I’ve been lending money through KIva, a non-profit microFinance organisation, since 2012. Every month I’d lend money in $25 chunks to people around the world with limited or no access to other ways of borrowing. This month my total loans passed 1,200 and on average each $ I have put in has been lent to five borrowers.
I’m really pleased that I have been able to help so many people around the world.
Obviously this way of helping is not a panacea, but neither are the big, top-down, international projects. Both have their place, and with microFinance I not only like the idea that I can make what I give work harder and be more effective (because loans are repaid and I can re-lend), but also that these individuals and groups decide what it is that they need to improve their own lives, be it farming aid, sanitation, material and supplies, education, health, and so on. Nobody is deciding what is important for them.
I’ve learned a few things on the way. In particular how improving things in one place helps elsewhere, and how having enough cash to not have to live hand-to-mouth helps lift people out of an economic trap.
One group I always like to lend to is the Babban Gona farmers organisation in Nigeria. Babban Gona lends money to smallholders and provides advice and resources, These three extracts from a recent report:from a Kiva field volunteer shows exactly how everything joins up:
Farmers that I spoke to – with the help of a Hausa translator – spoke glowingly about Babban Gona’s agronomy training. Farmers has switched from broadcasting fertilizer on their field to micro-dosing at the plant’s root system, consistently spacing plants and thinning corn seedlings… One farmer, Sale, told me about his 0.5-hectare (1 football field) farm: “I was a bit worried about paying back the loan. Babban Gona officers mapped my field and told me that I would have to produce 10 bags of corn, but usually I only produce 7. I got 26 bags [of corn] that year“
I was surprised to see how manual agriculture is in northern Nigeria – it’s standard to pluck corn kernels by hand from the cobs. Manual corn processing can take 30 hours of labour per 100 kg bag, compared to one hour for machine threshing. Babban Gona farmers use machine threshers, and since manual threshing is usually done by the farmer’s family, saving a week of work per bag of corn means freeing up time for women and children.
… farmers without access to credit in rural Kaduna and Kano urgently need money by the time harvest season arrives in December. During harvest, corn prices drop with the market glut. In contrast, the Harvest Advance loan that Babban Gona provides to their farmers at harvest allows them to stockpile the grain, watching the market and selling the grain at a premium.
It’s easy to get involved and if you don’t want to use Kiva there are several other organisations that do similar things. However, if you do want to, drop me a line and I’ll send you an invitation, or you can just follow this link.
If you were wondering about the artwork it is by David Bezzina. David was really easy to work with, you can get in touch with him and see more of his work here.
Meanwhile down at the dock…
Chapter 57 – Cheap Tricks
Troy was right, the Imperial arrived at the docks without incident. He walked around the car and peremptorily kicked each tyre. ‘They’re fine.’
‘Check the spare, please, and bring the sack from the boot,’ Koponen said.
Tim stepped out onto the Southampton docks. The evening air felt warm compared to the chill of the Chrysler’s interior. Twenty yards away Foxy stood beside the Mercedes with Imelda Marchpane close beside her.
Who knew how those devious and aggressive women had been treating Foxy? He had to help her and to do that he needed to get away. This might be his last chance before embarkation.
He looked around for a customs officer or security guard – anyone. The docks were deserted. Grey and yellow painted gantries and cranes loomed silently against the evening sky in the empty spaces between high stacks of shipping containers. Cargo ships lay tied up at berth all along the quay. Most were in darkness but the one nearest to them, a medium-sized vessel with a rust-stained white superstructure, showed a few lights.
Troy Jarglebaum swung up the lid of the Imperial’s boot.
‘Boo!’ Persistent Smith shouted up at him.
‘Jesus!’ Jarglebaum jumped back, actually stepping out of one of his shoes. ‘My God, it’s you.’
Jarglebaum’s shout brought Markus Koponen and Tim hurrying round.
Smith waved his empty bottle. ‘Can I use your toilet?’
Markus Koponen paled under his white hat. ‘Who the devil are you?’
Jarglebaum danced on one foot as he pulled on his shoe. ‘I don’t bloody believe it. This is Derek Smith, missing person. I interviewed his parents yesterday.’
His finger stabbed down at the grinning Smith. ‘Stay right where you are, pal.’ Jarglebaum reached into the boot and hauled out the sack.
Koponen slammed the boot lid shut and turned on Jarglebaum. ‘What the hell is he doing in my trunk?’
Jarglebaum bridled right back. ‘I haven’t a bloody clue. I don’t go around locking people in car boots.’
‘Then let me make it very clear to you, Mr Jarglebaum, neither do I.’
Jarglebaum pointed at the boot. ‘You just did.’
‘So what’s he doing in there?’
Nice technique Troy, Tim thought, as astonished by Smith’s presence as anyone. Jarglebaum had neatly turned the conversation round. Now it was him who was questioning Koponen.
Koponen grew exasperated. ‘I told you. I don’t know!’
‘It’s your car. You keep it locked in your car park.’
‘Yes, but who is he?’ Koponen said.
‘He works for me,’ Tim said.
‘What?’ Koponen exclaimed.
Jarglebaum simply laughed.
‘He works for me. When Dolores hired me to look for the car I hired him to help.’
Koponen exhaled in relief. ‘I take my hat off to you, Mr Wassiter. I really do. What resource, what enterprise.’
‘That guy in the boot is a fruitcake.’ Jarglebaum tapped the side of his head. ‘You know, firing on three cylinders. Or five.’
‘And yet he not only found my car, he ended up inside it without our knowledge.’
‘Yeah, right. So what are we going to do with him?’
Koponen came to a decision. ‘I’m not going to take him with us, and we can’t let him go. He’ll have to stay where he is.’
‘Jesus, aren’t you even going to let the poor guy take a leak?’ Jarglebaum said.
Koponen waved away the question. ‘There’s no time. I notice he has a bottle, he can use that. I’ve arranged for the cars to be collected tomorrow morning. Leave the keys in the tailpipe. I’ll tell the drivers what to expect. They can drive Mr Smith back to Brighton and buy him breakfast.’
Cold and beautiful, Electra Vaughan made her way from the Mercedes towards Markus Koponen. The uneven surface of concrete-patched old stone and new tarmac was no obstacle to her high, elegant heels. Both Koponen and Jarglebaum assessed her languorous walk.
It’s now, or never, Tim decided. He hesitated, torn between making a dash for it, taking his chances against Koponen and his gun, or staying with Foxy. He was confident of being able to outrun the men, but the muscular and athletic Imelda was another matter. An encounter with her alone in the empty docklands was not a pleasant prospect. Tim steeled himself, he had to try. All he could hope for was enough of a head start to evade her.
Heavy hands gripped his shoulders. ‘Hold on, son,’ Troy Jarglebaum said. ‘Where do you think you’re going?’
‘Get your hands off me.’ Tim ducked out from under Jarglebaum’s grip.
Jarglebaum took a step back and tugged down his jacket. ‘Mr Koponen would be disappointed if I let you go now.’
Tim knew he was outclassed. Troy Jarglebaum was a bruiser, an old-style cop, perfectly happy to use his fists and his physical bulk if the situation required. Right now Tim wanted nothing more than to bury his fist deep in his old partner’s smug, jowly, middle-aged face.
Troy dropped into a half-crouch, balanced on the balls of his feet, arms splayed. ‘Cool it, chum,’ he laughed. ‘This is Troy Jarglebaum remember? Your old pal.’
‘What are you doing with these people, Troy? You’re an intelligent man, despite everything I do believe that. Koponen’s turned you into hired muscle.’
Jarglebaum beckoned Tim closer. ‘It’s not that easy, mate,’ he whispered. ‘The police service has been good to me but I’m not getting any younger. It’s time to move on.’
Somehow Jarglebaum looked bashful. ‘Look, there’s this girl. I met her on a case, she’s younger than me but we get along. I admit it, I’m sweet on her. Me, can you imagine it? Well, it’s true. Koponen’s all right, he’s very concerned with the environment. An employer like that can impress the younger generation and he pays well.’
‘I’m happy for you, Troy, really I am,’ Tim said bitterly. ‘But right over there is my friend and she’s being held against her will by that same OK guy who, I might also point out, also kidnapped me at gunpoint and locked another of my friends in the boot of his car.’
‘Excuse me.’ Markus Koponen turned away from Electra. ‘I do apologise for that deception, Mr Wassiter. As I’m sure Mr Jarglebaum will confirm, I do not even own a gun.’ Koponen stuck his finger into his pocket and aimed it at Tim. ‘Nothing but a cheap trick copied from the cinema. I simply wanted to speed things up and acted on impulse. I really was quite surprised when it worked. Guns and people form a deadly kind of synergy and I will have nothing to do with it.’
‘What about Foxy?’
‘My girls talked to Ms Bolivia and she has agreed to come along. Dolores and Imelda are helping her aboard as we speak. I hope you will allow Electra to do the same for you.’
‘Foxy, you don’t have to do this,’ Tim called out.
Preceded by Dolores and with Imelda behind her, Foxy was already halfway up the gangplank and gave no reply.
Electra’s arm slipped through Tim’s, her other hand gripped his elbow like a vice. ‘Shall we, Mr Wassiter?’
‘For God’s sake, Troy, help me. You’re a cop!’ Tim cried.
Jarglebaum couldn’t meet his eye. ‘Part-time, semi-retired. It’s more of a consultancy these days.’
‘I’ll see you in my cabin in a few minutes,’ Koponen called out as Electra led Tim away. ‘Welcome aboard the Sea Cucumber.’
With Foxy aboard Tim had no option and allowed Electra to steer him towards the gangplank.
One hundred and eighty metres long, Sea Cucumber had a three-storey superstructure at the rear and cargo cranes fore and aft of the main hold. As Tim stepped aboard the ship shuddered as the engine rumbled into life. A steady stream of rust-orange bilge water slopped from the stern into the harbour. Four crew members, swarthy, muscular men in dark trousers and jackets, unhitched the heavy hawsers from the dockside bollards at the bows and stern.
Down on the dock Troy Jarglebaum slung the sack over his shoulder and faced Markus Koponen. ’This is my advice – Imelda should not be left alone with Foxy Bolivia.’
‘We agreed that subject was closed. Ms Bolivia will be fine. Now, get on board and do your job.’
A few of us were talking about books we had enjoyed this year as recommendation for Christmas. Here are a few of mine.
Hannah Green and Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence, Michael Marshall Smith
I loved MMS’s early work and his ‘Straw Dogs’ series, then lost contact with his work. This turned out to be a great place to resume.
Hannah Green is a clever, funny, supernatural adventure about time, the Devil, and bad people doing bad things. Laugh out loud moments, an easy style, and strange and dangerous encounters. A perfect winter night read.
Nine Lives, William Dalrymple
Dalrymple is my favourite travel writer/historian at the moment, and this is one of his best books. Subtitled ‘In Search of the Sacred in Modern India’, WD helps us understand what it is to be a Jain nun, a Buddhist monk, a story-teller, A Sufi, and more.
Some of these ways of life endure, some, like the 20+ generation statue-maker and last in his family line, he catches at the very end of their times. Dalrymple writes with a transparent style, filled with warmth and compassion. Not many travel writers can make me cry.
Kingdoms of Elfin, Sylvia Townsend Warner
Back in print after forty years, this fine collection of stories from the courts of Elfindom are lyrical, witty, cruel, and charming.
As anyone who truly understand the fey knows, they might not be nice, but they can be funny. Essential and pleasurable reading for anyone who enjoys gently grotesque stories.
Heidi had been working hard all day, she had even skipped lunch, though in truth she felt too excited to eat. Now her long day was over and she sat at her workstation and ran a final check on the last non-correcting audit she had run. It was really just something to do while she waited for Derek Smith.
Apart from her the office was empty. Even the light in Mr Abercrombie’s office was off.
She smiled to herself as she remembered all the funny things Derek did and said, and how he argued with his talking hand. It was going to be fun to spend time with him. She could do with some fun.
She also needed to thank him and tell him about all the intriguing events that had happened as a result of his help. When she’d shown Abercrombie it had taken him a while to see it. When he did, he went very quiet and very pale. Paler than normal even for him, a man who seemed to have lived his entire life under office lighting.
Abercrombie cleared his throat. ‘Have you mentioned this to anyone?’
‘No.’ Heidi decided there was no need to mention Derek.
Abercrombie picked up her phone and dialled a number. ‘Mr Palmer, this is Abercrombie. I’m sorry to disturb you, sir. I’m with Ms Tollund. She’s discovered something I think you should see for yourself.’
Heidi had never met the Chief Financial Officer before. She’d only ever seen Palmer’s name on the organisation chart. Right at the top beside Markus Koponen.
Now she was really worried. Two weeks into a new job and her boss and her boss’s boss were coming to see her. This was not good at all.
Palmer and Abercrombie dressed like chalk and cheese. The younger Abercrombie kept his hair cropped short and wore narrow, black suits. He thought this gave him a sober, dynamic air, but actually made him look generic.
Palmer’s bold liquorice pinstripe contrasted with his lemon-yellow shirt and pink tie. His jet-black hair was collar length and his fringe tended to flop over his eyes.
In his youth Palmer played the same game as Abercrombie and discovered it got you nowhere. You had to learn to be yourself, a rule just as true for accountants as for anyone. One day Abercrombie would work it out and Palmer would promote him.
‘What seems to be the problem?’ Palmer said affably. To Heidi’s mind a slight overbite made his smile disconcertingly toothy.
Abercrombie leaned in close, whispering. His long, raw fingers stabbed at Heidi’s screen, sketching out columns and totals.
Palmer rested his chin on his thumb. ‘That’s really rather clever. Tell me, Ms Tollund, did you elucidate this yourself?’
‘Er, yes. Am I in trouble, Mr Palmer?’
‘Quite the opposite, I salute you. However, I will now formally ask you as Chief Financial Officer not to talk about this to anyone except me.’ Palmer beamed genially at Heidi, who found herself smiling back.
‘Yes, of course,’ Heidi said. ‘Can I ask who Vogler, Marchpane, and–’
‘You don’t need to know that,’ Abercrombie broke in.
‘It’s all right, Robert. I’m sure someone as bright as Ms Tollund could find out if she wanted. Vogler Marchpane and Vaughan are non-executive directors. You could think of them rather like Ministers Without Portfolio appointed by Mr Koponen himself. I’m sure he’d be interested in these, ah – inconsistencies.’ Palmer beamed at Heidi again. ‘But don’t forget – not a word. And jolly well done.’
Now it was dark outside and Heidi was wondered where Derek had got to. She also wondered which floor he worked on. He’d never said and she had just assumed he was new like her and in need of a friend. Maybe it would turn out that’s all they would be, just friends, someone to chat with and share a joke. That would be all right, though she thought this time, maybe…
She waited a while longer.
And a while more.
She felt a little sad and told herself it was just the emotional intensity of the day.
Heidi shut down her workstation, picked up her handbag, turned off the remaining lights and walked through to the lifts. As she passed the vending machines she half expected to see Smith there, on his knees and looking for change. She stood there, not really thinking about anything. Then she summoned the lift and went home, a journey brightened only by the chocolate counter at the late-night store.
To be continued…
 You can tell how badly things are going by the number of managers standing behind you at your desk. One is bad. Two is twice as bad as one, three are twice as bad as two, etc.
Authors Note: Well, that thing I hoped might work out, didn’t. That’s OK, it was a long shot and out of the blue. I have returned to Plan A, which is to keep posting here, and work towards a fully edited and proofed print and e-book version. Meanwhile – enjoy!
Chapter 55 – Relax
‘We’re just about on time.’ Koponen fretfully checked his watch. The journey had taken far longer than he had hoped. Although they could still leave on a falling tide he had wanted to leave on the rise, it somehow felt right. Now the sun was setting, and thankfully the dense evening urban traffic of Southampton flowed smoothly.
They were nearly there. Koponen settled back, letting himself relax for the first time that day.
A muffled bang came from the rear of the car.
‘What was that?’ Koponen exclaimed. ‘We hit something.’
‘Relax,’ Jarglebaum said. ‘There was nothing, I’d have seen it. It’s probably your stuff settling in the boot.’
‘I felt it. There was a bump. Keep your eyes on the road.’ Koponen slumped back, then started forward in alarm. ‘Now I can hear hissing. I was right, you hit something. We have a puncture.’
‘I can hear it too,’ Tim said.
Jarglebaum swung the wheel back and forth. ‘The car’s handling fine. This babe is a dream to drive.’ He caught Koponen’s glare and turned forward to hide his smirk. ‘Look, if it is a puncture it’s a slow one. There’s just a couple of miles to go and we’ve got a spare. Even if we need to change the wheel we’ll only lose a few minutes. I’m sure Tim will be happy to help, won’t you buddy?’
‘Not with my back.’
‘What’s wrong with your back?’ Koponen was suddenly sympathetic. ‘I’ve had problems, I know how it feels. No-one believes you.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with his back,’ Jarglebaum called out. ‘He’s lying.’
‘There should have been plenty of time,’ Koponen muttered. ‘Those road works–’
‘Nothing to do with me, I’m just the driver,’ Jarglebaum said. ‘Relax. I’ll get you there.’
It occurred to me that the one great challenge of world-building is that you are, in fact, building a world. What to put in? What to leave out?
I’ve recently been reading The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to becoming a Master Storyteller, by John Truby. In it he writes:
“Good storytelling doesn’t just tell audience what happened in a life. It gives them the experience of that life. It is the essential life, just the crucial thoughts and events, but it is conveyed with such freshness and newness that it feels part of the audience’s essential life too.”
That extrapolates well to world building. World-building is not a thing in itself, it is there to support your storytelling. You are creating the semblance of a world not the actuality. All that is required are the specifics that will support the story you are telling in all its aspects. Not so detailed that the narrative and characters disappear, not so flimsy you feel you could walk up to the scenery and bang your hand on the canvas backdrop.
One way to think about your world building is to treat it like the photographs, souvenirs, and memories of a trip to a place only you have visited – the striking moments, places, items, inhabitants, ways of life, creatures and landscapes, and sensations that stay with you when you have left. The things you absolutely have to tell everyone about when you return home. The things that will fire their imaginations and make them want to go there too.
I recently stalled myself writing a connecting scene between two places – Knights Hall, where my alien city guardians live, and High House, the home of the ruling elite deep in my underground city. How was I going to get my characters from the first place to the second? Which route would they take? What would they see, do, say, and feel?
With this particular story I have needed to imagine an entire world: a planet and ecology, cities and technology, a cultural history and a way of life that has stretched unbroken for thousands of years. With this scene it all welled up in my mind and became too much. There was so much to think about I didn’t know where to begin. And for a while I actually couldn’t.
Which was no good at all.
I’ve learned to trust my subconscious when it stalls me. I take it as a message that I am heading in the wrong direction. Invariably it (or rather that other and in some ways smarter part of me) is right. So I did what I usually do and thought about whether or not I needed this scene at all and, if so, how big it needed to be.
In the end this is what I wrote:
“Vioneth led the way to High House along a secret way behind the upper warren. Lumens blinked into life as they went. The footing was level and paved, the curved walls whitewashed, yet everywhere there were signs of disuse and neglect. Paint peeled, water pooled in shallows and corners.”
I used just what I thought where the essential details. And I have now hopefully co-opted the imaginations of the reader to build on that description in their own minds. Readers have excellent imaginations.
With world building, as with so many things, less is usually more.
Time passed. Persistent Smith lay in the dark of the capacious and surprisingly comfortable boot and listened to the muffled male voices coming from the passenger compartment. He didn’t hear it all but some of what he heard fit in with what he already knew and the rest he simply accepted as true.
Then the voices fell silent. Into that space an awful thought intruded: Heidi. Smith’s mouth hung open in an agony of silent dismay. Heidi. They were supposed to meet, he’d let her down, abandoned her. She’d– What would she think of him? Smith had a very good idea. This was Bad, very bad. Bad Thinking, Bad Dating. Bad Lifestyle Choices.
The Hand came out, he couldn’t help it. Frantically Smith silently pinched his lips together. The Hand studied him with an expression of profound disappointment and Smith knew he had let everyone down badly.
This level of worry and guilt was exhausting. Smith groped for his drink bottle then stayed his hand. He knew he drank when he was nervous, drinking too much here would be worse than a poor choice, it could be disastrous.
He listened to the sounds of the vehicle. The steady powerful beat of the engine, the thrum of exhaust and rush of tyres on the road formed a soothing harmony. Every now and then the car swung gently to one side and back again as it overtook slower traffic or negotiated a bend. Smith closed his eyes. What was done was done, there was nothing he could do to change it and it was his responsibility to put it right. All he could do was hope it was possible, and try.
Changes in the motion of the car woke him. They had slowed, the vehicle moved more actively now, turning, braking, and accelerating. The passengers were talking again, but their voices were indistinct. Outside there were sounds of other vehicles: cars, motorcycles and buses. Once the car was stopped for several seconds and Smith heard the beep-beep-beep of a pedestrian crossing. They were in another town. Wherever they were going it felt like they were getting close.
Very thirsty now, Smith opened his bottle of orangeade. Guilt-ridden thoughts of Heidi returned, orangeade sprayed into his face. He jerked back and knocked his head on the boot lid.
The car lurched from side to side, then steadied. Smith loosened the cap more slowly. The gas hissed out steadily. He lay back and sipped his drink.
Authors Note: A chapter a week and here we are at chapter 53. Have I really been doing this for a year? Not quite, but nearly. I posted the first chapter late November last year and I doubled up on some of the shorter chapters. Enjoy!
Chapter 53 – The Good Guys
The interior of the Chrysler Imperial was spacious and silent, the high-backed seats upholstered in oxblood leather, the air faintly scented with hide wax. Polished walnut panels trimmed the doors, side pillars and arm rests, the bright work was silver rather than chrome. The steady murmur of the powerful engine came from the front of the car, a faint whisper of rushing air from the windows.
‘I come from Finland, Mr Wassiter,’ Koponen said. ‘I enjoy summers but the world is warming too much and too fast. I have reengineered this car to run on Canola oil, my fuel supply is carbon-neutral and allows me to run a big-engined car with a clear conscience.’
‘Oil-seed rape,’ Tim said as he remembered the brochure from the boot of this very car. ‘You’ve developed a high-yield variety.’
Koponen placed his Stetson on the seat between them. ‘You’ve made a connection but that’s not the full story. The high yield is the carrot to attract the farmers, and believe me they are being attracted in high numbers. My first commercial scale seed crop has been harvested and is ready to ship to the U.S.A. It will be sold to thousands of farms and planted across hundreds of thousands of hectares.’
‘Is that where we’re going?’
‘To the United States? Only part of the way. As Mr Jarglebaum said, we have a ship to catch. That ship is the Sea Cucumber. She is waiting for us at Southampton water. From there we’ll rendezvous with my research vessel in the mid-Atlantic.’ Koponen looked out the window at the scenery speeding past. ‘I plan to save the world, Mr Wassiter. Plans of that scale cost a huge amount of money. I’ve an immense fortune but I’m spending it fast. I don’t begrudge a single penny but I’m going to need a lot more.’
Koponen’s eyes glittered with excitement. ‘I call my white-flowered variety of Brassica napus var. doloresvogler. Not only will it slow global warming, it will make me a lot of money too.’
They reached the roundabout underneath the coast road flyover. Jarglebaum followed the Mercedes as it powered around the curve and up the west-bound ramp.
A few miles later brake lights began to flare. Jarglebaum slowed the Imperial. ‘Road works ahead, Mr Koponen.’
‘Ah, this country. It’s wonderful, but sometimes it is frustrating.’ Koponen impatiently tapped his fingers on the armrest, picked his hat up by the brim and turned it in his hands like a wheel. ‘Climate change, Mr Wassiter. Wave height in the North Atlantic is increasing as winds strengthen, the tropics have more frequent and more powerful hurricanes. Ice caps and glaciers are melting, sea level will rise ten, maybe twenty metres. A slow disaster of our own making. Governments are not doing enough, I decided to step in.’
He’s mad, Tim though. A self-deluded megalomaniac justifying any means to an admittedly worthy end.
Koponen watched him with wry amusement. ‘Whatever you may think of me I am one of the good guys. We’ve designed air conditioning that uses passive heat exchangers and solar fans that generate all of their own electrical power. Use them and we could shut down entire power stations.’
Tim sat uncomfortably in the corner. ‘This isn’t about air conditioning.’
Koponen flourished his Stetson. ‘And this hat isn’t just vanity. It’s a symbol, a constant reminder of what my priorities need to be. Wherever I go I’m reflecting a little bit of the sun’s heat away from the earth back into space.’
‘What about the roof of the car?’
Koponen laughed. ‘A fair point. There is also something called style, Mr Wassiter. Unfortunately high albedo black paint appears to be an impossible contradiction, don’t think I haven’t tried. Just imagine if one tenth of the world’s population wore white hats outdoors. That’s over 750 million people. With a conservative estimate of 9 hats to the square metre, that’s almost 8,500 hectares of reflective surface, an area greater than Bermuda.’
‘That doesn’t sound like much,’ Tim said.
‘No, it isn’t.’ Koponen slapped his hat down on his knee and scowled. ‘No, it isn’t at all.’
They were through the road works. Jarglebaum sent the car surging through the traffic.
A surreal calm came over Tim. In his mind he compiled a list of items that defined his own life:
He had been kidnapped at gunpoint by an insane foreign businessman.
His neighbour was a witch who hypnotised cats and thought his friend was a mermaid.
Almost everyone he knew, including his former police partner, worked for the crazy billionaire.
He himself apparently had the ability to travel through time and space in his dreams.
‘Are you all right, Mr Wassiter?’ Koponen said. ‘You were talking to yourself.’
‘I was wondering if I was mad and the last few days had been a psychotic delusion.’
‘As far as I am concerned this is all very real. This is my life.’
The interior of the Imperial was cool to the point of chilly, Tim turned up his collar. Koponen had spoken freely but he hadn’t explained why Foxy was with him. Tim knew there was little he could do unless he could get the gun away from Koponen. He had to keep Koponen talking. With the Finn in a verbose mood it was a good opportunity to get some more answers.
‘This is all to do with the flowers, isn’t it?’ Tim hazarded.
‘Well done. Farmers will plant my crop because the plants are engineered to be nitrogen fixing, give higher yields and a better oil/protein balance. More profit, less cost, less fertiliser and less nitrate pollution. There is every reason to grow my Canola and none not to. Cost and yield is why farmers will buy my seeds, the environmental benefits will cut the ground out from under the feet of the GM protestors.’
Tim was grudgingly impressed. It all made good sense. He said so.
‘A means to an end, Mr Wassiter. The real reason I want my new crop planted is because the flowers are white and they bloom for an additional three weeks. White flowers, Mr Wassiter, my plants have white flowers. This is the first crop designed for a high albedo. Three years from now it will be growing in vast acreages, half a million hectares in Great Britain alone. Farmers grow wealthy, higher yield means less deforestation, I earn enough money to finance the next phase of my project. Most importantly, the white flowers will reflect sunlight and cool the world.’
Flecks of spittle grew in the corners of Koponen’s mouth. He wiped them away. ‘Change through positive incentive. Forcing change by punishing people with taxation is self-defeating. Governments don’t understand, they want to control people. I want to set them free!
Tim had limited experience with ranting megalomania. He tried flattery. ‘That’s brilliant. I’m convinced. Mr Koponen, you’re a genius.’ It actually was very clever.
Koponen basked in Tim’s praise. ‘Enlightened self-interest – the new model for the free market.’
‘So what has Foxy to do with this?’
Koponen blinked. ‘Nothing at all. She’s part of my Atlantic scheme, another thing entirely.’
Tim thought about her alone in the Mercedes with Dolores, Electra and Imelda. ‘She’d better be all right at the end of the journey.’
Koponen stiffened. ‘She will be absolutely fine.’
This is why Jarglebaum wanted to drive the Mercedes, Tim realised. He’s as worried as me, he actually tried to warn me earlier. He saw Jarglebaum watching from the corner of his eye in the rear-view mirror and felt reassured. At least in this they were on the same side.
‘What I don’t understand is why you hired me to find your car. You already knew where it was.’
‘An excuse to keep an eye on you. Mrs Woosencraft worked for me but she was having problems and I was becoming concerned about her personal agenda. When I discovered she had hired you to find her cat, doing exactly what I needed someone to do, I decided to keep tabs on you.’
‘The desk bug and the embroidered handkerchief,’ Tim said.
‘Exactly. Ms Bolivia’s jacket was a helpful bonus.’
Of course. Tim could have kicked himself, they had bugged that too.
And to get all this done Koponen had used the oldest trick in the book – exotic women tantalising his baser male instincts, keeping him further off-balance with touches of violence. It was galling to realise how easily he had fallen for it.
‘My initial assessment of you has been vindicated – you’re a focus. No great talent yourself but things happen around you. If not, how else would you have become involved at all?’
Now was not the time to mention Asklepios and his dreams, Tim decided. He would let Koponen underestimate him for as long as possible.
‘It is the strength of your desires,’ Koponen continued. ‘Your dreams for how the world should be as opposed to what you fear it actually is, something the two of us share.’ Koponen pressed his palms together as if in prayer. ‘In that we are not really so different.’
A muffled snort came from the front of the car. Troy Jarglebaum’s shoulders shook as he tried to suppress his laughter.
‘Ignore him, he doesn’t see the world like us,’ Koponen said. ‘You managed to find something without even looking for it. That in itself is a rare gift and one I would like to use again. The car was simply an excuse to introduce some surveillance. You weren’t supposed to find the car, you were meant to find the cat.’
Author’s Note: More background developments developing, potentially far more exciting than my previous announcement, which was exciting enough in itself. Goodness. I can’t say anything else for another couple of months because I won’t know more until then myself.
Chapter 52 – Legs
For once Mrs Woosencraft’s front door was firmly. Tim lifted the iron knocker and banged three times. Inside the cat box Morse gave a plaintive cry.
Mrs Woosencraft opened the door almost immediately. ‘Bore da,’ she said. ‘Come on in and take your jacket off. I can’t wait to hear where you found her.’
Tim followed her down the hall past the quiet dining room with its ticking clock and into the back room. Two cats peered down at him on the stairs, another trotted in from kitchen.
Mrs Woosencraft rubbed her hands. ‘Let’s have a look at her.’
Tim put the cat box onto the settee. He opened the lid, lifted Morse into his arms and faced Mrs Woosencraft.
‘Oh,’ she said as her face fell. ‘Bugger.’
Tim felt not one ounce of sympathy. ‘What’s going on, Mrs Woosencraft?’
Mrs Woosencraft dropped into her chair. ‘A good question, bachgen. And well put.’
Tim narrowed his eyes. ‘I don’t want you to call me that anymore. I thought we were friends. I was wrong.’
Mrs Woosencraft looked embarrassed, almost ashamed. ‘Let me put the kettle on. A cup of tea and a scone from the oven.’
It sounded nice but Tim hardened his heart. ‘You kidnapped my cat, Mrs Woosencraft. I don’t think that is too strong a word for it. You kidnapped him and dyed him. Not only did you make him look like your cat, but you did something to him so he thought he was her too. That’s not kind, it’s not nice, it’s certainly not what friends do. I’m still not sure if he’s back to normal.’
Mrs Woosencraft peered intently at Morse and her eyes widened. ‘He’s Morse, all right. Somebody undid it all, somebody who knew a thing or two. Take it from me.’
‘He doesn’t seem the same to me.’
‘He’s just got a few things to think about.’
‘So would I if I’d been hypnotised into thinking I was female.’
Mrs Woosencraft winced. ‘I don’t blame you for being angry. I’m sorry and I mean it, but I had my reasons. Selfish ones maybe, but important just the same.’
‘I worry that you wouldn’t believe me.’
‘That’s what Foxy said. You’ll have to try harder.’
Mrs Woosencraft’s mouth hung open. ‘Was it her who fixed Morse?’
‘If you mean did she drench him in freezing cold salt water, then yes.’
A hopeful look flickered across Mrs Woosencraft’s face. ‘Are you sure you don’t want a drink? I know it’s early but personally I could use a large sherry. About half a pint.’
Perhaps alcohol would make her more talkative. ‘Make it a proper one.’
‘Then I’ll get the scotch.’
Whisky for breakfast. Bring it on.
Mrs Woosencraft felt both shamed and elated. Yes, she’d done everything Tim had accused her of, she’d abused his friendship and more. But Morse had found her!
She had never truly believed such a complex spell would work. Nevertheless, she had to take the chance. Back in Wales the numbers had been so clear, they said this was what she should do, that this was the best place to search. She had never actually thought it would happen. Not now, not at her age.
Used properly the power, the strength of Deg Naw Wyth was unfailing. And she had used it properly. A lifetime of practice had ensured that. There was always room for doubt, sometimes the answer you got wasn’t quite the one to the question you asked. And that usually meant you hadn’t asked the question you thought you had.
‘I think Morse will be happier back in his box,’ Mrs Woosencraft said as she fetched the drinks. She was right, given the chance he eagerly climbed back in, curled up and promptly fell asleep.
Mrs Woosencraft poured sherry for herself and a surprisingly good peaty Islay for Tim. Lifting her own glass, she took a deep swallow. Tim cut the scotch with a little water.
‘Tell me about the woman who found Morse,’ Mrs Woosencraft said.
Tim shook his head. ‘No. You owe me. You answer my questions first.’ He knocked the whisky back, banged the glass on the table and leaned forward. ‘So, Mrs Woosencraft. Dorothy. Bachgen. What the fuck is going on?’
Tim expected his language to shock the old lady but he was disappointed. Mrs Woosencraft finished her sherry and refilled both glasses. Her grey eyes glittered as she said, ‘I’m a witch, see.’ She wiggled her fingers at Tim. ‘I can do magic.’
Then it was Dorothy Woosencraft’s turn to be disappointed. Tim had had no breakfast, that double measure of high quality scotch surged through his stomach wall and into his bloodstream like water poured over sand.
‘So you’re a witch. Well, I’ve done some divining and do you know what? It worked. Not how I expected, but thinking about it I didn’t really know what to expect. I’ve always believed there was more to the world than the things we can see. In fact that’s how I try to solve crime. It’s why I left the police.
‘Foxy was right about you. An old lady living on her own, a house full of cats, and you’re not scared to leave the front door open. What does surprise me is that I never noticed. Was that another of your spells? Another part of your sinister deception.’
Mrs Woosencraft looked genuinely hurt. ‘I am not sinister. I make biscuits.’
‘You have to admit you show some of the symptoms.’
Mrs Woosencraft didn’t much like being told she had symptoms either but now wasn’t the time to be taking offence. She didn’t have the right. She tried to stay focused. ‘My turn. Tell me about this Foxy.’
‘She’s the woman who found your cat. My cat. Morse.’
‘Foxy’s her real name?’
‘Foxy Bolivia, yes.’
Now Mrs Woosencraft did look surprised. ‘You mean as in the Bolivian Foxtrot? The naughtiest thing you can do standing up in public–’
‘Without getting arrested, yes, yes. I’m surprised you know that.’
‘It may have been a while ago, but I was young once. And I was married at a time when people knew how to dance properly.’
‘Maybe I’ll take some lessons.’
‘Not with her, Tim. I don’t think she could manage the footwork.’ Mrs Woosencraft reached for Tim’s hand. ‘Tell me you haven’t kissed her?’
Tim pulled his fingers from her papery grip. ‘What are you talking about?’
‘She’s a mermaid.’
Tim gave her a long, steady look, then burst out laughing. ‘You’re a witch and she’s a mermaid. Is this what this is all about? You think she’s a mermaid? You really do.’
‘I said you wouldn’t believe me.’
‘She’s a woman. She’s got legs.’
‘You’ve seen them?’
Tim’s silence was enough.
‘I thought not. Narrow skirts, nice shoes, long hair, combs it a lot.’
‘Plenty of women are like that.’
‘I’ve studied this type pretty thoroughly, believe me. My search has been long, and until now, fruitless.’
‘Then you’ll also know she’s pregnant.’
Mrs Woosencraft’s sherry glass slipped through her fingers and smashed on the stone floor. ‘Drat. Never mind. Tim, listen, this is important. I came to Brighton to find a mermaid but I couldn’t use my magic to find her directly because they have their own magic, Deep Magic. It’s very old and very strong. To catch a mermaid on dry land you have to fish for them with cats. The way I do it you need exactly nineteen. Nineteen is indivisible, see? One of the numbers that can’t be broken. I was getting somewhere until Un Deg Naw disappeared. I needed another cat, one that knew me. I was running out of time–’
There was a knock on the door. Mrs Woosencraft ignored it. ‘My cats found the mermaid but then I lost the cat that found her – Morse. Except Morse was now, shall we say, disguised as my cat. It was obvious to me what was going on. Find the cat, find the mermaid. That’s where you came in, Tim. You must tell me where she –’
The knock came again.
‘I’ll get it,’ Tim said, happy to interrupt a monologue that belonged in a room with deep-buttoned walls.
He opened the front door to be confronted by Dolores Vogler.
‘Dolores, what are you doing here?’
‘Hello, Mr Wassiter. What an unexpected surprise,’ Dolores said. ‘I’m looking for someone called Dorothy Woosencraft.’
Tim felt light-headed. ‘This is where she lives.’
Dolores sniffed the air in front of Tim’s face. ‘Have you been drinking?’
‘All things considered, no more than absolutely necessary.’
Mrs Woosencraft pushed past Tim. ‘You again. What do you want?’
Dolores turned to Tim in bemusement. ‘I don’t know what she means.’
‘Oh, you dirty little fibber,’ Mrs Woosencraft said.
Dolores’ eyes narrowed. ‘If you weren’t so old–’
‘You wouldn’t dare!’
Tim took hold of Dolores arm and whispered, ‘She’s not having a very good day. She thinks one of my friends is a mermaid.’
‘There’s nothing wrong with me or my ears,’ Mrs Woosencraft snapped. ‘If I say she’s a mermaid it’s because she bloody well is, not because I’ve gone soft in the head.’
A man Tim did not recognise walked up to the door. He was in late middle age and dressed in pale blue slacks, a charcoal jacket and collarless shirt, and rather incongruously a white Stetson. He held out his hand. ‘Mr Wassiter, an unexpected surprise. We meet at last, I am Markus Koponen.’
Tim didn’t feel like shaking hands. ‘I found your car.’
Koponen gave him a brilliant smile. ‘Indeed you did. I am using it today. You have also done something which is difficult to put a true value on. As for the real nature of your friend, why don’t you ask her yourself? Ms Bolivia is travelling with us in my Mercedes.’
Parked in the street Tim saw the beautiful and imposing Airflow Imperial Eight. In front of it was the low-slung cream Mercedes. There were three figures inside, all female. The driver and one of the rear-seat passengers wore red. The other had a head of hair so golden it shone. It could only be Foxy.
At some unknown impulse she turned. Her face was pale. She saw Tim and raised her hand.
Koponen extracted a thin white envelope from his jacket’s inside breast pocket and handed it to Mrs Woosencraft. ‘Payment in full, with my thanks.’
Mrs Woosencraft took it quickly and wordlessly, unable to meet Tim’s accusing eyes.
Koponen checked his watch. ‘It’s time we were off. I have a ship to catch.’ He studied Tim thoughtfully. ‘Mr Wassiter, I think you should accompany us.’
‘No, thanks.’ Tim gathered himself, ready to shove past Koponen and run.
Koponen’s hand slipped smoothly into his hip pocket. The material jutted forward in exactly the way it would if the hand held a gun. Tim subsided and watched Koponen warily.
‘I see you’ve noticed how serious I am. We’ll ride together in the back of the Chrysler.’
Dolores slipped her arm through Tim’s. ‘I’ll walk you there.’
‘Don’t go,’ Mrs Woosencraft exclaimed. ‘None of you. I’ve seen it, a journey across water into danger.’
‘Really?’ Markus Koponen said, startled. ‘Through your magic?’
‘Two groups of four people travel towards their doom.’
‘Then I can reassure you because there are only three people in the Imperial. Much as I respect your gifts, this time you are mistaken.’
As Tim climbed into the back of the Imperial he had another surprise: Troy Jarglebaum sat at the wheel.
‘Troy,’ Tim said. ‘What the hell are you doing here?’
Jarglebaum gripped the wheel. ‘I sub-contract. Get in the car, kid. Time and tide, we’re on a schedule.’
‘Troy, help me. Koponen’s got a gun.’
‘What?’ Jarglebaum’s head snapped round. He took in Koponen’s pose with his hand in his jacket pocket in an instant. His big jaw worked, his tombstone teeth showed in a helpless grin. ‘Oh, that’s good.’ He wiped a tear from his eye. ‘Everything’s OK, Tim. Koponen’s not going to shoot anyone, trust me.’
Tim slid warily across the rear seat behind Jarglebaum. Koponen climbed in and pulled the door shut with a soft clunk. The cars swept away.
Mrs Woosencraft looked down at the white envelope in her hand and found her tongue. ‘I didn’t do it for the money, Tim,’ she called out in a quavering shout. ‘It wasn’t just for the money.’
The cars turned at the end of the road and were gone.
‘I’ll look after Morse for you,’ she whispered. ‘I’ll take good care of him. See if I don’t.’
To be continued…
 This is very like cooking. All recipes work perfectly; it’s just that sometimes you’re just not baking what you think you are.
Author’s Note: Just made it this week as I’ve been at the Milford SF Writers Conference, which is busy but enormous fun, and very very useful. Mood: Tired but happy.
Chapter 51 – The Scholar
Caked in stinking river mud the foreigner knelt among the rushes and retched up significant quantities of the Euphrates.
Beside him Banipal was equally wet and filthy. His body and clothes were saturated and reeked abominably, his sandals were somewhere at the bottom of the Holy River.
Too exhausted to move or speak, Banipal flopped beside the man he had just rescued. The scrawny foreigner looked uncomprehendingly at him. Drool and snot hung from his nose and mouth. He wiped his face with his hand then he too fell to the ground and curled into a loose ball.
‘You are safe.’ Banipal put his hand on the man’s shoulder. The stranger flinched, Banipal dragged himself onto his knees. The man beside him looked half-dead. Perhaps even after all his efforts he would still die. Out in the river there had been a long awful moment when he had thought they were both gone. He pushed the memory aside. The Gods would decide, all he could do was try.
He cleared a tangle of hair from the man’s eyes and wiped his face with a relatively clean corner of his robe.
‘You are safe,’ Banipal repeated. Pressing his palms together he bowed his head to the foreigner. ‘You are safe.’
The stranger understood his tone if not the words, for he gave a weary smile.
They sat in silence for several minutes, dripping and reeking on the black mud among last season’s rotted vegetation and this year’s new growth. Banipal watched the river flow and wondered just what the Gods intended. The stranger coughed, turned aside and was quietly sick.
When he was done Banipal stood and held out his hand.
The stranger took his hand and unsteadily came to his feet.
Banipal touched his own chest and smiled. ‘Banipal,’ he said. ‘Banipal.’
The foreigner looked back up the river towards the bridge and shuddered. Then he touched his own chest and bowed. ‘Asklepios.’
Banipal gestured towards the upper bank where a flight of stone steps led to the walls of Esagila. Together they slogged through the mud towards the steps.
‘Where do you think he is from?’ Ishkun was more intrigued by his friend’s fascination with the stranger than the man himself.
Asklepios sat silently beside Banipal in his rescuer’s warmest robes. The three of them shared a meal of dates, cheese, bread, and water.
‘I have no idea,’ Banipal said. ‘We have no common language, nothing at all.’
Ishkun reached across the table and squeezed Asklepios’ shoulder. ‘You look none the worse for your little swim. Marduk favours you.’
Asklepios smiled, spread his hands to show appreciation of the food and clothes, then bowed towards Banipal. Ishkun listened carefully to his speech. Despite having travelled widely he could make no sense of it. He had tried the languages he knew and Asklepios apologetically shook his head at each one.
‘He seems grateful enough,’ Ishkun observed. ‘And so he should, he owes you his life.’
‘And having saved it, I am now responsible for him,’ Banipal said. ‘Though you must share some of the blame, if you hadn’t taught me the trick of looking through a fist I would never have spotted him in the river.’
Ishkun was delighted. ‘I will make a hunter of you yet. What are your plans for this fellow?’
Banipal explained that when he first saw Asklepios he had been holding measuring instruments. ‘He is a scholar, I want to find out what he knows.’
‘How do you know he hadn’t stolen them? He was taken as a thief after all.’
‘They were made of a strange material. He must have brought them with him.’
‘And they were lost in the river?’
Left to his own devices, Asklepios amused himself by arranging date stones into rows and groups.
‘You see?’ Banipal laughed. ‘He is just like me.’
When he realised he was the centre of attention Asklepios smiled bashfully. Encouraged by Banipal’s gestures he laid two date stones next to each other, then three, a wider gap, then six.
‘He cannot even count,’ Ishkun crowed. ‘I can do better than that.’
‘No, he is multiplying not adding.’ Banipal made his own sum, multiplying three by three.
In turn Asklepios attempted three by six. But now he did not have enough stones. He took a whole date from the bowl, touched it to his fingers and thumbs on both hands and placed it beside eight stones.
‘Yes,’ Banipal clapped his hands. ‘I knew it.
Ishkun shook his head in despair. ‘Ninurta preserve me, I will never catch anything if I have to bring you both hunting.’