Friday, 30 August 2013

The twist of the knife

The judge entered the courtroom from a door behind his bench, and took his time over sitting down.  At one point, the Clerk of the Court looked as though they were about to jump up and help the judge, but then the judge seemed to untangle his robes from something under the desk, and managed to sit down.  He sighed a little, and then open a manila folder on the desk in front of him.  He peered at it, his glasses now clearly seen to be bifocals, and then he peered at the courtroom before him.  The lawyer for the prosecution, a young man in a charcoal grey suit with a nervous tic in his left eyelid looked about to say something, but then held his tongue.  The judge frowned.
“There is such a thing as a frivolous case,” he began, his voice stentorian.  “And I wonder if this case is not, in some regard, frivolous.”  The lawyer for the prosecution looked astonished, and then started to smile, just a little tugging upwards of the corner of his mouth.  “I feel that there was no need for this case to ever to come to court,” continued the judge.  He turned a page of the notes over, and cast his eye down the new page.  “This seems like a very clear-cut decision to make.”
The lawyer for the prosecution closed up the notes he had in front of him and openly smirked now.
“However,” said the judge, his gaze transfixing the cocky lawyer all of a sudden, “we are here and we shall try this case.  However silly it may seem.”
The lawyer subsided in his chair, slumping down, and re-opening his notes.
“So,” said the judge.  “According to the notes I have here, the claimant is one Mrs. Heather Edgewick, mother of a young child.  Is she here today?”
A hand was raised, confidently.  It belonged to a youngish woman, possibly in her mid-to-late thirties, who was wearing a houndstooth-check coat over a ruffled-collar blouse and a string of pearls.  She looked like she’d walked off the set of a period drama for the 1950s.
“And the defendant is Mr. Damon Loyola, owner of a… chihuahua.  Is Mr. Loyola here?”
Another hand raised, this time with deference.  The man, scarcely younger than the woman, but noticeably paler and more timid, was wearing a suit with holes at the elbows and a shirt that appeared to have faded with washing.
“And the chihuahua?”  The man lifted the dog up from his lap so that judge could see her.  She peered at the judge and then lost interest in him.
“And the claim is…,” said the judge, checking his notes.  The brash young lawyer stood up.
“If I may, your Honour,” he said, “the claim is simply that this man allowed his dog to attack a child.  The child required treatment for actual bodily harm, and later for delayed trauma.  The dog should be destroyed.”
The judge looked up, and looked at the lawyer in silence until he sat down again.
“According to the documents submitted by both sides,” he said, “the case is not quite as you have made out.  According to the evidence provided on CD by the traffic camera departments, the case is not at all as you have laid out.  In fact, your statements, which I have here in front of me, are so far from the truth, as shown by objective observers, that I would describe them as mendacious.”
The lawyer blanched and started to stutter a response.
“Quiet,” said the judge.  “Quite simply, the camera evidence, as I believe you are all aware, shows that this man was walking his dog outside his own house, on his own lawn.  This woman came along and encouraged her child to approach the dog, despite the man asking her not to, repeatedly.  The man then attempted to go to his dog to pick her up, but the woman interfered, claiming that the girl, and I quote from your statements here, should be allowed to play with the little dog.  It is at this point that the dog bites the girl, quite clearly in self-defence.  The girl nonetheless pulls the dogs tail and ears.”
“She’s allowed to play with doggies!  That one’s a menace to society.  It should be shot!”  Mrs. Heather Edgewick was determined to have her side of the argument played out in the courtroom.  The judge gestured to the policeman at the side of the room.
“Another outburst like that and I shall hold you in contempt of court,” he said.  “Do you understand?”
“It means that you will taken away by this gentleman here, and you will be given a short, but meaningful, prison sentence.”
Heather fell silent.
“Your child approached a dog, despite being asked not to, and you prevented the dog’s owner from protecting his dog from your child.  Your child caused harm to the dog, and yet you sit here before me, and tell me that the dog is dangerous.  This is palpably untrue, and ridiculous.”
Heather turned purple with indignation, but kept her mouth shut.  At the front of the room her lawyer had a woebegone expression; he could already tell that the case was lost.
“I have decided however, that an example should be set,” said the judge.  Heather brightened up instantly, while her lawyer cringed.
“Your child shall be destroyed, as it is clearly a menace to society,” said the judge.  There was a sharp intake of breath all around the room.  “And you shall pay for the dog’s psychological counselling, as she had undoubtedly been traumatised by your behaviour.”
“You can’t do that!” screamed Heather.
“By the time you can get your protest through the courts and judicial system,” said the judge, “your child will have been destroyed.  So I rather think I can.”

Wednesday, 28 August 2013

Back in the cave

The landscape gave way after another hour to soft hills, and they quickly flattened out again and a forest began to grow up around Isabella.  She paused briefly on the hills to check the other side, but there was still just an empty darkness with a chill draught.  She listened for a while, just in case, but there were no screams or sighs.  There was white noise on the edge of hearing that might have been water running in the distance, but even if was water it didn’t help her.  It did remind her that she was hungry and thirsty though, but she preferred not to eat in the TeddyBear world.  The food didn’t seem quite right somehow.
When the trees were making it hard to know which direction she was moving in she opened the ways between the worlds again and looked, and was slightly surprised to find that there was a washed-out grey light through the portal, and that the ground was about a foot lower than where she was at the moment.  The floor looked like it was the rocky stone of Leszátor’s Cave, and there was a sharp, clean smell to the air like the way the air smelled after rain.  She made her mind up quickly, and stepped through.
As the portal closed behind her she looked around.  The cave was small and nearly spherical, like a bubble in the rock.  She thought for a moment that she was going to have to reopen the portal and go back, but then she spotted a tall shadow that proved to be a passageway leading out and she relaxed again.  She might still have to go back to the TeddyBear world if she couldn’t find her way through these caves, but she was in familiar territory here without having to worry about the Teddy Bears.  She’d been caving for twelve years now, and was certain she could handle herself.
The corridor out of the cave was narrow and shrank down until the ceiling was only just above her head.  She slowed her pace to make sure that she didn’t suddenly run into a jutting piece of stone on the ceiling and knock herself out.  She kept her left hand trailing against the wall, to check for any side passages that she might not see, and she never put her weight on her front foot until she was sure that there was floor beneath it.  It made for slow progress overall, but it was safe progess, and alone underground that mattered more than anything.
“…wa–… eaten!”  Fragments of a conversation caught her ears, and she probed around in the semi-darkness, trying to work out where it was coming from.  After a bit of standing still and listening to triangulate the sound, she found a narrow rock chimney, about the width of her arm, that fell down through the floor.  The speakers seemed to be in a cave below her.
“…care.  You were told to bring her here.”  This voice was feminine but harsh, and slightly growly as though its owner smoked heavily.
“What bit of being eaten didn’t you get?”  This voice was familiar though, that was David Brackendell.  She was sure that she’d never forget his whingeing tone, though she knew she’d like to.
“Was she threatening to eat you?”
“I’m sure she would have done if she’d thought of it!  She threatened me with spiders, and I hate spiders.”
“I’d threaten you with spiders myself if it meant you would do your job.  Why were you found rolling around in the mine?  You were almost run over.”
“Your driver must have seen me!  He made no effort to get out of the way!”
“The mine machines are automated and do not have drivers.  You are an idiot.  I do not understand why we are expected to work with you.”
“Because I can get you Isabella Bonfontaine!”
“Which you have failed to do.”
There was a retort, which Isabella assumed was gunshot.  It echoed around the cave she was in, dazing her slightly.  When it finally stopped, her ears were ringing and she couldn’t hear anything from the chimney anymore.  She sat down on the rock floor and massaged her ears carefully.  It did nothing for the ringing, but it made her feel better to be trying.  So David had been trying to deliver her like a package and had managed to screw that up as well.  She thought he was a complete waste of space, but shooting him seemed unnecessary.  And now she knew that there probably wasn’t anything of interest down here for her, and that her life was in danger if she stayed.  It seemed like there was only one prudent course of action.

Monday, 26 August 2013


Meredith tilted the skull this way and that, gauging the weight of the object inside it, and trying to spot it.  Finally it seemed to catch on something, and with a gentle shake came free and slipped out on the base, where the spine would have inserted.  Something brown and red, about the size of a large walnut, bounced on the ligniform floor and skittered over toward Jeff.  Jeff flinched away from it.  Meredith put the skull down on the table and stood up to pick it up, only she couldn’t.  The static-suit held her in a sitting position, refusing to bend or move.  She tried harder, pressing her muscles against the suit, and heard its tiny servo-motors whine as they opposed her.  She considered pushing them to burnout, and then decided against it.
“Jeff?”  He looked over at her voice and was clearly surprised to see her still sitting down.  “Jeff, my static-suit’s malfunctioned.  I need you to do me a favour.”
“I’m not picking that skull up!”
“No, not the skull.  The thing on the floor, I need you to cover it with something.  Metal, I should think.  Have we got a bin in here?”  She tried to look around, but the static-suit gripped her neck so that it could form a tight seal with her helmet, and she could only get a sixty-degree angle of turn.
“Uh yeah, I think so,” said Jeff.  He looked beside the piano, and then towards the end of it and produced one, a simple black cylinder with a plastic bag acting as a liner.  He pulled out some crumpled sheet-music paper and looked at them.  “Huh,” he said.  “Someone’s known about this piano for a while then.”
“That’s great,” said Meredith, who had thought the same thing.  “Can you put the bin over that thing on the floor, please?”
Jeff inverted the bin and put it over the thing.  Immediately Meredith shot out of her seat and nearly jumped into the air, and she realised that she’d not stopped tensing against the suit.  Jeff looked worried.
“Whatever is under than bin interacts with the static-suit,” she said.  “I’ve been unable to move while it could affect my suit.  Don’t move that bin until I get back; I need to get out of this suit and get someone from Containment over here.  I’m going to lock the door to this room, and if anyone does come in, assume they’re trouble.”
Jeff’s face turned pale, though little red blotches remained in his cheeks.  “Shouldn’t I go and get Containment?” he suggested.  His hands clenched the sheet music from the bin a little more tightly, and his knuckles whitened.
“No,” said Meredith.  “While I’m still in the suit I’m in danger; you’re not.  And Containment might not come if you asked them.”  It wasn’t meant as a put-down, but she was aware that he’d probably take it that way anyway.  But it was also the truth.  Jeff was an artist and psychology officer, while she was a Senior pack handler and Excursion Commander, second class.  Containment would be more likely to tell Jeff to call security than listen to his story.
Jeff sat down on the bin, and she realised that his hands were trembling.
“I’ll be as quick as I can,” she said.

Saturday, 24 August 2013


Jeff sat down at the piano and lifted the lid.  The white keys were slightly yellowed with age, and some of the black keys in the lowest octave were chipped at the ends.  He depressed middle C, and the note was pure and resonant.  Meredith lifted her head and pulled back her furred hood and shook her hair out.  It lifted around her head for a moment like a steel halo, and then fell back into place.  She slipped the respirator out of her mouth.
“I’d say that this room was built for that piano,” she said.  “Did you feel that resonance?”
Jeff shook his head, but he’d heard it though.  He played two quick scales, listening as the music filled the room.  Meredith half-smiled at him, and sat back in the chair.  She was still wearing the static-suit as though she intended to go out again, but she looked relaxed.
“Play me something?” she suggested.
Four hours earlier she’d raised one hand and called a halt.  The snow swirled around them and she heard mutterings and growls over the com-link, the radios that connected the suits together.  She pointed, and the pack gathered around her looking at what she’d found.  In the sulphate snow, a declivity in brownish-bluish crystalline salt, was a humanoid corpse.  It was wearing a static-suit but the electronic readout on the front was dead and crystallised over, and the helmet and hood were missing.  A white skull lolled eyelessly, turned casually to one side.  The growls faded away and were replaced by appreciative snuffles.  Meredith picked two the pack to pick the body up, and picked the skull up herself.  The pack were obedient, but they were clumsy.
The wind buffeted them as they picked up the trek back to base camp again, and tiny slivers of crystal shattered constantly against their coats.  Meredith’s scarf blew out from underneath the jacket at one point and she had to spend a moment tucking it back in again.  It was more a psychological affectation that a real need for warmth, but she didn’t care.  The pack didn’t perceive it as a weakness.
Jeff’s fingers caressed the keys and for a moment he wasn’t sat in a pre-fab building in a hermetically sealed bubble but was back in Hall 3 of the Crown Conservatory.  The piano was beautifully tuned and the strains of Für Elise seemed almost tangible in the small room.  Each note flowed seamlessly into the next without him needing to think about it.  His fingers knew their job and it freed his mind to enjoy and appreciate the emotion that the music raised.
As the piece ended he seemed to relocate inside himself again, and he sighed softly.  He looked round.  Meredith had her eyes closed and looked as relaxed as he felt.  She remained that way for a moment longer, and then her eyes opened again and she half-smiled at him.
“Thanks,” she said.  “I’ve no clue where you got the piano from, but it was the right choice.  We need more of that here.”
“I don’t know where it came from either,” said Jeff.  “I’ve not seen it in here before now.  I found it just as you came in.”
Meredith picked something up from the bag next to her chair and put it on the table in front of her.  Jeff recoiled.
“It’s only a skull,” she said.
“Say that when it’s your skull!” yelped Jeff.
“How can this be your skull?” she asked.
“It’s not, but that’s not the point!  If it were your skull, would you be happy about it being there?  No!  Well I’m not happy about it being there, and it’s not even my skull.  It should be buried.”
“We found it outside,” said Meredith ignoring him.  He back away until he was pressed up against the piano.  “Guy in a static-suit just dead, out there in the open.  It’s a minor miracle that we found him at all.  Problem is that I don’t know who he is, and I’ve counted all the pack.”
Jeff shivered at the mention of the pack.  “They’re all locked up, right?”
“They’re in their quarters, not locked up.”
“But they can’t get out, right?”
“Jeff, can you try and be more rational, please?  They’re pack.  They’re safe.”  Meredith was aware as she spoke that she wasn’t completely telling the truth, but she wasn’t trying to explain the complex behaviour and bonding of pack-life to someone who couldn’t even handle a simple skull on the table.  “Do you recognise this skull at all?”
“Fine, then do you know if anyone left here and didn’t come back recently?  Is there anyone you’ve not seen around lately?”
When Meredith arrived back at the edge of the bubble she stood off to one side and counted as the pack went in.  The airlock contained two people at a time, and she made sure that they went through that way.  The pack were loyal, but were more loyal when they weren’t on their own.  Only when they’d all cycled through did she come through as well, with the body and skull of their find.  On the other side the pack picked the body up again, and she noted that they looked hungry.  She sighed, and pointed north, and they headed off.
There was still snow inside the bubble as it was programmed to slow down the weather but still let it through, so as not to damage the native ecosystem too much.  The snow was shallower though, and wetter, as the bubble was a little bit warmer inside than out.  Off to the left was the laboratory block and she wondered about dropping the body off there directly, but then decided against it.  She wanted to get the pack fed and watered and settled down before they got restless and hard to control.  The body could go outside in a lean-to until later; it had been out in the snow outside for who-knows how long already.
“It’s weird,” said Meredith.  “I’ll have to take it over to the labs.  You want to come with me?”
“No!” said Jeff.  “I’m not touching a dead thing.”
“I could use a hand, Jeff.”
Meredith sighed and picked the skull up off the table.  As she did so she felt something shift inside it.  Cautiously she shook it, and it rattled.   Jeff sounded nauseated.
“That’s not organic,” she said, listening to the rattle.  “There’s something in there that shouldn’t be.”

Thursday, 22 August 2013


Bob Martin sat down at the desk where MSPARKER’s keyboard should have been, and observed with a sense of fatality that the keyboard was still missing.  There was a computer screen there, which appeared to have been newly upgraded by the university IT department to a 30” model, and a microphone on a tiny little stand to encourage users to talk to MSPARKER.  Bob felt that interacting with MSPARKER was, in general, a mistake now, but couldn’t find a way to let the university know this without sounding either paranoid or insane.  And until he actually got his lectureship and an assurance of a long-term contract, he was unwilling to do either.
“MSPARKER,” he said, knowing that using its name would wake the system up.  He wondered if they were still making upgrades and improvements to her software.  He’d done his best to learn the maintenance schedule so that he could dodge most of Dr. Malmstein’s requests by always trying to fulfil them when she was in scheduled downtime, but the IT department were either on to him or incapable of sticking to their published schedule.  He wanted to believe the former, but had a sinking feeling it was most likely to be the latter.
Bob, said MSPARKER.  Her voice was slightly feminine and lisped occasionally.  Bob found it slightly sinister, especially when she tried to imitate a little girl voice.  It’s been a while.  Would you like to play a game?
The screen in front of him lit up suddenly and showed a blocky, eight-bit kind of display that reminded Bob of his ancient GameBoy that he was hoping would eventually be worth something on eBay.
“Er, that would be nice, MSPARKER,” he said, unable to get the memory of the War Games film from his head.  Had IT added IMDB into MSPARKER’s look-up?  “Wait a moment though, I want to get a friend.”
He can play too, said MSPARKER and giggled.  Bob bolted from the room.
“She’s just a computer,” said Tim from IT as Bob led him back into MSPARKER’s room.
“Then why do you keep calling her ‘she’?” asked Bob.  “Computers are all ‘it’ aren’t they?”
“But she’s got a feminine name,” said Tim.  “Anthropomorphism at its best, dude.”
Would you both like to play a game?
Tim looked a little startled.  “Is she supposed to do that?” he asked.
“Shouldn’t you be telling me that?”  Bob looked a little bit stressed; it had taken him twenty minutes to convince Tim to come with him to see what MSPARKER was doing now.  “Yes, MSPARKER, we’d like to play.”
The screen lit up again, and Bob pointed at it.  “That’s Pokémon,” he said, accusingly.  “What’s she doing playing Pokémon?”
Tim shrugged.  “She’s probably got access to the ROM library,” he said.  “Though I’m surprised she’d care.  She’s a computer.”
“Right, right, it’s a computer.  But she’s – it’s playing Pokémon now.  And do they look like real Pokémon to you?”  He pointed, and Tim squinted.
“Ye-e-es,” he said, and then paused.  “Actually,” he said, “I don’t know.”
“No,” said Bob.  “She’s got a Pokémon called Pottymouth.  That’s not a real Pokémon.  What’s it doing there, and why has she – it! – created it?”
“I don’t know,” said Tim, looking stressed as well now.  “Did you tell her to?”
“Hey, calm down dude, I just fix hardware and diagnose user error.  I’m not a software expert.  You want Bob Martin for that, he’s the go-to guy for MSPARKER.”
Bob sank down into the chair, a look of horror on his face.
“Who told you that?” he asked, sounding suddenly weak.
“Dr. Malmstein,” said Tim.
Would you like to play a game? asked MSPARKER quietly.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013


“We want to call him Piñata, Mother.”
The speaker was a woman of indeterminate age with faded tattoos on her elbows, the backs of her knees, and her shins.  She was wearing a summer dress, a little shorter than the Reverend Mother approved of, but then it was also clear that she’d never attended church so the Mother held her tongue.  She had a conch-necklace around her neck, and there were pewter rings on all of her fingers and toes.  She was, by and large, a fairly typical representative of the community around here, and although the church was attempting to get people to adorn themselves less and think of their spiritual life more, it wasn’t really getting anywhere.
Next to the woman was a man, who the Mother presumed was her common-law husband.  There hadn’t been a wedding for four years now, and though the church regularly explained that sanctifying marriage was a wonderful thing and brought many intangible benefits to people, the people didn’t seem inclined to listen.  The man was enormous, both with muscle and fat, and the Reverend Mother wondered just for a minute how sex worked between the couple.  Then she put the prurient thoughts out of her head and made a mental note to punish herself later for impure and improper considerations.
“That seems like a poor choice of name,” she said, unable to keep the tone of disapproval from her voice.  She knew she sounded prissy.
“Why is that, priestess?”  The man practically rumbled when he spoke; his voice was deep and seemed to come from his diaphragm which was well buried in his body.  The Reverend Mother writhed just a tiny little bit; the church hated the use of the word priestess which was far too pagan.
“A piñata is something that gets beaten until it breaks,” she said.  Surely these savages knew that much?  Her hands twisted in her lap and she pinched herself for calling them savages.  They were people, all God’s children.  Unruly, spoiled and wilful children, but nonetheless His children.
“Nominative determinism?” asked the woman.  Was their spite in her voice or was the Mother just imagining it?  “Surely the church can’t believe in such a notion?”
Peut-etre,” said the Mother quietly.  It wasn’t that she believed that the name of the child dictated their fate, any more than she believed that God planned out every moment of everyone’s life, but she did believe that this community had a bluntness that meant they wouldn’t pick a name out without having some intent behind it.
“I don’t believe I know that word, Mother,” rumbled the man.  “Is it Latin?”
“French,” said the Mother.  “I was blessing myself.  Of course the church has no use for the doctrine of nominative determinism, but nevertheless, it does believe that a name for a child should express a hope for that child’s future, no matter what path they may later choose.  What kind of hope for a child is piñata?”
“We’re hoping for a suicide bomber,” said the woman.  Neither she nor the man laughed, and the Mother felt as though she were being scrutinised to see what her reaction would be.
“You’ve come to the wrong church, then,” she said, pleased that her voice stayed level.  “We don’t do that kind of thing, you want the–“
“We want this church,” said the man, cutting her off before she could pass responsibility – guilt – for this bizarre little family and their horrible ideas to any of the fourteen other faiths that had come here to convert the natives.  “You make the biggest promises about the afterlife.”
“I’m sure that suicide bombers get special treatment in several of our competing faiths,” said the Reverend Mother.  “More so that they would get from the church, which expressly forbids suicide.  After all, our lives are not ours to take–“
“Rubbish,” said the woman.  Her teeth sparkled in the sunlight, reminding the Reverend Mother than these weren’t quite the humans they appeared to be.  “We’ve read your book, and it’s open to interpretation.”
“By people who commune with God!”
“By anyone, who then later claims they commune with your God.  Who, incidentally, we can’t easily separate from many of these other Gods that are claimed.  But if nothing else, there appears to be a doctrine of redemption: repent enough just before you die, and you get all these benefits.  Which, incidentally, you would do far better to lay out in their own section.  Like the insurance companies do.”
“The church is not an insurance company!”  The Reverend Mother rose to her feet, her whole body trembling with rage.
“Of course you are,” rumbled the man.  “You promise to look after the soul in the afterlife in return for service in the current life.  That’s a premium being paid up front for a delivery of service later on.  How is that not insurance?”
“I… we… I…!”
“So we think your policy offers the best benefits.  And we want to take it out, just the way you say it has to be done.  We’ve read the fine print.”
“Fine print!”  The Reverend Mother sank back down again, still trembling and feeling oddly weak.  Her heart seemed to be fluttering in her chest.  “There’s no fine print in the Bible.”
“It’s all fine print, if you read it properly,” said the woman.  “Don’t worry though, we’ve worked it out for you.  We just need a baptism.  And we’d like to call our son Piñata.”
Dynamite Piñata,” said the man.  “But we’ll understand if you can’t call him Dynamite as a first name.”

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Hidden gargoyle

The tea was refreshing and bitter, and Geraldinium stared out at the sunset.  Her studio was the attic rooms of an entire row of terraced houses, whose occupants were unaware that they had even had attics once.  The view of the sunset was through a huge window that was the width of number 17 in the terrace, slightly angled because of the slope of the roof and was soul-shiftingly vivid.  There was a storm on the way and the saccharine colours that reminded her of the kind of cheap paintings you could find in pound-shops, all horses on the beach and unicorns shedding tears for sleeping teenage girls, but at the edges there were hints of darkness, clouds that edges themselves with hate rather than silver.  It seemed like an auspicious night for her sculpting.
When she set the tea-cup down on the scarred wooden table in front of the window she picked her hammer and chisel back up again.  The noise of her sculpting would undoubtedly cause worry to the Daily Mail reader in the house below where she sculpted, but she considered that to be something readers of that vile rag to deserve.  She crossed to the keystone, and paused.  While she’d been drinking her tea and watching the sunset, surely no more than half-an-hour, three spiders had emerged from somewhere and built webs on and across the stone.  The webs covered the gargoyle’s lumpy, sketched-in head, and two of the spiders were sat, staring malignly at her, right where she’d intended the gargoyle’s main eyes to be.  The third spider scuttered away at her approach and had disappeared down the side of the stone.  She regarded them for a moment, and then picked up a rough cloth from her work desk and wiped the webs and spiders away.  They were too early; they could come and contribute to the project when she was done with the carving.
The rhythmic tap of the hammer on the chisel, and the steady work of looking at what had been removed and what had been discovered as a result of that was soothing work, and as she steadily brought the gargoyle out of hiding and into the light her mind wandered back to the records from the Orphanage.
The Orphanage had originally been called the Home for Wastrels and Waifs and had been founded by a Mr. and Mrs. Gentlescot in the early 1800s.  The founding date wasn’t written down anywhere that Geraldinium had been able to find, but allusions to various events in the records suggested that it was probably somewhere between 1810 and 1816.  He had been a butcher, and she appeared to have been a monster hiding in human skin.  There were a number of letters written by her, in a crabbed hand that needed careful study, to various dignitaries and philanthropists of the time, which had been returned with responses to her pleas for money (and occasionally unwanted children).  The letters revealed that she viewed the children essentially as a cash-crop, a way of extorting money from people with either principles or emotions or both, and she would describe their piteous states in elaborate detail in an attempt to ensure a cheque by return of post.  Reading through these descriptions Geraldinium had been struck by the unneccessity of them: if this woman had spent more time (and money) looking after the children then they wouldn’t have been in this state yet.  When she described the four-year old being washed in cold water by a one-armed girl and a blind boy Geraldinium noted that two paragraphs earlier there had been mention of children far more able to look after ablutions.  The accident that had caused the girl to become one-armed sounded contrived to her as well.  There was, to her mind, a definite whiff of unpleasantness around the butcher’s wife.  The implicit threats in her letters, too, “Please send money as it seems unlikely that poor Clara will last the night without it; rest assured I shall keep you abreast of her progress…”.  There had never been any hope for these poor children.
She tapped a new part of the keystone sharply, and with a sudden crack a thin rectangular piece of stone broke free and fell to the floor, smashing.  Geraldinium cursed, and then paused.  The piece of stone had revealed a date incised into the keystone, and she realised that the rectangular piece must have been added later on to cover up the date.  This had to be the founding date that wasn’t written down anywhere, but… it said 1618.  For a moment her skin crawled and she wondered if she hadn’t made a mistake in choosing this stone.  Then she looked at the gargoyle, now appearing almost to be clawing its own way out of the stone and knew that this creature needed to be on display and not hidden any longer.

Friday, 16 August 2013

Sad sculpture

Geraldinium Holmes lifted her hammer and regarded the stone with a critical eye.  It had been a keystone for the entrance to an orphanage and so was about the size of a man’s torso and wedge shaped.  It had maintained the integrity of the arch of a huge doorway through which hundreds of children had passed.  According to the records – which were sporadic, and rather ashy from where they’d been rescued from fire at least twice – this had been a Victorian orphanage where the ideals had been rather higher than the reality.  There had been several owners; Geraldinium had been fascinated to learn that the second owner, a Mr. Walscotte, had viewed it as a profit-making venture and had actually been selling a number of the children to the poor-house and various unscrupulous factory owners when he felt that there was little hope of getting them adopted out.  Two owners later there was a possession by the church which had resulted in sixteen exorcisms being performed, three deaths, and the defrocking of a priest.  Geraldinium couldn’t begin to imagine what the priest could have done that was more hideous than performing exorcisms and killing children, but apparently he’d found something and had been expelled from the church.  When it was finally turned over to the newly formed Council for the area, the children in it were downtrodden, browbeaten, and generally unhealthy and desperately unhappy.  The Council hadn’t bothered trying to run it, they’d simply shipped the children out to other places and closed the building down.
Geraldinium had taken the keystone by the simple expedient of breaking into the grounds of the Orphanage with a hammer, chisel, large square of heavy tarpaulin and a frame and chiselling it out.  The arch had been holding still as she dragged the keystone down the stairs and back to the hole she’d made in the walls, and for all she knew it might still be holding now.  She rather hoped it wasn’t.  The place had felt unhappy to the core.
She laid the blade of the chisel at the top of the stone and tapped gently, experimentally, with the hammer.  The chisel rang, and the stone cracked a little, splintering as she’d hoped for.  It was solid, good quality stone.  It would definitely do for sculpture.
She worked quickly and crudely initially.  It had been obvious to her when she saw the stone that there was  gargoyle hiding in there, waiting to come out.  A gargoyle that had been hiding, always sitting above the door to the Orphanage, counting the children as they went in, and feeding on the misery that the Orphanage created, like some huge, edificial engine of torment.  A gargoyle with curling ram’s horns, with six legs and two arms that had fourteen fingers on each hand.  A gargoyle with hidden, secret eyes in folds of stone flesh, under arms and hiding between toes.  A vigilant gargoyle, in league with the forces that turned neglect in to malice, that turned unconcern into acts of violence in dark, basement rooms to preserve a crumbling façade of rightness.  A gargoyle that held together black webs of grey actions and unwashed thoughts, trapping evil in the interstices and letting it drip like poisonous venom from its fangs until it had polluted every soul that breathed its tainted air.
The hammer tapped and the chisel sang, and the percussion was the noise of hate pounding on the walls of its cell, demanding its freedom once again.
Four hours later, Geraldinium laid down the hammer and looked.  The gargoyle was roughed out now, but there was much more to do to bring it fully out of the stone, uncover its lines and creases, its folds and its misshapes.  She allowed herself a thin smile; this was bringing back too many memories for now.  She would allow herself a small break and then return to it.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013


Leslie daFox stood at the edge of the road and flapped his hand in a desultory fashion at the traffic.  As befitted London traffic, it ignored him, and a black cab with its orange lamp lit and the back seat vacant drove past him without slowing.  Slightly behind him, two policemen eyed him with suspicion, and further along the street a gaggle of schoolgirls shrieked suddenly with laughter, causing all heads but Leslie’s to turn.  He waved his hand again, and another taxi drove past.
“I say, Sir, are you going deaf?” asked one of the policeman.  Leslie’s face appeared vexed momentarily, but then he forced a rictus of a smile on it and turned slightly to look at the speaker.  As he did so, he held his hand out as though hoping for a bus.
“No,” he said.  “I assume you’re referring to the screeching that has just occurred down the road?”  The policeman nodded, as did his companion.  “That’s commonplace in London when there are children around,” he said.  “I would have expected you to know that.”
“Sounded like someone being murdered to me, Sir,” said the policeman, a smile spreading across his face.  “Seems to me that you’re very familiar with such sounds.”
A taxi pulled up and Leslie’s hand hit the windscreen.  He looked at it, and then at the policemen.  “Cheltenham Road, please,” he said to the driver.  “Do either of you have any money on you?” he asked the policemen.  They looked at one another, shrugged, and finally shook their heads.  “Then you’re making your own way,” said Leslie.  “I’m fed up with you mooching off me and then asking for the receipt so you can claim it back on expenses.”
“Hey, you can’t leave us here!” said the policeman who’d first spoken, his face becoming animated.  “We’re your bodyguards!  In case you try to mur–“  He cut off is a gasp of air as his colleague elbowed him in his ample gut.  “In case you’re attacked,” said the other policeman quickly.  Leslie got into the back of the cab, closed the door and wound the window down.  “I think I’m safe from the driver,” he said.  “I’ve got enough money for the fare, and that’s probably what he cares about.  See you when you get back.”  He wound the window up as the taxi moved off, leaving the policemen stranded behind him.
“Friends of yours, guv?” asked the taxi-driver.  Leslie squinted at the rear-view mirror but couldn’t see enough of the man’s face to tell if he was smiling or not.
“No,” he said.  “Far from it.  Just… the maddening crowd, I think.  People who simply won’t leave you alone.  I’m sure you must get some of them.”
“What, like taxi-groupies?  Nah mate, we don’t get none of them, the job’s not that sexy.  Though, we do get the likes of them what are getting the cab paid for by the better-off, if you get my drift.  I had a lady, well I calls ‘er a lady but there’s not that many that would, if you get my drift, and she was Russian I think.  Couldn’t speak a word of English, but she’s got the address she’s going to written down on this bit of paper, and she shows that to me instead.  Only it’s not just the name of the hotel, but it’s the room number as well, and the name she’s to give to the desk clerk when she gets there, and you can tell from that that she’s going to be pretending to be someone she ain’t, even if she don’t know it.”
“Right,” said Leslie feeling a little lost.  “She’s a prostitute then?”
“I don’t know that she’s like to be called that,” said the driver.  “You know you get some of them, they basically just go to ‘arrods and hang around the posh bags and shoes and wait for foreign gentlemen to come up and accost them.  Then they cost them, if you know what I mean!”
Leslie laughed, annoyed that he didn’t have a notepad with him.  It had been nearly fifteen years since he’s written a sitcom, but the dialogue from the driver was just the kind of stuff he had trouble with, and it would have been good to get it written down, just in case he had an idea for another one.  Well, an idea that didn’t involve the grisly death of two policemen at the start of it.
“I was thinking more of stalkers, actually,” he said.
“Yeah, well, you do get some of them actually,” said the driver.  “My mate Bill, he’s got one.  She’s a right fruitcake from the way he tells it, she comes in on the Runcorn train you see, into Euston – you know your stations, right guv? – and when she comes out she goes along the rank looking for him.  And you can’t do that, right, ‘cos it’s a line, and the guy at the front’s got the job.  So you can’t just take a random fare like, you have to wait your turn.  So she’ll come and find ‘im in the queue, and then she’ll go and stand at the front of the taxi-queue and just keep letting people go in front of her until he pulls up, then in she gets.  And he doesn’t really want to take her, but now it’s the other side of the coin; ‘e’s at the front, see, and ‘e ‘as to take her ‘cos it’s his job now.”
“Right,” said Leslie, feeling a bit bemused.  “His job.  Right.”
“He said she was undressing in his cab a week ago,” said the taxi driver.
“Is she a Harrods’ prostitute too then?”
“Nah mate, she’s a stalker, right?  You’ve got them prostitutes on the brain, ‘aven’t you now?  I shouldn’t’ve said anything, you’re goin’ to be a goer, aren’t you?”
Before Leslie could answer the taxi driver slammed on the brakes, and Leslie was thrown forwards.  Having forgotten to put on his seatbelt, he ended up on his knees on the floor of the cab, one hand stretched out and breaking his fall.
“Sorry about that, guv,” said the taxi driver.  The taxi turned tightly, and Leslie held his ground for as long as he could, and then fell over.  “That’s Bill’s cab there in the side-street –“ the cab lurched and they turned again, “– oh and bloody hell, that’s Bill….”
When Leslie clambered back on to the seat and looked out of the window, he saw that they’d pulled up behind another cab, whose driver was sprawled half-in and half-out of the window, and looked very stabbed.
“Oh no,” he said, with deep feeling.  “Not another murder.”

Monday, 12 August 2013


Mahaven took the first watch.  According to the Acts, somewhere around Act 3 the Elves had developed acute night vision, an ability to see body heat as a colour, and colours that the others races could not.  He sat and stared out into the night while Hamfries and Mojo made themselves as comfortable as they could on the rocky ground and tried to go to sleep.  Above the stars shone brightly in constellations that the original Elves had spoken of as though they were friends, but the Schattenalfen had lived underground for more than six Acts now, and to him they were simply bright lights in the sky.  There were patterns, he would admit that, but those patterns were meaningless to him.  Midst them, like a pair of sightless eyes, two moons hung in the sky.  Other races claimed that magic powers derived from the moon, but again, the Schattenalfen had lived underground and away from the light of the moon for generations and they still threw up the odd magician.  They also had latent background powers, a residuum of what the ancient Elves could do, but still useful now and then.  His fingers twitched slightly and his whole body tingled for a moment.  Then his spear, laid on the ground ten feet away slithered quietly across the rock to his feet.
Hamfries turned over, possibly disturbed by the faint noise of the spear, but then he settled down again.  Mojo was breathing heavily now, either meditating or asleep, and Bulrug was snoring again.  Mahaven concentrated on his own breathing for a moment and waited while the rising irritation subsided.  Schattenalfen lived solitary lives even within their sporadic communities and travelling with companions for so long now was getting heavily on Mahaven’s nerves.
Nothing disturbed his watch, and he was even slightly disappointed when Mojo woke some hours later and took over from him.
Mojo had no heat-vision, or particularly good night-vision, or even the highly-adapted sense of smell that the Gnolls had (at least, those that survived the near-genocide of Act 10).  He looked out into the night hopefully, wishing that he didn’t feel like the night was looking back.
It was nearly time to change watches when the first Trabbit hopped close enough for him to spot the movement in the night.  At first it was just a hyperactive shadow, and Mojo squinted out into the night trying to pinpoint what had moved.  Then he glanced around several times, keeping track of the shadow but looking for other movements, from things that might have set a diversion.  Only when he was satisfied that the shadow was the only thing that was moving did he stir up the fire a little and lay the end of a un-used firewood branch into the newly glowing embers.  When the shadow next jumped he seized the stick and thrust it at it.
The Trabbit, as revealed by the flames chewing around the end of the stick, was smoky in colour and had fur that puffed out around it like a dandelion clock.  Four feet on long spindly legs clawed at the ground, chewing up mud and soil but gripping firmly to rock.  Two eyes, slightly too far apart for good binocular vision, were wetly huge in its head, and its body was a plump but short attachment.  Trabbits looked at though they were entirely heads on legs when you first saw them.
“Trabbit!  Wake!  Wake!” cried Mojo thrusting the burning stick at it.  The Trabbit hissed, a mouth opening in the ball of fluff that was dark-red inside and lined with small, triangular teeth.  It recoiled from the fire, but then another one appeared beside it.  “Trabbit!” yelled Mojo again.
Mahaven sat up almost immediately, and picked his spear up.  Bulrug remained asleep, and Hamfries rolled over and muttered something that Mojo couldn’t clearly hear.
“Hamfries!” yelled Mojo, jabbing at the Trabbit again.  He didn’t want to wake Bulrug at the moment, just in case he couldn’t remember what side he was supposed to be on.
There was a sudden squeak, and Mahaven was crouching next to Mojo.  Mojo started, sure that he’d never seen Mahaven move, and then Mahaven pulled his spear back and revealed a Trabbit impaled on it.  Its huge eyes glistened for a moment, then glazed over.  Mahaven reached down and pulled the Trabbit to the end of the spear where it started to droop off, then he poked it into the fire.  For a moment the fire smoked as though it was going out, and then the Trabbit caught fire.  In one quick movement Mahaven launched it into the darkness in the general direction that Mojo was flailing with his stick, and the burning Trabbit described a trajectory like a comet.  It landed with a small thump and light flared up around it.  A nest of Trabbits was revealed, scattering away from their burning comrade, but some on them had been too close and had also caught light.  As they ran they set up an eerie ululating cry of pain, and then they started colliding with other Trabbits.  Steadily light from the burning Trabbits grew and the tableau beyond the campsite became easier to see.  Mojo watched it, his mouth hanging open in shock; Mahaven was wearing a slightly cruel smile instead.
“What the hell?” asked Mojo, closing his mouth with an effort and looking at Mojo.
“You should do that trick for weddings,” said a gruff voice behind them, and they both turned to see that Bulrug was awake.  He shrugged.  “It’d go down a treat,” he said.  “I’m going back to sleep.”

Saturday, 10 August 2013

The Gate of Gondwyn

“Gondwyn was a seat of the ancient Dragon-lords in the third Act, when Men were just starting to explore the world, the power of the Elves was reaching its apex, and the Dwarves, Orcs, Gnolls and other burrowing-races were expanding their dominions through the mountains.  The immortal spider Herchuck was spinning webs in the peaks of the Mantua mountains, and the smith of undetermined ancestry was forging the Frostblades, swords that drew on power from crystals harvested from the coldest places on the earth to bring that bone-shattering chill to a length of metal that could be wielded by any hand.  Eventually, Jake, a Dragon-lord’s third-born son would take up a Frostblade and carve himself a new demesne, whose creation would usher in the fourth Act, but there is a lot more history to tell before we get that far.”
Mojo sighed.  He’d heard Hamfries’s stories of the creation of the world and the many Acts it contained many times before.  Hamfries had been his nurse when he was a child and he could remember the mildewed smell of the nursery, the clammy touch of the blankets, and Hamfries’ steady, droning voice as he explained how the Dragon-lords had risen in the second Act, dominated the world until Act 6 when the Orc-mage Buntrone had banished the dragons at the cost of the lives of every female Orc.  By that point though, the short-lived, fast-reproducing Gnolls were overrunning everything, which meant that the next three Acts were primarily taken up with the attempts of all the other races to stamp them out, or at least confine them to somewhere with insufficient resources for them to breed.  Act 10 was probably his favourite, when the Dwarf-lords used the crystals they’d extracted from the Frostblades to herd an entire generation of Gnolls into Herchuck’s webs.  Act 11 just gave him nightmares as Herchuck, sated for the first time since the beginning of the world, gave birth to millions of giant spiders.
“Why are you telling us this?” Mahaven’s voice was whiny and shrill, and entirely fitting for a Shattenalf, one of the many fragmented races of Elves that had survived the Sundering of the Elves in Act 33.  He was rake-thin, albino-pale, and had a faint luminance in the dark that he claimed was residual radiance from the days of Elven glory.  Mojo knew for a fact though that it was a side-effect of the dried-fungus that the Shattenalfen ate as their primary food.  “Who cares about the Dragon-lords?  They lived Acts and Acts ago.”
“Because,” said Hamfries, “we are camped here at the Gate of Gondwyn.”  Hamfries was short and round and reminded Mojo of a pig, not least because of his name.  He was also pink, mostly hairless, and prone to getting sunburned.  Not, reflected Mojo, that there was much chance of seeing enough sun for that up here at the Gate of Gondwyn.
Around them high cliffs of black basalt towered up.  Straggly trees clung here and there to the edges of the cliffs, but the number of waterfalls that cascaded over the edges tended to keep the cliffs clean and sheer.  The water that fed them was melt-water from the Gondwyn glacier that stretched over two hundred miles north and, despite the melt-water, appeared to be growing slowly.  They were camped on a tongue of land that rose up from the plains at the bottom and was surrounded on all sides by the Sea of Gondwyn, which was freshwater and maintained entirely by the waterfalls they could see and hear around them.  The steady roar of white-noise meant that they’d had to be extra vigilant for their entire journey, for the usual noises of bird-song and animal movements was drowned out.
Ahead of them, visible now but probably not reachable for another day’s hard marching, was the Gate itself.  Originally a natural feature, two gigantic black opal pillars rose up over a thousand feet and supported a lintel of granite.  Somewhere in Act 16 or 17 – Mojo wasn’t entirely sure and didn’t want to ask Hamfries lest he set him off again – the resurgent Dragon-lords (now riding giant spiders that they’d learned how to tame) had constructed stairs inside on the towers and then built an entire town on top of the granite ridge.  This had become the Gate of Gondwyn, with the city itself being built two days spider-trek further inside.  Travellers, and indeed armies, approaching Gondwyn had no choice but to pass through the Gate, and the people dwelling atop it could drop whatever they liked on them.  It was a highly effective defensive strategy, and Gondwyn still stood even now, which made it the oldest city in the whole of the Earth.
Mahaven snorted, a strange, high-pitched sound that sounded almost like a whistle.  “It’s Gondwyn,” he said.  “It’s not like we’ve found lost Galahaven.  Now there would be a prize worth claiming!”
“Galahaven was destroyed, not lost,” said Hamfries, just a little testily.  “In Act 20, when the Elves attempted to lay siege to–“
“Nah nah nah nah nah nah!” shouted Mahaven.  “I can’t hear you!”
“Hush!”  Mojo felt compelled to speak at last, and his whisper carried across both voices.  “You’ll wake Bulrug.”
All three of them looked at their fourth companion, the dwarven mage Bulrug.  He was sleeping on his back, his mouth open and his beard matted and tangled.  He was wrapped in his cloak, which was the blue-and-silver of the weather-mages, but there was a red-and-black stole around his shoulders that was supposed only to be worn by the necromancers.  They’d not seen him do any magic so far on this journey, but they had seen him viciously and brutally slay every thing they’d encountered that wasn’t clearly surrendering or begging for mercy.  He was a veteran of the Sporeonic War, and Mojo suspected that he was suffering from Gulf Battle syndrome.  The Gulf Battle was officially the last battle of the war, and both sides had launched magical attacks of staggering power and atrocity.  Being caught anywhere near the battle had caused physical and psychological effects that continued to manifest years later, often to the detriment of the people who knew the victims.
“Yeah ok,” said Mahaven more quietly now.  “Let’s not wake him up until it’s time to move on.”

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Lucy Locket

I felt better at least for the bath, and my room-mate, bless his little PVC hotpants, had found me a shirt and suit from somewhere.  The shirt was comfortable; the suit fit in all the important areas (the sleeves were too long and tended to fall over my hands, but I could see where that might come in useful) and most importantly, he’d told me he didn’t want the clothes back.  I slipped my hands into the pockets to see if there was anything left behind and found a monogrammed handkerchief, a delicate blue silk number with a calligraphic M in one corner.  Whistling, I walked away from our little home and out into the night.
I was wandering aimlessly at first, letting my mind mull over the events of the last few days, and the weirdness that was transpiring.  Natasha Monkeybutt was up to something, but that wasn’t news, or even worth investigating.  She had the blessing of City Hall for the moment, and when she fell out of favour with them they’d deal with her in their own way.  Nothing I was going to do would hasten that fall, unless Mad Frankie got so upset with me that he decided to do something about her himself.  And that was as likely as a freebie from a girl with thirty years on the street.
I still wanted to locate Boy Blue.  Whether he knew what he was mixed up in or not, I wanted to find him now and find out what the hell he thought was going on.  And why he had that picture of Natasha Monkeybutt… well, for all I knew better, I couldn’t resist giving her tree a little shake and seeing if the Death-watch beetles were ticking yet or not.  And he was clearly annoying her, and that was reason enough to see if he needed any help in my book.  It’s not a big book, and there’s more pictures than words, but it’s my book nonetheless.
I turned down another street without really looking where I was going and nearly tripped over some woman’s child-buggy; a double-stacked double-wide thing that looked like it should be used for delivering outsize packages, not supporting the over-population of the city.  There were two children who looked to be of toddling age in the lower stack in little chairs that were like the classic push-chair from when I was a child.  I never had a push-chair, my mother didn’t believe in pandering to anyone’s desires.  I crawled everywhere once I could crawl, sometimes with her chivvying me along like a recalcitrant sled-dog according to people who knew her back then.  Above them, acting almost as a canopy, were two smaller bassinet-style things supported on a cantilevered plastic frame.  In one of those was a pudding of a child that had presumably hurt its mother to give birth to, and in the other were two babies placed top to tail and wearing little shark-themed onesies.
“Look where you’re going!” bellowed the woman pushing this contraption, who was so stick-thin that I could both the bones in her forearms.  I wondered that she control this buggy with all the weight that was clearly in it.
“If you’d left any room on the pavement…” I retorted, and attempted to step around her.  She wrenched the buggy as hard as she could, and to my complete lack of surprise failed to get it to turn even an inch.  I sidled past, listening to her scream in frustration and thinking to myself that she couldn’t know this neighbourhood very well.  When she the corner that I’d just come round, probably after a titanic struggle with the buggy, it went downhill.  Very gradually at first, but it got steeper as the river came into sight, and I couldn’t see her being able to slow the buggy down, let alone stop it.
I looked around me, and realised that I knew where I was, and wondered again for a moment what my feet had been up to.  I paused, and then decided to pay a visit for old time’s sake.  And to ask if Lucy knew about Boy Blue by any chance.
Lucy Locket’s was a non-descript house of three storeys in a three-storey neighbourhood with a large front garden who edges were lines with leylandii to keep peeping eyes out.  The front path was narrow and gravelled, and I knew that stepping off it was the cue for the dobermen to come leaping out of hiding and inspect you.  At the end of it was a couple of concrete steps up to a front-door with an imposing knocker that was never answered; but walk around to the tradesmen’s entrance and there was a buzzer and a peephole.  Lucy opened the door almost immediately to me, and I could smell the disinfectant and hear the strains of a badly-tuned piano.
“Mac!” she said, looking as though she’d embrace me if I weren’t me.  “You look… clean!”

Tuesday, 6 August 2013


Hi, I’m Buddy, your corporate guru.  Well, actually, I’m your corporate-appointed guru, which is slightly different, but trust me, it makes you special.
Well, the first way it makes you special is that you’re the only person in your department to have a corporate-appointed guru, and the second way is that you and I are going to spending a lot of time together now, in order to get your karma valeted and your personality enhanced so that you’re ready to accept the promotion that is destined to be yours.  
No, I don’t do the valeting myself actually, that would be rather a waste of my talents.  I explain to you how you valet your own karma and you keep it maintained after that.  Or find someone to do it for you; Steve in Sales is always willing to lend a hand.  
I’d say sticky rather than clammy, but if you feel that way perhaps you’d be better looking for a valet of your own then.
Yes, I did mention a promotion, and I was hoping your might pick up on that.  Corporate only issue gurus when they feel that they need to promote someone to the management fast-tra– Oh, you’re already management?  That’s not down on your profile you know.
Oh really?  That’s a job title now?  Huh!  Well, you learn something new every day don’t you.  Oh don’t look at me like that, I bet that not’s what your business cards say… oh would you look at that!  You do have a card calling you that.  And you give them out….
Well, before we go any further then, I think we’d better profile you so that we’re both clear what we’re dealing with her.  No, not Myers-Briggs.  How nineties is that?  And who wants to be a collection of letters anyway?  Well, if you must know, I’ve collected about half the alphabet so far.  Yes, I know there’s only eight available in the standard version of the test.  And before you say it, yes, I know that the baby-version assigns you letters and doesn’t explain how you can go about collecting the missing ones.  I suppose that does sound a bit like Pokémon.  Yes, I’m writing that down.
So we’re doing a goodness-of-fit test to find out the kind of person you are, the kind of role you best fit in the company, and the best kind of company for you.  We’re looking for the obvious misfits first – librarian in a fire-station kind of thing – and then we’ll do a second pass looking for misfits that have arisen through natural career progression – expert stripper running the front desk and accounts for example. 
Yes, I have coached strippers.
No, I think you’re better suited to a less clothing-optional environment.  I mean that in a nice way, of course.
Look at these sixteen squares and pick the colour that you find most appealing.  Take your time, this matters.  No, it doesn’t matter if you don’t know the names of all these colours, not everyone could attend school every day, could they?  Well that’s clearly Nasturtium.  And that one’s burnt sienna.  Yes it is a colour, now just pick one!
Right good.  Now, I’m going to show you a list of names, pick out the ones you were called when you were at school.
OK, that many?  Well you’ve got quite a choice ahead of you then; pick out one that hurt most and you really hated, and one that didn’t bother you at all.  Or at least, the one that hurt less than all the others.  You can take your time so long as you’re not going to tell me you don’t know what all the names mean.
Well that one is a bit unusual, but you can find it in the Urban Dictionary.  No, don’t look it up at work.
OK, that’s good.  One more for now; which of these hair-styles have you never tried?
Right, that’s fantastic.  So, taking what you picked, your basic personality type is homicidal.  I get that a lot, I think I’m getting type-cast you know.  Not that this is about me at all.  And your preferred role in a company is… dreamer.  That’s a little unusual, but every company needs someone with a big picture and a vision of how to achieve it.  That’s very useful, this will be why you’ve been gurued.  And the kind of company you’d work best in is… mobile ice-cream sales.
Oh, I am sorry.
Well no, I have to report this back now.  And you might want to think about where you could buy an ice-cream van from.

Sunday, 4 August 2013

The Ilmatu

“And who the bloody hell are you?” asked Dolores.  She sniffed her drink, and then smiled at Arthur.  “Sipsmith’s?” she said.  “The landlord is stocking much better these days.”
“Isabella Bonfontaine,” said the woman in the doorway.  She came in, closing the door behind her.  “If you would all be seated, ladies and gentlemen, I’ll get straight to the point and then you may decide what you want to do.  If that should be leave then there’s nothing I can do to stop you.  But I hope to convince you to stay a little while.”
“Bloody peculiar timeshare presentation,” said Phillip, not moving.  “How did you get in here?  I don’t recognise you, and this is a very private club.”
“It’s not a timeshare,” said Isabella.  “I’m not asking for money.  What I’m asking for is, technically, much more valuable, but equally far easier for you give and will, relatively speaking, cost you personally nothing.”  She crossed the room while she was speaking to the AV-unit.  “Again, if I might ask you to sit down, things will be far easier to present.”
“You didn’t say how you got in here,” said Jaana.  “Phillip makes a very good point; you shouldn’t even have known that this room existed.  Did you invite us?  How did you know how to reach us?”
Isabella sighed, her finger resting on the ON button.  “I think you all know Lady Wednesday,” she said.  “Or rather, you all know who is meant by Lady Wednesday, which is more than I do.  She, if she is a she, provided me with this location, a card to gain entry, and the assurance that the right people would be here when I arrived.”
Dolores harrumphed immediately, but then she sat down in the nearest chair and continued to sip her drink.  Arthur stared at his feet for a few seconds, and then walked around the table to sit next to Dolores.  Phillip frowned.  “That’s all well and good,” he said.  “You’ve got a pass for the evening only, I suppose.  But how do you know Lady Wednesday?  I don’t like this very much.”
“How do any of us know Lady Wednesday?” asked Jaana.  “I don’t think that’s a question any of us would be willing to answer, so I don’t think we can ask it of Isabella.  Unless, of course, she would like to tell us?”  He looked over, and Isabella shook her head firmly.  “I see.  Then I will listen, but I can tell you now that when you are done, I will be leaving.  Lady Wednesday or not, I feel that I have been brought here under false pretences, and I do not like that.”
He and Phillip sat, near the top of the table, but on opposite sides.
“Thank-you,” said Isabella, pressing the button.  The screen at the far end of the room descended, and a projection lowered from the ceiling, coming to live as it did.  A countdown appeared on the screen as the projector warmed up, and a keyboard slid out of the AV unit.  Isabella tapped the enter key.  While she was aware that no-one in this room was under sixty, she was sure that they all had to sit through PowerPoint presentations regularly for the various board positions they held and companies they ran, so nothing she was about to show them should be unusual.  Except, perhaps, the actual content.
The screen flickered, and the first slide came up: black except for her name in white letters.
“My name is Isabella Bonfontaine,” she said.  “I find things for people.  Usually things that have a degree of difficulty associated with them, and in some cases are broadly considered to either not exist, or no longer exist.  This is not always true.  The thing that I have been tasked to find this time is the reason I am here.  I am informed, by Lady Wednesday, that you have all encountered these before.”
The slide moved on, and the next screen was a picture of a long, spindly humanoid creature.  Its arms and legs were thin and about three times as long as a human’s, and all four limbs ended in a hoof-like structure that could split apart into two segments.  The body was vaguely female in shape, with thin, small breasts and visible rib-cage.  The head was bald and faceless, and the whole thing looked like a daddy-long-legs badly crossed with a human being.  The slide animated, and the thing turned and skittered up a wall, vertically, covering thirty feet in a second, and then it paused, hanging near the ceiling.
“The Ilmatu,” said Isabella.  The reactions around the table told her that her audience had definitely seen these things before.

Friday, 2 August 2013

A drawing room

The Dog and Duck, Public House, had a large downstairs bar that was currently mostly filled with young drinkers.  They were attracted by the craft beers and its retro-chic – which was more accreditable to the landlord’s refusal to redecorate, renovate, or in any other way update the pub from it’s 70s look and feel.  That this was now bringing in an astonishing number of customers, and consequently cash, was rather delighting him.  The noise and hubbub was at levels that were enough to annoy the neighbours, who were used to the pub’s previous, more sedate days, and the bar staff, newly boosted to seven for the weekend trade, were sweating, laughing, and constantly rushing downstairs to the cellar to change the barrels over.  In one corner a couple of bearded, studenty-looking men were assembling a small stage on which a local band would be playing later.
Up the stairs, a nice flight of Axminster-carpeted steps that turned two corners to reach the first floor, were two smaller lounges, both of which had their own smaller bars and were also packed.  The landlord allowed them to be rented out for a very small charge to parties and groups, the charge having only appeared when he found that renting it for free was resulting in a lot of competition for the rooms.  Even now, with a charge of ten pounds for the room, there was still a lot of groups where everyone paid fifty pence and enjoyed a private bar for the evening.
At the first turn of the stairs was a door that led into the staff-only parts of the pub: the cleaning cupboards, a tiny smoking room for the bar staff to sit down in for fifteen minute breaks, and the kitchens.  The landlord’s bedroom and a tiny sitting room were also back here, with an en-suite bathroom and a couple of bookcases.
At the second turn of the stairs was another door marked Private, but behind here was a long corridor that eventually left the pub’s building altogether and terminated in a door at the adjacent building.  There was a tiny private bar in this room, that was stocked by the landlord with bottled drinks and bar-snacks but never bar-tended.  A conference-room table took up most of the room, surrounded by eight leather chairs, and in the corner next to the bar was a sophisticated audio-visual presentation unit that the landlord had neither installed nor knew how to use.  At the other end of the room was an automatically-descending projection screen, a mat for people to leave their shoes on, and a window that looked out onto the street below, though the glass was tinted so that the street below couldn’t look back.  Incongruously, there were two small pillars against the long wall without the door, on each of which was a glass display case containing an animal skull.
At eight o’clock a distinguished-looking older man walked into the pub with a look of distaste on his face.  As he surveyed the people drinking, laughing and enjoying being in the bar, a sneer curled on his face.
“Oh come on, Arthur,” said a voice behind him.  He half-turned, enough to see who was speaking out of the corner of his eye, and recognised Jaana Finnuuken, a man he’d gone to school with.  “Let them have their fun, they’re not hurting anyone.”
“I remember when a man could come in here and no-one would look up because there was no-one here to look up,” said Arthur.  The pair of them made for the stairs.
“Yes Arthur, but then you also remember when the dinosaurs used to come here when their watering hole ran dry,” said Jaana.  His English was as impeccable and upper-class-sounding as Arthur’s.
They reached the second turn of the stairs and Arthur produced a key-card from an inside pocket and passed it over a patch of wallpaper.  There was a tiny beep and a click as the door unlocked.
“I hope the landlord got my note about the wine,” said Arthur as they passed through.  “The last bottle I had here was nearly execrable.  It hadn’t been aged for even five years!”
“Not all wines have to be left to rot,” said Jaana.  “Some of them are even very drinkable shortly after they’re bottled.”
“Pah!” said Arthur.
Four minutes after Arthur and Jaana had reached the room and starting arguing over the merits of the wines, the door to the meeting room opened again and Dolores Mudney came in.  She paused in the doorway for a moment, her gaze meeting Jaana’s.
“I wasn’t expecting to see you,” she said, her tone a shade warmer than icy.  “I wonder if this is such a good idea?”
“I wasn’t told who else would be coming,” said Jaana, “so I think you have the advantage of me in every way, dear lady.”  Despite his casual words, his tone was also reserved and unfriendly.
“Well of course not,” she sniffed.  She looked at Arthur.  “Since I’m here I shall stay.  For now.  Be a gentlemen and get me a gin, Arthur.”
“And I’ll have an Archers!”  Dolores stepped into the room, her face looking now like she’d stepped in something deplorable, as behind her a rotund man with sunburn all across his face came in.  “Good lord, what an odd squad we have here!  And… by the Lord Harry, it’s true!  They’ve not redecorated in here either!  My god, the landlord must be allergic to the smell of clean carpets and fresh paint.”  Jaana smiled, and greeted the newcomer, while Arthur busied himself with Dolores’s drink and tried not to look revolted as he picked out the Archers’s bottle.
“Phillip,” said Jaana, not moving any closer because that would take him closer to Dolores.  “You’re here as well!  This is quite the little get-together isn’t it?”
“Top stuff,” said Philip, grinning.  “So, who’s brought us all here then?”
Arthur handed round the drinks and frowned.  “Not me,” he said.  “I rather thought Dolores–“
“Not me, either!” she said sharply.  “I did think it must have been you, Arthur, but then you’d have a more plausible guest list.”
All four people looked at one another in confusion for a few moments, until a voice in the doorway said, “I invited you all.”