Since I still have no home net access, I’ve decided to use my lunch break to post this tribute to two very different writers, since I can’t submit it to any more markets for a while.
GUYS AND DHOLES
by Andrew Hickey
With apologies to HPL and DR…
I am sat in Mindy’s one morning, about three bells, partaking of some cold borscht, which is a thing I do on occasion because the doctor has told me that beets are good for my blood pressure, and because the borscht at Mindy’s is more than somewhat tasty, when in walks Charlie Fishface.
Charlie Fishface is called Charlie Fishface because he has a face like a fish, which is all the more surprising because his mother is a great looker in her day, and for several days afterwards, come to that. It is generally assumed around Broadway that Charlie Fishface must take after his father, but this assumption cannot be proved as nobody knows who his father is.
Now, at this time I am not looking to have any dealings with Charlie Fishface, because my doctor has also told me that dealings with such guys as Charlie Fishface is liable to be so bad for my blood pressure that I will have to eat many beets indeed before it gets better. In fact, it is a known fact around Broadway that many guys who spend much time around Charlie Fishface croak all of the sudden, and so nobody’s doctor is recommending they spend much time around Charlie Fishface at that, for doctors do not like it when their patients croak all of the sudden, seeing it as an encroachment of their territory.
Now, at such an hour as three bells, many citizens are normally sitting around in Mindy’s, talking of one thing and another, and making the acquaintance of the many dolls who are normally present. But it so happens that of late Johnny Brannigan, the detective, has been making it his business to go to Mindy’s around this time of the morning, and many of the population do not enjoy the company of coppers, who are known to one and all as nothing but trouble, and so many citizens make it their business to be elsewhere at this time of the day.
However, this day, I hear that Johnny Brannigan is down with the old ’flu, and so he will not be in Mindy’s today or maybe ever in the future, which would be no bad thing at that. But it seems this news has not reached the citizenry of Broadway, and so when Charlie Fishface walks in and looks for somewhere to sit, he decides to come and sit with me, for I am known to one and all as a guy who will listen while you bare your soul, if I cannot get away fast enough, and Charlie is a man who looks like he has a problem.
“What is the problem, Charlie? ” I ask, though I do not, in truth want to know, because knowing other people’s problems is never a good idea, as they are liable to want you to fix them, and this usually involves you lending them fifty bobs, and I do not have any fifty bobs going spare, and if I did have any fifty bobs going spare I would not be lending them to Charlie Fishface.
“It’s my doll, New England Nancy,” replies Charlie, whose face is even more fishlike than normal, which is more than somewhat. “She leaves me today, and I will never see her again.”
Well, naturally, I am not surprised by this news, because nine times out of ten when a citizen has a problem it is because of a doll, and the tenth time it is because of scratch, and Charlie Fishface is never short of the do-re-mi. Personally, I am never going to shed any tears over dolls, as I consider them a commodity where supply exceeds demand, but I do not say this to Charlie Fishface, as he is such a guy as will be more than somewhat upset at this statement.
Instead I say “It is indeed a tragedy, the age in which we live, in which dolls leave guys in such a way.” Personally, if I am a doll such as New England Nancy, who has a very nice shape, I will leave Charlie Fishface too, for while Charlie Fishface does have plenty of scratch, there are many guys with scratch out there who do not have faces like fishes.
“She goes back home to Innsmouth, MA,” continues Charlie, “where she is to get married to some guy named Cool Luke. She is saving herself for him all her life, she says.”
Personally, I am surprised at this information, because there are very few dolls in this town who save themselves very long before they get spent, and if such a doll goes on to become some citizen’s ever-loving wife, all the worse for that citizen. I do not say this to Charlie, though, because my doctor tells me lead in my stomach will not help my blood pressure.
“In fact,” says Charlie, “you and I are going to Innsmouth this night, to stop this marriage, and to make Nancy my ever-loving wife.”
Now, I hear tell of this Innsmouth as a place in which the coppers take more than somewhat of an interest, as there are often found many items of a very illegal nature there, such as whisky, rum and wine, as it is a port town where many boats are arriving from Europe and France and other such places.
As I am a law-abiding citizen I have no interest in such illegal activities, except for occasionally when I am thirsty, and I am worried that should I go to this Innsmouth with Charlie Fishface, then some of the coppers might see me in such company in such a place and come to the wrong conclusions, and there is no profit in having coppers coming to wrong conclusions about you, especially if the wrong conclusions happen to be correct.
However, there is also no profit in being unfriendly towards Charlie Fishface, because Charlie Fishface is a man who values friendliness very highly, and so I do not disagree with Charlie when he says I am coming to Innsmouth with him. However, I must look somewhat upset at the prospect, as he says to me:
“Do not worry about Innsmouth. I know the coppers are there last year and arrest many guys, but the heat has died down now, and I hear that part of MA. is lovely this time of year. Why, my own mother is from there, and so might my father be for all I know, and she tells me many stories of the beautiful harbor and the swimming that is to be had there. Why, it is probably the finest place in the world, and it will no doubt do wonders for your health to have a holiday in such a place! ”
We go down to Innsmouth by way of bus, for there is no railroad there, and on the way Charlie Fishface explains to me why I am coming with him.
You see, Charlie Fishface is such a guy as never goes out during the daytime. This is not remarked upon, because there are many guys who do not like to have their faces seen about the town during the daytime, and if I have a face like Charlie Fishface I will keep out of the sunlight, too, so I do not cause babies to cry and dogs to attack me.
In fact, when Charlie Fishface is forced to go out during the daytime, he always wears a big hat, and sunglasses, and a muffler wrapped round his face, even when it is by no means chilly outside. The citizens of Broadway consider this remarkably courteous of Charlie Fishface, and an example which could be followed by many to the general benefit.
But it turns out that the reason Charlie Fishface keeps his face away from the sunlight at all times is that he has a rare skin disease which makes the sun burn his skin and causes him more than a little pain. So he needs me there to go out and about this Innsmouth to speak to the citizens and find the location of the church in which Charlie’s doll is having her wedding, so we can go there and stop the doll from making a mistake, though it seems to me she does not make that much of a mistake at that.
So presently we arrive at the Gilman House, which is the hotel in Innsmouth, and which is very nice if your tastes run to dust and you do not mind there being no running water, and Charlie Fishface takes himself to bed, while I go to look around the town.
Now, I am such a man as is used to the comforts of city life, and so I am not very impressed with this Innsmouth, and I very soon become convinced that I will not give a pound note for all the scenic beauty of Innsmouth, even if you throw in all the fishes in the town, too.
But this is okay, because it seems that Innsmouth will not give a bob for me, at that. In fact I walk around all day trying to engage the citizens in conversation, but they all turn away with sour expressions on their pusses, apart from one elderly character with a bushy white mouser, who shouts “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftagn! ” and other words like that and makes a remarkable noise indeed.
Eventually, though, I find one guy who is willing to give me the time of day. He is a bum, and is such a character as will talk for whisky, and he tells me of the town, and of its history, and of the great old ones, who do not sound so great to me, and of many other things which are not as interesting as he thinks, and most of which sound like the old phonus balonus.
Once he stops telling me all his facts about the history of Innsmouth, I ask him about New England Nancy and her impending nuptials. His face immediately gets an unpleasant expression, and it is not so pleasant to look at even when he is cheerful.
“Damn ye,” he says, “ye durst not interfere en matters that are greater then ye c’n imagine, for strange eons’r comin’ to an end, an’ the great marriage heralds the dawn o’ a new and deadly epoch fer mankind.”
Now, it is true that I do not like to interfere, but Charlie Fishface is known as a great interferer, and I point this out to the old man. I also point out that I am holding the whisky bottle, and he tells me that the wedding will take place that night, in the Order Of Dagon Hall, on Federal Street, across the Manuxet River from the hotel where we are staying.
So I go back to the hotel, and I eat a bowl of vegetable soup and crackers, because I have eaten nothing since the borscht and it is now late in the evening, and then I go and wake up Charlie Fishface, who is sleeping soundly and making the kinds of snores that only a man with as strange a schnozzle as he has can make.
We wait until it is pitch black outside, for we have been told that the wedding will be at midnight, which I think is a strange time for a wedding, at that, but which Charlie says is probably just a rural tradition. Personally, I do not care for this tradition, as it seems to leave little time for a wedding night, but then I am not planning on getting married, and if I do get married it will not be in Innsmouth.
We walk through the town square, and towards the bridge over the Manuxet River, and it is so dark that my eyes seem to play tricks on me, for I am sure I see something rising up out of the water, but Charlie tells me I am drunk on bootleg hootch, and this may indeed be the case.
We cross the river, and continue down Federal Street, and I hear much singing coming from the wedding party. It is not the singing that you normally hear in a wedding, for it is not even slightly in English, and I wonder if perhaps Nancy is slightly Jewish and that is why she does not marry in the churches we pass.
When we get to this Order Of Dagon Hall, we hear chanting coming from inside, such words as the elderly citizen with the mouser shouts earlier – “Ia! Ia! Cthulhu ftagn! Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn! ” and such shouting as that. This seems most strange to me, as this is not a normal sound for a wedding, even one in a town with as much bootleg whisky as Innsmouth has.
The door to this hall is locked, but there are windows up high, and I give Charlie Fishface a boost up so he can see into the hall. I am just beginning to wish I was lifting something lighter, like an elephant or the Rocky Mountains, when he calls out “My God! We have to stop them! ”
He jumps down, which I am extremely glad about, and then shoulder-barges the door. When the door still doesn’t open, he pulls out the old equalizer and lets off three shots into the lock, which seems to work, though I think it is bad manners to pull out the old equalizer at a wedding.
When we get inside, though, I see why he does this, for a pretty young doll is on the altar, wearing not very many clothes, and showing her figure to all and sundry, and a very nice figure it is, too, if you go for figures.
And standing over her is the old bloke with the mouser, and he has a knife in his hand, and he is saying many words I cannot understand, and then he brings this knife down.
“Stop! ” yells Charlie Fishface, and then the strangest thing I ever see happens. The old guy drops the knife, and all the citizens in the hall run up to Charlie Fishface and fall to their knees. They start yelling all kinds of things about “the son” and “the chosen one”, and they ask Charlie Fishface what they should do.
“Well,” says Charlie Fishface, “you came here for a wedding. How about we have one? Pastor, how about you marry me to Nancy here? ”
And they do this, and within the hour there is a normal wedding, with a bride who is wearing clothes, or at least as many clothes as most brides wear nowadays, which is not so many clothes as that, and I never do figure out how Charlie manages to persuade them to do this, until Charlie’s ever-loving wife tells me on the bus ride home that they have mistaken him for the son of this Cool Luke, who they think sends him to the wedding in his place.
And this is all very nice, and everyone lives happily ever after, not least New England Nancy, who thinks after all that being married to Charlie Fishface is better than being sacrificed to an octopus dragon creature, though I am not sure I agree with her.
But I do have strange dreams, in which I see the shape rising out of the water, but much more clearly than I see it at the time, and I see it sink back when the sacrifice is halted, back in to the depths it comes from.
And I think, actually, that Charlie Fishface does take after his father, at that.
I don’t know if you’ve ever been put in charge of the security for a peace conference between warring magical worlds from different dimensions, where the fate of the multiverse could hang in the balance, but it’s really, really boring. For a start, you wouldn’t believe how many presentations you have to sit through.
There are some things that have become ubiquitous throughout the multiverse, and Powerpoint is one of them. I’m reliably informed that Bill Gates hired a level three magic user to embed a charm in the software code, so that anyone who had more than three subordinates in their job would automatically find themselves using the thing. Well, I say reliably informed, Tony The Liar told me, but I still like to believe it.
So I had to sit around a table in a conference centre, drinking foul coffee out of tiny china cups with a lad called Terry from Birmingham who’d been assigned to look after the Queen of the Fae, and a nice-looking sort from Leeds called Sandra, whose first words to me had been “I have a black-belt in jiu-jitsu” and who sat as far away from me as possible (the Wallace charm strikes again) and was bodyguarding the Longagovian ambassador.
There were also people from the security services of each of the other worlds there to shadow us — a fat-looking gobboe from Fairyland, one of the few they have left there, an Elvish woman named Dralucia from the Misty Worlds, and there was a chair which looked empty but which everyone swore contained a magic user from Faraway And Longago who had transcended the need for corporeal form.
Personally, I thought the crafty sod had just used that as an excuse not to turn up, as a variety — no, I take that back — as a succession of middling nobodies came up in front of us to show us pie charts and tell us about the fire regulations and show us little embedded videos about the planopolitical situation that told us nothing we didn’t already know. I swear two of them had got each other’s Powerpoint presentation by mistake and not noticed.
Luckily, one of the other things that is constant across every universe is sloping off for a crafty fag, so I waited for the gobboe to go on a break, and then I joined him outside in the drizzle.
“Mind if I nick one off you? I’m trying to give up buying.”
“Be my guest.” he replied, pulling one out of the packet.
“Ta, you’re a hero.”
He looked at me very strangely for a moment, and then lit my cigarette with the end of his.
I stuck out my hand. “Bill Wallace. Good to meet you.”
He shook it. “Skjorvorvorvik. Faery security.”
“You do this kind of thing much?”
“Nah. The Queen’s not really big into the whole ‘peace’ thing. She’s far more into multiversal domination than diplomacy.”
“Sort of speak softly and carry a big stick type, is she?”
“More don’t speak at all and bludgeon them round the back of the head while they’re not looking, to be honest, so this is a pleasant change for me.”
I thought about this for a while. I thought about how we’d been sitting in an out-of-town conference centre of the type that managed to be just inside the ringroad while simultaneously being completely bloody inaccessible, in a small room with windows that didn’t open that was beginning to stink of spilled coffee and stale farts, listening to tedious little wanksplats explain the finer details of the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations (2002) to us. And then I thought about his description of this as “a pleasant change”.
“You poor sod”
“Yeah,” he took a drag on his fag, “that about sums it up.”
“You OK to be talking to me, by the way? Won’t get done for consorting with the enemy because I’m looking after the Panjandrum?”
“Nah. You’re a neutral third party, ain’t yer? Anyway, if she asks, I’ll just say I was bribing you with a cigarette to pass on information about him.”
“Will she fall for that? Will she really think Earth police are that easily bribable?”
“Why not? I am.”
And with that, Skjorvorvorvik pinched out his cigarette, stuck it behind his ear, and headed inside, just as the drizzle turned into a downpour. I threw the rest of mine into a puddle and followed him.
Still, at least I wasn’t Charlie…
(part 3b, about Charlie, tomorrow)
I’ve just published my latest book, Ideas And Entities. This collects ten of the short stories I’ve posted here, some of which have already been made available as separate ebooks. As it’s relatively short (82 pages), the paperback version is cheaper than normal, at £6 (no hardback for this one), and this week the Kindle version will be included in my $2.99 sale, before it goes up to $5 (the Smashwords version is $5 right now, as the price has to propagate through all the resellers they use).
In Ideas And Entities, Andrew Hickey, author of Sci-Ence! Justice Leak!, asks such questions as:
What if the singularity was brought about by social media gaming?
Who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays?
What should you do if you accidentally defame a werewolf?
Are physicists keeping the secret of time travel to themselves?
And is it possible to have people agree with you too much?
These and other questions are answered in the ten science fiction and fantasy stories found inside.
Contains the short stories:
Jeeves And The Singularity
The Shakespeare Code
Print The Legend
Boltzmann And Boltzwomann
Free Will And Testament
Rite Of Passage
I’d really appreciate if those of you who have enjoyed any of my short stories so far would let people know about this — it doesn’t have a built-in market the way my books on music do, and no-one’s going to find out about it unless you tell them.
(Quick explanation of this — I’m writing a novel, trying to do the whole thing as quickly as possible in first draft, and I’m not going to worry too much about beautifying the language or anything of that nature until I do the second draft. This draft’s all about getting the plot and structure down. I have a lot more of the book written than I’ve posted as yet, and I’m hoping to get the first draft finished within a fortnight. Any editorial-type suggestions, or volunteers to read over the first draft before I rework and publish, will be gratefully accepted).
So, before we continue, I’d better give you a quick primer as to the way things work, with the multiple worlds and whatnot, because the story gets messy later and you won’t want to have to keep counting on your fingers.
First, magic is real. I know that goes against everything you’ve been taught since you were three, but it’s true. The problem is, it breaks all the rules that society is set up for. Not just little rules, like driving on the left-hand side or closing early on Sundays, but bigger rules. Like conservation of energy, and the second law of thermodynamics. Derek, our resident computer nerd, had once told me it was like dividing by zero — you can get any answer out that you want if you do that somewhere in maths, apparently, but it just makes computers break. In the same way, according to Derek, magic lets you get anything you want as an individual, but it breaks society.
Luckily for us, there’s very little magic in this universe — we’re not really set up for it, which is why we can have the kind of society we do. I’m a Class Thirty-Nine mage, and that’s about as powerful as anyone from our universe gets. To give you some perspective, Class Zero is the most powerful, Class Two is roughly as powerful as the God of the Bible, and Class Thirty-Nine gives me the ability to cure veruccas without using cream. So long as I have prior permission from the Ministry, am doing it in pursuit of my duties as a law-enforcement officer, and have filled out the paperwork in quadruplicate and filed it three months in advance. Magic at even that low a level is considered rather more dangerous than nuclear weapons.
However, there are a bunch of other universes out there, not all of them as sensible as our own. No-one knows for sure exactly how many there are, but there are only three of them that matter to any great extent.
The Misty Worlds are, from what we can tell, quite pleasant. They’re called The Misty Worlds not because they’re actually misty, as such, but as a sort of corruption of ‘mystery’ — we can’t actually find out much about them, no matter what kind of spells we use, and what we do know is like looking at them through a thick mist. When we deport magic-users who’ve managed to cross the borders, they all seem to want to go to the Misty Worlds. The problem is that no-one from our world has ever managed to go over there and come back alive . Not because they kill them — as far as we can tell, the people of the Misty Worlds are a fairly decent sort — but because they live on a different time-scale to ours. One second here is a decade over there, and everyone we’d sent over had died of old age before we’d been able to re-cast the portal spells and get them back.
Faraway And Longago is a different matter. We’ve had quite a lot of trade with them for many years, even though they run to the same timescale as the Misty Worlds, but apparently they’re not the nicest place to live. They’re something of a cosmic backwater, really, all living off one potato a week and singing bleak folk songs about how their grandfather died, and most of the immigrants we got, up until recently, came from there. When we got them, we just chucked them straight through to the Misty Worlds, which is where they really wanted to go anyway, but they’d occasionally be useful in trading some magical object or other for some piece of technological junk that they don’t have yet over there, like a pocket calculator or something.
I say that until recently we mostly got our immigrants from Faraway And Longago, but that was before the current Queen Of The Fae took charge in Fairyland.
In some ways, Fairyland is the world most like ours, and the one we’d been able to do most business with in the past, but the new Queen had changed that. In every generation in Fairyland are born a Hero and a Villain, whose battle defines the age, and one of them always becomes the King or Queen on the death of the previous monarch. Almost always, the Hero won — not only does Fairyland run on a kind of story logic, rather than the rules that apply elsewhere, but also it’s quite hard for you to get much of an upswell of popular support if your political speeches consist of “I shall raise an evil army and crush all that is good beneath my iron heel! I shall become absolute master of this domain, and all who do not please me will know the true meaning of pain!”
But for some reason, the Queen had managed to take over almost without a fight from the Hero of her generation, and had been quite the bloodiest dictator ever to rule Fairyland since. We’d been getting massive waves of refugees from her land ending up in ours, and no matter how much we sympathised with them, there was nothing we could do except send them over to one of the other magical lands.
And that had caused the Goblin Wars. The goblin population of Fairyland had defected en masse to the Misty Worlds, about five years ago, and had taken with them the secret of making Fairy Gold. This had caused a minor skirmish between the Misty Worlds and Faraway And Longago, as what little economy Faraway And Longago had was destabilised by a sudden influx of cash from the newly-rich Misty Worlds, but the Queen had used this as an excuse to invade both universes, claiming she wanted to protect the expatriate goblin community, and the war had been going on for three years now, without any sign of ending. We had remained studiously neutral, even after the Queen had sent agents in to try to provoke us, but the war was heating up. Enough damage done to the substrate of the realities, and we’d be just as dead as everyone else.
Now, one final thing you need to know before we get back to the story proper, and that’s how these peace talks were going to work. I’d got the details in an email from the CI, and it was as complicated as you’d imagine.
Firstly, the whole town had to be surrounded by nine anti-magic wards — one ward from each of the three realms, because they didn’t trust each other, and then each realm was also going to cast a ward to moderate each of the other two realms’ wards, in case they’d slipped anything funny in there. Theoretically, this should mean that there was no possible way to perform any unsanctioned magic in the town. In practice, it just meant that anyone who was going to do anything was going to be sneaky about it.
Then, each delegation had to be housed as far away from the others as was humanly possible. There was no way to arrange hotels for that many entities at such short notice, so we had to actually put three hotels slightly out of phase with the rest of the world, and have the delegates occupy them in odd-numbered seconds, while the regular customers occupied them in the even-numbered ones. A quick phase-shift bubble around each should stop anyone noticing anything.
And then the town itself had to be put out of phase with the rest of the world. If we’d kept regular time, we’d have had two of the delegations going back to their own worlds to find it was six million years or more later. Now, admittedly, magical folk are a long-lived bunch (some of them literally live a billion years in their own time) but that would still be a bit of a jolt. So the whole town had to be encased in Slow Time, which is no fun for anyone. Remember the worst jet-lag you’ve ever had? Now imagine you’d been shifted not a few hours, but an entire week, and that the whole rest of the town was feeling just as bad.
And the conference centre itself, of course, had to be guarded against not just the normal terrorist activity, but against magical dissidents. One goblin with a grudge and a genie, and we’d have precisely the kind of escalation this was meant to avoid.
One lucky aspect — and the reason why England had been chosen for the conference — was that we didn’t have to worry about translators. For some reason no-one has ever been able to figure out, while all the realms, and all the different species within them, have their own languages (Faerie sounds a little bit like Welsh, while Goblin sounds for all the world like someone with a stutter speaking Norwegian), they can all speak English. They don’t call it English — it’s “Man’s tongue” or “the language of the valleys” or something else, depending on where they’re from — but English, like humanity, exists in all three of the major powers.
So at least I didn’t have to deal with learning another language, just with being responsible for the safety of one of the most important people in the multiverse, while my personal timeline was out of sync with the rest of the world, during a peace conference which was almost certainly going to be under attack by terrorists from four different universes, and which would lead to the destruction of all that existed if I wasn’t careful.
Still, at least I wasn’t Charlie, so I could be grateful for small mercies. While I was worrying about the security measures for the peace conference, Charlie was starting his first day at school. We’d prepared a background for him — dad had gone to work in Australia for a year, so he was staying with his uncle, who had the same name as him. Charlie was to be metamorphed when he was at school, and keep his normal face the rest of the time.
Now, when I talk about what happened to Charlie, I’m mostly going from his own reports of what happened, along with a few witness statements that were taken later on. And I’m not saying Charlie’s a liar, as such, but he does talk enough bullshit that you could take a couple of his sentences and not need any fertiliser for your allotment for the rest of the year, you know what I mean?
So, on Charlie’s first day at school, he was late. Charlie’s always late, it’s congenital with him. So he ran in and started looking round frantically for which building he was meant to be in. As he was looking, a tall, thin man with a long nose and a comb-over came up to him.
“Why aren’t you in class?” he said, looking over his glasses at Charlie.
“Sorry sir…it’s my first day here, and I’m not sure where I should be going.”
“Ah. What year are you in?”
“Year ten, sir.”
“Hmm… Form teacher?”
“Mister Dawson, sir.”
“Right, come with me.”
He strode away briskly, his long legs covering an immense amount of ground with what seemed minimal effort, leaving Charlie scurrying after him. After going up three flights of stairs and down two corridors they arrived at their destination, and the tall man gave a cursory knock on the door, then entered without waiting for permission.
Inside, a short, ineffectual-looking man was taking the register in front of a group of bored-looking kids. He looked across at Charlie and the tall man.
“Can I help you, Mister Simpson?”
“I found this outside. It says it belongs to you.” The class laughed, and Charlie knew that this Mr. Simpson was going to be one of those teachers who delighted in making children’s life a misery. He had to stand up to him.
“I belong to myself, actually.”
“Not during school hours, you don’t. Now sit down and shut up.”
That hadn’t gone as well as Charlie had hoped. He found an empty desk, sat down and cast an eye over the rest of the class. A few big lads who’d presumably been kept down a year, all at the back, a nerdy-looking kid with glasses sat on his own near the front, and most of the rest of the class the usual nondescript mix of spots and bad personal hygiene you’d expect from a classroom full of fifteen-year-olds.
Mr. Simpson left, closing the door behind him, and the teacher at the front, who Charlie assumed must be Mr. Dawson, picked up the register again.
“Now, now that that little excitement is over, perhaps we can start the register again? Abrams?”
Charlie looked round, and noticed one of the girls, sat a couple of rows away from him, trying to catch his eye. He looked over and she winked at him, and he smiled before realising with horror that she fancied him. He blushed and looked away, but then realised the whole class were staring at him.
“That was the third time I called your name. Stop gawping at Davies and pay attention. I shall mark down ‘present in body, if not in spirit’, shall I? Curtis?”
And with the obsequious fake laughter of the children in his class echoing in his ears, we’ll draw a veil across Charlie’s school career for the moment.
If you’ve never had to deal with a horny leprechaun,you don’t know how lucky you are.
Over the last few weeks, a lot of middle-aged men had been turning up suddenly dead, with their pants round their ankles and a smile on their face — sometimes, but not always, in the company of their wives. It had confused the mundane cops for a while, but then someone thought of turning the case over to us.
I’m Sergeant Bill Wallace, and I’m with the Anomalous Occurences Department, or as everyone calls us Peculiar Branch. We deal with the unusual kinds of crimes, the ones that don’t get reported in the newspapers. When someone entered a unicorn with its horn filed off in the Grand National, it was us who investigated. When a mad magus started animating shop-window dummies, we stopped him (though we don’t like to talk about that one… one of them had actually managed to become Chancellor of the Exchequer before anyone realised anything was up). In short, we make sure that the laws of nature are actual laws, not just guidelines.
So when it was realised that these stiff stiffs were getting into that state because they’d been sniffing powdered unicorn horn, we’d been called in. Unfortunately, the bust hadn’t gone quite according to plan — the leprechaun who’d been dealing the stuff had seen us coming, and had swallowed the lot. When you’re trying to put handcuffs on a three-foot tall bloke with a ginger beard who keeps trying to hump your leg, you start wondering about the life choices you’ve made.
We’d stuck shorty in an interview room, and three hours later he’d finally stopped grinding against the table legs, and was merely sitting there cross-legged and hunched over, with a look of agony on his face.
“Me name be Seamus O’Reilly O’Patrick McGinty, begorrah”
“Cut the crap. You don’t have to do the Oirish bit with us, we do know where leprechauns come from.”
He straightened up, very slightly. “You do?”
“Yes. And unless you want to get sent back to the Queen’s tender mercies, you’ll start being straight with us.”
“OK, well, my name’s Vadrillian, then.”
“That’s more like it. And do you have a valid visa allowing you to be present in this plane of existence?”
“I seem somehow to have misplaced it, just at the moment.”
“In which case I must now warn you that you are under arrest. As a non-human sapient lifeform, you have no rights except the right to choose your deportation destination. Of course, if you’re not going to play nice with us, we might accidentally send you back to Fairyland, rather than letting you choose somewhere nicer like Faraway And Longago. So unless you want to count on the Queen suddenly deciding she likes runaways, you might want to be very careful how you answer the next few questions.”
Vadrillian looked suitably chastened, so I began.
“Firstly, who was selling you the Horn?”
“A wizard. Don’t know his name.”
“Tell me more.”
“Well, he’s one of the local dealers. Mostly sells fairy dust to kids — he works as a teacher at St Cymian’s School — but he got hold of a big score of Horn a couple of months back, and didn’t know what to do with it, so he sold it to me cheap, like. Not much call for Horn among fifteen year old boys — most of them need something to keep it down, not get it up.”
“Did he say where he got it?”
“Says he has a gobboe mate who works in an abbatoir in the Misty Worlds, says they just throw the horns away after using the rest of it for unicorn burgers.”
“And you believe him?”
“Course not. It was just his way of saying for me to not ask questions, wasn’t it?”
“So, what’s this wizard’s name?”
“Everyone calls him Derek, but it’s obviously not his real name, and I wasn’t going to ask. You ask a wiz his True Name and see how long it takes him to turn you into something ‘orrible and squish you.”
“But he definitely works at St Cymian’s?”
“Would I lie to you?”
“Do you know anything else about him?”
“I know he sometimes drinks at the Frog And Kettle, down Knightsgate way, but you won’t find him there this week. It’s Freshers Week and he really hates students.”
I left him to squirm for a while and went out to get a coffee. I bumped into my mate Charlie — PC Briggs — at the machine.
“Right, Bill? How’s tricks?”
“Don’t ask. Got a Horn dealer banged up in number two, trying to find out who his supplier is.”
“Your wife started complaining then? Funny, she never complains when I’m around…”
Charlie thinks he’s a funny bloke, but most of his ‘jokes’ are about how he’s younger and better looking than I am. Which is true enough. I’m thirty-five, but look more like forty-five, and what I’ve got isn’t so much male pattern baldness as lack-of-pattern baldness, just random chunks of my hair missing. Charlie, on the other hand, is thirty and looks more like twenty. He has dark brown hair, while I’ve got dark brown teeth.
“Funny man. You won’t be laughing so much in a minute.”
“Why not? You going to tell a joke?”
“Keep digging, mate. No, I’m going to put you forward for a bit of undercover work.”
“Nice one, sarge! But why me?”
“You know how to Metamorphus, don’t you?”
“A bit. I can make myself look younger or older, or change the colour of my hair, but that’s about it.”
“That’s all we need. How did you like school, Charlie?”
A look of dread appeared on Charlie’s face. “Sarge?”
“Best days of your life, right? Well, you’re going to get to live them all over again!”
After dropping that bombshell on Charlie, I tried to get some more information from Vadrillian, but he was doing an “I know nozzing” routine, saying all of us big buggers looked alike to him and so on. Couldn’t really blame him, though. We were, after all, asking him to grass up a powerful magic-user, with no possible reward for him if he co-operated. It happens all the time — we have no real bargaining chips with magical types, because we all know that they are going to get deported no matter what, thanks to our “tough on crime and tougher on immigration” political masters. I’d like to think that the people in the Ministry don’t know how hard they’re making life for those of us on the ground, but I suspect they know all too well.
So I sent Vadrillian on a one-way trip to the Misty Worlds, the destination of choice for all discerning drug-dealing priapic leprechauns, and went to drop my report off at the desk, when Liz — Sergeant Burton — told me that the Chief Inspector wanted to see me. Swearing under my breath, I made my way to her office.
To say that me and the CI don’t get on would be a slight exaggeration — we have a working relationship. But that working relationship consists of her telling me to do things I don’t want to do, and me doing them. Whenever I end up talking to her, it’s usually because I’m going to have to spend the next six months up to my waist in shit, while she sits in her office and tells me to plunge in as far as my neck.
But when I got to her office, I found things were even worse than I expected. The CI wasn’t alone, the Chief Constable for the county was there. That meant politics was happening.
“You wanted to see me, ma’am?”
“Sit down, Sergeant Wallace,” not Bill, notice. That meant something was definitely up. I sat down. “I take it you recognise the Chief Constable.”
“Of course. Good afternoon, sir.”
“Now, the Chief Constable has been giving me some highly confidential news. Do you pay much attention to the news from the magical realms, Sergeant Wallace?”
“Not as much as I should, I suppose. I read the emails you send out, of course,” that was a lie, but I couldn’t very well say anything else, “but I tend to concentrate on the job in front of me, rather than worrying about things that are out of my hands.”
The Chief Constable butted in at this point. “You’ve got the serenity to accept those things you can’t change, so you can have the strength to change those things you can?”
“Er…yes, sir. That sounds about right.”
“Well,” said the CI, “you may not have realised that we may be heading towards Mage War II. Nobody’s actually talking in those terms in public, of course — no-one wants to elevate tensions any more than they have to — but it’s looking ever more likely.”
“And are we taking sides?”
“No,” said the Chief Constable. “And a good thing too. The less we get involved in that kind of devilry, the better. We are remaining scrupulously neutral. Frankly, I hope the lot of them wipe each other out and leave us God-fearing types to get on with things.”
“That’s not quite the official line we’re taking,” said the CI, “but unofficially, it’s not far off. However, what we don’t want is for things to heat up to the point where we’re getting fallout from the war affecting us here.”
“So…and pardon me for putting this quite so bluntly, ma’am, sir, but what does this have to do with me?”
“There’s going to be a peace conference next week, and they’ve chosen this world, as a neutral third party, to hold it.” I began to get a sinking feeling in my gut. “Specifically, they’ve chosen the new conference centre just outside town.”
“Naturally, “ the Chief Constable said, “as a matter of interuniverse security, most of the security for the venue will be handled by the anti-terrorist squad, MI6 and so on. We don’t expect you to deal with all this yourself. But we do need some local lads on the ground. And you’re one of them.”
“More specifically,” said the CI, “you’re going to be the bodyguard for the Chief Panjandrum from the Misty Worlds.”
“Is this just a bodyguarding job, or…?”
“Bright lad,” said the Chief Constable, who was getting more and more on my nerves with every passing sentence. “We would absolutely never, under any circumstances, want you to break any confidences you might enter into as a result of this placement. We would certainly not want you to pass secrets on to us, even if us not knowing those secrets should endanger Her Majesty’s Government, the Earth or even this whole plane of existence. We will not give you any such orders, and will deny, under truth spells if necessary, that you were asked to do so. I trust I have made myself clear?”
“Absolutely, sir.” I said, while wishing death and destruction on his fat beardy face in the privacy of my own skull. “I must not, under any circumstances, be seen to pass on any secrets with which the Chief Panjandrum entrusts me.”
“Good boy. Dismissed.”
I hate politics.