Friday, 29 February 2008

Footsteps on the wind

I walk three inches above the ground, and have done since I was four. I don't know why, and the doctors my parents took me to had no idea either. They finally pointed out that it didn't seem to be hurting me, and told my parents that I'd probably grow out of it. I never have.

When I was eight I started leaving footprints in the air behind me. They would glow softly and fade after a few seconds. That got me more attention and more doctors, and this time a particle physicist, but still no understanding of what was wrong with me. Or, as I was beginning to think, what was right with me.

After all, when I fell over, I never hit a hard surface; the air cushioned me three inches above it. And at night my glowing footprints made me easy to spot, and they gave out enough light for me to make out my surroundings. That's very useful when you're 8 and need the toilet in the middle of the night. There were a couple of downsides, mostly that I couldn't learn how to swim because I stood three inches above the surface of the water. But they didn't seem very important to me.

Two days before I turned sixteen, the particle physicist turned up on the doorstep. He said he suspected that something else was going to happen when I turned sixteen, and he wanted to see what. I sulked. I was 15 after all. It turned out he was right though, at half past eight in the morning on my 16th birthday a flock of green and blue birds flew through the wall of the kitchen, circled my head, and flew off through another wall, passing unharmed through the house as though it weren't there. The physicist muttered something about sentient neutrinos, but I ignored him. Then he shook my hand, told me that he thought I wasn't born to live in this world, and left. I've not seen him since.

I turn 32 in 7 hours time. I checked what time I was born with the hospital. Something's going to happen; odd things are happening already. Yesterday I absently mindedly took the square root of the furniture in the living room, and it hurts my head to go in there now because it all seems perfectly normal and when I leave the rest of the world seems fundamentally wrong. An hour ago my footprints started glowing more brightly, and ten minutes they burst into flame. Luckily the flames don't seem to burn anything in the real world; at least not yet. I've just started hearing a low, sonorous voice talking somewhere behind me. The birds are circling my head, and don't seem inclined to leave.

I may not be long for this world now.

Tuesday, 26 February 2008

The wisdom of Buddy

Hi, my name's Buddy. I'll be your spiritual guide for a while. There's a lot I have to teach you before you'll become enlightened, but the journey's part of the learning process and trust me, it's going to be fun. But before we start, I want to tell you a parable.

Years ago, when I worked in an office for a while, I was stood outside a meeting room telling a group of colleagues how I'd managed to clinch a business deal the day before with an inspired use of judo when one of my colleagues, a tall man with a saturnine aspect, said distinctly, "I hate you, Buddy."

"Do you?" I replied. "Do you really hate me? Do you wake in the morning fresh from dreams of burying me alive in an unmarked grave in Epping Forest? Does your breakfast have an iron tang to it, because you know in your heart of hearts that it should be seasoned with my freshly spilled blood? Do you drive to work focused intently on the road ahead, hoping that I'll appear at the roadside so that you can veer to the left and run me down? Is your day spent planning in meticulous detail how to get me to electrocute myself in the washroom?"

"Or is your hatred of me the weak, insipid kind that etiolates your spirit, drags your mood down with your low-level revulsion, not only of me, but also of yourself for your inability to do anything about it? Do you earn yourself an ulcer for never releasing your rage? Do you deprive yourself of happiness, hoping that some spiritual voodoo will transfer it over to me, and that karma will kill me for you?"

"Where is your passion in your hatred? When I hate, I hate intensely, like the bright light of a supernova, and just like the supernova, my hatred explodes outwards in wonderful, fantastic luminence, slaughtering everything in its path."

"I don't hate you that much," said the tall man looking sulky and disappointed. He shuffled his feet and frowned.

"Do you hate like that all the time?" asked another colleague.

"Of course not," I responded. "But I carry my passion throughout everything I do. In the absence of hatred, other emotions may take the stage. When I love, I love so thoroughly that everything else ceases to matter. I never have to ask if the earth moved because if you'd even noticed the earth, then it wasn't me loving you. And when I set out to make a deal, I make my deal and the handshake that seals it is like the sonorous ringing of the judgement bell for all concerned."

We dispersed at that point and went back to our desks. The tall man continued to hate me in his small, mean way for another two days, after which time he unaccountably opened a window and stuck his head out while the trees outside were being pollarded. The chainsaw sliced messily through his neck, and I looked up just as his head fell past the window, and I know I saw recognition in his eyes.

The moral of this parable is, of course, that tall men can always be cut down to size.

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Cookery school

I was getting slightly worried about this cooking school. I'd been here three days so far, out of the two-week learn-to-cook holiday I was on, and it already felt like a lifetime. I was crossing the days off in my little pocket diary already, and would probably have left quietly in the night if they didn't lock us in the dormitories.

The dormitories were just that: long, low-ceilinged rooms with twelve beds down each of the long walls with a locker at the foot and a wardrobe-cum-cupboard at the side. Each bed had sheets and a single thin blanket, and when I opened my cupboard there was a pin-up in there, presumably from the previous occupant, of an asparagus stalk. With some stains on it.

On the first day we had looked in dismay at the beds, put what we could of our luggage in the lockers and wardrobe, and then looked on in further dismay as everything that wouldn't fit was taken away from us to be burned. Luckily I always travel light, and hadn't actually be able to fill my locker or wardrobe, so I kept all of my stuff. The woman who'd arrived with a toddler had been told that either it went in the locker or went to be burned. She went hysterical, and we've seen neither of them since.

The first day in the kitchen was spent on knife work. All day. 18 hours long to be precise, chopping things into batons, into julienne, into dice and brunoise. My fingers were bleeding at the end of it from the numerous occasions I'd slipped, and my arms were aching as though I'd been lifting weights. I could barely see from the tears that the onions had induced. I was so tired I slept without noticing if the bed was hard or not, or if I was warm enough with only a sheet and a green, military issue blanket.

The second day we were split into two groups. My group was announced to contain only the people who were competent to cook, and there were four of us. The other group, containing 19 people were told they weren't fit to clean our knives, and set to making stock. We continued to hone our knife skills; we were given double the quantity of vegetables to chop as the day before, and told we had only 15 hours to do it all in. I chopped like a maniac. It helped that I didn't want to look up: the splashes and the screams told me how the other group were being punished for failing to get their stock right.

When the 15 hours were up I'd chopped up all of my vegetables and was so edgy that I was sharpening my knife every two minutes because I had nothing left to chop. When a slab of beef was slapped in front of me and I was told to fillet I'd started before the instructor has taken his hand away. As he walked off I heard him saying quietly, "this one has potential."

That night I took the blankets from the beds on either side of me, and annexed a locker and a wardrobe that I didn't need. I'm not sure why, but I felt a definite need to exert my authority. No-one tried to object; they just got on with shivering in silent misery.

Today, the third day, two people had graduated from the stock group to my group, and the rest all seemed to have burns and scalds; mostly hands, but one or two faces too. When I came into the kitchen I'd pulled my knife from my belt automatically and looked from something to chop or to fillet, and the rest of the students had backed away from me. The instructor looked at me appraisingly, and then at a live chicken chained at the ankles to the long steel instructor's table at the front of the classroom. He nodded at the chicken, and said,

"You have three minutes to kill, clean and joint the bird. You may leave the feathers on."

A red haze seems to descend, and I can't remember what happened after that, but I remember moving fast, and hearing a high-pitched squawk. My memory only clearly comes back with me shouting "2 minutes 48" and hurling the chicken head at one of the slaves in the second group. It hit her between the eyes, and she collapsed to the floor. As she did so I said curtly, "Pick it up and use it for stock," and I'm ashamed to say I don't honestly know if I meant the chicken head or the woman.

I felt the chef's hand on my shoulder, and he said quietly, "You will make a good chef-assassin, we will move you up to the advanced course tomorrow."

And that's what's got me worried; I don't know if I can cope with the advanced course....

Thursday, 21 February 2008

It's what the public wants

I had been sent to the TV studios to do some interviews with the parents so that we could send them over to the magazine team and let them publish them in the next issue of the magazine. The show would go out the next month, by which time we should have been able to generate enough hype to guarantee our audience share for the next quarter. The advertising boys had had a hard time selling at first, but then the Mirabelle Watson case had hit the papers and stayed on the front page for four days. The selling was a lot easier after that.

I arrived at 10; the auditions were due to start at 1, but already there was a long queue of parents and their children. A lot longer queue than I'd expected. I stopped in the car park, looking at it starting at the studio doors and snaking round the side of the building, all along the wall, and then round another corner and out of sight. I looked at Joe, my camera-man, and he looked at me. Neither of us could find anything to say, so we picked up our feet and headed over to the front of queue.

Joe started the camera rolling as we approached, and I raised my microphone defensively. The parents, a young-ish couple with a blonde boy of possibly 11, spotted the red light on the camera and immediately straightened up. They beamed at the camera, white teeth almost sparkling, and the mother leant forward a little and said quietly, "Joel, the camera." The blonde boy looked up at us then too.

"Good morning!" I said trying to sound cheerful and bubbly. "We're from GlobalSat Networks. We're doing the 'Making of...' video. I hope you'll be willing to talk to us for a few minutes. We'd like to know why you've decided to enter your child in America's Next Serial Killer."

Wednesday, 20 February 2008

Not quite Lucy

The microwave pinged and I jerked awake. I hadn't really been asleep, just dozing off. The television was still on, showing some political question time, and it was dark outside. I got up off the couch, which was old and leaking stuffing where the fabric on the arms had worn through, and crossed the living in two quick strides to close the curtains. I had just pulled them shut when I realised that I'd not put anything in the microwave.

So it couldn't have pinged.

I wasn't alone in the house, of course. My daughter, Lucy, still lived with me, but she had been caught by the hollow men six months ago and had lost her soul to them. She still existed -- I'd been taught not to say lived at the support group -- but she was like a robot. She breathed, she obeyed instructions, but her eyes were vacant and watched anything that moved only because it was moving. She had no volition, no will of her own, and she could only answer questions about things she had known before she was taken. She had no conversation. She had been 12, and could never mentally age from that.

She couldn't have used the microwave unless someone had told her to.

I went cold all over. It started at the top of my head and seemed to wash down over me like a cold shower. My chest felt tight, and I turned around slowly, holding my breath, scared as to what I would see in the kitchen doorway. It was empty, though the light was on, and I could hear footsteps on the tiled kitchen floor. I exhaled slowly, and made myself walk to the kitchen at my normal pace, tense and ready to strike out at whoever was invading my home. I had to walk past the couch, and I picked up the tv remote control so that I'd have something in my hand. It wasn't much of a weapon, but it was something I could hit out with.

I stepped warily into the kitchen, my head flicking from side to side quickly, looking for someone hiding behind a door, looking for a hollow man with his arms stretched wide waiting for me to step into his embrace. They couldn't attack, they never made any attempt to touch someone, but if you touched them they could steal you in an eyeblink. The kitchen was empty, save for Lucy sitting at the breakfast bar, with a cup of steaming milk in front of her.

"Lucy?" I said, dreading the answer. Had my daughter really come back to me? Had her soul returned to her body, and if so, what condition was it in? She looked up at me at the sound of her name, and her eyes focused! She tilted her head back, her brown eyes narrowed very slightly as she appraised me, and she pursed her lips. My heart raced in my chest; she was back!

"Lucy?" she said. "No, I'm afraid not. I'm Adele. Lucy doesn't live here any more."

I heard the words but they didn't really register.

"Lucy, you're back!" I said, dropping the remote control. It clattered on the floor, the back came off and the batteries rolled under the fridge. "You've come back to me!"

"No, I am sorry," said the girl. She picked a teaspoon off the counter and stirred her milky drink. "I don't know what's happened to Lucy, though I can guess. But I'm Adele. And I don't really know what I'm doing here. I thought I was dying. I know I was in hospital less than an hour ago. And a lot older than this."

"Adele?" I said. "You've stolen my daughter's body?"

"I think that would require intent," said the girl. "I've no idea how I ended up here. It's a good body though, I like it. The last one lasted 85 years, and I think this one could do a good century if I look after it."

I leant against the doorframe and started crying.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Hollow Men

As I came home from work the sun was setting and fog was just starting to drift in, adding a haze to the air and making everything in the distance seem a little fuzzy. I was just relaxing, slowing my pace and enjoying the sunset, when I saw the hollow man standing at the edge of the kerb, a little way away from a bus stop. He was watching the road as though waiting for a bus, but everytime someone came close to him he tensed, drawing himself up stiffly, waiting to see if they would brush by him, or accidentally touch him. He had that slightly odd sharpness to him that the Hollow Men have, he stood out from the world slightly more than real people do. I shivered.

Other people had noticed him too and were keeping their distance. Mothers pulled their children in close and held their hands, and people nudged each other, nodding towards him. Several people crossed the road to stay away, and the bus-stop was emptying as people decided they'd rather walk than risk the Hollow Man getting on to the same bus as them. He didn't seem to notice though, he just kept staring off into the distance as though waiting for the bus, and tensing if anyone seemed to be getting close.

I'd walked past him when I heard the sudden screech of brakes and, some moments later, a heavy thump. I turned and saw that he'd gone out into the road and been hit by a car. The driver was invisible in the air-bag that had deployed, a woman in a red coat lolled in the passenger seat, and people were stopping and looking. I saw a middle-aged woman put down her shopping, two white plastic carrier bags, looking concerned, and start out into the road to the scene of the accident.

Blood roared in my ears and my heart thumped in my chest. My legs had locked in place and wouldn't move, and there was a thin grey ring around my vision that seemed to getting thicker and cutting out the world around me. I could hear my breathing, suddenly ragged, and then I could hear a little girl's voice screaming in my head, no words, just incoherent yelps of pain and fear. I could do nothing but stare, unable to shout and warn her, as the middle-aged woman reached out a hand to the Hollow Man, thinking to check on him and see if he was ok. I heard a shout from somewhere behind me, someone pushed roughly past me, cursing me, and my insensible legs collapsed beneath me. It was too late though, she'd touched him, and her face went from tired, lined, and concerned, to slack and vacant in the space of a heart-beat.

As the Hollow Man pulled her soul from her body the paralysis that had gripped me released. I clambered shakily back to my feet. My face was cold and wet with sweat and my hands were trembling. I could still hear the screaming in my head; the little girl had been my daughter before the Hollow Men had taken her. I fumbled in the pocket of my coat for the deck of cards, and pulling it out, I forced myself to walk unsteadily across the road to where the Hollow Man was now standing up.

I couldn't tell he was a Hollow Man anymore, now that he had stolen a soul. He looked normal, looked as tired as the woman had just a few moments ago, and a little confused. This, I knew, was because he was trying to assimilate the memories and experiences of a lifetime; it's much easier for them to assimilate a child with their lesser knowledge of the world. I had about thirty seconds or so before he started discarding everything that wasn't obviously useful and would react to protect himself again.

I pulled a single card from the deck, and pushed it into his hand. He looked down at it, it was the three of diamonds. He looked up at me, his mouth forming a question, but I turned away, putting the cards back into my pocket and wiping my fingers on my coat, rubbing them vigorously until they didn't feel greasy any more. The cards were impregnated with Acromycin, a distillate of a fungus that was lethal to the Hollow Men. It was quite slow acting, and needed time to soak through skin, but he wouldn't think to drop the card until he'd finished the assimilation. By which time another one would be as dead as my daughter.

Monday, 11 February 2008

Learn to be still

I dream of a closed doorway in front of me. I am stood on a narrow, muddy street before the door, which is not quite as tall as I am and has been painted black a long time ago. The paint has peeled in places to reveal paler wood underneath. There is a cast-iron knocker in the middle of the door, a little below my waist height, and I know that I have just knocked. I can hear a shuffling inside, reluctant footsteps coming to answer my knock, and an excitement starts to grow inside me. I am sure that what lies beyond the door is wonderful beyond my imagining. My heart beats in my chest loudly, and I have butterflies in my stomach. The footsteps halt, and I hear the chains that lock the door being undone. Then an elbow drives into the soft spot below my ribs and I am brought, with a gasp of pain, back to consciousness and the woman who lies beside me in my bed. I half-open my eyes, and hear her whisper, learn to be still.

In the morning I sit quietly at the kitchen table, a heavy oaken table I built myself. The table top, six feet long, which I have polished every day since the table came into the kitchen, is scarred and burned and pitted. Knives have gouged into the wood, hot pans have been carelessly left atop it, dishes have been banged down upon it, and vases smashed. I pick up the newspaper, a tabloid with little news and tedious gossip, and before I can turn the pages a dish is banged down in front of me containing burnt porridge, the paper is whisked from my fingers, and she tuts and sighs and says, I wish you would learn to be still.

I stand in the garage, a quiet space. There are no cars here, just my bench, my tools, my lathe and my saw. This is where I work, where I think, where I come when there's nowhere else to be. Sunlight lights the bench, shining through the long, high windows and making small motes of sawdust float in the air, shining like fairy dust. I turn the lathe on, to start turning the legs of a chair; the kitchen needs a new one again. An angry hand throws the cutoff switch by the door the garage, killing the power, and the lathe dies with a quiet whine that could be a cry of despair. A red face beneath unruly blonde hair screams learn to be still!

The lathe has learned to be still. It will not come back to life.

I stand by the tree I planted thirty years ago on my wedding day. It has grown well, it is tall and strong, has a shady canopy under which I have rested on many summer's days in the past. Adverse weather has shaken it, but never broken it; it has withstood pests from without and within, and its heartwood is firm and beautiful. Standing here by it I can feel its stillness, its peace, its oneness with itself and with nature, and I am moved. There are tears in my eyes as I heft the axe and swing and feel the steel bite deep into the trunk of the tree. The muscles in my back and shoulders soon burn but I persevere, and finally the tree falls with a crash like the fall of angels. I am crying too hard to see its final resting place, but not so hard that I can fail to hear the stentorian shout: LEARN. TO. BE. STILL.

Even in the small hours of the morning the garage is a quiet place and has a stillness of its own. As I plane and sand with small motions and soft, white noises, and join together the pieces with dovetails and a gentle tap of a small, padded mallet, I wonder if I can somehow capture and keep this time and place, this blessed solitude. Memories swirl around me, as though carried by the sawdust that drifts lazily through the air, and one phrase resounds through it all, and I flinch from it as though I had been woken again from my dream by an elbow in my side: learn to be still.

She is heavier than I remember, much heavier than when I first carried her, across the threshold so many years ago. My back twinges and I stagger at first before I find a rhythm to my steps that lets me proceed as surely as I did across that threshold. She sleeps angrily, I see now, her face contorted into a snarl that I have seen every day for so many years, and I wonder what has made her so unhappy. Then I am back in the garage, and I lay her down in the coffin I have built from the tree that celebrated our marriage. I stretch my back, then lift the lid and place it gently on the coffin and nail it into place. Then I take the pot of sealing tar and apply to the edges of the lid as I have to every other joint of this box, and make it airtight. I put the pot aside, and I hear a movement; she has woken inside the coffin. I sit down in my chair that will soon move into the kitchen to replace the one she broke and as she struggles futilely inside the coffin, using up the last of her oxygen, I quietly say to her, learn to be still.

Sunday, 10 February 2008

The Museum Ward

When I was twelve I was taken to the Herringbone Museum by my father because he was feeling guilty. He had returned a couple of weeks earlier from a relic-hunting trip in Central Africa that had lasted two-and-half years, and I had failed to recognise him. The museum trip was his way of trying to reconnect with me.

The Herringbone Museum, as you may know, houses the De Havilleau collection of artefacts. We started in that wing of the museum, with my father telling me tales of the items whose provenance he knew, often knowing more than the museum's information signs because he knew the researchers who were working on them. He told me of the strange history of Angelo's eyeball, a single eye floating in a cloudy jar of formaldehyde, and of the numerous deaths associated with the silver carillon, a tiny object of beauty that I coveted instantly. As we walked past the huge bones that De Havilleau claimed to have dug up from a vast graveyard in the Andes my father whispered to me that there were indications that the bones were even older than De Havilleau had believed, and when we stopped in front of a single case containing jade jewelry my father told me that the pieces of jade were set in some kind of bone that held unusual amounts of heavy metal, and were bound together using sinew.

When we left that wing, and walked through the grand atrium again, with its huge domed roof of stained glass, I remember catching sight of a well-dressed middle-aged man sitting in a velvet-upholstered armchair. He was wearing a black stovepipe hat, had sad grey eyes and a monocle, and was contemplating a gold pocket watch with a thin chain that ran to a pocket in his waistcoat. He looked up at me as though feeling the weight of my gaze on him, and our eyes met. There was the oddest sensation, a tingle that seemed to jolt right through me, and he winked at me. I paused in mid-step, but my father chose that moment to take my hand and pull me forward. I stumbled, turning away to look at where I was going, and when I looked back he was engrossed in his watch again.

We spent the whole day at the museum, the last hour before it closed spent looking at the things that my father had donated from a trip before I was born. That time he had been in Eastern Europe, somewhere in the steppes, and had brought back some pottery with ancient, undeciphered, writing on it, a couple of shrunken heads that filled my dreams for months afterwards, and a canoe that he suspected had had ceremonial and sacrificial purposes.

That was thirty years ago, and today I found myself in front of the limestone steps that led up to the grand doors of the Herringbone museum again, holding the hand of a little girl I'd found five minutes earlier wandering around the shopping mall two streets away. Despite all the warnings children are given about accepting sweets from strangers it had been ridiculously easy to get her to accept a chocolate bar: I had dropped my clipboard of papers near her, and when she helped me pick them up, I gave her the chocolate bar as a thankyou. Her thin face had beamed with a smile, and she opened it straight away and bit into it. Her eyes had glazed over almost immediately, and she happily accepted the suggestion that she should come with me for a half an hour or so, and return to the mall afterwards.

We walked up the steps, and I pushed open the huge mahogany doors, three times my height and counterbalanced so that even a child could push them open, and we walked into the atrium of the HerringBone museum.

Nothing had changed. The stained-glass domed ceiling still seemed as far overhead as it had when I was a child; there were a couple of display cabinets off to the left that told of the museum's history, and some hand-lettered signs on the walls indicated where various exhibits were. But most importantly, there was a green-velvet upholstered armchair in the centre of the atrium, in which was sat a middle-aged man wearing a three-piece burgundy suit and a stovepipe hat. From one pocket of his waistcoat dripped a gold-chain, that ran across to the pocket on the other side, and a monocle hung from a lapel. He was sat back, one ankle resting on the opposite knee, and he looked straight at me as I looked straight at him. I led the little girl across the marble floor, our footsteps ringing in the silence until we stood before him.

"Oscar De Havilleau?" I said quietly. The atrium was empty save for we three.

"As you must know." he replied. I nodded.

"Ward of the museum," I said, "Trapped here now for more than eighty years."

"I see the world changing by the clothes people wear, and the toys they bring in," he said. "It would be nice to see the rest."

"I need your expertise," I said. "I will be traveling to the Antartic in three days time --"

"I accept," he said cutting me off. I smiled. He smiled. The little girl smiled, though I'm sure she didn't know why. I let go of her hand, and it fell to her side, and Oscar took her other hand. I felt that tingle again, a sudden jolt, just like thirty years ago, but this time I understood what it meant, and that she had felt it too. As her eyes widened I placed my hand on Oscar's chest and spoke the words it had cost the lives of seven men to obtain. There was a coruscation in the air, little tiny supernovae of light, and I felt the presence of an ineffable being, a feeling of frustration, and a dreadful urge to turn around. I fought the urge, I knew that what must be behind me now would blast and sear my mind, leaving me an insane gibbering wreck. Oscar's eyes were tightly closed, and his lips were mumbling what was probably a prayer, and still the pressure on me to turn around grew. I trembled, my teeth chattering as I shook, and my knees felt weak and I felt myself, against my will, begin to turn.

Then the lights went out, the presence receded with a unheard, but felt, scream of anger, and I collapsed to the floor, soaked with sweat.

Oscar gave me his hand and helped me to my feet. There was a new light in his eyes, that of a man given his freedom, and the little girl sat in his chair, her eyes distant and patient. I thanked him, and we turned to leave the museum. I glanced back once at the little girl, and wondered if she knew how important she now was.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Import, Export

Last month was not a great month for business. My business is... well, it's eclectic. I import stuff, I export stuff, and somewhere in the middle there's a margin and I take a small percentage of that. I'm a middleman, very definitely. Butter won't melt in my mouth, snow won't melt on my chest, and my fingers aren't sticky, they're just not squeaky clean. Which is good, because who'd trust a man whose fingers squeaked?

But yeah, last month. Not so good. First of all I got a tip-off from my friend in Customs and Revenue that they'd had a tip-off about an import of mine, and so we had to abort the mission. That meant eighty-five nuns parachuting out of a 767 over a Pacific atoll, and that made the headlines. The nuns are cool, they're survivalists, and radio contact tells me that only 3 of them have drowned or been eaten, so most of the merchandise will get back eventually. But it doesn't count towards my bottom line for this month, and that does hurt a little.

After that, our efforts to shift a ton-and-a-half of irregular piping ran into problems again. All we need to do is get somewhere to legislate than the mathematical constant Pi is now equal to 4, and we're home and dry. You'd think it would be easy, but even the American states are dragging their heels now. I'm having to reopen my options on using them to make mortars and selling them to the dimmer variety of terrorist, who probably won't notice the unfortunate taper at the firing end.

And then there's the penguin problem. We've been painting penguins brown and orange and training them in acrobatics so that they can assemble themselves into a giraffe shape. Then we're selling these giraffes to zoos around the colder parts of the globe, where giraffes are rare and penguins thrive. We ship the penguins in suitcases as carry on luggage, and make a tidy profit out of it. Only now we're getting questions about giraffes that spontaneously disassemble and eat fish rather than leaves, and frankly, I'm running out of excuses.

Finally, my secretary's been acting pretty oddly lately, and that has me more worried than anything else. Without her, I'd be in a real pickle and no mistake, she could organise a charity chastity evening at an orgy and have everyone looking happy about it. I've been reading her email and her text messages to see if she's being headhunted (I have a couple of exploding poodles to deal with this kind of thing) but there's nothing there. I'd fret, if that didn't involve woodwork.

So I'm looking for business ideas for the coming month, something with no heavy lifting that a good-looking guy with a silver tongue can really turn into something hot. The laxative pancakes for Shrove Tuesday sold well (feast and purge! The only food that'll really set you up for Lent!), and we've passed off the hair loss as divine revelation (yeah..., turns out they were laxative because of the heavy metal content...) and might yet be able to sell off some of those Latvian bibles I've got in the back room (the only bible that'll give you the gift of tongues! Babble with the best!). But I need a killer sale, something that'll really knock people off their feet.

Best keep thinking!

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Small Gods

We changed our gods again last night. The man-who-shaves-all-men-who-do-not-shave-themselves took Lucille out into the desert while the rest of us gathered around the totem-house and built a pyre. When the pyre was high enough, I was chosen to go inside to gather the totems of the old gods and bring them out.

It is always gloomy in the totem-house. This was my third time doing this, so I had some idea of what to expect. The old gods are never willing to go quietly, but if they are weak and attentuated they are easy to resist. These gods had not been here for long and were still strong, still angry. They whispered and roared in my ears, offering me gifts and powers if I would let them stay. They conjured up a vision before me of the desert made lush and green, of trees that soared up as high as the eye could see, and of brightly coloured birds so unlike our desert vultures. I wavered then for a moment, such abundance would bring propserity to us all. But then I remembered that these are only small gods and what they were offering me, really, was to spend the rest of my life seeing things that weren't there, deliriously happy in my blinkered ignorance. Like all religions.

I picked up the first of the totems, the fulgurite that had been the spoor of these gods, and a chill flowed from it and into my hand, and up my arm. I started, and tried to drop it, but it remained stuck to my hand, even when I splayed my fingers wide and shook it hard. This was new, the totems before had been painful to the touch, but the pain was another deception of the small gods, them using their limited influence on the world in their small ways.

The rest of the totems evaporated now as I approached, and the whispers of the old gods became thin screams, fading away like the echoes of the wind down the desert canyons. The chill had reached my shoulder, and my hand hurt as though I had crushed it beneath a heavy rock.

When the last of the totems burned up in a greasy plume of smoke, the totem house seemed to brighten, new light spilling in through the high, narrow slit windows, and a deep, resonant voice told me to go outside.

I left the totem house, and stood in front of the door. The rest of our people backed away from me, spreading out into a semi-circle around the pyre that should have burned the totems. Across the pyre from me was Lucille, alone now, holding up her left hand, in which she held a strand of fulgurite. My hand holding the fulgurite was also my left one, and it seemed to lift up of its own accord. The pain wasn't exactly gone, but had reached an intensity where I could no longer recognise it for what it was.

Something seemed to stir in the depths of the fulgurite, the fire of the pyre swirled and flared, and Lucille spoke in that deep, resonant voice that had made me leave the totem-house. The words rolled over me without meaning, but left me with a feeling of deep dread that the god we had found this time wasn't so small as we could handle.

Sunday, 3 February 2008

Lost in thought

Detective Inspector Playfair sat in his chair in his living room, and relaxed. The chair was a dentist's chair, sturdily constructed, adjustable as to height and incline, with the head-rest adjustable further yet, and had a useful little table attached to the sole arm. The chair had been reupholstered in red leather, and the stainless steel base on which it rested and swivelled gleamed as though it had been delivered from the showroom just minutes before. It was the only furniture in the living room.

There were four speakers set into the walls of the living room, arranged so as to focus the sound on whoever was sat in the chair, and a remote control casually discarded on the table of the arm-rest allowed the music to be controlled by pointing it out of the door. The living room was small, barely a metre-and-a-half square, uncarpetted, and had perfectly smooth walls. Getting the walls that smooth had taken two plasterers, both of whom had nervous breakdowns afterwards.

Playing at the moment was Kylie's Locomotion. Earlier it had been Mahler's Resurrection, which had made the windows tremble in their frames. Playfair lay back in his chair, closed his eyes, and let the music soothe him while he reviewed the visit to the antiques shop.

Calamity, the Rottweiler, had gone in first and pinned the owner of the shop against the wall, growling and drooling at him while he quaked in fear. Miss Flava -- Playfair permitted himself a smile -- had gone in next, and sensibly had left Calamity to Playfair, but busied herself looking round the shop. Then Playfair himself had gone in, and called Calamity off.

The owner of the shop, looking slightly relieved but still apprehensive, had introduced himself as Alexander Nirah.

"What was stolen?" Playfair had demanded aggressively, keeping Nirah on the back foot. Nirah had trembled a little, and a nervous tic, a twitch at the corner of his left eye, had started up.

"A couple of fetishes," he'd said hestitantly. "I kept them in the display case over by the counter, and when I came in in the morning the glass of the case had been smashed, and the fetishes were gone."

"You mean leather pants and foot-long dildos?" Playfair had said, thoughtfully. He knew, of course, what Nirah had really meant, but he wanted time to think without Nirah having equal time to think. Sure enough, Nirah had turned puce, which Playfair noticed co-ordinated well with Miss Flava's blouse, and stammered out an explanation about the nature of fetishes.

"So they're really just sacred objects," he'd said at last.

"So's a foot-long dildo to anyone who can handle one," Playfair had said, because he'd been feeling mean. "Why didn't you call us when the break-in occurred?"

"But I did," had spluttered Nirah, his eyes widening, and a little spittle foaming at the corners of his mouth.

"There's no broken glass in this display cabinet," had said Miss Flava, who had moved over to it unnoticed by Nirah, and was examining the joints of the case. "And at least one of these side-struts has been replaced recently."

Nirah had turned to look at Miss Flava, one hand reaching up to his throat, and then he put his hand sharply by his side again. Calamity had barked once, then disappeared in amongst the antiques the shop was selling, and Playfair had walked up behind Nirah, and glared at the back of his neck. Nirah had nearly fallen over trying to get away from Playfair without moving his feet.

"Well, it's a valuable display case and you took forever about getting out here!" he'd said, trying to sound accusing.

"It was evidence," had said Playfair, "and you shouldn't have touched it until the police got here and looked at it." He'd moved away from Nirah again, having seen that there was a thin pale line on his neck, suggestive that the man had worn a chain there for a while. "Well, there's nothing we can do if you won't help us, Mr. Nirah. We're leaving."

Nirah had stared at Playfair, obviously shocked. "But --" he started, and then stopped as Miss Flava marched out of the shop, closely followed by Playfair. Another bark had sounded inside the shop, and then the Rottweiler had raced after the policepeople, leaving behind a shopkeeper with a bad feeling and a pool of dog-urine he had yet to find.

Playfair hadn't explained himself to Miss Flava yet, he would do that tomorrow when he'd had time to think and work out where to go next. As Kylie climaxed with her Locomotion Playfair smiled happily, tapping his fingers on the table along with the bassline.