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.

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