The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 51 – The Scholar

Author’s Note: Just made it this week as I’ve been at the Milford SF Writers Conference, which is busy but enormous fun, and very very useful. Mood: Tired but happy.

Chapter 51 – The ScholarCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

Caked in stinking river mud the foreigner knelt among the rushes and retched up significant quantities of the Euphrates.

Beside him Banipal was equally wet and filthy. His body and clothes were saturated and reeked abominably, his sandals were somewhere at the bottom of the Holy River.

Too exhausted to move or speak, Banipal flopped beside the man he had just rescued. The scrawny foreigner looked uncomprehendingly at him. Drool and snot hung from his nose and mouth. He wiped his face with his hand then he too fell to the ground and curled into a loose ball.

‘You are safe.’ Banipal put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The stranger flinched, Banipal dragged himself onto his knees. The man beside him looked half-dead. Perhaps even after all his efforts he would still die. Out in the river there had been a long awful moment when he had thought they were both gone. He pushed the memory aside. The Gods would decide, all he could do was try.

He cleared a tangle of hair from the man’s eyes and wiped his face with a relatively clean corner of his robe.

‘You are safe,’ Banipal repeated. Pressing his palms together he bowed his head to the foreigner. ‘You are safe.’

The stranger understood his tone if not the words, for he gave a weary smile.

They sat in silence for several minutes, dripping and reeking on the black mud among last season’s rotted vegetation and this year’s new growth. Banipal watched the river flow and wondered just what the Gods intended. The stranger coughed, turned aside and was quietly sick.

When he was done Banipal stood and held out his hand.

The stranger took his hand and unsteadily came to his feet.

Banipal touched his own chest and smiled. ‘Banipal,’ he said. ‘Banipal.’

The foreigner looked back up the river towards the bridge and shuddered. Then he touched his own chest and bowed. ‘Asklepios.’

Banipal gestured towards the upper bank where a flight of stone steps led to the walls of Esagila. Together they slogged through the mud towards the steps.

#

‘Where do you think he is from?’ Ishkun was more intrigued by his friend’s fascination with the stranger than the man himself.

Asklepios sat silently beside Banipal in his rescuer’s warmest robes. The three of them shared a meal of dates, cheese, bread, and water.

‘I have no idea,’ Banipal said. ‘We have no common language, nothing at all.’

Ishkun reached across the table and squeezed Asklepios’ shoulder. ‘You look none the worse for your little swim. Marduk favours you.’

Asklepios smiled, spread his hands to show appreciation of the food and clothes, then bowed towards Banipal. Ishkun listened carefully to his speech. Despite having travelled widely he could make no sense of it. He had tried the languages he knew and Asklepios apologetically shook his head at each one.

‘He seems grateful enough,’ Ishkun observed. ‘And so he should, he owes you his life.’

‘And having saved it, I am now responsible for him,’ Banipal said. ‘Though you must share some of the blame, if you hadn’t taught me the trick of looking through a fist I would never have spotted him in the river.’

Ishkun was delighted. ‘I will make a hunter of you yet. What are your plans for this fellow?’

Banipal explained that when he first saw Asklepios he had been holding measuring instruments. ‘He is a scholar, I want to find out what he knows.’

‘How do you know he hadn’t stolen them? He was taken as a thief after all.’

‘They were made of a strange material. He must have brought them with him.’

‘And they were lost in the river?’

‘Yes.’

Left to his own devices, Asklepios amused himself by arranging date stones into rows and groups.

‘You see?’ Banipal laughed. ‘He is just like me.’

When he realised he was the centre of attention Asklepios smiled bashfully. Encouraged by Banipal’s gestures he laid two date stones next to each other, then three, a wider gap, then six.

‘He cannot even count,’ Ishkun crowed. ‘I can do better than that.’

‘No, he is multiplying not adding.’ Banipal made his own sum, multiplying three by three.

In turn Asklepios attempted three by six. But now he did not have enough stones. He took a whole date from the bowl, touched it to his fingers and thumbs on both hands and placed it beside eight stones.

‘Yes,’ Banipal clapped his hands. ‘I knew it.

Ishkun shook his head in despair. ‘Ninurta preserve me, I will never catch anything if I have to bring you both hunting.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 50 – Bigger Fish

This week’s chapter comes to you from N. Wales, where the holiday home’s internet appears to be made of tin cans and string. We made it!

Chapter 50 – Bigger FishThe Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

The sound of voices woke Smith. By now he was used to his situation and lay still until he was fully alert.

One voice droned in flat monotones about revenues, projections, credit and debit. Another voice interrupted, that of the man in the white hat, Markus Koponen.

‘Well done, Imelda. Where is she?’

‘In the Mercedes with Dolores and Electra.’

Another voice broke in, the fat man called Jarglebaum. ‘She’d better be in one piece.’

‘Of course she is.’

‘There’s no “of course” with you three.’

‘Enough,’ Koponen ordered. ‘What about our young detective?’

Imelda gave a humourless bark of laughter. ‘Wassiter is as ignorant and confused as the day he was born.’

Smith extracted his notepad and the pencil he had found under the vending machine.

‘The Sea Cucumber is loaded and ready to sail. We’ll pay off our old friend on the way out of Brighton. Mr Jarglebaum will drive me in the Imperial.’

‘How about Dolores drives and I take the Mercedes?’ Jarglebaum said.

‘I want you with me. Any other questions? Very well, let’s go to work.’

Smith’s initial excitement grew into something akin to panic. They had fooled Tim, tricked, hoodwinked and bamboozled him. And now they were leaving. He had to find out where they were going, but how?

The answer was obvious. If only there was enough time. Smith thrust himself along the duct towards the down ramp.

Koponen listened infuriated to the hollow booms and thuds coming from the air conditioning. This was sheer incompetence. This time heads would roll.

The phone was already in his hand. He checked the time then slammed the receiver down. Sacking a useless middle-manager would have to wait. Today there were bigger fish to catch.

#

A few minutes later the shutters to the basement car park clanked up and the cream Mercedes pulled out onto Trafalgar Lane. Behind it rolled the enormous Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight, the 4.9 litre engine quietly throbbing and black paint gleaming, and with Jarglebaum at the wheel.

Seated diagonally opposite Jarglebaum on the rear seat Koponen checked his watch again and allowed himself a satisfied smile. Despite difficulty, delay and expense, everything had worked out.

The world would never be the same again.

Curled up in the darkness of the capacious boot between a sack full of lumpy rocks and a cardboard box of agricultural brochures, Persistent Smith rode along with them.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 49 – Evasion and Deceit

Author’s Note: I’m very pleased to announce I’m working on print and ebook versions of this story. It has now been professionally proof-read and edited, and I’ve commissioned new cover art – which is absolutely beautiful. I’m now deciding if I really can afford to buy a rather gorgeous professional font as the final touch. I’m just not sure…

More news to follow about extra-special print editions too!

Meanwhile , a longer chapter this week – enjoy!

~

Chapter 49 – Evasion and Deceit

Foxy lived in a first-floor apartment of a new-build tucked down one of the narrow roads between the main town and beach. She kept the interior minimally furnished, and lush with potted plants. A floor-to-ceiling picture window occupied one end of the living space, a banana unrolled its banner leaves to one side, a fibrous-trunked tree fern unfurled a cluster of black-stemmed fronds on the other. A flowering vine covered the back wall, globular clusters of waxy, star-shaped flowers hung among the jade-green leaves.

Instead of armchairs and sofas Foxy used outsize bean-bags and enormous cushions heaped either side of a low driftwood table.

It was also very noisy. Tim looked through the picture window down onto half a dozen light industrial units around a broad concrete apron. A white van was getting an engine tune-up while four men loaded a flat-bed truck with scaffolding pipes. Everyone else’s jobs appeared to consist of shouting, dropping things, and not answering the phone.

‘So this is where I hang out,’ Foxy said. ‘What do you think?’

‘It’s a bit of a racket.’

Foxy pulled the window shut. ‘What?’

‘Don’t you mind the noise?’

‘Oh no. There’s always something going on, things to watch, something to listen to.’ Foxy grew wistful. ‘It’s quite musical really, a bit like home.’

Today Foxy wore an open-necked white blouse with tight cuffs and a sky-blue cotton skirt with green darts. Her hair was loose and her feet were bare.

The crash of scaffolding poles, rattle of pulley chains, and the hoot of van horns didn’t strike Tim as even slightly melodic. Had Foxy been born in a breaker’s yard? Perhaps she was tone deaf. There were far more important things to discuss. Tim held out her jacket.

‘Thanks.’ Foxy swirled the jacket away into her bedroom. Tim glimpsed a room bathed in turquoise light filtered through drawn curtains, a sand-gold bedspread, a wardrobe of clothes.

‘These people–’ Tim began.

‘Would you like something to drink?’ Foxy disappeared into the kitchen.

Tim followed. ‘Foxy, these people, it’s important.’

‘It’s just that when I came to yours you mentioned a drink so I thought…’

‘No. Thank you. Listen to me, Foxy. There are some people looking for you, three women. They bugged my room. They’re dangerous.’

Foxy’s happy smile faltered. ‘You’re serious?’

‘Yes, I am.’

It was another one of those moments. Eye contact was involved. So was heartbeat and proximity. Pheromones almost certainly played a role. The cupboard door behind Foxy’s head drifted open. Despite himself Tim looked inside. The shelves were bare except for three tins of squid in its own ink.

‘We’ve got some things to talk about,’ Tim said.

Foxy looked down at her feet and wiggled her toes. ‘Yes, I suppose we do.’

‘Then let’s sit down and talk.’

They went back into the main room.

A cat, a rather beautiful Bengal, sat on the floor washing its paws.

Tim stared in astonishment. ‘That’s Mrs Woosencraft’s cat. What a piece of luck–’

‘Damned pests!’ Foxy cried.

‘It’s all right, I–’

‘Y’b’hyzn’t Ism!’ Foxy screeched (or at least that’s what Tim thought she said).

‘Y’b’hqrfh’d Esm!

B’n’ahd Asm!’

Out of nowhere a crashing torrent of water knocked the cat off its feet and washed it into the corner beneath the tree fern.

Just as suddenly the water was gone. Odours of salt water, seaweed and dead crabs filled the room. The echo of a gull’s cry faded and was gone.

Beached in the corner the cat cowered, a drenched and shivering fur-ball of soggy self-pity.

‘Sorry,’ Foxy growled. ‘Couldn’t help myself.’

Open mouthed, Tim looked at Foxy, the cat, and back to Foxy. ‘How did you do that?’

‘I– filled a bucket.’

Tim scanned the room. ‘Where’s the bucket?’

‘Under the sink.’ Foxy stretched. ‘That felt good. You can have your cat, I feel better now.’

‘It’s not my cat, it’s my neighbour’s, Mrs Woosencraft.’

Except it wasn’t. The colours of its coat were running, its muzzle whitening. Colour dripped from its fur into a pool of black water. A more familiar cat was revealed.

‘Morse?’ Tim whispered in disbelief.

Even for Morse that had been too much water too soon. His shoulders hunched in wet misery, he looked up at Tim and gave a piteously faint miaow.

Morse? The ground felt unsteady under Tim’s feet. Reality itself slipped and shifted. Of all the things that had happened recently this was the most utterly weird. His brain struggled to keep up, failed, and began to flounder. ‘That’s my cat. What the–? How the–?’ He turned to Foxy. ‘Whuh–?’

‘Do all cats do that?’ Foxy said.

It seemed a reasonable question. Tim had no answers, only questions of his own. ‘Can I borrow a towel?’

A few minutes later Tim held Morse wrapped cosily in a warm towel. ‘Where did that water really come from?

‘I needed it. It came.’

That didn’t make much sense. Tim scratched Morse behind the ear. The cat looked at him with one eye then burrowed down into the towels. ‘I don’t think he recognises me.’

‘Well, you didn’t recognise him. You thought he was Un-whatsisname.’

‘That was because–’

‘If I was painted a different colour you’d still know who I was.’

‘Yes, but–’

Foxy triumphantly snapped her fingers. ‘There’s your proof. Can’t trust a cat. Let’s put it outside.’

‘He’s my cat.’ Tim checked again, there was still no sense of recognition from Morse. ‘I think.’

‘I don’t like cats.’ Foxy paced the room. ‘Just not keen. Can’t be trusted, it’s as simple as that.’

Tim persuaded Foxy to sit down. The huge bean bags were low and comfortable. It was difficult to be agitated on a bean bag.

Tim told Foxy about Mrs Woosencraft, how she’d hired him to find her missing cat. Foxy was vehemently suspicious:

‘It has to be her. She sent all those cats. She did something to this one, affected its mind to make it think it was hers.’

It sounded outlandish, but he’d seen it for himself. Morse had been dyed to look like Un Deg Naw. Tim still felt a vague duty to defend Mrs Woosencraft. ‘She’s got angina.’

‘So?’

‘So why would she do it?’

‘You mean why do the thing that she obviously has done?’

‘Well, yes.’

Foxy leaned forward. ‘Because she’s a witch. It’s the only explanation.’

‘A what? She’s a little old lady who lives down my road.’

‘Definitely a witch. The ones who live next door are the worst.’

‘She bakes cakes and brings them round.’

Foxy gestured expansively. ‘How easily she lured you into her web of lies.’

‘She’s a very good cook.’

‘Tim, she kidnapped your cat and dyed it.’

There was that.

‘Even if she is a witch it doesn’t explain why she would do that and…’ Tim struggled with the idea. ‘And hypnotise it.’

‘To find me.’

‘And dye it to look like her own missing cat…’

‘To find me, Tim.’

‘Then pay me to find it.’

Foxy took hold of Tim’s ears and turned his face towards hers. ‘So she could find me.’

‘Find you?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

Foxy glared at Morse, now fast asleep in the towel. ‘Go and ask her.’

Foxy was right. All he had to do was turn up on her doorstep with Morse and see what she had to say. In his mind the silhouette of a little old lady raised a long knife over her head while musicians sawed jaggedly on their violins.

It still sounded mad. ‘She’s got a lot of cats, but that doesn’t mean she’s crazy.’

‘I don’t think she is,’ Foxy said. ‘I think she’s very clever. Witches usually are.’

‘But how? I mean, and why?’

‘It’s how people like her try to find–’ Foxy hesitated. ‘People like me.’

There it was again, that mysterious reference. Confused, puzzled, more than a little weirded out, and still with no idea where all that water had come from, Tim became annoyed. He stood up with Morse wrapped in the towel in his arms.

‘And just what does that mean, Foxy? Where exactly are you from? There’s a whole load of stuff going on – cars that aren’t missing, dangerous women in red dresses, a sack of odd rocks, dyed and hypnotised cats, my friend has vanished, and now you want me to believe Mrs Woosencraft is a witch. Maybe she is, but what has any of this got to do with you? Or me? And why involve Morse? What’s he done to deserve this? It’s like everyone’s got something to hide except for me and my cat.’

Foxy faced him. Tim had never seen her so serious.

‘Tim, do you trust me?’

‘I, well, yes. Mostly.’

‘As much as yesterday?’

Tim matched her doubtful smile. ‘Not quite so much, no.’

Foxy reached out, hesitated, then drew back. ‘I came here to get away from some people, some men. My home is a mess, people are desperate. I just wanted to be left alone. Trust? Well, it’s the same for me.’

‘Where is your home?’

She was on the verge of telling him then changed her mind. ‘Go and talk to your little old lady. Listen to what she has to say.’

‘And then what?’

‘Then I promise I’ll answer all your questions. You’ll see it all matches up and perhaps you’ll find it easier to believe me.’ Foxy opened the door. ‘I’m glad you found your cat, but I’m gladder you’re taking it away. You can keep the towel.’

Tim pulled open the door. As he did something glittered diamond-bright behind the coats hanging on the back of the door. Nothing could be left to chance today. He moved the coats aside and exclaimed in disbelief. Hanging on one of the hooks was Asklepios’ pendant.

‘Where did you get this?’ Tim took the pendant and shook it at Foxy. ‘I don’t believe it. When I told you about Asklepios and my dream you already knew.’

Foxy shifted uncomfortably. ‘Tim, I am so sorry.’

‘He needed this. No wonder he couldn’t find his way back to me. Why did you take it?’

‘He– He spoke to me. In my own language. I was scared–’

‘Do you know what this is? Yes, of course you do, that’s why you took it.’

‘I didn’t know he was your friend.’

More evasion, more deceit. Tim no longer knew what to think about Foxy Bolivia. He stuffed the pendant into his jacket, walked out and slammed the door behind him.

#

His head full of quandary Tim marched down the street with Morse wrapped in a dye-stained towel.

Gods, he thought, the more you know the less you understand.

The pendant in his hand was worth a small fortune. What it potentially could do was worth far more. He hung it over his neck and tucked it inside his shirt.

Even accepting that everything was connected, this was so strange he simply could not join the links together in his mind. The pattern was so big it was like the dragon of creation and you could not see it all at once. Was his mind too small to encompass it? If that’s the case he hoped that when he did discover the whole truth it would not burn too bright.

Right now discovering the whole truth was what he was determined to do.

Snug inside the towel Morse stretched, looked up at Tim and yawned.

‘At least I’ve got you back.’ Tim scratched Morse between the ears. ‘Kind of.’

If there was one thing he had learned today it was that you can’t trust anyone.

He scratched some more and Morse purred like a tiny sewing machine.

‘So you remember that, do you?’

Despite Foxy’s evasiveness and her theft of Asklepios’ pendant, her suggestion he talk to Mrs Woosencraft was a good one. Tim had thought of the old lady as a friend, she owed him an explanation for her bizarre treatment of Morse. Once he’d got the truth from her he would decide about seeing Foxy again. Maybe.

Lost in his own thoughts, he didn’t notice the cream Mercedes convertible parked in the evening shadows at the corner of a side street. Soon after he walked away the car’s sidelights came on, the engine burbled into life and the vehicle slid around the corner.

The walk did Tim some good. By the time he climbed the stairs to his home his mind was clear and calm, he was ready to do what needed to be done. Soon Morse was asleep on his usual blanket after a special supper of sardines. It was good to have the old thing back, more than good, there was an aspect of him that now felt complete again. Morse, however, was not the same. Tim had hoped familiar surroundings might have made a difference, but although Morse responded to affection he felt like a completely different animal. It became obvious when Tim took a shower. Morse appeared at the bathroom door, ears back, curious but suspicious of the falling water. He refused to come closer. That more than anything upset Tim. Then it made him angry.

He called Mrs Woosencraft. After a few rings she answered in the old-fashioned way: ‘Five two four two eight seven. Mrs Woosencraft speaking.’

‘Hello, this is Tim Wassiter.’

‘Hello bachgen. Lovely to hear from you.’

Tim kept his tone conversational. ‘I’ve got some news about Un Deg Naw.’

‘Oh goodness, tell me.’

Tim discovered the vengeful satisfaction of lying to someone he once thought of as a friend. ‘I’ve found her.’

For a breath the line was utterly silent. Then Mrs Woosencraft said. ‘Oh, that’s lovely, that is. What good news, I am pleased.’

‘She looks fine.’

‘I meant to ask, I was so surprised.’

‘I thought I’d bring her round tomorrow morning.’

‘As soon as you like. I’m an early riser, getting on a bit and don’t need as much sleep as I–’

‘About eight then?’

‘That would be lovely. I’ll bake a Madeira.’

Tim hung up the phone and sat back. Tension drained from him. He was back in control and tomorrow morning he’d find things out. Tomorrow he’d start to put things right. He was motivated, he was justified. This was what it felt like to be a true detective.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 48 – The Price

Chapter 48 – The PriceThe Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Electra sat on the white leather settee, a portable console on her lap. ‘The one on the desk has stopped sending.’

‘Wassiter’s not a complete dunce,’ Dolores said.

‘Not completely.’ Electra returned to studying the console. The screen displayed a street map and showed a small red blip crawled along one of the roads. ‘It looks like he’s found the one in the handkerchief as well.’

‘Where is it?’

Electra indicated the pulsing dot. ‘On the 79 bus route along the Ditchling Road.’

‘So he’s on the bus,’ Imelda said.

‘Not when the third one is over here.’ Electra pressed a key, the map jerked sideways to display another blip moving more slowly along another road.

‘He dumped it,’ Dolores exclaimed. ‘I spent all day embroidering that.’

‘That’s almost clever.’ Imelda studied the location of the slower moving dot then kissed Electra on the top of her head. ‘We should go.’

‘He’s on foot.’

‘Let’s go!’ Imelda jumped with impatience. ‘This is it. It’s starting to happen, we’re going to do it.’

Electra folded down the console screen. ‘You’re right. Koponen’s ship is about to sail. Warm currents are flowing. The Dreamer will wake.’

Imelda’s eyes glowed. ‘I will be Vammatar.’

‘I will be Loviatar,’ Electra said.

Turning towards Dolores, the two women held out their arms. ‘And you will be Kivutar.’

Butterflies danced in Dolores’ stomach as she stepped into their embrace. ‘And she–?’

‘She will be Kipu-Tytto. She will become Tuoni’s bride and pay the price.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 47 – A Lonely End

Chapter 47 – A Lonely EndCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

The foreign thief fell into the turgid river like a stone and vanished. Banipal, the merchant and the young scribe hurried across the bridge to the downstream parapet and watched the surging river for signs of life.

Banipal had begun to believe Ekad had judged the man and found him guilty when the scribe pointed far out across the rolling brown water.

‘There.’

He followed the man’s arm and saw a bearded face briefly clear the water. A hand clutched at the air then fell back. The body emerged, face down and drifting soddenly with the current.

Grim faced, the merchant and scribe turned away. Alone, Banipal squinted into the sun and watched the body, now a black silhouette, drift past the reedy bank beneath the temples of Esagila quarter where Banipal himself lived and studied. Justice had been served yet Banipal felt pity for the foreign man. It was a lonely end, and far from home, with nobody to save his body from the fish and crocodiles in the marshlands downstream.

Banipal knew he had been a reluctant servant of Marduk today, only grudgingly visiting his nephew to accept a task he regarded as little more than a chore. To chide him, great Marduk brought him to Ekad’s bridge at the right moment to witness the lonely foreigner’s fate. The fate of a man abandoned by his gods, yet who held instruments of measurement and scale. The message was obvious.

Out of respect for the unknown life chosen to deliver that message Banipal decided to bear witness to the body until it had drifted from sight.

After a while he wondered if it was false movement from the reflected sunlight or if the man was in fact trying to swim. Banipal made a fist and peered through the gap between first and second finger. The restricted view cut out glare and focused attention, a hunter’s trick Ishkun had taught him.

He saw a half-drowned man struggle with the last of his strength towards the far bank. If he survived he would come ashore beneath the walls of the House of the Raised Head, Marduk’s own temple.

Enlightenment came to Banipal like a thunderbolt. Marduk had brought him and the foreigner together for a greater purpose. This was no message – it was a test.

‘Make way!’ Banipal cried, and ran across the bridge like the wind.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 46 – Don’t Be Afraid

Chapter 46 – Don’t Be AfraidCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

‘Mr Wassiter?’

A stocky man with cropped greying hair and dressed in dungarees and tough workman’s boots stood at the front door. He held a tray of carpenter’s tools in one hand, a folding workbench leaned on the wall.

‘Mr Tuppence? Come on up.’

‘That’s me, squire. Call me Ralf. Come to fix your door.’

Ralf slung the workbench over his shoulder, hefted his tool box and ran up the stairs. ‘Good bit of exercise, stairs,’ he said reaching the top. ‘Surprising how fit you can keep yourself in your daily life if you keep your eyes open.’

‘Tea?’ Builders lived on tea.

‘Now you’re talking. Earl Grey if you’ve got it. In a mug, three sugars and a splash of milk.’

When Tim returned, Ralf had his workbench set up and was inspecting the broken frame. ‘Your architrave is solid but the side post will have to come out. A bit of plastering and a lick of paint and Bob’s your uncle. Who did this then? Angry customer? I’d have given him what for. Blokes that behave like that deserve a punch on the nose.’

‘Actually, it was a woman,’ Tim said.

‘Crikey, what’s the world coming to?’ Ralf brightened as he noticed the mugs of tea and looked significantly at the filing cabinets. ‘Cheers, mate. I don’t suppose you’ve got anything to put in this have you? It’s just that I’d heard you private dicks always have a bottle in the bottom drawer, for when you get beaten up and so on.’

‘It’s the cheap stuff.’

‘Cor,’ Ralf said. ‘It’s actually true.’

A few minutes later Ralf nipped out for a trip to the timber yard. The room felt very quiet after his incessant stream of chatter. Tim tried to order his thoughts and decided to make a new list:

  1. Dolores Vogler
  2. The MK monogrammed handkerchief
  3. Markus Koponen, owner of Kylma Kala
  4. An Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight
  5. Some round lumps of rock, origin and composition unknown
  6. Pamphlets about crops

He thought for a moment, then added:

  1. Persistent Smith is missing
  2. Troy Jarglebaum’s warning

He read it through. Everything on the list was connected. As a generalised statement it cohered with his own philosophy, with this particular list intuition said it was especially true and the connections were direct and explicit.

He had no idea what most of them were.

The car belonged to Markus Koponen, that was obvious. He drew a loop that joined them together. The car was parked where he worked, therefore he knew where it was.

The seductive Dolores Vogler and her scary friends knew who owned the car because they had Koponen’s handkerchief. Dolores might have lied about him being her husband but it was a safe assumption Dolores knew exactly where the car was when she hired him to find it. More loops crossed the page.

This made no sense. Therefore, there had to be another reason. And how did the contents of the boot, Troy’s visit, and Smith’s disappearance fit in?

Tim shivered. “Disappeared” was a word with a wide range of causes and outcomes.

The flies patrolled under the lampshade. Long-distance cruises broken with brief, whirligig dogfights. They fulfilled their destinies with a sense of commitment and purpose. Or were they simply going around in circles?

Tim’s reverie was broken by the sound of voices and footsteps on the staircase.

‘Yes, Miss,’ Ralf said. ‘He’s up in his office. Mind your step as you go. The door’s off and my tools are out. Wouldn’t want to put a ladder in them tights.’

The woman’s voice was east coast American and instantly recognisable. Tim tore off the top sheet of his desk pad, folded it and slipped it into a drawer.

‘Stockings are they, Miss? Yes, oh, I can see they are.’ Ralf appeared at the top of the stairs red-faced.

‘Hello Miss Vogler,’ Tim said. ‘Why don’t you come in?’

Dolores wore her black hair swept over to one side under a wide-brimmed summer hat. The hat, like her open-collared jacket and panelled skirt, was midnight blue.

She stalked across the room like it was a catwalk, deposited her small triangular handbag beside the chair, and sat down. Tim was disconcerted to see Imelda follow Dolores into the room, a carrier bag in her hand. Behind them, speechless, Ralf stood holding his spirit level.

Imelda ran her finger along the level. ‘Do you know how to use that? Or would you like me to show you where it goes?’

‘I, er… I got some more stuff in the van.’ Ralf hurried away down the stairs.

Dolores crossed her legs.

Tim put his back to the desk. ‘I’ve found the car.’

‘Excellent. Where is it?’

Tim told her. Dolores and Imelda exchanged looks of exaggerated surprise.

‘I have a question,’ Tim said.

Hands folded in her lap, Dolores studied Tim with her dark eyes.

‘Why pay me to find a car when you already know where it is?’

‘Is that what we did, Mr Wassiter?’

‘I think so.’

‘Why would we do that?’

‘That’s my question.’

Imelda pushed herself off the wall. ‘Perhaps it was a test to find out how good Tim Wassiter is at his job. Little Tim. Timmy.’

‘How did I do?’

‘So many questions, Mr Wassiter. I’ve got one of my own.’ Imelda tossed him the bag.

Inside was the jacket Foxy had left in the car park.

‘You had some help,’ Imelda said. ‘We want to meet.’

Tim felt very cold. He folded his arms to stop his hands shaking. ‘I’m afraid that won’t be possible.’

‘Don’t be afraid,’ Imelda said.

‘And anything’s possible,’ Dolores said. ‘Show him.’

Imelda rolled her shoulders and cracked her knuckles. ‘My pleasure.’

Tim backed round the desk. ‘Hang on, it doesn’t have to come to this.’

‘I meant show him the money,’ Dolores said.

Dolores left her chair and perched on the edge of Tim’s desk, one leg swinging, her shoe dangling from her toes.

Imelda planted her booted foot on the edge of the desk. Her short, red leather dress rode high on her thigh revealing a money roll in her stocking top. Imelda removed it, peeled off fifty pound notes one after the other and let them fall to the floor.

Dolores stroked the edge of the desk with her fingers. ‘Come around here, Mr Wassiter. We don’t bite.’

Imelda laughed. ‘She doesn’t.’

‘Blimey!’ Ralf stood at the top of the stairs with gobstopper eyes on Imelda’s barely concealed posterior. He hurriedly looked away. ‘Excuse me.’

Imelda tucked the money roll back into her stocking, crossed the room and pressed her heel down on the steel toecap of Ralf’s boot. ‘Don’t you know it’s rude to stare?’

‘Ow.’ Ralf clutched his booted foot.

Dolores slid off the desk and smoothed her skirt. ‘Arrange a meeting with your associate. If you’re right about the car you’ll know how to contact us. If you’re wrong, then, oh dear, Imelda will have to visit again.’

Imelda casually bent one of Ralf’s screwdrivers into a ‘U’ shape.

‘Do you mind?’ Ralf said through gritted teeth. ‘They’re vintage Pozidrives.’

Dolores and Imelda left. Ralf sat on the floor and unlaced his boot.

Tim watched through the windows as the cream Mercedes drove away and let out a sigh of relief. Once more Dolores Vogler had sat on his desk and left a pile of high denomination banknotes. On her first visit she had been beautiful and seductive, her narrow-waisted, full hipped figure summoned up rarely used words like pulchritude as she approached and callipygous as she departed. Now that seduction had been replaced with crude threats.

Tim steadied his shaking hand. All things considered they were very effective threats, though when he thought about it neither Dolores or Imelda had actually threatened anything at all. It the way they didn’t say things that was so effective, the way Imelda had casually bent Ralf’s screwdriver in half.

‘I can’t get me boot off!’ Ralf said. ‘I got a run tonight.’

‘Heavy people,’ Tim said, half to himself.

‘You’re telling me.’ Ralf finally wrenched his foot free and massaging his toes.

And there was Foxy’s green jacket. Thank all the gods they didn’t know where she was. He had to warn her. He reached for the phone then decided he didn’t want to make the call with Ralf in the room.

‘I’m sorry about your screwdriver, Mr Tuppence,’ Tim said.

‘That’s not really the problem, it’s me foot. I can’t work without proper safety equipment. I promised the missus.’

Ralf and Tim regarded the dented steel toecap and Ralf’s surprisingly clean sock.

Ralf wiggled his toes. ‘I’ll have to come back tomorrow.’

Tim gathered up the money and gave two notes to Ralf. ‘For the boots.’

‘Thanks.’ Ralf looked Tim up and down. ‘No way I could do your job. You must be a lot tougher than you look.’

As soon as Ralf had left Tim picked up the phone. He let it ring. Finally Foxy answered.

‘It’s me, Tim. Foxy, listen. Some people came here with the jacket you lost in the car park. They want to talk to you.’

‘Well, that’s good. I can say thank you.’

‘I don’t think so. They’re not nice people.’ His heart was in his mouth. ‘It’s my fault you’re caught up in this. I’m sorry–’

Dolores had sat on his desk again. The same edge, the same place, something she seemed to make a habit of. The way she ran her fingers under the edge of the desk…

They had played him for the fool he was. All the seduction and threats and stocking-tops had been moves so obvious he hadn’t seen them for what they were. Damn it.

Foxy’s voice came down the line: ‘Hello? Are you still there?’

‘I’ve just realised something. I can’t say any more now. It’s important that we meet.’

‘OK. Why don’t you come over?’

‘Yes, but don’t tell me your address now, send me a text.’

The line went quiet. She’s processing all this, Tim thought. She’s smart and she’s fast.

‘All right,’ Foxy said. ‘I’ll do that now.’

Tim ended the call then knelt in front of the desk. It didn’t take long before his fingers found a flat, pea-sized object set in the angle between the desktop and the leg.

He prised the little metallic disk free. Anger filled him. Troy Jarglebaum would not have fallen for this.

Tim checked the rest of the desk, the chairs and under the rug. He dismantled the phone. There was nothing. If there was another bug he wouldn’t find it without a scanner.

His email pinged as Foxy’s note arrived. He memorised her address then deleted and erased the email.

It was time to go. A few hundred pounds still lay on the carpet. Tim grabbed the money and distributed it through the pockets of his old leather jacket.

He froze. Slowly he extracted the handkerchief with the heavily embroidered MK monogram and spread it on the desk. He stared at it sourly. So he was a fool, but a bigger fool didn’t learn from past mistakes.

He fetched a craft knife and a pair of fine-nosed pliers from his tool drawer and carefully scratched through the embroidery thread with the knife tip. Then he teased the cut threads apart with the pliers. Set into the pillar of the letter K was a narrow metal tube. A delicate aerial connected to it curled through the M. Tim smiled with grim satisfaction. Those women knew where he’d been all the time, it was how they had known he’d found the car.

He removed the tracker from the handkerchief and put it in an old envelope. For a long moment he thought about what to do with the desk bug, then snatched it up and flushed it down the toilet.

He picked up Foxy’s green jacket and went out. A few minutes later he was on the local bus. He took out the envelope holding the transmitter and pushed it down the side of the seat. After riding the bus for two more stops he disembarked, crossed the road and caught the bus going in the other direction.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 45 – Too Much Too Soon

Chapter 34 – Too Much Too SoonThe Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Smith was on his knees peering under the vending machine when he heard Heidi’s voice.

‘Hello again. Lost something?’

Embarrassingly aware that she could see his bottom Smith hastily clambered to his feet. ‘I didn’t have quite enough. There’s always some change under the machines.’

Today Heidi wore a long, black skirt, a deep green top, and an open black waistcoat embroidered with silver thread and little mirrors. This was something else Smith knew other people liked to do, wear different clothes every day.

‘Any luck?’

Smith held out his hand. ‘Two pounds twenty-three pence and a pencil.’

‘Not bad. What are you going to get?’

‘Chocolate.’

‘Excellent plan.’

Smith fed the machine. Snacks rumbled out of the slots into the tray and he stuffed them into his pockets. ‘Now I need water,’ he said, holding up his bottle.

‘The cooler’s empty.’

Smith didn’t much like fizzy drinks. He checked his money, selected the orangeade, the least-worst choice.

Heidi was looking at him.

He looked at her. She looked back. The urge to say something grew inside him, became an imperative, but what to say? He couldn’t think of anything, so he stuffed his hands in his pockets and grinned.

‘Well, here we are again,’ Heidi said.

Smith kept grinning and looked around. Every desk in the open-plan office was covered in scattered sheets of paper, with more strewn across the floor.

‘This place is a mess,’ Smith said.

‘Tell me about it. The air conditioning went crazy, like a hurricane. I’m meant to be working on the trial balance but it’s taken me this long just to find everything again. Everyone’s going to go mad in the morning.’

Even though he hadn’t caused the mess, Smith felt guilty. Unbidden, the Hand popped out of Smith’s pocket. ‘Crazy!’ it said. ‘Yeah, baby!’

Mortified, Smith grabbed the Hand and wrestled it back into his pocket. ‘Go away!’ he cried. ‘Never come back.’

Heidi, Smith noticed, covered her mouth when she laughed.

‘Sorry,’ Smith said, stony faced. ‘It won’t happen again.’

‘It’s OK,’ Heidi said between giggles. ‘That was unexpected.’

‘I can help tidy up.’

‘I’ve found what I need, the rest can wait.’ Heidi sighed. ‘I could use some help with the accounts. The trial balance won’t, and I can’t see why. You know anything about spreadsheets?’

‘Maybe.’

Heidi flashed him a smile. ‘Come and have a look.’

Feeling very grown-up, Smith did just that.

The spreadsheets were a revelation. Smith immediately saw how you could make lists with rows and columns. Cross-reference, add, divide, and take away. If this, then that. It was what computers were for and it was brilliant.

‘Wow,’ Smith said. ‘This is cool.’

‘It’s a living.’

Smith scanned the sheet, totalling in his head. He flipped back and forth through the sheets. When he saw it he laughed. Yes, that was it, numbers could be funny. Someone was playing a trick. His fingertip mashed against the screen. ‘There.’

Heidi sat back in her chair and considered. ‘You’re right,’ she said finally. ‘Thanks. Thanks a lot.’

Heidi called up more reports, cross-referenced between the worksheets on her screen and the print-outs. ‘I don’t understand the way Appropriations and the Suspense account have been set up. And so many cash receipts and contra entries, it’s confusing.’

Smith didn’t know about any of that, but patterns were fascinating. He leaned closer. His shoulder pressed against Heidi’s, but he didn’t notice as he muttered under his breath and ran his finger down the columns.

Now he knew about the trick he could follow it, see how the numbers flowed, divided and curved back on themselves. Then, when a few of the columns fed off into nowhere the ones that looped and doubled up concealed the loss. Almost.

‘There’s more,’ he said, and showed her.

Heidi looked at him open-mouthed in astonishment. ‘How did you do that?’

Suddenly, exquisitely, conscious of their touching shoulders, Smith moved away. ‘It’s easy.’

Heidi shook her head. ‘No. It really isn’t.’ She followed through where he led her and picked up on something he had missed. They traced it back and it was huge. When they had finished she wasn’t smiling.

Heidi spoke in a soft, conspiratorial whisper that made Smith feel excited. ‘I’ve got to report this.’

He rubbed his knees in happiness. ‘We’re on an Adventure!’

‘Yeah. Adventures in Accounting. Just the sort of jolly fun that gets you sacked.’

‘Aargh’ the Hand said. ‘We’re doomed.’

‘Who are you really?’ Heidi laughed. ‘And why are you here?’

‘My name is Derek Smith, sometimes called Persistent. I’m looking for a car.’

‘Have you found it?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where was it?’

‘In the car park.’

Heidi clapped her hands in delight. ‘Of course. Where else?’

Smith didn’t understand she found everything he said funny. Go with it, he told himself, half out of breath. This is the best adventure yet.

‘So you’re not some kind of auditor?’

The Hand wanted to join in. Smith stuffed both hands into his pockets. ‘Nope.’

‘How come you’re so good with numbers? I mean, you really are very good.’

Smith had never thought about it. It was an excellent question. She kept coming up with them. ‘Numbers make patterns. When the numbers are right the patterns feel nice.’

Heidi ran her hand through her hair. ‘Look, I’ve absolutely got to deal with this right now. How about going for a drink afterwards? Say half an hour?’

It was too much too soon. Panic welled up inside him. Talking, even looking, was OK, but going out? With a girl, in public. People might see. And then they’d know. ‘I– No, I can’t.’

‘Oh. All right.’ She looked so disappointed.

Smith had the most brilliant idea of his life. It was so good it rooted him to the spot. ‘Tomorrow! What about tomorrow?’

‘You’re sure?’

Smith took a deep breath. ‘Yes. I’m sure. I want to, I’d like it. Definitely. Indubitably. Absolutely.’

‘All right, then. It’s a date.’ Heidi fanned herself with her hand. ‘I mean, we have an appointment. For a drink.’

‘Yes. Great. Got to go. See you then.’

Heidi gave a small wave. ‘See you tomorrow.’

Smith arrived at the lifts with no knowledge of how he got there. His finger hovered over the ‘Down’ button. If he left the building how would he get back in? He grinned and pressed the ‘Up’ button instead. He’d spend another day in the tunnels. His toothbrush was tucked in its usual pocket, his fleece bulged with chocolate, biscuits and crisps and he had more drink. He’d be fine, and this time he’d lie low and play no games. Tomorrow evening he’d meet Heidi and they would Go Out For A Drink.

The lift arrived, the doors slid open. Smith stepped in and pressed the button for the top floor. He felt calm and excited at the same time.

‘Now you’ve done it,’ the Hand said.

‘Who asked you?’ Smith replied.

To be continued…

Less is More – Looking at Jack Vance

I love Jack Vance’s stories for their wit and imagination, and for his accomplished use of language. I’m not alone, he’s inspired a devoted readership*, significant critical praise, and some writers mimic his distinctive style.

Vance vividly describes worlds, cities, and dramatic encounters with great economy. Let’s examine one of my favourite examples of this from The Green Pearl, the second book in his brilliant Lyonesse trilogy, where good Prince Ailas fights the undefeated Ska.

“Again Ailas set up his ambush of archers and mounted knights in a copse beside the road. Presently the Ska contingent riding four abreast came into view: seasoned troops, confident but far from reckless. They wore conical black-enamelled steel helmets and shirts of chain mail, as well as greaves. They carried short lances, swords, chain-balls – the so-called ‘morning-stars’ – with bow and arrows in quivers at their saddlebows. As they came placidly along the road, thirty-five Troice knights charged from the copse and galloping downhill with lances levelled, struck into the rear third of the column. To cries of horror and shock the lances drove through chain mail and lifted the riders from their horses, to drop them in the dust beside the road.

Riding up the hill and reforming, they charged once more. From the copse poured arrows, each aimed with careful intent. The commander bawled orders to depart this place of death, and the column started off at full gallop. On the hillside four ropes were cut, allowing a great oak tree to topple across the road, and the Ska troops for a period lost their organization.

Finally, battling desperately, hand to hand, the Ska managed to collect in a small group. Three times Ailas called for surrender before pounding them again with his knights; three times the Ska absorbed the blows and reformed as best they could, and with stern faces hurled themselves upon their enemies.

There was to be no surrender; all would die on the sun-dappled road.”

What has happened here? A careful ambush, two groups of experienced warriors, implacable foes engaged in a brutal fight. In my mind’s eye I see the copse, the hill, the Ska in their armour. I feel the remorseless swing of the battle on the dusty road, the desperation and determination – and so much more.

I remember reading this passage for the first time. I turned the page, stopped reading, and went back and read it again. So much had happened in those four short paragraphs it was hard for me to absorb. The images and emotions he had created were overwhelmingly intense.

Later on I went back and tried to understand how he had done what he had done. What could I learn? Try it now for yourself – re-read the passage, then turn over the scene in your mind. Landscape, drama, and emotion, all you are now thinking about was summoned by just 251 words.

I’m not a great fan of deconstructive criticism. It seems to me you either risk taking the work apart so deeply it turns to smoke and blows away, or you read intent into the process that never existed. Without the author input – and Vance was very reluctant to talk about his works – all you have is opinion and speculation. Even so, with this example you can look at the passage and see what Vance is doing – and not doing ­­– and then think about why he wrote it that way.

These are some of the things I see:

Description: He describes the enemy Ska troops in detail, but not the Troice ambushers. He tells us how very well the enemy are equipped and that they are elite troops and nobody’s fools. On the other hand we know nothing about Ailas’s men’s equipment or quality. Good or bad, we do not know, and yet we are on their side. I can see how this creates additional tension as the ambush opens because we know their mettle has to match that of the Ska, but we don’t know in advance if it will.

Language: He uses very specific words and phrases.  Paired words like copse and hill create landscape. Then there is another crank on tension’s ratchet when ‘came placidly’ is followed by ‘charged’ and then, ‘galloping’. There’s also a great use of the narrative power of three: three times the call to surrender, three times a desperate survival. ‘Battling desperately … a small group’ refuses surrender. Almost now my sympathies have changed towards the doomed but valiant Ska.

Structure: The paragraphs get shorter and shorter and each has a single job. The first sets the scene and unfurls the action. The second demonstrates the effectiveness of the trap. The third compares the doomed courage of the Ska with Ailas’s mercy. And the fourth is the outcome – “all would die on the sun-dappled road.“ Brief, tragic, and quite poetic.

It’s impossible for me to say how much of this was conscious intent or the instinctive skill of a master craftsman and storyteller. But the paragraph structure of this scene feels deliberate, and the selection of nouns, verbs and adverbs is careful and specific. I think this scene is a wonderful example of Vance’s controlled and accurate style, and there’s a great deal to think about and learn from these 251 words.

~

* Few writers can have fans prepared to re-issue their entire body of work, edited and restored as originally intended, an ‘author’s cut’ of their books. I count myself fortunate to have the six-volume condensed edition of this Vance Integral Edition, or VIE.

~

(This was originally posted in a slightly different form on the Milford SF Writers blog in May 2018.)

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 44 – Crud

Tim needs a stiff drink in:

Chapter 43 – ConsultantsCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

The one thing that hadn’t been on Tim’s to-do list was identification of the potato-shaped lump from the sack in the boot of the Imperial. He rinsed it under the tap and it sat on the kitchen draining board, cold and dense and uninformative.

Tim knew who he needed to call, he just didn’t want to. Finally, reluctantly, he went into his office, picked up the phone and dialled.

For once Troy Jarglebaum played it straight. ‘Tim, I’m glad you’ve called. Where are you?’

‘At home.’

‘Stay there. I’m coming over.’

A few minutes later Troy pulled up in an unmarked, dark blue saloon. Tim opened the front door. ‘Come on up.’

Jarglebaum’s tread sounded heavy on the stairs. He paused on the landing and studied the broken frame. ‘Things are going on, Tim. Missing people. Odd stuff. Strange things, strange even for coppers.’

His serious tone made Tim feel off-balance. Today Jarglebaum was not the bluff, overconfident person he was used to. He looked and sounded worried.

‘Do you want a drink?’ Tim gestured towards the filing cabinet. ‘I took your advice.’

Jarglebaum wiped his mouth. ‘To be honest, yes I would.’

Tim opened the drawer and fetched out the quarter-bottle and tooth glasses with a strange sense of déjà vu. He had just taken another step along the road to becoming a true PI. Today it was the police who wanted something and he was the one they had come to.

Jarglebaum knocked back the drink and bared his teeth. ‘Christ, what is this?’

‘It says whisky on the label.’

‘How much did you pay for it?’

‘Not a lot.’

‘Do my guts a favour and put your rates up.’ Jarglebaum poured himself another two fingers. ‘You know Derek Smith?’

‘Yes, and I know he’s missing. Is that why you’re here?’

Jarglebaum looked impressed. ‘How do you know?’

‘I spoke to his mother. He was doing some work for me. The job was over, I wanted to let him know.’

‘That job being?’

‘The missing car.’

‘You found it?’

‘Yes.’

Once again Jarglebaum managed to amaze Tim. ‘Kylma Kala. Markus Koponen.’

‘You know him?’

Jarglebaum drank half his whisky. ‘We’re acquainted.’

That was less of a surprise, Jarglebaum seemed to know everyone. Tim was almost pleased to see a flash of the old attitude. ‘How long has Derek been missing?’

’Not long. The guy seems to be a bit of a fruit-bat. His mother said he was “special”.’

‘He’s a friend.’

‘OK. Well, don’t worry, he’s probably fine. Most missing persons turn up right as rain.’

‘Troy, is this official?’ Tim asked.

‘No.’ Jarglebaum polished off his second drink and put the glass down. ‘There’s some heavy stuff in Brighton right now. People are getting hurt. There was this girl in a pet shop got her hand crushed. Christ on a bike, Tim, they killed the animals.’

Tim tried to keep the shock out of his voice. ‘This is something to do with the car?’

Jarglebaum hesitated. Tim pointed to the bottle. ‘Another?’

‘Not bloody likely. That last shot gave me heartburn.’

‘Troy, there’s something you can help me with.’

Much to his surprise Jarglebaum didn’t crow. ‘What is it?’

Tim fetched the potato-sized lump of rock from the draining board. ‘I need to know what this is.’

‘It looks like a lump of crud.’

‘Yes, but what is it made of?’

‘Where did you find it?’

‘In a sack in the boot of the car.’

Jarglebaum raised his eyes then hefted the rock and put it down. ‘Tim, I know you don’t think much of police procedure and maybe all this mumbo-jumbo you’re into works, but for once just try thinking this through. Think about where you found it and the bigger picture. Get it all down on paper, make some notes and use your noggin. Maybe you can work it all out for yourself. It might be better that way.’

Tim was disappointed, Jarglebaum usually took such pleasure in showing off how well-informed he was. Now he was… Was Jarglebaum actually trying to protect him?

‘I get you don’t want to tell me, but do you actually know?’

‘Haven’t a clue.’ Jarglebaum looked steadily at Tim. ‘Yeah, well, I’ve got to go.’ He paused at the broken door frame. ‘And just how did this happen?’

‘A dissatisfied customer.’

‘I hope he’s paying for it.’

‘She. Yes, she is.’

‘You get this fixed. That’s official advice so you’d better take it. You’re a chump but I wouldn’t like anything on my– What’s the word, that thing I never use?’ Troy grinned, slapped Tim on the shoulder and stomped down the stairs.

Alone in his office Tim considered everything Troy had told him. And everything he hadn’t. Jarglebaum liked to give the impression he knew a lot more than he was prepared to tell. Sometimes it was bluff but usually he actually did. Whatever Jarglebaum knew now it concerned him enough to warn Tim. He hadn’t come to warn him off, quite the opposite, he’d encouraged Tim to carry on. Which meant Jarglebaum was involved in a way that constrained him.

That was hard to believe. Jarglebaum was a bully, a chauvinist and a hard drinker, but never a crook. Whatever was going on it involved the car, Markus Koponen, and that lump of rock, and it wasn’t over yet.

He thought about Imelda and the door frame. With cold certainty he knew the woman Jarglebaum said had been hurt was Gabby with pink hair. She’d suffered because of him, what could they think she knew that he didn’t? His eye came to rest on the whisky bottle and the two glasses, one dirty, one clean. He hadn’t wanted a drink while Troy was here but he did now.

The raw spirits burned like gasoline. Troy was right once again: the whisky was atrocious.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 43 – Consultants

Chapter 43 – ConsultantsCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

Down in the control room of the Kylma Kala offices Ralf Tuppence scratched his head with a 12mm socket wrench and scowled at the environmental management display.

‘I don’t understand it,’ he said. ‘We installed it, we tested it, we got it signed off. Now it don’t bleedin’ work.’

Ralf’s companion was a big lad with a crew-cut, bulging pectorals and sleeve-straining biceps. He pointed at the display with a large finger. ‘There’s a blockage, Mr Tuppence. Up there.’

‘Well spotted, Tiny. Fetch the step-ladder and we’ll take a look. And call me Ralf, I’m not the foreman.’

‘Yes, Mr Ralf.’

Tired from his exploration of the building, Smith had retired to his nest of sheets in the ducting of the top floor. The bang and rattle of ventilation grilles being removed alerted him just in time. He grabbed his fleece and squirmed up into the roof void.

Ralf tugged on his braces. ‘Right, lad, what are we here for?’

Tiny frowned. ‘Fix the air-con?’

‘Bang on, except these days we’d say “malfunction identification and remedy” instead of “fix”.’

‘Do we still say “air-con”?’

‘What we have here is an atmosphere management and control system incorporating absolute filters for particulate allergens, optimised temperature and humidity via regenerative heat pumps and electronic gateways managed by artificially intelligenced computers.’

‘Blimey.’

‘Indeed. We’ve come a long way from opening a window.’

‘What’s wrong with it?’

‘Good question. Short answer, dunno. Long answer? Haven’t a clue. What we do know is that with all these noises and what-have-you, the computer saying some gates are opening when they should be shut, Mr Koponen wants it sorted out pronto. Hence this tidy piece of overtime.’

Smith decided the best thing to do would be to absent himself to another part of the building. He backed away, his boot thumped into the rear wall and an echoing boom rolled down the ducting and out of the conference room vents.

‘Get that ladder, Tiny,’ Ralf said.

By the time they were set up Smith was long gone, elbowing through the ducting to the opposite side of the room. In his haste he knocked a side panel.

Ralf and Tiny looked at the new source of noise.

‘That came from over there, Mr Ralf.’

‘Yes, lad.’

Tiny hugged himself. ‘It’s moving around, Mr Ralf, like an animal.’

‘It’s echoes from different vents,’ Ralf said at the top of the ladder. He pushed up a ceiling tile and peered into the roof void. ‘Looks like some bolts have pulled free and a seam’s gone. Put your foot on the bottom step, I’m going up.’

Tiny’s eyes grew round. ‘Be careful, it might be up there.’

‘Don’t be daft, big lad like you.’

Standing on the topmost step, Ralf reached into the void. ‘Looks like somebody left a pencil up here. Got it. Right, let’s take a look over the other side.’

Smith backed away. Then the Hand was there, it fixed him straight in the eye and said, ‘They’ve captured the pencil. Stay here and we’ll be next.’

They scooted down to the next floor. Tiny’s voice floated after them through the vents. ‘It IS an animal, Mr Ralf. There’s something alive in there.’

The Hand insisted Smith slow down. Just one more down ramp and they would be safe.

‘Excellent work, soldier.’ the Hand said as they reached the bottom.

‘Sir, thank you, sir!’ Smith attempted a salute and whacked his funny-bone.

‘AOOARGHAHARHAR!’

Two floors above, Ralf and Tiny listened to the hollow booms and eerie hooting. A shiver ran up Ralf’s spine. He took the heavy rubber mallet from his toolbox, the weight reassuring in his hand. Things hit by a mallet stayed hit. ‘Come along, lad.’

Tiny’s eyes were as large as gobstoppers. ‘It almost sounds human, Mr Ralf.’

‘Don’t be daft.’

Tiny didn’t move.

‘Look at the size of you. What have you got to be scared of?’

‘I don’t know, Mr Ralf. That’s the thing.’

Ralf grabbed the lapels of Tiny’s boiler suit. ‘Look, I know this is your first evenin’ and I know it’s a bit weird, but remember this: we are Building Maintenance Engineers and we get the job done.’

‘It’s me imagination, Mr Ralf. I read a lot of science fiction.’

‘You’re my apprentice. You ain’t got an imagination till I send you to stores to fetch one.’

‘No, Mr Ralf.’

‘Take this.’ Ralf held out the mallet and Tiny took it.

‘Now, come along.’ Ralf strode away down the empty corridor.

Tiny anxiously twisted the mallet in his hands. With a soft, rubbery pop the head came off. ‘Er–’ He stashed the parts in his pockets then hurried after Ralf.

Always ahead of them, Smith headed down through the office levels, the post room, the canteen, and finally reception on the ground floor. There he discovered a hatch in the ducting floor opened to reveal vertical tube set with rungs. He descended and discovered the car park.

Deep in the shadows at the back he found a black Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight with Finnish plates.

Smith had never been afraid of the dark, it was just the same as daytime with the lights off. Where otherwise perfectly sensible grown-ups tried to convince themselves there was nothing there but didn’t quite believe it, Smith knew the only scary things in the dark were the things from his imagination. They made it fun to be scared and when the fun was over they went away.

Crouched in the cool, dank gloom beside the Chrysler, Persistent Smith brimmed with quiet satisfaction. The pattern that ran from Tim Wassiter through himself to Clive Barnett, the computer, this building, and the car, was complete. He had earned his fee.

Faint, perplexed voices came from the ventilation duct. Smith grinned, unzipped and zipped his fleece then clambered back into the air conditioning.

#

An hour later, hot, dirty and tired, Ralf and Tiny staggered into the top floor conference room.

‘I don’t think I can do any more stairs, Mr Ralf.’

‘Me neither, lad.’ Ralf wiped his face with his hanky. ‘I think I’ll skip the running club tonight.’

‘It’s doing me crust in, Mr Ralf. We’ve been on every floor, right down to the basement and back. Just when we get close it moves away. What are we going to do?’

Ralf’s stubble rasped as he rubbed his jaw. It was a good question. His eyes settled on the remote control on the conference table and held down the buttons. ‘Let’s try flushing the system.’

High overhead came the ascending whirr of great fans spinning faster and faster. The gentle breeze from the air vents grew to a roar. Freezing air blasted from the vents, loose papers blew round the room and frost-ferns crawled across the windows. Ralf and Tiny shook with cold. Ralf reset the controls. As the wind noise died down something big and soft thumped against the back of one of the grills.

Mist from Ralf’s breath plumed in the cold air. ‘Take a look at that, Tiny.’

Tiny removed the grill and extracted yard after yard of tangled dust sheet.

The two men looked down at the rumpled heap of material with the pride of Neolithic hunters beside a downed elk.

‘We done it, Mr Ralf! That’s the problem. It’s been blowing round the whole building with you and me chasing after it.’

Ralf prodded the sheet with the toe of his boot. ‘What muppet left that in there, do you think?’

‘Wasn’t me.’

‘Never said it was.’

‘It wasn’t an animal after all, Mr Ralf.’

‘No lad, it wasn’t.’

The two men acknowledged the fact with slow nods. Both felt a relief neither would ever fully acknowledge.

‘After all this mucking about I reckon we can call ourselves Consultants.’

‘You reckon?’

‘Absolutely. Now, let’s pack up and get down the chip shop.’

#

Up in the roof void Smith’s tummy rumbled. He and the Hand grinned down at the two men and quietly laughed. Smith blew on his fingers, the air had been freezing but his fleece had kept him warm.

‘It saved your life,’ the Hand said. ‘Mine too.’

It had been fun, but Smith was tired. He remembered his long bath times back home, along with the glass of cold milk and biscuits that followed, so much better than a shower with a dust sheet for a towel.

Heidi might be working late again. A strange excitement burned in his chest. Before he left the building he’d clean himself up, get some food and see if she was there.

The Hand rolled its head. ‘So, we’re going to see her again.’

An unfamiliar mood came over Smith. He turned the Hand into a fist, splayed his fingers and rubbed his palms together.

‘No,’ Smith said. ‘Just me.’

To be continued…