Wednesday, 31 July 2013

Apartment 2

As Martin walked up the stairs he remembered that Edward had had a passcard for the elevator; presumably the security forces here hadn’t managed to get hold of one yet.  Or it was reserved for their Commander’s use, perhaps.  The stairs weren’t too much of an inconvenience, and the public areas of the apartment building were cold enough that he was actually glad to be moving and generating his own warmth.  His breath crystallised in the air in front of him, a soft, opaque cloud of moisture that fell as a tiny quantity of snow.
More men were stood on the first landing, blocking his way.  The one in the lead raised a single eyebrow, and Martin felt a glimmer of anger again with the way they were behaving.  Surely it was obvious, if he was here, that he’d already been allowed up the stairs?
“I’ve been asked to report to Commander Baume,” he said, resisting the urge to say ‘told’.  “They said he was on the first floor.”
A gloved hand was held out, indicating that it wanted papers.  Martin sighed and pulled them out of his jacket again and handed them over.  He tapped his foot while they were reviewed, ignoring the sharp look from the lead guy.  He was wearing a bullet-proof jacket over a fleece-lined coat with a high collar, and what looked like a black polo-neck jumper underneath that.  His trousers and boots were also black, and he looked like he was supposed to stand out and attract attention from conspiracy theorists.
“Go through,” he said after handing the papers back to Martin.  “You would appear to be the reason we’re all here anyway.”
The men moved aside very slightly, and Martin had to step carefully to avoid touching any of them.  His ears burned, despite the cold, at the implication that he was somehow at fault.  At the end of the corridor a man opened a door with one hand, the other one still holding onto the sub-machine gun at his hip.  Martin thought that he probably couldn’t fire with any accuracy like that, but how much accuracy would he need in a tight little space like this?  It would be like fishing from a barrel… or whatever the idiom was.
The door had a brass number 2 on it, and was clearly somebody’s apartment.  There was a beige carpet down in the hallway and pictures on the walls; family photographs and staged portraits.  An older woman seemed to be present in a lot of them, and Martin decided that she probably owned this flat.  The first door he passed was half-open and through it he could see a half-lit bedroom; curtains drawn and a single table lamp turned on.  There were clothes scattered on the floor, and a full pizza box sitting on a dressing table.
The next door was the bathroom, and then after that was the kitchen.  Four cups sat out on a counter next to an electric kettle, and more cups were piled higgledy-piggledy in the sink.  Finally, at the end of the corridor was a living room, and there were three men, all in their fifties, sat around a low coffee table that was covered by a map of some kind.  They all looked up as Martin came in.
“Martin?” asked the man closest to him, who had steel-grey hair and eyes to match.  He looked like he’d been athletic when he was younger, but now there were signs of middle-aged spread and the skin of his face looked wrinkled and slack like he’d spent too much time in the sun.  Martin immediately christened him Steel in his mind.
“You were with Edward when he went rogue, weren’t you?  We’re glad they’ve let you come back.”
Martin stepped back one pace, a little taken aback by people suddenly acknowledging that he had a right to be here.  The guy sat on the same two-seater green couch as Steel noted it.
“The men outside are on alert,” he said.  He had yellowed fingertips and his hair had a sheen to it that made Martin think he dyed it.  He was the only one wearing a uniform jacket, and his shoulders had little stars on, indicating that he was much more senior that the people Martin usually dealt with.  Martin christened him Smoker for now, but knew that he was going to need to find out names.
“They’re very alert,” said Martin.  “I don’t think they really wanted to let me in.”
“Other than you, there’s only two other people they would let in,” said Steel.  “And we like to be sure that we know who you are.  While there was a problem with Edward that wasn’t your problem, and we’d like to keep it that way.  What we want from you, why you’re here, is so that we can recreate what happened and get a better understanding of Edward had time to do, and what he might not have had time to do.”
“That doesn’t make much sense to me,” said Martin.
“That doesn’t matter either,” said Steel.  “But it’s what’s going to happen.”

Monday, 29 July 2013


Simon shrugged.  He didn’t play Psychic Go, although Lissajous had tried to teach him a couple of times, and didn’t really believe that his friend could see any way into the future at all.  The future was determined by our actions, in his view, and trying to predict it was pointless, because then knowledge of it would cause you to change what you did, and so change the future that you’d just seen.  It would be like trying to swim in jelly: it didn’t look that hard, but it was nearly impossible when you tried, and what you left behind didn’t look much like jelly any more.
“Where next then?” he asked.  Lissajous looked around fruitlessly for the waiter.  “The next temple’s over in Nelson Street,” he said.  “Supposedly somewhere near the foot of the monument.”
“Nelson’s monument?”  Simon looked interested.  “Nelson was a hero of the Blue Brigade, you know?”
“No.”  Lissajous looked around for the waiter again, seemingly uninterested.
“And the Blue Brigade is often referenced in Deumon’s art,” said Simon.  He watched his friend as he forked up some crisp green beans from the salad and chewed them.  For a few moments he was still more interested in where his drink was, and then his head snapped back round and his eyes met Simon’s.
“So you think this might be an actual Temple?  Deumon would have put something there because of the Blue Brigade connection?”
“Possibly,” said Simon.  “Probably,” he corrected himself.  “The two you found already, I did a little bit of research on.  They’ve both got Blue Brigade connections, and one of them has a direct connection to Nelson himself as well.”
“Is that weird?”
“Not really.  Nelson was a hero, there were a lot of people wanted to ride his coat-tails and get rich off his fame.  Think how many pubs there are called the Nelson’s Head, or Nelson’s Arms.”
“Or Nelson’s Butt,” said Lissajous with a smile.  “But I already checked that one.  The only art there’s in the public toilets, and while it’s very fitting, it’s not Deumon.”
“They hang art in the toilets?”
“Yeah, ladies and gents.  The gents looks better looked after if you ask me.”
“You went in the ladies?”  Simon started laughing.  Lissajous looked a little uncomfortable, but then the waiter reappeared with their drinks.  He waited for the waiter to leave again before swallowing a mouthful of tea and glaring at Simon.
“It was quiet and no-one saw me slipping in.”
“What’s it like in the ladies then?”
“A bit weird,” said Lissajous.  “All cubicles and mirrors and sinks and not much else.  It’s like a cloakroom or something.  And the art of course, on the walls.  Bit battered, smears of stuff on it that I didn’t want to touch.  Not Deumon though.”
“Right, well, that’s the important thing.  You think we might have to check the pubs as well?”
“Can’t hurt,” said Lissajous.  “But let’s do the Temples first, there’s fewer of them.  And it’s easier to get round them, especially in this heat.”
“No-one watching,” said Simon.  Lissajous nodded in agreement.  “While the pubs are busy.”
“You coming to this one?” asked Lissajous.  Simon smiled.  “Sure, the temple should be cool inside, and I’ve had enough busking this heat.  I’ll go back out again this evening when the commute home starts.  Let’s go and see if Deumon left us anything at this new place.  What’s it called?”
“Our Lady of Fatigue,” said Lissajous.  “Apparently that’s Saint Matifa, but – what?”  He stared at Simon who was looking excited.
“Fatigue?” he said looking and sounding like he wanted to say eight hundred other things instead.  Lissajous nodded.  “That’s perfect!  Deumon suffered from chronic fatigue for eight years; that’s what’s called the Period of Lassitude.  He did all these really simple, lazy pictures then that when you start to look at them reveal all levels of detail.  They’re really clever, but he supposedly only did them because he was too tired to do any of the other stuff!”
“Sounding better all the time,” said Lissajous.  “You going to finish that salad then?”
Simon shook his head and passed the fork over, picking up his beer instead to drink that.

Saturday, 27 July 2013


An oppressive heat filled the streets.  The skies were open and blue and had been for weeks, not even a fluffy white cloud had sailed across to cast a soupçon of shade in all that time.  The sun blazed, spending its fury on the towers and streets of Tal Malloran, and the populace of the city sweltered.  The streets were largely empty; here and there a white-shrouded figure hurried along, performing an errand that couldn’t wait any longer, but no one left their houses voluntarily until the sun went down and the heat bled back out of the city and into the star-pricked night sky.
Office workers travelled in early before the sun had really got into its blowtorch act, and left late in the evening, often sitting out in street cafés and bars to wait until the heat had fallen to where public transport was tolerable.  The demand for air conditioning was high, and in the towers of the Electricity Plant the workers there sweated even though it was cool, trying to maintain power across a network that now had a permanent daytime peak that lasted for hours longer than they’d planned for initially.  The Electrician General, a corpulent man with a ruddy complexion and hands burned black from electrical discharges, had deployed installation crews across the roofs of the city, fitting solar panels everywhere there was a space and feeding the power back into the electrical grid.  The cost was high, but while the heatwave persisted the air-conditioning price was returning the money almost as fast as he spent it.
In Restator Square a huge stone fountain sprayed water eighteen feet into the air and the cafés and restaurants around the edges all had ancient shade trees outside under which they set out their chairs and tables.  The only direct sunlight fell on the fountain water, where it was said to purify it, and on a few of the paving stones around it.  The square, despite the heat, was a relatively cool and delightful place to spend time, and it was full of tourists and locals who didn’t have jobs to go to.  Chatter echoed around mingling with the splash of water and the occasional sussuration of an errant breeze in the leaves of one or other of the trees.  At the Café Rougepeau white aproned waiters moved near-silently around, delivering dishes of delicate, chilled sandwiches, bowls of sorbet, or glasses of iced tea and cellared beers.  At a table outside, near the trunk of a tree so old that it had probably seen Restator Square grow up around it, sat a pale young man by himself.  A guitar-shaped leather case was on the chair to his left, and a soft cap was on the table next to a half-eaten salad.  He held a fork in his left hand, which was poised half-way to his mouth with a tomato quarter speared on it, and he appeared to be thinking.
Something shuffled in the branches of the tree above, and he seemed to wake up.  The fork continued its path to his mouth, and he ate the tomato, enjoyed its tart sweetness.  Then, with a crash and a small shower of leaves, someone fell into the seat opposite him.
“Lissa,” he said, looking at the newcomer.  He was also a young man, a little thinner than the diner, a little shorter, with dark hair and dark eyes.  In his hand – the diner noticed the painfully thin wrists – he held a leather wallet, and around that wrist, small but still loose, was the gem-studded copper bracelet that marked out a Psychic Go player.  “Where’ve you come from this time?”
Lissajous opened the wallet and inspected the money in there.  Eventually he took out a note and waved at the shadow-hugging waiters.  “Eskdrill Street,” he said.  “There’s a temple there.  Iced Tea please.”  This last was addressed to the waiter, who then turned to look at the original diner.  He shrugged, and tapped his glass of beer.  “Another,” he said.
“It’s not a Temple, though,” continued Lissajous.  “I was inside, and although there’s some neat artwork at the back, behind the altar and in the vestry, there’s nothing by Deumon.”
“Did they know you were inside?”
“Simon!”  Lissajous looked mildly offended.  “Of course they didn’t, you know I’m better than that.”
“Yeah, I know.  But what’s going to happen if you do get caught?  They’ve got the temple-hounds after all.”
“I can outrun a dog,” said Lissajous confidently.  “Well, I can definitely get up high before it catches me, and then I can outrun it, easy.  But it’s not going to happen, I know.”  He tapped the bracelet on his wrist.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

The Hyacinth girl

Phlebitis shivered even though he was stood in sunlight.  The skies had been clear for nearly two weeks now, and the wind had barely raised itself from its bed.  His ship sat in the harbour, effectively becalmed and he had wondered now for three days if he shouldn’t break out the oars and give the crew some exercise.  Even if it turned out that there was no wind on the open sea, by the time they were there the crew would have no choice but to either keep rowing until they found wind, or at the very least row back to the harbour.  If it were just a little cooler here he’d probably stay until the wind picked up again, but the heat was making him fretful, and the crew were having nightmares.  He couldn’t blame them, over the last six months they’d seen plenty of things to give people nightmares; he rather thought that a day’s rowing would probably tire them out to the point where they slept without dreams.  They might be grateful to him for that.
His thoughts turned for a moment to the great moths that the Eidolon of the Marches kept for the purpose of eating the dreams of its subjects, and he shivered again despite the heat.  Even if he were to capture one, he doubted that anyone would tolerate having it locked up on the ship for any time at all.  Some things were just evil in and of themselves.
There was a splash somewhere starboard of him and he pulled himself from his reverie and went to see who was swimming.  The harbour was normally far too busy and dangerous for that kind of activity, but with everyone becalmed several of the crews had taken to playing in the water.  As he strolled along the deck, he heard a cry go up from some of the men, and quickened his pace.
There in the water, being watched and laughed at, was a young girl with her arms full of flowers.  She was kicking her legs to stay afloat, and even managing a small amount of movement towards the dock wall, but she was refusing to let any of her flowers be tugged away by the chill green water.  Phlebitis sighed.
“Who pushed her in?” he asked.  “And who’s got the book on how long it’ll take her to drown?”  Scattered laughter among the men, but curiously no volunteers.  He hardened his expression.  “I’m thinking maybe we should row out to find the wind,” he said.  “If I don’t get an answer, I’ll be picking me some pacemakers for the rowing.”
“She’s not from our ship, Captain,” said someone in the crowd.  “No-one pushed her that we saw.”
Phlebitis frowned.  There were no other ships near enough for her to have jumped from one of them and reached where she was without being a strong swimmer, and with her arms full of flowers she wasn’t even a weak swimmer.  She was just a slow drowner.
“Lower a boat and bring her up,” he said.  “I want to know who she is.”
“Women are unlu–“ started the voice from the crowd, and Phlebitis pointed like a Titan exiling an impudent child.  “You, Jack,” he said.  “You’re leading the boat-crew.  Pick two others, and if that boat isn’t in the water in two minutes, you will be.”  He knew all the stories about women being unlucky on board a ship, but in his experience women were unlucky full stop.  Madame Sosotris came treacherously to mind, attempting to flirt with him despite being old enough to be his grandmother.  “Ninety seconds,” he said, feeling a touch cruel.
The boat rappelled down in short order, and he watched with slight satisfaction as they rowed out to the girl and then struggled to bring her aboard.  She refused to let go of even a single one of her flowers, and eventually they resorted to dragging her in by her heels and her head, though she squealed and writhed like a sea-snake when they did.  When they reached the ship, she remained in the boat while it was raised, and only when it was back on deck did she step demurely out and look around her.  The crew retreated a little, still superstitious, and Phlebitis stepped forward.
“Who are you, and what were you doing in the water?”
“I was swimming ashore,” she said, sounding defiant.  “Until you interfered.”
“Who are you?”
He got no answer, just a fiery stare.
“Fine,” he said.  “I’ll call you the Hyacinth girl since those are hyacinths.  How did you get into the water?”
“I stepped,” she said.  “I wasn’t supposed to end up in the water though.”
“Did you somehow miss the ship?” asked Phlebitis, and the crew laughed approvingly.  “It’s not that big, as they go.”
She flushed at being mocked, but thrust her elfin, pointy chin out.  “I was pushed off course,” she said.  “I normally arrive where I intend.”
“And you were intending to arrive on my ship?”
“Oh yes.  Madame Sosotris was most insistent that I come and visit you.”
Phlebitis’s heart sank.

Tuesday, 23 July 2013

If you want to live...

“I can’t!”  David’s voice was emphatic and pathetic simultaneously.  He pointed at his knee, where little droplets of blood welled through the cream fabric of his chinos.  “My ankle and my knee have gone!  I can’t walk like this.”
“You have no choice,” said Isabella, looking around her.  Little blurs of motion raced by at the corners of her eye no matter where she looked, and she knew that the Teddybears were closing in in earnest now.  She reckoned that she had maybe a minute to get David up and moving again.  “Do you think that when I had my stroke I just sat down and waited to die?”
David’s mouth set in an obstinate line and he said nothing.  She looked at his face, and was astonished: here was a man so determined to sulk that he’d risk death rather than do anything to help himself.  And she was well aware that staying here and waiting for the pack to pounce was certain death.  She also knew that she wasn’t willing to die trying to save someone as selfish and utterly useless as David.
She put the Da back in its sheath, and saw his eyes widen.  His lips thinned further though, whitening as the pressure increased.
“Fine,” she said.  She pulled the Kris free from its sheath again, and leaned forward.  “You leave me no choice.”
He flung his arm up in front of his face and throat, and at the same moment a teddybear lunged from somewhere behind her and sank its teeth into his thigh.  He started to scream as the triangular mouth bit down and the sharp teeth broke through his pants and skin.  Then she’d sliced through the air, twisted the knife, and pushed him through the gap that opened.  She closed it almost before he’d finished falling through, and as he vanished, half of the teddybear that had been chewing on him plopped to the ground, thick brown ichor oozing from the cut surface and bubbling as though it had been dropped onto a hot skillet.  His scream cut off as abruptly, and for a moment the world around her was silent.
She dropped to a knee and swapped the knives over again, wishing (not for the first time since her stroke) that she could still use both hands with confidence, and waited.  There was a long pause, and she felt sweat trickling in a cold trail down the back of her neck.  Then something blurred, and she thrust her arm out.  There was a shock like hitting the foot of the stairs you’re descending in the dark: unexpected, startling, harder than you think.  The blur coalesced, and there was a teddybear impaled on the Da, the blade punched cleanly through its forehead and out the other side again.  She reached out and pulled it off the blade, wiping the brown ichor off on the ground below.
With a whistling sound like the wind in tall grass the blurs suddenly faded, and she knew that the teddybears had retreated.  With the weak prey gone and the strong prey having now killed three of them, they had decided to find something easier to attack.
She stayed waiting, tensed and nervous, for a further five minutes, her head turning slowly to keep the landscape in view, her ears straining for any noises, and the muscles burning slowly like a banked fire.  Only when the stillness had persisted did she finally stand up, stretch, and loosen her legs and the knots in her muscles.
She considered just moving on by herself, but a sense of duty, and the knowledge that it would annoy her to have lost David if she could reclaim him, made her swap knives yet again, and reopen the way between worlds.  A chill darkness lay on the other side of the door, and even shining torchlight into it didn’t show anything up.  She closed the portal slowly, wondering what David had dropped into, and if it was any better than the teddybears.  Ultimately, she decided, yes.  He might have fallen into an uncertain death, but that was better by far than a certain death, than by being eaten by the teddybears.  And it was uncertain, he might not be dead.  He might be lying, bleeding to death on a rocky surface, or be entombed in an exitless cave somewhere.  She shrugged.  Her stepping through without knowing what was there wasn’t going to help.  She still needed to get back to her own world, and the teddybears might have retreated for now, but they’d still be shadowing her, waiting for her to grow tired or show weakness.
She looked around, and decided to carry on in the direction she’d been heading.  With David gone she’d make better time anyway.

Sunday, 21 July 2013

Ward 9

It was a little after eleven and Kristin sat down at her desk in the Staff Nurse’s office a little more heavily than she’d intended.  The swivel chair creaked a little, accusingly she thought, and squeaked as she leaned back in it.  It was supposed to adjust to the sitter, but it was over thirty years old and was mostly frozen in place now.  She found it useful though; it wasn’t comfortable enough for her to fall asleep in during the small hours, and it was uncomfortable enough that after twenty minutes sitting down she’d start to look for something to do standing up.  It was, she conceded, a very practical chair for her office.
She looked out of the big window which gave her a view down the length of the three wards that she was responsible.  Wards 8 and 9 were quiet, with no lights lit, and the Chebyshev ward, previously ward 10 before a benefactor had donated enough to name a ward, had a single night-light on.  She squinted a little, but it was, as usual, Mr. Chalfont still reading his magazines.  His wife had brought them in, struggling a little under the weight of the fifty of them tied in a bundle with twine, and he’d been reading them obsessively ever since.  She’d added a note to his file about it, but the doctors were too busy to pick up on it at the moment.  When she was satisfied that it was all quite, she swivelled the chair round and looked out of the other window.  There wasn’t much to see, though the low lighting in her office at least meant that she could see out of it, but there was Lincoln Hill a little way off in the distance, with trees silhouetted at the top of it.  Beyond it was the occasional white twinkle of the old mercury-vapour street lamps in Hamilton, and above it all the stars were out tonight.
The door to her office opened, and she lazily swivelled the chair to see who it was.  George, one of the junior nurses and new to the night-shift, came in.  He closed the door behind him, and remained stood there, peering through the glass for a moment.
“Evening, George,” said Kristin, wondering what he was looking at.
“Who’s on ward 9?” he said, looking away from the door at last and meeting her gaze.
“The patients,” she said.  It wasn’t a joke, really, but she didn’t know what he meant.
“Haha,” he said.  “Seriously though, I thought all the lights went out at 11.”
Kristin swivelled again and looked through the big window.  Sure enough, as George had said, there was a glow now at the end of ward 9, furthest away from them.
“I don’t know,” she said.  “That wasn’t there a moment ago, there was just Mr. Chalfont–“  Her words cut off as she looked down the Chebyshev ward and saw Mr. Chalfont sliding down his covers and starting to fall off his bed.  “Jesus!”
“Wha–?  Oh crap!”  George saw him too, and the two of them hurried down the ward; George breaking into a run to get to Mr. Chalfont before he reached the floor.  Between the two of them they got him righted on the bed and tucked in again and Kristen started checking his vital signs while George paged the duty doctor.  She’d barely completed the check when the doctor arrived, looking startlingly bright-eyed and enthusiastic.
Kristen drew George aside as the doctor started talking to Mr. Chalfont, who was unresponsive, and then prodding him.
“George, go and check on ward 9,” she said.  “There shouldn’t have been any lights there at all.  Find out who’s playing games.” George nodded and slipped away, and Kristen returned her attention to Mr. Chalfont and the slightly-less ebullient doctor.
“Damn it,” he sighed.  “This has all the signs of a stroke.  Mr. Chalfont was due to be released at the end of the week, he’s been responding well.”
Kristen murmured, knowing that the doctor wasn’t really listening for a response from her.
“Oh, damn it.  Well, there’s nothing we can do at the moment.  You’re here all night, right?”  Kristen nodded.  “Good, then it’s hourly checks…” he droned on, telling Kristen how to do her job, and she nodded politely and tried to feign interest.  When he’d finished lecturing her and left, she checked Mr. Chalfont once more, and returned to her office.  George was sat in the swivel chair now.
“Mr. Chalfont’s had a stroke,” said Kristen.  “Do you know the drill for this?”
“Er,” said George.  His eyes had a faraway look.
“Er.  Kristen, that light….”
“At the end of ward 9?  What of it?”
“It’s… it’s coming from the patient.  I checked it, and everything.  She’s glowing.”
“Who is?”  Kristen wondered if that was some practical joke that he was trying to play.
“Her chart says she’s Mrs. Vacher.”

Friday, 19 July 2013


Dr. Fraud opened the box with a degree of caution.  After his laptop had malfunctioned last week he’d had a narrow escape from being electrocuted.  If the patient he’d been seeing at the time hadn’t insisted that Dr. Fraud was poking it with the letter-opener wrong, it would have been Dr. Fraud holding it when the power-supply discharged into it.  He’d sent a letter to the hospital where the man had died requesting the silver mass that the letter-opener had become returned, and was still waiting for a reply.  The box however, proved to be not connected to the mains, or particularly lethal, and contained only an old clown suit.  He took his out, and shook it, looking at it critically.  He was pretty certain that the last time he’d worn this was to his graduation party, when everyone had dressed up as someone else’s phobia.  They’d all then had a great time getting drunk and trying to avoid the scary things, and by the end of it he’d been completely unable to remember what it was that he’d been scared of at the start.  He did remember that he was one of the lucky ones though as there were at least three students and two bar-staff who’d gone home with a new fear of clowns, and eighteen people had developed a fear of spiders; at least, ones that were man-sized and predatory.
The intercom buzzed just as the office door opened, and as a young man with bouffant hair came in the voice over the intercom announced, “Thomas Dremel, Your Worship.”
“Your Worship?” asked Thomas, sitting down on the chaise longue uninvited.  Dr. Fraud frowned.  “Weren’t you the Very Reverend last week?”
“And I was Ship’s Petty Officer the week before that, if you recall,” said Dr. Fraud.  “But you put my secretary up to this, as I have discovered.  You think it’s funny to try and challenge me when you enter, so that it is questionable, in your mind at least, as to which of us is mad.”
“Madder, doc,” said Thomas easily.  “Damn, I thought your secretary would have held out for a bit longer before ratting on me.  I paid him enough.”
“Yes, well,” said Dr. Fraud, who’d simply slipped an hypnotic into his secretary’s coffee one morning and then spent an instructive half-hour learning things about many of patients.  “It was a very interesting ruse, and I’m pleased to see that you acknowledge that madness is not a disease, it is but a reflection of society’s opinion on one’s behaviour.”
“Woah, doc,” said Thomas.  He sat forward and actually looked impressed.  “Have you been reading modern books?  That sounds dangerously enlightened.  You’ll be telling me next that you’ve burned your copy of the DSM IV!”
“Don’t be silly,” said Dr. Fraud, pointing to the unduly large volume on the bookcase in the corner.  “Not only is it useful for subduing patients when they are highly-strung, but a number of my referrals are from people actively wishing to be diagnosed from that manual.  Their insurance requires it, I’m told.”
“You’re quite the pragmatist there,” said Thomas sitting back.  “What does it say about society that we conspire to be ill for each other like that?”
“Shouldn’t you tell me?”
There was a moment’s silence while Thomas looked uncomfortable, and then he rallied.
“What’s with the clown suit, Doc?  Are you addressing someone’s fear of clown today?”
“Not at all,” said Dr. Fraud.  “I’m simply updating my wardrobe.  When you spend your days in the circus, what would be more appropriate?”
“I’m more of a Ringmaster, myself, Doc,” said Thomas, smiling.  The smile, Dr. Fraud noticed, didn’t quite reach the corners of his eyes.  “Centre circle, holding the whip.”
“Not cracking it?” asked Dr. Fraud.  He sighed, seeming not to listen, and started to the fold the suit up again.
“Nah, too much effort,” said Thomas.  “It should be enough for people to know that I’m there, know what I mean, Doc?”
“Who else is in the circus, though?” asked Dr. Fraud.  He seemed to be having trouble getting the suit in the box.  “Back in Austria, when I was a child, we would have dancing bears.”
Thomas shuddered, sure that Dr. Fraud was too preoccupied to see that.  “Sounds dangerous Doc,” he said.  “Like lions.  If you have to keep them in cages, they’re too dangerous for the circus.  You want the acrobats on the trapezes, and the strongman lifting the weights.  With the clowns sitting on them sometimes, too!”
Dr. Fraud finally found something else in the box and pulled it out so that he could get the clown suit back in.  It was a beard on a wire.
“Bearded lady?” he asked, slipping the beard onto his face for a moment.  Thomas looked over and turned very pale.  “Your mother was a bearded lady, was she not?”
“Who told you that, Doc!”  Thomas came to his feet like a Jack erupting from his box.  He took a step forward, but Dr. Fraud was already removing the beard.  “My mother was a bloody saint!”
“Yes, I’m told she was very generous and giving,” said Dr. Fraud.  “But we’re not here to talk about your mother, Mr. Dremel.  We’re here to talk about you.”
“She looked after me as best she could until the lions ate her!”
“And when she was gone the clowns took you in and looked after you some more,” said Dr. Fraud.  “It’s all in your case notes, don’t worry.  How are you feeling today?”
“They made me perform with the seals!”  Thomas was an odd combination of deathly pale from the neck down and a deep puce all over his neck and head.  He was rocking slightly from side to side.  “They made me honk horns with my nose!  They FED ME FISH!”
“They fed you fish,” mused Dr. Fraud dropping the beard on top of the box and closing it up.  “Ah.  Do you think we might finally have gotten to the root of your phobia of fish, then?”

Wednesday, 17 July 2013


Snow fell from a gun-metal grey sky and the taxi pulled up at the corner of the street.  The buildings, tall, beige stone constructions from last century narrowed the view of the sky from street level, and the snowflakes seemed to fall more heavily when you looked up.  The street Martin wanted was cordoned off with blue-and-white police tape; a little further along there was black-and-striped yellow tape as well, just to hint that the police might be dealing with something dangerous.  Martin shivered; his coat still wasn’t warm enough for the weather, and though he’d paused at his locker to put a jumper on it wasn’t making as much difference as he’d hoped.  He paid the taxi driver, who frowned at the precision with which Martin counted the money out and then sped away without offering a receipt.  Martin shrugged, dislodging snowflakes from his black jacket, and then he lifted the police tape to step under it.
A police ghosted forward out of a nearby doorway and laid a hand on top of Martin’s head, pressing down gently.  Martin tried to move from under it, but the hand stayed firm on his skull.
“This is a restricted area, Sir,” said the policeman.  His voice was neutral but his grip was like iron.
“I’m aware,” said Martin.  “I’m allowed to be here.”
“No.”  The policeman pushed down harder now, and Martin retreated back under the tape rather than be forced ungracefully to the ground.  Once he was on the other side the policeman let go, and Martin could look him in the eye at last.  The man was younger than Martin, which annoyed him instantly, and looked more muscular too.  He was also wearing a heavy overcoat that looked like wool and definitely looked warm.
Martin smiled thinly, his lips pressed tightly together, and very slowly, telegraphing his moves, unzipped his jacket and opened it out to reveal the inside pocket, then pulled a thin leather document holder, about the size of a passport, from it.  He held it out to the policeman, who took it expressionlessly and opened it. He spent nearly a minute reading it, going through the different papers in there, and at one point lifting his head and scrutinising Martin’s face intently – Martin knew then that the man had reached the physical description and photo-id.  Finally the policeman closed the wallet up and handed it back.  Martin put it away, and lifted the tape again; the policeman made no move to stop him.
“Where do I find your boss?” asked Martin.  The policeman didn’t shift his gaze, but pointed upwards and behind him.  Martin looked up, having now to shade his eyes from the rapidly-falling snow, and saw another policeman standing on a tiny balcony – were they called Juliet balconies, he wondered for a moment – with a peaked cap shading his face, watching.
“Thanks,” said Martin, annoyed that he couldn’t even worry this young man.  He set off down the street towards the black-and-yellow tape and the apartment that he’d been in with Edward.  Beneath his feet the snow squeaked as it compressed, and his footprints blurred in twenty seconds; by the time he’d reached the front door of the apartment block the ones by the policeman’s post were invisible unless you were looking for them.
Two more policemen were stood in the entry hall of the building, and Martin had to hold his wallet up to the window and tap on it before they’d even come to the window to see who he was.  When they opened the door they made him stand outside while they went through his documents even more meticulously, and when they finally let him in he was shivering uncontrollably.
“First floor first,” said one of the policeman, who had a scar on the side of his neck; white lines where the flesh had been slashed apart and only slowly knitted back together.  “You report to Commander Baume; he tells you what you can do and where you can go.”
Martin pressed down the desire to ask the man if he knew what Martin’s job was – he’d read the documents, clearly he did – and reminded himself that this was an action to try and catch the Tailor ultimately.  If they didn’t do things like the book then people like Edward got in.
He swallowed, suddenly feeling obscurely grateful that these men were being so meticulous, and pushed the lift button.
“Stairs only,” said the other policeman, pointing.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Nuclear family

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary.  We stood out on the beach for it.
The sky was grey, the colour of lead according to what’s left of my father.  He sat in his wheelchair, the tank of oxygen at his side on its own little cart, and wheezed in time with the soughing of the wind.  At one point, when the light had been unchanging for nearly half an hour he raised a hand and pointed.  The breeze tugged at the strips of skin that dangled from it and pulled them out from his hand to stream in the direction he was pointing.  Liver spots ran up the back of his hand and along his arms until they disappeared under the welting and wealing all across his torso.  “The colour of lead,” he said, his words hard to hear, caught as they were beneath his oxygen mask.  “They’d promised us lead.”  He turned his head to look at mother then, revealing the pink wrinkled tissue that stood in for skin, where no hair grew and where his teeth were visible just below, poking out of the skin.
Mother said nothing; she cut her own tongue out when she thought she was getting cancer.  She sat on a wicker chair that she carried herself, uncomplaining, and kept her hands folded in her lap so that her excess of fingers couldn’t be seen.  She usually wears mittens to hide them, and the last time I saw them she had eight on one hand and what looked like the growth of another.  She wasn’t wearing the gloves today though, as she wasn’t wearing them forty years ago either.  Later, when we returned home, she played the piano, and it occurred to me that I was hearing a piece written for four hands, and it sounded excellent.
I placed the paintings of Geoff and Anna on the beach on either side of father; they’d been his dogs and his seemed appropriate that they flank him.  I don’t know who made the paintings, but they’re not bad.  You can tell what breeds Geoff and Anna were I’m told, though I don’t know enough about dogs to know what a breed is.  I can tell you that they both look hungry though.
There was a brightening in the sky at 3pm, and shortly afterwards a hot wind blew for an hour.  When it died down Father nodded and started to push the wheels on his chair.  They squeaked, and his oxygen cylinder followed jerkily behind him, dragged along by his determination to go home.  Mother picked up her chair too and followed him, the chair on her back and her bent almost double like some odd snail tracking the man-machine merger.
I picked the paintings up, and stared out across the water for few moments longer.  Every year they commemorate the anniversary by setting off another nuclear bomb; a little test charge on a deserted (well, it would be, wouldn’t it?) atoll some ten miles away.  Every year we greet it, and I wonder if I’m the only one who hopes that this year might be the last?
A sudden drone filled my ears, and I scanned the horizon.  Shortly after I heard the noise a dark shape appeared on the horizon, wavered a little as it approaches, and then seemingly spotted me and came in on a direct vector, a painfully straight line.  When it was close enough I saw that it was a boat, fairly flying over the water, bouncing from wave to wave.  It looked like a rough ride.  Two men were in it, wearing rubber suits.
“Who are you?” they asked when their boat beaches.  I told them, I showed them the paintings, and their eyes filled with fear.  “You all died years ago,” they said.  I shrugged my shoulders, shook my head.  I pointed to the lines in the sand, the wheels of the wheelchair.  I pointed to my mother’s footprints.  “You’re all dead,” they repeated.
They took the paintings and left, refused to follow me or see that there were more of us.  They wouldn’t let me get into their boat either.  Hands quickly raised, a gun appeared from nowhere and they indicated that I should walk back on to the land and leave them to their departure.  They left as fast as they came.
I wondered if the anniversary would be celebrated next year?

Saturday, 13 July 2013

To succeed in business...

Put the mouse down, and nobody gets hurt.  No, I’m actually not joking.  I was at a course on business-kendo a couple of weeks ago and one of the things we were taught is how anything on an office desk is a weapon if you look at it the right way.  No, your mousemat isn’t a shield, though you might roll it up and smack the nose of Nate in Accounts with it.  He could do with understanding that no means no.  Or, given that he’s an accountant, that no means not-tax-deductible.  Ah, I see from the look in your eyes that you’re starting to understand.  No, no, I’m just putting the stapler down.  You don’t need to flinch quite so much.  It’ll come out pretty much of its own acco– no, don’t play with it, it’ll bleed.
Business-kendo.  It’s a very good course and you should definitely arrange to go on it.  Well, what department ever has budget for training unless the trainee is particularly useless?  If you’re any good at your job then they can’t afford to lose you for the days you’d be off training.  What you need to do – you should be taking notes, by the way – is offer to take the training as part of your holiday allowance.  Make sure it’s booked, then cancel the holiday because your nephew has returned from Greece with some kind of rash and it appears to be contagious enough that his mother’s having trouble finding a doctor willing to treat it.  Take pictures – Instagram has the right kind of filters for adding that, though you’ll need the special package.  Yes, here’s a barcode you can scan that’ll give you access.  Don’t mention it.  Now, your holiday will be cancelled, but the cancellation fees for training courses can be ruinous, so they’ll send you anyway.  Ideal.  You can only really pull this stunt once a year though, so I’d pick your courses carefully.  No, keep the catalogue of courses hidden away, that’s what desk drawers are for.
Well, after business-kendo I’d recommend the How to introduce business-sepuku course, but I have to declare an interest.  Yes, I teach the course.  Yes, I am Buddy.  Yes, I am that Buddy.  My, don’t you look like Worried and Cheerful had a child and you’re it?
I knew a man once, who made a habit out of insisting that his staff brought labelled cheese sandwiches for lunch every day, and then during the office meeting in the morning he would sneak out and swap all the cheeses around in the sandwich.  They found him four weeks after it started, with all the pages from “Who moved my cheese” stapled individually to his face.
There is a meaning to that story, and it’s about moving cheese unnecessarily, but it’s not why I’m here today.  I’m here to provide a little free training, a little business guru-ing for you.  A little Buddy-zen, if you will.
Your aphorism for today is To succeed is business, it is necessary to make other people see things.  The point of this should be obvious to you: if people can’t see things, then they don’t understand the problems that you face, or how your proposals can solve them.  You don’t want to be known as Carol-who-thinks-we-always-need-more-toner any longer do you?  The problem you have is that you are the only one who checks the printer queue, so it’s always you who notices that one of them is out of toner.  If you didn’t do that – if you stuck to your own job instead – then other people would also complain about the toner.  But you’re more efficient than that, so you don’t, and you end up always complaining about the toner.  So, how do you get other people to see things?
Putting acid in the water supply would certainly work, but that’s not the right answer.  If you reduce the  number of printers in the office then people will start to see the benefits of the greater number, and understand the need to look after the– what is that?
What are you doing with that in the office?  I’m not sure it is a permitted additiv– what?  No, you really can’t – no, you shouldn’t– no, wait!
I see.  Well, clearly you’re beyond the kind of advice and help I can offer you, and you’re going places all by yourself.  No, no I don’t think I will explain what I mean actually.  I’ll just go as well, and leave you to this.  No, I still wouldn’t play with the staple if I were you, it’ll bleed.  Yes.  Exactly like that in fact.

Thursday, 11 July 2013

Home sweet home

I have somewhere to live, though I share.  I don’t actually spend my life drifting between bars, attempted homicides and the overflow morgue, for all it might seem like it.  I headed there now, figuring that if it was dawn then I had a few hours to get some sleep before I had to leave.
I live in a quiet, residential neighbourhood where the matrons twitch net curtains to see who’s coming and going, tend their roses in the front garden to get a better look at the goings-on, and hang their washing out in the back gardens to gossip quietly across property-lines and over fences.  They twitch just as much when they see me, as they worry that I bring the tone of the neighbourhood down, and I can guarantee that most times when I come back there’ll be freshly laundered everything out on the lines by the time I wake up again and leave the house.  For all they disapprove, they never stop talking about me.  Even now, just after dawn, as I walked down the street, my footsteps syncopating with my heartbeat and my knees cracking like a castanet showroom during the Flamenco season, net curtains twitched gently and spasmodically while shadowy figures who surely can’t have spent the whole night waiting for me to return track my every move with beady, bird-like eyes.
I unlocked the door with my key and went in.  The house was quiet.  None of it is exactly mine.  It all belongs to my room-mate, who’s a high-class rent-boy for clients with exotic, and therefore expensive, tastes.  He occasionally does gigolo work as well – I asked him what the difference was once, and he shrugged and told me it all came down to how tight the underwear needed to be – and from time to time he’ll pass himself off as an escort and put a suit on for some fancy function.  The deal we have is that I’m not here when he needs the bed, and that I change the sheets after I’ve finished using them.  Most people would expect that it would be other way round, but it turns out that I’m less fussy and make more of a mess.
I put the bedleg in the airing cupboard, along with the other twelve that were in there already.  I’m not quite sure how we’ve come to acquire so many bedlegs over the course of four years, and some of them appear to have unusual wear-patterns, but we do.  So I hid the evidence in plain site and felt slightly smug.  Then I staggered up the stairs to the bathroom, where I literally peeled my clothes off into a heap on the bathroom floor, and contemplated the shower.
It’s a great shower, it has power, and overhead rainfall functions, and room for four.  There’s a cleaner who’ll clean anything I haven’t obviously touched, and she keeps it spotless.  You can spend half a day in there without realising, until you come out and look like a prune in the hot weather.  It was also going to hurt if I tried standing under falling water, partly from the standing and partly from the bruising I already had, so I sat in the bath, put the plug in, and ran the water around me.
After two minutes I turned the taps off, drained the black water out, and tried again.  It took four goes before I was clean enough for the water to just turn the off-grey of old dish-water, and I lay back in it, letting the heat soak into flesh that felt like it had been mortified, and let my thoughts drift.  The bath’s not as comfortable as the slab down at the morgue, but it is warmer.  And there’s slightly less chance of me being mistaken for a fresh organ donor.
“Mac?”  My room-mate poked his head round the bathroom door.  When he saw that I was in the bath he came in and closed the door carefully behind him.  That tipped me off that he wasn’t alone, though the fact that he was wearing hotpants with transparent panels was another good clue.
“You’re working late,” I said, sighing with the luxury of the warm water.
“Special occasions,” he said with a wink.  “Sorry to do it to you Mac, but I’m going to need the whole house.”
“Special indeed,” I grunted.  “Do I want to know how many?”
“Do I want to know what you got up to last night?”
We both smirked.  “Fine,” I said, sitting up.  “I’ll dry up and be on my way.”
“I’ll get you some clothes.”
“Mine are right there….”  I pointed, but what had been my suit and the remnants of a once-good shirt had smouldered into a heap of warm embers.
“I don’t know how you do it,” he said, winking again.  “You’ve got talents, Mac, if only you’d make use of them.”

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Thirsty arroyos

She sat in the cave mouth, pulling the handles off cups.  The tinkle of stressed and fracturing bone china echoed around her, but the echoes drifted out onto the plateau and didn’t reach back into the cave.
I had found the cups three days earlier, part of someone’s cache I thought.  They had been buried, and I’d been using the metal detector (if it was a metal detector; it clearly detected something) and it had made that trilling sound like the whooper bird.  I’d set it down in the dust and scraped away with my trowel, the one with the red-painted handle where the paint was flaking away steadily and revealing rust underneath.  I wasn’t expecting much, as the plateau should have been solid rock over that way, but to my surprise the dust was covering loose scree, and when I levered that up it revealed a small, cubical hole containing a pouch and a large box.  The box contained the tea-set, each cup and saucer set neatly into some kind of black foam that was soft and friable when I touched it.  I brought them both back, but I told Sis and Dad only about the tea-set.  I put the pouch at the bottom of my sleeping-roll
She cast the last handle aside and set the cup down gently with the rest of them.  Her eyes were unfocused and slightly filmy.  Dad said that she was just a deep thinker, but I was growing more certain that she was just mad.  Dad just didn’t want to admit it.  Or put her over the edge.
I turned away, not wanting to know why she’d broken the cups.  They’d still be used, to hold water or flour, or whatever else needed holding when we were looking for a container, but they couldn’t be used for tea now, or ersatz-coffee.  I’d enjoyed having a proper cup again, and feeling, even just for the duration of a cup of tea, like I was back before the crash.
The arroyos were in front of me, and I realised I’d not taken the detector down there before.  Dad would be out hunting, if that’s what you called raiding other people’s goods trains, but as he said, we had to eat.  Of all the oddities that the plateau threw up, food wasn’t one of them, and there were no plants worth talking off – lichens and mosses, but you’d be desperate to eat them and you’d spend all day trying to find enough to sate your hunger.  And then there was tomorrow.  The biggest animals were us humans, and the few horses we’d managed to salvage were too valuable to eat.  No-one had managed to get them to breed yet, and that was getting pressing.  No-one had managed to have any children yet either, but no-one talked about that.
The plateau sloped down towards the first arroyo.  Where the rock was normally a deep red fading to black, it gained new stripes of colour in the arroyos.  Dad said that it meant the rock was sedimentary, laid down over aeons by geological processes that we didn’t understand, and that the colours meant that the land here had been very different over the years.  I wasn’t convinced, but there were definitely layers there, and when you rubbed the different layers then felt different.  The white layers made my fingers tingle, and the yellow ones had a musty, mushroomy smell about them.  That smell came out strongly after the rain, and reminded me that I missed mushrooms.
The edge of the arroyo was above my head now, and I knew that this track led down about eighty feet to a dried-up river-bed.  I’d found a couple of bones and skulls down there, but Dad made me stop bringing them back to the caves.  No-one could identify the bones or skulls, and one of them had been almost too big for me to carry.
“What if something looks after their dead?” he’d asked me, as we sat together watching the sun set.  “What if they want it back?”
Sis smashed the skull with rocks, so I hope they don’t.
I slipped the headphones into my ears and turned the detector on.  I swung its disc-shaped metal head out in front of me.  For a moment it was silent, and then there was a noise like the crashing of waves of a distant shore, and a voice in the roar that uttered, “Let me drink,” over and over again.  I frowned, wondering where the voice could be coming from, and swung the detector head across the ground.  Then I swung it up against the side of the arroyo, wondering if there might be things buried in the layers.
Everything went quiet, and suddenly I knew that I was being watched.  I pulled the headphones off and looked around, but everything was quiet.  It didn’t fool me for an instant.  I’d attracted the attention of whatever it was that lived in the arroyo, and I knew that it was thirsty.  I trembled.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

The C-word

There it was, in black and white.  This was the fifth book I’d picked up from this archive, and they all kept referring to this without any explanation as to what they meant.  The C-word.  Sometimes with hyphen and sometimes without.  But a cipher nonetheless, a coy evasion of saying something.  The question was, what was it that they were not saying?
I sighed and pushed the book away from me, pushing my chair back from the table at the same time and coming to my feet.  I could use a little IV-adrenaline, something to kickstart my mind this afternoon.  I gestured towards the wall and a door formed and opened, the nanetic materials responding almost as though they were intelligent.  Beyond the wall was a grassed courtyard with a couple of spindly trees grouped together like gossiping women, and a soft, grey bench soaking up the sunshine.  I sat down on the bench and unzipped a sleeve pocket to get at my travel-pack.  Zips were extremely retro but I was pretty sure that they were coming back into fashion so I was wearing it anyway.  The pack opened to my fingerprint and I took an ampule out.  I pressed in on my bicep and it wriggled, adjusting itself until it was over the pulse of a vein, and then reformed itself into a tiny injector.  I pressed down and it slid neatly into my skin, delivering a shot of adrenaline directly to my bloodstream.
I relaxed a little as my blood chemistry caught up and the world seemed a little brighter, the sun a little warmer, and the air a little less stale.  My mind turned easily back to the problem at hand.
I was working with the twentieth and twenty-first century archives which were notable for their difficulties.  Unlike earlier archives the languages of those times were highly mutable and evolved rapidly.  The writers and recorders of the times used slang heavily and seemed to believe that either anyone coming later would still be using this slang, or that their work was so ephemeral that it wouldn’t have to explain itself to anyone.  Some of the tomes appeared to deliberately reference slang that they considered archaic, possibly as an attempt at humour, but more likely as a means of preserving some kind of meaning.  I wondered if perhaps in the early twenty-first century there had been a crisis of literacy, with people looking at their written materials and wondering how they were to understand them.  Certainly there appeared to have been an increase around that time of less permanent media, and built-in obsolescence that happened so quickly that it was almost like a kind of forced evolution.
I’d had some success with deducing meanings from these texts as a younger scholar, and now that my career appeared to be stalling a little I’d returned to them.  Little progress had been made since I’d last looked at them, and my initial hope had been that there were simply so many texts in the archive that no-one had had any time.  Now it looked as though I was rediscovering that everyone considered them a hopeless cause.
Consider my current woe: the c-word.  It was plentifully referred to for nearly fifty years before it suddenly disappeared altogether.  The phrase was meaningful and then, overnight, it just seemed to be forgotten by everyone.  The problem I had, was that we had no way of knowing what the c-word was without an explanation.
The obvious answer was that it was the first word that came to mind when you were asked to name a word beginning with C; for us these days that would be Colostrum and people would look at you funny if you tried to suggest anything else.  But what would it have been for people living nearly a thousand years ago?  Did they even have colostrum, or have identified it back then?  When I checked temporally appropriate dictionaries the first word in most of them was simply the letter C by itself, which seemed to have a rather arbitrary number of meanings, most but not all of which were derived from words beginning with the letter C.  There appeared to be no agreement over which of these came first either, and that it was also used for words that didn’t begin with C made any hypothesis that the C-word was one of these hard to argue.
I’d established that there was a kind of educational children’s game played back then, where someone would soberly announce, I espy something beginning with and then name a letter.  Children would then have to name words beginning with that letter until they found the right one, with the speaker didactically correcting them as they went.  Presumably there was a punishment element for children who failed consistently to learn what the catechismical response was but this appeared not to be noted down.  The canonical element for each letter wasn’t written down though – clearly they were thought so obvious that no-one would need to write them down, and since they were orally passed on to children that only reinforced their status as universally known.
I had a theory though that the C-word was corpse.  There were an astonishing number of them present in that time period, when it seemed that the population density of the world was such that they could afford to just kill people for sport or because they wanted to test out some new weapon.  The horrors and predations listed in many of their books and papers were a sure indicator that death must have been the constant companion for anyone living at that time.  The only fly in the ointment, as it were, was that I couldn’t see why a writer would be coy about something that everyone would be so familiar with.  Was it not the done thing to point out the corpse in the armchair?
A cloud passed in front of the sun and the bench began to reform itself into something a little more protective, in case a breeze arose.  I took that as a prompt that I should get back to work, and got to my feet.  Perhaps the next book would contain enough information to deduce which of nearly two thousand words the C-word was.

Friday, 5 July 2013

Belle Peepers

I stumbled out of Bar Black feeling like I’d not had enough to drink.  Gaby’s little performance had been the icing on the cake after the revelations of the things I’d found in Boy Blue’s bedleg and the whole world seemed a little bit surreal to me.  I looked up at the sky, half-expecting to see a melted clock hanging there in place of the moon, while a lizard giggled to itself as it played guitar, but to my surprise I saw the first hints of dawn.  Medicinal pink cloud hugged the horizon, and the stars had faded away to nothingness.  A grey vault hung overhead, waiting to absorb the unwary, and I looked back down at the ground and hunched my shoulders up and tried to hide.
The jingle of cutlery alerted me, and I ducked.  Belle Peep’s handbag sailed over my head, just brushing the tips of my hair, and crashed into a wall; the side of Bar Black.  It tried to stick for a moment, then slid down with a gritty tearing sound.
“‘er what owns that bag wants to talk to you,” said a voice that made me wonder if people drowned frogs in chocolate.  It was glutinous and mucousy, and it croaked and hopped over sounds in the words like it would choke on itself if it didn’t.  I looked round, thinking I might recognise it, but all there was behind me was a filthy street urchin.  “Yeah, you, guv’nor,” said the urchin.  He moved then and I caught sight of a patch on the sleeve of his coat.
“You’re one of the Runners,” I said.  The voice made sense now, as William Physick, the criminal mastermind who ran the Runners, spoke that way too and didn’t like to be made fun of.  “What are you doing throwing a handbag away?”  The Runners got their name from the way that they ran off as fast as tube-mice after they’d picked a pocket or snatched a bag.
“It’s a message,” said the boy.  I could see more of his face now; he had a hare-lip and a nasty-looking scar down the right-hand side of cheek.  It looked fresh enough to be still weeping.  “It’s for you.  You’re Mac, ain’t ya?”
“I’ve had lots of names,” I said, and that was the truth.  “I don’t speak your language though, what kind of message is a bag thrown at my head.”
“Your problem, guv’nor,” said the boy.  “I’m just passing it on.”  He turned, and suddenly he was a blur of motion, disappearing at high speed away from me.  I thought of chasing him for a minute, but by the time I’d finished that thought he was turning the corner at the top of the street, and I knew that my joints weren’t up to running, let alone catching up with a Runner.  I sighed, and went and retrieved the bag.
I have no idea what Belle Peep needs a complete 48-piece cutlery set in her handbag for, but that the entirety of the contents.  What disturbed me more was that she, or whoever had sent me her bag, had known that I’d be able to recognise it from the cutlery.  That was sufficiently suspicious that I tipped everything out of the bag again, and went through the contents more carefully this time.  Other people drifted out of Bar Black and some of them were curious enough to walk a little close by, mostly seeing if there was anything they could lift and run off with, but the cutlery didn’t interest any of them.  It interested me though.  Every piece of it had a little crest engraved on the handle, and Belle Peep definitely wasn’t nobility.  Or even from a noble background.  Wherever this had come from then, she was carrying it around because it meant something to her.  Sadly, beyond recognising that it was crested it meant nothing to me.  I stirred it with my foot one last time, and then something sparkled in the mix.
I bent down, regretting it as my vertebrae kicked up a fuss, and picked up a tiny silver ball that appeared to have been stuck to the handle of a spoon, where it would have gone unnoticed.  Two tiny slits in the side of it confirmed to me that it contained electronics and was probably a tracer device.  I tossed it down the nearest drain, left the cutlery in the road to foul the early morning traffic, and limped away.  I had my suspicions as to what might be happening here, and I wanted to get the bedleg hidden away somewhere safe before any more messages came my way.

Wednesday, 3 July 2013


Cecily looked at the two tattered books on the table and then at Martin.  He had sat, as instructed, on the other lab-stool.  It was flat-topped with no back, and high enough that he had to rest his feet on the footrest of the stool – a simple, slightly flattened metal strut between the legs – rather than on the floor.  He felt like he constantly had to sit upright or risk falling off.
“The books aren’t really a prize,” she said.  Her voice sounded slightly regretful.  “The girl would have been much better.”
The silence lingered, as Martin was unwilling to say anything about the mission.  In his eyes it was a clear failure.  Cecily picked up one of the books and opened it, flipping pages back and forth.
“How long have you known Edward?” she asked.  Martin’s mouth fell open, the sudden change of conversation catching him by surprise.
“Well,” he said, thinking.  “I’d not met him until this mission, but his name has signed off various research documents that I’ve used in the past.  Cecily stayed silent.  “And… I’ve heard about him, of course.”
Cecily nodded.  She wasn’t smiling.  “What do you think of his actions during this task?” she asked.
Martin paused before answering, thinking about the scene, the young girl, and then waking up in the shower.  “A bit odd,” he admitted finally.  “The girl was clearly more important than me, so I don’t understand why he dragged me into the bathroom to wake me up.  He should have got her out to the car and then come back for me if necessary.”
“You were a team,” said Cecily.  “Surely he shouldn’t leave him partner behind like that?”
“No.”  Martin shook his head.  “We had every reason to believe that the flat wasn’t a threat and that we had time.  He should have taken the girl and worried about me later.”
“Is that what you would have done?”
Martin paused to think again.  Edward hadn’t done much to be likeable on the mission, but would he really have left him on the carpet, fainted, while he got the girl back to the car?  “Yes,” he said at last.  “But….”
“But what?”
“But I’d have done all the background reading first,” said Martin.  “Edward said that he didn’t know that I was sensitised to Odnose-B and he didn’t know why I’d fainted.  I’d have done the reading and I’d have known that.  So I’d have known that taking the girl would have removed the language, and that he’d have probably woken up and come down to the car after me.”
Cecily closed the book gently, and turned it round so that Martin could read the title; gold embossing on a green paste-board cover.  It said: The House at Pooh Corner.  He read it, and then looked at Cecily, his eyes asking the question.
“The books are useless, in fact,” she said.  “Edward disappeared shortly after you both returned here.  The books that he was supposed to take are definitely missing from the flat, but we don’t know if he left them there, if they were taken with the girl, or if he took them himself.  And he certainly did know that you had been exposed to Odnose-B.  Have you checked the time since you got back?”
Martin looked at his wrist reflexively; his watch was half-hidden under his cuff and he had to slide it back to look at it.
“Two-thirty,” he said.  It was an analogue watch with gold hands and numerals, a little flashy, intended to convey the impression of a salesman or a middle manager trying too hard.  Cecily pointed to the clock on the wall.  It gave the time digitally as 14:50.
“You were out for about twenty minutes,” she said.  “Which is actually quite a short time considering it was Odnose-B you were listening to, but you said you were out for three, and your watch is set to show that too.  We think Edward was doing things in those twenty minutes, but we don’t know what.  We think it’s unlikely that the girl really had her hands torn off, especially now we’ve found a woman two flats below who is dead, and did have her hands torn off.”  Martin blanched slightly, but held Cecily’s gaze.  She continued, “So right now, you’re on special duties.”  She held up a hand as Martin tried to speak.  “You’re hunting for Edward.  We want to know what he’s done, and how long he’s been doing it for.”

Monday, 1 July 2013

Grim tides II

Nate stepped forward when he recognised the face, and for a moment Robin looked scared.  Then he looked around him and saw that there were only four ghosts left to absolve, and some of the tension drained from him.  He still looked wary, and then looked to see why Nate had moved.  He swore when he, too, saw the face.
“Billy,” said Nate, his voice sorrowful.  “What brings you here, Billy?”  He reached out a hand but his fingers touched nothing.  In return, the ghost lunged at him, clawing at his neck with hands that were wizened and bent out of shape, and then trying ineffectually to tear Nate’s throat out with ghostly teeth.  The savagery of the attach was lost on Nate, who couldn’t see it or feel it while the ghost was close; but to Robin it was horrible to see a man he’d respected turned into an animal like this.
“Nate,” he said, putting his flesh-and-blood hand on Nate’s shoulder.  “Stay back.”
“It’s Billy,” said Nate, but he stepped back until his back was against the door of the hold again, and resumed his position.  He said nothing, but when Billy’s ghost dissolved into a haze of sparkles that faded like the stars at dawn, there was a sound that might have been the sniff of a man tearing up.
Ten minutes later and the ghosts were all saved, and the two men were stood back out on the deck again.  Nate turned the wheel, and let out some sail to catch the night-winds, and the boat creaked as she began to move again.  When the course was sure, Nate locked the wheel in place, and looked at Robin.
“That was Billy,” he said.
Billy Lemanc had grown up with Nate’s daughter and to a lesser extent, Robin.  Robin had been about five years older than him, so they’d played together as children a little, but Nate daughter Alice, who was only two years older than him, had known him better.  He’d been a good child for the most part, no more naughty that any other child in the village, and better still than some.  Then a year and a half ago he’d left to hunt for treasure in the hills behind the village, and not come back.  Before he left though, in Nate’s house, in front of Alice and Robin, Billy had declared his undying love for Alice and broken down in tears.
“I saw him too,” said Robin.  He didn’t know what to think of Billy’s ghost, and wished that Nate could have seen the ghost’s hunger for the flesh of the living the way he had.  Nate didn’t seem careful enough around the ghosts.
“So he’s dead then,” said Nate.  His voice was flat and controlled.
“Looks like it,” said Robin.  “He’d been gone long enough, you know.”
“There was talk of looking for him, a while back.”
“And I offered to go along,” said Robin.  “I pushed for that, Nate.  You were there, you heard me talk.”
“Aye, and we didn’t did we?  And now I’ve seen his ghost, and I wonder if maybe he was still alive when we were going to go looking.”
“Might not be,” said Robin.  “His ghost is only out here because his body’s come back to the sea.  He could have been stuck up in those hills for months before the body got washed down.”
“Doesn’t seem right, really,” said Nate.  “Feels unfinished, somehow.”
Robin shivered.  “I know what you mean,” he said quietly.  “Like that was somehow a warning.”
“Like that wasn’t the last we’ll see of him,” said Nate.
The boat creaked, and Nate unlocked the wheel to adjust their course.  Land was coming into sight once more.