Monday, 31 August 2015

Whiskey and preserves

As the Inspector lowered his gun I felt some of the tension go out of my chest, and some of the tension go out of the bar.  When he tried to holster it again, having forgotten to set the safety catch, the gun went off and he was luckier than he had any right to be that he didn't put a hole in his boot and his toes.  Instead he put a hole in the floor, and while he was jumping back afrighted half the bar had pulled their own weapons out and were pointing them at him.  I noticed, with just a little chagrin, that some of them were pointing at me as well.
"Nothing to do with me," I said, lifting my hands slowly, palms open wide.  "You all know I don't carry a gun.  Never have."  And while there might have been a few head shaking there, disbelieving me, most of the folks in there did know me and knew that I disliked guns and that it was more than a fancy. Most of the guns then were swung away and pointed at the Inspector, who was now sitting flat on the ground with a look on his face like a guy that's pissed himself and doesn't want the world to know.  The spreading puddle beneath his britches was giving him away something rotten though.
One gun stayed with me though; I could feel it in the small of my back.  Bobby Kinsome leaned forward and whispered in my ear, "Well Evan, looks like I'm mighty pleased to see you!"  He tittered, and I had to resist the urge to turn my head and spit in his face.  "What say we have a little drink, like you suggested, and why-hi, you can tell me all about these wretched rumours sullying the good name of my family."  His breath smelled sour, like pickle-juice.
"My legs are trembling," I said.  "Who knows what that Inspector is like to do next.  A table and a stiff drink would do me the world of good, Mr. Kinsome, so I'll thank-you heartily for the offer."
"No tricks," whispered Bobby.  "You said it yourself, Evan, this here's a Kinsome bar.  My bar."
"No tricks," I said, and felt the pressure of the gun's muzzle ease up on me.  "Table by the window?  I think it's going to get mighty pungent in this corner shortly."
The guns were mostly put away now, and Darnell had picked the Inspector up by putting his hands under the Inspector's arms and hoisting.  The Inspector turned crimson as his situation was made plainly visible to everyone, and then Rita was pointing out the back and I had a feeling that the Inspector would be ending up in the privies.  Those were vile, to my certain recollection; Rita might manage a decent bar but her idea of housekeeping was mostly that someone else should do it, and that was a view shared by her whole family.
Bobby Kinsome and I sat at a table by the window where the breeze of the afternoon brought in scents of mown hay and pushed other, less savoury ones, away from our table.  Rita appeared and set down jars of jam and chutney and a chipped china plate holding a miserly selection of water biscuits, and Bobby ordered whiskey chasers.  Rita rolled her eyes but said nothing, and Bobby never noticed.
"Why-hi," he said, leaning back in his chair, which creaked and groaned.  "So I'm the Coffin-Robber am I now?  Anyone saying what coffins I'd be robbin', or why I might be stooping so low?"  He tittered again, and I allowed a half-smile to my lips.  It wasn't as bad a joke as usually passed for humour with Bobby.
"The Inspector had the papers," I said.  "Though I've a feeling they might be a trifle damp now.  That man hasn't the brain he went to school with.  They're just saying that you're the Coffin-Robber and wanted Dead or Alive."
"And you thought to be bringing me in dead, Evan?"
I didn't like the way he said my name, and he kept using it like he'd just learned it and wanted to make sure he didn't forget it.
"I thought I might ask you why there are folks out there keen to meet you no matter what state you might be in," I said.  "Seems to me that it's mighty easy to post a bounty on a man, but telling if that man's deserving of it... well, that's another matter."
"I can't tell, why-hi, why it should matter to you though," said Bobby.  He pushed the jars of preserves towards me.  "You're just a bounty-hunter, a dog for the sheriff when he's tired of kicking those dead-beats he calls his men.  Why ain't you just sitting down and belling for back-up like a proper dog would?"
I made him wait while I unscrewed the lid from the pear chutney and spread a little on a water biscuit.  The biscuit was fresh and snapped brittly when I bit into it; I was expecting that Rita would have put out the stale ones.  Maybe she cared more for Bobby than she let on.  I pushed the jar back towards him.
"Heck no!  Never did like all the sugar these things have in them," said Bobby.  "Whiskey'll do me just fine, Evan."
On cue, Rita set down two tumblers of whiskey and looked Bobby dead in the eye.
"There's plenty of family that put the effort in, Bobby," she said.  "You could be one of them."  Then she was gone again, hinking her way through the bar like she thought she was on a catwalk.
"It don't matter to me, Mr. Kinsome," I said at last, while he was sipping his whiskey.  But when I'm telling the stories of my life to my grand-children I'd like to be able to answer their questions."
Bobby put his glass down on the table softly and looked me up and down.
"You're planning on having grand-kids?" he asked.

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Rock me

"We shag," said Rocky, grinning and showing his teeth.  "Blissfully, nakedly, unashamedly on the table in front of everyone."
Tim blinked, his mouth opening involuntarily.  He stared at Rocky, the rest of the room suddenly just white noise and background blur.  The only thing he could see was Rocky's laughing eyes, his sudden, wolfish smile, and his blonde hair.
"What?" said Rocky.  "What did you think I'd say?"
"I... I don't know," said Tim.  The room started coming slowly back into focus and he blinked again.  "Not that."
"Too soon?"  Rocky's grin got wider.
"Yeah, too soon," said Tim.  His own voice sounded odd in his ears when he said that, and his legs seemed to be tingling.  He felt like he was doing something illegal, it reminded him suddenly of standing behind the hedge in the park across the road from his high school, smoking where the teachers might find him and his friends but couldn't do anything to stop them.
Rocky sat back and laughed.  "Too soon," he said.  "Didn't think you'd agree with me.  Want to go upstairs?"
Panic raced through Tim's mind again, and he realised his heart was pounding in his chest.  He forced himself to look round and up, and there was the stairs and the XBox room, and he realised what Rocky had actually meant.  "I don't know if they'll let us," he said, and forced a slightly shaky laugh.  "The bouncers are pretty choosy."
"Me too," said Rocky.  "Let's go.  You any good at any of these games?"
"Well, yeah actually," said Tim.  The room seemed to come back into focus properly all of a sudden and he felt back in territory he knew.  "What do you play?"
Thirty-five minutes later they were sitting, squashed together between four teenagers, on a couch, controllers in hands demolishing the COD map.  Tim glanced sideways for a moment at Rocky, who was staring intently at the screen as his soldier leapt into the water and submerged.  Then he was back, dodging enemy fire and selecting the Razorback to return it.  Another head-shot, and then he was running in another direction, hopefully flanking.  One of the guys on the end cursed and threw his controller down; it bounced on the floor and Tim thought he saw someone else shaking their head out of the corner of his eye.  More gunfire, Rocky's soldier emerging unexpectedly off to his left, and then everyone was setting their controllers down.
"Nice!" said Rocky, his wolfish grin appearing on his face as he looked at Tim.  For a moment his hand rested on Tim's knee and he felt that tingling again.  "You can play!"
"Told you so," said Tim.  He suddenly realised he wanted to talk to Rocky without having the kids around him listening.  "Beertime?"
"Beertime."
"I could go a beer," said the guy on the other side of Tim.  He half-turned his head; the kid looked to be fifteen.
"Have to buy your own then," he said.  "Sit downstairs again?" he said to Rocky.  Rocky nodded and then stood up, leading the way.  As Tim followed he thought he heard, not exactly whispered but not thought important, "Cute couple."
"You're cool," said Rocky as they waited for the pierced waitress to bring their drinks over.  "Wasn't sure when I saw you, just knew I'd rather it was you than the guy in the lumberjack shirt."  They both looked over; that man was slumped over the table now and snoring.  A bottle of Canadian beer was clutched in a fist that was hairy enough to be a paw and there was a thin, shiny trail of drool running down his chin.  "Yeah, definitely glad you're you and not him."
"Yeah, I'm kinda glad I'm not him either," said Tim.  The phone in his pocket chimed and vibrated.  He considered ignoring it, but Rocky was already looking at him curiously.
"It's ten-thirty.  You better be dead" was the text message.
"Girlfriend or wife?" asked Rocky.
"Neither."  Tim had no idea why that was the answer he gave but he knew he wasn't about to admit he wasn't single.
"Wedding ring?"
The beers arrived just then, and the barmaid also looked at his hand, making three of them all looking at a treacherous band of gold around his fourth finger.  She set the bottles down and smiled at Rocky then sneered at Tim.  She stalked off.
"I think she liked you," said Rocky, picking a bottle up.
"Before you pointed out the ring," said Tim.  "That's more of a memory than a ring.  Something that was, not something that is."
"You're still wearing it."
"Yeah.  What was, was important.  Still is, I think."
"Woman?"
Tim sipped his beer and smiled.  The conversation felt weird and he was pretty sure he was going to give answers he'd never have thought would be his.  "You keep asking that.  One way or another."
"And you keep avoiding the question."
There was a silence, they drank their beers, but their eyes were locked.
"I'm really enjoying this evening," said Tim.  "Really.  This isn't what I thought I was getting."
"Kiss me."
Without letting himself think about it, Tim set the bottle down, leaned across the table, and their lips met.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Bobby

"Well," said Rita dropping her hands from her hips.  She tilted her head slightly to one side and raised a foot so that she was on tiptoe.  The culottes she wore concealed it, but she had muscular calves that she showed off most years when she competed in the Miss Rainville pageant.  She was posing like she was onstage already, and I was preparing myself to applaud with the audience.  "Well, seems to be like the man most entitled to that title would be Abraham Kinsome himself.  You'll find him atop the Turgid River Hill."
I let her words hang in the bar for a moment, letting the peanut gallery, the good old boys, work that one out for themselves.  The only thing atop the Turgid River Hill, named for a river that was diverted thirty six years back, is the Rainville Cemetary.
"Why Rita," I said pleasantly, "are you being telling me that you want your grandpappy dug up?"  She frowned, and opened her mouth, so I stepped in quick before she could reply.  "Happen as the Mr. Kinsome I'm looking for has already done that though.  I don't see as how Abe could really have been buried with a family fortune, but I'm betting that anything he was buried with has been checked through a dozen times by now."
"How dare you!"  Her words were as fast as her steps and her arm swept out wide in an arc that caused the Inspector to curse and duck, then came back in for my jaw. I caught her wrist in my hand and held it there, feeling her quiver with the effort of trying to get loose from me.
"Mr. Kinsome has been identified as the Coffin-Robber," I said.  "I have the documentatory evidence if you'll be seeing it."
"You can eat shit," she said.  She leaned forward and tried to spit in my face, but again she'd telegraphed her actions for me and I twisted out of the way.  When I righted myself again I thrust her wrist down to the floor, letting go but putting her off-balance.  She backed off, rubbing her wrist and snarling at me.
"Why-hi, what's the game here then?"  Bobby Kinsome had walked into the bar behind me.
Bobby Kinsome had a weak chin that he blamed his mother for, weak ribs that he blamed his father for, and carefully-groomed facial hair that he claimed was all his own work.  His rich, reddish hair grew over his scalp like clover over a meadow and descended the side of his face into his beard, which traced out the bone-structure of his face.  It made him look leaner and added shadows to the hollows of his cheeks; his eyes, even though they were brown, were intensified by the beard, and the moustache was both elegant and slightly rakish.  It belonged, without a doubt, on the face of a movie star.  It resided, however, on the face of Bobby Kinsome, and there it made do while waiting for its moment to escape.
"They're trying to finger you for the Coffin-Robber, Bobby.  You'd better get on out," said Rita.
"Why-hi!  I've never robbed a coffin in my life," said Bobby.  "And I'll not run from the likes of this man.  Only a ruffian would run in fear from the perpetrators of justice!"
Bobby was probably the only Kinsome to have ever gone to a university, and that was more because he pestered his parents until they agreed to send him.  His teachers petitioned his parents not to, mostly on account of his grades but also because they were worried about being tainted by association.  But Bobby's parents were insistent that Bobby wanted an education and they were sure that they weren't going to stand in his way.
I'm not aware that anyone's ever heard the story of why Bobby wanted to go to that university so much; there are those who say that he had gotten sweet on the boy he paid to do his homework in high school and was following him, and there are those who say that Bobby thought that university was just one long keg party, but I have my doubts about either.  Bobby Kinsome is far too self-centred to have gotten sweet on anyone, be they man, woman or goat, and while he might think that a year-long keg party would a thing, he had that back here in Rainville already.  Bobby came back after eight months, having tried out fifteen majors and abandoned them all, with no indication of what he'd been after in the first place, and fragments of an education that did no more than show up how little of it he'd really understood.  Hence the perpetrators of justice.
"I'll cover him!" said the Inspector sounding all excited.  He was fumbling at his waist for something, and I gradually realised that he was actually carrying a pistol with him.  I backed off immediately, for a man who doesn't understand a gun is a danger to everyone, but most especially himself.  The bar backed off with me, giving the Inspector space.  "Why aren't you arresting him?"
"Because this here's a Kinsome bar," I said slowly.  "Put the gun down, hey, Inspector?  You don't look like you've ever learned to use that thing."
"What matter that it's a bar?"
"No, Inspector, the problem is that this is a Kinsome bar.  Rita over there was born a Kinsome, and the guys on the door who're wearing the knuckle dusters and waiting for you to turn your back on them, they're Kinsome cousins, Jack and Darnell.  The guy serving behind the bar, well that's Oliver Kinsome, and somewhere out back will be his father and uncle, James and Anthony. You try arresting Bobby in here and you're not an officer of the law?  You'll be flying out that door so fast you'll land on the ground last Wednesday."
"Why-hi, the man's a prick but he has a point!"  Clearly Bobby thought that was wit as he sniggered in the silence.
"So put the gun away," I said.  "I came here to talk to Bobby and find out why people might be spreading such muck and dirt around about him.  Not to see him shot.  By an Inspector."


Monday, 24 August 2015

Kinsome

The Kinsome homestead used to be by the bend in the river, and it was a three-story house with wooden walls sitting on a brick foundation.  The walls were whitewashed up to about headheight, and after that the original paint peeled and drifted away until the bare wood beneath showed through and the woodworm and the beetles went after it.  For a while they continued to use the attic, but then Agnes Kinsome, some forty years ago now, was upstairs in her claw-foot, cast-iron bath when a breezy summer morning blew all the wood away and revealed her to anyone looking up.  There was a mighty sighing and there was very nearly a law passed after that that said that women had to wear bathclothes before getting washed.
But that's just the original homestead, and though a majority of the Kinsome clan were raised there, many of them spread out and around and didn't drift too far from the homestead or the orchards where they raised their trees, grew their fruit and made their jams, preserves and chutneys.  If'n you wander yourself into the 7-11 on Main even today you can find a shelf of Kinsome preserves, and the fruit in the baskets that isn't imported all comes from those orchards.  So there's a right little estate of Kinsome houses all dotted around the homestead, and one or two a bit further out when there'd been a falling out, or a need to put someone where they couldn't be rightly seen too much.  Maybe just at church on Sundays and invited along to weddings and funerals so that they couldn't be turning up unannounced and uninvited.
I was sat in the lounge bar of the sports bar, a fairly modern place by the standards of Rainville.  There was a tv up in the corner, a sixties black-and-white number with the rabbit ear antenna that Rita Davies, the barmaid, would twist and turn this way and that whenever the wind came in from the South-east or the north-west, or sometimes the south-west or the due-east.  She suffered with that set, but the good old boys always wanted it on and they always wanted the game on, for all they wouldn't tell her what the game was.  She'd stand there, hands on her hips, chest heaving and her face all reddened, demanding to know if it was the football, the basketball, the baseball or the hockeyball that they all wanted and they'd laugh and cackle and spit in the sawdust on the floor and bang their glasses on the wooden bar and she'd holler some more.
Pretty much what they all wanted was the beach volleyball but there wasn't a man-jack among them were going to tell her that.
"Evan?"  That rat-blasted inspector was still tagging along after me.  I'd taken him for a ride on the motorbike, no helmet, no jacket, just the metal and the rubber and the asphalt dangerously close to his face.  I'd felt his death-grip on my ribs, and I reckoned the bruises would still be there in a week; it's a good job I'm not seeing anyone presently or there'd be a reckoning over that.  I could smell the piss on him too, but I'd been intending to get that out of him.  But he was still holding on, still hanging on in there, assessing me on things I've got no idea about.  And now he was talking to me in the sports-bar.  "Evan?  Are we... are you... are we drinking before we go looking for Mr. Kinsome?"  His hand dipped into his coat pocket and I was sure he was going to pull out his little assessment book and start writing me up in there.  But instead he comes out with this linen square like what you use for keeping the sun off of your head in the summer, and blows his nose on it.  I tried to hide my disgust; I don't know that I'm much good at it.
"I ain't drinkin'," I said, trying to keep a civil tongue in my head.  There was a couple of the good old boys turned their heads when I spoke, and I glared at them till they turned them heads right back again.  "You can, makes no bones to me.  I'd advise against it though, if you're serious about seeing what the job's like.  Things can happen fast."
"Well jes' like that.  If you isn't a one for drinking, Evan, what're y'all doing in my bar?"  And there was Rita, her wig on backwards if I wasn't mistaken, standing behind the bar in the doorway that led up to her boudoir.  And I've never been up there, and I never want to.  There are some places that just aren't safe for a man to go by himself.
"I'm looking for a man," I said.  "Goes by the name of Mr. Kinsome, as I hear tell."
"As you hear tell," she mimicked, rouged lips moving sensually.  "Well at the last count there were thirty-four as went by the name of Mr. Kinsome, and then there's another thirteen who laying claim to that with no rights as any judge would accord."
"So point me at the first one," I said, allowing myself a smile.  The inspector's face was falling fast.  "And I'll work my way through until I find the one I'm after."

Sunday, 23 August 2015

Bounty Hunter

I'm sat out back when he comes round; white collar on his shirt and nicely pressed cuffs.  Hands that look like they know what a manicure is.  There's a smell about him too, takes me a minute or so to realise that it's cologne.
"Evan?"
I grunt and point towards the outhouse.  It's a wooden structure, two stories and you don't want to be pissing downstairs when it's busy and everyone else is pissing upstairs.  The man shakes his head and there's a fine sprinkle of dandruff comes off him and floats around him for a moment like a dandelion clock exploding in September.  I shrug, spit at a beetle that's pushing some ball of dirt along and hit it.  Not sure it likes it.
"Evan."  Ah, there's no question now.  Someone knew who he was looking at all along and thought he'd be clever about it.  I point at the outhouse again like there's a devil sitting on my shoulder, egging me along.
"Right," says the man.  His voice is rougher than I was expecting from someone who takes such good care of hisself.  "So I go and check out that edifice and when I come back you're gone and no-one knows where, right?"
Edifice?  Last time I heard that word was in a saloon bar where two old ladies decided to sit and play scrabble while their grand-daughters led the burlesque show.  That was quite a sight, and it was a damn shame I was there to collect a bounty on one of the bar-staff.  When he saw me he took down a bottle of good sipping whisky and threw it at my head.  Missed by a barn-door, but it clonked one of the grannies good and hard; knocked her false teeth out of her mouth and across the board.  While I was drawing and getting a clear shot, the burlesque girls had left the stage and stormed the bar; I ended up having to pull him free but I was a bit on the late side; one of the girls had got her thighs around his neck and strangulated him.  He looked happier than he would have done if I'd got to him first, but it was another of those dead rather than alive bounties.  Folks tend to pay less if they don't get to inflict their own brand of justice.
"You're Evan the bounty hunter.  You brought in the body of Dougal "Four shots" McInney, the body of Singapore Sally, and...," he pauses for a moment, his eyes looking up at the sky.  I could tell him there's nothing up there, not even a turkey vulture today.  Might be a cloud in that bright blue if you're hunting hard though.  "... and the face of Georgia Oates."
Hah, yes,  Georgia Oates.  Sweet girl by all accounts, bit on the heavy side but could still make a leg on the dance floor and popular afterwards too, from what I heard.  Took herself off with a lad from Nags Hill way and her family couldn't quite handle the idea.  So they took out a bounty on her, but as it was told afterwards, they couldn't manage the alphabet between them and didn't understand that it read Dead or Alive.  That's not the way I got it, and I spend time talking to both of her brothers, but it's sure the way they told it later.  She wasn't hard to find, wasn't hiding, just living her life with the guy of her choosing and his sister.  So I turned up and explained to them what needed to happen for everyone to go on being happy and we were mostly sorted out and organised to go when her father-in-law turns up and turns out to be Jeddy Teems, a man who's never let his gun out of his hand.  Then there's shouting and there's arguing and hollering, and despite it all being sorted and easy already Jeddy's having none of it.  And then it all went a bit messy.
So... since no-one was paying me for Jeddy Teems, even though by all rights I should have picking up six or seven bounties for that one, we sat down together with a sheep-knife, some lipstick and a needle and thread and I went back with the face of Georgia Oates.  And if there's a girl out there, bit on the heavy side, who looks a lot like her still, then I guess that must be one of them doppelgoers you hear tell about.
I point at the outhouse again.  I doubt it's going to work but sometimes with these clever ones if you act dumb enough it gets to be catching.  He shakes his head.
"There's a new bounty out," he says.  "They've got a name for the Coffin-robber.  Robert Kinsome."
Bobby Kinsome, huh?  I figured he was up to something, but bodysnatching seems low even for him. And he'd sell his mother and his grandmother to the brothel in exchange for a room there for the night and not complain when the management puts his mother and his grandmother in his bed.
"You going after him?"
I nod, there's not much point denying it.  Everyone knows that I pick up the bad bounties.
"That's great," says the man.  "I'll be coming with you."
I don't say nothing, but I can feel my eyes widen in surprise.  Before I react any further he's talking again, and I'm starting to get pissed off.
"Don't bother, Evan.  I know what you're thinking, I know what you're going to say.  But that bit of paper you got, the one that says you're a bounty hunter?  That's got an expiration date on it.  And that date is just seven days away.  You need it renewed, Evan, and that means you've got to convince me that you can do the job."
"Inspector?" my voice always surprises them, it's almost high enough to be a woman's.  Guess it never broke from when I was a kid.
"That's right Evan.  Of the last twenty bounties you've run you've brought in every one of them dead. We're assessing you to make sure that you're not just taking the easy option."
Easy option?  Singapore Sally with her bodyguard disguised as a nursemaid and her poison-dipped shuriken and a line in arson that'd make a pyromaniac look like a kindergartener was the easy option?
"So, you and me, Evan.  Bringing in Robert Kinsome."
Well now, that could be fun.  I wonder if I'd get re-licensed if I bring Bobby in alive and the Inspector in dead?

Friday, 21 August 2015

Teacup

"I'd like to buy a baby, please."  Alice was power-dressed, pinstripe suit in midnight blue with shoulder-pads wide enough to launch radio-controlled aircraft from.  Her lipstick was frosty-cherry and her lips glittered slightly in the subdued, brassed lighting of the Babybank's reception.  Next to her, Geoff was all cufflinks, starched white shirt and designer stubble.
"Right," said the receptionist, feeling as though she'd time-warped back to the early nineties.  "Well, we can certainly help you with the child of your choice.  Do you have an appointment or would you like to make one?"
"I'm seeing Dr. Sierra," said Alice.  Her teeth had been whitened, as they were glowing faintly thanks to the extra ultra-violet in the Babybank's spotlights.  "Now."
There was a gentle clicking as the receptionist checked the time and the appointment calendar, and then smiled.  "Yes, I see your appointment."  She pressed a button from a bank set into her desk, and a moment later inclined her head slightly to listen to what was being said in an earpiece.  "Please, go on through."  She indicated a door with a wave of her hand.
Alice stalked over, high-heels clicking menacingly on the polished tile floor, and Geoff walked behind her like a bodyguard.  When they'd closed the door to the consulting room the receptionist breathed a soft sigh of relief and checked her drawers for chocolate.
*
"Alice and Geoff?"  Dr. Sierra was in her sixties and wore a knitted shawl around her shoulders.  She was short and had a grandmotherly face that wasn't quite wrinkled, but only because of careful, thoughtful plastic surgery.  Her eyes were the green of old jade, flecked faintly with yellow.
"Yes, we established that last time," said Alice.  Geoff nodded behind her, looked around the room and sat down on a leather chair.  It squeaked, and he pulled sunglasses from his inside pocket and put them on.  "We have decided.  We wish to buy a baby."
Dr. Sierra smiled.  "Well, as we also discussed last time," she said, her voice just a little steely, "it's more normal to have the baby yourself and avail yourself of our advanced screening and enhancement techniques to ensure favourable characteristics for the child."
"Our gym membership, combined, costs 2% of my take-home salary," said Alice.  "Fabrice, my personal trainer, would actually have a heart-attack if I told him I was getting pregnant.  He's advised forty-seven of his clients to miscarry, and they've all done as he said.  I'm not paying for a miscarriage."
"Fabrice is my personal trainer too," said Geoff.  "He'd put me in tight thermal underwear and prescribe metabolism boosters if I told him we were trying to get pregnant."
Dr. Sierra's smile faded away like snow in sunlight.  "Have you considered that a different personal training, ah, regimen, might be a good idea if you want a child?"  The looks she received were eloquently dismissive.  "I see."
"So surrogate would seem the better approach," said Geoff.  "We got maids, so we'll just pick on them to carry the child to term.  There are a couple that are built like drayhorses, should be fine there I 'd think."
"Yes," said Alice.  "I think one of them last year had two children while she was cleaning the pool, so they're definitely familiar with it all."
"That sounds... unsanitary," said Dr. Sierra, her gentle smile hiding the horror in her thoughts.  "I wonder if you've really considered all your options though?"
"Pregnancy is not an option," said Alice.  "My skin is not being stretched beyond repair like that."
"We have a second brochure," said Dr. Sierra, her smile not wavering.  "There are techniques – well established, there's a long history there – that might suit you better.  The child might be... well, it might accessorise better for you."
Alice and Geoff looked at each other, and their eyelids flickered.  Dr. Sierra didn't pretend to understand, but she got the brochure out and set it in front of Alice.
"Teacup children?" said Alice.  She picked it up.
"Roughly one-tenth normal size," said Dr. Sierra.  "Pregnancy would be effectively invisible, and there'd be no stretching.  Birth would be... well, probably not much harder that doing thirty sit-ups.  The child is easy to put through X-ray machines at airports, fits into most airline carry-on luggage, is thirty-percent quieter than a full-size child and can be expected to be up to 60% more docile.  They tend to be in the first quartile intellectually, and they have about 18% of the food-costs of a larger specimen.  Doctor's bills are usually higher in the first three years, but this is balanced out by being substantially less thereafter."
"Sounds. Interesting." said Alice, her words being forgotten as she started perusing the brochure.  After a moment Geoff leaned forward and starting looking at the brochure too.  "Why didn't you tell us about this earlier?"
"The cost is higher," said Dr. Sierra.  In the privacy of her own mind she thought the ethical considerations would make this a non-option for most people.
"Cost is not an option," said Alice.  "This seems much more suitable."
"Yes," said Geoff.  "Much more."

Monday, 17 August 2015

Rocky

The Roadhouse was on two floors; the ground floor was wooden walls covered in rock-band memorabilia, wooden floors covered in sawdust (you just avoided the bits where it was clumping early in the evening, and tried to avoid it altogether later on) and a collection of tables and chairs that the owner was said to hand-craft.  Upstairs, and the single flight of sheet-metal stairs attached to a steel balustrade was guarded by two bouncers with smiles that weren't pleased to see anyone, there were leather sofas, plouffes, a quieter bar staffed by more gentle barfolk and three dozen Playstations and XBoxes.  The music upstairs was harder and more driving, to go with the games people played, and the music downstairs came from a jukebox that looked like it might be an original from the 1950s.
Tim walked in and looked around.  Two of the tables were occupied, though one of them had a couple of girls in enough clothing to look indecent and little else.  They were both also so close to being underage that he looked away again almost reflexively.  The other table had a guy in a lumberjack's check shirt nursing a beer; he looked like a regular and looked like he planned to spend the evening there.  Tim took a table by the side of the stairs.  He nodded at the bouncers, who looked straight through him and made him feel at home.
He thought about going upstairs for a few minutes; he spent plenty of evenings in the living playing Call Of Duty with his microwave meals for one going cold on the floor beside him while the occasional noise from upstairs reminded him that his wife was home and was sure he could handle himself even amongst the college kids who spent pretty much the whole day up there, but then he decided that Rocky probably wasn't going to be looking upstairs for their date.
The waitress sashayed over, her shirt tied up to show off a pierced bellybutton and when she took his order her tongue flipped briefly over her lips revealing another piercing.  Tim wondered if he looked like the kind of guy to her who tipped better if he thought she was flirting.  She was back with his beer in a minute and a half, and dropped a packet of pork scratchings down on the table that he hadn't asked for.
"On the house," she said breathily, and he added another five to the tip to cover the cost.  He didn't think she'd even been subtle.
Half an hour later he had a chicken pie in gravy on a plate in front of him, his fork held poised in one hand while he waited it to cool down from mouth-scalding to a more managable temperature.  The two girls had gotten up and latched on to a couple of bearded biker types that were leaning against the bar, and Tim was wondering what they were hoping to be getting into.  The barmaid with the piercings was pulling the dark-blue covers off the pool tables on the other side of the bar, and a couple of guys, one in a suit and the other in grey flannel joggers, were tossing a coin to see who'd break.  Suit won, but his break was appalling, and flannel joggers sank four on his first turn at the table.  Tim took a tentative bite of his pie, and chewed it fast, trying to avoid it touching his tongue or the inside of his mouth, and swallowed.  Still too hot.
By the time it reached 8:30 he was on his third beer and feeling very slightly buzzed.  There'd been a text message twenty minutes earlier that just read "Are you dead?" and seemed kind of hopeful when he'd read it.  "Home by ten" he'd replied, and the phone had been silent since.
He pulled it out again to check it, though it was set to both ring and vibrate if there were any messages; sure enough it was quiet, waiting for something to happen.  He put it away in his trouser pocket, and suddenly realised that there was someone at his table.
"Uh?" he said.  Across from him was a young man, short blonde hair, unnecessary sunglasses, snub nose and chewing gum.  He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt, a plain blue colour that might have been office wear in a casual environment.  The shirt was open to the third button, but the chest was smooth and unmarred.
"Hi," said the guy.  He stuck a hand out and Tim looked at it.  "Shake?"
"Uh.  Yeah," said Tim.  He put his hand out and they shook, Tim wondering if he looked as much like a performing dog as he felt.  "Uh.  Do I know you?"
"Not yet," said the man.  He smiled, and Tim noticed that one of his canines was slightly crooked.  Somehow that was endearing, as though being perfect would have been too much.  "I guess it kind of depends on if you want to."
"I'm sort of waiting for someone," said Tim.  It was the truth, he could hear in the back of his mind, even if it was a slightly distorted truth, and even if he had no intention of talking to the person he was waiting for.
"Yes," said the man.  He pulled a napkin from a dispenser on the table, took the chewing gum out of his mouth and wrapped it up.  Tim sat back in his chair, oddly apprehensive about what this could me.  "For Rocky, right?"
"Uh," said Tim.  He mentally shook himself, he had to stop sounding stupid.  "I mean, why do you say that?"
The man laughed.  "I'm Rocky," he said.  "I placed the ad, I got your response.  You're waiting for me."
"...maybe."  Tim's voice was small, but there was a tingle of excitement down in the pit of his stomach.  "I don't get why you think I answered your ad though."
"Well, you just admitted it for one thing," said Rocky.  "But mostly because I know almost everyone in here most evenings, so it was you or that guy over there."  He pointed, and Tim glanced past and saw the lumberjack-shirted guy.  "I was hoping it was you."
"So what do we do now?" asked Tim.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

ASAP Rocky

The free newspaper had been left on Tim's desk so when he got in he picked it up intending to put it in the bin.  Wesley never threw anything in the bin, and Tim frequently had to put newspapers, empty paper cups, used tissues (sometimes wet and slimy) and crumb-scattered plastic doughnut-trays in the bin, all the while cursing under his breath.  He'd raised the issue with Maria, their joint manager, a few times, but though she'd said she'd do something about it nothing ever happened.  He'd considered leaving things on the desk for Wesley to have to clear up, but invariably he looked at the mess and his fingertips would itch and the skin on the back of his neck would crawl, and he'd have to clean up before he could leave it.
He glanced at the front-page as he walked to the bin, wondering what Wesley found in it that made it worth bringing it into the office.  At the bin he paused, leafing through it, looking at pages that seemed to be two-thirds photographs and one-third easy words.  The Greek crisis warranted maybe two and a half column inches, which was a quarter that allocated to a description of seeing a boy-band in a fast-food restaurant at the weekend.  Even the sport section seemed abbreviated, and he looked at a report of a football match three times before concluding that they really had forgotten to write down what the final score was.
Just before he threw it away his eye was caught by what looked like a block of small ads, the kind where people offered battered cars or used baby-buggies for sale.  He scanned them: they all seemed to be singles looking for dates.  The one at the bottom of the left-hand column was as terse as they came: ASAP Rocky.
He dropped the paper in the bin, sat back down at his desk, and sighed when he realised that Wesley had been eating something sticky and half the keys on the keyboard had little sticky ovals on them.
Two hours later he pulled the free newspaper out of the bin, smoothed it down until the creasing didn't bother him too much and opened it to the list of lonely heart ads again.  Reading them more carefully he realised that they were more of a missed connections type thing: people thanking others for picking up their overpacked suitcases on the underground and helping them navigate the stairs and corridors, or admitting to having stared at some poor soul until they got off the train in embarassment and now seeking meet them and make things worse.  He re-read the bottom left corner again; nothing more than ASAP Rocky and an identifier, something to allow you to specify that you were responding to the ad.  He sighed and put the newspaper back in the bin.
Twenty minutes later it was back on his desk again, and his stomach was trembling with the feeling of butterflies.  He found scissors in the desk-drawer, the one he locked and took the key home with him to stop Wesley from being able to get in there, and cut the advert out.  Then he put the newspaper back in the bin, for the last time, with a sense of relief.
Seven minutes before it was time to go home he logged onto the free newspapers website and entered the identifier for the advert.  The screen provided him with a comment box and a submission button and asked for an email address so that replies could reach him.  His hand moved the mouse to the close-window button, but he still couldn't quite make himself do it.  The butterflies were back, and his knees were feeling shaky even though he was sitting down.  It was all ridiculous, and childish, and.... Well it was, but it was a kind of fun too.
Where, and when? he typed into the box.  He put his Hotmail email address in there, one he'd not used in ten years, and clicked Submit.
Then he stuffed his fist in his mouth, appalled and amazed at what he'd just done, and tried not to giggle around it.
"Are you all right?"  Maria was stood in the doorway, her coat on, clearly about to leave.
"Yeah," said Tim, removing his fist from his mouth first.  "Heartburn."
"Right," said Maria, already turned away from him and opening the door.
*
He picked up a copy of the free newspaper on his way into work the next morning, telling himself that nothing would be in there, that his little joke wouldn't even make it on to the pages.  And he was right, there were twenty-eight desperate declarations that a fleeting glance of a stranger had been enough to stimulate love at first sight, but no sign of his reply or anything else that might have been a reply.
When he remembered to check his Hotmail account at lunchtime though, things were different.  There was a reply from the missed connections service.  The Roadhouse, 8:30pm Rocky
His breath caught in his chest and for a moment he thought he'd forgotten how to breath.  Then he coughed, spitting on the screen, and despite the coughs racking him he had to get up and get a tissue and wipe it all clean again.
"Are you alright?" asked Maria, sounding concerned, but she'd walked back into her office before he could answer.
He knew the Roadhouse, it was a pub above a club about fifteen minutes away from the office.  He'd gone there when he was a student, before he'd met Clara who'd become his wife and was now a distant present in the house who left the occasional note and kept her bedroom door locked.  It wouldn't be hard to go there, they served food so he could get there after work and have something to eat, something to drink, maybe watch the match on the television.  Someone would be playing tonight, and then he could watch and see who came in for Rocky.
He paused, and then checked the email.  Actually, it might be a Rocky that would be coming in.  Rocky was a boxer's name.  He felt a frisson down his back; was he about to get himself beaten up for a silly joke?
He leant back in the chair, and then leant forward again and found the scrap of newspaper in the lockable drawer.  No, even there it wasn't clear if Rocky had placed the ad or if the ad was for Rocky. But did it matter?  Rocky, or whoever it was, couldn't know that Tim had replied, or that Tim was in there watching.  And what if Rocky turned out to be a woman, stunningly beautiful and in need of a guy like Tim?
He laughed at himself for a moment, but the idea lingered.  Twenty minutes later he'd made up his mind: he was going to the Roadhouse.

Saturday, 15 August 2015

Babybank

The receptionist wore a monocle and Peggy-Sue, who was nervous enough when she came in, was visibly trembling as she went to sit down.  Toby put his arm on her shoulders to reassure her, his hand looking like a paw in the subdued lighting of the waiting room with the thick, dark hair casting shadows that make it seem denser than ever.  He pulled a chair next to hers, dragging it across the Italian-tiled floor with a dull screech that got a reproving look from the receptionist.  He ignored it, and got the chair there anyway, and tried to comfort her.
"She's judging us," whispered Peggy-Sue, turning her head so she could hide her face against his shoulder.  The thick muscles there shifted slightly to let her nestle in.  "They're never going to let us do this."
"We've got their money," said Toby quietly, but he wasn't sure either and she could hear in it his voice.  He might be able to order the ranch-hands around with the assurity that came from knowing he could wrestle any two of them to the ground and pin them, but here it was a different world.  A more sterile world, where people in white coats with letters after their name looked at you over steel-framed glasses and judged you.
Something pinged quietly on the receptionist's desk and she consulted a screen in front of her.
"You may go in now," she said, her voice barely audible even in the silence.  "Go through the door on the left and you're in room 103."
Toby nodded and he and Peggy-Sue stood up.  "Better than room 101, hey?" she said, laughing nervously.
"Is it?" he said, and she realised that he didn't know the reference.
"Yes babe," she said.  "Yes, it definitely is."
Room 103 was panelled in a soft-brown wood that Peggy-Sue didn't recognise but had a warm glow under the ceiling spotlights.  A large, leather swivel-chair was on one side of an empty desk, and there were slightly smaller but still leather-upholstered chairs on the other side.  Away from the desk was a low glass coffee-table and a small couch.  They sat on the couch, their knees pressing against each other, wondering who they would be meeting.
"Good afternoon!" said a breezy voice as the door opened and a grandmotherly woman came in.  She had large pink glasses on that extended out from the side of her head; they must have made it look like the whole world was just a laboratory cage to her that she was peering in.  She had a knitted shawl around her shoulders, a plaid skirt and sensible shoes and not a white coat in sight.  In one hand she had a slim brochure.  "Oh, you're sitting over there!  Let me just...."
She grabbed one of the leather visitor's chairs and started to drag it over to the table, so Toby jumped right up to help her.  The chair moved easily with both of them pulling it, and then she was sat around the coffee table with them.  She set the brochure down on the table.
"I've read the brochure," said Peggy-Sue.  She pronounced it "Brooch-er".  "I know – that is, we know what we want."
"And that is?"  The woman's eyes were twinkling.
"The model 812," said Peggy-Sue.
"Now that's unusual," said the woman.  She leant back in her chair, the leather squeaking and flubbering beneath her.  She grinned.  "It sounds so rude," she said.  "I just love it.  Anyway, that's an unusual choice, almost everyone in here asks for the Supermodel, 104.  Pretty much 90% of people come in wanting that."
"Not much point going for beauty," said Toby.  He sounded slightly hesitant.  "I mean, you're working with our genes, right?  Not putting other people's in?"  There was a note of pleading in there now.
"Absolutely," said the woman.  "But you shouldn't think that because you don't think you're supermodels that you haven't got that genetic potential.  There's beauty in all of us, but we express it in different ways."
"Well, she'll be growing up on a ranch," said Peggy-Sue.  "Beauty ain't a great thing there, better to be homely and strong enough to make No mean No."
"I see."
Peggy-Sue and Toby looked at each other, and then back at the woman.
"So... can we have it?" asked Peggy-Sue.  Her eyes were wide, and her mouth had fallen very slightly open.
"I have a couple more questions," said the woman.  "But yes, if you can afford it then you can have it.  We only ask these questions to try and help you be sure that you're making the right decision.  It's not like you can return the baby after it's born and ask for a refund."
Nervous laughter from everyone.
"So, why model 812 though?  Even allowing for what you've said, that's the strongest model we offer."
Toby looked at Peggy-Sue and their hands found each other.  They clutched for a moment, and then Peggy-Sue nodded.
"Well," said Toby quietly, "and I hope this is covered by the patient-client confidentiality clause...?"  The woman nodded.  "There are concerns that we work with that are part of the space exploration program."
He left the words hanging.  The woman picked the brochure up and flicked through the pages until she came to model 812.  Her eyes scanned down the details again, and she slowly smiled.
"That's definitely forward planning," she said.  "And I'm glad you told me.  There are a couple of additions we could make that might suit you."
"You mean...?" said Peggy-Sue, barely able to get the words out.
"Yes," said the woman.  "The Babybank will be accepting your application."

Friday, 14 August 2015

Flattened

"There's been an accident," said the Blonde poking her head around the door.  I was contemplating dressing so I was in my Burberry dressing gown (a Christmas gift from our slightly bewildered next-door neighbour) and my argyll socks.  "And you might be wearing it."
"Ha very ha," I said, having heard that "Lol" had fallen out of fashion to the extent that only 2% of the population now used it.  I suspected that most of that 2% worked in our advertising department, based on a sample of emails that had inexplicably escaped my spam filter.  I also wondered how language mavens came up with such figures, for surely they couldn't be out on the streets with their notebooks and tablets, shoving dictaphones under people's noses and demanding that they explain how they express themselves.  Though I confess to thinking that it might be quite endearing to have a walrus-moustachioed duffer glaring at me through through his monocle and asking questions like "And do you normally decline that adjective when conversing with your chums?".  And then to realising that I was just bringing back slightly repressed memories of my Latin lessons and Mr. Throbdust.
"Yes, well," said the Blonde.  She had that look in her eye that suggested that if I didn't get a move on she'd be picking my clothes out for me, so I picked a shirt at random from the wardrobe. It was frilly down the front so I put it back and picked up the polo shirt next to it.  "A steamroller seems to have gotten away from its driver and rolled over a bicycle and someone's bag of cricket kit."
"Was anyone hurt?"
"I hope so," said the Blonde. She doesn't like London's feral cyclists.
I put on some dark trousers and considered the shoe rack.  I have exactly two pairs of shoes: work shoes and wedding shoes.  I put the work shoes on.
"Where are we going for tea then?" she asked.  "I might need to change."
"Der ebene Tafel," I said, trying to get the right harshness and clippedness into the sounds.  "The name's German apparently, but the food is modern European."
"...does that mean cabbage?"  The Blonde can put enough suspicion into a single question to make interrogation experts look like pussies.
"Only if you're lucky," I said with a half-smile.
*
Der ebene Tafel has a nice bar upstairs of the restaurant where we bought a moderately priced glass of prosecco and an outrageously priced glass of craft beer and sat on stools that looked like they'd been salvaged from a council-run leisure centre cafeteria and looked at other couples sitting around drinking and waiting to be seated.  The restaurant itself had looked moderately busy, which was impressive given that they'd been open three months already and I'd expected the buzz around them to have died down a little.  The walls were hung with art from Geraldinium Holmes's latest exhibition which I utterly failed to recognise but had the Blonde making little gasps of admiration and pointing things out to me.  Eventually I asked her why everyone in the pictures looked as though they were starving.
"Oh, that was the theme of the exhibition," said the Blonde.  "She called it Maigre, obviously, and the pictures are all inspired by hunger-strikers.  She allegedly starved one live model for thirteen days to get the right shadows on the ribs."
"She sounds delightful," I said, looking away from the pictures.
"She's wanted in eight countries for suspected human right abuses," said the Blonde.  "It's significantly increased her market worth."
Thankfully the waiter came and seated us downstairs in the restaurant before I could have more details pointed out in the pictures.
The restaurant d├ęcor was disappointing: the shag-pile carpet might have been intended to shock but it just looked like a hygiene nightmare; the tables were octagonal and looked like Claes Olaf rip-offs, and the the cutlery, though interesting shaped, seemed impratical (while the industrial aesthetic makes a change, a fork with only one tine is really just a very thin-bladed knife, and the knife with parallel blades seemed useless unless you were trying to snort coke off your plate).  The Blonde picked up the spoon, which possessed two convex sides and rapped it on the table.  It broke, and our waiter replaced it with ill grace.  Then he presented us with menus.
I ordered the multi-hued beetroot salad for starters and the Blonde opted for sauced clams.  When the plates arrived, I found myself frowning.
"I could put this in an envelope and post it to myself," I said.  The beetroots were sliced paper thin, as was everything else on the plate, including the leaves and herbs.  The whole thing was flatter than the soles of my shoes.  I looked at the Blonde's plate and it too was disturbingly flat.  I understood the point of the fork now; the only way to get the flesh out of the shells of the clams was to slide a very thin blade in there and scrape.  Each shell was barely 2mm thick and probably 15cm long.
"It's very... hard work," she said, with a sigh.
The mains were similar: my steak covered my entire plate twice over but was as thin as the beetroot slices.  I couldn't tell you how it was cooked, and I'm only sure it was because it was the wrong colour for tartare.  There was a sensation of beef, but barely that.  The Blonde ordered the spatchcocked chicken and that came out nearly eight times the size of mine.  It was neatly folded on the plate like an accordian and could probably have been worn by Lady Gaga to a Premier in Leicester Square.
"How flat are the desserts?" I asked the waiter as he passed by.
"Don't order the Napoleon," he said with a ghost of a smile.
"This has been interesting," said the Blonde.  "Perhaps we could go somewhere where there's actual food next?"
I nodded my agreement, realising that I'd managed to confuse my napkin with my beef, but that the napkin seemed to have had more texture to it.

Wednesday, 12 August 2015

Fengill harvest

There was a smell like burning tin in the air, and the harvesters hastened their work.  The smell meant that rain was coming and fengill would only grow in marshy ground.  Wet mud already sucked at the beige calf-high boots they wore; when the rain started to hammer down like it had a vendetta against the ground the mud would liquify quickly and become a quicksand-like morass.  The fengill was grown in long rows between birindi trees, parasitic plants whose long branches swept down close the ground and snared small predators with long, trip-wire vines.  Once caught the vines secreted a paralysing, flesh-dissolving toxin known as Birindi-tears and consumed its prey.  The harvesters stepped with practised speed and care amongst the vines and over the branches, hauling the spongy, brain-shaped herb from the ground in leather-gloved hands.
Fengill was toxic unless cooked in one of several ways, some of which had the attraction (or terror, depending on your taste for adventure) of leaving some of the toxic still active.  Fengill soup could be bland but satisfying, especially when served with poached eggs and rye bread, or it could be a hazy memory of shifting colours and sensations and a inability to distinguish between yourself, the food, and the furniture.  Unsurprisingly the less cooked it was the higher the price commanded.
"Eight minutes!" called the foreman, indistinguishable from the other harvesters.  Tremayne tilted his head back so that he could see the sky through the slits in the beige face-mask and squinted a little.  The slits were ragged and misaligned and trying to focus through them gave him a headache.
"Six, I'd say," he said in a low voice.  Two rows away, just close enough to hear, Herbrecht looked up as well, and then nodded.  The face-masks came to a hooded peak above the harvesters' heads and when he nodded it was like a unicorn dipping its head ready to charge.
"Foreman's an optimist," he said.  His voice was deep and throaty.  Tremayne leaned down, shifting his weight slightly to sway his body away from a branch as the wind caught it, and lifted another fengill from the ground.  There was a slight resistance as he picked it up, but it pulled away easily enough leaving a short trail of root behind it.  That root would work its way back into the ground and grow a new plant over the course of four weeks, by which time they'd be harvesting over in Hegaton's March.
"He's new," he said, his voice flat.  They both knew the foreman was new and they'd both seen evidence already that he wasn't ready to be foreman.  Three harvesters were in their beds fighting off the effects of fengill poisoning and the foreman wasn't even admitting to carelessness or breach of duty.  "Damn.  He's coming this way."
Herbrecht didn't turn his head, but his body language suggested that he was aware of this too.
"You two!"  The foreman's voice was reedy and young.  "Hey, you two!"
"Still hasn't learned any names," said Tremayne.  The foreman still wasn't close enough to hear them. They both continued harvesting, ignoring him.
"Hey! Hey! I said YOU TWO!"
Herbrecht raised his head finally and his eyes met the foreman's despite the protective hoods and masks.  The foreman paused.  "We have names," said Herbrecht.  "We even respond to them."
"Like I care.  You two need to stay out here and get purple fengill.  This is just a shower that's coming, you'll be fine if you stay watchful."
Fengill turned purple in the rain as the plant pumped extra toxin into its lobes, ready for the parasitic worms that the rain would bring to the surface of the soil.
"No sir," said Herbrecht.  Tremayne stood full upright then, waiting for the next words.  The foreman ignored him, missing that Tremayne stood at least a metre taller than him.
"You don't get to say no!"  The foreman's finger stabbed out, pointing, jutting, at Herbrecht.  "You do as I saw or I'll report you to the Officer.  You'll enjoy yourself harvesting without the protective clothes, will you?"
"That smell," said Tremayne.  "That's not a shower.  That's a storm."
The foreman didn't look at him, still staring and pointing at Herbrecht.  "Shut up.  What would you know, useless lickspittle.  You're not foreman here, I am.  Remember that."
"If you apologise now, he will forgive you," said Herbrecht.
"What?"
Finally the foreman looked over at Tremayne, and his arm and hand sank slowly down to his side.
"Tremayne is foreman-by-custom," said Herbrecht.  "You might have been told about him when you were recruited."
"No such... such... no such thing," said the foreman.  His voice had gained a quaver that wasn't there before.  "There's no such thing.  He's on stilts.  This is a joke, hazing.  Right?  I'll report the pair of you for this, you just wait!"
Tremayne stepped over the rows in a single stride, his feet landing in the mud with a squelch that sounded like the mud had been trying to get away from him and failed.
"You're a myth," said the foreman, but his voice was getting weaker.  "You're not real."
"Very real," said Tremayne.  "And as foreman-by-custom I have no choice.  You're endangering lives and issuing stupid orders and refusing to learn.  You are hereby demoted."
"You can't do that!"  It was a shocked whisper, almost a prayer.  The foreman repeated it twice more, as though trying to make it true by hearing it.
Tremayne reached down and lifted a birindi vine up.  It curled and twisted in his gloved grip, trying to coil around him and start digesting.
"No...," said the foreman, horror in his voice.  Tremayne said nothing, but dropped the vine around the foreman's neck.  Then he looped it, and again, and again until the whole vine was coiled around the foreman.  It glistened spectrally as the venom oozed out, and the vine tightened itself.
The foreman sank to his knees, his hands coming up with no strength to try and free himself.  The first drops of rain, red as blood, hit the ground.
"Best get in," said Tremayne.  "Storm's starting."

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Astrance

Water gurgled in the bilges and Phlebitis, doomed sailor, turned his lip up in a faint snarl.  The bilges stank, of dead, fishy things and things that had managed to rot in salt.  The smell was unpleasant, sour in an odd way that he couldn't put his finger on, and probably the third worst thing he'd ever smelled.
The second worst thing he'd ever smelled was boiled frog, and his ship had hauled a cargo of frogs across the Winter Ocean for over six years, boiling the wretched things once they were out of sight of land.  He'd thought that he'd never get the smell of boiled frog out of the wood of the ship, nor that he'd ever forget it.  His nightmares tended to start with the pervasive, vile-green miasma of a freshly boiled frog and usually ended with him waking up in time to vomit over the side of the bed.  His cabin-boy now refused to sleep in his cabin and slept the with the others sailors in a cabin at the other end of the ship instead.
The worst thing he'd ever smelled was Astrance, a spice grown in the tiered gardens of Neuschatsel, that was dried for shipping.  The smell started with the deep, rich tones of fresh fertiliser and went into incontinent dog territory after a second or two, then settled into the higher notes of a three-day old chicken carcass rotting in the sun.  It made vomiting seem pleasant because the acrid notes of bile counteracted the smell quite well, but as the crew had rapidly discovered, there's only so many times you can throw up if you want to have a usable throat.  They were now settling mostly for handkerchiefs dipped in dilute ammonia solution, but Phlebitis found it easier to come down to the bilges three times a day and breathe deeply.
He loathed Astrance more than he loathed boiled frogs, and he'd thought he'd already plumbed the depths of hate that a soul could sink to.
Astrance carried a significant premium with it because there were so few crews willing to transport it, and sea-transport was the only real way to get it anywhere because land-transport could be abandoned by its drivers when they decided that the smell was too much.  Here at sea the choice was between the smell and suicide, and Phlebitis thought that his crew had finally weeded out all those who preferred death.  The price he was being paid to haul it would be trebled when he landed and handed it off to the factors, but the sea-route seemed infinitely long and infinitely miserable.  The only consolation he had was that if the smell permeated his clothes like the boiled frog had it stood a good chance of finally repelling advances from Madame Sosotris when he next visited the Unreal City.
Astrance was mixed, in small quantities by highly trained chefs, with a herb called Fengill that was grown in low, marshy swamplands by the Maigre river.  Done correctly the smell of the spice was modulated into something earthy but wholesome, and the poisons in the Fengill, which could pole-axe an ox in under thirty seconds, were attentuated into something with a tingle and a hint of forbidden sensation.  The whole thing was said to be highly addictive, though possibly lethal if the eater were to get overenthusiastic with the portions, and drove the high prices that those who produced and carried Astrance could demand.
Phlebitis had no desire to try the food, just in case he could still smell the vile odour of the spice just by looking at the food.
Footsteps splashed behind him, and he turned.  The cabin-boy, his face reddened by ammonia burns, looked at him with milky, cataractal eyes.
"Boat ho!" he said, coughing.  His spit was milky too, and bubbled in the bilges, no doubt another side effect of the ammonia.
"What?" said Phlebitis, not believing the cabin boy for a second.  "We're in open water, boy.  There's no boats out here.  Is it a ship?"
"Boat ho!" said the cabin boy.  A thin line of spittle ran out of the corner of his mouth.
"Right," said Phlebitis.  "A boat.  Ho.  Ho-ho-ho."
"And a bottle up your bum!" said the cabin boy, completing the traditional shanty.  Phlebitis rolled his eyes, and headed up to the deck.
*
To his astonishment there was indeed a small rowing boat trying to pull alongside his ship.  The wind was full in his sails and he thought they were probably making forty knots, so that the rowing boat was staying in sight at all struck him as impressive.  He gave the order to spill some of the wind from the sails and slow the ship down, and they let the row-boat catch up to them.  The man sitting in the stern had a face that looked to have been beaten down to a pulp and then resculpted by a golem-maker, and the... thing... rowing had eight arms each more muscular than either of Phlebitis's legs.  It stayed in the boat, slumped over the oars as though tied to them and the man in the stern stood up and waved for a ladder.
A rope ladder was cast over the side of the ship, and the man came up.  He stood on deck, took a deep breath, and promptly ran down the ladder again.
"Hear ye, hear ye!" he yelled from the relative safety of the row-boat.  "Hear now that the trade in Astrance is forbidden on the Angled Isles and the shores of Mostlybony on pain of being buried in the damn stuff.  And don't try telling me you've not got any, that stench is almost strong enough to kill."
Phlebitis leaned over the side of the boat and looked down.  "What do you mean, trade is illegal?" he said.  "Are you saying that possession of Astrance is now illegal in the Angled Isles?"
"Nope, you can own as much as you like," said the man in the boat, sitting down now.  "But you can't buy or sell it.  Or give it away for that matter.  Foul stuff."
"Then what do traders do with it?" asked Phlebitis, trying to stay calm.  "Dump it overboard?"
"No, that's illegal too!" said the man.  "At least in the coastal waters of Mostlybony and the Angled Isles."
Phlebitis swore colourfully, managing three and a half-minutes before he needed to draw breath.  The man in the boat nodded, impressed, and then the thing at the oars sat up and started rowing again.
"Forty-five seconds," said Phlebitis to the crew.  "Then run us over him and cut that damn boat in half.  Making bloody Astrance illegal while we're still carrying the stuff!"


Sunday, 2 August 2015

Acting on impulse

They say that a man is happy if his business is his pleasure.  I'm actually here today to tell you that although you may have achieved this, your business is a cruel and disturbing one, and you should probably stop doing it.
Well yes, and stop doing that actually.  It'll send you blind.
No, seriously, stop doing that please, or I'll get the scissors out and cut them off.
There, that wasn't so hard was it?  Well yes, I suppose arguably it was, but.... Yes, I am allowed to sigh at you like that.  I need ways to convey these things, and you don't seem to pay any attention to normal cues.  No, I don't know why you don't pay attention.  No, nor do I care.  Well go and see a psychiatrist then.  They're paid to listen to you neurot at them.  Actually it is a word, because I'm allowed to neologise.  I've done my time in the word-mines thank-you, and if I want to introduce neurot then I may.  And I think you'll find it's the answer to 17 across in this Saturday's Listener.
Well maybe you should.
No, I've been hired by your HR team.  Ok, your ex-HR team, and I'm sure they'll be delighted to discover that on Monday.  Ah, really?  That's probably one of the reasons that they've hired me then.  Because hiring sky-writers to let them know they're fired is expensive, unnecessary and humiliating.  No, hiring chuggers to go door-to-door in their neighbourhoods and spread the word of the sacking seems just as expensive and unnecessary.  No, I think posting it up in the local post-office, supermarket and restaurants is also unnecessary and humiliating.  Well I suppose there's an element of caring in that suggestion – I said an element, not to go ahead and do it!  Oh good grief, seriously?  You need to learn to control your impulses: people do not want their elderly mothers calling them and telling them that you've fired them and threatened to burn down their nursing homes.  Well I definitely didn't know you were joking.  No, I don't think she did either.  No.  No.  Oh good grief.  Why do even know the phone number of an arsonist?  Give me that.  Give. ME. THAT.  Damn it, you've got a grip like a sacculina barnacle.
Right, look.  The problem here is that you're impulse-driven and so much so that you can't even stop and recognise it.  Let me tell you a short parable, the tale of the ghost of my dead wife.
"Once upon a time there was a man who lived happily with his wife in a small house in a cul-de-sac not far from the magnificent Cathedral of the Derived Mind.  One day he was looking for the rat poison as there were rats seemingly getting into the cupboard where the rice sack was kept.  Looking at the bottle with its vivid green label and its little black skull and crossbones he was seized by an uncommon impulse and added a generous shot to the cup of tea he'd made for his wife.  Shortly thereafter, while he was poisoning the rice that the rats were eating, his wife drank her tea, and then retired to bed in pain.  That evening she died, and the man was moderately upset.
Three days later he brought home another woman he'd met while standing in line at the supermarket checkout.  She was tall and calm and wore fishnet stockings, a skirt that didn't quite cover her thighs and a bustier that was two sizes too small.  The man showed her into his bedroom and then hurried to the bathroom to brush his teeth and clean anything that was sweaty.  Such as his palms. When he turned the lightswitch on, the ghost of his dead wife was sat on the edge of the bath.
"Not now, woman," he said through clenched teeth, hoping that the woman in the bedroom wouldn't hear him.  "Come back tomorrow and moan at me then."
"You know she's a whore?" said his dead wife.  She opened her mouth in laughter and the man saw the flames of hell flickering at the back of her throat.
"She named her price in the supermarket," he said. "It was less than the groceries I was intending to buy."
"That does indeed sound like a bargain," said the woman.  "But when you buy the apples that are cheap, don't they often contain worms?"
"Well isn't that a lovely image?" said the man, brushing his teeth with vigour.  "I'm sure that will put me off if I let myself think about it.  Which I won't do, thank-you."
"Bury me properly and I'll let you get on sleeping with diseased, gold-digging bitches," said the ghost calmly. "Otherwise I'm going to keep kicking up a stink.  Literally, probably."
"I buried you!"
"You dragged me out to the back-garden and put the paddling pool on top of me," said the ghost of his dead wife.  "Foxes were chewing my skull last night, and I think one of my arms has been dragged off by a badger."
"Is that what that noise was?"
"You might have looked out of the window," said the ghost.  "But no, you and your hands were busy with each other.  You're pathetic, you know."
"And you're dead," said the man.  "Now let me get on with entertainment that doesn't require me to be solo."
"Bury me properly."
"Where?"
"In the grounds of the cathedral, of course."
And so it was some hours later the man prevailed on the prostitute to take two suitcases away from the house with her and deposit them in the gardens of the cathedral, where the custodians found them and their contents and promptly had the police arrest her and accuse her of murder.  She led them back to the small house, but the man in there was also dead, having eaten poisoned rice."
What?  Oh yes, there's a moral to this tale.  It's that prostitutes should be very careful to explain up-front what they're being paid for and not take on any additional tasks no matter how generous the offer may sound.
No, you don't look much like a prostitute, but I don't really know what a prostitute does look like.  Well there are other morals you could take away from the tale.  Like how sex is bad for you or how you should avoid having foxes chew your skull or something.
Yes, I imagine that your ex-HR team might let foxes loose in the office after they all get called by their elderly mothers.  Or at least after the nursing homes start burning down.
Yes, I do think calling the arsonist back might be a good idea.  No, I'm not telling you where I live.  No.  No.  Stop asking, or I'll tell you another parable.
Thank-you.