The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 43 – Consultants

Chapter 43 – ConsultantsCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

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

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

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

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

‘Yes, Mr Ralf.’

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

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

Tiny frowned. ‘Fix the air-con?’

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

‘Do we still say “air-con”?’

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

‘Blimey.’

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

‘What’s wrong with it?’

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

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

‘Get that ladder, Tiny,’ Ralf said.

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

Ralf and Tiny looked at the new source of noise.

‘That came from over there, Mr Ralf.’

‘Yes, lad.’

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

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

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

‘Don’t be daft, big lad like you.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘AOOARGHAHARHAR!’

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

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

‘Don’t be daft.’

Tiny didn’t move.

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

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

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

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

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

‘No, Mr Ralf.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Wasn’t me.’

‘Never said it was.’

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

‘No lad, it wasn’t.’

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

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

‘You reckon?’

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

#

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘No,’ Smith said. ‘Just me.’

To be continued…

 

Tesla Powerwall2 – High Summer

This first screenshot says it all.

That’s it.

Brilliant.

Job done.

The weather for the past few weeks has been perfect for solar power – non-stop sunshine except for an overcast afternoon or so. Those clouds didn’t have much impact and performance has been as good as I could have hoped for.

If you need more evidence, here’s the weekly graph. There’s just the tiniest bit of grid draw – which I can explain – and apart from that it is life off-grid, day after day, week after week.

The reason for that grid draw, and the one fly in the ointment, is that the immersion heater failed and needed to be replaced.

When the Tesla Powerwall2 arrived I also had a Solic 200 unit from Earthwise installed. This diverts excess power from the solar cells to the immersion heater, and the advantage here is that I can turn off the gas boiler for hot water and so reduce mains gas use.

The problem was, the old immersion, unused for over ten years, gamely did its job for a couple of months then packed up. A quick replacement and we were back in business, but setting up caused a small draw from the grid.

For now the only fossil fuel used to run the house is for the oven.

This last graph shows the past month. The first week we were away on holiday, hence the lower house power demand.

It’s madly hot and the weather is set to continue like this for a while. So my next step is, now I can salve my conscience by running it for free off sunshine, is to get a small portable air-con unit.

~

 

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 42 – A Friendly Visit

Chapter 42 – A Friendly Visit

Copyright David Bezzina, 2017

Mrs Woosencraft

Never before had Mrs Woosencraft been concerned about leaving the front door on the latch. As she looked at the three women in her tiny front garden she wondered if Tim hadn’t been right to worry. Her feelings of trepidation grew when she saw their car, a cream drop-head Mercedes. These were the women who had visited Tim a few days ago. Close up they didn’t look very nice at all.

However you looked at them they looked like trouble. All three looked like cruel little girls all grown up. It wasn’t that they didn’t care about being noticed, they flaunted it.

The one in front, with her spiky hair, white boots and fish-nets showed too much leg for her age, and was full of that cocksure aggression people these days called ‘attitude’. Beside her the platinum blonde radiated a glacial, intellectual cruelty Mrs Woosencraft found quite disturbing. Behind them a darkly voluptuous woman tugged down the hem of her jacket and smiled.

You’re almost normal, Mrs Woosencraft thought. Almost. The one who likes to watch and pretends that if she doesn’t join in she’s not involved.

Out on the street Mrs Woosencraft would have been vulnerable. In her own house, surrounded by her collections, her possessions and her paraphernalia, she was much safer. The white boots of the spiky-haired one who had pushed open the door and rung the bell were still outside the threshold. That proved a couple of things at least.

Mrs Woosencraft put on her best quavery old-lady voice. ‘Hello dearies. How may I help you?’

The one with spikey hair bared her teeth. ‘Go and put the kettle on, little old lady, or whatever it is you do. We’ve come from Koponen. He wants to know what’s going on.’

Mrs Woosencraft held her ground. ‘And you are?’

‘Imelda Marchpane.’

Mrs Woosencraft peered myopically and let her head wobble. ‘What a lovely name. Why don’t you come through and sit down. I’ve just baked a nice seed cake.’

Imelda stepped into the hall. There was a sudden scrabble of cats racing upstairs and the rattle of the kitchen door flap as others fled into the garden.

Mrs Woosencraft led the way into her suddenly quiet house. Her age-seamed mouth pursed, her eyes narrowed. Concealed by her body her fingers touched tip to tip, constantly moving, tapping together. Under her breath she was counting, counting, counting. One, two, three. Five, seven, eleven–

‘Make yourselves comfy.’ Mrs Woosencraft called as she bustled in the kitchen. ‘Tea all round?’

Imelda leaned in the doorway. ‘Where’s your whisky?’

‘I don’t believe in the strong stuff. I can do you a sweet sherry if you’d rather.’

The kettle boiled, Mrs Woosencraft set out the tea things on a tray and brought it through.

Imelda blocked the way. ‘Mind you don’t slip on those flagstones and break your hip.’

‘Don’t you worry, dear. I’m quite safe in what is, after all, my home. Now, step aside and let me pass.’

Smiling thinly Imelda stepped aside.

The platinum blonde sat in Mrs Woosencraft’s personal armchair. Straight-backed, feet together, one hand on each arm, somehow she seemed regal. The chair’s threadbare wings, cat-scratched legs and aged antimacassar had become an ancient throne.

‘Shall I be mother?’ Mrs Woosencraft balanced the tray of cups, plates, cake and teapot on the small table. ‘What can I get you, Miss–?’

‘I’m Electra.’ The woman in Mrs Woosencraft’s chair held out her slim, pale hand.

Unbidden, Mrs Woosencraft’s own hand lifted. With a conscious effort she turned it aside and took hold of the teapot. ‘One lump or two? Surely not three. Five–’

‘I’m sweet enough.’

Mrs Woosencraft looked into her pale blue eyes and saw a glimmer of respect. She turned to the black-haired woman. What can I get you, Miss–?’

‘It’s Dolores. White and no sugar, thank you.’

‘And some seed cake?’

‘Thank you.’

Cup, teapot and strainer chinked together. ‘I hope you don’t mind odd cups and plates. It’s all that’s left,’ Mrs Woosencraft said.

‘I think they’re pretty.’

‘Charmed.’ Mrs Woosencraft sat on the piano stool and folded her hands in her lap. ‘Now, drink your tea and tell me what you want.’

‘Koponen wants to know where she is,’ Electra said.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Why not?’

‘The missing cat. Mr Wassiter was looking but he tells me he’s been very busy looking for your car instead.’

‘Nice Mr Wassiter.’ All three women smiled wide, bright smiles. ‘We think you should try harder.’

‘I need nineteen cats and one is–’

‘Missing?’

The room darkened as a cloud moved across the sun. A scuffing sound came from under Electra’s chair. A scruffy Manx cat with bald spots on its fur stuck out its head and said ‘Miaow’.

Scat, Pedwar. Scat! Mrs Woosencraft thought as hard as she could.

Pedwar broke for the kitchen door, baulked as Imelda blocked its path and tried to go back under the chair.

Electra scooped it up by the scruff of its neck. ‘What’s wrong with this one? It looks like it’s got mange.’

‘Just a little accident.‘

‘What happened to its tail, did you use scissors?’

‘It’s a Manx, they’re born like that.’

‘It’s a mess. Let me put it out of its misery.’ Imelda said. ‘If your spell’s broken what’s the difference?’

One of her hands encircled its neck, the other pulled at the patchy fur. Pedwar yowled and squirmed then fell still as she tightened her grip.

Mrs Woosencraft improvised a simple release cantrip. ‘I see three nice ladies who aren’t used to cats. I think I’m the only one of the five of us who knows what he wants.’

Twisting his head, Pedwar bit down on Electra’s fingertip. Electra gasped and let got. Pedwar dropped off her lap and ran under the piano stool behind Mrs Woosencraft’s legs.

Electra held up her finger. ‘It bit me.’

Dolores leaned forward and gasped. ‘Right through the nail.’

Electra inspected her finger. A fat drop of ruby blood welled from the hole in her nail then broke. A red rivulet ran down Electra’s arm, vivid against her white skin.

Imelda bent over Electra’s hand and swallowed her finger. Dolores wriggled and shifted her legs on the settee beside Mrs Woosencraft.

Enough was enough. It was time for some real magic. Mrs Woosencraft scooped up Pedwar and stood. ‘There are at least eleven things to remember about cats. One, they have seven lives; two, Pedwar has five left; three, five of–’

‘You can stop that. Right now.’ Electra’s voice was hard as old ice but held a brittle, nervous edge.

The air vibrated with energy from the part-cast spell. ‘How about another cuppa?’

Electra gave her a smile cold enough to freeze oxygen. ‘Stop buggering us about, old lady.’

‘And you,’ Mrs Woosencraft drew herself up to her full five foot nothing, ‘Paid a ffwcio da fi yn fy nhy’n hunan.’ [1]

‘This is just a friendly visit. We all want the same thing.’

‘Remind an old lady what that is, exactly.’

‘Find her. Find her fast. We’re tired of waiting.’

‘We don’t want to have to come back,’ Imelda said.

Dolores touched Mrs Woosencraft’s arm. ‘Please, you really wouldn’t like that.’

‘I’d like it,’ Imelda said.

‘I’m glad we understand each other a little better.’ Electra stood a foot taller than Mrs Woosencraft. She looked down at Pedwar, who bared his teeth and hissed.

‘Do you want to bite me again, nasty cat?’ Electra held out her hand. ‘Here you are.’

Pedwar sank his teeth into Electra’s palm. Electra closed her eyes and shuddered. ‘Well, this is nice, but I don’t have all day.’

Pedwar opened his mouth and spat.

Imelda sauntered out through the front door.

‘Thank you for the tea,’ Dolores said.

Electra held out her hand. Pedwar hissed and she laughed coldly. ‘Be a good little old lady and do your job.’

As soon as they were gone Mrs Woosencraft shut the front door. Then she bolted it.

‘Well done, you brave, foolish little cat,’ she said and hugged Pedwar tight.

The encounter had exhausted her. She returned to the back room, sat on the settee, pursed her lips at the undrunk cups of tea and scowled at her favourite armchair. She didn’t fancy sitting in it just now, not until she’d purified it with something powerful, something from at least the seventeenth path. Pedwar settled onto her lap and she absently stroked him. It would have to wait for when she had more energy and focus.

Poor Tim. What have I got you into? As if I haven’t treated you badly enough anyway. What a foolish, selfish old lady I have become.

One by one her other cats crept back down the stairs or in through the cat flap. Some jumped up to sit beside her, others lay at her feet. Pedwar began to purr. Mrs Woosencraft closed her eyes.

Once again the room was full of cats. Some slept, others groomed themselves. The Siamese licked each other’s fur. Mrs Woosencraft’s hand slipped from Pedwar and she began to snore.

To be continued…

[1] Don’t push you luck in my home. (Or something like that.)

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 41 – Ekad’s Justice

Chapter 41 – Ekad’s JusticeCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

Banipal visited his nephew at the site of his home in the ‘new city’ on the western bank of the Euphrates. He admired the size of the plot of land then sat under an awning with his nephew and his wife and shared mint tea. After a mutual exchange of pleasantries his nephew asked him to oversee the dedication and blessing of the foundations of the house on a date yet to be decided by the family astrologer.

Ever since the Processional Way had been extended across the great bridge spanning the Holy River, new residential areas on the west bank had become highly desirable. Not only were they close to the temple quarters, they took advantage of the clean north-west winds before they blew through the old city.

A prosperous merchant, Banipal’s nephew had decided to exhibit his success by building a large and expensive property. Anxious to have the blessings of both Marduk and Tammuz, who would both have altars in his new home, and the River God Ekad, whose waters he would cross every day, he planned a lavish series of dedications and sacrifices. As a close blood relative, Banipal could be trusted to make the arrangements with integrity and at a reasonable cost.

For Banipal, only recently returned from his hunting trip with Ishkun, it was a time-consuming nuisance. Nevertheless, it was a family matter and he was obliged to accept with good grace.

As he returned home over the bridge he came across a small but vociferous crowd surrounding two men hard against the parapet wall. Banipal went to the back of the crowd to see what was going on.

One man, plump and angry, was clearly a local merchant. The other was a bush-bearded foreigner well past his prime, undernourished and unkempt. He was restrained by two men holding his upper arms. The old man did not struggle, rather, he was listless and resigned. Banipal was intrigued to see that under a ragged and dirty linen skirt he wore leggings dyed a rich and unusual blue.

‘What’s going on?’ Banipal asked one of the other men, a narrow faced young scribe missing his top front teeth.

The scribe took in Banipal’s priestly robes. ‘Holy one, the merchant claims this old one stole dates from his stall.’

‘Were there any witnesses?’

‘Apparently not, but the merchant’s friends attest to his honesty.’

‘What does the stranger say?’

The scribe grinned. ‘That’s the trouble. He lacks our tongue as well as coin.’

The problem was clear. Accused of a crime, the stranger was unable to defend himself or pay a fine.

‘To be honest,’ the scribe continued, ‘He didn’t have any dates on him either.’

This no longer felt fair. Banipal pushed his way to the centre of the crowd. ‘A moment, if you please.’

Seeing his temple robes, the merchant dipped his head respectfully. ‘Your servant, and the Gods’.’

‘I understand you accuse this foreigner of the theft of some dates?’ Banipal said.

‘From my stall, yes.’

‘But he has no dates on him.’

‘Admittedly, but I definitely saw him take them.’

‘How did this happen?’

‘The starveling was loitering so I kept an eye on him. I turned away for a moment, he grabbed the dates and ran.’

‘I also understand there were no witnesses.’

The merchant stuck out his chin. ‘It is true nobody else saw this. If my word is in doubt, first let me say I have no reason to persecute a stranger. Second, my friends will vouchsafe my integrity.’

Several voices chorused agreement.

Banipal looked over the parapet at the deep, fast-flowing water forty feet below. ‘In the absence of witnesses it would be a gracious gesture to not bind his limbs.’

‘It will be as you suggest,’ the merchant said. ‘Let it not be said I am a vindictive man.’

‘Marduk guide us all.’ Banipal raised his hands, bowed and stepped back. He looked at the foreigner with some sympathy. The man was alone and frightened. Probably he had been a victim of an earlier robbery himself and now was penniless, homeless and hungry.

Nevertheless, all was as it should be. The immutable laws, carved on a stele of black rock in the market squares of every city in the land, were being followed.

The merchant addressed the foreigner, mainly for the benefit of the crowd. ‘Go now, to Ekad’s justice.’

The two labourers hoisted the foreigner on to the top of the parapet. The crowd fell silent. Unresisting, the stranger looked wretchedly down at the river.

Then Banipal noticed the measuring instruments clenched in the foreigner’s hand. They were made of sheets of transparent crystal.

‘Wait!’ Banipal cried.

It was too late. The labourers had already pushed the bearded stranger and he was gone into the river.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 40 – Mr Man

Author’s Note:

Hello, I’m now back after two blissful and very productive weeks writing and relaxing on the beach. Thank you for your patience, the story now continues….

Chapter 40 – Mr ManThe Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017

Tim tried to lose himself in work. On the surface the car job had been a good deal, well paid and ultimately easy work and he still had most of the money. Although he had no way of contacting Dolores, he was sure she or one of the others would call on him soon.

He was equally certain that if they didn’t visit for a few more days he wouldn’t mind. Perhaps he should keep an eye on the car in case it was moved. He could let down one of the tyres, though he’d need Foxy’s help to get out the car park.

Before that, the door frame needed repairing and Persistent Smith needed calling off. If no other work turned up there were all those leaflets to distribute.

He found a reputable carpenter and called the office number. The carpenter’s wife took a message. ‘He’s very busy, dear. No, I don’t know when he’ll be back. Yes, you are on his list. Tara, pet, someone’s at the door.’

Next, Tim called Persistent Smith’s home. When there was no answer he decided to walk over and put a note through the door. Perhaps he would get lucky and see a missing cat or two on the way.

He glanced wistfully at the door bell as he went out, his finger drifted over the button. He shrugged, smiled. The sun was shining, it was a nice day, he’d been indoors too long.

As he walked he thought about Morse, that playful, partially competent and strangely water-loving cat who had been his inconstant companion and unwitting provider of emotional support for the past five years. It came as a shock to realise that he wasn’t missing his cat quite as much as he had a few days ago.

The Smiths lived in a street of box-like semi-detached houses. Several stood behind high privet hedges, others had turned their front gardens into parking bays for sports hatchbacks with fat exhausts, over-sized people carriers, or rusting classics up on bricks and down on their shocks.

Some might say the Smith’s front garden was a relic from a golden age, others that it was living testament to the abuses of plant breeding.

Beds of purple pansies, pink button daisies and orange marigolds surrounded a perfect diamond of dandelion-free lawn. The flower bed between the path and drive was a strip forest of shoulder-high lemon-yellow and blood-red dahlias.

The front door was of imitation white wood and frosted glass. The doorbell button said ‘Press’, just like his own.

Tim pressed it.

Westminster chimes dongled serenely inside the house. Nobody came. Tim tried again.

There was still no answer. He slipped his note through the letterbox, returned down the garden path and out onto the street.

‘Coo-ee! Mr Man,’ a woman called behind him.

Tim turned and saw Violet Smith hurrying towards him. The sun shone but she had dressed for winter. Emerald green bobbles danced on her hand-knitted woolly hat, her purple coat was buttoned up to the collar. A wicker shopping trolley bounced behind her.

‘Hello Mrs Smith,’ Tim said. ‘It’s Tim Wassiter, we’ve met before. You remember Derek sometimes works for me.’

Violet Smith’s knuckles were white against the trolley handle. ‘Have you seen him? Do you know where he is?’

‘No, I haven’t. What’s happened?’

‘Oh dear.’ Violet seemed to deflate. Small to begin with, she looked like a strong breeze would blow her away. ‘I had hoped…’ Her eyes filled with tears. ‘I thought…’

‘Let’s go inside.’ Tim put his arm round her shoulders and steered her up the garden path.

Violet led the way into the hall. Tim carried the trolley over the threshold. Violet pulled a hanky out of the cuff of her coat, dabbed her eyes and blew her nose. ‘Look at me going all unnecessary. I must look a proper mess.’

‘You look fine. Now, tell me about Derek.’

Violet clasped her hands together. ‘He’s missing. We’ve had to call the police.’

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 39 – Off Limits

Author’s note:
Dear reader, I’m away on the beach for the next two weeks – sea, sun, and ice-creams! Rest assured writing will be taking place, but the internet may be in short supply.
I hope – and plan – to keep to my schedule of a new chapter every Friday, but please be patient if I miss a week or two – Foxy and Tim shall return!
Until then – enjoy!

~

Chapter 39 – Off LimitsCopyright David Bezzina, 2017

Tim sat against the parapet wall and watched his chickens. One sat down, fluffed its feathers and began a dust bath. The second stood and watched, black eyes bright. The third continued raking through the litter with one foot, head tilted as it studied the disturbed ground with one eye.

Slowly he became convinced the birds’ behaviour in his presence contained an element of self-consciousness.

Could I do it? he wondered. Could I actually take one out, get a knife and–

The images of blood, flying feathers and frantic struggling were very vivid. There were also the insides to consider.

No matter how soft and feathery chickens were on the outside, they had slippery, and no doubt smelly insides. Tim considered the practical realities of divining with entrails. If he was going to use the chickens for the reason he’d bought them, he would of necessity become familiar with those insides while they were still warm and steaming.

He would have to rummage.

Tim looked into nowhere, lost in an avian Heart of Darkness. Blithely, the birds continued to bathe, peck or simply stare. In the back of his mind he grew aware of light footsteps clanging on metal steps.

A shadow moved across the sun.

‘What are their names?’ Foxy said.

‘Foxy?’ Tim jumped to his feet. ‘Where did you come from?’

‘Up the fire escape.’

Tim regarded her habitual tight knee-length skirt and narrow heels and tried to imagine her climbing the perforated metal steps. ‘But– how?’

Foxy beamed. ‘Impressed, huh? I rang the bell and when you didn’t come I counted the front doors, walked round the back and counted the ladders. Simple detective work. Even a man could do it.’

Foxy registered Tim’s hurt look. ‘I meant a man back from where I come from. Not you, obviously, because you are an actual real detective. One of those useless short-armed, oily–’ She unclenched her fists. ‘Anyway, you live here so you don’t need to calculate which is your back door. Also, a detective, which you are, would instinctively know – I’m babbling aren’t I? Hi there. Good morning.’

Tim wondered how he would manage on the fire-escape in high-heeled sandals, his knees constrained by a narrow, knee-hugging skirt. The image froze, panned back and rotated through 180 degrees. He forced it from his mind and looked again at Foxy, her carefree smile, freckled nose and startling green eyes. Today her golden hair was again in a long plait, draped over one shoulder of a cream cable-knit sweater that made him think of salt wind, seaweed, outboard engines and choppy water breaking over half-submerged rocks.

Foxy noticed him staring at her sweater. ‘Do you like it? I love this wool stuff, it’s so soft. It comes from sheep, did you know that? They’ve got four legs and eat grass.’

The sweater clung in a distracting way, enhancing the gentle roundness of her tummy. It was actually quite sexy.

‘It’s good to see you, Foxy,’ Tim said.

‘You too.’

Tongue-tied, Tim felt his face freeze into a half-smile. Say something, he thought, but repartee had deserted him in his hour of need.

Foxy pointed to the bowl at Tim’s feet. ‘What’s that?’

‘Breakfast.’

‘Aren’t you meant to put milk in it?’

‘It’s for the chickens.’

‘What are they called?’ Foxy said.

‘I don’t know. Nothing. I haven’t given them names.’

‘What about their own names?’

Tim laughed. ‘They haven’t told me.’

Foxy crouched down and regarded the three birds. The one bathing paused, tipped its head on one side, wriggled and fanned its wings in the dirt.

‘This one’s called Dusty,’ Foxy said.

‘It’s having a dust bath.’

‘Of course, they want us to know their names so they’re giving us clues. What about the one with white feathers on its breast?’

‘Patch?’ Tim hazarded.

‘Correct! And the last one?’

The third bird had retreated to the far corner of the coop where it watched them, head jerking to its own internal rhythms.

‘I think it’s shy,’ Tim said.

‘Then that’s its name, Shy. There, that was easy, now you know their names you can start to build a relationship.’

Tim looked at the birds. All three watched him with one bright black eye. Shy took a step forwards, then another. ‘Let’s go downstairs,’ Tim said.

‘I had this crazy idea,’ he said when they reached his office. ‘I heard a joke and it made me think. Foxy, have you heard about voodoo acupuncture?’

‘No.’

‘You don’t have to go.’

Foxy looked at him.

‘That’s the joke,’ Tim said.

‘Right.’

‘The joke’s not important. It was a difficult time, I’d just left the police. I was unhappy and wondering what to do with myself. It was the idea in the joke that was important, that I could do things in a new way.’

He took a deep breath. ‘I always wanted to be a policeman, Foxy. It just turned out I wasn’t a very good one. Jarglebaum was right, our clean-up rate was the worst in the service, the worst on record. I wanted to solve crimes and help people but I wanted to do it my way. I wanted to use intuition, connectedness, and the things the police service call “alternative methods”.

‘All the evidence is out there, everything you need to solve a crime is just lying around waiting to be discovered. What if you could just go straight there? What if you tried something new, like voodoo, like divining, and use it to catch wicked people doing naughty things?’

‘Is that why they sacked you?’

That hurt. Tim winced as he recalled his final assessment, the suggestion that he should reconsider his future. Consider it very carefully and then leave, preferably today. He could even take all his holiday. They were very polite, sympathetic even. Budgets were being cut, redundancies were coming and retention of the staff was very important. The right staff. So please would he take the redundancy, fuck off and leave policing to the professionals. Thank you for listening.

He hung his head. ‘They were right. In the end I didn’t want to be a police detective enough to give up my ideas and do things their way. I’d end up like Troy Jarglebaum. That joke was just a joke but it gave me a direction, it opened my eyes. The chickens were part of it.’

‘How, exactly?’

Tim told her.

‘Warm blood,’ Foxy murmured dreamily. She blinked and looked at Tim. ‘So, you really do believe in magic?’

‘I believe there’s more than just what’s in front of our eyes. That pen stuck in the map and led us to the car but it didn’t happen the way I thought it would. Somehow Jarglebaum messed it up and made it work at the same time.’

‘Sheer chance?’

‘I can’t believe that’s all it was.’

‘Perhaps the situation needed a catalyst.’

‘Last night something else happened too.’

Foxy leaned closer. ‘What?’

‘Asklepios, I–’

Explanation would take forever, Tim kept it brief. ‘I dreamed I took him home.’

‘Have you seen him since?’

‘No. Foxy, it could have just been a dream, but it felt–’

‘Right?’

‘Real.’

Foxy took it all in her stride. ‘You know, I don’t think those chickens can help you. You should let them go.’

‘I don’t think they’d do very well on their own.’

‘They’re birds, they can fly.’

‘I don’t know much about chickens but I do know flying is not one of their strong points.’

‘You should give them the option. Anything with real power would want a lot more than half a pint of bird blood.’

A good point.

‘I don’t think I could do it anyway.’

‘And I don’t think it would work. That sort of ritual needs an anchor to the world, a myth-bond, a weave of belonging in time and place.’

The drone of a hoover came up through the floor. Dust drifted in the window light. Nothing had changed, yet something was different. A stillness came into the air as if something had entered the room and listened.

‘You sound like you know.’

Foxy hesitated. ‘Just things my mother used to say.’ She opened her bag and extracted some papers. ‘Anyway, I brought you these.’

They were the sheets from the box in the boot of the car, glossy promotional flyers with a picture of rolling farmland, fields full of a tall, white flowered crop under a clear blue sky.

‘Growth, yield, profit,’ Tim read. ‘A new variety of long-flowering Canola (oil-seed rape). Increased yield with reduced fertiliser, an engineered cross with leguminous species.’

He dropped the sheet on his desk. ‘A sales brochure for some new crop variety. If I was an arable farmer I might care. I might even like that it’s got white petals instead of yellow, but what’s this got to do with anything?’

‘What’s the name of the company?’

Tim read the banner. ‘Kylma Kala. I’ll see what I can find out.’

‘I’ll make some more tea.’

Foxy returned to find Tim in front of his computer. He tilted the screen towards Foxy. ‘Kylma Kala: a privately-owned engineering, bio-tech and exploration company with registered offices in Finland. UK headquarters are 10–18 Kemp Street, Brighton. They’re into everything: ship building, deep-sea mineral extraction, agriculture, crop breeding, environmental systems, it goes on.’

‘Wow. Good work, Tim.’

‘That’s not all. Kemp Street backs on to Trafalgar Lane. The Chrysler was in the Kylma Kala car park.’

‘Wow even more.’

‘I’m not finished. In fact, I’m not sure I’m even started.’ Tim pulled the handkerchief Imelda had given him from his pocket and spread it on the table. ‘The people who hired me to find the car gave me this.’ Tim tapped the embroidered MK monogram with his finger. ‘Guess who the owner of Kylma Kala is? A man with a personal fortune of over four billion pounds. Markus Koponen.’

Foxy seemed lost for words.

‘Wow?’ Tim suggested.

‘Maximum wow.’

‘Why would someone hire me to find a car that was in his own car park?’

‘How do you know it was him?’

Tim flourished the handkerchief. ‘This.’

‘They could have stolen it.’

‘I have the feeling they knew exactly where it was.’ A wave of gratitude washed through Tim. ‘Thanks for helping me, Foxy. I couldn’t have done any of this without you.’

Foxy’s self-possession faltered for a moment.

Tim screwed up his nerve. ‘Let me have your phone number.’

‘Yes, of course.’ Foxy wrote on his desk pad.

With the blinds down the room was cool and shadowy. So close to Foxy Tim could smell her crisp, clean ozone perfume. Despite her city shoes and smart tailored clothes, she was an outdoors girl. And something else too, glimpsed for the first time just a few minutes ago, a cooler, more considered personality under the surface. A clue to her past.

Foxy straightened up, her hip bumped his and there they were, face to face. It seemed natural for Tim’s arm to go around her waist. After all, she’d just done the same with him.

‘What about the sack in the boot?’ Foxy said softly.

‘Maybe–’ Tim cleared his throat. ‘Ah, maybe it’s fertilizer.’

Foxy moved a little closer. ‘How will you find out?’

‘I can ask around.’

A faint scratching came from the top of the stairs leading to the roof. Tim decided to ignore it.

Foxy shifted her leg. ‘Are you comfortable?’

‘Not really.’

They shuffled a bit, came together, hip against hip. Up on the stairs the scratching escalated to scrabbling.

‘That’s better.’ Foxy’s hand lay his shoulder, lighter than a gull on a wave.

There were gold flecks in the green of Foxy’s eyes. Tim saw her lashes were so pale they were white. He breathed in. Foxy did too. Tim felt her chest push against his. Tim pulled Foxy close. Foxy’s lips parted, she closed her eyes. Her rounded belly pressed against his stomach. It was bigger than a few days ago, he was certain. He stepped back from their embrace.

‘What’s wrong?’

‘Foxy. Are you–? I mean, do you have a–’ Tim didn’t know how to ask such a delicate, such a personal question. ‘What I mean is, are you–?’

Wings clattering, trailing a plume of dust like a bomber with a wing on fire, Dusty the chicken burst into the room. She swerved around the ceiling light and ricocheted off the wall in a cloud of feathers. In desperation she attempted an emergency landing on the desk. Paper flew in all directions as she flew of the end and into the blinds.

Several minutes later Dusty was safely back inside the cage no worse for wear.

Tim snapped the lock on the chicken run closed and rubbed the scratches on his hands.

‘Well, you’re safe,’ he told the chickens. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do with you, but it’s not going to be anything bad.’

Foxy was right, his half-baked ideas about voodoo acupuncture were just that. If he was serious about being some kind of new-age detective solving crimes the way he wanted to, then he needed to be serious about what he believed in and what he wanted to achieve.

Foxy left, promising to call. Tim heard her clatter down the stairs to the front door as he took Dusty back to the roof. The doorbell rang a series of short bursts – Foxy saying goodbye.

The rings made Tim smile but it was bitter-sweet. Foxy was the most adjectival woman he had ever met: beautiful, intriguing, funny, wise, intelligent, and mysterious, but she was also off limits. She’d have to stay that way until he knew more. Foxy wasn’t putting on weight, she was pregnant, and that changed everything.

To be continued…

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 38 – Between her Toes

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017Chapter 38 – Between Her Toes

The room was dark, the air humid and close. Dolores, Imelda and Electra lay completely under the covers. Dolores’ legs made short, kicking motions. Inky blackness was all around as they sank deeper and deeper. The probing beams of the bathyscaphe showed nothing at all.

Imelda sat in the pilot’s chair, her hands rested lightly on the control joysticks, her eyes scanned the camera screens, gauges and dials. She steepened the angle of descent and they sank lower.

Beside her Electra monitored her own set of instruments, her face serene with concentration and underlit by slowly phasing green and yellow lights.

Dolores’ own telemetry showed current flow, temperature, dissolved oxygen and salinity, and the state of their life support systems. She watched and waited. The familiar change in the reading came and a moment later she felt the bathyscaphe’s trim adjust as Imelda swung the craft down and down towards the warmer water.

A psychic pulse swept through them like a searchlight – Tuoni. The three women exchanged looks of nervous anticipation. Imelda pushed the throttles open all the way. Outside, interference patterns from the ship’s lights flickered green and pink along the beating cilia of comb jellies.

Electra shut down her monitoring. ‘We don’t need this.’ She touched her belly. ‘I feel him.’

‘You really are here, aren’t you?’ Dolores’ mouth was dry. ‘This isn’t just my dream.’

Imelda reached for Dolores’ hand. ‘We’re really here.’

The thought of encountering Tuoni alone awed them. Together it was something they could do.

Silent, dark and unchanging, the silty grey realm of Tuonela stretched endlessly below them, vaster than continents, ancient before life crawled onto dry land.

Buckles snapped open, restraint webbing whirred back into its housing as Imelda freed herself from the pilot’s chair. She turned a key on the overhead console and flicked a row of metal toggles. One by one systems shut down. Engines stilled, lights dimmed, air scrubbers fell silent. The bathyscaphe drifted two miles below the surface of the Atlantic ocean.

Under the dim red maintenance light Imelda’s face glowed with the same ecstatic trepidation Dolores felt thumping in her own chest.

Tuoni’s mind, his desires, swept through them again.

Madness.

Electra spun the wheel of the hatch lock. She put her hand on the release lever and broke the seal.

Needle thin jets of water harder than steel carved into the decking, driven by three hundred atmospheres of pressure.

Intrigued, Dolores held her hand under the jet. Skin and flesh sloughed away down to the bone. She watched her ruined flesh re-knit, the new skin hard and pliant and filled with knives.

‘Let us join him,’ Electra said, and pushed impossibly up against the titanic pressure on the hatch.

Black, boiling concussion crushed them.

Tuoni gathered them to himself. He slid into their minds and bodies. Bring her to me. Bring me my wife, my sea-bride.

Yes!

You too shall bear my children.

Yes!

#

Afterwards they crawled exhausted from the bed and clung to each other. Sweat-drenched, unable to talk, denied speech by the utter impossibility of framing Tuoni’s awful rapture in human speech. Such desires.

Dolores fell back, her mouth open in a silent howl of ecstasy and despair. Tuoni still seeped through her mind, dregs of the ocean ebbed within her. She buried her face in the bedclothes.

And recoiled. Something on her bed had been touched by the sea. Alarmed, Dolores groped for the light.

‘What?’ Electra croaked.

Dolores held up the green jacket. ‘This. It’s hers.’

Each time Tuoni came to them a little more of his essence remained. Electra and Imelda held the green jacket and gasped. They felt it too. It was hers, she was here. Wassiter knew where she was.

In the morning light Electra found Dolores sitting on the bathroom stool, her stockings pooled forgotten on the floor. Together they looked at the webs of skin growing between her toes.

To be continued…

Review: There is A Way to Live Forever – Terry Grimwood

There is a Way to Live Forever is an excellent title, and this new collection from Terry Grimwood contains some very good stories too. Sharp, controlled, concise stories, always with a human edge to the horrors.

I particularly liked “The Devils’ Eggs”, “Think Belsen”, and “There is a Way”. And “Journey to the Engine of the Earth” was really excellent, a highlight in my short story reading this year

Terry Grimwood creates deeply unsettling encounters in disturbed lives. Some stories are relatively straightforward horror, others edge into the fantastical, or the surreal, but never too far. All these pieces are driven by the needs of the characters in them. In on one case it is just  a wish to be accepted in a size 0 obsessed society, in another simply to survive a night in a council estate.

Redemption and  forgiveness, curiosity, an author’s desire for authenticity, the need to be a better person, and that passion closest to madness – love.  There’s something for everyone here, a little bit about what it is to be human, and a great deal for this particular reader. I enjoyed this collection very much indeed.

~

There is A Way to Live Forever, by Terry Grimwood, from  Black Shuck Books

 

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms, Chapter 37 – His Secret Heart

The Girl from a Thousand Fathoms. Cover art by David Bezzina (c) 2017Chapter 37 – His Secret Heart

Over the course of the day Persistent Smith and the Hand explored their new home inside the ducting. Smith slid from floor to floor down the slopes and elbowed up the ramps. The layout wasn’t what he expected. He’d imagined each floor would be self-contained but he discovered servo-operated doors that closed or opened sections of ducting to redirect airflow within and between floors.

The Hand peered round a corner and pulled back. ‘All clear.’

Those doors meant the tunnels kept changing. In fact there were two sets of ducts, one for warm air rising, the other for cold air descending. The doors routed the air streams, shunting the columns of air to where they were needed. That was a problem, for what had been a right turn on the way down might be a straight tunnel on the way back. Easy to spot when they were open, the doors were nearly invisible when closed. Smith resorted to rapping on sets of panels until he found the one that moved.

The constantly reconfiguring maze was disconcerting but Smith decided he liked it. It was a pattern that changed and he was inside it.

The Hand waited for Smith at the next corner.

‘Are you sure it’s safe?’ Smith said.

‘Absotively posolutely’ the Hand replied. ‘Follow me.’

‘Not so loud,’ Smith whispered. ‘Pygmy head hunters live in these tunnels. They’ve been tracking us for days.’

The Hand looked at him in open-mouthed dismay, peered cautiously over Smith’s shoulder, then snaked between his legs and looked down through a vent into a room of office workers. ‘What about the prisoners?’

‘There’s nothing we can do for them.’

Once again an opening had closed. It would have been useful to make a map or mark the doors. If only he had not dropped the pencil. Smith rapped on the panels, searching for the one that moved.

‘Hurry!’ the Hand said. ‘The guards have heard us.’

Smith looked down through a vent and saw a puzzled face, a hand reaching for the telephone.

One of the panels moved. He pushed it and found an up-ramp.

‘Come on,’ Smith wormed through and pushed the flap shut with his feet. ‘If we can make it to the next floor we’ll be safe.’

At the top of the ramp he rested. Smith was a big fellow, a fact not helped by his preferred diet of crisps, biscuits, chocolate and fruit juice. Crawling through tunnels little wider than himself was hard work. He drank from his water bottle, squeezed the packet of bourbon biscuits, then decided to eat the crisps. Crushed by his own body weight the contents were reduced to crumbles. Tipping them into his mouth, Smith chewed, swallowed and drank more water.

Even the Hand seemed tired. ‘What now?’

‘Good question. Food is running out, water is low, and the pencil is M.I.A.’

‘Tim found the car,’ the Hand helpfully reminded Smith. ‘Jarglebaum told Koponen.’

Which meant there was no need to stay here. It had been a Good Mission with Good Exploring but now it was over.

Except he didn’t want to leave. Here he was, all on his own, with nobody to tell him it when to eat, sleep, or brush his teeth. Who else could say they’d spent a night hiding in an air conditioning system? And he’d met Heidi. As he recalled his conversation with her, Smith looked down at the Hand and felt oddly foolish. He’d like to see her again.

‘What’s up?’ the Hand said.

‘Just thinking.’

A few things still puzzled him. Why would anyone hire someone to look for a car when they already knew where it was? Who was the girl they were looking for? What had either to do with the ship and the harvest? Why were they looking for a cat? There was no clear pattern but there had to be one somewhere underneath. That was what was really interesting.

‘We’ll stay one more night,’ he told the Hand. ‘Listen in at the morning meeting and discover more stuff.’

He’d be quieter this time. Nothing would break, no pencils would go Missing in Action. This evening he’d get more food from the machine. In his secret heart he hoped Heidi would be working late again.

To be continued…

Virtual Societies

I discovered the Aristasians yesterday, via a friend who is far more knowledgeable about things esoteric than me. Even they were surprised to never have heard of them before.

According to the History of Aristasia in Telluria, the Aristasians originally were:

“A group of Sapphically inclined female students who sensibly disliked the modern world and admired the philosophical works of René Guenon found each other.”

I was once fascinated by secretive societies, drawn by the lure of the apparently hermetic lore they possessed. I grew unconvinced, I’m even less convinced now. Although I was reading books as opposed to web sites (this was back in the days before the internet) that History is a good example of the writings I came across, with broken links, deeply obscure references, anonymous or pseudonymous quotes, unexplained unique words, and a slow slide into what seems to me, an increasingly incoherent narrative.

Like so many small organisations the Aristasians appear to have broken apart and reconstructed themselves more than once and then, apparently, faded from existence.

I ended up feeling a little sad. Here were a small group of people dissatisfied with the world they found who tried to create an ideal place to live that could accommodate their own needs and desires. I have much sympathy with that.

I don’t want to dwell on the wider diaspora of this group because I’m more interested in leaping into quantum physics, and virtual particles (of course).

Virtual particles are transient things but they are real (for a certain value of real). Various field effects and forces operate via the exchange of virtual particles and there’s one thing that struck me about them– the longer a virtual particle exists, the closer its characteristics come to those of actual particles.

I wondered if the Aristasians were a cultural equivalent of virtual particles, and that they were just one of hundreds, thousands, probably hundreds of thousands of small groups that have bubbled up into existence out of the quantum foam of human nature, called by some need, but then fade away.

These little groups are odd and idealistic, a mixture of practicality, quirks, and ideas, but then aren’t all societies and cultures like that? They might look a little strange from the outside, but then again so do all unfamiliar cultures.

If only they could have hung around long enough they might have become real[1].

~

[1] A possible Aristasian successor exists in The Daughters of Shining Harmony, though one part of this site is little more than ‘Buy My Book.’ A hoax, a dream, or am I just a cynical Tellurian curmudgeon? They do have a (virtual) tea room.