Saturday, 31 December 2011

Staff surgeon

The young mummies were taking up most of the beds in the Gorillamumps infirmary.  From what Jermander could gather, eavesdropping on Nurse Hearse's conversation with the staff surgeon, Nurse Hearse had a bad case of corpse-worms and the young mummies had been playing pass the parcel and come a little undone in the process.  The way she talked about it made it clear that the woman had sex on the brain and probably shouldn't have been working in a school, but Gorillamumps was unusual in many respects, and the corpse-worms would probably keep her celibate, if not chaste, for a while.
"And what are you here for?" said Nurse Hearse sharply, stalking back into the examination room.  She was tall and thin and had incredibly long arms, so long that she could actually touch her ankles without bending.  Her face was pinched and red, partly because she washed it every time she walked past a sink and partly because she was partial to the medical ethanol.
"I don't feel well," said Jermander reflexively.  It was a lie, he had already accomplished what he'd come there for.  While Nurse Hearse had been attempting to seduce the staff surgeon and, from the sounds of things, he'd been beating her off with a chair, Jermander had opened the basic medications cabinet and added a few drops from the Blistermas Herpes vial to everything in there.  He wasn't sure what most of it was for, but he was pretty certain it would all have the desired effect.
"Be specific!"  Nurse Hearse glared at him as though he'd told her that he had wet himself.
"Well, just after dinner in the hall today I started having these headaches," said Jermander.  "So I thought I'd better go and have a lie-down, only then I started getting all itchy as well."
"Dinner in the hall?  You're a vampire?"  Jermander nodded to each staccato sentence.  "You're also an idiot.  Dinner today included a side of roasted garlic."  Jermander had to stop himself nodding to that and giving the game away.  "Go away."
He left, glancing through the small head-height windows in the ward doors at the young mummies.  He had no idea if mummies could catch herpes, so it would be interesting finding out.
The infirmary building was one of many erratically laid out buildings that made up the Gorillamumps campus; their erratic layout was something Jermander had learnt quite intimately just a few days earlier when he'd clipped a wing on the Engineering building and then crashed face first into the Modern Persecutions block.  He'd had dizzy spells every time he turned into a bat after that, but he didn't want to tell Nurse Hearse about that in case she came to ask why he was flying so fast through the buildings in the first place.  Or, he thought now, decided to treat him from the basic medications cabinet.
He walked down the steps at the front of the building, and turned left, intending to go to the Singleton Quad and try turning into a bat again.  The Left-aligned Ancients of MuMu had their dormitory there, and eavesdropping on their conversations always made him feel like he'd just heard something deeply significant and yet impossible to fully understand.  He was quite surprised, then, when he almost walked into the staff surgeon.
"Watch it," said the staff surgeon, then recognising Jermander, "Wotcha!"
"Uh, hi," said Jermander backing off a little.  The staff surgeon, who'd never apparently shared his (or possibly her, maybe its) name with anyone was about three feet tall, covered in long, thin, greasy hairs that seemed to move in breezes that no-one else could feel, and had eight arms, all of which terminated in surgical steel claws.  Sometimes an arm had more than one claw at the end of it.
"You were just up in her office, weren't you?  Sweet Mephistopheles but that woman's unstoppable.  Did she try it on with you?"
Jermander wondered for a moment how desperate he'd have to be before the staff surgeon would look attractive to him, and then he realised what he'd been asked.
"Oh, no!" he said, slightly shocked.  "I don't think she likes me very much."
"You must be the only one then," said the staff surgeon, giggling in a way that suggested he/she/it might actually be drowning in their own mucus instead.  "Lucky you."
"What are corpse-worms then?" asked Jermander, figuring that he might as well ask someone who knew.  When the staff surgeon had finished explaining Jermander was glad that he wasn't capable of vomiting, sorry that he'd asked, and felt that he wouldn't be getting too close to any of the zombies for a while.
"So, what were you in there for then?" asked the staff surgeon.  "You don't seem ill."
"Food poisoning," said Jermander.  "I ate some garlic at dinner."
"Yeah, right," said the staff surgeon.  "And I'm a monkey's uncle."
Jermander considered this until he realised that his silence was telling the staff surgeon exactly what he was thinking.  "No, really," he protested.
"Doesn't bother me," said the staff surgeon.  "Whatever you're up to, it just means work for me, and I enjoy my job."  He snipped his claws like maracas and laughed in his horrible, gurgling, drowning way as Jermander flinched.
"Enjoy Janus-day!" he called as Jermander walked away, trying to look vampire-cool and not really succeeding.  Janus-day.  How could he have forgotten that it was almost upon them?

Reverend Bartle II

"Er, isn't that one of those martial arts?"  Reverend Bartle looked rather confused by Playfair's sudden change of tack, and Miss Flava sympathised.  She looked over at Calamity who'd by now dug up nearly half of the tomato plants.  At a guess, she'd say that a good half-a-morning's work had been reduced to so much scattered soil and half-dead plants.  The green, meaty smell of tomato plants drifted towards her, and she wrinkled her nose a little.  She'd never much liked tomatoes, preferring to hide them under salad leaves or pull them out of her egg-salad sandwiches and drop them in the bin.  From which Calamity would invariably retrieve them, if they were in the office, and then eat them.
"No.  That would make it respectable."  Inspector Playfair was definite.  "It's the art of re-arranging furniture for large sums of money.  And I use the word art, rather than science, to indicate in particular that it is funded solely by people who think that the effect something has is more important than the cause responsible for it and who can't see when a painting is, in fact, just the result of the artist having a seizure in front of a canvas while holding paint.  Rather than heal the poor bugger who's just chewed through eight tubes of paint they pay ridiculous sums of money for his canvas and hope he doesn't think of getting treatment himself."
"Er.  Right," said Bartle.  "So Feng Shui is redecorating with furniture is it?  Is that something you do at IKEA?"
"I hope not.  You're not a follower, or a fan of Feng Shui then?"
"Sorry, Inspector, I'm rather not.  I don't do much interior design, my partner looks after all that kind of thing.  I'm more of a cook and a gardener."
There was a pause while they both looked at Calamity who had now dug up all of the tomato plants and was frantically digging in the rockery, unearthing rocks, more soil, and the occasional tortoise shell.
"It looks like we might have to buy tomatoes this year," said Bartle with a hint of reproval.  Playfair ignored him.
"What's your opinion of the dead then?  You're a priest, right, you must have to do the odd funeral.  Do you play with the bodies a bit first?"
"What?!"  Bartle reddened and his eyes opened wider, he puffed his chest out and looked more than a little ridiculous in his dress.  "What are you suggesting, officer?"
"I think he's suggesting that you tampered with the evidence," said Miss Flava, who was turning over the tortoise shells with a foot.  They all seemed to be free of dead tortoise, fresh or decomposed, and there was no sign of the shells being broken into.
"What?" Bartle turned to face her now, still red in the face and his voice was increasing in pitch.
"How did you know it was a screwdriver sticking into his neck?" said Playfair, his voice suddenly soft and coercive.  "If all you could see want the handle, and the man was hanging, so necessarily higher up than you because he's got to be off the ground, and the ground's all soft with blood, so you wouldn't get too close; if all this is true, how did you know he had a screwdriver in his neck?"
Bartle stared at Miss Flava, then at Playfair, and finally at Calamity, who was now in a hole almost the same size as her and still digging.
"They told me," he said weakly.  "The policemen, when they came to ask me about things.  They told me there was a screwdriver in the side of his neck.  They wanted to see what tools I have, so I showed them.  I keep them all in the greenhouse anyway, and screwdrivers aren't really gardening tools, are they?  Where is you dog going, Inspector?"
"Down," said Playfair.  "Don't worry, she wont' dig so deep that she can't get out again.  So, you claim that you know about this screwdriver because someone else told you.  Why are you telling me about it like you saw it at the time then?"
"I didn't know this was an interview!  You just came over and let your damn dog loose to ruin my garden and started asking weird questions!"  Bartle was tripping over his words now and looked extremely agitated; his hands were trembling and he kept smoothing down the front of his dress, unconsciously rubbing mud into it over and over again.
"Calamity!  Car!"  Playfair's voice was stentorian, and Calamity lifted her head, regarded him for a second, then bounded out of her hole and galloped back to the car.  Miss Flava nudged the fifth tortoise shell into line with the others with her foot, and then strolled over to the car as well to open the door and let Calamity back in.
"I'll have more questions for you," said Playfair.  "But I'll need to decide what they are first.  Enjoy your gardening."
Bartle stared after them in astonishment, watching as Playfair made a stab at getting the driver's seat and was neatly cut-off by a very rapid Miss Flava.  He grimaced, but went back round the to the passenger side and got in there while Miss Flava made sure she was in the driver's seat before he'd even opened his door.  The dog, the enormous Rottweiler that had completely ruined his gardening, barked a couple of times, and then the engine started up and the car drove away, leaving him with no tomatoes, a huge hole in the rockery, and a ridiculous number of tortoise shells.  He was pretty certain that neither he nor the previous priest had ever even owned a tortoise.

Friday, 30 December 2011

Reverend Bartle

"Why are you wearing a dress?"  It would be unfair to describe Detective Inspector Playfair as snarling as then one would run out of words to describe his increasing levels of aggression too quickly.  The priest looked up, a little startled, and smoothed the front of his Jane Asher exclusive down.
"Do you like it?" he said.  "It's for the summer play.  We're doing Streetcar."
"Never heard of it," said Playfair automatically.  Miss Flava, stood next to him, and who thought that the priest seemed far too comfortable in the dress, equally automatically disbelieved Playfair.  She'd come to the conclusion that her boss worked very hard to give everyone the impression that he was like a wasp-stung bulldog on a short chain: ferociously aggressive and dangerously short-sighted, while in fact the brain of a classics scholar worked like a well-oiled machine in the background to discover the real facts of any given case.  All she had left to prove was the brain of the classics scholar was in fact his own, and she'd be free to admire him and his incredible depths of cynicism.
"Oh?  That's a shame, it's a fantastic play.  I do confess, I've been having to work on my Deep South accent a little for it though."  The priest giggled, and Miss Flava looked away, feeling a little uncomfortable.
"Right, Stanley," said Playfair.  "We're here looking for a Reverend Bartle.  Derek Bartle.  What have you done with him?"
"Oh, hah, that's me, I've done nothing with him!  Well, maybe hidden him in a dress.  Who are you?"
Playfair produced a bus pass, then his wallet, then a hip flask, and finally his warrant card.  "DI Playfair," he said.  "This here is the lovely Miss Flava, she's my gorgeous assistant and makes people disappear while I keep the audience entertained."
Miss Flava glared at Playfair and produced her own warrant card on the first try, since she kept it ready in an inside pocket.  The priest peered at both cards, and then at their respective owners.
"Yes, well that seems in order," he said.  "Perhaps I ought to change then, if this is official business?"
"It is, and don't bother," said Playfair.  "You're wearing more than some people I've interviewed in the past, and that's a relief.  Oh, Calamity!"
"What's the ma–" started the Reverend Bartle, but his words were lost as Calamity leapt on his back and pushed his face into the gardenias.  She leapt up at Playfair a couple of times, pawing the air and landing each time with her paws unerringly on Bartle's head.  After the first occasion he stopped trying to lift his head until the weight of the dog was off his back.  Miss Flava hurried forward to pull Calamity off, still wondering how the dog managed to do just what Playfair wanted despite that no-one ever saw him training her.
"Thank-you," said Playfair to Miss Flava as she hauled Calamity away from the priest and his now-awry gardenias.  "I'm sorry about Calamity," he said to Bartle.  "She does depend on the kindness of strangers."
"Urghh." said Bartle wiping compost from his eyes and mouth.  "That was... why is she called Calamity?"
"Calamity Jane, my favourite Crimean nurse," said Playfair.  "Why do you sign letters as Melpomene?"
"What?"  Bartle looked confused.
Playfair stared off into the distance instead of answering, looking at the length of the garden, the scattering gardening tools: tiny forks, trowels, lengths of dowel, string and unpotted plants waiting for embedding into the spring earth.  Beyond the garden was a cottage of sorts with heavy stone walls, huge doors and tiny, leaded windows, and behind them was a solid, Saxon church that looked as though it could withstand a siege.  The church had a campanile, at the top of which Playfair could see at least three bells, and after that trees obscured the view of what was very probably the graveyard.
"Someone killed a man here," he said at last.  "You found the body, and someone sent a letter to the local paper claiming the kill and calling themselves Melpomene."
"I didn't send the letter!  I just found the poor soul, hanging from a tree with a screwdriver sticking out of the side of his neck.  The ground all around him was soggy with blood!  It was dreadful!"  The man had whitened a little, but seemed to be otherwise retaining his composure.  "Why are you here?  We have a police-force of our own, and they've been and talked to me already.  And they were much nicer about it too!"
"That's why I'm here," said Playfair.  "They didn't get anywhere with their tea and cupcakes approach."
"So you come with your monstrous dog and your veiled threats?  I shall write to your superior officers about this!"
Miss Flava silently handed Bartle a business card.
"His immediate superior is the first name on the list," she said after a moment.  "Each name after that is one rank higher.  The address for all of them is on the back.  I can supply you with a form letter to copy from if you'd like, his superiors prefer to be able to identify the complaint quickly these days."
"You... you mean he gets a lot of these complaints?  Why's he still a policeman?"
"He gets a lot of results," said Miss Flava.  "Actual results, and not just convictions that are overturned as unsound or wrong, months or years later."
"I'm still complaining."
"Then here's the form letter."
Bartle stared at first her, then at Calamity who was now frantically digging up tomato plants, and then at Playfair.
"Do you use bonemeal for your plants?" asked Playfair.  Bartle nodded.  "That's why she's digging."
"How can I help you then," said Bartle finally, sounding depressed.  "You won't go away until I do, will you?"
"How much do you know about Feng Shui?" asked Playfair.

Thursday, 29 December 2011


"I'm cold," said Nicky, and when Jermander looked at her she was looking a little bit opaque.  Being an undine, a magical creature made entirely of water, this suggested that she was near freezing point.  Jermander shrugged.
"It's Blistermas, Nicky, it's bound to be cold.  Especially here at Gorillamumps, the campus has psychoactive weather you know.  Why don't you put a heater in?"  There were very few undines at Gorillamumps, but the clever ones – that is, all the ones that weren't Nicky – carried small electrical heating elements with them in the cold weather.  Like the element of an electric kettle they could dip them into their bodies and heat their water up quickly.
"I know the campus weather is psychotic!  I experience it nearly every day.  What other campus has regular sunshine to the point of inducing a drought?"
Jermander shrugged again, not really interested in correcting Nicky or pointing out that psychoactive weather reacted to the students' unconscious expectations.  The regular parching heatwaves that Nicky experienced were a consequence of everyone's dislike for her.
"Why are we out here?"
Jermander actually groaned, and since he was a vampire it was an impressive, deep, resonant groan.  "I told you Nicky, three times already.  It's Blistermas, and Old Man Vinegar does his rounds tonight.  If he finds anyone sleeping who hasn't left him a gift out he gives them Herpes.  I want to see how he does it.  I want to find out how he manages to get round so many people in just one night."
"It's a franchise, Jer, that's how he does it.  My uncles have been running the undine franchise for years now."
"A franchise.  So there's lots of Old Men Vinegar then? And... wow, that's why you don't have Herpes, isn't it?  I wondered how you'd managed to avoid it all these years."
"I don't understand," said Nicky.  "How did I manage to avoid what?"
"It's ok," said Jermander.  "I get it now.  So who's the local franchisee then, do you think?"
"Can we go in yet?  I'm cold!"
"No!  I want to find out who the franchisee is.  They must have the vials of Herpes all year round, they must have to keep them somewhere safe.  This is potentially useful information, Nicky."
"I can get you vials of Herpes from my uncles," she said, sounding sulky.  "We don't have to sit up here on this roof in the cold all night."
"It's not the same," said Jermander, though he was wondering if Nicky's uncles might not be a good back-up plan.  Do you think it's a student or a teacher?"
"Did you leave a gift out?" asked Nicky.  "You could just put paint or something on that.  My uncles hate it when undines try and booby-trap their Blistermas gifts."
"GPS tracker," said Jermander.  "But this is more fun, trying to catch Old Man Vinegar in the act."
"But it's co-o-o-o-old!"
Jermander was going to reply, but while he was thinking about what to say there was a distant crack and purple lightning licked the underside of the clouds.  Then there was a small sonic boom that rattled the tiles, and an ancient Rolls Royce Silver Phantom screamed from a silver portal and roared down to the campus grounds like a dazzling meterorite.  It levelled off just above the playing fields, and came to a halt at the door of the dormitory block.  There was another sharp crack as air rushed into the space where Jermander had been a second before and a whiff of the charnel house, and Jermander had turned into a bat.  He fluttered his wings and launched, accelerating downwards towards the car at a speed that would have ripped the wings off a normal bat.
"Don't leave me!" yelled Nicky, but she was too late, she was alone on the roof.
As Jermander whooshed past the car, not slowing down in case the franchisee saw what he was, he was gratified to find he'd timed things just right and the franchisee was getting out of the car, a sack in one hand that rattled as though it contained many glass vials.
"Myrilla Chinchilla!" he whispered to himself, realising too late that he was travelling too fast amongst the erratically-laid-out buildings of Gorillamumps.

Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The White Tower

Elkie waited until she was sure that no-one was looking, then she knelt by her chest and rested both her hands on its lid.  She relaxed her mind, clearing her thoughts, and moments later she could smell the tang of ozone from the sea as though she were hovering over it, and hear the cries of the gulls as though they were lazing on air currents next to her.  Her fingers tingled as she gripped something unseen and felt it flex, then she moved her hands just so and wrapped thin strands of air around the chest.  They bent and strained, pulling against the knot that she tied, and when she opened her eyes again the chest was floating just above the ground.  She waited, feeling dizzy, for the disorientation of being one moment in the air and the next on the ground to subside; the world seemed to spin before her eyes for a few moments like it did when she was horribly drunk.  Then it settled down, with just a metallic aftertaste in her throat, and she stood up again.
"Twenty epha to carry your case to your destination," said a light, even voice.  She turned to see the speaker, one of the handlers she'd been watching earlier carrying cases ashore.  She smiled,
"I'm sorry, it's really very light," she said, and gave it a little kick.  It jostled forwards a touch, not quite sliding but not obviously floating either.  The handler shrugged, and started to leave.
"Wait!  I'm looking for–" she started to say 'Magister' and then thought about what Captain Jerriss had said.  "I'm looking for somewhere to stay," she said.  "Somewhere... respectable."  She'd been thinking about saying that she had money, but quickly realised how dangerous that could be.  "Somewhere a lady might be seen in without any ill being thought of her," she added.
"The higher up the hill, the more expensive the room," said the handler gesturing.  Elkie looked, and saw that on one side of the harbour Wharfhaven rose upwards, while on the other side it was much flatter and seemed to spread out.
"Would there be any that you could recommend?"
"I don't stay in inns or hotels," said the handler.  "But I've taken luggage up to the White Tower a few times, for people posher than you.  So maybe you could ask there where you should stay?"
"Right," Elkie felt her cheeks heat as she blushed.  "Could I ask for directions...?"
"Follow the road there," he pointed, "and keep going left when you have a choice.  The White Tower's about fifteen minutes walking; it's white, and it's got a tower."
"Thank-you," said Elkie, now too embarrassed to ask anything else.
The streets of Wharfhaven were clean and narrow, wide enough for three people to walk side-by-side but not then for anyone to pass them.  The houses were densely packed together, usually terraced though often of differing heights, with painted doors and large, airy windows.  Most of the windows had window-boxes, though they grew herbs rather than flowers, and the windows all had curtains, often half- or quarter-drawn to preserve some privacy.  Apart from the briny sea-smell there were occasionally whiffs of ammonia that got rarer as she walked higher up the hill, earthy scents from gardens, and a soft, cinnamonny scent that seemed to drift in when the breeze dropped.  The hill was steep, but not impossible, and Elkie was very glad that she didn't have to carry the weight of the chest as well as her travelling bag.
The White Tower was easy to find, and when she walked up the gravelled drive and through the arched front-door, a young woman with a severe face and pulled-back hair hurried over to her, high-heels clicking angrily on the tiled floor.
"You're late!  And you're inappropriately dressed!  What are you thinking!"
"I'm sorry?" said Elkie, trying to put her travelling bag down.  The severe woman grabbed it and forced it back into her hands.
"You should be sorry!  Stop stopping and get moving!  They're all waiting for you!"
"Who are?" said Elkie, still trying to put her bag down.  "How can I be late?  I've only just arrived."
"You were supposed to be here an hour ago!  It was made very clear in the contract."
"What contract?"
The severe woman stopped trying to push the bag back into Elkie's hands and peered closely at her face.  "You are Melissa, aren't you?"
"No," said Elkie.  "I'm not.  I'm looking for a room to stay in while I visit the Magister."
"Oh.  What? Who?  Why are–?  What is–?"  The severe woman's face lost its hard set as she struggled to understand who Elkie was.  "The Magister?"
"Yes," said Elkie.  "I'd like a room please.  If you have one."
"The Magister's here today," said the woman.  "Are you a guest then?"
"Yes," said Elkie, hoping that this would help the woman out and get her room sorted out.
"Oh.  Oh!  I'm so sorry, I'm so very sorry, but I've – well, we've – been expecting Melissa and she's so late now.  Oh.  Oh, look leave your bags here, and of course we have a room for you.  Just go through, through the double doors over there to the terrace, that's where everyone else is.  I'm so sorry."
Elkie set her bags down, and laying a hand gently on the chest unlaced the knot of air that surrounded it.  It settled on the tiled floor with a gentle click.
"Those doors?" she said, pointing.  The severe woman nodded, and then hurried to the front door to look for the luckless Melissa.
"These doors," said Elkie to herself as she walked towards them.

Tuesday, 27 December 2011


The post-box asked me how I was feeling, and commented that I had a slightly-elevated temperature.  I thanked it, and walked off feeling a little disconcerted.  Then the fire hydrant on the corner, where I paused to wait for the traffic to clear before crossing, called me things I'd rather not write down and assured me that a place in Hell was being reserved for me even now.  I asked it, politely, if it meant the Norwegian town, and it cackled with delighted laughter.  After I'd crossed the street I dug my mobile phone out of my pocket and called my psychotherapist.
"Dr. Fraud's not available right now," said his receptionist, a pleasant young man with a fear of teeth.  My sister had dated him for a few weeks until he admitted that the only way they could have a relationship was if she had all her teeth removed and wore dentures, but not when he was around.  She gave it serious consideration before dumping him, so I was reasonably certain he was a nice guy.  "He's... well, since it's you, he's screaming in German about squirrels and keeps hitting his desk with a broom.  He's got a three o'clock with a near-catatonic, and that always calms him down, so I'd call back after four."
I thanked him and hung up.  I wasn't really sure that a session with Dr. Fraud would make me saner, but it would certainly make me feel saner.  Even while the urban furniture talked to me and commented on my health and future.
I arrived at the university about twenty minutes early and found the rest of my physics class in the coffee-hall.  The architect who'd designed the campus could clearly remember his student days well as there was a coffee-hall, a beer-hall, six lecture-halls and a Mensa rumoured to be capable of seating the entire university, albeit over seven floors, if it needed to.  My group were sitting by the windows that looked out onto Anneliese Quad, near coffee-station six where they served specialty coffees and the baristas hand-selected blends and beans.  I ordered the latest Kenya single-estate, black, no sugar; and sipping its slightly fruity, earthy liquid, sat down next to John.  He grinned at me, and dropped a text-book into my lap.
"Ouch!  Watch it, muffmonkey!"
"Yeah, you too Mr. Handcuffs," he said.  "Look what chapter we're up to."
I put my coffee down, carefully out of John's reach, and turned to the bookmarked page.  'Perpendicular AIs' I read.  "What're they then?"
"Don't you ever do the pre-lecture reading?"
"Not when I've got you to do it for me."
"Hah!  I should completely tell you the wrong thing now, so you can look stupid in front of Professor Clerihew.  It's all about... chickens!  Purple chickens, that they breed in the Large Hadron Collider so that they can have eggs that are poached forty minutes before they're laid.  The chickens are too heavy to escape of course, because they have a diet of Higgs Bosons."
"Yeah, very funny.  Purple like your sister's rug?"
"Oh the shame!"  John's eyes twinkled.  "My sister's far too proletarian to look after herself like that.  It gets mown once a year at Easter; at any other time I leave a machete by her bedroom door for would-be explorers."
I laughed, despite myself.  "So what are perpendicular AIs then?"
"Hah, that's the thing, no-one really knows any more."
"Any more?  They knew once then?"
"Sort of.  You know that we've located nine dimensions so far?"
"Yes, that was the first week of lectures, pinhead.  They're numbered from -1 to 7 and we all pretend that was deliberate and not a cock-up."
"Yeah, well, about twenty-years ago they were doing some experiments with computers to see if they could discharge heat into one of the other dimensions.  The idea was that if the heat could all be dissipated into a different dimension then you could improve the efficiency of chips and circuits, although you'd still run into the quantum barrier at some point.  So they're building these chips with these odds little fins on them that cross the dimensional barriers, which they can do at microscopic scales but no larger."
"Like now," I said, knowing John hated to be interrupted.  He glared at me, I sipped my coffee and pretended to be innocent.
"Yeah.  Well, that's kind of because we stopped trying.  The computers with these chips with their special fins... they somehow slipped through the dimensions altogether and disappeared."
"Yeah, I don't quite get it, but Clerihew might explain it in the lecture.  I can ask him if he doesn't."
"So what happened to these computers then?"
"Well, at first we thought they were just gone, but then they started connecting up to computers in our dimensions.  It was kind of hard to work out what happened, but there's now a branch of cross-dimensional mathematics that gets used to do it.  The computers were still working in this other dimension, and they could connect to our dimension.  At first it was just computers, but then they started connecting to like, everyday objects.  Fridges, and toasters, and dolls.  And they'd seem to start talking to people, only no-one believed them at first.  And they went a bit odd, which might be because all dimensions are at right-angles to each other, but I don't know how that's supposed to work either."
"A fire hydrant spoke to me on the way here," I said quietly, putting my coffee down.  John looked at me hard, trying to work out if I was joking or not.
"Just a fire hydrant?" he said, sounding like he was about to start laughing.
"And a post-box.  It said I was running a temperature and asked me how I was."
"Oh crap."  John just looked at me.  Everyone around us starting packing up and standing up to go to the lecture.  "I think we'd better try and catch Clerihew before the lecture then," he said.  "It sounds like you witnessed the start of an incursion."

Monday, 26 December 2011


Ash rains down on Tal Mallan slightly less frequently than water does, and on occasion they mix together and the grey, sticky rains happen.  To the north there are volcanoes and heavy geological activity, and though Tal Mallan sits on a peninsula, the sea between here and the mainland is not enough to prevent ash clouds blowing over and depositing their load.  The volcanoes were erupting today, and up in the sky, in the distance, the cloudbase had turned an angry orange, reflecting in the heavens the fires of the earth below.  Without a doubt it meant that we were in for another rain of ash in the next couple of days.
The guards were out in force in the streets in the first and second zones as well; in their dusty ochre and brown uniforms they blended in well with the walls of the houses.  They were walking around alert and bright-eyed, hands resting on the da they carried at all times, and their eyes scanning the streets for disturbances.
A sudden scream, cut off in the middle energised all of them, and they broke into a run, converging towards the place the scream had come from.  I was sat on a balcony three stories up, drinking cha and listening to the proprietor of this little café bore another patron with tales of his time as a scrimshaver, so at the sound of the scream I set my cup down on the little ceramic-tiled patio table and went to the balcony to look out.  From my vantage, I could see the salamander in the Square of the Third Soldier, and the char-grilled remains of the screamer.  I admired the guards then; if it were me I would be running as fast as I could away from the salamander, not towards it armed only with a knife.
The salamander was a kind of lizard, its skin ash grey and reportedly as tough as old leather.  Its eyes, and it had six, were spaced equally around its lumpen head and were glittering amber orbs with split pupils.  Below its eyes were pits, which few people knew about, which detected temperature and effectively allowed it a kind of thermal imaging, an ability to see without light.  Natural philosophers up at the university in the sixth zone hypothesized that in the volcanic caves being able to tell which way is hotter is important, especially when the difference is between intolerable and barely-tolerable.  It's mouth was still slightly open, and I could see a grey tongue flickering from side to side as it tasted the air.  It scrabbled for a moment on the cobbles, trying to dig a hole with powerful, spatulate feet, and then the first guard arrived.
The salamander turned its head alarmingly fast, and exhaled in the guard's direction.  A blast of scorching air hit her full on and her hands flew up in front of her face as she turned away, taking the brunt of it on her back.  Her uniform, padded and treated to withstand heat, still began to smoulder, and she collapsed to the cobbles and didn't stand up again.  While the salamander was doing that though, more guards had arrived, from several streets now.
The salamander's eyes prevented anyone from sneaking up on it, but now it was swinging its head heavily back and forth, trying to evaluate the danger and decide who to attack first.  The guards, now that they could see each other, advanced steadily, keeping pace and closing a human net around the creature.  When it finally chose and exhaled again, going for a young man directly in front of it, blocking the most direct escape, he was ready, ducking and turning, finally barely touched by the flame-hot air at all.  And as he did so, the rest charged, leaping in, stabbing with their das and ripping through the salamander's hide.  The blades, like skinning knives, had a hook at the end for ripping, and as the guards pulled away again strips of skin tore from the salamander like a banana opening.  Oily pink flesh glistened momentarily in the sunlight, then was covered over by a green ichor that oozed out and puddled on the cobbles.  The salamander howled and thrashed, its tail swinging wildly and crashing into a shop-front destroying benches holding tableware and scattering household goods everywhere.  It lowered its head, readying to charge, and the guards, moving almost as one, ran in again, leaping agilely, dodging the ooze even as the salamander shook, spattering it everywhere, and drove their das home once more.
The salamander roared again, hot breath playing over the first, luckless guard once more and its legs drove it forward anyway, but the damage done now was too great and at the fourth step its front legs buckled and it collapsed to the ground.  The guards, still wary, approached it from behind and quickly cut through the corded muscles in its back legs, ensuring that if it wasn't dead it wasn't going to get up and start again.  Then, and only then, I noted, did they attend to their fallen colleague.
And no-one paid any attention to the salamander's first victim, now a blackened effigy on the cobbles, amazingly untouched by the salamander's death throes or its ichorous blood.
I returned to my seat and sipped my tea.

Sunday, 25 December 2011


Elkie came to Wharfhaven on a passenger boat.  The money she'd found in the house when her grandmother had died paid for passage in a stateroom, which sounded far grander than it had turned out to be.  The walls were thin and her neighbours were noisy, but she had a proper bed, and a desk at which to write and to look through the trinket-box that she'd found at the back of her grandmother's closet.  She'd been thinking about complaining to the Captain when she took a wrong turn and chanced upon the standard accommodation: a large room where families and men staked out small patches of deck to themselves, laid blankets over it, and then sat there looking hunted and hostile in case anyone tried to take any of their space.  Children cried, screamed, ran around, and from time to time went to the toilet in the corner.  The smell was noisome and the noise was deafening.  Elkie had gone back to her stateroom and appreciated it for the first time.
When they landed she waited in the stateroom for the other passengers to disembark first.  She knew little of Wharfhaven; it was a coastal town where the fishing was good and the fishermen highly praised in the city.  There were cliffs, there were seagulls, and somewhere there was a Magister.  She looked out of her porthole, which chanced to be looking inland, and found she could see the cliffs.  Above them wheeled seagulls, dancing on the thermals and calling to one another with harsh, guttural cries.  'If only the Magister is as easy to find,' she thought.  On the quayside she could see the passengers coming off, milling around in small groups as they got in each other's way.  Cases and chests were stacked around them by the handlers, a group of men paid by the passengers or the Captain to unload luggage.  They were rugged, tall and heavily muscled, with tousled thick hair that cascaded down their necks and hung down to their waists, tied loosely back with cords.  They lifted chests that Elkie was sure she'd never even be able to budge as though they were empty, or made of paper.  Now and then one might grunt, or two might lift an end of a particularly large chest between them, but otherwise they worked silently and swiftly.
"Are you paying for the return voyage already then?"  Captain Jerriss had opened her door without bothering to knock and was leaning against the doorjamb.  His smile was mostly hidden by his thick, brown beard, but his eyes still twinkled as he spoke.
"No," she said, sighing a little as she did.  "I have business here."
"I'll be back in six months," said Jerriss.  "If your business is done by then you can always come by and purchase passage with me again."
"I might," she said, meeting his eyes and surprising herself by meaning it.  "Certainly I'll look for you when my business is done."
Jerriss hauled himself from the doorway, and gestured with a hand.  "Would you need a hand with your luggage?  Or would you prefer to be carried ashore by the handlers?"
For a moment she entertained the notion of being picked up by broad, strong arms and carried down the gangplank like a china doll, but she pushed it firmly from her mind.  "Thank-you, Captain," she said, perhaps just a little stiffly.  "Only my luggage needs carrying."
He looked past her and saw her travelling bag and the miserably small chest that all her belongings still only half-filled.  "If that's all you have I'll save you the cost," he said.  She left the room, and he stepped in to pick up her bags himself and bring them after her.
"Should a Captain be seen to be carrying my bags?" she asked, glancing over her shoulder.  Captain Jerriss was carrying them as though they were no weight at all.
"The crew will think I'm sweet on you," he said.  "And that won't hurt my reputation at all."
'Will it hurt mine, I wonder,' she thought, but she said nothing, and concentrated on climbing the narrow stairs to the main deck, and then leading the way across the gangplank.  There were a couple of whistles, which she ignored, and then she'd stopped slightly to one side of the path and Captain Jerriss placed her bag and chest down beside her.
"You've been here before," she started.
"This is part of my regular trading route, yes," said Jerriss.  He didn't sound contemptuous, but she still realised that she'd been gauche.
"Yes," she said, smiling, lowering her eyes.  "Do you know of the Magister?"
"Hah, everyone knows of the Magister," said Jerriss.  "If you mean, do I know him, then no, I've never had the pleasure of his company.  He buys and sells through factors."
"These factors–"
"Will be here this afternoon, but I wouldn't get your hopes up.  I don't think any of them would be able to introduce you to the Magister."
"Why not?"
"They do business with him, they don't sit down over a cup of chai and chat about the weather and women," said Jerriss.  "Most of them won't have met him either, they'll simply put goods where they're told, and the Magister's own men will collect them and make payment."
"This all seems a little complicated," said Elkie.  "Is all business like this?"
There was silence, and then Jerriss saluted her.  "I shall be getting back to my ship now.  Enjoy your stay in Wharfhaven."
She watched him walk away, heading back to the ship, and then looked down at her bags.  She needed somewhere to stay while she looked for the Magister, and she needed somewhere that wasn't filled with the other passengers from the ship.

The Seven Riders

The librarian who hated me lifted the Letters of the Eidolon Queen from its bed of crushed velvet with great care, and carried it over to my desk as though he were carrying a sleeping child.  He set it down, placing it precisely and squaring the corners.  Then he moved some lever or armature set into the back of the desk and the book's far end lifted up to an angle of thirty degrees or so, an ideal pitch for reading.  He regarded me for long seconds, his hazel eyes seeming faintly luminous in the shadows of his eye sockets, and then laid a hand very gently on the cover of the book.
"Be very wary with her, Mr. Debraun," he said.  "The gentleman on the wall brought her here, and she is... restless still."
With that he left, taking slow, measured steps across the thick golden carpet, opening the door silently and closing it behind him equally quietly.  I looked up at the portrait on the wall once more, the reason why this was called the Derleth reading room, and shuddered.  The implication of the librarian's words was clear to me.


Later than evening, as I sat in the Bar of the Seven Riders, I had two glasses in front of me: one of Psaltrum and one of Deinore.  Psaltrum was a fortified wine made two hundred miles south of Crécy and usually brought up via mule train, across inhospitable desert scrublands and broken hills that occasionally hid salt-basins and ghost-mines.  Deinore, served in a much smaller glass, was made from pressing the must of the local grapes and fermenting what was left with a botrytis yeast.  The yield was small, hence the serving size, and was something of an acquired taste.  Both were more expensive that I could normally afford, but I needed my nerves settling.
"Debraun!"  Henrix was the first of our crew after me to arrive, and as he did so he spied the glasses in front of me.  His eyebrows rose fractionally, and he hove to the bar without saying another word.  Only when he'd returned with a glass of port for us both did he sit down and look around him, checking habitually that no-one was listening in.
"You were admitted?"
I nodded.  I hadn't spoken since I'd thanked the librarian and left.
"You saw... well, you saw why it's called the Derleth reading room."
I nodded, and couldn't help but shudder a little, no matter that I tried hard to suppress it.  Henrix nodded, and I realised he'd been looking for just that reaction.
"What did you think of the egg?" he asked next, and he looked hungry.  Finally I had reason to speak again.
"I never saw an egg," I said.  "There was very little ornamentation in there."
"Well done," he breathed.  "You have been admitted.  Damn, but you're doing well."
"What do you mean?" I said.  Now that I was speaking again it felt like I'd spent a lifetime in silence.  I needed to hear voices around me.
"I... well, I was crying when I came out; took me two days to dry up and talk to normal people again.  Constant, he's the one with the obsession with the Librum Nox, he was shaking like an Aspen tree and wouldn't see anyone for a week.  You look like you've been on a date with the Lords of Hell, but you're talking, you're drinking... you're doing well."
"I don't feel like I'm doing well," I said.  "The book was–"


The book was haunted.  It was probably the wrong word for it, but there was something about the book that there isn't about ordinary books.  When I touched its cover it was warm, and if I left my fingers there I began to feel a pulse.  It wasn't mine, I checked, holding two fingers firmly at my wrist and feeling my pulse there completely out of time with the one from the book.  I almost stood up then and left.  But I only needed a few references to complete my paper and so I told myself that this was a trick of library, a mean-spirited little antic played by the librarians to keep up the reputation of the place.  I opened the book.
I would have been happier if it had howled, or if blood had spilled from its pages and flooded across the desk, or even if demons had leapt down from secret hiding places in the walls and stabbed me with pins and tridents.  All of those things would have made sense, in a way, they'd all be easier to deal with.  Instead.  Instead a voice started reading the letters to me, a soft, feminine voice that sounded as though it had been trained to read.  There were stress and intonation patterns that suggested the owner of the voice was used to giving orders, to being understood.  And the things it was saying... they were just the words on the page.
At first.
When I turned the first page the voice paused, and then said 'Wait.  There is text missing.'  I froze, my fingers still holding the corner of the page, feeling that dreadful pulse begin anew at my fingertips.  'Curse Aloysius,' said the voice.  'I shall have him skinned when I find him, and his skin shall be used to record the missing text.'  Then it started reading words that weren't present on the page, words that fit with everything I'd read previously and added a whole new dimension to what had been recorded.  I let the page fall at last and scrambled for the paper and pens in the drawer so that I could write down what was being said.


"She spoke to you?" Henrix's voice was awed.  "The Eidolon Queen?"
"Someone, someone spoke to me," I said.  I gestured to the barman, and held up the glass of port.  I really wanted more Psaltrum, but I knew I couldn't afford to keep drinking it.  "Someone who knew what was missing from the book."
"Do you believe her?"  Henrix gripped the table so hard that his fingers were turning white.
"I think I have to," I said.  "She told me who the Seven Riders are."
The barman laid the port down on the table; I noticed he'd doubled the measure for both of us.
"No-one knows who the Seven Riders are," he said.  "It's just a name, one of those historical things.  Nothing special."
I let him go before I looked at Henrix and toasted him with the new glass of port.  "Eight people know who the Seven Riders are," I said.  "And I don't know why she told me."

Saturday, 24 December 2011


"I won't put it on!  I won't wear it!  Get away from me!"  Smaragd flailed her arms around, slapping maids away from her as she tried to get away from them, and they tried to get her to put her wedding clothes on.  She caught one maid a glancing blow to the cheek-bone and she stumbled back, tripping over her own feet and landing in a crumpled heap on the floor.  Smaragd gave a cheer of triumph, flinging her arms up and knocking another maid's attempt to get a veil on her head to the ground.  Then someone or something, she didn't see what, cannoned into the back of her legs and toppled her as well.  She landed by the first fallen maid, and then ten maids all jumped on her at once.
They hauled her off the floor and tied her hands and feet to the four posts at the corners of the bed, and worked hard and steadily, untying only one limb at a time as they pulled clothes on and pushed them into place, never letting her get free or thrash around enough to damage the clothes.  As her throat finally grew hoarse from her screaming, swearing and shouting and her volume decreased, the Queen appeared in the doorway of her room.
"Not dead then?" she said.  Without waiting for an answer she walked in and sat down on a couch by the window.  The couch was essentially a long bench with a few cushions laid on it for comfort, but other than the bed and the wardrobe was the only furniture in the room.  "With the noise you've been making I'd assumed that your father had sent to down to Cole to see reason."  Cole was the torturer, executioner, and manicurist.  No-one had dared asked him why he provided nail-care as an additional service, though many of the maids took advantage of it.
"I hate you!" said Smaragd, trying to spit despite facing the ceiling and only succeeding in covering her own face in slightly-greenish spittle.
"You appear to hate everybody today," said the Queen.  "Which makes a pleasant change from loathing us, rejecting us, and ignoring us.  We feel privileged."
"You're marrying me to a dragon!  I'm supposed to be grateful?"
"I'm not marrying you to anybody," said the Queen.  "Your father made a rather curious deal regarding your future when you were just a baby, and before you say anything, that's just traditional for royalty.  If it had gone another way you'd be marrying Baron Harald, and he's over seventy."
"At least he's human!"
"That's one way of looking at it," said the Queen.  "Though not a very practical one.  Harald would definitely want a wedding night."
"The dragon might want one too!"
"Really?  Do you honestly believe that dragons want humans for that?  Oh well, if that's what you think...."
"Well, what else would the dragon want me for?"  Smaragd was almost dressed now and was physically exhausted from the struggle.  The maids didn't look much better off.
"Food?" The Queen stared out of the window thoughtfully.  "Decoration?  Perhaps a princess would go well on a hoard of gold.  Barter, maybe?  Going to another human domain and offering up the princess in return for something?"
"Those are all horrible!"
"And sex with dragons isn't?  My, I can see that all this fight is just a pretence then!"
"Is she ready?" The King walked into the chamber and found his daughter sprawled on the bed in her wedding dress, looking tired and red-eyed.  "My, I'm sure the wedding night is still some hours away, darling, mmm, you probably don't have to be, mmm, ready for that quite yet."
"See!  See!  He thinks I'll be having sex with the dragon!"
"No, dear, he just thinks that all young women think of is sex," said the Queen, wishing that her husband were a little more interested in it.  He seemed to prefer telling stories of sex he'd had as a young man to actually trying it out any more.
"The dragon is downstairs," said the King.  "Come along now."
Smaragd had to be forced down the stairs and into the courtyard by all ten maids, with the Queen following behind.  In the courtyard was an enormous blue dragon with a wing span that was easily as long as the banqueting hall and a tail that was longer still.  With her was another, smaller dragon that was turquoise and kept shuffling its feel and curling and uncurling its tail.
"Dragon!" called the King.  "I am keeping my side of the bargain!  Here is my daughter, for your son to marry!"
The dragon tilted her head slightly to one side and squinted at the King.  He stood there feeling nervous, wondering what was coming.
"Son?" The dragon's voice was whispery yet loud, like being caught in an articulate hurricane.  "This is my daughter."
"Oh?" The King thought about this for a few moments, and then said, "But the marriage... the... well, the..."
"The sex?" The dragon pulled its lips back from its huge triangular teeth and blew smoke from its nostrils.  This was, the Queen realised, dragon laughter.  "How would dragons and human have sex?"
"Well, I imagine it's easier if they're both lesbians," said the King, apparently thinking hard about this.  "Much easier than any other way I should imagine.  Do dragons have particularly hot tongues?"
"Dragon marriage is not like human marriage!  It is not some antiquated ritual designed to increase the power of a lazy, unworking caste of mystical layabouts!  Dragon marriage has significance, it bonds souls together.  It is used to form alliances and forge futures."
"Sounds like human marriage to me," said the Queen quietly, unaware that dragon's have excellent hearing.  "Except maybe for the souls bit."
The dragon did its smoke-snorting laugh again.  "Perhaps," it said.  "However, given the size difference  I think we shall forgo the sex part of human marriage and stick to the dragon parts."
"Unlucky, my dear," said the King to Smaragd, who stared at him in utter disbelief.
"You think I'm a lesbian?" she managed, though it was clearly hard for her to speak.
"I wouldn't be surprised if he thought you were a lemon," said the Queen quietly, quite aware of how deaf her husband was.  "Still, looks like you've got your wish: your father can still marry you off to someone human now."
"He thought I was a lesbian?"
"I would expect he still thinks you're a lesbian," said the Queen.  "Expect to be introduced to lots of eligible princesses from now on."

Spot of tea

"A spot of tea, vicar?"
"Just there, on your... trousers."  Colin winked.
"Oh my, that won't do!  What will the other parishioners think?"
"Well vicar, I do have a washing machine.  I mean, the wife has a washing machine."
"What a jolly good idea; I'll just slip them off and if you could pop them in there for a cycle–"
Miss Snippett stared aghast at her class of seven-year-olds, who were supposed to be performing a scene from A Man for all Seasons, and were apparently about to start undressing.  Not that she felt there was anything to get excited about there, but she was aware that the parents who would be attending the Spring Play might get a little excited by it.  And not in the applauding frantically and writing to the headmaster to recommend her way, either.
"What is going on?  I left you with Act two, scene three to rehearse, and although Thomas More was deeply religious, I don't believe he could have been a vicar.  Especially since the play deals with the events that led Henry VIII to found his own church."
"Er, we couldn't understand the words, miss," said Colin, looking angelically unrepentant.  Miss Snippet, who'd found his with a different copy of Hustler every time he'd had a tea-break when she was using them as navvies to build a school garden, was not deceived.
"So there was this other script that was easier to follow, miss."
"And where did this script come from?"
"There miss."  He pointed, and several other children in the class nodded, suggesting that he might be telling the truth.  She looked where he was pointing, and frowned.  It was Miss Flebbers desk.
Miss Flebbers had joined the staff just after the nativity play, when the headmaster was keen to hire people who clearly weren't related to him, or looked like they were likely to drink copiously and then catch fire in front of the parents.  She was broad, tee-total, claimed to be vegan and allegedly went and built houses for homeless people on her weekends.  She wore wellies to school which she didn't always remember to change out of, and she had her own teabags in the staffroom that smelled like mildew.  Miss Snippet had been instantly suspicious of her, and had spent the first few days spreading the rumour that she didn't build houses for homeless people, but instead built houses out of homeless people, until Miss Davenport told her that she felt that she wasn't really giving the newcomer a chance.
Miss Snippet held her hand out for the script, and George, who was playing the vicar, surrendered it.  It was a handwritten manuscript and when Miss Snippet turned the page to see what happened after the vicar took his trousers off she dropped the manuscript in surprise.
"How much of this did you read?" she asked, hurriedly picking the manuscript back up again.
"Just the pages you saw, miss," said Colin.  She suspected he was lying, but she wanted to believe the lie.  Except that she couldn't resist asking: "And why aren't you playing the vicar, Colin?  I thought you liked to have roles with titles?"
His silence, the very faint hint of a flush to his cheeks told her that he was well aware of what the vicar was about to invite in just a couple of pages time, just as the look of bewilderment on George's face suggested he'd been in for a surprise.
"Right," she said.  "I don't think this is appropriate for your parents, but a Man for All Seasons is, so we will return to rehearsing that.  Colin, you may hand out the correct scripts and we shall start from the top.  That is, the start of the scene."
She walked over to Miss Flebbers's desk as she spoke, intending to put the manuscript back.  When she opened the desk though, she saw that the manuscript was one of at least eight, and paused for a moment.  She flicked to the back of the manuscript she was holding.  It certainly looked complete, so perhaps Miss Flebbers wouldn't notice it missing for a few days.
She closed the desk and shoved the manuscript into her handbag.  She really ought to know what kind of woman she was dealing with here.
"Right, children," she said.  "Action!"

Friday, 23 December 2011


"Darling, what's the matter now?"  The Queen was trying to sound interested, but actually she was just irritated.  Teenage daughters were a lot more trouble that she'd expected, and it wasn't even as if the wretched child were her daughter.  Just part of the baggage of marriage, it seemed, like a husband thirty years older than her who preferred reminiscing about sex to actually having any, a duty to appear to the general public far more often than was good for her, and having to re-learn all the etiquette she'd managed to ignore at finishing school.
"I hate my name!" Smaragd, the King's eldest daughter, was having a tantrum.  She beat her fists on the bed, and kicked the bedposts making the canopy above sway dramatically.  "It's a stupid name!  Why did you call me it?"
"Don't ask me," said the Queen, her own frustrations rising to the surface.  "Ask your father."
"Mmm, ask me, mmm, what?" The King, attempting to hide from the Court Magister who wanted more solomonic decrees from him, came into his daughter's bedroom.  He sat down on the bed, narrowly missing sitting on her head, and then looked down for her.
"What's the mmm-matter, dear?  Aren't you well?"
"I hate my name!" yelled Smaragd.  "I hate, hate, hate it!"
"She wants to know why she's called Smaragd," said the Queen, sighing just a tiny little bit to herself.  "I think it's lovely," she lied.  "It means Emerald, you know."
"And we didn't, mmm, have a lot of mmm, choice, either."
Silence greeted this pronouncement, and the King looked a little surprised.  "Has it, mmm, really been so long?  Oh, mmm, that could be a problem-mmm soon then."
More silence, this time with both women in the room staring at him in what he suspected was not adoration or respect.
"We had a com-mmm-petition to name you, mmm," he said, thinking his way back through his memories.  "We were, mmm, fighting a rather depressing war at the time you see. Mmm.  Mmhmm.  Back then there were Svingotts to the south of us, and they were mmm, aggressive.  Every mmm, two or three years mmm, they'd start another mmm fight.  And that would escalate, mmm, into a war.  It was mmm, exhausting.  So I decided, mmm, that we needed to crush them-mmm absolutely.  So we had an mmm, competition to name you.  Whoever provided me with the best mmm increase in army size mmm won the right to name you."
"I think I remember the Svingotts," said the Queen.  "Very... virile men as I recall."  She smiled, unnoticed by the other two.
"You let someone else pick my name?  I could have been called anything!"
"Well, not really, mmm.  There were only three Barons at the mmm time who could raise armies mmm, so you'd have been named by one of mmm, them.  And they would all want mmm my favour."
"So you liked Smaragd?"  Smaragd couldn't have looked any more aghast or appalled.
"Not really.  But like I said, I didn't have mmm-much choice."
"Which Baron won the naming right then?" asked the Queen.  "It can't have been Harald, he'd have named her Haradette or something like that."
"That's worse!"  Smaragd hurled a cushion at the Queen, who caught it and threw it back.
"Um.  None of them," said the King.  More silence and stares met that announcement, so he reluctantly continued.
"A dragon turned up and offered its services.  It pointed out that it effectively gave mmm-me air-power and mmm, trebled my effective army size.  Mmm.  It won straight-away."
"You named me after a dragon?"  Smaragd's face had gone pale white with shock.  "That's so uncool!"
"Umm. Not quite. Umm.  We named you the name the dragon wanted, hmmm, wanted to be the name of the person mmm its son married."
"Wuh?" said Smaragd, not believing her ears.
"You betrothed her to a dragon and named her so that the dragon would marry her?" said the Queen, who was a lot quicker on the uptake.
"Umm.  Yes," said the King deciding that the Court Magister was far preferable to the screaming that was now issuing from his daughter's mouth.

Thursday, 22 December 2011

Arranging a meeting

The flame from the lighter was a bright, tungsten white and leaped nearly eight inches into the air.  He had held the lighter what I'd considered a ridiculously long way below his cigar, and now I understood why.  The flame played across the end, tickling the tightly-rolled leaves, warming them with a lethal embrace, and when he snapped the cap down on the lighter there was a tiny red glow indicating that ignition had been successful.
He put the lighter in a pocket, flicking his wrist casually so as to cause his sleeve to slide back down over his watch.  I'd not asked about it, but only because I was an amateur horologist and had recognised it immediately.  It had sold at auction four months previously for eighty-five thousand, which people like me considered to be a bargain.  Even though I didn't have eighty-five anythings.
"You're looking for advice?" he said, his voice deep and amused-sounding.  "Did you think that my only advice might be that you ask someone else?"
"Oh no," I said.  "I'm not looking for advice, I'm offering advice."
He eyebrows knit together, his forehead wrinkled.  "Why would I want to listen to your advice?"  He lifted a wine glass, and I knew that the nearly colourless liquid in there cost more to buy per bottle than my tuxedo had to rent.  He sniffed the wine briefly and sipped from it.  He was still watching me, he hadn't turned away yet.
"It's about your watch," I said.  "You might not want to listen to it, but the best advice is usually something we don't want to hear."
He sipped his wine again, and scratched his left temple.  Then the glass was placed down on the table and he leaned forward from his seat a little.  I could smell the fragrant tobacco of his cigar as he returned it to his mouth, could hear the crackle of the smouldering leaves as he inhaled.  "There is a smoking lounge here called the Abattoir," he said.  His hand dipped into an inside pocket and he produced a white rectangle of card.  "Find it, show the steward at the door this card, and you'll be allowed in.  I'll be along in about twenty minutes."
I took his card and walked away from the table while he turned to a woman who had been oohing and aahing over baby photos with an ugly couple and laid a possessive hand on her shoulder.  She turned her head slightly and smiled, and then I lost sight of them as a waiter crossed between us carrying a salver of terrines.
The Abattoir.  Not what I'd have called a smoking room, and perhaps a little sinister for the name of a place to be invited to by an important man with more money than Croesus.  I looked at the card and it was blank, on both sides.  I rubbed it experimentally with my thumb and felt the weave of the paper.  It was expensive, and it looked like it kept secrets as well.
I had to ask directions to the Abattoir eventually and the waiter who directed me looked me up and down twice before he asked me to repeat what I was looking for.  "I'm a jeweller," I said, "I've been asked by a client to meet them there."  He didn't look like he believed me but he pointed me to a lift and told me to press button -2.  The lift seemed ordinary enough, but nothing seemed to happen when I pressed button -2.  I was wondering if I'd pressed it hard enough and if I should press it again when the doors suddenly closed and the lift descended smoothly.  The doors opened again after maybe ten seconds, and I found myself looking at a man in a steward's white jacket who was carrying a very large, serious-looking knife.  I recognised it after a moment as a machete.  Without a word, I offered the business card and the steward glowered at me.  He took it after a few seconds of intimidation, and turned away from me.
When he turned back he looked less ferocious, but no more friendly.  He gestured with the machete, and I quickly left the lift and went down a short corridor to a steel door set into a plain white wall.  The door opened at a touch, and revealed only a rectangle of darkness beyond it.
"You should turn the lights on first," said a deep voice behind me, and I looked over my shoulder to find the man I was to meet walking towards me.  "The Abattoir isn't the kind of smoking room you'd like to be surprised by."

Wednesday, 21 December 2011


The Excess Café was busy; there were five people sitting at tables, each at different tables, pointedly ignoring each other.  There were three people queuing at the counter, and the one that Lehar was serving at the moment was unusual.  The two behind her in the queue were just plain weird.  And then the door opened, and another person came in.
I was sitting in my customary table one row in from the window where I could see the street outside without being dazzled by the glare of the sunshine.  It was a beautiful day, wintry cold but clear, deep, blue skies as far overhead as you could see.  It made me want to stand outside, tilt my head back, and stare upwards as though I were forever falling into its blueness.  I could hear most of the conversation up at the counter as well.
"Can you burn the beans?" said the woman at the front of the queue.  She had stringy blonde hair poking out from underneath a knitted cap and was wearing some kind of smock that looked muddy.  It smelled worse though, and I was currently hoping that there was just mud on it.  "I like the beans to be a bit crispy, if you get me."  Lehar nodded, though I knew perfectly well she didn't get the woman.
"Tea or coffee?" she asked, her voice bordering on the insolent.
"Both, please," said the woman.  "In the same cup.  Milk for the tea, none for the coffee."
I almost turned round in my seat to stare at her then, and it was only by dint of great effort that I held myself in place.  I heard Lehar murmur something that was probably only borderline polite, and then the hiss of the hot water urn as she mixed the drinks together.
Across the aisle from me, the man at the table there turned the pages of his newspaper. It was an Arabic language one, but I think only I'd noticed.  I knew who he was and why he was here; like me he was waiting for the real customers to leave.
"Is there anything else?" asked Lehar, her voice lilting softly.
"Oh well, I don't really like to ask," said the woman and I couldn't stop myself from thinking So don't!, "but, well, could you run the sausage under the cold tap after you've cooked it?  Only I don't like them hot and greasy."
"She's in the wrong place, really, isn't she?" said a soft voice opposite me, and I opened my eyes and started.  If the plastic chairs weren't all part of the table to stop people picking them up and throwing them about I'd have shot backwards by a foot.  As it was, the whole table jerked with me and a little of my Assam tea spilled on the formica surface.
"Who are you?" I said, looking at the woman who'd come in most recently.  She had small, soft features like a child or a manga-character, a spray of freckles across her nose, and a turban wrapped tightly around her head.  Her skin was milky white away from the freckles, and her coat's high collar was turned up against the cold of winter.
"Tabitha," she said.  "You're the writer, aren't you?"
I openly stared at her now; there were no writing materials on the table in front of me, no dictaphone or its iPhone substitute, not even an interesting National Geographic with bookmarks of pictures that were inspirational or holiday locations that were aspirational.
"Who says?" I asked, my voice a little tight.
Tabitha didn't answer me at first.  Instead she started unwrapping her turban, pulling the long fabric away from her head with slow, steady strokes, letting it unwind at its own pace.  Out of the corner of my eye I saw that Dax had laid down his newspaper and was watching with professional interest.  Somewhere behind me I heard a male voice say, "I don't like seeds in my tomato, can you ask the chef to scrape them out please?"  As the turban unwound, a soft grey smoke emerged, smelling of the souk, of spices and heat, underlying notes of sweat and acrid tones of humans and animals mixing.  The smoke seemed to hang a little way above Tabitha's head, spreading out to form a quiet cloud over the whole table, me included.  I didn't need to sneak a glimpse sideways to know that Dax would be tensed now, wound like a steel spring, ready to act.
"I say," she said, her voice sounding as though it came from a long way away.  "I've met you before, on a road less-travelled.  You're Anna's friend."
"Anna has no friends," I said.  She could only be referring to Anna-Mix, and she was so many worlds of trouble that I'd lost count of all the reasons for not spending any time with her.
"Anna doesn't see it that way.  I have a warning for you, which is why I've sent you Tabitha.  Noura has found ink for her pen, and she will be writing in the book soon."
"And I must stop her?"  I couldn't have controlled the sarcasm if I'd wanted to try.
"No.  But if no-one stops her then we must at least know what it is that we're accepting."
There was a click, the sound of the hammer of a pistol being cocked.  My vision suddenly returned, though I'd had no idea that it had gone; I was no longer in a grey fog listening to a distant, but familiar voice, I was sat in the Excess Café with a woman called Tabitha wearing half a turban sat opposite me.
"I want a name," said Dax.  "Now.  Or I pull the trigger."
"Names are power," said the voice.
"These bullets are inscribed with the nine-thousand names of God," said Dax.  Somehow that was parry and riposte.
"...very well.  You may call me Djina, though the writer will remember me better as Violet."
Dax looked at me and I nodded.  I definitely did remember Violet.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Ms Angry's Tearoom

"It was supposed to be called Angie's Tearoom.  After all, she was Angela and she owned the place; she served tea and the occasional cake or toasted crumpet, and she threw people out if they asked for coffee.  She'd liked the idea of drifting around a room with little tables and chairs and clumps of people sipping tea from bone china and talking about the consequential things of the world since she was a little girl.  Her teddy-bear's teaparties had always involved dressing the teddy-bears up in suits and having them sit very upright at the tables while they discussed whether Britain should remain on the gold-standard or switch over to the Plutonium standard instead.  So when she was twenty-six and her best friend committed suicide in a public swimming pool in Loughborough she inherited a surprisingly large sum of money and decided to open her teashop after all.
The sign-writer apparently misheard her and didn't see any reason to question what he'd heard, so her tea-room, with the paint still drying on the walls and the new not yet worn off her tea-cups, became Ms Angry's Tearoom.
And the locals loved it so much she couldn't change it back without offending them all dreadfully.


She was staring morosely at the picture of Oswald Moseley that she'd hung on the wall of the little tea-room when three men in business suits came in and sat gracelessly down at a table.  One of them, whose face was acne scarred and a little more stubbly than she considered respectable, made a fuss of pulling his chair out, dragging on the thick-pile carpet like it was the hardest thing he'd ever had to do.  When he sat down, he bunny-hopped it back up to the table, as close as he could get it, and put both his elbows on the table.  Angela's heart sank.
She picked up three menus and approached the table with a measured tread.  Behind her, at the till, the waitresses trembled.  She offered menus to the other two men first, and then stared at the third man, holding his menu just out of reach.  He still tried to take it, and missed.
"This is a tea-room," she said firmly.  "It is not a bar, nor a dive, nor a night-club, nor some disreputable sordid hole of a place that you go to in the hopes of spending money on taking people away with you."
"Can I see the menu, love?" said the acne-scarred man pleasantly.  His voice had an accent that Angela was sure she recognised but couldn't quite place.  Perhaps it was Irish?  She lowered the menu so that he could take it at a stretch, which he did, and allowed herself a tight line for a smile.
"Alison will take your order," she said.  "There are no Eccles cakes left."
"Bloody good thing too," said one of the other men sotto voce as she left.  "Who the hell puts cheese in a sweet cake?"
Angela sat back down at her table, satisfied that she'd made her position clear, and let her thoughts drift away again.  She sat like that for three minutes before Alison, the luckless waitress assigned to that table, nudged her gently.
"They've ordered fourteen teas, miss," said Alison, dropping a little curtsey.  Angela stopped herself from smiling with pleasure just in time.
"Fourteen teas?  Between three of them?"
"Each, miss."
"They said they wanted everything on the menu miss, except the Eccles Cakes."
"Which are off," said Angela automatically.  "Everything on the menu?"
"Which is fourteen types of tea, miss, two kinds of chocolate cake, and the sardines on crumpets."
"Is it Tuesday?"
"Yes miss."
"Oh.  That explains the sardines then.  Well, serve it to them, I suppose.  Ask them if they'd like the teas brought out one at a time though."
"Thank-you miss."
Angela turned slightly so she could see the three men at the table, and the acne-scarred man caught her eye and waved at her.  She blushed, and turned away again.  The cheek of it.
But why had they ordered all the teas on the menu?

Monday, 19 December 2011

Memento Mori

"I've got an app for that!"
Jermander looked over at Nicky, who was supposed to be doing their Poisons homework.  He harboured a slightly guilty hope that she would accidentally absorb some of the poisons that they worked with so that he could hang around with the cooler kids at Gorillamumps without his mum getting upset, but despite her natural klutziness, her trouble with the curvy letters of the alphabet, and her obsession with Harry Plotless films she seemed to be able to avoid poisoning herself.
"Got an app for what?" he asked, hating himself for talking to her when he was supposed to be solving horror-dimensional equations with pan-Lovecraftian coefficients.
"The book-thingy, here, says that this is a Memento Mori, and I've got an app for that already!  I don't need to make this poison!"  Nicky looked thrilled with herself.  She was an undine, a creature made of water, and when she was happy like this she threw off rainbows in random directions.  Jermander, a vampire, was not terribly keen on them as they burned his skin a little if they hit him.  He pulled his cloak around himself and regretted, not for the first time, that bats were incapable of directed thought about higher mathematics.
"A Memento Mori is a reminder of the transiency of life," he said, shuddering slightly as memories of his childhood came back to him.  "Father was very keen that we understood that when we were growing up, he always said that being creatures of unlife we needed to know what effect we would have on the lesser classes.  Well, actually, he always called them scum, but that's a bit de trop these days.  So anyway, whenever one of the estate workers died, whether they were shot in the back by some idiot who can't tell the difference between a grouse in the air and a man on the ground, or fell into the combine harvester when Father was playing jokes on people, or just caught a bad chill one winter which turned into galloping pneumonia and drowned them in their sleep, their bodies would be brought up to our house for a three-day vigil.  Which meant, really, that we'd have this dead body on the kitchen table for three days."
"How horrible!" said Nicky, her mouth hanging open and dripping slightly.  "How did you eat?"
"We just piled the bigger dishes on the body, and tucked the rest around," said Jermander.  "Except for the combine harvester guy.  We think he got quite a bit eaten actually, so we stuck some chicken carcasses in the coffin with him."
"Oh wow," said Nicky.  "I don't think I could eat a Memento Mori.  I'd chip my teeth."
"You've got teeth?"  Jermander's eyebrows disappeared into his hairline with surprise.  "I thought you filtered krill or something?"
"I have teeth for special occasions," said Nicky brightly.  "They're shiny!  But I'd definitely chip them on this app.  It runs on my phone, you know?"
"Let's see?"
Nicky passes her phone, a slightly corroded black smartphone with a scratched glass touchscreen and little colourful stickers on the back.  Jermander peered at it, and tapped hestitantly at the screen, eventually finding the right icon and bringing it to life.  It purred happily, a bell dinged and donged, and then the screen filled up with information.
"Oh right," he said, reading quickly.  "This is just a death-clock, Nicky, not a Memento Mori. It tells you when you can expect to die, based on your online data."
"When are you going to die then?"
"I'm already dead," said Jermander.  "I'm a vampire.  This thing expects me to have stopped trending on Twitter by the end of February, and to be... oh!  Staked through the heart, apparently, by the end of the century.  That's a tad brutal!"
"It says I've died three times already," said Nicky in a small voice.  "It said that voided the warranty."
"You're not dead though."
"That's what I keep trying to tell it!"
There was an awkward pose, broken finally by Jermander.
"The poison can't be a death-watch though.  Where's the text book?"  Nicky pushed it over, glad to be away from it.
"Oh right, this potion is just intended to force you to relieve parts of your life again, until you've moved on from it.  It doesn't actually kill you, but it looks like it'll hurt a lot."
"What should I do with it then, Jer?"
"Drink it?" suggested Jermander sitting down and sighing as he looked at his paper.  The Lovecraftian variables were writhing around and trying to hide.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

A cure for cheese

Laura slipped into her lab-coat, noting that again it looked like it had been part of a dark's wash.  Instead of being pristinely, gleamingly, white like Dominic's, hers was a kind of cheesy yellow shading to orange at the cuffs and collar.  She pulled it tight and sighed as one of the press-studs pinged off and vanished into a corner of the vestibule.
"Ah Laura, good of you to join us," said Dr. Watford as she came in with her lab-coat now buttoned askew to keep it properly closed.  He was a greying man with several major awards for biology and biochemistry, piercing grey eyes, and a handle-bar moustache that she hated.  "Dominic has just finished telling us about his week spent working with naphthalene derivatives and what sounds like a lot of washing of glassware."  Dominic hung his head, ashamed.  "Your turn, I think, to tell us about your week.  As I recall, you are attempting to sequence the genome for your cress?"
"Well," said Laura, wondering if this was how major scientific discoveries were always announced.  "I was supposed to be, yes.  But then I discovered the cure for cheese."
Dominic sniggered, and across the lab the new grad student, whose name might have been Helena, stopped moving and started listening intently.  Laura shrugged, looked directly at Dr. Watford, and said, "It's true.  I've discovered the cure for cheese."
"Very good," he said, as though she'd announced she had successfully tied her own shoe-laces.  "Where is the cure for cheese now?"
"In my lab," she said.  "I can go and get... it..." Her voice trailed off as Dr. Watford noticeably failed to smile.
"That can't be right," he said slowly, his voice deep and sonorous.  "None of the quarantine hoods are in use, I noticed when I came through earlier.  Surely you've not abandoned lab protocol and put a potentially infectious bacterial agent out unattended?"
"Well, no," said Laura.  "It's in the fridge."
"With the cheese perhaps?"
Dominic sniggered again.  He'd lifted his head, his earlier shame clearly forgotten and was paying close attention.  The new grad student had resumed collecting bits of glassware together.
"Er no.  It cured the cheese that was in the fridge, so it's now in a sealed petri dish with biohazard markings all over it."
Dr. Watford grimaced but nodded.  "It will do," he said.  "However, I can see that we need a quarantine fridge as well.  What happened to the cured cheese?"
"It was eaten."  Laura's voice was very small and she was staring at her feet now.
"I beg your pardon?"
"It didn't look anything like cheese any more," said Laura, wishing she didn't have to tell this part of the story, "and I wanted to know what had happened to it.  So I put it in a sandwich and sold it to some undergraduates.  Then I followed them around for three days, checking up on them."
"And what happened to them?"
"They seemed a little more popular than normal, and one of them started using mouthwash," said Laura.  "It was very boring, but they both survived, and they both said they liked the sandwich."
"How fortunate," said Dr. Watford, sarcasm almost visibly dripping from his words.  "Killing undergraduates, though not strictly against school policy, is likely to cause some problems for you.  Is this it then?  Do we now have the cure for cheese safely under lock and key?"
"No," said Dominic, staring out the window.  "No, we don't."
"Yes we do," said Laura, trying to see where he was looking.  "In my fridge."
"No, my dear," said Dr. Watford.  Domininc is pointing out that our grad student Helena is currently running across the quad carrying the cure for cheese.

Saturday, 17 December 2011


The newspaper article was terrible.  Janet was so upset by it that she tore the page into even one-inch squares and stirred it into her porridge, and then ate it.  Twenty minutes later she went out and bought another copy of the paper so that she could read through the article again and wonder what had ever possessed her to talk to the interviewer in the first place.
The interview had happened in a coffee-shop that dated back to the late seventeen hundreds, and she'd been quite proud of herself for finding it and picking it for the interview.  The deep wing-back chairs were easy to sink back into and come across as a mysterious and deep thinker.  The ancient tables, though sticky beyond belief, conveyed an atmosphere of intellectualism.  The coffee – well, the coffee had been plain dreadful in her opinion, but she'd not wanted to ruin the interview, so she'd drunk it and pretended to like it, while despising the poor taste of the interviewer who apparently did like it.
"Your first review," the interview had said, slurping her coffee, "was perhaps not entirely positive."
"Not positive?" Janet had had to control herself not to scream. "The reviewer was a dyslexic illiterate nitwit whose only talent lay in stringing together insults and epithets from a thesaurus, presumably a big one with pictures and bright colours!"
"Your reviewer," said the interviewer patiently after writing that down, "was none other than Lady Agnes Scaggs, author of fifteen romance novels, twelve criminal fiction novels and three novels that are... perhaps of a somewhat delicate nature.  Her review dwelt at length on what she felt were the matricidal and homicidal overtones of your novel.  How would you answer her charge that you must have a deep-seated complex and mother-issues?"
"Scaggs?  Is she the one who writes about the talking horse that solves crimes?"  Janet had been distracted by that initially, but had eventually returned to the question.  "I have no mother issues, I have no bloody mother for that matter.  The syphilitic whore abandoned me, for which I'm very grateful, at the age of six, leaving me out with the empty milk bottles while she went on a whore-tour of Canada.  I'd prefer never to be reminded of her again, but my characters wouldn't be humans without mothers, so I'm forced to confront their relationships with their own mothers.  Not all of us write about the animals we've taken as lovers, you know."
The interviewer had been silent for a while as she scribbled to get Janet's words down verbatim.  Then she'd sat back in the chair, her face disappearing in the shadows, and said,
"Your second novel was considered by many reviewers to have Clytemnestric themes, which you, slightly surprisingly, referred to as 'no bloody tea, thank-you.'  Do you still feel that that was an appropriate response?"
Janet had had to look up Clytemnestra after that review, and while being annoyed for being made to appear stupid by the reference had not forgotten it since and was delighted to be able to answer the question.
"The themes of the unheeded warnings of the future are commonplace in my work," she said.  "So yes, I do think they were relevant, but as I said at the time, and I was misquoted, it's no cup of tea to follow those themes."
"Really?  They seemed rather facile to me," said the interviewer picking up a copy of Bride of Prejudice from her bag.
"That's the calexis," said Janet smugly, having no idea what facile meant.  The interview looked puzzled, so Janet egged her on.  "Do you have any more questions?"
"Lady Agnes Scaggs also reviewed your fourth book, Coathanger Abbey, which her family famously claimed brought on her heart-attack and subsequent death.  The book was found with a marker just after the now-infamous lesbian root-vegetable orgy between the staff and in-patients of the eponymous abbey."
"Good," said Janet.
"Good.  I'm glad she's dead.  If you tell me where they buried the old bag I'll go over and dig her up and play drums with her femurs and her skull."
"How very Samuel Clements," said the interviewer.  Her face was drawn and pinched, and she slipped Bride of Prejudice and her tape recorder into her bag.  "I think that's enough questions really."  She left her card behind when she left, and Janet only now thought to find it in her own handbag and read it.
Patricia Scaggs.
"Oh bugger," said Janet.  The newspaper headline screamed at her as she stared at it: Novelist to desecrate society grave!  All of her treacherous words were there, listed, cited, and the audio-recording allegedy available online for readers to hear for themselves.  And they'd excerpted the lesbian vegetable orgy scene from her book.  It was clearly a defamation of her character, an assassination of heinous proportions.  Lady Agnes Scaggs was reaching out from beyond the grave, her wretched skeletal hand grasping Janet's throat and choking her out of this world!
"Dammit," she muttered under her breath and went out back to find the shovel.  She was pretty certain that Scaggs was probably buried in the nicer part of the churchyard.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Bounty Hunter II

"Tell me about this woman and her children, then," I said a little slowly.  I was wondering what was going on here.  Even Ma Dodd wouldn't intimidate the Sheriff into setting her boy up like this, no-one held a grudge against Dodd.  It's hard to hold a grudge against a guy who can't even reliably tell a man what day of the week it is.  "She been seen around these parts then?"
"I dunno," said Dodd, his face falling a little, sadness creeping in at the edges.  "I was just trying to find her, and I figured I'd go around and ask a bunch of folks.  She's mean, and she's mean to children too.  I figured people are bound to notice that."
Maybe, I thought to myself.  And maybe people who notice that are careful not to notice themselves noticing that; folks round here know what their own business is and are mindful to keep it that way.  Same as me, my business is my own, and I don't rightly like people asking deep questions about it, so I don't go asking any deep questions about anyone else's business.  And is that the kind of thing that lets a woman get away with stealing children?  I wasn't much sure I liked the kinds of thoughts that Dodd was bringing up.
"I think you gotta be mighty careful asking questions like that," I said.  I gestured at the house.  "Might be I can get you something to drink, Dodd?  Seems like talking's making me thirsty."
"Uh."  Dodd looked puzzled.
"Lemonade, maybe?  Your Ma lets you drink lemonade doesn't she?"
"Have you got Dandy-lion and Burr-dock?"  Dodd drew the words out like they were two words each, clearly liking the sound of them.
"Sure thing," I said.  I did too; not for me, but some of the visitors I got had old-fashioned tastes and liked the stuff.  I thought it made you wet the bed at nights, but that surely wasn't my problem if it affected Dodd like that.  "Sit yourself down while I go fetch."
When I came back outside Dodd was still standing by his car, so I hiked on down the path and handed him a tall glass with ice and a straw in.  He sucked the drink greedily, and he looked a little happier again when he took his lips away from the straw.
"Any clue what this woman looks like then?" I still wasn't sure I wanted to know, but I sure as hell wanted to know why Dodd had a Sheriff's badge and was asking questions of decent, god-fearing folk.
"She has children with her, but they're not her own."  Dodd sucked his drink a little more and I waited, seeing if he had anything else to say.  "She's mean to them."  Another slurp.  The straw rattled a little in the glass. "She's always cold."
Now that was a surprise.  The temperature out here in summer doesn't fall much below 70 and right now it was in the high 80s.  "How do you know she's cold, Dodd?  She telling folks that?"
"She's always wearing a coat," he said, sounding sly and proud at the same time.  "It's a long one, brown, and comes down to her ankles and up to her neck.  She's always wearing it.  She must be cold to wear a coat all the time."
"That's a mighty fine piece of thinking," I said, and despite the temperature a chill had just run all the way down my spine and was making me want to shiver.  I controlled myself, pressing my shoulders out and my chest forward, forcing myself to notice the sun beating down on me.  "Maybe she's got no other clothes though, Dodd."
"Hadn't thought of that," he said.  He sucked on the straw again, getting the last of the drink up.  Then he looked up, his eyes bright and a smile on his face once more.  "But then she's only got the coat and she'll be easy to find!"
"That's true," I said, nodding and holding my hand out for the glass back.  "You should go and ask people if they've seen the woman in the coat.  Tell them it's a brown coat, that'll help."
"Right!  Right!"  Dodd pushed his glass back into my hand and ran round his car, tripping and catching himself on the hood in his haste.  He righted himself and got in, and started her up on the first try.  He waved to me as he pulled away, and I waved back with my free hand.
"Holy crap," I muttered to myself as I turned back up the path to wash up the glass and wait some more for my parcel.  "Dodd's going looking for Clarissa Kay?  That can only end one way."

Thursday, 15 December 2011


It was assault day.  At any other school it would have been illegal, but at the Gorillamumps Academy it was mandatory.  Even notes from your mother wouldn't be honoured on assault day, and anyone failing to turn up on the day would be best off never turning up again, as the punishments for missing assault day were arguably worse than asssault day itself.
There were some rules though; as Gorillamumps was the premier destination for the offspring of the world's mighty and powerful undead, there were rules about the amount of assault that was allowed, and the degree of the assault.  The zombie children could be assaulted as much as you like, but not assalted or in any other way attacked with salt.  Fire was also out, not just for them but also the vampire kids, the young mummies, and the Sporelets of the Creeping Mould.  It was also banned for the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, but no-one at Gorillamumps would admit to having met any of the Dark Young, so it was still a questionable point as to whether any were currently attending.  Skeletons, ghouls, Gelatinous Cubs and flame-efts were all fair target for fire, though if you were daft enough to attack a flame-eft with fire you deserved the consequences of your actions.
Nicky, an undine, stared at the piece of plastic in her hand and wrinkled her face again as she tried to understand the rules of assault day.  Little droplets of water splashed from her onto the plastic and trickled off onto the ground.
"Oh give it up, already," groaned Jermander, her vampire best friend.  He was dressed, as usual, like a New Romantic, having decided that the eighties was an iconic era and fitted somehow with his parents Victorian ideals.  He ran a hand through an impossibly stiff quiff and adjusted his lacy white shirt a little.  "It's simple, right?  On assault day we all try and kill each other with things we know won't have a big effect.  No-one's really supposed to die, but it's good training for after school when we go out into the real world and run the risk of discovery all the time.  Like, you're probably fine because you dissolve in a rainstorm, but for me, if I'm caught creating an army of pawns or influencing politics through blood, I might have to disappear for a few decades.  And no-one's going to just let me walk out of there, or trickle down a drain into the nearest body of fresh-water."
"But... but it's not like this in the films!" protested Nicky.  "In the films the humans all want to go the magic schools and join in!"
"You've got to stop watching that rubbish and start paying attention in lessons," said Jermander.  "You've failed every class you've taken so far.  We're only friends because our parents are neighbours."
"You're so mean!"  Nicky dropped the paper, giving up on trying to read.  She'd mastered about half of the alphabet, but the curvy letters all looked much the same to her.  The teachers felt she was lazy, the headmaster thought she was probably retarded and regularly told her so, and even her best friend was mandated.
"Look, what's your plan for assault day?  Maybe if you work out now what you're going to do you won't end up as a claim on everybody else's list."
"I don't have a plan," said Nicky hopelessly.  "What's yours?"
"Tridents," said Jermander looking pleased with himself.  "I did a bit of research and I reckon that most years everything's just improvised, which is a bit silly if you ask me.  I mean, that gives the edge completely to the Gelatinous Cubs, the Werewolves, and the Dark Young."
"Are there really Dark Young at Gorillamumps?"
"Absolutely definitely.  There's too many kids get admitted to the Mental Injuries Clinic each month for there not to be."
"Oh.  What's a clinic, Jer?"
Jermander ignored the question and got back to his tridents.  "See, a trident can pin the skeletons in place, pin down the mummies without hurting them.  Well, much.  The werewolves will be fine being stabbed so long as there's no silver or wolfsbane... by the way, did I tell you that I spotted wolfsbane growing the herbarium?  I reckon one of the teachers is going a bit rogue again."
"Dear Gods, Nicky!  Haven't you noticed?  It's like your Harry Plotless films, every year another teacher goes completely bonkers and murders a few students before someone works out what's going on and brings him to justice."
"Is that what happened to Dr. Pumpkinhead?"
"No, definitely not.  He just got a bit carried away with his barbecue and decided his own head would taste good."  Jermander stared at Nicky, remembering that sarcasm was something she had trouble with.  A bubble slowly rose through her face and popped at the top of her head, and he wondered how she ever remembered to breath.  "Anyway, Nicky, I've got myself some stashes of tridents set up and I'm going for the record this year.  The current record is by Miimelak back when the Frost Giants were allowed in Gorillamumps; he stamped on seventy-nine students and only two of them were disqualified for being actual kills.  I reckon I can do eighty with a bit of planning."
"I don't think I can hurt anyone, Jer," said Nicky plaintively.  She gurgled a little; instead of crying she just fell apart and splashed on the ground, and the gurgle was a fairly reliable indicator that that was about to happen.
"I thought you'd say that," said Jermander quietly.  "Don't worry, I've got an ice trident as well.  I figure that if I get you cold enough you'll be stuck in one place too, but you'll be fine when you thaw out."
"Oh, just meet me here tomorrow," said Jermander.  "Assault day starts at nine, so let's get here for eight-fifty-five, yeah?"
"OK," said Nicky sounding a little more cheerful.  "Maybe tomorrow will be fun after all!  We're a team!"
"Yeah," said Jermander, smiling with his teeth.  "Now, what kind of trident do you think will stop a Dark Young?"