Thursday, 30 July 2015

Harry and Harry

The house stood at the end of the street, set a little apart from the others.  Harry's dad had pointed it out one evening when the wind was up and making the trees sway like corn-stalks.  "They always builded them with one slightly apart at the end of the row," he said, his voice thick with the slime clogging his throat and lungs.  He coughed, spat something out of sight, and pointed in the other direction. "The first one, the one at that end was knocked down when they widened the road," he said.  "Didn't hafta, but we all knew it was the right thing to do."  He started coughing more then, and when Harry tried to bring the conversation up a few days later his dad wouldn't say anything about it.
Harry paused, the shopping bags feeling like they were dragging his arms from their sockets, and looked at the house.  In the last fifteen years it didn't look like it had changed at all; the gables were still stark black beams framing a whitewashed wall, and the eaves overhung the walls providing a narrow shelter from the New England rain if you stood in close enough.  The mullioned windows shone faintly in the looming twilight and there was a hint of beige curtain on the inside if you squinted carefully.  The curious thing was, as he stood there looking, was that he couldn't remember ever seeing anyway taking care of the house.  Surely in fifteen years a roof slate must have slipped, or a gutter cracked?
Harry sighed and turned away, walking the few remaining feet to his own front door, and kicking it rather than setting the shopping down and being faced with having to pick it back up again when the door was opened.  His muddy shoe scuffed a brown mark on the door, and he stared at it guiltily, wondering if this is why he needed to do repairs every Spring and the house at the end of the street still looked pristine.
The door opened and his sister, Harry, gave him a baleful stare.  "Don't kick the door," she said.  "It demeans me."
Harry shrugged, and then sucked air through his teeth; that had hurt.  "Sorry, sis," he said and lugged the shopping to the kitchen table.  He could hear the silence behind him while she waited until he'd put the shopping down before she closed the front door.
"Professor Rogers came over again today," she said.  He looked round, she was leaning in the doorway to the kitchen, her heavy frame blocking it effectively.  Her pudgy face looked a little pale, and she was worrying at her nails and not looking up.  "He asked me again if I'd consider being his housekeeper."
Harry started unpacking the bags at the table.  His sister, Harriet, had some kind of agoraphobia that meant she hardly ever left the house.  He secretly thought that she'd benefit from walking down to the end of the street and back again every day, and if she took a job it would make living here a little easier. It might be a small town, but daily expenses seemed to increase more rapidly than Harry's salary and he was starting to wonder how safe his job was anyway.
"What did you say?" he asked.  They'd already had two shouting matches over him suggesting that she take the job offer.
"I said no, of course!"  He voice raised and he knew that if he looked up she'd be staring at him, her deep-set eyes red and aflame with anger.  "I can't leave the house!"
"You might have to," said Harry.  "I'm not sure how much longer I'll have a job for."
"What?"  It was a reflexive question, not meant.  A second passed, and then, "What?"
"You heard me," said Harry.  He almost regretted saying it, it was provocative and unnecessary.  "The museum's not doing so well and it's getting harder to get the people in.  And summer's ending, we get fewer visitors in winter.  There's talk of cuts."
"But they can't get rid of you.  We'd starve to death."
Harry looked up at this; his sister was staring at him with a terrifying intensity.  "We'd have to sell the house and leave," he said slowly.  "Split the money, go our own ways."
"NO!"  He ducked, having learned from the last fight, and a moneybox that usually sat on the windowsill in the hall by the front-door sailed over his head and thumped against the wall.  He knew without looking that it would have broken the plaster.  "No, you lie!  You lie!  You're a filthy liar!"  She staggered backwards, looking wounded, and then grabbed the door handle and opened and slammed the front-door.  "LIAR!"
She stamped upstairs, and slammed more doors up there, screaming 'liar' to punctuate each slam.
"Kind of," whispered Harry under his breath.  He stood up and started unpacking the shopping again. The house had been left entirely to him in their parents' will so if it had to be sold his sister would get nothing unless he was feeling generous.  And lately he wasn't feeling generous at all.

Monday, 27 July 2015


The high street was quiet; there was a homeless woman, dressed in a damp dressing-gown, sitting cross-legged in front of a cardboard box outside the Post Office, and there were two dogs trotting happily along, each holding the other's lead in its mouth.  A single car had driven past them in the last five minutes, and the traffic lights appeared to have defaulted to a holding pattern of green, perhaps hoping that being obliging they might summon more traffic.  Miss Flava looked at Detective Inspector Playfair, who was looking in the window of a travel agency.
"I thought all of these had closed down," she said, nodding at the window where sun-faded posters showed white-sanded beaches and palm trees.  There were a number of hand-written index cards advertising trips to Jordan, Syria and Israel for fifteen nights and upwards.
"The internet's done for a lot of them," said Playfair.  "But don't underestimate how lazy people are.  There are still those who'd rather watch someone else use the internet for them than learn how to do it themselves."
Miss Flava hmmed to herself, thinking of several of the older officers back at the police station whose only activities seemed to be making tea and watching other people do things for them.
"Right," said Playfair, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet.  "Let's get this over with then."
They looked both ways, even though the road was so empty that it deserved tumbleweed, and crossed over.  On the other side of the road, sandwiched between a Subway and Starbucks, was a small shop with a mullioned bay window and a black-painted door with a little, corroded, brass bell at one corner.  The sign painted above the window read "Tea and Tentacles".
"What does this place do again?"  Playfair's voice was gruff and he appeared to be fascinated by the scuff marks on the bootscraper outside the door.
"Cthulhiana," said Miss Flava after a moment; she had to consult her notepad to check what the word was.  "Louise said to tell you that it's like Victoriana, only with more tentacles."
"No!" Miss Flava couldn't decide if she was more shocked that her boss, who was definitely in his fifties, knew about that kind of cultural reference or that she found the idea of it somehow creepy.  It didn't fit with her self-image of independent, well-read and liberal.
"Ah, evil squid monsters that will arise when the stars are right then," said Playfair.  Miss Flava shook her head, knowing that he couldn't see her, and wondered if he'd sneaked a look at her pad back in the car.  What he'd just said was word for word what Louise had told her over the phone.  "Well, let's get inside and see these knick-knacks, gew-gaws and whatjamacallits for ourselves then."
"Goo-gor?" asked Miss Flava, feeling rather out of her depth.
"You probably pronounce it jew-jaw," said Playfair without a trace of humour but still managing to condescend like a deity.
"I don't pronounce it at all," she said primly, the effect rather ruined by the bell ringing as Playfair pushed the door open and drowning out her last words.
The interior of the shop was patchily lit, with small LED spotlights in the ceiling picking out display cases and shelves, leaving shadows to pool along the walls and occasionally in the middle of a display for no apparent reason.  There were bookcases along the back wall, some of which were located unobtrusively behind a small counter. On the counter was a cash-box and a large calculator, and behind it was a wooden stool on a cast-iron pedastel that looked as though it belonged in a Charles Dickens novel.  There were a grand total of five display cases set in the middle of the room, each containing two glass shelves and holding an oddity of items.  One case seemed to be mostly jewelry, another was knives, and a third seemed to hold maps, or possibly odd drawings.  Against another wall was a collection of scarves with eye-watering patterns blotched on to them by what looked like unskilled batik.  In the corner nearest the door was a stuffed cat with demonic red eyes and possibly a touch of mange.
"Can I help you gentlemen?"
Miss Flava stiffened with outrage as the owner of the voice, an elderly woman shuffling along with the help of a stick, came into view from out of one of the patches of shadow.
"Police," she said, holding out her warrant card.
"Bless you dear, I can't see a thing," said the woman.  "Not since the Mi-Go took my eyes away with them.  They're going to bring me back some new ones you know.  Improved ones, that can see into many more places."
"OK," said Miss Flava, her voice neutral.  She risked a glance at Playfair, quite expecting him to be inflating his lungs ready to lecture the woman on the improbability of her eyes being worked on independently of the rest of her body, but he seemed more interested in the contents of one of the display cabinets.
"Playfair?" she said, wondering if he'd been listening.
"This statuette," he said, pointing.
"Bless you dear, I can't see a thing," said the woman as though it were an automatic response.
"It's about a foot tall," said Playfair, leaning back as though the statuette were hard to see too close up.  "Has about sixteen arms, head is a bit like an exploded tulip, and appears to be standing on a pile of children's corpses."
"Oh that one," said the woman.  "£170 dear, and I won't take any less."
"Doesn't it look familiar to you?"  He was looking at Miss Flava, who's eyebrows elevated so rapidly they pulled her crow's feet taut behind them.
"I'm pretty certain I'd remember anyone with thirteen arms," she said.
"Sixteen, dear," said the old woman.
"Not the arms," said Playfair.  "The face.  Look at that and tell me that isn't Tommy Richards."
Miss Flava leaned forward, her skepticism written all over her face.  A moment later it had vanished.
"That's better than the police photo-fit managed," she said.  "If it weren't for the arms I'd swear it was him."
"Well, and the head's a bit on the squished side," said Playfair.  "But still.  Who's the sculptor?"  His voice was now directed at the old woman.
"Cassandra Styles," said the woman.  "I've got all the paperwork here somewhere, though if I'm going to get that out you're going to buy it."
"Not necessary," said Playfair with a ghost of a smile.  "It's evidence in a presumptive murder investigation.  Miss Flava, take it into protective custody please."
"What?" said Miss Flava and the old woman simultaneously.
"Now, please," said Playfair.  "I want to talk to Cassandra and find out what else she's been sculpting."

Sunday, 26 July 2015

Sleeping Zombie

There was an odd knock at the door; it sounded almost like something heavy had fallen against the door making a dull thud.  But then it came again, rather later than might be expected for a knock, and then again, after a still-too-long interval.  Sighing softly to herself, Bess set down the needlework she was doing – patching a pair of trousers at the crotch – and went to the door.  She opened it, wondering if the weird old apple-seller was back with her glistening, too-good-to-be-true fruit, and looked outside.
"Braaaaaaaaainssss," moaned the shambling, grey, fly-blown figure that swayed outside the door.  It held one handless arm aloft and then brought it down.  Bess stepped backwards and the stump missed her, but her eyes followed it down and found the missing hand lying on the grass.  There were still flies buzzing around it, and she could see through holes in the grey, ragged skin that maggots were churning in the rotting flesh beneath.  The smell finally struck her, a charnel-house smell worse than the one from the place where the huntmen butchered their kills, and bile rose in her throat.  She took another step backwards, her hand rising to her mouth and nose and her eyes watering so that the zombie at the door was just a blur.  Her knees trembled and gave way, so she never saw the zombie step inside and fall over her, its teeth grinding together as it tried to chew her young, vital flesh.
"Aw, coaldamp," said Morgó.  He was slightly ahead of the rest of the dwarves as his pants, his second-best pair, were rather too tight around his thighs and he was hoping that Bess would have finished the repairs on his best pair.  "Guys!  Zombie!"  He unstrapped his mining pick from his shoulders, giving the other dwarves time to catch up.
"What's it doing?" asked Kuka, peering at the zombie.  The doorway of the house was shadowed and it was hard to make out exactly what was going on there.  "Is it eating something?"
"Bess!" said Morgó.  "Gaspockets, what was she thinking?  Quick, let's go get it and see if she's alright."
"What if she's a zombie already?" Tudor's voice was calm, not betraying the anxiety he felt.  They'd all appreciated having someone who didn't dare leave and so would do all the housework around.
"Let's try and make sure she isn't before we worry about that!" said Morgó.  "Charge!"
The zombie was slow-moving and the mining picks were kept in excellent condition so it took the dwarves very little time indeed to drag it out of the house and then dismember it into something more closely resembling death.  As they stood back, getting their breath back and cleaning their picks off, the birds of the forest started swooping down to feast on the wriggling maggots now strewn all about their front-lawn.
"Someone's going to have to bury the bits that are left," said Tudor, and they all looked towards the house, hoping to see Bess looking back.
"She looks a bit dead," said Kuka after a minute.  "Do you think she was trying to have sex with it?"
Tudor swatted him about the head.  "Baromarcú," he said.  "Do you think everyone tries to have sex with everything?"  Kuka hung his head in shame.
"Well," said Morgó, trying to sound cheerful.  "Let's go and find out if she's too dead to bury what's left of the zombie then."
The dwarves shuffled inside, picking Bess up on the way, and sitting her down in the chair where she'd been sewing.  Morgó picked the pants up and exclaimed with pleasure: they were just about finished.
"She's still warm," said Tudor, looking at her.  "She's drooling a bit too, so if she's dead it's pretty recent."
Kuka poked her arm and Bess twitched a little.  He poked it again, and a low moan escaped her throat.
"Not dead," said Tudor thoughtfully.  "But she's got bite marks–" he swatted Kuka before he could make any lewd suggestions, "–so I think she's probably on the turn."
"Aw, coaldamp," said Morgó.  "No more housework then."
"We'll have to go back to taking turns," said Tudor, frowning.  "But what are we going to do about Bess?"
"Bury her," said Vidor, looking at the floor.  "We've got to bury the other guy now anyway."
"...we could burn the other one," said Kuka quietly.
The seven dwarves looked at each other, not quite meeting each other's eyes.  Finally Tudor said, "No, we're not burning Bess.  And burying her seems like a lot of work... we could always put her up in the old tower."
"What, the light-house?"
"Yes," said Tudor.  "Ever since the lake dried up – and that was no-one's fault! – it's been a bit useless.  There's a nice room at the top, big windows and all, and there's only one door.  Nail a couple of boards across it and she won't be able to get out."
There was some muttering, but the fact that Bess could walk there herself was the deciding factor in the argument and so she was escorted to the old light-house, walked to the top of the stairs, and then the locked in the room at the top.  At the bottom the dwarves looked at the door and decided it was probably zombie-proof as it was, so they locked that too, tucked the key under the doormat, and went home to see if the birds and rats had eaten all the zombie bits so that they wouldn't have to burn them.

And so it was that Bess lay down on the old light-house keeper's bed and fell asleep because there was nothing there to feed her undead hunger.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Email ritual

The archaeologist sucked on his e-cigarette.  Orange liquid swirled in the transparent chamber, and I could feel Clytie pulling on my arm as she stood on tiptoes, trying to get a better look at it.  When he exhaled the smoke was orange as well, and there were flashing motes in it.
"This is what we think was a shared building of some kind," he said, gesturing behind him.  Out of the mounds of pyroclastic flow were rectangular blocks piled neatly on top of one another.  In the middle of them was a rectangular gap, which was dark and uninviting.  "We've reason to believe that it was 'office' of some kind, but we haven't yet worked out what rituals were carried out here."
"What makes you so certain that there were rituals performed here?" asked a middle-aged woman in the middle of the tour group.  Her hair was white and architecturally styled, and her couture was showing pastoral scenes; I thought I recognised Lake Windermere before the inundation as I watched it change.
"It's called an 'office'," said the archaeologist with patience.  "'Offices' were ritual positions held by high-ranking C20-baseline humans, and we know that they had many rituals that they performed.  Such as 'going to work'."
"I tried 'going to work' once," whispered Clytie, and then she giggled.  I patted her arm in as friendly a manner as I could.  Clytie is lovely most of the time, but whenever she's on a sub-cycle she's as irritating as a mantis-pet.  "It was really weird; I spent eight hours sitting at a desk and periodically a man would come past and ask me if I thought I was going to get paid for it."
"Some officiants were paid," said the archaeologist, overhearing Clytie.  "But we haven't been able to work out yet what that entailed."
There was a generally muttering from the group, and then the archaeologist took another drag from his e-cigarette and led the way through the dark rectangle.  As he stepped through heat-sensitive lamps turned out and illuminated a stone-floor room, still rectangular.  There was a horseshoe shaped object in the middle of the floor with an opening to the rear that seemed only to force people entering to walk around it to a staircase at the back.
"We've clearly entered from the rear, "said the archaeologist, gesturing at the horseshoe shape.  "Officiants coming in from the correct side would presumably enter this shape where they would perform their first ritual of the day."
"What would that be?" asked a merboy.  He was stood near the front, and I'd noticed him earlier; he was hovering near an elderly couple and occasionally glancing up at them as though they were his grandparents, but they'd barely noticed him.  I suspected he was a plant for the archaeologist.
"I'm glad you asked," said the archaeologist confirming my suspicions.  "It was the email ritual."
Clytie giggled again and stroked my arm as though it were a mantis-pet.  I tried not to shiver.
"Email was a time-consuming activity that dominated baseline human attention for nearly a hundred years," said the archaeologist.  "It required constant attention and when left alone for any period of time would grow out of control and require drastic action to tame again.  People talked of mass-delenda, some kind of culling process.  There were officiants who wrote learned treatises on how to keep email at a near-zero state, which we think means that it was essentially quiescent and didn't attempt to control baseline humans.  The email ritual was a cleansing step, whereby the officiant would attempt to destroy as much email as had grown overnight so that the day could be used for something productive.  It was therefore an essential part of the 'office' that the officiant delete email as a first step in the day.  Note that the email is contained within this horseshoe structure and paths around it are allowed, so clearly it could grow large and unboundedly.  We should be very grateful that the scourge of email was eventually overcome!"
"Wow!" said the merboy, but no-one was listening now.  They were all eyeing the horseshoe shape with apprehension.
"Is there still... email... in there?" asked the middle-aged woman.  She took a step back.
"No, we've not been able to find any email at all," said the archaeologist.  "It appears to have been completely eradicated.  Now, moving on and up these stairs...."