A Joke... or Nine

 

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A Joke... or Nine

by Nicki J Markus

Technology. A wonderful word, wouldn’t you agree? Though still a fairly new one, being, as it is, less than two hundred years old in its current form. It comes from the Greek and has the sense of ‘art’ or ‘skill’. Funny how the meaning of words change over time. Awful once meant ‘inspiring awe’—a perfect description for me, truth be told. Now it is something horrid or unpleasant. This is true, too, of technology, which has become a term loaded with meaning far beyond its general definition.

The idea of it as art remains only in the design aspects of the latest gadgets. Yet think what other delights that magical word conjures. Technology is the proof of the modern world’s modernity; it’s the thing that makes humans proud. Were an alien race to descend, humanity would wave its camera phones and tablets, its game consoles and printers as if they would show the invaders the people of Earth were worthy of respect.

Technology is a way for one man to exercise superiority over his fellows, by having the most up-to-the-minute gizmos and following the newest trends. It is something upon which humanity has come to rely. The more advanced technology becomes, the less people can do without it. And when it goes wrong? Well, you’d think the world had come to an end. And that, my friends, is where I come in.

Who am I? An unimportant question; set it aside for now. What am I? Yes, that’s a better place to start. Think of me as an avenging angel. I wage war upon technology. Every little thing that goes wrong—that’s usually down to me. Why? Why not? I have been around a long time. I remember an age when computers were not even a vague thought in the back of mortal brains. Hell, I remember a time when man considered the wheel the pinnacle of invention.

Back then I had loftier matters to occupy my mind and time—daring deeds, diplomatic discussions, and discreet dalliances—but these days life has grown deadly dull. I am all but forgotten by the humans, but that doesn’t mean I can’t have fun with them. It amuses me to see them scramble around and tug at their hair, thrown into the depths of despair by a broken mp3 player. A downed server makes me delirious with delight. These occasional little jests are what keep me going.

Today I am particularly plagued by ennui, so I have settled upon an excellent escapade to help me pass the time. That’s why you find me here: in London’s Charing Cross Station at twelve minutes past eight on a Monday morning.

Have you ever been to Charing Cross during the morning rush hour? If you have, you’ll be able to picture the scene. If not, count yourselves lucky. It’s a veritable madhouse. There are people everywhere—shoving, breathing, perspiring. Far from pleasant, I grant you; yet the large crowd means it’s prime hunting ground for me. Almost too good, in fact. With this many options, I’m having trouble deciding which of these charming candidates is most deserving of my special attention.

In the end, there’s only one thing for it. I close my eyes and spin around—I’m invisible to the humans; don’t worry—then I stretch out my hand and point my finger. Eeny. Meeny. Miny.... Mo!

The guy in front of me is your typical commuter: suited, carrying a briefcase and umbrella, and looking harassed. On closer inspection, I decide the suit is off the rail: more bargain basement than bespoke. The trousers sag around the groin and the jacket is tight across the shoulders. It’s on the old side, too; there’s a stain on the collar and the sleeves show wear at the elbows. Couple that with his furrowed forehead and he’s exactly what I’m after.

I fall into step behind him and he leads me out of the station and right onto The Strand. I’m content merely to follow for now; my plans can wait. Well, I do lift up a couple of paving stones to trip him once or twice along the way, but that hardly counts. We continue down Fleet Street and into the City. Then my target tightens his grip on his briefcase, hunches his shoulders, and enters a tall, glass-fronted building. He crosses the foyer and reaches into his inner jacket pocket, and I see my first opportunity.

In order to enter this esteemed establishment, my man must pass through a security gate. He has his swipe card in hand and presses it against the reader. A little influence from me disrupts the scan and the gate emits a disgruntled, accusatory beep and flashes red. The man’s frown deepens and he tries again. Beep. And again. Beep. A queue forms behind him and a security guard quits his seat and approaches.

“Is there a problem, sir?”

“My card’s not working.”

“I see. May I?” The security guard reaches out and takes the card without waiting for an answer. “Follow me, please, sir.”

Flushing an intense shade of pink, my man shuffles out of the way with a muttered apology to the power-suited woman behind him. He stares at the floor to avoid the condemning looks his other peers cast his way and trails after the security guard to the desk.

“Your name, sir?”

“Wilton. John Wilton.”

“And your floor?”

“Nine.”

John Wilton, eh? It’s good to finally know the name of my new victim... I mean, friend. Yes, he’s definitely a friend. After all, helping one another out is what friends do, is it not? And John here is being most obliging by providing me with a constructive use for what would otherwise be a wasted day. If I wasn’t here playing harmless pranks on him, who knows what mischief I would cause elsewhere.

The security guard types the name into his computer, studies the screen for a moment, then places the card atop a small black device. The light on the device turns green.

“All appears to be in order, Mr. Wilton. Why don’t you give it another try.”

John resumes custody of his swipe card and inches toward the security gate. The queue is gone and the way is clear; yet still he hesitates. I can see the trepidation in his eyes and, though I cannot read his thoughts, I can guess what’s going through his mind right now. Rather than a simple point of entry, the gate, in denying him ingress, has become a barrier—a test of his worthiness. It rejected him before; perhaps it will do so again. Imagine the humiliation if he is once more faced with that forbidding beep and flashing red light.

With trembling hand, he presses the card to the panel. I’ve had sufficient fun for the present, so this time I don’t interfere and the light shines a bright green as the gate slides open with a welcoming whoosh. John hurries through at lightning speed and the relief on his face makes me chuckle. He throws a brief nod to the security guard, then scurries to the lifts.

I slide in beside him moments before the doors close. The lure of tampering with the lift is a strong one; I almost send us on an amusement park ride, up and down. However, I decide that would be far too obvious a step and elect to proceed with something subtler instead. John is still riled from the swipe card incident. He needs a few moments to calm down before I hit him with anything else. Though I am amusing myself at his expense, that doesn’t mean I want to give him a heart attack or cause him any permanent damage. I’m mischievous, not evil.

We reach the ninth floor and emerge into a mostly open-plan office, with a few enclosed rooms along two sides. Large windows offer a magnificent view over London, and as inner-city offices go, it seems pleasant enough. I still don’t know what John does or where he sits in the company hierarchy, so I follow with interest as he makes his way to his desk. He’s in the open-plan area—not that I expected him to have his own office given his ill-fitting suit—but he does have a prime spot beside one of the windows, so I guess he’s working hard to climb the corporate ladder.

He sets down his briefcase, places his umbrella beside it, then picks up his mug and plods across the room to the communal kitchen. He heads straight toward the huge, posh-looking coffee machine on the counter, and I decide he’s sufficiently calm for me to commence a new bit of fun.

I wait until John has set his cup beneath the nozzle. He presses the button for a double espresso, I work my magic, and... nothing happens. He waits a moment, then tries again. Still nothing. He swears under his breath. Clearly his morning caffeine boost is important to him. He jabs at the button again and again, and I decide it’s time to change things up. This time the machine dispenses the coffee, only it comes out in a torrent that splashes all over him. I keep the water luke warm so it doesn’t scold him, but his crisp white shirt is now stained brown and dripping wet.

John lets loose a torrent of expletives as he hops from foot to foot, patting at his clothing. Perched on the counter top, I allow myself a delighted cackle as I watch this bizarre dance. It reminds me of the time I had a goat tied to my testicles. Don’t ask.

When John rushes into the toilets to clean up, I don’t bother following. Instead, I return to his desk and nose around. There’s a faux silver frame that houses a photograph of him and an attractive woman. The pose is too intimate for her to be a sister. He wears no ring, so it could be a girlfriend rather than a wife. Then again, I can see from the photo that he’s put on weight in recent times, so perhaps his fingers simply got too chubby and the wedding band no longer fits.

The rest of the desk shows a propensity for neatness, with writing implements placed carefully in a desk tidy and papers stacked in a perfect pile across from the computer. Out of interest, I shift a couple of the files so their corners protrude at odd angles and wait.

John returns a few moments later looking miserable. I can see he’s attempted to wipe the shirt, but all it’s done is smudge the coffee stain. He sinks into his seat with a weary sigh and powers up the computer. While he waits for the login screen, he glances around. His gaze falls upon the files and his brow creases. He reaches out at once to straighten them, and I grin. But that trick was old school. Playing with modern technology is much more fun.

The computer turns on and John begins work, allowing me to discover what it is he does. It’s nothing exciting: he’s a financial advisor. With a job like that, he’ll probably be grateful to me for brightening his day with a few pranks. Numbers are so dull.

I read his emails and look at his calendar. It seems he has to do a presentation of some kind this afternoon. That could be fun; it’s nice to have an audience of more than one to appreciate my work. The question is how to amuse myself until then.

John has a spreadsheet open and is already working away. He pauses to check some figures on the Internet, and I get a wonderful new idea. The next time he glances away, I change the search results on the browser page.

When he looks back, his eyes widen. For a moment he sits there, staring, but then he fumbles for the mouse, shuts down the browser, and casts a guilty glance around the room. Certain I can elicit a better response than that, I bide my time until another opportunity presents itself, and when he twists to reach for his file, I forgo subtlety and open one of the pages.

Girls! Girls! Girls! Hot Wet Pussy! flashes on the screen above a video of a naked young woman who writhes on a bed, making come-hither eyes at the camera.

This time when John turns back, he yelps. The folder falls from his hand and hits the front edge of the desk, scattering the pages across the floor. It takes him longer to close the webpage this time; he seems to have trouble working the mouse. Several of his colleagues glanced up at his cry and continue to stare in his direction. A few seem bemused; others look annoyed. Only one woman appears at all concerned. But when John does nothing else to hold their attention, all resume their work.

John’s hands are shaking. He peers at the computer as if it has metamorphosed into a hideous beast. He shifts his glance to the papers on the floor, and I can see his thought processes as clearly as if he were explaining them to me. He’s torn. He wants to tidy up the mess, but he’s scared if he looks away from the screen, the computer will do something crazy again. He needn’t worry; I’ve had all the fun I want with this particular joke. You can only perform the same trick so many times before it grows stale, and this one has had its day. It’s time to move on to something new.

Eventually, John’s obsessive-compulsive tendencies win out and he pushes away from his desk and gathers the sheets. I can see the tension in his shoulders and neck as he returns his gaze to the screen, but he relaxes the moment he sees his spreadsheet and the flashing cursor. I let him work for a while, busying myself with minor misdemeanours around the rest of the office to give him chance to catch his breath. None of the other employees hold my interest for more than a few minutes, though, so when the lunch hour comes around, I return to my wingman, ready for another lark or two.

John sets a swift pace once we quit the office. First, we head into Pret a Manger, which is already heaving with the usual lunchtime crowds. John grabs what he wants and we join the queue. His selections? Well, he plumps for a duck wrap, a small fruit salad pot, and a coffee. He orders a double shot, which makes me suspect he’s really feeling the withdrawal following the morning’s abortive beverage attempt.

He pays and looks around, but there are no free seats. His shoulders slump and I decide to do something nice for him, in recognition of the entertainment he’s providing. I spy a solitary diner nearby who has finished his meal but is hogging the seat while he plays on his phone. When I blow into his ear and shake the seat beneath him, he soon gets the hint, and luckily John notes his departure and claims the vacant spot before anyone else can beat him to it. It’s a vicious world in Pret during the peak lunch period.

See, I can be perfectly pleasant when I want to be. Although I cause more than my fair share of mischief, I never avoid accountability—at least not when I’m caught red-handed—and always mop up my messes when the occasion calls for it. Not even my harshest detractors can deny that. I’m ever the responsible rogue.

His meal consumed and his coffee slurped, John dumps his rubbish in the bin near the door and exits. He still has half an hour of his break remaining, and instead of heading back to the office, we turn our steps toward Covent Garden. We enter the first menswear shop we reach and I see what John’s about: he wants to replace his stained shirt before the big meeting this afternoon.

He moves straight to the sales rack and peruses the offerings. They are meagre to say the least. He selects one I can tell from a single glance is going to be too tight in the collar and proceeds to the counter without trying it on. I, meanwhile, decide my benevolent mood has passed.

At the sales desk, the shop girl—Lucy, her badge proclaims—rings up the purchase and takes the credit card from John. She pushes it into the slot on the front of the machine, I flick my finger, and....

There is a dull beep and Lucy checks the screen. “Uh, sorry, sir, but your card’s been rejected.”

“Rejected?” John sinks his fingers into his hair and gives the strands a tug as he looks askance at the card reader. “That’s not possible.”

“We can try it again.”

The second attempt produces the same result, so John tries his debit card instead. That, too, is declined.

“I don’t understand,” John says. “There’s plenty of money in the account. Why won’t it accept my card?”

The last question comes out as something of a whine, which brings a smile to my face. Gone are the days of exchanging a pig for a goat or a city wall for a goddess-bride. Now everyone relies on those silly little plastic rectangles. They put their trust in them, believing them to be the repository of all their hopes and dreams. Want a leather jacket? Wave the plastic. Want a new car? Wave the plastic. The idea of it failing to supply ones desires is a horror scenario. Yet again, technology acts as a means by which to judge others, and nothing shouts ‘social pariah’ as well as a declined bankcard.

Lucy bites her lower lip and casts a glance toward the door, where a new customer has entered. “Did you type the pin wrong, perhaps?”

“I.... No, no, I’m sure it’s right.”

By now, Lucy looks uneasy and a little irritated, and John is red in the face. In a desperate final bid to achieve his goal of leaving the shop with the shirt, he shoves the Judas-cards back into his wallet and empties his trouser pockets. Between a crumpled fiver and a handful of change, he scrapes together just enough to cover the eight pounds and ninety-nine pence owing. Lucy bags the shirt and presents it to him, and John dashes out, back to the relative safety of the street.

We return to the office. John storms through the crowds with his head down and his free hand stuffed into his pocket. He mumbles about ‘damned banks’ under his breath as I dance along behind him, tripping one or two passersby along the way.

Back on the ninth floor, John exchanges a few meaningless pleasantries with colleagues and then retreats to the toilets to relieve himself and change his shirt. I decide he’s gotten wet enough for one day and don’t mess with the taps. As I predicted, when he puts on the new shirt, the top button is a squeeze. He can do it up, but it gives him little room to breathe. He glares at his reflection and swears, but keeps the button fastened, adjusts his tie, and returns to his desk.

He begins final preparations for his presentation, and I perch on the windowsill, my feet resting on his pile of files, to watch his frantic clicking of the keys as he completes his table and produces a pretty, colourful graph. When I see he intends to print copies, I cackle with gleeful anticipation.

Printers are one of my all-time favourite devices with which to interfere. Their failure to work produces in the humans a kind of frenzy that has to be seen to be believed. Various reactions are possible. Many people get angry and attack the machine, whether verbally or physically; others become quite paranoid when faced with constant, incomprehensible error messages; and, once or twice, I’ve even reduced people to tears with a few paper jams and empty toner cartridges. Today, I’ll start with a classic.

While John types in his print options, I sneak over and empty all the trays of paper. I could do it from a distance, but this is one prank where I like to get my hands dirty and really feel a part of it. Sure enough, the moment John hits Print an error message flashes up on the screen.

John sighs and wanders over. So far he’s exhibiting only minor frustration, but give me time. I stand by while he fills the trays and pushes a few buttons on the touch screen to restart his print request. The first few sheets come out and John visibly relaxes and starts to turn away. I click my fingers, and the printer grinds to a halt as the paper jams.

John turns back, shaking his head. He stoops to open the doors and free the caught sheets. Once he’s dislodged them, he looks at the screen. The error message remains. He grimaces, opens all the doors again, then slams each shut, and this time the printer starts up where it left off.

I let him get halfway back to his desk before I unleash the next problem. A wink from me produces a click and a whirr, and a new message appears: Replace toner. This time there is clear ire sparking behind his eyes, and he rubs the back of his hand over his sweaty forehead.

He stomps to the stationery cupboard and returns with a new toner. He opens the flap, removes the old cartridge, and slots in the new. He jabs the screen with his index finger and bares his teeth, and at last the print recommences. This time he doesn’t leave; he stands there watching it as if somehow his presence will restrain it from further misbehaviour. He’s like an impatient parent watching over a wayward child.

I toy with the idea of causing more disruption, but decide against it. That was enough printer-fun for now, and besides, John’s meeting is due to start in fifteen minutes and I am looking forward to seeing what opportunities that presents. In fact, one possibility is already beginning to form in my mind, so I hurry back to his desk ahead of him. A minor tweak to his slideshow is all it takes and I am out of the way before he returns with his printouts.

At three p.m. we take our places in the meeting room. All three of the other attendees are John’s superiors. I can tell that by the classy cut of their suits. The eldest man’s is definitely bespoke, so I peg him for the big boss and take a seat beside him to enjoy John’s talk.

Despite how uncomfortable he must be in that too-tight shirt, John begins well. His subject matter couldn’t be duller, but he comes across as someone who knows what he’s talking about, and his slides are concise and well thought out. However, we are nearing the three-quarter mark and any moment now....

There’s a collective gasp as an image I found on that delightful website featuring the nubile ladies replaces previous slide. In this scene, an attractive, buxom brunette is providing a—let’s call it a lather and rinse service, shall we?—to a strapping young man.

John gapes. If his chin drops any lower, his jaw will hit the floor. He jerks and stammers, but it takes him a moment to pull himself together enough to press the button and shift to the next slide. Once he does so, the big boss clears his throat.

“Uh, well, John.”

“Mr. Caxton, I’m so sorry. I have no idea how that— It’s not my picture, I swear. I don’t know how it—”

“Not to worry, John. These things, uh... happen.” He exchanges glances with his two companions. One is frowning, but the other looks amused. Good to know at least one person around here has a sense of humour. “You’ve been under a lot of pressure lately with our new client. Why don’t we resume this discussion tomorrow? Go home early, John. Relax a bit. Watch the match tonight.” With that, he stands and leaves the room, and the other two trail after him.

John is left staring in disbelief at the projector, seeming quite at a loss. It takes a few moments, but he is finally able to will his limbs into action. He shuts down the presentation, gathers his paperwork and flash drive, and returns to his desk. For a second, I wonder if he plans to ignore the instruction to go home; however, he does pack his bag and pick up his umbrella.

I deliberate for a moment. True, I’ve had a lot of fun with John already, but it seems a shame to have to end the day so early. Why shouldn’t I follow him home? He’s had a nasty shock, after all; it would be a good deed to ensure he makes it back in one piece. If a few further pranks present themselves along the way, who am I to argue with Fate?

Since we cut out early, we avoid the evening rush hour and Charing Cross is only moderately busy. We make our way through the barriers—John waving his Oyster card and me leaping over the thing in an elegant back flip—enter a carriage midway down the train, and settle into a double seat near the door.

John looks sullen and perturbed. It’s nothing the guy won’t bounce back from in a day or two, but even so.... Considering that his sour mood is probably my fault, I wonder what I can do to make it up to him. I can think of no better way than to have a little more fun. Laughter, after all, is the best medicine. The fact we are on a train makes things easy. It may no longer be the most modern mode of transport, but it offers the opportunity to carry out a tried and tested practical joke. This one is a classic; you’ll see.

I quit the carriage and head outside. I gather some leaves from nearby and dump them across the track a short way ahead, setting fire to them for good measure. Don’t worry; they won’t extinguish before we get there; they’ll keep on burning until someone chucks water over them.

This has long been a personal favourite of mine and I’ve experimented with it a lot over the years. The explanation given to passengers for the delay is always ‘the wrong kind of leaves on the track’, but I’ll let you in on a little secret: the origin of the leaves is immaterial. Trust me, I’ve tried them all at one time or another—including bringing some in from other continents—and it makes not the slightest difference. Ergo, all leaves are the wrong leaves.

I crack up every time the train grinds to a halt, and today is no exception. The driver radios for help and we all just sit there. And sit there. And sit there. Fifty-four minutes in total pass in irritated immobility until someone arrives with a hose and shovel and clears a path. Why they don’t just drive over the leaves and smash them to smithereens beneath the wheels remains one of life’s eternal mysteries. It’s never happened so far.

At last we are on our way again, and John makes a call. He addresses the woman on the other end as ‘darling’, so I assume it’s the girlfriend-wife from the photo on his desk. Turns out she’ll be home late, so John will need to see to his own dinner. Shame. He bemoans the terrible day he’s had, and she tuts in sympathy before pleading another call and hanging up. When John quits the train three stations farther down the line, I slip into step behind him.

Thanks to the delay, it’s now close to the time he would have gotten home had he remained in the office until close of business. Apparently the day’s events have rendered him incapable of culinary enthusiasm, because he ducks into the supermarket and buys a tasteless-looking microwave meal. I don’t interfere too much with the purchase. I make sure it takes three attempts to scan the barcode, but I don’t stop his card from working this time.

John’s home is in the middle of a terraced row. It’s pleasant enough, though nothing special. Inside, the rooms are tastefully decorated, if a little outmoded. Photos and other objects lying around suggest it is just John and the little lady—no children. I nose around while John irradiates his meal. He wolfs it down in next to no time, then washes the handful of dishes in the sink and puts them away. That accomplished, he moves into the lounge and turns on the television.

Ah! a football match is about to start. Goody goody. I’m a football enthusiast myself. The game is stupid—grown men alternate running back and forth, kicking a ball across the turf, with rolling on the ground, faking injury. It’s pointless if you ask me, but the humans do love it. Whilst the majority of the match is tedious, they do enjoy a good goal. You can see where I’m going with this, can’t you?

I hop onto the roof and wait. The game commences, and for a while nothing much happens. Then a player gets the ball and makes a run for it, and I get ready to work my magic. The player charges toward the all-but-undefended net. He aims, he shoots, he—

Even through the walls, I hear John’s blood-curdling shriek of frustration and chuckle as I restore the signal. Below, the commentator remarks on the amazing sportsmanship just witnessed, and John simmers with rage and frustration.

Play resumes and I wait for my next opportunity. Once more a player gets the ball and heads toward the opposite end of the pitch. I flex my fingers, poised to act, and—

“Loki!”

I turn to find Heimdallr standing over me, sporting his severest frown; the one he reserves for me and me alone. I grin up at him and pat the tiles beside me.

“Greetings, Heimdallr. Did you come to watch the game?”

“What do you think you are doing, Loki?”

“Me? Nothing. Passing the time. Making new friends. Have you met John? Lovely lad. Winsome wife.”

“I have told you before about tormenting the humans.”

“Tormenting? A little joke, that’s all this is. Besides, I’m bored. Aren’t you bored? There’s so little for us to do these days.” I throw him my prettiest pout.

“That’s no excuse.”

“Very well, very well; I’ll come home.” This is a well-trodden routine and I play my part to perfection. “I promise to be good.”

“See that you are.” With that, he ups and leaves.

I rise and brush the dust from my legs and backside—John really should keep his roof cleaner in case company drops by. Despite Heimdallr’s stern countenance and severe conversation, he doesn’t actually care what I get up to anymore. It’s a sense of ancient duty, not any deeper feeling, that prompts these little visits. After all, if he were truly concerned about my behaviour, would he not have stopped me earlier in the day? Think on that.

I’ve had enough for now in any case, so I leave John to enjoy the rest of his game and make my way home. Tomorrow I can start again, and who knows, maybe I’ll pay you a visit. Next time your mobile phone goes haywire or your computer screen freezes, you’ll know who’s behind it. Just remember: it’s only a gag.

 

Then End

copyright Nicki J. Markus 2016

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About the Author

Nicki J Markus (aka Asta Idonea) was born in England but now lives in Adelaide, South Australia. She has loved both reading and writing from a young age and is also a keen linguist, having studied several foreign languages.

Nicki launched her writing career in 2011 and divides her efforts not only between MM and mainstream works but also between traditional and indie publishing. Her works span the genres, from paranormal to historical and from contemporary to fantasy. It just depends what story and which characters spring into her mind!

As a day job, Nicki  works as a freelance editor and proofreader, and in her spare time she enjoys music, theatre, cinema, photography, and sketching. She also loves history, folklore and mythology, pen-palling, and travel, all of which have provided plenty of inspiration for her writing.

Blog / Facebook / Twitter / Instagram / Google+ / Goodreads / LinkedIn / Amazon Author US / Amazon Author UK / Soundcloud / DeviantArt

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