Thursday, 31 January 2008

Waltzing Mathilde

Portraits hang on three of the four walls of the ballroom. The fourth wall is made of toughened glass and looks out over the harbour. In the distance the sky meets the sea, a melding of blues; in the foreground white-capped waves run ahead of the wind and crash on the craggy rocks that stand out from the shore. As 2,400 couples dance here, there is the faint noise of the surf audible through the window, a subtle regular hiss like the static crackle behind the music from an ancient vinyl record player. The dancers are unperturbed by this, it is unlikely that they even hear it any more. They move in harmony, waltzing in great interlocking circles, parading the ballroom in an eternal cycle of creation.

The dancers all wear heavy metal slippers. The ballroom floor is magnetized, and as they dance the slippers slice through the magnetic field lines, causing the flow of electricity in the superconducting cables that run below the floor. The dancers convert chemical energy in the form of food into electrical energy that can be put to better uses: this year alone they will produce enough energy to power all the 50" flat-screen plasma televisions in the country for long enough to watch every episode, analysis, re-run and repeat of American Idol XXIV: Escape from Guantanamo, and still leave enough to power the internet-enabled fridges, toasters and washing machines that the modern age deems essential.

The dancers are the elderly, the subnormal, unruly children, anyone who's ever received an ASBO, anyone the police didn't much like the look of, first-time criminals, habitual criminals, committed recidivists, students, unmarried mothers, unwanted grandparents and civil servants who have lost large amounts of public data. They come from all walks of life, and when their shift ends, they can return to what they were doing first. Many of them don't remember that they have that option when their shift ends, and so they stay here. Dancing happily to music that's entirely in their heads. A humane form of the hamster wheel for humans.

The first portrait on the wall, the one opposite the window, is of the the woman who made the ballroom possible, Waltzing Mathilde. She was born in Paris in 1920, collaborated with the Nazis in 1941, and fled to the US in 1943 under threat of death. By 1950 she had been committed to a secure mental hospital, where she waltzed quietly all day long. The portrait is of her shortly after her incarceration, waltzing in the recreation room of the mental hospital. She is petite, and wearing only a torn nightdress. Her feet are bleeding from her non-stop waltzing, but there is a smile on her face reminiscent of that of the Mona Lisa. There is a vacancy in her eyes reminiscent of modern television audiences. She is clearly happy in the portrait, even if it is the joy of oblivion.

Mathilde was studied to find out why she waltzed, and why when they tied her to her bed she would struggle to waltz to the point of rubbing all the skin off her arms and legs where they were bound. She was put into especially heavy shoes, and still she waltzed, untiringly and unceasingly. Not even four months of increasingly heavy electroshock therapy could stop her waltzing. She finally stopped waltzing when a surgeon removed 80% of her brain-stem. She also stopped breathing.

Portrait number two is of Spastic Freddy. Before Mathilde was killed in care, researchers thought they had isolated the chemical occurring in her brain that made her waltz. The chemical was synthesized and injected into the brain of Freddy, a young man with acute depression. The chemical made him flail about spastically, uncontrolled and uncoordinated, flopping around like a rag-doll. He was put out of his misery when the head-doctor of the asylum shot him four times in the chest. The same doctor received the Congressional Medal of Honour ten years later for having had the wisdom not to shoot Freddy in the head.

The research done on Freddy's brain led to the refinement of the drug, and with the advent of large-scale bio-industry, huge vats of bacteria were programmed to produce it. The third portrait is of Felicity Landon, who built the first ballroom and prescribed it to all of the patients of mental health facilities in the state of which she was governor.

The ballroom solves so many problems, of overpopulation, of what to do with undesirables, and of where to get the energy we need for modern life. And we televise it too, on pay-per-view. We increase the drug dosage and let the contestants battle-dance for the entertainment of the paying audience.

This is definitely the future today.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Starry-eyed messiah

The Messiah announced himself at dawn. As the sun crept above the horizon and the sky tinged pink, the trees defined themselves, and a soft breeze stirred eddies in the thin mist, he picked himself up and out of the gutter where he had spent the night and spread his arms wide. The first rays of sun caught him where he stood, and he seemed faintly lambent. The long, thin, slightly straggly blonde hair stood out from his head, forming a halo if you were inclined to look for that kind of thing. He rose up on the balls of his feet, feeling the warmth of the sun on his face spread through his body and dispel the stiffness and aches of a night spent in contemplation, and cried out to the surrounding streets, "I am risen again!"

The air cracked twice, loud reports in the crisp morning. Two small, circular holes appeared in the Messiah's forehead, and he jerked, taking a couple of steps backward trying to keep his balance. Then the back of his head exploded, spraying bone and brain matter in a wide oval on the pavement behind him, and he fell back into the gutter from whence he'd come.

We had a Messiah-problem. He was the third to announce himself that week, and the 624th that year, and we were still only in March. People were divided into two camps on it: one said that it was the same Messiah, determined to bring his message to the world and redeem us once more; the other thought that there was something being put into the water supply by the government that was making people go mad and believe that they were holy.

The Catholic church's attitudes had slowly changed too. The first few Messiahs were proclaimed and supported, and then when more starting turning up, that support fell to mere recognition, and now, any that survived their first announcement was given a badge to wear as a token of acknowledgment. A cynic might point out that the badge looked suspiciously like the bulls-eye of a target.

What was really going on had gone unsuspected so far, and there were a few Messiahs out there who had not proclaimed themselves when they'd arrived, and were quietly working to reduce the number that the general public noticed. It was, of course, an exodus, a fleeing of people from another dimension, reaching this planet and possessing host bodies. The way had been found in the past, but considered unethical, even though two-thousand years ago the people of this planet were substantially less sophisticated. Now we had no choice, but getting a message back to the people still fleeing was proving difficult. We hadn't expected the change in attitude, or that we might not be greeted as automatic rulers.

We were working to change that though. And when there were enough of us, then we could proclaim a new Messiah with impunity. And then the exodus could begin in earnest.

Wednesday, 23 January 2008

On dogs and driving

DI Playfair was driving. Miss Flava was sat in the passenger seat, and the Rottweiler, Calamity, was alternately on the back seat and in Miss Flava's lap, trying to find somewhere she thought was comfortable. Crossing from the back seats to the front and back again meant that she was regularly shifting the gear-stick and stepping on the hand-brake, but this made little noticeable difference to Playfair's control of the car. His foot pressed the accelerator to the floor constantly, and the car's actual speed was regulated by the foot-brake and the clutch. The engine roared like an ancient dragon with haemmorroids, blue-black smoke rose from both the exhaust pipe and the bonnet, and the gears clanked like a medieval knight in a full suit of armour. Miss Flava had mentioned this to Playfair once, and he had glared at her and announced that all the cars in the police pool were like that.

He had also named the Rottweiler. Her trainer, when introducing her to the department had suggested that they pick a short, one- or two-syllable name for her, and Rosie had been popular until Playfair came in, looked at her, and named her Calamity. To everyone's astonishment she had taken to him instantly, and responded to her new name immediately. When Miss Flava had asked him why Calamity, he had said, "Name of my favourite Crimean nurse. Calamity Jane."

"That was Florence Nightingale," Miss Flava had said. "Calamity Jane was a wild-west frontierswoman who fought native Americans."

"Rubbish," Playfair had said, snorting. "Florence Nightingale is a character from the Magic Roundabout, like Ancient Mu-mu the Cow and Bob Dylan."

The conversation had gone no further.

"Is this liaising with the community?" said Playfair, shouting over the roar of the engine. He never took his eyes off the road, which he was glaring at as though hoping it was going to do something he could arrest it for.

"What?" said Miss Flava, stretching her legs out after Calamity's latest visit to her lap.

"Is this liaising with the community? Talking to this antiques shop owner. Only you said they didn't want me to liaise with the community anymore."

"Oh, I see," said Miss Flava. "No, I don't think anyone thinks this is a real crime, which is why we've got it. And it won't be liaising with the community at all unless you listen to the owner."

Playfair hmmphed, and tried not to smile. "I listen to people," he said. "I listened to Nnnk-Thss tell me the plot to the Usual Suspects. Have we got any leads on why there are more heads than bodies yet?"

"You only listen when you've run out of other ideas," said Miss Flava. "Your approach to policing is just a variant on shouting 'It was you what done it, ain't it!' at everybody until someone breaks down and confesses everything. Then you leave it for three weeks, and astonish everyone in the department by revealing that you know how the crime was committed. You sit there, with an unbearable smugness that would leave Sherlock Holmes green with envy, and point evidence out that everyone saw and no-one thought was evidence, and leave us all thinking that you have to be the greatest sleuth in history. Then you shout at us all for sitting there in awe of you until someone breaks down."

"It's therapy," said Playfair gruffly, his chin sunk into his chest so that his collar could hide his mouth while he eyeballed the road. "It's cathartic for you."

"Therapy?" Miss Flava paused, caught off balance. "You view yourself as a psycho-analyst?"

"See, made you think there, didn't I?"

"Let's all dance on the grave of Freud," swore Miss Flava. "You're part of the psycho-antagonist school of thought, aren't you? You provoke reactions from people and then analyse them."

"And work out what's wrong with you all," said Playfair. "I don't think most of you are cut out to be detectives."

"I don't think most of the department know they're signed up as patients in an experimental psychology experiment! Playfair, you're the most twisted, devious, manipulative corkscrew of a thinker I've ever met! How-"

"Bodies and heads," said Playfair sharply.

"Oh," said Miss Flava again. "Oh. Well, it turns out that all the bodies do have heads, they'd just been cut off and sewn inside the abdominal cavity. The 41 other heads are still unknowns. Mr. Nnnk-Thss thinks they're talking to him though. In snake."

"Does that mean we have a statement from him that mostly reads 'Hisssssssss'?"

"Yes, and one that talks about someone called Henry Trotter and what sounds like a giant anaconda."

"That'll be Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets then," sighed Playfair.

"You know him?"

"It's another film."

Playfair finally took his foot off the accelerator, swung the steering wheel and wrenched the handbrake up. The car slewed across two lanes of oncoming traffic, the tires squealing like a eunuch at an orgy, mounted the pavement still turning, and ground to a halt just shy of a lamp-post. Calamity picked herself up from out of the foot-well and started barking excitedly. Miss Flava swore under her breath, and Playfair grinned like a boy who's just hotwired his first Porsche.

"Let's go and arrest this shopkeeper then!" he shouted.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

A Christmas Menu

Someone shouted wordlessly behind closed doors, and the Rottweiler sat up, his ears pricked, facing the door. Miss Flava sighed, very very softly, and rubbed the dog's head.

"It's ok boy, it's only Playfair," she said. "The committee for the creation of the Christmas Menu have probably brought up the vegetarian option. I did tell them not to, at least until they'd got him to agree to the main menu."

The Rottweiler whined and stretched his front paws out again, lying down, his head resting on his legs, still watching the door. The other two secretaries in the room, Jeanine and Delilah, shivered in unison, and starting typing a little bit louder than was really necessary. Miss Flava often thought of them as canaries, as they seemed to have an uncanny sixth sense about when DI Playfair would hurtle into their shared office. On the day that he'd been rear-ended by a venomous traffic-warden in the police carpark they'd both called in sick within minutes of each other half an hour before the incident occurred. From where Miss Flava sat, she could still see the stains from the window opposite her desk. She started counting under her breath.

As she reached 5, the door opened. Like most office doors it was fitted with a regulator at the top, a hinged triangle of metal that usually slowed the closing of the door down so that it didn't slam. The one on this door was hydraulic, and slowed the opening of the door down so that DI Playfair couldn't charge through it like a bull in a mating pen. The door wheezed open at almost normal opening speed, which meant that DI Playfair must have hit it running and put most of his weight behind it. He stumbled in, having lost most of his momentum.

"Vegetarians?!" he shouted. His face was dark red, and there were traces of spittle around his lips. "Why the hell are we hiring vegetarians to work in the police force? Bloody creatures are only fit to be pond-scum. Or if there's no room there, traffic wardens!"

"We're an equal opportunity employer," said Miss Flava, her hand resting on the Rottweiler's collar. He tended to get overexcited around Playfair. "And even if we weren't, it would be politicall-"

"Don't give me bloody politically correct!" yelled Playfair. "Those limp-wristed panty-hose-wearing liberal femi-communist perverts deserve everything they get, and then buggery besides! We should cook the damned vegetarians and serve them up to the people with a proper diet! Who ever heard of a meal that doesn't involve meat?"

"Breakfast?" suggested Miss Flava, moderately impressed with DI Playfair's description of the politically correct, a group which included most of his superior officers.

"I always chop raw steak onto my cereal," said Playfair, breathing heavily. "None of this tofu-banana crap."

"I think you might mean muesli there?"

"Rabbit droppings. That's the Swedish word for rabbit droppings. Why would you eat something that someone else has already digested for God's sake? What next, boil-in-the-colostomy bag food?"

Delilah pushed back her chair looking pale and fled the room, managing to get past DI Playfair, who hadn't moved from the doorway, without actually touching him. As she disappeared Miss Flava could hear her retching.

"Right. Well. I'll write a new memo on the menu then, and forge your signature on it and send it to the committee so that you don't have to be bothered by it again," said Miss Flava. "I think you've probably done everything you can to the committee members now."

"I could lock them up in the cells with the snake-priest and the severed heads," said DI Playfair, but some of the anger had gone out of his voice now. "Give them some time to think about their stupidity."

"We're overcrowded enough as it is," said Miss Flava. "I'll sort the menu-memo out. You go and get your coat. We should go and look into this antique shop burglary before the owner complains that the police aren't taking him seriously."

"Someone had better have died there, that's all," muttered Playfair, backing out of the office, letting the door fall shut. As the door clicked closed, Jeanine fainted, and Miss Flava had an instant premonition that the chair of the committee must have gone to Playfair's office to confront him. She ducked beneath her desk, pulling her laptop with her, and waited for the noise and dust to subside.

Saturday, 19 January 2008

An Open-Source Monster

Dr. Monsanto has been a family friend since before I was born. He is quite short, and has a hunch-back that my mother forbade me ever to mention, has thick black hair that sprouts from his head like a fatal dandelion, and wears thick-lensed rose-tinted glasses. When I was very young I was scared of him, which he found amusing; he still tells stories to this day of me running off to hide when he came to visit, and how my mother had to coax me to come out of the hall-cupboard with slices of fresh steak. As I grew up, he became more familiar because he was so often a visitor, and now, as I wait out the summer holiday before University starts, he's just someone I know.

He's also incredibly clever, well-off enough that he can afford first-class aeroplane travel, and had offered me a summer job working in his laboratory in Switzerland. I jumped at the chance, especially when the first-class flight ticket was mentioned, fancying that I would be doing a couple of hours a day in the lab, then off skiing and in the evenings impressing the local Fraeuleins and Milchmaedels.

Instead, it's 10pm, dark outside, and we're still in the lab. There's me, Dr. Monsanto, and Igora, Dr. Monsanto's tall, utterly gorgeous assistant. She smiled at me when I arrived and I dropped my suitcase, which burst open, dumping my slightly tatty boxer shorts at her feet, and my best sweater in a puddle of something on the lab floor. While the sweater dissolved, Igora picked my boxers up, handed them to me, and winked. "Not your pulling pants, then," she said, and I stood to attention. Much to my embarrassment.

Dr. Monsanto believes in Open Source he tells me; he doesn't use things that come with copyright agreements, and makes his research publically available to anyone who wants to use it. There's a kind of license involved that means that anyone using his research has to credit him, and must make their research that is based on his free too, which seems fair to me.

But I'm a little concerned, when we're not working. Dr. Monsanto is building a kind of robot that utilises human tissues, a cyborg I think. He gets a bit vague when I press him for details, and tells me to ask Igora. Only when I go and talk to Igora, I kind of forget how to speak, and end up just drooling until she suggests I go and do something useful. But the tissues are all treated using some process that Dr. Monsanto has invented, that rids them of copyright issues. And I don't understand how a tissue can be copyrighted like that.

There also seems to be less and less metal involved with the cyborg each day, and more and more tissue. I laughingly said to Dr. Monsanto this morning that if it carried on this way we'd have built our very own Frankenstein's monster, and Igora looked at me and said gravely, "Dr. Frankenstein was way ahead of his time." This shocked me so much that I think I saw her properly for the very first time when I stared at her, and I realised that she has a circular scar that seems to run round her forehead.

Then later, I noticed that she had a line of stitching running down the back of her neck. Almost like a seam.

And that's when I started to wonder, and so last night, before I went to bed, I went to google first. It took me a while to figure out what I was searching for, but finally I came across a book scan of a 17th century text about constructing homunculi, and discovered that if you're building it piecemeal, you can't use baptised or consecrated flesh.

I woke up in the middle of the night, soaked in sweat, having realised that baptising or consecrating flesh might be conveniently described as affirming the copyright of some creator agency over it.

I'm starting to wonder just what my CV is going to look like at the end of this summer...

Thursday, 17 January 2008

A company man

"Right Sandy," said Ron, "I've called you in for this review because there's been some doubt expressed at higher levels that you're not really pulling your weight."

I gaped at him, clueless as to what he might mean.

"You see, it's been noted that you went home every night last week at 7:30," continued Ron, who was busy not looking at me. He was corpulent, florid and bald, sat behind a flatpack desk on a chair a little too small for his bulk. His pin-striped suit, stretched across his gut, made him look like an executive beach-ball. "There's concern expressed that you're not committed enough."

"Er, but our working day is 9 till 5:30," I said. "I haven't exactly been leaving early."

"But you're not staying all that late either, are you?" said Ron, wheezing slightly. "You should take a leaf out of Alex's book, he's got real commitment to the company."

"He's dead!" I said. "We found him dead at his desk in his cubicle, and only because the cleaners complained that he was starting to smell."

"For which we're all deeply grateful," said Ron, then paused, looking puzzled. "Deeply regretful," he corrected himself. "But he showed commitment, Sandy, even in death. It turns out that his life insurance policy named the company as his benefactor. Thanks to his death we have a once-off profit to add to the balance sheet this year; we're thinking that the return to the shareholders will be up a whole half-percent on last year. He had no dependents, so there's no-one to contest it.

"Is that the problem, Sandy? Is family getting in the way? At the last board meeting the directors approved us hiring a divorce lawyer full-time so as to be able to provide staff with the most competitive prices. We can get you out of any awkward marriage commitments."

"Well, I have a girlfriend--" I started, but Ron cut me off.

"That's fine Sandy, we'll have the corporate lawyers send her a cease-and-desist letter. We'll have you footloose and fancy-free in no time! A young buck like you should be proving your commitment to the company now, and earning the salary that'll allow you to buy the woman of your dreams when you retire!"

"Umm, I think I'd quite like--"

"We all would, Sandy, but we have to think about what's best for the company here. Look at the CEO for example. His racing yacht was written off last month when it ran over that sunken coral reef off the coast of Australia, and because it was secured against his wife and children he's all on his own until the insurance comes through and frees them up."

"What?" I said, feeling that I'd missed something Ron had said.

"They're collateral," said Ron patiently, shifting in his seat and making the chair groan. "They've been indentured so that if the insurance doesn't come through the bank gets its money back anyway. His wife is working as an exotic hostess in Swindon, and his children are being used for testing genetically modified crops by one of the big agrifirms."

"That's inhuman!" I said.

"Not at all," said Ron happily, grinning from ear to ear. "He spoke to them only last week, and said that they're as happy as pigs in genetically engineered mud up there."

"Mud doesn't have genes," I said.

"Their's does!" said Ron, and again he looked slightly puzzled for a moment, then his face brightened again. "But the point is, Sandy, that you need to show a little more commitment. The firm wants to get more from you in return for what we're giving you. We're going to put you on the incentive program."

"I've not heard of that," I said, wondering what they could offer me that they thought would encourage me to work myself to death.

"It's not something we talk about a lot," said Ron, "and only selected employees are eligible for it. Fortunately both of your parents were still alive, so you are."

"Were?" I said. My blood was suddenly roaring in my ears, my heart was pounding in my chest, and little black dots were eating away at my vision.

"Well," said Ron, sounding embarrassed for the first time, "like I said, it's an incentive program, so you have to know what the consequences of failing to take the incentive are..."

Monday, 14 January 2008

Trench cookery

I sighed and looked back at my desk. The book was still there, square on the leather blotter, gold embossed letters on a heavy-stock cover. Trench Cookery. 320 perfect-bound pages, due to cost £20 in the shops, and unlikely to sell a single copy. Not quite how I'd imagined my career here ending.

The book came about because of my tendancy to mumble, the author's mild ear-infection when we'd been talking on the telephone about the commission, and the sheer intransigence of my secretary, who refused to believe for an instant that anything I had said could be wrong. So much so, that when the title of the book was questioned, he insisted that it had to be right. Without ever checking with me.

My secretary was hired under slightly unusual circumstances. On the day of his interview I was running slightly late, and so as I got out of my car in the car-park, he was getting out of his. I glanced at his car, as it was just across from mine, thinking that it looked familiar, as he glanced at me and did a double-take.

"Are you ok?" I said politely, not interested in his answer.

"I slept with your mother last night," he said back.

And he had. He had recognised me from the pictures my mother has adorning the wall up the stairs and his car looked familiar because he'd been there when I'd called in for five minutes to give her a CD of piano recordings and ask her to stop placing ads in the lonely-hearts column on my behalf. I called my mother anyway, just to check, and she admitted that she had, as my father likes to put it, been tramping it around again.

I hired him. I felt I had to do something to try and protect the family name, though when it came out at Christmas that my brother had been working as an ideas man for the Khmer Rouge for ten years the family name was unsalvageable. He's still doing PR for the kind of people whose usual approach to dissent is torture and murder. He's been talking about organising package holidays to Guantanamo Bay next year.

But I now had a secretary whose loyalty to me was unswerving, and who was probably still sleeping with my mother on and off. I asked him once about the age difference and he started talking about the benefits of experience and I had to leave the room. I'd hate to think that my mother could teach me a trick or two in the bedroom.

And the net result of all this was a book entitled Trench Cookery instead of French Cookery. The first chapter was about actually digging a trench, lining it with charcoal and cooking the food in it, often covered over with leaves, herbs or soil first. The kind of cookery only university students have the time and drive to do, or people looking to make money for charity. Utterly unsuitable for home cooking.

The second chapter was about the kind of food you could eat in a trench, complete with photographs of burly workmen looking stunned and annoyed, probably by the photographer. The food is mostly burgers. And who would cook the food, unless they were planning on spending time in a trench in the near future?

The chapters continue like this, steadily stretching the premise thinner and thinner until the book reaches the piece de resistance: food that would have been eaten in the trenches in World War I. Most of it is rotten in some way, and it's definitely primitive, the food of privation. The suggestion of acquiring trench foot to go with the trench food ("visit a music festival of your choice in Britain in the summer -- the torrential rain and rivers of mud will produce trench foot in no time at all, and all while you're hearing the best new artists of today!") can only have got past the sub-editor because she was beyond believing that the book was serious.

I look again at my desk. The book is still there, and will go on sale to the general public tomorrow. And then I shall pray for grace.

Sunday, 13 January 2008

McArthur's Quantifiers

It was a hot and steamy day in the office and I was sweating like a fat man in a sauna. We all were; the air-con had failed a couple of hours ago, and since there's six of us sharing one chair and one desk in the office (we stack), the woman at the bottom was getting the combined waterfall of our sweat. I was glad to be second from the top, where there was a tiny breeze from the window.

The door to the office creaked open, and a cloud of dust from the dry rot in the floorboards puffed upwards like a penny-theatre's special effect. When the dust subsided, a tall, thin man with more angles than a protractor was revealed. He was gray: his suit was gray and ill-fitting, his shoes were gray, his hair was gray, and his skin was gray. I dismissed him immediately as an accountant, probably here to talk to the ambulance-chaser of a lawyer who was fourth from the top in our little stack, and went back to daydreaming about Miss Sapphire.

The man coughed to attract attention, a hearty, chesty cough, that started and didn't stop, because the dust that had settled on his skin flew off and got sucked into his lungs. Slowly he doubled over and sank to his knees, his face turning purple and the coughing turning steadily into choking. Finally, unable to concentrate on Miss Sapphire for the noise, I pushed the guy on top of me off, and slid off the stack. I walked round the desk to our visitor and kicked him in the kidneys. My shoes have steel-toecaps, and the visitor stopped coughing and sprawled across the floor. I stood over him and asked him what he wanted.

"I'm looking for McArthur," he said wheezily. The coughing had shaken the dust off him, and though his suit and shoes were still gray, his face was now quite pink and his hair was ash-blonde. "I'm told you'll take any case that's offered you."

"No job's ever been too hard for me," I muttered, waiting for him to try getting up so I could kick him again. "And I've tackled some difficult cases in the past."

"I have a case for you then," said the man on the floor, refusing to move. I wondered how much he'd heard about me. "A set of quantifiers were stolen from my office last night, and they're unique. They're my ticket to academic freedom."

"And you want them back?" I snorted, inhaling the dry rot from the floor that was still hanging in the air. "That's a case for the police, Mister." I sneezed, three times in quick succession, and splattered the floor and the back of my visitor with black mucus, reminding me of my days as a snuff-addict.

"No," said the man on the floor in precise, clipped tones. "Just retrieval wouldn't get all the information back. I need to know that the only person who knows about the quantifiers is me. I need the quantifiers back, and the heads of whoever had read those papers."

I sneezed again, and felt the wrenching in my chest that had finally forced me to give up the snuff. "Murder's illegal," I said.

"Is there anything you do that isn't?" replied the prostrate man.

I sighed, he had a point. My doctor was of the firm opinion that breathing was a privilege I'd forgone after the snuff, the police force in this town put me on the list of suspects for anything that came in, and if it weren't for Mad Frankie's protection, I'd probably be my own exhibit in the Chamber of Horrors in the municipal museum.

"Where shall I start?" I asked.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Keeping Flowers in full bloom

When you approach the Temple of Concern the first thing you notice are the flowers. Whatever the time of year or day, whatever the weather, the flowers are in full bloom. The path that is barely there, handfuls of gravel scattered on thick mud that sucks at your shoes, is bordered by thick, luscious tulips of deep burgundy and purple hues. Heavy bulbous heads stand proudly erect on thick fleshy stems of vibrant green, and never wilt, never die. Beyond them, where the path reaches solid ground and becomes a lattice of wooden slats laid carefully irregularly, there are sprawls of creepers and ground-cover shrubs, all covered in tiny white and blue flowers like tiny jewels wherever you look. Even at night the air is heavy with pollen and scent, and bees buzz all around, their soft drone a gentle hypnosis.

The irregular wooden path, a metaphor that you must puzzle out and understand during your stay at the Temple, leads into the walled gardens that lie before the temple. Trees stand, branches laden with blossom that never falls, and never reveals ripening fruit, and the ground is laid out in checkerboard fashion. In one square bed grows vegetables for the Temple, in the one adjoining it grow yet more flowers. Against the wall jasmine climbs, and its scent is strong enough to be pervasive throughout the Temple. Even when I left the Temple the first time, I found myself wearing scents with a jasmine base, unable to concentrate on the outside world without the reassuring breath of jasmine close to hand.

Inside the temple, flowers that were cut over two hundred years ago and are still fresh and in full bloom today are arranged in vases, urns and sacred vessels. These have lost their fragrance now, but are still visually appealing.

I asked the Temple's custodian, a gaunt man with a black patch over one eye, waist-length brown hair, and a paleness of skin that suggested he never saw sunlight, how the flowers were preserved. He told me that they weren't exactly preserved, not in the sense I meant, and escorted me through the Temple.

The Temple is tall, though it sits on a small footprint. It towers impossibly when you see it for the first time, with turrets growing out of the middle of walls, and then themselves supporting further walls and further turrets, like a forest of incestuous mushrooms. We ascended first, and spiralled in towards the middle, and then descended a little again, and I think we must have reached the dead centre of the temple itself. There, sat in a small empty chamber at a plain wooden desk with nothing on it, was Brother Cantharides.

I started when the custodian told me his name, and the custodian half-smiled.
"It's more of a title than a name," he said. "Cantharides stimulates his mind."

"It's poisonous!" I said, and the custodian nodded.

"This is the five-hundred and thirteenth Brother Cantharides," he said. "Some last longer than others."

"And what is he doing?" I said, puzzled, and a little concerned.

"Keeping the flowers in full bloom."

I left the Temple again that afternoon, and as I reached the gate in the walled garden leading outside, I turned once more and looked at the Temple, the impossible chaos of towers and walls and chambers that somehow stretched upwards without falling and defied gravity and the scouring of the wind and the erosion of the rain, and then I looked at a small figure at the main doors to the Temple, the custodian, and I didn't ask my question, and he didn't answer it. But the answer was as clear in my mind as the ringing of the silver bell in the sanctum of persistent inner peace, and I wondered just how far this all went. And as I struggled across the sticky mud, I asked myself if I would be content, in that situation, with keeping the flowers in full bloom.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

Travelogue II: Recycle Park

I'd just been sacked from my job with the Movers and I found myself drifting aimlessly around. I'd leave home early in the morning so that none of the neighbours would realise I'd lost my job and spend the day wandering around the neighbourhood, finding new places to visit and while away the hours while I tried to work out what to do next. Of course, I picked up a job as an insurance agent not long after that, but in those few weeks in the middle, I stumbled across Recycle Park.

From a distance the park looks like any other I've been too: the edges delimited with box-hedges and railings in places, gates at several entrance around the edges, and signs just inside the gates to tell you something of the history of the park. There are lots of trees at the main entrance to Recycle Park, mostly sycamores and beeches, with a couple of stands of Silver Birch a little way in. In summer it looks verdant and wonderful; in winter I bet it looks bleak and isolated.

I didn't bother to read the signs in the park at first, I just wandered around. Then I came across the children's play area, and paused for a moment. The play area was a roughly oval open space, with bushes and shrubs thickly lining most of it, and a single tarmac path winding through. It was clear that the intent was that anyone visiting the area or leaving it would have to use the path. The ground was covering in soft wood chips, favoured for play areas these days. Out of that rose a white climbing frame, but the frame was constructed out of large, curved beams that were shaped like bones. Where the bones weren't long enough, two were articulated together, with what could be mistaken for tendons of some kind.

The roundabout was similarly organic looking; the swings looked for all the world as though they were suspended from long strings of muscle, again from a bone supporting frame. Everywhere I looked, the play area looked surprisingly organic.

After the play area I started noticing other oddities. The park benches were all metal, but when I looked closer, they appeared to have been made by compressing beer cans. The bandstand appeared to be constructed from compressed stacks of cardboard, and the roof was insulated with what looked like shredded carrier bags. The name of the park started to take on a new resonance.

Back at the park entrance, I found my suspicions were correct. The signs informed me that the park had been built on top of a landfill site using mostly items found in the landfill, from bones from a previous era when a slaughterhouse had stood here, to non-obviously toxic non-biodegradable waste such as carrier bags.

I didn't go back to the park again, but I did go home and shower for nearly an hour until I felt I'd manage to wash the taint of the place off my skin.

Travelogue I: The Elder Kitchen

I was driving down the old coast road towards Dunwich late one afternoon when I realised that I was getting low on fuel. Not wanting to spend the night in Dunwich again, I pulled off at the first exit and drove another mile or so to a small village with a single petrol station. Just behind the petrol station was a restaurant, with the odd name of the Elder Kitchen. I was just starting to feel hungry, so I decided to give it a try, and see what it had to offer.

I walked in and was immediately greeted by the Maitre'D, a squat little man with warty skin, a squint, and a clammy handshake. I recognised this as the Dunwich taint, that set of slightly squamous characteristics that affect the inhabitants of Dunwich and a couple of the surrounding smaller villages, and pretended that I hadn't noticed any of it. He was smartly dressed in a white ruffled dress shirt and a tuxedo that looked strangely damp, and asked me if I had a reservation. I conceded that I hadn't, and he smiled and said he was sure he could find me a table anyway. Looking around me at the dining room, I was sure he could too, of about twenty tables, only two were seated.

My table was against a wall of the restaurant, well away from the other two seated tables, and afforded me a view of most of the dining room and the entrance. The door to the kitchen was behind me. The table was well-laid with a crisp white tablecloth and sparkling silver and glassware. In the centre of the table was an off-white ceramic vase filled with a fragrant oil that held a floating wick. The Maitre'D was quick to bring me both the menu and a separate wine menu, and lit the wick. Almost immediately a rich, spicy scent rose from the liquid candle, reminding me of my time in the Middle East as a temple inspector.

I opened the menu first, wondering if the quality of the food would live up to the expectations set by the restaurant decor, or those set by the Maitre'D and the Dunwich Taint. The menu was short, with only two starters, five mains and two desserts offered, which I felt boded well: this allowed the chef to concentrate on producing quality food. As I read through the choices though, I was surprised to find that I had never seen any of them offered anywhere else before.

For a starter then, I had a choice between Mi-go Salad and Zoog skewers. The menu described the former as delicate pieces of Mi-go lightly fried in lemon and olive oil served on a bed of conventional salad leaves and the latter as three individual zoog roasted alive and skewered with peppers and onions. The mains were no more helpfully described; I was offered Roast young of Shub-Niggurath in an Abhoth sauce with no further explanation, Leg of Leng Spider served with your choice of vegetables, Tindalos steak with Dijon mustard and sour cream, chunky chips and black pepper served on a perfectly circular plate, Shoggoth shoulder with wilted vegetables from Leng, and Shocked chicken a l'Hastur. I was certain I didn't want the spider's leg, and a little curious as to how big the spider was that the restaurant could offer just one leg as a main course. The roast young of Shub-Niggurath sounded interesting, but I thought I would probably go with the safe sounding option of the steak.

For dessert I had a choice of Color Essence and Chocolate Nemesis. I was fairly certain I'd had a chocolate nemesis while in London a few years back, and the Color Essence didn't sound all that filling -- very avant garde I thought.

A waiter now appeared carrying a bread-basket and asking if I was ready to order, so I asked him for more information about the starters. He told me that the Mi-Go were also known as the Fungi from Yuggoth, but that they were a lot more like lobster than any earthly fungus. The Zoog he said, were rodent-like creatures that they had to source especially. Deciding that lobster sounded better than rat, I opted for the Mi-go salad. When I asked for the Tindalos steak though, the waiter turned pale. I pressed him on this, and he finally admitted, with a lot of reluctance, that they obtained the steaks 'very fresh' and that this was 'a little dangerous.' I insisted on the steak, and decided to defer choosing a dessert until after I'd eaten these.

I opened the wine menu at this point, and found that there were only two items listed: Ulthar Riesling and Fischwasser. I asked the waiter if this was a misprint for Kirschwasser, a spirit I found a liking for when posted in Mannheim studying the sewers there, and the waiter shook his head. This, he suggested, was not really suitable for me, and that I should try the Riesling. I accepted, not quite graciously, and the waiter disappeared with the menus and my order. I tried the bread.

It was extremely good, a little malty, and had a flavour that was almost meaty. Little seeds crunched when I chewed it, and it was moist and light. I ate all of it ravenously, only realised when I'd finished it that I was probably making a pig of myself. I sat back and looked round, and was relieved to see that the other diners had paid me no attention. My attention turned back to the odd listing in the wine menu; my German was good enough to translate Fischwasser as Fish water, and I now wondered if perhaps this was reserved for the locals from Dunwich, and maybe this was why it wasn't suitable for me. I'd never heard of Ulthar, but a Riesling is a hard wine to spoil in my opinion.

I heard the door to the kitchen open behind me, and for a moment I heard hysterical shrieking and a deep growling that seemed to vibrate in my bones, and then my waiter was placing my salad in front of me. He looked a little shocked, and there were two deep wounds on his arm clearly visible through a torn sleeve, yet neither was bleeding; they seemed like something has punched cleanly in and out, pulling away a plug of flesh and sealing off the surrounding tissue in the process. I opened my mouth to ask him about this, but was distracted by the rattle of a trolley across the floor, and saw a silver-cloched platter being delivered to a table across the room. The platter was the size of an occasional table itself, and my question became asking what was.

Chocolate Nemesis said my waiter quietly, and quickly left. I watched as the cloche was lifted off to reveal a large, deep pool of chocolate above which small twists of steam seemed to writhe. Around the edge of the pool were designs in some rich red sauce that seemed almost runic, and from where I was it was hard to focus on them, they seemed almost to be squirming beneath the weight of my gaze. I had turned my attention back to my salad -- glistening green leaves with succulent lumps of something pink, not unlike lobster nestled in it, and a fragrant aroma mixed with something vinegary rising from it -- when the two waiters that had brought the trolley in started chanting. My fork, raised halfway to my lips, slowed and halted and my gaze was pulled to the table as strongly as though someone had seized my head and were turning it for me. My lips started to move of their own accord, and I found myself chanting strange words I'd never heard before in time with the waiters.

A strange somnolance seemed to come over me then, and though I still chanted I felt drowsy and my body felt heavy, too heavy to stand up or move. A slight chill came over me, and my fingers, toes and lips went numb, but this didn't stop me chanting. I could see across the way that the diners who had ordered the Chocolate Nemesis were also lolling back in the chairs, seemingly dazed. One of them spasmed for a moment, his eyelids fluttering, and a hand lifting, stretching out towards the platter, but then it fell back and he became still again.

Then the deep, dark pool of chocolate rippled, and rippled again though nothing was touching it. The ripples grew into small waves, which became choppy and splashed, growing taller and taller, until suddenly a tower of chocolate rose from the platter, formed itself into a tentacle, and seized one of the diners, wrapping around his neck and snaking down his body. It reached his waist, and then retracted, pulling him out of his chair and down into the pool, impossibly swallowing him inside the dessert on the dish. Something in the back of my mind screamed and howled, thumping mental fists on whatever it was that numbed and bedazed me, but I couldn't stop chanting or turn my gaze away, watching at that dreadful dessert formed another chocolate tentacle and ensnared the other diner.

Something broke in my mind, and my fork fell from my hand. It tinged brightly against the plate, and the numbing oppression lost its grip on me, and I could turn away from the abominable dessert at last. I found my waiter stood on the other side of me, looking at me appraisingly.
"Only one diner has ever survived to eat that dessert," he said quietly. "It's a bit too extreme for most people."
"Bill please!" I said brightly, suddenly desperate to get out of the restaurant.
"Just go," he said.

I left as fast as I could, and made no note of the roads I took to get back to something approaching civilisation. I had no wish to return to the Elder Kitchen again. Though to this day I still wonder about that Leng Spider. Perhaps if I see they're offering a take-away and delivery service I might order it out of curiousity.

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Playfair continues

Interview Room A was on the ground floor, and Detective Inspector Playfair's office was up two flights of stairs, along an uncarpetted corridor, past the canteen and at the end of the short corridor that broke off to the right. Playfair, a tall, athletic man, stamped his way along the corridors back to his office. People in the rooms and offices nearby flinched at each heavy footfall and were relieved to hear them going past. Everyone, it seemed, had at some point or another been under fire from an enraged DI Playfair.

As Playfair flung the door to his office open wide it bounced off the doorstop and juddered on its hinges, twanging gently. Behind him, another door opened, and Miss Flava came out the office she shared with two secretaries and a Rottweiler. Playfair stamped across the threadbare carpet in his office to his desk and sat down heavily in the huge leather chair behind it. Miss Flava came in behind him, closed the door gently, turned to face him, and put both hands on her hips. She was quite angular, and this made her look like she was constructed out of triangles.

"Well?" she said, tapping her foot.

"It's the Usual Suspects," said Playfair, pulling the brass Newton's cradle across the desk.

"What? Maggie and Thora are behind this? That's ridiculous! I know they successfully hid their heroin smuggling ring behind the WI's jam competition for years, but mass murder? In a small flat near the town centre? Playfair, are you completely off your rocker?" Miss Flava flushed dusky rose, her chin jutted out towards Playfair, and her voice reached a contralto, as high as it ever got.

"No, Miss Flava, it's the Usual Suspects. The film," said Playfair, setting the cradle in motion. The little brass balls clicked rhythmically. "Nnnk-thss gave me a garbled version of the plot of the usual suspects, right down to a mastermind called Cesar Sausage, if you can believe it. I've put him in the cells and told him to have another go at it."

"Oh! Right, well that makes a little more sense," said Miss Flava, standing down slightly and letting her arms drop to her sides. "Wait, I thought we'd put the severed heads in the only spare cell?"

"We have," said Playfair, his eyes watching the cradle. "And now we've put Nnnk-thss in there as well, to have a think about things."

Miss Flava's eyes widened, but she said nothing. She knew what her boss was like, and how many times he'd been hauled in front of the police disciplinary committee. She also had a good idea that he was bribing people near the top of the police hierarchy in order to keep his job, but had decided that was something she didn't need to know any more about. She looked at him, his head bent, watching the cradle demonstrate physics, and knew that he was letting his instincts have their way.

"What else should I be worrying about today, Miss Flava?" said Playfair, not looking up.

"Well, you have an internal meeting in a few minutes to discuss the Christmas menu for the canteen," said Miss Flava. Playfair humphed, sounding dispeptic. "Your last memo to the committee for this," she continued serenely, "suggested that they roast anything they could find in the evidence locker and treat the result as a suppository. I amended that to something a little more constructive; your new suggestion is the menu on your..." she paused, her eyes scanning Playfair's desk, "... under your coffee-cup.
Other than that, you've been asked not to help with the interviews for the break-in on the Highbury estate as the arresting officer is scared of you; the community liaison officer wants a word with you, probably to ask you not to liaise with the community again; there's been a break-in at an antiques shop that no-one can be bothered with and has been pushed to you, and at some point you'll have to re-interview this man with the usual suspects story."

"Nnnk-thss," said Playfair. "That's what he's calling himself at the moment."

"Right," said Miss Flava. "I've got his description circulating already."

"When have I liaised with the community recently?" Playfair looked up, frowning.

"Technically," said Miss Flava, trying not to smile, "you were liaising with the community when you punched the paramedic who was trying to get Mr. Nnnk-thss into the ambulance to go to the hospital and knocked him into the traffic cones."

"Ah," said Playfair.