I didn't think it went that well with the "Boy" part of my codename, though. I decided to call in sick, and see if I could "fix" it. Normally, I'd get a professional, to-the-DNA-strand dye-job from Color Kid. However. His services cost a fortune, nowadays. He's hit the big time! As for me, I have only the smallest crumble of space-cheddah to my name. So I had to spring for a box of "Just For Male Humanoids" facial hair dye, down at Lallorgreens. Guess what? It didn't work. On the contrary, upon contact with my beard, the dye itself blanched a pure white. In fact -- if the Lallorgreens clerk who keeps angrily visi-phoning me is to be believed -- the boxes of dye on either side of the one I purchased were remotely affected, somehow, and rendered every hair on their purchasers' bodies permanently, indelibly, snowy-white! My manliness, it is metaphysical!
I realized that until I afford to see Color Kid, I'd just have to tough it out. Begrudgingly, I phoned the detective agency, and reported a miraculous recovery. On the way to work, I picked up two entire racks of barbecued kanga-bronc ribs for lunch. Seeing my beard, the dude at the drive-up window offered me the "senior discount". Bastard. Not that I was too proud to accept it, mind you. The restaurant even gave me a complimentary wheelbarrow, filled with sauce, to carry the ribs in.
When I got to the office, Nightmare Boy blinked wonderingly at me. He took a break from reapplying his mascara, to make a wiping motion in front of his chin. With a smirk, he informed me that I had "a little something, right there."
I flicked a dollop of barbecue sauce into his perfect hair. "So do you," I replied.
The only other person I saw in the office right then was Gadfly Lad, who noted that I looked "twenty-two years and eight months older." I sat down at my desk, fired up my computer, and started in on my ribs. A minute later, Gadfly Lad peered over my shoulder (as is his wont -- he has a thing about not talking to people face-to-face) and pestered me with questions about the white patch. "Did you have a scary dream?" he asked. "Did somebody throw bleach on you? Is it a virus? Will I catch it? Have you tried Just For Humanoid Males dye yet? Because I read some studies that say it may be toxic..." Etc, etc.
I raised a sauce-covered paw and growled, "So help me, I will stick this hand where the dainty little sun of Imsk don't shine if you don't get out of my face." He retreated.
The door to Eyeful Ethel's office slid open. The Boss Lady Herself peered out into the "bullpen." "Blockade Boy!" she cried. "There you are! Listen, I have a new assignment for--!" Her eyebrows shot up as she took stock of the white in my beard. Her lips parted in a huge smile. "Oh, that's perfect! Come in, come in...!" She gestured anxiously for me to join her.
Plopping down on her comfiest couch -- with my legs splayed wide apart, natch -- I wiped the sauce from my lips with the back of a hairy hand. "'Sup?" I queried.
"I just got a call from the owners of the planet's largest shopping complex, the Mall of Lallor. They have a huge shoplifting problem."
"Huh. No offense, Ethel, but it sounds like a pretty run-of-the-space-mill problem. Do they really need to call a detective agency of our magnitude for something so minor?"
"Give me a chance to explain, wiseapple. When I say 'shoplifting,' I mean that entire stores are disappearing, floors and windows and inertron siding and all. So far, they've managed to hush this up, by replacing the empty spaces with tents, and erecting "Under Construction" and "Pardon Our Mess while We Remodel to Bring You a More Exciting Shopping Experience" signs. Eventually, of course, folks are going to catch on."
I was suitably impressed -- actually, I was stunned, to be honest -- but I managed to restrain my reaction to a murmured "Ah!" and a curt nod.
"The owners suspect that the theft is an inside job," said Ethel. "That's why they want a detective working undercover there, as an employee. Since it's the Solstice Season, you could take a job as their mall Santa Claus, and nobody would suspect a thing! Now, I don't know if you're familiar with the concept of Santa Claus. It's an old Earth custom that the Lallorians have adopted."
"Sure!" I said. "I know all about Santa. In fact, I wore a Santa Claus-inspired costume for a while when I was stranded in the 21st century."
"Good. So you know that a mall Santa wears a red, fur-trimmed..."
"Well, a cloak, anyway. With no shirt. So everybody can see your abs and your massive guns? Remember? And then there's the silver codpiece and the matching belt with the polar bear on it, and the bear-themed boots? With the spurs?"
"Er. Yeah. Of course. And a big, floppy hat with a pom-pom."
"No...! It's just a holly crown! And you'll make your entrance every morning in a chariot, pulled by dark beasts -- y'know, those huge, wingless, bat-like creatures -- while you brandish Santa's traditional weapon, the barbed candy hook."
"Holy cats! Won't that scare the kids?"
"The ones who line up, to sit on my lap."
"Ew, no! Santa Claus is strictly Adults-Only! No children allowed! I mean, it wouldn't do to have children sitting on your lap and telling you all of their darkest, filthiest secrets, and then asking you to punish them accordingly! I mean, that'd just be grotesque."
"Exactly. I mean, really, Blockade Boy, I thought you said you knew all about Santa Claus!"
"...I was just trying to impress you."
"Aw! That's cute. So, what do you think about the assignment?"
I pretended to mull it over. Finally, I said, "Well, I think I can throw myself on that grenade...!"
"Terrific. The role usually goes to an older man, with some white in his beard. I was afraid we'd have to resort to bleaching to get you to look right, but look at you! You're way ahead of me! It's just that Santa beards are usually longer and fuller than that. I know that Amadan beards grow pretty quickly. Do you think you can grow it out another decimeter or so by, say, next week?"
"I suppose," I said, coolly. "Or, I could do it right now! BEHOLD!" I tensed up my entire body, and closed my eyes in concentration. With a grunt, my beard flowed down to the middle of my chest. I opened my eyes and grinned up at Ethel, whose mouth was agape.
It's a trick most Amadan guys have to learn," I explained. "The older we get, the faster our beards grow. A few years ago, I could grow a nice, full beard in a few days. The hair on my upper lip grew even faster than that. Nowadays, the whole shebang grows out at four times that rate. An Amadan man's only options at this age are to stop shaving altogether and let it grow out to its terminal length -- which is usually past his feet -- or to master the ancient art of Suspended Follicular Animation. Some planets have holy men who can slow down their heart rates by an incredible amount. Amadans like myself can do the same thing with their beard growth. That way, I can wear my beard in all sorts of styles without having to constantly trim it back. I'd been holding this beard in for a couple of weeks."
"It's amazing!" Ethel gasped. "With the squinting and grunting and everything, it's like you pooped it out of your face!"
"Hey! You don't have to put it like that."
"Sorry. You're the only Amadan I know. I guess I should be more sensitive to your culture."
"It's okay. Just think for a second before you say something about my facial hair... er, boss."
"Certainly. Oh, and you'll need an 'elf' to keep the crowd in line. So you'll be working alongside Gadfly Lad."
"Who?! Wait a minute--!" But she was already shoving me out the door.
"Too late!" she laughed. "You already agreed. Get back to work, 'Santa', while I make the rest of the arrangements."
Back at my desk, I wound up brooding so intently on our conversation that I dribbled about a liter of barbecue sauce all over my huge beard. The white hairs had a Teflon-like quality that made the sauce bead up and roll right off of them, but the brown hairs were a sticky mess. I set about dabbing up the sauce with the puny, one-ply napkin the barbecue joint had provided me.
Storm Boy strolled in, late again, and glowing with what I took to be the satisfaction of another round of lovemaking with his never-seen, so-called "boyfriend", Ox. His entire body looked to be coated in shellac, he was so shiny. His teeth were not merely white; they appeared to have been lit from within. He was drenched in cologne -- the vapors made the air around him shimmer, like a mirage. He made a beeline for my desk. I presume he wanted to brag. He stopped short when he saw me with my sauce-covered beard. His smile vanished.
"I hope you gave 'Ox' my regards," I offered.
He stared at me in mute disgust. Then, with a bitter edge in his sing-song voice, he said, "I swear, Blockade Boy, sometimes you can be perfectly appalling." He spun around on the heels of his shiny new boots.
As he walked away, I called after him, "Don't pretend you don't want some of this!" He stumbled, as though he'd been hit with a phaser rifle. Then he shook his head, and continued on his way.
Gosh, I hope he realizes I was referring to the barbecue sauce.
And here I am, now:
"KNEEL DOWN BEFORE SANTA, MORTAL FOOLS!"
(And don't worry, I'll get around to showing you Gadfly Lad's get-up sometime this week.)