Saturday, 31 March 2012

Natasha Monkeybutt

"You know," I said, my voice a low growl, "I'm thinking that I'm not going to get my money back by standing around talking to you, Monkeybutt.  You can find out who lived here from the neighbours."
"And what if I don't want to talk to the neighbours, Mac?"
"Then you're not doing your job, Monkeybutt."  She winced a little that time.  "Something got murdered in here," and I gestured around me at the sticky red floor, "and that's a noisy business."
"And you'd know about that, wouldn't you, Mac?"
"I've heard the noises coming from the police interrogation cells, if that's what you mean?  From the cell adjoining, most often."  I stared into her eyes, daring her to deny it, and she stared right back, her eyes tiny cold ice chips hidden deep in her head by the layers of makeup.  For a moment I wondered if there might be a tiny powderdrift happening below one eye, but then she moved her head and her face was as smooth and glacial as before.
"Tell me who lived her, Mac, and you can go."
I almost pushed past her, but I could see her Forensics team coming down the corridor now, and while I reckoned I could just about outrun any of those fatties, the crap they were carrying would slow me down a lot if they just dropped it, which they probably would.  They had a roll of plastic sheeting as wide as a man (well, not as wide as one of them, obviously), little cases they carried by the handle, bigger cases that they wheeled along, plastic buckets that sloshed and some carrier bags that... that were take-out food by the smell.  I found myself slightly nauseated that they could bring themselves to stomach food at a murder scene like this, and I've been in this game for longer than you'd like to imagine.  I've seen men killed in inventive ways, and in boring ways, and sometimes I've contributed in some small way, to the execution of justice.  My mind bounced briefly back to watching a man fall from the roof of a hotel because he wasn't expecting me to appear from behind a heating vent, and then later of trying to get information out of him before his shattered ribs and punctured lungs did for him.  In retrospect, kicking him in the side to make him talk faster was probably counterproductive.
I looked at Natasha again and decided to tell her what the neighbours would.
"I was sleeping at the time, and I never go out of my own flat anyway," I said.
"That's what the neighbours will say, Mac," she said.  "You're not a neighbour here.  You're not a neighbour anywhere.  Even the rats and cockroaches band together and form housing associations to get you evicted."
I nodded.  My living arrangements are unusual by most people's standards, but they work for me and people like Monkeybutt don't need to know anything about them.  "Fine, Monkeybutt," I said, and ducked.  My spine cracked like I was stamping on those wretched Housing Association cockroaches and pain shot up and down both my arms simultaneously, but my head just got below the sweep of her arm and she ended up slapping the doorjamb instead of me.  She said nothing, but I could see from the whiteness of her fingers that it must have hurt.  "Little Boy Blue lived here, the jazz musician.  He's a hep cat, and he might have been out working tonight, so this blood might not even be his."
"I see," she said nodding.  "And the eviscerated sheep?  You don't think the blood might be theirs?"
"I don't think for people who don't pay me," I said smoothly.
"So you don't think, then?"  The slap might have missed but that jab hurt almost as much.
"I've got a home to go to," I said, and she looked like she didn't believe me.  Little gasps of powder broke from her forehead like bonzai volcanic eruptions as she frowned, tiny craze lines showing me where the frown-lines should have been.
"Go then, Mac," she said.  "And keep your nose out of police business.  I'm shutting down all organised crime in this city, and I think you're a crime all by yourself."
"Feeling's mutual," I said, and had the pleasure of seeing yet more puffs of powder escape her face as she tried to look bewildered underneath all that make-up.

Friday, 30 March 2012

Little Boy Blue

The sunlight was weak and gray through the curtains, struggling to illuminate the den of vice within.  I was stood in the doorway, my piece in my hand and holes in my pockets.  I'd left the leather gun-holster behind at a pawn-store twenty minutes earlier, so I had no choice but to hold the gun.  It had given the bus-driver a bit of a turn, more because I could tell he wanted to throw me off the bus for they way I smelled.  But he relented and the rest of the passengers just resented me in silence until I got off at my stop and they broke out in spontaneous applause.  I hate bad winners.  I put a bullet in the bus's back wheel and walked off.
I looked around the room.  This was the last known address for Little Boy Blue, one-time jazz musician and trumpeter, now a little down on his luck, scraping the edges of the barrel, and pushing little bits of this and that for Mad Frankie and his Anger Management.  It was no kind of life for a real person, but Blue was a lowlife, the kind of scum that apologises for its existence when you stumbled across it behind the garbage cans.  He'd even offer to slit his own throat to save you having to get your own knife dirty.  He wasn't here now, all I had were two dead sheep, enough blood to bathe in, and a pathetic collection of paperback pulp novels.  Looked like Blue liked to read in his quiet time.
"MacArthur?"  The voice behind me actually sounded surprised, which in turn surprised me.  I turned, and found myself looking at the Head of Organised Crime Prevention, Miss Natasha Monkeybutt.
"Monkeybutt," I said, nodded with professional calm.  My hat slipped down over my eyes, and I had to push it back up onto my forehead with the barrel of the gun.
"You know it's not pronounced like that," she said, equally calmly.  "Thinking of committing suicide Mac?  We'd miss you."
"Sarcasm ill becomes a lady," I said, forcing a smile.  She recoiled a little, my teeth are on the black side of black.
"And murder ill becomes a private eye," she said.  "If that's still what you're pretending to be.  You don't fool me for an instant, you know, Mac.  You don't.  You like to think you're independent, but you still jump when Mad Frankie sneezes.  I know he's got a handler for you, and it's just a matter of time before we have a name.  And when we pin you down, we'll make you talk like a nun released from a seven year vow of silence standing in the House of Gigolos."
"I thought they closed that place down?" I looked around the room again while she was talking.  Something weird had gone on here.  Who had brought two sheep up six flights of steep, narrow stairs and then slaughtered them in Blue's little studio flat?
"I," she said, with emphasis.  "I closed it down Mac, just like I track down and close down all other kinds of Organised Crime in this city.  Batman's got nothing on me."
"Both your parents dead now, then?" I said innocently.  I wanted her to leave so I could get to finding out why the sheep had had to die.  Her face turned purple, and I thought for a moment that she was going to hit me.
"I think you'd know if my father had died," she said, tightly.  I nodded, he was the Pensioneer General, running the funds for pretty much every pension in the city.  His death would send shockwaves through the financial markets and probably start a run on the banks.  Didn't bother me though, my money was stashed away in a dirty sock under a filthy mattress in a small... well, that's probably all you really need to know about where I keep my cash.  It's pretty safe.
"This is a crime scene, Mac, you need to leave.  Now."  I could hear footsteps and the laboured breathing of the police department's finest officers coming up to smother the room in plastic and pull it apart, fibre by fibre, hunting for the answer in the details.  I nodded again, cursing inwardly that I'd not got there sooner.
"Yeah," I said.  "Looks like Blue's already skipped the joint, probably taking my money with him.  Little rat."
"You know who lived here?" Suddenly Natasha Monkeybutt was focusing on me, her eyes wide and glistening like a little girl who's just been told her parents have sold her for a trip to Antigua.
"Maybe," I said, edging past her.  She put out her hand, then thought better of touching me and pulled it back again.
"I think you should stay for a while, Mac," she said.  "It seems like you might have evidence on you after all."

Thursday, 29 March 2012

The book club

"We have a question submitted to us!" Millicent Pede waved the slip of paper in the air like a flag.  She was standing on one of the small plastic chairs that the library put out for the children, and it was slowly deforming under her weight.  She wobbled gently.
"A question?" Suzie Fort adjusted her glasses, which were perched on the tip of her nose.  They barely clung now to the very tip, which was turned up very slightly and both lumpy and decidedly not straight higher up, a legacy of two decades playing rugby.  "Why would anyone ask questions of a book club?  We're meeting in a library, for pity's sake.  What moron didn't just ask the librarian?"
"Be nice!"  Millicent glared at Suzie, and Suzie tried to glare back, but realised that she'd adjusted her glasses to the point where she was seeing double.  To try and save face she took them off and started polishing the lenses on her lace cuff.  "Now ladies, I'm sure you're all dying to hear what the question is –"
"Harrumph," said Dr. Philbert, carefully pronouncing each letter in what he fondly imagined was a real word instead of an onomatopoeic rendering of the sound of someone clearing a clogged throat.
"You don't count," said Millicent.  The chair beneath her sighed and deformed until she was effectively stood on the floor again.  She tutted and stepped off the chair, which very slowly tried to pull itself back together.
"Ten quid says it's dead," whispered Dr. Philbert to Martia, the group's newest member.  She was a single mum of three and considered the book club to be her one opportunity to meet real people and have adult conversations every week.
"Fucking shagged," she whispered back, a touch of relish in her tone from using words she forbade around her children.  Dr. Philbert looked a little startled.
"The question, ladies," she said, pausing for effect.  The mangled chair farted a little as it tried to right itself, and Martia giggled.  "The question is: In which book can one find the character Arbutternot, and what is its species?"
"Do you mean Arbuthnot?" said Suzie, drawing her words out.  Her eyes were unfocused, and not just because of her glasses this time, and her fingers were twitching slightly as she thought.  "I seem to recall that there was a Duke Arbuthnot in Tis pity she's so poor."
"Was that a Selena Nightwich book?" asked Dr. Philbert. "I don't recall the character, but I'm sure I remember the book.  Was that the one with the bed of roses and the thirty-page seduction scene?"
"Yes," said Suzie, reddening slightly.
"Oh yes, I remember that.  That took all evening to get through, very tedious.  And just wrong, really.  Nightwich has no clue how to write a seduction scene, if I'd ever tried that one my wife when she was still aliv–"
"Well why didn't you?" Martia said.  They'd all heard all of Dr. Philbert's story about his dead wife, who had apparantly been the British answer to Mother Theresa when she wasn't confined to her sick-bed with gangrene.
"Because she's have been mortified!" said Dr. Philbert, his eyes opening wide and his eyebrows beetling around his brow in his excitement.  "My god, the very notion of buying a rabbit for her – and that's without letting the pet shop know what the intention is–"
"Not that kind of rabbit," said Suzie quickly, looking down at the floor.
"Look," said Millicent, her voice cutting over a discussion that seemed destined to embarrass somebody.  "We have a question, and it doesn't sound like we've answered it yet."
"What's the question again?" asked Martia.  "I mean, what's the fucking question again?"
Millicent eyed her with a beady eye, but said nothing about her choice of vocabulary.  "The question," she said, brandishing the paper in front of her, is... is...."
"Is what?" asked Martia, just as Suzie said, "Stop messing about Mill!"
"The paper's changed," said Millicent, peering at it.  "I can't read this."
"Look at the cat," said Dr. Philbert, pointing at a sleek white cat that was standing in front of the nearby wall.  "Where did that come from?"
"Oh let me see," said Suzie, holding her hand out for the paper.
"It's a cat," said Martia, sounding unimpressed.  "I had one for Christmas once."
The cat attempted to walk forward, and head-butted the wall.
"Cats are for life, not just Christmas," said Dr. Philbert.
"These aren't words, Mill," said Suzie peering at the paper.  "Where's the one you read out the first time?"
The cat bumped its head against the wall again.
"It died on Boxing Day," said Martia.  "Cancer, the vet said."
"Oh," said Dr. Philbert, a little taken aback.
"They've changed all the signs too," said Millicent looking around.  "I can't read anything in here today!"
As the book club looked around, and slowly realised that they'd all forgotten how to read, the cat walked into the wall again, this time passing straight through and disappearing.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012


I saw him leave and I hoped that he was a man on a mission and not an absentee father.  His eyes left first, greying out and filming over, milky like a three-week old cup of tea.  Then there was an hiatus, a momentary pause when it seemed like nothing was happening, time was suspended, holding fire in no-man's-land and singing carols in a high-pitched voice like a greyhound on helium.  Then his jaw dropped just a little, and he started mouth-breathing, a silvery snail-trail of drool leaking from the corner of his mouth where the herpes came on twice a year after his six-monthly visits to The Papaton.  If his mammy were still alive she'd have beaten him for that, like she beat manners into him when he was just a kid.  It seemed like every night I'd be lying in there in the darkness, scared to close my eyes in case I woke up dead, and I'd hear him in the other room, crying quietly into his pillow because the thrashing made it too hard for him to lie on his back.  And most nights I'd find myself getting up and going to him, knowing that if they caught me they'd not listen to a word I had to say, they'd just up and hang me, on the clothes-line out the back, or maybe from the branches of the apple-tree.  I did hear tell somewhere that a man hanged in an apple-tree for the wrong reasons gives off the best Hands Of Glory.  I'd lie on the side of his bed, putting an arm round him, and he'd shift his weight and bury his face against me, and his tears would mix with my sweat from the heat outside, and I'd wait till he fell asleep and then I'd go back to my own bed.  Because who leaves a child to cry on their own like that?
I asked the priest that question once, and he looked at me with the hatred the church has always reserved for those who think for themselves, and he said,
"Get yourself onto that hinky internet that I know and God knows you're stealing from the neighbourhood and find yourself all out about the Nicene Council.  And when you're done reading that, remember that it was me that told you all about it and save your scorn for those who've never heard it and yet practise it in every day of their miserable lives."
And that's where I found out that the church reserves the right to edit its holy texts, and while it might not do it so much as a whole the priest was right and many of the churchy-folk I saw around me were all too keen to edit the words to fit the lives they wanted to leave.
His hands stopped shaking after a while and I knew that he was all the way gone then, out there in the astral realm, wandering the clouds and dancing with the rainbows.  He would stare out of the window when it rained and we were children, and he'd look for the rainbows hiding in the raindrops.  I'd look too, but all I ever saw was grey, an endless outpouring of downpouring, leaden water from the skies that pushed the plants to reach back up to return it.  But he could find the rainbows, he'd point and laugh, but the rainbows somehow always skittered away when I tried to follow him, and all I'd get was a flash of red, or a glimmer of violet, and never the whole rainbow.  But he was happy, and it took his mind off the bruises and the welts.
I picked his hands up – they were so cold – and laid them in his lap.  He shifted slightly, and for a moment I thought he might fall off his chair, but then his spine stiffened and he was steady again.  I laid a kiss on his forehead, a reminder, a signpost to wait for his return, and then I slipped the latch on the door and loped out into the night, looking for the Papaton.  I heard the door click closed behind me, and I offered up a silent prayer that he'd be opening it when I knocked again, but the Gods were all silent that night, and though I'm sure that the prayer reached them in their brass cities, they didn't deign to tell me what their answer was.

Tuesday, 27 March 2012

The cat that walked into walls (II)

"It just says Arbutternot," said Mrs. Coldwell.  She had picked the piece of paper up from the nice young man at the reception desk on the way in, and had been puzzling over it ever since.  The library allowed the knitting circle to use one of their reading rooms because they were a nice, quiet, tidy group who paid the small monthly subscription in advance and could be relied upon to quell rowdy teenagers if the noise became too loud.  "I mean, what does that even mean?"
"Is it a type of margarine?" asked Hettie, deliberately pronouncing margarine with a hard g.  Every ignored that, as they'd already each sat through a lecture on how the substance was derived from margaric acid and it hadn't changed their pronunciation of it at all.  "It sounds like an advertisement to me."
"I've not heard of it if it is," said Mrs. Coldwell.  There was doubt in her tone and, as she was the expert rescuer of dropped stitches able even to fix a fifty-row mistake, the other ladies all made deferential noises and avoided looking at Hettie.  "But I suppose it could be one of the new ones.  Made from strange oils."
"Oooh," said Duckie, her voice low and thrilled.  "Oooh, I've heard about those strange oils, you know!  Radio three talks about them when they're supposed to be airing Mahler.  They can do bad things to your contraception."
"Perhaps it's something intended to be used with butter," said Daphne, who was willowy, wore oversized glasses and severe pant-suits and only knitted with the largest size needles because her eyesight was bad with or without her glasses.  She tended to produce sweaters for zoo animals and underwear for charities specialising in the obese or grossly deformed.  "A new kind of biscuit, perhaps?"
"Who let the cat in?" said Hettie, pointing by the door.  "I think a margarine is more likely than a biscuit, dear."  She emphasized margarine a little, still hoping that there would be someone daft enough to pick it up.
"What cat?"  Duckie peered under her chair, brushing her gypsy skirt out of the way and exposing her cleavage because her blouse was shockingly low cut.  People averted their eyes, more out of sympathy than prudery.
"I didn't think Radio Three played Mahler any more," said Mrs. Coldwell.  "But wouldn't it be one of those indigestible oils?"
"What, like Castrol?"  Daphne's tone suggested that she felt her biscuit suggestion had deserved a better reception.  "I thought I saw a cat too, though."
"Don't you give Castrol to children?" said Hettie.  "It's a white one, it's gone under the table, I think."
"I hope it's castor oil you give to children," said Mrs. Coldwell, picking the edge of the lace tablecloth up and looking under the table.  The table held a few small plates of crisps and nuts and a large stack of napkins so that salt or grease didn't get on the knitting.  Some weeks they splashed out a little and might have a red velvet cake or some macaroons, but this week they'd been uncertain whether Dolly would return or not.
"Hettie doesn't have children," said Duckie, "do you dear?  You can give them anything you like.  Where's this cat then?"
"There!" Hettie pointed a triumphant finger at the far wall, where the cat was walking slowly.  All eyes in the room fell on it, and a moment of silence descended.  Then the cat walked into the wall and banged its head with an audible thump and sat down heavily.
"Should it do that?" asked Mrs. Coldwell who only liked birds and thus was quite suspicious of cats already.
"Poor thing," said Hettie, not getting up.  "I've got allergies, you know."
"Probably all that margarine," said Daphne with just a smear of malice.  The cat stood up again, and walked once more into the wall, banging its head and mewling in annoyance.
"That can't be right," said Mrs. Coldwell.  "He could the wall there."
"She," said Duckie.  "You can tell on account of...." She tailed off, suddenly aware that everyone was listening intently.  "On account of, anyway," she said, daring them to challenge her.
"No, definitely male," said Mrs. Coldwell.  "There was this ginger tom that kept coming into the garden that was definitely male, and this looks like the same kind of cat to me."
"Oh really!" Daphne was indignant.  "Does it even matter?  Shouldn't we be helping the poor thing?"
The cat stood up again and walked once more into the wall, banging its head a third time.  Somewhere outside the room something chimed, a pleasant silvery sound that made all the women look round.
"Fire alarm?" asked Mrs. Coldwell.
"It's stopped now," said Hettie, a few seconds later.  "Probably not important.  Where's the cat gone?"
Though they looked into and under everything, the cat remained vanished from the room, as easily as it had appeared there.  And when they all sat down again to knit, they discovered that none of them could remember how.

Monday, 26 March 2012

The cat that walked into walls

Some speak of Macavity in hushed tones; others mutter the name Griddlebone and then cross themselves and look over their shoulders.  There are those who fear Mungojerrie, and those who worry intently about Grimalkin.  There are even, amidst the pasta-makers of Firenze, those who mutter the name Garfield and then lock their doors and shrive themselves in darkened rooms.  But no-one mentions Arbutternot, the cat who walked into walls
His name is not forgotten, and in the temples of Bast that survive to this day there are books in which the roll-call of famous and sacred cats is written, and Arbutternot is still listed there.  But no-one dares speak it, for though the others may be dreaded to be listening in, overhearing conversations that were better not discussed in front of cats, there is surety that speaking his name will summon him, pulling him from wherever he is beforehand to wherever the speaker is now.
For the problem with the cat who walked into walls is that the walls always gave way before him.
Dolly Hayfield was sixty-six and already fed up with retirement.  She had fourteen separate pensions from her various activities before she retired, and for the first three months she'd entertained herself by organising the various cheques and stipends that they provided and consolidating the various payments to happen on the same day and into the same account, followed by a myriad outflowing into other accounts, through shell companies and eventually into clandestine accounts where they accrued financial interest and sloughed off governmental interest.  Now that her money ticked like clockwork though, she was looking for something else to do
The local library had yielded two students who were unimpressed with her offer of help, possibly because she'd shaken her head at their homework problems and muttered 'Trivial!' not quietly enough under her breath.  When she'd started asking them if they could request harder homework and trying to show them how to solve polylogarithms in their heads they'd approached the head librarian and told him that she was attempting to touch them indecently.  Given that she felt that she'd been trying to reach through sloppily-cooked baked beans to find intelligence, she was inclined to agree and so had had to promise to leave them alone.  The hobbies and activities board only had three notices on it; an announcement for a weekly book-club meeting, a knitting circle, and a yellowed and smudged offer of tuition that she'd assessed as discrete prostitution.
The book-club let her attend two meetings and then asked her to leave.  She protested, and asked to know what the problem was, and was told that they liked their Mills & Boon romance novels and disliked her attempts to introduce foreign-language texts with over eight hundred pages.  The knitting circle had started off in a friendly manner as she'd not known how to knit, and the matrons and mothers had cooed over her, lending her needles and yarn (with a sharp look that she immediately recognised as meaning there will be payment for this) and teaching her the basic stitches.  When she returned the second week with a reasonable quality knit of the Bayeaux Tapestry they'd told her to get out and demanded money for the needles and yarn she'd been lent.
So when the book she'd proposed to the book club arrived and she opened it to learn that there were supposedly temples of Bast hidden around the world from where they migrated after the fall of the worship of her in the Egyptian empire, she decided that hunting down a lost temple might be just what she needed to keep her mind sharp and engaged.
She was still feeling put out about her rejection from the library's clubs though, and as a last act of vengeance she sent a couple of pieces of paper to both meetings, each containing the same word written in large, block capitals.

Sunday, 25 March 2012


When Ketherin called, the horses came out of the forest.  Branches from the trees bent low and cracked, the noise like the creaking of old bones in winter.  They pulled themselves free, tar-like sap hanging greenly in long, dripping threads behind them, reminding her uncomfortably of the nerves and blood-vessels of the human body.  Then they pulled themselves together, each branch finding its own position relative to the rest, the green sap wrapping around them with whip-like motions, and crawling here and there across the surface, binding them into a kinetic whole.  Leaves flattened out and smoothed along the horses's flanks, and a white light arose in their otherwise dead eye sockets.  For a moment they stood their like deadwood sculptures on the edge of the forest, and then they sprang into life.
They raced across the meadow at the forest's edge, running first parallel to the forest, their leaf-flanks fluttering and sussurating in the wind of their passage, then turning sharply and racing in towards her.  The heavy wooden feet thumped down rhythmically on the earth, flinging soil free in scatters and clods, stamping round imprints deep into the soft ground.  They pulled up next to her, their wooden heads and faces tossing and harrumphing just like real horses, and as one they all turned their heads to look at her.
Ketherin swallowed, and reached out a tingling hand.  It touched first one nose then another, going amongst the horses and never missing one, knowing that they all had to be acknowledged or the forest would take its gift back.
"We ride," she said.  When only silence greeted her words she looked behind her.
Debrin had a hand to her mouth, stilling a cry of shock.  Her other hand clutched her long, brocaded skirts as though gathering them up to run, and Ketherin realised that she might still do that.  Next to her, Alasdair looked almost as apprehensive, but he was leaning forward, eager to touch the horses but wary of what Ketherin might say.  And Jube was silent and still, sitting on the ground, his eyes blank and a wet patch spreading beneath him.  Ketherin wrinkled her nose in momentary disgust, and then reminded herself that at least the horses weren't real.
But they are real, whispered the little voice in the back of her mind.  They might not be horses as you think of them, but they're here and they'll carry you.  And they won't get tired, and they don't leave hoof-prints like normal horses, and they don't need feeding like normal horses.  Aren't these better?  Hasn't the forest done you proud?
"Are they real?" said Alasdair, still leaning forward.  Ketherin noticed that he was balanced lightly on his toes.
"Of course they are," she said.  "They're here aren't they?  Touch them, gently mind."
"Oh...."  Debrin's voice escaped her throat at last, trembling and high-pitched.  "But are they... safe?"
Alasdair tiptoed forward, wanting to touch the horse but at full stretch in case it attacked him.  "I think they're safe," he said.  "Ketherin called them."
"You never said," said Debrin, her voice trailing off again.  "You never said."
"There wasn't a lot to say," said Ketherin.  "It's not like I get horses every time.  I get what the forest can spare, what it thinks is most useful."
"Why are there five horses?" said Alasdair, stroking the nose of the nearest horse now.  The horse had lowered its huge, hard, wooden head and almost seemed to be nuzzling into him.  "There's only four of us."
And that's if we all ride, thought Ketherin automatically.  She reached out a hand to Jube, who took it automatically and came to his feet slowly, stoically.
"I don't know," she said, knowing she was lying.  "I hope the fifth horse is to guide us."
"Guide us where?"  Debrin had lowered her hand from her mouth now, but still had her skirts clutched, ready to run.
"Away.  I don't know where we can go, but the forest might."  Ketherin regretted almost as soon as she said it, as the look of horror on Debrin's face returned and deepened.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Jeshwald pizza

June sighed.  She looked at the counter-top: everything she needed to make a pizza was laid out in a neat arrangement, her mise-en-place was perfect.  But it was boring.  She hardly ever made pizza these days, because of the new edicts from the council.  To preserve authenticity, people were only allowed to make pizza with three hundred grams of cheese, distributed so that one quarter of the pizza was barely cheesy at all; two hundred grams of pre-cooked ground beef, and eight three-inch red chili peppers.  Anything else was a prosecutable offence, and even the girls at the supermarket were tasked with checking your ingredients and raising an alarm if they saw that you might have pizza making capabilities that put some other topping on.
"Authentic Jeshwald pizza!" was part of the council's tourism marketing strategy.  They'd obtained a protected status for the pizza, banning anyone else from making that exact pizza, and they sent out mystery shoppers to make sure that the ban was having an effect.  June had even been a mystery shopper for them when it had all started, excited and enthused that Jeshwald now had something definitively its own.  She gave it up after three weeks though, feeling bloated and tired from eating three pizzas a day.
Did she want to risk it?  Should she slip a couple of slices of pepperoni onto the pizza as well as the ground beef? Or even risk more by replacing the ground beef completely with pepperoni, and make a different pizza altogether.  A non-Jeshwald pizza.
She'd just convinced herself that she could do this, that she could be radical for once, break out on her own and make a non-Jeshwald pizza, when someone knocked at the front door.  She started, feeling herself flush, and realised that not being authentic with her pizza had bothered her more than she'd realised.  She scanned the counter, checking that she'd not actually got any pepperoni out, that there was nothing to give away that she'd considered being inauthentic.  Then she hurried to the door, aware that if she took too long it would look suspicious as well.
"June!"  June's heart sank, it was her neighboor Maureen.  Maureen had started the mystery shopper at the same time as June and had really got into it, checking out up to six restaurants a day now.  She had gained weight, naturally enough, and seemed to revel in it.  Her calves had merged into her ankles, and all her clothes had been replaced by muu-muus, which June tried hard not to think of as marquee tents.
"Maureen!  Come in, I was just making pizza," she said.  "Perhaps you'd like to stay and have some?  You could tell me how authentically I make them."
"Oh well," said Maureen, her little eyes lighting up.  "You know how I like a small slice of pizza!  Is it cooking already?"  She sniffed the air as she waddled through the front door, her dress rubbing against the door-frame.
"Oh no, I was just getting started," said June.  "Come in, come in to the kitchen.  How's work?"
"Oh you know," said Maureen easily, though she was already wheezing slightly.  "There's always more to do than you can get round to; I had eight restaurants to check out yesterday, and three of them didn't open for lunch.  And, can you believe it?  Two of them were serving Jeshwald pizza!  I've never had to call out the boys twice in one night before!"
"Were they calling it Jeshwald pizza?" asked June, picking up the rolling pin and eyeing up the pizza dough.
"Oh no, they never do," said Maureen.  Her eyes gleamed again.  "But you can tell from the ingredients list and the way they hide it at the bottom of the menu.  What are you doing?"
June paused, her rolling pin pressed into the dough.
"Rolling out the pizza dough," she said.
"Not like that!  Authentic Jeshwald pizza is rolled with two strokes north, then south, then east, then west, and then repeat."
"...what?"  June was poised to start rolling the dough away from her.
"North, South, East then West.  You're not facing north, dear.  You need to find out what way north is, and then you can start."
"When did we define how you roll the dough out?" asked June, wondering if she actually had a compass anywhere in the house.  It didn't seem like the kind of thing anyone but a keen hiker might own.
"A month ago," said Maureen.  "I'm on the standards council now, and we meet monthly to keep the standard up to date."
"Monthly updates?"  June stared helplessly at her mise-en-place, her reluctant enthusiasm for making Jeshwald pizza at a new ebb.
"Fortnightly soon," said Maureen.  "They're all published online you know, at the Jeshwald pizza standards page."
"Really?" said June, feeling weak.
"Oh yes, and as of next month it'll be mandatory for all residents of Jeshwald to make a Jeshwald pizza once a week.  We're considering renaming Wednesday to Pizzaday, which is both easier to say and spell."
"Oh," said June.  "Oh dear.  Have I told you that I'm thinking of moving house?"

Friday, 23 March 2012

Pickled owl heads

My elder brother has had an obsession with all things bonsai since he was six and my father brought a dwarf-rabbit home for him to play with.  I, being a little younger and more impetuous, was obliged to observe the rabbit only from a distance, and could only pet it under adult supervision, while my brother was allowed to hold it and giggle with shock as it tried to nibble on his nose, and then his ears.  His screams as my parents tried to remove the rabbit from his ears brought the neighbours round, and though I have no memories of this myself, my mother assures me (bad-temperedly) that I told them all we were feeding my brother to the pets because he'd been naughty.
How this inspired him to become interested in bonsai is a matter between him and his three therapists, but certainly while he was sticking to plants we had some beautiful miniature shrubs and trees arranged around the house, and he would spend hours with his tiny tools, snipping roots and buds and training tiny green branches to grow in odds shapes or along strange support beams.  My mother considered trying to get them exhibited as art when he was older and better able to handle the exposure to the adult world, and my father tried not to use them as impromptu door-stops or things to throw at the neighbours' cats.
The bonsai squirrel was a failure, but in hindsight made perfect sense: it would have belonged perfectly in his collection of trees and added to their intrinsic appeal.  When my parents found the baby squirrel lodged firmly in the pickle jar and my brother grinding up acorns in order to be able to feed it through a straw, they took everything but the trees and the simplest tools away from him and told him to concentrate on his schoolwork.  My brother threw a tantrum, then the trees away and, as far as I know, is still sulking today, living somewhere in the Cotswalds.
So when the waiter put a plate of soil in front of me with a bonsai tree on a side plate and a little beaker filled with what he claimed were bonsai owl heads, I immediately asked him who the chef was and if he'd ever been to the Cotswalds.
"She's called Letitia Peach," said the waiter sounding oddly cross. "And she's from Italy, Naples in fact and has never toured the country."
"So how do I eat this then?" I asked, only mildly reassured.
"A knife and fork is what the civilised people use," he sneered.  "But if they prove too hard to master, you might try your fingers, or possibly just licking the plate."
"Could I get another glass of water then, please?" I said, picking up my water glass and dropping it on the floor, where it smashed with a happy sound.  "Oops!  Butterfingers!"
The soil tasted faintly chocolately, and I couldn't decide if that was a good thing or not, but I was relieved that it was the Blonde's bridge-club evening and she wasn't there.  She would have had some choice words to say about being expected to eat a garden.  Literally.
The pickled owl heads were a revelation though, and I found myself ordering six jars to take away.  They had just the right amount of tangy crunch, and were deliciously juicy in a meaty way almost mushroom like in its intensity.  I'd been expecting the vinegar wrench of pickled onions, but I had to hunt for an acid undertone, and I rather liked it.
The second course was announced as mock-dolphin and it turned out I was expected to eat what looked like old plasticine.  The taste was marginally interesting, but the disgusting texture and unpleasant name for the dish overrode that good point, and I finally sent the dish back with the waiter.
Dessert was something immemorable with a strawberry inappropriately placed, and I barely noticed it.  When the bill came with my six bottles of pickled owl heads I was entirely ecstatic.
Go for the bonsai, but leave before the chef gets 'creative.'

Thursday, 22 March 2012

A claustrophobe's bedroom

"Speaking of SOCO," said Miss Flava.  "Isn't it about time we passed this over to them?  This house is getting weirder with every room we go through.  We should let them look over it and find all its little secrets out before we accidentally lose any of them."
"If there are any left," said Playfair.  "Don't forget that we've no idea what Ronald and his belle were up to in the house before we arrived."
"The door was locked," said Miss Flava.  Playfair had started up the stairs, not bothering to check to see if she was following.
"But when?" said Playfair.  He vanished onto the landing at the top of the stairs, leaving Miss Flava stood there wondering to herself if he was right.  If Ronald had had a key then locking the door behind him when he came into the house would be only natural.  They only had his word for how long he'd been there, after all.  Grimacing slightly she hurried after Playfair, telling herself that she had to keep and eye on him and make sure he wasn't adjusting the evidence to suit himself.
At the top the landing had three doors, all of which were ajar, and a second staircase led up again, over the staircase she'd just come up.  Playfair was just coming out of the left-most room.  He shrugged when he saw her.
"Bathroom," he said.  "Small, mean, looks like it might be for guests.  Toilet paper is shiny."  He poked his head round the next door, but didn't bother going in.  "Bedroom, small, mean, single bed, cover looks dusty," he said.  "Ever get the feeling we're on the guest floor?"
"For what guests?" said Miss Flava.  "As I said downstairs when you weren't listening to me–"
"Bedroom, small, meaner, single bed with a bare mattress and a broken lightbulb," said Playfair from the doorway of the third room.  "What was that?"
"I said, when you weren't listening to me I already asked you what guests our magician could have had?"
"Good question.  Single people, I should think.  There's not a double bed in sight."
"This is stupid, Playfair.  The man never had guests!"
"So why does he have guest rooms?"  Playfair started up the second flight of stairs.
"For show?"  Miss Flava knew she was guessing wildly, but she hated Playfair's persistent questions that always seemed to last longer than anyone could keep answering for.
"How very Edwardian," said Playfair, his voice echoing oddly.  "Now, this is interesting."  Miss Flava followed him up the stairs, cursing softly under her breath.  As she ascended she got a sensation of space, and couldn't see any walls through the balusters, so assumed that the landing was abnormally large.  It was only as she reached Playfair that she saw that there were no intervening walls, just a wide open space with concrete supporting pillars.  The floor was carpeted in beige, but otherwise there was almost nothing else up there.
"That's a sleeping bag," she said, pointing to the crumpled pile of satiny-looking fabric in the middle of the floor.  "That's probably a pillow caught up in it."
"Best to check," said Playfair.  He kicked the sleeping bag aside, and a sad, lumpy pillow fell over with a soft, slack sound.
"First attempt at a theatre?" She looked around some more, but found nothing else, not even cupboards or shelves.  The windows had blinds, but they were all drawn up.
"Or a claustrophobe's bedroom," said Playfair.  "I wonder if he ever did any magician-in-a-cabinet tricks."

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Grading to a curve

Miss Snippet sighed and stared at the class's English homework.  Ever since the headmaster had decided that the school needed more innovation things had been getting harder and harder, with the job potentially taking up more and more of her free time.  She had solved a lot of these issues by passing the workload onto the children, but now it was slowing down her plans to be able to undercut the current cafeteria suppliers on fresh produce and reduce her income for the year.  It was surprising, she felt, but it seemed like all that the headmaster's solutions did was generate new problems.
She picked up the first book, and then the headmaster's new instructions for grading.  He'd felt that grading honestly was dishonest and lead to the school appearing to have some better teachers than others, which failed to show a united front.  He'd also expressed worry (dithered, thought Miss Snippet) that it might lead to teacher's deliberately sabotaging each other's classes in order to gain some kind of competitive advantage.  Which she had, in fact, been doing, and resented him spotting it.  Then he'd decided that grading to a bell curve was too American, which met the staff complaints that they were having to give inappropriate marks to students in order to fit them to the curve.  But he'd decided to simply pick another curve, which not only made it clear he hadn't listened, but left them trying to find ways of grading to that curve that didn't require sophisticated computer models and algorithms.  For the moment, they were grading to a finite sum of sinusoids, and Miss Snippet had realised that she could achieve this with a random number generator and a fourier transform.
The random number generator beeped, spitting out the first grade, and Miss Snippet put ticks and crosses at random on the page and wrote the grade next to it.  As she closed the book the generator beeped again, so she sped up her marking a little in order to keep up.  Five minutes later she had finished.
Now she came to their site reports, which weren't graded at all and which she actually paid a lot of attention to.  She cared very little if they understood the difference between a gerundival adjective and a continuous present adverb, but she cared a lot if their estimations for the cost of digging up the playground, ploughing in a hundredweight of manure, and planting it with marrows, cabbages and raspberry canes were wrong, badly written, or hard for the other children to follow.  Her pen tracked each line in the reports, and her calculator waited patiently for her to encounter another set of figures that needed checking.  It took two hours, but in that time she realised that Jane Ather was attempting to conceal the loss of four hundred pounds of sharp sand, and that there was a possibility of subsidence if they dug any closer to the school kitchens.  Pleasingly, Godfrey, the foreman this month had spotted both as well and made recommendations.  She accepted that they should stop digging towards the school and reinforce the edges that they already had, and rejected his proposal of staking Jane out for the ants that appeared to be colonising the football pitches.  Her pen wavered for a moment, as she considered that the best punishments provided very visible examples, but finally decided that it didn't meet the crime.  Something less lethal was probably more suitable.
She smiled happily as she laid the last report down.  People thought that children were only good for teaching things to, but she was living proof that child-labour could be a very viable proposition.  She could hardly wait till they started turning ten and she get them doing some seriously heavy labour.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

The cupboard under the stairs

"Don't you think the room's a bit odd?" said Miss Flava, not moving as Playfair started off towards the other door.
"No," he said.  "Come along."
"No, really, Playfair," she said.  "Look at it, it's like it's two rooms in one, a study and a lounge.  But the house is huge, so why would he need to use one room twice like this?"
"Perhaps that little theatre we just came through takes up more space that you think.  Let's look through the rooms, that'll probably tell us how he liked his house laid out."
Miss Flava looked around again, half-convinced that she was missing something about the room.  She thought that the dead magician would be hard put to entertain anyone in here, and even if he did spend his romantic liaisons elsewhere, as Ronald and his sister-in-law had suggested, surely he had to have the occasional visitor.  Even if they were all business?
"Come on!" shouted Playfair from beyond the door.  "I've found the hall!"
She knew that he was being sarcastically enthusiastic, but she found herself hurrying up just a little anyway.  For all he was obnoxious and hard to work with most of the time, she did respect both her boss's incredible ability to annoy everybody and still solve the crime, and she found herself admiring his boundless self-confidence.
The hall was carpeted in beige, had a flight of stairs leading upwards, a door below the stairs, and several doors leading off to either side.  There were no windows, and all the light came from a single, energy-saving lightbulb hanging barely from a frayed cord near the foot of the stairs.  Playfair was stood by the door beneath the stairs.
"Do you believe in witches and wizards, Miss Flava?" said Playfair.  He never called her by her first name, preferring to retain a certain level of formality that she'd long since given up with.
"No," she said.  "Why?"
"Well then, if we open this door and find a nine-year-old boy sitting in here crying and looking lost, we'll be in agreement that it probably isn't Harry Potter."
"Really?  You think the magician is keeping children in the cupboard under the stairs?"
"Keeping an open mind," said Playfair airily.  "Never expect anything."
He opened the door, which stuck a little at first and then pulled free.  No-one came out, so Playfair leaned in and shouted, "Harry Potter?  It's Voldemort, come to get you!"
"Really, Playfair," said Miss Flava, her hands on her hips as she stared at him.  "We're supposed to be investigating a crime scene."
"Yes," said Playfair.  "Which makes this a little interesting, don't you think?"  He stood aside, inviting Miss Flava to come and look inside the cupboard.  There was nothing to see directly through the door, but when she leaned in and looked to the side her eyes widened.  Hanging from a hook in the ceiling, suspended by a rope tied around its neck, was a fully-dressed body.
"It's not real," said Playfair, seeing her reaction.  "The hands are plastic, and the neck is far too thin for a human being, but why would Stormy have this hanging in the cupboard under the stairs?  We know he's got space for props over in his theatre."
Miss Flava swallowed, a slight acid taste in her mouth from her stomach's contraction at the side of a hanged body.  "That's a good question, Playfair," she managed, backing out of the cupboard and away from it.  She stood, catching her breath and relaxing.  "It does look like this wasn't part of any act."
"Right," said Playfair.  "Got a sticker for SOCO?  I think they should pay special attention to this."
"In the car," said Miss Flava.  "I can go and get–"
"No need," said Playfair.  "Just remember it and phone it in before we leave.  Now, where next?"
Miss Flava swallowed again and found her notebook to write down a reminder.  Playfair seemed to have more energy than a battery-operated bunny.

Monday, 19 March 2012

The rest of the house

"What are you expecting to find here?" asked Miss Flava.  She turned her head sideways to look at her boss, but he was concentrating on the corridor ahead.  It was mundane, carpeted in a light green, hard-wearing carpet, and the walls were painted cream where there weren't scrapes and scuffs from things having been carried along it.  At the end they'd come through was the door that Playfair claimed had just popped open of its own accord, and at the other end was a glass-paned door with a white frame.
"Nothing much," said Playfair.  "Judging from the forensics report Stormy was killed too many times to have died here and been taken elsewhere.  It's just about possible, I suppose, that he wasn't killed where he was found, but you'd have to ask yourself why someone would try and kill him again somewhere else."
"Yes," said Miss Flava, wondering not for the first time just how oddly her boss's mind worked.  "That would be a strange thing to think.  Which kind of explains why it's you thinking it, I suspect."
Playfair huffed a little.  "What I'm looking for here is something to tell us what kind of a man Stormy was.  Something so that when we start talking to people we've got things to talk to them about."
He turned the handle on the glass-panelled door, and Miss Flava found herself hoping for a moment that it was locked, but it turned and opened, admitting them to a living room.  It was spacious; there was a wide-screen television on the wall next to where they'd come in, and a leather suite set in a horseshoe shape around it.  Behind that was a table with a stack of papers, some pens, and a steel ruler on it, and behind that was a low bookcase.  As Miss Flava looked around, she found more and more things to look at, as though the room were actually two rooms, each used at different times and unaware of the other's existence.
"Hmm," said Playfair, sitting down on the couch.  "This is a bit close to that screen for comfort."
"For you, maybe," said Miss Flava.  "For all we know, Stormy is short-sighted."
"Was short-sighted," corrected Playfair.  "Well he enjoyed watching television anyway, look at this."  He leaned forward and indicated the slim boxes below the television that provided cable, satellite, and free-to-view television, along with PVR facilities.  "There's games consoles here, too," he said, pointing at another three boxes set a little way off.  "There must be a sea of cables hidden behind all this."
"You think he put them all in himself?"
"No," said Playfair almost immediately.  "It's all too tidy really; I think it was done by a professional so that it's hard to get them all out and mess them up again."
Miss Flava left Playfair to inspect the DVD cupboard and wandered over to the table and bookcase.  On the wall above the bookcase were glass-fronted pictures of men, and the occasional woman, in evening-wear.  Most of the women had the look of 'glamorous assistant' about them, but one or two looked as though they might be the star performer in their own right.  She was about to turn away when one of them caught her eye.
"Playfair!" she called, leaning in a little closer to look at the picture in more detail.  "Come and look at this."
"I hope it's better than these DVDs," said Playfair sounding grumpy.  "I don't think there's anything here that isn't a recording of some show that he's done.  The SOCO boys are going to be really disappointed."
"Look at this," said Miss Flava, tapping the picture with her finger.  "Does she look familiar to you?"
Playfair peered at her, his eyes narrowing slightly as he considered the picture.
"It's the woman with Ronald," he said.  "Bit more meat on her bones in that picture, but it suits her."
"Right," said Miss Flava.  "And look at what's written below it: Angelique Demaître, summer '84.  Looks like there might have been a reason for her thinking that there might be something between herself and Stormy."
"I hope not," said Playfair instantly.  "Otherwise everyone else on this wall becomes a suspect, and some of them look pretty dead."
"You can't tell if someone's died just by looking at a picture of them, Playfair."
"Some of them look dead in their pictures."
"Anyway, if you were her and you knew that you were up on the wall like this, wouldn't you think there was a chance?"
"No," said Playfair. "Not when it's with all these others.  Could just be professional courtesy."
Miss Flava considered pointing out that they both thought that the woman was already slightly delusional but decided not to when she remembered that Playfair seemed almost as disinterested in her as her brother-in-law had been.
"Anything in the papers?" asked Playfair, looking at the books on the bookcase with a look of disgust.  "The books all seem to be magic books."
"Makes sense," said Miss Flava.  "These all seem to be blueprints for something."
"Right," said Playfair.  "I think we can leave this room then.  Where next?"

Sunday, 18 March 2012

The bunker

The emplacement was a concrete bunker with a slit window.  It was stood on a shelf of solid rock at the edge of the beach, but the years had drifted the sand around it so that it now appeared to stand on the beach itself.  The slit window was dark, and the concrete was striped and pitted from the action of the weather over the years.  Somewhere round the back would be an iron door, probably rusted in place by now, that allowed access to it, and somewhere inside would be a trap-door that allowed access to the escape tunnel.
James looked down at the map, unfolded in his hands, and then lifted his head.  Next to him was his second-in-command, Darville, and behind them were his squad of six other men, two of whom were women, and one of whom was a cyber.
"That's the bunker," he said, his voice sounding oddly gruff through the atmosphere mask.  They were all wearing them, even the cyber, as the trace poisons in the air were accumulative and would become noticeable after a few hours down on the surface.  There should be a door round the back of it.  Myria, Selene; I want ranging on that slit and see what you can get back from inside it.  Tom, Perput, you're taking the door. Darville, you take Scott and Mangua and get up on the roof.  There's been no-one down here for sixty years, but we're not taking chances.  Cover everything, cover everyone.
There were no replies, no talking, just sudden movement as everyone broke off to take up their positions.  Darville led his two-man team in quick leaps, racing round the side of the bunker and using the mounded sound to quickly gain height and jump onto the roof of the bunker.  They padded lightly across, setting themselves to see the front and rear and unshouldering their phased-pulse rifles.  Darville loosened the straps on little ceramic eggs on his belt: heavy-shock grenades that produced concussion waves.  Tom and Perput disappeared round the bunker in the other direction, and as Darville was leading the jump to the roof a little green light came on on James's wrist gauntlet to tell him that they were both in position.  He looked down; Myria and Selene were nearly finished assembling a laser range-finder and scan, and barely six seconds later Selene looked up and nodded.
"Scan now," he said, making sure that everyone heard it via their atmosphere mask earphones.
A thin green light shone into the bunker's slit window, and James realised that he was holding his breath.  A couple of moments later and the range-finder screen started scrolling up with data returns.  Selene started it tracking, and its beam travelled from one end of the slit to the other, steady and unbroken.  Myria kept watch on the screen, now and then touching a control to ask for better resolution, or marking things as interesting or dull.
"Something's happening," said Perput suddenly, his voice low and emotionless like all cybers.  "The door has just shuddered."
James looked over at Myria, who has heard the communication as well as all the rest.  She shrugged, her eyes scanning the range-finder's screen over and over again.
"Roof is becoming warm," said Darville suddenly.  "Evacuating."  He and his team broke and ran, still carrying their rifles, and leapt quickly and easily from the roof to the sand, mounting the dune higher up until they were nearly forty vertical feet away, but could still cover both front and back of the bunker.
"Door is changing," said Perput.  "Chemical composition suggests it is ablating from the inside."
James pondered that for a moment before remembering that some of the latest cyber upgrades allowed some kind of limited x-ray view of objects.  He hadn't been aware that Perput had upgraded in the last two years though, and felt annoyed.  Before he could look at Myria, she spoke as well.
"No feedback that suggests a presence," she said.  "The range-finder thinks that the bunker is empty."
James considered the data and made a quick decision.
"Leave the range-finder on automatic and spread out," he said.  "Everyone, get back at least thirty feet until we know what's happening."  He saw Myria tapping hastily at the range-finder's screen as he started to back away, but before he could shout to her she stopped and ran, stooping to present a harder target.  "Quickly," he said, knowing it was a little late now.
"The bunker is quite hot," said Perput.  "It is starting to emit in the IR spectrum."
"All from a range-finding?"
"It definitely doesn't feel right, Captain," said Darville, his voice crackly with static.  "There's a storm coming in too."  James turned to look behind him at the end of the beach at the long, blueish sky across the cobalt waters.  Grey clouds were already gathered on the horizon.  He looked at them for a long couple of seconds, then remembered that he wanted not to be a target.
"Was that storm predicted?" he asked.  "Main Force said the weather would be good for this exploration."
"Main Force still does," said Darville.  "But the storm is still visibly out there."
"Crap."  James changed communication channel and rattled off a quick report to be sent up to the spaceship ordering the world about the apparent lack of reliable data.
"Storm's coming in fast," said Tom.  "They usually take a few days to build, probably because of the lack of a proper Coriolis force here.  So something weird's going on."
"Yeah," muttered James.  "Definitely."  He turned to Myria.  "Turn off the scan, we'll have to assume that that is the cause."  She ran to obey, while he stared at the bunker and wondered if they'd be allowed in.

Saturday, 17 March 2012

Not Columbo

It had probably been the abattoir, thought Leslie daFox, sitting in the back of the police van.  His wrists were handcuffed together and his hands cupped each other in his lap.  Opposite him, sitting on a narrow plastic bench with odds stains along it, was a burly policeman who was glaring at Leslie.  He had little piggy eyes set deep in a fat, florid face, a sparse, mousey-brown moustache that had been waxed into rat-tails at the ends, and acne that ran from under his chin down his neck and disappeared into a shiny, greasy-looking uniform jacket.
"Do you know why you're under arrest?" said the policeman.  This was the first time he'd spoken since he'd heaved his bulk into the van and Leslie had slid slightly along his bench as the van wobbled and tilted.  There's a faint aroma of cinnamon in the air; presumably the policeman had been eating and had had to break off from his lunch so that he could come and talk to Leslie.
"No," said Leslie.  He looked the policeman directly in his eyes, wondering what colour they were.  They were too shadowed to make out, and his eyebrows were sprouting making it harder still.
"Really, Mr. daFox?"  The policeman rolled his r but otherwise sounded rather bored.
"Really," said Leslie pleasantly.  Then, almost as an after-thought, and just when he thought the policeman would be about to speak, he added, "unless you think you're Peter Falk, of course."
"Who?"  The policeman conjured a small notepad and pencil from an inside pocket.  "How do you spell that?"
Leslie obligingly spelled the name and the policeman wrote it down, tore the page off, and clambered to the end of the van to open the doors and pass the paper to someone outside.  Leslie craned his neck but he couldn't see past the policeman.  Then the man returned, breathing a little heavily as though he'd been running to pass off the note.
"Right," he said, sitting back down again and rocking the van alarmingly.  "Why do you think you'd have been arrested if I were Peter Falkland?"
"Peter Falk," said Leslie.  "And if you were he, you wouldn't have arrested me.  But if you thought you were he, you might have arrested me, by way of demonstrating that you were definitely not he."
"Look," said Leslie, still keeping his patience.  "Three months ago two students were found dead in a lecture theatre I was scheduled to teach a class in.  Since then you've been hounding me like you think I know where the doughnut-leprechaun lives; you've had Tweedledum and Tweedledee bodyguarding me, for some risible value of bodyguard, and every so often someone phones me up at 2am and demands to know who I'm going to kill next.  The number they call from matches the one on the business card you gave me when you first found the bodies.  This is police harassment, and I think arresting me is just the latest escalation of it."
"Right," said the policeman.  "Tweedledee and Tweedledum?  Is that an Alice in Wonderland reference?"
"Through the Looking Glass, I think," said Leslie, suddenly appalled with himself that he couldn't remember.  "Not original either, I'm afraid, but it went down rather well with test audiences back in the seventies, so it's a deserved cliché."
"Is that clichet with a 't'?"
"No.  No 'y' either."
"And the doughnut-leprechaun?"
"May be real, but I don't know where he lives," said Leslie.
"Ha.  Ha."
Someone banged on the back-doors of the van and pulled the door open.  A young policeman with a shock of black hair spiked up impossibly high on his head peered in, and spotted the fat policeman.
"Peter Falk?" he shouted, making Leslie flinch.
"Yes?" said the policeman, glaring at Leslie as though daring him to try and make a break for it.
"Dead," said the young policeman.  He pulled his head back and closed the doors of the van.
"Dead," said the fat policeman.  "You're thinking I should be dead, are you, Sir?  And you found coming out of an abattoir and all...."
"Oh dear God," said Leslie hopelessly.

Friday, 16 March 2012

The man with the silver syringe

He was the man with the Silver Syringe, the chimera chirurgeon, sitting in the chair right in front of me.  His newspaper smile and Hollywood teeth were hidden now behind lips that were pressed tightly together, bloodless and white.  His eyes still glittered, but with restrained malevolence rather than generous bonhomie.  And his hands... his left hand was still good, still whole, and its fingers were drumming a tattoo on the chair's arm.
"You have to understand," I said, for all that he'd not understood the previous six times I'd explained it.  Even when I got angry with him for not trying hard enough.  He was clever, after all, he'd been to college, and then to university, and had collected a string of certificates, qualifications and diplomas, enough to wallpaper the downstairs privy with.  "You have to understand," I said, emphasizing the have.  "My cat is dying."
"I'm not a vet," he said, the words squeezing out from between his lips, wriggling through his gritted teeth.  He sounded firm, determined, and in control.  "I'm a doctor.  My patients are humans.  I don't know the first thing about feline longevity."
"See, those are big words," I said encouragingly.  "I don't know words like that.  I'd have to pay a man ten dollars a minute to get the use of words like that.  You know big words like that, you can help my cat."
"Who pays a man for words?" he said, sneering at me.  "That's retarded."  That made me angry again then, because I'd heard that word too many times.  Too often.  But when I get angry I can't remember anything, it's like I pass out but when I come round people say I was doing things.  Maybe I sleepwalk when I get angry.  I had an Aunt who would just fall asleep, right there and then, no matter what she was doing, when people got angry with her.  They had a name for her too, and she didn't like it either, but it didn't help her stay awake.  She fell asleep and fell into the trash compactor, so I make sure I stay away from trash compactors.
The man in the chair was looking scared, and his other hand....  His left hand was balled up into a fist and he looked like he wanted to get free from the chair.  But he knew how to do that, he just had to help my cat.
"My cat's not well," I said.  "You have to help her."
"Fine," he said, the word long and drawn out like it was somehow painful.  "Fine, show me your cat and I'll tell you what I can do for her."
"She's right here," I said, smiling.  I was really happy now.  "I put her in here," and I reached down for the black plastic sack at my feet and unknotted it, "so that she'd be all ready for you."
Something was wrong, she wasn't jumping out of the bag like I knew she would.  I thought then that maybe she was sleeping, so I jerked the sack a little to wake her up, only she wouldn't wake.  She felt heavy, and lazy, so I jerked the sack a little more, and then harder, and still she wouldn't wake up so I tipped the lazy cat out onto the rug.
Her head came out first and rolled away, then her body tumbled after, and the man in the chair started making retching noises and turning purple, and I couldn't see where her head had gone to put it back on her.  Then I saw it, just by the man's arm, and then he threw up.  On her head.
It all went black after that, and I think this time it's because I got sad.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Two slave-Kings

Barrus let go of Tomaz, but kept him ahead of him, pushing him through the opened gate.  Ahead of him Shay was being supported still by Annejecta, and the second woman was following close behind them.  As Barrus walked past the gate he turned slightly and stared over his shoulder.  Tomaz, looking back to see why Barrus's steps had slowed, saw him.
"What?" he said, sounding barely civil.  "Are there more of you to come?"
"I'm waiting for the gate to close," said Barrus.  "That's usually what happens in these tricky places; all the doors let you in one-way only."
"Where do you spend your time?" said Tomaz.  "The gate's controlled by the lever, it can't close unless someone closes it."
"What lever?"  Barrus looked blankly at Tomaz and then around him.  "I can't see any lever."
"Ah," said Tomaz.  "You're not attuned to Paimon though.  Shay can still see the lever, he could close the gate if you want him to."
"Can you see the lever?
Barrus grunted, obviously not believing Tomaz, but Tomaz refused to be drawn, falling silent and following behind the quiet woman, not looking back at Barrus.  They walked in single file, though Shay still leant a little on Annejecta, along a stone corridor that seemed to turn gently; never quite enough to show a proper corner, but just enough that the gate soon disappeared and it was as though they were walking down an endless tunnel.  Their footsteps echoed, and Tomaz found himself unconsciously trying to keep in step with the others so that there was just one, resounding heavy footstep that they all contributed to.  When he realised what he was doing he stumbled a little, in order to break out of synchrony.
The corridor opened out without any warning, becoming a small atrium with a chimney in the ceiling that stretched up as far as the eye could see, and a grey light glowed at the top.  The walls of the atrium were recessed with shelves, on which were stood thin, leather-bound books with gilt lettering on the spine.  Annejecta checked that Shay could stand up by himself and then started browsing through the shelves, running her fingers down spines and tilting her head to one-side to better read their names.  The other woman looked around them, and then seized Shay's arm.  He looked up, and Tomaz noticed that he looked very pale, his eyes darkly shadowed and more deep-sunken than he remembered.
"What is it?"  Shay's voice rasped like a rough file on metal.  The second woman's hands blurred into motion, and Tomaz stepped backwards, retreating from her and walking into Barrus.
"Ow."  Barrus's tone was flat, letting Tomaz know that he'd stood on Barrus's foot without actually expressing pain.  "What was that for?"
Tomaz realised that the second woman wasn't performing a complicated prestidigitation and relaxed a little.
"I didn't know what she was doing," he said, pointing at her.  "I thought she might be invoking one of the Howling."
"What if she was?"  Barrus sounded bored.
"This would be a bad place to do it," said Tomaz.  "What is she doing?"
"Talking," said Barrus.  "Emma's a mute, she talks to Shay with her hands."
"These books are all indices," said Annejecta, walking back from the shelves.  "I think they're intended to help you find what you're looking for."
"What?" said Shay, talking to Emma.  She pointed behind them all, and Shay looked where she was pointing.
"So have you found what we're looking for?" said Barrus.  "Your hands are empty."
"There's no-one there," said Shay, looking at Emma.  Tomaz carefully avoided turning round and looking where they were talking about.  Emma's hands started dancing in the air again, fingers caressing each other, walking over her palms and wrists.
"I need to find the book here that will tell us where the books we want are," said Annejecta.  "It's like a puzzle box."
"Hah," said Barrus.  "I knew you'd come in useful."  He pushed Tomaz towards Annejecta.
"No," said Shay.  "There's no-one there.  Hey, Anna, Barrus!  Can you see anyone following us?"  Emma punched him on the arm.  "Two people following us?"
"No," said Barrus, looking back.  "Either of you two?"
Both Annejecta and Tomaz shook their heads, Tomaz now walking to the shelves with Annejecta.
"What are you looking for then?" he asked, hoping to forestall any more questions, in case they realised that he could quite easily see the slave Kings Labal and Abalim keeping a discrete distance behind them.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

Opening the gate

"Come on, Shay!" shouted Barrus.  His voice echoed wildly around them, bouncing off the hard stone walls until it sounded like there was a crowd of deep-voiced people shouting at Shay.  Shay stayed leaning against the way, his face pale and his chest heaving.  "Shay!  Open the gate!"  Annejecta went to the gate and tried to fit her arm between the bars but found they were too close together.  She pushed her fingers through anyway, trying to reach Shay though he was stood a couple of metres behind the gate.
"What's wrong with him," said Barrus, turning to Tomaz and grabbing him.  The material of Tomaz's shirt bunched up in Barrus's hand, and Tomaz found himself dragged forward and off his feet again.  "Why's he not doing anything?"
"I said there were risks," Tomaz found it hard to talk with the shirt tight around his neck, and his voice came out whispery and raspy.  "Paimon has his price, just like any of the Howling."
"What price?"  Barrus's voice was soft suddenly, but the intensity of his stare seemed to have doubled as Tomaz spoke.
"I don't know," said Tomaz.  "It will be something that Paimon thinks he can pay," Tomaz lifted an arm and pointed at Shay, who was trying to push himself upright off the wall, "and it... it will be something... that... Paimon... wants."  His last few words were gasped out as he ran out of air.  He struggled to breath in, but Barrus was holding him so as to force him to breath very shallowly.
"Put him down, Barrus," said Annejecta, not looking away from Shay.  Her voice sounded hollow somehow as it bounced along the passage that Shay was stood in.  "Shay's recovering."  Barrus lowered Tomaz to the ground, where he gasped like a fish out of water, sucking air into burning lungs, but didn't let go of him.
"Shay?" he said.
"Yes," said Shay, blinking a lot.  He was swaying a little, but he was standing on his own again.  "Yes, I'm here."
"There's a lever, Shay," said Annejecta.  "You need to pull it, it'll open the gate."
"Where?"  Shay looked around him, and Annejecta thought she could make out a thin sheen of sweat covering his face.  "Oh, it's here."  He reached out to the wall, and to Annejecta's dismay she could see that there was nothing there but solid rock.  Then Shay seemed to grasp something she couldn't see, and leaned on it, pushing it down, and for a couple of seconds there was a silvery-grey lever in his hands sticking out of a long, metallic slot in the rock.  The gate slid quickly aside, forcing her to pull her fingers out of the bars fast.  She wasn't quite fast enough, and bruised her left ring finger as the bars pulled it sideways, but at the back of her mind she was aware that she could have had her fingers ripped off and she'd had a narrow escape.  Then she was running forward and grabbing Shay, tipping his head back so that she could look into his eyes.
"The gate is open," said Tomaz, looking at Barrus.  "You can find your books now."
"You're coming with me," said Barrus lifting Tomaz back off his feet again.  "This place is tricky.  I don't know when I might need a hostage."
"Against books?"  Tomaz realised that he probably shouldn't have sounded sarcastic even as he spoke, but Barrus didn't seem bothered by it.
"I've just seen a man walk though a gate without getting cut to shreds," he said.  "That's pretty tricky, and sets a bad precedent to my mind.  So you're going to come with me and tell me all about these little tricks."
"Doesn't that defeat the point of your visit?" said Tomaz.
"If you wanted me to know what books you were after, you could just have paid me to go and get them for you."
"I don't care if you know what books we want," said Barrus.  "Though I don't know what they are either, so you'll be lucky if you can get me to tell you.  I'm just not paying for some little bloke to go and pick a couple of books off a shelf and bring them back to me."
"It's not quite that easy," said Tomaz.  "As you can see."
"Seems easier to me, if you can walk though walls."
Tomaz had to agree with that.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Invoking Paimon

"I still don't see why we couldn't do it upstairs," said Shay.  "Your office is warmer and more comfortable than this... cave!"
"We could have invoked Paimon there," said Tomaz.  "It would have taken a lot longer and been much more dangerous, and we'd have had to come down here in the end anyway.  The point of entry to the Library for books in Paimon's realm is this gate in front of you."
"Huh," said Shay.  "At least we'd have been down here for less time."
Tomaz didn't answer that, but opened his slim little box instead.  Inside it looked like a rectangular artist's palette, with little indentations set at regular intervals and filled with what looked like solid colour.  Annejecta craned her neck to see more clearly, and Barrus sniffed once and twitched his nose as though he were smelling something disagreeable.  They could hear Tomaz counting softly underneath his breath, moving his finger along the indentations.  When his finger stopped it was next to the only amber colour in the box, on which he rubbed his finger.  The amber was soft enough for him to rub a layer off, roughing up the surface of the disc and lightly coating his finger, and Annejecta thought immediately of fat-based cosmetics.
"Hold still," said Tomaz to Shay.  "I need to draw a sigil on your face.  It won't hurt."
"It's only wax," said Barrus.  "Why would it hurt?"
While Tomaz carefully copied the sigil on the gate onto Shay's face, the waves going on his forehead and the cross-lines going through his nose and mouth, Annejecta shuffled a little closer to Barrus and said quietly enough that only he could hear her,
"Not all of those coloured discs will be painless to put on.  Some of... of... of the things we might want to talk to won't talk until they can feel your pain."
Barrus looked startled, stepped backwards and nearly colliding with the fourth member of their little group, who glared at him but said nothing, adjusting her position so that Annejecta was between her and Barrus.  Annejecta closed the gap between them again, speaking quickly to stop him from saying anything.
"Paimon isn't like that, he embodies dignity and there's nothing dignified about needless suffering.  But there might be some of them we might want to talk to one day who will make that demand.  That's just the way they are.  It's like, I don't know, the terms of a contract.  You sign on with someone and they say you have to wear their stupid, heavy, scratchy uniform all the time, so you do it because they're paying you."
"Fine."  Barrus's voice was flat and his eyes showed that he didn't like what he'd just heard.
"Normally," said Tomaz, as he finished his drawing, "you would need to learn a set of phrases first that you'd repeat, but because of where we are right now, we can omit that step.  Stay right where you are while I fetch something; don't move around much now.  You're attracting attention just by being here, and we've marked you now.  Remember that you're going to be judged."
"What does he mean, judged?" asked Barrus, his helmet shifting slightly.  Annejecta surmised that he was frowning hard beneath it.
"We're asking for something," she said.  "Knowledge about the Hinterlands in this case.  Just like when you go to the Librarians and ask them for a book, they decide if you can have it, if you can take it away or if you have to read it where they can watch you.  It's just like that, only Paimon's a bit... bigger than a Librarian."
"Well, I think I know how to deal with Librarians," said Barrus, the volume of his voice rising a little now.  "Doesn't matter what they call themelves."
Tomaz reappeared from underneath the stairs carrying a tiny clay bottle with a cork stopper.  As he walked past Annejecta and Barrus they both smelled something strongly resinous and then an undercurrent that reminded them both of sick-rooms.  Tomaz stopped in front of Shay and pulled the cork from the bottle, thrusting it under Shay's nose as he did so.  Shay inhaled, ready to step back and away, and his eyes rolled up in his head as his nose smelled something incredibly strong and potent.
"Paimon rebharat, maccaresis ca ta fïeldur.  Laimat ta rebhara.  Paimon et urfeld maccara." said Tomaz, his voice sharp and high.  It felt like his voice cut through the air in the room like a knife through soft butter, and Annejecta took a step back, feeling off-balance.  The mark on Shay's face lit up redly, with the flesh behind it appearing purple and bruised, and the moss beneath his feet changed colour to red as well, a straight path rolling out both before and behind him.  His feet moved jerkily, carrying him forwards as though managed by an inexperienced puppeteer, and Annejecta saw that the sigil on the gate was also glowing.  They all remained silent while Shay stumbled forward, and when he reached the gate he put his hand out as though to stop himself from walking into it, but his hand passed through the bars like they were a mirage.  He walked through, stopping on the other side and turning around to face the rest of them.  Then the light faded out of his face and he staggered a little, catching himself against the wall.
"What the fuck good's that?" said Barrus, the first to speak.  "I thought we were getting books from this."
"You are," said Tomaz. "The lever for opening the gate is on Shay's side."

Monday, 12 March 2012

Below the library

"Shay will," said Annejecta, gesturing to the man who had earlier snorted.  He looked towards Tomaz, sneering.  "He has had some experience with this kind of thing before."  Her voice was a little hesitant, as though she was repeating something she'd been told to say, but she finished her sentence confidently.
"Very good," said Tomaz.  "If you'll allow me to collect a small box, I'll escort to where we need to go."
"Sure," said the bearded man who'd picked him up.  "Why would we care what you collect?"  As he spoke, Shay spoke over him, his voice not quite drowning him out.  "Why do we have to go somewhere?"
Tomaz paused, looking from one to the other, and then bent down and opened a drawer in his desk.  Reaching inside, he moved some leather document tubes to one side and slid back a sliver of wood in the side of the drawer.  He wiggled his finger into the crack that formed, and slid the drawer back and forth until he found a dimple, which he then pressed hard.  A hidden drawer popped open with a click at the base of the stack of drawers, and he reset the drawer he'd had open and removed a small, thin box from the hidden drawer.  His pushed the drawer closed, and it snicked shut.
"I thought you might not like it if I just started playing with hidden catches if I didn't tell you what I was doing first," he said to the bearded man, who just grunted.  Then Tomaz turned to Annejecta again, and said,
"Are you sure that Shay is your choice?"
"Yes," said Annejecta, laying a hand on Shay's chest as he took half a step forward.  Tomaz noticed now that the man was wrapped completely in a dark-green cloak from his shoulders to his ankles, with even his arms bound inside.  Even so, as he'd moved forwards the cloak had moved suggestively, giving the impression that there might be more than a just a human torso hidden beneath it.  "Shay knows what he's doing, but he doesn't know much about the Library."
"I see," said Tomaz.  "Do you want to explain it to him then?"
"Not really," said Annejecta.  "You could do it more quickly."
"Well one of you could explain what you're talking about," said Shay, his voice a little too loud for the room, and his shoulders flexing and squaring beneath the cloak.  "Before I lose my temper or anything, you know?"
"This way," said Tomaz, carrying the box from the hidden drawer in one hand.  It was about as wide as his palm and as long as his forearm.  He ignored the door that the group must have come in by and walked over to a wooden frame painted with woodland scenes that was intended as a screen for people to get changed behind.  It was a little out of place in his office, but he liked the images on it, and it concealed the other door.  He drew the screen aside, and the other four all stared at a blank white wall.
"Down," said Tomaz, gently, pointing at the floor, where the carpet appeared to be sagging.  "Could one of you give me a hand?"
Tomaz and Shay pulled the carpet back together revealing an open square and a flight of stairs going down.
"The books on the Hinterlands," said Tomaz, leading the way down in the shadows, "fall into the realm of Paimon; partly because some of his religions arose and spread out from there, but also because the largest city, historically speaking, of the Hinterlands was Halespar.  We need a point of entry for Paimon, and that is down here."
"That doesn't explain anything," said Shay.  He was third in the procession coming down the stairs.  Looking around him, as the shadows darkened, he could see a brick wall to his left, but an empty space to his right that seemed to suck all the light away.  The stairs underfoot were old stone, with well worn indentations in the middle from the passage of many feet, white at the edges and shades of grey everywhere else.  In front of him was Barrus, the bearded man and then Tomaz, and behind him was Annejecta and their fourth companion.
"It explains enough," said Tomaz.  "Have you invoked Paimon before?"  His voice was echoing oddly now, and the shadows were distorting oddly as a light from below started to become apparent.  The light from the gap at the top already seemed pale and drained of life.
"Not Paimon, no."  Shay thought about saying more and decided against it.
"Are you aware of Paimon?" Tomaz didn't seem to have noticed Shay's hesitation.
"I've heard a little about him," said Shay, trying to sound like he was holding back a lot of what he knew.  "I didn't know he was associated with Halespar though."
"Really?"  Tomaz sounded genuinely surprised, and Shay realised that he'd probably made a mistake.  "Oh well.  Paimon's manifestation is dignity."
"Huh?"  Shay was pretty certain that that was a mistake as well, but Annejecta spoke next before he could cover it up.
"And dignity can be found only underground, I take it?"
"No, not at all."  Tomaz reached the foot of the stairs and stepped off to one side, allowing the rest room to descend.  They were in a small, roughly circular with six holes in the wall.  The stairs curved down following the walls round, and Shay only realised there were six when he spotted the last one underneath the stairs themselves.  The floor of the room was covered in a slippery green moss that was glowing faintly; wherever they trod and crushed the moss the light increased and became yellowish.  More light seemed to filter through from some the holes, and when they looked at them, only one was unbarred.  The other five all had iron bars running from floor to ceiling blocking any passage.
"Stand here," said Tomaz, indicating a spot in front of one of the barred tunnels.  As Shay took his place he saw that in the middle of their height the bars twisted and writhed against one another, forming a sigil.  Four curves like waves folding over themselves formed the top, and three uprights descended to a cross bar, terminating in a single and then a second set carried on down almost to a second crossbar.  The second set also terminated in a circle.  Curved lines then formed the outside of the figure.  The whole thing seemed like a bizarre kind of filigree crown.
"This is where we will invoke Paimon," said Tomaz, opening the box.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Library of Malkuth

Hands; hairy, sweaty hands, thumped down on his book.  He jumped, and his own hands reached out instinctively to push the intrusive hands away, take the pressure off the spine of the book and check that the pages weren't damaged.  The hands wouldn't push away, so belatedly he looked up.
The face wasn't much better than the hands; a thick beard covered everything below a nose that tried hard to be straight where it wasn't broken, and there were tiny threads of red from broken blood vessels there.  Leather flaps from a metal helmet covered up the rest of the face, with only brown eyes peering out from the holes cut for vision.  As he took that in, the smell hit him, and he pushed back away from the desk.  It smelled like horse, but perhaps one that was sick, or thinking of being sick.  One of the huge, hairy hands left the book and grabbed his shirt, pulling the coarse fabric tight around him and dragging him forwards again.  He tried to stop himself by planting his feet, but all that happened was that he was pulled to his feet.
"Tomaz?" said the man wearing a helmet, also straightening up and pulling Tomaz off the floor as he did so.  The man was just huge, Tomaz decided.  He nodded, trying to look down and check on his book.
"You know this library?"  Tomaz nodded again, wondering where this conversation was going.  When he'd come here this morning he'd been expecting to spend most of his day restoring books and copying out books that were getting to the end of their lives, and this was the only chance he'd had all day to sit and read a little.  Invading barbarians weren't anywhere on hist list of expectations.  He looked past the man holding him and found that there were three other people stood there now, all looking amused.
"Good," said the man holding him.  "We're looking for some information, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of organisation to the books."
"Oh but there is," said Tomaz immediately, forgetting in his haste that he was still hanging an inch or so above the ground.  "It's really quite easy when you get used to it, but researchers do say that at first they find it tricky.  Generally they come round to our way of thinking tho–"
"Yeah," said the man.  "Sounds great.  This here is Annejecta, she knows what we're looking for.  Talk to her.  Nicely."  On the word nicely he leaned back in closely to Tomaz's face, lowering him back to the floor with the implicit promise that he could be picked up again just as quickly if he wasn't talking nicely.  Tomaz stumbled slightly when he was released, only then realising that he'd been letting the man take all his weight still, and had to support himself on his desk.  There was a titter of laughter somewhere in the group, and he felt his face flush with embarrassment.
"Right," he said, his voice a little higher-pitched than he wanted.  He make a fuss of clearing his throat, and started again, in what he hoped were deep, magisterial tones.  "Right.  What are you looking for, exactly?"
"Something on the Hinterlands," said a woman, moving so that she was visible from behind the bearded man.  She was wearing a merchant's coat, though the collar was turned up slightly and there seemed to be several more pockets sewn on to it than even the merchants had.  The coat was a little slow to move with her, and pressed against her as she turned, looking like there might be heavy things in the pockets.  Her hair was a pale blonde cut to shoulder length, and her eyes were grey smudges in a face that seemed slightly out of focus.
"Surely the desk librarian could have helped you with that," said Tomaz.  "There is a shelf of travel guides in the main lib–"
"Not travel guides," said Annejecta, the woman.  "We're not looking for a holiday.  Something on their history, their sociogeography, their significance in the last century."
"Oh," said Tomaz.  "The librarian would have help–"
"They wanted paying," said the man with the beard, in a tone that suggested he didn't think that looking for books was something that should cost money.
"I'm not surprised," said Tomaz, a little surprised that he'd been able to finish his sentence.  "Finding those books won't be easy."
"Hah!"  One of the two who'd not yet spoken snorted indignantly.  "How can finding a book be hard at all?  These librarians are worse than the merchants.  Next, he'll be wanting payment for waking up and breathing in the morning!"
"Shut up, Shay," said Annejecta, not turning to look at him.  Her voice was calm, and slightly dismissive.  "We won't have to pay."
"Well," said Tomaz.  "If you're not paying, then you'll have to take the risks yourself."
"So it's true then?"
Tomaz didn't reply, wondering if she knew what she was asking.  He looked at her intently, trying to focus on her face and work out if she was just trying to be clever or if she actually knew where she was.  The silence dragged out, and then the bearded man turned and looked at Annejecta.
"I saw... the Magra birds carved into the lintel," she said, looking annoyed with the bearded man.  He shrugged and turned away from her to look back at Tomaz again, who decided that he preferred Annejecta being the centre of attention.  The bearded man's eyes seemed to lock onto whatever he was looking at, as though it were the only thing in the room.
"I think you'll find they were Tusu birds," said Tomaz.
"No, they were standing below a... tree." said Annejecta, and that confirmed that she knew where she was for Tomaz.  The Magra birds stood below the Rekath, the tree-like growth that linked the realms of the mind, while Tusu birds were common birds that sang unexcitingly in the twilight.
Tomaz nodded.  "Then yes, this is the Library of Malkuth," he said.  "Who will be taking the risk?"

Saturday, 10 March 2012


It's always dark outside the windows when we leave the city.  I sit in my window-seat and stare out into the apparent nothingness that the train races through, straining my eyes periodically to try and see something, anything that might be out there.  I never see anything back, though now and then it seems like there might be a darker shadow keeping pace with the train, something that would become clear if only it came closer.  But I rub my eyes and the shadow disappears and I know that it was just a tired mind longing for something new to look at.
The cities were all built inside pressurised domes back when the sun was still visible, but the light now comes from all around, from many sources.  Luminescent moss coats most flat surfaces, firefly genes have been inserted into almost all the birds, insects and small mammals so that they constantly give off additional light.  Some people have gone so far as to be fireflied too, but they're a minority still, and the doctors are just as busy turning fireflies off as they are turning them on.  It's just too odd.  There are street-lights everywhere, and in the richer parts of the cities there are huge aerial balloons that provide light as well.  Because outside the domes it's just dark.
It was an accident, no-one intended to put the sun out.  They, whoever they are, were testing a nuclear weapon and something went wrong, something caught fire in the atmosphere, and the resulting ash and dust filled the sky and blocked the sun out.  Or sometimes people say that it was accident, a plane carrying a nuclear bomb crashed into a volcano and the bomb exploded, throwing millions of tonnes of ash and dust into the atmosphere, blocking the sun out.  Or perhaps the bomb was just a coincidence, and it was a tidal wave that crashed into the Harwell crater that was the largest active volcano on the planet, and the resulting conflict between seawater and boiling rock thrust millions of tonnes of ash and dust... you get the picture.
It was no accident, and there is no ash or dust in the atmosphere.  The planet has been shifted from its orbit and is going to a new home, all by itself.  Though there's only a few of us who know this, and we all expect to be dead by the time we arrive.
The train is quiet, there are never many people who want to travel between cities these days, and the restrictions are getting harsher anyway.  But tonight my carriage is actually empty apart from me, and it feels a little lonely.  When the ticket-inspector finally tramps to my seat, I turn, almost pleased to see him.
But it isn't him, it's a young girl with ratty brown hair down to her shoulders and a grubby notebook in her hand.  She sits down opposite me without introduction, and I find myself a little annoyed.
"That seat's taken," I say, and she smiles and shakes her head.
"There's only us on the train," she replies.  "It's been arranged."