Tuesday, 26 February 2013

All your parents are dead

Grandmother looked around the Hook, but their waiter had disappeared, probably in the kitchen.  There were two other waiters flitting around like monochrome butterflies, but they were all staying in their respective thirds of the restaurant.  There were only two tables near enough to them to eavesdrop, and they were both empty, but she still checked out the people at the tables further away.  None of them looked like they’d have extraordinary hearing.
“So child,” she said to Red Riding Hood, noting the silvery snail-trails of silent tears, “all your parents are dead in fact.  You’ve had a total of eight so far.  The originals, your real parents, were my daughter Belle and an older gentleman called Tom.  I confess, I could see exactly what Belle saw in Tom, but I never did figure out what he saw in her.  At least, what he saw in her that he couldn’t see in me.  But anyway, despite all that, they got married and seemed happy and had a daughter of their own, which would be you.  Then one day they turned up at my house with you, spent an hour drinking coffee and eating biscuits, and then ran off leaving you and a letter behind.”
“Do you still have the letter?” said Red, her eyes wide.  She felt as though her centre had somehow slipped slightly and she was balanced precariously at the edge of a whirlpool.
“Oh no!  That letter told me exactly who Tom was and why they were running away, and it was a death warrant for them if the King ever found it.  I ate the wretched thing, just to make sure there was no chance of the words escaping up the chimney if I tried to burn it.  And I realised that if people knew they’d left then suspicion would fall on them.”
“But… wouldn’t people notice that they weren’t around?”  Red forced herself to scan the room for threats, recalling her grandmother’s lessons that when things got out of control you reasserted control by doing what you knew worked.
“I started off by telling everyone they’d gone on holiday,” said her grandmother.  “Then I found a young girl with the brains of a cow and told her she was being adopted.  The poor thing nearly moo-ed with excitement, and I brought her home, dyed her hair and told everyone that there’d been a horrible accident that had killed Tom and left poor Belle a half-wit.  You could see from how eagerly they all gossiped about it that they were secretly delighted.”
“I don’t remember this,” said Red.  Their waiter had reappeared with their food – but no sushi – and was walking over to their table as reluctantly as he could manage.
“No, you wouldn’t.  She managed to drown herself in the well when you were two.  I think she was trying to fish the moon out of the water.  It really wasn’t a great loss, and it made it easier for everyone to think that you were now a poor little orphan girl.  Then Anne-Marie and her ‘best friend’ Madeleine turned up in the village looking for somewhere to stay and work, so I hired them on as your nannies.  It was easiest to tell you that they were your parents though, since you were still so young.”
The waiter laid down the plates, and grandmother smiled as him as though only half-remembering him.  “Where’s yours?  I know you’re having the sushi with us.”
“My manager won’t allow me time to sit and eat,” said the waiter, a note of relief evident in his voice.
“You just send him over to talk to me,” said grandmother.  “Please.”  Her last word was like the closing of a tomb, and the waiter turned pale.
“Yes ma’am,” he said with ill-grace.
“I don’t think I remember Anne-Marie or Madeleine either,” said Red.  “What happened to them?”
“They went to a cornfield one afternoon,” said grandmother, “for some alone time I think.  They were sitting in the corn apparently when the harvester ran them over.  I’m told it was messy.”
“Yes.  And then the Gingerbread man turned up and he needed somewhere to stay, and he seemed a lot more sensible than the last two, so I hired him.  So your seventh parent was his first wife, but she ran off with a soldier after two weeks, which made room for Dorothy when she needed hiding as part of a witness protection program.”
“You’ve tried to help a lot of people out, haven’t you grandmother?”  The tears were trickling down Red’s face again, and she hid them by starting to eat her little pigs in blankets.
“I try,” she said.  She turned, just as the manager approached.  “Ah, the very man!”

Sunday, 24 February 2013

Research Report I

February 23rd 2013.  Report by Sylvain Samathan on [REDACTED].  Classified [REDACTED].

Synopsis: the experiments that have been performed as part of this research project have been successful, though that success is qualified rather than outright.  The indications are that, given additional research funding, the results from these experiments can be extended and improved on, and that the overall goal is, as expected, achievable within a reasonable time frame and without excessive fiscal costs.

Recommendations: 1) a new research proposal should be submitted with a clear roadmap for achieving the goal.  This report will make clear that there is a well-defined road that should reach the goal in three months or less, and that set-backs that have occurred during the current research phase are all avoidable given adequate project management.
2) A new project manager should be provided as the old one is dead.  The new project manager should be uncurious about the physical aspects of the experiments and inclined to stick to managing spreadsheets, timesheets, and the occasional team outing to bowling alleys, cheap-ticket movies and pot-lucks.
3) A safety protocol regarding the storage of fissile material should be implemented as a priority.  While the research team appreciates the government’s enthusiasm for this project and their willingness to supply materials of excellent utility and questionable provenance, there is a lack of experience of handling such materials and their care and storage.  A safety protocol is the minimum recommended strategy, and if a security officer familiar with these kinds of materials could be supplied as well we are sure that research will go faster.
4) A padlock is recommended for the poisons cupboard, the key to be held by the uncurious project manager.

Experimental methodology:  Standard methods were used for the majority of experiments, with new methods only being invented when there was either 1) a clear need for them, or 2) no precedent in the area to provide guidance.  All experimental methods were submitted to the Ethics committee and their recommendations treated as absolute requirements.  We would like to note at this juncture that there was some doubt amongst the members of the team that the Ethics committee were entirely qualified or suited to their job, and that some of their decisions were either irrational, ill-thought-through, or both.  In particular, Lady Agatha [REDACTED] seemed only concerned about the possible environmental effects on seagulls, and Mr. [REDACTED] the [REDACTED] was very hard to waken during meetings, yet voted enthusiastically and with vociferous opinion.
Revisions have been made to the methods of calculations after it was discovered that the standard method provided in [1,2] and [6] had a typo in the logarithmic method.  This lead, unfortunately, to the prediction of fatalities to be out by a factor of 1,000, meaning that an experiment was performed with the expectation of 0.1% fatalities (rounded to 0 individuals), 3.4% serious injuries (rounded to 0 people), 12.8% minor injuries (rounded to 2 people, with the anticipation being that it would be the rather more replaceable janitorial team that would take the losses) and 18.9% transient injuries (such as bruising, hysterical blindness and pregnancy) (rounded to 5 people, of which none were women, as a precaution).  In actuality the fatality rate was 100%, as should have been predicted.  Interestingly, the other percentages did correctly predict the degree of damage done to the corpses, and we are applying for a separate grant to study how accurate these percentages are and if they can be used by the clean-up crews to anticipate the levels of disinfection needed after [REDACTED] [REDACTED] [REDACTED].
Tools have finally been found that are capable of handling [REDACTED] without dissolution or subsequent corruption.  These are described in Appendix A.  It should be noted that the design of these tools is, surprisingly, of utmost importance.   Additionally, where angles appear to add up to an excess the manufacturers should expect that this will be possible provided they follow the steps in the order given.  We hope to have another paper published explaining this after the team’s mathematician is released from the psychiatric ward.

Precautions: 1) Do not look at any of the subjects except through the goggles (Design 1, section 4.2).  The optic nerve appears to be a infection vector for some or all of them.
2) Do not attempt to stem an escape with bare flesh.
3) Do not attempt to squash any of the subjects with items of clothing, footwear, or beakers of sulphuric acid on the countertop.  (Note that the acid was effective in halting the escape, but the scientist involved lost both hands and was in severe pain from bone and nerve damage until [REDACTED] and fed to [REDACTED].)
4) Monosodium glutamate in crystalline form must not be allowed into any area where the subjects will be studied.

Details of experiment 1
[REDACTED.  To read more of this paper please present yourself, your credentials, and at least one family member with power of attorney to [REDACTED] between [REDACTED] and 5pm.  There will be a [REDACTED] and failure to [REDACTED] will [REDACTED].  [REDACTED]].

Friday, 22 February 2013

The overflow morgue

The mortician at the overflow morgue lets me have my own key because she got tired of trying to find how I’d broken in again.  She sighed as she threw it at me, and then laughed as I struggled to bend enough to pick it up.  I’d had a particularly difficult time with a particularly tricky case the night before, involving a sadistic acupuncturist, a loose goose and a bag of leaf tea and I really wasn’t set up for bending, stretching, or even moving faster than a stumble.
“Sweet beggared Moses, Mac,” she’d said, without any more malice in her tone than people who don’t know me use, “what have you done to yourself this time?  I don’t know, but you keep coming in here so you may as well call it home.  It’s people you know who keep this place in business, so perhaps I should show some gratitude, however indirectly.”
I hooked the key with a shoe and started to pull it up my leg to where my aching fingers could reach it.  “I like it in here,” I said.  “It’s quiet, no-one tries to bother me or interrupt my thoughts.”
“Who in their right mind would bother you, Mac?”
“People wanting me dead, mostly.”
“So you’re giving them a bit of a head start, eh?  Where better to hide a dead body than a morgue?”
“The graveyard, but it involves digging and a bit of heavy lifting.”  I got my fingertips to the key and tried to straight up again.  It proved painful, and from the sound of her laughter, humorous too.
“Don’t scare my assistant,” she said.  “And try not to let anyone official catch you.  If they come in while you’re thinking hard –,” her tone suggested that she thought I was sleeping, “– don’t sit up and greet them.  Not unless you’re trying to add to the population here yourself.”
I grunted, mostly with the effort of dragging my shoulder up so they were level with one another and she left it at that.  As she walked off I remember thinking that from the rear she was stunning, but when you saw her face she was breath-taking.  As in, she took your breath away so much that you couldn’t even beg for mercy.  She could have given Medusa tips on both make-up and hair-care.
I let myself in to the morgue and sniffed.  There was a strong blast of formaldehyde in the air, but there were the subtle, almost-citrussy notes of chloroform underneath.  I asked Miss Sapphire about it once, wondering if it’s supposed to smell like Japanese lime and she just wrinkled her delicate little nose at me.
“You sniff chloroform, Mac?”  She shook her head and exhaled very gently, a ladylike take on a very masculine gesture.  “How are you even still alive?”
I walked through the little entrance office without signing the visitors book; I figured that this was like a home away from home so I wasn’t really visiting.  And if I wasn’t here there was nothing to explain if someone noticed a trolley out of place, or a roll of bandages borrowed for a while.  In the next room the temperature dropped noticeably.  The overflow morgue is dug into the ground for insulation and they keep it cold enough that it doesn’t smell much except in summer.  The floor sloped steadily downwards as I headed towards the corpse bays where the bodies for autopsy are prepped.  There was pretty much always a free trolley there, and I have faith I’d wake up before they cut too deep; while if I slept in the fridges I might not wake up until I was in the chiller cabinet.  They lock those doors from the outside too.  I asked about it, and the mortician just shrugged her shoulders.
“Mad Frankie went to the city council and insisted,” she said.  “Sat there in the Mayor’s chair, banging his fist on the table and insisting that we put security in, saying that he wanted to know that when he died he wasn’t going to be some necrophiliac’s sex toy.  God only knows what kind of people he hangs out with, Mac.  Well, God and you, from what I hear.”  I had my own opinions about why Mad Frankie might want to be able to lock people into a morgue fridge, and I wasn’t going to speculate.
The corpse bays were unusually crowded, and when I started opening body bags and checking the contents I found that everyone seemed to be missing an arm or a leg, sometimes both.  Then I found the bag that contained all the arms and legs and realised that the mortuary staff would be doing jigsaw puzzles come the morning, and I permitted myself a grim little smile.  This wasn’t Mad Frankie’s style, he was much more direct.  This looked and felt like Natasha Monkeybutt to me, deploying some police weapon without due care and consideration.  I pushed the bag of limbs onto the floor, climbed on to the trolley and lay back.  I exhaled deeply, closed my eyes, and tried to think about all the things that had happened since I went looking for Little Boy Blue.  And I realised that I still hadn’t found out where he was and why someone had dragged a sheep up to his room to slaughter it there.

Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Chip Inside

Cort woke with a start.  He was sure that something had woken him, but the room seemed quiet and dark now.  He lay perfectly still – quite easy as he was still restrained by the semi-intelligent nylon bands – and listened carefully.  He closed his eyes after a couple of seconds; even though there wasn’t much to see in the gloom it helped him concentrate.  For a few moments there was nothing and then… something.  Something faint, on the edge of hearing.  Ah, something trying to match his own breathing.  Cort held his breath and listened harder.  Sure enough, someone breathed softly and slowly, exactly when he would have breathed himself.  There was someone in the room with him.
He allowed himself to start breathing again, aware that complete silence would be a give-away as much as if he started shouting, and twisted slightly as though trying to turn over in his sleep.  The bands tightened, but it was more of a warning squeeze than aggressive, and as they did so he stretched his arm until it reached his toes.  He’d discovered this trick while playing backgammon with Bad Kitty, as it meant he could throw the dice himself.  Curiously, after he’d done that he’d stopped unaccountably losing in the end-game every game.
With his hand at his feet he had enough flex in his arm now to reach the emergency button on the headboard of his bed, so he walked his fingers gently up the covers until he got there and reached up to press it.  It clicked very faintly as he depressed it, and then – nothing.
“You’re awake then, Cort?”  The voice was warm and friendly, even slightly familiar, and for several moments Cort thought that it was the Doctor back from the dead for a fourth attempt.  He tensed, and the bands squeezed back like a strait-jacket.  “Don’t you remember me?”
“Doctor?”  Cort shook his head even as he said it, remembering that the Doctor was dead and that he, Mr. Stretch, was in lock-down while his sentient mucus was checked-out.  “No.  Bad Kitty?”
“Getting warmer,” said the voice.  “Are you always this slow to wake up properly?”
“Yes, sort of now,” said Cort.  “Chip.  Chip Inside.  I haven’t seen you in years.  What are you doing in my room?”
“Well, it’s not really your room, is it?” said Chip.  He sounded amused, and pleased that Cort had finally identified him.  “This is one of the general rooms of Surgery 2.  They’ve got you in here in case more of that mucus turns up and they need to stop you producing more of it.”  There was an odd note in his voice, and Cort easily deduced what was meant by ‘stop.’
“As in, Terminate with Extreme Prejudice?”
“You’ve got the slang down, daddio,” said Chip.  “It’s hard to believe you’re in a retirement home.”
“It’s hard to believe you’re pretending to be normal and holding down a government job!  With a pension!”
“Yeah.  Yeah, that’s not so cool, but, well, there is the matter of the pension.  It’s tracked as well, it’s a good one.  And the work is interesting a lot of the time.”
“Anything you can talk about?”
“What do you think?”
Cort laughed, a slightly gaspy noise as the nylon bands weren’t sure what to make of the chest movements and kept gripping.
“So why are you in my room?” he said.  “Are you the committee for bringing bad news?”
“Not exactly,” said Chip.  “I’m here discretely, on other business.  Your mucus is fascinating stuff, but it looks like a one-off, one of those little oddities somehow connected with our mutations and super-powers.  It’s not about to eat London, if that’s what you’re scared of.  No, I’m here instead on behalf of Sylvestra.”
“I’m too old for a job,” said Cort.  He laughed a little again.  “I can’t even imagine what she could have in mind.”
“Not much of a job, really,” said Chip.  “But important in its own way.  And if you agree we think we can get Bad Kitty to pitch in too.”
“Oh I see, that’s it is it?  You really want Little Miss Hairball and I’m just the easiest way to get to her.”
“No.  Really no, Cort.  I want you, and if we get Bad Kitty as well then that’s a bonus, a little bit of icing.  But you’re the cake, Cort.  All of it.”
“I’d be shaking my head if these restraints let me,” said Cort.  “I don’t believe you for a minute, but let’s pretend I do.  What do you want me to do?”
“Watch what?  Bad Kitty undressing?  Her burlesque days are long gone, Chip!”
“I should hope so!” Chip sounded a little alarmed at the thought of an elderly lady with too much hair dressed in a tightly-laced corset and thigh-high heeled boots.  “We want you to watch for visitors to Fizz.”
Cort stayed silent for several seconds thinking about that.  When he spoke again there was a note of fear in his voice.
“Fizz isn’t allowed visitors.”
“I know.  But we think she’s going to get them, and we need someone on the inside, someone who can let us know if that happens.  That’s all, Cort, nothing else.  Just keep the embargo on Fizz Mission the way it’s supposed to be.”
“Sure,” said Cort.  “Of course I will.  You know, sometimes I wonder just how lonely she must be in there, you know?”
“She barely knows,” said Chip.  “The drugs they have her on mean she sees one day where the rest of us see sixty.  She doesn’t have enough time to feel lonely before something happens to distract her.”
“I see,” said Cort.  “Could be a blessing, really.”
“I hope so,” said Chip.  “Will you watch her then?  Let us know if anyone tries to visit her.”
“Sure thing,” said Cort.  “When do I get out of these straps then?”
“Tomorrow,” said Chip.  “Better to go through standard protocol really.  Thanks, Cort.  Sylvestra will be grateful for this.”
“No problem,” said Cort.  “Fizz is a sweet girl really.”

Sunday, 17 February 2013

The spider rose

The spider rose is only thorns,
around a sooty, blackened stem,
its heart contains six maggots which
consume whatever love they can.

A bunch of these is rare as gold,
and cost more than a man should pay –
I've pawned the house and sold your dog –
your valentine arrives today!

No words can say the thanks you owe,
no gift could recompense this act.
I win! You owe me ev'rything;
I love you most and that's a fact.

Saturday, 16 February 2013

Leszátor's Cave

Isabella Bonfontaine tapped her foot.  Somewhere in the gloom above her, clinging to a rope, was the aristocratic, whiny, and unathletic Lord David Brackendell.  Around her were the rock walls of the natural chimney, and slightly to her left was an opening that looked man-made.  She’d already turned her head-lamp off and seen that there was a glow of  yellowish light coming through the opening, but David had started yelling and complaining so she’d had to turn the light back on.  She was seriously contemplating telling him that the floor was soft and just to let go.
“Izzy?  Are you still there Izzy?”  David’s voice echoed in the chimney and the words at the bottom blurred quickly into a seascape of sound.
“Yes!”  Her voice was crisp and clear and the echoes died away almost as soon as they’d arisen because she was speaking straight up, giving the sound least chance to spill from the cave.
“I think I’m stuck, Izzy.”
“It’s a rope, David.  You’re not stuck, you’re just scared.”
“I can’t move!”
“Well I think you should try and fix that,” she said.  “There was a spider’s nest at the top of the chimney, you probably saw it as you came over the ledge.  My experience with spiders tells me that they’re probably climbing the rope as well by now, seeing it as a welcome addition to their ecosystem.  They can’t be too far above you.”
There was a few seconds silence, and the rope jerked a little as though someone had started climbing down again.
“Izzy?”  Izzy, how much experience have you had with spiders?  Like, just garden spiders, house spiders, that kind of thing?”
“Well, last year in Australia there were Black Widows,” said Isabella thinking back.  There were no spiders at the top of the rope but she knew David was scared of them, and she had encountered a lot over the years.  “Earlier this year there were the corpse spiders, I never did find out the proper name for them.  That was Roumania I think, but I was over in Hungary as well in March, and that was where we found the giant spiders the size of a horse’s hoof.  And I mean a carthorse here, not one of those piddling little ponies you ride around your estate.”
There was a sudden rushing noise and then a thump as David landed heavily on the rock.  Isabella was pleased to see that he was still wearing his leather driving gloves; listening to him complain about rope burns for the next three days would quite possibly have driven her to stuffing his socks in his mouth and taping them there.
“I got unstuck,” he said, a little unsteadily.  Even the in the head-lamp – a small LED torch attached to a velcroed strip of cotton wrapped around her head – she could see that he was sweating.  Here underground, surrounded by rock and dripping water, it was too cool for that to be anything other than fear.
“That’s great,” she said.  “This way.”
“How do you know where you’re going, Izzy?  I thought this was all new to you too?”  There it was in his voice again, a little whine, a hint of entitlement that she’d been hoping he’d grow out of before they got this far.
“There’s two ways out, David,” she said patiently.  “This way, and back up the rope.”
“The rope with spiders on?  Are we leaving it here?”
She turned back and stared at him in amazement.  In the light of his torch he could clearly see that only three-quarters of her face seemed to work; a stroke some years earlier had paralysed the muscles from the corner of her mouth to the corner of her eye, so some of her expressions had become quite sinister as a result.  “It’s tied at the top,” she said at last.  “If you want to climb up, untie it, and then jump back down with it….”  She turned away.
“Then what?”
“Then you’ll break at least both your legs and I’ll leave you here,” she said.
He was silent as she led the way to the corner, and then turned her lamp off again.  Stepping carefully around the rock, she found herself standing at the top of a rough-cut stone stairway.  Large sloping terraces of stone gradually descended the side of a vast cave until they reached a rough scree that covered most of the floor of the cave.  However, from this height it was clear that a path had been cleared through the scree, and – no, actually it looked more like a road, she thought.  It was too wide for a man to need or be bothered with, and the turns were fairly gradual, more suited to something wheeled than things with feet.  She followed it with her eyes, and realised that the yellowish glow was strongest where the road disappeared from sight.  She looked up next, the ceiling was hung with stalactites, some in full growth and others flattened and truncated.  It looked like at least some of the scree came from them breaking off and falling down.  All around was the continual trickle of water, punctuated by the occasional splash of a drop falling into a shaded pool.
“Come on,” she said, her voice low but firm.  “We need to get a little lower I think.”
“Where are we, Izzy?”  David appeared round the corner and she had to push him back and make him turn his lamp off too.  “I won’t be able to see where I’m going!”
“Follow me, and walk slowly,” she said.  “I will be, there’s a lot of loose rock in here.  But there is light in here, too, David, and that means other people.  Who might be very interested to know what you’ve hired me to find.”
“Would you tell them, Izzy?”  David felt for her hand and took it, and though she was tempted to shake him loose she decided that this might be easier than listening to him panic the whole way down.  She started down the steps, each step nestling between the loose rocks until she was sure she was stable.
“Perhaps,” she said.  “Some of them enjoy a little torture, others just want you dead before you can see anything really interesting.  The clever ones do.”
“But you’re not dead, Izzy.”  David sounded like he was trying to reassure himself, and Isabella wondered for a moment if she should tell him about her time in Roumania hunting for a woman who definitely had been dead several times and kept coming back for another try.
“There’s a first time for everything, David,” she said.  Then she stopped; she’d come far enough forward now to see the source of the light.  Round the corner of the rock, far down on the cave floor, she could see the entrance to a tunnel leading downwards whose walls were lined with electric lights and whose floor was set with rails.  The tunnel turned shortly after it started so she couldn’t see any further in, but it was now clear that this wasn’t a casual operation.
“Let’s go back,” she said.  “Turn round, David.”
“But there might be spiders!”
“And there might be guns here if we go further without a plan.  Now turn round!”

Sunday, 10 February 2013

Office hours

Leslie DaFox’s office was strictly on a rental basis.  While he was teaching at the Camberwick Community Centre (easily identifiable from miles away by its ziggurat-style construction and Stalinist design ethic) he was granted an office, but the instant his contract expired the elite security force that he was increasingly suspecting came from the same school as the Okrana would lock him out and refuse him entry.  For the moment though, it was the middle of the term and the office was safely his.
It was astonishingly large.  His desk was three times the size he was used to, and as an experiment once he’d tried laying all of his students’ homework out on it, side by side in a neat paper matrix.  It had covered less than half of the available surface area.  His chair had arms, little extrusions on the rear legs to let you tilt it back safely, cushions (not one, but three!), a cup-holder(!) and an adjustable rear-view mirror on a little angle-arm.  There were five full-size bookcases lining the wall opposite his desk, it was a ten second walk from the door to his desk, and it was another three or four second walk from his desk to the windows.  The windows were the only real disappointment, being essentially glassed-over arrow slits, but the glass was rose-tinted and made the world outside look warm and friendly.  There were four filing cabinets, in one drawer of one of which he kept his students’ homework.  In an effort to make more use of the facilities he put his packed lunch in another drawer, and his satchel in a third, but he still worried that it looked like he wasn’t trying.
“This is impressive, Sir,” said Policeman Number 1, looking around him.  “Who did you murder to get this then, eh?”  He laughed in a heavy way that suggested he was really hoping that the clumsy question would elicit a confession from Leslie.
“Oh stop,” said Policeman Number 2.  “Mr. Fox is far too clever to admit to murdering anyone, aren’t you, Sir?”
Leslie said nothing, knowing that Policeman Number 2 was the more subtle of the pair but would still leap up and down like an excited puppy if he thought Leslie was admitting to not admitting to a crime.
“Sit down,” he said instead.  “My office hour starts in five minutes, so we will be here until that finishes.  Students may wish to come and visit and ask questions.  They will be asking questions of me, not you.  Let me repeat that.  They will be asking questions of me and not you.  You should not answer those questions no matter how tempting it might be.  They are here to learn.  You are here to harass me, make crude and lewd suggestions at inappropriate junctures, and waste tax-payers’ money.”
“Speaking of wasting tax-payers’ money,” said Policeman Number 2, “why do you have such a large office when you’re only teaching at a community college?  You could fit three of our offices in here, and that’s forty-eight officers.”
“I wish I knew,” said Leslie, sighing just a touch.  “There is something very odd about this place that I just can’t put my finger on.”
“What exactly is it you wish to put your finger on?”  Policeman Number 1 looked keen and attentive.
“You mean like employing a man who keeps murdering students in his lecture halls?  You can see why we have to be here in your office now, can’t you Sir?”
“Frankly, no.”  Leslie sat down in his chair and then remembered he needed homework from the filing cabinet.  He considered, briefly, asking one of the officers to get it but then decided that he didn’t want to have to explain how to operate a filing cabinet.  He stood up again.  “I’ve murdered no-one, you’ve never proven that I’ve even attacked someone, let along murdered them, and you persist in dogging me instead of conducting a serious investigation!  Good God, Miss Marple was more effective that your police force!”
“And who is she, please?”  Policeman Number 1 had produced his notebook and was writing the name down.  Leslie opened his mouth, but someone knocked on the door.
“Come in!” he shouted, and hauled the filing cabinet drawer open.
“Mr. daFox?”  He recognised the face of the student stood in the doorway looking scared, but he couldn’t remember his name.  The young man had the beginnings of a moustache, little cuts from shaving on his chin, watery grey eyes and a self-inflicted Justin Bieber haircut.
“Come in,” said Leslie.  “And tell these gentlemen your name so they don’t worry that you’re an accomplice.  Then ignore them as best as you can and sit down.  At my desk.”
“Uh, I’m Nigel,” said the young man.  “Nigel Parks.  Which chair, Sir?”  There were four chairs on the side of the desk opposite Leslie’s, and the policemen were picking from another twelve arrayed around the office.
“Any,” said Leslie, dextrous fingers finding Nigel’s last two submitted homeworks.  Neither had scored higher than a C.  “Now, I’ve got some homework to return to you, but first, do you have any other questions about the material we’re covering in class, the lectures in general, or… well, anything I suppose?”
“Why are there policemen following you around?”
Leslie smiled thinly and sat down.  He desperately wanted to say Because I’m an international playboy and suspected jewel thief but he was certain that both the student and the policemen would take him seriously.  It was like being in a badly-written sitcom – which by definition was not one of the ones he’d successfully written and sold in the seventies.  Three of his were still being re-run in Asia today.  “Apparently tax-payers have been over-paying and there’s a budget surplus,” he said.  “They come with the office.  Just ignore them, I do.”
“Oh,” said Nigel.  “Oh.  Well, in that case… er… I was wondering… when do we get to sleep with girls?”
Leslie took a closer look at Nigel, and in the process realised that the young man smelled of stale sweat and, if he wasn’t mistaken, camel.  Wet camel.
“This is a creative writing course,” he said.  “Sleeping with girls is part of the post-graduate syllabus, when you’ve actually written and sold something.  That class starts with an introduction to hygiene and aftershaves.”
“Oh.  Oh.  Well, is it still ok to sleep with boys in this class?”  Leslie’s jaw dropped before he could catch himself, so he desperately improvised it into a yawn.  “Only, Dave keeps telling me that we have to be sleeping with people if we’re real writers, and I think he’s kind of interested –“
Leslie leaned back in his chair, the extensions catching him and supporting him safely, and listened to a ten minute description of a love-life that would leave rabbits confused and frustrated.  At the end of it he reflected that he now had no idea what Nigel would or wouldn’t sleep with, and if he’d enjoy any of it anyway, and that this in no way made his, Leslie’s, life any better.
“Why don’t you write about this?” he said.  “Look, here’s your last homework.  Dreadful.  If I didn’t know you were paying for this course I’d think you were doing this deliberately to punish me.  Do you see on page two, that–“
“Excuse me?”  Policeman Number 2 held up a hand.
“What?” Leslie glared at him, using the same stare that had reduced his housekeeper to tears and impelled her to hide in the piles of wet laundry.
“Can he repeat everything after the bit about the tortoise, please?  We didn’t get it all down.”
“Sure,” said Nigel looking animated.  “Did you get the ketchup bottle–“
“Yes!” said the Policemen in unison.
“That’s kind of why we missed bits after that,” said Policeman Number 2.  “But we have to take notes on everything that’s said around you, Mr. daFox.”
Leslie’s palm slapped audibly against his face.
“Go on,” he said, his voice dull and lifeless.  “Tell them again.” 

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Six minutes (Skateway II)

The towering metal construction of the Skateway loomed over him as he walked towards the edges and the exit.  He could already see the very top of the grandstand ahead, where the crowds sat to watch the skaters on racedays.  The walls captured every small sound and bounced it around, so that echoes were continually born and died, even from his soft-soled Adibastards.  He considered re-engaging them as skates but his legs were achingly tired and he didn’t fancy trying to skate to the exit, where Damien would be waiting.  At least he’d know that Bryan had managed to skate 7’48; that was a small consolation.
Water splashed nearby and Bryan turned his head, puzzled.  The rain had slackened off a little while back, so the Skateway should have been nearly dry by now; the sheer metal surfaces didn’t hold the water, and contributed to the increased danger: the Skateway had sections that could flood in less than five minutes, and an unaware skater could easily get caught and drowned.  The fatality record for the Skateway was updated pretty much every month.  A stream of water jetted out from the top of a Skateway tower.  These were pylons that stretched up to three hundred feet above the track bed and were used for vertical races.  They had spiral slopes that intertwined around a central core, and the skaters would race head-to-head, one on each track attempting to reach the top first.  The tracks came close together at several points, and there were three symmetrically place points where they intersected and crossed-over.  These proximity points allowed pushing, shoving, and general gamesmanship and the Skateway tower challenge wasn’t supposed to happen unless the crash-mats were out to protect racers coming off worse in a squabble.
Bryan slowed, puzzled now.  There was no reason for water to be coming off the tower; there was only him and Damien at the Skateway now.  He watched as the water jet slowed to a trickle and then stopped altogether.  No-one appeared at the top of the tower though, and finally he started walking again.  A shout from the exit made him look up and force himself into a jog.
Thirty seconds later he could see the exit and Damien, who was grappling with two men, both taller and bulkier than him.  Damien swung at one of them, just missing his face, and then the other grabbed him from behind, his arms snaking over Damien’s and pinning them back.  Damien’s face contorted and he tried to kick backwards, but the other man now punched him in his stomach, and Bryan almost doubled up in sympathy.  Damien seemed to go limp, his face suddenly white, and Bryan tried to run faster to catch up to them.
“Skateway locked,” boomed the mechanical voice from the PA system.  All around Bryan the air seemed to gel suddenly and he was pushed – almost squeezed – backwards several feet until the air loosened its grip again and he was stood just inside the Skateway’s forcefield wall.  He punched at the air, which caught and slowed his fist.  Beyond the transparent wall Damien was being dragged towards a flight-car.
“Unlock!’ shouted Bryan.  “Unlock!”
“Denied,” said the mechanical voice.  “Conditional unlock instigated.”
“Unlock is only permitted to those who race the Skateway in six minutes or less,” said the mechanical voice.  “Conditional unlock instigated.”
Six minutes?  Bryan’s heart sank and his knees felt weak.  His calves, which had been longing for him to sit down and rest felt like they were burning again, just thinking of trying to complete the course.  That was nearly two minutes faster than his best-ever time.  How could he race the Skateway that fast?  He looked over at Damien and saw that he had been bundled in the flight-car now, and the door shut behind him.  The two men were going round opposite sides of the car to get in and drive away.  What choice did he have?
“I’ll race!” he said, his voice quivering slightly.
“Challenge accepted,” said the mechanical voice.  Moments later a lifter sank down; a small but heavy platform that flew on predefined paths and carried racers from one part of the Skateway to another for competitions, mostly so that they were fresh at the start of the race.  Bryan stepped on, and it lifted up.
“Skateway shutdown initiated,” said the mechanical voice.  “Forty seconds to close.”
Bryan was looking at the flight-car, watching as the front-doors slid shut and the car lifted off into the air straight away.  Where the hell were they taking Damien?
“Thirty seconds to close.”
He blinked, and looked down.  The Skateway is shutting down?  Shutdown meant that everything would switch off.  Including the forcefield walls!
“Twenty seconds to close.”
And the lifter.  He didn’t look, he just jumped.  The higher the lifter got, the further there was to fall.  He fell for long enough to wonder what was taking him so long to hit the ground, then something solid smashed into him, jarring his whole body and knocking the wind out of his lungs.
“Ten seconds to close.”
He felt himself start to slide, but nothing worked, nothing wanted to move.  He could taste iron in his mouth, probably blood.  His arms felt weird, as though they weren’t quite there any more.  His back was a molten column of fire, and his legs just felt heavy.  There was a screech, flesh against wet metal and something tugged at his face.
Two seconds later the bang of the lifter slamming into the steel structure of the Skateway was enough to knock him unconscious.


It was raining and the Skateway had issued its third fatality warning of the hour.  The mechanical voice boomed around the track, bouncing off the hard steel surfaces, all corners and reflections, echoing oddly in the covered sections and barely audible at all in the underpass.  Bryan ignored it, concentrating instead on the hot feeling in his legs as fatigue caught up with him.  On his feet, his Adibastard skates hummed slightly, and the water they were slicing through swished each time he switched his weight and thrust his leg forward.  The last of the covered sections was approaching, a fifteen metre stretch of tunnel that contracted and narrowed until it was barely wide enough to fit through and the ceiling was a hand’s reach above his head.  He felt his stomach contract a little at the thought of going into it.  Some of the other skaters made jokes about it, calling it the Womb and talking about rebirth at the end, but he could never shake the dread of losing his balance in there where there was no room to wipe-out.  The thought of bouncing haphazardly off the walls, tumbling through propelled by his skates until being spat out at the other end, a broken, bloody wreck, had given him nightmares when he was younger.  He’d woken screaming so many times in the night that his mother had taken his skates away.  Two days later after non-stop screaming she’d given them back and sound-proofed his room with egg-boxes.
He sped through the covered section going slightly faster, his legs protesting but obeying, and shot out of the other end.  The Skateway banked here, of course, and he rode up the bank slightly, getting dangerously close to the top where he could see out and down to the train station six hundred feet below, and then lowered his body and tucked his arms in to his sides.  More aerodynamic now he zoomed down the Skateway, reaching the floor of the track and throwing up a sheet of silvery water behind him.  The hiss of the water and the thump of blood in his ears took over his senses completely and his legs moved almost robotically until there was a sudden flash of light and he was across the finish line.
“Seven minutes and forty-eight seconds,” said the mechanical voice of the Skateway.  This time it came from a local speakerbox rather than the PA system, and was easier to understand.  “Time locked.”
Bryan came to a halt, describing several graceful, tightening curves to come back to the speakerbox slowly.  His Adibastards purred as they powered down to minimum.
“Time locked?” he asked.
“Time locked.  The Skateway is too dangerous for skating.”
Bryan shook his head; the time was his best yet for the course, though still a long way off the five-and-a-half minutes that some of the skaters could achieve.  Time locked meant that the Skateway would keep the record but he’d have to petition to have it made public, and of course he’d been there when the Skateway had been declared too dangerous to skate.  Which was the only time it was ever empty enough to get a good time unless you could afford to pay for a private session.
“Right,” he said, feeling slightly embarrassed at talking to a computer.  “Doesn’t seem that dangerous to me.”
“Your opinion wasn’t solicited,” said the Skateway.  Bryan started to walk away, though he cast a curious glance at the speakerbox.  Lots of people must have said something similar for that to be a programmed response, he thought.

Sunday, 3 February 2013

Salt and smoke

When I schlepped out of the Corner Pie House my stomach was full with… well, let’s leave it at something meaty, and my mind was overflowing with thoughts.  The evening had started off with a simple visit to Little Boy Blue and had gone wildly off the rails since then.  Natasha Monkeybutt showing up had been bad enough, but another sighting of the deliciously prestidigitational Miss Sapphire and the mention of Mad Frankie had done nothing but boost my dyspepsia.  Then Jackie, Belle Peep, the Corner Pie House, and now a suggestion that Jack Crown might be watching me.  I needed somewhere where I could lie down, listen to my bones creak and my tendons snap, and think about what was going on.  The trouble was, it was the wrong time of day, or rather, it was night-time.  I share a room with a hard-working young man with the deal being that I have the room during the day and he has it at night.  It maximises the utility of the room, which should make any amateur economist happy, and by happy coincidence we maximise the use of the bed too.  In my case by sleeping in it, and in his case by the sheer volume of clients he… takes care of.  We’re a boon to the economy also as the sheets have to be replaced roughly weekly, though we argue over who puts the most wear and tear to them.  So going home wasn’t an option for at least another five hours.
I trudged up the street, avoiding the piles of rubbish and walking through the puddles of liquid.  They might have been water when they fell from the sky, but they’d have been added to since, and now only needed a lightning strike to start the evolution of life all over again.  My shoes have seen worse though, and my trouser cuffs are permanently soggy; the doctors occasionally marvel that I haven’t got trench-foot, trench-ankle, and trench-shin.  That is, until they discover the athlete’s foot and exactly how pernicious it is, and then a look of understanding comes over their faces as they recoil, holding tongue depressors before them in whatever religious symbol they prefer, and attempt to exorcise me from their offices.  I’ve heard it said that there are no atheists in foxholes, and while I’ve been in a few foxholes, taking my shoes off and showing the ends of my legs to people seems a more sure-fire way of finding what God there is in a person.
Left at the top of the street, turning a corner housing a greengrocer on one side and some residential houses on the other.  They were tenement buildings, once town houses but now taken over by several families and divided up amongst them.  The windows housed cracked glass, darkened by smoke and years without cleaning and tattered curtains fluttered at only a couple of them.  A pale face like an anaemic ghost peered out of one briefly, not seeing anyone in particular on the streets below, and then was cuffed away by a fist like a shovel.  I stepped heavily on a soft turnip that squished, and remembered that I should look where I’m going.
The street at the top, Cuttermonger street where the knife-sellers used to sell out at three and then hide behind their shutters until the fighting died down and the participants had died off still had knife-sellers on it, joined now by the wok-istas who cooked street food in huge, hot, cast-iron bowls over charcoal fires.  Smells of smoky spices filled the air, some from the food and others from the sticks of lemon-grass and cinnamon that the vendors threw on the coals deliberately.  Meats, neat little cubes coated in marinades that made it impossible to guess what they were, sizzled in pans as people stated their orders and proffered their money; ginger, garlic, chili peppers, water chestnuts, bamboo shoots, and river-shrimp were added, and sauces, usually sticky and sweet, redolent of memories of other people’s childhoods, were poured over.  Then a handful of salt, large flat crystals that seemed inclined to rest on the surface like dandruff, was thrown on at the last minute before it was all scooped out with a little wire net and dumped unceremoniously into a cardboard box whose bottom would give out in five minutes, so you had to eat fast.
Normally I avoided Cuttermonger street because it made me hungry and smell like a three-day-old barbecue pit, but having just eaten a decent meal for the week I was feeling like I could handle it, and I breathed deep as I walked along.  Salt and smoke, two of my favourite smells in all the world.
At the end of the street I turned left again, and started down Nobs Hill.  The houses here were smaller but better kept; the people here still had pride, and one or two, during daylight hours at least, would run out and chase the likes of me away with brooms, tea-towels, and occasionally secateurs.  There was no real money here, just a determination not to be seen to not have any.  Now, with evening behind me and the night beckoning invitingly, the householders were all inside, tucked up in their beds with threadbare blankets, kept warm more by their dogs than their pride, and the street was mine to walk down.
And of course, the real indicator of wealth for a neighbourhood is what else is there other than the houses.  At the bottom of Nobs Hill was the overflow morgue, outside whose doors I stopped.

Saturday, 2 February 2013


Distillation, not accumulation.  The words were scrawled on the white tiles of the kitchen wall, about three inches from the floor, in blood.  Perhaps an inch and a half away from the words was a hand which appeared to have been physically torn from an arm; the stump was ragged and tendons and other bits of dark red tissue stretched out behind it in the general direction of the living room.  The fingers were blood-stained too, and it would appear that the author had used the hand as a pen of some kind, though where the blood they’d used as ink was now was anyone’s guess.  Detective Lindsay checked the sink, looking for signs that it had been poured away, while Mrs. Elizabeth Bennett stood and shuddered at the horror of the scene.
“It looks like it might be murder, ma’am,” said Detective Lindsay.  She’d found only old crockery and a bristleless brush in the sink, and it was reminding her of a modern art installation.
“I do hope not,” said Mr.s. Bennett.  She sounded oddly determined.  “That’s my mother’s hand!”
Janet O’Steen, Ireland’s foremost logodisciplinarian, pushed her chair back from her typewriter, got up and went to the kitchen, got out a rough cloth and wetted it, and started rubbing the tiles walls down.  This was the fourth time today that her writing had gotten to her enough to trigger her slightly obsessive desire for cleanliness, and she knew she’d know no peace until she was sure that her kitchen walls were spotlessly clean, and she checked all the corners for discarded hands.  She sighed as she scrubbed, aware that what she was doing wasn’t quite normal, but equally aware that fighting it just made it worse.  She’d tried hiring a maid to do these things for her a couple of months ago, but the girl had first quit and then tried to take her to a tribunal claiming that her demands were unnatural and inappropriate.  The court-room had been brown and drab, and the lawyers had been young, well-scrubbed, and somehow depressingly eager to see a fair resolution for everybody.  The clerk of the court had been an alcoholic she was sure, she had smelled the fumes of Uisghe on him when he came into the room, and his typewriter didn’t have enough keys to hold the whole alphabet.  The judge however… well, her first thought had been to dismiss him because he was clearly a pervert, but then as it became clear to everyone that he had been hoping the case was about predatory lesbians and the kinds of things that only happened in smutty movies she had warmed to him.  With every new revelation his face would brighten and he’d ask questions like, “Did you expect her to clean in the nude?” or “And did you insist that she rub herself with the brush first?” and, at the end, “Couldn’t you have even asked her to take her socks off in front of you?”.  He’d shuddered quite a lot with that question, and then he’d seemed to relax somehow.
“Case thrown out,” he’d yelled.  “There is clearly no case to answer for.  How dare you all waste my time by bringing this before me!”
“Expenses, milud?” Janet’s lawyer had said quickly.
“For the defendant,” snapped the judge.  “Doubled if the prosecution wants to complain.”
And that was that, except that she still had no-one to keep the kitchen appropriately clean, and she was trying to write a detective novel.  She could see it might be a long process.
The novel was intended to be a prequel to Bride of Prejudice to explain to people why the protagonist’s mother had deserved such unpleasant things to happen to her.  Janet was tired of turning on comedy shows to find them still satirising her works, and of turning on the radio and finding reviewers still discussing her alleged mother-hatred, and even of going to the university as a guest speaker and being asked leading questions about the untimely and slightly mysterious death of the major reviewer of her works.  To set the record straight at last she intended to present the story of Mrs. Elizabeth Bennett and why the wretched woman, after giving birth to an unwanted child, had deserved to end up a sex-slave at the bottom of Ireland’s last coalmine and then drown to death when the miners inexplicably struck oil.
“Though,” she muttered to herself as she scrubbed the gleaming white tiles, “I would have thought it obvious that she just deserved it!”
So Mrs. Elizabeth Bennett was, in her very early twenties, a detective working on a small-town police force in rural Ireland, expecting the kinds of crimes you get in places where there are only forty people, one school, eight hundred head of cattle and no cars.  She worked with Detective Lindsay, who had all the imagination of last winter’s potato, and she found herself embroiled in an Ireland-wide conspiracy to resurrect the infection agent responsible for the Potato Famine and transport it to the food states of North America.  Janet intended that Elizabeth’s actions would cause the deaths of innocents, which would in turn justify the horrible end that she came to in Bride of Prejudice.  
“They won’t be able to criticise me after this!” she muttered, her teeth gritted as she tried to shift entirely imaginary bloodstains.
Finally satisfied that the walls were clean enough and the dark corners were free of severed appendages, she sat back down at the typewriter.
“Your mother’s hand?” said Detective Lindsay opening the oven and peering inside.  “Why would she leave it here?  Do you think she knew Mrs. O’Green?”
“We all knew Mrs. O’Green!”  Mrs. Bennett contemplated hitting Detective Lindsay with the greasy frying-pan sitting on the counter and claiming that it had fallen off.  “Mrs. O’Green ran the General Store for nearly fifty years before her son made her retire last year!  There’s no-one living in this town who hasn’t bought soap or condoms from her!”
Detective Lindsay straightened reflexively and caught her head on the oven.  She cursed like a nine-year old, and backed more cautiously out of the oven.  She rubbed her head, glaring at Mr.s. Bennett.
“The Pope has banned condoms!”
“Mrs. O’Green was Protestant.”
“Did you buy condoms from her?”
Mrs. Bennett looked at Detective Lindsay and wondered what the poor woman thought she would do with condoms and no boyfriend in a town this small.  The fourteen-year-old boy who’d had sex with his second cousin last week in a hayrick was currently the hot gossip topic, and he’d done that at midnight two miles away.
“No,” she said patiently.  “And neither did my mother.”
“Oh!  Your mother’s hand!”  Detective Lindsay pointed at the hand on the floor, and Mrs. Bennett sighed heavily.
“Yes,” she said.  “Oh dear.  I think I’ve just seen her other hand behind the door.”
Janet sighed as well, and got up to check behind all the doors in the house.