This is an excerpt from “Jimmy Diamond and the Girl from Venus”, a short story from the “Futurist Manifesto” series of Alternative History tales by John Paul Catton. The story is available as an ‘e-short’, and is published in volume 1 of “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow”. Learn more about the world of the Futurist Manifesto here!
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 saw the aerocabs and buses zipping about high above the rooftops, around the Churchill Monument, the Monico Tower with its rooftop crane that reminded everyone of a huge propeller, and 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 newly purchased 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 short figure rushed onto the roof, clad in a silver jumpsuit and goldfish-bowl helmet, pointing his toy ray-pistol right at Jimmy. “You’re a goddamn Commie!” the figure 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 weekend air out and the city summer smells in. He switched on the espresso maker 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 open window. 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.
Jimmy hurriedly 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 nervously. “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 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?”
“Well, as they say – I’m not free, but I’m cheap! It sort of 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. “Your name isn’t really Diamond, is it?”
“No.” Jimmy loosened his collar, and quickly changed the subject. “If I could have some specifics, erm … Georgie?”
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.
“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 departments 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. Within lay a sprawling collection of smaller geodesic domes, concrete sculptures in wave-like organic forms, and plastic and steel Populuxe towers, all connected by covered walkways through ornamental gardens.
A forged aerocab punch-card could get Jimmy into most places; the real work was in avoiding getting thrown out. Once through the dome’s main gates, he 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 fibersteel 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 showed only static. Two flexi-tube arms with pincers on the 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 given it a right going-over with a ray blaster.
All kinds of alarm bells went off in Jimmy’s head.
He looked around and wondered what to do. The sky outside was grey, even though the weather computer had slated no rain showers for today. Par for the course. If the Soviets really did 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 past the reception area and along the short corridor that led to the lab. On the walls were framed photographs of the usual science superstars – Turing, Rutherford, Grindell-Matthews, Brett, Travers, Watkins, 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 with 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 rang 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, holding Vickers-Armstrong ray pistols.