The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 8 – The White Ibex

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Chapter 8 – The White Ibex

‘There, see? Stay low, keep quiet and watch her flight.’

Ishkun turned his friend so he could see the path of the bird. ‘Doves fly straight to water. On the way back they take a more cautious path.’

This Banipal could see, this difference in behaviour he understood along with the need to stay downwind of quarry.

‘I will make a hunter of you yet,’ Ishkun said when they knelt beside a doe gazelle struck down by their arrows. Ishkun’s arrow lay deep in its chest close to the heart, a near-perfect shot. Banipal’s lay further back behind the ribs, a respectable strike.

‘A killing blow,’ Ishkun congratulated Banipal as he carefully cut the arrow free. ‘She would have bled out within a few minutes from that alone.’

‘I aimed for her heart, but she moved.’

‘You must aim for where she will be when the arrow arrives, not where she stands when you fire.’

‘I feared I would miss altogether and slay another tree.’

‘You are not that bad,’ Ishkun said. ‘Accept my praise for a decent shot.’

Despite his protests Banipal was pleased with himself. This trip he was surprised to find himself enjoying the hunt almost as much as he enjoyed his friend’s company. Ishkun was right, he would have slain this doe on his own, though it would have run for a while. Ishkun’s own arrow, striking the doe a fleeting moment after Banipal’s, had dropped the gazelle to its knees and saved them the chase.

At first the liquid black eyes and long lashes of these beautiful animals had summoned difficult emotions in Banipal’s heart. Their first kill, less clean than this one, required Ishkun to sprint forwards and cut the kicking animal’s throat. They had tracked it half the day and it had taken all of Ishkun’s bantering good humour to maintain Banipal’s enthusiasm through the long hours of heat and dust.

Thinking to see reproach in the death-gaze Banipal knelt beside the creature, placed his hand over its face and closed the eyes.

Ishkun mistook Banipal’s actions for piety. Chastened and impressed he had sacrificed that first beast to Ninurta and burnt it on a great pyre of brushwood they gathered over the rest of the day.

It seemed Ishkun’s decision had been the correct one. Ninurta blessed the hunt and the following day they killed a yearling wild ox they separated from its herd.

With their beards salt-stained with sweat and arms red to the elbows after gutting the animal, Banipal sacrificed to Ea while Ishkun again made offering to Ninurta.

Some minutes later a young man from a local village appeared and offered them the hospitality of the guest-house in exchange for some of the meat.

Banipal and Ishkun exchanged a shared look of agreement.

‘We gift you the entire animal,’ Ishkun said.

The villager bowed, delighted. ‘You are blessed.’

Ishkun made the sign of Ea. ‘We are all blessed.’

#

That evening Ishkun and Banipal floated naked in a covered stone cistern inside the villages small temple complex – in reality a God-house shared by all the deities.

‘This is the life,’ Ishkun said. ‘Mankind, with the blessings of the Gods, is born to hunt. There is little better than the company of friends.’

Two members of the sisterhood of Inanna entered the room, their heads covered by opaque grey veils, their bodies in white cotton robes. They stood at the door until Ishkun and Banipal knelt in the water and made Inanna’s sign of The Shared Gifts. They returned the sign, knelt beside the cistern and began to comb and oil the men’s hair. Beakers of beer were to hand, the tantalising smell of roasting ox drifted in from the oven pits outside.

Playfully Ishkun splashed water over the priestess beside him. Already wet from washing Ishkun’s hair and beard, her white linen shift clung to her body, translucent with water.

The priestess gave a low laugh and filled a bowl of water from the cistern. She dumped it over Ishkun’s head and pushed him under the surface.

He surged up, his face contorted with mock outrage, and seized her wrists. He pulled, she resisted, a gentle tug of war followed, one that she easily won. Ishkun released her and bowed in acknowledgment of her free will. In return she lay her palm on his brow. He knelt in the water and again made the sign. The priestess removed her shift but not her veil and stepped into the water beside him.

’I cannot fault you,’ Banipal said quietly as he watched them join together. He drank deeply from the beer, still thirsty from the long, hot hunt. As he did his eyes met those of the other priestess.

Banipal knew he lacked the boisterous charisma of his friend, and his own body was slighter and less heavily muscled. He had never considered himself handsome. None of these were reasons to refuse Inanna’s gift, yet he felt shy. Banipal bowed, pressed his hands together and made the sign. The priestess stood still for a moment, then disrobed. Banipal marvelled at the sleek curves of her beauty, that he could be so blessed, that Inanna blessed his own body in return. Gifts to be shared. The veiled priestess stepped down into the water to join him. They held each for a moment while she studied his face through her veil. Then she embraced him. He was more than ready and she welcomed him. Together they joined in Inanna’s holy embrace while Ishkun and the other priestess celebrated beside them.

#

Later that night Ishkun found Banipal sitting alone, pushing slivers of wood into a pomegranate.

Banipal held up the round fruit, turning it in the fire light. ‘There is something I just don’t see, my friend. Something here I cannot work out.’

‘The world is much bigger than a pomegranate.’ Ishkun took the fruit from Banipal. ‘I wish I could help you, but my mind is unsuited to the task, tired or rested, drunk or sober. You will find it easier to think about this in the morning and I will be better able to listen.’

‘You are right.’ Banipal took back the pomegranate and tossed it into the fire.

‘It will come to you one day, if it is meant to be.’

Banipal stared into the fire. ‘Explain something to me, Ishkun. I know you love this life and I know trying to understand what I do frustrates you. Why, then, do you keep returning to it?’

‘Ninurta is a wise God. Although he is Lord of War and delights in combat he wishes to be entertained by more than unskilled hacking and slaughter. To honour the Gods we must strive to be complete. I believe each one of us needs three challenges: one for the hands, another for the spirit, a third for the mind. Therefore, I hunt and make weapons, I bend my knee and my will to Ninurta, and I try to follow your numbers.’

‘It is a good philosophy,’ Banipal said, struck by Ishkun’s wisdom.

‘We are not always fated to succeed, but we must try.’

Banipal nodded with growing understanding. ‘This has done me a deal of good, Ishkun. I hear the truth in what you say. This is a right life and from now on I shall not neglect it.’ He filled two shallow bowls with the village’s cloudy beer, handed one to Ishkun and raised the other in salute to his friend. ‘Thank you for taking me away from the temple and my own fascinations.’

Ishkun touched his cup to Banipal’s and they drank. ‘You are welcome. Though I am also thinking you will soon wish to return to Esagila.’

Banipal heard the disappointment in Ishkun’s voice and told a white lie. ‘I am not ready yet. Let Ninurta decide when the hunt is over.’

#

In the morning Ishkun borrowed a pair of asses from the headman, promising to return them along with meat and hides in payment for their loan.

The days of the hunt passed, days of heat and weariness, frustration and laughter, stealth and sudden action. Banipal found himself less troubled by the eyes of the animals they killed. Reduced to hides and cuts of meat the beasts had no ability to haunt him. After each kill they would skin the animal, light a fire, cut the meat into strips and hang it to dry. Ishkun showed Banipal how to strip and prepare gut and sinew for their bows, and how to rub the ash of the fire into the flesh side of the skin, a crude tanning that would preserve them until they could be properly treated.

Boys from the village came to guard the meat, listen to the men’s stories round the fire at night, and take the laden asses back to the village.

One day Banipal and Ishkun were on the trail of a magnificent white Ibex. They were a good hour behind their quarry when Banipal found his mind wandering.

’Ishkun, do you remember the cistern at that village temple?’

Ishkun grinned, ‘How could I forget?’

‘Did you not notice how the level rose as the priestesses entered the water?’

‘Thinking back, I cannot in all honesty say that I noticed.’

‘I’ve just realised something. If you measured the rise you would know how much space she occupied.’

Incredulous, Ishkun stared at his friend and roared with laughter. ‘Truly, I shall never understand you.’

The trail was clear, they took after the ibex at an easy jog and began to gain on it. The wind shifted, the ibex caught their scent and began to run. Ishkun raised the pace and they settled into a fast trot he knew would wear the swift beast down.

Late in the afternoon they came to a stand of wild palm. High grasses and thorny acacia lay across their path. Thinking the ibex may have gone to ground Ishkun lead them towards the palms. Suddenly he dropped to a crouch and motioned Banipal down beside him.

Swiftly Banipal knelt and gave Ishkun a questioning look.

Moving very slowly Ishkun unslung his bow and nocked an arrow. He nodded towards the tall grass a few yards ahead of them.

‘Lion,’ Ishkun mouthed.

Then Banipal saw it. A huge male, bloody muzzled, crouched over the body of the ibex. It watched them steadily and rumbled long and low in its throat.

‘He thinks we’re after his kill,’ Ishkun whispered. ‘Draw your bow.’

‘Will he attack?’

‘He’s thinking about it.’

‘What good will these demon-buggered arrows be?’

‘None whatsoever unless you can put one in his eye.’

Banipal felt a dead weight in his belly. ‘Marduk preserve us.’

Ishkun took a deep breath. ‘I am going to stand. When I do, rise slowly with me.’

Smoothly Ishkun rose to his feet, keeping the tension on his bowstring. Banipal followed, silently cursing the trembling in his legs. Now he could see the lion clearly, see its back legs shuffling and its haunches twitching with tension. It glared at them, and lashed its tail.

Tipping back his head, Ishkun laughed lightly. His hand pressed on the small of Banipal’s back and moved him along. ‘Tell me about the cistern again.’

‘What?’

Ishkun laughed again. ‘We are going to walk slowly away. I am going to be amazed and fascinated by your tale. The lion will see we do not fear him. No, do not look at it.’

‘All right,’ Banipal said doubtfully.

‘Now, begin.’

Slowly they walked away, Ishkun regularly exclaiming in wonderment at Banipal’s revelations.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 7 – Little Pests

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Chapter 7 – Little Pests

Someone was ringing the doorbell and they were ringing it a lot. Long, sustained rings came interspersed with short finger-jabs. Sets of equal-length jangles stretched into a great, drawn-out clamouring, grew shorter and closer together before ceasing entirely. After a brief pause another manic pattern began.

‘I’m coming,’ Tim shouted. The ringing continued unabated. ‘I’m coming.’

Nobody but nobody ever rang the doorbell. He’d forgotten it was there let alone that the thing still worked. It had to be kids or some hyper-active delivery person. It wouldn’t be Smith, he always used the phone.

As he hurried down the stairs a sustained ring passed a sonic pain threshold and bored like a drill in his skull.

‘Stop it!’ Tim flung open the door. ‘What the f–?’

‘Hello!’ Foxy cheerfully shouted above the sound of the bell. Dressed in a soft high-collared raspberry top, cream pencil skirt and shoes that seemed to consist of nothing but arching heels and ankle straps, she danced on her toes. ‘I need a bell, let’s go shopping.’

Tim stared in amazement, blinked, swallowed, then lifted her finger away from the bell. ‘No. Believe me, you do not. Nor do your neighbours.’

Foxy’s face fell. ‘You’re cross with me. You gave me your card and I came to see you. Now, without saying a word, apart from these words now, somehow I’ve upset you.’

‘Most people just ring once or twice. Short rings.’

‘I’ll do that next time.’ Foxy drew a finger across and down her chest. ‘Cross my heart and hope to die.’

She looked so serious, Tim’s irritation evaporated. ‘Come on in. It’s good to see you.’

‘Really?’

‘Yes, it really is.’

Tim stood to one side and Foxy stepped past him into the hall bringing a sea-fresh aroma with her.

At the top of the stairs Foxy was still apologetic. ‘The button said ‘Press’, so I pressed it.’

‘It really doesn’t matter.’

‘OK.’ Foxy looked around Tim’s second-hand furnished office with approval. ‘So, this is where you hang out and do your detectiving.’

Tim considered the balding carpet, battered desk and faded paintwork. ‘It’s a start, I’m going to–’

‘It’s wonderful!’ Foxy spun full circle. Her rotating heel bored a hole through the old carpet, the torn warp and weft gathered in a ball under her shoe.

‘You like it?’ Tim said, surprised and pleased.

‘Do I ever. You must have worked so hard to get this look. It’s so run down, authentic “shabby noir”, just the right side of sleazy.’

Was that a compliment? Tim hoped so. ‘I just threw a few things together.’

‘I’m impressed.’

As she turned into profile Tim noticed her tummy had the slightest and to his mind delightful bump. It was a stomach that should be stroked, Tim fantasised, quite sure that if stomachs had opinions that was exactly what it would want. Stroked, or used as pillow after…

‘What’s wrong?’ Foxy tugged down the hem of her top. ‘Doesn’t this go? I thought it was OK.’

‘No, it’s fine, I– Would you like some tea?’

‘I don’t like hot drinks.’

‘Water?’

‘Do I look dry?’

Not in the slightest, Tim thought, caught by the band of dusty freckles under her eyes. ‘I’m just trying to help you relax.’ He pointed to the chair. ‘Please, sit down.’

‘No thanks. It’s not easy–’ Foxy thought for a moment, ‘–in this skirt. But you’re right, I’m all agitated. You noticed because you’re a detective. You gave me your card and here I am, for your detective help.’

Disappointment fleetingly clouded Tim’s mind. ‘Is it the cats?’

‘Oh, you’re good, aren’t you? First you notice I’m a bit stressed, then you guess it’s the cats.’

‘I used to be in the police but I wasn’t very successful,’ Tim said and immediately wondered why he confessed to that.

‘Everyone knows the police are slow and stupid.’

Troy Jarglebaum’s paunchy, jowled bulk loomed in Tim’s mind. ‘Not all of them. Some are clever and sly.’

‘The police wouldn’t help me. They just laughed and told me to keep my doors and windows shut. They’re still all over the place. Somehow they keep getting in, they won’t leave me alone.’

‘The police?’

‘The cats. One or two I can deal with, but there’s too many. I’m running out of places to…’ Foxy’s hand went to her mouth. ‘Where’s your cat?’

‘I don’t know. He went missing a few days ago.’

‘Oh goodness, what does he look like?’

‘He’s a Turkish Van, white with a ginger tail and ears.’

‘I haven’t seen one like that.’

‘Thanks, anyway.’

‘Well… That’s a good thing, probably. Can you find out where they’re coming from?’

‘No,’ Tim said. ‘But I might be able to make them go away.’

‘Good.’ Foxy produced a semi-circular mother-of-pearl comb and ran it through her hair, once to each side, and once down the middle. ‘I’m ready. What’s the plan?’

‘The pet shop in the south Lanes. We can get some humane pest control.’

‘That’s what cats are, aren’t they? Pests.’ Foxy spoke with some venom.

‘Not all of them,’ Tim protested.

‘Maybe not but they’re starting to get to me.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 6 – Persistence

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Chapter 6 – Persistence

Tim woke slowly, something was – not wrong, just different. Despite last night’s beers it was not a hangover. Roped into an impromptu darts match he had stayed the entire evening. Half-asleep in the pre-dawn light he shifted his legs and felt a familiar and much missed weight across his feet.

Delight filled him. ‘Morse! You utter rascal, where have you been?’

He reached for the light. It wasn’t Morse.

A plump, black, green-eyed Manx cat sprawled at the bottom of the bed. Around its neck was a red leather collar with an enamelled red and gold Welsh dragon for a nametag. This member of the unusual tailless breed belonged to Mrs Woosencraft. The cat gave Tim a look of casual disregard then lay its head between its paws and went back to sleep.

‘Oh no you don’t.’ Tim rolled out of bed and pulled on trousers and tee-shirt. ‘Come on you lump, I don’t know how you got in here but I know where you came from and you’re going home.’

He scooped up the cat and it sagged artlessly in his hands. Tim hung it over one arm while he unhooked its claws from the blanket.

Out in the hallway Tim checked his watch: 5:30 am. With the excitement of thinking Morse had returned he was wide awake. He put the cat down on the floor, where it began to wash.

‘I don’t blame you coming up here,’ Tim told it. ‘Sharing your home with eighteen other cats can’t be easy. Well, seventeen, what with one missing. Still, a one-nineteenth part of extra living space can’t be very noticeable.’

The kettle boiled and Tim made the tea.

‘Right, let’s see which one you are.’ He picked up the cat and it was content to sit on Tim’s knee and be stroked. He turned the nametag over and saw ‘Woosencraft’ engraved there, her phone number was at the bottom, and in the centre, ‘Pedwar’.

‘Hello, Pedwar.’ Tim scratched it behind the ears. Pedwar purred and pushed his head against Tim’s fingers. Tim yawned, his early morning burst of energy had faded. ‘It’s time to take you home…in a minute…’

The sun was in his eyes when Tim woke again, feeling well rested and content. Pedwar was gone from his lap but unlike Morse, Tim knew exactly where he was.

Ten minutes later Tim rapped the heavy iron ring knocker on Mrs Woosencraft’s front door. Pedwar hung comfortably in the crook of his other arm.

He knocked again and as he did the door slowly swung ajar. Instinctively Tim checked around the lock – the wood was intact, the paint undamaged, there was no sign of forced entry. Mrs Woosencraft liked to think she was capable but she was growing old and forgetful. He pushed the door open and stepped inside. A narrow hall ran straight ahead. Two closed doors were on the left, the stairs on the right.

‘Mrs Woosencraft? It’s Tim. Are you there?’

As soon as he stepped across the threshold Pedwar came alive in his arm, plumped to the floor and raced upstairs.

Apart from the certain fusty bouquet nineteen admittedly clean and well-behaved cats would bring to any small terraced house, the single word that best described Mrs Woosencraft’s home was comfortable. Odours of baking, polish, and laundry filled the air.

Tim shut the front door and made sure it was shut. He called out again. ‘Mrs Woosencraft?’

She was not in the front room, a space surprisingly free of clutter. A carriage clock ticked in the centre of the mantelpiece, two large brass candlesticks flanked the fireplace, an aspidistra grew in a blue chamber pot in the centre of the bay window.

A narrow display cabinet in the near corner was filled with a menagerie of small glass animals, some elegant, some as grotesque as those from a medieval bestiary – a giraffe, a turtle, an oddly-shaped duck, and many more. A massive black oak dining table with heavy barley-sugar legs, clawed feet and a plain top occupied the centre of the room. The table was very old and showed it. One of the legs had split along the grain, the corners of the top were rounded and worn, the surface scratched and chipped from numerous incidents across numberless years. Yet like the rest of the room it was spotless, dust free, and shone with the deep gloss of decades of beeswax polish. Apart from a silver and blue-glass condiment set[1] its surface was bare.

The clatter of oven trays came from the kitchen at the back of the house. Tim realised with some relief that Mrs Woosencraft was baking.

‘Hello, Mrs W. It’s Tim.’

Bore da[2],’ she called back. ‘Come on through.’

Tim went through to the back room. Every surface dripped cats. One sprawled on top of a decrepit upright piano and idly batted the hinged candle-holders to and fro. A knot of mixed varieties colonised the settee. Two black moggies with white feet circled each other round and round the fireguard. A young Siamese clung half-way up the green velvet curtains.

A winged armchair stood beside the fireside, front legs scratched to half their original width. Under the chair lay a tapestry bag filled with knitting-needles, yarn, crochet hooks and patterns.

Down in the kitchen was Mrs Woosencraft with a mixing bowl in her arm and flower-patterned apron over her sensible twin-set. Two more black cats loped and twined between her stockinged feet.

‘I brought Pedwar back,’ Tim said. ‘I woke up and he was on the bed.’

‘The little rascal! He’s such a wanderer, gadding about all over.’

‘Your front door was open, Mrs W.’

Mrs Woosencraft bent over the bowl, stirring vigorously. ‘Oh, I don’t think that was it. He’ll just jump out of the window and over the fence.’

Tim folded his arms. ‘It was open when I came in. Did you forget to shut it yesterday?’ He felt protective towards this little old lady from Wales. She baked him cakes, she was alone, she might be old enough to be his grandmother but she was also his friend. ‘Was it open all night?’

Mrs Woosencraft spooned the mix out of the bowl into a baking tray, pressing it into the corners. ‘I’m baking some flapjacks. We can have a cup of tea while they do.’ She slid the tray into the oven, slowly straightened up, pulled off her apron and handed it to Tim. ‘Hang that on the back of the door would you.’

When he turned back she was leaning on her walking stick and looking straight at him.

‘I’m perfectly safe in this house, bachgen. Nothing and nobody is going to come in here and trouble me.’

‘That’s much less likely if your front door is actually shut.’

Mrs Woosencraft herded him out of the kitchen. ‘You’ve plenty to worry about without me. My cats are better than any lock Go into the front room and I’ll bring you a cuppa and something to nibble.’

Tim walked through the back room and into the hall. ‘Not as good as a decent cylinder lock and two good bolts top and bottom. What can cats do against a full-grown–’

Out of nowhere a cat dashed under Tim’s feet. Then another was there, heading in the other direction. Tim wobbled on one leg and tried to find somewhere to put his foot that didn’t have a cat under it. He lost his balance and fell on his back through the doorway.

He looked up and saw a cat on the shelf over the door, nosing a heavy ornamental copper plate. The plate shunted forward and teetered on the edge. In his mind’s eye Tim saw it drop edge first across the bridge of his nose.

The cat pulled back and the plate settled back into position. Tim sighed with relief but before he could move a river of felines hurtled across him into the hall.

‘Agh!’ Tim exclaimed as the cats streamed across him. ‘Oof,’ as a heavy paw drove into his stomach. ‘Ouch!’ as another tested its claws on his chest. ‘Ptah!’ as a third filled his mouth with fur.

‘Did you say something?’ Mrs Woosencraft called from the kitchen.

‘Urgh. No, it doesn’t matter.’ Tim clambered to his feet, wiped his tongue on the back of his hand and tried not to think about where that tail had been. He peered through the banisters to the top of the stairs. Not a single cat was to be seen. He hurried into the front room while the coast was clear and sat at the table.

The steady tick of the carriage clock was soothing, and somehow timeless. The warm, enticing smell of fresh-baked flapjacks drifted from the kitchen. A moment later Tim heard the rattle of the tea-tray. Mrs Woosencraft appeared at the door, the tray tilting precariously in her hand.

‘Let me,’ Tim took the tray and put it on the table.

Mrs Woosencraft shuffled onto one of the chairs. ‘Honey flapjacks,’ she announced proudly, scrunching up her shoulders. ‘It’s a little early, but why not? Let’s live dangerously!’

Morning sunlight diffused through the net curtains behind the aspidistra. Tim watched Mrs Woosencraft pour the tea through a strainer.

‘Leaf is best,’ she said. ‘Those little bags don’t give a good brew.’

Tim bit into the soft and moist block of honeyed oats, still warm from the oven. ‘There’s nothing dangerous about your cooking, Mrs W, except perhaps to my waistline.’

‘Oh, just tuck in and enjoy them. You’re thin as a rake. Enjoy your food.’

Memories of his tumble in the hall faded as he sipped tea from a cup with a handle too small to put his little finger through.

Mrs Woosencraft sat back in her chair. The comfortable silence grew less so. The busy tick-tick-tock of the carriage clock loomed loud. She cleared her throat. ‘Tell me how you’re getting on with that new job that’s keeping you so busy.’

‘Not much luck so far.’ Tim washed the flapjack down with a mouthful of tea. ‘It’s missing, not stolen, and unreported too. An old Chrysler, probably worth a lot of money.’

Mrs Woosencraft’s cup rattled in the saucer as she put it on the table. ‘Well,’ she said a little loudly. ‘Don’t look at me. I know a fair bit about mending tractors but that’s it. Have you seen those three young ladies again?’

‘Yes.’ Tim winced at the memory. ‘The other two are aren’t as nice as Dolores.’

‘Dolores. Such an exotic name. I’m just plain old Dorothy.’

‘They’re American.’

‘Well, of course they are. That’s why they’ve lost an American car.’

Tim put down his cup. ‘It’s not their car, it belongs to their boyfriend.’

‘Their boyfriend?’ Mrs Woosencraft’s eyes grew round as saucers. ‘You don’t mean…?’

‘That’s right.’

‘Oh, that’s shock–king,’ Mrs Woosencraft said, her Carmarthen accent grown strong. ‘Shock–king.’

Tim wondered how he came to be drinking tea and gossiping like he was a little old lady himself. He helped himself to another flapjack.

Mrs Woosencraft shuffled her bottom on the chair. ‘I can hardly believe it. They were too well turned out to be such– Hussies! What did they want this time?’

Tim savoured the moment. ‘Actually, they brought me a clue.’

Mrs Woosencraft clapped her hands. ‘A clue. Well don’t keep me waiting, what is it?’

The handkerchief from Imelda Marchpane’s stockinged thigh was a little rumpled but still neatly folded. Tim dropped it into Mrs Woosencraft’s outstretched hand.

‘Oh, that’s lovely, that is.’ Mrs Woosencraft unfolded the material onto the table.

‘See the monogram,’ Tim said. ‘MK.’

Mrs Woosencraft went very still, her eyes fixed on the silk handkerchief. All colour drained from her face. Seconds passed and she remained motionless.

‘Mrs W.?’

Her left hand jerked, sending her teacup skittering across the table.

‘Mrs W?’ Tim jumped to his feet and took her hand. Her cold hand.

Dregs from the spilled cup pooled at the edge of the table and dripped onto the carpet.

‘Ah…’ Mrs Woosencraft’s eyes swam back into focus. She looked up at Tim. ‘Ah… Right then. Look, don’t worry,’ she said. ‘It’s just my angina.’ She pointed vaguely towards the mantelpiece with a shaking hand. ‘Yes, that’s what it is. Fetch my pills. They’re behind the clock.’

Tim fetched the small brown bottle and shook out a pill. Mrs Woosencraft washed it down with cold tea.

She massaged her left arm and gave Tim a lopsided smile. ‘It’s nothing to worry about, just pain from a tired old heart.’

‘I was really worried,’ Tim said.

Mrs Woosencraft grinned ghoulishly. ‘Not as worried as me. Every time it happens you can’t help thinking well, that’s it for me. Sayonara, auf weidersehen, merci beaucoup, and adios Tonto. I’ll be all right but I need to rest. It wears you out you see.’ Mrs Woosencraft poked the monogrammed handkerchief with her tea spoon. ‘Put that thing away before it gets dirty.’

Tim fetched a cloth from the kitchen and dried the spilt tea, tidied the things away and washed up. He took his time, he wanted to hang around as long as he could. As he was drying the crockery Mrs Woosencraft came through to the kitchen. She looked frail and exhausted.

‘How are you feeling?’

‘I’ll do.’ Mrs Woosencraft put her hand on the kitchen table and it was as if colour flowed up her arm and into her face. For an instant she looked younger. ‘Thank you for tidying up, but off you go now. I’m going to bed. A good sleep and I’ll be right as rain.’

Tim gently patted her shoulder. ‘Look after yourself.’

Mrs Woosencraft squeezed his hand without much strength. ‘Careful, boyo. There’s nitro-glycerine in my pills. Read the label if you don’t believe it. Hit me too hard and I might explode.’

#

Back in his office Tim ruminated on his problems. The easy one was deciding which of them was worst – the women in the red dresses. Disconcertingly assertive, they were unlike anybody he’d met before. Troy Jarglebaum would never have let Imelda break the door.

He always ended up comparing himself to Jarglebaum, a habit he’d tried to break many times.

He was starting to wish Dolores had never walked through his door.

And they’re not assertive, a small voice in his head insisted. They’re threatening, violent, strange and scary.

Next: Mrs Woosencraft, slowly going senile, and the missing cats.

Finally, the fact he had met someone with a room full of stray cats but didn’t know where she was. And she was not just someone.

He paced backwards and forwards then took a wide step to one side and continued. If he was going to walk in circles, he should at least try to spread the wear.

It was time to prioritise. It was time to make a new list.

Tim took out pen and paper, smoothed the sheet, uncapped the pen and held it poised. He drew a line down the middle of the paper. Lists always worked when decisions were required. All you needed to do was write the choices to be made in the two columns, add them up and the column with the highest number was the right way to go.

A moment passed. Doubt clouded Tim’s resolve. Perhaps a list wasn’t the best way forward. He noticed the flies were back under the lampshade. They knew what they had to do and they got on with it. Jarglebaum would know what to do too. It might be the right thing, but he always did something.

Tim had a flashback to his time with the police, stuck at his desk, unable to decide how to progress his case load. It wasn’t the job that was at fault, leaving the police had solved nothing. He was still who he was, indecisive, a dreamer, someone who could not make up his mind.

Almost by itself Tim’s hand moved across the paper and wrote:

Find the car.

Tim stared at the three words.

It would be the easiest thing in the world to call Jarglebaum. Troy would know people who knew people who knew. Already Tim could see his old partner’s self-satisfied grin grow wider and wider as he listened to Tim’s pleading.

You’d make me beg, you smug bastard, Tim thought.

No way, it was not going to happen. There were other people he could talk to, other options to try.

He spent the entire day making calls. People said you could not prove a negative but he felt he was coming close. No body shop had anything like the Chrysler in for repair, no garage for maintenance. The breakers yards responded with a laughing ‘You what, mate?’ and simply hung up. The owners club was a long shot that turned out to be too long when it quickly became obvious it was aimed not unreasonably at owners in the USA.

There was one last hope. Tim picked up the phone again and called the Brighton Council dumped-car hotline.

For an hour he endured piped music of mind-numbing yet foot-tapping inanity as he was passed from department to department in a great circle that eventually returned him to the person who originally answered his call. Finally he was connected to the right department where, after he convinced someone called ‘Stu’ that he did not want to report an abandoned vehicle, own one, or know a neighbour who had one, he discovered that nothing approaching the description of a large, old, black Chrysler had been included in the rusty hulks, burned-out chassis and stripped wrecks they had towed away in the past month.

‘Nearest we got was a white Roller on the beach last year.’

‘Really?’

‘Straight up.’

‘Where did it come from?’

‘Some greengrocer in Billericay.’

On the verge of asking what happened to it Tim realised he did not actually care. He put the receiver back in the cradle and closed his eyes. He had a headache like a clamp across his temples, his left ear burned hot from being pressed flat against his head by hours of phone calls. He drank a glass of water and stared bleakly through the window. He had tried his best and he had achieved nothing. Troy Jarglebaum waited, a middle-aged nemesis in a nylon shirt.

When you were out of options you called the man. For Tim that man was Derek ‘Persistent’ Smith. Less fixer than walking encyclopaedia, more wild-card than ace of trumps, Smith was an unconventional and original man. Bright and observant in ways most people were not he could be both slow on the uptake and capable of vast leaps of intuition. Tim felt at ease with some forms of the unconventional and Smith was several of them. Thorough in his methods, Smith was nothing if not determined. Some might even say he was unstoppable. He had helped Tim before, there was a very good chance he could do so now.

Smith’s loud voice came on the line. ‘Greetings, earthling.’

‘This is Tim Wassiter. I’ve some work if you’re interested.’

‘Is it a mystery?’

‘Yes, it is.’

‘Interested.’

‘The usual place. Half an hour?’

‘Agreed.’

The usual place was the Bat and Ball, exactly where Tim wanted to be. He shrugged into his old leather jacket and went to the pub.

#

‘A motor car registered in Finland won’t have a record with the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Authority.’

‘I know.’ Tim took a pull on his pint. With Smith patience was required.

Smith didn’t talk, he boomed. His round, ruddy face beamed into the middle distance under copper-red curls tamed by a fortnightly short back and sides. His blue fleece was zipped up to his neck and under it, Tim knew, his tieless shirt would be buttoned to the collar. Smith’s glass of orange juice sat neatly centred on the beer mat, he sat on his hands.

‘The local DVLA office is at Mocatta House. Head office is in Swansea. From the train station take the number 36 bus–’

The locals at the Bat and Ball were used to Smith and accepted his loud voice, oblivious manner and seemingly endless well of trivia with good humour and protective affection. They gave him space.

‘How much is the fare?’ Tim said.

Persistent stopped in mid flow, smiled an angelic smile and proclaimed, ‘I’m going to give you a bunch of fives.’

That didn’t worry Tim one bit. ‘Then you won’t get paid.’

‘I’ll squish you flat and steal it away.’

‘I didn’t bring the money.’

‘D’oh! You always say that.’ Smith pulled his hand out from under his heavy buttocks and formed it into a mouth.

‘He always says that,’ the Hand repeated in higher-pitched voice.

‘Smith, what do you know about cars?’ Tim said.

‘What sort of cars?’

‘The Chrysler Imperial Eight Airflow.’

‘He means an Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight,’ the Hand said.

‘Put the hand away, Smith,’ Tim said patiently.

‘I can help,’ the Hand said. ‘Which year?’

‘I’m serious.’

A frown creased Smith’s smooth brow. ‘Are we talking turkey?’

‘Yes, we’re talking turkey.’

Smith’s face suffused with excited wonder. ‘Goodbye,’ he told the Hand and it disappeared beneath his backside.

‘The year is 1934. Colour, black–’

‘They’re all black,’ Smith said dismissively. ‘Except the white ones.’

‘Finnish plates.’

‘It’s got Finland plates.’ Smith rocked happily on his hands, there was nothing he liked more than facts. ‘It’s black. It’s from Finland, 1934. A missing vehicle, a mystery vehicle. Who shall find it for you?’

‘I thought you might.’

‘That’s Good Thinking. I will do my very best to find it for you.’

‘That’s right. You’re good at this sort of thing.’

‘I shall find it for you and then I will get paid–?’ Smith looked expectantly at Tim.

‘Fifty pounds a day.’

Smith beamed happily. ‘Where is the car?’

Tim had to laugh. ‘I don’t know. It’s a missing car, that’s why I– ’ He realised what Smith meant. ‘Somewhere in Brighton.’

Smith blew out his cheeks in relief. ‘Phew, that narrows it down.’ He looked absently at his drink and said, ‘I’m good at this sort of thing.’ He drained the glass and strode from the pub leaving the door wide open.

To be continued…

~

[1] A full set, including a mustard pot and spoon, not one of those half-arsed modern things where the salt never comes out.

[2] Good morning.

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 5 – Dark Waters

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Chapter 5 – Dark Waters

In the depths of the night Dolores tossed and turned in the grip of a lucid dream, a nightmare agony of fear and desire. More than a dream, it was a message from her lord under the ocean, Tuoni the life taker and life giver. It was a warning, a demand, a reminder that when they first met she had been dying…

… and now she dreamed she was dying again, struggling for breath in the stale freezing air of the crippled bathyscaphe. Miles down deep in the crushing dark, slumped in her chair before the ship’s command console, she watched the lights of the emergency systems flicker from green to amber to red, and die.

Totally without power the lightless bathyscaphe canted to one side and sank down through unnaturally warm waters towards the ocean floor.

‘Imelda? Electra?’ Dolores gasped weakly in the pitch darkness. Her head pulsed with pain, the bitter cold. No matter how hard she tried she couldn’t get her breath. Somewhere in the cabin were oxygen tanks, somewhere a torch. She fumbled with her harness with clumsy fingers. The skin on her knuckles tore on the edge of the simple release but her oxygen-deprived brain could not work out how to open it.

‘Electra?’

‘She’s not moving.’ Imelda’s voice came ragged and faint.

‘Is she…?’ Dolores couldn’t say the word. The thumping agony in her head surged and silent white noise flared behind her eyes. Electra, so bright, so quick to see new ideas, always the leader.

‘Not yet. Won’t be long. Not for any of us.’ Imelda was never the one to prevaricate.

‘Oxygen tanks…’

‘Empty.’

She had forgotten. Hope had made her forget, had wanted her to try again. There was no hope.

‘Imelda, I’m so scared.’

Imelda didn’t speak for a moment. ‘So am I, honey.’

‘There’s no way out, is there?’

Another pause. Even now she knew Imelda was calculating, thinking. Still hoping to beat the odds, still trying to do better than her best.

‘Not this time,’ Imelda finally replied. ‘Whatever killed those mining drones has got us too.’

It had been exactly like that, just as if something had reached out and struck the valiant little submarine a series of blows, killing its systems one at a time: sensors, engines, computers, life support. They had felt it too, felt it come for them, a psychic pulse the failing instruments registered just before they died.

‘What the fuck was that?’ Electra cried as the dials swung and numbers scrolled. Then the main drive and manoeuvring motors stopped. All eight of them.

Around them in the dark ocean phosphorescent life surged and writhed in weird ecstasy.

Pain beat inside Dolores’ head like a hammer. ‘I’m so sorry,’ she whispered. ‘This is my fault. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for me.’

This time Imelda did not reply.

The agony in her head intensified. Then, blessedly, it was gone. Dolores realised her chest had fallen still. She could feel her body just lying there, motionless, no longer breathing. This is what comes next, she thought. This is what it is like to travel beyond life and light, but no-one can be told. An immense sadness filled her. She wasn’t ready to die, she didn’t want to–

A strange grey light rose up around her and Dolores found she could see through the walls of the bathyscaphe as easily as through the round armoured windows. A dreary, flat vista stretched in every direction, cold and colourless. Far in the distance black plumes of superheated water boiled up from volcanic vents in the ocean floor.

Far beyond them something watched her, vast and curious. It reached out and bleak words flowed through her dying mind.

You feel your death. I watch you die. All things die. All toil in vain.

No!

You would rather live?

Yes!

Cleave to me. Be mine. Accept.

I–

You are dying.

No! Save me! Save us!

Accept.

I– I will.

Now.

Yes.

The sea-thing filled her mind. It became her mind. Dolores knew life from another life, another time.

At the same time the intruder rummaging through her own memories. It too wanted to live and to know. It was huge and old, ancient beyond reckoning. It had slept through the ages and now it was awake it discovered it no longer remembered who or what it was.

All it knew was that once there had been a great labour, and that it it had toiled alongside its brothers and sisters for their masters. When that that titanic work was done there had come not reward, only betrayal.

Close to the surface of Dolores’ mind it discovered the stories Markus Koponen had told her on their long walks alone. Ancient legends from his northern culture, the deeds and names of heroes and Gods. Identity and meaning lay there. It found who it wanted to be.

There was a hell, Dolores learned, and Tuoni was its master. Her own guttering life endured at his will.

Hell was a place called Tuonela, the grey realm of the oceanic abyss. An endless plain of cold, grey silt, rent in two where the world heaved itself apart in a jagged rift ten thousand miles long. Its denizens were the blind shrimps and armoured worms who clustered around vents of boiling black water, and the enormous ten-legged crustaceans who chewed tunnels through the flesh of dead whales.

Under that soft silt Lord Tuoni slept, dreamless for millennia. Then, when new warmer waters bathed him, he dreamed.

It was still too cold for Tuoni to fully wake. He dreamed the fall. He dreamed the great betrayal again and again, the burial of his kind. This place should have been his grave, was the grave for his brothers and sisters. His creators had meant to destroy them. Now their time was long gone, creators and created. Only Tuoni remained.

A Lord defends his realm, as the sparse wreckage of mining robots and remote drones showed. A Lord also needs followers, a household.

I wake, yet I still dream,’ Tuoni boomed in Dolores’ head.

Compelled, Dolores cried out. ‘The whole world warms, spring comes sooner, glaciers melt, ice sheets calve, winter recedes, ocean currents are changing.’

‘This will be my new world. I desire it.’

‘We fear it.’

‘And so you came to my realm?’

‘Yes.’

‘At your old master’s bidding.’

‘Yes.’ Unbidden memories filled Dolores’ mind: Koponen excited at the rewards of deep-sea mining; Koponen cursing the loss of yet more equipment; Dolores persuading Electra and Imelda to accompany her in the bathyscaphe.

Something awful ransacked the contents of Dolores’ mind, selecting this, discarding that. Lost within her own skull, Dolores witnessed her own rearrangement and discovered she could not miss what she no longer was.

‘I dream he will fail,’ Tuoni said.

Coming from within Dolores own mind the words were irresistible, as if she thought them herself. ‘We will stop him for you,’ she said.

‘For us.’

‘My Lord.’

‘I will reward you. I will remake you fit to dwell beside me when I rule.’

An iota of Tuoni’s cold blood flowed within her veins, the promise of change to come.

I should not want this awful thing, Dolores thought. But I do. Oh, how I do.

‘I release you,’ Tuoni said.

Darkness. Pain.

Dolores’ skull felt like it was being crushed in a vice.

Then she was back in the light, back in the bathyscaphe. Electra cradled Dolores head while Imelda pushed rhythmically on her chest. She opened her eyes and took a rattling breath.

Imelda wept and laughed. She kissed Dolores’ cheek, kissed her brow, her mouth. Behind her eyes lay new knowledge.

The bathyscaphe was fully functioning, filled with sweet air, bright light, the steady drone of pumps and filters, the sweep of radar. External lights blazed into the oceanic night.

Dolores sat up. A quick look at the console showed they were rising, rising. Panic filled her, she was not who she was, she needed to prepare. This was too fast, too soon.

Electra’s hand lay on her shoulder. ‘We are here.’

Dolores looked into her friend’s eyes and saw with a mix of relief and sorrow that Tuoni’s thoughts also crawled inside their minds. She was not alone.

Imelda and Electra spoke together: ‘Koponen sent us here.’

Dolores felt words form in her mouth. ‘Tuoni says we must stop him.’

‘Tuoni says by any means,’ Imelda said.

‘Tuoni-’ Electra’s beautiful mouth trembled, twisting, ugly. She bit down, bit through her own lip but still could not stop the words. Blood streamed from her mouth. ‘Tuoni bid me seek his bride, the salt-water woman come to dry land.’

The three women exchanged looks of mutual, lustful, revulsion. Tuoni had altered them in body and mind. The shuddering horror in them was pity for who they had once been, the understanding that their changes were incomplete and one day they would cease to care.

They were like three ships sailing into dark waters. Each day the shore-lights of sanity lay further behind.

Dolores wanted – ached – to give herself to Tuoni. Before that she must do his bidding on dry land. Only then could she sink down and live with him in his realm of Tuonela. Only then could she join with him in an awful coupling and have his seed crawl and bloat inside her.

Her own desires appalled her.

As the bathyscaphe rose towards the surface her terror diminished to anxiety, fading like the echo of a dying shriek. Her two best friends were with her, she felt a kind of fulfilment, an anticipation for the future she had never known before. All became well.

Dolores resumed her seat, fastened her belt and checked the ship’s systems. The bathyscaphe trembled as she vented ballast from the tanks.

Imelda’s smile was wider than before, as if there were more teeth in her mouth. She wiped drying blood onto her sleeve. ‘Let’s go have some fun.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 4 – Warning Signs (part 2)

Chapter 4 – Warning Signs (cont.)

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Tim slumped back in his chair and stared at the flies flying their square circles under the ceiling light.

Why do they do that? he wondered. Come to that, how do they make right-angle turns in mid-air? Maybe they stop flapping one wing for a split second. Maybe they can just grab hold of the air and swing round like a kid on a lamppost.

It had been a strange and disappointing day. He’d found a lead and lost it, and the woman who had been that lead was someone he’d really have liked to have seen again. Worst of all Troy Jarglebaum had turned up like a bad penny and worked his energy-sapping black magic on Tim’s self-esteem. Every encounter with Jarglebaum left him feeling useless, with a long fight back into the light.

Despite Jarglebaum’s offer it was unlikely he could help. Stolen car reports were logged, filed and generally forgotten. Nobody actually went looking for them because there were more important things to do. Patrol cars had computerised license-recognition cameras, the cameras scanned passing vehicles and sounded an alarm when they made a match.

Then Tim remembered Dolores Vogler hadn’t actually said the car was stolen, she had said it was missing. No wonder she had to come to him, the police would be interested in a missing person, never a missing car. Not only that, the car was not even UK registered.

Which meant that Troy actually had nothing to offer at all. He couldn’t even find the registered owner. Tim sat up straight, filled with renewed energy and determination. ‘Beaten you, Troy Jarglebaum,’ he said to himself. ‘I don’t need you, and I never will.’

But how could a car go missing? It wasn’t as if they had minds of their own or could drive themselves. Not yet anyway, and certainly not one made in 1934. Was Dolores Vogler a scatterbrain who had simply forgotten where she’d parked? She hadn’t given the impression she was that sort of person. More likely she’d let someone borrow it and he – it would have to be a he – had not brought it back.

Everything was connected. Philosophers, shaman, and mystics had known it for hundreds of years before physicists discovered it in new and scientific ways few people genuinely understood. Tim believed both ways were true, but how to make the connections himself?

Up on the roof the chickens lived out their days, but the moment lacked true significance and this was not the moment for their blood and their lives. Perhaps the patterns the flies flew could be measured and overlaid on a map of Brighton. An intriguing idea but connections didn’t work like that, there had to be a true link, something emotional, something physical. A piece of rust from the car’s wing, a fleck of paint or chrome from the bumper. Even the police realised the value of these things except in Tim’s opinion they were never used to their full potential and often just filed away in bags and boxes labelled ‘Evidence’.

Under the lampshade the flies still flew their geometric designs.

‘You poor things,’ Tim told them. ‘You don’t even know what a car is, unless for you it’s some kind of terrible monster to frighten your children at bedtimes.’

He imagined a row of tiny cots, each one occupied by a young fly, their blankets tucked up to their chins while they listened to stories of a metal nemesis roaring out of nowhere and squashing little flies across an invisible surface.

That was no good. Any empathic link he had was with the flies, not the car. Perhaps if he suspended a model of the Imperial under the lampshade…

Tim had no idea what a 1934 Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight looked like, let alone Finnish registration plates. Now would be an excellent time to find out.

A few minutes searching the internet told Tim more than he ever needed or wanted to know about:

The manufacturing history of vintage Imperials.

The current availability of spares.

The history of individual cars.

Their current condition.

Their previous owners, where they lived, and reason for sale.

Their current owners and their partners (or former thereof).

Their state of health and where they liked to holiday.

The precocious achievements of their children.

The breed and temperament of their dogs. (Collectors of Imperials did not appear to be cat lovers).

How their dogs had ascended to doggy heaven, a place where the more intellectually challenged canines could presumably continue to chase large cars without resultant tragedy requiring the onwards sale of a much-loved Imperial the owner could no longer drive due to lingering memories of That Tragic Day.

All things considered, it was strangely fascinating.

Tim became lost in close-up pictures of the gloriously extravagant Virgil Exner designed tailfins from a ’59 MY1 Convertible.

The office door creaked, a shadow passed in front of the desk. Tim looked up and saw a tall slim woman with a bun of platinum blonde hair and eyes of palest blue. Strikingly glamorous, she wore lipstick and nail varnish of nude pink, and a high-collared sleeveless cheongsam embroidered with blue green and gold sea-serpents.

Behind her, a crop-headed brunette in a halter-necked red leather mini-dress, knee-high white boots and black fish-nets leaned nonchalantly against the doorway.

‘Mr Wassiter.’ The platinum blonde spoke with a clipped east-coast American accent. ‘We’ve come about the car.’

These were the two other women in the Mercedes, and clearly the sort who would only be impressed by confidence and achievement. Tim knew if he let himself be distracted by their stunning, if slightly trashy get-up, he would never gain their respect or find out what they really wanted. He was being played again.

‘1934 Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight,’ Tim said smoothly, keeping one eye on the computer screen. ‘With aerodynamic styling, full steel body construction and custom bodywork by LeBaron, it is considered by many to be the most radically styled production car ever built.’ He hazarded a knowing grin. ‘After all, the single-piece curved windshield was an industry first.’

The platinum blonde returned a look of unsmiling appraisal. ‘You’re very well informed, Mr Wassiter.’

‘That’s not the half of it. The CW eight-seater weighed in at over 5,900 pounds, twenty feet from bumper to bumper with a wheelbase of 146.5’.’ Tim strolled round to the front of his desk, his smile was easy, his step confident. ‘They were magnificent vehicles. In fact, I’d like one myself.’

‘An unlikely ambition. Less than 2,500 Airflows were built, only a handful remain.’

‘No matter. The ’55 Newport is more my style.’

‘The one we have employed you to find is still missing.

‘It’s only been a day.’ Tim thrust out his hand. ‘Call me Tim.’

Her grip was dry, cold, and like a vice. Tim was forced to squeeze back and for a full ten seconds they smiled politely at each other and tried to crush each other’s hands. Tim was losing, and just as his smile began to slide into a grimace of agony she laughed humourlessly and let go.

‘I am Electra Vaughan.’ She gestured to the woman standing in the doorway. ‘This is Imelda Marchpane. We are good friends of Dolores Vogler.’

‘Very good friends,’ Imelda said, her accent harder than Electra’s. ‘Great mansplaining just then.’

Tim surreptitiously massaged his aching hand. ‘I saw you in the Mercedes.’

‘Imelda likes to drive.’

‘I love it.’ Imelda bared her teeth in a silent snarl. ‘Fast and hard.’

Disconcerted, Tim turned back to Electra. ‘Your Imperial–’

Electra held Tim with her ice-cold gaze. ‘Where is it?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s not that straightforward, Ms Vaughan.’

Electra took a step forward. ‘Explain?’

‘Well, for one thing Dolores said her husband’s car was missing, not stolen.’

Electra and Imelda exchanged looks of cagey surprise.

‘Dolores said that?’ Electra said.

‘Yes, she did. Having Finnish plates makes it harder–’

Electra spoke very slowly. ‘Her husband’s car?’

‘Selfish, greedy,’ Imelda hissed under her breath.

Tim cleared his throat. ‘An ordinary car might simply have been dumped after a joy-ride, but a car like the Imperial has probably been stolen to order. And this car is a valuable machine, isn’t it?’

Electra and Imelda glared at Tim. He retreated behind his desk. ‘It’s not a case of putting up pictures on lampposts like you do for a missing cat.’

‘Do you have a missing cat, Mr Wassiter?’ Electra said sharply.

‘I, ah– Yes, I do.’

‘Missing but not stolen?’

Tim felt deeply confused. Electra swept forwards like a beautiful ghost. ‘We want you to concentrate, Mr Wassiter. Focus exclusively on our case. No more cats. No more lampposts.’

Imelda unfolded her arms to reveal hands encased in fingerless black leather gloves. She gripped one side of the doorframe, tore it from the wall and tossed it onto the carpet in a scatter of plaster fragments. ‘Exclusively.’

Now Tim was a little scared. Dolores had been exotic and alluring. Her two friends might be beautiful, Electra might radiate an aura of otherness, but being in the same room as Imelda felt like being in a cage with a tiger. She moved like a trained fighter and looked like someone who enjoyed hurting people.

‘I’ll talk to my other clients,’ Tim said.

Imelda reached up and swung from the architrave. Wood shrieked and splintered as her weight tore it down. ‘You do that. Or I will.’

The idea of Imelda Marchpane confronting little old Mrs Woosencraft sent shivers down Tim’s spine.

‘Money is not an issue, Mr Wassiter.’ Electra placed another tight roll of notes on Tim’s desk. ‘What else do you need?’

Right now, Tim thought, I’d either like you out the office or a shotgun in my hands. Good grief, even Troy Jarglebaum would be a welcome sight. ‘It would help if you had something that belongs to the owner, Mr…?’

‘Dolores’ husband?’ Electra’s face froze in a hard, white smile. ‘Yes, I think we can provide you with that.’

Imelda lifted the hem of her red leather dress. A triangular fold of white material came into sight, held against her thigh by her stocking top.

Electra removed the fold of material and placed it in Tim’s hand, the fabric still warm from Imelda’s thigh.

‘Don’t let this out of your sight,’ Electra said. She picked up one of Tim’s flyers from the box on the desk, glanced at it and slipped it into her purse. ‘We’re interested in your methods, Mr Wassiter. You’re out on the edge, we like that. Interesting things don’t happen in the middle, they happen at edges, where things collide. You’ve got an open mind, we like that too. Frankly, it’s what you’re going to need.’

Imelda slipped her arm around Electra’s slender waist, her fingers splayed across her hip. ‘In fact the more open your mind the better it will be for us all.’

#

Alone again, Tim placed the fold of material on the desk and sat down. He needed to. He wiped his brow, his heartbeat slowed, his breathing steadied. Insight often comes in moments of crisis. This is why PIs have a fifth of bourbon and two chipped glasses in the filing cabinet, he realised. It’s for when your doorframe has just been hauled off the wall by a beautiful crazy girl in a red leather mini-dress and nothing but the sensation of raw spirits at the back of the throat will settle the brain.

He unfolded the material, an expensive silk handkerchief with a plain, over-sewn border. In one corner the monogram ‘MK’ had been embroidered in fine aquamarine thread. There was nothing else, no notes, ink stains or folds of paper tucked inside.

Tim rolled the new wad of money back and forth across the desk. At least his cash pile had grown bigger. He took off the rubber band, counted it, then added it to the other roll. Used tens and twenties, no sequence. Another thousand pounds. Those three women really wanted that car back.

He’d need to spend some of that getting the door fixed straight away. And, he decided, on a couple of shot glasses and some half-way decent scotch.

The rest would help compensate for the knowledge that once again Jarglebaum had been right. His ex-partner had only been in his office for a few minutes before pointing out a major flaw in Tim’s lifestyle. Perhaps the overweight but highly observant detective really had just been looking for a drink all along.

And that’s just what I need now, Tim decided. A couple of pints of decent beer in the Bat and Ball would help restore a sense of perspective.

Tim’s ancient leather jacket hung on the hook on the wall. Wearing it to the pub had become a kind of ritual. He slipped it on and turned up the collar. He looked at the money roll on the desk. It was a lot of cash to carry around but it would be reckless to leave it in a room with an unlockable door and people like Troy Jarglebaum at large.

The monogrammed handkerchief still lay on his desk. Electra had warned him not to let it out of his sight and somehow Tim thought that she would know if he did. He carefully folded it into the jacket’s inside pocket and distributed the money around the other pockets of both his jacket and jeans. Then he wedged the door shut as best he could, went downstairs, out the front door and up along Cheapside towards Ditchling Road and the pub.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 4 – Warning Signs (part 1)

Chapter 4 – Warning Signs

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017Authors: Note: Gentle reader, as this chapter is quite a long one I decided to split it into two parts and will post part 2 tomorrow.)

~

That narrow flight of stairs behind Tim’s office led to the roof. Once upon a time it might have been possible to see the sea from there. Now the view was blocked by the beachfront hotels.

A mug of breakfast tea in his hand, Tim sat with his back against the chimney stack. The early morning breeze felt fresh on his face. He looked out across the untidy aerial and satellite-dish strewn roof-scape of the North Lanes and sipped his tea. Then he counted his chickens.

There were still three.

Brighton had its own share of urban foxes, with plenty of places for dens and hiding places in the local gardens. It would be an agile fox indeed that could make it up the fire escape ladder.

Tim’s shadow crept across the flat roof as the sun rose. A few sheets flapped on washing lines hung between the stacks in the next street. The three chickens scratched and pecked in the sand of their enclosure.

Tim knew plenty about cats but less about chickens in general or these three in particular. He didn’t know their breed, he hadn’t given them names and he didn’t want to. All he needed was to know how to look after them until their time came. Until they were needed for detection.

Cool excitement coiled in his stomach. Now he had taken the Vogler case the long-awaited opportunity to put magical theory to practical test was here.

He went into the enclosure, swept away their dirt, changed the water and put down fresh grain. He considered the tawny-feathered birds with mixed feelings. They knew nothing of their fate and had food, shelter, and safety. There were times in Tim’s own life where he would have been content with no more than that.

The hens softly clucked and tipped their heads, quietly going about their business oblivious to their fate. Oblivious that their owner intended to use them for methods of detection the police would never consider in a hundred years.

He was running low on feed. And he’d need a galvanised tray too. Something to collect the blood.

Back in the office he printed off a new missing cat sign for Morse. Old notices faded and people ignored them. The pet shop was happy to have signs in the window, there was already one there for Mrs Woosencraft’s own missing cat.

Tim opened the file for Morse on his computer. Under a picture of his cat he had typed:

Missing Cat
White, with ginger ears and tail.
Breed: Turkish Van (mostly)
Name tag: ‘Morse’

He hesitated, wondering if he should add something about Morse’s quirky charm and idiosyncrasies, his love of water.

Morse’s continuing absence brought a fresh pang. Days became weeks, the local Cat Protection League had no news and Morse’s absence left a cat-shaped hole in Tim’s world. Some cats went roving at certain times of the year but Morse was not like that. Tim checked his phone number was correct then printed the file and carefully slid it into a large envelope. Folded or rolled signs brought less attention. On the way out he closed the window and locked the door.

As he walked to the pet store he wondered if it was more than coincidence that both cats had disappeared within a few days of each other. Morse was only mostly one breed, but he had attractive, symmetrical markings. Mrs Woosencraft’s cat was pedigree Bengali. Could they both be cases of cat-napping? An international band of cat thieves stealing cats to order? Tim’s mind wandered into more and more implausible theories and he walked into the pet shop barely aware of his surroundings.

‘Hey, mind me!’ a woman said sharply.

Tim found himself looking into the steady gaze of a pair of sea-green eyes level with his own.

She was young, broad-shouldered like a swimmer, trim at waist and hip. Her white blouse was crisp, her dark green skirt tight about the knee. A band of freckles ran across her nose and her untamed hair shone pale gold. She looked at him like he was some kind of idiot, put her hands on his shoulders with such reluctance it was obvious she didn’t want to touch him, and moved him back. ‘You’re standing on my left thing.’ She frowned and looked down at her shoe. ‘My foot.’

Her accent was intriguing, definite but not immediately traceable, neither east-European nor American, not Australasian or South American.

‘I’m sorry, I was in a dream,’ Tim said.

‘You’re supposed to do that that in your sleep, not the pet shop.’

Tim held up his envelope. ‘I was worrying about my cat. He’s gone missing.’

‘Hardly surprising if you dream while you’re awake. Do people do that a lot around here?’

‘I don’t think so. Why?’

‘Too many stray cats.’

‘You’ve lost one too?’

She at Tim suspiciously. ‘No. I don’t trust… The real problem is, every time I open my door there’s another one.’

‘You shouldn’t feed them.’

‘Do I look like someone who feeds cats?’

She did not. She looked like someone who was – the words came to Tim unbidden– wild and fine, a free spirit, He so, so wanted to keep the conversation going. They were standing beside the fish tanks, he took a guess. ‘Do you keep fish?’

‘I miss them.’ She looked at the guppies, neon tetras, catfish and angels. ‘I had a mackerel called Tony.’

‘If I had fish Morse would jump in the tank. He loves water.’

‘Who’s Morse?’

‘My cat.’

She frowned again. ‘I’m really not keen on cats.’

‘They seem to know if you don’t like them, then sit on you.’

‘Is that why they hang around my place? They want to sit on me?’

‘Maybe.’

She backed away. ‘That’s too strange. It’s not what I want.’

‘Cats are strange creatures.’

‘Anything with legs is a bit weird.’

She sounded so serious Tim laughed. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘You ask a lot of questions.’

‘I’m sorry, I’m a PI, a private investigator.’ He took a card from his wallet and held it out. ‘I’ve just started out.’

She squinted at the card, moved it forwards and back.

‘You’ve, um, got it…’ Tim started.

She turned it the right way up. ‘TW Effectuation.’

‘TW, that’s me, Tim Wassiter.’

‘Foxy,’ she said. ‘That’s my name. Foxy Bolivia.’

Tim held out his hand. ‘Pleased to meet you.’

She didn’t take it.

Hand out, Tim stood there with a mild out-of-body sensation. He recalled Dolores Vogler, darkly vivid and intriguing – and false. Whoever this suspicious and wary woman in her impractical pencil skirt was his instincts said she was authentically the exact person he saw in front of him.

The shopkeeper, a gangling young woman with loose-cropped purple hair, lip and nostril studs, and a nose that was slightly too long for her face, watched them like a bored goldfish.

Tim turned back to Foxy. ‘I’m sorry about your shoe.’

She looked up from Tim’s hand. ‘My what?’

Tongue-tied, Tim gestured helplessly. ‘Your foot.’

‘Oh, that, yes, the foot thing.’ She looked straight at Tim and he fell deep into her green eyes all over again.

‘Your accent, is it from Barbados?’ he said.

Her eyes went wide. ‘You can tell that just from my voice?’

Tim squared his shoulders. ‘I’ve had some training.’

‘I lived near there when I was younger–’ Her gaze hardened. ‘I don’t need to tell you anything.’

And she was gone, out through the door and away down the street.

The door jangled closed. Disappointed and surprised Tim told himself he needed to get used to these encounters. He was a PI, and Private Investigators tended to encounter beautiful and sometimes dangerous women. If he worked on his style, developed a sense of savoir-faire then maybe one of them… Maybe one of them would stick around. Maybe.

Such was his hope.

The most obvious thing in the world occurred to him: Foxy’s home was full of stray cats, there was a good chance both Morse and Mrs Woosencraft’s cat were there. The realisation was so obvious that coming after she had gone actually felt cruel. He ran out into the street and looked left and right. She was gone.

He hurried back into the shop. The purple-haired shop keeper looked at him with sardonic pity.

‘Do you know where that woman lives?’ Tim said.

‘Jeez, no. This is a pet shop, not a pick-up–’

‘We were just talking.’

‘Yeah, I noticed. Look, it’s OK, you find it where it is. Follow your heart–’

Tim stared at her. She shrugged, apologetic. ‘I’ve never seen her before.’

Tim could have kicked himself. Disconsolate, he bought a large bag of bird feed, replaced the sign in the window, and headed home. Foxy Bolivia had been a lead and he’d blown it. More than a lead. She was not so much beautiful as unforgettable. He tried to stay positive, she had to be local or she would not have come into the shop. All was not lost, he was a PI. He’d use his skills, ask around. He would find her, find the cats, find someone who–

The thing he thought about most on his way home was, when she turned at the pet shop door, how the long waves of her golden hair hung down to the back of her knees.

#

Half way up the stairs with a 5-kilo bag of chicken feed under his arm and junk mail in his hand, Tim noticed the door to his office was open.

In his mind he eased up the stairs, back to the wall. Avoiding the loose tread three from the top he got the drop on the intruders with his trusty snub-nosed revolver. In reality all the treads of the ancient stairs creaked, popped and groaned. Stealth was an impossibility and Tim did not own an illegal handgun.

‘I’ll be right up,’ Tim called.

After a brief silence the hurried sound of rustling papers was followed by a muffled thump and a curse.

‘Hey!’ Tim sprinted up the stairs and burst into his office. A beefy middle-aged man with close-cropped hair sprawled with feigned nonchalance in the chair beside Tim’s desk. It was Troy Jarglebaum, Tim’s ex-partner from his time in the police service. Troy wore his usual cheap rumpled navy-blue cop suit, a food-stained cop tie and incongruously shiny black lace-up cop shoes. A loose sheaf of papers hung in his hand, an A4 sized parcel sat on the floor.

Tim dropped the sack of bird seed by the door. ‘Troy. I might have guessed it was you.’

‘Tim, good to see you too.’ Jarglebaum grinned massively and dropped the sheaf of papers onto the desk. ‘The wind blew your papers all over the floor.’

‘It must have been quite a breeze considering the window was shut.’

‘I just closed it.’

‘Good of you. So did I, before I went out.’

Tim dropped the junk mail in the wastebasket, walked round the desk and put the papers back in the open drawer. As he did he rested his hand on the top of the computer monitor. It was cold, at least Jarglebaum hadn’t had the time or the gall to try and break into his electronic files.

‘There’s a knack to shutting this drawer, you need to push it from the left side or it sticks. Try to remember that next time. Also, my door was locked. That’s breaking and entry.’

‘Nothing’s broken, pal.’ Jarglebaum hauled himself to his feet. ‘Look, we’re getting off on the wrong foot. I just came over to see how my old partner in crime-solving was getting along. There was this box on the outside step so I thought I’d bring it up before it got stolen.’

Inwardly Tim seethed but there was little point trying to hustle Detective Sergeant Jarglebaum out of any room he didn’t want to leave. Thirty years in the service had immunised him to all forms of coercion short of physical violence, which he was delighted to reciprocate. During those three decades his diet had been one of pasta, beer, curry, and pizza. Sometimes all in one meal. Troy Jarglebaum had acquired a physical inertia to match that of his career.

Tim summoned up a polite smile. ‘OK Troy, thank you very much. So, how are you doing?’

‘Onwards and upwards, Tim,’ Troy said, smoothing his rumpled tie across his belly.

‘Promotion? Congratulations, you’ve certainly had to wait long enough.’

A scowl passed over Jarglebaum’s face like a cloud across a badly ploughed field. ‘You chose a bad time to leave the boys in blue. Everything’s changing. Technology, modernisation–’

‘That must be exciting.’

Troy shrugged dismissively. ‘I’m talking about bigger fish. Extra-mural opportunities, pal. Real ones.’

Tim shook his head, he’d heard it all before. Congenitally dissatisfied, Jarglebaum was always scheming, always able to explain previous failures in terms of other people’s mistakes.

‘You’re finally leaving the police?’

‘No way, kiddo. There’s an indexed-linked pension with my name on it. It’s smaller than your cock but I still want it.’

‘What are these “opportunities”, Troy?’

Jarglebaum paced the threadbare carpet then peered out the window. ‘Freelance commissions, legal consultancy. I’m not allowed to say more due to client confidentiality.’ He walked round to Tim’s side of the desk and started pulling open drawers. ‘Where’s your whisky, son? I could use a drink. Every P.I. in the world has some cheap booze hidden in their files. A half-empty bottle and two chipped glasses–’

Tim pushed shut the drawers and moved between Jarglebaum and the desk. ‘Sorry, Troy, I don’t have any. How about a cup of tea?’

‘Jesus, kid,’ Jarglebaum said sadly. ‘What sort of a PI are you?’

Tim straightened his shoulders. ‘A new kind.’

Jarglebaum rolled his eyes. ‘You’re still into all that voodoo shit. Dowsing and reading tea leaves.’

‘It’s not shit, Troy. It works and you know it.’

Jarglebaum scowled again. ‘Once, just once.’

‘That woman found a missing child using just a map and a pendulum. I saw her do it, everyone in the incident room did, you too. We discovered a new method but the Chief Constable didn’t like it so we turned our backs on something that can solve mysteries and pretended it didn’t exist. Well, I’m not a cop any more so I’m going to learn how to do that. I’m going to do things differently.’

‘Well, you were certainly a different kind of cop,’ Jarglebaum grumbled. ‘The kind that gave his partner the worst percentages in the service.’

Tim sighed inwardly. Here we go again with the blame game. ‘That’s all in the past, Troy.’

‘Yeah, right.’ Jarglebaum wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘You sure you haven’t got a drink?’

‘I’m sure.’

Jarglebaum’s shoulders dropped. ‘So what’s in the box?’

Tim glanced at the label. ‘Flyers for my business.’

‘Good plan.’

‘Thanks.’

‘Let’s have a look.’

‘Sorry, my hands are dirty.’

‘No problem.’ Jarglebaum tore open the wrapper and pulled out the top sheet. He leaned back in the chair, one side of his mouth curling into a wider and wider smile as he read:

TW Effectuation
Private Investigators
—————————————
Detection through Evidence & Intuition
~
Alternative & Traditional Methods
~
Drawing on years of Practical Constabulary Experience and Spiritual Techniques both Ancient & Modern, TW Effectuation will help you:

– Resolve Intriguing Mysteries
– Locate People in Time and Space
– Observe & Inform
~
The Evidence is Out There!
T.W. Effectuation will help you find it
—————————————————-

‘Sheesh.’ Jarglebaum dropped the sheet on top of the parcel. ‘Ok, let’s have it, what’s your case load?’

Tim couldn’t help himself, he held up two fingers. ‘I have two current investigations.’

‘Tim, that’s great!’ Troy seemed serious. ‘No, kid, I mean it, I’m impressed.’

‘Thanks,’ Tim said cautiously.

Playfully Jarglebaum punched Tim’s shoulder. ‘Like I said, what have you got, kiddo?’

All at once Tim realised the trap and it was as if he had never left the police, had never escaped his partner’s interrogative ridicule. ‘Sorry, Troy,’ he said. ‘Client confidentiality.’

Laughter blew out of Jarglebaum’s face like a gale. ‘Let me guess. Divorce.’

‘No.’

‘Missing cat.’

‘No.’

‘Liar.’ Jarglebaum crowed with satisfaction. ‘Never lie to a cop unless you’re a cop. Come on, don’t you remember anything I taught you? Finding a missing cat, that’s good, Tim, very good. Never underestimate the importance of little old ladies and community relations. What’s the other one?’

All at once Tim just wanted to get it over with. Jarglebaum had come here to mock his dreams, so be it. ‘A stolen car.’

‘Stolen car.’ Jarglebaum slowly nodded his head. ‘What sort?’

Tim shook his head. ‘I’m not going to tell you.’

Jarglebaum shadow-boxed the air between them. ‘That’s it, go it alone, plough your own furrow. Give it a go, then give me a call.’

‘I’ve got it covered.’

‘Sure you have, kid. The way you’re going all us cops will be out of a job.’ Snapping a card out of his breast pocket Jarglebaum tossed it onto the desk. ‘Phone in when you get stuck.’

‘Right.’

‘I’m here to help.’

‘OK.’ It had always been easier to agree.

Pausing at the door Jarglebaum kicked the sack of chicken feed. ‘This what they’re paying you these days?’ His mocking laughter followed his heavy footsteps all the way down the stairs.

Chapter 4, Part 2 tomorrow…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 3 – Babylon

Chapter 3 – BabylonCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

Low evening sun shone through the glassless window of prince-priest Banipal’s work room. Outside, the ochre mud-brick walls of ancient Babylon glowed golden orange across the city. At the end of a long and tiring day Banipal still worked at his bench, transcribing his notes from the reusable wax trays onto a stack of clay tablets.

Amending and expanding as he went, he pressed his stylus into the damp clay with painstaking care, filling tablet after tablet with dense cuneiform script.

Finally the task was done. Banipal wiped the stylus clean and laid out the tablets ready for the ovens. After firing the clay would be nearly indestructible. With good fortune his work would endure.

He rubbed his eyes and stretched. Although he was weary from the day his brain seethed with plans for tomorrow. The implications of his discoveries, what they might let him attempt and what might one day be possible years or even lifetimes from now, awed him. The universe was indeed a beautiful and wondrous place.

Hunger growled in his belly. By the length of the shadows he realised he was late for his evening meal again. Banipal washed his hands, face and shaven scalp and dried himself with a small towel. He left his room, descended the exterior steps and crossed the sun-warmed flagstones of the square to the open-fronted cook-house. The other prince-priests were already eating at the wooden tables. Conversation buzzed, a few raised their hands in greeting. It was the normal contented end to a normal day. Also as normal one of the bonded servants had put aside a bowl of dates, millet bread and goat cheese for Banipal.

Not in the mood for conversation he took his food back across the square and climbed up to the roof of his quarters. He sat on the low parapet with his legs dangling over the edge, nibbled a date and looked out across the city.

Directly below him lay the main quadrangle of Esagila, House of the Raised Head, the home of Marduk, patron deity of Babylon, and his consort.

Banipal had been in the quadrangle many times and seen the golden god statues, their attendant butler, hairdresser, baker and door-keeper, and the fearsome winged Kurubs guarding the inner portal. Like the vast majority of the populace he had never entered Marduk’s temple. Only once had he glimpsed the interior and seen for himself what everyone knew – even the great cedar rafters were gilded.

Towering halfway to the sky beyond Esagila temple soared the enormous stepped ziggurat of Etemenanki, the broad Euphrates river flowing around its feet. Three hundred feet on each side, Etemenanki, the House of the Platform of Heaven and Earth, was visible for miles across the plain.

Banipal became lost in thought. Knowing how to measure the world, how could he measure the heavens?

That was how Banipal’s great friend Ishkun found him as the golden edge of evening rose up the platforms and broad stairways of Etemenanki.

‘Blessings of Enki fall upon you,’ Ishkun said, his ready smile white above the tight black curls of his beard. He frowned as he saw Banipal’s barely-eaten meal in the bowl. ‘Oh, my friend, you are still eating. I would have come later, but I missed you.’

Banipal swung his legs over the parapet. ‘Then stay. It’s good to see you and I have had my fill.’

Ishkun made an expansive gesture. ‘Eat! No need for formality between friends.’

This was an old conversation. Banipal’s face was thin from lack of eating, not lack of food. ‘Truly, I am full. What remains is for Marduk.’

Ishkun thought Marduk fed well enough as it was. How much fruit meat and bread did the Gods need?

‘Let us walk through the city then. You’re so thin I worry that if we stay up here a zephyr might waft you away. Then what would I do?’

Banipal laughed. ‘You would do very well. And I’m sure Inanna’s priestesses would be much happier not having to pretend to like me as much as they do you.’

Ishkun and Banipal walked down to the temple courtyard and out into the streets of the merchant quarter. As they passed through the temple gate Ishkun finally said what he had come to say.

‘Banipal, I’ve just had a marvellous idea. Tomorrow let us go –’

‘Not hunting, Ishkun, please.’

Banipal’s eyes were fever bright, Ishkun could see the skull under his skin, his raw bones. He determined to stay cheerful. ‘All right, I have a confession. Banipal, listen to me for this is the truth: I have transgressed.’ He held up his hand before Banipal could speak, ‘No, don’t ask me what it is, it is far too embarrassing. The thing is I must hunt, and soon. A sacrifice for Marduk.’

Banipal nodded, smiling patiently. ‘And whatever he does not want – we shall eat?’

‘It had crossed my mind.’ Ishkun clutched Banipal’s arm as they ducked under the hanging fabrics of the merchant stalls. ‘But listen, now I really have transgressed because I lied about the need to make sacrifice and in doing so I invoked Marduk’s name. He surely heard me, so–’

‘So your lie about transgression has become the transgression itself. A neat circular argument. That is very clever, I like it.’

Ishkun beamed. ‘So you will come?’

‘Not tomorrow, nor the day after. My work…’ Banipal looked up at the great ziggurat, the summit still capped with the last of the sunlight. ’I am discovering too many wonderful things.’

‘Think of what we could discover out in the wide world,’ Ishkun protested. He loved his friend dearly despite, or possibly because of their differences. He simply wanted him to be happy, to put on a little weight. To not fade away through obsession. He was convinced that if he could only prise Banipal away from his studies he would relax and learn to enjoy life. ‘We would hunt, race, feast, lie with women –’ Ishkun saw how unconvinced Banipal was and took a deep breath. ‘We could even go fishing.’

Banipal gave a great shout of laughter. Ishkun could not abide fishing. Hour after hour sitting on the river bank or floating on a reed raft. Meanwhile the implacable urge to get up, to do something, do anything, grew in him moment by boring moment. At his side Banipal would be perfectly content, last in thought, lost in his beloved numbers and never minding if they caught sixty qa of carp or none at all. Taking up Ishkun on his offer was something Banipal simply could not do. That the offer was sincere broke his resolve.

‘All right, I promise you,’ Banipal said. ‘The day after tomorrow I will ride with you in your chariot through Ishtar’s gate and we will hunt and run, and bring back enough meat for Marduk to forgive you and feed Babylon for a year and a day.’

‘We will, we will!’ Ishkun cried, hugging his friend. ‘And in return I will help you with your sticks and string and counting pebbles.’

‘Then you are the better man,’ Banipal said. ‘Because I do very much enjoy hunting with you, my friend.’

‘Very much?’ Ishkun queried.’

‘Quite enjoy,’ Banipal admitted. ‘Mostly.’

Ishkun had visited Banipal’s poles and pebbles out on the plain and listened patiently to his friend’s explanations of distance, measurement and angle. He looked at the neat rows of stones, the sets of pebbles grouped and arranged into further sets, and tried to understand. It made his head swim and if he persisted, sent him into a black mood for failing to see what was so obvious to Banipal.

‘That’s exactly how I feel when we’re tracking game,’ Banipal said. ‘You point to plain signs and I see nothing.’

‘But they’re so obvious anyone –’ Ishkun began, then raised his hands in apology. ‘We both dream of great exploits. Yours take place between your ears.’

Banipal shook his head. ‘Across the universe, Ishkun. The world is made of numbers. Just by knowing the days in a year, the seasons, the cycles of moon and sun, we know when the rains will come, in which season the rivers will flood, the nights the moon will be hidden by the spawn of Anu. All these things affect our lives and destiny. Numbers prove they are connected to one another.’

‘Perhaps…’

‘Think what might we discover if we measured the heartbeats in a man’s life, the direction of a bird’s flight? Our Astrologers can tell us something of the future, if I can combine my discoveries with theirs we might find out so much more.’

Ishkun was troubled. ‘Surely some things are too big to measure?’

‘Such as?’

Ishkun gestured around him. ‘The whole world.’

‘Even that is almost in my grasp.’

Now Ishkun laughed. ‘You could never have a rope long enough.’

‘But I already have the rope.’

Ishkun listened to his friend’s explanation of the varying distances between the top and bottom of vertical poles on a sphere. It was common knowledge the world was round – stars rose at different times in different places, the tops of distant mountain appeared before their bases.

‘Some things the Gods do not mean us to know.’

‘They test our worth.’ Banipal looked steadily at Ishkun. ‘If I could measure everything I would know everything. I could even make new things happen.’

This troubled Ishkun even more. After walking in silence for a while he reminded Banipal of the things he should bring for the hunt and departed.

To be continued…

~

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 2 – The Truth

Chapter 2. The TruthCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

The sight of Tim Wassiter’s second ever client made him think that becoming a private investigator was one of his better moves.

She was young and she was beautiful. She walked straight through the door and spoke in a rich New England contralto. ‘Mr Wassiter, my name is Dolores Vogler. I’m a marine biologist and I really need your help.’

Dolores wore her straight black hair cut to the line of her jaw. Her dress was the same carmine red as her shoes, low-cut and close-fit, the frilled hem just below her knees. On her head was a pillbox hat with a short veil of open black net and she held a red leather clutch bag in her hand. She stood on his worn old carpet like a rose in a rusty bucket. A worried rose in need of Tim’s help.

These are clothes nobody wears any more, thought the part of Tim’s mind that was still able to think. Especially not at half past two on a dull afternoon in the run-down office of Brighton’s newest and most alternative private investigator.

You’re being played, keep it cool.

Tim walked round his desk and gestured to one of his chairs. ‘Please sit down. How may I help you?’

The cuffs of Tim’s flower-patterned shirt were fastened by silver skull cuff-links, his black jeans were last years, his shoes had seen better days. He needed a haircut.

Dolores Vogler took in his appearance with a single sweep of her eyes. She sat down and crossed her legs. One shoe dangled from her toes, her legs were bare. ‘I need to find a missing automobile,’ she purred.

‘No problem. What sort of car, Ms Vogler?’

‘A 1934 Airflow Chrysler Imperial Eight. Black, with Finnish plates.’ She looked Tim straight in the eye. ‘It’s my husband’s car.’

There it was.

Tim played it straight. ‘Have you reported it to the police?’

‘Of course, but we all know how busy they are.’ She smiled and stood up. ‘It’s his favourite vehicle. He doesn’t know it’s missing yet and I’d love to be able to return it before he notices.’

He took out his notebook. ‘Where did it go missing?’

Dolores moved to the edge of his desk and sat there with one long leg swinging, one red fingernail trailed idly back and forth under the edge. Her skirt rode up. She watched Tim through her veil. ‘Oh, in Brighton.’

‘And when was that?’

‘A few days ago.’

‘Do you know the registration?’

‘I can’t remember.’

And there it was again.

Dolores extracted a tight roll of bank notes from her clutch bag and placed it on Tim’s desk. She looked worried. ‘I have to go now. Please find my husband’s car quickly, Mr Wassiter.’

‘A few more questions, Ms Vogler–’

She turned at the door, her red dress stretched flat across her shapely pelvis. Her smile was full of promise and brilliant perfect teeth. ‘I really would be ever so grateful.’

Tim listened to Dolores’ light footsteps on the stairs. As soon as he heard the door open and close he snatched up the money and went to the window. Down in the street, shoulders slung back, Dolores stalked towards a Mercedes S-class drophead, cream with white leather interior. An athletic brunette wearing long white boots and a short leather dress stood beside it with one foot on the chrome-trimmed running board. A platinum blonde sat behind the wheel.

Tim loosened his collar. Dolores Vogler was no more married than he was. What sort of a man had three mistresses and a car like that?

Dolores’ floral perfume lingered in the air. As the surface notes faded a cloying undertone grew, syrup-sweet like over-ripe fruit. Tim opened the window. It was too strong, too definite, as if it were there to cover something up. Something rotten.

Down in the street the S-class sank down on its rear springs and surged away. He watched the car until turned the corner. None of this was right and it wasn’t real. Dolores had lied and Tim strongly suspected she did not care that he knew. Yet if that was the case why the distraction of the clothes and the coquetry? Unless that in itself was a double deception, a false diversion never intended to work implying a deeper layer of chicanery.

It was far simpler to believe Dolores Vogler’s wealth allowed her to behave like that all the time. Unless–

He could either speculate himself into a paranoid headache or just take the case and find out. One thing was certain – this sort of thing had never happened when he had been in uniform. Right now, right in front of him, was a cash up front case. In all probability it was a risky one, possibly even dangerous. He checked the money roll – a thousand pounds – and revised that to ‘probably’. He didn’t care, he couldn’t afford to. A nagging voice said he should have written Dolores a receipt. He pushed it aside, finding a missing car wasn’t difficult, cops did it all the time. This was his case and he was going to solve it.

#

Tim was still looking out the window when he heard the slow stamp and clump of Mrs Woosencraft’s wide-fit court shoes on the bare wood of the stairs. He pushed the money roll into his pocket and went to the door and called down.

‘Hello Mrs W. How are you today?’

Prynhawn da[1], Tim. Not so bad.’

Mrs Woosencraft was short, dumpy and stronger than she looked. Sometimes her corona of fine white hair was permed pale pink, today it was powder blue. Her skirts were floral, her inevitable shawls hand-made.

A round metal tray covered by a kitchen towel sagged alarmingly in Mrs Woosencraft’s hand. ‘I’ve made you some Welsh cakes. They’re still warm, too.’

Tim quickly took the tray before the cakes slid off. ‘I’ll put the kettle on.’

Mrs Woosencraft lived at number twenty-three in the middle of a Victorian terrace of seven houses further down the street. She often popped in on some little excuse or other. Tim didn’t mind. She was lonely and it wasn’t as if he had much else to do. At least, not until today.

Tim poured the tea, a mug for him, a bone china cup and saucer decorated with daffodils and violets for Mrs Woosencraft. He had bought it from one of the antique shops in the bustling Brighton Lanes.

Tim took one of the golden brown flat cakes and ate half the soft buttery thing in one bite. He nodded in appreciation. ‘These are very tasty.’

‘Not bad at all, though I say it who shouldn’t.’ Mrs Woosencraft’s head came up, she sniffed the air and looked at the open window. ‘As I came down the street I couldn’t help but notice a lovely old car with three well-dressed young ladies in it. Such a pleasure to see such smartness, there are too many jeans and t-shirts these days. Call me old-fashioned but a nice girl shouldn’t wear trousers. It’s not proper.’

Tim was certain Dolores Vogler would not fit into Mrs Woosencraft’s definitions of ‘nice’ or ‘proper’ but he enjoyed listening to her lilting south-Wales accent. He liked her enough that he didn’t mind her gentle nosiness or old-fashioned opinions. The cakes were good too.

‘They were customers, Mrs W. Marine scientists.’

Mrs Woosencraft made no response. Tim raised his voice. ‘I said they were customers. I’ve got a job.’

The wrinkles round Mrs Woosencraft’s mouth deepened. ‘Another job, is it? How lovely,’ she said without any sign of pleasure. For a moment she sat very still. Then she reached out, her cup rattling alarmingly in the saucer. ‘Top that up for me, will you?’

Hurriedly Tim took her cup and poured more tea.

‘Tell me, Tim. Has your Morse come back to you yet?’

‘Not yet, Mrs W. At least the chickens are happier.’

Tim’s cat Morse was mostly Turkish Van, white-bodied with ginger brow, ears, and tail. He was a friendly and capable cat and still occasionally kittenish after ten years. He’d been missing for weeks. Tim had looked and looked and missed him like hell.

‘Cats are so vulnerable in the streets.’

‘Morse isn’t a vulnerable cat.’ Tim said the word ‘vulnerable’ deliberately, hoping Mrs Woosencraft would say it again, in the way only little old ladies from Carmarthen could.

‘Too many cats are disappearing.’

That was true. Tim ate another cake and waited for Mrs Woosencraft’s inevitable question.

‘Well, now you have a proper job I expect you’ll have no time to look for my poor Un Deg Naw.’

It was true, he didn’t need reminding. Work was work and he really needed it. ‘I’ll make time to look for your cat.’ It wasn’t entirely a lie. He felt a little glum. ‘Mine too.’

Mrs Woosencraft gripped Tim’s hand in her papery, arthritic fingers. ‘She’s Bengalese.’

‘You told me before, remember?’

‘Of course I remember,’ she said sharply. ‘I’m not daft, just worried. I know I’ve a lot of the blessed creatures. Too many some people say, just a mad old Welsh lady with nineteen cats, they say that too.’ She held up her hand. ‘No, I know they do. Too many for a little place in the middle of Brighton, but listen – I’m all alone and I need them all.’ Her eyes grew watery, her smile brave. ‘Every single one.’

Right that moment Tim thought she too looked a little vulnerable. Brighton was not always a friendly town.

‘Little wretch that Un Deg Naw. Ruined my curtains climbing onto the pelmet. The Siamese copied her.’ She tugged a hanky from the cuff of her cardigan and dabbed her eyes. A faint smell of lavender filled the air. ‘She should be grateful I want her back at all.’

Mrs Woosencraft drank half her tea and announced she had to go. ‘It will take me a while to get back on these legs. Finish the cakes, bachgen. I’ll see myself out.’

Once more the office was empty. Tim looked at the gold lettering on the door:

He squeezed the roll of notes with intense satisfaction. That’s me, Tim Wassiter. And I have my first real case.

About time too, another part of him said.

Build it and they will come, the first part replied.

He’d used the severance money from the police to rent and equip his office. Furniture comprised a second-hand desk and two chairs, and a sagging settee nobody sat in. An ancient computer occupied the desk, the desk sat on a carpet just the right side of threadbare.

A second door opened onto a short corridor to his bedroom, shower and galley kitchen. The corridor ended at the bottom of a narrow staircase to the roof.

The Vogler case had come just in time. In just a few more weeks the cupboard would have been bare and he’d have to accept the standard casework of a PI: divorce, petty fraud and office theft, family intrigues. He’d turned cases like those down as he waited for the right kind to turn up. The kind of case where he could prove his theories of alternative detection.

Now he could afford to pay some bills and have some flyers printed. In the future lay expansion, larger premises, junior investigators, an efficient middle-aged secretary. Beyond that, perhaps, the Tim Wassiter Academy of Alternative Investigation.

Tim came back to earth in his shabby office. Before any of that – the case itself. He took out his notebook and wrote on a clean page:

The Vogler Case:

  1. Dolores Vogler is a liar.
  2. She’s beautiful, stylish and probably very rich.
  3. She’s still a liar.

To be continued…

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[1] Good afternoon.

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 1 – Midnight

Chapter 1 – MidnightCopyright 2017, David Bezzina

Close to midnight a mermaid came ashore at the bustling resort town of Brighton on the south coast of England. Swimming strongly, she entered the half-mile of water between the town’s two piers. The one to the east blazed with light, life, and fairground music. The other was a storm-battered and fire-wracked skeleton of bare girders, the post-apocalyptic roost for a thousand starlings.

Drifting on a lazy swell she listened to the surf push and suck at the shingle beach. The waters of the English Channel were cold but they lacked the chill of the distant Atlantic swells, and their wild dangers.

Weary from her days-long swim she coasted under the ruined west pier and looked up past the limpet-encrusted legs into clear night sky. She had made it, she had escaped and now she was free. A pang of intense sadness welled inside her. She was alone, but she was free.

Light from a quarter moon glinted on her bare skin as she knelt at the waterline. She hesitated and touched the shell-crusted purse on the kelp-string tied around her waist. It contained everything she possessed: her comb, a handful of pearls, a handful of octagonal gold coins.

No turning back. She reached across the collapsing wavelets and placed her hand palm down on the shingle beach. Her body formed a conduit between the elements of sea and land. She felt their power, the eternal tension. She spoke the shoreline words her mother taught her long ago:

This child of oceans is not changing sides,
Not abandoning one for the other.
I know my origin, gifts, and graces.
 
Land and sea, you agreed
We may cross your war grounds
In our own times of need.
 
I know, I am asking for a strange thing.
I do not expect you to understand
I wish to walk as a child of the land.

The waters behind her flattened and the wind died. The mermaid shivered. Neither of these were calm things, they were the stillness of sudden attention, of great strength held in check.

Out of the flat water six heavy waves rolled towards the shore one by one. As they broke they pushed up the shingle into a platform of sea-built land. At the same time an angry wind came off the shore, tore spindrift from the wave tops and flung it away into the night.

This far, the wind said. This far, and no further.

No turning back. With her heart in her mouth the mermaid hauled herself onto the shingle mound.

A seventh wave came. Power thrummed up from the water through the skeleton of the old pier. A thousand starlings shrieked up into the night air as the sea surged forwards.

The wave roared across the platform and lifted the mermaid up. A staggering wind shoved back. The wave could not break. The mermaid hung inside the water behind a glassy salt-water wall, her long fair hair fanned about her.

Wind-snatched shingle flew off the beach, land hurled into the sea. Each stone slammed into the wave-wall and carved bubble-streaked trails deep into the water.

Her but not you, land told the sea.

This far and no further.

You and your tricks.

The sea briefly held, but water like wind cannot stay still for long. The land-wind whirled and roared and shoved. The wave burst apart in spume and spray and crashed down to nothing.

Salt spray swirled, the wind died. A simmering mist settled to reveal a barefoot woman dressed in a sky-blue blouse, a knee-length green skirt, a matching jacket. A pair of flat shoes lay at her feet beside a small shoulder bag. Strange things, she would get used to them.

Her own purse was already starting to dry and crack. She emptied the contents into the new one and saw the front was decorated with a cat face in silver sequins.

The Elements had kept their word, but the Land had a dry sense of humour and the Sea’s was rather salty. Only later did it occur to her that the image was a warning.

She picked up the shoes and crossed the shared ground, the littoral that turn and turn about was land then sea. Further up the slope of the beach a scattered row of dried seaweed, scruffy feathers and frayed rope formed a ragged and wavy tide-line. She took a deep breath and stepped across the tide line.

Dry land.

Bright sounds from the other pier ebbed and surged on the night wind, the air tinged with the aromas of chip oil, candy floss, curry and beer.

Those gangs of mermen could not reach her here. Her old life was gone and along with it her old name. One night she had surfaced behind a South American cargo tramp. High on the stern was the ship’s name, below it the country of registration. She liked what she saw and took it for herself. Now, for the first time in her life, she felt safe. She could fit in. She must.

Up on the boardwalk she slipped on her shoes and climbed the wide concrete steps to the King’s Road. She crossed the deserted neon-lit street and entered the winding side streets of Brighton town.

Some yards behind her a rather beautiful cat dropped soundlessly out of the shadows. Tail held high it trotted after her.

To be continued…

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Illustration Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms – a Fantasy Novel

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017I wrote a fantasy novel called The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, some time ago. There was little interest from mainstream publishing and I put it aside. Earlier this year I took another look at it, fell right back in love with the story and characters, and decided to rewrite it. So I did, completely. It still didn’t feel ready, so I rewrote it again.

Then the fantastic (and probably fantastically brave) Gaie Sebold, Helen Callaghan, and Andrew Wallace read it, and told be what they thought. So I rewrote it again. Thanks, guys, seriously.

Meanwhile I asked the brilliant David Bezzina for the cover art you can see here.

Now it’s ready I’ve decided to give it away. I’ll be posting it chapter-by chapter on WattPad, and here on my blog. If you like what you read, please subscribe to my blog, follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or just do the WattPad thing.

The first few chapters will come daily, until I’ve caught up with my line edits, then it might slow down a bit. If all goes to plan I’ll do eBook and a print versions later.

The first chapter is in my next post. Meanwhile, please imagine you’re reading the back cover, because here’s the blurb:

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Tim Wassiter, P.I. isn’t an old-school detective with a cynical outlook and a bottle in the desk, he’s the new-age holistic version with chickens, tea – and a little bit of magic. His ex-partner scoffs and the old lady down the road just wants him to find her missing cat.

Finally, he’s got a real case. But what sounds like easy money isn’t as simple as it seems. Dolores Vogler, the mysterious woman who hired him, has dangerous friends and they’re rapidly losing patience. Tim needs to discover what’s really going on, and fast. But soon there’s an even more mysterious woman, a series of increasingly strange events, and a great many more cats.

As things get more violent, more bewildering and more utterly weird, Tim begins to realise that this case goes far deeper than he could ever have imagined. Everything is connected to the new case and everyone is looking for a girl who almost certainly does not exist. And magic isn’t just real, it’s probably going to get him killed.
The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

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