Sunday, 25 October 2009


She stands up from the Go board, scattering white and black stones carelessly across the carpet. Her head drops to her chest and she clasps her hands in front of her, demure as a china doll. She is wearing a white dress that falls to her ankles and wraps almost chokingly around her throat, with sleeves long enough to almost cover her fingers. In some ways she reminds me of a nun, but then I went to a religious school.
"Harmony," I say, and then I stop. I don't know what to say to her.
"Yes," she replies, not looking up. I open my mouth, hoping that the act will inspire me with words, but then I hear the familiar rattle and slither, and looking down I see the Go stones skittering across the carpet like water boatmen across the surface of a lake.
"Oh Harmony!"
I turn at the high-pitched cry of disappointment behind me, and there stands an elderly woman, tall and proud as the now-fallen Statue of Liberty. She gazes at both of us, her disapproval radiating like heat from a pizza oven.
"Sweet Mother Mary," I say, crossing myself. My knees shake a little, though I quickly control them, and a cold sweat breaks out on my brow. Mother Mary, sweet or otherwise, was my teacher at the Immolian School. She died thirty-one years ago.
"Harmony, control yourself. You were named for a purpose."
Mother Mary fades away.
Harmony still stands there before me, her head down-bowed, but the Go stones have stopped moving.
"Harmony?" I ask, not certain of what has happened.
"I have a purpose," she replies, and pushes past me.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

The realignment halls

My footsteps raise small puffs of dust from the floor, and each puff of dust intensifies the smell of mould. It's gloomy in here, so it's hard to be sure, but I think the puffs of dust are actually greenish, and I'm a little worried that what I think is dust is actually just a thick layer of mould. Nonetheless, I've been told that this is the only way in, so this is the way I go. I pull my sleeve across my mouth and try to breathe shallowly, hoping that it will make a difference.
The room is narrow and long, and by the smoothness of whatever it is on the floor, hasn't been visited recently. This also worries me, as I only know of this place from ancient references. It's looking more and more likely that the realignment halls have been shut down or destroyed long ago, and the space is being reclaimed by Nature in her cthonic garb. I plod on anyway, clutching a tiny spark of hope in my heart. Even if the halls aren't in use any more I might be able to find something useful.
I reach the end of the room and stop, stymied by the wall in front of me. There's no obvious handle or way through, so I reach out, a little gingerly, and run my hand over the wall. It's smooth and dry, and nothing flakes away or bursts into sporeclouds. I relax a little, and use both hands to touch and probe all the wall I can reach. It goes up to the ceiling, about thirteen feet above me, so if the way in is up there I've no chance of finding it. The wall remains obdurately solid.
I shuffle over to the corner of the wall, pulling my sleeve back across my mouth again. Dust rises to the level of my knees, but I encounter nothing on the floor that might be a handle or lever. At the corner I check the wall that adjoins the one I want to pass. It's colder than my wall, but otherwise smooth and dry again; no secret panels, no touch-switches. Not even a neatly-printed white placard with instructions for seekers of enlightenment.
I shuffle across to the opposite wall. The flame of hope in my heart is guttering now. I reach it, again not finding anything on the floor, and reach out. Almost immediately I touch something yielding and fibrous. Spiderweb! I think, and I have to cruch my stomach hard and bend forward to stop myself screaming. I back up a little, staggering in my awkward pose, and make myself take a deep breath. Then another, and another, and then I can stand up again. It's the last thing I want to do, but I reach out again, and check out the spiderweb.
It's a bell-pull, a silken rope tied around a peg in the wall. My relief is so strong that I actually break out in a cold sweat on my forehead and my knees tremble, jellylike. I allow myself a tiny little chuckle at how stupid I've been, and then untie the bell-pull. It drops heavily to the level of my waist and hangs there, immobile in the stillness of the room.
I yank on it, tugging firmly, and almost immediately a line of light shines out of the middle of the wall as a door cracks open, and hangs very slightly ajar. The light is the soft yellow of the glowglobes used everywhere in Tal Mallan, and the flame of hope burns more strongly at last. I approach the door and, hopefully, the realignment halls.

Monday, 14 September 2009


The chick-shaw dropped me off outside the bath-house and skittered off again, claws rattling against the cobbled street. A few seconds later the driver's howl of fear reached me; the street was so steep that I thought I'd been horizontal coming up it at one point so going down again must be far worse. I always walked down the steeper hills in Tal Mallan, and occasionally I wondered why they'd been so perverse as to build on them.
I entered, and in the vestibule was a cedar desk as fragrant now as it had been when it was first cut. It stretched a good twenty feet and was pristinely empty, not even dust dared rest upon it. A young lady sat behind it reading a book, and I noted that there were fourteen columns of characters across the double page. Almost certainly that meant it was written in Haruspic, the language of the Haruspice-eaters. She closed the book before she looked up, and she smiled at me dreamily.
"I'd like a bath, please," I said, and she nodded. Standing up, she moved further along the desk and produced a register which she proffered. A pen was attached to it with a blue silk ribbon, and I signed where she pointed. Two towels then appeared from some hidden container, along with a discreet bill slipped on top of them. I read it; it was written in Elatinate, the common language, and swallowed as discreetly as she'd passed me the bill. I paid anyway, as I had reasons to be here other than the bath. She pointed to a door in the wood-panelled wall, and I departed the desk.
The changing rooms, or deshabillation as the Mallan called them, were simple: some large wardrobes with plenty of hangers, some stacked footlockers with heavy iron keys, and a low bench running the length of the room. I disrobed and hung my clothes up, putting my wallet and the sealed package under my spare towel in a locker. Then I passed through.
The bath room was a large, cedar panelled room with high, broad windows that started thirteen feet above the floor and went up to the ceiling. There were twenty four baths laid out in a rectangular pattern, each sunk mostly into the floor. A lip, raised about six inches all round, stopped the unwary from walking into the baths, but not from tripping over and falling in face first. I imagined, knowing the Mallan temperament, that that would be a cause of much hilarity. Fragrant steam billowed and gusted in the air whenever the door opened or closed, and I could smell meadowsweet, wild violet, gentian and Attic rose wreathing around me. Almost immediately I felt myself relaxing.
I slipped my towel off and stepped into the second bath in the third row. The bath-house had only two other occupants, so getting the bath I'd been told to take was thankfully easy. I'd had no idea what excuses I could have made for waiting for a particular bath to come free. The water was hot enough to make me catch my breath, but I acclimatised quickly, and soon the only evidence was the beading of sweat on my brow. I laid back, relaxed, and waited for my contact.

Sunday, 9 August 2009


She had a stripe of white hair that ran from her crown to her fringe, standing starkly in comparison to her otherwise raven-black hair. Her hair was long and she put it up into a loose bun under her tricorn hat, but when she let it loose, as she had done now, it fell down the back of her neck like a mountain cataract and swirled around her shoulders like the whirlpools of legendary Charybdis.
She was stood on the bonnet of the car, dressed from head to toe in tight-fitting black leather and had a black opera cape with red lining pinned tightly at her throat. She looked for all the world like the lead in a modern werewolf movie. She was casually pointed a loaded gun at the windscreen, and conversing with the driver.
"Your money or your wife," she said, and laughed pleasantly. The driver looked a little stunned.
"She's not my wife," he said. His knuckles were white as he gripped the steering wheel.
"Oh dear," said the highwaywoman. "Then it looks like it has to be your money, doesn't it?"
"You can have her!" The driver was shaking, and the much younger blonde in the passenger seat looked unimpressed.
"Oi!" she squawked. "You can't give me away like tha--"
She was silenced by the highwaywoman stamping on the windscreen over her face and shattering it.
"Your money," she said, firmly, gesturing with the gun. The driver slowly, hesitantly, reached for his pockets, where presumably his wallet was. He pulled it out, and his hands were shaking.
"Are you sure you wouldn't rather have...?" he said, making one last attempt at keeping hold of his cash.
"Get out," said the highwaywoman, sighing. He and the woman in the passenger seat unbuckled their seatbelts, opened their doors, and climbed out. The highwaywoman shot the pair of them cleanly in the head, and jumped down off the car.
I left her rifling through their pockets, and headed off across country. I needed to get word out that Rebecca Turpin was on the loose once more.

Monday, 3 August 2009


Somewhere in the east the moon is rising. Strains of Saint-Saëns drift on the breeze, torn away from the ballroom and pulled outside. The clouds overhead swirl restlessly and the tops of the trees bend and rustle, sussurating like they have secrets to keep from me. I lean on the wrought-iron balcony, painted white by some lunatic designer employed by the equally insane Marchioness, and stare down into the rose garden below.
Of course, the Marchioness's favourite poet is Schiller, which I wholehearted agree with, so the rose garden is also a lion-court. Little steel trellises gate off entrances for robo-lions, and a larger exit is where the Marchioness's playthings hammer on the gate and claw in futile anxiety at the handle. Only two have survived so far, and one of them was thrown back to the robo-lions a week later. He wasn't so lucky the second time around.
The rose garden is blessedly empty at this time of the evening, and I can enjoy the proud flowers defying the increasing wind and the heady perfumes they release. I wondered once about husbanding them, breeding them to produce a perfume of almost narcotic intensity, but my plans were cut short by the Marchioness deciding that my money would be better spent on cybernetic enhancements for herself. Over the course of three years she went from being the woman I loved to a robo-frau; my electrowife.
I heard the mechanical click of the relays and know that someone, or something, robotic is approaching. I have laid them secretly all around the Hall so that she cannot sneak up on me, no matter how assiduously she oils her joints, nor how much money she spends on superconducting cable and noise-nullifiers.
She glides up beside me, silent as a corpse, and glitters brilliantly in the light from the windows above us.
"BzzztYou have left me with no-one to dance with" she says, her voice blurring at the start as it always does. I'm sure it's an error of some kind, but she insists that it is cosmetic, done for effect. I smile at her, and wave a hand at the garden below.
"I was enjoying the roses," I begin, but she cuts me off with a high-pitched feedback squeal, her way of indicating displeasure.
"BzzztThere are no lions tonight!"
"Robo-lions." I always correct her. It is important to remember that there is a distinction between robots and real people.
She squeals again, and tilts forward, leaning as far over the balcony as her metallic waist will allow.
"BzzztReturn with me."
I take her arm and she pulls me away, moving too fast for a walk and not fast enough for a run. I am being punished. I still smile though. I may not have been able to breed a narcotic perfume into my beloved roses, but I was still able to get them to produce a beautifully scented gas that rusts even the most advanced of robots. The robo-lions lying in decayed reddish pools of ferro-oxide proved my little experiment true.
I smile harder and sound cheerful. Freedom beckons once more.

Monday, 27 July 2009

Come dine with me: Monday

So, I've made it onto this reality television show. The premise is simple, there are five of us, and each day one of us hosts the rest for dinner. The rest judge them, awarding them points out of ten, and at the end of the week the person with the most points in the winner. There's some kind of prize involved, but frankly I don't much care about that. All I care about is winning.
My competition is: Alan Spackle, a mechanic who's got a workshop a couple of streets over from me; Carmina Alliatori who apparantly specialises in erotic merchandising; Melissa Holywell, a single mother of six; and Vince Treblizie, a musician I've seen perform a few times at the local Conservative Club. On the surface, there doesn't look like there'll be a lot of competition, but I'm not willing to take any chances. I shall be making sure that they don't beat me.
Carmina is going first, and she's invited us all over for six. According to the menu she'll be offering a starter of field mushroom salad with poached quail eggs, a main course of pheasant a la King, and for dessert there'll be erotic Sundaes. On the whole, this sounds quite impressive. The theme of the evening is to be discretely exotic.
I pop over to her house around twelve on a reconnaissance mission. She turns out to live in quite a nice little semi-detached that backs onto the golf-course making it easy enough to mug a golfer in the car-park, nick his clubs, and sneak into her back garden. I catch her leading the camera crew into the living room while her preparations in the kitchen are left for the moment.
She's left the back-door unlocked, so it's the work of just a few moments to slip in and tip half her jar of curry powder into the chocolate sauce that looks destined for the Sundaes. She sounds like she's trying to avoid questions about erotic merchandising so I take a chance and check the fridge. Bingo! there's the cream for the a la king sauce. I add a healthy squirt of tobasco, slip the lid back on and give it a quick shake.
I'm just about to leave when I spot what must be her outfit for this evening hanging on the back of the door. It's all silk and spangles, glittery, low cut at the neck and high cut at the leg. Very lady-of-the-night. I slip back to the spice rack, dip my fingers in the chili powder and rub it on the inside of the dress where I think it might chafe.
On the whole, I'd say this evening's just got a whole lot hotter.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Import, Export V

As far as I can tell, God has not yet discovered the whereabouts of my reclaimed secretary, and appears to be losing conviction that she's near me. In the last few weeks we've have no rains of poodles, no saintly manifestations and no plagues of cockroaches. That said, Scotland has had a couple of rains of poodles, St. Boniface has put in an appearance in an abattoir in Leamington Spa and brought the slaughtered cattle back to life, and Hastings has had repeated cockroach plagues. St. Boniface got reported on the BBC -- a solemn report with an artist's impression of St. Boniface -- and the cable news channels -- a live feed from the abattoir with flayed carcasses lurching about and trying to moo. The BBC are looking smug.
I've not found a sales angle on my engineer who can turn things to mould when he touches them, but I have made use of his anyway by sending him round to competitors. He can get into just about anywhere by turning locks to mould, or, with enough time, entire walls. I can foresee possibilities with this now, but first I have to break him of having a conscience.
We've had a shipment of chocolate teapots, which we've wrapped in tinfoil and sold on as antiques. The foil can be easily distressed, and when the teapot melts after the hot water's been poured in, we claim that it's age and stress related. We had a moment of worry when we saw that one of then had made it onto Antiques Roadshow, but luckily it melted under the studio lights before it could be examined.
In fact, they've been such successful sellers that I've decided to take the plunge and sell the silverware I've had in storage for the last couple of years. It's all made of arsenic with a very thin tin coating, but now that I've know I've got a target market that believes that antique silver can melt when it has tea poured into it, I know they'll buy the cheap silverware too. And if they die of arsenic poisoning, as my secretary pointed out, they can't sue for mis-selling.
It's a slow month, but business continues!

Saturday, 25 July 2009


She shook her hair out, letting auburn locks cascade over her shoulders like a blonde waterfall and plunge straight down her back to her waist. Then she blinked twice and screwed her eyes up like someone getting used to contact lenses when they first put them in. Her eyes relaxed, the lines around them smoothing out and disappearing, leaving her looking youthful. Almost illegal, I thought. Then she picked someone out across the bar and her eyes tightened, focusing, staring. She set off, picking her way between the tables and over people's carelessly abandoned bags -- the student athletes were in tonight, on their way home from whatever match had been played. Curious about her, and bored with nothing else to do, I discretely wandered in the same direction.
She stopped near the bar, her blue eyes still focused on what I could now see was an older woman. The other woman was shorter than the first, had dark-brown, almost black hair, was wearing unflattering overalls and a floral blouse that might have been popular in the seventies. She was reading through the music list on the jukebox with her lip curled in a sneer.
I smiled to myself and settled down to watch. This had all the makings of the wife discovering all about the mistress for the first time.
"Julia," said the first woman in a soft, throaty voice that reminded me of my first English teacher. "Julia, we have to talk."
"What's there to say?" said the other woman in a sharp tone. "Tell me why I don't like Mondays?"
"You were always on my mind."
"I wasn't born yesterday, 'Lise. Whether or not I was on your mind, you went ahead and did it anyway. That's what matters to me." She paused, and then, "Guess that makes you Jet City Woman."
"Julia, it's so not what you think. I wonder if this is what you want to think though. After all, Time changes everything."
"Not this Circus it doesn't."
"Britney?" The auburn-haired 'Lise actually spat on the floor at Julia's feet. "You're bringing Britney into this?"
Julia smiled, a hard smile with cold eyes. "It's easier than slapping you, and doesn't hurt my hand. I think I'd better leave, since you'll only cause a scene."
She turned away from the jukebox, glanced at 'Lise for the first time, and walked out. The auburn-haired woman seemed to shrink in on herself and her hair lost some of its lustre. I sighed, not quite sure what I'd witnessed but amused nonetheless and make a snap decision to leave as well and follow Julia for a while, and see where else this was going.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Gorillas in the mist

They admitted later that it was an overreaction. By that time though, there was nothing much that could be done other than sweep up the bones and wonder that the skin had been so completely destroyed. Then people just kept quiet about it until the publicity died down, and soon enough it became just another piece of odd history about the zoo.

It started with a small boy playing with a red rubber ball. The boy threw the ball, attracting the attention of a dog who was being walked by its elderly owner. The owner had the dog's lead in one hand, and a walking stick in the other. Nearby was a young couple with a push-chair containing a child in desperate need of a plastic surgeon and behind them was a small woman with an oversized golf umbrella she was struggling with in the wind. It wasn't raining, so the zoo's lawyers made much of the fact that the umbrella was open and not properly controlled.

The boy threw the ball, which bounced over the fence into the gorilla enclosure. The dog saw the ball and lunged after it, pulling its owner off balance. He fell over, and his stick flew out to the side and caught in the wheels of the push-chair. The chair leapt into the air, throwing the child out. Its mother, a woman who clearly couldn't see that the child landing on its face could only improve its looks, dived to catch the child, caught the push-chair with her hip, and landed heavily after knocking the child back up into the air like a volley-ball spike.
The child's father backed up, trying to catch it, and collided with the midget woman with the huge umbrella. She swung the umbrella to swat him, and the baby bounced off the surface of the umbrella, over the fence and into the gorilla enclosure.

That was when the overreaction happened: the keepers deployed the emergency fire-safety mechanism which sealed the gorilla enclosure and flooded it with inert gas. The newspapers later on described it as being like Auschwitz, which though tasteless was probably true. All the gorillas died, as did the baby.

I, on the other hand, got lovely gorilla-skin rugs for all the rooms in my house.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

Just checking

I keep telling myself that I don't need to, that it's obsessive and neurotic, but it seems I'm not easily convinced. So after five uncomfortable minute staring at the TV telling myself that EastEnders is interesting and I want to watch it, I gave up and turned it off. I felt slightly guilty as I went into the hall and got my coat from the rack and pulled my shoes from the cupboard, but that had passed by the time I'd put them both on and checked my pockets for my keys.
"I'm just checking," I mumbled to myself as I went out, and checked that the door had locked behind me.

The evening was just settling into night and the street-lights were on, casting little pools of orange glow along the street to the end. They stopped there and the streets became lanes as the village petered out to mostly fields. I turned left at the end of the street and carried on alone in the dark. "Just checking," I whispered.

At the end of the lane were the tall, wrought-iron gates that stood to impress visitors. Aside each of them was a low box hedge that might deter children, but that an adult could easily jump. The gates weren't locked, probably in recognition of the fact that they were there for show, not protection. I wondered briefly if the inside needed protection, and then put that macabre thought aside and went in.

Harry died two weeks ago, and I've not quite got used to him not being there any more. That, I think, is why I find myself coming down here, to his grave, every evening, just checking. Checking to see that the grave is there, that he really is dead, waiting patiently for my subconscious to accept the reality of the situation. Every evening is the same; I stand for a few minutes reading his gravestone, feel sad and a little lonely, and then I go back home and hope that when I wake up tomorrow I'll have accepted it.

So it was something of a surprise to see that Harry's grave had been dug up and the coffin lifted out and laid on the pile of earth. The coffin had been opened, its lid lay propped up on the coffin. And the coffin was empty.
I stared at it for what felt like hours. All this time I'd been checking, and now something had changed. And I had no idea what to do about it.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

An evening chat

I was coming back from the kitchen with a fresh cup of coffee and yesterday's croissant, sat on a plate and reheated, when I felt a curl of cold air around my ankles. Instantly wary, I peered round the study door and felt a little silly when no-one was there. I put the cup and plate down on my desk and then jumped out of my skin as someone tapped on my shoulder.
I turned my head, my hand reaching for the letter opener, and saw the ruined, smoky face of MacArthur. I still kept reaching for the letter opener, but I relaxed.
"I scared you," he said, his voice growling hoarsely like a dog with laryngitis.
"Of course you scared me, you were intending to!"
"Yeah well, it's nice to know I succeeded."
"Why were you trying to scare me? That's not a nice thing to do, Mac. And I write your biography."
"Keeps me in practice. Keeps you on your toes. And that's what I've come to talk to you about."
I retreated to the other side of the desk, gripping the letter opener like a talisman, and sat down. The high-back leather chair squeaked slightly and drifted on its castors. I put my feet down on the floor and pushed it back.
"You found another writer?"
"No, but I don't feel you're doing me justice."
"How on earth can I be selling you short, Mac? You're about as low as you can get on this planet and still be on the surface. Vermin point you out to their children and tell them that they'll end up like you if they're naughty!"
He shrugged, which seemed to involve his whole body and caused a lot of unhealthy-sounding clicking from his joints.
"But you never tell anyone about the other side of me. You never tell people about the evenings spent at home, drinking quietly and watching television."
"Your last quiet evening at home resulted in a one-legged tap-dancing girl having to hop home with a nail driven through her only shoe. And you don't watch television because you're too cheap to pay for the electricity. And to top it all off, Mac, you don't even own your own home, you part-share with a rent-boy who you don't pay any rent to!"
He paused, then spat. Brown mucus started to soak into the carpet, and I just knew that the stain would be impossible to shift.
"Maybe that's a bad example."
"You think?"
"I'm kind to animals. You've never mentioned that."
"You don't keep any pets... that's certainly a kindness. I don't think I've ever seen you interact with an animal. Well, a non-human animal at least."
"I donate to charity."
"Mac, last year you donated firearms to Dr. Barnardos and then tried to claim it as a tax deduction. The firearms were stolen from the crooks who'd stolen them in the first place, and had live ammunition. You caused a bloodbath in an orphanage, and you think that this will show the nicer side of your character?"
Mac sighed heavily and I wondered for a moment if it was possible for the wind to get rusty. If so, that's how it would sound.
"Fine, well I'll leave you to your evening then," he said, and there was almost a hint of melancholy in his voice. "Enjoy."
And then he was gone again, and my croissant had somehow disappeared.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009


My friend Rodney likes to describe himself as a celebrity photographer. As he puts it, he hangs out with his camera where celebrities hang out, and then he sells the pictures he takes to anyone with an interest. Most of his other friends are all celebrity photographers too; I'm the exception. I'm an engineer. Of sorts.

When I let myself into my house that Tuesday evening, I found that Rodney had already let himself in. I shouted at him for a few minutes because I'd made him give his key back the previous week after I caught him in my bed with two of the latest Big Brother contestants. Finally he wiped my spittle from his face and sheepishly admitted that he'd stolen my back-door key. And had copies made from my key-ring last night after I'd gone to bed. I hit him with the ash-tray -- his ash-tray -- that was conveniently to hand on the coffee table.

"Look," he said, trying not to bleed on the carpet, "it's cool. I just needed somewhere to get my stuff together and you're closest. I'm off out tonight with the guys, it's our night off so we're going out on the razz. Time to get completely and utterly paralytic and have some fun for once."
"For once?" I hadn't intended to shout, but I did, and I hadn't intended to keep spitting on him, but it happened. "How about last week when I caught you in bed with that girl and her pretend boyfriend? Wasn't that fun?!"
"Well, for them maybe...." I let that one pass. Rodney's hinted before that his idea of a good time sexually might be a little different to other human beings, though I think he is still into mammals. Loosely put.
"Damn it, Rodney, I've got some... devices to assemble. I'm on commission and working to a deadline!"
"What are you assembling them into this time?"
I let that one pass too. I think Rodney's already made too many close guesses about my line of work, and although I'll never be on his list of people to photograph, he's sleazy enough to try blackmailing me if he thinks I'm worth it.
"Go on, get out with you. You look dressed up enough."
"See you later!" He waved cheerily as he left and I sighed and started checking the internet for local locksmiths with emergency opening hours. I would have an evening of Rodney-proofing the house while he went out with his papparazzi mates on the papparazzle.

Monday, 20 July 2009

Calorie counted

The woman with the disapproving voice wielded a ballpoint pen like a scalpel, slicing blue lines onto the paper she had pinned tightly to a clipboard. The small girl in front of her swallowed hard, wondering why the woman disliked people having names, and said,
"Calorie, miss."
"Valerie? There are no Valeries on my list. I do not tolerate liars in my class."
"No miss, not Valerie. Calorie. With a C."
The woman raised an eyebrow, arching it until it threatened to vanish beneath her fringe, and made a show reading carefully through her list. Then, as she found Calorie's name on the list, her face pinched as though she were sucking a lemon, and the pen slashed at the page twice. The tick sat beside Calorie's name and she was gestured through the door. Keeping her head down and being as meek as she could, Calorie scuttled through.

More children were admitted to the classroom, and though Calorie watched avidly, hoping that someone else would fall foul of the teacher, they all apparantly had names that were less to disapprove of. The room filled up steadily, some children sitting alone and others forming small groups, chatting quietly. Calorie knew no-one else attending the class, but she had taken a desk near the vivarium which had attracted some of the other isolated children, so she would have looked popular had any of them been talking to each other.
Finally the room was full, all the desks were taken, and the woman with the disapproving voice stood at the front of the room, her clipboard held protectively before her breast and her pen gripped dagger-like in her other hand.
"You are here," she said, "because you have failed. You have failed to be disciplined. You have failed to listen when you were told to listen, and to repeat back what has been told to you. You are here, because you have dared to think for yourselves."
"This cannot be encouraged," she continued, "but is nonetheless essential. The sheeple -- the rest of the population, the people who act like sheep -- need people to look after them. They need laws made for them and enforced for their own good. They need people like us; people like you. If you succeed in your new education."

The class sat silently, watching the teacher with bright, inquisitive eyes. They all understood what she was saying, though none of them had expected it. Now they wanted to know where the new education would take them. What this unexpected difference in the system would do. Calorie shifted in her seat, eager to get started on learning something worthwhile, something real.
"You do not have to accept this education," said the woman sounding slightly tired. "Mistakes are made more often than anyone would like to think, and you being here might be a mistake. If you wish to go back to where you were before, now is the time to say so. Stand up and be counted."
'Not for me,' thought Calorie, gripping the sides of her desk tightly so that she couldn't stand up even by accident. 'I want to go on and be someone. Not standing here, being Calorie counted.'

Travelogue VI: The wreck of the Aidolate

The wind howls like a woman mourning her lover, tugging at the sand and occasionally flinging small handfuls of it into the air. The grains scatter down again, pattering like dry rain on the orange desert below. The scent of cinnamon is strong here, and the orange sand is stained darker and darker, shading almost to brown, as the wreck is approached. Scrubby plants cling to life, mostly bare brown branches with tiny buds of olive green leaves tucked on the underside to hide them from the wind.

The Aïodolate crashed down almost vertically, and its speed caused it to embed over two-thirds of its length into the ground. There is speculation that it stopped because it met bedrock, and more speculation that it stopped only because the engines gave out. Either way, the wreck resembles an iceberg, both in that most of it is hidden below the surface, and in its general outline.

The engine housing is cratered and craggy, standing proud like a burnished metallic mountain. A few hardy souls each year attempt to climb it, and so far routes have been found to half-way up but no further. The metals used for the engine housing were commonplace save for a small amount of exotic bonding material, and that reduces friction and toughens the alloy. This makes climbing harder, and hammering in pitons almost impossible.

All of the access doors are below the surface somewhere. The engine housing stands proud of the desert, but the eighty metres between the start of the engine and the desert sand are either smooth metal panels or docking junctions for probes. The Aïodolate was known to have launched many probes shortly before starting its cataclysmic descent, and conspiracy theories about them abound. There are telemetry stations set up at regular intervals around the Aïodolate to watch for the return of any of the probes, in the hope that they might have some information that would explain the crash.

No-one knows if anyone survived the crash. No-one has emerged from the Aïodolate in over one-hundred and fifty years, but it did have a number of experimental stasis generators aboard. People could be asleep in there, waiting for rescue.

The political climate has changed at last, and there is talk; quiet, not-quite-insurrectionist talk of attempting to dig down to an access hatch and investigating the wreck at last. Our plans are being drawn up, and people are silently hoping that it's been long enough that if anyone crashed it for a purpose, that purpose is long gone.

Sunday, 19 July 2009

In vino veritas

Liam paused, holding the bottle of wine at arm's length. Behind him, the soft hubbub of conversation filled the restaurant, and in front of him, across the table, Miriam watched with bright eyes and trembling lips. Liam jerked his arm slightly upwards, a clumsy toast to Miriam, and then pulled it in and tipped the bottle to drink straight from it. He swallowed twice, then placed the bottle back down on the table. A thin dribble of red ran from the corner of his mouth and stained the collar of his white shirt.
"Well?" Miriam's voice trembled like her lips. In her lap, concealed by the snowy-white tablecloth, she folded her hands over one another repeatedly.
"There's the oddest flavour to it," said Liam, his voice slurring a little. "I'm more than a little tipsy, so it's hard to be precise, but it tastes kind of... bitter."
"I've heard that said." Miriam relaxed a little, her face smoothing out and her hands falling still for the first time all evening. "I've never wanted to taste it myself, but I've heard it said that it can be very bitter."
She paused, looking down at the table, at the space where plates had yet to be placed. "Or very sweet."
"I still don't understand, Miriam. Why did you want me to taste this wine?"
"It's a special wine." She looked up and smiled, little crow's feet forming at the corners of her eyes.
"You remind me of my mother when you do that," said Liam. "She had a way of being coy with people. It got her killed."
"You've said that before. I did want to ask you about that. How did your mother die, Liam?"
"She ran out of the house, running away from William, and out into the street. A cyclist swerved to avoid her, and she flinched away and her foot caught in a pot-hole. William came running out of the house and threw the knife at her, and she dragged herself out of the path of the knife and under an oncoming bus. The bus driver was looking the other way."
"William was your older brother?"
"William was my older brother's imaginary friend."
Miriam looked back down at the tablecloth, and her hands started rubbing one another again. The secret ingredient to the wine was a truth-serum; anyone drinking it would find it impossible to not tell the truth for anywhere up to five hours. And now it seemed that Liam's little madness, his devout belief in his elder brother's imaginary friend was somehow real.

Or Liam was actually incurably mad.

Miriam signalled to the waiter for the bill.

Friday, 17 July 2009

Hilbert Hotel

"It's a Hilbert Hotel," Damian said, looking at the less-than-imposing doors. "They have to have room for us."
Virgil looked at him and shrugged. He was still dressed as St. Thomas of India, having flatly refused to remove any of his clothes in the taxi. Damian had taken the precaution of slipping in some cheek pads and swapping the t-shirt from underneath his overalls to over the top to make sure that any description the taxi-driver saw of the criminals wouldn't be a good match to him. Except for bloody St. Thomas of India in his company.
"Seems like nowhere else does," said Virgil. "Who'd have thought all the hotels would be booked up?"
"Well..." Damian squirmed a little, realising that he should have thought ahead and booked rooms the night before. "I don't suppose anyone starts off a holiday by thinking I wonder if there's a cow-herder's convention happening where we're going. Maybe we should call ahead and check."
"True enough," said Virgil. "Come on then mate, let's get in there and listen to the excuses why they can't let us have a room."
"They're not all excuses, Virgil."
"Oh yeah? The girl who said that all their rooms were closed for fumigation didn't sound too convincing!"
"She was also looking at you like she expected you to burst into flames! That costume isn't helping us."
"Nah mate, not burst into flames. Validate the risen Christ."
"Validate the risen Christ. St. Thomas of India was the guy who didn't believe Christ had risen from the dead until Christ had a chat with him and showed him the holes in his hands."
"What? Doubting Thomas?"
"One and the same, mate."
"What mate?"
"How do you know all this? Not being rude or nothing, but I thought you were thick as a thick thing hidden in custard."
"It was the in the script."
Damian almost said what? again, but the memory of how Virgil had stolen his costume from a local school play nudged him just in time.
"Right Virgil. Right. Let's just get in there and ask for a room."

The receptionist on the desk politely said that there were always rooms available at a Hilbert Hotel, but that it might take a little while to organise it.
"We'll just move every guest up by two room numbers," she said smiling. "We've got an infinite number of rooms, so we can always make space. The only hassle is that when we let rooms out to non-mathematicians they don't always understand the speed at which we need to get things done, so instead of being able to complete the move in exactly one minute it can take a couple of hours. And you should probably avoid the other guests for your stay, they get annoyed about being moved all the time."
Damian nodded, not understanding, and he and Virgil sat down on a red velvet sofa in the lobby.
"It's just a basic understanding of infinity, mate," said Virgil.
"Shut up Virgil."

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Travelogue V: the approach to the plateau

The wind howls around the mountain like a banshee, and like the banshee it never has any good tidings to bring. Up above us -- and not a very long way above us at all -- are dull clouds that look heavy with snow or hail. The last of the sunlight is still falling on the mountainside below, but it's a little too late now to turn back and try to pitch a tent to wait the weather out. It would take us at least an hour to find a surface we could secure ourselves too.

Ahead of me, Jordan is hammering pitons into the rock and behind him David is passing rope through his belt and then throwing it down to me. It's a scant comfort, but at least we'll be trying to hang on with more than just our hands and feet if the wind grows stronger and the clouds decide to drop their burden on our heads.

We begin our ascent again, slower now than before because of the need to hammer in the pitons ahead of us, and I retrieve them as a pass over them. It's hard to pull them out again, but I know that if Jordan didn't make them properly secure we'd all regret it.

Below me the mountain cascades down to a high pasture where rare cattle are summered and bred, and a small group of people make the kind of living rich Westerners pay holiday money to go and pretend to do. The mountain seems haphazard, almost careless, like a woman who has lost her sense of style and dresses in the morning with her eyes closed. The people in the high pastures wouldn't talk to us, and when it became apparent that we were planning on climbing the mountain they wouldn't even look at us. I'd heard rumours that the mountain was considered sacred, and perhaps, to these people, it is.

We've spent two years planning this ascent, researching the mountain as much as we could. There's not a lot written about it, and it's debatable if anyone's ever reached the top. Some of the books that had the most information were unobtainable; there are apparently only four copies of De Vermiis Mysteriis left in the whole world and a mountain-climber doesn't have the clout to get access to a copy. It might not have helped anyway, my Latin is barely remembered from my schooldays. I casually asked the British Museum why they didn't make more copies of the book and, before the assistant was hurried away by a senior-looking man in a very sharp suit, was told that they couldn't afford the staff attrition.

There's a cry from up ahead and Jordan waves, makes sure he has my attention, and points. The next plateau is visible now, maybe only a cautious half-hour's climb away, and we might even get there before the clouds descend on us. We shout a brief conversation and decide to be a little less cautious and try to beat the weather to the top.

What awaited us on the plateau was a scene of horror.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Opening the way

Police tape stretched across the end of Holbein Street, closing it off to traffic and pedestrians alike. The street turned a corner half-way along stopping Grimmerie from seeing if the other end were similarly closed, but he expected it would be. There was a smell of rain to come in the air, and the breeze had stiffened in the last few minutes into an adolescent wind; going around now, up past the clock-tower meant that he might get caught in it all. He sighed, and looked about for the police officer who would be manning the tape to stop people from just slipping under it, and saw none. He paused, wondering what the real danger was, and then decided to walk round anyway, just in case.

He'd just drawn level with the clock-tower, a wedding-cake ornament of a building commissioned by the council in a fit of civic pride, when the first fat drops of rain starting splashing down around him. Cursing furiously under his breath he stepped into the porch of the tower for shelter, hoping that this was just a passing squall.

While he waited he looked around. The tower was steel and glass like so many modern buildings, but the porch here at the bottom was brick, and old-looking brick at that. He tried to remember if he knew what had been here before the site was cleared but his memory was dragging its heels again -- it seemed to do that more and more these days -- and he couldn't quite think of what it was. The door at the back of the porch appeared wooden but when he touched it it was freezing cold. He tapped on it lightly with his fingernails, wondering what metal it was. It sounded slightly hollow, but then someone on the other side tapped back.

Grimmerie tapped again, wondering if he hadn't just heard an echo. Someone tapped back in a different cadence, and then the thunder roared overhead and the rain started hammering down. Water splashed back up when it hit the street and there was a film of running water covering it in just thirty seconds. The sky lightened briefly, and two seconds later the thunder crashed again, echoing around the shops and houses. Grimmerie stared out at it, mesmerised by the ferocity of the weather, until the wind started driving the rain into his face in sporadic gusts. Then he pulled his coat collar up, and turned back to the door to see if it would open.

As he placed his hand against it and pushed he felt a familiar warmth against his chest. The amulet that permitted him access to the ways, to the places where he hunted teddy bears in their natural habitat, had activated. A ghost of the door swung inwards under the weight of his hand, and he stepped through it. For a long moment he was stood both in a ghostly clock-tower and at a meeting point of the ways, staring at a familiar middle-aged woman who was staring back at him. He noted almost idly that the ghost of the clock-tower looked almost exactly like the real clock-tower, and less idly that this was the woman who'd come into his shop to take an amulet from him. Then one world faded and the myriad paths of the ways opened up before him.

He loosened the Brinchev Kris in its little sheathe inside his jacket. He didn't have far to go, but a careless hunter quickly became a dead hunter. Sure that he was prepared, he picked a path he knew, and headed home.

Behind him, trapped inside the clock-tower, the woman who'd seen a ghostly Grimmerie walk through a locked door and then disappear listened to the rage of the storm and wondered how much more there was that she didn't know about the ways.

Monday, 13 July 2009

A day at the zoo

I looked around the zoo cafeteria while I sipped my coffee. The coffee was actually nice, there was a decent depth of flavour to it and it hadn't been boiled or microwaved to death. I sighed, very quietly, to myself with pleasure, and watched the small queue snake its way through the pasta bakes and packaged sandwich chillers to the till.
Terry sat down opposite me with a much louder sigh and a styrofoam cup of instant coffee he'd coaxed out of a vending machine. He looked at me, and his usually sad face looked slightly more miserable than normal.
"The penguins are loose," he said, staring into his little styrofoam cup. "They're all over the zoo."
"How did that happen then?"
"I don't know, but I bet it's got something to do with mum."
"What's got something to do with me?" Terry's mum bustled up holding a plastic cafeteria tray in both hands. On the tray was a china cup of tea, a small metal jug of milk and a baby penguin.
"That's a penguin, Mrs. Mossbrook," I said, pointing at it.
"Yes dear, it is. And it's outrageous too, they didn't have a button for it on the cash register so they said they couldn't let me have it! I said, 'Well, if you've not got a button for it then it must be free.' They didn't like that one bit."
"You're not going to eat it, are you mum?" Terry looked horrified.
"Of course not, but I thought it'd make a nice souvenir from the zoo. We can put it in the bath to begin with, and then set the paddling pool up outside and put it in there eventually. It's only one little penguin after all, and I believe it'll make a good little guard-dog."
"I thought penguins prefer cold climates?" I said, almost as though I were talking to myself. I knew better than to upset Terry's mum.
"We'll use ice water for the swimming pool, dear, don't you worry about that. And I think Gladys at the WI has some contacts in the fishmongers, so I can probably get the fish quite cheap too."
Terry had reached over and was stroking the penguin with a far-away look in his eyes.
"See?" said Terry's mum to me. "It'll be good for him to have a pet. He's been moping around ever since we lost that exchange student."
"Er... lost?" I said, not knowing what to think.
"Yes, he passed away quite unexpectedly. A great shame, and I don't know how Terry's going to tell the student's mother. Especially since she doesn't speak any English."
"Right, right you are Mrs. Mossbrook," I said sitting back and wondering for the first time if I'd been blind to all these machinations when Terry and I were just kids.
"It's quite alright dear, now be a love and go and close the cafeteria doors."
I looked at her quizzically.
"There are penguins everywhere," she said. "I let the tigers out to clean them up."

Sunday, 5 July 2009

A visit to the toystore

Little bones clacked together as the woman lifted the skeletal teddy bear down from the shelf. Grimmerie, the toy-maker, smiled and nodded.
"Ah yes," he said, "that's the remains of a teddy-bear. Suitable for a lost childhood, or perhaps just a child with a morbid disposition. If they wear black too much, like to play in the graveyard, and recite lists of demons instead of nursery rhymes, then that's the toy for them."
The woman jiggled the teddy bear, listening to the bones clack against each other, watching the yellowed skull loll indolently. "It's got a odd kind of attraction to it," she said at last, one hand slipping towards her handbag. "How do you make it? The bones are quite convincing."
Grimmerie laughed, a melancholic sound with an odd reverberation. "They're plaster of Paris," he muttered, sounding embarrassed and ducking his head.
"They're not." The woman sounded pleasant but her eyes were hard and her mouth was a thin blue-lipped line in her alabaster face. Grimmerie started.
"I can assure you--" he started.
"I am a forensic pathologist, and I am very certain that these are real bones. They are the wrong weight for plaster of Paris, they have the wrong sound when they jiggle together, and they have tiny imperfections where tendons and muscles have attached in the past. These are real bones, but they are not the bones of any human or creature that I recognise. I want to know how you achieve this."
Grimmerie was silent for a long time, so long that the woman finally slipped her hand into her handbag and started to draw something from it.
"That's a knife, isn't it," said Grimmerie softly, his eyes glistening with unshed tears.
She nodded.
"It's a Brinchev Kris, I suppose?" he said.
"Of course not. I have done my research, toy-maker. It is a Sukhev Da."
"I see. Then I have no choice do I? The bones are real because they are real. I trap and kill teddy-bears in their natural habitat. Then I skin them and stuff the skins and sell them as high-quality collector's bears, and occasionally I wire up a skeleton and sell it as a curio."
"And how do I find their natural habitat?"
"I have amulets that will open doors. I assume you'll be wanting one?"
"Naturally." She smiled, showing some pointed teeth. "And where are the doors?"
"The amulet will find them. You'll see them change when you look at them."
"Then give me an amulet."
Grimmerie opened a drawer and removed a seven pointed star carved from chalcedony and suspended on a brass chain. He placed it silently, reverently, on the counter and nodded towards it. She took it, weighing it thoughtfully in her hand for a moment, and then slipping it over her head. She tucked it inside her blouse.
"Thank-you," she said.
"I'd find yourself a Brinchev Kris if you're going after what I think you're going after," said Grimmerie. "Brinchev was trusted by many factions, most of whom survived to regret it."
She looked at him with an expression he couldn't puzzle out, and left, taking the amulet and skeletal teddy bear with her.

Saturday, 4 July 2009

More from the desert

I woke this morning and Julie was gone. The wardrobe doors were open and her clothes were gone from the hangers; the drawers spilled only my clothes from their half-open mouths, and the bathroom was blissfully free from millions of cans, tins and bottles. Downstairs was a similar tale; her DVDs were gone from the organiser, the curtains that she'd found in Morocco and had imported were gone and when I walked into the kitchen, her cup was sitting in seven pieces on a note on the table.
I'm leaving you, read the note, and I tsked to myself, that much was obvious. I've taken what's mine that I can carry, I'll be back with a van for the apothecary table and the spice collection. Please don't be here then. We'll talk much later, right now I can't even find the words to write this note.
"Not a problem," I murmured to myself under my breath and rubbed my temples. A headache was building, but it was clear that she'd drugged my coffee last night to ensure I wouldn't wake up, and that was probably the cause. I put the kettle on and wandered out through the connecting door to the garage. Near the door is my travelling trunk -- I've never taken it travelling, but I've put all the things I've brought back in it. To my surprise, there were fresh scratches near both padlocks. I checked the rest of the trunk and there were scratches by the hinges too, and a small crowbar discarded behind the trunk. So Julie had tried to get into it. There was nothing of hers in there. That explained more than her note did though.
The padlocks are just for show. I pressed in a couple of places on the trunk and a thin steel panel in the lid slid back, revealing a recessed combination lock. I entered the combination, wincing only slightly at the memories it evoked, and listened to the steel bolts clunk back. I opened it, cast an appraising glance over the contents, and picked out a soft leather bag of desert sand. The trunk locked automatically when I closed the lid.
I made coffee from the now-boiling water in the kettle and spilled the sand over the kitchen table. It shimmered and sparkled as though still under a desert sun.
I had been in the desert for eight days when I discovered an oasis of sand. There was no surface water and I was running low in the bottles I carried, but the sand here shimmered and sparkled like the sea from a distance, and trees grew around it thickly and with vibrant greenery. I stopped at the edge and looked at it, shading myself under a palm tree. It was undeniably beautiful. There was no breeze, but the sand grains rattled across one another, little currents visible in the larger sea, and the shimmer seemed to create hazy mirages above it. Without quite knowing why I did it, I knelt down and let one hand dip into the shifting, sandy sea.
The rattle of grains became louder and the mass of sand shifted rapidly, dying away to stillness just seconds later. The whole expanse of sand was still and patterned, and in the pattern I recognised myself, stood drinking water near some rocks.
I swept sand into a leather bag I'd been using to carry food when I had some so far, and backed away from the sand. So far I'd learned that there are strange things in the desert, and psychotropic sand seemed like something I should keep, but not walk into. I carried on past, and to my slight surprise, I found the rocks shown in the sand just a couple of hours later. Within the rocks was a small, cold and fresh spring at which I refilled my water, and slaked my thirst.

Sat now at the table, I laid my hand on the sand, and waited. There is only a little sand, so the images come one at a time and are sometimes harder to work out than a cryptic crossword clue. First came Julie's face, then mine looking sad and worried, and now... an ambulance....

Friday, 3 July 2009

Monsanto Labs

"Yes mate?"
"Who are you disguised as?"
"Saint Thomas of India, mate."
"Saint Thomas of India, mate. Patron saint of architects, innit?"
"Yes mate?"
"I liked the cape, mate. You don't get many disguises with capes, innit?"
Damian sighed and resisted the urge to rub his face with both hands. That would smudge the make-up he'd spent an hour applying as part of his disguise. He was crouched in the bushes outside the private offices of Dr. Monsanto with Virgil Mackey crouched next to him, waiting for the clouds to close up again and hide the moon. Damian was disguised as a maintenance engineer, and the makeup made his skin appear sallow, his eyes appear bigger and his mouth wider. If he was caught on surveillance camera, he wanted to be sure that the police, and particularly Dr. Monsanto's private guards, were looking for entirely the wrong man.
And Virgil was... disguised as Saint Thomas of India, who would surely attract attention even if it were the middle of the day and he were there on legitimate business. What the hell had Virgil been thinking?
"What the hell were you thinking, Virgil?"
"What do you mean, mate?"
"How is Saint Thomas of India being discreet? Who's going to fail to notice Saint bloody Thomas of bloody India on a surveillance tape?"
"Who's going to believe it, mate? They'll look it and go, 'that can't be right, mate, no way is Saint Thomas of India running around here at night,'"
"Yes, Virgil. Which is why they'll know it wasn't bloody Thomas, and they won't be looking for him. They'll be looking for the guy who hired the disguise. Where did you find it anyway?"
"Nicked it from the kid's school. They're doing some Bible story for Easter."
"Yes mate?"
"Who let you have a kid with them? Could they not run away?"
"Leave it out mate, I've been married twice. Got kids from both marriages."
"God help us all, Virgil, but please tell me you're not responsible for bringing them up?"
The bushes around them darkened, and Damian looked up while Virgil looked hurt.
"Forget it Verge, the moon's covered. Let's mosey."
The two men raised up into a crouch and scurried through the bushes to the fire door, and Damian produced a small keyring with three keys on it. His contact on the inside knew that one of the keys would open the door, but not which one, so it was a case of trying all three. Damian swallowed hard; this was it. Through the door, up the stairs on the left, and into the Monsanto labs. Where there would be prizes for the taking.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Keeping the secret

"We need strong cryptography to protect our secrets, particularly email and our online EPMS. As it stands, we've got a single password protecting most of our files, and if you can get onto the CONserver you can read just about anything anyway. We need to update, and swiftly."
Sylvestra looked up from Vogue and made a moue. "Whatever you like, Doc.," she said, marking her place on the page with a long finger. "I thought the password was pretty secure though."
"It's only secure at all because we let the Green Lightbulb choose it," Dr. Septopus said, clacking his beak to show his irritation.
"Hah! Then you mean it's only secure because no normal person would think of it!"
"I honestly doubt a normal person could even spell it. Do you think that maybe his kind of illiteracy is part of his superpower?"
"I try not to think about him. Ever." Sylvestra screwed her face up in distaste, and returned to her magazine.
"Fine," said Dr. Septopus, carefully not voicing his agreement with her. "Well then, I shall organise the crytographic protocols tonights and issue you all with your individual and unique passphrases tomorrow."
"I think you mean parrot-harnesses," said the Green Lightbulb from the doorway. He came in as the other two looked up, and sat down at the round table in the centre of the Chamber of Nastiness where the Council met.
"Do I?" said Dr. Septopus, looking perplexed.
"Well yes," said the Green Lightbulb. "I've ordered parrots for everybody. They're like a kind of secure experiental storage faculty."
"...experimental?" said Dr. Septopus quietly, his face wrinkled in thought.
"...external storage facility, I hope," said Sylvestra, laying down her magazine. "How are they secure? Surely they can just fly away."
"They will bond with their owners," said the Green Lightbulb. "That's why we need parrot-harnesses. And then you tell them things that need to be kept secret, and they remember them for you, and repeat it back to you when you need it."
"I thought parrots repeated back things to anybody?" Sylvestra hid a smirk behind a hand.
"No, Sylvestra, we train them to only talk to their owners. And friends of course, so you can send messages to your friends by parrot. Like instant massaging, only cooler."
"Please let him mean messaging," muttered Dr. Septopus.
"How do you stop other people from overhearing what the parrot's saying?" said Sylvestra.
"Stop baiting him!" Dr. Septopus sighed and attempted to get the conversation back on track. "I meant passphrases, Green, for the increased security measures for email, the EPMS and the CONServer."
"I shall probably give up email in favour of parroting," said the Green Lightbulb prissily. "What EPMS? Or a CONserver?"
"EPMS is our Evil Plan Management System, and the CONServer is the Council of Nastiness's Server. It's hosted in the Cayman Islands, you know. The passphrases will all be about 2000 characters long, and there'll be a small... procedure to put it somewhere safe."
Both Sylvestra and the Green Lightbulb blanched at the word procedure.
"What?" said Dr. Septopus seeing the fear around the table.
"What kind of procedure?" said Sylvestra, closing her magazine. "This isn't going to be another... insertion, is it?"
"Oh no, nothing like that! You'll need the passphrase somewhere where you can read it, but no-one else can get at it. It'll be tattooed on the inside of your eyelids. That way, when you die we can just cut your eyelids off and still be able to access all your legacy data."
"That sounds painful," said the Green Lightbulb.
"What do you mean, when I die?" said Sylvestra.
Silence fell around the table for a few moments, finally broken by the Green Lightbulb.
"Can I kill the tattooist?"
"After he's done all the tattoos."

Sunday, 24 May 2009

Desdemona Fylkes

Desdemona, known as Desi to her lover of five years (Katrina Walsh), and known as Demon to almost everyone else, is in her early 30s. She is broad, but not fat; she played rugby at school and swims five times a week now. She would still play rugby but Katrina makes too much fuss about it.
She has shoulder-length black hair that often looks a little greasy and always looks uncared for. She ties it back in a queue (pony-tail) sometimes and has tattoos on both arms, all above the elbows. When she's swimming the tattoos are clearly visible, and the other swimmers tend to avoid her when they can.
She co-owns Lazy Sunday which she uses as a money-laundering front. Katrina is left to run it, and Desi knows on an unconscious level that the shop means a lot more to Katrina than it does to her. She finds the concept of incipient antiques risible and doesn't hide her sarcasm. Katrina's suggestions of finding new suppliers or going antiquing are usually met with excuses.
Desi provides muscle and business acumen to the partnership. Katrina provides sales skills and enthusiasm, and is utterly ruthless.
They also own half a racehorse, called Born to be wild, who Desi refers to as Born to be glue. They have a part share in a tomato farm co-operative that produces marijuana-tomato puree on a small scale for the locals. It serves as a tax shelter and a convenient staging point for the import of immigrant workers.
Desi likes to wear suits, particularly in her favourite colour (green), but will attempt to feminise them with overly ruffled blouses or heavily floral ties.

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Katrina Walsh

Katrina is blonde and petite. Her hair is short and spiky, usually gelled into place. On the rare mornings when she's hungover she won't gel her hair and it will lie atop her head like a cornfield beated down by heavy rain.
She wears clothes she's made herself as a preference although she has a very few purchased items, typically gifts from people who've seen her usual clothes. She had more enthusiasm than ability for tailoring and her clothes are often asymmetric, badly stitched and sometimes falling apart. Katrina pretends not to care, but is very sensitive to criticism of her apparel and will attack people behind their backs for noticing that her clothes aren't perfect. (Or even adequate).
She's in her late 20s, likes Italian food, evening soap operas, small dogs that can be carried in large handbags and chilli-laced chocolate. She dislikes management of any kind, women's fashion magazines (which she thinks show unattainable creations of Frankenstein couture), and spending longer than 40 minutes watching films. She has to go to the cinema by herself because she sets an alarm on her mobile to go off at 40 minutes, when she walks out.
Katrina is joint owner and proprietress of Lazy Sundays, an incipient antique shop. It sells mostly ceramic junk, all of which she claims will be antiques when it gets older. The clientele is mostly women of a certain age, lesbian friends of hers, and the occasional bemused tourist.
Her co-owner and co-proprietress is Desdemona Filkes (pronounced Fikes), who is also her lover (five year relationship). Katrina refers to her as Desi, most other people call her Demon. The pair also own a small nightclub, half a racehorse, and have a majority stake in a co-operative farm that grows organic tomatoes.