Thursday, 17 May 2018


Moths were fluttering under a streetlight outside, dancing around to some music only they could hear.  Stood below them were two women on the wrong side of thirty wearing crop-tops and mini-skirts and made up to look like they were in their early twenties.  Their slouch suggested they didn't want to be there; the way they straightened up and posed whenever a car cruised too slowly past or a single man went by suggested they were on the clock.
Pestilence sighed and turned away from the window.  Across the diner table sat Famine, the laminated tri-fold menu held in pale, wasted hands.  "Emphysema," he said.
"Nice," said Famine.  "You don't get that a lot.  And you've avoided anything obvious, like a job-related illness.  Both of them?"
"Nah, I got the one on the left," said Pestilence.  "You can have the one on the right, bro."
"Cool, fam."  He waved to the waitress who wrinkled her nose and reluctantly hauled herself off a counter stool and lumbered over.  She was heavyset and her beige uniform had grease stains on the skirt  and down the left-hand side of her blouse.  She was wearing support stockings that might once have been white but were now a uniform grey and her name badge had been broken in half at some point.  All that was left was a red-bordered white plastic shard reading "AIL".
"A couple of hotdogs for the ladies outside, please," said Famine.  "With extra mustard.  It must be cold out there.  And I'll have the entire breakfast menu.  Twice."  He looked at Pestilence.  "Fam?"
"You're Fam, bro," said Pestilence.  "I'll have a banana split.  Extra whipped cream."
"What from the breakfast menu, son?" asked the waitress.  She shifted her weight from one thick leg to the other and farted.
"All of it," said Famine.  "Twice."
"There's seventeen items on there, hon.  Which of them do you want?"
"All seventeen.  Twice.  That's thirty-four items."
The waitress eyed him coldly while she counted up seventeen twice in her head and decided that the answer was in fact thirty four.  "Fine," she said.  Behind her a cockroach scuttled across the floor.  "Two breakfasts for kings, a banana split with extra whipped cream, and hotdogs for your girlfriends."  She turned away and waddled to the kitchen.  Half-way there she turned back.  "How do you like your eggs?"
"All the ways you do them," said Famine.  He smiled as nicely as he could, but his hollow cheeks and dark-ringed eyes still made it look like a skull grinning.  "You're fam too, fam," he said to Pestilence.
"Nah bro, I'm your bro.  You're fam."
"Not Fam, fam.  Fam."
"Fam?  Shut up."
"Bro, just hang, right?"
"Jesus, Famine, were you always like this?  What were you like when you were a kid?"
Famine stared at Pestilence, his eyes burning in his head like coals.  "The teachers called me trouble," he said.  "They blamed me for the other kids's problems.  Like when everybody's lunchbox turned out to be empty because all their mothers had forgotten to pack them lunch."
"That sounds like something you'd do," said Pestilence.
"Yeah, right, but I didn't know I was doing it back then," said Famine.  "My dad was still Famine back in those days.  When I was eight he got me into the family business, let me team up with Crop Failure and his gang.  I'd go out riding a Harley on the weekends and we'd tear up some cornfields or a potato crop.  Didn't know that the whole Famine thing was going to land on my shoulders.  Bro."
"A Harley?" Pestilence nodded his head slowly.  By the kitchen another three cockroaches had appeared and were creeping under the door.  "Rich fam, Fam?"
"Nah, but War's parents were sharing out the spoils.  They liked horses, so the cars and bikes and aeroplanes were being handed out like candy.  They were good times."
"My sixth grade class all came down with galloping pleurisy three days into the start of the school year," said Pestilence.  "I got exclusive tuition for the rest of the year, and the teachers all treated me like I was the only survivor of a car crash or something."
"I heard about that," said Famine.  Outside a young kid in chef's whites was delivering hotdogs to the women in the lamplight.  Everyone looked confused.  "Didn't the same thing happen the next year."
"Sort of," said Pestilence.  "Half of them got yellow fever and the other half got scarlet fever.  After that  there weren't any kids near my age to be in class with me.  What did you put in the hotdogs then, Fam?"
"Tapeworm," said Famine.  "Classical and classy, that's me.  How're the cockroaches going?"
"Hundred and fifty so far," said Pestilence.  "I don't think we're going to get served you know." Screams came from the kitchen.
"Should have ordered ahead," said Famine.  "You've think we'd remember by now."

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

A brewery of egg-shells

Grey Ellen stood in the corner of the Innishere public house.  Outside it was raining, a slow but solid curtain of water that fell down relentlessly from a sky the colour of polished lead and turned the hillside roads into ad hoc streams.  Birds huddled on branches under broad leaves, heads tucked under wings, and the smells of wet peat and dark loam rose up around them.  Inside, the fire in the long stone hearth crackled happily throwing out waves of heat into the main room and any rain finding its way down the tall chimney evaporated back up before it ever reached the flames.  Cooking smells -- browning pastry, popcorn and burning sugar swirled amongst the tables, and the drinkers held tall glasses of dark ales and golden lagers to their lips while they listened to their companions hold forth on myriad topics.
Mrs McAleethie came in, shaking her umbrella off so that rainwater glistened brightly in the air before spattering on the nearest tables.  She hung it on Grey Ellen's arm, and then draped her sou'wester over Ellen's head where it joined two others.
"I'm a glass of white, Seamus," she said to the barman, looking around the room.  "And I'm not a one to go calling out the Queen of the Fairies or nothing, but she's up and taken my wee bairn and left me with a thing that looks like a raven had sex with a stick and they got to arguing over who should be pregnant."
There was a moment of silence while the drinkers considered what that might look like, and then a gentle hubbub returned and Seamus poured a glass of white wine at the bar.  He picked a fruity Sancerre as it seemed like Mrs McAleethie was a mite upset.
There was a clatter as Grey Ellen dropped the umbrellas and shook the raincoats off of her head.  She kicked aside outdoor boots and trampled Wellingtons, and generally made a complete pig's ear of a mess in the corner.  Mrs McAleethie scampered to the bar to grab her glass of wine before Ellen might think to take it for herself.
"Sweet chaos, sister," said Ellen.  She was called Grey because the locals believed that she straddled, somehow, the world of men and the world of the fay, and naturally that meant she couldn't be trusted.  It was pure coincidence, so they said, that her hair had greyed before she reached the age of twenty-five, and that a chance encounter with leprosy had left her with skin that only a zombie could envy.  "When you make bold statements like that you risk drawing the gaze of Our Mother of Nails.  What on earth could bring you to think that she'd violate the treaties and truces that we have and swap out a bairn for a boggart?"
"Aside from the fact we seem to make a fresh treaty every three months, swearing that this time we believe they'll honour it?"  Seamus's words seemed almost incidental, but somehow no-one else had been speaking when he spoke.  The gentle hubbub rose around him again and he swabbed the bar with a stinking, grey cloth.
"The child is little more than a toast-rack with the head of a Barbie doll," said Mrs McAleethie. "And not a new one, neither, but one that your older sister tried to barbecue one summer to punish her for putting out for Ken too often.  Calling it a child is a mercy to it, so it is; if it had feathers we'd pity it and drown it in the Holy Water at the Kirk, but as it is the Father, Lord bless his inebriate soul, says that the thing is just afflicted with the ugly and should be loved despite it."
"But are you sure it's a changeling?" asked Grey Ellen, her eyes bright in her thin, undernourished face.
"That I'm not," said Mrs McAleethie in the tones of a woman who was sure she was right but was trying hard to appear humble.  "I guess it's possible that I've bore a child who looks so little like me or my husband that we've both been wondering if we were both cheated on."
"You must be sure," said Ellen.  She hugged herself. "Have you suckled the child?"
"Bejesus no!  I'd sooner let the dog!"
Heads turned.
"But I won't!"
Heads turned away again.
"Then do as I say," said Grey Ellen, deepening her voice and ducking her head.  "Set the child before the fire in a bassinet and set a pot of water onto the fire to heat.  When the water seethes and bubbles as though raging at the injustice that Our Mother of Nails has committed to you, you must crack a dozen eggs and discard the contents.  Place each shell in the liquid, and bring it back to the boil.  If the child be a changeling it will surely reveal itself, and then you must seize it and plunge it into the boiling water as well.  But watch carefully -- when it flees your child will be returned and you must pluck it from the water before the heat hits it."
"Boil the baby," said Mrs McAleethie with an unwholesome tone of pleasure in her voice.  "All you drinking here, you're witness to what she just said.  I'm off to boil the baby, as per her instructions."
"That's not quite what I said," said Ellen, but Mrs McAleethie was hauling on a sou'wester and unfurling an umbrella and heading out into the curtains of rain.

The fire was small, but still enough to heat the McAleethie kitchen, and the baby in the bassinet was set in front of it and sweating like it was the middle of summer.  As Mrs McAleethie cracked eggs and set the white and yolks aside, casting the shells into the pot, the baby sat up.
"Have you been talking to Grey Ellen?" said the baby in a deep, masculine voice that suggested a lifetime of rich foods and courtly dancing.
"What if I have?"
"Only she's the only witch I know who thinks boiling eggshells is a sovereign remedy," said the baby.  "A dozen, right?"
Mrs McAleethie stopped cracking and turned to the child.  "You're a changeling," she said. "Ellen said that this would force you to reveal yourself."
"You could have just asked," said the baby.  "I've been here eight months and you've not said one word to me.  If I was really your child I'd be struggling to acquire language right now.  My first words would likely be "I want a divorce.""
"And what are you doing here anyway?  Where's my wee bairn, Johnnie Sebastian?"
"Dead," said the baby.  "He had kidney failure at nine days.  The Queen didnae want to see you upset, so she provided you with a surrogate for a wee while."
"Dead!" Mrs McAleethie sat back. "So it is.  And how does having you here help?"
"With the grieving," said the baby.  "You've had much longer to come to terms with losing the child, you'll get over this better and you'll have other children.  What are you going to do with the eggshells you're brewing so, then?"
"Ellen said to boil the baby," said Mrs McAleethie absently.  "Sodom and Gomorrah child, now I've no child at all.  What am I to do then?"
"Get pregnant," said the baby. "Or adopt."
"That's like stealing, but it's legal, right?"
"Mostly," said the baby.  "Though I'd not tell them about Grey Ellen and you taking her advice to boil babbies if I were you."
"Gomorrah," said Mrs McAleethie.  "I always thought I'd get the true child back after all this."
"He's a bit decomposed," said the baby.  "Quite runny in a lot of places too.  I... wouldn't."
"I can understand that," said Mrs McAleethie. "Of course, it seems a bit unkind to leave him with your Queen in that state too, ye ken?  I'm thinking maybe you could deliver him to Grey Ellen?  By way of thanks for all her advice?"
She and the baby shared a smile.

Wednesday, 31 January 2018


Crumbling, yellowed brickwork rose over an accidental courtyard.  The southernmost wall was better maintained than all the rest and was the outside wall of a slaughterhouse; the rest were owned by buildings erected only forty years earlier and derelicted within fifteen years.  Grass grew weakly through the gaps between paving stones, and two concrete planters, done in the style of Grecian urns, held long-dead roses.  Now the greyish, thorned stems grasped impotently at chip-wrappers and discarded crisp-bags, urban flowers in an abandoned square.  The courtyard was dark, the shadows of the buildings creating a perpetual twilight.  A window in the wall of one of the buildings opened, the old wooden frame protesting the need to move and shuddering in its tracks.  It stopped, only a few inches open, and there was muted swearing from behind it before strong hands seized it and jerked it upwards several times, eventually opening it to its full extent.  A man climbed through into the courtyard, followed by another and then another.
“What the hell is this?” said the third man.  He was wearing a neat grey suit that looked as though it had been bought off-the-peg at a high-street ‘tailor’.
“Where the hell is this?” said the second man, whose suit was substantially smarter and better fitted.  “I knew you lot were secretive, Damocles, but this is going to extremes, don’t you think?”
“A door would have been nice,” said the third man.  He looked down at his polished shoes, noting that they were now shaded here and there by sticky grey dust.  “And maybe a cleaner?  They’re not expensive, you know.”
“This is necessary,” said Damocles.  He was wearing his suit over a black polo neck and thought he looked like Steve Jobs.  His hair was brushed back from his forehead and had a single, thin white stripe running through it a little like a badger.  He was wearing round, John Lennon style glasses with plain glass for lenses and thin black leather gloves.  “Quite apart from the need for discretion,” he shot an accusing glance at the second man, “in many of our affairs, the fact that there is animal testing carried out here means that we have to be exceptionally alert with our security.  It really would not be good if animal protestors or ethics groups were to try and break in and release the animals.”
“Ah, the publicity,” said the third man.  He rubbed his shoes on the scrubby grass, hoping to dislodge some of the dust.
“No,” said Damocles.  “The inevitable deaths.  We are... aware of how to handle the media establishment, as you should know already. but the animals in here are both expensive to produce, even more so to replace, and a security breach of that magnitude would... attract the attention of JDR.”
He said nothing and gazed at the two men for a few seconds, letting that sink in.  JDR was Jeremy Diseased-Rat, the owner and CEO of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations and, for those people able to retain the firm and their expertise, a highly volatile megalomaniac with little regard for the niceties of human interaction and gentlemanly conduct.
“Well,” said the second man, “we certainly wouldn’t want that.”
“I don’t see this facility,” said the third man, earning him a glare from the second.  “Well, I don’t.  This is a rotten little courtyard in the middle of nowhere, on the other side of a condemned building that smells like it was used as a hotel for incontinent lepers for fifteen years.”
“Thirteen,” said Damocles.  “Though officially it wasn’t leprosy as that’s been eradicated in the United Kingdom.  I believe the official records state that it was viral melancholia with unusually severe side effects.”
“Like a leg dropping off?”
“That’s not quite how it works,” said Damocles.  “But why not?”
“Wait a minute,” the third man was looking nervous now and had forgotten about trying to clean his shoes.  “How long does leprosy hang around for.  I mean, we just came through that building.”
“I shouldn’t worry,” said Damocles. “It’s very curable these days.  Anyway, you are here to see the facility and the chippo, so let’s get on with it.” He turned away from them for a moment, concealing with his body his fingers touching buttons inset into his suit sleeve, and then turned back.  Both men looked slightly startled and glanced at one another.
“So... where do we go?” asked the second. 
“Turn around,” said Damocles, lifting an arm and pointing just beyond them.  His black gloves made him seem like a sinister scarecrow.
The two men turned and managed to avoid gasping or sounding shocked when they saw that a metal box roughly twice the size of an old public telephone box had appeared behind them.  The third man stared at the floor, hunting for signs of a gap between the box and the ground to prove that it had risen out of the ground, and grunted faintly with pleasure when he found it.
“Nice trick,” he said.  “This can’t be how you get the animals in though.”
“You don’t need to know,” said Damocles.  “This way, please, gentlemen.  And yes, it’s going to be a little bit of a squeeze.”
“The chippo,” said Damocles as the lift descended, “is what we’re calling the hippo-eating chupacabra.  We tried chupahippo but no-one liked that name.  Focus groups suggested that we needed something that sounded friendly and appealing, with a minority pointing out that no matter how cuddly we made it sound, this is fundamentally a beast that is capable of hunting and killing a hippopotamus.  Which is a tall order even for humans.  We settled on chippo as a portmanteau of the original name, hinting as to the origin of the beast, and because it reminded people in the focus groups of a wood-chipper.  Which, coincidentally, is a noun that came up a lot when people saw the aftermath of the chippo’s feeding.”
“What do you mean, exactly?” asked the third man.  The second man was turning pale and starting to sweat.

“The most common comment was it looked like someone had pushed the hippo through a wood-chipper,” said Damocles.  The chippo is an... astonishingly messy eater.”

Thursday, 25 January 2018


Jeronica’s natural smile was more of a snarl: lips slightly parted and slightly curled, exposing bright white teeth that distracted the viewer from the tightly focused stare that fell just below eye-contact and instead seemed fixed on their carotid artery.  At this particular moment the Under-Secretary-in-Exile for Columbia was the target of her gaze, and her smile, and he was feeling extremely nervous.  He was sat in an Eames chair in Jeronica’s office, next to the Secretary-in-Exile who was carefully and delicately laying out a set of statements that were deniably not requests for help.  The chair was, the Under-Secretary was sure, just slightly too low; or perhaps the desk between himself and Jeronica was just a tiny bit too high?  She didn’t seem to have a problem with it, but she also seemed to be eyeing him up like finger-food at a diplomatic buffet.  He swallowed, feeling his Adam’s apple bob.
“There are approximately 50 hippos,” said Verj.  He wasn’t Columbian though he claimed to be spiritually Columbian.  “I’ve often noted that hippopotamus skin is woefully underused in the fashion industry.  It seems that the Spring-Summer season might benefit from something a little more radical than, say, more floral prints or outsized hats.”
“The problem with hippos,” said Jeronica looking at Verj for long enough for the Under-Secretary to relax, “is twofold.  One is that they’re rather hard to hunt, and the other is that they’re not used in fashion because it would be like wearing tarpaulin.”
Verj gazed up at the paintings behind Jeronica’s desk, which impressed the Under-Secretary.  He’d tried looking at them to avoid having to look at Jeronica and found them to be profoundly disturbing in ways he couldn’t put words to.  At first glance they seemed to be unrelated, but as he’d looked at them for longer he’d started to find elements from one repeated in the others and found that unsettling.  The colour scheme wasn’t quite right; he couldn’t say exactly what the problem was, just that it made the back of his eyeballs itch.  Finally he’d decided he preferred Jeronica’s unblinking gaze to the picture’s invitation to subtle insanity. “Modern weaponry,” he said slowly, seemingly unrelated to the conversation.
“Does not leave much of the hippo remaining if you intend to take them out safely,” said Jeronica.  “Please don’t misunderstand me here, it is entirely possible to have couture fashioned from fabrics with obvious damage, and even to represent this as a reflection of the ills of modern warfare and the sickness of society that permits this, but the wholesale slaughter of 50 hippos to produce one outfit is... expensive.  It is hard to get people to look past ’50 hippos’ even with a suitably exclusive label sewn inside it.”
“Tarpaulin wouldn’t be a problem though?” asked the Under-Secretary, hoping to contribute.  Verj lifted his eyes to the ceiling, which was pleasantly white and smooth, like a ski-slope the day before the season starts and Jeronica returned her gaze to what was probably his throat.
“A few years ago we had Parisian models wearing actual binbags,” she said.  “I am confident that they could have been used binbags if we’d wanted.  Tarpaulin would not be a problem; we would...,” she paused, her eyes glittering as she thought, “... probably reference the Akkadian fishermen displaced when the British moved in Canada,” she said.  “That would be – stimulating – for the French fashion houses.  However, the problem of humanely hunting the hippo remains.”
“But this problem is soluable?” Verj’s words were so quiet and his gaze so far removed from the participants in the room that if he’d denied having said it the Under-Secretary would have struggled to contradict him.
“We solved the Sweden problem,” said Jeronica.  “So yes, the problem is soluable.”
“Good,” said Verj.  “Then I’m sure an accommodation can be reached.  Perhaps there might be something else where agreement is needed where suitable concessions might be found.”
“Yes,” said Jeronica.  She opened a beige-folder on her desk and the Under-Secretary craned his neck to see what was in it.  He was slightly surprised to see that it was empty.  Jeronica looked at it as though it weren’t though.
“You mentioned a chupacabra,” she said.
“Mentioned is such a strong word,” said Verj.  “I have heard tell of a chupacabra.
“Just the one?” Jeronica sounded disappointed.  “A breeding pair would be significantly more...”
“Interesting,” she qualified.
“Do you think it might be possible to breed a chupacabra that eats hippos?”
Jeronica closed the folder and for a moment there was a flicker of emotion across her face.  “Feeding habits are generally easy,” she said.  “Though I am a little concerned that this would only create a rabbit, as happened in Australia.  There are, after all, only 50 hippos.  What would the hippo-eating chupacabra turn to after the hippos are eaten?”
“There are giraffes,” said Verj.  “and a certain population of undesirable elements. But these are also finite in number.”
“Precisely,” said Jeronica.

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Human Intercourse

You realise that when you're told that CEOs read sixty books a year there's an implicit statement there that those are worthwhile books, for some value of worthwhile?  Ah, I wish you weren't looking so puzzled.  Yes, yes, you're reading books, but they're books aimed at children.  Rather young children, in fact.  No, I think you'll find that the expected age for someone reading Mr. Bump is three.  I'm sure it is very educational, but reading sixty Mr. Men books in a year is not something to shout about unless you're still of an age when you haven't learned not to shout.  Hmm.  Well, it's odd you should ask that actually, since I do know someone perhaps a little older than you who would have genuinely benefitted from reading the Mr. Men books.  Well, perhaps having them read to him.  No, he's a Director of Technology... ah, I see that pride and hubris are the ways to your heart.  Yes, you're quite right, someone who wants to be CEO shouldn't be picking their books from a mere Director's reading list.
I'm Buddy.  No, I don't work for you. And no, security won't come up and throw me out, they let me in.  Yes, I'm expected, although perhaps not by you, and that's usually the case.  I'm a life-coach, a guru of sorts, a transcendental meditationalist... no, not a transformational medalist, though I was one of those briefly as well.  One of the Olympic Games.  No, I'm not telling you which country I represented, but I am mildly flattered by the asking.  Put your phone away – photographing me was uncalled for.  Well I'm glad it's not come out clearly.  Don't try again or I'll break your wrist.  What?  Some secret guru trick, obviously.  It took me sixteen years in the wilderness to learn it, seeking out an ancient and wise teacher and submitting to humiliation, punishment and heartache.
Well if you must know the Wilderness is a club in LA, but all the rest is right.  Well ok, years might be hours, and wise might be drug-addled and heartache might be heartburn.  It's the thought that counted in this case and I can still break your wrist.
So I'm here to talk to about human intercourse.  Yes, yes, I was expecting you to say that.  And that.  No, I wasn't expecting you to show me that, please put your phone away now.  I believe you.  Of course I believe you, you've just shown me the picture.  Thank-you.  Human intercourse, or the ability to hold a conversation with someone.
Yes, and that's the problem; you can't manage people if you can't relate to them, and you can't relate to people if you can't talk to them, and you seem pathologically incapable of saying the right thing.  I've seen the list of complaints made about you and frankly, if I were your HR team, I'd be sending you in for biological salvage and reprocessing.  What?  What year is this?  Damn, I could have sworn it was... never mind.  I'd have had you sacked and evicted from your home, then hunted from city to city by killer-clown and murder-hobos.  Yes.  Yes they're a thing.  They're going to be very big in a couple of months.  Anyway, your HR team have asked me to intervene a little.
Thoreau said something useful here, but I don't like quoting people other than myself as it dilutes my brand, so I'm going to tell you a little parable instead.  This is the parable of the parrot and the dermatologist.
Once upon a time there was a parrot that lived in a cage that was located on the 26th floor of a very expensive building somewhere not too far from Manhattan.  The parrot had an owner who was blind, both physically and mentally.  Every day the owner would clumsily fill the parrot's feed dish, and add water to the cage, and then, in the silence of the parrot's feeding, would call her son and believe the lies he told her for anywhere up to an hour on the phone.  After the phonecall was over the parrot was always quiet while it digested its food and considered the side of the conversation that had been audible to it, and so it would listen contently while its owner talked some more and debated with herself if she was good enough mother and what she could do to be more loving.  On one occasion she sent a large basket of sweaters, gloves and legwarmers to her son to surprise him, and on another she ordered a hundred bouquets of flowers to be sent to all the staff in his office with a small card attached containing a random quotation from Dorothy Parker.  The parrot would silently approve, and the owner would feel validated.
One day the owner felt that while she was doing everything she could for her son she was perhaps neglecting the parrot a little, and so she called a dermatologist to come and exfoliate the parrot and perhaps provide it with a little massage.  She considered her finances, and decided that the parrot could even request a 'happy ending' if it was so inclined.  The dermatologist arrived at the appointed time and was led, stumblingly, to the parrot's cage.
"Oh dear," said the dermatologist.
It transpired that the owner had weighed the parrot down under the load of birdseed and then waterboarded it repeatedly until it drowned, all unaware that her attempts to care were mere murder.
The moral of the tale is that lying to your mother will cause your staff to stop working and ponder why eternity should be a man, a woman, and a ham locked in a room.
Ok, how about, the moral of the tale is that tragedy happens when silence is misunderstood? Or possibly that you shouldn't sell parrots to blind people?
Your takeaway from this?  If you have to ask, you didn't listen hard enough, did you?  Well... no, I don't think I want to tell that tale again.  OK, so your takeaway should probably be that staff like gift baskets, but that legwarmers won't be back in fashion again for another twenty years. Go with that, I'm sure it'll help sort the complaints out.

Friday, 6 January 2017

The Altanta Furies

Alec had been waiting in Jeronica’s personal assistant’s office for eight minutes so far, and had finally picked up some of the reading material on the occasional table.  The office was tidy and precisely laid out: the door to Jeronica’s office was guarded by the desk, and the guest seating was a corner of chairs a little too low to sit on comfortably in the opposite corner.  The walls of the office were more frosted glass and the personal assistant was tasked with making sure that visitors did not see each other at any point during their visit.  There were newspapers and magazines on the occasional table, which were carefully considered and adjusted according to who was going to be kept waiting in there and for how long.  At the moment the magazines had a slight right-wing bias to their editorials and the newspapers were all from non-English speaking countries.  There was a slight hint of tension in the room.
Alec set the magazine down and looked at his watch.  He had arrived early, having been warned by his boss to do nothing to upset this very expensive and very effective agency, and felt a little bit like he’d been unwelcome from the first instant.  Sitting here on a chair that hurt his knees looking over magazines that only reinforced his opinion that the newspapers were seditious and dangerous nonsense was reinforcing that feeling, and he was starting to wonder if this was all a test somehow.  He decided that he should make a stand.
“Mr. Fury?”  The personal assistant didn’t look up, and he wasn’t sure she’d spoken.  He looked more closely at her, but her eyes were looking at something on the desk in front of her and he couldn’t even be sure that they were open.
“Mr. Fury, I’m over here.”  He looked beyond the assistant and found a tall, well-dressed woman standing in the doorway to the inner office.  Her face was neutral and nothing about her body language suggested that she was emotionally affected by him looking at the wrong person.  He felt a flush in his cheeks as embarrassment surged, and he struggled to his feet, the awkward chair making it hard for him to stand up gracefully.  He finally got to his feet and stepped forward, holding out his hand, but she stepped back before he could get close, granting him access to her office.  Confused, he walked past her then stopped, wondering if he’d been rude, turned, and found that she’d somehow moved with his turning and stepped past him where he wasn’t looking, and he was looking back at a closed door.  When he recovered from that Jeronica was sat behind her desk, indicating that he should take a seat.
Which was the wrong height again.
“Mr. Fury,” said Jeronica.  He looked at her.  “May I call you Alecto?”
“Alec,” he said reflexively.
“But may I call you Alecto?”
“I suppose.”  No-one used his full name.  Most people didn’t even know it was a name.
“Thank-you.  You are here on behalf of an organisation called the Atlanta Furies?  I believe that you are, in fact, a founding member though you conceal that within the organisation, taking on a middle-management role in order to better understand the people you work with and ensure that there is… let us say alignment across all levels of your group.  You have deliberately been excluded from the process of deciding to work with us in order that you can obtain a fresh perspective on what we propose to do and how we will do it, and so you can independently evaluate us without needing the expense or… shall we say indiscretion? – of an external agency.  And if you were a less tactful person, you might inform me that your good opinion of us is very necessary for the continuance of our relationship.”
He captured his rage effortlessly as it surged, long practice enabling him to take the blast-furnace heat of it and turn it into chilly, emotionless reaction.
“You’re very well informed, Ms….?”
“Jeronica,” said Jeronica.  “It’s not my real name.  If there is a need to, you and your organisation will be able to deny any and all connections with us.”
“Exceptionally well informed, Jeronica.  So much so that I will have to conduct an internal investigation about accessibility of information.”
“That won’t be necessary.  My assistant will provide you with a dossier when you leave on exactly how we determined all of these things; what you choose to do with that information is entirely your business.”
“I see.”  He was momentarily impressed, but the rage was still burning, still being converted to patient, tightly-wound tension.  “Then, since you know so much, perhaps you’d like to tell me what you think we want you to do?”
“The Atlanta Furies have, on paper, hired us to conduct a feasibility study of expansion into three states with the aim of increasing turnover by 250% over two years and profits by 70% in the same period.  Organisational growth should happen, but be constrained, and ideally create a two-tier organisation so that direction and execution can be separated.”
Alec relaxed a little.
“The real work we are being tasked with is the weakening of local police and judicial authority to create a power vacuum into which the Atlanta Furies can insert itself.  Your competition is this arena is currently small and you see a benefit to being prime-mover.  With a suitable grip on law-enforcement you intend to drive a survivalist and anarchist agenda, returning humanity to a more primitive state that, through a process of adaptive competition and natural selection produces fitter, better evolved people.  The long term objective, currently considered over an eight year period, is an eventual control of political parties for the betterment of everyone.”
Alec forced a smile on his face.
“We can deliver that for you,” said Jeronica.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Soft power, furnishing and touches

The office was a good size for pacing, but pacing was probably a sign of frustration at lack of control, so Jeronica wasn’t going to give in to her desire to stand up and stalk from one end of the room to the other.  Instead she leaned back in her chair and took three deep breaths, holding them for four seconds each before exhaling again.  The chair creaked slightly.  When she was sure that she was calm enough she unlocked the computer again and navigated to the corporate intranet.  The blue logo appeared in the corner of her browser and she noted with interested that it had been updated slightly.  She had to pinch the monitor screen to zoom in to be able to see the exact difference, and even then she had to open an art program and find the eyedropper tool to sample colours, but all the vowels in the name of the logo were now in a slightly different shade than the consonants.  Clearly internal-IT had finally succeeded in getting their list of changes made with the vendor.  She tapped her desk intercom and instructed her PA to find out exactly when, overnight, the change had been made.  Diarmarthid, Head of IT, would be looking to capitalise on a success like that.  Then she summoned up the corporate org-chart, full-screened it, and leaned back in her chair again.
Jeremy had exactly no direct reports; he occupied a gold-hued box at the top of the org chart with no lines connecting him anywhere.  In actual fact the immediate top level below him all reported to him, but a careful matrix management structure had it so that they technically reported in to each other in non-transitive ways so that no-one could gain an advantage.  The layer below that was even more complex in its organisation, with reporting going upwards except where it occasionally went sideways, and in one case, down.  Jeronica was in the middle of the second layer, as was Manguy, Margoyle, Diarmarthid and had been Stephanotte.  The lines around them were a spider’s web of treachery and political connivance which they all walked with the careful skill of a tightrope walker with detached retinas.
Jeronica had responsibility for Foreign, Romantic and Domestic Affairs with a side-interest in Healthcare in Developing Nations; Manguy was a specialist in Military, Political and Demographic rearrangements, and Margoyle had lately been tasked with the problem of Sweden but typically took responsibility for Trans-local and grass-roots uprisings and Steganography.  All three of them could reasonably consider Soft Power to be an area that they could manage, so Stephanotte’s departure was going create infighting.  Well, she thought, more infighting than usual.
A thought crossed her mind, and she leaned forward again, tapping at the keyboard.  It took a little bit of work, but inside five minutes she established that the org-chart had been updated late last night and that the last two revisions were password protected.  She tsked softly; Manguy was unsubtle in her opinion, and opened the org-charts stored on her computer.  Even evening a new copy was downloaded and compared with the previous.  The difference was slight, but not unexpected: a single reporting line had been removed.
Jeronica leaned back again.  Margoyle had reported into Stephanotte.  Which meant that now she was uncertain if Manguy had changed the org chart or if Margoyle had.  Curiouser and curiouser as a silly little girl had once said.
A message box slid up in the corner of her screen.  “The intranet was updated at 02:47.  The contract with [REDACTED] was signed at 21:23.”  Jeronica committed the numbers to memory and sent a message back.  “Purchase two bottles of Champagne and deliver them to Diarmarthid.  The card should read ‘Congratulations’.  Make sure that the consonants and vowels use exactly the same shades as the logo.”
She leant back in the chair again.  What to do about Stephanotte?