Thursday, 31 October 2013

Interview: Kevin



“Who’s next?” asked Playfair.
“I’ll see if we’ve got that list yet,” said Miss Flava.  She stood up and walked out of the lounge into the institutional green corridors that the clinic favoured.  She felt a little like a rat in a maze in the corridors, as they were a uniform height and width, all painted the same colour, and there always seemed to be more of them wherever you looked.  She found herself inexplicably missing rooms that led into other rooms, and small ante-rooms that broke corridors up in the buildings she was used to.
Reception was two corridors away, and Miss Flava was surprised to see someone new sitting at the desk.  She looked up as Miss Flava approached, and she looked interested and alert.  Miss Flava smiled.
“Hello,” she said, offering her hand.  “I don’t think we’ve met.”
The receptionist shook her hand and smiled some more.  “I’m Jacquie,” she said.  “I’m on reception.  People don’t normally shake my hand.”
“I’m Miss Flava,” said Miss Flava producing her badge.  “Police.”
Jacquie smiled harder.  “Oh, I did hear that you’d come in,” she said.  “Nurse Wendy said something as she was hurrying off, but I didn’t catch all of it.  Has something been stolen?”
“There’s been a murder,” said Miss Flava.  “Or, at least, there’s been a body found, and we’re investigating to find out if it’s murder or not.”
Jacquie’s hand flew to her mouth, and then she put it down by her side again.  “I see,” she said, with just a faint tremor in her voice.  “Can you tell me who?”
“The day-shift manager is what we’ve been told,” said Miss Flava.  “We’re looking at the body now.  Inspector Playfair and myself are interviewing everyone who’s been in the clinic during the window of opportunity, and I was wondering if you could get me a list of names.  I did ask the Nurse who was here, so she may have left the print-out for you.”
“I doubt it,” said Jacquie, scanning the reception desk.  “She thinks all this kind of work is beneath her.  She resents having to fill in when I’m not here, and she does a piss-poor job of it too.  Oh, sorry!”
“I hear far worse all day,” said Miss Flava.
“Oh… oh, yes, you associate with all those criminal types, I suppose.  Well, let me get a list of everyone – since when?”
“Yesterday morning,” said Miss Flava, wondering if she should correct Jacquie’s impression of who she hung out with.  But since it was Playfair who was the source of most of the swearing and bad language that she heard day in and day out she decided not to.  Let Jaccquie find out for herself what he was like.
Jacquie tapped some keys on the keyboard, and a second later the familiar whine of a laser-printer came from underneath the desk.  She reached down and took a sheet of A4 paper from it with what looked like 10 names.  “That’s all the guests,” she said.  “Do you need the staff as well?”
“Yes please.”
“Right, that’ll take a little longer as I’ll have to check the rosters and the signing-in sheets,” said Jacquie.  “Shall I bring it to do when I’ve got it?”
“Yes, we’re in the lounge,” said Miss Flava.
As she walked back, she read through the names, but none of them meant anything to her.  She handed the list to Playfair who didn’t even bother to read them, but just shouted out the name of the list.
“Kevin Laferme!”
A man who had to be nearly six foot six stood up at the far end of the lounge.  He loomed when he walked, and he walked with exaggerated care.  He was wearing a wife-beater than showed off his hugely muscled arms and shoulders, and sweat-pants that were cut off just above the knee.  His calves looked to be the same size as Miss Flava’s arms.  His skin was mahogany brown, but there was something slightly unnatural about it, as though it had been painted on over a lighter skin tone.  His eyes were grey, and his head was shaved.  When he sat down, he inspected the chair he was sitting on first and then sat down with the same care as he walked.  The chair creaked.
“Kevin Laferme?”  Playfair produced a pen from a pocket and held it poised over the paper.
“Yep,” said Kevin.  His voice was quite high-pitched and chirpy, completely different from what Miss Flava had expected when she saw him.  “Call me Kev.”
“Right, Kev,” said Playfair, placing a tick against his name.  “What are you doing here then?”
“You asked me to come over,” said Kevin happily.  “I was going to go to the gym, but then you said you wanted to talk to me, so I came here instead.  I’ll go to the gym when this is over.  It’s leg day today, and I’ve got three hours to do.”
“Inspector Playfair meant, what are you doing at the clinic,” said Miss Flava.
“Oh, altitude training,” said Kevin.  His eyes darted from Miss Flava to Playfair and back again.
“Altitude training?  I thought you were a body-builder,” said Playfair.  “You look like a body-builder.”
“Thanks!  Yeah, altitude training’s all the rage these days, so I thought I’d give a try.”
“I thought altitude training was for runners,” said Playfair.  “To build up red blood cells so that when they return to lower altitudes they’ve got more oxygen carrying capacity and better aerobic performance, for a short while.”
“Yeah, right!”
“So how is body-building aerobic?”
“Right, it isn’t, right?”
“Right?”
“Yeah, right!”
Playfair’s head sank into his hands.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Interview: pianist



Miss Flava and Inspector Playfair were sat in the lounge.  Like the room off the reception, it had one wall entirely taken up with windows, providing another spectacular view from the mountain top, with green, flower-strewn meadows falling away and fluffy white clouds dotting the perfect-blue sky.  The furniture in here was less cluttered, more spread-out, and featured firm sofas clustered around low wooden coffee tables, and some stuffed, high-back armchairs gathered in a semi-circle around a fireplace.  There were logs in the fireplace that looked either new or fake, Miss Flava hadn’t yet decided which was more likely, and a mantlepiece held an ormolu clock and photographs of horses.  She and Playfair were sat in the armchairs on one side of the semi-circle, and the pianist was sat opposite them.  He looked nervous, and was playing with a thread hanging from the button-hole of his shirt-cuffs.
Back in the pool room the Scene-of-crime Officers were gathered around the body and strewing yellow tape everywhere.  They had shooed Playfair out the moment they saw him, but Miss Flava was given to understand that she could stay and watch, if she wanted, but she wasn’t to touch anything.  Playfair had shaken his head, and so she’d refused; if he’d thought that there was anything special going to found on the body she was sure he’d just have walked off and left her there.
She’d just finished explaining to the pianist what his rights were in the matter, and why they were talking to him.  He looked unhappy, but hadn’t attempted to leave or complain that they couldn’t do this, so she counted this as a small victory.
“Did you know the victim?” she asked, working down a short, but standard, list of questions that she liked to try and get through before Playfair went off at a tangent.  The pianist looked a little puzzled.
“Well yes,” he said.  “He’s Bob, he’s the day-shift manager.  He employed me.  Of course I knew him.”
“Thank-you,” said Miss Flava.  “I’m asking purely for the record.  Some of these questions will seem a little simple, or the answers will seem obvious, but I need to ask them and to hear your answer so that we don’t jump to any conclusions.”
“Lawyers,” said Playfair with a harrumph.  The pianist looked at him then, and looked away, back at Miss Flava.
“I suppose what you’re not saying,” he said, “is that if you decide I murdered Bob and you haven’t gone through your list of questions, then some lawyer might find a way to say that you didn’t follow procedure and so I can’t be tried.”
“Mostly,” said Playfair.
“Not exactly,” said Miss Flava.  “That’s not quite how trials work, no matter what you see on television.  But it is important that we understand exactly how things came to this position, so that we can find the murderer.”
“Or murderess,” said the pianist.
“Pardon?”
“Well, it could be a woman, couldn’t it?” he asked.  “It doesn’t have to be a man.  Or was Bob killed in some way that rules a woman out?”
“Is there any kind of murder that could rule a woman out?” asked Playfair.
“Well I don’t know,” said the pianist.  “Perhaps if Bob’s back was broken by a punch, or something, something that needed a lot of strength, perhaps.  Maybe he was stabbed with a pen, and it was forced through muscle, or bone, or something.”
“I’ll give you a tenner if you can beat Miss Flava here in arm-wrestling,” said Playfair.  “And why do you think that the murderer broke Bob’s back?”
“Uh, I don’t,” said the pianist, his face going pale.  “I was just suggesting ideas, um.  Well, you know.”
“Right,” said Miss Flava.  “Might I suggest that you stop giving Playfair ideas and just answer the questions?”
“Yes,” said the pianist.  He seemed to sag in on himself a little, but he answered the rest of Miss Flava’s questions quietly and to the point.
“Who else is staying in the clinic that you know of?” asked Miss Flava.
“Oh, well I don’t know names,” said the pianist.  “I just play the piano, and I’m not really supposed to mingle with the clients.  They’re all here for treatment, and I’m just staff.  But there’s some bodybuilders, because of the competition that’s going on, there’s a few of them, and then there’s the usual middle-aged women who want to look younger.  Oh, and there’s another man who doesn’t seem like he belongs here.  He keeps himself to himself though.”
“What do you mean, doesn’t seem like he belongs here?”  Miss Flava wrote quickly, her pencil scratching across the coarse paper of her notepad.
“Well, he’s ridiculously thin,” said the pianist.  “He’s like a stick with a ping-pong ball on top.”  Playfair barked a laugh, but didn’t follow it up with an interruption, so the pianist continued.  “He can’t be here to lose weight, but the clinic doesn’t do bulking up, or health cures or anything.  It’s focused around losing weight and being beautiful.”
“Could he be here for a beauty treatment?” asked Miss Flava.
“I suppose,” said the pianist, but he didn’t sound convinced.
“Who else works here?” asked Playfair.  “We’ve met you and Nurse Wendy so far, and we’ve seen Bob’s body.  The nurse mentioned a night shift manager.”
“Mike,” said the pianist.  “He should have arrived by now, I don’t know what’s keeping him.  Um, other than Mike and Bob there’s Wendy, there’s me, there’s the kitchen staff, I think there’s a few chefs and there’re some porters.  There’s the pool guy, he makes sure that the pool’s all working properly and there’s nothing wrong with it.  And then there’s Doctor Demson, he’s the presiding doctor for the clinic.  But he’s hardly ever here unless–“  He stopped, and looked from Miss Flava to Playfair.
“Unless?” said Miss Flava.
“Well… unless anything goes wrong.  Not that it ever does!”  He looked at his feet now, and refused to be drawn any further when Miss Flava pressed him.  Finally she gave up and looked at Playfair.
“How about Clara?” he said.
“Clara?”  The pianist didn’t look up.
“When we arrived you said that she was inside and would meet us.  We never met her.”
“Oh, you must have misheard me,” said the pianist.  “Clara’s dead, she has been for a while.  I can’t think what I could have said that you’d have misheard like that though.  Perhaps I was just asking you to go in?”
“That must be it,” said Playfair.  “Thank-you, you’ve been enlightening.”
The pianist looked up now, his cheeks still pale but with a bright red spot in the middle of each, as though he couldn’t decide if he should be embarrassed or frightened and was trying out both.
“You can go,” said Playfair, and the pianist stood up immediately.  He smoothed down his suit jacket, and paused, his mouth opening and though to say something, and then he seemed to think better of it and left the little semi-circle of chairs.
“Curious chap,” said Playfair thoughtfully.  “I wonder why he changed his mind about Clara?”
“Nurse Wendy told him to?” said Miss Flava.  She flicked back through the notes she’d made, rereading them and considering what she’d heard.
“Or perhaps Clara did,” said Playfair.  “But either way, someone doesn’t want us to think that we might be able to talk to Clara.  I wonder why?”
“I’m absolutely certain you’ll find out,” said Miss Flava.  “You hate people creating unnecessary mysteries.”

Sunday, 27 October 2013

The filtration room



The filtration room was square and unadorned.  The walls were bare grey concrete, the ceiling was bare grey concrete, and a single filament light-bulb hung from it to illuminate the room.  There were a collection of metal pipes running in and out of the room via the floor and low down on the walls, and a couple of large metal boxes in the middle of the room.  They’d been painted the same green as the door, and they connected to the pipes.  Both of them were humming, and the drone was quite loud in here.  On both machines were a small sets of gauges, with little needles pointing at numbers, and both machines had large green and red push buttons.
“I was expecting digital,” said Playfair.  He sounded surprised.
“I guess you buy what you can afford,” said Miss Flava.  She stayed in the doorway while Playfair walked over to the machines and checked them.  He walked round the other side, and Miss Flava heard a sudden splash, and then a familiar cursing.
“Water leak?” she asked.
“Oil, by the looks of it,” said Playfair.  “You’d think that’s be a worry if this thing’s on all the time.”
“How about a thermostat?”
“Yes, and it’s covered in dust.”
“What setting?”
“Hard to read,” said Playfair, his voice quieter as though he were crouching down.  “I don’t actually want to disturb this one either, no point letting them know we’ve checking this already.  Huh.  It’s between 20 and 30.”
“We can get SOCO to stick a thermometer in the pool and check that way,” she said.  “Since we know it’s not been touched now.”
Playfair stood up and came back and they closed the door behind them and wheeled the floatation aid stand back in front of it.
“Now what?”
“I guess we wait for SOCO,” said Playfair, his tone of voice suggesting that wasn’t what he wanted to do at all.  “Can you find out where they are?”
Miss Flava pulled out her cell-phone and checked the reception.  She had three bars, which was much better than she’d expected all the way up here.  She frowned at it.
“That’s odd,” she said.  “Reception’s pretty good.  There must be a cell-phone mast nearby.”
“The clinic might have its own,” said Playfair.  “It’s expensive enough.”
“I would have thought they’d just have banned mobile phones as part of the package,” said Miss Flava.  “Seems cheaper and easier, somehow.”  She selected a number from her contacts lists, and dialled.

Friday, 25 October 2013

A body in black



Miss Flava hurried through the doors after him, knowing perfectly well that he was going to do exactly what he’d just accused the nurse of.
“Don’t touch that body, Playfair!” she called, her voice echoing oddly in the space.  “The forensic team need to see it, and it’s already been moved once.  Don’t you dare touch it!  I won’t back you up on it this time.”
Playfair halted a couple of feet from the corpse and looked back.  Miss Flava tried to slow down, and realised how wet the floor was.  She skidded forward slightly, struggling to maintain her balance, and would have succeeded if the floor hadn’t made the transition from smooth concrete to rough tile, with little lego-like protrusions to help bare feet grip just where she skidded to.
A hand caught her elbow and steadied her, and she caught her breath.  Playfair looked at her, and for a moment she thought she saw something almost human in his eyes.  Then he’d looked away and was looking at the body again.
“No,” she said firmly.  “I’m very grateful for you catching me, but that does not mean that you get to mess with the evidence.  We wait for the forensics guys to get here.”
“SOCO’ll take ages,” said Playfair, just a little plaintively.  “It seems ridiculous to have the best source of clues sitting there decomposing and to stand around admiring it.  It’s not like this is the Tate, you know.”
Miss Flava had spent the previous weekend going round the Tate in London with an overenthusiastic artist who was trying to date her.  She’d spent nearly eight hours on her feet looking at just about everything the gallery had to offer, and being told lots of historical (and occasionally inaccurate) information about it all.  They’d done paintings, installations and sculptures, and while some of them had genuinely impressed her, a lot of it, despite her boyfriend’s best efforts, had left her cold.  She completely agreed with Playfair that this could have been an installation in there.
“You’re thinking of Tracy Emin,” she said.  “That’s the kind of thing she’d exhibit.”
“I’m not,” said Playfair.  “I don’t know who she is.  How long do you think it will take SOCO to get up that hill out there?”
“Well they’re not that fit, as a group,” said Miss Flava thoughtfully.  “And they’ve got quite a lot of equipment to carry.”
“Heavy equipment,” added Playfair helpfully.
“Right.  So… a good half-an-hour I should think.  And they’ll be grumpy when they get here.  So if you think I’m telling you off for wanting to touch the body now, think about what they’ll have to say when they find out what you’ve done.”
Playfair looked away and stared around the room.  Miss Flava had seem him have shouting matches with forensics guys before now, and although he’d usually won them, he did sometimes get a run for his money.  She was curious actually as to why he was holding back; it wasn’t as though he ever listened to her unless she was saying what he already wanted to hear.
The swimming pool had natural light coming through horizontal slit windows up near the ceiling, and fluorescent lights arranged around the edges of the room.  The combined effect was to leave the centre of the pool slightly dimmer than anywhere else, but there was plenty of light to see the body by.  There was a dull hum, probably from a filtration unit – she recalled that the nurse had been going to say that they hadn’t wanted the body to contaminate the pool, so she guessed that they had no intention of draining the pool and refilling it even though a corpse had been found in there.  She shuddered, glad that she wasn’t a guest here.  There were wooden slatted benches pushed up against the wall on three sides of the room, presumably to allow people to sit out when they were tired of swimming, or possibly for an audience in case there were competitions going on.  Miss Flava fished in her pocket for her notebook and made a note to ask about competitions or exhibitions that might happen here.  There was a strong smell of chlorine in the air, enough that from time to time it caught in the back of her throat and made it tricky to breath in for a heartbeat.  She wondered if that was normal too, it seemed like a lot of chlorine for an indoor pool.
“No thermostat,” said Playfair.
“What?”  Miss Flava looked around, but she couldn’t see the distant walls clearly enough to see for any switches or dials.
“No thermostat,” said Playfair.  “Temperature must be regulated from somewhere else.”
“Probably the filtration room,” she said.  “You can hear the hum.”
“Right,” said Playfair.  “Where do reckon that is then?”
“Why?”
“We need to know what temperature the water’s at,” he said.  “The body was in it for some length of time, and that will affect it’s rate of cooling.  And also I want to see if it’s been changed recently.”
Miss Flava smiled.  “Up or down?”
“Either or both,” he said.  “It’ll still tell us something.”
They found the door fairly quickly, hidden behind a shelf of flotation aids that wheeled easily out of the way.  It was green, metal, had ventilation fans in it, and was, of course, locked.
“I’ll go and ask for the key, shall I?” said Miss Flava, knowing she was wasting her breath.
“No, I got this,” said Playfair producing what looked like nailfiles from a small leather pouch that came from an inside pocket of his jacket.
“It would seem more legal if I went and got the key,” said Miss Flava while he poked them into the lock.
“And they’d know that we were checking this,” said Playfair.  “This way I get to find out before they know I know.  That gives us an edge, and this is all about finding the right edge.  Something’s going on here, that much is obvious, and I don’t think it’s just a murder.”  There was a click and Playfair turned and beamed at her.  “Forty seconds,” he said.  “It’s an easy one, because it’s indoors and only really intended to keep nosy people out.”
“Like us?”
“Like us.  But forty’s still pretty good.”
“It could just be a murder and some slightly stupid members of staff, Playfair,” said Miss Flava, but she didn’t believe herself.  Nurse Wendy had made her suspicious too.
“Hah.”  Playfair opened the door and reached in and groped around the edges of the room until he found a light-switch, and pressed it down.

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A moment alone



“I still think it would be better if Mike were here,” said Wendy.  “I spoke to him about twenty minutes ago, so I’m sure he’s nearly here by now.”
“I doubt it,” said Playfair, smiling again.  “It took Miss Flava and I fifteen minutes just to hike up from the car-park.  Unless Mike lives in the car-park, I’d say he’s still a way away from us.  And while we’re standing here talking, who knows what you’ve got the porters doing to the body?”
“The signs say the swimming pool is over there,” said Miss Flava, pointing.  There were little white signs with black lettering and arrows indicating directions by each closable door leading off reception.  Wendy looked furious.
“Let’s go then,” said Playfair.  “When Mike arrives we’ll be at the swimming pool.  Unless he takes a half-hour or so, in which case I imagine we’ll be back here again talking to you some more.”
Wendy scowled and glared at computer screen behind the desk.  Then she pointedly starting tapping on the keyboard and moving the mouse with sharp, jerky movements, not looking up again.  Playfair shrugged as though he had no idea what had caused her bad temper, and led the way through the archway towards the sign indicating the swimming pool.
The room off the reception was flooded with sunlight as the entire side-wall was windows held in slender steel frames.  The view, out across the town at the foot of the mountain, and then onto rolling green fields and hills, was spectacular and the kind of thing you expected to see on the cover of shortbread tins.  There were fluffy white clouds hovering in the azure sky, and dark shapes that might have been birds of prey.
The room was filled with furniture, to the point of clutter.  There were lots of small square tables, around which were invariable four hard-backed chairs.  The tables were too small for four people to comfortably eat at, and instead of cutlery, there were pencils at all four corners.  Beneath the windows were a couple of bright white sofas, overstuffed and low-seated so that sitting in them was like falling backwards into a cloud.  Miss Flava noted that they looked very hard to get up gracefully from, and probably very hard for a lady to sit gracefully on.  At the end of the room was a larger table set with the requisite four chairs, and an easel.  To the left of the easel was a wooden door with three directional signs attached to the wall, all indicating that beyond the door were the swimming pool, the changing facilities, and the Billiards room.
Playfair opened the door, yanking on the handle so hard that it literally flew open and Miss Flava felt the draught of air from it.  On the other side was a narrow, beige-carpeted corridor with institutional-green walls and tiny slit windows up near the ceiling to provide daylight.  Fluorescent tubes ran the length of the corridor in the dead-centre of the ceiling.  Near the other end one was flickering.
Miss Flava closed the door behind her out of a natural sense of tidiness, and as soon as the door clicked shut Playfair spoke.
“She’s lying,” he said.
“Well yes,” said Miss Flava, who’d noticed it as well.  “About just about everything if you ask me, but what caught your attention in particular?”
“Bob,” said Playfair, advancing down the corridor.  The narrowness of the corridor meant that he could block it by squaring his shoulders and walking down the middle of it, which he was doing.  “There’s no way she and Bob were close.  I’d say if he ever tried it on with her he went home with a fat lip.”
“Really?”  Miss Flava considered Wendy for a moment, and wondered if the woman was really capable of violence.  Most were, she admitted, but Wendy didn’t seem the type to hit people.  Sarcasm maybe, that seemed to be a given.  Or telling lies about them behind their backs.  “I was more interested in why they moved the body.  Do you think she really called the Board of Directors for advice?  It seems… I don’t know, above her station somehow.  I don’t see why she’d think to call them at all to be honest.”
“And is Clara dead or not?” asked Playfair.  He’d reached the end of the corridor now, where it branched both left and right.  The signage indicated that the pool and the changing facilities were to the left, and the Billiards room to the right.  “That seems like a very pertinent question.”
“Who’s Clara?” asked Miss Flava.  “Left, Playfair, we’re going to the swimming pool.”
Playfair reversed direction.  “I suppose the body shouldn’t wait,” he said.  “Clara, the owner of the place Clara.  Whom the pianist told us was expecting us, and that nurse told us was three years dead.  Either this body’s been here a lot longer than we knew about, and Clara died waiting for us to get here, or someone’s got the wrong end of a very sticky stick.”
The corridor widened suddenly, just in time to accommodate double doors with glass panels reinforced with steel mesh.  Playfair flung them open like a diva making her entrance on stage, and found himself confronted by another set, through which the swimming pool could be seen, and an archway to the right that led into a tiled area, presumably the start of the changing facilities.  He pushed open the second set of double doors and a whiff of chlorine made Miss Flava choke momentarily.  When her eyes cleared again the doors were swinging behind Playfair, who was striding over to a man in evening dress lying prone at the side of the pool.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The swimming pool



“Where was the body found?” asked Playfair.  He peered behind the desk again as though wondering if they’d laid it out back there.  The nurse glared at him.
“In the swimming pool,” she said.  “Face down.”
“Is it still there?”
He has been pulled out,” said the nurse, her tone as icy as a north wind in Winter.  “He’s on the side of the pool now.”
“Sounds like tampering with evidence to me,” said Playfair with a little smile.  “Did you do this of your own accord, or did someone ask you to help them?”
“I never touched the body!”  The nurse flushed, a puce colour that made her head look a little like a plum.  “They wanted to get him out of the water so that it wouldn’t contamin– so that it wouldn’t speed decomposition… er, and the chlorine in the water.”  She tailed off a little at the end, sounding uncertain for the first time since Playfair and Miss Flava had arrived.
“The chlorine in the water?” prompted Miss Flava before Playfair could agitate the nurse any more.  She was trying to get everything written down in her notebook – Playfair, as usual, was making no notes at all and would later tell her that he remembered everything that was of any importance – and she knew that she still hadn’t found out the nurse’s name.
“Er yes, we were, that is, they were worried that it would affect the body after death… it might make it rot a bit quicker, I think.”
“And who are they exactly?”
“And who, in fact, are you?” asked Playfair, butting in again.  He drummed his fingers on the counter.  “You’re very quick to tell us about everyone else, but you’ve not told us who you are yet, have you?”
The nurse opened her mouth to retort, and then Miss Flava could see her take control of herself.  It was impressive, most people confronted by Playfair like this would be angered to the point of screaming confessions at him just to get him to shut up and go away, she’d seen it happen.  To see someone visibly pushing his attitude away like this and forcing herself to calm down and think about her answers showed a lot of willpower.
“Had you asked, at all,” said the nurse, “I would have told you that I was Wendy Roberts.  I might even have introduced myself to you and offered to shake your hand.  They in this instance are the kitchen porters, since they’ve got strong arms and strong stomachs, and we really had no idea how long Bob had been in the pool for when we found him.  He seems to be mostly wet rather than decomposed, so I guess it wasn’t that long.”
“The pathologist will determine that,” said Miss Flava.  “Thank-you, Wendy.”  She wrote the name down at the top of the page.  “Who instructed the porters?”
The hesitation was slight, and if Miss Flava hadn’t been previously so impressed with the way that the nurse had regained her calm she might never have noticed it.  But now, when Playfair had been put back down in his place, and the question was an easy one, the hesitation was curious.
“The board,” said Wendy.  “I couldn’t get hold of Mike on the phone at first, he was probably asleep, so I called Sequester Options to ask them for advice on what to do.  They said to get the body out of the pool and to call the police.”
“Why didn’t you call the police first?” asked Miss Flava, though she could guess the answer.  People never wanted to be responsible, so when you found a dead body you told someone else and hoped that they would call the police for you.  There was another fractional hesitation before Wendy answered, again.
“Bob and I were… close,” she said.  “I think I was in shock.”
“Then you still are,” said Playfair.  “Shock doesn’t just go away like that.  Have you had a sit down?”
Wendy, who was still sitting down, looked at him with an expression that suggested she thought he was abnormally slow.  “Cup of sweet tea?” he asked.
“I’m fine, thank-you,” she said.  “I did have to go and sit down for a bit, yes.  And I prefer coffee, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Fine, you’re sorted then,” said Playfair.  “Let’s see this swimming pool while we wait for Mike to get here.”
“I’d prefer that you wait for Mike,” said Wendy.
“I’m sure you would,” replied Playfair.

Saturday, 19 October 2013

Reception


The heli-pad was set off to the side of the clinic, with what looked like about three-hundred feet of flat, grassy ground between the two.  The clinic looked like a small hotel; four stories of smart-white building; each floor had eight sets of french-windows opening out on to a balcony framed by a cast-iron railing.  Some of the doors were open, and a white net curtain was blowing from one of them.  At the ground-floor there was a portico jutting out from the main building, presumably to give the smokers somewhere to shelter when the weather turned bad, that extended about forty feet and had large white planters spaced around it.  The planters held roses that were attempting to climb up the columns supporting the portico, but they didn’t look very enthusiastic about it, and Miss Flava was off the opinion that by growing up here in the first place they were already high enough up.  The main doors were closed, but one was opening even as she watched, and a short, tubby man wearing a tuxedo was emerging.  She forced herself to straighten up, and heaved another breath that seemed somehow to not be enough.
“Good afternoon!” bellowed Playfair happily, not moving.  The tuxedo’d man came forward hesitantly, as though expecting Playfair to start moving towards him.  Playfair simply stood and waited until he’d hop-skipped his way over to them, and then stuck a hand out.  Miss Flava almost called out from the man in the tuxedo to stop, but it would have been too late anyway.  He put his hand into Playfair’s, and she could see the pain cross his face as Playfair squeezed like an anaconda and shook like an alligator seizing its lunch.  When he let go she could see the man in the tuxedo evaluating if his arm had dislocated or not.
“You must be the doorman,” said Playfair, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’d just shook his hand.  “We’re here to see the owner.”
“I’m the pianist,” said the man bending and straightening his arm gingerly.  “The doorman’s on his break.  Most people just go to reception and sign in, you know.”  He looked at them both.  “And you have to carry your own luggage at the moment.  The porter’s d– definitely not feeling well.”
“He’s dead,” said Miss Flava making the pianist jump.  “We’re the police.  That’s Inspector Playfair, and I’m Miss Flava.  Someone here is hopefully expecting us.”
“Ah, yes, that would me,”said the pianist.  He stuck his hand out again, surely an automatic gesture, and Miss Flava had to hide a smile behind her own hand as Inspector Playfair seized it again and shook heartily.  “Ow.  Clara is expecting you too, I’m just here to make sure that.  Ow.  I’m just.  Ow.  I’m.  Oh, just go in.”  He rubbed his elbow vigorously and muttered ow under his breath again.  Playfair ignored him, and looked over at Miss Flava.
“Got your breath back?” he asked.  “This altitude will kill you if you’re not careful, or not adapted.”
“Yes, thank-you,” said Miss Flava, just a little stiffly.  “And don’t be ridiculous.  Heights don’t kill people, it’s hitting the ground that does that.”
“Heh,” said Playfair.  “I’d get that internet connection as soon as you can then, as altitude definitely does kill people.  Why do you think they have base stations on the high mountains?”
“…because they take days to climb,” said Miss Flava.  “Everyone knows that.  Come on Playfair, stop messing around and let’s go and find the body.”
Playfair let her take the lead and she pushed the main doors open and resisted the temptation to let it fall onto Playfair.  The man could be so smug as to be loathsome sometimes.
The clinic reception was muted; the walls were ash grey and the carpet was moss-green.  There was a large, curving reception desk taking up about a third of the room, behind which was sat a woman wearing a starched white nurse’s uniform.  There were pigeonholes, some of which contains manila envelopes and sheets of paper, behind her, and a couple of steel filing cabinets.  A closed door indicated that there was another room behind there as well.  To the left of the reception was an archway that lead through into a well-lit room with chairs and tables, and to the right were a row of hard-backed chairs and a small coffee-table covered with ancient magazines.  Miss Flava noted Just Seventeen and Cosmopolitan and wondered exactly what the average age of the clientele was.  This side of the room reminded her strongly of a doctor’s waiting room.
“Can I help you?” asked the woman behind the desk.  She wasn’t looking at either of them, seemingly more interested in something on the table in front of her.
“Yes,” said Playfair walking up to the desk.  He put both hands on it, directly in front of her, and leaned over the desk to see what she was looking at.  It was a 7” tablet computer showing a table of some kind, with the cells filled in with long, foreign-looking words.  The nurse turned it over and looked up at him.
“Diet?” she said.  She had brown eyes and auburn hair and looked to be in her mid-thirties.  Her badge, next to her watch, read SRN Hulme.
“No thanks,” said Playfair.
“Reservation?”
“Nope.”
“Then what do you want?”
“Police,” he said, fishing in his pocket for his badge.  After a couple of seconds groping he found it and presented it to her.  She sat back slightly, now alert and watchful.
“Right,” she said, and then said nothing more.  Playfair met her gaze and held it.
“We’re here about the murder,” said Miss Flava recognising that the immovable object had met the unstoppable force.  “We’re expecting to meet the owner.  Clara?”
“Clara’s been dead for three years,” said the nurse not dropping her gaze from Playfair’s.  “Presumably you don’t think she’s been murdered.  The current owner is Sequester Options, a private equity firm, and the current manager, Bob Flind, is your body.”
“Thank-you,” said Miss Flava.  She pulled out her notebook and quickly noted down what the nurse had said, while the nurse and Playfair continued to attempt to out-stare each other.  “Who’s in charge when Bob’s dead?”
“That would be Michael, Mike Humber,” said the nurse.  “He’s due in any minute now; we called him after we called you.”

Thursday, 17 October 2013

CAWL clinic


CAWL clinic – Clara’s Altitude Weight Loss Clinic according to the promotional material lying in Miss Flava’s lap – was, unsurprisingly, located near the top of a mountain.  Miss Flava looked out of the passenger-side window as the car trundled up the road, its engine roaring with the effort.  The view was extremely picturesque, so much so that she felt slightly nauseated looking at it.  There were purple-tinged mountains in the distance, their tops wreathed around with wispy white cloud, and alpine meadows in the foreground.  Little white flowers, probably Edelweiss she thought, dotted the lush green grass, and here and there a bucolic-looking cow stood idly, cudding away and regarding her back with soft, brown eyes.  The only thing that was missing was cow-bells and Heidi.
She glanced back down at the brochures and turned a glossy page.  The pictures showed the interior of the clinic, which appeared to be dark woods and white sheets, steel sinks and heated towel-rails, balconies and acres of wooden floor.  Undoubtedly the place cost a small fortune to visit even for a day.  She looked out of the window again, and spotted the cow-bell around the neck of an aggressive-looking cow as they rounded the corner.  Oh good.  That only left Heidi to find, and she had the complete set of clich├ęs.  She turned another page, wondering if there was any explanation as to who Clara was or why she’d chosen to build a clinic all the way up the side of a mountain.  Getting the laundry done must be a real pain, and they’d probably need daily deliveries of food if all the fresh vegetables mounded onto plates in these photographs was to be believed.  There were several more pages of textless photographs of the clinic, including one of a kitchen the size of a primary school teeming with white-coated chefs, presumably all chopping vegetables and cleaning lettuce.  Then finally a page with some densely-worded text and, in tiny print, costs of a stay.  Miss Flava squinted, then decided she was happier not knowing.
“It’s all very Mozart, isn’t it?” said Inspector Playfair.  He was driving, and whereas his normal approach was to hold his foot on the accelerator until he needed to hit the brake, he was a little unaccustomed to terrain where he had to hold his foot on the accelerator or let the car roll backwards.
“Thomas Mann,” said Miss Flava automatically.  Inspector Playfair looked at her quizzically.  “Mozart wrote The Magic Flute,” she said.  “Thomas Mann wrote The magic mountain.”
“Fine,” said Playfair looking back at the road, which was as steep and empty as ever.  “It’s all very Mannly then, isn’t it?”
Miss Flava stifled a sigh, knowing that Playfair had created the bad pun deliberately to annoy her because she’d corrected him.  “Yes,” she said.  “Though hopefully with less tuberculosis.”
“Weight-loss clinic, isn’t it?”
“Yes.  Apparently there was a study done about five years that showed that high altitudes reduced appetite and increased weight-loss in people subjected to them.  Miss Clara, whoever she may be, thought she’d capitalise on this and open a weight-loss clinic at the top of a mountain.”
“So she can just take the fees and do nothing, and people will lose weight anyway?  Clever girl,” said Playfair.  There was a hint of grudging approval in his voice.  Ahead, the road turned to the left, and as the car laboured round the corner they could see a flattish area of tarmac that was the car-park.
“Well, the brochure does list a variety of classes you can take to help lose weight,” said Miss Flava flicking back to the beginning of the brochure.  “They’re all very masculine sounding though: Fat Camp, Bootcamp, Military Exercise, Fitness Regimen.  Huh.  All the instructors appear to have military ranks though, so maybe that’s why.”
“No spas?  No manicures?  Nowhere for me to get my nails done?”  Playfair’s tone was neutral, and Miss Flava wondered for a brief second if he was joking, before wondering at herself for thinking that he might not have been.
“Not listed,” she said.  “You probably have to ask.”
The car came to a halt in the car-park, and Playfair put the hand-brake on just in case.  He opened his door and released his seatbelt in one economical movement, and got out, stretching as he did so.  Then he twisted from side to side, eliciting crunching sounds from his spine, and sighed.  “That’s been a long ride,” he said.  “They should make these mountains smaller.”
Miss Flava got out more slowly and more stiffly, and tried to stretch more demurely.  “I don’t think people build mountains, Playfair,” she said.
“They built this one.  This is the only man-made mountain in the world.  It started off as a spoil-heap, then it got added to by a number of urban planning projects that needed to go down to bedrock, and then finally some eccentric geezer decided to go the whole hog and turn it into a full-blown mountain.”
Miss Flava stared at her boss.  He shrugged.  “You can look it up if you like,” he said.  “Not sure if you’ll get a signal for a phone up here though, you might have to borrow an internet connection.”
“You can’t build a mountain,” she said, aware that she was repeating herself but otherwise lost for words.  “That’s ridiculous.  You’d never get planning permission!”
“You should be allowed to go down 180 feet to find bedrock,” said Playfair.  “But they did, and that’s why the Aperton flood plain won’t just flood but will become a lake if the River Ate ever breaks its banks.  Which way do you think the clinic is then? Up?”
“What?”  Miss Flava looked around, and realised that the car-park was isolated; there were no buildings in evidence around it.  There was a narrow path, nearly a defile, that led further up though, and from its steepness she realised why the car-park was here and not next to the clinic itself.  “Oh, I guess.  It looks like the exercise starts here.”
“Oh good,” said Playfair.  He was broad-shouldered and muscular, and Miss Flava suspected that he thought that getting fat was some kind of weakness.  She was rake-thin, and had been all her life, but she didn’t much fancy having to walk nearly vertically up a mountain just to reach a clinic.  “How do you think they get the deaders down?”
“The what?”
“Deaders.  When someone dies at the clinic, probably from an overdose of exercise or vegetables, how do you think they get the bodies down?  An ambulance wouldn’t get up as far as we did.”
Miss Flava didn’t know, but when they reached the top of the incline ten minutes later, and she was bent double trying to get her breath back and clear the coloured spots from before her eyes, a chirpy Playfair said, “Ah!  A heli-pad.  That’s how they do it.”

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Angus


When I walked into the repair shop Angus was sat on a three-legged wooden stool behind the counter.  His dark hair, thick and shiny, cascaded down his shoulders and disappeared behind his back, and his silver-rimmed eye-glasses were perched on his nose as he peered at something in his spatulate hands.  When he looked up to see who’d come in he put down what he was holding and stood up.  He’s tall, several inches over six feet, and his head nearly brushed the ceiling behind the counter.  He raised one arm and pointed at me like God reaching for Adam in the famous Sistine Chapel painting.
“Get out!” he roared.
“What did I do?” I protested.  Having Angus mad at me wasn’t on my list of things to do today.
“Your weather machine,” he boomed.  “You’ve been using it to harass me, haven’t you.”  It was an accusation rather than a question.
“No!”  I stopped in the doorway, and started to unsnap the fasteners on my satchel-bag.
“Yes you have.  It’s rained on me every day this week when I’ve left my shop.  All.  The.  Way.  Home.”
I pulled my weather machine out of my bag; it was the size and shape of a smart phone, and depressingly, its screen was as cracked and crushed as one as well.  I thrust it at him.
“This is my weather machine,” I said.  “Harriet sat on it three days ago.  I was bringing it in to see if you could fix it.”
He hesitated a moment, and then the anger subsided.  He seemed to shrink a little as he did so, and I suddenly realised how tense I was.  If he’d shouted “Boo!” at me right now I’d probably have dropped the weather machine and run straight out of the door.
“Show me,” he said, some of his normal warmth and humour returning to his voice.  I almost tiptoed forwards, the machine held out at arm’s length until he took it off me.  He shook it and a piece of screen fell on to the counter with a semi-metallic clatter.
“She’s a big lass, then, Harriet?” he asked.  I nodded.  She was immense, and in my English class.  I’d put the machine down on the seat next to me just for a moment, and I’d turned back when I heard the creak of stressed furniture, but it was too late then.  She’d squeezed her bulk into the chair, splaying its legs outwards slightly, and my machine had disappeared underneath her.  It had taken all my courage to ask for it back.  “Well, this is going to be a tough one,” he said.  “You not got insurance?”
“Ye-es,” I said.  “But there’s a hefty excess on it now, it’s the third machine I’ve broken this year.”
“What do you do, get caught out in the rain with it?”  Angus sniggered at his own joke.  The weather machines are purely personal devices, affecting the weather in a column that extends up through the atmosphere, but reaches about ten feet around a person at most.  The effect drops off rapidly, so if you’re in a crowd and several people are using the machines for different effects they’ll effectively cancel each other, and the noise produced will randomise the weather that the crowd receives.  It’s made for some rather entertaining open-air concerts; just search You-Tube for the footage.
“Mostly Harriet,” I said.  “I think she’s sweet on me.”
“You’re not interested then?”  He raised an eyebrow, and another piece of machine clattered on the counter-top.
“I’d be suffocated, I think,” I said.  “I know that’s a little cruel, but there’s a lot more of her than there is of me.”
“My mother always said that you shouldn’t talk ill of people,” said Angus.  “A thoroughly boring woman she was, by all accounts.  Well, this is probably going to cost as much to fix as buying new.  Your insurance might be the best bet.”
“Yeah, the excess is currently twice the price of a new machine,” I said gloomily.  “It’s a bad contract.”
Angus whistled softly and shook his head.  He looked at the machine again and sighed.
“Tell you what,” he said.  “I like you, God knows why.  Tell you what.  You find out who’s been soaking me on the way home every day and put a stop to it, and I’ll fix this for you at cost.”
I thought about that, and opened my mouth to agree when another thought struck me.  “How much is that, exactly?”
“Hah, I thought you were just going to agree then,” said Angus.  He sounded more amused than I thought the trick warranted.  “It’ll cost you about £150.”
That was a third of the cost of a new one, and I knew I wasn’t going to get a better offer.  And how hard could it be to hang around when Angus knocked off and find someone playing games with a weather machine?
“Cool,” I said, and stuck out my hand.  “You’re on!”

[inspired by the prompt from here.]

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Alien Visitor IV


Jonathan sat in the driver’s seat of his Mini, alone in the car-park.  Abigail had driven off while the Pastor was trying to convince him that he wasn’t joking, that there really was an alien holding him and Estelle hostage.  He felt oddly relieved, as the alien explained the anomaly they’d seen earlier, and that meant that the equipment was probably in good shape after all.  He appreciated that, for all he couldn’t tell anyone else now without sounding mad.  But what should he do?  Go home and probably become another hostage himself?  Or take the Pastor’s advice and run, flee to the next town and call the National Guard out.  If they’d believe his story.
He thought back to his wedding day, and looking at Estelle’s face as he drew the veil back, and realising with a sudden cold frisson that this wasn’t who he’d fallen in love with.  Somehow between getting engaged and the day of the marriage she’d changed, turned into his mother when he wasn’t looking.  He’d been telling himself ever since that no-one marries their mother (except maybe that Greek dude in the legends, and he got punished for that, didn’t he?) and that the lovelessness of their marriage must be his own fault.  He kept feeling that it might not be true though.
He started the engine.  He’d go home and see if the alien might trade not killing people for Estelle.  Maybe it hadn’t met her long enough yet to figure out what she was like.
*
The Pastor seized the passenger door of Jonathan’s car as he pulled up, and flung himself inside.
“Drive!” he yelled.  “Drive like the gates of hell are open and looking this way!”
Jonathan switched back up the gears and the car took off, precision German engineering as reliable as ever.  The roads were empty at most times of day this far out, but especially empty now, and he wasn’t worried about hitting anything.
“What happened?” he said.
“He took Estelle,” said the Pastor, his face ashen and his robes messed up.  “They left, she was riding on him somehow.  I don’t know quite how.  They were going to look for cows.”
“Estelle doesn’t know anything about animals,” said Jonathan.  “Why was she going?”
“He – the alien – wanted her, I think,” said the Pastor.  “She can point cows out to it, maybe.”
“She’ll like that,” said Jonathan.  “Always was a back-seat driver.  What do they want with cows then?”
“Explode them?”  The Pastor explained about the alien’s weapons.
“Sounds like a teenager then,” said Jonathan.  “Stole daddy’s spaceship and gun and came out on a bit of a joyride.  Wonder where he parked the ship, I wouldn’t mind seeing that.”
Somewhere in the distance, off to their left, something exploded.
“Cow?”
“Cow.”
“Estelle showed me a very strange magazine,” said the Pastor thoughtfully.
“Men or women?” asked Jonathan.  The Pastor looked sharply at him, but he was concentrating on the road ahead.
“Men, from the cover,” he said.
“Cliff’s,” said Jonathan.  “His kids are over and he’s frightened what they’d think of him if they found out.  Bit silly if you ask me, at his time of life, but there you go.  Estelle’s are all women.  And dogs sometimes.  Bit of puzzle that one.”
“Right.”  The Pastor fell silent while he thought about this.
“Do you have a dog?” he asked.
“No.  Thought about it, then I found her magazines.”
“Oh.  Where are we going, by the way?”
“I looked at the logs of the anomaly, the spacecraft,” said Jonathan.  “When I knew what it was.  It’s a guess, but I reckon the spaceship’s out this way, and I want a look at it.”
“What about Estelle, aren’t we going to rescue her?”
“Nah, I reckon she’d be happier with him than me,” said Jonathan.  “How long does it take to get her declared dead?”

Friday, 11 October 2013

Alien Visitor III


The plane was the pilot, two silent passengers, and the mail bags.  Jonathan waved goodbye to the pilot as he left the building, Abigail walking close behind him.  In the car-park – big enough for six cars and never full – she paused by a white Ford and spoke.
“Going home to Estelle?”
“Of course,” said Jonathan.  “She’ll be waiting for me.  Probably with some problem that absolutely has to fixed there and then, that I never should have left the house without having anticipated.  That’s the way it’s been for the last three months.”
“How can you love a woman who never stops moaning?”
“My mother moaned all the time too,” said Jonathan.  “And my gran.  My gran was worse, in fact.  She’d moan when you did something nice for her, complaining that she felt obliged to do something nice back then.  Not that she ever did.”
“Not all women moan constantly,” said Abigail.  “You should explore that idea, you know.”
“Thanks,” said Jonathan with a smile.  “I’d probably need a divorce first though.”
“Yeah, maybe.  Maybe not.  Would you ask her for one?”
Jonathan opened the driver’s side door of his Mini and shrugged.  He smiled, boyishly at her.  “Probably not,” he said.  “She might like that.”
*
The Pastor opened Estelle’s cell phone cautiously, watching the alien as he did so.  The creature didn’t seem interested in what they were doing at the moment, though it turned round and paid attention when they tried to move away.  It was going through Estelle’s photograph albums.
“Seven, four one.” said Estelle, completing the phone number.  The Pastor tapped the digits in and then pressed the dial key, the one with the little green handset on.  The phone beeped and then did nothing.  The Pastor and Estelle both stared at in, consternation furrowing their brows and puckering their mouths, and then the phone made the connection and start ringing Jonathan.  Dialling appeared on the screen in green letters.
“He won’t answer,” said Estelle acidly.  “I bet he’s found a floozy to spend the night with while we’re here being held hostage by an alien creature.  I bet he’s wrapped in her arms right now, nuzzling into the side of her neck, kissing and licking at the soft, tender skin there.”
She broke off, realising that the Pastor was staring at her.  ‘Well, he might,” she said defensively.
“Hello Estelle!”  Jonathan’s voice from the phone was echoey and metallic.  The Pastor put the phone to his ear and started to talk urgently.  Something soft and spongy gripped Estelle’s elbow, and she started.
Turning her head, she found that the alien had stretched out a long arm, or maybe leg, and had wrapped the end of it around her elbow.  It looked like a strand of grey spaghetti that had been overcooked until it was ready to tear apart under its own weight.  She tugged her elbow, but the alien appendage held firm.  Another arm snaked across, holding the photograph album.  It was turned to a page where Estelle was sitting coquettishly on a log, one leg demurely crossed over the other.  She was wearing her white skirt, completely inappropriate for being out in the woods, and a sailor’s blouse that she’d always felt Jonathan didn’t appreciate enough.  Behind her were cows.  A third tentacular appendage tapped the picture, and she felt the alien’s grip tighten.
“What does he want?” asked the Pastor, who’d ended the phone call.  “Let him have it!”
“I think he wants cows,” said Estelle.  “Unless he wants me dressed in clothes I’ve not worn in ten years!”
“Cows?” asked the Pastor.  “Why?”

Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Alien Visitor II


The last flight came onto the radar screen exactly on time, and Jonathan instructed the pilot to come straight in and land on Runway 1.  There was a crackle of static and then a cackle of laughter: Maglen airfield was so small as to only have one runway, and that was rolled flat every week by a steamroller that was literally steam-powered.
“Can I pick my own bay?” he asked, still chuckling.
“All yours,” said Jonathan. “But we’re closing up ten minutes after you land, so I wouldn’t park too far away.”
“Reckon I might wait for you to close then,” said the pilot.  “That way I don’t have nothing to declare.”
They both laughed a little, and then the pilot said, “But seriously though, how about that jet that passed by earlier.  Where was that going?”
“What jet?”
“On the way in, ‘bout 10 minutes ago, something fast and long shot past me.  Only really saw its tail-lights, but there’s no military round here so I figured it must be stopping out your way.”
“Couldn’t land,” said Jonathan with confidence.  “Didn’t see it though.  We got an anomaly, but that was going way too fast.”
“Huh,” said the pilot.  “Guess it must have been the bogeyman then!”
“Sounds like it,” said Jonathan, agreeing happily.  “Got a bit of a crosswind rising now, you ok with that?”
“Sure thing,” said the pilot.  “Coming in in two.”
*
Estelle backed into the house, the Pastor following her, and the odd-shaped man waving things around in his long, spidery arms the whole while.
“Does it speak English?” she asked, and the Pastor shrugged.
“He hasn’t answered any of my questions,” he said.  “Foremost of which was what he wanted with me.”
“It’s a he then?”
“Haven’t got a clue,” said the Pastor.  “He doesn’t look human, so those words might simply not apply, of course, but I’d like to think that he’s a he.  He’s waving weapons around, after all.  I saw him kill two cows with one of them, though I’ve no idea how they work.  He just pointed the things and the cows kind of exploded.  There were chunks of meat everywhere.”
“Sounds nasty,” said Estelle, shifting sideways so that the Pastor was directly between her and the alien.  “Let’s hope he doesn’t do that in here.  I’d be cleaning up for days.”
“And why are you thinking that it’s me he’d be exploding?” asked the Pastor.  His face was still smiling, but he sounded hurt.
“Jonathan’s due home in twenty minutes,” said Estelle.  “It’s not like he’s going to know that we’re being held hostage by a mad alien with weapons that explode things.”  She brightened up, suddenly realising that she might not need a divorce after all.
“Well then, we have a human duty to warn him,” said the Pastor.  “You should try to call him, I doubt that the alien knows what a phone is or does.”
“You call him!”
“Estelle, my dear, I don’t know your husband’s phone number.”
“I’ll dictate,” she said, a touch of frost in her tone.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Alien Visitor I


The alien spacecraft came in low and fast, underneath the radar out at Penrith station, and appeared briefly as a blur on the Maglen air-control screens.  Jonathan tapped the screen with a bitten fingernail and sighed.
“Another one,” he called across the room.  There was only him and Abigail in there at this time of night, and they had less than an hour to go before the end of their shift and shutting down the airfield for the night.  “When are we getting this kit checked out?”
“Thursday,” said Abigail.  She was doing a crossword in a magazine while she waited out the end of the shift.  The last flight out had been a half-hour ago, and the last flight in was currently on time and ten minutes away.  “They think we complain too much.”
“Too much?  We get random anomalies like this three nights out of five.  What’re they going to do when we’re getting them all the time and can’t tell where the planes are for the blips?”
“Probably sack us for not doing the job properly and hire some untrained kid who thinks they’re going to flip burgers.”  Abigail scratched out something in her magazine and started chewing the end of her pen.
“Hah.  Reckon I could get a job flipping burgers then, if they’re going to come in here and direct air-traffic?”
“Nope.”
“No?”
“Nope.  You’ve got a lousy attitude, you’ll never pass the customer service element of it.”
*
Jonathan’s wife Estelle stood in front of the closet and poked the cardboard box with a toe.  It was an angry toe, but that was because Estelle was angry all over.  Her marriage had, she felt, been falling apart since the moment she’d said ‘I do’.  She’d had a moment where she almost spoke up and asked for a do-over, but it had passed and then Jonathan had been kissing her and everybody had been cheering – well, everybody was a bit strong for her parents, his parents, her best friend and his parents’ dogs, but they’d been cheering anyway.  Or woofing.  That might be dog-cheering she supposed.  And she’d been looking for a divorce ever since.
She poked the box again.  This, she thought, might be it.  Four dirty, filthy, mucky magazines that she knew she’d not bought.  Four dirty, filthy, all-male magazines.  The ones she bought had women and dogs in, and she kept them better hidden than this, in a cardboard box at the back of a closet under some hockey gear that she was bound to get round to snooping through sooner or later.  How dare he not love her!  She wanted a divorce, but she wanted him to regret it, she wanted him to hate every moment of it.  She wanted, desperately and deeply, to prove to him that she’d made the mistake in marrying him and not the other way round.  And now this, betrayal at a fundamental level.
The doorbell rang, so she bent down and took the top magazine out of the box and then marched down the hall.  She threw the door open and thrust the magazine at the shadow on the doorstep.
“And what do you make of this?” she demanded.
There was a pause as the figure took the magazine and looked at the cover.
“Could you turn the porch light on please?” said a familiar voice.
She turned it on, and started slightly when she realised that the Pastor was stood there holding the magazine.
“Well,” he said coolly, “it appears to be pornography.  According to the address label it belongs to Cliff, which kind of makes me wonder why you have it and why you’re offering it to me.”
“Cliff?” Estelle looked blank.
“Your neighbour,” prompted the Pastor, a gentle smile spreading over his youthful features.  Estelle harboured an irrational fear that the Pastor was so young that he would be easily-polluted by the world.  “You were telling me last week that he’d asked you to look after some boxes for him while his children were over.”
“Oh crap,” said Estelle with feeling.  “Buggeration.”
“Those are not Christian words,” said the Pastor.  “However, I’m a little distracted at the moment, so I’ll let that pass.”
Estelle frowned, and then another shape stepped out from behind the pastor; a thin, emaciated waif-life shape with spindly legs and arms like a spider’s legs.  They had too many joints and kept bending and flexing, and they were holding something that looked gun-shaped.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Switching off


Hi, I’m Buddy!  I’m your corporate and spiritual guide, your way to making a better way in the business world, and on the company time and dime too!  I’m loveable, laughable, lickable and likeable.  Well actually I’d prefer it if you didn’t lick me, but if you must.  Uh-huh.  No, you can’t do that again.  No, I don’t believe I taste like bacon.  I said NO!
Ok, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hit you.  Well that’s a lie, I did mean to hit you, because I don’t want you licking me again, but I didn’t mean to hit you quite so hard, and I had definitely forgotten that I was holding that pencil.  Yes, it’s quite a clean wound so it must have been quite sharp.  Poor you.
Right, I’m here to talk to you about switching off.  HR tell me that you’ve got the hang of it but only in the wrong areas.  You switch off in important meetings and don’t switch computers, lights, or microwaves off.  I don’t know, it’s just on the list they gave me.  Well, I imagine people would get upset if you switched the microwave off while they were using it, but that’s not what you’re being asked to do.  Being awkward isn’t winning you any brownie points you know.  Yes, they know how to switch things off, they’re more advanced than you in that regard and they’re mostly little girls under the age of ten.
Right, let’s do switching on first.  There was a company meeting last Thursday – yes, yes, you were there.  Asleep, visibly, for two-thirds of it.  Well you’re on the video recording they made of the presentation, sat directly in the camera-line, behind the Deputy Managing Director.  No, I can’t show you how to hack the HR pages and remove the video, and I definitely can’t point you at a search engine and this website.  No, no, really, don’t look at that.  I’m not leaving it there.  Definitely not.
You need to stay awake in meetings better, and you can do that by switching off more.  You spend too long in front of the computer screen.  No, that’s not a tan, that’s actually radiation burns from the monitor emissions.  Yes, I was surprised too, it normally takes thirty years for that to show up.  Then I found you have three monitors arranged to surround you.  Then I found your browser history.  No, not that browser, though I found that too.  That was dull.  This browser.  Yes, that one.  You can see from the timestamps that you were in front of those screens for 132 hours last week.  That’s why you’re so tired all the time, and why you’re switching off inappropriately.  You need to switch off appropriately now.
Yes you can, just push the button.  We can do this now as an exercise.  I’ll stand behind you to catch you, and you push the button.  It’s a trust exercise.
Oh I am sorry, you’re supposed to wait for me to tell you to go, not just do it on your own accord.  HR don’t want you developing your independence, just your obedience.  Can you get back up by yourself?  Good, good.  Do you want to try that again?  Well I understand but… yes but… well ok, I see your point.  We’ll try it again next time I come by.
Your phone beeped.  Oh you can look at it.  In fact I insist.  Because I know that it’s receiving the messages that you’d be otherwise seeing on that screen there.  You’re always on, always connected, and you hate the thought that something in here might happen without you.  You don’t have to midwife every bit of data sent through the transmission lines you know.  When Joshi was asked how many bits are in a byte he struck the questioner with a CAT-5 cable and yelled “Moo!”
Actually he was promoted to Senior SysAdmin and given a longer, heavier cable.  Well, because he knew how to handle the user, that’s why.  No, I think unasking the question is something else.  And you’re not awake to hear the questions to be able to unask them, are you?  No, you may not have a CAT-5 cable.  Yes, you may say “Moo” if it makes you happy and keeps you awake.
Well, my fallback plan is to move you on to 18 cups of coffee a day.  Plus caffeine tablets.  Yes, here’s the first three cups, I’ve already dissolved caffeine tablets in each of them.  I bet it does tingle when it goes down!  No, I worry about my health, they’re all for you.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Letting go


“Sylvia died quietly in my arms.  She had been choking on her own vomit just moments earlier, then she suddenly went very quiet and still, and then… then….”  The speaker, a chubby middle-aged man with soulful brown eyes, seemed to be lost for words and there was the gleam of moisture in his eyes.  He sucked in a deep breath, his chest inflating and puffing out and making him look, for just an instant, like the weight on his frame was muscle, and then he sighed it all out again, sagged back to a sack-shape and spoke with a hint of a sob in his voice.  “She was my shelter.”
“That’s very nice, Bob,” said Steve, who was running the meeting that week.  “What do you mean by ‘she was your shelter’?”  Steve was glancing covertly at his 5x8 index cards when he thought no-one was watching him.  He’d never run a bereavement meeting before and was trying hard both to get it right and to make a good impression.
“Well,” said Bob looking a little puzzled.  “What I said, really.  She was my shelter.”
“You mean that she protected you from the emotional storms of life?” Steve nodded as he spoke, trying to encourage Bob to agree with him.
“Uh, no.” said Bob.  He shifted a little uncomfortable and the chair, an old wooden thing that had come from a school classroom when the area still had schools, creaked beneath him.  “We were homeless, you see, and she would stand up and hold newspaper over us.  When it rained anyway, there wasn’t a lot of point doing that at other times.  And if it was windy she’d sit there and hold the blankets up on her arms and I’d sit on the base of them, and we’d keep the wind out that way.  She was really my shelter.  It’s so cold without her.  And wet too, when it rains.”
“Uh huh.”  Steve shuffled his index cards, hoping for inspiration.  This hadn’t been in his book.  He could see the corner of it sticking out of his satchel, but he really didn’t want to get it out in front of the group.  He would look like such a complete amateur if he did that.
“When’s the funeral?”  The speaker was an elderly lady with a hat covered in plastic fruit and a dress that looked like it had been bought during the second world war.  Steve knew he’d seen her at a few of the meetings now, but he couldn’t remember he name.
“Oh, no funeral,” said Bob.  “They can’t have one without a body, they said. I said I didn’t mind, I’d just come and throw flowers on someone else’s grave if they’d say a few nice things about her and see her off to a better place, but they said it didn’t work like that.”
“Well that’s just selfish,” said the elderly lady.  Her voice was low and clear and Steve kept wondering if it was actually her speaking or one of the other members ventriloquising.  “They should bury her whether she’s there or not.”
“Um,” said Steve.  “I think they do have to have a body to bury, you know.  It’s not really a funeral without a body.”
“Well, use someone else’s.  I had to share when my Arthur died!”
Steve’s eyes widened, and his fingers twitched.  His index cards spilled to the floor while he tried to think of a response.
“What happened to her body anyway?”  The elderly lady ignored the fallen cards and turned back to Bob, so Steve ducked down and tried to gather them all up again.
“Oh, I took it back with me when they weren’t looking,” said Bob.  “She’d gone all stiff by that point, and I figured that she could still hold up the blankets if I tied them to her arms.  Or… no, tied them.  I was going to tie an umbrella to her neck too, so that she’d keep the rain off a bit.  The worst of it, you know?”
“That’s practical,” said the elderly lady, and Steve heard mumbles and groans of approval from the rest of the group.  He was quietly appalled, but the book had said to let people mourn in their own fashion and not impose a different ideal for grieving on to them.
“It didn’t work, she went all floppy,” said Bob.  Someone sniggered.  “I can’t even get her to stand up now, she just slumps over and her arms and legs go everywhere.”
“Akimbo,” said the elderly lady.
“Bless you,” said Bob.  Steve gathered the last of his cards up and popped his head up, but Bob looked sincere.  “I’ve got some lumber though, I found it floating in the river.  I’m going to try fixing her to that, and if that works she can be my shelter again.”
“That’s lovely,” said another voice, but Steve couldn’t pinpoint in the small group sat on the old wooden chairs.  “It’s really nice when people want to help you from beyond the grave.  My mother, right, when she died she hated me so much that she pushed all the plates off the shelves and smashed them on the floor.  We had to get the kitchen exorcised just to get rid of her.  It still smells funny in there.”
“Yeah, well, I thought, why let her go to waste?” said Bob.  “I mean, she was my girlfriend, right?  So she can keep on helping me out.”
There was an awkward pause while everyone wondered how far Bob was taking this idea and decided not to ask.
“Um,” said Steve.  “Are you sure it’s… hygienic to keep her around like that?”  He really wanted to say legal, as his book was very clear that you weren’t allowed to own corpses, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.  It seemed inconsiderate, and the comments coming from the rest of the group suggested that Bob might have a lot of sympathy there.
“She can’t catch anything, she’s dead,” said Bob.  “And I wash her now and then.  There’s only a couple of bits have dropped off, and I just varnish them and stick them back on.”
“Varnish?”
“Clear,” said Bob.  There were a couple of “Hear, hears” from the audience.  “She wouldn’t look right with a tan at her time of life.”
“Of course not,” said Steve weakly.  “Of course not.”