Sunday, 26 October 2008

Travelogue IV: Subtle Wind

In Autumn we collect leaves as they fall from the trees. The subtle wind shakes the branches and the leaves rustle and jostle, and eventually fall. The susurration is like whispers in the room next door: barely audible and mysterious. I feel a stirring inside myself, and wonder if I am remembering what love is at last. Then another leaf, brown and gold, dances past me on an invisible breath of air and I am distracted, racing off to catch it before the wind abandons it and it falls to the ground.

I am not alone, but I am isolated; we all are. We pursue the leaves, each of us driven to find the one that bestows the gift of memory. The trees tower above, and let through beams of autumn sunlight sometimes, soft drizzle and chill mists at others. People join us regularly, and I resent them briefly. Then I forget who they are, and return to my pursuit of the leaves. I think people leave us too, having found their fragile map back to... wherever. There are always more leaves.

Another leave whisks past me, but this one has a touch of light about it, a barely visible trail of sparks. Something inside me screams at the sight of it, but I have reacted already and leapt to catch it. Everything slows down.

I hang in the air, my hand reaching for the leaf, my fingers closing around it as slowly as though we were all suspended in syrup. At the back of my mind a voice is screaming but it is faint and tinny, distorted by static, heard as though on a badly tuned radio. I finally realise it is screaming one word over and over again: STOP.

I am stood on the ground again, holding a dead autumn leaf in my hand, and I am cold. I shiver, and look around at this ancient, dreary forest, and remember coming here, following a woman with smouldering black eyes. I look around for her, but she is gone. For a moment I think I hear a giggle and the sound of feet crunching on leaves, and then it is gone. I am alone, and on my way home from work. I kick aside a drift of leaves, drop the one I am holding, and carry on through the forest to the road.

The road, it would seem, has been gone a long time. I stare out across a desolation of black, ruined soil, carved with trenches, scattered with coils of barbed wire and smell a scorched smell on the subtle wind. I wonder where I've been.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Mr. Bendix

Mr. Bendix sat in the antechamber, a small room with threadbare green carpet and unpleasant yellow wallpaper. There were two high-backed wooden chairs and a smell of anchovies that grew stronger or fainter depending on the day of the week. He sat stiffly, as straight as he could, and tried to ignore the ache in his calves where the steel bola had caught him. His pinstriped suit, smart and elegant first thing that morning, now looked tired and shabby. This annoyed him far more than his injuries, and he radiated a calm anger about him as he waited for the summons. Finally a section of wall squeaked and slid aside to reveal a narrow hole, and a reedy voice called out,
"Enter please, Mr. Bendix."

The room beyond the antechamber was a board-room in the traditional manner: a long polished wooden table ran the length of the room with leather chairs spaced equally along the sides. At Mr. Bendix's end of the table was a three-legged wooden stool; at the opposite end was a leather throne of a chair. There were windows in both long walls that opened onto the thin air above London, and provided views of the river, the Houses of Parliament, and the London Eye. Behind the throne-like chair at the head of the table was a polished wooden sideboard, walnut thought Mr. Bendix. Glassware sat on top of it and sparkled in the weak winter sunlight.

"Sit, Mr. Bendix," said the thin woman sat at the head of the table. She was bald, and her head was so pale as to appear blue. Her arms were stick thin, and her dress, though undoubtedly expensive and tailored, seemed made for a woman twice her size. And that woman, thought Mr. Bendix, would still look anorexic. "Tell us where we stand," she said, her esses whistling through gaps in her teeth.

Mr. Bendix looked around the table at the eight other people seated there, four on each side. They all looked politely bored; most had notepads in front of them on which were ineffable doodles, but one had a laptop open and was tapping idly on the keyboard.
"Gentlemen of the board," he said, "I have activated Dax at your command, and briefed Lehar. I have every reason to believe that the rogue Anna-Mix will be neutralised in less than seven days."
"Why so sure?" said a man from the right-hand side of the table, not looking up from doodling on his notepad.
"Dax has made his kill in under three days every time we've used him," said Mr. Bendix. "I have added in some contingency time as Anna-Mix has advantages that others he's hunted has not."
"You mean she knows we're coming for her," said the thin woman.
"And she knows something of our systems," said Mr. Bendix. "Yes."
"There will need to be an embassy made now then," said the reedy voice, and it came from a older gentleman on the left-hand side of the table with grey hair and a pointed moustache. "We cannot risk a diplomatic incident at court."
Mr. Bendix shivered and then hated himself for it.
"Will she care?" said someone from the right side of the table, and though no-one spoke, everyone around the table looked at the speaker and the answer was clear.
"She may already know," said the thin woman, "but nonetheless we must present the matter at court in the approved manner. Anna-Mix has gone rogue, and it is our prerogative to handle that appropriately. This is not an incorrect response."
'I wonder if you believe that yourself?' thought Mr. Bendix. 'But then, you're not going to the court are you?'
"You will need to leave immediately," said the older man who'd brought this up. "Change into something suitable; I hear it's summertime at the court at the moment."
"How much longer will I be the ambassador to the court?" said Mr. Bendix, trying not to sound whiny. "I think we agreed that it would be a temporary posting."
"We'll review it when you return," said the thin woman. "For now, just go. It doesn't do to keep her waiting. You should know that."
Mr. Bendix walked out the chamber backwards, keeping the thin woman in his sight the whole time. He had no respect for her, and he certainly didn't trust her.

Outside the antechamber he leaned against the wall next to the doorway and listened while the door squeaked closed. Sometimes the board members spoke too soon.

"When will we tell him that if he stays away from the court for too long now he'll die?" said the reedy voice, but no-one answered until after the wall had closed up again.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

Extreme Vegan

The black Delia contains a single recipe for vegans, and despite my devotion to the culinary arts, it's always made me wince a tiny little bit when I read it. It's the same kind of wince you see when people are told that lobsters are boiled alive (and appear to scream) in order to be cooked, only much harder to spot. Whereas I have no love for vegans, who appear to despise their lives and seek to make themselves miserable by depriving themselves of all flavour and taste, the recipe is a little extreme.

It does taste fantastic when it's cooked, however. And in the final reckoning, the end always justifies the means when you're cooking. Certainly when I'm cooking, anyway.

I reflected briefly on this as I took the third leek and forced it into the vegan, who was now unconscious and curled into the fetal position. This is what is referred to in the book as an Advanced recipe, which means that the chef will require greater-than-average upper body strength, mostly to subdue and tenderise the vegan prior to stuffing it. There are two stuffings; one a vegetable based one and the other a standard farce made from pork. After that it all gets a little more complicated, and the culinary code of conduct prohibits me discussing it further.

I'd not intended to cook vegan at all; for the assassination I'd been hired to carry out I'd intended to use a basic food poisoning using elements of the cutlery polish to ensure that I was above suspicion. In fact there were seven ounces of chrome and an ounce-and-a-half of thorium in my chef's kit that I'd been expecting to add to a veloute that I'd serve with a Blanquette de Volaille aux Champignons. When I arrived though, and was faced with a whey-faced steward with a crooked back, a hooked nose and a mealy-mouth who informed me only then that the banquet, to start in a mere five hours time, was to be vegan, I saw red. The same red I saw when I passed the first practical at Chef School.

The steward is in the pantry on a meat-hook, bleeding out, waiting to be made into an andouilette. The guest of honour, a speaker for the rights of carrots, is now dish of the day instead. It pains me that probably no-one will get to taste how good this dish actually is, as my new plan is to mould the dish around a hedgehog of carrot spears, which is turn will be set into a small lump of C4 with a radio-detonated fuse. There will be collateral damage, but the contract clearly states that the kill may be a little untidy if necessary.

There have to be limits in my profession, and vegetarianism is definitely a step too far.

Wednesday, 22 October 2008

Within Reason

Lehar dropped her handbag onto the overstuffed blue futon and kicked her shoes off. High heels weren't really appropriate for waitressing in a cafe, even the Excess Cafe, but at only five feet tall she appreciated the additional height they gave her. She looked around her studio flat as she unbuttoned her light grey summer jacket, and then dropped that onto the futon as well. She needed to tidy up a little. There were coats and handbags all over the futon, four pairs of high heels scattered on the carpet in front of it, and a stack of magazines next to it. In the kitchenette on the other side of the room there were dirty dishes piled high in the sink, an unwrapped loaf of bread on the breadboard, some ham left out on the counter and a dish of soft butter. The microwave door hung open and something orange was puddled inside it.

She had just started unbuttoning her blouse when the man in the pin-striped suit stepped out of the bathroom. He was taller than her, and handsome in the same way that her father was handsome. In his left hand he held a leather document wallet, and in his right hand he was holding her toothbrush. There was a look of disgust on his face.

"This was the cleanest thing I could find in your flat," he said, and limped across the room to the futon. She noticed that both trouser legs of his suit appeared to have been sliced into a little below the knee. "Don't you ever clean up, Lehar? You have two rooms, that's hardly a lot."
"It's my flat," she said quickly, and then mentally upbraided herself for sounding defensive. The besuited man reminded her of her father in more ways than one.
"Actually, since we pay the rent, it's our flat. I think we should make your tidying a condition of you living here, if only to protect our investment." He dropped the toothbrush onto the pile of shoes and sat down on the futon. He winced a little as he did.
"Is that why you're here?" she said. "You're checking up on me as my landlord?"
"No. I'm here to let you know that things are becoming... difficult. There may have to be changes."
"Go on." Lehar's eyes narrowed and she buttoned her blouse back up again, then went to the counter and started putting the food away.
"When did you last see Anna-Mix?"
"Last Tu--" she paused, and then stopped what she was doing and turned to face the besuited man. "I don't know," she said slowly. "I was going to say last Tuesday, but I know it was more recently than that. But I can't remember when."
"That's what I expected you to say," said the besuited man. "We've activated Dax, he'll be coming to the cafe in the next couple of days. You're to serve him whatever he orders."
"Ok," said Lehar. "That might be expensive, you know that."
"We do. That's been accounted for." He stood up, wincing again. "Clean up, Lehar. Things are not as they are supposed to be, and we all need to be ready to move fast."
He looked at the stack of magazines and smiled. "Still hiding research papers in the gossip rags, Lehar?" Then he left.

Lehar turned back to the counter and started tidying again, but she was distracted. She knew that she'd seen Anna-Mix only recently, but couldn't remember anything else, and she knew that Anna-Mix shouldn't be able to mess with her mind. She started humming a tune she remembered from growing up, and quietly worried.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Northern Dawn

Dax stopped walking and leaned back against the trunk of a nearby Sycamore. The trees ended a few feet further on, and beyond them was a grassy plain. A herd of zebras were grazing on the grass and hadn't noticed his stealthy approach. In one hand he held a stiletto, its blade four times longer than its handle and darkened so as not to reflect light and give him away. In the other hand he held a bola, three heavy balls connected by strong, thin lightweight cord that he'd use to bring a zebra down before moving in for the kill. His face was smooth and pale though, definitely not the face of an outdoorsman or hunter.

There was a soft crunch in the undergrowth off to his left, but he didn't react. A man came forward, crouching slightly. He was wearing a pin-striped business suit, italian leather shoes and clutching a document wallet in one hand. He looked uncomfortable.

"We have a task for you, Mr. Dax," said the besuited man. He offered the document wallet. On the grassy plain the zebras started looking around nervously at the sound of his voice. Dax sighed and slipped the stiletto into a sheath at his hip that ran down the side of his leg. He took the document wallet and opened it. There were two pieces of paper inside. One was a glossy photograph, and the other was a brief biography.

"This is Anna-Mix," said Dax holding the photograph up in front of the besuited man. "There has been a mistake."
"There is no mistake," said the besuited man. He was sweating, and there was a slight tremor in his voice. The zebras in the distance were starting to jostle each other as they prepared to flee.
"This bio is incomplete," said Dax, returning the photograph to the folder and looking at the other page. "There's no real history here, the last-known location is given as a city, not an address -- what are you expecting me to do with this?"
"We pay more when the information is somewhat, ah, constrained."
"I'm not taking this one."
"Mr. Dax," said the besuited man, his voice gaining steel from somewhere and scaring the zebras enough at last that they bolted, a black-and-white stampede across the plain. "There is no question of you not taking this, this is your job."
"What did she do?"
"She has gone rogue, Mr. Dax. She purloined one of our operatives who was monitoring her behaviour, which we were doing because she'd not checked in in three months. You will do your job, and you will see to it that we are not compromised."
"None of that is in here," said Dax. He frowned and checked the backs of both pieces of paper. "If I'm tracking down a rogue, then I need more information, not less. This maybe a game to you and your --" he paused, and managed to somehow spit "gentlemen", just missing an italian leather shoe, "but to me this is a matter of life and death. Even possibly mine."
"You have what we think you need to know."
"I'll need a contact then. Someone who thinks I need to know more."
"You'll meet him in the usual place. We've been keeping his salt refilled."
Dax sighed again, and stared at his feet for a few seconds. "The Excess Cafe," he said quietly. "It's strange what you can't leave behind you."
The besuited man turned away, and started picking a path back through the undergrowth. Dax waited for him to get about twenty-feet away, then whirled the bola around his head a couple of times and threw it. It span through the air and coiled tightly around the legs of the besuited man, bringing him down with a sharp cry.
"There are lions out here," said Dax, walking past him. "And the strings of the bola are coated with curare, so be careful about getting it on bare skin."

Tuesday, 14 October 2008


Rain pattered down as steady as a girlfriend who still thinks she's got an exclusive, making soft splattery noises on the leaves of the hot-house plants. There was a large hole in the glass ceiling that I'd made five minutes earlier when my grip on a gargoyle's tongue had slipped and I'd fallen. Luckily for me the compost pile had broken my fall. I'd pulled myself back to my feet, checked that I still had all my teeth, and limped over to the door. As I'd expected for a hothouse filled with rare tropical plants the door was locked; what I wasn't expecting was that the door was chained and padlocked shut. From the inside. The chains were shiny and new, and the padlock looked like no-one had tried to force it, so I reckoned that I ought to be discrete. I looked around for the key, and saw miles and miles of fleshy green leaves, tendrils as thick as my ex-wife's tonsils, and bright coloured flowers and blooms that gave me a brief flashblack to an afternoon in a psychiatrists office doing tests intended for a four-year old. I got paid handsomely for that by his parents. He's locked up in a maximum security mental hospital now.

I figured that the key was probably in with one of the plants so I picked up a gardening trowel and smashed a few more panels of glass near the door. I smashed a bit more than was strictly necessary, but I didn't want to risk cutting myself getting out. The owner of this little plant haven also bred Doberman Pinschers, and I didn't want to leave an obvious scent.

I paused there for a moment and sniffed. I smelled strongly of compost, which was either the compost I'd fallen into earlier, or an indication that my aftershave was past its expiry date again. I wish I were joking when I say that. Never buy aftershave from a Filipino with a pushy attitude and a hand-cart filled with rotting squid.

Outside the greenhouse it was wetter, as more of the rain could reach me, and darker. The sun was setting, and I realised that the greenhouse must have artificial lighting; it seemed like a lot of effort to go to just for some squelchy plants. I could understand it if they were papavera somnolens or cannibis sattiva, but the ones in there reminded me of old cheese and horse chestnuts. I looked off to my left, and sure enough, there was the hedge-maze, grown in the shape of a flutterby. It had taken me all of my skills of persuasion to find out what was at the heart of the maze, and that means all of my patience too.

I groped in the long pocket of my raincoat, the one that starts at mid-chest and descends to mid-knee and found the spray-gun of Agent Orange and the machete. I'm only good at puzzles that allow lateral thinking. I had a set of Quantifiers to find, and what lay at the heart of the maze was going to go a long way towards retrieving them.

Monday, 13 October 2008


Anna-Mix trembled and talked to herself in a quiet voice. She wore a long white dress like an old-fashioned night-gown, a string of yellowed fake-pearls around her neck, and carried a carpet bag. Sometimes she found things and put them in the carpet bag; no-one ever saw her take anything out of it. Two days ago she'd found a ripped blue dog collar and had put that in her bag, smiling hugely and showing her teeth. Now she was eyeing some soft lemons rolling in the gutter next to crisp autumn leaves and the fingers of her left hand were twitching spasmodically.

Across the street from where she was stood, her face almost hawk-like as she concentrated on her lemon-prize, was a small white Ka in which were sat two small white men: midgets. The driver was smoking a cigar from which greasy gray smoke rose, and the passenger was pointing a digi-cam at Anna-Mix. A little red light on the front of the digi-cam told anyone who cared that it was recording. The midgets had been following Anna-Mix for three days.

There was a moment when everyone seemed to pause: just for an instant no-one moved, the traffic waited for a light to change colour, a young girl to cross at the zebra crossing; people looked in shop windows and their attention was caught, or sunlight through the leaves of the trees in the park across the road from Anna-Mix sparkled brightly and hypnotically and enchanted them; the postman stopped kicking the dog just before his foot connected, and the elderly matron whose dog it was froze while she gathered all of her righteous indignation, normally saved for accusing people in church of backsliding. Just for an instant the local area seemed to exist in an inter-calary second, and somehow in that extra moment of time, that spare second that was unowned, unrecognised, Anna-Mix moved.

The traffic started again, people moved on unsure why they'd stopped, and the postman and matron started an argument that would end in nine months time in a still-birth of both child and marriage. And Anna-Mix plucked the midget from the passenger seat of the Ka and put him and his camera into her carpet bag.

Soft, rotting lemons rolled in the gutter with crisp autumn leaves that were waiting to crunch under someone's foot and there was a sensation of neglect, and then it was gone again. The midget driving the car looked round and saw no Anna-Mix, and then looked the other way and saw his passenger had disappeared. With a soft expletive spat out next to the cigar he started the Ka's engine and drove away.