Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Dim Tart

"Dead?"  Melissa gasped dramatically, and one wrist was flung upwards to land against her forehead like some nineteen-forties movie starlet's idea of shock.  Sadly Melissa misjudged it badly and her bony wrist rapped against her forehead like a hob-nailed boot striking the boot-scraper, and her eyes rolled up in her head and she collapsed on the floor in a heap for real.  Miss Flava looked at her pityingly, Playfair barely spared her a glance, and Ronald Verges acted as though she wasn't there.  Only Calamity paid her any attention, sneaking out from behind Playfair's legs with her head lowered as though hoping that if she couldn't see Miss Flava then Miss Flava couldn't see her, until she reached Melissa.  Then her long pink tongue lolled out of her mouth, and she started licking the woman's eyes.
"Why do dogs like the taste of eyeballs?" asked Miss Flava, watching Ronald Verges.  He still didn't look down at the fallen woman.
"I don't know," said Playfair, with a hint of exasperation.  He sighed heavily.  "Easier to chew, maybe?"
"Surely they'd just pop?"  Still no reaction from Ronald Verges.
"Hah, yes.  Maybe that's what they like about them.  Grapes for dogs!"
"The Great CumuloNimbus is dead, Sergeant?" asked Ronald, his foot tapping slightly as her spoke.  He held his arms tightly across his body, and his face was drawn, his mouth pinched.
"Detective Inspector, actually," said Playfair.  "I have a card here somewhere...."  He produced nearly a dozen cards of various shapes and sizes from an inside pocket and dropped them on the floor.  They clattered, causing Miss Flava to raise an eyebrow.
"No, don't help me," said Playfair turning round and bending down and somehow managing to stand on Ronald's tapping foot in the process.  "I've got them all!"
There was a noise like a steam-kettle starting to boil in the next room, and Miss Flava noted that it was coming from Ronald as he tried not to let Playfair know that he was standing on his foot.  His pale face was going a putrid pink, and his teeth were gritted to the point where they were nearly grinding together.
"There, got them all," said Playfair standing up and finally shifting his weight off Ronald's foot.  He put them away in his pocket again.  "Now Mr. Ronald, you were saying that the great CumuloNimbus is dead."
"No!  No, you were saying that, Inspector.  I was only repeating it."
"How do you know that the Great CumuloNimbus is dead then?"
"I just said, Inspector, you told me."
"Hearsay, then.  You're spreading malicious rumours about the demise of a local celebrity without checking if they're true or not first?  Is there a reason for this.  I mean, a particular reason, other than the obvious?"
"Wha–"  Ronald stared at Playfair with his mouth open.  Then he realised what he was doing and it snapped closed again like a striking venus fly-trap.  Miss Flava pulled Calamity away from Melissa, noticing with a little bit of concern that Melissa's nose now appeared a little nibbled.
"No, I'm not spreading rumours," said Ronald, getting his thoughts together.  His accent, already rather Home Counties, became plummier still.  "One doesn't do that kind of thing.  You told me, mere moments ago, my dear chap, that the Great CumuloNimbus was dead, and I'm now trying to find out why you are telling me that.  One that."
"Because he is," said Playfair.  "And you are in his house, which is suspicious, with a woman, who looks suspicious, doing suspicious things in a suspicious manner.  And this, you see, makes me suspicious."
"That's a lot of suspicion," said Miss Flava, sounding helpful.
"Oh do shut up, you dim tart," said Ronald.  It sounded reflexive, as though this was a standard come back for the women in his life.  The silence in the room was thick enough to cut with a bread-knife, and when he realised why, his still-ruddy face finally started to pale.  "I was talking to my sister-in-law," he said.  He pointed at the unconscious woman on the floor, lying in a pool of dog-drool.  "She's a daft tart and a dim bint."
"I really hope you know more Arabic than that one word," said Playfair, producing a notebook from a pocket Miss Flava was sure he'd shown to be empty at least twice today.  "Or that's language likely to cause disorder.  And possibly a hate crime."
"A hate crime?" said Ronald, over-enunciating his aitche.
"Well, I hate you," said Playfair.  "And causing me to do that is definitely a crime."

Monday, 30 January 2012

AI war

"Gravity is one-fifth what you are used to," said Melandibus, the Artificial Intelligence responsible for managing the spaceship's living quarters.  "Please exercise caution when walking, jumping, reacting to the unexpected and dropping things.  You may, however, be less cautious when engaging in most forms of copulation, showering, and performing Yoga."
"Thank-you, Mel," said Captain Adder, slowing his stride slightly.  The floor felt somehow bouncy underneath his feet, as though it were pushing him back up when he landed on it, and he knew that this was the illusion caused by the reduction in gravity.  A thought crossed his mind.
"Most forms of copulation?" he wondered, forgetting himself and speaking aloud.
"Not that thing you do–" began the AI, and he hastily cut it off before it could elaborate.
"Mel, why is the gravity abnormally low?"
"Zygomatic, the ship's AI responsible for the cleaners, has determined that this is the optimal level of gravity for keeping the ship spotlessly clean," said Mel.  The AI's voice synthesis routine had been destroyed during an interaction with an enemy Wellensittich two months earlier, and although his Geordie engineer had done his best to cobble something back together, the AI now sounded mid-pubescent, with its voice breaking and changing unexpectedly as it spoke.  When it reached Wellensittich it trilled the word a lot like the alien species did when talking.
"I see," said Adder, approaching a door.  The door slid aside with a soft click, and as he walked through he abruptly fell over, landing heavily on his chin.  It didn't break, but it hurt significantly.
"Lopodopterous, the ship's medical AI, has determined that three times normal gravity is more effective for maintaining bone density and health," said Mel without waiting to be asked.
"Are any other AIs weighing in with an opinion?" asked Adder, pulling himself to his feet.  He felt like he was being glued to the floor, and each new step was now a real effort.  In moments he was out of breath.
"Fourteen more," said Mel.
"And is the gravity around the ship now erratic, depending on which AI got to set it?"
"Not exactly," said  Mel.  "The AIs are warring over it at the moment, and gravity may change arbitrarily from one step to the next.  I would advise caution."
"I think that goes without saying," said Adder gloomily.  "Mel, please turn off gravity for any corridor I am in."
"You are presently only in one corridor," said Mel.
"Don't make it sound like you wish I were in more than one," said Adder.  "Just make sure that there is no gravity in any corridor I'm in, and that I don't leave a zero-gravity corridor for a plus-gravity corridor without ample warning."
"Very good, Captain Adder," said Mel.  The captain felt relief as his weight suddenly vanished, and he pushed off the floor to hang just below the ceiling.  Now, to get to the bridge.
"Officer Shlong," said Captain Adder, trying not to snigger.  The poor man hadn't chosen his name, after all.  "What is going on with the AIs?"
"Internecine war," said Officer Schlong, who was sat at his station looking badly hungover.  "I think we've actually lost the Ironing and Washing AI for good; one of the others appears to have successfully flooded its chamber with soap suds."
"Why, though?  Aren't the AIs supposed to be cleverer than us?"
"Only by our standards," said Schlong, looking depressed and hungover at the same time.  "They were built in our image though, and we've managed to copy over all kinds of odd little emotional and psychotic traits into their programming."
"So how do we stop them fighting?"
"Stop them fighting," said Adder, deciding that delegation was the best form of command.  Schlong looked miserable, but then he usually did anyway.  He simply couldn't hold his drink, and the bread dispenser was currently soaking all bread in alcohol before dispensing it.
"Right," said Adder.  "Ignoring the AIs then, can we get to the Truto star system before the end of the week?"

Sunday, 29 January 2012


The Longbleat Health Spa and  Farm was located in the luxurious Sussex countryside, surrounded for miles around by farmland, forest and heavy vegetation.  The brochure – glossy, smelling faintly of lavender, and reported to taste like Epsom salts (Barbara hadn't actually licked the pages to find out) – talked about the opportunity for long walks around the Spa and Farm, admiring the vegetation and generally healthfully benefitting from the close proximity to nature.  It also devoted double page spreads to the rooms, which were panelled in dark woods and furnished with soft white linens and knitted woollen, white blankets so that the effect was of snow-fall in a Narnian wood.  There was a chapter on the food, which while claiming to be nutritionally balanced and dietetically analysed still appeared to have obtained a Michelin star, and was mouth-watering enough that some of the pages were now stuck together for entirely wholesome reasons.  Barbara had stared at the pages until she could no longer resist temptation, and had then booked a week there for her and her daughter, Megan.
Megan was staring out of the taxi windows in horror as they passed another bog on the narrow, single-car road that apparently led to Longbleat.
"Babs," she said, knowing that her mother hated the informality.  "Where the eff is this place?  Are they going to have television there?  Or internet?  Wi-fi?"
"Megs," said Barbara, knowing that the name-calling was childish and yet unable to stop herself.  "It's a health spa, you won't need the television.  It'll be leisurely meals, gentle exercise, massage, exfoliation, heated stones, and comfortable beds made up by room service.  It's a chance to relax and get away from it all.  It's paradise."
Megan scratched at a spot on her chin.  It did sound quite appealing when put that way, and her mother was paying for it all, so perhaps she shouldn't sound too ungrateful.  But she didn't much fancy missing any of her evening soap operas; perhaps there'd be free wi-fi so she could watch them online.  She pulled her phone out of her pocket and checked for reception.  Nothing.
"There's no reception!" she said incredulous.  Babs stared at her for a moment, and then pulled the well-thumbed brochure out of her Louis Vuitton handbag.
"Yes there is," she said, pointing to page four.  "Look, it's done in a Louis XIII style.  The reception looks a bit sixties, but I think that's supposed to be part of the charm."
"No, I mean mobile phone reception," said Megan, and then stopped.  "Louis XIII?  Wasn't his mother a Medici?"
"What if she was?"  Barbara hated history almost as much as she hated the news.  It always got depressing when you got to the good bits, and there was never enough sex.  She preferred OK! magazine, and its newly published sibling, F-U!
"Poisoner and political intriguer," said Megan.  "Interesting choice of monarch for reception then."
"Oh really!  It's the style of the furniture," said Barbara, her tone dismissive and snappish.  "I hardly think they're going to poison guests in reception."
"No," said Megan.  "It would make more sense to do it on some of the blasted moorland that surrounds the farm."
"That's farmland, woodland, and rich, saponiferous vegetation," said Barbara, reading from the brochure to make sure that she got the long words right.
"You won't be going for many walks this week," said the taxi-driver, who'd been silent up until then.  Megan and Barbara exchanged looks, and Megan got the task of talking to the man that Barbara thought of as 'the help'.
"Why's that?  Is the weather bad?"
"Foot and mouth," said the taxi-driver.  There'll be sheep-pyres all over the place up here.  Look out for them at night and open the window.  Great mutton flavour."
"Oh that's horrible!"  Barbara's hand flew to her mouth.  "Of course we won't be opening the windows, there'll be air-conditioning!"
"I don't much care to walk anyway," said Megan.  The taxi-driver, who'd noted the suspension drop when she got in, wisely said nothing.
"Well," said Barbara, annoyed by the taxi-driver and determined to get back to the positive of the Longbleat spa, "there's a heated indoor pool."
"Presumably not heated by burning sheep?"  Megan subsided when she saw the little red spots begin to burn angrily in Barbara's cheeks.  "I don't really swim much, either, Babs.  It's a bit... well, wet."
The taxi-driver coughed, which could, just, have been a stifled snort of laughter.  Both women looked at him, but when he stayed silent returned to the brochure and their conversation.  "The hot stone massage sounds nice though.  Do you think they use special stones?"
"Oh yes," said Barbara immediately.  "They're volcanic in origin, smoothed by centuries of passing water at the bottom of rivers just beyond the main volcano.  They have special sherpas go and collect them and bring them back to civilisation."
"Oh good," said Megan.  "You know, I heard a rumour that in America they just use house-bricks, or old cobblestones."
"That's awful!"  Barbara's hand was at her mouth again.  The taxi swung to the left as they took a tight corner and turned onto the Longbleat drive.  "Oh look, what's that under that tree?"
They both peered out of the window as a spavined horse, foaming at the mouth, shuddered its last beneath the tree and collapsed, its mournful face bouncing heavily off the ground.
"Nature at its finest," said the taxi driver into the silence.

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Mrs. Rancipopple

Mrs. Rancipopple was talking to the yeast.  The yeast was talking back, though rather slowly.  It seemed to be a poor conversationalist, but that wasn't stopping Mrs. Rancipopple.  It had taken her thirteen years to learn how to cast this spell, and she was going to make the most of it while she could.
Jermander sighed.  Like most of the rest of the class he was bored; talking with yeast was a trivial application of the spell, which allowed a person to converse with anything that presently had a mind.  Some of the lecturers at Gorillamumps had become legendary for their uses of the spell: they'd spoken with the nascent crystalline minds of mountains, they'd spoken with the titanic, pattern-obsessed mind of El Niño, and they'd even managed to talk with the hive mind of a hornet swarm.  And here he was, sat in a crumbling classroom in a draught, listening to Mrs. Rancipopple talk to yeast.
Mrs. Rancipopple was not one of the great minds of Gorillamumps, and was largely employed so that the careers master could point to her and hold her up as an example of what would happen to you if you didn't apply yourself to your studies and pass your exams.  She was also, though she quite possibly didn't know it, one of the first lines of defence at Gorillamumps: in the event of a supernatural intrusion or a supranatural attack she was considered a disposable unit who could be used as a shield, a distraction, or a sacrifice.
"Have you reproduced today?" asked Mrs. Rancipopple, seeming engrossed in her conversation.
"Have you?" whispered Jermaner to the Young Mummy sat next to him.  The Young Mummy tried hard not laugh, and ended up shaking tomb dust everywhere, causing the Fungi of Yuggoth behind him to start sneezing, and everyone else to look at it, trying to work out where its nose, or even its mouth was.
"Pay attention, students!" snapped Mrs. Rancipopple looking up from her yeast.  The answers to these questions will form part of your exam.  What... What is that noise?"
"H'brr'k, miss," said Nadine, one of the left-aligned Ancients of Mu-Mu.  The Fungi from Yuggoth held a wet, dripping appendage up in what might have been an apologetic fashion, but actually sent chills of horror through everyone who looked round at it.  "He's sneezing."
"Swearing," said Mrs. Ranipopple.  Everyone stopped looking at H'brr'k and looked at her instead, mostly puzzled.  "She's swearing," said Mrs. Rancipopple, looking slightly puzzled herself.  "Quite... inventively."
"You can understand its sneezing?" asked Jermander, knowing that he probably shouldn't draw attention to himself.  The faculty were still trying to track down who had let Taurus loose on the campus last Janusday.
"Her," corrected Mrs. Rancipopple.  "And yes, she's not sneezing, she's swearing.  Something about... mummy dust all over her good frotcockle."
"What's a frotcockle?" asked Nadine.  The whole class was entranced now.
"I don't know how to translate it," said Mrs. Rancipopple.  "It's like... it's like vagina-carrier, but you have to have a frot first, and it needs to be cold enough that it's partially collapsed, and needs to be far enough away from a knertrudle that there's no frilletting, just cockling."
"You're making this up," said Nadine, but she didn't sound certain, and the Fungi from Yuggoth was undulating in a way that made everyone feel nauseous but was generally agreed to be their way of saying Yes, yes.
"No," said Mrs. Rancipopple.  "The yeast has always been able to understand the Fungi, it thinks she got a lovely fruiting body."
The silence in the classroom was thick enough to cut up and build igloos with.
"Um." said Nadine, trying to break it.  The word hung in the air as though unable to fall to the ground and slink away in shame.
"Oh my," said Mrs. Rancipopple.  "Have I just found a way of decoding Yuggothian?"
Somewhere on the other side of campus, as though resonating psychically, the careers master let out a scream of anguish.

Friday, 27 January 2012

The forty-third folder

Always rotate.
The filing cabinet was institutional green, the kind of colour that reminded him of hospitals.  His grandmother, a fantastically difficult woman, had managed to die in one.  A hospital, and an institutional green filing cabinet.  He barely remembered her, just remembered the colour of the walls as he held his mother's hand while they walked along the echoing corridors that seemed to never end.  Finally they would come to some double doors that led onto a ward, and at the start of the ward were the private rooms.  The smell of disinfectant, always strong, was strongest outside the double doors as though trying to prevent the miasma of death from creeping out.  His mother would open the doors, and her hand would always be shaking, and they would venture on to the ward.  The matron would stop them, a clipboard in her hand and a stern look on her face.  His mother would face her and a strange look would cross the matron's face and she would usher them into the second private room, where his grandmother would be lying in bed, staring out of the window and waiting to die.
There were never any flowers in the room, because his grandmother hated unnecessary colours.  She had worked on a dairy farm when she was younger, and considered things that grew to be either food for the cows or things for the cows to trample on.  Or crap on, as she once said in a loud voice while he was listening, and he giggled and his mother looked angry.  The bedsheets were beige and the blanket was grey and had little holes in it here and there that he'd stick his fingers through, wiggling them around, while his mother tried to make conversation with a woman who didn't want her there.  They never stayed very long, and he never knew who was more relieved that the conversation was over.
If there are long periods of inactivity, it is better to adjust the bilateral hinge downwards with a sharp motion.  If the hinge snaps, the motion was too sharp.
The filing cabinet was institutional green, the same green found in mental health retreats and state-funded hospices, where the nurses will tick you happily off a checkboxed list but won't pick you up off the floor and put you back in the chair because of the Health and Safety at Work Acts.  Luckily the floor in the hospice was heated, so lying on it was kind of pleasant until they could get Old Lou, who didn't know anything about his rights, or health benefits, or lifting people back into chairs, to come and pick them up again.  Some people preferred the floor.
He opened the filing cabinet.  The top drawers held many manilla folders suspended on little rails.  There were dividers between some of the folders, thick navy-blue pieces of card with numbers written on the little tabs to help with the filing.  He didn't recognise the order of the numbers, which started 4, 6, 9, 21, 22, 25....
Still rotating?
Someone had crossed out the number 46 and written 43 in its place.  He didn't know whether they'd corrected a number in the sequence, or if the number 43 was somehow more important than 46.  His grandmother had died in room 46 of the hospital, somehow half-squeezed into a low drawer of an institutional green filing cabinet.  She looked happy when they found her, which is more than she'd ever done when he'd seen her while she was still alive.
The cause of death was registered as misadventure, and his mother held his hand while they went to the funeral.  In the big car with too many seats on the way there, a big man with a red face who kept crying suddenly sat bolt upright and giggled.
"Let's put the fun back into funeral!" he said in a too-loud voice, and the people next him began to shush him, but this was the most interesting thing that happened for the whole car ride.  At the cemetary there were hundreds of people and the vicar had to stand on the headstone to make himself heard by them all.  When he finished talking, everyone walked past the grave, casting in a handful of soil, so that the gravedigger barely had anything left to do by the end.
Inside the forty-third folder were some birth certificates and some very old, sepia-toned photographs.  His grandmother was not his mother's mother.
Insufficient rotation may cause the bilateral hinge to misalign.
"She's not dead, you know," his mother said quietly as they walked away from the graveyard.  They weren't going in the big cars, so they were catching a bus back home.  His mother seemed relieved that no-one had stopped them and asked them to go to the wake.  "They all think she is, but they didn't see her in that hospital."
He put the folder back in the filing cabinet and slid the drawer closed.  He didn't miss the sound of the door opening behind him, for all that the arrivee had tried to hide it by the filing cabinet's noise.  He didn't want to turn round, but he knew who had to be behind him.
Always rotate.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

No blame

Charles Asciugimento, Head of Building Security, stared at the plaque on his desk.  He didn't know where it had come from, but was certain that the hidden CCTV cameras in his office would have recorded the visitor and the time that they delivered it.  He would check it later, for now he was amusing himself by trying to decide who would have left it there for him to find.  He'd discarded a lot of the security force on the grounds that they would have no way of gaining entry to his office when he wasn't there unless someone else let them in, in which case he considered the person letting them in to be more guilty that the deliverer of the plaque.  Because disloyalty was something he absolutely would not tolerate in his staff.
The plaque was polished mahogany, rectangular, about the same size as a typical letterbox.  A small gold-ish plate had been mounted in the middle of it, and engraved on the plate were the words No Blame.  Charles allowed himself a small smile as he read it again.  Someone had clearly done something they feared being found out to be suggesting that he pay attention to such trite words.
Someone knocked on his door, so he pressed a button on the left-hand side of his desk.  The flat-screen monitor, recessed into the top and back of the desk so that people stood in front of him couldn't see it, changed its display to show the outside of his office.  Anita, a third-level staff sergeant stood, arms folded yet looking alert outside the door.  He pressed another button and the door buzzed.  Anita unfolded her arms and pushed it open.
"Staff Sergeant," said Charles, not getting up.  He waited while she walked across the large expanse of smooth, tiled floor to his desk, and came to attention in front of him.  Then he stood up and saluted, and checked the rapidity of her return salute, and the angle her hand made as she raised it.  He nodded approvingly and sat back down again.
"Staff Sergeant?" he said again, this time letting her know that she could speak.
"We turned the hoses on the mariachi band on the ground floor, Sir," she said, reporting on recent events.  "Two shoppers attempted to stop us, so we hosed them down too."
"And... and when they were unconscious from the water-blast we took them into custody, Sir."  Anita's face was wooden.  "They are waiting to be released from the cells now, Sir."
"How are their clothes?"
"We stripped them and put their clothes into ice water, as per standard procedure, Sir."
"Then return their clothes to them, ban from the mall for two months and have some plainclothes guards delay them all the way out of the building," said Charles.  "Security is, as ever, a priority, and those people who would challenge it without thought must be re-educated."
"One of them claims to be related to one of the mariachi singers," said Anita.  Even her voice was perfectly neutral, concealing whatever her private feelings might be.
"Then they were as much a risk as the mariachi band," said Charles.  "Who vetted that band initially?"
"Sergeant Clare," said Anita.  There was a fractional pause before she gave the name, as she wrestled with not wanting to betray a colleague and knowing that Charles probably already knew and was testing her own loyalty to him.
"Ah yes," said Charles.  He tapped a thin, white finger against his lips.  "This was her first time, as I recall.  I shall impress upon her the importance of knowing everything about the family of such bands before they are allowed into the mall.  Desperate times breed desperate people and we must be ever-vigilant.  No-one shall die in here because we did not attend to security."
"No blame," said Anita.
"The plaque on your desk, Sir, says No Blame.  And you're telling me that if anything were to go wrong here, it would not be security's fault.  No blame could attach to us because we've done everything we can to prevent it."
"Yes," said Charles, feeling that Anita sounded rather glib.  "Although I think this is a reminder to us all of the I Ching."
"The what, Sir?"
"The I Ching.  It is a means of foretelling the future, and it regularly ends its little predictions with the phrase No Blame.  I think it's trying to excuse itself in advance."
"Does it work, Sir?"
"Of course not, Staff Sergeant.  If we could predict the future then security would be a very different job."
"Very good, Sir."
"Indeed.  What has happened with the band?"
Anita swallowed hard, and managed to keep staring dead ahead, her eyes unfocused.  "Unfortunately, Sir," she managed, "they attempted to escape after being hosed down and broke through a door inappropriately secured by the contractors on the first basement level."
"They fled down an escalator?"  Charles sounded unhappy.
"Not exactly, Sir.  When we were subduing the members of the publ–"
"Vigilantes," corrected Charles.
"–vigilantes, Sir, the mariachis made a run for the stairs.  We turned the hoses back on them, and they... they used the pressure of the water to speed their descent, Sir."
We hosed them into a twenty-foot fall, is what she thought while she described things using Charles's approved terminology. Then we chased them to a door we knew the contracting firm wouldn't have locked, even though they're supposed to.  And we knew that there was a bloody big hole behind the door, and that they'd not see it before they were falling.
"I see," said Charles.  "Well, I shall certainly review our understanding with the contractors.  What happened when they were through the door?"
"They fell down a pit, Sir," said Anita.  "They mostly broke their arms, trying to break their fall."
"Ah, so no more mariachi?"
"No, Sir."
"Ah well," said Charles.  He picked the plaque up, and turned it to face her momentarily.
No Blame.
"You may go now, Staff Sergeant."

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Ronald and Melissa

The walk from the carpark to the house was short and leafy.  Miss Flava lifted some of the leaves up – glossy, broad deep green leaves that reminded her of those of a rubber plant, only smaller – and checked.  The plant was growing over a red-brick wall that defined the passage.  Ahead of her, Playfair was unconcerned about the route, and seemed intent on getting to the house.  Behind her (she checked when she didn't hear the click of claws on the paving stones) Calamity had decided to wee on the wall and the plant.  Given that Calamity's bladder apparently held enough to flood small rooms (and Miss Flava was sure that Playfair had been teaching her tricks about holding it in as well) she was relieved that the dog was relieving herself outside.
She came to the end of the passage and turned a corner.  The wall stopped and a short lawn spread out before her, leading to white-painted, glass-panelled French-doors.  A very shallow flight of steps led up to the doors, where Playfair was rapping impatiently on the glass.  As the doors opened, Calamity came galloping up behind her, brushed past her at full speed, and charged towards Playfair.  Miss Flava said nothing, knowing that her boss would somehow be expecting this.
"Who are y–" said a man in an angry voice.  He cut off as Playfair stepped neatly aside and Calamity leapt at him, her paws landing heavily on the shoulders of his suit and bowling him over.  He fell backwards, letting go of the door, which Playfair caught and held.
"That's my dog," he said in his best outdoors voice.  "Please stop molesting her.  Now!"
The man on the floor, who was being frantically licked by Calamity, stopped trying to push her off him and submitted to her cleaning.  A thin woman in an uncomfortable-looking blue and mauve dress hurried over from a table against the far wall of the room.  She was still holding a china cup of tea, and its matching saucer.
"Oh, dear!  What...?  What...?  Ronald?  Are you under that dog?"
"Don't start!" snarled the man on the floor, turning his head to the side to try and escape Calamity's tongue.
"Well, I'm only asking!"
Playfair gestured, and Miss Flava walked in.  The room appeared to be a function room of some kind: it was large, with a wooden floor that seemed highly polished.  Seats were stacked against both end walls, and a few large, simple tables were pushed up against the front of a small stage.  The stage curtains were drawn across, so that only the apron could be seen.  When she looked up, she could see lighting gantries across the ceiling, and tracing them across with her eyes she found a black-painted ladder in the shadows of one corner, obviously the way up there.  Underneath the tables were large packing cases and trunks, and on top of the tables were a tea-urn, some china cups and saucers, a plastic half-litre carton of milk with a blue top, and a couple of foil trays of rather dry-looking sandwiches with the cling-film pulled half-back.
"No-one seems to have come to your party," said Playfair, who'd come in silently behind her.  "Calamity, dear, please leave the man alone.  He's stopped attacking you now."
"Are you Calamity?" said the thin woman, turning to Miss Flava with a terrifying smile.  Her teeth were varying shades of yellow and brown and looked badly decayed.
"No," said Miss Flava coldly.  "That's Calamity."  She pointed at the dog, who had started to get off the man on the floor and then found something interesting to sniff.  "Calamity!"  The dog lifted her head, saw the expression on Miss Flava's face and quickly retreated behind Playfair.
"Oh, I'm so sorry," said the woman.  "I assumed, with that name, that Calamity must be human.  Calamity Jane, I'm sure?"
If you're so sure, thought Miss Flava, why are you making it a question?  But she held her temper in check.  "Yes, Calamity Jane."
"My favourite Crimean nurse," said Playfair, as he always did when someone asked about Calamity's name.  The thin woman nodded and smiled, not seeing anything wrong with this statement, which made Miss Flava hate her even more.
"Who are you?" she said pointedly, realising that the woman wasn't going to offer her name.
"She's Melissa," said the suited man, finally up off the floor.  "She's my sister-in-law.  I'm Ronald Verges."  He emphasized the last syllable of his surname.  "And who the hell are you two?  You'd better not be part of the act."
"What act?" said Playfair quickly.  Miss Flava pulled her warrant card out anyway.
"If you don't know that, you'd better be quick at explaining why you're here," said Ronald, his face hardening and his eyes tightening into a squint.
"I was rather thinking the same myself," said Playfair, sounding cheerful.  "You see, we're the police, and the Great CumuloNimbus is dead.  So: who let you in, and why the hell are you here?"

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Dr. Verfuegbar

Instruments clatter in the tray, the kidney-shaped tray.  The nurse is holding it an angle, an angle slightly less than thirty degrees, and the instruments have obeyed the implacable law of gravity and slid to one side.  They have clattered together as they have done so.  Dr. Verfuegbar looks angry, and I wish he didn't.  He's holding a marker pen.
"Nurse!" he says.  She starts, and I wonder how she can look so unsexy in a nurse's uniform.  The fabric is cotton, and it's stretched in all the right places, but yet it does nothing for me.  Then the doctor's pen comes back into my eyeline.
"Try to be quieter," he continues, now that he's got her attention.  "I am drawing on the patient.  These will be incision lines, and it is important that they are in the right place."
The nurse looks at me, and there's something cold and alien in her eyes.  She looks like she thinks I'm not real.
"Dr. Verfuegbar?"  Her voice is glutinous, like the words are caught in mucus in her throat and have to pull themselves free.  "Dr. Verfuegbar, you're half-way through drawing a copy of 'Portrait of the Artist as a Spoon'."
That would explain why he seems to have been using the marker-pen on me for ages.
"What?  Oh.  That can't be right," says Dr. Verfuegbar.  "How invasive is the surgery this patient is having?  Am I removing a particularly difficult tattoo?"
"No-o-o-o."  There's a pause while the nurse finds my notes; she'd put the kidney-shaped dish down on top of them.  "Ah.  He's here to have a verruca removed."
"Really?"  Dr. Verfuegbar looks puzzled.  "Why have we given him a general neural block then?"
"We haven't," says the nurse.  "It's a partial block from the neck down.  He's still awake, just insensate."
"Hmph.  Makes me feel like a vet when you do that," says Dr. Verfuegbar.  "Do we have any of those worming pills left?"
"I'm afraid not," says the nurse.  "The last delivery was blown-up a half-mile from the hospital."
"Land-mines again?"
"No, just shelling.  It might have been bad luck."
"Everything's broken here, nurse," says Dr. Verfuegbar.  "Do you even remember why the war started?"
"I can't remember why the war's continuing," says the nurse, and things beneath her tight cotton jacket shift.  The wrong way.
"Do we have an eraser?" asks Dr. Verfuegbar, staring at me.  "I think it might be wise to remove some of these incision lines in case I don't perform the surgery.  It would be bad if we removed healthy tissue."
"What's so unhealthy about a verruca?"  I suddenly realise that I hate the nurse.
Dr. Verfuegbar stops looking on the tables for the eraser and stands very still.  I hope he's thinking.
"That's a very good question," he says slowly.  "Perhaps we should be removing the patient from the verruca?  After all, keeping the verruca alive is cheap and easy, whereas the patient is costly and will take weeks to recover."
I really want to say something now, but my throat won't work.  I can just about breathe fractionally more heavily if I try very hard.  No-one seems to notice.
"How big is the hospital incinerator?"
"I'll have to go and measure it, Dr. Verfuegbar," says the nurse.  She sets my notes back down, unfolds an extra pair of insectile arms from the front of her nurse's shirt, and leaves the operating theatre.  Dr. Verfuegbar looks down at me, and his eyes are cloudy with cataracts.
"What was I doing?" he asks to the room in general, his hand reaching out for a scalpel.

Monday, 23 January 2012


My great-aunt had a mantra that she liked to run out at pretty much every family gathering.  Sooner or later there would be a majority of people gathered in one room, usually the conservatory where we could lurk among the plants and quietly eavesdrop on each other's private conversations.  Then she would provoke someone into saying or doing something, and at the top of her voice she would wheel out her mantra.
"Take something with you!" she would bellow happily, like a bull in heat spotting a cudding cow standing out in the field.  "If you're going from the bedroom to the kitchen, pick up that laundry and put it in the machine.  If you're going from the bedroom to the kitchen, pick u–"
She was always silenced, drowned out, or on one occasion severely injured, by one of the other adults present, so I never got to find out what it was she wanted from the kitchen to use in the bedroom.  We children did spend a fair amount of time guessing though.  Kate thought it would be chocolate to eat in bed before you went to sleep (she's been on the Biggest Loser three times now and has a whale-doctor as her personal physician), Tim thought she wanted to take matches with her to set the bed on fire and dance around it (he's head of some Wiccan cult out in the back-woods.  Rumour has it that he's surprisingly rich and on several watch-lists), and Joe always giggled weirdly when he said he thought it was vegetables.  No-one will tell me what's happened to him.
Sadly she's not been at the last couple of gatherings, because it seems she took her mantra to heart.  She was arrested for shoplifting by the police because, as she was leaving a major department store she took her mantra too literally and tried to take something with her.  Without paying for it.  After she was arrested she broke down and confessed to have two storage garages full of shoplifted items, and they've put her away for a few years.
My best friend's mantra is "Bang the rocks together!"  He claimed that it was a variant mantra on "Smaller, smaller," and was about breaking large problems down into much smaller ones that are easier to solve, and that, when separated from the main morass can be brought back together with other sub-problems that they weren't joined to initially thus making new, easier-to-solve problems.  I've seen this technique applied very successfully in the mathematical arts, and I was coming round to the idea of it until he switched from theoretical physics to experimental.  Then the rocks he chose to bang gleefully together one frosty October morning turned out to be two sub-critical lumps of plutonium, and the resulting critical masses irradiated him like a microwave on over-power.
My half-sister constantly mutters "This, too, shall pass," and is thought of as a saint of patience by the people in the hospice she works at.  I happen to know she suffers a lot from constipation.
My cousin, Joachim, likes "Assimilate, don't complain."  I have trouble with that one myself, as it's hardly mellifluous and I couldn't really work out how assimilation would stop you wanting to complain.  So, a couple of years ago, when we supposed to be passing in an air-port in Toronto, we both caught a slightly later flight and sat down in a Tim Horton's to eat far too many doughnuts, wonder why everyone was drinking the coffee, and talk about it.
"Assimilation," he said, "is the process of taking new information on board and working out how you can make that part of your life.  So, when someone drops ice-cream on your polished shoe just before an important interview, what do you do?  Do you scream at the child until it bursts into tears?  Do you scream at the child's guardian until both they and the child burst into tears?  Both of these will increase your tension and stress going into an important interview, and that's not good.  But what if you wipe the shoe off, and then use the stain on the shoe as a turning point for a story you tell in the interview?  They ask you to describe a problem that you've overcome, and you bring this one out: it's a tiny problem in the grand scheme of things, but it's one that easily blown out of proportion, and you can demonstrate patience, resourcefulness, and courage all in one short, fresh-in-the-mind story."
I confess, I stopped listening after he mentioned the ice-cream because I was trying to decide if I should suggest moving the ice-cream shop across the aisle, but he looked very fervent when he finished, so I assumed he'd told me something worthwhile.
Cancer is currently assimilating him though, and I've heard through the grapevine that he never stops complaining about it, so perhaps it's not quite the mantra he thought it was.
As for me?  My mantra is simply that "With sufficient thrust, even pigs may fly."
Job?  Rocket scientist.

Sunday, 22 January 2012


"I'm not very comfortable about this," said Mr. Tees.  He was wearing a pin-striped suit and patent leather shoes, sitting with one foot resting on the knee of his other leg, and holding a clipboard defensively in front of his chest.
"Why?  It's twenty minutes of your time."  Dad could be brusque if he'd not had any coffee, and this morning was almost this afternoon, with no sign of coffee yet.
"It feels like a violation of trust."
"How?  It's a mom-bot, what possible trust could there be?  She an artificial intelligence, but that's all she is.  There's no artificial emotion, or artificial emotional response unit in there.  There's barely enough processing power for her to register on a standard EQ test, and babies show up with an EQ of 30–70 most of the time."
"Babies show up at 30–45," said Mr. Tees, frowning at Dad.  People often did when they found out how much he knew about the area they were supposed to be the expert in.
"Human babies do," said Dad.  "Kings have a study on alligator babies that made it pretty consistently up to the 60s."
Mr. Tees looked horrified, and I wondered then if Dad had baited him just a little bit too far.  The man looked ready to say no.
"Alligators can't possibly be more empathic than humans!"
"I can pass on the details of the paper if you like," said Dad.  "After you've had a little chat with the mom-bot, of course."
"Well, yes, of course," said Mr. Tees, clearly not listening to Dad.  "The paper must be wrong, and it'll be easy to refute.  People will be looking for the holes in it, and they'll need an expert to help them along...."
"The mom-bot," prompted Dad, pushing Mr. Tees in the direction of his office.  "I'll write the details down for you while you're chatting."
"How are you feeling?" asked Mr. Tees.  Dad and I were watching him through the half-silvered mirror on one side of his office.
"Creaky," said the mom-bot.  "My oil has not been changed recently."
Mr. Tees looked down at his notes, and then used his finger to trace across a row of text.  "Your oil was changed this morning," he said, a little hesitantly.  His voice wavered, then got stronger as his confidence returned.  "You were given top-of-the-range Norwegian fuel oil."
"I was given cheap heating oil, two months ago," countered the mom-bot.  "I think I might have started to rust in places."
"You seem in fine condition to me," said Mr. Tees in a neutral tone of voice.  "You're running more smoothly than my own mom-bot, in fact."
"People abuse mom-bots," said the mom-bot.  "You should seek therapy for it."  It took all my self-control, and a glare from Dad, not to laugh out loud at the look on Mr. Tees's face when the mom-bot said that.
"I see." said Mr. Tees, his tone now clipped and business-like.  "I'd like to show you some pictures now.  Just tell me what you see when you look at them.  There are neither right nor wrong answers here, just whatever you see."
"Ink on card," said the mom-bot when Mr. Tees held up the first Rorschach card.
"A little less precise," said Mr. Tees.  "What does the ink on the card depict?"  The first one was a woman in a rocking-chair, and Dad had explained that the first two cards were simple calibrators to try and find cheats.
"A map of Venice before the inundation," said the mom-bot after looking at the card again.  Mr. Tees looked slightly puzzled, but he laid the card face-down anyway and presented the second one, a formula I racing car.
"A cassette tape containing transcripts from the Watergate hotel," said the mom-bot.  "Partially rewound.  You should take better care of these things, they'll be antiques soon."
The third card was genuine, and when I looked at it all I saw was a splodge at first.  Then I realised that it looked a little like an apple pie.
"A close-up of the smile of Adam's first wife, Lilith," said the mom-bot.  "Before the dental surgery."
"What the hell was that?" asked Mr. Tees, sitting back in his office.  His suit looked somehow shabbier, and he had laid the clipboard down on a table.
"That's a psychotic mom-bot," said Dad.  "It was working in a foster-home and killed twenty-four children in an eight-hour period."
"Then it should be scrapped!"
"Not until we know how it became psychotic," said Dad.  "It wasn't built that way, we've checked.  We've built new mom-bots from the same patterns and specifications, and less than two percent go psychotic.  So, we need to know how that happens."
"So you've brought her to a psychiatrist?"
"The best I've been able to track down," said Dad.  "Were any of her responses any use this time?"
"Well," said Mr. Tees, frowning again as he remembered the session.  "Curiously the F1 racing car does get described as a cassette tape by humans too, now and then."
"Which humans?"  Dad sometimes sounded altogether too clinical, and Mr. Tees looked sideways at him before answering.
"The ones we execute."

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Buddy service

Hi, welcome.  Wipe your feet, sit down.  That's your chair over there, the one with your name on it.  Yes, we know your name.  We've known your name for a long time, we've been expecting you too.  Me?  Oh, you can call me Buddy.  I'm your spiritual advisor in this corporate climate, your life-coach for the long-run, your buddy for the time you spend holding your breath underwater... that might be taking the metaphor a little too far.  Maybe.
Today I want you to think about the people around you.  Can you do that?  Can you picture them in your mind's eye?  Think about the office you work in, think about the people closest to you.  Think of the woman who's a little too old for the clothes she wears, who catches your eye and titillates you with a mixture and of desire and disgust.  Think about the guy two desks over with the sinus problem that means he's always sniffing.  And I mean always.  Think about the receptionist who's clearly only been hired because of how she looks.  The other one, the guy?  Yeah, he was hired for how he looks too.  You can see that now you think about it, can't you?  Think about them all.
Scream if you like.  Let it out.
They're filler.  They're life's extras, they're the walk-on players and the bit parts.  They've never had coaching, they've never been given any lines to learn, or any time in the limelight.  When the spotlight transfixes them, they freeze.  They don't know that the only reason the audience is watching them is because it's time to leave.  Messily, usually.  Remember the guy from accounts who drank so much whiskey his liver burst in the toilets on a Thursday afternoon?
Bit player.
Not like you.  You're here to hear what the director has to say, you have a role to play in this life, you're getting your name in the credits.  You're already a success, you just don't know it yet.  And the first piece of advice from the director?  Stop picking your nose when you're on the toilet at work.  It's not a good use of your time and it makes your hands dirty.  Did you notice that I didn't shake hands with you when you came in?  Now you know why.
There are hundred and thousands of people who are just filler, who don't realise that their mundane lives are dull and boring because they're not part of the plot.  When you overhear them on the bus and their conversations are so proletarian and dull, that's because you're listening too hard to them saying "Rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb," over and over again and you're mistaking it for thought.  There's no thought, their mouths are just running away, turned on but without the engine turning over.
But they're still waiting and watching, some of them intend to steal your part if you're not looking after it properly.  You can tell; the moment they become interesting they become a threat.  Act decisively and fast whenever you spot someone becoming interesting.  Cut them down, cut them out, cut them up.  Figuratively, not literally.  We know about the knives, ok?  Put them back in their place.  They're filler, it's only what they deserve.
Who?  Well, you know that guy on reception?  Yeah, the good-looking one I was talking about earlier.  Well, he's just started sleeping with the woman who dresses ten years younger than she is.  That's already interesting, isn't it?  And you know what?  If you asked him, he'd do you too.  He's on his way up, he's becoming noticeable.  He's becoming a player.
What should you do?  Sleep with him, of course.  You need to become more interesting to compete and to be blunt, nuns have a better time of it than you do.  So sleep with him, find out something better about yourself.  And read the script; someone's got to die in six pages time.

Friday, 20 January 2012

A very shiny car

"I would have thought that one was his car."  Miss Flava pointed at the shiny, vintage car.  "Given the size of the house, and the fact that he's clearly a very popular magician, I'd expect him to have a noticeable car if only to attract more attention when he's out.  The other car... well, I guess a wife or a daughter, I think."
"Hmph," said Playfair, letting Calamity out of their car.  She bounded joyfully back the way they'd come and disappeared up the drive.  "Squirrels, probably."
"She's probably heard a squirrel," said Playfair.  "Gone to investigate.  They make a vile noise, you don't expect it from something so small."
"What's that got to do with the Great CumuloNimbus and his car?"
"Nothing.  And it's still not his car."
"What?  Playfair, will you stop being so damn annoying and tell me why you don't think it's his car?"
"Too clean."
Miss Flava looked at the car again, and saw that it was spotlessly clean and so shiny that if she walked over to it she was sure that she'd be able to see her face in it.  How on earth could a car be too clean?  She looked at Playfair, who was standing there with a smug smirk on his face – well, that was practically his only other expression apart from the furious one when he had to deal with the general public.  She looked back at the car again, trying to see what Playfair could apparently see.
The wind rustled the leaves in the trees, and a single yellowing leaf detached itself from somewhere and bounced lazily off the car, landing on the ground.  Miss Flava stared at it, knowing that she'd just seen the answer, but it had run off again to hide in the back of her mind.
Calamity barked behind her, but it sounded muffled.  She turned, and to her horror saw that Calamity had a mouth full of still-moving squirrel.
"Told you," said Playfair.  "I hope that's the only one she's going to catch though, we don't want any of them in the car on the way back."
"She's not getting in the car with a dead squirrel in her mouth!"  Miss Flava was horrified, both at the thought of the dead squirrel and of a half-dead one squirming around on the back seat next to Calamity.
"You going to try taking it off her?"  Again he smirked, looking even more smug, and for a moment she knew why he thought the car couldn't be the magician's.  Then Calamity dropped the squirrel and the thought fled again.
"She's let go of it," said Miss Flava, feeling a little weak.  The squirrel looked broken somehow.
"Yes," said Playfair, stepping on its neck.  There was a sad little cracking sound and its eyes seemed to glaze over, though that might have been her imagination.
"Was that real–?"
"Yes," said Playfair firmly.  "She broke its back and I'm not finding a vet that'll fix squirrels.  It'd be cheaper and easier to find a new squirrel."
"Never have children, Playfair," said Miss Flava, rallying a little.  "Not with those cost-benefit analyses."
"No cost-benefit analysis justifies a child," said Playfair.  "Not in the Western world.  Right, I think there's probably a side-door round here somewhere."
"What's wrong with the front door?"
"Can't be bothered walking."
He walked over to the shiny car, and then past it, disappearing into what looked like a solid hedge.  A couple of moments later he reappeared, looking at Miss Flava like she was stupid.
"Are you coming then?"
"How did you know?" said Miss Flava, walking across the car-park.  "That one had to be a guess."
"The car was probably parked near the door," said Playfair.  "If the door were round the front it'd have been on the other side of the car-park.  Everyone's lazy really."
"Oh!"  Finally the idea that she'd been chasing for the last five minutes settled into the front of her mind. "I see!  The car's too clean.  The magician's been dead for days, if it was his car there's be leaves and... and..."
"Pollen, dust, dirt from any rain," said Playfair.  "Certainly wouldn't be a shiny car left out under trees in an open car-park like that.  That car's been cleaned today, probably before it got here."
"Then whose car is it?"  Miss Flava asked the question anyway, more as a way of talking to herself.  "Do you think he hired a very rich cleaner?"
"Hah!" said Playfair.  "That's when I know I'm in the wrong job!"

Thursday, 19 January 2012

After Clemethtine

Clemethtine had gotten the chop.  Over a cream tea in Miss Angry's tearoom, Janet O'Steen's agent had explained to her why Clemethtine had to go.
"She's just too much of a downer," she'd said, slurping her tea.  Janet forced a smile on her face, and stabbed her scone with a butter knife.
"What do you mean?" Janet asked.  "She's different, she's an outcast, and she provides a reason for the family to leave the countryside."
"Yes, and that's the problem," said her agent, still slurping her tea.  "She's far too interesting and vibrant. Your readers will have conniptions when they read about her."
"They'll have to look up what conniptions are first," said Janet, still bitter that her language and erudition were considered too high-brow for her readers.  "Then they might be able to have some.  If they try hard.  For a long time."
"Janet, darling," said the agent putting her teacup down at last.  Janet was furious to see that it was still half-full.  "Look, you're a very clever girl, and you could write some very interesting books, but would they sell?  Would anyone want to read a book that, at a fundamental level, tells them just that you're very clever?  No.  They want to read about mild families with problems they can relate too, they want to read about daily drudgery and the monsters that are locked up behind smiling, happy, child-abusing faces.  When they're not reading you they're tsking over stories in the Daily Mail that you and I know are fabricated out of whole cloth using a cookie-cutter and big plastic safety-scissors, but that they think are the real thing and genuine threats to society.  Some of them have had their window-cleaners sacked for being not-English-enough!"
"Clemethine is a modern-day issue," said Janet obstinately.  "She's got all the classic problems with a modern twist.  She's Juliet in a world where Romeo deals meth and death to the landed gentry, she's Smurfette when the Smurf village gets an anthrax infection and they have to repopulate, she's... she's... she's Lady Gaga to a gay nightclub!"
"And your audience think that Shakespeare was too difficult and fail to understand how he enriched the English language; they think that anthrax is something that you post to your MP when he tries to put you in the congestion zone; and they have conniptions, whether or not they know it, when they hear the word gay.  Damnit Janet, you're writing pastoral!  Your characters are supposed to suffer in bucolic agony.  Read some James Herriott, for God's sake!"  She picked her cup up and slurped her tea, not noticing Janet once again stabbing her scone with a butter knife.
"Fine," said Janet in the tone of  a woman severely put upon.  "Fine.  I'll lose Clemethtine.  I was going to suggest conjoined twins with the whey-faced Emma, but I imagine that would be a step too far, even in the countryside where misbegotten animals are a fact of life."
"Even a small teratoma would be too much," said her agent.  "Look, give me the Waltons the way I ask for it, and I swear we'll write the book you want to next.  We'll pick a pseudonym for you so you don't damage your brand, and I'll push it to every other publisher you can think of.  You want to do rough animal bondage?  I'll see if that erotic Mills&Boon imprint will take it.  You want to do political humour?  I'll see if Private Eye will review it.  You want to do a Jacobean tragedy?  You're pretty much on your own there, but I'll be nice about it, I promise."
"Really?"  Janet laid the butter knife down, but mostly because her scone was just a pyramid of crumbs.  "You mean it?"
"Yes," said her agent.  "But finish the Waltons first."
"Why?" asked Janet.  "It's a thoroughly miserable novel, and I'm looking forward to most of them dying of tuberculosis at the end."
"I think we all are," said her agent with unwarranted honesty.  "But I've already sold the film and television rights."

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Black boxes

She was looking the other way and never saw the ambulance.  It didn't have its sirens on, it wasn't going that fast, but she ran out into the road and though the driver tried to stop in time, she still hit her.  It threw her thirty feet along the street, and when she landed she bounced.  A couple of times.  The ambulance driver, all credit to her, was first to her broken body and checking for a pulse.  Susan walked up much more slowly.
"I didn't see her," the driver was whispering over and over again, like a mantra against bad karma.  "I didn't see her."  She laid her fingers at the pulse-point on her neck, and there was a tense moment where everyone was holding their breath, and then the driver relaxed a little, her shoulders sagging back, and Susan knew that she was alive.
"Are you with her, miss?"  It was the ambulance driver's partner: a tall man, probably in his mid-thirties, with salt'n'pepper stubble and grey eyes that seemed understanding.
"I don't know," said Susan.  "I was, but then I don't think I was for very long."
The man looked at her closely, while his partner, still murmuring "I didn't see her," to herself loosened articles of clothing and checked for broken bones.
"I see," he said suddenly, and bent down.  There was a whispered conversation between him and the ambulance driver, which Susan couldn't hear enough of to understand, and then the ambulance driver did something inside the clothing of the broken woman.  When the man stood up again, he was holding a clear disc, about the size of his palm.
"It's from the black box recorder," he said.  "It's just a copy, they only last about four hours before they break down.  But if you want to know if you were really with her...."
Susan thanked him and walked a little way away to lean on a lamp-post.
The orange sodium blaze of light made the disc sparkle internally.  She turned it over and over in her hands, wondering if it was a breach of privacy to look at it.  Normally you only got any access to the black box recorder when someone died, or when a relationship ended.  It was the easiest way of obtaining closure, it let you see exactly what someone had been thinking and feeling about you.  It was brutal – there were plenty of businesses sprung up that specialised in giving you somewhere to recover from learning that your relationship was a tissue of deceit and lies and helping you get back on your feet.  And, not entirely coincidentally putting you in close proximity to other people who might be looking for someone a little more trustworthy.  But it was always done at the end of something, not at the start.
She looked over at the ambulance staff, who were now getting a stretcher out.  The only way she could know if she should ride to the hospital with this woman was to read the disc.  Otherwise, she'd have to throw the disc away and pick a choice: take a chance and go with her, or walk away and assume that it was never meant to be.
Of course she should throw the disc away.  Of course she should.
She slipped it into the side of her own black box recorder, and rested her finger on the touch-sensitive Play pad.
She was in a taxi, putting make-up on.  Not too much, she kept thinking to herself, not too much.  My date is called Susan, which is a terribly sensible name, and if she's a sensible person then too much make-up won't impress her.  And if she's not a sensible person, then I can just drink a little too much and show that I'm bubbly and fun as well.  Not too much make-up.  Crap, is that the pub already?  Oh well, let's hope this isn't too little make-up.
The taxi-driver was a bitch and wanted more than the meter stated, muttering about having to clean the back of the car with all the make-up spilled there.  She paid exactly what was on the meter and resisted the urge to poke her tongue out at the taxi-driver as she left.  The pub was brightly-lit, both outside and inside, and there were people already sitting at the pavement tables and standing in the smoking area looking relaxed and cool.  She wanted a cigarette, but she didn't know if Susan smoked.  She went in instead.
Look around, look around, try not to look around too fast, mustn't seem desperate.  Or lost.  Lost might be worse.  Oh look, they have a pool table, don't play pool with her.  You hate losing, they hate it when you keep winning.  Ah, there, at a table near the bar.  Oh!  She's drinking a cocktail.  Damn, I wasn't expecting her to be so sophisticated.
"Hi, you must be Susan!  I'm Daphne."  Smile, shake hands, lean in for a little kiss on the cheek.  Hmm, she smells nice, and I think that's shampoo and not perfume.  That's bold, leaving off the perfume!  I wish I was that capable.
Crap, did I overdo the perfume?
Crap, I know I overdid the perfume.
Make an excuse, get to the bathroom and wash some of it off, before she realises that you're drowing in the stuff.
Oh holy crap, why did I run straight off to the bathroom without even getting a drink?  What's she going to think of me?
Oh my god, the taps aren't working!  There's no water!  What the hell do I do now?
Wait, there's more bars across the street.  Climb out of the window, it's not really that small – where did that shoe go?  Oh hell, could this evening go any more wrong?  Get to a bar across the road, wash off the perfume and –
Susan slipped the disc out of the black box recorder and looked over at the ambulance.  They were almost done loading her into the back of it.  She straightened up, smoothed down her skirt and made her decision.

Tuesday, 17 January 2012


Hopward missed the bank robbery, but the Sergeant interviewing him refused to believe it.  Hopward was quiet, introspective, and forgot to finish his sentences.  The Sergeant felt like he'd been working non-stop for thirty years without so much as a gold-plated tear-gas cannister for his trouble, and was determined to find out what Hopward was hiding.  He snarled, a little theatrically, and Hopward flinched, his head ducking down as though he were going to hide beneath the table.
As the Sergeant began his aggressive questioning again, starting this time with what Hopward had been doing for lunch, Hopward struggled to give answers that would appease the man and at the same time not deviate from the truth.  The problem was, as far as he could tell, that the robbery had happened in front of him, where no reasonable person could be expected not to have noticed.  But he really hadn't.
It had been lunchtime, and he'd sat on the first free bench he could find, which was outside a brick building with little planters at the windows and net curtains.  The front door had a heavy, solid look to it, as though you'd have to lift weights for a few years before you'd be strong enough to open it, and the grass verges around it were neatly trimmed and had no visible weeds.  It seemed like a dependable building, the kind that stayed put and didn't change much.  Hopward had liked it immediately.
Sitting on the bench put his back to the building, and so he'd had to look across the road, where there wasn't much traffic, to a newer building that had more glass and steel in its construction than the one behind him, and so was instantly less interesting.  There were also people going in and out sporadically, and that made him feel a little nervous too, so he carefully looked slightly away from them, and let himself drift into a dreamworld.  As always, he immediately imagined himself standing in a small courtroom, with his parents squeezed into the box that was called the stand, looking uncomfortable and unhappy.  His mother was wearing her Sunday dress with her corsage covering up the little stain that she'd never been able to get out.  His father was in a shirt whose sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, and there was a hint of flour around his wrists.  The judge was listening to Hopward's magnificent summing up speech that gave all the reasons why his parents should be punished for his name.  The fact that Hopward had been living through this fantasy for nearly six months now and still had no idea when he was going to finish summing up didn't bother him in the slightest.  He imagined himself straightening his back, looking the judge in the eye, and starting on point one-hundred and fifty-seven regarding the name 'Hopward'.
He never noticed the car pull up outside the bank, despite that it was right in his line of sight.  He never saw the two men get out of the car, wearing dolphin masks and go into the bank.  He never saw the two men come back out of the bank carrying small leather sacks that looked heavy and get back into the car, and he didn't see the car drive off.  When the bank alarm started ringing fifteen minutes later, he didn't hear that either, as he was preoccupied with explaining why neither Hopward with the stress on the first syllable, nor Hopward with the stress on the second was a good name for a shy five-year-old with an imaginary friend who was a duck-billed platypus.
The first time he noticed anything was when he stood up to go back to his office and the police-man who was supposed to be keeping people away from the crime scene saw him for the first time and demanded to know who he was.  Hopward, hating his name, had said "Mr. Bagthard," and things had just gone downhill from there.
The Sergeant glared at Hopward again, and suggested that a night in the cells might jog his memory.  Before Hopward could say anything at all he had been picked up under the armpits and frog-marched out of the interrogation room and down towards the cells.

Monday, 16 January 2012


Master Licko was in one of his bad moods again.  Around his sculptury were fragments of stone and from inside there was a cacophony of crashing, bashing, and thumping.  Every now and then some luckless piece of statuary would fly through a window, whose glass had much earlier been shattered and scattered, and dive to the earth, throwing up loose soil and losing parts of itself in an ignominious partial burial.  Squashed vermiforms either lay splattered beneath stone or squirmed uneasily, trying to detach their broken parts and wriggle away from the zone of destruction.
I paused at the door, wondering if this was really the right time to visit Master Licko and tell him that his Income Tax was overdue, but even though I could hear what sounded like an overworked lump hammer, I reminded myself that I was a Lawyer-at-arms and not frightened of people like Master Licko.  Despite his enhanced musculature and his days spent lifting hundredweights of stone.  I knocked on the door, and then went in without waiting for an answer.
Master Licko was topless, as he often was, and wearing a heavy hessian wrap-around apron around his lower half, which he didn't always do and left me wondering where to rest my eyes for decency.  In one hand he was holding a lump hammer, in another a metal chisel, and in his third a powder-welding tube.  He glared at me.
"Worthless worm," he said, but without much rancour.  "I knew it had to be you.  Everyone else has patience."
"Talentless hack," I countered.  "All of my other clients have learned to appreciate me."
With the pleasantries out of the way, I looked at what he'd been doing when I came in.  A humaniform woman was crouching atop an anvil, her legs splayed out but supporting her nonetheless, her arms stretched out to the sides, and the top of her head flattened to support a tray or slab.  Her eyes moved constantly, scanning back and forth, but there was no sign of consciousness behind them.
"It's new," said Master Licko putting the powder-welding tube down.  "It's so damn new I'm having trouble getting to the essence of it."
"What is it?" I asked, genuinely intrigued.  I knew that Master Licko had real talent and didn't just churn out minor variations on a theme like so many artists I had dealings with.
"Posturetalk," he said.  "These humaniforms... they have so many different ways of presenting themselves, their very posture tells you something of what they're thinking.  If you sit and watch their soap operas you can see it: their lips say one thing, but their body language says another.  So.  I'm creating humaniform objects that can communicate with you, that can recognise your mood and adjust themselves accordingly.  There's really not much structure required to maintain a flat surface for a table, for example.  If we freeze this womanform's head, then the table is perfectly stable, and she can use her limbs to indicate a mood.  She can adjust her face to show her mood.  She can even tremble slightly if there's nothing spillable on the table."
"I'm... interested," I said, despite knowing that Master Licko always put his prices up if he thought he had a sale.  I rather liked the idea of a table that trembled when you came near it, or a lamp-holder that could vary between sexy and functional depending on the guests.
"As you should be!"  Master Licko's shouts calmed down quickly.  "Except I'm having real difficulties getting the humaniform to recognise our moods.  It's like they don't realise that we're real here."
"Perhaps you're flattening their heads too much?" I suggested.  "I seem to recall that they keep squishy stuff in their heads and they break if it leaks out."
"Hmph," said Master Licko, but he frowned the way he does when he's thinking.  "Perhaps I could build the head up instead.  Or use the hands, they're easy to take off and put back on again at the right angle, and the wrists lock in place with no trouble if you use long enough locking pins.  I saw a soap opera of theirs I think, they were all walking like Egyptians, and that would probably be a good posture for posturetalk."
"What's an Egyptian?" I asked, but Master Licko shrugged, already uninterested.
"Are you still here?" he said.
"Yes," I said, pulling the paperwork from a pocket.  "I have your Income Tax papers here."
I watched, mildly impressed, as the humaniform's head sailed off her shoulders and through the window, bouncing in the flower-bed outside, and Master Licko howled.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The house on Beechwood Drive

As she drove, Miss Flava marvelled at the exactness of Henry's directions.  Everything, down to the location of traffic lights and roadworks was exactly as Henry had said, and even sparked recollections of things she'd said that Miss Flava had forgotten.  Though that was mostly because of the sheer amount of information that Henry had provided.
Playfair was being quiet in the passenger seat, which was because Miss Flava had pointedly said nothing about the car being about twenty-feet further down the road than she'd left it, having a length of torn tow-rope hanging from the front bumper that matched the one hanging from Calamity's collar, and the hand-brake being off when she'd been careful to put it on when she left the car.  Even when they passed an elderly woman pushing a wheeled shopping basket in front of her he only glared at her until she cringed back, and didn't start on his usual rant about inconsiderate people with wheeled accoutrements.
"This is it," said Miss Flava, turning in at a gap in a high green hedge.  The hedge was neatly trimmed into a rectangle that did a good job of acting like a wall, reaching well above the roof of the car.  There was a small fence in front of the hedge, though it was hard to notice with the hedge extending over the top of it.  The fence was wooden posts but wire rails, and Playfair looked at them thoughtfully.  Miss Flava looked at him, with growing impatience.
"Aren't you going to get out and open the gate?" she finally said, and Playfair looked up at the wooden gate blocking their way into the Beechwood house's drive.
"Don't they have automatic openers for these things?" he said, not moving.
"Probably, if you own the place, or are visiting," said Miss Flava.
"Well, tell them we're visiting then," said Playfair.
Miss Flava was about to sigh in frustration and get out and open the gate herself, but then she spotted that the intercom was, for some inexplicable reason, on the passenger side.  "You'll have to do that, Sir," she said, managing not to grit her teeth.  She pointed.
"Oh, right.  Yes, that is interesting," said Playfair.  He wound the window down, and Calamity promptly sat up on the back seat and tried to get past him to stick her head out.  He twisted in his seat to push her back, and then leaned out of the window to push the button on the intercom.  It buzzed.
"Are you expecting an answer?"
Playfair looked at her, and then had to push Calamity back down on the seat as she spotted a chance to get past him and to the open window.
"Maybe," he said.  "Who knows, his elderly parents might have escaped from the basement where he was keeping them now he's dead.  Or, he might have a housekeeper we don't know about.  Or a friend, of some persuasion.  And failing that, if there's anyone in the house who shouldn't be, they're now nervous and more likely to do something stupid."
"You just don't want to open the gate," said Miss Flava, but then the intercom crackled and the gate swung slowly inwards.  She stared at it.
"Go!  Go!" said Playfair, gesturing imperiously with a finger.  "The gate is open!"
"You knew, didn't you?" said Miss Flava accusingly.  "You spotted something and decided that there must be someone in the house.  You couldn't possibly have known otherwise.  You just couldn't."
"It does look that way, doesn't it?" said Playfair, smiling mostly to himself.  "I'd say go right here."
The drive forked, the left-hand branch looking like it would go to the front of the house, and the right-hand branch appearing to lead round behind it.  Trees lined the drive, but kept a strict eight inches back from the drive's edge, and cast long shadows in the afternoon sunshine.  At the fork the house came briefly into view, and Miss Flava was slightly startled to see how big it was.  There was the main body of the house, built from red-brick and three storeys high, and then there was a wing that looked much more modern, with steel and glass construction reaching up to a fourth-storey.  It looked, from here, like an overgrown conservatory.  On the other side there was another red-brick wing, but not much could be seen of that, and it looked like it might be mostly only two storeys.  She took the right-hand fork, and the house disappeared from view again.  The tires crunched steadily over gravel, and after twenty seconds the path widened out into what was basically a small car-park.  There were two cars already there; one a small two-person run-about with the high roof and almost-lacking back-seat that reminded Miss Flava of the bubble cars briefly popular in the seventies.  The other was a classic car that looked like it had had its hey-day in the fifties, but was polished so that it shone even in the dim, tree-shadowed gloom of this car-park and was spotlessly clean.  Miss Flava parked several car widths away from it, and turned to Playfair.
"Don't let Calamity anywhere near that car," she said.  "That looks like it would be an expensive problem, even if this guy is dead."
"Oh, I don't think it's his car," said Playfair.

Saturday, 14 January 2012


The Blonde was in the bathroom doing something complicated with tongs, pins and the occasional screech, and I was surveying the kitchen with dismay.  There were two crates of champagne stacked in front of the oven, there was a Christmas pudding sitting in a puddle of some liquid on the side-counter, and there was a rather brown looking banana in the fruit-bowl.  The fridge fared little better: we had butter, mustard and some wilted spring onions, but otherwise even all the cheese was gone.  I checked the lower cupboards in case there was any pasta left, but all I found were two tins of kidney beans in chili sauce and a duster that turned out to be a dead mouse on further inspection.
"Darling?" I called, trying not to sound phoney.
"Busy!" she yelled back, followed by a sharp "Ouch!" and a stream of cursing.
I checked the bread-bin again, just in case the bread had come back from holiday while I was hunting through the cupboards, but it was still empty.
"What do you want for breakfast?" I called.
"I'm not eating breakfast," she yelled back.  "New Year's Resolution, remember?  No food that doesn't taste good dunked in Champagne."
Ah, well that explained the crates of champagne and empty cupboards then.
"I'm going to get myself some breakfast then!" I called.
Something thunked twice and then shattered, and I fled the cursing before I could be accused of being responsible.
I very nearly got the car out and went to McDonald's, but as I was checking my pockets for my keys I remembered that one of my New Year's Resolutions was to walk more and to add more than just evening restaurants to my column.  I left the keys where they were, walked the end of the street and caught a bus the seven stops to a café I passed a lot at lunchtime when it was always busy.  Perhaps they'd serve breakfast.
"Did you read about us in the London Sandwich Review?" asked the waitress.  Her teeth were crooked and yellow, as was her wig.  She reminded me of Nora Batty, although she was clearly a few days younger, so much so that I had to fight the urge to look down and check her stockings.
"No," I said, peeling the menu from my fingers.  It seemed fairly rudimentary: so long as I was happy with fried food, or possibly a boiled egg, I could get something to eat.
"Good," she said.  "Horrible publication.  Now love, what can I get you?"
"Darjeeling?" I said, wondering if this was optimistic.
"Bless you."
There was a moment of silence while I readjusted my mental perspective, and then I tried again.
"Er, tea, please, white, no sugar, ducks." I said.  She scribbled on her pad and smiled at me, making me feel slightly nauseous. "Eggs, bacon, mushrooms, beans, black pudding, fried slice, fried tomato and a waffle," please I said.  More scribbling, and that expectant smile again.  "That'll be all, thanks, ducks," I said.
"Not a problem, twattercock," she said pleasantly, disappearing back to the kitchen and making me wonder if I'd just been insulted.  I decided that perhaps 'ducks' had been going a bit too far.
I'd barely started looking out of the window at the council's eternal roadworks before a chipped white mug filled with orange liquid thumped down on the table in front of me.  I assumed it was my tea, though it was too hot to actually taste and blowing on it just seemed to create clouds of steam.  I looked out of the window again, sure that there were fewer workmen there all of a sudden, and then the waitress reappeared.
"Sorry, loveyduck," she said.  "I completely forgot to ask: how do you like your eggs?"
"What choices do I have?" I said, holding back a joke.
"Boiled, fried, poached, scrambled, Benedict, over-easy, on a raft and a Lavallette" she said.  "Or a combination."
I shrank from the idea of boiling a fried egg, but was intrigued by the last option, which I thought had ceased to offered a hundred years ago and basically poaches the eggs in double cream and then serves up the lot.  It's delicious.
"A Lavallette," I said.
"Lovely jubbley," she said, disappearing again and making me certain that she was taking the piss.
Five minutes later, and I had breakfast in front of me.  The cream from the eggs Lavallette was invading the beans and submerging the tomato, though the fried mushrooms and black pudding had created a serviceable levee behind which the bacon was hiding.  The fried slice was somewhere beneath the tomato, and the waffle was... well.  It came on its own, on a side plate, and appeared to have been boiled.  I eyed it suspiciously, not least because it appeared to be eyeing me back.
"I gave you a bit of sausage," said the waitress, from somewhere behind the counter.  "I thought you'd probably just forgotten to ask for it."
Indeed, there it was, underneath the aggressive waffle.
"Thank-you," I said weakly, wondering how I was to review this.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Secondary recursion

"Dr. Verfuegbar?  Dr. Verfuegbar?  That's not the right patient, Dr. Verfuegbar."
"What are you talking about nurse?  The man is clearly on the operating table."
"Yes, Doctor, but he's not the right patient.  He's male."
"I can see that, thank-you nurse."
"How do you propose to give him a hysterectomy then, Doctor?"
"The surgery plan is on the table over there, nurse.  You can see what I'll be extracting, and how I'll be putting things back in again."
Miss Snippet held the struggling woman back from the child on the floor.  She had her arms wrapped around the woman's rib-cage and was squeezing slightly more tightly than was really necessary to try and cut down her breathing and make her easier to control.  The pair of them seemed to be attempting some complicated dance move, as the woman kept trying to rake Miss Snippet's shins with her high-heels, and Miss Snippet kept stepping away.  The headmaster, an indecisive man except where it came to nepotism, looked on vaguely anguished, but made no attempt to help the scalded and bruised child on the floor.  Miss Snippet glared angrily at him.
"Headmaster!" she said, jerking her head back to avoid being reverse-headbutted by the struggling woman.  "Headmaster, can you please help Michael up!"
"I don't think I should be touching the child," said the Headmaster, his voice trembling with nervousness.  Miss Snippet noticed that a tic had started up in the corner of his right eye.  "I think we need a medical professional here now."
"Then call one."  Miss Snippet's tone was as acid as her thoughts, as she stepped back again to avoid another high-heel raking and realised she'd backed up against a wall.
The radio's still playing but I've left it in the bedroom.
Bare doom.
The radio's still praying, and I've left it to it's bare doom.
The radio's still.
Dr Verfuegbar lifted the scalpel, and the blade glinted in the bright, cold light of the operating theatre.  On the table, the patient murmered something and tried to roll over.  Dr. Verfuegbar sighed, set the scalpel down again, and tightened the thick leather bands that restrained the patient.  They'd been laid across his throat, chest, wrists and ankles, leaving enough space for him to get into the patient's abdominal cavity and hunt for a womb.
The nurse, stood at a small steel side table, read through Dr. Verfuegbar's operating plan.  Part of her admired the beauty of his handwriting, another part was impressed by the elegance of his grammar.  A third part of her, that she was trying very hard not to listen to, was screaming that the operating plan had nothing to do with humans, and was in fact a wiring schematic for a telephone.
A soft bing sounded in the operating theatre, and she looked up.
"What was that?"  The Headmaster looked even more panicky, and Miss Snippet could see that his hands had started shaking now, and little beads of sweat were standing out on his forehead.  The last time she'd seen him like this she'd been killing herself laughing as his nephew nearly immolated himself in front of three hundred parents at the nativity play.
"The doorbell," said Miss Snippet.  "It's how people request entry to the school when we're closed."
She stepped sideways smartly, unexpectedly, and ducked as much as she could.  She buried her nose in the woman's back, just between her shoulder-blades, and the woman's attempt to reverse head-butt her again missed and her head bounced off the wall with a solid thunk.
"Let them in," said Miss Snippet in her best tone of control, the one that calmed wild animals at the zoo and could reduce an entire class of small children to tears.
Something goes bing where I can't see it, and I know that there's a wave coming.  There's pressure somewhere around my legs.
Something goes thunk and there's a door opened in the wall.  I think I can see a way out.
What does Verfuegbar mean?
"The lip reader has arrived," says the Nurse, answering the intercom.  Dr. Verfuegbar lays down the scalpel again, and looks confused.
"Don't we normally feed them to the landmines?" he asks.
"No Doctor, it's just that the last four hundred have been taken by the landmines," says the Nurse.  "It might just be that all the landmines have been found now.  The lip-reader has arrived."
"Do we still need a lip-reader?"
The nurse thinks about this.  "I think we might have given the patien–"
Miss Snippet lays the unconscious woman down on the floor next to her son, and checks the child's pulse.  It's there, but it's not strong.  The Headmaster comes back into the room with a man who reminds her of a cruise-ship and purchasing replacement children from a third-world country.
"She's not allowed in here," he says flatly, pointing at the unconscious woman.  "I have a restraining order."
I'm not allowed out of here.  I have a re-training order.
"Put the lip-reader on the table," says Dr. Verfuegbar.  "I have a maiming order."

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Traffic wardens

Miss Flava went back inside the police station to ask for the address, turning the engine off and taking the keys with her.  She was tempted to take DI Playfair with her as well, just to make sure that he didn't try hotwiring the car while she was gone, but finally she decided to try trusting him.  Which left her with a sense of foreboding all the while she was walking away from the car and back into the police station.  Henry looked up as she came back in.
"By yourself?" she asked, sounding polite and disinterested.
"Playfair didn't bother to find out where Beechwood Drive was before we left," said Miss Flava.  "Can you tell me?"
"Neither did you," said Henry quietly.  "Well.  Beechwood Drive is about five minutes drive away, it's in the posher part of Little Haversham.  They film period dramas round about there from time to time, but I don't think we've issued any permits this week, so you shouldn't be seeing anyone wandering around in what looks like their nightie...."  Her instructions were careful and detailed, so much so that Miss Flava was wondering if Henry spent her time memorising road atlases by the time she'd finished.
"By the way," she said, "on the way here we passed a really badly parked car.  Well, I say parked, it was more abandoned than anything else."
"Oh, I'm sure the traffic wardens will be on that in no time then," said Henry, turning the pages of a manilla folder casually, as though trying to suggest that Miss Flava was interrupting valuable police business.
"What traffic wardens?"  Miss Flava's voice was like an icicle in mid-summer, unexpected, sharp, and frosty.
"Little Haversham traffic wardens."  Henry had looked up when Miss Flava spoke, and was looking surprised.
"You don't have any," said Miss Flava.  "I checked before we came here.  You have vacancies for two, after the last two eloped together."
To her surprise, Henry's face suddenly screwed up.  "Tom and Paul," she said, her voice getting higher.  Her shoulders trembled.  "They were... they were my housemates."
"They were both male?"  Miss Flava tried not to sound too interested.
"Yes!  Yes, they were, and they were in love and they wanted to do something romantic.  So they eloped to Gretna Green to get married, only when they got there Tom's ex was there getting married as well, and then, and then Tom tried to stop the wedding because he said he still loved his ex, and then Paul got all upset, and now they're still up in Gretna Green and sulking and won't talk to each other, and whenever that happens they need me to mediate, only I can't take any time off at the moment, and now I think I'll never get any time off because the magician died and no-one knows why."
"Breathe," said Miss Flava, watching Henry get redder and redder and hearing her getting squeakier and squeakier.  "No really, breathe.  Before you pass out."
"Eeeep!" said Henry, finally complying.  She panted a little as she finally started to get some breath back.
"That's a lot to take in," said Miss Flava carefully.  "But I'm sure that now that DI Playfair is here there'll be some kind of resolution fairly quickly.  One way or another he does solve crimes very well, even if he alienates everybody else in the process.  So you'll be able to get up to Gretna Green in no time and bring Paul and Tom back to their senses, the altar, and then Little Haversham.  I'm sure of it."
Henry sniffed, and looked at her through reddened eyes.  Miss Flava wondered for a moment if she'd considered auditioning for vampire movies.
"Are you sure?  DI Playfair seems like he's just going to make things worse."
"He seems like that, yes.  All the damn time.  But somehow, even when the rest of us don't have a clue what he's doing or why, he's finding out who did the crime and getting ready to pounce."
"Is he like Columbo then?"
"I've never seen him in a raincoat," said Miss Flava thoughtfully.  "But no, he wouldn't waste his time pursuing the criminal and tricking him into confessing.  He'd just set Calamity on them and claim that it was her own doing."
As if on cue Calamity raced into the police station with a tow-rope tied to her collar.  The other end appeared to have torn off from something else.
"Oh good lord!"  Henry regained her composure quickly and produced a large plastic net from under the counter.  "Don't worry!  I trained with the dog unit for a week, I'm sure I can catch that dog."
Miss Flava eyed the net, and then whistled piercingly.  It seemed to resound throughout the police station, and Alf appeared from the interview room in a cloud of tobacco smoke, just as Calamity bounded back from the canteen clutching an egg-and-cress sandwich in her mouth.  She lay down at Miss Flava's feet and started eating the sandwich.
"Calamity," said Miss Flava, pointing.
"My sandwich!" yelled a moustachioed policeman from the canteen doorway.
"Not any more," said Henry, slightly perplexed that Calamity seemed to have got more of the sandwich around her muzzle than actually in her mouth.
"It's alright," said Miss Flava.  "She doesn't really like egg."