Friday, 30 September 2011

The book of miracles

Isabella Bonfontaine half-smiled.  That is, half of her face smiled, but the other half remained fixed, immobile.  The effect was slightly disconcerting, at first I thought she was mocking me.  Then I wondered if perhaps she only half-agreed with what I'd asked her for.
"I had a stroke when I was younger," she said, her voice deep and soft like a nineteen-twenties film star.  "I lost some muscle control in the side of my face.  It doesn't bother me."
The unspoken question, does it bother you? hung in the air for a few moments and then evaporated as I decided it didn't.
"I had a cat when I was younger," I said.  "It got run over by a truck.  On the whole, I'd say you did better."
She half-smiled again, and I smiled back, and although it was clearly just my imagination, the room seemed a little lighter for the rest of our conversation.  Isabella leaned back, nestling her shoulders comfortably into the padded cushion of the banquette and laid both her hands on the table.  I looked at them; they were short, spatulate, functional hands, engineer's hands as my mother would have dismissively described them.  (Though for all her obsession with hands, seeking out long, elegant, musician's hands, the woman who strangled her had the ugliest, wartiest, hairiest hands I'd ever seen.)  She was wearing rings on two fingers on each hand, each ring a simple metallic band with a different intaglioed design.
"You're looking for a book," she said.  I nodded.  My satchel, a hopelessly fashionable courier's bag made of pre-aged brown leather that I'd hoped would impress her, was next to me on the seat, and I opened it to remove a piece of A4 paper onto which I'd written what I knew of the book.  Isabella said nothing, watching me with bird-bright eyes, and accepted the page when I offered it to her.  While she read it, I closed the satchel up again and hid it under the table.
"The book of miracles," she said a few moments later, and I looked at her, puzzled.  "It's what you've described here," she said.  I noticed that only three-quarters of her lips moved when she spoke, and she slurred, very slightly, a few words here and there.  "This is the – well, a to be precise, book of miracles."
"You know this book then?" I was genuinely surprised now, as the antiquariats I'd consulted had all shaken their heads, laughed, and told me I was being deceived.
"I know of several books of this general form," she said.  "They list miracles that have happened, and give precise instructions on how to repeat them.  They're usually quite interesting, and of course, quite valuable to the people who own them."
"Can you get me one?" I said, leaning forward now, my arms on the table and my stomach tensed.  Isabella laid the paper back in front of me, forcing me to sit back a little to make space, and suddenly I realised I could smell my own sweat.  I sat back further, now embarrassed.
"I can pay.  I can pay well," I said, mentally wondering how many life insurance policies I could cash out in a hurry.
"You misunderstand," said Isabella, that half-smile playing around her lips again.  "I can't get you a book of miracles because they're no use except in the places they're kept.  One of those instructions for recreating miracles is invariably that the miracle happen where it happened the first time."
"Oh." I waited, she seemed to suggest there was more to say.
"I can, however, take you to one of these books, and what you choose to do then is up to you."
"When can we leave?"

Part 2

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Disasters and other experiments

The headline hadn't caught his attention, but the first line of the article had.  "Disasters and other experiments carried out by the aluminum industry..." it started, and he'd had to stop and buy the paper.  Then, knowing that he was now twenty-seven seconds behind schedule, he'd hurried up, pushing through the people trying to get to the tube-station, elbowing men, women and children aside, waving his Oyster card gracelessly at the reader, and half-running down the escalator.  He reached the platform three seconds ahead of when he normally did, so he stopped, arranged his tie, and then walked along the platform to his accustomed spot, where the train would stop and open doors right in front of him.  It was important to get these things right.
He read the first line of the article again as the train closed its doors and pulled away from the station, leaving behind the light and barrelling into the darkness.  The carriage shuddered, the lights flickered, and the wheels screeched against the track as it cornered, then it settled down again.  The article was disturbing.
Not least for the American spelling of aluminium in a British newspaper; he was aware that some misplaced sense of journalistic integrity had probably impelled the writer to keep the spelling the same as the report they were quoting from.  But the lack of a comma after Disasters – now there was as issue.
Because, as he was very well aware, a certain sector of the aluminium industry (well, aluminum, he allowed in the privacy of his head, because it was after all American-owned and -funded) was very definitely conducting experiments with disasters.  The public weren't supposed to know about it though.  Most of the people involved in the experimental disasters didn't know that they were part of an experiment.  Even the analysts who looked over the rubble afterwards, collected data and drew conclusions rarely knew that what they were looking at had all been carefully orchestrated.  Now and then an unusually percipient investigator – usually a woman, though they'd not identified why yet – would note that there seemed to be rather more data than she might have expected, or that surprising care had been taken in preserving records prior to the event.  But that was expected, and there was a protocol built in to each experiment now to deal with that.
He decided he'd prefer not to think about the protocols.  They were long documents, very carefully protected.  No-one connected with the documents wanted to find themselves answering questions about them, whether in a board meeting, a news conference, or a court room.  There were sections... entire pages, actually, in those documents that no-one was proud of.  That no-one actually wanted to have to carry out.  But had been on at least –no, he really didn't have to think these thoughts.
He looked back at the article and its damning first line.  The journalist would have to be found.  His grammar evaluated.  Possibly interrogated.  To find out why the comma that should have come after the word Disasters was missing.
The wheels of the carriage screeched again as it rounded another corner, and lights appeared outside the windows again as the train came into the station.  He stood, and exited the train, waiting for exactly two people to leave before him, and then overtaking them with quick, meticulous steps on the platform.  This was a reasonably high underground station and there were stairs to exit rather than lifts or escalators, and he took them two at a time, his long legs allowing him to stride up them without running or seeming anxious.  Appearing calm at all times was important.
There were people already at the gates to the tube station, and men dressed as police were starting to turn people away from the station approach.  The public were as always, mostly moving away with the occasional protest.  Foreign exchange students seemed to have most difficulty with the concept that the station could just be closed like that, at a peak time, and the British would simply locate an alternate route and wander on, thinking about how they'd present this importunation when they spoke to their family or colleagues later on.
He walked out of the station and checked his watch; exactly on time.  Behind him the gates rattled shut and he heard the click as they locked.  There was no outcry yet, the other passengers would still be looking to see what was happening and what they were supposed to do next.
He sighed, and made himself turn round.  He didn't want to, but protocol required that there was an eyewitness for this disaster experiment.
He waited, his fingers resting lightly on the dial of his watch so that he could feel the tiny pulse of each passing second.  Four to go.  Three.  Two.  On–

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Letters of the Eidolon Queen

The librarian at Crécy hated me.  It was, as far as I could tell, one of those instinctive things, like when you meet a dog for the first time and it snaps at you, or when you pick up a baby and it starts bawling.  With the dog you can usually befriend it with patience, calm and the occasional savoury treat; with the baby I've always found it best to hand it off to the nearest person with the comment that it needs changing, but with the librarian at Crécy I was at a loss.
He was handsome in a certain light, which he clearly understood as his desk was situated in front of the window in such a way as to present him at his best.  His profile was sharp, his nose a little too angular for any but a Roman I think, and his chin needed just a little more jut to it to make artists weep and bite through their palettes.  He dressed well, though obviously on a budget, and his hands looked cared for; long-boned fingers that delicately caressed books as he tended to them, flickered over the keyboard of his computer like a virtuoso pianist, and folded themselves implacably in front of his stomach, just below his rib-cage, whenever I asked for anything.
"I am sorry Mr. Debraun," he said, his voice soft, hovering just at the threshold of audibility, forcing me to lean closer to him than I felt comfortable with, "but that book has been borrowed by one of our patrons."  Or, "I am sorry, Mr. Debraun, but that book is currently off the shelves for repair.  Might I make a note that you'd like to be informed when it's available again?"  Or "I am sorry, Mr. Debraun, but that book is restricted and it would seem," and here he would make a point of calling up my details on the computer screen, "that you have not been granted privileges to view it."
I woke from dreams once or twice a month where he was stood just off to one side of me, one long-boned, delicate, hand gesturing to a burning bookshelf, saying in his quiet, unemotional, uninflected manner, "I am sorry Mr. Debraun, but I'm afraid we've decided to burn all these books rather than lend them to you."
So it was with a heavy heart that I looked at my writing and realised that to complete my argument I would need to refer to a book I didn't have a copy of in my study.  The Letters of the Eidolon Queen was sufficiently rare that I'd been beaten out of the bidding on the last three copies to come to auction, and there were known to be only eight or nine copies still around.  The British Museum was supposed to be carefully transcribing it so that they could make a limited re-publication run of it but the timescale for that was being measured in decades, and though my research could hardly date in that time my reputation would surely wane.  I put my favourite flat cap on, then took it off again, recalling the prim disapproval I'd received from the librarian when I'd tried entering the library wearing it.  Then I put it back on, feeling that if I were going to be turned down at least I could be defiant.  Then I took it off again.
When I arrived at the library I took it off and stuffed it in my pocket, my courage quailing at the last.  I tapped lightly on the door, and pushed it open.  There were twenty feet of muted green carpet between the door and the librarian's desk, and I could see him sitting there, gazing thoughtfully at the screen of his computer.  I nearly turned aside and went to the card catalogue, but I knew that even if I could find it there I would still have to come to him to request access to it.  It was far too valuable to be left on a shelf, even if all the patrons of the library were required to be members and undergo some fairly extensive background checks before being admitted.
The librarian looked up only when I had been stood at his desk for thirty seconds.  I stood in silence, fearing immediate rejection if I interrupted what he was doing.  He looked at me, unemotional as ever, and I swear that for a moment, for the first time, I saw a distant spark in his eyes, a trace of humanity I was sure he suppressed.  He folded his hands across his stomach, and I saw that two of his fingers on his left hand were bandaged together.  He saw me notice, and an eyebrow so immaculately presented that it had to have been combed just that morning arched fractionally.
"Your hand?" I said, forgetting what I'd come for.
"I am sorry, Mr. Debraun," he said, "but my hand is not part of the library's stock and so may not be borrowed."
"No, I meant, what happened to it?" I stuttered a little at the start, which he affected not to notice.
"A slight accident," he said.  "There are many things in a library that are more dangerous than a patron might realise.  Books can be astonishingly heavy, for example."
"Ah."  My small talk dried up, as did my mouth as I realised I now had to make my request.
"Um, I'd quite like to borrow The Letters of the Eidolon Queen," I said, struggling over the word borrow as my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth.  "For my research, you understand?"
"I am sorry, Mr. Debraun," he said, and I was nodding already, scarcely listening.  "but that book may not be taken out of the library and may only be read while at least one librarian is present.  I can bring it to the Derleth Reading Room in fifteen minutes, if that suits you?"
I stared at him as what he'd just said sank in, and then I nodded, stammering my thank-yous.  As he walked away from me to collect the book I wondered just how dangerous it was if he was willing to let me look at it, and then I recalled that he hated me.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Why are you here?

Ah!  You!  I wasn't… I mean, you're early.  I think.  Actually, no, I don't have any names down here on the allocations register… why are you here?
Well yes, I suppose it is your office, and if you want to take that tone with me, then yes I suppose you do have every right to be here.  I wasn't aware that they'd reallocated it though, they usually leave it a little longer after a death.
You didn't know about that?  Jonathon, I think, or was it William?  A boring name, and a boring little man.  He was still in here when they started fumigating the office and apparently chose not to leave.  Not a great loss, by any means, and I'm sure that if he tries haunting you it'll be more tedious than spooky, but there you go.
Why am I here?  Well, I'm Buddy, your emotional comfort in hard times, your unconscious ego, your spiritual guide to a well-lived corporate life.  I'm here to help you resolve what needs resolution and to show you the way forward when the only way up is down.
Are you ok?  You just repeated the same question again.  I've already told you why I'm here.  Oh?  Seriously, you're asking it a third time?
Fine, well then, why am I here?  As far as I can tell, this is karma, this is the universe's way of telling me off for things I've done in a previous life.  Lives.  What's the mass count noun for multitudes of lives?  Oh never mind, lots of previous lives, anyway.  My task now is simply to help other people see the choices ahead of them.  Much as I'd like to give you the order to fire… I mean, much as I'd like to ensure that you make the right choices, that's out of my hands.  All I can do is make sure that you're aware that you have a choice, and that sometimes, some choices are better than others.  Not that chair, it squeaks.
Why are you here?  Well, that's a harder question, and I'm assuming that you won't just be satisfied with the glib "It's your office, and Williathon or whatever his name was needs someone to haunt"?  I didn't think so.  Well, it's a cruel and uncaring universe out there, and there are various spirits that amuse themselves by shepherding people in certain ways.  So there are spirits that have classically been called angels who try to guide people towards opportunities in life, to push them to make choices that allow them to achieve things, either for themselves or for humanity as a whole, that improve the lot of the human race.  Bear in mind that these angels don't care about the people they choose; if they see that your death will result in an improvement of quality-of-life for millions of others, you'll be hounded to jump off a bridge, insult a mob-boss on his birthday, or develop an insatiable hunger for electricity.
Similarly there are spirits that have classically been called demons who simply desire to amuse themselves at humanity's expense, and they can have some very… sophisticated… tastes.  Fall foul of one of them and you might find yourself practising surgery in dark alleys with a rusty can opener.  Possibly on someone else.
Which am I?  I'm neither, I'm a spiritual guide and confidante, I'm someone who's used by other spirits, the neutral, overlooked spirits, to give people options.  Not that tie, you look like you're going to the opera.
Why am I here?  Again?  Today, mostly, I'm here because my last job, though successful, hasn't produced the right kind of ghost for the haunting we'll need here in a couple of weeks time.  Ah, you look worried now; how right you are at last….

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Juliet in drag

The Dying Duck used to be on the high road, at Anselm's Corner, but then they changed the road layout a little, and now it's on the short-cut between the high road and the old Croydon road.  The traffic going past has gone up by about 400% and the number of HGV's has quadrupled as well.  Donovan, the proprietor of the Dying Duck, talks moodily about the number of people on the council who don't like him, but he's not about to close the pub down.  Despite the 'new' location, despite the increase in traffic, and despite the fact that the toilets usually break at about 9pm every evening, he's got a full house most nights, and has to turn people away when the drag act is on.
The drag act is called Juliet.  She's tall, thin, cycles a lot, and absolutely no-one in the Dying Duck believes that she's anything other than a woman.  Donovan even complains now and then, usually to drunks at the bar, that if she's supposed to be a drag act he'd like to see in her drag sometime.  "Even if it's just one of those nineteen-twenties Lesbian suit things," he said.  "Like the missus used to wear when I'd gone and annoyed her again."
Donovan's missus is a woman of legend, not least because none of us have ever even seen her, let alone met her.  Donovan clearly can't run the pub by himself, and someone is definitely changing the barrels over of an evening, and cooking the pub menu (available between 5 and 7:30 only; chips are served in the house style and if you don't like it you can get out), but somehow they manage to stay invisible.  Now and then he refers to her in the past tense, but that soon passes and she's present in everything but body again before long.
Juliet strode onto the stage, two strides enough to take her to the centre, where the microphone was waiting.  She checked it, and found that as usual, it was unplugged.  She cursed, a string of blue-tinged epithets that could wake a sailor from his grave to stare and take surreptitious notes, and strode off stage again to plug it in.  No-one groaned, but there was that feeling in the air.  Juliet can't sing, but she feels that a drag act has to have at least one song in it, and despite all the hints that have been dropped over the last few years, continues to plug the microphone in and subject us to whatever she thinks is right for the night.  Lately it's been Harry Connick Jr, but I've been switching her sheet music for Tom Waites every chance I get.  I think there's at least some match between their voices.  She strode back on to the stage, and tapped the microphone, which popped obligingly, explosively.
"Lay-deez and Gennel-men," she slurred, "Welcome to the Dying Duck.  I shall be your whore for tonight, and you may call me... Juliet in Drag!"  There was a scattering of applause, which quickly cut off as she launched into "Autumn in New York."
Three minutes later and she halted, and the audience slowly, ready to reverse their movements at the hint of another song, pulled their fingers from their ears.
"I know," she said, sounding slightly more drunk than usual, "my singing's so astonishing that sometimes people forget to clap until the end of the next song."  I smiled; someone, somewhere laughed (sounding relieved), and she started in on the jokes, acid observational humour, and occasional embarrassing anecdote.
"Who is she?" said a man next to me, apparently talking to me.  I looked at him in case this was his opening line to start chatting me up: he was slightly shorter than me, besuited and be-booted, with a little Charlie Chaplin moustache that must take twenties minutes care every morning.  It looked waxed.
"She's Juliet," I said.  "She's the drag act."
"She's astonishing," he said, and I nodded carefully, wondering if he was talking casually or precisely.  'Do you know if she's got representation?"
"She definitely represents," I said, hiding a half-smile by reaching up to scratch my nose, "But if you're asking after her management, I think you'd have to talk to her herself."
"Right.  Where's her dressing room?"
I checked my watch, it was half-past eight.  I reckoned the toilets would break before she left the stage, so she'd have to get changed round the back in what used to be a beer garden before Donovan decided he'd go all Time Team on it.
"I'd just take her elbow as she leaves the stage, mate," I said.  "Carefully though, it's sharp and she knows how to use it."
He looked a little blank, and I started to wonder if he was in the right place.  "Who are you, friend?" I asked, squeezing his bum gently by way of a hint.  It was completely lacking in muscle tone, and he flinched like I'd goosed him.
"I'm Romeo," he said.  "Romeo Malparaisant.  I –"
"Went to school with Simon Cowell!" I forgot myself and squeezed his bum again, and regretted it again.  "I hope you bullied him."
"How... how do you know that?"
I was saved from answering by Juliet shocking the life out of me, so much so that I actually fell backwards and had to be caught by a fireman I had no idea was standing behind me.  While I was trying to find an excuse not to stand up without his help again, Juliet finished her announcement.
" conclude this evening I'm trying a new song: Romeo is Bleeding, by Waiting Tom."
"So close," I murmured, and the fireman, misunderstanding, pulled me in.
As Juliet finally sang a song whose extent matched her vocal range, Romeo Malparaisant headed to the stage to try and make a star of her, and I swooned a little more dramatically than I really needed to.  Somewhere behind the bar Donovan dropped what sounded like a dishwasher tray full of glasses, and what could only the voice of his legendary wife boomed down the stairs demanding to know what idiocy he'd done this time.
It was, by far, the strangest night ever at the Dying Duck.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Life is worth exploring

No don't get up.  Stay seated.  This is your office after all, and may I say what an interesting office it is?  I may?  Oh thank-you.  I particularly like the claw marks on the legs of your desk, do you perhaps have an ill-trained cat?  An ill-trained secretary?  I see.  I see.
Who am I?  I'm Buddy, of course, your existentialist guide to the solipsism of inner-things.  I'm completely qualia-qualified and I know things about your id that would make your super-ego blush.  I'm also being paid for by your Company, who feel that you could use a life-coach.  At least in part because, it says here, that you leave the office so infrequently that there are suspicions that you're living here.
What?  I believe that your company policy is to fumigate the building if that's found to be true.  No, it probably wouldn't be very good to be caught in here while that was happening.  No, I'm pretty certain all the windows are sealed, in order to protect the air-conditioning.  Well yes, it is a good job you don't live here then, isn't it?
But still, your swipe card record says you came in two weeks ago at 11am and haven't left since.  Are you not aware that life is worth exploring?
Life is very much like an African safari.  It seems initially that a good one is something that only happens to other people, generally people rich enough to be able to go to Africa and take such a safari, while you are left with the urban version where you see a fox, two badgers and a squirrel while being mugged by a thirteen year old who's trying to get more credit for their stolen pay-as-you-go mobile phone to call phone-sex numbers while their mother is getting blind-drunk in the living room and their father is screaming imprecations at the greyhounds down at the track.  But it's simply not true, everyone is on an African safari if only they'd explore life a little further.  The Big Five are out there, waiting to meet you, if only you turn the right corner at the right time.
Who?  No, the Big Five are the five large game that they have in Africa: Elephants, Rhinos, etc.  No, not ostriches, who told you that?  Well I wouldn't trust National Geographic if you got to it via Wikipedia.
Consider this: just three days ago I was on the high street out there and I decided that I could take the back roads rather than the main road.  There was no real reason to do this, it would almost certainly take longer, and the shop I intended to get to was actually located on the high road, but I wanted to take the opportunity to explore life a little, so I turned right at the roadworks instead of walking round, and took a road I'd looked at in passing many times, but had never actually ventured down.
The road went round a corner, and then round another.  It was residential, and the houses hid themselves behind privet hedges and creosoted wooden fences.  Bedroom windows curtained with nets peered cyclopeanically at me – yes, it's a word thank-you – and somewhere in the distance I heard a roar.  No, it was a motorbike starting up, there are no lions roaming the streets here.  Which is a pity, it would certainly help keep crime down in the inner cities.
The road turned again, and I saw an old Ford Cortina rusting at the kerbside like a dead hippo slowly rotting in the shallows of a river.  A little further on the road branched and again I took the side road, hoping to find somewhere else I'd not seen before.  I took a chance that it might be a dead-end, one of life's little cul-de-sacs where you can pause for a moment, breathe deep, then turn around and carry on your way.
What are you doing?  No, breathe deep was a metaphor.  I don't think the air tastes funny.  Now, where was I?
Oh yes, I took the side road, and after a short distance it was partially blocked by those little metal limbo gates they put everywhere to try and kill unsuspecting cyclists.  I jinked left and right, sashaying my hips in a way that would make a salsa dancer weep, and came back out onto the high road, just above the shop I wanted to visit.
I was delighted that I'd explored life and seen the hippo... I mean, car.  I was pleased to see that people lived beyond the high road, that there was a life out there that, with a balaclava, a knife and something to break windows, I could be part of.  As could you.
You've gone a very funny colour you know.  Hello?  Hello?
Huh.  I think they've started fumigating the office already, I was sure that wasn't due until seven.  Oh drat, I'd better leave then.  Are you coming?  No?  Oh well, suit yourself.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Still beneath La Greche

Something crunched under foot and Rosco immediately dropped into a fighting stance; his knees bending, his centre of gravity lowering, his feet swivelling apart to improve his balance.  His eyes felt tight as they still tried to focus on the nothing in front of him, his brain insisting that there couldn't really be no light.
"Ha. Ha."  The whisperer's voice sounded hoarser now, and his (her?) speech was slowing.  "A fighter, are you?"
"How can you see me?" said Rosco, his head turning, listening intently, trying to work out which direction the voice was coming from.
"I can feel.  Your.  Heat."  whispered the voice.  "It is.  Much.  Strong. Er.... Than so many–"
"Enough!"  Rosco could feel sweat forming on his forehead, and a droplet of it rolled down the back of his neck, surprisingly cold.  His inability to see was frustrating and scaring him, and the laboured struggle of the whispered to get any words out set his nerve ajangle.  "I'm hot, I get it."
The whisperer laughed again, a dry, rustly and surprisingly dirty sound.  "Egotist," he (she?) said.
Something futzed and a weak light spilled out from Rosco's helmet lamp, revealing the wall near his face once more, the rope coiled on the floor, and the gritty black sand on the floor.  He stayed tensed in his stance, suspecting that the whisperer wouldn't move until the light gave out once more.
"These bones," he called out.  "I can't see any."
"You're not near.  Them." came the reply.
Rosco looked around, moving his head carefully and smoothly, hoping not to cause the light to turn off again, and was rewarded with the persistence of the beam.  The cavern extended off to his left and in front of him, but behind him and to his right was a natural corner of rock.  Wondering how safe he really was he picked up one end of the rope and edged his way to the left, determined to be able to find his way back if his light went out again.
Eight steps were enough for the first bone to come into view; a long bone, heavy looking, with a ball-joint at one end and tatters of flesh still clinging to it.  It was abhuman, but more disturbing were the evident teeth marks all along it.
"Is that enough. For. You?" gasped the whisperer.
"It's a bone," said Rosco, reaching out slowly, still tense, still ready to spring.  He picked the bone up with his free hand.  It was heavy, but not as heavy as the broadsword he'd trained with, and the length was similar.  "Perhaps it's even a weapon."
"Do you think.  That.  It's.  Enou–"
"Enough of a weapon?  Against someone who can't get three words out without running out of breath?"
Again, that papery laughter, like a moth were fluttering giant wings from where it perched on a rose-coloured wall.
"Why would an. Attacker.  Tell. You–"
"Oh crap."  Roscomboltin carefully swivelled around, but the small circle of light still showed no signs of anyone else, or even any more bones.  Somewhere – he still couldn't locate it – the whisperer chuckled to itself, and then, back where the other end of the rope was, the rope suddenly went slack as though the rest of it had been picked up.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Coffee morning

She's thinking about her homework; she left the book on the breakfast counter instead of putting in her bag, and now she's thinking that if she hadn't done that, she could be doing her homework now.  It's boring, but it's surface level.  There'll be something more interesting a little deeper.  And so I push....
Ah, now we have something.  A figure, male maybe?  They usually are.  He comes into focus briefly and then shudders and hazes out again.  She doesn't want to think about him, which makes me all the more curious, so I push a little harder.
Ah, resolution at last.  It's not a man, it's a woman, a little older than her, wearing a bra and a skirt with toothpaste stains near the knee.  Ah, there's a toothbrush in her mouth as well, and a little foam on her lips.  She's leaning over the book on the counter, and spit-and-toothpaste are dripping on the book.
"Whatcha readin' this for, Marry?" she says.  "I thought we agreed it out; you're just clever enough as you are."
The woman hazes out again and a I feel a little pressure back.  She really doesn't like thinking about this woman.  I wonder about her name briefly, and then realise that with an American accent Mary can become Marry.
"I saw you looking over at me," says a light voice, just a hint of a tremor in it.  Someone nervous, not used to approaching strangers.  I open my eyes, and the girl whose thoughts I've been dipping into is standing on the other side of the café table, her satchel hanging loosely from her hand by its strap.  She's favouring her left leg, and to compensate she's tilted her head slightly to the right.  Her eyes are brown, wide and sparkly, and her skin looks soft.
"I looked at everybody, darlin'," I say, broadening my speech into a drawl, going for somewhere in the Deep South.  It was a stupid idea really, I can't keep an accent up for long, just like I can't keep myself from popping into people's thoughts for long either.
"I saw that too," she says.  "Is this seat taken?"  She gestures with casual indifference, someone who's sitting down because it's easier than standing.  Not yet inviting herself into my company, still waiting for an offer.
"Only by any as wants it," I say.  That doesn't sound right to my ears, so I throw a "Y'all" on to the end of it.  That sounds worse, but she doesn't seem to notice.  She sits down, shuffling the seat so that its rusted metal feet scrape on the scored tiles on the floor.
"I think I know you," she says now, leaning in to me slightly, her eyes raking across my face with an intensity that makes me sit back and sit up, stop slouching and start paying more attention.  There's something very intense about this woman.  "I think I dreamt about you.  Last night."
I force a smile, and then a laugh.  It sounds hollow, and I hope she doesn't notice.  "I should think you'd have better things to dream about than me," I say.  "I'm just passing the time here in the warm until they kick me out in the cold, and then I'll find another café and another coffee.  I sometimes think I'm just waiting here in this life holding a place for someone else, someone who's a little late to the party."
She's not listening, she's still searching my face, looking for something, so I dip back into her thoughts to see what she's looking for.
Oh sweet Jesus, she did dream about me last night, the dream is uppermost in her mind right now.  There I am, lying on my back on some kind of hospital gurney, strapped down at the wrists and ankles, and the woman with the toothpaste is leaning over me holding a knife of some kind.  She's saying something, but I can't hear what she's saying, there's too much noise, a siren of some kind, blaring like an emergency klaxon.  I look around, wondering where the woman I'm talking to is – people always inhabit their own dreams, whether they realise it or not – but I can't find her.  The toothpaste woman raises her arm and her sleeve falls back slightly, revealing a tattoo on her wrist, three numbers: 616.
"I dreamt you and I were in a library," she says, and I'll pulled back out of her thoughts to find that she's now looking down at the table top and talking to me.  Lying to me.  "You were showing me a book you thought I'd like."
"Well now, that can't be me," I say.  "I can't read, never have been able to.  My Mammie didn't feel that letters and numbers were entirely holy, for all that the Bible she slept with used them freely.  All that educatin' stuff was for God, and not for His children."
"The library is two blocks from here," she says, still not looking up.  "I thought... I know it sounds strange, but in the dream I really, really wanted that book.  Would you... would you mind coming with me?  It'll only take a few minutes, and perhaps that book is important to me."
She reaches out for my hand, and in doing so reveals her wrist.  A tattoo is there, the numbers 919.
"And how many names do you have?" I say softly, my voice barely more than the exhalation of air.
She looks at me, aware that she's somehow revealed herself without knowing how, and her face twists into a snarl.  She seizes my coffee cup and throws the contents into my face; the stone-cold coffee splashes like a fragrant wave on a choppy sea, and then I'm on my feet and running for the door.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Don't cry for me

The gate creaked in the wind, swinging on rusted hinges.  She'd meant to oil them today.  She'd meant to oil them yesterday too, and the day before that, and the day before that... the days all stretched back until they became a long dark tunnel that she'd been walking through forever.  The oil was on the shelf exactly where Homion had left it when he'd left.  All she had to do was stand up, get it, and oil the hinges on the gate.
She didn't stand up, just as she hadn't any of those nights in the past.  She was sitting down now, in a chair that her grandmother had bequeathed to her when she died, the only chair in the three-room hovel that she felt comfortable in.  The upholstery – she whispered the word to herself like a charm, Homion had hated her using words he didn't understand – was threadbare in too many places and coarse white stuffing kept pulling free and collecting on the floor, in the corners and underneath the broken-legged coffee table.  She should get rid of the coffee-table too.  Homion had brought it back one night from a bar, won in a poker game of all things.  It had stains on it that she'd never been able to scrub out and didn't match anything else in the room.  She'd throw it out right after she oiled the hinges of the gate.
She tugged her knees up to her chest and listened to the hinges creak.  The wind was getting up again, and bringing a breath of chilliness into the house with it.  She thought about staying here, sleeping in the chair again, but her back was hurting and it was always worse when she spent the night in the chair.  Tomorrow, at the Laundro-tastic, she was on the ironing duty and although it was easier than when she had to do the service washes, hauling piles of wet clothes from washer to wringer, and bending over sorting the whites and the coloureds – mustn't call them that anymore, she thought with a ghost of a smile on her face – it was still easier to do when she'd slept in the bed.
The bedroom was cold because one of the window panes was broken.  She didn't fix that, Homion did.  When he was here.  Three of the others were papered over to hold back the wind; he'd said that he couldn't get the glass.  She knew that the money had gone on flowers and trinkets for the woman he'd skipped out on her with.  The largest part of it had gone on a green brooch, as long as her thumb, made of some soft stone.  She thought it might have been jade.  It went with her eyes, not those of the woman he'd skipped out on her with.
The crib, still standing by the bed, was still empty, and her breath still caught in her throat when she saw it.  She added it to her list.  Oil the hinges on the gate, throw away the coffee table, burn the crib.  Burn the crib and all its horrible memories.
She lay down on the bed, not bothering to pull the stained sheet over her.  Another chore; take the sheets with her to the Laundro-tastic, Tuesday would be best when Laurel would be at her bridge club braying with her friends and saying stupid things like "Oh, three clubs, Ethel!  What were you thinking?"  Slip them into a service wash, get them nice and clean.
She couldn't remember the last time she'd seen them clean.
Oh wait, yes.  Before she'd caught Homion and that whore here, in her bed.
She rolled over, she needed to get to sleep.  The insurance company still hadn't paid out on the car, said they were investigating.  What was there to investigate?  Homion and the whore had skipped out on her and were drunk when they drove through the level-crossing and got stuck on the tracks in front of the train.  The police said so, they'd called her at the Laundro-tastic to tell her that her husband was dead.  She'd even remembered to cry.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Boom Boom Boom

I came home from the hospital on Friday evening feeling a little dopey.  They'd done what the attending doctor called 'A little light surgery,' with the kind of grin that is intended to make you think he's done this kind of thing so many times before it's like boiling an egg.  As my sister knows, to her cost, boiling eggs is harder than it looks, no matter how many times you've done it before.  Especially when someone has very cunningly syringed all the egg-white out and replaced it with nitroglycerine.  There was very definitely face on her egg by the time she was finished.  But the doctor was keen for me to think that this was straight-forward, and I was keen to get home in time to watch 'Demolishing Property,' an American reality-tv show where they secretly buy people's homes then demolish them in front of them in a series of increasingly unbelievable 'accidents'.  So I may have been a little pre-occupied, as, it turns out, was the doctor.
As the evening wore on, the drugs wore off, and I became a little more interested in what they'd done.  I knew that he was supposed to have been checking my pacemaker, and I prodded the stitches on my chest with the kind of morbid curiosity that causes us to pull scabs off when they're not yet healed.  Especially when they belong to the kids next door, who are guaranteed to scream and run to their parents.  I was surprised to find that it all felt a bit... lumpy under the skin.  And rather more solid than I remembered.  But then Demolishing Property restarted and a tree surgeon managed to 'accidentally' land a tree on the house, causing one of those little jumps in continuity that means they did more damage than they'd intended, and I was engrossed again.
I went to bed shortly after that, feeling suddenly tired and with a little bit of an ache in my breast-bone that I put down to the operation.
I woke up in the early hours of the morning to the drum-beat from 'The Lion sleeps tonight' thudding in my ears.  It's a song I particularly despise, so this was not a pleasant awakening.  As I lay there, wondering which neighbour was so rash as to incur my wrath, I suddenly realised that I couldn't hear anything other than the drum-beat.  And with that realisation came the far more worrying one: what I could hear was my blood.
I calmly placed two fingers on the artery in the side of my neck and took my pulse.  Then I took it again, slightly less calmly.  Without a doubt, my pulse was beating out the drum-line from that wretched song.  I sat up, and immediately felt dizzy.  As I did so though, I felt something shift very slightly in my chest, heard a faint click that might have been my imagination, and the drum-beat in my head stopped.  I leaned back against the pillows, tense and listening to see if it would start up again, my fingers hovering anxiously near my neck, ready to check if this was all just some horrible hallucination.  For long seconds everything seemed still and quiet.
Then the drum-beat from 'Tom Sawyer' started up, and without realising what I was doing, I let out a howl of anguish: Canadian prog-rock!  I checked my pulse and confirmed that if this was a hallucination, it was affecting all of my senses, and then wondered if I could live with myself if I had to listen to these awful songs all the time.
The phone rang then, its ring-tone of the opening of the 1812 overture tinny but welcome as a note of musical taste in my newfound aridity.  I answered it, and the voice on the end sounded surprised.
"Oh!  I thought you'd be asleep!"
"I was, but I was woken by something else.  Something... dreadful."  I can't resist the opportunity to be melodramatic.
"This is Doctor Steves, from the hospital?  We think there may have been a slight mis-adjustment during your surgery today."
"That would explain why I'm awake and near panic," I said.  "What kind of mishap, exactly?"
"Well, we seem to have misplaced my anaesthetist's drum-machine."
"And does your anaesthetist have execrable taste in music?"
"I can't really comment on that, but if it is currently connected to your pace-maker as we suspect, we'd like you to come back in to the hospital RIGHT NOW."
"Don't shout.  What's the hurry, anyway?"
"...He's got two drum-solos in there that reach 180 beats per minute."
I hung up and wondered what my chances of getting to the hospital alive really were.

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The cauldron Venus

"It's not canon," I said, pushing a chair aside with my foot.  The chair was intended for a very small child and made of cheap plastic, so naturally it tipped over instead of pushing, and I finally just kicked it out of the way.  My shoe just caught the rim of the seat, and it lifted into the air and almost floated across the room, where it landed on a beanbag with a soft splashdown kind of noise.
"But it's beautiful," said Bill.  "Look at her, arising from the cauldron, her hair twining around her to titillate the viewer..."  He sighed a little, and I shuddered.  Whenever Bill starts getting romantic I just know it's going to go wrong.  "Of course, it's not completely accurate, but I think we have to appreciate that the artist was creating a metaphor, something to enchant the soul, not educate the mind."
"Not realistic?"  I bumped a plastic table aside as I shuffled across the floor, and it too fell over.  I was starting to wonder if the children had similar problems with it.  Perhaps it was training to ready them for when they would be too poor to buy their furniture at anywhere other than a cheap IKEA rip-off shop.  I had a brief flashback to my mother screaming at me when I was a child not to put anything on the table because it would collapse and wondered why we'd had a purely ornamental table like that.
"If she were really rising from a cauldron like that, her hair would be wet," said Bill tilting his head to one side as he looked at the painting.  "And if I'm honest, there would probably be food residue in any cauldron back then, it's not like people kept cauldrons because they thought they looked nice.  That'd be like having a table you couldn't put anything on."
"Have you been to IKEA recently?" I said.  I'm used to Bill saying things that make it seem almost like he's read my mind; I put it down to us having worked together for so long.  I finally found a clear stretch of carpet and could walk without having to keep checking where I was putting my feet.
"She reminds me of someone...."
"Not another prostitute," I said, unable to keep the groan completely out of my voice.  "Didn't the last one steal that Lalique vase from you?"
"She wanted to borrow it," he said, sounding uncomfortable.
"While she went to Portugal, for an extended, indefinite, stay."
"I never paid her, you know."
"That doesn't mean other people didn't.  Just because you got a freebie from a tom doesn't mean she's not a tom.  And by the way, freebies from toms are usually STDs."
"Haven't you got that storeroom open yet?"
I sighed, finally having reached the far wall, and clicked a light-switch on and off in a quick pattern.  Something behind the wall screeched briefly, then something else ground against something metallic, and the wall slowly slid back.
"Why did we rent this room out to a nursery?"
"We figured the police would be reluctant to raid a place with so many small children in it."
"Well I think they're weeing in the machinery."
Bill picked the painting up, the Venus rising from the cauldron, and carried it across the floor, trampling the teddy bears, toy ducks and squeaky things I'd been so carefully stepping around.
"They're a good cover though.  I know what this reminds me of."
"Medea.  The story of Medea."
"Medea, in a nursery?  Dude, you're sick."

Monday, 12 September 2011

Job interview

"Come in, please, and sit down.  I'll have my secretary bring us some coffee – do you drink coffee?"
"Thank-you, but I don't drink."
"What?  Never?"
"I see.  Well, actually, I don't see.  How can you never drink?  You're not one of those luxovores are you?  I don't think I could hire a genetic freak like... I'm so sorry, do excuse me.  My... children use the f-word all the time and it just slipped out–"
"I am not a luxovore.  I am a mom-bot.  We do not drink, or eat, or defecate, or sleep."
"Oh.  Oh really?  Why are you here then?"
"I wish to apply for the job of accountant.  Your firm advertised it on Craigslist: professional and I submitted a resumé."
"We don't call them resumé's here actually.  Too few people know what the accent over the e is for, so they kept calling them resumes, and then no-one could work out what anyone was talking about."
"Curriculum Vitae then."
"Ah, dead languages.  Same problem.  We call them a life-story sheet."
"I submitted my life-story sheet to you via email, and you offered me an interview.  Here I am.  How am I doing?"
"...better than the last three applicants, disturbingly.  Your life-story sheet–"
"I have a copy here if you would like it."
"Thank-you, but I have one in front of me already.  Your life-story sheet is a little short, don't you think?"
"It is my life so far."
"Yes.  But all it says is where you were assembled, when you were reified, and that you've been a mom-bot for the last twelve years.  Where are your qualifications?  Where are your relevant experiences?  Where's your social media information?  Do you know how hard it is to google a individual mom-bot, even if they have provided their serial number and major and minor software revision numbers?"
"I am a mom-bot.  I can perform calculations as fast as any of your servers here, and much faster than any of your meat."
"I'm choosing to believe that you meant staff when you said meat."
"Is that a technical term?  I was 87% certain that you would not call them family."
"And how certain were you that I'd serve my staff up as a meal after two hours in the oven?"
"I do not understand the relevance of the question."
"No, well, you probably wouldn't.  Do you have any hobbies?"
"I take an interest in the hobbies of the people I look after.  I do not believe that accountants look after people, so I do not believe that hobbies are a relevant point of discussion."
"I see.  I see.  Tell me, what do accountants do?"
"They hold people to account."
"Right.  Look, I'll be honest with you, there are several more applicants that I have to interview for the job, and I don't think you stand the best chance of being picked for the role.  But, if I might make a suggestion, have you considered a career in law?  I think you'd be much more suitable for that...."

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Reporting from the trial

There has been mild excitement in London today as the artist Geraldinium Holmes entered court to stand trial. At least part of the excitement stems from the fact that few people seem to know what she's on trial for, despite the terms of her arrest and the charges being laid out in uncharacteristically clear fashion by the prosecution (Charmley and Inte-State, whose last case presentation confused the presiding Judge so badly that he finally sentenced their attending clerks to a six week intensive English course. This appears to have produced welcome improvements). Outside the court a small crowd had gathered, some artists, many purchasers of paintings by Geraldinium, and a small contingent of protestors for animal rights. The artists appeared to believe that Geraldinium was representing Art and that somehow they were all on trial with her as their proxy. The purchasers had a number of different opinions, ranging from this being a publicity stunt to the wild claim that she was on trial for actually being Muammar Ghaddafi (the person making this claim, an obese elderly woman smelling of turpentine, also appeared to think that Geraldinium was a man). The protestors were adamant that the trail should be about her dedication to the cause of animal cruelty and showed little interest in what the trial was actually about.
Inside the court, the trial was sparsely attended, with a few scattered journalists and some law students.  At the back of the room was a man who smelled and looked homeless, but who managed to persuade the court stewards that he should be allowed to stay.
After the initial statements of what the trial was about (the claim that Geraldinium Holmes either caused her assistant orphan-girl to kill herself, or was aware that she would make the attempt and did nothing to stop her, electing instead to photograph it for the purposes of creating commercial work from it), Geraldinium was called to the stand, and Mr. Charmley questioned her.
After twenty minutes, he gave up attempting to find out what her name was and why it was so unusual, and moved on to the details of the case.
"Miss Holmes," he said in an operatic baritone, "How did you come to take this photograph?" (Exhibit A, currently on display at the Walham Road Art Gallery, E1).
"I didn't," said Miss Holmes.  "It was taken by a motion-sensing camera that's set-up in a room on the third floor of my house."
"The picture is surely too well-focused and clear for that to be true!"  Mr. Charmley looked a little non-plussed but rallied well.
"It's one of seventy-six that were taken in the space of a single second," replied Miss Holmes.  "The others are not such good quality.  Which is why this one was chosen."
"And where are the other photographs, to substantiate your claim?"  Mr. Charmley was smiling at this point, in a way which, in other cases, has indicated that he is about to reveal a devastating truth.
"The police took them away," said Miss Holmes.  "I have a receipt, see?"  At this point she produced a receipt from her handbag, and Mr. Charmley looked as though he were about to kill someone.  His clerks edged away from him.
"Actually," he said, his words leaden and precise, "you send them out to seventy-five other people, didn't you?  With the message printed on the bottom, 'it could be you next'.  Didn't you?"
"No," said Geraldinium, yawning.  "I have the receipt here that shows the police took them away from me.  I don't know what happened to them after that."
There was much discussion and shouting at this point, until the Judge restored order and requested a viewing of the receipt.  He then retired for thirty minutes, and upon his return dismissed the case on the grounds that the prosecution had inadequate evidence to pursue it.  Mr. Charmley appeared apoplectic, and Miss Holmes had to be woken up from where she was sleeping on the floor in the ante-chamber to the court.
Outside the court there was a mixed reaction to the verdict, not helped by the artists and protestors both having gotten drunk and having a small battle involving the throwing of paint over each other.

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Julian's ruse

Daryn's mombot forced us to learn how to sing.  We were all up in his room watching him play 'Perfect Crime' on his console when the mombot came in and made us all go downstairs to the dining room to learn how to sing.  Since we'd not had a mombot for a long time, ever since Dad had her returned to the Yard for not cooking pasta properly, I didn't really know much about them.  I was a little surprised at how quickly everyone else obeyed the mombot's instructions.
"I don't want to learn how to sing," I said to Daryn as we trudged down the stairs, the mombot leading the way and dusting the balustrade at the same time.  "I want to play Perfect Crime.  I think I can see how to get past the guard dogs without shooting them."
"Yeah, but the mombot says we have to learn how to sing," said Daryn.  "How are you going to beat the dogs then?"
"I'll show you," I said.  "Can we sneak back upstairs?"
"No," said Daryn.  "The mombot will notice."

Dad looked up from his desk.  Scattered across it in hundreds of tiny pieces was a fishbot.  We'd never been allowed fishbots because Dad said they only rusted, so I didn't know where it had come from.
"What?" he said.  He didn't sound anything, not angry, not impatient, not interested.  He was just waiting for me to say whatever it was I had to say and then he'd get on with what he was doing.
"What's a Julian's Ruse?"
"A what?"  Dad looked slightly confused.
"A Julian's Ruse," I said.  "Daryn's mombot wanted us all to learn how to sing today, and it said that when we were all singing right it'd be Julian's Ruse."
"Julie Andrews," breathed Dad after several seconds of thought.  "Wilkins!"
"What's a Julie Andrews then?" I asked, but Dad wasn't listening to me anymore.  Instead, he'd found his phone amongst the fragments of the fishbot and was making a call, one of those work calls where he pushed just three buttons on his phone and then said code-phrases to the person on the other end to identify himself.
"The dog has barked at the pepper-plant," he said after a short pause.  Then, "No, I think its tyres need changing."  That seemed to satisfy the person on the other end because there was another pause and Dad relaxed a little.  Then, "Wilkins has started."
After that he waved me away and had a much longer conversation, but I still managed to catch some bits of it.  The bit where he was talking about us being forced to sing was weird, because it sounded like the person on the other end was describing it to Dad.

Daryn came to school the next day looking excited.
"They replaced the mombot last night!" he said.  "We've got a top-of-the-line version now!  It can play 'Perfect Crime'!  And it can get past the guard dogs without shooting them too!"
"Replaced it?" I said, but I knew who had ordered that.
"Yeah, I dunno why.  Mom said that it never happens, mombot's are never replaced unless you're rich, and Dad's been phoning people trying to find out what was wrong with the old one."
"Must have been a fault," I said.
"Yeah, that's what Dad says too.  But the new one's so cool!"
"Is it making you learn how to sing as well?"
"No, the new one's so much cooler than that.  It even got rid of the goatherd."
"Yeah, there was a goatherd that the mombot kept in a cupboard.  All he ever did was tell us how lonely he was though."

I ran a search later for Julie Andrews.  Then I ran a search for Nazis, and after an afternoon of reading, I realised why Dad has got so upset.  When I got home he was still at work though, so I logged onto his computer, connected through to the Yard with his password, and ran a search on Wilkins.
"File not found," was the response.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011


The gallery was half-full, which was several more people than were usually seen at an exhibition at this end of the city. The opening had been two days earlier, so there wasn't even any free food or wine to tempt people in. They were coming in, it seemed, because they knew who the exhibiting artist was: Geraldinium Holmes.
A young man hovered near her, looking hopeful. She was unscrewing a flower press, her concentration on it suggesting that she was hoping the young man would go away and stop trying to catch her eye.
"Er, Miss Holmes?" said the young man. He sounded nervous, and he started shifting his weight from one foot to the other.
"That's Mr. Holmes, actually," said an obese woman with flaking skin making her face look like she'd been snorkelling in parmesan. "I don't know why people can't tell she's a man."
Geraldinium looked up at that, and caught the young man's eye unexpected. She sighed.
"That's my old landlady," she said, gesturing at the fat, flaky woman. I've no idea what she's doing here, she used to regularly wash my canvases with turpentine and tell me that she was just keeping things clean. What do you want?"
"Um, I'm a reporter, with the Daily Meteor," said the young man. He shifted his weight again, and then seemed to be inspired. He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a flimsy paper rectangle which he handed to Geraldinium. "My card!"
"It looks like a taxi-receipt," said Geraldium, reading it. "Thank-you. Have a good day, don't let me keep you."
"Oh, no, you're not keeping me," said the young man, failing to stop Geraldinium from interrupting.
"I'm so glad, thank-you for coming."
"No, you see, my paper would like to do an article on you. And… and could I have my receipt back please? It's for my expenses."
"I don't like interviews," said Geraldinium handing the receipt over. "Why would yours be any different?"
"I only want to talk about your work. I think everyone knows about your private life now."
"Well, your twitter feed has been very explicit."
As the young man saw anger rise on Geraldinium's face like a mushroom cloud over Bikini Atoll, he realised that he should have asked about the twitter feed instead of making assumptions.
"Twitter feed? Is this some kind of bird joke I don't get? Because it had better be." Geraldinium's voice was grim and held the promise of pain for somebody. The young man handed his phone over wordlessly, the twitter app opened to Geraldinimum's alleged tweets. She scanned down them, her face turning thunderous.
"Who is Lady GaGa?" she asked at the end. "And why would I compare myself to her?"
"She wore a dress made of bacon," said the young man, "and she's very… herself."
"I see. Fine, ask your questions and quickly. I can see I have a twit to hunt down."
"They call themselves twitterers," said the young man, and hastily added, "but yours is probably more accurate in this case."
"What's this exhibit all about, really?" The young man had flushed and was almost stumbling over his words in an effort to finish and get away without causing any more trouble.
"Continuations of what?" The young man noticed that Geraldinium was opening the press at last.
"Previous works. For example, this piece here, Persephone in Decay, continues on from my previous exhibit Cheeseburgher."
"But this is a painting!"
"Cheeseburgher was a rat rotting in a jar of old cheese. How a painting continue a dynamic sculpture like that?"
Geraldinium smiled for the first time. "You actually do know my work! Well, this painting was made using only the contents on the jar from Cheeseburgher," she said.
The press opened at last, and inside was revealed a flat kitten.
"What is that?!" The young man sounded both intrigued and horrified.
"I call it Flat 31," said Geraldinium. "Flat 30 was where I lived with my ex-landlady and her pet."

Chicken soul for the soup

Madame Sosotris had blacked up for the occasion, and I was both fighting nausea over how she now looked and revulsion at the unavoidable racist overtones of it all. When she slipped on a couple of large, colourful bracelets and rattled them experimentally to see if they made enough noise I very nearly left. My moral sense told me I should do, my karmic sense told me that I couldn't stay here and disapprove without incurring some penalty from the universe, but my intellect insisted that I stay and watch, and see if what I had been told was true. If Madame Sosotris could truly add chicken Soul to the soup.
Madame Sosotris smiled, entirely to herself as she'd managed to get boot-polish in both her eyes when blacking-up and they were watering so much that she looked like she was crying in silence. I'd moved a couple of times, but she clearly still thought I was stood where I'd started – over by the copper pans – and kept turning that way to talk to me.
"Obviously," she said, her voice cracking slightly as she tried to do cheerful without having had enough practice, "we need a chicken for this recipe. Some people will tell you that they can make do with a catfish, and others claim that any living creature can be used so long as it is properly prepared, but catfish do not have souls and the point of this is to add flavour to the soup, not to overwhelm it with the taste of the soul. Chicken soul is delicate, and can add depth and subtle nuance to a well-made soup, whereas cat soul, for example, is pungent and tends not to work well without carrots. Which have no soul of their own, you understand?"
I nodded, having decided that if she couldn't see where I was I was less likely to be asked to help. She stood there, squinting, tears rolling down her cheeks so fast they were very nearly a continuous stream, and I told myself that her loss of sight and obvious discomfort had to be helping redress the karmic balance somehow.
"Right," she said, realising that I wasn't about to give myself away by talking, "pass me the chicken!"
The chicken was sat on the counter in front of her, its ankles chained down to a chopping board. I felt momentarily queasy as I wondered what kind of cook required a chopping board that had attachment points for manacles, and then another pang as I wondered what kind of cook also had the matching manacles, and when they passed I stepped silently forward, jabbed my finger firmly into the chicken, and stepped back again. The chicken clucked angrily and looked for something to peck, just as Madame Sosotris reached out towards the sound of the cluck. The chicken's anger was lost in the torrent of swear-words that no-one calling themselves a woman should be able to use with such adroitness.
Madame Sosotris tore a length off her neck-scarf and wrapped it tightly around her pecked finger, tying it off with a neat little knot and almost no ends left over to get in her way. I was impressed, but still felt it was better not to say anything. Then, like a snake striking, she seized the unfortunate chicken by its neck and lifted it off the board to wring its neck. The chopping board was far too heavy though, and didn't even budge, so the manacles ripped the chicken's feet off as she twisted with a strength that her withered frame belied, and blood spattered over the entire counter as the dead bird swung to-and-fro. Its body spasmed a few times, and then something pale green and translucent seemed to breathe out of its body, arising around it like a diaphonous mist, so delicate it could almost have been a heat haze. Madame Sosotris must have sensed it, because there was no way she could have seen it with the tears still gushing from her eyes, because she dropped the chicken carcass and seemed to caress the air, her hands moving in sensuous, not-quite-geometric shapes, gathering and containing the essence that the chicken had lost. I guessed this must be the chicken soul and wondered why I'd never it before when chickens were killed.
"When the soul has been extracted," she said, and her voice was now thick and her words were slurring, "we infuse it into the soup. Where is the soup?"
I looked around. There was no sign of any soup on any of the surfaces, or even on the stove-top. Hastily I checked in the oven and the fridge, but there was no soup there either. There was also no food in the fridge, just several crates of beer and a bottle of gin. In the oven though, was a dead catfish on a dish, so I pulled that out and clattered it onto the counter in front of Madame Sosotris.
"Ah, good," she said, and lowered her hands. The barely-visible green mist sank with her hands and disappeared inside the fish as her hands lay flat on it.
"This isn't soup," she said, though there was doubt in her voice. "Is it?"
I couldn't answer before I'd asked myself what kind of soup she ever made that was solid and scaly, and not finding an answer I explained that there'd been no soup around so I'd used the catfish. On the plate, the catfish bucked under her hands.
"What?" She sounded nervous. "You can't put the soul of a chicken into another animal! You get zombie animals then!" The fish writhed in her grip.
"Right," I said, backing out of the kitchen door. "Er, I've just remembered, I left the kettle on back home. I'll see you later!"
As I raced through her living room, noticing as I passed that her tarot cards were spilled all over the floor and that there was a pot of cold soup sitting on her divining table, I could hear the start of a scream from the kitchen. I was fairly certain that this would karmically balance me for a while at least, but probably at Madame Sosotris's expense. And I wasn't at all sure I'd be able to repeat her recipe myself.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011


They'd told me that the broad was waiting for me. They'd told me that I'd recognise her straight off by the length of her long, blonde hair. They'd told me that there were two suitcases stuffed with fifties in it for me if I got her back safely. They said, specifically, repeating it loudly several times, that not a hair on her head must be harmed.
She was sat in the restaurant at the top of the Tower, the tallest building in the city. The restaurant was owned by one of those faux-celebrity chefs that only ever appear on the Food Network; people who think they're famous because they've no idea that the rest of the world is still out there. The food was listed as being quasi-home-made, and I have no idea what that means, but the menu was insipid and unappetising. The waiter made me spit me out after five minutes and told me that I supposed to order off it, not eat it. I told him he had five minutes to quit his job and get out of the building or I'd hunt him down and kill him. I showed him my appendectomy scar and told him that I'd smuggled a gun into the building by sewing it inside myself and I would dig it out with a butter-knife if I had to. He looked at me as though I were mad, but I didn't see him come back into the restaurant again.
The broad sat down opposite me, her hair trailing back to her own seat over on the other side of the restaurant and gave me the once-over. I gave her the once-over back and realised how royally I'd been screwed on this case.
"My name's Rapunzel," she said, holding out a hand. I checked it carefully; it was hairy.
"I'm the sucker they hired to get you out," I said. "How long have you been here?"
"Six years," she said, and her voice had a weariness in it I'd last heard from the patients in the cancer ward where I was reading romance novels as part of a community service sentence. "You're not the first, you know."
"I did my research," I said, "although not enough, it would seem."
"You can research me?"
"I can research the people who hired me, though they'd probably be very upset if they knew about it. What I needed to know that no-one told me was how long your hair is."
"They can be very... physical when they're upset." Her voice was as cautious as her words.
"How long is your hair now?"
"Twenty-five metres."
"How far can you walk?"
"I can't carry it any more. I can get to the door of the restaurant, but that's about it. And most of the day I have to have it piled up at shoulder-height or its too heavy to keep my head up. I sometimes wake up and find it strangling me in my sleep."
"And you've not considered a hair-cut?"
"That's not allowed."
We both fell silent, and I don't know what she was thinking but I was wondering if there was a way out of this mess that would let me keep my job and my looks. I had doubts. Big, big doubts that stood there dressed in neon, flashing lights and strobed like an epileptic light-house operator.
"Fine," I said finally. "We'll have to do this the hard way then."
She raised an eyebrow, which was, I suddenly realised, ridiculously thick for a woman.
"Like I said, I did my research," I said. "This hair thing, no-one can grow that much hair naturally. And not letting it be cut – well, you're no Samson, are you? So it's not cut because of some property it has while it's still attached to you, not because of something it is or it can become. And it can't be invisibility, or you'd have walked out of here all by yourself some time ago, when you still could." She was nodding, and I thought I saw a spark in her eyes. Hope, perhaps?
"Trouble is, there's not much in the literature about you," I said. "A couple of references here and there, but it looks very much like someone's tried to eradicate you, or at least, things like you. And I can't help but think that you might be the last of your kind."
She was still nodding, but carefully now, looking about us for people trying to eavesdrop on our conversation. I wasn't surprised, it was obvious that my employers knew who she was, and that her imprisoners didn't. That did make the hard way that much harder though.
"You're an Hirsution," I said quietly. "If I cut a single hair on your head it'll burst into rampant growth and quickly fill this entire Tower, won't it? It'll strangle all the occupants, and then rot away in a matter of hours, until there's just dead bodies and no evidence of how the murder happened?"
She'd stopped nodding now, and the wideness of her eyes suggested that no-one had guessed right before. I took the package from my inside pocket and discovered that the blood had soaked through the butcher paper and it was now dripping. I hissed with disgust, but she was leaning forward and hissing with delight.
"I told you I did my research," I said, holding the package out. She seized it, tearing it from my hands and ripping it open to get at the meat. "Goat meat, exactly what you need to transform."
She bit frantically into the steak, more blood running from the holes she made as she pulled and tugged at it, devouring it as fast as she could. Already she seemed hazy as though she wasn't sure she wanted to be human shaped.
I sat back and waited. I'd not been able to find any pictures of what an Hirsution looked like in their natural form, and I was curious. Reports of their inhuman strength were easier to find though, and this was my plan for leaving the Tower: kick down the doors, walls and anything else that got in our way. I offered a small prayer to anyone who might be listening and waited for the transformation to complete.