Phineas Ballard stood at the window of the Grand Ballroom holding a snifter of scotch in one hand. In his other hand he held a flogger, a soft leather whip with eight tails and an ivory handle. He lifted the glass to his lips and let the scotch just wet them, just enough to provide heat and the delicious, peaty smell. He forced himself not to lick his lips for long seconds, and then gave in, enjoying the taste and sensation together. Behind him, people waltzed.
The Grand Ballroom had been endowed nearly fifty years ago by Felicity Landon, then governor of the state, who had also signed the law that sentenced just about anybody who transgressed to dance here for at least one two-week shift. The couples glid around the room, forced by chemical injection to keep waltzing at all times despite the heavy metal shoes they all wore. The shoes sliced gracefully through lines of magnetic flux inducing electric currents in superconducting cables beneath the floor, and the resulting power had kept the state a significant producer of electricity for nearly forty-five years now.
Phineas lightly flogged the back of the nearest couples, the leather flapping ineffectually against a grimy off-white hoodie worn by a woman with vacant eyes and yellow teeth, and a seedy dinner jacket wearing through at the elbows and shoulders worn by a woman with a small snarl on her face and red lumps on her neck. Somewhere above him, near the shadowed ceiling (all the lights came from wall sconces) a camera turned and focused so that the viewers – for the waltzing was a twenty-four broadcast – could see the excitement. Phineas reached up to his ear and turned his earpiece on; immediately he heard the broadcast from the waltz. The announcer had a clear, clipped tone, and was saying, “… the intruder is flogging the dancers, possibly hoping to incite them into a frenzy. He should, of course, beware, as people who remember the ultimate dance battle of 02 will attest…”. Phineas resisted the urge to shrug, turned the earpiece off again, and lightly flogged the bottom of a young man with only one arm and a spider-web tattoo across his face – his nose was the spider it seemed – who was wearing a muddy tracksuit. For a moment the man paused, and it looked to Phineas as though he might look round, but then he twitched, his arm jerking up and falling down, and he was moving off again, waltzing silently to the music in his head.
Phineas sipped his scotch this time, savouring the near-orange liquid. He wasn’t here to enrage the dancers, or even to judge the battle-dance due that evening at eight. He was here to meet someone who had been sentenced to waltz nearly a year ago. Only there were 2,400 couples waltzing the room, and the easiest way, he’d thought, was to stand still and let the man draw close enough that Phineas could spot him. Now, he realised, the waltzers followed their own patterns, and most of them stayed within a certain square footage. He would have to walk around and try and find the man himself.
The walk took nearly twenty minutes before he found him, waltzing in a tight little square three times faster than anybody else. It was, Phineas thought, not unexpected. He unscrewed the end of the ivory handle of the flogger, and carefully tipped the contents out: a disposable syringe in a sealed plastic tube and a small brown plastic bottle filled with liquid. He broke out the syringe with practised movements, drew out a measured 10ml of fluid from the bottle, and then stabbed the man in the side of the neck, stepping neatly in the waltz steps with him so as not to have to let go off the syringe while it emptied. Pulling it out and stepping away, he waited, and all of the cameras up by the ceiling turned to watch this unusual turn of events.
For several seconds the man continued waltzing, and then his steps slowed and faltered, and finally stopped. His eyes stared off into the middle distance a little longer, then seemed to slide together, focusing again. He looked at Phineas, and lunged at him, his hands reaching for Phineas’s throat.
Black fingernails raked through the air, scratching at where Phineas’s face had been just a moment earlier. One hand swept in from the side, grabbing again at Phineas’s throat and the other now swept up from underneath, seeking his jaw. He stepped back again and collided with a dancer who trod on his feet but carried on dancing, wordlessly. Breath squeaked from him in shock and pain, and then he had to duck as the woken man lunged again, slowed down only the heavy metal shoes he was wearing. Phineas shuffled sideways, trying to watch for the other dancers and staying within earshot but out of arm’s length range of his attacker.
“You should be dead!” hissed the man, his voice sounding dry and crackly like it hadn’t been used much. Phineas realised that it probably hadn’t been used in a year. “You should be dead! Dancing here with me, with the living dead!”
“Edgar,” said Phineas having to move again as more dancers drew closer, almost as though they were watching their exchange.
“Dead!” Another clumsy lunge, and this time Edgar didn’t pick his feet up properly and fell over, collapsing across his ankles and immediately screaming hoarsely. Phineas swallowed; the antidote was only temporary so in a few minutes Edgar would be being forced to dance again, possibly on sprained or broken ankles.
“I just need an answer,” said Phineas. “Just tell me where you put the other half of the map.”
“Dead!” Edgar pushed himself to his feet using his knuckles. “You’re a liar and a thief, and your father was too. He should be here, not me.”
Phineas cocked his head and eyed Edgar cautiously. Phineas’s father had died before he was born, and to his knowledge Edgar was no older than him. “The dead can’t truly dance, Ed,” he said.
But it was too late. Edgar’s pupils were sliding apart already, and a glazed expression settling on his feet. Ankles that looked a little floppy, that might just be starting to swell, picked up the 180 beats per minute of the Viennese Waltz that Edgar seemed to prefer, and suddenly he was off again, dancing tight little columns across a small square like a broken Jacquard loom.
Phineas sighed and knocked back the rest of the scotch. His eyes watered but he didn’t cough. He considered giving Edgar another dose of antidote but decided it wasn’t worth it. He still needed to get out of here before the police came.