Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Pale Horse - Chapter 8

I’m nobody’s child; I’m nobody’s child,
Just like a flower, I’m growing wild
No mummy’s kisses and no Daddy’s smiles
Just like a flower, I’m growing wild.

(Anon: slushy folksong that, perhaps, says’s it all?)


Four were marked absent in Monday's register. Gemma had permission; she'd found a Tangierian who'd given up riding four-wheel drive camels for humping her. After five days of Arabian bed and bored, she'd decided to spend the sixth sightseeing and have something to tell them back home. Rab and Deek were absent, and so was Malcolm Preo, or Gung, as he was known. The teacher, knowing the proximity of their addresses, assumed they were together. Their peers knew better.

It was Gung’s left foot that finally did it. It caught on the lift well's steel frame just below the third floor, stubbornly resisting the tentative jumping of the lift's occupants- Mr Preo included - as they tried getting the lift to travel the few centimetres needed for the doors to open. Nobody knew why it chose that particular haul to make its presence known. Some strange permutation of twist, timing, post rigidity or bloat; perhaps some perverse spirit's two fingers to an earthly prat. Mr Preo had no foreboding of his son's part in all this, not even when the patch of greasy denim was spotted and he knelt between the upraised bums of the firemen and followed the beam of light along a crescent of pulped rags and slashed flesh to a rope and a gargoyle face. He'd called on a god then, but only to remove the memory.

Sympathy and gossip droned round the courts; enough at least to keep the grieving father awash in curiosity priced pints for a couple of weeks. Till eventually officialdom had death occurring between five and seven p.m. Malcolm Preo, aged 15, had, while his balance of mind was disturbed? Those who knew better didn't matter, so they were never called to explain that the daily deluge of snot was to blame. It appeared that Gung had broken into the basement service well, climbed to the lift parked on the ground floor, draped the prepared noose round his neck and tied the other end to the underside of the lift's frame. He'd then waited till the lift was called. In their wisdom the housing officials decided that the locks to the access doors should be strengthened; and Gung achieved a degree of immortality by being the first to be hung going up. Mr Preo, advised of this possibility over a pint, wrote to a well-known almanac of records, addressing the letter to an Irish brewer.

The day after the inquest, a letter addressed to Mr Preo, informed him that a date for Malcolm's ENT operation had been set, and asked for a signature by parent or guardian on the enclosed consent form. It had only taken five years to arrive. He signed it and sent it back.

Middle England

Mary hadn't questioned him too hard on the mode of dress he'd suggested for their visit to Bob. The golf course bordered the other side of the motorway from his land and though supposedly secured by a link fence, Bob had noticed the gap when his cattle, tempted by the verdant fairways, had strayed through the underpass. On Saturday it was still there and big enough for bodies and carts to pass through.

Dick felt uneasy lying to Mary. Not lying exactly, more struggling to make sense out of reasons, which, as yet, hadn't formed into solid decision. It was too big, for ordinary emotions to grasp. Its scale seemed to deny any individual's right to mention its existence; since she - he was part of the existence that was the problem. And, what right had he, Glen, Anthony or anybody to raise the problem until they had a solution or at least to believe the possibility of there being one. Yet was any of that reason not to try? The one thing thought has never solved is thought itself. So he wasn't so much lying to Mary as preparing himself for the tale he had to tell. He released his brain from its polemics when she shouted through asking if he'd seen her golf shoes.

God, he hated waiting. 'Here, in the bag with mine. C'mon, taxi's waiting and we're due on the course for nine.'
'Why do we have to go through all this palaver to see Bob?' Mary gave him a playful knuckle in the stomach to show her mood didn't match her tone. 'Getting paranoid are we about all this paternal security? Injecting a little spice into life by hoodwinking them? God, I can see the headlines now: "Minor Prop of Establishment's Golf Deception." They'd only need to see us play to know there aren't enough hours in the day for us to get round without cheating.'
'Just try for a decent shot off the first. We'll drop and swing for the rest.'
'Where's this gap supposed to be?'
'According to Bob, between the eighth and ninth.'
'Gross of balls should do it.'
Dick laughed, 'Never. The distance we hit them, most will be easily recovered.' Gathering the bags he matched her tone, 'Move woman. Maybe what I've got in mind is more conjugal than golf.'
'Well if it's alfresco, you'd better let me slip into my sailing all in one. It'll give a completely new meaning to its convenience panel. Or have you something else in mind to prevent us from being perforated.' She slid a kiss across Dick’s cheek as she passed through the door he held open for her. 'Never mind, dear, it was a nice thought.'

Dick automatically reached for Mary's hand as the taxi lifted off. With both of them isolated behind the driver's Plexiglas shield and only the intercom for communication, the hand holding a habit, nothing to do with nerves. It had started in their courtship during long car journeys, on balmy sailing hops, in fact anytime when something cocooned them together and shut out the rest of the world. An innocent and often a greater conduit to their oneness than the clasp of lovemaking - sensory without the urging pulse of the sensual. If everybody had a reality, some substance running like a silver thread throughout their being, his was Mary. At times he'd stretched it to the tension of gossamer, perhaps both had over the house thing. Tested it to its limits no doubt, but saved by some intuitive sanity and, by perhaps the greater extent, the generosity of Ruth. Unless he was taking that severing lunge now.

Something Antony had said came back to him. Trying early on to get an overview of the committee's chances for success, Dick asked how far they'd have to go to wipe out the pest problem completely.
He'd answered, 'No chance. Ninety-nine point nine percent mortality is provided for. Every time we interfere we leave survivors with a less competitive environment, more food and a growing resistance to the chemicals used. It is us who have to run faster and jump higher until we drop with technological fatigue, and for us, this circle has no end. Perhaps the revelations wouldn't look so fantastic if we saw the hydra-headed monsters as our own greed and egos, and the silvered avengers as the gnats.'

If Antony was right, maybe the human species had the same mortality rate provided for. Perhaps the zero one percent that survived would reject the vanities of greed and ego and the sustenance of power. Perhaps they would find wealth in compassion, happiness and the wisdom of contentment. And the generals would fight their own wars, bureaucrats learn to serve, politicians speak and act on truths. Statistics could be banned and we would relearn how to value and not to calculate. And we’d worship flying pork!

The squeeze of his hand made him turn his head to find Mary looking at him, her eyes quizzing but not concerned. Smiling, Dick pointed to the rotors and then his ear before returning the squeeze and looking back at the countryside. From above, though the changes were apparent, remoteness made them look acceptably sane. England as it had always looked to the generation that considered itself the always. Perhaps the hedgerows were wilder, the grass jaundiced in what would have been called a glorious summer. Houses had either the too lived in or the desolate look; sun glinting on the galvanised tin of shutters or absorbed by the dead windows of empty shells. Cars, vans, wagons, most ruptured for spares, were herded in heaps or corralled in yards like party debris.

There was still the occasional sight of a car gliding along an empty road, or convoy congregated at a school. The disciplined tracking of a tractor winding round a field. A woman's upturned face stared at them as they passed over her line of washing. Everything normal, opposite and unequal. The pitch of the rotor's throb told him he wouldn't have it as an excuse for silence much longer. Mary had to know, or what seemed sense to him would be nonsense to her. Insult enough to sever any thread. At least he’d got Ruth home and got in touch with Antony to change the venue from Guecho. Suggesting there had been bloody stupid. But by doing it from Ruth’s flat had probably helped because she’d taken some convincing and that had raised issues that probably would have crept in through time instead of being thrust forward for the purpose of convincing. He’d broached the subject of the child and seeing anger flush into her eyes added. ‘I’m only asking from the point of its safety. It’s yours but you’re all it’s got.’ Adding lamely, ‘That’s if you’ve decided to keep it?’
‘Inconvenient for you?’ Ruth asked, anger glowing to sparks.
Shit, anything further from his mind would have been the price of peas. ‘Nothing like that Ruth. Christ, grant me a wish and I’d probably wish what we have could go on forever.’
‘I’m not asking you for a ceremony, I’ve never even said you’re the father. Have I?’
‘You haven’t, but I haven’t asked either so maybe that sort of levels things out and leaves me just trying to do what I said I was: as a friend, lover, dirty old bastard, purely and simply wanting you back home.’
Ruth asked, ‘I’m being an arse aren’t I?’
‘No it could be me that’s the arse. Look at it as if you’re humouring me for a couple of weeks, and if nothings happened, then consider the arse all mine. I’ll just be happier if you have your family around you.’

It seemed Ruth wasn’t a woman to carry baggage either mentally or physically. He’d seen Mary with more luggage for a weekend than the odds and sods Ruth threw intro the car boot and, once they were through the quagmire of London and on the relative safety of the motorway Dick could give a sigh of relief and the old Jag’s 3.8 litres their head and begin to relax. They were just beyond Oxford before Ruth spoke.
‘I’m not having an abortion.’
‘And I haven’t decided to tell the father yet.’
‘Entirely up to you Ruth just don’t cut off your nose, you might be spiting the bairns face.’ All this easier said than it felt.
‘He’s tied up with other things just now; got a bee in his bonnet. Could be he’s going away for a while. Thought it might be better not to tell him until he’s back. Give me time to really get my head around it.’
‘Is he a decent bloke Ruth? Because if he is, shouldn’t he know? Or are there complications?’
Ruth smiled ‘He’s a lovely bloke and no, there are no complications. At least not with me he hasn’t.’
He didn’t curse, just squeezed the gas till the needle climbed beyond the hundred – BASTARD ‘You have to be fair.’ Grow up Carter you’re being shown the way. ‘You will always be very special to me Ruth. So any help up front or behind the scenes do me a favour and ask.’
That got him a kiss on the cheek and ‘I wouldn’t have it any other way.’
For the rest of the trip until they came off on the A500 they talked about what he was going to explain to Adam and the rest of the family the reasons behind his leaving and why he’d brought Ruth home. Ruth wanted to tell her family about the pregnancy in her own way and time. Saying, ‘For now she wanted it to be a secret shared between her and the father.’ They’d gone another ten miles before the penny dropped and probably the rest of a life before the landslide that followed would stop.

Being five minutes late cost Dick and Mary another thirty as they waited for the party of Japanese to tee off. For a touch of colour to the charade, Dick bought a pessimistic quantity of balls and warned the pro only to expect them when she saw them. Her offer of an assistant to accompany and tutor was graciously turned down. By the second tee they were waived through by the Japanese and from there they simply walked.

Bob was in the yard as they turned the corner from the orchard. Giving them a wave he pointed towards the house and showed his spread hand. They stripped off their protective gear and shoes and Mary led the way through to Bob's den. Unconsciously she started tidying up books and a whisky glass from the side table. Then, realising what she was doing, glass in hand made for the kitchen saying she'd get the kettle on. There was more evidence of bachelor existence. The waste bin waited to be filled, rather than emptied when smell dictated. Sink stains showed it was enough to clean not to scour and the drainer held its set of plates and cutlery earmarked for constant use. A welder's gauntlet hung next to the range as an oven glove for a shovel-sized hand. More poignant were the hanging skeletons of herbs. Hung by Sal, they’d outlasted their creator. Perhaps Bob’s unbloodied crown of thorns.

With a shiver Mary reached out to check the kettle for warming and decided that all she was looking at was Bob's undoubted ability to do no more than was necessary. Hopefully he'd to do something with the kettle, because it was stone cold. She'd also been weighing up her areas of influence; something she'd never thought of before and had no right to do now. There was no question of the affair with Bob continuing. Once they’d moved in they’d be too close to risk it and the thought of a civilised talk and a rota; tempting as a whimsical daydream but never anymore than that. Yet she’d miss the difference, which, at the start had surprised and titillated. Her hand lingered on the kettle as she watched Bob's steady gait coming through the yard.

It's strange how the death of one of a group can change almost everything. Their absence reaching into the crooks and crannies of life that you never knew existed. For Mary it was the ease of Sal's company; the quiet moments when Sal would be beside but lost to her. Eyes wide but unseeing, face moulded into whatever mood she'd been in before she'd joined the mists of her surroundings. At times she'd catch the signs as soon as Sal was on her way, at others she’d been prattling on for minutes before she realised. Yet she never felt she was lost to Sal. She had mentioned it to Bob on one of their nights out, he’d laughed.
'You've noticed have you? It's the Highland Scot in her, the fey, the second sight. Useless for anything to do with stocks and shares, the lottery or any thing to do with filthy lucre, and of doubtful use for anything else. Couple of centuries back I'd have dunked her in the pond and threatened to expose her as a witch. Now all you can do is try to remember what you where talking about so you can go on once she's back.'
They'd all laughed though Mary had asked, 'Is it only a daydream Sal?'
'I suppose it is something like that. Sometimes when I feel myself going and if I really concentrate I can stop it. Other times I know I should but I haven't a way out. It's mostly pleasant you know.' Sal broke into her smile, innocent of guile but clearly indicating the subject was closed.

Mary wasn't too sure if it was memory's tricks or wishful thinking but she had a flashback to that hellish maelstrom, to the moment before they rolled. Sal was watching Bob as he struggled with the wheel, her face masked by the hood of her ocean jacket. Her eyes mirrored concern before their give-away widening shot her into her second world. Maybe one of them had to go, pay the toll of a savage sea and, knowing it, Sal had chosen. That was Mary's private, probably selfish way of coming to terms with her loss Though she wasn’t so sure what Sal would have thought of her now. Possibly Bob's was the dusty herbs, his silent icons to her being.

She turned as Bob entered. 'Something's up with the kettle, otherwise your coffee would be waiting for you.'
Bob gave an exploratory flick to the light switch. 'Electric's run out. If you look in the cutlery drawer you'll find the meter cards.'
'Don't they send you a bill?'
Bob chuckled. 'By God, Mary, you lead a sheltered life in that cloister of yours. Unless you're clever enough or stupid enough to by pass the meter, and I'm neither, you have to buy these.' Running her hand down the side of the cutlery tray Mary thought there were enough cards to form a few playing packs. 'How many do you get for a month?'
Bob shrugged. 'I get around a thousand's worth every month.' He tapped the side of his nose. 'My way of gulling the system. Doesn't matter how much they raise the charges, once you've got them you get the same units. Aim to get enough so I can toast myself and the cattle through my senility. Sort of self help pension for all the ones we paid for and never get.'
Seeing Mary's bewilderment he added, 'Just habit I suppose. I used to keep running out.' Glancing in the drawer he gave an amused snort. 'Looks like you're right. I'll give Mrs Gilmartin a ring and tell her to cancel. Anyway you're not here to sort out my domestic frailties. You know where everything is, I'll go through and say hello to Dick.' Smiling he bent and kissed her cheek. That, Mary knew, was about all she could expect to be told of how glad he was to see them, and was more than enough. As to her influence on his domestic frailties, it was just bloody marvellous to know they existed.

Dick's eyes quizzed his as he came through. Bob gave a nod and kept his voice low, 'It's all arranged. I got hold of Bill at the yard and he's promised to have all the work done and stocked by Wednesday. We're still getting trouble from the masthead tricolour and the auxiliary batteries a bit soft, so I asked him to change both. Couldn't get hold of Neil at the sail loft, so I dropped a list through the door, asked Bill to chase him up as well. I'll give him a ring to check.' Glancing at the door he said, 'I'll leave it until you're on your way back.'
Dick shrugged. 'It's probably more sensible to let Mary in on it.'
'Oh yes, and what were you thinking of keeping me out of?
Taking his coffee Bob's smile widened to a grin as he turned to Dick. 'Over to you. It's your ball, as they say.'

Dick, having decided to say it all, found he hadn't yet decided all there was to say. The indecision forced him into an oblique start. 'We have to sail to the Scillies to collect Glen and Anthony, hopefully without the authorities getting to know of it.'
Mary's eyes swung from Dick to Bob and back to Dick, her lay of land far more muddy than expected. 'Obviously there's more to this than some clandestine sail. Why the need for subterfuge?' A tenuous link crossed her mind. 'Is it some new idea for the business? Something you want to develop but are prevented by being part of this WREC thing?'
It was an ingenious blind Dick found hard not to grab. He could develop it, knew enough trivia from both the business and the committee to garnish it as he spoke. He could, with a quiet word to Glen and Anthony, if they arrived, draw them into it. It was still an excuse. No it wasn’t, it was a bloody lie. So he told them about Farrel and Meany and how they'd resurrected the findings and confirmed them in a full report to WREC. He repeated almost verbatim the report, knowing as he did so that it really explained nothing only gave it the ring of authority. Finishing he saw confusion on Mary's face.
'Are you saying WREC has failed and the committee could be made scapegoats?' Her eyes widened and her hand went to worry a bracelet. 'You as well. Surely they can't hold you all responsible?'
Dick shook his head. 'Nothing like that. Up to now the work we've done has been a resounding success. It's going to get harder to keep it looking like that, but they can always juggle figures. The key to it all is this ratio of insects to humans. Doesn't matter what we do. If we try to blitzkrieg every insect off the earth the process will see us off long before we’ve made much of an impression on them.’
'So what does it mean Dick? I get the point on each of us having our work cut out swatting tons of the buggers, but apart from adding to the misery what's so critical about it?'
'Doesn't help swatting them Bob. Even their decomposition a problem. All our restrictions, our technical cures on pollution our eco-savings, are less than drops in an ocean. Glen and Anthony reckon we could turn every third world family into a two car, air-conditioned, centrally heated, all mod con, five bed, en suite urbanite and they would contribute less than our insect inheritance.'
Looking at Mary, Bob pulled himself out of his chair. 'If I'm beginning to understand what he's saying I'm having a drink. What's yours Mary, brandy?'
'No, small whisky, lots of dry ginger.'
'I've only malt.'
'Bloody sacrilege.'
Dick stared at the ash of the neglected fire while he waited for Bob to sort the drinks out. He found it difficult to look at Mary, couldn't find the faith to give her a reassuring smile, didn't know if he had the right. Maybe there lay the key; man's bit part in evolution was ending. He shivered as he came back to the smell of whisky under his nose and found Mary looking at him, expecting answers he didn't have. Instead he took the glass from Bob and managed to find a smile that matched a desultory toast.

Bob broke the silence, edging into the void of unanswerable questions. 'I still don't see where picking up these two friends of yours fits in?'
'Bob call it intuition, gut feeling or simply being scared, but they're convinced they could be taken out.'
'You mean of the committee?'
'No Mary, permanently.'
'That's ridiculous! There's no sense to it. It's, it's like shooting the messenger.'
'Not ridiculous if he knows what's in the message and they need to keep it secret.'
Bob searched for reason. 'Surely the leaders, the governments, would want to know?’
'That's the facade we're sold, never how it works. Mary can't believe they'd do any harm to Anthony and Glen. I can't prove they would. All I know is what I've heard from them and in the last few years some of the world's top scientists have suffered an uncanny run of bad luck. More than their usual share of suicides, drowning’s, heart attacks and accidents. It could be pure coincidence but suspicions grow if like Glen and Anthony, you know the disciplines they specialised in. We don't know if the governments are working independently or together; we think it's together. But they must know and the scary part is they don’t seem to be doing anything about it.’
'Jesus Dick, you're lifting our spirits no end today. Are you saying the authorities are keeping a lid on it while they look for an answer? Or there is one but they’re not admitting it?’'
Dick shook his head. 'Your guess is as good as mine. Glen's of the opinion there's no acceptable answer, only a solution.'
'Dick, you're talking in riddles and my head's about to burst. You know perfectly well what Bob meant.'
'Christ's sake Mary of course I do! I'm saying I haven't an answer to give you.' Ashamed of his outburst he gripped her hand. 'Sorry girl. But for the last twelve months this's been like a band round my guts.'
Mary slid her hand over his. 'Then more fool you for not telling us sooner.'
'Mary this is one problem that doesn't even dent no matter how many you share it with.’
'Are you saying we do have some time? This isn't a matter of days or months.'
‘Their opinion Bob is we have thirty to fifty years of so called normal progression before life becomes intolerable But nothing like that long for something to be done and have a chance to work.'
'And the solution you mentioned?'
This is purely supposition, on the basis that when in doubt do what you know will work. We reckon it will be a mass eradication of humans. A cull if you like.'
'What!' The expletive came in unison.
'Glen thinks Africa is being prepared for the sacrifice. The depravity of its leaders has weakened and demoralised it. It's totally dependant on the recourse aid that's been poured in. Glen thinks that's all part of the plan. It would wipe almost a couple of billion of the world stage and, once it's capable of supporting habitation again, will present massive opportunities to create a ecologically sustainable infrastructure on one continent at least.'
'But I remember listening to Mair when he raised this African aid at the U.N.' Mary looked aghast. 'Surely not?'
'Why not, Mary? America's the big boy. Top of the league, pick of the bunch, the host with the most and the most to lose. And whom will they lose to, but China, the world’s next supremo and they’re right up there with them. So why not? Think what it's done for Mair, he's practically a messiah. Suppose they're trying for a solution that can be made to appear natural. A phenomenal disaster that they can grieve and gnash believably at. Think of the power thing; how it would appeal to the politicians. A chance to get back control from the global corporations. Continents to negotiate and divide amongst them. Mass echo developments generating gigantic sustainable consumer booms. Morality has rarely been a factor in economics. Why should it be now when the stakes are so high?'
'Have the two of them any idea how it will be done?'
'Could be done Mary. We don't know if it will, let alone how. On details we haven’t a bloody clue.'
Bob turned from the window he'd been staring out of, seeing nothing, not even what he knew was there. 'Could you be wrong?'
Dick shrugged and turned to face him. 'About the equation of insect to humans, I doubt it. About the time we have; I've only their opinions on that. The rest is more than a guess, less than a fact. But my hunch is it's a lot more than a guess.' Dick waited in the silence, knowing his words were turning to stone in their minds.
Bob moved back in his chair. Sat upright, as though fighting the sudden onslaught of pain on aged bones. His hands cupped and grasped the corduroy on his knees, and he swallowed to clear the way for words he was still searching for. 'Damn you, Dick.' The Scots burr was dominant. 'Damn you for telling me, us.' His eyes flicked to Mary. 'If we can do nothing, why the hell tell us?'
Dick felt Mary's hand turn cold. 'Funk Bob, too much to handle on my own,' he felt the cold fingers curl round his.

Had the grandfather clock been wound its tick would have punctuated the silence. Pulling himself up Bob poured a whisky into their glasses. You know the last time I felt as futile as this? I don't mean like the night we lost Sal. That was different somehow; natural but not malicious.’ He looked at them, searching for words. Then searching his mind to see if the words would mean anything after what they'd been told. Somehow he felt they would.

'You remember old Wilf? Wilf Woods worked with our father, and grandfather before that, died about ten years back?' Bob took a sip of his drink while he collected nods of remembrance. 'I never knew his age until we boxed him. 97 he was and never suffered a mortal thing till Gladys died six months ahead of him. To me he was always Old Wilf, a sort of Methuselah who could tell more from a beast's stance and farts than the Vet would know after a fortune's worth of tests. He was a fixture hardly noticed until he'd gone, then you realised just how much you relied on him.

Used to feel a bit smug and self-righteous about not retiring him. Never thought about it mind until one day I went down to his cottage at the lane end. Can't remember the detail, but it was to cover something for me. It was a bitterly cold February. Cold enough to have the tyres crunching through the mire in the lane. Never dawned on me until I'd knocked on the door that the cottage was in darkness. I remember cursing and turning to see if I could scramble some paper for a note from the Land Rover when the door opened. Well, he stood there and shouted over his shoulder in that broad Cheshire way of his, ”Zaalright yous. It's young Bob the maister.” I don't think he ever called Gladys anything other than "yous" all his life. Seeing their living room lit only by the fire, I'd this idiotic thought of being the interruptus to their octogenarian coitus. If there had been light enough the old bugger would probably have seen me blushing. Anyway it turned out I'd more reason to blush than that, though it took me a while to wheedle it out of him.
Since November, their electricity had been cut off. He'd ripped out the plaster covering the hearth and used an old tractor seat as a grate. They'd lived in that one room ever since. Aye, while I was lording it toasting my dram and slippers, he was gathering wood, and spending their weekends splitting logs. They'd wait until it was dark before they'd light the fire, in case somebody saw the smoke and reported them. I felt an absolute shit.

Anyway after I'd got rid of some of my shame by bollocking them for not telling me, It boiled down to embarrassment. No, pride more than that. While every year I'd slip another twenty into his wages, I'd never bothered to check how it worked out with the costs of basics. When it dawned on me and I tried to mumble apologies they wouldn't have it. That really shook me up. They felt they'd nobody but themselves to blame because the pittance my idiocy had foisted on them was still more than they'd get on the pension. Obviously I sorted them out. Had the electric and the rest of the services put direct to the farm. Probably the reason why I've so many cards Mary. But once I got to thinking, it was my complacency that frightened me. Were the needy really cared for? Were we conned by a system that had nurtured the complacency' He gave his shoulders a shrug, as though casting off the gloom. 'I suppose Sal's death sort of drew me into a shell here. But even if we have all of the fifty years, it's not much for young Sal to look forward to. You set things up Dick and tell me what's needed. Better we do what we can than just wait.'

'Nothing's really set up, Bob.' Dick twined his fingers together, turned the palms up and cracked the joints. 'We thought we would take precautions and wait for any reaction to the report. Other than that, any inspirational thoughts will be gratefully received.'

Apart from the brief grip to Dick's hand, Mary hadn't moved since Bob had handed her a drink. The whisky and the flat ginger smothering it hadn't moved either. 'This might sound stupid but couldn't we get the press in on this? Get it on the news, make the Government admit it's happening and what they intend doing about it?'
Dick shook his head. 'This isn't a power struggle of near equals. It isn't even a them and us situation. We don't know what they plan to do and couldn’t prove they intend to do anything. They might have a brilliant plan that doesn't involve any eradication but needs time for the fine detail to be worked out. Or something entirely idiotic like pressing all the nuclear buttons and leaving a pathetic few existing in their pathetic bunkers. I just thought we'd get Whisperwind ready, give them a harder time tracking us if they are after us, or try for enough space to give us a chance.’

Bob had walked them back, standing guard while they collected caddies and, like fruit scrumping kids, scuttled back on the course. Refusing the offer of a lunch table at the club they settled for a drink at the bar, arguing half-heartedly on their intentions for the rest of the day. Eventually they settled, though Dick wasn't too gracious, on a shopping trip to Chester and early dinner at the Grosvenor. It was from there that Dick made his call to Paris, getting confirmed by Antony they’d made arrangements to get to St Mary, and the time they expected to be there. Glen was already with him. He had bitten the bullet, shaved off his beard and remodelled his hair. The likeness Antony thought was enough to give Glen a sporting chance to pass as the rightful owner of Richard Carter's ID card. And no, he should keep the number; the flat's owner had given him the use of it for a month.

Back at the combo, they stood on the roof, watched by the security man in his red hued pod, like live meat in a microwave, hand hovering over the switch for their entrance. They heard the thwack followed by a spitting wail of pain. Looking over the parapet they could just make out two figures on the inside of the perimeter wall. One held a sack while the other stooped and put something in it. The guard explained as he allowed them through. 'Pest control, Mr Carter. Usually stray cats.'

They made love that night. After they'd sat with their nightcaps, talked the day through and discovered a notion that hadn't occurred to them before. If the odds against were so great they’d nothing left but adventure, some spark of life to expel the mist of illusions or for it to smother them? After, when they'd cuddled close and he bent to give Mary's eyes their goodnight kiss he tasted tears.
'Frightened girl?'
Felt her head shake. 'No, it's the cats. Do you think they bury them?' The ping of a cooling pipe was perhaps a mystical answer.

Mulk tried to remember faces, tried to focus on individuals and map them in his head in the same was as the tags mapped them on the board. He didn't know if his failure was real or imagined. Didn't know if his memory capacity was normal. He tried until his head hurt and his eyes blanked, till the welter of hands cupping discs and offered for his stamp seemed to take on the motion of a spinning wheel. When he could find no vacant hook, when his eyes darted and his brain knotted, he used his fingers to confirm. Each wagon tip, conveyor, screen and crusher, each digger, crane and grader had its requisite number of bodies. The board was full and there were thrusting hands still waiting. Mulk clambered on to a box to count heads. Three hands did it. What to do? Or had the gods been playing with him? A trick of torment; retribution for the kill; a reward for being foolish enough to believe that any power was benign enough to bless him. One thing was certain, no matter how many silent pleas he begged to the gods, the fifteen people waiting would not disappear. What to do?

He collected the discs, but instead of stamping the outside of the wrists he held the palms up and stamped inside. Of the fifteen he picked the two easiest to identify, the first's face was disfigured as though he had already tasted the pyre. The second rose only to Mulk's belly, but was broader in width. These two he would remember. He listed the numbers on the discs and laid them out along the bottom of the box and locked it. By midday he'd walked the off loading sheds, the stockpile and coaling yards twice, without a sign of purple face or the dwarf. He'd asked Malik on each circuit and got the same shrug. In the afternoon he hung each disc by its duplicate and waited for the night. He knew he'd failed, accepted the brotherhood of monkeys as his rightful place when the tags were gone, doubles and all. Nor had he crossed stamped anybody's inside wrist. Purple face had washed and the dwarf had risen from his knees. Now he just wanted to go home, to brood on why fate should play these tricks on him when what he'd meant to ask was how much extra pay would he get. Now that would be tempting fate since he knew exactly how much less it could be.

He turned his back silently on the gods, sneaked out of their presence. What did they know of him, or him of them? What had he to be thankful for? His Ronila, who would say she'd eaten avoiding his eyes, yet turning her back to clear the portion his knowing had left. Gita, whose body would become a woman's but would never bear a child? What soul would wait forever for its new body to spring from her? What husband would want nothing from her womb?

He thought of the shrines he'd garlanded, the temples he'd petitioned, and the churches he had whispered in. Too many gods, too many agents selling the rich absolution, certainty, salvation, and the poor hope. The rich got the better deal instantly because they could pay for it. The poor, paying all, got nothing.

He hadn't told Ronila of his new status, deciding to wait until he knew what there was to tell. He'd let his mind wander on how much more his wages might be, and the difference it could make. He picked wealth that teased, tried more and found he'd no concept of what life would be like, except that he couldn't believe they'd have any wants or worries. His ambitions didn't stretch to city life or trips in planes. He found the figure of five rupees believable, and then was disappointed with the differences it wouldn't make. He checked, and having prayed and garlanded and asked, went to show his confidence in being answered. He'd waited by the gate of the "real school" trying to picture his Raj amongst the bowed heads in the window. She'd been kind, the teacher who came out to him. Three or four times he'd caught her eye. Once as she passed through the gate, the rest when she wandered past the window nearest him, checking her pupils work. He heard the kindness when she came and asked why he waited.

It was twenty a month to send Raj to a real school, not the one in the clinic compound where the teachers changed weekly and had the commitment of ghosts. Twenty a month which included one meal but not the uniform they insisted on; that was another twenty. It had been unattainable, crushed to less than the dust of hope. He'd been prepared for that. Had practised his pleas and offers to persuade. He would clean, mend, lug and haul, run and fetch, anything to make possible his payment in kind. He'd kept his eyes lowered, seeing only the tips of shoes peek from her sari's hem and knew his dreams had no substance. Now the dream had reformed, become a taunting promise shimmering in the distance, an ache from behind shuttered eyes. But it had to be bought with money. What else had value in a glut of bodies?

His steps were still cautious on the steel treads leading to his boss's office. That morning he'd knocked and waited at the door facing the head of the stairs. He knew now to enter and walk the corridor until he came to the seventh door. Here was the promise of education. Pads of writing, some scrawled through, careless of their words. Hard, shimmering paper pinned to the wall, black lines making a pattern that confused till he saw the similarity to the cruder version in his board. There were other pictures with lines in red and black that rose and fell like the march of the sea. And the calendar with its picture of a smiling, dancing girl whose skirts were nearly hidden by the turbaned head of his boss.
'Right, all accounted for?' Then seeing Mulks confusion. 'Tags all checked and box locked?'
Mulk nodded. Scraping his chair back the Sikh turned to the calendar and scribbled the day to oblivion. 'Tomorrow is this.' He pointed to the next number then drew his finger to the days on top. 'Set your stamp and let me see it.'
Mulk did so then offered the stamp for checking.
'Good, remember to go this way.' the finger was drawn along the numbers, 'If I'm not here, mark off the day that's finished, just as I've done. Right, anything you want to ask?'
Shaking his head, Mulk heard himself say, 'Yes.'
'Yes you have, or yes you haven't?'
If Mulk had known what attention was he would have known he was standing to it. Every part of him except his brain and eyes darting in sympathy with it. Please Sir, how much extra do I get?'
The Sikh shrugged. 'I don't know what the wage is. Ask at the pay window. Whatever it is it beats nothing.'
The last gave substance to Mulk's fears. Mulk heard the soft click of the stamp and knew he'd moved it from its setting. 'Sir we have men come today with discs we already have.'
'How many?'
'Fifteen sir.'
He watched the number entered in a book and the day and date ringed. He waited while the head rose, its black eyes fixing on his own and was surprised by the quietness of the voice that followed. 'You must tell me each day the amount.'
A knock at the door caught Mulk with his mouth open. Not that the head that peered round the door noticed. 'Ready to go?'
The Sikh nodded. 'Give me two minutes.'
'Maximum, or you'll have to let one of the girls sit on your lap.'
'Make it the new one from reception and she won't need any strap to hold on to.' His eyes darted to the side and found Mulk. 'Anyway two minutes.' He waited for the door to close and turned to Mulk, 'Anything else?'
'Different men, sir. The men this morning not the same as the ones who left tonight.' Mulk felt his fidgets set in as the eyes bored into him.
'You are on your toes. How do you know that?'
Mulk told him about the stamps and the two specials he'd picked out and looked for.
'All right, leave me to worry about that.' His voice rose as he warned, 'and tell nobody, just me with the amount each day. Got it?'

Mulk was at the bottom of the stairs when relief washed over him. He'd walked over the bridge and was heading for the tracks before the first of the buses careening past caused him to cant his head to avoid the worst of its dust. Through some twisted filament of his mind he went from rationalising his relief and knowing he'd been expected to tell, to the libertine occupants of the bus and wondering if it was the road or some other rutting that was making it sway.

The Sikh didn't see him, but not because his dong was deeply immersed in the succulent depths of a receptionist, or anybody else for that matter. At best the talk of a seat was a triumph of promise over certainty, of seeding the receptionist, bravado over the flaccid yawing of his seed sack. It had been other empty seed sacks that had forced him from his Amritsar farm, defeated by drought and debt and with the contempt of his ancestors fuelling the indignity and sentencing him to this hole of hell. Now with only the stature of an empty pot, it cried out to be filled. They, whoever they were, were due him every shekel, dollar and rupee he could lay his hands on. It was small recompense for ancient land, fresh air, esteem and the right to look squarely into any eye. His pride was a right not a vanity. He concentrated on the yaw of the bus as it rattled along. The certainty of his equilibrium left him free to reflect on his new overman. Maybe he'd picked the wrong man.

The scam was proved. Time had greased its function until the gilt was regarded as blue chipped, copper bottomed, rock solid. The company may subsidise his flat and the children's schooling, but the salary wasn't enough for university and the television, not even with the paltry rent he got for the forbidden letting of a bedroom. Maybe he should charge his tenants more, allow them to sit with him and watch television. Not every night; say four during the week as an inducement for the increased rent. Mightn't be a bad idea if it stopped him having to block his ears from the rhythmic thud of their rutting. Three months they'd been with him since they'd fallen in love over their computer terminals and still he wasn't certain who was man and who was wife. They shared the cooking, cleaning and washing. Perhaps they also shared the roles.

A spasmic lurch juddering down the bus forced him to grip the rail and become a barrier to bodies either side of him. The judder, as it faded, allowed his grip to ease and his knees to bend slightly until his pendulum was again in equilibrium. Ten, including the two pay clerks, usually shared the seven hundred their scam cleared every week. He resented the two pay clerks getting equal on the assumption they had to share with nobody, while he and the other supervisors had to graft their overman. His last one had been a wily dog, without the brain of this new one but with the wit to barter the best deal. Twenty he'd screwed out of him, this one would get ten. Along with a hint he could add to it by putting the screws on the men under him.

His balance was abruptly upset by the convulsive sway of the bus. It bowed his back and thrust his pendulum into the scowling jowls of the occupant of the seat. Hastily withdrawing, he smiled his apology to the denizen of the personnel department but got nothing but scorn in return. He knew who she was. Her status more than any other of the bus's occupants but less than the blob on her forehead should have afforded her. The graced partially disgraced, submitting to harsh reality, but refusing to admit to it. She lived in the same block as him. They were equals now, fellow sufferers in this new egalitarian fashion, though her look said she didn't agree. His grip tightened, he shuffled his feet so his hip was pressed against a seat back, balance surrendered to the safety of rigidity.

Deek Consummated

Deek searched inwardly for any sense of change while his eyes searched the tangle of legs, arms, heads and one breast opposite. He'd been consumed, cajoled and consummated, played and spectated, absorbed and satiated. It was wonderful and he thanked her dearly. Now what?

A glottal sigh followed by a groan of annoyance saw the bed's tableau change. The breast was gone, the legs uncovered. Her face in sleep was less attractive. Not unattractive, just exposed to what it was without the veil created by a lusty hard-on. He let his eyes wander over the covered shoulder down until the spine emerged, then round the globe of her rump to the dark crucible between hip and thigh. Rab slept, cheek pressed into the pillow, lips puckered like a pig's arse, slurping saliva every time he breathed. They'd been enjoying another smoke when Deek had fallen asleep. He remembered their talk reaching him in undulating drones out of sync with their lips. He’d flashbacks to the blue vid, with subtitles, that he'd watched with Finch. This had been the same, well, no, more than that. This time there was the feel and the smell, especially the smell. That had come on strong and surprised him. She had guided him down, opened her lips to him taught him to gentle her. The aroma of fish and chips invaded his nostrils. Cooling after saturation with salt and vinegar, but definitely fish and chips. His mind went back to the supper and wondered if it had been chicken instead of fish. He'd tested another of his dreams and this time the world had lurched a bit but there were still the questions.

The water was cold when he showered. He tried to get it hot, wondered how many permutations there could be between two controls. Eventually, forcing the discipline he plunged in, wishing he'd scrubbed his teeth first. He'd made the break and landed lucky. Made out, fucked and been fucked. He could instant replay and did so to take his mind off the shrinkage of his filleted appendage. Rattling his toothbrush against the dresser got no reaction. His cold hand slipped down her rump to the hair bristled at her core, his finger getting no more than a moan for its chilly intrusion. He toyed with the idea of slipping in to her, waited to see if it appealed enough to draw him out of his shy pucker, then worried when it didn't. He scrambled for their clothes and finding his and Rab's heaped together created a crisis until he found his wallet and checked it. Then crisis cleared to opportunity as he checked Rab's.

Her robe lay where she'd dropped it. Finding the keys in the pocket he wasn't surprised when he found they weren't needed to get out of the room. A door facing him was closed; another immediately to his left open, showing a kitchen beyond a small dining annex. As a cover he filled the kettle and plugged it in. The place had an empty smell. There was plenty of furniture, mostly clean and dust free, but empty of life. A catholic mixture of timbers were tortuously nailed as a grid over the windows, the nets carelessly sandwiched in between. Next to the door, by a tall stand with a pot and papery skeleton of a plant, he found their jackets and rucksack. In Rab's jacket was a carefully wrapped portion of hash. It didn't look as though she'd been greedy.

He listened at the door blocking the head of the stairs. Attention swivelling between signs of waking below or life above. He tried the keys, found one that worked, and had to step back for the door to open towards him. Stealth gave way to nerves, forcing him to squeeze out the "Hello", waiting for a husband he didn't believe to appear. The silence seemed to give proof but not enough to convince. He put his head round the door. The landing was small, too small to hide and both doors leading off it were cracked open. The first led into a washing cluttered bathroom. It was of little interest until he saw the shaver clipped in its charger, the green pinprick light menacingly on. Nah, she probably used it. Besides, what sort of bloke would let his wife fill her cunt with strangers? Christ, the old man would have throttled his mother if he got a sniff that somebody had poked her, and they couldn't stand one another. Mind you all shapes being considered he didn't think there was much danger but Kay-Fay had plenty of the right shape.

Fear, caution or cowardice, probably all three, had him back to the stairs and listening before committing himself to the last door. Hearing nothing he rapped quite hard and gave a second "Hello" before pushing the door open as far as it would go. A mirror over a coffin shaped dressing table exposed more of the room. A double bed had covers heaped on top. Next to it a folding bed had an empty sleeping bag. A thought had the hairs on his neck tingling enough for him to ease back and put his eye to the door's hinged edge. Nobody lurked behind it. Pressing his cheek to the edge he looked back against the wall. More of the lumpy covers and a foot. Jesus!

Deek wished the thump of his heart hadn't knocked the wind out of his lungs. The pong was solid, absolute. Filthy bitch, rank cow, minging whore, and he'd slavered over and been slavered by it. Deek rubbed his tongue against the roof of his mouth testing his saliva for fish and chips. He stared, fascinated by the foot. Trying to gauge the size of its owner, waiting for it to be drawn back into the warmth of the covers. He'd read something somewhere about sleep cycles. He'd read it, didn't believe it and only half understood it. Sleep was sleep. You went to bed, slept and woke up. Sometimes you dreamt wet or dry. So what? They'd said something about time cycles. Was it twenty minutes, twelve or six? He couldn't remember. He was being spooked by a foot, choked by a smell and six minutes was a long time to wait for a foot to move. He listened again for any sign of life. He'd made a mystery out of sleep. It was definitely a man's foot; horny nails peeped over the toes. The rest was rounded, uncalloused soft, leading to a podgy ankle with a wisp of blackish hair. It was a chubbly foot. A sleeping, chubbly foot. Could anybody with a chubbly foot really be a threat? He'd wake its owner on the pretence of making tea.

Stepping round the folding bed he measured the covers to gauge where the shoulder would be and gave it a rock. 'Hello. I've got the kettle on. Ye fancy tea or coffee?' The second prod was less tentative. Asking again he pressed harder, adding a couple of shakes and watching for movement from the foot. The stillness triggered his imagining. He had visions of Rosie draped in some unmoving heap, feigning death and taunting him for having caused it. He'd been five and while he hadn't believed it then and didn't now, he'd secretly worried whether he should, even when it became a habit. Now it was worse. Rosie had perfected the shallowest of breathing, the perfect corpse until he'd the sense to tickle her. Fucking useless that would be. He'd look a right idiot tickling the foot of somebody he'd never met; somebody whose wife he’d screwed.

Peering over the covers he could just see some hair poking out. There was something weird about only knowing a foot. He'd feel stupid tickling, but maybe waggling a big toe would be a reasonable intro. Deek glanced at the clock. The second hand was beginning a new sweep. The minute had only moved once. The chubbly toe dented under the pressure of his finger and thumb, moving easily on its joints. Releasing it he wiped the feel of it off on his jeans, tensed for any reaction from a sleepy groan to a flying pounce. The next time was harder, insistent to the point of using the foot as a lever to roll the leg and press the toe right back against its joint. Bastard was either completely out of it or dead. This was weird. Or was he being the prat for not backing off?

He snatched the covers off. For a second he thought it was the stupidest beard he'd ever seen, then he realised it was the shitiest. The eyes were staring, but it was the beard that forced the breath out. The mixture of shit and tissue erupted from a clarted mouth and slunk its way down to a wobbly navel. The bile belching into his mouth had Deek running for the bathroom.

He had to go through the room to get his bike. He had thought of slipping out the front door till he remembered the security bolts inside the conservatory. Sliding open the door he waited for signs of movement and getting none raided Rab's jeans. Anybody that looked like he did sleeping deserved it. The shock of the thing upstairs had somehow got his brain moving. He didn't want Rab with him, didn't want anybody he'd to play second fiddle to. The same decisiveness had him take the tent and, when the bike was already outside, make his way back to the front room and rip one of the nets from the window. Shrouding his head with it and tucking the ends round his neck probably had him looking weird, but it stopped the fucking nits giving him more zits than he already had. He turned left, the way they'd been headed before hunger made them stop. If his brain had been working better it would have told him to check the kitchen and maybe turn the kettle off. Rab wouldn't be too happy about his hash and cash, but he wouldn't be too keen to chase him either.

Deek found he could set a rhythm to his legs by pacing his breath. When the road forked he took left again and gave himself up to the pace and the gritty race of the tyres. He'd just crested a hill and was giving himself a rest on the freewheel down when he clocked the control barrier. He backed up fifty meters and got behind the hedge of a field that quartered the crossroad. It took him almost an hour before he crossed a main road, hedged the field opposite then got back on his way, whichever his way was. He didn't complain, not even when he'd to lug the lot over two ditches.

If his flight and the diversion at the control post had fuelled his sense of adventure it had done nothing for his appetite. The stupidity of leaving the house without taking food churned his empty belly. He'd thought the morning to be a point of no return, a breakthrough. He'd about two thou in cash, an initiated cock, a pair of aching legs, a sore arse and an empty belly. Plus, if Rab could be believed, as much as another hundred and fifty's worth of hash. Remembering it made him consider whether a nibble would appease his belly and ease his legs. He'd seen two cars, well one car and a van all day. The van had been first; soon after he'd come to the junction with about six lanes leading off and he made the same decision he'd done with all the junctions that day, straight on. He hadn't heard it coming up behind him and probably the twist of the lane stopped them from seeing him until they were right on top. He'd monickered the three sitting in front and didn't like the look of them, not even when they slid past and disappeared round the next bend. Turning he'd pistoned it back to the junction, swinging so fast into the first left that he'd practically mounted the wall - the wall he hid behind until he was convinced they weren't after him.

The car hadn't been long after that and was a bloody sight more frightening. It slowed down as it came towards him and he couldn't think of any move he could make. Then he watched it accelerate and knew the only move he had was to mount the grass and throw him and bike into the mercy of the hedge. He watched it pass with the two women and bang of kids in the back and screamed, 'What the fuck's wrong with ye Mrs?’ before realising the hedge was a mercy tinged with thorns that were pinning the arm he had thrust into it. The situation made him realise just how exposed he was. Enough at any rate to see how careless he'd been wheeling past the house with two snarling dogs lunging at the gate while their owner stared him out with the twelve bore clutched in the crook of his arm. He hadn't been watching him go past so much as making sure he did go past.

Somehow Deek had believed that beyond the dumps of the seven courts, the moulding slime of the Righy and its broken brick wilderness there would be freedom. The problem was he'd never thought out what freedom meant. Yes he had. Freedom was the absence of boredom. Freedom said you could do anything, even make mistakes, and he hadn't been bored.

He got a lot more careful. Houses were scrutinised or dashed past; hamlets rejected and bypassed. A wrong turning led him to a village. When he tried to circumnavigate it, he found himself on the embankment of a motorway and, later, on a track beside a copse of trees camouflaging a boarded up cottage. He opted against breaking in. There was a reasonable patch of flat grass at the back. He'd use that and kip in the tent. He got even lazier, instead of pitching it, he rolled out the tent and slid inside.

How do you kill a dog? Deek didn't know how long he'd slept. If it was as dark out as it was in, no way was he going to poke his head out for the answer. He should have had a piss before he'd crawled in but that was the least pressing of his problems now. The real question was how do you kill a growling, snarling monster of a dog that's muzzle nuzzled with the strength of a horse and head-butted like a ball of concrete. Little dogs yapped and nipped and could be crushed or kicked like some demented football. He rolled over onto his front, both hands grasping the twisted closed opening over his ears and head. Oh Mother, the mutt had shovelled its head under his, its breath snorting beneath his face. Maybe if he pressed down he could smother it. He did and got a bloody nose when the sodding thing pulled its head clear. Feed it the hash! Get it high, chill it out. Only that meant putting his hand outside. Sod it. He wasn't moving, until it got fed up, fell asleep or died. Maybe it was happening now. The snorts and snarls had changed to a low growl. It was almost a relief when he felt something rammed into his back.
'You, slide out of there, both hands first.'
'What about the dog mister?'
'Don't worry about the dog. Worry about me and the thing poking into you. Now, out and hands first or I'll shoot and see what's left.'
It wasn't easy getting out of the tent with his hands held in front of him. Especially when the part he was gripping so tenaciously wasn't the opening at all. Through some mysterious contortion of him or it, the opening had positioned itself just above his knees, something he only found out when his scrambling came near to panic. Finally the opening was offered to him supported by a metal figure of eight. On his back, arms rigid before his head, he thrust out and found he was looking directly into the late evening sun.
'Okay, on your feet. Open your jacket and turn all the way round.'
Doing as he was told, Deek caught the first glimpse of his captor.
'Now lift up both your jeans legs to the knees.'
That wasn't possible but he got permission to ease them back down once they'd cleared his socks. He watched as the tent was trampled over, checking for anything left inside. 'Turn your pockets out. Throw everything onto the tent.'

There wasn't much. A handful of small notes and a couple of crumpled delivery slips from Mangy, and the hash. He watched the dog that was a tenth of the size he'd imagined, sniff it, then back off with a look of disgust.
'That it?'
'It's the lot. Honest Mister.' Deek patted his pockets and turned out his jacket to show his absolute compliance.
'Right, pick it up, including that muck. Pack the tent and get it on the bike. Deek didn't make a tidy job of stowing the tent. He'd a feeling it was a technique better learnt some other time. He went to wheel the bike in the direction the gun had indicated.
'Leave it. Just make your way onto the track. I'll look after the bike and no funny business or the dog'll have you.'
Maybe the dog's name was "Dog" because as soon as the word was said the sodding thing sort of bristled and started to growl. Anyway he'd seen what a shotgun could do on the telly and while an empty belly was bad, a hole instead of a belly was pretty drastic. Reaching the track he paused and got a wave on the direction he'd to travel.

He wasn't going to cry, though he couldn't think of one solid reason not to, other than the bloke didn't look as though he'd care whether he did or not. Neither did the dog that, for the moment, was the sole barrier to escape. That and the fact he was bullock naked, which was embarrassing and threw the odds in their favour. After a couple of minutes the clothes were thrown back at him.
'Where are you from?'
Deek told him adding, 'Honest mister I was only trying to get some sleep.'
'Funny way to sleep in a tent. Where is it you're heading?'
Shrugging, Deek got on with pulling on his jeans. 'I was trying to get to Wales, try for some summer work.'
'If you have come from where you say you have, you're going a long way about getting to Wales.'
'I got lost. I panicked after some blokes chased me in a van. I took a wrong turning and ended up just following my nose. Where am I anyway?'
'Between Stoke and Crewe. A shade to the benefit of Stoke.'
'Can I get to Wales from here?'
The question seemed to amuse his captor. 'You can but you'll need something a bit more precise than your nose. Have you eaten?'
Deek shook his head. 'Not since last night.'
'Well your bike's outside. You can get on it, or come up to the house and have something to eat.' Then, 'How old are you?'
'Young looking for seventeen. What year were you born?'
Deek substituted a nine for the eleven.
'All right. Sorry about the strip search but I had to make sure.'
Deek looked up from his kneeling position where he was trying to force his foot into a shoe with a knotted lace. His head nodded while his eye gauged the distance to a fork pitched in a bale of hay. The distance was about equal. He had the element of surprise, the bloke had everything else, and the gun. Then there was the dog. Who the fuck was he kidding?
'Bess'll see you off or up to the house, whichever you decide. Can't claim the cooking will be any great shakes but it'll beat an empty belly and I might have a road map kicking around.'
Deek knew he'd been fantasising. A sort of mental recoil for being caught ready bagged as it were. The choice of getting on his bike or getting some food inside him was no contest. The dog, what had he called it, Bess, trotted ahead of him, ears right back. At the door she stopped till he passed, then followed him in.

New York

Klaus Schultz woke when his bedmate eased its bulk out of the other side. He pretended sleep, letting Karreina have the run of the apartment till coffee’d and abluted, it'd gone. That was how he preferred it. Now that he paid his pipers, not only could he call the tune, he could conduct its length without any niggling doubt as to duration or quality. With Karreina there was also the practical reason. The thought of a stubble'd morning struggle wasn't appealing. But that was yesterday's struggle. Today he had to get things moving. Easing from the bed the wave of nausea hit him as soon as he stood, forcing him to grab the headboard for support, while his mind struggled for supremacy over the temptation to flop back and let the day take care of itself. .

Normality was still a long way off when the attaché’s phone rang. Waiting till the call light started blinking he left the receiver in place and jotted down the sequence as they lit the phone's digits. He let it dance through twice before pressing the call button that would tell them the message had been received. Most of the codes he knew but this wasn't one of them, except for the first two digits, which told him it wasn't worth his time querying it. The rest he checked off the cipher log- instruction denied: stand by.

He dressed for the office, having first flushed the scraps of deciphered message down the toilet with the bile. By mid afternoon he decided he was overdressed and eased out of his jacket and waistcoat and believed his stomach had settled enough to try something more solid than brandy and raw eggs. The televisions in the lounge and kitchen were on two different 24-hour news channels. Not that he expected any enlightenment from them, or if he did, he would have reason to worry. Domestic news was giving Capitol Hill's statistical back pats on the grain quotas. Global was concentrating on an earthquake that had crunched its way through the borders of India and Nepal, readjusting part of the Himalayas.

Unfortunately the adjustment had included one of the hydro electric dams and the resultant flood from the nine hundred foot deep lake had washed thousands back into being the salt of the earth. He stayed with it most of the afternoon, watching the chaos caused by a tidal wave released from the roof of the world. He listened to experts scrambling for the opportunity of airing their original "I warned them" prophecies. He learnt that the project had been redundant for five years, having silted up to the turbines within fifteen of being built. Fifteen years meant it would be somebody else's problem from whoever had profited from it and if the tens turned out to be hundreds of thousands it wouldn't be a drop out of the ocean in that part of the world. Still, it would give the catastrophe spinners something to appeal on. Pregnant bellies on two year olds had long been out of fashion.

By evening the instruction to stand by was beginning to weigh heavy. In transit, or any place without the attaché case he simply wouldn't have got the message. He was beginning to wish he hadn't by eleven fifteen, when both call lights told him he would have voice contact. Pressing in his code, there was a second's pause before the line sounded as though it connected from galactic space.
'Klaus, you alone?' He confirmed he was. 'Right call a full WREC emergency meeting within twenty-four hours. Usual place and you will attend. Full briefing will be held in Lyle's office, the National Security Building, 07:00hrs Washington time. Advise Gamadran and Shafner, or any other member of the committee in the States to get to Dulles by 11:00hrs. They can accompany you in the Air Command plane that will be standing by to take you direct to Brussels. You’re cleared to advise any of those that accompany you once you're airborne.
You understand, Klaus, until Colonel McGruer, your pilot, gives you clearance you must not give the slightest hint of what you know.'
'Understood, Mr President. Who will I be reporting to, Stannought or Lyle?'
'No, we have convened and emergency meeting of the UN Council using this earthquake disaster as a cover. The problem's duplicated itself in Tibet. Premier Chan doesn't want the news to leak until he's got the full picture. He has assured us he will have it by the time we meet in Reykjavik by noon local time tomorrow. Your purpose is to initiate and co-ordinate every recourse WREC can bring to bear on the problem.'
'Understood. Is there anything further you can tell me now?'
'Nothing, except to say we have backfire.'

The conversation had lasted less than two minutes. In that time Klaus had felt tension form into a solid rod. Backfire? What, or who the hell was there to fire back? What had been overlooked or leaked? Every byte of data fed to the WREC mainframe had been routed to Lubbock and that bloody place in Russia he could never pronounce. They had it all, the analysis, the predictions, the forecasts; every programme that had allowed WREC to create and function with pinpoint accuracy. They had what WREC hadn't. The exact flight and launch schedules where the bean tin’s guts had been changed to carry the locust larvae. Christ, they had a continent to aim at. How the hell could they miss? All right so locusts could fly. They knew they could hit seventy, eighty kilometres hour on hour for days on end. They could use the convected air currents to boost them high, cross Africa from Senegal to the Horn in three days, if nothing caught their eye on the way. Or fly from each end and meet in the middle for a corn dance in the same time. They'd constructed a paradise for them. Why the hell would they ignore it? They’d spent the best part of four years loosing sterile batches in clandestine tests in Australia. Tracking, waiting for one quirk, one maverick flight to tell them they would have to find another way. There had been none. Every time the one constant you could rely on. It was hard wired into their genetic blueprint, no matter how high, fast or long they flew, it was downwind to the first moist patch and a chance to lay.

For a moment Klaus wondered about the convenience of the Indian earthquake. Whether it was Mother Nature or motherfucker with a nuclear device. He wondered about WREC; how they would react finding the patterns for locust flight had been written out of the programmes. An oversight! Couldn't see them swallowing that. How far out had they got? Malta would be no more than a pit stop, hardly worth the reaction Mair had indicated. Spain, possibly; but foreseen and with adequate supplies of anti toxins set up. Middle East, Israel? Again the same precautions had been taken. Why WREC? Unless they wanted to use it as a blind of concern, or as a patsy for failing. He didn't want to think of that, a profitless pastime. And at the end of the day he had a job to do. By midnight he'd contacted five of the committee, but not Shafner, Morice or Carter, which didn’t entirely surprise him. Ringing the UN he left instructions for them to contact the eight remaining members giving, "no squeal" orders for them to be at Dulles by 11:00hrs or Brussels by 14:00hrs local time.

Rather than trying to sleep he opted for the anonymity of taking the shuteye. It would make him hours early in Washington, but the possibility of the National building being a hive of sleepy stupor was nil. It might give him more time to ease a bit more out of Lyle.


Stavros pressed the button that had been acting up the night before. Immediately the green light came on showing the ground tracker at Izmir was back on stream. Keying in the station's code he waited for its sweep to come up on the VDU and had the niggling certainty of it being cleared for some time and how would it look for Dimitri if he logged it on now. He watched the screen as the sweep ran through its sector. It looked all right. If he got the chance he'd run the nightshift archive and log the time when it showed it back on stream. He left a space in the log before entering his own check; Dimitri was beginning to be due him quite a lot.

Mike Whitehead had landed in Turkey as the engineer for a flotilla fleet based in Bodrum. A year out of the navy, he'd found constant domesticity more that his nature could bear and his skills in little demand. Maintaining the flotilla was a piece of cake; maintaining the women, better. It had been great until the flock of bikini bums had dried out and they had a season with only one flotilla and five charters. So he’d been more than pleased when the UN job cropped up and he found his artificer's skills were just what they were looking for, and the salary let him live very well indeed.

He could still hear the hiss of steam. Knew it would die down quickly and was nothing to worry about, though he'd have to do something with it if he was to get moving again. It had been a good run down last night. He’d stopped for a beer and a burger at the roadside cafe just out of Akhisar and watched a cockroach, as big as a sparrow, staring him out with visceral hate as he chewed the last of the burger. Should have left him some, poisoned the loathsome bastard as the bloody burger had poisoned him. He made another attempt to get his hand to move the door handle. Felt his mind strain but the motive force was no more than a twitch at his shoulder. The flies told him it was day, even though his eyes were shrouded by something that gave every thing the brilliance of a Newcastle twilight. He could only watch the blobs of flies as they scuttled carelessly over his eyes and sensed them scrabbling against the hairs in his nostrils, making him wonder if his mouth was open or shut. He'd shit himself, had felt the sloppy heat at the very moment the spasm struck swinging the truck into the one fucking bollard in frigging acres of space.

And all for bloody nothing. The scanner was swinging merrily round and when he went to inspect it, it was covered in some putrid slime. The vomit belching from his mouth tasted of nothing, not even the putrid sodding burger that had caused it, and his mouth was open.

Stavros switched his monitor to sector Lat.40 north, Long 28 east and got the same snow clouding out the screen over the Black Sea. Shortly, beyond parallel 42, it would be out of his sector. Reaching for the direct link he got through to Galati and found his English was hardly up to explaining the phenomena or the concern he felt. By the sound of it the Ukrainian wasn't much better. Perhaps it was just as well. Sometimes over the seas a wave pattern or even an electrical storm could play havoc with the pictures. However Galati was already liasing with the Italian station in Ancona. They were registering similar problems with the fuzz heading towards Belgrade.

The Morning After

'Christ's sake, that's got to be enough.' Rab pulled his forearm across his brow and the mixture of earth and sweat turn to mud.
'It's supposed to be six feet and that's hardly up to your waist.'
Rab drove the shovel against the bottom feeling it jar up his arm when the blade tried to bite into the clay. 'Not a chance of us getting it that deep.'
Fay started nibbling the skin inside her cheek. If she pressed too hard there'd be nothing stopping him telling her to piss off and leaving her to it. Worse still, going to the police and making it legal. Pension, disability, all the social lifelines would stop. She glanced at the bundle wrapped in its soiled sheets. 'All right. Can you do the rest? I'll go up to the house and get something ready for you to eat.'
Rab grinned. 'Sure, and get yourself into something comfortable.'
Hauling himself out he threw a sod of clay at the cockerel pecking at Eric's shroud. Not wanting to touch it any more than he had to, he slid the shovel under and gradually eased him round then tipped him in. He'd a pang of conscience when he saw Eric was face down then decided it didn't matter. He swung the spade, keeping his eyes on the diminishing mound of earth and letting his venom for the little bastard Awkright feed adrenaline to his arms and back.

The little lucky bastard

Bob watched the lids slowly shut while the chin synchronised its drop to the chest. Hearing a sigh that had Bess's ears twitching, Bob watched the mask of independence fade into the easy innocence of youth. He remembered that ability to go from full bore to zonk in five second flat. Put off, switch off until tomorrow, because there will be plenty of them. The perfect end to a perfect sod of a day, when he should have been sorting out his mind, or by some bloody miracle, coming to some sort of terms with it, he'd been landed with this. Well it might be the perfect end for a perfect sod of a day for him as well.

Draining his whisky he pulled himself out of the chair and slipped the half empty beer glass from the boy's clutch, swinging him round till he was stretched out. Bob couldn't think what else to do other than go and get him a blanket.
 © Eoin Taylor
Previous chapter links are here.


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