Tuesday, 30 April 2013


The Blonde had gone on holiday with her two best friends which she’d apparently known from birth.  She will spend hours a day on the phone to them, usually after she’s just come back from lunch with them, or shopping with, or Yoga-lates with them, leading me to wonder if there’s anything that ever happens in any of their lives that the other two don’t immediately know about.  It’s as though they’re attempting to defy the Copenhagen interpretation all by themselves by ensuring that perfect information is transmitted to distinct locations simultaneously and instantaneously.  But anyway, it had been Thursday afternoon, and I had been browsing on Amazon to see if there was anything humorous I could buy with my work’s credit card and have shipped to my editor’s desk, when the Blonde hobbled in clutching her hip.  I looked up, and adopted an expression of concern.
“Are you alright, darling?  Was the shopping too much?” I asked.  I’ve learned how to add a rich timbre of sincerity to my voice through too many occasions of being accused of being sarcastic when saying such things.
“It was Yoga-lates, actually,” she said.  I know only that it’s some kind of combination of Yoga and Pilates and that it was endorsed, for a while, by that political party who wanted to save the world by Yogic flying.  “I collided with Jenna and we then both hit other things.  It hurts, I don’t mind telling you that.”
Jenna, as I understood it, was the teacher of the class, though the Blonde often had acidic things to say about her which made me wonder why she attended the class at all.  I harboured the suspicion that the Blonde only went because her best friends went, and one of them was determined to go because they had a crush on Jenna.  I wondered if this collision would have caused ripples in the waters of friendship.
“We’re going to Monaco tomorrow,” said the Blonde.  I shook my head.
“That’s rather short notice,” I said.  “I’ve agreed to do the obits column this weekend, I’m not sure I can just mail it in from Monaco.”
“Not you,” said the Blonde witheringly, and I obligingly withered.  “The girls and me, we’re going.  Strictly a girly weekend of massages, spa treatments and general relaxation so I can get something done about this hip.”
I nodded, and decided it was best to keep quiet.  I waved her off to her taxi the following morning, and then found an excuse to work from home that afternoon, so that I wouldn’t be around to blame when an elephant’s foot umbrella stand, autographed by the members of Fleetwood Mac, landed on my editor’s desk in the most flamboyant gift wrap I could request.
Saturday morning, left alone and looking at wonderfully blue skies and sunshine through the window, I decided to break out the barbecue and smoke something.  There was a bag of charcoal left over from last summer, and it looked as though I’d remembered to clean the barbecue out before storing it this time, so all that I need was something for the smokiness, and something to absorb it.  I did consider briefly trying to smoke the vodka but it seemed like it would better to drink it instead (later; at this time of the morning I’m strictly coffee and cigarettes until the bacon rolls have arrived).  There was a bag of snails in the fridge, but I thought that they’d just taste of smoke (I have yet to find anything snails naturally taste of other than rubber), so that left the Blonde’s birthday cake.
Her birthday was two weeks ago, but due to a mix up between bakers the cake had only arrived Wednesday of this week.  She’d looked at it, ooh-ed a little over the exquisite icing, and then reminded me she was on a strict diet until she was happy with the way she looked in her bathing costume.  The cake had been sitting in the fridge ever since, so I figured it would be acceptable to smoke it and see how vanilla cream cake worked with a smokey infusion.
Find something to generate the smoke was tougher; there were no bags of applewood-chips or hickory-chips left over, and when I checked the garden the trees all looked to be tougher than me.  There were nettles, but nettle-smoke didn’t sound that tasty.  Checking the kitchen I thought I was going to have to try smoking with seven-grain flour for a while, and then I found a box of single-estate tea that the Blonde’s mother had given up at Christmas as part of a hamper.  Perfect!
The barbecue was a cinch to set up for smoking, so the tea-leaves went into a little foil tray that sat directly on the coals, and the cake sat on the grill. I closed the lid, and waited.
About twenty minutes later I heard an odd sloughing sound and eyed the barbecue with suspicion.  When, a few minutes later still, smoke started leaking out from it I opened it up to check on the cake.
The icing had melted and slid off the cake onto the coals and over the tea-leaves, where it then caramelised and started burning, hence the black, acrid smoke that was now billowing out (the fresh air providing new oxygen to the coals).  I scooped the cake off the grill and slammed the lid back down.  I let the barbecue cool down and then take it to the tip and replace it: there’s no way I was trying to clean burnt caramel off the wretched thing.  The cake, sooty and smelling of tar, went back in the fridge.  The Blonde wasn’t back until Monday; I had time to find someone to recover it with icing, and since she wasn’t going to eat it anyway, she’d never know.

Sunday, 28 April 2013

Can I play with madness?

Madame Sosotris was feeling uncomfortable, which was unusual for her.  She was sat at the battered, wooden, circular table where she conducted her palmistry (occasional dental), tarot readings and other divinations of the future.  The table rocked because she’d never bothered to get the legs evened off.  On the other side of the table was a young man, possibly even a boy, with milky white eyes that seemed to be pointed directly at her face.  His nose was running almost as badly as her own, and they sniffed in concert every few moments.  His upper lip was split and twisted revealing slightly yellowed teeth.  And he was listening intently to ever word she said.
She passed her hands over the crystal ball that she’d set in the middle of the table for this reading.  It chilled slightly in response to her hands, sucking in energy from its surroundings to allow her access to the future.  White clouds seemed to boil inside the ball and she flinched.  Normally the future was much more serene.
“What do you see?” asked the man-child, lisping slightly.  “I can feel the future drawing closer.  You are strong with your gift, aren’t you?  They’ve told me true.”
Madame Sosotris opened her mouth, intending to ask him who they were in this context, and who had been talking about her.  Partly it was professional pride, wanting to survey her customers to know how they’d learned about her, but partly it was fear as well, fear that there might be more people like him intending to pay her a visit.  Before she could speak though, the mist in the ball cleared and she leant forward, stunned by what she could see.
“Well I never!” she said.  “Did you see that?”
The man-boy sneered at her, but she was still looking into the ball and missed the expression.  “I cannot see,” he said when the silence drew on and he realised that she was either ignoring him, or not looking at him.  “You might have noticed my eyes?”
“I’ve learned not to make assumptions without better evidence than just my eyes,” said Madame Sosotris.  They sniffed at the same time.  “And if you had been watching, you’d have seen that in less than a year you regain sight in your eyes.  A man performs surgery and cuts away the veil from your vision.  You will wear cotton pads for three days, and then you will take the pads off and see again.”
“Really?”  The man-boy’s voice was hoarse, possibly with excitement.  “Do you truly see this?”
“Oh yes,” said Madame Sosotris.  “I know the man who performs the surgery, though I cannot see what would bring him here.  It seems that he is only part of your future insomuch as he lets you see again.”
“What do I do with my sight?  What is my future, woman?”
“There’s no call to take that tone with me!  I have a name you know.”  They sniffed is unison again.
“And I’m paying for your services,” said the man-boy.  “I’ve bought the right to call you woman.”
“I’m putting my prices up…,” muttered Madame Sosotris, not bothering to be quiet enough to keep her words from the man-boy’s ears.  “Your future is unclear afterwards.”
“What does unclear mean?  Tell me!  I HAVE TO KNOW!”
“Shouting gets you thrown out, money or not,” said Madame Sosotris.  She looked up from the crystal ball and saw that he’d pushed his chair back and was standing at the table, leaning on his knuckles and staring intently at the chest-of-drawers off to her right.  “I mean your future is unclear; the crystal fogs like there’s a frog in there breathing all over it when I try and look further.  There are a couple of reasons for that….”
“A frog?”
“It’s my metaphor, don’t mess with it.”
“Fine, woman.”  His voice was pointedly angry.  “What are these reasons?  And don’t tell me that I’m powerful and that hides the future from you.  I’ve had that from every charlatan on this side of the City.”
“Hah!  No, you’ll not hide your future from me just because you’re powerful.  You can sit down again now, if you like.  Your future might be unclear because you’ve crossed paths with the Drowned Sailor, because he distorts the future and reshapes it wherever he goes.  Your future might be unclear because you go and visit the court of the Eidolon, and She has ways of protecting her dominion.  Or it might be unclear because you’re fated to die and it’s not yet been decided how.”
“I’m hardly going to visit the Eidolon, everyone knows she eats people!”  The man-boy sat, his voice calmer now.  He reached out a hand and it brushed the crystal ball.  He sucked in a breath, a gasp, and pulled his hand sharply away.
“Don’t touch, it gets cold,” said Madame Sosotris automatically.  She sometimes used the crystal ball to make ice.
“Why is it so cold?”
“The future is frosty,” said Madame Sosotris.  “She is a harsh mistress.”
“What was that about death?”
“Oh nothing,” said Madame Sosotris.  “Anyway, it’s most likely the Drowned Sailor.”
“Who is that then?”
“He’s a friend.”  If the man-boy could have seen he would have recoiled from Madame Sosotris’s leer.  “And he’s coming here in three days time.”
“Are you always this cryptic?”
“Are you always as cheap as you’re going to be when you leave?”
“Oh.  You saw that in the crystal ball?”
“Hah.  Reading the future has its perks, yes.”

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Profound dreams

Dr. Fraud tapped the Enter key on his keyboard and a wisp of smoke rose gently from the vents at the back of the computer.  He sighed, three times, heavily, sounding very put upon and, looking around his desk, found a glass of water he’d been drinking earlier.  He picked it up and poured it into the vents of the computer.  The smoke disappeared and a few blue sparks dances in the air over the keyboard for a moment.  Dr. Fraud waited for them to disappear too, then pressed the button on the office intercom.
“Miss Phelps, the computer needs seeing to again,” he said, his crisp German accent making him sound rather authoritarian.  There was an audible sigh from the other side of the intercom.
“I’ll send Sebastopol in,” said a gruff female voice that suggested a heavy cigarette habit.  “It would help a lot if you’d tell him what you poured into it this time when he gets there.”
“I don’t know what you are talking about,” said Dr. Fraud picking the glass back up and looking for somewhere to hide it.  “Please ask the nice young man to hurry.”  He took his finger off the intercom button, cutting Miss Phelps’s reply off before it really got started.  Then he opened drawers in his desk at random until he found one with some space in all the clutter, forced the glass in, and closed it up again.
There was a tap at the door, and he called out “Come in, Herein!  Open it, it is unlocked already!”  A late-middle-aged man with a shaggy mop of grey hair interspersed with white ones ambled through the doorway holding a wet mop in one hand and an aluminium spanner in the other.
“Dr. Fraud?  You broke your computer again?”  His voice was soft and sounded educated.  It was a perennial puzzle to Doctor Fraud that someone who sounded like they should be debating philosophical issues at Cambridge appeared to enjoy doing maintenance work and cleaning other people’s lavatories.
“It attempted to catch fire,” said Dr. Fraud.  “It certainly wasn’t my fault!”
“Let’s take a look then,” said Sebastopol putting the mop on Dr. Fraud’s consulting couch.  It squelched, and Fraud frowned, wondering why the noise sounded familiar.
“I was attempting to complete my app, you know,” he said.  “We are very nearly there now.”
“What’s it do then, this app of yours?”  Sebastopol picked up the laptop and shook it experimentally, tilting his head to listen.  Then he turned it sideways and a sooty liquid drained out and into the inch-deep pile of the carpet.
“It will interpret dreams,” said Dr. Fraud.  “You place your head inside the special apparatus and let yourself go to sleep.  While you dream the app records your physiology and how you respond, and from that we infer what you were dreaming about and then provide you with an automatic interpretation.  Of course, it’s not as good as coming to see me on a regular appointment basis as the app can only provide an analysis on the dream in isolation, but it would give people like me a starting point for interpreting the whole suite of dreams in the context of your own life.”
“That sounds quite interesting,” said Sebastopol.  “Reckon you’ve got a leak in here somewhere Doctor, that’s the third time your laptop’s been full of water.”
“Can you make the silly thing work again?”
“Let me open her up and see,” said Sebastopol.  He produced a swiss army knife from a pocket, and then a second from another pocket.  “See these?  Between them they’ll deal with 90% of all screw-heads on the market.  Not many people know that.  What’s this special equipment then for you app?  Is it waterproof?”  He chuckled, to Dr. Fraud’s evident bemusement.
“I do not see the humour,” he said, but Sebastopol said nothing to enlighten him.  “For now, I am using the photocopier,” he continued.  Screws rattled on the desk as Seb took them out of the machine.  “It is not perfect, but if you close the lid firmly enough people pass out and go to sleep quite quickly.  I was hoping that we could get some pictures of their eyes as well, but the bright light seems to wake them up again.”
“Right,” said Seb.  The computer was open now and he was staring at what looked like rust eating into the motherboard.  The hard-drive case had holes in it, and the power-supply unit was sparking despite not being connected to the mains.
“Dreams are often the most profound when they seem the most crazy,” said Dr. Fraud.  Sebastopol poked some solder on the board and it oozed away from his finger almost as though it were alive.  “I have tried it now on several guinea pigs and we have had most interesting results.  Obviously I cannot name names, but the young lady who comes here on Tuesday afternoons between 2 and 3 had a detailed dream that involved you.  It seemed that in the dream, when I spoke to her afterwards, she’d fallen on an inappropriately sign-posted patch of wet floor and you’d come over to rescue her.  As she reached out to let you take her hand you too had slipped and fallen on top of her, and then somehow, unaccountable as the dream recorded it, all the buttons on her blouse flew off from the force of the collision.  Is it supposed to do that?”
“Do what?” asked Seb, who had stopped looking at the computer and was paying close attention to Dr. Fraud.  “Buttons don’t normally fly off no.  You should introduce me to her and I can probably fix that problem.”
“Don’t be silly,” said Dr. Fraud.  “I explained to her that the dream is her subconscious telling her that she should sue you for improper conduct in the workplace and she was quite happy with that idea.  No, I meant that big black thing.  Should it move like that?”
“Sue me?”
“This is America,” said Dr. Fraud.  “It’s practically a national hobby.  I gave her lawyer your address.”
“Well, I didn’t want anyone coming her to serve you papers.  It would give me a poor reputation.  Look, it did it again, it moved!  It pulsed!”
“Yeah,” said Sebastopol, his voice oddly dull and heavy.  He put the lid back on the laptop.  “All good in there, Doc,” he said.  “Plug it in, give it two minutes to get warm, and then if nothing’s happening shove that letter opener of yours in the yellow slot at the back.  Steel it it?”
“Silver,” said Dr. Fraud.  “Though I don’t hold it against you, when would you have ever had reason to encounter the precious metals?”
“Yeah, stick that knife in there several times then,” said Seb.  “Gotta run, I have an appointment with someone else on the faculty!”

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

The point of the knife

“Just go through,” said Isabella, pushing him in the small of the back.  David opened the door further and stepped through, holding the door open behind with one hand.  He stared around him, trying to reconcile this new place with the old-fashioned sitting room that they’d just come through from.  There was grass underfoot and some trees growing off in the distance.  There was a paling fence about twenty-feet away, with a black-latched gate in the middle of it.  Flowers grew in a flower bed off to his left, and after that was a freshly-dug patch of ground, and then another paling fence.  A bird twittered overhead and he looked up to see the sky, dotted with fluffy clouds.
And everything was either black, white or shades of grey.
“I’m back,” said Isabella behind him, her hand prising his fingers off the door.  He turned to look at her, his eyes glazed over and his whole face slightly vacant.  “Have you touched anything?”  She closed the door, and with a tiny click it was gone; behind them both was just a field stretching off into the slightly-grey distance.
“No,” he said.  “It’s… this is like a black and white photograph.  Only… it’s not a photograph.  Is it?”
“It’s not a photograph,” said Isabella.  “It’s just desaturated.”
“All the colours bled out,” she said.  “It happens, but we don’t know why.  It’s not the only place like this, and they don’t seem to be dangerous, although the longer you stay the longer it takes you to return to normal when you leave.”
“Really David, sometimes I don’t think you think at all.  When we leave this area and go back to a saturated zone where there’s colours again it’ll take a minute or two for us to return to colour.  We’ll be black and white temporarily.”
David looked down at his hands and turned them over and back, looking at them like they belonged to someone else.  While he stared, Isabella looked around.  She recognised the area in general; it was still part of the Teddybear land, but there were no buildings to provide a proper landmark.  She checked the position of the sun in the sky and turned to face south.  The flower bed and the dug-over ground was there, and she walked over to take a closer look.
The flowers were large blooms on thick, fleshy stems.  They were shaped like a cross between snap-dragons and tulips, and she picked a single stem, curious as to what colour it would be when she took back somewhere saturated.  The flower-bed looked tended, and recently at that.  As she looked over it she spotted a small weeding trowel and a similar sized fork half-hidden by the base of the leafier flowers.  She looked around her again then, taking more time and scanning the horizon for signs of any more teddy-bears.
“David!”  She watched until he looked up, his eyes still wide and slightly-scared looking.  For a moment she considered just cutting open a new door and leaving him here.  She hadn’t told him quite the truth about the dangers of the unsaturated regions: stay here long enough and you’d fade away until you just disappeared on a gust of strong wind one day.  “Come on!  We’re out in the open here, and I’d rather like to find a way back to our world before anyone else in this world finds us.”  She skirted the flower-bed and fresh diggings – probably a vegetable patch, she decided – and stepped neatly over the paling fence.  Then she looked back; he’d not moved.  “David!”
“What happened to the teddy-bear back there, Issy?” His voice was low but it carried in the quiet air.
“It lived happily ever after,” she said.  “Just like in the fairy-tales.  Come on, David.  This isn’t a game, remember?”
“It looked all slumped over,” he said.  “When I turned out when you came out, I saw it.  It looked –“
“Asleep,” said Isabella.  “They’re small mammals, think of them as being a bit like cats.  They sleep a lot, and they eat when they’re not sleeping.  And if they find us, and there’s a pack of them, they’ll eat us.  So come on, David.”
“Asleep,” he repeated.  “I suppose….”

Sunday, 21 April 2013

The Tailor

The shop was on a busy street, sandwiched between a music superstore and a small electronic shop with lots of coloured lights on display in the window.  The Tailor’s shop had a couple of dusky mannequins in the window wearing pinstriped suits, and a desultory display of ties on a hanger behind them.  The door pushed open and a bell jingled and the carpet just inside the door was threadbare and the brown of a mongrel dog.  Martin Lewhide looked around, wondering where the Tailor was.
“I’ll be with you in just a moment, Sir,” came a voice from the other side of what looked like a cupboard door.  It was quiet, slightly refined, and the words were crisp and clearly enunciated as though the speaker was used to being on stage.
“No hurry,” said Martin.  He looked around at the short racks of suits with a sign at one end: For display purposes only.  All suits made to measure.  Behind a small counter was another rack holding other suits that looked… well, tailored for want of a better word.  Martin walked over to have a closer look, wondering for a moment if he’d got the wrong shop.
“Please don’t touch,” said the voice, halting Martin’s steps.  His hand fell back to his side and he felt inexplicably guilty.  He turned; there behind him, closing the cupboard door with one hand and holding a wicked looking pair of cloth-shears in the other was a short man, well-dressed in a shirt, waistcoat and expensive-looking dark trousers.  His shoes were probably leather and shinier than any Martin had ever owned.  “Those are awaiting collection and as such, are already sold.  I doubt you want a bill for dry-cleaning.”
“You’re the Tailor,” said Martin, his eyes scanning the Tailor’s face.  It was plain, simple, nothing stood out.  His eyes were grey and looked like they saw a joke that Martin didn’t.  His nose was small, pointed and unremarkable.  His lips were thin, his chin was slightly dimpled.  Everything about him rang a bell, but all because he looked like the generic description people gave when they actually hadn’t been paying attention.
“That’s very observant,” said the Tailor.  “You must be the customer.  What are you looking for today?”  Eyes flicked up and down him.  “Everything?  A wedding perhaps?”
“You.  I’m looking for you,” said Martin.  “I know who you are.”
“I’m a tailor, Sir, yes.  And though I might suggest that I’m very good as discerning a man’s intentions when dealing with his suit preferences, I am not a mind-reader.  Could you perhaps be more specific why you’re looking for me?”
Martin paused, uncertain again.  The man was as nondescript as he’d been told, and this was definitely the right shop.  Could he be making a mistake?
“Do you have a partner?” he said.
“Someone I work with?  No, this is a sole-proprietor enterprise, which is possible by the bespoke nature of my business.  If you mean a romantic partner, then I’m afraid you’re simply not my type, but I am, naturally, flattered.”
“Then you’re the Tailor,” said Martin, wishing that he felt more confident.  “You’re running the numbers station.”
“What on earth is a numbers station?”
“A list of numbers, recited, at regular intervals,” said Martin.  “Why am I telling you though, you already know.  We’ve tracked the signal to here, you’re definitely running the numbers station.  And you have to be the Tailor, because the Tailor is the only person who would run a numbers station in Odnose B.”
“What’s an odd nose got to do with this?  This is very interesting by the way, but if a genuine customer should come in I’ll have to ask to leave, I’m afraid.”
“You don’t have any real customers!  This is all just a front.  You’re well aware that Odnose B is a language, a dead one, that probably killed off all its speakers.  You’re the only person in the world who’d pick it for a numbers station, and that’s just one of the things that’s going to have to stop.”  Martin pulled a gun from the inside pocket of his mac; the pockets there were tailored specifically for him to provide him with quick access to his weapons and other little tools that helped him with his tradework.
“Oh dear,” said the Tailor, sounding unconcerned.  “Is this is a robbery?”
“Dammit, stop pretending!  I know you’re the Tailor, I’ve been looking for you for the last three weeks.  People are dying because of your numbers station, you know!  Do you know how many people have died because of you?”
“Fewer, by an order of magnitude, than the number of its citizens that your country remanded into special custody to Guantánamo-like camps in the last calendar year.”
Martin stared at the Tailor.  The Tailor nodded.  “Oh yes.  Have you been doing this for so long now that you think you’re one of the good guys?  You’re not; everything I do is for the good guys, the improvement of the situation of the people I’m working for.  I never sit down and ask myself how I can be evil today, only what I can do to make life better for people.  Do you ever sit down and ask yourself anything?”
“I am too a good guy!” Martin stumbled over his words in his rush to get them out.  “You’re the one with a lethal numbers station!”
“You should really think about the intent of that,” said the Tailor.  “You might surprise yourself and understand something.  And while we’re at it, your government designated me an enemy combatant over eight years ago.  What did I do to deserve that?”
“I… I don’t know, I wasn’t working for the – for my employer then.”  Martin felt his face flush as he almost admitted who he was working for.
“Then you should have done your homework,” said the Tailor.
“I did!  We’ve been after you for six years, and you keep getting away.  But that’s not going to happen this time – we have this shop surrounded, front and back.  We’ve been watching it for three weeks now, and we broke in a couple of nights ago to check for hidden exits and secret passages.  There’s no way out this time, Tailor.  We have you, and I think you should just come quietly and make it easy on yourself.”
“Is there a book of clichés somewhere that they make you read and memorise?  You sound like a parody of yourself, you really do.”
“Just give up, Tailor!”  Martin felt quite proud of himself, sure now that he had the right guy and that he was going to walk out of here with the Tailor in handcuffs.  He’d be a hero, having finally caught the man they’d been after for so long.  “Hey, what are you doing?”  The Tailor had walked behind the counter.
“Turning the radio on,” said the Tailor, smiling faintly.  A tinny voice suddenly came out of the speaker system saying something utterly horrible.  It sounded like the word had stuck in the speaker’s throat and had had to be vomited out.  Syllables cracked where they should have resonated, phonemes seemed to melt and acidify in Martin’s ears.  He slapped his hands over his ears reflexively, but the Tailor just turned another dial and increased the volume.
As Martin sank to his knees, unable to pull his hands away from his head, and feeling his brain pulse with the intensity of a migraine as the words spoken in Odnose B echoed around the room.  The Tailor placed a piece of paper in front of him, and the writing on it swam before his eyes until he made himself blink and bring them in focus.  There are High and Low forms of Odnose B, read the note.  Be grateful that the numbers station is only using the Low form.  Martin blinked again and his vision turned red.  With a sudden cold feeling in the pit of his stomach he realised that his eyes had started bleeding, and he tried to get to his feet.  His feet, and his knees, wouldn’t obey him, and he just slowly fell over to one side.  He remained there until his team came in, wearing ear-protectors normally used on building site and shot both the radio and the PA system to put a stop to the words.  They had to carry him out between them.

Friday, 19 April 2013

Little chef

Manguy stood at his filing cabinet, idling sorting through the papers in the drawer.  It was organised along GTD (Getting Things Done) principles, with a folder for each day of the month and then a folder for each month of the year.  It was complicated a little by the need to have folders in there for each of the Jewish and Muslim months as well, plus the fact that at Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations they used a standardised 37-day month for a lot of internal billing and business practises.  Then there were a couple of additional folders of his own addition that marked deadlines for tax forms (in eighteen jurisdictions) and proposal tenders, plus a tracking folder for the CEO, Jeremy Diseased-Rat.  It was, in fact, a rather full filing cabinet drawer, and the data it contained was very important, so long as you knew how it all inter-related.
His fingers found a sheet of dove-grey paper that was otherwise unmarked and he paused.  This was the colour he reserved for Margoyle, one of his colleagues who was showing promise and signs of thinking about promotion.  The page here was to remind him that his last tactic, of suborning her assistant and making it seem like Jeronica’s doing, had gone oddly wrong.  Her assistant, Corisette, was dead due to a freak asphyxiation event in the stairwell that had lead directly to him (and about twenty-five people at his level) installing a fire-escape rope-ladder in his office for exiting the building via the window, but Jeronica didn’t seem to be suffering unduly from Margoyle’s rage.
Actually, Jeronica was an interesting puzzle in her own right at the moment.  A few more flicks and his fingers found a sheet of canary-yellow paper, one corner dog-eared and a loose staple in the diagonally opposite corner.  She was achieving far too much in internal meetings at the moment and he couldn’t figure out why.  Certain meetings where he was sure she would be stalled or blocked by equally-ambitious people were going smoothly instead of erupting into arguments and dividing along faction lines, and she was gradually drawing attention from the level above.  Soon enough she’d even attract Jeremy Diseased-Rat’s attention, and Manguy definitely wasn’t ready for that kind of competition.  He placed the sheet on his desk; he would need to sit down and do some planning to deal with this.
More flicking through the papers in the cabinet and he pulled out the only sheet of paper that was due tomorrow.  There was a drawing of a chef’s toque on it, and he sighed.  He closed the filing cabinet, closed the blinds on his office window that had a view of the corridor outside, and sat down in the leather swivel chair to think about this meeting.  A… let’s call her a lady, he thought, though that may be generous.  A lady, connected in not insignificant ways to the National American Society of Hipsters, was concerned that her children were insufficiently ambitious and may fail to obtain jobs that would allow them to lead the kind of lives she felt were appropriate for them.  She had four children, and Manguy had already managed to see to it that the girl who wanted to be a school-teacher had changed her mind and become a banking executive for an organisation that leased school-supplies to the third world using a scheme that applied punitive damages to anyone trying to leave it or think for themselves.  That had been almost simple: it was just a case of finding the right boyfriend for her and then having her attacked a small herd of five-year olds that had been eating sweets all morning.  The pay-off for him was the National American Society of Hipsters listening more attentively to his recommendations, and nominating the right presidential candidate.  The polls were looking promisingly like he’d win the next election too.  This time though, the issue was the son who wanted to be a chef.
Manguy wasn’t sure what was wrong with being a chef.  Occasionally, when his dealer failed to come through with the good stuff and he had to sleep unaided, he’d wake up from dreams of working in a kitchen and turning out plates of beautiful food that made beautiful women weep and powerful men offer him jobs on private yachts.  He would lie there in the morning light, remembering the scent of lobster bisque, or tasting the memory of a single perfect madeleine, and for a moment he would know what happiness was supposed to feel like.  Then he’d get up, pay the hooker to leave, and return to being Manguy, the go-to guy at Data Analytics Marketetic Normalisations and heir-apparent to Jeremy Diseased-Rat.
Well, now there was a point.  The woman wanted appropriate life-styles for her children, so perhaps the job wasn’t such an issue.  What she needed was a celebrity-chef for a son, someone with a television show, a chain of high-profile, high-turnover restaurants, a reputation for swearing like a hooker… no, wait that wasn’t the phrase, was it?  Swearing like a sailor, on shore-leave.  That was it.  Someone  who made powerful women fall in love with them and rich men offer them jobs on private yachts….
He made a couple of notes on the page, and jotted down a phone-number of the publicist to call to get this young man’s career started, and only had to brush a single tear away from his eyes.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Bar black

I don’t know if I like Bar Black, but I know it’s where I go when I need a place to drink while I think.  The overflow morgue’s great for thinking, but the only stuff to drink in there will pickle your insides.  Literally.  It’s on a street that’s down another street, and you only get to that street by walking to the end of another street that you’d be forgiven for thinking wasn’t going to end.  I met the guy who did the city planning during a previous investigation: in order to makes ends meet he was dressed up as Shirley Bassey and singing karaoke at a place that specialised in burlesque.  Right before I punched him in the jaw he told me that all of his city planning was done on the comedown after nights like that.  He also offered to rezone Mad Frankie’s office as a school district for me, and I won’t say I wasn’t tempted.
I reached the end of the street and turned down on the next street.  There were little groups of people sitting on the front steps of the houses here, muted conversations being had just on the fringes of the streetlights.  The windows of the houses behind them were all dark and quiet; families tucked up in bed and dreaming of a better future while their heads talked about the world and the possibilities it might offer in the morning light.  Now and then someone would look up as I walked past, and a conversation would pause for just long enough to let me know I wasn’t welcome, but I walked on and they resumed talking behind my back.  Which is where most of the world talks, it would seem.
One more turn onto a street darker still, more forgotten by the world, and I stepped up to a door with a man the size and shape of the Michelin-man outside.  He grunted, tiny red eyes opening and glaring at me like those of a homicidal robot in a science-fiction film.
“Mac?” he said, his voice high-pitched and slightly whistly from the holes in his teeth.
“The very same,” I said, and tipped my hat slightly towards him.
“You’re welcome,” he said, and shuffled aside to allow me to squeeze past him.  He could have moved further, but I happen to know he likes a little frottage now and them, and not many people are happy to have me touch them.
The bar was busy, but there were still two seats available.  One was next to the torch-singer, who was putting on her make-up and sipping from a martini glass, and the other was between two guys who looked like sailors.  I picked the sailors; Gaby the torch-singer lives up to her name and I wasn’t in the mood for listening to second-hand showbiz gossip from a lush.  I can get that in the morning papers.  Away from the bar there were tables with people sat at them, a small stage with a piano and a microphone, and a tiny little stand holding three chafing dishes that met the ‘hot food’ requirement for the bar to have its current licence.  No-one seemed to be eating from them, and past experience reminded me why.  Botulism is a dish best not served at all.  I hoisted myself up on to the bar-stool and tried to get Blue’s bed-leg out from my trousers.
“Hey.”  The voice from the guy on my left wasn’t friendly.  “Why are you playing with yourself?”
“Because you probably won’t do it for him,” said the barman walking over from where he’d been pouring Gaby another martini.  “The usual, Mac?”
“Uh-huh,” I said.  “It’s a big one,” I said to the talkative guy getting a grip on the leg at last.  “Want to see?”
He growled, a low, rumbling, threatening sound like a volcano letting you know that it’s feeling congested and might be doing something about it shortly.  I yanked hard and pulled the bed-leg free, though I heard something tear and knew that my trousers were going to draughty after this.  Tom, the barman, slid a cocktail glass in front of me, and I shoved the bed-leg under talkative-guy’s nose.  “Impressed?” I asked.
“I bet that’s the biggest thing you’ve ever pulled out of your pants, Mac,” said Tom.  I spared him a glance; I’ve known him for years and indirectly I’m responsible for him only having three fingers on each hand.  He gestured at my glass, “One pink lady.  And don’t ask for a tab.”
“What the fuck is this?” growled talkative guy.  “You bringing your bed in here with you?”
“Would you go home with him to find it?” asked Tom, stepping neatly out of reach and going over to the other side of the bar to serve a tall man dressed head-to-toe in a haz-mat suit.
“It’s not my bed, and it’s none of your business,” I said.  “Just keep drinking and let me worry about the furniture.”
Talkative guy grunted and swivelled on his stool slightly so that his shoulder was all I could see of his head, and I shook the bed-leg experimentally to see what might drop out.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Lilies from the dead land

“Tell me about Paysmort,” said Dr. Rosendieb.  He had lead them to the end of the colonnade and then produced a small brass key from a pocket of his waistcoat and opened a barred door in the wall.  Phlebitis peered unenthusiastically inside where it was gloomy and smelled damp.
“No,” he said.
“But you brought it up yourself,” said the doctor.  Seeing that Phlebitis was not about to lead the way, he took it himself.  “Close the gate behind you, it will lock itself.  You wouldn’t have brought it up if you didn’t want to talk about it, you know.”
“Amateur psychology,” said Phlebitis.  The gate clanged at it closed, and he followed Dr. Rosendieb round a corner.  The corridor, hewn seemingly out of rock, got narrower, the ceiling lowered, but a row of white electric lights set in rubber, waterproof housings now illuminated it.  Rosendieb was walking briskly along it, just a little faster than Phlebitis might have expected, and he had to speed up a little to catch up.
“Professional, actually,” said Rosendieb.  “It is my job, after all.”
“Hah!  Yes, I suppose it is, though it still feels like an amateurish attempt.  I brought Paysmort up, Doctor, because their scent gets onto anything inorganic and lingers.  Anything you take from my cargo as payment will carry some of that scent with it for a couple of days at least, and so you’d ask about it anyway.  I’m telling you up front that you won’t get any answers, or any lilies.  They’re as bad as the boiled frogs.”
“I suppose you don’t want to talk about the boiled frogs either?”
“I’ll talk about them as much as you like, I think you don’t want to listen.”
Doctor Rosendieb laughed, a short bark that echoed slightly in the corridor.  “I listen to anything if the price is right,” he said.  “But you said I could have anything from your cargo, and your memories are cargo that all men carry through their lives.”
“I also said that you couldn’t have any of the lilies from the dead land,” said Phlebitis.  “And memories are certainly lilies from a dead land.”
The corridor turned a corner and ended abruptly at another metal gate.  Rosendieb produced another key, that might have been the first again, and paused before he unlocked it.  “How did you discover Paysmort?” he asked.  “There have been plenty of rumours over the years about it, but they’ve all been just that: rumours.  I’ve interviewed your first mate at length, and he says that you just came back to the ship one day with a new map and co-ordinates and that you sailed there with the aid of it.  Where did that map come from?”
“Is this your price?”  Phlebitis shivered as the tunnel was much cooler than the sunshine outside had been and it was starting to affect him.  “Knowledge of how I found out where Paysmort is?  Because it will not include the location of Paysmort or how to get there.”
Rosendieb slipped the key into the lock.  It turned with a brittle click.  “Yes,” he said.  “In my office, tell me, and we will call that payment.”
Rosendieb’s office had four walls that were divided each into four sections from floor to ceiling, and each section was painted with a semi-human monster.  Having heard the doctor’s description of the colonnade Phlebitis shuddered, aware that these too were probably painted from life and were how the poor unfortunates in the Tiergarten had ended their lives.  In the exact centre of the office was a steel desk with three drawers, deep enough for the doctor to lay out five tablet computers on and wide enough for him to lie down on comfortably.  There was a single chair on each side, made of a sturdy metal frame and bolted to the floor.  Phlebitis noted, with little surprise, that there were anchor points for chains or manacles on the floor on his side of the desk.
“There are anchor points on my side too,” said Rosendieb sitting down and looking uncomfortable.  “And the table is actually welded to a metal slab buried in the floor, and when patients are in here there’s nothing out on the desk.  But you’re here to tell me about how you found the map.”
“I’m here to rescue my first mate.”
“Of course, of course.  Let me have him brought here while you tell your story.”
“Have you heard of the Unreal City?” asked Phlebitis after the doctor had tapped some instructions in to one of the tablet computers.  Dr. Rosendieb lifted his head and looked at Phlebitis, his expression unreadable.  He nodded.
“Oh good.  Then this is a story of the Unreal City and a City Director,” said Phlebitis.  “And how I came to liberate a map and be told how to read it.”
“The Unreal City actually exists then?  I thought it was… well, a fugue state, a dream-world.”
“Wouldn’t that be nice?” sighed Phlebitis.

Saturday, 13 April 2013


They threw flowers as she walked down the street; carnations, roses, tulips and daffodils filled the air and then fell to the pavement.  She walked over them, her heels crushing green leaves and stems, her soles pressing petals apart.  Her hair fell over her face, and her dress, old-fashioned and heavy, ornate with lacework (women in the crowd whispered to one another that prisoners in the Coteille had hand-sown every inch) seemed to wallow around her.  Fragrance rose from the torn flora and little eddies of wind pulled it this way and that, dispersing among the crowd and bringing faint smiles to faces.  Finally, when she was barely ten steps away from the armoured car, someone called her name.  She paused in mid-step and a hand, so pale and white that the nearest people in the crowd could see the blue tracery of her veins lifted to her hair as though to draw it back.
“Marguerite!”  The voice came from inside the armoured car and was snake-strike sharp and fast.  If words were weapons this was a glass-barbed whip; lifting and tearing skin then retracting as fast as it came, readying for another blow.  Marguerite’s hand sank back down to her side and her foot came down on the trumpet of a daffodil and she continued walking.  Behind her now, a young boy pushed his way to the front of the crowd and threw an armful of lillies after her.  They pattered to the floor like the briefest shower of rain.
“Get in the car,” said the voice as she reached the door, but she was already ducking her head and looking inside.  On the back seat was a long, bony woman wearing the uniform of the Unconscious Ministry: a high-collared grey jacket with red piping on the lapels and cuffs and the Blinded Eye embroidered on the breast pocket.  On a pull-down seat opposite her was a jackalope wearing a silvered collar attached to a thin metallic leash that in turn was tied to the inner door-handle.  Marguerite stepped in, and folded herself up on the back seat.  Someone outside the car closed the door with a soft, but definite, click, and the engine started instantly.
The bony woman waited until they had driven beyond the edge of the crowd before she spoke again.
“Tell me why we shouldn’t confine you to the Coteille.”
Marguerite tried to swallow but her throat was dry and it didn’t work.  She felt slightly nauseous, not least from thinking about the Coteille, the prison-ship moored a mile offshore, visible to people walking along the harbour’s edge.  Far enough away that no-one jumping over board had a chance of swimming to shore, yet close enough that you could hear the screams on a balmy summer’s evening.  If you listened for them.
“I don’t actually care what you think,” said the bony woman.  “Your silence is gratifying.  You will not, however, be going to the Coteille.  I think there are better uses that can made of you.  Your talents.  Don’t you, Marguerite?”
“Y… Yugh… Yes,” she managed.  Her throat was too dry for words, and too sore from screaming.  For a moment there was a memory of a silver belltower on a desk in front of her, a student looking puzzled and tapping a bell with a tiny silver hammer and… and… no chime.  She remembered there being no chime.  It was incredibly important.
The jackalope, seemingly a rabbit crossed with an antelope, long curving horns projecting from either side of its skull, growled and bared teeth that were all incisors, teeth that no herbivore had ever needed.
“There, there,” said the bony woman.  “It’s quite all right, Virgil.  She won’t hurt you.”
Marguerite shrank away from it, pressing herself into the corner of the car.  Only the gentle purr of the engine told her that they were still moving, the windows were opaque and there was no sensation of movement.  She reached out with her mind for a moment, forgetting herself and felt the car grow somehow thin in a direction she couldn’t point in.  Buildings appeared in her thoughts, a church with a steeple and a tiny graveyard on the left, a couple of shops, one a butcher’s on the right.  The road appeared silvery and the car appeared to be a redd–
The bony woman slapped her with a hand that felt like it was made from steel.
“Bad girl,” she said.  The jackalope bared its teeth, and its eyes glinted.
A shrill screech emanated from the bony woman’s jacket and, without taking her eyes off Marguerite, she reached into an inside pocket and produced a mobile phone about as large as the palm of her hand.  She touched the screen with her thumb and ripples like water spread out from where she touched it, stilling the screech.  She raised it to her ear.
“Carmen,” she said, her words crisp and clipped.  “I have her, yes.  She’s behaving passably.  No.  No, the vote went the other way.  I can’t talk to you about that now.”  There was a long silence, and then, “Deadwood, and I didn’t tell you that.”
She lowered her hand, her thumb pressing against the screen again, and looked at the jackalope.  “He’s rather pretty, don’t you think?  His horns are unusual, they have a corkscrew thread.  It’s supposed to make them especially vicious.”
“Pretty,” said Marguerite, her voice so hoarse it was more a whisper.
“Yes, pretty.”

Thursday, 11 April 2013

The outsiders

“They form a small community within a small community,” said Mr. Bendix.  “They have done for nearly four hundred years; estimates put their numbers at perhaps 2,000 people.  It is at the lowest end of self-sustaining, and we suspect they abduct others from time to time to keep their genetic pool from collapsing in on itself.  There have been… bodies… found.”
“There’s always bodies,” said Dax.  He was sprawling in an orange plastic chair in the Excess Café looking very much out of place.  He was dressed in full biker’s leathers with the logo of a newly-popular courier firm blazoned across his chest, with the helmet on the table next to his coffee.  The helmet was Prussian blue and covered in script that swirled around itself and seemed almost like ornamentation.  His booted feet were on the table, stretched over to the other side and straddling Mr. Bendix who looked uncomfortable about it, but resigned.  “When hasn’t there been bodies?”
“There weren’t supposed to be any bodies last time,” said Mr. Bendix.  “That was supposed to be recovering two small artworks.”
“There were bodies,” said Dax.  “Smelly ones.”
“Well, you know about the bodies up front this time,” said Mr. Bendix.  He was wearing a pin-striped suit and looked like an accountant, though in the surroundings of the Excess Café he looked like one rather down on his luck.  Or possible meeting the kind of client who had an aversion to paperwork.  He had a briefcase with him that was on the floor by his feet, and his knees were crowded uncomfortably beneath the table, which was rather too small to accommodate his 6’4” frame.  The table was bolted to the floor, as were the chairs, which contributed to his discomfort.  “And we think we’ve found the bodies, anyway.  It’s unlikely that there are more: the community is too small to indulge in mass-murder–“
“Ritual sacrifice,” interrupted Dax with a half-smile.
“–and we’ve run all the local records for the community for the last twenty years and found a total of seventeen missing persons that can’t be accounted for.”
“Fine, so you’ve found all the bodies.  What do you want us to do then?  If this place is as small as you say we can’t infiltrate it.  No-one’s going to believe the ‘long-lost cousin’ shtick even if we were willing to try it.”
“No infiltration.  No ‘shtick’ as you so eloquently put it.  Nothing of the sort.  This is an in-and-out job because, as you say, there’s no point trying to build a cover when there’s so few people that everyone knows everyone.  One night, one quick raid and you’re out of there as though it never happened.  What I nee– what we need from you is plausible deniability about the whole affair.”
Dax raised a jet-black, thick eyebrow.  “Since when have we even been a topic of discussion?” he asked, and his voice conveyed genuine surprise.
“Coffee,” said Leah, the waitress, appearing at his knee.  She placed down a chipped white mug between his legs and swept away the half-finished, now cold cup.  “And tea for you,” she said to Mr. Bendix placing a china cup with a willow-pattern on it in front of him.  The tea was fragrant and milky.  “With too much sugar.”
Mr. Bendix sniffed.  “That coffee doesn’t smell like it came out of a jar,” he said.
“And your tea isn’t PG Tips,” said Leah.  She was just standing holding Dax’s empty cup but her voice had its hands on its hips and was glaring at him all the same.
“It’s nice to have you back, Leah,” he said.  “It was really was becoming quite unbearable in here without you.”
She softened slightly.  “Debs is a nice girl but she doesn’t understand tiered-service,” she said.  “I could use–“
“Take it up with HR,” said Mr. Bendix raising a hand.  “You know I can’t intervene.”
“He’s right, Leah,” said Dax before Leah could reply.  “It’s compartmentalised in there like you wouldn’t believe.”
“Oh right, and you’d know, biker-boy!”  She walked off carrying the dirty cup, and Dax noted Mr. Bendix’s eyes following her away.
“Since when have we been a topic for discussion then?” he repeated.
“Oh?  Oh!  You’re not, but informally… ah, let’s say not-on-topic, there are a few people who, uh, necessarily have to know that there might be the possibility of finding someone like, well, someones like you if there were to be a need for it, if you see what I mean.”
“Like us.  But go on.”
“Yes, well.  Us.  So what we need in this case is to be able to very definitely say that you weren’t available for this even if we’d wanted you to be.  Places you would have needed to have been, were we in the position to have been able to request your services, that would clearly be higher priority, if there were such a priority for things like this that don’t exist.”
Dax laughed and shifted his feet, pulling one leg back so that his knee was against his chest and his foot rested now on the edge of the table.  He picked up his coffee cup and sniffed it once before sipping it, and enjoying the earthy taste leavened with notes of warm spices.
“You’ll tie yourself in knots,” he said.  “So we have a job to do but we have to make sure that there’s no way anyone could show that it was us doing the job?”
“You need to show that you were doing some other job at that time,” said Mr. Bendix.  “Which is a bit of a tall order, I grant you.”
“Some might say impossible,” said Dax.
“True, but they don’t know about the abilities your team have, do they?”
Dax sipped his coffee again, enjoying it.  Mr. Bendix had been right: while Leah was away the café had been run like a real greasy spoon and it wasn’t much fun.  His memories of the first days of the Excess Café had turned out to have been sprinkled with fairy dust, and the mugs of builders’ tea and plates of fried everything with a grease sauce turned out to be much less appetising than he thought they were.  Finally he’d realised that it only worked if he went in while he was ravenous.  Leah with her approach to tiered-service, where the people the Café were for got real food and everyone else got what they were expecting was a big comfort.
“There are a couple of possibilities, I suppose,” he said at last.  “I have a couple of ideas.”
“I have a couple of suggestions as well,” said Mr. Bendix.  “Don’t look at me like that Dax, it is part of my job.”
“I think it’s something we do better though.”
“I can provide you with suitable cover jobs.”
There was a moment of silence as the two men looked at each other over their respective cups.  Then the clanging of a knife dropped on the floor broke it, and from the little kitchen at the back came a stream of invective.
“Turkish?” asked Dax, tilting his head to hear it better.
“Probably,” said Mr. Bendix.  “I know the Polish chef had to go, and he should have been replaced by now.”
“I’d be glad to look over your ideas,” said Dax, carefully looking into his coffee as he spoke.  “They might be useful when we’re working out how we’re going to do this.”
“I’d be delighted if they were to come in useful,” said Mr. Bendix equally carefully.  There was a moment more of silence.
“Do you have them on you?”
Mr. Bendix put his cup down and picked his briefcase up.
“Isn’t that a bit old-fashioned these days?  Shouldn’t you have them on a tablet and just email them to me?”
“You’ve finally got yourself an email account?”
The briefcase combination wheels span under Mr. Bendix’s fingers, and then stopped.  He waited for two heartbeats and then spun them again to a different setting, and only this pressed the little release buttons.  The lid clicked, and Mr. Bendix lifted it carefully.  Inside was a newspaper, which he removed and placed on the table, and underneath that were three manilla folders, all stuffed to bursting.  He opened the first without taking it from the case and flicked past several stapled documents until he came to a two-pager printed on ivory paper.  “Here you go,” he said.
“This is tomorrow’s newspaper,” said Dax, who’d picked it up and was reading the headlines.
“Yes,” said Mr. Bendix holding out the two-pager.  Dax reluctantly swapped the newspaper for it.  “We’ve been having problems with the, ah, the, yes.  And one of them is advance delivery of the news.”
“That’s a problem?  For you?”
“Actually, yes,” said Mr. Bendix looking a little embarrassed.  “But we think we’ve know why it’s happening now.  And I really shouldn’t talk about it.”
“Fine, it’s your problem,” said Dax.  “Right, I’d better get to reading this and thinking about how we’re going to make this work, I guess.”
“I’d appreciate that,” said Mr. Bendix.  “Same time tomorrow?”
“Sounds good,” said Dax.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The teddybear

“Can I touch it?”
“It bites, and it’s got claws that are usually filthy.”
“But if I’m careful –“
“Then it’ll be that much easier for it to bite and scratch you.  I have no antibiotics with me, and I doubt very much that there are any down here in these caves.  You might well die from whatever it’s got living under its claws, David.”
David pulled back the hand that was starting to reach out to the mewling teddy bear and looked nervous.  Isabella didn’t think he looked anywhere near nervous enough considering how lethal she knew the teddy-bears to be, but was fairly certain that the only way he’d learn was to be attacked by one.  She looked around the room again; teddy-bears rarely travelled on their own, preferring packs.  They were only little – teddy-bear sized, suitable for children – but enough of them could bring an adult down.
“Can you tell it that we’re not going to kill it?  It keeps crying.”
“Don’t Izzy! me, David.  I’m not telling it that because we might just have to kill it yet. There are probably more of them on their way, and we can’t just walk out of this side of things because we don’t know what’s back on our side.  We need to find out and fast.  If this one tries to leave, tell me.  If any more turn up, tell me.”
“What are you going to be doing?”  David turned round to look at her, and Isabella, who’d been waiting for this, glared at him.  “Look at the damn bear, David!”
“I just wish you’d tell me what you’re doing instead of being so secretive all the time!”  He turned back to the bear though, which retracted its claws and started mewling again.
“I’m looking for a doorway to look through,” said Isabella.  “And when I find the right one, we’re going back through it.”  She took the Brinchev Kris in her hand, and slowly waved it through the air, feeling how it seemed to catch here and there as the sensitive blade identified the thin points where the two sides were closest together.  There was a small group of them in the direction of the mantlepiece, and she stepped that way, passing the knife in front of her constantly, feeling the pressure changes and adjusting her step accordingly.  As she reached the fireplace the sensations thickened and she turned the knife slightly, letting the blade grip.  As she sliced down a fire sprang to life in the fireplace, and she knelt and peered into the flames.
For a moment there was just the yellowish-orange of the flames and then there was a second image superimposed on top, of the side of a cave.  There was a path visible leading into the mouth of a tunnel, and as she watched an electric car like a golf-buggy motored out of the mouth of the tunnel.  There were three people in the car, all wearing grey uniforms with little red-and-yellow insignia at the collars.  She cursed softly and stepped back; the fire went out as she moved out of range.
“What was that?” asked David, this time not letting his gaze move from the teddy-bear.  It peered at him between its fingers, but didn’t stop mewling.
“Trouble,” said Isabella.  “I think we did the right think coming over to this side when we did, but I think we did the wrong thing coming here at all.”  She passed the knife around her slowly, feeling for the next opening.  The knife didn’t respond.  “Oh damn, this is locally solid.”
“We need another room,” said Isabella.  “This is locally solid; it’s probably not going to move relative to our side for a few hours.  And we probably haven’t got them, given that this thing is here.”
“What does that mean though?” David sounded plaintive.
“We go on to the next room,” said Isabella.  “How did this one get here? Portrait?”
“Yes, but it’s gone now,” said David.  “Which doesn’t happen of course, so I think it was probably just a revolving section of wall with the portrait on the other side.”
“Right,” said Isabella, her voice heavy with sarcasm.  OK, let’s check over here then….”
The knife sliced into the plaster of the wall like it was wet and fresh rather than its real old-and-dusty state, and the wall seemed to flicker for a moment.  Then a door appeared, white-painted with drips still visible, and Isabella cracked it open a little and peered round the edge.
“Ok,” she said.  “You go through.  I’ll be with you in a moment.”
“What are you going to do?” asked David, turning away from the teddy-bear to look at her.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Dead men's answers

There was a rustle nearby as some small mammal scurried through the bushes, and then the noise of traffic passing on the road beyond the wall.  Janet checked her watch; it was fourteen minutes past midnight, and to her mind there was something immoral about there still being traffic on the roads.  She adjusted her little camping stool – the kind that folds up into a set of connected plastic rods with a bit of tarpaulin wrapped around them and took her thermos out of her bag.  Uncapping it she poured herself a cup of tea; milky like cataracts and sweetened with six spoons of sugar.  She sipped it and checked the time again.  It was now sixteen minutes past midnight.
“To-whit! To-woo!” said a hoarse voice behind her.  She jumped, her arm stiffening, and the contents of her cup flew backwards and splashed on something.  There was a cry of surprise, and possibly pain, and a crash like someone falling over something in the bushes.  On the road, more traffic went past, seemingly all in the same direction.
Janet stood up and turned round, holding her thermos like a billy-club.  She could see a pair of Wellingtons sprawled in the bushes behind her, and hear a faint groaning.
“Who’s there?” she hissed, trying to sound authoritative.
“Me, you stupid cow,” said a hoarse voice.  “I said I’d make an owl-call to let you know I’d arrived!”
“That was an owl?  It must have laryngitis then.”
“Well what sound do you think an owl makes?”  There was a rustling and the sounds of breaking branches as the boots disappeared from sight and the bushes shook violently.  Janet hooted obligingly, and a moment later got an answering hoot from somewhere up in the trees.
“Smarty-pants,” said the hoarse voice.  “How did you learn that then?”
“My sister kept owls for a few years,” said Janet.  “She’s… odd like that.  But she makes the best colcannon this side of Dublin.”
“Colcannon?  That’s that big sword isn’t it?”
“No, that’s a claymore.  My brother, the blacksmith, makes them occasionally.  If you pay him.”
A man emerged from the bushes, his jacket disarrayed, his face scratched where it was covered by a thick brown beard, his trousers torn at the knees, and his boots covered in mud.  “What’s a colcannon then?  A type of gun?”
“It’s food,” said Janet sounding annoyed.  “Everyone knows that.  You can sit in any restaurant in town and order it and eat it for yourself.  I’m not here to talk about food.  I want answers.”
“Right, right.” said the man.  He looked at her.  “You’re a big overdressed, aren’t you?”
“Well, we’re supposed to be here on a date if anyone finds us.  You don’t look like you’re on a date.  You look like you’re looking for people who are on a date so you can arrest them.”  Janet was wearing a Barbour jacket that had belonged to her great-aunt and had seen the raising of nearly sixty litters of puppies and eight generations of horses, a sheer skirt of heavy wool, heavy leather shoes, thick woollen socks and a woolly hat.
“It’s my first date,” said Janet, and the man decided to leave the conversation well alone after that.
“Ok,” he said.  “Let’s go then.  We’re going this way,” he pointed, “to the grave of William Sewell.”  He set off towards the nearby path through the graveyard, and Janet fell into step behind him after picking up her stool.  They walked briskly for five minutes, feet crunching on the loose gravel of the path with the hoarse man picking the path out when it diverged, or at one point became a large circle for cars to turn in.  Finally he turned down a tree-lined path where the light from the stars and moon all but disappeared, and halted in a shadow so deep that Janet couldn’t see him any more.
“This is William,” said the man.  “His mother still tends his grave, you know.  She’s here every Saturday and Sunday tidying it and laying new flowers.”
“She should grow them on the grave itself,” said Janet.  “Plenty of good soil, and he’ll be contributing to it.”  The growing silence meant nothing to her, so the man gave up disapproving.
“What’s the question?” he said.  “Let’s get this done before the caretakers come round.”
“Ah!  No, I’ll ask the question to William.  I know what you séantists are like, if I tell you now you’ll think of an answer and I’ll never actually get through to William.  I want the answer directly from him.”
The man sighed.  He’d tried telling Janet several times now that someone conducting a séance wasn’t a séantist but she’d apparently decided that this was the word she was going to use.
“Fine,” he said.  “As you will.”
There was a short pause, and then the sound of a match striking.  A tiny flame appeared in the darkness, sputtered for a moment, then grew, revealing a slender white candle in a tiny brass holder.  The man set the candle down on the grave, now scarily sinister in its pale yellow light, and then held his hand over the flame.  A needle appeared in his other hand and stabbed inwards, then a drop of red blood bubbled out of his thumb and fell through the flame and landed on the grave.  Janet squeaked, unable to hide her momentary fear.
“William Sewell?” said the hoarse man, his voice suddenly deep and resonant.  “William Sewell, are you there?  William Sewell, I command you.”  The candle flame suddenly burned a brilliant red and Janet squeaked again.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Dead sheep

I looked around Blue’s flat when my vision stopped swimming and the blur had cleared up.  The floor was still covered with drying and dried blood, and small clouds of flies hovered here and there, dipping down from time to time to feed.  The smell wasn’t too bad yet, but I suspected that Monkeybutt’s men had used some deodorant while they were in here; cheaper than masks, probably sourced from a Monkeybutt company, and bad for the environment.  I shifted slightly, and realised from the tacky, pulling sensation that I’d landed in a puddle of semi-dry blood.  It didn’t seem worth moving for the moment though.
The pulp paperbacks were gone, so Monkeybutt or her men had taken them.  It seemed a bit odd as they could hardly be evidence, but maybe they’d taken them out to the van to read while they were on stakeout.  The dead sheep were still there, at the foot of the bed.  I could see from this angle that they’d both had their throats cut, presumably to get decent spray on the blood and cover as much of the room as possible.  The sheep-killers looked to have been sending a message, though why to Blue was still a mystery.  He was a grotty little lowlife, it was unlikely he had any money or possessions worth threatening him over.  So what did that leave?  Information?
The bed looked odd.  I blinked and looked at it again, trying to work out what was wrong.  It was a double bed with filthy sheets and a blood-stained duvet.  The sheets were wrinkled and pulled away from one corner of the mattress, which also looked filthy.  There were crumbs – well, I hoped they were crumbs – scattered on them where the duvet didn’t cover them up, and there were three pillows, all missing pillowcases.  I suspected Monkeybutt again, taking things that she hoped she could make a case from.  She was probably having them analysed for DNA to find out who Blue was sleeping with.  I could have told her if she’d asked: Blue didn’t bring people back to his flat because he was ashamed of it.  All of his conquests (and the last one I knew of was three years ago and the poor kid was both blind and blind drunk) usually ended up in a dark alleyway somewhere listening to him whisper that outdoor sex was more erotic.  I tilted my head to the side, and the bed straightened up, and suddenly it was obvious.  The bed was lopsided, one corner raised up more than the other three.  I straightened my head again and studied the corners.
It was the bottom right leg, closest to the wall, that was too long.  I guessed that the safest leg – top right, pushed into the corner made by the walls – was a little too awkward for him because he’d have to drag the bed out to get to it.  Bottom right was conveniently close to where I was sprawled, so I took a closer look, pushing the duvet out of the way.  The leg looked normal until I ran my thumbnail down its length and it caught about a inch away from the bottom on a nearly-invisible seam.  I sighed, and stood up, shook myself a little, and then sat back down, cross-legged.  I had to bite back a moan from the effort of bending my knees like that, but once they’d locked in place I felt a little better.  Then I lifted the bed.  The long leg dropped neatly out, revealing that it had been poking through the bed-frame and up into a hole made in the mattress, and was actually as long as my forearm.
I wanted to open it there and then and find out what Blue had that needed hiding like this, but I was acutely aware that Dan Drough and his officers would be send back by Monkeybutt in short order, possibly with riot shields if she was feeling generous, and that I’d barely looked around the flat.  I slipped the bed-leg down my trouser leg, gripped the edge of the bed to haul myself upright, and stared around the room some more.
There was nothing in the way of decoration or ornament, and there was no musical instrument either.  Or scores for that matter.  I frowned then, thinking back; had I seen any when I’d been here the first time?  The more I thought, the more I was sure that I hadn’t.  I could imagine Blue having his horn with him if he’d been out, but where was the rest of the stuff?  There wasn’t enough here, like maybe he’d already skipped out before the sheep-killers arrived?  Did he know he was running out of time?  And did that mean that the bed-leg down my leg was already empty?
I walked, a little stiff-legged thanks to the bed-leg, over to the only other door in the room, and opened it into a bathroom.  There was a toilet, a sink, a bath and a closed-over shower-curtain.  I pulled the curtain back, the rings whisking against the bar, and found a mirror on the wall and a sheep’s head in the bath.  I met its gaze for a moment, and then pulled the curtain back.  Nothing here then.  I turned to go, and then I turned back again.  I scanned the room again, and frowned.  No towels, and there were no cupboards in this place to put them either.  So where were they?  Had Monkeybutt taken them as evidence?
I left the bathroom and considered the front-door.  I knew Monkeybutt had it wired up, but what did it connect to?  I didn’t really want to risk my life again on the bricks outside the window.  Then I spotted the wire on the inside, and traced it over to the duvet, which when pulled back revealed a radio transmitter.  It was a matter of moment to remove the battery, and then I opened the front-door.  Looking around Blue’s impoverished room I finally found a heavy glass ash-tray on the floor and used it to smash the lock on the outside to look like someone had forced entry, then left the door open and walked off.  If Blue was coming back, I was sure he’d thank me.
I remembered about how slippery the floor was only after I’d taken two steps in the direction of the stairwell.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Falling Leaves

Cort’s release was far less interesting that he’d hoped for.  Two orderlies came in and unstrapped him, and then one of them asked him if he could get back to his room by himself.  Looking around fruitlessly for a wheelchair, Cort nodded and the orderlies disappeared so fast he expected a wind from air rushing in to fill the spaces they’d vacated.  Cort sighed a little, sure that this wasn’t really the kind of service he should be expecting given how expensive the Home was, and walked slowly back to his room.  On the way he had to walk past Fizz Mission’s room, and he paused outside her door.  Should he look inside?  Check that she was alone?
“That’s not your room, Mr. Stretch,” said a nurse coming up behind him.  A warm hand fell onto his shoulder.  “A couple more door, Sir, and you’ll be right there.  Who have you been visiting then?”
As she led him along the corridor he told her about his release, and she tutted and sounded shocked, made sure he was seated comfortably in his chair that looked out of the window, and then walked off again without ever telling him that she’d do anything about it.  He looked out of the window.  It looked into the courtyard, on the inside of the building.  He could see the other walls; the building was heptagonal for some reason, and he could see all of the other six sides.  Below was a grassy courtyard with a fountain, a tiny lake, and an equally tiny wooden bridge across the lake.  There was a small summer-house, and some white plastic chairs scattered around outside.  He’d sat down there in the summer, and it wasn’t quite as depressing at ground-level as it seemed from up here.  He sat up a little and squinted.  The lake was completely frozen.
“Icebro fell into it,” said a voice behind him.  He turned his head, hearing the bones click, and saw Dr. Madison in the doorway.  “He was with a nurse, so he wasn’t hurt and was pulled out quickly, but he still reacted to the shock by freezing the lake.  To be perfectly honest, I’m relieved.  I was worrying that he had lost his powers before that.”
“Why would that be a worry?”  Cort didn’t know Dr. Madison very well; only that he specialised in superheroes that had lost or were losing their powers, and also did most of the cardiac surgery when it was needed.
“Because lost powers don’t just disappear.  They go somewhere.  Sometimes they pass on to someone close by, and sometimes they become dormant somehow.  That’s dangerous because if they’re woken up by something, say by a sharp shock, or a nightmare, all the built-up energy gets released in one burst, and depending on the power that can be very bad.”
“You mean…?”
“I mean that if Icebro goes dormant and then gets a bad shock he could encase this whole building in ice.  We’d suffocate while we were trying to dig our way out.”
“He’s that strong?”
“He’s gotten stronger as he gets older.  I have theories, but that’s all they are for now.  And they’re not why I’m here, Mr. Stretch.  Do you mind if I call you Cort?”
Cort braced his feet against the floor and turned the chair.  It made a farting noise as it rubbed across the carpet, and Dr. Madison’s face twitched with the effort of hiding a smile.  As the chair turned, Cort suddenly realised that he could see Fizz’s window from his own.
“Call me Cort,” he said.  “Everyone else seems determined to call me Mr. Stretch.”
“Very well Cort, I’m here because of your recent restraint.  You know that you produced a mucus after a chest infection that turned out to be mobile and possibly hostile.  Well, the results are back from the lab, and as the lead physician on this, I’ve conducted a couple of experiments of my own.  Just so you’re aware, we have a sample of your mucus in a sealed glass jar in my laboratory and I expect to keep it there for a while.”
Cort nodded; this sounded like a scientist, though in his experience Dr. Madison should have at least one manic laugh by now.  The Doctor would have done.
“So,” continued Dr. Madison, “we’re confident that this was an isolated incident.  Although your mucus is capable of a bacteria-like reproduction it’s non-sentient on seven out of eight measures and appears, at least in part, to have been produced as a side-effect of medication.  We’ve updated your medical records with specific notes to ensure that we don’t repeat the medication and this incident.  The mucus has some unusual flame-retardant properties that we want to investigate further, and an old colleague of yours, Chip Inside, has offered to help out in his spare time.”
“That’s good of him,” said Cort.  “So I’m in the clear?”
“For the mucus, yes,” said Dr. Madison.  “However, I now need to run some tests to find out if you’ve transferred any of your powers into the mucus.  I think I mentioned earlier that powers can be transferred, and this is one of the ways.  If you’re starting to give up your powers then we need to review our protocols for you.  We may have to restrict your visitors.”
“You mean no-one will be able to see me, don’t you.”  It was a question, it was a flat statement.
“No.”  Dr. Madison held Cort’s gaze without blushing or squirming.  “I mean that we’ll provide you with visitors who we think would benefit from your powers, and only they will be able to visit you until you complete the transfer.”
“Most likely, but the Board makes the decision and there are some board-members who have other interests and priorities.”
“Wait.  Wait a minute.  What happens to me if my powers are all transferred?”
Now Dr. Madison broke eye contact.  He looked down at the ground.
“This is a home for retired superheroes, Cort.  Do I need to spell it out any further?”