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Joke Shop

crime caper by Charles Thiesen

My office is in Boston, on the corner of Boylston and Berkley. The building is home to a lot of private dicks — gigolos and detectives both. The halls smell of gun oil, shoe leather, and used latex. I never breathe between the elevator and my desk.

The answering machine was blinking like it had  come out of a tunnel. It was a job, thank god. Since I read about hungry arctic explorers who ate their boots, I’d been eying my shoulder holster.

The message summoned me to the home of Llewellyn Lowell Lawrence XI in Brookline. A butler led me to the solarium. It was hot and green enough to be a jungle, but too pretty.

A voice came from behind a clump of pink and orange flowers — if you saw them on a shirt, you’d ralph. “You fancy orchids, sir?”

The speaker had skin as wrinkled as a letter that’s been folded so many times you can’t make out the writing but it probably says something about trust funds, the Mayflower, and bespoke suits.

“I like flowers okay.”

“That’s good enough for me.” He held out a hand like a skeleton’s in a loose glove. “You’re hired.”

The job was right up my alley — five hundred a day.

“I’ve been getting obnoxious email — jokes in terrible taste. I complain to one sender and they deny it. They stop and another starts. Sir, someone is trifling with my email and it worries me. They could access my orders to my stock broker, document my flirtations! Why they could find out that I dress left!”

“I’ll need your passwords,” I said, “your PINs, and your social security number.” His butler wrote them down.

I let him watch over my shoulder while I worked on his computer. I measured its bandwidth, ran a traceroute, and pinged servers in Katmandu, Timbuktu, and L.S.U. None of that could possibly help, but opening that black command-line window impresses the hell out of clients. I’m a private eye who knows how to use more digits than he has in his fist.

Since I was behind in my Internet rent, I took my laptop out for coffee. I hacked into an A.I. in a university up the road. It was pretty smart. Its humans not so much. I fed it a thousand bad jokes from the client’s never-emptied In-box.

Before I could order coffee I it coughed up an IP Address and GPS coordinates. It was probably that quick because the offending machine and the A.I. were on the same network — not that big a coincidence since the network belonged to the college that runs the world, at least according to its alums.

The coordinates led me to the basement of an ivy-covered public convenience. The LED above the touch pad by the door had three digits. After 1‑2‑3, and 3‑2‑1, I tried 6‑6‑6. Bingo!

The room behind the door was ankle deep in printouts and pizza boxes, not all of them empty. The sheet of paper I picked up was full of jokes. “Guy walks into a bar . . . ” “Jesus, Moses, and St. Peter are playing golf . . . ” “Three guys are stranded on a desert island . . .”

The door slammed behind me. An ancient-looking geek stood there smirking at me. “I see you found your way here from Starbucks without too much trouble.”

The A.I. was a rat! “Who are you, and what is all this?”

“You’ve stumbled on a secret program of deep psychological research. This is where jokes get written.”

“You mean those annoying emails?”

“Yes, all of them. But not just email. Every street joke ever told came from here.”

“Street joke?”

“The stuff you hear at the water cooler. Not stand-up comedy. Not ad-libbed humor, not funny fiction. Jokes: three-minute anecdotes with a yuck at the end. They come from this room. And before that another room, but always from us: The Foundation for the Assessment of Risible Text and Speech.

“In 1799, a group of enlightened wealthy alumni wanted to fund research into some ubiquitous subject that no one understood. They considered politics — too tawdry. Sex — too, well, ubiquitous. When someone suggested humor, they knew that was it. For the next twenty years they had natural philosophers consider funny things. Then they had them create their own. After another twenty years . . . the joke was born!”

“And this benefits what?”

“I admit the idea of benefit got lost in the shuffle. You could argue that jokes make life easier. But I don’t. By 1850 the job of creating jokes and distributing them became our only purpose. The railroads and the telegraph sped up distribution a hundred-fold. Travelling salesmen became our missionaries as well as our subjects. Then came the computer, email, and the internet. Fifty years ago the institute had a staff of forty writers and a hundred distributors. Today there’s me. And Hal.”

“The computer?”

“The janitor. But you’re right. The computer, Murgatroyd, does most of it.

“If it’s so secret, why are you telling me?”

“Because you aren’t leaving this basement . . .  alive!” Suddenly a Glock Nine filled his fist. “But first you’re going to talk. Who hired you?”

The confidentiality agreement I signed weighed less than a nine-millimeter round. I gave up Llewellyn the Eleventh AND his butler.

The geek grinned. “That changes everything. Llewellyn Lowell Lawrence I, was a FARTS founder. The Lawrence family foundation still supports us, apparently without your client’s knowledge. Tell him we’ll do whatever he wants. I’ll stop the email AND he’ll hear the latest jokes before anybody else at his club.”

“You mean you’re not going to kill me?” Relief flooded over me like Hurricane Katrina.

“I don’t have to.” He lowered the Glock. “If you talk about this, I’ll make sure your client sues you into debtor’s prison.”

“So what you’re saying is, he’ll stop me before anyone hears this one?”

Copyright December 2010 by Charles Thiesen

Charles Thiesen lives in Dorchester, Massachusetts. He earns his daily bread as a journalist and technical writer and salves his soul writing (unpublished) novels and flash fiction. His work has appeared in Roofscape and previously in 10FlashFingered by a Dead Rat, The Ride and By Any Other Name.

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14 Responses

  1. Very enjoyable, Charles. I was smiling the entire time.


  2. You gave me a good laugh, Charles. Nice work.

  3. Well, since this place already seems to know who I am and that I’d want to comment, I might as well. (Do rats like cookies?)

    Great story, told in a very enjoyable voice. I especially liked the similes, and the part about opening the black command window to impress. I think I’ve encountered that trick before.

  4. I love good punchline stories. Nice job, sir.

    • Tanks. (In my blessedly brief Army career we used to say, “Don’t SIR me, I work for a living.” But, while I do work for a living, when I can, I don’t mind if you SIR me. I’m just not sure how to respond.

      How’s, “Thank you my son”?

  5. Charles,
    This was funny and niftily sustained while taking a good poke at the folks on the Charles…sorry I meant no similarity to your leftist self!

  6. I thoroughly enjoyed this one, Charles. Honestly, my god, you left me smiling.

  7. Hal–the computer?–no, the janitor=LOL from me.

  8. Jim, Madame Donna, Kathleen, thanks so much for reading, and commenting, and offering such great support.

  9. I haven’t read a good Charles story in ever so long! Thank you for the smiles, and the almost groaner of a punchline at the end. Well done!

  10. Way cool ! Charles if I can help, you’ll soon be revered all over France. I loved it all : the similes, yes, the punch line, also, and that funky the rythm all along. But one thing topped it all, and you’ve got to know what it is.
    Long live the Murgatroyd !

  11. Chrisee! Thanks!

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