Tuesday, 29 January 2013

The Hook

The Hook was a restaurant on the edge of the forest. Little Red Riding Hood liked going there for dinner with her grandmother, partly because the old lady always paid, and partly because of the paintings on the walls. They were done by local artists and were usually portraits, either of dinner guests or local dignitaries. Mayor Wolf had the biggest portrait, paid for by himself.
"What do you fancy then, dear?" asked Grandmother, peering myopically at the menu. "I think I might have the sushi."
Red, who was well aware that they were over three hundred miles from the sea and wouldn't have eaten the sushi if Mayor Wolf himself was demanding it, smiled politely. "I think I'll have three little pigs in blankets," she said. "With a port wine reduction. Grandmother, why is this place called the Hook?"
Grandmother's face grew solemn and she laid the menu down.
"Now there's a tale," she said, frowning. "And it starts with the death of your parents."
"My parents aren't dead," said Red, startled.
"About that, dear...."
Red sighed and let her chin rest on her hands.  Her face was striking, her hazel eyes were slightly too-wide-set but her nose turned up just a little at the end and her lips were a perfect cherubic bow, as bee-stung as the boy who tried to steal the bees’ honey.  “OK,” she said.  “I know that my parents can’t be my real parents.  That’s been obvious for a while, Grandmother.”
Grandmother waved at a waiter, her hand shaking just a little and a querulous smile on her face.  The waiter nodded stiffly and continued to take the orders of the table he was serving.
“Well, I confess I did hope that you might have noticed,” she said, her voice firm and gentle.  “What was the tip-off then?”
“Dad took me the longest,” said Red, wrinkling her forehead as she thought back.  “I suppose I just actually wanted him to be my Dad, but when I started studying biology I had to accept facts. The Gingerbread man couldn’t have had a human daughter.  In fact, he couldn’t have a daughter in any real sense of the word.”
“He did try, you know,” said Grandmother thoughtfully.  “There was this baker, a red-head as I recall… oh, you look like you’d rather not know, dear.”
Red smiled, her plump lips pressed thin.  “So he couldn’t be my real father,” she said.  “I cried myself to sleep the night I finally accepted that, but I woke up in the morning and realised that he’d been acting like my father all my life, so who was I to tell him he wasn’t, in some sense, my real father?  It’s not like mum didn’t shout that kind of thing at him all the time.”
“Oh yes,” said Grandmother.  The waiter, with a sour look on his face, appeared at her elbow.  “Oh, how kind!”  Her voice was suddenly quavery and she sounded a little uncertain of herself.  Red watched the transformation and tried not to smirk.  “Would you recommend the sushi, my dear boy?”
“Yes,” said the waiter with feeling.  “Absolutely.”
“Oh, well I’m allergic to fish,” said Grandmother.  “But you seem like a lovely young man, and with such an obvious love for the food you serve!  I shall order you the sushi and you shall sit here and eat it with us.  I’ll have Milanese Risotto, please.”
“I’ll have the three little pigs in blankets,” said Red, smoothly stopping the waiter from protesting.
“Shouldn’t you be writing this down?” asked Grandmother, laying one fragile, liver-spotted hand on the waiter’s crotch, which was conveniently at shoulder height for her.  The waiter nearly convulsed, but remained standing.
“I’m sure I’ll remember,” he said, his voice sounding trapped in his throat.  He started to walk backwards, but Grandmother’s hand tightened.
“I’d like you to write it down,” she said.  “I really would.  I’d hate to see you lose your job over a mis-taken order.”
The waiter produced his order pad and wrote down the order with ill-grace, his pencil scribbling over the pad like a spider on speed.  When Grandmother insisted on reading the pad and correcting his spelling he went puce but didn’t say anything, and Red had to quietly award him a bonus point in her head for coping with Grandmother so well.
“Thank-you, that’ll be all,” said Grandmother at last, letting go.  The waiter vanished so rapidly that there was a draught left behind him.
“So, your mother?” said Grandmother, all traces of little old lady disappearing again.
“Oh, I knew she wasn’t my mother early on,” said Red.  “I found her diary.”
“Her diary?”  Grandmother leaned forward, her pearls falling softly from the neck of her dress and clinking on the cutlery.
Longing for Kansas,” said Red.  “It was full of stories of her life in some other place, a strange place where animals were somehow retarded and humans did inhuman things to one another.  It talked about Toto, which was her dog until he died, and had her real name in it.  Dorothy.”
“Oh yes,” said Grandmother.  “Strange name, it always puts me in mind of milking stools and churns for some reason.”
“You’ve never milked a cow in your life!”
“Well, not personally, no.”  Grandmother smiled.  “And did you decide that she had been acting like your mother long enough that she was your real mother too?”
“No.  She acted like a spoiled child my whole life so far,” said Red.  “I get through most of it simply because I can remind myself that I’m not her daughter.”
Grandmother laughed and sat back.  Her chair creaked slightly, possibly because she had two shortened katana strapped to her back and concealed beneath her heavy linen blouse.
“So my real parents are dead, are they?” asked Red.  She was thinking about that, wondering why she didn’t feel very sad.
“No,” said Grandmother.  “The gingerbread man and Dorothy are dead.  They died this afternoon when Dorothy found the red slippers we hid.  She put them on, tapped the heels together three times, and summoned a hurricane.  It tore down the kitchen and pantry, killed both of them, and then drifted off to terrify the grim brothers who live on the cliff-top.
“What?”  Red felt the shock hit her like a splash of icy water.  Her father was dead?
“Well, we hid the shoes because we knew they were booby-trapped,” said Grandmother.  “We’ve been trying to break the spells for ages.  It seems that Dorothy must have found out where we hid them and got them out.  She always was stubborn and stupid, a lethal combination if you ask me.”
Red stared across the table at the woman who’d trained her to be an assassin, had taken her from a complex family dynamic and given her a purpose that helped everything make sense, and wondered if she was truly as sociopathic as she seemed.
“Dad’s dead?” she said.  “Really dead?”
“Yes,” said Grandmother.  “Crumbs.  And at least half-eaten by the crows afterwards.”
Red started to cry, tiny silver trails of tears silently flowing over her pink cheeks.
“Oh, and both your real parents are dead too,” said Grandmother.  “We may as well get all this family stuff out of the way in one fell swoop, I suppose.”

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Jack Horner

“Why’d you want to know about yourself?”  As I’d hoped, the kid wasn’t thinking fast enough to spot that I’d been asking for own name a minute ago.
“I’m that paranoid,” I said.  It was the truth as well.  In my line of work it doesn’t take you very long to start feeling like there isn’t anywhere that isn’t under surveillance.  It doesn’t help that Mad Frankie and his Anger Management has paid-for access to all of the police CCTV cameras either; between that and his network of informers a man can’t piss up against a doorway without Mad Frankie knowing and sending you the bill for having it cleaned again.  I know; I have six from him.  One of which complains that I managed to give the door dutch elm disease, which I’d contest if there was a court that would hear the case.
“Hah, that’s just healthy in this town,” said the kid sounding twenty years older again.  “Well mister, I can tell you that you come in here every Thursday looking right different to how you look now, and you order a plum pie from us, with six plums.  Fancy one now?”
I shook my head, and waited for him to continue.  He didn’t, so I had to speak again.  “What else?  What’s my name?  How do I pay?  When was the last time I stiffed you?  How often do I sleep with your aunt?”
He looked a little taken-aback by the staccato questions rattled at him like machine-gun fire, and indeed he even took a step backwards.  Over in the corner the aunt knocked over a tub of ketchup which started to very slowly ooze from captivity.  She righted it before it got within an inch of the lip and wiped the table anyway.
“You’re Jack Horner,” he said.  “You sit in the corner eating your pie, and you mostly do it by sticking your thumb in, pulling out a plum, and making a song and dance about being a good boy.  Frankly mister, you’re weird, but you always pay up front so it kind of makes it hard to throw you out.  And if you’ve slept with my aunt mister, then it’s a bit weirder still that you keep trying it on with me.”  He was a little red-faced by the end, but a long way away from anything I’d call attractive.
“How many thumbs have I got?” I said.  It was a strange question but the vague description of Jack Horner was ringing bells in my head; tiny little silver bells like a carillon in a morose major key.
“Count ‘em for yourself, mister,” said the boy.  “Do you reckon you’ll come up surprised?”
“I think you might,” I said.  “I’ve got three, haven’t I?”
He looked at the counter, and his gaze didn’t move for a moment.  I wondered what he was thinking, and then, too late, realised that my hands were both resting on the counter.
“Not at the moment,” he said.  “Which is another weird thing mister.  I don’t think you’re who you’re claiming to be, so either you buy a pie and eat it, or you get out.”
“I’ll take the plum pie,” I said.  “Six plums.”
I sat down at an empty table, though they were all empty so it gave me an unaccustomed choice.  I sat as far away from the aunt as I could get and twiddled my thumbs.  The only man I know who’s got three thumbs and is so proud of it that he won’t shut up about it is Jack Crown.  He had a girlfriend for a while, a girl called Jill Hill, and then he lost his job after an accident he won’t talk about and needed alternative work.  He found it, but he’s secretive about it, and he’s a hard man to track down if he owes you anything.  He owes me a bucket and some brown paper, so maybe that’s why I’d not seen him in an age and a half.  But then there were the rumours that he’d found work for Natasha Monkeybutt, so maybe I wasn’t seeing him because he didn’t want me to.  Monkeybutt wouldn’t be above setting a tail on me and thinking she could get away with it.
“There you go mister not-Jack,” said the boy slamming a small pie down on the table.  The crust jumped slightly from the force, and when it settled back I could see the first plum glistening between the crust and the side of the dish.  I slipped my thumb in and pulled it out.
“What type of plum?” I asked.  “Victoria?”
The kid gave me an old stare and, turning away, said, “I think you mean Whose plum, mister.”
I was starving.  I ate it anyway.  I even paid him afterwards.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

The housekeeper

The drawing room was pristine.  There was no dust on the picture rails (Georganna had donned a pair of white gloves and run her finger along all of them to check, and was now massaging her shoulder and complaining that it ached), the chairs were all set out in exactly the right positions (Diane had pulled a battered copy of Feng Shui for the simple-minded from her capacious handbag and gone through Chapter 5, checking everything carefully), and the carpet was as bright as the day it had been purchased.  Sally ground her heels into it, a moue of spite on her face, and said,
“How does she do it?”
“She’s got to have help,” said Diane.  She was the eldest of the three sisters and felt a constant pressure to know both more than her siblings, and to look no older than them.  “It’s simply not possible to keep a house as large as this as clean as this without help.  There have been scientific studies, you know.”
“Really?”  Georganna flexed her arm, a slim brown hand rubbing her shoulder a little theatrically.  “Oh, my arm.  Why couldn’t one of you have checked one of those rails?  Who does scientific studies on housework, sister dear?”
“Because you’d only do it again because you didn’t believe us,” said Diane.  “And you haven’t checked the dado rails yet, I bet she’s only expecting us to check the high rails because that’s the hardest to reach.”
“Well I’m not doing it!”
“Oh Sally, can you check then please?”
Sally huffed, but produced her pair of white gloves and walked slowly around the room, her finger running along the dado rails.  She paused every ten steps to check for dust or other dirt on the glove, but with no success.
“As for who does studies, little Georganna, that would be the Institute of Women’s Studies at Northanger University.  They have their own journal: Domestic Analysis.  I subscribe.”  She gave Georganna a look that dared her to challenge that.
“Northanger University?” said Sally, frowning at her gloved finger that was staying resolutely white and clean.  “That sounds oddly familiar.  Did you go there, Georganna?”
Georganna was the only one of the sisters to have gone to university, though she’d struggled to graduate, changing her course three times and eventually resorting to sleeping with first her tutors, then other members of the faculty, and finally the President of the university.  “No,” she said with a little acerbity.  “No, I went to the Lesser University of Much Bothering.  It has unique courses, not offered anywhere else in the country.  That was a significant consideration to me when selecting my course.”
“So why does it sound familiar then?”
“I know,” said Diane.  When the other two had looked at her for long enough, with sufficient hatred in their eyes she allowed herself a small smile and continued.  “Northanger University was the inspiration for Janet O’Steen’s novel Coathanger Abbey.  There was a documentary about it a couple of weeks ago that you both insisted I watch with you.”  There was a momentary silence, and then Sally said, with just a touch of frost in her tone, “No dust.  The dados are clean as well.”
“She has to be cheating!” said Georganna.
“Who has to be cheating?” said Moira.  She had opened the door that led to the conservatory and was standing in the doorway.  Behind her the three sisters could see sprays of flowers and hear piano music.
“Diane,” said Georganna immediately.  Her eyes sparkled with malice.  “She’s been winning rather more at Canasta than can be explained by her skill at cards alone.”
“I had no idea you three played Canasta,” said Sally.  She smiled as pleasantly as her plastic surgery would allow.  “I have a small group of players who come over on Thursdays, if you might be interested?”
“Yes,” said Diane, while the other two shook their heads.
“We sew on Thursdays,” said Sally, while Georganna said at the same time, “We dress poor people.”  The two sisters looked at each other, and shrugged.  “We do both,” they said together.
“I can come,” said Diane.  Moira smiled again, her lips almost turning upwards.  “But I would love to know how you keep your house so clean when you’re all by yourself.  The forfeit for losing at Canasta isn’t cleaning is it?”
Georganna looked furious that she’d not seen this opportunity to ask such a question herself, while Sally perked up and looked interested.
“Oh, the housekeeper does it,” said Moira.  “Eight o’clock on Thursdays.  We play penny-ante.”
“What housekeeper?” said all three sisters in unison.  Moira looked as shocked as her plastic surgery would allow.
“My housekeeper,” she said.  “Abigail.  She’s been in my family for ninety years.”
Diane nodded.  “Yes,” she said slowly.  “We know.  We also know that she died fifteen years ago.”
“We attended her funeral,” said Sally.
“I was a pallbearer,” said Georganna, who’d lost a bet to end up having to do that.  “She was heavy.”
“Oh yes,” said Moira.  “Well, she was employed by mother, poor thing.”
All three sisters looked at her, waiting for her to continue.  “Oh.  Well, mother was very forward thinking in these things, and so her contract stated that if she died on the job, so to speak, she was still obliged to continue working for us after her death as well.  She either died on her own time, or not at all.”
Diane looked impressed, Sally looked puzzled and Georganna looked shocked.
“How did you get her to keep working?” asked Diane.
“Is she a zombie?” asked Georganna, her eyes wide.
“A séance,” said Moira.  “Dr. Phillips helped us with it, but we bound her spirit back to this earth.  It was a great advantage that mother made all the servants sign in blood.”
“Is she a zombie?” asked Georganna a little more insistently.
“No,” said Moira.  “Bits would only drop off and double her workload.  That would be inefficient.  Oh.  And a little unfair.”
The three sisters sat there, a little awed, and Moira basked.
“Please come through,” she said.  “I believe the housekeeper has baked a lasagne.”

Experimenting with veganism

“My daughter is home for Christmas,” said Milady Natalie.  She waved a powdered white hand languorously in the direction of a chubby girl with red cheeks and straggly blonde hair that looked both dyed and dead.  “She will be determining the menus for lunch for the two weeks that she is here.  You may assume that she has my authority in all culinary decisions.”
“My name’s Jenna,” said the chubby girl and smiled.  I blanched a little, because I’d been likening her head to a beetroot and beetroot don’t (normally) have teeth, then rallied and smiled back.  “And mummy, you said I’d be in charge!”
“One thing at a time, dear,” said Milady Natalie, her eyes rolling slowly upwards in her head, a sure sign that she’d started on the laudanum early today.  “Let us see how you fare with the lunch menu before you take over duties as head of the household.  Don’t forget, you have one more year at university to complete in… what is your course is again?”  Her voice grew gradually more stretched out and quieter as the length of the sentence wore her out, but Jenna seemed neither to notice nor to care.
“I’m studying Business Politics,” she snapped, her jowls quivering a little and reminding me that I had a pork cheek in brine waiting for use.  I licked my lips involuntarily.  “I’ll be specialising in Mergers and Take-aways next year.”
“How delightful,” droned Milady Natalie, her eyelids now drooping as well.  “Indian or Chinese?”
“What?”  Jenna looked stonily at her mother, her lips pressed together and going almost cross-eyed in her attempts to look down her nose.
“You said Takeaways, dear.  Indian or Chinese?  I remember you can’t eat Thai because you get that rash all over your pubis–“
Pas devant les enfants!” said Jenna, staring at me intently.  I half-smiled, and tried to look puzzled, as though a master chef would have no idea at all about French.  “I meant take-overs, obviously mummy.  Why must you be so silly about these things?”
“Silly?” breathed Milady Natalie, and fell asleep.
“I’m experimenting with veganism,” said Jenna.  The kitchen was in full swing: the butler was in the corner mixing up fresh laudanum for Milady Natalie and the boot-boy was helping him, learning how to extract the opium from the poppies using alcohol.  I grew the poppies amongst the edible garden flowers on the grounds that Milady Natalie would never notice if they got a little mixed up.  My sous-chef was removing the pork-cheek from the tub of brine, and his sous-chef (the line-chef, but we gave him the better title because he was only 19, spotty and nervous around everything but insects) was making egg pasta.
“Isn’t that illegal?” I said, setting down the pen I was using to calligraph today’s menu.  Luckily I’d only planned out tea and supper so far.
“Experimenting on Vegans?  My understanding was that they’re actually human too, just a little bit different to the rest of us.  Like… oh I don’t know, Republicans or Human Resource Managers.”
“What’s a republican?  And how are Human Resource Managers not human?”  There was a note of frustration in her voice that I found irresistible.
“I thought you were doing Business Politics at an American college?  I assumed that both of those roles would be frequent topics of conversation.”
“I’m at Brown,” she said, aggression flaring up like an oil field struck by lightning.  “And that means I’m cleverer than you, Mister cooking-man.”  She punctuated her words by jabbing her finger into my chest.  I looked down at the finger, and she whipped it up to flick my nose.  “No man cooks unless he’s gay,” she sneered.  “So you’re not even a real man, are you?”  Behind her, my sous-chef (who's had more boyfriends than he’s prepared hot meals if I believe his stories) picked up a filleting knife and the line-cook (who’s easily led) gripped the large pot of boiling pasta water.  I shook my head, and she thought I was I talking to her.
“I thought not,” she said.  “Now, for lunch we will be eating vegan food.  So no meat.  Got that?”
“No meat,” I repeated, shaking my head again as neither my sous-chef nor the line-cook looked any less murderous.  “Perhaps then just tête de veau avec saucissons?”
“Perfect!” she said, a sudden smile appearing on her face.  I smiled, very faintly, and wondered if she ever washed her face properly: it was a playground for blackheads and other blemishes.  She made the line-cook look handsome, and although he tried, he clearly had a face he needed to grow into.  “Write that down, and I shall give it to mummy, so you’d better serve exactly what you’ve just said.”
“It’ll be a pleasure,” I said, knowing full well that Milady Natalie hated waste and would insist on her daughter eating the food she’d requested.  “I’ll get the largest tête de veau I can find.”

Saturday, 19 January 2013

Eight trains

“I’ve been waiting for eight trains!  Eight trains!  Eight trains!”
The repetitive woman squawked indignantly at the sheepish herd of people who were crammed into the tube-train carriage, each of them squeezed into their neighbours with a look of discomfort, hands stretched out for any handhold, praying that they would be able to keep their balance when the train moved off.  She glared at them with unhidden hostility, jabbing her stroller’s wheel into ankles as she tried to force her way into the carriage.
“I need to get home!  Eight trains!” she squawked again.
“There’s no room,” a man in the doorway started to say, his long frame already bent awkwardly to fit in on the edge of the carriage where the ceiling curved down.
“Eight trains,” shrieked the woman, cutting him off.  “Of course there’s room, you could all move down the carriage and make some space.”
The standing passengers looked at one another, puzzlement on their faces.  They were already standing down the full length of the carriage, carefully ignoring the seated passengers, who in turn were hiding their fear that the train would start moving and one of the standers would fall over and land on one of the sitters.  Or worse, several of the sitters, rolling around like a beached walrus, until finally prised off and forced up, backing to a standing position.
“I don’t think we could,” said the man in the doorway, his face flushing with embarrassment at having to point out the obvious truth to the woman.  She pushed on the stroller again, bruising his ankles.
“You don’t think!” she said, her voice smug and a smirk on her face revealing that she thought she was the first person ever to find this comeback.  ‘If you thought, you would have made room for me by now.”
“Why don’t you fold the stroller up?” said another voice from somewhere inside the carriage.  “You’ve said there’s been eight trains, you’ve had plenty of time to fold the stroller up.  Then you wouldn’t need anywhere as much space and you’d be able to get on, wouldn’t you?”
“How dare you!” The little woman was so angry that flecks of white spittle flew from her lips and landed on the stroller.  “How dare you!  I’m entitled, I am!  I should be allowed on the train because I have a stroller with me!  I have a baby!”  She seized the carrier bag hanging ostentatiously from the handle of the stroller and shook it.  “This is a Harrods bag!  That is how much better than all you I am.  I shop at Harrods, and I have a baby and a stroller, and I deserve to be on this train so much more than all of you combined.”
“Fold the stroller up,” came the voice from within the carriage.  “Then you can stand it next to you and you’ll take up the space of two people instead of six.”
“And where would my baby go?  Should I leave him here on this platform, by himself?  Abandon him?  Is that what you want?”
“Carry the baby?  You have arms, I can see them waving that carrier bag around, so they must work.”
Carry?  Carry the baby?  Do you understand how much work that would be?  Babies are heavy, and then there’s the stroller!  And I have a Harrods bag here with me.  Do you think I should spend my money on things only to leave them behind?”
“Sounds better than leaving the baby behind, but you should make your own mind up,” said the voice within the carriage.  “Get your stroller off this train, stop trying to get on at the very end of the train, fold it up and carry it and the baby and you’ll get on the next one without any trouble.  Make an effort, woman, instead of screaming at the rest of the world to make the effort for you.”
“Eight trains!”
“Nine,” said the voice within the carriage.  “Make someone’s else life a misery, we’ve done nothing to deserve it.”  The carriage doors started to close with an ominous beeping sound, and the recorded voice came over the speaker system.  “Do not obstruct the closing doors.”  The man, bent awkwardly and still red-faced, placed a foot against the stroller and extended his leg, pushing it out of the carriage.  The doors closed, and he pulled his foot back inside just in time.
“Eight trains!” howled the miserable little woman on the platform, raising a fist and shaking it as the train started to move.  “Eight trains!”

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

Corisette and Margoyle

“My name’s Corisette,” said the pretty little woman.  She looked, to Margoyle’s eyes, as though she had Oriental ancestry: her skin was flawless, her nose was delicate and slightly pointed, her chin was elfin and her eyes would have put a Manga character to shame.  Her hair was neatly coiled into a bun that sat just above the nape of her neck, and was skunk-striped.
“Corisette?”  Margoyle’s tone was flat and cold like the wind in a Canadian winter.  Corisette actually shivered slightly when Margoyle had finished saying her name.
“Yes,” she said.  “Like Anisette, only more bitter and toxic to cattle.”  She smiled, and little dimples appeared in her cheeks and chin.
“You look like a bowling ball when you do that,” said Margoyle.  “I’m finding it hard to resist the temptation to come over there and hurl you along the corridor and see how many interns I can knock over.  Try not to tempt me again.”
“You can’t do that!” said Corisette, the pitch of her voice rising in indignation.  “I’ve dated an HR manager, and I know that that’s harassment, and possibly intimidation.”
“You should probably meet our HR director then,” said Margoyle.  “Or at least read the company handbook.  We have slightly different policies than those you may be used to.”
“I couldn’t read the handbook,” said Corisette.  She looked longing at the chair opposite Margoyle’s desk, but didn’t dare sit down.  Not until she was invited to.  “It was inside the shredder in my office, and I couldn’t find any way to turn the shredder off to get the book out.  The shredder appears to have its own internal power supply, and… well I pushed an intern’s hand into it and now… now they’re in hospital.”  Margoyle raised an eyebrow that had been plucked almost to extinction and then had a miniature weave sewn in place.  It waved gently as though it were alive.
“And you’re about to start complaining about harassment?” she asked.
“We don’t pay interns, do we?” asked Corisette, looking meaningfully at the chair.  Margoyle ignored her.  “So they’re not really like us, right?”
“Many people dehumanise them,” said Margoyle.  “Why do you poison cattle?”
“I’m sorry?” Corisette didn’t look sorry, she looked annoyed that Margoyle had changed the subject.  Her dimples had disappeared, and her face was notably angular now.  Tiny little red blood vessels crowded the corners of her eyes.
“You said you were bitter and poisoned cattle.”
“Oh.  No, I don’t poison cattle, but the plant I’m named after does.  Corisette.”  Margoyle said nothing and toyed with a pencil.  “My mother was a naturist and she liked to name her children after the things she studied.  My sister’s called Wedlock and my brother is called Ramp.”
Margoyle smiled thinly, her lips pressed so firmly together to prevent any laughter escaping that they were a white version of her eyebrows.  When she felt she had herself back under control again, she looked Corisette in the eye.  “I hope you mean that your mother was a naturalist,” she said.  “I suspect your sister is actually called Hemlock too.  And your brother… –“
“I don’t like him.”  Corisette sniffed.  “He smells like garlic all the time.”
“… might just be accurately named,” said Margoyle.  “Why are you in my office, Corisette?  I don’t care about your family, or you for that matter.  I don’t care that you can’t get through the shredder – which is a test, by the way, that you can still fail if you try – and I’m not seeing the report I asked you for, either in my Inbox or in my inbox.  So why are you here?”
“I’ve been promoted,” said Corisette.  “I was told to tell you.”
Margoyle shrieked like a banshee at karaoke.  “This is a stalling action!”  You’re a diversion, aren’t you?”  Corisette’s face was as blank as her mind for a moment.  “You stupid little cow-poisoner!  You’re not promoted at all, only I can promote you!  You’re keeping me occupied why Jeronica takes the corner office on the third floor!”
“But… but she said –“
“She’d say anything to get you to keep me occupied!  You stupid little plant, you idiotic child of sludge, you simple-minded slime mould!  How could I be so stupid as to let you in here!  Get out!  Get out now!”
Corisette fled the office, turning left instead of right, and Margoyle smiled tightly, her bad mood gone as quickly as it had appeared.  Corisette should have gone left, back to her own office, but right would take her to the stairwell and the third floor, presumably to meet up with Jeronica and receive her reward for her treachery.
There was a surprisingly loud click, which Margoyle knew was a solenoid engaging and preventing the doors to and from the stairwell from opening.  Corisette would have used her standard access pass-card, not realising that Margoyle would have tracking programmes in all of Data Analytic Marketetic Normalisations systems, and little contingency scripts for… eventualities.  Something whumphed inside the building, and the floor rocked.  Margoyle waited.  Two minutes later exactly, by her watch, an intern tapped on her open door, and peered cautiously in.
“Security warning,” she said, her voice trembling.  “Apparently there’s been some kind of air lock in the stairwell and everyone is to use the lifts for the rest of the day.  Until the pressures can be equalised.”
Margoyle smiled, and her eyebrows waved at the intern like a sea-creature in a warm-water current.

Saturday, 12 January 2013

Turning tables II

“Do you think he’s just here to have an orgasm with us?” asked another voice from around the table, this one female.
“No,” said the first woman.  “No, he wouldn’t be able to org….”  Her voice trailed away as she realised that was revealing too much.  All the faces around the table had turned to her, and though a couple looked shocked, several looked interested and one looked revolted.  “Arthur?”  she said, abruptly.  “Is that you Arthur?”
The table rocked enthusiastically from side to side, which Madame Sosotris knew for certain she couldn’t make it do with her pedals.  She treadled them a little anyway, and found them squishy, the hydraulics clearly failing to engage anything.  She treadled a little harder, just in case, but the table just ignored her.
“Itchy legs?” whispered a voice, a woman next to her leaning in to her.  Madame Sosotris’s skin crawled at the proximity of the woman, and she pushed back in her chair.  The legs groaned as they stuttered against the uneven floorboards.  She nodded, and to her relief the woman leaned away again.  The table started to rotate, rocking on the floor about half-way round the circle, and definitely gaining a little height.
“Arthur?” A man’s voice now, one Madame Sosotris recognised.  More voices around the table joined in, all asking if the spirit rocking the table was Arthur.  She cleared her voice, about to tell the room that the spirit’s never spoke directly, only through the medium, when the table suddenly stopped dead and dropped onto the floor.  Someone screamed, a tiny little scream that was heartfelt, and the people on either side of her tightened their grip on her hands.  All of the lights went out, and the curtains fell across the windows with a sound like a sail flapping in the wind.
“Arthur?” asked Madame Sosotris, her voice quavering.  She was instantly annoyed with herself, but as she was clearing her throat, which sounded a little like a tubercular cow, light returned and she fell as silent as the rest of the room.  On the table in front of them tiny motes of purple light were swirling around, drifting, a hologrammic Brownian motion.  For a moment there were just enough to capture attention, and then suddenly they were a column of light, thick and coruscant, that reached to the ceiling of the room.  Madame Sosotris squinted, trying to see if there was something in the light, and then chips of light seemed to slough away, falling to the table where they splashed and vanished.  This unnatural sculpting persisted for five minutes, after which the light presented the image of the statue atop Nelson’s Column.
“That’s Arthur?  Wasn’t he… well, fatter?”
“He was fat!  Very fat!  That’s not Arthur.”
“Oh come on, he wasn’t that fat.”
“He had to have help standing up.  How fat do you have to be before you’ll call someone fat?”
“Hey, he’s pretty fat too.  Maybe Arthur really didn’t look so fat by his standards.”
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” said Nelson, his voice rolling around the room as though Madame Sosotris had a sound-system.  Heads turned, looking into the darkness that surrounded them, but they were all drawn back when Nelson spoke again.  “Why have you summoned me?”
“We have questions, Arthur,” said the female voice who’d identified his orgasm noise.  “You fell rather suddenly.”
“I was pushed,” said Nelson, the table shaking as he spoke.  Madame Sosotris flexed her fingers, trying to see if she could break the circle, but the people holding her hands tightened their grip.  “I was pushed, by my lieutenant.  It could happen to you all.”
“Not me,” said a male voice.  “No lieutenants.”
“Hah,” boomed Nelson.  “He was inspired by La Reveille, who I see has not accompanied you today.  Beware La Reveille.”
“We know,” said the woman who’d identified the orgasm noise.  “We know how you fell, Arthur.  You were lazy, you were incompetent.  It is no surprise that the Throne passed to another.  But we don’t have enough data on your Throne, and your little… ah, surprises, are causing us issues.”
“You knew?  You knew that I was targeted?”  The indignation in Nelson’s voice made it louder, and a couple of people around the table cringed.  Madame Sosotris pulled at the hands holding hers, now trying her best to break the circle, but still her neighbours gripped her tightly, squeezing.  “What honour is there amongst Thrones?” screamed Nelson, his face distorting with rage.  “And now you come here to ask me for my help?”
Madame Sosotris let herself fall off her chair and landed heavily on the floor, banging her tailbone.  Her arms ended up above her, her hands still held firmly in place.  She cursed softly under her breath.
“Arthur, you’re dead,” said the female voice.  “The concerns of this world aren’t yours any more.  Why don’t you be a little reasonable?”
“Hah!” Nelson’s face twisted into something that might have been a sneer.  “Hah, I might be dead but I’m certainly not impotent.  Each possessor of a Throne becomes part of the Throne when they die!  You haven’t seen the last of me!”
The hologram of the statue disappeared with a sharp crack and a sudden sea-fresh smell of ozone, and everyone’s hands were suddenly thrown apart, breaking the circle.  Madame Sosotris, her hands above her head, ended up clapping them together involuntarily, which drew everyone’s eyes to her as light leaked back into the room around the edges of the curtains, and she clumsily pulled herself up from the floor and back on to her chair.
“Payment,” she said, “needs to be made before you leave.”

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Chihuahua preparing for snow

She was lying on her hot-water bottle, watching the net curtains.  They were moving very gently because the window they guarded was very slightly ajar.  Thankfully the breeze didn't reach her, but even if had, her hot-water bottle was freshly refilled and keeping her toasty-warm.
There had been talk of snow again, and she was wondering if she was going to have an opinion on that.  The last time she'd seen the snow it had been fleeting, clearly scared away when she barked at it.  She'd let it know that it was too cold and became wet when she tried to deal with it.  That had been very satisfying, though perhaps not as satisfying as lying here on her hot-water bottle.  She considered stretching, and decided that that ran the risk of not being so comfortable after her stretch.
There were noises in the background somewhere, and she listened to them, checking if they were too close, or too loud, or the wrong kind of noise.  She had a mental checklist of what was acceptable and what wasn't, and despite the warmth and comfort she would leap up and deal ruthlessly and quickly with anyone who didn't tick the right boxes.  The noises at the moment sounded like typical human noises, and so she waited for them to get interesting, or be joined by smells of cooking.
"Chihuahua," said a voice like the filigree spreading of frost on a window-pane.  "I have been looking for you."
Jack Frost, she thought, and lifted her head very slightly, turning it to see where he was.  He was perched on a chair across from her, his alabaster skin shimmering slightly in the light, and his breath clouding in the air.
"I need to you find the snow for me again," said Jack Frost.  "It is here somewhere, but it is hidden, and you did an excellent job last time."
She laid her head back down again, secure in the knowledge that on her hot-water bottle she was too warm for Jack to get any closer.  Hunting for snow had not, in her opinion, been either fun or worth the price he'd paid.
"I can pay more,"  he said, his words like icicles, hanging briefly in the air and then evaporating away to nothing.  It was hard to remember what he'd said after he finished speaking.  "I can pay... in flesh."
She lifted her head again and looked back at him.  That sounded rather more interesting.
"Two weeks," he said, holding up both his hands for emphasis.  She noted with only mild curiosity that he had six fingers and a thumb on each hand; clearly he meant two calendar weeks and not two working weeks.  That was a shame, as she worked only three days a week, and for about an hour and a half a day.  Sleeping and eating were the big entries in her diary.  "Two weeks to find me the snow."
She barked, a gentle little bark that meant "OK, now go away," and Jack Frost grinned like a gleeful manaic and disappeared in a tiny snowstorm that glittered in the air for an entire minute.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Turning tables I

Madame Sosotris huffed and puffed as she scrubbed the wooden table.  The table rocked and rattled; its legs were uneven after years of being dragged around a rough-planked floor with no consideration.  Madame Sosotris didn’t particularly mind, as its occasional tilts and jolts added atmosphere when she was reading Tarot cards for people.  It was more of a nuisance when she was eating soup, but she’d taken to eating that standing up in the kitchen as the soul of a chicken that she’d accidentally imbued into her cast-iron frying pan was summoned by the smell of fresh soup and would cluck around the kitchen for hours if she didn’t exorcise it immediately.  She huffed and puffed some more, scrubbing away at what she hoped wasn’t a bloodstain.  Her dress fell open and her breasts sagged across the table, but she didn’t notice.  Her mind was concentrating on the performance ahead.
The door shuddered under the weight of the blows hammering on it, and Madame Sosotris’s head snapped up like she wanted whiplash.  She looked at the grubby cloth in her hand and tossed it in the fireplace, where it sprawled across cold logs.  She swaggered to the door and flung it open, stretching her face into a slightly manic grin.
“Welcome!” she shouted.  “Welcome one and… one?”
The woman – short, dumpy, wearing a maid’s uniform – looked rather shocked, and it took Madame Sosotris several long seconds to realise that she was feeling a draft from her dress blowing yet further open in the brisk breeze.  She clutched her clothes about her, and tried hard to glare her embarrassment away.
“Who are you?” she said.  “I was expecting milords and miladies for the table turning.”
“I was sent to find out if you were ready yet,” said the dumpy woman.  Her face was scarred with ringworm and her nose looked as though it had been eaten away by something.  Madame Sosotris couldn’t get close enough to confirm her suspicions that it was rats, so she contented herself with jumping to that conclusion instead.
“I am always ready,” she said, ignoring that nagging voice in the back of her mind that said that this ugly little woman was going to go back and tell them that she was dressed now and hadn’t been before.  “Skyclad or no, womb-born or zombie, I am always ready.”
“Right,” said the dumpy woman.  “I’ll go and tell the gentlefolk that you’re not wearing any knickers and that you want to see them anyway.”  Madame Sosotris responded by slamming the door in her face, and then hastily tying her dress back together.  Something important seemed to have ripped, so she pulled the sash-cord from the curtains and tied that firmly around her waist as well.  As she coughed with the sudden constriction, someone knocked on the door again.
“Welcome?” said Madame Sosotris, peering around the edge of the door, this time applying caution.  There were a group of people, all wearing heavy, hooded cloaks and acting edgy: they switched their weight from one foot to the other, swung their hoods from side to side trying to see if anyone was watching, and pushed closer to the door when it looked like it was opening.  Recognising their need, Madame Sosotris backed away, pulling the door open, and they flooded into her room.
“You may leave your cloaks on the couch,” said Madame Sosotris, gesturing in the direction of the paired couches that faced each other.  One looked mildewed, and the other only smelled like it.  The participants muttered amongst themselves, hoods being placed close together to keep the conversations private.  Eventually a consensus was reached, and they all left their cloaks on the floor and took a chair at the table.
“Welcome,” said Madame Sosotris again.  It crossed her mind that she was sounding like a broken record.  “We are here today to contact the spirit world.  Is there anyone in particular you wish to speak to?”
The men and women, beautiful people all, looked at one another, and their gaze said the same thing: Is this woman really this stupid?  And is she really wearing a curtain sash as a belt?
“We wish to speak to the fallen City Director,” said a man, whose name was known to everyone in the room, and whose face would be instantly recognised by anyone of the street.  Madame Sosotris, her face impassive, nodded.
“Let us join our hands,” she said.
The instant the last two hands connected the table shook and jolted as though there had been a small earthquake.  The men and women around the table looked at each other, their faces grey and apprehensive, and Madame Sosotris gasped.  She had started the movement with the pedals under her chair that lifted the table from the floor, but the rest of it had come from somewhere else entirely.  For the first time in a long time she felt afraid.
“Is there anyone there?” she said, her voice thinner and more whiney that she would have liked.  As if in response the table leapt, and the circle barely managed to keep the hands joined and above it.
“Arthur?” asked a woman sat at four o’clock relative to Madame Sosotris, and the table gyrated, grinding out a low growl against the floor.  “Oh Arthur!” said the woman.
“How do you know it’s him?” said a man sat next to her, his eyelids painted with blue false eyes.
“That’s his orgasm noise,” said the woman, and everyone shifted, feeling slightly uncomfortable.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Meditation Medication

Saul looked at the street door to the office block.  He couldn’t help but feel that it ought to have, graven above it into the stone blocks that were undoubtedly nothing more than a façade, the words Abandon all hope you who enter here.  Every time he came here he felt his centre dissipate and his sense of calm, usually a firm and comforting presence, shatter into millions of fragments.  What had the poet said?  Things falls apart, the centre cannot hold.  Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.  If only it were mere anarchy and not… demons.
He took a deep breath and crossed the road.  Taxis honked their horns at him, a man leaned out of a car-window and shouted something random about his mother, and a young girl who surely couldn’t be older than ten gave him the finger.  He checked: the crosswalk signal was telling him to go and the traffic to stop, but this was the city – no, this was the City – and the traffic wasn’t happy being stopped.  He smoothed his robe down, mentally sighed just a little bit that even a buddhist monk couldn’t get a little patience from this City, and reached the other side of the road.  The doorman at the office recognised him, and exchanged a look of world-weariness with him.
“Any chance you’re here for the other office?” asked the doorman.  His name was Samuel, he had a wife, two girlfriends, a drinking problem, a child from a previous marriage with behaviourial ‘issues,’ two dogs, a motorcycle and indecision over whether he should be taking his motorcycle repairman’s offer of an open relationship up.  Saul often stood and listened to Samuel’s soap-opera of a life to avoid going up to the office he was visiting, even though he knew he’d end up listening to a lecture about his time-keeping skills.
“No Sam,” said Saul, smiling broadly.  “I’d still need to have a sex-change, wouldn’t I?”
“That’s a pretty easy thing to arrange,” said Samuel.  “I think they’ll probably do it for you, I can ask at the reception desk.  Give me a moment.”
“No,” said Saul laying his hand on Samuel’s shoulder.  “Don’t get me wrong, it’s a generous offer and I appreciate you thinking of me, but I think I should go and see Dr. Fraud.”
“You keep coming to see him, week after week.  Is it charity work?”
Saul smiled again, this time a little more ruefully.  “Court-ordered, Sam,” he said.  “Court-ordered.”
Samuel stared at him.  “What the hell did you do?” he said finally.
Dr. Fraud was sitting in his chair near the window when Saul let himself into his office.  They were up on the thirtieth floor, and Dr. Fraud was staring pensively out of the window at the people on the sidewalk down below.
“They look like ants,” he said, his Austrian accent a little thicker and stronger than usual.  Saul wondered who had been in before him today; the different patients seemed to affect Dr. Fraud differently.  So far his favourite was a woman called Bethany.  Whatever she talked to Dr. Fraud about, he always seemed quite subdued and almost scared afterwards.  “I wonder if you could mount a magnifying glass up here and focus it on them like ants?”
“Ants are part of the living world,” said Saul.  “What reason is there for hurting them, for killing them?  Without reason there should be no action.  And it is hard to find a reason for killing anything; there are always other alternatives.”
“Not if you want to eat them,” said Dr. Fraud.  “It’s the standard flaw in the vegetarian argument.  Until we reduce the number of cows in the world stopping killing them would just mean that we’d be killing ourselves – slowly, mostly by means of being trampled or assaulted by angry cows.  And if we have to kill them, then we should eat them so that their deaths haven’t been in vain.”
“You want to eat people you’ve flash-cooked with a giant magnifying glass?” Saul sat down on the leather chaise-longue: Dr. Fraud was a traditionalist in a number of ways.
“No, but a nice steak sandwich wouldn’t go amiss right now,” he said.  “Now, who are you?”
“Saul Below,” said Saul.  “Not the novelist, his surname is Bellow.  My parents were just optimists.”
“Which comment suggests you think you’re not,” said Dr. Fraud.  He drew the blinds, long vertical sheets of ivory-coloured cloth that diffused the light more than kept it out.  He turned to his desk and picked a file up.  “Are you sure you’re not Bethany Price?”
“Very,” said Saul.  “Was she your previous patient?”  He concentrated on keeping the optimism out of his voice.
“No,” said Dr. Fraud.  “She’s next.  Ah, you must be this file then.”  He picked up a second manila folder that was substantially thinner and Saul felt an odd pang of jealousy.  He filed away the thought to come back to later and consider, and understand.  Emotions happened for reasons too, he felt.  “Mr. Below.  As above?”
“You make that joke every week,” said Saul.
“And you’re late every week,” said Dr. Fraud reading the front page of the papers held in the file.  “It suggests a reluctance to confront your problems.”
“Are you describing yourself as one of my problems?”
Dr. Fraud smiled thinly and twisted an egg-timer on his desk.  “Forty minutes remaining,” he said.  “Tell me about your mother.”
“She died before I was born,” said Saul.  “So I’d rather not, I think it might engender trauma.  I’m having trouble meditating.  Very often now I’ll manage to clear my mind of thought and I’ll find myself thinking about something, as though it’s being thought about at the bottom of my mind, underneath all the everyday thoughts.  But I can’t push it out of my mind to properly achieve the nothingness that leads to transcendence.”
“Boring,” said Dr. Fraud.  “I only recommend meditation for patients who need to sleep more.  Or who need a decent dietician but are too neurotic to admit it.  You don’t need to sleep more, you need to admit you have problems and confront them.  And from the sound of it, you can confront them, but you want help running away from them. I can’t help you with that, I’m a doctor!”
“A decent dietician?” Saul lay down on the couch, noting that it seemed to be ripped in several places.  “You prescribe meditation in place of a diet-plan?”
“It stops them eating,” said Dr. Fraud.  “Make the mantra complicated enough and it’ll be hours before they get done and can eat again.”
“That’s not what meditation is about!” Saul felt pleased that despite the emotion conveyed by his words he was feeling entirely calm.  “And it’s not why I want to talk about my problems acheiving a meditative state.”
“Well I don’t want to talk about them,” said Dr. Fraud.  “This is a talking cure, not a knitting circle where we all gossip about our sex-lives, small children and sharp knives.”
“How do you manage to link those three things?” Saul felt a stirring of interest and made himself push it aside.
“Aharrumph,” said Dr. Fraud, suddenly shuffling papers.  “That’s just three things you’ve spoken about in the past.  How about I prescribe you some meditation medication?”
“There’s such a thing?” asked Saul.  “Well, that might help.”
“Excellent,” said Dr. Fraud, scribbling something on a pad.  “Here you go.  Same time next week!”
Saul stood up, and accepted the prescription.  He tried to read it, but gave up quickly: it could have said Viagra or Valium at a best guess, but neither sounded plausible.  “Same time next week,” he said.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

A short enough skirt

Bob Martin was trying to hide in the supermarket.  He’d been looking (a little sadly) at the high-fibre cereals and wondering if he should pick one or just buy them all when Dr. Malmstein walked past the end of the aisle.  He was carrying one of those wire shopping baskets that support much more weight than the arm carrying can, in which was a restaurant-sized can of palm oil and a box of tissues.  He glanced down the aisle just as Bob glanced up it, and though their eyes didn’t meet, and Dr. Malmstein walked past apparently not seeing Bob, Bob knew from long experience that it would only take about ten seconds for Dr. Malmstein to realise what he’d seen and come back.  He’d bolted out of his end of the aisle and run in the opposite direction until he collided with a trolley being pushed by a frazzled-looking woman with a small crocodile of children behind her.
“Ugh!” he gasped, the wind knocked out of him.  The woman ran a hand through red frizzy hair and let loose a torrent of swear-words that would have made a Tourette’s sufferer look askance.  None of the children behind her, even the two clutching her skirt, looked at all shocked.
“Sorry,” he managed, the word sounded half-strangled as he tried to get enough air in his lungs to breathe again.  “I have to hide!”
He crab-walked into the aisle out of her way, and discovered he was in the home baking aisle.  He looked up it, checking that Dr. Malmstein wasn’t at the top, and his gaze stopped half-way along as he realised that the eggs were all held in metal cages that could be easily pulled out and replaced.  His heart nearly skipped a beat as he realised his opportunity, and he struggled over to them as quickly as he could, one hand still clutching his stomach and his breaths short and laboured.  He elbowed a short man in a loud, check sportscoat out of the way and pulled the egg-box cage forwards until he could slip behind it, and then he pulled the cage back after him.  Then he sank to the floor, confident now that no-one could see him without actually pulling the cage out.
“That’s him,” said a whiny voice as the cage was pulled forward, barely thirty seconds later.  “He’ll be playing with himself, he’s disgusting.”  Bob looked up, and found a shelf-stacker looking down at him through thick-lensed glasses that made their eyes look terrifyingly huge.
“You have to come out from there, please,” said the shelf-stacker.  Beyond the glasses she was a handsome woman, probably in her early thirties, with blonde hair and the beginnings of a blonde moustache.
“Has he gone yet?” asked Bob, not moving.
“I don’t know and I don’t care,” said the handsome woman.  “I was told that you were playing with yourself back here, and that’s unhygienic and against store policy.”
“I’m not playing with myself!”
“I don’t really care,” said the handsome woman.  “Come out now or I’ll get security and tell them you’re aggressive and refusing to co-operate.”
Bob had seen security taking people out of the supermarket before, usually for breaking things accidentally, or asking too many questions about the contents of some of the more heavily processed foods, and was not keen on the idea of them deciding that he was undesirable.  He got back to his feet, hunching over because of the shelves above the cage, and crept out.
“Thank-you,” said the handsome woman.
“Bob?” said Dr. Malmstein, who was standing nearby holding a single egg that he’d apparently taken out of a box of a dozen.
“Ye Gods,” said Bob, putting his hands to his face.
Bob sat down at MSPARKER’s keyboard.  MSPARKER was a quipping machine, built by the university for anyone to use, and in actuality mostly used by Bob because she unnerved everybody else.  Even the undergraduates seemed scared of her, and classes that offered a chance to use her were now barely attended.  And Bob wasn’t sure when she’d become a She and a Her to everybody instead of the It that she so clearly was.  He’d been avoiding Dr. Malmstein for weeks because he’d not wanted to have to talk to her any more, but having been accosted in the supermarket he had a new task for her, which Dr. Malmstein wanted results from by the end of the week.  As Bob would have expected, it was already Thursday.
“MSPARKER?” he said, hoping that she was broken, or in scheduled downtime.
Good evening,” said a slightly feminine, heavily robotic voice.  They’d used an undergraduate for the syllabary, the collection of syllables that MSPARKER created her spoken answers from, who’d been on a bet to lisp inconsistently.  It made MSPARKER sound vaguely sinister, and Bob usually preferred to use the keyboard interface.  The keyboard, however, was missing.
“MSPARKER, where is the party at?”  Dr. Malmstein had a list of rhetorical questions that he wanted putting to the quipping machine to see what answers came back.  Bob had reason to believe that this was a bad idea (a list of ways to end the world that he found both fascinatingly inventive and scarily prescient), but Dr. Malmstein wouldn’t listen.
If you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you,said MSPARKER.  Bob wrote it down, read it through, and shivered.  Surely the machine was just looking these things up?  Perhaps in a dictionary of quips?
“MSPARKER, what time is now?”
The rain is falling and the days run together like droplets on a window-pane.”
“MSPARKER, if a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled?”
Are you feeling disgruntled?”
Bob set down his pen and very carefully, very slowly, absolutely not running at all, left the room.  Dr. Malmstein was waiting outside in the corridor.
“Ah Bob, I didn’t want to disturb you!” he said, sounding much more jovial than his saturnine countenance would suggest.
“I wish you had,” said Bob.  His looked at his shoes.  “I think she just called me a pig.”
“That was nice of her,” said Dr. Malmstein.  “Have you asked her about the party yet?”
“She said that if you wear a short enough skirt, the party will come to you,” said Bob.
“Ah.  I see.  Um, I appreciate this is a rather personal question, but how short a skirt do you own?”

Friday, 4 January 2013


Hegatonic is what they called the language of the Eidolons.  There was an ancient book, its stitching rotted away and its pages yellowed and crumbling, that was kept in a small box filled with inert gas that was the original dictionary.  The front-page contained one word: Hegaton, and so the language had been given its name.  There were scholars, a small minority, who argued that a Hegaton was actually a measurement, the amount of explosive required to kill an Eidolon.  Since no-one had ever succeeded in killing an Eidolon though this theory was largely ignored.
The classroom where Hegatonic was taught was dark and hot.  The room itself was a cube, four metres to a side, buried inside a grain silo and accessed from an underground tunnel.  There was a single electric light bulb that contributed to the heat, an elaborate ventilation system that sourced air from three different directions in case any were blocked, and a pneumatic tube down which incriminating material could be flushed in the event of discovery.  The walls were plain steel, though there was a chart of basic letters taped up on one of them.  The chart was made from tissue paper and there was a bucket of water nearby to dissolve it in if needed.  There were four desks and seven chairs, and several solid-state sonjeu with white earphone cords.  Three people occupied some of the chairs, and a fourth, Milady Beth-Rachel was standing at the chart, her fingers pressed against her throat as she practised making the sounds that the letters represented.
Serjeant Thomas removed earphones from his ears and touched the sonjeu, a palm-sized black plastic device.  The front of it lit up, showing icons for recording, playback, pause and stop at the bottom, and a list of audio tracks above them.  He pressed stop and the screen went black again.
“I hakegh gha,” he said, and stopped and coughed.  His fingers massages his throat before he tried again.  “I hate this language,” he said, his voice a little scratchy from repeating sentences in Hegatonic.
“We all do,” said Milady Beth-Rachel.  “But we have to learn it, Tom.  You have to learn it.  There’s no other way for us to know what the Eidolons are up to.”
“They tell us what they’re up to.  That’s what Court is for, that’s what the newspapers report!”
“Hah.”  There was no amusement there, just a strong sarcasm.  “No, Tom.  Court and the newspapers tell us what the Eidolons want us to believe and do.  They are instruments of the state.  The Eidolonic state.  What the Eidolons say to their instars is what they are actually thinking and doing, what they say to each other when they talk is what they are thinking and doing.  That is why we learn their language.”
Milady Beth-Rachel looked at him now, her hand falling from her throat to her side.  “You don’t know what an Instar is?”
“Never heard of them.”  Serjeant Thomas shook his head to emphasise his words.  He’s dark hair tousled up immediately and Milady Beth-Rachel thought he looked like he’d just got out of bed.
“They’re related to the Eidolon, I think,” she said, suddenly realising that there was a lot she took for granted about the Instars but didn’t actually have any supporting evidence for.  “They’re not children exactly, but they kind of fill that role.  If an Eidolon dies then an Instar will grow into a new Eidolon.  I think.”
“When has an Eidolon ever died?  And what happens if an Instar starts to grow before an Eidolon dies?”
“I don’t know, and Eidolons die occasionally.  There was a war, decades ago, because an Eidolon died and another Eidolon tried to take over from it.  There’s a book somewhere that tells about it.”  Milady Beth-Rachel wiped her forehead, feeling the heat of the room intently.  She didn’t like talking about things she wasn’t complete certain of.  Serjeant Thomas looked interested now though and had put the sonjeu down on the table while he talked to her.
“There was an Eidolon war?  Then we know how to kill an Eidolon?”
“I don’t know, really Thomas.  I only know what I read, and that was a few years ago.”
“Oh.”  He looked downcast, and his fingers started tugging at a little scab on his wrist.  Then he looked up again.  “Have you still got the book?”
“It wasn’t mine.”
“Oh.”  He worried at the scab again.  “I suppose I’d better get back to practising then,” he said.
“Well… look, I think I remember who I borrowed the book from.  I can ask them if they’ve still got it,” she said.  She wiped her forehead again; she thought she knew who had had the book, but she didn’t like the risk involved in asking for it.  Learning Hegatonic was illegal enough, and there were always people who preferred the rule of the Eidolons, but actively seeking out ways to kill Eidolons was probably the highest treason.
“That’d be fantastic!”  Serjeant Thomas was smiling broadly at her, and she could see the gaps where he’d lost teeth.  It was ridiculous that they had had all this medical technology and science, and now the Eidolons made them suppress it and live like it was the Middle Ages.  Thomas definitely wasn’t her type, but even she could see how stupid it was that he had to lose teeth when they could be regrown; why they had to worry about every cut and scratch when they could have applied healpax.  Why they had to do everything the Eidolons said instead of living their own lives for themselves.

Thursday, 3 January 2013

The Corner Pie House

“Do they know him in there?” I asked, thinking that a plum pie wasn’t all that much to go on.
“Yes,” she said, her lips twisting thinly in an approximation of a smile that only a physicist could accept.  “He’s the guy who buys their plum pies.”
I left Mother Hubbard to her heeling, which neither Damned Simon or the little ferrety man looked much enthusiastic about, and walked back into the main bar of the Cow and Spoon.  Tom was still waving his pint glass of slops at me like he thought I’d come to heel if he tried it for long enough, so I walked over to the bar and just stood there.  About fifteen seconds later he recoiled, dropping the pint glass on the black rubber mats that covered the floor behind the bar.
“Jesus Mac!  What have you been rolling around in this time?”  He was coughing and tears were running from his eyes.  I watched his enviously for a moment – Mad Frankie had my tear ducts cauterised a few years back as the easiest way to not have to see a grown man cry – and then I told him.
“Holy….  They’re still running the Blue Swan?  I thought that got closed down after it got flooded.”
“Nah,” I said, remembering the first couple of days after the flood when you had to wade through waist-deep water to get to the bar and push the occasional dying swimmer out of the way.  “It’s still going.  It’s a bit drier than it was of course.  And I bumped into Jackie outside, though she’s calling herself something else now.”
“Mad Jackie?  Jackie “they’ll steal your prayers” Jackie?  I heard she was a bit of a looker in her day.”
“Depends on where you were looking, I guess,” I said.  I could remember Jackie back when she started, a chubby girl with a big smile, frightened eyes and rat-tailed hair.  The smile disappeared with her first scar, a beauty that ran from her collar-bone to her hip that she eventually got covered up with a tattoo of a shopping trolley.  The weight just disappeared; it’s hard not to be hungry in her line of work, whether it’s aspirational hunger or just plain starvation.  The hair was now hidden under her tin-foil rollers I supposed, but I doubted that it had changed all that much.
“I’d have done her,” said Tom, going a little dreamy-eyed on me.  I snorted, and he blinked, took a step backward, trod on the fallen pint-glass and went arse-over-tit onto the floor.  He groaned, the patrons took a moment out from beating up the poor wretch now curled up foetally on the pool-table to laugh, and I left with someone else’s bottle of WKD.
The drink tasted like bubble-gum but I knocked it back anyway for the sugar.  It seemed like a long time since I’d last eaten as well, and the memory of Miss Sapphire’s pasta was starting to seem more edible by the minute.  I spat the dregs out into the gutter and abandoned the bottle, and then strolled down the street towards the Corner Pie House.  Mother Hubbard had nothing against me at the moment – nothing more than the general animosity I generate from everyone – so I was only watching the street like a paranoiac, checking the shadows, anything that moved, most things that didn’t.  Nothing seemed too unusual, and when I stopped at the Pie House it seemed like the kind of place I wouldn’t get kicked straight out of.  There was no doorman, and the shop was in a building that looked like it had been a chemicals warehouse once.  I racked my brains, trying to remember what this part of the city had looked like fifteen years ago but all that came to mind was a nightclub that had its own abortionist on the premises.
Inside it smelled like an abattoir and I had another flashback to the nightclub abortionist.  There were lots of scrubbed wooden tables with four chairs arranged at each as you’d expect.  They were laid out in a rectangular pattern like a child-labour sweat shop, and against the left-hand side of the shop was the counter where you ordered your pies and got served.  A blackboard on the wall behind it listed the pies and sides that were available and their prices, all of which struck me as rather more reasonable than I was expecting.  A woman wearing a maternity dress and an ivory apron was stood at the counter watching me with little piggy eyes and a nose so smashed it might well have been a snout.
“Yers?” she said, her words slurred and only one side of her mouth working.
“Plum Pie,” I said.  There were no customers in here yet, so I’d have to ask about Jack Horner and find out when he was likely to be in.
“Yers,” she said.  “‘Ow many plumsh der yet want?”
“No,” I said getting close enough to the counter for my stench to repel her.  She stayed put, and didn’t even look like she’d smelled me.  “No, you’ve got a customer who buys your plum pies.  I want to meet him.”
“‘Ow many plumsh der yet want?”
“I want to know who buys your plum pies.”
“I’ll give yer six.”
“I’m not paying.”  That was enough to break her chain of thought (a very small, circular chain that clearly went round and round a lot without ever stopping) and her eyes lit up like little furnaces and she huffed and snorted through her mashed-up nose.
For a moment I thought she was going to charge at me like an enraged wild boar, and I instinctively checked her for tusks, hooves, sharp teeth and anything else that might cause injury.  But she didn’t move, and my body stepped down from Defcon I and went back to aching painfully.  I watched her still, wondering what she’d do next, but then a young boy appeared through a curtained doorway behind her, took in the scene, and walked steadily over to us.
“Are you upsetting my aunt, Mister?” he said.  He couldn’t have been older than twelve, and given how thin he was he clearly wasn’t eating any of the pies.  His eyes were grey and slightly misty, and I suspected he had the onset of cataracts.
“She’s upsetting me,” I said.  “I thought she was going to try and eat me a moment ago.”
“What do you want?”  He sounded like a man twenty years older.
“I want to know who buys your plum pies.”
“Customers, Mister.  We don’t do wholesale.”  His aunt growled to herself again and lumbered off along the counter to pick up a dirty cloth and start rubbing the tables down with it.
“You’ve got a man who comes in on Thursdays just for the plum pies.  I want to know who he is.”
“Sounds like nothing I’d know about, Mister.  That’s gotta be covered by the Data Protection Act.”
I eyed him up again, noticing that it took him a couple of seconds to realise what I was doing and start eyeballing me back.
I come in on Thursdays and order a plum pie,” I said.  “I’d like to see the data you keep on me.”

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Mother Hubbard

She was no-one’s mother.  She said that she’d never had the maternal instinct, that when she was a little girl she’d preferred to drown her dolls than look after them.  She said that her sisters would find their dolls all wrapped up tight in swaddling cloths, heavy fabric pressed down heavily over china noses and mouths.  She said that she was allergic to child-spit, that the sound of childish laughter made her skin crawl and that even the sight of a child was enough to make her break out in hives.
Mad Frankie had let it be known that she was nobody’s mother because she’d tried stiffing him some of the take when she was one of his girls and he’d had her spayed as a punishment.  There were people who’d claimed to have seen the scars as well.
There was a place where, if you knew where to go, what the right time was, and who to ask, a man with a glass eye and breath like a gasworks would tell you that she was nobody’s mother because she’d had a lover who’d left her to do a job and had never returned.  He would tell you that she’d sworn never to sleep with another man again so that she couldn’t be hurt any more.  Then you’d probably pass out from his breath, and when you woke up you’d find your pockets lighter by the wallet-load and your clothes sold to the charity shops where charity was something definitely only practised at home.  Which is not to say a determined man couldn’t get them back, but you had to be willing to threaten elderly women with artificial limbs.  And no, I won’t explain how you’re intended to parse that sentence.
And then there were the hospital records that most everyone thought had been incinerated in a fire twenty years ago.  They made for some very interesting reading indeed.
But no matter what you chose to believe, everyone called her Mother Hubbard, and no-one ever asked her either to go to her cupboard or if her poor doggie had a bone.  Her poor doggie was actually a pack of seventeen armoured chihuahuas, and while that may not sound very scary you’ve not been pursued by them late at night, knowing that they get through gaps much smaller than any you can, and that they’re effectively bullet-proof and psychotic.  To my credit, I did manage to get away, but I was a whole lot younger then, and Mother Hubbard’s been teaching them new tricks ever since.
I pushed open the door of the Cow and Spoon, and leaned cautiously round it.  The pub’s interior was dark and damp and smelled like a tramp’s armpit.  There were people stood around the bar, and someone was getting beaten up over the pool-table.  I heard the mutter of odds being called, the scrunch of money changing hands, and the pitiful wail of the victim as a pool-cue was jabbed somewhere painful.  The man behind the bar, Tom, looked at me with disdain and wrung the barmat into a pint-glass.
“The usual, Mac?” he called, setting the glass on the counter.  I shrugged, and stumbled inside.  They’d cleaned the floor and my shoes weren’t sticking as much as usual; I kept overcompensating for how hard I had to pull my feet up, and it meant I was walking like a clown.
“Mother Hubbard?” I said.  Tom pointed to the Saloon.
“Holding court,” he said.  She’s been there since eleven, so she’s gonna be packing up soon.  Not drinking, Mac?”  He waved the pint-glass of slops at me.
“Not right now,” I said, ignoring the growl of my stomach reminding me that I’d not been able to eat Miss Sapphire’s pasta either.  “I need to see a woman about a dog.”
“Har, har, har,” said Tom.  “You should tell her you said that.”  Somewhere beyond the Saloon door I heard an angry yip, the kind of bark a small dog makes to let you know that you’re making far too much of the size issue.
“Yeah, I will,” I said.  “Just as soon as she tells me who Jack Horner is.”
I opened the door to the Saloon and walked inside; there’s no point peering in at Mother Hubbard.  She’ll only send someone out to bring you back.  She was sat in the middle of a horseshoe of chairs, her back ramrod straight, wearing a hat covered with mouldy fruit.  Only two of the horseshoe of chairs were occupied.  I recognised Damned Simon, who was nursing a dislocated shoulder, and I didn’t recognise a little ferrety man who was clutching a miniature traffic cone to his chest like a nipple protector.  Mother Hubbard turned and looked at me as I came in.
“Don’t sit down, MacArthur,” she said.  “I’ll have to get them to wash the chairs then.  What do you want?”
I gestured to her audience.  “Looks like I’m not first,” I said.  “I can wait.”
“Yeah, sure you can.  Well both of these are calling for a personal touch,” she said, cracking her knuckles on the word personal.  “So I think I’ll get your little complaint dealt with first, and then I can start heeling.”  There was a lot of emphasis on that last word, and neither Damned Simon nor the ferrety man looked happy.
“Jack Horner,” I said.  She didn’t react.  “Jack Horner had hired me to do a little watching,” I said.  “Only there’s no cash up front, and you know how I feel about that.”
“You worried you might end up doing a good deed and get kicked out of Hell, Mac?”  She giggled like the little girl she hadn’t been for over fifty years.  “I reckon the inmates down there won’t let that happen to a nice guy like you!“
“I like to watch whoever’s promising me the cash,” I said.  “Call it paranoia if you must.”
“I call it business sense,” said Mother Hubbard, the mirth dying away.  “Doesn’t explain what you’re doing here interrupting my little judgements though.”
“I need to know where to find Mr. Horner,” I said.  “And his real name might be nice, too.”
“Names I ain’t got,” said Mother Hubbard.  Her voice was pitched slightly higher, slightly snappier.  She sounded a little bit aggrieved.  “All I’ve got for you is that he likes the Corner Pie House, especially on a  Thursday.”
“What’s so special about Thursday?”
“They serve plum pie.”