Morty "Botanical" Sherbet sat at his table in the Health Inspector's Retreat watching a microbial acrobat tumble across the paper tablecloth. The acrobat jumped up straight, arms flung out, and Morty applauded. The miniature tumbler took three sugarcubes from the sugar dispenser and juggled them deftly. Morty glanced at his empty martini glass and signaled the waitron for another. Though he was zoning in and out, and the sugarcubes had the appearance of pastel comets drifting above the microscopic performer, Morty still wanted another drink.
Poor Bluto Pippy. Talking with him had put Morty in a sad mood--that's why he kept drowning these drinks that started up the delirium machinery. Pippy truly believed that Storch had the ability to help him, Bluto Pippy, with his Nice Guy Syndrome problem. There was no way in heck that Storch could do that, and Storch knew it. Morty had tried his best to warn Pippy, to keep him from entering into a contract with Storch. Now it was too late. Or was it? Maybe Morty "Botanical" Sherbet should pay Storch a little friendly visit. The little acrobat stood at attention like a chess piece.
* * *
"I'd like to take a look at the contract Bluto Pippy signed yesterday." Morty gave Storch a stony stare. Storch was busy straightening the nude pieces on his chess set in an OCD way. "Mr. Pippy signed a standard contract. In exchange for my services, Mr. Pippy has agreed to pay me 10, 0000 dollars." Morty's jaw dropped like a trap door. "That's outrageous. What could you possibly do that would be worth that much dough?" Storch lovingly cradled the red queen piece in his palm as though weighing it. "The solution to the Nice Guy problem is very advanced knowledge. In a way, this organization is like an occult religion, a kind of secret society. Only those who have advanced to the highest degree can learn the truth. Isn't that right?" This question was addressed to the chess piece. "Do you always talk to them?" Morty asked. Storch said, "The longer you live, Mr. Sherbet, the more you will see that chess pieces and human beings have so much in common that there's no point in distinguishing between them. I find it much more ridiculous that I'm speaking to you than that I've just spoken to the red queen. Do you truly fancy yourself more worthy, more elegant, more finely crafted, more intelligent and spiritual, in some way or other superior to this beautiful object? Do you believe that you, unlike this chess piece, have free will to move about a path that you have chosen?" Morty slammed his fist on Storch's desk. The chess pieces on the board wobbled slightly. "Damn it, Storch, I didn't come here to listen to your dimestore philosophy. Pippy's a good guy, and I don't like seeing him conned by someone like you. You might think he's just some kind of pawn, but he's a human being. Got that? A human being. You can't just treat him like one of your chess pieces. He's a living person, with a heart, and a mind, and a soul." Storch set the queen back on the board. "Are you quite finished, Mr. Sherbet? Because I am a busy man. Tonight is the first new session of my Nice Guy seminar. I invite you to attend. You may learn a few things. You won't even have to pay for the first session." Storch took a ticket from his pocket and handed it to Sherbet.
* * *
The Nice Guy seminar was taking place in a conference room in Storch's office building. The air was heavy with boredom and crowding. Morty stood against the wall near an exit and watched the attendees file in. Some kind of gloomy organ music was warbling, like the kind you'd hear at a funeral. The whole place kind of looked like a funeral. There was a stage covered with flowers, but instead of a coffin there was a lectern. That must have been where Storch would stand to make his sales pitch. Or what came after his sales pitch, rather--the unveiling of the arcane mysteries. What a racket. Sherbet analyzed the men who walked into the conference room. They were all laughing nervously, as if they were lighthearted about the whole thing but at the same time incredibly worried and desperate. They all looked kind of doughy and soft. And each one of them had paid 10 grand to be the recipients of Storch's wisdom. What on earth could Storch tell these guys that would lead them into the arms of a gal like Minerva "Sizzler" Plankton? Sherbet knew what the answer was of course--he'd dated Plankton. That was years ago, but he hadn't forgotten what had attracted Minerva. If he told these guys in this room just exactly what a gal like Minerva was looking for in a man, why this whole place would explode. They would rush the stage and demand their money back--immediately before tearing up the joint, and perhaps Storch, too. But really the answer was so simple, and so far from the kind of snake-oil that Storch was peddling, that if Sherbet HAD told them, why, they wouldn't even listen. They would probably snicker and make some kind of sarcastic comment and then bow down before Storch to receive more of the mountebank's so-called "wisdom." One of Storch's lackeys came from offstage and stood at the lectern. He was wearing a creepy black robe with some kind of sinister insignia sewn onto it. It looked like a horoscope glyph for a zodiacal sign that Sherbet had never heard of. The guy was moving his palms-out hands up and down to silence the crowd. "Folks?Gentlemen? OK. Can I have your attention? Men?" The seminar attendees kept jabbering away like a bunch of crows. "If I can have your attention, we're about to begin the ceremony--I mean, the seminar." That was kind of an odd slip of the tongue. Sherbet filed that one away to think about later. "In a few moments, Storch--" At the mention of Storch, the crowd roared as one. "Yes. Yes. In a few moments, Storch will be speaking to us. Remember, the seminar lasts for 24 hours, and no one can leave until it's over." Sherbet eyed the exits. Some palookas were guarding the doors. "The guards have been instructed not to let anyone leave, even for pit stops." The speaker giggled. "OK, boys, here he is--Storch!" The men in the room chanted, "Storch! Storch! Storch!" over and over. The lights dimmed and a spotlight followed Storch from out of the wings. He was wearing a black robe with the insignia, but his insignia was larger and more fancily embroidered than the one the emcee guy had been wearing. He stepped up to the microphone. "No, no." He shook his head, as if he were amazed by the reception. "Oh, you guys!" He looked at the emcee and smiled, as though he were completely stunned. "Gentlemen. Gentlemen. You're too kind. I'm going to speak to you tonight about the Nice Guy Syndrome and how you are going to lick it. Truly, the reason you don't get girls like this--" A photograph of Minerva "Sizzler" Plankton popped up on the PowerPoint." "The reason you don't get girls like this is that you haven't learned to use your mind power. The first step to being rewarded with this quality of lady is to become a Master of the Mind! Because, gentlemen, once you master your mind, you become the master! First, you are going to learn to concentrate. That is the first step toward mind-mastery. You are going to learn to stare with laser-like focus at a single object for over an hour, and I don't mean your computer screen!" The men guffawed like hee-hawing mules. "Once you have learned the art of concentration, you will apply that art to directing your focused thought and will to a single desire. At first, you will work with something simple. Like maybe that coveted parking-space at your office complex. How your co-workers will envy and despise you when you always seem to snag that sweet space as though your name had been stenciled on it beneath the word RESERVED!" The guys gave each other high fives at the thought of it. "Once you have visualized a relatively trivial matter like that of the parking space, you will move on to greater and greater goals, until we arrive at what you have come to this seminar to attain!" Morty felt his will being melted. He knew the spiel was nonsense and sophistry, but Storch was a trained hypnotist, and his words were dripping into his brain like honey mixed with formaldehyde. He had to get out of this place. "All right, before we begin, I am going to give you one more chance to back out." Morty sighed a heavy sigh of relief. Most of these guys would be too ashamed to walk out now, but he, Morty, didn't feel the social pressure they did. Nothing was riding on him being a part of this crazy group. "If anybody in this room does not feel up to going through the complete seminar experience, he has my permission to leave now." The men in the room, including the beefy guards, booed Morty as he walked out the exit.
* * *
Morty stood in front of Storch's building smoking a cigarette in the humid, frog-singing night. He hadn't seen Bluto Pippy walk into the conference room, but there'd been a huge influx of men and he must not have seen Pippy in the crowd. Pippy was probably still in there, and would be in that stifling room for the next 24 hours or so. What madness! Keeping those guys cooped up in that poorly ventilated room for that long, not letting them leave to get fresh air or bathroom breaks. Of course, that was the whole point--to break their spirits and drive them to and past the brink of madness so that they'd have no will and hand over all their dough to Storch. Morty thought about how the whole thing had the air of some weird mystical ritual. He remembered the weird insignia he saw on the robes. The thing looked like some kind of fertility symbol with an infinity sign on it. What the heck was that all about? Well, there was one way to find out. Storch and his henchmen were busy at the seminar--leaving his office free to search. At least, Morty hoped it was free--he might have to take care of a few of the Storch goons to gain access to the office. Morty scratched out his cigarette, dropped it in a trash-can sized ashtray, and walked back into the office building.