Harry Jorgelvace was standing on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, about to shake hands with the President of the United States, when the Bad Thing happened. The world turned into a purple blender and Harry, screaming, was torn apart in the maelstrom. An interminable time later, he felt himself being reconstituted, which was the worst experience of his entire life. His body was one big itch, and he had nothing with which to scratch it.
* * *
"After six months in the desert, Jorgelvace arrived at last at the Temple of Mammon."
As the voice-over sounded in Harry's mind, basso profundo, he lifted his head from the gritty yellowish sand. And beheld a temple with huge billboard outside saying "Temple of Mammon". Mammon was depicted on the billboard. If the picture was lifesize, then Mammon was as large as an elephant a fat guy, very happy, a golden dollar sign in his left hand and a golden yen sign in his right.
"A temple, huh?" said Harry.
"Do you wish to enter and pray?" said someone standing behind him.
"Pardon?" said Harry, looking round to behold three bald priests wearing saffron robes. "Pray? No, I don't think so. No thanks."
All three priests were wearing plastic Santa Claus earrings and all three had glitter liberally flecked across their bald pates. For a solidly conservative guy like Harry, this was way too weird. Throughout his life, Harry had been true to the religion of his parents, which was Scientology. Bizarre offbeat cults like the Temple of Mammon were just not his kind of thing.
"Then," said the youngest of the priests, "you are doomed to wander without direction for thirty years in the pitiless crocodiles of the desert."
"The pitiless what?" said Harry.
"Crocodiles," said the priest.
"After thirty years in the pitiless crocodiles of the desert," said the voice-over, "Jorgelvace at last stumbled into the pink city of Petra Notornis, where he was recognized as the Promised Hero who would free the people from the demon Malbapat."
* * *
Thirty years? To Harry, it felt more like thirty seconds.
"What thirty years?" said Harry.
Then realized that his fingernails were now six inches long and that his hair had grown so long that he was standing on it. His beard had flourished forth to compete with his hair.
However, no time to think about that now. People were swarming out of the pink city, eager to praise their champion, and to shower him with flowers.
"Ho!" boomed a huge voice.
And there was a demon, two storeys tall, its flanks liberally adorned with logos for jolt drinks, goosh hoppers and pickup gum.
"I am the demon Malbapat. Who challenges me?"
A flamethrower was in Harry's hands. He tried to throw it away but it was stuck to his skin. With no option, he pulled the trigger. The people cheered. By the time the fire service arrived to douse the smoking remains of the demon, Harry was already being carried off in the direction of the Imperial Palace, where he was shortly crowned emperor. By that time, the flamethrower had vanished, though he had no recollection of its departure.
"What did your last emperor die of?" said Harry.
* * *
"Die?" said the concubine, wrinkling her nose in puzzlement. "Nobody dies here."
"But he's not here," said Harry. "The emperor, I mean. The last emperor."
"Well, no, he isn't," said the concubine, producing a pair of garden shears. "Here, let me cut your beard."
The cutting of the beard led to the cutting of the hair and then to the cutting of the fingernails. All in all, one thing very much led to another.
"You were wonderful," said the woman, afterwards, whispering her adoration into Harry's ear.
"Your name?" said Harry, thinking it courteous to ask, even though there was plainly no necessity.
"Balazina," she said. "Balazina Turtledove. I wish to be your favorite one. Could that be possible?"
"Could be," admitted Harry.
With a hundred and seventy-one concubines to choose from, it was a bit early to be plumping for a favorite. However. Balazina had really wowed him, and it was hard to imagine doing better.
"There's just one thing," said Balazina.
"We'll talk about it in the morning."
At that point, Harry expected the voice-over to cut in and say, "In the morning, Harry discovered the concubine's tormented secret." Or something like that. Then there would be a quick dissolve to the dreadful revelation. He waited to be jolted to the next stage of the impatient plot which had him in its grip.
An hour later, Harry was still waiting. Balazina was snoring, gently. Maybe he had been granted free will. Or maybe the script writers had gone on strike.
Finally, Harry dropped off to sleep, and slept solidly until a rooster crowded. The rooster crows at dawn, right? No, wrong. A lot of the stuff you read in story books is quite simply not true, and this includes the bit about roosters crowing at dawn. Roosters, bloody noisy things that they are, will crow at any time of the day or night, enthusiastically.
According to Harry's watch the AllSurvivor from Plotomtex, acknowledged by the experts as the world's number one survival watch, but, thanks to its subdued styling, suitable for the conservative businessman it was four in the morning.
Despite the early hour, Harry found himself uncommonly hungry.
"Thirty years in the desert will do that for you," said Harry, and got up to go in search of breakfast.
"Good morning, lover," said Balazina.
* * *
Harry woke, puzzled. Time? Seven. In the morning. His last memory was of heading off to find breakfast. But something had decided that he would be better off sleeping instead. Why? Perhaps the expected breakfast-producing complexities kitchens, chefs, bakeries, storerooms and so forth simply did not exist.
"Will we be getting breakfast today?" said Harry.
"Of course," said Balazina. "But, first, we have something to talk about ..."
"Oh, yes," said Harry, expecting that the woman was about to confess to being, say, an anthropophagous scorpion, or something along those lines. "The concubine's tormented secret."
"Tormented?" said Balazina. "No, this is a delightful secret. A wonderful surprise. Come this way."
And she led Harry into the Personal Utilities Room where there was a range of toiletries adorned with the grinning face of Baby Sam. Harry couldn't remember ever having met up with Baby Sam before, but here was Baby Sam Deodorant sitting next to a Baby Sam "SafeSam" razor and Baby Sam Hero Strength Hair Tint, and a dozen other things besides.
Why was Baby Sam grinning? And who else did he know who grinned? Mammon, that was who. Scale down the big fat god and make him younger and he would look remarkably like Baby Sam.
"Your future lies with Baby Sam," said Balazina.
"I don't think so," said Harry, who had taken instant offence to the grinning baby and its star-spangled stovepipe hat. "It's just not me."
With imperial insouciance, Harry swept the whole lot into the trash can then, for good measure, emptied the trash can straight down the laundry chute.
"No!" gasped Balazina, clapping her hand to her mouth, eyes wide with horror. "You didn't! Tell me you didn't!"
"Trust me, baby," said Harry. "It'll be all right."
But Balazina fled from the room, screaming.
An hour later, the cops arrived. Big beefy men in conventional blue cop uniforms, complete with holstered sidearms and crackling radios. One male, one female.
* * *
"We're here to escort you off the premises," said the male cop. "You're here under false pretenses."
"You're not the real emperor," said the female cop.
"Not!" sang an angelic choir.
"Just a fraud and a fake," said the male cop.
"But I killed the monster!" protested Harry.
The imperial lifestyle? It can grow on you real fast. Harry had guessed that it was too good to last, but he had never expected it to end so quickly.
"A special effects hero," sneered the male cop.
"Yeah," said the female cop.
And, as Harry opened his mouth to protest, she emptied her can of pepper spray into it.
"One last thing," said Balazina, returning unexpectedly with a bucket of pink paint. "Nobody calls me baby."
And she emptied the pink paint right over Harry's head.
"After the first couple of years in the desert," said the voice-over, "the pink paint wore off. Two years later, his nose grew back."
* * *
On hearing that, Harry reflexively reached for his nose. Okay. No problem. Nose, one, standard issue, in full working order.
"Finally," said the voice-over, "after thirty years of wandering, Jorgelvace labored to the top of a huge dune, and there before him ..."
Obligingly, a huge dune rose into existence directly in front of Harry. Harry stood his ground. Walk all the way up there? You had to be kidding. It looked to be half a mile or more.
"Bring me my car," said Harry, "and I'll drive there."
"Jorgelvace," insisted the voice-over, "labored to the top of the dune."
The world shimmered, and Harry was there at the top of the dune.
"And there," said the voice-over, "he was given a choice ..."
At the summit of the dune were two wickerwork baskets. One was filled with Baby Sam products shampoo, shaving wipes, mouthwash, the lot and the other with competing products from Spitball Puff Utilities. Presiding over the dual collections was a set of three priests. Glitter, saffron robes, teddy bear earrings Harry had seen these guys before.
"Do you wish to pray?" said one of the priests.
"No," said Harry, "I don't wish to pray."
"Then choose," said one of the three though Harry could not figure out which one.
In unison, all three priests gestured at the two baskets. At the choice.
"I know when I'm beaten," said Harry, and embraced the Baby Sam basket.
"Accursed choice of a diseased mutant!" said all three priests in chorus.
And Harry found himself dissolved in the wind and blown away.
"Are you awake?" said someone, slapping Harry on the face.
* * *
"Uh, yuh, yeah," said Harry, groggily.
This dissolving and reconstituting sure took it out of you, and he was beginning to worry about the possibility of long-term brain damage.
"Who, uh Balazina!"
He oriented himself. A lofty palace suite of pinkish marble which reminded him of the special beauty soap his mother had used when he was a child. Sitting on a love seat next to him, his beloved concubine.
"Darling," said Harry.
"Not so fast, buster," said Balazina, slapping him down as he reached for her. "You think I want to go through that again?"
"But but you but we "
"I know what we did," said Balazina, "and it was a mistake. I thought it would be refreshingly kinky, but it was just the same old thing, just the same as with my husband. To tell the truth, it made me depressed."
"You're married?" said Harry, trying to process what she had just said.
"You mean you're not?" said Balazina. "No, skip it we don't have the time. Let me give you a briefing. I am the mage witch of Vishnu Luck, and your job is to aid me by channeling the spirit of Vlad the Consumer."
"The Impaler, you mean," said Harry.
"I know what I mean," said Balazina impatiently. "Anyway, you'd better get with the program, quickly, because we're at war with the Viral Demons of Bughouse City."
"Sounds great," said Harry. "I can't wait."
Then he would never have done it ordinarily, but recklessness flourishes in times of disaster Harry took advantage of a moment's inattention on Balazina's part to kiss her full on the mouth.
"Do that again," she said, a really strong note of warning in her voice, "and I'll pull your tongue out. If I do get interested again, I'll let you know."
"Fair enough," said Harry.
To him, that sounded like a promise of love action, only not right now but somewhere in the pipeline.
"Boy," said Balazina, transforming her angered face into an enthusiastic smile, "I'm thirsty. Are you thirsty?"
"Not really," said Harry.
"Sure you are," said Balazina. "Here. I've got some bottled water. Two types. Choose one."
With that, she produced a basket. In the basket, two bottles of water. The labels were clearly visible. One was Jorgelvace Brandwater. The other, Wakawoka Spleen Juice.
"Okay," said Harry, reaching for the Jorgelvace.
A natural choice. Quite apart from the name, and the fact that he liked the label snake-yellow was his favorite color he couldn't imagine bringing himself to drink something called Spleen Juice.
"I wouldn't if I were you," said Balazina.
"No?" said Harry.
"No," said Balazina, flatly.
"But it's my own brand!" said Harry.
"Who are you to have your own brand?" said Balazina.
"What kind of a question is that?" said Harry.
As a man, as an American, as a Scientologist, as a citizen of the free world whichever way Harry looked at it, there was only one choice he could make. Defiantly, he seized the Jorgelvace.
As Harry's hand closed around the bottle, Balazina vanished. So did the palace, love seat and all. Harry found himself standing on a totally flat plain which was carpeted with green baize. Overhead, tongues of lightning flickered forth from ominous orange stormclouds. Kettledrums sounded in the background.
"Fool!" boomed a symphonic voice from above. "Remember who you are, and what! Who are you to have your own brand?"
Then Harry was zapped by lightning and sizzled into a screaming block of charcoal. Mercifully, rain began to fall soon after. His ashes drenched by the lifegiving rain, Harry shortly metamorphosed into a tree. And slept.
"After fifty years as a tree," said the voice-over, "Harry was liberated at long last by Plooty Snoid, the chocolate-coated frog. We all love our toffee-flavored Plooty Snoids, don't we?"
* * *
Liberated, Harry found himself standing on a small mound of green stuff (cold cooked spinach, apparently) in the midst of a thick blue fog. Dimly visible through the fog was the familiar trio of teddy bear priests.
"Do you understand your mission?" said one of the three priests, though, once again, Harry was not sure which one.
"Do you understand your quest?" said another.
"I'm ready to accept data inputs," said Harry guardedly.
"You will go to the city of Jorgelvace," said all three priests in unison.
"And?" said Harry.
"There," continued the priests, "you will find the False Prophet Jorgelvace. You will slay him, throw down his doctrines, burn his false brands and give unto the city a new name, which will be Bilothy, as in Bilothy Lingerie, the natural choice of the world's most seductive women."
Listening to this, Harry got the distinct impression that he had gotten himself into really deep trouble, and that things were quite possibly going to get worse before they got better.
"Great quest," said Harry. "Any chance of getting a cup of coffee and a bite to eat before I start?"
"No. But, if you so wish, you can pray."
Something clicked. Pray. The priests kept asking Harry if he wanted to pray and he kept saying no. But maybe that was a mistake. Prayer, after all, is a form of communication. If you refuse to pray, you refuse to communicate. That hadn't worked, so it was time to try a new strategy.
"Pray?" said Harry. "Sure. But where?"
"There," said all three priests in unison.
The mist burnt away with a sound like a breaking guitar string and there was the Temple of Mammon, grinning billboard and all. Harry was back where he had started.
The interior of the Temple of Mammon smelt of hamburgers and fried onions, of petrol and kerosene, of new electronic equipment and freshly-minted money. Some of the people inside were praying in front of icons of TV sets, automobiles, power boats and sailing yachts. But the main action, as Harry saw at a glance, was in front of the main altar. People were lining up to grab a rope and shake it, making a bell ring overhead.
* * *
"What are they doing?" said Harry to one of the priests, who had followed him inside.
"They're getting the attention of the god."
"You mean the god isn't watching all the time?" said Harry.
"Mammon is a busy guy," said the priest.
"Busy doing what?" said Harry.
"Nobody's ever asked that before," said the priest. "It's probably a forbidden question, but we'll let it pass. This time."
"May I ring the bell?"
"If you want to pray to Mammon personally, then by all means ring the bell. However, do remember that drawing the attention of the god is not necessarily in your best interests."
"Yeah, well," said Harry. "Here goes."
At the altar, Harry grabbed the rope and yanked at it. Nothing happened. He hauled harder. The bell still did not ring.
"Rats," said Harry.
Losing his temper, he gave the rope the most almighty jerk, and it parted in the middle. The torn-off section of the rope fell at Harry's feet, and he felt a moment of embarrassment.
"But why should I feel embarrassed?" said Harry. "You guys kidnapped me right out of the New York Stock Exchange. Anyone needs to feel embarrassed, it's you guys."
The bell still had not rung, but Harry figured that he had probably gotten the attention of the god. He cleared his throat.
"Harry to heaven," said Harry. "Listen up, okay? Listen carefully, because I am only going to say this once. There has been a really horrible screwup. I am not part of your target audience. I did not sign up for any of this. I am not in the market for Baby Sam or any of the rest of it.
"Now this is what is going to happen. You are going to get me out of here, now, and you are going to compensate me to the tune of ten billion dollars. Otherwise, when I do get out of here and believe me, I will, eventually you're going to end up in court on charges of kidnapping and torture. What's more, I'll sue you for your last dime. Got that? Now get me out of here. Now!"
There was a pause. At first, Harry thought that his prayer was going to go unanswered. Then, abruptly, the surrounding universe contorted itself into a whirlwind which tore Harry into a collection of shrieking atoms and whirled him away into the white-hot ovens of eternity.
Two or three hundred years later that's what it felt like to Harry, anyway Harry found himself standing barefoot on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Right in front of him was the President of the United States, who was in the process of doing a double take. The secret service guys were already drawing their guns. Somewhere, a woman screamed.
* * *
Checking, Harry realized it wasn't only his feet that were bare. Though it was hard to immediately get a grip on his sartorial state because the dense webwork of tattoos which covered his body from mid-torso to mid-thigh could almost have passed as clothing.
"Welcome to New York," said Harry, smiling.
After a titanic legal struggle, Harry won the patent rights to Nicapatikazolve, the new drug which was introduced to the world thanks to the manufacturing process tattooed onto Harry's flesh. A single dose irreversibly killed the urge to use nicotine. Six months after Nicapatikazolve hit the market, Harry was worth three billion dollars. Three billion is not ten, and Harry was far from being the richest man on the planet. But, hey, who's complaining?
Then it was discovered that even a single dose of Nicapatikazolve permanently altered human neurochemistry, making it impossible to form those addictive bonds known to romance as True Love. Harry lost everything when he lost a class action suit lodged by millions of teenagers who had been dosed by protective parents, and who argued (successfully) that Nicapatikazolve represented a "reckless foreclosing of lifestyle options amounting to a deliberate assault on the liberty of the individual."
Picking himself up from the dust, Harry, who until then had been tightlipped about what had happened to him, wrote a book called "Alien Abductions: the Sexual Truth". It became a movie, a TV series and a set of highly collectible anatomically correct toys. It wasn't the truth, of course not even an approximation of the truth but Harry figured that a conventional fiction would go down better than the grotesque improbability of what had really happened.
These days, Harry lives in New Mexico and runs a bricks-and-clicks outfit called Jorgelbrand Enterprises. Its most important product is Vacejorgel Water, cheaper than the fancy stuff from France. Arsenic content? Zero.
Recently, Harry has been getting some keen competition from another startup, one called Wakawoka Spleen Water. However, Harry is confident of coming out on top. What guarantees Harry's success is that Vacejorgel Water is the tipple of choice of Sammy Vacejorgel, the hero of a whole bunch of role playing games which you can download free from an Internet site near you. Immersion advertising? Nothing like it! Ask Harry he's the expert.