When she reached the bottom of the slope, she came across two hundred mules tethered to two hundred desks. They were facing two hundred computers. Every once in a while they moved keys on the keypads with their snouts. She asked a stout looking male mule what he was doing. “Navigating for my hawk!” snorted the male mule. “It’s a living!”
“Are all you mules navigating for hawks?” asked Sarah.
“Yes!” snorted the male mule. “My hawk has a dozen navigators!”
“Careful!” sniffed a nearby female mule. “They may hear you!”
“Oh dear!” snorted the male mule.
Among the mules there were a dozen human-sized praying mantises. They were cracking whips with their spiked forelegs and reading out loud from a book of rules.
“If I am seen talking to you, Human beast,” said the male mule Sarah had been chatting with, “they will punish me! If they ask you, could you please tell them that you talked to me first!?”
“Why?” asked Sarah.
“We’re not supposed to talk unless spoken to first!” he told her. “It’s one of the rules!”
“I shouldn’t have spoken to my mule friend!” confided the female mule who had spoken. “I shouldn’t be talking to you!”
“Are there many rules?” asked Sarah.
“Lots!” said the male mule. “I’d best get on with my navigating!”
“Goodbye,” Sarah told the mules as she began to walk away. “Good luck with your navigating.”
Then, from the other side of the hill, came the roar of a dozen low flying World War Two Japanese Zeros. They were being chased by a dozen American Hellcat fighter planes. The Hellcats were hot on the tails of the Zeros and managed to shoot down two before the remaining planes disappeared into the distance. One Zero did drop a bomb before going away. It exploded a short distance from the mules.
This has nothing to do with Pearl Harbor, thought Sarah. Hellcats didn’t come into that war until much later. Even so, these Hellcats are like dark mules with wings and the Zeros are like great big butterflies with bombs and a work ethic strange for butterflies.
Out of the bomb dust a figure stirred. What was it? The sky was darkening and a savage wind was stirring. It hammered at the desks of the mules and threatened to drive the hawks from the heavens. Then a flash of lightning revealed the presence in the bomb dust of an old Asian witch with her face painted white and her lips decorated a cherry red. She had on a white flowing gown that moved swiftly. It moved as rapidly as her black fluid hair. She ventured closer to the mules. As she got nearer to them the intensity of the wind increased.
A desk was overturned in the ensuing gale, freeing a mule from his tether. The mule then kicked the witch, sending her into a dozen computers. Sparks flew as the witch, choking to death from a crushed windpipe breathed her last.
“God help us!” cried the male mule that was closest to the dead witch. “God help the one responsible!”
The mule who had kicked the witch, who also happened to be a male, cried out: “No! I didn’t want to do it! I didn’t mean to do it!”
“She was bad,” said Sarah.
“Was she really?” questioned one of the praying mantises. “Or was she simply doing what one would expect a wind witch to do?”
“A wind witch?” questioned Sarah.
“Yes,” hissed the praying mantis in Sarah’s face. “Would you deny a wind witch her ancestry? Would you deny a wind witch her culture? Would you do these things for the sake of some puny computer slave? Well! Would you, my dear, would you?!”
“I don’t know!” cried Sarah in confusion as the wind faded to nothing and hideous insect like orbs bored into her eyes.
“I don’t know!” Sarah screamed after a moment of heavy silence as the air became still, the fog came in and so did the static.
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Review by Neil K. Henderson
Knightswood, Glasgow G13 4SB, Scotland, U.K.
DESK JOB: SARAH IN OFFICE-LAND by Rod Marsden, ISBN 978-1-937769-14-7 Night to Dawn Books, P.O. Box 643, Abington, PA 19001, USA (www.bloodredshadow.com) 243 pp.
Set in the offices of a big Sydney business concern in the 1990s, DESK JOB, by former Masque Noir editor Rod Marsden, reads like staring through a hothouse window at a weird menagerie of mismatched captive fauna. Among the exotic and nightmarish metaphors for office “types” such as praying mantises (women “of a certain age” out for blood at a sniff of male impropriety), dung beetles (sycophants to the mantises), hawks (upwardly mobile managers), caterpillars (semi-comatose top brass), mules (disregarded drudges) and butterflies (pretty young do-nothings) and their older, drabber moth counterparts real human souls live out daily dramas in this infernal inversion of Alice’s Wonderland. Animal behavior is controlled by the government-imposed political correctness dictates of the period. No one dares infringe the rights of a “protected species.” On the other hand, it’s open season on the native wildlife. Tensions mount. Fear, paranoia and madness ensue, until one employee is murdered by another while most are too busy watching their own backs to notice. It’s the kind of mess you’d need a psychic investigator to work out.
Enter Sarah Hollingsworth, who’s seen it all already in a dream. She can read people’s minds to present the reader with psychological profiles and biographical insights into the group of characters under the microscope. (She even interviews the victim!) This lets her give the kind of non-judgmental overview that keeps things nicely in balance and stops the reader (and some of the characters) from totally losing the plot. She also provides a few surprises along the way with her own interaction among the forces of the mystical realm. It’s a testament to Rod Marsden’s easy style, that the whole unfolding kaleidoscope of animal imagery, social comment and dark fantasy reads with a page-turning immediacy that keeps the attention gripped until a satisfactory conclusion is reached. (Not so much a Who Dunnit, this, as a Why Dunnit.)
But that conclusion is not the end of the book. What Marsden does with the remaining third is to literalise the previously metaphorical types as living dream creatures, in a totally fantastical coda section reflecting back the Lewis Carroll motifs from a new perspective. Sarah here ventures through an interdimensional portal, like Alice’s looking glass, to interact with real mantises and beetles and a Queen of Hearts who wants to psych out the office workers visa computer consoles and hand-mirror gateways. A fast and furious fantasy adventure follows, ensuring the novel achieves a flying finish.
Sandwiched in between the episodic close-ups on specific cases in part one, collected quotes from contemporary Australian books on office psychology provide a comic Greek chorus to the developing drama. These interludes continue as a unifying factor through the second part. Here, the lika-lika bird (every conversation starts or ends with “Like a”) rears her gorgeously plumaged head. She’s still young and uncorrupted, prior to landing that fatal office job. Her outside view is refreshingly alternative. There is also the graffiti-spraying mall rat, destined to become a mule, or even a hawk, someday.
It is difficult to encapsulate in a brief review the complex interplay of fantastical dream situations, figuratively represented actuality and actualised fantasy contained in DESK JOB. Odd magical moments come to mind, such as the vision of several “brown-nose” dung beetles lining up to boil themselves in a cauldron because the praying mantis they worship likes soup. There’s also the annoying whistling man who appears in the office every so often, and is perfunctorily assaulted by a member of staff. Then there’s the cats which periodically pop through mirrors or get their tails pulled by startled mortals. Particularly amusing is the scene near the end of lika-lika birds all crowding round one such hand-mirror, convinced that the cat which just appeared was cleverly programmed in by the manufacturers. I can just see them haunting all the shops in Sydney asking for the mirrors with the pop-out cats.
Does that make sense? Not maybe on the face of things, but in the context of this curiously individual and delightfully engaging novel it makes perfect sense. If you don’t believe me, I recommend you take a psychic trip through the portal of its covers and experience it for yourself. DESK JOB is a book with “Read Me” written all over it.