Authors: Paul Gamble
He felt slightly more reassured when he noticed a five-foot teddy bear walking along the corridor. It was a pleasant gold shade, and bits of its fur looked slightly worn, as if it had been well hugged over the years. “Maybe it would be better if Cthulhu looked like that,” he said to Grey.
“The Bear?” Grey tilted his head to one side. “Perhaps. Of course the Bear is even more dangerous than Cthulhu.”
“What? That huggable lump of fur?” asked Jack.
“He's the agent we send in when everyone else fails.” Grey shook his head. “When persuading the bad guys doesn't work, when speaking to them nicely doesn't produce results, when we can't capture themÂ â¦ Well, then the Bear goes in to finish them off.”
“You're telling me that that teddy bear is a killer?”
“You'd better believe it.”
“Then why does he look like a teddy bear?”
“Because when you lean in for a hug with something that cute and adorable, the last thing you expect is that it's going to rip your face off.”
The Bear was now alongside Jack and Grey. He looked up and smiled in an impossibly cute way.
Grey nodded at the Bear. “Everything going well, Bear?”
The Bear smiled. His head bobbed from side to side as he talked. His voice sounded like church bells ringing. “It's been an amazingly brilliant day. But then every day is an amazingly brilliant day, isn't it?”
Just after he'd finished talking he dropped something that clattered to the floor. It made a metallic sound and Jack realized it was a dagger covered in blood. The Bear had also dropped something small and fleshy that looked like part of someone's vital organs.
Jack, Grey, and the Bear all looked at one another awkwardly for a moment.
“I've made an oopsie!” said the Bear, still in the cute singsong voice.
“Been taking care of business?” asked Grey.
“You betcha,” said the Bear.
Jack bent down to pick up the dagger and hand it back to the Bear.
“Just leave it, kid,” said the Bear, suddenly dropping the singsong. “You'll get blood all over your hands.”
The Bear held up his golden paws and Jack noticed for the first time that they were covered in blood. “This stuff is impossible to shift. Especially when you're covered in fur.” The Bear looked sad for a moment. “This is the worst part of my job.”
“What?” asked Jack. “Killing people?”
“Not the killing, no,” said the Bear. “It's getting clean afterward. Looks like I'll be spending the rest of the day in the hot water cycle of the washing machine. Anyway, you guys have a”âthe Bear switched back into his cutesy voiceâ“lovely day.”
The Bear bent down and picked up his dagger and the small piece of red flesh. The Bear thought for a moment and then popped the flesh into his mouth. Jack gasped.
“Sorry,” the Bear said, swallowing, “I missed lunch.”
Jack and Grey continued down the corridor.
Jack didn't know which he found harder to believe, that the Bear was a merciless killing machine, or that he got himself clean by getting into the hot water cycle of a washing machine.
Grey noticed how quiet Jack was being. “The Bear is only used as an absolute last resort, you understand. It's not how the Ministry normally works.”
Just as Jack was thinking that he was glad all his stuffed animals were safely locked in the loft, Grey turned to him and smiled.
“We're here!” said Grey.
“Where?” asked Jack.
“Behind this door is your new partner. Prepare yourself.”
Jack did his best to prepare himself. Would his partner be a cuddly toy? Or a mermaid? Or perhaps a clear blue beam of talking light? Jack wouldn't have been surprised by anything.
Squids don't have ears. Which is why you never see one on a mobile phone. Which is also why the EE network was ridiculously unsuccessful when it launched its special squid promotion a number of years ago. The idea was they would release a phone that would have three keypads instead of the conventional one. This would allow a squid with its many tentacles to dial more of its friends at once. Of course, without ears the squids couldn't actually hear what their friends were saying (although they do like texting).
Squids are therefore very selfish conversationalists. They only ever talk about themselves and rarely actually listen to what you are saying. It should also be noted that without ears squids find it difficult to wear glasses. The arms of the glasses have nothing to prop themselves against. This is why (a) you never see a squid in the local branch of Sunglass Hut and (b) they always look as if they are squinting slightly. Next time you see a squid, look closely at him and you will notice that he is squinting like a nearsighted human who has forgotten his glasses.
Jack's partner looked like a perfectly ordinary girl sitting on the edge of an office desk. Her back was turned to them.
“Not a girl with the head of an otter, then? Or a being of monstrous power? Or a small plastic soldier with a real gun?” asked Jack.
Grey shook his head. “Not everything in this place is odd. Otherwise you wouldn't be here, would you?”
There was a sharp cough from across the room. The girl had stood up from where she had been perched on the edge of the desk and was looking at them. She had put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side. “It's rude to talk about someone as if they aren't there.”
You would have thought that Jack would have learned that lesson after his recent brush with Cthulhu. However, he wasn't as worried about offending a perfectly ordinary girl as he was about offending a dark squid-being who could banish you to an alternate dimension.
And then Jack looked at the girl more closely and realized he had made two crucial mistakes. Firstly, this wasn't a perfectly ordinary girl. Secondly, if Cthulhu the squid-faced-one had wanted a few pointers in how to be truly, mind-numbingly terrifying, this girl could have shown him where he was going wrong.
“Moody Trudy!” exclaimed Jack.
“Moody Trudy?” Trudy Emerson snorted. “How dare you call me Moody Trudy!”
“Ermm, hello, Trudy,” said Jack. He considered pointing out that by being so annoyed at being called Moody Trudy, she was kind of proving the fact that she had a tendency toward moodiness.
However, equally he felt that (a) this was not the time or place to make such a point and (b) any satisfaction he gained out of making such a point would almost certainly be canceled out by the reduction in satisfaction he would get from being punched in the mouth by Trudy.
“Moody Trudy?” asked Grey, who was slightly concerned that both Jack and Trudy had gone completely silent.
Jack looked as if he was worried that Trudy was going to punch him in the face. Trudy looked as if at any minute she was about to punch Jack in the face. So, essentially, Jack was quite right to look like what he looked like.
“Moody Trudy,” Jack whispered to Grey. “It's her nickname in school.”
Trudy winced. “It might be my nickname, but no one's ever brave enough to say it to my face.”
Jack put up his hand, almost as if he was asking Trudy's permission to speak. “Just to clarify here, Trudy. I wasn't brave enough to say it to your face. On this occasion I was stupid and startled enough to say it to your face.”
Trudy smiled at what he said. You could tell she didn't want toâshe wanted her face to continue conveying anger and annoyanceâbut a smirk escaped from her lips nonetheless. “All right,” said Trudy, “I suppose I can forgive you for being stupid.”
“Great!” said Grey, clapping his hands. “We all forgive Jack for being stupid.”
Jack wasn't altogether happy with this turn of events, but since it seemed to significantly lower the chances of him being battered by Trudy, he was willing to roll with it.
“So the two of you know each other?” asked Grey.
Jack nodded and explained they were in the same year at school together.
“Brilliant, you ought to make a perfect partnership, then.”
Jack wasn't keen on Trudy being his partner. In school she had a reputation for being dangerous and punching people who irritated her. Jack was sure that if he teamed up with Trudy, a long future of detention awaited him.
Jack looked up and saw that Trudy and Grey were both staring at him. He realized that he had been thinking to himself when he should have been saying, “
Yeah, Trudy as my partner. That would be great.
” For a moment he considered saying it; however, he suspected that it would only sound sarcastic at this stage.
“You don't want to be my partner, then?” asked Trudy.
“I never said that!” grumbled Jack.
“No. But you were thinking it.”
Grey stepped in to defuse a conversation that was clearly about to metamorphose into an argument. “Look, we can talk about this.”
“Talking's good,” said Jack. He shot a meaningful look at Trudy. “Punching's bad.”
Trudy smiled sweetly at him before she shot out a fist that connected hard with his shoulder, making the same noise a cabbage would make if you dropped it off the top of a three-story building.
“Punching isn't bad,” said Trudy. “Punching is frequently fun.”
“Trudy, no punching!” said Grey. “Violence never solved anything!”
“Didn't it?” asked Trudy. “What about World War One?”
Grey thought about this for a moment. “Well, yes, granted World War One was solved partially by violence.”
“And World War Two.”
“Okay, yes, and World War Two. I will agree that if there hadn't been any violence in World War Two the Germans would still be in Poland, and Warsaw would therefore be frightfully crowded. But violence is not appropriate in this situation. All right, Trudy?”
Trudy sniffed haughtily. “I never said it was appropriate.” She glared at Jack. “I just said it was fun.”
Jack was about to speak, but he looked at Trudy and took a step backward before he said anything. He then took a second step backward just in case. “Look, Grey, obviously this isn't going to work. I can't work with MoÂ â¦ with Trudy.”
“Well, apart from the fact that I can't always explain mysterious bruises to my parents as dodgeball accidents,” said Jack as he rubbed his still-sore shoulder, “she clearly hates me! And she is definitely slightly mentally unbalanced.”
Trudy made a fist and moved toward Jack. Grey threw out an arm to stop her from getting too close.
Jack put his hands up. “I said
“Well, in that case,” said Trudy, “I'm just going to
pulverize your face.”
“Enough!” said Grey. “Look, the Minister himself put you together for a reason. He told me to make you partners. So it's happening.
you want to continue working for the Ministry, that is.”
Trudy grumbled but Grey shushed her.
“Why did he put us together especially?” Jack asked. “Is it because he thinks that I can learn self-reliance and mental toughness from Trudy's uncompromising approach to the world? And perhaps she can learn something from my approachâlike that you don't have to punch everything to get a positive result?”
“It might be that,” agreed Grey. “Although it also might just be that you both go to the same school.” Grey thought for a moment. “In fact, I'd almost be certain that it's just because you go to the same school.”
“Oh,” said Jack.
Trudy unclenched her fist and looked Jack straight in the eyes. “Jack,” she said, “I've only been working for the Ministry for a few months now. But they've been the best months of my life. So if I've got to work with you in order to continue, then I'll do it.”
“No more hitting?” asked Jack.
Trudy paused for a long time before she spoke. “Okay, no more hitting. But can you work with me?”
Jack thought about this. He decided that the only way forward was to be honest. If he didn't tell Trudy the truth now, they'd never work well together as partners.
“Trudy, I've got one question I'd like to ask. Why do you seem to hate everyone so much?” Jack asked. “I mean, did something happen? SomeÂ â¦ tragedy?”
Trudy looked at Jack. There was a real sadness in her eyes, and for a second it looked as if she was about to cry. Then in a second her eyes went from glassy to steely.
“That's none of your business.”
Jack knew it was none of his business. And that's what made it so very interesting. He knew that he'd have to stick around Trudy at least long enough to find out what made her so angry all the time.
“I think I can work with you, Trudy,” said Jack.
Trudy looked bewildered; she obviously hadn't been expecting that.
Jack looked straight at Trudy. “I also should say that I'm really sorry, Trudy. I made judgments about you before I ever really got to know youÂ â¦ that whole Moody Trudy thing. That was unfair. I should have gotten to know you first.”
“Thank you, Jack. That's the nicestâ¦” Trudy launched herself at Jack. For a few moments Jack was terrified, but then he realized that she was only going to hug him. He was still a little bit scared but not quite as much. She wrapped her arms around him and squeezed him tight. “Thanksâ¦”
After a few seconds Trudy realized she was hugging Jack. It clearly made her feel slightly uncomfortable, so she stepped backward and playfully hit Jack in the arm, almost immediately breaking her promise to stop hitting. Jack laughed and mimed as if he was in pain. Trudy turned to speak to Grey and then Jack stopped miming that he was in pain and got on with properly being in pain.