“The Elements of War”, a tale of love and magic amidst the horrors of the London Blitz, is the third story in the “Futurist Manifesto” series …
… and it’s available here.
The first two stories in the “Futurist Manifesto” series are available now, as limited-edition teasers for “Tales from Beyond Tomorrow!”
Spies, spirits, and mad inventors galore in this action-packed novelette set in a Steampunk Victorian London.
Eldritch abominations stalk the trenches of World War One in this chilling short story set in Ypres, 1917.
From Excalibur – the cutting edge of literature!
Chapter One from the sequel to “Voice of the Sword”, Book 2 in the “Sword, Mirror, Jewel” trilogy!
It was the Godless Month. The tenth month of the year, when the Gods of Japan leave their shrines and assemble at Izumo, on the western shore of the Japan Sea, to discuss matters of destiny. It was the month when mortals like ourselves faced devils and dangers with only our wits to protect us, as the leaves withered and turned gold, and the air grew chill and carried the scent of wood smoke.
The twentieth day, of the tenth month, in the tenth year of Bunka.
Still in my sleeping robe, I put away the futon in the closet, and swept the tatami, the simple brushing movement also serving to clear my mind of dreams. I slid open the paper door to the central room. It was the hour of the rabbit; the servants and the other temple maidens sat by the open hearth, the wood fire burning steadily beneath the big iron pot. One servant knelt, setting out the bowls and chopsticks. The smoke left its pungent smell behind as it was absorbed by the straw in the roof.
I knelt in formal position on the tatami, and gratefully accepted a bowl of buckwheat porridge. “Itadakimasu,” I said. I humbly receive this. I took a handful of chopped spring onion and miyoga from the serving tray and sprinkled it into the bowl.
After eating, I prayed to the images of my parents, enshrined in the kamidana – the Shinto family altar. Enshrined within the cypress-wood alcove lay the tablet carrying the posthumous names of my dear, departed mother and father, written in formal Kanji calligraphy. Strung above the altar were the required hempen rope and the O-fuda – white paper amulets, cut into the shape of lightning bolts, upon which were written the charms of peace and blessing.
Other acolytes here had the memories of their parents to comfort them. I had none. I simply had the visions sweeping in to guide and warn me, the chilling visitors from the edge of sleep. I accepted the knowledge, and my destiny; as it was written in the Wen-Tzu, nothing can be done to help the changes of myriad beings, but to grasp the essential, and return to the source.
The servant helped me don my ceremonial kimono, the white uniform of the Star-Tellers. Then I bid farewell, and walked out onto the temple academy courtyard.
To my right, Guard Captain Wakita stepped out of the sentry hut and bowed. “It is a beautiful morning, Mistress Furukawa.”
I smiled. Despite his title of Guard Captain, Shunsuke Wakita was little older than me. He had inherited the position at the Academy of Star-Tellers after the untimely death of his father. That was something else we shared, along with our youth; the loss of our parents. Mine, carried away by plague when I was but three months old, and his, taken in the tragic collapse of Nihonbashi Bridge eleven years before.
He stood beside me, the October sunlight glinting upon the chestplate, the helmet, and the hilts of the long and short swords he wore. His face had a fine, chiseled look, and beneath his helmet I knew he did not yet have the shaved chonmage pate of the adult samurai, but rather thick locks of slightly curly hair.
“You do not have to be here,” Shunsuke said. “There are many other maidens belonging to the Temple.”
“But I have duties to perform, just as you have,”
We stood, looking across the paved courtyard at the wall of ancient oak and elm trees around the complex of temple buildings, the bamboo thicket near the entrance, the sacred well where visitors were required to perform their ablutions.
It was up to Shunsuke to fill in the silence.
“You told me that your own star-readings state that today is a day of ill luck, Reiko,” he said softly. “It may be advisable for you to stay here. I can carry a message to the priest, if you wish, saying that you are sick.”
“I thank you for being prepared to do me such a favor,” I said politely, “but my duties are clear.”
His hazel eyes glanced at me from beneath the steel rim of his helmet. “That’s the trouble with fortune-tellers,” he grumbled. “They always have the last word.”
It was now the hour of the dragon. Asakusa was awakening, preparing for the day’s business. The air was heavy with the smells of incense and grilling fish. Beyond the grounds of Sensoji Temple, I could hear the cries of the vendors and beggars, the rattling of the bamboo omikuji charms in their wooden containers. From the long narrow street of stalls called the Nakamise Street I could hear the chirruping of the caged sparrows; many elderly vendors made a living by selling birds and small fish that the customers would later free, in honor of their chosen Buddhist saint.
The sun was pale in the clouded sky, with a sliver of moon still barely visible. The strong sense of order and routine calmed me and made me feel at peace inside. I loved the serene brutality of Asakusa, my home. I loved the electric power of humanity I felt with each breath of dry, smoky air. The mercy of Amaterasu the Shining One had granted us another day in this world.
The Star-Tellers Academy was situated on the Hill of Kinryu, the Golden Dragon, in the grounds of Sensoji Temple. Iyeyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, had set up the Academies in the early years of his rule. One was located at Fushimi, near Kyoto; and one was here, in the heart of Edo, the capital of Japan. The two faiths of the Academy were the same two faiths that had co-existed peacefully in Japan for over a thousand years; Shinto, the indigenous Japanese religion of nature and ancestor-worship, and Buddhism, brought to Japan from China.
Two sentries guarded the huge oaken door that served as the entrance to the Academy halls. They bowed, opened the door, and admitted me into a narrow, lantern-lit corridor. Above the doorway stood the Zodiac Clock, a gift from the Tokugawa administration, beautifully constructed by the Shogun’s elite clockmakers. Each of the day’s twelve periods was depicted by lovingly rendered images of the twelve animals of the Zodiac. I shuffled through the doorway beneath it and into the interior of the Star-Reader Academy.
Whispering voices came from behind the latticed wood and paper walls, and steam hung in the air from the round wooden tubs in the nearby bathrooms. I walked past gilt murals showing ancient warriors slaying demons and dragons. In the gleaming cypress floor, I could see my own blurred and darkened face, reflected by the highly polished wood. I passed the central hall, with its dozens of chrysanthemum branches hung in front of the altar, from the Kikumode Ceremony two days before.
Tomoe was already casting the oracle bones into the hot charcoal of the brazier when I reached her room. She knelt in formal position beneath the scroll bearing the names of her household Kami, and looked up at me with dark eyes as I entered. She pushed back her glossy, waist-length black hair and smiled wistfully.
“Did you see the moon last night?” she asked.
I nodded. “A full moon, entering the final phase, according to the calendar.”
Tomoe smiled. “More than that. It was so huge, and bright. I could not take my eyes from it; I could feel it … eating. Yes, eating through me.”
“They say staring at the moon for too long can drive you insane, Tomoe.”
“I think it may be too late for that.” She got to her feet, looking up at me shyly, as if about to tell a secret.
“We are nearing the winter solstice,” she said quietly, “and I can feel something approaching.”
“Something?” I asked. Tomoe’s abilities were, in some ways, greater than mine; her premonitions were never to be ignored. “Did you dream last night?”
“Yes. Today we shall be summoned; and tomorrow we shall leave the capital to begin our journey.”
“Where shall we go?”
“Over the sea.”
“I dreamed the same thing.”
“Others shall lie in wait and seek to kill us.”
“I dreamed that, also.”
“I feel that, and more. There is something within myself,” she said. “As if my powers are getting … stronger.”
“Then we are in the Kami’s favor. A stronger Star-Teller means a stronger Academy, a stronger Edo.”
“Then why do I feel so afraid?” she asked urgently, her eyes flashing.
The walls of Tomoe’s room were packed – even more than mine – with the tools of our magical art, Onmyodo, the natural science based on the ancient philosophies of Wu-Xing and Yin-Yang. Calendars and charts showing the movements of the stars hung next to scrolls bearing names of the Kami. On her shelves lay half-finished wooden votive tablets propped up against bottles of murky liquid with dead shima-hebi snakes coiled inside. Upon the altar at the end of the room stood arrangements of candles, flowers, fresh sasaki twigs, and at the altar’s heart, a mirror. There were no images allowed of the Kami, the gods and goddesses of the Shinto pantheon; in every shrine or academy, the Kami were represented by a mi-tama-shiro, a spirit substitute. These could be beads, stones, arrows, paper amulets, small bells – or in some cases, such as Tomoe’s personal shrine, a mirror.
Tomoe and I had studied and practiced together at the Academy for as long we could both remember. In fact, in terms of power, we were the Academy – no other shrine maidens had shown the abilities we had, and our lives were dominated by a constant stream of visitors asking for our services. Thankfully, the Academy had ordered a squad of samurai, led by Captain Wakita, to protect our privacy.
We were born in the year of the Snake, under the element of Fire. According to the Wu Xing, such a collaboration was taboo. To be avoided at all costs. It did not stop us becoming firm friends, who had protected each other’s lives more times than we could count.
Or so we were told. We would be proud, if it were not for our curious … affliction.
Tomoe scooped another handful of oracle bones from a lacquered dish and tossed them into the brazier.
‘Have you breakfasted?”
“No, I shall eat now. Recently I enjoy preparing my own food. Chopping the leeks, grating the daikon. This kind of humble task is valuable. Some would say this is pointless, and omit it all together.” The oracle bones in the brazier made a sharp, cracking noise, and she raked them out with a clawed metal rod. She cast them into the metal dish at the side, studying the fissures on their blackened surface.
“What do you see?”
She paused. “Something I cannot name.”
A muffled call from outside and the sliding open of a wooden door interrupted us. We both left Tomoe’s room, to find Shunsuke waiting in the outer corridor. “We have a visitor,” he said. “From the magistrate’s office.”
I glanced at Tomoe. She was smiling.
“At your convenience,” he added, looking at the breakfast bowl in Tomoe’s hands.
It was forbidden for visitors to the Academy to look upon the sanctum interior, so meetings were always conducted from behind a bamboo curtain. We knew without looking, however, the face of the young samurai who came shuffling in with his guards to kneel upon the tatami. In recent weeks, messages from the magistrate had come via Hideaki Sakamoto, whose boyish face always wore a look of nervous determination. He walked self-consciously, shoulders hunched, putting one foot in front of the other with exaggerated care. As if afraid to make noise or occupy space.
Hideaki Sakamoto’s father had been a doshin, one of Edo’s low-ranking police patrol officers in the office in charge of investigating fire, theft and gambling. He had inherited the position at age fifteen, maintaining order in the city streets until becoming Magistrate Kotani’s chief retainer a year ago.
“Greetings, my lord,” said Tomoe. “Please forgive us, once more, for applying the Academy rules, and asking you to remain on the other side of the curtain. Let us know what is required of us.”
There was hesitation before Hideaki replied. “There is sadness in your voice today, Miss Kanzaki,” he said.
“There is sadness,” I said quickly, and rather defensively, “but there is meaning to her sadness. What is required of us?”
“The magistrate has asked that you come at once. There is a delicate matter involving the Shogunate’s security, and he will explain.”
“I shall accompany you,” said Shunsuke, from the side.
“That is not necessary,” Hideaki replied rather waspishly. “We have sufficient guards. And it is, as I say, a delicate matter.”
“Then I shall be as delicate as I can while I fulfill my duties to the members of the Academy,” insisted Shunsuke.
“Come sirs, are you fighting over us?” I could clearly hear the coquettish turn in Tomoe’s voice. I frowned at her as I got to my feet.
“We shall prepare to leave immediately,” I said.
Walking back to our rooms, I was silent, mentally going through the steps of what I would need to take with me to our appointment. There was no mistake what the summons signified; there was trouble in the capital. This was the summoning that Tomoe and I had dreamed of. Whatever it signified, it had begun.
In this pensive mood, I immediately became aware of something unfamiliar as I entered the inner gateway. I stopped, looking at Tomoe, as she returned my look of alarm. There was a hushed, tense atmosphere in the chamber, pregnant with meaning.
We both looked up. The great Zodiac Clock above the doorway had stopped.
No! Your eyes are not deceiving you! The above character is indeed Reiko Bergman, from the 21st Century Chiyoda High School! She is not a clone, an android, or an alien shape-shifter! This is not a dream or an alternative reality! How is it possible that the same person – and her friends – are alive in two different historical periods?
For the answers, pre-order your copy of “Voice of the Mirror” now! If you haven’t read “Voice of the Sword” yet – get it here!
This is an excerpt from a story to be published in “Tales from Beyond Tomorrow!” Volume 2, coming from Excalibur Books, 2014.
The Day The Paper Factory Exploded
By John Paul Catton
An unusual title, you might think, from a man who’s spent most of his working life with banner headlines and cross-heads. However, I’m not writing this for my newspaper. I’m writing this in honor of the recently deceased Mr. MacLean … so I’ll dispense with the usual clichés and excruciating puns that we hacks adore.
Rodney MacLean was a good man. He loved his family, respected his friends, and although his tragic and untimely demise cut short his career at Hardiman’s, his colleagues said that as a customer accounts clerk – he was exemplarary.
To introduce myself, my name is Paul Hobbs, a senior reporter at the Chronicle & Echo, our county’s most successful evening daily – and this is my account of the extraordinary, unbelievable, but nevertheless true events of that summer of 1985.
The first time I met Mr. MacLean was in the dead part of a Saturday afternoon, a quiet part of a hectic day. I’d spent the morning in Northampton Crown Court covering a running story – a Building Society boss up for fraud, if I remember rightly. I was looking forward to the MacLean assignment because the story was what we call a ‘special’. A one-off; a good slice of human interest.
The MacLean’s house was in Oldthorpe – a suburb on the north side of town. Driving through the rows of crescents and peaceful cul-de-sacs to get to my appointment, the faint but unmistakable odor of money wafted from the front gardens and renovated porches. I found the address, parked my car, and cast my eye over the bright multi-colored objects flapping in the June breeze, some perched improbably on his roof, some stirring fitfully here and there on the front lawn. I crouched down for a look at one of the objects that was lying on the gravel driveway; it was an Argos catalog.
I rang the doorbell. A tall man opened the door, nudging away with his foot a small pile of free newspapers that still lay beneath the letterbox. He wore that vaguely bewildered look that most people have when they answer the door to a reporter; I found out afterwards, ever, that he looked like that all the time. I introduced myself and he invited me inside.
We sat in his over-furnished living room. His wife, attractive in a traditional kind of way, said she would make some tea. I looked towards the open kitchen door and met the stare of a small child, standing behind the door, fingers in mouth.
“Nice place you’ve got here,” I said, “in no hurry to get out my notebook.
Rodney MacLean nodded. He was in his early forties, I guessed. His gigure was still trim, no sign of mid-life spread. His hair was thinning though, brushed in long sandy-colored sweeps across his skull. He wore box-shaped gold-rimmed glasses that sharpened his gaze and disguised his long nose.
“Lived here long?” I asked.
“Not exactly, no. We used to live in Dotsworth – you know, the place famous for pies. We moved here about eleven years ago, I think. A bigger house, more local … um … facilities.” He had a monotonous tone of voice – the kind best described as ‘soothing’. “Still, nobody told us that things like this happened in Oldthorpe!”
“No.” I smiled, slipping the notebook into my hand. “Mr. MacLean, those are Argos catalogs on your front lawn, aren’t they?”
“And when you rang me up, you said they … fell from the sky.”
“Yes.” He snorted with embarrassed laughter. “Look, I know how it sounds, but …”
“Perhaps,” I said, pushing my shoulders back into the sofa, “you could give me some idea how it started.”
“It was early this morning.” He hesitated, as his wife Jackie arrived with the tea. She handed the cups out, put the tray on the coffee table, and sat beside her husband. “I’d just got up and was going downstairs to make the coffee – Jackie was still in bed – and I heard this … drumming sound on the roof.” Another pause. “I thought it was raining. That’s all … just rain.”
“You could tell something was wrong,” Jackie interrupted. “It sounded like hailstones, big hailstones coming down with loud thumps on the roof.”
“I got to the kitchen,” Rodney continued, “and I looked through the window and I saw books.” I nodded. Smiled and scribbled in Pitman as his voice climbed towards exasperation. “I thought it was kids having a lark, but they didn7t stop. It kept on raining catalogs for another ten minutes!”
“They made a thorough mess of our magnolia,” Jackie added petulantly.
“There don’t seem to be that many catalogs lying around,” I quizzed them.
“Oh, we put them in the shed.”
“Yes,” Jackie confirmed. “We put the ones that we could reach in the shed. We couldn’t leave them all lying around for the neighbors to see.” She frowned. “They’d think we’ve gone … funny.”
I collected a few more details, and finished the over-sugared tea they’d given me. Before I left, I arranged for a photographer to call the next morning, and Rodney asked if I wanted to see inside the shed. Well, I thought, I didn’t doubt his story but if the hard evidence was there, it was my job to cast the eye of the press over it.
We went through the back garden and I noticed that some of the more delicate plants did look in a bad way; stems snapped, petals everywhere, small bushes trampled. Rodney opened the door of a big shed, painted a lurid green. “There they are,” he said.
Inside, the beams of sunlight illuminated the floating dust and there was a sharp tang of creosote. Stacked in four tall piles were the Argos catalogs; stained, creased, but somehow very … ordinary.
“Yes, well,” I said vaguely. Rodney and his wife looked at me and I tried hard not to grin. “Yes, indeed.”
On a whim, I picked one off the top of the pile and asked if I could take it. They both said yes, with some delight. I suppose they thought I was going to rush down to Campbell Square police station and hand it over to their Forensics department.
I said my goodbyes, got back to the car and threw the catalog onto the back seat. What had made me take it? Was I expecting it to reveal the mysteries of the Universe?
Looking back, though, it did come in useful. My wife used it to order an exercise bike a few days afterwards.
The story made an ace filler. I’ve always been pleased when I can get my hands on a good special, because you can let the imagination loose and slap the corny lines and the puns in – a bit of comic relief for the reader. Lovely photo, as well; Rodney ducking in mock terror while his wife held an Argos catalog over his head.
Nearly ten days later, I saw Rodney MacLean again. Her rang me at the Star, asking for me by name, and told me that something else bizarre had happened to him. I made an appointment for him to come in the next day.
In the morning I met a couple of old dears for a fluff piece about their diamond wedding, and after lunch, at three o’clock, Rodney turned up. Reception gave me a buzz and I rushed down to greet him, then took him up to the interview room to talk things over.
“It was another shower,” he said. Rodney had a slack sort of mouth, and when he wasn’t smiling or talking, it made him look very tired.
“More Argos catalogs?” I asked.
“No, something different this time.” He reached inside the Tesco plastic carrier bag he’d brought with him and produced a slim, gaudily colored magazine. He passed it to me.
NUKE FOR JESUS! the magazine’s title declared, in hot crimson letters above a picture of a cross, superimposed over the planet Earth. I flicked through it briefly. It claimed to be the monthly international newsletter of the Inspirational Congregation of the One True God. Some loony cult from the States, no doubt. Its contents seemed to link current affairs to events prophesied in the Scriptures. I had seen it before, distributed free from corner shop newsagents.
“Did these … magazines … fall on your house?”
Rodney took a deep breath. “Well, I know this sounds barmy but the shower actually took place inside the house.”
“You mean they came through the window?”
“No, they … appeared in mid-air before our eyes, then fell to the floor.”
“Mr. MacLean, that’s impossible,” I said, a little curtly.
“I know it’s impossible!” His head jerked up as emotion flared behind his metal-framed spectacles. “I know that. But I saw it happen, and so did my wife and Eamonn, our son. If we can’t believe the evidence of our own senses, then what can we believe?”
Falteringly, Rodney told me how it happened. In the early evening on Sunday, Rodney had – rather ironically – just switched off the TV because it was the time when religious programs filled every channel. Jackie was in the same room, playing with their son, when a NUKE FOR JESUS! magazine fell, spreading its pages open at Rodney’s feet. He looked at it, then looked at his wife – then the magazines began to fall hard from every part of the ceiling for the next five minutes, making painful jabs on the body where they fell.
“Who have you talked to about this,” I asked, “apart from your immediate family and friends?”
TO BE CONTINUED
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NYPD Lieutenant Luke Cambridge reached out of the car window, slapped the magnetically mounted signal light onto the roof of the car, and gunned the motor. The ’74 Buick shot down Columbus Avenue, headlights and howling siren shattering the night.
“Hey Lootenant,” Detective Ray Carlini called from the back. “Why ain’t we goin’ down Fifth Avenue?”
Cambridge peered ahead, his hands on the wheel. He had to be even more alert than ever; with the electricity out across the whole of Manhattan, there were no streetlights. Trash, broken glass, boxes of all sizes had been strewn across the road, and Cambridge was constantly watching for anyone who might run out in front of the car.
“Got reports that a couple of Over-Heroes are slugging it out with someone on that side of Central Park,” Cambridge said, his eyes not leaving the road. “Sounds like the Starfish going up against Black Mamba again. We can’t go through Yorkville so we’re gonna cut down Columbus Avenue then hang a left at West 34th Street.”
“Yeah, well, I kinda figure the Empire State is too big to miss, Luke,” said Detective Levitt, from the front passenger seat. “Let’s just do the job and get out, I got places to be.”
Luke glanced at his second-in-command. “What’s eating you, Gene?”
“You know my ma and pa run an antique shop over on the East Side. I’m getting worried.”
“They got guns?”
“You bet they have. I took my old man out last year and bought one for him. Got a Smith and Wesson.”
“Nice gun,” Gonzalez said from the back of the car, sitting next to Carlini. “But you ask me, you oughtta get him a shotgun. Not many hoods argue with a shotgun.”
Reni Gonzalez knew what he was talking about. The stocky Peurto Rican’s father had been a gunsmith in St. Louis, and the son had worked in the family shop before he joined the force.
“Yeah, well,” Levitt said. “I’ll tell him next time. We always got room for more guns.”
“They’ll be okay,” Cambridge said. “Your pa’s a good man, he knows how to keep cool when we got shit like this going on.”
“Keep cool?” Carlini wound the car window down even further. “I sure wish we could.”
The heat all that week had been oppressive. Middle of July, 1977. New York City had stewed, locked down under storm clouds, a storm that now blotted out the moon and threatened to unleash its inner fury.
“Nobody knows what’s gonna happen tonight, all bets are off,” Carlini said. “Every man’s gotta stand up and protect its own property. May be some crazy hophead outside lookin’ for some cash out the till, lookin’ to lift some free sneakers, it’s just the luck of the drawer.”
“Luck ain’t got nothin’ to do with it,” answered Gonzalez. “You ask any three-footed rabbit about luck and see where it gets you. If you got the most frackin’ guns in the neighborhood, you don’t need luck.”
“Come on guys, knock it off.” Levitt took off his trilby hat, produced a big handkerchief and mopped his brow with it, smoothing bck his locks of graying hair. “You’re not making me feel any easier. Dammit! I wasn’t expecting this shit on a hot summer night.”
“Nobody was, Gene,” said Cambridge. “Nobody was.”
The Empire State loomed up ahead. It should have been a ground-to-sky Modernist canvas, a geometric neon grid of colors flashing and winking in the night; but like all the Manhattan skyscrapers tonight the straight, majestic lines of its bulk were simple, somber line drawings in the ebony black void of the sky.
“A Ten-Seventy One,” muttered Levitt irritably, fanning himself with his handkerchief. “We got ourselves a goddamn Ten-Seventy One.”
Ten-Seventy One; the NYPD code for a city-wide emergency. What every cop hoped he would never live to hear.
At 8:37 PM, the electrical substations across Manhattan had failed, and everything had ground to a halt. There was no electrical power in New York City, apart from southern Queens and parts of the Rockaways. The TV news shows had already put it down to lightning strikes and were calling it an “act of God”.
Carlini leant forward in his seat. “What was it like back in ’65, Lootenant?”
They had reached the turnoff into West 34th Street. Cambridge saw his own frown in the windshield glass. “Things were different,” he said.
November, 1965. JFK voted back in for a second term. Talks with the Soviets had reached some major concessions. Crime rates were still going down thanks to the Over-Heroes and E.A.G.L.E. operations in Vietnam had rooted out the worst of the rebels. The UN-supervised construction of Moonbase One was on schedule.
All of that was before the assassinations of Luther King, Nixon, Dylan. All of that was before the explosion that took Philadelphia off the map.
“Things were more peaceful,” Cambridge said. “People co-operated. To tell you the truth, with the lights out, most people had a ball.”
“Makes you wonder what happened,” said Levitt.
“They tried to turn the USA into Utopia, but they turned it into a crock of shit. That’s what happened,” said Carlini.
He had just moved into a new house in Brooklyn with Pam and their son Melvin – Rick hadn’t been born yet. When the lights failed they thought a fuse had blown, until the heard the neighbors out in the street talking to each other. Cambridge had gone outside with his wife and kids, and the whole of the street got together with candles, chairs, tables, barbeque grills and cooler boxes full of beer to have an impromptu party. Nobody had really cared that Luke and his family were pretty much the only African-American family in the street.
Watching the Over-Heroes light up the sky, dazzling like fireworks, their capes fluttering like flags in the wind. Soldier Blue. Overman. The Future Five. Gauntlet. Giant-Killer. The Morrigan. Things had been so simpler then. The public had expected them to watch over the city like modern day gods. Utopia, they had said. They would lead us to Utopia.
Now here he was, in another blackout, with a cold hard feeling in his gut that told him there would be no party tonight.
Movement up ahead. Dark, running figures bolted out of a doorway on the left and ran across the road. Cambridge swerved the car, pumped the horn and quickly looked back; the open doorway was a jewelry store. Just been looted.
“Go back and bust them?”
“No time,” snarled Cambridge. “That was a priority call we got from the Chief.”
As they approached the concourse in front of the skyscraper’s main entrance, Cambridge saw the flashing red lights of the patrol cars, fire trucks and ambulances forming a cordon across the street. The Buick screeched to a halt and the four cops bundled out. The second car stopped right behind them, and Rizzo, Scarfe, Broadhurst and Cochese got out to joint the esr of their squad.
“Jesus Christ, Cochese,” said Carlini, “what’s up with your necktie? It looks like you’ve just barfed.”
Cochese looked down at the wide kipper of swirling paisley patterns over his gut. “Birthday present from the wife.”
“Her next birthday, you get her a dog and a white stick.”
“Listen up,” said Cambridge. “Scarfe and Cochese, you stay here and secure the perimeter, make sure no reporters get through.”
“Can’t hear you Lootenant, that tie’s too loud.”
“Fuck you, Carlini!”
“Okay, guys, knock it off. We got a long night ahead.”
Cambridge jogged up the stone steps to the lobby, his leather jacket flapping in the sudden hot breeze.
The Empire State Building reared above him. He knew it well; he’s been here a few times as a kid, and after starting a family, he and Pam had taken Melvin twice. Promised to take Rick when he was old enough.
Now, the jewel in Manhattan’s crown was dark and silent, as somber as a tower in a fairy tale.
The eight cops switched on their flashlights as they entered the lobby, and waved the beams of light ahead to take in the situation. In the strange half-light, the atrium that rose three floors to the high tiled ceiling looked more like a cathedral. In front of them, past the ticket office and the velvet rope railings and the scale model of the building in its glass case, Cambridge and his men saw a small group of figures near the unmoving escalators, standing and sitting and talking in low, echoing voices.
“Hey.” A uniformed figure strode towards them, a helmet under his arm, boots ringing on the marble floor. Cambridge held up the flashlight to see a man in a fire-fighter’s uniform, and recognized his short blond hair and piercing blue eyes.
“Hey, can you get that torch out of my eyes?”
Cambridge swung the beam away and introduced him and his men.
“O’Hallorhan, Captain of Ladder 36 Unit,” the fireman said.
“So what’s the situation, Captain?”
“The situation is, we don’t know what the situation is. All the elevators are out of action, and we have at least a dozen people trapped inside some of the cars. There were about fifty people still on the two observation decks when the power cut off. Some of them are walking down, but some of them aren’t – they don’t feel healthy enough to handle it, and they’re rather stay put ‘till the power comes back on.”
When it comes back on, said a little voice in Cambridge’s head, and how long’s that gonna be?
“That’s bad enough, but there’s something else going on,” continued O’Hallorhan. “Something weird. The civilians who’s walked down from the observation decks so far said they saw some kind of smoke in the stairwells – but none of the fire alarms or sprinklers have gone off, and nobody’s seen any flames, from inside the building or outside. I sent a crew of five men up the east staircase to take a look.”
“What did they say?” asked Cambridge.
There was an elusive, worried look in O’Hallorhan’s eyes. “They haven’t reported back yet. I’ve tried getting through on the radio, but there’s nothing but static.”
“Goddamn storm coming up,” muttered Carlini.
“You sure you’re not jerkin’ my chain?”
O’Hallorhan studied Cambridge’s face. “Sure, I’m jerkin’ your chain. The whole city’s out of power and I’ve got nothing better to do than stand here and make up fairy stories.”
“Okay, okay. I’m on it.”
Levitt got into a discussion with O’Hallorhan about the technical aspects of opening the elevator cars, and Cambridge swung his flashlight beam around the lobby, taking stock. The scared voices of the rubes who’d already been rescued, their footsteps, everything echoed and played tricks with the ears. The shields and plaques on the wall glittered metallically like the cogs of a giant machine.
The walkie-talkie clipped to his jacket crackled into life.
“Luke, do you copy?” It was Captain Sullivan’s voice, fighting to be heard over waves of static hissing and spitting.
“Luke, are you on site?”
“No, chief, I’m sitting at home with my thumb up my ass.”
“Copy that, wise guy. Stay put and keep me informed of the situation.”
“Chief, I got a bad feeling about this.”
The noise was either a cough or more static. “Since when have you ever had a good feeling?”
“But Chief, this is something the Fire Service can handle, not Homicide. We’ve got a city going crazy and with all due respect, there are other places we need to be right now.”
“Negative, Luke. Shut up and listen. I’ve had a call from the Mayor’s office. E.A.G.L.E is sending an incident squad and I’m ordering you to assist in forensic and other scientific observation. They have declared a Code Resurgam situation. Repeat: Resurgam. ETA ten minutes from now … have reports from other …”
“Am I in goddamn charge or not?” Cambridge yelled, but it was too late. Sullivan’s words had dissolved in static. He lifted his flashlight, and illuminated the faces of the other three cops, watching him.
“What’s goin’ on, Lootenant?”
“E.A.G.L.E are sending in a team and we’re supposed to fetch and carry for them.”
“Bull! Shit! Like hell we are.”
“Gene,” said Cambridge, “you ever heard of a Code Resurgam?”
“Means diddley squat to me.”
“Means nothing to me, too.”
“What the hell’s goin’ on, Lootenant?”
Cambridge didn’t answer, but turned back to look at the oblong of chiaruscuro sky framed in the open doorway. As he watched, a fork of jagged lightning danced for a split-second above the city, then was gone.
“Resurgam …” he whispered.
TO BE CONTINUED IN
“THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO”
Interested? You might also be interested in this book.
For part 1, go to the main menu and scroll down.
The man in front was tall, with short sandy hair brushed to the side, wearing heavy black NHS spectacles with straight sidebars. The second stranger held the blaster pointed loosely at Jimmy’s solar plexus as the third, a sharp-faced balding man with piercing eyes, went through Jimmy’s pockets and wallet. Jimmy looked over their suits and ties as they frisked him. They didn’t stink of cheap tobacco, so they probably weren’t plain-clothes coppers. Their threads marked them out more like civil servants; draped shoulders, wide lapels, button-down collar and crocodile zip boots. Jimmy narrowed his eyes, wondering how he should play it.
The balding man held up Jimmy’s PI card. “He’s a gumshoe.”
“Is he really?” The man with glasses holstered the ray gun and stepped closer. The three men were almost a head taller than Jimmy, and he was starting to feel quite intimidated.
“My name,” said the man with glasses, “is Harry Nightingale.” He had a broad Cockney accent and sounded quite a bit like the blokes Jimmy rubbed shoulders with down the local pub.
“These are my associates, Mr. Callum and Mr. Quill.” They both had eyes like bruisers, but their voices had more of an Oxbridge drawl … which Jimmy would expect, if they were who he thought they were.
“Are you from the government?” Jimmy asked.
“We’re from the Section,” Callum said.
“The Section that doesn’t have a name,” Nightingale said with a crafty smile. He turned away and looked down at the untidy mess of papers on Primble’s desk. Quill walked over to the smoking man-shaped scorch mark on the back wall, his face mildly entertained, as if he was looking at a Pop Art exhibit in a gallery.
“I think you’d better tell us what you’re doing here,” Callum said.
Jimmy didn’t have much to tell, just the truth – that Georgie had hired him to find her father.
“Dr. Radcliffe? Yes, we’re aware that he suddenly dropped out of sight. He was working on something rather … sensitive.”
“Which is why you turned up here instead of the rozzers?”
“Clever boy.” Nightingale put his attaché case on the desk, flipped the lid up and took out a small electronic device. It looked like a metal wand with a plastic flex connecting it to a small box with glass dials on the front. He joined Quill at the back wall, and waved the device carefully over the burns, from the black head-shape downwards. The box began to click quietly and Jimmy realized it was a Geiger counter.
“Do you know anything,” Nightingale asked while he worked, “about the British Venusian Society?”
Jimmy frowned. “Aren’t they that bunch of nutters who say they talk to space aliens? No, I’m not mixed up with them. I’m not that daft.”
“Not that rich, either.” Callum looked disparagingly at Jimmy’s suit. “The BVS have a rather exclusive membership.”
“Oi! I had this suit made to measure, you know.”
“Never mind the quality,” said Nightingale, putting away the Geiger counter. “Feel the width.”
“The lad doesn’t know anything, Harry,” said Callum.
Nightingale turned and stared out of the huge window. Through the transparent dome, the silver torpedo shape of a Pan Am Shuttle gleamed in the distance as it began its journey to the Moon. The man seemed to be contemplating something.
“All right, son, you can clear off,” he suddenly told Jimmy. “We’ll handle the Radcliffe case from here. If I were you, I’d apologize to Georgina, and give her the money back.”
“I’ve got bills to pay!” Jimmy protested.
Callum sighed and handed him a business card. “Call this number, and your expenses so far will be reimbursed.”
“We don’t need to tell you,” Nightingale said softly, “not to talk about this with anyone.”
“No. But I suppose you’ll do it anyway.”
“Just like in the War, but you’re too young to remember – ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships’. These days they’re spaceships, but the principle’s the same. Goodbye, Mr. Diamond.”
Floating on his Vespa above the Isle of Dogs, eating greasy fish’n’chips out of yesterday’s newspaper. Jimmy couldn’t help feeling a little star-struck. He had no doubt what had happened; he’d just had a brush with MI5.
“The name is Bond,” he drawled to himself. “James Bond.”
Jimmy had read most of the Ian Fleming novels at school, and when they started coming out as films in 1961, he’d gone to see them at the Hammersmith Empire. Casino Royale …Live and Let Die … Moonraker … yeah, James Bond was another Mod icon – nice suits, cool attitude, and Patrick McGoohan was pretty solid in the part.
He threw the chip paper away and flew off. Beneath him, a patrolling litter-bot blasted the paper to ashes with an plasma charge. On his way back to Tottenham Court Road, he passed by an airbus full of Moon-stewardesses wearing silver miniskirts and purple wigs, on their way to Gatwick Spaceport, and gave them a cheery wave.
Back in his office, he refueled his Vespa from the rooftop battery charger and refueled his brain with double-strength espresso to get it working at its optimum ‘sneaky’ level. He activated the robo-finder function in his filing cabinet and set the mechanical claw to retrieve the index card for Peeping Tom.
Everyone called him that because Tom had never told anyone what his real surname was. He traded under the name of Thomas, with a studio over at Princes Place, and left it at that. Jimmy had called him Tommy the Lens for a while but it made him sound like a bloody Welshman. So the Carnaby Street set called him Peeping Tom – but not to his face.
The videophone screen crackled into life and Tom’s sharp, lean face snapped into view. Today he was sporting a bottle-green cashmere polo-neck and a French crop haircut – and looked, as always, severely pissed off.
“Hey, Jimmy!” he shouted, his voice crackling from the speaker. “Listen, I’ve got a job on, and I’ve got five models going cold in the back room.”
“You lucky bastard.”
“Not that lucky, mate, they won’t smile. I think they’ve forgotten what a smile is. So what’d you want, then?”
“Do you know anything about the British Venusian Society?’
“I know they’re a bunch of rich nutters, and that’s about it. What’s up, Jimmy? You want to trade in your crappy Vespa for one of their UFOs?”
“Well, I was thinking you’ve got an assistant, Isobel, right? And her uncle’s one of those egg-heads or something.”
“Yeah, sure. He’s a big noise in the world of cybernetics or whatever they call it.”
“He’s not a member of the BVS, is he?”
Tom sniffed. “Don’t think so. The old boy’s got more common sense.”
“Listen, could you spare Isobel for a couple of days? I need someone to take shots of the BVS offices in Knightsbridge. See who goes in and out, know what I mean?”
“Surveillance job, eh? She’d like that. And she needs the money because she ‘s just been kicked out of her studio for not paying the rent. I could spare her, I guess, all I’ve got on after this is the shoot at the Switched On Gallery, Bond Street…. Yeah, okay. Two days? I can’t give you a discount this time, mate.”
“No problem, I’ll even throw in a knicker to say thanks.”
Tom cut the connection without ceremony and Jimmy slipped his Parka back on, getting ready to do the rounds.
A PI needed sources of information from all over the place, and as Jimmy spent most of his time working on keeping his contacts and getting more. The drinking clubs of Soho had more informative gossip than a year’s worth of mags and newspapers. Even the tailors – all the salesmen on Carnaby Street knew each other, and they hung out at the same espresso palaces.
Jimmy started out at Harry’s Café on the Camden Road, where he met Brenda from the Too Much boutique. Then he flew over to the posh joints in Soho; Lederer’s where they sold hydroponic snacks and continental coffee in tall glasses, and the Belgravia gaff with the stupid name of The Last Days Of Pompeii, where advertising types sipped cappuccinos and nibbled cream cheese and gherkin sandwiches.
By the time the sun went down, Jimmy had a major coffee buzz and a few interesting bits and pieces on the British Venusian Society.
There were some pretty swinging clubs in London; Birdland, the Scotch, the Scene and the Marquee – but the hottest one, as far as Jimmy was concerned, was the Inferno in Covent Garden. And not because of its name, either.
When Jimmy got through the doors the DJ was belting out “Mama Julie” by Terry and Jerry. Jimmy swaggered across the dance floor to the small crowd of blokes in parkas and pork pie hats propping up the bar. He bumped into some young geezer in full Navy drag trying to dance, looking really pissed off about something. “Ain’t no law against standing here, is there?” the guy snarled at him.
“Hello, sailor,” Jimmy snarled back and flicked him the two-fingeed salute.
The mates at the bar, Chaz, Tinny, Cosmo, and Maisie – who had a bit of a crush on Jimmy – were all swigging bottles of Nukey Brown Ale and shouting at each other above the music.
“All right, Jimmy?”
“Yeah, not bad. What’s up, Chaz?”
“Good news, mate, I’m getting the scooter out of the garage. Then I can race you on that flyin’ rust-bucket of yours, mate!”
“Here, Jimmy.” Cosmo thrust a bottle of Nukey Brown Ale into his hands and leant in close. “You won’t believe what Tinny’s done now.”
Tinny, leaning back against the bar, looked like he’d got the hump but Jimmy knew he was enjoying the attention.
“He met this dodgy geezer in the Wellington up north, right? This guy was selling Blues so Tinny bought a quid’s worth.”
“And they weren’t Blues?”
“Were they fragg! They’re food pills, mate, for astronauts! E-rations and concen-tabs!”
“They must have been part of a shipment for Moon Zero Two!”
Even though he was a quid worse off, Tinny couldn’t help laughing with the rest. Jimmy gave the embarrassed Mod a thump on the shoulder. “Well, you’ll be all right if you feel a bit peckish, won’t ya? You’ll have a your own Sunday roast in a pill!”
“So what you up to Jimmy?”
“Taping more videophone calls from dirty old men to their tarts?”
“Nah.” Jimmy drew himself up to his full five feet six inches and put on a faxe Oxbridge accent. “I ham currently on the trail of han himportant missing scientist, old boy.”
Phil let rip with a massive belch. “Like fragg you are.”
“Nah, straight up. I’ve been hired by his daughter, yeah? And she’s a right bit of crumpet!”
“Get in there, mate!”
“Mama Julie” swerved into “Rukumbine” by Shenley Duffus on the turntables, and the rude boys and fly girls on the dance floor started skanking away like mad.
“Listen,” Maisie leaned over to shout into Jimmy’s ear over the Blue-Beat. “I want to ask you a favor, right? There’s this bloke I know at work called Jamie. Bit of a tosser, but he’s all right when you get to know him. He hasn’t got a girlfriend, right? He keeps bending my ear about can I fix him up with someone.”
“Well, bring him down here, then.” The DJ put on “Louie Louie” by The Kingsmen and Jimmy started bopping up and down, itching to get on the dance floor.
“Yeah, but he says he doesn’t like clubs, does he? He wants to know some good pick-up lines.”
“So what he wants to know is, what’s the knack, and how to get it? He sounds like a right po-“
The words were drowned out by an almighty crash and a few frightened shouts and screams from the front door. Jimmy and his mates turned to look.
Framed in the doorway by the light coming in from the cloakroom were half a dozen Rockers in full leather gear and boots, their jackets decorated with hammer and sickle. On their heads they wore not the spiky pickelhaube helmets that the other gangs favored, but Cossack-style fur urshankas.
“Oh, fragg,” Jimmy blurted out. Red Fred and the Tovaricks. Self-styled Communist trouble-makers and the worst Rocker gang in London. Their leader, Red Fred, stepped out and bellowed above the music.
“Where the fragg is Jimmy Diamond?”
“Let’s fraggin’ ‘ave ‘em!” spat Chaz, putting his Nukie Brown down on the bar.
“Nah, ‘ang on, mate.” Tinny had gone pale. “Jimmy, it’s the whole gang. We’d better scarper.”
Jimmy stood, clenching his fists, torn between the urge for a rumble and the need for self-preservation. Luckily, the choice was taken out of his hands. Two of the club bouncers stepped forward, squat little machines like potato-guns in their arms. They gave off little ‘pops’ that Jimmy could hardly hear above the guitar and organ of the Kingsmen, but they fired white slugs that splashed and splattered against the Rockers’ leather jackets. The slugs swelled outwards, expanding into creamy foam that spread around the Rockers’ arms and legs, hardening as it grew.
“Oh, fragg! Foamers!”
“Get out and stay out!” the bouncers yelled as they dragged the immobile Rockers out through the cloakrooms.
Jimmy and his mates cheered and ordered another round of beers. “Why do those tossers hate you so much, anyway?” Dave asked.
“Something happened at Brighton and they’ve never forgiven me,” Jimmy said, and took a swig from the bottle. “I’ll tell ya some other time.”
TO BE CONTINUED IN “THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO” … COMING IN OCTOBER 2013!
This is an excerpt from a story in “The Futurist Manifesto”, coming from Excalibur Books in October 2013.
Jimmy Diamond leaped onto his Vespa GX2000 scooter, kicked the antigrav engine into life, and rose into the skies above Hammersmith. He straightened his skinny tie, wiped the last remnants of egg and bacon from his chin, and pushed in the punch-card that gave him access to the DAIR (Driver and Aid Information and Routing) master computer. A light flashed above the slot, and the Vespa ascended, easing into the traffic of the main airlane.
He picked up speed and turned onto the Central airline that took him cruising over the Bayswater Road. Soon, through the clear morning air, he could see the aerocabs and buses zipping about high above the rooftops, around the Churchill Monument and the Monico Tower with its rooftop crane that reminded everyone of a huge propeller, and near the municipal airship moored to the Post Office Tower. Jimmy’s parka fluttered in the breeze, and the muted sun glimmered though his Wayfarer sunglasses.
It was a great day to be a Mod.
He’d bought the Vespa earlier that year, and it was his most prized possession. Italian-made, a light but sturdy frame of pressed steel painted in red and white, the front shield curving up to the headlamp and handlebars. It could drive conventionally on the ground with the two wheels and new Dunlop tires at a top speed of 45mph, but airborne it could fly at 75 mph – the speed limit decided not by wind resistance, but the DAIR regulations hardwired into every metropolitan vehicle. The anti-grav generator was directly underneath the leather seat, and controlled by the tiny dashboard just under the handlebars. Jimmy’s pride and joy, customized by the dozen or so mirrors fastened to the handlebars and the Union Jack he hung from the back aerial when he flew down to Brighton on weekends.
The scooter dropped out of the fast lane into the transition zone as Jimmy neared Tottenham Court Road and his awaiting office. He flicked the butt of his Woodbine away, and took a big lungful of fresh air before he kicked the Vespa into parking mode. Below him, on the rooftop aeropad, the cars of the building’s occupants were neatly parked inside the painted white lines, and Jimmy lowered his Vespa skillfully into the space reserved for scooters.
As he was switching off the engine, the door to the main stairwell opened and a young colored boy rushed onto the roof. He was clad in a silver jumpsuit and goldfish-bowl helmet, and pointed his toy ray-pistol right at Jimmy. “You’re a goddamn Commie!” he shouted. “Zap! Zap! Zap!”
Jimmy reeled back and clutched his heart. “Nyet! Nyet! Dosvedanya Vodka Sputnik!” he yelled in fake agony.
Right behind the boy was Mr. Gill, the building’s landlord, looking natty in his two-tone Nehru jacket and matching turban. He ushered his boy back down the stairs and smiled an apology.
“Now then Mr. Jimmy, if I could have a word about the office rent …”
Sure enough, every Monday, regular as clockwork. Jimmy had the bees-and-honey ready this time. He peeled a roll of notes out of his wallet and handed over a Lady Godiva. “I’ll have the rest by the end of the week, Mr. Gill, I promise.”
“Well, it would be nice if you didn’t have to leave everything until the last minute, isn’t it? I have overheads, Mr. Jimmy. I have a business and a family. Overheads.”
Finally getting away, Jimmy ran down the two flights of stairs and paused outside his office door to unlock it. He looked again at the sign stenciled on the vitrolite window;
Then he was inside.
This was Jimmy’s office, crammed in on the fifth floor between an insurance investigator and an employment agency. Two green filing cabinets on the back wall on either side of a wall-mounted TV screen (for the Satnews channels), two white metal cupboards on the left side, a second-hand desk of genuine wood facing the door, and his Elektra espresso maker next to the window and the Venetian blinds.
Plus the bottle of Jameson’s and the jazz mags in the bottom drawer.
He crossed the short space to the back wall, moved around his small second-hand desk, and opened the windows, letting the fusty air out and the city summer smells in. He switched on the machine and it started bubbling away to itself. He put two packets of Embassy Filters and a copy of the Daily Express on the desk and stared out through the Venetian blinds. It was that sort of July morning that made the aluminum parts of his coffee machine glow like they were alive.
He was just sipping the second espresso of the day when a shadow fell upon the window. A distinctly feminine shadow, followed by a knock.
Usually, Jimmy’s clients were old geezers in tweed jackets and balding hair pasted across their bony skulls with smelly Brylcreem, or frustrated housewives in frumpy John Lewis coats. Evidence of infidelity and serving divorce papers, that was Jimmy’s bread and butter. He kept telling himself that one day, he’d have some gorgeous bit of stuff come in with a handbag full of cash and a mysterious mission. Especially now, because he’d run out of active cases at the end of last week.
Today was his lucky day.
She wore an Op Art print linen dress from Tuffin and Foale, the sort of thing every dolly bird on the King’s Road was sporting this summer. A really sweet face with the latest Mary Quant sheen, fake lashes making her eyes look huge. Dark hair cut in a shiny Sasson bob. In a word: fraggin’ gorgeous.
In a flash Jimmy took his Chelsea boots off the desk and stood up. “Do take a seat, Miss …?”
“Radcliffe. Georgina Radcliffe.” She stood in the middle of the office, gazing around her in curiosity. “Are you Jimmy Diamond?” she said, in a tone of vague disappointment.
“That’s what it says on the door,” he said with a cocky grin. Easy on the jokes, he told himself. The married birds like to have a laugh to relax them but the younger ones – you have to fight to get them to take you seriously.
“I heard about from you from my uncle, Victor. He said you helped him out in Blackpool last year.”
“Oh yeah, I remember him! Come in and make yourself comfortable.”
“You look a bit young to run a detective agency,” she said, fluttering her eyelashes like an Italian starlet. She might have looked Kensington, but her accent was pure Wembley. “How old are you? Twenty-one?”
“Yeah,” said Jimmy defensively, trying to keep his posh voice from slipping. “Well, no. I’m twenty, actually. A little bit older than you, by the looks of it. And it doesn’t matter how old I am because I’ve got the experience and I’ve got the brains, haven’t I? I’ve got it up ‘ere.”
And you’ve got it down there, he thought, looking at the nice pair of Eartha Kitts filling out the top of her minidress.
“Have you got references, or something?”
Jimmy pointed to the framed licensing certificates on the walls.
“Well, that’s all right, I suppose, but I don’t know anything about private eyes. What are your charges like?”
“It depends what I’m employed to do, innit? Listen, er, why don’t you sit down, Miss Radcliffe?”
“You can call me Georgie if you like.” She lowered herself into the second-hand Magistretti chair and fidgeted with her handbag. “Missing persons.”
Jimmy nodded in sympathy. “Have you contacted the police?”
“Yes, and they said it’s too soon to do anything. They said I should …”
“Wait for twenty-four hours before filing a crime report, yeah, I know. That’s what they always say, but I can appreciate you don’t want to wait. Okay, it’s two pounds a day, plus expenses, and I’ll get to work on your case right away.”
“Well, that’s a bit steep, innit! You must be raking it in.”
“Oh no I ain’t, doll – er, Georgie,” Jimmy said, trying to get back on the right foot. “I got overheads, see? And this is how I make a living.”
“Are you the only person who works here?”
“Yeah. That’s me, all on me Jack Jones. I employ other people – experts, like – on what you might call a freelance basis.”
“Oh, freelance basis! You do sound la-de-da, don’t you? How much do you want up front?”
“Well …” Jimmy gave her the nicest smile he could manage. “Look, just tell me what it’s all about, yeah? We can work out the small print later.”
She tightened her grip on her handbag, hesitating, a catch in her throat. “My father didn’t come home last night,” she said.
Jimmy sat back and breathed out. He was most likely looking at marital infidelity. The poor girl’s dad had run off to Torquay with his secretary or some other bit on the side, so he was in for a week of taking dirty pictures on the pier. Well, at least the weather was nice for it.
“Tell me more,” Jimmy said, reaching over to switch on the reel-to-reel autorecorder.
Georgie turned the handbag over in her lap with her long-fingernailed hands and looked at him with a gleam in her eyes. “Mum passed away a few years ago, so it’s just the three of us, me, Dad and my younger sister Rita. Dad’s been a real brick, he takes care of us, and he’s so dedicated to his work. He wouldn’t just go off somewhere without telling us first.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a scientist. He’s doing research over at the Docklands Science Park.”
That made Jimmy sit up and take notice. The DSP was an exclusive place, full of Oxbridge boffins and public school throbbing skulls. Dr. Radcliffe was either a genius or loaded – probably both.
“You leave it to me,” Jimmy said, looking as businesslike as he could. “I’ll bring your father back to you, no problem.”
Georgie sniffed and fished a crumpled roll of one-pound notes from her handbag. “You’d better,” she said, “I took this out of our life savings.”
The Docklands Science Park was the latest product of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s “white-hot technological revolution”. It sat in what used to be the West India Docks over at Tower Hamlets, and was the place where university science dapartments and private corporations did research on stuff that gave Jimmy a headache when he tried to read about it in the papers. Flying in from the west on the Jubilee airlane, the DSP took shape as a huge transparent dome under which a sprawling collection of smaller geodesic domes, concrete sculptures in wave-like organic forms, and plastic and steel Populuxe towers were all connected by covered walkways through ornamental gardens.
A forged aerocab punch-card could get Jimmy into most places – avoiding getting thrown out took the real work. He got through the dome’s main gates and followed the flashing neon maps along the almost-deserted avenues that showed him where Dr. Radcliffe’s office could be found. It was a self-contained high-tech lab, Georgie had said, that he shared with his research partner, Dr. Henry Primble.
Arriving at the plastisteel bubble reception area, outside the detached golf-ball shaped main lab, Jimmy got the uneasy pricking sensation that told him something was wrong.
Facing him was a standard servo-bot receptionist. It was about six feet tall and roughly humanoid, a steel column tapering down to metal blocks with tiny wheels underneath. The chest held a TV monitor with tuning knobs on either side – but the screen was showing only static. Two flexi-tube arms with pincers on their ends hung loosely down by its sides.
The cube-shaped head held a metalwork grille where a human mouth would have been, and two round, protruding camera lenses for eyes.
Jimmy coughed and stepped forward shyly. “Erm … Speedee Taxis? Someone made a booking.”
The robot didn’t speak, didn’t move, and he noticed there was no light showing in the twin camera eyes. It was totally switched off. Jimmy cautiously moved in for a closer look. He walked around the robot’s cylindrical body, and noticed something that made his skin crawl; the control unit attached to the robot’s back was almost melted into scrap. It looked like someone had fired a blaster at it and given it a right going-over.
All kinds of alarm bells started going off in Jimmy’s head.
He looked around and wondered what to do. The sky outside looked grey, even though the weather computer had slated no rain showers for today. Par for the course. If the Soviets did really want to invade the UK, all they had to do was permanently switch the master computer to ‘rainy” and the British would grumble themselves to death.
Jimmy walked out of the reception area and along the short corridor that led to the lab. On the walls were framed photographs of the usual throbbing skulls of Britain’s science world – Turing, Rutherford, Grindell-Matthews, Travers, Watkins, Brett, Crick, Watson, and a bunch of other egg-heads Jimmy didn’t recognize.
He thought of Georgie, and decided to explore further. Girls needed to be impressed – good news or bad, the job had to be done properly. The corridor ended in a walk-up ramp, and as soon as Jimmy put his size nines on the first step, he realized something was badly wrong. The sliding security doors were half-open, and wisps of black smoke were curling through the air.
Bracing himself, he slid the doors fully outwards. He coughed as puffs of greasy vapor wafted past his face. Along with the smoke was a smell far worse than any burnt toast Jimmy ever had the misfortune to make. Holding his breath, he stepped into the lab. Somewhere inside, a radio was playing; The Coasters were doing their best with Poison Ivy, but there were more than the usual pops and crackles mixed in with it, like it was a really bad reception.
Jimmy waved the smoke away, peering into every corner of the lab. It was full of benches holding glass tubes and chrome pipes and squat metallic boxes, for uses that Jimmy could only guess at. The floor was decorated with a mosaic showing an atom and the electrons whizzing around it. It was all dead scientific.
The back wall had something on it that looked slightly like mold and slightly like modern art – but it was clearly the source of the smoke hanging around the lab. As Jimmy got closer, the alarm bells started ringing in his head even louder as he realized the ‘thing’ was a huge burn mark scorched into the wall, and it was in the shape of a human. Specifically, a man with his arms raised.
Jimmy had a nasty feeling that he’d found Dr. Henry Primble. Or what was left of him.
He was just reaching for the office phone when the three blokes in suits burst through the door, carrying Vickers-Armstrong ray pistols …
TO BE CONTINUED – IN ‘THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO’
If you enjoyed this story, you might also be interested in this book.
The following excerpt is from a short story that will be published in “The Futurist Manifesto”, by Excalibur Books, October 2013.
Dulce et Decorum Est
“Halt! Who goes there?”
Captain Martin Blake pointed his revolver at the figures moving at the end of the trench.
“Don’t shoot!” came a voice. “Don’t shoot! We’re from the War Office!”
Blake kept his gun trained on the shadowy figures, their boots thudding on the duck boards of the trench, advancing into the half-light cast by the shielded electric lanterns. Blake could feel the tense silence of the soldiers behind him as they watched and waited.
The first person to advance was a tall, sandy-haired man, in a greatcoat with a Sergeant’s pips on the shoulder, and the second …
Blake stared in shock. “Good God, what’s a woman doing in No-Man’s-Land?”
She stood blinking in the night’s last shadows, her face pale, long dark hair tied back, her slender frame wrapped in an ill-fitting greatcoat.
“We’re from the Royal Engineers,” the man said, his voice urgent.
The woman stepped forward. “We’ve brought a message for you. We have papers.”
“It’s five o-clock in the morning!” Blake yelled.
The woman sounded British, and well-educated. Blake put down the accent as West Country. The man was definitely American. The man was staring at Blake and grinning. The Captain had seen quite a few men smiling in the trenches, and some laughing. It usually meant that the war had got to them, unhinged them, cut their minds loose to flap uselessly in the wind.
Blake realized that if these two were spies, and he had accidentally captured them, he’d be a hero. If they were genuine Ministry Officials, and he bungled their treatment, he’d be court-martialed.
But either of those outcomes depended on them getting back to allied lines alive …
Blake cocked his revolver as the man slowly put his left hand into his inside coat pocket and withdrew a tiny booklet and several tightly folded sheets of paper. He handed them over to Blake, who holstered his gun and quickly scanned them, turning them over while the soldiers behind him kept their rifles trained on the newcomers. It identified the newcomers as Doctor Alan Kelsey and Miss Virginia Browning; he was attached to the Royal Engineers, and his companion as a driver to the Royal Ambulance Corps.
“These are fake,” said the Captain. “The texture and color of the paper, they’re all wrong.”
“Would you be Captain Blake?”
He blinked. “Yes. Yes, I am.”
“Please, Captain Blake, we are here to help.”
“We weren’t able to request any help. We’re cut off from the Communications Trench and our radio isn’t working.”
“We have an urgent message and we have a machine that can help you.”
For the first time the man indicated the large black box he had been carrying. He set it down gingerly on a pile of sandbags. He was about to click the two brass handles open, when Blake’s fear and tension returned. He drew his revolver again and stopped him.
“Captain,” Kelsey said patiently, “this is a Mark V Ultra computing machine. We’ve brought it here because we believe you’re all in great danger.”
“Danger?” Blake coughed out the word in disbelief. “We’re in the middle of a bloody war!”
Someone at the back started to laugh, and Blake felt the situation slipping out of his hands.
“They’re spies, sir! Lock ‘em up!” This was Private Gerrard’s Welsh voice.
“He’s got a bomb!”
“They don’t sound like Germans.”
“Maybe the Angels sent them!”
Kelsey was on to the remark like a flash. “Did you say Angels?”
“Be quiet.” Blake leveled his revolver. “Both of you will be confined under close watch until we find out who you really are.”
Blake waved to Corporal Ford, and the soldier advanced. “Wait,” said Kelsey. “You must listen to us! You need to see this machine, and see what it can do …”
“And I must insist.”
Blake had turned away to give his men orders but at the tone of the woman’s voice, he looked back. The woman had a gun. A Webley self-loading pistol, by the look of it.
It was unfair. Most of the time, Blake was fighting the weaknesses of his own body. Fighting the turmoil in his bowels, the urges of his bladder; constant activity, within and without, constant stimulation. There was never a moment when he could not think, not feel; the engines within him never allowed him rest. Suffragette, he thought, his mind furiously working out possible outcomes to the situation. I see. The woman was one of those Emily Pankhurst types.
“You are not confining me anywhere,” she said.
“Madam. Put the gun down.”
Blake could tell the men behind him tensing and getting ready to fire – but none of them, he was sure, would shoot a woman; Blake himself was revolted at the very idea. He caught himself doing what he always did when stressed – holding his breath. It was like shifting gears; quieting his emotions, keeping him within range of his own sanity.
“Please listen to us,” the woman said. “We are not spies, and we do not want to hurt anyone. We are here to help.”
Blake finally drew in some of the foul, smoky air. “My men will shoot you if I order them to.”
“Your men? You don’t seem to have many of them, Captain. Where’s the rest of your squad?”
The situation was insane. Of course, the whole bloody war was insane, so Blake shouldn’t have been surprised at anything.
It was October 1917, just outside Ypres.
For the last two months, home to Blake had been this elaborate trench network, a web of trench lines, concrete pillboxes, dugouts, firing bays, and underground tunnels. Over the parapets of the trenches, and between the Allied encampment and the Germans, lay a desolate muddy wasteland strewn with rain-filled craters and barbed wire. The Germans had their firing lines higher up on the Passchendaele Ridges, closer to Ypres and overlooking the Allied encampments.
For the last few weeks, it had been like toiling in a slaughterhouse.
Three days ago, on the twelfth of October, Blake and his squad had been part of the advance on Passchendaele. Amidst the chaos of the shelling, they had been cut off from the main battalion of the British Fifth Army, and forced down here, into the salient – a zig-zag maze of assembly trenches and dead-end saps perilously close to the German lines.
“Sir!” called Tate, on sentry duty. “Movement near the German lines.”
Blake shot a furious glance at the woman and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In a way, he was grateful for the interruption. He holstered his revolver, grabbed a pair of binoculars from the shelf next to the useless field telephone and climbed up the filthy rungs of the trench ladder.
He cautiously eased his head over the parapet and into the lookout hole, protected by sandbags and steel plating.
Around him in the cold darkness before the October dawn stretched a landscape of dislocation and dismemberment, a ravaged vista of splintered trees, flattened farmhouses, and craters full of stinking water. To the right, a few yards away, squatted the massive dark lozenge of the Landship in silhouette, the ironclad vessel that was now an injured giant of clogged caterpillar tracks and useless, seized-up gears. The bombardment from heavy artillery had stopped – no, paused, for nothing ever stopped in this godforsaken war, nothing ever ended, nothing was ever silent. Blake and his men were always surrounded by noise; the crack of the carbines, the moaning of the wounded.
He saw the first flickers of morning light through shadowed coils of barbed wire. Ripped fragments of flesh and uniform hung on the wire like quavers and notes on a page of sheet music. He could see, as well as hear, the music of the trenches; the shrieks and groaning, the bangs and cracks, the whistling and hissing – and with the crimson dawn would come the shells, like drums played by a berserk god of war.
A star-shell burst overhead, white trails showering down in jerky, swooping rhythms. They were to light targets for night-snipers, and Blake put down the binoculars hastily, wary of reflections. The star-burst trails fizzled to the ground.
He was still alive.
In the light of the flare, with his bare eyes he could make out running figures, carrying backpacks and holding rifles. Most likely a wire-cutting party, getting ready for the next bombardment and raid, running across the parapet with frenetic, marionette-like movement.
Then he saw it. The gas. Curling in from the east, a rolling cloud of thick, yellow-green smoke.
A movement to his right made him start, and he saw Kelsey, climbing up on the neighboring ladder. From somewhere he had got his own pair of binoculars – the woman with the gun, maybe, and he looked nervously at Blake.
“The Hun’s got a new secret weapon,” Blake hissed. “First it was those godawful flame-throwers, then mustard gas, and now this. It’s a poison gas that … eats people. Like acid. The gas attacks have kept us here, unable to get back to the reserves.”
“And the Angels he mentioned?”
“Be quiet. I think you’ll see for yourself.”
The hideous miasma rolled along the shattered landscape. The Germans tried to outrun it, but they were too slow. The mist enveloped them. They floundered, limbs waving, their twisted, mannered figures reeling through it, the sound of their screaming voices growing more and more distant, until they disappeared.
“You told me that’s a German secret weapon,” Kelsey said.
“So why are they killing their own troops?”
Blake stared ahead, thinking. He had been wondering the same thing himself. “The wind must have changed.”
Kelsey gave a quizzical look.
“Now look. Over there.”
In No-Man’s Land, materializing at the heart of the swirling yellow cloud, was the figure that haunted Blake and his men. Shining metal, barely recognizable as a human shape. It seemed to be composed of metal surfaces, moving in small jerks, grouping together, then splitting apart and reforming, diminishing and enlarging, forming columns and lines. The armored apparition was surrounded by a brilliant glow that illuminated the churned-up mud.
“Good God,” Kelsey whispered. “Is that what you saw before?”
The figure melted back into the cloud, and Blake felt his skin crawl as he saw the opaque mist churn faster, and shift direction.
“Captain, do you see that? It’s coming this way.”
“Yes. By God, it is. We found a concrete bunker back there, and or the last couple of days we’ve been holing up during these gas attacks. It’s a room we can make air-tight.”
“Excellent. Let’s go there!”
Blake turned his head and glared. “I am giving the orders, Dr. Kelsey,” he snapped.
If you enjoyed this excerpt, you might also be interested in this book.
This forthcoming story is dedicated to my parents, Frederick William Catton and Florence Catton, and will be published in “The Futurist Manifesto”, from Excalibur Books, October 2013.
First, some background. A few years ago I wrote a story inspired by my parents’ wartime romance, entitled “The Man from Room 39″. Although it was published in “Fugue” magazine in 2010, I was kind of unhappy with it. I eventually realized that there was too much of my own brand of mysticism in it and not enough about my parents.
Therefore, I have taken the same starting point and totally reworked the story. Many details have been changed because of artistic license – my father didn’t work at St. Bart’s (he worked in a clinic in Russell Square) and my mother didn’t work in Smithfield (she was a district nurse in Willesden Green) but the heart of my parents’ experience – two people finding love amidst a city on the edge of total destruction – remains the same.
- J P Catton, June 16th, 2013.
THE ELEMENTS OF WAR
By John Paul Catton
Frankie was ten years old when his father told him about the Curse of the Pharaohs.
Francis Wilfred Cooper was born in Norwich in 1914. His earliest childhood memory was watching the men come back from France after the War – and at that time, they had called it (without irony) the War to End all Wars. His childhood was golden; that was the color that came to mind when he remembered his youth – the sunlight, the buttercups and daffodils in the back garden, the fields of wheat that he used to cycle past on his way to school, the grassy banks that he used to roll down, getting his knees grazed and his short trousers muddy. Even the air itself seemed golden.
When he was ten years old his parents took him on a day trip to the British Museum in London. He stared up in awe at the colossal stone faces of Pharaohs with exotic names such as Amenhotep and Ramesses, unreadable weathered expressions in granite, limestone, and quartzite. He goggled at the dusty bas-reliefs of unearthly gods with their heads of birds, jackals and crocodiles, and frowned at the tantalizing hieroglyphics of the Rosetta Stone.
“Howard Carter and Lord Carnavon opened the tomb of Tutankhamun in 1922,” his father had told him the day before they went to London, “and four months later, Carnavon died from a mysterious infection. By the end of 1924 six other members involved in the expedition had died. And some folks say …” Dad lowered his voice, rolling his eyes for effect. “Some do say it was the curse that did it, reaching out from the tombs of the dead …”
“Oh, give over,” his mother had chided. “You’ll scare the child.”
On the contrary, his father’s words, and the arcane masks of the ancient gods, sparked an obsession with Egyptian mythology that was to stay with Frankie for the rest of his life.
Not that Frankie said anything about that to the Medical Board when he applied to St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in London.
It was December 1940. Christmas in wartime. Holly and barbed wire. Tinsel around the rim of a tin hat. Sandbags around the church walls, and papier-mâché coffins down in the crypt.
Everyone used euphemisms and jokes to describe the Blitz because the reality was too horrific to contemplate. Every day, as Frankie cycled from his digs to St. Bart’s, he passed a fish and chip shop with wooden boards nailed up to replace the blown-out windows. Last week, there had been a hand-painted sign on the planks saying –
THANKS TO HITLER, CHIPS ARE LITTLER
This week the sign said –
BECAUSE OF HESS, THE FISH IS LESS
It made him Frankie chuckle, and that’s what it was all about, wasn’t it? You had to laugh. Because if you didn’t laugh, you’d sit down and cry and never stop crying.
Frankie had a room in a Victorian brick house at one end of a terrace of six. These were the lodgings for the lab assistants, on Bury Street, near Leadenhall Market, a short bicycle ride away from the nurse’s homes and hospital wards that nestled in the city’s bosom, a few streets away from the mighty edifice of St. Paul’s Cathedral itself. Frankie’s residence was a musty narrow room at the top of three flights of creaking wooden stairs, and it had damp in the winter and it never got enough sunlight, but to him it was paradise. Every time he swung himself onto the bed to put his feet up and stare out at the grey rooftops before he closed the blackout curtain, or listened to Tommy Handley (It’s That Man Again!) on the crackling crystal wireless, he had the same, inescapable feeling; this was where he was supposed to be.
Before the war, when Frankie met people they often asked him why had taken up a job as a pathologist’s assistant. “How can you stand it?” they asked, furrowing their brows. “Dealing with blood and death every day? Ooh, you poor dear.”
Frankie would just shrug the question off – “Well, someone’s got to do it!” – and then change the subject. Nobody wanted to hear the grisly details of what he actually did in the labs on a regular basis, and that suited Frankie fine. There was beer to be drunk and nice girls to run after.
And then there was the War – and after that, questions were superfluous. Frankie applied for the Army, but he was in a reserved occupation. He was “doing his bit”, and “helping the War Effort”. Say no more.
At the end of 1939, many of the wards at St. Bart’s had been closed down for the duration, and most of the nursing staff and patients had been evacuated to the Home Counties. A hundred and thirty three medical staff remained at the three main hospital buildings in Smithfield. One of them was Frankie.
Although the number of staff had been reduced, the number of hospital beds kept on climbing. At the beginning of December there were over sixteen hundred, with each ward having at least sixty beds. The main task of the wards that remained open was to receive air-raid casualties. Only the lower floors were in use, and the windows had been fortified with sandbags and sticky tape.
Bomb blasts had already seriously damaged the Nurses’ Home on the east side, the student’s quarters and one of the operating theaters. The windows of the Pathology Block in Giltspur Street had been completely blown out.
The basements had been converted into makeshift mortuaries, where Frankie spent most of his time. It was impossible to get a hospital gurney down the stone steps, so Frankie and the others had to carry the dead down on stretchers. Not an easy job. Especially not on the evening shifts, when the blackout was on and the bombs were falling, and the orderlies had to step carefully over the big bags of coal stacked out in the yard because there was nowhere else to put them. One night Frankie was down in the dark, amongst the dead, on his own, when he heard a dry rustling and pattering, like something slithering its way down the steps towards him. Finally summoning the courage to go and look, he found a hole had been torn in one of the bags and the lumps of coal were rolling down the steps.
If caring for the injured was heartbreaking, then dealing with the dead was a nightmare. After a big explosion, there would be very little of a human body left. A direct hit from a five-hundred pound bomb would leave just fragments of flesh, gumboots, cloth, and mangled tin hats. Once, after a factory had been bombed, the ambulance crew came back with part of a man’s leg. That was all they could find, but Frankie tagged it straight away as the night watchman because the leg still had the braid from the trousers stuck to it.
The corpses that remained intact had horrific, disfiguring injuries. Identifying the remains seemed impossible. Sometimes, when Frankie was in the mortuary and the other assistants moved quietly back and forth between the rows of the dead, it seemed to him that every wound had become a mouth. The ripped-open faces of the men, women and children were bloodied mouths stretched open, and all the pain and grief of their prematurely shortened lives was coming out in their endless, silent screams.
“I don’t know how you cope with it, old boy,” his family and friends said to him on the occasions when he had leave and went back to Norwich. “I don’t know how you stay sane.”
Frankie shrugged his shoulders and kept his own counsel. He had never, ever, told anyone the real reason of how he was able to cope.
In London, in the grim winter of 1940, there were two ways for most people to survive. One was to do your bit as a plucky Londoner, to keep calm and carry on. The other was to fall in love.
That was the reason why Frankie was waiting in the Lyon’s Corner House on the Strand just before twelve, on a chilly Friday afternoon. He usually got there early, to make sure he got a table for two in a nice cozy place, and also to indulge in his passion for reading. He wore his best suit, the one with the pockets just big enough to slip a Penguin Classic into. Today he got there in time to be shown to his favorite table in the corner, sat down, and proceeded to read while waiting. He didn’t have to wait long.
He saw her enter the café and stood up to beckon her over. She picked her way through the tables, smiling all the time.
“Hello, Frank.” She never called him Frankie.
“How are you, Liz?” He held up his copy of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. “I’ve been getting on with the book you lent me.”
“It’s good, isn’t it?”
“Well, it’s much better than I expected, to be honest. I thought it was going to be all maudlin and depressing but it’s jolly interesting. Especially the parts written from Septimus Smith’s point of view.”
She put her handbag and gas-mask case on the chair beside her and dabbed at her brow with a lace handkerchief. Elizabeth Hague, district nurse with the Smithfield Health Office, was really quite striking. She had an oval face with a clear complexion, eyes of an unusual amber color and rich, dark hair cut in the current bob and wave style. She looked adorable when she smiled, which was almost all the time; her wide mouth, her white, even teeth, her eyes crinkling merrily.
Liz had trained as a nurse in an infectious diseases hospital in Gateshead, Newcastle-on-Tyne. After her move down south, she had totally lost her Geordie accent, and now spoke in almost BBC English; northern accents, in those days, were too common for London polite society.
She had applied to work as a District Nurse in London and had been stationed in Smithfield. Frank first spoke to her at a tea dance for the medical services at the Savoy Hotel, because he’d seen her before, talking to some of the doctors and nurses at St. Bart’s and riding her bicycle around Smithfield. He had asked her for a dance, they had struck up a conversation, and then he’d invited her out to lunch, and that’s how it started. Romance was blossoming during wartime; Londoners knew they had nothing to lose except time.
Frankie took a menu from a waiter and said, “Let’s have some wine.”
Liz nodded enthusiastically. “Are you pushing the boat out?”
“Just a glass of the house white. Well, maybe two.”
He looked at the menu. “Good Lord. Beef and kidney pie.”
Her smile broadened. “I’m sure it’s still just potatoes and vegetables. Matron says that finding the kidney in a a kidney pie is a bit like finding the threepenny bit in a Christmas pudding.”
“That’s a good one. Yes, and you’d probably have more luck with the pudding.”
After they had ordered, Frankie said, “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about Virginia Woolf. I went to the Smithfield Public Library and looked her up.”
“I’m glad to hear the library’s still standing.”
“Yes, Jerry hasn’t got to that one yet. Anyway, I found out something rather interesting. Have you ever heard of the Dreadnought Hoax?”
She raised her eyebrows. “No, I haven’t.”
Frankie pulled the library book out of his briefcase and passed it over the table. “The Dreadnought Hoax, by Adrian Stephen,” Liz read from the cover. “That’s Virginia Woolf’s brother.”
“Yes. It turned out that those Bloomsbury Set people pulled a bit of a wheeze on the Royal Navy. They disguised themselves as members of the Abyssinian royal family and persuaded the captain of the HMS Dreadnought to show them around the ship.”
“Oh, they didn’t! Whatever for?”
“Apparently, it was the idea of this … let me see … Horace de Vere Cole fellow, who was famous for his public hoaxes. Look at the frontispiece; that’s the Bloomsbury lot, with boot polish and turbans and false beards. That’s Virginia Woolf on the far left.”
Liz took one look at the black-faced and robed figure, white eyes wide and staring under the turban, and burst out laughing.
“The Captain took them all round the ship,” said Frank, laughing himself now, “and they spoke in a mixture of Latin and French and made-up words. Nobody twigged to what they were doing. And to cap it all, whenever they saw something exciting, they jumped up and down and shouted “Bunga Bunga! Bunga Bunga!”
Liz was now laughing so hard Frank though she might have to make a trip to the Ladies’. “Well I never,” she said breathlessly. “Trust you to find something as queer as that.”
They tried to calm down when the first course arrived, and Frank lifted up the glass of wine as a toast. “Bunga Bunga!” he said, in a voice so loud the customers nearby turned to frown at him.
“Stop it, Frank! You’ll set me off again.” Liz visibly composed herself as she started on the potted salmon.
After spending time on their food and discussing its quality, Frankie said, “Well, anyway, how about the Christmas Party?”
Liz nodded. “Matron says that it’s all right for me to attend.” She flicked a quick glance at his smiling face. “If you dare say Bunga Bunga I shall hit you.”
“Perish the thought!”
“In fact, quite a few of the girls want to come. The Smithfield Health Authority includes St. Bart’s, so it seemed reasonable to Matron to have one big party instead of several smaller ones. Get everyone together for a jolly time.”
“Safety in numbers.”
“In a sturdy main building basement behind the sandbags, yes.”
The main courses arrived and Frankie got to work on his pie. The crust caved in under his knife and fork and beneath it lay mostly air, but there was indeed meat swimming in the gravy at the bottom, and it did look recognizably like beef.
“I’m so looking forward to Christmas Dinner,” Liz said. “Real turkey! I can’t believe that the Medical Board have come up with one.”
“A rich former patient who owns a farm, I suppose. There’s a big meeting this week where they’re going to tell us what the menu will be.”
Liz went on, “As long as it’s not Snoek fishcakes. I can’t stand that horrible fishy stuff.”
“And what about that whale meat, eh? The butcher tried to sell me some whale meat sausages the other day. He said I was lucky because they weren’t rationed. I told him I could see why they weren’t rationed. One taste of them would make me wail, I can tell you.”
“You ought to be on the stage, Frank Cooper.”
“Well, it’s funny you should say that, because I’m thinking of doing a bit of a turn for the Christmas Party.”
“What do you mean?”
“Telling a few jokes. I’ve going to ask Wheeler if I can do a Max Miller act.”
“The Cheeky Chappie?” Liz looked at him slyly. “Don’t you think that’s a bit rude?”
“Well.” He shrugged. “It’s either that or Tommy Trinder.”
“Those lucky people!”
The time flew, and Frankie called the waitress over with the sweet trolley. “Fairy cake, pear tart or stewed prunes? There’s no ice cream, and no Queen’s Pudding.”
“Fairy cake, please.”
They both chatted away, with Frankie wanting to forget the clock on the wall and the shifts they both had to take later this afternoon, but he couldn’t. He sat back and laid his pastry fork on the crumb-laden plate. “Would you like more wine?” he offered. “Live dangerously.”
Liz breathed out as a gesture to say she was full. “I think we’re living quite dangerously enough, thank you.”
“Liz … I really do appreciate you coming to the party. I just wanted to tell you that.”
“Well, I’m really looking forward to it. Cheer up the patients. It’s the old Christmas magic, you know!”
“Have you ever thought about that?” Frankie said shyly, peering at Liz to watch her reaction. “Have you ever felt that maybe there was … magic? Not conjuring tricks, but real magic, in the world?”
“With Angels dining at the Ritz, and nightingales sang in Berkely Square?” She laughed, and he laughed with her. “Frank, you are a scream. Now go on with you, we both have to get back to work.”
After waving Liz off on her bicycle and turning to walk back down the Strand, Frankie felt both happy and depressed when thinking about Christmas. His spare time to find a good present for Liz was running out. His main present, the good one, wasn’t really a Christmas gift at all, but something special he’d planned. Then he’d saved up his chocolate rations to buy her something nice, but he needed something else. Something interesting. Something that would surprise her. A book, that was it. He would find a book that she’d never read before.
Stepping over a pothole in the street, moving around the other shoppers and pedestrians walking along the Strand, feeling the heaviness of the pastry and stodgy potatoes digesting in his gut, Frankie was suddenly aware of how normal his thoughts were in this totally abnormal world. London was being torn apart on a nightly basis by a giant, faceless war machine from across the sea, and here he was daydreaming about bookshops and Christmas presents.
But then, what else could he do?
The whole of London was doing the same thing. Just as the bodies of the dead on the slabs at work had been blown into grotesque, eviscerated shapes, the lives of the living had been forced into new roles and routines. Everyone was now a ‘plucky Brit’. Everyone was now ‘helping the War Effort’. Even delivering the milk or driving a bus was a statement of personal courage.
The lives of everyone in London were taking place mechanically, like the back and forth swing of a pendulum. Like a chess game in which every move had already been decided with mathematical precision.
On a whim, Frankie took a left turn. Walking was something he loved; it helped him think and turn over things in his mind. Since he’d started going out with Liz, they had taken long weekly walks on Hyde Park or Hampstead Heath, ending with tea and scones in one of the cafes. Before he had met Liz, he had regularly taken long walks around the city center to get the tantalizing feel of it, to soak in the atmosphere, the mystery. London fascinated him with its hints of staginess, of secret knowledge hidden in the architecture of the churches and the geometry of the streets. London haunted his dreams, and he haunted its avenues and alleys, drifting through them like a Dickensian spirit.
Just a few streets away from Frankie’s place of work stood Christopher Wren’s testament to the mysterious, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The massiveness of the stone interior, the Whispering Gallery, the inscription RESURGAM – I will rise again – inscribed on the south door … they drew Frankie’s attention and resurfaced in his dreams. What did they all mean? The statues of pelicans and peacocks, the cubes, pyramids and obelisks that colluded with the more familiar crosses and angels in the churches of Smithfield and Whitechapel – what were they all for?
His perambulation today took him inevitably to one of his best-loved haunts, Cleopatra’s Needle, as if the obelisk had been magnetized and he was a tiny mote of iron that could not resist its pull. He sat down on a park bench, feeling a little flushed with the wine, the food, and his Liz’s dazzling smile, and stared at the obelisk, its stately dimension, its unreadable hieroglyphics, and the gouges and scratches left untouched after the Zeppelin raids of World War I. He breathed in the charred air deeply, looked up at the sky, around him at the coat-and-hat wearing Londoners walking slowly along the Embankment, and let his tensed-up body relax.
Even Liz. He hadn’t even told Liz why he had taken up the career of pathologist’s assistant.
But perhaps the time had come to tell someone.
Frankie stood in the Egyptian desert once more, and he knew that he was dreaming, and he knew that he had dreamed this many times before.
He could smell and almost taste the dry heat and the mummy dust on the wind. The sun glared, flooding the landscape with a miraculous light.
In the distance he could see a maw in the dunes, the entrance to a tunnel leading down beneath the sand. Frankie ran towards it in a loping, easy gait, bounding high into the air on each step. Everything was effortless in his dreams. He felt the warmth of the sun gave way to shaded cool as he entered the tomb. For he knew what it was; a tomb.
He reached out to touch the crumbling faceless statues that lined the tunnel, but their limbs had the dreamlike feel of glass beneath his fingers. A dim light shone in the darkness ahead and he grew aware of the pungent and almost overwhelming smell of incense.
One room was lit at each moment, the next room was dark but prepared. He walked from one to another, looked into the chamber that was lit, and then walked through it to the next, the chamber falling dark behind him. He did not know the rooms ahead, but he knew that he could not change them. He was the spectator of his own life, his own dreams.
Eventually he came out into a vast cavern, lined with massive statues, seated figures like the Pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings. Their heads were not human, but jackals, hawks, crocodiles, and scarab beetles.
The statue nearest to him turned its jackal head towards him, the grinding sound of stone breaking the cold, incense-laden silence.
--I am the flame that burns in every heart of man, the statue whispered, and in the core of every star.
Frankie felt the words bubble up in his mind and opened his mouth to let them out.
-I am Life, and the Giver of Life, yet therefore is the knowledge of me the knowledge of death, he replied.
TO BE CONTINUED, IN “THE FUTURIST MANIFESTO”…
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