Wednesday, 28 July 2010

A Major Headache

‘Master?’ The courier bowed low into the room and remained with his unreadable gaze fixed on the ornate marble flagstones of the floor.

The tall figure, its already above average height greatly increased by the tall base-gold and gem-encrusted headpiece, nodded in vague recognition but did not turn around.

‘The Qap’t delegation is here, Master.’ The stooped figure reversed from the room, bowing the full length of the furniture-poor but furnishing-rich space.

Shira was alone again, for a few precious moments, to collect her thoughts and prepare for this meeting. She didn’t like the Qap’t, didn’t like their ways or their intentions. And yet they were powerful and she did need their influence, not to mention their weapons, to quell the rebellion in the southern districts.

Shira arranged her ceremonial robes around her and mounted the dias to her security enabled throne, a personally configured forceshield emanating from its podium, and sat, carefully, down. The robes were bad enough, heavy and unwieldy even if they did provide full body armour, but the headpiece was something else. The overly elaborate design disguised weighty mindshield technology that was still in the early stages of development. Shira’s chief scientist was remarkably proud of this infuriating prototype which buzzed slightly though only Shira could hear the steady hum of the motor.

This meeting would be its first live test.

The double doors at the far end of the throne room swung smoothly open and Shira composed herself behind a mask of calm reflection and serene intent.

Qap’t dignitaries were famed for their lack of acknowledgement of local common courtesy and for this reason the half dozen members of the delegation had not bothered with clothing for this visit. Shira could instantly see that these visitors were of the highest order of the Qap’t meritocracy as no shred of rag covered any part of their obscure skin.

It was not pleasant to see creatures with opaquely gelatinous outers which revealed grotesque and active internal organs striding quickly towards one, especially as the four hands of each Qap’t were all busy manipulating various limbs and layers of body fat in order to portray a vision of intense movement and nausea inducing clinical lucidity.

Shira smiled and nodded majestically at her guests and motioned them to the specially adapted couches that formed a neatly semi-circular audience around her feet.

The Qap’t ignored the couches and remained standing, forming instead a straight line of confrontation. Both sides remained silent for what seemed to the watching officials to be hours of negotiated one-upmanship. It was probably only minutes, maybe even seconds. To Shira it felt like an eternity as she struggled hard to keep her mind clear and positive – just in case the fledgling technology could not protect her from the telepathic intentions of her supposedly friendly guests.

A shiver ran up and down Shira’s spine and she could feel prickles of sweat popping out over her back and deep in the folds of her armpits. This was going to go wrong, she could see that now, the delegation had a plan that did not fit with her own.

Sunday, 25 July 2010

comida corrida

The narrow street ascends steeply, bordered by white walls that make it impossible to see the houses and apartments beyond. The space is further constrained by stubby green trees offering shade and cool in the summer. Argo is happy to have the shade, even though it is winter. He is not used to the weather yet.

He sees a chalkboard sign marked with a price and advertising comida corrida, meal of the day: chiles relenos, rice and beans and a coffee. There is no indication of the name of the place but he guesses this must be the one described to him. He peers into the dark hallway of the open gate, there is a small courtyard beyond vegetation-filtered light dances invitingly and so he steps inside, rehearsing the little Spanish he knows in preparation for ordering.

A woman, middle-aged, barrel-shaped, steps from a doorway and points him towards an empty table. There are several people eating already, mostly alone. A warm breeze carries a scent of cumin and fade again. Argo sits, accepting the laminated, grubby menu from the woman's hand. It simply repeats the chalkboard menu and Argo points and says please.

"Algo mas?" The woman says.

"Agua." He replies.

The bottle of water is brought out with a shout to the kitchen. Instinctively, prompted by reading guidebooks, he checks the seal on the bottle is still intact. A hummingbird falls through the courtyard and starts to dart around the falling pattern of red flowers tied to the wall.

Everything seems to come alive; a contentment unlike any other he has known seems to fill him, pouring through every cell of his body, dripping from his skin, splashing and pooling around him into the world. This is not his place, he realises. He is watching it from the outside but he is here, waiting for a three dollar meal in a Mexico he has never seen before.

Wednesday, 21 July 2010


The boy watched as the truck moved off, its electric motor straining with the effort of its load, tears streaming down his young face. He blinked, wondering if this was just a dream but knowing that it was not.

The truck, an old-style flat bed with a rusted cab and wide tyres, paused as it waited for the pressure door to rise sufficiently for it to enter the air lock and then moved forward, pausing in the bubble of territorial limbo. Once in the air lock the automatic cover switched over the vehicle, doubling its size and altering its character. And then it was gone, the plastic moulded tyres grinding slowly over the dusty grit of the planet’s surface.

The woman came up behind the boy and wrapped her arms around him, bending slightly at the knees to reach down to his level. She too was crying.

‘He’s gone.’ she sobbed. ‘It’s just us left now.’

The two of them remained standing, watching the fading dust cloud spiralling into the poisoned air behind the truck carrying the lifeless body of their beloved father/ husband.


It was the next day and neither of them had slept. Dawn came, shocking bright flaming colours drenched the sky, but a new day brought no comfort.

‘What do we do now, Ma?’ the boy asked as they reluctantly munched reconstituted mush.

She shook her head, refusing to look him directly in the eyes, and concentrated on her barely touched bowl of food.

‘Ma?’ the boy put down his spoon.

She sighed.

The buzzer rang, they had a visitor. She looked relieved, the boy looked interested.

Sunday, 18 July 2010


The square is bordered with grey, four storey buildings, delicately faced in an age when architecture meant more than concrete and glass. Aggie sits on the edge of the exploding fountain, the stream of its water firing upwards, becoming light, while drawing down the dark, bilious clouds into a fractal, slow-moving statue of energy.

Chairs, black and austere, remnants of a brass band concert earlier in the day, are scattered, facing in all directions. Aggie feels uncomfortable, not just the chill, but she feels exposed and disturbed by the chaos of the scene around her. There is a natural tendency to order which she cannot shake, but she has to wait. The message was very particular, and the parcel might contain the object she has been looking for; her father's knife.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010


‘But what’s wrong with the idea?’

Essika sputtered into her coffee and looked at me as if I had transformed in front of her eyes into a green skinned alien.

‘Are you kidding me?’ she shrieked. I’d never seen her quite so worked up before. It was quite sexy. It made me want to tease her a little more.

‘Well, why not? Tell me why this wouldn’t solve a lot of our problems.’ I smiled, watching the cogs rotate in her brain, knowing how much she was struggling with the concept but knowing that, probably, somewhere down deep deep within her she knew I had a point.

‘I don’t know where to start...’ she started.

‘That’s because you know there are no good arguments.’ I interrupted her before she could get into a flow. This was great. Usually her insane beauty and wide ranging intelligence were obstacles to my ability to interact in any meaningful way with Essika. If only I’d known months ago that all I needed to do to unnerve her was come up with some sensible but politically dangerous idea.

But already she was starting to rally.

‘Let me just throw some ideas into the ring to start with. These are in no particular order...’ she paused to collect her thoughts.

I groaned internally, I didn’t actually want to have a discussion about this after all, that wasn’t my purpose in raising the subject. I just wanted to get her goat a little, see if I could crack the surface of the stereotypical ice maiden that had blown apart my otherwise contented little world.

She started counting off counter-arguments on her fingers, a small furrow in her forehead reflecting the intensity of her thought processes. I didn’t bother to listen. In my job you got used to people arguing at you and I had very quickly learnt how to wear a mask of polite interest, when to grunt encouragingly and in which direction to shake my head at each phrase.

You could tell an awful lot, I mused, about someone just by their tone of voice when they were thinking through things out loud. The way the music of the voice changed and flowed, then stopped, halted by some obstacle of its own, then moved on again. The volume, the frequency, the pace of the words. The inflection of certain parts of each sentence. The way her lips moved with each syllable, revealing tantalising glimpses of teeth and tongue.


Oops. Looks like she had finished and I hadn’t even noticed. Must pay attention, must speak soothing but non-committal words of broad agreement.

‘You have some valid points. I’ll give you those. But I still think it works as an idea. You haven’t changed my mind on that. Though...’ I grinned sneakily. ‘ can keep trying to persuade me if you want.’

Essika drew back away from me. Too obvious then. Damn.

‘You didn’t listen to a word I said, did you!’

Now then, the question was: would she respect me more for owning up to not listening to her even though she liked being listened to, or would it be better for me to attempt to lie and hope that she couldn’t see through me. A lot could depend on this decision. I hoped.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

Rain and magic

Manchester, slick with rain. Light falls like glass. It glows, bringing every grainy surface of Deansgate into sharpened focus, the air wiped clear, bringing it to solidity as every surface reflects all others. The streets are busy, dark huddled figures moving quickly inbetween each other, focused inwards. Behind the reflection of a Starbucks window Aldervale watches for the mathematician while nursing a cool, flavourless latte which films his mouth and he is only grateful he did not bother with their tea. He wipes his forehead, bitter with memory.

Aldervale has plenty of time for contemplation when he is on watch but finds he has nothing left to think about. Sometimes, when partnered with someone, he is amazed at the thoughts that spill from their mouths, the joins and connections that seem to come so easily to them, the passages of reading and learning that seem to mesh together. Instead he finds he has nothing to add. He is blank in the presence of others, unable to communicate, afraid to, really, because he does not know how. He is a perfect watcher, he knows this. He fumbles with the grimy package in his jacket pocket, seeking reassurance that it is still there, wrapped in sticky newspaper.

Across the road the mathematician emerges from the travel agency, bitter at the weather and shaking his tiny umbrella into the air. Aldervale does not bother finishing the coffee. He stands and leaves, pulling up his hood over his thinning hair. His hand casually unwraps the package, pulling out the coin within while holding onto the plastic that offers a last layer of protection. Crossing the road, ducking behind the deep red glow of traffic lights, he falls into step behind the mathematician looking for a way past the couple that are a walking barrier between them. His chance comes as they reach the next crossroads. He steps forwards and around, as though he were any other commuter in a hurry to get home, while taking advantage of the crush to get close, to slip the coin into the mathematician's pocket.

The mathematician's umbrella knocks him. THe mathematician turns to apologise. Aldervale shrugs his head with what he hopes is a smile and turns away, looking for the light to change. He steps into the road, growling with traffic and the growing winter dark, muttering the activation mantra. He feels the little veil of maya slip, the hidden world behind suddenly slips through. Rain falls from his hood into his eyes, washing it away.

Thursday, 8 July 2010


The grey of the cement was broken by a single thrusting flower. Its grey-green stem thrust valiantly through the dead ground into the thin air. At its peak was a single bloom, simple red petals in a circular bowl of vibrant colour, transparent and yet more real than anything else.

The flower had somehow seeded itself into a miniscule crack. It had nowhere to retreat when the girl came over and yanked it thoughtlessly from its hard fought roots.

She looked at it closely, sniffed it, looked at it again with a fraught brow full of questioning confusion, and then ate the fragile petals in one sudden gulp. The discarded stem was dropped, pointless and lifeless now, to the ground. The girl stuck her tongue out in distaste.

‘Don’t do that.’ An elderly man, raggedy but with the kind eyes of one who has known what manners were, came hurrying over to the girl. He slapped her hand and she looked up at him with the threat of tears in her almond eyes. ‘I told you not to do that. These flowers are precious, they’re rare, and they’re not for eating on.’ He sighed, knowing his words fell on deaf, insensitive ears.

The girl shrugged, started to look around eagerly for more mischief.

She was too much for him already, the old man acknowledged to himself and he watched helplessly as the girl ranged around the long abandoned playground. It was his role, his purpose and his given task to keep her safe and to try to instil in her some values that might fit her for her own given task. But he was beginning to feel real pangs of despair. The more time he spent with her the more it was becoming obvious to him that she held no sprouting tendrils of potential greatness. Kass was mean spirited, stubborn in her ignorance, cruel to the few creatures they encountered on their travels, and ungrateful to her guardian. The old man was beginning to wonder how he could end this charade and yet still keep hope alive within their community.

A moment of inattention and Tess had wondered off out of sight.

The old man stood for a moment more. He inhaled the freedom of her absence, noting the sudden lifting of the weight of her company, savouring the natural silence. But then he froze, hearing sounds of other voices beyond the high wall to his side. He snuck towards the wall, tilting his head to hear more. There was one voice only. It was deep and gruff, manly and sure. It started with sounds of entreaty, promise, and then moved quickly to sounds of cajolement and, finally, threats.

Reaching deep into the right hand pocket of his long woollen coat, the old man pulled out his knife, its dull, short blade refusing to glint in the low sunlight of the new dawn.

He held the knife like a bar-room brawler, one finger tight along the edge, the blade itself half obscured in the folds of his too-long sleeve.
‘What do you want?’ he asked as he rounded the corner, ready to fight but ill prepared for the sight he saw in front of his weary eyes. The knife dropped to the floor and clanged as it bounced on the stone.


Sunday, 4 July 2010


Felix the portraiture is aware that he is being followed but he does not dare to stop, or even to glance around and look. He keeps his gaze downwards, focussing on the grey stone in front of him, not looking up at the faces of the dark, thick-coated crowd around him. The mist is growing thicker, the dim light of the streets barely bolstered by the lamp-lighters casting their little balls into the air, carrying the little touch of magic to the cheap crystals threaded on wire across the street.

In his mind two tasks fight for attention, each thought jumping from one to the next refusing him any progression with either problem. The first is where to go, where can he get to on foot from here where he can be safe. This is not a part of the city that he knows well, returning from the commission with the old woman; his only paying customer and even she has paid less this week, promising the full amount later. He cannot afford to take a cab. He regrets blowing what little he had over the past couple of nights of drink, blue and gambling. The other skein of thought is working through the pitiful list of his past and present clients to determine what the purpose of his being followed might be. His headache beats out a tattoo of frustration and pain.

He moves to step around a figure stood still in front of him but the figure moves to intercept. he nearly screams but looks up into the grey eyes of a pretty, slight woman, close-cropped red hair and a sense of deep magics. A small, tarnished badge is fixed to her coat. Police, he realises, and he wonders if he can tell her about the his tail.

"Felix Ovgorod?" She says.

He nods, sagging with a wearied fear.

A carriage pulls up, the thick, rubber-masked driver turning to the woman for instruction. She opens the door and pushes Felix in, then follows him. The carriage rolls off with a whine.

"What is this? Am I in trouble?"

"Probably. But that's not my business with you. I need you to identify a body for me."

"A body? What makes you think I would know someone? Who do you suppose him to be?"

With a shock he wonders if a friend of his has been murdered.

"We found this card in his pocket. We've been looking for you for a while. You haven't been home for a couple of days."

He shows him one of his own business cards. A crude printing, cheap, edge-worn card.

"I. I've been on commission." Not completely a lie.

Within a few minutes they are walking down the dark, sullen corridor of the police precinct, heading downwards into the cool of the morgues. Doors are opened for them by uniformed officers keen to show respect to the woman whose name he has been too afraid to ask. They look at Felix, take in the dirty jacket, grease and paint worn into its fabric, into his skin, the grimy smear of beard over his face, and they offer an almost imperceptible sneer.

In the green painted room where they stop the woman points to the table at the centre where there is a sheet laid over a body. Felix has seen the dead before and thinks he knows what to expect. But when the sheet is moved down from the body's head he sees something he does not expect. The face has been torn away leaving only red muscle and the white of tendons and fat. Felix feels himself want to be sick, his stomach heaving, trying to release whatever pitiful morsels remain from a breakfast finished too long ago. He turns away.

"Do you recognise him?" The woman asks.

"Recognise him?" Felix says, spitting and coughing. "How am I supposed to recognise him?"

"I understood you are a portraiture. You should know him even in this condition, if you are of any little skill at all."

The dig at his ability annoys him. He knows she is right but he has no desire to look at the faceless body again. The one glance will be enough to sear the image into his mind. He calls it back up, lets himself reconstruct it.

"I'm sorry." He says. "You are right. But I do not know him. I don't know how he came upon one of my cards."

The woman looks disappointed but motions the medic to lower the sheet again.

"Does the name Elias Smith mean anything to you?"

Felix nods.

"Yes, he was my client. I finished a commission for him a few weeks ago. He still owes me money."

"I am reliably informed that this is his body. That is why I was hoping you might be able to identify him."

Felx shakes his head.

"No. No, that's not him. Really. You've got the wrong man."

The woman turns and beckons him to leave. She had seemed so certain that the body was that of Elias. Felix was sure that it was not. Someone wanted the police to think that Elias was dead when maybe he was not. That's why he was being followed. Those people must have known that Felix could have be used as proof that Elias was not dead. Likely he really was in danger. His thoughts suddenly come together as he tries to think of something to say that can convince this woman that he cannot be let go, that she must look after him.