|Loki and Erda|
I pulled the unrented rental car into a parking area beside the convenience store, backing into a space across the lot from the building. Erda and I moved several paces to get a better angle on the gas pumps and to escape the air-conditioned vehicle. Any form of temperature control disqualifies our tricks, which was why all this morning's action had to occur on the apron instead of inside the cool store.
"Loki," Erda said, "if we weren't temporarily not mortal, your driving would terrify me."
I ignored her griping. Those sentenced to terms as earth goddesses hate being cooped up. When we fly, Erda's air rage begins the moment she receives her boarding pass.
"Four cars with seven adults and two children pumping gas or doing something else outside the vehicles," I said. "Let's start simply and build up to the finale. If you see anyone smoking, warn me at once."
Erda's answer was a barrel of empty oil cans lurching sideways to strike a woman on the hip before overturning on the apron. I yanked down the absurdly long, low-riding shorts on a teen boy, who scraped his knees and the palms of his outstretched hands when he tripped. Erda hurled four oil cans through a maze of pumps and hoses to dent a Lexus's hood. The man filling its tank screamed and jumped, yanking the hose out to spray gas on the car and his shoes.
A woman stepped out of the convenience store with a cardboard tray containing two large drinks and a wrapped ham and Swiss sandwich. I levitated the drinks and poured them on her head. She tossed tray and sandwich in the air. Buttons popped as Erda ripped open her blouse to expose her torso. I took control of the sandwich before it came down and redirected it to smack a man's nose hard enough to make him bleed. The bread must have been stale. Erda scooped up a bucket of dirty, greasy water and drenched the woman she'd hit with the barrel.
Reaching his boiling point, the Lexus owner grabbed his trusty cell phone to call 911. I quickly programmed it to play Charles Ives's entire Fourth Symphony at high volume.
"Time to become a victim," I told Erda.
"I'm ready. It's too hot for clothes."
Her internal thermostat had two settings—too hot for clothes and too cold for nudity. She wore only a loose sundress. As I slid it up her body, she screamed, twisted, danced, and raised her arms so that it came off easily. Exposing her ample charms gave us no points, but it made people less likely to suspect us as sources of the telekinetic confusion we sowed.
"Let's serve the main course," I said when her dress hit the concrete.
There were eight double pumps—two rows, each containing two sets of two. We yanked the hoses out and started the gasoline flowing. About 50 gallons hit the apron, cars, and people before someone inside had the bright idea of killing the power. Erda picked up her dress and got in the car. I briefly surveyed the damage before getting behind the wheel.
"Approximately an hour to Rehoboth Beach," I told her.
"I'll dress when we get in heavy traffic. Wow! Those tricks left me high, Loki."
She got higher when we received our initial point total followed by two adjustments upward as the judges discovered how much hell a gasoline spill causes. The immortals have mental blocks when it comes to technology.
"Let's steal big steaks," Erda said. "I'll cook."
"While you cook, I'll mix potent martinis for so long as one of us can stand up."
Most people think a faux earth goddess should be lusty and cheerful. Erda measures up in the lust department, but her mood swings are radical, frequent, and unpredictable. She was altogether too high for me to bother her with my worries about why our tricks at the convenience store might still go astray. Instead, I helped with the grocery and liquor shopping. We didn't pay for anything, no more than we'd paid for the car or than Erda had paid when she conned a man in Philadelphia into giving us his beachfront condo for a week. Such self-serving tricks earned us no points.
That was one of the few absolute rules: If Erda or I in any way profited from a trick, we got zero points. That was why we hadn't slaked our thirst by swiping a couple of sodas at the convenience store. One sip would have made all our labors futile. So would have filling our car with gas, unless, of course, we'd paid for it.
Now we let the supermarket and liquor store ring up our purchases and pay us for them, a trick that took all our limited ability to control human minds. We're much better at manipulating objects. We also transferred cash from fourteen wallets and purses to our pockets. That gave us a bankroll that should let us pretend to be real people spending real money at the beach.
As I pulled out of the shopping center, Erda said, "I can't believe we didn't flatten a single tire. There must be 200 cars sitting there."
"We wouldn't have earned points," I reminded her. "With our luck, we'd have probably selected the one guy ready to have a heart attack the next time he touches a jack or a lug wrench."
"Both those rules are too tight, Loki."
I wished she wouldn't risk upsetting the immortal judges. They have delicate egos and dislike criticism. Our sentence was to wander Earth until we amassed sufficient points to escape the planet. Only the judges knew the total required and our current standing. We might well be in the hole.
We paid points as rent each day. Again, we had no idea how many. Erda's distrust of the immortals' fair play was irrelevant. They set and interpreted the rules. We'd been told when sentenced that the judges would notify, admonish, and even punish us if we went too far in the hole.
The immortals were especially solicitous of human well-being. Kill, maim, or make seriously ill any man or woman, boy or girl, and the penalty wiped out months of work. Minor injuries, such as the bloody nose from the flying sandwich or rashes caused by gasoline on tender skin, added to the point value. The boy whose shorts I'd yanked down was an example. His skinned knees were in our favor. A cracked patella that left him limping for the remainder of his life would draw a penalty.
Once we reached the condominium, we drank, drank some more, ate, and settled our digestive systems with a couple of fresh drinks. The judges' final report arrived. Any future risk factors stemming from our caper at the convenience store weren't our responsibility. The immortals congratulated us for a daring trick.
"What risk factors?" Erda asked me.
"Gasoline is flammable. That's why you helped look for anyone smoking. And the guy with the Lexus and cell phone is an incipient cardiac meltdown."
"You planned ahead, Loki. I never do. Want to hit the boardwalk and pick up some more points?"
"Sure. Dress properly, Erda. The town fathers consider this a family resort."
A woman sentenced to a term as earth goddess must shelve modesty. Or perhaps the immortals choose faux earth goddesses from the ranks of the immodest. However cause leads to effect, Erda's notion of proper dress made us conspicuous. She had no lingerie with her. A skirt any shorter would have been a technicality. Her top, held up by two skinny straps, was styled to stop well short of the skirt's waistband. If she raised her arms, more than Erda's convex belly would show.
Earth goddesses revel in dirt. She walked barefoot. That meant we couldn't legally go into shops, bars, arcades, or restaurants. It was no loss. Since America currently is on a pace to air condition the entire galaxy by 2055, most buildings are useless venues.
"Remember," I said as we left the condo, "if you get hungry or thirsty or develop a sudden desire for a souvenir, I'm carrying cash."
"Poor Loki. My impulses drive you crazy."
"Most of the time, Erda, your impulses make you the most fascinating creature I've ever known."
"My fire melts your ice?" she asked, chuckling softly. "I promise to be a good bad goddess."
Our building had boardwalk in front of it, and we needed only walk a short distance north to reach the busiest, tackiest strip of tourist traps. As we moved, we overturned barrels of trash from a sufficient distance not to be suspected and tipped over the tall lifeguard chairs on the beach. We also yanked down a dozen boys' shorts or slacks, causing most to trip and curse loudly. When we saw a woman or girl in a skirt or dress, we lifted it. Erda wasn't the only female who eschewed lingerie in hot weather.
We popped balloons held by adults or teens, but were careful not to spoil the fun of any children. The immortals would have penalized us for that. When we reached the spot where two girls' sundresses had got lifted, I raised Erda's skirt without warning. She shrieked as loudly as they had, swatted at it to get it down, and danced her bosom to below her top. Eventually, she got herself back in place.
"What the hell was that?" she asked loudly, causing some teens to giggle.
"An interesting show."
"Get out of here, you rat."
She punched my shoulder playfully, almost knocking me onto the beach.
These were minor tricks worth only a few points. If the embarrassment they caused was totally faked to fit mores, they'd bring us no score. We hadn't planned this expedition, and it seemed unlikely that we'd serendipitously discover any big point makers. Then we reached a street and saw two police cars. The officers were investigating what was upsetting tourists on the boardwalk. Stamping out horseplay was more important than stopping speeders. I took one car, Erda the other.
Both of us got the lights flashing and sirens wailing. The cops ran back to the vehicles and tried to stop the noise, all the while looking for the criminal who'd tampered with them. When one started to use the radio, I set it to play the overture for Carmen. Erda cranked up her police radio to blare out hot Dixieland.
We drifted on north to a miniature golf course. As the sirens and music blared in the background, probably waking up every bird within blocks as well as any tourists who'd gone to bed early, we sat on a boardwalk bench that let us observe the players. They consisted primarily of dating teens, teens in groups trying to create a dating situation, and family parties.
"It's cute when little kids win," Erda said.
"While adults get frustrated? Let's do it."
We stayed on the bench at first, working on those holes we could see. When a crowd gathered and blocked our view, we got up and joined them, as if curious to learn what the fuss was about. That brought more holes within visual range. One limitation was that we must see the object being manipulated in order to violate natural laws or create unexpected effects. It's a less restrictive condition than it sounds. For example, we'd needed see only the police cars, not the switches activating lights, sirens, and radios. Once the Lexus driver had pulled out his cell phone, I could program it without reading the buttons clearly.
Erda concentrated on the children, especially the tykes barely old enough to hold a putter and swat at a ball. They made some amazing holes in one. That left me free to help teens' and adults' balls hop over the boards, get caught in traps, and circle holes like a dog that can't decide where and when to lie down and finally walks away. Then we discovered that loosely held putters could jump up and goose nearby players. We left as two fights broke out.
A pair of cops running toward trouble passed us. I looked back and jerked one's trousers down, sending him sprawling. That was a good camouflage move. In her impulsiveness, Erda rarely looks back. One of the quickest ways to draw suspicion is to keep everything in front of us.
Two more cruisers were parked besides the ones we'd fixed as officers tried to kill lights, sirens, and radios. Erda and I exchanged smiles. Once we'd activated more lights and sirens, she programmed a radio to play steel band numbers. I countered with Gustav Mahler's Eighth Symphony.
"Lots of bare women?" Erda asked.
"That's nice. Let's shred their clothes so they can't use them for cover."
I said, "That could help the point value."
We exert sufficient psychic force to move automobiles, although not at high speed. That makes shredding clothes as we strip a man or woman easy. Of course, it isn't easy on the victims. It tends to leave them sore and occasionally bruised, conditions for which the judges award additional points.
Between us, we bared around 15 women standing on the street near the cop cars before people started running in panic. Some ran our way. I quickly turned and shredded Erda's two garments. Even as she screamed and danced, she stripped two teens who wore as little as she did. I looked back to the way we'd come and saw the cops charging toward us.
This time I tore off their shirts before yanking their pants down.
Two other officers tried herding nudes. Those men not with a bare lady, as well as a few escorts as ungentlemanly as I was, stared, analyzed female attributes, and cheered. Acting solicitous toward Erda, I got an angle to strip three teens. Their giggly response suggested a low point total, if any. Erda faced the ocean and undressed four women who'd run to the beach. I looked south and got two matrons. They stood there boldly as I undressed them and the shreds of their clothing blew away. We'd hit a barrier. Most of the women who hadn't fled were hanging around in hopes of exhibiting their goodies without guilt.
"Are you all right, ma'am?"
A woman and a cop. Erda and I combined to strip her down to her gun belt within seconds.
The judges' dislike of law officers doubles the value of whatever we do to a cop.
"I'd say I'm as all right as you are, officer," Erda told her. "Kind of bounces you around, doesn't it?"
"What the hell is causing it?" the cop asked.
"Finding out is your department. Loki, walk me home before men start grabbing. This has been a great start to a vacation. I wish I had a souvenir picture of a nude cop and a nude me talking."
The cop ran back to the cars, no doubt looking for a blanket. Erda and I walked briskly south. We got to an area with only a few naked women and finally to a spot where Erda was the only one. She slowed down and put her arm around me. A night like this left her thirsty and passionate.
We spent about four hours on the beach the next morning and early afternoon, but except for spilling drinks, getting sand in hot dogs, and occasionally yanking off all or part of a swimsuit, we laid off tricks. We were conspicuous. There aren't too many blonde, faux earth goddesses who overload a bikini the way Erda does. Part of our condition is that we neither burn nor tan, making our pale flesh stand out in the bronze crowd of sun worshipers.
There was another reason for minimizing the tricks. The place to get the most points was in the surf. That area was filled with children darting in and out of the ocean.
Once we'd showered away the sand and sweat and eaten a late lunch, I drove to Lewes. I turned on a road that led by a fancy inn and paralleled the canal. The head boats had begun coming in. All sizes and styles of private vessels were tied up on both sides. Erda looked at me and smiled.
"Now?" she asked.
"Tonight. We'll try the other side. That's where I see most of the fancy boats. We undo the lines and move them. It's easier to get a boat drifting than to push a car."
"I'm glad they paired me with you, Loki. You plan ahead. Sometimes I think I could do this forever."
I bit back my agreement. I liked being paired with Erda, and the nomadic existence and trick playing suited my personality. I doubted that the judges wanted us happy. The personalities of Erda and Loki were, after all, a sentence for misbehavior elsewhere.
We stopped in an outdoor bar for drinks. Service was nonexistent, so we undressed three waitresses and headed for our condo. There we made plans. Or, to be accurate, I made plans and Erda agreed.
"Dark clothing," I told her. "We'll find a convenient place to park the car for a fast getaway, then walk toward the mouth of the canal. When we reach the last boat, we start untying while we work our way back. First we eat a leisurely dinner at a nice restaurant. I'll pay. No tricks there, no matter how tempting."
Erda chose a slip-dress. The dress, what there was of it, was black.
After a seafood dinner, we drove to Lewes. I found a parking space used during the day by those who went out on head boats. It was in a dark area and well back from the docks. Erda removed her shoes and walked barefoot as we headed toward the ocean end of the canal. A lot of boats were tucked closely together. I chuckled softly. Erda giggled and hugged me so tightly I gasped for breath.
"Most have two lines over," I pointed out. "The really big ones have more hooked around bollards."
We undid lines and gave boats shoves toward the middle of the canal.
Gangways began dropping into the water. Once we got the rhythm going, Erda and I worked rapidly. Maybe we could make it back to where we'd parked and drive around to the other side of the canal to untie more boats. When boats bang together, paint jobs get damaged and hulls dented. The greater the monetary damage, the higher our point total.
Making it to the other side of the canal seemed unlikely, though. We heard a chorus of yells and curses behind us. Just as we started on our first head boat, a woman screamed. The timbre was different. Recognizing terror, Erda and I reversed course and ran toward the noise's source.
"My baby! We're drifting out to sea! My baby!"
It was neither the smallest nor largest boat we'd untied. The young woman on the deck held an infant. She screamed again and jumped into the canal, the child clutched to her chest. Erda swore and dived into the dirty water.
Faux earth goddesses swim like buxom otters. A few powerful strokes took her to the floundering woman. Treading water, Erda talked to the mother. I joined my mind to hers in convincing the woman to surrender her baby. Once Erda had the little one, she held it aloft in one hand, rolled onto her left side, and shot toward the dock.
I knelt to meet her. She handed me the tiny boy.
"Don't drop him, Loki," she said.
Erda swam back out and helped our adult victim to the dock. She lifted the almost hysterical woman halfway onto it before two men reached down to haul our victim the rest of the way up. Erda gracefully pulled herself out of the water, knelt for a minute, then stood. The woman finished coughing, fought off the men holding her up, and wildly looked around.
"Here," I said, thrusting the infant into her arms. "Any kid who yells this lustily isn't hurt."
The woman said, "Where's that angel who saved us? What a night for my husband to go get drunk with his buddies."
A hot domestic spat should give us a whopping bonus.
Erda patted her shoulder and said, "Honey, we're no angels."
Two cop cars skidded to a halt. Both officers jumped out and ran toward us. Apparently one entry criterion for all forces in Delaware is running 100 meters in less than fifteen seconds at every opportunity. Erda and I didn't need to consult. As they started to slow, we yanked down their trousers. One did a painful dive on the dock. The other had too much momentum to stop and went into the canal, knocking a woman overboard with him. In the confusion we walked briskly to our car.
"Is there any pleasure that matches depantsing a cop?" Erda asked as I drove out of Lewes.
"There's no pleasure that matches you," I said. "Let's get you in a hot shower, Erda."
"We don't catch colds, Loki. If we hit the boardwalk…"
"You smell like a decaying refinery. Besides, we're in trouble."
She showered while I mixed a shaker of martinis over ice. Wet and nude, her golden hair tangled, her aroma considerably sweeter, Erda came into the kitchen and poured herself one.
"My fault," she said. "We aren't on this planet to do good deeds."
"Shut up. The rescue has my full approval. I'm glad you're impulsive. By the time I reasoned it out, they'd have drowned. Any error is entirely mine."
"I don't see it that way."
I said, "I didn't want to sink boats or hurt anyone. I figured dents and scratches, gangways in the water, lost sleep, lots of recriminations and law suits. I never dreamed someone could panic the way that woman did. I honestly thought this trick carried less risk than yesterday's gasoline spill."
"IT DID," they said.
Three immortals, shimmering irises overcrowding the kitchen, joined us and split the rest of the shaker of martinis among themselves. When one spoke, all spoke, yet all spoke as one.
"HURT NO BABIES. KILL NO HUMANS."
The reminder of the rules made Erda and me shiver.
"YOUR POINT TOTAL IS ZERO. YOUR QUOTA IS ZERO. YOU'RE HAPPY HERE AS TRICKSTERS."
They stated an obvious truth.
"YOUR NEW SENTENCE IS TO BECOME LOKI AND ERDA INDEFINITELY. ATTACK POMPOSITY WHEREVER YOU FIND IT. AFFLICT THE WEALTHY AND POWERFUL. WHEN YOU SEE THE HELPLESS IN NEED OF AID, REMEMBER TONIGHT AND DO LIKEWISE."
They shimmered and shimmied out of the condo. Erda picked up the empty shaker and stared at it.
"Do I mix more?" she asked. "Or do we hit the boardwalk?"
I looked at the wall clock and said, "There'll still be a few stragglers around."
"And employees. Don't forget the employees, Loki. Bad things can happen to them when they come out of their air-conditioned sanctuaries."
She ran to the bedroom to dress.