Monday, 26 December 2016

Of exams and otters

"David Suture."  The name was called by a thin man with a long neck and a reedy voice.  He was wearing a dark suit and white shirt with no tie, possibly because it would have emphasized the length of his neck even more.  He stood in the doorway of the Practicum holding the door open with his arm and looked out into the hallway where three students were standing.  David put a book back into his bag, took a deep breath, and stepped forward.
"Come along," said the thin man.  "Lady Arabella is unforgiving when it comes to timekeeping."
All three students reacted with dismay: until this moment they had known that Lady Arabella was a possibility for an examiner but not that she was actually here today.  David let his breath out, and then took another deep one, trying to control the shakes.  His nerves were never good at exam time, and this had just made everything ten times worse.
"Come on," said the thin man.  He extended his hand, which stretched out unnaturally far until it grasped David's arm, and pulled him to the doorway.  "When you get inside place your bag on the table to your left.  You may take out your wand and any foci that you want to have available to you during the test.  Books, notes and prepared items must remain in your bag, and there will be a watch on it and you to ensure you are not cheating.  And remember your manners."
The Practicum was a medium-sized room that was almost oval: at one end it squared off and doors led out to storage areas and a preparation room.  Usually the room would have twenty desks laid out in it and a long demonstration bench at the front, but for the exams the desks had all been moved into the storage rooms and the long bench pushed back against the wall.  Lady Arabella was sitting on a laboratory stool in front of the bench with an otter curled up on her lap.  Its nose twitched as David came in, and it opened bright blue eyes and watched him.  He set his bag down on a small table and hesitated for a moment.  Then he left the bag behind, his hand checking that his wand was in his jacket pocket, and walked out into the cleared space in the Practicum.  As he walked he noticed that the floor was covered with a fine white sand and that the walls were shimmering faintly, as though there were a heat haze in front of them.  He guessed that they were wards around the room in case anything went wrong in the exam; it made perfect sense that the school wouldn't want to risk a nervous student setting it all on fire or summoning Ilkelb-ilkbir ta'qamar.  He stopped in the middle of the room, turned to face Lady Arabella, and bowed.
Lady Arabella was old but still beautiful: she had the timeless looks of a film-actress and eyes that were so deep men were said to have drowned their souls in them.  Her skin was like the finest vellum, pale and soft, with a radiance like sunlight trapped in diamonds.  One hand rested on the otter's back, her fingers lightly stroking it, and the other was resting on the bench.  Just behind her was a sheet of paper and David wondered if it was the exam questions or just for her to make notes on regarding his performance.
"Suture," she said, her words curt and precise.  "Your father is an Alchemist, isn't he?"
"Yes ma'am," said David, a little startled by the familiarity of the conversation.
"I visited him yesterday. I asked him what his expectations were of you."
"I... believe they're high, ma'am."
"Do you."  It wasn't a question, just a dismissal.  David felt his face flush and he sought for the right and polite words for a reply, but before anything came into his mind Lady Arabella had picked the sheet of paper up off the bench and was staring at him with a directness that made him start shaking again.
"Start with a demonstration of the five elements, please," she said.
The first four questions were little more than canonical exercises, things David had practiced almost every day since entering the school, and as he ran through familiar motions and extended his will in ways that were nearly engrained in him he found himself losing his nervousness.  His mind relaxed a little and his muscles stopped tensing everytime Lady Arabella spoke and he found a central point, a sense of timelessness than in athletes would be called 'flow'.
"Thank-you," said Lady Arabella as he released his will and a pretty illusion of flowers broke apart into a whirl of colours and evaporated.  "The basic technique is acceptable.  For the first demonstration of power, please demonstrate how the Laws of Contagion and Symmetry may be combined."
He stared, his mind struggling to understand what was being asked for.  Instead of telling him what to do, she'd left the task undefined, asking only that he put together two of the Laws of Magic and demonstrate that he'd used them.  He considered the Law of Symmetry, wondering how on earth it could be combined with the Law of Contagion, and felt his stomach turn.  He felt just a little dizzy.
"Is there a problem, Mr. Suture?"  He was sure that she was glaring at him now, angry that he wasn't reacting.
"No," he said reflexively.  He tried to make himself believe it.  "No."
"Then proceed," she said.  Her hand caressed the otter, and a mad idea crossed his mind.
"Might I have a hair from your pet, please?" he said.  His feet were taking steps towards her without him willing them to.  She raised an eyebrow, but turned her hand over.  There were two silvery-grey hairs adhering to her fingers.
"It would seem so," she said.  There was a sensation of a strong will around him and he stopped.  One of the hairs from her hand lifted up and drifted over to him as though carried by an invisible servant, and he held his own hand out to accept it.  It drifted down and settled in his palm.
He concentrated, applying his will to the hair and then invoking the law of Contagion.  The hair, being from an otter, remembered what it was to be an otter, and in a bright coruscation an otter made from starlight formed.  Instinctively he reached out his other hand: an otter was too big to hold in just one.  As the shape firmed up he reached again, shaping his will like a potter shapes clay on a wheel, holding the Law of Contagion firmly in place and now reaching for the Law of Symmetry.
As within, so without, he said.  Language wasn't important for magic, only intent.  The otter made of starlight turned its head and looked at him, and with an instant of shock he recognised its eyes as his own: he had intended to create an exact duplicate of Lady Arabella's otter, but instead the Law of Symmetry had taken the nearest living creature for its model and he had created a simulacrum of himself in an otter.
The starlight otter leaped gracefully from his hands to the floor, and the real otter sat up on Lady Arabella's lap, eyes bright and nose twitching, considering the newcomer.
"You are the only student today to pass that test, Mr. Suture," said Lady Arabella.  Her otter cocked its head, and then decided to jump down from her lap and go and greet the starlight otter.  "And you have made a most interesting choice."
"Thank-you," said David.  As Lady Arabella's otter touched noses with his own there was a wrenching sensation as though a much greater will was imposed and he struggled to hold his spell together.  For a few moments he succeeded, and then something unravelled too fast for him to catch and the otter disappeared in a scintillating helix that writhed its way to the ceiling.
"You will need to know yourself better, Mr. Suture," said Lady Arabella, but for the first time since he'd entered the room she was smiling.

Sunday, 25 December 2016

Home for Christmas

The car took the corner far too fast for the ice-spotted road and the brake-lights glowed cherry-red in the deepening twilight as the driver stamped on the brakes and hauled on the steering wheel.  The wheels skidded sideways across the slick tarmac and the car's nose spun round until it was pointing back the way it was facing.  At the edge of the road the tarmac became frozen earth and crispy, frosted grass and the tyres grabbed a little traction at last.  The driver felt the change and switched pedals from the brake to the accelerator.  There was a screech of rubber, the car fish-tailed back and forth a little as it regained the road, and then it was off once more.  It carried on still too fast for the wintery conditions and nearly missed the turning half-way along the road, the brake-lights flaring again and the car riding up on the pavement and bouncing back down on to the road.  The turning led onto a long, wide road with large houses, and cars parked on both sides of the road.  The car barrelled down the white line in the middle of the road and executed a bootlegger's turn to pass between a black Bentley and a silver BMW and hurtle onto the gravel driveway that led to one of the houses.  The car decelerated smoothly, so much so that its gentle collision with the sea-green Ford Fiesta parked on one side of the drive was suspicious.  The Fiesta's alarm went off and the new car backed up a few centimetres: enough that the cars weren't touching, but not far enough for anyone driving the Fiesta to be able to extricate their car.  The driver killed the engine, and for a moment there was the crisp winter air, the start of a snowfall, and the insistent, repetitive blare of the Fiesta's alarm.  Then curtains twitched, lights went on, and people came out of the house.  Inspector Playfair sighed and opened his car door.  He was home for Christmas.
"You hit my car!"  Denise was Playfair's sister, a broad-shouldered woman with a classical beauty.  Dark, softly curling hair framed her face and her eyes smouldered with a mediterranean passion normally, but right now the fires had been stoked and they were blazing.  "You always hit my bloody car!  Why don't you look where you're going?"
"I didn't hit your car," said Playfair looking over the small group that had come outside.  There were more people clustered at the doorway.  "You say I hit your car every year, Denise.  It's like a tradition."
"It's not a bloody tradition!"  She was quivering with rage, full lips curled back in snarl, and her hand was jerking as though she wanted to slap Playfair but was restraining herself.  "Every year there's a new ding after I come here.  Every year!"
"You should drive more carefully," said Playfair with a broad smile.  He ignored Denise as she balled her hand up and punched her other palm forcefully and looked at the man stood next to her.  He came up to shoulder-height on Denise and had the wiry build of a long-distance runner.  His face wasn't quite handsome: it was too thin for that, and the bones jutted a little too angularly.  "Who are you?"
The man stuck his hand out and Playfair looked at it until the man retracted it.  "Steve," he said.  "I married Denise in June.  You were invited to the wedding, I think?"
"And you never came," said Denise nastily.  She punched her palm again.  "I had a special place set for you, and a parking space nowhere near my car.  I did everything."
"I was busy," said Playfair.  "I sent flowers didn't I?"
"A flower.  One flower!  You sent one bloody flower to your own sister's wedding!"
"Was it a nice one?"  Playfair opened the back door of his car, and picked up a leather animal carry case from the back seat.
"Shouldn't you know?" asked Steve, stepping in before Denise could start swinging.  "You sent it, after all."
"I asked around the office for someone who knew about weddings and got them to send something," said Playfair closing the car-door.  "I think it was one of the SOCOs.  Been married six times, so I figured he'd know what was right."  He set the carry-case down on the ground and looked for the zips that allowed it to open.  "He said he'd written a card to go with it."
"Best of luck next time! That's what it said!" Denise's scream turned into a howl.  "Steve's parents spent the next three weeks asking about it.  We played scrabble one evening and all the words they played were accusations!"
"I think you were reading too much into that."  Steve laid a hand on Denise's arm and she shrugged him off viciously.  He took a step back.  On the ground Playfair opened the carry-case door and a small dog, a Chihuahua the colour of a Doberman Pinscher, stepped out and yawned.
"Oh, you have a dog!"
There were muffled screams from the doorway and the people there disappeared inside.  The door slammed, and the sounds of it locking were audible.
"That's not Calamity," said Denise, her voice suddenly calm.
"Calamity's on duty," said Playfair.  "This is Ray."
"You have a dog called Calamity?"  Steve bent down to pat Ray, who growled without looking at him.  Steve hesitated.
"Calamity Jane," said Playfair.  "She's named for my favourite Crimean nurse."
Steve looked puzzled.  "But she wasn–"
"What's Ray short for?" asked Denise.
"Razor," said Playfair.
The family – the extended family, Playfair thought – were gathered in the drawing room.  Ray was lying in front of the fireplace, his paws extended and his belly exposed to the heat of the flames.  His eyes were half-closed; anyone coming near him or the fire started him growling, warning them that he wasn't going to tolerate being disturbed.  Playfair's mother's cat, a white-and-brown cushion-sized bundle of fluff was sitting on the window-ledge with ill-concealed hatred for the interloper.  She (her name was Suzie) licked her paws now and then but her eyes never left the chihuahua in front of the fire.
Further back in the room a tall Christmas tree, neatly decorated on one side (Playfair's mother never decorated the back of the tree, reasoning that no-one was going to see it), stood guard over brightly wrapped presents, and in front of it the adults sat at the dining table.  The children had been dispatched to the living room to watch Disney cartoons and eat tinned peaches from plastic dishes.  A scrabble board was laid out on the table, and the Dungeons and Dragons books were neatly stacked nearby, waiting for the evening adventure.
"Divorcee," said Playfair's mother, setting down all her tiles.
"Not you too!" yelled Denise.  Colour rose in her cheeks and she stood up.  Steve stood up immediately too, putting his arm around her shoulders.
"It's just a game," he said.  He leaned into her, nuzzling her shoulder as he couldn't reach her neck.  "Have... have a mince pie."
"Had to arrest a couple of bakers for poisoning mince pies this year," said Playfair.  He was sat in an armchair contemplating the crossword.  "They were putting mercury in them."
Denise looked at the plate of mince pies and paled.  She sat back down.
"Not those dear," said Playfair's mother.  "Cook makes them herself from an old recipe.  I think it was your great-grandmother's.  I'm not sure how long we'll be able to keep making them though, some of the ingredients aren't really produced any more."
"Toyboy," said Playfair's father, setting his tiles down.  "And I think that's all the Y's used up now."
"There's still a blank out there, dear," said his wife.  Denise stayed silent, though her knuckles whitened as she clenched her fists.  Steve put his arm around her shoulders and the plate of mince pies in front of her.  They were lightly dusted with icing sugar and were still warm.  The aroma of brandy, dried fruit, and shortcrust pastry tickled her nose and coerced a smile from her.
"Are you finished with the paper yet, Playfair?" said Aunt Brenda.  "I want to see how Spurs have done in the run up to Christmas."
"He hasn't touched the crossword!"  Aunt Tabitha leaned over and poked the paper with a bony finger: she was wearing her TA uniform and looked cross because she had training on the 26th.  "I thought you said you were going to solve it."
"I solved it –" Playfair checked the clock on the mantlepiece – "eight minutes ago, Tabby.  I'll write the answers in tomorrow in case any of you want to give it a go."
"Pass it over then, there's a love," said Brenda holding her hand out.  "Tabby's just jealous because learning to read is on next year's syllabus."
"Innocent," said Denise laying tiles on the scrabble board.
"Proper noun," said her father.  "Name of a Pope."
There was laughter around the table.  "Cuckold," said Steve, putting his tiles down.  "I'm so sorry, Denise, it's the letters I had."  There was the soft crumpled sound of a mince pie hitting a man squarely between the eyes and Denise stood up again and stalked out of the room.
"New record," said Playfair, checking the clock.  "Normally she only starts sulking after the first dragon eats her character."
"We've got a new dragon this year," said Brenda looking up from the paper.  "It'll be a shame if she misses it."
"You children are always squabbling," said Playfair's mother.  "I'll go and talk to her. Sit down Steve, there's a good chap.  This is a woman thing."
"Right."  Steve looked bemused.  "Do we carry on without her?"
"No," said Playfair's father.  "Game's over: Lindsey won, I came second and Denise beat you by 133 points.  You want to practice, son."
"Oh," said Steve.
"Why does everyone call you Playfair?" asked Steve.  "That's your surname.  Surely you have a first name?"
Ray growled like a motorbike revving before doing a wheelie.
"Breakfast is served at 5:30," said Playfair's mother.  "Cook will have been up all night and probably drinking heavily, so make sure you're at the table on time.  We will open presents at 6:15 and then apologise to each other at 6:30."
Steve looked around at the others; the wreckage of the Dungeons and Dragons game spilled off the table and onto the carpet and there were far more empty winebottles than he could remember drinking from.  The clock on the mantlepiece said it was 2:30 already, and he was sure he was drunk.
"Ap..apo...apologise?" he managed.
"Oh god yes," said Denise.  She slipped off her chair and giggled into the carpet.  "Oh god yes."

Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Freedom Fighter II

She found the clothes in the first place she looked: under the mattress.  They were neatly laid out, exactly the way she would have done it, so that they looked almost freshly ironed.  She was dressed and looking for weapons before it occurred to her to wonder why the clothes were under the mattress.  She dismissed the thought.  It was something she'd think about later, when there was time for trivialities like it.  Right now she had to assume that she was the victim of enemy action, and she needed to get out of here.  It would have helped if Montague had been ready with the extraction, but he wasn't essential.  He, too, could be dealt with later.
There was a feeble choking sound from the other bed, and Sylvie paused her search to check on the dying woman.  Her skin was pallid now and her eyes rolled back up in her head.  Sylvie estimated that she had maybe three or four minutes before the machine started its alarms and summoning the staff.  Which meant she needed to think faster.

The alarms blared on the machine for a few short seconds, then shut off.  A little light in the corner of one display continued to flash though, a subtle indicator that the alarms were still sounding in the nurses' station elsewhere on the ward.  For nearly thirty seconds there was stillness in the room, a prayer to the Angel of Death as they took up residence, and then a clicking sound as the door was frantically unlocked.
"Oh God, oh God, she's killed her, that bitch, bitch, that bitch!"  The first person through the door was a man in a pinstriped suit with spectacles disarrayed on his face, thinning blond hair in a comb-over starting to come loose and a red flush that suggested he was getting ready for his next heart attack.  The keys to the room were in his hand, and his legs were trembling with the effort of having run up several flights of stairs to get there first.  Behind him came two nurses, a third pushing a crash-cart, and a muscular male orderly with tattooes on his cheeks and forehead.
"Who are you?"  His question, gasped out from burning lungs, was addressed to the middle-aged woman sat at the bedside in a state of shock.  Her eyes were wide and tears were running down her cheeks; she held the hand of the woman in the bed loosely, her thumb rubbing back and forth on it like she was stroking a kitten.  She was staring at the window: it had been smashed outwards using the other chair in the room, and a breeze was ruffling the curtains.
"Elizabeth," she said.  She blinked, and seemed to see everyone all of a sudden.  She gasped, and her free hand rose to her mouth. "Jenny's niece.  I was visiting when, when...."  She tailed off, staring at the window.  The orderly followed her gaze and strode over to examine it, and then look out of it.  "Oh my," she said.  "You put my aunt in a room with a lunatic.  I'm going to sue."
A nurse picked the chart up off the end of the bed and checked it.  "What year was Jenny born in, dear?" she asked.
"1928," said the woman at the bedside straight away.  "She said that you wouldn't listen when she told you though, and you put 1948 on the chart.  Oh, I suppose that incompetence.  No, what's the legal word? Malpractice?  You wrote important data down wrong so you could poison her didn't you? And you put her in a room with a lunatic so she could kill her.  You know she flung herself out of that window right?  Right?"
"Shut up!"  The man in the suit was on his knees on the other side of the bed, bent double and wheezing horribly.  His face was purple.  "Dear God, yes, Jenny has a niece and she's every bit a bitch.  God only knows what you're doing here today, but get her out!  Get her out of here!"
"She got the chart right," said the nurse softly to the doctor.
"There's no body down there," said the orderly.
"Look up," said the doctor.  "I bet she climbed.  There are guards on the roof though, so they'll either have her, or she's going to have to break another window to get back in, and all the others are reinforced."
"You should go, dear," said the nurse to the woman at the bedside, taking her hand.  The woman stood.
"I'm still going to sue," she said uncertainly.  "Even if my cousin did authorise this."
"Get. Her. Out. Of. Here."

They put her in the lift and pushed the button for the ground floor, and Sylvie relaxed a little.  Not too much – lifts these days all had cameras in – but a little.  She still needed a weapon: her palms itched without something to hold that she knew was lethal when used correctly, but she was away from the main staging area.  The light on the floor-panel reached 5 and a sudden memory surged into her mind, closely followed by another. She hit the 5 button almost reflexively, and the lift shuddered to a stop, the doors sighing open after a moment or two.
"You're too old for this," said Ludovic, in her memories.  "It's time you retired."
She pushed the thought away.  That clearly wasn't one of her memories, they must have had her on drugs up in the ward.  She should take that in account if she needed to fight.
"The Director has an office on the 5th floor.  The people with the keycards are the secretaries in the blood-transfusion offices, but they can't use them.  You'll also need a fingerprint from one of the Executives; they all have offices on the 18th floor.  And armed guards."
That memory was hers alright.  Damn, she was doing things in the wrong order, but she'd get the keycard first. There had to be something she could weaponise in the blood-transfusion labs.

Monday, 30 May 2016

Freedom Fighter

There had been so many wars, although she'd realised after a while that she wasn't thinking of them as wars anymore.  They were opportunities, challenges, and occasionally boring.  She'd found herself sitting down with her latest contract and studying the background material like any corporate businesswoman, or even entrepreneur (could she say entrepreneuse?  Did she want to?  The word felt like it was describing an entrepreneur in a dress) and looking for the key points, the places to make a difference, to obtain leverage.  She'd even changed her title eventually, from Mercenary to Consultant until she realised how much more mercenary it sounded.  Now she called herself a Freedom Fighter, which still had a whiff of patchouli about it, but everything came round again so maybe it was time.  She'd contemplated Business Manager for a while, but could she really describe a small conflict in the oil fields of Kuwait a business?  When she decided that she could she knew that she'd never be a Business Manager.
She'd even hired her own team eventually, as the contracts became more lucrative and she found that it was getting easier and easier to see how to achieve a quick resolution or turnaround.  Very often the trick was identifying what one side or the other was actually after: while revenge was very popular still (she had to stifle a yawn at that point, did people still have to get excited about revenge?  Really?  Sure, it never ended unless you wiped the other side out completely, and that was as easy to do as killing a cockroach infestation, but there were so many better reasons for a war), oftentimes it was really more about returning some piece of antique junk to the antique junksite it had come from, or apologising insincerely in front of enough people.  Although at least one of those staged apologies had started another war, but she'd been hired by both sides then, so it was hard to count that as a real failure.  Except in humanitarian terms.
She reached for her phone automatically; she always did when she was thinking of her team.  It wasn't there; it had been moved again.  She sighed, softly.  The wars never ended, and this one was a bloodless thing, a war of attrition that she was getting heartily sick of.  She'd been lazy, she'd let it get to this point because she'd let herself be preoccupied by other things, bigger wars and the needs of her team, instead of paying attention to what was happening around her.  It was time to focus on what was closest to home and deal with this once and for all.
Looking around the room she found the phone on a small table near the door.  Conveniently placed for an accomplice to slip in and steal it, as had clearly been the plan.  She'd had suspicions for a while that there was a cabal working against her here, and this just added fuel to the fire.  She pulled the sheets on the bed free, swung her legs over the side, and limped over to the table to retrieve the phone.
"Nurse said you're not to have that!"  The voice from the other bed in the room was querulous and scratchy. "She said it makes you agitated. You put that back!"
An infantryman in the war of attrition, but you had to start somewhere.  If you took enough away from the enemy they had to pull back in and start thinking about defence, and when you'd got them to that point you were ready to attack.You just had to make sure that you're plans were all in place, there was never any time to lose.  And she'd wasted long enough as it was, lying here reminsicing.
She tapped speed dial on her phone and walked over the bed.  The owner of the querulous voice was an eldery woman with skin as wrinkled as a Shar Pei's and a packet of cigarettes on the table next to the bed.  It was clear that she was a collaborator from that alone; tobacco was always contraband and desirable in a war zone.  She was hooked into a couple of machine; cuboid beige boxes with plastic knobs and green LED displays, and a long transparent plastic tube led from a half-full bag of liquid on a stand into her arm.  Rheumy eyes, crusted with sleep at the corners, stared at her with a hint of confusion.
"You're not allowed near me!" she said shrilly.  "Get away!  Get away!"
She ignored the screeching harpy in the bed and twisted the valve in the bag until it tore loose and the bag dumped its contents down the tube.
"What are you doing?  Help!"
A pillow over the face to muffle the cries, but not pressing hard, not suffocating.  At her ear the phone was answered.
"Montague," she said, a feeling of relief suffusing her.  "I need an extraction."
"Sylvie...," his voice was gentle, and there was something wrong there.  The hand holding the pillow tensed and pressed harder involuntarily.  "Sylvie, there's no extraction.  You need a rest.  You've been fighting these wars for too long no–"
She hung up.  She pulled the pillow up and checked – almost too late, but not quite.  The woman was still breathing; let the potion in the plastic bag do its work and finish her.  Sylvie pulled the covers out around her to allow that she'd been thrashing around and caused the damage herself, and then retreated to her own bed.  She was on her own, and she'd have to escape from here by herself.
She started to hum softly as she searched for clothes, picking the theme to The Great Escape.  Naturally.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

The family that slays together

The family that slays together

The family that slays together stays together.  When I look back over the last couple of weeks now, it's clear that that wretched little homily started it all off.  And worse than that, I still think that grandmother copied it wrong when she was stitching it on to all the cushions in the living room.
Her living room existed in a perpetual semi-twilight: the curtains were always half-drawn in front of heavy grey pre-war nets that contained the dried carcasses of incautious flies and wasps.  The carpet was heavy but hadn't been cleaned in the last fifty years, so instead of the fibers giving way beneath your feet as you walked they resisted and pushed back and it was almost like walking on concrete.  There were pictures on the walls that grandmother told us were long-dead relatives, but when I studied art-history at school I recognized most of them.  I suppose it's like those people who buy picture frames and leave the default picture of a random stranger in them, only done a hundred years earlier.  Either that or I've got relatives who were a lot more distinguished than anyone in the family has become since.  The wallpaper was probably flock once, but now I suspected that any fuzziness to the touch was just mould growing quietly in the dark.
On the couch were cushions; far too many for any one couch to hold, and really far too many for any sane person to put in a single room.  But grandmother had hand-stuffed and sewn each one, and we'd learned to identify them because they weren't all equal.  Sure, they were all embroidered with the same homily: "the family that slays together stays together" that grandmother said she'd taken from the Sunday supplements back when she still got a Sunday newspaper.  But some were stuffed with popcorn, some with cotton wool, some with actual cushion stuffing and a couple were stuffed with old newspapers.  They ranged from uncomfortable to disturbing (we think there were things living in the cushions eating the popcorn), and they weren't even the worst part about that room.
But I digress.  On Tuesday morning mum told dad that she wanted a divorce over breakfast.  Dad was eating kedgeree and he just nodded and seemed to take it quite well.  I was trying to boil tomatoes and it just wasn't working, and I was more upset than either of them seemed to be.
"Any particular reason?" asked Dad, poking at a slice of hard-boiled egg.
"It's June," said Mum and Dad just harrumphed as though that made sense, and I was left wondering if we were talking about the month or a person.
On Wednesday morning Mum told Dad that she wanted to take the dog and didn't want custody of Harvey, my little brother.  That's what started it.  As soon as she left (Mum left the house every morning and I only realised that day that I had no idea where she went or what she did or how long she was gone for) Dad muttered that wretched homily and packed us all into the car.  Dog included.
You'll have read a lot about what happened after that in the newspapers, the True Crime magazines and the Whiston Evening Post (Special Edition) so I'll summarise a little.  We ended up at the Little Dorrit Primary School where parents with enough money to not want to care about their children's social disorders sent their children and Dad took a school of about two hundred children hostage.
"I have demands!" he emailed to the police department, who'd turned up en masse outside the school only when the parents had made their views on the matter clear.  I was expecting him to demand custody of the dog, or an explanation of who June was, but no.  At the time I was mystified, but now I realise that Dad needed to make impossible demands in order to justify killing people, because... the family that slays together stays together.
"Four hundred bottles of Ukrainian dill-pickled gherkins; the bones of Thomas Bayes, numbered and labelled for articulation and assembly; the legal right to urinate in the lift of every London hotel; a random selection of books from the Bodleian library to be used as toilet paper..." is how his list began, and I was astounded that he could even think of these things, let alone ask for them as though it were the most natural thing in the world.  It carried on for another four pages though, with the second-to-last page containing things he felt were blasphemous in one regard or another.  I found myself having to google several different gods while I was reading the list to understand how they were blasphemous, and at the end of it I was impressed and educated.
"The gherkins might be a problem," came back the email from the police and Dad grinned.
"I thought so," he said.  "The rest of the list was really just insurance."
He found a collection of party bags in a cupboard in a classroom, the kind that they give out to children at the end of parties that typically contain a slice of Victoria Sponge with sickly icing and coconut sprinkles together with some cheap plastic toy, a thank-you note for attending and a handful of boiled sweets.
"Perfect," he said.  "Pick a child, and we'll begin."
All I'm willing to say about what happened next is this: people are very hard to cut up, no matter what the films make it look like; dogs do not make good assistants when attempting butchery; I don't believe it was Stockholm Syndrome that had the rest of the children helping us, I think there was something deeply wrong in that school to begin with; and a party bag isn't supposed to contain what we put in it and sent out to the police.
"We're going to burn you and the school to the ground," came back the email from the Police.  I didn't blame them.
Dad sent them another party bag, this one containing only teeth and bones.
You're all aware that the escalation continued for twenty-hours I suppose, but you won't know that when it got dark I sneaked away with the dog, crept through the cordon pretending I was a student from the school, and went home.  Mum was in having an orgy with a lot of the neighbours, so I went to bed without disturbing her and thanked my lucky stars I wasn't Harvey.
Mum got her divorce and burst into tears when the decree nici arrived.  When I asked her why she was crying, she explained that she felt that Dad's insane murder plan had been very romantic.
The dog and I left two days later to make a life of our own.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Merchant adventurer

The small group of highly trained killers had stopped.  Again.
Agamemnal was stood in front of a heavy tapestry that reached from floor to ceiling, his torch playing over it.  He was peering at it so closely that his nose nearly touched the fabric, and now and then he would stroke the tapestry, or rub a particular spot.
“Will you hurry up?”  Lydia folded her arms.  She was tall and thin, graceful in an anorexic way, and wearing soft grey wraps that wound around her like bandages and left her with the slightly unfortunate appearance of an animate mummy.  Her eyes were the same grey as the wraps and they were staring at the back of Agamemnal’s head as though she wished she could make it explode.  “We are supposed to be locating the Duke and assassinating him.  Not valuing wall-hangings!”
Next to Lydia was Darleen.  She was built far more robustly and was wearing a black-and-grey padded jerkin and a blindfold that covered her eyes and nose.  Despite her apparent lack of vision she was leading the group through the echoing halls as though she’d lived there her entire life.  She lifted her head as though to stare at the ceiling, and a moment later she spoke.
“There’s no point Lydia, dear.  We need fifteen minutes for the Duke to reach his bedroom anyway; you might as well let him look at it.  The guard patrols won’t come in here for 22 minutes, and we’ll be gone by then anyway.”
Lydia snorted and turned away, her back pointedly to Agamemnal, and looked at the fourth member of the squad: an albino man who looked like a boy of fourteen. His eyes and nose were pink and wet, and his fingernails were black and sharp.  He was wearing a torn shirt and ragged pants tied loosely about his skinny waist with rope.  His bare feet were hairy.  “What say you, Ratty?”
Ratty shrugged, his shirt slipping from his shoulder and forcing him to pull it back up before it fell off completely.  “He’s got an eye for it,” he said.  “Those candlesticks he looted last tim–“
“When we were supposed to be setting fire to an information storage bay.”  Lydia interrupted with the arrogance of a natural leader.
“As I was saying,” said Ratty amicably.  “Those candlesticks fetched a nice sum.  We’d barely have broke even without them.”
Lydia turned her back on Ratty now.  “As if this is a for-profit enterprise,” she said to Darleen.
“It is for me,” said Darleen.  “You can’t negotiate, Lyds.  You should let Ratty do it, he’s got a silver tongue.”
“He’s got fleas.”  There was a viciousness in her tone that made Darleen flinch, but Ratty seemed unaffected by it.
“It’s genuine,” said Agamemnal as though the entire conversation around him hadn’t happened.  “Definitely fourteenth century.  Let’s take it down and pack it up.”
“Twelve minutes,” said Darleen, her head tilted up again.  “No change in patterns.”
“This is ridiculous!” Lydia spun to face her squad, her face contorted into something ugly; Ratty considered for a moment that this must be what a banshee looked like when it was screeching the death of its victim.  “We’re killers!  Assassins!  We have a job to do, we’re not picking up tawdry tat at the sodding flea-market!”
“George said usual rules apply,” said Agamemnal.  “That means I can loot and you can carry.”
“I. am. not. a. pack. mule.”

“Of course not,” said Agamemnal with a broad smile that showed his three remaining teeth.  “Pack mules have more meat on them.  But you are the only one who doesn’t need to be able to move quickly or keep everything free for when we meet the Duke.  So you do the carrying.”  He reached up, stretching to the top of tapestry to find the ties that suspended it from hooks in the wall.  “Brace, bitch.”