Between Iraq and a Hot Place

 

"I don't want excuses, Dweezil, I want perversion, I want hostilities--I want conflict and I want plenty of it!"  Nick ran his long, perfectly-manicured fingers through his hair as if his head hurt. The thinning gray strands didn't provide much resistance.  "Milksops and dainty Marys--that's what you've been scheduling." 
 
Dressed in his favorite black suit, shirt, and red tie, Nick was camera-ready and in full-speed mode when his producer caught up with him backstage. The shorter Dweezil had trouble keeping pace. Every few steps he/she had to perform a sort of hop, skip, and jump to stay in range.

"When was the last time you got me a contentious psychopath or a hardcore religious fanatic? Huh? Or even a habitual peeping tom? I can't remember the last time I was able to goad so much as a sincere obsessive-compulsive shopaholic. Let’s face it, Dweezil, you’ve been shooting blanks."

Looking chagrined, the producer replied, his/her East Indian British accent cracking defensively.

"I am aware there has been a rather insipid stench related to our most recent programming. However, I have several non compos mentis candidates queued for next week."

"Next week!" Nick threw his hands above his head. "This show's running on a wing and curse as it is! We’re near critical mass. We could go down in flames before next week's even on the calendar--and you know I mean flames." 

Nick snapped his fingers and pointed his bony index at Dweezil. "We need depravity, we need pugnacious, spiky-haired deviants, we need the cream of the corruptible and incorrigible, we need some flaming head-cases and we need them now, Dweezil. This is no time for one of your fastidious surgical strikes. It’s time for you to bite the bullet and bring out the big guns."

They passed two grips raising a bank of lights and practically trampled an assistant producer who was re-taping scorched stage marks. The chaos of pre-show preparation was all around them, but Nick didn't notice.

"Another thing, it's as cold as a frost giant's butt in here, Dweezil. Could we please turn down the air?"

The little producer wiped the sweat from his/her forehead. 

"You are aware we must maintain a temperature no higher than 17 degrees Celsius for the video apparatus."

"You won't care about the cameras when I come down with pneumonia. I can feel it creeping into my pores now.  See my eyes? Look at my eyes." Still trailing behind, the diminutive producer couldn’t see his boss’ eyes. "They're all red. See, I'm getting sick. Of course my eyes make a good match for my gray hair, don't you think? You see this hair, Dweezil? My hair was black when I started this show--mostly black anyway. Look at it now. Look what this show's done to me."

"I recall when I was in the employ of Madonna, we--"

"Madonna?" Nick stopped abruptly, snapped his fingers and pointed at Dweezil. "Madonna is immaterial. You don't work for Madonna anymore, do you? You work for me." Nick started forward quickly, then stopped just as suddenly. He put his arm around a stagehand and his tone softened. 

"Charlie! How you doing? How's the family?"

"Oh, hi, Mr. Mammon. They're fine, everyone's fine, thanks."

"Good to hear, Charlie. Keep up the good work."

Then he was off again at a breakneck pace, Dweezil still in his wake. 

"There’s always time to rally the troops. Remember that, Dweezil."

"Sir, there is one item I neglected to--"

"What do you think about my jaw, Dweezil?" asked Nick, patting under his chin. "I've been thinking maybe I should get some work done. It's a little saggy, don't you think?"

"I am not certain, sir, however a personage from--"

"It wouldn't hurt me to lose a little weight too. The last thing this show needs is a paunchy host."

"Sir, a woman from the network--"

"Wait till we get inside, okay?" Nick opened the door labeled Nick Mammon Executive Producer, walked in, and found himself face-to-face with a prim-looking blonde. She was such a remarkable vision there amidst the dingy trappings of his office that she seemed all aglow. The sight of her made him think of a bawdy jazz number. Inexplicably though, what he heard was a melodic harp. He shook off his initial stupefaction and inspected the intruder. She had on a pearly white business suit which coalesced with her alabaster skin, and an unusual, but tastefully stylish, silver headband. Her curves were in all the right places, but her face showed no signs of a smile.

"Gabrielle Goodman," introduced Dweezil, "this is Nick Mammon. Sir, Ms. Goodman is the network censor."

"Censor?”

"Actually, we prefer the term ‘envoy of compliance’. Mr. Mammon, I've--"

"Call me Nick," he said, making his admiration for her physicality obvious.

"As I was saying, Mr. Mammon, I've been assigned to scrutinize your production, observe your show, and report any findings I deem prudent to the network’s Director of Pacification."
 
"Speaking of the show, excuse me a moment, Gabrielle--mind if I call you Gabrielle, or do you prefer Gabby?"  Before she could respond, Nick snapped his fingers and pointed. 

"Dweezil, get your little hermaphroditic ass out there and make sure everything's running as smooth as Gabby's inner thighs." Nick turned to the censor. "I hope I'm not presuming too much?" 

Dweezil disappeared in a fount of steam and Nick closed his door. "You know, Gabrielle, you could have just as easily tuned in our little broadcast from Elysium Fields, or wherever it is you're stationed. You didn't have to come all the way down here. Perhaps you had something more personal in mind. If you’re looking for a little divine inspiration, I'd be more than happy to introduce you to The Serpent," said Nick, patting his crotch. "That way you could combine a little business with an obscene amount of pleasure."

The lady in white didn't budge. She didn't smile. She didn't frown. Her stony expression was unmoved.

"Mr. Mammon, I assure you I have no interest in snakes, or in reptiles of any sort. I'm here because of complaints about your show."

"Complaints? Complaints from whom?"

"Let's just say complaints from on high."

"Really?" Nick seemed genuinely surprised.

"And, may I add," she said stiffly, "my initial impression of your conduct only serves to exacerbate preconceptions which, as a neutral observer, I've made every attempt to disregard."

Nick threw his hands up in a gesture of surrender. "Hey, what can I say? It's what we do down here. This is show business, Ms. Goodbody. I just give the people what they want."

“Hostility and havoc? Discord and distrust? Fear? That’s what you think the people want?”

“Everybody loves a good train wreck.”

She stared at him, keeping her emotions, if any, in check. “Did you ever consider that harmony and reason might strike a popular chord, given the chance?”

“I’ve considered a lot of things. However, it’s my experience there’s no market for harmony, and the voice of reason is usually hushed by the tumultuous crescendo of the rabble.”

The door opened and Dweezil stuck her/his head in. "Two minutes."

"I'd love to chat you up more, sugar lips, but I've got a show to do. Grab yourself a good seat. Maybe afterwards I can show you around some of our darker corners, and we can discuss the ramifications of libidinous deprivation."

 
"And now, ladies and gentlemen, and those of you who deign to be categorized, live from Ocularis Infernum Studios, it's time to play...”  Dweezil's disembodied voice cascaded through the cavernous studio with an unearthly resonance, his/her accent no longer distinguishable, he/she paused to let the audience finish with him/her, “The Hell You Say!"     

"Here's your host--the Duke of Darkness, the Supreme Commander of Conflict, the Lord of Lust, Nick Mammon!"

Nick sprinted on stage through a mock, fiberglass Stonehenge and was greeted by a salacious onslaught of applause. He wallowed in it momentarily, then raised his hands for silence.
 
"Welcome, everyone. Welcome to the show that sticks its tongue out at placidity and prudery, and gives chastity a well-deserved slap on the ass." As the wave of laughter washed over him, Nick pretended to shield his eyes from the bright lights and scan the audience. "It looks like we have a particularly gruesome congregation tonight. Well, you won't be disappointed. We have for you one of the most belligerent and degenerate shows you will ever see, so let's get right to it!" More applause. "But first, let me introduce the she-beast that needs no introduction, the purveyor of pain and pleasure, my lovely assistant, Mistress Erin!"

A statuesque redhead wearing black leather straps and shreds of gossamer chain mail strolled out stage left. A malicious sneer adorned her harsh face. She smiled only briefly as she cracked her whip.

"Now let's meet tonight's contestants." Nick paused for the disco-pop music to come up, then continued. "She's a former choir girl, now working as a spokesmodel for the chemical warfare industry--a luscious 38 double-D with a passion for hot oil massages and a penchant for guys with particularly hairy backs. Let's have a big hand for a real fallen angel, Sasha Dhum!"

Applause and scattered whistles greeted the voluptuous brunette with a dark upper lip that hinted at a testosterone imbalance.

"Our next contestant says he’s a college dropout and proud of it. He’s a card-carrying member of the NRA who works in his father’s marketing business, has a thing for big butts, and takes golden showers to relax. He not only has a minor criminal record, but registered a truly vile score on our moral turpitude test. Meet a real flag-waving scoundrel, Jorge Chaparral!"

More applause and some screams as the smiling contestant plodded out--plodded until the hostess' whip kissed his rump and sent him scurrying.

"Looks like Erin's already got a thing for you, Jorge.”

The audience laughed.

 “Before we begin, tell them what they're playing for, Dweezil."

"You'll have a hot time in Hades without any nasty napalm burns wearing your Vulcan all asbestos body suit!" As the hermaphroditic producer's voice boomed through the studio, Mistress Erin batted the body suit with the butt of her whip to demonstrate its durability. "Next, you'll think you're in Heaven after spending endless hours with your new Orgasmatron, Playco's latest prod of joy and anguish." Erin ran her fingers lovingly over the appliance as Camera Four zoomed in for a close-up. "Finally, our winner will spend two sin-filled nights at the fabulous Underworld Hotel, where he or she will be joined by Satan himself!” Various stills of the hotel flashed across the monitors. “There they'll dine in the romantic Ember Room overlooking Acheron, the River of Sadness, and spend the day in a tortuous rock climb through the rarefied and smoke-filled air of breathtaking Fire Falls."

"That's one depraved package you've put together there, Dweezil," said Nick, returning to center stage. "I feel a bad case of satyriasis coming on, so let's get started with The Hell You Say! We begin by putting our contestants on the hot seat with some locked and loaded questions. Let’s begin with Jorge.

“Now, Jorge, if Sasha had a really nice car--a car you really wanted--would you A) Try to buy it from her, B) Seduce her and borrow it, C) Send a couple of goons over to stomp her and take the car, or D) Suppress your desire for the automobile?”

“Well, Nick,” replied the weasel-eyed contestant in a high-pitched drawl, “I’d have to think on it.”  He pondered the question as the audience barked out its choices like a pack of deranged canines.

“Quickly now, Jorge, I need your answer.”

“Shoot, I guess I’d say C. I’d have someone stomp her and, uh, whatever else you said.”

A raucous howl of approval rose from the audience, mingling with explosive sound effects.

“You nailed it, Jorge! Answer C was good for the maximum 100 points on that question. Now let’s go to Sasha, turning that same question around.

“Sasha, if you had intelligence that Jorge had launched a covert act of violence against you, would you A) Convert your assets to cash, deposit them in a Swiss bank account, and go into hiding, B) Try to negotiate a compromise, C) Set a trap for the goons and deliver their mutilated bodies to Jorge, or D) Retaliate with a strike against Jorge’s friends and family?”

Against the tumult of the audience, the bosomy contestant with the hint of a mustache blurted out her answer. “C, Nick, I’ll take answer C.”

Her response was greeted by rather watered-down sound effects.

“I’m sorry, Sasha,” said Nick as though he really wasn’t. “While you did score 30 points with that answer, we were looking for D, retaliate with a strike against Jorge’s friends and family. But you’ve still got plenty of time to catch up. Let’s go to our next question . . . .”

 
Nick plopped down on his couch and was pulling the padding out of his pants as Dweezil slid into the room via a soft-shoe routine.

"Ninety seconds until we come out of break, sir,” warned Dweezil, “and the network censor is proceeding in this direction.”

"Do you think she likes me?"  Nick pulled off his shoes and let them drop. "These new lifts are killing my feet. I think she’s got the hots for me. What do you think?"

"Oh, I'm certain you have stoked her carnal fires into a frenzy, sir."

"You know, Dweezil, you're so funny you should have your own show. Now go keep an eye on mine, and don't let Erin get carried away with that whip. You know how she likes to abuse the audience. I'll be out before you can resurrect Barnum and Bailey."

"Mr. Mammon." The network representative struck a rigid pose in the doorway.         

"I'm sorry, Ms. Goodthighs, but I've got only a few seconds before I’m back on."

"Mr. Mammon," she said without flinching, "you can't use the word 'Heaven' on this show."

"What?"

"Your announcer said 'Heaven,' you can't do that."

"Why the hell not?"

"You just can't. We can't allow that. It’s not appropriate, and there are proprietary concerns."

Nick shrugged his shoulders and put his shoes back on. 

“You know, Gabby, we’re like oil and water, you and I--okay, more like unrefined crude and Avian, but I think we could be a good mix, if only--“

“Excuse me, sir,” said Dweezil, materializing four feet off the ground as a ghostlike apparition. “As much as I detest interrupting a moment as splendid as this one--”

“Dweezil, when I want to hear from the wee people I’ll kick a mushroom. What is it?"

"He is on the telephone for you, sir.

Nick cringed involuntarily.

“Is he in Washington?"

“No, sir, I believe he’s calling from Baghdad this time.”

“If you’ll excuse me, Gabby, I need to take this call. We’ll continue our little tete-a-tit later.”

As soon as she left, Nick turned to Dweezil. 

"Does he sound like it’s bad news?"

"Is it ever good news when he calls?"

Nick didn't bother to answer.

"Mammon here," he said, picking up the bronzed goat horn on his desk. "Yes, your demonship. .... Sir? ..... No, sir, I wouldn't presume to make sport of you. ..... Yes, I know the ratings have been down. ..... They were down that much for our first segment? ...... Well it's tough doing a show with this network censor hovering over me. ..... Of course you don't want any excuses, and I would never-- ...... Yes, your Unholiness. ..... Yes, don't worry.  The second half of our show's a killer.  My producer stakes her/his life on it. ..... I will, we will. ..... Goodbye, sir.

"Dweezil!"

"Right here."

"Did you hear that?  He’s pissing brimstone about the ratings. He said he'll have my balls on a silver platter if we don't spice things up. You're my producer, what are you going to do about it?"

"Polish the silver, sir?"

  
“...very well played, Sasha. Your victory in the Megatons for Megapoints round gives you the lead.” Nick sidled up next to her and spoke conspiratorially, though his amplified voice could be heard by all. “I have to say, the way you bombed Jorge’s cities back into the Stone Age was downright inspiring. Don’t you agree, audience?” The audience did--vociferously. “It nearly brought a tear to my eye. Kind of reminded me of the way my dear old mother used to wallop the bejesus out of me.

“But I digress. Enough fond reminisces. Up next, your favorite segment and mine--How violent-crazy-vicious are you?” 

Nick blew a kiss to the audience as Dweezil's voice droned, "We'll be back right after this message about Styx's Stigmata Salve. The new, improved way to fight off symptoms of sainthood."
 

"Mr. Mammon." 

The network censor moved into his office so sylphlike you would have thought she was walking on air. 

"Ah, Ms. Goodbody, I knew you couldn’t stay away for long. How do you like the show so far?"

"It is one of the most disgusting, licentious, reprehensible displays of debasement and aggression I have ever witnessed."

"Thanks, I thought it was pretty hot too. I don't suppose you're a Nielsen family are you?"

"Your attempts at levity are improper, irrelevant, and inane."

"Brilliant use of alliteration, Ms. Goodframe."

"I must concur," added Dweezil, who suddenly manifested atop a bookcase wearing a kilted gladiator outfit.

"Do you realize," she continued, ignoring their comments, "that your bilious little show is creating such mayhem that it’s having a ripple effect across the entire network? The fallout alone will mutate programming for decades to come."

"You know, Gabby, when I first saw you, I thought I was going to like you. I thought maybe you and I could enjoy a little innocuous indiscretion. But I've changed my mind. I'm tired of your holier than thou attitude. I don't think you grasp the true intellectual depth of this program--what it says about the socio-dynamics of human emotion and desire, the psychogenic give and take of Yin and Yang, Scylla and Charybdis, Abbott and Costello.

"You know what? I'm not going to listen to your pseudomorphic, pedantic pessimism." Moved by the timbre of his/her boss’ rant, Dweezil began humming The Battle Hymn of the Republic. "No longer will I lie down with the downtrodden. I say, up with people! Down with seraphic totalitarianism! Are you with me, Dweezil?" At that, the petite producer amplified her/his humming and took up a position behind Nick. "No, I say we're as mad as hatters and we won't take it anymore!" Nick began to march in place and Dweezil joined him, still humming away. "Come, Dweezil, the disenfranchised multitudes must be unfettered."

Nick snapped his fingers, pointed out the door, and together they marched from the room, both now humming the hymn.

 
“...whooooa! That was foul! Would you like to see more of that next week?” Nick extended his microphone towards the audience, which responded with its customarily mindless enthusiasm. “Who’d ever thought we could have so much fun with pugil sticks and rhino dung? I have to give credit to our loose cannon announcer for that bellicose bit. You really blew me away there, Dweezil.

“Okay, when we come back, our contestants will spin the Pentagram of Armageddon for weapons of mass destruction, conscripted armies, and big bonus points. And, we’ll find out who’ll be today’s winner of...”  The audience joined in. “The Hell You Say!”

Over the sound of applause, Dweezil’s rapid voiceover boomed formally, “All audience members will receive “The Hell You Say!” home game! 

“The producers of the show take no responsibility, incur no liability, and are indemnified against any trauma, emotional or physical, resultant conceptions, combat incursions, or loss of limb suffered by anyone playing the home game."

 
The stage lights were dark, and the last of the audience had been herded out of the studio when Nick fell into his chair and plopped his feet on his desk. 

“Whew! Glad that’s over. I think it was a good show though.  What do you think, Dweezil? Dweezil? Where in the misbegotten bowels of Baal are you?”

The hermaphroditic gnome emerged through the back wall of Nick’s office to the triumphant blare of trumpets, wearing a burgundy silk robe and smoking a stogie the size of shotgun barrel. 

“I rather thought the show went swimmingly, sir. I was especially fond of the moment when the automatic gunfire resulted in Ms. Dhum’s incontinence.”

“That was nothing compared to when the flaming chariot swooped down and carried Jorge away. I thought he was going to have cow right there in his Satanic Majesty’s favorite ride.”

“Humorous indeed, sir. Almost as comical as the time--”

“I hope I’m not interrupting,” said Ms. Goodman, interrupting.

“Of course not, Gabby. Come right in.  Great show, huh?”

“Certainly, assuming your tastes run to a blatant disregard for the supernal principles of peace and brotherhood.”

“You’re a real hellion, aren’t you, Gabby? But piety ill becomes you.” Nick swung his feet off the desk, snapped his fingers, and aimed one digit at the censor. “You and yours, with your drive-by sermonizing, are hardly innocents in all this. You know this little skirmish isn’t about ideology. It’s about ratings--about who will stand tall in the eyes of the viewing public when the rain of fire and ash ceases to fall. This isn’t a crusade for hearts and minds, it’s show business. It’s ground zero of a hard-fought campaign for the very souls of those loyal lap dogs who fondle their remotes like worry beads. Go ahead, go back to your cherubic coven and make your report. Why--” 

Nick’s rant was gathering momentum when his goat horn rattled for attention.

“Nick Mammon, what’s your pleasure? ...... Sir, yes, sir.”  Nick sat up straight in his chair. “You didn’t care for that? ...... Well, what about the-- ...... No, I guess it wasn’t that original. ..... Sir? ...... I’ll fix it, sir.  I’ll fire my producer immediately. Better yet, I’ll have him/her flayed alive. ..... My previous job? Well, before this show I did a little stint as a succubus. ..... I guess I was good at it. Why? ..... Oh. ..... Yes, sir. ..... Yes, sir.”

Nick dropped the horn, looked at Gabrielle, then at Dweezil. 

“Apparently, the confrontational approach of our program is no longer in alignment with either the financial objectives or the philosophical goals of the network. We’ve been cancelled.”