Saturday, 30 March 2013


Jeronica watched the glass door close behind Manguy, and was delighted to see that her adjustments to the retarder had worked perfectly; the door struck Manguy sharply on his gym-toned bottom before he’d quite left the office.  He jumped, but he refused to look back, and so Jeronica allowed herself the smallest of smiles before carefully readjusting her face into concern, and half-rising from her seat.  When Manguy continued walking away, she sat back down again.
“You have seven minutes before your 11:30,” said a mechanical-sounding voice from the desk-intercom.  This was Tayberry, Jeronica’s personal assistant.  She’d lasted for nearly two years now, making her the longest serving employee of Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations without a title at the VP level or above.
“Good,” said Jeronica.  “Manguy was lying to me at the rate of four lies a minute today.  It’s exhausting listening to him and filtering out the crap from the credible.  I need you to look up what you can about Thunder Bay though; it’s a town, probably not in Finland but with a strong Finnish influence.  He’s being very cagey about something, and that’s all I’ve got so far from him.”
“Your 11:30 has arrived,” said Tayberry emotionlessly.  “I have put her in the waiting room and provided her with laxative tea.  She intends to talk to you about perfume.”
“Send her in when she starts looking for the restrooms,” said Jeronica.
The woman walked in slightly stiffly, as though she was uncomfortable in her own skin, and looked around.  Jeronica’s office had only one chair, which Jeronica had not bothered to rise from; a crystal table covered in publications from the kind of industries that Data Analytic Marketetic Normalisations liked to deal in (the one on top had its entire cover taken up with the question Who owns Sweden?), and various other office accoutrements.  The woman swept the magazines from the table with an arm and set a clear glass bottle down on it in the dead centre.
“Pick them up,” said Jeronica, picking up her letter-opener.  It was made of stainless steel, sharpened like a scalpel, and had a stag’s head for a handle.
“They’re irrelevant compared to what’s in this bottle,” said the woman.  “As you should know, if you’d remembered who I am.”
“If you know who I am then we’re already on a suitable footing.”
“I am Giselle d’Astinge.  I was employed by your firm five years ago, and you’ve been paying me that entire time.”
“That sounds like an issue for accounts, not me.  I am currently heading up soft power, soft furnishings and dielectrics.  I do not deal with the soft-headed.”
“I merely create perfumes that induce hypnosis.”
Jeronica set the knife down as though she had grown tired of holding it, and opened the phone-book that listed all the important people in the building.  “I shall call accounts for you,” she said.  “While we wait for them to fetch you, why don’t you tell me how a perfume could induce hypnosis?”
Giselle smiled very faintly in a way that reminded Jeronica of herself and made her shiver.  “It is subtle,” she said.  “So few people know much about the art of smell, and fewer still know enough to achieve this.  Inside the nose, and this is disputed by many scientists who are wedded to disproven theories, is a sensitive biological spectrometer that measures the molecules entering the nose and generates impulses in the brain that generate smell.  This means that there are molecules that are entirely different to one another and yet smell identical, and that there are molecules whose smell changes simply by changing the isotopes of the atoms involved.  It also means that there is a way to directly influence the brain from the nose, one that people not only don’t realise, but will actively engage in if they like the scent enough.”
Jeronica’s hand was poised over the phone’s keypad, but unmoving.  “Go on,” she said.
“What I’ve done is simply to study those signals and then work out what order they need to arrive in to create a state of suggestibility.  Then I’ve built those molecules into evaporants of appropriate molecular weights to ensure that they reach the nose in the right order, and bottled it as a perfume.  The perfume you see on the table in front of you now.”
Jeronica pulled her hand away from the phone.  “That would be very useful, in the right circles,” she said.  “It could revolutionise diplomacy.”
“It would destroy diplomacy as we know it,” said Giselle.  She crossed her legs, even though she was standing up, and flushed suddenly.
“We have different words for the same phenomenon,” said Jeronica.  “Accounts may not be the right people to direct your enquiry to after all.”
“I’m pleased you understand that.”
“Why have you kept the bottle closed?  Surely you would have wanted to use it to influence me?”
Giselle smiled tightly, as though preoccupied by something more pressing.  “You are anosmic, Jeronica.  You told me this when you commissioned me to create this.  There would be no point trying to use it on you.”
“It doesn’t work on anosmics then?”
“No, not normally.  Although it depends on the cause of the anosmia of course; if the damage is mostly mental then it’s possible it might; if the damage is physical though it won’t.”
“I see.  Well, I need to see this tested then.  Open the bottle and stand by the door; I have a meeting in ten minutes and we shall see how influenced the other attender is by your perfume.  Oh, you look stricken.  Do you perhaps need something?”
“A toilet would be nice,” said Giselle.  “Or, since you won’t smell it anyway, perhaps you could just turn your back for a minute?”

Thursday, 28 March 2013

Noises in the walls

“What is this place?”  David looked around himself for the first time properly, and his face showed plenty of signs of puzzlement.  Isabella watched him carefully, aware that she was taking a risk by not watching the room, but curious to see what genuine emotion in the man looked like.  Her research on him had identified him as a lordling; his father had made money in steel and cobalt and had pushed his son into the next higher social circle by picking out his schools, his holiday locations, and generally staying out of his life except where money was needed to lubricate things.  To her admittedly jaded outlook it seemed as though David’s real job was to have children who’d been accepted in his social circle and make his father happy, but David wasn’t doing very well at that. In fact, she’d had trouble finding anything David was good at; even as a dilettante he wasn’t much of a social gadfly, wasn’t particularly handsome, wasn’t very clever or especially interesting.  He was – and she’d finally allowed herself to think this – very much a disposable second son.  The kicker was, of course, that he was an only child.
“This is the other side,” said Isabella.  Unless she missed her guess one of David’s eyes had been lazy in his childhood, and it seemed to drift a little now from time to time.  He was currently looking at where the door had been, but his left eye was starting to look at the mantlepiece instead.
“The other side of what?  And where did the door go?  We just came through it, I know it was there!”  He pushed past her, unsteadying her slightly and catching her by surprise.  She put her hand out, and steadied herself on the armchair, raising a puff of dust into the air.
“Just the other side,” said Isabella, stepping away from the dust before she could breathe any in.  “That’s just what this place is called.  I suppose it probably has other names too, but I’ve not heard any of them.”
“Where’s the door?” David ran large, spatulate hands over the cracked plaster of the wall, digging his fingernails into the cracks and trying to lever them, as though the door were some peculiar shape on this side and not the other.
“Not there,” said Isabella.  “It’s moved by now.”
“Look,” she said, sighing.  “This isn’t easy for me either.  This place is not safe, but the caves on the other side are less safe, and I know – mostly – what dangers there are on this side.  So I’m taking a chance coming here, because it’s less risky than staying there.  You shouldn’t even be here with me, this is definitely not what I thought you’d be coming along for.  I don’t think you’re ready for any of this, and I’m going to drop you outside at the first chance I get.  You’re to go back to the airport, find a hotel, and wait for me there.”
“There are no doors in this room at all,” said David, slowly turning around on one heel.  His shoes made a faint squeaking sound as it ground against the carpet.  “This is some kind of trap.”
“Listen to me,” said Isabella.  The immobile right-hand side of her face made her look grim and menacing.  “You have to get out of here when I tell you to go.  Do you understand that?”
“I don’t want to,” said David.  “And don’t try telling me there’s spiders ahead, I know you’re going to.”
“I –“ began Isabella, annoyed that her next gambit had just been stolen from her.  Behind her, the blank patch on the wall suddenly darkened and a huge portrait appeared.  She turned, guessing something had happened from David’s reaction, and saw the portrait swing outward from the wall like a door, and then a teddy-bear stepped through.
For a moment she did nothing, and the teddy-bear stood there, looking slightly stunned.  Behind it, the portrait-door closed, and then the portrait faded away as though it had never been there.  Then the teddy-bear threw its paws up over its head and started mewling like a week-old kitten.
“What the –“ breathed David, his eyes bulging from his face and his mouth hanging open.  Fine strings of spittle linked his top teeth with his tongue.
“It’s a teddy-bear,” said Isabella.  “I told you you wouldn’t believe me if I tried to tell you the truth, and you still won’t, so for now just pretend it’s a child in a costume.”
“It’s a child?”
“Yes, in a costume.”
“In a costume.  Why’s it making that noise?”
“Because it thinks we’re going to kill it.”

Tuesday, 26 March 2013


The colonnade was a long covered walkway supported by wooden pillars that had been carved with grinning, leering, demonic faces.  Many were poking their tongues out and were pop-eyed.  Teeth sprouted from parts of faces that should only have grown hair, eyes were extruded from ears on stalks, and bones were twisted and deformed as though the heads had been through strange and unusual pressures.  Some of the tongues were long, unnaturally so, and one or two stretched from one pillar to the next, forming slender railings that, if you looked closely, were textured as though covered in hair.
“They’re carved from life, you know,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  He gestured casually with one black-gloved hand at the pillars.  “Each face was the face of a real person in the Tiergarten in the late seventeen hundreds.”
“Tiergarten?  Zoo?” asked Phlebitis, staring at his feet.  The pillars made him feel queasy, almost sea-sick if it weren’t for the fact that he hadn’t felt sea-sick since he was fourteen, even when Poseidon was angry and the sea was throwing his ship around like a dog worrying a chew-toy.  He was trying hard not to look too closely at them, partly because he thought he might recognise some of them.
“Hah!”  The doctor’s laugh was short and sharp, almost humourless but redeemed at the end by the hint of dryness.  “Hah, yes, I suppose.  It was a name that would be considered unpolitisch these days I suppose.  That’s politically incorrect in the delightful euphemism of English, of course.”
“Really?  I thought that was a type of trumpet.”
“You’re thinking of the euphonium, of course,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  “I played it as a child in a marching band.  It was, despite the name, not a particularly pleasant instrument, too heavy for my little arms.  I much preferred the shawm.”
“That sounds lovely,” said Phlebitis, aware that the doctor had stopped walking and hoping that if he continued the doctor would resume suit.  Instead, Dr. Rosendieb caught his elbow and gestured at the pillars.
“The Tiergarten then was the name given to the Asylum,” he said.  “The inmates were… demented I suppose, although it is arguable that they resulted in that state because they were interned in the Tiergarten rather than being put there because they were already in that state.  There have been a small number of high-profile cases in the papers of late, which you must have seen.  Various records have been uncovered that suggest that certain high-ranking families were disposing of unwanted family members there.”
“Well,” said Phlebtits looking with distaste at a pillar.  “You can see how some of them might not have been the relative you wanted to introduce to people.”
“This one,” said Dr. Rosendieb, laying his hand on the forehead of a cephalitic-looking young man with a twisted jaw and flattened nose, “ended up looking like this only after five years in the Tiergarten.  When he was committed there he was sufficiently handsome that fights would start in bars because of other men’s wives looking at him for too long.
“I see,” said Phlebitis.  He shivered somewhat theatrically.  “It’s a little cool under here, doctor.”
“Of course, of course!  Let us continue, at the end there is sunlight.  It is a lovely day.  But tell me, my dear chap, what brings you here?  Why are you interested in the Tiergarten?  It was closed down over eighty years ago.”
“I think my first mate might be in there,” said Phlebitis, his eyes firmly fixed on the ground again.  “And I’d quite like him back.”
“No, you are quite mistaken,” said Dr. Rosendieb, his voice now quieter and more discreet.  “The Tiergarten was closed down and the patients remanded into other, better care.  Your first mate cannot be in there.  Perhaps you misunderstood the name of hospita–“
“The Tiergarten,” said Phlebitis.  “There has been no misunderstanding, just as it was not chance that caused me to seek you out, Doctor.  I had a little help, of course, but not too much.  Not so much that I couldn’t find you, I was warned about that too.”
Doctor Rosendieb stopped again and Phlebitis, cursing to himself, also stopped and looked back at him, trying to ignore the faces on the pillars.  He was sure he could hear insane laughter in the background.
“What are you talking about?”  The doctor’s words could have meant that he thought Phlebitis was gibbering, but his tone made it clear what he meant.
“Madame Sosotris sends her regards,” said Phlebitis.  “She still has her cold.”
“That woman always has a cold,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  “I suspect she has the archetype of colds and were we ever to cure her of it then no-one would ever get a cold again.”
“You should try,” said Phlebitis.
“Hah!  Is she still chasing every man she sees, though?”
Phlebitis nodded and shuddered at the same time.
“I may wait a little longer,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  “I see then, the clairvoyant has told you where the boundaries are then.  Did she also tell you that no-one leaves the Tiergarten until they die?  Hmm?”
“What she said was that you didn’t let any of them leave before they die,” said Phlebitis slowly.  He realised with horrible slowness that the pillar the doctor was standing closest to contained a carving of his first mate’s face second from the ground.
“That woman is too accurate for her own good,” said Dr. Rosendieb, a moue of distaste crossing his face.  “What are you looking at?”
“The face of the man I’ve come to buy from you,” said Phlebitis.  He pointed.
Phlebitis nodded.
“That’s the first time anyone’s offered,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  “Perhaps I should listen to you.”
“Yes,” said Phlebitis.  “That would be advantageous to us both I hope.  Allow me to tell you what I will not sell you from my cargo first though.  You may have none of the lilacs from the dead land.”
“Lilacs from Paysmort?”  Dr. Rosendieb staggered, even though he’d been standing still a moment earlier.  “You found lilacs from Paysmort?”
“I found Paysmort,” said Phlebitis.  “And I’d really like to forget it now.”

Sunday, 24 March 2013

Back in the thick of things

I slipped up the stairs, noting that they were slick with something as my feet slipped and slid around.  Luckily my gait is erratic enough that I barely noticed it, but I could see it causing the residents here some trouble.  When I reached the top I paused and looked back; no footprints, no sign that anything had disturbed the steps.  So not a little Monkeybutt trap either then, but perhaps a consequence of whatever she and her men had done in Blue’s rooms.  Sure enough the landing was equally greasy, and I skated across the floor to the door with the police tape nailed across it, and then sailed past having completely misjudged how long it would take me to come to a halt.  I turned my skid into a turn and bodychecked the wall of another flat.  It hurt, but in the litany of aches and pains that I have daily it wasn’t even worth thinking about.  I aimed at Blue’s door, and pushed off again.
The police tape had been genuinely nailed in place, by a nail-gun by the looks of things, and that made me instantly suspicious.  In this town the police tie the tape to whatever’s closest, and if that then gets up and walks off, meowing to itself, well tough.  I peered at a nail and decided that I couldn’t see anything clearly in the dim, sodium haze from the walkway ceiling light.  I have a pocket torch, a fancy little thing about as long as my hand, heavy as lead with a ring of LEDs that can be switched from white to blue to red to ultraviolet to infrared.  It’s strictly not civilian issue, but Mad Frankie had a surplus and I had sticky fingers.  I’ve used the infrared setting to cook food on a stakeout before now, as well as keep my hand warm in my pocket when I was caught in a walk-in freezer for a half-hour.  I twisted the head to the white setting and turned it on.
The blaze of crystalline white light hurt my eyes a little at first, but my pupils gradually shrank and my vision improved and I could see through the tape now, and so see the fine wire running through it that connected each of the nails in turn, the doorhandle, the hinges, and then ran off along the floor against the wall and into the flat next door.  I checked the top of the door next; Monkeybutt loves to think she’s clever than the rest of us.  Sure enough, a second wire ran off that way along the ceiling and into the flat on the other side.  I snorted.  That woman has no imagination.
“Balcony inspector.”  I glared at the young girl that had opened the door to the next-door flat.  She glared back at me, an eight-year-old with attitude.  She stuck her hand on her hip in a way that reminded me of a brothel-keeper in the Seychelles.  “We don’t got no balcony, fool,” she said.
“You’ve lost your balcony?” I went with angry sounding, figuring that any council-worker coming out here would be either angry or scared.  “How the hell do you lose a balcony?”
“We never had no fool balcony!”  I could see the momentary uncertainty in her eyes though.
“You sold it for drugs, didn’t you?  You only went and sold your damn balcony for drug money.  How much did that get you?  Was it enough to make you happy?”
“I don’t do no drugs!”  There it was, the quiver of the lip, a tiny hiccough in her voice.  “We ain’t never had no balcony,  and that’s the godfearin’ truth.”
“You’d better show me this,” I said.  “I’m gonna hafta get the guys round here to look at this.  There’ll be structural damage, probably have to condemn this little crack house.  You’ll have to leave too.  You got kids?  We can take them into social services I guess.”
“We ain’t don’t got no damn fool balcony!”  She took a step back, and I stepped forwards.  “You come see for yoursel’ you fool.  Then you be seeing that you be being a fool.”
I followed her down a short hallway that seemed filled with doors into tiny little steamy rooms, and at the end there was a room just big enough for the three-seat sofa and tv that was in there.  She walked across the sofa, I squeezed past it, trying not to knock the tv.  The two kids on the sofa shouted at us both to get out of the way, and she opened a window.
“There!  No balcony, no never no balcony.  Fool.”
“Lemme see.”  I pushed past her, and hauled myself out of the window.  My desperate feet found the little ledge of brick that ran decoratively beneath the window, and I allowed myself to breathe.  I edged along, pressing my aching body against the wall, listening to my knees click like the approaching death of cockroaches, and reached Blue’s window.
“You definitely sold this balcony!” I shouted back to the girl who had poked her head out of the window and was staring at me looking frightened.  “I’m coming in, and then we’re talking about this!”  I reached up to Blue’s window, and pulled it open with unexpected ease, nearly falling backwards and to the floor below.  I struggled for a moment, then got my balance back, and hauled myself into his little studio.  My heart was pounding as erratically as ever, and I could taste blood in my mouth.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

The other side

Where the kris sliced through the air it seemed like a thin line began to shine.  The light was too bright to look directly at, but if you shifted your gaze slightly to the side the lines hung in the air, impossibly, in strict geometric configurations.  Isabella worked quickly, letting the knife find its own way through and trying hard not to push it.  The doors opened best when you followed their natural contours, for all that they sometimes seemed counterintuitive to her.  And if you just pushed and cut of your own accord, well sometimes that opened things that should have remained closed.
There was a soft intake of breath from behind her as she finished, and the lines suddenly winked out.  Where she’d sliced the air into polygonal confusion there was now a door, an actual, physical door made of – she tapped it with a fingernail, curiously, to make sure – plastic.  The plastic was grey and cloudy though the clouds looked as though they might be very slowly shifting, and the grey varied across the door in polygons that looked like the ones she’d carved in the first place.
“Where did that come from?” asked David.  His voice had a note of respect in it for the first time, and she had to look back at him and study his face carefully.  She was sure that he was even more interested in acquiring the kris for himself now.
“It was always here,” said Isabella.  “There are, I think, millions of them.  I don’t know… I don’t think I know who created them, or why there are so many, but if you know how to find them they’re there.  They’re not always unlocked though, and like I said to you earlier, what’s on the other side really, really isn’t safe.  It’s just that it’s less dangerous that what’s on this side now, I think.”
“Is this one locked?  I can’t see a lock.”
“Doesn’t mean anything,” said Isabella.  She laid her hand on the door and gently pushed.  It moved inwards, and where it became ajar a thin line of yellowish light spilled out into the cave.  “No, it’s not locked.  Let’s go.  Stay close to me.”  She stared David directly in the eyes when she said this, and she saw his eyes contract slightly, a hint of annoyance that he was being told what to do.  “There are spiders on the other side,” she said.  She knew she would have to stop using this weakness against him, but she didn’t much fancy trying to explain his disappearance if he got himself killed, or worse.
“Seems like there’s lots of spiders around here,” said David, sounding sulky.
“Yes,” said Isabella.  “These are caves and… other places.  Spiders naturally live in these places.  There are things in here that they like to eat.”  She pushed the door open; it was light in its frame and swung back easily, and looked through the door.
“What do they eat?” said David suddenly.  “I thought they ate flies, but that’s only little ones.  What do the big ones eat?”
“Depends how big they get,” said Isabella.  She was looking through the door at a sepia-toned sitting room that looked like it belonged back in the 1930’s.  There was an armchair, rubbed bare in places along the arm, that looked as though it was stuffed with horsehair.  The upholstery was tan and there were dark brown stains on both the seat cushion and the back of the chair.  There was a cast-iron fireplace with a grate before it and the embers of a fire smouldering away.  A wisp of grey smoke curled up from it into a chimney.  There was a mantlepiece with little ceramic picture-holders neatly set out, and they looked like they might have pictures of people in them.  There was a carpet on the floor, something brown and scuffed, and a small rug on top of it before the chair.  The rug was canary yellow and looked as though something had chewed it at the edges.  On the wall behind the chair was a lighter patch as though something big had been taken down and removed.
“How big do they get?”
“Surface area to volume ratio controls it mostly,” said Isabella.  “I’ve seen them about as big as a face, bigger I suppose if you spread their legs out flat.  No bigger.  Come on, this doesn’t look good.  I don’t want to hang around in here or in there.”
David scuttled to the door, his eyes darting around the cave.  “How big were the spiders at the top of the rope?”
“I didn’t pay that much attention,” said Isabella.  “Probably small though, they were climbing down the rope.”
David barely looked relieved at all, but he stepped through the door, and then stopped, looking around him at the room for the first time.  Isabella pushed him forward, stepped through herself, and let the door fall back.  As it closed, it faded from the wall it was in, leaving behind dusty, cracked, yellowing plaster.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013


Leslie daFox walked into the auditorium at the Camberwick Community Centre with a feeling of trepidation.  Somewhere behind him were two police officers, who he mentally thought of as Comedy policeman #1 and unfunny sidekick, who were steadily getting fitter as Leslie insisted on walking up the four flights of stairs between here and his office every time.  He could hear them labouring along, and waited just inside the doors.  Not because he felt sorry for them, but because there had, in the course of four months, been four murders committed around him and he was getting nervous that he was being stalked by a tediously incompetent killer.  Quite possibly, he mused, one of his students.  They’d shown a remarkable degree of incompetence in their homework and their critical thinking capacity in his lectures, so why not be utterly unable to kill the right person when given the opportunity?
“That must be a record,” he said to Comedy policeman #1 as he reached Leslie.  He was only slightly pink in the face, and he’d already got his breathing back under control, unlike his chubbier colleague who was still wheezing like a leaky pair of bellows.  “I think it only took you four minutes to climb the stairs today.”  The policeman glared at him but said nothing.  They’d been taken aside by their line manager a week earlier after bringing Leslie in for questioning for the fifth time and been ungently reprimanded.  Leslie was fairly certain he wasn’t supposed to know the details, but they’d been shouted at in the interview room next to the one he’d been in, and the walls were quite thin.  Their line manager’s big complaint had been that they’d let a young woman get murdered in the supermarket because they were too busy trying to trick Leslie into confessing in the next aisle.
“Has he murdered anyone yet?” asked the sidekick, leaning against the wall and resting his hands on his broad thighs.  That he had to pause to gasp air between ‘murdered’ and ‘anyone’ made him seem just a little pathetic.
“We’ll have to see,” said Comedy policeman #1.  “Lead the way to the abattoir, Sir.”
“Auditorium,” corrected Leslie, hoping that it was a correction.  “If you were in my class you’d be on the failing list, you know.”
“Along with all the rest of your students, Sir?”
“Hah.”  Leslie said nothing more, but he privately agreed with the policeman.  He sometimes wondered if the Community Centre administrators deliberately set out to mismatch students with courses.
The auditorium was blood- and corpse-free, much to Leslie’s relief, and his students were huddled together in a semicircle of seats in the third and fourth rows.  The students on the outside looked scared, and the ones in the middle looked more confident, based purely on the student-thinking that the lecturer would be like a lion and pick prey off from the outside of the herd rather than risking running into the middle.  Leslie shook his head, unaware that to the students that this looked like the judgement of Caesar before they’d even had a chance to fight.
“Have you heard of slanters?” asked Leslie.  He’d given up bringing up notes to his lectures because by the time he was half-way through the class were hopelessly behind and lost.  He now talked about general topics and set huge reading lists instead.  He knew the class wouldn’t cope, but at least this way he didn’t have to see it.  There was no response from the audience, and there were no astonishingly-educated janitorial staff around to answer for them, so he looked at the policeman.
“Italic text?” guessed Comedy policeman #1.  Leslie’s half-lidded gaze wasn’t clear to him, but he’d actually just stepped up a point in his estimation.
“No, but a very reasonable guess,” said Leslie.  “Add that to your homework list, please, class: make a reasonable guess of an answer to my questions next week.  A slanter is what an American would call many of the rhetorical devices, on the grounds that they are intended to bias, or slant the listener towards the speaker’s point of view.  This, of course, completely misses the point of rhetoric: it is intended to convince the audience of a particular point of view and will necessarily only contain objective statements where they are already aligned with the speaker’s intentions.  So the whole speech is “slanted” if you will, and there are no individuals slanters within it.
“But still.  Some nice simple examples of such slanters are euphemism and dysphemism, which as their names suggest are antonyms.  Now, hands-up anyone who actually understood what I just said.”
No hands raised from the audience.  Leslie looked at his bodyguard, but neither policeman raised their hands either.
“Right,” he said.  “Euphemism derives from the greek root Eu- meaning good.  A euphemism is a good description, in the sense of it describes things as better than they really are.  Have any of you, at all, by any chance, heard of any other words that begin with Eu-?”
Two hands went up in the audience and Leslie wondered if it would be appropriate to die from shock.  He pointed to the first hand.
“Utopia, Mr. Foxy?”  The speaker was a pimply young man called Steve who Leslie thought should have enrolled on a basic comprehension skills course before coming here, so this was graduate level thinking from him.
“Sadly not,” said Leslie.  “The U in Utopia is coincidental.  You?”  He pointed at the other hand.
“Euthanasia, Sir?”  The speaker this time was a middle-aged woman in a camel-print blouse and skirt that made her look a little bovine.
“Yes!”  Leslie’s note of excitement was audible to everyone.  “Yes!  Well done!  Euthanasia, perfect!  Eu- meaning good, and thanasia from thanatos meaning death.”
“Did you just get excited about a word meaning good-death, Sir?” asked the sidekick.  Leslie glared at him.
“I got excited about my class knowing the answer to my question,” he said.  “Now shush.  Class, antonyms are word-pairs that are opposites, like black and white.  So if euphemism and dysphemism are opposites, what would the opposite of euthanasia be?”
Again, Steve’s hand rose, and Leslie, surprised as could be, nodded to him.
“Dysthanasia?  As in, like, bad-death?”
“And what kind of death would a bad-death be, then, Sir?” asked Comedy policeman #1.
“Oh I don’t know,” said Leslie.  “It’s hardly something anyone thinks about.  Drowning, I ‘d have thought, that seems pretty horrible.  Or maybe burning to death in a fire.”
“Murder?  Are you a dysthanatic, Sir?”

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Learn the rules

“Dr Fraud, may I call you that?”
“No,” said Dr. Fraud.  He looked up.  He was trying new bifocal lenses, against the recommendation of his optician who felt that Dr. Fraud’s eyesight was far too good to warrant glasses, contact lenses, laser surgery or any of the eighty-one other things he’d requested.  He peered through the upper lens and hoped it made him seem serious and concerned.  The pinkish blur he could see sitting on the brownish blur that was probably his chaise-longue writhed in a way that reminded him of a Gustav Doré woodcut.
“What should I call you instead?  Sir?  Your doctorship?  Maestro?”
“You should call me whatever you feel comfortable with.”  Dr. Fraud tried looking through the bottom lens of the bifocals.  Things blurred a little more and his eyes felt tired, so he returned to the upper lens.  “You have issues with authority that create anxiety; your anxiety then leads to crushing worry, which in turns feeds your lack of self-esteem.  You need to start making choices for yourself, and by deciding, on your own, what to call me, we can establish a toehold on the ascent of Mount Progress.”
“Dr Fraud…,” Melanie drew his name out, dreading ending it in case he snapped at her and told her off for getting his name wrong.  She was sure he wasn’t English, and his name sounded… well, he sounded like a quack.  And that couldn’t be right, could it?  Although, perhaps it was her fault for picking the doctor who least sounded like he could cure her–
“Melon.”  His voice, germanic and harsh, cut into her runaway thoughts.  She looked at him, automatically responding.
“Um, I think you mean Melanie,” she said, her voice trailing off.  He was staring at her in a very odd fashion.  She looked down, checking that she’d got dressed properly that morning, but everything seemed to be correct.  She looked up, but his gaze hadn’t changed.
“Melon-y?  I thought that was a species of potato,” he said.  “Like Desirée.  I had a patient called Desirée, and I felt it was just cruel.  Why not call your daughter Potato and be done with it?  Let the poor child know what’s expected of her.”
“I think it also means ‘object of desire’,” said Melanie.
“Well that’s just ridiculous,” said Dr. Fraud, tsking heartily.  “Such a silly language where one man’s goose is another man’s mutton.  I told her to change her name by deed poll.”
“What happened to her?”
“I can’t discuss that.”
“Oh.  Doctor-patient confidentiality, of course.  I’m sorry I asked, Doctor… Fraud….”
“No, she changed her name and I got her records all mixed up and I think I may have sent her on a Ugandan retreat at the wrong of time of year.”  Dr. Fraud took the glasses off, and the headache that was starting to build abruptly went away.  He focussed finally on Melanie and saw her clearly: short, slightly dumpy, with a smile that lit up her face and made people instinctively like her.  “But we shouldn’t be talking about her, this is your session.  And you need to be more decisive.  You need to learn the rules of conversation.”
“With that make me more confident, Doc..oc..octor F…F…Fraud?”
“Just call me Sir,” said Dr. Fraud.  “It’s easier, and it’s more respectful.  No, you need to learn the rules so that you know how to break them properly.  At the moment you break the rules because you’re too scared to know what they are and so stay within them.  And people recognise that you’re not aware that you’ve broken the rules, so they chastise you and pick on you, and you retreat, because you weren’t aware that you were outside the rules in the first place.  Break the rules firmly, break the rules with a purpose, and when people challenge you, break them too!”
“Break things!  Carry a big golf club and speak with a loud voice!  Scare people!  Make them understand that you make the rules now!”
“I don’t think I can do that, Sir.  I… I…,”
“You’re too scared, Melon-y.  You need help.  You should see someone about that.”
“I thought I was!”
Dr. Fraud put his glasses back on and the world went fuzzy and blurred again.  He was trying to decide if this helped him keep an objective distance from the potato-woman or not.
“You are,” he said, his voice calming down again.  “And I will help you, whether you like it or not.  I shall send you on a course that will boost your confidence.  Have you ever been to Uganda?”

Friday, 15 March 2013

Buddy: Inbox Zero

Wow, it’s cold in here isn’t it?  Have you considered getting your assistant to turn the air-conditioning down a bit?  Well, maybe just to the point that I can’t see icicles on the edge of your desk.  You know, icicles on the edge of the desk suggests that you might have a leak up in the ceiling… oh, spilled coffee, eh?  That would explain their odd colour.  What did I think they were?  Rust, probably, from old air-conditioning pipes.  This isn’t exactly the plushest office I’ve ever been in.
Who am I?  I’m Buddy, I’m your guardian angel, at least for a little while.  I’m here to help you find direction in your life, and leverage that into your business activities.  Think of me as a kind of guru for work, a way to make sure you get things done.
Oh, you’ve read that, have you?  You’ve not paid much attention to it though, I see.  Where’s your tickler file?
That’s… not what I meant by a tickler file.  Yes, yes, completely.  They’re definitely ticklers.  Some are even french, no you don’t need to show me… well thank-you anyway.  No, I’m not going to try it out.  Put it away please.
A tickler file, a file that contains items that you intend to do someday.  Something you can pick up and open up when you’ve a spare moment and see what else you could be using to regiment your life.  Something that contains all those things you know you want to do but never seem to have the time for, or that need more planning that you can afford to start at the moment.  You know, back when I was at work I had two tickler files because one wasn’t enough to contain everything I wanted to do.  It reached the point where I wasn’t looking at them anymore because I didn’t know where to start.  That’s when I realised that I was so busy getting things done that I wasn’t getting anything done that I wanted to do.  I wasn’t doing what was important to me.  I needed to change that, and I put a note about it in my tickler file.
Three months later I woke out of a dream where I was organising cabbages in the walk-in fridge in the corporate canteen and realised that I’d forgotten about that note, and I was now doing so much around the office that they’d made three-quarters of the staff redundant.  They’d turned me into a single-point of failure.  I knew that I needed to do something about it, so I moved my computer into the walk-in fridge and dressed only in summer clothing.
What?  Well, bermuda shorts mostly.  I’m not ashamed of my body, I don’t mind being topless.  No, please put your shirt back on.  Well, you’re fatter than me, for a start.  Look, the point was that I couldn’t spend too much time at my computer any more, so I could reduce my work-load by focusing on tasks that took longer and used my actual skills to better advantage.  I stopped organising every cupboard, closet and fridge in the office and let other people struggle with their faulty filing systems.  I stopped shadowing the maintenance guy and fixing all his botches and let Facilities have never-ending arguments with him and his bosses about his short-comings.  I stopped reading my secretary’s mail and beating her to the punch and started reading my boss’s mail and short-circuiting his plans for advancement.  I started getting things done, my way.  And I suddenly had time in the day for other things, so I opened my tickler file and started doing things from there.  I went sky-diving.  I bungee-jumped.  I volunteered for a week in a sleep-study clinic; it was the most peaceful week of my life. I loved it all.
Well yes, I think it is a motivational story, thank-you.  But I can see that you’re wondering what this has to do with you.  You need help, and you need a boost.  Possibly you need a kick up the backside as well, but that comes later.  First of all, you need to implement Inbox Zero, and then we’ll see about getting you back on the corporate ladder, getting ready to climb and achieve everything that you know, in your heart, you deserve.
Put. The. Ticklers. Away.
Inbox Zero.  We need to put your PC somewhere too cold to hold, so that all your email becomes too hot to handle.  We need to keep you focused on only the most essential and urgent tasks.  It’ll rapidly become apparent that other people can do the other tasks when they stop depending on you to do things.
That’s a good point, let’s turn the air-con up instead of down.  The chill in this office is almost enough to stop a normal man from working anyway… well, given you’re the size of a walrus, and smell unpleasantly like one too, I imagine that your blubber is insulating you better than a normal man.  Don’t look at me like that, you asked.  I tell the truth, dude.
Right, the air-con’s up.  I wonder why the switch was padlocked though?  You don’t know?  Are you sure you don’t know?  Oh well, one of those little corporate mysteries I suppose.  You should move that plant outside.  Well, because it’s going to freeze solid in the sub-zero temperatures you’re going to get in here from now on… what?  Yes, wear thermals.  No, I don’t want to see the catalogue, thank-you.  Put it away.
Right, you’re looking a little bluer now.  Are you feeling the chill?  Excellent, now you can look at your email.  How many messages are there in your Inbox?  Eighty?  That’s a lot for someone who’s getting things done… these are… these are mostly spam.  Well, they’re flagged as junk here, see the little icon?  Just click this.  Yes, see, you’re down to eight already.  Let’s read the first one and then act on it.
Right, so that needs you to speak to the CEO’s PA.  No, don’t phone her, it’s too cold in here for that.  You need to walk – waddle – over to her and speak to her in person.  Yes, people will see you’re out of office and know that you’re not available.  Trust me, I’m Buddy.  It’ll work.
Damn but it’s cold in here.  Still, Inbox Zero.  It’s a winner, trust me!

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Boy Blue's studio

I thought about taking the bus, but it was starting to get light, and the night buses in this burg only pick up if they feel like it.  The bus drivers’ union has a line about refusing to pick up anyone obviously dangerous, or likely to endanger the other passengers, but the statistics speak for themselves: last year more people on night buses were held up and robbed by the driver than by anyone getting on the bus.  Taxis generally don’t stop for me, and there weren’t enough people around for me to steal someone else’s cab, or even persuade someone else to flag the cab down for me.  I was walking again, as it seemed I always did.  It got you intimate with the city of course, and there aren’t many back alleys, rat-holes and forgotten streets that I don’t know about.  I even know about the trap streets, both the ones the mapmakers use and the real trap streets that you should know better than to walk down.  Mad Frankie’s Anger Management take things a little too literally at times.
The rain had stopped and the moisture from the ground was starting to swirl up and around into fog.  Someone up at the museum had explained how it happened to me once, while I was on a stakeout for a bag-snatcher and snatch-bagger who had a thing for academics and people in horn-rimmed glasses.  Somehow the city created a layer of warmer air above the ground, which was cooled by the underground rivers and waterways, and the moist air got trapped between the two layers and just hung around, shrouding us all in icy white curtains that could get thick enough that you couldn’t see your hand held out in front of you and left you soaking wet when you went back inside.  I smiled a little at the thought that knowing how it all worked still didn’t stop me getting wet or blind by it, and plodded on, one foot in front of the other, just like my old dancing coach used to mutter.
Some would claim it’s hard to tell, but the streets around me grew poorer and I knew that I was getting close to where Boy Blue had lived.  Might still live; I didn’t know that he was dead yet, just missing, presumed sheared.  A road-sign appeared on the side of a house: Schalk Road.  I turned in, and cut across the carpark of a housing block.  At the other side I clambered over a waist-high metal fence, wishing I was still limber enough to just jump it, and pushed through the rhododendrons until I emerged in the car-park of a different housing block.  Across that, under a low arch, and I was in the car-park of Boy Blue’s housing block.  Every now and then I find myself wondering if the town planners ever bothered to learn about geometry in school, because the way they put things together beats human comprehension.
There were no police cars or vans in the car-park, but I knew what I was looking for, and in the furthest corner from the entrance was a maintenance van from Tar’em’n’car’em.  Monkeybutt had left someone behind to keep an eye on the scene and tell her who turned up.  The question now was, how many of them had she left behind?
These blocks are poor for a reason: their construction was done on the cheap three decades ago, and it shows.  I went back to the arch and levered a brick out of the wall with not much effort at at; there were plenty of places where the local kids had already pulled bricks and half-bricks out.  I dropped the brick on the floor, and it cracked into two pieces readily.  I picked them both up, and lobbed one of them at the van with an underarm throw.  I can throw overarm, but it usually dislocates my shoulder when I do.  The brick sailed parabolically through the air, and landed with a thud on the top of the van, where it shattered into a rain of brick nuggets.  I waited two seconds, and then threw the second one, which struck surprisingly close to the first.  The van engine started up and the van reversed across the car park to the other side.  When it stopped, the engine still idling, a man opened the rear doors and stuck his head out, looking up and back rather than from side to side.
“Bloody kids,” I hear him call, though his voice was thin and reedy at that distance.  “They must have figured out we’re not local.”  He ducked back inside, closing the door behind him, and I went and fetched another brick.  Two more thuds, and the van moved to the gate and waited there, the engine running.  I kept waiting, and was rewarded with the sight of a burly man with a prominent bald spot swaggering across the car park from the building.  I recognised him as Lieutenant Drough, one of Natasha’s side-kicks.  He was known behind his back as Dan, for the obvious reason.
“What’s the matter?”  He had a strong inner-city accent; all t’s replaced with stops, dropped h’s and g’s and trouble with any word of more than three syllables.  “Why’s youse moved the van?”
I couldn’t hear the other side of the conversation, but before it got very far a microwave crashed into the car-park from the fifth floor, and Dan turned to look.  It was a slow, deliberate turn, and followed immediately by a slow, deliberate getting into the van.  It was the inner-city completely: I’m not scared of you, and I think I know who you are, so I’m just going to get my mates and then I’m coming back.  I’d be more impressed if I didn’t know that whoever threw the microwave was also getting their mates, and their mates’ mates, and it looked like there’d be a little bit of action here in about an hour.  The van pulled out of the car-park, and I limped my way across to the entrance to the block.  I needed to be in and out before Dan came back.

Monday, 11 March 2013

A heap of broken images

Phlebitis sat on an uncomfortable wicker chair.  There was supposed to be a blanket; green and white striped, thick and woollen; draped over the chair, and he supposed that would make it easier to sit on, but his blanket appeared to have been taken by the matron sat behind him.  He had turned, intending to ask her for the return of the blanket, but seeing her in profile he had recognised immediately that she was an avatar of Belladonna, Our Lady of the Rocks, and had turned back around again.  He had no wish to attract her attention.  He now planned to take the blanket from the chair to the left of him, which was ostensibly occupied by a young boy who kept standing up and running off to play with other small children behind the score board.  The boy’s parent, a woman with a lined face and scabs all over her hands, looked exhausted and was clearly about to fall asleep, and Phlebitis was waiting for it to happen.
In the near distance there was a thwock of leather striking ash and a low cheer raised from the front row of seats.  The elderly men gathered there were, to Pheblitis’s uncertain knowledge, either retired cricketers who were watching the game with a professional interest, or City Directors who were busy being seen at a City event and ensuring the safety of their Thrones.  He was aware that many of them had been to visit Madame Sosotris recently, but he hadn’t been able to bring himself to talk to her yet.  Her constant attempts at flirting, which were growing ever more unsubtle, were disturbing and mildly unpleasant.  He had half a plan there too, to try and foist her on some other member of his crew, but none of them had yet done anything bad enough to warrant it.  The young boy’s mother’s head drooped, and her eyes finally closed.
“Six!” shouted an elderly gentleman in the front row, and Phlebitis’s arm snaked out and tugged the blanket over to his own chair.  The front row mostly stood up, applauding with trembling, age-spotted hands, blocking the view of the cricket game for the rest of the audience unless they too stood.  One or two men at the back did, but the remainder stayed seated, some not even aware of what had happened.  Phlebitis stood as well, suddenly realising that this was a perfect excuse, and when they all sat again he rearranged the blanket on his chair as though it had always been there, but badly laid out.
There was another thwock and the cricket ball flew off again and then, perhaps a second later, there was a soft thunk.  A gasp of horror arose from the front row and Phlebitis looked up in curiosity.  The cricket ball appeared to have struck a dead tree, which was awkwardly located at the corner of the in-field.  Its trunk was broad but hollow, and though several handfuls of branches still arose from it, then were blunted and stunted and no leaves or other greenery grew on them.
“The dead tree gives no shade,” muttered a man in the front row, and the rest of the row tried very hard to appear not to have heard him.  There was a garbled cry from the pitch, and the umpire, an obese, sweating man dressed in flannel whites and looking very miserable, raised a finger on each hand, giving both batsmen out.  Their heads sank and they slunk from the pitch, but the opposing team made no sound; raised no cheer, offered no mockery.  It was, Phlebitis thought, as though what had happened was too dreadful to be just the fault of the batters.  Though all they’d done was strike a dead tree, so he couldn’t really see what the problem could be.  He shifted in his seat, which was much more comfortable with the blanket on it, and slouched back a little.   The matron behind leaned forward, and whispered in his ear, “The dead tree offers no shade.”
An electric current seemed to run through his body, and his left leg twitched, a little spasm that made him kick the ground.
“I heard the man at the front, thank-you,” said Phlebitis in a low voice, hoping that this would bring the conversation to a close.
“Not well enough,” said the Matron.  “It hides a heap of broken images.  I would expect you to want to confirm that.”
He turned his head now, about to complain to her that she couldn’t just tell him what to do, but she had sat back again, and was now gazing at the game looking exactly like Belladonna once more.
The game ended with one side winning by several runs and wickets and Phlebitis wasn’t honestly sure which side had won, or if either side even cared.  The backslapping and camaraderie didn’t fit with his ideal for the sport, and they seemed to be walking off the pavilion both together and with the audience.  The most elderly gentlemen were supported and assisted by the others, while the rest of the audience wiped away crumbs from the cucumber sandwiches and pretended that they’d wanted to take small children with them to the match.  The young boy’s mother was still asleep on her chair, and her son was now patting her knee, trying to wake her.  Phlebitis sighed softly, stood up, and threw his blanket over the boy in a quick movement.  The heavy fabric bore him to the ground and muffled his cry of surprise so that no-one turned their heads or noticed what was happening.  The he gave the mother a gentle push, tipping her far enough forward that she slowly toppled off her chair and onto the ground, and set off at a quick jog onto the cricket pitch, towards the in-field.  Her cry of surprise as she woke on the hard ground distracted the milling crowd that had been watching the game but wasn’t going to the pavilion, and then the discovery that her child was under the blanket had them hunting about for any further misfortunes that may have befallen, and no-one noticed Phlebitis reach the dead tree and hoist himself up amongst the dead branches.  He only had to climb about ten feet to get high enough up to see down in the hollow trunk of the tree itself and see that it was partly filled with water.  As he looked at the water though he felt an invisible pair of hands pass across his eyes, and the world seemed somehow brighter, more sharply defined at the edges, and the water in the tree trunk became a pile of broken images.
He saw a woman dressed in white standing on the beach, crying.  A man crawled ashore from the water, the waves struggling to pull him back, but he clawed his way beyond them and lay there, gasping for breath.  The crying woman couldn’t see him, and she turned away, heading off the beach to a narrow, sandy track.  Clouds overhead merged together and became a lighthouse; a beam of intense light shot out from it.  Following it along, it illuminated a wicker chair on the edge of a cricket pitch, and Belladonna turned to look at him, her eyes aflame.  He shuddered, and a man on horseback rode past, wearing a leather jacket with metal studs all down the arms and a skull with flaming eye-sockets on the back.  The horse’s hooves boomed as it cantered and the beach suddenly returned, with waves taller than a man crashing on the shore and throwing white spume high into the air.  A boat tossed on the waves, some distance out, and Phlebitis could smell the unforgettable aroma of boiling frogs.  The boat seemed to come in closer to shore and then the waves calmed and he saw that the name of the boat was the Odysseus.
Phlebitis sighed and let himself slide down the branches and fall from the tree.  The grass below the tree was soft, but the tree roots that snaked through it were hard and ligneous.  It seemed somehow fitting.

Friday, 8 March 2013


Emily Landsinger founded her eponymous colony in ’97, three years before the Bliss happened.  She was spending money inherited after the death of her second husband, whose business interests both revolted and financed her.  Unwilling to give up the luxuriously decadent lifestyle that the sale of weapons allowed her, but morally opposed to what she considered indiscriminate slaughter, she bought several islands in the Indonesian archipelago and created the Landsinger colony.  The rules of admission were artistic talent only, though these were relaxed a little when she decided that she wanted shops and boutiques available too.  Artists came to the colony by private jet or yacht, and paid nothing for the travel costs.  Artists were supposed to leave the colony that way too, but Emily declared that no-one wished to leave after they’d arrived, and brooked no dissent to her opinion, for all that there were artists who now considered themselves kidnapped, or stranded, or shanghaied or any one of a number of other words that came out over cocktails at dinner.
When the Bliss hit, at 4am on the 1st of December, Emily had an aneurism and died.  She was hosting her Advent Ball at the time and had walked out onto a marble platform above the swimming pool holding aloft a champagne flute and tossing her hair behind her like a wave of autumn fire.  She froze in mid-step, and people close to the platform swore they saw her eyes cross.  The champagne flute fell from her nerveless fingers and smashed on the marble, the ringing, shrill sound echoing from the low compound buildings where the party was being held.  Everyone held their breath, wondering what she was doing, and then her front foot came down on the marble and her leg kept going, her knee bending outwards as though she were kneeling.  Then her head came down to her knee and she pitched forward further still, sliding along the polished white marble until her head dropped off the head and for a moment it looked like she was done falling.  Then she spasmed, jerking forwards and pushing her shoulders and breasts off the platform, and gravity seized her like a lover and pulled her into the swimming pool with a crystal splash.  Tiny water droplets seemed to hang in the air like coloured jewels and then fell back, covering her as she sank gracelessly to the bottom, her dress sodden and heavy and weighing her down.
I was behind the bar, serving drinks to people who weren’t entirely sure that they wanted to be there and had a perfect view of the performance because the bar was set up on a bridge over the swimming pool, a little before the rocks that separated it from the sea.  I was topless, as demanded by the party’s rules, holding in my gut which was starting to lose definition because Emily’s parties carried on through the night and the next day leaving me with no time to get to the gym or exercise; I would go home at 11 in the morning, sleep for five hours and have to get up and be back at the compound to clean-up and set-up for the next night’s party.  I placed my cocktail shaker when she fell into the water and said a silent prayer of thanks in my head to any god or gods that might be listening, and hoped that her death might mean that we could all go home.
Of course, we had no idea what the Bliss was, or would bring.  We didn’t know then that it would prevent all air-travel for five years, and even after that time the repairs and rebuilding of the airlines would mean that it was another three before any but the ultra-rich or the armed forces could afford flights.  And we had no idea that it would mean that Emily Landsinger would sit up from her coffin during her own funeral, shake her head from side to side as though trying to shift a headache, and complain about the taste of formaldehyde in her mouth.  Her sister, who had already called in the lawyers to try and break the covenants protecting the colony, was in the front pew listening attentively to the priest.  She rose to her feet, her mouth falling open and her hands clutching her chest, having a heart attack at the sight of her sister rising up from the dead.  When, another three days later, Emily’s sister sat up from her own coffin at her own funeral and asked why there wasn’t more crying, we began to get an inkling of what the Bliss was about.
No deaths, no births.  Stasis, in a way.  Bliss.
Some things died, the food chain didn’t end.  But nothing that died of old age stayed dead for more than three days before it stood itself back up and started walking around again.  There was no rejuvenation, no new youthfulness or reinvigoration.  Just an unwillingness to die and decompose like a good corpse.  Emily acted like she’d had a stroke; she slurred her words, she had trouble understanding people who spoke too quickly or all at once.  She wouldn’t admit it, but her vision had been affected as well, and she frequently mistook people for objects and objects for people when she wasn’t at a party and pretending she was drunk.  Her sister, Abilene, couldn’t run, or walk for long periods, and had to avoid stairs unless she could take them very slowly.  It was supposed to be a secret, but her doctor told me that his best guess was that she’d had six more deaths in the first year of the Bliss and would be happier if she could just die now.
If you weren’t a dead man walking though, the Bliss had its moments.  The feeling of permanent happiness that seemed to come just from breathing made life much easier.  People didn’t argue much, or get into fights.  People helped each other out more, and made more concessions for each other.  They looked after animals better, and worried more about what they were eating (though that might have been because you didn’t want your food waking up while you were eating it).  Even those of us trapped in the Landsinger colony with a pair of undead sisters imposing their will on us were happier than we had been.
The artists still wanted to leave though.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Jigsaw puzzles

The overflow morgue smells clinical; the air is cold and tastes slightly of formaldehyde, but there’s a rancid note like off-butter underneath it all.  I kind of like it, but that might just be familiarisation, given how much I come here to think.  The trolleys are hard, cold steel, but that’s pleasant when your body’s as abused and damaged as mine: I don’t have to support anything, and the chill numbs the aches and pains of a life lived long.  I exhaled and let Death hug me just a little closer.
The sheep thing bugged me still.  Why had someone gone to the trouble of dragging one up all those flights of stairs to slaughter it?  And where was Boy Blue at the time?  Did he open his door and have a sheep bleat at him, probably angry and panicked by that point?  I knew Blue a little, and I expect he would have panicked too, probably backing up into the room while the sheep was goaded forwards.  There was so little in his room – even I have more in mine, though most of it belongs to my room-mate and probably wouldn’t fit me – that he’d reach the mattress before he knocked anything over.  Then he’d end up sitting down on the bed while the sheep bleated and pawed the ground, its eyes rolling madly in its triangular head, while behind it some shadowy figure made threats.
No, that just didn’t work.  How did Blue get out in that case, and why kill the sheep?
I adjusted my position on the trolley slightly and felt my shoulders go numb, which was a blessed relief.  Let’s try again.
Could Blue jump out of the window?  Not and stand up again, and certainly not run away.  Too many floors to fall.  Could there have been something below the window when he jumped that he could land on?  Seemed unlikely, but I hadn’t checked when I was there.  That would be lucky for him (I presumed), and stranger things did happen.  People thought that odd coincidences only happened in stories but that was because they didn’t do the numbers: with as many people in the world as there are, a one-in-a-million chance should be happening to a few hundred people on any given day.  Maybe yesterday had been Blue’s day?  He probably thought he was overdue one, most people did.
But was there an easier answer?  What if Blue wasn’t there when the sheep-killer arrived; could the murder of the sheep be a warning message?  Well, then the sheep had to be important and either Blue had been angering French farmers or… well, Belle Peep had already shown up in my investigation hadn’t she?  Her father, Bo Peep, had run a small inner-city farm before his death about ten years ago, and rumour had it that Belle kept the farm going but that the tours were for much more select groups with special interests.  Could Belle have a quarrel with Blue?  Or did Belle just supply the sheep for someone else who had a quarrel with Blue?
Something tickled at my foot, and I kicked out.  There was a soft outrushing of breath and a second, sharper, intake of breath so I opened my eyes.  Two medical students, easily identifiable by the looks of terror on their faces and the textbooks they were clutching were backing away from my trolley.  One was doubled over, as though he’d just been kicked in the pit of his stomach and the other was making the sign of the cross repeatedly across his chest.
“I’m not dead,” I said slowly.  It seems like that’s the one thing that should be easy to grasp about this situation, but in my experience it’s the bit people have most trouble with.  I blame all these zombie movies, and the occasional zombie outbreak.  “I’m having a think.”
“In the morgue?” said the self-crossing student lowering his arm.  His other hand, holding a heavy textbook, remained ready to swat at me in case I decided his brains were enough for a meal, which I rather doubted.
“It’s quiet, and I don’t often get disturbed,” I said.  “What are you doing here?”
“Homework,” wheezed the other student, slowly coming upright again.  “We’re a bit behind in class, so we got the keys–“
“Permission!” injected the second student quickly
“– and the keys to come down here and catch up a bit,” continued the first.  “We weren’t going to use your body, we were just wondering how badly advanced your state of decomposition was.”
“Still living,” I said with a snarl.  “You want the room next door; all the bodies in here are missing limbs that need to be put back with them before they can be autopsied.”
“Right,” said the first student starting to leave, but then stopped as the second looked at me quizzically.
“How do you know?” he asked.
“I’m supposed to be here,” I said.  “Night watchman.”
“Oh.”  He didn’t look convinced, but I didn’t care.  They wandered off, whispering to each other and looking nervous, and I slipped off the trolley.  I was going to go and check out Blue’s place again and see what I’d missed when Monkeybutt turned up, and then I was going to go and find out if Belle Peep really did still have her daddy’s farm.

Monday, 4 March 2013

Supermarket shopping

“What are you intending to use that for, Sir?”  It was Policeman 2 speaking, frowning heavily as Leslie went to put a boxed toaster in his trolley.
“I’m not,” he said.  “But if I were, I expect it would be for making toast.  Toasters are a rather one-trick pony, don’t you think?”
“Is that supposed to be funny, Sir?”
Leslie smiled; this was one of the supermarkets that had been embarrassed by the horse-meat in the beef-burgers stories that had been making the newspapers worth reading lately, but he hadn’t actually intended his comment to be a reference to it.  He had already noted a stack of leaflets near the checkouts proudly proclaiming that the supermarket had learned from this experience and wished to tell their customers about the changes they would effect.  He’d ignored them, mostly because he wouldn’t dream of buying meat from a supermarket.
“No,” he said.  “Though now you draw my attention to it, I believe I can make it funny.  You can expect to see it in about three weeks, if you watch Kirsten and Alice.”  Kirsten and Alice was a topical sketch show he submitted material to, and he’d been quite pleased to get a letter from the script editor asking him to submit more and more frequently.
“We’ll be watching you, Sir,” said Policeman 1, trying to do menacing.  Leslie felt that it came off as dull and lifeless, and it reminded him unpleasantly of his days as a drama coach trying to get wooden students to understand that acting was all about being someone else for five minutes.  He’d finally resigned, telling the head of the school that since most of the students there hadn’t worked out who they were themselves there was no hope of getting them to pretend to be anyone else.
“So why are you buying a toaster you don’t intend to use?” asked Policeman 2, the brighter of the pair.  His notebook and pencil appeared as if by magic.
“To give as a gift,” said Leslie.  He’d given up being astonished by the stupidity of his bodyguard, and although he’d entertained the idea for a while that they were trying to wear him down into a confession, he no longer thought that anyone could be that stubborn.  “My wife left me a note this morning saying that it was the housekeeper’s birthday and that I should get her something.”
“A toaster?”
“Why not?”  Leslie shrugged.  “I barely know the woman, and she only ever serves me with cold toast, so perhaps I can be generous while dropping a hint.”
“How about flowers, Sir?  My wife likes flowers.”  Policeman 1 flushed pink as he said this, and Leslie found himself pitying the man.
“I can’t imagine that my wife would be pleased if I gave the housekeeper flowers, officer,” he said.  “She might feel that it was a rather too intimate gift for the staff.  How would you feel if I gave you flowers?”
“I’ve got hayfever,” said Policeman 1.
“So we’d have to consider the intent behind the flowers,” said Policeman 2 quickly.  “That could constitute an attempt at murder, or threatening behaviour!”
“Everything’s murder with you isn’t it?”  Leslie knew he sounded bitter but couldn’t help it.  The policeman had been following him around for nearly 4 months now, and he was losing hope that the police budget crisis would put an end to it.
“Not us, Sir,” said Policeman 2.  “The only murderer here is you, if you’d only be so kind to admit it.”
There was a squeak from the next aisle and the sound of something glass striking the floor and breaking.
“You did that,” said Leslie without rancour.  “You should go and help.”
“And leave you on your own to murder someone?  You’d like that, wouldn’t you, Sir?”
“I’d love to be left alone, yes,” said Leslie.  “I don’t murder people though, and I never have.”
“It’s just coincidence that people keep dying near you, then, Sir?”
“Yes!  A thousand times yes!  Although…” Leslie eyed Policeman 2 up thoughtfully, “This never used to happen until you two arrived.  If we’re going purely on circumstantial evidence then one of you is clearly the murderer, attempting to pin the crime on me.”
“That seems a bit far-fetched, Sir,” said Policeman 2.  Leslie snorted and turned the corner of the aisle.  Sprawled in the next aisle in an expanding pool of blood was a dead young woman.
“Oh God,” he said weakly.  “How did the pair of you manage that then?”  Policeman 2 shot him a filthy look and radioed in for help.
“Yes, he’s murdered another one while we were watching him… no, he didn’t kill her in front of us… no, he didn’t get away from us… no… no… yes… no, well, we were with him and there’s another murdered body in the next… no… yes… well he’s a murderer isn’t he?”  Finally the conversation stopped and Policeman 2 looked at Leslie.  “You’re going to have to come in for questioning.”

Saturday, 2 March 2013

An unusual knife

Isabella backed David up to the top of the stairs and into the shadows there, but he refused to go back round the corner, and with a mental kick she remembered telling him about the spiders to get him down the rope.  She controlled a sigh and, not for the first time, told herself that she ought to have a clause in her treasure-hunting contracts that explicitly prohibited the person commissioning her from coming along for a jolly.  David stood in front of her so that he could peer at the corner and get first glimpse of any spiders chasing them, and she allowed him to, reasoning that if she got shot he was definitely going to die, whereas if he got shot she still had a fighting chance.
“We’re not going back up that rope, Izzy,” said David.  He was managing to keep his voice low now, and she was grateful for that.  “There’s a spider’s nest at the top.  It’s certain death.”
“They’re only spiders,” she said.  She saw immediately that it was the wrong thing to say.  David’s face paled and his eyes widened, even though his pupils shrank down to a pinpoint.  He gripped her arm urgently, and she noticed that it hurt, something she’d very much doubted he was capable of.
“They’re not!” he hissed, staring at her.  She noticed that his hair was so heavily gelled that it still looked as though he’d only done it up a few minutes ago.  It was slicked back against his scalp and down the back of his neck in a thoroughly unfashionable mullet.  He reminded her strongly of football players in the seventies.  “They’re not!”
She thought before answering this time, mostly of what she’d like to do to him for lying on the application form about his phobias.  
“Damn.  So you know too?” she said.  David’s gaze became very slightly less terrifying and his grip slackened a little.  He nodded.  “Well, then you know I’m not going to try and go back up the rope,” said Isabella, who’d been intending to do exactly that.  “But there’s a very real danger down here too, David.  Bigger even than the spiders.”  His gaze intensified again and she wondered if she’d judged it wrong and he was about to flip out.  Then he let go of her arm, though he didn’t drop his gaze.
“So what do we do?” he asked.  “It seems like we’re cut off front and back.”
“We don’t know that, we only know that there’s dangers here that we don’t know about,” she said.  “They’re known-unknowns in the matrix formualation: we know that there are things we don’t know enough about to address, but knowing that we know this allows us to prepare to address them.  It’s very meta.”
David nodded as though he were taking her seriously.  “And the unknown-unknowns?” he said.  Isabella felt her jaw drop, but she started speaking quickly to cover it up.
“Are always a problem,” she said.  “And by their very nature they can’t be anticipated or planned for.  Specifically, that is, there are general precautions we can take.  And it helps if we have some unknown-unknowns of our own.”
“Like what?  We’ve not brought much equipment.”
And whose fault is that? thought Isabella immediately.  David had first refused to carry anything that looked heavy, then he’d moaned about carrying anything at all, and eventually she’d been forced to leave quite a lot of things she’d have liked to have with her.  Most of them were geo-tagged for later collection, but it was still vexing.
“We have some,” she said.  “And in fact I’m intending to use one of them now.”  She slipped her fingers beneath her blouse and located the slender leather holster she wore against her skin.  Her fingers tingled as she touched it, the action of a neurotoxin whose antidote she ingested every morning without fail.  Undoing it with a soft clicking sound, she slid a knife out and out of her blouse.  Its handle was the length of her palm and wrapped with a fibrous plant material that gave it good grip in wet or sweaty hands, and its blade was about wavy, half as long again, and made of a metal that looked like steel.  It glittered even in the poor light of the cave.
“That’s a knife, Issy,” said David.  “That won’t stop a bullet.”
“It’s a kris,” she said.  “It’s made of some odd alloys that are quite hard to find.  It’s proper name is a Brinchev kris and there are supposedly only five of them in the world.”
“It’s valuable then?”  David’s voice took on a note of greed which made her feel slightly sad.  The man had more money than he knew how to spend and was bored enough to hire her for a treasure hunt and then insist on coming along, yet show him an expensive rarity and he wanted it.
“In a way,” said Isabella.  She held the knife out in front of her, laying on her open palm, and slowly turned in a circle.  About two thirds of the way round the knife quivered, but she completed the full circle before returning to that point.  “They’re used for a very specific purpose usually, so if you don’t have that purpose they’re not all that useful.”  She took a step forward, watching the knife tremble.
“What purpose?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” she said.  “The propaganda is very good.”  She took another step and was gratified to see a bar of light suddenly shoot down the length of the blade and strike the floor, where it vanished.
“What was that?”
“The location of the door,” said Isabella.  “There are doors everywhere, David, but what’s on the other side is generally not safe.  And I really, really mean not safe.  The only reason I’m doing this is because I know what’s on the other side, and I don’t know what’s going on in that cave.  So we trade a known danger for an unknown one, and hope that it’s all worthwhile in the end.”
“I don’t think I understand you.”   His voice was small and his head drooped.  His eyes focused on his feet, but she refused to feel sorry for him.
“I know that,” she said.  “But you’ll have your chance soon enough.”  She gripped the Brinchev kris firmly, pushed into empty air, and began to cut.