Monday, 30 December 2013


Michael stopped as he reached the shopping centre.  It was a late-70s concrete horror of a place; there was a squat, dirty rectangular block of a building set into an unnatural declivity, and clustered around the base was a street-market of some kind.  There was a strong smell of urine, probably because after the market closed and darkness fell it gave urinators the kind of privacy that they required to empty their bladders and then carry on home.  Michael wouldn’t have been entirely surprised though to find that one of the stalls was selling used clothing that had only been urinated on once or twice, squire.  And undoubtedly only by the upper class or landed gentry, so that it was, in some mysterious way, desirable piss.
He coughed, trying to expel the miasma from his nostrils, and then looked about him.  No-one was paying any attention, as they either headed down to the market, over the concrete footbridge to the shopping centre, or avoided the monstrosity altogether.  He flexed his fingers experimentally, and when they didn’t complain, moved through a simple tactus.  Immediately a fresh, cool stream of air began to blow beneath his nostrils, filling them with the scent of pine forestry.  He walked on, heading over the footbridge (drawbridge, he thought as he crossed it) and into the shopping centre.
He’d barely taken three steps through the automatic doors when a security guard stepped away from his post at the balcony’s edge and started walking towards him.  The shopping centre was on several levels and had an open central section.  Each of the higher levels had an edged balcony that jutted out into that space and allowed bored shoppers to look down and contemplate suicide.  Michael had no idea how many of them had actually taken the drop up on its offer, but he was sure that there must have been some.  He stopped, looking at the security guard.  The guard, a middle-aged man with broad shoulders that looked more muscular than fat and a hint of salt-and-pepper to his brown hair, made eye-contact and frowned.  He had thick brown eyebrows with stray hairs sticking up and out, this way and that, making them both look like tiny, well-used doormats.  Michael wondered for a moment what kind of thing would pause at the top of your face to wipe its feet before carrying on, and decided that he’d rather not find out.
“Is there a problem?” he asked as the guard stopped in front of him, about a footstep too close, inside his personal space.
“You’re using magic,” said the guard.  “That’s forbidden inside the centre, along with hoodies, skateboards and open containers of alcohol.”
Michael let his concentration relax and felt the cool breeze stop.  He raised an eyebrow, neatly manicured, back at the guard.
“Thank-you,” said the guard in a bland way that implied that he wasn’t grateful at all.  “Where do you have business today then, sir?”  There was a tiny amount of emphasis on the sir at the end, just enough to suggest sarcasm.
“I’m seeing Charles Asciugimento,” said Michael, noting with pleasure that the guard’s face went suddenly very wooden.  “Head of Building Security, I’m given to believe.”
“Your beliefs are your own matter, sir,” said the guard.  Even his voice had become flat and lifeless.
“Could you escort me?” asked Michael, smiling now.
“No, sir.”  Michael twitched his eyebrow again, and got no response.
“No?” he asked finally.
“No,” said the guard.
“Why not?” asked Michael, sighing as he asked.  He was sure that the guard was doing this deliberately.
“Security of the building is important,” said the guard.  “Were I to leave my post to escort you, that would endanger the building.  I can provide you with directions if you’d care to listen, sir.”

“I suppose that will do,” said Michael, trying to hide his disappointment.  He had been rather looking forward to the look on Charles’s face if he turned up with an unauthorised escort.  He pretended to listen to what the guard was saying, and then smiled falsely, uttered insincere thanks, and walked off, heading towards the elevators.  The guard had probably told him to take the escalators as the elevators were locked to certain floors in the building, but Michael knew ways around that.  Which, he thought, the guard had just told him were forbidden in here, so it would be interesting finding out if they actually worked still.

Saturday, 28 December 2013

Where Rosa died

The rental car smelled of pine air freshener and stale cigarette smoke, strongly enough for both of them that Michael had to roll down the windows as soon as he got in.  The smell was still horrible, but it was more bearable when the sluggish breeze outside moved it around a little.  He’d not been able to work out where the scent of pine was coming from; he’d thrown the pine-tree-shaped air-freshener that had dangled from the rear-view mirror away when he first got in the car, and he’d checked beneath the seats and in the glove-box and behind the sun-visors but he could find no trace of whatever was renewing the scent.  The smoke was more obvious: the car’s upholstery was some kind of artificial suede and had clearly been with the car for as long as people had been smoking.  When he got out of the car anything white he’d been wearing that came in contact with the upholstery came away with nicotine smudges, and he was sure that it was on the rest of his clothes as well, just not showing up as well against charcoal greys and navy blues.  He found it ironic that the rental agent had been insistent on him signing a piece of paper that promised he wouldn’t smoke in the vehicle and had listed all the most recent cleaning dates for the interior of the car.
The car started when he turned the key though, and he counted that in its favour.  You never knew when you might need to leave somewhere quickly.  He put the air-conditioning on in the forlorn hopes that it might do something to quench the stenches, and checked his phone again.  The signal was still there, and his email had downloaded now.  He scrolled quickly through the list, which was short and all new.  He practised Inbox-zero techniques, though he wasn’t going to delete and organise messages now; he was just looking for the detail on Rosa.
The email was third from the end, suggesting that it had been sent just before he entered the House of Whispers.  He wondered if he’d have got the mail if he’d been a little later to the meeting, or if they’d waited for him to enter the grounds before hitting Send.  He suspected the latter from the stories that were told about the office.  He opened it, noting that it was all in text with no attachments.  The virus checker on the server had given the once-over anyway, and a little box appeared at the top of the email to tell him that nothing intrusive had been found.  He ignored it; the people who ran the House of Whispers were probably capable of writing an undetectable virus if they wanted to, and they would be unlikely to want to infect his phone when he was working for them.  He pushed away the uncomfortable thought that some people like to make sure every contingency is covered, and read through the email.  It didn’t take long.

He put the address given at the end of the email into his phone’s map application and then had to zoom out a little in order to bring his current location into view.  It wasn’t that far, perhaps 20 minutes or so depending on traffic.  He tapped on the screen until it recognised that he wanted it to provide directions, set the phone on the dashboard and checked that the volume was turned up, and put his seatbelt on.  He wanted to keep the windows down, but it was a little too cold for normal people to be doing that, and he wanted to appear just like any other person as he drove.  He pushed the button to wind them up, his nose wrinkling in disgust as the air was trapped in the car and he got a sudden whiff of pine-scented cigarette smoke, and then pulled out onto the quiet street.  His phone immediately told him to turn round, and he cursed softly under his breath for not having thought to check that first.

Thursday, 26 December 2013


When he walked outside the building he pulled his smartphone from his pocket to check his email.  The House of Whispers might be forty years behind the times, but the agencies that it employed were firm believers in taking every advantage that could be found.  He unlocked it with a quick motion of his thumb, and it vibrated very slightly in his hand to let him know that the unlock pattern had been recognised.  He looked down at it while he walked to the gate, selecting the email icon.  A few moments passed, and then No signal flashed up on the screen.  He swore, and checked the top of the display.  Sure enough, the signal strength metre there was showing that the area was devoid of phone signals.
He stopped walking at that point and looked around.  The House was set back from the road, and a head-height wall surrounded a well-kept lawn.  The wall was painted terracotta as though to suggest that this was a more mediterranean place than the Unreal City, and there were a few temperate-climate trees struggling to survive in the wetter, cooler climate that prevailed here.  Behind him was the House, off to the sides were other properties with equally defensive-looking walls around them.  There was nothing that would visibly prevent a phone signal from entering the area.  He looked up anyway, checking that there wasn’t a roof that he wasn’t aware of; if there was then it was invisible to him.  He considered for a moment that there might be invisible roofing technology now, and then dismissed it as a stupid idea.  He considered for a few moments longer the idea that he might have been hypnotised at some point into ignoring such roofs were he to see them, and then dismissed that idea as well.  Finally he started walking again, his eyes switching between the signal strength metre on his phone and the path across the lawn, mere paving stones set slightly further apart than was comfortable for him.  Only when he pushed open the heavy, wrought-iron gate and stepped through did his phone beep suddenly, indicating that the signal had come back.  He frowned now, but looked around the street before poking at his phone and bringing up his email.  Did they jam signals in the grounds and the House?  Had his phone had a signal in the House?  He wished he’d looked at it now and noticed then.
He walked off down the street towards where his rental car, hired from the Agency’s preferred contractor that morning, was parked.  He left, unaware that a camera was set into the wall next to him, observing.

Back inside the House of Whispers the man at the desk set down the tablet that he was using to view Michael’s departure on and leaned back in his chair.  He relaxed, staring up at the ceiling.  After thirty seconds, the entire side wall of the office slid sideways, increasing the size of the room threefold.  In the larger part was a round wooden table draped with a white tablecloth and set with a steel candelabra holding unlit red candles and place settings for two people.  Two people were sat at the table, but neither looked hungry.  They were both wearing grey suits and simple white masks, one smiling and one frowning, like a personification of the theatre.
“Well?” asked the smiling mask.
“Not good,” said the man staring at the ceiling.  He didn’t adjust his position now that the office was open, nor did he look over at the others.  “He didn’t try and find out what else might be on this floor.  He didn’t stray out of bounds while he was in the House at all.  He noticed that he had no signal, but he barely looked around to find out why.  And he never considered where the cameras might be, or what they might be looking for.  On the whole, gentlemen, a failure.”
“So shall we terminate him?” asked the smiling mask.  There was a flat, emotionless quality to the voice, as though it weren’t actually a human speaking.
“No.”  The word came after a short pause, as though a decision were being taken.
“He will do what the Thrones want and probably do it very well,” said the man staring at the ceiling.  “That what they want is the wrong thing is neither here nor there as far as his employment goes.  Let him deliver what he’s capable of and let the Thrones see their mistake for themselves.  We cannot teach those who will not learn, and I am sick and tired of running in front of them and clearing their way so they can blunder about like elephants in the corral.”
“They won’t like it when they realise what you’ve done,” said the smiling mask.  The frowning mask nodded.
“They can dislike it all they please,” said the man.  “They can replace me if they please, too.  But there is no way forward if they won’t grow up.”
There was another pause.  Then, “No-one is thinking of replacing you,” said the smiling mask.  The frowning mask nodded again.
“More’s the pity,” said the man staring at the ceiling.  “Do you know how long I’ve been doing this now?  A promotion would be nice.  Or a pay-rise.”
“You should terminate Michael,” said the smiling mask.  “We should do the job that needs doing, not the one that has been asked for.”

“Sometimes,” said the man staring at the ceiling, “the job that needs doing is exactly the one that’s been asked for.”

Tuesday, 24 December 2013

the House of Whispers

The corridor was long and had no doors on either side of it to break up the grey-green walls.  The only window was at the end where the staircase arrived; it looked out onto a narrow expanse of grass and then a security fence.  The steel mesh of the fence was too dense to see through, and the barbed wire coils atop it were rumoured to be electrified.  No birds landed there, or perched and cheeped; no rabbits ran on the grass, even at night.  The window had been painted shut years ago, and then painted and repainted ever since, until there wasn’t even a crack between the sill and the frame to show where they had once been separate parts.  The glass was warped and dirty, and there seemed little hope of anyone coming up here to clean it.  People coming up here had other things on their mind.
The floor of the corridor was tiled in a red-and-blue diamond pattern, and the sound of shoes on it were hollow and echoing.  Michael walked along it, wondering if the sound carried into the office at the end of the corridor, if this was how a visitor was forced to announce their presence.  He castigated himself mentally for thinking like that, that was old school.  That might have been true in the days when he first learned this craft, before technology took over and consumed the world.  Now it was taken for granted that any visitors were seen by camera when they approached the doors to the building, and were probably tracked the entire time that they were inside.  Microphones small enough to be disguised as buttons in your clothing, or the centres of flowers in floral arrangements could pick up whispered conversations and convey them back to computers with Terabyte sized hard-drives on which to record them, ready for playback to you with just a simple search command.  Doors could be remotely operated, and speakers and screens could pass messages to you without ever allowing you close to the person who was giving instructions.  Hell, they didn’t even have to be in the same building as you; you could be discreetly delivered to a death-chamber and you’d sit there placidly listening to the voice explaining to you what you’d done wrong while the air filled with lethal gas that gently overwhelmed you.  Then it was down to the clean-up teams to come in and deposit your body where the message it sent would be understood by everybody.
So why was he in this building, walking down this corridor?
At the end of the corridor was a wooden door.  There was a circular handle for it, chipped.  It looked as though it was made of plastic, bakelite perhaps.  Another anachronism in an age where steel and glass were the norm.  He reached for the handle and then hesitated.  His hand clenched into a fist, and he knocked on the door instead.
“Come in,” said a voice from beyond the door immediately.  Michael almost looked around for a speaker, but his brain kicked in and pointed out that the voice had definitely been attenuated by the door in the way.  Strange.
The handle turned loosely as though the screws holding it in place were starting to slip, but the door opened and beyond it he saw a tiny office, barely big enough for the desk and three chairs that were in there.  The desk reached to the whitewashed wall on one side, and left a gap for a thin man to sidle round on the other.  The two chairs on Michael’s side were pulled slightly out from the desk, and the arc of the door only just missed hitting them.  There were no bookcases, no pictures on the wall, no carpet on the floor, and no signs of human comforts at all.  The desk was chipped like the door-handle, revealing chipboard underneath a thin, plasticky veneer, and there were papers laid in an orderly fashion across it  All of them had been turned upside down so that he couldn’t see what was written on them.
Behind the desk, watching him through unrimmed glasses with golden arms, was a man who looked as though he might be in his late fifties or sixties.  His hair was mostly gone, with just tufts at the sides above his ears still remaining.  They were trimmed but bushy, as though kept as a memory of what the full head of hair might once have been.  The face was lined, the lips were thin and white, and the nose was long, sloping, and had flaring nostrils.  The eyes were hard to make out; whatever lenses were in the glasses, they were blurring the eyes beyond them.  Michael was sure that this was deliberate.  The man was wearing a pinstriped suit, the kind that wouldn’t have looked out of place on an accountant or banker, and a high-collared white shirt with a tie that had the muddy colours and broad stripes suggesting that it was a sign to people having the same academic background.  Michael didn’t recognise it.
“Michael,” said the man.  “Come in and sit down please.”  His voice was papery and crackly, as though he hadn’t spoken much for a while.  Michael’s eyes looked over the desk again; there was no sign of a glass of water or cup of coffee.  He closed the door and sat down in the closest chair.  It squeaked a little and shifted slightly, suggesting that the bolts holding it together were loose.
“Welcome to the House of Whispers,” said the man.  Michael stiffened slightly, and the man nodded.  “This has been known, unofficially, as such for over eighty years,” he said.  “I called it the same thing when I was… not what I am now.  No shame attains.”
That’s an odd thing to say, thought Michael, but he said nothing.  He sat still in his chair, his handed folded in his lap, his legs crossed at the ankles, and his eyes on the man on the other side of the desk.
“You have been sent here for a briefing,” continued the man.  “But you have not been told what the briefing will be about, or why you are receiving it, or why you had to come here.”  Michael nodded, but the man wasn’t looking at him.  Instead he was looking down at his desk and opening a drawer.  “You are probably wondering why, given the technology available to us, we aren’t doing this via anonymised video conference,” he continued.  “This is only because such signals can be intercepted and copied, and though encryption technologies are excellent, the best encryption is the one you never have to use.”  He opened a drawer and Michael noticed that the desk was so cheap that it wobbled as that happened.  The man took a single sheet of white A4 paper out and passed it over to Michael.  There were boxes and lines drawn on it, and names written inside the boxes.
“That is the organisation chart,” said the man.  “You will recognise some of the names on there, I expect.  Do not tell me which you recognise.”  He waited while Michael read the paper, and when Michael’s eyes started going over it a second time he spoke again.
“The name I want you to pay attention to is in the third row,” he said.  “Rosa Lindenbaum.  You can see what her role is from there.  Rosa died yesterday.  The official report is that she had a heart attack while on her way to her job and that she collapsed and died in the lift as she was ascending to the floor that she worked on.”
Michael looked up from the paper, his gaze now sharp.  The man behind the desk met his eyes with ease.  “The official story is so much bullshit,” he said, and Michael found himself surprised that the man would swear.  “Your first task,” said the man, “is to find out how she died.  Once we understand this, there may be further work for you.  You may keep that piece of paper provided you keep it securely.”  The man dropped his gaze and his hands moved across the desk, twitching pieces of paper, seemingly looking for something.  Michael stood, recognising that he was dismissed, and opened the door to the office.  As it closed behind him, it was a relief to be out of there.  He resisted the urge to turn suddenly and open the door again and see what the office looked like when no-one was expecting him and he set off down the long corridor again.

It was only as he reached the stairs to go down that he paused and looked back, and wondered what else was on this floor of the building, given that there were no doors from this corridor or the office he’d been in.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Beaconfield park

Alex walked out of the office and through a concrete car-park.  It was filled with cars, their states of cleanliness and relative newness indicating the areas belonging to the various ranks in the office.  By far the majority of the car-park was filled with cars at least five years old, usually unwashed but dusty rather than muddy, and they often had stuffed toys on the back windowsill, or a box of wet-wipes, or something else that suggested to the trained eye that the owner had children.  Closest to the building were the most expensive cars, parked in the reserved bays.  Here were the Jaguars and Aston Martins, large black or navy blue cars with just enough chrome trim to be ostentatious without drawing too much attention to themselves.  I have more money than you, the cars proclaimed, but they had a sense about them that they were being watched and keying them, however casually, would not go unseen.  There were small pockets of Range Rovers and SUVs, and they were all immaculately turned out as though they’d been freshly through a car-wash.  They clustered together like schoolgirls wanting to talk about the others behind their backs.  They annoyed Alex, but more because he didn’t know anyone who drove one.  And finally, as he was leaving the car-park, there were the bike lockers and the motorcycle bays, pushed out on the edge where their owners doubtless enjoyed being.  Alex had tried cycling once and decided that he simply wasn’t sanctimonious enough for it and had sold the bike to a neighbour who lived three doors down and had the weather-abraded skin of a cycling addict.  He’d never seen the bike again, and hadn’t regretted it for a moment.
Outside the car-park was a quiet road that joined two suburban streets together.  All around the area was mostly housing, with the occasional children’s playground and a small park.  The office building here was nondescript, and deliberate so, and was where Spyte was headquartered, though no sign announced its  presence.  Spyte was the government’s latest solution to the problems of a failing civil service; they’d outsourced much of their intelligence gathering activity to people who did it better.  GCHQ provided Spyte with a thick cable down which prodigious amounts of data gleaned from all over the world gushed, and Spyte brought together analysts and cryptographers and big-data manipulators to tame the flow and turn it into dossiers and catalogues and Power-Point presentation decks that could bore a politician into an agreeable stupor in under half an hour.
Spyte also provided a small capacity for actual agents, people trained in the cold-war arts of espionage, of shepherding foreign nationals with valuable information through customs points and across geographical boundaries in places where all you could see was the sky and the earth, one far above and one too far below.  They handled wet tasks, where actual people were needed, sometimes to observe, sometimes to enable, and sometimes, very rarely, to disable or even kill.  They were known as White Agents, for the Carte Blanche they were given to carry out their activities, on the understanding that if they were caught then they’d been acting alone and without authorisation.  There was never any budget for rectifying mistakes or retrieving lost agents.
Alex walked down the street as though he was heading for the high road, where the two sandwich shops vied for the title of worst sandwich provider.  Currently in the lead was Macmillans, who’d managed to make a sandwich with lettuce and mouse-droppings the last time Alex had dared to eat there, completely forgetting the salami that had been the point and the name of the food.  As he neared the high road though, he turned off down a cul-de-sac, and then used a narrow little alley that appeared to dead-end to find a waist high wall that he vaulted agilely over.  He landed, both feet, in a freshly dug flower bed in Beaconfield park, and trudged across a newly mown lawn to an ornate and uncomfortable cast-iron bench.  As he sat down he looked ruefully at his shoes, which looked as though they’d been turfed themselves, and wondered how long it would take to get them clean that evening.
“Well, well, if it isn’t David Attenborough,” said a high-pitched, almost girlish little voice.  A man with thick-lensed black plastic glasses and a paunch that spilled two inches over the waistband of his trousers sat down on the bench next to Alex.  He looked a little like Jarvis Cocker might if he gained ten stone and drank his evening meal in the form of six pints of Real Ale.  “Did you find anything fun in the undergrowth?”
“Only orchids,” said Alex, letting bitterness tinge his words a little.  He stamped his feet one at a time on the ground, dislodging some lumps of mud and not enough of the grass.  “I have some numbers for you.”
“Yes, yes,” said the man.  They exchange code numbers, both affecting not to listen or care, and both mentally checking the numbers against the ones they’d been given on the phone call.  Only when they were both happy that the exchange was correct did their conversation actually start.
“Rosa Lindenbaum,” said the fat man.  “Her details are being emailed to you.”
“You want me to find her?”
“We know where she is, she’s dead,” said the fat man.  “We want you to find out how she died.  Not where she died, or when she died, but how.  And if there was anyone there with her.”
“Won’t the Coroner tell you that?”
“He’s told us already, and we don’t believe it.”
Alex stood up.  “Thanks,” he said.  The fat man nodded, and pointed to the gate.

“There’s less mud that way,” he said.

Friday, 20 December 2013


It was too hot in the office.  The modern trend for open-plan had seized the minds of Facilities two years ago and they’d removed interior walls and partitions so that every desk was part of a ‘pod’ of four or six desks, and there was little privacy.  The sightlines across the office were nearly perfect, except for the pillars needed for structural soundness, and there were rumours that memos existed from the Facilities team asking that they could be knocked down, or at least punched through to improve sight through the office.  Alex had no idea who it was that needed to be able to see directly from one end of the floor to the other, but presumably they now could.  Around the edges, and on occasion in isolated cubes in the middle of the floor, were meeting rooms, to restore some of the privacy and noise-reduction that getting rid of the walls and partitions had obliterated, so naturally enough they were near-permanently booked with people trying to escape from their neighbours, the smell of food bought in from outside or brought in from home, or just attempting to hear themselves think for long enough to file a report.  Each meeting room had a thermostat, and playing with the thermostats caused the air-conditioning to break.  Facilities would send three or four threatening emails per quarter telling people not to touch the thermostats because the open-plan nature of the office meant that cooling one small part down adversely affected the rest of the office, but no-one heeded them.  And so eight times a year the air-conditioning broke down for up to three weeks a time.  Now was one of those times.
Alex tapped a key on the keyboard of his computer and the cursor on the screen moved sluggishly to the right, depositing a letter behind it.  The computer was overheating, and the software was playing up as the machine struggled to provide enough CPU cycles for things as mundane as typing.  Alex waited a second, and then pressed the next key, knowing that swearing at the machine would only make him hotter and more annoyed, and have no noticeable effect on it at all.  Unless it chose to crash.
The phone on his desk rang suddenly, buzzing like a bluebottle freshly trapped in a jam jar.  On the left-hand side of the phone unit was a collection of tiny rectangular LED lights arranged like a ladder.  The third from the top illuminated, a soft blue glow that persisted instead of flashing in time with the buzzing.  Alex frowned momentarily and then ignored it, as per protocol.  He pressed another key on the keyboard and waited for the letter to appear on the screen, during which time the phone stopped ringing.  He laid his finger on top of the next key and tried not to sigh.
His phone rang again, and this time he picked the received up immediately and listened.  A voice on the other end, made fuzzy and tinny by some kind of vocoder device recited a string of six digits, which he dutifully repeated back and then hung up.  Then he locked the computer, wondering if the machine would overheat when the screensaver kicked in and lose his report in the ensuing crash, and stood up.
“I’m going for lunch,” he said to the other person on his four man pod, a young man sat diagonally opposite him who’d been there for three weeks and looked like he’d been out of university for no longer.
“Right,” said the man.  Alex hadn’t bothered to learn his name as people rotated in and out of the desks so often that he assumed that unless they’d been there for three months that they were just passing through. 
“If my phone rings, don’t answer it,” he said.  He thought it should have gone without saying, but he’d already been hauled up twice before the Approbations Committee to explain why an unauthorised person was using his phone when he was away from his desk.
“Right,” said the young man.  He looked away, and Alex wondered if he was sweating from the heat of the office or because Alex was talking to him.
“I mean it,” said Alex.  “If you answer my phone again I’m handing you over to the Committee.  You can answer their questions.”
“What committee?”

Alex opened his mouth and then closed it again.  “You probably don’t want to find out,” he said.  “I know I didn’t.”

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The lift

The lift door was opening for her when the blonde-haired man stood up suddenly and crossed the lobby.  As she stepped inside he was right behind her, his body creating warmth against her back and giving her no opportunity to stop or step backwards.  When she did halt, in the middle of the lift-floor, he placed a large, spatulate hand in the small of her back and pushed her forward so that he could clear the doors and let them close behind him.  In the confined space she could smell sweat, acrid and horsey, thinly veneered with a spicy aftershave scent, and another more floral scent that she thought might be hair-wax or creme of some kind.  She turned, annoyance forming words on her lips, and then stared silently at him.
His lips were moving silently and his eyes were rolled up into his head so that only the whites were showing.  His hands, huge, like those of a lifelong manual labourer, scarred on the back across the knuckles and calloused on the palms where the fingers joined, twitched spasmodically but somehow in time with some of the unheard words that he was mouthing.  His chest fell and rose rhythmically as though he were breathing especially deeply.  And as she watched, Rosa was transported in an instant back to her childhood and a red-brick church on the corner of a busy crossroads with huge brown doors that swung open at the lightest touch.  The memory of her mother was at her back, hands on her shoulders pressing her forwards against her resisting footsteps.  There was a sudden pictorial memory, a black leather shoe with a little strap across the top of her white-socked foot to hold it on while she walked, slightly scuffed at the toe which her mother had been telling her off for until they entered the church when she’d fallen silent.  As they walked into the body of the church the priest was stood behind the altar, facing them, his eyes rolled up back in to his head and his arms stretched wide, his hands held out in supplication.  Blood dripped from the wounds in his hands; stigmata her mother told her later.
She shook the memory away and forced herself to look at the hands of the man in the lift, but they were unwounded, whole and pink.  His lips continued to move, and as though he were finding his voice for the first time, his words began to whisper into the lift, ragged and hoarse.  She didn’t want to listen but she had no choice, so, with her eyes firmly fixed on the digital floor counter, already a glowing green 2, she heard him beseeching a God that she thought she’d left behind her.
The memory seized again, unwanted.  The priest was whispering, but loud enough that they could hear his words from their pew in the middle.  Her mother always took this pew when they attended church, even when it meant forcing her way onto the end, pushing and elbowing pinch-faced, red-scrubbed women, nudging aside men in threadbare black suits with the holes artfully darned with the wrong colour thread.  There was always the smell of carbolic soap about them, and their eyes seemed like little holes into a world of meanness, where every last grain of salt was counted and weighed against your soul.  The priest’s whispers were like the roar of a cataract and she could hear him admonishing the Lord, begging the great and good God to visit him and show him the way, to bring the full stigmata upon him and anoint him a warrior in the faith.  Words that she’d long thought obliterated from memory came rushing back, and without knowing what she was doing she whispered along with the blonde-haired man, joining him in his litany of hate and zealotry, perverting the intent of prayer.
She opened her eyes, wondering what had happened, and saw the green digit of the floor counter, a glowing number 3.  The lift wasn’t moving any more and there was a dull whine.  The floor jerked, and then stopped.  The whine faded, then returned, and the floor jerked again, then stopped.  The blonde-haired man seemed to relax momentarily and his eyes returned to their normal place in their sockets.  She noted that they were a vivid shade of green, almost unnatural in their intensity, and that around the irises the whites seemed jaundiced.  She knew without having to ask that he’d done something to the lift to hold it here, trapped between floors, struggling to move, and she opened her mouth to ask him what he wanted.  Before she could speak though, his hands came to rest gently about her throat, and they squeezed, cutting off her breath and cutting off her words.  She reached up, marvelling at just how large his hands seemed, unable to panic, and tugged at them.  They didn’t move, and the pressure against her throat seemed to increase slightly.  Now she felt a sense of urgency, and she dug her nails in to his skin and flesh, raking backwards with him to try and make him let go.  His eyes rolled back up and he began whispering again.  Her vision started to fade at the edges, darkening from the outside in, narrowing down into a dull little tunnel with barely any light at the end.  She pulled harder on his hands, and then tried beating hers against them, but her arms felt heavy and distant, almost not hers, and her lungs were starting to spasm as she tried to breath.  She felt for a moment as though she were hiccuping, and then everything went dark and there was just a burning sensation in her throat, moving slowly down to her chest.  She was sure that she didn’t want it to reach her chest, but even as she tried to stop it she seemed to fall forwards into the darkness, knowing that somewhere beyond it a priest was waiting.

The lift doors finally opened on the fourth floor and Rosa’s lifeless body fell out and sprawled across the tiles of the lobby, unseen by anyone working beyond the glass doors that led into the call-centre.  The doors tried to close so the lift could return to the ground floor but her legs were in the way, and the doors opened and attempted to close several times before giving up and triggering an alarm.  By the time Larry had got up to the fourth floor to see what all the fuss was about, the blonde-haired man had walked quietly through the ground-floor lobby and left the building, leaving behind him only a blurred CCTV image that could have been almost anyone.

Monday, 16 December 2013


The glass doors of the call-centre building whooshed open as she approached them, seemingly enthusiastic to bring her into the building.  Beyond them a worried looking woman was biting her nails.  When the doors opened she looked visibly relieved and bolted through them, nearly colliding with Rosa.
“Oh, I’m so sorry!” she said putting her hands out and touching Rosa’s coat.  Rosa stepped back, pulling away.  “I couldn’t get the doors to open,” she continued, stepping forwards, her hands still reaching for Rosa.  “I thought I was going to be trapped there.”
Rosa side-stepped neatly and circled the woman slightly to get away from her grasp.  The woman stopped moving at last, and Rosa forced a smile to her face.
“Yes,” she said.  “They do seem to prefer letting people in to letting them out.”  She didn’t mention that if Larry and Ted were on the security desk then they’d probably turned the interior sensor off so that they could laugh at the silly woman caught in the doors.
“Oh, I’m so glad you understand,” said the woman.  “I was getting quite nervous in there.”  She looked over her shoulder at the building; the doors were still open, detecting the two women were close enough to perhaps intend to go inside.  “He’s in there again.”
Rosa might not know this woman, but she knew who she meant instantly.  For the last week and a half a tall, blonde-haired man had been hanging around the lobby of the building.  Neither Larry nor Ted paid any attention to him, acting almost as though he were invisible, and the man seemed to be doing nothing more than sitting there waiting for someone.  Sometimes he was playing with his phone, other times he was tapping his feet impatiently and staring at everyone who walked past, but he’d never accosted anyone.  She pulled her coat tight around her ample figure and looked at the doors.  She couldn’t see past the second pair to see him at the moment, but the thought of him made her skin crawl.
“Thanks for the warning,” she said.  The other woman looked distracted, and then she patted her pockets, producing a packet of cigarettes and a lighter after a moment’s fumbling.  She opened the packet – Rosa saw the unpleasant picture on the side of a black and red cancerous throat tumour intended to discourage people from smoking – and took out one of three remaining cigarettes.  She lit it and inhaled deeply, and for a moment she seemed to relax a little.  Then she looked at Rosa again and her eyes narrowed.
“Do you smoke?” she said, not offering the packet.  Her tone of voice was clear enough; she was saying the words out of politeness only, and the sub-text was Don’t ask me for one of my cigarettes.
“No,” said Rosa.  She didn’t have time for a cigarette anyway, she needed to get in and be sat at her desk before the clock on the wall in the call-centre read three o’clock.  The supervisors were vicious people with no love left in their souls and would happily dock her a half-hour for being a minute late.  “I need to hurry, sorry.”
The woman waved a hand in her direction, not caring now that the potential loss of a cigarette had been averted, and Rosa walked inside.  The second set of doors whooshed open as enthusiastically as the first and Rosa saw that it was Larry manning the security desk today.  She forced the smile back to her face and approached his desk, watching the man sat in the lobby out of the corner of her eye as she did so.  Larry smiled back when he saw her, and his was genuine if a little lecherous.  She leaned across the desk and kissed his cheek, her lips barely scratching over his stubble.  She hated herself a little for doing it, but it kept him sweet and stopped him from playing games with the doors and the lifts with her.
“I’m running a little late, Larry,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes.  She wondered, not for the first time, if this was how becoming a whore started.  Did you start off just trying to get a little extra, trying to get people to stand up and do their jobs, and then gradually, in tiny increments that ate away at your soul like a squirrel nibbling at a nut, you put out more and more until suddenly you’d put out everything but your dignity, and that only came down to no-one having met your price yet?  “You couldn’t put my lift straight to floor 4 for me could you?”
She turned her head, sure that something had moved in the corner of her vision, but the tall blonde man who’d been hanging around so much lately was sitting still on the easy-chair in the lobby, staring at the screen of his phone.

“Sure thing,” said Larry.  He twisted a key in a control panel behind his desk, and waved her towards the row of three lifts that served the ten floors of the building.  “Lift 3, Rosa.  It’s a pleasure!”

Saturday, 14 December 2013

Local maximum

Andrea leant on the wooden gatepost and caught her breath.  The street that she and Dax were walking along was actually a hill, and it was steep.  There was a warning cracking sound, and she snatched her arm away and caught her balance again as the top of the gatepost snapped off, a cloud of dust rising as tiny orange splinters of wood cascaded downwards.  The top of the gatepost smashed apart when it hit the stone-flagged street leaving an orange smear across the weathered surface.  She grimaced and rubbed her arm, checking to see if the orange had stained her clothes.
“The whole city is rotten,” said Dax, looking around them.  “We’ve not found anything in here that isn’t either rotted away or rotting away.  This is a tainted place.”
“Well, duh!” said Andrea crossly.  She heaved a huge breath in, but it didn’t do much to get her breath back.  “It’s been abandoned for over four hundred years.  Were you expecting maybe industrious ghosts keeping the city all shiny and tidy?”
“I’ve met ghosts,” said Dax.  His tone was level, matter-of-fact.
“And probably killed them, too,” said Andrea.  “I keep meaning to ask you if there’s any living thing in this world that you haven’t killed, or tried to kill, at some point.”
Dax allowed a thin smile to break his wrinkled face.  “If I find any such thing,” he said, “I’ll be sure to catch it as a trophy to show people.”
Andrea looked up the street towards the top.  The buildings below them were smaller and less impressive; all the big, polished-looking buildings were clustered around the top.
“Well I know how this place defended itself,” she said.  “It just retreated up the hill and then let the attackers wear themselves out trying to get up there.”
“The alleys here are ideal for ambushes,” said Dax, pointing.  Andrea looked at him until he stopped.
“That doesn’t cheer me up,” she said.  “What if this place isn’t as abandoned as we think it is?”
“It’s cursed,” said Dax.  “Though you didn’t exactly make that clear when I hired on, did you?”
“Enough already!  I know what you think of my hiring speech, I’ve been listening to you moan about it for days!”
“It’s still cursed though.”
“Well sort of, but not really.  It was dedicated to the third Lord of the Grey, and when his time passed the City seems to have collapsed as well.  Oddly quickly.  Which is why we’re here, to find out what happened.”
“Really? It isn’t obvious?”
“Humour me,” said Dax, smiling his thin smile again.
“Fine.  Because we live in the greatest city on the continent, and it is dedicated to the fifth Lord of the Grey.  And because there are suggestions that his power might be starting to wane, so there are a few… very rich people who would like to… not lose their position.  They want to know what happened here and what’s likely to happen in our city.”
Dax sat down.
“Get up!” she said, kicking at him.  He caught her foot and pulled until she fell over and sprawled on the ground next to him.
“I knew about the money,” he said.  “I didn’t know about the Theology.  Who is making these suggestions?”
“Don’t pull me over!”  She sat up and leaned in, glaring into his eyes.  He met her gaze and held it, and several seconds later she pulled back and dropped her head, breaking her glare.
“Who is making these suggestions?  Andrea?”
“I don’t know,” she said.  “As in, I actually don’t know.  I know where you can go to hear suggestions like this being made, but you’re risking being in there when they get raided, and they get raided a lot.  The priests definitely don’t like the suggestions –“
“–and we have a religious police force.”  Dax completed the sentence for her.  “Just how little have you told me about what this trip is all about?”
She squirmed.  “Most of it,” she admitted at last.  “Some of it is on the incredible side and I don’t think… I still don’t think you’d believe it.  I’d rather see if some of the less incredible stuff exists first, and then tell you.”
“Less incredible?”
Andrea sighed.  “We need to get moving, ok?  One of the less incredible stories that’s told is what happens when the sun sets.  We need to be indoors, because if that’s true, it’s not going to be safe to be sat out here.”
“Something else.”
Andrea stood up.  “Fine.  There should be a museum of some kind up at the top of this hill, near the palaces and the houses of the Aristocracy.  Somewhere in there is a four hundred year old picture of our current Queen.”
Dax stood up next to her now.  “That would be worth seeing,” he remarked.  “That might convince me some more to listen to you.”
“I’m not telling you everything!”

“We’ll see.  By the way, though I’m sure you slept well last night, were you aware that the buildings of the city all glow in the dark?”

Thursday, 12 December 2013

Office Noir

It was raining outside, the wind lashing curtains of water against the windows in a thrashing frenzy, trying to beat a way inside.  I was sat at my desk, illuminated by the harsh glare of the flat-screen monitors, the pallor of my skin rivalled only by the empty whiteness of the spreadsheet in front of me.  Two black numbers floated in a sea of vacant cells, and nothing I could do could make them any better.  Somewhere on the floor above there was the distant sound of a door slamming and then a single, solitary scream like the call of a cormorant, and I knew that the Managing Director had cut short the Executive Committee meeting in his inimitable style once again.
I clicked once on the mouse, closing down the spreadsheet and revealing beneath it the GANTT chart that had lead me to open up the spreadsheet tool.  The little blue lines showing who would do what work and when stretched off to the right in a never-ending regimented march, spilling beyond the deadline and then beyond.  I looked at the figures for the fiftieth time that morning, and finally accepted what had been obvious all along.  I could not deliver this project on time.
I felt the cold chill of a ghost walking across my grave.  There was only one way to present this to the Executive Committee that wouldn’t get me called into the Managing Director’s office to explain myself, and that was circumstance that were clearly beyond my control.  An earthquake and a failed disaster recovery plan might do the trick.  Or burning the office down.  Or….
I crossed myself as I opened the browser and selected the secure browsing mode, aware that the IT department would see it immediately.  After all, why would you go secure unless you had something to hide?  I opened up the Pinterest site and then clicked quickly on fifteen different links, opening them all in new tabs.  Then knowing that they’d be checking them all to see what I was trying to hide, I opened up the standard browser and selected the special site.  The one they only whisper to you on the project management course when they’ve tested your loyalty (don’t ask how) and they’re sure that you’ve got the nerve to go and look at it.  That one.
I entered the name of my lead developer and crossed myself once again.  The little dialogue box opened, with the plain black border and the tiny skull in the bottom right corner.  The single text entry box was waiting, as I knew, for a date.  I entered today’s date, and a time for just after lunch.  As soon as I’d entered the last digit the box closed and the browser promptly caused the computer to crash.

“What were you doing when the computer crashed?” asked the IT tech as he stood next to me, watching the computer power-up again.  He’d appeared without being called.  “Looking at Pinterest,” I said, knowing that they knew that.  He was clearly here to find out if I’d been trying to get to anywhere that they’d not logged yet.
“Boring,” he said dismissively, but his eyes were watching me the whole time.  I was sweating.
“There were pictures of a renaissance fayre on there,” I said.  I’d done my homework too, and I knew that he liked live action role-playing and spanking.  I hadn’t dug deep enough to find out if he combined the two.
“Oh?”  He pretended he wasn’t interested, but his eyes drifted away from me.
“You know, women dressed in gauzy costumes,” I said, hinting that I might have been perving just a little.
“Still boring,” he said, but he walked off before the computer finished booting up, and I knew he was going back to the log files to look for those pictures.  He’d be back when he couldn’t find them, but that was fine.  I didn’t think he’d get back fast enough.

At two thirty-five a man dressed like a ninja walked in through the door, tail-gating behind the lifer-coder who microwaved fish curry in the tiny kitchen every lunchtime purely to annoy the people in the office.  The lifer didn’t challenge him, or even turn round.  The ninja raised a hand and a crossbow appeared in it like he was performing a magic trick.  There was the thunk of the crossbow firing, and my lead developer fell face-forward onto his keyboard, the back of his head a bloody red mess.  I counted to five and started screaming.

“It’s very strange,” said Miss McIntosh, head of the Executive Committee, “but that computer crash of yours… somehow it managed to make it look as though your GANTT chart updated to accommodate the death of your lead developer fifteen minutes before he was killed.”

“I was looking at porn at that time,” I said.

Tuesday, 10 December 2013

Let the light in

There were wolf-skins on the wall.  Some of them still had heads attached, and one of them was drooling.  As he looked at it, he saw yellow eyes barely filmed over, and they rolled slowly in his direction.  He looked away, discomforted.
On the other side of the room was a low square wooden table at which a woman sat cross-legged.  She was watching him with squinted eyes, as though suspicious of what he might do.  He pulled his wrists gently apart, and the rope binding them resisted strongly.  He didn’t bother testing the rope at his ankles, but he did wonder what she thought he might do.  Then he let his head sink down onto his chest as though he were falling asleep, and let his eyelids descend equally slowly over his eyes.  As the room vanished into a pinkish darkness he projected himself outwards in a way that only made sense inside his head, and then looked around him.
In spirit form he was still sat in this cold, earthen room, and there was a woman sat cross-legged across the floor from him.  She appeared cold and still; not active in this realm.  Then a scratching noise to his left made him turn his head, and he saw that the wolf skins here were spirit wolves, and they were prowling about.  They looked hungry.
“Do you guard?” he signed.  There were no sounds in the spirit plane, so no spoken language.  Everything was signed, and there were several varieties of sign language.  He was relieved that the wolves responded to his first attempt; a head ducked, a paw scratching.  We hunt.
So, caught in both realms.  He relaxed, letting himself fall somehow inwards and opened his eyes to the earthen room once more.  The woman was still squinting at him.
“How long are you going to keep me here?” he asked.  His voice was scratchy, and he wondered how long it was since he’d last spoken.  The woman started when he spoke, pushing herself backwards and backing into the table, nearly coming to her feet in her anxiety.  She huddled up against the table, pulling her knees into her chest so that her feet barely poked out from beneath her long, dirty, green skirt, and wrapping her skinny, liver-spotted arms around them.  She made a murmuring sound that he recognised immediately; she’d had her tongue pulled out.
A hand fell on his shoulder, and he wondered immediately that he’d not heard the approach of this newcomer.
“Not long,” said a voice behind him.  It was a woman’s voice he decided, it had a chiming quality about it and a softness that you rarely found in a man.  “Just until I’ve let the light in.”
His stomach tightened into a knot.
“Trepanation?” he asked, though he already knew what the answer would be.  “That’s illegal.”
“I don’t see any enforcers here, do you?”  There was the sound of something soft shuffling across the floor, and a figure dressed in the robes of the Sisters of Eternal Distance crossed his vision.  The woman by the table whimpered again and cringed, as though expecting to be struck.  “If there is no-one to enforce what you believe to be legal, is it really legal?”
“That’s a question for the Sophists,” he said.  “I would like to think that you respect that notion.”
The figure laughed, her voice echoing around the room and seeming to be an entire choir of people.  It took moments for the laughter to die away after she stopped, and he wondered at that.  The room was completely the wrong shape for those kind of acoustics.  He let his eyes close again and pushed outwards.
There was a tall, elegant woman with long blonde hair and eyes like tiny stars looking at him.  The spirit-wolves were sitting at her feet.  She raised her hands, and he saw that she had snakes tattooed along her wrists and forearms, ending with their heads at her elbows.
I’m here too, she signed, and she smiled.  As her lips parted though, there was only darkness behind them.
Oh good, he signed back, tapping his hand back against his wrist-bones to indicate sarcasm.  I was missing you already.
Sit tight, she signed, and the wolves all lifted their heads and looked at him now.  It’s time to let the light in.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Mate's rates

“Can you go and review that new place that’s opened up in the Slaughterhouse district?”  My editor’s words were slightly indistinct as she was eating a Krispy Kreme doughnut while she spoke, spitting little flakes of pink icing into the air like malodorous snow.
“No,” I said, sitting back slightly.  My suit was fresh from the dry cleaner’s, and I had no intention of having it decorated with other’s people’s partially digested food.
“Let me rephrase that,” she said, swallowing first thankfully.  She looked around her desk for her coffee mug, and swigged from it in a way that would have made Caligula proud.  “Go and review the new place in the Slaughterhouse District.”
“No,” I said again, resting a foot across my knee and leaning back in the chair, which creaked like an old park bench after heavy rain.
“Why not?”  The way she rolled her eyes told me that I was in for a hard time; clearly there was some ulterior motive for this order.
“Because it’s owned by Tim,” I said.  “And part-owned by Vincent actually.  And Vincent is the Blonde’s father, and Tim is the guy I got in to cater my last three birthday parties.  I can’t go and review their restaurant because I’ll have no credibility.  Obviously I’ll be writing whatever they’ve told to me, so a good review is just me blowing smoke up their pert, well-formed bottoms, and a bad review is reverse psychology to invite people to go and see the place to find out why I’d slate it like that.  Can’t do it.  Just can’t.  See?”
“Oh good Lord,” said my editor.  “Don’t be ridiculous.  Firstly, you’re a critic who writes more about his personal life than he does the food.  So we’ll all enjoy reading you dish the dirt on Tim Vincent and we’ll barely notice when you squeeze in the top three items from the menu and claim that they were divinely inspired and tasted like old cabbage dipped in a turnip broth.”
I frowned and put my foot back on the floor.  “You actually read my last review?” I asked.  “Because that sounds like a quote to me.”
“I read all your work,” she said.  “I sometimes wish I didn’t have to, but I do.  And I occasionally correct your wayward commas, but not too much as the readership like to complain about them.  You generate more letters for the weekly Grammar column than any other writer on the staff.  Technically you’re doing half of that job as well, but I’d as soon not remind of you of that because pay rise time is a year away.”
“Fine,” I said, my cheeks burning red.  “I’ll go and talk to Tim and Vincent and see if I can get a reservation.”
“Why’s it in the Slaughterhouse District anyway?” asked my editor, picking up the last pink doughnut.  I cringed.
“They wanted somewhere that would gentrify slowly,” I said.  “I suggested Grime Road as well, but they like the availability of cheap meat.  They can get it practically still mooing or oinking or clucking from the neighbouring businesses.  It might not be Wagyu beef, but it’s definitely the freshest you’re going to get in this town.”
“…isn’t Grime Road next to the municipal dump?”
“The tip, yes.  I thought you couldn’t get much more low-end than that, though it turned out that there were almost no rubbish-disposal costs when you can just get the porters to throw the waste straight over the chain-link fence.”
She sank her teeth into the doughnut like a shark fastening onto a swimmer’s leg in a B-movie.  A cheap B-movie, though the pink icing did look rather gory as it smeared across her lips and teeth.  “How slowly will the Slaughterhouse District gentrify then?” she asked, sounding genuinely interested.
“Very,” I replied.  “Slaughter’s a good business at the moment.  If market trends continue it’ll be at least thirty years before they start closing down and letting people move in.”
“That’s a very long term prospect then,” said my editor.

“Oh yes,” I said with a smile.

Friday, 6 December 2013

A tour of ship-wreck house

“This is the conservatory,” said the nurse without much pre-amble.  She waved an arm around it.  ‘It was intended for the use of the patients when this place was built, and I think it was used like that for four or five years.  But at some point someone realised that most of our patients either couldn’t be put out on show like this, or shouldn’t be, and we stopped using it for the patients.  There’s a day-room, with skylights rather than windows, that they use, and we use this now for staff meetings and visitors.”
“It must be a pretty short staff meeting,” said Leonard.  They were walking through the room back to the kitchen.
“Is that a joke about my height?”
Leonard looked at her; she was perhaps five foot ten, probably a little taller than a lot of the women he knew.  Why would she think he was making jokes about her height?
“Never mind,” she said, stepping into the kitchen.  It was cool and spacious; the surfaces were stainless steel, as were the cupboard doors and the range.  There were a number of racks along the walls behind the counters, on which were steel pans and bowls.  Implements – spatulas, tongs, spoons, ladles and the like – hung on the racks to be close at hand for the chef working at that station, and as Leonard looked around he recognised a transition from stations that were primarily for preparation, though that were for frying or boiling, and then the pastry section.
“Kitchen” she said, again waving her hand.  “A little big for just me but at its peak the hospice has had fifteen chefs working in here.  That wasn’t for patients though, that was just when the Board of Directors realised that Shipwreck House was useful for internal functions.  I prepare food for the patients.  Breakfast is a buffet affair with hot items cooked to order, and a menu for the rest of the day is provided then for patients to choose from.  Those that have already lost their sense of smell are generally the hardest to cater for.”
“Why not taste?” asked Leonard.
“The door over there is to the walk-in where we store the dry goods,” said the nurse.  “90% of taste is smell.  Patients who lose their sense of smell tend to quickly lose interest in eating.  This way,” she took him through a door he’d not noticed when they came through earlier, “is to the back corridors.  These houses were built at the turn of the 1800s and so have separate corridors for servants and masters.  We’ve made use of that by keeping the masters area for visitors and internal conferencing, while the staff use the servants corridors.  It’s considerably more efficient.”
“Are there any secret passages?” asked Leonard, trying to inject a note of humour into his voice so that she knew he was joking this time.  She paused and looked at him.
“Several, actually,” she said.  “They’re a complete pain, because the kinds of illnesses that our patients come in with do not go well together with hard-to-find areas of the house.  We’ve had two occasions now where someone has gone missing and we’ve had to search the whole building one floor at a time.
“Oh,” said Leonard, and stayed fairly quiet for the rest of the tour.  The servant’s corridors, as the nurse had promised, accessed just about every room of the house and were quick to traverse.  Leonard didn’t see too much of the master’s corridors, but it became obvious from the size of the rooms that it must be a pain to walk round nearly half of the house to get from one room to another instead of just taking the servant’s door and slipping across a hallway.  The house was much larger than he’d expected, and the rooms were generally large and well designed unless they were for the servants, when they were cramped and had little privacy.
The third floor was given over to bedrooms, and though Leonard was not permitted to disturb the current residents the nurse did slide back a panel in one door to show him the gentleman behind it.  The man was dressed in a neat grey suit with a white shirt, cufflinks and tie.  He sat in a straight-backed chair, his hands resting on his knees and his gaze fixed on the door somewhere below the panel.  He appeared not to notice the panel opening, and Leonard eventually realised that he could see an ugly-looking, blistered burn on the man’s hand.
“He lost his sense of touch first,” said the nurse.  “It was how his condition was discovered, which was lucky for him.  The next thing to go was his sight, and if we’d not found him by then I don’t think he would have survived long.”
“You don’t really talk about then as though they’re human,” said Leonard.  The thought had been building throughout the tour, but now it had crystallised in his mind.
“It’s better than way,” said the nurse.  “At some point they very well might not be.”
After the bedrooms she showed him the attic.  This was a long, large room with a sloping ceiling and the roof beams exposed.  There were several benches up there that looked like chemistry experiments were being carried out on them, and a bookcase tucked under the roof beams held hand-written notes in several binders.
“Drs Whitsun and Watts work here intermittently,” said the nurse.  “They’re researching way to help the patients, though it’s necessarily slow-going.  They’ve pretty much having to write the whole field of research themselves.”
“I didn’t know you were trying to cure them,” said Leonard.  He took a binder from the bookcase and opened it.  The notes in there appeared to be written in Latin and didn’t make any sense to him.
“We’re not.”  The nurse took the binder from his hands with gentle but steady force and put it back.  “We’re trying to help them.  We can’t cure them because we’ve no idea what’s actually happened to them to reverse it.  The first thing we want to be able to do is communicate better with them and get an idea of what it’s like where they’ve gone, and how we might get there ourselves.  Without having to lose our senses in the process.”
“Right, said Leonard.  “I should have realised.”
She gave him a sharp look, but he refused to be drawn and so she let it drop.

“That’s the tour,” she said.  “We’ll go back down the conservatory now and I’ll answer any relevant questions that you might have.”

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The constant worker

Snow fell from the sky like leaves from the trees; heavy wet flakes that seemed too large, and that splatted onto people, melting in seconds.  The pavement had disappeared in minutes, and the roads were starting to slush up as well, slowing the traffic down and forcing the cars and buses to keep their windscreen wipers on.  Shops and businesses were still lit up and open, though a few offices had started letting their staff go home early.
Jamie paused for a moment, his long grey woollen coat pulled around him, and its felt collar stood up.  The snow still crept down his neck now and then, but mostly he was warm and dry.  He looked up into the blank greyness of the sky, watching the flakes – silhouetted black against the clouds – spin and fall to the earth.  He stepped aside to avoid one that seemed intent on his face, and heard a squeal.  He looked round, and then down; a woman had fallen over and was kicking her high heels at his ankles, her face twisted into a bitter snarl.  His hand, inside the pocket of his coat, squeezed around the grip of his gun, and he started to draw it.  Then he thought better of it, and instead opened up the coat to allow him access to his belt.  He pulled the taser from there and aimed it at her.
Her eyes widened as she realised what he was doing, and her mouth, spoiled by purplish lipstick and wine-stained teeth, formed an O-shape, probably the last syllable of a drawn-out No.  She lifted a black-gloved hand and he noticed the fur edging on its wrist.  Then he pulled the trigger and two tiny silver darts sprang from the gun and punched into the skin of her neck, just below and off to one side of her chin.  For a moment she looked stunned, as though she couldn’t believe that he’d actually pulled the trigger, and then the darts delivered their charge; short-lasting but intense.  She spasmed and her head jerked to one side.  She skidded across the snow-covered pavement like a fish flapping around freshly out of water, and she knocked into several other pedestrians.  Two of them caught their balance, and looked round, but a third, and then a fourth, toppled as well and fell on top of her.
Jamie put the taser back and buttoned his coat back up, and then tied the belt tightly around his waist.  She would no doubt tell everyone about what had happened, and she’d have the little darts as evidence, but they’d do her no good.  When the police checked the serial numbers on the darts the case would be stalled and stopped until she stopped protesting.  Or, if she was stupid enough to protest more anyway, she would get a visit from the re-education department.  The gulags had plenty of room for more dissidents.
He walked on down the Boulevard des Champignons.  The buildings around him were facades over steel and glass.  The original stonework, three hundred years old in some places, had been carefully suspended in place and down adorned thoroughly modern and strong cores, so that it might feel like he was walking through a street from three centuries ago, but in fact the cutting edge of technology was employed behind the blank windows and locked doors.  Even the street name had been deliberately kept so as not to give any clue as to what was going on here.
He stopped at number 168 and rapped on the door.  A small panel slid back, slightly lower than eye height, and he stooped to peer in.  Someone stood next to him might have spotted the blue light that caressed his eyes, but they’d have needed good vision and to know that they were supposed to be watching for it.  There was a moment’s pause and then the door clicked, and he pushed it open.
Beyond the door was a small steel hallway with two turnstiles; one for people entering and one for people departing.  The temperature inside was noticeably warm and Jamie immediately undid his belt and unbuttoned his coat.  He walked through the turnstile, his fingerprints and pulse being read by the gate as he pushed through it, and on the far side approached a glass automatic door.  He had to wait there for a few moments longer while the computer analysed his gait towards it, and then it slid open.
“Good morning,” said a metallic voice.  “You are authorised for the third, fourth and seventh floors.”  He didn’t bother looking round; the speakers were concealed, and he was reasonably certain that the ones used for the voice were randomised every time anyway.
“I tased someone,” he said.
There was another pause while the computer located a human operative and put them on the line.
“Agent?” This voice was male and didn’t sound happy.  ‘You tased someone?  Again?”  Ah, so they’d already accessed his file.
“Yes,” he said.  He considered explaining, and then decided that he wouldn’t unless asked.
“Noted.”  There was a sigh to conclude the word.  “Please remember that your weapon-carrying certification can be reviewed at any time, not just at the designated quarter-year sessions.”
“Thank-you,” said Jamie, comfortably aware that they would never take his weapons-clearance away from him.
“Report to the eighth floor,” said the voice.  “I have a message that the Tailor would like to talk to you.”

Jamie halted then, and only resumed walking a second later.  The Tailor wanted to see him?  Now that was something different.

Monday, 2 December 2013

Mistletoe and Wine

“Christmas time, mistletoe and wine…” warbled the radio.  Lady Agnes allowed herself a small smile as she bustled about the kitchen.  No-one in their right mind would put the mistletoe and wine together, she thought.  Mistletoe’s berries were rather poisonous, and dipping them into wine, which would leach the poison out and into itself, would be murderous.  And she disliked people who accused her of being murderous.  She counted the coffee cups and found that she was still two short.  She sighed, and looked around, wondering which cupboard Hettie usually kept the crockery in.  It was a great shame that she’d had to rush off like that to tend to her sick Aunt in a small cottage in the middle of the countryside, but one had to let the help have the occasional day off or they’d leave and not come back.  She opened the nearest cupboard door and found a sack of flour inside.  That was nice, she supposed, though she wasn’t sure what it might be used for.  Perhaps Hettie used it instead of make-up.  Was that why the theatre folk she knew referred to it always as pancake?
Three more cupboards located a box of tinsel, what looked like a wartime stockpile of napkins, and finally the crockery.  There were two whole shelves of cups, many of them even matching.  Lady Agnes frowned at this, wondering where they’d all come from.  She had three cups of tea a day, and even allowing for Hettie only doing the washing up at the end of the week there were too many cups here.
As she added them to the tray and wondered which of the many white plugged-in boxes was the fridge, she had a sudden recollection of the tea-parties that her mother used to host.  There would be tiny sandwiches cut into finger widths and carefully spread with just enough paste to remind the tastebuds of what they were missing out on, petit fours that were really only petit threes, an acre of cucumber garnish and a blanket of parsley, and then all the cups.  They would be set out on trolleys next to the tea urns, in which a box of teabags would be stewing, and then people would be invited it to partake of the bounty.  Ah, so that was where the cups had come from.  Left over from entertaining the hoi polloi.
Finding the fridge took another three attempts, and then she wondered at the number of cartons of milk that she found there all with different colour tops.  Disregarding anything that had a picture on the outside that wasn’t a cow she went with green top and hoped that it was actually some form of milk and not egg-white or reconstituted anything.  Then she carried the tray to the sitting room.
“Please excuse the delay,” she said brightly, setting the tray down on an occasional table near the four chairs that clustered around a tiny coffee table set with an empty cake stand.  “Hettie’s relation is apparently very sick and she’d rushed off urgently to tend to her.”
“Oh, quite,” said the Vicar, sitting back down again.  He’d bounded to his feet when Lady Agnes came into the room, though his politeness hadn’t extended to taking the tray from her.  “What relation, pray?”
“Toboggan,” said Lady Agnes firmly.  She hadn’t listened to a word Hettie had said beyond hearing that she wanted a couple of days off.
“Ah, uh, really?” said the Vicar.  He went to the tray and lifted the teapot.  “Shall I be mother?”
“Yes,” said Lady Agnes economically.  The Vicar poured, not quite staunching his wince when he saw how orange the stream of tea was.  He poured a generous cup for Lady Agnes, and mixed his own with two-thirds of a cup of milk.  Even then, when he sipped it, he felt briefly as though he might be a builder or other manual labourer.  Then he felt bad for succumbing to stereotyping and promised himself that he’d say three Hail Mary’s when he returned home.
“Is she perhaps Scottish?” he asked.  “Only I was under the impression that a toboggan was actually an item of transport.  For use in the snow.”  His voice, gentle and refined, sounded a little like an educated horse might.
“She’s common,” said Lady Agnes.  “I didn’t get involved after that.  My mother always used to say that the help were the help, and if you needed to help them then they weren’t doing their job properly.”
“Ah yes,” said the Vicar.  He sat back in his chair, his china cup caught in the steeple of his fingers and seemed to be deep in thought.  “Your mother.  You know that that’s why I’m here, of course?”
“No,” said Lady Agnes.  “She is dead, Vicar.  You’re rather too late to have caught her at home.”
“Heheh,” said the Vicar politely.  “No, Lady Agnes, I was referring to the fact that the police wish to exhume her body.  Again.”
“Let them,” said Lady Agnes, waving her hand.  The Vicar frowned, not sure if she’d flipped in the bird in that gesture.  “Mother was buried clean, and there’s been three diggings up so far.  If she’s really hiding anything down there the police don’t seem able to find it.”
“Well,” said the Vicar.  “I’d really rather not have the graveyard disturbed like this all the time.  Have you considered having your mother’s remains cremated?  These problems might go away then.”
“Looks suspicious,” said Lady Agnes.  “If it were up to me Vicar, I’d have her left in a body bag in their freezers so that they can violate her bones whenever they feel like it.”
“Have you suggested that to them?”
“Yes.  They looked outraged and started talking for a an hour.”
“What did they say?”
“I didn’t listen.”
The Vicar fell silent.  After a few minutes he looked at Lady Agnes.
“What did you mean, she was buried clean?” he asked.  Lady Agnes grinned.
“Don’t ask questions you wouldn’t like the answers to, Vicar,” she said.
After the Vicar had left, muttering imprecations under his breath, Lady Agnes took the cups down the kitchen and wondered if she had a dishwasher.  The radio was still playing, and the song she’d heard earlier came on again.

“…children sing in Christian rhyme…” it warbled.  Lady Agnes snorted.  Christian rhyme might well have its place, but when you needed things done cleanly you needed far older languages than that….