Authors: Robert Kroese
A story by Robert Kroese
Mercury strolled along the banks of the Euphrates, trying to pinpoint the source of a saxophone wailing the unmistakable strains of Dixieland jazz. As the sax gave way to the strumming of a bass, he spied a man wrapped in desert garb near the entrance of a cave.
“What’s happening, friend?” queried the man, a phlegmatic Amelekite who was sucking on what appeared to be a rolled up piece of papyrus stuffed with some sort of dried vegetation. Foul smelling smoke wafted from an ember at the end of the papyrus roll.
“Just out for a stroll,” said Mercury, trying to appear nonthreatening in an effort to counterbalance the fact that he towered a foot and a half over the prehistoric hepcat. “Is that tobacco?”
“To-what-o?” asked the Amelekite, unimpressed. “Never heard of it. This is what we call ‘funk weed.’” The Amelekite took a long, slow drag on the makeshift cigarette, the corner of his mouth curling upward in cool bliss. He held the smoke for a moment and then began to exhale, but the noxious fumes caught in his throat and he started to hack and cough uncontrollably. Mercury waited while the man fell to his knees, choking for breath and ultimately vomiting into an unlucky bush.
“Why would you do that to yourself?” Mercury asked, genuinely puzzled.
“It’s the music,” gasped the green-faced Amelekite. “I keep telling myself to quit, but for some reason this music makes me want to inhale the poisonous fumes of a dried plant.”
As the Amelekite struggled to his feet, the impassioned wail of the saxophone once again echoed from the cave’s mouth.
“It’s an anachronism,” said Mercury. “Jazz isn’t supposed to be discovered for nearly four thousand years. After tobacco and whiskey.”
“Well,” reflected the Amelekite thoughtfully, “Anna Nakkernizzim is a bitch, I’ll tell you that much.” He hacked up a wad of mucus from his throat and spat it on the bush. “What’s the password?”
Mercury frowned. “Password?”
“Can’t let you into the club without a password.”
“It’s not a club,” said Mercury. “It’s a cave.”
“Can’t let you into the cave without a password then.”
“Where would I get the password?”
“From someone in the club.”
“Where did they get the password?”
“From someone else in the club.”
“Okay, but where did
get the password? Somebody must have been the first person to have the password, right?”
“Huh,” said the Amelekite, eyeing his cigarette suspiciously, as if it were a snake that might bite him at any moment. “Never thought of that. I guess the guy who came up with the password was Boraxis, the bartender. I mean, it was his goat, after all.”
“Yeah, you know, his goat, Taco.”
“Boraxis has a goat named Taco?”
“Well, of course,” said the Akkadian. “Where do you think he got the idea for the password? Anyways, there’s no loitering, so if you don’t know the password, you better just keep strolling.”
Mercury studied the Amelekite. “I think I just remembered the password,” he said.
“Sure you did,” said the Amelekite, bringing the cigarette to his lips once more. “I’m not an idiot, you know.” He took a long drag from the smoldering weed, filling his lungs with the putrid smoke.
“I’m gonna take a wild stab and say it’s ‘Taco,’” Mercury announced.
The Amelekite’s face went suddenly green again. He fell to his knees and began to wreak more evil on the bush, conscientiously waving Mercury into the club as he did so.
Mercury stepped inside the cave, taking a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the dark, hazy interior. There was no mistaking it – primitive locale notwithstanding, the languid atmosphere of stale smoke, staccato rhythms and raw sexual energy gave this dank cave the distinction of being the world’s first jazz club – 3800 years early, not to mention six thousand miles too far east. He shook his head in disbelief. Prophecy had really screwed the pooch on this one.
Then as now, Mercury’s employer, the Apocalypse Bureau, was often at odds with Prophecy Division. The functionaries at Prophecy get their funding based on how much information they release to the Mundane Plane, whereas the Apocalypse Bureau is graded on its ability to get human history to meet the milestones laid out for it in its charter, the Domesday Book.
To put it simply, Prophecy Division is like CNN: they want to get all the important information out immediately, without concern for order or context. Apocalypse Bureau, on the other hand, is more like one of the cable channels that produce those movies “inspired by true events.”For the Apocalypse Bureau, facts are nice as far as they go, but the important thing is to present information in a way that leads viewers in the desired direction. Prophecy accuses Apocalypse of censorship and Apocalypse accuses Prophecy of giving away the ending.
Mercury was never what you would call a particularly conscientious employee, but his superiors recognized early on that he possessed a certain finesse that made him the best choice for some of the thornier tasks that faced the Bureau. In the second millennium B.C., a lot of these tasks involved the undoing of the irrational exuberance of Prophecy Division – in this case, the unapproved dispensation of the gift of jazz music.
“What’s your poison?” asked a sallow-faced man tending bar behind a slab of granite that resembled a bar only to the extent that it was a few feet higher than the surrounding granite and had a bartender behind it. On the wall behind the bartender was an iron sconce holding a massive torch that illuminated most of the cave.
“Chivas on the rocks,” said Mercury, and the bartender glared at him uncomprehendingly.
“Just testing,” Mercury said with a smile. “Give me a clay bowl filled with whatever fruit juice went bad about three weeks ago.”
The bartender grinned. “House specialty,” he said, handing Mercury a vessel of fermented goo.
Mercury took a sip of the foul liquid and turned to study the group of musicians jamming in anachronistic syncopation at the far end of the cave. There were four of them: a saxophonist, a drummer, a bassist, and someone playing the Bronze Age equivalent of a piano – a set of clay bottles filled to varying levels with liquid that the man was striking with sticks. The piano rang a bit hollow and the bass was a little flat, but overall the four men comprised a reasonably proficient jazz quartet. Their music was clearly influenced by both the Deep South and New Orleans, which was a problem because neither of those regions would exist, sociologically speaking, for some 3600 years. The ringleader of the group was clearly the saxophonist; the other musicians were mostly just trying to keep up.
“Who’s that on the sax?” Mercury asked the bartender, motioning toward the dark-skinned man wailing away, oblivious to both time and space.
“He’s good, huh?” said the barkeeper. “People say he’s the best saxophonist who ever lived.”
Mercury frowned. “Are there other saxophonists around?”
The bartender shook his head. “Hell, no. Can you imagine trying to compete with that?”
Mercury had to admit the man had a point. “What’s his name?” he asked.
“That’s old Enoch. People say he was given his gift by the gods themselves. What’s your name, stranger? Don’t recall seeing you around these parts.”
“I’m Mercury,” said Mercury. “I’m what you’d call a talent agent. My employer is very interested in your sax player.
While they spoke, a gap-toothed whore sidled up to Mercury, smiling at him in a manner that might have been seductive about sixteen years and twelve teeth ago. Even in the flickering torchlight of the cave, it was clear she was well past her prime.
“I’m Tana,” she said. “You want some company?” Her breath smelled like rotting cabbage.
“Sorry,” said Mercury, waving his hand in an exaggerated gesture of dismissal that he hoped would at least stir up the air a bit. “I’m on the job. Also, I’ve already got a whore.”
“You do, huh?” said Tana, her breath carrying suspicion and the stench of death. “Where does she work?”
“Alas,” said Mercury longingly, “Babylon.”
“Hmph,” grunted Tana, and slipped away to ply her wares elsewhere.
The band stopped for a break and the scattered patrons of the club smacked their foreheads politely with their palms.
The bartender whistled through his teeth and beckoned for Enoch, who strolled nonchalantly over.
“What it is,” announced Enoch, a short, swarthy man with locks of tightly curled graying-black hair framing a gentle, intelligent face. He nodded to the bartender, who handed him a small glass of clear liquid. Enoch tossed back the shot and slammed the glass down on the granite, sucking air in through his teeth. He motioned for another.
“You’ve been holding out on me,” said Mercury to the bartender. “What is that, gin?” He looked sadly down at his own cup of fermented juice.
The bartender ignored him, handing another shot glass to Enoch. “This man’s a talent angel,” said the bartender to Enoch. Says his boss in Babylon is interested –”
,” Mercury corrected nervously. “I’m a talent
. It would be pretty funny if I were an angel though, wouldn’t it?”
They shared a laugh, acknowledging that it would indeed be pretty funny.
“As my friend here says,” Mercury went on, “I represent certain entertainment interests in Babylon. Specifically, I’m charged with putting together a jazz quartet for Babylon’s premiere nightclub, and as our lead sax player isn’t due to be born for nearly 3800 years, I’m in a bit of a bind.”
Enoch and the bartender stared dumbly at him.
“That’s a joke, of course,” said Mercury. “How could I know what’s going to happen 3800 years from now? I couldn’t even find my socks this morning.”
Enoch and the bartender laughed again, even though they didn’t know what socks were. This Babylonian was quite the character, they had decided.
“My employer is prepared to pay you handsomely,” Mercury said. “However much fermented juice and cabbage-scented whores you’re getting here, we’ll triple it and throw in twenty goats. You’ll smell like Mickey Rourke by the time we’re done with you.”
Suddenly the nightclub became very quiet – quieter than an inappropriate Mickey Rourke reference warranted. Enoch and the bartender were stock still, their eyes affixed on the opening of the cave. Mercury turned.
Three men, armed with bronze-tipped spears, had entered. The leader was a brawny man who had the confident swagger of a Kassite. “We come for the money,” he said. His henchmen scowled and gripped their spears menacingly.
“I… I don’t have it,” answered the bartender, quivering. “I barely make enough to keep this cave open as it is.”
“Do I look like I care about your problems?” growled the Kassite. “I got problems o’ my own. Chief of which, if I don’t show up at Sargon’s place with twenty shekels of silver by nightfall, he’s going to take my left testicle.”
“Well,” said Mercury, “Technically you don’t need both of them. As long as you have one testicle, there’s no reason you can’t lead a perfectly normal –”
“That’s true,” agreed the Kassite. “I still have one. Would you like to see it? I keep it in a jar as a reminder
never to settle for less than twenty shekels of silver
.” He motioned to the henchman on his left, who began rummaging about in a cloth sack at his belt.
“That’s okay,” said Mercury, waving his hand. “I’m sure everyone here has seen a pickled testicle in a jar.” The bar’s patrons mumbled to each other and nodded. Mercury went on, “I have to admit that’s a pretty good mnemonic device, though. I usually just tie a string around my finger, but I bet that having someone follow you around with your left nut in a jar works too.”
“Who is this fool?” growled the Kassite.
“Name’s Mercury. I don’t want any trouble. Enoch the sax player and I were just leaving.”
The Hittite glared at him. “Just leaving, were you? What’s this he’s carrying?” He turned to Enoch. “What’s this you’re carrying?”
“It’s my sax,” said Enoch.
“Yes, my sax.”
“Well,” said the Kassite. “It’s my sax now.”
“Look,” said Mercury, “you can’t compensate for your lost manhood by grabbing the sax of a strange man in a bar. It’s not healthy.”
“Take the instrument,” the Kassite barked. “And kill the freakishly tall one.”
“Hey,” Mercury retorted. “I’m not the one who’s a marble short of a set.”
A henchman moved to take the saxophone from Enoch. The other brought the tip of his spear up to Mercury’s throat.
“No!” howled the bartender. “Not inside! He’ll bleed everywhere!”
Mercury shot a disappointed look at the bartender, who shrugged apologetically.
“And here I thought we had bonded,” said Mercury.
Suddenly the cave darkened. Another half dozen men had appeared at the cave’s opening, blotting out most of the sunlight. The cave was illuminated only by the flickering light of the torch behind the bar.