"Jacket" by Rick Shelton


Psychic Pop-Up
by Joe Vadalma


George Slimey was somewhat daunted by Pricella Lucretia, vice-president of sales of the Pharmaceutical Institute Laboratories Ltd., his largest client. She had jet-black hair twisted into a complicated bun, a pinstriped power business suit over her overabundant curves, thick red lipstick on a mouth twisted into an expression of contempt, and mascara laid on so thick her eyes seemed sunken into her pale skin. There was something almost demon-like about her. She lit up one of her skinny, evil-smelling cigars with a gold lighter. She pointed it at Slimey. "What we want are results. Not bee ess. Despite all the money we've tossed down the drain, your ad campaign, flashy as it is, has not done anything for sales on Perkup. In fact, last month's sales dropped to their lowest point. This is your last chance, Slimey. Next month we move to another agency."

The product she alluded to was a dietary supplement which was touted as a pill that energized a person, gave them feelings of well-being, ensured rapid weight-loss without dieting or exercise, lowered cholesterol, rid the person of wrinkles, improved sexual performance, and slowed aging. Actually, no valid scientific tests except PILL's own lab reports had ever shown that it did any of those things. On the other hand, the side effects were horrendous: dry mouth, palpitations, itchy rashes, stomach cramps, diarrhea, and possible blood clots leading to heart attack or stroke. Although it had been hushed up by handing large sums of money to their relatives, two healthy test subjects had died twenty-four hours after taking it. Originally it had been developed as a chemotherapy agent to fight colon cancer. Not only was it ineffective in fighting the disease, the cancer cells actually seemed to spread faster with its use. Also, its effect on the patients was devastating; some autopsy results seemed to show that the people who had been taking it might've died, not from the cancer, but from the product. Since PILL had produced an overabundance of the substance, upper management decided to market it as a supplement.

Slimey rolled his eyes and smiled sickly. "You must give us time, Pricella ..."

"I don't like familiarities from business associates. Ms. Lucretia, if you please." She puffed out black smoke into Slimey's face.

"Yes, of course. I'm sorry. But, as I was saying, we need to get the campaign rolling."

"So you say." Her face became as red and ugly as a lobster with outrage. Smoke from her cigar curled around her head to form horns. When she opened her mouth, her pointed bicuspids seemed extra long, and her tongue flicked in and out like a snake's. "As I said, because you've done well in the past, we're allowing you an extra month. If sales don't improve by a week from today, it's ..." She slid her forefinger with its long sharp nail across her windpipe.

Slimey wiped perspiration from his brow. "Don't worry, Pri... Ms. Lucretia, Slimey Enterprises has never let a client down."

* * *

After Lucretia left, Slimey called Robert Kissheiny, the account executive, into his office. "Bob, how's everything going with the PILL account?"

Kissheiny smiled pleasantly. "Splendidly, George. Things couldn't be better."

Slimey pounded his fist on the desk. "Crap. That evil female, Pricella Lucretia, was just here." He shook a finger at Kissheiny. "She complained that sales have been awful on Perkup."

Kissheiny's face drooped until he resembled an aging bloodhound. "Oh, Perkup. Sorry George, I thought you meant their other products."

"Look Bob, PILL is our largest client, and Perkup is the product they want results on. I placed you in charge because I thought you were our most competent ad exec. If we lose this client, not only will you be out on the street but I'll personally see that you never work in advertising again. What exactly is the problem?"

Kissheiny looked about to burst into tears. "It's the product itself, Mister Slimey. Word has sort of leaked out about its ... uh ... less desirable characteristics. We've tried everything to laud its marvelous curative powers. We've run humorous ads on TV day and night -- including, mind you -- during the Super Bowl, put full-size spreads in newspapers and magazine, had telemarketers call people at all hours of the day and night, put pop-up ads that are impossible to suppress on all the most popular web sites, and constructed huge billboards on all of the most scenic highways. Our salesman have lavished huge gifts on physicians in every major city to recommend Perkup to their patients. We even tried sky writing. Nothing seems to work."

Slimey rubbed his chin. "The trouble is that none of those things actually make the consumer buy the product. Some of our surveys seem to show that people resent saturation advertising for some reason. I don't know what this country is coming to. Anyway, the onus is on you, Kissheiny. You've got to come up with some new ideas. Or else ..." He slid a finger across his Adam's apple.

* * *

Kissheiny spent the rest of the afternoon at his desk staring out the window, hardly moving except to chain-smoke several packs of cigarettes. He knew his career was in the toilet. He'd tried every approach he could think of to sell that poison, Perkup. By next month, there would be no more six-digit salary, no more luxury limo complete with driver, no more wood-paneled office with its own bathroom and shower, no more thousand-dollar tailored suits, no more dates with beautiful models. He'd be back on the streets selling cheap watches out of a suitcase. He racked his brain for some new method to get the public to buy Perkup, but came up empty.

He unlocked the bottom-left drawer of his desk and slid it open. He stared into it at the items lying there: a revolver, a package of shells for it, and a bottle of Jack Daniels. He took out the whiskey, took a big pull, and replaced it. He removed the pistol and shells, slowly loaded the pistol and raised it to his head. Before he could squeeze the trigger, his secretary buzzed him.

"Yes, Doris," he said in a quaking voice.

"There's a woman here to see you. A Madam Zolarago. She says she has an appointment, but I can't find her listed on your calendar."

Madam Zolarago, he thought. He'd forgotten that he'd made an appointment with a new psychic. He was a great believer in astrology and the occult and often visited psychics. Quickly, he put the gun away and locked the drawer. "Send her in."

Madam Zolarago was a middle-aged woman on the plump side with enormous breasts, wearing too much jewelry, too much makeup, and unfashionable garments. Thick, black unruly hair hung to her waist. Dark eyes gazed intensely at Kissheiny in a way that made him so uncomfortable he had to turn away.

Nonetheless, he rose and put out his hand. "Good afternoon, Madam Zolargo. I'm sorry, but I had almost forgotten our appointment. I've had a lot of things on my mind lately."

As she shook his hand with pointed, carmine nails like stilettos, she said, "I see that, Mister Kissheiny. You seem to be a troubled man. Your aura is very dark."

"You're quite right. Some business problems ..."

She plumped down in a guest chair without being asked. "Perhaps I can help. Although I sense a troubled soul, I see a great light in your future. Sometimes things seem darkest just before the dawn -- as the adage goes."

Her saying this seemed to take some of horror of his situation off his shoulders. Perhaps she was right. What was it that Slimey was always saying? Oh yes. There are no problems, only opportunities. If he could come up with a unique method for getting people to purchase Perkup, he'd be a hero, probably get a huge bonus of stock options. If Madam Zolarago could predict the future, maybe she saw the solution.

After swearing her to secrecy, he told her his dilemma with Perkup.

She put her fingers to her temple and seemed to go into a trance. After a few moments, she opened her eyes. "Yes, that's it. You must see Professor Belial at the university."

"Professor Belial?"

"Yes. He's a friend of mine. You may mention my name. He has something. I'm not sure what it is exactly. But I have a vision. In my vision, I see a look of delight on both your faces when he tells you of some discovery of his."

Kissheiny became excited. He hoped she was right ... but of course, she was right. After all, she was a medium with a good reputation among true believers like himself. "Really? Thank you, Madam Zolarago. By the way, how much is your fee?"

She waved her hand. "I never charge a fee. I simply enjoy helping people. Of course, if you would like to give a donation to my nonprofit organization."

"Of course, of course. How shall I make out the check?"

"Madam Zolargo's Psychic Institute."

He was feeling expansive and wrote the check out for a substantial amount. He felt as though Madam Zolargo had saved his life.

* * *

Professor Belial's office was in an obscure corner of the university, in a basement actually, which Kissheiny found after he made his way through a labyrinth of corridors, laboratories, and stairwells. The room itself was gloomy and a mess. Hundreds of ancient books lined the walls and spilled over onto the floor. Belial's desk was covered with them, along with charts, strange talismans, broken pencils, and a large magnifying glass. Belial himself, as he stood to greet Kissheiny, was very tall with shoulder-length brown hair, a Van Dyck beard and mustache, elf-like ears, and the most penetrating eyes Kissheiny had ever seen under bushy eyebrows.

"Madam Zolargo recommended you to me," Kissheiny said after their initial greetings.

"Yes, she told me." Belial's voice was a deep baritone that somehow seemed to fit his sharp features and cruel mouth. "Are you interested in the supernatural, Mister Kissheiny? That is what I do, y'know, psychic research."

"I am, but she told me that you've made a recent discovery that may help me in my business."

"May I ask what business you're in?"

"Advertising. I'm an account executive at an agency."

Belial stroked his beard. "Yes, I suppose that my discovery could be an aid in your business. I never thought of it in practical terms before. I was simply doing pure research."

Kissheiny brightened up considerably. Perhaps Madam Zolargo had been right. He'd been having doubts. "What is this discovery?"
"Are you familiar with the term, human aura?"

"Yes, it's like emanations given off by the soul."

"Actually the aura and the soul are the same thing. But, as you say, it gives off emanations. In people with strong ESP potential, these emanations can be intercepted by them. I have found that these emanations can be amplified to the point that thought transfer or telepathy can be done by anyone through my Psychic Enhancer. Would you like to experience a demonstration?"

"Yes. Of course." Kissheiny felt that this was all very interesting, but he wondered how it could help him sell Perkup.

Belial went to a cabinet and brought out a metallic box with several dials and meters on it. He plugged this in a wall socket and attached an aluminum band to it. He then placed the band on his head. Suddenly, a voice in Kissheiny's mind said, "Are you receiving my thoughts?"

"Oh my! That's something. It's as though you were speaking directly to my brain."

"Not your brain, your aura," the voice in his head said.

Belial removed the band and turned off the machine. "Well, what do you think?"

An idea began to form in Kissheiny's mind. "Suppose this enhancer of yours was increased in power, could it direct your thoughts to several people -- at a greater distance?"

Belial twisted his mustache. "I imagine so. I've never tried. It would be an interesting experiment though."

"How would you like to become a millionaire?"

"A millionaire? Surely, you're joking."

"No. If it can do what I think it can do, we'll both be rolling in dough."

Kissheiny put Belial on the company payroll as a consultant. He hired an engineering firm to build a duplicate of Belial's machine, only with a thousand times more power. It was ready in a week.

* * *

Robert Drudge was working at his desk shuffling papers from his in-box to his out-box, when suddenly a thought came to him out of the blue, almost like a voice in his head. It said, "Want to improve yourself. Get a better job. Take Perkup." Right after work, he went to the pharmacy around the corner.

Oliver Crude and his mistress were going at it hot and heavy in a hotel room. It was taking him a while to get to the point of the whole thing, when suddenly he rolled off of her and cried, "I know what I need. Some Perkup. I'll be back in a little while, baby. There's something I have to get at the drugstore."

Hundreds of similar scenes were happening all over the city. Pharmacies and other stores that sold Perkup were getting more customers than they could handle and soon ran out of the supplement. Orders came into PILL faster than they could be filled. The manufacturing division went to three shifts to keep up. Doctors offices were jammed with patients with symptoms described in the small print on the Perkup labels. Several seemingly healthy people died suddenly from a mysterious malady that had health officials scratching their heads.

* * *

Pricella Lucretia flicked ashes somewhere near the tray on Slimey's desk. "Well Slimey, I have to congratulate you. Your ad campaign is finally doing some good. Bring out your contract, I'm ready to sign for another year. In fact, we've got a new product in the works called Zoom, which we'll have ready to market as soon as we have the bugs worked out. We had to fire the head of the research staff. He kept putting out reports that said Zoom was dangerous even to handle. Can you beat that? What a fool."

"Yes. Good help is hard to get. Some people choose integrity above company loyalty. Not my employees, though. I weed out the bad apples quickly. As far as our ad campaign, far be it from me to crow, but it was just a matter of a new approach that I developed with the account exec."

Actually, Slimey had no idea how Kissheiny had turned things around. He made a note to himself to ask him soon. He slid the new contract over to Lucretia. She read it over carefully and placed it on the desk to sign. As Slimey handed her a pen, she suddenly put her hand to her head and looked pained.

"What's the matter, Pricella? Aren't you feeling well?"

She grimaced at him. "I've got to see my psychiatrist. Lately I've been hearing voices in my head telling me to take Perkup. I must be having a breakdown." She quickly signed the contract and left the office in such a hurry that Slimey didn't have time to tell her that he'd been hearing the same voices. I wonder who her shrink is, he thought. Maybe I should see one too. It's the stress of this job. It gets to you after a while.

* * *

After the success of Perkup, Kissheiny realized what a gold mine he really had with Belial's invention. Any product could be sold that way. People could ignore TV, radio, and newspaper ads, hang up on telemarketers and buy anti-popup software for their computers, but they couldn't ignore what was in their heads. He resigned from Slimey Enterprises and opened a new ad agency in partnership with Belial called Psychic Advertising Industries Network. When word got around about his success with PILL's premier product, clients by the hundreds waited outside his door to sign up.

At first he kept the Psychic Enhancer a secret, but soon industrial spies obtained the plans. Their employers made incremental improvements to get around patent infringements and began their own mental ad campaigns. Before long, everything was advertised in this manner. This had a disastrous effect on civilization as people's head became filled with slogans and jingles. No one could think of anything else but the crazy ads in their brain, which became more numerous, louder, and more insane every day.

And that's the true story of how Twenty-First century civilization ended: not with the holocaust of an atomic war, not with a mile-long meteor slamming into New York City, not with coastal cities being inundated by the rising of the oceans, not with people gasping for breath due to pollution from automobiles and industrial plants -- but because people became zombies, unable to think about anything except soda pop, hamburgers, stomach remedies, sexy cars, and other products that filled their otherwise empty heads.

Actually, not much had changed from before the Psychic Enhancer came into general use.



Story © 2003 by Joe Vadalma jvadalma@hvc.rr.com

Illustration © 2003 by Rick Shelton rats@anticybr.org

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