Sunday, 6 November 2011

The Pale Horse - Chapter 7

2026 Five weeks later.

And IHOAH called on Shem saying, 'Shem, father of all supra-terrestrial production. Name thy sons.'
Shem answered, 'IHOAH creator of all being made manifest.
My first is Heilam; infinite duration and eternity.
My second Ashur; lawful power, harmony and happiness.
My third Arphachesud; restorative principle of providence
My fourth Lud; intellectual generation.
My fifth Arum; universal element.'
'Call thy Sons and see they protect well their products; for the tyranny of Nimrod stalks the land of Shinar.'

The locusts sensed the growing density of the air around them and stayed within its corridor. They flew with the cooler draught, up and over the summit until the katabatic wind assaulted and overcame the warm breeze of the valley. Gathering more swarms they could be counted in millions by the time they settled to eat from the valley. The second night saw millions more, their bodies a gregarious pink. By the third they were a plague, on the fourth a scourge. On the fifth day they left the valley to its desolation. The sun filtered through the top layers to form a pink cloud, sprinkled by flashes from iridescent wings. Beneath them was night. They had no fear of predators and flew by day using the convected currents to devour distances. A thousand storks could gorge until they choked and only slightly narrow their corridor of desolation. As they left the valley in Turkey’s Taurus mountains they were five miles wide, ten long and filled space between eight and ten thousand feet. Free of the mountains' restraint the vanguard swooped and banked until they sensed the winds, then turned north.

Salford Exit

Mangy Macgregor's froth production was in full pelt by the time Deek parked his bike and slid his rucksack out of sight.
' oo...ody ti....imes'
Deek shrugged and started sliding papers into his bags. 'Gran's ill. I'd to get her prescription.''
'B.b.b.bloo..oody li..iar. I'l.l yo..u when yo..u'
Deek nodded. It had worked and he wouldn't be back to get s.s.s.acked. He freewheeled to the end of the ramp before trying for better balance between the papers and the rucksack. He'd just finished when a tyre nudged his leg.
'Thought you'd chickened out?'
'What the fuck's this?'
Rab put on the innocent look. 'Whatcha mean?'
'What're ye doin’ on that thing?'
'It's hers, the only one we've got. Naff init?'
'Fuckin’ prehistoric, but that's not what I'm askin’. What're you doin’ with it?'
'Christ, isn't it obvious? I'm comin’ with ye.' Rab gave a pat to the cylinder of nylon wedged between the seat and a couple of pannier bags close to decimation. 'Borrowed his tent and these.'
'You havin’ me on? You said nothing about this last night.'
'Never thought about it. She hasn't turned up so I got to thinking about it this morning. Any time now and the old man will cotton to it and the fists and shit'll start. He's a pillock for finding them.'
'Thought you said she was at her sisters?'
Rab smirked,' She's as big a bag. They're both at it. C'mon enough of them, let's move.'
Deek, legs forced akimbo to scrape past the paper bag, had to strain for momentum. Once started he wasn't sure if it was the seat rubbing the root of his cock that was making it hard, or the vision of Rab's step mother hawking it around. She wasn't a bad looker and always looked nice. 'You tell her you knew?'
'Nah, what would I want to do that for?'
'Maybe she'd stop.'
'His problem not mine.'
'You ever slip it to her?'
'Fuck off, she's near thirty-five,' Rab smirked. 'Shaves her box though.'
Deek let his mind erase a detail then stood to see if his groin pressure would settle. 'What she do that for?'
'Search me. Maybe it makes her feel young.'
Deek settled back cautiously. 'Christ, how young? Joyce Wilson's well thatched and she's same age as me.'
'Been there have you? We'll you must have been about the last so it'll be well lotioned.'
'Nah, I just like them beavered.'
Rab smirked. 'Yeh. Where we going with this lot?'
'Junction of Oldham Road and Ancoats.' Hesitating, he asked, 'You any funds?'
'Goin’ on for sixty and I whipped their hash. Once we know what we've got total we can decide whether to keep it or flog it.'
Deek nodded. ' How'd you know she shaves her fanny?'
'Watched her.'
Deek quickly got back his balance. 'Ye mean she let you?'
'No fuckhead. Both of them thought I'd gone out. I heard the giggles and thought I'd snaffle a spliff. Caught her in the mirror before she saw me, got the full twat.'
'Jesus, what was yer old man doing?' Deek's mind was struggling between imagining the scene and why Rab would want to leave so many opportunities.
'Pubbing it, dickhead. It was the sister scraping the gunge off her twat.'
Deek changed the scene and found he liked it even better, then stood on the pedals to break the tacky adhesion. 'Fuckin’ hell,' he said, as though commiserating.

Rab left Deek to do the selling. Leaning his bike against the wall he settled sideways on the seat, turning a paper to its sports section. Deek wasn't sure about Rab. Nothing to do with like or dislike, or having to share the kitty, more with his superiority and the way it could hold Deek in the old pattern. Like the smirk when he'd told him about Joyce Wilson and about liking them beavered. Maybe the bitch had put it about that he wasn't too clued up on undergrowth. He'd about settled on the answer and was about out of papers when the motorbike wheeled onto the pavement. Slipping the notes into his pocket he made a slow search for change and let another magnanimous punter drive off before he vaulted over the barrier to serve the biker. 'Only got the News, Guardian and Mail left.'
'Gimme a News.' It was muffled by the Vader helmet.
'Sure, that's three singles.' Deek waited while a hand dove into the jeans that clung to stick legs. He knew before he saw it. Knew by the way the hand was scrabbling that the bloke wasn't too bright, but that didn't make it any less worrying.

He got one kick in, just left of target, before a ton of bone hustled him back against the junction box. Yanking up his knee got nothing but air and a plastic kiss gave him pneumatic lips. He was handicapped, hemmed by the box, the lack of ground beneath his feet and a helmet that would stop anything short of a bazooka. Twisting his head down and round Deek ignored the visor's pivot that was gnawing into his temple. Foiled by more plastic from the throat he concentrated his teeth on the leather forearm pinning him and wished his slobbers were pure acid. He knew that was useless as soon as he tasted it; like trying to eat a cow on the hoof. Vader's free hand belted his plexus in and his snot out. This had gone on long enough. Where the fuck was Rab? Jesus, a second punch exactly on the same spot had his eyes popping and his throat trying to swallow tongue.

'Little cunt! Gimme the money.' It was gasped out, telling Deek he stood a chance if he could exhaust it before it killed him. He was sure Rab had been there when it started. Or had the bastard set him up? Another punch beneath the vee of his ribs had his head swimming and lungs gasping. He'd started to re-evaluate the value of money when the hiss in his left ear made him think Rab was back and trying to give him some advice. It was better than advice. Vader's hands clawed beneath the lifted visor. Gathering his wits, Deek checked his hand still safeguarded his cash before his foot swung to connect with nuts. This time he got the conversion and watched knees buckle. A second hiss raised a scream off pain.
'C'mon Deek. Go before any of this lot decide to lend a hand.' Half conscious of the spectators they'd gathered, Deek allowed himself to be pulled to his bike. He was still panting when the rucksack was hitched on his back and handlebars shoved into his hands. Adrenalin pumping their legs, they wheeled through back alleys, through traffic and deserted streets until a line of trees told them they were out of the district. 'Fuck me, Rab, where were ye?'
'What d'ye mean?'
'Thought you'd taken a hike.'
'Shit man, it was over in seconds. Anyway, you started it. I thought it was something personal, like Macgregor's son or summit.'
'Nah. Bastard had a duster in his jeans, saw it when he tried to pull it out.'
'Must be doolally to keep it in a place like that.'
Deek was glad 'Yeh. What was it you got him with?'
'Found a spray can of penetrating oil in his bike box.'
So that was it, he'd been checking out the bike before pitching in. 'Suppose it did the trick.'
'Shouldn't have any trouble getting his helmet off.'
'Anything worth taking?'
'Nah, he was a loser, even took the ignition key with him when he tried the snatch. Apart from that just some spanners and another lid.' Rab gave a surreptitious squeeze to the purse and wallet and decided he'd wait to check them out before playing the honest partner. 'How much you reckon we got?'
Deek knew to the penny. 'With your sixty, around a thou.'
Rab whistled. 'Not bad. Should see us for a week. Only one thing.'
'What's that?'
'Where the fuck are we?'

Deek didn't know and didn't want to admit it. He'd read somewhere that the sun sunk in the west. He squinted at it and looked around but at one o'clock it didn't help. 'There should be a signpost thing at the end of this road.'
'All right. Where we heading?'
'I thought of heading for the Welsh coast. Supposed to be work there during the holiday season.'
Rab reckoned Deek's reading was restricted to Joe's hairdressing emporium and the idiot had never looked at the vintage of the magazines. 'All right, let's go for it.'
'You ever been there?'
'Coupl'a times.'
'What's it like?'
'Like Salford but with a beach and some coloured lights.'

Deek was disappointed but they needed some place to head to. They'd another couple of miles before a flyover junction gave them the first sign. Stopping they stared at white blazoned on blue and waited for a decision to make itself known. Stockport they knew, and didn't want, but the rest of the places were just numbers that made no sense. Giving a, 'Fuck it,' Rab started straining up the slip when the jam sandwich slipped in and blocked him. Deek waited, watched Rab's face go red then change to glower when his back was to the copper. Deek tried to look innocent, waiting with crunching arse to hear the words, 'It's you they want,' wondering if he could slip the cash to Rab without the fuzz seeing.
'What's up?'
'Fucking motorway. We're not allowed on it. Any sign that's blue we're to forget it.'
'Where are we headed?'
'Straight on.'
'You ask where it'll take us?'
'Did I fuck.'

Another half an hour and the road they were on had opened up. Still trees either side but they were thicker, bigger, venerable avenue trees, screening venerable houses, most with the disgruntled air of quality having to swallow quantity. At its end they found a sign and read names that meant nothing to them. Deek decided on Wilmslow, it had a w in it, like Wales or west so maybe it meant something.

They lost Wilmslow, were fooled by cross roads where tilted signs no longer pointed in any sort of direction. They were worried because if Wilmslow was as big as Manchester, Salford even, that was a helluva size to lose. Either that or they'd by-passed it without noticing. Deek thought that might be difficult on a bike but wasn't sure enough to say. They were in alien country where space confused and allowed people to be scattered and things hidden. They hadn't found a scale to define the home of a pauper or king. In the Righy he'd felt alone, isolated, but in his territory. Here he was exposed and vulnerable and knew nothing. Except that his arse was raw, sweat was stinging his scrapes and acting as a drinking hole for man-eating insects. His legs were actually beginning to shake. He turned to Rab, 'Fancy a breather?'
'Not until we find a place to eat.'

Rab spotted it, was already past it before it registered. Performing a wobbly u-turn he was staring at the paint flecked sign by the time Deek got round to him. Four eyes swung from the sign to the house about fifteen strides from them. Three goldy blobs above a crown glorified a slow arched DUNROAMIN, with B & B settled between its feet.
Rab swiped at something tickling his ear. 'What'ye think?'
Deek didn't know what to think, except he wasn't impressed. He eyed the black door with its green knocker. Nets curtained all the windows. Two glass doors led to a dirty glass lean-to that ran along half the front and disappeared round the side. Two sun chairs were drawn up facing one another in the lean-to, and one of the window nets hung off, as though they were being watched. He didn't know what he'd to think about. The place looked creepy but so did the whole fucking countryside. He played it safe. 'Looks all right.'
'Okay, let's see if we can get some grub and a bed for the night.'
'Hold on Rab, there's somebody in there.'
'Bloody hope so, don't fancy your cooking.'
'How d'ye mean?'
Rab's face screwed in exasperation. 'Knock on the door and ask, you twit. It's a B and B, bed and breakfast, like a hotel without the fancy gubbins.'
Deek was miffed at Rab for thinking him green and with himself for knowing he was. 'Fuck shit I know that. What I was asking was how much will it cost?'
Rab scoured the country and felt the silence. 'Don't know but I'm going no further.'
Deek let Rab take the lead and held the bikes while Rab got three hollow raps from the knocker. Deek saw the same net twitch. 'Rab, there is somebody in.'
Rab gave another three knocks.
'I've already phoned for the police so you'd better be on your way.'

Deek searched for the voice, eventually tracing it to a narrow window that ran about half the length of the roof. 'How much for bed and breakfast?'
'And something to eat now?' Rab came back from peering through the letterbox.
'We're full up. Now off you go.'
'Awe c'mon missus. Honest, we're starvin.' Deek had never heard Rab plead.
'We only take people who book in advance. Now go away.' The last was stronger, but the rest was crackly with nerves and you knew she was lying.
'We can pay, missus, honest.' Giving Deek's arm a nudge he added, 'Show her the cash.'
Taking the notes from his pocket, Deek tried to find the median between their need and her greed.
She didn't sound too impressed. 'I've warned you, the police will be here any minute so you'd better go.'
Rab had a surge of inspiration. 'S'alright, we'll wait for them and they can check us out.'
Deek, his ears already cocked for the sirens hissed, 'What d'ye say that for?'
'Shut it,' Rab hissed back. 'Please missus, me and me mate are on our way to me Dad's farm. We got lost when the police diverted us from Wilmslow.'
'You're not far from Wilmslow. If you go back the road you're on and take the second right it'll take you to it. There's hotels there.'
The fu.. police told us not to bother trying. Reckon it'll be all night before they'd sorted it.'
'Why, what's happening?'
'Didn't say exactly, some sort of riot I think. Maybe that's why they're taking so long getting here.' Rab swatted some insect biting his temple without swearing. He reckoned it would impress her.
'My husband's got his gun on you so don't try anything silly. If one of you takes your jackets and leave them by the door I'll check them and think about it.'
Rab kept the game going. 'You want us to put our bags there as well?'
'Yes, but only one of you. You, the blonde one, stay where you are.'
Handing his jacket to Rab, Deek whispered, 'Ask her how fuckin much.' Though he was quite pleased to be thought of as the dangerous one.
'Leave it, Deek, until we're in. There's nothing in your bag is there? Y'know, nothing that'll turn her off?'
Deek couldn't think of anything, unless some of his dirty skids had got mixed up with the washed. He shook his head.
Rab left the jackets and rucksack by the door before moving back beside Deek. They saw the net twitch again then the rattle of chains, locks and bolts before a bare arm felt blindly for them and pulled them in. It was well gone by the time Deek remembered the two girlie mags he'd stashed in the side pocket.
'How old are you boys?'
Rab chanced his arm. 'Eighteen.'
Deek chanced everything. 'Seventeen.'
'Fifty each for the meal tonight, another hundred and fifty for the bed and breakfast, and you pay me now.'
Deek was gutted, 'Two hundred and fifty. For one night. That's robbery.'
The voice came back with bad news, 'No it's four hundred.'
'You're joking, missus?' Deek was gob struck
Rab was desperate. 'Two hundred now, the rest in the morning.' He went for broke. 'Honest missus, we won't cheat ye.'
'Okay, pass it through the letter box.'
Deek let Rab take the weight of the bikes before peeling off the notes and slipping them through. A snatched shufty surprised him when he was presented with a pair of smooth thighs.
'Leave your bikes in the conservatory, you can keep an eye on them there.'
Deek nodded at the door. 'Right missus.' He wondered what politics had to do with keeping bikes safe. Rab put him right.

Smooth thighs stretched to long legs in short shorts topped by the merest crinkle of navel before flesh was again screened by pink cotton, leaving imagination as free as the globes playing beneath. As her arm stretched to release the locks to open the conservatory door, both waited for the hint of a globe to emerge beneath the cotton hem. Deek swore when his view was blocked by Rab, but it was his turn when she closed up. Only a stench that ruptured his nostrils, closing his throat and stinging his eyes stole the visions from his mind.
'It's the chickens.' She explained pointing to the sliding patio doors. 'That's your room; you won't notice the smell once the door's closed.'

A shirt, socks and skivvies were already on one bed, the other had a short towelling robe. This was snatched up and held in front of her, as though she'd just became aware of their appraisal before the ammoniac assault.
'You have your own shower and toilet through there.' She pointed with her head. 'I'll give your meal and breakfast on trays, so there's no need to leave the room. Television's got something wrong with it that you might be able to fix. Anyway, I'll get on with the meal.'
Deek recognising the shirt as his, was still gripping money that was threatening to revert to pulp in his hand. 'What about our jackets and bag?'
'You get them tomorrow when I get the rest. For now will some cold chicken, chips and eggs be all right?'
Both nodded, not even concerned by the sound of a key being turned in a lock. Rab cupped his crutch and threw himself back on Deek's shirt. ' Jeeesus, that'd make a glass eye water.'
Deek was still struggling with expenditure shock but played it cool. 'Yeh. She must be all of thirty.'
'How'd you know? You haven't taken your eyes of her tits.'
Deek turned from checking out the toilet. 'Balls, I was watching her arse when she left. Wonder if she shaves her box.' He saw Rab's expression change from its lecherous pout and his hands dive to his pockets.
'Shit. The hash is in my jacket.'
'So, we've nothing to smoke it with?'
'Pillock. What if she's found it?'
Deek didn't like the pillock bit, but Rab wasn't so cool, and that he did like. 'Ah, maybe living out here an all that she won't know what it is.'
Rab looked relieved. 'Yeh, could be.'
'Better check before I give her any more money. If she's taken it, what you reckon it's worth?'
Rab hiked his shoulders. 'Depends how desperate the punter is. If they've got the contacts, around three hundred; desperate or green, double it.'
'Shit we should have flogged it.'
'Could be worse. Here.' Pulling his stomach in Rab drew out the purse and wallet and lobbed them to Deek. 'Took them from the biker, haven't had a chance to look in them.'

The wallet was dry. Nothing but cards, ID, driving licence, donor card and a condom, its ring permanently impressed on the stamp pocket. The purse was better, the zippered inner gave thirty-five and loose change, a trimmed photo of a smiling wimp and more plastic. Sorting out the thirty-five with the money now in his pocket, Deek was about to chuck the purse when an edge of cloth different to the lining caught his eye. Holding the purse flat he slid his thumbnail into the edge felt the Velcro separate and collected the paper it hid between thumb and forefinger. Rab looked over as legs and arms scrambled air like a back flipped spider.
'What you got?'
'Only four more notes.'
`Yeh, go on.'
'Only five hundred each.' Deek felt glorious, every move they made was working for them.
'Fuckin magic.' Rab's words were loaded with silent meaning. 'We going to split it now?'
Deek slipped the wallet under the towel before heading for a shower.

Rab was already eating when he came out with the towel wrapped round him. 'Get this down you. Tastes all right.'
Deek prodded a speckled yoke and watched as the yellow spread over speckled chips and chicken. 'What's the black stuff?'
Rab shrugged. 'Some sort of pepper or somethin’. Anyway, as my mother used to say when she'd burnt the grub, "Get it down, best sauce in the world's a rumblin’ gut. An’ it tastes all right.'
'So you keep saying.' Rolling the first mouthful round his mouth, Deek waited for the taste and was surprised by the amount he got. By the time he was down to slaloming the last of the chips to collect all of the juices he was humming as he ate. Rab's goose steps to the shower turned the hum into a chuckle. Unwrapping the damp, crinkled towel from around him, he watched his hands slowly stroke the creases out before turning the label towards him and draping it over his middle. Everything was slow, almost exquisite. He knew the feeling; he was stoned. Rab returning with the towel draped over the trunk rooted to his groin didn't disturb him.
'Look at that man, Cat couldn't scratch it.' Deek watched Rab stroke his guppy mouthed horn without flush of shame or excitement. Just as remote he saw the hands basket the horn when keys tinkled in the lock.

The wrap had replaced top and shorts, hair cascaded down to frame a younger face and nestled in the vee of the wrap. Four eyes roamed, unconcerned by their own nakedness in blatant appraisal. Deek got the first touch.
'My that's a bad split on your lip. Give me a couple of minutes and I'll get something for it.'

Fay Williams felt her stomach churn and her groin moisten as the bodies still given to growth and not bulk presented themselves to her. She couldn't remember when she'd last tried with Eric but could remember the result. She'd to close her mind to reality and conjure up memories to meet the need. He could still register excitement, she'd feel him thicken and rise at times when she pulled the skin to wash underneath. Sometimes she'd carry on, letting his hand fumble for her as though there was foreplay while she five fingered him till he came, or his sphincter relaxed and repugnance washed over her in cowking bile. Four years of the good life, then nine of drudgery; seven in this chicken checkin of dunlivin. It was a karmic sentence on her for wheedling him out of his marriage.

Finding the first aid box she took what was needed and turned to her jailer slumped in his chair. Her robe had fallen open, exposing her to vacant eyes. 'Eric.' A pang of guilt made her call his name and check his padding for damp. The same guilt had her fingers stroke his face before making her way to the head of the stairs. She looked again as she closed the door they'd installed to separate their lives from those of hoped for guests and now acted as the inner portal of a tomb. It wasn't what she'd wanted, wasn't what she'd hoped for and was not what she'd been ready to give. She felt human and cheap, but that was a lot more than she'd felt for a long time. She checked her pockets, yes the lighter was there and let her hand slide on between her legs and shuddered when the finger touched her lips. She had a second guilt pang. To hell with them they could take their chances with fox or thief for one night. Tonight she'd have them, tomorrow decide what to do. Pack and leave and ring anonymously to have Eric taken in, or wash some windows.

Deek didn't feel any sting when the antiseptic was brushed across his lips. 'I fell off the bike,' he explained, trying to keep his image untarnished.
'Well you're lucky it's clean, no grit so it should heal o.k.' She smiled as her fingers tickled over his ear and slowly started to rub the lobe. His senses screamed to touch her. Not the breast taunting him as she stretched to comb the hair back from his brow, not the length of buttery thigh exposed when she'd knelt on the bed, though both were locked in his memory. He wanted to run his fingers over her lips then caress her cheeks and on to her lobes; to know if his fingers felt the same excruciating thrill as hers gave him. He wanted to sense what she was feeling and touch her neck below the sheen of hair. She smiled as he followed her moves, letting her lips part and her tongue lick its nectar onto his sensual fingertips.

Rab could see nothing except her back till the teasing of every ball breaking thought made him turn his head for relief. Then he had it. Double visioned, double proofed, reflected off the double glazed doors. Deek was fingering her. Jesus, he could feel the wetness when his skin peeled back from the head. Throwing off the cover he moved behind her and grabbed for a breast and tried to plunge his other hand between her legs. Both wrists were locked by a grip that stopped them going anywhere. Standing, she eased Rab round till she confronted both of them. Deek saw her give a cursory check to the glistening droplet easing out of Rab's cock. She gave a tinkly laugh and her finger collected it, rubbing it round the head, making Rab's flanks shudder.
'Easy boys we've plenty of time. You had the benefit of the meal, a couple of smokes and I'll be on the same plain. Who belongs to this?' From her pocket she threw the block on the bed. Deek had no idea how much there should be and didn't care. Rab could see it was half gone but didn't care either, yet asked, 'Where's the rest?' and wondered why.

Their hostess had taken a fat spliff out of the same pocket and Deek watched entranced as the blue gold flame from the lighter changed to a fiery red orb. The corners of her eyes crinkled slightly as she drew smoke deep inside her then slowly let the smoke wisp its way out.
'The rest?' she said. 'Oh, some you had with dinner. Some we will share between us, then we'll see.' Smiling she took a second drag before going over to settle in Rab's bed, legs tucked decorously beneath her. 'So, tell me a little about yourselves.'
Deek couldn't think of anything. His eyes locked on a hand casually cupping a breast while the thumb's outline gently circled under the towelling. He willed himself to self-control; he wasn't going to waste a thing.
Rab squeaked, cleared his throat, mumbled something, then came.

New York was hot. Fuggily, buggily, toxically hot. Klaus Schultz, clad only in shorts, two minutes out of a cool shower, opened the fridge and helped himself to a glass of milk. He downed it before reaching his study then eased a brandy over the bottom curve of a modest balloon and felt the sheen of sweat as the shorts began to stick to him. He wished he could bring himself to walk about naked, but there was something not quite right about human sweat contaminating the aged leather chesterfield. Pressing the remote he heard the machine click then begin to roll. Now, he didn't expect to hear either Shafner or Morice, though it was obvious, as he’d been told it would, when he’d first listened to the report that they’d been its main authors and Carter had played the rest to a conclusion.

He'd never heard of Farrell and Meany or their fucking ratio of insects to humans, and he doubted if anybody else in the game had. Certainly he couldn't remember it being raised or even mentioned. But that didn't mean he wasn’t between the rock and the hard place. His options were limited and Carter, Shafner and Morice were squeezing him by identifying the problem This wasn’t WREC’s purpose. It was purely a logistical tool, a blind.

The cleanest option was to have the three of them eliminated and not include the report in his UN dossier due in two, two and half weeks. Except that could make the others, even the dissenters, put their egos on hold and come up with questions that could leave all ten to be dealt with. Easiest would be to refuse it any significance, and warn Shafner and the Frenchman to stick to WREC’s aims and not to get sidetracked. No, that had as much chance of being heeded as a spit dousing a furnace. The politics he could handle, manipulate the media and bureaucrats by facts and truths spun to the shape he wanted. That was all easy, that was his rock. His hard place was different, less tangible, spurious and all the more threatening because of it. Pity he couldn't just ring them up, nice and easy like. - Hi Glen, Antony; seems we've got ourselves in a bit of a schimmozzle. Any ideas how to get around it? Word to the wise and all that; because that’s exactly what he needed now, wisdom.

The imaginary line died the moment he looked at the attaché case. Delivered three months before, he’d been told to keep it by him at all times and only use it for transmitting or receiving items pertinent to GAME. Opening it he’d scanned its cold metallic facia and noted the keyboard, the lens he’d to stare into next to the screen that identified his right thumbprint, provided it was offered simultaneously with his eyes. Then he’d to say his name for the voiceprint then, and only then, would it accept he was whom he said, and by entering his identification code get or send whatever had sparked the need. It was, to Klaus, a gizmo: a heavy gizmo that would be noticeable by him lugging it. Flunkies carried attaché cases and Klaus hadn’t been one of those for over thirty years and didn’t see why he should look like one now. Unless this marked a new phase where, instead of the quiet word during the course of some perfectly normal innocuous meeting and the perfectly mundane response that could follow and, where the weight afforded the words, became decisions actioned or declined by the emphasis that same body made to accompany them: now he was dealing with ciphers and technology and Klaus was of a generation that couldn’t quite believe in methods he didn’t understand. So perhaps the clever way was to appear to raise the stakes. A wise word to one of the three, that the reason for the report not being included was because it was being considered at the highest level and considered very seriously indeed. And in the meantime, well it would be appreciated if they could allow time for that consideration to find a course to action?

Meanwhile, he dried his hands before starting the procedure the attaché demanded, and transmitted the report and his recommendation for it to be submerged in the swamp of archives. Let “them” at the Stygian end decide what action, if any, they took. All three were easy meat, creatures of habit whose demise could be dramatised as accidents or disappearances. Shafner was on his way to his usual hideout on the Mackenzie. Morice would either be in the Sorbonne, or studying the effects of global warming on his Spitzbergen retreat. Why the hell couldn’t they have been like most of humanity, just taken their money and got on with life? The GAME was on which meant it was the end of all their honeymoons; now every decision was based on chance and chance limited to breath or death.
The wall clock was striking ten when he let the two security folders slide to the floor and helped himself to another brandy, Carter he'd decided to leave for now, he hadn’t the scientific qualifications to influence. He gave it another fifteen minutes of sipping and thinking before pressing the transmit to gurgle its way through the scrambler. Bullocks, let them decide.

Decision made, and easing the sweat damp shorts from his paunch, he let his mind slip to diversions. Karreina, beautifully grotesque, Sumo with uplift. A failed transvestite, sterile hermaphrodite with a wonderful humour and a carved orifice in a hirsute cellular hammock of sensual enthusiasm. A dead end of pleasure. Unless Karreina collapsed on top of him, then merely a dead end. After the fourth ring he was beginning to worry about underestimating her demand. The eighth ring and the sultry 'Hello', raised flesh and hope. Ringing Reggio's he added her reminder for a copious quantity of Burton's Traditional Ale before warning block security and giving the identity numbers and ETA of his visitors.



The locusts settled on the deserted airfield north west of Izmir. A pink cloud drifting over a fiery globe, they descended as a snickering mist to smother the island of concrete, tarmac and the sea of sunflowers surrounding it. Some lay broken and dying by the mirrored glass bays of the terminal building. Others anchored on the stucco, concrete and asphalt that afforded grip while the horde clung on top of them. Within minutes the terminal's glass reflection of the setting sun was that of rubies set in a crown of pink gold. At the airfield's southern corner the silent circling eye collected them into its steel net until, engorged and deformed it ceased to turn.

Stavros Cassappi eased the weight off his backside by pressing on his thighs and arching his back against his chair. In three minutes he would be due for relief, but knowing Dimitri it would be nearer thirty. Not that it really mattered this near the end of your shift, and Dimitri would be obliged to let him borrow his car to enjoy a couple of hours in Nicosia. Still WREC 8 SAT would be bang on time to cover their arc. Shit. Checking the mimic board he keyed the code beneath the flashing light then read his monitor's display of location and fault readout. Izmir. Turks, may God plague them. He fingered the override key and tried reactivating the scanner, still the light flashed. Keying the maintenance code he logged the fault and overrode the repeater flashing on the mimic. Bloody thing had been playing up all day showing shadows over the screen and when he'd fed them through the computer all he'd got was "NO DATA". That had worried him a bit. He felt better knowing it was some mechanical or electrical fault. He'd leave a note in the log for Dimitri to try it a couple of times during his shift in case the fault cleared.

Middle England

Bob smiled at the worried face peering round the cracked open door. Yesterday he’d identified his sheep rustler. He'd seen the slats of the blinds twist open as he'd jumped from the tractor and at a level that this mite couldn't have reached. Propping the parcel against the porch he said, 'Tell your Mum she's nothing to worry about, just returning her property.' He wanted to reach out to reassure her but the door would be slammed before his hand got near.

He knew when he went into the post office with his monthly letter to Rab. Had seen her face redden when she glanced round from Mrs Gilmartin's stamping of her books and saw him waiting. He watched her hand shake as it stuffed money, welfare books and utility cards in her bag then the hurried, hobbled, walk as she left. Watching until the door closed behind her he turned to find the eagle eye of Mrs Gilmartin on him.
‘Keep thinking I know that lassie. Face is familiar but I can never remember her name?'
'Course you do. She's the last of the Tibbets left hereabouts; got married to that young vet who tried to make a go of it from the old smithy. When he went down, took himself off to New Zealand. Must be more'n two years now. She's still waiting to be sent for, leastwise so she says. But there's never been nothing here for her to collect that's come further than Stoke, and that's been all brown envelopes.'
'I've got her now. Used her husband a couple of times. Nothing wrong with him as a vet, probably just the lack of business beat him.'
'Beat us all if we give in to it.'
'True, Mrs Gilmartin. She still live at the Smithy?'
'Still there, still coping like most of us. Where is it this time?' Taking the letter she cast her eye over the address before laying it on the scales. 'Madeira, eh? Nice for some. You want it land or air?'
'Better make it air. He might take umbrage if we use the opposition.'
'Don't know if it makes no difference apart from the cost. How's they doing out there and your granddaughter as well?'
'Happy as sand pies, Mrs Gilmartin, and if you'll charge me for my usual eight ounces as well.'
Collecting his tobacco from below the counter she held the packs up for counting before the charge sheet was slid through to him on top of his standing grocery order.
'Says she's hurt her back trying to move some scrap from her paddock. God knows why she bothered. No use for paddocks nowadays, unless she was worried about the kiddies hurting themselves. An I'm sure if'n she'd asked there'd be plenty wouldn't mind shiftin a few things for her.'

Bob smiled at the harridan's effort to mix and match, or at least mix till she could match some gossip to it. Times he'd found himself letting her prattle just so he could hear a human voice matching the face it emanated from without some wizardry coming between. The tinkle of the doorbell matched by a posse of female feet allowed him to escape

Turning into the yard he cursed himself for allowing his mind to wander. A car parked by the house had him reaching for the shotgun; only Bess galloping towards him eased his fears and allowed his hand to relax on the stock. At one time he would have recognised the car instantly, now it was unusual enough to get him jittery. He found Dick slouched in the front passenger seat inspecting bites that were already beginning to bubble on his face. 'Thought I'd saunter around while I waited. Obviously not a wise move.'
Bob laughed. 'They're paying you back for all the money you've made out of annihilating their mates. Hold on till I get the door open, then dash for it.'
Dick smiled as the door shut behind him. 'Jesus, man at bay right enough. How the hell do you stand it?'
'Thick skin where it shows, some old bee keeper's nets, gloves and a body that's lily white and soft as a baby's bottom; with liberal quantities of highland nectar to act as an antidote for the odd bastard that gets through. Which is what I propose we indulge in now. Apart from all that, how are you? I won't ask what brings you here, because I think I know, but I admit to being thrown when I saw the car.'
Dick shrugged and reached for the whisky. 'I know Mary's been bending ears, and it is tempting. Living in that place is like a hotel suite. Everything catered for and to hand; sort of all convenience and no communion, if you know what I mean.'
Knowing he wasn't finished, Bob waited while the whisky was swirled round the glass then drained. 'Want another?'
'Maybe later. You know what I'd like Bob? I'd like to stretch my legs. Take a long walk, just walk and talk. People don't talk nowadays, they send messages or communicate. It would be nice to walk where the grass is real and the plants aren't in pots below the surface.'
'All right. You want to give a Mary a ring, say you've made it while I get some kit together?'
'Mary doesn't know I'm here. She thinks I took an air taxi up to Whisperwind and I've staved her off by saying we'll come here on Monday. And, just to add a few more ingredients to this pot of intrigue, I need to get to London tonight and I'm going to ask if you can fly up to the boat and get done tomorrow what I'm supposed to be doing today.'
'Curiouser and curiouser. I'll take a flask with me in case I've to recover from shock.' Then hesitating, ‘Just got to make a call first.’ When Mary answered Bob kept his message obtuse, explaining his brother had just dropped by and he’d be in touch. At least Mary had the sense not to query him over the phone but it underlined how deceit grows to deception and on to complication. Throwing veil, gloves and boots to Dick, he loaded the pump action with bird shot and handed it to him.
Looking at it Dick asked, 'Must we?'
'Probably safer. Some round here think I'm touched for living alone and since it's talked about, the wrong somebody might get to hear and decide to chance their arm. It's only birdshot, so if you're close enough you can do some real damage and hit them over the head with the gun. C'mon, I'm joking.'
They walked in silence, with only the snapping of Bess and the crunch of grass under their feet till they came to the field where the cattle were browsing. 'Dick asked, 'When did we last have rain?'
Bob dug his toe into the earth. 'Five, maybe six weeks. Not too bad here, water tables still pretty high so it keeps the root. Never thought I'd see the day when I'd be glad of the ponds. Remember the plans I had to drain and fill them, bloody arguing with the banks and burags on loans, grants and subsidies. Thank God they wore me out.' Propping his twelve bore against the gatepost, Bob filled a pail and watering can from the tank next to it. Thinking it was water; the blue green of the pail’s contents and its treacly consistency surprised Dick.
'What is this stuff?'
'Sun balm. The dark coloured animals are not so bad but the whites need a smear of it. Stops their hides from cracking.'
'Bloody hell. What do you do if that happens?'
'Depends. If it's bad enough I shoot them. Sodding things are in agony and if life's not right for a cow it'll will itself to die. It's either this or keeping them in the shed for weeks. Absurd isn't it? We genetically carve them up until they're milk floats on pins. Then we imprison them in concrete and steel. Now that we've given them a gate to look over and see a world going by, we've made sure it'll kill them. Sometimes I catch myself going round and apologising. You think reclusion's getting to me?'
Dick laughed. 'Shouldn't think so. Good lord, is that Angus?'
'Yup, still going strong. Well, strong enough to take a sniffing interest. But just so you'll know how far my mental state has gone. I look into their great bovine eyes and sometimes I see a look of sadness so deep it's malevolent. As though they're wishing us off this earth and couldn't give a toss how much it costs them.'
'That mightn't be madness Bob, could be insight.'
'Aye maybe, but don't quote me on it. By the way remind me, when we get back to smear some of the oil over the car. A couple of circuits round the yard will get the dust sticking to it, it's rare enough to see one and that one of yours stands out like a diamond in hen shit.'
'It's all vanity. There's no market for them.'
'Never mind, so what's the visit and my trip to the peninsula tomorrow in aid of?'

Bob knew Dick hadn't told him everything. Putting Mary off from moving in wouldn't be a problem. Guecho was definitely out, she wasn't there but the memories were and he was angry with Dick for even suggesting it. Besides nowhere was remote nowadays. It was almost midnight by the time he'd finished splitting the lamb carcass and parcelling it along with a blunt carving knife. Jon over at Betley had commiserated with his old Uncle Alex's imminent demise on the family estate in Glen Sheil. He'd only to say the word and Bess and the stock would be cared for. Partens, the boatyard, would stock the boat for a month's trip and it would be about the same time before the burags worried about the harvest. That would be their window, leaving only Mrs Gilmartin to worry about. He'd tell her the same story about Uncle Alex and if Rab should ring her he'd know not to make a fuss. Uncle Alex had been worm fodder for the past ten years and had left the estate to his first cousin, Keith – a Ginney Willock in a kilt. Glen Sheil was about the second last place on earth Bob would go. Thinking about it was Mrs ex-Tibbets's gain. Instead of the intended half, he parcelled the whole carcass. In a couple of day's time he'd do two more and freeze them.
Dick hadn’t told Bob everything, though he desperately wanted to, after the time he’d shared with Ruth the night he’d flown back from Brussels he was beginning to wonder if he’d the wit to tell anybody anything or the wisdom to sweat it out and say nothing. He hadn’t meant it to happen; in all honesty didn’t believe he’d the arrogance to think Ruth, once she’d been absorbed within the peers of the marketing company, would even consider him as a lover. For one thing he’d never considered himself as one, generally finding himself more comfortable with friendships than courtship. Except Ruth seemed to be far more honest and easygoing about who she exercised her libido with. She’d laughed when he’d told her just how, surprised – if he remembered right- was the word he’d used when flattered might have been more accurate – she’d allowed it to happen and marvellous and appreciative as it was he still felt contrite for taking advantage.
‘Lighten up Richard, shag I wanted, shag I got; wanted shag because I fancied you. Now that I’ve had it and still do, so no remorse and none from you this time matey. I’m not making cast or a pitch, romantics good, horny’s good romantically horny’s even better. Chelsea, your mine, but I’ll tell nobody. Probably wouldn’t fancy you if you found it easy cheating on Mary.’
‘ That’s the point Ruth I don’t.’
Grasping him, cock and balls, in both hands and snuggling into him she said, ‘There you are you see; your not.’

That’s how it was, easy, enjoyable uncompli-bloody-cated. We never talked about homes or relationships – crap - of course we did. It was Ruth who told me her family saga, told it as if I was a stranger never explaining, just commenting. How her Mother had just given up; willed herself out of the world while her Dad became vacant with the grief. How she’d feared it was all starting again when her brother Wilf had been shot. Then the killing of Orson and how having felt they were climbing out of the hand basket she’d then begun to believe they’d never get off the way to hell.
‘I think it saved Dad the way you let things work out. I’m ever so grateful.’
I’d blanked, speechless at the triteness till I saw the eyes sparkle and the tongue tipping through her lips. ‘Minx.’ And she was; a beautiful, lithe, loving bundle of a minx. But when we talked it was as though we were observers commenting on the Cheshire problems and finding solutions while resolutely refusing them any ingress to our bubble. And through it all I accepted, or at least convinced myself I had, she had another life, maybe other, younger lovers. But somehow, whatever other loves or life she had, she never let them intrude. Once, when she’d suggested I keep some clothes at the flat I’d asked. ‘How will you explain them if you have a friend round.’
‘I’ll tell them to mind their own business. No, actually I’ll say they’re my Dads that’ll help explain their antquwakiness.’ Gradually when my shaver was still in much the position I’d left it along with my other toiletries the question of Ruth’s sex/social life seemed to slip out of relevance. Until that is, the night from Brussels, when she announced she was pregnant.


Mumbia - Advancement

It hadn't been a good morning. He wasn't sure there would ever be a good morning. Twice he'd missed the hitch and had to absorb Malik's curses. Last night it had been a wasp the size of a vulture, wings droning death, oscillating the pitch till they vortexe’d his brain. Dagger claws had pierced his cruciformed arms while its blood ringed thorax twisted and curved for its lance to find its mark. Each sensuous twisting move he'd parried while its shuttling jaws kissed across his face cocooning it in a mesh of fetid froth. He watched the struggle while his body twisted and swung. Watched its frenzy grow into hate as the frustrated lance pierced Anahita's belly. He'd felt the scream, felt his anger explode, his throat screaming defiance. Rage tore his arms free to grasp the lance at its hilt. He felt his power draw it back, saw the tip emerge. He knew victory when it collapsed to a cold wet cord, no longer able to scythe flesh. He screamed anguished defeat when, with a maniacal laugh, the defeated cord turned into a snake that writhed into her belly.

He woke, sweat cold and wide-eyed, seeking instant clarity but not confirmation in the murk of the hovel. He saw Ronila, her concern mingled with fear, kneeling swivel hipped, Anahita behind her back. His sweat warmed to shame when the cord in his hands led to the cloth wrapped round his knees. His exposed genitals slowly changing the fear in three pairs of eyes to curiosity. Ronila felt his wrath for not covering him, till he saw the marks on his wrists, then he wasn't sure enough about anything to be angry with anybody.

To drive the devils from his mind and at Malik's suggestion, to save both their energies they'd adopted the staccato chant Malik had initiated to wear him in. Malik opened, 'Ho I'm locked, Ho I'm in.' Mulk answered, 'Lever's thrown, time to swing. Empty bin, lever's back, Ho I'm out.' Malik finished, 'Tracks back, next for rack.' Settling into the rhythm quickly eased his mind and made it into a game. Maybe he should do this all the time instead of letting his mind wander in the wilderness of nowhere. Why? He couldn't understand why. He didn't aspire to be one of those in a car or a plane, they came from a different world, but sometimes he'd get a glimpse, just a flash of a way ahead until his senses blanked it out.

His mother had been real because she'd lived with them. The rest was another life, the same but without Ronila and before he'd become the image of his father. His mother had burned her husband, his namesake, before coming to them. Like the ashes of his mother: brothers and sisters had scattered to oblivion. May’be, somewhere in the same sea of hovels, or another hovelled city beyond, they lived wondering of him. He'd used their names to learn. Had been taught to write letters called alphabet and how to collect them into words or names. He knew his family name and his children's names, had taught himself to write even after trudging for three weeks to a teacher less hall, only to be told on the fourth the lessons had stopped. He could count to a hundred, but didn't think he'd ever need to. Now his Ronila and their children could write their names, know their marks, which meant nothing to the life they lived except to torment them. He should have gone on. But on to where?

Sometimes, as the train collected people from its tracks like flies to sticky paper, Mulk would find himself questioning faces. At times he'd almost convince himself and would feel a flutter of excitement when some facial twitch or body gesture seemed to excite the memory. He'd take the coward's way, willing them to look at him and show the first ray of recognition. He wanted to know that we, the “we” that were his family, went on; that identities were not lost, that, if not valued, were at least counted. Other than that his hope didn't extend beyond the thing he had killed for - enough to eat, to drink, without scavenging. What they ate and where it came from was now Ronila's duty. The mothers had taught Ronila, she had taught Gita, both would teach Anahita. Sometimes they would get something different, a piece of fish or shards of meat that had to be chewed till they tasted of nothing but him. He just hoped his life would give him something to teach Raj and little Mulk.

Even the police came sometimes. Killings were few, more often due to despair than greed. Thieving - of what, unless plundered from city or airport- both regarded as fair game? Drunkenness was only for the rich. Adultery, rape, fraud, tax evasion, libel, revolt, rebellion, and sedition - none had any meaning in their eclectic existence. Still they came every five or six weeks, just to remind them who were the wolves and who the sheep. Angry fathers, anguished mothers, sullen sons and tearful daughters would be taken. Some would come back, de-testicled, de-hymanised; all were already de-humanised. Raj had learnt where to take his brother since the visits were always at night. Under a cape of dark cloth they'd huddle beneath the canopy of sky lights, merging with the shit. He'd been proud of Raj when he'd done it alone, now there would be three. Hard as life was, Mulk had never considered joining the police.
'Next for rack.' Malik sang

Mulk spotted him first. Watched him from his platform vantage point, saw the white coated figure push the clipboard in front of the next line's loader. So white coat's finger pointed and lips moved before the chants rhythm had the wagon's body blocking his view. They'd another wagon on the belt by the time Mulk again sensed a presence behind him. This time it was a clipboard that had his hands shaking.

'I'm the yard supervisor. Can you tell what these marks are.' Mulk's eyes fidgeted over the bearded face crowned by its plastic helmet on a wobbly perch. He weighed him up instantly, though he gave no credence to his intuition, a semi-cut Sird, whose plastic safety turban wobbled ineffectively on top of his religious top knot – the triumph of hope over technology. If Mulk hadn’t been so overawed, he might have given way to the ridicule he felt it deserved. The haughty eyes still had to decide whether to see him.
'Writing, sir.'
'Yes, yes, but what does it say?'
'It says the days, sir. It says the days of the week.'
The eyes dipped enough to traverse a billhook nose. A copper disc skidded onto the paper. 'What's that say?'
'Numbers, two, nine, zero, eight.'
'Write that number on today's sheet.'
A movement caught his eye, Malik's impish grin with a grimed thumb wiggling before it. Seeing its grime had him wipe the sweated dust from his own before grasping the pen. Holding his hand well clear he grafted the numbers to the column. The eyes inspected his handiwork before deigning to rise and see him.
'Right, follow me.'
Mulk's brain tightened as he followed the nylon backed, gyro peaked deific presence through the unloading shed. He stood, a non-presence, a viscose being waiting to be pressured into whatever mould fate decreed. He waited as the padlock was removed from the shed board and the doors were flung open revealing the patterned columns of hooks and discs that mimicked the unloading bays. It was something he'd seen a thousand times but never looked at, and now it frightened him.

His own disc was lifted from the hook and replaced with the copper test disc. 'You are the overman. Make sure you're here to hand the discs out in the morning and stamp them with your mark and write your sheet. In the evening, you collect the discs, check their marks and tick off the sheet. Each of these,' his hands swept down the board,' is a loading station. You have fifteen, two men on each, thirty in all. You have the graders, twenty men per station, three stations.' Mulk trying to absorb it all, found he was hearing nothing
'Your job is to see each station is fully manned and to make bloody sure there aren't wasters doing nothing. So make bloody damn sure this board is locked when you're not by it.' The supervisor's hand dove into the nylon pocket. 'Use this to make your mark.'
Mulk's hand cradled the chromed technology while his brain raced to find its purpose and how it could possibly fit into the sliver of a box that accompanied it. The rest, while never understood, had been familiar; this was new.
'Here, like this.' The box was opened and the shiny technology pressed to its padded interior, then offered to the paper. Two numbers appeared and four letters he didn't know till he realised they were a shortened Sunday. A side wheel was turned one click and the number increased by one while the day became Mond. 'Now you try it.'
Mulk clicked the wheel and pressed the Tues into its paper column and was confused when he got a lesser mark.
'Keep pressing it to the ink.'
Mulk discovered the purpose of the box pressed the stamp to it and produced a successful Weds.
'Right you've got it. Now go round to each station, give them their disc and make your mark.'
Mulk’s nod didn't remove the drip of sweat from his nose.
'Any problems you know where my office is.'
The shake of his head sent the drip on its way.
'Here, I'll show you.' Following the man round the corner he was shown the metal stairs that lead to a Portakabin. 'That's my office there. There's a calendar in it if you want to check the date.'
'Look.' the stamp was taken from him. 'Each day has a number; that is its date. Every month has a number, that is its date, but some months have more days than others, that's why the day's number changes for every month.'
Mulk smiled. 'This I know. So date just means the day, month and year it is?'
The Sikh eyed him. This one was smarter than he'd thought. 'So you know what date it is today?'
'No Sir, apart from the day and its number, no.'
The Sikh was confused. 'Never mind, come up to my office before you open the board and I'll show you. Now get round the stations and mark them and remember.' The beak swung to its full height, drawing air till the nylon strained against its buttons. 'That board's kept locked, shut tight unless you're beside it. Forget it once and I'll finish you.'

Name unasked, dismissed to his new status, Mulk clutched his stamp of office and hurried back to a board left open by the Sikh and found Malik studying it. He remembered Malik's grin and wiggling thumb and realised how much it had helped him through.
It was different on the way home that night. Now there was a scattering of faces looking at him, whispering how their fathers, brothers, uncles, sons, cousins would be ideally, eternally, slavishly grateful for a position that would kill them with coal muck. Mulk grinned, intuitively understanding he had to be above weakening favours. Besides, Malik had hinted it was promissory favours he should be marketing.

Fate's gossamer net was, as yet, too tentative to churn and form into expectant reality, but it would, and, like all expectations, churn not to the form expected.

President Varbagin took his leave of India that same night from New Delhi. Schultz's report had been listened to and he'd agreed with Jim, it was now an irrelevance. Their lack of reaction should help to assure Schultz. Other than that they'd talk when the world woke up to the crises.

He'd enjoyed this trip, even managed a bit of sightseeing, viewing the obsessions of dynasties with slightly more interest than he did his own. With an hour to spare in his suite in the embassy before the evening's reception he allowed his mind to return to the beginning. Not to his beginning, that was normal, parentless, childhood, youth, and education. But to the beginning.

Alexei Vladiavitch Varbagin, had elected not to stay and struggle for position during the birth of a commonwealth resurrected from the death throes of an empire. Early promise would turn too quickly into empty lies for grumbling bellies to accept. Each state would be swamped by advisors proselytising to the credulous on how to manipulate the economy while they benefited their own, nationally, personally and, more likely, both. He'd opted to be educated in the techniques of their new mistress. He wanted to be able to peel back her veils and be consummate in his play with her rather than a voyeur tinkling with titillation. Strings had been pulled in an era of fragile optimism to manoeuvre him into the commercial academia of Harvard. Chance had formed a friendship with a young banker from the World Bank, who was taking a three-year sabbatical on international politics. That was the beginning.

Alexei, in too much of a hurry to bother with the garnish of qualification covering the meat of understanding, had probably put Jim's political education on the same supercharge. Their cerebral callisthenics frequently exhausting them. They crammed to the point of celibacy, almost. Jim was already married to Moira, only offspring of Senator Coley of Wisconsin. She was secure and understanding enough to accept the near celibacy as the fatigue of study. Rather than being sidelined, she acted as mentor and found her own horizons widening.

Discussion was their metronome and often its rhythm would accelerate to argument, its volume rising to the pitch of battle before the quiet exhaustion of victory, or defeat, or, more usually, the inability of their assimilated knowledge to define a complete solution. By the middle of their second year they'd reached an impasse of equal opposites and, on Moira's suggestions, changed sides, Alexei arguing finance, Jim politics. By the end of the following year they had a second balance. If not in accountancy terms at least in understanding the other's values.

They'd split for a year. A couple of phone calls, a visit to Moira's father at Thanksgiving and world affairs were banned. Jim went back to the bank with his balance sheet clouded by the inclusion of arcane values such as distributed income, health, mortality and education, and found he was on dangerous ground. Alexei spent the year in Wall Street with Sinclair Isaacs, under the wing of David Bielberg. Bielberg had a very different view of Alexei than Jim or Moira Mair.

Sometimes Bielberg wondered if he'd ever need a favour big enough to warrant a return on the time he had with this morose, rib bone thin bear. God knows he'd tried, tried the buddy act, the baffle and the hard nose. Got nothing but the slow smile that was half a tremble off being a sneer, while the eyes pierced through you. Then there were the questions, seemingly innocent, often naive, till his ready answers were flushing down the sink of hype. At the end of the year Alexei had courteously thanked him, while Bielberg, watching the disappearing back, became conscious of his sphincter muscle easing out of rictus. He'd already diagnosed its tension was synchronised to the bastard's proximity. He knew his values had been rated and found wanting. What disturbed him was the niggle of not knowing why. Alexei's passing comment to Jim and Moira had been, "I've just spent a year learning how the blind sell conjuring tricks to the blind."

He'd spent the next two years with the World Bank before deciding his financial apprenticeship was completed, to a stage where he could follow the real purpose behind the blind of rhetoric. Then he surprised them both by not entering the mausoleum of the Central Bank, opting instead for the confused and dangerous melee of Russian politics. Eighteen months later, Jim Mair offered himself as a nervous democrat candidate for congress and had a furious argument with Moira's republican father. Before Alexei left, Moira noticed another embryonic balance emerging between two of the three men in her ring. An intuitive understanding that, while they'd learnt some of the answers, none offered solutions. She'd reminded him of what he'd said when she drove them down to O'Hare.

The drive had been Alexei's choice. "Time,' he'd said, "to part in private without the turmoil of connections." He'd been melancholy as perhaps only a Russian can. Silently drinking in the colours of the fall and the silver glisten of a breeze brushed Lake Michigan as the road dipped and swayed its way through the screening trees. The mood was on them all, minimising conversation to clichés, until the moment they had to cut the cord at departure. Turning to Moira he'd surprised her by taking her hand, kissing it and thanking her for her friendship and graciousness, before sweeping her into a hug that stifled everything but her tears. Only when she pressed their present into his hand did he kiss her. Turning to Jim he'd merely offered his hand and said, "Maybe one day, Jim we will both be in a position to do something the world really needs. Until then we'll have to go along with what others think it wants. If that's as far as we get, we will both have failed. Always keep the first in mind and be prepared to act on it."

Alexei smiled remembering the present he'd opened in his flat in Moscow and the letter that had arrived a week later, reminding him of every word he'd said and how they both loved him. He'd kept them both, the letter beside the text they'd highlighted in the book of St John, where it told that power only worked if you gave it credence and allowed it to influence you. It was then he realised how little the Bible had to do with religion. That was all in the past. But now that they were approaching their epiphany, every thought had the tinge of Hell attached to it.

He'd hosted a pleasant working dinner, his guests Prime Minister Moosi Sargon, Srichand Ray, the Foreign Minister, and Talmiz Ahmad of Trade and Industry. Jamad of Defence was due to attend, but he'd called off at the last minute due to illness. Informal and relaxed with only discreet pressure being applied by his guests for them to get precedence over South America in the next initiative of global aid. To emphasise the informality and maximise their privacy, Alexei had instructed the servants to leave the drinks and he would attend to the teas or coffees. His guests had looked in the best of humours and health when they accompanied him to the airport.

He would have to wait to find out if the recording he’d made of their discussion would be adequate for the experts to mix and edit.

See chapter 6 for links to previous chapters.


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