Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Timeliness

Time is strange.  Everyone notices that some times pass faster than others, some times pass slower too.  For me, after my trip to the desert, some of that is voluntary now.  By concentrating, I can slow time down a little.  It's not much, and it's hard and exhausting to do, but I can drag five minutes out to nearly twenty at a push.  It's useful when I need to get lots of things done in a hurry, but I have to be certain I'll have a chance to rest afterwards.  I don't think it's get me very far stealing things.  Except for the time in the desert.
The sands were mounding all around me, and it seemed like I was walking through a beige landscape of hills, with mountains hinted at on the horizon.  I knew that sand couldn't pile up into mountains, but there were shadows out there, hazed by the heat and probably dazed by the sun.  I kept on walking anyway.  I had plenty of water, refilled at the last oasis, and I'd been told that there was something worth seeing out this way by a rotten little mannikin that had danced and gibbered at me while I filled water-flasks.  I might have imagined him though.  He had black teeth and breath that stank like an abbatoir, his eyes never stopped moving around and didn't ever look in the same direction, and his hair was thin and straggly, protuding from a scabby scalp like spider's legs.
The sand darkened beneath my feet briefly, and I wondered if I was near one of the odd little rivers that seemed to run through the desert.  I looked around, trying to see if there was any green growing nearby, or flowers, or trees, or anything that would confirm water, but there was nothing, just a long, thin strip of darker sand.  I followed it, reasoning that something must be causing it.  Then, abruptly, it turned red like the colour of old brick, and the ground itself disappeared into a heat-haze maybe only twenty feet in front of me. I stopped, of course.
For a moment there was just me, the heat-haze, and the odd-coloured sand, and then the haze shimmered a little brighter and then faded away.  In front of me now was a brick-paved pathway that led into a colonnade that seemed to make its way under a cloudier sky than the rest of the desert.  I hesitated, recognizing that this wasn't part of the desert and was probably therefore dangerous.
"Heeheeheehee!"  The laughter was high-pitched and desperate-sounding, with a wheezy note to it that made me think of asthmatics.  "Heeheeheehee!"  A short man with a protuberant belly and eyes the size of his mouth skipped down the colonnade towards me, naked as an innocent.  As he skipped, he laughed, and his eyes rolled around in his head like those of a madman.  I braced myself, ready to turn and run.
"You're trapped!  You're trappedtrappedtrappedtrapped!"  He was chanting the words, and his lips smacked noisily together on every "-ed".  "You're never going to leave here now you've entered!  I've got you for a friend for ever now!"
"I've not stepped into anywhere," I said, pointing to my feet.  I was still three or four steps away from the brick-paved path.
"Ohnonononnonono!"  Hands flew to his mouth, and then to his eyes, covering them.  He sank to his knees.  "Please come in, there's no traptraptraptrap, no traptraptraptrap really.  Really and honestly.  I wouldn't lielielielielielie to you, nonononono I wouldn't!"
I stepped backwards, carefully, looking over my shoulder to be certain what I walking into.  The sand behind me was losing its reddish tint and growing dark again, which I hoped was a good sign.
"Nonononono don't leave me!  Don't leave me!  I'm so hunhunhunhunhungry."  He started blubbering, wet sobbing sounds that made my skin crawl, and glistening, silvery drool spilled from his mouth and mounded on the sand like quicksilver.
"I don't think I could stay for dinner," I said, standing still and looking at him while I spoke.  When I'd finished, I turned back to looking where I was going and getting away from him.
"Nonononono!"  His voice turned into some kind of rapid, high-pitched scream.  "You don't understand, I'm been so hungrygrygrygry for so lonlonlonlong now."
"Gotta be going," I said, my feet finally stepping onto complete dark sand, free of the reddish tint.  I looked back, and the heat haze was consuming him once more.  He stood up, his face a picture of rage, and waved a fist angrily.  Then he threw something at me, and I dodged to the side, only realising too late that this might have been a trick.  I looked down at my feet, but the sand was still dark and it seemed that I was still safe.  Then something landed beside me, breaking and splashing me with liquid as silvery and globular as his drool, and everything slowed down to a crawl.
I wiped it off, with hands that seemed to flash around uncontrollably fast, and then everything around me sped up again, the strange little man and his colonnade disappeared, and I was alone in the desert once more.  With the ability to slow time down a little now and then, which couldn't have been a gift, and so I distrust it, wondering when it will reveal its poison sting.

Monday, 16 April 2012

The kitchen of the Blue Swan

While I don't know what I was exactly expecting to see when I stumbled through into the kitchen, the plate of badly cooked food held in front of me like a prayer for departed, I know I wasn't expecting to see anyone I recognised.  So when my eyes beheld Miss Sapphire leaning against a range, wearing a belt that was doing double duty as a skirt, holding a pint glass of something clear in one hand and a can-opener in the other, I was shocked.  I staggered to a halt, my feet vibrating like violin strings at the opening of the concerto and my ankles complaining they were being abused.
"Mac," she said, her voice like spider-silk, all ethereal and barely there, but somehow still coating my ears and making them feel sticky.
"Miss Sapphire," I grunted back.  She's always been a Miss to me, even though her legs were longer than lampposts and her stockings as sheer as the sides of a prison.  "I didn't know you cooked."
"I don't," she said, dropping the can opener and lifting the glass to her lips.  As she drank she tipped her head back, downing easily half the glass.  She righted it again, set it on the range next to her, wiped her lips, and burped very delicately.  "I just arrange things, whether its food on a plate, money in bank-accounts, or meetings in unlikely places.  But you know this already Mac, how many times have we done this already?"
"Not enough, it seems," I said.  "It keeps happening.  I'm busy, Miss Sapphire.  Mad Frankie will have to use someone else this time."
"Not Mad Frankie," she said.  "He's busy too Mac, and he doesn't like using you anyway.  People die around you, it's like a bad habit you have."
"Hardly my habit," I said.  "It's not like I'm helping them on their way.  You want a smother party, try Big Ben's disco on the first Monday of the month."
"I don't want a smother party, Mac.  I don't even want to find out what one is."
"You're not missing out.  So, you're moonlighting for someone else?  Mad Frankie know about it?"
"Of course he knows, and it's not moonlighting.  It's a secondary interest, and I'm looking after Mad Frankie's interest for a few seconds.  But it's not Frankie who wants your services this time, Mac.  It's someone with a much smaller budget."
"I don't come cheap."  I do, that was a lie, but it felt good to say it.
"You do."  Damn, did I have no secrets from this woman?  "But that's not the point.  The point is, that the job you're being hired for is to keep tabs on Natasha Monkeybutt."
"That's not how she likes it pronounced," I said, just a touch smugly.  Miss Sapphire conjured cigarettes and a lighter from somewhere.  Even though I was watching her hands I didn't see how she did it.
"How else could you pronounce it?"  She sounded curious, and the problem was, I was too.  Natasha had never told me how she liked her name pronounced, just that I was saying it wrong.  I shrugged, and Miss Sapphire lit her cigarette.  The end glowed red like a cyclopean eye peering from the cave, and a thin black line of smoke began to curl up to the ceiling.
"Keeping an eye on her is fine," said Miss Sapphire.  "What we don't want happening though is what we think your hire is after.  We don't want her falling foul of your little curse that means bad things happening to everyone around you.  Keep an eye on her, Mac, but don't let her die."
"I'm not a nursemaid," I said.
"Few things in this world would make as unfit a parent as you," she said.  "But that aside, keep an eye on her, don't let her die.  Make her the subject of your investigation if that helps.  But she's necessary, Mac.  She can do things."
"Fine," I said, shrugging again.  One of my shoulders refused to come back down.  "She's looking for Blue, so am I.  Seems like she'll be underfoot no matter what I do.  Who's hiring me then?  Where's the money?"
"He calls himself Jack Horner, but that's probably not his real name," said Miss Sapphire.  She was looking up at the ceiling.  "You'll get paid when I next see you.  Tell me, Mac, what's the white thing up there?"
I looked up and saw the smoke detector, and the curl of jet-black smoke just reaching it.  I looked down, and she'd vanished, leaving just the cigarette behind, floating in her half-full pint glass.  I turned and lunged through the kitchen doors, just before the fire system set off and started raining fire retardant chemicals down all over the kitchen.  The barman looked startled as I burst back through, and the bouncers all came to their feet and looked attentive.
"He's gone mad!" I shouted, pointing back into the kitchen.  "He's chopping up the pot-washer!"  The bouncers pushed past me, pounding heavily into the kitchen, and I ran for the hatch out to the street, knowing it was quicker than the stairs.
"She's quite a looker, Mac," said the barman as I threw myself through, hoping not to skid too far on my face.

Sunday, 15 April 2012

The fifth floor

The lift doors slid noiselessly shut and with only a faint whine of a motor somewhere activating the lift began to move.  Miss Flava looked around, impressed.  Back at the police headquarters the lifts were avoided by all but the bravest or most time-pressed policemen and shuddered and groaned like they were bit-players in a Hammer horror film when they were used.  This lift had mirrors, shiny brass-effect buttons, gleaming pieces of trim, carpet on the floor, and a discrete poster advertising the breakfast buffet on the lower-ground floor.
"I think she thinks we're together, you know," she said.  Playfair sniffed.
"Well we are.  She'd be pretty dim to think that we'd just chanced to come in at the same time and had rooms next door to one another."
"That's not what I meant," said Miss Flava.  "I think she thinks that we're here for a romantic weekend break."
"Oh," said Playfair.  Then, after a couple of seconds pause.  "No."
"I know," said Miss Flava, with perhaps a little too much emphasis.  "But she doesn't, and she's drawing conclusion based on us having adjacent rooms, arriving together, and wanting a connecting door."
"Silly woman," said Playfair after listening to this.  "That's the kind of conclusion officers on this force jump to, because they haven't considered all the facts.  We've got too much luggage for that kind of romantic break for one thing, and you carried most of it."  The lift pinged softly to indicate that they'd arrived at the fifth floor, and the doors slid open.  "I don't know what form of ID you showed her, but I used my warrant card, and why would we ask for a key to the connecting door instead of just requesting that it be kept open?"
"Does that make it sound more like we're colleagues on a business trip?"
"...actually, it makes it look like I'm your parole officer, unless you showed your warrant card too."  They'd got the luggage out into the corridor now, and the lift doors silently closed behind them.  Miss Flava stared at Playfair in disbelief.
"She'd better not be thinking that!" she said, her hands resting on her hips and her chin jutting out slightly.  "How could...!  How dare...!  Playfair!!"
"Well, what ID did you show her?"
"My driving licence of course!  Like a normal person would."
Playfair shrugged.  "Passport would have been better, it's unlikely you'd be allowed to keep that if you were on parole," he said.  "Though our parole officers don't seem to much care."
Miss Flava kicked a bag that she knew contained clothes.  She knew the case Playfair was referring to, where three prisoners on parole had flown out of the country and disappeared in South America because their parole officer had apparently thought that meeting them for a pint on Wednesday evenings was enough to carry out his job.
"You're carrying the bags then," she said, venting her frustration where she could.
"No need," said Playfair.  "It seems we've got rooms by the lifts.  How convenient is that?"
Miss Flava took a very small amount of comfort in seeing that Playfair's door was directly opposite the lift, while hers was offset a little, meaning that late night returnees and drunkards would be more likely to wake him than her.
"Fine," she said.  "Carry your own bags into your room then."  She swiped her access card in the door lock, and pushed the door open.  Then she paused and looked back at Playfair.
"What are we doing with Calamity?" she asked.

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Silly cilia

"Do you like it?"  Clytie danced closer to Xogenes, who retreated a little.  "It's new!"
"I know it's new," he replied, edging away again as she approached.  "You never used to have tentacles all around your waist."
"They're cilia, silly."  Clytie giggled and made the tentacles undulate around her in a sinusoidal wave.  "Look, they're giving you a Mexican wave!"
"They're giving me the creeps," said Xogenes.  He'd spent the morning chiselling a face out of a lump of concrete, and the first part of the afternoon trying to work out whose face it was.  It looked familiar, but the name associated with it never quite seemed to get to the tip of his tongue, always getting lost somewhere on the way.  Then Clytie had knocked on his door, putting her metal fist through the newly-repaired panels again, and he'd had to stop what he was doing and lock up the studio before she broke anything else.  And now she had these white, translucent cilia all around her waist.  They wriggled suggestively and made him think of hungry maggots worming blindly around in search of rotten meat, and his gorge rose a little every time he had to look directly at them.
"They're very modish," said Clytie, giving him a twirl.  "Two months, and everyone in Paris will be wearing them."
"I'll avoid Paris this summer then," said Xogenes with heartfelt intensity.  "Can you really say you're wearing something that you've had surgically attached?"
"They can be surgically detached again," said Clytie.  "They're like contact lenses."
They weren't, thought Xogenes.  Contact lenses didn't wiggle in your eyes or try and grab things when you stood near them.  He backed away a little more, checking over his shoulder to see if he was about to be cornered by Clytie, and adjusted course to parallel the wall.
"They've improved my diet, too," she said.  "They eat things, and they directly feed into my digestive system, so I don't have to eat any more.  And because they don't have taste buds, I don't get bored eating boring things, so it's easier to stick to a diet."
"What are you feeding them then?" asked Xoggie, continuing to back away.  Clytie seemed oblivious, and kept on advancing.
"No, they're feeding me, silly.  Well, I was trying just plaster and paper at first, but it turns out that that's kind of hard to excrete, so I had to stop–"
"You stood too close to a wall and they tried to eat it," said Xoggie.  "I know you too well, Clytie.  You'd never dream of eating wallpaper if there was an ├ęclair anywhere nearby."
Clytie stamped her foot, causing all the cilia to shiver and jiggle suggestively.  Xoggie shivered himself.  "Damn, I was hoping you'd believe I was dieting," she said.  "I didn't feel at all hungry though, but I think I shit a brick in the end.  Literally."
Xogenes nodded, smiling despite the horror of the cilia.
"And now?"
"Well, now I don't stand still too much," said Clytie.  "So that's helping with the weight-loss program too."
"How about sex?"  Xogenes hadn't meant to ask the question, but it had been playing on his mind almost since he'd seen the cilia.
"Oh."  Clytie looked a little downbeat at that point.  "That's a bit tricky, the cilia always seem to be hungry.  Jeffrey's a little... injured right now."
"Your cilia tried to eat your husband?"
"Just a little bit!"

Friday, 13 April 2012

Godwene's pub

Godwene was quiet.  It was a fairy god-folk village, so it was hardly ever rowdy anyway.  Even at New Year most of the god-folk would be out in the human realm at parties and celebrations, enjoying the free drinks and social gossip, possibly waving the odd wand (or their wand oddly, depending on how much they'd had to drink) and granting blessings or conveying curses.  Only a few remained in the villages, and although Godwene had an excellent pub it also had the greatest number of socialite god-folk, and so things were usually fairly subdued.  Despite this though, Godwene was quiet.
Tom Shandy, proprietor of the Green Man pub, carefully closed the pub door and considered slipping a bar across it.  There was a good solid length of oak timber propped in the corner that both served as a bar for the door and  a decent threat to drunks.  He'd never actually seen a rowdy drunk himself, though his father had had a tale of one nearly three hundred years earlier, back when Godwene was a little busier and had more young god-folk in it.  He'd actually picked the beam up before he set it back down again, with just a quiet grunt to reveal how heavy it was, and decided that the pub was probably the only place a god-folk would consider sanctuary.  He probably shouldn't bar the door, at least not just yet, he decided.  It was just the quiet outside getting to him.  Even the ducks at the duckpond round the corner weren't quacking, they were just sitting quietly on the grass by the water and appeared to be waiting for something to happen.
He walked the length of the bar, checking that it was shiny, polished, and perfectly clean, then walked behind it and carefully checked through the glasses, making sure they were all in the right places and the right way up.  Then he looked thoughtfully at the liquors and wondered if he mightn't have a drop of something while he waited for whatever was trying to happen to resolve itself.  As he decided that the only stuff he'd drink was too expensive for him to waste on himself, a pair of glowing green eyes floated through the wall of the pub and hovered over the bar.  He saw them appear in the mirror behind the bar, and concentrated on pretending that he'd not seen them come in at all.
"Where is he?" said a voice that seemed to come from somewhere behind the eyes, though the exact direction was uncertain.
"Good evening, sir!" said Tom sounding a lot more cheerful than he felt.  He turned round and acted as though floating eyes were an everyday happenstance in his pub.  "Can I get you a drink?"
"Can you see a mouth?  Where is he?"  The voice sounded bored.
"It's traditional to pay for a barman's information with a drink," said Tom.  "It's well known that alcohol brings memories back."
"Then why do people drink it to forget?  I have no pockets, no hands.  How could I pay for your drink?"
"No money, sir?  Then I'll have to ask you to leave," said Tom.  He let a note of indignation creep into his voice, which he felt sincerely.  There was nothing worse than a moocher in his pub.
"Where is he?  You might as well tell us now, we'll find out anyway."
"He could refer to a lot of people," said Tom, licking his lips as though he were thirsty.  "And I believe you said you didn't have the money to help me decide which he might be most relevant."
"Fine," said the voice.  "Let me leave you with your seven-day horoscope predictions.  Beware the colour puce.  Dogs will be attracted to you on Wednesday.  Harbouring people can be bad for your health, and on Thursday there is a high chance of fire.  Wrap up well."  The eyes floated back out of the pub through the nearest wall.
"What kind of horoscope is that?" asked Tom Shandy to the empty room, though in the silence of his head he knew that the answer was "One that someone will be working very hard to ensure comes true."
"I hope I'm doing the right thing," he muttered to himself, reaching for the seventy-year old malt.

Thursday, 12 April 2012

Paschal Pasta

"Mac's your name?"  The barman looked surprised.  "I call everyone Mac, Mac.  It's just one those thingies, you know?  Metasyntactic variables."
"Never heard of it," I said.  "That drink won't make itself, you know."
The bartender finally got busy with the bottles and a pint-glass, which is a bit big for a drink on the house, but made me happy as I can never drink enough Old Peculiar.  Not least because someone usually interrupts me after a few sips.  Occasionally it's a broad, and rarer still she'll have chutzpah to take my drink away from me and try drinking it herself.  I think it's the twist of grapefruit, makes them think the drink's going to be light, fizzy and feminine.  After a mouthful of Old Peculiar though, she's normally face down on the floor, retching like she's trying to regurgitate the Hope diamond, and nine times out of ten my drink's down there with her, lifting the varnish from the floorboards and killing off the cockroaches.
"You were looking for me though," I said, putting aside fond memories of the women I've had trying to throw up on my shoes.
"Well Mac, there's always somebody looking for you in this world.  Don't you believe in love connections?"  To his credit the barman managed to wink at me.  I was impressed.
"There's always people looking for me, barman," I said.  "None of them are after a love connection though, and a lot of them are the kind of gentlemen you carefully refer to as gentlemen and never comment on where their hands might be or why they'd be carrying large musical instrument cases this far from an orchestra."
"I've got a cosh behind the bar, Mac," said the barman, holding his nose as he dropped the twist of grapefruit into my drink.  "Jesus, Mac, how can you drink that?"
"Is this a message from Mad Frankie?"  I pulled the drink towards me and inhaled.  I've lost most of my sense of smell, but there was a citrussy hint from the drink that made me feel instantly better.
"It's a plate of lamb pasta," said the barman, turning to the serving hatch behind him and opening it.  Behind it was a plate of spaghetti bolognese that looked like it had been made by a chef with no hands.  The spaghetti was uncooked, long, stiff straw-like strands splayed across the plate, and the bolognese sauce had come from a can – I could see the can lid half-covered by the sauce.  The barman whisked the plate up and set it in front of me with a flourish.  I pushed it away.
"That's not cooked," I said.  "Send it back."
"You'll have to take it up with the chef himself," said the barman.  "Only he won't come out of the kitchen."
"How much of the bar do I have to destroy before he will?"  I was feeling in my pockets for my gun, and wondering if I'd remembered to put it on this morning.
"You have to go back to the kitchen and talk to him yourself, Mac," said the barman, his words delivered slowly and precisely.  Just as I found the gun tucked into the waistband of my underpants – surely I'd been trying to hide it, but why? – I realised that this was another coded message.  "Leave the drink here, Mac," said the barman.  "I wouldn't want you starting any trouble back there."
I sighed, and took a couple of sips of the Old Peculiar, just so I could remember what it tasted like, and pushed it back to him.  "All yours," I said.  "Enjoy it."  He recoiled slightly, regarding the glass like it was a live grenade.
"Take the plate, Mac, so the chef knows why you're going back there."
I picked the plate up, wondering why he had to be so cloak-and-dagger about it all.  Why not just tell me that there was someone in the kitchen wanting to talk to me?
"Where are you going?"  One of the bouncers had stood up again and was glaring at me.
"This food's lousy," I said.  "I'm going to make the chef eat it and see if he still wants to charge me for it."
"He's a lousy cook," said one of the others.  "We should watch, it could be funny."
"Incoming, guys," said the barman promptly, gesturing at the stairs, and the bouncers turned away to see what he was talking about.  I bolted for the kitchen, while the barman waved me anxiously on.  I pushed the swing doors open with the plate, and stumbled on through.

Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Oversight

The gentlemen of the committee – for there were no ladies of the committee – filed into the room.  There were long rows of green leather benches for them to sit on, and in the centre of the room there was a small, square space for the speakers to orate.  At one end of the square was the speaker's chair; the speaker in this case was not the person orating, but the person presiding over the whole debate.  They, and they alone, has the right to speak and could invite other gentlemen to stand up and offer opinions, and could send them back to their seats when they tired of hearing their voices.  Legend had it that this was based on some ancient democratic institution on Old Earth, but no-one seemed to remember what institution, or could explain how one man being in control was democratic.
As the room filled up the recording officer, stood just inside the doors, counted each gentlemen as he came through.  A pin-sized head-mounted camera was concealed by his left-eyebrow and captured the face of each entrant, relaying it back to a central monitoring station where Alfomega, the colony's AI, checked the image against confirmed images of gentlemen and recorded who they were and what their position within the colony was.  Had any of the entrants proven to be something other than gentlemen – a woman, for example – then Alfomega would have alerted both the recording officer and Black Rod, the man with the mace, and action would have been taken to apprehend the pretender and exclude them from the committee chamber.
When the last gentlemen had entered, the recording officer noted that there were two gentlemen missing by the count, and Alfomega located their pictures from its files and checked their last known whereabouts.
"Gentlemen," it said, its voice coming through the loudspeaker system while Black Rod closed and locked the committee chamber doors.  "Gentlemen, two of your number are absent today.  George Showeton was killed last week while supervising a mining operation in Orvieton, and Malcolm Twiller is in Central Hospital diagnosed with Type 2 Chicken Flu."
"Thank you, Alf," said the speaker, who had put on the traditional blank mask so that his face was a simple white oval with tiny pin-holes for eyes and a painted mouth that was always slightly open.  "Gentlemen of the committee, we are gathered here to discuss oversight.  For the last three years we have trusted Alf to look after us all, to watch over the colony and to ensure that everything that needs to be known is known.  We have never needed a newspaper industry because anyone, at any time, can apply to Alf to find out what is known.  As Alf has just demonstrated to us, when we meet here Alf can tell us why members are missing, and this allows us to determine whether or not we are quorate for the purposes of vote taking.  However, it has become increasingly clear that we are not bringing the necessary oversight to this situation.  There is no-one who is monitoring Alf and ensuring that it is not operating outside its parameters.  There is no-one who is checking what the extent of Alf's knowledge is, and so we are taking what Alf says as truth when, in fact, there may be ways to subvert Alf's knowledge, or avoid its attention."
There was a murmuring from the ranks of gentlemen, and a few white-shirt-sleeved hands were thrust into the air, indicating that some of them wished to speak.  The speaker ignored them for the moment.
"To make my point most clearly, I would like to invite George Showeton to speak first."
The murmuring bubbled louder and individual voices started to become clearer as the gentlemen grew more annoyed.  Finally a single voice broke from the hubbub and called out,
"But Showeton is dead!  He was killed at Orvieton last week!"
"Not so," said another voice, and a gentlemen stood up from the front bench, peeling off a latex mask.  "Alf just told you that that is what happened to me, but it is not what happened.  There was an accident last week, in Orvieton, at the mining complex, and I was very nearly killed.  I was incredibly lucky though, when the rock fell and buried us all, there were three of us who were underneath a rubble-transporter trying to unstick a locked axle, and the rubble transporter was not crushed by the rockfall.  It took us a day to tunnel back out safely, but we managed it, and that's when we discovered that Alf had declared us dead.  Both of my companions have spent the last week trying to convince Alf that they are still alive, and it is proving difficult.  And it seems that there is no-one here who can tell Alf what the truth is, Alf makes that decision for itself."
"What do you mean?" the voice from earlier called out.  The speaker stood at that moment.
"Gentlemen, this is a debate on oversight.  The question of the day is whether or not we put someone in place who can provide privileged information to Alf, or whether that simply increases our risk from someone malicious.  We will debate as normal.  Sir, you with the raised hand, you may speak."

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Their elk

"I wouldn't associate with their elk," said Lydia, turning her nose up and making a moue of disgust.  "They're not normal."
"What's that got to do with their elk?" asked Fred, her brother.  He had a shock of bright red hair, freckles that ran from his forehead down his face and chest, and gaps between his teeth because their mother hadn't believed dentists were real doctors.  Lydia liked to tell him that he was only her half-brother, that his father was surely the milk-man.
"Well, if they're not normal, their elk won't be normal either," said Lydia.  "It stands to reason, only normal people would pick a normal elk."
"Do normal people keep elk as pets?"
"Hmm... maybe that's another reason not to associate with them."
"Or their elk."
Lydia began to suspect that Fred was somehow making her look stupid, but since there was no-one around to listen to their conversation she decided to ignore him.  She changed the conversation.
"How's Rufus?"
Fred frowned, but then his face cleared and he smiled again.  Rufus was his pet hedgehog who'd run off a couple of days earlier.
"Dead!" he said.  "But it's cool, it turned out that Rufus was really Rufusette, and she'd given birth.  So I've got three pet baby hedgehogs now."
"Have you named them yet?  Can I see them?"
"No, and no," said Fred.  "You'll hurt them."
"I will not!"  Lydia was filled with outrage, mostly that he'd spotted that she just wanted to take them away from him.
"Yes, you will.  You tried to hurt Rufus whenever you found him."
"Her."
"Yes, her.  Rufusette.  It seems weird her having a new name after all this time."
"I wouldn't hurt her children."
"Yes you would.  You'd probably try and feed them to that elk."
"Oh shut up about the elk!"
There was a silence as Fred obeyed and Lydia didn't know what to say next.  Slowly, trying not to attract attention to himself, Fred slid off the wall he'd been sat on, and then ducked down behind it.  He waited a few seconds, knowing that Lydia would say something as soon as she noticed, and when she remained quiet he crept away, staying crouched down until he reached the corner and turned it and could stand up again and run off.  He had no idea where Lydia had got the idea that their neighbours had an elk from, but he thought he'd better tell them before she decided that the elk had to go and they all found out the hard way what she thought the elk was.  He ran swiftly down the street, turned at the end onto his own road, and came to an abrupt halt.  There, in the front garden of the neighbours's house was an elk, standing eating the hedge.
"See!"  Lydia must have seen him and followed him, as she was now stood behind him, slightly flushed and trying to hide that she was out of breath.  "They have an elk.  And I wouldn't associate with it."
"It wouldn't associate with you either, dear," said a voice behind both of them, and their neighbour, Mr. Primrose appeared from round the corner.  "He's well aware that pets don't seem to live very long when you're around."

Monday, 9 April 2012

Entering the pageant

"I'm just a fat girl in disguise," said Hattie, her smile a little self-deprecating, her eyes wide and hinting that she'd like a little reassurance.  She was wearing a Laura Ashley sundress, a broad-brimmed sun-hat, and six-inch heels.  She wobbled just a little in them, and then caught her balance again, hiding the wince of pain from her toes.
"You're very well disguised then," said Millicent Pedeman, her voice indicating with its stiff inflexion and Home Counties vowels that she disapproved of almost everything she ever saw, including Hattie.  "There are anorexics out here that would kill to be as... fat... as you."
Hattie smiled, unsure of whether that was a compliment or not.  "Oh good," she said, clapping her hands together and wobbling again on her high-heels.  "So, can I be part of the beauty pageant then?"
"Possibly," said Millicent.  "Possibly.  You'll have to enter the auditions like any other contestant, but I suppose that I can have a quiet word with the judging committee and ensure that you get through to the first round.  Most of the time the girls who get through are the ones the judges either fancy, or think they stand a chance of sleeping with.  You look kind of slutty, so I might not even have to say anything."
"Thank-you," said Hattie, who wasn't really listening to what Millicent was saying.  In her ear, a microscopic earpiece was relaying a conversation from her handler, a woman called Sue who worked for MI7.
"Hattie, don't worry about getting through to the the necessary rounds," whispered Sue.  "We can sort all of that out.  Get her to talk about the security facilities instead.  Her people have supplied us with plans that make no sense."
"How about the facilities?"  Hattie looked at Millicent, who looked a little taken aback, as though she'd been expecting a different response.
"Well, there's women's toilets just down the corridor.  Do you need to go now?"
"Oh, no!  Sorry!"  Hattie giggled, and was displeased with how it sounded.  She'd spent hours practising giggling, and it still sounded far too girlish.  "No, I meant the security facilities.  How do I know I'll be safe?"
"From who?  The judges?"
Hattie tottered across the thick carpet that pulled at the heels of her shoes and threatened to topple her if she didn't high-step like a performing horse to a writing desk.  She pulled out the chair and sat down, picking up a fountain pen from atop a thin stack of cream-coloured paper.
"Haha, no silly, I'm sure the judges wouldn't be interested in a fatty like me!  No, I mean what's the security for us contestants like.  I'm always getting stopped on the street, and if I didn't have my bodyguard with me I don't know what would happen.  Can I bring him?"
Millicent stalked over to the desk and snatched the fountain pen from Hattie's hands.
"That's a Caran D'ache," she snapped.  "It's not for people like you."  Hattie blinked, and her hands scrabbled on the desk for another pen.  She found a cheap ballpoint.
"You may not bring your own security," continued Millicent, hiding her pen in a jacket pocket.  "The pageant provides ample security for all the contestants, the judges, and general grounds and building security.  It's actually one of the larger costs on the bill.  You will have two security guards nearby at all times in the hotel where the pageant is being held, and there will be a cordon of security around the stage as soon as we reach the quarter finals.  Satisfied?  Why are you writing this down?"
"So I don't forget," said Hattie.  "No security guards," she wrote as she spoke.
"No, I have just told you that there will be plenty of guards," said Millicent.  She glared at Hattie, and her shoulders quivered very slightly with controlled anger.
"Why only at the quarter-finals?" whispered Sue in Hattie's ear.
"Why only the quarter-finals?"
"There's too many of you until then," said Millicent.  "Trying to keep beauty contestants in line is like trying to herd cats.

Sunday, 8 April 2012

Little Haversham Hotel

"This can't be right," said Miss Flava as she turned the wheel and guided the police car up the gravelled driveway of the Little Haversham Hotel.  Behind them, high hedges glared over high walls, silently communicating that visitors were not welcome, and the huge, wrought-iron gates, though open, suggested that they were ready to snap shut at the first sign of impropriety.  She drove the car slowly along the gravel, listening to it crunch evenly beneath the tyres, and looked at the vast, imposing building that came into view.  It reminded her of a larger version of the Great Cumulonimbus's house.
"Did you follow my directions properly?" asked Playfair, not looking up from the paperwork he'd picked up from the back-seat and was finally reading.  Behind him, Calamity sat up and barked, staring out of the passenger-side window.
"Yes."
"Then it's the right place," said Playfair.  "I picked the only hotel with the word Little in its name."
"Was it called the Little Little Haversham Hotel?"
"No.  That would be a stupid name."
"Then maybe you should have looked in up online before booking it," said Miss Flava.  "Accounts are going to have a fit when they see the bill."
"I did look it up online," said Playfair, turning a page back and forth, comparing text on the two sides.  "It has rooms, a bar, a small swimming pool and a restaurant."
"Why do we need a swimming pool?"
"We don't," said Playfair.  "I'm not expecting you to go swimming, Miss Flava, we're here to solve a crime.  A murder, of a very strange man, in a very strange fashion."
Miss Flava parked the car, and sat still for a moment, staring at the enormous building there were alledged booked into.  "Look at it, Playfair," she said at last.  "It's as big as Stormy's house."
Playfair finally looked up, scanned across the hotel, and nodded.  "It'll do," he said.
"Playfair, you know there's a budget for these things, right?  Accounts will have conniptions!"
"Yes, and no," said Playfair.  "I'm the budget holder for the department, right?"  Miss Flava looked at him, startled.  She hadn't known that her boss was allowed to manage any budgets.  "And we've used absolutely none of the accommodation budget for this year, and if we don't spend it all, it gets cut next year and we have to beg for every last penny we need as a result.  So, we're spending some of the available budget now to ensure that we have it when we really need it, and since two rooms in a B&B would probably go on petty cash, I had to book a real hotel."
"Petty cash?"
"There's a petty cash tin," said Playfair, packing his papers up.  "Check with Janine when we get back.  It's good for coffee, biscuits and prescriptions I think."
"Prescriptions?"
"Let's go and get checked in, I can see I've got a lot of thinking to do."
*
Reception was the long desk with computers, printers, electronic key writers and receptionists behind it, just as Miss Flava had expected; she was slightly surprised to learn that they had executive suites on the fifth floor, with a connecting door that had its own separate key  The receptionist gave her a look that suggested that she thought that they were an executive couple preserving appearances and explained when breakfast was, where breakfast was, and seemingly eight-hundred other things about the hotel's pool and spa complex, multifarious restaurants, room service regulations and towel replacement policy.
"...and I do hope you enjoy your stay," she concluded, with a smile that made Miss Flava wonder how much she spent on dentistry.
"Lifts are this way," said Playfair, pointing.  "Bring the luggage, Miss Flava!"

Saturday, 7 April 2012

Blue Swan

The door that allows entrance to the Blue Swan opens inwards and doesn't open outwards.  To leave the bar you have to use another door, or possibly an old beer-barrel hatch if the bouncers have decided they don't like you.  The hatch is in the middle of the wall after you've walked down the steps from the door to the bar floor and is at road-level on the outside, so the drayman could just roll the barrels through the hatch for the bar staff to catch (or drop, more often) and then roll down to the cellar.  The bouncers have perfected the art of throwing a man through it so that he skids along the pavement on his nose for the last three feet or so, and you can spot the regulars by the way their noses are worn away.
I don't count as a regular, but the bouncers recognised me anyway as I came down the stairs, and they came to attention, muscles bulging and rearranging under their black, smart suit jackets.  Their eyebrows raised a little – and if they stood close enough together it looked like they shared a single eyebrow running from the guy on the left to the guy on the right.  They weren't even the same height and the eyebrow somehow managed that trick.  I paused on the stairs, and they tensed a little, and then the barman called out my name.
"Mac!" he yelled, his tone more friendly than I'd been expecting.  "You looking for someone?"
"How did you know?" I asked, continuing my descent.  My heels ached, and my ankles clicked, and one of the bouncers looked at me with surprise distorting his ugly features.
"You sound like you've got death-watch beetle," he grunted, his lips barely moving when he spoke.
"I have," I said, and walked past them to the bar.
I don't have death-watch beetle, but I did for a while, which both puzzled and scared my doctor.  He'd looked at me long and hard in the white, hard fluorescent light of his surgery, edged his chair away from me, and poked me with a tongue-depressor.
"I don't get it," he'd said.  "The medical text-books say you should be dead.  The voodoo books say you should be dead.  All the second opinions I've gathered say you should be dead.  The blood-test results say you are dead, and yet you're still moving around, and catching tree-diseases.  What the hell are you?"
"Just lucky, I guess," I'd said, and accepted the referral to a tree-surgeon and a prescription for creosote.
"Might have some news for you, Mac," said the barman.  I didn't recognise him, but I sat down on a bar-stool anyway and stared hungrily at him.  He stared back, meeting my gaze unflinchingly, and then moved a menu in front of me with a twitch of his fingers.
"Tell me, then," I said.  "I'm looking for Little Boy Blue, or, failing that, someone with a thing for sheep." I looked at the menu and realised that I'd not eaten in a couple of days.  My stomach gurgled, which is as enthusiastic as it ever gets, and I pointed at the first two steaks on the battered bit of cardboard.  "What sides do I get with them?"
"Bashed potatoes, bruised onions, soggy frites, some white sauce the chef doesn't like to talk about," said the barman promptly.  "I'd recommend the pasta Mac.  Comes with lamb."
"Pasta's not a food for men," I snorted, my finger not shifting from the steak.
"Might be for boys, though," said the barman, and suddenly the import he was trying to give his words made it past the defensive barricades of my mind and I realised what I was being told to do.
"I'll have the pasta," I said, mechanically.  "Comes with lamb does it?"
"And there's a drink on the house as well," said the barman, his smile wide enough to let the top of his head fall off if he leaned back.  "What are you drinking, Mac?"
"Make it an old peculiar," I said.
"You mean an old-fashioned, there, hey?"
"Nope," I said.  "Old peculiar.  Mix whiskey sours with a splash of tangerine juice, a jigger of vermouth and top it up with cheap white wine.  Add a twist of grapefruit."
"Sounds peculiar," said the barman nodding.
"And while you're making it," I said, "you can tell me how you know my name."

Friday, 6 April 2012

His wife's body

Jeremiah sweated as he heaved yet another spadeful of soil out of the ground.  He twisted slightly, throwing the soil behind him, and heard it land with a thud and a rattle on the heap that was slowly growing.  At his feet was now a trench nearly a foot deep and three feet long.  There was much more to dig out yet.
He wiped his eyes with the sleeve of his shirt and drove the spade firmly into the earth again.  The spade sliced through the firm soil, settled and packed, with a metallic crunch.  He bent, putting his weight on the handle, ripping the soil up and heaving out another bladeful.  The soil was clearly undisturbed, and every now and then he doubted his own sanity.  Why on earth was he digging up his wife's grave?
Even as the doubts grew again, the memories pushed them back.  Someone had visited him last night while he was in bed, he'd heard the footsteps shuffling around downstairs, he'd heard the chair in the kitchen pulled back from the table and something seat itself.  He'd held his breath and pulled the thin, cotton sheet over his head, and prayed that the footsteps didn't come to the stairs.  And they hadn't.  He'd lain there, waiting, freezing cold and too terrified to shiver, until he'd heard whatever it was stand up again, rattle the teaspoons in their drawer, and then open the back-door and leave.  And then he'd lain there till morning, till the sunlight was pouring through the bedroom window and he felt like he could face a nightmare because it was daytime.
There'd been mud in the kitchen, small footprints across the tiled floor, and it had pulled out his wife's chair and sat there.  There was even little crumbs of dried mud on the table, as though hands had rested there, clutching a cup of tea, just as she'd like to do when she was alive.  There was even a little mud in the cutlery drawer, scattered over the teaspoons.
It was easier to be brave in the sunshine though, and he'd taken down his shotgun, checked that it was loaded, and gone outside.  There were footprints, faint but unmistakeable, and they'd walked him across the back-fields, alongside the road, and up to the cemetery, where he'd guessed straight away where the footprints must go.  He'd turned back then and fetched his spade as well, and wasn't at all surprised when he found that the footprints did indeed lead to his wife's grave.
He dug down, finally standing in the hole he'd made, rough-cut steps at one end so that he could get out again, wondering how deep they'd buried her the first time.  Then his spade sliced through the soil and kept going, breaking through into space beneath.  Space that should had held a coffin.
He dug over the hole, uncovering a gap that should have contained a rotting wooden box and a corpse.  Soil crashed and broke, scattering on a smooth surface that seemed at odds with the underground, and then, at one end, he found that the hole continued on, burrowing through the head of the grave, underneath the wooden cross and onward into or through the graveyard.  He knelt and poked his head into the hole, and then his shoulders.  He'd have to crawl, but he could fit.  He checked his pockets and found his torch, and wondered only for a moment if there would be enough battery life.  It would be hard to get lost in a tunnel that he had to crawl through.
The tunnel ran straight for thirty yards, descended a little, and then opened out into a stone-walled room.  Shining the torch around him, he realised he was in a crypt, and thinking about the cemetery figured that he must be in one of the mausolea in the centre, where the old families had their ancient monuments and crypts.  In the middle of the floor, broken open in a mass of splinters and wood fragments, was the remnants of a coffin, and grave clothes had been shredded and scattered around.  A yellowing bone that might have been a thigh-bone was all that was left of the body, and there were greasy white deposits that might have been adipocere.
There was no sign of his wife's body.

Thursday, 5 April 2012

Bludgeonomancy

Madame Sosotris, famous clairvoyant and notorious nymphomaniac, stood in her herb garden looking around her.  A scarecrow, fashioned from tying together mandrake root while muttering words of young power over them, guarded the sage.  The words were perhaps less impressive than those of ancient power, but they were easier to come by, easier to pronounce, and frequently a lot more powerful.  She'd had to learn txt-speak to use them, but that had been simpler than learning classical Latin or Ancient Greek (any language, she felt, where the rule was that the stress fell on the third syllable from the end had simply too many long words in it), and she could keep up with it almost entirely by owning a mobile phone.  The scarecrow was wearing a hat stolen from a man who had died a messy end, a jacket she'd found outside a night-club, and trousers made from sail-cloth from a boat that had sunk on its maiden voyage.  Every time she tried to look directly at it she heard a buzzing somewhere behind her, and little black motes scudded across her vision like storm-clouds building in the sky on a summer evening.  No birds approached the scarecrow, and the sage was in pristine condition, for all that she had to wear a blindfold to be able to get close enough to harvest any.
She looked away from the scarecrow, letting the buzzing in her head subside.  Sometimes she wondered if she'd overpowered the scarecrow a little, but she'd not found any signs that it was walking by itself yet, so she was pretending that everything was fine.  Her eyes fell on the dreamcatcher next, a blue and gold mandala made from seashells dived from a shipwreck, flowers grown on consecrated ground and held together by glue made from week-old corpses.  It shook and shivered, even though there wasn't a wind, as the force of the dreams and nightmares that it held tried to tear it apart so that they could stalk the nights again.  She shivered, just looking at it made her fingers itch and her skin crawl, and even though it clearly needed emptying she couldn't bring herself to pick it up and dunk it in the well-water to wash it clean.  She would leave it until tomorrow.
The fishpond was green and murky, and she knew without going closer that the kelpie would have killed and eaten all the fish and would now be lurking, waiting for flesh to get close enough to snatch.  The crazy paving was sparkling with stored sunlight, and stepping incautiously on the stones, especially in the wrong order, would release a brilliant column of stored sunlight capable of incinerating would-be burglars.  The shed was creaking and leaking, and she had no intention of getting close to it without protective clothing.  All in all, she was starting to think that coming out into the garden might have been a rather bad idea.
"Hurry up!"  The voice from inside was a client, and with a start she remembered that she'd come out for a rowan branch.  She edged along the narrow line of grass that bordered the crazy paving, slipping between the rockery and the raspberry canes, and stopped beneath the rowan tree.  It stretched upwards, its branches like arms raised in supplication to the sun god.  Leaves rustled softly, and there was a dusty, musky smell hanging on the air reminding her of druid ceremonies.  She looked at the lofty branches, and then down at her feet.  Sure enough, scattered on the grey soil were a small collection of branches, one of which looked thin and long enough to suit her needs.  She picked it up and sidled her way back to the back-door.
"Coming!" she called, testing the flex of the branch.  It proved satisfyingly whippy.
She stepped inside, her stride now meaningful and determined, and happily away from casual danger.  She had no idea what the name was for the kind of divination that required her to beat the client half-to-death and then interpret the bruises and weals that rose on his flesh, but she did rather enjoy it.

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Bee glue

The workshop was quiet.  Michael was working at his bench, standing slightly left of centre to avoid the bright rays of sunlight that had penetrated the wooden slats nailed across the high windows, and little motes of dust danced around lazily near his head.  Jordan was sitting on a tyre reading a magazine and occasionally shaking his head as he read yet another fact that he disagreed with.  Behind him was a pickup truck he was supposed to be fixing, but he was waiting for Daniel to return with the toolkit before he could get on with disassembling things and getting inside the engine of the truck.  When Daniel walked in five minutes later, he put the toolkit down on the oil-stained concrete floor with a jarring jangle of hardened steel and stared belligerently around him.
"Trouble, Dan?" asked Michael after a few seconds.  Jordan looked up from his magazine, the look on his face making it clear that he would go back to reading if he thought the conversation was boring.
"Yeah," said Daniel, his voice deep and throaty.  "Yeah.  There's a woman outside trying to picket us."
"Trying to?" asked Michael, his voice rising a little with doubt.
"Picket us?" said Jordan almost simultaneously.  "Why?"
"Yeah, well, there's only one of her, right," said Daniel, shifting his weight from one foot to the other and then back again.  "So she's not really a picket line, per se...."
"Right," said Michael.  "She's more of a tent peg, really."
"Yeah, something like that.  Anyway, I was pretty much ignoring her, since she can't really stop people coming in without throwing herself in front of the cars, right?  And then... and then... that's what she did."
"Did what?"  Jordan's face had already turned back to the magazine, but he held himself as though ready to leave his reading and rejoin the conversation if it turned interesting.
"You ran her over, didn't you?"  Michael sounded resigned.
"Not deliberately!"
"You killed a woman to save our business.  Dude!"  Jordan sounded awed, and Daniel looked uncomfortable.  "I didn't kill anyone, right?" he said.  "Right?"
"Well, where is she now then?" asked Jordan, his face a sudden picture of angelic innocence.  "Is she, like, plastered all over your bumper like a Sistine chapel painting?"
"Like a bloody what?"  Daniel's face conveyed a deep disgust.
"Sistine chapel, dude.  Is her hand all stretched out like she's reaching out to touch God so he can take her into heaven, only it's just coincidence because she was really trying to stop you as you stamped on the accelerator and bore down her, grinning like a maniac and screaming 'Die, harridan whore!'?"
"What have you been eating?  Or smoking?"  Daniel turned away from Jordan, his nose wrinkled and his tongue poking pinkly out of his thin white lips.  "Talk some sense into him, Mike."
"Later," said Michael.  "When he's calmed down a bit.  Why was she picketing us then?  Doesn't she like spark plugs or something?"
"Bee glue."
"Huh?"
"Bee glue.  She said we used bee glue and it was wrong."
"What is bee glue?"
"I know," said Jordan, causing both the other men to stare at him.  "We've got some in the cupboard over there.  It's got a big label on it.  Bee glue."
Daniel and Michael exchanged looks, and Michael went to check the cupboard.  He rummaged inside for a few moments, clattering pots and rattling screws, and then pulled out a black-and-yellow striped tin.  "Well I'll be," he said.  "Bee glue.  We've got some."
"What's special about it then?" asked Daniel.  "Is it made from bees or something?"
"Made by bees," said Michael, slowly reading the label on the back of the tin.  "Seems to be some kind of glue made by bees.  Dunno what the problem is there.  Probably tastes a bit like honey."
"She seemed a bit upset," said Daniel.  "She was screaming a bit."
"Before or after you ran her down?" asked Jordan.
"What does it glue?" asked Daniel.  "Is it unethical or something?"
"Bees," said Michael slowly, still reading the back of the label.
"Bees' what?"
"No, just bees.  It glues bees together."
Now both Daniel and Jordan were staring at him, mostly in disbelief.
"Why've we got it then?"

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

No words

Nurse Hearse stared out of the window.  Five storeys below was the Gorillamumps quadrangle, and in the gap between Simmons Hall and the Towers of Lore she could see the Wyrmball pitch.  Wyrmball was the official sport of Gorillamumps and usually resulted in casualties every game and a fatality or two every season.  She'd had no casualties in from it so far this year though, possible due to the new Wyrmball teacher, or perhaps that they had a new referee who seemed to be a lot better at spotting fouls and potential rule-infringements.  It had made her job a lot more dull.
She turned away from the window and looked down the length of the Infirmary.  Only four beds were occupied at the moment, and none of her patients needed waking, or blood taking, or even medication applying until the morning.  Sprockett, the orderly, had disappeared with the gurney, and she suspected that she'd find him in the mortuary doing something unwholesome, possibly with a corpse, possibly with one of the kinkier zombie students.  The doctor, who was resisting her advances far too successfully, was also missing, probably hiding somewhere else in the Infirmary.  She wasn't allowed in the potionation and decoction rooms, and she had a suspicion that the doctor had set up a bed and small library in there.
There was a soft thump, and she scanned the ward again.  The student in bed seven had fallen out of bed and was tangled in the sheets on the floor.  She started down the aisle towards it, a little puzzled as she'd made sure to strap all the students to the bed before telling them that it was time to sleep.  She was barely half-way there when the student jerked as though an electric current had been applied to them, and then arched up off the floor into a stretched, taut, upright position.
"No words!" it shrieked, blue light falling from its mouth as it spoke.  When it closed its mouth up again the light disappeared.
"..." said Nurse Hearse, discovering that she was incapable of speech.  She tried again, and a third time, trying to force her throat to produce even a moan, but no sound came out at all.  It was as though all the sound were being drained away before it ever made it out of her mouth.  Worried now, she slowed her pace towards the student and checked her notepad.  Bed seven was supposed to be occupied by a young mummy that was showing signs of pregnancy, though that was physiologically impossible, mostly due to the embalming fluid.  There were no additional notes there, and the doctor hadn't provided her with any warnings earlier in the day.  She continued on to the student, wondering what was happening.
"There shall be no words," said the student, it's voice still a high-pitched shriek with a hint of authority and lot of bitchiness about it.  "The silence shall ascend and campus shall be quieted; in the quietude shall come the Angel of Steel with its attendant horde; no life shall be unjudged; no student shall remain bored."
Great, thought Nurse Hearse, unable to speak out loud still.  Prophecy, and the kind that's self-fulfilling by the sounds of it.  That rhyme is terribly forced, and clearly is from someone who has no idea how attractive boredom is to students.  She was only six feet away from the student now.
"Stop!"  It held its hand out in front of it and she felt the force of its will opposing her.  Like a heavy gale an unseen force whipped at her legs and tried to bind her, holding her in place by sheer strength of thought.  For a moment it seemed like it might succeed, and then Nurse Hearse was moving forward again, her thoughts filled with the number of occasions that students had, out of fear, tried to resist her ministrations.
"Stop!" tried the student again, now holding both hands out and pulling the tangling sheets out from its body.  Nurse Hearse noticed that the bandages underneath – a sure sign that this was a young mummy – looked yellowed with little black dots scattered everywhere.  Almost surely a sign of a fungal infection, and probably meant that the young mummy was possessed by an opportunistic spirit.  The force of the command to stop, doubled now, broke over her like a wave and divided, flowing past her.  The student looked worried now.
"Sto–" it started, but Nurse Hearse had her hands round its throat now, choking down on the word.  As she seized it she felt something else shift, and knew she could speak again.
"No words, you said," she said, pushing it down on to the bed.  "No words, so that the silence might ascend."
"Bleeeergh" The student was struggling to speak now.  "Well, I have things to help you there," said Nurse Hearse, smiling with tombstone teeth.  "Starting with duct tape and some anti-fungal wash for those bandages of yours...."

Monday, 2 April 2012

China

The market was in full swing; it was nearly 11am and most of the stall-holders had been there setting up from seven, ready to open at nine.  The locals knew the place well, and many of them shopped there regularly, enjoying the fresh produce from the food side, the decorative arts and crafts in the centre, and the flowers, plants, and horticultural products from the west side.  And, of course, the sense of camaraderie and friendliness that that the stall-holders had for their regulars, providing advice on how to plant things, use things, display things to their best advantage, or offering little treats, rarities and hard-to-come by ingredients.  The market hummed with a friendly, happy energy that only dimmed a little by eleven when the tourists started to arrive, poking and prodding at things, with much interest but little purchasing power.  The smiles faded a little then, and wore steadily thinner through the day, but the stall-holders kept smiling nonetheless and occasionally made a sale.
Geraldinium Holmes had a stall in the middle of the market, a relative novelty for her as previously her art had been mostly sold through exhibition or commission.  Her new line in pottery and elaborate ceramics though, she felt deserved a wider audience, and so she'd found a stall in the marketplace and turned up at seven with her cardboard boxes of chinaware, and looked askance at the stall in its disassembled state.
"Excuse me," she said, sticking an arm out and catching a young, slightly pimply youth as he tried to walk past with arms full of lettuce.  "What is this?"
"Looks like a stall, don't it?" he retorted, backing up a little and trying to get past her.
"No," she said.  "It doesn't.  Stalls are like little tables with awnings over the top and chairs behind them for people to sit on.  There's nothing here I can display my chinaware on.  This is a pile of wood and metal and... and... and whatever that green-and-white stripey stuff is.  This is not a stall."
"Right, yeah.  You have to build it yerself, innit?"
"Innit?"  Geraldinium dropped her arm and the youth promptly scuttled off.  She stared at the stall's framework, neatly stacked in piles according to the length of the struts, and sighed.  She couldn't see assembly instructions anywhere, and her assistant was still in hospital after her bout of unfortunate mental illness that had lead her to believe that she a superheroine capable of flight.
She finally located one of the market organisers in a small grey office up an ill-lit flight of stairs.  The office was situated between railway lines and the frequency of the trains meant that the office trembled almost constantly and conversations had to be either shouted out, or held elsewhere.  The organiser was a small woman with skin like the bark of a beech tree and hair that appeared to be coming out in clumps.
"HOW DO I SET THE STALL UP?" howled Geraldinium at the top of her voice.
"BY HAND," yelled the organiser back
"WHERE ARE THE INSTRUCTIONS?"
"OH!  YOU'RE NEW?"
"Yes," said Geraldinium into the momentary silence from the trains stopping passing.  "Yes, and all I have is an advanced jigsaw puzzle and no instructions."
The organiser, whose little grey name badge declared herself to be Emily, rummaged in a tea-chest that supported the couple of planks of wood that formed her desk, and pulled out a tatty, holey piece of paper.
"THERE YOU GO!" she yelled, the trains going past again.  "HAVE FUN!"  Geraldinium cursed her all the way down the stairs.
The stall set-up proved to be fairly straightforward when Geraldinium had the instructions in front of her, despite the fact that the second page appeared to be entirely in French for some reason, and she managed to get set-up and all her stuff laid out by half-past eight.  There was no chair though; it looked like she'd been expected to bring her own.  She sighed and cursed a blue streak, causing nearby stall-holders to look over in consternation.  Once they'd looked over, they came over for a better look.
"Is this...?" said Hettie, who ran a watercolour-supply stall and usually had a few slightly drippy, sub-Monet pictures that she'd done recently hung up at the back.
"A sub-machine-gun made from china, yes," said Geraldinium.
"Oh.  Does it...?"
"Work?  Yes, but it'll need repairs after you're done firing it."
"Oh.  Is that...?"
"Don't you ever ask a complete question?"  Geraldinium glared at Hettie, who flinched and backed away a little.
"Now then, Hettie's just a bit highly strung," said Mortadella, who didn't appear to know that her pseudonym was actually a type of sausage, and who ran the typography stall next to Hettie's.  You're never telling me that this is a grenade made from china are you?"
"I wasn't, but I am now," said Geraldinium.  "I realised that given the fragility of the material it made more sense to make things that were inherently single-use."
"How much damage does one of these do?"
"Well, I threw one out of the window a few days ago, and it pretty much pollarded five trees when it exploded."
"Oh, pollarded," said Mortadella, nodding in an attempt to pretend she understood the word.  Geraldinium, who'd been trying to destroy her neighbours ornamental fishpond with the grenade said nothing.  The collapse of the crowns of five trees into the pond had achieved her aims, but she'd been surprised both by the damage the grenade did and how short the fuse appeared to be.
"So... who's you're target market?" said someone else, possibly the spotty youth who'd been carrying lettuces earlier.
"Everyone," said Geraldinium.

Sunday, 1 April 2012

Heading downtown

The Forensic squad didn't exactly move aside to let me pass, but they also didn't drop anything in my way, or give me a helping push between the shoulders when I reached the top of the stairs, and I've learned to be grateful for small mercies.  I ooh-ed and aah-ed my way down the stairs as muscle and bone protested against misuse and my brain ignored them.  I spend most of my waking day in pain anyway, so a few more misfiring nerves is nothing I can't cope with.  At the foot of the stairs I stopped and sniffed – fresh urine, about ten minutes old, I thought, so likely not the Forensics team – and then went out into the night.  Heading downtown.
The orange glow of the sodium streetlights picked out light and puddles; it had been raining for nearly two weeks now, like the city was in mourning for the loss of its innocence.  I had my doubts about the purity of the city before its fall, but I can understand regret on a deep, physical level, and I sympathised.  I mostly plodded through the puddles, splashing myself and any random passers-by as I did so, but here and there I could see the eddies and currents that told me the hole was deep and dangerous, and then I'd have to stagger around it, trying not to slow down and stop in case my hips seized up and decided they didn't want to go on.  The city outsourced the road-repairs to a company called Tar'em'n'car'em, telling people that a modern company didn't worry about letters when there was punctuation to replace it and that the name was descriptive of a vibrant, forward-moving, fast-thinking, business-capable organisation that would bring traffic back to the streets and free-up the snarls of modern transportation.  And, best as I can tell, no-one stopped to listen to any of those words and they voted all in favour of it.  So now when it turns out (though not so many people know this yet) that Tar'em'n'car'em is a subsidiary holding company that links ultimately back to one Natasha Monkeybutt, and that it's worth worrying about anyone who tries to describe their line of work as "business-capable" or talks about "bringing traffic back to the street" (where did it go?  The playgrounds?  What traffic are we talking about here?).  The company repairs potholes by the cheap expedient of digging material out of the pavements, because the cars don't drive on the pavements and pedestrians should be made illegal.  So we have holes that run down to the sewer systems, to old rivers that were long built over, and to darker, danker places where strange creatures are rumoured to live.  And when they fill up after long rains, and you misstep and plunge into the depths, you can find yourself lost and drowning far too fast.
Still, it's convenient for people like the Anger Management, who specialise in finding locations for people that prove rapidly fatal.
I passed a pizza joint that was doing a busy trade at this time of the evening and my stomach rumbled.  I don't much care for pizza; tomato's just a little bit acidic for my stomach these days.  Even so, the smell of the baking dough and the slightly-rancid anchovies was enough to make me drool, and my thoughts turned to where I might get some food from.  I could see what my room-mate had left in the fridge, but I'd been living with him for long-enough that I knew it was likely to be some combination of alcohol and lube and probably not that nutritious.  Then, as a bus roared past, filled with screaming passengers, I saw the dim lights of the Blue Swan tavern across the road and remembered that there was a line-cook working there who owed me for rescuing his daughter a few years back and probably wouldn't spit in any food I ordered.  That was good enough for me.