Monday, 31 December 2007

Detective Inspector Playfair wonders

"So," said Detective Inspector Playfair, "this 'Cesar Sausage' killed all of these people?" He sat behind a thin plywood desk in Interview Room A looking at a thin, snake-like man squirming on a hard wooden chair opposite. "It seems like a lot of effort to go to. We removed 33 bodies from that flat, and, for some reason no-one has yet been able to explain, 41 heads."

"That's Cesar for you," said the snake-like man. His tongue flickered barely out of his mouth, wetting his lips, and DI Playfair noted that it had been split. "When he makes a statement, everyone hears it." His s's were sibilant.

"So it would seem," said DI Playfair. "Only this is the first time I've ever heard of him, and I've been working here now for five years. So has Mr. Sausage been keeping quiet for a while?"

"I can't speak for Cesar," said the snake-like man. DI Playfair noted that the man's eyes were slightly yellow, but whether that was coloured contact lenses or jaundice he couldn't tell in the dim electric lighting. The energy-saving bulbs in the police station seemed to take hours to warm up enough to be useful.

"You're here speaking against him now," said Playfair. "I have three pages that you've dictated, here in front of me." He tapped the pages for emphasis. Minute black handwriting covered them densely, making them seem as though they'd been attacked by mould. "What I don't understand yet is why you're speaking out against him."

"I told you already!" said the snake-like man, sitting up in his chair. He seemed to be almost vibrating, his back was stiff and straight and his shoulders thrust out. Playfair thought that if the little man were actually related to a snake he'd be a cobra, his hood now rising up to make his head seem bigger and more of a threat.

"Yes, but you've also told me that your name is 'Nnnk-thss,' that you're an acolyte of some Mesopotamian snake-god, and, as best as I remember, most of the plot to 'The Usual Suspects.' Including 'Cesar Sausage,' which is a reference so unsubtle even the desk sargeant out there --" Playfair pointed with the fine-nibbed pen he'd used to write the statement, "-- got it. Which means I had to put up with him leaning heavily against my shoulder and whispering to me that he thinks you might be a little bit conservative with the truth, only in words that the Sun uses for its headlines, and in breath smelling strongly of the all-day breakfast the cafe round the corner does. Which, for the record, I did not appreciate."

Nnnk-thss slouched back in his chair again, and his eyes half-closed as his mouth half-opened. Playfair cut him off.

"So, Mr. Nnnk-thss, I'm going to put you in a cell for a while to think about this. And the only cell I have available at the moment is the one containing the 41 heads we removed from that flat. So you'll have plenty of familiar faces to talk to, while you sort your next story out."

Playfair stood up and pushed the next firmly back, pinning the snake-like man against the wall. The breath gasped out of him, and Playfair leaned harder on the desk, making it hard for the man to breathe in.

"The next story had better be a good one. I like originality in my plots."

Tuesday, 5 June 2007

Take two goblins before breakfast with water...

'You're overworked,' said Doctor Melchitt in grave tones. 'You need to get get some better brownies. Have you checked to see if the ones you have have --' and here he lowered his voice and continued in a conspiratorial whisper '-- communist sympathies?'
'I think my brownies are entirely normal, Doctor,' I said meekly. Doctor Melchitt had long grey sideburns that cascaded down his face and fell off the bottom of his jaw and deep-set eyes that were so shadowed by his brow that I've never managed to make out their colour. He scared me, with his authoratative manner and huge, huge hands that palpated and prodded and made me squirm.
'You should check anyway,' he said. 'Perhaps you could leave a little extra milk out for them, or if you're feeling generous add a small amount of cream to the milk before you put the saucer down.' He leaned forward and whispered again 'And you could leave some squares of red cloth around the house. If they disappear...' he leaned back and tapped a knotty finger against the side of his nose.
'Thank-you Doctor,' I said meekly, and got up.
'I'll give you two prescriptions,' he said, turning back to his scarred metal desk and pulling his presciption pad forwards to the edge of it. 'One is for two dozen fresh brownies, in case you find that yours are... somehow, shall we say, defective. And the other is for 200 valium tablets to help you relax somewhat.'
'Thank-you, Doctor,' I said with feeling, sitting back down while he wrote out my prescriptions. I'd been running low on valium all week, and had been extremely worried that the Doctor would refuse to renew my prescription. I left his office quite cheerfully a couple of minutes later with both prescriptions.
I was overworked, or at least I would be if I worried about the housework, but I didn't; I left that kind of worry to my sister. She had a doctor of her own, thankfully not Doctor Melchitt or even one associated with his practise, and I'd been careful never to mention to Doctor Melchitt that I had any kind of family at all. She fretted over the lack of brownies that we had, that she was unable to attract any, and that any she was prescribed seemed to just evaporate in less than a week. I'd sympathised with her, and told her that I suspected the house was simply ill-aspected and no self-respecting brownie would stay put for longer than a few days, but she was growing more and more resistant to the idea. So lately I'd been telling her that I'd seen goblin-spoor in the garden, which had triggered a mild anxiety attack that goblins might be hunting down her brownies and eating them.
Though goblins were indeed the most cannabalistic of the fey races the truth was somewhat more prosaic. I was crushing the valium that Doctor Melchitt had prescribed me and dissolving it in the milk that my sister put out for the brownies each night. Each morning I would find comatose brownies strewn around the kitchen, depending on where they were when the valium had kicked in. I gathered them up, inspected them and kept the ones that I didn't already have in my collection, and sold the rest on to other collectors. My collection was very nearly complete, I was missing only a mottled-red brownie that was typically only found in Hungary, and a large greenish coloured brownie that constantly oozed ichor and was normally only found near the seashores. Each of them were pinned down beneath large glass display plates with magnetised iron pins that stopped them using their fairy powers to escape. The collection was worth several hundred thousand pounds to the right person, and would land me in gaol for ten to fifteen years if discovered: ever since the fairy races were accorded the same rights as humans collecting them has been illegal.
Prescribing brownies wasn't illegal of course, as the prescription was just for chemicals that brownies found very attractive, and were regulated to stop collectors from using them to gather brownies up en masse. Every year it seemed another mass grave of brownies would be uncovered from the days when they were considered to be little more than helpful butterflies.
I was confident that with a prescription for two dozen brownies and 200 valium tablets that I could either ensnare the last two brownies I needed, or at least gathe enough of the other kinds to be able to trade for them. Then the collection would be complete, and I could start on goblins. I'd been planning this for a couple of months now, when it became obvious that I was nearly there on brownies. Goblins aren't protected by law, or by lore for that matter, even the fey races consider them to be vermin, so the collection would be legal this time, and I could exhibit it and take pride in it. I was getting quite excited by the idea. The downside would be that I would need to attract goblins, which would probably mean that my sister still wouldn't be able to keep any brownies for any length of time. I shrugged to myself, and wondered if goblins could be trained to do the housework.

Ugly is the new black

I've never considered myself to be an avid follower of fashion; if anything, I prefer to set trends than follow them. This isn't particularly easy either, as the best way to set a trend is to be visible in the public eye, and immune from ridicule. Consider David Beckham at his peak (rather than his bottle-blond, what-is-he-married-to current state of decay) when even wearing a skirt wasn't enough to have the whole country (deservedly) laughing at him. I hate the limelight, it's just not my colour, so setting a trend for me means that I have to appear in the right places at the right times and catch the eye of the right people. It's tough, but I usually make the effort once or twice a year.

Back when I first started doing this the intoxicating rush I got from watching as the trend took hold was incredible; I literally couldn't believe how exhilarating it was to see people copying the way I dressed and the way I accessorised. Naturally as soon as the trend was clearly taking hold I stopped wearing it, as I have no wish to appear to be the same as everybody else. Underneath everything we are all the same, but that doesn't mean that I want it to be obvious. Friends and acquaintances (you know, those people who know you and think they can talk to you and don't realise how annoying you find them) would come up and comment on that fact that I wasn't following the fashion, and I would smile smugly and point out that I'd been wearing it half a season ago and was over it now. Shortly after that I had to find new friends and acquaintances, but I've been doing that all my life anyway.

I am tempted occasionally to see how far I can push it, but having done it once I won't do it again. As entertaining as it was to watch a ballroom full of fashionistas turn into a conflagration due to my having set a trend for highly flammable wispy fabrics and their industry awards having gone for the faux-romantic look of real candles, it was expensive in many ways and the thrill was remarkably short-lived. I kept the newspaper cuttings though; everyone should have some record of what they've achieved in life.

I entertain myself now by watching the trends, and rarely nudging them when I feel they're getting too ridiculous, or when I think that someone is attempting to exert the kind of influence that I once did. The current fashion for declaring whatever is in this season to be the new black is irritating me intensely though. The only circumstance under which pea-green can be the new black, for instance, is if a particular fashion designer is colour-blind. And to declare red to be the new black is simply to show a fundamental lack of understanding of the basic colour palette. To take out an entire primary colour like that leaves you in a drab, vaguely aquatic world. It makes me feel asthmatic, not uplifted and enlivened.

However, looking around the breakfast salon of my 5-star hotel this morning (not one of my choice I feel I should say, I am here at someone else's expense, though I feel as though I am here at the expense of my taste and sensibilities) I wonder if perhaps it would not be hyperbole to declare that ugly is the new black. It is surely the only explanation for what I see in front of me. Since when have wrinkles been fashionable? Yet everywhere I look I see them, on faces, on arms and legs, and even in the tablecloth in front of me. That at least I can smooth back into something more acceptable. The only place that wrinkles absent themselves from is the folds of fat on obese people who wobble into breakfast and collapse onto a chair which creaks self-pityingly as it strains itself to support the corpulence of its occupant.

Between the fat and the ugly I am left looking most incongruous indeed, being thin and easy to overlook. I would never dare to praise my looks, for the chorus of voices to contradict me would deafen me for life, yet here I am most out of place. I have no unsightly facial hair, I have no large boils or pimples. My features are mostly symmetrical and inoffensive. I am almost everything these people are not, and yet I am the exception to the rule, the odd one out. The odd dogma of fashion dictates therefore that I am unfashionable and out of place. Ugly is the only acceptable way to be.

And so, if ugly were to be the new black I would be terribly relieved, as black belongs in the shadows and at night, when the lighting is poor and dim, and what in plain daylight is seen to be something so hideous as to make you feel obliged to book an appointment at your own expense with a reputable plastic surgeon is at night only intriguing and mysterious. This then I shall tell myself, that ugly is simply the new black, and that I am doomed to be unfashionable for another season.

Only Michael vibrates this much

It is dark in the workshop but I am unwilling to light the gaslamps because they will wake Michael. He is sleeping in a long, narrow cage underneath a side-bench, and though he will be in shadow still when I light the lamps the hissing will wake him. His senses are all much more refined than those of other people, and what he can hear and at what distance I am still determining. He is too clever to just tell me, and I must devise ever more sophisticated experiments to deduce what he is keeping from me.

Michael is my favourite too, another reason why I would not wake him yet. He did not get to sleep until after the sun had come up this morning because I had been running the aether-condenser all night and I did not know that it generated a high-pitched tone that he could hear. I have applied myself diligently with an oscilloscope for most of the day so that I may determine the frequency of this tone when Michael wakes and I switch the aether-condenser on again. It will give me another measure of Michael's sensitivity to sound.

I am sitting in near-darkness contemplating a way to generate a silent beam of pure light for occasions such as this when Michael wakes at last. I cannot see him, but I hear him moving as he turns over a couple of times in his cage. He cannot stand up while in the cage, it is a similar shape to a coffin, but wider. Then there is a sharp buzz on the very edge of my hearing and I know that Michael has started to vibrate. Then a patch of darkness in the workshop moves and becomes man-shaped and I know that he has stood up, through the bars of the cage and the worktop, and anything I might have carelessly left there, and is moving away from them. He pauses for a moment, and I know that he can see me far better than I can see him, and that he will smell the labours of the day on me too. Then he turns back to the wall, and emits that sharp buzz again. Some thirty seconds later he has lit the first of the gaslamps and is proceeding around the workshop to light the rest.

The gaslamps cast a warm golden light about the workshop which reflects back softly from the beaten-copper vessels on the long workbench at the back, and dances happily amongst the glassware on the shelves above all of the workbenches. I am sat in a high-backed armchair with wings such that I can sit back in the shadows and be indistinguishable even in good daylight. It was once upholstered with good red velvet and gold beading, but it has seen better days, particularly the days before I discovered that even when he vibrates Michael disturbs liquids. Michael has healed, but the chair was equally doused in a mixture of corrosive fluids and has failed to heal even slightly.

'You have been working all day, and will continue into the night?' says Michael, a frown creasing his high forehead. Soft black hair falls over his face as he frowns, and he pushes it casually back with his left hand. His eyes, yellow as a cat's, glitter in the gaslight.

'Work always continues,' I say, 'whether I participate or not.'

'Will you be needing my blood tonight then?'

'No.' This is the first night in three weeks I have not needed blood samples from Michael, but this is the first time that I have had a notable success during the day. 'I have three vials of elixir that when poured on something solid will make it vibrate as you do,' I say. 'I think that tonight we shall attempt to improve our fortunes instead.'

Michael smiles, sensual red lips parting enough to reveal that his teeth are naturally sharply pointed, almost triangular, and his tongue pokes out, long enough for me to notice that it is forked at the end. I have known this ever since I caged him, but it surprises me everytime. I suppress my shudder though, as I am aware that it would only excite him.

'Can you show me?' he asks, his smile turning into an impish grin.

I nod, I had been expecting him to ask, and in truth, I would prefer to test the elixir before we reach the bank. I turn to the long workbench, and in passing turn on the aether-condenser. If tonight is a success I shall be needing much more aether. It burps rudely, then settles down emitting a low, rumbling chugging. Michael winces as it does so, and reminds me about the oscilloscope. I flick another switch to turn it on, and leave it to settle while I pick up the half-bottle of elixir set next to three full ones. I uncork it, and pour the contents out onto a twisted lump of iron, salvaged from an experiment some months ago that set the workshop on fire and necessitated a complete rebuilding. The iron, blackened and warped, nonetheless seems to glitter where the elixir has pooled. I slip a stiff leather glove on, and rub the elixir over the iron completely. Everywhere the elixir touches starts to glitter, clearly an effect of the elixir itself as the iron is as dull and unreflective as ever.

Michael reaches out a hand, and it passes straight through the iron. His heavy eyebrows rise in startlement.

'You see,' I said, 'I think that this elixir confers the properties that you can induce in yourself at will. It causes the iron to vibrate as fast as you until it evaporates.'

Michael shrugs, and seems to blur. That irritating sharp buzz pulses through my head again, but now Michael can pick the iron up and heft it in his hand. 'And if I threw this at someone now?' he says.

I shrug. 'If the elixir were to evaporate in mid-flight I dare say that it would hurt, or kill, when it struck. If the elixir did not, then it should pass straight through them, and give them naught more than a nasty shock.'

Michael hefts it thoughtfully once more, then turns towards the doorway of the workshop and throws it. As soon as the iron leaves his hand it seems to contract becoming impossibly thin and then disappearing altogether. It certainly does not fly across the workshop as I had expected. Michael smiles, and for the first time since I have caged him, I find his smile oddly sinister.

'It seems to work perfectly,' he says, and I find myself nodding in agreement with him. His voice is rich, mellow, and has undertones that seem to ring in harmony with my soul. I know he has this ability too, and I have earplugs set aside to protect me from its effects, but I am not wearing them today, foolishly. I have grown trusting and believe that Michael and I are working towards the same goals.

'Let us go then, and liberate gold from the vaults of the bank,' he says, and I turn to the bench to collect the vials of elixir. I have no choice, and for all that this was ever my plan, I am wondering if perhaps Michael has a plan after my plan that he has not yet divulged to me. I must leave the workshop in the mundane fashion, by the door, but Michael just walks through the wall. For in this world only Michael vibrates that much.

Saturday, 26 May 2007

The Miller-Collins scale

I scored 72 out of 80 on the Miller-Collins scale when I was tested. The testers, two youngish men with facial hair more suitable to people thirty years older than them (when I'd walked into the trial lab I thought I'd walked onto the set of the Open University) looked extremely nervous when they told me the result.
I asked them what it meant. I had a pretty good idea, but they were looking nervous and I was feeling mean, so I made them explain it.
Well, they said, the Miller-Collins scale measures deviancy from social norms and mores, and the higher you score, the more deviant you are. You, they said, are so deviant that we're not comfortable being in the same room as you. Next to you, corkscrews look untwisted. If you'd scored just 2 points higher standard procedure is to shoot you with a tranquiliser dart and transfer you to a secure mental institution.
I nodded and smiled. I see, I said. And how will this affect my application for a mortgage?
Since your mortgage lender required that you take this test, said the first of them, we think you'll probably be turned down.
Hopefully with extreme prejudice said the second one.
I nodded and smiled again. As my mortgage application was for the purchase of a fully equipped S&M dungeon with a business licence I rather thought I'd be accepted joyfully. And I had recognised the second one already, as a regular visitor to one of the dungeons I already owned.
Odd how everybody's normal until you label them....

Monday, 21 May 2007

Waiting for the punchline

'Are those bruises on your arm?'
'Oh, yes. Look, they form the constellation of Orion!'
I stared at her in mild consternation. 'Jill, they're bruises,' I said. 'They're not supposed to form star maps. How on earth did you get them?'
'Ducking and weaving,' she said. Her eyes met mine daring me to ask more. I'm a coward though, and so I fell silent.
'See, I've got the belt and everything,' she said, grinning brightly at me.
'I suppose it's a bit like a tattoo, when you put it like that,' I said. 'Only not so permanent.'
'Quite a lot like a tattoo!' said Jill. 'What do you think I should get on the other arm?'
'The Queen's head?' I suggested. 'You know, like a postage stamp?'
We split off at that point and went our separate ways; Jill walking over to the applied physical sciences building, and me heading downhill to the aquatic studies blocks. It was a standing joke that if the water table rose or we had heavy rain that the aquatic sciences building would be underwater in less time that it took to say 'Jiminy Cricket' (who says such things anyway?). It was slightly less funny when you learned that the building actually had sets of scuba gear in each of the labs....

I caught up with Jill again that afternoon. An email had gone round announcing that the campus coffee-shop was having a three-for-one sale on quad-espressos. I was going to be working until early into the morning studying phospholuminence in undergraduates and felt that the caffeine boost would probably be useful. Jill loves a bargain -- she only buys food at the supermarket that's been reduced, all of her dresses have come from either a warehouse sale or a charity shop; even her husband was a jilted groom who 'looked sort of lost, all stood at the altar like that, so I took him.' I still wonder about that.

She had a set of bruises on her other arm now, that were fresh, but were still recognisably in the shape of the Queen's Head. I stared at it in shock.
'That was a really good idea!' she said happily. 'We think that it should look like a second class stamp for the first couple of days and then lighten into a first class stamp after that! Everyone will want one soon!'
'I don't think people will want to collect bruises quite like that--' I said, but Jill cut me off.
'Not everyone, silly, but the bodymod people will. After all, this is much less permanent than a tattoo or a piercing, and so much easier to do as well.'
'How are you doing this?' I said. 'How did you get it done in such a short time?'
'Oh, it's the latest application of the physical sciences,' she said, 'We've got in a case-load of wife-beaters and we've trained them to lash out on certain keywords. They're all quite predictable, so all you do is go and have a carefully scripted conversation with a room full of them, and you come out with the design you want!'
I was shocked into silence. Jill picked up her three quad-espressos and looked back at me. 'You're very quiet,' she said, 'are you that surprised?'
'No,' I said, finding it hard to speak. 'I think I'm just waiting for the punch-line still.'

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Monsters and Poodles

'Your monster ate my poodle!'
I looked up. Mrs. Kapolski, my short, white-haired, eighty-three year old landlady was stood trembling at the doorway of my living room.
'That's what monsters do, Mrs. Kapolski,' I said patiently.
'They eat poodles?'
I nodded. Mrs. Kapolski looked confused and I couldn't honestly say if the cloudiness in her eyes was tears or cataracts.
'Oh,' she said, 'right you are then.' She walked away, slightly hesitantly. I felt momentarily guilty and sorry for her, but that was swept aside by my annoyance that my monster had eaten her poodle. I had thought it had been abnormally quiet in its room since I came in, now I knew it was waiting to be punished. Well, it could wait. The most effective punishments were, in my opinion, psychological anyway. Of course, if I went into its room to confront it and punish it, I might find out what else it had done while I was away, and I had learned to treasure my ignorance. Sometimes it is better to curse the darkness than light a candle; less dangerous too. Instead of a trembling pool of light that may serve only to show you how lost you really are, an ill-timed gas leak may leave you at the centre of a vast, expanding explosion of light and heat: a beacon to every monster around to come and enjoy your fresh, char-grilled flavour...

St. Theresa's Prayers

Mother Superior stared at the heavy paper she held in her trembling hand.
'It says that they've canonised Theresa,' she said at last. 'She's now St. Theresa.'
'Doesn't she have to be dead first?' asked her adjutant, a young muscular woman with large hands.
'It would seem that they've left that up to us,' said Mother Superior, refusing to look her adjutant in the eye.
'Leave it to me,' said the adjutant cracking her knuckles.

When she'd left Mother Superior stood alone, listening to the muted murmur of the nuns at prayer from the chapel below her office, and wondered which of the voices was Theresa's.
Almost as she wondered it, the vioces grew louder and more distinct, until she could hear Theresa as clearly as if she were in the office with her.
'Heavenly Father, forgive not those who trespass against me and conspire to kill me. Upon my death bring fire upon this nunnery and curse all who dwell here--'

The papal paper slipped from Mother Superior's fingers.

A sublime idea

'It's like licking a leprechaun,' said James as I came into the room carrying a fresh bottle of Tequila.
'What is?' I said, puzzled. 'What does a leprechaun taste like anyway?'
'Green!' said Susan at the same time as James held up a small, plastic bag half-filled with red crystals.
'Oh.' I said, nodding at James and then rolling my eyes at Susan.
'We can use it instead of salt in the slammers,' said James enthusiastically. 'Just wet the rim of the glass and dip it in this.'
'Won't work,' said Susan promptly, gathering our empty glasses and putting them on the table. 'It needs acid to set it off, it won't work till it's in our stomachs then.'
'Oh,' said James. 'That's no fun.'
Susan frowned, her face crinkling like a three-day-old puppy's. 'Although,' she said, 'if we put the crystals in first, then the lime, then the tequila and put salt on the rim of the glass...'
'Ah,' I said smiling, pulling the limes from my pockets, 'a sub-lime idea!'

On the use of mirrors in the game of chess

For the second game I moved the mirror. When she arrived, she looked nervously at the mantlepiece and seeing the mirror's absence sighed very gently. I guided her to the chess table, noticing that the collar of her dress was embroidered with white pawns. She took Black this time, as I had expected. I sat opposite her and advanced my Queen's pawn. I could see her both before me and reflected in the mirror. Her hand hovered like an albino hummingbird over her pawns.

She played cautiously as before, and again the careful placement of the mirror was to my advantage. Her tells were shown as clearly as any amateur poker player's, and I discerned her strategies effortlessly. As her attack splintered against my artful pawn formation, I saw her grow agitated, and again her reflection in the mirror took on an opalescent lustre. Abruptly she sacrificed a rook, and in the mirror her reflection turned and snarled soundlessly at me, crimson lips curling away from white teeth, and her eyes as brilliant and green as new-cut emeralds.

Numbed, my hands moved of their own accord and i rejected her sacrifice, counter-offering the lynchpawn of my defense. Her reflection returned to normal, but it was too late; I crumbled and resigned a few moves later.

She sat back and smiled slightly and I caught the briefest possible glimpse of a flash in her hand. Instantly I understood. I was not alone in employing the art of mirrors to chess.