remembered. I'd heard stories of some people who'd sew blades into the brim of their hats to gain an edge in street fights, but that's not really my style. No, in the brim of this hat was simply a button. I pressed it.
The hat beeped and sent a signal to the Allegromobile. The trunk flew open, and what looked like a small metal backpack flew out, entirely under its own power. It slipped over my arms, nestled itself snugly on my back, then began its work. Thick cables extended from it down to each of my limbs, where they fanned out into wide metal sheathes that enveloped my forearms and legs. I took a step forward, and when my foot landed, the ground shook. The bubble wrap popped noisily under my machinery.
I grinned amidst a burst of steam. Oh yes. The concrete stamper was back in business.
"You think some fancy footwork will win you this?" Cupid growled. He sighted the gun and fired a round of arrows, but all I had to do was hold my arm up. The arrows deflected neatly off of the metal, embedding themselves into nearby trees (and also a cat, who didn't seem to care a whole lot). Cupid's eyes widened a touch as he realized exactly how tricky this fight was going to be.
I took a few more steps forward, and was pleased to see Cupid take an equal number back. "You know what I always say, Cupid," I said, a smile lighting up my face. I swung a haymaker, hitting him squarely in the face and knocking him to the ground. I raised a foot over him. "If Cupid breaks when I stamp on him, he's NO GOOD!"
Cupid raised his arms. "Uncle! Uncle! I give!" he yelled. I snorted and backed off. "I'll leave! You can keep your Chinese food!" He jumped back to his feet, took a few halting steps backwards, then absconded.
"That's just like him," I muttered as I began the somewhat more time-consuming task of putting my equipment back in the trunk. "He just didn't have the heart."
ROUND ONE OVER! ALLEGRO WINS!
My target was only a few houses down the road. I rang the doorbell. A young man, not any older than myself, answered the door. "I've brought your food," I said simply, holding up the paper bag.
The man raised his eyebrows. "I didn't order anything."
"No," I continued, "but you would have if I hadn't gotten in a drag race with a whale on the way here."
He eyed my car and nodded. Nothing more needed to be said for comprehension.
"Now, enjoy your life-giving manna," I said. "Just remember. In about, oh, twenty minutes, call down to China Nouveau and place an order for this. Unless you want the space-time continuum to get torn, and trust me, that's a horrible thing to have on your conscience."
The man nodded again, and I found my thoughts drifting back to the last delivery. I shook my head. A story for another time.
"Now." My eyes narrowed. "There's just one more thing I need from you." I rummaged through my pockets for my receipt book and a pen. "Your payment. As always, we accept cash, credit, or borrowed time."
The man sucked air through his teeth in the universal sign of displeased surprise. "I wasn't expecting to pay that much tonight," he said as he examined the receipt. "I guess I'll have to pay in time." He ducked back into his house, then came out a moment later, bearing a small hourglass. The sand, all in the top half, steadfastly refused to start falling, and would continue to do so until we needed to use it. "There," he said. "Two hours."
I pocketed it. "Thank you, sir," I said. "Enjoy your meal." He shut the door, and I returned to the Allegromobile. The drive back to work was much less eventful (albeit slightly annoying - driving on flat, lovey-dovey tires is certainly an experience), and when I entered the restaurant, it was completely empty. I smiled. Perfect. I returned to my car and pulled out a black trench coat and a good pair of gloves. Donning them as I re-entered, I jumped over the counter.
The phone rang. It was the young man, just as I thought it would be. I dutifully took down his order, then pulled up my collar and brought the brim of my hat down low. I knew what was coming next.
I watched as I, another me, walked into the restaurant. "Valdean," I whispered, handing an envelope across the counter. Excellent. I never suspected a thing, just like always.